Sunday, March 27, 2022

Counting Down With You, by Tashie Bhuiyan

Karina does what she can to make her parents proud.  She works hard in school.  She follows her parent's strict rules (5PM curfew, no boys, etc.) but she wishes that they would support her love of literature.  Instead, they push her to study medicine and are forcing her to focus on STEM classes even though she loves English more.  It's driving her literally crazy as she battles with anxiety trying to maintain the fa├žade of being a perfect daughter.

When her parents leave to go on a month-long trip to Bangladesh to see the family, it's a breath of fresh air.  Her beloved grandmother comes to look after Karina and her younger brother Samir, but grandma is far less judgmental.  This is just as well because of what is about to unfold in Karina's life during the next four weeks.

Karina's English teacher asks her to help out by tutoring Ace Clyde, a young man without a care for his studies and a bad reputation.  Karina's parents would be scandalized (even though Karina and Ace are meeting in public) but since they are away Karina feels she can get away with it.  What she isn't prepared for is when he starts telling people that they are dating and he talks her into going along with the ruse.  Where this is going to go in four weeks when Karina's parents come back can't be anywhere good, especially when the ruse becomes reality and Karina and Ace develop real feelings for each other.

This is a rather painful plotline to set up an awkward romance with a big heavy shadow over it.  To mess it up further, it is a story that isn't really sure on what parts it wants to focus.  In the end, Bhuiyan wisely stresses Karina's longing to pursue her future career (rather than worrying about the boy) but the boy is never too far away.  It ends on an inconclusive and ambiguous note (although there's a lovely author's note at the start that partially makes up for the ending).

It also doesn't help that the characters are weak. The parents are horrid and never quite redeemed in the end, which undercuts Karina's motivations.  Karina's love for her parents is never really shown and feels more like an obligation than anything real (in striking contrast to her love of literature).  Karina is largely embarrassed and dismissive of her extended family of Aunties and Uncles.  Only the grandmother -- who steals the show overall -- ever really shows warmth and love.  This problem is repeated with the other characters:  Ace is more manipulative than caring, Karina's BFFs are well-meaning but hapless, and her brother weak and ineffectual.  Even Karina seems weak and non-inspirational -- she largely lacks agency, failing in the end to be the one who really solves her problems.

It's a fast read and entertaining.  It's lovely to see Bangladeshi-Americans represented.  Overall, the story is respectful of Islam and portrays a young woman with a strong commitment to her faith.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Me (Moth), by Amber McBride

Ostensibly a road trip story told in verse, Me (Moth) is a complex tale  tackling grief, depression, and suicide (with a few quick shots on racial injustice along the way).

Moth was in an accident that "split" the family car in half: leaving mother, father, and grandfather all dead.  Moth went to stay with her aunt, who ignores her and instead drowns herself in the bottle.  Moth is similarly ignored at school and left to fight off her grief and survivor's guilt on her own.

Sani, a new kid at school, untouched by the stigma of Moth's past, reaches out to her and they find they have a lot in common.  Sani is half-Navajo and has a strong attachment to the spiritual beliefs of his people, while Moth's grandfather was a follower of Hoodoo (a traditional spiritual practice among Black Americans).  Moth's grief is familiar to Sani because he takes anti-depressive meds to deal with the "waterfall" in his mind.  Moth's neglect seems idyllic to Sani who faces abuse from his stepfather.  Finally, on top of it all, they are both artists, reluctant and afraid to follow their dreams.

With a sense that there is nothing left for them at home, they decide to run away on a cross-country trip to the Navajo nation.  Along the way they draft up a "Summer Song" that encapsulates many of the ideas of the story, visit a number of landmarks, and explore their feelings towards each other and themselves.  A unexpected (but well foreshadowed) turn of events in New Mexico, however, forces Moth and Sani to acknowledge certain realities that they have been avoiding and generates an ending with startling pathos.

As I never tire of stating, verse either works or it doesn't.  There are no "okay" verse books and most of them are excruciating.  This is one of those brilliant exceptions.  McBride's writing is deep and complex, like for example when she has Moth describe her feelings for Sani ("Honey, you can keep me forever,/like a phantom limb").  But more often her writing defies soundbites and easy explanation.  It can be slow reading, but that is because there are a lot of nuances to take in.  Surprisingly, this is not a character-driven story -- we barely get to know either of the characters even though they are constantly talking.  Instead, this is a more moody exploration of generalized concepts: what it means to lose someone, what is our relationship with our ancestors, and what it means to accept death.  Heavy thoughts, beautiful words.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Serendipity: Ten Romantic Tropes Transformed, ed by Marissa Meyer

A collection of short stories that promise to "transform" tropes suggests some exciting original storytelling.  Heaven knows that the romance genre could use some enlivening.  When you can recognize these basic plots from their simple generic names ("matchmaker," "best friend love epiphany," "grand romantic gesture," etc.) then you pretty much have summarized the state of the field.  So, I was excited by the premise of the collection.  However, the book is more hype than revelation.

In some of these stories, originality is achieved by having the protagonists be gender queer, but in this day and age, that's hardly novel.  There are some clever settings (like Eulberg's story set in a London Eye capsule).  There are a few funny pieces (Meyer's own tribute to the two-friends-and-one-bed set up).  However, mostly this is more of the same old same old.  If you really like the idea of romance stories, then these exercises may appeal to you, but for me the draw of a romance is not the tropes, but the characters.  And within a maximum length of thirty pages, it's really hard to build the emotional attachment to the characters that gives a romance its pull.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Year I Stopped Trying, by Katie Heaney

If you're an overachiever, you probably have not spent much time thinking about the possibility of not putting everything into your work, but what do you really think would happen if you failed to do so?  For Mary, the idea seems terrifying and she would consider doing less than her best.  But when she somehow manages to forget to write a paper for her AP History class and nothing immediately happens, the experience is revelatory.

Seeing how little anyone cares that she's missed an assignment inspires her to expand on the experience by simply stopping doing any work at all.  As a good student with a reputation for being a hard worker, it takes a while for her teachers to even notice.  Once they do, most of them are so confused that they don't know what to do about her change.

Stopping working isn't enough for Mary.  She starts thinking about what else she could do to "wreck" her life.  She's never dated, but she's heard it said that getting involved in a romance can hurt your academics, so why not test that theory?  She ends up with ex-stoner Mitch, with whom she enjoys riding around town in aimless cruising, but nothing else ever happens.  She knows what she's supposed to do (kiss, make-out, and everything else connected with having a boyfriend), but she doesn't really want to do that either.  Having discovered the joys of underachieving, having a romance seems like too much work as well.

It's a hard book to describe and my synopsis probably makes Mary sound a bit hard to stomach, but she's actually one of the fresher voices in YA lit -- witty, very funny, and a completely original thinker. Like a modern Holden Caulfield, she's questioning the expectations that she's had laid out for her:

Everything I do--almost everything, anyway--I do to prevent a later guilt over not having done it....Nobody told me I had to wake up at exactly 5:35, but I know that when I hit snooze (which I've only done twice in my life), I wake up feeling like the laziest scumbag on planet Earth.  It passes soon enough when I complete the next available requirement, but the sting is acute, and apparently self-created.

Such a precocious acknowledgement and rebellion against the Protestant Work Ethic can seem like a premature mid-life crisis (or perhaps a bout of clinical depression) but presented in her lively prose is a joy to read.  This is a fun book to read.  Yes, her voice is often too wise for her age, but we'll give the author some leeway there because her observations are so totally on the mark.  Mary has a good head on her shoulders and she makes an inspiring role model as someone who is going to end up with a decent work-life balance as an adult.  While intended for teens, this is truly a YA book that adults can really enjoy, perhaps with the regret of never having been so cool when we were seventeen.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

A Rush of Wings, by Laura E. Weymouth

For this retelling of The Grimms Brothers' Six Swans, the setting has been transported to Scotland, throwing in a bit of Highland bravado into a story of breaking curses.

Rowenna was always supposed to learn the Craft from her mother, but Mom never felt she was ready.  And when a demon from the sea visits them and kills Mom in front of Rowenna, there is nothing she can do to prevent it.  Rowenna never learned enough about her powers to do anything.  And now that her mother is gone, Rowenna probably never will.

A few months later, Rowenna's mother returns to them and only Rowenna can tell that it is in fact the demon, now masquerading in her mother's form.  When Rowenna tries to stop the demon, it curses her with muteness and transforms her brothers into swans.  Turning the villagers against them, her mother forces Rowenna and her swans to flee for their lives.

To break the curse, Rowenna must knit a shirt made of nettles for each of her brothers.  To do that, Rowenna needs to lay low and avoid attracting attention.  But Scotland is seething under English occupation and Rowenna and the swans attract attention:  Torr, the English tyrant who leads the occupation, becomes obsessed with the powers that he believes Rowenna has and what they could do to enhance his own power.  And Rowenna, forced by him to develop those powers, is learning their true extant.

It's very hard to read this book and not compare it with Elizabeth Lim's Six Crimson Cranes, which also adapted the same fairy tale.  Weymouth's take is prettier, grounded in a more realistic setting, and more literarily ambitious, but Lim's novel is much easier to read and track.  Weymouth's proses drifts and wanders and it is frequently hard to follow the action.  It was probably mostly due to my recent familiarity with the story (from reading Lim first) that even made it possible for me to follow this version at all.  And for all the talk about highlanders and the occasional "aye" or "lassie," there is surprisingly little of Scotland here so even the advantage of the setting is largely wasted.  Where Weymouth's does do a better job is in showing Rowenna's character growth and her ability to navigate her conflict with her mother.  This is mostly due to Weymouth's more philosophical and cerebral take on the story, which Lim primarily treated as a swords-and-sorcery tale.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

You'd Be Home Now, by Kathleen Glasgow

Emory has always tried to be who others told her she was.  She wasn't as beautiful as her older sister, but she was the good one.  That's important after her brother Joey's drug problem came out into the open.  A car accident, in which a girl died and in which both she and her brother were in the car, has scarred the community.  People blame the driver and her brother for being high. Never mind that the accident was caused by bad driving conditions, because people see the drugs and they want to blame the drugs.  And Emory, who was sober, is guilty by being in the car, by being the sister, and by being alive.

Four months later, Joey is let out of rehab and returns home.  Emory is determined to make sure that everything stays fine.  She'll keep an eye on Joey and make sure he's fine and stays off drugs.  Never mind that her parents don't know how to cope with him and ignore her altogether.  Never mind that people at school want him dead for what he "did" to that dead girl.  It's all going to be fine.  That is, until Joey disappears.

A non-stop drama that builds up gradually and keeps your attention to the end.  It starts as a simple tale of identity about Emory's search for self and could have stayed in that realm and been successful.  There's a lovely minor character named Liza who steals the show by channeling all that good advice stuff about standing up for yourself and not taking crap from bullies that you wish every YA novel would have.  In a book about identity, she would have saved Emory and they would have lived happily ever after.

But the novel isn't really about standing up to bullies, it's about opioid addiction and the way it is destroying communities.  Emory's search for self isn't about facing off against a petty queen bee, it's about finding the inner strength to be the person her addict brother needs her to be.  As these things are a group effort, it's also about pulling her parents along with her and having the entire family come together to save Joey.  It's a harrowing, intense, and authentic look at a family struggling to deal with addiction.  Well-written and thought provoking.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Ciel, by Sophie Labelle

Ciel is starting high school this year.  They have always had a complicated identity, being non-binary, but in middle school people knew Ciel and had gotten used to them.  With a new school, there's  new people, and getting them and the teachers to refer to Ciel properly is trying. Stephie, Ciel's best friend, takes a different approach:  avoiding her trans status altogether and simply passing as a girl in school.  

Added to these questions of identity are Ciel's issues with maintaining the relationship they have with a boyfriend who has become more and more distant since he returned home to Iceland.  Keeping a transoceanic relationship going is hard and Ciel isn't even sure they want to keep trying:  there's a new trans boy in their sights!

Aside from the fact that the story is largely bereft of cisgendered  main characters, the book is surprisingly sparse.  So its appeal lies in the novelty of the characters.  The key plotlines (Ciel's relationship with the Icelander, their vlog and some negative reactions to it, Stephie's embrace of her feminine identity, and Ciel's conflicted relationship with gender overall) are present as ideas but not really developed.  It's busy, but doesn't really go anywhere.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

The Pants Project, by Cat Clarke

Liv is starting middle school this year.  There will be lots of new things to get used to:  being the youngest instead of the oldest, having new class options, and making new friends.  But the hardest thing for Liv is the new dress code and the rule that all girls must wear skirts.  Liv hates skirts and never wears them.  Boys are always bothering girls by trying to look up them and tights make Liv's legs itch!  But hardest of all, being sorted this way means that Liv not only has to wear a skirt but Liv also has to identify as a girl.  And, even if Liv has told no one else yet, Liv knows that he's a boy.

Coming out as a transsexual isn't something Liv is comfortable with doing yet.  Liv sees the way people look down at his non-traditional family (Liv has two mothers).

For Liv, standing up against the dress code is a smaller battle, something manageable.  After all, even some girls don't like wearing skirts.  So, while Liv works up the courage to come out, Liv can take on the school's rule.  But Liv's not entirely correct.  Fighting for the right to wear what one wants means putting everything on the line, jeopardizing old friendships and finding new allies.

The book is a busy story with lots of subplots, but an overall message of being yourself and resisting peer pressure.  Liv makes a few mistakes along the way, but she demonstrates maturity and generally makes good choices.  While Liv's gender identity is an important issue, Clarke wisely puts the topic in the background and focuses the story's drama on the fight over the dress code.  It's a paper tiger of an issue but that makes it a cleaner target for the middle reader demographic. And it gets the message across effectively.  There is a sense that Liv will prove just as capable at working out who Liv is.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

A Short History of the Girl Next Door, by Jared Reck

Tabby, the girl next door, has always been there for Matt.  They've hung out with each other since they were babies and know each other better than anyone else.  And while he's never dared to tell her, Matt believes that one day they will end up getting married.  So, when Tabby gets her first boyfriend and it is superstar senior Liam (and not him), Matt is seething with jealousy.  It would be easier if Liam was an asshole, but even Matt has to admit that he's a good guy.  While Matt knows he should be happy for his friend, he can't manage to let go of his anger and resentment.  He feels that he's losing his best friend to Liam.

Then an unexpected tragedy throws Matt into a bad place, where he could really use Tabby's support, but she's not there for him.  Grieving and angry, Matt lashes out at everyone around him.  It takes some hard lessons from his family for Matt to re-center himself and move on.  Learning to put his friendship with Tabby in perspective is central to that healing process.

A few months back, I reviewed Reck's latest book (about Swedish-American food truck sellers) and afterwards went looking for other books by Reck.  This is his first novel and, while it shows the same finely depicted characters, I didn't care for it as much.  There's a LOT of sports action in this one and I find that hard to get into.  If you like male bonding on the court, then there's some well-crafted scenes to take in, but I find it pretty boring stuff.  More important, I didn't find the story  (and its plot twist in particular) all that compelling.  There are so many books about grief and Jerry Spinelli and John Green have covered this territory well.

Reck is a great writer.  While the novel contains the swearing and flatulence humor that seems to be required in "boy" books, he gives a lot of depth to Matt.  There's a beautiful set of scenes mid-way through the book where Matt and Tabby have a real heart-to-heart about toxic masculinity that really makes the book.  Matt's relationship with his little brother is awfully sweet as well, showing that there's much more than just pining after the girl.  There really are not a lot of good contemporary YA books with believable straight male characters (in striking contrast to the past when all children's books were about boys).  I have no complaint with that shift in publishing trends, but it is still nice to see some strongly crafted, emotionally sensitive books about boys.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small Town America, ed Nora Shalaway Carpenter

One of my standing pet peeves about contemporary fiction is its strong urban and suburban bias.  Just as the mass media and popular culture as a whole have largely neglected life outside of metropolitan centers, YA literature rarely ventures into the countryside.  When it does so, it usually is simply to portray rural areas as some hellish landscape that our protagonist is trying to get away from.  Thus, when I saw this collection of short stories, I was terribly excited.  At last!  A group of fresh new writers who would take on the stereotypes and show us the great variety of life in the countryside.

Not so much.

There are a few outstanding pieces like Monica Roe's "The (Unhealthy) Breakfast Club" about poor rural kids doing their homework at the McDonalds in order to pick up decent Internet.  Joseph Bruchac's reminiscences about growing up in the 1950s are by their nature full of depth and nuance.  But for the most part, this collection is the same old same old.  Sensitive intellectual (and usually gender queer) teens who chaff at small town prejudice and ignorance.  It's tired stuff and insulting to its subject.  And it's not terribly realistic.

I would set out a challenge:  create a story about young people who like where they live and don't want to run away to the city.  Teens who by the nature of their socioeconomic status spend a good part of their day doing chores to help their families.  Who get up before the dawn and spend an hour on a school bus working on their homework.  Who see church as a social experience that gives them identity rather than as an enemy of their creativity.  Characters, in sum, who don't hate the culture they come from.  In this anthology, the only time a character seems to like their roots is when they are Latinx or Black or Native American.  That's more political than true to life.

Small town America doesn't have to be the bogeyman.  It's a shame that a collection that claims to challenge assumptions instead chose to reinforce prejudice.