Tag Archives: disability

Grit by Gillian French

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Grit by Gillian French
HarperTeen, 2017.

This evocative realistic YA story of secrets and small mindedness in a small white working class Maine town, Sasanoa, centers around rising high school senior Darcy Prentiss, a young woman with a reputation.

Rumors are rife and knowing about what Darcy was doing last year when her ex-best friend Rhiannon disappeared. Darcy’s loyalty to her family and her streak of independence means she won’t tell the truth because she’s keeping the secret of her cognitively disadvantaged cousin Nell.

The author wonderfully imbues the claustrophobia of the dead end town and its old fashioned, but not in a good way, views of how girls should behave. This setting reminded me of Kara Thomas’s Little Monsters, though the plot is more romance and less mystery.

Self-aware narrator Darcy and her family crackle off the page with life and seething resentments. I particularly appreciated Aunt Libby whose bitterness embodies all of the town’s phoniness, and Darcy’s sister Mags who knows who she is and expects Darcy to live up to those standards. There are other characters who are rooting for Darcy, even if she initially doesn’t recognize it.

Several storylines weave through the novel and each of them connects to Sasanoa’s attitudes towards those who are different: Rhiannon’s disappearance, tension between local teens and migrant workers as they harvest blueberries, Darcy’s fledgling romance with a boy who isn’t just interested in hooking up, and the competition for pageant queen which both Darcy and her mentally challenged cousin Nell are entered in. The strands all gradually converge and the hypocrisies of the town are laid bare as Darcy, with the support of others, disentangles herself from what other people’s opinions have made her.

Ideal for teens who enjoy novels driven by gutsy young women and laced with cultural consciousness.

Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill
Candlewick, September 2017.

12 year-old Rose Brautigan is a musical prodigy, has skipped several grades at school, and is cruising through college level math. Her twin brother, Thomas, on the other hand is just a regular kid. But over the course of one summer, their interests come together as they grow a giant pumpkin.

Rose herself starts off as an insufferable prig – she makes little allowance for others’ passions or foibles, and is very self-centered. The author neatly shows how the events of the summer are an awakening for her and she softens in her attitudes. Other characters are somewhat more two-dimensional. The denizens of Rose’s Minnesota neighborhood are remarkably varied – I hesitate to say it but it did feel a bit like the author had a diversity checklist she was working through (Japanese – check, Latinx – check, gay couple – check). However, Ms Hill does a nice job of showing how the pumpkin project brings the community together.

I found it very odd that Rose is eighteen inches taller than her twin brother and no explanation is ever given for this. Is it a medical condition? Is it something that can happen with fraternal twins? It’s not clear, and I’m not sure of the purpose of it either. It does emphasize their difference for sure, but then so does Rose playing cello while Thomas mucks about in the garden.

Overall, I found this a fairly pleasant read but it is very long at 448 pages for an upper elementary/lower middle school novel. And there is A LOT going on and it doesn’t always mesh together very well. The author clearly has some fascinating ideas and interests and has done her research thoroughly, but doesn’t quite manage to shape it all into a smooth flowing novel. Rose and Thomas are sad to learn that they should cull all but one of their pumpkins so all the growing energy can be focused on that biggest one – I rather feel that’s a metaphor for this novel.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

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What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, July, 2017.

We are in very familiar territory here. Again. It’s a two-hander – a girl and a boy, each with an ‘issue’ (Kit’s father recently died in a car crash, David is on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum), meet up, become friends, and then maybe more. Not much new to see here.

The main characters are appealing and well written, and the author digs into their emotional depths with skill. The support characters are almost entirely peopled from TV and movie high schools – and the author mentions this often enough for it to, almost, be a sly wink. David’s family is feels straight out of some soapy TV dramedy – say This is Us. Kit’s homelife, on the other hand, feels more off the beaten track, as her Indian mother sinks into depression and despair.

The plot follows its expected route, as Kit and David get to know each other and both credibly find themselves changing as a result of this relationship. There’s a couple of unexpected swerves, the mean kids mostly get their comeuppances, and there’s even a makeover scene, though maybe not quite what you’re expecting.

The author’s note mentions “lots of research” though nothing specific is detailed. I assume this is on the autism spectrum but, as David notes, quoting a well-known aphorism, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. I have to say, he feels a bit like a caricature of a kid with autism, though with much of the inconvenient stuff rubbed off.

So this has been something of a negative review, which actually doesn’t seem entirely fair, because I did enjoy the novel. It’s easy to read, the characters are engaging and I was rooting for them, the tensions in the plot are nicely balanced, and the pace is brisk but not rushed. It’s not going to change the world but it will give you a pleasant afternoon.

Thanks to Delacorte for the review copy.

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Liberty by Kirby Larson

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libertyLiberty by Kirby Larson
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed Ms Larson’s historical novels, particularly Hattie Big Sky (2008) and The Friendship Doll (2011) (both of which I read pre-blog, so no reviews I’m afraid). Liberty is the third book in a elementary grade series which uses the device of a kid and a dog to explore different experiences in World War II America. The books stand alone, and will appeal to readers who enjoy dog stories and historical settings (duh).

Liberty is a touching story with a boy and a dog at the heart of a tale set in New Orleans in 1944.

White 5th grader Michael ‘Fish’ Elliott is working hard to overcome the effects of polio on his leg, and when he adopts a stray dog, Liberty, she gives him the incentive to try harder. With Pop away building bridges for the Allies, Fish lives with his sister Mo, and Liberty opens up their neighborhood to them.

Larson skillfully squeezes a lot of thematic weight into the supporting characters – enough to be informative and maybe pique some interest for further pursuit, but without getting didactic. Fish’s friend and neighbor Olympia is “dark-skinned,” and through her he sees the prejudices and exclusions of Jim Crow. Mo wants to be an engineer and, though she works for Andrew Jackson Higgins whose company produces the “boats that will win the war,” there is little opportunity for her. Erich is a young German, though not Nazi, prisoner of war at Camp Plauche in New Orleans, and Fish reminds him of his younger brother. All these strands are pulled together when Liberty runs off after a storm.

Fish is an inventor and fixer, inspired by Edison and Higgins: he likes to work through tricky problems and find practical solutions, whether it’s training Liberty or exercising his knee. He is an earnest, engaging character, and his love for Liberty brings out his determination and confidence.

Ms Larson includes information about the era in an Author’s Note. Mo predicts that it will be different for black people and women after the war and, of course it is, to an extent. But 70+ years on, and there are still different standards for black people and women, and the reflective reader will realize that.

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The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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pearl-thiefThe Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Disney-Hyperion, May 2017

At the start of this mystery novel, set in pre-World War II Scotland, 15 year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart arrives back from finishing school in Switzerland. Sitting down by the river on her grandfather’s estate, she is knocked unconscious, and her gradual recollection of what led up to this attack is the key to the whereabouts of some missing river pearls and the identity of the thief.

The mystery itself is not particularly gripping or original, but it is a hook to hang the development of Julie, later to become Verity of Code Name Verity (2012), on. She loves putting the pieces of a puzzle together, she enjoys fooling people, and she relishes leading a conspiracy. She is empathetic, adventurous, impulsive, brave if somewhat foolhardy, willing to give anything a shot, and discontented with the lot of women in this era. As you can see, these are threads that will lead her to her role in that outstanding novel.

The Pearl Thief is also interested in social justice, through its portrayal of the McEwen family who are Travellers, often disparagingly referred to as “tinkers.” Many of the establishment figures, from the police to the librarian, are quick to jump to conclusions about their morals and behavior, instantly blaming them for everything from theft to murder. Julie, however, is less bound to this and takes their side (I can’t say I’m wild about this trope of the tolerant toffs and the bigoted working class). Ms Wein’s note on Travellers is a model of explanation and caveat.

Julie is yearning for romance, and her description of her relationship with Ellen McEwen suggests that her feelings are more than just that of a friend. The two girls along with their brothers, make an appealing quartet as they investigate the mystery.

As with her other novels, but particularly for me, Black Dove, White Raven (2015) Ms Wein evocatively and exquisitely describes the period and the setting. The death of Julie’s grandfather, the Earl of Strathfearn, means the family must sell off his estate to pay off his debts, and that melancholy task gives added resonance to Julie’s description of the countryside (though they do have a castle to go to, so let’s not shed too many tears).

This is an early ARC, and it has some issues that I’m sure will be sorted out. I found some of Julie’s narration and breaking of the fourth wall to be a bit too jolly hockey sticks (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “used to describe a woman or girl of a high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys most people.”) The tone shifts around a bit as well, but I suspect both these quibbles will be fixed before publication.

CNV was such a great novel, and though Ms Wein’s subsequent novels have been very good, they have not achieved that same level. Nor, currently, does The Pearl Thief, but it is still a fine historical mystery novel with an engaging and complex narrator and some thoughtful ideas about society in 1938.

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

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As I Descended by Robin Talley

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AsIDescended-highresAs I Descended by Robin Talley
HarperTeen, September 2016

I have really enjoyed Ms Talley’s two previous books, particularly What We Left Behind  (2015), one of my top books of 2016. Both those books were about, among other things, young women coming to terms with their gender and sexuality. In her latest, many of her characters just happen to be gay and lesbian, and none of them have any issues with this (though their parents might have), and the author has ventured into genre territory – an exceedingly chilling modern day retelling of Macbeth, setting in a Virginia boarding school.

When spirits tell brown-skinned Maria, through a Ouija board, that she will have what she most desires, she decides to take matters into her own hands, goaded on by her white girlfriend Lily. The prize is the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley scholarship, and once the spirits offer it, Maria can’t stop wanting it, and will let nothing get in her way, beginning with deposing Queen Bee, Delilah.

Though this isn’t a completely faithful rendition of Macbeth – none of the characters have children, for example – it is surprisingly close and works extremely well. Some of it is a little forced – the football field is rather clunkily called Dunsinane – but the characters and their motivations and arcs are remarkably faithful. It will work just fine for readers unfamiliar with the Scottish play, but for those who do know it, there are some clever nods and reimaginings.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, and they are mostly well-developed despite being players in a melodramatic story. However, Maria/Macbeth starts off well, but as she gets further into the web woven for her by the malignant forces, l lost the feel of her and she seemed to become more of a chess piece to get through a plot. However, Lily/Lady Macbeth and Brandon/Banquo avoid this, and are heartbreaking in their roles.

Because it’s based on a Shakespearean tragedy, there is a lot of Gothic drama and the writing becomes very feverish and a little overwrought. However, Ms Talley brings a creepiness that kept me awake and a little nervous in my holiday cottage in Ireland, and which will appeal to fans of Maggie Stiefvater.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

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when-i-was-the-greatestWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum, 2014
Audiobook read by J.B. Adkins

This award-winning slice of life from a rundown block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is chock full of heart. 16 year-old Allen Brooks aka Ali, is the narrator and our guide to his friends, family, and neighbors, and the events of one summer.

With a meandering and leisurely plot, the author focuses on creating fully rounded, authentic, endearing, and sometimes flawed, primary and secondary characters. Ali himself has been training with boxing coach Joe Malloy for years – hence his nickname – but is too scared to actually enter a fight. He has an inner moral compass, strength, and light, that makes you pull for him all the way. And you can see the roots of this integrity from his family – Doris the strict matriarch, Jazz, his younger sister with an old soul, and John his estranged and still loving Dad.

Also central are the two brothers who live in a broken down apartment next door: Noodles is Ali’s best friend and is full of anger and pride, and Needles, a gentle spirit with Tourette’s Syndrome, who manages his outbursts by knitting.

After a relaxed introduction and tour of the neighborhood, the narrative focuses on the boys going to an illicit, adults-only party. It’s punching way above their weight, and what happens there sets the course for the rest of novel.

But really, the plot is not the point. Though there is an ominous gun on the cover, albeit one in a crocheted cover, it is not the sort of ‘urban fiction’ (a label which I find patronizing) with gangs and gunfights. Instead we are shown the tight knit love, family ties, and loyalty of real, sometimes troubled, people.

This is a character-driven novel which is not usually my cup of tea, but listening to it was a delightful and engrossing experience. J. B. Adkins reads with a vivacity, humor, and innocent excitement that brings all the characters to rich life, though I somewhat question the way he reads Needles to make him sound a little simple, but maybe that’s the way it’s written.

This is my first Jason Reynolds novel, and as he has several other YA books about the contemporary black experience, it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.