Saturday, June 16, 2018

Escape from Aleppo, by N. H. Senzai

On Nadia's twelve birthday, the attention should have been all upon her and her lovely cake and her pretty dress, but instead the family was distracted by the news from Algeria, where a young vegetable seller had set himself on fire.  Three years later, the "Arab Spring" has destabilized regimes across the region and Nadia's home city of Aleppo has been destroyed by competing factions in Syria's civil war.  When continued existence in the city becomes impossible, Nadia's family packs up to flee across the border into Turkey.  However, Nadia is separated from them and is forced to make the trek on her own.

Allying herself with a mysterious old man and two boys, she slowly makes her way across the city, dodging competing factions of fighters and trying to stay alive.  And whenever the threat of imminent danger subsides, Nadia has time to grieve for the loss of her once-great homeland as she remembers what Aleppo was like before.

Senzai carves out a very ambitious task: to tell not only a horrific story of survival, but also explain -- in a way that is both accurate and appropriate for young readers -- how Syria fell into war.  In succeeding at this task, Senzai exhibits not just a strong knowledge of Syria's political history, but also of what pre-war Syrian cultural life was like.  As if that were not already enough, Senzai also addresses the emotional impact of the war on children, the struggle to preserve Syria's historical treasures, and the long simmering religious tensions that were exploited to propagate Syria's self-destruction.  In the midst of all that, there isn't much room to build characters and Escape from Aleppo is not particularly fine literature.  Nadia herself is an appealing and resourceful heroine, but the characters are largely underdeveloped.  Rather, this book is an excellent introduction for young readers, and only secondarily an entertaining work of fiction.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Behind Closed Doors, by Miriam Halahmy

Josie’s mother is a hoarder and the house she lives in with her Mum is packed to the ceiling with junk.  Josie’s never been able to bring friends over and now it’s so bad that she has the bathe at school.  Still, her mother continues to obsessively buy more and more stuff until the day comes when she is arrested for not paying her taxes and Josie has to fend for herself.

Tasha would be fine if only her Mom would get rid of her current boyfriend Chaz.  He leers at her and, when her mother isn’t looking, touches her in inappropriate ways. No longer feeling safe at home, she sleeps over at friends’ houses until she wears out her welcome.  With no where else to go, she finds herself staying with Josie. Together, the two girls use their wits and whatever resources they can find to avoid ending up on the streets or in the clutches of social services.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of this novel.  It’s a very busy story with lots of characters and they are not entirely memorable.  The cultural barrier (US vs UK) doesn’t help.  But ultimately, I just found myself turned off by characters that were so devoted to avoiding help.  I get this fear of foster care, but compared to the risks to which they subjected themselves, it made no sense.

Say You’ll Remember Me, by Katie McGarry

Drix, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, is given a break when he is enrolled in the governor’s juvenile rehab program.  As a result, he has everything to thank the governor for.  When a chance encounter with the governor’s daughter Elle sparks romance, it’s a match that is obviously out of bounds.

Elle’s parents can’t allow their daughter to be seen with a convicted felon, but the greater concern is for the governor to be seen as playing favorites.  Drix concedes as he has no desire to endanger his probation by crossing his benefactor.  Elle, however, is tired of having all of her life choices dictated by her parents’ political ambitions.  Her willingness to cross her parents, mixed with their passion for each other, brings them together despite the risks.

A fairly typical teen romance that attempts to add gravitas with some nice statements about the bias of the legal system against poor people.  For the most part, these don’t really sink in, and I was struck by the author’s glossing over race.  Although it is never stated, Drix is probably black or multi-racial and Elle is almost certainly white.  The economic divide is only part of the story, and I was left wondering about the motive behind skipping over race.  But most of all, the story's focus on frivolous matters (like the puppy that both Drix and Elle fall in love with) undermines any value to the social agenda.  This is best read as simply a lightweight teen romance.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Fade to Us, by Julia Day

Brooke's summer plans get disrupted when her stepfather announces that his daughter Natalie is coming to live with them for the summer.  Natalie has Asperger's and is a handful to care for.  Among other things, Natalie needs activity so Brooke sets her up with a teen summer drama program in town doing a production of Oklahoma!  But it quickly becomes apparent that Natalie needs help coping during rehearsals and Brooke is the only person in the family who can help.  This forces Brooke to quit her summer job.

Bored in her new role of babysitter, Brooke volunteers to help with the play.  This brings her into close contact with Micah, the stage manager, and the two of them fall in love.  However, Natalie also has an attachment to the boy.  Worried about Natalie will see the relationship as a threat, Brooke insists on hiding the relationship from her stepsister, with predictable disastrous results.

It's a fair story told competently, but without a lot of depth. Day gets the job done, providing good pacing and plenty of plausible interactions, but we don't get much about any of the characters.  Natalie, in particular, who ought to have a lot of interesting layers to her, just comes off as obnoxious.  Brooke, meanwhile, acts like a saint.  Neither is terribly interesting.  Conflicts with the parents are largely resolved superficially or off-camera.  For a story that ought to be about character growth, we frustratingly don't see much under the hood.

When My Heart Joins the Thousand, by A. J. Steiger

Alvie is a stone’s throw from being granted emancipation.  All she has to do is hold down her job, keep her social worker satisfied, and convince the judge that she’s capable of taking care of herself.   
It ought to be simply, but she's never been good at managing her life. She's struggled with her Asperger’s for seventeen years, and has additional traumas that she keeps tightly locked behind her "Vault." Because of her difficulties in relating to humans, her best and only friend is Chance, a one-winged red hawk at the zoo where she works.

Then she meets Stanley, a boy whose bones are brittle and easily breakable.  And while even the thought of being touched by another person drives her crazy, she knows that she wants to touch him.  From that simple desire, a brazen proposal, and an awkward encounter between them, a relationship develops that is raw and honest and unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

The title, taken from Richard Adams’s Watership Down, is a reference to death, but also to rebirth.  And that is basically what this book is about:  two young people (damaged, as far as society is concerned) redeem their lives through their love for each other.  It is not smooth sailing, but then real love is messy and the novel captures that.

 As my first four-star "perfect" book of 2018 (and the first one I’ve read since November), I was obviously impressed by this literary debut.  The originality of the relationship and the beautiful way in which the story was delivered is a stunning achievement for Steiger. Brilliantly written, brutally frank, and unexpectedly touching, this is a love story that will haunt you!

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Secret Keeper, by Mitali Perkins

In 1974, Asha and her family are forced to move from their home in Delhi in with her father's family in Calcutta as Dad sets off to New York in search for work.  Living with grandmother, uncle, auntie, and cousins is challenging as tempers and finances become strained.  Asha and her sister struggle with preventing their mother from retreating into depression.  Meanwhile, the sister is being aggressively courted and the family is pressuring her to marry.  Asha mourns the loss of the freedoms she enjoyed back home as she is subjected to her uncle's family's more traditional ways.  Only the presence of an unusual boy next door gives her some escape.  When tragedy strikes the family, even that source of happiness has to be sacrificed in this bittersweet coming of age novel.

Full of beautiful cultural detail, this is a haunting tale of family, love, and loyalty. I found it deeply moving as it addressed the types of sacrifices that a family will make for survival.  Interspersed within the sadness are wonderful moments of humanity and humor that made the story come alive.

The Dangerous Art of Blending, by Angelo Surmelis

Greek-American Evan lives in a perilous state with an abusive mother and ineffectual father.  His mother is convinced that Evan is gay and that she must literally beat the "evil" out of him.  In truth, he is gay, but keeps that secret tightly closeted for fear of what would happen if his mother's fears were validated.  Trying to blend in and not be noticed, neither his sexual orientation nor the abuse he endures sees the light of day.  When his crush Henry decided to come out, however, a series of events crash through the barriers that Evan has set up that compartmentalize his life and uproot his attempts to fit in.

This brutal story strains credulity, but since it is loosely autobiographical I feel compelled to accept the author’s explanation at face value.  While decent therapy for Surmelis, I didn’t find the story itself or the characters to be all that interesting.  The evil mother is ironically the most complex character of the bunch but even she keeps hitting the same notes.  There’s not much romantic heat between Evan and Henry (or anyone else).  Overall, the story just treads water between scenes of horrific abuse.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Love, Hate, & Other Filters, by Samira Ahmed

Maya Aziz dreams of studying film at NYU and making movies, but for her parents there can be only one future for her: pre-law or pre-med at a school nearby in her home state of Illinois.  And marriage, of course, to a nice Indian Muslim like herself.  They have even found the right boy for her, who in truth is actually a very sweet guy.

Honestly, there are times when all of this appeals to Maya. It would be so easy to just please her parents and follow the path they have chosen for her.  And when a domestic terrorist strikes close to home, staying close by makes some sense.  But it doesn't work for her:  not the boy or the school or giving in to her parents' suffocating fears.  But this isn't just about coming to terms with her parents, because when Muslims are considered suspect by a large number of America, how does Maya live her life in a way that is true to herself?

Exploring Indian-American Muslim identity both through the lens of reconciling modernism and tradition and with racism, Ahmed bites off a lot.  Her decision to include the politics and aftermath of an act of domestic terrorism sits uneasily on this novel in alternating chapters (the two threads never actually cross paths), but it helps to make the story more than the typical conflict of modern yearnings versus traditional elders.  Maya's a great character in the way that she stands up for herself and has a clear vision of how she wants to conduct her life, but there's not a lot of depth elsewhere.  That's alright as the latter half of the book is compelling stuff and I sped through it.

Trafficked, by Kim Purcell

Promised an opportunity to earn money and go to school in the United States, Hannah is lured from Moldova to Los Angeles to work for a Russian emigre family.  There, the family she is working for enslaves her and makes her work inhumane hours.

But that is only part of the story.  As she is figuring out that she has been tricked, she also finds out that her “host” family knows a tremendous amount of detail about her and her family.  It is as if she has been targeted and the fact that she was solicited by and that ended up with this particular family is not nearly as random as it at first seemed.

Nightmarish in the conditions it describes, this is a suspenseful page turner.  There are a few factual inaccuracies (Purcell really struggles with Russian names), but the details about human trafficking and how it works resonated with the true stories in the news.  It’s a terribly unpleasant story and one that is hard to call enjoyable, but it is compelling.  That said, this is an all-action story, with little interest in character development.  The host family are basically evil and an attempt to create a romance with the boy next door is largely a wasted subplot.