Wednesday, December 30, 2020
Twenty Things I Learned from Reading 2000 Books
Refraction, by Naomi Hughes
Reflective surfaces have become portals that spread thick fog everywhere and through which horrible monsters emerge. Staring into a mirror is suicide and owning one has been quickly outlawed. But people still needed mirrors, lenses, and other shiny objects and that is where Marty makes a living as an underground dealer in reflective contraband. It's a dangerous occupation, both because of the materials handled and the classification of dealing as a capital offense, but Marty has no choice. He needs to find his brother who he believes is in London and getting there is going to take money.
Before he can manage to make the money he needs, Marty gets caught and is summarily exiled from the island. Along with him is the son of the mayor, exiled for the "crime" of having captured and turned Marty in to the law. Now, ironically dependent on each other for survival, the two boys try to stay alive in a world of fog and danger. With the enemy hiding in the fog and reflective surfaces, the paranoia and fear will keep you on the edge of your seat. But as scary as that world is, we quickly learn that the situation is much more complex and terrifying.
This highly entertaining science fiction adventure combines a terrifying premise with complex and interesting characters. Marty suffers from OCD, which causes minor tics like his need to tap doorframes and triple check locks, but which also plays a significant role in the story. Without giving away major spoilers, the OCD becomes an integral part of the solution to the story. His complicated relationship with the mayor's son adds additional tension to the already tense and paranoid setting. The result is a taut and scary thriller that gave me nightmares. It stumbles at the end, but mostly because of the impossible standards it sets us up for. Highly recommended.
Sunday, December 27, 2020
Tweet Cute, by Emma Lord
Pepper is an academic achiever and a driven perfectionist in everything she attempts, whether it is being captain of the swim team or baking amazing desserts. So when her mother's burger chain business Big League Burgers is struggling to make a bigger impact on Twitter, she naturally agrees to help their hapless social media director.
Jack, who always feel like the lesser of his identical twin brother, does everything he can to help his family running the neighborhood deli. At school, he's considered something of a clown and not the star achiever that his brother is. But he has a secret: he's a coding genius and he's created the social media app Weazel which allows students to communicate anonymously. It is both wildly popular and completely banned by the school.
When Big League Burgers unveils its new sandwich, Jack and his brother notice an uncanny resemblance to their own deli's fave. Convinced that the corporate giant is trying to steal from their family, they launch an attack on Twitter that takes off. Soon, although neither one knows initially that the other is behind it, Pepper and Jack find themselves wrestling in an internet battle using their family's corporate accounts. At the same time, they are similarly haplessly entwined with each other on Weazel.
This update of You've Got Mail has all the usual rom-com charms. It's a bit crowded between the Twitter battle, Pepper's baking finesse, and the Weazel app, but it manages to tie everything up neatly in the end (with some help from some convenient coincidences). With all that stuff going all, it's a bit of a slog to get through the first eighty pages. To really get the storying moving in fact, some of the key elements at the beginning simply drop away (Pepper's grade point average takes a dive, the swimming fades away, etc.). So, this isn't anything spectacular, but it is fun if you don't overthink it. And after I've had my head in the world of Panem for three days, I definitely didn't mind some food porn and smoochy bits!
Saturday, December 26, 2020
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Suzanne Collins
The story begins on familiar ground as we walk through the events of the Hunger Games themselves (as we did in books I and II) but where those were smooth running affairs, it is apparent that at this early date, they were still working out the kinks. In striking contrast, the body count has racked up long before the Games even start.
Snow is a student at the Academy and in a novel new twist this year the students have been enlisted to "mentor" the tributes. Snow gets assigned to the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray. She's a musician and and a member of a wandering troupe of romani-like entertainers called the Covey. Like a gypsy, she flits around in colorful skirts and charms the people around her (including Grey himself) which proves decisive in her ability to stay alive and defeat much more able opponents. But there is more than charm at play. They have a mutual shared interest in her staying alive. Her success in the Games will help Snow get a college scholarship he desperately needs.
That works fine during the Games, but when things go awry and the story shifts to District 12, their roles change. The mutual interest persist, but there is suspicion and distrust and Snow doesn't know if he can trust her anymore. But in all honesty, could he ever trust her?
There are several things that make this a very different sort of story. One obvious difference is the point of view. In the trilogy, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Katniss and her rebellion against the Capital District. Here, the story is told through Snow and life in the Capital is nowhere near as easy as we have grown used to it. Some of that is because the Capital is still rebuilding from after the war, but Collins is also showing us that even those who benefit from the power structure suffer.
This is the origin story of a tyrant. While Katniss was heroic and fighting a good fight through most of the story, Snow is a troubling protagonist. Some of his ideas (in particular his obsession with order and his selfishness) are odious. One starts feeling uneasy when the book pushes us to root for the oppressors and we hope that the rebels get caught and killed.
An interesting message to explore in a YA book, but what about the story itself? It's long and meanders a lot. Once the Games are over, the story truly drifts away from its focus, but it does eventually come back together in the end, in a rushed finale that solves problems by largely killing off characters (an approach also found in Mockingjay). This is a less accessible story. It is hard to imagine someone picking up this book without already having been drawn in by the trilogy. In sum, not just a prequel but an ambitious political critique that is fated to be read by fans looking for some Katniss magic and disappointed to find only gloomy portents of the things to come.
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Audacity, by Melanie Crowder
Struggling against sexism, tradition, racism, and economic injustice to realize her dreams, it's a battle that one cannot truly say that she ever won, which makes the decision to tell her story in verse particularly poignant. So much of what she faced and fought with goes unsaid in this novel. For those parts of her life left in ellipses, a brief biographical essay and the transcript of the author's interview with her descendants fill in some details.
The verse is occasionally ambitious but overall sufficient to convey the action of the story and pull our focus to Clara's personality, accent her drive and ambition, and call out her doubts. Faced with so many obstacles, she is particularly ravaged by regrets as the failures of her actions and the costs of those failures start to pile up. Verse gives us the silent spaces and moments of reflection that a more standard text would have felt compelled to push through. And so my usual skepticism about the format is set aside. This is a good book, providing an inspirational approach to labor history and the role of women activists in the labor movement. Recommended.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, by Samira Ahmed
Her father is French and her mother a Muslim Indian, which makes her an exotic American transplant. Right now, Khayyam wouldn't mind some quiet to take stock. In addition to her bungled scholarship application, there's her frustration with her sort-of boyfriend back in Chicago.
But Paris simply takes her closer to the causes of her woes. Surrounded by the places where Dumas and Delacroix lived, Khayyam picks back up her search. In the process, she stumbles across a young man with a similar quest (and strangely enough a direct descendent of Dumas!). Together they learn of a Muslim woman named Leila who crossed paths with not only Dumas and Delacroix, but also with Lord Byron. A historical mystery (interspersed with Leila's story from her voice) unfolds. Along with it, a contemporary romance in the streets of Paris develops.
While listed as Young Adult, this literary mystery is really more of an adult novel with a young protagonist. Khayyam has some angsty teen moments, mostly involving the triangle with her American boyfriend and the young Dumas, but otherwise there is nothing here that particularly speaks to adolescence. That doesn't mean that young readers will not enjoy the unraveling of the mystery or characters, but simply that the novel will appeal to a broader audience. As a mystery it works pretty well.
The book is less effective at promoting Ahmed's ideological goals. Using Edward Said's critique of orientalism as a launching point, she uses the example of Leila (and Khayyam's obsession with telling the woman's story) to illustrate the process of giving voice to women in history. Byron, Dumas, and Delacroix and their odious relationships with women make easy cannon fodder and this is entry-level criticism aimed at younger readers. Here, it hangs uneasily, much as her bombastic novel Internment did for anti-Trumpism. The polemic, which only becomes fully developed in the latter part of the novel, does not add much and largely occurs at the cost of Khayyam's story of personal growth and confidence building.
Monday, December 21, 2020
What Unbreakable Looks Like, by Kate McLaughlin
Saturday, December 19, 2020
The Loop, by Ben Oliver
One day, the routine suddenly stops and the Loop goes quiet. Something is happening and the only way Luke will find out is to escape the Loop. With help from other inmates, he manages to do so but what they find outside is even more horrifying: an existential threat to humanity itself.
The great strength of this book is the author's love for nasty sadistic details. There's sheer delight and glee in the way he documents the inhumane tortures of living in the Loop and then finding equally horrific things to match it on the outside.
It's a very very complex dystopia, but the complexity is the major weakness of the story. Hemmed in by so many elements, so many characters, and so many rules, the story really struggles to emerge. Oliver is clever and full of idea, but he's lousy for story and plot. The story, such as it is, is incoherent and largely pointless. The heroes show their mettle largely through stupidity, hesitation, and cowardice in the face of raw evil (it's a very uneven match). There's a mystery unfolding that might explain the contradictions and weird plot twists, but you'll have to read the sequel to have a chance of figuring it out. There's no conclusion, no real accomplishments, and largely no logic to what happens in this book. But there are fantastic, gruesome, and nasty details!
I would give this book (and the forthcoming sequel) a hard pass. It's creative and innovative, but lacks a story or characters worth caring about to support it.
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Blue Skies, by Anne Bustard
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Break the Fall, by Jennifer Iacopelli
Seemingly torn from the headlines, one of the shocking things about this book is that the real-life sex scandal in women's gymnastics that most resembles the events in the novel (i.e., Terry Gray's arrest) actually happened after this book was published. That probably says a lot about the sad state of women's gymnastics as a sport beset by so much scandal and so thoroughly in need of some self-examination.
The book aims for a lot of things, but it is unclear where it actually succeeds. There's a lot of broken storylines: a fairly useless romance, a potential peer conflict between Audrey and some girls who get cut from the team, hints of judging bias, and some tension between Audrey and the replacement coach. All of these threads could have gone somewhere but never do. Even the main topic (about solidarity in the face of an abuser) is largely anti-climactic and never really developed. I can understand not wanting to flesh out all of these ideas, but what was the book supposed to be about? Iacopelli definitely does enjoy describing the blow-by-blow details of a gymnastics match and the fine details of a routine in loving detail. If you're a serious fan (and someone ho picks up this book is likely to be), that will be a lot of fun. But without that character development, the action reads like the sports pages and failed to engage me emotionally.
Saturday, December 12, 2020
Jane Anonymous, by Laurie Faria Stolarz
A taut and tense thriller that alternates between the time she spent locked up ("then") and the time she spends afterwards trying to recover ("now"). Of the two, "then" is really the most interesting and dramatic. Thankfully it is not nearly as icky as it could have been. Jane's emotional health takes a beating during her lock up, but thankfully there is no overt violence. For the subject matter, this is relatively trigger-free.
But the "now" time is more problematic. I spent much of it in deep frustration watching Jane get some really poor counseling and familial support. While being kidnapped and locked up is certainly an ordeal, no one should have to suffer through the nearly abusive treatment she receives afterwards. It seemed unnecessarily cruel and more than a little implausible. There's also less coherence to the story in "now" as certain threads (e.g., her parent's marital problems) remain frustratingly unresolved and disconnected from the story.
Wednesday, December 09, 2020
The Quilt Walk, by Sandra Dallas
With all of their possessions in a wagon, they join other families and travel hundreds of miles across modern-day Missouri and Nebraska. Disease, hostile animals, Indians, and homesickness plague the wagon train. Some give up and go back home.
Based on historical fact and full of period details, Emmy's engaging first-person account of life in a wagon train will appeal to middle school readers and to fans of the Little House books. Dallas's attention to detail certainly feels very familiar (although I think Dallas hasn't tried to cram as much in here which it makes the book an easier read). As the title suggests, there's a lot said about quilts in the book, but without illustrations or at least a list of titles for suggested further reading, it's a bit of a let down.
Sunday, December 06, 2020
My Calamity Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Their initial attempt to crack a garou ring in Cincinnati goes bad and (for various different reasons) they find themselves in Deadwood, confronting the Alpha, where all is not quite as it seems. Jane, at the center of the story, finds that the fight is far more of a family affair than she anticipated. Annie learns that you can indeed get a man with a gun.
I might have been better prepared if I had read the first two books in the Jane series, but there's no greater test of a serial than picking it up mid-stride and seeing if it can work. For the most part it does. I tend to break into hives when I find out that the book in my hands runs past page 320, but I managed to stick with this one through all 516 pages even if my interest flagged a bit in the last hundred or so. Hand, Ashton, and Meadows all have well-developed literary careers that tend towards contemporary romances and romantic fantasy. In this project they've downplayed the romance and a sassy alt-history that combines random historical facts, tremendous license, and lots of nudging and winking pop cultural references and anachronisms. Driving all of this (and definitely essential for keeping things moving briskly) is a constant Greek Chorus of side comments that help to remind you that this is all intended to be silly fun.
Saturday, December 05, 2020
The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, by Kate Hattemer
Meanwhile, Jemima is struggling with the whole concept of what it means to be a "feminist." After all, when it comes to discriminating, Jemima herself is pretty hard on women. She does her fair share of disparaging girls who dress fashionably. And is she really helping when she discounts the chances that her geeky Asian friend Jiyoon could get elected to student government? Are her attacks on Chawton's traditoins about fighting patriarchy or is she only trying to draw attention to herself? Closer to home, how should she deal with boys? That's always been theoretical in the past, but when football player Andy (the object of her current crush) starts showing interest in her, she struggles with how to define what a true feminist would and would not do in response.
A peculiar, but ultimately entertaining romantic comedy. The prom story is pretty stock material, as are the general characters (jock, queen, nerd, gay sidekick, etc.) but its the treatment which really stands out. For one thing, there's a lot of explicit sex in the book, described in pretty visceral and physical terms by Jemima. There's a lot about how good it feels, but not really much about her emotions surrounding it. I get the idea here (i.e., being sex positive), but it's pretty clinical and not very romantic. A similar practical approach appears elsewhere as well: Jemima's potential foil, social director and queen bee Geniffer, turns out to be pretty nice and points out that any antagonism between them is more due to Jemima's judgment (and not anything Gennifer has ever said). The jocks also prove to be surprisingly reflective and academically-inclined as Hattemer seems to want to flip all of these archetypes on their head. It makes the book memorable and stand out, although it does grate a bit having people fail to follow their usual assignments. I'm less sure I agree with Jemima's read on "feminism" but Hattemer has certainly created a memorable read on the idea.
Monday, November 30, 2020
The Last True Poets of the Sea, by Julia Drake
Sunday, November 29, 2020
Foul Is Fair, by Hannah Capin
Saturday, November 28, 2020
What Stars Are Made Of, by Sarah Allen
She has to win the contest. First of all, the grand prize is a $25K cash prize and Libby wants more than anything to help her older sister and her husband out. They are in a financial tight spot and Libby knows that the money would make a world of difference, helping them to make a down payment on a new home. But there is another even more important reason: to prove that she can do it.
Libby has Turner Syndrome, a chromosomal deficiency, which causes numerous physical challenges for her. Through medication and therapy, she struggles to have a normal day. Facing bullying from classmates because of physical deformities makes things even harder. But Libby has learned to persevere and keep positive, summoning up examples like Cecilia Payne to get through the day.
This warm and inspiring story of a girl carrying a whole set of challenges with which to deal but a heart of pure gold hits all of the right spots. The pitch can stray a bit as she gets pedantic and teacherly, but there is something endearing about Libby's book smarts. Well read, but socially awkward (there's some intimation that she may be on the spectrum), she uses her knowledge bank to maneuver bravely through situations that she doesn't quite understand. She makes a few mistakes along the way and is prone to exaggerating her impact on other people's problems, but these flaws is largely sympathetic failings. With her big heart, Libby shows readers how to be kind without being a pushover, how to be smart without being a snob, and how to be brave without lashing out against others. While she may not always win her struggles, she's a pretty impressive runner up. As is this book.
[Fun side note: There's an excellent biography of Cecilia Payne with the same title for more advanced readers who want to learn more about Libby's inspiration]
Friday, November 27, 2020
Little Universes, by Heather Demetrios
From the start, Hannah obviously seems the least stable of the pair. Already struggling with staying clean, she befriends a drug dealer at school, who turns out in the end to be a pretty good guy (and gives up dealing along the way). Her role in the story is to attempt to stay sober, broken up periodically by relapses that throw the rest of the family into turmoil.
In comparison, Mae's the shining star. With an excellent academic record, she's heading to Annapolis to become a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and (eventually) an astronaut. But while Hannah's problems threaten to derail her, Mae is actually less in control than she imagines. The loss of her parents (and her father in particular) and the cruel reality that she might not be able to save her sister is nearly impossible for her to accept and this makes her ultimately the least stable of the sisters.
Along with the grieving process, family secrets come out that threaten the image of perfection that the girls had about their parents. Neither one of girls is particularly adept at handling this reality.
The result is a very long (and emotionally painful) novel that explores the many ways that hurting people can hurt each other further. It's not a particularly redeeming trip and one wonders if some of their issues couldn't have been resolved quicker with a pet or a good project to distract them and give them some purpose. Because, while their aunt and uncle encourage them to find things to do, it is obvious that Hannah prefers her drugs and Mae prefers having her sister to take care of. That makes for a pretty tiresome read. With lots of room to work with, the characters are really well developed and identifiable. I just didn't have much interest in them in the end.
The story is well written, with lovely philosophizing on topics ranging from Yoko Ono to the nature of the universe. But when your story is basically about two people trudging through grieving with nothing much to say beyond the fact that it's tough, you just don't have much of a literary purpose.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
The Willoughbys Return, by Lois Lowry
Meanwhile, the children have grown up. Tim has taken over Commander Melanoff's confectionary business, but that has fallen on hard times as the American Dental Association has managed to get candy outlawed. With possession of Lickety Twists now considered a felony, the fortunes of the family are about to collapse.
Tim's son, Richie has every toy one could want, but is lonely. He finds friendship next door with the impoverished (and aptly named) Poore children. Their father, an unsuccessful encyclopedia salesman has left the family with no means of support. To eke a living, they open a B and B which brings in some special guests. All these various chaotic pieces end up well enough in the end, in a way that Willoughbys always seem to do.
Sadly, the sequel is not nearly as charming as the original installment. The same rude Lemony Snicket-style humor of the original is present, but the clever satire is missing. In its place, the theme seems to be encyclopedias and a criticism of the modern obsession with technology, but this is neither very funny nor terribly original. In particular, Lowry has a peculiar notion of how much/little has changed in the past thirty years (microwave ovens and bed and breakfasts, for example, were already well known thirty years ago). The original's send-up of classic children's literature and it fancy archaic lexicon was timeless and done in love. This seems tired and less inspired.
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry
An enormously tongue-in-cheek send up of classic children's literature, this short and clever satire is small parts Lemony Snickett and Edward Gorey, but mostly knowing winks. Highlights include the story's convoluted plot which comes together in the end through ridiculous coincidences that combine together the endings of a dozen classic novels. Throughout, various asides and non-sequiturs provide the opportunity to reflect upon deep matters like why helpful nannies are so easy to find and Swiss people are so helpful. The glossary of fancy words at the end and a hilarious annotated bibliography of the source material is worth the price of the book many times over. Brilliant satire and utterly wasted on modern children.
And now, after twelve years, with a sequel....
Monday, November 23, 2020
Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Neither girl has much trust and faith in adults, but while Suki hides and lays low, Della wants to take on the whole world. She's eager to testify in court against their abuser and she even fights back against a bully in school who is touching the girls inappropriately. She can't understand why her sister won't fight as well.
As a middle grade reader, this story of drug abuse, sexual abuse, and self-harm is pretty intense subject matter, but the book could find its audience with some guidance. The book contains a series of talking point questions at the back that could help adults guide children through this. Moreover, the story is full of supportive adults, which will help younger readers deal with the scary parts, but is also a problematic aspect of the book. Della and Suki's good fortune in finding grownups willing to fight for them isn't as common of an experience for young victims as we would like and seems mildly implausible. It's a fine line between wanting to make make this story appropriately reassuring for young readers, while still maintaining authenticity.
It's certainly powerfully written. I especially liked the idea of bring in the classroom bully as it pulls the story down into a microcosm that is easier to understand. A ten year old boy who doesn't comprehend why his fun is harmful makes a poignant contrast to the grownup bogeyman of the adult molester (who we never - thankfully - encounter in the story). The boy's mother's incomprehension of the danger of her son's behavior is chilling but sadly not explored. The overall message about the need to bring childhood sexual abuse into the open is well presented and the fact that it will make many readers uncomfortable is probably the most convincing argument for the importance of this book.
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Echoes Between Us, by Katie McGarry
Downstairs, in the apartment that they rent out, is Sawyer and his mother and little sister. Veronica knows Sawyer but they are not on good terms. Sawyer's part of a popular clique and he and his friends delight to tormenting Veronica and her friends. They shouldn't even be talking to each other, but Veronica has an intuition about him. When she finds herself needing a partner for their senior project, she reaches out to him. Sawyer, for reasons that mystify his friends, accepts.
But as far as surprises are concerned, Sawyer turns out to be much more complex than even Veronica could imagine. He's covering for his mother's erratic behavior, justifying her drinking, and trying to make everything look normal. Things are far from normal. Sawyer's getting injured and hurt, and the truth is that he's inflicting it on himself.
A girl with her mind set on dying and a boy being driven to self-destruction make a complex and powerful couple. The novel, which adds supernatural and historical elements (a diary written by a young woman dying of TB in 1918 plays a part) to its tale of addiction and learning to let go, is ambitious. Parts of it work well, others do not. It is difficult initially to see much of a connection between the two very different struggles that Veronica and Sawyer face, but it eventually comes together powerfully. The attempt to draw pathos from the historical tie-in to the diary and a nearby abandoned TB hospital falls resoundingly flat and contrived. It's not an easy read and may not be to many people's tastes, but I found it interesting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.
Thursday, November 19, 2020
It Sounded Better in My Head, by Nina Kenwood
Aussie YA is seemingly always a challenge for me. For reasons I can't really explain, I leave more Australian YA novels unfinished than I complete. Usually, the storylines simply don't engage. It isn't so much the cultural differences but really the overly dense style that seems to predominate. This novel is no exception. I struggled throughout to track the action which jumps through a large number of parties and dramatic interactions with decisions and actions that don't instinctively make sense. But what made the book ultimately work for me was Natalie herself. I stopped worrying about what she was doing and spent more time listening to her.
Natalie is ostensibly as much of a navel-gazing angst-ridden teen girl as you will ever find in YA, but the extent to which she self-doubts and owns that doubting is adorable and outright hilarious. Natalie's fumbled seduction attempt on Alex had me in stitches. The best part of being witty and self-deprecating at the same time is that we can sympathize with her flaws and easily admit to the ones that we resemble far too closely. So, while I have only a vague sense of what the book was actually about, I loved the heroine!
Monday, November 16, 2020
Scared Little Rabbits, by A.V. Geiger
Things don't start off propitiously. Everyone seems to know everyone else and queen bees Eleanor and Reese take a profound dislike towards her. Saving the day, moody dreamboat Maddox has eyes for her, although Eleanor is a jealous ex- and tries to keep them apart. That said, nothing is all that simple. Eleanor is blackmailing Maddox and hiding secrets from just about everyone. As the contest creeps closer, a sudden death sends everything into a frantic and tense conclusion.
While rooted in tired YA tropes (unsupervised summer campers get in big trouble while awkward and inexperienced girl gets an A-list boy to fall head over heels for her), the augmented reality stuff is kind of fun. InstaLove, combining Instagram and PokemonGo sounds plausible enough to make a fresh foundation. The story is paced well and the mystery largely maintained with a lot of distracting false leads to keep us off track. However, the ending gets rushed and overall I just didn't find Nora interesting enough, boy toy Maddox sexy enough, or Reese and Eleanor bad enough to make this worth recommending.
Saturday, November 14, 2020
I'll Be the One, by Lyla Lee
When a contest in announced in LA for contestants in a new Korean entertainment competition, Skye is so psyched to be in it, but her mother won't even allow her to take part (her father has to step in to give permission). But sixteen years of being bullied and fatshamed has toughened Skye and she is determined to prove her mother, a bullying judge, and all the doubters in the world that fat girls can dance and sing and do it well! Along the way, she wins the heart of the cute boy and makes a great group of friends as well.
Its a story told in a rich cultural context. Not knowing much about K-pop, I surmise that the author has done her homework (and/or is a serious fan). She name drops plenty of real groups and songs, and tirelessly notes what makes particular songs significant. A similar love is given to Korean food and culture. For outsiders, this culture lesson is really the best part and is effortlessly delivered alongside the winning storyline.
In sum, this is a feel good romance about body positivity. There's no end to the trials that Skye endures ranging from thoughtless comments to outright emotional abuse, but Skye is a poster child for standing up for herself. One wonders exactly where she got this strength, but Lee's not terribly interested in exploring the sources for Skye's strength as she is in promoting the healthy result. There's a similar approach to the mother's cruel emotional abuse, which is ultimately and disappointingly side-stepped. The mother's behavior goes far beyond Tiger Mom stereotypes into darker spaces, but this is far too lighthearted of a book to dwell on anything truly serious. A rousing climax complete with song and dance and a curtly dismissed villainess wraps up the adventure satisfactorily.
Thursday, November 12, 2020
The Ballad of Ami Miles, by Kristy Dallas Alley
Searching for her mother, she ends up at a repurposed campground with people who have different ideas about how to live -- ideas that shock Ami and open up her horizons at the same time. The stories she was told growing up turn out to not be so true and the principles she has lived by turn out to not be so useful. Life is very much more complex than she ever imagined.
Like Ami's struggle with her perceived reality, my notions of what the template for a dystopian novel should got really shook up by this novel. I expected ruined towns, anarchic bandits, and some big final showdown with the family she left behind. Some of that happened, but not quite as I expected. No guns are fired. No zombies or enemy armies. No one dies in the entire book. And the bad guys are profoundly ineffectual and inconsequential. What I totally did not count on was the human coming-of-age story for Ami. Rather than action and adventure, the drama of the story comes a very sweet romance and a complex coming to terms between Ami and her mother. Both provide depth to this novel that takes the dystopian framework and crafts a profound story about exercising freedom of choice.
Monday, November 09, 2020
Fault Line, by C. Desir
When Ben gets there he learns that Ani's been raped, but she can't remember what happened. Everyone else seems to know, however, and soon afterwards the rumors start spreading around the school. About what Ani did and how much fun she had doing it. Ben knows these are lies but they still hurt to hear. He wants to defend Ani and take care of her, but she won't let anyone help her. Instead, she closes off and pushes away all of her friends. And Ben watches helplessly as her life spins out of control, taking him down with her.
Dark and depressing with an ending that left me deeply unsatisfied, the novel is hard to like. I appreciated the nuanced portrayal of Ani and the depth of Ben's feelings. His struggle between acknowledging his own pain and the need to be supportive of Ani felt very immediate and sympathetic. Ben is a bit too much of a tough guy jock for my tastes, but he you feel for how he is way out of his depth. Not that any of his efforts really matter because Ani is pretty determined to be her own worst enemy. And that's largely what makes this book so hard to take. The story is not ultimately about rescuing Ani but about rescuing Ben, and I didn't really care as much about him.
Sunday, November 08, 2020
Diplomatic Immunity, by Brodi Ashton
Chiswick has a large foreign student contingent, made up mostly of the children of diplomats. These golden kids flaunt their privilege and their unique ability to weasel out of trouble. It's diplomatic immunity, both in the literal sense or simply from the ability to invoke the names of their powerful parents to get out of tight situations. For scholarship kids like Piper, it all seems terribly unfair.
And then suddenly Piper realizes she has her story. Ingratiating herself with Raf, the son of the Spanish ambassador, she slips into the private world of expat parties, where alcohol and drugs flow freely. But as Piper collects her material, she finds herself growing close to Raf in a distinctly non-professional way. She realizes she has to choose between her ambition and her heart.
A well written, but mostly by-the-numbers YA romance. Nothing really shouts out in this story. The characters are fine but break no major new territory. The romance has some nice moments but doesn't particularly heat up. The scandal and action are slow moving. It reads fast but doesn't deliver any notable punch.
Saturday, November 07, 2020
The Burning, by Laura Bates
Meanwhile, it doesn't take long until some of the students in her school track down her past and soon the harassment resurfaces. The attacks spread beyond her to encompass her friends and her family. As they do, Anna is struck by the similarities between her situation and that of the subject of her study. A series of historical flashbacks help make the parallels clearer. The school, unable and unwilling to help Anna, allow the bullying to continue until Anna and her mother finally stand up to it. The witch fares less well.
British YA tends to be pretty heavy handed, especially with hot button social topics like this, but I was actually pleased at how few polemics were in this story. While I am shocked at the ineffective adults and the non-existence of law enforcement (does Scottish law tolerate child porn more than the US?), it does permit Anna to defend herself, which is ultimately more fulfilling. The juxtaposition of Anna and Maggie (the accused witch) is surprisingly effective. It lack historical integrity, but serves its literary purpose quite well providing a stark parallel in how latent misogyny tends to emerge in mob rule situations. No real surprises in other words, but if it fires up a couple young readers, then no foul! Helpful discussion questions provided at the end of the book for those young people who are forced to read this instead.
Wednesday, November 04, 2020
I Love You So Mochi, by Sarah Kuhn
I Love You So Mochi follows Kimi's trip to Kyoto, ostensibly to meet her maternal grandparents and get some distance from her mother, with whom she is currently fighting. The love interest is Akira, a young man helping his uncle sell mochi balls, but who dreams of studying to become a doctor. Kimi doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, but she does know that she doesn't want to be a painter, even though she's been accepted to an art school. That decision, with surprised both her and her mother, is why things have grown so tense between them. But what else could she do when it was clear that art did not bring her joy?
As far as her actual desires are concerned, the only thing that Kimi really likes doing is designing outfits for herself and her friends. Why this doesn't occur to her as a career choice until half-way through the book is a mystery, but it at least provides a pretext over which Kimi and Akira can bond.
The story is full of lots of cultural detail and given some emotional punch by the strained dynamics between Kimi, her mother, and her grandparents, but one can't escape a sense that this is playing safely by a formula. Family conflict, romance, and the requisite cultural detail are all inserted at the right spots and worked through appropriately. Grandparents are charming, boy is amazingly supportive, and BFFs at home are peripheral. It's a charming read, but there are no surprises and, aside from the local flavor, not much value imparted.
Monday, November 02, 2020
Genesis Begins Again, by Alicia D. Williams
A poignant and often painful novel of a young girl with a serious self-esteem problem. While I'm hardly an expert in African-American YA, Colorism is a delicate and uncommon subject and I liked the treatment here. For me, it opened a window on a world I have never seen. For young readers of color, it could possibly mean even more.
Genesis can be a bit hard to take. She often is her own worst enemy in her harsh self-judgements. She's makes poor decisions and has trouble accepting responsibility (a trait that she insightfully realizes is learned from her father). She's often not as kind or as loyal as she ought to be. But she has a great sense of inner strength and stands up for herself. Her journey from self-loathing to qualified acceptance is realistically portrayed and fulfilling to share.
Saturday, October 31, 2020
Diana and the Island of No Return, by Aisha Saeed
On the eve of an important festival, a spell is cast that puts the adults to sleep. At around the same time, Diana and her best friend Princess Sakina discover a stowaway boy. He has cast the spell and begs Diana and Sakina to come with him to his island in order to save his people from a demon who has taken over. In exchange, he'll reverse the spell. It's a dirty trick, but Diana and Sakina don't see any alternative: not only because it is the only way to wake the grownups, but also because even little Diana knows that it is her people's duty to fight evil.
And so begins the first in a series of middle grade readers for young fans of Wonder Woman. It goes without saying that being familiar with the source material will make this a more enjoyable read. I have not seen the recent films, but I imagine that there are plenty of Easter eggs in the story for fans. Saeed certainly assumes we know a little about the locale and the characters. But even so, the book on its own has several things in its favor: it's fast paced and packed with action. It also carries on the themes of female empowerment for which the originals are famous. Even at twelve, Diana is no shrinking violet and makes quite a role model. She bravely launches forth, even when the odds seem impossibly against her. She's kind to others and loyal to friends and family. The story is not terribly deep and my hopes that Saeed would imbue the formula with some deeper meaning are largely disappointed, but it's still a good book.
Thursday, October 29, 2020
We Dream of Space, by Erin Entrada Kelly
Bird loves space, science, and taking things apart and drawing their innards. She's endlessly fascinated by what makes things work. And like she does with complicated machinery, she's dissected her family and noticed how her parents are always fighting, how her older brother Cash can't seem to find any enthusiasm for studying, and how her other brother Fitch is prone to sudden angry fits and spasms. In sum, how her complicated dysfunctional family operates. She'd like to feel she can control things by drawing their schematics, but when she watches her dreams literally explode in front of her, she faces a choice between giving up and change. In doing so, she discovers unexpected allies.
A promising story with a strong and poignant ending suffers from a slow moving and poorly constructed plot. While the book certainly made me flash back to where I was in 1986 (sophomore in college, hanging out in my dorm's kitchen when I heard the news), the story really didn't live up to its hype or its promise. And there is a deeper frustration at how little is resolved in the story and its general downer conclusion. There are so many things hinted at in the story, but none of them are really followed up on.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Chirp, by Kate Messner
However, things keep going wrong with the equipment and with pests. So many things, in fact, that Mia grows suspicious that someone is actively sabotaging the business. Can Mia and her friends figure out who is causing the damage and stop them before its too late?
That would have been a straightforward story and made this middle grade reader less of an attention grabber, but Messner has a second storyline: Mia used to be an aspiring gymnast, but then she got injured and now she just doesn't feel like doing it. At least that is what she tells others. In truth, she's lost her confidence and become afraid. Something happened to her and she isn't really sure to whom she can turn to express her fears.
They are both good stories, but being unrelated they pull at each other for attention. And given that the second is far more sensationalistic (and is basically why the book has endorsements from a collection of big name writers) it feels a exploitative, like Messner didn't feel that a detective book could sell and so threw in the heavier themes of her second topic. I honestly think it wasn't necessary: there's so much about Mia that is inspirational and positive that her story is a winner without any big message attached.
Either way, I enjoyed Mia and I liked her creative ideas and the way she interacted with the other kids. There's lots of great positive energy here about following your dreams. The ending gets a bit too perfect and rosy, but not everything works out in Mia's favor and that has lessons as well. The fact that she is genuinely happy for the success of people other than herself though makes her a real winner in my mind. And of course watching her seize the day and regain her confidence in the end is the pay off that brings the book to a rewarding close.
Monday, October 26, 2020
Time of Our Lives, by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka
Juniper longs to go away to school. She too has the grades and she's determined to go as far away as she can. Being the eldest child in a large family however means that she's constantly in demand and that her family is reluctant to have her go away. They are less-than-thrilled that she is considering schools that are not nearby and vocally unsupportive of her desire to move away. But, in spite of her family's pressure, Juniper is set to find the school of her dreams and to do so with or without her family's help.
Fitz and Juniper cross paths in Boston at the beginning of their respective trips and then subsequently continue running into each other as they wind up visiting the same schools. By the time they've worked their way to New York, they are basically traveling together. Predictably enough, a romance develops, but its overshadowed by the emotional baggage that they each bring to their college search.
There are strikingly few YA books that deal with adolescent apprehensions about going away to college. There are plenty of melancholy memories of final summers and lots of impatient longings for moving away, but the more quieter meditations on the end of childhood are surprisingly few. And this is a surprisingly good contribution to the topic. The characters are interesting and their well-researched roadtrip of Ivies and well-known state schools is fun and familiar to anyone who has attended such schools. Personally, I was most drawn to the kids' apprehensions of the future, but there's plenty of other things going on here.
Moreover, the co-writing team of Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka has surprising chemistry. Co-authored novels are inevitably battles of egos and styles. You usually can tell who is writing what and there's usually some tension as the writers force each other into places that you can tell they don't want to go. I didn't get that sense here. As the authors pass the baton, there is instead a warmth, as if the other can't wait to continue what has been written so far. It makes the reading all the more joyful.
Saturday, October 24, 2020
Thirty Sunsets, by Christine Hurley Deriso
Then her mother invites Olivia to join the family for a month on the beach. Forrest is stunned. How on earth is she going to be able to tolerate having her brother's bimbo with them for a month? But something more is going on here and as the reveals occur, the summer becomes one for the books.
The reveals, in fact, keep coming and coming so fast that you may have trouble keeping up with the story, and that is really the problem with this book. Based on the tired foundation of a summer beach story, Deriso does a decent job developing her characters. Forrest and Olivia develop a charming chemistry which makes their friendship the real highlight of this book. However, the author really struggles with the storytelling. Not satisfied to have one big shock, she quickly follows it with a second, a third, and a fourth. By that point, the story becomes muddled and the resolutions for each of the four dramas becomes less and less satisfactory. To me, this is a sign that Deriso started with a great idea but couldn't figure out what to do with it. Fumbling for resolution, she just threw up a new one and, when that didn't work, she just hit it up a notch higher. So, rather than tell a story, we simply end up with a lot of action at the end. It's a quick read, but unrewarding.
Friday, October 23, 2020
The List of Things That Will Not Change, by Rebecca Stead
So, what is the most important part of her father's wedding plans? Bea is going to get a sister out of the deal! Sonia is the same age (10) as Bea and Bea knows that they are going to be great friends. But when Sonia shows up, things don't go quite as smooth as Bea had hoped. Sonia seems lonely and sad and doesn't want to share feelings and talk about everything the way Bea does. For Bea, not having things go her way is hard. When people don't act the way she expects, she gets angry and then she gets very sad.
With so many changes going on around her, it's hard to control her anger and frustration. But controlling her feelings is what Bea learns to do. And as two families come to together to celebrate the creation of a new family, Bea learns some lessons about how hard it is even for adults to get beyond their surprise and hurt.
This story of growth, acceptance, and love is all softly dealt by the author. Even serious topics like homophobia and divorce are pitched in a gentle age-appropriate way for a middle grade audience. The book is largely a string of anecdotes and recollections. Ostensibly they lead up to the wedding and Bea's confrontation of some suppressed feelings, but it is really just catching up with Bea, hearing her stories, and sharing her feelings.