Category Archives: fiction

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi
HarperCollins, September 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been used as the basis for many a retelling; in this “remix”, Ibi Zoboi sets her charming and breezy YA romance in present day Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Janae, Zuri, and their three younger sisters live with their Haitian mother and Dominican father, all squashed together in a rundown but joyous 2-bedroom apartment. For Zuri, home is “my parents’ love, my loud sisters, my crowded and cluttered apartment, and the lingering scent of home-cooked meals.”

When the black Darcy family moves into a remodeled mini-mansion across the road, the scene is set for Zuri to be prejudiced and Darius Darcy to be proud. But it also opens up the novel’s larger theme of the gentrification of neighborhoods: “Outsiders moving in to change things up and throw things away.” (And a recent Bloomberg headline “Brooklyn’s Bushwick Zooms Up the List of NYC’s Priciest Neighborhoods” bears Zuri’s fears out). Even though Zuri resents these, mainly white, incursions, she does concede “that the new people moving in, with their extra money and dreams, can sometimes make things better.”

With Janae just back from her first year at Syracuse and narrator Zuri getting ready to apply to Howard, these young women are far from the restrictions placed on the Bennet sisters of the early 19th century: “We’re thinking about our careers and goals and breaking barriers.” Their parents are also much more reasonable than the Austen Bennets: Mami is the life and soul of the block, cooking up a storm at the drop of a hat and Papi keeps the household going by working two jobs.

Darius and his older brother Ainsley (the Bingham love interest for Janae) have wealth and privilege and just don’t fit into Zuri’s idea of the neighborhood: they speak differently, they behave differently, and they seem to be negatively judging the people and the place. On the other hand, Warren, a young man from the neighborhood who headlines himself as “Black Teen Boy from the Projects with Absentee Father Makes It into New York City’s Top Private School” has a lot more appeal for Zuri: “There’s a little bass in his voice, a little hood, a little swag, not like these Darcy boys.”

Ms Zoboi stays close to the structure of the Austen plot, only taking a few liberties with characters’ relationships for the sake of brevity, and it works naturally and really well. Given that it is contemporary YA, Pride does not have the same leisurely pace and depth of character development as Pride and Prejudice, though to be fair most teens I know (and many adults) find Jane Austen interminably slow. And it isn’t really a spoiler to say that pride and prejudice are overcome in satisfying ways and resolution is reached without Zuri compromising her ideals.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

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Autonomous by Andy Marino

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Autonomous by Andy Marino
Freeform, 2018

In this thought-provoking present day YA scific thriller, high school graduating senior William Mackler wins a top of the line Autonomous self-driving car prototype and also the chance to take his three best friends on the road trip to end all road trips before they go their separate ways.

The four kids in the car are the archetypal team from any number of action and heist movies: Melissa is the fixer, Daniel is the muscle, Christina the tech genius, and William is the wildcard (all the teens appear to be white with the exception of Guatemalan American Christina). They jokingly assign the role of brains to Otto little realizing how sophisticated its AI really is.

Each teen cultivates an image on social media and for each other, but they all have secrets and never show their real selves and the reader only sees this through their individual chapters, written from a third person POV.

The tech behind Otto and Christina’s hacking is fictional but credible, and as Otto mines his passengers every online communication he takes them at face value without understanding the nuances of their behaviors and interactions. This leads to revelations and potentially catastrophic events as they wind their way cross country from the top of New York State to the Moonshadow festival in Arizona.

Will appeal to readers looking for character-driven (no pun intended!) speculative fiction.

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

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The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
Katherine Tegen, 2018

7th grader Mason Buttle is tall, sweaty, and something of an innocent. He is dyslexic and has synesthesia – he sees his mood as colors. All of this makes him a a bit of a loner and target for bullies. Two years ago, his best friend Benny Kilmartin died in an accident, and though Mason doesn’t realize it, many people in the town including one of the police officers, think he is responsible.

Two things happen to change Mason’s life: His empathetic and kind counselor gets Dragon,  some voice recognition software, so Mason is able to write his story and, secondly, he becomes friends with Calvin Chumley, a particularly small and smart neighborhood boy.

Mason’s family has checked out since the death of his mother (his father is out of the picture) and grandfather several years ago, and Benny’s death was a further blow: “Bing, bang, boom.” They have sold off family land, stopped working the orchard, and let their house turn into a “crumbledown”, but a crisis involving Mason galvanizes them all back to life.

Connor captures Mason’s voice through both his narration of the book and his Dragon-dictated account of his life. Short sentences, straightforward vocabulary, and thoughtful musings show Mason to be a boy with a lot of challenges, but who ploughs on regardless. His naïveté, good heart, and openness to friendship shine through.

I enjoyed Connor’s Crunch (2010) and this is a similarly quirky perspective on that hazy age between being a child and a teen. Though Mason and Calvin are outliers, their friendship and experiences will resonate with many middle graders.

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

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Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Hyperion, 2018.

Kelly Loy Gilbert (Conviction, 2015) has written a perceptive and subtle realistic novel, set in the Asian American community of Cupertino in Silicon Valley, a setting which allows her to explore not just what it means to be second generation Asian American but also other identities within that of economic status, immigration status, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Two deaths cast a shadow over senior Danny Cheng: those of his sister who died before he was born and Sandra, a friend who committed suicide last year. But his life now seems to be on an upswing: he has been accepted with a full scholarship at his dream school, RISD, and has some sketches on display in a gallery. But when he finds a box of papers hidden away in his father’s office, he opens the proverbial Pandora’s box.

Narrator Danny is a very much a teen – he can be selfish, impulsive, and makes some poor choices. He sees the world through art and often comments on how he would approach a drawing of a moment and what he would want to capture, and his touchstone, and the leitmotif of the novel, is the centrality of human connection and entanglement. There is a minor dual narrative that’s written in the second person, addressed to his sister which fills out the family history.

The author draws a nuanced portrait of the largely Asian student body at Monta Vista public high school (a school which she actually attended): “We were all tired and stressed out all the time, all of us worried we’d never be good enough, many of us explicitly told we weren’t good enough….We all felt it, the relentless crush of expectation, the fear of not measuring up….”

Danny’s relationship with his parents is authentically complicated and beautifully drawn. They are immigrants, much lower on the socio-economic scale than most of the other families at the school, and still bring their customs and attitudes from China. Though they are fiercely proud of their son and his achievements, they are torn between two cultures and have guilt and secrecy etched into them. The other significant figures in Danny’s life are his friends, Harry and Regina, and his friendships with them are also fractured and challenging with clandestine depths.

As Danny pursues the truth, doubting his quest even as he won’t drop it, the past of his family falls into place and, against the odds but entirely organically, there is a feeling of hope and resolution.

Though set in a very specific community, the author has created characters and themes that will resonate with all American teens.

Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter

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Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter
Scholastic, 2018.

In this rousing fast-paced middle grade thriller, two teens battle the elements, terrorists and each other.

Six years ago, some Russian terrorists failed in their attempt to kidnap the First Lady – an attempt that was seen by her ten year old son Logan and his best friend Maddie, daughter of the head of the secret service. Now Maddie and her Dad live alone in the wilds of Alaska and Maddie has learnt survival skills while Logan has spent the ensuing years ignoring her and overenthusiastically enjoying the social perks of his position. When the President sends Logan to stay with Maddie to cool off, a Russian swoops in again and Logan is abducted – luckily Maddie is on their trail!

Maddie is an somewhat endearingly odd mix of wilderness “badassery”, including skills with knives and hatchets, and simpering girliness as she worries about her complexion and whether she finds Logan attractive (what do you think?). Logan is the sort of dreamy bad boy who comes with convenient skills such as understanding Russian and having a photographic memory. The Russian kidnapper who starts out as an unfeeling monster is turned into a more sympathetic character further in as it suits the plot.

Author Carter (the Gallagher Girls series) keeps the book short and breezy with characterization, dialogue, and setting all in efficient service of the plot and, though there is some wild implausibility – Logan manages to unlock his own handcuffs while walking over a broken rope bridge in a raging storm for example – it’s mostly a thrilling romp as the two teens face and overcome one obstacle after another to outwit their captor.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick, 2018.

This is the second collection of feminist stories edited by Jessica Spotswood, following on from A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls. I don’t usually read short stories (and I haven’t read Tyranny) as I find the form a little unsatisfying but the title appealed and I picked the book up for review.

This collection of 12 stories focuses on young women on the cusp of making a significant change in their life and stepping away from what is expected, even demanded, from them; girls who are “radical in their communities.”

The stories all feature fictional girls but are set in historically accurate places across the US and in eras ranging from 1823 to 1984, and though a couple do have an element of fantasy they are rooted in the real world. There is a range of protagonists with diverse ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexual preferences, but who all have in common the desire to follow their hearts and their intellects and break out of society or, as Spotswood puts it in her introduction, there is a “quiet badassery in girls taking charge of their own destinies.”

The majority of stories are about the catalyzing events that crystallize these desires and usually end with the young women preparing to make it happen. In endnotes, each author shows how she has brought her own background and philosophy to her story, making for a deeply personal and heartfelt collection. Because the stories are similar thematically, there is a synergy in reading them together as a collection.

Though all stories are readable, highlights are Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp about Carrie, an autistic girl who wants to study the law in 1927 Washington DC and The Belle of the Ball, set in 1952 Brooklyn, by Sarvenaz Tash, in which Rosemary finds a route to pursue her dream of writing comedy.

Perfect for readers who enjoy the quick hit of short stories and are interested in seeing history from a different perspective through exploring a wide range of intersectional feminist outlooks.

Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher

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Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher
Greenwillow, April 2018.

High school senior Annie Boots knows that her biological family is not good for her and that she should follow her long-term foster father’s instructions to stay away from them. But the heart wants what the heart wants, so Annie comes up with elaborate ruses to enable her to meet up with her mother, Nancy, and her half-sister, Sheila, both of whom have substance abuse problems.

But then Sheila’s son Frankie, a somewhat disturbed 5 year-old boy, goes missing and the remainder of the book deals with the fallout from that. It’s here that the tone of the book goes awry for me. Initially we seem to be in a farce with the broader than life Boots’ family caterwauling and cursing at each other (though that sits a little oddly with their drug and alcohol issues), but with the disappearance of the child, there is an abrupt shift into something much more serious and the two tones don’t gel together well.

Annie, a poster child for nurture over nature, is surrounded by a terrific support system: her foster mother and brother are caring and engaged, her good friend Leah, the only significant black character in the book, is endlessly patient with her and her former social worker, something of a cliche as the overworked caring person in a broken-down system, comes through for her (rather unethically) when it counts.

Too much happens rather too swiftly in this short novel, and there is a little too much reliance on familiar tropes (the Boots family feels like every dysfunctional family you’ve ever seen in a reality TV show). Nonetheless, the author, with his background in therapy presents a messily realistic portrayal of how social services and the legal system fail children in need of intervention and he creates a persuasive argument for the power of family, however imperfect.