Tuesday, December 31, 2019
None of which seems to both Willow's mother. Always a bit obsessed with monitoring the health of sickly child Wisp, she becomes convinced that living in Kismet may be the solution to his health issues. For Willow, who has had to endure a fair amount of sacrifices for her brother's care, this is a final straw: She wants to go home and leave this place forever!
An entertaining fantasy novel, which poses questions about fate versus free will in terms that younger readers will understand. Willow is observant, brave, and assertive, yet also kind and respectful (all traits that parents will appreciate in a book). An age-appropriate romance with a local boy adds some fun and is nicely integrated into the tale. The result is an easy reading and fun story.
Thursday, December 26, 2019
A sweet middle reader about building friendships, communicating with others, and the importance of kindness. The general positivity of the story is a welcome anecdote to mean girl stories. I enjoyed having a break from the doom and gloom of the other books I've been reading lately.
Emma-Jean is a fascinating character. Somewhere on the Autism Spectrum (as apparently her late father was as well), she forms an interesting and sympathetic narrator as she tries to understand the people around her. But Tarshis, while occasionally exploiting Emma-Jean's misconceptions for humor, never lets the story exploit her heroine, who in the end proves to be more insightful than any of us imagine.
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
It is easy to discount those notions until another girl is found in the same river (allegedly from jumping in as well). Who would be doing this? Who wants her dead and these other girls dead and why? Amelia takes a hard look around her: at her friends, her boyfriend, the creepy neighbor across the street, but nothing comes together. As the body count grows, Amelia no longer knows who is safe and who is not.
Average mystery that has fine delivery, but suffers from a bloated story. It feels like a short story that the author enlarged to novel length with trivial activities -- shopping trips, general socializing, school activities, and so on -- none of which really feed into the plot. Of course, given the genre, some of it is there to mislead the reader, but a lot feels unnecessary. As I read it, I found myself willing the filler to end so I could get back to the real story.
(Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased and independent review. The book is scheduled for release on January 7th.)
Saturday, December 21, 2019
Then one day she receives a mysterious letter. Intrigued, she follows its instructions and finds herself at an old house. There, she learns that she has been invited to join the Black Coats.
Founded by a woman who was raped and couldn't get her assailant punished, the Black Coats are a secret organization of young women who engage in "balancings" (vigilante justice against the accused). Recruiting only from victims or friends of victims, the young women in the group are personally driven to the cause of punishing men who escape justice because the victims were women. Thea finds herself training in martial arts and covert ops with four other girls, learning the ropes and engaging in their own balancings.
Participation gives her confidence and Thea starts to bloom again at home and school, even sparking a romance. But as the girls get more involved in the organization, Thea begins to have doubts about the "justice" that they are dispensing. These doubts grow larger when the organization reveals its darker side.
While the premise raises eyebrows and the morality of vigilante justice was giving me doubts about this book early, it all begins in humor and fun. Certainly the idea of young women gaining confidence and breaking free of debilitating grief is an empowering idea. And, at least at first, a great deal of stress is placed on the idea that murder is out of the picture. I felt sympathy for and interest in the characters and didn't stress over the violence. Slipping a serial rapist a roofie actually seemed quite poetic to me.
As things turn dark and those earlier promises are tossed aside (and the body count starts to grow), the empowering themes are largely lost. The book itself loses its way, forgoing the empowerment for psychopathy. Oakes says in her notes that this book rose from the ashes of another about a girl recovering from grief. That seems a shame as a more serious book would have been more meaningful. By the last fifty pages of this one, as the violence grows and becomes largely girl-on-girl, I pretty much lost interest in this story.
Friday, December 20, 2019
Trained to be observant and quick thinking at the Medio School for Girls to become a primera (trusted companion, confident, and first wife) Dani is cautious and rational. Top of her class, she is the opposite of Carmen, the top-ranked segunda. Segundas, in contrast, are trained to be beautiful and sensual. Every powerful man of Medio has two wives (a primera and a segunda). It is an irony that these two schoolyard enemies end up married off to the same man – a boy who is slated to lead the interior ministry and aims to some day become president.
In the midst of all of this is La Voz who seek to call attention to the inequality and injustice in society, and raise a rebellion against it. La Voz is everywhere and while Dani’s husband is committed to crushing them, Dani has been recruited by them to spy on his husband and the family. She does so at first because of blackmail, but eventually she develops sympathy for their cause and the backbone to support it.
Part one of a projected duology, this wonderfully Hispanic-flavored dystopian combines some great character development with a power struggle complex enough to rival any telenovela. Things get really weird at the end, but it wraps up with a perfect lead-in to the sequel (not a cliffhanger, but rather a ramping up of the story that makes what comes next look interesting).
When Camille finds out that she is pregnant, she’s pretty certain from the start that she wants to terminate her pregnancy. However, getting an abortion as a seventeen-year-old in Texas in 2014 is no easy matter. She struggles with doctors and judges, traveling across the state, across the border to Mexico, and finally on an epic road trip to New Mexico. This adventure creates a quirky road story. Accompanied by her best friend Bea (who supports her but feels conflicted by her own pro-life beliefs) and Annabelle (who feels driven to help Camille figure this whole thing out for reasons of her own), the three young women find that nothing about America's culture wars is simple.
The story itself is really a bare-bones skeleton on which Waller layers a variety of legal facts and anecdotes in order to show how the politics of abortion has turned the experience of seeking one into a surreal and hellish landscape. Given my beliefs, I have no personal issue with the author’s ideology and I even see the value in opening some eyes about how much politics has subverted things, but this is not a book that is going to be read through to the end by anyone with doubts about a woman’s fundamental right to choose. And that raises a question about its utility.
As a story, there is not a lot here. The girls have interesting differences and there is some perfunctory effort to allow them to grow a little during the story. Some drama occurs with various challenges they experience (harassment, violence, and a brush or two with the Law). But aside from the three girls, the other characters are stereotypes and lack substance. Overall, the book comes across as a screed…to an audience who is already converted.
Friday, December 13, 2019
Eric and Morgan are best friends and share the same birthday. With the exception of the year they got sick, the two of them have always spent their birthdays together. Back when they were little and didn’t know better, they would tell each other that they loved each other. They swore they would be best friends for life.
But things change as the boys get older: Morgan’s mother dies of cancer, Eric’s parents are getting divorced, and the idea of love between the boys has evolved. Eric knows he isn’t gay, but he’s always felt that Morgan was more girl-like, in a way that he found attractive. Sure, Morgan is a guy (they play football together!) but somehow Morgan has always seemed pretty. And Morgan who actually does find boys attractive, doesn't feel particularly gay either. Instead, the body parts just feel wrong. Morgan feels like a girl – a girl very much in love with her best friend.
Told over a period of six birthdays, the novel explores the development of Morgan’s gender identity and the love story between her and Eric. Tracing key events and tracking all the emotional stages from exploration to self-loathing and depression to eventual acceptance, we get both Morgan's search to find peace as a trans girl and Eric's understanding of his romantic feelings for Morgan (i.e., being straight and romantically attracted).
It's a moving and informative work about a life journey for both Morgan and Eric that will be meaningful for trans teens and those who love them. In many ways this is a similar story to Russo's debut novel, If I Was Your Girl. But while the dead mother angle is tired cliche and exploitative, I find this sophomore effort more effective than her first book. For one thing, being seemingly autobiographical, its more personal. It's certainly better written and reads quickly.
Ariel has managed to maintain a straight-A all-AP-courses workload almost all of the way through high school. But in his final year, there just no longer seems to be enough time to fit it all in. Even with tutoring from his friend (and potential boyfriend) Amir, it seems that as soon as he fixes one problem, another one pops up. Trying to do everything and do it all perfectly is simply too much but he's so invested in being perfect that he doesn't feel he can stop trying. Eventually, it all comes to a head, but in the end it takes a family tragedy to reset Ariel’s priorities. These are immediately tested as he has to choose between his dreams and his friends.
The book has two notable elements: the casual approach it takes to Ariel’s bisexuality and the strong role that religion (Judiaism, in this case) plays in Ariel’s life. For readers used to sexuality being the focus of a book, the non-issue of Ariel’s sexuality is ironically notable for not being noted Have we really normalized to that point or is Silverman making a point by playing it up? As for the prominent role of faith, while Judaism is no foreigner to YA, the positive role of religion is a stand out and welcome.
The story however is pedestrian. Ariel’s overworking and stressful lifestyle is blatant. His eventual burnout is no surprise and the solution too straightforward. The heavy handling of the topic would be more appropriate for a middle reader but seems preachy for a teen audience.
Friday, November 29, 2019
Magpie has a lonely life. Her alcoholic mother is frequently away. Her sister, frustrated with taking care of Mom, moved out and refuses to come back home. Magpie's circle of friends has been reduced to Ben and Clare and Magpie's social capital is spent. As soon as she turns eighteen, she plans to move out of the town of Farther.
But before that move happens, something strange and wonderful occurs. As an escape, Magpie has been creating an imaginary world in her notebook. It’s a perfect world with friends who like her, mothers who don’t drink, and everything is great. She calls the world "Near." Fantasy is one thing, but one day she discovers that she can actually visit Near through the woodshed in the backyard and it is every bit as perfect as she imagined in her notebook.
But as her fantasy world of Near becomes more and more real, Magpie finds it has a dark side, which can be used not only for escape but also for revenge. With all the anger that Magpie carries with her, the temptation of such power is too much. Despite numerous warnings that the costs of using Near to inflict suffering on her enemies is dangerous, she becomes obsessed with striking back at her tormentors.
Thus, what starts as Secret Garden becomes Carrie in this strange and blood-thirsty tale of revenge. I wasn’t sure in the end what the point of it all was. Magpie, consumed by her anger and frustration achieves some sort of peace in the end, but it doesn’t really have a huge impact. Her bloodthirstiness and cruelty pretty much shuts down anything sympathetic about her. I didn’t like her and found her cruel and ultimately pathetic. That even she judges herself that way in the end was little comfort from this dark piece.
Maritzi’s mother has always had a flighty streak to her. So when she leaves a note saying that she’s going away for six to twelve months to learn how to be a meditation and life skills coach and that seventeen year-old Maritzi should just “follow her own path,” it isn’t too surprising. It’s going to be hard to get by, given that Maritzi isn’t exactly earning much money from her part-time job, but she’s always managed to keep things together anyway. How much harder can it be without her Mom around?
But before Maritzi has much of an opportunity to find out, a tipped-off social worker comes and takes Maritzi into a foster home. Kris and Ryan, her foster parents, turn out to have a history with Maritzi that she didn’t even know existed. As Maritzi settles in, they all find that there is a lot to this than they ever imagined. Lightening things up a bit, a little light romance with the boy next door also makes an appearance.
The highlight of the book is definitely the character of Maritzi herself. She not only says that she could have taken care of herself, but she could also have had a decent job of pulling it off. She's a particular responsible and capable young woman, yet sufficiently flawed to be believable. It’s nice to have a story where the heroine goes to a party and doesn’t drink at all. And while her foster mother is pretty hard on her (for entirely believably flawed reasons of her own), Maritzi probably doesn't deserve it.
But sadly the story sort of goes nowhere. The romance is underdeveloped, the eventual inevitable show down with Mom fizzles away, and the question of whether Maritzi will live with her mother or her foster parents becomes a non-event. It all wraps up neatly and there is not much drama to it.
In the County, men hold all of the power. But when a girl turns sixteen, she enters the "Grace Year" and is consumed by forces so powerful that she threatens the entire community. To protect the rest, all sixteen year-old girls are sent away to live (or die) on an isolated island for a year. Surrounded by “poachers” who will skin them alive if they try to escape because the flesh and blood of the girls is highly desired (and illicitly bought) by men who crave the magic that it allegedly possesses. Those young women who survive and return will be married off or sent out to a life of labor or prostitution.
Tierney has always been her father’s daughter, willful and rebellious, and it’s gotten her into a fair share of trouble. But it has also given her the strength and resourcefulness to survive the ordeal. Yet she will find that the physical harshness of exile is not the greatest challenge. Far more dangerous than the poachers and the wilds that surround them are the girls themselves. Petty jealousies between the girls (over who will marry at the end of the year and who will be sent into labor) face them off each other and put everyone in danger.
Part Handmaid’s Tale and part Lord of the Flies, this dark and brutal dystopia explores society's fetishization of feminine adolescence. The treatment is gory and bloody and thoroughly unpleasant. Tierney is one of the tougher heroines you’ll ever meet, but she also a powerful leader and her aforementioned resourcefulness and intelligence serves her well. In telling her story, Ligget pulls no punches and the storytelling makes no attempt at subtlety. The book is vivid. It’s apparently been optioned for a movie, although one imagines that the gruesome nature of the book will need to be toned down if the target adolescent audience is going to be able to access it.
What makes the novel so interesting to me are the arguments it makes about society's treatment of sexuality and sexual inequality. This is not just a criticism of patriarchy (as people so often misread Margaret Atwood's classic). Ligget’s point that women weaken themselves by being their own worst enemies is powerful and controversial stuff. It fleshes out the usual anti-patriarchal dystopian by showing in Foucaldian terms the way the prisoners aid the jailers, the way that girls' gazes on each other are every bit as violent as men's. The novel’s non-traditional ending, with its rejection of traditional literary forms is both its own rebellion against patriarchy and strikingly original. Formidable and provocative.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
For CJ's grandfather and aunt, the McAllisters could never be forgiven, but CJ's mother is more pragmatic. She shunned the family business and went into finance, ironically joining the McAllister venture capital firm, a move that threatened to split the family.
Flash forward seventeen years and now the business is not doing well. CJ's mother has negotiated a deal to sell the property back to the McAllisters. CJ's aunt Hannah objects on principle and CJ herself sides with her aunt. The conflict reopens the old wounds, but there is no denying that the flower shop is losing money. And while Hannah and CJ sentimentally hold fast, Mom's relentless realism is winning out.
The issue broadens when the local newspaper uncovers that old man McAllister pulled the same property trick on literally hundreds of Japanese Americans -- using racist rhetoric as a smokescreen to enrich himself by swindling them. The money he raised in the process become the foundation for the McAllisters fortune and was used to buy the family prestige. One of the most damning legacies of this is the fact that CJ's high school is named after the man. Inspired by the story and driven by her personal vendetta, CJ organizes a student movement to get the school renamed, an act that threatens her Mom's career plans.
Intertwined with this is CJ's conflict with a publicity-seeking white girl named Brynn, Brynn's complicated relationship with CJ's best friend Emily, CJ's own romantic issues, and CJ's struggle to win her mother's respect. Teen pregnancy and whether to raise the baby or have an abortion figure in prominently as well. So, it's obviously a rather complex story to summarize
Despite the multitude of stories being told, the novel is surprisingly fluid and readable. For the most part the various subplots fit in to the main story (although the teen pregnancy subplot is ultimately peripheral and probably could have been cut). Sugiura has previously shown an affinity to writing about Japanese Internment and has found a creative way here to bring contemporary relevance to the topic. The character of Brynn gives her the opportunity to discuss White Privilege effectively, albeit the issue seemed too blithely resolved.
Where Sugiura struggles is in depicting conflict and conflicting views. In general, all of the conflicts in this book are resolved the same way -- characters spar and then meet up later, literally say "I fucked up," and then move on. There's not much debate or grayness allowed (presumably because Sugiura doesn't see any). It's thus a bit of a rude surprise that the ending is so bittersweet and unresolved. In this novel the characters can all agree to live together, but the outside world is still unfair -- there's no map to resolution and Sugiura apparently can't imagine one. That's ultimately unsatisfying.
With Hannah's help and a relocation, Ben is able to finish school and have some space to reconsider what they want. Part of that search is a burgeoning relationship with best friend Nathan. But being in a romance is challenging to Ben, who doesn't necessary understand how to articulate love and sexual attraction as non-binary. From their family's abusive background, Ben's also prone to anxiety and panic attacks, all of which are aggravated by Ben's parents who struggle with understanding Ben's identity.
As a pioneering novel about non-binary teens, the book has obvious significance: giving a voice to a group that doesn't really yet have one in YA literature. But while it does a remarkable job at articulating issues common to young people who identify as non-binary, it largely fails as a novel. The plot drags and meanders as it tries to cover lots of bases rather than tell a story. It also doesn't help that Ben is not a particularly sympathetic character. With his wide variety of issues, they come off as self-centered and insular. That's less Ben's fault than the author's: there's plenty of history which (if explained) could help the reader develop sympathy for Ben's struggle, but that history is stated (rather than shown), so the reader can only surmise and make assumptions. Some discussion of Ben's identity issue prior to deciding to come out, at a minimum, would have helped. After all, the pain of not being accepted hardly started when Ben came out. The way the book is written, one might come to the conclusion that all Ben cares about is being addressed with the correct pronoun, but there is so much more than that going on and it is never developed.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
Marlowe has her own private vendetta with the butcher's son, which gradually grows (as these things do in romance books) into something more, much to her mother's horror.
But the ostensible main story of the novel is Marlowe's desire to learn more about the donor of her heart. She tries reaching out to the donor's family, but they don't want any contact. Obsessed, Marlowe can't let that sit and tracks them down anyway, becoming friends with the donor's sister, Carmen. This becomes awkward when Marlowe finally has to come clean about the connection that Marlowe shares with her.
Aussie YA is usually a bit strange and this book meets that expectation. The weird characters (not just the cross-dressing little brother, but all of the characters) is part of it, but the bigger issue is the lack of plot. There are a lot of digressions and plenty of subplots, but the story doesn't add up to much. Conflicts with brother, mother, Carmen, and the butcher boyfriend drift along, but it doesn't go anywhere and we end up pretty much where we started.
She would tell someone, but there's no one to talk to. The female guidance counselor is out on leave and Mila isn't comfortable talking to a man about this. Mila's mother is having her own problems at work and Mila doesn't want to trouble her. Maybe she's just overreacting. The boys are just teasing anyway, right? That's what some of her friends think. In the end, a caring music teacher and a class in karate help Mila build the confidence necessary to address her harassers.
Excellent, albeit upsetting story about sexual harassment in middle school. Dee has a really good feel for the social behaviors of early adolescents and the story rings true. It's that plausibility that makes the tale so chilling. The actions of the boys fall into that uncomfortable area between teasing and harassment that divides not just the children, but the adults as well. It's no wonder that the kids are often struggling with defining what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
As usual, I didn't care for Mila's reluctance to seek help, which is a common ploy for dragging out a story, but more so than normal, I appreciated that it is her own struggle to find her voice that forms a big part of the story (and I was placated by the way that her silence was recognized as its own bad choice). Despite that little bit of gratuitous character abuse by the author, Mila comes across as a strong and inspirational heroine.
This is an important book and one that could facilitate a lot of great discussion among younger teens (in much the way that Speak has become for slightly older readers). It's important for girls and boys to recognize that boundaries exist at all ages and to think about what role they play in their own lives.
Friday, November 01, 2019
Rakel dreams of becoming a perfumer. Her strong sense of smell and her understanding of the science of scents gives her a good chance of success. But in her world, scents are power, so her goal is ambitious. Ash is First Prince Nisai’s bodyguard. When the Prince is struck down by a poison of unknown origin, fate and circumstance brings the two of them together. Racing against the calendar, they must find a cure. When an ancient text suggests that the antidote requires rare ingredients from all corners of the Empire, they are off on an epic quest.
A rich and densely-constructed fantasy, packed full of action. At first, the immense detail is overwhelming and it’s hard to follow the story. But as the dust settles, the story takes over, but only with some willful disregard of the layers and layers that the author piles on. I love cultural detail but too much becomes distracting, particularly in the way it is used here to fill lulls in te story. Whenever the action starts to lag, suddenly we are conveniently introduced to a another legend or an unknown town or a new monster. What we don’t get is much character development. The story shows us that Rakel and Ash are pawns in an imperial power play. But within this book, they are also Firestone’s pawns. If you like vivid and complex settings and fast-packed action, that probably won’t matter much, but I didn’t have much on which to hang.
[Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book in return for an honest review. The book is slated for release on November 5, 2019]
Adrienne's stepfather Dan is obsessed with finding the family. He wrote a well-known article about them for The New York Times, but a similarly famous rebuttal has cast him into disgrace. His first attempt a few years ago to actually find them was a failure, but now he is trying again. Seventeen year-old Adrienne is coming along, mostly to see if Dan is right, but also to exorcise some ghosts of her own.
What begins as a great adventure turns into a horror story as all of the members of the expedition are killed, except for Adrienne. Marooned deep in Siberian forest, she is taken captive by the Osinov's, who not only exist, but also are very unhappy that she has found them. As she gets to know the family, she finds that everything about them is more complicate than any myth or legend.
A unusual story that starts as an adventure, becomes a survival story, and eventually turns into a spiritual quest (in a sort of Heart of Darkness way). The section is by far the most ambitious. It is also the least successful, but it gives the novel an unexpected gravitas. Ultimately, the story is about forgiveness, but it's a long and twisted journey to reach that stage.
Parks is a good writer. I enjoyed the Russian that is sprinkled liberally in the dialog. And I certainly liked the character Adrienne. The other characters appear too briefly or are too filtered by the language barrier to really make an impact. Still, each and every one was memorable.
Saturday, October 26, 2019
All the way until now, the two girls have been inseparable and united. But now in fifth grade, the school decides that Iris and Lark should be in separate classes and the twins are horrified at what will happen! Lark fears that the kids will make fun of her. Iris worries that if she isn't in the room, she won't be able to protect her sister.
Meanwhile, in the storefront that never seems to manage to keep a business for more than a few months, an inauspicious antique store has opened up. The mysterious owner of the shop, Mr. Green, posts odd signs out front ("We Are Here" and "Alice Where Are You?"). And while most people avoid the place, Iris finds it fascinating and starts spending time there. Doing so helps her escape her worries about Lark and is the perfect antidote to the horrible after school program (called "Awesome Girls!") that her mom has enrolled her in.
The story, which seems to owe a debt to Lark more than Iris meanders through many different topics (in addition to those mentioned above, a subplot involving the theft of many valuable objects and another about crows gathering in the neighborhood feature prominently). Many of these threads are tied together in the end, but it is a bit of a strain. The book lacks much foreshadowing or continuity, leaving the reader perplexed for most of the story about where all of this is actually going. I enjoyed the dynamic between the twins and the themes about sisterhood are the most interesting, but Ursu wants to take the story in many other directions and that did not work for me.
The book features numerous drawings by Erin Mcguire, one of my favorite children's artists.
Meanwhile, at her new school, Sana has fallen in love and the object of her affection is Jamie, a girl on the school's track team. Sana never given much thought to her orientation, but she's never quite clicked with boys. Thankfully, being gay at her new school is not a big deal, but race is. That is important because Sana is Japanese-American and Jamie is a Latina. As much as the two girls care for each other, there are tensions between their peer groups. Sana is expected to hang out with other Asians and Jamie with the Mexican kids.
Girl meets girl, girl loses girl, and you know the rest...typical romance. But there's some subtlety and some interesting topics raised. When Sana suspects that Jamie is cheating on her, it is too much like what her Dad is doing to her Mom and this give her time to reflect on what her mother is going through. Sana's Mom's concept of deferred happiness and forbearance driven by the traditional Japanese value of gaman gives Sana a role model to dissect and to which you can contrast herself.
Finally, there's a race angle. It's pretty brutal to take the complexities of American racial politics and lay them over the insecurities and petty squabbles of a high school. And yet, that really is happening. Sugiura has a good ear for the dynamics of it all and has given the story an authentic complexity which is generally missing in most writers.
Lucky is about to break it big. A major K-Pop star, she’s just finished a successful Asian tour and she’s about to come to the States to make her North American debut. But like all K-Pop singers, her image and her life has been carefully crafted and managed. Somewhere along the way to gaining her success, it all stopped being fun. On the last night of her tour in Hong Kong, she decides to break free and just try to recapture some of that joy she used to feel in her life.
Jack wants to become a photographer, but there is no way he would ever be allowed by his family. When he decides to take a gap year, his father insists that Jack work as an intern at his bank. Jack hates the work, but in the evenings he practices his photography. He’s discovered a talent for being a paparazzo,taking pictures of celebrities and capturing them in compromising places and positions.
When he spots Lucky, Jack feels that he’s hit paydirt. Exclusive pictures of the carefully sheltered pop star could be the thing to vaults him to fame and a career. The fact that she wants to hang out with him just means more opportunities to get photos. But as the two young people spend the next twenty-four hours touring through Hong Kong, they both find what they are looking for and it isn’t what they were expecting.
By the numbers escapist romance. There’s not much of a surprise here, but the novel benefits from Goo’s fluid writing, the fun she has showing off the sights of Hong Kong, and two lovable characters. They are stock stuff, but all the right buttons are pushed. Enjoyable and fun.
Ezra and Wynonna are not friends, but they have a very special connection: every day or so they suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies. It's become more noticeable and frequent since a recent solar eclipse, but as the story unfolds, it seems that the roots of the problem go back much further.
While they are not friends, they have a connection: Ezra has a serious crush on Wynonna’s BFF Imogene. And Wynonna turns out to be interested in Holden, who is Ezra’s best friend.
And while the body swapping is a problem to be solved, Ezra and Wynonna realize that the unique access they each have to the crush of the other provides an opportunity to tip the scales of love, if not simply put in a good word for each other. But what ought to simply be an act of setting each other up for romantic success gets more complicated when it turns out that Imogene may actually be gay and longs after Wynonna. That works out pretty well when Ezra is inhabiting Wynonna’s body, but spells doom for the eventual future when (Ezra and Wynonna hope) they will be back in their own bodies. All of this confusion and chaos is set against a high school production of Twelfth Night.
Light and funny, the swapping of bodies leads to any number of humorous situations. Unfortunately, Norton's selection mostly is limited to erections and menstruation. As with so many male writers, Norton doesn’t do female characters well and assumes boys should be portrayed as only interested in erections and farting. That's a drag since there’s plenty of lost opportunity to reflect on gender differences and similarities.
Some good scenes and things get funny when the relationships start getting physical (and you never quite know who will be occupying whose body) but the story itself was too long.
Friday, October 18, 2019
Marisol knows that her family has always been followed by La Mala Suerte -- bad luck. Even when every contingency is accounted for, the luck will find you, Marisol believes. Nothing proves this better than her current state. On the run from gangs in their native El Salvador who want to kill her and her little sister Gabi, the two girls have appealed for asylum in the United States. However, their case doesn't go well and it seems likely they will get deported when they meet a skeptical interviewer and their sponsor dies.
But then Marisol is presented with an unusual proposition. A mysterious woman who seems to work for the government explains that there is an experimental device that can literally suck the grief out of one person and deliver it to another. The device is intended to treat war veterans suffering from PTSD. Its effects on the receiver is uncomfortable, she is told, but not fatal.
In exchange for agreeing to be a recipient, Marisol and her sister will get Green Cards. Given the suffering they have experienced simply getting to the North, Marisol is willing to do whatever it takes to assure that her sister will be safe. She agrees.
The grieving person turns out to be a girl around Marisol's age named Rey. Rey is resistant to the idea of having her depression "cured" so Marisol works hard to win over Rey's trust (after all, if Rey resists the treatment, the deal will be called off and Marisol and her sister will be deported). To Marisol's surprise, as she gains Rey's trust and the treatment starts to work, their relationship turns romantic. Is the technology curing Rey or is it the feelings that the girls have for each other? All the time, La Mala Suerte is not too far away.
As with most good science fiction, the technology is simply window dressing for a good theme. Combining issues of race and privilege, this story is really about depression and grieving, and what human connections are really about. It is a complicated story and is difficult to describe without producing spoilers, so suffice it to say that the ending is thought provoking. Throw in two great heroines as well as their tender love for each other and it makes a great story.
When Cal died in a car accident and his girlfriend Kate killed herself in grief ten days later, it drove a spike between their two families. The families sued each other, blaming each other for the deaths of their children. Cal’s brother Max and Kate’s sister Aggi – who had been in their own relationship – were forbidden from seeing each other. (I’ll give you a guess as to how successful that went!)
Nearly a year later, the families still don’t speak, but Aggi and Max yearn after each other. But even if they dared to risk the families’ wrath and spoke, what would they say? Because while they share a similar pain and ache for what they had, breaking the ice is difficult.
An ambitious and strong beginning falls flat in the end. By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked and totally wanted to see how these two would break through their grief and address their pain and resentment. The family dynamics would make things complicated I knew, but first and foremost there would be their own emotional baggage to address. But Rufener is not quite up to the task. She falls back on melodrama and adventure (a shared adventure brings everyone to set aside their differences) and ditches the inner dialogue of her two characters. Why does Max bring home girls and flaunt them in front of Aggi? We never really go there. Instead, we simply jump forward to an afterword that assures us that the wounds have healed offstage. Argh!
Saturday, October 12, 2019
Told in verse, Alone Together traces how Sadie finds her own separate identity within this family, both being part of it and also staking out her independence. Family for Sadie is neither a help or a hindrance. While she obviously relishes moments of quiet and at one point marvels over what it would be like to live in a home with fewer people, she loves her family and accepts their presence as it is.
It's a subtle work, with lots of inward thinking (helped along by the verse format which accommodates her scattered thoughts) and little action. While the poetry does occasionally lean towards poignancy, Donovan is actually quite restrained. The result is a deep work that has a unique voice -- worldly and informed, but not as jaded as many of today's heroines. Barely publicized and a bit hard to get a hold of, the book is a quick and rewarding read and deserving of more attention.
Friday, October 11, 2019
A grueling litany of the socioeconomic forces working against a young Latina. Written specifically for reluctant readers, Sitomer obviously hopes that the subject matter will resonate with Latinx readers in similar positions in real life. It's a noble goal, but I'm more intrested in examining the book on its own merits
It is an interesting peek at a world far removed from most of us. Sonia is very strong and determined and easy to root for. The book is easy to read and the regular insertion of Spanish into the text feels natural and non-intrusive. One does tire of the idealism and generalizations (hearing how all Mexicans behave, how all men behave, etc.) and some of the events (a trip to Mexico, a race riot at school, etc.) seem stuffed in for no reason except to provide us discussion topics for a classroom reading. Still, I think this is a good book in spite of its pedagogical ambitions. I enjoyed it.
1989. New York. While AIDS is no longer a mystery, battling it and stopping the deaths has become deeply politicized. ACT UP activists stage protests and civil disobedience actions around the city, demanding that AZT be made available affordably and that other more experimental drugs be released by the FDA.
Reza and his mother have just moved to the City from Canada. She’s married a wealthy Wall Street businessman and they have been welcome into the local Persian community. Reza has gained a stepbrother and a new school. What he longs for is a boyfriend, but what he fears even more than coming out is contracting AIDS. Obsessed with the dying of gay men around him, Reza is afraid to open his heart. He hides his true feelings and tries hard to be straight.
At his new school, Reza meets Art – fearless and a little crazy and sexy as hell -- and his straight friend Judy. Judy and Art both fall for Reza and Reza (though he is strongly attracted to Art) throws himself at Judy. He doesn't really like her that way, but he tries to become straight, seeing a relationship with Judy as a way of being socially acceptable and avoiding disease. It doesn't work and as these three teens fall in love and break each other’s hearts, the reader follows.
A beautifully written novel that will make your heart ache repeatedly. As is to be expected, there is death in it, but there is also wonderful heartwarming scenes of the living. I approached the book with caution, figuring I would hate it and toss it aside as irrelevant to me, but I couldn’t put it down. Normally, I have no interest in historical novels, especially those gratuitously placed in recent times. Far too often, they feel like some a trip down memory lane by an author who has nothing to say. But Nazemian has things to say. Important things. Political without being didactic, the novel approaches the AIDS epidemic and how it was viewed in those days with immense compassion. Ultimately, this is a book about the power of love to get us through life, dying, and death. I’m calling it the best book I’ve read so far in 2019 (and we’re running out of time to topple it from that position). Highly recommended, even if you're skeptical that you want to read a book about AIDS.
Friday, October 04, 2019
Lou has plans. She convinces her best friend Seeley to pretend to be her lover in order to make Nick jealous (everyone knows that Seeley is queer and most folks assume Lou is as well). As Lou plots it, the two girls will date for a while and then "break up" and then Lou will somehow end with Nick. Along the way, Lou's also got a plan to save Magic Castle so it won't have to close. But Lou discovers that even the best contrived plans will go astray, when she realizes that her relationship with Seeley is more real than she had planned for.
Summer stories set at amusement parks have been told often enough that it's almost a sub-genre. There's not much new ground to cover here! But the bisexual element of the story is a new angle and its matter-of-fact treatment is nice. Lou has a complex character and meaningful interactions with Seeley and her father that defy the stereotypes of friendships and parent-child relationships. The story, however, drifted and wandered too much for me and I found it hard to get into, despite being a brisk read.
For many years, the Langsoms had been living at 16 Olcott Place, but after a scandal involving Dr Langsom, they were forced to move out. Next door neighbor Olivia wondered who would move in, and when the Donahues arrive with a daughter her age, Livvie is excited to have a new girl next door. Janie Donahue and Livvie are both starting ninth grade this year and have a lot in common. They become fast friends, much to the consternation of Livvie’s existing friends.
And then mysterious threatening letters start to show up at the Donahue house. Demanding that the Donahues move out of the house immediately, the writer promises that blood will flow if they don’t go. Terrified, but also obsessed with figuring out what is going on, Livvie and Janice dig through the town’s and her family's history in search of a scary stalker.
My initial impression when I opened the book was that this was going to be some sort of supernatural horror story and I wasn't too enthusiastic about reading it. But, in fact, the story starts out as a fairly normal YA about two girls having typical friendship and family struggles. The creepy stuff doesn’t even start until nearly fifty pages in and only ratchets up slowly. Horror fans will probably be disappointed with what is largely just a book about a new kid in town. The action does pick up in the end, but the pacing is uneven and the entire ending felt rushed. That leaves the story a bit confusing as so much of the earlier build up gets lost in the end. Entire subplots about Livvie's struggles with juggling old friends and Janie or her romantic lead get shunted off and forgotten. But who honestly would still care about a budding romance when there was a psychopathic killer in the house? Or about friends who feel slighted?
[I received an ARC of this book from the publisher free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review. The book was released on October 1st]
Saturday, September 28, 2019
Kieran, a young hospital volunteer, finds her in mid-flight. Not eager to reveal her real identity, she tells him her name is Jane and invents a story about why she is on the run. On a dare, he agrees to help her get away and takes her to a secluded small town on the east coast of Ireland. As the weeks go by, her lies grow more complex and her relationship with Kieran grows stronger. She begins to think that having forgotten her past life is a blessing. Now she only wants to live for the future, a future with Kieran and far far away from whatever she was running from that is in Cleveland.
A wistful but strong romance. I have mixed feelings about the ending, but I will grant that it fit the story (even if it was not the ending I wanted). In between is a novel about two lost people who find each other. It's not a particularly sexy story (Jane/Clementine and Kieran make an enchanting couple, but not a particularly hot one) but it doesn't need to be for such well fleshed out characters. And they are surrounded by vibrant supporting roles like Kieran's snarky sister Siobhan or the shop owner Clive who are equally enjoyable to spend time with. This may not contain much literary value, but still managed to be a superior romance and wonderful entertainment.
Friday, September 27, 2019
Emmi's soccer team has made it to Regionals and she is determined to not let a bad cold hold her back. No matter how much of a struggle it is, she figures she can push herself through it. But then she starts have trouble breathing and she passes out on the field. Back home, her symptoms grow more severe and her parents take her to the hospital. She’s contracted viral myocarditis and it has permanently damaged her heart. She needs a heart transplant or she will die.
Most of the rest of the story traces her journey as a transplant patient, from waiting anxiously on the wait list to the surgery and the follow-up treatment. Along the way, various hurdles (aborted transplants, relapses, and constant monitoring) are called up.
The title of the novel has a second meaning. During this ordeal, Emmi finds her feelings for her boyfriend Sam are challenged. And when she befriends Eli, a fellow adolescent transplant recipient, she is tempted to stray.
While I enjoyed most of the story, the rushed ending was a disappointment. Emmi is a great character. Articulate and independent, she makes a good narrator for the complicated journey in this novel. And it is those details (Maurer certainly did her homework) that make this book an interesting read.
Felix also has an incredible head for trivia and he's a whiz playing along with the contestants on the TV quiz show "Who, What, Where, When." When the producers of that show announce a special junior edition, he's excited to apply for a slot and ecstatic when he is invited on the show. But it is the discovery that there is a large cash prize for the winner which raises the stakes. With that money, he could get them an apartment and help get Astrid back up on her feet.
While I hate child endangerment stories, the book works for me for two reasons. First of all, because the usual sadistic litany of misfortunes is kept to a minimum. We get there is a lot of challenges in his living situation but it is not utterly hopeless. But what really helps is the way that the tough times are countered by sweetness. Nielsen has chosen to highlight the kindness that people can do for each other. Several times there are opportunities for hard things to get worse (for example, when Felix is caught stealing food) but the story chooses to show people being kind (the grocer, after initially threatening the boy takes him in and feeds him). The message is that being kind and generous to those truly in need (or even simply decent) can pay off. The happy/weepy and ultimately satisfying ending doesn't hurt either!
Saturday, September 21, 2019
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
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!
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
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
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.
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.