Sunday, September 25, 2022

Postcards from Summer, by Cynthia Platt

Lexi's never known much about her mother.  Her father has always demurred or evaded her questions.  So, when she receives a beautiful box covered with mosaics and full of her mother's ephemera, she is overwhelmed.  The seemingly random contents don't deliver the answers that Lexi is seeking, but they provide her clues.  Most importantly, they point her towards Mackinac Island, where apparently Lexi's mother spent her summers.  Lexi knows that there is no way her father and stepmother would ever let her go to visit, so she lies about taking a college tour and instead sneaks off to the Island on her own.  Picking up more leads when she gets there is hard work, but she makes interesting friends, including a retired Broadway starlet who offers emotional support.

In parallel to Lexi's story is the tale of Lexi's mother Emma (twenty years earlier). At the time, Emma is struggling to convince her parents of her conviction to pursue a career in the arts while her boyfriend Ryan is similarly fighting his ambitious politician father's plans for him.  The young people's fates get overtaken by a tragedy that has repercussions to the current day as Emma uncovers as she seeks out who her mother was.

Although some elements of the plot (e.g., the NDA) stretched plausibility, I found the story compelling although to keep reading.  I just wished that the story moved more briskly.  Both Lexi and Emma suffer from panic attacks, which is mostly manifested in the story through dialogue scenes where nothing actually happens.  The typical scene consists of one of them racing to find someone, having nothing to say when they find this person, and then dramatically fleeing afterwards.  The times when a character does not say what is on their mind or refuses to say what is on their mind or lies about what is on their mind is frustratingly frequent.  A certain amount of drama can be reasonably created from such plot padding devices but at some point one wants to see a breakthrough.  As a result, we actually find out surprising little about the characters.  Due to everyone's inability to express a complete thought aloud, little information is actually exchanged.  Thus, the progress of the story to its conclusion is largely dependent upon the periodic introduction of surprising new facts.

This extremely lengthy (566 page) novel definitely could have benefitted from trimming.  It also suffers from a rather higher-than-normal quantity of typographical errors, indicative of a poor final proofreading.  This is especially ironic as the author is an editor and trumpets her editorial service in the blurb.  This novel makes for an very unfortunate calling card.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Honeys, by Ryan LaSala

This horror story starts off with a bang as Mars awakens to find his sister unexpectedly home early from summer camp and aiming to kill him.  When he manages to overpower her and kill her instead, his wealthy and influential family covers up the traces and leaves Mars with questions.  What has been going on at the Aspen Conservancy Summer Camp that drove his sister to become a psychopathic killer?  There's only one way to find out and that is to return to the Camp himself.

Mars makes that decision with some trepidation.  He once attended regularly, but the camp's intolerance for Mars's gender fluidity and a violent hazing incident drove him away.  Returning now, he's determined to face the Camp's sexist and obsessive binary culture head on.  As expected, he's less than welcome by the boys.  But his sister's former cabinmates are surprisingly cordial.  Known as "the Honeys" for their mysterious Queen Bee ways and the fact that they tend the camp's bee hives, the girls make Mars feel at home -- inviting Mars to be herself when she's feeling more feminine and providing an alternative to the macho culture of the boys.

But the Honeys are far from benign.  Somehow, they are connected with his sister's madness.  It all has something to do with the bees.  Soon, further disappearances and unfortunate events are taking place.  And the longer Mars is at camp, the more and more he notices -- the way that the traditions have become tired, like the way the cabins are becoming decrepit.  There is an air of desperation among the administrators.  Aspen Conservancy itself is dying and taking the campers with it.

A slow burning but captivating thriller in the tradition of The Wicker Man (with a strong apiary theme), which stumbles a bit at the end when LaSala scrambles to tie up everything as the world crumbles.  The bees made a perfect malevolent yet amoral nemesis. 

But more than being gothic horror, LaSala truly has worked in Mars's gender identity into the story.  These days, it's hard to find a YA novel that isn't full of gender queer protagonists, but most of them are either afterthoughts or the identity issue is the point of the novel.  Here, the story truly needs Mars to be gender fluid.  His/her ability to drift between the conflicting worlds of the male and female campers is what gives him his insights.  And the sexual roles of bees being so different from those of human serve to accentuate Mars's non-binary identity.  This is not a book about being binary, but it is a story where it is critical that the key character is everything that Mars is.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Places We've Never Been, by Kasie West

Four years ago, Norah's best friend Skyler moved away.  She hasn't seen him since and they drifted apart after the move, but she's super excited to see him now.  Her family and his are going to embark on a month-long RV road trip across the West.  And it will all culminate in Seattle, where Norah has an interview at the college of her dreams.  

Nothing turns out like she planned.  When the trip begins, Skyler gives her the silent treatment and avoids her.  For some reason, he obviously can't stand her and now they are stuck together for weeks!  Meanwhile, something else is going on.  The idea of the trip came from their mothers and there is obviously more to the trip than the lame excuse that they "hadn't seen each other in a while." Even the college interview at the end doesn't quite turn out as she expected.  Combine the mystery with Norah and Skyler rediscovering each other and the usual adventures of a road trip featuring iconic sites like Death Valley, Zion, and Yellowstone, and you have yourself a light summer romance.

It doesn't get much more basic than this!  Some awkward moments, family squabbles, and the gradual blossoming of adolescent love make a solid story.  There are not many surprises and not much to make this book stand out, but West writes solid romance and this one is pleasing in all the right ways.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

A Kind of Spark, by Elle McNicoll

Addie is very surprised to learn in school that her small Scottish town was the site of a large witch trial.  It hits home because she knows, as an autistic person, that she would have been targeted as a witch herself if she had lived in those days.  Her attempts to interest her classmates and her neighbors in the subject enough to get the town to erect some sort of memorial for the victims falls on deaf ears.  People don't want to be reminded of past cruelty.

It doesn't stop them from acting cruelly in the present either.  At school, Addie faces bullying from her classmates, actively encouraged by an unsympathetic teacher.  And while the worst of it comes mostly from an old friend, Addie is aware that the others felt fine standing back and doing nothing to defend her.

Meanwhile, Addie is concerned about her older sister (who is also autistic) and the problems she is having coping at uni.  It would seem that the world has a hard time handling people with differences.  The most common reaction is fear and violence.

I enjoyed the book and found it to be one of the better recent novels about autism.  I found Addie a wonderful ambassador for neurodiversity.  The explanations she provides for how she processes sensory input are straightforward and insightful.  Her wise-beyond-her-years maturity made sense in the context of having to deal with so much more at a younger age.  Be warned that the abuse scenes are triggering and a bit over-the-top (unless Scotland's current treatment of autism is particularly dire) but certainly add dramatic tension to the story.

Monday, September 05, 2022

The Silence That Binds Us, by Joanna Ho

When May's brother kills himself, her family is left reeling.  He was so successful and even on his way to Princeton next year.  It's incomprehensible that he would be so unhappy that he'd commit suicide.  But while they can't figure it out, one thing is certain:  the accusation made by a local entrepreneur that the boy killed himself because of the excessive pressure that Asian parents put on their children is entirely false.  Stung by the racism behind the sentiment, May lashes out by sending a protest poem to the local paper.  Her parents, horrified by the backlash that they expect to ensue, urge her to lay low and not make a fuss.  But when the response does come, May is so incensed that she joins up with her Black and other Asian classmates to plan direct action to "take back the narrative."

With the help of a sympathetic teacher and some difficult lessons from her classmates, May learns more about the history of anti-Asian racism, the experiences shared with other minorities and how they differ, and also confronts her only biases.  At points this is interesting and educational reading.  At other times it can seem like a classic example of the excesses of well-meaning liberals (of the sort that the Right likes to call "wokeness") and a rosy kumbaya conclusion where the kids take over the asylum felt painfully na├»ve and over-the-top.  However, it never ceases to be enlightening, even if the brother's suicide is largely marginalized in the process.

Despite my misgivings, the book is well-written and engaging.  The relationship between May and her Black BFF Tiya is complex and fascinating.  There are some amazing deeply felt conversations about race and class that largely transcend the story.  Obviously, a polemical novel like this is going to alienate a quarter of its potential readership and bore the quarter whom are already convinced, but it's for the other half in the middle that such works are written.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs, by Laurie Morrison

Ivy prides herself on being kind and for thinking of others.  She's always looking at ways she can do more to be helpful and putting the needs of her friends and family before herself.  So, it surprises her when the news that her mother has decided to be a surrogate for her friends' embryo fills her with dread.  Given what her mother is facing, Ivy knows she should be supportive.  She certainly tries!  She makes special food for her mother, tries to help around the house, avoids bringing up her own problems, and most of all keeps her fears about what her Mom is doing to herself.

Meanwhile, Ivy's mantra about helping others seems to be getting her into trouble with her friends.  She's picked up an anonymous admirer of sorts who unloads their issues to Ivy through emails.  And the more Ivy tries to help this mystery person, the more she neglects her friends and they grow resentful of being shut out.  Ivy learns that you can't make everyone happy and that if you don't take care of yourself, you probably won't make anyone happy.

Delightful and brisk middle school story about the important topic (especially for girls) of the pitfalls of self-abnegation.  Morrison gently shows how Ivy's behavior is far from benign, both in the way that it leads her to ignore her own needs and in the way that it alienates others.  While making clear that it is fine to find satisfaction in making others happy, when the need to do so becomes obsessive the motivations are no longer benevolent, but ironically ego-driven (as Ivy's friends point out to her).  Ivy's ability to begin the process of negotiating a compromise between self-caring and other-caring brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.