Tag Archives: illness

Again Again by E. Lockhart

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Again Again by E. Lockhart
Delacorte, June 2020.

A new book from E Lockhart is always cause for celebration and, while this one didn’t do it for me quite as much as Genuine Fraud or Frankie Landau Banks, it is chock full of great writing and interesting ideas. For me, it had an interesting touch of A. S. King about it, with that mix of poetic reality and juxtaposed fantasy.

This much we know for sure about Adelaide Buchwald. She is in the summer between junior and senior year and is staying at her boarding school, Alabaster, along with her teacher dad for the summer. Her younger brother, Toby, is a recovering opioid addict who has already had one relapse and he is living with their mother in Baltimore as he goes through his recovery program. Just before the end of the school year, Adelaide was dumped by her boyfriend Mikey Lewis Lieu (aka Mikey Double L). She has spent the year failing her classes as Toby’s situation bored into her, but unwilling to show her sadness has developed a bright sparkly persona which seems to fool most people. The only way she can avoid flunking out is to create a model set for Sam Shepherd’s  Fool for Love for her theater design class.

By the end of the summer she will have started coming to terms with all this.

But in the middle, there are many branches of the multiverse in which Adelaide experiences love, loss, grief, and the slow tendrils of recovery. She meets Jack and has a brief fling with him or Mikey Double L comes back or she has a relationship with Oliver. None of these relationships come to fruition because, despite wanting love, she is not ready for it until she can see herself clearly and she needs to repair her relationship with Toby.

Adelaide’s journey from broken to whole encompasses all of these. There is a main thread that runs through to the end and the different possible branches are indicated (at least in the ARC) by different fonts and bolding. Though Adelaide follows four different routes, they all lead to the same ending: A friendship and a restoration.

As an added bonus, there are some fascinating descriptions of art pieces (apparently inspired by real life work) and their inspiration bleeds into Adelaide’s process of designing and creating her model set while reflecting her inner work in progress.

I think E. Lockhart is one of the most interesting authors working in fiction today. Her ambition and experimentation mean her novels really blur the line between YA and adult literary fiction, though their protagonists typically mean they are classified as teen reads. While Again Again was less successful for me than some of her other novels, I think those who loved We Were Liars will particularly enjoy it.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

Smooth by Matt Burns

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Smooth by Matt Burns
Candlewick, June 2020

Intensely self-conscious about his severe acne, 10th grader Kevin is pleased to be prescribed Accutane, despite its many side-effects, and things definitely look up when he connects with Alex, a girl he meets at his regular blood tests for the drug. While he invests this relationship with a weight that it can’t really bear, he retreats from his former best friends and family and his life starts to spiral downwards. He invests his energy in a slew of creative projects, but they are more about impressing other people than expressing himself, and they all fizzle out.

Debut author Burns imbues his first person narrative with the authentic solipsism of a teenager: Kevin observes and judges his friends, family and classmates with little empathy and without really listening to them, particularly Alex. And so much of what Kevin is thinking and feeling about himself, doesn’t get shared outside his own head and his isolation increases. Like many teens he snarkily views other people only through his own lens, claiming he doesn’t care about friendships, though to be fair to him, the other teens (all white from the suburbs) do seem to him (and me) to be remarkably well-adjusted.

The author does a fine job of chronicling Kevin’s descent into a vicious circle of hopelessness, and it is never clear (to the reader or Kevin) if his depression is caused by the Accutane or is genetic or if it’s just what a sensitive 10th grade boy experiences. Ultimately, though the Accutance does help, it is Kevin himself who has a Judy Blume-inspired epiphany (nicely done!) about his own role in his social isolation. For me, this came a bit too abruptly and a bit too late in the novel and felt rather unbalanced against the amount of time Kevin has spent in despair.

Though only a few teens suffer from such serious skin conditions, many will be able to relate to Kevin’s isolation, withdrawal, and desperate thoughts. A good choice for readers who like dark and some light, but not till the end.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

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How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox
Dial, 2019.

Drawing on her personal experience of mental illness, the author creates an absorbing and authentic portrait of a teen girl under extreme stress.

At the beginning of the book, set in Australian oceanside town of Wollongong, 17 year-old Elizabeth “Biz” Grey feels disengaged and removed, and her brain gets stuck in loops.  Unsure of her sexuality, she tried to kiss her best friend Grace but is also attracted to new boy Jasper (all main characters appear to be white with the possible exception of Grace whose last name is Yu-Harrison).

Following an incident at the beach after which she is ostracized by her friend posse, she begins to lose her already tenuous grip on reality. She still sees and converses with her father, but he died when she was seven, and when she takes up photography, the images she creates literally speak to her. Her desperate and loving mother and endearing young siblings provide a solid home life but though Biz appears to be coping, inside she feels she is a “non-functioning sad person.”

The intense first person narrative puts the reader right in Biz’s head as her thoughts shake and circle around, showing her fuzzy line between reality and hallucination and her perception of the fragile line between life and death. It is a particularly tough read when she contemplates suicide but she ultimately decides that she needs to follow her father’s life in order to “get better.”

The author delicately and evocatively shows the complexities of mental illness as well as the challenges and grief it puts on friends and family. Will appeal to readers who appreciated Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep.

Resources are provided in the acknowledgements.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

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Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
Katherine Tegen, 2019.

An intriguing YA fantasy romance, which goes on for just a bit too long.

On a college visit, African American Jack King meets “beautiful brown super-tight-curls” Kate at a party and falls for her. Over the next four months they meet up, flirt, and get close. Kate fails to turn up to Jack’s prom because she’s “genetically unwell” and has been hospitalized and within a few short pages, Kate dies and then Jack falls downstairs and also dies. But then everything resets and he’s back at the college party and has the chance to save her again (and again).

The author skillfully plays out this looping, if a little too lengthily, as Jack tries different paths to perfect his plan to save Kate, though these come with the usual unintended consequences of time travel, both trivial and catastrophic. Part of Jack’s challenge is to also keep the delicate balance with his two best friends, biracial Jillian and Latinx Francisco “Franny” Hogan, complicated by them being a couple without ever realizing Jillian had been Jack’s crush.

The central trio of Jack, Jillian and Franny is richly and convincingly drawn, though Jack feels a little like a male version of a typical YA young woman: insecure, self-deprecating, but beloved by his friends. Kate, conversely takes the usual male role of being somewhat unbelievably both one-dimesionally perfect and also interested in Jack. Though it’s nice to see this gender role reversal, it doesn’t make it any more credible.

The author tries to keep the various iterations different enough to stay interesting for the reader, but I felt that there was maybe one too many, or maybe the later ones could have been trimmed. I appreciate that this is a fantasy and isn’t going to pass a logic test, but it’s never explained why Jack doesn’t confide in anyone, even Kate, nor is any reason given for his resets, and some of his choices defy credibility.

I did love both the wide diversity of the characters and that them being of color is never the point of the story though is integral to it.

Perfect for readers who enjoyed David Levithan’s Every Day (Knopf, 2012).

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2019.

Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood are the onscreen names of high school seniors Josie and Delia for their public access TV show where they present schlocky horror movies from the 1970s.

They make a good team. Delia knows and loves these horror movies because they are all that’s she has of her dad who left her and her mum when she was eight, and hasn’t been heard from since. Josie, however, has always wanted to work in TV, so when she is offered an internship at the Food Network, she is torn between trying to make Midnite Matinee a success or moving on. When Delia discovers that legendary horror show producer Jack Devine is at Shivercon it seems like a great opportunity to move their show to the next level.

The young women alternate narration. Delia is the emotional heart of the novel, desperately trying to find stability in her life, and Josie, witty and erudite, is ambitious and wants to bust open her life. Their friendship is intense but it seems to me that Delia does a lot more giving and forgiving than Josie.

Delia has depression, which is helped by medication – hooray for making this a depiction of the positive benefits of antidepressants. Additionally, Midnite Matinee with her best friend Josie gives her something to hold on to. Delia has also just discovered that her father lives close to where Shivercon is, so she could take the opportunity to see him and ask the question that has nagged her for so long – why did he leave?

Delia and Josie are spunky, foolhardy, brave (or oblivious as only a teenager could be) and get themselves into some wacky situations which are funny in the book but would be scary in real life and made me (as an adult and a parent) quite uncomfortable. However, the scenes of the setting up and taping of the show are hilarious and absolutely worth the price of admission..

This is a sweet and melancholy story about endings and beginnings, about a pivotal time of life (or at least, what feels like a pivotal time of life at the time) and two close friends going in different directions.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

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Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen, 2018.

Here’s my last review of the books I read for the 2nd round of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award. Harbor Me probably generated more discussion than any of the other books and was more divisive. But here’s the great thing about the Cybils: the shortlist can include the cozy wish fulfillment of, say, The Doughnut Fix and as well as the gritty reality of Harbor Me. It’s a hard job comparing the two, but was most gratifying, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to read about the winner, The Parker Inheritance, now’s your chance!

A class of 6 special education 5th/6th grade kids are given a weekly opportunity by their teacher, “tall and soft-spoken and patient Ms. Laverne” to just talk to each other about anything without any adult supervision. Over the course of the novel, we get to know these kids and what they’re going through.

Biracial narrator Haley is dealing with an upheaval in her life as her uncle, who has been her only parent while her dad was in jail, is moving out when her father is released. Latinx Esteban’s father has been detained by ICE and the rest of his family are fearful about what has happened to him and what might happen to them. Ashton, the only white kid in the grade, is being physically bullied by other kids. African American Holly, Haley’s best friend, has ADHD and can’t sit still. Native American Taino and African American Amari have both faced racism and prejudice.

This sounds like a list of “issues” but Ms Woodson is such a skilled writer that the kids’ problems are integrated very naturally into the novel and are only part of their story and who they are. As they go to the art room, which they re-name the ARTT (a room to talk), each week they gradually form a deep bond as they tell their truths and start looking out for each other, fulfilling Ms Laverne’s request that they be a harbor for people who need it.

Overlaying all of their individual family and social situations is that they are a special education class and, though they pretend not to, they do care about what other kids say. Even though the teacher tells them “how special we were, how smart, how kind, how beautiful – how tons of successful people had different ways of learning…some days it got inside us.”

I found it particularly interesting how the author takes on race through Ashton who has the “white pass” but is now in a school with mostly brown and black kids. He’d never thought about being white before but now he is as aware of the color of his skin as his classmates have already had to be and the other kids in the ARTT help him to thresh through those feelings.

These are real kids who are not defined by their problems but who have to deal with them as part of their daily lives. And let us not forgot, as the cover reminds us, these are all American kids, no matter their ethnicity or family origins. The reader will care about all of them and it’s a wonder that Ms Woodson manages to cram so much into such a short novel (less than 200 pages!) without it feeling in any way forced.