Saturday, July 13, 2019
If those seem pretty disconnected, they largely are. Not that it really matters as Appelt is mostly in love with the concept of the Bayou as a swiftly flowing body of water that shifts and surges, swallowing up (and occasionally disgorging) objects and people. She's so in love with the idea that she repeats it again and again. Repetition is key in this story and established themes are repeated again and again like a piece of music. The issue, for me, is that what works nicely in a score comes across as boring in a story. Most of all, as pretty as this book is, it is not a YA book and it is poorly marketed.
Friday, July 12, 2019
Fig is not a fan of storms. Their coastal New Jersey town gets a good share of them. It’s not the wind, dark clouds, or rain, but rather the impact that the storms have on her father.
Her father was once a great composer but after Fig was born and her mother skipped town, Dad stopped composing. For days at a time, he checks out altogether. When a storm comes, he wanders outside and puts himself in danger. The last time he did so, Fig had to call the police to help, but that just made things worse as now the authorities are watching and threatening to put Fig in foster care.
When a new neighbor moves in and tries to help, Fig is wary. Every adult is a risk. But it’s a lot to ask of a sixth grader who just wants to fit in and have some friends. Fig has to learn that it is OK to accept outside help for her and her Dad. Along the way, Fig is learning about the life of Vincent Van Gogh and his relationship with brother Theo provides inspiration and helps her understand her father. (It also inspires the gorgeous cover of the book)
A touching story about family and friendship. The characters are complex and the relationship between father and neighbor is a nicely nuanced romance. A subplot about Fig’s ability to judge her own friendships is a pleasing analogue.
But when she uses up her entire prescription, she finds that she can't get any more from her doctor. Without it, she won't be able to push herself as much as she feels she needs to in order to be able to play. So she resorts to drastic measures, finding an old lady who's selling drugs dispensed for other people. With this new source, Mickey starts increasing her doses gradually as the lighter doses are no longer enough. Mickey has to turn to stealing and deception to maintain her supply, but all along she is convinced that she'll be able to stop just as soon as the season is over. But then she finds that she can't quit.
A brutal and frank description of addiction and the process of falling into it. As a story, it's pretty bleak stuff. McGinnis does a great job of depicting Mickey's demise, the ease at which she ignores warning signs and the way she convinces herself that she'll be okay. It's a bit matter-of-fact to be art, but works fine as an educational primer and a warning to any young people who are feeling invulnerable.
Saturday, July 06, 2019
Suddenly Jack finds himself back at the party, the same party where he first met Kate four months ago. He's been given a do-over. Like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, Jack is condemned to relive those four months all over again. And, again as in that movie, Jack tries to tweak the outcome to make things turn out better. But this isn't a comedy and Jack finds his choices each have consequences -- some of them dire.
While the gist of the story has been done before, the angle here is different. For Jack, there is a lot to learn about love, friendship, family, and loyalty. Being a boy book, the relationship stuff is mostly about keeping appearances and pride (rather than tears and jealousy) but the complicated family relationship of Franny and his jailbird father is just one piece that gives this novel a serious tone. There really isn't much doubt of how the story should end (and it delivers) but there is a very satisfying dramatic arc of personal growth for Jack.
Tuesday, July 02, 2019
The thing is that Sparrow has always found talking about things to be hard. And ever since her traumatic first day of school, she's generally avoided talking to others. Instead, with the support of a friendly librarian, she's found a way to avoid social situations and conversations in general. This has gotten her a reputation for being a snob and made her a target for bullies and hasn't exactly kept people away from her.
The rooftop incident sends Sparrow into counseling and her persistent counselor finds that the key to break through Sparrow's insecurity is through music (the angrier the better!). The doctor goes on to suggest that Sparrow attend rock band camp this summer. The idea astounds both Sparrow and her mother, who both know that Sparrow will never survive away from home, living with strangers, for four weeks. But the counselor is convinced that this is just what Sparrow needs.
A sweet and inspiring story of a girl who finds the strength to face the world and embrace it. There are no surprises here, but the story is well told, with good characters and a bit of fun. Perhaps more could have been done with Sparrow's love of birds, but Moon's answer is that freedom lies in music, not ornithology. I might beg to differ, but the point is well taken.
Saturday, June 29, 2019
Meanwhile, in their small town of Epoch NM, things are changing. Glorieta's step siblings Lilith and Angus have come to stay, dumped off by their abusive father. Angus gets along fine, but Lilith does everything she can to fight her step sister. In a particularly harrowing passage, Lilith goes so far as to betray Glorieta to ICE agents causing Glorieta to be rounded up erroneously as an illegal.
This mixture of family, tradition, and current events creates a memorable story. The ICE passage may be too intense for younger readers but is very topical given recent weeks' news. This is not really a story about that though, but of the ties of family and of the power of forgiveness. I felt that Glorieta did a bit more forgiving than she really ought to have done, but perhaps I am not as big or brave of a person as this little girl. Her story, though, is inspiring. Between that and the strong characters and vivid setting make this a remarkable book.
Friday, June 28, 2019
Ryann is so busy taking care of her family and her set of misfit friends, that she barely has time to worry about the things she can’t have. She dreams of traveling to space, but aside from a quirky opportunity a few years ago when a group of young women were sent out on a one way trip to the stars, opportunities don’t come often. Stuck in her trailer park and barely getting by, she’s hardly the Right Stuff.
But then a chance encounter with a new girl named Alexandria changes everything. Alexandria is the daughter of one of the women who went into space. She was world-famous at the time of her mother's departure because she wasn't supposed to exist. If people had known that one of the women leaving on a no-return trip was the mother of a newborn, they never would have stood for it. So the situation was kept secret until it was too late: her mother left and abandoned Alexandria on Earth.
Years later, Alexandria stays up at night monitoring the skies, hoping to hear a message from her mother transmitted over the growing distance between them. For Ryann, Alexandria becomes another project, but she also is a key to future that Ryann had almost given up on.
A gentle meditative novel that is full of lots of clever writing, but not very coherent storytelling. Lots of originality here and the mixture of angst and science fiction is interesting, but the afterward where Ancrum explains the symbolism of each of her characters underscores the problem: if those messages were there, I should have been able to find them without the lecture. In retrospect, I began to understand parts of the book that made no sense when I first read them, but that is too much work for the entertainment I was seeking (and given the large number of loose ends, the overall payoff for looking back is relatively meager). It really isn’t enough to be a good and clever writer, you also need to be able to tell a story.
When Alyssa collapses in the midst of a hurricane recovery fundraiser, only Janelle knows that it’s her diabetes and that her condition is getting worse. The problem is that Janelle and Alyssa aren’t friends anymore. Years of being best friends have long been forgotten and the girls have turned to bitter enmity. So, how should Janelle respond when officially they have nothing to do with each other?
This dramatic reveal of Alyssa’s secret condition brings out the worst in her friends. Her new besties rally around her, but mostly to try to grab the limelight. Only Janelle really seems to care about her. Those feelings are part driven by nostalgia, but also underscored by Janelle's history of altruism. Driven by her feelings, Janelle makes a fateful decision: she will donate one of her kidneys to save her ex-BFF.
It’s a plot that stretches credulity and Reed puts a lot of effort into convincing us that it’s plausible. Janelle’s family background, some miraculous genetic matches, and some happy coincidences all contribute to the set-up. In the end, though, Reed doesn’t have much to actually say about donation or about friendship. The clever idea is about all the story has. That's a wasted opportunity for a novel that could have really dug into the power of nostalgia, the altruism of organ donation, and the issues of chronic disease. The topics are certainly brought up, but the book doesn't seem to know how to take the next step and really address them.
Friday, June 21, 2019
In Leora’s world, people tattoo their bodies with the story of their lives: their family trees, their failures and accomplishments, and their shames. At death, their bodies are flayed and the skin is turned into a book, from which anyone can read their story. When the book is ready, it is judged and a virtuous person’s book is brought home by their descendants and honored. But if their lives are judged unworthy, then the book is tossed on a great fire and burned and the person’s life is forgotten. There is no greater misfortune for the person or their family.
Leora has always considered her father a kind and good man. When he dies, she is certain that his honor is assured. So when she finds out that his body contains a black mark that identifies him as unworthy of being remembered, she is sure that it is mistake. Desperate to save his book from the fire, she searches for a way to protect his legacy, along the way making shocking discoveries about her community.
A stunningly unique dystopia which imagines a universe where things are black/white and as permanent as a tattoo. Your life is public knowledge, visible on your skin for others to see. Designs and symbols have special meanings and nuances. It’s both a wonderfully complex metaphor and a vehicle for a great adventure.
The story itself twists and turns with plots and counter-plots. At times, it’s hard to keep up, but even when I lost the track, it was compelling enough to keep reading. And for those who can’t get enough, there’s a sequel coming out next month (that I will review closer to its release). At this point, most of the effort is spent on introducing the complexities of Leora's world. The characters have not yet grown particularly interesting (although the ending is pleasingly shocking). I imagine she and her compatriots will grow on me.
[Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased review.]
To prove them wrong, Hannah just needs to win over the staff at the hospital so they will listen to her story and help her out. It's what she's always done, proving to adults like her parents how responsible and mature she is, even when she is inwardly afraid.
But at a critical point, Hannah's worldview falls apart. Things stop making sense. Not only the explanations but the people involved in them turn out to be very different from how Hannah understood things. Faced with a drastic correction of her reality, Hannah has to reevaluate what actually happened.
A story of mental illness that stands out for its ability to throw you off and also for its reluctance to resolve Hannah's issues easily. Stories about returns to sanity are pretty common. At the risk of a spoiler, it's interesting that in this one the journey is really only beginning at the end of this book! That said, the ending is repetitive and drags on too long. Sheinmel's only real point is that fighting mental illness is an ongoing affair and that the dangers lie mostly to the sufferer. Struggling with making that point definitively, the novel ends with a whimper.
Outside of school, the rules seem to have changed in even crazier ways. The community is riled up over a police shooting. Shayla is growing more aware of the inherent racism around her as her family takes part in various protests. And when an incident presents itself to Shayla in her own school, she has to decide if she will be brave enough to speak out, even if it means breaking the rules.
Empowering and educational. The story is a bit too topical and won't age well, but this is a good book about being an African American tween -- a lovely mixture of the familiar tropes of white-girl middle readers (i.e., most of the books out there) with some distinctly black themes. It isn't very subtle, but it doesn't need to be as these kids, while articulate, are not particularly sophisticated yet. YA protagonists of color are rare and, when they appear, are either totemic or white washed. Shayla is neither -- a normal twelve year old who is black. She's proud of that identity, is race conscious and racially proud, but she's lots of other things as well.
Saturday, June 15, 2019
For her boyfriend, she's more decisive. It's not as if he's been a saint up to now either. Through flashbacks, we see how his addiction to alcohol has slowly corroded the trust that existed between them and also destroyed the other friendships around him.
It is thus with some irony that while processing all of this, Harley rekindles old feelings for the boy next door, Raf. While Harley and Raf were close as children, his own demons led him to addiction as well, and eventually to rehab. Now in AA, Raf helps Harley understand her ex-boyfriend's struggle. But are these strong feelings they are developing with each other a good thing or just another dangerous trap for Harley?
A complex story about addiction and its destructive impact on families and other relationships. And also a parallel story about sisterhood and the bonds between siblings. That Mason balances these two separate threads is a testament to her talent at formulating a good story. It's far from perfect though. The addiction material is her crusade, of course, and she packs in a bit more material than truly fits (giving the story a preachy character it did not need), but the material is well researched and generally interesting. The relationship between Harley and her sister gets relatively neglected but resolves satisfactorily. While this is a good book about teen alcoholism, it has fewer insights on the love/hate relationship between sisters.
Friday, June 14, 2019
Disfigured by a blood tumor, Sophie has learned to cope with unwanted attention by hiding. And she's created a complicated narrative for herself that she’s been cursed by a witch.
Armed with an encyclopedia of monsters, she not only has identified her monstrous self, but has no problem spotting the goblins and demons at school (disguised as her classmates and teachers) that torment her. Her new friend is obviously a fairy and the girl’s sweet grandmother a (good) witch. Her Mom’s new boyfriend is a demon trying to steal her away and Sophie has ways to ward that and the other evils off. But her deepest fears is her mother discovering that Sophie is really a monster inside. Will she keep her or throw her out?
Initially sweet and funny (and even a bit educational as the book-within-the-book provides nice summaries about the history of bestiaries and eventually some good life advice), I found Sophie’s character a bit too self-absorbed and tedious. Her stubborn refusal to listen to what she is told is basically the only thing that drives the drama in this story. And it is hardly an endearing quality. Yes, eventually Sophie will show a heart of gold, but it’s that refusal to pay any attention to the adults that really defeats her along the way. Even her redemption in the end is based on her refusal to listen to what has been said and instead claim that it is her magic that saves her friend's little brother Will. She never quite manages to break out of her denial of reality and that is ultimately disturbing (and not inspirational).
Friday, June 07, 2019
When a fisherman hauls home a great white shark that got snared in his nets, Lucy and her friend Fred are entranced by the creature. The kids have been working on a field guide to local birds and animals and both of them love nature.
It doesn’t hurt at all that Lucy’s mother was a marine biologist who specialized in great white whales. For Lucy, studying them now is a way of getting close to her late Mom. And when tragedy strikes and Fred is killed, Lucy escapes into that interest in sharks, drawing sketches of them and writing postcards to her deceased friend. She also meets former colleagues of her mother’s who carry on her mother’s work.
Richly illustrated with sketches of sharks, the book is more of a paean to sharks than a story about a girl who is struggling with grief, although both threads are important. I found it meandering and unfocused, but it has some charming passages, including the explanation of the title (a reference to the watch on a dive who takes care of guiding and retrieving the diver). It’s nicely written, but hard to track. I was disappointed.
When Grace’s mother is accused of running a Ponzi scam, only Grace believes in her mother's innocence. And when Mom suffers a stroke during her arrest, she’s not there to explain herself so the weight of defending her falls on Grace.
But it isn't only her mother who is going under scrutiny. After all, Grace benefited materially from her mother's malfeasance. And her association was not entirely benign and innocent. Grace may have had no direct knowledge of the scam but all through her life, Mom put her out literally front and center, featuring little Grace on the cover of the prospectus. Suspicions mount that not only did Grace herself know what was going on, but also that she has knowledge of to where the money has disappeared.
Now, months later, Grace has boarded a bus to travel to a place that she believes has answers. She is tailed by Sam, a loner boy at school with a dead older brother who suspects she is going to collect the missing money. While she tries to convince him that it is nothing like that, she can’t tell him her secret -- why she is driven to visit a remote location high up in Colorado. But sharing secrets is what they will do as Grace and Sam risk everything to complete Grace’s desperate quest.
An interesting story that never quite worked for me for two reasons: the unending brutal horror of the way people turn against Grace (told mostly in flashback) which never really reaches any sort of redemption; and the attempt to spark a romance between Grace and Sam. I get that they are both outcasts and they both have issues, but I couldn’t care enough to want them together or be happy as they reached any sort of connection. Plus, how utterly cliché! So, the story was just a bit too cheesy for me.
Saturday, June 01, 2019
Will knows what it means to be looked down upon. At 4’11”, he’s stuck wearing kid’s clothes. His stepbrother Drew towers over him at 6’3” and their mutual friend Monica is 5’11”. Still, Will has big ideas that are all part of The Plan that the three of them have to go to school together after high school, with Drew landing a star turn on the basketball team (even Will doesn’t dream that big for himself!). When Will makes things complicated by trying to make a move on Monica, he finds that suddenly Drew and Monica are an item and he has been relegated to the short sidekick.
Then the story takes a sudden twist. Will starts to grow and grow and grow. He quickly shoots through normal heights and surpasses Drew and just keeps growing. There seems to be no limit to how large he can grow. But with big things come big responsibilities. Things (like The Plan) that were so simple before have grown complicated as all three of them are changing.
Boy books tend to be noted by two characteristics (both of which are present in this book): snarky gross humor and the pedestaling of the love interest. Whether this is because they are written by male authors (guys who find jokes about semen amusing and can’t create believable female characters) or because we all think that this is what boys want to read (News flash! These books are mostly read by girls!) is up for debate. Admittedly, the book is pretty funny and that certainly makes it easy on the eyes. But the Monica character is amazingly frustrating. Like Alaska in John Green’s classic, Searching for Alaska we don’t much chance to know what is going on in her head except that she is pretty angry that Will and Drew don't get her. As a cipher, she comes off as contradictory and illogical and largely unfathomable. This is in striking contrast to the boys who seem to be quite articulate and easily read each other.
Mixing the small town charm that DiCamillo did so well originally back in Because of Winn Dixie, this story features another strong heroine and motley cast of characters who explore the bonds that bring a community together. Less groundbreaking (of course) and less magical (unfortunately), there is still a wonderful variety to the characters ranging from the surly hotelkeeper to a boy with the pet crow. And there is a beautiful final lesson about finding one's place wherever life happens to land you. Charming, albeit a bit slight.
Then at Christmas, as the result of a series of random events, he finds himself a guest with the Rivers family -- people who are the opposite of him (i.e., the very rich). They feed him more food than he's ever seen and lavish him with presents. But then suddenly all of it is taken away and Rupert is sent home with nothing but fond memories and a full stomach.
That is not the end of it. In the months that follow, individual members of the family show up and take Rupert away on adventures: cooking at a fancy restaurant, traveling through time and across the country, and even visiting the White House with the future president. Not that any of it manages to get Rupert a hamburger, let alone a way to help his family.
A clever and witty story that is very much in the style of Lemony Snicket. It is largely nonsensical and probably best enjoyed as silliness. The tone is dry and droll and taken literally more than a bit cruel and mean. But if you like these stories (think Willy Wonka or Series of Unfortunate Events) then you will probably enjoy this one as well. For myself, I have trouble with its cruelty.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
I told my mom
I wanted to be a bird
when I grew up.
She never said
So for years
I bird-sang my words.
And saved dryer lint
and old gift ribbons
for future nests.
For twelve year-old Birdie, everything around her seems to be changing. Since her father died in a fire fighting accident, she's relied on Mom and their elderly friend Maymee for stability. And her friends Nina and Martin are always there as well. But Maymee's found a beau and even Mom has started dating. While she is happy about the former, the latter feels like a betrayal of her father and Birdie resists the boyfriend's attempt to befriend her. Birdie's thought that it might be nice to have Martin as a first boyfriend is thwarted when he and Nina start dating. About the only thing that provides stability in Birdie's life are the birds that she watches, dutifully collating observation lists every day.
A delightful middle grade story in verse that combines the usual thematic suspects for anxious teen readers: changing friendships, the sudden importance and difficulty of romantic entanglements, evolving families, and growing responsibilities. The material is not new and the verse is functional, but this compact story is pleasing on several levels. Particularly endearing are Birdie's gradual acceptance of her mother's new boyfriend, the instructive lesson of Maymee's romance and its challenges, and her struggles with both positive and negative ways of dealing with her jealousy towards Martin and Nina.
Saturday, May 25, 2019
Malcolm, born in Canada but Parsi and raised in a Zoroastrian family, is an angry young man. After his mother died from cancer and his father turned to physically abusing him, Malcolm drifted, getting into fights and other trouble. He couldn't be a starker contrast to straight-A Susan. Naturally enough, then, the two of them connect and form a tentative relationship. Cultural differences, family pressures, and awkward adolescent moments intervene.
A rather more sophisticated teen romance than the typical sort, heavily imbued as it is with Middle Eastern and South Asian cultural references. But the complexity goes far beyond the cultural nuances. Susan and Malcolm have complicated families. Between the strains in Susan's family as her parents contemplate divorce and Malcolm's tense relationship with his abusive father and new stepmother, these kids have a lot on their plates. That it flows over into their relationship with each other is understandable to readers, yet it is an understanding that rarely finds its way in YA romances (where usually the romance lives in isolation from the family's troubles).
This busy novel hardly needs the subplots of Susan's artistic ambitions or the more mundane story of getting her driver's license or the story of an upcoming school project. Still, these details nicely root the story in how normal and everyday these kids are. This, in turn, make the story easy to relate to, despite the unusual backgrounds from which Susan and Malcolm come.
Friday, May 24, 2019
Sarah Anne has never really thought much about her dedication to the Nightshade series. But when she stumbles across a contest to identify the world’s #1 fan she finds that the bank of qualifying questions are amazingly easy. So she decides to compete and is surprised to find that she's a winner. But taking part in a contest means going public and that presents challenges: fandom is sexist and she struggles to be taken seriously. Worse, though, is the public exposure.
Back at school, she’s officially over Nightshade. She and her BFF Roxy agreed last year to give up all of that stuff and focus on what “really” matters: fashion, boys, and popularity. If it got out that she was competing in this contest, it would be an act of social suicide. She'd lose her place on the A list and probably lose Roxy’s friendship as well.
But winning the contest means showing the guys that girls know fandom as well and it's a chance for Sarah Anne to excel at something she really enjoys. As the contest continues and Sarah Anne continues to lead the pack, keeping everything secret becomes harder and harder. She comes to realize that she can’t do it all and she has to choose what is most important to her.
I’m pretty certain you can guess the outcome and it is every bit as satisfying as you would expect. This is no deep thought novel, but it is deep fun. Sarah Anne is smart, strong, and in the end surprisingly good at taking care of herself. Lots of good empowering messages for girls and a few observations about fandom sexism to boot.
[Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The book is scheduled for release on May 28th.]
When Spindrift washed ashore after the sinking of her parents’ ship, she was found with a defective crystal ball. Unlike the balls in her grandfather’s magic shop, this one appeared to do nothing. Nonetheless, Spindrift kept it as a memento of her drowned parents. Then one day the ball reveals a flower inside of it -- a black orchid that blooms in front of her. The flower in turn becomes a magical woman who grants wishes. Any thing -- as long as it is an object (and not a person) -- that Spindrift wants, the woman will give Spindrift.
With help from her grandfather, Spindrift learns that this ball is one of seven – each of a different color and each with a different power. She also discovers that the balls and their orchids are being hunted down by Roland, a former member of her parents’ crew, whom she also suspects of being responsible for their death. Following clues left in her mother’s correspondence with her grandfather, Spindrift and her young friends try to locate the orchids before Roland can collect them all together and wield immense power.
A challenging story to follow, Tremayne has many great ideas but few of them are developed (orchid hunters, the legend of the seven sages, the nature of greed, the idea that the balls are associated with particular families, magical wings that allow the children to get around, etc.). Spindrift’s journey is novel enough, but these loose ends and holes give it a feeling of being unfinished. This not only affects the strength of the story, but also the development of the characters whose importance to the story is never really explained. Spindrift's friends are disposable and distracting. They didn’t contribute much.
Friday, May 17, 2019
How much thought have you ever given to Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters? The ones who (in the original version of the story) chopped up their feet in a failed attempt to fit into the glass slipper? And after poor Ella went to live happily ever after, what happened to them and their equally odious mother? “Good riddance!” was probably the lesson we were all supposed to take from their example. There was nothing to like in them. Rather, we were taught that Ella’s humility and her beauty made her the victor. And the great prize at the end of the day was to be the prince’s trophy wife.
Rewriting Ella’s fate (or how she achieved it) has been done many times before, usually with a focus on empowering Ella as even more virtuous and strong (often at the expense of the vain fashion-conscious stepsisters). But this novel takes a different path, positioning the stepsisters as victims of societal pressure and an overly ambitious mother, and suggesting that Ella’s passive acceptance of Chance or Fate (take your pick!) is not really the path to living happily ever after. In this retelling, the stepsisters never did have a chance, twisted as they were by jealousy and the expectation that they should do whatever it took to score a husband. The story goes further, providing a backstory that the three girls, before any of these expectations had been imposed, lived together in innocent friendship.
Much like Damsel (a novel I reviewed a few weeks ago), I was intrigued by the novel direction of the story and dove into the book with high expectations. Unfortunately, after introducing her critical ideas, Donnelly runs out of steam and turns her heroine (the elder stepsister Isabelle) into a sort of fairy-tale Katniss. There’s an entirely unnecessary diversion into Herstory to lay out the fact that female warriors are so often written off and then it goes full-blown silly as the three sisters reconcile and defeat evil.
But if one ignores the heavy handed implementation of the premise and the action-packed and vapid finale, there’s a great story here about the heroine Isabelle, who grows from a vain girl (desperate to be pretty) to a mature decision maker. In doing so, she finds a balance between bravery/strength and compassion/kindness that even Cinderella has not mastered (or, for that matter, most human beings). Ironically, this conclusion forces an uncomfortable new dilemma on the reader: might these similarly unrealistic measures of success just be replacing one misery with another? Perhaps this could be material for a sequel?
[Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (and some nifty swag) in exchange for an unbiased review. The book was originally scheduled for release on May 28th but is already out]
Then, a new student shows up in her poetry class. Dov is an exchange student from Israel, with a soft demeanor and a reticence that suggests some dark history. As this is a romance, Lucy naturally tries to break through his shell. When she finally succeeds, the two of them develop a very intense relationship, haunted by the reality that Dov is going back home in a few months and start his three years' of military service. But while the relationship is overshadowed by this grim reality, Dov's devotion is an inspiration and helps Lucy figure out what she should do with herself.
It's mostly by-the-numbers YA romance: the sulking, but polite and responsible boy; the spats, falling outs, and eventual reconciliation; and of course the doubting grownups who are proven wrong by the true lovers. The differences lie in the characters, and Dov in particular. Lucy is far too perfect to be interesting but Dov's serious demeanor, grim backstory, and maturity makes for a fascinating protagonist. Haunted by the death of his brother and an ugly way he handled his grief, he is obsessed with serving his country in a way that seems selfless, but which he comes to understand is selfish. The story is actually well served by sweet chaste romance. There's a surprising lack of sex in an otherwise very intense relationship, which serves mostly to underscore a rather sober and mature approach to the challenges of their relationship.
Sunday, May 12, 2019
MacLachlan's typical sparse style shines out in this simple setting. As with her other books, the leanness means that there is very little going on on the surface. But that is deceiving as the book reveals more with repeated reads. The style was beautiful in Sarah, Plain and Tall because the subject matter was so angsty. Whether this book is enticing enough to make a reader come back is a different matter. I found it nice and kind, but ultimately dull.
Saturday, May 11, 2019
In a county next door, Nolan and his family are still grieving the disappearance of his older brother, who simply vanished during a family picnic. His parents have dedicated themselves to finding lost children. Nolan has turned to ghost hunting, convinced that his brother is sending him messages from some hidden place.
Two young people with mysteries that haunt their lives, but very little else in common. They get brought together by a series of supernatural events -- someone or something is reaching out to them. But who/what is it? And why have they been drawn together? Soon the messages and the mystery are sending them on a search that, while for different things, seems to follow the same path.
At times a bit hard to piece together, this is a nice suspense novel that works best while giving it less deep thought. The events that tie it together are presented in such a way that there may be something supernatural going on, but it is not required. That turns out to be the best way to tell this story that's big on action and fairly short on character. That's a missed opportunity as a deeper and more interesting novel would have explored the guilt that Nolan and Kennedy are going through (instead, it is stated, but never really shown). There's a little romance of course, but it mostly seems driven for the obligation that boy and girl have to kiss at some point, and not from any particular bond between the characters. There really isn't much room in this novel for much of an emotional connection between the characters.
Friday, May 10, 2019
Unlike almost every other example of this genre, it isn't really about the healing. After all, usually the protagonist is in denial for the bulk of the story. The great breakthrough -- usually at the end -- is her recognition of her special issue and the confrontation with her delusion. Obviously, there is a small bit of that here, but it secondary to Scott's interest in the experience itself: how people interact, what it is like to be medicated, and the relationships with the staff. It's not terribly dramatic. It's even a bit hard to follow; as one would expect from a mildly psychotic narrator.
Does that make it a good book? It doesn't have a big emotional payoff or provide any startling revelations about mental health, but it does give a good slice of life and exposure to the world.
[Disclosure: I received an Advance Reviewer's Copy of this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review. The book is scheduled to be released on May 14th.]
A year ago Brooke’s brother killed his best friend. In their small town, whoever didn’t judge the family by that heinous act was eventually convinced to avoid them by the trial and the publicity. Brooke’s little sister won’t talk, Mom can’t stop crying, and Dad has retreated to the basement to work on projects. Only Brooke and her mother are willing to visit her brother in jail (Dad and little sister outright refuse).
Brooke subjects herself to daily humiliation from her boss at the skating rink. She does so out of guilt and because it gives her an opportunity to continue to skate (even if she has pretty much given up her life dream of skating professionally). The only friend she has these days is a new girl in town who doesn't (yet) know of Brooke's notoriety.
But then Brooke finds a confidant, someone who understands what she and her family is going through – Heath, the younger brother of the guy that Brooke’s brother killed. It’s an awkward friendship that has to be kept secret, a friendship that would tear their families apart if it came out into the open, and one which can never be allowed to become more serious. And then it does.
Surprisingly low-key for such a melodramatic premise, the story has a number of tracks to it (family recovery, most importantly, but also Brooke’s search for the truth about the murder, and finally her parents’ unresolved past) that make the story complex and rewarding. Similarly, Johnson avoids any sort of drastic resolution, settling for an ending that, while modest, feels realistic and plausible. Characters are less developed as the pace is fast and emotions tend to run so high that we don’t get reflective moments, but I enjoyed it.
Friday, May 03, 2019
There’s always been something odd about the way Danny's parents behave. From the way they abruptly moved from Texas to California to all the rules they have about socializing to the secrets they jealously keep. They are hiding something, but what?
When Danny’s father loses his job and the family is forced to relocate, the fabric that keeps the secrets in place starts to unravel. Danny, who realizes that his ignorance endangers his own future, pushes back and starts demanding to know what is going on. The more he learns, the worse everything becomes.
A startling story of the cost to a family of parents who have secrets too dark to share even with their son. It starts very slowly and the writing is so dense that I almost gave up, but I’m glad I persisted. As I acclimated to the writing style, I found it more and more rewarding. There’s a lot going on in the story. Thankfully, it mostly comes together in the end.
I particularly like the complex relationships, whether between Danny and his best friend Harry (whose affection for each other is probably one of the most underplayed gay relationships in YA) or between Danny and his parents (much more tragic). While following some of the stereotypes of Asian families, it bends those stereotypes. What appears stock up front (like the parents' obsession over Danny's future) proves to be complex as the story unfolds. The ending, while overly rosy, is immensely satisfying and well-earned.
An investigative reporter researching the murder becomes interested in Sadie's own story and tries to track her down. Told in chapter alternating between Sadie's trip and the reporter's chase, the mystery of Mattie's death and Sadie's obsessive quest unfolds.
The story ends in just about as much of a mystery as it started. In between it's an interesting ride, but certainly not an uplifting tale. The settings are dreary and gritty and almost no one is all that appealing. I found the reporter particularly annoying and whiny. For more interesting was Sadie herself, who comes across as hardened and even a bit cruel. It's immersive, but didn't find much of a purpose to the story.
Saturday, April 27, 2019
While Willa is off being a bad friend, Flor is rebounding and developed a crush on her math tutor Grayson. Grayson seems to be all business and resistant to Flor's charms. But when Flor makes a shocking discovery about Grayson's secret life, they bound over the fact that there is more to Grayson than meets the eye.
In other words, it's a basic teen romance full of a lot of cliches. There may not be much in the way of new ground, but Jordan provides decent delivery. I started getting optimistic when the novel questioned the idea of a Girl Code, suggesting that it was too rigid. I was hoping for more development of the idea that there was value in girls being able to date whomever they choose (and maybe also seeing partners as something more meaningful than property). The ideas are in fact suggested, but it's a halfhearted effort and this book remains safely by the numbers.
Friday, April 26, 2019
At a party, Eden and Will almost kissed. A short time afterwards, he was dead. Will’s grieving mother, misunderstanding the seriousness of the relationship, confides to Eden that there is way for her to still be with Will – a service called “In Good Service” that provides an AI program that emulates Will’s mannerisms. Whenever she wants, Eden can call it and be with him again.
The idea seems weird, but Eden is going through a rough patch: her best friend Lacey no longer wants to hang out and is distancing herself, wrecking all the plans that they made together. Meanwhile, Eden has discovered that her mother is having an affair with her little sister’s skating instructor. With Lacey out of the picture, Eden finds herself confiding to Will over the phone. As she gets more involved and starts using the program more heavily, her behavior becomes obsessive. Eden has more and more trouble separating his miserable reality from this virtual fantasy.
A frankly creepy and disturbing premise that takes everyday smartphone obsession and kicks it up a notch. But beyond that element, the story is actually a nice exploration of finding the strength to be happy with yourself and expanding horizons. At the start, Eden can’t imagine making new friends (Lacey has always provided whatever she needs). Her growth towards opening up and exploring the world is richly rewarding and the true point of the story. Predictably, she will shake off her obsession and outgrow her need for this AI program, but that character growth is what makes up the story.
The eponymous damsel of this story has no memory of how she came to be rescued, simply that she was. Even her name (Ama) is supplied by the prince (she cannot recall one of her own). And when she asks for help in reconstructing her past, no one seems interested in helping her. The queen mother tells her to forget the path backwards and think only of the future (being a wife and a mother). That the only happiness lies in thinking forward.
In fact, the question makes the prince angry. Her role is the marry him and have a son. Nothing else matters. When she has the audacity to create a great work of art at the end of the story, he challenges her:
"You see, Ama, it is for men to create. It is for men to decide. It is for men to speak. It is your place to listen, and follow, and gestate. And those are no small things! For without women to listen, how would the men's words be heard? Without your fertile womb, how could my son hope to grow? You are important, Ama. Desperately important. But do not overreach."
The themes are quite mature. The language is harsh and frank. The prince routinely brutalizes his damsel physically and emotionally. In sum, this is not a children's book. But while danger is ever present in this world, it is not actually explicit and it serves a purpose: driving home the extreme stakes of Ama's search for self.
This is not a book for everyone but to me it seemed extraordinary. Beautifully written, it's easily the most powerful and memorable book I've read this year so far. Its a novel that will get you thinking not just about fairy tale stories, but about much broader issues of consent and acquiescence.
Friday, April 19, 2019
The investigation of what Harlowe's brother was up to is nowhere near as interesting as the setting. Russell's nightmarish Appalachian landscape is everything we hear about the rural poor and the devastation of the population by drugs. But the writing shies away from the stereotypes. The vivid characters are nuanced and perfectly illustrate how even intolerable conditions can seem normal when they are all you've ever known. Russell obviously has a bittersweet love for the people who endure this life. The result is a haunting and realistic depiction of the place.
While exploring a deserted house in a mining ghost town, Sonnet finds is transported back in time to 1895. In a similar fashion, Emma, the unloved older child of a mining baron finds herself swept up from 1895 and sent to the future. Sonnet and Emma, who physically resemble each other, have been swapped.
While the most immediate concern is how they will survive in each others’ timelines (and hopefully return to their own), Sonnet is faced with more present danger: Emma’s mother’s antipathy towards her child, which verges on the homicidal. Getting back home may be a matter of life and death for Sonnet, stuck in the grasp of this evil stepmother.
Time travel stories are almost always best taken with a grain of salt. While this one avoids most of the usual paradoxes that plague the genre, it bends and twists in a torturous way to explain itself. But the thing is that no one really cares how the two girls got where they are and/or how they will get back, they just want an adventure. But that doesn’t stop the author from trying to explain the mechanics of how the girls got swapped in ever more confusing half-explanations.
The story too is a mess with a mixture of the main thread about restoring the continuum and a confusing subplot about family jealousy. Various random characters are introduced and even developed, but then prove to play no consequential role in the story. The romance is also a bit odd involving the idea that Sonnet and Emma somehow share an emotional thread that draws them to the same boy (not that even that subplot matters much in the end). Way too many characters. Way too many dropped story ideas.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
These stories are historical fiction first with the characters' sexual orientation and/or gender identity largely secondary. Sometimes the stories are simply rewrites where the romantic characters are same sex, as in Robin Talley's "The Dresser & the Chambermaid" (set amidst the splendor of the Georgian royal court) or Dahlia Adler's "Molly's Lips" (where two girls find comfort in each other at Kurt Cobain's wake at the Seattle Center). For other stories it becomes more central to the story, as in Anne-Marie McLemore's story of a woman carrying herself as a man in the midst of Mexico's wars with France in the 19th century or Malinda Lo's stories of male impersonators in San Francisco in the 1950s. The latter story works particularly well as it's based largely on historical fact. The more fantastic ones, like Elliott Wake's "Every Shade of Red" (which imagines Robin Hood as a band of people with very muddied gender identities) come off a bit silly.
While the stories are generally strong and well-written, I have issues with the collection for the lack of consistent commitment to the concept. Some authors chose to highlight moments of gender queer history and seem devoted to the editor's call to shed "light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten." Others saw the assignment as a chance to reimagine a world that never existed through a homosexual lens. Still others just want to prove that a good story does not need straight characters.
The vast majority of the contributions are gay or lesbian fiction. There are a few transgender stories, but these are largely cross-dressing rather than true transexuality. Asexuality is touched upon, but not all that successfully. Bisexuality is largely missing (aside from a brief mention). So, while a broad array of historical periods and settings are present, the stories seem more focused on sexual orientation and are less representative of the variations in gender identity.
Friday, April 12, 2019
Elle is bright and used to getting good grades, but with her Mom in jail after a long descent into addiction and dealing, Elle’s life has become a hell of foster homes and abuse. Grades have slipped and she can feel her hopes and dreams slipping away. Only her friend Reg helps her keep it together.
Then, like a scene out of Little Orphan Annie, Elle’s absent father appears in her life. He’s a ridiculously wealthy Japanese businessman and he wants her to come live with him in Tokyo. Before she knows what is happening, she’s been whisked to Japan. She ends up living in a luxurious penthouse and attending a super exclusive International High School with a bunch of other privileged kids.
AS wonderful as this all seems, the new lifestyle doesn’t suit Elle well. Her father is largely absent, her aunt and grandmother in Tokyo despise her, the popular kids (while nice to her as long as she conforms) are mean to others in a way that makes Elle uncomfortable, and everyone is trying to convince her not to fall for the one guy who actually treats her decently. Elle desperately needs to figure out a way to make this “perfect” life work for her.
Rather more like a travel guide than a novel, Cohn delights in describing life in Tokyo. One suspects that she was there on vacation and wanted to create a book in which she could work in some of her crazier experiences. The story however doesn’t gel. Characters are introduced and developed, but largely drop out at the end. The story meanders. In the end, Cohn just quickly ties up all the major loose ends with the previously unreasonable adults all agreeing to be nice. Lots of fun scenes but the story needed work.
Saturday, April 06, 2019
The day finally arrived when Southern California’s taps went dry. The great “Tap-Out” they called it. After years of using up more water than they should, the supply was simply exhausted. Quickly, the social order starts to collapse and people have to improvise to survive. Five young people from diverse backgrounds and with different talents and skills embark on a desperate mission to survive.
The result is a gripping adventure. While fast-paced and action-filled, the story still has some space of vivid characters who undergo growth as they find their core values challenged by the descent into anarchy around them. The Shustermans have a great deal of fun imagining how fast civilization could collapse if there was nothing left to drink. The fact that they make it all sound so plausible is particularly chilling.
And in a story that could have easily become senselessly violent and exploitative, the book is thoughtful and relatively restrained. Still, this is an intense and traumatic story about what people go through when they are desperate and on the edge of death. Not for the faint of heart.
Fourteen years ago, I started this blog with a review of Speak – a book that, at the time, was already a best-seller and just starting to find its controversial inclusion (or exclusion) from high school reading lists. The novel was funny, intelligent, moving, and ultimately devastating. Long before there was #MeToo, there was Speak. When Anderson went out on tour, she found that there was a great number of readers who connected to the book, not so much because it was well-written (although that didn’t hurt!), but because it spoke to them. To them, Malinda's story was devastating because it was their own. And her struggle to regain her voice was an inspiration.
While the novel was inspirational for many, it was also easy to trivialize the book as just a piece of fiction. But what made the novel so meaningful was that it never was just a piece of fiction. It told a story that was real, even if the names and the specific circumstances were altered. Shout is thus a corrective of sorts, a companion that sets the story straight. Part memoir and part call to arms, Anderson is no longer spinning a tale. The first section of the book covers Anderson’s own life, including the incident that scarred her and the process of recovery she went through in its aftermath. Part two branches out into her professional career, discussing the writing of Speak and the response she received to it. A short final section closes the biography with stories of her family.
Written in verse, there are definitely stronger sections, pieces that are truly exceptional as standalone works and others that are more functional and simply move the story along. When she hits the mark (which is also usually when she is most angry) the pages simply burn. The story isn't particularly groundbreaking (certainly, if you’ve been even mildly conscious, you won’t be surprised by the horror of sexual violence’s prevalence) but it is still chilling to hear Anderson recount the blank stares and denial she encounters at her high school talks or the number of authority figures who have tried to silence her or deny the facts she presents. The issue I have with verse is that, while it carries the illusion of intimacy, it is also a way of distancing both the author and the reader from events. It allows the storytelling to fade out at awkward moments or skip over things that the author would prefer to not bring up. In the end, it is less revealing than prose.
Regardless, this intimate memoir is an essential companion to her earlier classic.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
There's a very subtle twist in the story that is not fully revealed until the end and might even then be missed by careless readers. Catching it makes the difference for this book, an otherwise unremarkable story of kids pushing boundaries. Overall, I enjoyed Emmie more than this one as the earlier book had more to say and was quite a bit funnier.