Friday, December 15, 2017

Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton

Adam suffers from schizophrenia, seeing and hearing people who are not there.  He knows that there is no cure and it is a condition that he will always have to live with, but a new drug trial gives him hope for a means of coping with his hallucinations.  And, if he can cope, he might be able to live a normal life.  That’s important to him for fitting in at school, and also for winning over his new girlfriend Maya.  But what if Maya learns of his condition?

Tracing the difficulties of managing adolescence and a serious mental illness at the same time, Walton touches on a variety of different facets including school, family, and long-term survival skills.  Still, the story never really sought great depth.  I get that it is difficult for writers to express the ways that adolescent boys really do have feelings, but it gets frustrating to have Adam toggle between the cliché horny/thoughtless/violent impulse that I have complained about here before, at the neglect of the hurt and frustration of living with an illness.  Maya is an interesting character but told through his eyes, we don’t really get much chance to get to know her.  And we don’t really learn all that much about mental illness either.

The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, by Lauren Karcz

Mercedes’s grandmother is dying back in San Juan and Mom has gone back to care for her, leaving Mercedes and her sister to their own devices.  Mercedes should be working on a follow-up to her hugely successful painting, Food Poisoning #1, but she is stuck in a rut.  At this rate, she'll have nothing to submit for the annual show and her chances of getting into art school are dimming.  But she is simply not able to capture any inspiration and instead endlessly listening to her favorite band The Firing Squad.

But then neighbor Lilia offers to take Mercedes to her own studio, which turns out to be an abandoned apartment building.  It is a magical place.  Seemingly alive, strange things occur, but it is also a place where one can find one’s muse and where Mercedes is able to create amazing works of art.  There’s only one big catch:  the artwork can never leave.  She is faced with a choice:  between living in this space where her art can bloom or denying it all and being stuck outside in the real world.

An odd and dreamy work which explores artistic creativity as a concept through this rather unusual setting.  The studio itself is creepy, but never entirely scary.  And the story never quite commits to being fantasy or horror, just as it never quite commits to realism.  That leaves it in an uncomfortable place.  The pace is slow and dream-like, with most of the action – so to speak – taking place in alternate realities.  It’s hard to know where we are heading.  I found it hard to focus on and missed a few details (having to go back and re-read passages) so that part was frustrating.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Gravity, by Leanne Lieberman

Ellie and her sister struggle with how to fit their Orthodox Jewish faith in with their other needs.  Ellie's sister wants to go to college and study business.  Ellie's problem runs deeper:  she likes girls (or at least she thinks she might).  When she spends the summer at her aunt's cottage, she falls in love with an adventuresome (but disturbed) young woman who is willing to experiment with her.  And while the relationship is a revelation to Ellie, it triggers a crisis of faith as she explores how Orthodoxy views homosexuality.  At the same time, Ellie's mother is also experiencing challenges to her faith and the two women's journeys are nicely juxtaposed.

I have a soft spot for intelligent books about faith.  And while this one doesn't resolve its central crisis, it introduces and explores it in a very informed way.  Orthodox Judaism would be easy to caricature or demonize (think of the novel Hush) and Lieberman touches on some of the community's darker corners.  But the key focus of the story is the spiritual journey of Ellie and her family -- each of whom have slightly different paths to explore. I also appreciate that as far removed from her faith as Ellie got, Lieberman still wanted to depict the tie it holds over her and honor that rather than see it as a burden.  This is not a story about breaking free from faith, but of finding new meaning in faith.

The Lake Effect, by Erin McCahan

Briggs has what ought to be an easy summer job: helping an old lady take care of her beach house on Lake Michigan.  He’s good with old ladies – charming them the way he charms most women.  The summer is just a minor detour on his long-term career plans to go to college, law school, and make a lot of money.  Spending some time on the beach, taking care of an elderly woman, and perhaps meeting a local girl for some fun is just a chance to relax.

But he isn’t expecting stubborn and determined Mrs. Bozic. Nor the girl next door who is resistant to his charms.  And during a summer of home improvement, the quest for the perfect blue paint, funeral shopping with Mrs. B, and more than a few discussions about death, Briggs will learn a lot about life and plans.

At times charming and hilarious, I found myself ultimately defeated by the unevenness of the novel (the overuse of chapter breaks didn’t help much either!).  The story's strength is its characters.  Mrs. B was, of course, hilarious and a lovely foil to Briggs’s cavalier arrogance.  Girl next door Abigail seemed less valuable (this is not a story that really needs a romance and it did not get too far).  Briggs was the usual snarky crude boy with a heart of gold that YA writers love and girls will apparently tolerate.

I do wish we could move beyond the idea that boys’ books need to have fart jokes and petty humiliation to attract male readers.  It’s a tiresome cliché and ultimately promotes the idea that boys should be callous and rude to each other (if there is a more fundamental cause of rape culture, I don’t know it!).  And in this case, it is such a contrast to the decent things that Briggs does.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange

Since her older brother Robert died, Henrietta's mother has been depressed and secluded in her bedroom.  Dr. Hardy says she needs to be left alone and he gives her strong psychoactive drugs to control her hysteria.  Henry is convinced that the doctor's treatment is hurting Mom and she longs see her.  But with father away, the staff obey the doctor and mother's condition grows worse.

So, it falls on Henry to rescue her family from the doctor and his nefarious ambitions.  With the help of the neighbors, an old family lawyer, and a witch in the woods, Henry will do so.  And in the process uncover some historical mysteries along the way.  Set in the early 1920s, this story will appeal to fans of The Secret Garden, with its combination of adventure and personal development.

Either derivative or a tribute to that long tradition of young girls exploring scary woods and saving the day, there's not much new here, but it's an enjoyable read.  I found the ending drawn out and full of far-too-neat wrap-ups, but the story itself contained suspense and a brave girl to root for.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  When I am finished, I will donate the book to my local public library]

Summer Unscripted, by Jen Klein

When Rain becomes the recipient of heartthrob actor Tuck’s impassioned monologue, she’s starstruck.  He needs her!  She knows that she has to spend the summer with him, which is going to be difficult because he's away for the summer playing a role in the cast of Zeus! (a musical based loosely on Greek mythology). She knows nothing about the theater at all and spending the summer working musical theater has surprises.

But the biggest surprise of all is finding out that Tuck doesn’t turn out to be quite the pick that she imagined.  Instead, it is moody staff photographer Milo that captures her fancy and takes her to parts unknown.

Pretty silly stuff in all.  And, as Rain’s roommate protests, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a girl with two cute guys who like her.  The summer stock stuff is fun, of course (especially, if you’ve ever done the work) but there’s not a whole lot else here except the usual escapism.  Light entertainment.