Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Last Time We Say Goodbye, by Cynthia Hand

In the aftermath of her brother's suicide, Lexie comes to terms with her grief.  It grows so intense at time, that she becomes convinced that her brother's ghost is still lurking in their house and she seeks solace from a long-forgotten friend with an interest in the supernatural.  The process of grieving is lengthy and involves coming to peace with her parents and her friends, as well as  understanding what pushed her brother to the brink.

While Hand acknowledges that the story is inspired by her own tragedy, I'm prone to accept her assertion that it is a work of fiction.  Still, having lost a loved one to suicide obviously helps her to flesh out a story which is rich with detail. 

Premature death and grieving for it are common YA themes and this story does not break any particular new ground, but it is exceptionally well-written.  So, of all of the many options available for this subgenre, I'd recommend this one in particular.  The setting is realistic, the characters deep and compelling, and the story well-told.  Unlike so many other examples, Hand manages to tell her story without the tired tripe of recounting the Five Stages of Grief (in order!) -- Lexie's progress is more organic.  And finally, for the detail-obsessed, Hand's description of Lincoln Nebraska is spot-on (although lacking the much-anticipated Runza reference!).

Finding Mr. Brightside, by Jay Clark

A year ago, Abram's father and Juliette's mother were in the midst of a clandestine affair when they were killed in a car together.  Things since then have naturally been a bit tense between their families.  No one is doing particularly well. Abram's mother is addicted to gambling, Juliette's father mopes in the dark, and both kids are addicted to prescription meds (Adderel and Paxil).  None of this, however, prevents the kids from falling in love.  And thanks to their distracted and largely absent parents, they have free reign to do so.  The relationship naturally fixes everything!

From the odd premise, the unrealistic freedom that these kids enjoy, and the beautiful way everything sorts out, this is a hard one to swallow.  And while some lip service is paid to what should be awkward in this story (grief, guilt, and impact of drug abuse), not much is developed.  The story isn't too big into consequences or repercussions.  In fact, it isn't really too much into detail.  The characters are interesting and the premise has potential, but little is developed.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Everything That Makes You, by Moriah McStay

It's an interesting experience to read a book and to completely miss the entire point of the story.  I happened to tackle this one when I was a bit tired and exhausted during a thirty-hour flight to New Zealand so I have a good excuse readily at hand.  However, in quickly skimming through the book again, I realized that it actually was an easy mistake to make.

The novel, according to the blurb, is a what-if thriller about how one girl's life would be different if a crucial moment in her childhood had turned out differently.  However, you would never realize that this was the purpose of the novel if you hadn't read the blurb (which I in fact did not do until after I finished reading the book).  So, instead, what I read was a story that alternated chapters between two girls with similar names (Fi and Fiona) who seemed to move in the same social circles (they had the same friends) but for some mysterious reason never interacted with each other.  One of them starts off with a sucky life but rises above her set-backs.  The other one starts off golden and goes down in flames.  The idea that they were supposed to be the same person (in parallel universes) never even occurred to me.

Now, the fact that I completely missed the entire premise of the story would normally lead me to disqualify myself as a reviewer, but in this case I think it's my point:  When the writer can't tell the story without a summary (and the summary is not actually part of the book), the story isn't well told and cannot stand on its own.  Knowing the premise now, I love the idea of the story, but I shouldn't need a publicist's intervention in order to appreciate the book.

Little Peach, by Peggy Kern

Beat up and lying in a hospital bed, fourteen year-old Michelle recalls how she ended up as a child prostitute in the streets of Brooklyn.  From her relatively happier younger days being raised by her caring grandfather (until he died and she was forced out of her home by her junkie mother) to her arrival in New York City and being groomed by a pimp.  It's a cruel and brutal world, and seen in this novel entirely through a young girl's eyes.

This short, tightly written, and utterly brutal story is as compelling as it is stomach churning.  Michelle is a rough and crude character, and her behavior can be at times mystifying, but the story is told with such sympathy and insight that I felt drawn in the entire time.  I wished for a more uplifting ending to provide some sort of catharsis, but Kern knows better than to sweeten a story where, as Michelle puts it, "there isn't a magic place for kids like us." Haunting and essential.