Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Willoughbys Return, by Lois Lowry

Thirty years have passed since Mr. and Mrs.Willoughby froze on a Swiss mountaintop.  Now, thanks to global warming, they have thawed out.  Completely unaware that they have been gone for the past three decades, they are flummoxed by the fact that no one seems to speak English anymore.  Everyone is talking about "googling" and "YouTubing." Convinced that "Uber" is some sort of Swiss torture device, their effort to return home is full of adventures.

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

The Willoughbys have four children: the eldest Tim, the twins (both named Barnaby), and little Jane.  Being an old-fashioned family such as one reads about in old children's books with burgundy covers, the children plan to become orphans.  As their parents are still living, this poses some difficulty.  Luckily, their parents are hoping to abandon the children, either by deserting them deep in the woods or by departing on a tour of Switzerland (the end up choosing the latter).  But with the help of an odious Nanny, the children manage to find a rich benefactor, as old-fashioned children always do.

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

Ten year-old Della likes to think of herself as a wolf, in the sense that she is brave and fearless.  But wolves don't act alone.  Like a wolf relies on their pack for survival, Della has always relied on her older sister Suki.  Suki has always been there for Della, when Mom was arrested years ago for meth and through years sexual abuse.  And now that the man who abused them is awaiting trial and the girls have been taken in by foster care, Della assumes that things will stay like that.  But Suki is tired of the responsibility and Della feels rejected and resentful at the changes.

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

Veronica lives with death.  There's the tumor in her brain that causes her unbearable migraines and whose severity she hides from her Dad.  And there's also the ghost of her dead mother that haunts the house and keeps her company, giving her the strength to face her illness.

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

Natalie's parents take ten months to get around to telling her -- on Christmas Day! -- that they are getting divorced, her two best friends Zach and Lucy are suddenly a couple, and Zach's brother Alex may like her (but she can't really tell!).  Everything confuses Natalie.  And it couldn't happen at a worse time.  Now that Natalie's eighteen, she has to figure out what she'll do with her life.  She'd put the whole business off, imagining she'd live at home forever (no longer an option as her parents are downsizing).  And boyfriends?  Well, it was never going to happen!  Natalie's her own worst enemy, finding a way to sabotage every chance of romance, which is what makes Alex's interest in her all the more perplexing.

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

Nora is really excited to be spending the summer in an elite tech summer program at Winthrop Academy.  She's hoping to win the camp's contest, wowing judges including Emerson Kemp, the founder of augmented reality social media sensation InstaLove.  Not that she knows much about InstaLove the program (which her parents won't let her download) or love in any real life sense either!  But she's optimistic that this summer will be different and that she will burst out of her caccoon.

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

Skye loves dancing and singing.  She dreams of one day becoming a K-pop performer, but the reality is that Korean culture expects female performers to be thin and petite.  Skye is strong and healthy, but not some 110-pound waif.  Her mother repeatedly warns her that she needs to lose weight if she has any hope of becoming famous.

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

In post-apocalyptic Alabama, Ami lives with her grandparents, aunts, and uncles at the Heavenly Shepherd compound.  Great grandfather packed away supplies so the family would be well taken care of and they just laid low, studying the Bible and living a righteous and obedient life.  Mama had to flee a few years ago when the government rounded up the few remaining fertile women and Ami hasn't seen her since.  It's safe here and Ami is well-fed, but the strict rules and the lack of anyone Ami's age makes it a lonely existence.  The final straw comes when her grandparents announce that she has to marry an older man she's just met in order to preserve the family line.  With help from her uncles and aunts, Ami flees for freedom.

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

Ben and new girl Ani hit it off at the beginning of senior year.  It's a great relationship.  Ani is spunky and spirited and knows how to keep Ben on his toes.  Ben adores her.  They have even begun to think of spending the summer after graduation taking a road trip across the United States.  But then there's a party that Ben can't go to and something happens.  Ani's best friend Kate calls Ben and begs him to come to the hospital.  Ani's been hurt.

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

Piper dreams of becoming a journalist.  But to realize her dream, she needs to get into a journalism program and to do that she needs someone to pay for it.  That has always made the prestigious teen journalism-focused Bennington scholarship part of her plan.  Attending the elite Chiswick Academy in DC is part of the plan as well and when Piper gets a scholarship mid-way through her senior year to finally go she knows she has to move fast to be a contender for the Bennington.  But what can she write about?

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

When Anna's ex-boyfriend creates a revenge porn site dedicated to her, she and her mother change their identities and move to a town up in Scotland.  There, Anna tries to start a new life, cautiously making friends and return to her studies.  A history assignment has her writing about a local famous personage and she chooses a woman who was persecuted for witchcraft in the 16th century.  With help from a local historian, she tracks down more information about this woman and her tragic circumstances.

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

There is a subgenre of YA and NA literature that I like to call "tour guide romance" which basically consists of a story about a young woman who travels somewhere (usually overseas), meets a foreign boy, and tours the exotic scenery.  Most of the time, one suspects that the author has herself been to the milieu in question and started planning the novel during their trip.  Such stories usually consist of key tourist must-sees being used as a backdrops for a trans-continental romance.  Local culture is studied, kissing occurs, and occasionally cultural differences cause complications.  Eventually, the girl and boy come face to face with the reality that, in a few short days, their special romance will become long-distance.  Cinematic versions of this include Karate Kid 2 and Before Sunrise, but there are far more numerous examples that have never made it to the silver screen.  The key to the success of any new contribution is the ability of the author to capture what makes the chosen locale interesting and finding some way to imbue the local culture seamlessly into the story.

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

When Genesis and her family get evicted, it's just the latest in a series of hardships she and her mother have had to endure.  Neither of them can believe it when her father takes them to a fancy suburban house in a nice neighborhood.  No way they can afford it but Dad promises that things are going to change.  But as much as Genesis wants to believe it, she knows that Daddy loves the bottle more than her and Mama.  And she can even tell you why:  her skin is too dark. Mama has lighter skin, but Genesis's is as black as Daddy (or, as her maternal grandmother informs her, darker than a grocery bag!).  And by that measure and other things like her nappy hair, she knows that she's not worth much.  She's even developed a long list of things that are wrong with her to keep track of all of the reasons that she dislikes herself. But when the kids at her new school start acting friendly and her attempts to "fix" her problems just make things worse, Genesis has to reevaluate her explanations and consider the possibility that there's nothing wrong with herself at all.

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.