Sunday, August 07, 2022

Fight + Flight, by Jules Machias

Avery is a dirt bike enthusiast facing a recent diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that causes hypermobility and puts her in unmanageable pain.  Facing a life full of physical therapy and gradual deterioration, she feels out of control and overly dependent on others.

Sarah suffers from a panic disorder, set off a few years ago by the death of a beloved aunt.  While she has a number of coping mechanisms, notably including sketching and doodling, she struggles with an overly protective mother, an emotionally disengaged father, and a very angry older brother.

Their poor coping skills experience an additional setback when their middle school performs an ill-advised realistic active shooter drill that injures Avery and aggravates Sarah's anxieties.  But the incident also motivates both girls to take action:  Avery funnels her anger at her declining health into a plan to seek revenge against the principal, while Sarah chooses the positive approach of rallying and organizing student opinion.  Both of them learn how to better cope with their personal issues through the experience.  In a somewhat disjointed way throughout the novel, Machias also addresses transphobia, classism, racial privilege, and bullying.

Machias is a developing talent.  I tried unsuccessfully to read her debut novel Both Can Be True, but abandoned it for being clunky and didactic.  This is a substantially better novel, but the tendency to stuff the story with largely unrelated topics (Avery's BIPOC friend Mason being the most notable example) suggests that her biggest challenge is keeping focus and knowing which stories she wants to tell.  It is unclear if Avery and Sarah were being set up to have a romantic relationship (there's plenty of points in the story where it felt that way), but in the end the idea is largely abandoned. 

All this superfluous material takes energy away from the main story (the girls' emotional growing ability to take responsibility for themselves).  It's a hard story to tell and didn't work for me in the end. While Machias makes some effort to create a catalyst, Avery's switch from avenging to forgiving is abrupt and her sudden willingness to communicate with adults felt implausibly rushed.  Sarah's growing bravery, prompted as much by her older brother as by internal changes, felt more plausible.

But there are also things in the book to love.  Avery's feelings of hopelessness are explored well, from her coping method of bossing others around to her denial of her symptoms.  The author's realistic portrayals of adults (always a big thing for me!) are much appreciated.  But very best of all is the whole design of the book.  Told by the girls in alternating chapters, Sarah's doodle-filled pages are a true delight.  Every page features original pen and ink drawings from the author, ranging from decorative borders to fanciful animal sketches to beautiful Spirograph creations (Heavens!  I had forgotten all about Spirograph!).  I strongly recommend spending some time just browsing the pages of this book just for the art!

Thursday, August 04, 2022

This Place is Still Beautiful, by Xixi Tian

In her family, Margaret is the smart one and Annelie is the cautious one.  Margaret also is the one who takes after their mother and the Chinese side of the family.  People often assume that the girls aren't even related because Annelie doesn't look Asian.  And in their quiet central Illinois town, it's always been easy enough for Annelie to fit in because she could pass as white.

But then a seemingly random act of vandalism, where an ethnic slur is spraypainted on their garage door, changes things.  Margaret is upset and wants to call out the attack, seek justice, and challenge the entire town's complacency.  Annelie wants to bury the matter and forget about it.  However, when she finds out that she may know the perpetrators, she has to make some difficult decisions about her choices.  

While the incident is a catalyst, the story is less about racism than about identity, as Margaret and Annelie work through their feelings about their family, their friends, and each other.  And those stories about human interaction are really what makes this novel shine.  It's less about the place than the people who live in it and the relationships that you build with them.

I enjoyed the warmth of the story and the complexity of the relationships.  Given the magnitude of what Tian wants to address (including two romantic relationships, a familial estrangement, mother-daughter conflict from both Margaret and Annelie's perspectives, childhood abandonment, and sibling rivalry) it's inevitable that some stuff falls through the cracks, but the magnitude of human interaction is really the point of the novel.  For while the ending is rushed and the entire subject of leaving home is a missed opportunity, the closing words are a fit conclusion, "I can allow myself to think that this place is still beautiful, even as I drive away."

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Peach Rebellion, by Wendelin Van Draanen

During the Great Depression, Ginny's family traveled from farm to farm in the Central Valley, picking fruits and vegetables, making barely enough to survive.  A decade later, the hatred and the hurt from those years still lingers.  Bankers are still repossessing homes and people still hate the migrant workers, even while they rely on them to work cheaply.  People still call Ginny's family "okies" and don't trust them.  And Ginny, who remembers the ways that the farmers and the bankers treated her, doesn't trust them either.

Ginny's family has settled down nearby a peach farm where they once worked.  Ginny, who used to play with the farmer's daughter Peggy, reunites with her old friend.  But there are others less willing to form friendships. And her family has other demons to fight.  Ten years ago, Ginny and her father buried her two brothers in a shallow grave because the family could afford no better.  Mother never recovered from the loss and has slowly been sinking into depression ever since.  Now that Ginny is finally earning money of her own at the local cannery, she has the wherewithal to do something about it.  She decides that she wants to disinter her brothers and bury them properly in the local children's graveyard.  The audacious plan will require help but neither Ginny nor her family are good at asking for help.

Meanwhile, Peggy has her own issues.  Now seventeen, she realizes that in a few years she will have nothing.  For, despite working hard on the family peach farm, the entire place is going to her brother.  Girls don't inherit farms and there is no accommodation for her.  Instead, she is expected to marry and settle.  But that hardly seems fair when she has given so much.  Peggy's best friend Lisette has a different set of issues.  Her father is a banker and while she has enjoyed an easy life, she has also grown uncomfortable with the source of her wealth.  To her parents' chagrin, she wants nothing to do with it and wants to disown her father.

A very strong historical novel which provides a well-researched look at post-War California and the  deep societal changes that took place in the late 40s as men returned back to reclaim their jobs and unfinished business from the Depression-era reasserted itself as prosperity reigned in fits and starts.  There's plenty of material on this era, but this novel makes it come alive by focusing on the people and how they thought of each other and themselves.  

The story combines this sharp historical insight with three compelling protagonists -- young women who are not quite willing to accept the paths that their mothers have planned for them.  Strong and resourceful, they are driven on by an unusual and poignant mission to lay Ginny's brothers to rest.  While it would be easy to give Ginny, Peggy, and Lisette a contemporary spin, Van Draanen doesn't fall to the temptation.  They are strong-willed but definite creatures of their time.  For all of their independence, they each presume that marriage and family are their ultimate calling.  They simply want to renegotiate the terms of it.

Beautifully written and compelling reading.  Destined to find its way to book reports, but perhaps also to a special place on young readers' shelves.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Out of the Fire, by Andrea Contos

Six months ago, Cass was abducted while jogging alone through the woods.  She managed to escape but they never caught the guy and ever since then she's been receiving notes from her assailant.  They show up unpredictably in pink envelopes and always in either private places (her locker, bedroom, etc.) or with contents (photographs, stolen property, etc.) that indicate that the sender has extraordinary access.  Terrorized by the realization that he can move in and out of her life without being observed, she lives in dread of receiving the next one.

At school, she befriends three other girls who have been victimized recently.  One has been racially targeted by a teacher, one has an abusive step-parent, and one has an ex-boyfriend who is extorting her for sex.  Finding that they share common trauma, the girls form a pact to eke out revenge against their tormentors.  But while the other three girls have definite targets, Cass doesn't really know who is stalking her and the more she finds out, the scarier the truth becomes.  And while revenge is easy to envisage, executing it is messy and things quickly swing bloodily and fatally out of control.

Intended to be a thriller with gravitas that comes from exploring the myriad ways that women are exploited, the execution of this blood-soaked account of revenge fell very flat for me.  There is plenty of violence but little reflection and no exploration of anything.  In this story's world, evil things just happen.  The only response is nihilistic violence.  Everyone knows it is a dead end, but what can you do?  Burn it down (apparently).  None of that is particularly inspiring or even interesting.  Nearly constant hyperbolic statements about destruction, violence, or imminent death that quickly lose their meaning and their impact.  

The writing style drove me nuts.  Every other sentence is a fragment.  The choppiness is intended to give the writing an edge, but its impact wears off within fifty pages.  Every other one.  You can only read so much of that before you go mad.  Completely utterly mad.  By the end I wanted to throw the book into a fire.  Let it burn.  Ashes to ashes.  It is what it is.  You get the idea.

Monday, July 25, 2022

All the Best Liars, by Amelia Kahaney

In a thriller that builds suspense off of the insecurities that adolescents bring with them and the way that sudden wealth can intensify those feelings, three girls' lives are forever tied together by a murder.  One of them is the victim and the other two are implicated in the death.  But when the police start to investigate, the truth is far more complicated than the detective can understand. "Girl drama," she dismisses the story that initially unfolds and right she is, but the stakes are every bit as real as a grownup's.  Through flashback, the girls recount a story of childhood confidences betrayed and the lengths to which each will go to make things "right."

Perhaps the world does not need another sociopath/mean girl story, but this novel transcended the genre for me, going through great pains to show a chain of plausible events that gradually blew out of control.  The story gains gravitas by not limiting itself to the children.  For while immaturity is the spark, the fuel for this fire comes from the grownups.  The girls in many cases are simply copying the vanity, classism, and greed of their elders.  It's makes for grim, but compelling reading. The shocking reveal is perfectly unfolded.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Melt With You, by Jennifer Dugan

Fallon and Chloe were best friends growing up, but a night of no inhibitions right before Chloe went away to college led to an awkward goodbye and an end to the friendship.  A year later, they are no longer talking to each other, but they are going to have to work out their issues.  Their mothers are co-partners in an food truck, selling gourmet ice cream.  The business is struggling but there are interested investors.  The catch is that while the two women are meeting the investors, someone has to take the truck to some already-scheduled food festivals.  As a result, Fallon and Chloe are forced to take the truck on the road together alone.  Through their subsequent adventures on the road, they gradually break the ice, confront what happened between them, and work out what it means for their relationship now.

A lesbian romance set on a food truck -- part workplace hijinks and part road story -- that relies for much of its story on the central conceit that neither Fallon or Chloe are very good at communicating.  Rather, they are incredibly egocentric and inwardly focused.  It's so bad, in fact, that Fallon spends the first couple of chapters defending her stubbornness to the reader in a one-way Greek Chorus.  After a while though, Dugan gives up trying to justify the self-created tension of her drama queens and lets them just do their thing.  The result is frustrating as it becomes painfully obvious that if Fallon and Chloe just sat down and listened to each other (rather than constantly taking offense and having meltdowns) that they could happily settle down.  I just didn't care about them and I didn't like either of them.  

That pretty much kills a romance story.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Queen of the Tiles, by Hanna Alkaf

A year ago, Trina, a popular influencer and champion Scrabble player, reigned the Malaysian circuit as the "Queen of the Tiles," but then she mysteriously died literally on the game table during the finals.  Her friend Najwa hasn't really recovered.  After a year of absence from playing, dealing with panic attacks, guilt, and suspicions, Najwa has bravely decided to re-enter the world of competitive Scrabble.  

The police ruled Trina's death to be the result of natural causes, but looking around the room at all the familiar faces, Najwa wonders if someone here had something to do with it.  And when Trina's Instagram account suddenly comes back to life, broadcasting anagram clues that only a Scrabble maven would appreciate, Najwa grows convinced that whoever was involved last year is planning a re-match.

A tense whodunnit that follows the standard pattern of evolving prime suspects and theories, but manages to nonetheless deliver plenty of twists and turns to keep the mystery solving fun.  The Malaysian setting and the Asian characters provide unusual color and make the story more interesting.  But the real winner is Najwa herself who proves a formidably capable detective in the grand tradition, ably sleuthing out the guilty party through a mastery of the world's most popular word game.  The final reveal is a disappointing throwaway, but doesn't overly detract from an original story and Alkaf's stirring love letter to competitive Scrabble.