Monday, July 31, 2023

See You Yesterday, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

September 21st is a day that will live in infamy for Barrett Bloom.  It's the first day of classes at U Washington and Barrett starts it being woken up by her high school nemesis (who it turns out is also going to be her freshman year roommate).  From there, she's off to a catastrophic physics class, a totally botched interview at the school newspaper, and ends up at a frat party where she accidentally sets fire to the house.  It's a day that she'd love to forget, but she can't because it keeps repeats again and again.

Very quickly, she realizes that she's not alone in this loop in space and time.  Miles, her neighbor in physics, is also stuck in the loop.  And while he's rude and arrogant, she concedes that she needs his help (and he comes to the conclusion that he'll tolerate hers).  Their lives become an exploration of how they are going to escape from this one day cycle to the magic of tomorrow.  

The obvious inspiration is the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day and this is basically the latest in a long series of YA stories about being stuck in a day that continually repeats.  I particularly enjoyed this one for three reasons.  First of all, it acknowledges the debt.  Even the characters are familiar with the film (they actually watch it at one point) and they try out a few of the ideas from the movie.  Secondly, the book makes some attempt to explain why the loop is happening.  It's pseudo science, but it puts in the effort and doesn't just rely on "magic" or "fate." That gives the story a sense of adventure that is lacking in most renditions of this trope that I have read.  Finally, Solomon is just a delightful writer and the story just whizzes by.  It's a fun read.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Threads That Bind, by Kika Hatzopoulou

"Other-borns" are descendants of the gods (loosely based on the Greek pantheon) who embody elements of their powerful ancestors.  Those born from the fates can see the invisible threads that tie people with the people and the things that bring them joy and make their life come alive. In each generation, there are always three siblings:  one who can weave the threads, one who can draw them, and a third that can cut them and break the connection.  Io is the "cutter" of her family and widely feared and distrusted by mortals for her powers.

Io gets by in the flooded slums of the city, working with low-lifes and criminals as a private investigator.  When one of her assignments results in her witnessing her assignment being murdered by a woman who for all intents and purposes is already dead, Io realizes that there are bigger things at stake than her petty investigations into marital infidelity and fraud.  Following leads that take her from being hired by a criminal syndicate to a garden party in the home of the next mayor, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery that implicates the entire power structure of her world.  It will eventually force her to confront the gods themselves.

This is a pretty bare bones description of the story and is part of the issue I have with this novel.  There's always a fine line in fantasy novels between building enough of your alternative world that it is immersive and at the same time not going so far that the details swamp the story.  This proves even more challenging in a story that is more mystery than adventure.  In order to appreciate the byzantine politics of Io's world, we are introduced to endless factions and historical backstories.  It literally takes some 150 pages or so before we can get through a page of the story without being introduced to a new character or setting!  Little of this is actually superfluous and I can well imagine a frenzied editor fruitlessly trying to find some fat to cut out.  There simply isn't any!  So, as a result of this huge amount of exposition, there are lots of important elements of this story that largely suffer.  A really interesting emotional dynamic between the sisters, for example, largely gets shortchanged by the details of the setting and a drive to keep the action moving.

I suspect that there is a sequel to come and perhaps the need to provide so much exposition will subside and allow more time for character development.  This rich novel in the mean time will benefit from a re-reading and a patient study of the numerous elements.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Forget Me Not, by Alyson Derrick

In their conservative small town, Stevie and Nora have to keep their relationship a secret.  But they have plans to get away:  Stevie's been accepted to UCLA and Nora will get a job.  Nora has figured out how they can get by on their limited means.  It will be hard but it means that they can finally be out about their relationship.  Nobody in LA will care that they are gay.

But then Stevie suffers a severe concussion that leads to weeks in the hospital and results in partial amnesia:  she's forgotten who Nora is and everything about their relationship.  From being on the verge of running away together, Nora has become a complete stranger to Stevie.  Not only is it devastating to be unrecognized by her girlfriend but she can't even tell her the truth for the trouble it would cause.  And would Stevie even believe her?  For Stevie, this huge gap in her memories leave her with suspicions.  Who knows the truth about what was going on?  And who is now taking advantage of Stevie's amnesia to re-write history?

It's an interesting premise that locked me in.  Sure, it relies on the trope that love is predestined and that true love is not dependent on circumstances.  But as cynical as I am that there is no particular reason for Stevie and Nora to find each other again, you know we all are rooting for them to do so (although to be fair, Derrick allows some flexibility and not everything is like it was before). Somewhat less forgivable is the too-good-to-be-true ending which comes from out of nowhere and in fact runs against the entire direction of the rest of the story.  Do yourself a favor and skip the last chapter -- you'll thank me for that!  Other than that, I enjoyed the characters and the nuanced relationship between Stevie and her mother which exposes a lot about how families cope with children coming out.

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Sharp Edge of Silence, by Cameron Kelly Rosenblum

It's senior year at Lycroft Phelps and three students are finding out how they will embody the motto of the school, "Who will you be?" For Charlotte, it is her moment to shine as a guest choreographer for the ballet.  For Max, the stereotypical STEM nerd, it is a rare chance to join the A-team, as a coxswain for the varsity crew team and a seat at the most influential table at the school.  But for Quinn, who carries a legacy of six generations of Lycroft Phelps alums, it is the shame of having been sexually assaulted at the end of the previous year.

The contrast of Charlotte's and Max's dreams coming true against the nightmare of Quinn's descent to madness creates a stark narrative in the first half of the story, which otherwise largely follows the typical pattern of the boarding school subgenre of poorly supervised teenagers.  Charlotte has issues with her distant boyfriend, who she suspects of cheating on her.  Max, flattered by the perks of his new social status tentatively flexes his power by getting the nerve up to date his crush.  The crew team has initial success and starts planning pranks against a rival school.  Meanwhile, Quinn steals a gun and plots murder against her assailant.

But in the second half, the narrative comes apart.  Max is exposed to a secret society that the boys have formed to promote a rape culture and finds himself unable to stand up to it.  Charlotte questions whom her jealousy actually serves.  Quinn finds her voice and speaks out.  And at this point, the book takes another unusual step by bringing in the adults to help out and the children become (slightly) less unsupervised.  The story itself largely abandons its original trajectory as many of the important subplots (Quinn's homicidal plans, winning a big crew race, getting into college, and striking back at school rivals) simply are dropped and overshadowed by the bigger question of toxic cultures.

As far as that main theme is concerned, if the novel had simply been an indictment on toxic masculinity, it wouldn't be terribly original.  What is interesting is the focus on the young women finding their voice.  Whether it is Quinn learning to stop seeing herself as a victim, Charlotte refusing to excuse her ex-boyfriend's behavior, or Max's ex-girlfriend Alex standing up to well-meaning but largely inept Max, this is more about the important role that women can play in protecting themselves.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

You Bet Your Heart, by Danielle Parker

Sasha knows how much her mother has sacrificed so she can attend Skyline High and focus on her studies.  And ever since her father died, she's known that the best way to honor his memory is to excel academically.  But what she didn't know is that Ezra, her estranged childhood best friend, is locked in a tie for the highest GPA. That matters because the school gives a $30K scholarship to the Valedictorian and Sasha needs that money to go to school.

While they were once close friends, Sasha has not taken Ezra seriously in some time.  He goofs off and barely makes any effort in his classes.  But now that he knows how close the competition is, he's suddenly a greater threat than ever before -- acing tests, besting Sasha in oral exams, and tricking her into missing classes.  Before things go out of control, the two of them decide to declare a ceasefire and settle the whole matter with a bet:  based on just three major upcoming projects, the winner of at least two of them will take the prize and the loser will blow a future test to ruin their GPA.  This simplifies the competition but takes no heat out of their struggle.

Naturally, this being a YA romance, the two of them fall in love, have a major misunderstanding and falling out, and then reconcile dramatically in the end.

This may be formula but it works well.  Sasha and Ezra have good chemistry and much of the story is spent with them building mutual appreciation.  The book shines when the two kids just focus on each other, but the author seems uncomfortable with the genre, finding a need to force in some profundity with political facts or grand rhetoric.  An artificial and cringeworthy fight between Sasha and her friends mostly shows that even inclusive language can be weaponized in the hands of adolescents.  It's also emblematic of good material that is sabotaged by an agenda.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Truth About Everything, by Bridget Farr

Lark lives with her parents in a remote homestead in Montana.  Until the age of fifteen, she thinks that she's learned everything she needs to know.  She can hunt and fish, repair engines, and defend her family from the government.  But when she gets her first period, she doesn't know what is happening to her.  She thinks she's miscarried like her mother did with each of her pregnancies (except Lark).  It sets Lark wondering that there is a lot else she hasn't ever learned about.  Like how to read.  Like what really happened on 9/11. Like what normal teenagers do with themselves.

No longer content to stay sequestered in the family's remote fortress preparing for the Armageddon, she secretly enrolls in school and develops a longing for knowledge.  And the more she learns, the more she realizes the limitations of her parents and the way that their paranoia is killing themselves and her.

A grim story of a wildly abusive family.  I'm not a big fan of child endangerment, but I am inevitably sucked in by stories like this.  For as unpleasant as the setting is, I long for watching the child rise above their situation.  Lark doesn't disappoint.  She has a lot of handicaps, but her survivalist parents got one thing right:  making her intensely curious and fiercely independent.  So, for every time I cringed at her Dad's stupidity and her Mom's cowardice, I could still cheer at Lark's tenaciousness.  That's small comfort in a story that will just depress you and leave you wondering how many Larks there are out there and what happens to the ones who lack Lark's survival skills?

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

The Secrets We Keep, by Cassie Gustafson

Emma's carefully manicured world is torn violently open when her father is arrested.  He's accused of hurting an unnamed minor, who quickly turns out to be Hannah, Emma's best friend.  Initially, Emma and Hannah try to maintain their friendship as their families circle the wagons and break into opposing factions.  Emma loyally defends her father, but cracks in her resolve appear almost immediately.  Something has been going on and the question is whether Emma is mad at Hannah for what she said or mad at someone else altogether?

It's a harrowing tale full of triggering scenes of abuse.  The sexual abuse, I was prepared for.  It was Emma's monstrous mother and her emotional abuse I wasn't quite set for.  Not only in denial of what her husband is doing to her daughter, Mom actively blames Emma for it as well.  And while I'm aware that that behavior is not unknown in these situations, it's brutally hard to read.   Emma's autistic and neglected younger brother adds yet more weight to a situation that doesn't actually need it.

The writing is superb and the use of second voice flashbacks  to describe scenes that become less and less ambiguous particularly effective.  A more experimental use of fairy tales seemed too heavy handed and distracting, but it added some depth to the depiction of the emotional trauma that Emma is experiencing.  And, of course, Emma herself is a major force.  We're naturally drawn to be sympathetic to her, of course, but Gustafson rewards us with rich character development.  In sum, a moving, traumatic read about friendship, family, and abuse -- best taken with frequent breaks and reminders that the world is not completely populated with monsters.

Saturday, July 01, 2023

Boy In the White Room, by Karl Olsberg

A boy wakes up in a white room with knowledge of the world around him but no memories of how he acquired the knowledge (or indeed of who he is).  He eventually is greeted by his father who tells him his name is Manuel, his physical body is comatose, and that he is living within a virtual reality.  His father then introduces him to all of the wonderful things he can do in his meta world.

But something is not quite right.  When a girl claiming to be his sister tries to reach him, his father denies he has a sister and forbids him from contacting her. Suspicious, he uncovers the truth that the man is not his father and that his sister and her friends are trying to rescue him.  But no sooner is he successfully rescued than he finds he has merely peeled away one layer of mystery and revealed a new one.  Soon, he needs to be rescued from his supposed sister!

By the end of the story, Manuel is not sure who is real and who is made up, whether he has finally found the real world or is still living inside a simulacrum, what is his real name, or even if he is a real person.  In the extreme paranoia that this story presents, the conclusion simply raises more questions. It is simply not possible to answer the questions.

This sort of mindf**k book that poses a paradox (in this case of consciousness) would have deeply appealed to me as a teenager so I can appreciate it now.  Beyond that clever idea though, it's not a terribly exciting story and the characters are pretty flat.  So, fun to ruminate over and maybe discuss.