Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Me I Meant to Be, by Sophie Jordan

After Flor and Zach broke up, Flor's friend Willa took it on herself to make sure that the Girl Code was upheld, warning their friends not to date Zach in deference to Flor.  But when finds Willa herself in Zach's arms at a party, she's forced to question her own loyalties.  How will she ever explain what happened to Flor?  As usually happens in these sorts of novels, she doesn't run off to Flor and confess.  Instead, she procrastinates and waits until it is too late.

While Willa is off being a bad friend, Flor is rebounding and developed a crush on her math tutor Grayson.  Grayson seems to be all business and resistant to Flor's charms.  But when Flor makes a shocking discovery about Grayson's secret life, they bound over the fact that there is more to Grayson than meets the eye.

In other words, it's a basic teen romance full of a lot of cliches.  There may not be much in the way of new ground, but Jordan provides decent delivery.  I started getting optimistic when the novel questioned the idea of a Girl Code, suggesting that it was too rigid.  I was hoping for more development of the idea that there was value in girls being able to date whomever they choose (and maybe also seeing partners as something more meaningful than property).  The ideas are in fact suggested, but it's a halfhearted effort and this book remains safely by the numbers.

Friday, April 26, 2019

No One Here Is Lonely, by Sarah Everett

At a party, Eden and Will almost kissed.  A short time afterwards, he was dead.  Will’s grieving mother, misunderstanding the seriousness of the relationship, confides to Eden that there is way for her to still be with Will – a service called “In Good Service” that provides an AI program that emulates Will’s mannerisms.  Whenever she wants, Eden can call it and be with him again.

The idea seems weird, but Eden is going through a rough patch: her best friend Lacey no longer wants to hang out and is distancing herself, wrecking all the plans that they made together.  Meanwhile, Eden has discovered that her mother is having an affair with her little sister’s skating instructor.  With Lacey out of the picture, Eden finds herself confiding to Will over the phone.  As she gets more involved and starts using the program more heavily, her behavior becomes obsessive.  Eden has more and more trouble separating his miserable reality from this virtual fantasy.

A frankly creepy and disturbing premise that takes everyday smartphone obsession and kicks it up a notch. But beyond that element, the story is actually a nice exploration of finding the strength to be happy with yourself and expanding horizons.  At the start, Eden can’t imagine making new friends (Lacey has always provided whatever she needs).  Her growth towards opening up and exploring the world is richly rewarding and the true point of the story.  Predictably, she will shake off her obsession and outgrow her need for this AI program, but that character growth is what makes up the story.

Damsel, by Elana K. Arnold

Everyone knows that the prince must find and slay the dragon and rescue the damsel.  Everyone knows that then the prince will become the king and the damsel his queen.  She will have a child and the cycle will repeat.  This is the way things are and how they will always be.  It works out well for the prince, but what of the dragon?  What of the damsel?  Does anyone ever ask the damsel what she wants?  Does anyone even care?

The eponymous damsel of this story has no memory of how she came to be rescued, simply that she was.  Even her name (Ama) is supplied by the prince (she cannot recall one of her own).  And when she asks for help in reconstructing her past, no one seems interested in helping her. The queen mother tells her to forget the path backwards and think only of the future (being a wife and a mother).  That the only happiness lies in thinking forward.

In fact, the question makes the prince angry.  Her role is the marry him and have a son.  Nothing else matters.  When she has the audacity to create a great work of art at the end of the story, he challenges her:

"You see, Ama, it is for men to create.  It is for men to decide.  It is for men to speak.  It is your place to listen, and follow, and gestate.  And those are no small things!  For without women to listen, how would the men's words be heard?  Without your fertile womb, how could my son hope to grow?  You are important, Ama.  Desperately important.  But do not overreach."

The novel is deeply disturbing: a very dark fairy tale that asks probing questions about the dragon quest archetype.  But this is much more than some fractured fairy tale. Arnold is exploring the intersect of consent and agency, often in very surprising ways.  As we settle down to domesticity, what are the costs to our selves?  One subplot involves Ama's attempt to domesticate a baby lynx.  Needless to say, it ends badly, but not before illustrating the damage being done to Ama herself.

The themes are quite mature. The language is harsh and frank.  The prince routinely brutalizes his damsel physically and emotionally.  In sum, this is not a children's book.  But while danger is ever present in this world, it is not actually explicit and it serves a purpose:  driving home the extreme stakes of Ama's search for self.

This is not a book for everyone but to me it seemed extraordinary.  Beautifully written, it's easily the most powerful and memorable book I've read this year so far.  Its a novel that will get you thinking not just about fairy tale stories, but about much broader issues of consent and acquiescence.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Sky for Us Alone, by Kristin Russell

Strickland County is a poisonous place, whether it's the soil damaged by mining and chemicals or the spread of opioids among the population.  For Harlowe Compton, growing up in the midst of it all, his older brother was the shining star and guide out of this place.  So when the brother ends up dead, dumped in front of their house by Tommy Prater, Harlowe wants answers.  But this isn't exactly a safe place to go digging.  The Praters own the County (including the law enforcement) and people who cross the family tend to end up dead.  To no one's great surprise, the answer lies in the drug trade and Harlowe must come to terms with the fact that his idolized brother was messed up in it.

The investigation of what Harlowe's brother was up to is nowhere near as interesting as the setting.  Russell's nightmarish Appalachian landscape is everything we hear about the rural poor and the devastation of the population by drugs.  But the writing shies away from the stereotypes.  The vivid characters are nuanced and perfectly illustrate how even intolerable conditions can seem normal when they are all you've ever known.  Russell obviously has a bittersweet love for the people who endure this life.  The result is a haunting and realistic depiction of the place.

But Not Forever, by Jan Von Schleh

While exploring a deserted house in a mining ghost town, Sonnet finds is transported back in time to 1895. In a similar fashion, Emma, the unloved older child of a mining baron finds herself swept up from 1895 and sent to the future.  Sonnet and Emma, who physically resemble each other, have been swapped.

While the most immediate concern is how they will survive in each others’ timelines (and hopefully return to their own), Sonnet is faced with more present danger:  Emma’s mother’s antipathy towards her child, which verges on the homicidal.  Getting back home may be a matter of life and death for Sonnet, stuck in the grasp of this evil stepmother.

Time travel stories are almost always best taken with a grain of salt.  While this one avoids most of the usual paradoxes that plague the genre, it bends and twists in a torturous way to explain itself.  But the thing is that no one really cares how the two girls got where they are and/or how they will get back, they just want an adventure.  But that doesn’t stop the author from trying to explain the mechanics of how the girls got swapped in ever more confusing half-explanations.

The story too is a mess with a mixture of the main thread about restoring the continuum and a confusing subplot about family jealousy.  Various random characters are introduced and even developed, but then prove to play no consequential role in the story.  The romance is also a bit odd involving the idea that Sonnet and Emma somehow share an emotional thread that draws them to the same boy (not that even that subplot matters much in the end).  Way too many characters.  Way too many dropped story ideas.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages, ed by Saundra Mitchell

Seventeen historical short stories that share in common the idea that the protagonists are gender queer.  It's a concept that could have easily gone off the rails with authors determined to grind an ax, but that is not the case here. 

These stories are historical fiction first with the characters' sexual orientation and/or gender identity largely secondary.  Sometimes the stories are simply rewrites where the romantic characters are same sex, as in Robin Talley's "The Dresser & the Chambermaid" (set amidst the splendor of the Georgian royal court) or Dahlia Adler's "Molly's Lips" (where two girls find comfort in each other at Kurt Cobain's wake at the Seattle Center).  For other stories it becomes more central to the story, as in Anne-Marie McLemore's story of a woman carrying herself as a man in the midst of Mexico's wars with France in the 19th century or Malinda Lo's stories of male impersonators in San Francisco in the 1950s.  The latter story works particularly well as it's based largely on historical fact.  The more fantastic ones, like Elliott Wake's "Every Shade of Red" (which imagines Robin Hood as a band of people with very muddied gender identities) come off a bit silly.

While the stories are generally strong and well-written, I have issues with the collection for the lack of consistent commitment to the concept.  Some authors chose to highlight moments of gender queer history and seem devoted to the editor's call to shed "light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten." Others saw the assignment as a chance to reimagine a world that never existed through a homosexual lens.  Still others just want to prove that a good story does not need straight characters.

The vast majority of the contributions are gay or lesbian fiction.  There are a few transgender stories, but these are largely cross-dressing rather than true transexuality.  Asexuality is touched upon, but not all that successfully.  Bisexuality is largely missing (aside from a brief mention).  So, while a broad array of historical periods and settings are present, the stories seem more focused on sexual orientation and are less representative of the variations in gender identity.

Friday, April 12, 2019

My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life, by Rachel Cohn

Elle is bright and used to getting good grades, but with her Mom in jail after a long descent into addiction and dealing, Elle’s life has become a hell of foster homes and abuse.  Grades have slipped and she can feel her hopes and dreams slipping away.  Only her friend Reg helps her keep it together.

Then, like a scene out of Little Orphan Annie, Elle’s absent father appears in her life.  He’s a ridiculously wealthy Japanese businessman and he wants her to come live with him in Tokyo.  Before she knows what is happening, she’s been whisked to Japan.  She ends up living in a luxurious penthouse and attending a super exclusive International High School with a bunch of other privileged kids.

AS wonderful as this all seems, the new lifestyle doesn’t suit Elle well.  Her father is largely absent, her aunt and grandmother in Tokyo despise her, the popular kids (while nice to her as long as she conforms) are mean to others in a way that makes Elle uncomfortable, and everyone is trying to convince her not to fall for the one guy who actually treats her decently.  Elle desperately needs to figure out a way to make this “perfect” life work for her.

Rather more like a travel guide than a novel, Cohn delights in describing life in Tokyo.  One suspects that she was there on vacation and wanted to create a book in which she could work in some of her crazier experiences.  The story however doesn’t gel.  Characters are introduced and developed, but largely drop out at the end.  The story meanders.  In the end, Cohn just quickly ties up all the major loose ends with the previously unreasonable adults all agreeing to be nice.  Lots of fun scenes but the story needed work.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

The day finally arrived when Southern California’s taps went dry.  The great “Tap-Out” they called it.  After years of using up more water than they should, the supply was simply exhausted.  Quickly, the social order starts to collapse and people have to improvise to survive.  Five young people from diverse backgrounds and with different talents and skills embark on a desperate mission to survive.

The result is a gripping adventure.  While fast-paced and action-filled, the story still has some space of vivid characters who undergo growth as they find their core values challenged by the descent into anarchy around them.  The Shustermans have a great deal of fun imagining how fast civilization could collapse if there was nothing left to drink.  The fact that they make it all sound so plausible is particularly chilling.

And in a story that could have easily become senselessly violent and exploitative, the book is thoughtful and relatively restrained.  Still, this is an intense and traumatic story about what people go through when they are desperate and on the edge of death.  Not for the faint of heart.

Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Fourteen years ago, I started this blog with a review of Speak – a book that, at the time, was already a best-seller and just starting to find its controversial inclusion (or exclusion) from high school reading lists.  The novel was funny, intelligent, moving, and ultimately devastating.  Long before there was #MeToo, there was Speak.  When Anderson went out on tour, she found that there was a great number of readers who connected to the book, not so much because it was well-written (although that didn’t hurt!), but because it spoke to them.  To them, Malinda's story was devastating because it was their own.  And her struggle to regain her voice was an inspiration.

While the novel was inspirational for many, it was also easy to trivialize the book as just a piece of fiction.  But what made the novel so meaningful was that it never was just a piece of fiction.  It told a story that was real, even if the names and the specific circumstances were altered.  Shout is thus a corrective of sorts, a companion that sets the story straight.  Part memoir and part call to arms, Anderson is no longer spinning a tale.  The first section of the book covers Anderson’s own life, including the incident that scarred her and the process of recovery she went through in its aftermath.  Part two branches out into her professional career, discussing the writing of Speak and the response she received to it.  A short final section closes the biography with stories of her family.

Written in verse, there are definitely stronger sections, pieces that are truly exceptional as standalone works and others that are more functional and simply move the story along.  When she hits the mark (which is also usually when she is most angry) the pages simply burn. The story isn't particularly groundbreaking (certainly, if you’ve been even mildly conscious, you won’t be surprised by the horror of sexual violence’s prevalence) but it is still chilling to hear Anderson recount the blank stares and denial she encounters at her high school talks or the number of authority figures who have tried to silence her or deny the facts she presents. The issue I have with verse is that, while it carries the illusion of intimacy, it is also a way of distancing both the author and the reader from events.  It allows the storytelling to fade out at awkward moments or skip over things that the author would prefer to not bring up.  In the end, it is less revealing than prose.

Regardless, this intimate memoir is an essential companion to her earlier classic.