Saturday, October 27, 2018

Summer of Salt, by Katrina Leno

Every woman in Georgina’s family has had some sort of magical attribute (her sister floats).  And while the other residents of By-The-Sea (their island off the coast of New England) are vaguely aware of the family’s talents, no one talks about it.  Just as well, as Georgina’s own particular talent hasn’t yet revealed itself.

The women run an inn and take care of the “bird heads” who come every summer to watch a rare bird whom everyone calls “Annabelle.” But this year, Annabelle doesn’t make her annual appearance and the island grows concerned that the bird may be gone for good.  Then, Annabelle is found dead and mutilated and  Georgina’s sister is strangely silent and avoidant about the whole matter.  Suspicions spread that her entire family is somehow complicit. The truth is much more complex.

A bit hard to follow at point, the book exalts in its depiction of a quiet island life.  There is a flirtation with a romance between Georgina and one of the tourists and a late introduction of sexual violence into the story (which is subsequently rushed along).  But none of these themes seem very consequential to the tale.  Instead, the book seems mostly to be about life on the island (and to a lesser extent the process of gaining the courage to leave it).  It’s that generally languorous pace that makes this a hard book to really get into.

Fat Girl On A Plane, by Kelly Devos

The eye-catching title alludes to the protagonist's struggle with inconsistent airline policies during a cross-country trip, and the humiliation of being informed that you are "too fat to fly." This takes place at the beginning of the novel, but the story actually has little to do with air travel.  Told through parallel story lines, we learn how Cookie Vonn's life changed (or failed to change) as the result of a crash diet.

Cookie loves fashion and is a skilled clothing designer.  There is little room in the industry for a 300+ lb woman and even less for her idea that plus-sized women deserve to be able to wear haute culture.  She's determined to prove them wrong.  As a fierce fashion blogger, she jockeys herself into a meeting with fashion icon Gareth Miller which grows into a professional relationship and more.  Soon, she is on top of the fashion world, putting out a collection of plus-sized fashion under Gareth's label, embroiled in a hot romance with Gareth, and about to realize her dream of attending the Parsons School.  Almost everything seems possible, especially compared to the struggles she had a two years ago as an overweight teen.

But life is not so simple.  She is just as estranged from her parents as she was as a child.  Her nemesis Kennes is still trying to steal away her success.  And she's never managed to reconcile with the loss of her BFF (and crush) Tommy at the end of high school.  It would seem that losing nearly 200 lbs doesn't really solve anything.  Instead, Cookie finds that she must address underlying issues of anger, learning to let go of emotional hurt and perceived injustices, if she is ever going to be truly happy.

It's a busy book, full of themes ranging from nepotism to neglect, from fashion to life as a full-sized woman.  Being an NA (and a Harlequin Teen) book, there's the requisite romance and pursuing career ambitions, and even some humor (Cookie's description of the ill-fated eponymous plane trip is as hilarious as it is aggravating).  But with so much going on, Devos never gets too reflective and keeps the pace of the book quite brisk.  That leaves lots of room for the reader to draw their own conclusions, but it leaves the story shallow.  This is no where more clear than the ending plot twist that comes out of nowhere and sideswipes the conflict that has been building up.  The postscript tirade against the fashion industry is lovely, but comes out of nowhere as there is no build-up for it.  In sum, the book is enjoyable and a quick read, but really is all over the place in terms of the ideas it wants to convey.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Screenshot, by Donna Cooner

While Skye, Asha, and Emmy are goofing around, Skye entertains her friends by putting on a slinky negligee and prancing about for them.  In one of several lapses of judgment that fill this story, Asha posts a video of the dance to a social media site. While she takes it down quickly, a few days later Skye is contacted by an anonymous stranger who threatens to post a screenshot of her performance to the Internet.  Skye, terrified of what this could do to her reputation, let alone to her plans of pursuing an internship in the office of a local senator, finds herself caving in to the blackmailer's demands.  But how far will she go to get the blackmailer to stop?  As the demands escalate in severity and seriousness, Skye is forced to decide just how much her reputation is worth.

That's the main plot, but a series of subplots hit at the novel's broader theme of image, the effort that people will go to in order to project a visage of perfection, and the magnifying effect of the internet on this process.  The writing is not subtle and the mysterious blackmailer is not such a well-kept secret, but the story is entertaining and competently executed.  Fine literature it is not, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

The Universe is Expanding and So Am I, by Carolyn Mackler

In this sequel to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Virginia is falling out of like with Froggy.  She's also trying to come to terms with her older brother’s fall from grace after his suspension from Columbia for allegedly committing date rape.

Summer is hitting her with surprises as her friend Shannon decides to not come home, her older sister does, and she meets a new guy – Sebastian – an artist with plans to attend Columbia in the fall.  And then her brother is arrested for the rape charge for the woman decides to press charges.

None of this stops Virginia from playing tour guide and showing off the Big Apple to Sebastian and a romance developing.  However, in one of those crazy coincidences that only ever occur in novels, he turns out to be much more intimately tied to her family than she could have imagined.  And, as a result of this revelation, Virginia and Sebastian have to make some sobering decisions about their own relationship.  They choose badly. of course, which gives us a story to read.

While dealing with the thorny issue of date rape, this story is actually fairly light stuff.  Mackler is a great writer and can write really funny passages -- she's wasted on serious drama and doesn't dwell on it.  Virginia is one of my favorites characters from her novels and I looked forward to this sequel.  It did not disappoint. Virginia’s voice is mildly self-deprecating but brave and strong when she needs to be.  The ending is a bit too perfect for Virginia (and the rape charge gets largely sidestepped) but wrap up feels good and not too contrived.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Once Upon a Princess, by Christine Marciniak

The story opens like a fairy tale as twelve year-old Princess Fredericka ("Fritzi") is attending her first ball to honor 800 years of her family's rule over the alpine city-state of Colsteinburg.  But before the night is through, she and her family are forced to flee for their lives as a faction of constitutionalists seek to overthrow the monarchy. They go secretly into exile to the US and settle in a quiet Boston suburb.  Fritzi finds herself enrolled at the local middle school, trying to adjust to life no longer as a princess.  Suffering through a few middle school indignities, she also plots to fight for her family by posting calls to arms through social media.

What I had expected to be a comedy (a la Princess Diaries, but in reverse) turns out to be a rather depressing story about a girl watching her family and her legacy coming undone.  In that light, Fritzi's attempts to save her kingdom come off as more desperation than fun.  And the usual troubles making new friends, dealing with teachers, and battling with the local Queen Bee get largely lost in the serious stuff.  And when the ending turns violent and Fritzi finds herself in mortal danger, the author has basically painted herself into a corner.  It all seemed too much!  So, not really funny or sweet enough to be the story I hoped for, and certainly not heavyweight enough to be anything else.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy, by B. T. Gottfred

Everyone assumes that Art is gay and Zee is a lesbian, so when they meet and start hanging out, no one (least of all them) think the sparks of romance are going to fly.  But they do and the world will never be quite the same.

Zee has had a crush on her best friend Cam for years, but he's only had eyes for Abigail.  Since he's assumed that Zee doesn't do guys, it has never occurred to Cam to notice how Zee longs for him.  But when Abigail's younger brother Art meets her, he knows in an instant that she crushing for his sister's boyfriend.  But most of all, he knows that Zee is the love of his life.  And now he has to convince Zee that she must love him as much as he loves her.

Thus launches a love story that grows stranger and more complex with each passing page.  There's no denying that Zee acts more masculine than Art and that she does find feminine traits far attractive and sexually appealing.  Art, meanwhile is drawn to Zee's tough masculine behavior in a way that even other boys don't do for him.  Can you be a guy who likes girls who act like guys?  Well, yes, certainly if you're with a girl who likes guys who act like girls!  As Zee describes their first sexual encounter, "My first orgasm with a boy happened when the boy cried out like a girl."

Throw in a few subplots about dead or absent parents and you end up with a free-for-all paean to gender fluidity.  The story may be a bit too sexually explicit for some parents (fairly frank discussions of masturbation, oral sex, and intercourse come up regularly), but it's all part and parcel of this exploration into what turns us on about gender and what it is like when gender non-conformity (and conformity) get tested and tried.

I found the actual characters a bit obnoxious and self-obsessed (Art, in particular, with his eternal optimism and over confidence is a bit of a pill), but for a novel which is about rethinking how we think about ourselves, that is pretty natural.  Intellectually interesting, but maybe not something I want to endure 400 pages of!  Still, I think Gottfred has created a truly gender fluid love story and that makes it something of a landmark.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Meet Cute

Short story anthologies are difficult to review because the stories tend to be chosen for their diversity.  This collection features fourteen stories about people meeting and predominantly (but not exclusively) falling in love.  They range from the mundane (boy and girl hold up in a bathroom at a party that is about to be raided by the police) to the fantastic (boy and girl become “ensnared” and watch their alternative futures unlock) to the truly exotic (a “department of dead love” where you can perform an autopsy on your failed romance).  They tend to lean towards LGBT themes and there are a few attempts to bring in some non-white perspectives (most notably through Ibi Zaboi’s story of an African dressmaker).  Strikingly, the editor is anonymous, there is no introduction, and the authors have no bios included.

For the most part, these are pretty good stories.  A few of them could have been expanded upon and been quite enjoyable in a fuller length, but most of them are nicely self-contained.  There are no outright duds, but little that stands out either.  Two strangers getting to know each other is a pretty basic rubric and the anthology has the feeling of being a creative writing exercise for a group of established authors.

Snow & Rose, by Emily Winfield Martin

An adaptation of the classic (albeit frequently mis-told) fairy tale of two sisters -- blond/white Snow and black/red Rose.  After their father disappears during a trip through the woods, they and their mother are thrown out of their home and forced to take up occupying an abandoned house in those same woods.  Their mother warns them to stay close, but the girls long to find their father and they wander.  In the woods, they find many strange and scary things:  wolves, a hunter, a tiny little man who speaks in riddles, a injured bear, and an old woman who maintains a ”library” of objects which tell stories.

Illustrated with original watercolor sketches, this handsome fairy tale is a striking book.  The story, not always so straightforward, gels well enough in the end, although is not as strong as the presentation.  Rather striking for the genre, the narrative is surprisingly animal-friendly, whether it is showing kindness to a hungry bear or to the girls’ cat.  The more gruesome nature typically associated with fairy tales is largely absent.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily, by Laura Creedle

Lily has ADHD and suffers from poor impulse control.  She’s bright, but failing most of her classes.  She considers it pretty much inevitable that she will fail at everything she undertakes.  So, it comes as some surprise when she finds herself in a budding relationship with Abelard, who is autistic and has issues of his own.

Somehow it just happened (admittedly when she decided to impulsively kiss Abelard while they were sitting in the principal's office!)But a relationship between the always late and easily distracted Lily and the obsessively punctual Abelard will be full of greater tortures than the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise!

A charming love story that sounds like it should be a comedy, but never really goes into romantic comedy territory.  Instead, Creedle plays this straught, exploring with openness and sympathy the emotional rollercoaster of adolescent love (full of so many expectations and impulses as it is) through the eyes of the neuro atypical.  The character building is lovely and you really get inside Lily’s head (Abelard's somewhat less so).  She's a unique character – maddening much of the time but so easy to like as well -- that it is easy to see how Lily’s friends and teachers can like her and support her.  And you find yourself doing so as well!