It's not an easy time to be a resident of Arizona. The jokes our politicians try to pass off as laws are making us the butt of comedy writers everywhere. (Guns on campus? Seriously? Who thinks that's a good idea? Comedy writers, that's who.)
But there ARE good things about Arizona, things that can help take our mind off the bad, and one of them is the amount of quality young adult fiction the state produces. I'm not talking about the Twilight series, either, about which more than enough has already been said. I'm talking about book's like Robin Brande's Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, Amy Fellner Dominy's OyMG, and Tom Leveen's Party.
Party, which came out last April, was Leveen's first book; it told the story, from multiple perspectives, of 11 teenagers all going to the same party in Santa Barbara one night. With Party, Leveen proved that he could convincingly inhabit different characters, and write from both the male and female point of view.
Zero is the story of Amanda Walsh, or Zero (a junior high nickname she earned as the "loner art chick" and then took for herself), a 17-year-old Phoenix girl with self-esteem issues, bickering parents, and a best-friend problem that threatens to ruin her summer. Amanda wants to be an artist; she's been accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, her dream, but as the book opens, she's just found out that she didn't qualify for the scholarship she needed to make the dream happen.
The novel follows Amanda through the course of the summer, during which she meets a drummer named Mike: "He isn't drop-dead gorgeous, by my or anyone else's standards. He has a narrow sort of face, and short hair except for shiny black skater bangs that reach his chin, old-school style."
Mike and Amanda strike up a romance that goes a long way toward helping her develop some self-confidence, and by the end of the book, Amanda has grown into herself in ways that feel absolutely believable rather than tacked on.
Part of what makes the book, and the voice, believable is Leveen's ability to channel a teenage girl and make her real. It's all there -- the insecurity, the bravado, the conflicting feelings about sex, the sense that your whole life is in front of you, which is both exhilarating and paralyzing. She's a fully realized character, with her own heroes (Salvador Dali) and obsessions (music, specifically punk and post-punk).
To Leveen's credit, the relationship with Mike is just one aspect of what Amanda's trying to figure out, and the ending isn't the run-of-the-mill love-conquers-all fairytale. Leveen is more of a feminist than that -- he's focused less on the future of Mike and Amanda's romance than he is on how Amanda learns to find her own way in the world. The fact that Mike is a sympathetic and interesting character, and the romance feels genuinely electric, just makes Amanda's trajectory through the course of Zero that much more satisfying.
One other thing to recommend this book: the Arizona landscape is one of the story's main characters, especially Camelback Mountain, where Mike takes Amanda on one of their first dates. Up on the mountain, Leveen writes, "the air feels fresher and clearer," and Phoenix is "all murk and twinkles but with enough landmarks to assure me I am still, essentially, home."