Sunday, April 29, 2018

All the Wind in the World, by Samantha Mabry

In the near future, the world has heated up and people struggle to find food and support themselves.  Sarah and James ride the rails, going from one migrant camp to another, trying to eke out a living harvesting maguey.  They dream of making enough money to buy land out East and live by the ocean.  But the fates have other things in mind as they end up at Real Marvelous, a ranch rumored to be cursed and where they find themselves battling dust storms, bee swarms, and jealousies that threaten to tear their bond apart.

A gripping survival story in a striking setting.  Aside from a few modernisms, the story could easily have been placed in the Depression-era dustbowl and has a definite Grapes-of-Wrath feel to it. I kind of wonder why it wasn’t, as the story works just as well as a historical novel as a dystopian.  James is a bit of a cypher, but Sarah is well-developed and gritty.  The story is gruesome at spots so this isn’t a tale for the fainthearted, but with a compelling heroine it’s a pretty good read and has a timelessness to it that will give the novel lasting appeal.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Caraval, by Stephanie Garber

A memorable fantasy about an annual competition, Caraval, where a select group of invitees compete for a fantastic prize at the risk of their lives and their sanity.  Through magic and illusion, one is never sure what is real and what is make believe.  This is even more so for Scarlett and her younger sister Tella, who come to Caraval to escape their abusive father.  Tella immediately goes missing and it falls on Scarlett to find her by the end of the contest in order to save them both.  But is she really saving them?  Nothing and no one is who they seem in a topsy-turvy plot that twists and twists again, leaving everyone pretty bewildered by the end.

As the plot twists pile up, there is a severe danger of reader fatigue by the end.  It becomes a difficult and wearying to care what happens to the characters as their identity and purpose never seems certain. So, this is not a novel in which it pays to become invested in their characters or their desires.

That said, the setting is luscious and sensual and very much like a dream -- in a way that few novels can pull off.  It's a richly descriptive work that invites you to immerse yourself, exploring the insanity and chaos that the protagonists are subjected to.  This is a story that works much better in print, but as Fox has already optioned the book for a movie, we can guess that the story will soon be ruined on a big screen.  It works best in print because it is a novel that asks us to use our imaginations as the characters do, constantly making us wonder what choices to make and more often than not setting us up for failure before we find ourselves plunging back in for more.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Like Water, by Rebecca Podos

Out in rural New Mexico there isn't much to keep a kid in town after they graduate.  Vanni certainly never meant to stay.  But after her father gets sick with Huntington's Disease, someone has to stay home and take care of the family restaurant.  Crushed by the lack of future in her life (and fears that she too will get sick some day), she's drifting aimlessly when she meets Leigh.

Leigh is just angry (and potentially unstable). Frustrated that she's been moved out here (from Boston) and desperate to get back to the East Coast, she unexpectedly latches on to Vanni and the two girls find that they share an interest in each other.  Vanni's never considered the idea that she was gay, while Leigh seems to have entirely different issues going on.  In the end, they manage to solve their problems by realizing that leaving is not necessarily a cure for their woes.

While not a plot that particularly reeks of originality, I really liked the characters and the setting.  Vanni and Leigh are assertive young women who are entirely unapologetic about the space they use up.  They don't do angst (except perhaps towards each other) and I enjoyed the complexity of the relationship between them.  The setting was unusual (not too many novels get placed in the southwest) and colorful.  Podos does an excellent job of creating bilingual characters while foregoing constant translation.  And by doing so without calling extra attention to it, I felt much more immersed than a token Spanish word here or then would have achieved.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The First to Know, by Abigail Johnson

For her father's upcoming birthday, Dana decides to help him find his parents by secretly searching for his ancestors.  Dad was a foster child and never knew his birth family.  Thanks to modern DNA testing, Dana believe that she can find his family.  When the results come back and they identify a man named Brandon who is a 47% match, she thinks she's hit the jackpot and discovered her Dad's father.  But Brandon doesn't turn out to be her grandfather...he's her half-brother!  Reeling from the discovery that her father had a child with another woman and that he's never acknowledged the boy, Dana's life spirals out of control.  While doing so, she finds comfort in the unlikely arms of Brandon's cousin.

While an interesting story, the retelling was a too melodramatic for my tastes.  Dana spends an awful lot of time upset, crying, or fighting with the other characters. Ultimatums are brandied about that never get fulfilled (after a while, I got tired of characters saying that they would "never" so something since the word obviously carries a different meaning for them).  This is a story that would have benefited from trimming and some mellowing.  I was a bit surprised by the ending, but mostly for the way it plunges into a rosy happy ending where none was really even needed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kids Like Us, by Hilary Reyl

Autism has enjoyed a bit of trendiness in young adult literature in the past five years or so, but this latest contribution stands out for two reasons -- its unusual setting and the strength of Reyl's depiction of the experience of autism.

Martin, largely educated in a special school, gets to experience a summer in a mainstream school.  Not only is it a "general-ed" school, but it is in a foreign country.  Being overseas actually proves to be a mitigating factor for Martin's assimilation -- he finds it easier to relate to others through translation.

Martin's mother is a movie director and she is spending the summer in Provence working on a film.  She brings Martin along with her and, to help him pass the time, suggests that he try attending the local lycĂ©e.  He does so and has mixed success making friends and fitting in.  When he discovers that the kids he thinks are his friends are actually only being nice to him because they want Martin to get them access to his mother's movie, he is heartbroken.  However, he makes an unexpected decision that surprises everyone.

As I noted from the onset, what makes this story is the insightful portrayal of Martin.  While we get a pretty good idea of how Martin presents himself externally, we also get far more about what is going on in Martin's head.  Admittedly, his thought prcess is described in a way that Martin's character could not realistically do (i.e., through the words of a non-autistic author) but it is done with great sensitivity.  At times, Reyl goes overboard in bringing up jargon and catchphrases from therapy, or in over intellectualizing behavior, but the detail is really helpful in following along with what might otherwise be hard to follow.  Moreover, it gives the reader an unusually detailed understanding of autism making Martin much more sympathetic.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Now Is Everything, by Amy Giles

Hadley lives in the perfect house with perfect parents, but behind closed doors, her family is riven by her abusive father's calculated destruction of Hadley and now her little sister Lila.  Torn between her need to escape and the desire to protect her little sister, Hadley plays the peacemaker, trying to manipulate the situation to keep her father's explosive temper under control.  That strategy fails her when she starts dating Charlie, in a relationship that her parents explicitly forbid.

Harrowing reading with a very unsavory set of parents.  Hadley is an opinionated character and strong in a way.  She has a single-minded determination to work through problems her own way, but an arrogance about her capabilities (probably nurtured inadvertently by her father) that ultimately proves tragic and provides the novel a good deal of its mileage.

It is extremely ironic that the author in an afterword speaks strongly in praise of getting outside help, since this is the one thing that Hadley's character repeatedly refuses to do.  And while Giles is willing to cut her character some slack, I actually want to take the author to task for the decision.  Because it is pretty obvious what the correct and strong decision would be and it is strikingly against character for Hadley to be so stubborn throughout the novel.  The only purpose that such stubbornness really ends up serving is to drag out the story.  I have a hard time accepting that the behavior is plausible and, to those of you who argue that it is, then an even harder time seeing Hadley as any sort of heroine.  In sum, child endangerment as entertainment always strikes me as a bit sick, especially in this case where the solution is a deus ex machina conclusion, reinforcing the passive an oddly ineffectual actions of the main character.

Friday, April 13, 2018

I Never, by Laura Hopper

Judy Blume's classic Forever gets an update with Janey and Luke.  Janey is dealing with her parents separating and gets swept off her feet by the sexy, kind, and understanding Luke.  She's awkward, naive, and completely inexperienced, but Luke is the perfect first boyfriend and first lover.  In painstaking detail, Hopper draws out the day by day progression of their relationship delving into several pretty explicit sex scenes in the end.  Unlike Forever, which focused on the heroine's fretting over whether to lose her virginity (and then regretting it), Janey has an overall more positive experience and learns to embrace her sexuality.

It's a very intimate portrayal of adolescent romance and sexuality that reads like a diary and follows all the rules of YA relationships (from the entirely too-perfect boyfriend to the gossipy BFFs that Janey shares everything from petty jealousy to sex secrets with).  That said, it shares the fundamental flaw of Judy Blume books:  it's a far too perfect portrayal of the world and the book has a mission to sell a philosophy rather than actually tell a story.

As a novel that will encourage young women to relax and enjoy sex for its positive elements, it's a pretty successful and readable novel.  As a story about real people in real relationships, it's about as far away as it could possibly be.  Janey is astute and extremely well-spoken and has a voice that alternates wildly between the immaturity of a pre-teen and the wise thoughtfulness of a middle aged woman.  What she doesn't do, however, is sound like a seventeen year-old.  And Luke?  Well, he's just a fantasy creation (endlessly patient and kind, always saying the right thing, never has any interest beyond making Janey happy, etc.).  I liked the Janey's mother most of all, but I assume that was basically Hopper's voice, and I didn't buy the calm reasoned discussions between mother and daughter about sex and longing.

And yes, the sex scenes are a little too numerous and a little too explicit.  But if that's what you are looking for, I can give you some much better recommendations!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Far from the Tree, by Robin Benway

Sixteen year-old Grace's recent pregnancy and experience with putting her baby up for adoption gets her thinking about her own biological mother, whom she's never met.  And when she learns from her adoptive parents that her birth mother actually had two other children -- Maya and Joaquin -- she tracks them down and tries to convince them that they should try to find their mother together.  For differing reasons, her siblings want nothing to do with the idea, but still bond over their common roots.

It's a particularly traumatic time for Maya, whose parents are separating, but even Joaquin has issues as a survivor of the foster system (he was never actually adopted).  The three children's reunion serves as a catalyst for many hidden and suppressed problems to surface.

Billed as a story about the meaning of family, the novel is actually a bit more focused, looking at the emotional tie of adoption and what it means to bring in a child to the family unit without a blood tie.  That idea (and the exploration of it) will likely make adoptees and adoptive families uncomfortable, but Benway touches on it with great sensitivity.

That doesn't mean that this is light reading.  Particularly towards the end, this story becomes pretty traumatic reading as all sorts of heartstrings are pulled.  It ends as well as one could expect, but there's a lot of pain to explore and catharsis to be endured.  If you're like me, that makes this a great book.  If you prefer lighter reading, I'd suggest giving this a pass.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

If There's No Tomorrow, by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Lena is looking forward to a fun-filled senior year.  Her biggest concerns are her crush on her next-door neighbor Sebastian and whether they, as a couple, are on or not.  A near-kiss becomes the central crisis in her life and she seeks solace and advice from her friends.

But then, tragedy strikes at a party where some bad choices are made and Lena finds herself the sole survivor of a car crash.  Of her friends, three are now dead.  Lena herself, while alive, has to face serious injuries and a difficult readjustment.  And then come to grips with the loss and her grief.  Ironically, it is Sebastian who will become her means to reconnect with her life, as he becomes far more than a crush.

While this certainly contains the sort of meaty material that could drive a good book and is well-written by an experienced YA novelist, the novel is a strangely lifeless affair.  Lena is a decent enough character but there's just not much depth here.  And the writing, while pretty good, doesn't really stretch beyond competent storytelling.  Death and grieving stories have been told before and this one doesn't add much in new insights or present the story in an aesthetically interesting way.  It's not a bad read, but it doesn't stand out in any particular way.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Starfish, by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Kiko struggles with low self-esteem.  She dreams of attending art school in New York City.  When she is rejected by the school, she fears she'll remain stuck in her Nebraskan town, under the thumb of her narcissistic and emotionally abusive mother.  That fate starts to change when she reconnects with an old flame and decides to explore schools in California.  Free from her toxic environment at home, she spreads her wings and discovers her own potential and a sense of self-worth.

The novel is burdened by a number of YA cliches and a heroine who partially struggles from self-inflicted woes (I grow tired of characters who know that they are the cause of all the world's woes, since every reader can guess that the character will be proved wrong and their problems will then magically disappear!).  But there is a lot more to love in this debut novel than hate.  The toxic relationship between Kiko and her mother is as authentic as it is heartbreaking.  As depicted, it captures so insightfully the dependency of mother and daughter and how the child is so unable to break free.  I wondered at times where Kiko found her strength to break the cycle, but I was inspired by it.  I also loved the subjects of each of her drawings (a literary device used to close almost every chapter).

Now, if someone could please explain why the cover features a jellyfish?