Friday, May 24, 2019

Secrets of a Fangirl, by Erin Dionne

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.]

Spindrift and the Orchid, by Emma Trevayne

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

Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

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]

The Truth About Leaving, by Natalie Blitt

With her mother working in California this year, Lucy and her father have their hands full taking care of her little brothers back in Chicago.  It's her senior year and Lucy needs to make plans for her future.  It's always been assumed that she would go to Northwestern, but now she isn't sure.  Having her boyfriend dump her before the start of the year had made her her realize the pitfalls of always trying to please others (as well as making her initially swear off boys for a while).

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

Dream Within a Dream, by Patricia MacLachlan

Louisa and her little brother Theo get dropped off on a remote island to stay with their grandparents while Mom and Dad go off on a birdwatching tour.  Twelve year-old Louisa doesn't like change, but it seems that the summer will be full of them.  Her grandfather is losing his vision and has to adjust to the growing list of things he can no longer do.  Her brother will fall in love with the island and want to stay.  And Louisa will meet George who will be her friend and teach her words in Swahili.

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

Come Find Me, by Megan Miranda

A year ago, Kennedy saw her brother Elliott fleeing their house.  Inside, her mother and her boyfriend were dead.  The evidence against him was overwhelming:  gunpowder residue on his body, his fingerprints on the gun, the lack of an alibi, and Kennedy's witness statement; but something doesn't feel right and Kennedy can't get her testimony straight.  The trial is coming up soon.

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

On a Scale of One to Ten, by Ceylan Scott

Fictional, but based heavily on the author's own experience being institutionalized at the age of sixteen, this novel traces Tamar's arrival in a residential mental health facility for adolescents and the days spent. It's a story that's been done before plenty of times, but this book stands out for its immediacy -- the author started writing it shortly after being discharged.

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.]

Even If I Fall, by Abigail Johnson

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

Picture Us in the Light, by Kelly Loy Gilbert

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.

Sadie, by Courtney Summers

Shortly after her younger sister Mattie is murdered, Sadie skips out of town.  She's looking for a man, one of the ex-boyfriends of her mother. And she intends to hurt him.

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

The Me I Meant to Be, by Sophie Jordan

After Flor and Zach broke up, Flor's friend Willa took it on herself to make sure that the Girl Code was upheld, warning their friends not to date Zach in deference to Flor.  But when finds Willa herself in Zach's arms at a party, she's forced to question her own loyalties.  How will she ever explain what happened to Flor?  As usually happens in these sorts of novels, she doesn't run off to Flor and confess.  Instead, she procrastinates and waits until it is too late.

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

No One Here Is Lonely, by Sarah Everett

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.

Damsel, by Elana K. Arnold

Everyone knows that the prince must find and slay the dragon and rescue the damsel.  Everyone knows that then the prince will become the king and the damsel his queen.  She will have a child and the cycle will repeat.  This is the way things are and how they will always be.  It works out well for the prince, but what of the dragon?  What of the damsel?  Does anyone ever ask the damsel what she wants?  Does anyone even care?

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 novel is deeply disturbing: a very dark fairy tale that asks probing questions about the dragon quest archetype.  But this is much more than some fractured fairy tale. Arnold is exploring the intersect of consent and agency, often in very surprising ways.  As we settle down to domesticity, what are the costs to our selves?  One subplot involves Ama's attempt to domesticate a baby lynx.  Needless to say, it ends badly, but not before illustrating the damage being done to Ama herself.

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

A Sky for Us Alone, by Kristin Russell

Strickland County is a poisonous place, whether it's the soil damaged by mining and chemicals or the spread of opioids among the population.  For Harlowe Compton, growing up in the midst of it all, his older brother was the shining star and guide out of this place.  So when the brother ends up dead, dumped in front of their house by Tommy Prater, Harlowe wants answers.  But this isn't exactly a safe place to go digging.  The Praters own the County (including the law enforcement) and people who cross the family tend to end up dead.  To no one's great surprise, the answer lies in the drug trade and Harlowe must come to terms with the fact that his idolized brother was messed up in it.

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.

But Not Forever, by Jan Von Schleh

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

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages, ed by Saundra Mitchell

Seventeen historical short stories that share in common the idea that the protagonists are gender queer.  It's a concept that could have easily gone off the rails with authors determined to grind an ax, but that is not the case here. 

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

My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life, by Rachel Cohn

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

Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

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.

Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson

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

Positively Izzy, by Terri Libenson

Another graphic novel from Libenson, the creator of Invisible Emmie (reviewed back in December).  This one traces two girls in middle school who are having problems with self-identity.  Izzy is creative, with a flair for the dramatic, and excels on the stage.  Her issue is that she has trouble focusing on her schoolwork and chores.  Briana couldn't be any more different:  she's smart and hardworking, but tired of having nothing special to make her stand out.  When her mother (the school's drama teacher) asks her to substitute for one of kids who's gotten sick, she's terrified to be on the stage, but it might be the opportunity she's been waiting for.

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.

Friday, March 29, 2019

After the Fire, by Will Hill

After living nearly her whole life inside the compound of the Lord’s Legion and believing with all of her heart that Pastor John was the divine messenger of God, seventeen year-old Moonbeam must find a way to cope with her return to the outside world.  The compound has burned to the ground and everyone she knows (with the exception of a handful of other children) are now dead.  Held in a rehabilitation facility with the other survivors she struggles to understand what happened to her and explain it to her therapist and to an investigator.  A harrowing tale of abuse, torture, and suffering pours out of her.

Obviously inspired by David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult, Hill touches on many of the key features of that group and their fate.  And despite his protestations to the contrary, there is a slightly exploitative feel to the story.  Hill never gets explicit but he doesn’t shy from suggesting all manner of horrific and traumatizing events.  For what actual aim?  A non-fiction account would have provided a similar picture of the combustible combination of madness, messianism, and the gullible nature of lost souls seeking truth.  What is the point of fictionalizing it?

Troublemakers, by Catherine Barter

Alena’s mother died when she was three years old and she’s been raised by her brother ever since.  He doesn’t talk much about it, nor does his partner (who isn’t otherwise so reticent).  Now fifteen, Alena is curious and wonders what the secret is.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more angry her brother gets.  It’s only when she accidentally discovers her mother’s history as a political activist and digs up one of her old friends, that the secrets start to be revealed.

Interspersed with this main story is a subplot about an anonymous bomber who is targeting supermarkets in the area and another one about violence against gay men (and a local coffee shop) in the neighborhood.  An opportunistic racist politician also plays a role.The subplots are all ways of illustrating the costs of radical politics in various different guises.  They hang loosely – either too obvious or too obscure – to really tie into the story.  This leaves them with a feeling of just being filler.

The novel has interesting ideas, but Barter’s delivery is awkward:  there’s an unforgivable repetitiveness in the interactions between Alena and her guardians that goes like this: they hide things from her, she gets suspicious and acts on her own, and then gets in trouble for the ramifications of her actions.  It takes a surprisingly long time for everyone to come clean and choose openness as a best policy.  And it's awfully tiring to hear the same lame excuse about the adults worrying that Alena is too young to handle the truth.  The evolution and growth of the characters is rough, uneven, and largely unnecessary.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Because of the Rabbit, by Cynthia Lord

Up until fifth grade, Emma has been home-schooled, but now she is going to start attending public school.  She is conflicted between fear and excitement by the prospect.  Her fear is mitigated on the night before the first day by a new addition to their household – a stray rabbit that she has rescued.

Public school is a hard transition for her.  It’s hard to make friends when everyone knows everyone else.  She finds herself alone with Jack, an autistic boy with an obsession with animals.  He’s nice, but Emma worries that being friends with him will drive others away.  She doesn’t want to lose out on making other friends just because of Jack.

A nice compact story about rabbits, friendships, and taking risks.  It’s not a terribly eventful story, but it is packed full of rabbit facts (which animal-loving readers will enjoy) and it has a nice unobtrusive introduction to the autism spectrum.  Nothing too strongly in your face, but enough to make the reader curious about what makes Jack the way he is.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 26th.]

Focused, by Alyson Gerber

Clea gets easily distracted but she’s always been able to cope and get her work done up to now.  But in seventh grade the work has gotten more difficult and her systems for coping can no longer keep up.  She’s not finishing her assignments and she’s failing tests.  Her parents are worried, but Clea figures that she just needs to double down – work harder and stop being so dumb.  If she doesn’t figure things out, she risks getting kicked off the chess team – the one thing at which she’s actually good.

A counselor at school suggests to Clea’s parents that she should get tested for ADHD.  That seems unlikely to Clea since she’s not hyperactive like those kids usually are, but her parents insist.  When it is found out that she does have ADHD, she is shocked but slowly comes to welcome outside help.  But even with medication and special accommodations, she finds it is still going to be hard work to overcome her condition.

A dense middle grade reader about ADHD and what it is like to cope with it.   I don’t generally like books that are basically non-fiction cloaked in a story.  They seem too preachy to me and more work than fun.  The characters just sound like they are taken off the pages of an encyclopedia with long speeches full of facts that are unlikely to roll off the tongue.  Clea's character does get to hang with friends, have a romantic crush, and deal with a fairly ineffectual bully, but it’s thin framework upon which to drape the factual information that Gerber really wants to talk about.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 26th.]

In Some Other Life, by Jessica Brody

Kennedy always wondered what her life would have been like if she had gone to Windsor Academy instead of public school.  As far as anyone else knows, she didn't exactly have a choice in the matter:  her application was turned down.  The truth though was actually more complicated:  she chose to not go so she could stay with her new boyfriend Austin.  Three years later, she is on the verge of getting accepted at Columbia, winning an award for the school newspaper, and happily still together with Austin.  Maybe she didn't need Windsor to be happy and successful after all?

But then it all goes wrong.  She finds out Austin is cheating on her  with her BFF and she blows the interview with Columbia.  Realizing that she made a terrible mistake with her life, she turns back to Windsor in desperation, begging them to take her in.  While at the school, a freak accident finds Kennedy transplanted into an alternate reality where her dream has come true -- a world where she chose Windsor instead of the boy three years ago.  A world, she comes to realize, that is no more closer to perfection than the one she came from.  And one where the costs are much greater than she expected.

The story could be passed off as trivial, but proves surprisingly deep in its exploration of the cost of dreams.  The alternate worlds idea is pursued more as a literary device than some sort of sci-fi fantasy concept -- a chance to illustrate that every choice has consequences and that there is rarely a right decision.  Add excellent writing with strong characters and you get a truly enjoyable read.  I raced through this book, reluctant to put it down.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

Felicity Montague has been waging a helpless fight against the stodgy physicians of Edinburgh, trying to convince them to let her study medicine.  But attitudes in the 18th century are calcified around the idea that a woman has no place in a surgery and no one is willing to let her study.  Her last hope would seem to be to entice an eccentric doctor named Alexander Platt to take her under his wing.  But to do so, she must travel to Germany, where he is about to be married -- coincidentally, to her nemesis (and former BFF) Johanna.  When Johanna goes missing from her own wedding, the adventure broadens and soon Felicity is stealing old drawings, hanging with pirates, and seeking out sea dragons -- all in the name of her prospective medical career.

A rollicking good time that plays fast and free with history and inserts an irreverent modern sensibility into its setting. The tone is generally light and, while danger is nearby, none of it can be taken too seriously. Felicity and Johanna are resourceful heroines with a strong sense of purpose.  If they speak and think more like 21st century young women, they are still rooted enough in their historical setting to at least add plausibility to their story (a point that the author valiantly stakes out, albeit missing the point that her characters still behave in an anachronistic fashion!).  I treat it as a fantasy based loosely around historical events.  It won't teach you much that is useful about the period or place, but you'll have an enjoyable time nonetheless!

Me and Me, by Alice Kuipers

Lark and her boyfriend Alec are canoeing on the lake when they hear a little girl crying for help.  They both jump into the water to save her but Alec hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious and starts to drown. Now there are two people who need saving and there doesn't seem to be enough time to save both of them.  Lark makes a decision that will change her life.

But does she?  One Lark chooses to rescue Alec and an alternate Lark chooses the little girl.  Both decisions have consequences, but the aftermath is not that simple.  In the weeks after the accident, she starts receiving strange messages on her phone – messages that seem to be coming from a parallel world.  A rift between these alternate realities needs to be repaired for things to be made right.

An interesting idea for a story but I couldn’t get into the execution.  Kuipers’s strength is dialogue and she sticks mostly to it, not bothering with much narration.  That makes for a jumpy story that can be exhausting to track.  Add in the odd tracking of parallel stories that are based on subtle differences and similarities.  It’s a lot of work and the conclusion is particularly enigmatic – a challenge that I couldn’t bring myself to care about.  A fun idea but a difficult read.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Broken Things, by Lauren Oliver

It was the crime of the century in Twin Lakes, Vermont.  A girl named Summer is brutally killed in the woods.  When news that the killing eerily resembles a ritual killing described in a fan fic sequel to the fantasy novel The Way into Lovelorn which Summer and her friends Brynn and Mia were writing, suspicion falls on the survivors. Brynn and Mia were eventually cleared, but the real killer was never found. 

Now on the anniversary of the death, Brynn and Mia stumble on new evidence that leads them to investigate the case on their own.  Doing so, they relive the days leading up to the death of their friend and uncover uncomfortable truths that they have buried about their friendship with the victim.  Alternately narrated by Brynn and Mia and in both the present and flashbacks to the past, the unfolding story tells of friendships, jealousies, and secrets long buried.

At times creepy (with a pretty traumatic ending), this is a classic mystery embroidered with the subplot of the girls' overactive imaginations.  The idea of team writing a fan fic that becomes the blueprint for murder is intriguing but I'm not entirely sure where Oliver wanted to take it.  Obviously, showing the whole thing as an obsession would have helped but in comparison with real obsessive compulsive behavior (like, for example Mia's hoarding mother), the storywriting never really comes off that way.  The idea seems unfinished and incomplete.  So, I was left not really feeling the inevitability of the story's ending. And the pull that the victim Summer had over her friends, while mentioned repeatedly, is never sufficiently illustrated.  For a psychological thriller that's pretty critical motive to build!

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Moxie, by Jennifer Mathieu

In East Rockport, TX, school is hell.  And if you're not a football player (and especially if you're a girl), it's far far worse.  The school is full of lovely "traditions" that exalt sexism.  A blind eye from the administration ensures that the hostile environment is allowed to persist.  But rather than tolerate this, quiet Vivian decides to fight back.  Inspired by her own mother's rebellious past, Vivian channels the Riot Grrrl subculture of the 1990s and produces a series of underground zines calling out the injustices present at the school.  She keeps her involvement a secret and is surprised when other girls join in and take her initiative much further than she could expect and it becomes a movement.

A well-paced novel that tells a great story of teens standing up for what they believe in and also tackles a number of important issues about race and class (as well as sexism) along the way.  The villains are a bit thin and the resolution done in flashback, all of which makes the ending a let-down, but the story along the way is fun.  The zines themselves (reproduced in full) are a great addition to the story and I'm glad they were included in the book.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Always Never Yours, by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

Megan Harper seems to have an uncanny ability for finding the perfect guy and losing him to someone else.  She's always the girlfriend right before the perfect couple met.  And while it's great to see your friends so happy, just once she wishes it was her in the perfect relationship!

Otherwise, Megan is content to be a behind-the-scenes gal.  She's made a name for herself directing for the school's drama group, but if she's going to attend drama school after she graduates this year, she has to do some acting as well.  So, grudgingly, she tries out for the school's production of Romeo and Juliet.  To her surprise and mortification, she is cast in the lead role.

That brings up some headaches as one of her ex-'s has been cast opposite her.  Soon enough it's hard to differentiate between the drama on the stage and what is going on backstage.  One thing is certain: Megan's romantic life is a mess and not for lack of trying.  Megan is fearless and not afraid to go after what she wants.  Now, if only she could figure out what that was!  And while the story is set against the tale of star-crossed teen lovers, the plot reminds one much more of Much Ado About Nothing.

I'm not entirely convinced that the world needs another YA romance that takes place during a production of Romeo and Juliet.  I get that young readers are more likely to have read it than any other of the Bard's works, but it's such an overused device at this point.  That said, this is a charming tale mostly because of its very unfussy look at romance and sex (yes, there's a fair bit of that in this book).  In the past, a character like Megan's would have been slutshamed (or at least her sexual history would have been the story), but here that potential plot line is quickly tossed aside.  Megan herself is having none of that.  She's loved well and no one is going to make her feel bad about it!  Being sex-positive in adolescence might be wishful thinking, but the only way to create that view of the world is to start writing it and the literary duo behind this novel mean to try.

With sex unimportant in this story, more tried-and-true themes of friendship and loyalty stand out front and center.  As for plot, Megan's growth from wallflower to assertive, proud, and brave young woman provides a very satisfying dramatic arc.  The result is a step up from simple light romance reading, but with nothing too heavy to weigh you down.  This is pop with substance.

Friday, March 01, 2019

This Heart of Mine, by C C Hunter

Leah has been carrying around her heart -- an artificial pump -- in a backpack while she waits to find a donor.  In a strange twist of fate, when a donor is found it turns out to be a boy who went to the same school as she does.  It's a discovery first made by the donor's twin brother Matt.

Matt is obsessed with finding his brother's killer.  The problem is that everyone -- the police included -- think that his brother killed himself and the case has been closed.  But following his intuition and a recurring dream Matt has of his brother being pursued by an unknown person. To their mutual shock when they discover it, Leah has been having the same dreams as well!  Matt is convinced that Eric is communicating with them (through a psychic bond between twins in his case and through his donated organ to Leah).

The story gets more complicated as romantic sparks fly between Leah and Matt -- a romance made strange by the fact that Leah has Matt's brother's heart inside her.  The couple mostly hides all of these things -- the identity of Leah's heart's donor, the shared dreams, and their search for the real killer -- from those around them.

It's a cute idea, but a bit thin for such a long novel. The idea that you can feel someone else inside you by having a transplant makes for a nice short story but at this length you have to take it literally and that stretches credulity.  By the end, Hunter herself has tired of the story and starts doing a literary fast-forward, giving us brief synopses of the passing days as if she can't wait to be done, which further reinforces the impression of a book that is far too long for its story.

Unbroken, ed by Marieke Nijkamp

An anthology of short stories about young people with disabilities, which features a wide variety of approaches to the topic.  Some of the stories are historical, some contemporary, and some outright fantasy.  As a rule, they don't really talk about what disability the character has, and in most of the stories you can't actually tell.  Rather, the focus is on how having any disability affects your personality.

As in any collection like this, some of the stories are better than others.  I particularly liked Heidi Heilig's "The Long Road"(a historical piece about a girl traveling the Silk Road to Persia in search for a cure for her unidentified malady) and Karuna Riazi's "Plus One" (set in Mecca during the haij). Both of these chose unusual settings to tell a beautifully contained and simple story.   Far more exotic was Corinne Duyvis's "A Curse, A Kindness" which explored the interesting idea of being subjected to a curse that forces you to grant people wishes.  I have no idea what that truly had to do with disability, but it was a memorable story.

And that would be my criticism with most of the stories (and the collection overall):  stories that seemed to have so little to do with the theme.  Worse, many of them have nothing to do with anything or are written in such an opaque style that you can't figure out what they are about.  Writing, in other words, that is too clever for its own good and sacrifices story for something obscure.  Those seemed wasted opportunities for what was a great premise for an anthology.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Last of Her Name, by Jessica Khoury

Stacia and her best friend Clio, along with their friend Pol, have been inseparable on their quiet agricultural planet on the far reaches of the Union.  Stacia dreams of excitement and seeing the kinds of spaceships she’s only ever seen on holo displays.  So, when an elite astronika spaceship appears in the sky and lands nearby, Stacia is excited.  That is, until troops round up everyone.  

Something big is happening in this quiet corner of the galaxy, a fact which is reinforced when the Direktor Eminent Alexei Volkov -- ruler of the Union -- himself appears.  He announces that Princess Anya Leonova, the youngest member of the royal family, all of whom were allegedly killed sixteen years ago, is in fact still alive and living here on Stacia’s planet.  Volkov wants her found and starts a violent campaign to rout her out.  Along with the others, Stacia wonders who she is.  She is shocked when she herself is accused of being the lost princess.

Soon enough she is fleeing for her life, finding friends along the way to help her survive from one crisis to another.  There are loyalists still trying to support the Leonov line and Volkov and his Union baddies trying to capture her.  Both sides are convinced that Stacia/Anya holds the key to finding the Firebird (an instrument which could grant the holder the ability to control the universe).  Both sides are ruthless in their search for it and for her.  A high body count and lots of near-death experiences ensue in this fast-paced but lengthy sci-fi adventure.

Khoury has fun using a lot of Russian-sounding names and Russ-lish words in the story.  It’s a cute motif, but more than a bit distracting when you speak the language and happen to be an expert on Russian names.  It's obvious that she’s chosen random words and tossed them in.  That’s a wasted opportunity as using words with meanings would have added a nice layer of complexity.  But I will acknowledge that I’m uniquely sensitive to that flaw.

I liked Stacia as a character and her major sidekicks (Pol, Ryan, and Mara) have useful supporting roles.  Everyone has a unique contribution to make.  But this is an action story and characters are mostly disposable (most of them are not only killed off, but several are actually killed off twice!). Nothing drags more than when Khoury fans the romantic flames and tries to heat up things between Stacia and Pol.  Such quiet moments are mostly a distraction in a story that rarely slows down for much else.  Some nice attempts at the end to point out that love triumphs over hate in the long run are hastily added, but really life is too cheap in this story for that message to mean much.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC for this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th]

Pretend She's Here, by Luanne Rice

Ever since her best friend Lizzie died from cancer, Emily’s felt a distinct pain she’s felt unable to explain to others.  Except perhaps for Lizzie’s mother, who seems as bereft as Emily.  There were times when she really wanted to tell Lizzie’s Mom how much Lizzie meant to her, but after the funeral, Lizzie's family moved away. So, when Lizzie’s family (Mom, Dad, and little sister Chloe) come to town to pay respects at the grave, Emily is only too happy to accompany them to the cemetery.  But then, to her surprise, they kidnap her.

Imprisoned in a basement room which has been mocked up to look exactly like their late daughter’s old bedroom, the family forces Emily to change her appearance, to dress like their late daughter, and to participate in a charade of pretending to be Lizzie.  Threatening to hurt her and her mother if she doesn’t cooperate, Emily fights to maintain her sanity.

A brisk and generally satisfying psychological thriller that struggles with the plausibility (or lack thereof) of its premise.  Rice spends so much time trying to explain how any of this could happen that the story sometimes suffers.  The scenes with Lizzie’s Mom are sufficiently creepy but go off the rails as her character does as well.  The attempt to explain how Emily could end up being so cooperative mostly falls flat.  The culprit in both cases is the length of the story.  The longer it runs, the harder the coherency is to hold together.  A lengthy postscript “Part Two” doesn’t add enough to justify its inclusion and does the story no favors.

Rice does best at her characters’ interactions, whether it is Emily and Chloe, Emily and her boyfriend Casey, or Emily and Lizzie (in flashbacks).  This has been her strength in her other novels as well, so again I'm back to being hung up on the story itself.  As compelling as this premise was, the strain of keeping it together really drained the writing of its strengths.

(Disclaimer:  I received an ARC for this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th]

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Mike, by Andrew Norriss

Floyd is an up and coming tennis star on the youth circuit.  But he's haunted by a boy named Mike that only he can see.  Mike is more than a casual hallucination to Floyd.  He's starting to literally interfere with Floyd's ability to play.  And when a sports psychologist suggests that Mike might be trying to tell Floyd something, Floyd gives in and starts to listen.  The message he hears will utterly change Floyd's life.

For a story largely about how the subconscious influences people, Norriss's storytelling is surprisingly free of emotions or feelings.  It's a decent adventure, but largely told in a passive voice that sounds stiff and cold.  Even the romance is told with clinical precision, as just something that happens.  As for drama, suspense is largely lacking.  In the end, it felt like I was reading a biographical entry in an encyclopedia.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th.]

Friday, February 15, 2019

The War Outside, by Monica Hesse

A historical novel is most satisfying when it either addresses some familiar event in a new way or finds an event that is largely unknown and brings it to life.  This novel falls into the latter category.  While the internment camps that West Coast Japanese were sent to during WWII are pretty well publicized, the camps for enemy aliens are less well known.  And the idea that a camp existed in Texas where both Japanese and Germans were imprisoned (with their families) for crimes that were never proven in court is an eye-opener!

Haruko doesn't understand why her father was arrested.  He refuses to even discuss the matter with her.  But when he is sent to the Crystal City camp in Texas, her family decides to follow him.

On their arrival, she notices Margot, a German-American girl who has already been in the camp for months.  Her father's "crime" (attending a Nazi meeting as a favor for a friend) is better understood, but she faces different problems.  Margot's mother is having a difficult pregnancy amidst primitive medical facilities.  And her father struggles with boredom and the temptation to join with the camp's Nazi sympathizers to pass idle time -- an idea that horrifies Margot and her mother.  In the midst of this madness, Haruku and Margot form a friendship that attempts to reach across the racism and prejudice of the time.  But in the end, they fall victim to a tragic series of events.

This moving (and horrific story) combines strong characters and extraordinary circumstances to create a real page-turner.  The ending is haunting and unforgettable and it is a truly astounding work.  Historical notes at the end discuss which parts of the story are fictional and which are based on facts.  A surprising amount of the story falls into the latter category.

The Last to Let Go, by Amber Smith

When Brooke sees police cars outside their home, she’s convinced that her abusive father has finally killed Mom.  Violence has become so routine in their house, that it wouldn't come as a surprise.  She is shocked to find that instead it is her mother who has killed her dad.  Not that the aftermath is much different.  Her mother is locked up and the kids have to muddle through without either parent as the case goes to trial.  Brooke, as the middle child, takes the brunt of the worry and care for keeping the remains of the family together.

This was supposed to be a special year for Brooke – starting at a new school and taking a slew of advanced classes -- but as her family falls apart, all of these things seem unimportant.  Tangled up in this mess is the way that her feelings for a new supportive friend may (or may not) be sexual and dealing with that awareness seems too much to take on top of everything else.

In many ways, Brooke is the type of character I hate – self-pitying, lying, and too proud to accept help – but for reasons I can’t fully articulate, I cared about her enough to want to read her story.  Some of that is due to the extraordinary circumstances of the story itself.  But I think there is an element of grit to her that I respected.  And maybe also a desire to see her triumph in the end. I was thus disappointed when the story neatly resolves without dwelling on steps involved in reaching that resolution.  It was an awful lot of build up for a wave-of-the-hand solution!  

Friday, February 08, 2019

Drum Roll, Please, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Melly gets called "mouse" by her friends and family because she is usually so shy and quiet.  But put her behind a drum set, and she can become quite loud.  Her best friend Olivia talks her into going with her to rock band camp during the summer.

It starts off inauspiciously as Melly's parents, on the night before camp starts, announce that they have decided to get a divorce.  Things grow steadily worse as she and Olivia are separated at camp and Melly ends up assigned to a wildly incompatible group to play with.  Worst of all, Olivia has fallen for a guy in her group and doesn't have time to spend together anymore, just as Melly needs her friend most!

Alone and lonely, Melly learns to make new friends and makes a few self-discoveries along the way.  With the help of a band mate, the independent Adeline, Melly makes tentative steps towards standing up for herself and working out how to be both a good friend and good to herself.  In the end, she also builds a better understanding of how to deal with her parents and changing family.

A pleasant and fulfilling middle reader that addresses a variety of interpersonal relationship issues in a realistic fashion.  This includes not only friendship and family, but also Melly's nascent sexual orientation -- a subject that it handles sensitively and age-appropriately.  Placed by Bigelow within the context of how feelings between even boys and girls are so undeveloped at this point, Melly and Adeline's exploration of their feelings for each other feels similarly tentative. These are kids for whom holding hands and kissing are still wondrous (and scary). Bigelow captures that innocence respectfully.

The Opposite of Innocent, by Sonya Sones

When Lily was a little girl, she announced to her father’s best friend Luke that she wanted to marry him.  Luke promised her that he would wait for her and everyone had a good laugh.  Years later, Luke comes back for an extended stay with her family.  Now a teen, Lily finds that she likes him, obsessively in fact.  And when he reciprocates her affection, she’s thrilled.  But the fifteen-year gap in their ages is only the beginning of their troubles.  Lily quickly finds that Luke’s interest in her is not the sweet romantic fantasy she has in mind, but something darker.  And when she attempts to break it off, he threatens and coerces her.

While novels in verse are more frequently misses than hits, Sones is an outlier in the genre, producing really powerful novels that combine strong verse and vibrant topics.  As the genre is prone to, she can be melodramatic (and more so with a topic like this where the “ick” factor is quite high).  But the novel is blessed by well-written verses (several of which could easily have stood on their own).

The story is not in itself original, but I liked the characters and appreciated the major role she gave to Lily’s friends (who could have easily been throwaway roles).  The plot is dragged out a bit by making Lily particularly resistant to seeking out the help she is offered early on – a decision that Sones herself feels compelled to criticize in the book’s afterward.  I so wish that authors would find a better way to meet their contractual length requirements than having their protagonists make bad decisions!