Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Quiet Kind of Thunder, by Sara Barnard

Steffi suffers from anxiety-induced mutism.  In front of strangers or presented with stressful situations, she is unable to speak.  The harder she tries to overcome it, the worse she gets.  Her parents are concerned that she will be unable to handle independent living.  So, while she is convinced that she'll go to university after graduating, they worried that she won't be able to handle it.

Rhys is a new enrollee at school.  He's deaf.  The headmaster, aware that Steffi knows some British Sign Language (BSL) (which she picked up as a therapy for her mutism), asks her to orient Rhys and help him get acquainted with their school.  Despite the difference in their handicaps, they bond and become friends.  And the friendship morphs into a romance.

The relationship is far from smooth.  While both of them confidently believe they understand each other's challenges, they quickly learn how rudimentary their knowledge truly is.  And the petty misunderstandings that accompany any relationship become a bigger deal when dealing with such significant communication barriers.  With all of this added on to the whirlwind of a first romance for the two of them and it is not smooth sailing.  Things come to a head when the young couple slips away from London to spend a secret weekend in Edinburgh and an accident puts their physical limits to the test.

Sara Barnard continues to astonish me.  She writes books with modest premises that seem to blossom into these amazingly complex and significant observations.  On its face, the story is nothing spectacular or now.  What makes this book (and all of her other novels) stand out is her consistent strong character development.  Her characters are complex and defy stereotypes.  Motivations are nuanced.  Young protagonists have age-appropriate and realistic responses to their environment, being capable of both drama and intellect.  Adults are flawed but mature and responsible.  They understand their children and support them (even if they don't always do what the children want).  In sum, the characters feel like real people.

Steffi and Rhys have different challenges in growing up with their distinct disabilities, which are portrayed well, but Barnard also manages to show us similarities.  Both of them bear an adolescents' misunderstanding of responsibility and expectations (Steffi lacks confidence while Rhys is unrealistic about expectations). Both have trouble with trust, although Steffi's issues are rooted in bullying while Rhys's come from microaggressions.  Both of them are sensitive and aware of the way the world discriminates against them because of their disabilities although Steffi tolerates it better than Rhys does.  The fact that I can observe these subtle differences between their characters gives some sense of the nuance in the character development.

The novel is imperfect.  The story is laden down with a number of subplots (a dead stepbrother, a mother's anxiety, etc.) that are never properly addressed and Steffi's codependent friendship with her BFF Tem is imperfectly resolved.  Shedding the former might have provided an opportunity to better address the latter.  The overall beauty of the book, though, is its simplicity.  Getting to know these two young people -- in their flaws and glories - made me fall in love with them and their story.  It's just a boy-meets-girl romance, but with the character-driven approach of the narrative, they become people I truly cared about.  So I wanted to be there with them as they worked through their problems and to be able to cheer for them as they figured things out.

In sum, a modest story that proved to be a good read from a consistently excellent writer.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Sway With Me, by Syed M. Masood

Arsalan has been raised and homeschooled by his great grandfather Nana.  Since his mother died in a car accident a few years ago, it's just been the two of them (his abusive father abandoned them long before). Now Nana has decided that it is time for Arsalan to attend public school. Nana's tutelage, heavy on literature and neglectful of math or science, has left Arsalan's education unbalanced and his social skills non-existent.

Recognizing his weakness, Arsalan turns to the daughter of a prominent matchmaker in his class named Beanish, in hopes that she can find him a girlfriend.  Beanish has a request of her own:  she needs a partner for an upcoming dance contest.  Arsalan knows nothing about dance, but he'll do whatever it takes to get her help with his problem. She in turn solicits the help of Diamond, a stylish and athletic boy who helps Arsalan bulk up for his role.

The situation (and Diamond in particular, with his habit of referring to himself in the third person) is comedic and overall there is a rom-com element to this story, but it has several serious themes as well.  Beanish's dance is not actually for a contest but for a more important purpose:  saving her sister from an unwanted marriage.  And Arsalan is not just socially awkward, but also a survivor of horrific childhood abuse.  Masood's writing beautifully balances out the light and the heavy, often at the same time, as in this passage which so crushingly depicts Arsalan's association of love and abuse:

Before I could respond, her lips -- accidentally I am sure -- grazed the crook of my neck. Their touch was soft and impossibly delicate against the spot where my father had once pressed a match and threatened to burn me.

And it's not just Masood's sensitivity to complex emotional states that makes this story shine.  Culture and religion feature prominently and treated with some sophistication.  Some of the pious (the intended groom of Beanish's older sister and Arsalan's father) are negative, but Diamond (for all of his vanity) is a positive role model for religion.  Nana's skepticism (rooted in intellectual pursuits) contrasts with Beanish's instinctual rebelliousness.  Arsalan stands between them all, full of doubt, picking out his own understanding of faith.

Not everything worked for me.  I thought the father's abuse was over the top and not really sure it was necessary for it to be so, but overall this is a beautiful story.  Masood is such an original writer and the characters so vibrant and interesting that I can't help but recommend the book.  This is a joyous book about friendship, adopted family, and loyalty.  While rooted in Pakistani-American experience, there is nothing particularly exclusive about the story.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Pax, Journey Home, by Sara Pennypacker

In this sequel to the pacifist allegory Pax, years have passed and both boy and fox have grown.  The war which raged through the first book has ended and humans are rebuilding, focusing on cleaning away the ecological damage of warfare.  Restless and uncomfortable at home because of the memories the place stirs up, he joins up with the "Water Warriors" -- a group of young people restoring the lakes and rivers in his old stomping grounds.  Just as the water ways need to be cleansed of toxins left by the war, Peter also struggles under his feelings of loss and anger from the hostilities and the more recent loss of his father. Back in the woods, his memories of his former pet Pax dominate his brain and he yearns to see the fox again.

Pax, meanwhile has grown up and built a family.  Safe from war but now threatened by the return of the humans, he goes out in search of safer spaces to raise his young family.  While intending to leave his three kits with their mother, his stubborn daughter tags along and  Pax is forced to bring her along.  Pax introduces her to the forest and to the ways of the humans.  He tries to explain to her that some humans (like his Peter) can be kind.  The eventual reunion with Peter is marred by his kit falling ill and Pax must make a fateful decision to trust Peter to take care of the young one.

The original Pax always seemed a bit too complex to be a children's book -- its style too moody and its story difficult to follow.  The sequel is even more so.  This is partly due to the heavy reliance on actions and characters from the predecessor (I would strongly recommend reading or re-reading Pax before reading this book).  However, even standalone, the novel's primary themes of environmental devastation, suicidal ideation, and grief are more personal and much darker.

I really appreciated the karmic circularity of this story, allowing the themes of the first book to come back around and the arc to achieve pleasing closure, but this is overall a weaker story.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

In Deeper Waters, by F. T. Lukens

Having come of age, Prince Tal is now on his traditional coming out tour of the kingdom.  Few of his subjects know him because he has been hidden from view.  His family is supportive and highly protective, so his cloistering is not the result of shame, but of wariness.  His great grandfather was an evil and terrible mage who terrorized the kingdoms and sowed discord.  After his defeat. the royal family has had to work hard to recover any honor among their peers.  So the fact that Tal shows signs of possessing the same magic now is dangerous.  If the other kingdoms find out about Tal's powers, he and the entire family will be in danger form proactive attacks.  It is in this awkward and dangerous position that Tal must operate; remaining cautious about revealing his true self.

But Tal's plans to keep a low profile are thrown asunder when he rescues a mysterious boy named Athlen from a group of pirates.  The two young men form an immediate attachment in spite of knowing so little about each other's secrets.  And when Tal himself is kidnapped, it is Athlen who must rescue him and help him save his kingdom.  And along the way Tal must also deal with how to come out publicly as a mage.

Swashbuckling sea adventures in a fantasy world, but the book lacks much of the urgency of a good adventure.  The fantasy setting itself is also largely underdeveloped.  So what does the story have?  Lots and lots of exposition and discussion.  This is a story where the characters talk and talk and talk some more, so that by the time anything actually happens, we've pretty much hashed through it from all of the angles.

Homoerotic elements are present but largely played down, much to the detriment of the story as the potentially hot romance between Tal and Athlen never quite takes off.  In their world, homosexuality is a non-issue, so it is the side plot about Tal gaining the self-confidence to come out as a holder of magic is a cute way of writing in a coming out story.  All of which brings us to the crux of the matter:  the story has cuteness and potential, but it never delivers on its promise.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Kate in Waiting, by Becky Albertalli

Kate and Anderson have been friends for ages.  One of the best parts of having a gay friend is their ability to crush on the same guys as you do.  And as long as the objects of their longing are distant and far way, there's no harm or foul.  But when their shared summer crush Matthew enrolls at their high school in the Fall, suddenly it's a different story.  As much as Kate and Anderson realize that it would be best for their friendship if they both swore off Matthew, they realize that neither of them want to.  Instead, they agree that they will each be free to pursue Matthew and that they promise to have no hard feelings if they lose out.  Will their friendship survive this?

The novel is an extremely brisk read that I found nonetheless challenging to get into.  Albertalli drives the action forward almost exclusively through dialogue which sounds simple until you try to read it.  Exposition and reflection take a back seat to a rather relentless drive forward as one interaction leads to another.  Blink and you'll miss an important plot point.  You certainly never get bored, but you stand a good chance of getting left behind.  Admittedly, this is a pretty good depiction of the whirlwind of adolescent relationships, but in written form it makes it hard to invest in the characters.

The book's heavy use of the F-word is unnecessary and distracting, adding little to the story except to become numbing.  It probably also draw unnecessary attention to the book for people looking for excuses to keep it out of young readers' hands.

Otherwise this is a pretty much by-the-numbers dramarama adventure (i.e., kids put on a theatrical production -- Once Upon A Mattress in this case).  The eventual resolution of  Kate and Anderson's romantic lives and their friendship with each other is largely uneventful and unsurprising.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Clarice the Brave, by Lisa McMann

Clarice is just a little ship mouse.  Since her mother was washed out to sea, she's looked after her intelligent (but largely impractical) brother Charles Sebastian.  For the most part, this has involved avoiding notice from the humans, keeping away from the chickens, and trying not to get eaten by the cats.  It's a simple life with easy rules to follow (even though Charles Sebastian seems to still struggle).

Humans are far more complicated.  When the crew rise up in a mutiny, the captain and his supporters are set adrift in a small boat.  Clarice finds herself on the small boat, while Charles Sebastian is left behind on the ship.  Separated by leagues of open sea, Clarice is distraught and determined to find a way to reunite with her weaker brother.

What can a little mouse do?  With no one else to turn to, Clarice cleverly befriends Special Lady, the captain's cat.  Faced with a mutual need for each other's support in order to survive, Clarice and Special Lady form an unusual alliance.

An action-packed story of adventure and friendship.  I was nonetheless disappointed with the book.  Honestly, based on the cover and a cute blurb, I was hoping for a gentle animal story (i.e., Stuart Little-esque adventures on the high seas) but this story is too gory for that.  There's an awful lot of death (often by unpleasant means) and it's not a very cheery story.  It's also a surprisingly morally ambiguous story without any clear heroes and an ambivalent ending.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

With You All the Way, by Cynthia Hand

The family trip to Hawaii (ostensibly for her mother's professional conference) has been something that Ada and her sisters have been looking forward to.  And with the way things have been going wrong lately, Ada can certainly use a break!  Just before the trip, Ada finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her because she wouldn't have sex with him.  Her older sister Afton has had a falling out with her boyfriend as well.  And then they find out that their stepfather isn't going to be joining them, which makes no sense until Ada catches her mother having an affair with a colleague on their first day of vacation.

Given that Ada's problems seem to come back to her fear of sex (something which doesn't seem to bother anyone else!) she decides that it is high time she did something about it during the vacation.  There aren't a lot of young people her age at the conference except for geeky Nick, whom Ada would never have given much thought to, but who's available (and willing).  Awkwardly, the two of them plan out how it will happen.

While following in the proud steps of Judy Blume's Forever, this is a generation removed and then some!  It's a very plain and explicit discussion of sex, whether it's Ada's fears of it, her desire to have it, and her preparations with Nick. As many YA books as I read, you would think I've become unfazed by sexually explicit stories, but the directness of this book often made me uncomfortably aware that I'm a middle-aged guy reading about an underaged woman's intimate sexual feelings.  My gut tells me that Hand gets the tone right.  Ada is a perfect product of modern sex education, a target of the mass media sex, and the eternal ignorance of an adolescent on matters sexual -- it's all as painfully awkward as you can imagine it could be.  I certainly was not like this as a teenager, but modern kids have much more information at their fingertips, even if they are no more emotionally mature than we were.

Infidelity, which comes up in at least three distinct cases in the story, is another theme.  It doesn't seem to serve much purpose except to link together mother, sister, and Ada, but I did not see where it was going.

I really liked the sister dynamic.  Ada plays the usual middle child and performs admirably sorting out her older sister's recklessness while protecting her little sister from all the shenanigans.  Little sister also provides comic relief throughout.

It's a nice story but aside from providing a really drawn-out sexual encounter (and a week of planning leading up to it), I'm not sure that the book delivers much value.  In sum, a book that people can read for its scandalously frank discussion of teen sex while enjoying a largely functional story with some sweet sisterly bonding.  However, if teens having frank conversations about mature topics and engaging in activities that they aren't quite ready for makes you uncomfortable, this is not a good book for you. 

I do wonder how many young readers would actually enjoy reading this?  Would they find a heroine to whom they could relate or would they feel that the author was being condescending?

Sunday, February 06, 2022

The Mirror Season, by Anne-Marie McLemore

Ciela has inherited her great grandmother's talent for intuiting what pastry someone at her family's pasteleria would most enjoy.  It's a talent that's made her famous with the customers as La Bruja de los Pasteles, but after a traumatic incident at a school party, she's loses her touch.  Now, her world is full of leaves that turn into dangerous shards of silvery mirror and trees that mysteriously disappear in the night.

At that party, she was assaulted, but she was not alone.  A boy, who she barely knew, was raped nearby at the same time she was.  Afterwards, she took him to the hospital but fled the scene to avoid having to explain what happened.  Months after the incident, at the start of the school year, she is surprised to run into the boy again, newly enrolled at her school.  He was so drugged at the time of the assault that he doesn't recognize her now.  She could easily turn away and ignore him, but those shards of silver mirrors she sees everywhere tear at her and drive her to protect him.  She knows she could come forward and fill in the blanks in his life, the things he can't remember from that night, but telling him means also confronting what happened to her ... and what role she played in what happened to him.

An emotionally intense trip through the experience of rape and its emotional aftershocks, buffered somewhat by magical realist imagery inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen (and probably Like Water for Chocolate). It's definitely not for the faint of heart, but this exceptionally honest and raw portrayal shares much about the experience.  The focus is not so much about healing as it is about understanding the experience and processing it.  Ciela is not always honest about what happened and it takes several shocking iterations for the full story to emerge.  

McLemore writes beautifully.  Whether it is describing Ciela's talent as "the part of me that speaks the language of flour and sugar" or the many ways she describes her grief (e.g., "All of me has poured out, like the middle of a pinata cake") this is gorgeous writing.  She also takes considerable risks to create strong and unexpected scenes.  A romantic and sensuous interlude, stunning for its incongruity and yet defiant appropriateness, is a notable highlight -- beauty in the midst of horrible cruelty and suffering.

I have something of a soft spot for magical realism. The imagery of baking and trees (both in their leaves turning to mirrors and their mysterious disappearance) are used in multiple and powerful ways.  Of the too, I generally found the food references less intrusive than the mirrors (which I never quite fully understood -- hidden guilt?  anger?).  Ciela's ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class come up frequently, but are largely peripheral to the overriding theme which is about recapturing a sense of self in the wake of a violation.

I know that many people avoid stories about sexual violence like the plague and that for some this is because of how triggering the experience of reading about it can be.  However, this is a book -- as the afterward makes clear -- written by a survivor with the aim of giving an honest survivor's voice to the experience.  It is an insightful voice, a proud voice, and one that ultimately refuses to be silenced.  This is a book worth reading.

Friday, February 04, 2022

Jude Banks, Superhero, by Ann Hood

After the death of his beloved sister, Jude and his family deal with their grief.  His parents are both deeply lost in depression, but for twelve year-old Jude it is more anger and guilt.  With good reason, he believes that he was responsible inadvertently for his sister's death.  Reconciling that knowledge with his sense of loss, Jude finds it hard to imagine that he could ever feel happy again, but he develops a fantasy that he is some sort of superhero.  All around him, he notices how fragile life is and how easy it is to die young.  In response, he envisions himself as some sort of superhero, capable of rescuing kids before they die and thus preventing what he could not prevent with his own sister.

There's a later glimmer of hope when he meets Clementine in a grief support group and they develop a strong bond.  She, too, lost a sister and seems to understand what Jude is feeling in a way that his peers mostly don't.  But too late Jude realizes that Clementine's feeling are of a different and more dangerous nature and he is out of his depth in trying to console her.

Intended as a book for young people who are coping with the loss of a sibling, I can see how learning about another child's experience might be helpful, but it's a dreary example.  Jude alternates between despair and anger, and never quite manages to work through his feelings to start healing.  Instead, his grief seems just to slowly suck him (and his parents) down.  It's a sensitively-told story, but without any resolution there isn't much inspiration for a child who actually wants to feel better.