Saturday, January 14, 2017

Phantom Limbs, by Paula Garner

Three years ago, Otis's little brother died and his (first and only) girlfriend Meg moved away.  Into the void of his life came Dara, who herself had suffered plenty of losses -- first the death of her mother, and then the loss of a hand (amputated after a shark attack).  Otis and Dara have developed a codependency:  Dara's role has been to push Otis into competitive swimming and through him to achieve the dream of Olympic gold that she had to abandon after her accident.  Their fragile relationship comes under stress when Otis learns that Meg is returning to the area.

To this potential triangle, throw in some complicated emotional ties between Meg and Otis's mother, Dara's relationship with a girlfriend, and the competing loyalties that Otis feels for Dara, Meg, and another girl on his swim team, and you have one very very messy web of relationships.  The final result is full of pathos and quite touching, but it is still a dizzying array of plot lines to sort through.  I liked it and suspect that many readers will, but I do generally prefer simpler and more-focused stories.

Garner's strength in character-building is crucial here, but she also tells a good story.  I never grew bored here (probably that complex storyline helped the pace stay fast!) but moreover, the story was smart.  It felt genuine and authentic, and didn't waste my time with stupid stuff.  But it's definitely a story for older readers -- the sexual references are pretty explicit and frequent, and the themes are quite mature.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Girl in Pieces, by Kathleen Glasgow

Seventeen year-old Charlie has been through hell -- she's a runaway with alcohol problems, a history of physical and sexual abuse, and a tendency towards self-harm.  Her life is pretty bleak.  The story opens during her breather at a psychiatric facility, but soon she is out on the street again.  Rejected by her mother, she ends up in Arizona.  There, she finds a new home and friends (of a sort), but the situation is far from healthy and she struggles to avoid spiraling down again into madness.

The novel is bleak and yet quite compelling, even as it treads on the oft-told tale of self-harm.  But, unlike with most books about cutters, where we tend to focus on understanding the behavior, there's no mystery here about the trauma that has placed her in this madness.  Large parts of the book pretty clearly explain that!

In some ways, that lack of subtlety is a flaw of the novel.  There is no nuance or question about any of this.  As a result, our journey through Charlie's life is simply a visit of hell, without much chance of enlightenment.  It makes for a difficult read and getting through four hundred pages of this story is trying at times.  But there are some bright spots along the way from some unexpected places.

What made the read actually enjoyable (in spit of the dark subject matter) are Glasgow's rich and vivid characters.  Each one is an obvious act of love -- standing out with quirks and blemishes, and always defying stereotypes.  It took the author nine years to craft this first novel.  Hopefully, she's got more in there and can churn her next one out a bit quicker?  I'd like to see more.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Symptoms of Being Human, by Jeff Garvin

Riley suffers from anxiety and depression.  Uncomfortable with being forced to dress up and appear at Dad's political events, Riley makes the connection between that discomfort and the anxiety while reading about gender fluidity.  The revelation helps Riley understand how a day can start feeling girly, but then suddenly turn masculine.  While learning this is a source of great comfort, it doesn't get Riley any closer to coming to terms.  Openly discussing the condition seems insurmountably difficult, and the pressure of keeping the condition secret makes the anxiety worse.

As a coping mechanism, Riley's psychiatrist suggests creating a journal, which Riley decides to create online as an anonymous blog.  The blog takes off and goes viral.  But as it garners attention, the anonymous cover is blown and Riley is outed, placing the entire family in jeopardy.

I'm not actually aware of any other mainstream YA book at this time that contains a gender-fluid protagonist.  Garvin seems quite aware of the book's uniqueness and can grow preachy at times (falling into the trap of force feeding us facts and statistics about gender-fluidity).  That gets boring, but is understandable in a pioneering book.

But what I really liked about this novel (aside from generally being well-written) is the literary exercise of escaping from ever indicating a gender for Riley.  It's remarkably difficult and (unlike my feeble attempt above to avoid using a pronoun in summarizing the story) Garvin pulls it off without growing awkward.  This turns out to be quite subversive: I found myself trying to figure out "which one" Riley is and growing frustrated that I could not.  That in turn threw the whole issue back in my face:  why was I so obsessed with classifying Riley?

Firsts, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Mercedes has decided to pay it forward in an unusual way:  She’s sleeping with guys to give them experience before they have sex with their girlfriends for the first time.  She tells herself that she is doing this in order to make sure that they make their girlfriends’ first time romantic and memorable (since hers was not).  And she sets a limit of how many times she will do it.

But why can’t she stop?  As she starts breaking her own boundaries, she becomes aware that there is much more to this than any sort of justification she can dig up.  And, in any case, the truth has a way of getting out, so – and you can see this plot development from a mile away! – it is only a matter of time before it all blows up.

For what sounds like an exploitative premise, this turned out to be a surprisingly complicated (and even insightful) novel.  It is explicit and frank enough to to make a lot of adults uncomfortable to be sure, but the treatment of sex is honest and authentic.  And it speaks directly to the sexual double standards that girls face (without any attempt to breezily right those wrongs).

The characters are a mixed bag.  I loved Mercedes, who combines vulnerability, honesty, and (eventually) inner strength.  Her friends don’t get the same loving treatment, but they are an important source of support.  The adults are disappointing throwaways, but I understand Flynn’s reluctance in doing anything useful with them.  Still, there is such an opportunity for some elder wisdom to be offered (but instead they remain passive or used as bad examples, leaving the kids pretty much on their own to stumble through).

Friday, December 30, 2016

Free Verse, by Sarah Dooley

A hardscrabble life and a string of bad luck bring near daily challenges to Sasha.  But as she reaches the limits of endurance, she discovers poetry and the ability to articulate the words in verse that she can't say aloud.

Living in a dismal coal mining town in West Virginia, Sasha has been abandoned by her mother and lost both her father and older brother to fatal accidents.  The trauma has left her unable to speak and prone to fierce bouts of blind anger.  But in the structured world of poetry (not all of her writing in free verse), she is able to speak her heart and release her anguish.  The result is a depressing, but ultimately uplifting, tale of using art to overcome adversity.

My one complaint about the novel is that it is repetitive. The story certainly could have used some pruning.  But I enjoyed Sasha's strong character and the spare and reserved qualities of all of the portrayals in the story.  Dooley crafts the text carefully, leaving many things unsaid (and in fact, never explaining key plot events).  This is quite effective and, far from frustrating the reading, it opens much of the story up for interpretation.  And while the story's setting is dismal, Dooley does not pity these people, and reveals great dignity in their difficult lives.  Finally, the use of verse amidst the prose is surprisingly effective in a way that verse novels on their own rarely are.

Paint the Wind, by Pam Munoz Ryan

After her parents died, Maya lived in near total isolation in her grandmother's house.  But when her grandmother dies, Maya is sent to live with her mother's people in Wyoming, of whom she knows nothing.

The two environments couldn't be any more different.  At her grandmother's, she was forbidden from any sort of rough play, taught to fear nature, and raised to despise her mother and idolize her father.  But at her new home on the range, she is thrust into adventure monitoring wild horses and sleeping in dusty tents miles from civilization.

At her new home, she learns to ride horses (a lifelong dream) and discovers a love for watching wild horses.  One of those wild horses (Artemisia) was once tamed by Maya's mother.  Now roaming free, Artemisia is in danger and Maya is anxious to rescue her (an through doing so establish a link with her Mom).  But finding the horse will put Maya in mortal danger.

Classic horse story material.  A few predictable tropes (dead parents, friendly wild horse, etc.) but overall the story is thrilling and loaded with horse facts and trivia.  Having not read a lot in the genre before, I was surprised at how explicit it is, but that's almost certainly part of the appeal (and probably why boys don't tend to go for these stories!).  Some of the action at the end was rushed and compressed, in sharp contrast to the gentle pace at the beginning of the story.  Ryan seems to enjoy exposition more than conclusions, and pushes through the endings as fast as possible.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Worked to the bone and neglected by her father and brothers, fourteen year-old Joan decides to run away from home and finds herself in Baltimore, where she is taken in by a wealthy Jewish family and hired on as a servant (under the assumed name of "Janet").  Raised in a poor farm community, Joan has no knowledge of Judaism, but learns a lot about it during her employ.  At the same time, she explores her own Catholic convictions.  The experience of her new work also introduces her to themes of loyalty, respect, and love in this lively, well-researched, and ultimately uplifting story of the search for human dignity.

The result is an utterly captivating story that presents an unusual heroine who is both tempestuous and intelligent, but also sensitive and fragile.  In depicting her as such, Schlitz captures the volatile world of a fourteen year-old who is curious and motivated, yet still prone to romantic fancies and fantasies.  Joan/Janet is strong willed and driven, but utterly prone to bad choices and impetuous behavior in a way that is hard not to love.

But most of all, I loved the story of Janet's search for self.  This is taken on all levels as she searches for love, respect, dignity, and faith.  In particular, her moment of transcendence as she experiences the Divine (on pp 352-353) is worthy of the greatest religious thinkers and is a stunning appearance in the context of a novel written for teens.

This is an ambitious work that stretches the traditional boundaries of Young Adult literature.  That the novel is also a respectful treatment of American Judaism and a well-researched piece of historical fiction is an added plus.

Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young

It’s sixth grade and Tink and her friends find themselves caught in the middle of everything.  It’s the last year of elementary school and they are more than ready for middle school, but at the same time it scares them.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that as the book is less an adventure than a snapshot of a moment in time – the tweenest moment of tweendom.  The girls are dealing with the double whammy of puberty and mixed signals from their parents, teachers, and peers.  The boys are being similarly awkward.  It is, in sum, a pitch perfect capture of what sixth grade is like (and seemingly unchanged from my own so many decades ago).  Young does an amazing job of capturing authentically and beautifully the weird mix of knowledge and naivete. 

My complaint would be that this isn’t exactly new material and, lacking much of a plot, I’m not sure why the exercise is for.  Numerous Judy Blume books,  Alice in Between (from Phyllis Naylor’s Alice series), and Lauren Myracle’s Winnie series all come to mind.  I’m impressed with her ear and her empathy, but now I want it taken to a story as well.  That twelve year olds don’t get much opportunity for adventure, I’ll concede, but that doesn’t mean that I want to read about kids who don’t have any.  Yes, a stray reader might get a thrill out of a book where they can say “she’s just like me!” but that only goes so far.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Into White, by Randi Pink

Latoya hates everything about being black, from her name to her hair to her family.  Every chance she gets, she prays to Jesus that He will make her "anything but black." One day, He answers her prayer.  As one would expect, being white isn't a picnic for her either and, with some help from a guy she grows to like, she learns a lesson about valuing her blackness and herself.  So far, so as expected.

But Into White is much more than a fable about learning to love yourself.  It tackles all sorts of social issues:  from the obvious (interracial relations, profiling) to some less so (rape, peer pressure, spouse abuse).  Latoya's parents have a destructive relationship which Latoya dissects.  Her brother hides his genius brain in order to not attract bullying at school.  Latoya's boyfriend struggles with toeing the line between being "too black" and being an Oreo.  And Jesus keeps showing up in the strangest of places, from driving a stolen car to singing off-tune.

It's an eclectic book and reminded me of some of Kate DiCamillo's less lucid novels (Flora & Ullyses or The Tale of Despereux) or Libba Bray's books.  The difference is that Pink is tackling some serious material about race in her story.  The result is a tricky balance between silly and serious (the sudden and regular appearance of the Son of God is a useful device to get her out of tight corners).  The observations about race are not particularly novel (Spike Lee has made movies out of most of them), but in this format, they will reach a much younger demographic. Tackling both controversial topics and doing so in controversial ways is bound to offend lots of people.  Whether that was necessary and important is food for thought in itself.

The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis

Alex has always been a bit of an outcast, but after her sister is kidnapped and murdered, she seems even more off.  She's quiet and stealthy, and prone to sudden brutal acts of violence.  She’s the only person who doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that her sister’s alleged assailant was found brutally murdered himself (shortly after being acquitted).

Jack has floated around from girl to girl.  Flat broke and afraid he’ll never amount to much, he’s stuck in a relationship of convenience with the hottest girl at school, which he ought to enjoy but doesn't.  Instead, he is drawn to Alex, who offers a mystery that he finds irresistible.

Peekay (“PK” = “preacher’s kid”) spends her senior year trying to prove to everyone that she isn’t as pure as folks would have her be.  In doing so, she finds herself in the middle of everything, trying to take care of people, but totally out of her depth.

The novel is set in some poor backwater where the kids float through school, hold drinking parties in the woods, and eventually graduate to minimum wage jobs, alcoholism, and meth addictions.  The manners are gruff, the language coarse, and very little in this dead-end life is pretty.  It’s a dark setting for a dark story.  Lots of rude language, sex, and drugs, never mind the violence, which is sudden and random.  I found it very depressing to read.

Poppy, by Mary Hooper

Poppy is making her way as best she can in service to the wealthy De Vere family.  In the back of her mind, she harbors a secret fantasy that she and the De Vere’s youngest son might have the starting spark of a romance.  Given the class differences, this seems unlikely in the current climate.

But the Great War is changing things.  Much of the staff (and the family itself) is enlisting or finding ways to serve the War effort.
While the idea had never occurred to her, Poppy (urged by a former teacher) enrolls in the Voluntary Aid Detachment to serve as a nurse.  It’s hard work, but not so different from being a maid and she takes to it.  Meanwhile, Poppy can’t help but notice that the War is changing social relationships as well, and she dares to hope that it could make a romance with the De Vere boy possible.

A well-researched story of WW I by an established writer of historical YA.  With the general absence of family and the independence that wartime brings, the book doesn’t have much of a YA feel, but it proves fascinating nonetheless.  Unfortunately, I found the romantic angle the least effective part of the story.  It serves a purpose (providing a dramatic arc in an otherwise slow-paced novel) but it really doesn't go anywhere.  While apparently not in the original plan, this story really needs a sequel to tie up all of the loose ends (and so, a sequel there will be!).  Poppy’s life is just beginning.  This first novel is fascinating, but slow reading.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Riding Freedom, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Based on a true story, Riding Freedom recounts the life of Charlotte Parkhurst, an orphan who disguised herself as a man and made a career in the 19th century as a stage coach driver.  Hearing of opportunities to own land out West, Charlotte migrated to California during the Gold Rush, becoming "One-Eyed Charley" and incidentally being the first women to vote -- illegally -- in the United States.

For young readers who love horses, there is plenty of great detail in the book to flip pages for.  As history, the subject matter is fascinating and includes many exciting anecdotes from her life.  But it is hard to know what is fact and what is fictional or embellished (although Ryan claims that she tried to hew as much as possible to facts of Charlotte's life).

Unfortunately, I found the storytelling rough and uneven.  Some of this is because Ryan has only anecdotes to work with, some of this is writing for a young audience, but one also suspects that Ryan found the transition from picture books (this is her first novel) difficult.  Her subsequent novels have substantially improved and are among the gems of middle reader literature.  The key problem with the weakness in this novel is that we never get to know much about our heroine.  That she is brave and smart is clear enough, but her feelings and thoughts are largely hidden (much as they apparently were in real life) -- it leaves a frustrating quantity of mysteries unanswered.