Because I've gotten a bit behind in writing lengthier reviews, rather than skip out on writing about a few books I've read lately, I thought it'd be worthwhile to write up a few shorter reviews. There's no theme or connection among any of these books except that I read them all around the same time.
Eleven girls went to the park with their teacher, but eleven girls came back from the park without their teacher. What happened to Miss Renshaw? Did Morgan, a guy who was avoiding the war and lived in the park and with whom Miss Renshaw was wildly smitten, kill her? Or did they run off together into the vast lands of Australia?
Why do the girls share collective silence over what they did or did not see that day in the cave? Why does it take eight years for them to talk about that day together again and share something which they may have constructed entirely for themselves? And is something automatically true if it's been written down? Or do we get to write down what we want the truth to be?
This is a heck of a little book. The story seems quite straight forward, but it's rich with depth, and the writing is strong. The main characters are very young -- late elementary or early middle school -- and the story thus reads through that lens. There is loss of innocence here and it's particularly tough watching that pain happen to the characters as an adult. But I suspect it is precisely at the right level FOR middle grade readers. That's not to say there's not good appeal here for YA readers, but I suspect it might be one of those books advanced middle grade readers would appreciate very much.
The historical setting works -- Australia during the Vietnam War -- and makes sense, even as an American. I was struck especially by what it was Icara hid from her peers -- Cubby especially, who she saw as a "friend" -- because it really felt perfectly in the time period and perfectly what someone her age would do.
I keep thinking, too, about what Miss Renshaw said to Icara. She was "too practical" and wasn't enough of a dreamer, and her father's career as a judge also made her resented by Renshaw. This was yet another layer upon a complex line of questions, particularly about truth, innocence, and the imagination.
The Golden Day explores the idea of history and the idea of collective memory and experience. There's not a solid answer to this story, nor does there need to be. In fact, part of what makes this book so good is that it leaves more questions than answers. Those are the take aways: what happened and what did we make up? Ultimately, do the answers matter? I think Duborsarsky's novel is one to keep an eye on for potential awards early next year. It's a dark horse that I hope more people pick up and experience.
Dead Ends by Erin Jade Lange (available September 3) will feature plenty of spoilers in the review below, so be prepared. This book left me feeling less-than-enthusiastic, and I want to lay out exactly why that is.
Dane's a bully. He has no friends, a long-gone father, and he and his mom are poor. She's an expert at winning the lotto but she doesn't ever cash in the tickets. She frames them on the wall. But her luck might be running out as her job teaching yoga classes continues to be cut back due to low class participation. Worth noting, too, she had him as a teenager and everything since then has been hard times.
Billy is the new kid in town. He just moved in next to Dane, and on the way to school, he follows Dane. Eventually, he makes Dane talk to him. Eventually, he's the reason Dane has another chance at school after yet another fight sends him to the principal's office.
Because Dane has standards -- not hitting girls or people with disabilities -- he's been "kind" to Billy. And that kindness is now an obligation, as the principal declares that in order to keep in school and not be suspended or expelled, Dane has to be Billy's ambassador to his new school. Billy has Down Syndrome, and he fears he might get beat up regularly (a lie, kind of) and Dane can prevent this from happening. Oh, and Dane also has to agree to doing one thing that Billy asks of him.
So what is that one thing?
Dane has to help Billy find his father. The father who disappeared. Who made a "goodbye" gift of a map of strange-named towns scattered throughout the US. Billy wants to help Dane find his dad, too, even though Dane wants nothing to do with finding that man. He'd rather get Billy reconnected with his dad and put it all to bed. Oh also, Billy wants Dane to teach him how to fight, so they practice in the park every week.
Then there's Seely. She's the girl who bumps into them, who wears her hair short and proud, and who is the daughter of two gay men (non-biological daughter -- she had surrogate parents). She wants to help both boys out in her own way.
If you're counting up the issues in this book, you've likely lost track at this point: there's the bully; there's the social class situation; there's the forced companionship between Dane and a boy with Downs Syndrome; there's the romance; there's the two-boys-missing-fathers; there's the boy who wants to find his dad; there's the girl who is herself a story and a half. But wait, there's more! Billy is a LIAR. He makes up stories. He's mislead Dane time and time again about why his parents split. His father was abusive and a hitter and that is why his parents split and his mother moved him away from dad. But don't worry -- there will be misadventures as they seek out this father, and when Billy finally gets in touch with his dad, then he has to move again. Not to mention at the end of the story, Dane finds his dad, too, happy and with another family.
There's too much packed into this novel, and much of the middle sags beneath the idea of the story. For much of the time, I felt like Billy was depicted as very juvenile. He has Down Syndrome, and he's high functioning. The problem was that Dane talked to him and treated him like a child -- and through Dane's "bully" lens, it makes sense. However, this felt so much like a cliche: the bully befriends someone who is Different and therefore becomes a better person because of it. There's very little depth to their relationship, even as it progresses towards the ultimate revelation of what happened to Billy's dad. The depth comes later, when it is revealed that Billy isn't reliable or forthright, and then in that moment, he's suddenly got more depth to both the reader and to Dane. Which is a weird, uncomfortable way for his character to be fleshed out -- I wanted to actually know this boy. I wanted him to be a real person. Instead, he is flat, one-dimensional, and only ever comes to life when it's revealed he's lying. Isn't there more to him?
And maybe it wouldn't have been so frustrating as a reader for that to be the big character development moment if the story wasn't set up in the somewhat cliched ideal that a bad person can be made a better person by being forced to spend time with someone who is "different." Because in this instance, Billy's "differentness" is what makes Dane a better person. It's what forces him to reconsider his bullying tactics and what forces him to reconsider the power of actual, meaningful human relationships (that comes in the form of Seely). Which Seely herself is also flat and underdeveloped.
I get it -- Dane would see these people that way. But it felt like a cheap way to prove a point, by offering up two very Unique characters. They felt shoehorned into a bigger story about bullying that was itself unsatisfying. I wanted Billy to be a full character, rather than a tool. And he is a tool, since the story begins with his first arriving at the school and it ends with him being whisked away -- all within a matter of weeks.
Where Lange wrote an incredible story of bullying in Butter, here that thread gets short shrift to the missing father/social class issues. And it's weird, too, how social class is depicted. Dane is very bitter that he can't have a car like everyone else at school because everyone knows all sixteen year olds get cars (not true in the least, but I buy his hyperbole since he is a 16 year old boy). Poor in Columbia is the trailer park. He is one stop away from there in terms of financial issues at home. And if that is the case, then it makes no sense why his mother is as she is. She works an unsteady job (okay, could buy it, since it's likely her passion) but the lottery tickets she buys, ends up winning, then hangs on the wall rather than cash in? She's SELFISH. It's not a sign of economic struggle; it's a sign of SELFISHNESS. It may be worded as pride, but that pride here evolves into sheer selfishness. In many ways, this is the weakest plot point in the story, and it's what Dane's character and story really hinge on: he bullies because he's jealous. He calls it that eventually, and he owns it -- which I commend -- but I never found myself sympathizing for his situation or WANTING to sympathize, either. Maybe I don't need to, but given how much emphasis he places on social class, it should have actually made a bigger impact than it did. The show of class here was superficial.
In many ways, this felt rushed. It could have been stronger with a few more rounds of editing, with some tougher questions being pursued and explored, and richer characterization of both Dane and Billy beyond their "labels" as bully and boy with a disability who then turns out to be a liar.
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (available now) was a book I looked forward to for a while because I love Aimee Bender's signature style (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is in my top ten all-time favorite books).
These short stories are glimpses into worlds so different from our own and yet completely, utterly our own. They are all very sad and very aching. As soon as one ends, it lingers in your chest. These are heavy, meaty stories, even though they feel as though they are not. They are about loss and loneliness, about death and never connecting, never relating to the world and those within it. Of course because these are fairy tales for adults, many -- most -- involve sex and the mythical and mystical power of the act and what it may or may not mean. "On a Saturday Afternoon" perfectly encapsulates this.
Most of the stories in here are excellent, though I felt the lead story "Appleless" was by far the weakest. I was also less impressed with "A State of Variance" (I skimmed the last portion of the story). My favorites were "The Red Ribbon," "Tiger Mending" (perhaps my favorite, with the killer lines Bender is so careful at weaving in that just cut to your core -- "That's the thing with handmade items. They still have the person's mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone. This is why everyone who eats a Whopper leaves a little more depressed than they were when they came in."), "The Color Master" (which depicted feelings -- chest-pounding anger and frustration -- in such an honest way), and "Lemonade."
And this is one of my favorite scenes in one of the stories because it captures precisely what it is what Bender does that makes her work so, so good: "But just beyond his sandwich, and the four TV shows he watched back to back, and his teeth brushing, and his face washing, and his nighttime reading of a magazine, and his light switching off, just the faint realization that there were many ways to live a life and some people were living a life that was very different than his, and the way they lived was beyond him and also didn't interest him and yet he could sense it." -- The Doctor and the Rabbi.
Readers who love magical realism and are okay with heavy sexuality in their short stories will appreciate Bender's collection. I wouldn't necessarily hand it over to a teen reader, though there will be teen readers who appreciate and love The Color Master. It's the kind of book you give to those with a deep appreciation for the way that language works both with a story and on its own separate from the story at hand.