Remind me to never ever make a schedule. Because here we are, October first, and do you know how close we are to posting reviews of Q2 books?
About 2 weeks.
In a possibly misguided attempt to get caught up — in general, this year is so rich with multiply starred books that getting them all covered is going to be rough regardless (and that despite reading like a madwoman all year already!) — I’m going to hit lots of birds books with one stone post tonight. These are books that made the 3-star cutoff but that I’m not seeing as serious contenders. I’d hate to skip them, though, because then there’d be no room for anyone to fight for them and propose contrary ways of looking at them.
So one big old roundup post it is.
First up: A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle. It’s just too young. It’s a sweet, sometimes funny and sometimes sad magical realism/ghost/intergenerational tale as only Roddy Doyle could do it, and it’s a precious little thing (I do mean little; it’s 208 pages). It’s very Irish (occasionally I had to reread a line to make sure I was really getting the meaning), which isn’t actually a literary flaw, but does make me uncertain of some of the markers I use to judge the quality. I can’t tell if the voice is authentic, if the locales are accurate. Regardless, it all seemed great, but more for a mature middle grade reader (reviewers have pegged it as everything from 9 and up to grade 7 and up, and maybe we shouldn’t have even bothered covering it, but we wanted to be thorough. We strive to give ourselves nervous breakdowns by electing to read more more more, after all).
(It also seems to be a May pub that somehow snuck into my Q1 pile, so it’s getting covered early because, well, March and May both start with M.)
Strangely, Madeleine George’s The Difference Between You and Me also struck me as too young, although clearly it’s not. More that despite the YA-ness of the book when you describe it, it somehow felt young. Maybe it’s the intense immaturity of the characters?
What does work here: George is also a playwright, and her ear for dialogue is fantastic. These characters sound so absolutely real, and it’s not until you read truly excellent dialogue that you realize how much of what is out there is actually not that good at all. This might be the best dialogue out there, and so much is said through the conversations — much more than just words, for sure.
But the characterization is a bit larger than life, almost cartoon-like in its intensity; Jesse and Emily both have a tendency to think in superlatives — especially Emily, whose narration is first person. It struck me as the conventions of stage scaled down for fiction, but perhaps not scaled quite enough. The effect was that the characters tended to seem reduced to some broad strokes: Emily is closeted and ambitious and lies to herself. Jesse is not nearly as tough or cool or independent as she thinks she is. Esther is just a cipher with a Joan of Arc obsession.
I did think that this was a strong take on an old story, and the too big-ness of some of it that made it feel young also make it a great choice for middle schoolers. There’s enough here to feel older (those kissing descriptions! political activism!), but it’s actually quite tame and is a nice examination of toxic friendship dressed up as a toxic lesbian romance.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I liked this one lots. But in the end it felt thin. Too many places where the dialogue carried everything else, and too little anything else, despite the Big Ideas. It’s lightweight.
Which is exactly the way I felt about Sonnenblick’s charming Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip (look at these segues! So… weak, really. Anyway.) Light, despite the themes of loss (loss of a beloved grandparent to mental deterioration, loss of identity after a sport accident changes the foreseen path of Pete’s high school career) and growth. I read it and then had to read the back cover to even remember what it was about just a few weeks later. Rereading didn’t pull out anything new. This is charming and delightful and I recommend it for collections, but in the end it was a bit like a puff of cold air on a hot day — a pleasant diversion too quickly gone and too easily forgotten.
Switching directions completely, Erin Saldin’s The Girls of No Return has lots of meat. Big questions! Foreshadowing! Lovely descriptions of the mountains and the wilderness. I fully expect someone to take this on as a book to champion, but it won’t be me.
This is a debut, and it does have a lot going for it, and is one I wouldn’t be at all startled or disappointed to see on the Morris shortlist. But it also had, for me, two fatal flaws.
Flaw number one: the place. Geographically, I believe it. The sense of physical place is great. But it doesn’t make any sense in terms of rules; it’s reform school, sort of, but all anyone seems to do is hang out and smoke. Is it an unreliable narrator? But I don’t think we’re meant to think that (although she’s not entirely trustworthy), so instead it just felt like a place that was created to provide a setting for a story, without ever being real. You need girls in isolation with volatile pasts for the story of love and betrayal to work, but the backdrop is too important for the way it never feels real, and too inconsistent to come across as real.
Flaw number 2: Gia. What exactly does Lida see in her? Is it that Lida is so broken and full of self-hate that Gia’s attention is like a drug? And also, clearly, there’s the sexual subtext that is never really dealt with, and that kind of chemical infatuation can definitely lead to stupid behavior, but Lida is so observant to be so blind for so long to how messed up and awful Gia really is. This made it hard for me to understand how Lida makes the choice she does, because by that point it’s hard to see how she can fail to see that it’s not a choice.
Now, this is mostly a hell of a read, and the foreshadowing is very effective. The mood, the sense of growing dread (I so wanted to skip ahead!), Lida’s voice and the way she feels so much self pity when her life is actually pretty good, but she’s so caught in her own misery that she can’t see it, her growing love of the outdoors — great stuff. This is not a book that falls short so much as a book whose flaws outweigh its good in the context of award worthiness. I think this deserves a close read by the RealCommittee, but in the end I think the things that don’t work tip the scale.
Whew. That’s a lot of books I’m striking off my list of serious contenders. Comments are open for discussion, though, and I’m especially hoping someone wants to try changing my mind on Girls, which is the one of these four that I could see maybe going the distance despite my own serious reservations. So hit me!