Sunday, June 26, 2022

Forward March, by Skye Quinlan

With her father campaigning for President of the United States, Harper is trying to be a good girl and stay out of trouble (doubly so, since her Mom is the dean at her school, Golden Oaks Academy).  So, it's something of a surprise when Margot tracks her down.  Between the fact that Margot is the daughter of the Canadian ambassador (a man whom her father can't stand) and is widely rumored to be a practicing lesbian (a lifestyle Harper's homophobic mother can't put up with), Margot is not exactly in Hunter's usual social circles.  And she comes bearing a shocking tale.

Margot has been corresponding (explicitly) on Tinder with someone purporting to be Hunter.  The great mystery is who and why?  And while that person is definitely not Hunter, Hunter is surprised to find that she soon wishes it had been.  For while not entirely sure how she feels, Hunter has to admit that Margot is kind of cute and she does sort of/maybe likes girls.  Not, of course, that she could ever let that become public because of what it would do to her father's political career and to her mother.  However, when someone lets the secret out, Hunter has to make some decisions about who she is trying to please and whose life she is really living.

While purporting to be a marching band story, I honestly found that part of the story weak and distracting.  The story is really about finding out who your true friends are.  They certainly are not the ones Hunter has collected around her.  By the end, pretty much every friend Hunter had at the beginning of the story turns out to be toxic and she's ended up with a complete new set of friends.  That's just one of the many turn-offs of this novel.  Hunter is a weak character who largely lets people walk over her and I really didn't care that much in the end what happened to her.  And the things that happened didn't seem to matter either:  (as already mentioned) the marching band setting was largely inconsequential, the political stuff likewise, the parents were not worth reconciling with, the friends were repulsive, and Hunter's self-realization never really materialized.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Lawless Spaces, by Corey Ann Haydu

Mimi has struggled with a conflicting pair of desire: to be popular and to have a private life.  She's an influencer with a popular blog but is stunned at the cruelty of her readers.  As she turns sixteen, she is growing aware of the double standards to which young women are held.  Her mother is far from sympathetic, bitterly attacking her for not posting irresponsible pictures (i.e., not following the rules  of being a "good" girl) and failing to think through the consequences of her actions.  

Her mother knows all about those double standards.  She's in the midst of the backlash from her own decision to come out and accuse a public figure of having hurt her when she was sixteen.  Under that pressure, Mom shuts Mimi off and abandons her, just as Mimi is enduring her own version of the same events.

Mimi, left alone on her own sixteenth birthday, digs through old dusty journals she finds in the attic.  They turn out to have belonged to her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother -- generations of women, who at sixteen faced the same experiences, the same painful double-standards, and the same consequences.  While powerless to change their circumstances,  each young woman (within the "lawless spaces" of their private diaries) poured out the truth.  Taking in the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Mimi becomes determined to break the curse that has afflicted the women in her family (or perhaps all women?).

Reading a story of intergenerational sexual abuse (including an unwanted pregnancy and forced adoption) is perhaps not the most cheery piece of literature to be reading on the day that the Supreme Court overrode Roe v Wade, but it may in fact be appropriate.  As I am today making the mistake of reading people's Facebook feeds (and the comment streams in particular), I am reminded of the terrible tendency of human beings to oversimplify and choose witty snarks over complicated truth  This book reminded me that the world is not nearly as simply as we try to convince ourselves it is.

I went through distinct waves of emotion while reading the book.  At first, with its litanies of the wrong men do to women, I wondered what new ground could possibly be covered here.  Did we really need another story of girls being taken advantage of and having their lives destroyed?  As the sheer cruelty of Mimi's mother was revealed (and excused in the name of everything Mom was dealing with), I began to wonder if the author would ever connect the dots between the family's unhealthy psychology and its perpetual victimhood.  In developing that feeling, I wrestled with the guilt that I was blaming the victims.  I struggled with trying to explain why it was all so much more complicated.  I was already thinking about how to explain in this review that the women were not to blame for their being assaulted but were for their lack of compassion.  Then the author beat me to it and went so much farther than I had thought to.  By the last stanza, I was blown away by the beautiful and devastating way that Haydu captured the complex interactions of misogyny that make women their best friends and worst enemies simultaneously.  No matter that very little of the story is tied up at the end.  Instead, the book concludes with an understanding that acceptance does not necessarily come from neat ribbons and bows, and that that's OK.

Told in verse, this 490 page book is mostly white pages and a lightning fast read.  Poetry is useful in this case because it allow Haydu to leave things unsaid and unresolved.  It permits things to be implied and felt without having to actually spell them out.  Verse also has its weaknesses.  Within the poetry, all of the characters sound the same.  With voices from six different generations of women, there should have been nuances and differences in tone.  But while they had different values, they all sounded alike. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Aetherbound, by E. K. Johnston

Since the collapse of the Empire, the space stations have been cut off from each other, but travel still takes place.  On the sublight spaceship Harland, travel between stops takes decades and the ship is run by a  single family, breeding the crew that they need.  It is not a big happy family, but they get the job done.

Pendt, judged to be a waste of food and oxygen, is kept alive until her eighteenth birthday so she can then be sold off.  But just a few weeks before the sale, the ship makes a rare docking and Pendt takes the opportunity to run.  Doing so, she finds a new life, with a loving new family, but there are unintended consequences.  Her birth family returns with demands that threaten not only Pendt, but the entire universe as well.

While there is some fantastic universe building in this tale, the storytelling is rough and the pacing uneven.  Given the setting's complexity, the story is initially buried in historical background which, while interesting, bogs down the pace.  To make up for that slow start, we jump forward through events quickly, which allows only the sketchiest of development.  This leaves the general feeling of an unfinished story.  Aside from Pendt herself, just about everyone is an unfinished portrayal, motivations are largely declared with little demonstration, and the climax, while based on all that backstory, comes up quite abruptly and feels rushed. It's not a question of length -- given the book's short length (241 pages), this easily could have been filled out.  It's more an issue of manuscript not ready to publish.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating, by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani's friends don't believe that she's bi-sexual. They think it's just a phase and that she'll come round eventually to dating one of the guys they set her up with.  Their doubts annoy Hani but she doesn't want to rock the boat with her A-list friends.  In desperation, she lies and claims that she's already seeing a girl and that it's Ishu -- the class overachiever and the only other Bengali girl in their school.  The problem is that Ishu doesn't even like Hani!  Somehow, Hani needs to convince her to go along with this charade or risk public ridicule.

Ishu has bigger problems.  Her older sister is dropping out of school to get married and her parents are scandalized.  To distract them, Ishu wants to get elected Head Girl at school.  But only popular girls get elected and Ishu's never considered making friends to be priority.  However, when Hani comes to her with an unusual request and needs a big favor, Ishu sees an opportunity.  A deal is hatched:  Ishu will pretend to be Hani's girlfriend and, in exchange, Hani will help ingratiate Ishu into her social circles and build up some social capital so that Ishu can win the election.

In true rom-com fashion, this rather tortured premise blooms in unexpected ways and in the end Hani and Ishu find that their relationship may be more real than either intended.  The result is a sweet and funny LGBT story of high school romance between two Irish-Bengali girls (checking off quite a few diversity checkboxes in the process).  I loved the ethnic flavoring and the attention to the family life that plays such a big role in Ishu and Hani's lives.  I also enjoyed reading an Irish YA story for the chance to visit a slightly different milieu.  Good characters (with realistic flaws and insecurities to offset their strengths) and excellent pacing make this an enjoyable read.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Between the Lighthouse and You, by Michelle Lee

Alice doesn't believe that her mother is dead.  There was a boating accident, but the body was never found.  And as she researches the circumstances of the accident, she discovers something else:  the Aviles Islands (where the accident occurred) are a magical place.  The inhabitants believe that once a year they receive messages from their departed relatives, which appear washed up on the shore.  These "tidings" are the responsibility of the lighthouse keeper to collect and distribute to the intended recipients.  When she disappeared, Alice's mother was in the process of investigating the myth.

Now Alice wants to return to the islands and interview the family that runs the lighthouse to see if she could somehow receive messages from her Mom.  While her family is unsupportive, her father does in the end agree to go down to the islands for a visit.

Leo is just the eldest son in the crazy large family that lives at the lighthouse, but he bears a heavy responsibility.  While the whole family claims to love the Tidings, Leo feels like he's the only one who appreciates their true meaning.  When he receives a special message on a cassette tape from his dead grandfather, addressed only to him, he must find a way to listen to it (this involves a bit of an adventure in finding a player).  When he eventually gets to listen to the message, he is surprised to find it is addressed not only to him but to Alice's family as well.

With subtle and unobtrusive magic elements, this middle grade novel is really about grief and recovery.  Both protagonists are learning how to adapt to a world where their beloved family member is gone.  In doing so, they find their relationships changing with the adults and siblings around them.  I found the siblings overly obnoxious, but portraying them as such allows for a clearer lesson that one must love the family one has in order to honor the memory of those who are no longer with us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Memory of Cotton, by Ann K. Howley

Shelby has felt lost since the death of her little brother.  She's quick to grow angry and prone to being mean to her family.  While she recognizes that she's in trouble, she feels helpless to change.  The only real anchors she has are her best friend Darrin and her grandmother.

One day, going through one of her grandmother's boxes with Darrin, they discover a Ku Klux Klan robe.  When they ask grandma about it, she is initially reluctant to explain, but a short while later, she changes her mind.  She announces that she'll explain everything but she needs to revisit her hometown in North Carolina and she needs Shelby and Darrin to drive here there.  Shelby has never been there.  The homecoming goes on to uncover several family secrets and along the way explore the foundations of discrimination and hatred.

A mixed bag.  I found the characters interesting and the story compelling  but I had a hard time getting into the story.  The storytelling is sketchy and needed to be fleshed out.  The overall theme of where hatred comes from is powerful, but the pieces of it (the contemporary town bully, the KKK membership, a murder, and even familial rejection) are left lying about.  Distractedly, Shelby's reconciliation with her brother's death sort of hangs as an outside theme, never quite adhering to the rest of the story.  Seen as an early draft, this is a knock-out story, but it really felt unfinished.

[Disclosure:  I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased opinion.]

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Extasia, by Claire Legrand

After the war which ended the world, Haven became the lost outpost of humanity.  Protected by God's grace and the piety of its all-male elders, it seeks to protect itself by vigilantly guarding itself from sin .  To atone for their central rolein the downfall of civilization, the women of Haven pay a continual price -- in servitude and suffering.  Fifteen year-old Amity, despite being the daughter of a fallen women, has just been anointed as one of Haven's "saints" -- a vaunted position with the horrifying responsibility to cleanse the sins of the village through enduring brutal ritualized beatings.

But as proud as Amity is in this perverse honor, she is aware that there are forces on the outside that are bringing change to Haven, whether its people embrace them or not.  A coven of witches are encircling the town and plotting the downfall of its patriarchal regime.  Men are being murdered.  

Amity is stuck between two warring camps.  Through magic that she is just beginning to understand, she stands as a catalyst of change for her world. While Amity longs for an end to the suffering of her sisters, she also wants to protect her community and she is torn between those two desires.

A brutal and horrific setting featuring systematic physical and sexual abuse of young women.  While not  particularly explicit, this is a gory tale full of unpleasantries including child abuse, rape, and even a brief episode of cannibalism.  This is plenty of blood!  

Legrand is shooting for a grand statement about overcoming institutional misogyny through empowerment and reconciliation, but it never quite comes together.  The problem is that the book is so good at showing the cruelties and atrocities, that there is little space for forgiveness. It is hard to not agree with Vengeance (one of the witches with whom Amity allies) who would just as soon kill every man and every female ally who aided them.  Amity (or Rage, the name to which she changes her name mid-novel is not a convincing leader for a kumbaya moment.  The story, while excellent at wallowing in horrors, never really grapples with what drives misogynistic impulses and so the story lacks the depth to reach for solutions.  It works for a horror/fantasy novel, but lacks gravitas.

Thursday, June 09, 2022

A Thousand Steps Into Night, by Traci Chee

Set in a world full of demons, spirits, demi-gods, and gods, Chee's latest novel is a story of a young woman named Miuko.  Clumsy, awkward, and shy, Miuko is the last person one would expect of being capable of an adventure, but she finds herself cursed by a demon.  As a result, she is thrown out of her village and forced to make her own way.  Her primary objective becomes trying to undo the curse, which  is slowly turning her into a demon.  Achieving this goal forces her into greater and challenges involving a wide variety of magical beings.  Whenever she seems about to overcome a malevolent spirit or a trickster, another greater threat comes along.  In the end, Miuko's quest becomes a pivotal moment for her entire realm.

While infused with a feminist message and a gender inclusive world, this is not a terribly message-heavy story.  Rather, it was more of a traditional hack-and-slash fantasy novel, albeit with a dizzying array of characters.  The first forty pages or so are stuffed with footnotes, which while a bit distracting, are largely indispensable for understanding the rest of the story.  Despite that copious background development, I had largely lost track of the characters and the importance of various villains by the end.  I would strongly suggest keeping notes on who is who as you go as characters reappear and earlier events have a habit of becoming important later.  That is all a sign of good construction but I still found it a bit too much!  Too much work to be enjoyable.

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Prepped, by Bethany Mangle

Becca has spent her whole life learning the skills she will need to survive the end of the world.  Her parents are preppers, devoting all of their energies and resources toward creating a well-defended compound.  She has learned a wide variety of survival techniques through continuous drills that their community has devised to maintain their skills.  However, after seventeen years of having to swim in icy water and run nighttime defensive maneuvers, she's had enough.  The fact that her mother has insisted that she marry boy-next-door Roy, a sweet but convinced prepper himself, is just more reason for her to run.  

She's earned a scholarship for college and plans to leave after graduation.  But when a terrible accident occurs, the compound's belief in end times hits a higher intensity and Becca has to decide what she is willing to sacrifice to have her freedom and her dreams of a future not weighted down by fear.

A well-paced survival story that never really generated much interest in its characters.  They are largely two-dimensional, especially Becca's abusive mother.  I took Becca's love for her little sister at face value, because I never saw any real evidence of it.  And the romance between Becca and Roy largely fell flat.  It won't give you much insight into preppers but the setting at least allowed for an entertaining adventure.