Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Secret Side of Empty, by Maria E. Andreu

M. T. is a bright student and ought to have a great future ahead of her.  But instead, she has a huge black cloud hanging over her:  her legal status.  While she's lived most of her life in America, she was brought here illegally and she is undocumented.  So, instead of planning for college, she lives in fear that she and her family will be discovered and deported.  Worse, she fears that someone would report her, so she keeps her fears secret.  But as her senior year wraps up, the realization that her friends are leaving and moving on leads her into depression and despair, and becomes unbearable.

Andreu captures rather nicely the sharp contrast between M. T.'s school life (full of friends, romance, and parties) and the grim reality that she and her family face (poverty, fear, and violence), and the corrosive effect of living that split existence.  I'm not sure that we needed the domestic violence and the self-abuse themes (especially since so much of those threads remains underdeveloped), but the real triumph of the book is capturing the pain of living a double life.  And while one could latch onto M. T.'s story as a tribute to DREAMers, the strength of this novel is it lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

None of the Above, by I. W. Gregorio

After a traumatic sexual experience with her boyfriend, eighteen year-old Kristin visits an OB-GYN to find out what is wrong with her.  She learns that she has a genetic abnormality called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) which has left her with an ambiguous sexual identity.  Outwardly, she appears to be a female but internally she has no uterus.  She has two hernia which are actually underdeveloped gonads.  Kristin is, as her doctor explains, "intersex."

The idea that Kristin is not a "true" girl is hard for her to accept.  She's a track star on the girl's team.  She has a boyfriend.  She's even the homecoming queen!  And she's been a girl all of her life.  Kristin needs time to process it.  But when she mistakenly entrusts her secret and confides her situation to her best friends, she is betrayed and the matter is made public.  At school, many of her peers are shocked and turn against her in disgust.  Her boyfriend outright rejects her.  And, as Kristin realizes that this is only the beginning, she despairs that she will never find a place in a binary world where she doesn't fit.

I knew very little about AIS (although I imagine we covered it briefly in a genetics course).  Prior to reading this book, I would have even described Kristin as a "hermaphrodite" without realizing that the term was considered offensive.  I knew nothing about the complications of the condition or the treatments that are pursued.  Thus, the novel taught me a lot.  At the same time, the book sometimes seemed to forget that it was a work of fiction.  Teens would break character and start rolling out detailed explanations of the condition, doctors would conveniently start supplying copious medical facts, other characters would spout wisdom from web pages.  I get that Gregorio has a mission here (and I even respect that mission!) but there's a fine line between telling a story and lecturing the reader.  Getting that balance is very tricky.  Here, it works sometimes and sometimes it doesn't.

At a time when transexuality has gotten so much attention, it's fascinating to explore the concept of intersexuality.  Previously, I would have considered them to be one and the same, but this book has taught me that they are different.  On that basis alone, I would recommend it.  The fact that the novel is quite readable and the characters are sympathetic (and mostly authentic) makes it a strong recommendation.

Friday, June 26, 2015

I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

Jude and Noah were as close as twins could be even through all of their differences.  At fourteen, Jude was the popular normal one, while her brother was always a bit eccentric and an outcast (partly because he was secretly harboring homosexual urges).  Both of them were artistic and they were both applying to art school.  But of the two of them, Noah had the best chance of being accepted. 

Two years later, they no longer even talk to each other.  Noah has given up art, become a jock, and has a devoted girlfriend.  Jude is the only one in art school but is perennially unhappy with her work.  Driven to produce a life-defining work (and to do so in stone), she is directed to a reclusive and bitter sculptor who has his own set of baggage.  Surprisingly, he and his assistant also hold the key to sorting out what destroyed Jude and Noah closeness.

Like all good tragedies, the interesting part is in unraveling the confluence of events that explains what happened.  Nelson weaves a tight story that unwinds slowly with just enough false leads to keep things interesting.  The characters are well-developed and multi-faceted.  It’s well-written and a good read.

I wouldn’t mind jumping on the bandwagon of praise for this book (winner of this year’s Printz award, NYT best seller, etc.) except for one small matter:  it’s not a young adult novel.  Rather, like The Book Thief and Criss Cross (to cite a few other egregious examples), this is an adult book that is being marketed to YA readers simply because the characters are adolescents.  I get that the YA market is lucrative, but there’s a lot more to writing a book for young adults.  For one thing, write a book that addresses the process of growing up or deal with issues that matter to them.  With all the talk about aesthetics and regret (without the usual angst), this has adult sensibility all over it.   Not to say that advanced readers couldn’t handle this book or wouldn’t enjoy it, but that doesn’t make it YA. and giving the preeminent award for teen fiction to a book simply because librarians like it is insulting to the many talented writers that really have an ear for young readers.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Girl Defective, by Simmone Howell

Skylark, her little brother Gully, and their dad live by a second-hand record shop run by their father in the beach town of St. Kilda.  Mom left them to become a famous performance artist in Japan and Skylark passes time posting confrontational messages on her website, while sitting in the store and ogling a hot new co-worker.  Gully obsessively wears a pig snout on his face and communicates through detective "reports" that he regularly issues.  It's an interest he gets to cultivate further when an unknown vandal lobs a brick through their store window.  There are other mysteries, including a drowned girl, a new friend for Skylark at school, the search for the ultimate single, and the role of a sexy singer wearing a fox mask.

Aussie YA always seems a bit weird and generally has never appealed to me.  This particular example is weirder than most and awkward in the way it tries so hard and so self-consciously to be hip.  The story is a mess, following no discernible trajectory.  Without a story I cared about, I found keeping up with the cast of characters to be nearly impossible.  I suspect that simply lost the track altogether because I couldn't figure out what was going on.  All of which may raise to mind the old chestnut that you shouldn't review a book that I don't understand.  But, really, why should reading a book be such a chore?

Friday, June 19, 2015

My Best Friend, Maybe, by Caela Carter

Years ago, Coley and Sadie were best friends, but they grew up and grew apart.  Coley never quite understood why and Sadie never explained.  So, when Sadie invites Coley out of the blue to join her family for a wedding in Greece, Coley doesn’t know what to think.  And Sadie won’t offer any explanation. 

By all rights, Coley should turn her down. Not only is the invitation weird, but Coley already has plans to go on a mission to Costa Rica with her boyfriend.  And her parents will never approve.  But Coley desperately wants to understand what happened to their friendship and she realizes that this may be the only way that she ever finds out the answer.

There are many good books about friendship, and we’ve certainly been to Greece before (with the traveling pants or with the thirteen little blue envelopes), but this is a standout example of the genre.  In its beautiful setting, Carter tackles numerous subjects (most of which I can’t reveal without spoiling the latter part of the book) and does so with great sensitivity.  I’d compare it to Jenny Han’s magnificent books on love and friendship.  And while there is a steamy romantic lead, this is in the end a story about two young women trying to figure out who they are and what they mean to each other.  Touching, beautiful, and achingly honest.

Stray, by Elissa Sussman

Princess Aislynn has always tried to be a good girl and follow the Path faithfully and stay pure.  However, her best intentions seem to be thwarted by accidental discharges of magic.  Magic is destructive and a young woman's duty is to be obedient and learn to control it if she has any hope of being married.  But instead of focusing on learning that self-control, Aislynn has been trying (unsuccessfully) to hide her magic.  After an unfortunate incident at a Ball, she finds herself "redirected" to a career as a caregiver for princesses.  In that new role, she begins to discover a conspiracy that threatens the rules Aislynn has always followed and she finds herself tempted to stray.

A strikingly vivid fantasy with some heavy handed, but ultimately enchanting parallels to real-world adolescence.  The balls, princesses, and dreams of marriage are more traditional fantasy fodder, but Sussman has darker ambitions.  Magic (the "curse" it is called) is a metaphor for female empowerment. And the young women's struggle with containing their passion bring them face to face with the authorities and simultaneously with personal madness.  I like this idea -- imagining what a patriarchy would do when it found that women are the sole owners of a very powerful internal force.  And both how it poisons the relationships between the women as well as the image issues it promotes in the young women themselves.  There's even veiled references to cutting as Aislynn subjects herself to self-abuse when she privately releases the magic inside of her.  It's sort of as if Shannon Hale (and her Princess Academy) met up with Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale.  Powerful stuff!

Still, at the end, Sussman takes a detour into action mode, with the introduction of an underdeveloped animal sidekick, a largely disposable skirmish in the woods, and a hard-to-follow battle of the sorceresses.  This is such a striking break from the more interesting psychological stuff in the rest of the book that I almost felt that I had picked up a few pages from another book altogether.  It is neither effective nor terribly interesting, making the ending messy.  There was also a lot of unfinished stuff at the end, which was largely done (one suspects) to take a book that could well have been self-contained and generate enough room for a sequel or a trilogy.  Up until the last sixty pages or so, however, I was really enjoying the tenor and themes of the book.  Perhaps the sequel will pick that good stuff back up again.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Opposite of Love, by Sarah Lynn Scheerger

"The opposite of love is not giving a damn," says Rose, and she should know.  Abandoned by her mother and adopted without any say by super strict (and largely clueless) foster parents, sixteen-year-old Rose feels trapped in her life.  They won't listen to her, so she has become mute.  And as she has grown non-communicative, they have shut virtually imprisoned her at home and cut her off from her friends (which makes her angrier and less communicative in a vicious cycle).  When she runs away leaving a goodbye note with her friends Chase and Becca on Christmas Eve, her friends completely freak out and race to track her down.  This precipitates a series of flashbacks in which we learn how Chase has had his own demons to deal with.  And how Chase and Rose have mostly been the blind leading the blind.

For most of the duration of the story, this seemed to be a novel about learning to rise above the hand life dealt and to break free of parental bonds, to learn to accept responsibility for yourself, and to make your life your own.  And while it does actually end up on that track, there's a sudden plot twist in the last forty pages which completely changes the way the story treads.  It drastically increases the stakes and adds all sort of complexities, and it is never foreshadowed.  As the book's message stays unchanged, I'll assert that the twist was unnecessary and distracting.  I won't spoil the ending for others, but it seemed like a sledgehammer delivery for a story that was getting there just fine on its own.  It also seemed like an easy out for a tale that called for subtlety, and replaced it with high stakes drama.

Friday, June 12, 2015

How To Speak Dolphin, by Ginny Rorby

Taking care of her severely autistic half-brother Adam has stretched Lily and her stepfather to their limits.  But getting help has been difficult because no one wants to deal with him.  Caregivers say he should be in a program to learn coping mechanisms, but Lily's stepfather (who is in denial about the scope of Adam's difficulties) resists the idea.  That is, until they discover the concept of Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT).  Adam has always loved dolphins and swimming with them makes him happy and seems to help him adapt.  It gives the family hope, but finding a program nearby is challenging.

When a young dolphin is rescued and is brought to a nearby commercial aquarium to recover, it is a rare opportunity.  Lily's stepdad is brought in the consult on the dolphin's care and, in exchange, the aquarium allows them to hold DAT sessions for Adam.  However, as Lily learns the aquarium's ulterior profit motive (and her father's willingness to abet it), she realizes that what might be helping her brother is harming the animal.  They need to end the therapy and let the dolphin go.  But how can she do this if it will hurt her brother?

The combination of a story about autism and about dolphins is busy.  Throw in a blind best friend, dad's complicated emotional response to his son's disability, and a dead mother and it gets more crowded than a Sea World tank!  But it all works.  Middle readers may find the extended depictions of Adam's behavior or the dolphin's activities to be a bit dull at points, but Rorby has done her homework and wants a chance to convey it.  The fact that she makes it all readable and interesting while also education is remarkable.  The end result is a satisfying story about family loyalty, empathy for other (animal and human), and learning to accommodate differences. And it's all wrapped up with a beautiful ending that threatens to make you bring out the Kleenexes but ultimately avoids sentimentality.

[Disclaimer:  I received a solicited copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  I'll be donating the book to my local public library.]

Falling Into Place, by Amy Zhang

Liz struggles to understand her physics class, but she thinks she may understand the Three Laws of Physics, at least as far as they have been manifested in her own life -- a series of actions and reactions.  That life is just about to end at the beginning of the book, she hopes, as she drives her car into a ravine on purpose.  In her reflection, it’s a miserable life full of cruelties she has committed against her peers and plenty of suffering that has been self-inflicted.  That may seem harsh, but through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, we slowly come to understand why she wants to die.

It’s a poetic and well-written story, but gruesome and relentless in its depiction of Liz and her friends – lives full of substance abuse, petty rivalries, and thoughtless cruelties.  It isn’t so much overblown (in fact, it all seemed quite realistic) but the truth is that Liz really isn’t a nice person.  And while her peers seem willing to forgive her, the reader is not necessarily going to be ready to do so.  At each point we understand her and start to absolve her, something even more horrible shows up to shock us again.  Overall, the portrait that Zhang provides of these teens is not flattering.  So, while well-written and plotted, it is a depressing and discouraging read.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Way Home Looks Now, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

In former days, Peter remembered how his older brother would always spar with their Dad over everything from how to play baseball to standing up for what was right (even if it meant protesting instead of studying).  But when it came to rooting on the home team, the family was united:  whether it was listening to the Pirates play or joining other Taiwanese-American families in Williamsport to root on Chinese Taipei demolish the Americans in the Little League World Series.  Baseball was a way that Peter's family came together.

But after Peter's older brother dies in an accident, the family falls apart.  His mother becomes withdrawn and non-communicative.  His father retreats into stern demands of his surviving son.  And Peter himself rejects baseball itself.  There is plenty to be glum about in the summer of 1972.  Nixon is reaching out to Mainland China to the inevitable disadvantage of Taiwan.  Major League baseball was on strike.  So, Peter hatches a plan to rescue his family and make the difference that his older brother always spoke of.

I'm not a big fan of sports stories, but baseball is always an easy sell.  Combine some reader-friendly sports action with family reconciliation, a tough father who loves his children, and a healthy dose of social consciousness raising, and you get a winning story.  It doesn't hurt that the story was based in part on real events, that the historical details are so pitch perfect and interesting, or that Shang painlessly teaches us a lot about baseball along the way.

[Disclosure:  I received a solicited reviewers copy in exchange for my unbiased review.  After completing this review, I will be donating the book to my local public library.]

A Different Me, by Deborah Blumenthal

For years, Allie has wanted to change her nose.  As she starts to research the process of rhinoplasty (i.e., a nose job), she meets two other girls on-line who are planning on having the same procedure.  Each girl has their own reason.  And as the young women go through their procedures, they respond differently.  And, as they do, Allie begins to question what she is hoping to accomplish.  Input from friends at school and the intervention of a romantic interest play a role as well.

The novel follows a predictable dramatic arc and reaches a conclusion that -- while sweet and poignant -- is basically predictable.  I don't mind having a decent old chestnut (i.e., beauty comes from within) rehashed, but this edition of it is crowded with characters.  Less, in my opinion, is always more and when you need a scorecard to keep track of all the people who come and go, one wonders if the tale would have been simpler with fewer of them.  It certainly would have allowed more space for character development and proving the worth of their inclusion.  As is, the romantic lead is pretty much thrown away.  And some of the cameos (like a brief appearance by a teen-aged author) are bizarre non-sequiturs.