Saturday, September 21, 2019

Braced, by Alyson Gerber

Rachel has really been improving her soccer game and coach has started letting her play on offense.  She even bends the rules to let Rachel off for a last-minute doctor’s appointment.  Unfortunately, the doctor has bad news:  Rachel has developed a curvature in her spine – scholiosis – and will need to wear a back brace for at least the next six months for most of the day.  Suddenly, all of Rachel’s dreams (soccer, most of all) are threatened by having to wear the hideous uncomfortable appliance.  It makes every movement uncomfortable and derails her game.  Soon, coach has her back on defense and won’t even let her start.  She hates the way she looks in it and the way people look at her, but most of all she hates feeling like a freak.

A sensitive and insightful middle reader about a health issue of relevance to its target audience.  Many girls develop spinal issues in middle school or have a classmate who does.   As the only boy in my class who was diagnosed with scholiosis (I was lucky enough to not need a brace), this particular story spoke to me directly and I think I might have enjoyed a book like it at the time.

Gerber has done an excellent job creating a story that is entertaining to read, yet full of facts about the disease and its treatment.  That the characters are authentic and interesting is a bonus, as are the realistic family interactions.  For me, stories stand out when they either do something new (rare) or take on an issue which has been written about before.  This is a good example of the latter.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Rest of the Story, by Sarah Dessen

After her father’s wedding, while Dad and his new wife are honeymooning in Greece, the plan was for Emma to stay at her friend’s house.  And when that plan falls through, the only option that they can come up with is to send Emma to stay with her maternal grandmother in North Lake.

Emma has only ever been to North Lake once (when she was four) and has no memory of the visit.  But before her mother died, Emma used to love to hear stories of the Lake, even if the stories always seemed a bit fantastic and surreal.

Once there, Emma discovers that while she has no memory of the place, she has an eclectic family and old friends that do.  They even call her by her middle name ("Saylor") despite her efforts to explain that everyone back home calls her "Emma." They have plenty of stories about her mother (and father) that fill in gaps for that Emma has always wondered about (e.g., how her parents really met, why her father never brought her back to visit, etc.).

The time goes by quickly and when her parents return to the States and come to get her, she finds that she wants to spend more time with this side of the family she doesn't know.  It's then that she finds just how alienated her father is from the North Lake relations.  Saylor/Emma is torn between the sides, a conflict only resolved by an Act of God.

A touching story of southern family life, with all the poignancy for which Dessen is renown.  The writing is beautiful, even if the template is so well-worn: the intelligent young woman who wrestles with her family for autonomy, the outsider boy who is intelligent and responsible, and a tight group of friends who spend the summer goofing off.  One of these days, Dessen will write a dystopian and surprise me, but for now, it’s a template that works.

In comparison with her more recent books, this is stronger take on her perennial themes.  There are a lot of characters, but surprisingly, they can be sorted out.  And the story, which does resort to melodrama in the end, is generally interesting with a touch of humor at the right moments.  And for those who are regular Dessen readers, you can be assured that Spinnerbait appears!

Internment, by Samira Ahmed

In a near future United States, Muslims are rounded up by the Exclusion Authority and sent to relocation camps, seventeen year-old Layla and her parents among them.  The camp they are sent to is located in a remote desert camp (ironically near by the Manzanar camp used to detain Japanese Americans during WWII).  While Layla's initial concern is with the deprivation of her civil rights, things take a nastier turn is she finds her resistance met with extreme cruelty at the hands of a sadistic camp administrator.

Mixing together elements of Japanese relocation, the internment centers for migrants and asylum seekers of the current day, and tossing in familiar current politics, Internment is a dystopian with a no-apologies agenda.  That has gotten it a lot of attention from both sides and can make reviewing the novel a bit of a challenge.  I'm more than sympathetic with the political agenda, but overall I found this a blunt and exploitative instrument.

The thing about dystopians is that they work primarily because they are subtle.  They can be read a literature, without even considering their political agenda.  But there is nothing subtle about this novel.  Like a social media echo chamber, this is all about momentary indignation with atrocity layered on top of atrocity.  Occasional moments of reasoning and insight exist in the story, but they get swept aside pretty quickly for latest outrage.

The most egregious problem for me, though, wasn't the dumbed-down politics, but the adversary.  The camp administrator (whose obesity is excessively mentioned) is so over-the-top and such a paper tiger that he’s basically comic relief.  That provides a way-too-easy way out in the end. If Ahmed really wanted to write the “courageous” book she claims to have written, she would never have made evil so easy to wipe out.  The evil that would create these camps is not going to be defeated by people chanting slogans, it’s going to take some hard looks at the forces that drive people to accept such policies.  And it's not as if Ahmed doesn't know this (she brings it up on several occasions) but in the interest of actually resolving institutional racism and xenophobia in the confines of her novel she's oversimplified and then deftly "resolved" the problem.  It's too bad that life isn't that simple and I don't feel that this novel serves any higher good.  At best, this gives false confidence to left-wing Americans that they can defeat Trump simply by saying "resist."

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs

The Kingdom of Greeve is plagued by a dragon, an evil witch, and a horde of bandits. To rid his kingdom of these woes, the King has announced that he'll give the hand of his daughter to whatever prince can do the job.  Princess Margaret, however, has entirely different ideas.  Resentful of being locked away in a tower for whatever prince comes along, she manages to escape and seeks to rid her kingdom of the pests herself, and kick out all the dumb princes to boot!

In fact, it is really the latter that are the greatest problem.  The dragon is just a baby, the witch is kind, and the bandits are simply taking from the rich to give to the poor.  But the princes are a menace!  Prince Vantor, the worst of the bunch,  means to win the competition at any cost, even if it involves kidnapping the Princess.  But with help from her maid Dilly, the gardener boy Cam, and the young wizard Lex, Meg will figure the whole thing out.

Not really sure if it wants to be adventure or comedy, this tongue-in-cheek fractured fairy tale sometimes falls very flat.  Still, it's light and action-packed.  With well over a dozen major characters, the action gets a bit chaotic by the end but I'm pretty sure that everything gets wrapped up.  And Meg even gets to start taking sword fighting lessons (and toss aside her hated embroidery)!

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Saving Red, by Sonya Sones

Molly and her emotional-support dog Pixie are stuck in the middle of doing last-minute community service work when they meet Red.  Without a lot of options for completing her assignment, Molly's participating in a census of homeless people in Santa Monica.  While she's certainly been aware of the homeless, she's never given them much thought until now.  Red, a young woman of about her age, strikes home in a way for which Molly is not prepared.

Molly becomes obsessed with helping her, but Red is distrustful and rejects Molly's advances.  As the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Molly is just as in need of help.  She may have a physical structure over her head, but she is nearly as abandoned by her absent parents, her family torn apart by a tragedy.  The relationship, remaining tentative and never entirely trusting, becomes mutually respectful.

The ultimate resolution of this story-in-verse is both an affirmation of life and a sobering reminder that problems like mental illness and homelessness are not easily solved.  Sones takes advantage of the ambiguity of verse to let questions that are unanswerable stay unanswered, while leaving us with hope.  Molly and Red are both compelling characters and their relationship complex and subtly interdependent, as the savior becomes the saved.  A romantic subplot involving a boy that Molly meets early in the novel is probably the major weak point -- a distraction in a story that didn't need a pretty boy in it -- but Sones always does romance so sweetly that it's hard to begrudge her a few pages of love poetry.  This is certainly not Sones's best work, but it is still a decent read and a good use of verse in a novel.

Extraordinary Birds, by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

In the time in which December has been shunted from one foster home to another, she's learned never to expect permanency in her life.  But that's alright, because she has a secret:  some day she'll complete her transformation into a bird and fly away.  Birds have simple needs: they only need to survive.  December looks forward to that simpler life.

In the meantime, she's been placed with Eleanor, a woman whose love of birds speaks to December's heart.  Eleanor introduces December to animal rehab work and helps December reconnect with her own humanity.  A subplot involving December's friendship with a transgender classmate hangs awkwardly in the story, but provides some room to expand on December's unrecognized ability to empathize.

Ultimately heartwarming, the story is driven by December's comments about the differences and similarities between birds and humans. Perhaps a bit overly precocious for her age, these observations nonetheless will prove enjoyable to readers who love birds in the first place.  The story of how Eleanor's patient and gentle rescue of December will appeal to everyone.

Friday, August 30, 2019

A Kind of Paradise, by Amy Rebecca Tan

Straight-A student Jamie has messed up badly.  Blinded by her desire to impress a boy that she has a crush on, she's been caught violating her school's Honor Code. As a consequence, she has to spend the summer doing community service. There will be no camp and no vacation trips.  Instead, she has to work at her town's public library.

But to her surprise, Jamie quickly discovers that the library is full of lots of fun people (both staff and patrons) and that the work is actually pretty interesting as well.  Moreover, the people have lessons to impart, helping Jamie see where she went wrong and develop her interpersonal skills along the way.  In return, Jamie helps an effort to save the library from closure.

Half a love letter to public libraries and the other half a personal development story, there's lots going on here.  Given the target audience, very little of it is subtle. The ending is all a bit too rosy for me as just about everything works out.  I didn't find the dialogue very realistic, but the characters are quirky, charming, and memorable.

Hope and Other Punch Lines, by Julie Buxbaum

Perhaps one of the most iconic photographs from 9/11 is the one of “Baby Hope.” You know the one with the one year-old baby girl in a princess dress being rushed away from the Towers after the first plane hit.  But sixteen years later, Abbi wishes everyone would just forget about it.  She’s endured endless moments of recognition from strangers, who want to hug her and tell her how much that picture meant to them (as if she had actually done anything!).  All she wants is to enjoy a quiet summer, when - just for once - she can just be herself and not some icon of a horrific event.

But two things lurk over her to prevent this.  The first is a persistent and worsening cough, which may be a legacy of toxins she was exposed to when the Towers collapsed.  The other problem is a persistent boy named Noah.  Noah has an obsession: he wants Abbi to help him track down the other people in that famous picture.  To Abbi, this is the type of painful and tiresome task she is trying to avoid, but Noah has good reasons and they are ultimately devastating

I really enjoyed this original take on 9/11, a topic which is fairly remote to today’s young readers.  By looking at it in the contemporary moment, seeing the long-term effects of the event through today's young people is genius stroke, giving the idea relevance and immediacy.  Buxbaum is an excellent writer and has managed to fit in a lot of true stories amidst her admittedly simple story. Pretty much all of the specifics of the novel (including the “Baby Hope” photo) are made up, but they are all based on real events, people, and facts.  It’s this sort of painless education which always impresses me.  Unique and recommended.

How It Feels to Float, by Helena Fox

Almost ten years ago, Biz lost her father to depression.  While his suicide made her sad initially, she felt better when he came back to her and spoke to her when she needed him.  This was not so unusual for her.  Lots of other things speak to her: the ocean, the photographs she takes with Dad’s old film camera, and so many other things.  But what about the new boy at school with a mysterious limp?  The one who rescued Biz from the waves when the ocean was convincing her to join it?  He doesn’t speak to her, but she wishes he would!

After a traumatic event pushes Biz into outcast status and gets her suspended from school, her happy world collapses around her.  Lost in depression, she determines that the only thing she can do that would make any sense is to seek out the places where her father lived and see if they (or him) would speak to her again.  So, she goes out on a quest to find her father and join him under the water…where he drowned himself.

A fresh, albeit occasionally creepy look at life with inherited psychosis.  As Biz makes her own descent into madness, she's all too aware that she’s following her father’s path, but less and less concerned about what that could mean for her.  There’s something quite gentle and beautiful about the way that her world falls apart, which makes the journey all the more terrifying.  The reader is forced to take the plunge with her.

In a field with a lot of similar books about mental illness, I found Biz a compelling character and the story an excellent read.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Goodnight, Anne, by Kallie George

It's bedtime for Anne, but before she can nod off, she wants to wish everyone a goodnight.  Whether it is Marilla or Matthew, her bosom friend Diana, or even horrid Gilbert, Anne (with an e, thank you!) has a bedtime wish for them all.

A charming bedtime picture book that will please small children with its pretty artwork by Genenieve Godbout, but is far more rewarding for older ones who are familiar with Anne of Green Gables. They will delight in remembering Anne's adventures as they drift off to sleep.  If you find "goodnight" books to be dull and boring, you may end up giving this a pass, but for fans of L. M. Montgomery's classic, this is a sweet diversion.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Raven's Tale, by Cat Winters

A whimsical biography of Edgar Allan Poe's early years, set mostly on Poe's year away at UVA.  Torn between two muses (one that embraces the macabre and another young Eddy's Byronesque romantic side), Edgar struggles to find his way and choose what sort of writer he wishes to be.  But most of all, he wrestles with his stepfather's aim of destroying his literary ambitions altogether. I call it whimsical because Poe's muses in this story are incarnate, visible, and interacting with the people around them.

An interesting concept that I found hard to get into.  Partly, it is hard to follow the cast of characters (most of whom are based on real people but not being already familiar with Poe's life, were hard to keep track of). Partly, it was the story's uneven pacing.  But mostly, it is the supernatural elements of the story (the muses and their rather corporeal magic, which is itself intended to to have a Poe-like tenor). If I was a Poe fan, then Winter's riff would probably be more meaningful.  But as a story on its own, it just doesn't have much going for it despite the obvious love and dedication of the writer to the hero.

Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr

Astrid is a thunderbolt, a force of nature in her mountain home of Glimmerdale.  Her joys in life consist of sledding down hills, singing at the top of her lungs, and driving grumpy Mr. Hagen crazy (children, in his opinion, should be silent and kept indoors).  But amidst the beauty of her Nordic paradise, there is something she lacks:  some other children with whom to play.

The novel covers three important events in Astrid's life:  First of all, her efforts to ride a sled all the way from her high mountain home down to the town on the shore of the fjord.  Then, secondly, the moment when her dream of having other children come is answered but it seems that the children will go away almost as soon as they arrive.  And ultimately with the return of a young woman that Astrid never even knew existed.

Inspired by Heidi (and a bit by Pippi Longstocking as well), Astrid fits comfortably into the tradition of irrepressible young heroines.  The book, translated from Norwegian, is quirky and very much a cultural artifact – written in a style that makes it seem old fashioned, even though it is set in modern day.  The fact that the children are always playing outdoors and no Game Boys, texting, or Net Flix are to be found can be disconcerting.  Like Johanna Spyri, the author of Heidi, Parr promotes the benefits of outdoor living and that can seem anachronistic for a contemporary novel.  But as alien as the setting may be, Astrid's joyfulness and energy has universal appeal.