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Thursday, July 14, 2016

'The Smell of Other People's Houses' by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and 'Juniors' by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I’m very slowly easing back into my reviewer-groove; but life has been pretty hectic lately, and while I am certainly reading more than ever it’s just hard to sit down and collate my thoughts into halfway decent reviews. But I am trying.

With that in mind, I wanted to try a slightly different tact in discussing these two books that I’ve read and loved. The first was Kaui Hart Hemmings first foray in YA fiction with ‘Juniors’, which I loved so much that it made it onto my 2015 Favourites list! The second was a book I received an advance reader copy of via NetGalley, ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses debut YA novel by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about these two books, and how much I wanted to write reviews for both of them. But then I realized one of the reasons both these books imprinted on me so much was for their unique placement within the American YA realm, and in particular their distinctive settings. So I decided to write a combo-review, praising both books as marvellously good reads unto themselves, but in particular for these authors writing about teens in corners of America that we don’t normally visit in YA fiction (more’s the pity!) …

From the BLURB:

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock 
 Alaska, 1970: growing up here is like nowhere else. Ruth wants to be remembered by her grieving mother. Dora wishes she was invisible to her abusive father.Alyce is staying at home to please her parents. Hank is running away for the sake of his brothers. Four very different lives are about to become entangled. Because if we don't save each other, how can we begin to save ourselves?

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s YA debut ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses’ is set at, “the edge of America's Last Frontier,” – Alaska. It’s really more a book of intertwining vignettes rather than a linear, sole-protagonist plot. And I rather appreciated the fact that Hitchcock was telling four different Alaskan teen stories – because the moment I was dropped into this wild landscape, I wanted to read as widely and variedly as possible. The book opens with first character Ruth, detailing her life in Alaska from 1958-1963, an interesting period of the Alaska Statehood Committee and Alaska's Constitutional Convention – but the changes to Ruth’s homeland pale in comparison to a tragedy that rocks and splits her family apart.

Ruth’s story was the strongest for me, if only because she has the most upheaval in her life. But also because the moment I read Hitchcock’s opening Ruth chapter, I was riveted and goosebumping all over the place. I mean, this is a paragraph from the first page;

Sometimes Daddy would bring me a still-warm deer heart in a bowl and let me touch it with my fingers. I would put my lips to it and kiss its smooth, pink flesh, hoping to feel it beating, but it was all beat out. Mama would call him Daniel Boone as she laughed into his bare neck and he twirled his bloody fingers through her hair and they danced around the kitchen. Mama was the kind of person who put wildflowers in whisky bottles. Lupine and foxglove in the kitchen, lilacs in the bathroom. She smelled like marshy muskeg after a hard rain, and even with blood in her hair, she was beautiful.

What I loved about ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses’ was that these stories were not presented as unique or exotic for their Alaskan setting. This is just life, for these teens. This is their world, and it’s much like teen stories the world over – there are have’s and have not’s, teens falling in love and having sex (not necessarily in that order), there’s school and work and family dramas, parties and friendships forged in the fires of hardship. Wild and untamed as the setting might be, what’s wonderful about Hitchcock’s book is the realization that we actually have more in common than not with these Alaskan teens than you’d first think.  

But I do believe a lot of what makes this book really work, is in not presenting this setting through the gaze of an outsider. As indeed Hitchcock is not – she’s a fourth generation Alaskan, with an impressive bio: ‘She worked many years fishing commercially with her family and as a reporter for Alaska Public Radio stations around the state. She was also the host and producer of "Independent Native News," a daily newscast produced in Fairbanks, focusing on Alaska Natives, American Indians, and Canada's First Nations.’ And I love that she just plops readers right into the middle of this landscape and these character’s lives, and it may take a page or two to get your bearings but then you really can’t do much but let the intertwining stories of Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank carry you along – even as your occasionally marvel at where their stories are set.

From the BLURB:

Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. 
 Part Hawaiian, part Mainlander. Perpetual new girl at school. Hanging in the shadow of her actress mother’s spotlight. And now: new resident of the prominent West family’s guest cottage. 
 Bracing herself for the embarrassment of being her classmates’ latest charity case, Lea is surprised when she starts becoming friends with Will and Whitney West instead—or in the case of gorgeous, unattainable Will, possibly even more than friends. And despite their differences, Whitney and Lea have a lot in common: both are navigating a tangled web of relationships, past disappointments and future hopes. As things heat up with Will, and her friendship with Whitney deepens, Lea has to decide how much she’s willing to change in order to fit into their world. 
 Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. But it isn’t until her junior year that she learns how to do it on her own terms.

I love Kaui Hart Hemmings’ short stories – love! So I was thrilled when she turned her pen to a young adult book – particularly because when she wrote about youth in her ‘House of Thieves’ collection, they’ve been some of my favorite stories. ‘Juniors’ is more of what marks Hemmings writing so unique and complex – Hawaii setting and concentration on social dynamics and clash of classes. It all comes together in ‘Juniors’ about a teenage girl called Lea who is part Hawaiian, part Mainlander and all outsider. But when she enrols at the prestigious Punahou school and finds herself befriending the prominent West family, Lea’s world is turned even more upside down … Hemmings’ tale of a teen just trying to fit in may sound ho-hum, but the unique Hawaiian setting and complexity of upper-class families elevates it to something so much more and absolutely riveting.

I think this is likely to get compared to E. Lockhart’s 2014 smash-hit YA book, ‘We Were Liars’ – for the beachside setting, complicated romance, and upstairs/downstairs look at teen family dynamics. But they’re completely different, and where Lockhart’s was very much driven by that mystery plot, the beauty of ‘Juniors’ is Hemmings bringing her knife-point characterisation and connections to the YA readership.

Setting plays a big part in this book too, and especially in echoing protagonist Lea’s feelings of not fitting in anywhere – she’s part Islander, part Mainlander and when we first meet her, she’s being plonked into a Hawaiian school and new home, which makes her feel that duology more keenly than ever.

Hemmings is shattering the outsider perception of a care-free, laid-back surfer lifestyle in Hawaii, that most people associate with the island state (and indeed, she ripped that veneer away in her book-turned-movie ‘The Descendants’ too). Reading ‘Juniors’ I was reminded of this line that a character says in one of her short stories from 2005 collection ‘House of Thieves’ – when a young surfer girl sums their life growing up in Hawaii thusly to her friends; “We’re just kids growing up on an island, doing bad things in pretty places.” And that’s very much the underlining thread that Hemmings is picking apart on a larger scale in ‘Juniors’, to great effect.

But I think the big draw-card of this book is the upstairs/downstairs plot, and Lea’s complicated feelings for rich boy, Will West. 

I take a few steps back so he's not towering over me.  
"Don't," he says. "I like how much taller I am than you. I like looking down on you."  
"Impossible," I say, rising up on my toes. "That needs to be earned, and not by inches." 

This is also what Hemmings has always done really well, in writing very tangled webs and relationships in which characters have to balance sacrifices – big and small – to be with the one that they think they want. Hemmings has always explored this beautifully and pointedly in her adult books and short-stories, but the high-stakes translates just as beautifully to these younger characters, if not more so for how much more keenly they feel these sacrifices alongside amplified first times.

I unabashedly loved ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses’ and ‘Juniors’, in equal measure. And I particularly appreciated these two books for presenting a very different slice of American setting, and thus introducing me to US teen voices and experiences not often heard in YA. I definitely have a hunger for similarly diverse setting YA tales now, and also just more from these two exceptional authors.   

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Juniors yet but I loved TSOOOH (just realised how sill the acronym is!) My book has a different cover, but I think I like your cover better :) My cover


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