Review of Random by Alma Alexander

Random is a story about Jazz Marsh, youngest child of a Random Were family. Unlike other Weres, a Random can change into different animals, but otherwise they are like other Weres — locked into a form for their Turns, all three days of the full moon. They’re also literally locked in — either into a Turning Room in their own house or in a government-run Turning House, which can cause some issues with school and work, oddly enough.

The world Alma Alexander has created is ripe for discussing how we treat the Other, who human rights apply to, and what it’s like to grow up different.

But she does this through the story of Jazz Marsh and her dead older sister, Celia. Jazz wants to figure out how her family fits together, why her sister died, and where she fits into the world. It’s a beautiful story, heart-breaking in places, yet with other snippets that made me laugh out loud. It’s an enchanting start to a new series, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws — at one point, Jazz asks a friend how someone could Turn in the middle of the day, and her friend asks whether she hasn’t seen the moon up in the middle of the day. Well, yes and no. The moon might be up in the middle of the day, but it won’t be a full moon. It’s astronomically impossible. The moon reflects the sun’s light. To have a full moon, the sun has to be striking it straight on — which it cannot do if the moon is between the Earth and the sun. So that threw me out of the story.

Overall, however, the world is well-developed (including all the medical information for the drug Stay) and self-consistent, as are the characters. If you’re looking for a YA read and like Weres, check this out. Currently only available in e-book format (Amazon), the paperback will be available in December.

Midnight at Spanish Gardens

This is one of two reviews I’ll be posting this week. I mentioned this book last month, as well as the author, Alma Alexander. If you’ve never read anything by her before, do yourself a favor and do so. I first read Secrets of Jin-Shei, which is one place to start with her work. Midnight at Spanish Gardens, her latest book, is another.

This book starts with college friends gathering for an informal reunion at a restaurant they used to frequent on the eve of “the end of the world” — December 20, 2012. There are tensions between them, things left unsaid as well as perhaps some things that would have been better left unsaid. During the course of their evening, they discover an unusual feature of the restaurant: a way to go back to the past and live a different life. A chance at a do-over.

The characters are people I felt I could know, and my heart ached for their pains, for Olivia, uncertain she wanted to show up at Spanish Gardens; for Simon as a child; for Quincey’s experience of love; for John, learning to define himself without referring to his father; for Ellen feeling trapped by her sex. The details of each life are believable, making each one fully realized, and some of the prose is simply beautiful. Alexander also has one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the mental life of a writer, with the internal editor who sees every flaw. Her mention of the problem with going into science when one has a soul of a poet is something I understand as well, and as for the comment about watching the stars go out overhead — I laughed. I won’t spoil anything by telling you of individual decisions, but I will say that I can understand how hard such a choice might be.

There are some things that nagged me about the writing — I couldn’t decide whether some elements (like the girl with green and purple streaks in her hair) were there for resonance between stories, or if they were accidental duplications of description. Similarly, I found “apprising” occurred frequently enough for me to notice it (especially as it should have been “appraising” in each case). The discussion of Ellen’s background threw me a bit because I was under the impression that naming someone for a relative, while a traditional thing to do, did not usually mean giving them the same name in Jewish culture, but rather something else starting with the same letter. (I could be wrong, or this could vary in different groups. I’m just saying that it threw me.) So it’s not perfect, but it’s still such an enjoyable read that I finished it in the span of a day.

Remember this before you decide. Here, you change the world around you; there, you have to change to fit the world. Both are harder than you think. Choose wisely.

When it comes down to it, that’s what this book is about: choice, how our choices shape our lives, and how we always have a choice. We may not have the choice to go back, to relive our lives from an earlier point, no matter how common of a refrain “If I had it to do over again” is, but we do make choices for what we’re doing all the time.

I can understand why people might want a second chance. I don’t think I’d do anything differently; I like where my life has placed me. If you had the chance to go back and alter a major turning point in your life, would you? If you’re interested in seeing what others might do, in a sympathetic and well-thought-out manner, pick up this book. It’s time well spent.