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.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

The House With Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson

Marinka would like to have a friend, a living friend for more than an evening.  But when you live with Baba Yaga and your line of business is guiding the dead to the Afterlife, you don't get too many living visitors.  Every night, Marinka helps her grandmother welcome the dead to their house (which does indeed have chicken legs!), get to know them, and then send them on their way.  But one night, Marinka decides to break the rules and waylays a dead girl, tricking the girl to stay on and become her playmate.  This act of disobedience triggers a cascade of events that quickly escalates out of Marinka's control and she must find a way to fix things.

An touching story with one of the most unusual likable characters (the house) you've ever read about.  Loosely based on Russian folk belief, the story is actually a true original and touches on the universal theme of trying to find one's way in the world, especially when the path expected of you is such an obviously poor fit.  The macabre setting (which in itself will appeal to Lemony Snicket fans) is ultimately incidental to a story that is about Marinka's search for warm friendship and a sense of meaning.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Ordinary Girls, by Blair Thornburgh

Young ladies may obsess now over to which college they will be accepted, instead of to whom they will marry, but in this modern send-up of Pride and Prejudice, the argument is made that little else has changed. Despite her best intentions, fifteen year-old outcast Plum has fallen for LSB (Loud Sophomore Boy) Tate.  Their old Victorian home is a death trap of peeling lead paint, thick walls that ensure that no one's cell phones have any reception, and bad plumbing.  When said plumbing fails altogether, Plum finds herself at Tate's house, borrowing use of his shower.

Her older sister Ginny anxiously awaits early acceptance at Penn  (but then, Ginny has a condition and is anxious about everything!).  Mother, who made her fortune illustrating a children's classic series about five country mice, is about to lose her source of income as her publisher decides to have all the illustrations redrawn by a new artist.  If Ginny cannot land a lucrative financial aid deal, what will happen to the family?

A clever mash up of Austen/Bronte tropes, modernized in a witty fashion, and guaranteed to appeal to the same gang that loved what Clueless did to Emma.  This is a more nuanced affair, maintaining more of the flavor and wit of the models, but does not necessarily break much new ground in the effort.  There is a point to be made here about the timelessness of Austen's books, but this is a rather peculiarly pedantic exercise in doing so.  Once made, the story itself is largely inconsequential and has much less to say about the world.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Library of Ever, by Zeno Alexander

Lenora is bored out of her mind.  Dragged from one dull place to another by her inattentive nanny, she longs for an adventure.  So, when she is brought to the library she goes looking for the children's section.  She doesn't find it, but instead discovers a secret doorway that leads to the Library of Ever.  It's the place where all knowledge is stored and all questions are answered.  In order to stay she has to swear to the Librarian's Oath and accept an entry level position as the Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian.  Charged with answering people's questions about calendars, she proves adept and is quickly promoted.

Each step of the way, her challenges grow harder and harder, and she finds herself penguins and ant colonies, going into outer space, and rescuing lost kittens. Through it all, Lenora cleverly subdues her foes.  But the final challenge is the scariest of them all: facing off to the Forces of Darkness (as represented by the Board of Trustees) who are trying to remove books from libraries and promote "profitable" libraries. She must prove that she has what it takes to be a librarian and a defender of the library's motto, "Knowledge is a Light."

It is a fairly silly middle reader with a not-so-subtle message about the value of libraries and freedom of the press.  Things get a bit over-the-top at the climax but it all makes sense in the end, in a poignant way.  I enjoyed the book but it won't take you long to get through it.  I read it in just over two hours.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart

For the past five years, Coyote and her father have lived on the road, driving a converted school bus all over the country.  They live a free and casual lifestyle, going wherever they please.  But the one place they have never gone to is Poplin Springs WA -- their old home.  It was the death of Coyote's mother and her two sisters that drove them on to the road in the first place.

For Dad, going back is a definite "no-go," but now it seems that they need to do so.  When Coyote learns in a call from her grandmother that their old neighborhood park is about to be dug up, Coyote knows she has to return.  Five years ago, a few days before the tragic accident, Coyote, her mother, and her sisters assembled a box full of memories and buried it at that park, intending to return to it years later.  Now, it is perhaps the only physical remnant of that part of Coyote's life and it is about to be obliterated by the excavation.  So, Coyote launches a desperate plan to trick her father into driving across the country to rescue the box before it is gone forever.  It will take a lot of cunning, some dumb luck, and a huge cast of oddball characters to make it happen.

A road trip novel is made or broken by the adventures and the strength of the characters met along the way.  Part Room on the Broom and part Captain Fantastic, the adventures here can strain credulity, but the diversity of characters more than make up for it.  There's a gentle and plausible dramatic arc as Coyote and her father gradually reach the realm of acceptance and crawl out of the shell of denial that they have lived in for the past five years.  And, along the way, their fellow-travelers have their own revelations.

The novel pays back handsomely.  It's briskly paced and entertaining.  While not a deep read, there's enough emotional pay off to make this much more than some light middle reader.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Right as Rain, by Lindsey Stoddard

After the death of her older brother, Rain's parents decide to relocate to New York City from Vermont for a change of scenery and to start again.  For Rain, who is used to running through the woods with her best friend Izzy, life in the City is a challenging transition.  Everything is crowded and it is easy to get lost.  The people around her largely speak Spanish (which her two year's worth of study has hardly prepared her for).  And her mother warns her to be wary of dangers she has never worried about before.

She's not the only one having difficulties:  her father won't get dressed or leave his room and her parents are in fact splintering further apart.  And Rain comes to realize that her family are not the only ones suffering from changes and loss.  Frankie, a girl in their apartment, has lost her best friend.  Nestor, a homeless man in the neighborhood, has lost the job that gave him security.  The gentrification of their neighborhood has caused many people to lose their homes and their livelihoods. 

As the first anniversary of her brother's death approaches, though, Rain comes to realize that there are plenty of things to be gained.  Life is full of losses, but it also contains victories.

It's a good book with no particular surprises except for the unexpected philosophizing on the emotional impact of gentrification on a neighborhood, and the lack of much on death, leaving old friends, or depression.  All three of these latter topics come up, but Stoddard doesn't want to dwell on them (and surely enough has been written on them already to make that excusable!).  Instead, this is really about Rain's reset to living in a new home, making new friends, and finding her place in the community.  It's a joyful story full of kindness and affirmation.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Suggested Reading, by Dave Connis

Clara is horrified to find out from her school's librarian that there is a list of banned books.  Worse, the list has just been significantly expanded to include some of her favorites like Speak, The Chocolate War, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower; as well as the novels of her favorite author Lukas Gebhart.  The librarian explains that the books simply go missing from the shelves, so it is impossible to know that they have been removed.  Everything is restricted and no one will take ownership.  When she attempts to find out the reason, she is stonewalled by the Principal.

So, Clara decides to take action.  Leveraging off of a community service project she did that set up little community libraries around town, she sets up drop sites of banned books around the school in abandoned lockers, making them available to the students and encouraging them to be read.  The idea takes off explosively, as her classmates grow curious about what they are not supposed to be reading.  But when tragedy strikes and Clara's future is put in jeopardy, she must decide if her actions have been driven by the right motives.

Any book about free speech and libraries is going to be acquired by any decent public library (acquisitions librarians can't get enough of the things -- it's like cookie dough to them!).  That doesn't mean that it will necessarily be a good book in itself, so I approached this read with skepticism.  Some parts of it really annoyed me:  the tired repetition of the same four or five books (we DO realize that lots of YA classics are banned, right?), the same boring arguments pro and con, and the rather clueless way that Clara approaches her rebellion (how on earth could she be surprised that her actions would go unnoticed?).

But then, other parts of the book surprised me:  the changes of hearts in the educators, the recognition that even good acts can have bad motivations, and some nice insights about the power of act of reading (as opposed to tired cliches about the power of words).  As a result, I came out of this with a mixed review.  The book won't change your perspective about freedom of the press, but it might make you think harder about the importance of reading in and of itself.

Friday, May 22, 2020

All-American Muslim Girl, by Nadine Jolie Courtney

When Allie and her father are out and about, everyone can tell that her Dad is an Arab and suspect he is a Muslim, but Allie takes after her Caucasian mother and people frequently can't tell her heritage.  This gives her a unique ability to be privy to people's prejudices and hear the things people say about Muslims.

She's curious about that heritage:  what it means to be Muslim. Her father is largely lapsed and has discouraged Allie from practicing Islam, so she launches out on her own, finding a study circle of young Muslim women and learning more about the faith.  As she learns more, she struggles with what she believes and with wondering where Islam lies within contemporary American society.  Should she pray?  Should she continue to date?  Should she veil?  Should she fast during Ramadan?  And how can she explain to her atheist father why all of this appeals to her? Allie's clearly modern and open minded, but drawn to the traditions of the faith and the bonds it helps her form with her family (especially her grandmother).

It's a thoughtful exploration of spirituality and faith.  There are plenty of political dimensions to this story, but I'm drawn to it for its spiritual quest.  There are few Young Adult books that are respectful about religion, let alone embrace the pursuit of it, so the affirmation of Allie's search is a welcome addition (to put this in perspective, Converting Kate by Beckie Weinheimer -- published in 2007 -- is the most recent book in this subgenre I have read).

Courtney has a lot of ground to cover.  One particular agenda items (arguing that Islam is not necessarily a misogynistic faith) can lead to some stilted dialogue, but I think her point is well made.  The side plot about whether Allie should date or not is less developed.  It suffers from really being two questions:  how Allie should reconcile her relationship with her boyfriend when his father is a famous bigot and how Allie can justify dating of any sort when more conservative Muslims believe that dating is forbidden altogether.  It never really gets successfully sorted out, and perhaps cannot be.  Allies's reconciliation with her father (and perhaps her efforts to reconcile her father with his faith) is a final element of the story.  By this point, we're basically totally exhausted so I'm glad she doesn't spend a huge effort on this thread.  But it also reaches a satisfactory partial resolution.

It's a long book and not always as tight as it should be.  But life is messy and Courtney raises many thought-provoking questions in an entertaining story.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Unpregnant, by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan

Veronica Clarke is a stone's throw away from graduating and being her class's Valedictorian.  She's popular and surrounded by similarly popular friends.  She's also pregnant and watching in desperation as her plans for the future vaporize around her.  She can't let her friends or family find out.

She knows from the start that she wants to terminate the pregnancy but the closest abortion clinic (that won't notify her parents) is in New Mexico -- a thousand miles away from her in Missouri.  She doesn't have a car and is loathe to confide in any of her friends.  But there is one person who could help: her nemesis and former best friend Bailey.  Bailey hates her just enough to be willing to help her get to Albuquerque.  A very funny road trip ensues.

Obviously, if you have strong feelings about abortion, this book's probably not for you.  While not quite a comedy, it certainly doesn't dwell for too long on the ethics of the procedure.  But while light-hearted and even funny at parts, the story is serious when it needs to be.  It succeeds largely by side-stepping the usual tropes (guilt, mourning, and anger) that usually feature.  Instead, we get treated to some spunky feel-good celebration of independence and liberation, and whole array of crazy guest appearances.

Overshadowing the story for me was the announcement on the cover that the book is already optioned for a cable movie (at this time, in post-production, with no release date announced).  That proved very distracting as I kept trying to imagine how all of this would look on film.  To be honest, the story really isn't strong enough to merit a film, but it probably won't suck either -- pretty much like the book.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

This Is My Brain on Boys, by Sarah Strohmeyer

Addie Emerson plans to win the coveted Athenian Award so she can use the prize money to fund her attendance at Harvard.  To do so, she's developed a theory that attraction between the sexes is based upon sharing a common adversity.  And she's setting up a series of experiments where a boy and girl volunteer endure challenges together and then have their attraction for each other measured. It's the kind of understanding of attraction that Addie understands.  Because otherwise, she find most emotional reactions baffling.  If it's not all explainable through biochemical reaction, she's be hard pressed to describe it.

Last semester Kris and his friends vandalized Addie's lab, getting themselves thrown out of school. To make amends and potentially be allowed to re-enroll, Kris gets enrolled in Addie's experiment.  This has an unexpected (and unrelated) problem: every experiment where Kris and his partner get set up backfires in some spectacular way.  Where Kris is supposed to rescue the girl (and thus spark a romance) the person who ends up needing rescue turns out to be Addie.  And despite their torrid history and the test plan, Addie finds herself falling for Kris, which both proves her theory and invalidates the experiments.

This Emma-esque plot tries to liven up the rom-com with a bit of neuroscience.  It's cute, but a bit convoluted.  Addie's confusion about love seems more from being on the spectrum than from any confusion -- she just doesn't read people well.  That makes her eventual falling for Kris less plausible.  After all, she doesn't suddenly develop the cognitive skills to read faces.  Thus, where it tries to be different, it just gets muddy and hard to understand.  Cute title, but fairly predictable.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Open Fire, by Amber Lough

(I never thought I would read a YA book that opens with Olga's Revenge. This colorful anecdote from Russia's foundation legend forms an uneasy parable for this fictionalized account of the Women's Death Battalions of WWI.)

In Petrograd in the spring of 1917, it is obvious that things are falling apart.  The Tsar has stepped aside to allow the liberals and socialists to form an ill-fated attempt to keep Russia in the War.  Nonetheless, Russia is losing.  On the sidelines, Lenin and his Bolsheviks are set to strike when the opportunity presents.  For a young woman like seventeen year-old Katya, there is an itch to do more than work in a munitions factory.  So when an announcement goes out that healthy young women are being recruited to serve in combat roles and form a batallion made up entirely of women, she and her friend Masha answer the call.  Training is brutal and rushed and soon enough the young women find themselves on the front line.

Given how desperate the Russian position was in the Summer of 1917, it's hard to read this story with anything but dread.  The Revolution is still months away (and the book doesn't venture beyond July) but like a grenade with a pulled pin, all signs indicate that an explosion is inevitable. That a group of young women trained and fought with exceptional valor not only against an overwhelming foe, but also against sexism and discrimination from their own comrades makes for a thrilling ride.  It is an amazing story and well researched.

Be forewarned that the novel features graphic and intense violence.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Havenfall, by Sara Holland

At an isolated inn the Colorado Rockies called Havenfall, lies a place where portals join our world to the Adjacent Realms.  Every summer, delegates from those worlds gather for an inter-dimensional Davos summit.  Maddie, the niece of the Innkeeper, is trying to avoid her family this summer and comes to Havenfall to work for her uncle and see her old friend Brekken.  She's grown up at Havenfall and has always enjoyed spending time with the delegates.  Some day, she wants to take over as Innkeeper when her uncle is ready to retire.  Spending the summer will give her an opportunity to start learning the ropes.

But the first night, while Maddie and Brekken are off reigniting the fire between them, an incident occurs.  The result is a dead body, a missing bodyguard, and the Innkeeper fallen into some sort of coma.  Someone is trying to sabotage the Summit and perhaps much worse.  With the Innkeeper incapacitated,  Maddie has to step in and take over her uncle's role.  Furthermore, she needs to find the killer and determine what they are up to.  This leads her into a series of evolving and expanding mysteries.  Full of twists and turns, the mystery builds to a stirring climax.

Surprisingly entertaining.  As the first of a series, Havenfall is mostly about establishing the stage.  A lot of energy is put into exposition and explaining the complicated politics of the various realms, but the story is far from dull.  There's near constant suspense as characters cross and double cross each other in ever more creative ways.  The story is not always as organic or as smooth as one might like, but it delivers the goods in the end.  Characters also suffer a bit to the action, so that tantalizing views of Maddie's relationship with her family or the romantic sparks with Brekken are never fully developed.  Hopefully, that will be forthcoming in the next installments.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

Amelia wants to do something different than just hanging around the house during spring break.  For once, her father has his break at the same time and she tries to convince him that they should go to Florida.  After all, lots of people go to Florida!  But he rejects the idea as being too "adventurous," and she ends up being stuck at home.

So instead she discovers a pottery studio, a love for working for clay, and a boy named Casey.  Casey in turn convinces her that the strange woman who has been loitering nearby is actually Amelia's long lost mother.  That isn't true, but she turns out to be someone just as special.

A very short and quick read, it didn't leave much of an impression on me.  Obviously, there's a story (as I summarized above) but there isn't much of a plot and certainly not much of a point.  The relationship between Amelia and Casey might have become something, but the mystery woman thread takes off before it can develop.  The mystery lady in turn is a bit of a fizzle.  I found it dull and full of nice but forgettable characters.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park

Hanna and her father have come all the way to LaForge, Dakota Territory from California to make a new life.  Carrying only what they can haul in a wagon, Papa wants to set up a store and make a home.  Hanna dreams of finishing her schooling and sewing dresses in Papa's store, just like her mother did before she died.  But For Hanna, her modest dreams are beset with barriers because she is half-Chinese.  In the 1880s, in the Midwest, Asians are rarely seen and never tolerated.  Even the marriage of Papa and her late mother would be considered illegal.  Attending school is potentially also illegal.  With immense fortitude and drawing on her memories of her mother for strength, Hanna faces the prejudice of the community and struggles to realize her dreams.

Hanna is an inspirational heroine.  She has grit and determination and the insight to realize that many conflicts cannot be resolved through direct confrontation.  Yet, she doesn't back down either and shows little fear of being outspoken even in front of grownups.  In this respect, she is more like Anne Shirley than Laura Ingalls.  She's the kind of literary heroine that parents want their children to read about.

Her dedication and work ethic are admirable, and she shows many talents including strong aesthetic sense and business acumen (to Papa's benefit).  And even though Papa is thick headed in a way common to literary fathers, he is a kind figure.  In truth, the good guys (in which we'll include Hanna's friend Bess, the teacher Miss Walters, and Mr Harris) are all nicely drawn characters.  The bad guys don't fare as well, but they are there largely as symbols of greater evil (racism, sexism, and prejudice).

The novel has received a lot of attention for being an attempt to "correct the errors" of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  As for myself, I am less interested in the politics of the book and more interested in evaluating the novel as a story.  That's a little difficult in this case because Park keeps a laser focus on the social injustices that Hanna has to endure.  Along with that, Hanna's responses are almost certainly anachronistic.  As a result, the political message really becomes the book for better or for worse.  That seems like a lost opportunity, as I'm convinced that a story about a Chinese-American girl on the range is intrinsically interesting enough that the heavy stress on the social injustices that she endures, while realistic, is hardly necessary -- a little goes a long way.  All that said, I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World, by Amy Reed

Billy lives with his grandmother.  His Mom was a junkie and his uncle's a famous rock star recovering from being pretty much the same.  Given grandma's penchant for smacking Billy around, it isn't too hard to see how she messed up her children.  Billy is your typical shy loser who gets alternately beaten up by the bullies at school and his grandmother.

Rome and Carthage are dead-end, washed-out western Washington town, whose glory days lay in lumber.  Aside from the uncle, the only notable thing about them now are being the setting for a popular series of YA fantasy books.  Dying industry has left behind a bunch of drug-addled losers who worship president King (a mildly incoherent and majorly narcissistic leader with a habit of threatening to bomb people).

Lydia dreams of dancing professionally.  Before her mother died, she loved her dance lessons, but afterwards there was no money for lessons.  All of that starts to change when Billy's uncle disappears from the public eye and reappears in Billy's attic.  And that isn't the only weird thing that happens.  There's a freak tornado that leaves behind a giant pit in the earth, growing evidence that Sasquatch is loose in the woods, and plenty of signs that Billy's house intends to eat him.  And, of course, the end of the world is coming very soon.

Wry and biting story that, despite its rather loony plot, has a great deal of fun along the way.  The style is very much in the Libba Bray tradition and anyone who enjoy the absurd humor of Going Bovine will love this novel. I don't know if I needed the end of the world to shake things up at the end, but it did conveniently ties up a lot of disparate ideas.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Stay, by Bobbie Pyron

Piper and her family arrive in town with little to their name.  Her father is searching for a job, their car has died, and her family is stuck in a shelter.  When Piper reflects on the previous months and how they've lost nearly everything in that time, it's hard to find anything worth hoping for.

Two things change her view.  The first is the local Firefly troop at the shelter.  In the old days, she was an active Firefly and even held a sales record for Firefly brownies.  The idea that she can have that piece of normalcy again provides comfort.  The second thing is a cause:  a homeless woman named Angel and her little dog Baby.  When Angel gets sick and taken to a hospital and Angel ends up in the pound, Piper and her Firefly friends try to figure out a way to help.  In a series of brave acts, the girls find that they can make a difference.  For no matter how much these girls have lost, there are people with greater needs.

If you like getting sucker punched with a story of a cute dog, a brave and kind young girl, and some kind adults, you can't really go wrong. Piper's generosity makes a nice role model and her intelligence and people skills are inspirational. It's all heartwarming and tear jerking (as one would expect), albeit far too traumatic for sensitive readers (my wife won't touch the book).  Still, this is a really sweet story with a message, covering issues of homelessness, mental health, and discrimination in an age appropriate way.  The story will give young readers something to ask good questions about.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker

Ware doesn't like playing with other kids.  They make far too much noise.  He'd be happiest spending the summer at home alone, but his parents have other ideas.  They want him to make "meaningful social interactions" with kids his own edge at the Rec (a local summer program), a place which Ware can't stand. 

But he's found a way to make things work.  There's an abandoned half-demolished church next door where Ware can escape to and explore.  Imagining himself as a knight, he transforms the ruined building into his castle, complete with a throne and a moat.  But he's not alone.  There's a girl named Jolene there who is trying to plant a garden of papayas, with dreams of making money by doing so.  In her mind, Ware is full of silly ideas and he should start living in the real world as she does.  In time, Ware learns enough about Jolene to understand from where her cynicism comes.

The resulting tale is a gentle story of two outcast middle schoolers spending a summer together at their own speed.  There's a world of discovery and adventure here, all placed in a single abandoned lot.  For Ware, the summer is about learning to embrace his quiet introverted nature.  For Jolene, it is about finding that even the real world can have some happiness within it.

As rooted as this story is in reality, it has all of the whimsical magic of Pennypacker's animal adventure Pax.  Like that novel, Ware and Jolene innocently explore a world full of greater evils than they can really imagine, safe by fate and good fortune.  Sweet and magical.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Sick Kids in Love, by Hannah Moskowitz

During one of her infusions, Isabel meets Sasha, who's getting his own treatment.  Isabel has rheumatoid arthritis, Sasha Gaucher Disease (a rare genetic disorder).  They'd hit it off right away, but Isabel decided long ago that she wasn't going to date.  Dating is complicated.  Trying to explain herself, her disease, and maintain a relationship is simply too hard.  But with Sasha, it should be easier:  He also has a chronic disease.  He totally gets the paradox that they are both more than their disease, but also defined by it.

Isabel finds that she can relax in his presence.  She even finds herself opening up more to others as a result of the relationship she is forming with Sasha.  He's good for her.

But Sasha also opens Isabel to the realization that her control issues, her fear of making decisions, and her aversion to conflict are not actually related to having a chronic disease, but are in fact unrelated.  She has conveniently looked past and ignored them because she could blame everything on the arthritis.  When Sasha asks her to commit to their relationship, she finds to her own horror that she doesn't know how.  And that is just the start of a series of emotional challenges!

One of the greatest parts of this book is the subtitle ("they don't die in the end") because it completely throws off the trope of these books.  A death would have been convenient.  Once Sasha died, we'd have a teary funeral and Isabel would pick herself up and move on, always keeping the memory of her fleeting romance with Sasha in her heart!  We all would have cried.  Instead, Moskowitz presents us with a much harder ending:  everyone lives and they are both still sick.  That's what a chronic disease is about.  It doesn't ever go away.  Somehow life goes on and when you have a chronic disease and you're young, you have many years before you.  You know that what awaits you are good days and bad days.  Sometimes you will be well, sometimes you'll be in the hospital.  It's not particularly dramatic but it's a hell of a lot more scary.  Watching Isabel come to accept that she wants Sasha in her life and embrace all that that entails makes for some pretty heady romantic stuff!

I loved the growth of Isabel's character, her strength in confronting her demons, and the hugeness of her heart.  This is a really lovely story about two young people in a very difficult place, doing what needs to be done to grasp on to their piece of happiness.  It's an affirming and inspirational story.  Highly recommended. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

In Victorian England, young women do not pursue careers in the sciences.  Faith's interest in her father's studies in natural science is thus discouraged.  But for every time her mother tried to keep her close to the hearth, Faith doggedly tagged along with her father.  It was she as a little girl, after all, who found her father's most famous fossil discovery.

Now a young woman, Faith is concerned as her father (and the family by extension) falls into disgrace because of evidence that her father's work is fabricated.  A fortuitous summons to the small island of Vane to participate in a dig is just the tonic for escaping scandal.  But the scandal and worse follows the family and Faith becomes aware that father is hiding a much larger secret: a rare plant that survives in pitch darkness, lives on lies, and produces a fruit that can allegedly provide True Knowledge.  Confronting her father, she is taken into his confidence and helps to secure the tree in a safe place.  The next morning, her father is dead, allegedly from suicide.  With time running out, Faith must unravel the mystery of her father's death, the identity of the killer, and the mystery of the tree itself.

A dark Victorian mystery with some wonderful creep factor and macabre images.  Lots of twists and surprises and a stellar well-written cast of characters.  I'm not a big mystery fan, but this was enjoyable on several levels.  A story with depth, competing motives for doing both great good and dark evil.  And, of course, the tree itself which is everything one wants from a diabolical plant. Without introducing any jarring anachronisms, Hardinge does a great job of introducing an empowering and empowered heroine who exposes and challenges gender inequality while being equally and fatally blind to it in the story's most clever twist.  It adds just another dimension to this satisfying story of dark deeds and tragedy.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Out of Place, by Jennifer Blecher

Cove is crushed when she learns that her best friend Nina is moving away to New York City.  Cove has lived her whole life on Martha's Vineyard and never left the island.  Her mother, for reasons never fully explained, refuses to leave.  As a result, it is unlikely that Cove will ever be able to visit Nina.

Without Nina, there will be no one to defend her at school and no one to be her friend.  And while Cove has to endure some fairly intense bullying at school, she finds there are plenty of new friends to make and things to learn. One of those friends helps Cove learn of an audacious way that she might earn a free trip to New York City.  She knows that she has to take the leap, even if it means risking everything she believes in.

A surprisingly sophisticated middle reader that covers bullying, PTSD, and socioeconomics, as well as a familiar story of friends being separated.  My favorite part was a subplot about a retired seamstress teaching Cove how to use a sewing machine (I'm a sucker for the forgotten-master-teaching-the-young-acolyte tale).  Vivid characters and lively writing make this complex story surprisingly enjoyable.  Blecher knows how to make her points economically and the result is an enjoyable book that delivers a big punch in minimal pages.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Where the Heart Is, by Jo Knowles

Thirteen year-old Rachel is tired of being teased about her alleged romance with Micah.  Yes, when they were six, they pledged their undying love, but people grow up, right?  For Rachel, it certainly seems that way!  But Micah obviously still likes Rachel and grows jealous when she starts to explore relationships with other boys (and even dabbles with a flirtation with a girl).

Rachel meanwhile is learning to take care of her neighbor's animals and coming to terms with the fact that those animals are slated for the dinner table.  And along with everything else, Rachel's family is struggling financially and on the verge of losing their home.

While a pleasant read, this book suffers from a pacing problem.  The build up to the supposedly central issue of the book (coping with the loss of the family home) is introduced very late in the book.  And, once introduced, Knowles does not have much to say about it and rushes it along.  The real story is probably Rachel and Micah, but this gets buried in the rest at the end.  The end result is a bunch of loose ends.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Start Here, by Trish Doller

Willa, Taylor, and Finley were supposed to take a grand boat trip together from Ohio to Key West after high school graduation, but then Finley succumbed to her leukemia and didn't make it.  But they still have the boat and a list of clues Finley created for them to solve on the route. 

Neither one of them is truly enthusiastic about taking the trip.  Finley was the glue that bonded the three of them together.  In her absence, Willa and Taylor aren't really close enough to survive close quarters and 2000 nautical miles.  But their loyalty to their late friend and a shared desire to honor her drive them on.  And during their coastal road trip they survive threats both emotional and physical, find love, discover themselves, and come to terms with life after Finley.

No literary masterpiece, but a nice solid road trip story with an unusual setting.  Knowing just about nothing about sailboats, there was just enough detail here to entertain me.  Great characters and some fun lighthearted romances gave me something to enjoy.  Finally, just enough adventure to explain the transformations and growth that I basically was craving for.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Lalani of the Distant Sea, by Erin Estrada Kelly

Inspired by Philippine mythology, this fable tells the story of a little girl named Lalani who must save her dying people by crossing from her island to the next door one where Mount Isa lies.  There, a golden flower will bring everything you wish.  Countless great warriors in the best ships have tried to make the trip before and none have succeeded.  How possibly could twelve year-old Lalani in a tiny boat make it?

A complex story involving a series of mysteries that gradually come together.  The narrative itself is a bit of magic, combining not just Lalani's story, but also the tales of dozens of other characters.  Kelly continues through to the end to introduce more and more characters, often in a second-person voice that feels quite immediate, like a campfire story.  The quantity of names and beasts gets overwhelming, but the story's richness is the payoff. 

While individual moments can get quite dark (there's a lot of death), general themes about self-discovery and standing up for what is right give this some heft.  I enjoyed the richness and the internal consistency of the story.  I'm not sure that I've truly appreciated it from only one reading.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Good Luck Girls, by Charlotte Nicole Davis

Sold to a bordello when she was little, Clementine has turned sixteen and is about to have her "Lucky Night" (when she is sold to the highest bidder for her first working evening).  When the John ends up dead, Clem has to make a run for it.  With the help of four friends, they make a daring escape that sets up a desperate race for freedom.  But the world they live in -- called the Scab -- isn't just populated with corrupt lawmen and people willing to give you away for the right amount of Shine.  Raveners, who were once men, but have now become something truly evil, that can enter your mind and destroy you from within.  And there vengeful spirits come out at night and tear you apart.   Against all these forces, what chance do five young women have to survive?  Yet the drive to survive and be free is strong and the resulting adventure is a wild one in this fantasy/Western hybrid.

As the story starts out, I was reminded of the "Heart of Gold" episode of Firefly because of its combination of Western and fantasy/sci-fi tropes.  Aside from the fact that they both begin at a brothel, the stories aren't similar, but the feeling of this novel owes a debt to Joss Whedon -- not just Firefly but also a good dose of Buffy.  Davis has woven a complex and immersive landscape for this book.  The Wild West stuff mixed up with this crazy paranormal stuff could have been a colossal train wreck, but she's made it effortlessly fit together.

The plotting of this story is relentless.  We never really get a break as we careen from one moment of peril to the next.  That pace is hard to maintain and at some point it starts to feel contrived.  Just how many near-death situations can these girls escape?  The ending fizzles out as Davis can't one-up herself enough to create a true climax.  All of which leads us to the other issue:  character building.  I'm not going to say that she didn't put a lot of effort into these characters, but they are fuzzy and amidst all of the action I sometimes had trouble keeping straight who was doing what.  Five (six if you count the boy) characters are a lot to sort through and build up to be sufficiently distinct (I never did quite figure out Tansy and Mallow in particular).  Major kudos for creativity and an excellent setting, high marks for a story I got fully engrossed in, but maybe do less and make more of it by building up those characters and throttling back on the mayhem?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

My Jasper June, by Laurel Snyder

At the start of the summer, Leah feels lost.  Her town and her family have so many traditions and none of them feel right anymore.  Since her little brother died last summer at camp, Leah and her family have simply drifted.  School kept Leah busy, but with a long empty summer ahead of her, there is nothing to do and nothing to which to look forward. 

Then Leah meets Jaspar, a mysterious girl living in an abandoned house in the woods.  Jaspar is fun and exciting, and most important of all Jaspar doesn't look at her with the pity that everyone else does.  Through the friendship that develops between them, Leah finds the will to move beyond her grief and see with a clear eye how encumbered it has made her and her family.  But Jaspar's situation is dire.  Can Leah help her in return or are some problems simply too big to take care of?

A lot of loss and pain in this book but in the end a lot of hope as well.  Snyder avoids easy solutions and no one person saves the others.  Instead it becomes a team effort where adults and children come together and teach and learn from each other at the same time.  The end result is a moving story about taking risks and committing to others in order to break through unhealthy coping mechanisms. While elements of the plot are tired and familiar, the strength of this novel comes in its affirming and inspirational message, well written and effectively delivered.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Zenobia July, by Lisa Bunker

While her father's hunting accident has left middleschooler Zen an orphan, the decision for her to come live with her Aunts provides an opportunity to finally become the girl she has always known herself to be.  With a new town and anew school, Zen has decided that she'll present as female and not even tell anyone that she's trans.

Being a girl proves harder than she expected.  There's the natural worries of passing, but Zen also find that being a girl involves tricky social skills with which she is not familiar.  She knows that being a girl feels right, but doing it right does not always come to her.  She doesn't know to be wary around queen bee Natalie.  While prim Margaret seems like she would make a good buddy, her conservative religious family proves to be a no-go.  For safety and comfort, Zen is drawn to a group of misfits, made up of racial and sexual minorities trying to fit in.

Zen is far more than a trans girl.  She has major computer skills.  When a hacker defaces the school's website with racist and transphobic graffiti, Zen leaps into action, helping the school track down the perpetrator.  All along the way she worries about finding out that the person who did this is likely someone she knows, someone who may not even realize that they have attacked her.

A complicated collection of ideas that surprisingly works.  The major plot line of Zen learning how to be a girl is handled quite well.  Zen both addresses her frustrations with the boy parts of her (she's well aware that as she enters puberty that things will get harder) and with learning the skills to reinforce and validate her femininity.  Related to this, there's a lovely series of interludes where various characters describe how Zen appears to them, with even the most reluctant observer agreeing that Zen is a girl.  Subplots about tolerance of cultural pluralism (Muslims in one instance and homosexuals in the other) neatly intertwine.  Zen's two aunts, their marriage, and the overall non-traditional family they form is another component.  

I also appreciate the things that the story doesn't do.  No traumatic outing scene.  No widespread bullying at school (mean girl Natalie aside!).  No family screaming match.  No grand gestures or speeches.  It all ends on a high note and, while little external has actually changed, we get the sense that Zen is just a bit closer to her happy place.  That opens us to a sequel or just a nice slice of Zen's growth.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park

A story of two young Africans.  Nya and her family live in a parched desert.  For half of the year, she spends her entire day making two round trips to fetch water for her family.  For the other half, she digs in mud for water that is frequently disease-ridden.

Salva is a young South Sudanese boy who is forced to flee for his life when soldiers attack while he is at school.  Separated from his family, he struggles to survive, crossing inhospitable terrain and ending up in a series of refugee camps and dreaming of a better life.  Told in alternating voices, the stories of Nya and Salva eventually connect in a surprising and dramatically appealing way.

Almost certainly, this book is read more often for a classroom assignment than for leisure, but it is easy and quick to read.  Largely based on the real-life experiences of Salva Dut, one of the "lost boys" of Sudan who were rescued from Kenyan refugee camps and resettled in the United States, the book is pretty intense reading.  People get killed and die horrible deaths.  While retold in an entertaining way, the mood is factual and it reads like non-fiction.

There's Something About Sweetie, by Sandhya Menon

Sweetie is a fat girl and she doesn't mind if you think that of her.  After all, her body size is an established fact.  But if you try to tell her that being fat is somehow a bad thing, she'll point out that she can outrun any girl or boy on the school's track team.  Far from being a slur, Sweetie has embraced her bigness as a source of pride and a sign of beauty.  Now, if she could only get her mother to agree and stop acting so embarrassed of her daughter's appearance.

Ashish is a formidable basketball player.  Popular and friendly, he has a way with girls.  They love him and he has flitted from one relationship to another.  When he is cruelly dumped by Celia, however, things are different.  He really liked her and the rejection sends him into a funk.  He simply can't get over her.  With his charm failing him, he throws himself at his parents for help.  They are convinced that they can find him the perfect girl and Ashish is just desperate enough to take them up on the offer.  They find Sweetie.

Ashish and Sweetie actually have chemistry, but Sweetie's mother puts the kibosh on the whole idea.  Afraid that her daughter will become the butt of jokes and be humiliated because no one as handsome as Ashish could possibly want her overweight daughter, she forbids them from being together.  But they end up going behind her back.  Ashish's parents, less than thrilled at the idea, force them to go on a series of unusual dates (the first of which is to the temple) that surprisingly solidify the respectful relationship that develops between Ashish and Sweetie.

The result is a sexy romance that strikes all the right notes:  a couple of kids with a very mature perspective on what makes a relationship work; a healthy respect for tradition, family, and (gasp!) even religion; and a heartwarming story about people who truly don't let bodyshaming control their lives.  As with When Dimple Met Rishi, Menon has created a joyful story filled with contemporary Desi characters that transcend stereotypes, while remaining true and respectful of those cultures.  This is an all-round winner!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein, by Jennifer Roy (with Ali Fadhill)

In this slightly fictionalized autobiography, Ali Fadhill recalls his life in Basra Iraq during the forty-two days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Only eleven years old at the time, the war was a period when his family worried about his father on the front and tried to adjust to living life under siege.

And for a child, the things that mattered most were often trivial.  Ali's strongest memory of the day the bombs started to drop was of knocking his brother off the top score on their favorite video game.  And while he would witness atrocities like summary executions, his mother's decision to burn his comic books when they ran out of fuel made a bigger impact at the time.

The book is more of a memoir than a children's story.  Reading it,  I tried to picture whether a modern child could even relate to this moment in history.  It's too recent to be considered history and too long ago for even their parents to remember.  Admittedly it's fascinating to read the first-hand account. I'm always interested in seeing how children process the horrors of war.  Overall, though, the writing is stark and functional and there's not much of a story.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Her Royal Highness, by Rachel Hawkins

Running from an unfaithful girlfriend, Millie decides that she needs to make a big break and applies to go to an exclusive boarding school in Scotland.  With students that include the Scottish royal family, she's about as far from Texas as she can get.  And when she is accepted and her roommate turns out to be the actual Princess of Scotland, Millie knows she is in the deep end.  At first, she can't stand her roomie, but over time they warm to each other until the inevitable romance develops.  But the course of love never runs smooth when royalty are involved!

Silly princess fantasy stuff for fans of The Princess Diaries.  We'll keep on hold the non-existence of the Scottish royal family or any of the far-too-easy way that Millie manages to become chummy with them.  Instead, we'll just enjoy this funny rom-com about two pretty girls in the Highlands.  The dialogue is smart, the story briskly paced, and Millie makes a perfect doe-in-the-headlights for this make believe fairy tale.