Thursday, July 04, 2024

The Worst Perfect Moment, by Shivaun Plozza

Tegan is dead, killed while riding her bike.  But heaven isn't anything like she expected it. Instead of clouds and pearly gates, she'd found herself at the Marybelle Motor Lodge in New Jersey.  The motel is hardly a happy memory -- this was the place where her father took her and her young sister after their mother walked out on them.  It was the place where he promptly had a four-day breakdown and Tegan had to take care of her sister.  It is not any sort of afterlife that Tegan ever imagined.

But that's exactly what it is, explains Zelda, a smart aleck girl Tegan's age who appears at the motel's front office.  She's Tegan's angel (she even has the wings to prove it!) and she's reconstructed the Marybelle in all its run-down glory because she's convinced that the absolute happiest moment of Tegan's life was during the time she spent here.  And that being so, it is the place where Tegan will now be spending all of eternity.  Tegan is flabbergasted and horrified, insisting that this is in fact the worst moment of her life and that Zelda has made a mistake.

The two girls tussle over this matter until Tegan learns that she can appeal her angel's decision and sets in motion a process of review.  Within the next month, Zelda must convince Tegan that the Marybelle was actually Tegan's moment of "peak happiness" or the forces of heaven will accept that a mistake was made, with grave and dire consequences for both tegan and Zelda.

The end result is a sort of YA This Is Your Life as Zelda takes Tegan traveling through time to highlight particularly pivotal moments in her sixteen years that gradually unravel the mystery of why Zelda believes that Tegan needs the Marybelle.  Along the way a very unusual romance develops between Tegan and Zelda and the notion of "perfect happiness" takes a bit of a beating.  

YA books about the afterlife are always a curious genre (Zevin's Elsewhere is my personal favorite) as they doesn't seem like they have an obvious go-to topic.  What teen really frets about dying or wants to read about what happens after death?  But nonetheless, some of the most creative work is done in books like this.  Plozza's vision of the afterlife is a bit dark and malevolent for my tastes, but largely she makes it out to be like an alternative high school, complete with a really cool guidance counselor, a cranky office secretary, and various hapless assistant principals. She posits that a successful life in heaven consists of being at peace with the mistakes and regrets of your prior life (but then allows Tegan to challenge those ideas).  The conclusion that heaven itself is flawed will give theologians headaches.  Regardless, the book's weightier themes are refreshing.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Thirsty, by Jas Hammonds

For the last couple of years, Blake, her BFF Annetta, and her girlfriend Ella have had the same dream:  get accepted at Jameswell College and pledge the Serena Society.  For Annetta and Ella, joining the Serena Society means following in their mothers' footsteps.  For Blake, whose parents did not go to college, Serena a gateway to a new world.  The Serena Society is a sorority for women of color, populated with some of the most influential women in the country.  Membership means a lifetime of networking and support, and an opportunity to enter a world of power and privilege that Blake can only dream of.  But she knows that, unlike her friends, she doesn't really belong there, so she does everything she can to fit in and be liked.

And for Blake, being liked has come easiest when she's drinking and  acting the life of the party.  The fact that she blacks out and does irresponsible and dangerous things when she drinks doesn't initially bother her because everyone occasionally drinks to excess, don't they?  And anyway, Ella assures her that it's fine.  But as Blake's behavior starts to hurt her friendship with Annetta and strain relations with her own family, Blake starts to wonder if she's gone too far.  With the future of her candidacy at Serena on the line, Blake must make choices between her friends, her family, and her dreams.

Tackling racism, classism, transphobia, alcoholism, suicidal ideation, and many other triggering subjects, this is one very busy story!  Blake, in a word, has issues: mostly, problems with confidence but tinged by family tensions and her discomfort with being mixed race.  That lack of confidence makes her easy pickings for the toxic affection of her abusive girlfriend.  The whole business of pledging Serena just pours gasoline on this smoldering mess.  Of it all, alcohol dependency is actually the least of her issues.  Her real "thirst" is for self-respect and she's not good at finding a potable supply.

I think this was a really good book and I was very impressed with how it dealt with its many issues.  It's one of the few books on racism that I've read that didn't feel like it was lecturing me (even though I was most certainly learning).  It's a bit of a spoiler, but the fact that Serena does not end the book at an AA meeting took me by surprise.  And the relationship between Blake and Ella ends with a lot more nuance than I was expecting.  I haven't read Hammonds first novel, We Deserve Monuments, but I'm now very intrigued and may well go back and do so.  Original and profound, with a strong uncompromising voice.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Yeah, I know, it's not exactly a new book.  In fact, it's been over seventeen years since it came out.  So, sue me.  I'd claim that it just slipped through the cracks, but I think at the time I thought the book was overhyped and just couldn't get into it.  Plus, it was about a boy and I read very very few of those books.  It's not so much that I hate male protagonists, but I always find the profanity-heavy, gross-out humor, and violence inherent in books about adolescent boys to be either off-putting or too close to home.  In any case, I have never gotten around to reading it until now, when my wife picked it up in our local Free Library, brought it home and read it, and slipped it into my "to read" pile.

Junior is a typical Indian kid living on the rez in western Washington.  And in case we don't know what that means, Junior spends a good part of the book explaining his life.  The humor, dry and full of homoerotic violence, works surprisingly well at explaining some pretty hard truths about reservation life -- poverty, alcoholism, and general dispair -- while keeping the story from getting overwhelmed by the miserable conditions.

Junior's a smart kid but the reservation school can't offer him many opportunities.  Kids on the reservation don't go to college.  So, a concerned teacher encourages him to transfer to a white high school off the reservation to give him a chance.  Doing so, he faces overt racism from his new classmates and the ir community, but over time he wins over the people there.  Back home, things don't go so well as his tribe sees his decision as a betrayal of the tribe.  In the end, Junior finds a balance between his ambition to succeed and his respect for the traditions from which he comes.

The great strength of the book is its complete unwillingness to romanticize Indian life.  Some of this is done with the humor, but never too far from the surface is a strong caution that there is nothing particularly glorious or redeeming about the reservation.  And that the problems that Indians face are particularly complex and rooted in both external and internal forces.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The Someday Daughter, by Ellen O'Clover

Seven years before she was born, Audrey was already famous.  Her mother made her career from the blockbuster self-help book Letters to My Someday Daughter and so, once Audrey was born, everyone wanted to know what it was like to be the "someday daughter."

It sucks.  As a result of being constantly in the spotlight of nosy suburban mothers, every major event in Audrey's life became a media event.  Audrey, herself, is simply a prop for her Mom to bring out and talk about.  And like so many therapists, Audrey's Mom is particularly dreadful at caring for others in her private life.  Audrey is alternatingly humiliated and ignored.

Audrey nonetheless has been a success.  She is going to Johns Hopkins pre-med in the fall and the summer is supposed to be spent in an intensive program at Penn to get ready for her high-flying career plans.  But Audrey's Mom hijacks the plan, cancelling the Penn study so that Audrey can spend the summer with her instead, crossing the country for an anniversary book tour -- mother and someday daughter.  Audrey is livid but caves in (as she so often has done in the past) and goes on the trip.  To her immense surprise, the trip changes her life so that, by the end, she no longer sees either her mother or the future in the same way.

A brisk and engrossing read.  Good writing, a compelling cast of characters (the mother-daughter dynamic is spot-on and an emotional road accident you can't stop gawking at), and a briskly-paced story kept me flipping pages.  Only towards the end did it begin to drag for me, but some of that has to do with a brutal surprise plot twist that resets much of the story (although is surprisingly effective).  The romantic triangle is a bit limp, so don't hold out high expectations there, but I didn't care as long as there was Mommy Dearest to keep things burning along.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Painting the Game, by Patricia MacLachlan

Lucy has watched her father, a minor league pitcher with dreams of the Majors, practicing every day and she tries to copy him in her own pitching at the games she plays with the neighbors.  In her mother's words, a pitcher "paints the game" and Lucy dreams of doing that herself.  But pitching itself terrifies her and, while she loves doing it, she's scared to get on the mound in an actual game.  But she'll have to find the courage if she's going to realize her dream.

Unbeknownst to her father, she's even been practicing her Dad's knuckleball.  A knuckleball, for the uninitiated, is a particular type of throw which causes the ball to twitch and turn in an unpredictable fashion.  Difficult to throw, it is almost impossible to hit.  For Lucy, throwing out the perfect knuckleball would be a the ultimate dream, but she doesn't want to let her father know that she's learning it so she practices in secret.  In the end, she gets a unique and dramatic opportunity to reveal her secret.

A throwback to a much more innocent type of children's book, Patricia MacLachlan's final novel (published posthumously) is brief and spare.  And while it has the rough feel of something she hadn't quite finished (and perhaps never meant to), it a lovely self-contained gem.  MacLachlan's style, while ostensibly prose, has always had the feel of good free-verse poetry.  Her ability to establish themes -- courage, perfection, magic -- and spin them throughout her story through repetition and variation is a rare talent.  Here she brings together the dreams of all of her characters and, in the space of only 134 pages, brings them all to fruition.

This short love letter to baseball and fathers is a fitting swansong for one of the best authors of children's literature.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Wrong Way Home, by Kate O'Shaughnessy

Life on the Ranch, a remote community in upstate New York, is simple but predictable.  Living off the grid, eating only natural foods, and shunning contact with the outside world has giving Fern a stable life, but one that has left her ignorant.  And having spent over half her life there, the Ranch is pretty much all she knows.  So, when her mother hustles her out of the compound in the middle of the night and takes her across the country to the California coast, Fern is traumatized.  She loves her mother, but she loves the Ranch (and its leader Dr Ben) just as much.  And while Mom tries to acclimate her to the new life, Fern desparately wants to go back "home."

While Fern figures out how she is going to get back to the Ranch, she still has to get by.  Mom enrolls her in school, where she's exposed to a lot of new ideas and to children who have never lived by the ideals that Fern has accepted without question.  The exposure to others start to open her world and, while she is still committed to going back, she begins to question her loyalties.  The quirky people of the seaside village they are living in help her on that path.

A pleasant, well-written, and well-paced story that uses breaking free of a cult as a metaphor of the passage to adulthood.  This is a gentle middle-school variant of the theme and while some bad things (kidnapping, murder, and rape) are implied, nothing explicit is mentioned.  The result is a safe, mildly suspenseful story. Unremarkable, but enjoyable.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Kyra, Just for Today, by Sara Zarr

Things used to be really bad back when Kyra's mother was still drinking.  But five years ago, her Mom sobered up and started attending AA meetings.  Kyra too started going to her own meetings for kids with family members who have addiction issues.  And through group, Kyra got to know Lu, another girl at her school with a father who drinks.  They became best friends and confidants, which made coping a lot easier.

But as seventh grade begins, things are changing.  Lu is making new friends and doesn't seem to want to hang out as much.  She doesn't even always show up at group anymore.  It's as if Lu is embarassed by the whole thing and doesn't want her new friends to find out.  It could not happen at a worse time.  Kyra thinks her Mom has started drinking again and she really wishes she could talk with Lu about it, but Lu is avoiding her.

As things get worse, Kyra struggles to keep things together.  She knows that she can't solve her Mom's addiction, but when Mom is the only thing she has, she has to do something!  When a crisis occurs and Kyra finds herself truly on her own, she has to make a decision about whether she's going to let her mother hold her down or whether she's going to look out for herself and make a call for help that may get her mother in trouble.

Told with great sensitivity and insight (and obviously based on real-life experience), Kyra's struggles create a compelling story about love and the challenge of preserving familial love when it is being torn apart by the impact of addiction.  Written in a way that remains authentic, while being entirely age appropriate for middle school readers, Zarr has crafted a story that will resonate with children coming from similar situations.  One hopes that such a young reader will feel validated by this story.  However, I would offer a far more important wish that they have a good friend or two who will read this book and be better able to help their struggling friend through a deeper understanding.