Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Little & Lion, by Brandy Colbert

Little (Suzette) was sent away to boarding school a year ago after her older brother Lion(el) suffered a psychic break and was diagnosed as bipolar.  Returning home for the summer, she discovers that her old friends have turned against Lion in the meantime, despite the fact that he appears to be better.

Meanwhile, Little is suffering from issues of her own.  During the school year, she discovered that she had a romantic interest in her roommate. But when the relationship that the two girls are having is discovered and the pair are outed, Little panicked and abandoned her lover.  Now, she feels guilt over her betrayal that is compounded by her uncertainty over her sexuality.

Things are pushed to a crisis when Lion announces that he's going off his meds and then blackmails his sister to keep quiet about his intentions.  Little finds herself anxiously watching as Lion's condition worsens.

An interesting story combining several issues -- not only mental illness and sexual identity, but also biracial families. I found the result busy and felt that the many different threads never quite came together.  I also felt that the crisis between Lion and Little was contrived, never quite believing that Little had enough motivation to keep quiet as her brother suffered.  But at the same time, the characters were interesting and I cared about them, and I enjoyed their story.

You Don't Know Me But I Know You, by Rebecca Barrow

A basic story with just enough drama to let dialogue and development bloom. The plot, simple enough, is about what Audrey does when she discovers she is pregnant.  There's plenty of internal dialogue, external conversation (with boyfriend, with mother, with friends).  What there isn't is a lot of action.  It's a story about friendships and people discussing those bonds.  And it's a story that is calculated to allow as much opportunity for tears and laughter as it can.

In sum, this is a book about talking.  It hardly matters where these characters are or what they are supposed to be doing:  They like to talk (and occasionally rage).

Barrow's strength is obviously dialogue and all of the internal motivators that drive an authentic conversation.  Unfortunately, there's not a lot of variety in the voices.  Everyone pretty much sounds the same (a type of intellectual suburban lingo and manners that is devoid of time or place or gender).  So, while everyone was well-spoken, I found it hard to differentiate characters or to visualize them.  Characters occasionally drift into selfish and irrational behavior but in the end everyone makes up and plays nice.  That makes for a comfortable read, but not one in which you feel much investment.  Despite all the heart strings pulled, I didn't feel the emotional pull I expected from such a sensitive topic as teen pregnancy or the choice between adoption and abortion.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Authentics, by Ahdi Nazemian

Daria and her friends call themselves "the authentics" -- kids keeping things real by being honest about who they are to themselves and to each other.  For Daria, that has meant embracing her identity as an Iranian-American living in Beverly Hills.  And while she is not as rich or as pretty as a "Persian princess" (at least, according to her former best friend Heidi), she is proud of her ethnic identity.

So when she discovers that she is in fact adopted and maybe not Persian at all, she is crushed.  She seems to belong nowhere and to no one. How can she possibly be true to herself?  But in the end, she comes to realize that identity and family are fluid concepts and not tied to a fixed idea.  One can be authentic without any sort of label.

Full of lots of fun observations about Southern California Iranians and some much more nuanced observations about ethnicity, family, and adoption, there's a lot swirling around in this book.  I could have lived without the fairy tale ending, but I enjoyed so many other things in this story:  the frankness and strength of Daria herself, the realistic tension between Daria and her mother, the exploration of adoption and how adoptive families compare with biological ones.  And, as already mentioned, I loved the peek into the culture of Iranian Americans.

Where the Stars Still Shine, by Trish Doller

Life for Callie always meant just her and her mother, on the run since Mom abducted her during a nasty custody battle.  But when Callie's mother is apprehended, Callie finds herself returned to her father and his family.  There contrasts are striking: a home, solid family life, and a chance to build a stable life. There's no denying that life is better with her Dad, but it's hard to enjoy it when Callie feels like she is being forced to reject her mother in the process.

The stability is alien to her.  Things like making friends, falling in love, and getting a job are unfamiliar.  Callie's father's large Greek family would be challenging for anyone, but is particularly smothering compared to the independence that Callie is accustomed with.  Still, it all has some appeal (and the presence of young smoldering Alex in particular!).

A breezy, but ultimately fulfilling read,  Callie is smart and caring.  She makes plenty of mistakes, but owns them and tries to make her life (and the lives of others) better.  Overall, the characters' struggles sounded real and behaved in believable fashion.  The potential pitfall of introducing a Big Greek Family is handled well, deftly avoiding the usual stereotypes.  The romance is hot and the ending a real tearjerker, so all the right notes are hit.

The novel doesn't break any major new ground -- children coming to terms with their parents' failures is a pretty common YA theme -- but it is well written and enjoyable to read.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Our Broken Pieces, by Sarah White

Everly has suffered from panic attacks since her best friend Elle betrayed her by hooking up with Everly's boyfriend Brady.  Worse, Elle has taken to making up stories to turn their former friends against Everly.  To cope with the stress and her anxiety, Everly has been seeing a psychologist.

One day, in the waiting room, she meets Gabe.  Gabe has issues of his own (coping with a sister who is bipolar and straining the bonds of their family) but he and Everly click in a more fundamental and romantic way.  And through Gabe's attentions and Everly's refocusing on her school extracurriculars, she finds a road to recovery.

A fairly lightweight examination of topics like depression and mental illness that could have easily gotten heavy.  That makes for pleasant reading, but doesn't really provide the heft and depth that the topics deserved.  And while the romance was pretty hot, I found the fairly frequent sex scenes gratuitous and trashy.

But most of all, I twitched at the foregone conclusion that the only true way for Everly to dig herself out of her sense of low self-worth is to find a new boyfriend.  That this final solution follows after explicit nods to the value of support from family and friends, as well as some searching for behavior modification through her counselor, just underscores the message that when you lose a boy, the only acceptable solution is to find a new one.  I would have found the story more uplifting if the climax of the story had not been Everly's promposal.

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.