Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Willoughbys Return, by Lois Lowry

Thirty years have passed since Mr. and Mrs.Willoughby froze on a Swiss mountaintop.  Now, thanks to global warming, they have thawed out.  Completely unaware that they have been gone for the past three decades, they are flummoxed by the fact that no one seems to speak English anymore.  Everyone is talking about "googling" and "YouTubing." Convinced that "Uber" is some sort of Swiss torture device, their effort to return home is full of adventures.

Meanwhile, the children have grown up.  Tim has taken over Commander Melanoff's confectionary business, but that has fallen on hard times as the American Dental Association has managed to get candy outlawed.  With possession of Lickety Twists now considered a felony, the fortunes of the family are about to collapse.

Tim's son, Richie has every toy one could want, but is lonely.  He finds friendship next door with the impoverished (and aptly named) Poore children.  Their father, an unsuccessful encyclopedia salesman has left the family with no means of support.  To eke a living, they open a B and B which brings in some special guests.  All these various chaotic pieces end up well enough in the end, in a way that Willoughbys always seem to do.

Sadly, the sequel is not nearly as charming as the original installment.  The same rude Lemony Snicket-style humor of the original is present, but the clever satire is missing.  In its place, the theme seems to be encyclopedias and a criticism of the modern obsession with technology, but this is neither very funny nor terribly original.  In particular, Lowry has a peculiar notion of how much/little has changed in the past thirty years (microwave ovens and bed and breakfasts, for example, were already well known thirty years ago).  The original's send-up of classic children's literature and it fancy archaic lexicon was timeless and done in love.  This seems tired and less inspired.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

The Willoughbys have four children: the eldest Tim, the twins (both named Barnaby), and little Jane.  Being an old-fashioned family such as one reads about in old children's books with burgundy covers, the children plan to become orphans.  As their parents are still living, this poses some difficulty.  Luckily, their parents are hoping to abandon the children, either by deserting them deep in the woods or by departing on a tour of Switzerland (the end up choosing the latter).  But with the help of an odious Nanny, the children manage to find a rich benefactor, as old-fashioned children always do.

An enormously tongue-in-cheek send up of classic children's literature, this short and clever satire is small parts Lemony Snickett and Edward Gorey, but mostly knowing winks.  Highlights include the story's convoluted plot which comes together in the end through ridiculous coincidences that combine together the endings of a dozen classic novels. Throughout, various asides and non-sequiturs provide the opportunity to reflect upon deep matters like why helpful nannies are so easy to find and Swiss people are so helpful. The glossary of fancy words at the end and a hilarious annotated bibliography of the source material is worth the price of the book many times over.  Brilliant satire and utterly wasted on modern children.

And now, after twelve years, with a sequel....

Monday, November 23, 2020

Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten year-old Della likes to think of herself as a wolf, in the sense that she is brave and fearless.  But wolves don't act alone.  Like a wolf relies on their pack for survival, Della has always relied on her older sister Suki.  Suki has always been there for Della, when Mom was arrested years ago for meth and through years sexual abuse.  And now that the man who abused them is awaiting trial and the girls have been taken in by foster care, Della assumes that things will stay like that.  But Suki is tired of the responsibility and Della feels rejected and resentful at the changes.

Neither girl has much trust and faith in adults, but while Suki hides and lays low, Della wants to take on the whole world.  She's eager to testify in court against their abuser and she even fights back against a bully in school who is touching the girls inappropriately.  She can't understand why her sister won't fight as well.

As a middle grade reader, this story of drug abuse, sexual abuse, and self-harm is pretty intense subject matter, but the book could find its audience with some guidance.  The book contains a series of talking point questions at the back that could help adults guide children through this.  Moreover, the story is full of supportive adults, which will help younger readers deal with the scary parts, but is also a problematic aspect of the book. Della and Suki's good fortune in finding grownups willing to fight for them isn't as common of an experience for young victims as we would like and seems mildly implausible.  It's a fine line between wanting to make make this story appropriately reassuring for young readers, while still maintaining authenticity.

It's certainly powerfully written.  I especially liked the idea of bring in the classroom bully as it pulls the story down into a microcosm that is easier to understand.  A ten year old boy who doesn't comprehend why his fun is harmful makes a poignant contrast to the grownup bogeyman of the adult molester (who we never - thankfully - encounter in the story).  The boy's mother's incomprehension of the danger of her son's behavior is chilling but sadly not explored.  The overall message about the need to bring childhood sexual abuse into the open is well presented and the fact that it will make many readers uncomfortable is probably the most convincing argument for the importance of this book.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Echoes Between Us, by Katie McGarry

Veronica lives with death.  There's the tumor in her brain that causes her unbearable migraines and whose severity she hides from her Dad.  And there's also the ghost of her dead mother that haunts the house and keeps her company, giving her the strength to face her illness.

Downstairs, in the apartment that they rent out, is Sawyer and his mother and little sister.  Veronica knows Sawyer but they are not on good terms.  Sawyer's part of a popular clique and he and his friends delight to tormenting Veronica and her friends.  They shouldn't even be talking to each other, but Veronica has an intuition about him.  When she finds herself needing a partner for their senior project, she reaches out to him.  Sawyer, for reasons that mystify his friends, accepts.

But as far as surprises are concerned, Sawyer turns out to be much more complex than even Veronica could imagine.  He's covering for his mother's erratic behavior, justifying her drinking, and trying to make everything look normal.  Things are far from normal.  Sawyer's getting injured and hurt, and the truth is that he's inflicting it on himself.

A girl with her mind set on dying and a boy being driven to self-destruction make a complex and powerful couple.  The novel, which adds supernatural and historical elements (a diary written by a young woman dying of TB in 1918 plays a part) to its tale of addiction and learning to let go, is ambitious.  Parts of it work well, others do not.  It is difficult initially to see much of a connection between the two very different struggles that Veronica and Sawyer face, but it eventually comes together powerfully.  The attempt to draw pathos from the historical tie-in to the diary and a nearby abandoned TB hospital falls resoundingly flat and contrived.  It's not an easy read and may not be to many people's tastes, but I found it interesting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

It Sounded Better in My Head, by Nina Kenwood

Natalie's parents take ten months to get around to telling her -- on Christmas Day! -- that they are getting divorced, her two best friends Zach and Lucy are suddenly a couple, and Zach's brother Alex may like her (but she can't really tell!).  Everything confuses Natalie.  And it couldn't happen at a worse time.  Now that Natalie's eighteen, she has to figure out what she'll do with her life.  She'd put the whole business off, imagining she'd live at home forever (no longer an option as her parents are downsizing).  And boyfriends?  Well, it was never going to happen!  Natalie's her own worst enemy, finding a way to sabotage every chance of romance, which is what makes Alex's interest in her all the more perplexing.

Aussie YA is seemingly always a challenge for me.  For reasons I can't really explain, I leave more Australian YA novels unfinished than I complete.  Usually, the storylines simply don't engage.  It isn't so much the cultural differences but really the overly dense style that seems to predominate.  This novel is no exception.  I struggled throughout to track the action which jumps through a large number of parties and dramatic interactions with decisions and actions that don't instinctively make sense.  But what made the book ultimately work for me was Natalie herself.  I stopped worrying about what she was doing and spent more time listening to her.

Natalie is ostensibly as much of a navel-gazing angst-ridden teen girl as you will ever find in YA, but the extent to which she self-doubts and owns that doubting is adorable and outright hilarious.  Natalie's fumbled seduction attempt on Alex had me in stitches. The best part of being witty and self-deprecating at the same time is that we can sympathize with her flaws and easily admit to the ones that we resemble far too closely.  So, while I have only a vague sense of what the book was actually about, I loved the heroine!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Scared Little Rabbits, by A.V. Geiger

Nora is really excited to be spending the summer in an elite tech summer program at Winthrop Academy.  She's hoping to win the camp's contest, wowing judges including Emerson Kemp, the founder of augmented reality social media sensation InstaLove.  Not that she knows much about InstaLove the program (which her parents won't let her download) or love in any real life sense either!  But she's optimistic that this summer will be different and that she will burst out of her caccoon.

Things don't start off propitiously.  Everyone seems to know everyone else and queen bees Eleanor and Reese take a profound dislike towards her.  Saving the day, moody dreamboat Maddox has eyes for her, although Eleanor is a jealous ex- and tries to keep them apart.  That said, nothing is all that simple.  Eleanor is blackmailing Maddox and hiding secrets from just about everyone.  As the contest creeps closer, a sudden death sends everything into a frantic and tense conclusion.

While rooted in tired YA tropes (unsupervised summer campers get in big trouble while awkward and inexperienced girl gets an A-list boy to fall head over heels for her), the augmented reality stuff is kind of fun.  InstaLove, combining Instagram and PokemonGo sounds plausible enough to make a fresh foundation.  The story is paced well and the mystery largely maintained with a lot of distracting false leads to keep us off track.  However, the ending gets rushed and overall I just didn't find Nora interesting enough, boy toy Maddox sexy enough, or Reese and Eleanor bad enough to make this worth recommending.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

I'll Be the One, by Lyla Lee

Skye loves dancing and singing.  She dreams of one day becoming a K-pop performer, but the reality is that Korean culture expects female performers to be thin and petite.  Skye is strong and healthy, but not some 110-pound waif.  Her mother repeatedly warns her that she needs to lose weight if she has any hope of becoming famous.

When a contest in announced in LA for contestants in a new Korean entertainment competition, Skye is so psyched to be in it, but her mother won't even allow her to take part (her father has to step in to give permission).  But sixteen years of being bullied and fatshamed has toughened Skye and she is determined to prove her mother, a bullying judge, and all the doubters in the world that fat girls can dance and sing and do it well!  Along the way, she wins the heart of the cute boy and makes a great group of friends as well.

Its a story told in a rich cultural context.  Not knowing much about K-pop, I surmise that the author has done her homework (and/or is a serious fan).  She name drops plenty of real groups and songs, and tirelessly notes what makes particular songs significant.  A similar love is given to Korean food and culture.  For outsiders, this culture lesson is really the best part and is effortlessly delivered alongside the winning storyline.

In sum, this is a feel good romance about body positivity.  There's no end to the trials that Skye endures ranging from thoughtless comments to outright emotional abuse, but Skye is a poster child for standing up for herself.  One wonders exactly where she got this strength, but Lee's not terribly interested in exploring the sources for Skye's strength as she is in promoting the healthy result.  There's a similar approach to the mother's cruel emotional abuse, which is ultimately and disappointingly side-stepped.  The mother's behavior goes far beyond Tiger Mom stereotypes into darker spaces, but this is far too lighthearted of a book to dwell on anything truly serious.  A rousing climax complete with song and dance and a curtly dismissed villainess wraps up the adventure satisfactorily.