Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum (Young Adult)

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

16-year old Abbi Weinstein is known to the world as “Baby Hope” — she was the one-year old birthday girl clutching a red balloon fleeing the towers in the arms of a day care worker in an iconic (fictional) photograph from 9/11. Noah Stern is obsessed with that photo because he holds the secret hope that one of the background figures is his father, presumed dead. Both hail from Oakdale, New Jersey, a fictional town loosely based on Middletown, New Jersey, with the dubious honor of having the largest number of 9/11 fatalities outside of New York City. Together, they slowly put together the missing pieces from that day, and the ongoing impact ripples on the people affected.

Despite the subject matter, this is an uplifting book. It’s full of humor, friendship, and love as well as a lot of heartfelt and sob inducing stories. It is a way forward from tragedy, not a hopeless and depressing fixation on it. I like YA fiction because somehow the issues are clearer — less muddied by the accreted neuroses and mental sluggishness of age — and I am able to learn more easily from it.

I think Julie Buxbaum is brilliant — I love her characters and her humorous, banter-rich, prose. Each of her books focusses on real and difficult issues — and helps the characters work on making sense of the world and their place in it. This book is easily the best of all — I read it in one sitting. The stories woven together were touching, personal, and inspiring. I sobbed through a lot of it, but finished feeling centered and hopeful.

There are so many great lines in this book — here are a few:
“I think our stories are actually what make us people. We each have a history… Stories are like the … currency of connection. And all your stories woven together might tell some larger story about the history of our country from that moment to now.”

“I was fashionably late to the existential panic party.”

“She’s the one who gave my mom her stoicism. In my mother it takes on a cheery perversion, but my grandma is all strong, clean lines, when it comes to the difficult stuff. She’s stating a fact, true words without any sentimentality.”

“My mother has always liked to outsource our difficult conversations. It was my dad, not her, who sat me down last spring and asked if I’d be interested in going on the pill.”

“Well, the good news is that awkward phases help with long-term personality development.”

“All it takes is a tiny, inexplicable tear in the fabric of the moral universe.”

Abbi’s grandmother is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimers — this is what she tells Abbi: “You know what I think about sometimes? I think about how all the little bits of me that I’m losing will somehow find their way to you. Like they are … what’s the word … tangible. Like they are tangible things that can crawl from my bedroom to yours and so as I become less me, you will become more you, and I will continue to march on within you when I’m not me anymore. You’re going to keep growing. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Life can really suck, right? So why not make it at least a little bit fun whenever we can? I mean, think about it. There are few things that a well-timed joke can’t solve.”

“Pretty much everything about being in high school is embarrassing. Not only the hours spent jerking off behind locked doors, the days cooped up in windowless classrooms — not to mention the greasiness of it all. I’m talking our very existence. We are a reminder to grown-ups of how far they’ve come and how much further they wish they could go.”

“When you have a kid, it’s like letting your heart walk around outside your body. You never get used to it.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5

Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.

Our heroine is January Scaller, and the time is ~1900. January is a motherless child of indeterminate color who lives with her father’s employer, the kindly and wealthy Mr. Locke. By comparison, January is told she is “quite improper, willful and temerarious” — temerarious quickly becomes her favorite word :-). However, no thing or person is exactly what they seem in this deliciously complex story that weaves together intricate stories across time and multi-world space.

The Doors represent Change — as January’s father explains it: “Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned… Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified and storyless.” But not everyone is enamored of the “change” the Doors represent, and someone or something is working hard to close them all down, ostensibly to maintain order and bring Progress and Prosperity to our world (but mostly benefiting themselves).

A number of memorable characters step in to help or hinder including: Mr. Locke and his slightly unsettling Archeological Society; Samuel Zappia, January’s only “non-fictional friend;” Jane Irimu, sent from East Africa by way of a predatory Leopard people world by January’s father; and Adelaide Lee Larson “ born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude,” whose epic love story begins when she meets a ghost boy in an empty field at 15.

Speculative fiction is often used a vehicle for discussing difficult topics through the guise of “other worlds,” and this book is a thinly veiled portrayal of the perception of Change as necessary (liberals) or as something to be feared (conservatives). While I personally favor liberal policies, I don’t appreciate the over simplified and highly stereotyped cabal of rich, white, men that are literally out to rape, pillage, and destroy the happiness and life potential of everyone else. Well-written fiction can feel so real that it is easy for stereotypes like this to be perpetuated without the reader’s conscious awareness. So … great writing and a tremendous girl-power adventure — but a little heavy handed on the definition of the “bad guys” for me.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J Lockington (YA)

A coming-of-age story for 11-year old Makeda. Opening on the road as she and her family are relocating West for her father’s new job as Principal Cellist in the New Mexico Symphony, we quickly learn that she is a black girl adopted into a white family shortly after birth. She both wonders about her birth mother and struggles with ongoing (and annoying) reactions of those around to her. People are constantly commenting on “how white she talks” and persisting with queries about where “she is really from” (even though the answer is simply “Atlanta.”)

Told with a mixture of prose, poetry, and tumblr posts with her best friend back in Baltimore (also a black adoptee in a white family), we get an up close and personal look at one young girl’s transracial adoption experience.

The writing is very good and the details of Makeda’s thoughts and feelings are incredibly perceptive and well-expressed. It’s important to remember that the book is completely focussed on Makeda — her perceptions, her memories, her hopes, and her experiences from her perspective. As an older white person (not the target demographic here), I cringed at the description of her mother — the absolute stereotype of a guilt-ridden white liberal. When it becomes clear that her mother is mentally ill — she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in the book — her whiteness and mental illness kind of blend together. Makeda’s experiences at her new school and a girl scout troop were also blatantly racist, without any compensating non-racist encounters which I found disappointing.

On the whole I found this worth reading — it felt authentic and certainly broadened my perspectives in a number of ways. I wish there had been a slightly more hopeful path at the end, but of course that is not the whole story.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 30th, 2019.

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

When 10-year old Clover Blue witnesses his first live birth in his Northern California commune, he begins to wonder which of the sister-mothers he actually came from. But there is an odd hush around that subject, in this otherwise open, loving, and caring community.

Ranging from 1974 through 1978, the book follows Blue’s quest to understand who he really is. Blue is a wonderful character and the detailed depiction of communal life and those who chose it are inspiring. The author manages to paint a full picture of real people who have consciously formed a family in a spiritual environment and yet who have also made mistakes with serious impact. I love the balanced way she has shown what might happen in such circumstances — with an objective tone which simultaneously portrays the beauty of the people, their relationships, and their way of life as well as the struggles, frailty, and hypocrisies.

I loved reading this book — particularly for the characters and the fact that it embodied all the best things I remember from that era (Blue is four years younger than I was during the time period). The commune members have their own backstories and their relationships within the commune parallel the evolution of the commune itself. The story unfolds beautifully with ongoing reflection. The commune is clothing optional and the kids are home schooled — with each of the “Elders” imparting their own wisdom. The local library serves as a fantastic resource. The essay Blue is assigned to write about people watching TV is priceless (he has to go to the local clinic to observe this as there is no television at the commune). One of the Elders sums up all of the great religions with: “Great prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha pretty much said the same thing… Be kind. Respect life. Pay attention. And focus on the here and now, not the promise of something better in the afterlife.” So simple.

The start is a little slow — I initially found the writing a little clunky and almost stopped reading — but fairly soon I was completely caught up in the characters and their surroundings and forgot I was reading at all (my measure of a good book!).

Highly recommended!

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Fiction / YA)

This is an unusual book for me — I couldn’t put it down, became completely involved with the characters, and yet I’m having a very hard time describing it. The “plot” doesn’t half cover what the reading experience is actually like.

It’s about the Dunbar boys — the five sons of Michael and Penny Dunbar. As the novel opens, they are living alone in chaos — their mother having died and their father having absconded shortly thereafter. Written in the first-person by the oldest son, Matthew, they are self described as “a family of ramshackle tragedy.” The primary timeline follows the events of eleven years before, when Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay, and Tommy were 20, 18, 17, 16 and 13 respectively.

The center of the story is the fourth boy — Clay. Clay is a wonderful character — sweet and caring, deep and loving, vulnerable yet strong, and almost completely internal — he doesn’t say much and rarely laughs.  He’s also amazingly fast.  Clay is the holder of all the family’s stories — the real stories — and while the book moves forward linearly through the events of that time, narrative streams from the present and past are woven throughout, with these stories — and secrets — slowly exposed. The writing is thoroughly engaging. The language is poetic — not in the sense of beautiful language for its own sake, but in the sense of distilling experience and emotion into a single phrase that evokes more than straight words can convey. While I would never say it was a happy book, neither was it depressing, though I did find myself wanting to leap into the story to help.

I was surprised to find this categorized as YA — it reads very well as adult fiction. I love the fact that it is unashamedly focused on boys — how they love, how they cope, how they grow, and how they survive. I tend to read female authors (not intentionally but it works out that way) and I find the descriptions of this family different from what I usually read. Obviously, not all men (or all women) are the same, but I did feel a different perspective emerging from these pages. There is a lot of fighting, roughhousing, work intensity and focus, and physical extremism. Much behavior is explained with “just knew” or “had to be that way” without the associated exploration and understanding of “why.” Each of the five boys (and their father) have distinct personalities, but their very maleness pervades the narrative and is both unfamiliar and appealing to me.

This book is not like any other I’ve read, but aspects of it did remind me of John Irving and the setting evoked the feel of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe (YA)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Great YA book! This will be on my top YA book list for the year.

Norris Kaplan, a black French Canadian, born to immigrant Haitian (now divorced) parents, is forced to move to Austin, Texas, so that his mother can follow up on a rare opportunity: a tenure track position at UT Austin as a Creole and Patois scholar. He leaves behind a reasonable (to him) climate, his hockey team, and his best friend. He doesn’t like Texas, or the U.S., or cheerleaders, or football jocks. He doesn’t like the heat, or the constant sweating, or the requisite T-shirt changes. It made sense to him that everything in Texas was bigger: “With this much heat, you needed shadows.” He makes a lot of negative assumptions about everyone he meets, even as he is sure they are making negative assumptions about him.

It’s the classic “Outsider in High School” plot line, but executed beautifully, unconventionally, and laugh-out-loud funny. Norris is grumpy and always expects the worst of everyone. Almost against his will, he makes a friend (Liam — the monk — who Norris admits is “an aggressively chill human being”), helps a cheerleader with her work schedule in exchange for dating tips, and even begins to see the jocks (embodied by Patrick aka “Hairy Armpits”) in a new light.

An hysterical, coming-of-age story, where I liked the protagonist a lot at the beginning, but liked him even more by the end.

Great quotes:
“Texas cheerleaders really are just laboratory-engineered little bags of evil, aren’t they?”

“As he suspected, Original Thought had died in the desert on its way to Texas, baked under the sun for a few miles, and been slaughtered for sustenance when provisions had dwindled.”

“It wasn’t that he didn’t know what to do at parties. He just found them viscerally boring: like getting dressed for a big night out and then spending your evening in an intermission lobby, bumping against people you vaguely recognize and fumbling to align conversation topics for brief windows of validation.”

Maddie (the cheerleader) wants to help him with his dating disasters: “We’re talking about dating here. I’m the genius janitor, there’s a complex equation on the chalkboard after hours … Give me some chalk and let me solve it!”

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

A coming of age story in a racially divided South. Told from 13-year old Jubie Watts’ perspective, the story follows the Watts family as they travel with their “girl” (their 48-year old negro maid) through the South in August, 1954. From anti-integration signs to a lack of motels and bathrooms willing to accept Mary to downright nastiness and hostility, the narrative heads towards the bad end hinted at in the very first paragraph of the book.

The real story, however, is not about this “bad end.” It’s about Jubie trying to understand how and why different people are treated so very differently. To her, Mary is someone she loves, someone who is the “heart” of their family — but her family, friends, and the white world at large, at best, treat Mary as a useful piece of furniture.

The narrative alternates between the events of August 1954 and the previous eight years with Mary in the household. In some ways, the story feels like a jumble of experiences, without the synthesis and understanding that might come to the narrator later in life. The characters (other than Jubie) are a little two-dimensional and several story elements are left unresolved. In this, the tale is a realistic depiction of the world as seen through the eyes of a 13-year old.

The book includes a lot of historically accurate detail about the time, and the story is compelling — but it felt a bit too long and somewhat oversimplified.

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan. 29, 2019.