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Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

SAINT ANYTHING
Written by Sarah Dessen
(Viking Books for Young Readers; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)

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Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
-A New York Times bestseller
-Kids’ Indie Next List Pick (Summer 2015)

Sarah Dessen’s many fans won’t need to be cajoled past the slow start of her new YA novel, SAINT ANYTHING (May 2015, Viking; $19.99). New Dessen readers, however, should know that the beginning is there to provide contrast, like the black-and-white opening of the Wizard of Oz movie. The detached vibe reflects how main character Sydney Stanford’s home life feels until she meets the Chatham family. The Chathams and their restaurant Seaside Pizza are full of warmth, acceptance, and music, and the pace of the book picks up as soon as the family appears. Layla Chatham becomes Sydney’s new best friend. Since she has a big sister who is a skating-star-turned-drug-addict, Layla understands what it’s like for Sydney now that her brother Peyton is in prison. Peyton was the Stanford family’s “Golden Child” before he drove drunk and crashed into a pedestrian.

Layla invites Sydney to join her group of friends, which includes her brother Mac. They all hang out at Seaside after school, eating pizza and practicing retro pop covers for an upcoming band showcase. Sydney feels herself falling for Mac, despite Layla’s warning that she can’t abide her friends dating her brother. But how can you draw a line between friendship and romance when you meet the right guy? The times Sydney and Mac find to be alone — usually while delivering pizza in Mac’s not-so-reliable old truck — are some of my favorite moments in the book. I enjoyed reliving the sweet excitement of a potential new relationship. I also related to Sydney’s discomfort when her brother’s friend keeps popping up to hang out with her, especially when her parents aren’t around. It’s hard to ask for help when an older guy creeps you out for reasons you can’t name and therefore can’t report.

The heart of the book for me centers on Sydney’s feeling of guilt about the young teen, David Ibarra, her brother Peyton injured. Sydney learns everything she can about David’s life before and after the accident. A friendly, caring guy nicknamed “Brother,” he’s going to be in a wheelchair for life, and Sydney feels like she’s the only person in the family wanting to make amends. Her mother, Julie, only thinks about Peyton and how the aftermath of the accident affects him. As a parent, I laughed out loud as Julie, stuck in helicopter-parent mode, tries to organize families of Peyton’s fellow prisoners as if she were the president of a prison PTA. I was touched, though, when Sydney and Peyton start talking on the phone, finally getting to know each other as individuals outside of their family roles, ready to take responsibility for their own lives.

SAINT ANYTHING is peopled with teens who feel real, none of them perfect and all of them passionate about something, whether music, school, or French fries. The book is a comfortable place to hang out even while facing uncomfortable situations with the more caricature-like adults. I recommend this book to fellow fans of quiet YA, those of us who’d like to peek inside a house when delivering a pizza, trying to figure out what life’s like behind that half-open door.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Pointe by Brandy Colbert is reviewed by Mary Malhotra

“Colbert builds characters whose flaws, struggles, and bad decisions make them real and indelibly memorable . . and it’s this complexity and empathy that set this gripping story apart.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Colbert has put out a stunningly poignant novel . . . Readers who discover this book will be unable to put it down.”—VOYA

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Pointe by Brandy Colbert, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.

The narrator in Brandy Colbert’s debut YA novel Pointe (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014, $17.99, YA) could be a stereotypical prima-ballerina-in-training. Theo’s got the drive, the demanding instructor, the long, strong legs, the beat-up toe shoes. As you might expect, she commiserates with dancer frenemies, and escapes with school friends who have no idea what she goes through at the studio. She struggles with an eating disorder, too. But Theo is not a stereotype, and she has a lot more going on in her life than just dance.

The eating disorder, for example. It seems to be a response not to the demands of ballet but to two losses Theo suffered as a thirteen year old: her much-older first boyfriend unceremoniously dumped her, taking off without a trace; and her best friend Donovan was kidnapped. Pointe opens on the day four years later when Donovan is rescued from his kidnapper and returned home. Theo is upset that Donovan won’t see or talk to her. She’s also confused by news footage that appears to show he was happy living with his captor. She needs to understand why Donovan didn’t try to escape, especially once she realizes she knows the kidnapper — and will have to testify against him.

There is much to recommend in this book. Theo’s voice is real and raw, and she and her friends Phil and Sara-Kate make compelling, memorable characters. Their chemistry, like Theo’s warm relationship with her supportive parents, provides an island of hope in a choppy sea. The book’s natural presentation of diversity works well. Realistically, as the first-person narrator, Theo doesn’t announce that she’s African-American. Race doesn’t even come up until part way through the second chapter, when she recalls how she and Donovan bonded after a teacher mishandled a classroom discussion about slavery.

Parents sharing Pointe with teens may want to be ready to discuss some aspects of the book. Pot smoking is an accepted, routine activity for Theo and her friends. In fact, her love interest doesn’t just smoke; he also sells drugs to his classmates. He already has a girlfriend, too — but will that matter to Theo? There are sex scenes and references, and much of the sex is abusive, though Theo doesn’t realize it. Perhaps because of this, the scenes are not so explicit that the details got burned into my psyche. A last point to consider is best explained by including a spoiler, although you can skip the spoiler and walk away with this bottom line: if you start the book, be sure to finish it!

 

SPOILER: In case you want additional guidance before choosing this book, I’ll close out the review with the spoiler version of my “finish what you start” recommendation. Early on, Theo realizes that Donovan’s kidnapper and her first boyfriend are the same guy, Chris Fenner. This means he was actually twenty-six when she was thirteen, but Theo still thinks of him as her ex-boyfriend. She sees herself as an unlovable reject rather than seeing Chris as a pedophile. Eventually, she comes to the understanding that she and Donovan are both victims, that part of Chris’s crime was that he warped her view of sex and love. However, it takes her most of the book to get there; a reader without patience might give up while right and wrong are still upside down. Reading this book to the last page is not hard, but it is important.

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