Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent, by Ann Jacobus

Del suffers from anxiety and panic disorders, which she has in the past self-medicated with alcohol and narcotics.  A suicide attempt a year and a half ago brought her to live with her Aunt Fran, an art dealer in San Francisco.  Now in recovery, Del is planning to start school in the Fall, works on a suicide help line, and is excited that her high school crush Nick is coming to visit.

However, the panic attacks have not gone away and there is temptation everywhere for Del to relapse.  Nick is friendly, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with her because of all that baggage.  Helping suicidal people feels good, but it's challenging to Del and a failed rescue leaves her doubting her ability to do the work.  And then Aunt Fran starts showing signs of getting sick, which morphs into a terminal cancer diagnosis.

As Fran's condition declines, she decides to stop seeking treatment and starts hospice at home.  But it isn't enough.  Fran doesn't want to let the disease take its course and she asks Del to help her get to Oregon so she can get help in terminating her life on her own terms.  For Del, who has struggled so long with fighting her own suicidal impulses (as well as talking her callers out of them) she is reluctant to help her Aunt "speed up the process."

While plenty of YA novels use death as a dramatic device (dead mother, dying best friend, etc.), very few focus on the process of dying and hospice the way this novel does.  The book is well-researched and intelligently discusses the process of assisted suicide.  Moreover, the latter part of the book becomes a detailed catalog of the later stages of dying and it's quite eye-opening.  The story doesn't make for the cheeriest of reading but there's a raw honesty to the way the experience is portrayed and the impact on Del and her family and friends.  I feel that alone makes this a notable book.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

A Scatter of Light, by Malinda Lo

When pictures of Aria topless find their way on to Instagram, her parents decide it would be best if she spent her last summer before college with her grandmother in San Francisco rather than unsupervised with friends on Martha's Vineyard.  While she is naturally resentful of this decision, she eventually finds her summer to be memorable.  

Set in 2013, right after California legalized same sex marriage, Aria undergoes her own realization that she might be a lesbian as she falls in love with Steph, her grandmother's gardener  At the same time, her grandmother Joan opens Aria's eyes to art.  Aria, who wants to study astronomy and is on her way to MIT, has never entertained that she has artistic leanings, but under her grandmother's guidance, she starts to blossom as an artist.

In sum, a coming of age story with several different facets. Aria's transformation is interesting to follow, but she's a surprisingly dull protagonist.  She goes through a number of important self-realizations, but they mostly seem to bounce off of her and I felt largely excluded from what she was experiencing.  It doesn't help that both Joan and Steph are cut out of the story rather abruptly, leaving Aria on her own to sort things out at the end.  And instead of doing so, the novel simply jumps ten years ahead after everything has worked out.

Intended to be a companion work to a much heavier novel called Last Night at the Telegraph Club, this novel stands on its own and makes only fleeting reference to the characters of that book.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Remind Me to Hate You Later, by Lizzy Mason

As the subject of her mother's blog, Jules has lived her entire life in the spotlight.  It's not a place where she's ever been comfortable, but her mother refuses to stop writing about her daughter, often in great graphic detail.  Every embarrassing moment in Jules's life has been fodder for her Mom's millions of followers.  The more mortifying the event, after all, the better for ratings.  Never mind that the violations of privacy are driving Jules to depression and self-harm.  Tragedy ensues when, after a particularly invasive post that discusses Jules's burgeoning sex activity, Jules decides to end her life.

In the aftermath, Jules's best friend Natalie tries to cope with the loss.  She knew plenty about Jules's misery but she didn't understand how bad it was for her.  She despises Jules's mother for what she did to Jules. And she hasn't stopped.  Now she's writing a book to capitalize on the experience!  But Natalie also wants to explore her own role in the tragedy and address the guilt she feels for moving on.

The first half of the book, told by Jules, is a harrowing story of parental abuse.  But while it gives us a clear sense of what she went through, it turns out not to be the most interesting part of the novel.  It's really the second half, where Natalie takes over, that brings the pieces together.  For one thing, Natalie is a far more reliable narrator, with a strong sense of obligation to get the story right.  And while she is immensely sad and angry about what happened to her friend, she recognizes that there are multiple sides to the story.  She even eventually comes round to being willing to sit down with Jules's mother!  She also struggles with guilt as she and Jules's boyfriend develop romantic feelings towards each other.

The story packs a pretty heavy punch and is a compelling read, but it transcends the usual suicide tropes by spending considerable time on how people's lives go on after a tragedy.  So, while there is plenty of grief, the story doesn't really dwell on it. I also found the subject of social media addiction to be quite interesting.  A lot more could have been made of it, but Mason avoids preaching and simply sets out the point that Mom's narcissism (fed by her followers) really was the trigger for this tragedy.  And her daughter's compulsion for paying attention to those posts sealed her fate.  That leaves us food for thought.

Monday, May 29, 2023

We Weren't Looking to Be Found, by Stephanie Kuehn

Two girls of color from different worlds room together at a residential psychiatric facility and seek clarity and connection.  With the possible exception of the racial diversity in this novel, this has been done so so many times, what could possibly make this iteration stand out? Insight, patience, and charisma.

Dani comes from a well-off family in Dallas.  Her mother is an ambitious black politico and she can't stand it.  To escape what she sees as the hypocrisy of her family, she drowns herself in alcohol, pills, and parties.  And when it all gets to be too much, she runs away and ends up getting sent to Peach Tree Hills, a facility for young woman outside of Atlanta.

Camila loves dance and after three years of auditions she's finally gotten herself accepted to a dance school.  But the stress of getting this far has taken its toll and Camila developed a habit of cutting to relieve her pain.  The breaking point, however, is when her parents inform her that she can't go because the money that was to have paid for school is gone.  In crisis, she tries to end her life and ends up at Peach Tree Hills.

Both girls are angry and frustrated, convinced that their issues have everything to do with their parents and other adults who want to keep them down.  But through patient guidance from the facility's caregivers and the bond that develops between them, they begin to dig their way out on the road to self-discovery.  A minor subplot about a cache of found letters written by a previous resident adds some pathos to their search.

The characters make this story.  Dani and Camila are intelligent and articulate advocates for themselves.  Even in the beginning when they don't have the focus they need to find their way out, they are fearless and determined.  They make plenty of mistakes and do things that are plainly stupid, but these are their mistakes to make and they accept the responsibility for them.  There are a few tears but never any self-pity from these girls.  That makes this novel rather unique in a genre that tends to wallow in navel-gazing and self-hatred.  There were times when the story seemed to drift (the whole letters cache being the most obvious example), but Dani and Camila kick ass from beginning to end.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Miracle, by Karen S. Chow

For Amie, her father has always been the muse for her art.  It is his love for music and his love for her playing that has helped her succeed at violin.  And while he is dying of cancer, she tries desperately to please him.  She know the prognosis but it can't stop her from hoping that somehow he will get better.  When he does eventually succumb, she is bereft and finds that she simply cannot play at all anymore.

In the ensuing months, she works through guilt and anger to try to find a new equilibrium and build a new hope of her own, rekindling her music.

A better-than-average story of grief and recovery, helped by the beautiful way that Chow works music into the story of Amie's relationship with her father.  Another aspect I liked was the contrast between the way that Amie and her mother copes with their loss, showing the complexity of dealing with one's own needs balanced against those of another.  While each of them attempt to solve their own problems in order to not burden the other, the find that it is really something they need to do together.  Finally, instead of a clean ending with some sort of full recovery, we find only hope for the future -- a solution that felt right.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories, by Hanna Alkaf

There are certain rules about the jungle that every Malaysian child knows:  always ask permission before you enter, never take anything without permission, and never give out your real name.  But Hamra doesn't care.  It's her thirteenth birthday and everyone has forgotten.  No one has done anything more than order her around.  So, she enters the jungle, brazenly refusing to seek permission, and takes a piece of fruit home to her family.

The fruit turns out to be magical and the fearsome weretiger who owns the tree it came from demands compensation for her offense -- Hamra must go on a quest to help the weretiger become a man.  That quest sends Hamra, her best friend Ilyas, and the weretiger on an adventure through the realm of fairies and demons.  They struggle with a variety of magical forces to restore the weretiger's humanity and unearth his history, which she finds is intertwined with her own family's history.

Heavily populated with Malaysian culture and folklore, Alkaf spins a story loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood and set in the middle of the Covid Pandemic.  It is a wildly incongruous setting where Hamra and her companions do things like use invisibility spells to dodge detection from police enforcing the quarantine.  That complexity doesn't always work, making the story feel crowded.  It is also long and repetitive as similar events (taking things without paying for them, narrowing escaping certain death through a surprise visitor, etc.) happen again and again.  After a while, the narrow escapes become largely indistinguishable.  A final complaint I would have is that the heavy use of unfamiliar words and settings, while delightful in theory, makes the story challenging to read and it takes a while to get into it.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Leeva at Last, by Sara Pennypacker (ill by Matthew Cordell)

Leeva's mother only cares about fame.  Her father only cares about money.  Neither of them cares anything about her.  When Leeva finds out that the town has a school and gets excited about attending, her parents laugh off the idea.  School?  What an absurdity!  What good could school ever do for you?  But Leeva is curious and when her curiosity leads her to sneak out of the house (violating the "Employee Handbook" her parents have created for her) she discovers a whole world out there.  It's a world full of books, homemade cookies, an orphaned badger, and a hypochondriac boy in a hazmat suit.  Most of all, it is full of human beings making connections.

In an absurd style that will remind readers of Roald Dahl or David Walliams, Pennypacker deftly explores a variety of topics including friendship, family, and creativity.  It's a story that cannot be taken seriously and younger readers who can't recognize the satirical elements may find it confusing.  I personally found the abusive nature of the humor disturbing.  But if you delight in books that are so cruel that it is "obvious" that they are not to be taken seriously, this can be a silly read.