Monday, January 21, 2019

Beautiful Broken Hearts, by Kami Garcia

When Peyton discovers that her MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter boyfriend Reed is illegally taking steroids to give him an edge in the ring, she confronts him and delivers an ultimatum:  quit the drugs or she will break up with him.  Instead of choosing, he becomes enraged and throws her down the stairs.  The fall damages her knee and puts her own athletic career (as a soccer player) on hold.  But that is only the start of the nightmare as Reed starts stalking her.

Concerned for her daughter's safety, Peyton's Mom ships her off to live with her brother and two sons.  There, Peyton tries to heal (emotionally and physically) but the process is complicated by two things:  her uncle and a new boy.  The uncle was a compatriot of Peyton's father in Iraq and the lone survivor when their group was taken out in combat.  Seeing him reminds her too much of things she really doesn't want to think about.  The boy is Owen.  And while he is also an MMA fighter, he couldn't be any more different from Reed -- kind, gentle, and protective of Payton.  But even if he is a good guy, Peyton isn't sure she's ready to rekindle romance, even if her heart has other ideas.

Ugh.  Take pretty much any stereotype of YA romance and this novel has it.  And the fighting stuff really did nothing for me.  It's aggravated by a huge amount of stupid male posing going on (so over-the-top that even the characters in the book have to call it out).  The dead and absent parents don't help the story much either and probably contribute to the plethora of poor conflict resolution skills being demonstrated by the kids.   Still, I finished it and for one reason:  Peyton.  She's one of the stronger characters I have seen in a while.  An occasional poor decision here and there is more than made up for by her strong will and clear sense of values.  Her heart may lead her into Owen's arms, but she still knows it's not a great idea and she owns that.  To be able to stand up to all these violent men, she shows incredible bravery.  She fights her own fights to the end -- no damsel in distress moments here -- without relying on the men around her to resolve her problems.

We Regret To Inform You, by Ariel Kaplan

Mischa's mother has sacrificed everything to get her daughter into Blanchard Academy.  And Mischa has done what she could to honor that sacrifice -- good grades, AP classes, plenty of extracurriculars, and stellar test scores.  So she's pretty confident that she has a good shot at a good college.

When she starts getting rejects, she's surprised. At first, it's just early decisions at top schools, so she figures that the competition must have been stiff.  But when she is eventually turned down by every school to which she has applied (including her safeties), she is shocked.  Depressed and afraid to confess to her mother what has happened, she instead endures her mother's ecstatic preparations for the college odyssey which will never happen.  But the mystery of why she got turned down remains and deepens as Mischa and her friends discover that there's been foul play.

An interesting mystery that plays on the omnipresent threat of college rejections.  The actual story is entirely too drawn out for me (so many plot developments that could have been resolved with ease and alacrity).  And Mischa, while she grows in the story, didn't grow enough for my tastes.  In sum, a promising idea, but not delivered well.

Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Ten year-old Livy and her mother visit Livy's grandmother in Australia.  They haven't been there in five years and Livy doesn't recall much of the place -- just vague recollections and random images.  But when they arrive, she starts to remember things -- not in the way one does when one has been away but as if she has always known certain things.  The weirdness takes a step up when she finds a small creature in her closet named "Bob." Bob has been sitting in the closet for these past five years for Livy's return (because her last words to him were to stay there).  He's passed the time dissembling and reassembling a Lego pirate ship and wondering where Livy went.  Livy meanwhile had forgotten him altogether.

Bob has a number of extraordinary powers.  No one except Livy seems to be able to see Bob. The two of them can go outside with Bob wearing a ridiculous disguise which five year-old Livy made for him that makes Bob look like a chicken. And, after the five year interval, the two of them reestablish their connection.  But while five year-old Livy accepted her friend as-is, ten year-old Livy wonders why Bob is here?  And where did Bob come from?  That search takes them on an adventure for ramifications much greater than childhood friendship.

Told in alternating viewpoints between Livy and Bob, this is a sweet middle-grade adventure.  Sort of an outback ET, there is a really big moral lodged at the end, but the story itself is a fun adventure that is a joyful read.  Quirky illustrations liven the text throughout.

The Last Best Story, by Maggie Lehrman

Rose is the star reporter for the school paper and Grant is the equally dedicated editor-in-chief.  While they've never dated, they have nonetheless been inseparable through the years.  Rose kept hoping for something to happen but Grant was so obsessed with the paper that he couldn't see the romantic potential in front of him.  Frustrated with that, she quit the paper (despite his dogged attempts to get her to stay on).  The romance seems lost.

Then, at their senior prom, an active shooter alert and subsequent school lock-down brings them back into each others' orbits.  Unable to fight the appeal of getting an inside scoop, they team up to cover the story as it unfolds.  In the process, they find each other.

A fast-paced romance and mystery combined together. As an avid fan of Gilmore Girls I couldn't quite rid my brain of the image of Paris and Doyle as the inspiration for the two protagonists here (it actually works pretty well in this case!) which gave the book some appeal.  But as the rather crazy plot would suggest, this story is all over then place.  It manages to get the various threads tied up by the end, but it's a confusing ride.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Soul Struck, by Natasha Sinel

Rachel’s mother believes that she developed the talent to be able to see a person’s “soul mate” after she was struck by lightning.  The experience also prompted her to found a support group for lightning strike survivors.

Rachel, jealous of how much attention her mother lavishes on her group, has grown obsessed with getting struck by lightning too.  It seems like the only way for Rachel to get noticed by Mom.  Rachel would also like to know more about her father (who Mom alleges was her soul mate) but Mom has always refused to go into much detail.

While clearing out the junk in their garage one day, Rachel discovers an old box which contains clues about the past.  And when Rachel starts snooping through it, she discovers that her mother’s rosy-colored recollections are not even true.

A character-rich story in a picturesque setting (Cape Cod) with just a small touch of magic and lot of complicated relationships.  Just about every character in the story is complex enough to relate to the others in different ways.  Being set in a small town, it makes sense that everyone knows everyone and their histories are partly shared and partly unique. There’s also a certain fluidity as friendships wax and wane throughout the novel. It’s a rich enough story that a re-reading might be justified.  For me that would be too much work, but I admired the writer's effort in creating something so sophisticated.

Tradition, by Brendan Kiely

Jamie Baxter is the type of kid who doesn’t get second chances and after a near-fatal incident on the football gridiron, his career prospects seem bleak.  But his coach manages to pull in some favors and slips him into the elite Fullbrook Academy on a full scholarship to play hockey.

Jules is much more at home at a rich person's prep school like Fullbrook, but after three years the place doesn’t seem so gleaming and pristine anymore. She's disgusted by the way that boys get to be boys and the girls are mostly added on as an afterthought.  Dozens of the school's traditions are, as one character puts it, in place to “benefit the boys and not the girls” and she wants to fight back.

For Jamie, the recent arrival, it is a surprise to see what privilege is associated with these wealthy kids, but it is the sexism of the students and the staff that eventually push him over the edge.  And Jules’s little rebellions eventually escalate to one grand gesture to take a stand against tradition.

There’s not much subtlety in this grueling account of white male privilege and twisted notions of consent.  While the general ideas made me think hard about my own experience in private schooling, the ideas are handled here with a sledgehammer.  That makes for entertainment (if the subject of sexual assault and objectification can be considered light reading) but it doesn’t lead to much reflection on the subject matter.  That will probably be left for anyone who wants to discuss the book afterwards but there isn't much gray area here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Other F-Word, by Natasha Friend

Milo is violently allergic to a wide variety of food and he'd like to understand why.  The doctor thinks it's genetic, but his Mom doesn't have the mutation.  That leaves his Dad which is a bit of a challenge, because Milo has two mothers and his Y chromosome came from a sperm donor.  The good news is that the donor indicated on his profile that he was willing to be contacted. Now, Milo just needs to work up the courage to reach out.

Milo already knows a half-sister (through the same donor), Hollis, who he met when they were kids, but they didn't stay in touch and reconnecting is awkward.  Still, it seems easier to have an ally before contacting their father.  Hollis has her own issues and is reluctant to join Milo's quest.  But he wins her over and as they start the process they discover that there are more half siblings out there.  The four teens, while struggling with their feelings about their shared father, find bonds between them.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking story about family ties in non-traditional families and the emotional stresses associated with IVF.  Friend doesn't take any of this very far (just lightly touching on the stresses between parents or the tendency for children conceived through donors to be more prone to delinquency and emotional conditions), but she does work it in.  The far more important story about how a group of four young people who have grown up separately find a bond based solely on an absent member of their "family" both confirms the power of a genetics and simultaneously subverts it by showing the stronger connection through common adversity.  In the end, the sperm donor becomes inconsequential to their experience and to the story.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali, by Sabina Khan

Rukhsana is a good girl who loves her Bengali culture, its cuisine, and her family.  She tries hard to please her mother and father, but it hurts that she can't be open with them.  Telling them that she is gay is simply something one doesn't do.  And this proves prescient when her mother discovers Rukhsana's romantic relationship with her girlfriend Araiana, and her parents totally freak out.

They trick her to return to Bangladesh with them and then literally imprison her to force her to marry a man of their choosing.  Desperate to escape, she finds an unexpected ally in her grandmother who reveals a set of family secrets which open her eyes.  Through great difficulty, things are sorted out.

The story, which reminded me strongly of Aisha Saeed's Written in the Stars, goes a bit further and in a slightly different direction.  First, because it deals with a homosexual relationship; and secondly, because the family is eventually able to reconcile.  This goal presents literary challenges to Khan as she has to work out a plausible way to get the family to turn around.  The resulting story is not entirely successful and relies heavily on the parents seeing the error in their ways.  In fact, the most frustrating part of the book is that, while Rukhsana learns a number of things to make her more sympathetic to her mother (out of pity), there really is very little growth in her character.  The weight of the character growth falls on everyone except Rukhsana -- who grows very little through her experience.  I think there was room for everyone to do some development.

While there are many good features of the novel, Khan's writing is a bit rough and the book grows dully repetitive.  Every food item is mouth-watering, every discussion ends in tears, every argument results in someone (usually not Rukhsana) apologizing.  I did like the characters themselves who, while not entirely shucking stereotypes about South Asians, were distinct and complex.  And I loved the many cultural details (Khan really enjoys the cuisine and the clothing and never tired of describing both in ways that make one hungry and covetous).

 [Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased advanced review.  The book, originally slated to be released on January 1st, is now scheduled to be available at the end of January]

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World, by Shannon and Dean Hale

Moving from California to New Jersey is difficult for fourteen year-old Doreen.  First of all, she has to hide her big fluffy tale to avoid notice from the other kids.  Her ability to leap into trees and talk to squirrels is probably also best left out of sight.  But no amount of super talents can counter the fact that the kids are not very friendly in New Jersey and neither are the squirrels!  Using her regular girl powers, she tackles the first problem.

But there is also danger afoot -- the type of danger that only a superhero can solve.  The Avengers are not particularly interested in helping (despite some intervention from the squirrels), so it will fall upon Doreen to step up as Squirrel Girl!  Someone is trapping squirrels in gruesome cages, hurting dogs, kidnapping babies, and trying to destroy their suburban town.  Aided by both tree and ground squirrels and her classmates (dubbed the "squirrel scouts") they take on SG's nemesis, the Micro Manager!

While I didn't know it before I started reading the novel, the character is based on a classic comic book.  Being ignorant of that fact, I really liked the way the book started where Doreen is just a somewhat gawky middleschooler with a big secret.  Our introduction to the squirrels is also particularly funny.  And the regularly interspersed footnotes provide lots of snarkiness and humor.  But when the superheros and villains start to appear (i.e., the comic book elements), my interest in the story evaporated.  For most of the latter half of the book, we are treated to a number of in-jokes about Marvel characters (Avengers, in particular) and the sort of silly ultra-violence that fills most movie screens these days.  Not only did I find it dull, but also that split focus leaves the story really struggling.  Is it superhero adventure or is it just poking fun?  In any case, it didn't really work either way.  I honestly didn't see the point, but apparently the commercial success says otherwise.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova

On the first day of school, Peppi Torres breaks her resolution to keep a low profile by tripping and spilling her bag in the hallway.  Mortified, she lashes out at shy nerdy Jaime who tries to help her, pushing him away and yelling at him.  Wracked by guilt in the aftermath, Peppi keeps trying to find a way to apologize to Jaime.  Convinced that he hates her she can't work up the courage to just actually do so.

It's all complicated by the fact that she's in the art club and he's in the science club, and the two clubs are in a cutthroat competition to be granted a table at the upcoming club fair.  Things escalate as the clubs are pitted against each other to produce a contribution that will benefit the whole school  In the end, though, it is Peppi's ability to cooperate with Jaime and the science club that will save the day.

First in a series of graphic novels (as of now, there are three books in the series) that explore middle school life. It's a successful series, but I don't find much that is remarkable about the story or the artistry, although both are good quality.  The book is entertaining and a fast read and the artwork and layouts quite competent.  But my coolness to the book is creditable at least in part to the truth that I'm not a fan of graphic novels of this sort.  They seem largely derivative of Japanese anime and in my opinion add little more than a change of milieu.

Friday, December 21, 2018

This Is Really Happening, by Erin Chack

In this set of eleven chapter-length essays, Chack recounts tales of her youth.  They range from her year-long battle with cancer to her relationship with her long-term boyfriend.  In between are observations about parties, periods, and incontinence. My favorite was her account of  her day job writing click bait for Buzzfeed, but her observations on YA writer John Green were pretty amusing as well.

It’s not particularly YA although the chapters that deal with her adolescence will be of interest to young readers.  And it is not fiction either – just well-told life stories.   So, it’s a bit far off from my usual radar.

My take is that the writing is funny but the book is inconsequential.  These are the types of essays that we all polish up in one form or another: stories to tell at parties about ourselves to make people laugh.  They become polished because we have told them again and again.  Nice essays, but not sure why they needed to be collected into a book.  There isn’t much here that will stick with you.

Tell Me No Lies, by Adele Griffin

It takes the arrival of Claire in the beginning of their senior year to get Lizzy to come out of her shell.  For years, Lizzy has laid low trying to hide from the embarrassment of having had a grand mal seizure in front of her whole school.  And she's also struggled with being cossetted by her overprotective parents.  But Claire doesn't know that history and doesn't treat Lizzy like she's fragile.  Instead, she takes her into Philly and shows her how much fun they can have with fake IDs.  But as brave as Claire seems, it is obvious that she has fears and secrets as well.  And when Lizzy finds them out, it ends up destroying their friendship.  At the same time, Lizzy also seems to be losing her boyfriend Matt to secrets revealed.

While this drama comes together nicely in the end, it’s a convoluted story lacking much coherence along the way.  The theme (everyone has secrets that they are willing to lie for) is pretty thin upon which to hang this period piece on growing up on the Main Line in the Eighties.  The Eighties details are pretty perfunctory, picking up scattered tropes from across the decade – mostly set in 1988-89, but not in any consistent way.  The whole thing is probably autobiographical or at least based on personal experience, which is fine if there is a story there, but in this case there is not much.