Thursday, October 29, 2020

We Dream of Space, by Erin Entrada Kelly

In January 1986, Bird and her classmates are infected with space fever.  The Challenger is about to send the first teacher into space and schoolchildren across the country are studying space and the space program in preparation for the launch.  Bird's science class has split into teams of seven to match each member of the crew so the kids can be prepared to watch every step of the mission and write about it.  Most of the kids are bored, but Brid is in heaven!

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

Mia is spending the summer helping her grandmother manage a new venture growing crickets as a food source.  It's an uphill battle trying to convince people to try them, but they taste delicious and folks eventually warm to them.  Plus Mia is creative and motivated to help her grandmother's success, enlisting her friends and some fellow campers at a summer program she's in for young entrepreneurs.  

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

Fitz is a reluctant prospective student.  It's not that he doesn't want to go to college, but rather that he knows that looking at other schools is a waste of time.  He's got the grades to attend pretty much anywhere he wants, but with his mother's failing health, he'll have to stick close to home.  Still, to make his mother happy, he's embarked on a week-long college visit tour of the northeast.

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

Everyone is shocked that Brian, Forrest's brother, has turned down his acceptance at Vanderbilt to attend community college.  She would have never thought that her brother would throw everything away for a girlfriend, particularly one as dopey as cheerleader Olivia.  Forrest doesn't get that sort of thing.  She's yet to date anyone (or even be kissed) as she's focused on getting her education and not planning on any distractions.

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

When Bea's father announces that he and his partner Jesse are going to get married, she gives no thought to her Dad marrying another man.  She's known he was gay since her parents separated.  She's just happy that he and Jesse are happy together.  She also has little concern for the fact that he and Mom will never get back together.  That doesn't matter because her parents have promised her that there are things in this world that will not change and they have written them down (in a special green notebook in green ink!):  Mom loves her, Dad loves her, Mom and Dad still love each other (but in a different way), and so on.  With this list to give her strength, Bea knows she can face the world.

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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Thorn, by Intisar Khanani

Princess Alyrra has never known how to wield power in court.  Instead, she has found herself the pawn in other people's games. Her mother writes her off as useless and her brother physically abuses her at will.  She is a non-entity, a nobody, and everyone -- including herself -- knows it.  So, why has the most powerful king in the land come to Alyrra's tiny little corner to ask for her betrothal to his son, the crown prince?  She doesn't even know the prince and he, as far as she knows, knows nothing of her.  Something is going on here and neither she nor her mother can figure it out.  Alyrra's mother is anxious that things go well and that the family benefits from it.  Her decision on how to maintain control over her daughter is cruel.  Alyrra is sent to her betrothed with a companion -- her arch nemesis Valka -- who conspires against her but will do a better job at defending the family name, in her mother's opinion.

So, it was always going to be a difficult task (traveling to a foreign kingdom, becoming queen of unfamiliar people, and winning their loyalty), but it keeps getting harder.  Even before Alyrra and her party arrive at their new home, she is attacked by a sorceress who body swaps her with Valka.  Her enemy becomes her mistress, with predictable results.  Valka, now in the guise of the princess, quickly manipulates events to her favor, willfully ignorant that she is herself being played for some greater end.  Alyrra, sent in disgrace to the lowly job of goose girl, finds she is strangely at peace with her new role.  She embraces the simpler life and the ability to be free of the cruelties of court life.  But with a plot afoot and a sorceress with an unknown agenda, Alyrra is pressed involuntarily to a calling -- one that will take more bravery and strength than she ever knew she possessed.

An extremely rewarding fantasy, with a combination of a strong dramatic arc, complex characters, and a byzantine plot.  What makes it work is the character of Alyrra, who maintains a fine sense of decency and goodness while she grows from idealistically well-meaning but weak girl to become driven and strong young woman.  This is what fantasy is for, after all, showing us the core good and bad that humans can do in a world that is less fettered by mundane reality.  The climax takes it to an extreme: pitting the conflict in its starkest terms.  If you were suddenly given the opportunity to exact revenge for all the wrongs inflicted on you, would you seize the opportunity or would you voluntarily relinquish that power in the name of maintaining your decency?  And is the temptation to exact revenge in the first place a sin?

If those deep thoughts are too much for you to stomach, don't worry!  There is enough action and adventure going on here to reward a surface read.  With an internal power struggle, a family curse, political corruption, magic, crime, and deeply rooted social injustice, there is a little bit of everything for everyone in this one!


A subject matter warning.  There are several scenes of sexual (and sexualized) violence in this novel.  If rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence are triggers for you, you may want to approach this novel with caution.  None of the events are explicitly described, but they are prominent and central to the story.  The author uses them to make a strong statement against sexual violence directed at women so one may argue that the prominent place is appropriate, but some readers may prefer to avoid the book altogether on this account.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

A Totally Awkward Love Story, by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Hannah believes that lobsters mate for life and she wonders when she'll meet her "lobster." She really starts to think she has done so when she stumbles across Sam at a party.  Awkwardly, they meet in a bathroom and therefore her friends nickname him "Toilet Boy." But sadly, fate works against them and Sam mistakenly believes that Hannah has a boyfriend and isn't interested in him.

What follows is a summer of missed opportunities and miscommunications that cause Hannah and Sam to keep not getting together.  Toilet Boy may in fact truly be Hannah's "lobster" but through the haze of young people clubbing and hooking up, the two of them never seem to be able to catch a break. 

It's a convoluted comedy of errors that shows much more about British dating customs and binge drinking than anything else.  The striking characteristic of the story is how protagonists are so terribly shallow (admittedly, they are also terribly 18!) so there's not much to bond with here.  Hannah has little self-esteem and blindly assumes that even the slightest hesitation from Sam is lack of interest.  Meanwhile, she lies and sends mixed signals purposely sabotaging the relationship. Sam is only marginally more sympathetic, lashing out easily and he doesn't show much fidelity or common sense.

The story, co-written by two former sweethearts who met when they were 18, is "inspired" by their own relationship but it does the authors no kindness.  Perhaps the story is meant to be funny, but it is as "awkward" as its title promises it to be.  The appeal of the story is its realism, but real is neither heroic nor interesting and that makes this novel a hard sell.  In sum, two immature young people who probably are not ready for a serious relationship try to have one.  Extra bonus final chapter gives us a TMI account of the consummation of the relationship.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

When Elephants Fly, by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Lily is haunted by her family's history of mental illness.  When she was seven, her mother's schizophrenia drove her to nearly kill her daughter and to eventually kill herself.  Schizophrenia runs in families and.  Ever since then, Lily has been obsessed with the idea that schizophrenia usually manifests itself between the ages of 18 and 30.  She has worked out a "twelve year plan" with her best friend Sawyer.  All she has to do, she believes, is get through those twelve years without stress or trauma and she will be clear. 

Her eighteenth year has been going well so far.  She has an internship at the local newspaper.  Her assignment covering the birth of a baby elephant in captivity at the local zoo seems harmless enough. But when Lily witnesses the mother elephant turning hostile and attacking the baby, Lily is reminded of her own trauma. Rather than drive her away, the experience makes her resolute about defending the baby.  Lily gets drawn into a legal struggle to rescue the baby elephant that eventually sends her on a desperate flight to save it and definitely does not fit in her twelve year plan!

An ambitious and mostly successful coming of age story.  A number of great ideas (like Lily's constant questioning of her sanity, potential romantic sparks with Sawyer and co-conspirator Otis, and finally her reconciliation with her father)  never quite go anywhere, but the story is really about the baby elephant and Lily's bond with it.  The writer has an obsession with gross bodily fluids, but that serves to impart a lot of information about what it takes to keep an abandoned infant elephants alive in captivity.  And Fischer takes both zoos and circuses to task for their treatment of wild animals.  In sum, the adventure is satisfyingly dramatic and keeps you engaged.  It is a decent read, but falls short of living up to its ambitions of being a multithreaded psychological drama.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed

Twelve year-old Amal has big dreams for a schoolgirl in rural Pakistan:  she wants to become a school teacher.  But fate seems to have other plans.  First, as the eldest daughter, she has to spend considerable time at home helping out.  And while her mother is recovering from a difficult childbirth, she is unable to attend school at all.  

Then a much bigger tragedy strikes.  For the crime of talking back to the local landlord and refusing to let him have her pomegranate, she is taken from her family and forced to become then man's indentured servant, effectively ending any of Amal's dreams.  But as desperate as Amal's situation seems, she is determined to fight back.

A simply-written but powerful story of one girl's fight for freedom and respect is both full of joyous local color and insightful in explaining how injustices like the one described can occur.  As middle grade reading is concerned, this one packs considerable punch.  The plain writing in no way takes away from its powerful message which simultaneously attacks misogyny, economic injustice, and slavery.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George

As everyone knows, knights like to rescue maidens from nasty dragons.  And when you're an orphan and your aunt is desperate to get rid of you (and perhaps marry you off to an adventuresome knight in the process), becoming dragon bait is something of a career decision.  But Creel is no ordinary maiden and the dragon (whose name is Theodorus) is no ordinary dragon.  Theodorus would honestly rather not be bothered by pesky knights and has little use for maids.  And, no, unlike all the dragons you've heard spoken of, he doesn't horde gold -- his passion is shoes!

And nowhere else have you ever seen the collection of shoes that this dragon has!  Creel is astounded and quickly reasons that a nice pair of shoes might be the capital she needs to make it on her own in the world.  If she can't be rescued by a prince then maybe relocating to the capital and starting up a dressmaking business would be more practical.  With some negotiation she convinces Theodorus that, given a nice pair of shoes of her choice, she would be happy to leave him in peace.  He agrees but regrets the deal when he sees which pair she has chosen.

And thus a series of events are triggered that will lead to two kingdoms coming to war, the revisiting and settling of ancient scores between humans and dragons, and a young woman finding her place in the world.

The first of a beloved series, this entertaining and well-written middle grade fantasy novel combines a resourceful heroine, some good friends, a love and respect for animals, and just the right amount of action to create a great page-turner.  There are no great moral lessons, beyond the basic lesson that sometimes one has to make brave and bold choices to make one's dreams come true.  It's a fun way to spend a Saturday!

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Mañanaland, by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Max loves fairy tales and the stories that Buelo tells about a dragon and the abandoned tower near their village are his favorite.  Max loves soccer and, along with his friends, hopes to be picked by a trainer and get to attend a clinic, leading to a professional career.  But most of all, Max wonders why his mother left and where she went.  Neither Papa nor Buelo will tell him anything about it.  But they know something!  Max can tell that there are secrets in his family.

Then one night a priest comes to their home with a request and Max suddenly knows what he must do.  Embarking on a dangerous mission he realizes he's been preparing for his entire short life, he finally comes to understand his family's secret and his family's debt to society.  Along the way, he also realizes that there are things far more important than soccer and far more fantastic than fairy tales.

A sweet novel that continues Ryan's amazing track record for producing culturally rich and authentic Hispanic novels.  Mixing a bit of magic, a lot of local flavor, and appealing characters, the book is a rewarding read.  This one bites off a bit more than Ryan's previous books, introducing the mature themes of political asylum-seeking and immigration in a gentle age-appropriate way.  This never becomes preachy but instead addresses the way political unrest and involuntary migration have affected Central American communities as much as fútbol.  The beautiful simple writing, cultural depth, and ultimate message about doing good turns for each other makes this short novel a winner!

Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

Fear of the evil witch in the woods who would destroy them, drives the inhabitants of the Protectorate to sacrifice a baby each year.  The parents grieve their loss, but no one questions and no one resists.  That is, until the year that the mother refuses to cooperate and is thrown into the tower as a prisoner and goes mad.  But this seems only a minor hiccup in the process of law and order as, like all the other children, her daughter is left in the woods to be devoured by the witch.

But Xan, who lives peacefully in the woods with a verse-loving bog monster named Glerk and a tiny dragon with a big heart named Fyrian, doesn't eat the abandoned babies.  Instead, she rescues them and carries through through the woods to cities on the other side, finding suitable homes for the children.  This time, however, Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl moonlight, imbuing her with magic.  Such a baby can't be handed over to mere mortals and must remain with Xan, who names her Luna.

Luna, a magicked baby with omnipotent powers is a danger to herself and others.  When Xan finds that she cannot control Luna and keep her safe, she makes a fateful decision to suppress Luna's powers until her thirteenth birthday when everything must burst forth of its own accord and Luna will discover her full potential.  That potentially heavy handed way to approach puberty and coming of age is handled in a restrained fashion, in a story which has much more to say about the power of kindness and love and its ability to overcome grief and sadness.

For the real story here is about the Protectorate and its reliance upon fear and the importance it puts on the oppressive ritual of annual sacrifice.  About how a community that willingly submits to such rituals, reinforced by myths that are never questioned, creates a false sense of security and ossifies a power structure.  While Luna, her development to adulthood, and her magic have a role to play in this story, it is really the people of her home (and in particular the mothers who have sacrificed their children) that ultimately become the tipping point that changes the status quo and literally destroys the barriers that have fogged people's views.

The politics implicit in this less subtle and more important message are tragically likely to have timeless appeal.  The complexity of the story probably won't turn this into a classic anytime soon, but it did win the 2017 Newberry which will guarantee it some longevity on public library bookshelves.  It's entertaining and heartfelt, but restrained when it might be exuberant.  Whether its Luna's apprehension of adolescence, playing down the antics of Glerk and Flyrian (who would in any Disney adaptation become comic sidekicks), or having a male protagonist who turns out to be neither romantic interest nor hero, Barnhill surprises not by what she brings to the story, but what she doesn't do with it.  Instead, her focus lies on the less commented parts of a fairy tale (the power of helpers, the regrets of the elderly, and the cowardice of power) that make her story unique and memorable.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Again Again, by e. Lockhart

Adelaide is spending the summer walking dogs and trying to finish a set design project to fulfill an incomplete.  Otherwise, she stands to fail out of Alabaster, the private school which she attends.  When she transferred in she found the work much harder than at her old school, but the real reason she failed most of her classes was that she didn't do any of the work, choosing instead to spend her time with Mikey Double L, her boyfriend (who has now -- at the start of the summer -- dumped her).  But it quickly becomes apparent that there are deeper issues at play than teen romance.

Adelaide's brother Toby is an addict, stealing from his family and hurting them.  His failed stints in rehab have largely bankrupted them and is the reason that Adelaide changed schools.  Adelaide, unable to admit that Toby's struggle affects her, hides away in a world of what ifs, which is what the novel becomes.

What if you could play out every action and choose amongst them based on the different outcomes?  In a way, that is what this novel does by taking us through a "multiverse" where periodically the narrative splits into two or three parallel stories.  We walk through a scene of a page or two and then back up and do the scene all over again with a different outcome, and then once more.  Each time, Lockhart then picks one of them and moves forward.  The gimmick, combined with a less intuitive habit of switching into verse at random moments, makes for a tricky read.  It's an interesting writer's exercise (creating a scene and then rewriting it with a different outcome) and the sort of thing that writers do in their work.  The difference is that writers usually pick one and throw out the others.  The intention of including the different variants in the novel is supposed to give us more insight in the characters.  It does this, but it forces you to stop and re-read passages and compare variants, disrupting the pace of the story.  

As with her more recent novels, I found the characters uninteresting, elitist, distant, and painfully self-absorbed.  There's only superficial interaction between characters and no interest in exploring the world around them. Other readers compare this book with her more recent novels We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie-Banks (both of which I despised for pretty much the same reason of having unbearable characters) but the closest relative of this book is really Mister Posterior and the Genius Child, written under Lockhart's real name (Emily Jenkins) in 2002 and as suspiciously autobiographical as this one is.  Both are written in the same stilted passive narration and both describe a privileged community, seemingly in a vacuum from popular culture or modern technology.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Coo, by Kaela Noel

Raised from birth by pigeons, Coo is only indirectly aware of humans and how they live.  They don't live in dovecotes and they don't scavenge for food like her flock does, they don't fly, and they talk strangely.  Aside from a curiosity about humans and that pesky lack of ability to fly, Coo is perfectly happy living with her flock.  But when a retired postal worker named Tully notices that there is a girl living with the birds, Coo's life starts to change.

Tully rescues Coo and takes Coo back to her apartment.  There are certainly advantages like running water, heat, and a plentiful supply of food, but for Coo, the ways of humans are strange and scary. There are many strange things like money, police, and rules that prevent Coo from staying with Tully forever.  Most scary of all, someone in the city is trying to poison the pigeons. Coo is determined to use her position as both a human and a member of a flock to save the birds.

A curious middle reader. Noel struggles a lot to explain away the more implausible parts of the story (like how a child could survive for years being cared for by birds) and that can grow distracting.  But setting skepticism aside, there is an enjoyable story here about Coo's discovery of how she fits within a community (whether it is pigeon or human).  Coo wants to be independent and struggles against restrictions on her independence, but gradually she learns to accept help from others and to understand that even if people and pigeons seem largely selfish, there is an instinct to look out for each other to solve our shared challenges.