Friday, November 01, 2019

Shadowscent, by P. M. Freestone

Rakel dreams of becoming a perfumer.  Her strong sense of smell and her understanding of the science of scents gives her a good chance of success.  But in her world, scents are power, so her goal is ambitious.  Ash is First Prince Nisai’s bodyguard.  When the Prince is struck down by a poison of unknown origin, fate and circumstance brings the two of them together.  Racing against the calendar, they must find a cure.  When an ancient text suggests that the antidote requires rare ingredients from all corners of the Empire, they are off on an epic quest.

A rich and densely-constructed fantasy, packed full of action.  At first, the immense detail is overwhelming and it’s hard to follow the story.  But as the dust settles, the story takes over, but only with some willful disregard of the layers and layers that the author piles on.  I love cultural detail but too much becomes distracting, particularly in the way it is used here to fill lulls in te story.  Whenever the action starts to lag, suddenly we are conveniently introduced to a another legend or an unknown town or a new monster.  What we don’t get is much character development.  The story shows us that Rakel and Ash are pawns in an imperial power play.  But within this book, they are also Firestone’s pawns.  If you like vivid and complex settings and fast-packed action, that probably won’t matter much, but I didn’t have much on which to hang.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book in return for an honest review.  The book is slated for release on November 5, 2019]

Notes from My Captivity, by Kathy Parks

Many years ago, there was a Russian family -- the Osinovs -- who disappeared into the Siberian wilderness.  Lots of rumors abounded about them.  They became legendary for the powers they allegedly possessed, but even their existence was disputed.  And while people sought them out, no one could ever find them.

Adrienne's stepfather Dan is obsessed with finding the family.  He wrote a well-known article about them for The New York Times, but a similarly famous rebuttal has cast him into disgrace. His first attempt a few years ago to actually find them was a failure, but now he is trying again.  Seventeen year-old Adrienne is coming along, mostly to see if Dan is right, but also to exorcise some ghosts of her own.

What begins as a great adventure turns into a horror story as all of the members of the expedition are killed, except for Adrienne.  Marooned deep in Siberian forest, she is taken captive by the Osinov's, who not only exist, but also are very unhappy that she has found them.  As she gets to know the family, she finds that everything about them is more complicate than any myth or legend.

A unusual story that starts as an adventure, becomes a survival story, and eventually turns into a spiritual quest (in a sort of Heart of Darkness way).  The section is by far the most ambitious. It is also the least successful, but it gives the novel an unexpected gravitas.  Ultimately, the story is about forgiveness, but it's a long and twisted journey to reach that stage.

Parks is a good writer.  I enjoyed the Russian that is sprinkled liberally in the dialog.  And I certainly liked the character Adrienne.  The other characters appear too briefly or are too filtered by the language barrier to really make an impact.  Still, each and every one was memorable.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

Identical twins Iris and Lark may look alike but they couldn't be any more different from each other.  Iris is the sensible and analytical one.  Always on time and on top of things, the other kids think she is bossy and a know-it-all (even if she does know everything). It is those talents that help Iris take care of Lark.  For where Iris is organized, Lark is distracted and scattered.  Yet she is the artistic one, creating beauty and dreaming up some many clever stories and situations.

All the way until now, the two girls have been inseparable and united.  But now in fifth grade, the school decides that Iris and Lark should be in separate classes and the twins are horrified at what will happen!  Lark fears that the kids will make fun of her.  Iris worries that if she isn't in the room, she won't be able to protect her sister.

Meanwhile, in the storefront that never seems to manage to keep a business for more than a few months, an inauspicious antique store has opened up.  The mysterious owner of the shop, Mr. Green, posts odd signs out front ("We Are Here" and "Alice Where Are You?").  And while most people avoid the place, Iris finds it fascinating and starts spending time there.  Doing so helps her escape her worries about Lark and is the perfect antidote to the horrible after school program (called "Awesome Girls!") that her mom has enrolled her in.

The story, which seems to owe a debt to Lark more than Iris meanders through many different topics (in addition to those mentioned above, a subplot involving the theft of many valuable objects and another about crows gathering in the neighborhood feature prominently).  Many of these threads are tied together in the end, but it is a bit of a strain.  The book lacks much foreshadowing or continuity, leaving the reader perplexed for most of the story about where all of this is actually going.  I enjoyed the dynamic between the twins and the themes about sisterhood are the most interesting, but Ursu wants to take the story in many other directions and that did not work for me.

The book features numerous drawings by Erin Mcguire, one of my favorite children's artists.

It's Not Like It's a Secret, by Misa Sugiura

Sana and her family have moved to California from Wisconsin. Her mother says it is because of the great new job her father has been offered.  Sana thinks there is another reason: she suspects that her Dad is carrying on an affair.  Sana has seen suspicious messages on her Dad's phone from a San Francisco area code and her father seems to spend a lot of time "working late." Moving to California will put him that much closer to this person.

Meanwhile, at her new school, Sana has fallen in love and the object of her affection is Jamie, a girl on the school's track team.  Sana never given much thought to her orientation, but she's never quite clicked with boys.  Thankfully, being gay at her new school is not a big deal, but race is.  That is important because Sana is Japanese-American and Jamie is a Latina.  As much as the two girls care for each other, there are tensions between their peer groups. Sana is expected to hang out with other Asians and Jamie with the Mexican kids.

Girl meets girl, girl loses girl, and you know the rest...typical romance. But there's some subtlety and some interesting topics raised. When Sana suspects that Jamie is cheating on her, it is too much like what her Dad is doing to her Mom and this give her time to reflect on what her mother is going through.  Sana's Mom's concept of deferred happiness and forbearance driven by the traditional Japanese value of gaman gives Sana a role model to dissect and to which you can contrast herself.

Finally, there's a race angle.  It's pretty brutal to take the complexities of American racial politics and lay them over the insecurities and petty squabbles of a high school.  And yet, that really is happening.  Sugiura has a good ear for the dynamics of it all and has given the story an authentic complexity which is generally missing in most writers.

Somewhere Only We Know, by Maurene Goo

Lucky is about to break it big.  A major K-Pop star, she’s just finished a successful Asian tour and she’s about to come to the States to make her North American debut.  But like all K-Pop singers, her image and her life has been carefully crafted and managed. Somewhere along the way to gaining her success, it all stopped being fun.  On the last night of her tour in Hong Kong, she decides to break free and just try to recapture some of that joy she used to feel in her life.

Jack wants to become a photographer, but there is no way he would ever be allowed by his family.  When he decides to take a gap year, his father insists that Jack work as an intern at his bank.  Jack hates the work, but in the evenings he practices his photography.  He’s discovered a talent for being a paparazzo,taking pictures of celebrities and capturing them in compromising places and positions.

When he spots Lucky, Jack feels that he’s hit paydirt.  Exclusive pictures of the carefully sheltered pop star could be the thing to vaults him to fame and a career.  The fact that she wants to hang out with him just means more opportunities to get photos.  But as the two young people spend the next twenty-four hours touring through Hong Kong, they both find what they are looking for and it isn’t what they were expecting.

By the numbers escapist romance.  There’s not much of a surprise here, but the novel benefits from Goo’s fluid writing, the fun she has showing off the sights of Hong Kong, and two lovable characters.  They are stock stuff, but all the right buttons are pushed.  Enjoyable and fun.

Where I End & You Begin, by Preston Norton

Ezra and Wynonna are not friends, but they have a very special connection:  every day or so they suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies.  It's become more noticeable and frequent since a recent solar eclipse, but as the story unfolds, it seems that the roots of the problem go back much further.

While they are not friends, they have a connection: Ezra has a serious crush on Wynonna’s BFF Imogene.  And Wynonna turns out to be interested in Holden, who is Ezra’s best friend.

And while the body swapping is a problem to be solved, Ezra and Wynonna realize that the unique access they each have to the crush of the other provides an opportunity to tip the scales of love, if not simply put in a good word for each other.  But what ought to simply be an act of setting each other up for romantic success gets more complicated when it turns out that Imogene may actually be gay and longs after Wynonna.  That works out pretty well when Ezra is inhabiting Wynonna’s body, but spells doom for the eventual future when (Ezra and Wynonna hope) they will be back in their own bodies.  All of this confusion and chaos is set against a high school production of Twelfth Night.

Light and funny, the swapping of bodies leads to any number of humorous situations.  Unfortunately,  Norton's selection mostly is limited to erections and menstruation.  As with so many male writers, Norton doesn’t do female characters well and assumes boys should be portrayed as only interested in erections and farting.  That's a drag since there’s plenty of lost opportunity to reflect on gender differences and similarities.

Some good scenes and things get funny when the relationships start getting physical (and you never quite know who will be occupying whose body) but the story itself was too long.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Grief Keeper, by Alexandra Villasante

A unique science fiction novel that combines elements of the immigration debate, depression, and an unusual lesbian romance.

Marisol knows that her family has always been followed by La Mala Suerte -- bad luck.  Even when every contingency is accounted for, the luck will find you, Marisol believes.  Nothing proves this better than her current state.  On the run from gangs in their native El Salvador who want to kill her and her little sister Gabi, the two girls have appealed for asylum in the United States.  However, their case doesn't go well and it seems likely they will get deported when they meet a skeptical interviewer and their sponsor dies.

But then Marisol is presented with an unusual proposition.  A mysterious woman who seems to work for the government explains that there is an experimental device that can literally suck the grief out of one person and deliver it to another.  The device is intended to treat war veterans suffering from PTSD.  Its effects on the receiver is uncomfortable, she is told, but not fatal.

In exchange for agreeing to be a recipient, Marisol and her sister will get Green Cards.  Given the suffering they have experienced simply getting to the North, Marisol is willing to do whatever it takes to assure that her sister will be safe.  She agrees. 

The grieving person turns out to be a girl around Marisol's age named Rey.  Rey is resistant to the idea of having her depression "cured" so Marisol works hard to win over Rey's trust (after all, if Rey resists the treatment, the deal will be called off and Marisol and her sister will be deported).  To Marisol's surprise, as she gains Rey's trust and the treatment starts to work, their relationship turns romantic.  Is the technology curing Rey or is it the feelings that the girls have for each other? All the time, La Mala Suerte is not too far away.

As with most good science fiction, the technology is simply window dressing for a good theme.  Combining issues of race and privilege, this story is really about depression and grieving, and what human connections are really about.  It is a complicated story and is difficult to describe without producing spoilers, so suffice it to say that the ending is thought provoking.  Throw in two great heroines as well as their tender love for each other and it makes a great story.

Since We Last Spoke, by Brenda Rufener

When Cal died in a car accident and his girlfriend Kate killed herself in grief ten days later, it drove a spike between their two families.  The families sued each other, blaming each other for the deaths of their children.  Cal’s brother Max and Kate’s sister Aggi – who had been in their own relationship – were forbidden from seeing each other.  (I’ll give you a guess as to how successful that went!)

Nearly a year later, the families still don’t speak, but Aggi and Max yearn after each other.  But even if they dared to risk the families’ wrath and spoke, what would they say?  Because while they share a similar pain and ache for what they had, breaking the ice is difficult.

An ambitious and strong beginning falls flat in the end.  By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked and totally wanted to see how these two would break through their grief and address their pain and resentment.  The family dynamics would make things complicated I knew, but first and foremost there would be their own emotional baggage to address.  But Rufener is not quite up to the task.  She falls back on melodrama and adventure (a shared adventure brings everyone to set aside their differences) and ditches the inner dialogue of her two characters.  Why does Max bring home girls and flaunt them in front of Aggi?  We never really go there.  Instead, we simply jump forward to an afterword that assures us that the wounds have healed offstage.  Argh!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Alone Together, by Sarah J. Donovan

Sadie is the ninth child in a large Catholic family in Chicago.  As the story opens, she's been caught stealing from work, but she's hardly the biggest sinner in her family.  One sister has a girlfriend, another sibling is living in sin, and her younger sister is pregnant for a child of her own.  The older children stay away altogether.  Her Dad is unemployed and moping around the house. Mom seems to be carrying on an affair.  At the best of times, living in such a large family is challenging, if not utter chaos.

Told in verse, Alone Together traces how Sadie finds her own separate identity within this family, both being part of it and also staking out her independence. Family for Sadie is neither a help or a hindrance. While she obviously relishes moments of quiet and at one point marvels over what it would be like to live in a home with fewer people, she loves her family and accepts their presence as it is.

It's a subtle work, with lots of inward thinking (helped along by the verse format which accommodates her scattered thoughts) and little action.  While the poetry does occasionally lean towards poignancy, Donovan is actually quite restrained.  The result is a deep work that has a unique voice -- worldly and informed, but not as jaded as many of today's heroines.  Barely publicized and a bit hard to get a hold of, the book is a quick and rewarding read and deserving of more attention.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez, by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

Sonia is bright and hard working.  She's determined to be the first member of her family to graduate from high school.  However, sometimes she simply can't get to school because her family needs her.  Family is everything.  And in her family, the girl takes care of the house.  Her brothers are free to run around and do as they please, but it is Sonia's job to prepare the meals and clean the house.  If there is time afterwards to do homework and go to school, then she can go.  Faced with this burden, it is a challenge to keep up her attendance.  Her teachers are unsympathetic and wherever she turns, she can find no allies.  At home her mother lazes around and a freeloading aunt and a lecherous uncle add to her misery.

A grueling litany of the socioeconomic forces working against a young Latina.  Written specifically for reluctant readers, Sitomer obviously hopes that the subject matter will resonate with Latinx readers in similar positions in real life.  It's a noble goal, but I'm more intrested in examining the book on its own merits

It is an interesting peek at a world far removed from most of us.  Sonia is very strong and determined and easy to root for.  The book is easy to read and the regular insertion of Spanish into the text feels natural and non-intrusive.  One does tire of the idealism and generalizations (hearing how all Mexicans behave, how all men behave, etc.) and some of the events (a trip to Mexico, a race riot at school, etc.) seem stuffed in for no reason except to provide us discussion topics for a classroom reading.  Still, I think this is a good book in spite of its pedagogical ambitions.  I enjoyed it.

Like a Love Story, by Abdi Nazemian

1989.  New York.  While AIDS is no longer a mystery, battling it and stopping the deaths has become deeply politicized. ACT UP activists stage protests and civil disobedience actions around the city, demanding that AZT be made available affordably and that other more experimental drugs be released by the FDA.

Reza and his mother have just moved to the City from Canada.  She’s married a wealthy Wall Street businessman and they have been welcome into the local Persian community.  Reza has gained a stepbrother and a new school.  What he longs for is a boyfriend, but what he fears even more than coming out is contracting AIDS.  Obsessed with the dying of gay men around him, Reza is afraid to open his heart.  He hides his true feelings and tries hard to be straight.

At his new school, Reza meets Art – fearless and a little crazy and sexy as hell -- and his straight friend Judy.  Judy and Art both fall for Reza and Reza (though he is strongly attracted to Art) throws himself at Judy.  He doesn't really like her that way, but he tries to become straight, seeing a relationship with Judy as a way of being socially acceptable and avoiding disease.  It doesn't work and as these three teens fall in love and break each other’s hearts, the reader follows.  

A beautifully written novel that will make your heart ache repeatedly.  As is to be expected, there is death in it, but there is also wonderful heartwarming scenes of the living. I approached the book with caution, figuring I would hate it and toss it aside as irrelevant to me, but I couldn’t put it down.  Normally, I have no interest in historical novels, especially those gratuitously placed in recent times.  Far too often, they feel like some a trip down memory lane by an author who has nothing to say.  But Nazemian has things to say.  Important things.  Political without being didactic, the novel approaches the AIDS epidemic and how it was viewed in those days with immense compassion. Ultimately, this is a book about the power of love to get us through life, dying, and death.  I’m calling it the best book I’ve read so far in 2019 (and we’re running out of time to topple it from that position).  Highly recommended, even if you're skeptical that you want to read a book about AIDS. 

Friday, October 04, 2019

Hot Dog Girl, by Jennifer Dugan

Lou is stuck being the Hot Dog Girl for another summer at Magic Castle.  Walking around dressed up like a giant wiener isn't exactly the way you get your crush Nick (this summer's Diving Pirate) to notice you.  It would seem that he only has eyes for Jessa (the Princess, naturally!), but this is Lou's last chance and she's determined to try.  Nick is going off to college in the fall and the Magic Castle is closing forever after the summer ends.

Lou has plans.  She convinces her best friend Seeley to pretend to be her lover in order to make Nick jealous (everyone knows that Seeley is queer and most folks assume Lou is as well).  As Lou plots it, the two girls will date for a while and then "break up" and then Lou will somehow end with Nick.  Along the way, Lou's also got a plan to save Magic Castle so it won't have to close.  But Lou discovers that even the best contrived plans will go astray, when she realizes that her relationship with Seeley is more real than she had planned for.

Summer stories set at amusement parks have been told often enough that it's almost a sub-genre.  There's not much new ground to cover here!  But the bisexual element of the story is a new angle and its matter-of-fact treatment is nice.  Lou has a complex character and meaningful interactions with Seeley and her father that defy the stereotypes of friendships and parent-child relationships.  The story, however, drifted and wandered too much for me and I found it hard to get into, despite being a brisk read.

Creep, by Eireann Corrigan

For many years, the Langsoms had been living at 16 Olcott Place, but after a scandal involving Dr Langsom, they were forced to move out.  Next door neighbor Olivia wondered who would move in, and when the Donahues arrive with a daughter her age, Livvie is excited to have a new girl next door.  Janie Donahue and Livvie are both starting ninth grade this year and have a lot in common.  They become fast friends, much to the consternation of Livvie’s existing friends.

And then mysterious threatening letters start to show up at the Donahue house.  Demanding that the Donahues move out of the house immediately, the writer promises that blood will flow if they don’t go.  Terrified, but also obsessed with figuring out what is going on, Livvie and Janice dig through the town’s and her family's history in search of a scary stalker.

My initial impression when I opened the book was that this was going to be some sort of supernatural horror story and I wasn't too enthusiastic about reading it.  But, in fact, the story starts out as a fairly normal YA about two girls having typical friendship and family struggles.  The creepy stuff doesn’t even start until nearly fifty pages in and only ratchets up slowly.  Horror fans will probably be disappointed with what is largely just a book about a new kid in town.  The action does pick up in the end, but the pacing is uneven and the entire ending felt rushed.  That leaves the story a bit confusing as so much of the earlier build up gets lost in the end.  Entire subplots about Livvie's struggles with juggling old friends and Janie or her romantic lead get shunted off and forgotten.  But who honestly would still care about a budding romance when there was a psychopathic killer in the house?  Or about friends who feel slighted?

[I received an ARC of this book from the publisher free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book was released on October 1st]

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Upside of Falling Down, by Rebekah Crane

Clementine wakes up in an Irish hospital bed to discover that she's the lone survivor of a plane crash.  But without any memories, she knows only what she has been told.  She doesn't know what she was doing on the plane or why she was traveling.  Her father is coming to collect her and take her home to Cleveland, but she doesn't even know him.  Panicked by her amnesia and her sense that nothing makes sense anymore, she flees the hospital.

Kieran, a young hospital volunteer, finds her in mid-flight.  Not eager to reveal her real identity, she tells him her name is Jane and invents a story about why she is on the run.  On a dare, he agrees to help her get away and takes her to a secluded small town on the east coast of Ireland.  As the weeks go by, her lies grow more complex and her relationship with Kieran grows stronger.  She begins to think that having forgotten her past life is a blessing.  Now she only wants to live for the future, a future with Kieran and far far away from whatever she was running from that is in Cleveland.

A wistful but strong romance.  I have mixed feelings about the ending, but I will grant that it fit the story (even if it was not the ending I wanted).  In between is a novel about two lost people who find each other.  It's not a particularly sexy story (Jane/Clementine and Kieran make an enchanting couple, but not a particularly hot one) but it doesn't need to be for such well fleshed out characters.  And they are surrounded by vibrant supporting roles like Kieran's snarky sister Siobhan or the shop owner Clive who are equally enjoyable to spend time with.  This may not contain much literary value, but still managed to be a superior romance and wonderful entertainment.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Change of Heart, by Shari Maurer

Emmi's soccer team has made it to Regionals and she is determined to not let a bad cold hold her back.  No matter how much of a struggle it is, she figures she can push herself through it.  But then she starts have trouble breathing and she passes out on the field.  Back home, her symptoms grow more severe and her parents take her to the hospital.  She’s contracted viral myocarditis and it has permanently damaged her heart.  She needs a heart transplant or she will die.

Most of the rest of the story traces her journey as a transplant patient, from waiting anxiously on the wait list to the surgery and the follow-up treatment.  Along the way, various hurdles (aborted transplants, relapses, and constant monitoring) are called up.

The title of the novel has a second meaning.  During this ordeal, Emmi finds her feelings for her boyfriend Sam are challenged. And when she befriends Eli, a fellow adolescent transplant recipient, she is tempted to stray.

While I enjoyed most of the story, the rushed ending was a disappointment.  Emmi is a great character.  Articulate and independent, she makes a good narrator for the complicated journey in this novel.  And it is those details (Maurer certainly did her homework) that make this book an interesting read.

No Fixed Address, by Susin Nielsen

Felix and his mother Astrid have gradually been slipping through cracks in the social net.  Suffering from emotional issues, Astrid can't hold down a job. After getting shuffled from one place to another, they have ended up living in a van, moving it from time to time in order to avoid arousing suspicion.  Felix longs for stability and a fixed address.  With a home, they could have simple things like a bathroom!  At school, he manages to do well.  He has two close friends, but he can't tell them why he can't invite them home for fear that they will report his mother to the authorities.

Felix also has an incredible head for trivia and he's a whiz playing along with the contestants on the TV quiz show "Who, What, Where, When." When the producers of that show announce a special junior edition, he's excited to apply for a slot and ecstatic when he is invited on the show.  But it is the discovery that there is a large cash prize for the winner which raises the stakes.  With that money, he could get them an apartment and help get Astrid back up on her feet.

While I hate child endangerment stories, the book works for me for two reasons.  First of all, because the usual sadistic litany of misfortunes is kept to a minimum.  We get there is a lot of challenges in his living situation but it is not utterly hopeless.  But what really helps is the way that the tough times are countered by sweetness.  Nielsen has chosen to highlight the kindness that people can do for each other. Several times there are opportunities for hard things to get worse (for example, when Felix is caught stealing food) but the story chooses to show people being kind (the grocer, after initially threatening the boy takes him in and feeds him).  The message is that being kind and generous to those truly in need (or even simply decent) can pay off.  The happy/weepy and ultimately satisfying ending doesn't hurt either!

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Braced, by Alyson Gerber

Rachel has really been improving her soccer game and coach has started letting her play on offense.  She even bends the rules to let Rachel off for a last-minute doctor’s appointment.  Unfortunately, the doctor has bad news:  Rachel has developed a curvature in her spine – scholiosis – and will need to wear a back brace for at least the next six months for most of the day.  Suddenly, all of Rachel’s dreams (soccer, most of all) are threatened by having to wear the hideous uncomfortable appliance.  It makes every movement uncomfortable and derails her game.  Soon, coach has her back on defense and won’t even let her start.  She hates the way she looks in it and the way people look at her, but most of all she hates feeling like a freak.

A sensitive and insightful middle reader about a health issue of relevance to its target audience.  Many girls develop spinal issues in middle school or have a classmate who does.   As the only boy in my class who was diagnosed with scholiosis (I was lucky enough to not need a brace), this particular story spoke to me directly and I think I might have enjoyed a book like it at the time.

Gerber has done an excellent job creating a story that is entertaining to read, yet full of facts about the disease and its treatment.  That the characters are authentic and interesting is a bonus, as are the realistic family interactions.  For me, stories stand out when they either do something new (rare) or take on an issue which has been written about before.  This is a good example of the latter.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

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.