Sunday, May 24, 2020

Suggested Reading, by Dave Connis

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 22, 2020

All-American Muslim Girl, by Nadine Jolie Courtney

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Unpregnant, by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 16, 2020

This Is My Brain on Boys, by Sarah Strohmeyer

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

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

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

Monday, May 11, 2020

Open Fire, by Amber Lough

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

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

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

Be forewarned that the novel features graphic and intense violence.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Havenfall, by Sara Holland

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

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

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

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

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park

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

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

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

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