Friday, March 25, 2016

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

Eighteen year-old Madeline has spent the vast majority of her life inside her hermetically-sealed house.  She's been diagnosed with a rare disease that makes her immune deficient.  Exposed to the outside world, she would probably die.  Inside and protected, her life is quiet but lonely.  She has forgone hope of having any significant connection with the outside.

But then a new family moves in next door and they have a boy her age.  Seeing him stirs curiosity and feelings that she didn't know where even present to be stirred.  And with some encouragement from her nurse, she reaches out to this stranger.  The results are unexpected and change her life in previously unimaginable ways.

Told in a surprisingly effective and complementary mixture of prose, verse, and artwork, the novel is a unique document.  And yet, it has so much more going for it.  The story is touching.  The characters are moving and enchanting.

The narrative is complex, even as the writing is simple.  Ostensibly, this is a story of a sick girl being coaxed out of her shell and discovering a bit more of the world.  But the story on the surface is only an analogy for the inner journey that Madeline undertakes and it deals with the more complicated feelings of first love, trust, and risk taking.  I was a bit disappointed by the plot twist towards the end that sent the story down to earth.  But I still found the overall experience lyrical and enchanting.  This is truly a gorgeous and special book!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Believarexic, by J. J. Johnson

At age 15, Jennifer convinces her parents that she needs to be committed to an inpatient facility to treat her eating disorder.  And while she has lots of expectations for how the process will go (largely fed by pop culture depictions of anorexia and bulimia), the real experience quickly diverges away from her preconceptions.  What she finds is a mixture of helpful and destructive caregivers and fellow patients who can be good friends or bitter enemies (or both!).  She knows that the key is "sticking to the program" but the challenges to her plan come from many unexpected places.

Based loosely on the author's real-life experience, I appreciated the honesty and the realism of the story.  As well, the way that Johnson has subverted a number of common tropes (in particular, the helpful nurse/doctor) by depicting a ward where nurses and patients are all flawed in their own ways is particularly interesting. 

Johnson makes an unusual decision to veer away from describing much of her heroine's mindset.  There are brief mentions of Jennifer's feelings of being overweight, but her mental state plays a very minor part in the story.  There are also numerous clues about the family, social and even biological reasons for Jennifer's disorder, but nothing is definitively stated about why she struggles with food consumption.  Rather than describe or even explain what having an eating disorder is like, Johnson focuses on the specifics of treatment.

The book also has some unusual literary elements.  It begins in third-person free verse (for its admission and stage 1 sections), which is at times quite awkward, and then switches to first person prose for the remainder of the story.  Type fonts also change throughout the novel.  The author Q &A at the end of the novel never mentions the shifts (they are obviously intended for some sort of purpose, but what?).

In sum, a very readable book which leaves many things unsaid and unexplained.

Friday, March 18, 2016

What We Left Behind, by Robin Talley

In this NA novel, Toni and Gretchen were an inseparable couple in high school.  And, like many other high school sweethearts, they promised each other that they would stay together even when they went off to college.  They even intended to attend schools in the same town (Harvard for Toni and BU for Gretchen), although it didn't quite work out that way.  At the last minute, Gretchen decided to go to NYU instead.  But even with that last minute shift, they agreed that they would still see each other every weekend.

As you can probably guess, even those revised plans fall through.  Course work and social activities make it hard to get together.  The two girls find themselves drifting apart.  Toni finds friends at Harvard that allow her to explore her burgeoning transexualism and her struggles with gender identity.  Gretchen, feeling Toni slip away, tries to hold on tighter by throwing herself at her lover (which only drives Toni farther away).

The story itself is not full of much suspense, but it's all about the journey.  What makes the novel unique is its focus on gender queer relationships.  Or rather, how relationships fare when one of the parties starts to question their gender identity.  Doing so in the context of a young lesbian relationship is a further twist.  The novel explores many different topics, from Toni's obsessive search for pronouns to the ways that both gays and straights discriminate against the gender queer to what it means to have the person you love change their gender.  Not all of these concepts are new, but their treatment here will open your eyes.

While I was impressed by the story, I was less taken with the characters.  Gretchen was too weak and self-sacrificing.  But Toni annoyed me far more.  Toni's endless experimentation with language and her unwillingness to commit (combined with her demands that everyone had to respect her indecision) just came off as precious.  And there's no way around Toni's privileged background (a point that really gets driven home when she has to briefly consider the idea that her parents might pull out her financing and she might not be able to continue her pricey Ivy League education).  It's not that she's spoiled, but simply that she lives a gilded life.  The far more common situations that young transexuals find themselves in (poverty, danger, and insecurity) are only briefly mentioned and don't threaten Toni's exploration.

If You're Lucky, by Yvonne Prinz

People thought of Georgia's brother Lucky as blessed.  Gregarious and loved by almost everyone, he had an amazing talent for cheating death up until when he actually died in a surfing accident.  At the funeral, Georgia meets one of Lucky's buddies named Fin.  Afterwards, while he's never visited before, Fin decides to stay around and settle in.  Soon, he's working Lucky's old job and dating Lucky's girlfriend.  Georgia smells a rat.  And as Georgia digs into Fin's murky history, she uncovers a series of suspicious mysteries in Fin's life.  In the end, she suspects that Lucky's death wasn't an accident after all and that Fin had something to do with it.

But there's a problem:  Georgia suffers from schizophrenia and she has a history of paranoid delusions.  As a result, no one believes her as she starts to express her suspicions.  And even she doesn't know whether to trust her perceptions.

An interesting psychological thriller, following a heroine who becomes a steadily less reliable narrator as the story progresses.  This isn't fine literature and the writing and the characters seemed merely functional, but it's an entertaining story with a brisk plot.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

One, by Sarah Crossan

Grace and Tippi are literally as close as two sisters can be.  They're conjoined twins.  And while the doctors never expected them to live past their second year, they're now in their Junior year.  Their lives are full of special challenges, most notably their difficulty at fitting in, but they both have no desire to change.  With the help of two new friends (the wild Yasmeen and her friend Jon), the girls finally have a social life and (for Grace) a chance at something more.  But then tragedy strikes and the twins face a challenge for survival.

Written in free verse, the novel (despite its many pages) is a brisk read.  That verse isn't particularly stand out, but the subject matter is riveting.  It's not really a spoiler to say that it ends in heartbreak (the lives of conjoined twins are rarely happy ones) but Crossan tells their story with dignity and Grace's voice is compelling.  The classic gold standard for a novel for me is whether the book is readable, full of interesting and sympathetic characters, and whether I learn something from it (with bonus points for a weepy and life-affirming ending).  This novel delivers all of the above.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Future Perfect, by Jen Larsen

How far would you go to realize your academic dreams?  And would you reach for them even at the expense of your pride and self-respect?

Every year, Ashley's grandmother gives her a card for her birthday which promises her a fantastic gift in exchange for her losing weight.  One year, it was a trip to Disneyland if she would lose fifty pounds.  Another year, it was a new car for losing eighty pounds.  It's never worked.  Ashley has never accepted the offers because she doesn't see any reason to lose weight -- yes, she's a large person, but she's content in her skin and happy with who she is.

Now, in Ashley's senior year, her grandmother has raised the stakes:  if Ashley gets accepted, her grandmother will pay her tuition at Harvard for four years.  It's a dream as Ashley has the grades to get in but doesn't have the resources to cover the costs.  The catch is that her grandmother's demand this time is that Ashley undergo gastric bypass surgery.

The premise is fascinating but ultimately flawed.  Any protagonist worth reading about will ultimately make the right decision, so it is really a matter of waiting until Ashley does so.  And the plausibility of the grandmother's character, so cruel and insensitive that she feels justified in ruining her granddaughter's self-esteem and endangering her life, is hard to swallow.

The writing suffers from a different problem:  extremely uneven pacing.  For the most part, the story follows a familiar dramatic arc with familiar settings (school, part-time job, home) and a story that traces Ashley's personal growth as she struggles to make her decision.  But we digress from time to time to odd settings where the action slows down like molasses and becomes dreamy (in a way that I can most easily compare with the way that the mind wanders on drugs -- a literary high?).  I don't know quite what to make of these digressions but they ultimately don't add anything to the story (consider, for example, the vignette at the art exhibit in the Tenderloin) so they could have been jettisoned.  Subplots about Ashley's transgendered friend and another friend who runs away are only loosely tied in to the story and seem wasted.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Apple and Rain, by Sarah Crossan

Apple's grandmother is terribly strict and Apple is convinced that her life would be better if only her mother came back to take care of her instead.  But after eleven years, she's pretty much given up hope that her Mum will ever come back, until she in fact does!  At first, it is a dream come true, but as time goes by Apple learns that her mother isn't all that Apple has imagined.  And that family is often a very complicated thing.

Covering fairly familiar ground, including my evergreen favorite (not!) of child abandonment, Crossan still manages to pump some fresh life into this.  Apple's resourceful and pretty good at standing up for herself.  And the other kids are similarly useful, from little sister Rain to their geeky neighbor Del.  And even grandma has some depth on her.  It's less easy to see much in Apple and Rain's mum, but that may be the point -- being so blinded by wishful thinking, they can't see their mother's flaws.