Sunday, January 16, 2022

War Girls, by Tochi Onyebuchi

A dystopian YA for readers of The Economist.  The story in brief: take the Biafran conflict (a civil war that took place in Nigeria in the 1960s) and project it forward two hundred years.  Add nanotechnology, cybernetics, and man/machine robots taken from Mobile Suit Gundam.  Mix in child soldiers, ethnic cleansing, and climate change.  When nearly done, generously garnish with a complicated sibling-like relationship between two really tough protagonists.

Onyii and Ify look out for each other in the War Girls camp, a rebel base of girls hidden in the jungles of Biafra, near the irradiated and uninhabitable Middle Belt.  Onyii has developed a reputation as the "Demon of Biafra" with numerous kills while operating her mech against the Nigerians.  Ify's talents are quieter -- an ability to hack into any computer system and to synthesize limitless data.  When a surprise attack from the Nigerians knocks out their camp, the girls are separated.  Ify is taken by the Nigerians back to Abuja.  Onyii is "rescued" by the regular Biafran army which fails to see any value in a force made up of young girls.

While both girls manage to survive, their attempts to reunite are thwarted.  At least part of the problem is that they are both being exploited, albeit in different ways.  Onyii's ferocious anger and her surreal fighting skills are an asset to the Biafra military while Ify finds herself a pawn being passed back and forth between the sides.  An armistice, brokered by the developed nations (who have all fled to outer space as Earth itself has become largely uninhabitable) brings into stark contrast just how disposable child soldiers are in peacetime.  Without a war to fight, the girls have to come to terms with the horrible things they have done to others (and the ways they have even betrayed each other).

A strikingly original vision by a brilliant Nigerian writer.  For those who don't have a working knowledge of Nigerian history and/or African politics (i.e., most of the readers who will pick up this book), I strongly recommend starting at the back of the book and reading the author's historical notes.  Nigeria is an interesting nation-state and Onyebuchi is following a fine tradition of self-reflection in Nigerian literature.

I was most struck by the armistice.  The author's observations about rehabilitating child soldiers and the anecdotes in the novel are heartbreaking.  His damning critique of foreign aid and truth and reconciliation tribunals are incisive.  As one character observes, when most people see a African, they don't really see a person.  Our understanding of Africa is full of oversimplified analysis and indignation.  This novel goes some ways towards trying to explain the cause of conflict from a grassroots perspective.

Personally, I found the extreme amount of violence to be numbing and cumulatively boring.  Every few pages, we are subjected to a blow by blow description of woman and machine conflict where bones break, blood spills, and limbs decapitate.  Each encounter seems terminal, but thanks to the superior bioengineering of the future, the characters are ready to jump back into action a few pages later.  As the violence never seems to have consequences, it becomes less and less interesting.  I eventually just started flipping past the battle scenes to get to the parts that interested me more.  That those scenes were worth flipping to will give you an idea of how compelling I found this book.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Middletown, by Sarah Moon

Eli and her older sister have their differences but they have allied over having to deal with their erratic and alcoholic mother.  However, when Mom gets sent away to three months of mandatory rehab, they struggle to keep things together.  Anna manages to impersonate a long-lost aunt and become Eli's court-appointed guardian, but the girls still have to figure out a way to feed themselves and pay the rent.  When inevitably things start to collapse, the girls run away and seek out long-forgotten family connections.  In doing so, they learn a lot of family secrets and a bit about the strength of family ties.

While not so original as a story, Moon's quirky novel is full of original and memorable characters.  The girls' (real) Aunt Lisa steals the show with her feisty and world weary outlook, but I also enjoyed the tentative romance between Eli and her best friend Meena.  The exploration of alcoholism and the way it tears families apart is a great topic but is never fully developed -- which would be my overall criticism of the book (that manages to never really take things as far as they could have gone).

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Set Me Free, by Ann Clare LeZotte

Described as a "companion," LeZotte's Set Me Free is actually more of a sequel to her groundbreaking Show Me A Sign.  Picking up three years after the events of that first novel, Mary, still wary of mainlanders and overcoming the trauma of her abduction and escape, is swept into helping a young girl who may be suffering the same fate.  

One of a large community of deaf settlers in Martha's Vineyard, Mary has learned from her experiences that outside of her home, deaf people are despised and persecuted.  She's restless living in Martha's Vineyard, but afraid of that outside world.  But an old friend has written to Mary and told her about the strange feral eight year-old girl who lives at the manor house where she is serving.  She begs Mary to come and see if the girl is in fact deaf and if Mary can do something to help her.

Mary realizes that she must do what she can to help the girl and so she accepts the invitation.  When she arrives at the estate, she is shocked to find the girl is imprisoned, kept shackled, and frequently beaten and abused.  She tries to reach out to the girl, but finds that all of her well-meaning ideals pale in comparison to the task.  Humbled by the experience, Mary gradually comes to understand the girl and eventually engineers her escape for her captivity.

A much better book than its predecessor (which I will admit that I never finished), it throws light on a number of neglected facets of early American history ranging from the poor understanding and treatment of deaf people in the late 18th century to the practice of separating Native American children from their families.  The woke idealism of Mary's character is gratingly anachronistic, but serves the valuable purpose of drawing attention to the norms of general society of the period.  As an educational work (i.e., the sort of book one gets assigned in school) it checks off all the right boxes.

More in spite of this agenda than because of it, it's also a very entertaining book.  A suspenseful story that kept up my interest and a character that gains insight and self-confidence as the novel progresses made this a much better book than its predecessor.  In sum, I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal from it.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Catch the Light, by Kate Sweeney

For a family dealing with grief, a move across country could be a new beginning or running away, or maybe a little of both.  Nine months ago, Mary's father passed away and now Mom has decided to move Mary and her younger sister from Los Angeles to upstate New York.  For Mary, it is the start of her last year of high school -- time for thinking of moving on anyway -- but she finds herself mired in grief and depression.  Unable to complete her college applications, lost in her new home, and burdened by her inability to heal her mother or help her sister cope, Mary feels like she is under water.  She is blessed by a good new friend and a potential romantic interest (with whom she shares a love of old fashioned film photography), but she feels trapped between her past life back in California and the unwelcome sense that her new home in New York actually feels more real to her.  Through it all, she is terrified that her memory of her father is slipping away.

While built on a common YA theme (why are there so many dead parents in YA books anyway?!), Sweeney's treatment is actually pretty stand-out.  That's hard to explain as everything from the sassy younger sibling to the petty misunderstandings to the inability to tell the truth are pretty much canon.  But Sweeney's writing is nuanced and while situations feel very familiar, one also feels like we actually understand where Mary's behavior is coming from.  In other words, this isn't paralysis for the sake of filling pages, but a story really being told.  I never felt manipulated and I wasn't having my heart strings pulled at gratuitously.  In fact, this isn't a story in the end that packs a huge emotional punch, but instead tells a story well about imperfect people who are trying to sort things out.  Mistakes are made all round, feelings of hurt are aired, compassion is shown, and realistic forgiveness and healing develop.

Off-tangent rant:  Like the mix tape, analog photography really has no place in contemporary literature.  Yes, I get that dark rooms are excellent places for intimate feelings to be explored (they certainly were in the 1980s when I was a teenager!) and I see how much fun it is to use the chemical process of film development as a metaphor for emotional change.  But really?!  Digital photography has long supplanted the whole business.  More to the point, a creative writer could probe the complexities of LightRoom and the amazing potentials in digital aesthetics and break some new ground.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo (ill by Sophie Blackall)

Everyone at the monastery is afraid of Answelica the goat.  She's mean and angry and bites.  So, the monks are surprised one day when they find a girl sleeping with Answelica.  The girl is an unknown stranger who can remember only one thing about herself:  her name is Beatryce.  But from the very start, she is exceptional.  The girl can read and write, which is forbidden for commoners and women overall.  She is fearless and brave and stubbornly determined to confront the king for reasons she does not yet fully understand.

But Brother Edik has an idea of what is going on:  there is a prophecy that declares "that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king.  The prophecy states that this child will be a girl.  Because of this, the prophecy has long been ignored." And while the prophecy is often disregarded, no one is ignoring it now.  The king's men are hot on Beatryce's tail and it falls upon Brother Edik to convince her to hide.  But being stubborn, Beatryce instead befriends a local boy (Jack Dory) and a former king (Cannoc) and reveals herself to the king in order to fulfill her destiny.  Along the way, she drafts a fairy tale of her own that eventually supplants the prophecy of the main story in a very meta literary moment.

DiCamillo falls into extremes.  She is undeniably a great writer and full of original and clever ideas that challenge and disrupt typical formulae and tropes.  Sometimes this works fantastically (Because of Winn-Dixie, Flora and Ulysses) but other times the story flies so far off the rails that only adults can really enjoy it (The Tale of Despereaux).  Here, it's more the latter.  The story and its many layers is clever but I can't imagine children being able to keep up with it.  It sounds like a children's fairy tale, but is too knowing and subtle.  It's self-destructive narrative is far too aware of its own cleverness.

That said, it is a very pretty book, with beautiful illustrations (both full plates and marginalia) by Sophie Blackall.  The layout and presentation is truly gorgeous and Blackall probably deserves a third Caldecott for this book.  The design perfectly complements the text and makes for a handsome overall package. Aware that this is a truly outstanding work, there's even an upgraded "collector's edition" of the book featuring more of all of this, which I would be very tempted to own if it weren't for the hefty price tag and my lukewarm feelings for the story.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Lucky Girl, by Jamie Pacton

Considering the problems she has to deal with, Jane's real name (Fortuna) seems like a sad joke:  a dead father, a mother who hoards to cope with her grief, and a nasty ex-boyfriend.  But then she wins the lottery and the 58 million dollar grand jackpot.

Now, she has an even bigger problem:  How is she going to collect?  As a minor, she bought the ticket illegally and she can't just walk in and claim her prize.  If she hands it over to her Mom, her mother will just waste it all on junk.  The only person she knows who is over eighteen is her ex-boyfriend and THAT isn't going to happen!   While she tries to figure out what to do, she keeps quiet about it.  But her best friend Brandon is obsessed with identifying the winner and coming dangerously close to figuring it all out.

A comedic look at lottery madness.  In order to find a solution to her dilemma, Jane researches what prior lottery winners have done and uncovers the various ways that good fortune has generally turned bad.  The book thus is mostly a vehicle for exploring the sorts of crazy things that lottery winners do.  The ending, which relies on a rewriting of assumptions, felt a bit like a cop out, but the story itself is entertaining.  There are some potentially disturbing themes (death, mental illness, violence) but very little attention is drawn to any of these issues and the overall tone is light.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love, by Jared Reck

Oscar has no illusions of going to college.  The only classwork he really enjoys is cooking class and that's because it is what he does when he's not in school -- helping his grandfather run a food truck specializing in Finnish kebabs and Swedish donuts.  So, there really couldn't be a more opposite person at school than overachiever Lou.  She's taking all AP classes and set on being the valedictorian, and she's taken on a huge project for girl scouts that involves reducing landfill waste -- a project that involuntarily involves Oscar.  But as the two of them start working together, they find that Oscar's culinary skills and Lou's organization complement each other and that synergy spills over to the food cart.

While taking an out-of-the-blue left turn in the final fifty pages that disrupts the story, I really enjoyed this romantic comedy.  The strength of the story lays in its vivid characters.  Farfar (the grandfather) is a gem and adds a wonderful foil for a story that benefits from Reck's dry writing style.  Reck isn't a John Green, but he delivers a decent young male character who isn't (like most boys in male-written YA) obsessed with sex -- a feat worthy of supporting.  And while Lou is largely neglected, she gets enough development to make her an intriguing person in her own right.

The story takes a bit to really get going.  There is a wonderful back story involving Oscar's mother and  another about Farfar's former lover that truly were criminally overlooked, but I think Reck wanted to avoid long digressions.  Left as-is, the back stories provide depth without becoming integral to the story, but they do make the early pages a bit hard to follow as we are not quite sure at first where our focus as the readers should lay.  And the aforementioned late development to the story really serves to hijack where the author was leading us for most of the book.

I've never seen a story that mentioned the Aaland Islands before (and even Swedish-American stories are in short supply), so this book with its focus on Scandinavian street food will serve some multi-cultural value as well.