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.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

I, Lorelei, by Yeardley Smith

After her cat dies, eleven year-old Lorelei starts writing letters to him, telling her late fur friend about her daily life.  She's acting in the school play, negotiating a friendship with an unpopular girl in her class, dealing with the fallout from her best friend, and watching her parents' marriage come apart.  At times lighthearted and funny, but also sobering and poignant, the letters show Lorelei dealing with lots of changes.

Smith (better known as the voice of Lisa Simpson) dabbles here with a enjoyable but unremarkable middle grade book.  Lorelei is a sympathetic companion and full of insights about her friends and family. The struggles she engages with will feel familiar and readers will instantly relate.  Given the rather lengthy nature of the book (340 pages), it is frustrating that nothing really get resolved.  Instead, we must settle for the satisfaction that Lorelei by the end is beginning to learn how to cope and accept responsibility for the things that are within her power to change.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, by Ally Condie

Two years ago, Poe Blythe was captaining a dredging operation on the river to extract gold for the Admiral.  A heady assignment for a fifteen year-old, but she had her wits about her and she had her best friend Call.  But then Raiders attacked and captured the boat and killed Call.  Poe barely escaped with her life.  Now, the Admiral wants to send her out on the same mission.  He wants more gold.  She wants revenge.

Defended with special custom armor that Poe herself designed, their dredging vessel should be impregnable.  But from the start, bad signs abound.  There is at least one saboteur on board and Poe needs to find them.  She'll fail.  And as events spin out of control and the mission collapses, Poe finds herself thrown by events far greater than even she imagined.  In the end, the thirst for vengeance will be replaced with a much higher calling.

Fast-paced action and adventure with a young cast of characters in a post-apocalyptic world.  There's not much time here to dwell on adolescence in a story where characters betray each other every other  page and the plot twists and turns.  Instead, like all decent adventure stories, this is all about the hero(ine)'s growth from callow and emotionally-unfocused youth to true leader.  Poe is tough as nails, brave, and inspirational.  The story is exciting.  The setting is exotic enough to be interesting.

My only complaint:  I wanted a schematic of the dredger -- which is a character in its own right -- in the book.  Condie's descriptions were never quite enough for me to picture where the vast majority of the action takes place.  Having it to reference throughout the story would have helped.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Roll, by Darcy Miller

Eleven year-old Ren isn't thrilled about his family's recent move into the country.  And he's not so sure about starting cross country running in the fall, especially when it is clear that his father is so much better at running than he'll ever be.  But a girl next door and her weird hobby does catch his interest. She flies Birmingham Rollers, a type of pigeon which performs spectacular diving feats, and she's training her flock for a regional competition.  Ren's captivated by the birds and gets caught up in helping her train them.

While he's gained a new friend and a new interest, he's aware that he losing things too.  His best friend Aiden is going out for basketball and seems to want to spend all of his time with other boys on the team. The differences between them seem to be becoming a bigger and bigger deal.  And Ren needs to come clean with his father who is training Ren to get him ready.  But how does Ren tell his father he's no longer interested?

I always like a story that has something to teach and I had certainly never heard of training pigeons, let alone birds who could do these tricks (it's worth Googling!).  I also liked having a book about a boy that wasn't adventures and gross-out.  There are so many books out for girls about losing childhood friends in middle school years, but really not much about boys (who go through many of the same changes).  It's nice to see someone create one.

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Quiet You Carry, by Nikki Barthelmass

The story opens with Victoria thrown out on the street at 3am.  Her father, accusing her of sexually attacking him, wants her sent away.  Victoria finds herself thrown into foster care, with no home or family.  Up to now a star student, her education is in jeopardy.

She ends up being placed in a foster home two hours away, dealing with an incompetent and overloaded social worker and an abusive foster mother.  She is worried that her father is going to hurt her stepsister.  But as much as these problems are not her fault, it is Victoria who has to rescue herself.

The novel does that annoying thing where the heroine refuses to help themselves.  Through all the suffering, she can't bring herself to accuse her father of abuse (yet grows angry that no one will help her).  The thing that she is carrying – the truth—could have been spoken earlier and created a much shorter story.  But the device bothered me less in this case because Victoria kept fighting even when she wasn’t doing the right thing.  And she recognized early that staying silent was hurting herself and others.

Enthralling and hard to put down, Barthelemass portrays the hard reality of foster care where adults don’t always do what they are supposed to do.  Against these seemingly insurmountable odds, Victoria comes through as inspirational.  I also appreciated that not every adult was evil.  Even the harsh foster mom reveal subtleties that make her, while not nice, at least human.  A good read.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Wilder Girls, by Rory Power

In case you are looking for some fiction to put you in the mood for a global pandemic....

When the students at the Baxter School for Girls on a remote island off the coast of Maine start contracting a strange and fatal disease, they and their island are placed under quarantine.  The disease, which they call the "Tox" causes rapid mutations that painfully disfigure the body and appear to be tied to the ecology of the island itself, affecting the animals and even the plants.  While the CDC works on a cure, no one can leave.  Regular supply runs drop off what the girls and their teachers need to survive, but otherwise the residents are on their own as the they grow sick and die terrifying deaths.

They told us to wait and stay alive.

A year and a half later, junior Hetty recounts the state of existence for the survivors.  There is still no cure and a vast number of the girls (and nearly all of the adults) have died.  Supplies are running low and the wildlife on the island has grown so hostile that venturing outside of their school grounds is too dangerous to consider without weapons.  Things are coming apart.  Hetty (along with her friends Byatt and Reese) suspect that the government is giving up on them and fight a last ditch effort to survive as the supplies stop coming and panic sets in.

A grim and brutal horror novel that turns a boarding school into a killing field.  From the start, the tension was captivating, the situation dark and gruesome.  The suspense picked up as more discoveries and dangers unfurled.  But by the time we reach the half-way point, things start to tip into the realm of silly and unbelievable.  Characters start behaving irrationally and counter-intuitively,  A super generous interpretation would be that everyone started to go mad, but the stupidity of some of the actions belie a more plausible explanation -- trying to keep the action going and wrapping up the story.  In sum, the last hundred pages unravel the story in a not-so-glorious way.  Still, there's no denying the topical relevance of reading this book while you're riding in a plane with a bunch of coughing people.  Definitely, one of the creepiest reads I've had in a long while!

The Night of Your Life, by Lydia Sharp

It’s almost graduation and JJ has his senior prom to look forward to.  He’s taking his best friend Lucy with him and it’s bittersweet because when they graduate she will leave for school in Italy.  To complicate matters, he’s also taking Jenna – the recently ex-girlfriend of Blair and High School royalty -- who needs company.  It’s just as friend, but JJ could never deny that he would like a chance with her (even if he is strangely uncomfortable admitting as much in front of Lucy).

So far, so typical YA prom/romance.  But there’s an additional dimension.  Lucy and JJ’s just completed their joint science project -- a time machine -- which they actually got to work.  Sort of.  While all there preparations went well, the thing mysteriously failed during their presentation.  Or so they thought.  In fact, it triggered a time loop/glitch which causes JJ to relive again and again what will become the prom night from hell.

A story so much like Groundhog Day that there’s even a token groundhog in the story, this quirky time travel adventure may be all over the place but it is surprisingly entertaining and ultimately touching.  It turns out that Bill Murray really missed the boat – the purpose of repeating something again and again is not to get it right or become a better person:  it is to totally transcend the rules of the universe and embrace what you really expect from the world.  In sum, what JJ will ultimately learn is that we make out own fate.  That surprisingly deep lesson combines with stand out characters to create a fun read which breaks the mold of the calcified genres it has chosen.  Who knew a prom time-travel adventure could be so interesting?

[Discliamer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is slated for release on March 3, 2020.]

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Candle and the Flame, by Nafiza Azad

The city of Noor lies in the crossroads, a mixture of Arab, Indian, and Chinese cultures.  Nearly destroyed when a chaotic band of Djinn attacked the city and slew almost everyone, it has been repopulated by refugees from many lands.  Thus creating a place of many cultures, faiths, and traditions.  But it is not a place of peace.  Rival factions of Djinn and humans struggle to gain control of the region.  A dizzying assortment of nobles and commoners play a part in this vivid and complex setting, key among them is Fatima, one of the few survivors of the attack.  She now bears special powers that even she doesn't fully understand, which could bring peace or annihilation to the people.

Strikingly original amalgam of cultures and ideas, Azad has drawn on a wide palate to create this crossroads world that combines not only different world cultures, but also different ideas of magic and religion.  The story takes liberties with many of these in its mashup and introduces a matriarchy and strong women characters that fit loosely on top of  the traditions it invokes.  That can at times feel revisionist, but it fits in smoothly.  Azad triumphs in cultural detail, obviously in love with the food, clothing, and smells of this world.  No meal takes place without a detailed description of what is being served.  No clothing is worn without extensive description of what is being worn and how it is accessorized.  If you are into that and have the patience to spend a lot of time in the Glossary (helpfully provided at the end of the book), then this is a rewarding read.  For more casual readers, it can seem like cultural overload and one longs for more story and less culture.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Girls of July, by Alex Flinn

Four girls in the summer before their senior year come to spend a month in a secluded cabin in the Adirondacks, where they have adventures and bond.  As usually happens in this subgenre, this involves rejecting the expectations of their parents and finding their true callings.  The adventures are mostly unremarkable (car trouble, a romance, helping a family in need), but each of the young women go through a very satisfactory personal growth arc in the story.  That said, the most interesting story probably belongs to the fifth character (the owner of the summer house and the grandmother of one of the girls).

At 470 pages, it seemed terribly long and it wore me out.  It begins strong with a certain amount of tension between the characters, but they break through that quickly and the second half of the novel treads water.  And while the girls start out different, they gradually lose their distinctiveness, which I guess is how we know that they are all getting along.

Night Music, by Jenn Marie Thorne

Ruby is the youngest member of the Chertok musical dynasty.  Her father teaches at the elite Amberley School.  But the truth is that Ruby is failing to make it and, after she botches her audition at Amberley, she realizes that she needs to find something else.  But what?

Oscar is a musical genius.  Taken under the wing of Ruby’s father, he is positioned to become something truly revolutionary. As a young black man, everyone wants to pigeonhole him as a ‘disadvantaged’ kid and use him to promote a diversity fund at the school, rather than pay homage to his actual talent.  Ruby seems to be the only one who can see beyond his race and truly appreciate his musical genius.  But with the shock to her own dreams, can any appreciation of him be truly selfless?  And is she hanging on him out of love or desperation?

A smart and fun romance with smarts in a glorious rarified setting.  It's got rich kids in Manhattan, classical music, fancy parties and glitz, and a final climax at the Lincoln Center.  On top of this is an intelligent take on how race and class (and a large generation gap) play out in elite artistic circles.

Beyond the story, Ruby and Oscar are fun and complicated.  Oscar does tortured artist well, but it is Ruby’s family and their beautiful psychopathy that steals the show.  In short space, Thorne packs a strong emotional punch with each member of the Chertok family (regretful father, cold and steely mother, siblings unable to reconcile).  The result is light and enjoyable entertainment, with some depth and substance behind it to give you the feeling that you aren't just reading a romance. A beach read, to be sure, but a superior one at that.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland, by Rebekah Crane

When Zander shows up at Camp Padua, a summer retreat for at-risk teens, she insists that there is nothing wrong with her.  That makes her stand out.  Everyone knows that Cassie is anorexic, Bek is a liar, and Grover is just odd.  But the most that can be said about Zander at first is she doesn't like apples.

Faced with a summer of group therapy and outdoor games that is about to change.  Grover's, convinced that he is destined to become schizophrenic, and similarly persistent that Zander and he are a couple.  Amidst Cassie's snarky observations about just about everyone are a few pointed ones at Zander that show that she sees far more than anyone else at Camp.  And Zander will open up and address the feelings and behavior that wound her up here.

A familiar story of institutionalized teens healing gets a lift in this case from some fresh characters.  Cassie and Grover are the most colorful and provide excellent soundingboards for Zander.  Character growth is a given in this genre but follows a less predictable arc that gives us some suspense and a better pay off in the end.  The language is smart and mixes believably vulnerable adolescence with intelligence.  A pleasant enough read but not terribly noteworthy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Oh, Rats! by Tor Seidler

Phoenix is one impressive squirrel.  The largest in his litter, his luxurious fur and big fluffy tail make him a great catch.  But unfortunately, that vanity costs him when he is caught by a hawk instead and swept away from his New Jersey home.  Making it through a series of near-death experiences, Phoenix finds himself in New York City, but without his fur and his tail now bare.  He looks almost like a rat!

While the local rats don't really trust him, he proves to be their good friend, helping to protect the abandoned wharf they call home from a greedy real estate developer.  It will take serious climbing, inventiveness, help from a bird of prey, and a few sticks of dynamite, but Phoenix is determined to save the day.  In the end, he finds that home is where you make it, even if you are a hairless squirrel from Jersey!

On a whim, I picked this up from the new middle school bookshelf.  It looked cute and even a bit funny.   It proved to be strange and more than a little bit dark. It is cute, but not very funny.  I also fail to see how it really qualifies as a book for middle schoolers, although I'm at a loss to say what the audience should be.  It's not a bad adventure, but between the violence, some mature themes (alcoholism, family abandonment, etc.) it doesn't really seem age appropriate. But at the same time, the talking animal genre tends to skew young.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

We Are the Perfect Girl, by Ariel Kaplan

In this retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, Aphra is the brave and fearless fighter.  Skilled with words and outspoken, she's a loyal friend to her little brother and to her best friend Bethany.  While Bethany definitely has the looks, she becomes tongue tied in the presence of handsome Greg.  And as much as Aphra keeps trying to encourage her, Bethany seems condemned to sit on the sidelines.  Aphra won't stand for that though and she helps Bethany find the words to capture Greg's attention.

Meanwhile, Aphra is developing a phone app that uses artificial intelligence to chat with people.  The app is supposed to be anonymous and confidential, but when the program starts failing, Aphra fakes results by intervening and writing the app's responses herself.  That's when she discovers that Greg has been confessing to the app.  Unable to help herself, Aphra responds, trying to gently nudge him towards her best friend.  It doesn't take long for Greg to figure out that the responses are not coming from a computer.  And when he calls her out, she is forced to confess, but due to unfortunate circumstances, he mistakenly assumes that the app's author is Bethany.  Now smitten, he falls madly in love with her.  This leaves Aphra in the unenviable position of coming clean with Greg about her true identity and confessing to her best friend that she's been secretly chatting with her love.  The fact that Aphra actually likes Greg as well only complicates matters.

Clever is the way that Kaplan has managed to modernize and adapt Rostand's classic play, the book also shines for its clever writing. The book is hilarious, with a whole slew of amusing and original anecdotes and scenes (ranging from an awkwardly misplaced swimsuit donut to a grand confession in front of an entire school assembly).  At times, these are so clever that they overwhelm the story itself, threatening to make the novel just one funny scene after another, but it mostly works.  Meanwhile, I loved the characters.  The dynamics with Aphra's family are particularly refreshing (I'm always a fan of parents who actually do more than forbid the heroine to do something and then ground them afterwards).  And Aphra's journey from self-obsession towards self-acceptance is real and meaningful.  A delightful read.

Sadly, the unusual and notable inclusion of rarely-seen-within-YA Russian to the story falls flat due to the multiple errors in its usage in the book.  But A for effort, nyet?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Undoing of Thistle Tate, by Katelyn Detweiler

At seventeen, Thistle is the author of two bestsellers.  The third installment of her Lemonade Skies trilogy is almost finished.  But as successful as she is, she carries a terrible secret: she’s not the author.  Rather, it is her father who produces the books with Thistle listed on the jacket.  After years of unsuccessfully attempting to get published, he resorted to this subterfuge as a hook to get the manuscript noticed.  At the time, they were in desperate financial straits and risked losing their home.  Thistle, just fourteen at the time, agreed to go along with this ruse because she knew it would make her Dad happy.

The home and her father is pretty much all that Thistle has left of her mother.  Dad, though, is close-lipped and reluctant to tell her much about Mom, who died when she was only three.  But the Lemonade Skies series, which features a young heroine searching through the afterlife for her lost mother, is a rather heavy handed analogue to their real life.

Dad always promised that the third book would be the last and that Thistle would no longer need to carry on the charade.  She would go to college, get her own life, and move on.  But Dad’s been wavering about the future of the series and Thistle is worried that she’ll be trapped forever.  But then those fears are swept aside, and Thistle and her Dad find their hands forced by a tragic chain of events.

While a little slow at first, the story picked up steam and gained a poignancy as the initial deceit and cover up is replaced by Thistle’s search for her mother.  The ending, while perhaps a bit overly rosy, is deeply satisfying.  Tear jerking occurs and key life lessons are expounded.  In sum, the story is good.  Thistle wallows a bit much in self-pity and makes the usual bad choices of lying and deception that seem to plague young women in YA novels, but she’s strong willed and brave and comes through in the end.  The love interests suffer more and the relationships are a bit of a yawn.  Read this for the story, not for the characters.

Friday, January 31, 2020

When Reason Breaks, by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Ms. Diaz's class is studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  For two young women in the class, the poetry has a particular impact.  Goth girl Elizabeth is largely considered a troubled teen.  Abandoned by her father, she lashes out at everyone around her.  Her disturbing artistry gets her regularly sent to the counselor.  Sweet Emily, seemingly the antithesis of Elizabeth, struggles with an inner demon of depression.  Both girls, latching on to Dickinson's melancholy, apply it to their contemporary lives, which are seemingly falling part. By the end of the book, one of them will be lead to take their life.

Unfortunately, the suicide angle feels artificial.  Yes, obviously it  provides a direction to the story.  But once we get there, the writing falls apart with the narrative becoming disjointed and passive.

I didn't clue in until the afterward that the characters are amalgams of Dickinson or people who moved in her circle.  It helps to explain some of the more forced parts of the story. Unfortunately, it is more clever than enlightening or entertaining.  Which is pretty much my issue with the entire book.

Meet Me in Outer Space, by Melinda Grace

Edie has a cognitive disorder that causes her to mis-hear words.  In English, she can usually manage to figure sentences out in their context.  But in the French class she is taking, it is nearly impossible for her and she struggles.  She'd quit, but the class is crucial for her in her chosen career as a fashion designer and her plan to go to Paris to study this summer.

She needs a tutor and the class’s TA, Hudson offers to help her.  He obviously wants more from Edie but she resists getting involved.  Any sort of relationship is just going to complicate her life.  Still, Edie can’t deny that she is attracted to him.  But really what future can they have when she is planning to study in Paris?

Quirky and original story with strong characters.  Edie, despite the temptation that Hudson presents, is pretty steadfast in her dedication to her career goals.  I did find it rough and amateur, but there is raw talent here.  Finally, it got mislabeled as YA, when it is really NA, but young readers may not care (the characters are not terribly mature so the primary visible difference is that they live in dorms and not at home).

Have a Little Faith in Me, by Sonia Hartl

CeCe lost Ethan.  After succumbing to pressure from him to have sex, he decided to break things off.  He says he needs to re-connect with his faith and is going away to Summer Bible camp.  CeCe, whose faith in Jesus was never very strong, is convinced that by following him there and proving she can be a good Christian too, that she’ll win him back.  Her best friend and neighbor Paul tries to convince her that this is a very bad idea.  When he fails to do so, he announces that he’ll go too in order to help.

At camp, CeCe is definitely in over her head.  Her ideas clash repeatedly with the staff and the campers, but her biggest shock is finding that Ethan has a girlfriend at camp.  Desperate, she gets Paul to agree to pretend to be her new boyfriend and make Ethan jealous.  It works so well that CeCe and Paul discover they have feelings for each other.  It culminates in a stand off at a campfire confessional.

So far, so predictable.  I twitched quite a bit at the depiction of organized Christianity, but that’s pretty common with writers who want a group that’s still OK to trash.  But the great climactic fireside showdown occurs on page 185 and there are almost 150 MORE PAGES TO GO!!  What on earth are they going to do with the rest of the book?

The answer is to embark on a treatise about sex and consent.  The girls at the camp, shocked by what CeCe has endured launch into an extended dialogue about sexual mishaps, questions, and consent.  Much of it is fine and the material is sound, but it is so dense that it largely comes across as a textbook.

The book's popularity may be boosted by a pretty explicit sex scene at the end that the sex education material seems to be building up for.  It contains probably the most thorough by-the-book explicit consensual sexual encounter ever recorded in a YA (or any other) book.  And there is a stress on verbalized consent (i.e., implicit consent does not count so everything must be spoken aloud), which will raise eyebrows. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching that good sex is consensual sex, but it has so little to do with the first half of the book that it felt like a hidden agenda.

It’s a little hard to review the book since it is really two books – one fiction and the other non-fiction.
The characters start as young people but largely become mouthpieces in the end.  CeCe and Paul get the best treatment, but that’s because they get to be the models for perfect sex.  In the first half of the novel, I found them much more interesting.  The end is a mess as the story shifts in several different directions, but finally gets the kids back home and into each other’s arms.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer

Rob lost everything when his Dad was caught embezzling money from his clients' investment accounts.  Most of their possessions were seized.  Rob became an outcast at school as everyone assumed he knew about it.  Meanwhile, his father escaped in his own way (with a failed suicide attempt that left him in a vegetative state).

Maegen got caught last year cheating on the SATs and caused an entire classroom's worth of exams to be invalidated.  But that scandal pales compared with her star older sister coming home from school pregnant and unsure about what she wants to do about it.  Maegan's family life has grown unbearable.

Both Rob and Maegan now lie at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but neither of them have any reason to associate with the other.  It takes a group project in Calculus to bring them together and help them discover that they have much in common.  One thing they have both come to understand is, as desperate as things seem for themselves, there are others who are in greater need.  They can make a difference by doing good deeds.  While they don't have track records for making good choices, now that are are trying to do so, they find that it is not so easy to know what is right.

A stirring and moving story of two flawed, but resilient young people.  Supported by complex and well developed supporting characters, Kemmerer has created a very strong story of love and loyalty.  Whether it's the sisterly bond between Maegan and her pregnant older sister, between Rob and his former best friend Conner, or even between the children and their parents, there's so much interesting stuff going on here.  And that doesn't even begin to touch on the complex dynamics between Rob and Maegan, who fluctuate between distrust, love, betrayal, and forgiveness in one of the more fascinating pas de deux in YA.  It's a wonderful thing to read a story where no one really acts to type and there's a believable surprise around every page turn.  I wasn't so hot on the plot twists at the end involving the scandal that got Rob's father in trouble, but that is a minor quibble for a novel when the characters themselves are so fascinating.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

True to Your Selfie, by Megan McCafferty

Twelve year-old Ella and popular IT girl Morgan aren't just taking seventh-grade by storm, they plan to achieve multi-platform global domination!  Morgan's got the vision: what they should wear, how they should act, what they should put on their website.  She's shaping the "brand" of Morgan & Ella.  But as the number of followers that the girls have start to rise, Ella finds that more and more she seems to merely be an accessory for Morgan's climb to fame.  And, as much as Ella would like to be famous on the socials, there are things about her old life she misses and opportunities she can see slipping away.

Fairly heavy-handed look at the allure of fame and fortune, from a middle schooler's perspective. It's largely over the top but the descriptions of social media will ring true enough to make any adult cringe.  In the end, Ella learns her powerful lessons about life, so the moral purpose of this fable is served, bu there are few surprises here.  Ella is not a character to really like as she spends most of the book making mistake after mistake, but she's real and one can't help but feel a bit sorry for her.

More successful for me was the entertaining and quick moving story.  It's a fun and breezy read.  It's not fine literature, but it's a good story, told well, with some satisfying lessons about being true to yourself (which is always a good message to drive home with middle schoolers).

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 4th.]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Haunting, by Lindsey Duga

Twelve year-old orphan Emily has a dream come true, when the wealthy Thorntons adopt her and take her away from the nasty orphanage to which she is consigned.  Life at her new home is a dream:  a huge manor house, fine food, pretty new dresses, and best of all she gets to keep her pet mutt Archie.  There's even an odd little girl named Kat who keeps suddenly appearing and disappearing, who shows Emily around the vast estate.

But then strange things start to happen:  thumps in the night, falling bookcases, exploding windows, and a brutal sudden chilly air that keeps reappearing.  What starts as oddities becomes life-threatening.  Emily and Archie must find out what haunts the place and how to rid it of its ghosts.

Extremely formulaic middle reader, full of all the usual suspects:  abused orphan, stepparents with secrets, gothic mysteries, ghosts, and that friendly canine companion.  For the target audience, the story's lack of ambition is probably fine, but this is one of hundreds of similar books and I don't see how this one is going to stand out in any remarkable way.

Disclaimer:  I recieved an ARC of this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is slated for release on February 4th.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Art of Breaking Things, by Laura Sibson

Skye is a promising young artist, probably on her way to a full-ride at art school, but she's grown indifferent to her success.  Getting high with her best friend Ben, she's drifted through school a party girl.  But two things startle her indifference:  Ben gets busted for drugs and her mother's ex-boyfriend Dan returns to their life.

Years ago, when Skye was ten, Dan molested her during a family camping trip.  Her oblivious mother never acknowledged the incident and Skye withdrew into drugs (the party girl was in fact just self-medicating).  She could manage things when Mom was no longer seeing Dan, but now Mom's talking about marrying him!  Skye can't deal. Especially not when she catches Dan grooming her younger sister Emma.

I'll get my big complaint about the story off my chest first:  a plot that rests precariously on a misunderstanding.  I hate hate hate when authors set up these entirely artificial conflicts.  The trauma and its extension over seven years rest entirely on Skye and her mother unwilling to find a way to communicate.  Given how wonderfully they do so in the end, I'm simply not buying it.  I get that trauma can silence a victim, but this is just made up.  And made up for the sole purpose of creating a story.

That complaint aside, I actually thought this was a well-written book.  The character relationships between Skye and her BFF Luisa, between Skye and her sister Emma, and all the little relationships with casual friends were complex, nuanced, and realistic.  I didn't find much of a flame in Skye and Ben's romance/friendship, but I also didn't find it an important part of the story (despite its placement front and center).  Skye herself is a bit of a screw up and makes some amazingly bad choices, but that mostly illustrates the corrosive nature of the trauma she's carry with her and she actually comes across as pretty tough.  Finally, the importance of art in her life felt very organic to her character and not just something tossed in.  Sibson shows some great writing and I look forward to her next novel.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Michigan vs the Boys, by Carrie S. Allen

Michigan had just learned that she was going to be this year's girl's hockey assistant captain when it is announced that the team is being shuttered because of budget cuts in the school district.  Michigan has to figure out some way to stay on the ice.  But in her small town in the Upper Peninsula what opportunities are there to play?

The obvious solution is to try out for the boy’s team.  But in her town, that doesn’t go down well.  She finds herself the target of discrimination (some subtle, some overt) and hazing.  As the threats and attacks grow more serious, Michigan has to ask herself how much getting to play is really worth it?

Full of lots of hockey action, fans of the sport will enjoy themselves. However, I’m fairly ignorant about hockey so most of the play-by-play went over my head.  As a story, I found the book gripping and engaging.  There’s some fairly intense scenes of violence, but that merely reinforces how tough Michigan is and how hard she has to fight.  The ultimate pay off at the end is, of course, very rewarding.

The Goodbye Summer, by Sarah Van Name

Caroline has a secret she can’t tell anyone:  she and her boyfriend Jake are going to run away at the end of the summer.  Sure, she’s going to just turn 17 in August, but Jake is already 18 and has figured the whole thing out!  They are young, but they are in love and that will be enough to get them through. Jake is her entire world now. Ever since she and Jake started dating, her friends have pretty much all drifted away.

But then Caroline meets Georgia.  Georgia has issues of her own (mostly dealing with her over-controlling parents) but the two girls find something in the other that they need.  As Caroline confides in Georgia the plans that she and Jake have, Georgia begs her to reconsider the plan.  Caroline pushes back, but even she realizes the craziness of her plans.  Always a pleaser, Caroline is faced with the dilemma of who she can afford to disappoint.

A well written but cringe worthy story.  I was disappointed that Van Name didn’t make more of an effort to depict Jake more appealing.  He really didn’t seem worth all the fuss.  Still, I sincerely believed Caroline’s struggles with making the right decision.  And it all just reminded me of how much it sucks to be young and immature.  I’d love to say that I don’t know anyone who was like this when they were her age, but the story is intimately familiar.  Faithful and authentic and heartbreaking.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Year We Fell From Space, by Amy Sarig King

Liberty's got a plan to redesign the constellations.  She's going to modernize them by asking people to look at unlabeled star maps she creates and describe what shapes they see.  She thinks it will get people as excited about the stars as she is.  Every night, she goes out and creates the detailed maps.  One night, she witnesses a meteorite enter the atmosphere.  With devastating impact, it lands near her (an unbelievably rare event) shattering windows around the neighborhood.  But the damage is superficial and Liberty's home has already been destroyed when her father has moved out a few days before.

While this book could be seen as just another middle grade story about divorce, it's significantly more complicated.  Liberty and her father both suffer from depression.  Her younger sister and her mother have emotional issues of their own.  And, as a result,  no one is an entirely reliable narrator.  The resulting insightful tale takes a very honest look at the dissolution of marriage and redefinition of family in a way that all ages will understand.  Hardly just "adult talk," Liberty observes, each of them (parents and children) have a "quarter share in the divorce."

I really liked this novel.  It is a very well-trod topic and hardly one that would seem to need a new treatment, but King has a gentle way of handling what Liberty calls "irrational" behavior as her characters (both children and adult) behave in authentically imperfect ways.  And the message that reflection, communication, and (ultimately) forgiveness is crucial for all of us is uplifting.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Dear Sweet Pea, by Julie Murphy

Sweet Pea’s parents are getting a divorce.  Their “perfect solution" is that her Dad has bought a house on the same street (just two houses down).  The two houses are nearly identical and they fill them with matching furniture.  Her parents want her to have a “mirror” home, so that whether she’s staying with Mom or Dad, she pretty much has the same space.  But it just seems creepy to Sweet Pea and she would much rather that they all just stayed together in the first place.

Between these two houses lives Miss Flora Mae – an eccentric old lady who authors a local agony aunt column.  She hires Sweet Pea to handle her mail when she has to go away for a few weeks.  While Sweet Pea is only supposed to bundle up letters and forward them, she succumbs to the temptation to read and answer a few of them for herself.  Those actions have consequences.

A lovely middle reader from the author of NA stand-outs Dumplin’ and Puddin’.  Sweet Pea is basically a little sister to the heroines of those books – full of resourcefulness and a bit of mischief, but with a heart of gold.  It’s rare for an author to manage success in different genres, but Murphy does so with aplomb, dialing down her style for a tween audience.  And while she pulls out some well-trod topics (divorce and friends outgrowing each other), she gives them a nice original (Texan) flavor.  A fun and enjoyable read.

How to Make Friends With the Dark, by Kathleen Glasgow

Sixteen year-old Tiger has a typically turbulent relationship with her overly protective mother.  But as much as she resents her mother's clingy behavior, she is devastated when her mother suddenly dies.  Without another parent or any near relatives, Tiger is in for an even greater shock as she is shunted into the foster care world. Overwhelmed by grief, Tiger must learn to navigate an alien world without roots and without a home.

A brutal story about grief. It's vivid and realistic, but ultimately numbing in its length and breadth.  The good news is that it ends well, but for anyone who finds that they can take grief in only small doses, this is not a good read.  It will suck you down into a very dark place alongside its heroine.  Only in the end do things start to look up and this, surprisingly, is the least authentic part of the book.  For masochists only!

Friday, January 03, 2020

Forward Me Back to You, by Mitali Perkins

Robin is drifting, not really sure what he wants to do with his life. He feels rootless.  Adopted, he wonders why his Indian birth mother gave him away.  Kat, on the other hand, knows exactly what she's running from:  a boy at her school who attacked her.  She's a fighter (a fact which actually saved her during the assault) but the school's turned against her and she's come to stay with a friend of her martial arts trainer in Boston.

Fairly soon after arriving, Robin and Kat learn of a unique opportunity to spend the summer in Kolkata, working at an organization that rescues children from sex traffickers.  Robin realizes this might be a chance to search for his birth mother and make peace with his past.  For Kat, it is a dream of sharing her knowledge of self-defense with other girls who have suffered from the hands of men.  But once Robin and Kat reach Kolkata, they realize how far out of their depth they are.

A unique story of young people who are struggling with their past and find that what they really need is so much different from what they thought.  They both start off arrogant, but they go through some humbling readjustments and eventually adapt.  The result is a satisfying story of growth and maturation.  The characters are distinct and have clear personalities (ranging from Kat's tendency to describe everyone she meets as animals to Robin's embrace of his Bengali heritage). In sum a well-developed story and strong characters are combined with the exotic locale and a true respect for Bengali culture (as well as a little comic relief) to created a readable and enjoyable adventure.