Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Perfectly Not Perfect

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2017]
344 p. ; 22 cm.

I added this book to the library this school year after seeing it highly recommended in a review, and then seeing that it was a finalist for The National Book Award, I figured I had to read it.  I am very glad that I did. 

This book was great.  I was afraid that it would be a bit of a sentimentalizing or romanticizing look at a Mexican American family, but instead it was a book about the complex and difficult pains of loving and hating your family, of feeling trapped, of being poor, and of not fitting in.  It's not only a family drama, but is also a mystery of a death and unraveling the secret life of someone you think you know (or maybe I should say unraveling the secret lives of several people you think you know).  At its heart it's a thoughtful book about love.  It is a very tender book, but unlike Canales' The Tequila Worm, it has a lot of edge to it. 

The book follows the main character, high-schooler Julia, as she tries to grapple with several challenges: who really was her older, "perfect," recently deceased sister, how can she escape the limits of family and neighborhood to become the writer and intellectual she hopes to be, and how can she deal with the oppressive love of her grief stricken and overly strict parents?  Julia's trials over the course of the novel are interesting, sometimes surprising, often funny and worth the read.   Will I recommend this book? Absolutely


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Of Course It's a Mess

Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
New York, NY : Dutton Books, [2016]
355 p. ; 22 cm.

A bloody mess actually, because what else would you expect when living people suddenly (or should I say spontaneously) explode into a mess of liquefied body parts and fluids?   

The beginning of Spontaneous reminds me a bit of Gone by Michael Grant, in that an ordinary day at a high school becomes anything but normal with a shocking turn of events.  In this case it's when one the seniors in the school spontaneously combusts during a class.  When this is followed by many more single and multiple combustions over the course of the novel things get very crazy, and very disturbing.

I liked the first three-fourths of this novel pretty well.  The premise is a real hook for readers and by telling it all from the viewpoint of one of the smart and grim-humored characters - Mara Carlyle - the novel moves along at a raucous, albeit grotesque pace.  Of course, the government gets involved, theories of causes emerge, the town in New Jersey where it happens is first the scene of a media frenzy, and then quarantined - all the while the hapless senior class that is being afflicted by this tragedy is trying to figure out how to keep living and keep finding meaning in life.  Part of that search revolves around friendships, family, and the sweet romance between the main character and the quirky but nice young man, Dylan.

The challenge of this novel is where to go with it.  And in that I found it not as good as I hoped.  There is a bizarre character, FBI agent Carla Rosetti who by the end of the novel has gone strangely rogue.  There is a friend who's fate is a mystery - was her end a dream or did she escape or something else? There are many unanswered questions.  I didn't expect the novel to tie up all its loose ends, or have a happy ending, but it felt to me like the storyline simply got the best of the author who couldn't figure out a satisfactory ending and so let it just kind of fizzle out.

All in all, I'd recommend it to a student who wants a bizarre story and who won't mind finishing a book while still having a lot of unanswered questions.  Besides, the writing is fresh and interesting and the novel conjures up a lot of questions about mortality, meaning and how one should live in the face of imminent dangers - a parable for our own dangerous times, perhaps.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Insanely Plotted, but Complusively Readable

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis
New York, NY : Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
376 p. ; 22 cm.    

There is a lot to like about this revenge tale of murder and mystery set in the late 1800s.  The writing is smart, the characters are interesting and the novel has a dark edge that will appeal to readers who don't like their plots sweetened with syrupy romances and neat, happy endings.

The main character, Grace, is a striking figure - a young woman of a wealthy, influential family who is imprisoned in a Boston insane asylum because she has become pregnant.  The author has done a bit of research into the treatment of the "insane" and of women declared insane and developed a disturbing and satisfying novel out of the material.  If you want to see the benign asylum where Grace escaped to in Ohio, you can check out this page from Ohio University.

A lot of the plot springs out of the fact that Grace is an incest survivor who - having escaped Boston - wants to protect her younger sister from the perpetrator, and wants to exact revenge on him.  Did I also mention that she works undercover with a doctor in order to solve (by profiling) murders, particularly a murder involving a serial killer.  Her victimization, escape, hopes for revenge and protective zeal for her sister all come together in a dramatic conclusion that strains credibility, but is satisfying nonetheless.

Overall, I wasn't crazy about A Madness, but I will recommend it - with its historical background, strong female characters, and grim storyline it has a lot to offer a reader.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reduced to Tears

Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum
London ; Brooklyn, NY : Verso, 2017.
218 p. 22 cm.

This is a disturbing book and it should be.  It tells the history of how pain and distress inducing poison gas went from the less-than-lethal gas (yet still condemned by decent people) used against soldiers during WWI  to the go-to poison used by police and military forces of governments around the world to squash protests that they deem threatening to their order - no matter how unjust or unpopular.

The really interesting back story is how US marketing in the 1920s eventually triumphed in reshaping the perception of tear gas from a painful and uncivilized poison used against mostly-unarmed people to being considered a non-lethal alternative to more violent repressive tools of the state.  This book does a great job of showing that though tear gas - when used in moderation in an open-air environment - is not generally lethal, it's use by government forces throughout history has been such as to intentionally harm, maim and kill people.  This has been done by firing canisters and grenades directly at protesters (often at close range) and by using it in enclosed situations such as houses, prisons, cars, tunnels and buses.

The author also does a good job of showing how the use of tear gas rises when economic injustice is greater - during depressions, food shortages, violent occupations, etc.  Tear gas has been a crucial tool in unjust governments attacking protesters and destroying movements instead of addressing underlying inequities.  She also does a thorough job of showing how tear gas has been an integral part of the increasing militarization of police forces around the world (and showing how profitable this has been to suppliers).

For anyone interested in the history of this poisonous gas and learning how it has come to be so commonly used by all types of governments, I would highly recommend Feigenbaum's Tear Gas.


Monday, January 8, 2018

In Your Hand and Your Mind

The Universe in Your Hand by Christophe Galfard
New York : Flatiron Books, 2017, c2016
386 pages ; 22 cm

Galfard does a wonderful job of making cutting edge physics accessible to the lay reader.  Though many of groundbreaking advances in physics and cosmology have been made with advanced math, he forgoes math and complex equations, opting instead to lead readers on thought experiments that attempt to explain some of the most mind boggling concepts of modern physics - both on the macro and nano scales.

I think Galfard has done one of the best jobs I've read of helping the reader to really let go of "common sense" thinking and intuitive rationality - and instead getting the reader to accept the quantum realm as one where many metaphors (e.g. particles) can actually get in the way of just going with the weirdness of quantum physics.  He does a remarkable job of conveying how quantum fields really are like a new kind of reality or ocean where mass, energy and perhaps gravity emerge and disappear. 

I really would like to read Galfard's book again - over a shorter time span, too - since there are parts where the reality that he's describing is so strange and so bizarre (e.g. branes between multiverses!) that even with his simple and clear writing I found myself struggling to keep up.

Confusions aside, The Universe in Your Hand is a delightful imaginative trip through the bizarre established facts and unfolding theories of contemporary physics.  I'll recommend it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mild Cover for Real Terror

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Toronto, Ont. : Dancing Cat Books, an imprint of Cormorant Books Inc., [2017]
234 p. ; 21 cm.

The cover of this book doesn't prepare you for the horrors that await between the covers.  Dimaline's award winning dystopian thriller is a darn good read and I hope it will be reissued with a cover that better conveys the dangerous, terrifying world that confronts the heroes of this tale - a band of indigenous survivors and resisters who are on the move in the middle of this century when global warming has ruined the North American continent, and made Indians once again the hunted targets of white "recruiters."

The recruiters hunt Native Americans in order to bring them into the control of "schools" where they are subjected to cruel and murderous medical procedures aimed at removing their bone marrow.  The idea is that the marrow will somehow restore "dreaming" to the whites who have lost the capacity of dreaming due to the harrows of climate catastrophe.  I like the metaphoric value of the loss of dreaming, but thought it would have worked better if that loss were a symptom that led to death for the whites, since I honestly don't think a loss of dreaming would trouble people enough to hunt and kill others.  Regardless of the plot motives, the recruiters are determined, dangerous and sometimes assisted by Indigenous collaborators.  It's a horrible world. 

This book reminded me of two other disturbing, but excellent books I've read: the historically accurate City of Thieves by Benioff and the dystopian novel, The Road by McCarthy.

I really liked The Marrow Thieves and will recommend it.  It's an added plus that the author is a Metis, Canadian Indigenous author, adding to the diversity of YA collections.  As far as the cover, my main reason for wanting it different is that I'd like to see a cover that tempts more YA readers to pull this fine book off the shelf.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Fun, but Tangled Web

Miles Morales, Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds
Los Angeles : Marvel, 2017.
261 p. ; 22 cm.

Jason Reynolds is a talented writer (I really enjoyed the last book of his I read) and this story bears that out. It's a fun, clever and fleshed out novel that takes the Brian Michael Bendis' reboot of Spider-man as its jumping off point.     

The fun and attraction of Reynold's novel is the way it just treats as totally believable the idea of a late middle-schooler from Brooklyn having Spider-man-like super powers and runs with it.  Think of the problems and dilemmas having such powers would be while trying to navigate middle school and adolescence.  Add in the pressures of racism on our young African American superhero and you have a great recipe for storytelling. 

I was with Reynolds for all but the villainous (and somewhat mystical, magical mythical) role played by the Chamberlains of the novel.  This character(s) seems to represent the embodiment of White Supremacy and though interesting, I think it ultimately becomes too magical and unresolved.  Does this ruin the novel?  I don't think so.  I still enjoyed the read - great characters, great descriptions of the Brooklyn setting, and some action packed episodes of Spider-man adventures.  However, I would have liked it better if the racism and set-backs were just the usual racism and discrimination that Miles Morales would have experienced - instead of it being in the shapeshifting, creepy incarnation of Chamberlain.