Dystopian YA

The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, has been variously compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, and Lord of the Flies, by reviewers and readers alike. I can see some parallels: The subjugation of women, with their fixed roles and color-coded hair ribbons, by men who use fear and ignorance to stifle female individuality; pitting the young girls against one another in a contest for supremacy; the artificially created isolation while waiting to see who survives. But this book is both more and less than any of those—more frightening in its depiction of the virulence that comes out when these girls are made to understand (or led to believe) that they will thrive only at the expense of other girls; yet less intense in the sense that the threats they encounter are many of them manufactured, some existing only in their minds. Certainly the relentless bullying of one group by another, and the ganging up of the many on the one, are true to form for all the books.

The story: Garner County is ruled by a strict form of religion, mostly unspecified although pseudo-Christian in some aspects. But there is a magical component that feels like it was introduced directly from the Salem Witch trials: Young girls are believed to have an uncanny set of powers that gradually come to fruition following puberty, and the girls are sent away to live together in isolation in a guarded compound for an entire year when they turn 16, supposedly so they can dissipate their magic into “the wild” and return to the County ready for marriage and motherhood. Their society is ruled by a council of men, and punishment for the flouting of rules includes banishment, stoning, hanging, and death by fire, further perpetuating the Salem reference. It’s baffling that most of the girls will compete so hotly to be a part of such a society, but if you know nothing else and are all too aware of the alternatives (banishment includes prostitution on the outskirts of the county, for instance, and that’s one of the less fatal destinies), it makes more sense.

Tierney James has other plans for herself. She has no desire to wed just to be controlled by man and motherhood, and has calculated that her best bet is to become a field worker, so she can be outdoors and remain as free of constraint as possible. But her hopes are shattered when she is given a veil, the symbol of being claimed by a man as soon as she returns from her “grace year.” This news is likewise unwelcome to other girls in her year who thought they were much more likely to claim one, so Tiffany is set up from the beginning of the year as a victim for bullies and malcontents. Tiffany is, because of her former tomboy ways, better prepared than most to survive in the wilderness to which they are all conveyed, and she soon realizes that the threat to her happiness—and safety, and survival—isn’t the wilderness, the woodland creatures, the poachers, or the guards, it’s the other girls. But she is unprepared for the mad intensity with which she is pursued…

They can call it magic.
I can call it madness.
But one thing is certain:
There is no grace here.”

THE GRACE YEAR

The narrative by Tierney is atmospheric and consuming. The fears of the girls are stoked up to exploding point by the little knowledge they are given, coupled with their dismay upon seeing other groups of girls, greatly decimated in number and also in health and looks, returning to the County from their own grace years. The dread and anticipation are palpable, and the greatest horror is the way the women and girls all act against one another, fueled by misogynistic feelings of insecurity and doubt about their futures. Tierney does her best to combat these knee-jerk reactions and pull some of the girls out of the mob mentality, but her success is sporadic and limited. I don’t want to tell too much about the plot or the individual events or relationships, because it’s something that should be experienced first-hand by the reader, but there are many unexpected twists, especially in the last third of the book, that will keep you guessing to the end.

This book is terrifying enough to qualify as a horror read as well as a dystopian one. (Who decided that a pink cover was appropriate?!) I can’t say it’s exactly enjoyable, because it’s so brutal; but it’s definitely a book you won’t forget, and one that deals in a graphic manner with more subtle currents in society that should be addressed, from stereotypical roles to religion gone awry. I particularly liked that the resolution of the book wasn’t neat and tied up with a bow, but left some room for both despair and hope.

This book came out in 2019, yet seems to be on everyone’s radar now, for some reason. Maybe it’s the delaying effect of the pandemic, or perhaps readers were subconsciously influenced by the attacks on our democracy and personal freedoms to read about this oppressive, unpleasant society as a warning. For whatever reason, you might want to pick it up while enthusiasm is running high.

Openings

Los Angeles Public Library finally let me have The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, a book about which I had massive anticipation after having devoured Alix Harrow’s second book, The Once and Future Witches (review here). And while that book was about spells hidden in plain sight and this book was about elusive doorways, in a real sense both books are about openings.

The 10K Doors beguiled me from almost the first page. The language was beautiful, evocative, persuasive. The story begins with a book, which is always a way to my heart. And the door theme carried me back to every beloved tale in which someone found an opening to somewhere else and was brave enough to step through it, from the classics (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia) to more recent works (Mirrorworld, Shades of Magic, Un Lun Dun), but it particularly put me in mind of Wayward Children, the stunningly original series by Seanan McGuire that portrays a group of children who have had the experience of going through a portal to the world of their dreams, only to later be ejected and left longing to return. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the ultimate portal novel.

Like the protagonists in McGuire’s series, January Scaller is a misfit in her own life. Her childhood has been simultaneously comfortable bordering on indulgent, and immensely restrictive; while her widowed dark-skinned father travels on business for his employer, January lives a sedate, smothering life sequestered in Mr. Locke’s mansion that is filled with the artifacts and treasures her father has brought back to him from all over the world. January spends most of her young life torn between gratitude for Mr. Locke’s guardianship and patronage, and resentful that she is kept like another of his precious objects, locked up in a house with no company save for that of a repressive nursemaid/chaperone. As a person of color, January is ogled and patronized by the lily-white British society within which the wealthy Mr. Locke moves (the story begins in 1901), and she has no friends save an Italian grocery delivery boy and the enormous and fanatically loyal dog with whom he gifts her.

As a solitary child, January naturally seeks out ways to amuse herself, and becomes immersed in certain texts and books not meant for her eyes, writings that reveal a possible escape from her overweening patron. But after her father dies and Locke discovers she may have abilities he and his friends value, January must call upon all her thus-far meager resources to save herself from their plans, and also prevent the doorways she has discovered from closing forever.

Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries. This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noontimes beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.

Although the book has a somewhat slow start, and the protagonist is initially almost frustratingly passive despite her inner nature (“The will to be polite, to maintain civility and normalcy, is fearfully strong. I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it”), the story within a story of Adelaide (Ade) and Yule Ian Scholar (Julian), who find one another when Yule crosses through a door from his home into a Kentucky wheat field, pulls you first into that world and then into the possible connections with January’s, and after that it’s total fascinated attention to the very last page.

This book is almost haunting in its sadness and yearning for the freedom of a wider world, and a longing for the ability to translate otherness into belonging. The loneliness of January, motherless and separated from a father who wants to keep her safe but believes that can’t happen if she is with him; the solitude of Ade, searching relentlessly for the door that will carry her back to Julian; the alienation of January’s friend Jane, exiled from her homeland because of a promise; all act upon the reader to provoke a desperate wish that these people will get what they want, find what they seek, and in that process make the universe a more fluid place.

Doors become more than just passageways to new experiences; they are also symbols of openness and change, qualities that January considers essential while Mr. Locke deems them threatening to existence. Stagnation is antithetical to those who wish for true freedom for everyone, while to the people in power it is an essential component in consolidating their dominance. January is one girl up against a wall of opposition, but she finds unexpected resources from her past, from her few allies, and finally from within. This story connected with my dogged belief, despite the mundanity of everyday life, that there is both magic and hope out there somewhere, if only the way can be found.
It bowled me over.

Relationship fiction

This is my alternative title for the pejorative term “women’s fiction.” I was angry from the moment I first heard that term (from Joyce Saricks in Genreflecting, no less!); it segregates both the readers and the writers and makes the books seem “less than,” as if they don’t deserve to be included in the tide of mainstream fiction. Has anyone ever segregated books into “men’s fiction”? Even when they are filled with macho testosterone—Jack Reacher, Vince Flynn, Jason Bourne—no one ever suggested that only men would enjoy them. So why this?

Saricks defines women’s fiction as “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” While acknowledging that this is a solid and definite trend, especially if you include the outliers of chick lit and erotica, I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. So I decided to insist on calling this “relationship fiction.” It still focuses on the most important aspect, which is the relationships between the characters, but it would include male writers who write about relationships, and would avoid the condescending terminology.

Having settled that, I read a prime example this past week in Our Italian Summer, by Jennifer Probst. The book features three generations: Grandmother Sophia, mother Francesca, and daughter Allegra, whose relationships could use some work.

Single mother Francesca is the work-obsessed owner of an advertising agency she is convinced will immediately fail without her constant attention. Except for constant exhortations to her daughter to be the best, and impatient dismissals of all of Allegra’s interests that don’t match with Francesca’s high expectations, she has handed over the day-to-day mothering of her daughter to her own mother, Sophia. She is, of course, perversely jealous of their close relationship, and finds herself feeling shut out even though she is the one who created the situation.

Sophia spent most of her life as a supportive wife and mother, and watched her daughter show disdain for Sophia’s life choices while following in the footsteps of her father, who was somewhat absent due to his own work ethic but who appeared to Francesca as a dazzling role model of everything she wanted to be. After his death (the implication is from over-work and stress), the only constant in their mother-daughter relationship seems to be a constant state of misunderstanding.

As for Allegra, as she prepares to enter her senior year in high school she is finding that she is no longer content with the society or conversation of her somewhat vapid girlfriends from her private school, and makes some new friends, who promptly get her arrested when illegal substances are found in the car in which they are riding around. This causes Francesca to start making plans for Allegra’s summer that don’t involve any of the fun Allegra was anticipating—a job, an internship, a camp. But Francesca’s own lifestyle intervenes first, as a breakdown in the midst of a presentation at work lets her know that she can no longer work at the same frantic pace.

Sophia, with a secret worry of her own, decides that the trip to Italy she and her husband always talked about but never took would be the perfect opportunity to get her daughter and granddaughter out of their respective comfort zones and make them confront their issues with one another. Francesca surprisingly agrees, more focused on the necessity to remove Allegra from the influence of her new friends than on her mother’s grand plans to visit the country of her heritage and use the trip to fix relationships—but Sophia doesn’t care about the reason, only that they will go.

There is a lot of interpersonal baggage to work through in this novel, but it’s not all emotional angst; the book is also a lovely travelogue of Italian towns, landmarks, art, and food, with a little romance thrown in along the way. It turned out to be a pretty good balance of these two sides of the story, and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Another author whose books focus on both place and relationship in somewhat the same way is Jenny Colgan, whose stories I have previously extolled here. I made a discovery that she had written a “boarding school book” and a sequel, and released them a few years back under a pseudonym…and no one found them. So she has now republished the first two under her own name, and has plans to write two to four more for the series.

I have always had a soft spot for those, apparently in common with Colgan, who talks in her introduction about how she wistfully idealized boarding school life based on her readings of everyone from Enid Blyton to R. F. Delderfield, and decided to write her own series for adults. The first of these is called Welcome to the School by the Sea, set at a school called Downey House, which is situated in southwest England near the cliffs of Cornwall—another enticement for me, since I seek out fiction located in that idyllic county.

The book is subtitled Maggie Adair #1, Maggie being a new professor who has descended 400 long miles from chilly Scotland and a confrontational public school experience to be a live-in English professor at an all-girls’ school on the English Riviera. From the subtitle I’m assuming that Maggie will be the constant throughout the series, while the girls will come and go as students do, but in this first book we also follow the fortunes of two specific students: Fliss, a child of privilege who has been sent against her wishes, and Simone, a scholarship girl who isn’t quite sure that she should have worked so hard to achieve…this.

I enjoyed the book, although it won’t count as one of my top five favorites of Colgan’s. It follows the typical clichés of class warfare between the posh girls and the outsiders, Fliss being one of the former and both Maggie and Simone representing the two fish out of water. Maggie struggles to fit in amongst the somewhat aloof staff, sticking out as much for her youth and enthusiasm as for her Scottish accent and poor clothing sense; Simone, the Armenian child of a doting mother who overwhelms her with care packages full of sweets, retreats within herself to hide her vulnerability to the catty comments and sometimes nasty tricks perpetrated by her three roommates.

There are romantic complications—Maggie has a steady, live-in boyfriend at home who doesn’t think much of her accepting a “snob job” so far away from him, home, and family, which leaves her open to the attractions of a handsome professor from the boys’ school just a few miles distant. And the headmistress of the school, Dr. Veronica Deveral, has a secret from her past that’s about to blow up her present, should it become known.

I liked everything Colgan did with the story, and will read on in the series, but it isn’t a compulsive favorite the way some of her others have been, so I will take my time, first visiting some much-anticipated sequels to series by other authors that have just hit their publication dates.

Departure?

I have read many (most?) of Alice Hoffman’s books, and although there are major shifts in the tone of her writing at certain points in her career, she is consistently someone who is attentive both to detail and to character. Her book Faithful is no exception to that, but what is missing (despite erroneous labeling by Goodreads) is the element of magical realism that pops up in many of her books. There is one part of the story that I suppose, at a stretch, could qualify, but it’s such a low-level background piece of information that I don’t really count it, especially because the magic is cited but doesn’t exactly manifest. At first I was disappointed at its absence, but as the character and the story grew on me, I put that aside and just enjoyed the transformation of Shelby Richmond

I admired one Goodreads reviewer’s phrase when addressing what this novel is about: “Rather than coming of age, it’s coming to grips.” That is the plot in a nutshell. Shelby and Helene are best friends throughout most of their lives, until a treacherous, icy road under their wheels leaves Helene in a coma and Shelby trying to deal with the idea that she is walking away unharmed while her friend will never come back from this. The thought that she wasn’t damaged is, of course, not the truth at all: Shelby is overwhelmed by grief and guilt, and spends years cancelling herself out of life as a punishment for the one she believes she ruined.

The doctors and her parents can call her condition whatever they wish; Shelby knows what’s wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma.

This is a somewhat dark tale, as some of Hoffman’s later writings have tended to be (for me, the turning point was her book Here on Earth, which forsook the lighthearted, sort of wacky heroines for a more serious tone and incorporated magic that was more portentous than incidental), but it is still enlivened by moments of comic relief. In this case, it’s Shelby’s impulsive nature, which slowly begins to rescue her from emotional trauma and depression and carry her forward into a new life. I love that it takes the form that it does, but I won’t specify what that is here, because it was such a delight to read.

The people and their relationships are the essential and most engaging part of this book; Hoffman paints a vivid picture when she develops a character, and it’s hard not to become emotionally involved with them, from Ben to Maravelle, Jasmine to James, to Shelby’s mom. This is a wonderful story of the effect persistent caring can have on someone, even when they don’t believe they deserve to be the recipient.

I never really figured out the significance of calling the book “Faithful.” While Shelby is faithful to her resolution to atone for the damage to Helene, and the two men in her life are both faithful to her redemption (as are her dogs), it just didn’t seem to fit. But I’m sure Hoffman knew what she meant.

Intricate plotting

My next book came recommended from the Facebook readers’ group (What Should I Read Next?), but I was careful not to find out too much about it before I read it. As it turns out, it wouldn’t have made too much difference (unless somebody really wanted to ruin it with spoilers), because We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker, is such a complex story that it would be hard to encompass everything contained within its pages in a simple book-talk.

Everyone in this book, and I mean everyone, has some sort of agenda, major or minor—some are obvious, some are hidden, some seem obvious but are quite the opposite—and following them all occasionally proved challenging but also definitely worthwhile. And along with these agendas go many secrets, a lot of misunderstanding, massive amounts of lying, and some catastrophic assumptions.

There are many ways in which one could characterize this book: It is a murder mystery, it is a coming-of-age story, it is the saga of multiple people caught up despite themselves in various forms of tragedy they are mostly unable to avert. Let me see if I can outline the basic story in some sort of coherent form…

There’s a guy called Walk (last name Walker), who grew up in the small coastal California town of Cape Haven of which he is now, at 40-something, chief of police. There’s another guy named Vincent King, who was Walk’s best friend until the age of 15 when he went to prison, partly sent there by Walk’s testimony. Star Radley is a friend of Walk’s and was also Vincent’s girlfriend before he went away, and she has two children, Duchess, 13, and Robin, five, but can’t (or won’t) disclose the names of their fathers. She’s a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser, with the result that Duchess, a necessarily tough girl with a perpetually bad attitude (picture a young Ruth Langmore from Ozark), is raising Robin and keeping an eye on her mother in an atmosphere of poverty and uncertainty. Walk tries to keep tabs on Star and the kids and help them out however he can, but Star seems determined to self-destruct.

The catalyst for the story is that Vincent is finally getting out of prison, after 30 years away, which precipitates all kinds of events, both expected and unexpected. There is a further panoply of significant secondary characters, mostly connected to Star and the kids but peripherally to others, including a couple of weird neighbors, an estranged grandfather living in Montana, a boyfriend with criminal connections, and a lawyer and former girlfriend of Walk’s; and then there are the tertiary characters—friends, social workers, helpful strangers—who enter and leave the story as needed. It’s a complex cast to juggle, but it’s masterfully done, and Whitaker manages to preserve the reader’s assumptions throughout the book, right up to the revelations of the unexpected conclusion. And what he does even better than keeping track of his plot is make you care about the fate of everyone involved.

This is a heartbreaking and frustrating story on so many levels—history repeats itself, love is mostly unavailing, and revenge and retribution are dealt out with a heavy and sometimes arbitrary hand. But it also speaks to the search for absolution and redemption, and the sacrifices people are willing to make for the people who are family, whether blood-related or not.

I won’t say much more than this, because the experience of reading it is so engrossing that I wouldn’t want to take away from that for anyone who chooses to do so. I was trying to think of other books that might be comparable to the complexity and drama of this one, and couldn’t. Stylistically, it’s a story about real people in a particular context; the closest I could come is This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger, but I liked this so much better (and I liked that one a lot). It also put me in mind of a little gem of a book called She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper, a much shorter and simpler story but with a protagonist who reminded me a lot of Duchess Day Radley, self-styled outlaw.

Don’t miss this one.

Moxie

The setting of this realistic young adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu seemed so appropriate when I began reading it a couple of weeks ago, and even more relevant at this present moment. It takes place at a high school in a small East Texas town, and the atmosphere there reverts back to the 1950s with its misogynistic focus on football players who can do no wrong and girls who are expected, for the sake of “school spirit,” to put up with their endless immature sexist bullshit as well as their overbearing sense of entitlement.

One junior girl, previously something of a nonentity at the school, starts to get fed up and looks for inspiration to her mother’s past. Although she and her mom returned to Texas to live close to her grandparents so her mom could afford to support them, in her youth Vivian’s mother was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in 1990s Seattle, and the vestiges of her rebellious lifestyle reside in a shoebox on the top shelf of her closet. Although Vivian has previously sorted through the contents of this box, one night after the most egregious offender from the football team—the quarterback, who also happens to be the school principal’s son—takes out his sick sexist humor on the new girl in class, Viv hauls it out again and looks for inspiration. She ends up creating a feminist ‘zine she calls Moxie, gets copies made at the local printshop, and hits campus super early to anonymously leave stacks of them in all the girls’ bathrooms.

While magazines are generally produced by publishing companies with the purpose of making a profit, ‘zines are self-published for a small circulation, distributed locally or through mail order, and are mainly created to spread bold, strong, revolutionary ideas.

Although she mostly did it just to let off steam (and isn’t even sure that she herself will take the action that she is advocating for others in its pages), Vivian’s ‘zine provokes a response from other girls that carries it far beyond what she ever intended, and Vivian is caught up in a movement she feels she may have started but ultimately doesn’t own. The validation from her classmates helps her develop a more solid sense of who and what she is (a person with options and a feminist), and the concluding chapters of the book are particularly gratifying in their empowerment of these girls. This is an excellent portrayal of grass roots activism for teenagers in this fraught political climate.

It also tackles white privilege regarding feminist issues, and features some people of color who fill Vivian in on the differences they experience when it comes to being feminist. And it avoids cliché in that it also doesn’t completely stereotype all the males in the story—Viv has a love interest who is doing his best to support, understand, and participate in her experiment, and he is portrayed realistically—sometimes he just doesn’t get it, but he listens and he learns. It’s great modeling.

Finally, it features a lot of fun music from the ’90s Seattle scene.

Although the story and writing are somewhat low-key, the entire effect of this book was a vital exploration of the awakening of girls to a situation in life that need to be changed and the tools they can pick up to do so. Although the things they do, set in the context of high school rituals, might in some cases seem trivial, the result of their actions is to propel them on to bigger goals, and in the process to include more and more people in the awakening. I’d love to see this on high school reading lists, although taking into account the contrariness of teens, that would probably mean it wouldn’t get read. So I will just say, if you are a librarian, a sister, a parent, or a teacher who wants to inspire some girls to think more of themselves and each other, hand them Moxie.

Mary Jane

For those of you who grew up, as I did, in the ’60s and ’70s, no, this isn’t a book about marijuana. But that recreational herb does figure into this book, in more ways than as a code name it shares with the protagonist.

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau, is one of the most charming coming-of-age stories I have read in decades. It’s not a book with a driving plot, it’s more a slice-of-life story about a particular kind of girl from a specific era and community; but the trans-formation she experiences over the course of one summer of baby-sitting is such a pleasure to witness.

Mary Jane is 14 years old, and the epitome of a sheltered, white, upper-middle-class girl, raised by two correct but cold parents in a respectable lifestyle that includes all the necessities and some of the luxuries of life but lacks passion, humor, and spontaneity. Mary Jane’s daily life consists of an unbending routine in which her lawyer father goes out to work and comes home expecting dinner at six and a quiet atmosphere in which to read his paper and enjoy his drink, while her mother stays home, cleans obsessively, gardens fanatically, adheres to a weekly menu that Mary Jane is required to help prepare, and rigidly polices Mary Jane’s behavior, schoolwork, clothing, and contacts. Aside from a weekly outing after church to lunch at the (all-white) country club to which they belong, there is little deviation from schedule. Mary Jane is a quiet, well-behaved girl with few friends, who finds solace in music (although that is mostly limited to the show tunes her mother enjoys and the religious music she sings in church choir) and reading.

But this summer, the Cone family up the street has asked if Mary Jane will babysit their daughter, five-year-old Izzy, all day every day. They plan to have guests staying with them, and need someone to be a nanny for their daughter while they are busy entertaining. Impressed with this request from Dr. and Mrs. Cone, who seem respectable and well-to-do, Mary Jane’s parents allow her to say yes. Little do they know what awaits Mary Jane behind the doors and windows of a house that seems much like theirs.

Dr. Cone is a Jewish psychiatrist who works from his home office with clients who suffer from addiction. His project for the summer is to be a full-time counselor and presence to rock star Jimmy, a recovering heroin addict, and Jimmy and his glamorous actress wife Sheba will be living with the Cones to facilitate this. Given their celebrity status, their presence in the household is a secret that Mary Jane must keep. Since she has been sheltered from all contact with rock and roll, Jimmy isn’t so familiar to her, but Sheba has been a weekly highlight on TV, for which she hosts a variety show.

Life at the Cones’ house is nothing like anything Mary Jane has ever experienced. Although their daughter, Izzy, is a well-adjusted, loving child, Mary Jane is initially shocked to learn how neglectfully she is treated: There is no meal-planning and they all seem to subsist on junk food and takeout; Izzy wears what she wants, goes to bed when she wants, and bathes irregularly, while her mom avoids the housework in favor of hanging out with Sheba. Mary Jane is gradually integrated into the household as its most necessary member, as she takes over the marketing, meal-planning and cooking, establishes regular bath- and bedtimes for Izzy, and begins to organize the chaos in every room of the house. A quiet, tidy child, Mary Jane is happy to provide these services for the family, especially in return for experiencing a bohemian lifestyle the like of which she never imagined.

Gradually, Jimmy and Sheba introduce her to all the music she’s been missing, while the doctor and his wife show her what a relationship between two loving spouses who adore their child (even though they neglect her sometimes) can be. It’s a household where there is regular hugging, kissing, and verbal expressions of affection, all like water to a parched plant for Mary Jane. In order to keep enjoying this foreign but welcoming lifestyle, however, Mary Jane must begin, for the first time in her life, to tell lies to her parents, from the big one denying the presence of Jimmy and Sheba to little ones that keep her at the Cone house for longer hours every day. As things around her get ever more out of control with the passing weeks of summer, Mary Jane dreads a reckoning.

The character development in this book is delightful, with the naive but realistic Mary Jane as its charming centerpiece. The author knows how to write people—Mary Jane sounds 14, Izzy reads as five years old, and the adults are all individuals with unique yet believable personality quirks. Likewise, the setting of the 1970s is fleshed out accurately, from the pervasive musical theme to the avocado green kitchen appliances and the exclusion of Jews and people of color from the country club. Mary Jane’s father includes President Gerald Ford in his nightly grace before dinner, and the actress, Sheba, is reminiscent of no one so much as Cher in her glory days.

This book is a wonderful exploration of class, race, lifestyle, and gender stereotypes from the era. But it’s also fast-paced (sometimes), often funny or poignant, and a brilliantly rendered view of the transformation of one girl’s life as she witnesses and experiences new things. Some readers complain that nothing much happens, and on a purely event-based level that’s true; but so much happens in the evolution of the individual characters and their relationships with one another! The publishers are trying to hype it as something akin to Almost Famous, but honestly, it reminded me more of Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s definitely worth the read.

Akata Witch

My UCLA class of masters students who are studying Young Adult Literature with me this quarter are a sharp bunch, and I have been thoroughly enjoying both discussing the books we are reading for class, and reading their synopses and review comments on Goodreads, where they post their conclusions for class credit.

One recent option for our unit on the paranormal was Akata Witch (The Nsibidi Scripts #1 of 3), by Nnedi Okorafor, and since it was the only assigned work I had not yet read, I picked it up last week along with a number of my students. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it; I read Okorafor’s book Who Fears Death and had a decidedly mixed reaction, partly admiration for its ambition, partly frustration for its all-over-the-map plot that felt like it never settled to one coherent story line. But I had enjoyed her novella Binti, so I trusted that this one might have similar appeal.

I was not disappointed by Akata Witch. I found it fresh and original, immediately bonded with the outsider status of its protagonist, Sunny Nwazue, and enjoyed the juxtaposition of her real world’s clash with the new system of magic she discovers through an unusual personal experience and the intervention of a friend from school and a neighbor to whom he introduces her.

Two of my students mention in their reviews how the book harks back to Harry Potter for them, or that they saw this parallel that has been pointed out by some reviewers. I’m assuming this is because it’s a group of children being inducted into a magical world, with a main protagonist who previously knew nothing of this world or her heritage or place in it. While it’s true that previous to seeing the end of the world in a candle flame (and setting her hair on fire), Sunny had no idea of the extra dimensions to which she was soon to be welcomed, which I guess you could see as parallel to Harry’s experience in going from an orphan under the stairs to a student at Hogwarts through the agency of an admissions letter and the abrupt appearance of Hagrid at his door, that is where the similarity ended for me. In the Potter books, once the children are transported to Hogwarts they enter a closed world, and they rarely set foot outside it for their subsequent years of education, having no contact with Muggles (regular people) except for their summers at home (which are mostly not portrayed in the books in any detail). Conversely, in Sunny’s world the Leopard People (those who possess magical abilities) live in the midst of the Lambs (regular people), and must be diligent to both keep up appearances in that world and keep their juju, their extra dimension of skills, beliefs, and magics to themselves.

This brought up yet another interesting point, from one of my students, Natalie M., who advanced the theory that Akata Witch is magical realism. I initially balked at that idea—it’s paranormal fantasy, I said—but then, as we discussed and tried to pin down the various aspects of magical realism, I realized that the story did fall into the classic definition: A book that is essentially realistic, into which magical elements are introduced as matter-of-factly as the day-to-day. I liked this quote I found in an excellent article by Kelsey McKinney in Vox:

Unlike in fantasy novels, authors in the magical realism genre deliberately withhold information about the magic in their created world in order to present the magical events as ordinary occurrences, and to present the incredible as normal, everyday life.

Some of the things I liked about the book:

The outsider status of the protagonist. She is different from those around her in so many ways: She was born in the United States, but to two Nigerian parents, who later return with their family to Nigeria (when Sunny is nine), so she has been raised as some hybrid of the two and is ostracized for it; she is an albino, with yellow hair and skin “the color of spoiled cream,” so one difference is constantly on display; she is a girl who excels at soccer but isn’t allowed to play, for both misogynistic and physical reasons (she burns too easily in the sunlight).

SUNNY NWAZUE, copyright 2022 Melissa Elliott

The world-building: The story-telling felt so fresh to me, I think, because the world is so obviously not America-centric. The day-to-day events, the culture, the places they visit and the descriptions of those places, the clothing, felt distinctly like something I had never previously experienced, and I enjoyed that.

How the magic works: While the four main characters—Sunny, Orlu, Sasha, and Chichi—are expected to adhere to certain standards in their magical learning and practice and not trespass on forbidden areas, there is not the feeling that their teachers or mentors are attempting to impose conformity on them—rather, they are celebrated for their diverse aspects, and their talents actually follow from them. (For instance, Orlu’s dyslexia makes him an adept at unworking or undoing spells.) There are certain messages here that are often neglected in worlds in which people somehow attempt to master or dominate magical abilities; in this one, the pursuit of power for power’s sake is discouraged, as is perfectionism, particularly comparing one’s own mastery to the progress of others. While there is some system to the magic they practice (gaining knowledge through books, through personal instruction, and through experimentation), there is never any complacency about “how things work,” because the juju can go rogue at any moment, setting up both the magical world and the world as a whole as unpredictable and not to be taken for granted. And I loved some of the details, such as the “chittim” (currency) that rains down on someone for learning something new, having a valuable insight, or successfully performing in a challenging moment. It seemed just the right method of positive reinforcement.

Although some reviewing this book find disturbing the disregard the older Leopards, the mentors, seem to have for the safety of the four when it comes time for them to confront their Oha challenge by defeating Black Hat Otokoto, I actually found that an additional piece of evidence that this is a world based on realism: The mentors fully realize the danger into which the children go and, granted, seem a bit ruthless when considering their fates, but they also recognize that the unpredictability and serendipity of sending these mostly untried practitioners up against this powerful villain may have a good result where calculated measures have failed.

Based on this first book, I think this is a wonderful tale to add to the “canon” of magical systems in teen fiction, and look forward to what the other two books in the series will reveal (if I can ever access them from the library’s extensive holds list!).

Romance and more…

My friend Judi commented that when she was at a loss for something to read or wanted to experience the comfort of a familiar story, she returned to the four-part Chesapeake Bay Saga by Nora Roberts. I had never read anything by Nora Roberts, but she is a prolific author and her books are ubiquitous, so I decided to check out this mini-series.

These books fall into what I would call the “relationship fiction” category, in that there is romance present that is a big feature of the story, but there is also some kind of content that reflects a family dynamic beyond just the true-love part. Roberts’s vehicle for these four novels was clever, in that she created a family of four “boys” who were turned into brothers by the charity of one couple who saved them from difficult beginnings, and then she wrote each book by focusing on the perspective and relationship of one of them.

Each of the boys, previously in an untenable situation, was discovered (in various ways) by Ray and Stella Quinn and adopted away from their pasts to be raised in a supportive and kind environment. As adults, the eldest three—Cameron, Ethan, and Phillip—have gone their own way, Cameron to a glamorous lifestyle mostly located in Europe, where he races fast boats and fast cars and lives on the prize money; and Phillip to a big-city career as an advertising executive with a generous income and an enviable lifestyle. Only Ethan has remained at home (although now in a house of his own) in the small fishing village of St. Christopher on the Chesapeake Bay, trapping crab for a living but investing time and hope into a boat-building business. Then, the acquisition by Ray of 10-year-old Seth, a fourth brother to join their family, is quickly eclipsed by the unexpected and tragic death of their father, who makes the brothers promise, before he dies, to rally around and raise Seth the way he, Ray, would have, given the chance. Although there are various levels of grudging reluctance to give up their chosen lifestyles to return home to take up this challenge, the three are all conscious of just what Ray and Stella (deceased some years before) did for them, and are resolved to honor their father’s memory and wishes by doing the same for young Seth.

The first, Sea Swept, is the story of Cameron, who was discovered as a runaway and car thief when he tried to boost Ray’s car at a young age; after realizing that his motivation was to get away from an abusive alcoholic father who beat him, Ray and Stella Quinn took him in. Now he has made a deathbed promise to his adoptive father to assist in the upbringing of new boy Seth, whose mother beat and neglected him, and Cameron is determined to bring the suspicious and untrusting Seth out of his shell and into the family the way Ray did for him. But an unexpected opponent is Anna, Seth’s social worker, who is playing by the rules of the child welfare system by assessing Seth’s living situation and determining whether it would be more appropriate to either place him in the foster system or reunite him with his real family. Despite his determination not to let this happen to Seth, whose psychological scars he recognizes as akin to his own, Cam is unbearably attracted to the spirited and determined Anna, as is she to him, and their involvement complicates an already fraught situation.

The second, Rising Tides, follows the story of Ethan, the quiet, reflective brother who has made a life for himself as a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay. Ethan’s mother, a drug addict, gave Ethan an unspeakable childhood that, despite his subsequent rescue by the Quinns, has made him determined never to marry or have children of his own, for fear of passing on some random evil gene. Local woman Grace, who despite her former marriage and the birth of her daughter has always cherished an unrequited love for Ethan, is determined not to let this be Ethan’s final word. Their romance plays out against the background of the campaign to keep Seth. In addition, the necessity for all the brothers to move back home in order to create a proper foster environment is the catalyst needed to involve Cam and Phillip in Ethan’s plans for a family boat-building business.

The third, Inner Harbor, is Phillip’s journey. Phillip is perhaps the most successful in terms of career, and also has separated himself the most thoroughly from his small-town origins. But after the Quinns gave him a life (almost literally—he was a gang member who was shot in a drive-by and was saved from death by Stella, the emergency-room doctor, before being adopted), he certainly can’t bring himself to turn down the opportunity for Seth to benefit from the same experience. Somewhat at loose ends after his move from his big-city lifestyle back to the tiny fishing village of his upbringing, Phillip notices Sybill, an intriguing writer who is making the town of St. Christopher the subject of her next book about the psychology of human interaction. But what he doesn’t know is that Sybill has a secret relationship to Seth that threatens everything the Quinns have tried to do for the boy.

The last book in the quartet, Chesapeake Blue, explores Seth’s own story in adulthood. Since it would reveal much about the way things went when Seth was 10, I won’t comment too much on this one, except to say that it, too, contains a romantic relationship, and the quartet is concluded with a happily ever after for many of its subjects.

There is much to like about this series. Yes, it contains multiple clichés or tropes—the macho, muscular, and ruggedly handsome brothers and their uniformly gorgeous love interests, the sex that is always incandescent for all parties involved, the meet-cute aspect of some of the relationships—but the thing that saves it is the back stories of the brothers and their sincere (and tender) determination to help a troubled 10-year-old boy the way that they themselves were aided by their adoptive parents. The thread that holds the book together is the development and transformation of the boy Seth and the creation of a welcoming family dynamic by all the other characters. The characters are nicely defined and feel, for the most part, like real people who express genuine emotions, and the small-town vibe is painted fairly realistically, with the charming offset by gossip and insularity. Wrapping it up as Roberts did with the story of Seth as an adult, showing the vulnerable cracks that remain in anyone who has survived a background such as those of these brothers, was the perfect way to end the story.

Although I don’t know that I would continue reading Nora Roberts as a favorite author (I am not a tropes and clichés fan, unless it’s Georgette Heyer!), I definitely enjoyed this foray into her genre and style.

Dragonback

Well, the proclivity for the devouring of extensive series does wreak a little havoc with a regular reviewing schedule!

I continued reading Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series through all six books and am finally back to report that it remains a charming and well wrought story arc that will appeal to lovers of science fiction, people who like a coming-of-age story, and those who are craving the adventure, hijinks, drama, and excitement of a “space opera.”

The parts are perfectly played by the humans—Jack and Alison—and the K’da—Draycos and, latterly, Taneem. The former are clever and wily, ingenious at dodging and weaving their way through a seemingly infinite number of challenges, yet also vulnerable and with the tendency to despair that young people who haven’t quite found their feet will fall into if left entirely to their own devices. But in this story, they are not—Jack has the poet/warrior K’da riding his back like a big golden dragon tattoo, and K’da is, in addition to being strong, resourceful and a heck of a song-writer, a stable, positive role model for Jack to emulate, in contrast to Jack’s Uncle Virgil, the good-hearted but self-serving conman who raised him.

Alison’s resources are a little more mysterious at first, and we’re never quite sure of either her motives or the identity of her allies as she and Jack meet and part during this complicated plot. While the only truly obvious bad guys are the sinister Vahlagua, operators of the Death ray and enemies of the K’da, there are a lot of other combatants in this field, emerging from the wealthy class, the government, from groups of mercenaries and land- and slave-holders, all of whose interests are somewhat aligned but none of whom can be trusted, and several of whom seem too familiar with Alison! Once she teams up with the innocent but fierce Taneem, however, Alison’s aspect begins to soften slightly, and the reader obtains glimpses of who they hope she will be in amongst all the trickery, as she and Jack draw closer.

The books are: Dragon and Thief, Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, Dragon and Herdsman, Dragon and Judge, and Dragon and Liberator, with Jack playing all those roles in his quest to save the K’da. Thus, in addition to the long-term goal there are many short-term ideas pursued as part of the solution, with Jack in turn learning how to be a mercenary, coping with capture and enslavement, shepherding some innocent bystanders while attempting to remain hidden from his foes, and acting as both arbiter and liberator.

The twists and turns that set up each book are beautifully structured to further exhibit both the evolution of the human characters and their strengthening bonds of empathy with their friends, mentors, and symbionts. The strategizing sessions amongst the characters are clever and lead seamlessly to the next adventure. And although the story occasionally bogs down just a little in the details of an individual episode, the momentum never fails to pick up again and carry the characters forward towards their goals. There are also plenty of exciting scenes of battle, both personal/physical and also using their weapons and ships in space to outmaneuver the conspiracy mustered against them.

Altogether, I have seldom read a more satisfying example of story-telling that will engage its intended readers. Librarians, booksellers, and parents, put this series on your list to especially recommend to your teens ages 12-16. (Add it to the books of Anthony Horowitz and D. J. MacHale as a great alternative for reluctant boy readers.) And fantasy lovers of any age, check it out when you want something clever, fun, and action-driven to read.

NOTE: Art is by https://kaenith.tumblr.com/ ©2017.