Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Any regular readers out there had to know this was coming. Today I am covering Saint Anything, the newest release from Sarah Dessen. I was late to the Dessen game when I covered both What Happened to Goodbye and The Moon and More about two years ago. Since then, I have been slowly collecting Dessen's other books and reading them apart from this blog. Needless to say, I was excited to get my hands on her latest release and talk about it here.

The Situation: Sydney Stanford feels invisible. At first she was used to simply being in her brother Peyton's incredibly charming and attractive shadow. But as he began to get in trouble, Peyton still continued to be the family's focus, but also the source of their stress and concern. His most recent accident has led to serious jail time, and left a young boy permanently disabled. Even with her brother locked away, Sydney still remains invisible as most of her mother's efforts go towards staying in contact with Peyton and knowing how he is doing, while her father seems to just be trying to stay away, as if in an effort to not face what is happening with is son. Unfortunately, this also means not having much face-to-face time with his daughter.

The Problem: When money gets tight due to the legal fees, Sydney decides on her own to give up her costly private school education at Perkins Day and transfers to Jackson High School instead. This isn't really a problem as Sydney actually makes new friends, two of which are Layla and her older brother, Mac. Layla is actually instrumental in keeping Ames, a very creepy friend of Peyton's, at bay, as he clearly has designs on Sydney. And Mac is a just a great guy who seems to actually see Sydney, something she isn't used to. Unfortunately, her parents still remain preoccupied with her brother, and don't understand her protestations about being alone with Ames. Also, Sydney feels like she is the only one who feels guilty about poor David Ibarra, the young boy Peyton left disabled and wheelchair bound, and that guilt is eating her alive. It seems things are bad enough because of what her brother has done, but Sydney still has plenty of trials ahead, and is hoping her new friends can help see her through. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel told from the point of view of a young girl with an older brother who has been in and out of trouble. His most recent crime has been drinking and driving, and ended with him striking a young boy and leaving him in a wheelchair. While the most the reader can get from Peyton is the occasional phone call, it is clear that Sydney is riddled with guilt, even though that accident had nothing to do with her. Everyone in the family is dealing with this in their own way. Sydney's mom seems intent on ignoring the fact that her son was at fault, something that infuriates her daughter, while her dad seems to want to ignore everything. So Sydney continues to feel invisible until she meets the Chatham family. Dessen has admitted that Sydney's feelings of invisibility are somewhat reminiscent of how she felt as a teen. And in the dedication, Dessen says this book is for the "invisible girls," as well as her readers. Much like in her other books, Dessen has touched on something that is important to many teens and that many will be able to relate to.

My Verdict: I was right to be excited about this book. We have all felt the disappointment of reading a sub-par book by a favorite author, especially after waiting so expectantly for it to come out. That did not happen here. And while I won't say that Saint Anything is Dessen's best work - I know Dessen fans all have their own favorite - it most certainly will not disappoint. Teenage first person narrators can often be annoying, and while Sydney has her faults, she at least didn't grate on my nerves. In fact, I was really rooting for her, cheering her on, and felt proud of her in the moments when she decided to speak up, fight, reach out, or even just break down and sob. She wasn't clueless, and she didn't sit around waiting for someone else to solve her problems. And she certainly didn't believe that all of her problems would disappear if she landed a boyfriend. While the issue with her older brother and how her family is handling it is the primary focus of the story, there is so much more going on and so many other characters to also cheer on. And like many of Dessen's other novels, there are small moments of wonder that make the characters, and the reader, just want to pause in the moment, despite the chaos that is circling around them.

Favorite Moment: When Layla expertly gets Sydney's mother to agree to let her spend the night with just the mention of paint fumes and new carpet. If I explain it more I'll ruin it so trust me, it is glorious.

Favorite Character: There are quite a few to choose from. There is Mrs. Chatham, who has multiple sclerosis and almost always has at least one of her children watching over her. Despite barely knowing Sydney, she takes a genuine interest in her life and listens to her, something she needs. There is also Layla, a pretty straightforward girl with a weird thing about French fries, but who more or less saves Sydney from herself, and others. And there is also Irv, the gigantic black guy who hangs out in Sydney and Layla's group of friends who can't get drunk due to his size and isn't stingy with the occasional piggyback ride.

Recommended Reading: There are many parallels between this story and Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. Both have female narrators with a family member who has committed a terrible crime and is locked away for it. Now they both feel like they are suffering for their loved one's mistakes. If you are looking for more from Dessen, I recommend Just Listen, one of her earlier novels. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Under a Painted Sky is author Stacey Lee's debut novel about two young girls attempting to hide in plain sight on the Oregon Trail. It is a crazy adventure with two unlikely companions at the lead, in a world that has left them little else except each other.

The Situation: It is 1849 and Samantha, a Chinese-American violin player, wants nothing more but to return to New York City and open a conservatory for music. But her father has decided that they will head west to California instead. When she returns home after a day of teaching music lessons, she finds out that tragedy has struck and her father won't be going anywhere. And after fending off a would-be attacker, she finds an unlikely ally in Annamae, a slave who has decided to take her chances and runaway in search of her older brother. Both girls know they will be hunted by authorities on the lookout for a Chinese-American girl and a runaway slave, but staying in Missouri just isn't an option. And neither is heading out on the Oregon Trail alone as two teenage girls who won't be able to defend themselves should someone decide to take advantage.

The Problem: Samantha and Annamae have had enough happen to them already that has pushed them to leave Missouri. But out of desperation and a desire to not be caught, they decide they have no other choice but to pretend to be boys. After adopting the names Sammy and Andy, the pair happen upon a trio of cowboys who are also headed west and don't mind having the pair come along. They also don't seem to mind that Sammy is Asian and Andy is black. Cay, West, and Peety give the young "boys" a sense of comfort and security they would never have had on their own. They even teach them necessary skills that will come in handy along the open trail. But even with their new friends, Sammy and Andy must keep their real identities a secret. And it becomes clear that the Oregon Trail is full of various adventures that make pretending to be a boy the very least of they girls' worries.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in 19th century America when many people were headed west to California, seeking their fortune in gold. For Sammy, it is the opposite direction she was hoping to go as she wanted to go back to New York. For Andy, it is the direction she would have gone anyway as she searches for the brother from whom she was separated in slavery. The two girls end up on the Oregon Trail (like in the iconic game) and join up with a group of cowboys from Texas. Many of the stops they make are stops many children of the 80's will remember from the game. And because Cay, West, and Peety are cowboys, there are lessons in shooting, roping, and horse-riding for their young companions. The group also encounters many other groups and families of varying ethnicities as they travel along the Oregon Trail. At one point they come across a group of rough Scotsmen who don't seem to care too much for anyone. And their little group is fairly diverse as Sammy is Chinese-American (something that often makes her stand out as there aren't many Asians in the Mid-West at this time), Andy is black, Peety is Mexican, and Cay and West are white. This makes for interesting discussions within the group, and also some tension outside of it when they come across certain people. The story more or less reads like a western adventure, but with an unlikely pair at the lead.

My Verdict: Maybe my reading history is limited, but I don't think I have ever read a book quite like this. The idea of a western adventure isn't terribly original. Neither is the idea of having girls dress up as boys to avoid suspicion and stay safe. But putting the two together seems original. And then to have the main protagonist be a Chinese-American girl who knows four languages and plays the violin is something else entirely. Giver her a runaway slave for a companion and this is one heck of a premise to try and follow-through on. However, I think Lee was incredibly successful in taking on this ambitious storyline. And while it is a fun adventure with potential danger in every group of people the travelers come upon, and even sometimes when they are on the trail by themselves, there are also serious moments full of heartbreak in the present, reflection on the past, as well as uncertainty about the future. This is a great book for YA readers looking for something just a little but different. 

Favorite Moment: When Andy reaches down and catches a snake with her bare hands, then quickly breaks its neck. Not bad for a girl.

Favorite Character: This is actually kind of difficult as there are several great characters in this book, but I guess it would either come down to Andy or Peety. Andy is the kind of person you would want to have on an adventure like this. She is tough, but gracious and patient, and often the voice of reason. Peety knows how to handle horses better than any of them, and of the three boys he seems to be the least antagonizing to the girls.

Recommended Reading: This was a different kind of YA novel from what I usually cover on this blog. Even so, I think I will recommend Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy. It isn't at all a western adventure, but it is set in 1950s New Orleans and follows a young girl who has her own adventure full of secrets and lurking dangers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Now that I have read Never Let Me Go, I was excited to pick up Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. The recent publication has appeared on many lists to recommend it and is proving the be a new favorite for some. I knew going in that it would be different from Never Let Me Go, but I still trusted Ishiguro's masterful storytelling and beautiful detail.

The Situation: Beatrice and Axl, now an elderly couple, have decided it is finally time to journey to the village where their son is now living, after a very long separation from him. They realize they are old and that the journey will be dangerous and difficult, yet they have made up their minds and set out on their journey. What they don't realize is how important the memories of all of their years together will become to them, which is problematic seeing as how they both struggle to recall most of their life together. They also aren't prepared to be joined on the journey by Winstan, a Saxon warrior; Edwin, his orphan charge; and Sir Gawain himself, a knight from King Arthur's Round Table. The five of them will continue on this increasingly mythical journey, all with their own goals and plans.

The Problem: While Beatrice and Axl simply hope to reach their son, it seems Winstan and Sir Gawain also share a goal, to slay the great and dangerous she-dragon Querig. This shared goal should bring the two men together, but it only proves to ultimately push the two apart. As a knight who was given the task under King Arthur, Sir Gawain is reluctant to allow a Saxon warrior take the honor away from him. Meanwhile, Winstan set out on this journey with one goal in mind, and he won't let anyone, even a knight under the great King Arthur, stand in his way. And while the journey was no doubt going to be difficult for Beatrice and Axl, having the three others join them has only added to the journey's treachery. And when they discover that they also may have a stake in Querig's death, they realize they may not have the option of remaining passive participants.

Genre, Themes, History: This is more or less a fantasy novel with many elements taken from stories like Beowulf, as well as other texts that tell of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. In other words, there is quite a bit going on here. There is even a dragon that needs slaying, and the requisite journey that needs to be made in order to even reach it. On top of all of that, Ishiguro plays a lot with the ideas of memory and forgiveness. Beatrice and Axl want desperately to remember their shared past, while also fearing what will happen to their unity should their memories actually come back. Having the pleasant memories return is all well and good, but what happens when the bad memories of how someone hurt you returns? The ultimate end game for the story may be the death of the she-dragon, but having her slayed means much more than being safe from her attacks. And in many ways, her death would only be the beginning of the real journey.

My Verdict: To put it simply, this book was actually quite disappointing. It probably isn't at all fair to compare it to Never Let Me Go, but I am anyway, and The Buried Giant just does not measure up. For one, there are just too many unanswered questions when it comes to the end. Second, while at its core the book may be a journey to slay a dragon, there is mostly just a lot of talking and thinking that goes on. There are some page-turning spots, and both Winstan and Sir Gawain, along with Edwin, do provide the occasional fight scene. But even so, there really isn't much action to balance out the pondering and the talking. And the ending just isn't a big enough payoff for the slow moving story you have to endure to get there.

Favorite Moment: When Beatrice and Axl discover what is behind their fading memories.

Favorite Character: Beatrice and Axl both are delightful and surprisingly formidable old people, but it is the way Axl takes care of his wife along this increasingly difficult journey that endears him to me.

Recommended Reading: It will come as no surprise that I am recommending Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It is a very different story that reaches more into the future than the past, and for me it is a much stronger novel.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Since I plan to cover Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent publication, The Buried Giant, I figured I would go ahead and also read Never Let Me Go. It is one of those books that I feel like everyone has read but me, so it was time I got to it.

The Situation: Kathy, who is now a carer, is reflecting back on her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school in England. At the center of her stories and memories of Hailsham are Ruth and Tommy. Ruth is often the very definition of a frenemy, but there are some good memories of her too. Tommy was initially a somewhat hot-headed kid prone to outbursts, tantrums, and subsequently, relentless teasing. He would eventually calm down and make many friends, and even gain Ruth as a girlfriend. The relationship between Kathy and Ruth is already fairly tenuous, despite them being supposed best friends, and it is this new relationship between Ruth and Tommy that would really put things on edge.

The Problem: Navigating social situations at Hailsham is enough of a challenge, but the kids must also study to keep up their grades, and also produce works of art (paintings, sculptures, poems, etc.) for the seasonal exchange. The best of these creations end up in a mysterious gallery that none of the students have ever seen, and that no one at Hailsham even talks about. Something else no one talks about is how these students are ultimately raised up to be donors for the rest of the population. As Kathy is reflecting back on her days at Hailsham, she is in her eleventh year as a carer, knowing eventually that will be brought to an end and she will become a donor. Some become a donor sooner than that, but all do eventually. For people like Kathy, living a normal life as we know it is not an option. 

Genre, Themes, History: I am inclined to think of this book as science fiction. Although, if I am honest, it really isn't completely outside of the realm of possibility. While there is a much bigger story going on regarding Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's futures as carers and donors, the story at the very front of the novel is the students' lives at Hailsham and how they interact with each other. Kathy is a typical girl, trying to make friends, do her schoolwork, and live her life. Ruth does what she can to assert herself as the leader of their little group. All attention must be on her, and not only does she project herself as special, but she must be the only special one. Anyone who threatens this little setup and reveals it as anything else is belittled by Ruth and cast aside. With a friend like her, who needs enemies? And Tommy is more or less a typical boy, playing sports and living his life, while trying to figure out what is really going on at Hailsham and what the future holds for all of them. It is a novel with a slow build and slow reveal. All of the details of the situation aren't revealed immediately. And only as Kathy keeps remembering things and telling stories is her full situation clearly realized. Given the amount of secrecy she was used to enduring at Hailsham, it makes sense for Kathy to tell the story this way.

My Verdict: As I said, this book has a slow build, but it is worth sticking with it until the end. The more Kathy tells of her story, the more the reader understands about her situation, and about how ultimately horrifying it is. Unfortunately for Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, each secret that she reveals is more heartbreaking than the last. And Ruth's attitude and actions make an already tough situation even more unnecessarily difficult. There were times when I felt that Kathy was a little too naive, even as an adult. And some of the dialogue didn't ring true. But overall, this is a compelling story, and I am excited to check out other novels by Ishiguro.

Favorite Moment: When Kathy catches Ruth in a lie, without coming out and saying it and actually embarrassing her friend.

Favorite Character: I would say Kathy, but there were times when she was just too naive and gullible for me, so instead I will pick Tommy. At the beginning he is that kid who would throw chairs in the classroom while having a tantrum over a little thing. But he ends up being a smart and curious adult capable of many things that he didn't get to show at Hailsham. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. It is another story with a different take on what the future will be like, and how one portion of society could potentially be used purely to support another.