Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Finding Mr. Better-Than-You, by Shani Petroff

Camryn gets a rude shock at the start of her senior year when her guidance counselor informs her that her lack of extracurriculars is probably going to doom her chances of getting into Columbia.  This is followed by a very public dumping by her boyfriend Marc at a local hangout.  All of which leads to a lot of re-examination of priorities as Cam realizes that she has defined much of her life by trying to be there for Marc, instead of for herself.  While this reflection has some positive effect and sends her out to try trying new things, including joining yearbook, writing for the school paper, and becoming a school mascot, too much of the old ways persist.

Cam is a fan of rom-coms and believes that there is a "Mr. Right" out there for her.  At first, she's convinced that it's still Marc and so she tries dating friends of his to make him jealous.  When that doesn't work she tries finding a new boyfriend on her own, and eventually her friends try to set her up.  None of it really works and she eventually figures out that she is just trying too hard.  Through it all, her friends are loyally there for her and by the end of the novel she finds that Mr. Right actually isn't anywhere nearby, but since this is high school anyway, maybe it's just fine to stick to having friends.

Why this takes her an entire novel to come to terms with is anyone's guess.  She's pretty bright and intelligent and keeps on reminding herself that she has great friends, but her stubborn determination to find a boyfriend at least gives us a story to track, even if it doesn't always make much sense.  None of it is particularly dramatic and the story really doesn't have much of a point to make beyond the fact that high school dating pool is pretty shallow,.  The book is readable and mostly enjoyable, like the rom-coms that Camryn enjoys so much.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Girl Gone Viral, by Arvin Ahmadi

Opal Hopper is a senior at an elite computer science-centered high school in Palo Alto.  But her life, like that of most young people, centers around WAVE, a world-wide virtual reality platform, created by Palo Alto Labs (which also happens to bankroll her school).  Her presence in VR takes on a new meaning when she and her friends hack into PAL's data stream and start crunching through users' biometric monitoring (data that PAL has taken from users on WAVE).  Realizing how much power resides in such personal data, they turn that data around back on the users.  The epiphany that this unleashes on WAVE causes Opal and her channel to go viral, launching them into an elite world with millions of followers.  It also brings them to the attention of the greedy and the powerful, from the wealth of venture capitalists to the subversive political wrath of the emerging Luddites.

Opal, however, is not interested in influence and power.  She wants answers.  Seven years ago, her father, a brilliant computer scientist, went missing.  And no one will tell her the truth about his disappearance.  But one of the last people to see him was Howie Mendelsohn, the founder of PAL.  Mendelsohn is a hermit and won't meet with just anyone, but if Opal becomes the biggest thing on WAVE, there is no way that she'll be refused an audience.

Original and innovative, the book is tricky and tedious to read but rewards the effort with striking observations about technology.  I found myself alternately annoyed by the technological gibberish that fills Ahmadi's prose and astounded by his insights on tech.  With the reactionary "Luddites" serving as a surrogate from Trumpism, Ahmadi sends us into a deep exploration of how tech brings us both a better society and simultaneously weakens us for a populist backlash.  For Opal and her peers, there is no reasonable alternative than to move forward into a world of virtual reality, but her elders (and many readers) will achingly find themselves hanging on to some elements of the Luddite manifesto.  It's very subversive and the ideas raised will stick with you a long long time.

Good ideas do not however an excellent novel make.  Ahmadi is trying to be clever and he's also trying to describe a world that does not have a physical existence and which does not behave in the way we expect it to.  And, while it is easy to get swept away by the magic, he also has a human story (the final human touch, as he'll put it later, that must always be in charge) to tell.  That's a lot to bite off and it makes the book hard to create and (wherever he falls down) hard to digest.  There are numerous places where the story doesn't track, where action scenes and/or dialog make no sense, and where the logic of the story simply collapses.  In many ways, that is part of the experience, but for readers like me that search for human connections and human truths (and are more than a bit Luddite!) this isn't a story we enjoy.  The end result is a mediocre novel with terribly important things to say about the future.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Silence Between Us, by Alison Gervais

Moving to Colorado poses challenges for Maya and her little brother.  Maya has been deaf since a case of meningitis a few years ago, but she's felt protected by being in a school for the deaf.  With the move to Colorado, she's forced to attend regular school, using an interpreter in her classes.  It's hard work lip reading and following her interpreter's signing, and it's painful to be an object of stares and gossip from her peers.  But what gets at Maya the most is the judgment that she senses that the hearing folks have about her condition.  They seem only capable of pity and she sees that they assume that she is miserable being deaf.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  she likes being who she is.

Her year presents other challenges:  her little brother is sick, she faces discrimination from peers/teachers/employers, and fights pressure from various sources that want her to get a cochineal implant so she won't have to "endure" being deaf.  Meanwhile, she surprises herself by falling in love with Beau.  Beau is a bright and intelligent boy who teaches himself sign language so he can talk with her and has plans to go to Yale, but has dreams of his own that he doesn't dare reveal.

It's a very busy little story, full of ideas, but Gervais really struggles to tie them together and resolve them.  The strength of the book is its glimpse inside of the character of a deaf teenager.  Gervais works hard to show what communicating with a mix of lip reading, signing, and speech is like.  The novel also touches on a variety of important issues for deaf people ranging from the history of disability rights to discrimination, and pays special attention to the debate over children getting implants.  But as a story, nothing really comes together and I felt very little emotional connection with the characters or sensed much of one between them.  Gervais has an episodic format, focusing on her challenges, but that doesn't give us much room to develop a character and doesn't create an organic flow.  A major casualty is the underdeveloped romance with Beau.  Subplots (like Beau's conflict with his father or Maya's brother's health issues) are just left to lay there.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

It's My Life, by Stacie Ramey

Jenna's always been a fighter.  Born with cerebral palsy, she's been through countless treatments and surgeries, and endured the challenges of crutches and wheelchairs.  She's worked hard because she's felt that her condition was simply bad luck.  When she uncovers the fact that she was the subject of a medical malpractice suit against her obstetrician, she comes to realize that it was her doctor's fault that made her this way.  Angry at not ever being told the truth, she gives up on her studying and starts to demand a voice in her own treatment.  And when her parents refuse to consent to the latter, she sues them for medical emancipation.

At the same time, Julian, a boy that Jenna once knew from years ago, has moved back into the area.  He's lost much of his confidence but none of his charm, and Jenna reaches out to him, rekindling memories.  But afraid of being rejected, she sends him anonymous.  These develop into mutual affection.  But now Jenna is afraid that if she reveals herself to him as the correspondent that he'll reject her because she is crippled.  Eventually, of course, all must be revealed.

Great characters, including a surprisingly strong finish from Jenna's parents, coupled with a lot of growth from Jenna makes this a moving story.  But I still found it a hard slog because of the uneven pacing and storytelling.  Important details are easy to miss in a story that frequently seems to drift.  Key plot points are poorly explained, leaving mysteries that the reader has to work hard to figure out.  It doesn't help that the two separate stories don't overlap and never come together.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Me, Him, Them, and It, by Caela Carter

Evelyn ("me") is pretty surprised when she finds herself pregnant.  She'd only let Todd ("him") have unprotected sex a couple of times! She was getting a prescription for the Pill when they found out it was too late.  Telling her estranged parents ("them") about it is incredibly difficult, but she'e eventually going to have to find a way to do so.  In the end the baby ("it") is coming, whether she's ready for it or not.  And for the most part, she's definitely not ready!

Evelyn is a very difficult character to get into.  Reviewers have compared her to Juno (from the eponymous indie film), but I think of her as more like Cher (from Clueless -- or Emma, Cher's model).  She's lost and confused but also maddeningly stubborn and difficult to like.  She sees everything negatively.  She hates everyone (including herself).  Her best trait is her steadfast refusal to make decisions.

Some of these flaws are understandable.  She has emotionally cold parents and no role-model for empathy, but she's intelligent and insightful.  So her inability to overcome those barriers (and yes, she never overcomes them) is off-putting.  It's also understandable that the decisions she needs to make would be hard for any adolescent, but plenty of them do make the decisions, so Evelyn's refusal to even try is hard to sympathize with.  But it's realistic.

So, I'm left with a conundrum:  the novel's well written with a complex protagonist, well-drawn supporting characters, and (with the exception of some minor rushing of the story at the end) decent storytelling, but it's not a fun read.  I didn't like Evelyn but I found her authentic enough to care about her and that's a strong mark in this book's favor.  Ultimately, I didn't find it a redeeming story, but I learned things from it.  I think few authors have done as good of a job at getting inside the head of a pregnant adolescent girl before and Carter does an amazing job.  In Evelyn's case, it's not a pleasant place to visit.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Lucky Caller, by Emma Mills

When Nina signs up for an elective in radio broadcasting in her senior year, she finds herself stuck with a bunch of misfits and an old friend, Jamie.  She and Jamie haven't talked much since an unfortunate kissing dare back in middle school, despite the fact that they live in the same apartment building.  But now that they are working together, the opportunity arises for a lot of old baggage and forgotten feelings to  reemerge.

At the same time, the radio show causes Nina to reconnect with her estranged father.  A local celebrity when he was a DJ in the area (before moving out West and becoming a major star), Nina talks him into appearing on their radio show as an attempt to boost their ratings and improve their grade.  But when a rumor starts up that the upcoming "surprise guest" on their show is actually an underground musical recluse named Tyler Blight, the event blows up into a major event.  Faced with disappointment from rabid fans who are planning to attend the broadcast of the interview, Nina and her team have to figure out a way to manage the event.  But when Nina's Dad bails out and fails to show, an unexpected angel saves the day.

A bit of a messy plot (including a romance that never really clicks and a family reunion that peters out), Lucky Caller is rescued by an ending which is as heart warming as it is completely ridiculous.  Surprisingly, none of the loose ends really start to bother you until you have finished the book.  It's a feel good story with lots of good ideas, most of which never quite gel or come together, but it remains enjoyable throughout.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Orpheus Girl, by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Living in her small conservative town is dangerous for sixteen year-old Raya and her lover Sarah.  They've seen how the town deals with other kids who come out as homosexuals, but they feel powerless to avoid the certain outcome.  While they try to keep their relationship a secret, they are eventually found out and sent away to a remote conversion camp:  to be made un-gay.

The rest of this short book outlines the horrifying torture that Raya, Sarah, and other teens undergo in misguided attempts to "cure" their sexual orientation.  The author tries to give the story some weight by drawing analogies to Grecian myths, but these are fairly subtle and likely to be overlooked.  The storytelling is anything but and comes with a content warning, but compared to similar YA novels, I wouldn't consider this story particularly triggering, even if it is certainly not a pleasant read.

More fundamentally, the story is thin.  Raya and her background as a closet lesbian in her small town is an interesting story.  Similarly interesting is Char, a "cured" lesbian who now works at the camp administering electroshock therapy.  But neither they nor the other characters are all that well developed.  The book has shock value, but without much character development this is largely senseless.  More character study could have added gravitas to what is just pretty words about ugly things.  For a better treatment of the same subject matter, see The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Three Things I Know Are True, by Betty Culley

Clay and Liv always enjoyed playing Three Things down by the river.  The rules are simple:  one person provides the subject and other has to respond with three facts about that subject.  The only restriction is that all three of those things have to be true.

Truth used to be easy, but it's grown considerably harder since Liv's brother Jonah was injured while Jonah and Clay were fooling around with a gun that belonged to Clay's father.  Now Jonah lies comatose, hooked up to numerous machines (his new "friends" thinks Liv and she gives them all names) and tended by home nurses around the clock.  While it was Jonah who basically shot himself, the gun was left out unattended and Liv's mother is thus suing Clay's father for Jonah's care.  For Liv who misses having Clay around and for Clay who misses his best friend, it is hard to know where loyalties should lay.  Culley's verse novel explores these ambiguities and how one moves on from such a tragedy.

Novels in verse, as I always warn, can be very good, but they are frequently bad.  This one does not stand out.  The poetry is rarely interesting in and of itself, neither in structure nor in content.  Culley simply doesn't have much to say about the tragic set-up that she's created.  There's some attempts at speaking about the river that flows by their home.  The Three Things game comes up as a repeating motif.  But no great drama comes brings the story to a climax and in the end the characters peter out in their own ways, none of them learning much in the process.  The verse in the end mostly serves as a way to take a fairly thin story and stretch it out into over 400 pages.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Girl Who Speaks Bear, by Sophie Anderson

Discovered in the woods when she was a baby, Yanka has never quite felt like she fit in her village.  For one thing, she's so much stronger than the other children.  Her Mamochka watches her closely and seems overly protective, keeping Yanka as far away from the forest as she can.

One day, after she's turned twelve, Yanka wakes to find that her legs have turned into those of a bear.  Afraid of what the villagers will think of her transformation, she flees into the woods.  As she does so, she is reminded of a story that a woodsman named Anatoly told her about a girl whose family were cursed with living their lives as bears.  In fact, as she ventures in deeper, she begins to realize that a whole series of fairy tales she has heard over the years address her current predicament.  Anatoly the woodsman wasn't just telling her stories, he was trying to tell her about her own life.

The stories, which are delightful in their own right, are interspersed throughout Yanka's quest -- a trek that will include defeating a dragon, saving a magic tree, and eventually risking everything to save her village from a raging forest fire.  Each fairy tale, while a digression, serve as an oracle of what is to come,  in an ambitious attempt to demonstrate the role of fairy tale and myth in culture.

While this novel is more ambitious, I found Anderson's first novel (The House with Chicken Feet) more whimsical and fun.  Both books borrow creatively from Russian folk tale, but this second time around there is a lot more ground to cover and a plot which is more complicated and oft times confusing.  The endless feats that Yanka must confront and overcome become exhausting and one wonders if Anderson could have trimmed it down.  It certainly feels, in all that complexity, that the magical simplicity of a fairy tale is basically lost.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Mozart Girl, by Barbara Nickel

Nannerl Mozart is talented and creative, but when your little brother is the toast of Europe, you will find yourself in the shadows!  And not so much for the talent that he obviously possessed, but for being the boy.  For no matter how skilled and hard-working Nannerl is, she'll never be allowed to become a professional musician.  Her efforts will always be treated as a fancy and considered a gimmick.  Nonetheless, she is determined that none of that will stop her from her dreams.  And this Christmas, when she and her brother are performing in Versailles for the King and Queen of France, Nannerl intends to unveil nothing less than a full symphony that she's written!

A modest and enjoyable middle grade historical novel about a little known piece of musical and women's history.  Some of the adventures may strike the reader as implausible, but Nickel does a remarkable job of avoiding anachronistic thoughts and feelings, while still making Nannerl instantly relatable (especially for anyone who's experienced sibling jealousy).  The result is a heroine who is charming and inspirational, as she seizes the day and pursues her dreams.  The book ends with historical notes, a chronology, and a selected bibliography that will fulfill any wishes for readers who want to learn more about Wolfgang's older sister.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Don't Read the Comments, by Eric Smith

Divya is a hot online gaming sensation.  Her live feeds are followed by thousands, playing a game called Reclaim the Sun.  She has fans and endorsements and she makes a modest income from her playing which she uses to help pay for her mother's continuing education.  But she's also picked up some enemies, particularly among the gamer bro community who see her as an unwelcome trespasser. Some of them are your usual trolls (posting their bile whenever they can, but largely all talk and no action).  Divya has her strategy for dealing with their misogynist and racist comments:  she simply doesn't read what they have to say.  That's all fine and good until a group appears on her gaming session and attacks her and her friends.  The group, which calls itself Vox Populi then goes much further, turning to physical attacks in the real world.

The other half of the story is Aaron, who writes scripts for games and is part of a team that is on the verge of their first release.  He dreams of making it big and getting rich, but he can't even get the person running the project to pay him.  His mother, suspicious that he's being taken advantage of, discourages from spending his time writing.  Aaron, to escape from it all, plays on Reclaim the Sun, where he happens to stumble across Divya.  And in the midst of their two troubles, they find a common bond in their gaming.

Smith has a lot of knowledge about online gaming, using the jargon and understanding the dynamics of multi-player games in a way that shows that he's a fan.  I'm an outsider, so I'll defer to someone else about how authentic the story is, but nothing glaring shouts out.

I can speak more confidently about the storytelling.  Of the two main plot lines, Divya's is really the more interesting and meaningful.  Aaron, who struggles with standing up for himself and winning the respect of his parents is in familiar (and boring) YA territory.  Any spark of romance between Aaron and Divya is undeveloped and not terribly interesting, so we can nix the romantic angle.  That leaves us with Divya facing off against the misogyny in the gaming community, which I found interesting,having heard a little about this in the news.  The rest felt distracting.

We certainly could have used less distraction, because as entertaining as this book is, so much of the story never really gels.  Consider the long list of ideas that get introduced and just sit out there like unexplored worlds:  Divya's fan club, her relationship with her BFF Rebekah, Rebekah's own troubles with men, Divya's relationship with her mother (and that doesn't even get us near any of Aaron's more numerous loose ends).  It is a sloppy story, but that won't distract you from enjoying it, because even a poorly plotted story can be successful with some pretty things to watch and a lot of well-paced action -- sort of like playing a couple rounds of games.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Every Reason We Shouldn't, by Sara Fujimura

When Olivia crashed and burned in her last skating competition, it seemed that her dream of heading to the Olympics was basically dead. She would never get to reach the heights of her world famous Olympian parents, but instead simply be stuck in Phoenix helping out at her family's struggling ice skating rink.  Still, not everything about the change is bad.  No longer pursuing professional skating opens up the chance to be a normal teenager, attend regular school, and start exploring her other dreams.  And there are definitely downsides to a career in skating as she can see as her mother struggles with physical damage from her years in the limelight and her father is stuck out on a grueling tour with Olympians on Ice in order to pay the bills.

Then a young speedskater named Jonah shows up.  He and his family have relocated to Phoenix and he needs a place to practice for his Olympic bid.  He brings much-needed money to pay for his rink time, but he also reignites Olivia's interest in skating.  Chemistry builds between them, but their dreams are leading them in different directions.  Meanwhile, Olivia's mother is taking a turn for the worse and she needs expensive medical treatment that they cannot afford, unless they sell the rink, leaving Olivia without her home base.

A satisfactory romance and athletic adventure, but the storytelling slips off the rails too often for my tastes with muddled endings and incomplete idea.  Some of the key plot points that never quite get finished explored include Olivia's biracial background and the possibility of Olivia and Jonah skating together.  These are not casually mentioned ideas.  They are actually built up steadily through the story, but then get tossed aside and forgotten.  Climactic moments in this book tend to be confusing to track (I did a lot of re-reading).  Action just isn't Fujimura's strength.  That's a problem.  No matter how good the characters are, if the story doesn't deliver, they are basically orphaned, and that is what happened here.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Furious Thing, by Jenny Downham

Lexi has a fiery temper, is quick to verbally lash out when she feels attacked, and prone to violence.  Her peers and the adults around her can't make sense of it.  Little things seem to set her off. Her reactions are entirely out of proportion.  Her mother and stepfather-to-be fret and worry about what to do with her.  He thinks it might be time to look into medication or institutionalization.  And for the first hundred pages or so, the reader is pretty much in agreement:  Lexi's about as unsympathetic a protagonist as one could dream up.  I honestly was about to toss the book.

But then the veneer starts to crack and the reasons for Lexi's seemingly inexplicable behavior become -- shockingly -- clear.  Her family is deliriously dysfunctional.  Her mother is obsessed with pleasing her fiancee, a man who turns out to be a cruelly abusive control freak.  He gaslights the entire family and drives away anyone who has the strength to leave (including her first wife and his son).  For those who don't have the strength like her mother and her half-sister, Lexi stays around to defend them by "becoming the monster"-- turning violent as a way of redirecting his abuse towards her.

Lexi gets described midway through the book as a "survivor," but she's much more than that: a total badass, proto-mama bear, and general monster.  Lexi would describe life as a fairy tale, but she would mean that is the sense that it is a story in which you stuff witches in ovens and burn them alive.  She's a tough and brave character, but she's also achingly weak and lonely.  Ultimately, she's inspirational, working her way from victimhood to angry rage to choosing to cultivate love instead of hate.  And finally, to finding her voice and understanding that love isn't something we earn.  It's something we simply deserve. Because the writing is so good, I'll try tempting you to do so the same by giving away that things sort of work out in the end, so you can at least see Lexi pull herself out of her trap.  But you won't come out feeling that good about grownups.

Unpleasant characters and a gripping story line make this a novel you hate reading but don't quite manage to put down (unless you're strong enough to just walk away).  I'm not that strong, so I was there to the bitter end. This is an angry book (written by an author who wants us to be angry as well).  If you like a book to really piss you off, then this is an excellent read.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What I Carry, by Jennifer Longo

Muir has learned from seventeen years in foster care how to survive:  travel light and don't make friends.  That way it will all go easier when it's time to go.  Whenever things have gotten tough or they have gotten too good, she's known it was time to go.  Now, within a year of aging out of the system, she's almost out!

Being free is a mixed blessing. She'll also be without support and without a distinct plan.  But that's OK.  She'll figure out a way to manage -- she always has.

Aging out gracefully and starting anew, however, is thrown awry in her final placement.  She's been sent to an island and placed with a woman who is herself about to retire from fostering kids.  Muir, who has tried so hard to form no connections, finds herself drawing closer to her foster mother, forming bonds with two kids (Kira and Sean), and even becoming attached to the family dog.  No matter what Muir may intend, it would seem that one cannot always travel light.

A pleasing story about foster care that hits all the right notes. Longo has made some effort to avoid the usual tropes about violence and sexual abuse stories in foster care, and instead pulled up lots of unique anecdotes from foster children she's interviewed.  It gives Muir an intriguing backstory to share through the novel.  The ending is intentionally very happy (although leave it to Muir to try to sabotage it all the way up to the end) but avoids getting too weepy, retaining a modicum of authenticity and faithfulness to the characters.  That's challenging and the only real blemish on the story is a degree of repetitiveness that sets in as Longo struggles to get everything right.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Full Disclosure, by Camryn Garrett

After being essentially driven out of her old school, Simone is starting over again at a new one.  She's gotten to be the student director of her school's production of Rent and she's fallen for the very cute Miles.  But she's haunted by the truth she can't run away from:  she's HIV positive (and has been since birth).  And while this sensitive fact about her ought to remain private, she knows that she needs to come clean to Miles and to others she is close to.  Someone, however, is trying to beat her to it and leaving her anonymous messages threatening to out her if she doesn't stop dating Miles.  Determined to fight back, Simone risks everything to stand up and retain her life.

Garrett's debut novel shows a writer of great promise.  Simone is a complex protagonist: a mixed-race bi-curious young woman who is open about her feelings and her needs.  Her relationship with her two dads is something of a revelation in its closeness and mutual respect.  And pretty much all of the characters in this diverse and richly drawn story are interesting and unique.  Unfortunately, the story has serious execution problems:  from its clunky extortion plot to its lack of focus on its own plot points, this can be a maddening read.  Really interesting characters stumbling through a poorly developed script makes me hope for better on her next outing (and leaves me looking forward to checking out that novel).

Friday, August 14, 2020

I Know You Remember, by Jennifer Donaldson

Three years ago, Ruthie and Zahra were close friends, hanging out at a fort they created at an abandoned neighborhood playground, co-writing their own fantasy stories.  But when Ruthie's mother and father split up and Mom took Ruthie with her from Anchorage to Portland, the girls drifted apart.

Now, Ruthie's mother has died and Ruthie is returning to Anchorage.  She can't wait to catch up with her old friend.  But when she gets back, she finds out that Zahra has gone missing.  A few nights before, at a party where Zahra and her boyfriend Ben had a big blow-out fight, was the last time anyone's seen Zahra.  Like everyone else, Ruthie is eager to find her friend and she dives into the search effort.  But as Ruthie gets to know Zahra's new friends, she finds a lot has changed in the past three years and that maybe she doesn't know her old friend all that well anymore.

The review I thought I was going to write when I was reading this book was overshadowed by a large twist in the last forty pages of the book, when the story switches narrators and point of view.  Obviously, I don't want to spoil the ending, but it's quite jarring and a lot of the story that is built up gets tossed aside and abandoned.  Not just stories, but entire characters are discarded as the entire purpose of the story is re-formulated in front of our eyes.  I have done a bit of soul searching about this, thinking about whether I missed clues or foreshadowing, but there really isn't much to justify the shift.  It's jarring and it feels artificial -- a gimmick to startle the reader.

If we back up and consider the story up to the moment of the twist, this is fairly by-the-numbers stuff.  Ruthie's journey of discovery as she comes to understand the changes that Zahra has gone through and her fleeting romance with Zahra's ex-boyfriend create a decent character.  The setting in Anchorage is nicely atmospheric and the action unfolds at a decent pace.  It's a decent but unremarkable story.  But again, that very late plot twist mangles most of that set-up, leaving us with a new story that felt like it involved entirely different characters and seemingly unrelated motives.  Startling, but it didn't work for me at all.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Yes No Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

A topical story of two awkward teens who meet while canvassing for a long-shot Democratic campaign in a traditionally conservative Atlanta district (a fictionalization of the 2016 Ossoff race).  Jamie is a great organizer but terrified of public speaking.  He has no problem stuffing envelopes and doing what he can around the field office, but can't ever imagine himself knocking on doors to get out the vote.  Maya is struggling with finding her bearings as her family breaks  apart.  Her father has moved out. He and her Mom claim that they are taking advantage of Ramadan to reflect, but as things drag on, it seems that the separation might become permanent. Maya's mother suggests volunteering on the campaign to get Maya out of the house and Maya finds herself paired up with Jamie.

Through a summer of working on the campaign, Jamie and Maya discover a lot about the world.  Maya quickly finds that this campaign is about bigger issues than simply her guy winning.  The legislature is considering a ban on head coverings, which she sees as a blatant attempt to discriminate against Muslims.  As a Jew, Jamie imagines that he understands what it is like to experience prejudice but as they engage in politics, he finds out how little he has experienced to date.

While the book addresses a number of key topics about contemporary elections (the role of social media, public polling, the purpose of focused convassing, and acts of dog whistling and of gaslighting), this is a surprisingly superficial story.  Conversations occasionally turn to racism and cancel culture, but the authors make almost everyone sympathetic and shy away from deep discussions.  A farcical anti-semitic attack sends confusing messages.  The overall tone is light and the book seems more targeted towards middle schoolers.  That proves disappointing for a book so centrally focused on politics.  I get that the agenda is to stir some interest in contemporary politics, but the book is too superficial to achieve much.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

All the Stars and Teeth, by Adalyn Grace

When you have reviewed close to 2000 books, it becomes harder and harder to find a book that feels truly novel.  And in few subgenres (beyond summer beach romance) is the repetitive and formulaic found more often than fantasy.  Swords, magic, monsters, and teen angst -- it's been done again and again.  Yet it entertains and when you want to just sit back and relax, it's great choice of subject matter.  No great surprises, just bloodthirsty action and mayhem.  So, imagine my surprise when I read this startling original debut fantasy adventure from author Adalyne Grace!

Amora is the princess of Visidia, a kingdom made up of seven islands.  Each island practices its own type of magic (levitation, shape shifting, healing, earth moving, time enhancing, and "curse").  Each person can practice only one type of magic.  To attempt to master more than one is the path to madness and forbidden.  And ruling over them all is the magic of the Visidian royal family -- soul magic.  Heir to the throne, Amora must master the family's monopoly -- the ability to destroy a human from within by crushing their soul -- to prove herself worthy of her title.  And when she fails her test, not only her legitimacy, but her life as well becomes forfeit. To her rescue comes a young pirate Bastian who helps her escape.  Her doggedly loyal fiance Ferrick follows along and proves his value through healing.  With time, they also pick up a mermaid named Vataea as a guide.

The stakes are higher than Amora's challenges in mastering her magic. The entire kingdom (and the core principles that support it) are under challenge.  There is a rebellion afoot and the kingdom is under siege.  It is also under challenge from within.  Amora and her compatriots must confront an ancient curse that lays bare the corruption of their entire society and find a way to rebuild it.

There are plenty of familiar fantasy tropes in the bare story, but the directions that each one goes in will leave you surprised.  Even the obvious final showdown between Amora and the leader of the evil forces doesn't quite unfold according to plan.  And the defeat of the bad guys is in fact never truly confirmed in this enlightened 21st century take on the battle of good and evil.

That's where the story starts getting really interesting.  There's an obvious romantic triangle at play here (Amora, Bastian, and Ferrick), but it doesn't play out as one would imagine.  Magic interferes with free will and the characters don't quite cooperate with the usual unfolding of a fantasy romance.  Sure, there's some great passionate scenes in the story, but these characters are wiser than that. Amora, while she is fully capable of lust, is not throwing herself at either of these boys.  She has more important business at hand that picking up a prince.  It goes almost without saying that this a realm of unremarkable gender equality where men and women are equally capable fighters.

That's really just the beginning of Grace's social and political critique.  While there's no mention of American politics, it isn't hard to see the agenda and the striking critique of the story.  This is a fantasy novel for Trumpian America, from a king who knows no moral boundaries to holding on to power to an inner circle who struggle to maintain the status quo for the benefits they reap from it.  The gradual unveiling of the sheer scope of the degradation (through the concept of "soul magic" and the way it both empowers and corrupts) couldn't be a clearer parable to modern party politics.  This is a deliciously subversive book.

Finally, this is a great story.  Amora has a highly satisfactory dramatic arc, from callow, selfish, and materialistic, to ultimately self-sacrificing leader as a young woman who comes to understand the sacrifices one must make to earn the trust of her people and the wisdom necessary to rule.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Dark and Deepest Red, by Anne-Marie McLemore

A complicated story of magic and historical destiny.  In the 16th century, a curse befalls the city of Strasbourg.  Women start dancing uncontrollably, unable to stop until they collapse from exhaustion.  Two local Romani women are accuse of witchcraft, consorting with the devil, and causing the affliction.  Five hundred years later, Rosella Oliva, from a famous shoemaking family, finds her feet bound to a pair of red shoes that take over control of her body and make her dance.  Her friend Emil, a budding young chemist, comes to her aid to solve the mystery, which ultimately involves identifying his blood connection to the two women from the past.

It's a strange story, often difficult to follow, but beautifully written.  In general McLemore and their books are this way: thick and meaty prose combined with strange magic and deep meaning.  It makes for slow reading and a great deal of effort.  In this case, I'm not so sure that they succeeded as much as they had hoped. 

The story intends to combine a real historical event from the summer of 1518, when a large number of women were indeed afflicted with an uncontrollable urge to dance, with Han Christian Anderson's "The Red Shoes." It's clever but the author assumes the reader will make connections and be as obsessed.  You can see McLemore's excitement, but it's hard not to feel left behind.  In addition, attempts to work in themes about gender identity and sexual agency, while well-intentioned, felt forced and like an attempt to give a pretty and clever fairy tale some last minute gravitas.  Overall, I found the novel to be a collection of ideas that never really gels.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Busted, by Gina Ciocca

After Marisa helps a friend find out if her friend's boyfriend is cheating on her, it launches a small-time career for her as a private investigator of the infidelities of her junior year class.  But before she's gone too far, she finds herself in a tight spot:  her one-time friend Kendall is convinced that her boyfriend TJ is cheating, but Marisa can find no evidence of it.  Instead, Kendall finds herself falling for TJ herself and in the process discovers that the relationship between Kendall and TJ is rather more complicated than she was originally told.  Meanwhile, Maria's best friend Charlie is threatened with expulsion for an incident of test stealing she didn't do.  Soon Marisa is connecting the two events together, the stakes get raised higher, and a complex series of crosses and double crosses are exposed.

It's a dizzying complex story that leaves you pretty much guessing until the end.  That's the good part.  What I liked less was how hard it was to follow.  It's not a bad story but it's a story poorly told.  The characters lack much personality, making them melt together and leaving me flipping back and reminding myself who was who.  I'm still undecided if the complexity was necessary, but it was certainly a barrier that made the book more work than fun.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Be Not Far From Me, by Mindy McGinnis

When Ashley gets separated from her friends and then lost, she has to survive in the wilds of Tennessee for days.  With no proper equipment (and not even a pair of shoes), she stumbles about rushing from one catastrophe to the next.  With some cunning, a great deal of skill, and some luck, she stays alive.  The solitude gives her the opportunity to reflect on her life and the choices she has made that have ended her up in this mess.

I found the circumstances of her predicament utterly implausible.  Childish jealousy drives her into the deep woods without any shoes and she manages -- without footwear and utterly intoxicated -- to wander so far away that in spite of being a trained woodsman she can't find her way back.  She subsequently manages to stumble from Tennessee to Georgia on foot for fifteen days without running across any sign of human (no roads, trails, cabins, powerlines, etc.). 

If you accept those strained premises for an adventure, you get an unusually gritty and intense adventure.  If things like that are to your taste then read away.  I personally don't know if scenes of self-amputation are my cup of tea, but don't let me stop you if you need that in your life.  I admired Ashley's tough and complex personality, but she's not the type of character who is going to let you get too close.  Authentic but the result was no one I really wanted to get to know.  Well-written, but not a story I was ultimately drawn to.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The How & the Why, by Cynthia Hand

While Cass was adopted shortly after her birth, she's never felt that she somehow didn't have "real" parents.  Her Mom and Dad are in every way her real parents.  But as she turns eighteen, she's curious about her birth mother and she starts to make small steps towards tracking down that woman.  It's challenging because she was a closed adoption and whoever her birth mother is doesn't seem overly interested in finding her.  But the woman did leave behind a series of letters, written while the woman was pregnant recalling the circumstances of her conception and the process of deciding to put Cass up for adoption.  These unfold in alternating chapters against the contemporary story of Cass's search.

This fairly long novel also includes largely unrelated stories of Cass's attempt to get into the college of her dreams, her adoptive mother's search for a replacement heart as her own is failing, and some interpersonal issues with her best friend (also adopted) and a new boy at school.  These fit in, but largely don't add much to the story beyond feeding a very surprising (and slightly contrived) ending that pulls hearts strings but stretches credulity like a Bollywood romance.

There are plenty of novels out there about adoption and the vast majority of them split timelines to try to draw parallels between the lives of mother and daughter.  I think this one is more successful for not overdoing the parallels and for respectfully avoiding a forced reunion.  Also, never wavering from the conviction that adoptive parents are "real" parents seems truer to the experience and respectful to people who have been adopted.  Finally, while I found the subplots peripheral and largely extraneous, I enjoyed them as well.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Speed of Falling Objects, by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Danny lost one of her eyes in a childhood accident.  Shortly afterwards, she lost her father as he up and left her and her mother.  Convinced that she was at fault for her Dad's departure, she wrote him letters but never heard back.  But she watched every one of the episodes of his hit survivalist TV show as he fought nature and saved people's lives.  As strong as he seemed to be, he never seemed interested in what had become of her.  Then, right before her seventeenth birthday, he invites her out of the blue to participate in a new episode he is filming in the rain forests of Peru with hot young movie actor Gus Price.  Desperate to make a connection with her father, she begs her mother to let her go.

The trip ends up being more than anyone counts on when the plane they are flying into the jungle goes down in bad weather.  Lost in the rain forest, Danny, Gus, Danny's father, and a few additional survivors have to make their way back to civilization.  The jungle is full of dangers and the members of the party are gradually taken out one by one.  For Danny, it is possibly the last chance she will have to figure her father out, figure out how they became estranged, and discover who she really is -- a quest nearly as difficult as the physical challenge of survival.

Edge of the seat action moves this story briskly along, but it is the emotional journey that Danny goes through that ultimately makes this not only entertaining but fulfilling.  It's certainly not for the squeamish as there is stuff here to make just about anyone's stomach churn, but it is not overdone and the adventure feels real.  The obvious romantic angle between Danny and Gus hangs over this plot like a poisonous snake, but is mostly deflected.  Ultimately, the satisfaction of seeing Danny come to terms with the limitations of her parents and the recognition of her own weaknesses and strengths makes this novel enjoyable and worth reading.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

When the Stars Lead to You, by Ronni Davis

One unforgettable summer, Devon met Ashton on the beach.  As beautiful and wonderful as their summer romance was, it ended badly when Ashton disappeared without saying good bye, totally ghosting her.  A year and a summer later, Devon is starting her senior year and Ashton appears at convocation.  He's attending her school and subsequently back in her life.  Despite the reasoned pleas of her best friend, Devon can't help herself: she still loves him.  She doesn't entirely trust him, but this doesn't stop her from jumping back into an intense relationship again.  While she recognizes that she's getting in over her head (and that she can't afford to let it happen when she needs to be focused on her future), that doesn't stop her.

But some things have changed.  Ashton is fighting serious inner demons and Devon risks being swept away by his battle with depression.  And while family and friends on both sides try to intervene, in the end it comes down to Devon herself to make things right.

This is probably a book best avoided if you like your characters to behave rationally, because as much as one can understand the temptations that Devon is dealing with, her choice of a first love is pretty poor.  Never mind his clinical depression, this boy is manipulative and controlling.  He's really bad news.  As book smart and well-adjusted as Devon is, it's painful to watch her going down a rabbit hole for hormones and romantic fantasy.  But it's also painfully realistic and as much as we would all insist it would never happen, we all have either been there or know someone who has.  In sum, uncomfortable reading and, if that is your idea of a good romance, pretty intoxicating stuff!

Friday, July 17, 2020

Rules for Being a Girl, by Candace Bushnell and Katie Cotugno

Marin is a bright and intelligent senior nearly guaranteed a spot at Brown, her first pick, in the fall.  Editor of the school paper, she hopes to become a journalist.  And if she has a weak spot, it's her harmless crush on her English teacher (and newspaper advisor) Mr. Beckett. "Bex" indulges her, adores her, and promises to help her get into Brown, where he has connections and can pull a few strings.  But there's something a bit off, a bit too friendly about Bex and when he kisses her one afternoon, things start tumbling down.

At first, both of them try to ignore the incident, but as he starts retaliating against her in class, she decides in the end to make a public complaint.  The results are devastating as the school administration circles the wagons, the student body turns against her, and suddenly her future looks to be in jeopardy.  But refusing to step down, Marin fights for her dreams and her future, taking on the school and its entrenched prejudices.

Being a well-manufactured product of Allow Entertainment, this is slick storytelling and the story and its resolution is superbly satisfying.  Surprisingly, it is also a disjointed mess in a way that only writing-by-committee can achieve.  There's a second theme to the novel -- Marin's awakening as a feminist -- demonstrated through her founding of a feminist book club at school with the help of another sympathetic teacher.  This would seem like a good complement to the #metoo story, as a bunch of highschoolers discover Audre Lorde and achieve enlightenment, but instead it breaks down into long discussions about POCs and other tensions between liberal and radical feminism that the average reader is going to glaze over.  It never ends up having relevance to the story.  And as for the eponymous rules, while they are striking and make a great back cover, they aren't really more than a tease, fitting into neither thread.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Scars Like Wings, by Erin Stewart

A year ago, Ava was the sole survivor of a fire that took the lives of not only her parents, but also her cousin.  It left her covered with third-degree burns.  After several months in the hospital and multiple surgeries, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, eerily filling in the void left by the death of their daughter.  And now, with a year gone by, the doctors think it would be a good idea if she were to "re-integrate" to everyday life and return to school.

With a face that is heavily disfigured and a body covered with grafts, she is most people's worst nightmare and Ava finds it hard to imagine being back in high school.  But with some support from another burn victim (the vivacious and over-the-top Piper) and Piper's friend Asad, Ava discovers that there is a life worth living.  It's hardly a smooth journey though.  Bullies and misunderstandings aside, both Ava and Piper have to learn that their worst enemy is themselves.

A satisfying and well-written story of overcoming adversity.  What the story lacks in novelty or surprise it makes up for with strong and interesting characters and its two protagonists in particular.  The complicated dynamic between the two girls and their run-ins with their shared nemesis mean-girl Kenzie provides a good pay-off.  Asad, the helpless (and mildly hopeless) love interest and Ava's aunt and uncle are more disposable, but move the story forward.  Overall, some trimming down would have helped but the book never truly drags and remains entertaining throughout.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Arrival of Someday, by Jen Malone

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a transplant center and it was an eye-opening experience.  Few of us understand UNOS, MELD scores, or any of the other constituent parts of how organ transplant works in the United States.  Fewer still the agonies and joys of living (and waiting) for a donor to appear, when the vast majority of recipients will never get matched up.  In The Arrival of Someday, Jen Malone creates a story to explore all of this providing a decent primer to the process and a sophisticated story that respectfully portrays the emotional journey that a potential transplant recipient and their social circle go through.

Eighteen year-old Amelia has a rare liver condition, but she's learned how to make a good life by not letting it define her existence.  Active on local roller derby circuit in Cambridge, ready to start at UMass Amherst in the fall, and making a mark for herself as an artist, hardly anyone knows what she's dealing with because she ignores the disease (and the condition itself stays conveniently in remission). So, when she finds herself in the middle of a roller derby match coughing up blood on the floor, everyone is taken by surprise.

Her condition has turned for the worse and it has become imperative for her to receive a liver transplant.  There are plenty of tests at the hospital, good days and bad days, and struggles as she finds herself sometimes unable to do the things she used to do.  But Amelia has always been a fighter.  Just as she demolishes her opponents on the skate track, she goes after her disease with gusto.  The last thing she wants is for people to treat her as "the dying girl." But as her condition worsens, she has to come to terms with the way that her health doesn't just affect her.  It also involves her friends and her family, finding its way into all of her social interactions and eventually into her own mental health.  Is she really as fearless as she's always imagined?  Or is her bravery simply false bravado?

In sum, a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a young woman dealing with an extraordinary health challenge.  That, in itself, is nothing notable, but this work stands out for the time it spends on Amelia's family and friends.  Amelia's entire family is in this together and the way that this is portrayed is both realistic and makes the story more compelling.  One could draw fault with the messy ending and the sheer number of loose ends that Malone leaves us with, but I was impressed with the complexity of the human interactions portrayed and the messiness of the ending is perhaps the most realistic part of all.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

A Constellation of Roses, by Miranda Asebedo

Trix possesses a near-magical talent for stealing things without being detected.  It's a skill that has come in handy while she and her mother have scrambled to survive on the streets. Since her mother disappeared, it has been essential but not quite enough.  When she gets picked up by the police, she is faced with a decision:  go to jail or go live with her father's family.

She never knew her father and, as far as Trix has known before now, he had no living family.  But they exist and they are willing to take her in as long as she agrees to stay out of trouble and finish high school.

The McCabes turn out to be an eccentric matriarchy that run's their small town's pie bakery and tea room. And like Trix, each of them has their own special talent:  her great aunt can tell fortunes, her cousin reads people's darkest secrets on touch, and her aunt  bakes magical pies that heal emotional wounds.

Trix has lots of wounds to heal.  But can she open herself to trust this family she never knew?  Or will she fall back into bad habits and return to life on the streets?

It's a familiar story, but well-told this time.  The characters are vivid and break free of the usual stereotypes.  The writing is beautiful, especially as Asebedo waxes poetically on family and identity.  And while everyone seems entirely too forgiving and the hardships a little too easily overcome, it is still an enjoyable and uplifting read.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Here We Are Now, by Jasmine Warga

For her first sixteen years, Tal has had only her mother in her life. But a few years ago, Tal came across a shoebox of clipping and developed a suspicion that her father was a famous rock star.  But until Julian Oliver of SITA showed up on her front door, Tal didn't know for certain.  Sixteen years and suddenly he wants to know her!

The reason is simple enough (his father is dying and he thinks that Tal should meet her grandfather before it is too late) but it leaves her with lots of questions:  Why now? And how will his family treat her?

The homecoming is predictably awkward and messy, but Tal is surprised to find how welcome she is and how comfortable she feels with this family that she never knew.  And through some pressure, she gets her father and mother to tell the true story of how they met and why they separated and kept her in the dark about her father's identity.

Warga does well-developed characters and good dialogue and that makes this otherwise forgettable story compelling enough to read.  Some of the fault lies in Warga's focus on the parents' story.  It's interesting but don't get to know Tal and really appreciate how these discoveries help her grow.  Her own issues with trust are introduced but not developed.  A tangent (a budding romance with a neighbor) that could have tested Tal's trust issues is left hanging.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

That's What Friends Do, by Cathleen Barnhart

Sammie and David have been friends for ages.  But when a new kid Luke moves to town, things start to get weird.  David, who's never really given much thought to the fact that Sammie is a girl, resents Luke's attempts to hit on Sammie. Up until that moment, he didn't realize that he had feelings for her.  And Sammie, who's never really thought it mattered if you were a boy or a girl, is shocked at how she is treated by the boys. The resulting jealousies and misunderstandings that develop between the three of them will remind the reader of just how painful it was to be twelve.  But then, in an incident that occurs innocently yet is anything but, things go too far and the friendship splinters.  Feeling they have each been betrayed by the other, Sammie and David are left confused and unable to figure out how to repair the rift.

Meanwhile, Sammie is considering switching from baseball to softball.  She's the only girl on the team, but she's a good player and her father wants her to continue playing on the team.  But as she watches the other girls playing on the softball team, she realizes that it would be much more fun to be on their team than trying to prove that she can play with the boys.  Convincing her father to let her do so, however, proves difficult as he feels that switching from a "real" sport to softball would waste her talent.

An unexpected surprise of a book about sexual harassment, sexism, and the nature of consent in seventh grade.  Barnhart spins a terrifyingly plausible chain of events that plunge its protagonists into social situations that they are entirely unprepared to deal with.  The target middle school audience can learn a great deal from reading the story (and perhaps discussing with an understanding adult), but actually the book seems more beneficial to adult readers who can watch events unfold and better understand why things go as wrong as they do.  The side story about Sammie's rediscovery of the need for feminine companionship is perhaps not so integral to the main story, but fits in nicely.  In sum, a great age-appropriate contribution to discussions about sexual harassment and consent.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Beau & Bett, by Kathryn Berla

"Lucky in love, never lucky in life," Beau's father likes to say about their family. He's laid up from a work injury and unable to work.  Bett's sister is about to get married and money is tight all round.  And so when Maman is involved in a fender bender with the spoiled rich daughter of the Diaz's, the last thing the family can afford is a big repair bill.  Beau goes to the Diaz ranch, on behalf of his mother, to plead for forgiveness.  Mr. Diaz agrees to let the matter go, but only if Beau will come work off the debt at the ranch for the next four weekends.

And it's while he's working there that he gets to meet this troublemaking daughter, Bettina. She's got a reputation at school of being this horrible person which has earned her the nickname "the Beast." Beau finds out, however, that she's not like that at all.  And the more he gets to know her, the closer he feels towards her.

Allegedly a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the resemblance is slight.  Working off a debt, a misunderstood "beast," and eventually learning to love someone we found initially repulsive are three similarities, but they are hardly unique.  Trying to call that a retelling is a stretch and a distraction.   Rather, the book's strength is really the dynamic between its two characters. Earnest Beau is no match for Bett's social ineptitude, and the sparks that fly between them are unexpectedly hilarious.  The resulting love story is short and sweet.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tell Me Everything, by Sarah Enni

VEIL is a new social media app that allows artists to upload their work and comment on other people's art.  It's completely anonymous, local, and temporal.  Nothing is attributed, users see only posts from people within a five-mile radius, and after a week the postings disappear forever.

Ivy is obsessed with the app.  She follows it closely and has developed strong feelings about the submissions.  She's even tried to ferret out who the posters really are and suspects that many of them go to her school.  However, in spite of being an artist herself, she's never posted anything to the app.  She's never felt that her own work was good enough.

Instead, she's been trying to pay back the artists whose work she's enjoyed by doing kind things for them.  That requires figuring out their identities, but she finds that is the easy part.  Once she has ascertained who they are, she determines what would make them happy.  This starts off innocently with small anonymous gifts, but gets messed up with a separate scandal involving hate speech on VEIL and soon Ivy is in over her head.

If you live in the Bay Area (as these characters do), the idea of VEIL probably sounded great, but one has to wonder how interesting an app that only showed posts within a five mile radius would be if you live in the Midwest?  Or West Texas?

Beyond the silly premise is a story with fantastic clever ideas ranging from quirky bookstores to igloos to Ivy's wildly funny parents.  The problem is that the ideas don't really gel into a story. Layer upon layer upon layer gets added.  The result is rich but confusing.  My hope as I read the book that everything would get tied up (or at least the importance of the disparate items would become clear) is crushed in the end when the story concludes and it becomes apparent that much of the detail don't contribute to the story.  Telling everything in this case may not actually be beneficial.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard

Robinson (named after Jackie Robinson) is a tough girl.  When bully Alex Carter teases her, she decks him.  When Alex hurts her best friend Derek, she avenges the offense.  But as much of a fighter as Robbie is, she can't figure out how to fix her grandfather, who is slowly losing his faculties, and that feeling of powerlessness makes her very angry and scared.

Because of the incidents at school, Robbie gets assigned to group counseling, along with Alex and a number of other children in her class.  The experience is an eye-opener.  Being exposed to other people's problems helps her deal with her own anger and encourages her to open up about her fears and frustrations.

In sum, a sweet middle reader that explores extended families and the pain of watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's.  Robbie is certainly a strong enough heroine, but I found her anger and stubbornness a bit hard to take.  The behavior is age appropriate but doesn't make for a sympathetic character.  Being the only real character in the book, it is hard to get very deep into this story.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Fugly, by Claire Waller

At 18, Beth is an overweight outcast in a dysfunctional family.  In her own words, she's "fugly." Out in public she tries to be invisible.  She maintains an unhealthy relationship with bing eating and purging.

She's also a talented troll, able to dish out abuse and ruthlessly attacking and destroying people online whom she feels deserve her wrath because they are "too beautiful." Even she acknowledges that it may not be something to be proud of, but it gives her some comfort.  Then she meets another girl online named Tori, who turns out to be a kindred spirit in the trolling game.  However, Tori's much more brutal on line than Beth has ever considered being.  And while Tori's escapades seem initially thrilling, Beth has second thoughts when Tori starts attacking people closer to home.

The overall problem of this novel is the protagonist herself.  There's next to nothing to admire in the character.  She's self-pitying, self-centered, and mean.  I flat out hated her.  I felt no sympathy for her plight as it was largely self-inflicted and I didn't mind when it comes back to bite her on the ass.  A secondary problem is the utterly predictable outcome of the story.  There is no element of surprise beyond the idea that Beth could be unaware of what was going to happen to her. 

The originality of the story's idea saves this book from the trash bin, but I'd honestly give Beth and her story the treatment that all trolls deserve:  being ignored.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Wrong Side of Right, by Jenn Marie Thorne

When Kate's mother died, Kate still had no idea of who her father was.  So when a New York Times reporter discloses that the leading Republican candidate for the presidency is actually her father, she is as surprised as the man is. Drawn by curiosity about her father, she gets swept into the whirlwind of his presidential campaign.

People warn her that she is being used, but she finds it hard to turn away from the father she yet to know.  A political neophyte,  she finds she has many friends and enemies and it is often hard to tell who is who.  So, when the incumbent president's son turns out to be an ally and then something more, she doesn't know whether to trust him with her confidence or to be wary of his motives.  Or maybe both?

A fast paced, delicious page turner.  Perfect for socially-distanced beach reading in the middle of a campaign year. The political details provide spice and plenty of opportunity for adventure, but it is the fancy clothes, the safe G-rated romance, and a lot of poorly supervised fun that makes this a great light read.

How far we've gone!  While probably meant to be cynical in 2016 when it was written. it's rather innocent ideas of political spin now sound shocking naive.  But never let a little suspension of reality get in the way of a fun read!  This is how we wish politics was:  where you can sneak off on a date with the cute boy (who happens to be the son of the president) and live to tell the tale!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

All the Impossible Things, by Lindsay Lackey

Red has been passed around to quite a few foster homes, but she's counting down the days until her mother is released from jail and they can be reunited.  She knows it will be hard.  Her mother struggles with addiction and Red isn't always the best of kids, but Red believes that everything that seems impossible is simply a different degree of difficulty.  She's collecting a notebook of so-called "impossible" things to prove the point.

When she ends up with the Grooves family and their collection of exotic pets, Red feels that she's finally found a place she can call home temporarily. Dearest to her is their giant tortoise Tuck, with whom she bonds.  But when the tortoise goes missing, her foster mother gets sick, and Red discovers that her biological mother was actually released months ago and has been hiding out, Red becomes overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible nature of her situation.

While mostly a down-to-earth (and touching) story of a girl who wants to piece her family back together, Lackey has thrown in a hint of magic: Red has the seeming ability to summon up storms.  This is used mostly as metaphor up until almost the very end.  It's cute and restrained and adds a wonderful undercurrent that does not distract from the overall message of finding family where one may.  That is representative of this largely understated and modest story.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

If Only, by Jennifer Gilmore

In 2000, sixteen year-old Bridget finds herself pregnant.  Unwilling to terminate the pregnancy and unable to keep the baby, she navigates the world of adoption, meeting prospective parents and trying to decide the best future for the child.  Sixteen years later, Ivy realizes that she is now the same age as her mother was when she was born.  While the adoption was open, Bridget has disappeared and now Ivy is determined to track her birth mother down.

Switching back and forth between Bridget and Ivy, the novel attempts to tell the story of the adoption and make several grander observations about the emotional impact of the process.  To assist that goal, there are several seemingly unrelated chapters inserted periodically into the narrative.  Each of these outline alternate realities (how things might have turned out if different decisions had been made). Some of these decisions involve Bridget (what Ivy's life with different adoptive parents might have been like) while others go back much further into the 1950s and 1970s to discuss alternative timelines involving grandparents and others.  The device doesn't particularly work as the ties are often not all that clear and are weakly written.

As a whole, I'm not a big fan of the regretful-birth-mother story line.  The assumption that something is lost when a child is adopted seems unkind and unfair to the many happy adoptive families. Furthermore, not every adopted child seeks their birth parents nor even has an interest in them.  Gilmore skirts that issue by making Ivy's adoption an open one, but her sympathies are clearly laid bare when she brings up a closed one in one of her alternate realities.  And while Gilmore acknowledges that reunions are not always happy, it's obvious where her bias lies.  But mostly, in the end, I didn't find the story all that well crafted.  It rambles and meanders, causing my interest to lag.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

On reading the classics (thoughts on Little House in the Big Woods)

For all the reading I do in contemporary children's literature, I have plenty of big gaps in my knowledge of classic children's literature.  Lately, I've been participating in a small book discussion group which (for reasons of convenience and economy) has been focusing on classics (Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan, and now the Little House series). One doesn't really review a classic, but I thought I would take a small diversion from my usual blogging activity and talk about my amateur observations about what makes a book like Little House in the Big Woods so different from my usual diet.

Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical stories about life on the frontier in the mid-19th century.  This book covers a full year of life in the Ingalls' homestead near Pepin, Wisconsin.

For the reader, whether young or old, the most striking thing in this story is how very hard everyone worked in those days for the barest form of survival.  Yet as exhausting as the endless tasks seem, the story always manages to fit in some warmth and fun, be it a special treat from Ma or Pa pulling out his fiddle and singing the girls to sleep.  For as hard as the family worked, there is never a doubt of how much Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, and little Carrie love each other.  Danger comes mostly in the form of wild animals, but the family approaches the dangers quite pragmatically.  When Laura grows fearful of wolves, Pa shows her one so she can size the creature up for herself.  While the children misbehave and test limits, the no-nonsense discipline style of Ma and Pa leave no doubt that expectations are set and enforced.  Laura's childhood in the Big Woods is obviously a happy one.

There are probably many reasons for the book to appeal to young readers, but the key draw is the fine detail and Wilder's inexhaustible supply of historical facts.  Children delight in all the things that Laura's family did, the foods they ate, and the way that they lived.  Far more vivid than a history book, curious minds find plenty to mine in the book.

There are a number of striking contrasts with a modern book (the obvious contrast would be Linda Sue Park's Prairie Lotus, but I think we can speak more broadly about most contemporary children's books) that I would call out:

The unquestioned authority of the parent.  As adults today we live in a world where we are attuned to the complexity of ethics and morals.  We have seen power abused and question authority as a matter of course and live our lives as cynics.  And, for better or worse, we transmit that same doubt and skepticism to our children in the books we write for them.  Yet not once does Laura ever question the decisions of her parents.  The idea of such a rebellion is seemingly outside of her comprehension.  Nor, for that matter, do Ma and Pa ever really give her grounds for doing so as they are near-perfect in their judgments and actions.

Childhood on the periphery.  In your typical contemporary book, the focus is entirely on the child.  The parents (and adults in general) are either absent, ignored, or deceased.  Parents make at best brief appearances and the involvement is inconsequential to the story at best.  Frequently, they are a force to be defeated or outsmarted.  Little House though is really a story about Laura's parents.  For the first three chapters, Laura and Mary play virtually no role at all, except to be a task to which their parents  attend.

Focus on concrete tasks over emotions.  For readers who like to get inside of their protagonist's heads and feel their emotions, Little House in the Big Woods is a frustrating experience.  It's all about doing things and the other feelings or emotions we encounter are exhaustion and fatigue.  In the second half of the book, we learn how dreadfully dull Sundays are for Laura and we are introduced to her feelings of inadequacy in comparison with Mary over the color of their hair.  However, these matters are not key parts of the story but rather opportunities to learn lessons on (and over) Pa's lap.  The book is in fact one lesson after another, all rolling up to the big message:  life in the big woods was about working hard, being honest, and caring for each other.  It was not particularly concerned with your feelings and emotions.

Nothing I've said here is particularly original or earth shattering, but more thoughts spinning in my head as I leave Laura and return to my pregnant teens, runaways, and dystopian warriors in the modern world.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Birdie and Me, by J. M. M. Nuanez

Life wasn't particularly happy after the death of their mother, but Jack and her little brother Birdie found their Uncle Carl to be a sympathetic soul and living with him was pretty easy.  They ate a lot of Honey Bunny Buns and Uncle Carl didn't really care that Birdie liked to wear dresses and sparkly make-up to school.  But too many run-ins with the authorities caused their Uncle Patrick to step in.

Patrick isn't as much fun as Uncle Carl and insists on buying Birdie boy clothes.  He pressures both Jack and Birdie to make more of an effort to fit in.  And, as far as the kids can tell, he doesn't even like them!

Miserable, the children try running away.  When that doesn't work, they hatch a plan to get Uncle Carl to pull his life together (and become more reliable) so they can go back to live with him.  And when all of that fails, they try to win over Uncle Patrick.  Yet, in the end, Uncle Patrick turns out to be a better friend than they realized.

Quirky and full of potential, but the novel never quite grabbed me.  It was just too depressing!  Certainly, no one could accuse Nuanez of making life rose-tinted.  Each and every character here is flawed. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the adults in their life have pretty much all let them down.  Everyone has issues, the children chief among them.  That gets hard to take, sucking anything fun out of the funny parts and mostly making the reader angst over the fate of the kids.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

What Kind of Girl, by Alyssa Sheinmel

Maya has been putting up with her boyfriend's violence for the past three months, but when he blackens her eye, something snaps. She's no longer willing to cover up the assaults and she reports him to the school principal.  Predictably, this triggers side-choosing by the other students as some believe her and some believe him.  The story grows more complex and nuanced as Maya reveals faults and failings of her own that make her narrative less clear.

Maya's friend Junie, suffering from anxiety issues and a breakup with her girlfriend, falters between supporting her friend and being unable to do so.  She wonders how Maya could ever have allowed it to go so far.  What kind of girl would do that?  If Maya was truly being abused, why didn't she speak out?  And the more she learns, the harder it becomes to understand her friend's choices. Maya has no answers of her own -- she also wonders what kind of girl puts up with the violence.  But as the narrative reaches a critical juncture in Maya's story, Julie reaches her own crisis and her own bad choices prove overwhelming.

This is hardly the best novel about dating violence (I still hold up Sara Dessen's Dreamland for that honor), but it is probably the most complicated.  There's certainly room for trimming.  The bulimia and cutting that parallel the dating violence are clutter in my mind, but Sheinmel does manage to tie them in.  The romantic relationship of Junie and Tess is largely throwaway and never really added much to the story.  But the novel has many things going for it.

Sheinmel avoids absolutes (beyond the totally unacceptable nature of domestic violence) by creating flaws and nuances in all of her characters.  We want Maya to be a perfect person, so it hurts to acknowledge the mistakes she has made.  Ultimately, there is more pay off from this approach when the story reminds us that none of the flaws really matter in the end -- nothing Maya could have done would ever make her deserve to be treated as she was.  But in causing the readers themselves to waver it does challenged us with how easy it is to victim blame.

One little literary trick Sheinmel uses is particularly effective.  At the beginning of the novel, she doesn't initially name the narrators.  Instead, she gives them generic names ("the activist," "the popular girl", etc.) and we naturally assume a fairly broad cast of characters.  But gradually, we figure out that several of these narrators are actually the same person (just different parts of their psyche).  This serves a useful purpose: illustrating that people are not so internally consistent or singyularly focused.  They have complex (and competing) needs and motives.

On the subject of narrators, I was a bit sad to never hear from the boyfriend.  I recognize that Sheinmel didn't really want to give him a voice (she says at several points that it really doesn't matter why he hit her), but I think that's a strategic mistake.