Friday, September 21, 2018

Finding Felicity, by Stacey Kade

When Caroline and her mother moved to Arizona, introverted Caroline found it difficult to make new friends.  Rather than worry her mother over the issue, Caroline began lying to her and making up "friends" and activities to portray herself as popular and socially active.  When the ruse is exposed at graduation, Mom seeks counseling for her and and reconsiders Caroline's plans to go away to college.  But going away to college and starting afresh is something Caroline feels is important for her plan to build a real social life with real people.  Mom reluctantly lets her go but only under close supervision.

College, however, does not quite turn out the way Caroline had hoped.  Reaching out and making friends is just as difficult.  And her carefully laid out plans keep falling through.  Success in the end means letting go and allowing things to simply happen (and risk and confront failure).  But to do that Caroline must overcome her fears of losing control.

An interesting study of introversion.  The title -- a reference to the TV series Felicity -- refers to Caroline's obsession with that show and the characters, but is surprisingly inconsequential to the story, except to illustrate how unlike the TV world the real world is.  What the story actually focuses on is the way that so people try to reinvent themselves in their first year away from home.  Kade does a nice job with that, although some of the logistics of orientation that she describes seem outdated (like rushing to the college bookstore to buy books).

The book is a breezy read, but that comes at the cost of some character development.  Caroline and her roommate have some depth to them but the other characters (so important in a story about friendship) were underutilized.

Truly Devious, by Maureen Johnson

Ellingham Academy, an elite private high school for smart teens, sits in remote Vermont hills.  Founded by one of the wealthiest men in America in the 1930s, its creation coincided with the tragic kidnapping and murder of the founder’s wife (and the disappearance of his daughter).  The only major clue was a threatening letter received beforehand signed by “Truly Devious.” The crime was never solved.

Eighty years later, Stevie comes to Ellingham Academy.  While it is her intelligence that has gotten her in the door, it is her love of true crime and her desire to solve the mystery that has been unsolved for so long that makes her decide to come.  But before Stevie can get too far in her work, a fresh murder rocks the school – and the method bears a resemblance to the earlier crime.  Has Truly Devious returned?

The first of a trilogy, the novel ends on a cliffhanger that will entice you to get the next one.  However, the book doesn’t hold up as a story in itself.  Rather, it is an introduction to a story that promises to be intricate and exciting.  In other words, put this one on your hold shelf and wait to read it until the other two installments come out.  This is a serial, not a true trilogy.

The story is fascinating and the facts of the earlier crime are probably the best of the book (although some promising twists at the end suggest that that is about to change).  There’s not much depth to the characters but Stevie makes a good detective and fills all the roles you want in such a character:  sharp, brave, and risk-taking.  That she’s a bit green and makes lots of mistakes makes her a promising heroine and we can look forward to what happens next.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Chaotic Good, by Whitney Gardner

Cameron loves to sew cosplay costumes.  She’s good enough to win contests, but when the fans find out that she isn’t one of them, there’s a backlash.  She finds her blog inundated by trolls attacking her.  And trying to defend herself just aggravates the situation.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s her family’s recent move from Portland to Eugene. Cameron’s having a hard time adjusting to small-town life.  There's only comic book shop in town, and its manager is a misogynistic troglodyte, who Cameron has to navigate through to get the inspirations for her creations.  He's convinced that girls can't be real gamers and lack true geek cred.

Motivated by a desire to avoid the abuse, Cameron gets an idea to do the ultimate costume:  dressing up as a guy and proving to the manager (and the online jerks) that she can pass as a geek. Her subterfuge works so well that she gets herself invited to join a local D & D game.  But then she falls for the DM and things get complicated.

It’s a pretty silly premise for a romance, but not actually that silly of a book.  Featuring some original graphic novel pages depicting the D & D campaign, it’s more a love letter to gamer geeks and a plea for grrl empowerment.  While I think Gardner gets the sexism of the culture right, her understanding of the misogyny is quaint and silly enough that even the characters who supposedly subscribe to it sound indefensible to themselves (I don’t think she had the heart to really depict the misogyny that exists in gamer culture).

Of the characters, Cameron and Lincoln’s grandmother are particularly notable, but all of the kids stand out in their own way (with the possible exception of Brody the manager).  Gardner also does a fair job of describing in some detail two separate cultures:  gaming and sewing.  It's pretty obvious that Gardner has much more fun with sewing than gaming, although she does capture enough detail to show she did her research (even if -- like Cameron -- she isn’t a fan).  The ending is a bit too neat and trite (“Oh! We didn’t know all the stuff you were going through!  Oh!  How can we make it up to you?”) but the trip there is enjoyable enough.

Holding Up the Universe, by Jennifer Niven

Every once in a while, a novel is placed in a town or place that I know well, but rarely does it cross paths with where I currently am, so it was something of a surprise when the protagonists of Niven’s innovative new romance ended up in Richmond, Indiana!

After years of homeschooling and hiding from her peers on account of some unwanted notoriety, Libby is returning to mainstream schooling.  Her high profile comes from being identified as “America’s Fattest Teen” when she was rescued from her own house – a process that involved cutting through the walls to widen the doorway enough for her to be evacuated.

Jack's issues are more congenital.  He can’t recognize faces, suffering from a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” His greatest concern is not his condition per se, but what he believes would happen if it became public knowledge.  He fears the ridicule of his peers, so instead he's learned to hide the condition behind swagger and brashness.

When a prank gone awry ends Libby and Jack in detention together, they discover a bond that brings them together.  To their mutual surprise, they find themselves confessing their deepest secrets to each other.   An unlikely romance develops, which leads in turn to each of them taking steps to overcome their fears.

While largely predictable, this novel stands out for at least two reasons:  the unusual conditions and challenges of its protagonists and the greater message about kindness and standing up to peer pressure.  There are so many ways Niven could have gone for easy sappiness, but the ending here is complicated and just as fulfilling.  And the story is full of vivid and powerful scenes like Libby standing in her bikini in front of her peers or Jack getting in trouble for confusing his younger brother with another boy.  And even tired old tropes like the requisite drunken teen party scene were treated in surprisingly original ways that gave them a bit more life.

Libby and Jack's trip to Richmond takes them to Clara's Pizza King which turns out to be a real restaurant and pretty much as described in the book.  With this story fresh in my had, I decided to check it out and found it fun, quirky, and memorable -- so special thanks to Niven for the dining suggestion!

Saturday, September 08, 2018

A Girl Like That, by Tanaz Bhathena

Zarin Wadia is the type of girl that adults warn other girls to avoid:  a bad example, always seen hanging out with boys, smoking cigarettes, and disobeying authority.  But living in Jeddah as a foreigner (half-Parsi) with an alien religion (Zoroastrian), Zarin knows that having some additional notoriety could hardly make much of a difference.  And while being a rebel is an unimaginable risk in such a conservative country, Zarin feels drawn to risky behavior anyway.  There is a thrill involved in clandestine trips to the Corniche with boys that helps to satisfy her need to live a real life.  With a boy named Porus (fully Parsi, but also an outsider) who ironically is not her lover, she shares those dreams and hopes.

And then there is Mishal, who while more obedient to her elders, lives a secret life collecting gossip for her blog and living vicariously through that gossip and through watching her rather more libertine brother Abdullah and his friends.  Unlike Zarin, she accepts that a girl cannot live like a boy, but her acceptance does little to improve the eventual outcome.

In case anyone was under the impression that being female (let alone a teenage girl) in Saudi Arabia was easy, this scathing portrayal of the hypocrisy of Saudi society and mores will open some eyes.  For those of us already familiar with the misogyny of the culture, this novel is a somewhat tedious reinforcement of our biases.  Still, Bathena’s portrayal transcends all of that through its detail and through its sympathy for its characters.  While the environment is probably unfathomable to a North American teen, there is a universal humanity that young readers will recognize.  And in this portrayal, an attempt to show how survival is possible, even if the costs will seem extreme.  This is not the Saudi-bashing novel it deserves to be (Bhathena is much more subtle and maybe even kind).    

Zarin herself is probably the most fascinating of the bunch as she doesn’t neatly fall into the carefree rebel mold into which we might like to place her.  She pays a terrible price for her actions and she feels remorse and questions herself frequently through the story.  Yet her bravery comes from a desire to live and break free of expectations – in a way that is instantly recognizable, yet fraught with unfamiliar risks.  More problematic is the story itself which opens with the death of Zarin and Porus in a car crash -- the sort of story twist from which there is no recovery.  Stranger, the death is largely inconsequential to the story and serves more as a distraction in the end.  It is Zarin's life that we really care about.  Fascinating and chilling at the same time.

Girl Made of Stars, by Ashley Herring Blake

Lying on the roof with her twin brother Owen and watching the heavens, Mara found it easy to believe his fairy tales about being children of the stars.  But she's harshly pulled down to earth when Owen is accused of raping her friend Hannah.  Initially torn by competing loyalties, Mara’s feelings turn to horror when she realizes that Hannah isn’t lying and, worse, no one believes her and Mara. 
But the story is more complicated, because Hannah’s ordeal dredges back up an equally traumatic assault that Mara experienced a few years earlier and has been struggling to suppress in the meantime.  Faced with the suffering of her friend and her family’s indifference to Hannah (and transferring it to the indifference she faced herself), Mara finally finds an ally and revisits the pain of her own experience.

With sharp and timely insights about date rape, victim shaming, and sexual consent, this is a powerful story that is well told.  It’s heart wrenching reading, as one would expect, but not exploitative.   Rather, it gets its power through honesty and emotional rawness.  There’s hardly a single wrong note here as Blake deftly handles the often conflicting and irrational feelings of guilt, anguish, panic, powerlessness, and anger that make up the experience of having one’s bodily integrity violated.

The writing is exquisite and adolescent characters well-developed (the adults get short shrift).  Mara’s strengths are empowering, even when she takes inevitable steps backward.  And her relationship with her brother is nuanced and well-balanced – it would have been very easy to make Owen evil or innocent and Blake struggles with that through the end of the novel (I’m not 100% happy with where we end up, but I respect the author’s choices).  It is a complicated situation, made more so by the interference of friends and family in a way that is as disturbing as it realistic.

A truly remarkable and memorable novel.  My current pick for best book of the year.