Friday, October 18, 2019

The Grief Keeper, by Alexandra Villasante

A unique science fiction novel that combines elements of the immigration debate, depression, and an unusual lesbian romance.

Marisol knows that her family has always been followed by La Mala Suerte -- bad luck.  Even when every contingency is accounted for, the luck will find you, Marisol believes.  Nothing proves this better than her current state.  On the run from gangs in their native El Salvador who want to kill her and her little sister Gabi, the two girls have appealed for asylum in the United States.  However, their case doesn't go well and it seems likely they will get deported when they meet a skeptical interviewer and their sponsor dies.

But then Marisol is presented with an unusual proposition.  A mysterious woman who seems to work for the government explains that there is an experimental device that can literally suck the grief out of one person and deliver it to another.  The device is intended to treat war veterans suffering from PTSD.  Its effects on the receiver is uncomfortable, she is told, but not fatal.

In exchange for agreeing to be a recipient, Marisol and her sister will get Green Cards.  Given the suffering they have experienced simply getting to the North, Marisol is willing to do whatever it takes to assure that her sister will be safe.  She agrees. 

The grieving person turns out to be a girl around Marisol's age named Rey.  Rey is resistant to the idea of having her depression "cured" so Marisol works hard to win over Rey's trust (after all, if Rey resists the treatment, the deal will be called off and Marisol and her sister will be deported).  To Marisol's surprise, as she gains Rey's trust and the treatment starts to work, their relationship turns romantic.  Is the technology curing Rey or is it the feelings that the girls have for each other? All the time, La Mala Suerte is not too far away.

As with most good science fiction, the technology is simply window dressing for a good theme.  Combining issues of race and privilege, this story is really about depression and grieving, and what human connections are really about.  It is a complicated story and is difficult to describe without producing spoilers, so suffice it to say that the ending is thought provoking.  Throw in two great heroines as well as their tender love for each other and it makes a great story.

Since We Last Spoke, by Brenda Rufener


When Cal died in a car accident and his girlfriend Kate killed herself in grief ten days later, it drove a spike between their two families.  The families sued each other, blaming each other for the deaths of their children.  Cal’s brother Max and Kate’s sister Aggi – who had been in their own relationship – were forbidden from seeing each other.  (I’ll give you a guess as to how successful that went!)

Nearly a year later, the families still don’t speak, but Aggi and Max yearn after each other.  But even if they dared to risk the families’ wrath and spoke, what would they say?  Because while they share a similar pain and ache for what they had, breaking the ice is difficult.

An ambitious and strong beginning falls flat in the end.  By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked and totally wanted to see how these two would break through their grief and address their pain and resentment.  The family dynamics would make things complicated I knew, but first and foremost there would be their own emotional baggage to address.  But Rufener is not quite up to the task.  She falls back on melodrama and adventure (a shared adventure brings everyone to set aside their differences) and ditches the inner dialogue of her two characters.  Why does Max bring home girls and flaunt them in front of Aggi?  We never really go there.  Instead, we simply jump forward to an afterword that assures us that the wounds have healed offstage.  Argh!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Alone Together, by Sarah J. Donovan

Sadie is the ninth child in a large Catholic family in Chicago.  As the story opens, she's been caught stealing from work, but she's hardly the biggest sinner in her family.  One sister has a girlfriend, another sibling is living in sin, and her younger sister is pregnant for a child of her own.  The older children stay away altogether.  Her Dad is unemployed and moping around the house. Mom seems to be carrying on an affair.  At the best of times, living in such a large family is challenging, if not utter chaos.

Told in verse, Alone Together traces how Sadie finds her own separate identity within this family, both being part of it and also staking out her independence. Family for Sadie is neither a help or a hindrance. While she obviously relishes moments of quiet and at one point marvels over what it would be like to live in a home with fewer people, she loves her family and accepts their presence as it is.

It's a subtle work, with lots of inward thinking (helped along by the verse format which accommodates her scattered thoughts) and little action.  While the poetry does occasionally lean towards poignancy, Donovan is actually quite restrained.  The result is a deep work that has a unique voice -- worldly and informed, but not as jaded as many of today's heroines.  Barely publicized and a bit hard to get a hold of, the book is a quick and rewarding read and deserving of more attention.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez, by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

Sonia is bright and hard working.  She's determined to be the first member of her family to graduate from high school.  However, sometimes she simply can't get to school because her family needs her.  Family is everything.  And in her family, the girl takes care of the house.  Her brothers are free to run around and do as they please, but it is Sonia's job to prepare the meals and clean the house.  If there is time afterwards to do homework and go to school, then she can go.  Faced with this burden, it is a challenge to keep up her attendance.  Her teachers are unsympathetic and wherever she turns, she can find no allies.  At home her mother lazes around and a freeloading aunt and a lecherous uncle add to her misery.

A grueling litany of the socioeconomic forces working against a young Latina.  Written specifically for reluctant readers, Sitomer obviously hopes that the subject matter will resonate with Latinx readers in similar positions in real life.  It's a noble goal, but I'm more intrested in examining the book on its own merits

It is an interesting peek at a world far removed from most of us.  Sonia is very strong and determined and easy to root for.  The book is easy to read and the regular insertion of Spanish into the text feels natural and non-intrusive.  One does tire of the idealism and generalizations (hearing how all Mexicans behave, how all men behave, etc.) and some of the events (a trip to Mexico, a race riot at school, etc.) seem stuffed in for no reason except to provide us discussion topics for a classroom reading.  Still, I think this is a good book in spite of its pedagogical ambitions.  I enjoyed it.

Like a Love Story, by Abdi Nazemian


1989.  New York.  While AIDS is no longer a mystery, battling it and stopping the deaths has become deeply politicized. ACT UP activists stage protests and civil disobedience actions around the city, demanding that AZT be made available affordably and that other more experimental drugs be released by the FDA.

Reza and his mother have just moved to the City from Canada.  She’s married a wealthy Wall Street businessman and they have been welcome into the local Persian community.  Reza has gained a stepbrother and a new school.  What he longs for is a boyfriend, but what he fears even more than coming out is contracting AIDS.  Obsessed with the dying of gay men around him, Reza is afraid to open his heart.  He hides his true feelings and tries hard to be straight.

At his new school, Reza meets Art – fearless and a little crazy and sexy as hell -- and his straight friend Judy.  Judy and Art both fall for Reza and Reza (though he is strongly attracted to Art) throws himself at Judy.  He doesn't really like her that way, but he tries to become straight, seeing a relationship with Judy as a way of being socially acceptable and avoiding disease.  It doesn't work and as these three teens fall in love and break each other’s hearts, the reader follows.  

A beautifully written novel that will make your heart ache repeatedly.  As is to be expected, there is death in it, but there is also wonderful heartwarming scenes of the living. I approached the book with caution, figuring I would hate it and toss it aside as irrelevant to me, but I couldn’t put it down.  Normally, I have no interest in historical novels, especially those gratuitously placed in recent times.  Far too often, they feel like some a trip down memory lane by an author who has nothing to say.  But Nazemian has things to say.  Important things.  Political without being didactic, the novel approaches the AIDS epidemic and how it was viewed in those days with immense compassion. Ultimately, this is a book about the power of love to get us through life, dying, and death.  I’m calling it the best book I’ve read so far in 2019 (and we’re running out of time to topple it from that position).  Highly recommended, even if you're skeptical that you want to read a book about AIDS. 

Friday, October 04, 2019

Hot Dog Girl, by Jennifer Dugan

Lou is stuck being the Hot Dog Girl for another summer at Magic Castle.  Walking around dressed up like a giant wiener isn't exactly the way you get your crush Nick (this summer's Diving Pirate) to notice you.  It would seem that he only has eyes for Jessa (the Princess, naturally!), but this is Lou's last chance and she's determined to try.  Nick is going off to college in the fall and the Magic Castle is closing forever after the summer ends.

Lou has plans.  She convinces her best friend Seeley to pretend to be her lover in order to make Nick jealous (everyone knows that Seeley is queer and most folks assume Lou is as well).  As Lou plots it, the two girls will date for a while and then "break up" and then Lou will somehow end with Nick.  Along the way, Lou's also got a plan to save Magic Castle so it won't have to close.  But Lou discovers that even the best contrived plans will go astray, when she realizes that her relationship with Seeley is more real than she had planned for.

Summer stories set at amusement parks have been told often enough that it's almost a sub-genre.  There's not much new ground to cover here!  But the bisexual element of the story is a new angle and its matter-of-fact treatment is nice.  Lou has a complex character and meaningful interactions with Seeley and her father that defy the stereotypes of friendships and parent-child relationships.  The story, however, drifted and wandered too much for me and I found it hard to get into, despite being a brisk read.

Creep, by Eireann Corrigan


For many years, the Langsoms had been living at 16 Olcott Place, but after a scandal involving Dr Langsom, they were forced to move out.  Next door neighbor Olivia wondered who would move in, and when the Donahues arrive with a daughter her age, Livvie is excited to have a new girl next door.  Janie Donahue and Livvie are both starting ninth grade this year and have a lot in common.  They become fast friends, much to the consternation of Livvie’s existing friends.

And then mysterious threatening letters start to show up at the Donahue house.  Demanding that the Donahues move out of the house immediately, the writer promises that blood will flow if they don’t go.  Terrified, but also obsessed with figuring out what is going on, Livvie and Janice dig through the town’s and her family's history in search of a scary stalker.

My initial impression when I opened the book was that this was going to be some sort of supernatural horror story and I wasn't too enthusiastic about reading it.  But, in fact, the story starts out as a fairly normal YA about two girls having typical friendship and family struggles.  The creepy stuff doesn’t even start until nearly fifty pages in and only ratchets up slowly.  Horror fans will probably be disappointed with what is largely just a book about a new kid in town.  The action does pick up in the end, but the pacing is uneven and the entire ending felt rushed.  That leaves the story a bit confusing as so much of the earlier build up gets lost in the end.  Entire subplots about Livvie's struggles with juggling old friends and Janie or her romantic lead get shunted off and forgotten.  But who honestly would still care about a budding romance when there was a psychopathic killer in the house?  Or about friends who feel slighted?


[I received an ARC of this book from the publisher free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book was released on October 1st]

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Upside of Falling Down, by Rebekah Crane

Clementine wakes up in an Irish hospital bed to discover that she's the lone survivor of a plane crash.  But without any memories, she knows only what she has been told.  She doesn't know what she was doing on the plane or why she was traveling.  Her father is coming to collect her and take her home to Cleveland, but she doesn't even know him.  Panicked by her amnesia and her sense that nothing makes sense anymore, she flees the hospital.

Kieran, a young hospital volunteer, finds her in mid-flight.  Not eager to reveal her real identity, she tells him her name is Jane and invents a story about why she is on the run.  On a dare, he agrees to help her get away and takes her to a secluded small town on the east coast of Ireland.  As the weeks go by, her lies grow more complex and her relationship with Kieran grows stronger.  She begins to think that having forgotten her past life is a blessing.  Now she only wants to live for the future, a future with Kieran and far far away from whatever she was running from that is in Cleveland.

A wistful but strong romance.  I have mixed feelings about the ending, but I will grant that it fit the story (even if it was not the ending I wanted).  In between is a novel about two lost people who find each other.  It's not a particularly sexy story (Jane/Clementine and Kieran make an enchanting couple, but not a particularly hot one) but it doesn't need to be for such well fleshed out characters.  And they are surrounded by vibrant supporting roles like Kieran's snarky sister Siobhan or the shop owner Clive who are equally enjoyable to spend time with.  This may not contain much literary value, but still managed to be a superior romance and wonderful entertainment.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Change of Heart, by Shari Maurer


Emmi's soccer team has made it to Regionals and she is determined to not let a bad cold hold her back.  No matter how much of a struggle it is, she figures she can push herself through it.  But then she starts have trouble breathing and she passes out on the field.  Back home, her symptoms grow more severe and her parents take her to the hospital.  She’s contracted viral myocarditis and it has permanently damaged her heart.  She needs a heart transplant or she will die.

Most of the rest of the story traces her journey as a transplant patient, from waiting anxiously on the wait list to the surgery and the follow-up treatment.  Along the way, various hurdles (aborted transplants, relapses, and constant monitoring) are called up.

The title of the novel has a second meaning.  During this ordeal, Emmi finds her feelings for her boyfriend Sam are challenged. And when she befriends Eli, a fellow adolescent transplant recipient, she is tempted to stray.

While I enjoyed most of the story, the rushed ending was a disappointment.  Emmi is a great character.  Articulate and independent, she makes a good narrator for the complicated journey in this novel.  And it is those details (Maurer certainly did her homework) that make this book an interesting read.

No Fixed Address, by Susin Nielsen

Felix and his mother Astrid have gradually been slipping through cracks in the social net.  Suffering from emotional issues, Astrid can't hold down a job. After getting shuffled from one place to another, they have ended up living in a van, moving it from time to time in order to avoid arousing suspicion.  Felix longs for stability and a fixed address.  With a home, they could have simple things like a bathroom!  At school, he manages to do well.  He has two close friends, but he can't tell them why he can't invite them home for fear that they will report his mother to the authorities.

Felix also has an incredible head for trivia and he's a whiz playing along with the contestants on the TV quiz show "Who, What, Where, When." When the producers of that show announce a special junior edition, he's excited to apply for a slot and ecstatic when he is invited on the show.  But it is the discovery that there is a large cash prize for the winner which raises the stakes.  With that money, he could get them an apartment and help get Astrid back up on her feet.

While I hate child endangerment stories, the book works for me for two reasons.  First of all, because the usual sadistic litany of misfortunes is kept to a minimum.  We get there is a lot of challenges in his living situation but it is not utterly hopeless.  But what really helps is the way that the tough times are countered by sweetness.  Nielsen has chosen to highlight the kindness that people can do for each other. Several times there are opportunities for hard things to get worse (for example, when Felix is caught stealing food) but the story chooses to show people being kind (the grocer, after initially threatening the boy takes him in and feeds him).  The message is that being kind and generous to those truly in need (or even simply decent) can pay off.  The happy/weepy and ultimately satisfying ending doesn't hurt either!

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Braced, by Alyson Gerber


Rachel has really been improving her soccer game and coach has started letting her play on offense.  She even bends the rules to let Rachel off for a last-minute doctor’s appointment.  Unfortunately, the doctor has bad news:  Rachel has developed a curvature in her spine – scholiosis – and will need to wear a back brace for at least the next six months for most of the day.  Suddenly, all of Rachel’s dreams (soccer, most of all) are threatened by having to wear the hideous uncomfortable appliance.  It makes every movement uncomfortable and derails her game.  Soon, coach has her back on defense and won’t even let her start.  She hates the way she looks in it and the way people look at her, but most of all she hates feeling like a freak.

A sensitive and insightful middle reader about a health issue of relevance to its target audience.  Many girls develop spinal issues in middle school or have a classmate who does.   As the only boy in my class who was diagnosed with scholiosis (I was lucky enough to not need a brace), this particular story spoke to me directly and I think I might have enjoyed a book like it at the time.

Gerber has done an excellent job creating a story that is entertaining to read, yet full of facts about the disease and its treatment.  That the characters are authentic and interesting is a bonus, as are the realistic family interactions.  For me, stories stand out when they either do something new (rare) or take on an issue which has been written about before.  This is a good example of the latter.