Tuesday, June 06, 2023
The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent, by Ann Jacobus
Sunday, June 04, 2023
A Scatter of Light, by Malinda Lo
Set in 2013, right after California legalized same sex marriage, Aria undergoes her own realization that she might be a lesbian as she falls in love with Steph, her grandmother's gardener At the same time, her grandmother Joan opens Aria's eyes to art. Aria, who wants to study astronomy and is on her way to MIT, has never entertained that she has artistic leanings, but under her grandmother's guidance, she starts to blossom as an artist.
In sum, a coming of age story with several different facets. Aria's transformation is interesting to follow, but she's a surprisingly dull protagonist. She goes through a number of important self-realizations, but they mostly seem to bounce off of her and I felt largely excluded from what she was experiencing. It doesn't help that both Joan and Steph are cut out of the story rather abruptly, leaving Aria on her own to sort things out at the end. And instead of doing so, the novel simply jumps ten years ahead after everything has worked out.
Intended to be a companion work to a much heavier novel called Last Night at the Telegraph Club, this novel stands on its own and makes only fleeting reference to the characters of that book.
Thursday, June 01, 2023
Remind Me to Hate You Later, by Lizzy Mason
In the aftermath, Jules's best friend Natalie tries to cope with the loss. She knew plenty about Jules's misery but she didn't understand how bad it was for her. She despises Jules's mother for what she did to Jules. And she hasn't stopped. Now she's writing a book to capitalize on the experience! But Natalie also wants to explore her own role in the tragedy and address the guilt she feels for moving on.
The first half of the book, told by Jules, is a harrowing story of parental abuse. But while it gives us a clear sense of what she went through, it turns out not to be the most interesting part of the novel. It's really the second half, where Natalie takes over, that brings the pieces together. For one thing, Natalie is a far more reliable narrator, with a strong sense of obligation to get the story right. And while she is immensely sad and angry about what happened to her friend, she recognizes that there are multiple sides to the story. She even eventually comes round to being willing to sit down with Jules's mother! She also struggles with guilt as she and Jules's boyfriend develop romantic feelings towards each other.
The story packs a pretty heavy punch and is a compelling read, but it transcends the usual suicide tropes by spending considerable time on how people's lives go on after a tragedy. So, while there is plenty of grief, the story doesn't really dwell on it. I also found the subject of social media addiction to be quite interesting. A lot more could have been made of it, but Mason avoids preaching and simply sets out the point that Mom's narcissism (fed by her followers) really was the trigger for this tragedy. And her daughter's compulsion for paying attention to those posts sealed her fate. That leaves us food for thought.
Monday, May 29, 2023
We Weren't Looking to Be Found, by Stephanie Kuehn
Dani comes from a well-off family in Dallas. Her mother is an ambitious black politico and she can't stand it. To escape what she sees as the hypocrisy of her family, she drowns herself in alcohol, pills, and parties. And when it all gets to be too much, she runs away and ends up getting sent to Peach Tree Hills, a facility for young woman outside of Atlanta.
Camila loves dance and after three years of auditions she's finally gotten herself accepted to a dance school. But the stress of getting this far has taken its toll and Camila developed a habit of cutting to relieve her pain. The breaking point, however, is when her parents inform her that she can't go because the money that was to have paid for school is gone. In crisis, she tries to end her life and ends up at Peach Tree Hills.
Both girls are angry and frustrated, convinced that their issues have everything to do with their parents and other adults who want to keep them down. But through patient guidance from the facility's caregivers and the bond that develops between them, they begin to dig their way out on the road to self-discovery. A minor subplot about a cache of found letters written by a previous resident adds some pathos to their search.
The characters make this story. Dani and Camila are intelligent and articulate advocates for themselves. Even in the beginning when they don't have the focus they need to find their way out, they are fearless and determined. They make plenty of mistakes and do things that are plainly stupid, but these are their mistakes to make and they accept the responsibility for them. There are a few tears but never any self-pity from these girls. That makes this novel rather unique in a genre that tends to wallow in navel-gazing and self-hatred. There were times when the story seemed to drift (the whole letters cache being the most obvious example), but Dani and Camila kick ass from beginning to end.
Sunday, May 28, 2023
Miracle, by Karen S. Chow
In the ensuing months, she works through guilt and anger to try to find a new equilibrium and build a new hope of her own, rekindling her music.
A better-than-average story of grief and recovery, helped by the beautiful way that Chow works music into the story of Amie's relationship with her father. Another aspect I liked was the contrast between the way that Amie and her mother copes with their loss, showing the complexity of dealing with one's own needs balanced against those of another. While each of them attempt to solve their own problems in order to not burden the other, the find that it is really something they need to do together. Finally, instead of a clean ending with some sort of full recovery, we find only hope for the future -- a solution that felt right.
Saturday, May 27, 2023
Hamra and the Jungle of Memories, by Hanna Alkaf
The fruit turns out to be magical and the fearsome weretiger who owns the tree it came from demands compensation for her offense -- Hamra must go on a quest to help the weretiger become a man. That quest sends Hamra, her best friend Ilyas, and the weretiger on an adventure through the realm of fairies and demons. They struggle with a variety of magical forces to restore the weretiger's humanity and unearth his history, which she finds is intertwined with her own family's history.
Heavily populated with Malaysian culture and folklore, Alkaf spins a story loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood and set in the middle of the Covid Pandemic. It is a wildly incongruous setting where Hamra and her companions do things like use invisibility spells to dodge detection from police enforcing the quarantine. That complexity doesn't always work, making the story feel crowded. It is also long and repetitive as similar events (taking things without paying for them, narrowing escaping certain death through a surprise visitor, etc.) happen again and again. After a while, the narrow escapes become largely indistinguishable. A final complaint I would have is that the heavy use of unfamiliar words and settings, while delightful in theory, makes the story challenging to read and it takes a while to get into it.
Saturday, May 20, 2023
Leeva at Last, by Sara Pennypacker (ill by Matthew Cordell)
In an absurd style that will remind readers of Roald Dahl or David Walliams, Pennypacker deftly explores a variety of topics including friendship, family, and creativity. It's a story that cannot be taken seriously and younger readers who can't recognize the satirical elements may find it confusing. I personally found the abusive nature of the humor disturbing. But if you delight in books that are so cruel that it is "obvious" that they are not to be taken seriously, this can be a silly read.