Saturday, July 20, 2019

Boys of Summer, by Jessica Brody

Grayson, Mike, and Ian have been best friends since they were children.  As residents on a vacation island, the summers have always been an adventure of dealing with the tourists.  But this last summer together promises to be very different.

In the past year, Ian's father was killed in Afghanistan and, while relations between he and his mother are strained, he seems alright to the others.  Mike and Hunter have been a pretty permanent couple for years, but this time it looks like their little break-up could be permanent, especially because Grayson and Hunter have started to secretly hook up.  Grayson, meanwhile, has to find the strength to admit to his father (and himself) that the little injury he sustained has ruined his ability to play football and jeopardized any possibility of taking the football scholarship that was supposed to get him through college.  There will be girls (of course), family conflict, and lots of bonding and secrets in a final summer together.

In other words, it's a girl's book about guys.  If there's anything funnier than how misportrayed female characters are by male authors, it's just how awfully bad female authors can get young men.  It's not really Brody's fault in this instance, but more like an impossible project:  create a story of friendship between young men that would be relatable to young woman readers.  They're a sensitive trio, all of them terribly worried about how the others feel and trying to avoid hurting each other's feeling.  In a mild nod to testosterone, there's a bit of fighting, but it's usually about protecting others (usually women) than about ego and pecking order.  Most silly of all is the alleged "Guy Code" that you can't date each other's ex's.  I have no idea if girls have such a thing for real (although you hear it invoked in plenty of books) but I can say with some certainty that guys don't believe in such things.  Grayson, Mike, and Ian could just as easily been Taylor, Micaela, and Iona and very little of the story would have need to be altered.  But then, it would just be a sweet beach romance of three BFFs enjoying their last summer before college, which come to think about it, it basically is.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, by Ashley Herring Blake

After twelve year-old Sunny makes it successfully through a heart transplant, she’s determined to change her life.  In the days leading up to her surgery, she was always so sick. Worst of all, her BFF Margot betrayed her.  She’s determined to do new things, key among them is to find a boy and kiss him.

But life is so much more complicated.  Her mother (who abandoned her eight years ago) has returned and wants to be part of her life.  At first, Sunny is resistant and suspicious and has to be urged on by her guardian Kate.  But when mother and daughter bond, the new relationship put a stress on Sunny and Kate's own one, particularly as Kate finds herself protecting Sunny from some of her Mom's darker secrets.

More important is Sunny's new friend Quinn, who is helping her in the Boy Quest.  The girls are not terribly successful, at least in part because Sunny finds herself thinking that she’d rather be kissing Quinn instead.  Does that mean she's a lesbian? 

With so many traumas going on, the novel runs the risk of being cluttered, but Blake does a good job of keeping things moving along.  It helps that the many different stories eventually interweave making the complexity organic and less distracting.  Delightfully, Sunny’s forays into exploring her gender identity are sensitively handled.  The overall result is a beautiful story full of honest emotion, and respectful to both adults and children.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Angel Thieves, by Kathi Appelt

The Buffalo Bayou is a landmark of Houston and in this rather dreamy novel, Appelt uses it as a means of telling four different stories that cross time periods but still overlap.  There's Cade who, along with his father, steal angel statues off of forgotten graves.  Soleil is the sweet girl who falls for him and wants to believe in him.  A hundred and sixty years earlier, a former slave is trying to smuggle her two little girls to safety in Mexico.  And back in the present, an ocelot in a cage fights for its survival as the Bayou's waters rise up.

If those seem pretty disconnected, they largely are. Not that it really matters as Appelt is mostly in love with the concept of the Bayou as a swiftly flowing body of water that shifts and surges, swallowing up (and occasionally disgorging) objects and people.  She's so in love with the idea that she repeats it again and again. Repetition is key in this story and established themes are repeated again and again like a piece of music.  The issue, for me, is that what works nicely in a score comes across as boring in a story.  Most of all, as pretty as this book is, it is not a YA book and it is poorly marketed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hurricane Season, by Nicole Melleby

Fig is not a fan of storms.  Their coastal New Jersey town gets a good share of them.  It’s not the wind, dark clouds, or rain, but rather the impact that the storms have on her father.  

Her father was once a great composer but after Fig was born and her mother skipped town, Dad stopped composing.  For days at a time, he checks out altogether.  When a storm comes, he wanders outside and puts himself in danger.  The last time he did so, Fig had to call the police to help, but that just made things worse as now the authorities are watching and threatening to put Fig in foster care.

When a new neighbor moves in and tries to help, Fig is wary.  Every adult is a risk.  But it’s a lot to ask of a sixth grader who just wants to fit in and have some friends.   Fig has to learn that it is OK to accept outside help for her and her Dad.  Along the way, Fig is learning about the life of Vincent Van Gogh and his relationship with brother Theo provides inspiration and helps her understand her father. (It also inspires the gorgeous cover of the book)

A touching story about family and friendship.  The characters are complex and the relationship between father and neighbor is a nicely nuanced romance.  A subplot about Fig’s ability to judge her own friendships is a pleasing analogue.

Heroine, by Mindy McGinnis

When star catcher Mickey and her best friend Caroline (their team's pitcher) are seriously injured in a car accident, the girls are terrified that they won't heal in time to play for their senior year.  It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of pain to rehabilitate.  But Mickey discovers that the Oxycodone she's been prescribed really helps.  It works even better when she ups her dose.

But when she uses up her entire prescription, she finds that she can't get any more from her doctor.  Without it, she won't be able to push herself as much as she feels she needs to in order to be able to play. So she resorts to drastic measures, finding an old lady who's selling drugs dispensed for other people.  With this new source, Mickey starts increasing her doses gradually as the lighter doses are no longer enough.  Mickey has to turn to stealing and deception to maintain her supply, but all along she is convinced that she'll be able to stop just as soon as the season is over.  But then she finds that she can't quit.

A brutal and frank description of addiction and the process of falling into it.  As a story, it's pretty bleak stuff.  McGinnis does a great job of depicting Mickey's demise, the ease at which she ignores warning signs and the way she convinces herself that she'll be okay.  It's a bit matter-of-fact to be art, but works fine as an educational primer and a warning to any young people who are feeling invulnerable.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds

Jack meets Kate at a party during a weekend visit to Whittier, the school he plans to attend.  And Kate is the best thing that's ever happened to him.  Unlike his best friends Franny and Jillian who have each other, Jack has always just missed a happily-ever-after story.  The next four months though are amazing!  Sure, Jillian and Franny both have their rough patches, but things are mostly great for Jack and Kate...until she unexpectedly dies.

Suddenly Jack finds himself back at the party, the same party where he first met Kate four months ago.  He's been given a do-over. Like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, Jack is condemned to relive those four months all over again.  And, again as in that movie, Jack tries to tweak the outcome to make things turn out better.  But this isn't a comedy and Jack finds his choices each have consequences -- some of them dire.

While the gist of the story has been done before, the angle here is different.  For Jack, there is a lot to learn about love, friendship, family, and loyalty.  Being a boy book, the relationship stuff is mostly about keeping appearances and pride (rather than tears and jealousy) but the complicated family relationship of Franny and his jailbird father is just one piece that gives this novel a serious tone.  There really isn't much doubt of how the story should end (and it delivers) but there is a very satisfying dramatic arc of personal growth for Jack.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Sparrow, by Sarah Moon

When they find Sparrow standing on the edge of the roof of her school, everyone presumes that she was planning to jump.  She knows she wasn't.  She was planning to fly away like a bird.  But if she tells anyone that, then they will know she is crazy!

The thing is that Sparrow has always found talking about things to be hard.  And ever since her traumatic first day of school, she's generally avoided talking to others. Instead, with the support of a friendly librarian, she's found a way to avoid social situations and conversations in general. This has gotten her a reputation for being a snob and made her a target for bullies and hasn't exactly kept people away from her.

The rooftop incident sends Sparrow into counseling and her persistent counselor finds that the key to break through Sparrow's insecurity is through music (the angrier the better!).  The doctor goes on to suggest that Sparrow attend rock band camp this summer.  The idea astounds both Sparrow and her mother, who both know that Sparrow will never survive away from home, living with strangers, for four weeks.  But the counselor is convinced that this is just what Sparrow needs.

A sweet and inspiring story of a girl who finds the strength to face the world and embrace it.  There are no surprises here, but the story is well told, with good characters and a bit of fun.  Perhaps more could have been done with Sparrow's love of birds, but Moon's answer is that freedom lies in music, not ornithology.  I might beg to differ, but the point is well taken.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Days of the Dead, by Kersten Hamilton

Since her mother died, Glorieta has mourned the fact that her aunts won't speak about their sister.  Suicide is a sin and Tia Diosonita won't allow her offense to besmirch the family's honor.  Papi even had to cremate the body or else have Mama buried in unconsecrated ground.  With the Day of the Dead approaching, Glorieta hopes to somehow get her Tia to accept their sister back and let her be buried with the rest of the family.

Meanwhile, in their small town of Epoch NM, things are changing.  Glorieta's step siblings Lilith and Angus have come to stay, dumped off by their abusive father.  Angus gets along fine, but Lilith does everything she can to fight her step sister.  In a particularly harrowing passage, Lilith goes so far as to betray Glorieta to ICE agents causing Glorieta to be rounded up erroneously as an illegal.

This mixture of family, tradition, and current events creates a memorable story.  The ICE passage may be too intense for younger readers but is very topical given recent weeks' news.  This is not really a story about that though, but of the ties of family and of the power of forgiveness.  I felt that Glorieta did a bit more forgiving than she really ought to have done, but perhaps I am not as big or brave of a person as this little girl.  Her story, though, is inspiring.  Between that and the strong characters and vivid setting make this a remarkable book.