Friday, August 17, 2018

Star-Crossed, by Barbara Dee

Mattie's had a crush on Elijah for years, but now that she's in eighth grade, she isn't so sure she likes him anymore.  More surprisingly, she finds that she may like Gemma instead.  Does that mean she likes girls instead of boys?  Mattie isn't sure.  And moreover, she worries about how her classmates and her friends will treat her if they find out.

All of this gets complicated when Gemma is cast as Juliet in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.  During rehearsals, Romeo drops out of the play, and Mattie finds herself cast in the role as Romeo.  In a story that makes clever use of Shakespeare's tragedy, Dee spins an insightful and gentle age-appropriate exploration of sexual identity.

It's the type of book which will raise the hackles of conservative parents, but it's really quite chaste.  Dee's treatment very gently explores the sexuality question, speaking mostly about the difference between friendship and being more than friends. As it turns out, middle school romance between girls is every bit as awkward as between girls and boys.  Homosexuality is accepted pretty much at face value in this book, which may feel unrealistic to some readers, but it is also largely beside the point:  these kids are not having sex (they are barely at kissing!).

I found this to be a truly remarkable book.  It doesn't preach or make a big deal about its message.  It's really just a beautiful story of children exploring relationships, be they romantic or just friends.  The only difference between it and other well-written middle reader romances is the fact that Mattie and Gemma are both girls.

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, by Heather Smith

For years, Bun has watched the steady decline of her emotionally unstable mother as the woman starved herself and Bun, and filled their home with junk.  Finally, in a fit of pique, she tosses Bun out on to the streets.  Bun, suffering from some sort of social condition (it's never quite clear if she's on the spectrum or a victim of emotional neglect or both), would have struggled to survive, but for a chance encounter.  Taken in by a ragtag group of drifters, she is sheltered and fed.  And, while the situation is dangerous, the group helps Bun reconnect with humanity, providing a surrogate family and helping her relearn what love is.

In sum, a fairly dreary novel about an at-risk child and a group of well-meaning but not altogether reliable friends.  There's not really any deep message or meaning here and the characters, while colorful, were not all that sympathetic. The book had originality but the story never grabbed me and the threatening situations (including a scene in which Bun gets molested) were often quite disturbing.

American Panda, by Gloria Chao

Growing up in the pressure cooker of a traditional Taiwanese family, Mei knew what was expected of her:  get perfect grades, attend MIT, and become a doctor.  Then afterwards marry a nice Taiwanese doctor and produce lots of babies (preferably male).

Her problem is that she doesn't quite measure up:  Mei is a germaphobe, can’t stand biology classes, and has no interest in the kind of boys her parents want her to marry. She’d rather run a dance studio and explore what the world has to offer.  And she’s found a Japanese-American guy who she thinks is pretty cute!  Her parents are aghast.  They already disowned Mei's bolder brother when he cast off their restrictive aspirations and now it looks as if the same thing will befall Mei.

So far, so typical – and the world hardly needs another story about an independent young woman trying to break free from traditional constraints and overbearing parents.  But then, the story takes off into less conventional directions, exploring why the parents are so tradition-bound and, more broadly, discussing what the purposes of traditions actually are. The character of Mei's mother does a major 180 – morphing from annoying tiger mom to and sympathetic and even tragic figure.  And while the story itself ends in a rosy happy place, Chao has done much more with the material in the interim.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, by Shaun David Hutchinson

Elena was born by parthenogenesis (a literal virgin birth).  Aside from some voices she's heard her whole life, that is pretty much the only remarkable thing about her.  That is until the day that a boy shoots a girl in front of her and Elena finds that she is able to heal the girl by laying on hands.  Stranger, immediately her miracle healing performance,  the boy is swept up in a beam of light and disappears forever.

Elena has found she has the ability to heal, but it comes with a trade-off.  Each time she uses the power, people disappear from the Earth.  If it's any comfort, the voices assure her that this is what she is supposed to do.  In fact, it is the only way to save the human race as end times approach.

She isn't so sure and doubts that the voices are really telling the whole story.  Letting people suffer seems cruel, but causing unsuspecting people to be swept away to an unknown fate is no better.  The dilemma dominates the story as Elena and her friends grapple with the events occurring around them.

A bizarre but certainly original premise with a lot of clever banter.  It's a fast read and overall entertaining as long as you don't try to make much sense of the story.  A lot of time is expended in discussing the ethics and ramifications of the situation.  At times these can be profound but they go on entirely too long and there's a degree of repetition. The premise may be bizarre, but the characters are quite normal, which makes the most interesting part simply watching a smart and witty heroine deal with patently surreal circumstances.  And, unlike so many male YA authors, Hutchinson doesn't make the whole story about hormones and profanity.

You're Welcome, Universe, by Whitney Gardner

Julia can’t hear but she lives to express herself through street art, throwing up her spray-painted creations wherever she finds an inviting wall.   When she gets caught and expelled from her school for the deaf, she is placed in a mainstream school in the suburbs.  Stuck in such an alien surrounding, she figures that her graffiti will be pretty much on its own.  And so she is surprised when her tags are attacked by another street artist.  While tagging her tags is an act of aggression, even Julia has to admit that the mysterious artist’s contributions actually improve her work, which just makes her madder.

I have a problem with getting past the fact that Julia’s actually an unrepentant vandal and, while plenty of adults try to instill this message, she and the author never grow savvy to it.  Instead, I’m supposed to see this property damage as something good.

But that said, I liked the idea of Julia’s character.  Having her be deaf is an interesting choice.  It’s certainly integral to the story, but never really becomes the story.  In much the same way, the fact that she's a girl is notable but never made a point in the story.  This is a story about an artist trying to express herself and come to terms with others (which is a struggle for her -- being deaf and also a non-traditional artist).  The book is illustrated with some great artwork created by the author that goes a long way towards capturing the ethos of Julia's art.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Foolish Hearts, by Emma Mills

Claudia and her friends have a dramatic senior year of friendships growing and dying.  Mills' novel shies away from a particular specific story towards simply following her characters around.  There's a school play, an older sister's pregnancy, a lot of parties, and a rock concert.  But the story is simply about the ebb and flow of friendships, whether they are of the BFF type (like Claudia and Zoe or Noah and Gideon), between siblings (Claudia and her older siblings, Gideon and his younger sister), or romantic (Claudia and Gideon, Iris and Paige).  There's not really a message or even a central purpose.  Instead, the book just illustrates life and its networks.

If that is your sort of thing, Mills is a decent writer and has some creative outlets for it within her book, ranging from boy band worship to online gaming.   But I found the lack of a story and dramatic arc to be rather dull and the huge number of characters dizzying.  They kids were generally distinctive but with not much dramatic purpose to the interactions, it just seemed that I was being pulled one way and then another -- realistic, perhaps, but not terribly meaningful.

Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough

A vivid account, written in verse, of the life of the 17th century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi.  McCullough focuses on the events surrounding her rape by a fellow artist, interweaving the Biblical stories of Susanna and Judith.  The result is a grim story of female suffering in the "present" of Renaissance Rome contrasted with the tales of relative triumph from the past.  McCullough portrays Artemisia as drawing strength from these stories (and certainly they are the inspiration for her art), but the ending is bittersweet (as indeed her life was in actuality).  The story is described as "feminist" but really only in the sense that the injustices depicted will fire up the reader in defense of the cause.

The story is beautifully written and it is an excellent novel, but it is mis-classified as YA.  Certainly, young people will find the story interesting, but there is little here about youth or growing up.  Instead, this is more of a protest piece against sexual double standards and the sexual dangers of being female.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Miles Away from You, by A. B. Rutledge

With his trans girlfriend in a coma, Miles is talked into taking a vacation in Iceland to get away from it all.  There, he befriends Oskar, a generous and sexy concierge who helps facilitate a series of wild adventures in Reykjavik and surrounding areas.  The experience allows him to come to terms with his loss and also to further explore his gender identity in sometimes funny and sometimes poignant episodes.

Rutledge is a rarity:  a female writer who gets boys down tone perfect.  Because even if Miles's sexuality is all over the map and the other male lead is gay, young men regardless of gender identity talk and act in a certain way that the vast majority of female writers just don't get.  That in itself would impress me, but Rutledge is also a very adventuresome writer (who else has created a character like Miles -- floating aimlessly across the Kinsey spectrum -- so matter-of-factly and so humorously?) who so effortlessly finds the humor in sadness and the sad in fun.  There were moments when things could drag and I didn't find the story particularly "heartbreaking" (as promised in the back cover quotes from heavy hitters Russo and Wittlinger), but this quirky Icelandic romp was well worth the read.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan

In the aftermath of her mother's death by suicide, Leigh develops the notion that her mother's ghost has been visiting her in the form of a big red bird.  The bird, it becomes apparent, wants her to visit her mother's parents in Taipei, whom Leigh has never met.  Once there, a series of strange and wonderful events leads Leigh on a trip of discovery, not only into her mother's past, but also into the secrets of her family.  But still, the bird seems to have a message to tell her and with only a few days before her mother's ghost is gone forever, Leigh is desperate to find out what that message is.  At the same time, Leigh has left behind (but not forgotten) troubles at home, in the form of an old friend whom she wishes were someone more.

The novel is a mix of family drama and Taiwanese mysticism that sounds messy but actually gels nicely.  Pan writes beautifully and expressively and this lyrical story has a lot packed inside of it.  Surprisingly, the fraught and melodramatic themes of grief and regret are not so pronounced, instead the author focuses on discovering one's legacy and history (and the healing role that such a journey plays in coming to terms with loss).  The result is a transcendent novel about rebirth.

The Next Together, by Lauren James

Katherine and Matthew have a way of finding each other through history.  From their first incarnation in Carlisle in 1745, and again in 1854 in Sebastopol, and then again in 2019, and finally in 2039.  Each time, they end up trying to prevent an imminent catastrophe (and incidentally falling in love).  Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but each time one or both of them dies.  And the cycle repeats again.

Told out of sequence, the novel jumps around time periods fluidly and, towards the end, the characters do as well.  This leads to some pretty fast paced storytelling and a good deal of suspense.  A blurb on the cover promises “heartbreak” but there isn’t much of that, although a fairly breezy post script does provide a satisfactory conclusion.

The novel is rough in spots.  There’s apparently an additional timeline in WW II era that was cut out of the story, but a few stray references remain (which seems like sloppy editing).  And while the 2019-era Katherine and Matthew are cute and adorable, we don’t get much heat out of the rest of them.  I think this is a great entertainment and I enjoyed the set-up (what’s not to like about an adventure that transcends multiple epochs?), but it's not terribly deep and my emotional involvement in the characters was minimal.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Lovely, Dark, and Deep, by Justina Chen

While selling baked goods to benefit girls' education outside a Firefly convention, Viola falls ill and collapses.  The culprit is the sudden onset of an allergy to sunlight.  Her new condition threatens to derail all of her plans as she finds herself herded into a protective (dark) cocoon by her professional crisis-manager parents.  The love interest (Josh) has issues of his own, not least of which is trying to complete the design and drawing of a comic book started by his twin brother, before said brother was killed in an accident.

Chen's latest novel is a story of losses and how to deal with them.  The characters are vivid, memorable, and fun -- Chen has a good sense for how to craft memorable features and idiosyncracies. Towards the end, Chen does a great job of showing how all of these diverse characters actually are similarly unable to face breaking out of their safe zones.  And while Viola has the most to lose (i.e., her life) by trying to live her life large, she seems to appreciate the most about what is to be gained.  Chen's book has moments like this when it transcends the story and makes a great Deep Point.

But the story is a bit of a mess, which has generally been my issue with Chen's writing in the past.  So many different characters and (ending summary notwithstanding) not much to really bring them together, and nothing to say in the end.  In the last fifty pages, any of the given chapters could have made just as useful of a conclusion as the one that we actually end on.  And the fact that no issues are actually resolved and the only serious character growth is Viola's little sister (a bit part at most) leaves the reader wondering what the point really was.

[I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased pre-publication review.  The book is scheduled to be released on July 31st]

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Tyranny of Petticoats, ed by Jessica Spotswood

Fifteen short stories about young women in American history, providing a fictionalized herstory of the country.  Spotswood picks up a diverse collection of authors who delve into some fairly creative places. The most interesting stories pick up unusual locales (Coat’s story of survival in the arctic) or rarely treated eras (Tulley’s account of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots).  Mitchell’s spin on Bonnie and Clyde is amusing and ends on a high note.  Many of the stories are quite clever.

But short story collections tend to be uneven and some of the stories work better than others.  The good ones can be frustrating as they leave you longing for more (in counterpoint, at least the shorter ones don't last too long!).  For me, there were entirely too many supernatural stories and not enough serious history.  A greater diversity of time periods would have helped as well -- while the Civil War and WWII are each represented by a story, there’s nothing from the Revolutionary War or even the Gilded Age.