Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Rest of the Story, by Sarah Dessen

After her father’s wedding, while Dad and his new wife are honeymooning in Greece, the plan was for Emma to stay at her friend’s house.  And when that plan falls through, the only option that they can come up with is to send Emma to stay with her maternal grandmother in North Lake.

Emma has only ever been to North Lake once (when she was four) and has no memory of the visit.  But before her mother died, Emma used to love to hear stories of the Lake, even if the stories always seemed a bit fantastic and surreal.

Once there, Emma discovers that while she has no memory of the place, she has an eclectic family and old friends that do.  They even call her by her middle name ("Saylor") despite her efforts to explain that everyone back home calls her "Emma." They have plenty of stories about her mother (and father) that fill in gaps for that Emma has always wondered about (e.g., how her parents really met, why her father never brought her back to visit, etc.).

The time goes by quickly and when her parents return to the States and come to get her, she finds that she wants to spend more time with this side of the family she doesn't know.  It's then that she finds just how alienated her father is from the North Lake relations.  Saylor/Emma is torn between the sides, a conflict only resolved by an Act of God.

A touching story of southern family life, with all the poignancy for which Dessen is renown.  The writing is beautiful, even if the template is so well-worn: the intelligent young woman who wrestles with her family for autonomy, the outsider boy who is intelligent and responsible, and a tight group of friends who spend the summer goofing off.  One of these days, Dessen will write a dystopian and surprise me, but for now, it’s a template that works.

In comparison with her more recent books, this is stronger take on her perennial themes.  There are a lot of characters, but surprisingly, they can be sorted out.  And the story, which does resort to melodrama in the end, is generally interesting with a touch of humor at the right moments.  And for those who are regular Dessen readers, you can be assured that Spinnerbait appears!

Internment, by Samira Ahmed

In a near future United States, Muslims are rounded up by the Exclusion Authority and sent to relocation camps, seventeen year-old Layla and her parents among them.  The camp they are sent to is located in a remote desert camp (ironically near by the Manzanar camp used to detain Japanese Americans during WWII).  While Layla's initial concern is with the deprivation of her civil rights, things take a nastier turn is she finds her resistance met with extreme cruelty at the hands of a sadistic camp administrator.

Mixing together elements of Japanese relocation, the internment centers for migrants and asylum seekers of the current day, and tossing in familiar current politics, Internment is a dystopian with a no-apologies agenda.  That has gotten it a lot of attention from both sides and can make reviewing the novel a bit of a challenge.  I'm more than sympathetic with the political agenda, but overall I found this a blunt and exploitative instrument.

The thing about dystopians is that they work primarily because they are subtle.  They can be read a literature, without even considering their political agenda.  But there is nothing subtle about this novel.  Like a social media echo chamber, this is all about momentary indignation with atrocity layered on top of atrocity.  Occasional moments of reasoning and insight exist in the story, but they get swept aside pretty quickly for latest outrage.

The most egregious problem for me, though, wasn't the dumbed-down politics, but the adversary.  The camp administrator (whose obesity is excessively mentioned) is so over-the-top and such a paper tiger that he’s basically comic relief.  That provides a way-too-easy way out in the end. If Ahmed really wanted to write the “courageous” book she claims to have written, she would never have made evil so easy to wipe out.  The evil that would create these camps is not going to be defeated by people chanting slogans, it’s going to take some hard looks at the forces that drive people to accept such policies.  And it's not as if Ahmed doesn't know this (she brings it up on several occasions) but in the interest of actually resolving institutional racism and xenophobia in the confines of her novel she's oversimplified and then deftly "resolved" the problem.  It's too bad that life isn't that simple and I don't feel that this novel serves any higher good.  At best, this gives false confidence to left-wing Americans that they can defeat Trump simply by saying "resist."

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs

The Kingdom of Greeve is plagued by a dragon, an evil witch, and a horde of bandits. To rid his kingdom of these woes, the King has announced that he'll give the hand of his daughter to whatever prince can do the job.  Princess Margaret, however, has entirely different ideas.  Resentful of being locked away in a tower for whatever prince comes along, she manages to escape and seeks to rid her kingdom of the pests herself, and kick out all the dumb princes to boot!

In fact, it is really the latter that are the greatest problem.  The dragon is just a baby, the witch is kind, and the bandits are simply taking from the rich to give to the poor.  But the princes are a menace!  Prince Vantor, the worst of the bunch,  means to win the competition at any cost, even if it involves kidnapping the Princess.  But with help from her maid Dilly, the gardener boy Cam, and the young wizard Lex, Meg will figure the whole thing out.

Not really sure if it wants to be adventure or comedy, this tongue-in-cheek fractured fairy tale sometimes falls very flat.  Still, it's light and action-packed.  With well over a dozen major characters, the action gets a bit chaotic by the end but I'm pretty sure that everything gets wrapped up.  And Meg even gets to start taking sword fighting lessons (and toss aside her hated embroidery)!

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Saving Red, by Sonya Sones

Molly and her emotional-support dog Pixie are stuck in the middle of doing last-minute community service work when they meet Red.  Without a lot of options for completing her assignment, Molly's participating in a census of homeless people in Santa Monica.  While she's certainly been aware of the homeless, she's never given them much thought until now.  Red, a young woman of about her age, strikes home in a way for which Molly is not prepared.

Molly becomes obsessed with helping her, but Red is distrustful and rejects Molly's advances.  As the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Molly is just as in need of help.  She may have a physical structure over her head, but she is nearly as abandoned by her absent parents, her family torn apart by a tragedy.  The relationship, remaining tentative and never entirely trusting, becomes mutually respectful.

The ultimate resolution of this story-in-verse is both an affirmation of life and a sobering reminder that problems like mental illness and homelessness are not easily solved.  Sones takes advantage of the ambiguity of verse to let questions that are unanswerable stay unanswered, while leaving us with hope.  Molly and Red are both compelling characters and their relationship complex and subtly interdependent, as the savior becomes the saved.  A romantic subplot involving a boy that Molly meets early in the novel is probably the major weak point -- a distraction in a story that didn't need a pretty boy in it -- but Sones always does romance so sweetly that it's hard to begrudge her a few pages of love poetry.  This is certainly not Sones's best work, but it is still a decent read and a good use of verse in a novel.

Extraordinary Birds, by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

In the time in which December has been shunted from one foster home to another, she's learned never to expect permanency in her life.  But that's alright, because she has a secret:  some day she'll complete her transformation into a bird and fly away.  Birds have simple needs: they only need to survive.  December looks forward to that simpler life.

In the meantime, she's been placed with Eleanor, a woman whose love of birds speaks to December's heart.  Eleanor introduces December to animal rehab work and helps December reconnect with her own humanity.  A subplot involving December's friendship with a transgender classmate hangs awkwardly in the story, but provides some room to expand on December's unrecognized ability to empathize.

Ultimately heartwarming, the story is driven by December's comments about the differences and similarities between birds and humans. Perhaps a bit overly precocious for her age, these observations nonetheless will prove enjoyable to readers who love birds in the first place.  The story of how Eleanor's patient and gentle rescue of December will appeal to everyone.

Friday, August 30, 2019

A Kind of Paradise, by Amy Rebecca Tan

Straight-A student Jamie has messed up badly.  Blinded by her desire to impress a boy that she has a crush on, she's been caught violating her school's Honor Code. As a consequence, she has to spend the summer doing community service. There will be no camp and no vacation trips.  Instead, she has to work at her town's public library.

But to her surprise, Jamie quickly discovers that the library is full of lots of fun people (both staff and patrons) and that the work is actually pretty interesting as well.  Moreover, the people have lessons to impart, helping Jamie see where she went wrong and develop her interpersonal skills along the way.  In return, Jamie helps an effort to save the library from closure.

Half a love letter to public libraries and the other half a personal development story, there's lots going on here.  Given the target audience, very little of it is subtle. The ending is all a bit too rosy for me as just about everything works out.  I didn't find the dialogue very realistic, but the characters are quirky, charming, and memorable.

Hope and Other Punch Lines, by Julie Buxbaum

Perhaps one of the most iconic photographs from 9/11 is the one of “Baby Hope.” You know the one with the one year-old baby girl in a princess dress being rushed away from the Towers after the first plane hit.  But sixteen years later, Abbi wishes everyone would just forget about it.  She’s endured endless moments of recognition from strangers, who want to hug her and tell her how much that picture meant to them (as if she had actually done anything!).  All she wants is to enjoy a quiet summer, when - just for once - she can just be herself and not some icon of a horrific event.

But two things lurk over her to prevent this.  The first is a persistent and worsening cough, which may be a legacy of toxins she was exposed to when the Towers collapsed.  The other problem is a persistent boy named Noah.  Noah has an obsession: he wants Abbi to help him track down the other people in that famous picture.  To Abbi, this is the type of painful and tiresome task she is trying to avoid, but Noah has good reasons and they are ultimately devastating

I really enjoyed this original take on 9/11, a topic which is fairly remote to today’s young readers.  By looking at it in the contemporary moment, seeing the long-term effects of the event through today's young people is genius stroke, giving the idea relevance and immediacy.  Buxbaum is an excellent writer and has managed to fit in a lot of true stories amidst her admittedly simple story. Pretty much all of the specifics of the novel (including the “Baby Hope” photo) are made up, but they are all based on real events, people, and facts.  It’s this sort of painless education which always impresses me.  Unique and recommended.

How It Feels to Float, by Helena Fox

Almost ten years ago, Biz lost her father to depression.  While his suicide made her sad initially, she felt better when he came back to her and spoke to her when she needed him.  This was not so unusual for her.  Lots of other things speak to her: the ocean, the photographs she takes with Dad’s old film camera, and so many other things.  But what about the new boy at school with a mysterious limp?  The one who rescued Biz from the waves when the ocean was convincing her to join it?  He doesn’t speak to her, but she wishes he would!

After a traumatic event pushes Biz into outcast status and gets her suspended from school, her happy world collapses around her.  Lost in depression, she determines that the only thing she can do that would make any sense is to seek out the places where her father lived and see if they (or him) would speak to her again.  So, she goes out on a quest to find her father and join him under the water…where he drowned himself.

A fresh, albeit occasionally creepy look at life with inherited psychosis.  As Biz makes her own descent into madness, she's all too aware that she’s following her father’s path, but less and less concerned about what that could mean for her.  There’s something quite gentle and beautiful about the way that her world falls apart, which makes the journey all the more terrifying.  The reader is forced to take the plunge with her.

In a field with a lot of similar books about mental illness, I found Biz a compelling character and the story an excellent read.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Goodnight, Anne, by Kallie George

It's bedtime for Anne, but before she can nod off, she wants to wish everyone a goodnight.  Whether it is Marilla or Matthew, her bosom friend Diana, or even horrid Gilbert, Anne (with an e, thank you!) has a bedtime wish for them all.

A charming bedtime picture book that will please small children with its pretty artwork by Genenieve Godbout, but is far more rewarding for older ones who are familiar with Anne of Green Gables. They will delight in remembering Anne's adventures as they drift off to sleep.  If you find "goodnight" books to be dull and boring, you may end up giving this a pass, but for fans of L. M. Montgomery's classic, this is a sweet diversion.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Raven's Tale, by Cat Winters

A whimsical biography of Edgar Allan Poe's early years, set mostly on Poe's year away at UVA.  Torn between two muses (one that embraces the macabre and another young Eddy's Byronesque romantic side), Edgar struggles to find his way and choose what sort of writer he wishes to be.  But most of all, he wrestles with his stepfather's aim of destroying his literary ambitions altogether. I call it whimsical because Poe's muses in this story are incarnate, visible, and interacting with the people around them.

An interesting concept that I found hard to get into.  Partly, it is hard to follow the cast of characters (most of whom are based on real people but not being already familiar with Poe's life, were hard to keep track of). Partly, it was the story's uneven pacing.  But mostly, it is the supernatural elements of the story (the muses and their rather corporeal magic, which is itself intended to to have a Poe-like tenor). If I was a Poe fan, then Winter's riff would probably be more meaningful.  But as a story on its own, it just doesn't have much going for it despite the obvious love and dedication of the writer to the hero.

Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr

Astrid is a thunderbolt, a force of nature in her mountain home of Glimmerdale.  Her joys in life consist of sledding down hills, singing at the top of her lungs, and driving grumpy Mr. Hagen crazy (children, in his opinion, should be silent and kept indoors).  But amidst the beauty of her Nordic paradise, there is something she lacks:  some other children with whom to play.

The novel covers three important events in Astrid's life:  First of all, her efforts to ride a sled all the way from her high mountain home down to the town on the shore of the fjord.  Then, secondly, the moment when her dream of having other children come is answered but it seems that the children will go away almost as soon as they arrive.  And ultimately with the return of a young woman that Astrid never even knew existed.

Inspired by Heidi (and a bit by Pippi Longstocking as well), Astrid fits comfortably into the tradition of irrepressible young heroines.  The book, translated from Norwegian, is quirky and very much a cultural artifact – written in a style that makes it seem old fashioned, even though it is set in modern day.  The fact that the children are always playing outdoors and no Game Boys, texting, or Net Flix are to be found can be disconcerting.  Like Johanna Spyri, the author of Heidi, Parr promotes the benefits of outdoor living and that can seem anachronistic for a contemporary novel.  But as alien as the setting may be, Astrid's joyfulness and energy has universal appeal.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Running through Sprinklers, by Michelle Kim

Sara is looking forward to spending the last year of middle school with her best friend Nadine.  However, at the end of summer Nadine announces that she's skipping a grade and starting high school.  It isn't just that they are spending the year in different schools.  Suddenly Nadine is too busy to spend time with Sara and scoffs at Sara's "childish" ideas.  In anger, Sara makes friends with Nadine's little sister, but it doesn't help bring the girls back together.

I tend to like these bittersweet and nostalgic stories of friends growing apart.  They are certainly common in books for middle grade readers.  This one, though, is surprisingly cluttered.  Full of subplots (including a strange abduction story that just is left dangling in the end), the story gets overwhelmed but everything else.  There's bra shopping and the first periods as one would expect for a book targeted for girls in this age group, but even coming of age seems buried, despite its obvious relationship to Sara and Nadine's estrangement.  Critics have lauded the book for its multicultural elements (both Sara and Nadine are bi-racial) but while a certain amount of attention is spent on Sara's Korean heritage, it's hardly an important element.  The book is just noisy and distracting.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Eventown, by Corey Ann Haydu

Eventown is a perfect place.  In it, the most beautiful roses grow, food is delicious, everyone is perfect, and every house looks the same.  The people are happy and content, but all extreme emotions have been banished.  Everyone is even.  Everyone is the same.

Elodee and her twin sister Naomi are turning twelve and drifting apart.  The easy bond that they once had has frayed by a family trauma.  So when Mom gets a job offer in Eventown, moving and starting a new life sounds like a great idea.  And while Elodee has reservations about some of the strange things about their new home, she likes how nice everyone is and how easy the life is.  But over time, Elodee's reservations grow stronger and she finds herself rebelling against the "even" way of life.  This proves to have severe consequences for Elodee, her family, and the town as a whole.

A peculiar and fascinating tale that explores the costs and benefits of sacrificing risk and chance for the security of an unchanging world. While written for middle graders, the subject matter (which is ultimately about enduring tragic loss) seems a bit heavy for the target audience.  The metaphor of the utopia also seems likely to be lost on them.  Adults however will find that the book has a lot to say in the end about love, community, memory, and the value of embracing differences.  It's a beautiful and haunting story.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? by Kelly Jones

In this sequel to Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, Sophie continues her explorations of raising chickens.  Now the proud owner of Agnes's old farm, Sophie is challenged with the process of fixing the place up and reestablishing the farm's poultry business, starting with hatching some new chickens.  And while the chickens may have extraordinary powers, the business of hatching and raising is pretty much the same as with normal chickens.  Learning all of that and soliciting the help and input of her community teaches Sophie a lot about humans and chickens alike.

As with the first book, a small dose of fantasy (teleporting and fire-breathing chickens) aside, this is a story about a girl working hard to achieve her goals.  Packed full of useful and interesting instructions about chicken care, this delightful story will entice readers to learn more about chickens.  Gently delivered messages about tolerance and forgiveness add substance.  Copious illustrations throughout provide the icing on the cake.  Fun, educational, affirming, and pretty to flip through -- what more could you ask of a middle reader?

Friday, August 09, 2019

The Surface Breaks, by Louise O'Neill

Gaia and her sisters are mermaids, living off the coast of Ireland.  In their society, men are in charge and their duty is to be demure and subservient to men in general and the Sea King in particular.  He in turn uses her daughters to reward his most loyal soldiers.

Gaia, who has just turned fifteen has been informed that she will be given away to the odious (and much older) Zale.  The idea repulses her.  Her mother, who might have stood up for her, is gone.  She was lost many years ago when she went to the surface and was captured and tortured by the humans.

And much more was lost.  It was Gaia's mother who had carefully crafted peace between the mer-people and the wraith-like Rusalki (the spirits of wronged women who skulk in the dark and attempt to lure sailors to their death).  But since her death, the King, Zale, and the other mer-men have been plotting war.

For her birthday, Gaia has been granted the opportunity to go to the surface for the first time.  Mindful of her mother's fate, she is cautious, but nonetheless she becomes enchanted by Oliver, a human boy.  Aware that she has no chance with him in her fishy form, she makes a bargain with a sea witch:  she will be granted human legs but only for a short period.  In that period she has to get Oliver to love her.  Otherwise, she will die.

A grisly and dark retelling of The Little Mermaid with a strong feminist twist that becomes especially pronounced in the ending.  It works but I found the story depressing.  The essential message seems to be:  love is pain and suffering, while freedom from men is death.  It’s well within the eco-feminist cannon (although perhaps a bit more Andrea Dworkin than Susan Griffin), but this isn't usual territory for YA.  Curious and original, but it is hard to imagine this dark and unhappy story finding much of an audience.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC in return for an unbiased review.]

Not If I Can Help It, by Carolyn Mackler

Willa has issues with things around her that feel wrong.  A sensory processing disorder makes certain sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or feels for her entirely unbearable.  Every day is a struggle but through routine she is able to manage her adverse reactions.  But any change is a challenge.  She definitely doesn't like changes!

So when her father announces that he’s dating again, Willa isn't happy.  Worse, his girlfriend isn't some stranger, but rather the mother of Willa’s BFF Ruby.  Willa is not OK with the idea of Dad having a girlfriend.  As much as she loves Ruby, she doesn’t want Ruby to be her sister.  But change is in the air and Willa has to learn to cope with it.

A short, but well-written middle reader about a condition that I don’t believe has been touched on before.  Willa's hypersensitivity can make her seem difficult, but Mackler navigates that challenge well, showing how difficult these situations are for her.  At the same time, everyone’s a bit too perfect for my tastes (Willa’s parents in particular deserve some major reward!), but it’s a kind story that really just is focused on Willa’s difficulties.  That might be the bigger issue:  while we get a good picture of Willa’s struggles, there’s not much growth here.  So, the pattern is Willa finds out about a change and then gets upset and then eventually moves on.  Repeat.  That’s actually pretty dull over the expanse of an entire novel.

[Disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher in return for an unbiased review]

Friday, August 02, 2019

Mun Mun, by Jesse Andrews

In this most striking science fiction novel of 2018 that you've never heard of, Mun Mun describes a world where your net worth defines your physical size.  Based on the amount of "mun mun" (money) you have, you can be anywhere from the "littlepoor" (about the size of a squirrel) to "bigrich" (where the sky's the limit on size and height).  Being as small as a rodent has some significant disadvantages, ranging from having trouble working at a normal job to simply not being eaten as a snack by a free-range kitty.

Littlepoors Warner and his sister Prayer have dreams of making some mun mun of their own and maybe becoming middlepoor some day, but their plans run astray and Warner ends up in jail.  But then a well-meaning family of middleriches rescues him, trying to prove that, with a little mun mun, anyone can pull themselves out of poverty and littleness.  But as the author grindingly makes clear, mun mun by itself can't change the legacy of who you are and where you came from.

With a wit that owes much more to Jonathan Swift's satire than any modern day dystopian novel, Andrews says a lot about class, privilege, and the inherent flaw in so many well-intended attempts to "fix" these social evils.  The result can be depressing at points, but just as Gulliver's Travels was able to say so much of contemporary relevance in its day through fantasy, Andrews knows that the message is so much clearer when you are not expecting it.  It's unwillingness to embrace either Left or Right will probably upset some folks, but there's little to argue with here.

The ending grows a bit weird as Warner becomes unhinged from his suffering and his character transforms to a dark anti-hero with whom it becomes hard to identify and sympathize, but the originality and biting observations of this allegory make this novel a stand-out work.  It's a largely neglected book that deserves a wider audience.  Highly recommended.

A Week of Mondays, by Jessica Brody

Ellie is having the worst Monday ever.  Her parents are fighting, she gets a ticket for running a red light on the way to school, and her hair is ruined in the rain and it’s school picture day.  In rapid succession, she then flubs a quiz, botches her campaign speech for class vice president due to a food allergy, and fails her tryouts for varsity softball.  To top it all off, at the end of the day her boyfriend dumps her.  What she wouldn’t give for a do-over!

And then she gets the chance: her whole horrible Monday repeats all over again.  With the advantage of foresight, some things she can fix but others are worse for the meddling.  But our chances are far from over and the day repeats again. She gets to tinker with and tweak this fateful day, never quite fixing it, because she’s really missing the big picture.

This would be the second Groundhog Day rip-off I’ve read this summer (see Opposite of Always on July 6th for the other one).  It’s a cute device, of course, and overflowing with comic potential.  In this case, it also has a weightier moral about being oneself instead of trying to be perfect for others.

The book does have a decent heroine and a fun story going for it.  The guys are largely throwaway but Ellie is sympathetic with the right mix of skills and mistakes to make her believable.  It makes for pleasant reading even if not treading much new ground.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Spark, by Alice Broadway

It is now the day after Leora Flint's grand reveal, the event that formed the finale of Ink (reviewed here on June 21, 2019).  Leora faces exile, but Mayor Longsight's given an alternative: go into the forest and find the Blanks (the heretics who don’t ink their skin), uncover their plans and preparedness for war, and report back.  Leora knows she's being manipulated (and probably betrayed), but as in Ink she really doesn't have an alternative:  the Mayor and his henchman Minnow hold her family and friends hostage.

For Leora, it is also a chance to learn about her roots and maybe uncover the truth about her real mother.  Eager to determine how the Blanks have gone so far astray and understand their hostility to inking and to her people, good can come of this mission.  What she finds is very disturbing to her.  The Blanks, far from being evil, turn out to follow a very similar belief system as hers.  Their canon of myths and fables are strikingly similar to the ones that Leora was raised on, but just slightly different.  The differences, however, are crucial and form the crux of the schism that exists between the inked people and the Blanks.  It's a difference that brings the threat of war -- a conflict which is being fed and encouraged by forces that Leora is yet to understand.

As the second book in a (presumed) trilogy, readers will understand that there is no resolution or ending quite yet.  Similarly, it really helps to read these books in quick succession to keep up with the complicated relationships between the characters. So, what have we learned in this installment? The themes of family loyalty and adherence to faith continue, but Leora’s challenge now is finding her faith in a sea of doubt. Scepticism is the main theme of part two. Presented with the small but nonetheless striking differences between the beliefs of the Blanks and her home, Leora feels pressured to choose between them (the faith of her upbringing vs the faith of her ancestors).  She's resistant and ultimately led to question whether either tradition is right for her.

I'm enjoying the way that Broadway has not only created a very original setting for her story, but also done so much more with it.  The action is compelling and the various crosses and double-crosses dizzying, but underneath it all is a novel that explores faith.  Leora's questioning of her childhood convictions will resonate with anyone who has ever grown up (or is facing the process now).

[Disclaimer: I received an Advance Reviewer’s Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book was originally slated for release on July 30th, but has already been released]

Truly Madly Royally, by Debbie Rigaud

As ambitious Zora arrives for her summer study program at the prestigious Halstead University, she knows she’s out of her element.  She’s the only attender who’s taken public transit to get there.  Her peers all come from money and it shows.  She's pretty much the only student who’s black.  Her plan is to basically lay low.  Hiding out in the library one day, she meets a nice young man named Owen, who sweeps her off her feet.  It turns out that he’s the Prince of Landerel and suddenly Zora’s potentially in over her head in publicity and attention, as everyone wants to know the Prince's new romantic partner.  But Zora has a cool head and she keeps her focus on her goals, her causes, and her people.

It’s a perfectly fine story – light and entertaining summer reading.  The royal element reminds one of a black girl’s Meg Cabot.  The empowerment pep talk that carries through the story gets a little tiring and doesn't always fit organically in the story.   Zora’s flawlessness can make her seem awfully precious and doesn't give the reader much to identify with.  Still, Rigaud does great characters.  Zora’s family and neighbors are particular stand-out.  It's a fun read.

[Disclaimer:  I received an Advanced Reviewer's Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  The book is scheduled for release on July 31st.]

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Boys of Summer, by Jessica Brody

Grayson, Mike, and Ian have been best friends since they were children.  As residents on a vacation island, the summers have always been an adventure of dealing with the tourists.  But this last summer together promises to be very different.

In the past year, Ian's father was killed in Afghanistan and, while relations between he and his mother are strained, he seems alright to the others.  Mike and Hunter have been a pretty permanent couple for years, but this time it looks like their little break-up could be permanent, especially because Grayson and Hunter have started to secretly hook up.  Grayson, meanwhile, has to find the strength to admit to his father (and himself) that the little injury he sustained has ruined his ability to play football and jeopardized any possibility of taking the football scholarship that was supposed to get him through college.  There will be girls (of course), family conflict, and lots of bonding and secrets in a final summer together.

In other words, it's a girl's book about guys.  If there's anything funnier than how misportrayed female characters are by male authors, it's just how awfully bad female authors can get young men.  It's not really Brody's fault in this instance, but more like an impossible project:  create a story of friendship between young men that would be relatable to young woman readers.  They're a sensitive trio, all of them terribly worried about how the others feel and trying to avoid hurting each other's feeling.  In a mild nod to testosterone, there's a bit of fighting, but it's usually about protecting others (usually women) than about ego and pecking order.  Most silly of all is the alleged "Guy Code" that you can't date each other's ex's.  I have no idea if girls have such a thing for real (although you hear it invoked in plenty of books) but I can say with some certainty that guys don't believe in such things.  Grayson, Mike, and Ian could just as easily been Taylor, Micaela, and Iona and very little of the story would have need to be altered.  But then, it would just be a sweet beach romance of three BFFs enjoying their last summer before college, which come to think about it, it basically is.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, by Ashley Herring Blake

After twelve year-old Sunny makes it successfully through a heart transplant, she’s determined to change her life.  In the days leading up to her surgery, she was always so sick. Worst of all, her BFF Margot betrayed her.  She’s determined to do new things, key among them is to find a boy and kiss him.

But life is so much more complicated.  Her mother (who abandoned her eight years ago) has returned and wants to be part of her life.  At first, Sunny is resistant and suspicious and has to be urged on by her guardian Kate.  But when mother and daughter bond, the new relationship put a stress on Sunny and Kate's own one, particularly as Kate finds herself protecting Sunny from some of her Mom's darker secrets.

More important is Sunny's new friend Quinn, who is helping her in the Boy Quest.  The girls are not terribly successful, at least in part because Sunny finds herself thinking that she’d rather be kissing Quinn instead.  Does that mean she's a lesbian? 

With so many traumas going on, the novel runs the risk of being cluttered, but Blake does a good job of keeping things moving along.  It helps that the many different stories eventually interweave making the complexity organic and less distracting.  Delightfully, Sunny’s forays into exploring her gender identity are sensitively handled.  The overall result is a beautiful story full of honest emotion, and respectful to both adults and children.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Angel Thieves, by Kathi Appelt

The Buffalo Bayou is a landmark of Houston and in this rather dreamy novel, Appelt uses it as a means of telling four different stories that cross time periods but still overlap.  There's Cade who, along with his father, steal angel statues off of forgotten graves.  Soleil is the sweet girl who falls for him and wants to believe in him.  A hundred and sixty years earlier, a former slave is trying to smuggle her two little girls to safety in Mexico.  And back in the present, an ocelot in a cage fights for its survival as the Bayou's waters rise up.

If those seem pretty disconnected, they largely are. Not that it really matters as Appelt is mostly in love with the concept of the Bayou as a swiftly flowing body of water that shifts and surges, swallowing up (and occasionally disgorging) objects and people.  She's so in love with the idea that she repeats it again and again. Repetition is key in this story and established themes are repeated again and again like a piece of music.  The issue, for me, is that what works nicely in a score comes across as boring in a story.  Most of all, as pretty as this book is, it is not a YA book and it is poorly marketed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hurricane Season, by Nicole Melleby

Fig is not a fan of storms.  Their coastal New Jersey town gets a good share of them.  It’s not the wind, dark clouds, or rain, but rather the impact that the storms have on her father.  

Her father was once a great composer but after Fig was born and her mother skipped town, Dad stopped composing.  For days at a time, he checks out altogether.  When a storm comes, he wanders outside and puts himself in danger.  The last time he did so, Fig had to call the police to help, but that just made things worse as now the authorities are watching and threatening to put Fig in foster care.

When a new neighbor moves in and tries to help, Fig is wary.  Every adult is a risk.  But it’s a lot to ask of a sixth grader who just wants to fit in and have some friends.   Fig has to learn that it is OK to accept outside help for her and her Dad.  Along the way, Fig is learning about the life of Vincent Van Gogh and his relationship with brother Theo provides inspiration and helps her understand her father. (It also inspires the gorgeous cover of the book)

A touching story about family and friendship.  The characters are complex and the relationship between father and neighbor is a nicely nuanced romance.  A subplot about Fig’s ability to judge her own friendships is a pleasing analogue.

Heroine, by Mindy McGinnis

When star catcher Mickey and her best friend Caroline (their team's pitcher) are seriously injured in a car accident, the girls are terrified that they won't heal in time to play for their senior year.  It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of pain to rehabilitate.  But Mickey discovers that the Oxycodone she's been prescribed really helps.  It works even better when she ups her dose.

But when she uses up her entire prescription, she finds that she can't get any more from her doctor.  Without it, she won't be able to push herself as much as she feels she needs to in order to be able to play. So she resorts to drastic measures, finding an old lady who's selling drugs dispensed for other people.  With this new source, Mickey starts increasing her doses gradually as the lighter doses are no longer enough.  Mickey has to turn to stealing and deception to maintain her supply, but all along she is convinced that she'll be able to stop just as soon as the season is over.  But then she finds that she can't quit.

A brutal and frank description of addiction and the process of falling into it.  As a story, it's pretty bleak stuff.  McGinnis does a great job of depicting Mickey's demise, the ease at which she ignores warning signs and the way she convinces herself that she'll be okay.  It's a bit matter-of-fact to be art, but works fine as an educational primer and a warning to any young people who are feeling invulnerable.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds

Jack meets Kate at a party during a weekend visit to Whittier, the school he plans to attend.  And Kate is the best thing that's ever happened to him.  Unlike his best friends Franny and Jillian who have each other, Jack has always just missed a happily-ever-after story.  The next four months though are amazing!  Sure, Jillian and Franny both have their rough patches, but things are mostly great for Jack and Kate...until she unexpectedly dies.

Suddenly Jack finds himself back at the party, the same party where he first met Kate four months ago.  He's been given a do-over. Like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, Jack is condemned to relive those four months all over again.  And, again as in that movie, Jack tries to tweak the outcome to make things turn out better.  But this isn't a comedy and Jack finds his choices each have consequences -- some of them dire.

While the gist of the story has been done before, the angle here is different.  For Jack, there is a lot to learn about love, friendship, family, and loyalty.  Being a boy book, the relationship stuff is mostly about keeping appearances and pride (rather than tears and jealousy) but the complicated family relationship of Franny and his jailbird father is just one piece that gives this novel a serious tone.  There really isn't much doubt of how the story should end (and it delivers) but there is a very satisfying dramatic arc of personal growth for Jack.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Sparrow, by Sarah Moon

When they find Sparrow standing on the edge of the roof of her school, everyone presumes that she was planning to jump.  She knows she wasn't.  She was planning to fly away like a bird.  But if she tells anyone that, then they will know she is crazy!

The thing is that Sparrow has always found talking about things to be hard.  And ever since her traumatic first day of school, she's generally avoided talking to others. Instead, with the support of a friendly librarian, she's found a way to avoid social situations and conversations in general. This has gotten her a reputation for being a snob and made her a target for bullies and hasn't exactly kept people away from her.

The rooftop incident sends Sparrow into counseling and her persistent counselor finds that the key to break through Sparrow's insecurity is through music (the angrier the better!).  The doctor goes on to suggest that Sparrow attend rock band camp this summer.  The idea astounds both Sparrow and her mother, who both know that Sparrow will never survive away from home, living with strangers, for four weeks.  But the counselor is convinced that this is just what Sparrow needs.

A sweet and inspiring story of a girl who finds the strength to face the world and embrace it.  There are no surprises here, but the story is well told, with good characters and a bit of fun.  Perhaps more could have been done with Sparrow's love of birds, but Moon's answer is that freedom lies in music, not ornithology.  I might beg to differ, but the point is well taken.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Days of the Dead, by Kersten Hamilton

Since her mother died, Glorieta has mourned the fact that her aunts won't speak about their sister.  Suicide is a sin and Tia Diosonita won't allow her offense to besmirch the family's honor.  Papi even had to cremate the body or else have Mama buried in unconsecrated ground.  With the Day of the Dead approaching, Glorieta hopes to somehow get her Tia to accept their sister back and let her be buried with the rest of the family.

Meanwhile, in their small town of Epoch NM, things are changing.  Glorieta's step siblings Lilith and Angus have come to stay, dumped off by their abusive father.  Angus gets along fine, but Lilith does everything she can to fight her step sister.  In a particularly harrowing passage, Lilith goes so far as to betray Glorieta to ICE agents causing Glorieta to be rounded up erroneously as an illegal.

This mixture of family, tradition, and current events creates a memorable story.  The ICE passage may be too intense for younger readers but is very topical given recent weeks' news.  This is not really a story about that though, but of the ties of family and of the power of forgiveness.  I felt that Glorieta did a bit more forgiving than she really ought to have done, but perhaps I am not as big or brave of a person as this little girl.  Her story, though, is inspiring.  Between that and the strong characters and vivid setting make this a remarkable book.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Weight of the Stars, by K. Ancrum

Ryann is so busy taking care of her family and her set of misfit friends, that she barely has time to worry about the things she can’t have.  She dreams of traveling to space, but aside from a quirky opportunity a few years ago when a group of young women were sent out on a one way trip to the stars, opportunities don’t come often.  Stuck in her trailer park and barely getting by, she’s hardly the Right Stuff.

But then a chance encounter with a new girl named Alexandria changes everything.  Alexandria is the daughter of one of the women who went into space.  She was world-famous at the time of her mother's departure because she wasn't supposed to exist. If people had known that one of the women leaving on a no-return trip was the mother of a newborn, they never would have stood for it.  So the situation was kept secret until it was too late: her mother left and abandoned Alexandria on Earth.

Years later, Alexandria stays up at night monitoring the skies, hoping to hear a message from her mother transmitted over the growing distance between them.  For Ryann, Alexandria becomes another project, but she also is a key to future that Ryann had almost given up on.

A gentle meditative novel that is full of lots of clever writing, but not very coherent storytelling.  Lots of originality here and the mixture of angst and science fiction is interesting, but the afterward where Ancrum explains the symbolism of each of her characters underscores the problem:  if those messages were there, I should have been able to find them without the lecture.  In retrospect, I began to understand parts of the book that made no sense when I first read them, but that is too much work for the entertainment I was seeking (and given the large number of loose ends, the overall payoff for looking back is relatively meager).  It really isn’t enough to be a good and clever writer, you also need to be able to tell a story.

Sorry Not Sorry, by Jaime Reed

When Alyssa collapses in the midst of a hurricane recovery fundraiser, only Janelle knows that it’s her diabetes and that her condition is getting worse.  The problem is that Janelle and Alyssa aren’t friends anymore.  Years of being best friends have long been forgotten and the girls have turned to bitter enmity.  So, how should Janelle respond when officially they have nothing to do with each other?

This dramatic reveal of Alyssa’s secret condition brings out the worst in her friends.  Her new besties rally around her, but mostly to try to grab the limelight.  Only Janelle really seems to care about her.  Those feelings are part driven by nostalgia, but also underscored by Janelle's history of altruism.  Driven by her feelings, Janelle makes a fateful decision: she will donate one of her kidneys to save her ex-BFF.

It’s a plot that stretches credulity and Reed puts a lot of effort into convincing us that it’s plausible.  Janelle’s family background, some miraculous genetic matches, and some happy coincidences all contribute to the set-up.  In the end, though, Reed doesn’t have much to actually say about donation or about friendship.  The clever idea is about all the story has.  That's a wasted opportunity for a novel that could have really dug into the power of nostalgia, the altruism of organ donation, and the issues of chronic disease.  The topics are certainly brought up, but the book doesn't seem to know how to take the next step and really address them.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ink, by Alice Broadway

In Leora’s world, people tattoo their bodies with the story of their lives:  their family trees, their failures and accomplishments, and their shames.  At death, their bodies are flayed and the skin is turned into a book, from which anyone can read their story.  When the book is ready, it is judged and a virtuous person’s book is brought home by their descendants and honored.  But if their lives are judged unworthy, then the book is tossed on a great fire and burned and the person’s life is forgotten.  There is no greater misfortune for the person or their family.

Leora has always considered her father a kind and good man.  When he dies, she is certain that his honor is assured.  So when she finds out that his body contains a black mark that identifies him as unworthy of being remembered, she is sure that it is mistake.  Desperate to save his book from the fire, she searches for a way to protect his legacy, along the way making shocking discoveries about her community.

A stunningly unique dystopia which imagines a universe where things are black/white and as permanent as a tattoo.  Your life is public knowledge, visible on your skin for others to see.  Designs and symbols have special meanings and nuances.  It’s both a wonderfully complex metaphor and a vehicle for a great adventure.

The story itself twists and turns with plots and counter-plots.  At times, it’s hard to keep up, but even when I lost the track, it was compelling enough to keep reading.  And for those who can’t get enough, there’s a sequel coming out next month (that I will review closer to its release).  At this point, most of the effort is spent on introducing the complexities of Leora's world.  The characters have not yet grown particularly interesting (although the ending is pleasingly shocking).  I imagine she and her compatriots will grow on me.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased review.]

A Danger to Herself and Others, by Alyssa Sheinmel

After her roommate is seriously injured in a fall, Hannah is accused of causing the accident. It is all just a result of a love triangle involving Hannah, her roommate, and Jonas (Hannah's boyfriend that her roommate wanted for herself).  But no one is interested in the story.  Instead, she's been involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation.  She's dangerous, or so they say, to herself and others.

To prove them wrong, Hannah just needs to win over the staff at the hospital so they will listen to her story and help her out.  It's what she's always done, proving to adults like her parents how responsible and mature she is, even when she is inwardly afraid.
But at a critical point, Hannah's worldview falls apart. Things stop making sense.  Not only the explanations but the people involved in them turn out to be very different from how Hannah understood things.  Faced with a drastic correction of her reality, Hannah has to reevaluate what actually happened.

A story of mental illness that stands out for its ability to throw you off and also for its reluctance to resolve Hannah's issues easily.  Stories about returns to sanity are pretty common.  At the risk of a spoiler, it's interesting that in this one the journey is really only beginning at the end of this book!  That said, the ending is repetitive and drags on too long.  Sheinmel's only real point is that fighting mental illness is an ongoing affair and that the dangers lie mostly to the sufferer.  Struggling with making that point definitively, the novel ends with a whimper.

A Good Kind of Trouble, by Lisa Moore Ramée

Shayla is a good girl, follows the rules, and keeps out of trouble.  But starting junior high this year, the rules seem to have changed.  She and her two best friends and her are facing competing loyalties as their classmates value racial identity over friendship and pressure the girls to hang out with their own kind (Shayla is black, while the other two are Asian and Latina).  Just complicating matters, boys and girls have started "talking" and the three girls don't really want to have anything to do with that.

Outside of school, the rules seem to have changed in even crazier ways.  The community is riled up over a police shooting.  Shayla is growing more aware of the inherent racism around her as her family takes part in various protests.  And when an incident presents itself to Shayla in her own school, she has to decide if she will be brave enough to speak out, even if it means breaking the rules.

Empowering and educational.  The story is a bit too topical and won't age well, but this is a good book about being an African American tween -- a lovely mixture of the familiar tropes of white-girl middle readers (i.e., most of the books out there) with some distinctly black themes.  It isn't very subtle, but it doesn't need to be as these kids, while articulate, are not particularly sophisticated yet.  YA protagonists of color are rare and, when they appear, are either totemic or white washed.  Shayla is neither -- a normal twelve year old who is black.  She's proud of that identity, is race conscious and racially proud, but she's lots of other things as well.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Art of Losing, by Lizzy Mason

When her drunken boyfriend causes an accident that nearly kills her younger sister, it's the last straw for Harley.  The fact that she caught them fooling around shortly beforehand doesn't help and leaves Harley with conflicted feelings.  With her sister seriously injured and lying in the hospital in a coma, Harley has no opportunity to work through her anger with her sister.  Instead, Harley finds herself wracked with guilt as she keeps vigil over her, recalling the good and the bad in their relationship.

For her boyfriend, she's more decisive.  It's not as if he's been a saint up to now either.  Through flashbacks, we see how his addiction to alcohol has slowly corroded the trust that existed between them and also destroyed the other friendships around him.

It is thus with some irony that while processing all of this, Harley rekindles old feelings for the boy next door, Raf.  While Harley and Raf were close as children, his own demons led him to addiction as well, and eventually to rehab.  Now in AA, Raf helps Harley understand her ex-boyfriend's struggle.  But are these strong feelings they are developing with each other a good thing or just another dangerous trap for Harley?

A complex story about addiction and its destructive impact on families and other relationships.  And also a parallel story about sisterhood and the bonds between siblings.  That Mason balances these two separate threads is a testament to her talent at formulating a good story.  It's far from perfect though.  The addiction material is her crusade, of course, and she packs in a bit more material than truly fits (giving the story a preachy character it did not need), but the material is well researched and generally interesting.  The relationship between  Harley and her sister gets relatively neglected but resolves satisfactorily.  While this is a good book about teen alcoholism, it has fewer insights on the love/hate relationship between sisters.

Friday, June 14, 2019

A Monster Like Me, by Wendy S. Swore

Disfigured by a blood tumor, Sophie has learned to cope with unwanted attention by hiding.  And she's created a complicated narrative for herself that she’s been cursed by a witch.

Armed with an encyclopedia of monsters, she not only has identified her monstrous self, but has no problem spotting the goblins and demons at school (disguised as her classmates and teachers) that torment her.  Her new friend is obviously a fairy and the girl’s sweet grandmother a (good) witch.  Her Mom’s new boyfriend is a demon trying to steal her away and Sophie has ways to ward that and the other evils off.  But her deepest fears is her mother discovering that Sophie is really a monster inside.  Will she keep her or throw her out?

Initially sweet and funny (and even a bit educational as the book-within-the-book provides nice summaries about the history of bestiaries and eventually some good life advice), I found Sophie’s character a bit too self-absorbed and tedious.  Her stubborn refusal to listen to what she is told is basically the only thing that drives the drama in this story. And it is hardly an endearing quality.  Yes, eventually Sophie will show a heart of gold, but it’s that refusal to pay any attention to the adults that really defeats her along the way. Even her redemption in the end is based on her refusal to listen to what has been said and instead claim that it is her magic that saves her friend's little brother Will.  She never quite manages to break out of her denial of reality and that is ultimately disturbing (and not inspirational).

Friday, June 07, 2019

The Line Tender, by Kate Allen

When a fisherman hauls home a great white shark that got snared in his nets, Lucy and her friend Fred are entranced by the creature.  The kids have been working on a field guide to local birds and animals and both of them love nature.  

It doesn’t hurt at all that Lucy’s mother was a marine biologist who specialized in great white whales.  For Lucy, studying them now is a way of getting close to her late Mom.  And when tragedy strikes and Fred is killed, Lucy escapes into that interest in sharks, drawing sketches of them and writing postcards to her deceased friend.  She also meets former colleagues of her mother’s who carry on her mother’s work.

Richly illustrated with sketches of sharks, the book is more of a paean to sharks than a story about a girl who is struggling with grief, although both threads are important.  I found it meandering and unfocused, but it has some charming passages, including the explanation of the title (a reference to the watch on a dive who takes care of guiding and retrieving the diver).  It’s nicely written, but hard to track.  I was disappointed.

The Fall of Grace, by Amy Fellner Dominy

When Grace’s mother is accused of running a Ponzi scam, only Grace believes in her mother's innocence.  And when Mom suffers a stroke during her arrest, she’s not there to explain herself so the weight of defending her falls on Grace.

But it isn't only her mother who is going under scrutiny.  After all, Grace benefited materially from her mother's malfeasance. And her association was not entirely benign and innocent.  Grace may have had no direct knowledge of the scam but all through her life, Mom put her out literally front and center, featuring little Grace on the cover of the prospectus.  Suspicions mount that not only did Grace herself know what was going on, but also that she has knowledge of to where the money has disappeared.

Now, months later, Grace has boarded a bus to travel to a place that she believes has answers.  She is tailed by Sam, a loner boy at school with a dead older brother who suspects she is going to collect the missing money.  While she tries to convince him that it is nothing like that, she can’t tell him her secret -- why she is driven to visit a remote location high up in Colorado.  But sharing secrets is what they will do as Grace and Sam risk everything to complete Grace’s desperate quest.

An interesting story that never quite worked for me for two reasons:  the unending brutal horror of the way people turn against Grace (told mostly in flashback) which never really reaches any sort of redemption; and the attempt to spark a romance between Grace and Sam.  I get that they are both outcasts and they both have issues, but I couldn’t care enough to want them together or be happy as they reached any sort of connection.  Plus, how utterly cliché!  So, the story was just a bit too cheesy for me.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

XL, by Scott Brown

Will knows what it means to be looked down upon.  At 4’11”, he’s stuck wearing kid’s clothes.  His stepbrother Drew towers over him at 6’3” and their mutual friend Monica is 5’11”.  Still, Will has big ideas that are all part of The Plan that the three of them have to go to school together after high school, with Drew landing a star turn on the basketball team (even Will doesn’t dream that big for himself!).  When Will makes things complicated by trying to make a move on Monica, he finds that suddenly Drew and Monica are an item and he has been relegated to the short sidekick.

Then the story takes a sudden twist.  Will starts to grow and grow and grow.  He quickly shoots through normal heights and surpasses Drew and just keeps growing.  There seems to be no limit to how large he can grow.  But with big things come big responsibilities.  Things (like The Plan) that were so simple before have grown complicated as all three of them are changing.

Boy books tend to be noted by two characteristics (both of which are present in this book): snarky gross humor and the pedestaling of the love interest.  Whether this is because they are written by male authors (guys who find jokes about semen amusing and can’t create believable female characters) or because we all think that this is what boys want to read (News flash! These books are mostly read by girls!) is up for debate. Admittedly, the book is pretty funny and that certainly makes it easy on the eyes.  But the Monica character is amazingly frustrating.  Like Alaska in John Green’s classic, Searching for Alaska we don’t much chance to know what is going on in her head except that she is pretty angry that Will and Drew don't get her.  As a cipher, she comes off as contradictory and illogical and largely unfathomable.  This is in striking contrast to the boys who seem to be quite articulate and easily read each other.

Louisiana's Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

One night Louisiana's grandmother wakes her up and herds her out to the car.  It's only when they've crossed into Georgia that Louisiana realizes that Granny has no intention of ever returning to Florida.  Instead, Louisiana finds herself in the little town of Richford GA, where she has to literally sing for her supper and the roof over her head.  Granny, driven on by a curse that Louisiana fears haunts her as well, makes a fateful decision that changes everything Louisiana thought she knew about herself.  Shaken to the core by the revelations, Louisiana now has to decide who she wants to be.

Mixing the small town charm that DiCamillo did so well originally back in Because of Winn Dixie, this story features another strong heroine and motley cast of characters who explore the bonds that bring a community together.  Less groundbreaking (of course) and less magical (unfortunately), there is still a wonderful variety to the characters ranging from the surly hotelkeeper to a boy with the pet crow.  And there is a beautiful final lesson about finding one's place wherever life happens to land you.  Charming, albeit a bit slight.

Very Rich, by Polly Horvath

Rupert's family is unbelievably poor.  He doesn't own a coat and he has to sleep under the bed with his brothers.  His family subsists on oatmeal and kitchen scraps that they scavenge.  He dreams of growing up to become someone special so he can help his family.  But when he can't even get a hamburger, how is he ever going to manage something big and life-changing?

Then at Christmas, as the result of a series of random events, he finds himself a guest with the Rivers family -- people who are the opposite of him (i.e., the very rich).  They feed him more food than he's ever seen and lavish him with presents.  But then suddenly all of it is taken away and Rupert is sent home with nothing but fond memories and a full stomach.

That is not the end of it.  In the months that follow, individual members of the family show up and take Rupert away on adventures:  cooking at a fancy restaurant, traveling through time and across the country, and even visiting the White House with the future president.  Not that any of it manages to get Rupert a hamburger, let alone a way to help his family.

A clever and witty story that is very much in the style of Lemony Snicket. It is largely nonsensical and probably best enjoyed as silliness.  The tone is dry and droll and taken literally more than a bit cruel and mean.  But if you like these stories (think Willy Wonka or Series of Unfortunate Events) then you will probably enjoy this one as well.  For myself, I have trouble with its cruelty.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

As a kid
I told my mom
I wanted to be a bird
when I grew up.
She never said
I couldn't.
So for years
I bird-sang my words.
And saved dryer lint
and old gift ribbons
for future nests.

For twelve year-old Birdie, everything around her seems to be changing.  Since her father died in a fire fighting accident, she's relied on Mom and their elderly friend Maymee for stability.  And her friends Nina and Martin are always there as well.  But Maymee's found a beau and even Mom has started dating.  While she is happy about the former, the latter feels like a betrayal of her father and Birdie resists the boyfriend's attempt to befriend her.  Birdie's thought that it might be nice to have Martin as a first boyfriend is thwarted when he and Nina start dating.  About the only thing that provides stability in Birdie's life are the birds that she watches, dutifully collating observation lists every day.

A delightful middle grade story in verse that combines the usual thematic suspects for anxious teen readers: changing friendships, the sudden importance and difficulty of romantic entanglements, evolving families, and growing responsibilities.  The material is not new and the verse is functional, but this compact story is pleasing on several levels.  Particularly endearing are Birdie's gradual acceptance of her mother's new boyfriend, the instructive lesson of Maymee's romance and its challenges, and her struggles with both positive and negative ways of dealing with her jealousy towards Martin and Nina.