Saturday, May 26, 2018

Love, Hate, & Other Filters, by Samira Ahmed

Maya Aziz dreams of studying film at NYU and making movies, but for her parents there can be only one future for her: pre-law or pre-med at a school nearby in her home state of Illinois.  And marriage, of course, to a nice Indian Muslim like herself.  They have even found the right boy for her, who in truth is actually a very sweet guy.

Honestly, there are times when all of this appeals to Maya. It would be so easy to just please her parents and follow the path they have chosen for her.  And when a domestic terrorist strikes close to home, staying close by makes some sense.  But it doesn't work for her:  not the boy or the school or giving in to her parents' suffocating fears.  But this isn't just about coming to terms with her parents, because when Muslims are considered suspect by a large number of America, how does Maya live her life in a way that is true to herself?

Exploring Indian-American Muslim identity both through the lens of reconciling modernism and tradition and with racism, Ahmed bites off a lot.  Her decision to include the politics and aftermath of an act of domestic terrorism sits uneasily on this novel in alternating chapters (the two threads never actually cross paths), but it helps to make the story more than the typical conflict of modern yearnings versus traditional elders.  Maya's a great character in the way that she stands up for herself and has a clear vision of how she wants to conduct her life, but there's not a lot of depth elsewhere.  That's alright as the latter half of the book is compelling stuff and I sped through it.

Trafficked, by Kim Purcell

Promised an opportunity to earn money and go to school in the United States, Hannah is lured from Moldova to Los Angeles to work for a Russian emigre family.  There, the family she is working for enslaves her and makes her work inhumane hours.

But that is only part of the story.  As she is figuring out that she has been tricked, she also finds out that her “host” family knows a tremendous amount of detail about her and her family.  It is as if she has been targeted and the fact that she was solicited by and that ended up with this particular family is not nearly as random as it at first seemed.

Nightmarish in the conditions it describes, this is a suspenseful page turner.  There are a few factual inaccuracies (Purcell really struggles with Russian names), but the details about human trafficking and how it works resonated with the true stories in the news.  It’s a terribly unpleasant story and one that is hard to call enjoyable, but it is compelling.  That said, this is an all-action story, with little interest in character development.  The host family are basically evil and an attempt to create a romance with the boy next door is largely a wasted subplot.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Love and First Sight, by Josh Sundquist

Blind from birth, Will learned at an early age that people couldn't always be trusted to tell him the truth.  For much of his life since then, he's stuck to being around other blind people.  But at sixteen, he decides he wants to try a mainstream schooling experience.  With a few mishaps along the way, he makes friends and even the initial sparks of a romance with a sighted girl named Cecily.

Along the same time, his doctor tells him about an experimental procedure that might be able to help him regain his sight.  But learning to see isn't exactly a straightforward process for someone with no prior sight.  Colors and shapes are strange to him.  Interpreting his surroundings, perceiving depth, and understanding perspective are all new.  But the greatest shock comes when he starts seeing what people actually look like!

A fascinating exploration of blindness and the differences between sighted people and folks without eyesight.  So many things that make perfect sense but which I had never given much thought to.  And this by itself, makes this novel a great read.  But there's also Sundquist's great writing, some strong and interesting characters, and a genuinely fun story.  The ending got rushed and is a let down, but this is still such a great book that I still recommend it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Jaya and Rasa, by Sonia Patel

This book will probably win the award for the most unusual pair of characters.  Jaya's an Indian trans boy from a wealthy family.  His parents refuse to acknowledge his gender identity and, when they are not fighting with each other, try to hook him up with an eligible boy.  Rasa is the daughter of a neglectful mother who pimped her out at the age of twelve.  Since then, Rasa's been turning tricks to keep her younger siblings fed and alive.  All of this takes place in the idyllic environs of Oahu, adding just another exotic and original layer to this novel.

The romance that develops between these two young people is threatened from the start, both internally (from miscommunication) and externally (from Jaya's parents and Rasa's abusive pimp).  That provides plenty of drama, but the novel never really gels.  The story telling is functional but not very engrossing.  What makes the story compelling is the unusual characters, especially Rasa (Jaya's issues -- mostly peer and family -- are obviously more familiar territory).  But ultimately great characters are defeated by a clunky narrative.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Things That Surprise You, by Jennifer Maschari

Emily would like things to stay the same:  for her and her BFF Hazel to continue to obsess over Unicorn Chronicles books, for her father to not have moved out, for her sister to come back home and be healthy, and maybe for middle school to not even exist.  Because what Emily is finding is that the world keeps changing and rarely for the better.  So, instead, she has to learn to adapt to parents who are divorced, an older sister with an eating disporder, and new friends and new hobbies at school.

After a bunch of teen books, it's fun to slip back into the comfortable world of middle grade reading.  The issues are so much clearer and simpler and the stories are more likely to end happily.  But this book, like many others, does seem to delight in piling on the problems.  The trauma of growing apart from one's best friend is hard enough, but we have to toss in split families and mental disease as well!  It feels like a bit much and, in the end, these subplots do get neglected.

But what is strong here is Emily's ability to stand up for herself, even in the face of peer pressure and acknowledge (after some painful growing) that people do change and it's OK in the end.  It's not a surprising message, but it's arrived at in a way that will be comforting to young readers.  Ultimately charming, the book portrays an intelligent and intuitive girl living in a supportive and nurturing environment (in spite of the challenges her family are facing).

An age appropriate discussion of eating disorders and how to get help at the end of the book will be useful to readers who are about to embark on the traumatic landscape of adolescence.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

As You Wish, by Chelsea Sedoti

Out in the Mojave, the town of Madison is nothing very special.  Folks drive through it quickly on their way to Area 51 to see the UFOs.  But the town is hiding a secret:  there is a cave where you can go on your eighteenth birthday and have your greatest wish granted.  It's a defining part of life growing up in the town and kids plan out what they are going to wish for for years.  The thing is that you need to be careful what you wish for!

As he approaches his eighteenth birthday, Eldon isn't really sure what he wants his wish to be.  When he looks around, he sees that wishes rarely improve anything.  In fact, it seems that no matter how careful people are, the wish always ends up making people's lives worse.  Long-term happiness seems to have little to do with wishes.  The truth is that just about everyone ends up stuck out here, never really making anything of their lives.

The novel's most interesting observations are about the wishes themselves, where Sedoti explores why wishing for fame or love or money or long life or any of the other obvious choices never really works out the way you thought it would.  These are thought provoking digressions and one wishes that there were more of them, especially as the rest of the novel drags.  Much of the blame for that falls on the protagonist.  Eldon is not a captivating narrator.  A bit coarse and unsympathetic, he is about as interesting as the landscape.  The novel's length is also a strike against it.  The story's true theme -- about life's success coming from within -- is established pretty quickly and didn't need 400+ pages to be developed.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tone Deaf, by Olivia Rivers

So, what better antidote for the malaise that comes from reading about Hitler Youth than a cute vapid teen pop romance?

Ali is a former child piano prodigy who became deaf at the age of ten.  Living with her abusive father, life is pretty bleak until her BFF takes her to a concert of Tone Deaf.  Ali can't stand that kind of music and hates the band.  So, ironically, she wins a lottery to meet the band. It all goes spectacularly wrong.

Jace is the lead singer of Tone Deaf, with a tragic history he holds tight to his chest.  His bad boy reputation hides that pain but when he meets Ali, they both sense a kindred spirit and walls get broken down.  Going out on a limb, Jace helps Ali run away from home and the two of them embark on a cross-country trip with Ali hiding in the band's tour bus.  Innocent romance follows.

Well, what can you say?  Fine lit this certainly is not and it suffers from one implausibility to another, but the story goes full speed ahead.  Rivers has crafted a well paced, sweet, and escapist novel that lets two nice teenagers fall in love and save their world.  No one wants to take Nazis to the beach, so take these kids instead!

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Big Lie, by Julie Mayhew

Speculative fiction that explores what life would be like for teenagers in modern-day Nazi England.  With a nod towards Handmaid's Tale, this novel traces Jessika's gradual descent from golden child, privileged Hitler Youth, and aspiring champion figure skater to subversive societal reject.  Torn between protecting her best friend and loyalty to the state, she makes the wrong decision.

Trying to superimpose a twenty-first century English world on a 1940s-era German society is an awkward fit.  Trying to explain how a totalitarian society could function within the world of the Internet and the ease of transcontinental travel is hard work.  Mayhew's England seems more North Korean than Nazi and certain tensions are simply ignored in favor of just telling the story.

The story itself is a bit hard to hang on, particularly the second part which attempts to simultaneously recall Jessika's last days of freedom and her survival in a concentration camp after her arrest.  This is less a fault of the writing than the story.  In a novel like this, you know that all of the characters are doomed, so you resist getting too attached to them.  Jessika's friendship for the rebellious Clementine is an obvious example of this, because you know it can only go badly.  But her illicit lesbian explorations with GG are nearly as much.  Everything else just has dread hanging over it.

Ultimately, a very depressing book.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The Nowhere Girls, by Amy Reed

When Grace and her family move to a small town in eastern Oregon, Grace discovers that she's living in the former home of Lucy Moynihan, a girl who was driven out of town last year after accusing a group of boys of raping her.  Obsessed with the trauma that Lucy must have endured, Grace becomes determined to seek justice for her.  She is joined by Rosina, a Latina lesbian, and Erin, an autistic girl with a dark past of her own.  The girls find themselves inadvertently forming a movement, "The Nowhere Girls," and gain a critical mass of young women seeking to fight sexual violence at their school.  Along the way, they meet stiff resistance from adults and skeptical peers, and have to overcome many of their own doubts and fears.

Deeply empowering material that explores so many different important topics from the culture wars, rape culture, and slut shaming to white privilege and immigration.  I particularly appreciated the amount of attention given to the subjects of sexual agency and desire (for a book that tackles the corrosive impact of sexual violence, it was wonderful to balance it out with a sex positive message).  Reed is unapologetically didactic and it mostly works because she brings in a wide variety of viewpoints, acknowledging just how complex the material is. It's a long book and Reed covers a lot of ground here (sometimes to the point that she has to cram in a special cameo appearance here and there of an anonymous character) but it never seemed overloaded.  To the contrary, this is a real page turner and extremely hard to put down. 

In sum, it is a book to read and discuss with friends. Moving, memorable, and so very important in these days of passive acceptance of sexual violence.  I hope that school boards ban it and children clamber to read it.  But for sexual violence survivors, be aware that the often explicit text could be triggering.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Little Monsters, by Kara Thomas

At first, Broken Falls WI seems like paradise to Kacey.  Leaving her neglectful mother in New York and resettling with her father's new family in rural Wisconsin, Kacey is struck with how accepting and friendly people are to her.  But when her friend Bailey goes missing (and is later presumed dead), suspicion turns on her as the new girl and Kacey discovers that her first impressions are misleading.

The writing is good.  While starting a bit slow, the story picks up pace and intensity with twists and turns that make the book hard to put down.  It's not much a character-driven story, although Thomas does make an effort to weave in the ways that Kacey's abandonment to her father's home feeds her appearance of guilt.  So, what appears a bit of a busy set of subplots are all woven together in the end.

One thing I did not like was the story's setting.  Placing this allegedly in Wisconsin raised my hackles. Thomas could have easily set all of this in Upstate New York (an area she presumably knows better) and it would have rung much more true.

You can ask if we really need another thriller about mean girls who murder each other, but there's certainly a market for them!  This particular one is above average.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Gem & Dixie, by Sara Zarr

While Gem hasn't been able to rely on her parents, she has been able to count on her little sister Dixie.  In public, Dixie can be standoffish and independent (and she certainly is less socially awkward than Gem), but in the end they are the only two people who know what their lives are really like  With their father gone and Mom struggling with addictions, each other is sometimes the only thing they have.

Then Dad makes a surprise reappearance and instantly wins over the more trusting Dixie, much to Gem's chagrin.  But when the sisters make a surprise discovery of a huge sum of money that Dad has hidden, they decide to run away with it.  That run changes their lives and brings them closer together.  But, at the same time, it breaks the bond they have held and causes their paths to diverge.

When Zarr wants to really hit something out of the park, she knows how to do it.  And, as in my other fave of hers (Sweethearts), she shows an amazing talent for subtle, yet powerful writing.  No melodrama, just authentic intense emotions.  The money gave me feelings of dread throughout that often hung over the story, but when I put that aside, there was so much interesting stuff going on between Gem and Dixie.  And while this is Gem's story, we really do manage to get inside of both girls' heads and understand their complex relationship.  The ending is a bit accelerated to give us a sense of closure, but the bulk of the story (the transformation of Gem and Dixie's relationship from childish sisterhood to maturity) is memorable and noteworthy.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson

Accused at the age of nine of killing an infant girl, Mary has served six years in jail and is now on parole in a halfway house.  But when she discovers that the state is going to take away her own baby on account of her criminal past, she finds the voice that she never managed to have during her trial and steps forward to announce she never murdered the baby.  The story, as it unfolds, implicates Mary's mother, over zealous prosecutors, and poor representation, and is one grueling revelation after another.  Through it all, however, Mary proves to be her own worst enemy as she manages to sabotage every attempt to rescue herself.

A grueling story that doesn't even have the heart to reward the reader in the end.  One could make the argument that Jackson eschews a happy ending in the interest of realism, but Mary becomes such an unsympathetic character that I really considered tossing the book in the last fifty pages.  Your results may vary and if you DO find Mary to be worth the trouble, then you'll get a pretty good story of survival and how much a child can endure, even if she falls victim to her flaws in the end.