Saturday, January 13, 2018

That Thing We Call a Heart, by Sheba Karim

It's her last summer before college and Shabnam doesn't know how she'll spend it.  Her best friend Farah has gone off the deep end and started wear hajib (even though she wears it with hairstyles calculated to drive her mother nuts).  Shabnam doesn't know what to make of her usually rebellious friend.  But when she meets Jamie, none of it matters.  Jamie is inquisitive and charming and Shabnam falls head of heels for him.  But more than a story of summer romance, the novel is about how the love for family and friends matters most in the end.

In other words, there are plenty of good ingredients in this book, but it all comes at you at once. Now, one could argue that life is like this: that a story only about wearing hajib or a summer romance (or Urdu poetry or the Partition that created modern India and Pakistan or a mother grieving the loss of her unborn babies or an absent-minded father) is not enough to carry a 270 page novel. But it is also safe to say that it is a bit too much to throw all of that into the mix and expect it to stand.

The writing is good, but the characters felt largely interchangeable, with voices that were not distinct. Even the father, who has the most interesting mannerisms largely sounds like every other person in the story.  Shabnam herself starts off as grating, giving her plenty of room for growth during the story -- and Karim's depiction of that growth provides sufficient payoff for the reader.

Friday, January 12, 2018

You Bring the Distant Near, by Mitali Perkins

A story of three generations of the Das family, Bengalis who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s.  Covering over forty years of family history, it centers on the Das women:  Ranee the matriarch, her daughters (academically gifted Sonia and her thespian sister Tara) and their daughters Anna and Chantal.  A mixed-race family, each woman struggles with their sense of identity and what it means for them to be Bengali and American.

While the story occasionally drags, the novel is full of vivid characters that make this a delightful read.  The expansive timeline of the story allows us to see everyone grow up and develop.  And despite its race through the decades, it's surprisingly fluid, avoiding any great problem with its temporal jumps.  A great deal of tear-jerking is milked from death and perhaps a bit too much drama from surprise out-of-character changes, but this is a warm story that celebrates humanity and diversity in a non-preachy way.

The Library of Fates, by Aditi Khorana

In an attempt to buy peace and forestall Emperor Sikander’s ambition to conquer Princess Amrita’s kingdom, her father has promised her to the Emperor.  The thought horrifies her but is ultimately moot as the Emperor launches a surprise siege.  Her family and friends slain or imprisoned, Amrita flees for her life with the companionship of an oracle, a young woman named Thala.

Together, they seek the fabled Library of Fates, where every human has a book that tells their story.  If they can find the Library and convince the gatekeeper to admit them, they plan to rewrite their stories and undo this tragedy.  However, along the way they discover that the situation is much more complex and Princess Amrita is forced to make a huge sacrifice.

While ostensibly a pretty routine fantasy novel, two things stood out that are worthy of mention.  First of all is the wonderful South Asian flavor of the story.  So many fantasy novels are bound on an implicitly Western European motif.  But here, the clothes, foods, titles, and even the mannerisms are Indian.  The bad guys are even called “Macedonians.”

Which brings me to my second point.  While the novel is almost as bloody as any other sword and sorcery fare, Amrita’s actions are notably not.  She never actually kills anyone (or anything) although she considers it on several occasions.  Instead, she uses reason to work through her conflicts and chooses to employ non-violent alternatives.  The story rewards her each time by showing how a non-violent solution actually solved more problems in the end (while the bad guys suffer in the long run for resorting to the sword).  As Khorana puts it in a blistering condemnation of the current US president in her introduction, “[W]hen we act with only our selfish interests in mind, disregarding the rights and experiences of others, everyone loses.” Wisdom for our times.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Amina's Voice, by Hena Khan

Amina is terrified of public speaking, so when her Dad announces that he's signed her and her older brother Mustafa up for a Quranic recitation contest at their community's Islamic Center, she's terrified.

But she has other issues as well:  her best friend Soojin has started being friendly with another girl and Amina wonders if she's losing her friend.  Worse, Soojin wants to change her name to something more Western-sounding (much to Amina's horror).  Amina's uncle is visiting them from Pakistan and his presence disrupts her family as her parents attempt to impress him and as his conservative views conflict with Amina's own beliefs.  But it is when their mosque is damaged by vandals that Amina learns to put all of these things in perspective and to find her voice.

Given the subject matter, this is a surprisingly gentle middle reader.  Placed in a Pakistani community outside of Milwaukee, it mixes everyday tween concerns about friendship and family, with observations about ethnic identity,  xenophobia, and faith.  The ending is a bit too rosy for my tastes and issues are resolved a bit too easily, but Amina is so appealing and the story so unique, that it is worthy of note.

My Future Ex-Girlfriend, by Jake Gerhardt

Eighth grade, with all of its glories and anxieties, is full of plenty of drama.  Tracing the arc of three relationships, Gerhardt plumbs the terrain of middle school romance, when simply being able to claim a boy/girlfriend was the whole point.  There’s plenty of humor here (mostly provided by the incredibly stuffy Duke), but much of it is bittersweet, as we get treated to the fantastic (and realistic) ways that boys and girls miss each other’s social cues at this age (the contrasting accounts of their dates are particularly striking).

This isn’t a terribly complicated book, but I appreciated its honesty and respect for its subjects.  And, in my continuous search for books that treat both girls and boys with respect, I felt Gerhardt nailed it – avoiding a lot of the stereotypes, but not shying away from what is going on in adolescent minds.  These kids are intelligent and articulate but also achingly young and immature, with plenty of room to grow, but off to a good start.  And reading this story really brought back plenty of memories (admittedly not ones that were easy to revisit!).

Words in Deep Blue, by Cath Crowley

At the bookshop Howling Books (owned by Henry’s parents), there’s a “Letter Library” where people write comments in books and leave notes.  On the night before she moved away, Rachel left a note for her friend Henry where she knew he’d find it.  In it, she had decided to risk everything and confess her love for him.  For days and weeks she waited for his response, but it never came. He kept in touch for a time, acting as if he had never even read the note. Stung and humiliated by his refusal to acknowledge her confession, she eventually cut off all communication with him.

After several years Rachel has moved back to town.  The hurt of the rejection lingers, but she is now grieving over the accidental death of her brother.  Henry meanwhile is facing his own tragedy: his Mom is leaving his Dad and the bookshop is being sold.  But the Letter Library lives on and the stories it tells about its readers becomes a story in itself that traces not only reconciliation between Henry and Rachel, but numerous other relationships.

An odd and quirky novel with a lot of complexity.  I really liked the premise, but the story itself is very hard to follow with a large cast of characters who don’t particularly stand out.  There’s also a lot of off-stage action and the story jumps around.  A patient re-reading (or two) would have brought out more, but I don’t have the patience for that.  What I got from this reading simply wasn’t enough.  Great concept, but poor assembly.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Bluff, by Julie Dill

The bills never get paid, no matter how many times Chelsea's Dad promises that he'll get a better job and start making money.  Simply being a teenager in Chelsea's affluent high school is expensive.  Things like cheer squad costs serious money, but when the electricity is getting cut off, Chelsea has to make choices. 

That is, until Chelsea stumbles over the idea of gambling as a means to earn cash.  Sneaking into a casino as an underage player is scary, but Chelsea is driven and determined.  She's also talented and discovers that poker is an easy way for her to make serious money.  But what she is doing is illegal and dangerous, and affecting the rest of her life.  As gambling consumes her, she has more and more trouble sorting her life so that no one at school or at home figures out where she spends her nights.

Through fast-paced storytelling, Dill does a good job of showing how Chelsea's skills at the table develop, as well as the growing appeal of the gambling addiction.  In a brief story like this, Chelsea gets most of the attention while the other characters are largely neglected.  The romantic interest never gels and thus seems a bit of a waste.  An interesting subplot about a fellow gambler held similar lost promise. All that said, I really enjoyed the story.  However, I think it is fair to say that the ending is a bit cruel.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door, by Jared Reck

Matt and Tabby have been neighbors and inseparable friends since childhood.  Tabby has basically lived over at Matt's house and been like a member of the family.  Somewhere along the line, Matt has fallen in love with Tabby (although he's never had the guts to admit it to her).  And so he watches hopelessly as she has fallen in love with a star player on the basketball team.  The jealousy he experiences drives him crazy and threatens to tear their friendship apart, until tragic events overtake their relationship altogether.

I'm never a fan of the random plot twist and this one delivers quite a punch half way through the book.  Perhaps, the love triangle is an overdone story, but Reck really does a nice job with it.  The strength of Reck's storytelling is Matt, who he's fleshed out with authentic sensitivities and anxieties (transcending the obligatory bro-nonsense that permeates depictions of adolescence masculinity).  So, why not let the story be about what it started being about:  boy learns to simply love his friend and be friends with his love?  The plot twist seemed more an invention for Reck to extend the story, as if he had run out of things to say and wanted a higher page count.  And it ruined a good story.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Lonely Ones, by Kelsey Sutton

Told in verse for the expected added level of poignancy, The Lonely Ones tells of Fain's struggle to form connections in a world where she feels ignored and neglected.  Unable to form friendships she can rely on and feeling cut off from even her own family, she retreats into a nightly fantasy world of "monsters" who take her up into the stars on grand adventures.  Still, opportunities for friendships do exist and, despite the dangers of the real world, Fain tentatively reaches out.  Doing so, she finds that (no matter how fractured her family) shared tragedy will bring them back together.

It's not a story that breaks any new ground, but it works as a pleasant exploration of the bonds of family and friendship, a meditation upon risking one's heart, and thoughts on taking risks in general.  The format is not a great style with which to develop characters and the temptation to produce anodyne "poetry" is always strong.  But good examples are effective mood pieces and I found this one pleasant and enjoyable.

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

When Aza and her best friend Daisy hear about a reward for locating the missing billionaire Russell Picket, they decide to haul out their sleuthing skills.  Aza and Pickett's son Davis go way back but they haven't seen each other in years. The search for the Dad brings them back together and sparks a romance.  However, there is a complication:  Aza suffers from an obsessive form of hypochondria that manifests as an intense fear of infection.  The idea of kissing (with its exchange of fluids and germs) is a pretty formidable concept, let alone dating a guy. A number of subplots (pondering impending graduation, Daisy's exciting career in Star Wars fan fic, lost and deceased parents, and underground art) also play a role.

John Green can be very good, but when he misses, he misses big time.  I found this particular book to be aimless, aiming for deep meaning but mostly ending in navel gazing.  The title itself is a reference to a pretty meaningless analogy about the meaning of life.  The whole book is like that.  And the characters are pretty flat.  Daisy and Aza have some interesting sparks and their friendship is the best part of the book, but nothing really develops from their arguments.  The romances just peter out (let's say that Green's strength is not in the romantic literature department).  And the key strength of a Green novel -- humor -- is strangely absent in this largely earnest novel.

Fragile Like Us, by Sara Barnard

Caddie and Rosie are inseparable best friends until the day that Suzanne shows up.  Initially, Suzanne is clearly Roz’s friend, but Caddie wishes she could know the dangerous and carefree Suzanne better.  And, as if to answer her wish, Suzanne opens up and confides to Caddie, but it is a bit more than Caddie expects.

Suzanne comes from an abusive home and as Caddie learns more, she wants to help the girl and be a good friend.  But Caddie is definitely out of her depth and her parents, Roz, and even Suzanne herself try to warn her away.  Caddie however is in too deep, unable to reject her new friend and unable to judge that things have gone too far.

While slow starting, I was taken in by the familiarity of the story.  Of how urgent everything seemed in adolescence and how hard it was to tell just how far friendship should go.  Like Caddie, I often flattered myself imagining that I had the knowledge and skills to take care of any problem I came across.  And I didn’t know when to get help and when to pull back.  So, to say I related to Caddie’s anxiety about doing the right thing and being a good friend is a bit of an understatement.

As the story progressed, I ended up really caring for these three girls and the bond they have.  The signs of destruction are everywhere, and Barnard so realistically depicts the development of these friendships that it all seemed quite believable.  Suzanne can be disgustingly manipulative, but it is easy to see how Caddie and Rosie exploit the situation as well.  And those tangled threads were very seductive to read.