Review: The Girls of No Return

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Lida, sixteen, has been sent by her father and stepmother to the Alice Marshall School in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Alice Marshall isn’t a school that girls test into; at least, not with school grades and entrance exams. It’s a school that girls are sent to: girls who have done something, a Thing that is more misdemeanor than felony.

Lida is silent about her Thing, both to the reader and to the other girls at Alice Marshall. Quiet, more lonely than shy, she keeps to herself, trying to avoid her cabin mates, especially the volatile Boone. Then, Gia comes to Alice Marshall. There is something about Gia, and all Lida knows is that she wants to be Gia’s friend. To be more than Gia’s friend: to be important to her. No matter what the cost.

The Good: Different story threads are woven through The Girls of No Return. There is Lida and her Thing, the Thing she did to warrant being sent away to an isolated wilderness school. Why is Lida like she is, so shut off from others? What could she have possibly done?

There is the story of love and friendship between teenage girls, with emotions heightened because of their isolation. For Lida, this is doubly true because while at Alice Marshall she is physically isolated from the world, just like the other girls, Lida has always been emotionally isolated. The small world of Alice Marshall ironically offers Lida an opportunity to develop real connections and real friendships. Or are they real? The girls are here for many different reasons; while what Lida needs is friendship, or, rather, to be chosen, to be wanted, to be someone’s “best,” that is not what other girls want or need or offer. Some do offer friendship; others, honesty, no matter how blunt or brutal; and some people’s needs can only be met by using or hurting others.

The Girls of No Return is told with flashbacks, with the Lida now (roughly two years after the events at Alice Marshall) telling the story that happened then. So, the book begins with an “Epilogue,” and that epilogue is sprinkled throughout the book, with the final chapter named “Prologue.” It is the Epilogue to the events that happened at Alice Marshall, and a prologue to the rest of Lida’s life. The Epilogue tells the reader, from the start, that Lida has survived; as the novel continues, and that Epilogue continues, the reader not only begins to discover what happened at Alice Marshall but also that the Lida in the present is healthy, has friends, yet is haunted by what that happened. What is it? The suspense builds as the dynamics between the wounded Lida, edgy Boone and ethereal Gia are gradually revealed.

Lida is a tough person to like. She’s built up a lot of walls, but one gets glimpses of her humor and intelligence. Because Lida is telling the story, not every reader will realize that Lida’s isolation is partly of her own making. A quick disclosure: reading this as an adult, I began with a greater sympathy to Lida’s parents than Lida herself had.  Then, when Lida’s “Thing” is shared, I didn’t see how her parents thought that Alice Marshall was the answer. What do I know, though, because in many ways, Alice Marshall was what Lida needed.

The Girls of No Return is a story of forgiveness; of not letting the past control the future; and the decisions and choices we make, both in actions taken and not taken.

Review: Dreaming of Amelia/ The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Dreaming of Amelia by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan Australia. 2009. In the United States, released as The Ghosts of Ashbury High, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, 2010. Reviewed from Australian edition; gift.

The Plot: Amelia Damaski. Riley T. Smith. Two new students at Ashbury High.

How curious, the other students think, to start a new school in the final year. How mysterious, no one knows anything about Amelia or Riley. How romantic, the two are clearly a couple. How cool, they muse, how anything Amelia and Riley touch seems to be that much more important.

Perhaps what people should be thinking is “how dangerous.”

Lydia, Emily, and Cassie and their friends spend their final year of school wondering about Riley and Amelia and figuring out their own lives and loves, with a ghost or two thrown in for good measure.

The Good: It’s Jaclyn Moriarty. ‘Nuff said. I’m a but surprised that while I’ve read (and own) all of Moriarty’s Ashbury High books (Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie), I’ve only reviewed one of them, Bindy Mackenzie. I’m not going to keep you in suspense, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010. The entire post is all my reasons why.

Moriarty’s books are about the students at wealthy Ashbury. The tone, spirit, and themes of each book differs; characters shift from main to supporting to absent from book to book; Ashbury remains the same. What also remains the same is the fresh, constantly changing ways to tell the story, using letters, emails, post-its, journal entries, school reports. Because each book is unique and stands alone, you don’t have to read all the other books. Also? Moriarty’s books are FUNNY. It’s a combination of the characters being funny, in their observations and thoughts and what they say, and how Moriarty tells the story.

While funny, Moriarty’s stories are about serious subjects. The Ghosts of Ashbury High (while I read Dreaming of Amelia, I’ll use the US title to be less confusing) addresses an issue that lurked in the background of all the Ashbury books: the socioeconomic differences between the “haves” of Ashbury and the “have nots” of everyone else and the impact of privilege and wealth on the lives and choices of the teens.

The Ghosts of Ashbury High is told in a mix of school exams and reports from the perspectives of various students and teachers. The reader sees how Lydia, Emily, and Cassie see Riley and Amelia, and how Riley and Amelia see the rich, spoiled teens of Ashbury High. Is someone silly or spoiled? Dangerous or wise? What is the truth? It varies from person to person.

Remember how this is told via exams? This adds another layer — all that is learned is told through a lens, a specific lens of the exam. And not just any exam! The instructions: “write a personal memoir….draw on your knowledge of gothic fiction.” “write the story as a ghost story.” If a story is part of an exam, and not just any exam, but a Gothic fiction exam, how does that change how the story is told? Personally, I adore this method of story-telling, the way it’s a puzzle with shifting perspectives, the way the story changes and alters depending on the teller. Yes, for the first fifty or so pages I kept a list of characters because it is a huge cast, but it’s like any group of friends. I quickly got to know them well enough not to need my list.

So, that is one story — how two teens from the “wrong side” of town adjust to Ashbury High and how they impact those around them.

Another story is of a tight group of friends who have been friends forever figuring out how to include two new faces.

Another story is of teenagers on the edge of adulthood, running to and away from their futures.

And, of course, there is the ghost story. Ghosts real and imagined; ghosts created out of want and need. The ghosts of students past.

And there is the history. Tobias’s history project involves researching local history and discovering things about the Irish convicts sent to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Are they the ghosts that haunt the story? Or is that simply the way he tells the story? I love history, so this unexpected bonus — IRISH CONVICTS, yay! — was awesome. I did wonder, a bit, how American teens would react to this bit of history. I read the Australian version which includes a historical note about Castle Hill and the transported Irish convicts. I haven’t read the US version, so I’m not sure what (if anything) was added under the assumption that “oh, Americans won’t know or understand that.”

In looking to see how bloggers wrote about the Australian history aspect of this book, I found this spot-on perfect review at The Book Smugglers, told in pure Moriarty style. If you’ve read Moriarty’s books, you’ll enjoy it; if you haven’t, its the perfect sampler to decide whether it’s your flavor.

Review: The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Pancho Sanchez, seventeen, ends up at St. Anthony’s Home after he is left alone. His mother died when he was young; his father was killed in a work accident; and then his sister, Rosa, twenty (but mentally more like a ten year old) was found dead. Pancho got kicked out of his temporary foster home placement for breaking a kid’s jaw. St. Anthony’s is the last stop before juvenile detention.

Daniel Quentin, or DQ, is also at St. Anthony’s, abandoned by his mother when he was ten. Now, seven years later, DQ has a tumor that is killing him slowly. His mother wants back in his life to dictate DQ’s treatment.

DQ wants to live, and die, on his own terms. He wants to make his own decisions. He creates the Death Warrior Manifesto and drags a reluctant Pancho into his vision of how a person should live. Pancho goes along with it for his own reasons that have nothing to do with DQ or his Manifesto. Pancho’s reason? His sister didn’t just die. She was murdered. Hanging out with DQ, accompanying DQ on DQ’s tumor treatments, will give Pancho the freedom from St. Anthony’s to find out who killed his sister. And to kill him.

The Good: You know, since this is the second book I’ve read based on/ inspired by Don Quixote, I probably should read the original. Or, at least, get Man of La Mancha from Netflix. (The other? Libba Bray’s Going Bovine).

Stork, author of last year’s Marcelo in the Real World, delivers another book with a diverse cast of characters. Pancho and his family are Mexican-American, as is Marisol, a teen health care volunteer; DQ and his family are white; Pancho’s sister is developmentally disabled; DQ’s mother is bipolar; DQ and other characters have cancer, and sometimes that has a physical impact. DQ, for example, is usually in a wheelchair.

Rosa’s family never treated her differently because of her disability. For the three months after their father died, the two Sanchez siblings were left alone by social services. Rosa had a job, waitressing, and was making money. Pancho discovers that while Rosa’s mind was that of a child, she was not a child, and had age-typical interest in boys. Pancho quickly realizes that Rosa is dead because someone took advantage of that.

Pancho wants to avenge his sister; he doesn’t see a life beyond that, nor does he want one. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is Pancho realizing, through his friendship with first DQ and then Marisol, that he has options. What choice will he make?

DQ is treated with conventional medicine, standard and experimental, as well as Johnny Corazon, a “shaman” or “healer”. I was a bit hesitant about the shaman / healer aspect. Would this be “think healthy thoughts and you will be healthy!” (with the implicit counter message, you’re sick because you didn’t think the right things). Would it be taking a new agey type of portrayal, with (mis)use of such healing? The book took neither approach; DQ’s treatment combines both elements and Corazon isn’t a new age type. DQ wants neither treatment; even the medical approach is experimental. He goes along with it because he is still a minor and hopes that agreeing to do submit to treatments for a month means that his mother will allow him to make future health choices on his own — including the choice to stop treatment. One thing I like that Stork does is first, it appears that the “faith healer” may be preying on people, taking advantage of the rich white woman (DQ’s mother) who is looking for answers anywhere, including rocks and herbs.  At least, that is Pancho’s belief. To Pancho’s surprise (and mine!) it turns out that Johnny Corazon has a certificate in holistic medicine and there is more substance to him and what he does. I really cannot comment much more on the shaman aspect; via Twitter, Debbie Reese recommended Lisa Aldred’s PLASTIC SHAMANS AND ASTROTURF DANCES: NEW AGE COMMERCIALIZATION OF NATIVE AMERICAN SPIRITUALITY for those interested in knowing more.

I have to confess, I’m not a fan of “dying teen teaches others to live,” in either books or movies. Luckily, this is not that type of book. Yes, DQ is dying. Yes, his friendship with Pancho helps Pancho to get over the grief of losing his family and consider the possibility of life and love. Pancho has always been a fighter. Literally, his father taught him to box and he continues to practice at St. Anthony’s and to find mental calmness through physical activity. This makes his pairing with DQ all the more eloquent, in that DQ’s cancer physically weakens him to the point that merely walking is exhausting. DQ overthinks; Pancho doesn’t dwell on things. Together, they balance each other.

DQ is more than just a dying teen; he is trying to make sense of his place in life. He was hurt by his mother’s abandonment, and while we never learn whether he knows she is bipolar, considering everyone else does he has to realize that her leaving him at St. Anthony’s was not a selfish abandonment. At that time, his mother just could not take care of him. If Pancho’s internal journey is to let the dead bury the dead, DQ’s is to accept people as they are, including his mother. Part of that is realizing that “accepting” does not mean “agreeing with” or even “living with.” Pancho, too, has to learn about acceptance and forgiveness and the impact it has on the person doing the accepting and forgiving.