Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Silence Between Us, by Alison Gervais

Moving to Colorado poses challenges for Maya and her little brother.  Maya has been deaf since a case of meningitis a few years ago, but she's felt protected by being in a school for the deaf.  With the move to Colorado, she's forced to attend regular school, using an interpreter in her classes.  It's hard work lip reading and following her interpreter's signing, and it's painful to be an object of stares and gossip from her peers.  But what gets at Maya the most is the judgment that she senses that the hearing folks have about her condition.  They seem only capable of pity and she sees that they assume that she is miserable being deaf.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  she likes being who she is.

Her year presents other challenges:  her little brother is sick, she faces discrimination from peers/teachers/employers, and fights pressure from various sources that want her to get a cochineal implant so she won't have to "endure" being deaf.  Meanwhile, she surprises herself by falling in love with Beau.  Beau is a bright and intelligent boy who teaches himself sign language so he can talk with her and has plans to go to Yale, but has dreams of his own that he doesn't dare reveal.

It's a very busy little story, full of ideas, but Gervais really struggles to tie them together and resolve them.  The strength of the book is its glimpse inside of the character of a deaf teenager.  Gervais works hard to show what communicating with a mix of lip reading, signing, and speech is like.  The novel also touches on a variety of important issues for deaf people ranging from the history of disability rights to discrimination, and pays special attention to the debate over children getting implants.  But as a story, nothing really comes together and I felt very little emotional connection with the characters or sensed much of one between them.  Gervais has an episodic format, focusing on her challenges, but that doesn't give us much room to develop a character and doesn't create an organic flow.  A major casualty is the underdeveloped romance with Beau.  Subplots (like Beau's conflict with his father or Maya's brother's health issues) are just left to lay there.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

It's My Life, by Stacie Ramey

Jenna's always been a fighter.  Born with cerebral palsy, she's been through countless treatments and surgeries, and endured the challenges of crutches and wheelchairs.  She's worked hard because she's felt that her condition was simply bad luck.  When she uncovers the fact that she was the subject of a medical malpractice suit against her obstetrician, she comes to realize that it was her doctor's fault that made her this way.  Angry at not ever being told the truth, she gives up on her studying and starts to demand a voice in her own treatment.  And when her parents refuse to consent to the latter, she sues them for medical emancipation.

At the same time, Julian, a boy that Jenna once knew from years ago, has moved back into the area.  He's lost much of his confidence but none of his charm, and Jenna reaches out to him, rekindling memories.  But afraid of being rejected, she sends him anonymous.  These develop into mutual affection.  But now Jenna is afraid that if she reveals herself to him as the correspondent that he'll reject her because she is crippled.  Eventually, of course, all must be revealed.

Great characters, including a surprisingly strong finish from Jenna's parents, coupled with a lot of growth from Jenna makes this a moving story.  But I still found it a hard slog because of the uneven pacing and storytelling.  Important details are easy to miss in a story that frequently seems to drift.  Key plot points are poorly explained, leaving mysteries that the reader has to work hard to figure out.  It doesn't help that the two separate stories don't overlap and never come together.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Me, Him, Them, and It, by Caela Carter

Evelyn ("me") is pretty surprised when she finds herself pregnant.  She'd only let Todd ("him") have unprotected sex a couple of times! She was getting a prescription for the Pill when they found out it was too late.  Telling her estranged parents ("them") about it is incredibly difficult, but she'e eventually going to have to find a way to do so.  In the end the baby ("it") is coming, whether she's ready for it or not.  And for the most part, she's definitely not ready!

Evelyn is a very difficult character to get into.  Reviewers have compared her to Juno (from the eponymous indie film), but I think of her as more like Cher (from Clueless -- or Emma, Cher's model).  She's lost and confused but also maddeningly stubborn and difficult to like.  She sees everything negatively.  She hates everyone (including herself).  Her best trait is her steadfast refusal to make decisions.

Some of these flaws are understandable.  She has emotionally cold parents and no role-model for empathy, but she's intelligent and insightful.  So her inability to overcome those barriers (and yes, she never overcomes them) is off-putting.  It's also understandable that the decisions she needs to make would be hard for any adolescent, but plenty of them do make the decisions, so Evelyn's refusal to even try is hard to sympathize with.  But it's realistic.

So, I'm left with a conundrum:  the novel's well written with a complex protagonist, well-drawn supporting characters, and (with the exception of some minor rushing of the story at the end) decent storytelling, but it's not a fun read.  I didn't like Evelyn but I found her authentic enough to care about her and that's a strong mark in this book's favor.  Ultimately, I didn't find it a redeeming story, but I learned things from it.  I think few authors have done as good of a job at getting inside the head of a pregnant adolescent girl before and Carter does an amazing job.  In Evelyn's case, it's not a pleasant place to visit.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Lucky Caller, by Emma Mills

When Nina signs up for an elective in radio broadcasting in her senior year, she finds herself stuck with a bunch of misfits and an old friend, Jamie.  She and Jamie haven't talked much since an unfortunate kissing dare back in middle school, despite the fact that they live in the same apartment building.  But now that they are working together, the opportunity arises for a lot of old baggage and forgotten feelings to  reemerge.

At the same time, the radio show causes Nina to reconnect with her estranged father.  A local celebrity when he was a DJ in the area (before moving out West and becoming a major star), Nina talks him into appearing on their radio show as an attempt to boost their ratings and improve their grade.  But when a rumor starts up that the upcoming "surprise guest" on their show is actually an underground musical recluse named Tyler Blight, the event blows up into a major event.  Faced with disappointment from rabid fans who are planning to attend the broadcast of the interview, Nina and her team have to figure out a way to manage the event.  But when Nina's Dad bails out and fails to show, an unexpected angel saves the day.

A bit of a messy plot (including a romance that never really clicks and a family reunion that peters out), Lucky Caller is rescued by an ending which is as heart warming as it is completely ridiculous.  Surprisingly, none of the loose ends really start to bother you until you have finished the book.  It's a feel good story with lots of good ideas, most of which never quite gel or come together, but it remains enjoyable throughout.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Orpheus Girl, by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Living in her small conservative town is dangerous for sixteen year-old Raya and her lover Sarah.  They've seen how the town deals with other kids who come out as homosexuals, but they feel powerless to avoid the certain outcome.  While they try to keep their relationship a secret, they are eventually found out and sent away to a remote conversion camp:  to be made un-gay.

The rest of this short book outlines the horrifying torture that Raya, Sarah, and other teens undergo in misguided attempts to "cure" their sexual orientation.  The author tries to give the story some weight by drawing analogies to Grecian myths, but these are fairly subtle and likely to be overlooked.  The storytelling is anything but and comes with a content warning, but compared to similar YA novels, I wouldn't consider this story particularly triggering, even if it is certainly not a pleasant read.

More fundamentally, the story is thin.  Raya and her background as a closet lesbian in her small town is an interesting story.  Similarly interesting is Char, a "cured" lesbian who now works at the camp administering electroshock therapy.  But neither they nor the other characters are all that well developed.  The book has shock value, but without much character development this is largely senseless.  More character study could have added gravitas to what is just pretty words about ugly things.  For a better treatment of the same subject matter, see The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Three Things I Know Are True, by Betty Culley

Clay and Liv always enjoyed playing Three Things down by the river.  The rules are simple:  one person provides the subject and other has to respond with three facts about that subject.  The only restriction is that all three of those things have to be true.

Truth used to be easy, but it's grown considerably harder since Liv's brother Jonah was injured while Jonah and Clay were fooling around with a gun that belonged to Clay's father.  Now Jonah lies comatose, hooked up to numerous machines (his new "friends" thinks Liv and she gives them all names) and tended by home nurses around the clock.  While it was Jonah who basically shot himself, the gun was left out unattended and Liv's mother is thus suing Clay's father for Jonah's care.  For Liv who misses having Clay around and for Clay who misses his best friend, it is hard to know where loyalties should lay.  Culley's verse novel explores these ambiguities and how one moves on from such a tragedy.

Novels in verse, as I always warn, can be very good, but they are frequently bad.  This one does not stand out.  The poetry is rarely interesting in and of itself, neither in structure nor in content.  Culley simply doesn't have much to say about the tragic set-up that she's created.  There's some attempts at speaking about the river that flows by their home.  The Three Things game comes up as a repeating motif.  But no great drama comes brings the story to a climax and in the end the characters peter out in their own ways, none of them learning much in the process.  The verse in the end mostly serves as a way to take a fairly thin story and stretch it out into over 400 pages.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Girl Who Speaks Bear, by Sophie Anderson

Discovered in the woods when she was a baby, Yanka has never quite felt like she fit in her village.  For one thing, she's so much stronger than the other children.  Her Mamochka watches her closely and seems overly protective, keeping Yanka as far away from the forest as she can.

One day, after she's turned twelve, Yanka wakes to find that her legs have turned into those of a bear.  Afraid of what the villagers will think of her transformation, she flees into the woods.  As she does so, she is reminded of a story that a woodsman named Anatoly told her about a girl whose family were cursed with living their lives as bears.  In fact, as she ventures in deeper, she begins to realize that a whole series of fairy tales she has heard over the years address her current predicament.  Anatoly the woodsman wasn't just telling her stories, he was trying to tell her about her own life.

The stories, which are delightful in their own right, are interspersed throughout Yanka's quest -- a trek that will include defeating a dragon, saving a magic tree, and eventually risking everything to save her village from a raging forest fire.  Each fairy tale, while a digression, serve as an oracle of what is to come,  in an ambitious attempt to demonstrate the role of fairy tale and myth in culture.

While this novel is more ambitious, I found Anderson's first novel (The House with Chicken Feet) more whimsical and fun.  Both books borrow creatively from Russian folk tale, but this second time around there is a lot more ground to cover and a plot which is more complicated and oft times confusing.  The endless feats that Yanka must confront and overcome become exhausting and one wonders if Anderson could have trimmed it down.  It certainly feels, in all that complexity, that the magical simplicity of a fairy tale is basically lost.