Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

Largely devoted to tracing several generations of the Roux-Lavender family and the people who crossed paths with them, Strange and Beautiful Sorrows is an extraordinary fable.   It begins by telling us how Ava was born an otherwise normal girl except for the wings on her back, while her twin brother Henry was born mute, and then the story goes back three generations.  Starting with the family's departure from the Old Country, Walton weaves in glorious detail the near entire back story to Ava and Henry's existence.

Ostensibly a story about the "price" of love, I never really felt that the novel made whatever point it wanted to make.  But I also didn't care. The writing is clearly from the school of "magical realism" and was reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Like that novel, Walton has created a richly detailed cultural landscape that is a joy to dive into.  The complicated web of relationships between the dozens of vivid and memorable characters and the events that occur to them makes this a pleasure to read.

The Bridge from Me to You, by Lisa Schroeder

When Lauren's mother throws her out of her home, Lauren doesn't have a lot of choice about where to go.  Only her aunt and uncle are willing to take her in.  And so she arrives at their house in the small town of Willow OR, with a handful of secrets about why she had to leave and why her mother doesn't want her around.

Colby is a talented player on Willow's football team.  That fact alone should disqualify him as a potential romantic interest since Lauren can't stand the game, but they hit it off nearly immediately and have great chemistry.  Part of the reason for this is that he harbors a secret of his own:  he doesn't actually like the game.  Rather than play, he'd rather study bridges.  But a football scholarship might still be best way for him to get to study civil engineering in college.

The romance that develops between the two of them is pretty smooth sailing and doesn't really drive the drama of the story.  Instead, Schroeder throws in some health scares with their families to keep the narrative going.

It's charming and, while the plot is hardly original, Schroeder utilizes an interesting structural device:  Colby's story is told in chapters of prose, while Lauren's are told in verse.  This makes her seem even more angsty than normal for a teen and also carries a serious drawback -- she gets largely shortchanged in character development.  The density of Colby's chapters mean that we end up knowing a lot more about Colby than Lauren.  I'm not sure I'd recommend this particular literary approach.

[Note:  I received a free copy of this book in return for my consideration and review.  While an inattentive flight attendant managed to spill water on the book, I'm hoping it will still be of use to my local public library to where I will donate it now that I have finished with it.]

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Many years in the future, in the land that was once the eastern Brazilian state of Bahia, the city of Palmares Tres now stands.  Built as a pyramid, it is a strictly hierarchical city-state, ruled on its top tenth tier by a queen and her assembly of "aunties." It is mostly a matriarchy, but the queen is chosen (and periodically reaffirmed) by the "Summer King" -- a young man who is elected, ritually sacrificed, and makes his selection of queen as he bleeds to death.

June Costa is a young artist with a penchant for guerrilla art.  She sneaks into forbidden spaces and erects installations to shock and surprise people.  When the new Summer King Enki is chosen, she discovers that he too is an artist.  They meet and together they create the most impressive art of her career.  But there is much more to the relationship and June regrets her growing closeness to Enki when she is reminded that he must soon die.

Set in a culture that imagines what Brazil will be like many centuries in the future, where race and ethnicity are fluid, and sexual relations even more so (the book features the most interesting love triangle between June, Enki, and Enki's boyfriend Gil - who is also June's best friend), this is a complex piece of science fiction.  There's dystopia, nanotechnology, body modification, and romance, all of which is set to a samba beat and that strange melancholy of saudade.  In sum, a brilliant piece of storytelling and one of the more original sci-fi works to come out lately.  I'm a sucker for unusual settings for science fiction and love any chance to move beyond the USA-as-the-model-of-the-future approach of the mainstream.  Johnson's book captures the true potential of a view of the future based on a dynamic alternative.

Heartbeat, by Elizabeth Scott

Emma had always liked her stepfather and was looking forward to being an older sister to the baby that her mother was carrying.  But that changed on the day that her mother died and Emma's stepfather unilaterally made the decision to keep her alive on life support until the fetus could be delivered.  In Emma's mind, it is unbelievably selfish that he would keep Mom going as some sort of baby factory.  And while he tries to explain his decision, Emma refuses to accept it.

Caleb is a troubled rich kid.  First, he had a drug problem and then several brushes with the law involving damage to his family's property.  Emma, as a clean-cut valedictorian, should not want to have anything to do with him.  But, as it turns out, he's struggling with loss as well (the death of his younger sister, for which his parents hold him accountable).  And, as they share something in common, they are drawn to each other.

It's a bit slow going.  Emma's standoff with her stepdad is well-established early on.  After that, there really isn't any place to take that storyline.  So, we get little tiffs and skirmishes repeated ad nauseum with little gained in the process (yes, they are not communicating -- I get it, now move on).  As for "bad boy" Caleb, it just seemed a bit too convenient and easy (why is Emma the only one to notice that he's actually a kind and sensitive kid?).  The ending was good, but the story leading up to it seemed predictable and routine.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reality Boy, by A. S. King

Gerald Faust has an anger management problem.  It's understandable if you knew the years of abuse he suffered from his older sister.  Never mind that whole experience with his family being featured on a reality TV show when he was five (he was the kid who kept defecating in public places).  Now 17 years old, Gerald can't shake his nickname (the "crapper") or the baggage of that TV experience.  His family's continued denial of the abuse that occurred doesn't help either.  However, he's trying to change and, with some inspiration from a similarly messed-up young woman, Gerald's going to find a way to face reality for a change.

A complex, rather depressing, and ultimately addictive story of bad breaks and breaking with the past.  There is a lot of unresolved stuff in this story and not a lot of happy ending, but the baggage that Gerald is carrying is significant and it isn't a story where a truly happy ending would have felt plausible.  Gerald is a tough guy and a tough character to like, but he's remarkably level-headed and charismatic.

King has a lot to say about the reality entertainment phenomenon and she says it well.  However, this is ultimately not a social critique, but really a domestic tragedy.  King's point that the television cameras oversimplified (and ultimately missed) the real story is her way of condemning the faux search for authenticity that the genre lives on.

September Girls, by Bennett Madison

After six months of caring for his depressed father (after his Mom walked out on them) Sam has pretty much had it.  So, when Dad suggests that they just leave (even though school isn't quite over) and go to the beach, Sam is ready for a new adventure.  But he isn't quite prepared for what he finds.

The little beach town to which they come to stay is inhabited by two types of young women -- the normal type (girls) who show no particular interest in Sam (and don't particularly interest Sam either) and the Girls.  The Girls are fashionably dressed, all look like super-models, smoke French Gaulois cigarettes, and are mostly named after perfumes or cosmetics.  They are exotic and otherworldly and, in some sort of satire of male fantasy, profoundly interested in having sex with Sam and his older brother.  But there's a lot more to these young women's mystery.

Now, as it happens, I read this book during a bad travel day (late and cancelled flights, running through airports, etc.) so that probably affected my impression of the book, but it simply failed to engage me.  I get the way that Madison was using the otherworldly Girls of the island as a way to express adolescent male mystification about females.  I even think it is rather clever.  However, the story is so abstract and so unwilling to lock itself down (random events keep popping up to disrupt the storyline) that it is a very hard read.  I found myself reading and re-reading pages over in order to capture some obscure but very important plot point.  It was simply too hard to read to be enjoyable.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

And We Stay, by Jenny Hubbard

After witnessing her boyfriend shooting himself in their school library, Emily Beam is sent to a private boarding school in Amherst.  There, she wallows in the poetry of local native Emily Dickinson and tries to cope with her feelings of guilt and loss.  The story, told through third-person narration and Emily's own verse, attempts to meld together the process of grief and the psyche of Dickinson's writings.

An ambitious, but ultimately impersonal look at grief.  It is all beautifully written, but the exercise is largely heartless as we never are allowed in to Emily's heart and mind.  That she is sad and writes moody navel-gazing poetry we have no doubt, but she is otherwise a very closed book.  And the other characters, from the equally repressed roommate KT to the kleptomaniac Amber, don't really add much to our understanding or to the story.  It's a pretty work, but distant and non-illuminating.  And very much like her earlier work Paper Covers Rock (see my 11/27/2011 review).

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Lights On the Nile, by Donna Jo Napoli

Kepi is a young girl living in Ancient Egypt.  One day, while exploring along the banks of the Nile, her pet baboon is stolen from her.  Pursuing the thieves takes her far from home and, before she even realizes what is happening, she finds herself kidnapped and sent down the Nile towards the capital city of Ineb Hedj.  This in itself is not an unhappy happenstance as Kepi has long wanted to go there and petition the pharaoh on behalf of her crippled father.  The story is interspersed with frequent references to the pantheon of Egyptian gods and Kepi provides an excellent portrait of religious reverence.

In her books, Napoli combines decent historical detail with a quirky irreverence for standard plotting.  I'm not a fan of the strange way she ended this book, but I mostly enjoyed the story up to that point.  It's a colorful tale with a gentle informational approach.  Grownups might worry about the terribly dangerous situations that Kepi lands herself in, but children probably enjoy the adventure.  It isn't Napoli's best book (I prefer her book about Mona Lisa The Smile to this day), but this one is good.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Over You, by Amy Reed

After a big screw up at home in Seattle, Sadie gets shipped out by her father to live with her mom on a commune in the middle of Nebraska.  Her best friend Max tags along because that's what Max always does.  Since they were little, Max takes care of Sadie and keeps her out of trouble.  But in this summer on the farm, Max begins to realize that she has choices of her own to make and that her future may involve breaking free of her best friend.

A deceptively simple book full of big literary experiments.  Some of these are quite successful (Reed skillfully explores the logistics of a dependent friendship), others are less so (frequent interludes riffing on Greek mythology stick out like a pretentious sore thumb and only in a few cases add value to the plot).  The most striking literary device though is Reed's decision to write the first half of the book in second person. This, as any writer can tell you, is one of the most challenging voices to master.  It's very immediate and even a bit exhausting as the text risks becoming accusatory.  In this case, it works very well and pulls us into the story from the start.  It also very nicely conveys the obsessive nature of the two girls' friendship.  That said, her decision to switch later on to first person narration is a welcome relief.  The storyline is modest, but the writing is truly stand out.