Saturday, June 27, 2015
The Secret Side of Empty, by Maria E. Andreu
Andreu captures rather nicely the sharp contrast between M. T.'s school life (full of friends, romance, and parties) and the grim reality that she and her family face (poverty, fear, and violence), and the corrosive effect of living that split existence. I'm not sure that we needed the domestic violence and the self-abuse themes (especially since so much of those threads remains underdeveloped), but the real triumph of the book is capturing the pain of living a double life. And while one could latch onto M. T.'s story as a tribute to DREAMers, the strength of this novel is it lets the reader draw their own conclusions.
Posted by Paul at 5:02 PM No comments:
None of the Above, by I. W. Gregorio
The idea that Kristin is not a "true" girl is hard for her to accept. She's a track star on the girl's team. She has a boyfriend. She's even the homecoming queen! And she's been a girl all of her life. Kristin needs time to process it. But when she mistakenly entrusts her secret and confides her situation to her best friends, she is betrayed and the matter is made public. At school, many of her peers are shocked and turn against her in disgust. Her boyfriend outright rejects her. And, as Kristin realizes that this is only the beginning, she despairs that she will never find a place in a binary world where she doesn't fit.
I knew very little about AIS (although I imagine we covered it briefly in a genetics course). Prior to reading this book, I would have even described Kristin as a "hermaphrodite" without realizing that the term was considered offensive. I knew nothing about the complications of the condition or the treatments that are pursued. Thus, the novel taught me a lot. At the same time, the book sometimes seemed to forget that it was a work of fiction. Teens would break character and start rolling out detailed explanations of the condition, doctors would conveniently start supplying copious medical facts, other characters would spout wisdom from web pages. I get that Gregorio has a mission here (and I even respect that mission!) but there's a fine line between telling a story and lecturing the reader. Getting that balance is very tricky. Here, it works sometimes and sometimes it doesn't.
At a time when transexuality has gotten so much attention, it's fascinating to explore the concept of intersexuality. Previously, I would have considered them to be one and the same, but this book has taught me that they are different. On that basis alone, I would recommend it. The fact that the novel is quite readable and the characters are sympathetic (and mostly authentic) makes it a strong recommendation.
Posted by Paul at 8:00 AM No comments:
Friday, June 26, 2015
I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Jude and Noah were as close as twins could be even through all of their differences. At fourteen, Jude was the popular normal one, while her brother was always a bit eccentric and an outcast (partly because he was secretly harboring homosexual urges). Both of them were artistic and they were both applying to art school. But of the two of them, Noah had the best chance of being accepted.
Two years later, they no longer even talk to each other. Noah has given up art, become a jock, and has a devoted girlfriend. Jude is the only one in art school but is perennially unhappy with her work. Driven to produce a life-defining work (and to do so in stone), she is directed to a reclusive and bitter sculptor who has his own set of baggage. Surprisingly, he and his assistant also hold the key to sorting out what destroyed Jude and Noah closeness.
Like all good tragedies, the interesting part is in unraveling the confluence of events that explains what happened. Nelson weaves a tight story that unwinds slowly with just enough false leads to keep things interesting. The characters are well-developed and multi-faceted. It’s well-written and a good read.
I wouldn’t mind jumping on the bandwagon of praise for this book (winner of this year’s Printz award, NYT best seller, etc.) except for one small matter: it’s not a young adult novel. Rather, like The Book Thief and Criss Cross (to cite a few other egregious examples), this is an adult book that is being marketed to YA readers simply because the characters are adolescents. I get that the YA market is lucrative, but there’s a lot more to writing a book for young adults. For one thing, write a book that addresses the process of growing up or deal with issues that matter to them. With all the talk about aesthetics and regret (without the usual angst), this has adult sensibility all over it. Not to say that advanced readers couldn’t handle this book or wouldn’t enjoy it, but that doesn’t make it YA. and giving the preeminent award for teen fiction to a book simply because librarians like it is insulting to the many talented writers that really have an ear for young readers.
Posted by Paul at 7:49 PM No comments:
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Girl Defective, by Simmone Howell
Aussie YA always seems a bit weird and generally has never appealed to me. This particular example is weirder than most and awkward in the way it tries so hard and so self-consciously to be hip. The story is a mess, following no discernible trajectory. Without a story I cared about, I found keeping up with the cast of characters to be nearly impossible. I suspect that simply lost the track altogether because I couldn't figure out what was going on. All of which may raise to mind the old chestnut that you shouldn't review a book that I don't understand. But, really, why should reading a book be such a chore?
Posted by Paul at 2:25 PM No comments:
Friday, June 19, 2015
My Best Friend, Maybe, by Caela Carter
Years ago, Coley and Sadie were best friends, but they grew up and grew apart. Coley never quite understood why and Sadie never explained. So, when Sadie invites Coley out of the blue to join her family for a wedding in Greece, Coley doesn’t know what to think. And Sadie won’t offer any explanation.
By all rights, Coley should turn her down. Not only is the invitation weird, but Coley already has plans to go on a mission to Costa Rica with her boyfriend. And her parents will never approve. But Coley desperately wants to understand what happened to their friendship and she realizes that this may be the only way that she ever finds out the answer.
There are many good books about friendship, and we’ve certainly been to Greece before (with the traveling pants or with the thirteen little blue envelopes), but this is a standout example of the genre. In its beautiful setting, Carter tackles numerous subjects (most of which I can’t reveal without spoiling the latter part of the book) and does so with great sensitivity. I’d compare it to Jenny Han’s magnificent books on love and friendship. And while there is a steamy romantic lead, this is in the end a story about two young women trying to figure out who they are and what they mean to each other. Touching, beautiful, and achingly honest.
Posted by Paul at 2:57 PM No comments:
Stray, by Elissa Sussman
A strikingly vivid fantasy with some heavy handed, but ultimately enchanting parallels to real-world adolescence. The balls, princesses, and dreams of marriage are more traditional fantasy fodder, but Sussman has darker ambitions. Magic (the "curse" it is called) is a metaphor for female empowerment. And the young women's struggle with containing their passion bring them face to face with the authorities and simultaneously with personal madness. I like this idea -- imagining what a patriarchy would do when it found that women are the sole owners of a very powerful internal force. And both how it poisons the relationships between the women as well as the image issues it promotes in the young women themselves. There's even veiled references to cutting as Aislynn subjects herself to self-abuse when she privately releases the magic inside of her. It's sort of as if Shannon Hale (and her Princess Academy) met up with Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. Powerful stuff!
Still, at the end, Sussman takes a detour into action mode, with the introduction of an underdeveloped animal sidekick, a largely disposable skirmish in the woods, and a hard-to-follow battle of the sorceresses. This is such a striking break from the more interesting psychological stuff in the rest of the book that I almost felt that I had picked up a few pages from another book altogether. It is neither effective nor terribly interesting, making the ending messy. There was also a lot of unfinished stuff at the end, which was largely done (one suspects) to take a book that could well have been self-contained and generate enough room for a sequel or a trilogy. Up until the last sixty pages or so, however, I was really enjoying the tenor and themes of the book. Perhaps the sequel will pick that good stuff back up again.
Posted by Paul at 2:52 PM No comments:
Saturday, June 13, 2015
The Opposite of Love, by Sarah Lynn Scheerger
For most of the duration of the story, this seemed to be a novel about learning to rise above the hand life dealt and to break free of parental bonds, to learn to accept responsibility for yourself, and to make your life your own. And while it does actually end up on that track, there's a sudden plot twist in the last forty pages which completely changes the way the story treads. It drastically increases the stakes and adds all sort of complexities, and it is never foreshadowed. As the book's message stays unchanged, I'll assert that the twist was unnecessary and distracting. I won't spoil the ending for others, but it seemed like a sledgehammer delivery for a story that was getting there just fine on its own. It also seemed like an easy out for a tale that called for subtlety, and replaced it with high stakes drama.
Posted by Paul at 1:20 PM No comments:
Friday, June 12, 2015
How To Speak Dolphin, by Ginny Rorby
When a young dolphin is rescued and is brought to a nearby commercial aquarium to recover, it is a rare opportunity. Lily's stepdad is brought in the consult on the dolphin's care and, in exchange, the aquarium allows them to hold DAT sessions for Adam. However, as Lily learns the aquarium's ulterior profit motive (and her father's willingness to abet it), she realizes that what might be helping her brother is harming the animal. They need to end the therapy and let the dolphin go. But how can she do this if it will hurt her brother?
The combination of a story about autism and about dolphins is busy. Throw in a blind best friend, dad's complicated emotional response to his son's disability, and a dead mother and it gets more crowded than a Sea World tank! But it all works. Middle readers may find the extended depictions of Adam's behavior or the dolphin's activities to be a bit dull at points, but Rorby has done her homework and wants a chance to convey it. The fact that she makes it all readable and interesting while also education is remarkable. The end result is a satisfying story about family loyalty, empathy for other (animal and human), and learning to accommodate differences. And it's all wrapped up with a beautiful ending that threatens to make you bring out the Kleenexes but ultimately avoids sentimentality.
[Disclaimer: I received a solicited copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. I'll be donating the book to my local public library.]
Posted by Paul at 3:13 PM No comments:
Falling Into Place, by Amy Zhang
Liz struggles to understand her physics class, but she thinks she may understand the Three Laws of Physics, at least as far as they have been manifested in her own life -- a series of actions and reactions. That life is just about to end at the beginning of the book, she hopes, as she drives her car into a ravine on purpose. In her reflection, it’s a miserable life full of cruelties she has committed against her peers and plenty of suffering that has been self-inflicted. That may seem harsh, but through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, we slowly come to understand why she wants to die.
It’s a poetic and well-written story, but gruesome and relentless in its depiction of Liz and her friends – lives full of substance abuse, petty rivalries, and thoughtless cruelties. It isn’t so much overblown (in fact, it all seemed quite realistic) but the truth is that Liz really isn’t a nice person. And while her peers seem willing to forgive her, the reader is not necessarily going to be ready to do so. At each point we understand her and start to absolve her, something even more horrible shows up to shock us again. Overall, the portrait that Zhang provides of these teens is not flattering. So, while well-written and plotted, it is a depressing and discouraging read.
Posted by Paul at 2:51 PM No comments:
Friday, June 05, 2015
The Way Home Looks Now, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
But after Peter's older brother dies in an accident, the family falls apart. His mother becomes withdrawn and non-communicative. His father retreats into stern demands of his surviving son. And Peter himself rejects baseball itself. There is plenty to be glum about in the summer of 1972. Nixon is reaching out to Mainland China to the inevitable disadvantage of Taiwan. Major League baseball was on strike. So, Peter hatches a plan to rescue his family and make the difference that his older brother always spoke of.
I'm not a big fan of sports stories, but baseball is always an easy sell. Combine some reader-friendly sports action with family reconciliation, a tough father who loves his children, and a healthy dose of social consciousness raising, and you get a winning story. It doesn't hurt that the story was based in part on real events, that the historical details are so pitch perfect and interesting, or that Shang painlessly teaches us a lot about baseball along the way.
[Disclosure: I received a solicited reviewers copy in exchange for my unbiased review. After completing this review, I will be donating the book to my local public library.]
Posted by Paul at 3:35 PM No comments:
A Different Me, by Deborah Blumenthal
The novel follows a predictable dramatic arc and reaches a conclusion that -- while sweet and poignant -- is basically predictable. I don't mind having a decent old chestnut (i.e., beauty comes from within) rehashed, but this edition of it is crowded with characters. Less, in my opinion, is always more and when you need a scorecard to keep track of all the people who come and go, one wonders if the tale would have been simpler with fewer of them. It certainly would have allowed more space for character development and proving the worth of their inclusion. As is, the romantic lead is pretty much thrown away. And some of the cameos (like a brief appearance by a teen-aged author) are bizarre non-sequiturs.
Posted by Paul at 8:46 AM No comments:
Thursday, June 04, 2015
Counting to D, by Kate Scott
Sam is crazy smart when it comes to math and she doesn’t do too badly in her other subjects. In fact, she’s taking solely AP classes in her sophomore year. But at the same time, she's hiding a big secret: she’s dyslexic and completely illiterate. She gets by through listening to her textbooks on audio recordings (and, the math is easy because it’s all numbers). It's worked for her for many years.
But when she and her mother relocate to Oregon midway through the year, Sam has to start at a new school. Her precocious abilities bring her to the attention of the smart clique at school and, in particular, a nerdy (but very hot) senior named Nate. But what would her new friends think if they found out about her concealed disability?
The book does a great job of explaining dyslexia to reader and I liked the kids. Scott does a nice job building up her characters and avoids a lot of stereotypes that fill YA books: In this world, kids don’t always fight with parents, pretty A-listers can be friendly with geeks, and kids don’t always get sick when they are drinking.
But the story itself left me cold. There was simply no dramatic tension in the story. There’s all sorts of set-up, but Scott seems unwilling or unable to let things blow up. There isn’t even a hint of tension between Sam and Nate. The feared revelation of Sam's dyslexia is a non-event. Basically, without any drama, there isn’t much of a story. Scott also has a mission here (teaching us about her own struggle with dyslexia) and the book frequently veers into preachiness, which is always a turn-off for me.
Posted by Paul at 10:38 PM No comments:
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