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.

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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.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen, 2017.

Lord Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley, his sister, Felicity, and his friend, biracial Percy Newton are off on their Grand Tour of Europe. But instead of taking in culture and high society in the prominent continental cities of their time, they end up in a series of adventures precipitated by Monty stealing a trinket box from the Duke of Bourbon.

All three characters are hiding their secrets from the world and each other. 18-year-old Monty seems to be a shallow, if enchanting, rake without a care or thought for anyone else, but he is deeply in love with Percy though doesn’t dare to tell him. Once the three are on the run from the aristocrat, they get held up by highwaymen, Monty is imprisoned in Barcelona, and then they are captured by pirates. As their troubles pile up, their secrets start to spill and this becomes much more than a lighthearted romp through 18th century high society.

Ms Lee has done thorough research on the attitudes and mores of the period, which she shares in an afterword, but the novel wears the learning lightly. Through Percy, we see how dark-skinned people were treated, even if they were part of a high born family; and the beliefs about women’s capabilities are explored through Felicity’s unfulfilled ambitions.

Monty, as our narrator, starts off as an oblivious and childishly spoilt social gadfly – he drinks, he gambles, and has flings with both sexes. The adventure tests and tries him, and his development and maturing is organic and written beautifully. Though Felicity and Percy don’t have the need to grow up in quite the same way, they both are gradually revealed as satisfyingly well rounded characters.

The plot is a rollercoaster of escapades, parties, intrigue, and romantic near misses. The ending leaves all three characters with closure, but I’m rather hoping Ms Lee will continue the adventures of these charmers.

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2018.

Kara Thomas has created another atmospheric and tense thriller about teen girls, that sadly promises a little more than it ultimately delivers.

Five years ago, two of the cheerleading team of Sunnybrook High died in a car accident, a few days later two were murdered and then shortly after that one killed herself. Now junior Monica Rayburn, sister of the girl who committed suicide, discovers that there may be a connection between the girls’ deaths. The novel moves between Monica’s present day narration with occasional breaks into a third person perspective of the events from five years ago leading up to the deaths.

Monica is unraveling as she investigates the deaths and uncovers some inconsistencies: Her emotions are fraught as she deals with being dumped by her boyfriend and then having a summer fling with an older man which ended poorly. She makes a connection with Ginny, a girl who has always been there but has been invisible to Monica and her friends, but now Ginny provides support and encouragement to Monica as she digs deeper.

Monica’s parents have tried to protect her from getting caught up in the events of five years ago, but now this protection feels more suspicious: her stepfather, a police officer, was the one who fatally shot the neighbor who he believed was the murderer.

Using technology, connections, inspiration, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the two girls close in on the truth. But will it bring closure or will it rip the community apart?

As with her previous novels, The Darkest Corners (2016) and Little Monsters (2017), Kara Thomas does a terrific job of creating a slippery atmospheric mystery combined with the seesaw emotions of a teen girl being pushed to her limits. While not quite as satisfying as the masterful Little Monsters, the plot resolves in an unexpected twist and Monica is able to move forward.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship by L. M. Elliott

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Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship by L. M. Elliott
Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

Though rather misleadingly titled, this thoroughly researched and very readable historical novel shines a light on the third of the Schuyler sisters, Peggy, who only appears briefly in the first half of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and the lot of women in 18th century America.

Set between 1777-1781, the author has used contemporary letters and journals and informed speculation (no letters from Peggy have survived) to weave in battles, personalities, and events from the period as seen through Peggy’s eyes. Peggy has always felt like an afterthought compared to “scintillating, enrapturing Angelica [and] the saintly sweet Eliza” but the Revolutionary War is her opportunity to find her niche. With her sisters both married, Peggy is able to help her father as he runs black ops for George Washington and the Patriots.

Elliott’s Peggy is both very much of her time and will have appeal for today’s young women. In an echo of Hamilton’s “young, scrappy, and hungry,” Peggy’s father describes her as “stubborn, defiant, willful” and just what the new country needs. She wants to use her brains in the cause of liberty and “wit was her bayonet” but it was frowned on for women to express thoughts on what was considered men’s province: war, politics, and philosophy but to Peggy, women’s stuff seems so “small” in the context of the Revolution.

Despite the book’s title, Alexander Hamilton is very much a secondary character though the relationship between the two is charming. More significantly, the author shows the bond between the three Schuyler sisters as they part and come together again, quarrel and bond. Though the book does get a little bogged down in the nitty gritty of the revolution, the personalities of all the characters are crafted and vivid.

Peggy has a brief romance with a French officer, Fleury, which flames like a firework and then as quickly dies out. But by the end of the book, true love with a distant relative Steven Van Rensselaer is on the horizon.

The author has included an extensive afterword describing the research process and explaining what is true and what is informed speculation. There is also an extensive bibliography for reader wanting to dig deeper into Peggy and others’ lives.

Ideal for Hamilton fans who want to know more of the real story and as an unusual perspective for those interested in the founding of our country.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

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Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Crown, 2017.

(I listened to this book – great reading by Dion Graham! – so I may get some details and spellings wrong as I don’t have any notes to refer to).

High school senior, Justyce McAllister is one of the few African American kids at Atlanta’s fancy Brazelton Prep. He’s on course to go to Yale and from there to make a difference in public policy. But when he’s treated abusively by police officers, he decides to write to Martin Luther King to thresh through his feelings and to experiment in “being like Martin.”

There are a lot of similarities with Angie Thomas’s magnificent The Hate U Give (2017), though this is a much more condensed and less richly textured book. However, it takes the viewpoint of a young black man which gives it a different, perhaps more immediate, perspective.

Jus is a wonderfully complex and knotty character.  He realizes that he can’t get away from his skin color and he finds himself torn between what he sees as the two options: either following his dreams but having to swallow his gall at being patronized and belittled in the white world or becoming like his old friends from the neighborhood enmeshed in gang life. Can he, like Martin, find a middle path?

Other characters are somewhat underdeveloped but are thumbnails of different outlooks: Jus’s black friend Manny comes from an affluent family though they still feel the sting of racism; the group of white “bro’s” ostensibly believe they’re in a color blind world but their dog whistle comments show otherwise; Jus’s love interest, Jewish Sarah Jane, is just a little bit too perfect as a white ally.

The narrative is split between Jus’s letters, script-like conversations and discussions, and a third person pov. It moves along speedily through Jus’s senior year and into the next chapter of his life, but I didn’t feel short-changed by the sprightly 41/2 hours.

This is a well-written and thought-provoking book and should find its way into all teen collections.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2018.

This middle grade historical fantasy adventure, the start of a trilogy, has many of Ms Nielsen’s signature charms but is derailed by an over-complicated plot.

16 year-old aristocratic Kestra Dallisor is blackmailed into helping the rebel Coracks find the Olden Blade – the only weapon that can kill the evil, and immortal, ruler Lord Endrick. She is assisted by her former servant turned rebel Simon, with whom she has a love-hate relationship and Trina, who is decidedly not amused to take the role of Kestra’s handmaid.

All three of these central characters have their secrets, and much like other JAN novels, these are gradually revealed. But none of the twists have quite the shock value that they should have because they’re bogged down in a thick stew of explanations.

Dual narrators, Kestra and Simon, are angst-ridden teens fighting their attraction to each other and it isn’t really a spoiler to tell you that it’s a battle they don’t win. Kestra is a modern spec fic young woman – she is feisty and snarky, stubborn, emotional, apt to blame herself for everything, and a whizz with the weapons du jour. She becomes conflicted as her awareness of the real state of Antora outside of the sheltered confines of the capital grows. Simon is standard issue dishy with hair that flops adorably out of place, thoughtful, and righteous.

In this sort of adventure, world building and plotting is crucial and I’m afraid this isn’t up to JAN’s usual standard: the world building, while reminiscent of The False Prince’s Carthya, is overly complicated (there just seems no point in inventing and having to describe new creatures) and characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. There are some rather clunky shifts as minds are rapidly changed and secrets are conveniently revealed, and some sloppiness leads to a couple of gaping plot holes. The end is pretty predictable as we get set up for the sequel.

Overall this was a little disappointing for me, lacking the charm and freshness of the The False Prince (2012) and The Scourge (2016), though fans of this genre will doubtless romp through it.