Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Art of Losing, by Lizzy Mason

When her drunken boyfriend causes an accident that nearly kills her younger sister, it's the last straw for Harley.  The fact that she caught them fooling around shortly beforehand doesn't help and leaves Harley with conflicted feelings.  With her sister seriously injured and lying in the hospital in a coma, Harley has no opportunity to work through her anger with her sister.  Instead, Harley finds herself wracked with guilt as she keeps vigil over her, recalling the good and the bad in their relationship.

For her boyfriend, she's more decisive.  It's not as if he's been a saint up to now either.  Through flashbacks, we see how his addiction to alcohol has slowly corroded the trust that existed between them and also destroyed the other friendships around him.

It is thus with some irony that while processing all of this, Harley rekindles old feelings for the boy next door, Raf.  While Harley and Raf were close as children, his own demons led him to addiction as well, and eventually to rehab.  Now in AA, Raf helps Harley understand her ex-boyfriend's struggle.  But are these strong feelings they are developing with each other a good thing or just another dangerous trap for Harley?

A complex story about addiction and its destructive impact on families and other relationships.  And also a parallel story about sisterhood and the bonds between siblings.  That Mason balances these two separate threads is a testament to her talent at formulating a good story.  It's far from perfect though.  The addiction material is her crusade, of course, and she packs in a bit more material than truly fits (giving the story a preachy character it did not need), but the material is well researched and generally interesting.  The relationship between  Harley and her sister gets relatively neglected but resolves satisfactorily.  While this is a good book about teen alcoholism, it has fewer insights on the love/hate relationship between sisters.

Friday, June 14, 2019

A Monster Like Me, by Wendy S. Swore

Disfigured by a blood tumor, Sophie has learned to cope with unwanted attention by hiding.  And she's created a complicated narrative for herself that she’s been cursed by a witch.

Armed with an encyclopedia of monsters, she not only has identified her monstrous self, but has no problem spotting the goblins and demons at school (disguised as her classmates and teachers) that torment her.  Her new friend is obviously a fairy and the girl’s sweet grandmother a (good) witch.  Her Mom’s new boyfriend is a demon trying to steal her away and Sophie has ways to ward that and the other evils off.  But her deepest fears is her mother discovering that Sophie is really a monster inside.  Will she keep her or throw her out?

Initially sweet and funny (and even a bit educational as the book-within-the-book provides nice summaries about the history of bestiaries and eventually some good life advice), I found Sophie’s character a bit too self-absorbed and tedious.  Her stubborn refusal to listen to what she is told is basically the only thing that drives the drama in this story. And it is hardly an endearing quality.  Yes, eventually Sophie will show a heart of gold, but it’s that refusal to pay any attention to the adults that really defeats her along the way. Even her redemption in the end is based on her refusal to listen to what has been said and instead claim that it is her magic that saves her friend's little brother Will.  She never quite manages to break out of her denial of reality and that is ultimately disturbing (and not inspirational).

Friday, June 07, 2019

The Line Tender, by Kate Allen

When a fisherman hauls home a great white shark that got snared in his nets, Lucy and her friend Fred are entranced by the creature.  The kids have been working on a field guide to local birds and animals and both of them love nature.  

It doesn’t hurt at all that Lucy’s mother was a marine biologist who specialized in great white whales.  For Lucy, studying them now is a way of getting close to her late Mom.  And when tragedy strikes and Fred is killed, Lucy escapes into that interest in sharks, drawing sketches of them and writing postcards to her deceased friend.  She also meets former colleagues of her mother’s who carry on her mother’s work.

Richly illustrated with sketches of sharks, the book is more of a paean to sharks than a story about a girl who is struggling with grief, although both threads are important.  I found it meandering and unfocused, but it has some charming passages, including the explanation of the title (a reference to the watch on a dive who takes care of guiding and retrieving the diver).  It’s nicely written, but hard to track.  I was disappointed.

The Fall of Grace, by Amy Fellner Dominy

When Grace’s mother is accused of running a Ponzi scam, only Grace believes in her mother's innocence.  And when Mom suffers a stroke during her arrest, she’s not there to explain herself so the weight of defending her falls on Grace.

But it isn't only her mother who is going under scrutiny.  After all, Grace benefited materially from her mother's malfeasance. And her association was not entirely benign and innocent.  Grace may have had no direct knowledge of the scam but all through her life, Mom put her out literally front and center, featuring little Grace on the cover of the prospectus.  Suspicions mount that not only did Grace herself know what was going on, but also that she has knowledge of to where the money has disappeared.

Now, months later, Grace has boarded a bus to travel to a place that she believes has answers.  She is tailed by Sam, a loner boy at school with a dead older brother who suspects she is going to collect the missing money.  While she tries to convince him that it is nothing like that, she can’t tell him her secret -- why she is driven to visit a remote location high up in Colorado.  But sharing secrets is what they will do as Grace and Sam risk everything to complete Grace’s desperate quest.

An interesting story that never quite worked for me for two reasons:  the unending brutal horror of the way people turn against Grace (told mostly in flashback) which never really reaches any sort of redemption; and the attempt to spark a romance between Grace and Sam.  I get that they are both outcasts and they both have issues, but I couldn’t care enough to want them together or be happy as they reached any sort of connection.  Plus, how utterly cliché!  So, the story was just a bit too cheesy for me.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

XL, by Scott Brown

Will knows what it means to be looked down upon.  At 4’11”, he’s stuck wearing kid’s clothes.  His stepbrother Drew towers over him at 6’3” and their mutual friend Monica is 5’11”.  Still, Will has big ideas that are all part of The Plan that the three of them have to go to school together after high school, with Drew landing a star turn on the basketball team (even Will doesn’t dream that big for himself!).  When Will makes things complicated by trying to make a move on Monica, he finds that suddenly Drew and Monica are an item and he has been relegated to the short sidekick.

Then the story takes a sudden twist.  Will starts to grow and grow and grow.  He quickly shoots through normal heights and surpasses Drew and just keeps growing.  There seems to be no limit to how large he can grow.  But with big things come big responsibilities.  Things (like The Plan) that were so simple before have grown complicated as all three of them are changing.

Boy books tend to be noted by two characteristics (both of which are present in this book): snarky gross humor and the pedestaling of the love interest.  Whether this is because they are written by male authors (guys who find jokes about semen amusing and can’t create believable female characters) or because we all think that this is what boys want to read (News flash! These books are mostly read by girls!) is up for debate. Admittedly, the book is pretty funny and that certainly makes it easy on the eyes.  But the Monica character is amazingly frustrating.  Like Alaska in John Green’s classic, Searching for Alaska we don’t much chance to know what is going on in her head except that she is pretty angry that Will and Drew don't get her.  As a cipher, she comes off as contradictory and illogical and largely unfathomable.  This is in striking contrast to the boys who seem to be quite articulate and easily read each other.

Louisiana's Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

One night Louisiana's grandmother wakes her up and herds her out to the car.  It's only when they've crossed into Georgia that Louisiana realizes that Granny has no intention of ever returning to Florida.  Instead, Louisiana finds herself in the little town of Richford GA, where she has to literally sing for her supper and the roof over her head.  Granny, driven on by a curse that Louisiana fears haunts her as well, makes a fateful decision that changes everything Louisiana thought she knew about herself.  Shaken to the core by the revelations, Louisiana now has to decide who she wants to be.

Mixing the small town charm that DiCamillo did so well originally back in Because of Winn Dixie, this story features another strong heroine and motley cast of characters who explore the bonds that bring a community together.  Less groundbreaking (of course) and less magical (unfortunately), there is still a wonderful variety to the characters ranging from the surly hotelkeeper to a boy with the pet crow.  And there is a beautiful final lesson about finding one's place wherever life happens to land you.  Charming, albeit a bit slight.

Very Rich, by Polly Horvath

Rupert's family is unbelievably poor.  He doesn't own a coat and he has to sleep under the bed with his brothers.  His family subsists on oatmeal and kitchen scraps that they scavenge.  He dreams of growing up to become someone special so he can help his family.  But when he can't even get a hamburger, how is he ever going to manage something big and life-changing?

Then at Christmas, as the result of a series of random events, he finds himself a guest with the Rivers family -- people who are the opposite of him (i.e., the very rich).  They feed him more food than he's ever seen and lavish him with presents.  But then suddenly all of it is taken away and Rupert is sent home with nothing but fond memories and a full stomach.

That is not the end of it.  In the months that follow, individual members of the family show up and take Rupert away on adventures:  cooking at a fancy restaurant, traveling through time and across the country, and even visiting the White House with the future president.  Not that any of it manages to get Rupert a hamburger, let alone a way to help his family.

A clever and witty story that is very much in the style of Lemony Snicket. It is largely nonsensical and probably best enjoyed as silliness.  The tone is dry and droll and taken literally more than a bit cruel and mean.  But if you like these stories (think Willy Wonka or Series of Unfortunate Events) then you will probably enjoy this one as well.  For myself, I have trouble with its cruelty.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

As a kid
I told my mom
I wanted to be a bird
when I grew up.
She never said
I couldn't.
So for years
I bird-sang my words.
And saved dryer lint
and old gift ribbons
for future nests.

For twelve year-old Birdie, everything around her seems to be changing.  Since her father died in a fire fighting accident, she's relied on Mom and their elderly friend Maymee for stability.  And her friends Nina and Martin are always there as well.  But Maymee's found a beau and even Mom has started dating.  While she is happy about the former, the latter feels like a betrayal of her father and Birdie resists the boyfriend's attempt to befriend her.  Birdie's thought that it might be nice to have Martin as a first boyfriend is thwarted when he and Nina start dating.  About the only thing that provides stability in Birdie's life are the birds that she watches, dutifully collating observation lists every day.

A delightful middle grade story in verse that combines the usual thematic suspects for anxious teen readers: changing friendships, the sudden importance and difficulty of romantic entanglements, evolving families, and growing responsibilities.  The material is not new and the verse is functional, but this compact story is pleasing on several levels.  Particularly endearing are Birdie's gradual acceptance of her mother's new boyfriend, the instructive lesson of Maymee's romance and its challenges, and her struggles with both positive and negative ways of dealing with her jealousy towards Martin and Nina.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Beauty of the Moment, by Tanaz Bhathena

Susan and her family have immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia, but the family tie is strained by her father's decision to stay back in Saudi and work, leaving Susan and her mom to fend for themselves in the new country.  Susan is a good student but doesn't want to become the doctor or engineer that her parents want.  She'd rather be an artist.  Tasting the freer life in North America (as epitomized most by getting her driver's license) makes her more willing to explore those desires.

Malcolm, born in Canada but Parsi and raised in a Zoroastrian family, is an angry young man.  After his mother died from cancer and his father turned to physically abusing him, Malcolm drifted, getting into fights and other trouble.  He couldn't be a starker contrast to straight-A Susan.  Naturally enough, then, the two of them connect and form a tentative relationship.  Cultural differences, family pressures, and awkward adolescent moments intervene.

A rather more sophisticated teen romance than the typical sort, heavily imbued as it is with Middle Eastern and South Asian cultural references.  But the complexity goes far beyond the cultural nuances.  Susan and Malcolm have complicated families.  Between the strains in Susan's family as her parents contemplate divorce and Malcolm's tense relationship with his abusive father and new stepmother, these kids have a lot on their plates.  That it flows over into their relationship with each other is understandable to readers, yet it is an understanding that rarely finds its way in YA romances (where usually the romance lives in isolation from the family's troubles).

This busy novel hardly needs the subplots of Susan's artistic ambitions or the more mundane story of getting her driver's license or the story of an upcoming school project.  Still, these details nicely root the story in how normal and everyday these kids are.  This, in turn, make the story easy to relate to, despite the unusual backgrounds from which Susan and Malcolm come.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Secrets of a Fangirl, by Erin Dionne

Sarah Anne has never really thought much about her dedication to the Nightshade series.  But when she stumbles across a contest to identify the world’s #1 fan she finds that the bank of qualifying questions are amazingly easy.  So she decides to compete and is surprised to find that she's a winner.  But taking part in a contest means going public and that presents challenges: fandom is sexist and she struggles to be taken seriously.  Worse, though, is the public exposure.

Back at school, she’s officially over Nightshade.  She and her BFF Roxy agreed last year to give up all of that stuff and focus on what “really” matters:  fashion, boys, and popularity.  If it got out that she was competing in this contest, it would be an act of social suicide.  She'd lose her place on the A list and probably lose Roxy’s friendship as well.

But winning the contest means showing the guys that girls know fandom as well and it's a chance for Sarah Anne to excel at something she really enjoys.  As the contest continues and Sarah Anne continues to lead the pack, keeping everything secret becomes harder and harder.  She comes to realize that she can’t do it all and she has to choose what is most important to her.

I’m pretty certain you can guess the outcome and it is every bit as satisfying as you would expect.  This is no deep thought novel, but it is deep fun.  Sarah Anne is smart, strong, and in the end surprisingly good at taking care of herself.  Lots of good empowering messages for girls and a few observations about fandom sexism to boot.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on May 28th.]

Spindrift and the Orchid, by Emma Trevayne

When Spindrift washed ashore after the sinking of her parents’ ship, she was found with a defective crystal ball.  Unlike the balls in her grandfather’s magic shop, this one appeared to do nothing.  Nonetheless, Spindrift kept it as a memento of her drowned parents.  Then one day the ball reveals a flower inside of it -- a black orchid that blooms in front of her.  The flower in turn becomes a magical woman who grants wishes.  Any thing -- as long as it is an object (and not a person) -- that Spindrift wants, the woman will give Spindrift.

With help from her grandfather, Spindrift learns that this ball is one of seven – each of a different color and each with a different power.  She also discovers that the balls and their orchids are being hunted down by Roland, a former member of her parents’ crew, whom she also suspects of being responsible for their death. Following clues left in her mother’s correspondence with her grandfather, Spindrift and her young friends try to locate the orchids before Roland can collect them all together and wield immense power.

A challenging story to follow, Tremayne has many great ideas but few of them are developed (orchid hunters, the legend of the seven sages, the nature of greed, the idea that the balls are associated with particular families, magical wings that allow the children to get around, etc.).  Spindrift’s journey is novel enough, but these loose ends and holes give it a feeling of being unfinished.  This not only affects the strength of the story, but also the development of the characters whose importance to the story is never really explained.  Spindrift's friends are disposable and distracting.  They didn’t contribute much.