Friday, April 19, 2019

A Sky for Us Alone, by Kristin Russell

Strickland County is a poisonous place, whether it's the soil damaged by mining and chemicals or the spread of opioids among the population.  For Harlowe Compton, growing up in the midst of it all, his older brother was the shining star and guide out of this place.  So when the brother ends up dead, dumped in front of their house by Tommy Prater, Harlowe wants answers.  But this isn't exactly a safe place to go digging.  The Praters own the County (including the law enforcement) and people who cross the family tend to end up dead.  To no one's great surprise, the answer lies in the drug trade and Harlowe must come to terms with the fact that his idolized brother was messed up in it.

The investigation of what Harlowe's brother was up to is nowhere near as interesting as the setting.  Russell's nightmarish Appalachian landscape is everything we hear about the rural poor and the devastation of the population by drugs.  But the writing is shies away from the stereotypes.  The vivid characters are nuanced and perfectly illustrate how even intolerable conditions can seem normal when they are all you've ever known.  Russell obviously has a bittersweet love for the people who endure this life.  The result is a haunting and realistic depiction of the place.

But Not Forever, by Jan Von Schleh

While exploring a deserted house in a mining ghost town, Sonnet finds is transported back in time to 1895. In a similar fashion, Emma, the unloved older child of a mining baron finds herself swept up from 1895 and sent to the future.  Sonnet and Emma, who physically resemble each other, have been swapped.

While the most immediate concern is how they will survive in each others’ timelines (and hopefully return to their own), Sonnet is faced with more present danger:  Emma’s mother’s antipathy towards her child, which verges on the homicidal.  Getting back home may be a matter of life and death for Sonnet, stuck in the grasp of this evil stepmother.

Time travel stories are almost always best taken with a grain of salt.  While this one avoids most of the usual paradoxes that plague the genre, it bends and twists in a torturous way to explain itself.  But the thing is that no one really cares how the two girls got where they are and/or how they will get back, they just want an adventure.  But that doesn’t stop the author from trying to explain the mechanics of how the girls got swapped in ever more confusing half-explanations.

The story too is a mess with a mixture of the main thread about restoring the continuum and a confusing subplot about family jealousy.  Various random characters are introduced and even developed, but then prove to play no consequential role in the story.  The romance is also a bit odd involving the idea that Sonnet and Emma somehow share an emotional thread that draws them to the same boy (not that even that subplot matters much in the end).  Way too many characters.  Way too many dropped story ideas.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages, ed by Saundra Mitchell

Seventeen historical short stories that share in common the idea that the protagonists are gender queer.  It's a concept that could have easily gone off the rails with authors determined to grind an ax, but that is not the case here. 

These stories are historical fiction first with the characters' sexual orientation and/or gender identity largely secondary.  Sometimes the stories are simply rewrites where the romantic characters are same sex, as in Robin Talley's "The Dresser & the Chambermaid" (set amidst the splendor of the Georgian royal court) or Dahlia Adler's "Molly's Lips" (where two girls find comfort in each other at Kurt Cobain's wake at the Seattle Center).  For other stories it becomes more central to the story, as in Anne-Marie McLemore's story of a woman carrying herself as a man in the midst of Mexico's wars with France in the 19th century or Malinda Lo's stories of male impersonators in San Francisco in the 1950s.  The latter story works particularly well as it's based largely on historical fact.  The more fantastic ones, like Elliott Wake's "Every Shade of Red" (which imagines Robin Hood as a band of people with very muddied gender identities) come off a bit silly.

While the stories are generally strong and well-written, I have issues with the collection for the lack of consistent commitment to the concept.  Some authors chose to highlight moments of gender queer history and seem devoted to the editor's call to shed "light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten." Others saw the assignment as a chance to reimagine a world that never existed through a homosexual lens.  Still others just want to prove that a good story does not need straight characters.

The vast majority of the contributions are gay or lesbian fiction.  There are a few transgender stories, but these are largely cross-dressing rather than true transexuality.  Asexuality is touched upon, but not all that successfully.  Bisexuality is largely missing (aside from a brief mention).  So, while a broad array of historical periods and settings are present, the stories seem more focused on sexual orientation and are less representative of the variations in gender identity.

Friday, April 12, 2019

My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life, by Rachel Cohn

Elle is bright and used to getting good grades, but with her Mom in jail after a long descent into addiction and dealing, Elle’s life has become a hell of foster homes and abuse.  Grades have slipped and she can feel her hopes and dreams slipping away.  Only her friend Reg helps her keep it together.

Then, like a scene out of Little Orphan Annie, Elle’s absent father appears in her life.  He’s a ridiculously wealthy Japanese businessman and he wants her to come live with him in Tokyo.  Before she knows what is happening, she’s been whisked to Japan.  She ends up living in a luxurious penthouse and attending a super exclusive International High School with a bunch of other privileged kids.

AS wonderful as this all seems, the new lifestyle doesn’t suit Elle well.  Her father is largely absent, her aunt and grandmother in Tokyo despise her, the popular kids (while nice to her as long as she conforms) are mean to others in a way that makes Elle uncomfortable, and everyone is trying to convince her not to fall for the one guy who actually treats her decently.  Elle desperately needs to figure out a way to make this “perfect” life work for her.

Rather more like a travel guide than a novel, Cohn delights in describing life in Tokyo.  One suspects that she was there on vacation and wanted to create a book in which she could work in some of her crazier experiences.  The story however doesn’t gel.  Characters are introduced and developed, but largely drop out at the end.  The story meanders.  In the end, Cohn just quickly ties up all the major loose ends with the previously unreasonable adults all agreeing to be nice.  Lots of fun scenes but the story needed work.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

The day finally arrived when Southern California’s taps went dry.  The great “Tap-Out” they called it.  After years of using up more water than they should, the supply was simply exhausted.  Quickly, the social order starts to collapse and people have to improvise to survive.  Five young people from diverse backgrounds and with different talents and skills embark on a desperate mission to survive.

The result is a gripping adventure.  While fast-paced and action-filled, the story still has some space of vivid characters who undergo growth as they find their core values challenged by the descent into anarchy around them.  The Shustermans have a great deal of fun imagining how fast civilization could collapse if there was nothing left to drink.  The fact that they make it all sound so plausible is particularly chilling.

And in a story that could have easily become senselessly violent and exploitative, the book is thoughtful and relatively restrained.  Still, this is an intense and traumatic story about what people go through when they are desperate and on the edge of death.  Not for the faint of heart.

Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Fourteen years ago, I started this blog with a review of Speak – a book that, at the time, was already a best-seller and just starting to find its controversial inclusion (or exclusion) from high school reading lists.  The novel was funny, intelligent, moving, and ultimately devastating.  Long before there was #MeToo, there was Speak.  When Anderson went out on tour, she found that there was a great number of readers who connected to the book, not so much because it was well-written (although that didn’t hurt!), but because it spoke to them.  To them, Malinda's story was devastating because it was their own.  And her struggle to regain her voice was an inspiration.

While the novel was inspirational for many, it was also easy to trivialize the book as just a piece of fiction.  But what made the novel so meaningful was that it never was just a piece of fiction.  It told a story that was real, even if the names and the specific circumstances were altered.  Shout is thus a corrective of sorts, a companion that sets the story straight.  Part memoir and part call to arms, Anderson is no longer spinning a tale.  The first section of the book covers Anderson’s own life, including the incident that scarred her and the process of recovery she went through in its aftermath.  Part two branches out into her professional career, discussing the writing of Speak and the response she received to it.  A short final section closes the biography with stories of her family.

Written in verse, there are definitely stronger sections, pieces that are truly exceptional as standalone works and others that are more functional and simply move the story along.  When she hits the mark (which is also usually when she is most angry) the pages simply burn. The story isn't particularly groundbreaking (certainly, if you’ve been even mildly conscious, you won’t be surprised by the horror of sexual violence’s prevalence) but it is still chilling to hear Anderson recount the blank stares and denial she encounters at her high school talks or the number of authority figures who have tried to silence her or deny the facts she presents. The issue I have with verse is that, while it carries the illusion of intimacy, it is also a way of distancing both the author and the reader from events.  It allows the storytelling to fade out at awkward moments or skip over things that the author would prefer to not bring up.  In the end, it is less revealing than prose.

Regardless, this intimate memoir is an essential companion to her earlier classic.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Positively Izzy, by Terri Libenson

Another graphic novel from Libenson, the creator of Invisible Emmie (reviewed back in December).  This one traces two girls in middle school who are having problems with self-identity.  Izzy is creative, with a flair for the dramatic, and excels on the stage.  Her issue is that she has trouble focusing on her schoolwork and chores.  Briana couldn't be any more different:  she's smart and hardworking, but tired of having nothing special to make her stand out.  When her mother (the school's drama teacher) asks her to substitute for one of kids who's gotten sick, she's terrified to be on the stage, but it might be the opportunity she's been waiting for.

There's a very subtle twist in the story that is not fully revealed until the end and might even then be missed by careless readers.  Catching it makes the difference for this book, an otherwise unremarkable story of kids pushing boundaries.  Overall, I enjoyed Emmie more than this one as the earlier book had more to say and was quite a bit funnier.

Friday, March 29, 2019

After the Fire, by Will Hill

After living nearly her whole life inside the compound of the Lord’s Legion and believing with all of her heart that Pastor John was the divine messenger of God, seventeen year-old Moonbeam must find a way to cope with her return to the outside world.  The compound has burned to the ground and everyone she knows (with the exception of a handful of other children) are now dead.  Held in a rehabilitation facility with the other survivors she struggles to understand what happened to her and explain it to her therapist and to an investigator.  A harrowing tale of abuse, torture, and suffering pours out of her.

Obviously inspired by David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult, Hill touches on many of the key features of that group and their fate.  And despite his protestations to the contrary, there is a slightly exploitative feel to the story.  Hill never gets explicit but he doesn’t shy from suggesting all manner of horrific and traumatizing events.  For what actual aim?  A non-fiction account would have provided a similar picture of the combustible combination of madness, messianism, and the gullible nature of lost souls seeking truth.  What is the point of fictionalizing it?

Troublemakers, by Catherine Barter

Alena’s mother died when she was three years old and she’s been raised by her brother ever since.  He doesn’t talk much about it, nor does his partner (who isn’t otherwise so reticent).  Now fifteen, Alena is curious and wonders what the secret is.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more angry her brother gets.  It’s only when she accidentally discovers her mother’s history as a political activist and digs up one of her old friends, that the secrets start to be revealed.

Interspersed with this main story is a subplot about an anonymous bomber who is targeting supermarkets in the area and another one about violence against gay men (and a local coffee shop) in the neighborhood.  An opportunistic racist politician also plays a role.The subplots are all ways of illustrating the costs of radical politics in various different guises.  They hang loosely – either too obvious or too obscure – to really tie into the story.  This leaves them with a feeling of just being filler.

The novel has interesting ideas, but Barter’s delivery is awkward:  there’s an unforgivable repetitiveness in the interactions between Alena and her guardians that goes like this: they hide things from her, she gets suspicious and acts on her own, and then gets in trouble for the ramifications of her actions.  It takes a surprisingly long time for everyone to come clean and choose openness as a best policy.  And it's awfully tiring to hear the same lame excuse about the adults worrying that Alena is too young to handle the truth.  The evolution and growth of the characters is rough, uneven, and largely unnecessary.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Because of the Rabbit, by Cynthia Lord

Up until fifth grade, Emma has been home-schooled, but now she is going to start attending public school.  She is conflicted between fear and excitement by the prospect.  Her fear is mitigated on the night before the first day by a new addition to their household – a stray rabbit that she has rescued.

Public school is a hard transition for her.  It’s hard to make friends when everyone knows everyone else.  She finds herself alone with Jack, an autistic boy with an obsession with animals.  He’s nice, but Emma worries that being friends with him will drive others away.  She doesn’t want to lose out on making other friends just because of Jack.

A nice compact story about rabbits, friendships, and taking risks.  It’s not a terribly eventful story, but it is packed full of rabbit facts (which animal-loving readers will enjoy) and it has a nice unobtrusive introduction to the autism spectrum.  Nothing too strongly in your face, but enough to make the reader curious about what makes Jack the way he is.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 26th.]

Focused, by Alyson Gerber

Clea gets easily distracted but she’s always been able to cope and get her work done up to now.  But in seventh grade the work has gotten more difficult and her systems for coping can no longer keep up.  She’s not finishing her assignments and she’s failing tests.  Her parents are worried, but Clea figures that she just needs to double down – work harder and stop being so dumb.  If she doesn’t figure things out, she risks getting kicked off the chess team – the one thing at which she’s actually good.

A counselor at school suggests to Clea’s parents that she should get tested for ADHD.  That seems unlikely to Clea since she’s not hyperactive like those kids usually are, but her parents insist.  When it is found out that she does have ADHD, she is shocked but slowly comes to welcome outside help.  But even with medication and special accommodations, she finds it is still going to be hard work to overcome her condition.

A dense middle grade reader about ADHD and what it is like to cope with it.   I don’t generally like books that are basically non-fiction cloaked in a story.  They seem too preachy to me and more work than fun.  The characters just sound like they are taken off the pages of an encyclopedia with long speeches full of facts that are unlikely to roll off the tongue.  Clea's character does get to hang with friends, have a romantic crush, and deal with a fairly ineffectual bully, but it’s thin framework upon which to drape the factual information that Gerber really wants to talk about.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 26th.]

In Some Other Life, by Jessica Brody

Kennedy always wondered what her life would have been like if she had gone to Windsor Academy instead of public school.  As far as anyone else knows, she didn't exactly have a choice in the matter:  her application was turned down.  The truth though was actually more complicated:  she chose to not go so she could stay with her new boyfriend Austin.  Three years later, she is on the verge of getting accepted at Columbia, winning an award for the school newspaper, and happily still together with Austin.  Maybe she didn't need Windsor to be happy and successful after all?

But then it all goes wrong.  She finds out Austin is cheating on her  with her BFF and she blows the interview with Columbia.  Realizing that she made a terrible mistake with her life, she turns back to Windsor in desperation, begging them to take her in.  While at the school, a freak accident finds Kennedy transplanted into an alternate reality where her dream has come true -- a world where she chose Windsor instead of the boy three years ago.  A world, she comes to realize, that is no more closer to perfection than the one she came from.  And one where the costs are much greater than she expected.

The story could be passed off as trivial, but proves surprisingly deep in its exploration of the cost of dreams.  The alternate worlds idea is pursued more as a literary device than some sort of sci-fi fantasy concept -- a chance to illustrate that every choice has consequences and that there is rarely a right decision.  Add excellent writing with strong characters and you get a truly enjoyable read.  I raced through this book, reluctant to put it down.