Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review - Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens

Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens
edited by Marieke Nijkamp
Date: 2018
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reading level: YA
Book type: short stories
Pages: 320
Format: e-book
Source: library

A YA Anthology of short stories featuring disabled teens, written by #OwnVoices disabled authors. The stories reflect a range of genres and disabilities; contributors include bestselling authors Kody Keplinger and Francisco X. Stork, as well as newcomers Fox Benwell, Keah Brown, and more.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I haven't read a lot of fiction that features disabled protagonists. So, when I saw this one at the library (and recognized some of the authors' names), I thought I'd give it a try.

Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:

"The Long Road" by Heidi Heilig

The road stretches before me and behind. It is littered with camel dung and pomegranate rinds, wet tea leaves and boiled stew bones. Along it, travelers come and go, west to east and east to west, following the arc of the sun.

I found this story a bit weak and unrealistic. It seems to take place in the past somewhere along the Silk Road (though the directions are muddled and the narrator repeatedly implies that Persia is both to the east and to the west; whoever edited this one appears to have been asleep). My main problem with this story, however, is the narrator's affliction (either bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder--I couldn't tell) and how it's presented. Her "fate" isn't bad enough to keep her locked away like one of her cousins with a similar affliction, and yet it's somehow bad enough to warrant an expensive/dangerous trip to Persia in search of treatment (not a cure, mind you; this emphasis also felt way too modern to me). I have a feeling that, if someone were to exhibit symptoms like Lihua's, she'd likely be written off as odd; any more severe, and she probably would've been locked away so as not to bring shame on the family.

The writing was okay, but the weird juxtaposition of modern ideas about mental illness with the historical setting just didn't work for me.

"Britt and the Bike God" by Kody Keplinger

"So," Lorna said once Andre had walked away. "When's the wedding?"
"What? Never. No. Shut up." I hoped that if anyone saw the blush creeping up my face, they'd just excuse it as a side effect of exercise.

This story started out fairly cute, with a blind cyclist who's forced to ride her tandem bike with her crush (the "Bike God" of the title) in a 50-mile ride. The writing was fine, and it was interesting to see how cycling for the blind worked (I've never read about this sort of thing before). But, as the story went on, it started to feel a little unrealistic, and more like wish fulfillment than anything else. Andre was just a little too perfect with his acceptance of Britt's disability, and there were some cringe-worthy moments of rather juvenile flirting and kissing toward the latter half. So... this one was just okay for me.

"The Leap and the Fall" by Kayla Whaley

We left the plastic horse--Gemma running and me trailing her at full speed--but the sound of its fall chased me. We sent hollow laughter back over our shoulders, as if we were brave to laugh at echoes.

This is a fairly strong story about two friends--one in a wheelchair--who navigate an old carnival in the woods while dealing with an undercurrent of desire. I liked the way it was written, and the atmosphere was deliciously creepy; it's a good ghost story.

"Per Aspera Ad Astra" by Katherine Locke

Her whole life she'd fought a war on the inside. And now a war was coming to her from the outside.

This is the kind of sci-fi I hate. Even though it's set on another planet in the distant future, it might as well be 21st-century Earth. A few technologies here and there don't make up for the lack of thought and planning that went into the world. I've never understood why so much sci-fi has humans devolving morally (going back to slavery, for example); if that's going to be the case, it needs to be plausibly explained. And if you're able to travel across space to colonize another planet, why would you throw the principles of self-sufficiency out the window? Why connect everything with a grid that can be hacked/attacked at one central point? Why grow food in only one area, necessitating delivery to everywhere else? On top of the weak world-building, we also get some nice plot holes. If you restore the city's shield while the enemy ships are inside the city... (Did the author forget they were still there?)

When I saw that the main character and her siblings were named after characters in Pride and Prejudice, I thought maybe we were in for a retelling. But this is just a standard YA story (complete with a boy who makes everything better) with an annoying protagonist. I do not like Lizzie at all. Aside from the fact that her anxiety doesn't seem consistent, it also feels like a plot device, shoehorned in there just to cause complications and give Ros an excuse to murmur unrealistic encouragement in her ear. She's also pretty judgmental, snapping at Ros when she finds out he's just a delivery boy. (For someone who's probably had many judgments made about her because of her anxiety, she has very little empathy.) And there was something about this author's writing that just rubbed me the wrong way. It's like my brain was allergic, and it took me forever to get through those few pages. I definitely won't be seeking out any of her longer works.

"Found Objects" by William Alexander

I don't want you to squirm, or take my hand and say that it's tragic. I don't want you to roll your eyes as though I'm playing a macho game of one-upmanship: My pain can beat up everyone else's adolescent pain, so I'll just be over here in the corner, savoring the depths of my stoic suffering and shedding no more than a single tear while I listen to every single cover of "Hurt" and "Hallelujah" on repeat.

This is an interesting... appetizer. It's a very short story, but it still manages to set the stage (literally), introduce the character and his backstory, and leave me wanting to know more. The narrator comes from a very strange family, who can talk to the dead and do things like manipulate objects with the power of their artistic talents. I would love to read a full length novel about these people!

In this particular story, the narrator has to go deal with something that he accidentally conjured when he was performing as Richard III. He was in a car accident at some point in the past, and now uses a cane and has chronic pain. He channels that pain into his talents (although he makes it clear that he doesn't need to, as these talents run genetically through his family anyway). The story is also told from the second-person POV, which makes me more curious about who "you" is (there are some hints that they could be a potential love interest).

Pretty much the only complaint I have with this one is that I wanted more!

"Plus One" by Karuna Riazi

You couldn't really feel like a pilgrim, either, when you were in an airport full of stuffed-camel stall shops, designer duty-free chocolates, and abandoned iced coffees littering the sides of conveyor belts, melting mournfully in the rising heat.

This one just wasn't for me. The setup was interesting enough, with Hafsah going on pilgrimage. But I never really got a good idea of what her disability was, other than some sort of vague mental illness. She called the thing "It" and it was depicted almost like some sort of animal. It was implied that other people could see it, and it could do things like make her clumsy and shatter her bracelets or make her lose her temper. I didn't know if she was hallucinating or if she just had anxiety or depression. Unfortunately, when I couldn't tell what was going on, it just made Hafsah seem like a whiny teenager who mentally browbeat herself for not praying hard enough to get rid of It. The story could've worked for me if the nature of It had been explained a little better; but it wasn't, so it didn't.

"The Day the Dragon Came" by Marieke Nijkamp

Her hands cramped, and her fingers clawed. She wanted to push her nails so deep into her joints that that would be the hurt. A pain that she could increase and decrease. A pain that she could control, instead of this unsteady burning from the inside out.

I don't quite know what to think about this one. There wasn't anything objectively wrong with it. It's a story about friendship and belonging and all that good stuff. But I just couldn't seem to emotionally connect with it, so I was left with a rather bland taste in my mouth. This is probably one of those "it's not you, it's me" stories; other people might enjoy it more than I did.

"Captain, My Captain" by Francisco X. Stork

"She said I could come over in an emergency. Do you think the death of a goldfish is an emergency?"
"An emergency. Like a fire?"
"Sometimes it's like a fire. Sometimes it's like what Bernie must have felt... like he was drowning in the same water he had lived in all his life."

This one was weak. The dialogue was stilted and unrealistic, there were infodumps all over the place, the characters were unlikable, and I couldn't figure out what the disability was supposed to be. Alberto was supposedly intellectually and developmentally delayed, but it seemed to me that his bigger problem was hearing the voice of Captain America in his head... except when he looked at the spiderweb in his room (which is confusingly random).

Is this literary fiction? Maybe it is. I just don't get that kind of writing. I don't particularly like it, either.

"Dear Nora James, You Know Nothing About Love" by Dhonielle Clayton

They all turn back to face a darkening screen. The previews start. The cramping crescendos as everyone laughs. Sweat beads across my forehead. I look left and then right, counting the number of people I would need to scoot past to get to the bathroom on time.

This one was a little too relatable for me. I totally get the trapped feeling of being in a place like a movie theatre, surrounded by other people, and you don't know if your bowels are going to rebel... and then, that uncertainty just makes the anxiety worse, which can make the physical symptoms worse, and before you know it, you're having to make a bathroom run. So that part of the story was done fairly well (although, I was kind of annoyed with Nora for doing stupid stuff like eating ice cream, even though she knew she'd pay for it later; take care of your body, girl!).

What I wasn't crazy about, though, was some of Nora's advice in her column. Yes, I get that it's a product of her own insecurities and fears, but I thought some of her advice was downright wrong (and yet she doled it out with the confidence of one who thinks she's right). I also didn't know what to make of Nora's friend Indie. She was a bit of a stereotype, wearing her gajra and dating a guy named Nikhil (is it a rule that you have to stick to your own ethnicity?). But... why was her name Indie? An Indian girl named Indie? Um... I really hope that was a nickname she gave herself.

"A Play in Many Parts" by Fox Benwell

By the time we pulled into the drive, I had elaborated, and the whole nativity was staged upon the moon, where it always looked like snow, because Christmas wasn't Christmas without snowmen.

This was so utterly pretentious (as if you can't tell from the above quote) that I wanted to vomit. I had a terrible time getting through the story at all. I guess I just don't get it because I'm not a theatre kid. (Oh, and about that: two stories featuring theatre kids with canes is a bit repetitive in a book with only thirteen stories.)

I couldn't tell exactly what the main character's disability was supposed to be, so it came off as forced. E (referred to with they/them pronouns, and wishing they didn't have a name at all... which I thought might've been their disability--some sort of identity disorder--but it wasn't) had a chronic pain condition, but what kind wasn't explained. They used a cane, their dad showed up at rehearsals with cryptic comments of "your teacher has a right to know", and E themselves made more cryptic comments about how this would be their last play. Are they dying? Who knows? It was never explained, and, quite frankly, the story would've worked pretty much the same way without the disability, so I didn't see why it was included, other than as an excuse for E to go off on another character at one point about not equating disability with sin (when the only person doing that appeared to be E themselves).

I hated every second of this, and very nearly DNFed. I very nearly DNFed a short story. That'll give you an idea of how much I loathed this pretentious, pro-theatre screed.

"Ballad of Weary Daughters" by Kristine Wyllys

Lucy was humming under her breath. It was low, too low almost, a barely-there whisper that I shouldn't have been able to hear in the dull roar that was a hundred-plus kids squeezed into a space designed for maybe half of them, but Lucy was my moon, and if music comes from the sky, it draws your attention.

I don't know. This one treads a very fine line between showing loving support and implying that "true love fixes everything". I wasn't that impressed by the writing in places (although, in others, it was lovely). I think the problem was that it isn't really a story. It's just a few scenes, and while those might have worked to set the stage for a longer work, they weren't really enough on their own.

"Mother Nature's Youngest Daughter" by Keah Brown

"You're looking terrible today, as usual. Maybe you couldn't tell, even with those huge glasses on your face. Are you wearing your sibling's hand-me-downs again? Do they give you a lot of room to hobble around in? Or do you just enjoy looking as good as cat pee smells?"

This one is pretty bad. It's very juvenile, the villains (named Kacey, Lacey, and Tracey... I'm not even kidding) are over the top (see quote above), Mother Nature is ridiculous (why are they so worried about being found out? Why would anyone believe they can control the weather?), the dialogue is stilted, there are continuity problems all over the place, and the "revenge" Millie takes on the bully is laughable. (She put snow in her locker. The girl burst into tears of humiliation. What a weird reaction! If I came back to my locker and found it stuffed with snow, I--along with everyone around me, most likely--would probably have been laughing in disbelief and awe.) This could've been an intriguing story, but it just didn't work at all.

"A Curse, A Kindness" by Corinne Duyvis

Sienna is still playing with the flyer. It helps her think. Otherwise, she might focus on the coolness of Mia's silky sheets or the manga title poking her leg or the rhythm of Mia's breathing right beside her, which--the moment Sienna stops flicking the paper--will be the only sound whispering into the quiet of the night.

I spent a lot of this story confused, and by the time I figured out I wasn't reading some squicky story about a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old in some inappropriate romance, I was too tired to go back and reread it. This could've been an interesting story, but it used one character's disability for emotional manipulation of the reader (at least, that's how it came across to me), based on a flawed premise. The idea behind Sienna's character is that she was cursed to be a genie after freezing up in a life-or-death situation when she was nine years old. She believes it's because she's autistic, but the freeze reaction can happen to anyone, especially children (since they have few other options when faced with threats due to their size and speed). This article helps explain the reaction; I wish the author had read about it more before basing her entire premise around the idea of someone being punished for, essentially, having autism. The curse would've been unfair to anyone, but implying it's somehow worse because it was inflicted on someone because of a reaction they had due to their autism just rubbed me the wrong way. Especially since, as I said, it could've happened to anyone.

The resolution of the curse also didn't make much sense, unless there was a time lag. I didn't understand how Sienna's thoughts of that evening could be going round in her head if... well, that would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, there were some weaknesses in the plot and the setup of the genie rules. (Like how Sienna couldn't make people fall in love--because that would be messing with the victim's free will--but she was able to kill people. Wait... what?!)

I was somewhat disappointed that, in the notes about the authors, the respective disabilities weren't explained. As this is touted as an #OwnVoices book, that information would've been nice to have (especially since, in some of the stories, the disability isn't quite clear). It seems a bit contradictory to not include that information. If a disability isn't something to be ashamed of, why not own it, the way the characters in some of these stories do? It made it difficult for me to care when I didn't know what, exactly, I was reading about. Informing people about these disabilities is important when it comes to acceptance; if people don't know what they're looking at, how can they begin to understand it?

The overall selection seemed to be a bit lacking. I can think of a number of other disabilities that could've been included so that there wouldn't have been so much repetition (did we really need two stories about cane-toting theatre kids?). Where are the deaf teens? The ones with muscular dystrophy? Where were the disabilities that actually affected day-to-day life in a meaningful way? (I know this is #OwnVoices, so the authors are speaking from their own experiences, but I felt that some of these stories glossed over the difficulties that other people with some of these conditions face, especially if they're more severely affected. There seemed to be quite a few missed opportunities here.)

I wasn't too impressed. I'm never blown away by these short story collections, but this one seemed to be weaker than most of the others I've read. At least I have a few more authors for my "want to read" (and "never want to read") list!

Overall: 2.31 out of 5

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