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!

Friday, February 01, 2019

Finding Yvonne, by Brandy Colbert

As Yvonne enters her last year of high school, she is losing her enchantment with playing violin.  Up to now, she’s assumed she would go to a conservatory.  But after her teacher drops her, it just doesn’t seem worth the trouble.  Then she meets a street musician named Omar who really believes in her and who inspires her with his own playing and with his casual bohemian lifestyle.

But this isn't the only option she has.  Accidentally, she discovers that she has some serious baking talent.  Her father (a professional chef) and his mentor think she should become a pastry chef.  The idea of following into the same sort of work as her Dad had never occurred to her, but it doesn't seem like a terrible option.

Career is not the only thing that Yvonne is struggling with.  Omar isn’t the only guy on her mind and her long-standing friendship with Warren, her father’s sous chef, is starting to heat up.  Juggling the two guys seems OK as long as they are just friends.  But Warren wants to take it to the next level and things with Omar have moved beyond friendship.  And then events intervene that force Yvonne to make some difficult choices.  

I was doing pretty well with this breezy but thoughtful exploration of a young woman’s struggle to discover herself.  There were a few melodramas (a missing mother, some baggage with Warren, etc.) but Yvonne is a great character who stands up for herself and makes all the right statements.  I imagined her coming up with a cool decision at the end that would resolve her dilemma.  But then Colbert throws in the aforementioned crisis out of the blue that amps the story and makes her character more symbolic (and subsequently less interesting).  The twist largely ditches the original story and opens the narrative up to a polemic that sidetracks her character.  The ending is not bad but so much of what the story was building up to is lost.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Outwalkers, by Fiona Shaw

In the near future, England and Wales are ruled by the Coalition – a totalitarian government that monitors its population with tracking chips implanted in the neck.  While the details are fuzzy, it was the double threat of terrorism and a virus allegedly originated in the countryside that drove people to accept the Coalition's rule.  An impenetrable wall now separates England and Scotland, ostensibly to keep the Scots out, but actually to keep the English in.  And in a twist of reality, the Channel is heavily patrolled to keep people from making illegal crossings to Calais.

Jake is an orphan, condemned to a Home Academy after his parents -- scientists working on a cure for the virus -- perish in a suspicious car accident.  Separated from his beloved dog, Jake executes a daring escape.  The story then becomes a non-stop adventure careening from one danger to another as Jake, his dog, and a gang of outcast children (“Outwalkers”) relentlessly head north in an attempt to cross the border.

The pace in this dystopian action adventure never lets up.  And while this is an ensemble piece with a variety of distinct and well-defined characters, we don’t spend much time on the human element.  For me, the non-stop action and lack of real character building was simply exhausting (and why I also don’t watch superhero movies either).  There are hints of romance and a certain amount of bonding between the characters, but the story is basically just a jumping back and forth through different crises.  The ideas, while colorful, are not terribly original and the story breaks little new ground.

[Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Review Copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th]

Monday, January 21, 2019

Beautiful Broken Hearts, by Kami Garcia

When Peyton discovers that her MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter boyfriend Reed is illegally taking steroids to give him an edge in the ring, she confronts him and delivers an ultimatum:  quit the drugs or she will break up with him.  Instead of choosing, he becomes enraged and throws her down the stairs.  The fall damages her knee and puts her own athletic career (as a soccer player) on hold.  But that is only the start of the nightmare as Reed starts stalking her.

Concerned for her daughter's safety, Peyton's Mom ships her off to live with her brother and two sons.  There, Peyton tries to heal (emotionally and physically) but the process is complicated by two things:  her uncle and a new boy.  The uncle was a compatriot of Peyton's father in Iraq and the lone survivor when their group was taken out in combat.  Seeing him reminds her too much of things she really doesn't want to think about.  The boy is Owen.  And while he is also an MMA fighter, he couldn't be any more different from Reed -- kind, gentle, and protective of Payton.  But even if he is a good guy, Peyton isn't sure she's ready to rekindle romance, even if her heart has other ideas.

Ugh.  Take pretty much any stereotype of YA romance and this novel has it.  And the fighting stuff really did nothing for me.  It's aggravated by a huge amount of stupid male posing going on (so over-the-top that even the characters in the book have to call it out).  The dead and absent parents don't help the story much either and probably contribute to the plethora of poor conflict resolution skills being demonstrated by the kids.   Still, I finished it and for one reason:  Peyton.  She's one of the stronger characters I have seen in a while.  An occasional poor decision here and there is more than made up for by her strong will and clear sense of values.  Her heart may lead her into Owen's arms, but she still knows it's not a great idea and she owns that.  To be able to stand up to all these violent men, she shows incredible bravery.  She fights her own fights to the end -- no damsel in distress moments here -- without relying on the men around her to resolve her problems.

We Regret To Inform You, by Ariel Kaplan

Mischa's mother has sacrificed everything to get her daughter into Blanchard Academy.  And Mischa has done what she could to honor that sacrifice -- good grades, AP classes, plenty of extracurriculars, and stellar test scores.  So she's pretty confident that she has a good shot at a good college.

When she starts getting rejects, she's surprised. At first, it's just early decisions at top schools, so she figures that the competition must have been stiff.  But when she is eventually turned down by every school to which she has applied (including her safeties), she is shocked.  Depressed and afraid to confess to her mother what has happened, she instead endures her mother's ecstatic preparations for the college odyssey which will never happen.  But the mystery of why she got turned down remains and deepens as Mischa and her friends discover that there's been foul play.

An interesting mystery that plays on the omnipresent threat of college rejections.  The actual story is entirely too drawn out for me (so many plot developments that could have been resolved with ease and alacrity).  And Mischa, while she grows in the story, didn't grow enough for my tastes.  In sum, a promising idea, but not delivered well.

Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Ten year-old Livy and her mother visit Livy's grandmother in Australia.  They haven't been there in five years and Livy doesn't recall much of the place -- just vague recollections and random images.  But when they arrive, she starts to remember things -- not in the way one does when one has been away but as if she has always known certain things.  The weirdness takes a step up when she finds a small creature in her closet named "Bob." Bob has been sitting in the closet for these past five years for Livy's return (because her last words to him were to stay there).  He's passed the time dissembling and reassembling a Lego pirate ship and wondering where Livy went.  Livy meanwhile had forgotten him altogether.

Bob has a number of extraordinary powers.  No one except Livy seems to be able to see Bob. The two of them can go outside with Bob wearing a ridiculous disguise which five year-old Livy made for him that makes Bob look like a chicken. And, after the five year interval, the two of them reestablish their connection.  But while five year-old Livy accepted her friend as-is, ten year-old Livy wonders why Bob is here?  And where did Bob come from?  That search takes them on an adventure for ramifications much greater than childhood friendship.

Told in alternating viewpoints between Livy and Bob, this is a sweet middle-grade adventure.  Sort of an outback ET, there is a really big moral lodged at the end, but the story itself is a fun adventure that is a joyful read.  Quirky illustrations liven the text throughout.

The Last Best Story, by Maggie Lehrman

Rose is the star reporter for the school paper and Grant is the equally dedicated editor-in-chief.  While they've never dated, they have nonetheless been inseparable through the years.  Rose kept hoping for something to happen but Grant was so obsessed with the paper that he couldn't see the romantic potential in front of him.  Frustrated with that, she quit the paper (despite his dogged attempts to get her to stay on).  The romance seems lost.

Then, at their senior prom, an active shooter alert and subsequent school lock-down brings them back into each others' orbits.  Unable to fight the appeal of getting an inside scoop, they team up to cover the story as it unfolds.  In the process, they find each other.

A fast-paced romance and mystery combined together. As an avid fan of Gilmore Girls I couldn't quite rid my brain of the image of Paris and Doyle as the inspiration for the two protagonists here (it actually works pretty well in this case!) which gave the book some appeal.  But as the rather crazy plot would suggest, this story is all over then place.  It manages to get the various threads tied up by the end, but it's a confusing ride.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Soul Struck, by Natasha Sinel

Rachel’s mother believes that she developed the talent to be able to see a person’s “soul mate” after she was struck by lightning.  The experience also prompted her to found a support group for lightning strike survivors.

Rachel, jealous of how much attention her mother lavishes on her group, has grown obsessed with getting struck by lightning too.  It seems like the only way for Rachel to get noticed by Mom.  Rachel would also like to know more about her father (who Mom alleges was her soul mate) but Mom has always refused to go into much detail.

While clearing out the junk in their garage one day, Rachel discovers an old box which contains clues about the past.  And when Rachel starts snooping through it, she discovers that her mother’s rosy-colored recollections are not even true.

A character-rich story in a picturesque setting (Cape Cod) with just a small touch of magic and lot of complicated relationships.  Just about every character in the story is complex enough to relate to the others in different ways.  Being set in a small town, it makes sense that everyone knows everyone and their histories are partly shared and partly unique. There’s also a certain fluidity as friendships wax and wane throughout the novel. It’s a rich enough story that a re-reading might be justified.  For me that would be too much work, but I admired the writer's effort in creating something so sophisticated.

Tradition, by Brendan Kiely

Jamie Baxter is the type of kid who doesn’t get second chances and after a near-fatal incident on the football gridiron, his career prospects seem bleak.  But his coach manages to pull in some favors and slips him into the elite Fullbrook Academy on a full scholarship to play hockey.

Jules is much more at home at a rich person's prep school like Fullbrook, but after three years the place doesn’t seem so gleaming and pristine anymore. She's disgusted by the way that boys get to be boys and the girls are mostly added on as an afterthought.  Dozens of the school's traditions are, as one character puts it, in place to “benefit the boys and not the girls” and she wants to fight back.

For Jamie, the recent arrival, it is a surprise to see what privilege is associated with these wealthy kids, but it is the sexism of the students and the staff that eventually push him over the edge.  And Jules’s little rebellions eventually escalate to one grand gesture to take a stand against tradition.

There’s not much subtlety in this grueling account of white male privilege and twisted notions of consent.  While the general ideas made me think hard about my own experience in private schooling, the ideas are handled here with a sledgehammer.  That makes for entertainment (if the subject of sexual assault and objectification can be considered light reading) but it doesn’t lead to much reflection on the subject matter.  That will probably be left for anyone who wants to discuss the book afterwards but there isn't much gray area here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Other F-Word, by Natasha Friend

Milo is violently allergic to a wide variety of food and he'd like to understand why.  The doctor thinks it's genetic, but his Mom doesn't have the mutation.  That leaves his Dad which is a bit of a challenge, because Milo has two mothers and his Y chromosome came from a sperm donor.  The good news is that the donor indicated on his profile that he was willing to be contacted. Now, Milo just needs to work up the courage to reach out.

Milo already knows a half-sister (through the same donor), Hollis, who he met when they were kids, but they didn't stay in touch and reconnecting is awkward.  Still, it seems easier to have an ally before contacting their father.  Hollis has her own issues and is reluctant to join Milo's quest.  But he wins her over and as they start the process they discover that there are more half siblings out there.  The four teens, while struggling with their feelings about their shared father, find bonds between them.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking story about family ties in non-traditional families and the emotional stresses associated with IVF.  Friend doesn't take any of this very far (just lightly touching on the stresses between parents or the tendency for children conceived through donors to be more prone to delinquency and emotional conditions), but she does work it in.  The far more important story about how a group of four young people who have grown up separately find a bond based solely on an absent member of their "family" both confirms the power of a genetics and simultaneously subverts it by showing the stronger connection through common adversity.  In the end, the sperm donor becomes inconsequential to their experience and to the story.