Friday, November 29, 2019

You Must Not Miss, by Katrina Leno

Magpie has a lonely life.  Her alcoholic mother is frequently away.  Her sister, frustrated with taking care of Mom, moved out and refuses to come back home.  Magpie's circle of friends has been reduced to Ben and Clare and Magpie's social capital is spent. As soon as she turns eighteen, she plans to move out of the town of Farther.

But before that move happens, something strange and wonderful occurs.  As an escape, Magpie has been creating an imaginary world in her notebook.  It’s a perfect world with friends who like her, mothers who don’t drink, and everything is great.  She calls the world "Near." Fantasy is one thing, but one day she discovers that she can actually visit Near through the woodshed in the backyard and it is every bit as perfect as she imagined in her notebook.

But as her fantasy world of Near becomes more and more real, Magpie finds it has a dark side, which can be used not only for escape but also for revenge.  With all the anger that Magpie carries with her, the temptation of such power is too much.  Despite numerous warnings that the costs of using Near to inflict suffering on her enemies is dangerous, she becomes obsessed with striking back at her tormentors.

Thus, what starts as Secret Garden becomes Carrie in this strange and blood-thirsty tale of revenge.  I wasn’t sure in the end what the point of it all was.  Magpie, consumed by her anger and frustration achieves some sort of peace in the end, but it doesn’t really have a huge impact.  Her bloodthirstiness and cruelty pretty much shuts down anything sympathetic about her.  I didn’t like her and found her cruel and ultimately pathetic.  That even she judges herself that way in the end was little comfort from this dark piece.

Better Than the Best Plan, by Lauren Morrill

Maritzi’s mother has always had a flighty streak to her.  So when she leaves a note saying that she’s going away for six to twelve months to learn how to be a meditation and life skills coach and that seventeen year-old Maritzi should just “follow her own path,” it isn’t too surprising.  It’s going to be hard to get by, given that Maritzi isn’t exactly earning much money from her part-time job, but she’s always managed to keep things together anyway.  How much harder can it be without her Mom around?

But before Maritzi has much of an opportunity to find out, a tipped-off social worker comes and takes Maritzi into a foster home. Kris and Ryan, her foster parents, turn out to have a history with Maritzi that she didn’t even know existed. As Maritzi settles in, they all find that there is a lot to this than they ever imagined.  Lightening things up a bit, a little light romance with the boy next door also makes an appearance.

The highlight of the book is definitely the character of Maritzi herself.  She not only says that she could have taken care of herself, but she could also have had a decent job of pulling it off.  She's a particular responsible and capable young woman, yet sufficiently flawed to be believable.  It’s nice to have a story where the heroine goes to a party and doesn’t drink at all.  And while her foster mother is pretty hard on her (for entirely believably flawed reasons of her own), Maritzi probably doesn't deserve it.

But sadly the story sort of goes nowhere.  The romance is underdeveloped, the eventual inevitable show down with Mom fizzles away, and the question of whether Maritzi will live with her mother or her foster parents becomes a non-event.  It all wraps up neatly and there is not much drama to it.

The Grace Year, by Kim Ligget

In the County, men hold all of the power.  But when a girl turns sixteen, she enters the "Grace Year" and is consumed by forces so powerful that she threatens the entire community.  To protect the rest, all sixteen year-old girls are sent away to live (or die) on an isolated island for a year.  Surrounded by “poachers” who will skin them alive if they try to escape because the flesh and blood of the girls is highly desired (and illicitly bought) by men who crave the magic that it allegedly possesses.  Those young women who survive and return will be married off or sent out to a life of labor or prostitution.

Tierney has always been her father’s daughter, willful and rebellious, and it’s gotten her into a fair share of trouble.  But it has also given her the strength and resourcefulness to survive the  ordeal.  Yet she will find that the physical harshness of exile is not the greatest challenge.  Far more dangerous than the poachers and the wilds that surround them are the girls themselves.  Petty jealousies between the girls (over who will marry at the end of the year and who will be sent into labor) face them off each other and put everyone in danger.

Part Handmaid’s Tale and part Lord of the Flies, this dark and brutal dystopia explores society's fetishization of feminine adolescence.  The treatment is gory and bloody and thoroughly unpleasant. Tierney is one of the tougher heroines you’ll ever meet, but she also a powerful leader and her aforementioned resourcefulness and intelligence serves her well. In telling her story, Ligget pulls no punches and the storytelling makes no attempt at subtlety.  The book is vivid.  It’s apparently been optioned for a movie, although one imagines that the gruesome nature of the book will need to be toned down if the target adolescent audience is going to be able to access it.

What makes the novel so interesting to me are the arguments it makes about society's treatment of sexuality and sexual inequality.  This is not just a criticism of patriarchy (as people so often misread Margaret Atwood's classic). Ligget’s point that women weaken themselves by being their own worst enemies is powerful and controversial stuff.  It fleshes out the usual anti-patriarchal dystopian by showing in Foucaldian terms the way the prisoners aid the jailers, the way that girls' gazes on each other are every bit as violent as men's.  The novel’s non-traditional ending, with its rejection of traditional literary forms is both its own rebellion against patriarchy and strikingly original.  Formidable and provocative.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura

The Heart's Desire flower shop has been a key part of the Katsuyama's family for years. It carries with it a bitter legacy.  When CJ's grandfather was relocated to an internment camp during WWII, the family was forced to sell the property for next-to-nothing to the McAllisters.  After they came back, the McAllisters demanded a huge sum to reclaim it.  Others would have walked away, but for decades they worked and saved until they could buy back the property.  Katsuyamas never quit.

For CJ's grandfather and aunt, the McAllisters could never be forgiven, but CJ's mother is more pragmatic.  She shunned the family business and went into finance, ironically joining the McAllister venture capital firm, a move that threatened to split the family.

Flash forward seventeen years and now the business is not doing well. CJ's mother has negotiated a deal to sell the property back to the McAllisters.  CJ's aunt Hannah objects on principle and CJ herself sides with her aunt. The conflict reopens the old wounds, but there is no denying that the flower shop is losing money.  And while Hannah and CJ sentimentally hold fast, Mom's relentless realism is winning out.

The issue broadens when the local newspaper uncovers that old man McAllister pulled the same property trick on literally hundreds of Japanese Americans -- using racist rhetoric as a smokescreen to enrich himself by swindling them.  The money he raised in the process become the foundation for the McAllisters fortune and was used to buy the family prestige.  One of the most damning legacies of this is the fact that CJ's high school is named after the man.  Inspired by the story and driven by her personal vendetta, CJ organizes a student movement to get the school renamed, an act that threatens her Mom's career plans.

Intertwined with this is CJ's conflict with a publicity-seeking white girl named Brynn, Brynn's complicated relationship with CJ's best friend Emily, CJ's own romantic issues, and CJ's struggle to win her mother's respect.  Teen pregnancy and whether to raise the baby or have an abortion figure in prominently as well.  So, it's obviously a rather complex story to summarize

Despite the multitude of stories being told, the novel is surprisingly fluid and readable.  For the most part the various subplots fit in to the main story (although the teen pregnancy subplot is ultimately peripheral and probably could have been cut).  Sugiura has previously shown an affinity to writing about Japanese Internment and has found a creative way here to bring contemporary relevance to the topic.  The character of Brynn gives her the opportunity to discuss White Privilege effectively, albeit the issue seemed too blithely resolved.

Where Sugiura struggles is in depicting conflict and conflicting views.  In general, all of the conflicts in this book are resolved the same way -- characters spar and then meet up later, literally say "I fucked up," and then move on.  There's not much debate or grayness allowed (presumably because Sugiura doesn't see any).  It's thus a bit of a rude surprise that the ending is so bittersweet and unresolved.  In this novel the characters can all agree to live together, but the outside world is still unfair -- there's no map to resolution and Sugiura apparently can't imagine one.  That's ultimately unsatisfying.

I Wish You All the Best, by Mason Deaver

Ben decides that it is time to come clean with their parents and tell them that they are non-binary (and uses the pronoun "they").  It doesn't go well and Ben's parents literally kick them out on the streets. With few options available, Ben reaches out to Hannah, their sister (who has herself been long estranged from their family) and she takes them in.

With Hannah's help and a relocation, Ben is able to finish school and have some space to reconsider what they want.  Part of that search is a burgeoning relationship with best friend Nathan.  But being in a romance is challenging to Ben, who doesn't necessary understand how to articulate love and sexual attraction as non-binary.  From their family's abusive background, Ben's also prone to anxiety and panic attacks, all of which are aggravated by Ben's parents who struggle with understanding Ben's identity.

As a pioneering novel about non-binary teens, the book has obvious significance:  giving a voice to a group that doesn't really yet have one in YA literature.  But while it does a remarkable job at articulating issues common to young people who identify as non-binary, it largely fails as a novel.  The plot drags and meanders as it tries to cover lots of bases rather than tell a story.  It also doesn't help that Ben is not a particularly sympathetic character.  With his wide variety of issues, they come off as self-centered and insular.  That's less Ben's fault than the author's:  there's plenty of history which (if explained) could help the reader develop sympathy for Ben's struggle, but that history is stated (rather than shown), so the reader can only surmise and make assumptions.  Some discussion of Ben's identity issue prior to deciding to come out, at a minimum, would have helped.  After all, the pain of not being accepted hardly started when Ben came out.  The way the book is written, one might come to the conclusion that all Ben cares about is being addressed with the correct pronoun, but there is so much more than that going on and it is never developed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Tin Heart, by Shivaun Plozza

Marlowe is a recent heart transplant recipient with an odd and quirky family.  She has a militant vegan mother and a little brother named Pip who likes to dress up (usually as female literary figures).  Her mother's nemesis is the butcher shop next door and the whole family engages in dramatic guerrilla protests against the store and its owner.

Marlowe has her own private vendetta with the butcher's son, which gradually grows (as these things do in romance books) into something more, much to her mother's horror.

But the ostensible main story of the novel is Marlowe's desire to learn more about the donor of her heart. She tries reaching out to the donor's family, but they don't want any contact.  Obsessed, Marlowe can't let that sit and tracks them down anyway, becoming friends with the donor's sister, Carmen.  This becomes awkward when Marlowe finally has to come clean about the connection that Marlowe shares with her.

Aussie YA is usually a bit strange and this book meets that expectation. The weird characters (not just the cross-dressing little brother, but all of the characters) is part of it, but the bigger issue is the lack of plot.  There are a lot of digressions and plenty of subplots, but the story doesn't add up to much.  Conflicts with brother, mother, Carmen, and the butcher boyfriend drift along, but it doesn't go anywhere and we end up pretty much where we started.

Maybe He Just Likes You, by Barbara Dee

Seventh grade is presenting challenges.  The boys seem to do lots of stupid things. Some of them are just silly, but some of those things leave Mila feeling bad, like when a group of boys start touching her sweater or giving her hugs she doesn't want.  More upsetting, they won't stop even when she asks them to.

She would tell someone, but there's no one to talk to.  The female  guidance counselor is out on leave and Mila isn't comfortable talking to a man about this.  Mila's mother is having her own problems at work and Mila doesn't want to trouble her.  Maybe she's just overreacting.  The boys are just teasing anyway, right?  That's what some of her friends think.  In the end, a caring music teacher and a class in karate help Mila build the confidence necessary to address her harassers.

Excellent, albeit upsetting story about sexual harassment in middle school.  Dee has a really good feel for the social behaviors of early adolescents and the story rings true.  It's that plausibility that makes the tale so chilling.  The actions of the boys fall into that uncomfortable area between teasing and harassment that divides not just the children, but the adults as well.  It's no wonder that the kids are often struggling with defining what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

As usual, I didn't care for Mila's reluctance to seek help, which is a common ploy for dragging out a story, but more so than normal, I appreciated that it is her own struggle to find her voice that forms a big part of the story (and I was placated by the way that her silence was recognized as its own bad choice).  Despite that little bit of gratuitous character abuse by the author, Mila comes across as a strong and inspirational heroine.

This is an important book and one that could facilitate a lot of great discussion among younger teens (in much the way that Speak has become for slightly older readers).  It's important for girls and boys to recognize that boundaries exist at all ages and to think about what role they play in their own lives.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Shadowscent, by P. M. Freestone

Rakel dreams of becoming a perfumer.  Her strong sense of smell and her understanding of the science of scents gives her a good chance of success.  But in her world, scents are power, so her goal is ambitious.  Ash is First Prince Nisai’s bodyguard.  When the Prince is struck down by a poison of unknown origin, fate and circumstance brings the two of them together.  Racing against the calendar, they must find a cure.  When an ancient text suggests that the antidote requires rare ingredients from all corners of the Empire, they are off on an epic quest.

A rich and densely-constructed fantasy, packed full of action.  At first, the immense detail is overwhelming and it’s hard to follow the story.  But as the dust settles, the story takes over, but only with some willful disregard of the layers and layers that the author piles on.  I love cultural detail but too much becomes distracting, particularly in the way it is used here to fill lulls in te story.  Whenever the action starts to lag, suddenly we are conveniently introduced to a another legend or an unknown town or a new monster.  What we don’t get is much character development.  The story shows us that Rakel and Ash are pawns in an imperial power play.  But within this book, they are also Firestone’s pawns.  If you like vivid and complex settings and fast-packed action, that probably won’t matter much, but I didn’t have much on which to hang.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book in return for an honest review.  The book is slated for release on November 5, 2019]

Notes from My Captivity, by Kathy Parks

Many years ago, there was a Russian family -- the Osinovs -- who disappeared into the Siberian wilderness.  Lots of rumors abounded about them.  They became legendary for the powers they allegedly possessed, but even their existence was disputed.  And while people sought them out, no one could ever find them.

Adrienne's stepfather Dan is obsessed with finding the family.  He wrote a well-known article about them for The New York Times, but a similarly famous rebuttal has cast him into disgrace. His first attempt a few years ago to actually find them was a failure, but now he is trying again.  Seventeen year-old Adrienne is coming along, mostly to see if Dan is right, but also to exorcise some ghosts of her own.

What begins as a great adventure turns into a horror story as all of the members of the expedition are killed, except for Adrienne.  Marooned deep in Siberian forest, she is taken captive by the Osinov's, who not only exist, but also are very unhappy that she has found them.  As she gets to know the family, she finds that everything about them is more complicate than any myth or legend.

A unusual story that starts as an adventure, becomes a survival story, and eventually turns into a spiritual quest (in a sort of Heart of Darkness way).  The section is by far the most ambitious. It is also the least successful, but it gives the novel an unexpected gravitas.  Ultimately, the story is about forgiveness, but it's a long and twisted journey to reach that stage.

Parks is a good writer.  I enjoyed the Russian that is sprinkled liberally in the dialog.  And I certainly liked the character Adrienne.  The other characters appear too briefly or are too filtered by the language barrier to really make an impact.  Still, each and every one was memorable.