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.