Saturday, September 18, 2021

How We Fall Apart, by Katie Zhao

When the star of Sinclair Prep ends up dead, her competition are prime suspects.  Especially so when an anonymous person starts posting accusations against them -- accusations that turn out to be true.  Because the thing that all four suspects have in common is that they each have a dangerous secret.  One by one, their secrets are exposed, destroying each of their reputations (alongside their academic futures).  In the high stress academic rat race these students are in, any weakness is failure and so they must fight with the lives to protect themselves against the anonymous informant.  But will the final reveal prove the deadliest?

This murder mystery/gossip-girl elite high school mash up is all over the place in styles and story, but does a really interesting job dissecting the psychological costs of Asian over-achievement.  The way that each of these young people have sold their souls to achieve their parents' dreams in a futile attempt to earn familial love is a sad commentary.  As a serious subject, it would have made a pretty stunning YA drama.  Instead, Zhao has been seduced into creating a gossipy tale of (mostly) rich NYC prep kids.  The result is fluffy and hard to take seriously.  The implausibility of the plot and the various motives doesn't help.  The strength of the story should have been the characters but they are underdeveloped and we never get invested in them in the way we totally should.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Stay Gold, by Tobly McSmith

When his family moves to Addison at the start of his last year of high school, Pony makes the decision that he's going to keep his trans identity a secret.  Things weren't exactly hostile at his last school, but it was uncomfortable having so much attention.  If he never tells anyone, he hopes he can just have a quiet final year.  But then he falls for Georgia, the prettiest girl on the cheerleading squad, and he realizes that things can only go so far before he needs to tell her what he is hiding.

Georgia is dealing with her own secrets.  Cheerleading is no longer the fun that she once thought it was.  She is developing other interests like writing and has grown uncomfortable with the attitudes of her fellow squad mates.  She's ready for a change but not sure if she's brave enough to come out.  Cheerleading has made her popular and she is afraid of what people will say about her if she were to quit.  Enter this exciting new boy who seems so self-aware, kind, and different.  And while he's not a football player like the guys that the other cheerleaders are dating, he seems so much more real.  He inspires her to take chances and pursue her dreams.

A well-written YA romance between a trans boy and a straight girl that moves briskly.  It touches on a variety of issues related to trans young people.  With the parallel between Pony's secrets and Georgia's suppressed dreams, there is an attempt to place the two young people in positions that build sympathy between them.  This helps to explain a lot of Georgia's growth along the way.  But the book also groans under the weight of some really distasteful characters, poor behavior, Pony's lack of growth, and the author's overall agenda.  I really hated the characters.  Pony is facing a lot of problems with a difficult family situation and the awkward school situation, but he is incredibly self-absorbed and selfish.  He takes nearly 150 pages to getting around to telling Georgia that he's trans and then is hurt when she is shocked (but not repulsed) by the revelation.

Georgia's reaction (which is mostly due to betrayal of trust) makes sense and initially that seems to be all that it is.  But when she also admits that she isn't sure that she wants a trans boyfriend or that she's ready to face social ostracism for dating him, the story turns on her pretty quickly. When confronted with a horrible act of violence, Georgia realizes the error of her ways and embraces Pony fully.  That didactic resolution left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  To me, Georgia's reservations were fair and worthy of consideration, but not in this story.  Instead, we're told that her reservations were as bad at the bigotry to which Pony is subjected.  Max, a friend of Pony's, makes this statement several times, serving as the author's Greek Chorus.  To me, not respecting the idea that physical sex is important to the CIS gendered as well as the transgendered is an ideological dead end.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Many Points of Me, by Caroline Gertler

Being the daughter of a famous deceased artist can make for a lot of awkward conversations, but Georgia is used to the weird way people treat her when they find out who her father is.  What she has never grown comfortable with is how they speak of him in the present tense, as if he were still alive.  They are of course speaking of his art and its continued relevance and vitality, but that doesn't stop her from feeling strange about it.  And the way that everyone seems to want to own a piece of him makes her jealous and possessive.

There's a retrospective of her father's work being planned for the Met.  Her mother is knee deep in curating the exhibit and their apartment is filled with Dad's old sketches and drawings.  Helping her mother, Georgia comes across a sketch he made of her when she was ten years old and realizes that it might be a draft of his most famous work -- the one he never painted but planned to.  Stunned by the fact that her fathers "lost" masterpiece was going to be of her, she hides the sketch away, which sets off a chain of events that get Georgia into a world of trouble.

An art mystery that does a wonderful job of showing readers how to better appreciate art (the author's background as a docent at the Met certainly shows through!).  I'm not a big fan of Georgia's poor decisions and the more cringeworthy consequences of them, but the story itself is a lovely examination of Georgia's acceptance of her father's passing and her more reluctant embrace of his legacy.  By the end, Georgia achieves some level of peace with the idea that her relationship with him was unique and is untouched by the fact that he was a public figure.  I would not have thought that such a rarified existence as the daughter of a famous artist would create a character who was so relatable, but Georgia is an easy heroine with whom to empathize.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Girl from Shadow Springs, by Ellie Cypher

Living on the edge of the Flats, Ellie knows that there are only two types of people who venture out on that frozen wasteland:  the desperate and the foolish.  She should know:  she supplements what she and her sister Bren have by scavenging off the frozen corpses she finds out there.

It is the remains of a particularly fine looking gentleman that brings her trouble.  No sooner has she discovered the body than another man shows up and demands that she turn over what she found.  When he doesn't find what he's looking for, he kidnaps Bren to ransom for what he is looking for.  With little in the way of resources (and no idea what the man wanted in the first place), Ellie sets out on to the Flats to recover her sister.  Along the way picking up the nephew of the dead man, the two of them face brutal weather, wild animals, thin ice, hostile human gangs, and a supernatural being who is at the root of the inhospitable conditions in which they live.

Rich in detail, the novel lovingly creates its Western-meets-Ice Age world, but gets bogged down by its stylization.

To feed the ambiance (and give the author a chance to have Ellie spout lots of tough posturing) Ellie's narration is full of lots of ungrammatical phrasing.  This provides some flavor but becomes distracting as the usage is inconsistent.  And it doesn't help that the text itself is marred by typos.

More annoying to me were the numerous scenes that were elongated by having the characters interrupt each other.  The device serves mostly to drag out the action and makes little sense in a life-or-death scene as they argue with each other instead of the fighting/running/shutting up they need to be doing.

Finally, numerous actions scenes seem to be inserted into the story simply to pad the novel, adding nothing to the story itself except to give Ellie another chance to tell us that the situation is impossible but that  she'll bravely forge ahead.  The fact that she manages through each and every one of these situations leaves one skeptical of her ability to accurately evaluate plausibility.  Such set-ups don't build suspense, they simply annoy the reader.

Beautiful writing, but repetitive and drawn out.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Alone, by Megan E. Freeman

Twelve year-old Maddie had only intended to have a secret sleepover with her best friends, but it has turned into a disaster.  They didn't even show up so she is stuck at grandparents' empty house by herself.  In the morning, she wakes to a shocking surprise:  everyone in her town is gone!  An emergency evacuation in the night transported everyone away and left her behind.

She doesn't know where they have gone but quickly realizes that her chances of survival will be greatly enhanced by staying put.  And as days turn to weeks and to months, that is what she does, managing to scavenge for food and supplies, avoiding looters, and surviving a series of natural disasters.  In these tasks, she proves remarkably resourceful following her intuition and practical problem solving skills.  But she finds that the hardest obstacle is loneliness and the emotional distress that being alone brings.

A gripping and fairly dark survival story, this novel-in-verse is a far cry from Home Alone.   I found it nearly impossible to put down as Maddie faces continual existential threats that I felt compelled to read to conclusion.  I would not have thought that verse novel would carry enough impact to grab me but in fact the structure is a strength: the spare nature of the verse was really effective at conveying how Maddie comes to live more and more within her head.  

The story did start to drag towards the end and the ending itself is disappointingly anti-climactic, but I really enjoyed the trip getting there.  Maddie is a compelling heroine, smart and tough. She has a playful side too, but when it matters she makes the good choices and saves herself (as there is no one else to do it).  An excellent read.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Nothing Ever Happens Here, by Sarah Hagger-Holt

Nothing ever happens in Izzy's quiet little town.  But all of that is about to change when her father announces to the family that he's actually a woman and has decided to come out as Danielle.  Izzy's little brother is too young to understand and wonders if it is a secret superhero thing.  Izzy's older sister is outraged about what this will do to her standing at school.  But Izzy herself worries that this means that her Dad is no longer going to be her father.  Through many supportive conversations with friends and each other, Izzy's family learns how to adapt to the change, rethinking their own family unit and dealing with the reaction of their neighbors and friends.

Geared towards a younger YA audience, the story does a good job of covering a wide variety of topics ranging from practical questions like how the kids will address their father to how they deal with a broad range of emotions (confusion, anger, grief, joy, etc.) that each of the family members experience. What truly makes the book shine is that it never gets preachy or teachy, but manages nonetheless to bring up a plethora of important issues while doing so in an entertaining way.

Like many British YA novels, the book assumes a level of innocence that you wouldn't find in an American treatment of this topic, but that actually serves the story well in this case as the adults are actively supportive and responsible.  As difficult as the changes may be for all, no one expects the children to deal with matters on their own.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss, by Amy Noelle Parks

Caleb and Evie have been friends since they were little, but they have never kissed.  Not that Caleb hasn't tried!  In fourteen attempts, Evie has always turned him down.  He's been OK with that since she has turned down everyone else as well, but when she starts dating Leo in their senior year, Caleb isn't happy about the situation.  It's not like he hasn't dated other girls in the meantime, but with the shoe on the other foot, Caleb feels hurt.

With just about everyone in the story (except Evie) knowing that she should be with Caleb, no one else is happy about it either.  What makes this well-trodden romantic path actually work in this case is how razor smart these kids are.  Everyone knows and everyone says so, so there's no mystery that Evie and Caleb are going to be together in the end.  Evie just needs to get over her fear of getting into a relationship with her best friend.

The best part of the story is actually Evie's growth as a person, which comes out in her quest (with Caleb's help) to win a prestigious national math award.  She's bright, intelligent, and articulate, but she suffers from anxiety attacks (to some extent fed by her mother's overprotectiveness).  To get over her fears, she has relied in the past on a support network made up of Caleb and her BFF Bex.  A good part of the novel then is her working through that and learning to do things on her own.  It's a very satisfying story of growth in itself, but this thread of the plot also reveals many disturbing issues that never really get addressed properly:  the sexism present in the mathematics community, Evie's difficult with dealing with her fear of being judged by others, and Caleb's unhealthy possessiveness of Evie.

Caleb and Evie have a fairly disturbing dynamic.  Evie needs Caleb to control her anxiety and Caleb needs Evie to "protect." This unhealthy codependency presages some pretty dysfunctional behaviors in their "happily ever after" romance and casts a shadow over the romance itself.  Add to this Caleb's nasty violent streak.  On several instances, he either commits acts of violence or threatens to do so in the course of "defending" Evie.  In a climactic moment, Evie preempts Caleb's anger and settles her own scores, but at no point does she (or anyone else) address Caleb's behavior.

All of that aside (and the book downplays this darker side so it is possible to do so), it's nice to find a book about science-savvy teens who are well-rounded and not geeks.  Caleb plays baseball, Evie's boyfriend and her friend Bex play soccer, and even Evie herself enjoys Yoga.  They make wisecracks about the humanities, but they are literate and articulate and do well in English class.  Evie's anxiety issues aside, they all have active social lives.  Smart kids in a smart story makes for some smart reading.  This is a good read that treats its young adults as intelligent people with nuanced lives.