Saturday, October 16, 2021

Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim

Shiori, princess of Kiata, has been betrothed to a minor noble from the far cold north.  Even her six brothers agree that it seems like a demotion.  She'll do anything to duck out of it -- even taking a dangerous splash into the ocean to avoid the betrothal ceremony.  But when that runabout exposes Shiori's unusual magical acumen, it becomes a greater threat than an unwelcome union.  Magic is forbidden in Kiata and (until now) Shiori has been able to hide her abilities.

When she first arrived, Shiori loved her stepmother.  The brothers were cooler, but Shiori latched on to her, pining as she did for her deceased mother.  But as they all grew older, the positions flipped and a distrust developed between Shiori and her stepmother just as her brothers started to like her.  When the ocean incident brings Shiori's powers to her stepmother's attention, Shiori realizes too late that her stepmother is herself a sorceress and a threat.  Shiori tries to warn the family, but the woman curses her and her brothers.  Her brothers are transformed into six cranes and forced to flee while Shiori is banished to a faraway island, affixed with a wooden bowl over her head, and threatened to never speak.  For every word she speaks, she is told, one of her brothers will die.

Transported to a strange land with nothing except her clothes, Shiori must find a way to survive, reunite with her brothers, and figure out how to break her stepmother's curse.  Doing so will involve skills and fortitude that she never knew before that she possessed and enlisting the support of a wide variety of resources, including the help of her despised suitor.

This rich and vivid fantasy with a mildly Asian flavor features a complicated story with nearly constant and relentless action.  Full of betrayals and broken promises, the story has a fair share of twists and turns.  It contains a lot of what I'll call "false leads" (i.e., plot points which seem to suggest certain events that turn out to never materialize).  The old chestnut that if a gun appears in Act 1 that it will be used in Act 3 does not apply here.  Instead, Lim seems to delight in setting up a situation and then suddenly switching directions.  For example, given the way the story began, I presumed that we would have a big final show down with the stepmother about fifty pages before the end, Shiori would be victorious, and things would wrap.  I won't give any spoilers beyond simply saying that it doesn't happen (and not simply because there's a second book coming out).  The novel is chock full of these false leads:  lengthy preparations for conflicts that never materialize.  That doesn't mean that the book is particularly original, but simply that Lim doesn't want you to be able to guess what is going to happen next.

What is more predictable is the way that Shiori develops as a character.  She starts spoiled, self-absorbed, and impulsive.  Through her curse, she learns humility and circumspection.  With her struggles, she develops interpersonal skills and leadership.  Finally, with her betrothed, she learns to love.  None of this is dwelled upon but instead comes out organically as a result of all of the action, creating an appealing protagonist and a coming-of-age story that is a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

From You To Me, by K. A. Holt

At the start of eighth grade, Amelia accidentally receives a letter that Clara, her sister, put in a time capsule shortly before she died.  In the letter, Clara made a list of her own goals for eighth grade.  Amelia is still grieving the loss of Clara after all these years.  Feeling inspired by the list, Amelia tries to complete Clara's goals as a way of honoring her sister.  But the two girls are very different and Amelia struggles to do even one thing from the list.  In the end, she learns that she has to go her own way, including how she copes with her sister's death.

There's not really anything new here, but Holt does a nice job of showing Amelia's struggle and her eventual ability to resolve her issues.  Along the way, Amelia makes some bad choices and also learns a bit from the mistakes of her friends.  Overall, a short and functional story of grief and recovery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Small Favors, by Erin A. Craig

At eighteen, Ellerie is on the verge, but her future is not yet clear.  Unlike her twin brother Sam who will inherit the farm and have a place in the leadership of their small isolated town of Amity Falls, Ellerie's future will be tied to whatever man she ends up marrying.  It seems terribly unfair when Ellerie is the one who is loyal to her family, dutiful on the farm, and doting on the family's bee hives.  But Amity Falls is a community built around rules, order, and custom -- notions that have brought peace and modest prosperity to the townspeople.

When the incidents start to occur (animal attacks in the woods, strange mutations, withered crops, fires, and random acts of vandalism), it seems really like a string of bad luck.  But everyone's a little suspicious.  Tongues, primed by suppressed jealousy and resentment, far too easily spout forth accusations.  And those accusations in turn spawn counter-claims, petty vengeance, and violence.  The rules that seemed to bring order to the town, have simply hidden the true feelings of its inhabitants.  Let loose, the rage and fury tears the town apart.

And on the sidelines, a malevolent dark force is watching and entertained.

A creepy and deeply immersive horror set in a small isolated community, roughly in the late nineteenth century.  If your thing is supernatural horror, this novel provides it in spades.  While it is pretty easy to figure out that something is going on, the reader is left guessing at just how widespread the problem is until nearly the end.  And so while we are not entirely surprised by the reveal, its scope is shocking.

What really powers the story is not the sporadic acts of horror, but the complex web of combustible relationships that Craig has built.  Almost everyone has some reason to distrust everyone else.  Manipulated by evil forces that the townspeople never quite fathom, those doubts and insecurities are easy picking.  The result is a sobering story about the corrosive effects of distrust (made all the more chilling by the townspeople's own creed of unity-at-all-costs).  While the story ends on a note of hope, the overall Hobbesian message is a downer.

Beautifully written, finely nuanced, and deep thinking, Small Favors is book that will haunt you.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space, by Shaun David Hutchinson

This space satire opens with Noa finding himself outside of a spaceship with no memory of how he got there.  Inside the ship, a stranger named DJ is trying to keep the ship from exploding.  Together, the two boys manage to figure out the immediate issue.  Saving the ship and their lives doesn't bring them any closer to solving the mystery.  On the contrary, the story keeps getting more and more complicated.  Joined soon by girl named Jenny, the three young people battle stowaways, overheating reactors, space monsters, and eventually the most perverse high school in the universe.  And through it all, Noa and DJ develop a romance whose most surprising element is a sense of deja vu.

Much like Red Dwarf (if Lister and Cat were in fact gay -- in other words, just like Red Dwarf!), this is science fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously.  In fact, the story only starts to flag as Hutchinson seeks to find a way to end the story, explain the mystery, and say something deep and meaningful about mass culture.  The metanarrative of using sci-fi tropes to comment upon commercialization didn't work for me, but up to that moment, this is a pretty hilarious and entertaining read.  Noa and DJ make a great romantic couple and their relationship has a lively sparring that keeps things interesting (although I felt bad for how underutilized Jenny is as the third wheel).  Quirky and disruptive this is a story that works best as satire and shuns deep thinking.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

The Forever Horse, by Stacy Gregg

Maisie is horse crazy and spends her days at school drawing sketches of them during lectures.  Her teachers consider it distracting but her father doesn't mind.  He sees her latent talent and instead submits a sample to a prestigious art school in Paris, who in turn invite her to enroll.

There, her talents are less appreciated and Maisie has to deal with a hostile teacher who questions her youth, her commitment to art, and her lack of depth.  While despairing over her struggle, she stumbles across an old diary, which turns out to have belonged to a young artist of the nineteenth century who also loved to draw horses (and was similarly disparaged).  Reading the diary, Maisie finds inspiration from their common struggle.  But it is a shocking turn of events on the streets of Paris and a brave and heroic horse which put Maisie in a place to finally let go of her inhibitions and become the artist she longs to be.  

A superior (albeit formulaic) girl-and-horse story that will appeal to lovers of the genre. Lots of great horse details combined with stirring adventure and a heroine who is strong, brave, and loyal to her steed are all you really need and Gregg is an established master.  As with most novels that tell parallel stories, I always find that one of the two is the better and in this case it is really the historical one told on the pages of the lost diary.  Maisie's struggle, while full of contemporary resonance, seems less gripping and less interesting.   

 [Disclaimer:  I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  I am donating the book to charity.]

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Our Year of Maybe, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Sophie and Peter have been friends from childhood, but there has always been an imbalance in their relationship.  Peter is sickly, suffering from kidney dysfunction, and Sophie has always felt the need to sacrifice her happiness for him and to give him whatever he wants.  When she turns 18, that means donating a kidney to him.  She's a match and she can't think of anything she wouldn't want more to do than see Peter be healthy.  Her family and friends advise it, but she is adamant.

After the transplant, however, things go awry.  Sophie is distressed to find Peter is drifting away from her.  She thought that the experience would cement their relationship together, but instead her healthy Peter is gaining his independence.  Sophie, who has always defined herself in relation to him, doesn't want to lose him and doesn't even know how to move on.

Well-written, but excruciating to read.  Simply put, the characters are not very likeable.  Both of them self-centered, but it is Sophie's sense of entitlement that comes across the worst.  Despite her protestations that being a donor merits her to nothing, it is obvious that she feels nonetheless that Peter is hers and that he owes her his life in exchange for her loyalty to him. Peter, in contrast, is mostly oblivious to this and ultimately clueless (although at some points in the book, it seems that he knowingly exploits Sophie's dependence for his own benefit).  These are not people, in other words, who respect each other as people or who can get beyond their sense of what the other one owes them.

The story has many distractions. Sophie's younger sister is an unwed mother, which might have been useful as a contrasting relationship, but it is largely unexploited.  But the bigger non-sequitur is Sophie's and Peter's separate awakening sense of Jewishness.  I wasn't really sure where we were going with this, but I was hoping it would either become a path that one or both of them could follow as a way of breaking their codependence (Peter briefly flirts with the idea of going on a Birthright trip to Israel to give him some distance from Sophie) or that they could use as a way to guide them through their issues.  But instead, we get a couple of conversations and a random visit to temple for what are otherwise a pair of self-described "High Holiday Jews."

Finally, there is the way it all ends up.  I won't talk much about that because I don't want to spoil the ending, but the fact that the end of relationship (and the book) is blamed on a specific "heartbreaking night" (as the blurb puts it) really cheapens the over-350 pages of dysfunction that we have witnessed along the way.  This is a relationship that was destined to combust without an impetuous mistake.

In sum, a great story of two people in a relationship that you would never want to be in.  Whether you want to read about it is up to you!

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Princess Dolls, by Ellen Schwartz

Esther and Michi love to pretend that they are the Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, having adventures in Buckingham Palace and riding their horses.  One day, they see a beautiful pair of dolls in the local toy store window: replicas of Elizabeth and Margaret.  More than anything, the two girls want the dolls, but they are very expensive.  T

The good news is that they share the same birthday and it is arriving soon.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if they each got one of the dolls on their shared birthday?  When the day arrives, Esther gets the Elizabeth doll, but Michi does not get Margaret.  In the commotion and attention that Esther receives from the other girls, she neglects her friend and Michi slips away, feeling hurt and betrayed.

It's 1942 and while the war rages far away from their home in Vancouver, it still impacts the children.  Esther has an aunt and uncle who are trying to flee from Germany and her parents are anxious that they cannot find out anything about them.  Michi's danger lies nearer, when the government announces that all persons of Japanese descent on the Pacific Coast are being relocated.  Her family is forced to pack up and leave.  Before Michi leaves, Esther tries to reconcile with her, but it never happens.  Afterwards, Esther tries to figure out a way to make all of these wrong things right.

A sweet chapter book with beautiful illustrations and stellar design.  I didn't know that the Canadian government also interned their Japanese citizens, so this was an interesting subject.  But moreover, this is a nice story of friendships that get tried and tested.  The world events around them may be more significant, but for these two girls, losing each other's trust is far more important.