Saturday, October 14, 2017

I Believe In A Thing Called Love, by Maurene Goo

Desi is cursed when it comes to finding a boyfriend -- something embarrassing always seems to happen to her.  And when she meets Luca, it goes no better (in this case, she ends up accidentally flashing him).  But then she figures out the secret to winning in love -- follow the easy steps shown in Korean romantic dramas.

But can love really be created through melodrama and subterfuge?  Desi's determined to find out and, with a focused ambition that has made her the class valedictorian and is potentially sending her to Stanford, she's going to give it a good shot. 

I had never heard of a "K-drama" before so I love the idea of building a story around them.  Moreover, the story pays loving tribute to the genre by creating equivalents for all the absurd and over-the-top plot twists that the stories apparently rely upon.

But there's a creepiness to the story when taken at face value.  Desi literally endangers Luca's life on several occasions in order to gain his attention.  And despite Luca's attempt to point out that drama doesn't really relationships, the happy ending makes it clear that Goo thinks he's wrong.  And the author's late claim that Desi isn't defining herself by her ability to snag a boyfriend isn't very convincing.  Her's Dad's reminders that a boyfriend isn't everything is largely lost in the din of the plotting.  The story is intended to be humorous and perhaps it is better to just not read it seriously.

The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

Provence in 1241 is still recovering from being besieged during Innocent III’s crusades.  It is a land wracked by fear of the power of the Church and its Dominican inquisitors.  And it is precisely the wrong place for a young woman named Dolssa to appear, claiming to be in direct communication with Christ and performing miracles wherever she goes.  Sentenced to be burned as a heretic, she escapes and is rescued by three sisters.  They themselves are struggling to get by but grow fond of Dolssa when she heals the youngest sister.  As one would expect, it all ends very badly.

A rich and well-written story.  As one would expect, there is a certain amount of anachronistic modern behavior among the largely independent young women, but it makes for good reading.  Dolssa remains a bit of a cypher, but Botille (the middle of the three sisters) is endearing.  I’m too familiar with the history to feel indignant about the injustices that Barry wants to illuminate, but I imagine that much of this will be new to young readers.  Still, the book’s purpose is to entertain and it certainly performs that function.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Saints and Misfits, by S. K. Ali

Janna’s world swirls around “saints” (girls who are too good to be true), “misfits” (girls like herself) and the “monster” Farooq (the boy who assaulted her).  And while she’s every bit a contemporary teenager, she knows she can’t out the monster, because he has such a pious reputation in the local Muslim community.  The fact that Janna herself is not a saint (she’s been crushing on a non-Muslim) doesn’t help matters.

The plot is nothing particularly remarkable -- mostly plodding through a few events in Janna's life like an Islamic knowledge competition and a very restrained romantic flirtation.  The conflict with the creepy monster pops up here and there but doesn't dominate (and actually seemed unnecessary to me).

The striking thing about this novel is not the story, but the character of Janna herself.  As a contemporary hajib-wearing American girl, she is a striking protagonist.  It’s far too easy to assume that wearing a hajib (or a more-restrictive naqib) is reactionary and thus the wearer must be as well, but Ali’s book challenges this, showing Janna to be a very normal American adolescent who finds covering her head empowering.  She’s articulate on this point and there is a fascinating aside about whether controlling who can see what is a form of empowerment.  Let's face it, there simply aren’t characters like this in books, let alone YA.  She is intelligent, sympathetic, and friendly – the sort of person you want as a friend – with an utterly normal social life.  Yet still a devout Muslim. 

That Ali shows how Muslim teens are normal is another plus of the story.  That they can be so and also be devout is another plus.  And if there’s anything that’s rarer than a positive portrayal of Islam, it’s a positive portrayal of religion in any form.  Here, religion is not a source of conflict but a source of support.  Even the restrictions on her dating choices is approached and handled with sensitivity far beyond the usual adult-child stalemate and hysterics so common in YA.

Waking in Time, by Angie Stanton

Abbi begins her freshman year at UW-Madison on a sad note.  Her grandmother has recently passed away and Abbi misses her horribly.  Otherwise, she settles in to her dorm Liz Waters and makes friends like normal, until one morning when she wakes up and finds the world has changed.  Somehow, she has traveled back in time to the year 1983.  Her roommate and friends have changed, but somehow everyone knows her.  And just as she is getting acclimated to the change, she wakes up to find herself back in 1970 and then again in 1961.  Each time, heading back ten-fifteen years or so.

But she is not alone.  There is Will who has been traveling the other direction, from 1927 towards the future.  And there is a professor at the University who may understand what is going on, although getting help from him will be challenging as he becomes younger and younger every time she meets him.  What becomes clear as her voyage unfolds is that it is being driven by unfinished business in her family's history.

A curious time travel tale that I admittedly enjoyed most of all because of its setting (it's sort of fun to read a book that takes place in a town I know very well)..  The pace of the story is brisk and the logic holes (usually quite glaring in this particular subgenre) are kept to a minimum.  The romance plays out a bit weird since it's in reverse for one of the characters so there isn't much heat to it (a similar problem befalls all of the character development outside of Abbi).  So, this isn't a memorable read, but it's still quite pleasant entertainment.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Land of Forgotten Girls, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Ever since their Dad abandoned them in America and went back to the Philippines, Sol and little sister Ming live have been stuck living with their stepmother.  Vea, their stepmom, isn't very nice and the girls reciprocate by rebelling against her.  To comfort her sister, Sol makes up stories about magical queens and monsters, while herself seeking help from her dead sister Amelia and (more temporally) from her neighbor Mrs. Leung and the local junk man.

It's a story of sisterhood that combines mundane life in a sleepy Louisiana apartment complex with touches of magic.  I think it's a bit too slow and strange for the young readers it is targeted to (I pity the parent who tries to explain the story to an inquisitive listener), but it has its charms.  The cast of characters are diverse and interesting and I especially enjoyed the large role that silences play in the story (particularly, with Ming and with Mrs. Leung).  At the same time, Sol was a bit bratty and seemed to enjoy antagonizing her stepmother, so I enjoyed her less.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Incident on the Bridge, by Laura McNeal

Popular opinion would have it that Thisbe Locke was generally a good kid on her way to a decent college, but then she was led astray by bad boy Clay.  And after the humiliation that Clay subjected her too, she neglected her studies and withdrew.  So, when she disappears one night on the top of a bridge, it is assumed that she's jumped in despair. But the story is more complicated than that.

Told through the voices of nearly a dozen characters, the mystery unfolds in many different directions. And it is that random and chaotic nature of the narrative that I found frustrating.  The book's length is largely based upon misunderstandings and missed cues, and elaborate introductions of subplots and minor characters.  But rather than stitch all of this together, the extremely abrupt ending just closes the mystery without resolving much of anything.  Thus, we spend a tremendous amount of time developing characters and stories which turn out to be inconsequential to the story.

Queens of Geek, by Jen Wilde

Three Aussies come to the States to attend SupaCon (a.k.a. Comic Con) in Los Angeles.  There’s Charlie who has come to promote her new Zombie flick and is still nursing her wounds from a nasty public break-up six months ago with her co-star Chase.  That process is complicated by Chase’s unexpected and obnoxious presence at the Con.  Charlie would rather move on and make some moves on Alyssa – a hot and rising actress -- but can't tell if the feelings are reciprocated.

Taylor and Jamie are her friends and – as everyone but they can tell – madly infatuated with each other.  Bringing them together is complicated by the fact that Taylor was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s and is very sensitive to being out in public.  Coming to terms with the limits of that condition, she isn't sure that she's up for dealing with her feelings towards Jamie.

Ostensibly a typical romance plot, but with a rainbow cast of characters representing multiple races, sexual orientations, and disabilities.  It’s a PC dream novel (and probably got on my reading list because of a CCBC recommendation), but really it’s a great story where the diversity isn’t the point of the story.  So, if the novel can be used to show that everyone can and does fall in love, then so be it.  But the most important thing is really that it shows good people doing good things.  These are nice people and the ending, while a bit over the top, rewards its characters for their struggles with a satisfying pay-off.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Go-Between, by Veronica Chambers

Camilla's mother is a famous telenovela actress in Mexico.  As a result, her family lives a life of privilege.  But for Cammi, it is a lonely life as she has to be protected from the threat of kidnappers and constantly must question the motives of people who want to be her friends.  When Mom lands a role in a new American TV show, Cammi welcomes the chance to move to America and (she hopes) become anonymous.

In Los Angeles, she enrolls at an elite private school and her classmates assume that she's a poor immigrant on a scholarship, with parents who work menial jobs.  This presumption so fascinates Cammi that she goes along with it.  At first, it seems like a dream come true: completely ignorant of her famous mother, Cammi can live a "normal" life. But the racist prejudices of her classmates shock her at the same time.  The lie itself entangles her and she finds herself unable to come clean with her new friends.

It's an ambitious story that tackles a wide list of topics:  immigration, racism, class conflict, as well as a normal dose of romance and interpersonal strife.  Being a short novel (under 200 pages) this is a overly ambitious.  The ending felt particularly rushed as the coming-clean is followed up by a block party and a movie-watching party (neither of which seem to serve any particular purpose except to show the characters having fun).  While many of the subplots suffer, I think the theme of how immigrants grapple with the balancing of old and new worlds is well-explored.  And I particularly enjoyed the early description of Cammi's privileged life in Mexico, as we don't see many stories set in contemporary Mexico that are not set in poor rural areas.

And We're Off, by Dana Schwartz

Nora has had some modest success with her fanfic cartoons and she dreams of becoming a professional artist, like her grandfather.  When she is selected to attend a selective art program in Ireland, she feels she is on her way.  And after dealing with her mother’s skepticism and the pain of watching her BFF hook up with her ex-, Nora will be glad to get away.  Her grandfather has agreed to pay her way and is sending her to explore Europe with a series of assignments, each one sealed in an envelope to be opened at an appointed time.  She’ll be completely beautifully alone and independent.

But then her mother makes a last minute decision to come along, claiming that she won't be any bother.  But, as mothers are prone to do, she goes on to completely ruin everything.  Will Nora be able to still explore the world the way she wants, find a cute foreign boy, and develop into a great artist with her mother in tow?  The answer will surprise them both, but the journey is of course the story!

A surprisingly spare tale that is mostly good entertainment. It reads like an entertaining correspondence with a good friend. Schwartz isn’t creating much that is new here (the debt to Maureen Johnson’s Thirteen Blue Envelopes is acknowledged), but she does it well.  And Schwartz even has the wit to acknowledge that life is rarely this easy or simple.  The conflict with the mother is a bit repetitive (the argue over the same things repeatedly) and the conflict with the romantic interest a bit too brief, but for the most part this is a satisfying read.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grace and the Fever, by Zan Romanoff

Grace has always considered herself a loser and a nobody at school, but online she's "Gigi" and maintains a super popular blog on Fever Dream, a boy band she's followed for years.  It's a secret obsession that she's hid from her mother and her friends, who would consider the whole thing immature and pointless.

Then, one night by chance she runs into Jes, the lead singer of the band and is mistaken by a paparazzo for being Jes's new romantic interest.  The notoriety pulls her into Fever Dream's world and before she knows it, Grace really is dating Jes...or so it seems to the outside world. But once admitted into the band's life, Grace finds that the reality is quite different from what she had imagined.  The group is falling apart and crumbling under the weight of hiding their private lives from the fans. And if the band realized that Grace and the notorious Gigi are actually one and the same, it would be a disaster for everyone.

A fascinating look at fandom and how fans think and create worlds of their own that feed off of each other, only using the alleged focus of their attention as an excuse to bring them together.  Grace lives in an all-encompassing and consuming world that comes off as even less healthy than the fame-fueled world of her boys.

Grace herself is a major tour-de-force.  Fans (or groupies) don't get a good rep, but Grace is articulate and sharp.  She's invested and emotional enough to prove her devotion, but she's also smart enough and honest about her obsession and her needs.  Even when she's head over heels crazed for the band, she's able to see (and explain to the reader) just why she gets that way in words that are lucid and believable.  I genuinely understood her and what drove her.  And I never imagined that could be possible as our worlds couldn't be any further apart!

In A Perfect World, by Trish Doller

Caroline's mother has always had a dream of doing humanitarian work in a foreign country, but the family had assumed it wouldn’t happen until Caroline had left for college.  But then an opening comes up during Caroline's senior year to set up a clinic in Egypt and Mom decides that they have to seize the opportunity. Caroline knows very little about Egypt beyond that it is old and full of Muslims.  And she's aware and a bit apprehensive about whether Americans will be welcome there.

Moving to a foreign country to actually live there is hard.  Hard to adjust to the climate and the customs and harder still to leave her home and friends behind.  But she discovers a love for her new home, despite its strange people and customs.  A love which is helped in no small amount by a forbidden romance with an Egyptian boy.

The romance was probably a required nod to the genre, but it hangs uncomfortably amidst Doller’s attempt to authentically describe contemporary Egyptian society.  The problem is that there really is no way to plausibly explain the relationship beyond what feels more like wishful Western thinking.  It doesn’t so much detract from the story as simply feel superfluous and alien.

What does stand out is the beauty with which Doller depicts Egypt and its people.  I related to this story as I too have spent time in Egypt as a teenager (albeit a bit young and for a shorter period).  While that was a long time ago and the cultural and political environment has changed, the descriptions feel authentic and Doller’s ability to capture the warmth of Egyptian people is welcome.