Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Rest of the Story, by Sarah Dessen


After her father’s wedding, while Dad and his new wife are honeymooning in Greece, the plan was for Emma to stay at her friend’s house.  And when that plan falls through, the only option that they can come up with is to send Emma to stay with her maternal grandmother in North Lake.

Emma has only ever been to North Lake once (when she was four) and has no memory of the visit.  But before her mother died, Emma used to love to hear stories of the Lake, even if the stories always seemed a bit fantastic and surreal.

Once there, Emma discovers that while she has no memory of the place, she has an eclectic family and old friends that do.  They even call her by her middle name ("Saylor") despite her efforts to explain that everyone back home calls her "Emma." They have plenty of stories about her mother (and father) that fill in gaps for that Emma has always wondered about (e.g., how her parents really met, why her father never brought her back to visit, etc.).

The time goes by quickly and when her parents return to the States and come to get her, she finds that she wants to spend more time with this side of the family she doesn't know.  It's then that she finds just how alienated her father is from the North Lake relations.  Saylor/Emma is torn between the sides, a conflict only resolved by an Act of God.

A touching story of southern family life, with all the poignancy for which Dessen is renown.  The writing is beautiful, even if the template is so well-worn: the intelligent young woman who wrestles with her family for autonomy, the outsider boy who is intelligent and responsible, and a tight group of friends who spend the summer goofing off.  One of these days, Dessen will write a dystopian and surprise me, but for now, it’s a template that works.

In comparison with her more recent books, this is stronger take on her perennial themes.  There are a lot of characters, but surprisingly, they can be sorted out.  And the story, which does resort to melodrama in the end, is generally interesting with a touch of humor at the right moments.  And for those who are regular Dessen readers, you can be assured that Spinnerbait appears!

Internment, by Samira Ahmed


In a near future United States, Muslims are rounded up by the Exclusion Authority and sent to relocation camps, seventeen year-old Layla and her parents among them.  The camp they are sent to is located in a remote desert camp (ironically near by the Manzanar camp used to detain Japanese Americans during WWII).  While Layla's initial concern is with the deprivation of her civil rights, things take a nastier turn is she finds her resistance met with extreme cruelty at the hands of a sadistic camp administrator.

Mixing together elements of Japanese relocation, the internment centers for migrants and asylum seekers of the current day, and tossing in familiar current politics, Internment is a dystopian with a no-apologies agenda.  That has gotten it a lot of attention from both sides and can make reviewing the novel a bit of a challenge.  I'm more than sympathetic with the political agenda, but overall I found this a blunt and exploitative instrument.

The thing about dystopians is that they work primarily because they are subtle.  They can be read a literature, without even considering their political agenda.  But there is nothing subtle about this novel.  Like a social media echo chamber, this is all about momentary indignation with atrocity layered on top of atrocity.  Occasional moments of reasoning and insight exist in the story, but they get swept aside pretty quickly for latest outrage.

The most egregious problem for me, though, wasn't the dumbed-down politics, but the adversary.  The camp administrator (whose obesity is excessively mentioned) is so over-the-top and such a paper tiger that he’s basically comic relief.  That provides a way-too-easy way out in the end. If Ahmed really wanted to write the “courageous” book she claims to have written, she would never have made evil so easy to wipe out.  The evil that would create these camps is not going to be defeated by people chanting slogans, it’s going to take some hard looks at the forces that drive people to accept such policies.  And it's not as if Ahmed doesn't know this (she brings it up on several occasions) but in the interest of actually resolving institutional racism and xenophobia in the confines of her novel she's oversimplified and then deftly "resolved" the problem.  It's too bad that life isn't that simple and I don't feel that this novel serves any higher good.  At best, this gives false confidence to left-wing Americans that they can defeat Trump simply by saying "resist."

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs

The Kingdom of Greeve is plagued by a dragon, an evil witch, and a horde of bandits. To rid his kingdom of these woes, the King has announced that he'll give the hand of his daughter to whatever prince can do the job.  Princess Margaret, however, has entirely different ideas.  Resentful of being locked away in a tower for whatever prince comes along, she manages to escape and seeks to rid her kingdom of the pests herself, and kick out all the dumb princes to boot!

In fact, it is really the latter that are the greatest problem.  The dragon is just a baby, the witch is kind, and the bandits are simply taking from the rich to give to the poor.  But the princes are a menace!  Prince Vantor, the worst of the bunch,  means to win the competition at any cost, even if it involves kidnapping the Princess.  But with help from her maid Dilly, the gardener boy Cam, and the young wizard Lex, Meg will figure the whole thing out.

Not really sure if it wants to be adventure or comedy, this tongue-in-cheek fractured fairy tale sometimes falls very flat.  Still, it's light and action-packed.  With well over a dozen major characters, the action gets a bit chaotic by the end but I'm pretty sure that everything gets wrapped up.  And Meg even gets to start taking sword fighting lessons (and toss aside her hated embroidery)!

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Saving Red, by Sonya Sones

Molly and her emotional-support dog Pixie are stuck in the middle of doing last-minute community service work when they meet Red.  Without a lot of options for completing her assignment, Molly's participating in a census of homeless people in Santa Monica.  While she's certainly been aware of the homeless, she's never given them much thought until now.  Red, a young woman of about her age, strikes home in a way for which Molly is not prepared.

Molly becomes obsessed with helping her, but Red is distrustful and rejects Molly's advances.  As the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Molly is just as in need of help.  She may have a physical structure over her head, but she is nearly as abandoned by her absent parents, her family torn apart by a tragedy.  The relationship, remaining tentative and never entirely trusting, becomes mutually respectful.

The ultimate resolution of this story-in-verse is both an affirmation of life and a sobering reminder that problems like mental illness and homelessness are not easily solved.  Sones takes advantage of the ambiguity of verse to let questions that are unanswerable stay unanswered, while leaving us with hope.  Molly and Red are both compelling characters and their relationship complex and subtly interdependent, as the savior becomes the saved.  A romantic subplot involving a boy that Molly meets early in the novel is probably the major weak point -- a distraction in a story that didn't need a pretty boy in it -- but Sones always does romance so sweetly that it's hard to begrudge her a few pages of love poetry.  This is certainly not Sones's best work, but it is still a decent read and a good use of verse in a novel.

Extraordinary Birds, by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

In the time in which December has been shunted from one foster home to another, she's learned never to expect permanency in her life.  But that's alright, because she has a secret:  some day she'll complete her transformation into a bird and fly away.  Birds have simple needs: they only need to survive.  December looks forward to that simpler life.

In the meantime, she's been placed with Eleanor, a woman whose love of birds speaks to December's heart.  Eleanor introduces December to animal rehab work and helps December reconnect with her own humanity.  A subplot involving December's friendship with a transgender classmate hangs awkwardly in the story, but provides some room to expand on December's unrecognized ability to empathize.

Ultimately heartwarming, the story is driven by December's comments about the differences and similarities between birds and humans. Perhaps a bit overly precocious for her age, these observations nonetheless will prove enjoyable to readers who love birds in the first place.  The story of how Eleanor's patient and gentle rescue of December will appeal to everyone.