Sunday, December 27, 2015
The exchange of the dolls is a historical fact that was also the setting of one of my favorite books (The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson) which focuses on the story of the dolls that Japan sent to the United States in return. It's fascinating material for novelization and it's interesting how very different these two books are. Larson's book is a rather metaphysical book that attributes all sorts of magic to the dolls, while Parenteau's book is fairly firmly set in reality.
There's a great deal of sentimentality and wholesomeness to this book that might make the jaded reader wince (this book will upset far fewer adults than the ones I've been reading recently!). Lexie is a creature of her time (the 1920s), dutifully following expectations and living within her grandmother's strict conservative expectations. But she is also a deceptively strong and empowered girl. She makes quite a few poor choices, but she realizes her mistakes and is haunted by her conscience. And even when she would love nothing better than to hurt people who have hurt her, she is able to put aside her desire for vengeance and do what must be done. Certainly, her decision late in the story to give her most treasured possession away to someone who needs it more is heartbreaking and heartwarming. Throughout the story, we see Lexie fearlessly stand up for herself and eventually make the right choices in the end.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
This is the sort of novel which is guaranteed to upset sensitive parents. Between the profanity, sex, and drug use in the first dozen pages, this is a book begging to be banned. The intensity of the subject matter seems inappropriate for a book targeted at teens. But as a novel about a teenager living through a micro tragedy, it's a powerful read.
Arnold intersperses Seph's story with some less-familiar tellings of myths and fairy tales (focusing on the gorier and sexually-violent elements). The intent is not so much a feminist retelling, but simply to highlight the extremely dangerous world that these stories portray. As Seph herself says at one point, the whole empowerment project feeling "belittling." There is a weak attempt to tie these interludes into the main story by claiming that Seph has developed an interest in myths and stories, but it felt like a stretch. However, it made for good reading and it also opened a plausible, but entirely unexpected and brutal twist at the end.
There is also the wonderful daughter-mother dynamic between Seph and her mother. While we don't get much opportunity to hear her mother's voice, Seph's adoration is undeniable -- a mixture of need, jealousy, and protectiveness that she waxes eloquently about. I loved the complexity and the opportunity to hear an expression of child-parent relationship that moved beyond frustration and anger. And the one-sided exploration of that relationship made its pathos all the more strong.
Friday, December 25, 2015
Faced with an incurable disease, a society that pities and fears them, and a longing for a normal life, this novel explores a wide array of issues, both emotional and ethical. And it also finds time to explore a touching and rewarding romance between two young people united by the same threat to their survival, coping with it in very different ways.
The result is utterly stunning. Dying teens as subject matter is of course going to be heartbreaking literary material, but in the hands of an excellent writer, you can do amazing things with it. The obvious reference point is John Green's philosophical and witty The Fault In Our Stars and Schneider dutifully acknowledges the debt. However, this book is quite different. Schneider's interest is in the social/emotional effects of incurable disease: how society treats the sufferers as well as how they respond to that treatment. And her interest is not just literary. Schneider holds a degree in medical ethics from UPenn and this informs fairly lucid discussions in the story of topics ranging from alternative therapy to the prioritization of treatment. The result is an intelligent novel that brings up a lot of deep thoughts. That it places all of this amid vivid characters, a touching friendship, and a heartbreaking story is a bonus. The result is haunting and memorable.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
A charming story of the many ways that families and friends can support each other. I disliked the rather cruel way in the story that Ashley's needs were shortchanged and her intellect belittled while Stewart's social ineptitude is frequent glossed over. However, in general, the novel has some good messages about the need to stand up against bullying.
There are other things that stand out in this book. As usual, I appreciate the attempt to show both the strengths and flaws of the adults alongside the kids (it isn't just the kids who bicker -- the grownups are equally as skilled). And, as much as this is a message book, the sermon is not heavy handed, giving us a good story as well.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
An interesting look at an intersex child. Brugman struggles a bit with how to present the story, trying both an internal dialogue between Alex's masculine and feminine sides and interspersing her mother's exasperated online confidences about her struggles to understand her child. The latter is painful reading as the mother is incredibly self-centered and abusive. And it also distracts us from the more important story of Alex's own growth. That there will be people who will hurt Alex, we can be fairly certain, but seeing so much of it really adds little to the story itself (after all, I imagine that Alex can do a pretty decent job of hurting herself without her parents' help). A subplot about a fashion modeling career seemed similarly off-topic. I think the novel would have been strengthened by simply focusing on Alex herself as she discovers how to interact with her peers and become the person she wants to be.
Monday, December 21, 2015
A cluttered, less focused, and weaker follow-up to one of my favorite Jenny Han books. In general, Han does a wonderful job exploring not only themes of romance but also of friendship and of familial ties. All that is present here, but it so much more awkwardly assembled. She's put in a whole bunch of subplots (cyberbullying, an elder sister's absence, a party for the nursing home residents, getting Dad to start dating again, etc.) and little of it fits together. The writing, usually so brilliant, is sloppy (and sloppily edited) (howlers include a metal box which "has eroded from the rain and snow and dirt" that the protagonist "wash[es] in the sink so it gleams again"). The ending is even more annoying, doing a last minute flip that contradicts much of the rest of the story -- the worst sort of surprise ending. All of this is shocking given Han's excellent prior track record and even the strong start of this novel.
Friday, December 18, 2015
An interesting premise where Howe, inspired by a real-life outbreak of mysterious symptoms at a private school in 2012, combined that story with her knowledge of Salem's unfortunate events, to create a novel about the intense emotional pressures that girls face around graduation. I found that to be a clever concept and the storytelling to be exquisite. I'm less of a fan of the actual story, but that is because the subject matter has always seemed distasteful to me. The combination of egocentricity, prejudice, and sheer spiritual vacuum that is exhibited at Salem holds about as much appeal as a slasher movie for me. But the story works and I certainly finished the book.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Billed as a book for John Green fans, Karo has some of the funny attitude of Green, but lacks the insight and the depth of that author. The story moves briskly, but Karo is entirely too self-conscious about the potentially offensive nature of his material and refuses to play it for full comedic effect. And rather than run with it (and apologize later), he bends over backwards to show that Shane is really a Good Guy. That he may be, but it makes him look like a bit of a wuss (as Shane himself notes, you should never run around and apologize all the time -- perhaps Karo should have taken his character's advice?). There's a lot of romantic tension between Shane and Jak, but you kind of expect them to work through it at the end so you don't hold your breath a lot. And the teachers are pretty dopey for what tries hard to be a smart comedy (hint: awkward teachers are not funny!). In the end, the story couldn't really ever get serious enough to talk about what makes relationships work and it refused to go over the top and make the whole thing funny.
Monday, December 14, 2015
Leaver goes through great pains to explain how the story is even remotely plausible, but I think that misses the point. While this novel is a fairly pedestrian high school drama, full of mean girls and jealous plots, it has a more interesting parallel track. In this higher story, Ella's struggle to be her sister becomes a means to grieve for her, moving beyond both her childhood love and her adolescent jealousy to achieve a mature acceptance. Seen in this light, the story (while still predictable) is quite clever and original.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
She knows that she likes girls and is fairly convinced that this is not a temporary phase, but she struggles with coming out for fear of how her friends and family will react. Her father, in particular, is quite conservative and she has observed how other gay Iranian-Americans were treated by the emigrant community when they announced their sexual identity. The arrival of a very exotic foreign student at her school adds urgency to the matter and also gives Leila some additional problems.
I found the book both amusing and touching. Leila has a great sense of humor and there are lots of fun moments through the book. This in no way detracts from the seriousness of her concerns or the struggles she goes through, but rather keeps things light and draws us to her. The characters, in general, are largely portrayed in a way that makes them sympathetic and familiar, whether it is neglected friends or anxious parents. Aside from the sheer evil of the bullying Saskia (and even she can elicit some sympathy!), these are characters with whom we can relate.
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
This is a surprisingly effective story and I can easily call it one of the best novels of 2015. I was hooked from the beginning by one of the grittier and more interesting romances I had read in a long time. So I was pretty ticked off when the guy got murdered. But Ropal has a lot of skills in her pocket and, out of that crucial plot twist, she produces one of this year's most memorable heroines. Cass is no shrinking violet and she has a dedication and bravery completely unknown to YA. All of the characters are strong, in fact, and there is a refreshing bluntness to the way that they interact with each other. I particularly liked the development of Cass and her silent friend Mattie's relationship that will have many readers scratching their heads.
Ropal doesn't waste time with the misunderstandings that so many writers use to drag a story out. This is a story that instead continually puts out and just as steadily surprises. And it does hurt to have a female character that can fight off the bad guys without a big bad boyfriend to defend her. These are coarse characters and the story isn't pretty, but the storytelling is compelling.
Tuesday, December 08, 2015
A bit darker than Dessen's more recent novels and notably better than most of them. Dessen is, as always, a great writer, but she has grown complacent in the last decade or so as she has found a successful formula and stuck to it. Too often, her stories become tired rehashes of the old romantic boy-helps-girl-open-up chestnut. To this work's credit, the romance doesn't even kick in until page 251.
In this one, she tries try to expand a bit, but it's mostly back into territory she explored in her earlier novel, Dreamland -- girl is unable to seek help from grownups and so suffers until she finally gets brave enough to ask for help. So, we're basically waiting for that moment to arrive. At the same time, not much else actually happens and there's a real pacing problem. So much so that the last ten or so pages of the book is a massive epilogue in which all the loose ends get wrapped in retrospect (i.e., rather than actually showing us the resolution, we get told how it all ended). This is pretty unsatisfactory, but after 400 pages of build-up, Dessen probably needed to close down the story. I wish she had started that wind-down about 200 pages earlier!