Saturday, August 27, 2016

What we're reading: Books about prison or jail

I picked up two books last week from the YA new books shelves that looked like they would have something in common--prison. Or, well, jail. What's the difference between those? Basically prison is long-term punishment, while jail can be as little as an overnight experience.

The first book is called Holding Smoke, by Elle Cosimano, and it was a great read. I checked it out because of its setting--juvenile hall. While I was in library school, a group of us who were studying to be teen librarians started book-talking groups at the local juvenile detention center (Nidorf Juvenile Hall, in Sylmar), and my friend Lisa and I ran a group in one of the four maximum security units for more than two years. Cosimano really had the setting, the interpersonal relations and interactions, and the rhythms of the place down in this book. I felt like I was back there, but with a new group of kids.

This is a paranormal mystery...but it's also gritty realistic fiction in some ways, so it will either appeal to a broad group or a narrow one, depending on what the readers are looking for. Hopefully it will be broad. The readers who want romantic characters with special powers won't necessarily go for this--but they could, they might, they should! Those who want gritty fiction may scoff at the paranormal element, but I think it adds to, rather than taking away from, the story. And mystery readers may appreciate a radically different setting and group of characters behind their conundrum.

The main character, John "Smoke" Conlan, has the ability to "travel" out of his body through astral projection--he can leave his body behind in the prison and go out into the world, tethered to his body by ever-thinning silver "threads" that help him snap back to his body when his adventure is over. No one can see him, and he can't interact with the physical world, but he can move through it and see things, learn things, that give him an edge in juvie.

There's sort of a romance in the book, but it's not sappy--he meets a girl who can see him (and who can see the lingering dead as well) because she's a medium, and he feels fond of and protective of her, but it doesn't go much beyond that. There's a mystery--who actually killed Smoke's beloved teacher, since it wasn't him, even though he was convicted of that murder and one other? And there are the day-to-day interactions of young men in prison, which create additional tension and suspense.

Certain elements of the story were a bit convenient; but everything is satisfactorily explained in the end, and I was willing to go with it, because it was in such an attractive package--evocative writing, good character development, lots of action but also some life philosophy. It's not surprising (as I discovered in the author notes) that Ellen Hopkins was the author's mentor.

The second book I read was a bit deceptive in its set-up: It's All Your Fault, by Paul Rudnick, shows a girl on the cover holding up the placard that indicates she's posing for a mug shot, and the lead-in, a first-person rant by one of the main characters, talks about being in jail. But that's just a tiny part of the plot, and the rest? I'm not sure I could recommend it, though many people have (on Goodreads). 

First, let me say that you have to read this book as satire to make it work. I'm pretty sure that's the way it was intended, and it's not just a trying-to-be-clever chick-lit-for-YA book...pretty sure.

The main character, Heller Harrigan, is Miley Cyrus (or maybe Lindsay Lohan crossed with Kristin Stewart), only instead of Hannah Montana, she's Anna Banana. And now she's starring in her first grown-up movie role, playing the heroine of a series with the popularity of Twilight (although I think the author might have based the plot of it on a combo of James Patterson's Maximum Ride books and Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy), while all of her critics point at her bad-girl drunk risky crazy behavior and cast doubts on her ability to play the beloved Lynnea, the main character of the series.

Her manager and her mom have the bright idea of a way to keep Heller "straight" for a long weekend of promoting this blockbuster movie--they're going to bring along her former childhood best friend and cousin (but they haven't spoken in four years, since "the incident"), Caitlin Singleberry, a rigid, moralistic, knee-sock-wearing member of the Singing Singleberries. The closest thing I can think of to compare them to is the Partridge Family, only Christian and with nine kids instead of five, and they all wear burgundy and gold polyester. And knee socks. Did I mention the knee socks? There's a lot about the knee socks.

Anyway, Catey does her best to restrain Heller, hijinks ensue, the two of them end up in jail (not a spoiler, that's the way the book starts out and then flashes back), yadda yadda, fighting, misunderstandings, throw-downs, boys (and the boys are lifted directly from Twilight or The Hunger Games--same pouty tall pale guy, same clean-cut short guy with killer abs, but with different names), lots and lots of SHOUTY CAPS, and omigosh revelatory understanding of selves and others, the end.

Like I said--read it as satire. Because otherwise? It's just really really silly.

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