Friday, November 01, 2019

Shadowscent, by P. M. Freestone


Rakel dreams of becoming a perfumer.  Her strong sense of smell and her understanding of the science of scents gives her a good chance of success.  But in her world, scents are power, so her goal is ambitious.  Ash is First Prince Nisai’s bodyguard.  When the Prince is struck down by a poison of unknown origin, fate and circumstance brings the two of them together.  Racing against the calendar, they must find a cure.  When an ancient text suggests that the antidote requires rare ingredients from all corners of the Empire, they are off on an epic quest.

A rich and densely-constructed fantasy, packed full of action.  At first, the immense detail is overwhelming and it’s hard to follow the story.  But as the dust settles, the story takes over, but only with some willful disregard of the layers and layers that the author piles on.  I love cultural detail but too much becomes distracting, particularly in the way it is used here to fill lulls in te story.  Whenever the action starts to lag, suddenly we are conveniently introduced to a another legend or an unknown town or a new monster.  What we don’t get is much character development.  The story shows us that Rakel and Ash are pawns in an imperial power play.  But within this book, they are also Firestone’s pawns.  If you like vivid and complex settings and fast-packed action, that probably won’t matter much, but I didn’t have much on which to hang.


[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book in return for an honest review.  The book is slated for release on November 5, 2019]

Notes from My Captivity, by Kathy Parks

Many years ago, there was a Russian family -- the Osinovs -- who disappeared into the Siberian wilderness.  Lots of rumors abounded about them.  They became legendary for the powers they allegedly possessed, but even their existence was disputed.  And while people sought them out, no one could ever find them.

Adrienne's stepfather Dan is obsessed with finding the family.  He wrote a well-known article about them for The New York Times, but a similarly famous rebuttal has cast him into disgrace. His first attempt a few years ago to actually find them was a failure, but now he is trying again.  Seventeen year-old Adrienne is coming along, mostly to see if Dan is right, but also to exorcise some ghosts of her own.

What begins as a great adventure turns into a horror story as all of the members of the expedition are killed, except for Adrienne.  Marooned deep in Siberian forest, she is taken captive by the Osinov's, who not only exist, but also are very unhappy that she has found them.  As she gets to know the family, she finds that everything about them is more complicate than any myth or legend.

A unusual story that starts as an adventure, becomes a survival story, and eventually turns into a spiritual quest (in a sort of Heart of Darkness way).  The section is by far the most ambitious. It is also the least successful, but it gives the novel an unexpected gravitas.  Ultimately, the story is about forgiveness, but it's a long and twisted journey to reach that stage.

Parks is a good writer.  I enjoyed the Russian that is sprinkled liberally in the dialog.  And I certainly liked the character Adrienne.  The other characters appear too briefly or are too filtered by the language barrier to really make an impact.  Still, each and every one was memorable.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

Identical twins Iris and Lark may look alike but they couldn't be any more different from each other.  Iris is the sensible and analytical one.  Always on time and on top of things, the other kids think she is bossy and a know-it-all (even if she does know everything). It is those talents that help Iris take care of Lark.  For where Iris is organized, Lark is distracted and scattered.  Yet she is the artistic one, creating beauty and dreaming up some many clever stories and situations.

All the way until now, the two girls have been inseparable and united.  But now in fifth grade, the school decides that Iris and Lark should be in separate classes and the twins are horrified at what will happen!  Lark fears that the kids will make fun of her.  Iris worries that if she isn't in the room, she won't be able to protect her sister.

Meanwhile, in the storefront that never seems to manage to keep a business for more than a few months, an inauspicious antique store has opened up.  The mysterious owner of the shop, Mr. Green, posts odd signs out front ("We Are Here" and "Alice Where Are You?").  And while most people avoid the place, Iris finds it fascinating and starts spending time there.  Doing so helps her escape her worries about Lark and is the perfect antidote to the horrible after school program (called "Awesome Girls!") that her mom has enrolled her in.

The story, which seems to owe a debt to Lark more than Iris meanders through many different topics (in addition to those mentioned above, a subplot involving the theft of many valuable objects and another about crows gathering in the neighborhood feature prominently).  Many of these threads are tied together in the end, but it is a bit of a strain.  The book lacks much foreshadowing or continuity, leaving the reader perplexed for most of the story about where all of this is actually going.  I enjoyed the dynamic between the twins and the themes about sisterhood are the most interesting, but Ursu wants to take the story in many other directions and that did not work for me.

The book features numerous drawings by Erin Mcguire, one of my favorite children's artists.

It's Not Like It's a Secret, by Misa Sugiura

Sana and her family have moved to California from Wisconsin. Her mother says it is because of the great new job her father has been offered.  Sana thinks there is another reason: she suspects that her Dad is carrying on an affair.  Sana has seen suspicious messages on her Dad's phone from a San Francisco area code and her father seems to spend a lot of time "working late." Moving to California will put him that much closer to this person.

Meanwhile, at her new school, Sana has fallen in love and the object of her affection is Jamie, a girl on the school's track team.  Sana never given much thought to her orientation, but she's never quite clicked with boys.  Thankfully, being gay at her new school is not a big deal, but race is.  That is important because Sana is Japanese-American and Jamie is a Latina.  As much as the two girls care for each other, there are tensions between their peer groups. Sana is expected to hang out with other Asians and Jamie with the Mexican kids.

Girl meets girl, girl loses girl, and you know the rest...typical romance. But there's some subtlety and some interesting topics raised. When Sana suspects that Jamie is cheating on her, it is too much like what her Dad is doing to her Mom and this give her time to reflect on what her mother is going through.  Sana's Mom's concept of deferred happiness and forbearance driven by the traditional Japanese value of gaman gives Sana a role model to dissect and to which you can contrast herself.

Finally, there's a race angle.  It's pretty brutal to take the complexities of American racial politics and lay them over the insecurities and petty squabbles of a high school.  And yet, that really is happening.  Sugiura has a good ear for the dynamics of it all and has given the story an authentic complexity which is generally missing in most writers.

Somewhere Only We Know, by Maurene Goo


Lucky is about to break it big.  A major K-Pop star, she’s just finished a successful Asian tour and she’s about to come to the States to make her North American debut.  But like all K-Pop singers, her image and her life has been carefully crafted and managed. Somewhere along the way to gaining her success, it all stopped being fun.  On the last night of her tour in Hong Kong, she decides to break free and just try to recapture some of that joy she used to feel in her life.

Jack wants to become a photographer, but there is no way he would ever be allowed by his family.  When he decides to take a gap year, his father insists that Jack work as an intern at his bank.  Jack hates the work, but in the evenings he practices his photography.  He’s discovered a talent for being a paparazzo,taking pictures of celebrities and capturing them in compromising places and positions.

When he spots Lucky, Jack feels that he’s hit paydirt.  Exclusive pictures of the carefully sheltered pop star could be the thing to vaults him to fame and a career.  The fact that she wants to hang out with him just means more opportunities to get photos.  But as the two young people spend the next twenty-four hours touring through Hong Kong, they both find what they are looking for and it isn’t what they were expecting.

By the numbers escapist romance.  There’s not much of a surprise here, but the novel benefits from Goo’s fluid writing, the fun she has showing off the sights of Hong Kong, and two lovable characters.  They are stock stuff, but all the right buttons are pushed.  Enjoyable and fun.

Where I End & You Begin, by Preston Norton


Ezra and Wynonna are not friends, but they have a very special connection:  every day or so they suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies.  It's become more noticeable and frequent since a recent solar eclipse, but as the story unfolds, it seems that the roots of the problem go back much further.

While they are not friends, they have a connection: Ezra has a serious crush on Wynonna’s BFF Imogene.  And Wynonna turns out to be interested in Holden, who is Ezra’s best friend.



And while the body swapping is a problem to be solved, Ezra and Wynonna realize that the unique access they each have to the crush of the other provides an opportunity to tip the scales of love, if not simply put in a good word for each other.  But what ought to simply be an act of setting each other up for romantic success gets more complicated when it turns out that Imogene may actually be gay and longs after Wynonna.  That works out pretty well when Ezra is inhabiting Wynonna’s body, but spells doom for the eventual future when (Ezra and Wynonna hope) they will be back in their own bodies.  All of this confusion and chaos is set against a high school production of Twelfth Night.

Light and funny, the swapping of bodies leads to any number of humorous situations.  Unfortunately,  Norton's selection mostly is limited to erections and menstruation.  As with so many male writers, Norton doesn’t do female characters well and assumes boys should be portrayed as only interested in erections and farting.  That's a drag since there’s plenty of lost opportunity to reflect on gender differences and similarities.

Some good scenes and things get funny when the relationships start getting physical (and you never quite know who will be occupying whose body) but the story itself was too long.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Grief Keeper, by Alexandra Villasante

A unique science fiction novel that combines elements of the immigration debate, depression, and an unusual lesbian romance.

Marisol knows that her family has always been followed by La Mala Suerte -- bad luck.  Even when every contingency is accounted for, the luck will find you, Marisol believes.  Nothing proves this better than her current state.  On the run from gangs in their native El Salvador who want to kill her and her little sister Gabi, the two girls have appealed for asylum in the United States.  However, their case doesn't go well and it seems likely they will get deported when they meet a skeptical interviewer and their sponsor dies.

But then Marisol is presented with an unusual proposition.  A mysterious woman who seems to work for the government explains that there is an experimental device that can literally suck the grief out of one person and deliver it to another.  The device is intended to treat war veterans suffering from PTSD.  Its effects on the receiver is uncomfortable, she is told, but not fatal.

In exchange for agreeing to be a recipient, Marisol and her sister will get Green Cards.  Given the suffering they have experienced simply getting to the North, Marisol is willing to do whatever it takes to assure that her sister will be safe.  She agrees. 

The grieving person turns out to be a girl around Marisol's age named Rey.  Rey is resistant to the idea of having her depression "cured" so Marisol works hard to win over Rey's trust (after all, if Rey resists the treatment, the deal will be called off and Marisol and her sister will be deported).  To Marisol's surprise, as she gains Rey's trust and the treatment starts to work, their relationship turns romantic.  Is the technology curing Rey or is it the feelings that the girls have for each other? All the time, La Mala Suerte is not too far away.

As with most good science fiction, the technology is simply window dressing for a good theme.  Combining issues of race and privilege, this story is really about depression and grieving, and what human connections are really about.  It is a complicated story and is difficult to describe without producing spoilers, so suffice it to say that the ending is thought provoking.  Throw in two great heroines as well as their tender love for each other and it makes a great story.

Since We Last Spoke, by Brenda Rufener


When Cal died in a car accident and his girlfriend Kate killed herself in grief ten days later, it drove a spike between their two families.  The families sued each other, blaming each other for the deaths of their children.  Cal’s brother Max and Kate’s sister Aggi – who had been in their own relationship – were forbidden from seeing each other.  (I’ll give you a guess as to how successful that went!)

Nearly a year later, the families still don’t speak, but Aggi and Max yearn after each other.  But even if they dared to risk the families’ wrath and spoke, what would they say?  Because while they share a similar pain and ache for what they had, breaking the ice is difficult.

An ambitious and strong beginning falls flat in the end.  By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked and totally wanted to see how these two would break through their grief and address their pain and resentment.  The family dynamics would make things complicated I knew, but first and foremost there would be their own emotional baggage to address.  But Rufener is not quite up to the task.  She falls back on melodrama and adventure (a shared adventure brings everyone to set aside their differences) and ditches the inner dialogue of her two characters.  Why does Max bring home girls and flaunt them in front of Aggi?  We never really go there.  Instead, we simply jump forward to an afterword that assures us that the wounds have healed offstage.  Argh!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Alone Together, by Sarah J. Donovan

Sadie is the ninth child in a large Catholic family in Chicago.  As the story opens, she's been caught stealing from work, but she's hardly the biggest sinner in her family.  One sister has a girlfriend, another sibling is living in sin, and her younger sister is pregnant for a child of her own.  The older children stay away altogether.  Her Dad is unemployed and moping around the house. Mom seems to be carrying on an affair.  At the best of times, living in such a large family is challenging, if not utter chaos.

Told in verse, Alone Together traces how Sadie finds her own separate identity within this family, both being part of it and also staking out her independence. Family for Sadie is neither a help or a hindrance. While she obviously relishes moments of quiet and at one point marvels over what it would be like to live in a home with fewer people, she loves her family and accepts their presence as it is.

It's a subtle work, with lots of inward thinking (helped along by the verse format which accommodates her scattered thoughts) and little action.  While the poetry does occasionally lean towards poignancy, Donovan is actually quite restrained.  The result is a deep work that has a unique voice -- worldly and informed, but not as jaded as many of today's heroines.  Barely publicized and a bit hard to get a hold of, the book is a quick and rewarding read and deserving of more attention.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez, by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

Sonia is bright and hard working.  She's determined to be the first member of her family to graduate from high school.  However, sometimes she simply can't get to school because her family needs her.  Family is everything.  And in her family, the girl takes care of the house.  Her brothers are free to run around and do as they please, but it is Sonia's job to prepare the meals and clean the house.  If there is time afterwards to do homework and go to school, then she can go.  Faced with this burden, it is a challenge to keep up her attendance.  Her teachers are unsympathetic and wherever she turns, she can find no allies.  At home her mother lazes around and a freeloading aunt and a lecherous uncle add to her misery.

A grueling litany of the socioeconomic forces working against a young Latina.  Written specifically for reluctant readers, Sitomer obviously hopes that the subject matter will resonate with Latinx readers in similar positions in real life.  It's a noble goal, but I'm more intrested in examining the book on its own merits

It is an interesting peek at a world far removed from most of us.  Sonia is very strong and determined and easy to root for.  The book is easy to read and the regular insertion of Spanish into the text feels natural and non-intrusive.  One does tire of the idealism and generalizations (hearing how all Mexicans behave, how all men behave, etc.) and some of the events (a trip to Mexico, a race riot at school, etc.) seem stuffed in for no reason except to provide us discussion topics for a classroom reading.  Still, I think this is a good book in spite of its pedagogical ambitions.  I enjoyed it.

Like a Love Story, by Abdi Nazemian


1989.  New York.  While AIDS is no longer a mystery, battling it and stopping the deaths has become deeply politicized. ACT UP activists stage protests and civil disobedience actions around the city, demanding that AZT be made available affordably and that other more experimental drugs be released by the FDA.

Reza and his mother have just moved to the City from Canada.  She’s married a wealthy Wall Street businessman and they have been welcome into the local Persian community.  Reza has gained a stepbrother and a new school.  What he longs for is a boyfriend, but what he fears even more than coming out is contracting AIDS.  Obsessed with the dying of gay men around him, Reza is afraid to open his heart.  He hides his true feelings and tries hard to be straight.

At his new school, Reza meets Art – fearless and a little crazy and sexy as hell -- and his straight friend Judy.  Judy and Art both fall for Reza and Reza (though he is strongly attracted to Art) throws himself at Judy.  He doesn't really like her that way, but he tries to become straight, seeing a relationship with Judy as a way of being socially acceptable and avoiding disease.  It doesn't work and as these three teens fall in love and break each other’s hearts, the reader follows.  

A beautifully written novel that will make your heart ache repeatedly.  As is to be expected, there is death in it, but there is also wonderful heartwarming scenes of the living. I approached the book with caution, figuring I would hate it and toss it aside as irrelevant to me, but I couldn’t put it down.  Normally, I have no interest in historical novels, especially those gratuitously placed in recent times.  Far too often, they feel like some a trip down memory lane by an author who has nothing to say.  But Nazemian has things to say.  Important things.  Political without being didactic, the novel approaches the AIDS epidemic and how it was viewed in those days with immense compassion. Ultimately, this is a book about the power of love to get us through life, dying, and death.  I’m calling it the best book I’ve read so far in 2019 (and we’re running out of time to topple it from that position).  Highly recommended, even if you're skeptical that you want to read a book about AIDS. 

Friday, October 04, 2019

Hot Dog Girl, by Jennifer Dugan

Lou is stuck being the Hot Dog Girl for another summer at Magic Castle.  Walking around dressed up like a giant wiener isn't exactly the way you get your crush Nick (this summer's Diving Pirate) to notice you.  It would seem that he only has eyes for Jessa (the Princess, naturally!), but this is Lou's last chance and she's determined to try.  Nick is going off to college in the fall and the Magic Castle is closing forever after the summer ends.

Lou has plans.  She convinces her best friend Seeley to pretend to be her lover in order to make Nick jealous (everyone knows that Seeley is queer and most folks assume Lou is as well).  As Lou plots it, the two girls will date for a while and then "break up" and then Lou will somehow end with Nick.  Along the way, Lou's also got a plan to save Magic Castle so it won't have to close.  But Lou discovers that even the best contrived plans will go astray, when she realizes that her relationship with Seeley is more real than she had planned for.

Summer stories set at amusement parks have been told often enough that it's almost a sub-genre.  There's not much new ground to cover here!  But the bisexual element of the story is a new angle and its matter-of-fact treatment is nice.  Lou has a complex character and meaningful interactions with Seeley and her father that defy the stereotypes of friendships and parent-child relationships.  The story, however, drifted and wandered too much for me and I found it hard to get into, despite being a brisk read.

Creep, by Eireann Corrigan


For many years, the Langsoms had been living at 16 Olcott Place, but after a scandal involving Dr Langsom, they were forced to move out.  Next door neighbor Olivia wondered who would move in, and when the Donahues arrive with a daughter her age, Livvie is excited to have a new girl next door.  Janie Donahue and Livvie are both starting ninth grade this year and have a lot in common.  They become fast friends, much to the consternation of Livvie’s existing friends.

And then mysterious threatening letters start to show up at the Donahue house.  Demanding that the Donahues move out of the house immediately, the writer promises that blood will flow if they don’t go.  Terrified, but also obsessed with figuring out what is going on, Livvie and Janice dig through the town’s and her family's history in search of a scary stalker.

My initial impression when I opened the book was that this was going to be some sort of supernatural horror story and I wasn't too enthusiastic about reading it.  But, in fact, the story starts out as a fairly normal YA about two girls having typical friendship and family struggles.  The creepy stuff doesn’t even start until nearly fifty pages in and only ratchets up slowly.  Horror fans will probably be disappointed with what is largely just a book about a new kid in town.  The action does pick up in the end, but the pacing is uneven and the entire ending felt rushed.  That leaves the story a bit confusing as so much of the earlier build up gets lost in the end.  Entire subplots about Livvie's struggles with juggling old friends and Janie or her romantic lead get shunted off and forgotten.  But who honestly would still care about a budding romance when there was a psychopathic killer in the house?  Or about friends who feel slighted?


[I received an ARC of this book from the publisher free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book was released on October 1st]

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Upside of Falling Down, by Rebekah Crane

Clementine wakes up in an Irish hospital bed to discover that she's the lone survivor of a plane crash.  But without any memories, she knows only what she has been told.  She doesn't know what she was doing on the plane or why she was traveling.  Her father is coming to collect her and take her home to Cleveland, but she doesn't even know him.  Panicked by her amnesia and her sense that nothing makes sense anymore, she flees the hospital.

Kieran, a young hospital volunteer, finds her in mid-flight.  Not eager to reveal her real identity, she tells him her name is Jane and invents a story about why she is on the run.  On a dare, he agrees to help her get away and takes her to a secluded small town on the east coast of Ireland.  As the weeks go by, her lies grow more complex and her relationship with Kieran grows stronger.  She begins to think that having forgotten her past life is a blessing.  Now she only wants to live for the future, a future with Kieran and far far away from whatever she was running from that is in Cleveland.

A wistful but strong romance.  I have mixed feelings about the ending, but I will grant that it fit the story (even if it was not the ending I wanted).  In between is a novel about two lost people who find each other.  It's not a particularly sexy story (Jane/Clementine and Kieran make an enchanting couple, but not a particularly hot one) but it doesn't need to be for such well fleshed out characters.  And they are surrounded by vibrant supporting roles like Kieran's snarky sister Siobhan or the shop owner Clive who are equally enjoyable to spend time with.  This may not contain much literary value, but still managed to be a superior romance and wonderful entertainment.