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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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SPOILER ALERT!

The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish - Ali Benjamin

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary. This somewhat predictable middle-grade novel is a good effort, and dutifully hits all the correct notes, but in the end takes itself too seriously.

 

Quick synopsis. Suzy is a bright girl who has experienced trauma: the loss of her best friend, Franny, to drowning. At a certain moment in her grief process, Suzy stopped speaking (unless she had to answer a direct question, in which case she spoke--which is sort of a relief relative to other novels that feature selective mutism). In a pivotal conversation, Suzy's mom tells her that there's no explanation for Franny's death, things like this sometimes "just happen." Suzy can't understand this, knowing what a good swimmer Franny was, and believes there must be a real cause. On a field trip to the aquarium, Suzy learns about a tiny, nearly invisible type of jellyfish with a deadly sting, and sets out to prove that this could have been the cause of Franny's death. Flashback chapters told in the present tense show that the girls' friendship was strained to the point of breaking, and Suzy is grappling with the loss of a friend on two levels, and the guilt that accompanies her last cruel act toward Franny. Meanwhile, Suzy slowly grows to trust a teacher who knows how to be there without being invasive, and a boy with ADHD who likes her for her. 

 

What's good. First, the prose in this novel is good. Second, the way Suzy's relationship with Franny unfolds in alternating present-tense chapters is excellent. The present-tense subtly ties in with Suzy's quantum-physics notion that time is relative and all moments are happening and have happened and will happen at the same time. Third, the fact that Suzy's older brother is gay and is seamlessly incorporated as a normal thing in life--brava. Fourth, although the "not talking" thing was initially annoying (this has become almost a trope in kidlit, and I wonder how common it actually is in real life), it does cleverly allow Suzy to live exclusively in her mind, where she cultivates important misunderstandings. And eventually, it's a relief when she acknowledges that you can't really learn if you're silent. Finally, the early childhood friendship between Franny and Suzy felt authentic to me--the way young children enter smoothly and quickly into deep friendships, and approach them with no biases.

 

What didn't work as well. The novel is divided into sections that follow the scientific method, as taught by Mrs. Turtin, a teacher Suzy admires. For some reason, rather than give the novel an organic structure, it winds up making it feel "constructed." Each time a section was tied to the scientific method (e.g. "develop a hypothesis"), it became a moment when I saw the author rather than the story.

 

Ms. Benjamin dutifully hits the right notes. But somehow those notes often felt forced. For instance, in the end Suzy's mother retrieves her from the airport after her failed attempt to travel to Australia. (Suzy was trying to meet a jellyfish specialist by traveling overseas.) But somehow her mother and her brother and her brother's boyfriend end up at the airport to pick her up. It makes for a lovely ending, where she is surrounded by this quirky family that adores her and wants to support her, but if you ask yourself, "How did they all get there?" it falls apart. Obviously the airline would call Suzy's mom--but would Suzy's mom then call her grown son, who lives in his own apartment? Because, what, she couldn't handle picking Zu up alone? It feels constructed by putting them all in one place to wrap the story up. (See also: "An awkward, happy ending" below.)

 

Autism spectrum disorder. I see only one other reader on Goodreads who mentions this phrase in relation to the book, and I'm interested that more readers haven't picked up on it. Suzy seems to be on the autistic scale to me, though she's high-functioning and extremely verbal: she imagines telling Franny with her eyes that the pee in the locker is the "big message," that Franny asked her to do this, that Franny hurt her feelings; in return, she fully expects that Franny's eyes will apologize. Suzy talks about the sterile properties of pee at lunch without initially seeing it's inappropriate. She's not just socially awkward, she has a profound lack of social understanding. She's often overly focused, counts and calculates obsessively, and has restrictive interests (though they're all academic). I admire the fact that the book itself doesn't label Suzy--she is simply being her authentic self. But I'm quite perplexed that readers didn't factor it into their understanding of her character. 

  

An awkward, happy ending. In the end a girl named Sarah, whom Suzy begrudgingly admired and was curious about all year, will clearly become her new best friend. This plot development fell right on the margin of feeling hopeful but also pat to me. For one thing, Suzy was only ever cold to Sarah (for instance, glaring at her when Mrs. Turtin asks her to join them in watching the science video), so it's hard to understand why Sarah would seek Suzy's friendship, particularly when the popular girls want to take Sarah under their wing. For another, there's a fine line between saying "there are other friendships after loss" (which I think Justin represents) and "another best friend will take away your sorrow." The trouble with Sarah is that we don't know her as well as we know Justin, so it's hard to avoid that second, more superficial message. And furthermore, why does Justin take an interest in Suzy? This is one of the problems with totally silent protagonists: in the real world, all children would ignore silent Suzy, even the misunderstood boy. (And what was the point in his nicknaming her Belle? I understand its thematic significance--he sees her inner beauty--but what boy actually decides to call a girl by the wrong name, consistently, even to her mother over the phone the first time he calls? It's also not believable that he chooses to do this to tie in with the "bell" of a jellyfish and counteract the other children's taunts of "Medusa." Calling her by her given name would counteract those taunts well enough.)

 

Inconsistency in Suzy's age and smarts. Sometimes Suzy was precocious, and sometimes she was dense. I don't object to that in principle, since children mature at different rates in different areas of their lives, but I do object when it seems that the uncharacteristic denseness is the author's way of manipulating the plot. For instance, Suzy is a child who can explain the concept of a rip-tide on the spot for us, but has never thought of it as a possible cause of Franny's drowning. She can research any subject on the planet, but doesn't look into whether underage international travel is allowed, or know what a travel visa is. At twelve, she doesn't know which numbers on a Visa are necessary for purchasing something online?

 

The premise is a bit artificial. Suzy won't accept "sometimes things just happen" as an explanation, and decides she'll find out the real cause of Franny's death. But this is an artificial tweaking of the difference between cause and reason on the author's part, to get the plot moving. By definition jellyfish stings (Suzy's own, prime thesis) "just happen"--so how will proving that Franny died of a jellyfish sting help her? Obviously this realization is her journey, and she summarizes it nicely at the end--there isn't a reason for Franny's death, no matter the cause--but it verges on babyish that she didn't understand all along that her mother meant exactly that.

 

Who will want to read this? At the end of the book, this was the question I was unsure about. It's quite appealing to adults who love middle-grade literature, and was perhaps a swing at a home-run: a Newbery award. But there are no small injections of humor in the novel to give it levity and nuances of joy for children. It takes itself quite seriously. How many readers have had their best friends die, and will feel a strong empathy for the protagonist? Only very cerebral, voracious middle-grade readers will be happy to consume this book. And then I wager they'll forget it fairly quickly.  

 

SPOILER ALERT!

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Darkest Part of the Forest - Holly Black, Lauren Fortgang

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: A good premise, with some fairytale tropes nicely upended and moments of respectable prose, but as with The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I found that the execution felt jumbled upon reflection--especially the unfolding of the plot.

 

The title. (A small point, but metaphorically significant.) I grant that titling books is difficult, and that the author is not always responsible for the title since the publisher often steps in to change it. But I've read two Holly Black books now, and no matter who thought up the titles (publisher or author), they both fail to make a connection with the actual work. In some way I wonder whether the titles inadvertently reveal the publisher's--or Ms. Black's--confusion over what her books are about, and where she meant to go with them. Both The Darkest Part of the Forest and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown are titles that successfully convey atmosphere and genre but have little to do with any kind of story. Combined with killer, gender-neutral dust jackets, the market for each book is clearly signaled with these covers, but not the content: we know from looking at them that one is paranormal horror, the other is fairytale horror. "Do you like this category and this cover image?" the publisher seems to ask. "Then this cool-looking book is for you!" It's virtually impossible to tell anything more from the title. Yet they're selling oodles of copies, so I suppose they're doing something right.

 

Quick synopsis. Siblings Hazel and Ben live in Fairfold, a town that exists alongside a fairy kingdom in the woods. Tourists come to see the handsome horned boy sleeping in the glass coffin and to search for fey in the forest, sometimes succumbing to a tragic fate (e.g. being turned into boulders, which I'm convinced is homage to one of my favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig). The local "townies" can for the most part avoid these fairy pitfalls by following certain rules. We learn that five years ago, Hazel foolishly made a pact with the fey in order to get her brother accepted at a prestigious music school in Philly. She did this because Ben had always been her partner in slaying fairy monsters in the forest--he charmed them with his music, and she killed them with her sword. It's never really explained how their butchery of fairy folk was never punished--you'd think they'd be on the Most Wanted list of the king of the fey, and that whatever truce the fairies have with the townfolk wouldn't apply to vigilante fairy-killers. But in any case, Ben's confidence in his magically-attained music faltered at a certain point, and Hazel naturally thought human music school could help. (Hey, she's a kid, so maybe this logic is age appropriate.) Ben's best friend is Jack, a changeling who was raised as a human. This is one of those shining moments of Ms. Black's cleverness: I loved the way Jack's mother figured out that her son, Carter, had been substituted with an infant lookalike, and in a badass confrontation with the changeling's mother, managed to keep and raise both children. Hazel has a crush on Jack, but feels compelled to make out with every other boy in town and not Jack. Later we learn that this compulsion somehow stems from one ill-advised kiss, when Ben's Philly boyfriend kissed Hazel in front of Ben after breaking up with him. The one person Hazel should be kissing, Jack, is in true YA-trope fashion the person she's sure she can't kiss, because he's her friend and Ben's best friend. One night, the town discovers that the glass coffin has been broken, and the horned prince released, and Hazel suspects that she's involved, though she has no memory of it. Yet she knows only the magic sword could have smashed the glass, and she has a lot of leaves in her bed and mud on her walls. (In all the nights she went out as Sir Hazel, she never had forest debris in her bed? Her brother never heard her leave and enter the house? She was only tired while she was in Philly? But I'm getting ahead of myself.) It turns out Hazel's barter with the fey involved promising them seven years of her life, and the fey king has been exacting the payment every night. "Night Hazel" is a trained knight of the king, and has been forced to torture and kill tourists. (Her guilt over these acts is meant to be lasting, but is only superficially covered.) For MacGuffin-esque reasons (to win back some Eastern Kingdom we've never visited and don't know a thing about), the fey king wants both the sword and his son back, and gives Hazel two days to turn them in. His son is of course Severin, who is out in the human world falling in love with Ben. When Hazel doesn't produce the goods, the king turns his daughter, Sorrel/Sorrow, on the town--she's a tree-like monster who induces a mournful sadness that puts people in a miserable coma, and her creeping moss swallows buildings whole. (Her backstory is fairytale-like, involving her brother, Severin, killing her mortal husband and her weeping herself into a monster, but again, Severin's guilt over this murder should be more profound than Ms. Black has time to allot to it.) In the end, Night Hazel has hidden the sword for Day Hazel, Severin has made up with his sister enough to shake the king's hold on her, and together they're able to kill the king. In the epilogue, Severin becomes king, Ben lives in fairyland with Severin while learning more about his music, Jack decides to live with Hazel as a human for a lifetime (presumably until she gets old and dies), and Hazel becomes Severin's champion--although I'm guessing she can only work for him part-time, what with, you know, high school and kissing Jack. 

 

The good. In her review on the blog "Reading Rants," Jennifer Hubert Swan said, "Boys fall in love with boys, and girls fall in love with swords..." and those are two things I also enjoyed about the book. The notions that the damsel in distress saves herself and the boy gets his prince are wonderful. The sleeping beauty is a horned boy, which is awesome. The juxtaposition of contemporary life and a fantasy setting--kids drinking and dancing on a Saturday night on a magical, unbreakable glass coffin in the forest--was fun for me. (Unlike other readers, this did not complicate my view of my own, magic-free United States. Have some whimsy, people.)

 

The plot line of Ben and Hazel's parents neglect. This is meant to be the emotional core of the story, but it's introduced too belatedly. It's possible that Ms. Black wanted us to see how much Ben and Hazel had been repressing the bad parts of their childhood by holding it back from us, too, but it veers dangerously toward feeling like an afterthought, edited-in for depth and plotting reasons. Ben and Hazel's artistic parents are somewhat dysfunctional. They euthanize the dog rather than treat him with pricey medical care; they hold parties with their bohemian artist friends and forget to feed the children; Ben and Hazel have the freedom to slay monsters--which means risk their lives--without their parents wondering where they are. At the same time, Ms. Black shows the casual interactions between parents and children to be loving, and they did move the whole family to Philly to pursue Ben's music training. It ends up being a bit of a mixed message for the reader, which is a problem when we're meant to believe that the early neglect of Ben and Hazel is what prevents the siblings (emotionally) from opening up to each other, even while they're fiercely devoted to each other. Which brings me to...

 

Hiding things from each other. This theme is critical to the plot of the book, but still manages to be annoying in that "why don't they just talk to each other?" way. Hazel doesn't tell Ben that she made a pact with the fairies and owes them seven years of her life; Ben doesn't tell her that he fears that his music was the only reason his Philly boyfriend fell in love with him in the first place, and that he's trying to escape Fairfold and his music by falling in love; Hazel doesn't tell Jack she loves him even after he professes his love to her; Jack doesn't tell his friends that he has been spending time with his birth family (the fey); Ms. Black herself doesn't tell the reader until well into the book that Hazel and Ben's parents neglected them.

 

The king's motivation. As mentioned in the synopsis, Ms. Black introduces a MacGuffin-esque reason for the king to want the sword and his son back. It feels imprecise and chaotic, when there might have been time to develop a strong reason earlier in the novel. Also, the king is the generic bad guy who of course gets bloodily killed. No gravitas points awarded for that.

 

Rules of magic. I'm not terribly familiar with fairytale books, so if some of my head-scratching is due to inexperience, forgive me. The diversity of the fey was interesting--there were lots of lists of the varieties in this novel--but it's not clear whether they are species who coexist and intermarry, etc., and whether there are class differences based on type. As much as people praise Ms. Black's world building, it felt like these creatures were described simply for atmosphere. Similarly, it gives the story a wonderful fairytale quality to list the rules of protecting yourself from the fey (iron shavings or oatmeal in your pocket, your socks turned inside out), but I found myself wondering why these tricks work--is it a biological repellant, a scientific interaction, the superstition of the fey? Similarly, some rules were violated: drinking fairy wine supposedly ruins your taste for any mortal beverage, but that didn't happen to Hazel. But as I said, it may be that there is a long tradition in this literature that I'm missing.

 

Haphazard plotting. In my review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown I mentioned that I had the feeling Ms. Black wrote without an outline, by the seat of her pants, and gave herself a daily word count, hoping to find the novel's point and instill order later. This book gives me the same feeling. She couldn't quite wrangle the plot into submission, and couldn't tie the loose ends. For instance, Hazel feels guilt over her actions as Sir Hazel, but there isn't time to explore that. 

 

The characters. Some of the characters aren't as fully fleshed out as I like. The horned boy, for instance, only has some infodump moments with Ben while staying in his room, despite becoming an important character in the story after he wakes up. The king is an anonymous bad guy.

 

The gore. I'm thinking gore has become one of Ms. Black's trademarks. As with Coldest Girl, it felt as if the violence only happened to people we didn't really know or care about. In that sense, the horror is just...actually, trademark is a good word: it's not significant in any literary way; it's there so you can market the story as "horror," while simultaneously offending the fewest readers possible.

 

Nitpicking. I wasn't convinced Ms. Black knows (or her copyeditor checked) what the lintel of a window is--in one case I was sure she meant "muntin," and possibly "casing" in another.

 

In sum. This is one of those books that went down in my estimation as I worked on the review. It's consumable and reasonably well written, and it has a happy ending that makes it feel "rounded out." I enjoyed it well enough while I was listening, and I don't regret the time I spent on it. But the flaws reared their heads as I wrote about the plot, and the vague, nagging feelings I had while listening coalesced into more concrete complaints. For my friend Liam, I guess I would summarize by saying I thought it was better than Coldest Girl in Coldtown

SPOILER ALERT!

People of the Book

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: The contemporary thread of People of the Book was disappointingly melodramatic, and the historical threads had too little depth and feeling for the periods and the personalities.

 

People of the Book tells a fictionalized account of the hidden history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a book that is known to have survived wars, cross-country journeys, years in hiding, and undoubtedly multiple owners.

 

Real history. A Haggadah is a book of readings for the Jewish seder service. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a real book, appears to have been made in Spain in the mid-fourteenth century, as a wedding gift. What we know of its history is only several lines long: the National Museum of Sarajevo purchased it from a man by the name of Josef Kohen in 1888; a note in it says that it changed hands in 1492 when Jews were expelled from Spain; an inscription from 1609 says it passed the Catholic Church's inspection by a (presumably generous) priest, saving it from being burned as a heretical book; it made a trip to Vienna for several years (to be studied) before being returned to Sarajevo; in 1941 the Nazi regime specifically searched for it in the Museum, but it was hidden from them by the director and the curator of the museum (the curator also saved a Jewish girl); during the Bosnian War in the 1990s the book was saved again from bombings by the director of the museum and put in a bank vault until the end of the conflict.

 

Synopsis. The contemporary segments tell the story of Hannah Heath, a book conservator who has been hired to stabilize the Haggadah before it is put on display at the encouragement of the U.N. as a testament to unity and peace. The Haggadah is a particularly intriguing book because it is illuminated with detailed, representational illustrations--something that Jewish manuscripts of the time did not have. Hannah finds artifacts in the pages of the book that present mysteries and may lead to a better understanding of where the book has been: a tiny butterfly wing, a white hair that is dyed with saffron, a wine stain, a stain that appears to be made of salt water. These artifacts each of course have a story critically linking them with the creation and journey of the Haggadah--and the reader has the benefit of seeing the stories in full, but Hannah does not (she guesses only at the edges of them). The historical segments move back in time from World War II to the creation of the illuminated illustrations by a black female Muslim artist in 1350. (There is a black woman at the seder table in one of the illustrations, and Ms. Brooks takes the liberty of fictionalizing her as the artist.)

 

Actually, you know what? I won't go into the gory details of the synopsis because Cate Ross has done it better than I ever could right here.

 

I also like her snarky take on the whole book: 

 

....This book is terribly cold. Family members shun each other, religious calling is nothing more than a sanctuary from murder or the shame of being born Jewish. The Jewish families that possess the Haggadah never use it for seder; they are too busy being murdered apparently. It's a fairly cynical novel--the Haggadah is never loved, never treasured as a family relic, never shown except as the byproduct of melodrama. It's as though Brooks has only a theoretical understanding of what a Haggadah means, and she has a blood-thirsty imagination that can't be set to the quieter themes.

 

Like Cate, I would have loved to have seen what this Haggadah meant to a real family while it was in use, rather than the relentless destruction, rape and oppression that we see associated with it in a peculiarly superficial fashion. And in fact, the actual Sarajevo Haggadah shows lots of evidence of use, presumably by many, many families (more than one wine stain, for instance). The book should feel not just momentous to us, it should feel magical and loved. 

 

The historical sections. The historical stories all occur at critical moments in the Haggadah's journey, and thus are dramatic, but (oddly) they have very little feeling to them. For instance, the longing for freedom of the black slave artist somehow rings hollow. How is that even possible, with such a weighty, moving subject as slavery? All I can think is that the addition of the lesbian relationship and forced parting, and the perfunctory rape by her previous master, and her exceptional circumstances as a Muslim artist trained in a Christian illuminated style, all make the narrative of her short story too packed, in such a small space, for us to feel her plight in our cores. Sometimes simplicity is the more powerful way of telling the story.  

 

Dropped threads. The short forays into these overly-meaningful moments in the Haggadah's history also do themselves a disservice by inevitably dropping threads. For example, Ruti steals her gentile infant nephew from a cave after her sister-in-law has given birth to what she thinks is a stillborn baby, and we hear nothing of what happens to the mother, or the father, who is being tortured by the Inquisition in the "place of relaxation," or in fact of the baby himself. Thus, in terms of plot, the baby is only there to provide the salt-water stain on the book when he's submerged in the sea by Ruti in a ritual to make him Jewish, yet we end up wondering what happened to him. It's hard to feel emotionally attached to the historical sections when they're so clearly there to wham us over the head with "drama" and "history" without allowing us the time to care for the characters.

 

Dull contemporary melodrama. Hannah's story was by far the least interesting part of the novel, yet it's what theoretically ties it all together. The Hannah thread feels self-absorbed and almost juvenile compared with the historical sections, even though it's fleshed out more. And even in this story line, Ms. Brooks can't resist melodrama: Hannah's mother, an accomplished neurosurgeon, was not only "too absorbed in her career" to be a good parent, but essentially killed Hannah's artist father, presuming for him that he wouldn't want to live without eyesight; Hannah's lover has not only lost his wife in the Bosnian war, but his son has suffered a traumatic injury and is brain-dead in the hospital.

 

In sum. I've been on the hunt for great historical fiction since reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but I'm starting to wonder whether popular historical fiction is often just fluffy contemporary literature in disguise. So much of historical fiction inserts fantasy, or chick-lit, or tells the story from the point of view of invented historical characters observing real historical figures. Someone, please bring on the real stuff.

SPOILER ALERT!

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: I saw this described by a reader as "an unusual misfire by an otherwise excellent YA writer," and I think I have to agree.

 

Premise. The premise of the book seems awesome, at first: if we lived in a world that had superheroes saving us from paranormal and alien events, what would the lives of non-heroes be like? There were elements of this--done better--in the animated movie, The Incredibles. In that movie, we saw an ungrateful society become disgruntled with the collateral damage of epic battles between superheroes and bad guys, and we saw the end result: the marginalization of--even incarceration of and lawsuits against, if I remember correctly--the superheroes. We saw the superheroes back off, and try to lead ordinary lives, suppressing their abilities and "fitting in" with average people. Now those are interesting concepts. Tackling those issues from the "average person" point of view might have been quite interesting: "We're trying to live our lives here, and the superheroes are endangering us every time they 'save' us. How can we live normally in a world where we feel threatened and unsafe?" The parallels with war and habitat destruction and species extinction, etc (all things that children have to cope with even though they're not responsible) would have been excellent. 

 

What we actually got. But that's not the story Patrick Ness pursued here. What he wanted to look at was the supremely ordinary lives of ordinary teens, very much apart from whatever the "Indie kids" (the superheroes) are facing, and it turns out to be...well, a little dull. Why did Mr. Ness juxtapose the ordinary lives of the teens against the short paragraphs describing the Indie kids' supernatural battle, we find ourselves asking? Why, in the end, are the Indie kids there at all? I struggled to answer this question. Obviously he wanted to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary: superheroes have to stop the Immortals from taking over the world, while ordinary kids have to confront their obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, dysfunctional parents, schoolwork, and relationship complexities. Surely those are heroic struggles? I think they are, but only if those ordinary struggles are written compellingly, which is perhaps where the book fell flat for me.

 

What's the point of including the Indie kids? The juxtaposition of the Indie kids' heroic struggles at the beginning of each chapter might have seemed more complementary to Mike's story if as I mentioned above, they were a metaphor for world events, or if instead there were a subtle correspondence between what the Indie kids are going through and what the ordinary kids are struggling with. There's a hint of teen crossover, for instance, as Satchel first falls in love with the Prince, then is betrayed by him, kisses Dylan and is betrayed by him, and then realizes Second Indie Kid Finn is the one who has been loyal all along. But since these paragraphs are written sarcastically, almost cartoonish, it's impossible to draw a serious parallel. 

 

Some people have called this Patrick Ness's "John Green" book. I suppose it has a similar affect, a sort of teenage self-absorption, especially if you're thinking of one of the more "day in the life" Green books: An Abundance of Katherines, or maybe Paper Towns, both of which had a male narrator almost neurotically focused on himself and his friends. But many of the more engaging young-adult novels out there have some out-of-the-ordinary, overarching external plot, in addition to an exploration of teenage concerns. For instance, The Accident Season covers many of the same issues about mental health, obsession, lifelong friendship, and couples pairing, but it's told over the course of a nearly mystical month when Cara's family annually experiences injuries and deaths. The magical realism of the accident season is so interesting, the metaphor of it is so pertinent to the story, the threat of being hurt so present, it gives the novel teeth. In contrast, while the real story in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is in fact about Mike and Mel getting a grip on their anxiety disorder, and Henna learning to stand up to her parents, there's no avoiding that the characters' stated goal is to "get through high school, wait for my college life to start, enjoy my friends, and graduate before the school is blown up," which in the end is sort of what we get. I found myself wanting something deeper to happen, and assumed the "something special" would occur at the intersection of the Indie kids' lives and the ordinary kids' lives. In fact, that's what kept me reading. When Mike and Henna hit the deer on the road during the mysterious stampede (caused by an alien blue light), and when they had the encounter with the police with glowing-blue eyes, there seemed to be a hint that there might be more supernatural events to come. But no, nope. We were promised early on that the two worlds (our ordinary one and the Indie one) rarely cross--that the two types of kids don't really pay much attention to each other, and the "normal" population, especially the adult population, lives in a sort of denial about the supernatural occurrences (a denial that's never explained, psychologically or emotionally)--and by golly, Mr. Ness keeps that promise. The result was disappointment on my part when I realized, Oh yeah, this book really is about ordinary kids. 

 

Synopsis. The book is told in the voice of Michael (Mike, Mikey) Mitchell. He has a problem with obsessive compulsive disorder, and it's getting worse. He gets caught in loops where he counts things, or washes himself until his skin cracks and bleeds. He adores his older sister, Mel, who has anorexia and who technically died for three minutes once when her heart stopped. Their younger sister is Meredith: brainy and funny, and beloved. Their parents are verging on dysfunctional, so the kids stick together. Mike's best friend is Jared, who is one-quarter god, is gay, and has a supernatural connection with cats. Mel's best friend is Henna, half Scandinavian and half black. (Haitian? I can't recall.) Henna's parents are religious, and are planning a missionary trip to a war-torn region of Africa when school ends, and Henna doesn't want to go. Mike thinks he might be in love with Henna, but he also had sex with Jared when they were younger, and loves Jared like his "chosen family." Indie kids are beginning to get killed, which has happened in past generations, always leading up to a supernatural showdown that everyone dreads. The recent deaths of the Indie kids are ruled accidents or suicides. Mike attributes this to adults being in denial, but Mr. Ness also makes sure we see that the police are taken over by the Immortals, which could explain why the truth is so obviously being ignored. Satchel is the Indie-kid heroine of the supernatural story, which takes place in the periphery of the "real" world. Mostly we see Mike wanting to kiss Henna, Mike being jealous of new boy Nathan for making friends with Henna, Mike's OCD escalating, Mike's mom entering a race to fill a vacant seat in congress, Mike getting help from a psychiatrist, Mike's dad getting drunk and being useless to the family. Eventually, Mike and Henna not only kiss, but sleep together in the interest of exploring whether they might be in love (they're not), Mike's mom becomes more understanding and less a driven politician, Mike's dad promises to go into rehab, Jared accepts his role as a god (but bargains to delay his "ascent to his realm" until after he's done college), Henna tells her parents she won't go on their mission to Africa, Jared and Nathan start a relationship, and everyone graduates right before the school actually does blow up in the final showdown of the Indie kids vs. the Immortals--a showdown that of course isn't shown.

 

What's good. The loyalty and devotion of the Mitchell kids to each other is wonderful. The youngest Mitchell child, Meredith, was never treated like the annoying little sister, but cherished by her siblings and even her parents. The cast is somewhat diverse, although not as much as everyone claims, at least in terms of race: Henna is half black, and her ex-boyfriend (barely seen) is Asian. (Am I missing others?) There is diversity in terms of sexual orientation: Jared is gay and Mike seems to be bisexual. And there's a lot of good discussion about mental health, and living with it. I loved the way the teens were a close-knit group of friends, not initially broken up into couples (which I think is true to many contemporary high school experiences).

 

Call Me Steve. Sorry, this is a direct rip-off from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. (Thomas Wriothesley is nicknamed "Call Me Risley.") Obviously Mr. Ness didn't think any YA readers will have read a Man Booker Prize winner. (Wrong.)

 

Why wasn't the Hero Story more integrated with the plot? Is it plausible that modern kids wouldn't be intrigued at all by the worldly battles with aliens and paranormal creatures? That they wouldn't make friends with the Indie kids? Why, even in the end, when it's clear the Indie kids have saved mankind somehow, do the teens not thank them or ask questions? Is Mr. Ness perhaps making a sly commentary on the undeveloped pre-frontal cortexes of teens that makes them intensely "me" centered? If so, it's a very cynical book indeed. But the earnestness of Mr. Ness's writing, particularly of the togetherness of the group of friends at the end as they're about to go their separate ways to college, belies that there's any deep social commentary here. I think Mr. Ness really just didn't want to include the hero story as anything but a comic-book backdrop to the personal issues of Mike and his friends. And he wanted the alien attack to be so obtuse to the reader that we can't even tell if the Indie kids are saving the world or attracting the danger in the first place. There's mention of Henna losing her brother to the vampires in the past (it's implied that he has become a vampire), and Nathan's sibling, too, and many readers have used that information to infer that "average kids" willfully ignore Indie kids and their battles in order to stay safe. But is that realistic and believable, or just plain frustrating?

  

The chapter with Mike's psychiatrist was an info dump. I really appreciate mental health being dealt with in such a level way, as it is in this book. And I think it's so helpful when authors show teens how pervasive these health issues are, and show that cool characters have disorders, characters with close friends have them--everyone has them. What Mike's therapist says made me want to applaud: having a mental illness is no different from having a disease. Taking medication for mental illness is no different from taking insulin for diabetes. That said, we're privy to just one appointment, and in the interest of expediency everything had to happen in that one appointment. It was almost like Mr. Ness and his editor decided that, for the sake of children suffering OCD, we'd better throw in a chapter where we have a trusted adult address all the medical science and social implications in a super healthy way. I'm all for Mike getting help, I just thought it needed to be written into the narrative more fluidly, rather than in one Reader's Digest appointment. 

 

There were moments when I was annoyed on behalf of teenagers. Sometimes Mr. Ness writes like an adult trying to sound like a teen, and misses the mark.

 

1. There were several instances of breaking the fourth wall in this novel. But since it's written by an adult, some of the words directed to the reader didn't seem to come authentically from Mike, but sounded more like Mr. Ness using Mike to say, "This book is for you! It's about young people! I understand you!"

 

"You know what it's like [to be waiting to start your life], right? 

 

"What is is about adults forgetting and denying--don't they remember the first eighteen years of life?"

 

"Jared's dad is the nicest grown man I've ever met." [The emphasis on "grown" implies that most adults aren't really that nice.]

 

"I imagined [Henna and me] living together...[homes and travel]. I imagined personal things, too. Always respectfully. Well, you know what I mean--you do it, too."

 

"The sex was so hot I jerked off for several days to the memory. Shut up, you would, too."

 

2. There was a slip where Mike said he was serving yet more cheesy toast to the "really, really fat family at table two." Ugh. Fat shaming.

 

3. Mike says that "Adults always tell you world events aren't your concern." I have no idea what this even means. As far as I can tell, kids nowadays are receiving constant messages about how they have to engage with, participate in, and change the world.

 

In sum. For me the inclusion of the supernatural elements wasn't especially helpful to this novel. Yet without the superhero backdrop, I'm not sure the author had enough of a story to tell. Instead, the superhero story should have become a metaphor for the wider world that teens can't control, or should have drawn more parallels between extraordinary Indie-kid problems and ordinary average-teen problems. I got the strong feeling that Mr. Ness might have seen the problem mid-way through: that his metaphor wasn't connecting, that he could be saying more with the superheroes. But he plowed through to the end without fixing it or adding depth. He could have made this book great, but perhaps he didn't have the energy or will or affection for it (or the time) by the end. And anyway, there's roughly a John-Green amount of teen issues explored, and the superhero "hook" combined with a great cover and some good buzz were more than enough to satisfy most of the people, most of the time.

 

 

SPOILER ALERT!

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything - Nicola Yoon
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
 
One-sentence summary. This is a story with a last-minute twist that I found offensive on two levels: first, for diminishing the experience of people who have genuine chromosomal abnormalities, and second, for throwing an important adult character under the bus in the interest of writing a "HEA" ending.
 
The plot. (Full spoilers.) Madeline has a condition called severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. It's also known as "bubble baby disease," because patients--usually diagnosed as infants--are vulnerable to bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, so they are sometimes raised in a sterile environment. Don't research SCID if you read this book, though, because you'll wonder why the author seems to make so many medical mistakes about the disease. You'll wonder why Maddy didn't google her own condition. You'll wonder why her mother never discussed a hematopoietic stem cell transplant. But I digress.
 
Maddy lives in a sterile environment with her loving mom and loving nurse, Carla. They take her vital signs, particularly her temperature, every couple of hours, every single day. Maddy takes classes online and, very rarely, gets to see an architecture teacher in person, after he has been "decontaminated." Maddy's mother is also her doctor. Maddy's brother and father were killed in a car accident, and she and her mother have only each other now. Enter the new boy next door, Olly. The only thing keeping Olly from being a by-the-book Manic Pixie Dream Boy is the fact that his family is troubled: his dad is abusive to his mom, his sister seems to be smoking herself into an early case of lung cancer, and Olly has been trying to protect them both. Olly and Maddy meet cute, as far as the "bubble" will allow--the first, mimed interaction through the windows of their houses involves a bundt cake. Subsequent interactions take place over e-mail and instant messaging. Carla allows the two kids to see each other secretly, by putting Olly through the decontamination procedure when Maddy's mom isn't home. Maddy and Olly end up kissing. Later, Maddy impulsively runs out of the house to Olly after he has been beaten by his dad, which unravels the secret of the rendezvous they've already had. Carla is fired. A new nurse--who is a two-dimensional, throwaway caricature--takes Carla's place. Maddy decides to run away to Hawaii with Olly, germs be damned. She lies to Olly that she has found an experimental medication that will help her immune system, and says she has ordered a supply from Canada. He allows himself to believe her. They have a blissful couple of days and then she gets sick. Her mother flies out to fetch her, discharging her from the hospital "against medical advice." The doctor who treated her in the Maui ER writes an e-mail to Maddy, confidentially telling her that she doesn't think she has SCID: she has none of the expected lab findings (attached to the e-mail) and it's not usual for a parent to be the doctor in charge of her child's case. Translation: your mom seems to be making your diagnosis up. The doctor encourages her to get herself checked by another doctor. NOW we know why Maddy is eighteen in this novel (and somehow still studying high school classes, despite being so bright): it's to allow her the medical freedom to get a second opinion, and to allow her to run away from home to join Olly in the Wide World when she discovers her mother's lie.
 
The premise was touted as original by many readers. Hasn't anyone seen John Travolta in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble? This premise has already been written--in a movie loosely inspired by the true store of David Vetter
 
The book presumes you know nothing about SCID. I suppose you could argue that Ms. Yoon gives hints that Maddy is not actually suffering from severe combined immunodeficiency, and in this way she subtly prepared us for Maddy's mother's betrayal. But I would argue that these aren't really hints, because they involve specialized knowledge that Maddy doesn't impart to us in her first-person account, and that the average non-physician wouldn't know. The reader instead assumes that Ms. Yoon's research was sloppy. For instance, why doesn't Carla (or the architect who visits, or Olly) have to wear surgical masks or gloves? Even if they're "decontaminated" (which seems to involve pressurized air jets only...what?), they're still wearing layers of their own clothes, and still could have bacteria, fungi, or viruses in their mouths or noses. What if they sneeze? And there's the fact that Maddy's mother never talks about a bone marrow transplant, which is a possible cure. Then there's the diagnosis itself: the most common form of the disease is an X-chromosome-linked recessive mutation, which means boys are affected and girls can only be carriers. That means Maddy has a different, much rarer form, like ADA deficiency. Wouldn't she have googled the hell out of her diagnosis? And wouldn't she tell us or Olly a little bit about it? Wouldn't Carla have researched it? There's also a kind of confusion between allergy and SCID: with SCID, foods have to be sterilized to eat them (David Vetter ate all canned foods). Maddy uses the word "allergy," and her foods are restricted and bland, but not obviously sterilized. The house itself is a feat of imagination: there's no way to have people come and go in a home environment and have it remain absolutely sterile. And that greenhouse room! The plants are grown in soil, not Aeroponically or hydroponically--is that sterile? 
 
Twist! The character is not actually suffering from this condition. But don't sweat the medical inconsistencies, because Maddy doesn't actually have SCID. Nope. It turns out it was an invention (more like a fear gone out of control) of her mentally-ill mother--the same mother who adores her and is her best friend and seemingly normal for 80% of the book.
 
Where is the sensitivity to people with chromosomal abnormalities? If the premise of a book is that the main character has a chronic illness or chromosomal abnormality, it seems highly disrespectful to all people who live with illness to magically make that condition disappear so that your character can have a "happily ever after" ending. The twist that Maddy's condition was imagined by her mother completely diminishes the importance of the novel, and moves it into the category of...of what? The more I think about it, the more I can't even say it's a sweet romance, but rather it's a disingenuous betrayal of the reader's trust, with no respect for illness or disability. Did Ms. Yoon and Alloy Entertainment think they wouldn't be called out for this because SCID is so rare? And did they think that by having Maddy's doctor declare her otherwise healthy immune system "juvenile" because it has never been challenged, and wringing his hands about what will happen if she exposes herself to pathogens all at once, we'd somehow think she was still "sick" enough to count?
 
Throwing the mother under the bus. Maddy's mother is depicted as loving and Maddy's good friend. She's portrayed as sometimes shrill and highly protective, but she's not portrayed as mentally ill. She seems to function in the wider world--at least we presume she does, since she's not in the house during the day when Carla is there. The hysterical, overprotective, and ultimately passively abusive cloistering of her daughter doesn't fit in with the character we know in the first part of the novel. The twist feels deus ex machina, and the mother's "hidden" mental illness is the means of achieving it.
 
A pet peeve: how sick teens really behave. A member of my extended family suffers from a sometimes debilitating chronic illness. He never, EVER calls himself "sick" unless he's actually in bed, laid low by his condition. The rest of the time he craves a normal life, and he wants others to consider him normal and deal with him without pity. I find it implausible that Maddy, who actually feels well, would refer to herself as "sick" to other people--or that she would even think of herself as "sick" in her own thoughts, rather than think of herself as being vulnerable to sickness. "I wish I didn't have this genetic anomaly that keeps me from normal activities" is a much different thought from a young person than, "I wish I weren't sick."
 
Book packaging. I listened to this book in audio, and when I got to the end I was surprised to hear the narrator say, "Text copyright 2015 Alloy Entertainment and Nicola Yoon." Alloy Entertainment is a book packager. This means Ms. Yoon got a flat fee (and no subsidiary rights) to write someone else's "hooky" idea. It means that in exchange for her big break she got a small sum and no royalty rights. It means she won't see a penny of any movie rights. It means a committee might have even helped her to write the outline (a common way of working at Alloy). This is Ms. Yoon's debut, and I'm sorry that it had to be with a book packager. Her prose is quite nice. Maddy's voice was authentic. Olly's and Maddy's banter was fun. But the fact that it's an Alloy production explains a lot to me. It explains the strong "hookiness" of the book, it explains the commercial grab for an unrealistic and carelessly offensive "happily ever after," and it explains the incredible marketing push that put this book on the bestseller list. 
  

 

Dumplin'

Dumplin' - Julie Murphy

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: Pitched as a book about a fat girl who has always been at home in her skin, this book is really about Willowdean Dickson realizing she hasn't come to terms with her body all these years, and trying to achieve that.

 

Wish fulfillment. The contribution of this novel is that it's a reasonably well-written book where the heavy protagonist achieves her goals, and wins a happy life with a hot guy. We need books like that. But as a literary novel, the wish-fulfillment aspect took too much precedence over what could have been a more interesting plot. Also, the lack of gravitas of this book makes the slow pacing a bit uncalled for.

 

Willowdean's bland personality. Part of the problem is the Twilight Syndrome: Willowdean just isn't interesting or talented enough to win Edward...er, I mean Bo. I can totally believe a fat girl catching the attention of a sweet, handsome, kind, devoted guy if she's hilarious, or brilliant, or the best clarinet in the school's jazz band. Give me something. Will is insecure, has no hobbies, does very little schoolwork...There's one moment where Bo says why he loves her: because he can talk to her with no artifice. But that's a feature of friendship, not of attraction.

 

What happened. Willowdean (known as Will to her friends and Dumplin' to her mother) is a heavy girl who has recently lost her beloved, obese aunt, Lucy. Will's best friend, Ellen, has been her constant companion since they were little. When we enter their relationship, they're already starting to become more distant: Ellen has taken a job at Sweet Sixteen, a clothing shop that doesn't carry large sizes, and Will works at Harpy's, a hamburger joint. Ellen and her boyfriend, Tim, are preparing to have sex for the first time, and this makes Willowdean feel left behind: she doesn't have a significant other yet, and she knows her advice as a best friend will be limited because she's a virgin. Will's relationship with her mom is a bit analogous to her relationship with her weight: she thinks she's comfortable with it, but it hasn't been tested much. Will's mom is a former beauty queen who helps to organize the annual Blue Bonnet Beauty Pageant. Will has a crush on Bo, a hot boy she works with at the restaurant, and lo and behold he has a crush on her, too. Their relationship is limited to making out behind the dumpster at work, and driving to an abandoned, burned-out elementary school to make out after work. Will feels like Bo is hiding her, and she misjudges him as being a rich, private-school boy. Bo, meanwhile, doesn't know if he's ready for a relationship, because (as we learn later) he feels he used his previous girlfriend, Amber. (It's kind of hilarious that his one flaw is that he doesn't think he'll be a good enough boyfriend. Oh, and I guess he has a knee injury, too.) But the biggest impediment to their relationship is Will's self-loathing when Bo touches her body (back fat is mentioned a lot), and her sense that they'd never be able to appear in public without being teased. She breaks up with Bo, there are pages and pages of wheel-spinning teen angst, and much later she finds a registration form for the pageant from 1994 that she realizes her aunt Lucy had almost filled out. To honor Lucy, and to take back pride in her body, Will enters the pageant. She's not very serious about the preparations, but when a few other "outsider" girls see that she has registered, they sign up, too. (Millie, who is truly obese, which Will says means she has elastic waistbands rather than buttoned or zippered, like Will; Amanda, who has one leg shorter than the other and "Frankenstein" shoes; and Hannah, who is Dominican, gay, and has buck teeth.) Will realizes that she owes it to them to do a reasonable job of competing, but her heart is not in it, primarily because she's really not a pageant-type girl. A boy named Mitch becomes interested in her: he's more "possible" in Will's mind as a boyfriend, because he's a Big Guy--a tall but heavy football player. Mitch treats her well, and she has trouble keeping him at a distance. Bo begins to date Becca. Mitch encourages Will to do magic tricks as her talent, but readers already know she's going to end up singing the Dolly Parton song Jolene, and it's interminable to get to that point. But voilà, eventually, Will breaks the rules of the pageant by changing her talent on the day of the show: not actually singing Jolene, but lip-syncing it, dressed as a Dolly Parton impersonator. (I found this to be another kind of pathetic indication of her lack of talent: she's so devoid of hobbies that she lip-syncs the song.) Her performance is helped by Lucy's old friends--a drag-queen Dolly, and a bouncer at a gay club--and by some of the Dolly accoutrements that Ellen's mom owns. So that's the supposed twist of the book--her breaking the rules of the pageant--and is so dull as to be a head scratcher. Will also escorts Ellen down the aisle after Will was already disqualified--another stab at "revolution." Millie wins second runner-up, because she's actually pretty invested in this pageant stuff.

 

Ho hum. I found this book to be slow-paced and a bit disingenuous. It's touted as an empowering book about body acceptance, which is perhaps a problem with the marketing rather than the writing. So what's disingenuous for me? The fact that the protagonist's weight is the focus of the novel, but her relationship with food is completely skirted. What's dull about it? Both the wish-fulfillment aspect and the lack of real external conflict make the ending inevitable. The hottest boy in town immediately falls in love with Will, and the conflict is internal: Will feels repulsive in his arms for the first time in her life, and rejects him as a result. She also has a big-guy, big-hearted football player in love with her, too--poor Will. But luckily for her, Bo saves himself only for her. We always know that it's only a matter of time--that Willowdean is the hurdle, not Bo. If you read this book as a romance novel with a plus-size protagonist, it makes sense and is a valid contribution to YA literature, but Dumplin' certainly didn't feel like an important novel to me, or even a particularly honest one.

 
Will's nonexistent relationship with food. The fact is, most people in our American society--regardless of their BMI--worry pretty much daily about what they should or should not eat, and how what they eat will affect their weight. I find it unbelievable that a first-person narration by a heavy girl never showed her feelings about food, and practically never showed her eating anything. The few things we see her eat are normal and healthy (part of a salad with chicken made by her mom, tuna salad left in the fridge by her mom [which we don't see her eat], chips with Ellen on her bed, and a stolen bag of mini-chocolate chips that she seems to nurse through an entire week of being grounded). I understand that the point of the novel is that Will has for the most part accepted her weight, but it seems impossible to me that her relationship with food wouldn't still be complicated.
 
Good things. The handling of Ellen's first sexual experience seemed healthy to me. Will's "gray" character--particularly the fact that she's a normal teenage girl who says snarky things about other people, even as she demands respect, seemed believable. (In fact, her biggest rule is that it's not polite to comment on anyone's body but your own, and she violates that rule constantly.)
 
Weak things. Does Dolly Parton really not have an actually empowering song in her repertoire? The Jolene song just doesn't fit the resolution of the novel! It's about a woman who will be crushed to lose her man ("My happiness depends on you...") and is convinced that the prettier girl will steal him with the snap of her fingers. (And, gross, there's evidence that he's already thinking of Jolene: "He talks about you in your sleep. There's nothing I can do to keep from crying when he calls your name.") Also, in being just plain realistic, the novel somehow falls flat. The girls compete, and the biggest triumph is Millie's second-runner-up status; Ellen and Will become friends again but understand they'll also need distance in their relationship. In short, it's all very "day in the life." I had no sense of the strength of Will's relationship with Lucy, either, which is an important part of the plot. Part of the dilemma is the plot structure: Lucy is already dead, so we have only a handful of reminiscences to form our opinion of her, and she was something of a hermit, so she and Will didn't do much together outside of the house. And finally, there was a parallel drawn and then dropped between Mitch's lifelong relationship with his best friend (Patrick Thomas), and Will's relationship with Ellen. Or perhaps there was no parallel, and Patrick simply played the role of the two-dimensional bully.
 
Unrealistic thing. It was necessary for the plot but entirely unrealistic that the escorts were not part of the rehearsal-day run-through. It made the author's hand too obvious (the fact that Will didn't have an escort would have been discovered). 
 
Mistake. Will's mom won the pageant in 1997, and the oldest she could have been at the time was eighteen (the pageant is for ages fifteen to eighteen). That means she's a maximum of thirty-six now. So, um, she really can't be having hot flashes that make her crank the air conditioning, as Will mentions.
 
In sum. A perfectly fine romance novel. But I wish the complexity of Willowdean's relationship with food had been a more important feature of her struggle, perhaps in the place of that unnecessary secondary love interest. I also would have liked to see her win the love of a boy with the force of a beautiful personality, rather than just have the guy fall in love with her for no apparent reason.
 
SPOILER ALERT!

Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep - Brendan Shusterman, Neal Shusterman

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: One of the best young-adult novels I've read so far this year, if not the best.

 

CHALLENGER DEEP is impressive. The beauty of it--the masterfulness, for me--is in how accurate it is to mental illness while also being poetic--it's a novel, through and through, and takes exactly the right liberties that fiction should. In other hands, trying for "poetry" sometimes saccharine-izes and paradoxically belittles illness. CHALLENGER DEEP is brutal, while also being beautiful. The earliest chapters before the hospital are also especially strong in depicting Caden's un- and under-medicated decline.  

 
Depiction of mental illness. I'm not an expert in schizophrenia, but I suspect the way Mr. Shusterman chose to portray Caden's brain turning fantasy into reality is probably where the poetry (rather than strict medical accuracy) comes in. The parallels between Caden's delusions and the real world (the parrot being the doctor, for instance) had a very "narrative" structure, and I'm sure most delusions are more chaotic and would seem confusing to us. By definition they make sense and feel real to the person who is sick, but would be barely recognizable if non-schizophrenics could really see them. But since schizophrenics believe their hallucinatory thoughts do map into the real world, the narrative may be a closer approximation for "healthy" readers, rather than trying to represent what really goes on in Caden's head. 
 
What was great:
 
The Navigator's word associations were so powerful, and I suspect spot on: the fluid move from one thought to the other, and finding deep meaning in both the process and the final thought. Also, Hal's unraveling into parchment was exquisitely written.
 
I loved the way Mr. Shusterman separated the two stories--Caden's "real life" and his hallucinatory life--and then let them bleed into each other toward the end.
 
I thought that Caden shooting the parrot dead-on was incredibly dramatic and such a shocking moment in the book (because, obviously, we're rooting for the doctor).
 
Open-ended, bittersweet endings are my favorites. The end was designed to show us that you can't really cure mental illness, you can only manage it. Realism is probably also why Caden's friend Calli really stays out of touch, rather than showing up in some circular way at the end. 
 
What didn't work as well for me:
 
I thought there were two or three moments of Mr. Shusterman too obviously speaking through Caden, for example: "There is no such thing as a 'correct' diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catch phrases for various collections of symptoms."
 
And does that last quotation also explain why the word "schizophrenia" wasn't actually used in the text at all (correct me if I'm wrong)? It seems common for young-adult authors not to name their characters' mental illness, and I wonder if that's to give them more license to play with the facts, or to excuse inconsistencies. 
 
The real-life Captain felt a little too insignificant to have morphed into such a vital part of Caden's delusions. When we figured out Dr. Poirot was the Parrot, I was hoping that the Captain was simply the embodiment of Caden's illness (which he ultimately is), so I was a little disappointed to have a one-to-one mapping for the Captain, too. I talked myself out of that disappointment by wondering whether many schizophrenics might report having a small event like that in their childhood that they later identify as a pivotal moment. (Caden talks about this somewhat by saying that once you identify mental illness, you begin to look back on thought processes in your past that seemed fanciful or fantastical and wonder whether they were the first sign.) 
 
When Caden descends into Challenger Deep, what is happening in the real world to him? Clearly, the Captain (i.e. Caden's ill brain) wants to tempt him completely into a non-functional state, even to tempt him into death. But unexpectedly for the reader, Caden's visit to Challenger Deep--the lowest he can go--is somehow a turnaround moment for him. It seems to become the road to recovery because Poirot/Parrot--despite being just a featherless cadaver [i.e. a rejected advisor in real life]--breaks through to him in that moment. Yet I didn't think it was clear why Poirot was able to break through. If it all depends on the chocolate coins--Caden's recognition that they're from his childhood, and thus can't be "real" under the ocean--is that a powerful enough fact to pull him through to reality? It seems to tie in with a previous scene: Caden asks Poirot whether his mother, who is waiting in the visiting room, has a heel broken off her shoe. Poirot commends him for using reality checks to overrule his brain about what is not-real. I think the chocolate coins are meant to resonate with that--they are a proof of non-reality. But why Caden let the dead parrot "in" at that moment wasn't clear: is Mr. Shusterman intentionally showing us that improvement in health sometimes depends solely on luck? If so, I suppose that might fit in well with his message that recovering from serious mental illness is unpredictable. 
 
Hal's suicide was maybe just a little cliche. It's probably necessary in a book set in a hospital to show someone not making it--it wouldn't have been realistic otherwise. But it too conveniently precipitates changes in Caden's own situation (the firing of the swabbie, the new group counselor, the scolding of Poirot by the administration), and Caden's own falling apart. A smaller effect of Hal's suicide--i.e. forcing Caden to commit to this institution rather than move to another one--is, however, a somewhat interesting, non-cliche moment. 
 
The ending was awkward, with one last appearance of the Captain. I appreciate that Caden's story is open-ended, and I like the message that illness will always be a struggle, but I'm not sure I wanted to see the evidence of Caden's fragility via yet another hallucination of the Captain, in public, while he's with his family. I loved the way Caden seemed physically weak when he got home. I recall feeling that way after getting out of the hospital, or after a really bad flu. You're on the recovering end, as if you're back from a kind of death, and there's a feeble sort of joy in your new freedom, but you still feel like the world is too bright and strong for you. I thought Mr. Shusterman captured that well. Thus, returning to the Captain was somehow not as poetic a metaphor as it was in the rest of the book--it became an object, a device to tell us Caden's peace was fragile.  
 
Audiobook comments: 
 
The narration was a bit sloppy in the audiobook. The narrator, Michael Curran-Dorsano, is an actor, and tries to be impressive, but the overall result feels over-the-top, dramatically, and workman-like, technically. For instance, he recorded the whole book saying "Calliope" incorrectly, and then when the editor dropped in the corrections, they missed half of them. Mr. Curran-Dorsano mispronounced several other words. It also made no sense that many characters (the swabbie, the Navigator) had English accents when they became their "real-life" counterparts. Unless, I guess, we're to think Caden hears their voices that way because of his illness.
 
I hear there are illustrations in the print version of this book, drawn by Mr. Shusterman's son (who has schizophrenia). I'll have to sneak into a bookstore to look at them. But let me take this moment to beg publishers everywhere: when a book has illustrations, make them available online to audiobook listeners. Surely we have that technology, via an online access code or something.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

On the Island

On the Island - Tracey Garvis-Graves

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: A problematic, sweet, not terribly lyrical (and minimally researched) romance novel that is something you gobble up mostly because of the upbeat main characters and the survival story.

 

I was duped! A few of my best online blogger friends recommended this book to me. I thought, because of their usual reading habits--and because they know me!--that On the Island would be a somewhat literary novel burdened with an unfortunate fluffy cover. But make no mistake: this is a romance novel, complete with not only a happily-every-after, but a happily-ever-beginning and a happily-ever-middle, too. The only sad result of the remote-island stranding of T.J. and Anna is that Anna parents died while she was away.  

 

The story. It's 2001, and thirty-year-old Anna Emerson has been in an eight-year relationship that's going nowhere. She pines for marriage and babies, but her boyfriend just won't propose. (Seriously, is this a thing still? Why should a woman wait to be asked?) Anna is a high school English teacher (more about that later) who's offered the summer job of tutoring a sixteen-year-old boy, T.J. Callahan, who is behind in school because he was sick with Hodgkin's lymphoma (he's now in remission). The Callahan family is spending the summer in the Maldives, and Anna and T.J. travel together to meet them and begin their studies. On the last leg of their journey, the pilot of their sea plane suffers a heart attack, and they crash-land in the water. Anna and T.J. make it to a nearby island and wait for rescue planes that never arrive. Working together, they gradually learn to provide water, shelter, fire, and food for themselves, and each saves the other's life on a couple of occasions. As T.J. grows into a man, they slowly fall in love. They have sex for the first time when T.J. is almost nineteen. When the 2005 tsunami hits south Asia, their island is destroyed and they are washed into the ocean, which paradoxically signals their rescue. Back in Chicago, they try to stay committed to each other, despite the shaming they receive by the media and their acquaintances, but Anna eventually forces T.J. away, wanting him to experience all the things he missed while he was on the island. They long for each other, and finally get back together. In the epilogue we see that they're married with twins and another on the way, because thankfully T.J. banked his sperm when he was fifteen and undergoing chemotherapy.  

 

You must suspend your disbelief. This is a kind of drawn-out wish-fulfillment book. Anna needs a devoted husband and babies, and the island is the long-con way that she achieves both. Try not to think about the facts of the crash and survival--it might ruin your enjoyment. But the one dubious fact I just kept getting stuck on was that Anna was an English teacher. I'm a publishing nerd, with a prejudice for all things literary, and even I know the family would have hired someone who could get T.J. caught up on math and science. It would have been so simple to make her a quant person, since they never ended up studying anything anyway.

 

Research. I stumbled over a few things:

 

--Does breadfruit produce copious fruit all year round? Wikipedia seems to think it has a season (for instance, the ripening season in Hawaii, which is close to the latitude of the Maldives, is July through February). Maybe the climate is perfect for year-round breadfruit on their island? Maybe they ate unripe fruit the rest of the time? Who knows, but I worried about that. 

 

--I do know that dengue hemorrhagic fever is a virus that has only human hosts or primate hosts. There were no primates on Anna and T.J.'s island. Where the heck did that mosquito get infected? Did it blow over from another island?

 

--Wouldn't two boxes of tampons that sank in the ocean and then bobbed to shore weeks later be so soaked that they'd swell and be useless? Anna didn't end up needing them, but I'd think even plastic-wrapped OB tampons would be destroyed. The strings could be useful, though, and no one mentioned that.

 

--Anna tells T.J. he's probably going to have to get a GED. First of all, I found it incredible that a boy of sixteen who goes to a fancy private school doesn't know what a GED is, but then Anna gave him the wrong answer. "GED" stands for general education development (not "diploma").

 

--I was very frustrated by the fact that neither of them thought to use leaves to capture water or funnel it into their mouths before they found the bottle, but resorted to the stagnant pond first. Also, before they burned her hair to shorten it, wouldn't they have taken out a blade from the disposable shavers first, and used that? And finally, is it far-fetched of me to wonder why they didn't try to tie anything to one of the dolphins, in the hope the dolphins might spend time in inhabited waters, given how tame they were? Have I watched too many Disney movies?

 

--At least once, Ms. Graves slipped up and had the characters say something like, "Two hours later..." (They have no watches.)

 

The writing. This reads like an unprofessional debut. The language is clunky, flat, and not descriptive. "His voice had a desperation that matched my own emotional state." There's also a second half to the story that's unexpected, involving Anna's work at a homeless shelter. It doesn't quite fit in, thematically, and had no precedent, so it adds to that feeling of "first this, then that." (See below.)

 

Too neatly tied up. The book is just a series of "first we faced this obstacle, and here is how we solved it; then we faced that; next another thing..." But more objectionable is the way many problems are solved by coincidence or by deus ex machina. For instance, Anna wants babies, but she certainly shouldn't get pregnant on the island (where they're barely surviving). No worries, T.J. is sterile! But wait, when they get off the island she wants babies, remember? No problem! T.J. froze his sperm! There's a shark, but the dolphins save them! They're dying of thirst, and there's T.J.'s backpack, with a bottle of water, washing on shore! Anna has packed months and months worth of shampoo and toothpaste, two hats, two pair of sunglasses...because they don't sell it on a resort island? Huh? It was also so damned lucky the suitcase washed ashore. (But wait, didn't the airline agent check her bags all the way through, and didn't they miss the flight they were supposed to be on? How did those bags get on the sea plane?) Let's not even talk about the fact that the raft washed up, with a water collector, a first-aid kit, and a screened canopy.

 

Relentlessly inoffensive. Part of the excessive optimism and lack of depth of this book stems from the careful way the author tried to remove any of the squickiness of Anna's and T.J.'s relationship--she "scrubbed away" anything that could be deemed unseemly, and that made it a much less interesting story. T.J. was interested in Anna immediately, and devoted to her. Would Anna have waited so long to become intimate with him, given how emotionally intimate they were for so long, and how they depended on each other for company? Ms. Graves sets everything up to be as unobjectionable as possible, which makes the story so darned bland, and loses the opportunity to say something interesting about social mores, and human feelings. Her artificial construct is also so obvious, you can see her hand throughout: 1. T.J. is not a virgin (he had sex with a girl who's now dead of leukemia, which coincidentally also allows Anna to consider him an "old soul'); 2. Anna wasn't T.J.'s teacher before this plane trip, she had been hired after an application and one interview, so there's no abuse of authority; Anna and T.J. had sex when he was of legal consenting age, by any state's definition; 3. T.J. is written as a mature adult almost immediately--caring, resourceful, thoughtful, and devoted. There's only one scene that shows any juvenile behavior on his part (the farting scene), and Anna seems to be at about that maturity level anyway. The author also strives to have the post-rescue "real-world" hurdles between them addresses as cleanly as possible: T.J. has sex with one other woman, Alex, before he and Anna get back together (allowing us to think, okay, he has experienced three women now--he can embark on his marriage with Anna) but don't think less of him--he didn't really enjoy that one-night stand, and politely informs Alex that he won't be calling her again.
 
In sum. Wow, don't write a blog post about this book. It will lower it in your memory from a fun, uplifting, quick beach read to a frustrating, pandering novel with clunky writing that missed its chance to say anything complex about human relationships. 

 

 

SPOILER ALERT!

The RITA Award Finalists

Boys Like You - Juliana Stone Run to You Part One: First Sight - Clara Kensie Some Boys - Patty Blount Plus One - Elizabeth Fama

The RITA Awards. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) has a young-adult category for its annual RITA and Golden Heart awards, and this year I decided to read the four finalists. I was curious to see what the RWA honored in romantic YA literature. Disclosure: I haven't read romance novels since I was a teen, and my only experience back then was with Harlequin Romances--the slim variety near the grocery store check-out. So I'm not terribly qualified to discuss romance novels, but I do know something about YA literature.

 

The rules. I first looked up the policy and procedures of the RITA award.

 

1. "All entries must contain a central love story, and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic."

 

2. In addition, the YA category includes: "Novels in which young-adult life is an integral part of the plot."

  

Oops, I already disagree. The resolution of the romance has to be "emotionally satisfying and optimistic?" This means that romance, as the RWA defines it, must include a happily-ever-after, when in fact some of the most romantic books of all time are sad or bittersweet. What about Anna Karenina? Gone With the Wind? Love Story? I guess the RWA would classify those as "women's fiction," and not romance.

 

Anyway, accepting the rules as given, let's proceed.

 

(***Note: the following reviews assume that you've read the book.***)

 

The winner: Boys Like You, by Juliana Stone (Sourcebooks Fire).

 

I think I see why this book won. It's the most romance-novel like of the group if you follow the "central focus" and "happily ever after" criteria listed in the rules. Monroe is broken, and has had suicidal thoughts in the past, after the death of her little brother (of asthma) on her watch, when she took him to the park to play and then fell asleep. Now she's just a bit dead inside--full of regret and unable to move on. She visits her refined grandmother in Louisiana, who wants Monroe to open up to her and see joy in life again. A boy named Nate begins working at the grandmother's house, and it turns out he is also broken: he was driving drunk and was responsible for the head injury of his best friend, Trevor, who is now in a coma. Nate hates himself, knows that Trevor's family hates him, and has stopped playing music (he and Trevor were in a band together). Monroe's grandmother turns out to have a bit of a secret agenda: to get these two damaged souls to "save" each other (she uses different language...perhaps "catch," from falling). That is, in fact, what happens--Monroe and Nate teach each other how to forgive themselves. I appreciate that the two co-protagonists support each other, but in YA, in my opinion, romance and love should be separate from self-forgiveness and finding meaning in life after tragedy. This novel veers close to the message that love cures all serious problems. Trevor even comes out of his coma at the end, despite being near death with his organs failing three quarters of the way through the novel. With his recovery and Monroe and Nate's nearly marital-like commitment to each other over a 1300-mile distance (Monroe goes back home to high school in New York City), Ms. Stone has definitely got "optimistic" covered.

 

Run to You by Clara Kensie (Harlequin Teen).

 

This book was possibly the most stereotypically romance-novel-like in terms of the nuts and bolts of the writing: the love interest physically carries the heroine more than once (seriously, this is what I remember from romance novels...so much carrying, which feels oddly patriarchal and women-as-property to me); he professes his desire to "protect" her; he kisses her even though she resists; he tells other people to leave her alone, even though he won't leave when she asks. This book is technically a paranormal novel, though it reads very much like a contemporary. Tessa Carson's family has paranormal abilities (all but Tessa, they think) and they're being hunted by a Bad Guy named Dennis Connelly, who wants to kill them because (the children believe) the Carson parents exposed the corruption of important politicians. The Carsons move from city to city, changing their identities, with the three children going to successive schools but never staying long. The Carson parents are loving and protective. Tessa won't allow herself to get close to anyone until she meets Tristan, another new boy at school. This book had a deal-killer in it for me. Tessa's parents turn out to be the real Bad Guys--murdering bad guys--mid-way through the book (which is not a terrible twist in and of itself). But in the final pages, Tessa (who discovers that she can see the past by touching people and objects) finds out that her mother was sexually molested by her own father as a girl, and the grandfather was the first person her mom had killed, in what turned out to be a lifetime of extortion and ruthless, cold-hearted serial killing. I think Ms. Kensie intended to make the mom a wounded character, but in my YA world, rape shouldn't be introduced without dealing with it in the text, and it's especially disastrous to imply, whether you mean to or not, that one way to become a killer is to be raped, or that being raped makes you a killer. I thought that plot point was a deal-killer for an award, and yet, while it didn't win the YA division, Run to You won the "Best First Book" RITA.

 

Of the four books, this one also had the most ordinary writing:

 

Repeated words:

"Without using his PK [psychokinesis], Logan opened the door and went inside without another word."

 

Repeated phrases:

"My hand fluttered to my belly." [This happened at least ten times. She has scars on her stomach from an alleged attack by the Bad Guy when she was a child.]

 

Comma splices:

"Licked my lips, swallowed." [This sentence shows up several times, and is also missing a subject.] 

 

Dull metaphors:

"He grinned, and just like that, the awkwardness between us melted like ice in the sun."

"My face became hotter than the oven."

 

Awkward descriptions: 

 "I glared at him for a full minute before returning to the binder." [Seriously, authors, try glaring at a clock for a full minute. It's longer than you think.]

 "[Tristan] smelled of soap and masculinity."

 

And as mentioned, there's the "protective" boyfriend, so ubiquitous in romance novels, but always verging on creepy: 

"...all I wanted to do was make that scared, sad look in your eyes go away."

"I promise, whatever it is, I'll keep you safe."

"I'll do anything for you, Tessa. Except for one thing. I. Will. Not. Leave. You."

 

Some Boys by Patty Blount (Sourcebooks Fire)

 

Well, phew, this one has the opposite message of the winner, in that the main character "saves herself," without being saved by love. In terms of the RWA rules, this book (and the last finalist, Plus One by Elizabeth Fama) doesn't quite fit the romance mold. As with many YA novels that include love stories, the romance is an integral part of the story, but the character's personal conflict or struggle is the most important part. In Some Boys, Grace has been raped by the school's golden boy, Zac, a star Lacrosse player, and her peers (even her best friends) ostracize her for what they think is her false accusation. Zac has uploaded a video of the encounter to a social media site, and in it, Grace is moaning--interpreted by all as enjoying herself. Everyone calls her a slut and bullies her. Zac and his friends try to intimidate her. The treatment she receives from her classmates is really brutal, but Grace is determined not to hide. She continues to dress provocatively-Goth, the way she has since 8th grade, and never backs down from a vocal claim that Zac raped her. It's palpable how hard this is for her to do, but with her mom's support, she continues to stand her ground. When she and Ian, Zac's close friend, are assigned to clean lockers over the break (both for bad behavior), they slowly develop a friendship. Grace begins to trust Ian, but Ian is confused by his allegiance to Zac, and what he thinks is the ambiguous nature of what happened between Grace and Zac. My only objection to the novel is how "clean" the resolution is. Ian discovers that Zac has a second video on his phone--a longer one that clearly shows that Grace is drunk and sick and saying no--and Ian is brave enough to show this second video to the authorities. Some of the power of the story is diminished by this too-handy plot device, and by Zac's violent outburst at Ian, sending him to the hospital (which in itself is enough to get him in trouble with the law). But by and large, the story is a strong one, with an admirable protagonist.  

 

Plus One by Elizabeth Fama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers)

 

This book is truly "odd man out" among the four: like Some Boys, it's not primarily a romance, but it also has a seriously bittersweet (verging on sad) ending. The only person who would think this book has an "emotionally satisfying resolution" is probably me--I feel utter satisfaction with open endings and characters who don't get what they want, even after their heroic efforts; because that's life, my friends. There's hope at the end of Plus One, but it's the kind of hope that looks like loss--the kind that comes from knowing you did the right thing, and hoping the gods will reimburse you someday. In fact, it's a Casablanca, hill-of-beans ending ("I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"). Sol LeCoeur is a wounded, raw character at the beginning of the novel. She lives in a society divided into Day and Night, with mandatory curfews. She is a Night girl, and her brother has been transferred to Day. Sol doesn't want to save the world, she wants something crazier and simpler: to kidnap her brother's newborn daughter for an hour so that her grandfather can hold the baby before he dies. But Sol makes a mistake and kidnaps the wrong baby, an important baby, and accidentally drags a Day boy (the medical apprentice who treated her) on her run from the law. That's where the romance comes in--you can't get more star-crossed than a Day boy and a Night girl. But the book itself is--as its dust jacket says--"a drama of individual liberty and civil rights."

 

In sum. The two books I enjoyed the most in this year's slate of RITA finalists--Some Boys and Plus One--only loosely adhered to the definition of "romance" stated in the RWA rules. But it's no surprise to me that I favored those two. For me, a love story is even more swoon-worthy if the conflict, plot, characterization, setting, voice, and lyricism are all in place, too. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Throne of Glass

Throne of Glass - Sarah J. Maas

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: readers are promised an assassin and world-building, but get a dull-witted heroine, romance without geopolitics, and clunky writing.

 

What happened. Hmm, not much. It is just me, or is the lack of any sort of economic, social, and political details in young-adult fantasy worlds frustratingly unrealistic--especially when the governmental structure is a monarchy and the royals are characters that we're following? This book is about a competition to choose the King's Champion, in a world where many countries are subjugated by a tyrant king. Do we see the tyrant king ruling? No. He disappears for most of the book (no one knows where), only to return with his entire traveling party dead (no one, not even the Captain of the King's Guard, investigates why). Do we see control of trade, collection of taxes, information about armies and borders, or hear facts about previous wars? No. Do we see the king's son, the crown prince, do anything but play pool, check on the puppies that his favorite bitch has whelped, and make out with the assassin, Celaena? Well, I guess we hear that he's going to "council meetings" and that Duke Perrington is pressuring him to use Nehemia, the princess of Eyllwe, as a hostage to gain control of the famed "rebellion"--a rebellion we never see actual evidence of. The secondhand, afterthought accounts of these council meetings are absolutely the only political thing happening in this book.

 

But I digress. Here's a somewhat cynical synopsis: 

 

Celaena Sardothien is the famed Assassin of Aderlan, who has been betrayed and thrown in a prison camp in Endovier, where she is being worked to death. The prince, Dorian, along with the captain of the King's Guard, Chaol, pluck her from Endovier with the promise that if she wins a competition to become the King's Champion and serves him faithfully for four years, she'll be freed. She agrees, and trains with twenty-three other potential champions, under the assumed name of Lady Lillian, all while she's closely guarded to make sure she doesn't kill anyone or escape the glass castle. There is a series of tests, which she passes, but one by one the champions begin to be brutally killed by some sort of beast, with their organs and brains devoured. Meanwhile, Dorian's mom wants him to marry, but Dorian can't abide the fawning nobles the queen has written for him on a list of appropriate women. No, Dorian has a crush on the assassin, and he visits her in her chambers at all hours. (Where is Philippa, her ladies' maid? Why, in all these medieval-style worlds, isn't there the usual custom that unmarried women have chaperones?) Chaol starts to get sweet on Celaena, too, but he won't admit it to himself because he's so strong and honorable. Like Dorian, Chaol also visits Celaena alone a lot. And for some reason it's his job to wake Celaena up in the morning for training and tests. (Seriously WHERE IS PHILIPPA?) Celaena is part fey, and readers quickly figure out that she's related to Elena, the first queen of Aderlan (get it? Celaena/Elena?), but somehow Celaena doesn't figure that out. In fact, Celaena doesn't figure out a lot of obvious things, which sort of belies the claim that she's a brilliant assassin. ("Look at how unnaturally strong and big Cain is getting! Oh! This document about wyrdmarks says the beast takes the flesh of the victim, and gives its strength to the summoner in return! It must be Nehemia summoning the beast!") So what does Celaena do? She talks a lot about clothes, whines about not being invited to balls, and stuffs her face with candies that appear in a bag on her pillow (the razor-sharp assassin is apparently a heavy sleeper) even though 1. one of her champion tests was expressly about deadly poisons, 2. someone is killing champions, and 3. she has no idea who gave her the candy. *headslap* She also excels at her tests, which are ordinary things like archery and scaling walls, and some tests that are just vague hand-waving on the author's part. (For instance we hear that one test was about "strategy," with no description of what that entailed.) Celaena discovers a passageway from her chamber that leads to the bowels of the castle, where she finds the tombs of Elena and Gavin, and speaks with Elena's ghost. Elena wants her to defeat the evil in the castle but for some reason can't say what the evil is. She gives Celaena an amulet, the Eye of Elena, to protect her. Eventually, Celaena and Cain are the last competitors--surprise, surprise--and Celaena defeats Cain, with a little help from Nehemia, who summons Elena to help counteract the magic that Cain is throwing at Celaena from the shadow world. After Celaena is declared the winner, Cain tries to stab her in the back, but Chaol intervenes and kills him first. For some reason, Chaol, the Captain of the Guard, has never killed a man, and is horrified at his action. Huh?

 

"Freedom." When Celaena was the Assassin of Aderlan, she had two rules: she refused to kill children or anyone from her home country. At the end of Throne of Glass, the king--a vile, violent, untrustworthy person--reluctantly makes Celaena his champion, not hiding his disdain of her, and tells her she must take every assignment he gives her, even if it's onerous, without argument, or he'll kill Chaol, Nehemia, and Nehemia's family. Given that this is the man who ordered the murder of five hundred "rebels," including women and children, it's clear Celaena is signing on to spend the next four years committing horrific acts at his whim. For some reason, Celaena still interprets this deal as "freedom." Go figure. 

 

The competition. Since the whole point of the book is the competition, couldn't we have seen all of the tests? And couldn't some of them have been interesting? For a book that promised fantasy and action, this was all romance and Celaena's griping...until the last duel.

 

The romance. But at the same time, the romance was highly unsatisfying. Celaena is attracted to Dorian, and they have a couple of make-out sessions (one on her bed until 3 AM), but then they're oddly awkward around each other afterward, not clearly falling in love. (Dorian professes love, but backs off too willingly at the end, when Celaena says the king's Champion obviously can't date the crown prince.) Meanwhile, we're meant to think Chaol is more suited to her, but nothing happens between them aside from a big hug.

 

A premise too shaky to hold up the plot. I spent most of the first three quarters of the book wondering why Celaena was still hanging around the castle. We're told but not shown that she's a talented assassin. She's shackled at Endovier and on the journey to the castle because she's so good at escaping. From the very beginning, we hear that if she's even a few feet away from someone she could disarm him and slit his throat in a second--or use her chains to strangle him. So why didn't she escape the moment she was unshackled and in the castle? We're told she'd be "hunted" ceaselessly by the king, but isn't she good enough to elude the king's soldiers, with a whole world open to her? In fact, she waits so long to leave that she gives the king a weapon against her: her affection for Chaol and Nehemia. When she finds an actual secret passage out of the castle, she debates leaving and then concludes that she's better off staying and winning her "freedom." (See "freedom" discussion above.)

 

Celaena's character: The frivolous traits listed above--Celaena's love of fancy dresses, balls, chocolate, and puppies, along with her quirky temper while shooting pool--are supposed to make her endearing to us, supposed to set her apart from the usual, grave, Catniss-style kick-ass characters, and supposed to make us see that she hasn't lost her soul at Endovier. ("A shriek of rage ripped from her throat, and Celaena ran over to the pocket. She first screamed at the ball, then took the cue in her hands and bit down upon the shaft, still screaming through her clamped teeth. Finally the assassin stopped and slapped the three ball into the pocket.") Judging by the response on Goodreads, this writing strategy seems to have worked for most readers. But for me, these traits were just too incongruous, sometimes buffoonish. The Celaena we meet at the beginning of the novel is nearly broken by what she has seen. She's ruthless and supposedly skilled. She's outraged by the treatment of slaves in this political regime. She has killed people. She has seen enough to be an old soul, in an eighteen-year-old body.

 

Secondary characters. So many are two-dimensional. The king, Perrington, and Kaltain are less fleshed out even than Philippa, who rarely appears. Here's an example of Kaltain's lack of depth: "Perrington finished with a broad smile that made her instincts tell her to run, and run, and never look back. But all her mind could see was a crown and throne. And the prince who would sit by her side."--Chapter 40

 
The writing. Parts of this novel read like a high school creative writing piece. Some details felt like placeholders that the author forgot to research and flesh out later. For instance, Celaena asks Chaol what his favorite books are and we're told that he "lists three." She replies, "Not bad choices, but which others?" and then "they talked about books for an hour." Did Ms. Maas mean to go back and list those three books and their importance? Did she mean to invent a literature that we could also grow to love? A real world would have real titles, and naming books would be part of a more successful world-building experience for the reader. A conversation about specific books would have given some hint at the trust that Celaena and Chaol will eventually discover in each other. (To be fair, later in the book Ms. Maas lists one title, A Crown for the Hero, I believe, but doesn't expand on its subject matter.) Another example of a placeholder: when Celaena fears for her safety, she "alters the hinges" on her bedroom door so they'll squeak when anyone opens it. Altered with what? Altered how? (Also, wouldn't she have heard the squeak when Dorian left her the bag of candy, or when Chaol comes in each morning to wake her?) These sorts of missing details makes the world feel flat, and make the writing feel unpolished.
 
Similarly, I had trouble visualizing some things that I felt Ms. Maas might not have had a mental picture of herself. The wall that the champions are supposed to scale to retrieve the flag is a jumble of balconies, ledges, windows, and seemingly endless gargoyles. Four gargoyles in a row for her to leap across? (Then she seems to dive, with the rope attached to her waist, and catches Nox by his waist, after he has already started falling? Slightly impossible. And her back would have broken when that rope went taut.)
 
There is so much awkward phrasing:
 
"She knew what this was. Rather, she didn't dare to hope that it was actually what she believed it to be. She hurried along, slipping twice, her heart pounding so loudly that she thought her ears would break." --Chapter 24
 
"'Dance with me?' Was there music playing? She'd forgotten. The world had shrunk into nothing, dissolved by the golden glow of candles. But there were her feet, and here was her arm, and her neck, and her mouth. She smiled and took his hand, still keeping one eye on the ball around them."--Chapter 38
 
"His voice made her bones splinter."
 
"Celaena laughed as best she could."
 
Of Kaltain: "Her blood grew warm and glittering."
 
"[Celaena's] eyes were distant and far away."
 
"His eyes burned red, and he pointed at her in a broken, stiff way."--Chapter 48
 
"The pain in [Kaltain's] head erupted, so violent that her vision went obsidian and she stopped thinking clearly."--Chapter 50
 
Dorian's temper flared with dizzying speed.--Chapter 51
 
Dorian drowned in the cold rage that lay inside of him. --Chapter 51
 
 
There are so many cliches:
 
"He wiped the smile from his face."
 
"Celaena's blood went cold." 
 
There are so many questionable plot details:
 
In the Yulemas Ball scene: "How had she not noticed how handsome Chaol was?" There's a laughable little love-triangle flip-flop here, where Celaena spends some time noticing how loyal, honorable, and strong Chaol is, and wonders if he'd even consider her his friend. And then Dorian caresses her back and she instantly wants him. She wants him, we're told, and that desire makes her forget all about Chaol. This passage felt almost like fan fiction in how impulsive the writing was.
 
Would Philippa have helped the assassin go to a ball that's attended by Dorian and the Queen, who are Philippa's employers and the leaders of her nation, given that the assassin could slay them both in a heartbeat? Not likely. (Philippa is one of the few people who knows that Lady Lillian is an assassin.)
 
D'oh! Why does Chaol think Celaena will be disqualified if he alerts the king that she has been poisoned? What sense does that make? Later, Celaena reassures him that it's good he didn't stop the trial, because she would have been disqualified--almost to reassure us, the reader, that we should actually believe this nonsensical plot point.
 
In sum. I don't think I'll be reading on in this series. While I appreciate that books like this are fun and consumable, and stoke the affection of the audience, and I applaud Ms. Maas for capturing the imagination of so many readers, I need more in book. I need stronger writing, more character development, and more attention to building a complete, believable world, with global conflicts and not just the saga of one young woman's olympic trials and romantic waffling. Perhaps the sequels would provide some of the things I was missing in this first installment, but it would take a lot of convincing to get me to invest in them. 
 
SPOILER ALERT!

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life - Helen Schulman
(This book just didn't grab me enough to merit a long review.)
 
I found This Beautiful Life on Adult Books 4 Teens, and while it's reasonably relevant to the whole issue of online shaming that teens have to grapple with, I actually didn't find it especially engaging for teens. If the novel had been entirely from the boy's POV, it would have been great. But much of this book is about the mother, who has educated-rich-white-mom identity malaise, and her story line was such a drag to slog through, even for an adult.

 

The core conflict involves a basically decent high school boy who receives an explicit video from an eighth grader who has a crush on him. In his confusion and nervousness, he forwards it to a best friend, and of course, it goes viral. The book explores the impact this one small decision—to hit send—has on the boy, each member of his family, and ultimately the young girl who sent him the video. A young-adult novel with this synopsis would have interested me.

 

In this adult novel, however, the mother's conflict shares the stage. She has given up her career for her family and, while she loves them, she feels frustrated and unfulfilled. I just couldn't make myself care about her self-absorption, worries about status relative to others, pot-smoking, and yoga. It was never clear why, now that her youngest child was school age, she wasn't slowly transitioning back into a career or volunteer work, given that she had the oomph to do it after her divorce, when the logistics of being a single parent would be more difficult. And for that matter, her relationship with her husband never seemed bad enough to precipitate a divorce.

 

In sum. Whatever.

SPOILER ALERT!

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is an enjoyable way to pass six hours of audiobook listening, but even though it wants to be an important LGBT novel, there's not enough of a struggle in this simple, first-love story to make it a Big Book.

 

Not much happens. Simon is a gay teen who would prefer to come out on his own terms--it's not too much to ask--and isn't ready yet. But when a classmate named Martin discovers Simon's private, anonymous interactions with another boy online, he uses that information to blackmail Simon into helping him get closer to Simon's good friend, Abby. The story is pretty much a blow-by-blow account of a happy, healthy boy's coming-out story over half a year, with this added twist of Martin blackmailing him.

 

The day-in-the-life flavor of the narration is so strong, it's difficult for me to outline the novel in much detail. For instance, there are secondary story lines about rehearsals of the musical Oliver that Simon is participating in (and Simon's incorrect guess that his theater friend Cal may be his online crush, Blue), and the smaller "coming-out" of Simon's sister as a rock-band musician, but I'd be hard-pressed to summarize the book's series of events. What you come away with are mostly three vague feelings 1. the narration has a charmingly authentic, self-absorbed teen voice, and 2. it has a nice depiction of a supportive family (rather than absent or dysfunctional one, which is sometimes the default in YA), but 3. yep, not much happens.

 
Martin's blackmailing became a weak point. A major plot point is supposed to be Martin's blackmail, and Simon's growing resentment that heterosexuals don't have to have a "coming out" moment, yet gays do, and that often the coming out is precipitated by something outside of the person's control. Simon doesn't feel ready to come out, because in some ways he feels that his whole life has already been a series of comings-out (for instance, he felt that he'd changed in his friends' eyes after they saw him drunk for the first time), and he just wants his friends to feel he's the same person he has always been. Eventually, though, Albertalli backs off and makes Martin a somewhat sympathetic character, which dilutes the precipitating event of the novel. 
 
This sort of book makes me feel hopelessly old. I don't know the music, and I don't have the slang down pat. But a part of me also feels that these choices date the novel prematurely--and do they really convey setting and character?--so I suppose even if authors can master contemporary culture in this way, perhaps they shouldn't. 
 
The authenticity of Simon's reactions. My child is gay, so I waffled between feeling equipped to criticize the authenticity of Simon's worries about his family and friends, and feeling--since I myself am not a teen and not gay--that I had no right to form any opinion. In short, I felt uncomfortably hemmed in by political correctness. I found myself secretly wondering: other than Simon's father making off-color gay jokes before he knows that Simon is gay, what struggle does Simon actually have? I suppose that's sort of the quiet point of the novel: straight people don't have to come out, they just live their lives. So here we see Simon living a fairly normal life--why is it fair that he has to think about or plan how to announce himself to those he loves?
 
Still, not telling his best friends, Leah and Nick, felt flimsy to me. "It will change how they think of me" only carries weight if we see some previous event that made their friendship falter. As it is, Simon's friends respond to his announcement pretty perfectly: for instance, Leah is upset that Simon told Abby first, but when they're sleeping over somewhere together and she's bummed about it, she tells him her feeling isn't important right now, this shouldn't be about her, it's his moment. Could a teen ever be more sensitive and articulate than that?
 
With respect to coming out to his family, there was a more interesting take, which I appreciated: other than his dad's insensitive jokes, it was almost the invasive, supportive interest and love that he was avoiding. (Nicely corroborated by Simon pulling up Alice's facebook account to stalk her boyfriend, Theo, as soon as he hears his name, right after he has come out and felt "probed" by his mom himself.) But as a reader, I had utter confidence that Simon's dad would recognize his past mistakes and support Simon wholeheartedly, which he did, and that lack of conflict diminished Simon's struggle further.
 
I would have liked to have seen Bram more "in real life." By keeping him in the background as the shy kid who doesn't participate much in the group's social scene, Albertalli hid his identity (not very well, mind you), but that means she also hid him, and missed an interesting opportunity for us to meet Bram in a different way. For some reason it doesn't feel the same to get to know him through his e-mails--which is an interesting subtle criticism of its own, I suppose: we should have been able to feel close to Bram (as Blue) through those online interactions. Maybe some readers did, and I'm odd man out on that one.
 
In sum: This novel was lighthearted, quick, and fun. It just wasn't earth-shattering. Maybe that's a great sign: we're getting progressive enough as a society that this story doesn't feel like an "important" LGBT novel, it feels like a slim story of a healthy teen's life and first love.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

Charm & Strange

Charm & Strange by Kuehn, Stephanie (2014) Paperback - Stephanie Kuehn

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: this book absolutely deserves the Morris Award it won in 2014--the writing is lovely and dark, the characters are rich, and it's quite literary while still being tremendously engrossing--but the compact treatment, the spareness of this novel, made me want to read a Stephanie Kuehn creation that wields a bigger world and cast.

 

What happens: Andrew (Drew) Winston Winters (also known as Win) is a broken, violent boy. He's at boarding school in Vermont and seems to have no contact with his family. In alternating chapters (the present is always labeled "matter" and the past is labeled "anti-matter") we see the present-day Win of boarding school being befriended by a slightly outcast scholarship student named Jordan, while past (nine-year-old) Drew is growing up with his dysfunctional family, acting out with seemingly random violence and rage, which we know has something painful at its source. Win believes he comes from a line of werewolves, and that the wolf in him is poised to be released with the current full moon. He believes he may be responsible for the death, mutilation, and partial consumption of a hiker in the woods near his school during the last full moon. In painful chapters about the past, we see that the wolf is a metaphor that Drew the child created to make sense of the horrific abuse that was inflicted on him by a family member he was supposed to trust, while his depressed mother failed to protect him.

 

Drew/Win as a character. This deeply fleshed out character is a pleasure to read. He knows all of his flaws, he sees none of his strengths, other than the obvious ones on his CV (talented tennis player and runner, good student). He's anorexic, he's controlled, he's impulsive, he's brilliant, he's steadfastly aloof but clearly craves closeness, he's broken. He has tried desperately in his young life to latch on to the few people who showed support and love--his brother Keith, his cousins Phoebe and Anna, and possibly his roommate, Lex--but they were themselves burdened or flawed and couldn't nurture him enough for him to find the adult help he needed. He's approaching his breaking point when Jordan, with her lack of expectations and lack of a past with him, with her own outsider status, is the first person to really listen to him, and just in time. 

 

Keith and Siobhan. We slowly piece together that the loss of Drew's brother and sister had at its source the same trauma that caused Win's current broken state. He backed out of a suicide pact (with his brother's tacit approval, at the last second, when Keith let go of his hand), and that adds guilt on top of loss. But Drew was the strong one of these abused children. Siobhan was too young, without an advocate, and Keith was filled with hopelessness fueled by depression. Drew's response was rage--blind violence--and it may have saved him. 

 

The voice. Ms. Kuehn makes Win both male and vulnerable, thoughtful and out of control. Her writing pushes right up to the boundary of lyrical without spilling over into "unbelievable." The balance is perfect. For me, the beauty of the prose made Win worth fighting for, as a reader. Win's breaking point at a party in the woods comes about so beautifully and organically, we seem him unravel right before our eyes, even while we're still reading his first-person account

 

The title. Ah, the trouble with psychological, pretty, "quiet" novels: the marketing team doesn't try to force-feed a commercial title. And while I generally hate how authors' titles get manhandled right out of existence by the sales force, in this case the title (which I assume is Ms. Kuehn's original) may do the book a disservice. Plus, I thought the physics was not really fleshed out or used much, other than once or twice in a purely poetic way, and thus the title is not only forgettable but also a bit misleading and precious. And in a related thought: Win's explorations into biological explanations for his transformation into a wolf felt a bit like an add-on by a smart author who realized we might object to a bright, non-whimsical character who believes in werewolves.

 

In sum: a taut, brilliant piece of writing. The Morris is conferred on authors whose debuts are exceptional, and this one is a clear winner. But while the topic handled is huge, the treatment itself was spare and too-controlled, and I'm looking forward to reading more works by Ms. Kuehn that stretch her--I want to see her wield a larger cast, a larger world, and more settings.

SPOILER ALERT!

Ruin and Rising

Ruin and Rising - Leigh Bardugo

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: in tying up loose ends, keeping up a consistent level of writing, and seamlessly weaving fun banter with meaningful dialogue, this book is an accomplishment to be celebrated; but as with the first two books in Leigh Bardugo's series, there is too much cinematic writing (visual tropes, cliched dialogue), repetitive internal monologuing, a touch of poor pacing, and some missed opportunities at fleshing out what promised to be fascinating characters.

 

All the readers' questions are answered. To a great extent. Technically. We know Baghra's story, we know the Darkling's birth name, we know how and why the amplifiers were created. We even learn the answer to some questions we might not have known we had (but on second thought, of course we want to know), like why Mal is such a good tracker, even though he's Otkazat'sya, and who Prince Nikolai's dad was. But what you won't know is perhaps more important: what has being "alone" for centuries done to Aleksander? Is it really impossible to be a good, eternal being? Why didn't he find any emotional comfort in the long life of his mother? How can someone as power hungry as Alina consistently is in this series give all that up for a quiet country existence? What explains that change? Yes, some answers to these questions are told to us, but we don't feel them in our core. (For example, Alina and Mal each have sullen moments at the old Keramsov estate in the end, occasionally mourning the loss of their powers, but we hear this in a few sentences. Other than Mal wishing Alina's powers away earlier in the series, nothing has caused us to believe this is the outcome either of them would have chosen, for themselves and for the other.) I would have liked to have seen more discussion about some smaller issues, too, like the way Grisha seem to have multiple talents, not just one--and to have seen Nikolai acknowledge and embrace this new information.

 

How does that work? Why does simply killing the third amplifier, without wearing it, confer power to Alina? Maybe I don't recall the immediate results to her magic after the stag and the sea whip were killed--maybe she acquired their power instantly, and the antlers and scales were just a physical tie to that power, allowing her continued access to it. But I found myself wondering, "Couldn't Mal amputate a hand and make a bracelet of the bones?" "Couldn't he just hold onto her wrist to amplify her power somewhat?" 

 

I also wasn't quite clear on how exactly Morozova created the amplifiers--he seemed to find living creatures that he infused with power, rather than create them from scratch. This question has a bearing on how Baghra's sister came to be the third amplifier instead of the firebird. Morotzova left a written trail leading to a firebird, which I think means he hadn't successfully found that creature before he was forced to divert the magic into his daughter. 

 

Mal's death. There was a little hand-waving here. Mal was descended from Baghra's sister's line (Baghra had assumed that her sister drowned in the river). He somehow had two lives inside of him: the one that was supposed to belong to the firebird and the one that belonged to his mortal self. But why wouldn't both lives be intertwined in the one beating (and mortally stabbed) heart? Does this mean the stag and the sea whip could have been revived after giving Alina their amplifier powers? I'm also not sure about the choice of killing a main character--particularly the one who might be responsible for a "happily ever after"--and then reviving him. As readers, we were prepared for the possibility that Mal would have to be sacrificed. It feels a little contrived that we experience the fear that we anticipated, but then have it all "made better."

 

You don't have to be Team Darkling to feel disappointed. I never really thought a relationship was necessary between Alina and the Darkling, but I did think the Darkling was complicated and interesting enough not to be summarily dismissed with a Disney Bad-Guy death. If Alina's powers can be sucked out of her, and Mal can lose his tracking ability, why not make the literary choice of draining the magic out of the Darkling instead? How much more fascinating would his response be to losing to Alina if his fate was to be "ordinary" and mortal? (At the very least, give him the Darth Vader end: "Tell the Grisha you were riiiiight.") And while I'm on this track, how much more interesting would Alina's choice have been to either assume a role of authority with her power, or to ignore her power and try to live an ordinary life with Mal? Wouldn't she be making the real choice for Mal if she had such possibilities in front of her? And why fake her death? Why shouldn't she stand tall and thoroughly disarm the Sankta Alina myth? Do we really believe that "the masses are better off" if we let them believe in their little miracles? Is that patriarchal message a sign of a healthy government? Why shouldn't Alina put her vocal, visible backing behind Nikolai, to help him start his reign? She's responsible for what she has created; should she take responsibility, including controlling a giant new group of Sun Summoners. (Are we supposed to believe that they'll all be uniformly ethical?) 

 

Pacing. There's a problem with ending a second book in a series with our heroine in trouble: you're forced to spend the beginning of the third book explaining how she got out of that trouble. This section presents a slow start, because it's not really pertinent to the real action of the rest of the story. Alina is oppressed inside; she's kept out of contact with Mal; she's weak; the Apparat both worships her and confines her; zzzzz; and then we have the breakout, which goes pretty flawlessly, including the Apparat agreeing to all her terms. (A larger complaint about the whole series might be that it really could have been condensed into two books instead of dragged into three: Shadow and Bone, and Ruin and Rising.)

 

Internal monologuing. We never escape this, because we're always in Alina's head, and Alina is a frustrating re-hasher. She's constantly giving us information we already know--not just magical principles ("like calls to like"), but also everything that has happened to her, and what people have said to her. "[So and so's] words came back to me" is one of her favorite phrases. Perhaps Ms. Bardugo hopes that this will keep us informed in a high-fantasy setting, but the effect is instead to slow the narrative down and add to the pacing issues listed above.

 

Movie dialogue and tropes. When there's witty banter between characters, Ms. Bardugo can't be beat. But sometimes her dialogue is straight out of a pedestrian screenplay: "Fight me! Let's end this! Now!" Alina shouts at The Darkling. There's also a lot of time for Alina to reflect, when she really should be under attack. When she jumps off the skiff into the darkness and kills Mal, Tolya and Tamar spend a long time trying to revive him, with Alina fretting on the side. Where are the Darkling's forces? There are a few scenes like this, where we get treated to Alina's thoughts and personal observations rather than the action, and the enemy stands at bay waiting for her to finish her internal soliloquy. There are also many repeated phrases: there should be another way to describe the feeling Alina gets when Mal holds her wrist other than "jolt;" darkness can come in forms other than "skeins."

 

Secondary characters. Ms. Bardugo is top notch at inventing clever characters. In this book she spends time fleshing out Genya and David's relationship, which is nice. She adds Harshaw, but the effect was more of adding a Red Shirt--a guy we could care just enough for that we'd be sorry he was dead, but not so much that we'd miss him. His cat, Oncat, was almost a red herring. I was prepared at any moment for Oncat to be a spy of some sort. But no, in the end the tabby was there to "flesh out" Harshaw, in a classic "save the cat" screenwriting trick. (Except in this case it was "talk to the cat like you're nuts and the audience will love you.")

 

In sum. This review sounds harsh, but it's not meant to be. This is an intriguing series, and it's a triumph for a new writer to complete it with panache. The Grisha Trilogy has a great premise, interesting, strong characters, and a wonderful flavor all its own. In some respects, it's the good things about it that make Ruin and Rising a slight letdown. How much more interesting would it have been if it had ended in a riskier way? How much more of a classic would it have become if Ms. Bardugo had been allowed to hone the prose? She needed to be given time and editorial input to polish away pacing issues and repetition. But even so, this is a solid addition to the fantasy universe.  

SPOILER ALERT!

The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn - Renee Ahdieh
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
 
One-sentence summary: the purple prose of this one nearly killed me, but the main character was feisty enough to keep me listening.
 
I listened to The Wrath and the Dawn in audio, and mostly for fun. Despite the serious premise, and the promise of fantasy, this book turned out to be kind of like potato chips: mostly a swoony romance, with the backdrop of politics, and lots of descriptive passages of food and clothing and tiger eyes.
 
The premise introduces some difficult ethical issues. A young caliph has been "forced" to marry hundreds of women, hanging them the next morning in order to stave off a curse on his city, Rey. He ends up dooming Rey anyway, when he stops killing because he has fallen in love with one of his brides, Shahrzad. This ethically compromised premise is the backdrop for the novel, but is never explored in the moral depth it deserves. (Perhaps to make it seem more YA than adult, to smooth the edges, we later learn that the caliph never consummated his previous marriages. And yet he forced himself on Shahrzad their first two nights together--what are we to make of that? More on this below.) To be a series of any literary merit, the second novel in this planned duology has its work cut out for it--it will be a disappointment if it doesn't dissect the moral quagmire that the first novel dropped us in.
 
An abrupt ending. I was busy cooking dinner for important guests when the ending snuck up on me. I wasn't expecting the book to be part of a series, and a fair amount happens in the last minutes, ending a bit abruptly. Let me know if I don't have this right:  I think Captain al-Khoury has sent Shahrzade away for her own safety, with Tariq, and Khalid is accepting that he can't be with her. His city is burning because he has broken the curse--he can't kill Shazi. The Sultan of Parthia is planning a coup. But I have no idea why Khalid disappeared (to some border where the White Falcon armies are amassing for a coup, as I recall...but what did he accomplish there?) while his city was burning. And his city is burning because Shazi's dad has figured out how to control his power (which involves killing innocent animals of larger and larger size). So Shazi is on her way--home? To her dad? To Omar of the Badawi?--with Tariq, having failed to tell Tariq anything good about Khalid, and that she loves her husband. (Can I just say I'm not fond of the trope where "there's no time to explain" and "it will be easier if I just go with him and explain later"?) We've left Shazi's dad, Jahandar, on the mountain top overlooking Rey, and her sister, Irsa, somewhere...I don't know...(I never really understood where she was holed up), and we have no idea where Despina is in all the mayhem (Jalal is looking for her). The magic carpet is...somewhere, and for crying out loud Shazi never used it in this book.
 
The prose is too flowery. Ms. Adieh uses a hundred dollar word when a two-penny one would not only work better, but in some cases would be more grammatical: "Yasmine fluttered her eyelashes at him with a skill Shahrzad could never hope to espouse."  There are altogether too many descriptions of eye color, many places where there are two similar adjectives instead of one ("[His laugh] was a loud and robust sound"), anachronisms ("Despina's lips puckered into a moue"), and romance-novel descriptions of the hot guy: "The faint shadow of hair that darkened his jaw served only to accentuate features hewn from the stone of a master sculptor." "Shahrzad stared at the cut-glass angles of his profile." It's a good thing I didn't drink a shot every time someone "shuttered their gaze." And it's not enough to exhale--you have to exhale "in a huff of derision." Don't just wave a hand--wave "a flippant hand."
 
On the very plus side. I really liked Shahrzade's abrasive personality. She was kind of snotty and annoying and arrogant, but it worked, and by staying true to her, Ms. Adieh made it believable that Shazi was "different" enough to make a difference.
 
I think I understand the wild popularity, though. This is really just a romance novel in disguise, and somehow, despite having been marketed as a YA Scheherazade re-telling, I'm guessing romance fans have found it (and romance readers are legion).
 
Historical patriarchy, or a mistake by a flawed character? What are we to think about Khalid consummating his marriage with Shazi while she lay still, "going away somewhere" in her head? Khalid and Shazi never really addressed that, when they finally began talking, other than his subsequently deciding not to have sex with her until she welcomed it. But he hadn't touched any of his other wives-for-a-day, so what would cause him to force himself on her twice? Was this just Ms. Adieh's nod to the patriarchal society of the time and place? Did Khalid think on the first and second night, like the Dread Pirate Roberts, "I'll most likely kill her in the morning?" But if enforcing his caliph marital rights was due to Khalid's attraction to her, and an indication of her intrigue above all other women, that's just ew.
 
The audiobook. Oof, the audiobook is not even okay. One of the most disappointing I've ever heard, actually. It actually does a disservice to Ms. Adieh's work. The producer would have been much better off finding a great narrator and having a Persian coach teach the pronunciation of the names and nouns. 
 
In sum. There's plenty of room in this YA business for many types of books, even potato-chip, romance fantasy novels like this. (See: Twilight.) And if in the future Ms. Adieh paradoxically stops trying so hard to be lyrical, her writing could settle down to something less eye-rolling. (Though with so much instantaneous outside validation, I fear not.) It remains to be seen whether Ms. Adieh will address the disturbing ethical issues she brought up in this first installment. In the end, I prefer a little more politics in my fantasy, and a little less sappy joonam.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

Every Last Word

Every Last Word - Tamara Ireland Stone

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence summary: This is an easy read with a respectful treatment of mental illness and a refreshingly healthy family for the protagonist, but it's more of a thoughtful, positive introduction to--rather than a complex look at--obsessive compulsive disorder. 

 

What happened. Samantha, who prefers "Sam," leads two lives. As Sam, she's a swimmer with a wholesome family who also happens to have the "obsessive-thoughts" form of obsessive compulsive disorder, which was diagnosed when she was ten. In school she's Samantha, and part of the popular clique of girls who call themselves the Crazy Eights. Being part of this Mean Girl group happened somewhat by chance for Sam, since their friendship began in kindergarten, when they all had a warmer, more genuine relationship. Now their friendship causes her anxiety, but she's afraid of the alternative of being alone and starting over. Thus, Samantha hides her OCD from her friends, only feeling comfortable in her skin when she's in the pool with her best "summer" friend, Cassidy.

 

Sam has a good relationship with her psychiatrist, Shrink-Sue, and takes medication both for her condition and to help her sleep at night--sleep is difficult because of her racing thoughts. Throughout the book, Sam is constantly thinking--her inability to be mentally restful is well done. It's probably the most organic part of her illness, in terms of how the author, Tamara Ireland Stone, writes.

 

At the start of the new year, Sam wants to break free of her old friends but doesn't know how. A hipster-ish girl named Caroline, whose locker is in the same bank of lockers with Sam's, introduces her to Poet's Corner, a secret club in a secret room beneath the school's theater, where kids gather to write poetry and read aloud to each other. In a nice visual, the poems are written on scraps of paper and glued to the wall after they're performed, creating a tactile sea of paper lining the room. In Poet's Corner, Sam meets AJ, a boy she bullied so mercilessly with her friends when they were younger that he was forced to move to another middle school. AJ doesn't trust her, but grudgingly allows her to stay in Poet's Corner for just one day. When Sam realizes who he is, and what she did to him, she enlists Caroline's help to write a poem that expresses her sorrow for what she had done to him.

 

Caroline, a good friend and constant source of support, is an odd duck. She doesn't speak when she introduces Sam to Poet's Corner, and she never reads her poems aloud, as the rest of the kids do. There's a reason for that, we discover later: Caroline Madsen is the name of a girl who committed suicide--the girl who started Poet's Corner. (I did wonder how the locker Caroline was supposedly using could have been empty. In my high school, every locker was full, and then some.) But there's nothings supernatural here: Sam has made her up; her subconscious remembered reading about Caroline on the Internet and seeing a photograph after Cassidy's family bought the Madsen's home. Caroline is, in some ways, Sam's alter ego, encouraging herself to move away from her toxic friendships toward healthier ones. When she realizes that she hallucinated Caroline, Sam has a breakdown that keeps her home from school, recovering. Hayley, the lowest Mean Girl on the Crazy-Eight totem pole, visits her, showing genuine friendship. Sam is able to distance herself from the Crazy Eights and move toward the poets without the repercussions that one of their other friends, Sarah, experienced after leaving the group.

 

The writing. Every Last Word has solid writing, and is an easy read. The pacing is good. However, it sometimes feels like the reader is earnestly told what Sam is feeling, rather than being allowed to sense it themselves. It's paradoxically easy for a first-person narrative to slip into this "telling" mode. For instance, no matter how emphatically Sam tell us her feelings--"I can't give up my girlfriends, I'm panicked about being alone"--it's not the same as the reader being able to see precisely what Sam would feel if she lost her friends. "Sarah left the group and was ostracized" is the reason Sam gives for not wanting to leave, but we never experience that ostracism (it happened in the past), so it's not palpable to us. Similarly, Caroline was supposed to be so important to Sam that her disappearance caused a period of mourning for Sam (despite the fact that their relationship never existed). But other than seeking Caroline out for writing help, I never got a sense of true closeness between them that would lead to such a strong declaration of loss. 

 

OCD. The most natural, "show, don't tell," depiction of Sam's mental illness is how restless her mind is. The book is in first person, so we see that her brain is rarely quiet. She also has a moment when she can't stop researching AJ's old girlfriend, which was quite realistic, and felt exhausting to read. In other ways, her OCD rears up in debilitating ways only occasionally: her need to park her car with the odometer ending in a "3" sometimes felt like a placeholder for what could have been many, many obsessions like that. In the beginning of the story, she has her most serious attack, fighting thoughts of assaulting her friends and her sister with scissors. It hinted at a level of illness that we never saw again. But perhaps fittingly for YA, a consuming struggle for Sam seems to be more of a "I won't fit in; I don't want anyone to find out" conundrum. (In Ms. Stone's defense, Sam's illness is meant to be somewhat under control because she is taking medication and working regularly with her therapist.) Finally, hallucinating Caroline does not fit with a classic diagnosis of OCD, but I was prepared to accept Shrink-Sue's explanation that everyone's case is different, and we never know precisely how the brain works for each individual with the same mental illness.

 

The romance. It was nice to see a Hot YA boy who also had a flaw. AJ, a former stutterer, is shy as a result of his own chronic worry that his stutter will break through when he's nervous. Is it believable that he'd forgive Sam and fall in love with her, given that she was one of so many tormenters who wounded him and made him introverted? I'm not sure, but I went with it.

 

In sum: a nice, not-upsetting, not-dark book about mental illness. The resolution is complete, and happy, without the ambiguity or complexity that might happen in real life, but it's a nice introduction to OCD, delivered by a competent, thoughtful author.