Sunday, July 05, 2020

Here We Are Now, by Jasmine Warga

For her first sixteen years, Tal has had only her mother in her life. But a few years ago, Tal came across a shoebox of clipping and developed a suspicion that her father was a famous rock star.  But until Julian Oliver of SITA showed up on her front door, Tal didn't know for certain.  Sixteen years and suddenly he wants to know her!

The reason is simple enough (his father is dying and he thinks that Tal should meet her grandfather before it is too late) but it leaves her with lots of questions:  Why now? And how will his family treat her?

The homecoming is predictably awkward and messy, but Tal is surprised to find how welcome she is and how comfortable she feels with this family that she never knew.  And through some pressure, she gets her father and mother to tell the true story of how they met and why they separated and kept her in the dark about her father's identity.

Warga does well-developed characters and good dialogue and that makes this otherwise forgettable story compelling enough to read.  Some of the fault lies in Warga's focus on the parents' story.  It's interesting but don't get to know Tal and really appreciate how these discoveries help her grow.  Her own issues with trust are introduced but not developed.  A tangent (a budding romance with a neighbor) that could have tested Tal's trust issues is left hanging.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

That's What Friends Do, by Cathleen Barnhart

Sammie and David have been friends for ages.  But when a new kid Luke moves to town, things start to get weird.  David, who's never really given much thought to the fact that Sammie is a girl, resents Luke's attempts to hit on Sammie. Up until that moment, he didn't realize that he had feelings for her.  And Sammie, who's never really thought it mattered if you were a boy or a girl, is shocked at how she is treated by the boys. The resulting jealousies and misunderstandings that develop between the three of them will remind the reader of just how painful it was to be twelve.  But then, in an incident that occurs innocently yet is anything but, things go too far and the friendship splinters.  Feeling they have each been betrayed by the other, Sammie and David are left confused and unable to figure out how to repair the rift.

Meanwhile, Sammie is considering switching from baseball to softball.  She's the only girl on the team, but she's a good player and her father wants her to continue playing on the team.  But as she watches the other girls playing on the softball team, she realizes that it would be much more fun to be on their team than trying to prove that she can play with the boys.  Convincing her father to let her do so, however, proves difficult as he feels that switching from a "real" sport to softball would waste her talent.

An unexpected surprise of a book about sexual harassment, sexism, and the nature of consent in seventh grade.  Barnhart spins a terrifyingly plausible chain of events that plunge its protagonists into social situations that they are entirely unprepared to deal with.  The target middle school audience can learn a great deal from reading the story (and perhaps discussing with an understanding adult), but actually the book seems more beneficial to adult readers who can watch events unfold and better understand why things go as wrong as they do.  The side story about Sammie's rediscovery of the need for feminine companionship is perhaps not so integral to the main story, but fits in nicely.  In sum, a great age-appropriate contribution to discussions about sexual harassment and consent.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Beau & Bett, by Kathryn Berla

"Lucky in love, never lucky in life," Beau's father likes to say about their family. He's laid up from a work injury and unable to work.  Bett's sister is about to get married and money is tight all round.  And so when Maman is involved in a fender bender with the spoiled rich daughter of the Diaz's, the last thing the family can afford is a big repair bill.  Beau goes to the Diaz ranch, on behalf of his mother, to plead for forgiveness.  Mr. Diaz agrees to let the matter go, but only if Beau will come work off the debt at the ranch for the next four weekends.

And it's while he's working there that he gets to meet this troublemaking daughter, Bettina. She's got a reputation at school of being this horrible person which has earned her the nickname "the Beast." Beau finds out, however, that she's not like that at all.  And the more he gets to know her, the closer he feels towards her.

Allegedly a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the resemblance is slight.  Working off a debt, a misunderstood "beast," and eventually learning to love someone we found initially repulsive are three similarities, but they are hardly unique.  Trying to call that a retelling is a stretch and a distraction.   Rather, the book's strength is really the dynamic between its two characters. Earnest Beau is no match for Bett's social ineptitude, and the sparks that fly between them are unexpectedly hilarious.  The resulting love story is short and sweet.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tell Me Everything, by Sarah Enni

VEIL is a new social media app that allows artists to upload their work and comment on other people's art.  It's completely anonymous, local, and temporal.  Nothing is attributed, users see only posts from people within a five-mile radius, and after a week the postings disappear forever.

Ivy is obsessed with the app.  She follows it closely and has developed strong feelings about the submissions.  She's even tried to ferret out who the posters really are and suspects that many of them go to her school.  However, in spite of being an artist herself, she's never posted anything to the app.  She's never felt that her own work was good enough.

Instead, she's been trying to pay back the artists whose work she's enjoyed by doing kind things for them.  That requires figuring out their identities, but she finds that is the easy part.  Once she has ascertained who they are, she determines what would make them happy.  This starts off innocently with small anonymous gifts, but gets messed up with a separate scandal involving hate speech on VEIL and soon Ivy is in over her head.

If you live in the Bay Area (as these characters do), the idea of VEIL probably sounded great, but one has to wonder how interesting an app that only showed posts within a five mile radius would be if you live in the Midwest?  Or West Texas?

Beyond the silly premise is a story with fantastic clever ideas ranging from quirky bookstores to igloos to Ivy's wildly funny parents.  The problem is that the ideas don't really gel into a story. Layer upon layer upon layer gets added.  The result is rich but confusing.  My hope as I read the book that everything would get tied up (or at least the importance of the disparate items would become clear) is crushed in the end when the story concludes and it becomes apparent that much of the detail don't contribute to the story.  Telling everything in this case may not actually be beneficial.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard

Robinson (named after Jackie Robinson) is a tough girl.  When bully Alex Carter teases her, she decks him.  When Alex hurts her best friend Derek, she avenges the offense.  But as much of a fighter as Robbie is, she can't figure out how to fix her grandfather, who is slowly losing his faculties, and that feeling of powerlessness makes her very angry and scared.

Because of the incidents at school, Robbie gets assigned to group counseling, along with Alex and a number of other children in her class.  The experience is an eye-opener.  Being exposed to other people's problems helps her deal with her own anger and encourages her to open up about her fears and frustrations.

In sum, a sweet middle reader that explores extended families and the pain of watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's.  Robbie is certainly a strong enough heroine, but I found her anger and stubbornness a bit hard to take.  The behavior is age appropriate but doesn't make for a sympathetic character.  Being the only real character in the book, it is hard to get very deep into this story.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Fugly, by Claire Waller

At 18, Beth is an overweight outcast in a dysfunctional family.  In her own words, she's "fugly." Out in public she tries to be invisible.  She maintains an unhealthy relationship with bing eating and purging.

She's also a talented troll, able to dish out abuse and ruthlessly attacking and destroying people online whom she feels deserve her wrath because they are "too beautiful." Even she acknowledges that it may not be something to be proud of, but it gives her some comfort.  Then she meets another girl online named Tori, who turns out to be a kindred spirit in the trolling game.  However, Tori's much more brutal on line than Beth has ever considered being.  And while Tori's escapades seem initially thrilling, Beth has second thoughts when Tori starts attacking people closer to home.

The overall problem of this novel is the protagonist herself.  There's next to nothing to admire in the character.  She's self-pitying, self-centered, and mean.  I flat out hated her.  I felt no sympathy for her plight as it was largely self-inflicted and I didn't mind when it comes back to bite her on the ass.  A secondary problem is the utterly predictable outcome of the story.  There is no element of surprise beyond the idea that Beth could be unaware of what was going to happen to her. 

The originality of the story's idea saves this book from the trash bin, but I'd honestly give Beth and her story the treatment that all trolls deserve:  being ignored.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Wrong Side of Right, by Jenn Marie Thorne

When Kate's mother died, Kate still had no idea of who her father was.  So when a New York Times reporter discloses that the leading Republican candidate for the presidency is actually her father, she is as surprised as the man is. Drawn by curiosity about her father, she gets swept into the whirlwind of his presidential campaign.

People warn her that she is being used, but she finds it hard to turn away from the father she yet to know.  A political neophyte,  she finds she has many friends and enemies and it is often hard to tell who is who.  So, when the incumbent president's son turns out to be an ally and then something more, she doesn't know whether to trust him with her confidence or to be wary of his motives.  Or maybe both?

A fast paced, delicious page turner.  Perfect for socially-distanced beach reading in the middle of a campaign year. The political details provide spice and plenty of opportunity for adventure, but it is the fancy clothes, the safe G-rated romance, and a lot of poorly supervised fun that makes this a great light read.

How far we've gone!  While probably meant to be cynical in 2016 when it was written. it's rather innocent ideas of political spin now sound shocking naive.  But never let a little suspension of reality get in the way of a fun read!  This is how we wish politics was:  where you can sneak off on a date with the cute boy (who happens to be the son of the president) and live to tell the tale!