Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman (2010, HarperCollins, YA, 328 pages)
(I've tried to be as spoiler free as possible; I hope the result isn't too vague).
Most YA fantasy books that are set in the real world involve the intrusion of the paranormal into the life of a teenager. And, in a sense, Bruiser follows that pattern. But Shusterman eschews the traditional permutations of the paranormal, in favor of a character whose otherness isn't cast from the typical folkloric mode (vampires, angels, werewolves, etc.). There is no conflict between good guys and bad guys, not overt threat of soul loss/humanity loss/plain old death due to paranormal violence. What there is, instead, is a character-driven, tension-filled story about pain, love, and growing-up, all of which is given impetus by one fantastical twist.
Tennyson is appalled when his twin sister Bronte begins dating Bruiser, a loner voted "most likely to receive the death penalty." Bronte, on the other hand, has always had a weakness for those in need (lots of stray dogs in her past). After she encounters Brewster (his real name) in the poetry section of the library (where he's looking for Ginsberg), and realizes there's more to him than meets the eye, she won't give him up, no matter what Tenny says or does.
Bronte doesn't know that there is a good reason why Brewster has been a loner all his life, determined to avoid caring about anyone. It's the reason why his mother left, why his uncle has become an abusive alcoholic, why his first pet dog was his last, and why his little brother is a daredevil risk taker, with no thought for consequences. Because when Brewster is around, things happen to the people he cares about--and to himself.
But Bronte, and then Tenny, won't let Brewster be alone, no matter what the cost to him. It isn't until it is almost too late for him that they realize what they have done, both to him, and to their own family.
Bruiser is told primarily from the alternating first person points of view of Tenny and Bronte, which works rather well--the reader learns about Brewster in the same gradual unfolding of the mysterious as they do. They are likable narrators--two normal teenagers, confronted with something extraordinary, and forced to examine their assumptions and attitudes in consequence (well, mostly Tenny--he has a lot more assumptions and attitudes to question). But interspersed into their narrations are passages in which we see things from Brewster's point of view--told in free verse (verse which, sad to say, was the one part of the book that at times didn't work for me), and small bits told by Brewster's little brother, showing the reader a part of Brewster's life that Tennyson and Bronte aren't aware of. The romance aspect of the book is present, but understated--there are no moments of swoon (my second quibble with the book--I wish Bronte and Brewster's relationship had been fleshed out just a bit more, although the end result is that this is a very clean read, albeit with some physical violence).
Despite my two quibbles, I found it a tremendously moving and thought provoking book, one I heartily recommend. Bruiser is one of the most memorable characters I've encountered so far this year.
Other takes on the book can be found at Kids Lit, ReaderGirls, Library Ninja Blog, Tempting Persephone, and Squeaky Books.