Monday, August 10, 2020

Yes No Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

A topical story of two awkward teens who meet while canvassing for a long-shot Democratic campaign in a traditionally conservative Atlanta district (a fictionalization of the 2016 Ossoff race).  Jamie is a great organizer but terrified of public speaking.  He has no problem stuffing envelopes and doing what he can around the field office, but can't ever imagine himself knocking on doors to get out the vote.  Maya is struggling with finding her bearings as her family breaks  apart.  Her father has moved out. He and her Mom claim that they are taking advantage of Ramadan to reflect, but as things drag on, it seems that the separation might become permanent. Maya's mother suggests volunteering on the campaign to get Maya out of the house and Maya finds herself paired up with Jamie.

Through a summer of working on the campaign, Jamie and Maya discover a lot about the world.  Maya quickly finds that this campaign is about bigger issues than simply her guy winning.  The legislature is considering a ban on head coverings, which she sees as a blatant attempt to discriminate against Muslims.  As a Jew, Jamie imagines that he understands what it is like to experience prejudice but as they engage in politics, he finds out how little he has experienced to date.

While the book addresses a number of key topics about contemporary elections (the role of social media, public polling, the purpose of focused convassing, and acts of dog whistling and of gaslighting), this is a surprisingly superficial story.  Conversations occasionally turn to racism and cancel culture, but the authors make almost everyone sympathetic and shy away from deep discussions.  A farcical anti-semitic attack sends confusing messages.  The overall tone is light and the book seems more targeted towards middle schoolers.  That proves disappointing for a book so centrally focused on politics.  I get that the agenda is to stir some interest in contemporary politics, but the book is too superficial to achieve much.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

All the Stars and Teeth, by Adalyn Grace

When you have reviewed close to 2000 books, it becomes harder and harder to find a book that feels truly novel.  And in few subgenres (beyond summer beach romance) is the repetitive and formulaic found more often than fantasy.  Swords, magic, monsters, and teen angst -- it's been done again and again.  Yet it entertains and when you want to just sit back and relax, it's great choice of subject matter.  No great surprises, just bloodthirsty action and mayhem.  So, imagine my surprise when I read this startling original debut fantasy adventure from author Adalyne Grace!

Amora is the princess of Visidia, a kingdom made up of seven islands.  Each island practices its own type of magic (levitation, shape shifting, healing, earth moving, time enhancing, and "curse").  Each person can practice only one type of magic.  To attempt to master more than one is the path to madness and forbidden.  And ruling over them all is the magic of the Visidian royal family -- soul magic.  Heir to the throne, Amora must master the family's monopoly -- the ability to destroy a human from within by crushing their soul -- to prove herself worthy of her title.  And when she fails her test, not only her legitimacy, but her life as well becomes forfeit. To her rescue comes a young pirate Bastian who helps her escape.  Her doggedly loyal fiance Ferrick follows along and proves his value through healing.  With time, they also pick up a mermaid named Vataea as a guide.

The stakes are higher than Amora's challenges in mastering her magic. The entire kingdom (and the core principles that support it) are under challenge.  There is a rebellion afoot and the kingdom is under siege.  It is also under challenge from within.  Amora and her compatriots must confront an ancient curse that lays bare the corruption of their entire society and find a way to rebuild it.

There are plenty of familiar fantasy tropes in the bare story, but the directions that each one goes in will leave you surprised.  Even the obvious final showdown between Amora and the leader of the evil forces doesn't quite unfold according to plan.  And the defeat of the bad guys is in fact never truly confirmed in this enlightened 21st century take on the battle of good and evil.

That's where the story starts getting really interesting.  There's an obvious romantic triangle at play here (Amora, Bastian, and Ferrick), but it doesn't play out as one would imagine.  Magic interferes with free will and the characters don't quite cooperate with the usual unfolding of a fantasy romance.  Sure, there's some great passionate scenes in the story, but these characters are wiser than that. Amora, while she is fully capable of lust, is not throwing herself at either of these boys.  She has more important business at hand that picking up a prince.  It goes almost without saying that this a realm of unremarkable gender equality where men and women are equally capable fighters.

That's really just the beginning of Grace's social and political critique.  While there's no mention of American politics, it isn't hard to see the agenda and the striking critique of the story.  This is a fantasy novel for Trumpian America, from a king who knows no moral boundaries to holding on to power to an inner circle who struggle to maintain the status quo for the benefits they reap from it.  The gradual unveiling of the sheer scope of the degradation (through the concept of "soul magic" and the way it both empowers and corrupts) couldn't be a clearer parable to modern party politics.  This is a deliciously subversive book.

Finally, this is a great story.  Amora has a highly satisfactory dramatic arc, from callow, selfish, and materialistic, to ultimately self-sacrificing leader as a young woman who comes to understand the sacrifices one must make to earn the trust of her people and the wisdom necessary to rule.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Dark and Deepest Red, by Anne-Marie McLemore

A complicated story of magic and historical destiny.  In the 16th century, a curse befalls the city of Strasbourg.  Women start dancing uncontrollably, unable to stop until they collapse from exhaustion.  Two local Romani women are accuse of witchcraft, consorting with the devil, and causing the affliction.  Five hundred years later, Rosella Oliva, from a famous shoemaking family, finds her feet bound to a pair of red shoes that take over control of her body and make her dance.  Her friend Emil, a budding young chemist, comes to her aid to solve the mystery, which ultimately involves identifying his blood connection to the two women from the past.

It's a strange story, often difficult to follow, but beautifully written.  In general McLemore and their books are this way: thick and meaty prose combined with strange magic and deep meaning.  It makes for slow reading and a great deal of effort.  In this case, I'm not so sure that they succeeded as much as they had hoped. 

The story intends to combine a real historical event from the summer of 1518, when a large number of women were indeed afflicted with an uncontrollable urge to dance, with Han Christian Anderson's "The Red Shoes." It's clever but the author assumes the reader will make connections and be as obsessed.  You can see McLemore's excitement, but it's hard not to feel left behind.  In addition, attempts to work in themes about gender identity and sexual agency, while well-intentioned, felt forced and like an attempt to give a pretty and clever fairy tale some last minute gravitas.  Overall, I found the novel to be a collection of ideas that never really gels.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Busted, by Gina Ciocca

After Marisa helps a friend find out if her friend's boyfriend is cheating on her, it launches a small-time career for her as a private investigator of the infidelities of her junior year class.  But before she's gone too far, she finds herself in a tight spot:  her one-time friend Kendall is convinced that her boyfriend TJ is cheating, but Marisa can find no evidence of it.  Instead, Kendall finds herself falling for TJ herself and in the process discovers that the relationship between Kendall and TJ is rather more complicated than she was originally told.  Meanwhile, Maria's best friend Charlie is threatened with expulsion for an incident of test stealing she didn't do.  Soon Marisa is connecting the two events together, the stakes get raised higher, and a complex series of crosses and double crosses are exposed.

It's a dizzying complex story that leaves you pretty much guessing until the end.  That's the good part.  What I liked less was how hard it was to follow.  It's not a bad story but it's a story poorly told.  The characters lack much personality, making them melt together and leaving me flipping back and reminding myself who was who.  I'm still undecided if the complexity was necessary, but it was certainly a barrier that made the book more work than fun.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Be Not Far From Me, by Mindy McGinnis

When Ashley gets separated from her friends and then lost, she has to survive in the wilds of Tennessee for days.  With no proper equipment (and not even a pair of shoes), she stumbles about rushing from one catastrophe to the next.  With some cunning, a great deal of skill, and some luck, she stays alive.  The solitude gives her the opportunity to reflect on her life and the choices she has made that have ended her up in this mess.

I found the circumstances of her predicament utterly implausible.  Childish jealousy drives her into the deep woods without any shoes and she manages -- without footwear and utterly intoxicated -- to wander so far away that in spite of being a trained woodsman she can't find her way back.  She subsequently manages to stumble from Tennessee to Georgia on foot for fifteen days without running across any sign of human (no roads, trails, cabins, powerlines, etc.). 

If you accept those strained premises for an adventure, you get an unusually gritty and intense adventure.  If things like that are to your taste then read away.  I personally don't know if scenes of self-amputation are my cup of tea, but don't let me stop you if you need that in your life.  I admired Ashley's tough and complex personality, but she's not the type of character who is going to let you get too close.  Authentic but the result was no one I really wanted to get to know.  Well-written, but not a story I was ultimately drawn to.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The How & the Why, by Cynthia Hand

While Cass was adopted shortly after her birth, she's never felt that she somehow didn't have "real" parents.  Her Mom and Dad are in every way her real parents.  But as she turns eighteen, she's curious about her birth mother and she starts to make small steps towards tracking down that woman.  It's challenging because she was a closed adoption and whoever her birth mother is doesn't seem overly interested in finding her.  But the woman did leave behind a series of letters, written while the woman was pregnant recalling the circumstances of her conception and the process of deciding to put Cass up for adoption.  These unfold in alternating chapters against the contemporary story of Cass's search.

This fairly long novel also includes largely unrelated stories of Cass's attempt to get into the college of her dreams, her adoptive mother's search for a replacement heart as her own is failing, and some interpersonal issues with her best friend (also adopted) and a new boy at school.  These fit in, but largely don't add much to the story beyond feeding a very surprising (and slightly contrived) ending that pulls hearts strings but stretches credulity like a Bollywood romance.

There are plenty of novels out there about adoption and the vast majority of them split timelines to try to draw parallels between the lives of mother and daughter.  I think this one is more successful for not overdoing the parallels and for respectfully avoiding a forced reunion.  Also, never wavering from the conviction that adoptive parents are "real" parents seems truer to the experience and respectful to people who have been adopted.  Finally, while I found the subplots peripheral and largely extraneous, I enjoyed them as well.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Speed of Falling Objects, by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Danny lost one of her eyes in a childhood accident.  Shortly afterwards, she lost her father as he up and left her and her mother.  Convinced that she was at fault for her Dad's departure, she wrote him letters but never heard back.  But she watched every one of the episodes of his hit survivalist TV show as he fought nature and saved people's lives.  As strong as he seemed to be, he never seemed interested in what had become of her.  Then, right before her seventeenth birthday, he invites her out of the blue to participate in a new episode he is filming in the rain forests of Peru with hot young movie actor Gus Price.  Desperate to make a connection with her father, she begs her mother to let her go.

The trip ends up being more than anyone counts on when the plane they are flying into the jungle goes down in bad weather.  Lost in the rain forest, Danny, Gus, Danny's father, and a few additional survivors have to make their way back to civilization.  The jungle is full of dangers and the members of the party are gradually taken out one by one.  For Danny, it is possibly the last chance she will have to figure her father out, figure out how they became estranged, and discover who she really is -- a quest nearly as difficult as the physical challenge of survival.

Edge of the seat action moves this story briskly along, but it is the emotional journey that Danny goes through that ultimately makes this not only entertaining but fulfilling.  It's certainly not for the squeamish as there is stuff here to make just about anyone's stomach churn, but it is not overdone and the adventure feels real.  The obvious romantic angle between Danny and Gus hangs over this plot like a poisonous snake, but is mostly deflected.  Ultimately, the satisfaction of seeing Danny come to terms with the limitations of her parents and the recognition of her own weaknesses and strengths makes this novel enjoyable and worth reading.