Showing posts with label dysfunctional family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dysfunctional family. Show all posts

Friday, June 9, 2017

Things I Should Have Known by Claire Lazebnik


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was an awesome book by an author with a mouth-twisting last name - which happens to be the Arabic word (zebnik) for zebra as far as I know (but that's only as far as I know)! It's also a book where things could have gone sadly and badly wrong, but the author picked her way carefully through this maze and the result was amaze! For me she put a foot wrong on only a couple of occasions, missteps which I was happy to let slide because the rest of the novel was totally awesome.

Having read so many (far too many, in fact) YA novels which have timidly, like a lamb, followed the rest of the herd along the path most traveled (usually into bland oblivion or itchy annoyance), I live for novels like this, which strike out on their own path, tell their own story, and make it real.

The differences are clear from the start. Contrary to far too many YA novels, instead of starting out as the outcast and the underdog, Chloe Mitchell is a popular girl who is well-liked and dating the school's hottest guy (so she says), so that's a welcome reversal of the usual YA trope right there. In another departure, Chloe's sister, Ivy, is autistic, quite highly functioning, but nonetheless decidedly on the spectrum. What Chloe doesn't know to begin with though, is that the guy she most detests in school, David, also has an autistic sibling, Ethan, and he attends the same school Ivy does.

Chloe is truly torn between wanting to have a life for herself, and feeling responsible for Ivy, and facilitating her having a life, and she manages it well despite feeling put-upon and abused at times. It comes to pass that when Ivy expresses some interest in Ethan, Chloe decides maybe the two could date. Despite being four years younger than her sister, Chloe is very much the older sibling in this relationship, and she nudges Ivy along and arranges for them to meet at a yogurt shop downtown.

When she and Ivy show up, there is Ethan, and with him most unexpectedly, is David. Chloe is confused and annoyed at his presence until she discovers David is Ethan's brother, and has the same relationship with him that Chloe does with Ivy. Suddenly she not only has something in common with the guy she detests, but it's also something of vital importance.

A lesser author might have left it at that, but this author doesn't. She keeps on ramping it up. Ivy, while enjoying, in her own way, her visits with Ethan. has much more interest in a girl at her school named Diana, and rather belatedly, Chloe realizes her sister is gay.

Here was the first misstep in the writing, for me, which is that Chloe then refocuses on finding Ivy a "young, gay woman with autism" which is wrong-headed. Ivy's partner needs to be someone who can be with Ivy and appreciate her for who she is. The partner is required to be neither 'young' nor autistic herself!

Chloe makes a lot of mistakes and typically learns from them, but she never seemed to learn from this one. That she was so wrong about Ivy's sexuality ought to have taught her that she should be more cautious in who she tried to "line up" for her sister in future.

Of course it's obvious what was going to happen, because this novel still has the trope of the girl falling for the guy she initially hates, but here's it's done sensitively and not at all like a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, which was very much appreciated.

The relationship between David and Chloe grows naturally and organically, and there's no miraculous transformation. The relationship is troubled and thorny, because David is, but it's easy to see how the two of them are learning to accommodate to each other's ofttimes uncomfortable shape and demeanor as they grow to know each other. That kind of maturity in a relationship is rare in YA novels which are all-too-often puke-inducing, instadore-laden disasters.

This brings me to the second misstep, which is that David, at one point, is described by Chloe as having yellow flecks in his eyes. This is the biggest, most annoying cliche in all of YA-dom. Usually it's gold flecks, but yellow is hardly any better. I despair of YA writers who employ this because I have read it so often it's nauseating, and it smacks of a complete lack of imagination and inventiveness on the part of the YA author.

In the unintentional humor department, I have to quote the opening few words from chapter six which are: "A little before seven" which I thought was hilarious because chapter six is indeed a little before seven. But that's just my truly, hopelessly warped mind. In the intentional humor department, of which there were many sly instances, this line was a standout: "The indoor tables are all occupied by unshaven guys writing movie dialogue on their MacBook Airs, so we sit outside." The novel takes place in LA, so this was perfect and made me LOL.

My two minor gripes aside, I truly loved this novel and I fully recommend it. It was a welcome breath of life in a YA world which has become glutted with the rotting corpses of an endless parade of YA clone novels marching lock-step towards oblivion. The formatting of the ebook needs some work, but I assume that will be taken care of before it's released. In case it isn't, this needs to be fixed: "wish she could stay in in high school forever." (An 'in' too many!). But other than that, this book was about as near to perfect as you can humanly get it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones


Rating: WARTY!

This is a case of a novel where I found the author's name far more interesting than the novel she wrote! This is a story of two stepsisters, one of whom doesn't know the other exists, because unknown to her mother, her father is a bigamist. James Witherspoon was already married when he met Gwen and married her, and they had Danalyn (that may be two names - it's impossible to tell in an audiobook!) thereafter. Gwen and Dana have always known that they were the 'other women'. James's wife 1.0 never did. Unfortunately, the only thing which was " breathtaking " about it was how slowly it moved.

The blurb says, "Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's two families-the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode." If that's so, it's the slowest explosion ever to occur in the entire history of explosions, and therein lay the problem I had with this - nothing happened! I was desperate for the relationship between these two to begin, and it never did - not in the first fifth or so of this novel, and not in any meaningful way.

After that point, I gave up out of frustration and boredom. The author was far more interested in delving, Stephen King-like, into the minutiae of family life and into the antediluvian histories of these families. All I wanted to read about was what I was promised: two exploding sisters! Don't tell me you're going to have an explosive relationship and then lull me to sleep with tedium without ever getting around to actually digging deeply into the relationship! I can't recommend this despite the sweet voices of the narrators, Rosalyn Coleman and Heather Simms.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Becoming Naomi Léon by Pam Muñoz Ryan


Rating: WORTHY!

Published in Spanish as Yo, Naomi León, and read rather nicely by Annie Kozuch, this short story is about Naomi, of course, who lives with her "special needs" brother Owen, and her grandmother, after her own mother pretty much left them in the lurch. And now she's back, from outer space, she shows up at the door with that dumb look upon her face. They should have changed their trailer park, they should have fled upon a whim, if they'd known for just one second she'd be back to bother them! She's returned with her new boyfriend Clive, and a new name, to reclaim her kids, but Clive, it seems, has an agenda which is more tightly aligned with claiming dependent benefits than it is with wanting to love and care for two young kids. In fact, Mom wants only Naomi, not Owen.

At several audiobook web sites, Naomi's name is given as Naomi Guadalupe Zamora Outlaw, but in the actual book (which I take as canon over the blurbs!), her name is actually Naomi Soledad Léon Outlaw, the last part being her grandmother's name, and one which has brought her grief at the hands (or more accurately at the lips) of some moronic kids in school. The ordered and structured life they have in Lemon Tree, California (a lemon tree, my dear Watson!), where they live in a small trailer nicknamed 'Baby Beluga', might end up as a rather reckless road trip to find their father, Santiago, who evidently now lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was run out of their lives by mom, who might just now be pushing them back into his arms.

The kids' names didn't seem to fit, of me. Would a Santiago name his kids Naomi and Owen? It seemed just as unlikely that their mom would do it, given that she's just pretentiously changed her name to Skyla. I'm not sure what Skyla's motive is. Maybe she's just going along with Clive's plan, but after she slaps Naomi across the face, Naomi decides where she wants to be, and it ain't by momma's side.

There was one unintentional amusing moment when the narrator said "syrupy glaze" and with the Mexican element and the religious element to this story, along with my warped mind, I couldn't help but think of this as 'syrup igles" - but igles isn't the word for church, as it happens, it's iglesia, so it didn't quite work but almost! it works a lot better in French: syrup église!

The novel slipped a bit for me. It was interesting right up until they went to Mexico and we got bogged down in the radish carving festival, but that didn't last long, and it picked up again when Santiago arrived on the scene. Overall I liked this and felt it to be a worthy read (despite the fact that it has won some medals and honors!), and I recommend it.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger


Rating: WARTY!

This book went on for half its length offering nothing more than an extended pity party for main character: thirteen-year-old disaffected misfit Cassie Stephens. Then it changed and went on for the other half with an even bigger pity party for Cassie Stephens. This reads like a first draft of a Judy Blume novel before she tore it up and burned it with a large quantity of gasoline, before crushing the ashes to powder and then burying them too deeply even for utility companies to unearth them accidentally.

This might have been bearable had it not been first person PoV, which is worst person PoV, especially when the character is so completely self-absorbed in wallowing in hypochondria-inspired whining. Cassie was not likeable at all. Indeed, check that name. She has a seventeen year old sister. A seventeen year old sister who still goes by Stephie. Yes, Stephie Stephens. The author has infantilized them irreparably, so it's hardly surprising we get a lousy novel.

There was some humor and some engrossing moments, but just when it looked like the author might be getting over herself and starting to tell us an interesting story - Cassie's run for class president - along comes new boy in school, who's a hottie, and inexplicably zeroes in on Cassie as his main squeeze. This is one in a long line of school clichés in which the author indulges herself. There's the perky, devoted best friend, the mean clique, the wonderful teacher, the mean teacher, the embarrassing incident, the rough home life, and finally the guy who takes your sorry-assed weak girl’s life and turns it around because you’re too much of a weak and sorry-assed girl to do it yourself. Pul-eaze!

Curiously we get a brief explanation for why the one teacher is mean, but we get no explanation at all for why Cassie's family is as dysfunctional as you can get and still maintain a place in the family category. Her mom and dad are at each other's throats all the time, her older sister is downright mean to her, her younger brother, despite all this, is perky and positive, and charming, and not remotely affected by his disintegrating family. And he's only seven. Yeah, right.

Cassie's mom seems not to be mean at all. On the contrary, she's very supportive of Cassie, but Cassie is mean to her, rejecting her every overture, demeaning her every action, rejecting her support and friendship, and internally bad-mouthing her quite literally all the time. There is no reason for this behavior and none is offered. She has a better opinion of her dad, despite his absenteeism and self-absorption, and his routinely wandering off to play golf instead of spending time with his family.

In true trope fashion, the new boy in school this year zeroes in on Cassie for no apparent reason, and becomes her instant soul-mate, actively seeking her company, and asking her out to a movie. By the half-way point I was tired of listening to Cassie, and I certainly did not like her. I found the novel to be making no sense at all. Fortunately it was short enough that I decided to try and read it all the way through, to see if the suggestion of an improvement (as Cassie starts to run for class president) actually would turn out to be a real improvement, or if the new boy's clichéd attraction to and salvation of our main character would drag the whole story right back down into trope trash. That admittedly faint hope was dashed cruelly on the relentless rocks of Cassie non-stop whining.

Cassandra (for that simply has to be this moaning Minnie’s name) wins the school election as she loses her family through the inevitable divorce and the story suddenly stops. I can’t recommend this, not even a little bit. It's horrible. Had it been submitted to a publisher now, it would have been run out of town on a vuvuzela.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

You Against Me by Jenny Downham


Title: You Against Me
Author: Jenny Downham
Publisher: David Fickling
Rating: WORTHY!

Despite being proffered as young-adult fiction, this novel contains very mature themes, language, references to violence, smoking, alcohol, drugs, rape and sex. Having said that, it's a real rip-snorter! Yes, you heard me right and I'll bet no other review has dared to say that about this novel!

I was half-way sold after seeing the title; then came the back-cover blurb, and that first line. There was no hope for me after that. I read some 140 pages the first day, and that's with working full time and running the kids around. Or they were giving me the run-around, one or t'other.

The book is set in England and written by an English author (who has also had some acting experience), so I was right at home from page one. Actually from page nine. Downham (or her publisher) chose to number the pages right from the start, so chapter one appears on page nine.

I've posted a glossary of English terms for anyone who needs a reference.

This book is kick-A. There's Mikey, who we meet on line one page one (or nine) with the very first sentence: "Mikey couldn't believe his life". Yes, his life is a sentence. At least, that's how he feels, and he does feel, and strongly, too.

Mikey's 18 and lives with his absentee mother - that is she lives there but she's always got her abs on the settee. Or in bed. Her real problem is alcohol. Mikey appears to be the only person bringing home the bacon. Not that there's ever any bacon or any other kind of food in the 'flat' in the projects where the family lives. Dad's never mentioned. Mikey has a younger sister, Holly, who's 8 and who is missing school big time, and another sister Karyn, who's 15 and therein lies the main problem: we learn that Karyn was raped and now daren't leave the house.

Mikey is so angry that he heads over to Tom Parker's house to ding him with a 'spanner' in revenge for his assault on Karyn. He fails to meet Tom. Instead, he meets Eleanor (Ellie), Tom's disaffected sister who is dealing with the rape charge filed against her brother as effectively as Mikey is dealing with the rape charge his sister leveled. Ellie has no idea who Mikey is. She's also supposedly the only witness to what happened that night, and has declared that she saw nothing.

They meet again later at a welcome-home party when Tom gets out on bail, and they start to bond (bail bond, get it?! Forget it!). Mikey's plan is to try and get some information on her brother, so he and his pal can plan on how to ding him effectively with that thar spanner. Ellie is intrigued that Mikey isn't behaving towards her like other 'blokes' she's known.

On the day Ellie goes back to school bad things happen, and she detests all the attention. She gets into a fight and leaves early, and she calls Mikey, and they go down to the river together and swim despite the freezing water and lack of swim suits. And they kiss.

Mikey breaks up with his girlfriend Sienna about whom he cared little. In fact he's never really cared for any girl he's known (other than his sisters and his mum) until he met Ellie.

Meanwhile Ellie blows off school one day and heads out to the coast (they live in a coastal town) with her brother. She's becoming something of a rebel against convention after that school fight, and so she shares his cigarette sprinkled with some cannabis resin, something she's never done before. Wanting to express her fears and doubts about the upcoming rape trial, Ellie says (what is to Tom) the wrong thing and he essentially kicks her out of the car to find her own way home. Perhaps we should learn something about his attitude towards women from this.

Ellie recalls that Mikey had told her he worked at a pub on the sea front and so she wanders around and eventually finds her way into the pub where he is, but before she meets him, she runs into his boss who informs her of his name - something she hasn't known until now. She suddenly realizes that he is the brother of the girl her own brother allegedly raped!

She wants to storm off, but eventually they end up sitting on a bench looking at the sea. Ellie arrives at a plan: she will trap Mikey in the same way she thinks her brother was trapped, so she agrees to go on a picnic with him. When he shows up at her house, she invites him in, informing him that she's home alone, and that she still has to make sandwiches. Mikey ends up making them, and he's all ready to leave, but Ellie insists upon showing him around her home, and they find themselves in her bedroom, where she takes her top off, in the pretense that she's changing clothes. But Mikey doesn't behave in the ungentlemanly way she half-expected he would.

Suddenly Ellie's brother Tom is home unexpectedly, and he and Mikey get into a big fight which causes bruises and draws blood. Ellie breaks it up with the garden hose and Mikey leaves, feeling wretched, and neither wanting nor expecting to see Ellie again. But of course they have to see each other in court for the pre-trial hearing. Tom pleads not guilty. Ellie feels like rubbish warmed over. Mikey can't stop glancing at her.

Mikey and his friend Jacko (where did Downham come up with these names, seriously? Are these guys circus clowns or pre-schoolers?!) are out driving and Jacko tries to pick up two hikers they see by the roadside. His aggressive approach makes Mikey feel really uncomfortable, what with everything else that's been going on. Jacko can't understand his attitude. By this time, he's feeling as alienated from his supposed support network as Ellie is from hers. They have only each other they can talk to about this, it seems.

Ellie now has decided that she thinks Tom isn't as innocent as he claims. She agonizes over what Karyn is going through and she tries to talk with her family about it all, but is effectively pushed away whenever she raises these topics. Her brother and father treat her and her mother like servants. Maybe there's another lesson there? Like father like son?

Tom's solicitor talks with Ellie and advises her that they will not now be calling her as a witness since she's obviously compromised. He suggests that she might be wise to find her own solicitor.

A word or two about the British situation between barristers and solicitorsmight be in order, although I'm about as far from an expert as you can get. The rough breakdown is that the solicitor offers legal counsel, but the barrister represents the client's interests in the courtroom, although there have been changes to this system, I understand, so that things are a lot more muddy than they used to be. Why this system arose in the first place is a mystery to me. Doubtlessly it has its roots back in ancient British history, so I'd recommend you pop over to wikipedia if you're interested in learning anything about it.

Feeling completely cast to the wind, Ellie runs over to Mikey's place and texts him to meet her. At first he's a bit resentful and he tries to push her away, but they end up talking and then they take a bus out to her grandmother's empty cottage on the coast and there, they enter into a very hesitant tryst. Yes, tryst is the only word for it. It reminds me of a chapter I wrote in Saurus. It's Ellie's very first time, and it's Mikey's first time where he actually had his heart in what he was doing.

Both of them run into trouble when they get home and perversely, it has nothing to do with their intimacy! The secret is out at Mikey's place. Jacko has blabbed it all. Karyn is very angry at Mikey's 'defection to the enemy'. Ellie's family (at least the male contingent) are incensed at her defection. Curiously, her mother is the only one who 'mans' up and supports her.

Ellie goes to the police the next day to change her statement The police come down hard on her whilst telling her that it's for her own good because the defense (or in this case, since it's England, the defence) will try to argue that Mikey has put pressure on her to change her story. Curiously no one talks about the fight that between Tom and Mikey; it's like it never happened!

Ellie's father snipes at her relentlessly as he helps Tom to move out (he has to stay with a friend because he can't have any contact with Ellie now she's changed her story). They're taking out pretty much everything that belongs to Tom, like he died or is permanently moving out of the home.

Ellie feels wretched. When Mikey shows up at her home, bravely and shamelessly, since her mum and dad are home, tossing little rocks at her window, her mother appears at the door and tries to turn him away, threatening him with her husband and the police, but Ellie comes down in her pjs and they talk, and eventually (after she changes clothes) they take a walk together, out into the fields near the house. And that's how it ends, with the two of them realizing that the future is going to be rough and bumpy, but neither one of them is willing to give up on the other, nor turn from the path they're taking with each other and the future they will build together.

This is pretty much the perfect story. Downham nails it completely. Seriously. Sometimes the ways in which these people act is frustrating and annoying but they're not acting out of character. Yes, we never learn what the outcome of the trial is, but I don't think that's relevant. In reality it would be, of course, but this isn't about Tom and Karyn, it's about Ellie and Mikey, and Downham gives it everything.

One thing in particular to love about this novel is that Downham actually never takes sides. She never depicts Tom as being thoroughly evil, or Karyn as being loose or righteous, or dishonest. She tells it like it is - a complete mess, through which it's hard to see clearly and really hard to get a handle on what actually happened. Of course, Ellie clears up that part towards the end, but I don't doubt that this is what it's like when this kind of appalling interaction happens for real.

There are many people who take the attitude that all men are all closet rapists (and others who believe that women who dress in a certain way deserve what they get) and that all rapes are power plays, but I don't think it's quite that simple and people who try to paint this kind of thing in such simple black and white strokes are doing a disservice to the men and women involved in these tragedies.

Let's be clear: it's is never right to assume you have a claim on something belonging to someone with whom you're intimately involved or with whom, for whatever reason, you wish to be so involved. What your partner may offer you is a privilege for which you should be appreciative and thankful, even after it's withdrawn. It's not a title deed which you can claim at any time regardless of your partner's wishes, even if you're married to your partner.

The other side of that coin is that partners need to talk out problems they perceive, and not let them fester and turn into disasters. That's what partnership means. And they need to try to accommodate each other's wishes as far as is reasonable rather than simply turn their backs on each other's need for intimacy and thereby provoke resentment and potential problems down the road.

That said, one party or the other at any time has the absolute right to say no, no further, this stops here, and to be respected for that choice no matter what has happened beforehand. I'm sure that in the bulk of cases of rape, it is a sick aggressor who does not respect boundaries and who can't take no for an answer, but I'm not sold on the aggressive claim that it's 100% about dominance and subjectivity; that it's always a power play and I think it harms women and men alike to insist upon framing it always in such a pitiless black and white perspective

I think anyone who assumes that is missing things which could prove important in resolving and addressing case like this. Imagine, for example, that you have a couple of college kids who meet, go to a party, get drunk, but not helplessly so, have sex, and then in the morning one of them decides that was not what they'd intended, and files charges? How do we resolve something like that?

Clearly they should neither of them have acted under the influence of alcohol, but such a case is not the same as a case where someone forces their self upon another at knife-point. It's not that black and white. In that case, the one with the knife is entirely in the wrong and the other did nothing wrong although they will undoubtedly blame themselves, but in the hypothetical case I outlined above, who is really at fault there? One? The other? Both? It's a lot tougher to resolve that, which is why the smart thing to do is never to get yourself into a situation like that!

Karyn and Tom both should have realized that what they were doing was entirely inappropriate, but given Karyn's age and her inebriation, Tom ought to have been a lot more mature. Here's a conundrum: Suppose nothing had happened but Karyn had woken up convinced that something had? How would this story have run from there?

But in the end, in this case, the story really isn't about Karyn and Tom. It's about Ellie and Mikey, and it was told so well, with such great language and in such an engaging way. For as sad and frustrating as parts of the story are, and for as confusing as the issues can be, this is a great story.

Here's something to make you think. Doubtlessly, this will sound sick to some, but there's a potential for a sequel here about Tom and Karyn, which would be even more controversial: how they go from this appalling rift and detestation of each other, to falling in love and getting married. Yes, it would be an extremely tough novel to write, even more so than You Against Me, and many people probably wouldn't appreciate it, but if anyone could bring off a novel like that, it's Downham. How about You and me Against the World for the title?!

Here's something I came across today, Tanya Gold taking Joanna Lumley to task for her supposed blaming of girls for getting themselves raped! No, that's not what Lumley is saying at all, as far as I can tell. Lumley is telling girls how to protect themselves. That's not the same as saying it's the girl's fault. Of course it's the rapist's fault. But what Gold is saying is the equivalent of telling the fireman who advises you to get a smoke alarm and a fire extinguisher that it's not necessary because it's 'the fire's fault' if your home burns down, not yours! lol! Seriously? If someone told you that you that, since it's the burglar's fault, you don't have to bother locking up your house or your car when you're away from it, would you think that advice smart? I wouldn't.

Yes it's the rapist who is entirely to blame for the rape, but there's a big difference between looking like a victim and actually becoming a victim. Taking intelligent precautions to keep yourself safe from burglary, robbery, fire and from attacks is not the same as taking blame for an attack if it happens, although all-too-many women do it pains me to say. All Lumley is saying, as is, I think, evident from the context, is that it's always smart to be proactive when it comes to protecting your person and your property. There are things you can to do to avoid even looking like a potential victim, let alone actually being one. So does Gold want girls to be victims just because she can then rightly blame the rapist? Can't we have both: people taking care to safeguard themselves and their family, and placing the blame squarely on the perp when those safeguards fail? It doesn't have to be either/or, Ms Gold.

Rape continues to be a news item, of course, both in the US miltiary of late and at shocking levels, and in Egypt. Evidently Islam is no respector of women, and religious military doesn't appear to offer women any security there either.