Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Moth Girl, by Heather Kamins

Anna's life transforms when she is diagnosed with a rare, chronic (and entirely fictional) disease called "lepidopsy" which causes her to unexpectedly levitate and be attracted to bright lights (as well as causing unbearable joint pain and problems with breathing).  As a result, Anna finds herself thrust into a frightening world of endless specialists and tests, vague prognoses, and medications with unknown benefits and scary side effects.  Every day brings new surprises (most of them unpleasant and unwanted) as the disease manifests itself in new symptoms.  At home and school, the disease changes what Anna can do, limiting her ability to study, socialize, or pursue her normal life.  And as those challenges pile up, she struggles to cope and figure out what the future will mean for her.  A gamut of emotions (anger at the loss of normalcy, depression and feelings of hopelessness as set backs occur, and the draining fatigue of a struggle that never seems to end) tear at her.

The author's clever decision to use a fictional disease means that the story focuses less on the symptoms of the disease (which are admittedly fascinating) than on the universal experience that Anna is going through.  And, this being YA, more on the social aspects of the experience than the physical.  Anna finds that being sick doesn't just change her as much as it changes how people interact with her and vice versa.  Friends don't know how to relate to her and she feels tempted to shut them out as she becomes frustrated by their lack of understanding and sympathy.  I think back on my own experience and I was lucky enough to get my own diagnosis in my thirties when the impact on my social life was less traumatic (and less important), but that does make the alienation that Anna feels any less familiar.

And it's the book's ability to connect to my own experience that draws me to it so strongly.  Kamins has created the book that, as she says in the afterward, she wishes she had had when she was diagnosed as a teen with lupus.  I certainly found myself chuckling from time to time in recognition of shared moments and experiences (and more poignantly, painful experiences that I have suppressed from that time).  For anyone who has received a diagnosis of a chronic disease, Anna's story will be familiar and ring true. It may be a book written for teens, but adults will benefit from it as well. We talk a lot these days about the importance of recognition -- creating stories that acknowledge groups whose voices are not heard.  This is a book for the many millions of people who live with diseases that can't be cured.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Arden Grey, by Ray Stoeve

Arden's mother has moved out, abandoning her family and leaving Arden and her brother lost, confused, and angry.  Meanwhile, Arden's  trans best friend Jamie has started dating his first girlfriend and suddenly doesn't want to be around Arden.  And finally, Arden is dealing with a first crush of her own with a girl in the photography club -- a girl she likes a lot but for whom she feels no sexual desire.

Packed into this melodrama are a number of other fairly intense issues including sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and alcohol abuse  And there's a more traditional thread with Arden overcoming her fears of failure and submitting her work for a local gallery showing.

Despite being a very busy book, most of it runs pretty smoothly, mostly because of Stoeve's talent for forming strong characters.  As many things as Arden has going on in her life, I never really lost track of them.  And even the secondary characters have enough depth to them that it is fairly easy to track everyone and keep up with the story.  Still, there were some important threads (like Jamie's romantic relationship) that felt very rushed and poorly developed.

<Soapbox>And then there's my own discomfort with the ideology of the book.  Representation is important, but it seems silly to portray a sixteen year-old's reticence about sex as an orientation.  She could very well turn out to be Ace (as she worries endlessly about) but when did we get to the point where sixteen year-olds were so expected to have libidos that not displaying one needed to be explained with a sexual orientation?  I felt sorry that Arden feels so guilty about not wanting to have sex that she has to come up with her self-diagnosis (a decision she never really seems entirely comfortable with).  Honestly, it really doesn't matter at that age!  What's wrong is the pressure to choose a sexual orientation of any sort before you are ready!</Soapbox>

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Wrecked, by Heather Henson

While Miri has never seen the lab, she has a pretty good idea about what her father is doing on a stretch of their property and she has a pretty good idea of why he's called "the Wizard." She'd prefer not to think about any of that.  She just wants to focus on her motorbike and dreams of spending her life being a grease monkey and getting as far away from her Dad's life as she can when she turns 18.

What isn't so common is city boy Fen, recently relocated to the area to live with his father. His favorite pastime is sampling sounds and using the snippets to create sound collages.  It's a hobby that got him in trouble back in Detroit and it will soon enough get him into trouble here.

When the two of them literally run into each other, they click as just the thing the other person needs.  And while he is heading to college someday, that doesn't stop them from getting close and the two them develop a close fantasy romance -- living in an idyll that ignores the literally explosive events that are happening around them.

The result is a tense and taut tragedy, loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the contrasts the innocence of young love with the harsh world of the opioid epidemic.  While it is easy in the beginning to ignore the danger and fall in love with Miri and Fen's optimism, by the end it becomes painful to watch the romance knowing just how bad things are about to go. And while the tragedy is pre-ordained, Hanson packs in enough surprises at the end to surprise us.  

It's precisely the ending that becomes the weakest part of the story -- so much gets packed into those final pages that it can't help but feel rushed (and adding an epilogue on as well seemed excessive).  Still, I found the story compelling in the way that good tragedy can be:  where everyone except the characters can see how sidewise everything is heading and the whole thing becomes sickeningly inevitable. Thrilling!

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Golden Girl, by Reem Faruqi

Aafiyah enjoys a pretty good life. She's pretty, close with her next door neighbor Zaina, plays excellent tennis, and is bright and inquisitive.  Her favorite hobby is studying weird and obscure facts.  But she's about to suffer a string of setbacks, beginning when her father is detained by the Pakistani authorities during a family visit to relatives there.

Her father has been accused of stealing from his company, an accusation that hits particularly close to home for Aafiyah, because she has come to recognize that she has a problem with "borrowing" things from her peers.  They are always little things (lipstick, a pencil sharpener, etc.) and most of the time she returns the item in a few days.  But sometimes she keeps them.  Aafiyah knows that it is wrong to take things that don't belong to you, but she can't figure out a way to resist the impulses and so ironically she continues to do so while wishing for her unjustly accused father to be vindicated.  Predictably, Aafiyah eventually gets caught.

Told in verse, this swiftly-moving and engaging story roars through a wide variety of topic, including not just Aafiyah's kleptomania, but also issues of class and racial discrimination, gender relations, self-image, friendship, and family loyalty.  The writing style does not lend itself to much character depth, but the topics raised are important, and the story is beautifully organized.  There would certainly be plenty of material for a book discussion!

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Queen of Junk Island, by Alexandra Mae Jones

Ever since Dell's mother found out about the nude photos circulating on the internet, there's been a thick layer of distrust between them.  Allowing her boyfriend to take them showed poor judgment and Mom isn't ready to let Dell out of her sight.  So, when they get a call that they need to come up and check out the family cottage up north, Dell gets dragged along.  There they find that the house, the surrounding woods, and their lake have been being used as an illegal dumping ground.  It will take the entire summer to clean it up -- a perfect getaway for Dell.

Before this, Dell has never spent much time at the cottage.  When they were still alive, her grandparents lived there but Dell and her mother rarely visited.  So spending time there now is a chance to learn more about her family and there is much she doesn't know.  For example, one of the most striking early discoveries is that Dell had an aunt, who died around the time that Dell was born.  The circumstances of that death are shrouded in mystery and no one wants to talk about it, but Dell has her suspicions.  And when she is alone in the woods, she starts to imagine that she's able to commune with her dead aunt.

And then there's Ivy, the daughter of her Mom's new boyfriend.  Against Dell's wishes, she's come to stay with them all summer.  Dell's mother is convinced that Ivy will be a good influence and perhaps get Dell back on the straight and narrow, and tries to force them to bond.  However, neither mother nor daughter truly understand Ivy or can fathom how much she will change Dell's world.

In sum, it's a striking and engaging story of family, secrets kept too long, and sexual desire.  Lots of sexual desire.  Masturbation is a frequent topic in this book and may shock or titillate more than a few readers.  The author's primary interest is Dell's developing sense of bisexuality.  Strangely (for me), the author assumes that the characters (and perhaps the readers as well) will find this hard to accept.  As an afterward explains, biophobia was apparently quite common in Ontario in the 2000s when the author was growing up.  I find this odd because my own personal experience was different -- in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, bisexuality was probably more accepted than homosexuality.  So, the premise of the book rings strangely for me.  I guess Canadians are a bit more backward in this regard.

Beyond the themes intended to shock, there lies a nice story with some odd supernatural moments involving the aunt's ghost.  Mostly, it serves up a very satisfying reconciliation of family and revelation of secrets.  For anyone who enjoys a good family drama where through struggle and tears (but no tragic ending) old wounds are healed, this book is rewarding and enjoyable.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, by Chesil (trans. Takami Nieda)

Ginny Park is delivered an ultimatum by her principal:  either start doing the work or leave.  It wouldn't be the first time she's been kicked out.  After she was expelled from her school in Hawaii, Stephanie, a renown children's book illustrator, rescued her and brought her to Oregon.  But Ginny's troubles started back in Japan, where she experienced racial discrimination and sexual violence for being Korean.  In response to which she committed a striking symbolic act.

As Ginny explains to Stephanie, the expression which make up the book's long title is a rough translation of a Japanese saying.  It means that the way that you perceive simple things will dictate everything about your heart and your life.  Shift the way you see those things and you instantly transform your life from bad to good (or good to bad).  For Ginny, her experience of being Korean (and North Korean specifically) have informed her life and transforming how she viewed her victimization in turn changes her.

Told in spare and often cryptic chapters that are mostly retrospective, Chesil's short award-winning short novel was a sensation when it was published in Japan six years ago.  Translated into English, the story has a opaque tone that is often hard to follow.  Like haiku to a sonnet, Chesil's storytelling implies far more than it tells.  That works to the book's advantage at some points and frustrates at others. Key details (what actually happened in Hawaii, how did Stephanie come into the picture, etc.) are left undeveloped.  It's a bit surreal to read a book set in Oregon that was originally written in Japanese and those parts are the hardest to follow and feel the least authentic.  Only when the story shifts back to Japan does it really come alive.

For readers unfamiliar with Japan's unhappy relationship with its ethnic Korean citizens, much of this story will be a revelation, but the subject is hardly novel (the landmark 1968 Japanese film Death by Hanging is the earliest example with which I am familiar, but I am sure there are earlier examples).  What was more interesting to me was the North Korean-Japanese relationship that is particular to this story.  Regardless, I find it hard to imagine this subject would be of particular interest to adolescents in the United States and the writing's impenetrable prose will be a turn off as well.  In truth, this is more modern adult than contemporary YA (publishers need to stop assuming that adult books with an adolescent protagonist are automatically YA).  This novel is unlikely to attract much of a teen audience.

Monday, October 10, 2022

This Is Not the Jess Show, by Anna Carey

It's 1998 and Jess is a typical junior in her perfect town of Swickley.  But typical in Swickley always seems to have a dramatic flare, like the hurricane that damaged the town one spring or diagnosis of her younger sister's rare terminal disease (also in the spring) or the fact that half the town is home sick with the flu (springtime again).  And if that wasn't weird enough, Jess keeps hearing voices chanting from far away.  And there's that time that one of her friends dropped a strange black rectangle with an apple logo on it. All of these weirdnesses start piling up and soon Jess is questioning the nature of her world and whether it is even real...which it isn't.

Strangely enough, for a novel about a person who finds that their life is one big television show, the one reference that no one makes is to the 1998 Jim Carey film, The Truman Show. The similarities don't just lie with the basic premise but also with the critique of reality shows and celebrity obsession.  For Anna Carey, there's so much more to call out now (social media, TikTok, the gig economy, etc.), but all that does is make the story darkly nihilistic.  

In the movie, Ed Harris's Christof eventually gives up and lets Truman go, but the "producers" of the Jess Show (who are largely off-screen) are beyond the reach of some sentimental happy ending. Jess doesn't stand a chance against the corporate behemoth that Carey concocts.  That leads to a heartbreaking conclusion that the story chooses not to dwell on, leaving a strong sense of injustice and unfinished business that will feed some desire for the sequel, which promises to be darker still.

The pacing is quite brisk and this is a hard book to put down.  I enjoyed the first half as Jess slow revealed clue after clue that her town isn't the place she thought it was.  The second half, in which Jess goes to ground, doesn't work as well for me as there wasn't much of anywhere to go with the story.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

This Might Get Awkward, by Kara McDowell

In social situations, Gemma struggles with uncontrollable anxiety.  That doesn't mean that she don't want to have a social life, friends, and a boyfriend, but she knows that she'd never be able to handle the real thing.  So, when she finds herself trapped at a beach party, she does her best to lay low and simply observe like a fly on the wall.  That includes gazing longingly at Beau Booker, the guy she's long desired.  While stalking him might be creepy, it puts her in a unique position when he suffers a life-threatening injury in the water and she's the only one who sees it happen.

After she rescues him, he is taken to the hospital and put in a medical coma.  A misunderstanding develops and Gemma gets identified as Beau's girlfriend.  Gemma, paralyzed by her social anxiety, can't bring herself to contradict the story.  With impending dread of what will happen when Beau wakes up, Gemma feels compelled to play along and things pretty much run away from her.  The only one who seems to think that something is off is Beau's brother Griff.  That suspicion turns to unexpected friendship as the weeks go by and Gemma and Griff start developing feelings for each other that complicate everything.

While there is some serious attention given to social anxiety and clinical depression, as well as to the environmental damage taking place at Lake Powell (where the novel takes place), this is first and foremost a rom-com.  As such, it relies on the appeal of its characters and is where the book didn't work for me.  I really didn't feel more attraction to them.  Gemma isn't just socially awkward, she's dysfunctional and grating.  The scenes that are supposed to be funny just seemed painful and cruel. The boys are self-absorbed.  Beau (playing the role of the "wrong boy") is shallow and unworthy of any sort of crush.  While Griff expresses concern for Gemma and gets to be the good guy who works her through some of her anxiety, he's ultimately controlling and manipulative.  They just weren't characters I ended up caring about.

Friday, October 07, 2022

I Am the Ghost In Your House, by Mar Romasco-Moore

It's one thing to feel invisible, to agonize over the idea that no one sees who you are (or notices you at all), but what if you actually were invisible?  

No one can see seventeen year-old Pie, except her mother (who is also invisible).  Corporal but not seeable, they can be injured or get sick, need food and shelter, and have all the basic emotional needs of others. Pie and her mother can slip in and out of places without being seen, but they have to be especially careful where they walk (otherwise people will run into them or cars will hit them).  They can't work jobs or go to school.  Instead, they live a nomadic life, squatting unnoticed in people's spare bedrooms and stealing whatever food or other things they need to live.  Revealing themselves to others would be unimaginably dangerous, so they live totally isolated lives.

That remarkable existence is threatened when Pie's mother mysteriously vanishes, becoming invisible to Pie as well.  Abandoned and scared, Pie seeks solace amongst a group of young artists and musicians.  Desperate for companionship, she even breaks their cardinal rule of keeping to themselves and reaches out, revealing herself to these people. To her surprise, she is accepted.  However, there are complications, particularly when Pie's past comes to haunt her.

This idea of an invisible girl takes a bit of explaining, but proves to be fertile ground for examining image, presentation, and the ways we perceive others.  Some of the elements of the story work better than others -- Pie's relationship with her visible friend Denise was sweet, while Pie's mother was thinly developed and the search for her was clunky and underdeveloped -- but the story was well-written and intriguing. Pie for all of her exotic novelty is relatable and normal enough to be sympathetic to the reader. I enjoyed the book.

Monday, October 03, 2022

A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I Lin

Ning's mother was a shénnóng-shì, a master of the art of Tea and of Chinese medicine, before she died from drinking poisoned tea that Ning had unknowingly brewed for her mother and her sister.  There had been a warning, but Ning ignored it.  Now, her sister still lives, but barely.  Hope comes in the form of an invitation for the shénnóng of the empire to come and compete for the position of court tea master.  Ning has barely studied her mother's art (it was always her sister who was supposed to take on the role), but she knows some of the skills and she really has no other choice.  Only by winning the contest and receiving the prize of a wish granted by the princess can she save her family from ruin and subsequently cure her sister.  So she heads out to the imperial capital.

The poisoned tea was
 not a random act.  Bricks of it were found throughout the kingdom.  It is clear that it was part of a bigger plot to destabilize the empire, but who is behind that?  As a country girl, Ning is quickly out of her depth as she finds herself deep in court intrigue, but she has good instincts and hidden strengths that surprise her as she gathers friends and supporters (as well as making new enemies).  In comparison to the plots against the emperor and his daughter, winning the contest may become an afterthought, but it too is tied in with this struggle for power.

While little of the medical lore used in the story aligns with the actual modern practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is a loving tribute to its sensibilities.  And as a dedicated Chinese teahead, I really enjoyed all the references to tea (some real, some imagined).  It's a story that takes a small bit of Chinese history, throws in a generous helping of Chinese myth, and spices the whole brew with modern fantasy, and then allows the whole thing to steep in its gaiwan before being served up.

And for those who love action and intrigue, the story is full of nearly endless activity.  A large cast of characters ensure that there is rarely a dull moment.  The endless parade of places with names like the "Hall of Reflection" or the "Courtyard of Promising Future" provide an oriental exoticism.  While it can also prove disorienting and make the story hard to follow, this just makes the ride more fun.  In stories like this, it's best to just let the plot take you along.

In sum, a richly textured and complexly drawn tale based on Chinese mythology and imbued with enough modern sensibility to make the story exciting and palatable to a contemporary audience.  An enjoyable beginning to a series, whose second installment was released a little over a month ago.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Daughter, by Kate McLaughlin

At seventeen, Scarlet is getting pretty tired of the way her overprotective mother interferes with her life.  Outside of seeing friend, Scarlet is rarely allowed to go anywhere.  In a normal novel, that would be the story.  But in this thriller, that is when the FBI shows up.

From the visit, Scarlet learns that her father (who she always thought was a deadbeat) is actually an infamous psychopathic mass murderer, who went to jail when she was only two years old.  In order to escape intense media scrutiny, her mother took her and fled, assuming a new identity.  Now, the man is dying and he has promised to reveal the identity and final whereabouts of hitherto unknown victims.  But only if he can see his daughter.

Once Scarlet gets over the shock of finding out her true identity, she's repulsed by the idea of meeting such a man, even if he is her biological father.  The FBI, however, are eager to get her to do it.  There are dozens of cases that they suspect are tied to the man and solving even a few of those cases would make a world of difference to the victims' families.  Conflicted between the desire to maintain some privacy and a feeling of obligation to the victims, she goes and meets the monster.

While setting up this implausible scenario takes some work, once McLaughlin gets us through the prerequisites, the rest of the story basically writes itself.  It has all of the seductive yuck factor of Silence of the Lambs and it's a page turner from beginning to end.  It's precisely that appeal that turns out to be the point in the end.  A steady theme throughout is exploring why people are so obsessed with stories like this.  Do we just like macabre things or are there people who harbor dark fantasies that they live out through histories like these?  And why draws women to men who murder remorselessly?

In addition to such deep and dark ruminations, there's some attempt to work in a romance, but this isn't a story one gets feeling sexy about.  Lots of drug references may make some readers more uncomfortable than the grisly subject matter.  But overall, this is great entertainment, which is probably proving the author's underlying point.