Friday, January 27, 2017

Wild Swans, by Jessica Spotswood

Milbourn women have always been both extraordinary and tragic.  Ivy's ancestors are singers, poets, and painters, and each of them suffered tragedy.  Ivy Milbourn has certainly suffered tragedy (her mother abandoned her when she was two), but she's never found anything she was extraordinary at (much to her grandfather's regret). And this summer she wants to just take it easy and enjoy herself, rather than yet again try to do something that will impress her grandfather.

But Ivy's plans for a quiet summer are waylaid by the sudden reappearance of her mother, with two previously-unknown daughters (Ivy's half-sisters) in tow.  The reunion is rocky and unearths painful truths about the family that have been hidden and kept out of the light.  And into the mix, Ivy finds herself negotiating her first real boyfriend and the tensions it brings between her and her best friend.

A decent novel about an unhappy family that is unhappy in its own special way.  In many ways, the novel seemed overly busy to me (and apparently in earlier drafts, it was even busier!).  The romance (and its accompanying jealous thread) has tremendous promise but is ultimately inconsequential to a story that is largely about ambition and parents living through (and destroying) their children.  And the family itself has so many interesting aspects that never get properly developed (who brings in a grandmother's journals without discussing their content in greater depth? Or discusses a family's history of depression without developing it into the story?).  The characters are well-depicted and the story flows easily, but there are so many good ideas that were developed here and never quite finished.

Girl Mans Up, by M-E Girard

Pen is just one of the guys.  She's seriously into badass videogaming and doesn't take crap from anyone.  But it doesn't mean that the world gives her any respect.  Her neighbor Colby accepts her as a friend but never fully as part of his gang.  Instead, he demands that she "man" up by following his wishes. This puts her in line as she attempts a failing battle to prove she isn't acting "like a girl."

Meanwhile, her parents (first-generation immigrants) use their own variant of the approach.  They see her rejection of femininity as a threat to Pen's future (which they have narrowly defined as getting married and going to nursing school).  The gaming, hanging out with boys, dressing androgynously, and behaving like a "punk druggy" seems destined for disaster.

Only her older brother (who has lots of problems of his own) and Blake (a girl who seems to be just as much in love with gaming as she is) seem to get her.  Pen wants desperately to make some moves on Blake, but the possibility of a relationship between them is threatening to both Colby and her parents, leading to conflict and ultimately the need for Pen to assert herself and her right to be treated with respect.

It's a provocative book title for a tough heroine who tries to challenge gender stereotypes, but who ultimately reinforces them.  But it's got a lot of originality.  Let's face it:  a lot of heroines in lesbian teen lit are femmes.  After all, it tends to fit more with the angsty profile of books marketed for girls.  Pen, as an uncompromisingly butch young woman, is thus a uniquely non-conforming lesbian character.

However, in her effort to resist being portrayed as weak, Pen makes some pretty horrid choices.  The culture she values (which she has identified as not just tough but also manly) is a dead-end, loser ideology.  The constant posturing and trash talk, as realistic as it may be, just grated on me.  As epitomized through Colby and his narcissism, this masculinity is hardly anything for a boy (let alone a girl) to aspire to.  And while she manages to moves on slightly from it in the end, it is still clear that she equates femininity with weakness. Pen's lack of success in solidly moving beyond both masculine and feminine stereotypes frustrated me.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Phantom Limbs, by Paula Garner

Three years ago, Otis's little brother died and his (first and only) girlfriend Meg moved away.  Into the void of his life came Dara, who herself had suffered plenty of losses -- first the death of her mother, and then the loss of a hand (amputated after a shark attack).  Otis and Dara have developed a codependency:  Dara's role has been to push Otis into competitive swimming and through him to achieve the dream of Olympic gold that she had to abandon after her accident.  Their fragile relationship comes under stress when Otis learns that Meg is returning to the area.

To this potential triangle, throw in some complicated emotional ties between Meg and Otis's mother, Dara's relationship with a girlfriend, and the competing loyalties that Otis feels for Dara, Meg, and another girl on his swim team, and you have one very very messy web of relationships.  The final result is full of pathos and quite touching, but it is still a dizzying array of plot lines to sort through.  I liked it and suspect that many readers will, but I do generally prefer simpler and more-focused stories.

Garner's strength in character-building is crucial here, but she also tells a good story.  I never grew bored here (probably that complex storyline helped the pace stay fast!) but moreover, the story was smart.  It felt genuine and authentic, and didn't waste my time with stupid stuff.  But it's definitely a story for older readers -- the sexual references are pretty explicit and frequent, and the themes are quite mature.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Girl in Pieces, by Kathleen Glasgow

Seventeen year-old Charlie has been through hell -- she's a runaway with alcohol problems, a history of physical and sexual abuse, and a tendency towards self-harm.  Her life is pretty bleak.  The story opens during her breather at a psychiatric facility, but soon she is out on the street again.  Rejected by her mother, she ends up in Arizona.  There, she finds a new home and friends (of a sort), but the situation is far from healthy and she struggles to avoid spiraling down again into madness.

The novel is bleak and yet quite compelling, even as it treads on the oft-told tale of self-harm.  But, unlike with most books about cutters, where we tend to focus on understanding the behavior, there's no mystery here about the trauma that has placed her in this madness.  Large parts of the book pretty clearly explain that!

In some ways, that lack of subtlety is a flaw of the novel.  There is no nuance or question about any of this.  As a result, our journey through Charlie's life is simply a visit of hell, without much chance of enlightenment.  It makes for a difficult read and getting through four hundred pages of this story is trying at times.  But there are some bright spots along the way from some unexpected places.

What made the read actually enjoyable (in spit of the dark subject matter) are Glasgow's rich and vivid characters.  Each one is an obvious act of love -- standing out with quirks and blemishes, and always defying stereotypes.  It took the author nine years to craft this first novel.  Hopefully, she's got more in there and can churn her next one out a bit quicker?  I'd like to see more.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Symptoms of Being Human, by Jeff Garvin

Riley suffers from anxiety and depression.  Uncomfortable with being forced to dress up and appear at Dad's political events, Riley makes the connection between that discomfort and the anxiety while reading about gender fluidity.  The revelation helps Riley understand how a day can start feeling girly, but then suddenly turn masculine.  While learning this is a source of great comfort, it doesn't get Riley any closer to coming to terms.  Openly discussing the condition seems insurmountably difficult, and the pressure of keeping the condition secret makes the anxiety worse.

As a coping mechanism, Riley's psychiatrist suggests creating a journal, which Riley decides to create online as an anonymous blog.  The blog takes off and goes viral.  But as it garners attention, the anonymous cover is blown and Riley is outed, placing the entire family in jeopardy.

I'm not actually aware of any other mainstream YA book at this time that contains a gender-fluid protagonist.  Garvin seems quite aware of the book's uniqueness and can grow preachy at times (falling into the trap of force feeding us facts and statistics about gender-fluidity).  That gets boring, but is understandable in a pioneering book.

But what I really liked about this novel (aside from generally being well-written) is the literary exercise of escaping from ever indicating a gender for Riley.  It's remarkably difficult and (unlike my feeble attempt above to avoid using a pronoun in summarizing the story) Garvin pulls it off without growing awkward.  This turns out to be quite subversive: I found myself trying to figure out "which one" Riley is and growing frustrated that I could not.  That in turn threw the whole issue back in my face:  why was I so obsessed with classifying Riley?

Firsts, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Mercedes has decided to pay it forward in an unusual way:  She’s sleeping with guys to give them experience before they have sex with their girlfriends for the first time.  She tells herself that she is doing this in order to make sure that they make their girlfriends’ first time romantic and memorable (since hers was not).  And she sets a limit of how many times she will do it.

But why can’t she stop?  As she starts breaking her own boundaries, she becomes aware that there is much more to this than any sort of justification she can dig up.  And, in any case, the truth has a way of getting out, so – and you can see this plot development from a mile away! – it is only a matter of time before it all blows up.

For what sounds like an exploitative premise, this turned out to be a surprisingly complicated (and even insightful) novel.  It is explicit and frank enough to to make a lot of adults uncomfortable to be sure, but the treatment of sex is honest and authentic.  And it speaks directly to the sexual double standards that girls face (without any attempt to breezily right those wrongs).

The characters are a mixed bag.  I loved Mercedes, who combines vulnerability, honesty, and (eventually) inner strength.  Her friends don’t get the same loving treatment, but they are an important source of support.  The adults are disappointing throwaways, but I understand Flynn’s reluctance in doing anything useful with them.  Still, there is such an opportunity for some elder wisdom to be offered (but instead they remain passive or used as bad examples, leaving the kids pretty much on their own to stumble through).