Monday, September 28, 2020

Every Moment After, by Joseph Moldover

Eleven years ago, a shooter came to school and left seventeen first graders and their principal dead.  Now, it's time for the survivors to graduate and for the town to say their final goodbyes.  Many families have moved on but enough of the living remain to turn this graduation ceremony into a memorial.  The news will pick up this grim milestone as just another story, but for the survivors there is no real moving on.

This novel picks up at that commencement exercise and traces two young men who survived the incident and how they spend the summer after school:  Cole (who became a poster child, with the picture of the police chief carrying his body out of the school as the primary image of the tragedy) and Matt (who survived by luck, being home sick that day).  For them, this final summer is also their goodbye and time to actually move on.  It finds them revisiting things that they have dwelled on for the past eleven years, but now finally have to let go.

I liked the idea of doing a survivor story like this.  Few books on the subject have taken such a long-term view and it is a meaty subject in need of a proper treatment.  The school at which I spent my freshman year (Simon's Rock) went through a shooting incident itself, so I know something firsthand about the subject.  On that basis, I felt that Moldover handled the combination of guilt, fear, and anger particularly well.  And he explores the subject from so many different angles:  local townspeople, first responders, civic leaders, as well as the children and their families.  This is done so seamlessly that you never really become aware of how thorough Moldover's sociological exercise is until you put down the book and reflect back on what you've learned.

I also liked the novelty of an authentic boy's YA book.  The vast majority of YA is written for girls and the few writers attempt a straight masculine perspective.  When you do find a book about boys, it usually wallows in gross-out and horn-dog stereotypes.  Deep, introspective novels about adolescent males are very very rare.  Thus, it is rewarding to find that Cole and Matt are emotionally complicated and authentic male protagonists.  I related to them in a way that I rarely relate to YA characters.

With all that said, it may surprise that I don't actually recommend the book.  I found the story a hard slog and the ending mystifying and frustrating.  There are amazing moment of brilliance in here, with much of it coming from the adult supporting characters, but the boys themselves never seem to pull themselves up or grow in the way I needed them to do.  That made the ending ultimately unfulfilling.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Finding Mr. Better-Than-You, by Shani Petroff

Camryn gets a rude shock at the start of her senior year when her guidance counselor informs her that her lack of extracurriculars is probably going to doom her chances of getting into Columbia.  This is followed by a very public dumping by her boyfriend Marc at a local hangout.  All of which leads to a lot of re-examination of priorities as Cam realizes that she has defined much of her life by trying to be there for Marc, instead of for herself.  While this reflection has some positive effect and sends her out to try trying new things, including joining yearbook, writing for the school paper, and becoming a school mascot, too much of the old ways persist.

Cam is a fan of rom-coms and believes that there is a "Mr. Right" out there for her.  At first, she's convinced that it's still Marc and so she tries dating friends of his to make him jealous.  When that doesn't work she tries finding a new boyfriend on her own, and eventually her friends try to set her up.  None of it really works and she eventually figures out that she is just trying too hard.  Through it all, her friends are loyally there for her and by the end of the novel she finds that Mr. Right actually isn't anywhere nearby, but since this is high school anyway, maybe it's just fine to stick to having friends.

Why this takes her an entire novel to come to terms with is anyone's guess.  She's pretty bright and intelligent and keeps on reminding herself that she has great friends, but her stubborn determination to find a boyfriend at least gives us a story to track, even if it doesn't always make much sense.  None of it is particularly dramatic and the story really doesn't have much of a point to make beyond the fact that high school dating pool is pretty shallow,.  The book is readable and mostly enjoyable, like the rom-coms that Camryn enjoys so much.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Girl Gone Viral, by Arvin Ahmadi

Opal Hopper is a senior at an elite computer science-centered high school in Palo Alto.  But her life, like that of most young people, centers around WAVE, a world-wide virtual reality platform, created by Palo Alto Labs (which also happens to bankroll her school).  Her presence in VR takes on a new meaning when she and her friends hack into PAL's data stream and start crunching through users' biometric monitoring (data that PAL has taken from users on WAVE).  Realizing how much power resides in such personal data, they turn that data around back on the users.  The epiphany that this unleashes on WAVE causes Opal and her channel to go viral, launching them into an elite world with millions of followers.  It also brings them to the attention of the greedy and the powerful, from the wealth of venture capitalists to the subversive political wrath of the emerging Luddites.

Opal, however, is not interested in influence and power.  She wants answers.  Seven years ago, her father, a brilliant computer scientist, went missing.  And no one will tell her the truth about his disappearance.  But one of the last people to see him was Howie Mendelsohn, the founder of PAL.  Mendelsohn is a hermit and won't meet with just anyone, but if Opal becomes the biggest thing on WAVE, there is no way that she'll be refused an audience.

Original and innovative, the book is tricky and tedious to read but rewards the effort with striking observations about technology.  I found myself alternately annoyed by the technological gibberish that fills Ahmadi's prose and astounded by his insights on tech.  With the reactionary "Luddites" serving as a surrogate from Trumpism, Ahmadi sends us into a deep exploration of how tech brings us both a better society and simultaneously weakens us for a populist backlash.  For Opal and her peers, there is no reasonable alternative than to move forward into a world of virtual reality, but her elders (and many readers) will achingly find themselves hanging on to some elements of the Luddite manifesto.  It's very subversive and the ideas raised will stick with you a long long time.

Good ideas do not however an excellent novel make.  Ahmadi is trying to be clever and he's also trying to describe a world that does not have a physical existence and which does not behave in the way we expect it to.  And, while it is easy to get swept away by the magic, he also has a human story (the final human touch, as he'll put it later, that must always be in charge) to tell.  That's a lot to bite off and it makes the book hard to create and (wherever he falls down) hard to digest.  There are numerous places where the story doesn't track, where action scenes and/or dialog make no sense, and where the logic of the story simply collapses.  In many ways, that is part of the experience, but for readers like me that search for human connections and human truths (and are more than a bit Luddite!) this isn't a story we enjoy.  The end result is a mediocre novel with terribly important things to say about the future.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Silence Between Us, by Alison Gervais

Moving to Colorado poses challenges for Maya and her little brother.  Maya has been deaf since a case of meningitis a few years ago, but she's felt protected by being in a school for the deaf.  With the move to Colorado, she's forced to attend regular school, using an interpreter in her classes.  It's hard work lip reading and following her interpreter's signing, and it's painful to be an object of stares and gossip from her peers.  But what gets at Maya the most is the judgment that she senses that the hearing folks have about her condition.  They seem only capable of pity and she sees that they assume that she is miserable being deaf.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  she likes being who she is.

Her year presents other challenges:  her little brother is sick, she faces discrimination from peers/teachers/employers, and fights pressure from various sources that want her to get a cochineal implant so she won't have to "endure" being deaf.  Meanwhile, she surprises herself by falling in love with Beau.  Beau is a bright and intelligent boy who teaches himself sign language so he can talk with her and has plans to go to Yale, but has dreams of his own that he doesn't dare reveal.

It's a very busy little story, full of ideas, but Gervais really struggles to tie them together and resolve them.  The strength of the book is its glimpse inside of the character of a deaf teenager.  Gervais works hard to show what communicating with a mix of lip reading, signing, and speech is like.  The novel also touches on a variety of important issues for deaf people ranging from the history of disability rights to discrimination, and pays special attention to the debate over children getting implants.  But as a story, nothing really comes together and I felt very little emotional connection with the characters or sensed much of one between them.  Gervais has an episodic format, focusing on her challenges, but that doesn't give us much room to develop a character and doesn't create an organic flow.  A major casualty is the underdeveloped romance with Beau.  Subplots (like Beau's conflict with his father or Maya's brother's health issues) are just left to lay there.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

It's My Life, by Stacie Ramey

Jenna's always been a fighter.  Born with cerebral palsy, she's been through countless treatments and surgeries, and endured the challenges of crutches and wheelchairs.  She's worked hard because she's felt that her condition was simply bad luck.  When she uncovers the fact that she was the subject of a medical malpractice suit against her obstetrician, she comes to realize that it was her doctor's fault that made her this way.  Angry at not ever being told the truth, she gives up on her studying and starts to demand a voice in her own treatment.  And when her parents refuse to consent to the latter, she sues them for medical emancipation.

At the same time, Julian, a boy that Jenna once knew from years ago, has moved back into the area.  He's lost much of his confidence but none of his charm, and Jenna reaches out to him, rekindling memories.  But afraid of being rejected, she sends him anonymous.  These develop into mutual affection.  But now Jenna is afraid that if she reveals herself to him as the correspondent that he'll reject her because she is crippled.  Eventually, of course, all must be revealed.

Great characters, including a surprisingly strong finish from Jenna's parents, coupled with a lot of growth from Jenna makes this a moving story.  But I still found it a hard slog because of the uneven pacing and storytelling.  Important details are easy to miss in a story that frequently seems to drift.  Key plot points are poorly explained, leaving mysteries that the reader has to work hard to figure out.  It doesn't help that the two separate stories don't overlap and never come together.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Me, Him, Them, and It, by Caela Carter

Evelyn ("me") is pretty surprised when she finds herself pregnant.  She'd only let Todd ("him") have unprotected sex a couple of times! She was getting a prescription for the Pill when they found out it was too late.  Telling her estranged parents ("them") about it is incredibly difficult, but she'e eventually going to have to find a way to do so.  In the end the baby ("it") is coming, whether she's ready for it or not.  And for the most part, she's definitely not ready!

Evelyn is a very difficult character to get into.  Reviewers have compared her to Juno (from the eponymous indie film), but I think of her as more like Cher (from Clueless -- or Emma, Cher's model).  She's lost and confused but also maddeningly stubborn and difficult to like.  She sees everything negatively.  She hates everyone (including herself).  Her best trait is her steadfast refusal to make decisions.

Some of these flaws are understandable.  She has emotionally cold parents and no role-model for empathy, but she's intelligent and insightful.  So her inability to overcome those barriers (and yes, she never overcomes them) is off-putting.  It's also understandable that the decisions she needs to make would be hard for any adolescent, but plenty of them do make the decisions, so Evelyn's refusal to even try is hard to sympathize with.  But it's realistic.

So, I'm left with a conundrum:  the novel's well written with a complex protagonist, well-drawn supporting characters, and (with the exception of some minor rushing of the story at the end) decent storytelling, but it's not a fun read.  I didn't like Evelyn but I found her authentic enough to care about her and that's a strong mark in this book's favor.  Ultimately, I didn't find it a redeeming story, but I learned things from it.  I think few authors have done as good of a job at getting inside the head of a pregnant adolescent girl before and Carter does an amazing job.  In Evelyn's case, it's not a pleasant place to visit.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Lucky Caller, by Emma Mills

When Nina signs up for an elective in radio broadcasting in her senior year, she finds herself stuck with a bunch of misfits and an old friend, Jamie.  She and Jamie haven't talked much since an unfortunate kissing dare back in middle school, despite the fact that they live in the same apartment building.  But now that they are working together, the opportunity arises for a lot of old baggage and forgotten feelings to  reemerge.

At the same time, the radio show causes Nina to reconnect with her estranged father.  A local celebrity when he was a DJ in the area (before moving out West and becoming a major star), Nina talks him into appearing on their radio show as an attempt to boost their ratings and improve their grade.  But when a rumor starts up that the upcoming "surprise guest" on their show is actually an underground musical recluse named Tyler Blight, the event blows up into a major event.  Faced with disappointment from rabid fans who are planning to attend the broadcast of the interview, Nina and her team have to figure out a way to manage the event.  But when Nina's Dad bails out and fails to show, an unexpected angel saves the day.

A bit of a messy plot (including a romance that never really clicks and a family reunion that peters out), Lucky Caller is rescued by an ending which is as heart warming as it is completely ridiculous.  Surprisingly, none of the loose ends really start to bother you until you have finished the book.  It's a feel good story with lots of good ideas, most of which never quite gel or come together, but it remains enjoyable throughout.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Orpheus Girl, by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Living in her small conservative town is dangerous for sixteen year-old Raya and her lover Sarah.  They've seen how the town deals with other kids who come out as homosexuals, but they feel powerless to avoid the certain outcome.  While they try to keep their relationship a secret, they are eventually found out and sent away to a remote conversion camp:  to be made un-gay.

The rest of this short book outlines the horrifying torture that Raya, Sarah, and other teens undergo in misguided attempts to "cure" their sexual orientation.  The author tries to give the story some weight by drawing analogies to Grecian myths, but these are fairly subtle and likely to be overlooked.  The storytelling is anything but and comes with a content warning, but compared to similar YA novels, I wouldn't consider this story particularly triggering, even if it is certainly not a pleasant read.

More fundamentally, the story is thin.  Raya and her background as a closet lesbian in her small town is an interesting story.  Similarly interesting is Char, a "cured" lesbian who now works at the camp administering electroshock therapy.  But neither they nor the other characters are all that well developed.  The book has shock value, but without much character development this is largely senseless.  More character study could have added gravitas to what is just pretty words about ugly things.  For a better treatment of the same subject matter, see The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Three Things I Know Are True, by Betty Culley

Clay and Liv always enjoyed playing Three Things down by the river.  The rules are simple:  one person provides the subject and other has to respond with three facts about that subject.  The only restriction is that all three of those things have to be true.

Truth used to be easy, but it's grown considerably harder since Liv's brother Jonah was injured while Jonah and Clay were fooling around with a gun that belonged to Clay's father.  Now Jonah lies comatose, hooked up to numerous machines (his new "friends" thinks Liv and she gives them all names) and tended by home nurses around the clock.  While it was Jonah who basically shot himself, the gun was left out unattended and Liv's mother is thus suing Clay's father for Jonah's care.  For Liv who misses having Clay around and for Clay who misses his best friend, it is hard to know where loyalties should lay.  Culley's verse novel explores these ambiguities and how one moves on from such a tragedy.

Novels in verse, as I always warn, can be very good, but they are frequently bad.  This one does not stand out.  The poetry is rarely interesting in and of itself, neither in structure nor in content.  Culley simply doesn't have much to say about the tragic set-up that she's created.  There's some attempts at speaking about the river that flows by their home.  The Three Things game comes up as a repeating motif.  But no great drama comes brings the story to a climax and in the end the characters peter out in their own ways, none of them learning much in the process.  The verse in the end mostly serves as a way to take a fairly thin story and stretch it out into over 400 pages.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Girl Who Speaks Bear, by Sophie Anderson

Discovered in the woods when she was a baby, Yanka has never quite felt like she fit in her village.  For one thing, she's so much stronger than the other children.  Her Mamochka watches her closely and seems overly protective, keeping Yanka as far away from the forest as she can.

One day, after she's turned twelve, Yanka wakes to find that her legs have turned into those of a bear.  Afraid of what the villagers will think of her transformation, she flees into the woods.  As she does so, she is reminded of a story that a woodsman named Anatoly told her about a girl whose family were cursed with living their lives as bears.  In fact, as she ventures in deeper, she begins to realize that a whole series of fairy tales she has heard over the years address her current predicament.  Anatoly the woodsman wasn't just telling her stories, he was trying to tell her about her own life.

The stories, which are delightful in their own right, are interspersed throughout Yanka's quest -- a trek that will include defeating a dragon, saving a magic tree, and eventually risking everything to save her village from a raging forest fire.  Each fairy tale, while a digression, serve as an oracle of what is to come,  in an ambitious attempt to demonstrate the role of fairy tale and myth in culture.

While this novel is more ambitious, I found Anderson's first novel (The House with Chicken Feet) more whimsical and fun.  Both books borrow creatively from Russian folk tale, but this second time around there is a lot more ground to cover and a plot which is more complicated and oft times confusing.  The endless feats that Yanka must confront and overcome become exhausting and one wonders if Anderson could have trimmed it down.  It certainly feels, in all that complexity, that the magical simplicity of a fairy tale is basically lost.