Grit, by Gillian French**

gritSometimes there is so much in a novelist’s heart that their debut novel tries to do too much. Perhaps that is what happened here. I expected to enjoy Grit, and I tried to engage with the story, but every time I thought we were on our way, it turned out we were going somewhere else. Regardless, my thanks go to Edelweiss, Above the Treeline, and Harper Teen for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It is scheduled for release May 16, 2017.

The novel starts out strong. Darcy Prentiss is a rebellious teenager, and the voice of the rural working class of Maine is a resonant one, and it’s what keeps this from becoming a one-star review. The teens of the small town of Sasanoa rake blueberries for summer spending money. The story devolves around the disappearance of Darcy’s best friend, Rhiannon; there are so many side stories and diversions here that I feel as if Rhiannon gets lost in the muddle.

The mores of this tale are to some degree set to the values of the Caucasian middle and working classes of 1950. All teenagers are assumed to be heterosexual by the default of the story line, but there are a lot of novels that still do this, and if it were the only issue here I would have smiled, nodded, and moved on. The plot, however, is partly teen romance, with girls that have crushes on this boy, that one, and the other, and the plot is also partly about our protagonist’s obsession with—wait for it—the local beauty pageant.

Seriously.

I keep turning the pages, waiting for this story to either become a real mystery, or to take us somewhere important. There are some tense moments in which the local kids are forbidden to mix with the migrant workers; immigration is a huge issue right now in the USA, and so my pulse beat a bit quicker as I waited to see where French would take this thread. I could happily forget all about the missing-or-dead ex-pal Rhiannon if some sort of social justice theme was in the offing. Instead, this aspect of the story leads nowhere and is abandoned. I am sad.

During a conversation that Darcy overhears between her mother and aunt another red-hot issue is raised and again, my heart beats quicker. The aunt refers to Darcy’s clothing and says,

“‘She’s asking for it. Every time she walks out that door in those skimpy little shorts with her shirt cut way down to here, she’s asking for it.'”

I think perhaps this is where things will start to move, perhaps using the narrative to explore body image issues among teenagers along with stereotypes and the slut-shaming that sometimes causes girls to hate themselves and sometimes hurt themselves, or perhaps to look at sexual assault and the way that society enables sexual violence by blaming the victims. But once again, the opportunity is squandered.

Add to this strange, wandering plot some nasty stereotypes about fat women and we end up with a story more likely to do harm than good, although there is really no message here powerful enough to do much of anything. We find our way back to Rhiannon eventually, but it’s a waste because the momentum has been lost. When the story is finally over, I am delighted to be finished with it.

In the end, we have a resonant setting with dubious characters to populate it and a plot that has too many dead ends to gain momentum. Clear focus and assistance from a high profile editor might make this story a winner, but as it stands now, I cannot recommend it.

The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so tantalizing that I know I want to read it anyway; this was one of those times. It’s a book you can read in a weekend, and once you have it, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

First I’d like to reassure readers that are most comfortable in the liberal arts realm that the programming jokes here are very shallow, and you can easily read this without missing anything even if you aren’t a tech type. I wrinkled my brow at the chapter headings and called my spouse, a network engineer, in to see them. He told me it’s just the chapter numbers written in code. So for those of you that hyperventilate around complicated math and science, it’s okay. Breathe.

Moving on to the story itself, here’s the set-up: it’s 1987, and Vanna White, America’s girl next door who’s seen every weeknight on television’s Wheel of Fortune, has posed nude for Playboy, and no one under the age of 18 can buy that magazine. The only place it’s even for sale in our depressed rustbelt neighborhood is in Zelinsky’s shop, and the man is unhinged when it comes to kids in his store. He’s had problems with crime, and on top of that, he’s grieving his wife’s death, and right at this moment, he’s in the anger, anger, anger stage.

Our 15 year old protagonist is Billy, a ninth grader whose mother works long hours and can’t supervise him effectively. His two longtime friends are Alf and Clark. The threesome is determined to get that Playboy from Zelinsky’s store. Since they can’t buy it from him, and since it’s kept behind the counter which the owner watches feverishly during all store hours, they’re going to have to steal a copy when the store is closed. Sort of steal it. They’ll sneak in; leave money on the counter; then leave with their magazines. They’ll want three, of course, so that each can have his personal copy.

When his hormones aren’t in overdrive, Billy loves computers more than anything. He sneaks a programming manual inside his textbook during class time, because it’s what he wants to learn about. His mother is beside herself when she sees his grades—“You’re failing Rocks and Streams!”—but she has no idea what to do about it. The only thing she can take away that Billy really cares about is his computer, and she does it, telling him he can have it back once his grades are up.

As it happens, our store owner has a daughter that’s about the same age as Billy, and she has a computer too. Billy is better with computers than any of his public school classmates, but Mary, a student at St. Agatha, is brilliant. He talks to her initially as part of the scheme to get into the store at night and filch the magazine, but once he sees what she can do online, he is transfixed, and he spends more and more time in the back of Zelinsky’s store watching what Mary can do on her computer. He notes that his own technical finesse next to Mary’s is “like finger painting next to Picasso.” As the friendship between them develops, Billy is torn between Mary and computers, versus Alf, Clark, and the magazine. He tries to back out of the plan they’ve agreed upon because he doesn’t want to hurt Mary’s feelings, but complications emerge.

Although Rekulak does a fine job developing Billy, the best developed character in this story is unquestionably Mr. Zelinsky.  As to setting, I am impressed with how much minutiae is absolutely accurate here. But it’s not the character development, setting, or plot that drives this novel; it’s the voice, which is as authentic in adolescent reasoning , planning, and oh dear heaven, in its impulsiveness as anything I have ever seen.

Whether you are a teen, a parent, a teacher, or a reader that’s just looking for a good laugh, you’ll find it here. Highly recommended.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

The Education of Dixie Dupree, by Donna Everhart*****

theeducationofdixieduI rate this 4.5 stars and round it upward. Thanks go to Kensington Publishing and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This courageous novel, one that takes place in the past but couldn’t be more timely, is going to create a lot of buzz. Get your marshmallows ready, because I think I smell hot tar and burning wood…or is it paper?

A note: there’s no way to review this without providing at least the basic elements of the story. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, read the book, then come back and check my viewpoint against your own.

Although it’s billed as being a story about mothers and daughters, and about secrets that pass from one generation to the next, that wasn’t my take away from this one, I have to say. From where I sit, the story is about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse. I haven’t seen a solid YA novel take this on in such a straight forward manner, and I think there are a lot of children, girls in particular, that will benefit from reading it. Would I read it out loud to a class? No, I would not. Rather, it’s a story better saved for reflection and possibly for discussion in a small group or with a reading partner. It takes a lot of trust just to talk about this book. In some school districts, teachers may face the battery of parental approval and permission slips. Oh, good luck with that.

Dixie tells us her own story. She’s born in a tiny, impoverished hamlet in Alabama in the 1960’s. Her parents are having money problems, and their relationship isn’t going well. Evie, Dixie’s mother, is on the verge of a breakdown of some sort, and she takes out her frustration and rage on the child that looks just like her, and that of course is Dixie. In an effort to apologize, she sits down with her daughter later on and tells her that there are times she can’t control herself:

“’I can’t explain why I react like I do sometimes, you know? It’s done and I can’t take it back, although God knows, I wish I could.’

“I whispered, my voice hoarse, ‘God don’t hear us.’”

At one point a social worker shows up at the house and Dixie has to decide whether to spill it or sweep it under the rug. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.

Ultimately, Evie summons her family for help, and Uncle Ray comes all the way from New Hampshire to lend assistance. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray has a whole lot of demons of his own.  Dixie doesn’t like the way Ray stares at her as if she were his next meal; she doesn’t like the way he brushes up against her. But when she tries to tell her brother how she feels, he laughs at her and points out that she isn’t all that attractive, and her body hasn’t exactly grown boobs; why would a grown up man be interested in dumb old Dixie? And so Ray, who is the sole source of grocery and clothing money for this miserable clan, is left to do what he wants to do unchecked.

“Uncle Ray smelled different, not of Old Spice, but something else, something sharper.”

When Dixie threatens to expose him, Uncle Ray points out that it’s basically his word against hers, and would she prefer he close his checkbook and drive back to New Hampshire? By now Dixie knows what it’s like to be genuinely hungry for days on end. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan has not yet taken root; there isn’t any assistance available from the state. Sometimes a kid had to stay quiet or starve.

“I felt something break, something turned off like a light switch in the very center of me.”

It’s a hard, hard story to read, and yet I can’t help think of all the girls and women that will read this book and know that they aren’t so strange or terrible, and that this does happen to other girls in other families.

I’ve tried not to give away more than the broadest contours of the story so that you can find out the details for yourself. One thing that I would change if I had the power is the whole adoption thread, which is superfluous and In its own way, more harmful than helpful. It’s almost as if the author is afraid to acknowledge that blood relatives will do this thing to their very own children; yet they will. Hell yes, they will. Any teacher that’s been in the classroom for a few years can tell you that much.

As for me, I have my own story.  [Skip paragraph if you prefer to stick to the book itself.] There were some awkward guitar lessons I had when I was about twelve years old. My guitar instructor had recently decided to teach out of his home; he lived alone. One day after my private lesson, my father asked me, in the car, how that lesson had gone. I was a little afraid of being made fun of, but I told him anyway that my instructor made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if I spent as much time walking my folding chair away from his as I did working out the chords on the neck of my instrument. I’d move over; he’d move over. His hand would land on my thigh while we were talking. I’d flinch, pull away, and move my chair. He’d move his chair. All of this within the framework of a perfectly normal guitar lesson, if you ignored all the strange furniture and hand-moving. My father, who died in 1978, heard what I said and told me we could get another guitar teacher. I asked if I would have to be the one to tell the man that I wasn’t returning, and he said no. Just consider that chapter over and done.

If only it could be so easy for everyone.

The book isn’t easy, but girls deserve the chance to read it if they want to, and likely there are some boys that could stand to read it, too. This book is for sale now; highly recommended.

Titles You’ll See Here Soon

The last time I put up a preview page, it was in the midst of household chaos, and I made the post by way of apology for not having a review to put up. I was surprised by the positive feedback I got, and so today, even though I have recently posted a review and will have more soon, I thought I’d show you what’s next. There are some repeats from my last preview that I haven’t done yet, but I’m happy to say most of those are done. Here’s what you can look for between now and Thanksgiving, barring catastrophe:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second Daughter: the Story of a Slave Girl, by Mildred Pitts Walter**

seconddaughterstoryofaslavegirlSecond Daughter is historical fiction based on the true story of an enslaved woman that went to court and won her freedom in New England around the time of the American Revolution. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. And it’s just as well, because if I had paid any money at all for this brief but troubled book, I would be deeply unhappy.

First, let’s examine the positive aspects that allowed the second star to happen. Walter has nailed setting, and when Aissa, the girl that serves as our narrator, describes the kitchen of her master’s house, we are there and can see it all. Here she does an excellent job. Other settings are also well told.

Second, the length, just 119 pages, is accessible for young adult readers, many of whom find it difficult, in these technologically advanced times, to focus all the way through a full length novel.

Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the virtues. I have two issues that plant this story on my literary wall of shame. The first is technical, the second philosophical.

Technically I see this as a decent if unmemorable read, and were I to judge this strictly on the writer’s skill, I would call this a three star novel. Overlong passages of narrative, often unbroken by action or dialogue and in lengthy paragraphs, are likely to hit the average adolescent’s snooze button early on. The choice to tell everything in past tense as opposed to the more widely used literary present deadens the pace further. When we finally do get a passage of dialogue, it is so stiff and stilted that not even the most engaging teacher, when reading this out loud to her class, could possibly breathe life into it. One character is depicted as speaking with a Sambo-like dialect, all “dis” and “dat”. If one is going to use a dialect, make it respectful and readable.  This verges on mimicry, and any Black students in the room that haven’t tuned out or gone to sleep yet are going to be pissed, and rightly so.

I can see that Walters meant well in writing from the point of view of a Black slave girl and in depicting a victory gained by Black people on their own behalf, as opposed to the usual torture, death, and despair that represented those kidnapped and forced into slavery. But this is also where I have to step back and ask what the ultimate effect of this book will be on students that read it.

For the average or below average middle school student, reading all the way through even a fairly brief novel such as this one will likely be the only book they make it through during the term in which slavery is covered in the social studies, humanities, or language arts/social studies block. Part of the power of good literature—which this isn’t, and in some ways that may be for the better—is that it drives home a central message. I can envision students that pay attention to this book, perhaps because the teacher is particularly engaging and has driven home its importance, and then walking away from the term’s work convinced that all any slave in any part of the USA ever had to do to get out of his or her predicament was to find a good attorney, take the matter to court, and bang, that’s it, we’re free. Let’s party.

This novel addresses a relatively brief period in the northern states, where slavery had been legal but had not been as widespread as in the Southern states. King Cotton had not become the dominant economic mover it would become by 1850, when its grip on all of US governmental institutions would be absolute. By then, northerners made their money indirectly from the cotton industry in everything from shipping, boat building, rope making, and banking to growing crops for consumption by Southerners and in some cases, for their slaves.

If one is going to teach about slavery, far better to do so as part of an American Civil War unit. It’s a tender, sensitive, painful thing for children of color, but it’s not okay to deceive them, however unintentionally, with the misimpression that all slaves had options that they didn’t.  Better to use portions of Alex Haley’s Roots; teach about the vast but much-ignored free Black middle class in the north that was the primary moving force behind the Underground Railroad; or to show the movie “Glory” in class to emphasize the positive, powerful things that African-American people did during this revolutionary time, than to emphasize something as obscure, limited, and potentially misleading as what Walter provides here.

I am trying to think of instances in which this book might be part of a broader, more extensive curriculum such as the home-schooling of a voracious young reader, yet even then I find myself back at the technical aspect, which results in a book that is dull, dull, dull. Literature should engage a student and cause him or her to reach for more, rather than make students wonder if it will ever end.

In general I have resolved to read fewer YA titles than when I was teaching and treat myself to more advanced work during my retirement. I made an exception for this title because the focus appeared to be right in my wheelhouse, addressing US slavery and the civil rights of Black folk in America. I regret doing so now, but it doesn’t have to happen to you too.

Save yourself while there’s time. Read something else. And for heaven’s sake, don’t foist this book on kids.

Newly Released: Nirvana, by JR Stewart Excerpt

Nirvana

After a big-time rewrite and vast improvement, this hot new novel hits the shelves today. Below is an excerpt, courtesy of the publisher:

The shrill five a.m. siren jolts me awake to the usual calamity. The bunker’s stale air; the pelting of dust balls and stray debris. I groan and hear Andrew’s chuckle. When I open my eyes, he’s getting dressed.
“Are you leaving already?” I ask.
Andrew leans down for one long kiss. “It’s eight o’clock.”
I bolt up in bed. “The five a.m. just went off.”
“Nope. You slept through that one.”
I groan. “I’m late.”
He leans over me. “You always are, Kenders.”
I rub my eyes. “When will you be home?”
“Late. I’ve got a meeting with my boss.”
I let out a long yawn. “Cheating on me again?” I wink.
He laughs and pulls out my photo from his breast pocket. “I’ve got
this framed on my desk.”
“You should get a better picture.”
“The green dress matches your eyes.”
I turn up my nose. “My grad photo is outdated.”
“It says everything about you. No one dictates what Kenders does. You wouldn’t wear school colours like the rest of the class did. Your green dress stood out, just like you do.”
He’s right. Our punk band was protesting the loss of habitat for bees, and this wardrobe choice was one of many anti-establishment statements we made that year. Since 2080, when Hexagon became the university’s major sponsor, it had been a new tradition to wear school colours. We boycotted that convention, and even at graduation we were handing out flyers, standing up for what we believed in.
Andrew kisses me on the lips. “I’ll see you at lunch.” About an hour later, I wake up to a softer buzzing. This time, Andrew has set the alarm for me. He knows me well enough to be sure that I’ll drift back to sleep the moment he leaves. I jump out of bed to get ready. I run a comb through my tangled bangs, and pull up a mat of brown hair, covered in dust. That’s what happens when you hit the shower too late: no water in the reservoir, not even enough to brush my teeth. I rub at the dark splotches of dirt until my pale skin turns bright pink, and then give up on my hair and pull it into a ponytail while I step into my uniform. I stop for a moment before heading out the door, and pull Andrew’s sweatshirt over my head. It drapes in a large fold over my narrow shoulders. I rush to jump onto the bus rumbling down the road, but it’s already passed by my compound.