Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When You Know What I Know, by Sonja K. Solter

After Tori's uncle touches her in a bad way, she wants to be a good girl and tell an adult, but she has trouble getting the words out.  Her mother initially doubts her story and her grandmother steadfastly refuses to believe that Uncle Andy would ever do something like that! Surely, she has misunderstood!

Thankfully, Tori's mother does see the truth and does the right things in the end, but none of it really addresses the mixture of pain, guilt, and anger that Tori feels.  Telling is hard and more so since Tori doesn't feel that anyone is really listening.  Even her best friend misinterprets Tori's withdrawal as an attack.  And when her father reaches out and offers to take her away, she realizes that he is only using the incident as an excuse to try to regain custody and hurt her mother.

Heartbreaking and poignant, the story is insightful and grasps many of the nuances of childhood sexual abuse.  However, it suffers from the author's decision to tell the story in verse.  As I never tire of mentioning, verse novels can be very powerful but they face a steep challenge in trying to convey complexity in sparse exposition.  The text is pretty, but that isn't really the message that is needed here.  We struggle to really get inside the heads of the characters who wax poetic but never really get the opportunity to bare their souls.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

It's Kind of a Cheesy Love Story, by Lauren Morrill

Beck has spent the first sixteen years of her life trying to live down her notoriety as the girl who was born in the bathroom of the local pizza joint.  Sure, being the "Hot n' Crusty Baby" earned her free pizza for life, but it's not exactly something she wants to be known for.  She's trying to fit in and play down the embarrassing facts about her life and this hardly helps!  But she needs work and, in addition to the free pizzas, the boss of the restaurant promised her a job when she turned sixteen.  So, here she is answering phones and greeting customers at the site of her birth!

Afraid of what her cooler friends will think, she tries to hide the fact that she's working at Hot n' Crusty.  That gets hard as her long hours interfere with her ability to hang out and as she finds that she likes her co-workers (and the dark and distant delivery driver Tristan in particular).  She has fun at work and with her new friends, but she remains worried about what each group will think of the other and so she holds the two worlds apart.

Inevitably, she finds that she can't really separate them and, faced with losing both sets of friends, she has to stand up for who she is and stop trying to be what others think she should be.  The shocking realization that she was the only one who really cared about her image is an eye opener and everything ends up just fine.

It's sweet and entertaining, but light on substance.  The characters are largely stock and the situations recycled from other teen romances.  It is striking that everyone's pretty nice to each other.  You won't find any mean girls in this book! That makes for gentle reading but also very little drama.  Harmless, but also pointless.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

When Life Gives You Mangos, by Kereen Getten

Ever since the last hurricane hit, Clara has had trouble remembering what happened last summer, but she senses it must be a bad thing because of the way other people in the village look at her.  Even her best friend Gaynah doesn't seem to want to be her best friend anymore.  About the only person getting as many sidewise looks as she is getting is her uncle, who lives alone up the hill and who Pastor Brown calls "the devil."

Her coastal village in Jamaica is a quiet and boring place.  The tourists who come to surf it consider it exotic, but nothing ever happens here.  So, when a new girl shows up from America, Clara is excited to show off the sights to her.  She just hopes that she can do so before Gaynah interferes and wins over the girl for herself.

Packed full of culture and local flavor, this debut novel creates a vivid image of life in a poor Jamaican coastal community.  The story it tells is terribly complicated however, involving historical animosities and suppressed regrets, and it compounds it all with a major twist towards the end that reframes most of the story.  That complexity makes this short book worthy of a re-reading or two to get full enjoyment and appreciation.  I did not find it compelling enough to return to, but I did enjoy the insight into Jamaican life.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

American as Paneer Pie, by Supriya Kelkar

Being the only South Asian in her school has always been difficult.  Lekha has managed it by keeping a low profile -- ignore the teasing, smile when someone asks an offensive question, and play down the differences.  So what if the other kids don't understand the importance of Diwali?  Or if they make fun of the food you eat?  But even though Lekha thinks she manages pretty well to fit in, it's hard to say that she's happy, but she consoles herself with the idea that it's a decent way to get by.

When a new Indian girl named Avantika moves in nearby and she turns out to be Indian herself, Lekha is excited to no longer be alone.  And she is determined to help Avantika keep a low profile as well and help her fit in.  But to her surprise the girl has totally different ideas.  She isn't afraid to stand up for herself and confronts their classmates' prejudices head on.  With a bravado that Lekha has never been able to manage, Avantika puts her appeasement to shame.  Hurt and embarrassed, Lekha betrays the girl.

Then a series of racially-motivated attacks (one involving family friends far away and the other incident very close to home) open Lekha's eyes to the importance of standing up for yourself and not allowing people to shame you into pretending to be someone that you are not.  Lekha feels compelled to act and finds her voice.

While at times preachy, Kelkar's story of a young woman's search for identity and for self-confidence is a natural heart-warmer.  One hopes that its descriptions of a nativist race-baiting politician will become dated, but the overall story about being proud of who you are and the importance of standing up for yourself will never grow old.  You don't have to be a South Asian kid to relate to the story:  Anyone who has ever been reluctant to defend yourself for fear of "offending" others knows very well the pain that Lekha goes through and how difficult it is to overcome that fear.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

How to Be a Girl in the World, by Caela Carter

It may be hot outside, but the only way that Lydia is going to be comfortable is by covering every inch of exposed skin.  She's roasting, of course, but ever since boys started teasing her about her body in sixth grade, she's been unable to be in the presence of boys or men without being wrapped up like a mummy.  Her cousin Emma (who lives with them) and her Mom keep demanding an explanation, but Lydia can't actually say what she is feeling out loud.  Whether it's the boys and their jokes or the way that grown men look at her on the subway, she feels overwhelmingly self-conscious.  Worst of all is Mom's boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs last too long and who always seems to find an excuse to touch her.  Lydia would say something, but Mom likes him a lot and he's good to the family, so Lydia doesn't want to do anything that would make her Mom angry.

That same summer, Mom surprises Emma and Lydia by buying a fixer-upper.  While the house is badly neglected, Mom assures the girl that it can be rehabilitated.  But first of all, the house needs to be cleaned out.  The former tenants left it full of abandoned possessions and the three of them work hard over the summer to clean it out.  While cleaning, Lydia finds a secret room full of vials and dried herbs.  A leather-bound book left behind claims to explain how to use them to cast spells for love, fortune, and (most important of all) protection.  Convinced that the only way that she will be able to ever go outside uncovered and looking like a normal person is to enlist some supernatural help, Lydia tries to concoct a magical talisman.  In the end, she finds that the way to protect yourself is much more straightforward.

An extremely fast 300-page read (I had intended to only start it this afternoon, but ended up finishing it instead).  Lydia's inability to speak up throughout most of the book drove me nuts, but given the sensitive nature of the subject, I can accept it.  And, in showing us how even a shy girl can find the strength to say what needs to be said to protect herself, Carter is providing a roadmap for young readers who may feel themselves in a similar situation.  It's no easy journey as Lydia discovers that not every grownup is going to help her or that she will always be understood even when she finds her voice.  But in the end, the right people do the right things.

The story gently and age-appropriately clearly conveys the message that only you get to decide how your body will be touched.  I can't think of a more important message. While there are actually a fair number of good books for middle school readers about privacy, body positivity, and the importance of boundaries, sadly there really cannot ever be too many.

How to Disappear Completely, by Ali Standish

Life could always be lonely for Emma, so she cherished the time she spent with her grandmother.  Gram filled Emma's world with stories of fairies, gnomes, and forest spirits.  They even had a special place in the forest that they would visit -- the Spinney -- where Gram's stories took place.  And they shared Gram's favorite children's book, the R. M. Wildsmith's The World at the End of the Tunnel.  So when Gram dies, Emma is devastated.  All the magic she once felt all around her has vanished and she is inconsolably lonely.

Without friends of her own, starting seventh grade would be hard enough.  But it is made more difficult when Emma discovers white patches developing on her dark skin.  She is developing vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin.  Self-conscious about how the blotches on her skin makes her look to others, Emma wishes now more than ever that Gram was still around.  She would know how to deal with this!  But working with what she has left (a supportive family and some classmates who want to be friends regardless of what she looks like), Emma learns how to make her own magic.  Along the way, she also makes an important discovery about her family history which helps her come to terms with her grandmother's passing.

A subtle, slowly paced, but ultimately immensely satisfying book about the bonds of family, the rewards of trusting others, the importance of kindness, and the healing magic of a creative mind.  It is a hard book to start (I nearly tossed it during the first hundred pages because I found it dull), but I had a sense that the book would reward me in the end and it did!  It's hard to pin that success on any one factor.  Emma is a sweet and clever protagonist with a kind heart.  The story introduces important lessons about friendships (both good and toxic).  Emma's ability to resist the desire to strike back, while setting limits for what she will accept is great modeling for young readers navigating their own relationships.  Emma also has a similarly keen ability to sort out the fascinating mystery that unfolds.  But in the end, what makes this book enjoyable is the overall positive message that everyone has problems with which they are dealing and that the best approach is always sympathy.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly, by Jamie Pacton

Kit's loves her job at the Castle as a serving wench.  She loves the excitement and adventure at this medieval-themed dinner theater (heavily based upon Schaumberg's Medieval Times), but she hates the sexism of the routine.  The idea that woman did nothing more useful than serve food in the Middle Ages is a stinking pile of horse manure!  She wants to be a knight and ride out and fight the other knights!  She's been training herself for years and learned a lot from her brother who is the troupe's Red Knight.  But corporate policy states that only men can be knights (and incidentally make the better-paying salaries associated with the job).

In response, Kit starts a campaign to force the restaurant to let her become a knight and rallies her girlfriends to the cause by training them to fight with her.  She creates a social media campaign and publicly confronts the company over their policy.  But at the end of it all, does she have all of the skill necessary to truly bring about justice and carry the day?

A bit corny, but it's a romantic comedy with its heart in the right place.  Treat the book as a rollicking adventure, with Kit front and center suffering through an endless series of amusing misfortunes.  The characters are not terribly deep and the story itself is poorly researched, but Pacton can keep the pace up and creates a lively story that gives Kit a chance not only to exercise prowess on the field but also demonstrate the skills of humility, wisdom, and charity that make one a true Peer of the Realm.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf, by Hayley Krischer

My wife never asks me why I read children's books, but she does ask me why I read the depressing and distressing ones.  Complete with a book title that sounds like an After School Special, Hayley Krischer's novel covers some extremely intense subjects (rape, sexual exploitation, and drug abuse) in explicit detail, but it does so with great sensitivity and insight.

Ali has a serious crush on Sean.  She's been obsessively scrapbooking about him. While she'd be too shy to act on her feelings, she's over the moon when he invites her to a party.  At the party, when he invites her upstairs and plies her with alcohol, she apprehensive but eager to please.  When he goes too far and brutally rapes her, she is devastated, but afraid to say anything.  Everyone saw her go upstairs willingly.  Sean is a known player.  There were plenty of drugs and alcohol around.  What did she expect?  But even Sean knows that things did not quite go down right (the blood may have been a clue!) and he tearfully  turns to his friend Blythe to help him.  Will she befriend Ali and talk her out of getting him in trouble?  Blythe, desperately in love with Sean herself, will do anything to please him and doesn't hesitate to seek out Ali's friendship.  As one of the "Core Four," Blythe can offer Ali social status and a better life at High School.  All Ali needs to do is forgive Sean or just let the matter quietly go.  What poor wallflower (like Ali) wouldn't jump at the opportunity?

But Blythe's plans start to go seriously off the rails from the start.  The two girls share a common background of maternal abandonment, a similarity that Blythe attempts to exploit, but Blythe finds herself more dependent on Ari than vice versa.  Blythe may be one of the Queen Bees but she got there through a brutal (sexual) initiation she and the other Core Four went through three years ago.  The trauma of that experience and the expectation that she is soon expected to perpetuate it herself has left Blythe more fragile than she expected in the face of Ari's recent experience.  While Blythe thought she was the strong one, it would seem that Ari is actually more together than Blythe.  Ari decides to stand up for herself and ignore Blythe's attempts to get her to forgive Sean, Blythe lashes out ferociously.

While rape culture plays a key role as a catalyst, the story is about how young women respond to that culture as both resisters and participants. My synopsis makes the book sounds exploitative, but it really is not.  Instead of tracking a police investigation and court case, the novel dives in to the psyche of Ari and Blythe -- what makes one girl endure her trauma and come out on top while another who seemingly copes well succumbs in the end?  Neither girl really plays her part. While Ari is the obvious heroine to this story, she is hardly a strong one.  She makes ample mistakes and sometimes simply stumbles.  Blythe is the girl you want to hate for the pure evil of her plot to seduce Ari with a promise of popularity, but in the end her love for Ari is undeniable and the cause of her downfall.  If one doesn't see something to redeem in Blythe, at least there is a lot to pity.  In sum, these are complicated characters with a fascinating codependency.

If it makes any difference to you, the story ends on an optimistic note, but if you don't have the stomach for real dark character studies, this is not a book for you!

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Dress Coded, by Carrie Firestone

As if middle school, with all of its emotional drama and body changes, were not stressful enough, Molly is tired of the way the school's dress code.  Everyone knows that the rules are only applied to the girls (and the ones that are more developed at that!).  This is hardly a minor annoyance.  Beyond the emotional trauma of having attention drawn to their bodies by (male) adults, the girls who are called out miss classes (and even exams) that they are not allowed to make up.

Molly and her friends are near graduation, but when Molly's friend Olivia is humiliated by the principal for trying to cover up an embarrassing stain and then blamed for the cancellation of an end-of-school camping trip, Molly decides to take action.  She starts a series of podcasts interviewing other students who have been victimized by the policy and discovers that the impact of the code is further ranging than even she imagined.  Eventually, the podcasts trigger a social protest that draws notice from the community.

A great topic for a middle grade read.  It's handled a bit clumsily here in two ways:  First, by making the school administrators particularly incompetent, which makes defeating them far too easy.  This makes the story satisfying, but doesn't really give fair time to other points of view that could have made this topic more interesting.  For example, a fleeting reference to school uniforms would have made a powerful counterpoint that Molly and her friends could have addressed.  The second weakness of the story is the plethora of sub-plots.  Middle school is a busy time so naturally Molly and her friends have plenty of other things on their mind.  That's fine, but I'm not sure what particular value the struggles of Molly's older brother with addiction added to the story?  I kept waiting for that to get tied in, but it was basically a separate story altogether.

The book is a fast entertaining read about an important and relevant topic, but it could have been better with more exploration of dress codes and their pros and cons, and fewer distractions.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Watch Over Me, by Nina Lacour

When Mila ages out of foster care, she is offered the opportunity to be an intern at a remote farm on the coast that takes in foster kids.  It's a way to give back and also a supportive place for young people who share an understanding of what it is like to be left behind.  There she bonds with a young boy named Lee who shares her background and the two of them confront the ghosts in their past.  Complicating matters, the farm is actually haunted and the kids and the counselors interact with these ghosts as well.

A strange and peculiar novel that I couldn't connect with.  The narrative structure is complicated and the story itself is short.  I'd find myself just starting to understand something and then get thrown into another alien situation.  The figurative and the "real" ghosts interact in peculair ways and the timeline is split as Mila shifts between present and past (often unsure herself of where she is)  I think that Lacour tied everything up at the end, but I'd be hard pressed to explain how it was done or what it meant.  I know some people enjoy working a bit harder to understand what they are reading, but I don't feel the need to be challenged when I'm relaxing.  By far, this is Lacour's most challenging and ambitious book to date and my least favorite as well.

Monday, March 29, 2021

My Eyes Are Up Here, by Laura Zimmermann

Having a large chest presents all sorts of problems, ranging from finding a dress that fits to participating in sports comfortably to enduring unwanted attention from boys at school.  For Greer, who would be happiest just disappearing unnoticed into her oversized sweatshirts, her breasts bring her unwanted attention and prevent her from doing the things she wants, not to mention the physically discomfort and back pains!  But Greer is determined to join the school's volleyball team, go to the formal, and maybe even catch the attention of Jackson, a new boy at school.

In a story that is both hilarious and heartbreaking (but ultimately just inspiring), she deals with her anxieties and fears and overcomes them.  Whether it's basic practical actions (e.g., finding a decent sports bra or altering her team jersey to fit her), finding the strength to confront bullies in her class, or coming to understand what she loses from hiding herself away, Greer shows us how to accept what nature gave us and make the most of it.

While I obviously have no shared point of reference for Greer's particular struggle, the story and its message of body positivity was fun to read. I appreciated the fact that the characters were overwhelmingly supportive.  Greer, with her combination for snark and sudden vulnerability, was very likeable.  Her growth from shy isolation to confidence is predictable but satisfying.  All of which wraps up into a good book.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Blackbird Girls, by Anne Blankman

Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko can't stand each other.  To Valentina, Oksana is a bully who wants only to taunt her at school and is always getting her into trouble.  As a Jew in Russia, her mother has instilled in her the importance of keeping a low profile. For Oksana, it is more complicated:  her abusive father is jealous of Valentina's father because he is obsessed that Valentina's father "stole" his promotion.  It's the sort of thing that dirty cheating Jews do all the time, he insists.  Oksana is convinced that she can win back her father's love and stop her father's physical abuse by humiliating Valentina.

But this middle school drama is upstaged when the nuclear reactor near their little town of Pripyat experiences "an unsatisfactory radioactive situation." Valentina first notices that she no longer can find any birds or small animals, the air is full of blue smoke that tastes metallic, and the streets are filling up with policemen wearing gas masks. But life goes on and both girls go to school.  They can see the burning building, but they have faith that everything is under control.  Valentina and Oksana's fathers (who both work at the Chernobyl plant) have not returned home, but surely that means that they are simply busy doing their jobs?  Only after a day do they find out that they are being evacuated with their mothers.  In the chaos of that move, the girls are forced to separate from their family and are sent together to live with Valentina's estranged grandmother.  Once enemies divided by age-old prejudice, the two girls have only each other to rely on in their brave new world, set in the last years of the Soviet Union.

At the time depicted in this novel, I was studying Russian children and young adults for my senior thesis (and made a number of trips to the Soviet Union) so I know it well.  The chaotic response to the Chernobyl disaster is well-documented and makes for compelling drama (as shown by the recent mini-series) but I don't believe there has been a children's story set there before.  I have small quibbles about inaccuracies that don't detract from the story so much as distract me as a knowledgeable reader: an incorrect depiction of school uniforms or the odd age of Valentina's grandmother (while it is critical to the story that the grandmother was a young girl during the Great Patriotic War, it doesn't seem likely that she could have been as it sets the timeline off by at least ten years).  

This story struggles to find its target audience:  the protagonists are too young for YA, but the graphic child abuse scenes and threatening situations make it too intense for most middle grade readers.  The story's bigger flaw is its very busy little plot.  Two children escaping Chernobyl would be compelling enough reading, but the subplot about Valentina's grandmother fleeing Kiev during the German invasion is a bit much.  It gets tied in, but there really are two separate (and excellent) stories here to tell.  Attempting to tackle anti-Semitism and domestic violence at the same time on top of all this is just too much and neither topic is handled particularly well.  Lots of good stuff, but it is in desperate need of trimming and focusing.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Space Between Lost and Found, by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Cassie's mother used to be a bigger-than-life person. But since she started forgetting things, that energy seems to be slipping away.  She's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and her life is becoming ever more challenging.  Cassie and her father try to care for Mom but it is only a matter of time before they will be compelled to institutionalize her.

There are so many things they planned together and few (if any) of them are still possible.  Cassie knows one thing on Mom's bucket list that she and Mom can still do -- swim with the dolphins -- but Cassie's father is worried that Mom could get hurt.  Cassie pushes back, knowing that this may be their last chance before Mom is too far gone to do anything.

Meanwhile, Cassie struggles to find any sort of balance in her life.  Dealing with her mother's declining health has caused her to neglect her best friend.  At school, she buries herself in math and art classes, which are the other things that make sense to her anymore.  How can she sort out a world her mother cannot even reemember her name anymore?

A touching middle-grade reader about dealing with memory loss.  There are no solutions or happy endings here, but the book does a good job of showing a young family coping with an old person's disease.  The book doesn't offer many surprises (although the inevitable stealing-Mom-away-to-take-her-on-her-last-hurrah episode does provide predictable tension), but the tale is well told.  Cassie herself gets to make some brave choices about the extent to which she can accept the changes her mother is going through.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Letters from Cuba, by Ruth Behar

By the late 1930s, thanks to economic pressures and the rise of anti-Semitism, it was becoming clear that Esther's family could not stay much longer in Poland.  But where to go?   The United States was a dream, but Jews were generally not welcome.  So, Esther's father decides that they should go to Cuba and heads out in advance to establish a foothold there for the family.  The plan was that he would then bring over his eldest son to help him, but when he contacts them, Esther convinces him to allow her to come next instead. Missing her family (and her sister Malka most of all), Esther starts a series of letters to Malka that recount her difficult journey across Europe and the Atlantic, and the process of settling in her new homeland. While Esther and her father manage well enough, they are under pressure to earn the money the need to buy tickets and bring the rest of the family over before the doors close.

Cuba is a delightful place, but complicated and so very different from Poland!  There are so many different cultures, ranging from the wealthy descendants of Spanish landowners to the people whose ancestors were brought as slaves.  And there are also immigrants from all over the world, like Esther, trying to build new homes.  Cuba is a place where the nearby shop is owned by Chinese who sell her Polish tea!  Even in the small town where they live, there are a dizzying array of traditions ranging from the Catholics to the Afro-Caribbean tribal beliefs brought by the slaves.  But as friendly and kind as their welcoming is, the forces of anti-Semitism are present even here.

In general, Esther and her father have incredible luck and good fortune generally follows them.  The story is soft and kind and mostly stress-free.  That can make things dull.  Esther herself is nearly perfect in every way, from her ability to sew beautiful well-fitted dresses with no assistance to her talent with befriending just about anyone, it is hard to see her as an eleven year-old girl.  A few minor flaws would have fleshed out her character and humanized her.

The real charm of the book is its subject matter.  Having never realized that pre-Revolutionary Cuba had a sizable Jewish contingent, I found this book utterly fascinating.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Time Travel for Love and Profit, by Sarah Lariviere

When Nephele enters ninth grade, she discovers that her obsession with math is no longer cute.  In fact, it's decidedly un-cool.  Her best friend deserts her for dance and the rest of her class turns against her and treats her like some sort of freak.  Looking back, she wants to figure out a way to have a do-over.  So, it seems like destiny when, in the stacks of her parent's book store, amidst the steamy romance novels she likes to read, she finds the solution:  a self-published guide called Time Travel for Love & Profit.  Promising that time travel is the ultimate way to improve one's life, Nephele is convinced. While the book is a bit thin on details, Nephele is confident that she can work on the quantum theory (it's only math, after all!)  So, she spends the summer building a time travel device in her smartphone, with only the company of an old photograph that Nephele believes can talk.  Just before the first day of school, she sends herself back to the start of Ninth grade so she can set everything right.

But things don't go so well.  She sends herself back, but the rest of the world continues forward.  Yes, she's a ninth grader again, but her former classmates are now in tenth grade.  In meddling with the timeline, she has disrupted events and created paradoxes that interfere with reality.  So focused on fixing her life, she has changed more than she expected.  So, after a year of redesigning her "timeship," she has to go back again to fix things.  And when that makes the situation even worse, she's stuck doing it again and again....  By the time she's tweaked her calculations ten times (reliving her first year of high school each time), space time has grown so warped and distorted by paradoxes that life itself is threatened.  And that is when she meets a strange and peculiar boy named JJ who will change her life.

Time Travel for Love and Profit is hands down the weirdest book of the year. It lacks the cuteness of the film Groundhog Day or Wendy Mass's novel 11 Birthdays, and instead probes the creepy side of time travel (think the 2004 math geek film, Primer).  Time travel makes less sense the more you think about it so the most entertaining stories in the genre have succeeded by thinking about the math as little as possible.  Lariviere, on the other hand, goes the other direction:  thinking so hard about the causes, effects, and ramifications of distorting the progression of time that just about everything (ranging from people's memories of Nephele to the progress of humanity) breaks down.  The outer manifestation of this is the disintegration of the narrative itself.  By the end of the book, the story itself has pretty much lost its coherency.  On one hand, that's pretty effective story telling, but for me, a self-destructive novel isn't really entertaining.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Echo Mountain, by Lauren Wolk

When the Great Depression came, Ellie's family lost everything and were forced to move out of town and into the woods, to live on the side of Echo Mountain.  It's a hard transition for Ellie's older sister and mother, but for Ellie and her little brother, life in the woods comes naturally.  Ellie's mother worries that Ellie is growing "wild," which is her way of noting that Ellie is braver and more assertive than Mom and her sister.  But after her father is injured and falls into a coma for months, these are useful traits to have as everyone has to step forward.  Because Ellie is blamed for her father's injury, she feels a particular obligation to bear the burdens of taking care of things and she rises humbly to the challenge.  It's a hard life but Ellie finds small joys in helping her neighbors and taking care of a puppy.

One day in the woods she encounters an old dog she doesn't recognize who leads her up the mountain, where she has never been (although her father always said that there was a "hag" up there).  Instead of a witch, Ellie finds an old lady who needs her help.  Helping her, in turn, opens up Ellie's world, revealing a talent for healing, an intuitive sense of how to fix what is broken, and insight to recognize what physical and psychic ailments people carry with them but are reluctant to share.

In this beautifully written novel, Lauren Wolk creates a story of a girl rescuing her neighbor, her family, and ultimately herself.  I read so many dystopian novels full of suffering, issue books about people with creepy problems, and message books exposing the hypocrisies of the adult world, that I forget that there are children's books like this:  about people living amidst each other, doing normal things, and making their small part of the world a better place.  The book comes with lots of adventure, a resourceful and humble-to-a-fault heroine, and a feel-good message about how neighbors can help neighbors.  While set in the Great Depression amongst rural poor people without a penny to their name, the story itself is timeless.  A deceptively simple story of a girl growing up (just a little) that illustrates the true power of children's literature to entertain and enlighten.  Obviously recommended!

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Assignment, by Liza Wiemer

Cade and Logan are shocked when their World History teacher assigns the class the opportunity to debate the Nazi's Final Solution.  The assignment, which the teacher argues is a chance to get inside the head of the men who made the decision to exterminate millions of people's lives, seems to Cade and Logan misguided at best and downright immoral.  More shocking than the assignment, though, are the reactions of their fellow classmates, ranging from treating it like a joke to exposing deep seated racism.  Cade and Logan want the teacher to cancel the project, but when he refuses to do so, they go to the media, which leads to greater ramifications than anyone ever imagined.

A tense, fast-reading novel that tackles an all-too-real issue in contemporary society.  Stories of similarly ill-thought-out classroom activities hit the news seemingly every month (and many more go unreported), making the premise particularly relevant.  Wiemer does a particularly nice job of slowly unfolding the nature of the threat.  As the story begins, I did entertain my doubts.  The teacher seemed pretty reasonable and the assignment (as he explained it) had pedagogical merit (although it was quickly subverted by racist students).  The administrative ambivalence felt realistic and it was a bit easy to eye the kids as hot heads.  The gradual crystallization of the fundamental problem with the assignment, combined with the way the community got sucked in by its poison is what really makes the novel effective.  And by the end, any ambiguity is lost:  the danger as clear as day.  Wiemer throws in a bit extra in the end, which in my mind is not really necessary, but it works.  The message that hate ultimately corrupts and destroys itself is realized.  It's probably fodder for an assigned reading in a classroom, but that should not detract from the fact that I  enjoyed the book and found that it gave me things to think about.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

B*Witch, by Paige McKenzie and Nancy Ohlin

What if all those spell books and guides to witchcraft you checked out of the library and studied had actually worked?  Where lighting candles with your besties and doing incantations could keep your little sister from barging in or get your parents to forget a bad grade?  How would your life be different practicing magic in middle school?

Not that one would do so out in the open.  Technically, practicing witchcraft is against the law in this alt reality, but until the arrival of the current populist president and his "antima" (anti-magic) goons, it was something which you could get away with.  But his movement to crack down on witches has gained a lot of attention nationally and violence against witches is on the uptick so you can't be too careful.

There are two covens surreptitiously operating at school.  Greta's group has three members who use their magic to help each other, whereas the rival coven (headed by Greta's ex-bestie Div) use their magic for less nice things.  When two new girls show up who both show a knack for witchcraft, the two covens compete with each other to try to recruit them.  But when a series of threats surface, they realize that they have bigger issues to deal with and it is time to band together.

A fun romp that imagines how magic would change middle school.  Populated with well-drawn characters, the authors do a fine job of capturing young adolescents in a way that will make them imminently relatable to readers.  It's chock full of clever ideas and packed with satire.  But ultimately the book is burdened by trying to do too much.  One of the girls is on the spectrum.  One of them is trans (and uses her magic to pass as a CIS girl).  Racial and ethnic diversity is represented.  Criticism of MAGA is made.  All boxes are checked.  But in trying to do so much (and throwing in a large number of fed herrings along the way), the literally anti-climactic resolution is underwhelming.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Dear Universe, by Florence Gonsalves

Senior year and a life of avoiding life's questions has left Cham (short for Chamomile) with anger issues and a serious case of writer's block on her college essay.  Her father is dying of Parkinson's but Cham would rather think about Prom and graduation.  The problem is that neither of those goals address her growing sense of ennui.  With a tongue-in-cheek nod to Camus and a lot of sass, Cham ponders the many questions she wants to ask the universe, ranging from why her father has to do to whether her dress makes her boobs look big?

There are some great moments of humor and no small number of lovely insights here, but it takes a bit to extract them out of an aimless novel.  Cham's cynical and vulgar humor makes her entertaining as a protagonist and brings an edgy (and raunchy) quality to the novel that I normally associate with male protagonists.  But once you move beyond the things that make her funny, she comes off initially as shallow.  It really is not until two hundred pages have gone by that I started to warm to her when I realized that the shallowness was really just denial.  By that point, I was almost too far gone to care.

For a book about dying, it's strange that dealing with grief and coming to terms with death (the two usual themes for a dying-person book) are barely addressed at all.  In fact, resolution is largely lacking from the story.  By the end of the story, Cham hasn't exactly found any answers to her questions and she is pretty much as paralyzed by her ennui as she was at the beginning.  Clever and funny, but ultimately without resolution or conclusion, existential dread for adolescents does not make much of a story.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

A Place at the Table, by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan

Now that they are in middle school, Elizabeth worries that her best friend Maddie is drifting apart from her.  Maddie no longer seems to enjoy Dr. Who marathons and is always hanging out with snooty Stephanie instead of her.  And even though they signed up for cooking class together, Maddie just sits around and makes fun of the teacher Mrs. Hameed, her spicy cooking, and her Pakistani funny accent.  However, Elizabeth has to agree with Maddie that the teacher's daughter, Sara (who just transferred in this year) really is weird.

Sara, meanwhile, isn't thrilled to be dragged to her mother's new job teaching cooking.  Being shown off isn't going to help her fit in or make new friends.  In any case, she gets more than her fill of cooking at home, where her mother runs a catering business out of their kitchen.  The kids are rude and disrespectful. She'd rather be working on her drawing.

So, when the two girls end up getting paired together in the class, they aren't thrilled.  Yet, as they get to know each other, they find that they have a lot in common.  Elizabeth's mother is English and, like Sara's mother, studying for her citizenship test.  Both mothers are struggling, a fact of which both daughters are aware.  Elizabeth's grandmother has recently died and her mother struggles with depression.  Sara's mother is trying to keep the catering business afloat.  Racism and xenophobia are a big factor for Sara's family, but Elizabeth's mother faces discrimination as a foreigner and as a converted Jew.  Both girl's deal with the sense of belonging in two different worlds:  the homeland and their home.

What brings everyone together in the end is food and a love for cooking.  The cooking class and an international food fair at the end of the story serve as a catalyst for exploring differences and similarities.  And while the writing can get heavy handed and the premise sounds saccharine, it is deftly handled.  If nothing else, reading will give you serious craving for a curry!  

There's some obligatory effort made to explore xenophobia and racism.  That's probably the clunkiest part of the story, as Elizabeth's friend Maddie says some pretty extreme things that get quickly shut down by both adults and children in a bit of wishful thinking.  Far more effective is the portrayal of the Home Ec teacher's prejudice and micro aggressions from children and teachers that Sara and Elizabeth call out.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the cooking of course, but also the way that the girls got to talk about their mixed feelings about their heritage in an unforced way. Given the title, the obvious focus is about how everyone will come together in the end and they do, marveling over the differences and similarities in world cuisine and people.  The symbolism of the fusion dish that the two girl's concoct cements this message.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Tune It Out, by Jamie Sumner

Lou has a great singing voice, which her mother likes to put out front and center when they are busking.  It brings in better tips and, heavens knows, living out of their truck that they can use all the money they can get.  But performing in front of people is hard for Lou.  Loud noises hurt, being touched by strangers is painful, and crowds freak her out.  Lou has tried to explain that it's much worse than stage fright, but Mom won't listen to her.  And there really is no choice since they need the money to get by.

But when a snowstorm and an auto accident brings Lou's living situation to the attention of Child Protective Services, Lou gets sent to live with an aunt and uncle she barely knows.  They turn out to be quite well off and generous and, for the first time in years, she is able to go to school (which is both a blessing and a curse since schools are noisy places).  There, a counselor helps Lou explore the possibility that she may struggle with Sensory Perception Disorder, which would explain why public performance is so hard for her.

Lou is a strong (albeit stubborn) character and I liked her.  She's bright and the conversations she has and the questions she asks are insightful (to the point that they sometimes seem uncharacteristically mature for the alleged age).  In the context of a middle reader, that just makes thing simpler, the questions to be answered more direct, and the story ultimately more satisfying.

Ostensibly, there is very little new and original in this book.  Neglectful parenting, living out of cars, and skirting the law (usually combined with a fortuitous wealthy bailout) is a popular genre.  We certainly have plenty of books these days about children on the Autism Spectrum.  That said, this is a competent rendering of the familiar story.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

If These Wings Could Fly, by Kyrie McCauley

The town of Auburn is struggling under a freak migration of crows.  Thousands and thousands of the birds have arrived and cover everything.  With their penchant for stealing things and getting into mischief, the residents see them as a tremendous nuisance.  But Leighton has bigger problems to deal with:  a desire to graduate and move away, a reluctance to open her heart to others, and a lack of safety at home.

Bearing the festering emotional wound of being the boy who lost the town's last chance at a football championship nineteen years ago, her father has grown from a hurt young man into a violent and abusive father.  In her younger years, his outbursts were infrequent but now they happen nearly constantly.  In her last year at home before she hopefully goes away for college, Leighton tries to encourage her mother to stand up to him.  But when Mom refuses to do so, Leighton has to focus on keeping her younger sisters safe from their father's rampages.  

In this bleak environment, Leighton cannot count on adults for help.  The grownups of Auburn largely turn their backs and ignore the problem.  Instead, she finds comfort in her boyfriend Liam and from two stranger sources:  her home itself (a house with walls that repair themselves and protect the girls) and the birds.  Crows are intelligent creatures with the capacity to remember slights and the ability to understand reciprocity.  Somehow, these birds seem to understand what is happening and help Leighton and her family but stealing things from Dad or leaving useful gifts.  So, while the town sees the crows as a nuisance, Leighton comes to understand that they are crucial for her survival.

A well-written, albeit terribly grim and depressing, story of domestic abuse.  McCauley's foray into magical realism, through the birds and the house is ambitious and fraught with creative tension.  On one hand, she wants to create a manifesto against domestic violence and the text occasionally digresses into policy.  But on the other, McCauley is taken in by the literary majesty of the crows and the house as extended metaphors and even crucial plot devices.  This conflict of purpose is most pronounced in the ending, where a literal reading of the resolution is almost impossible.  Does the house itself rid Leighton of her father's abuse?  Do the birds really physically interfere?  Or is it all metaphor for the family rising up and standing up against the father?  There's no way to really know and that leaves the otherwise fairly sober analysis of the causes for domestic violence and the societal forces that allow it to flourish subject to a literary whimsy -- poetic and beautiful but perhaps off-message?

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Beyond the Break, by Heather Buchta

One of the truly rarest themes in YA literature are stories with a strong respectful approach to religion.  In these days of no holds barred children's literature, religion remains the one truly awkward topic.  Holding aside books written specifically for the Christian market, it's hard to find books for teenagers that tackle faith.  So when one comes along, I like to call it out.

When Lovette's older brother was seriously injured (and nearly died) in a surfing accident, her parents flat out prohibited Lovette from being in the ocean, let alone surfing.  That hurt a lot and Lovette couldn't pull herself away.  With her brother's life hanging by a thread and her parents distant and distracted, it was on the waves that she found her comfort.  And when her friend Kelly took her along with her to her church's youth group, she found a similar comfort in Jesus.

For a twelve year-old from a largely non-religious family, Christianity hadn't meant much to her before.  But in the companionship and the Bible, she found a place and a meaning that she needed.  Part of that  was her pledge to remain pure -- not to date until she meets the One and not even to kiss until her wedding day.  And while she's not made a big deal about it, not dating has been a bedrock part of her life, given her focus, an become interwoven with her faith.  At the same time, so has her secret trips to the ocean to swim.

Years later, she becomes reacquainted with a boy named Jake, who reignites her love for the surf and inspires her to confront her parents about their prohibitions.  When she finds she has feelings for him as well, it throws her into a spiritual crisis.  It was so easy to be a good Christian when she was a twelve year-old girl, but does that pledge really still work for her when it stands between her and Jake?  And is questioning that defying Him?  How do you keep faith as you enter adulthood and your world becomes more complicated?

The story features strong and nuanced characters who act authentically and are often surprising.  The story moves effortlessly and has a lot of good surfing scenes for fans of the genre.  The relationships between Lovette and her family, between her and her friends, and the complicated relationship between her and Jake are make for good reading.  But, of course, the primary purpose of the book is the spiritual challenges she faces and that is what makes this compelling reading.

I understand why some people will avoid this book altogether -- the characters' unapologetic love for Christ will trigger some readers.  However, that fidelity to God is key to this story and there is an intrinsic beauty to Lovette's journey as she navigates the ways that her relationship with her parents and with her God are changing that makes this novel worthwhile. The author's background as a youth pastor serves the story well and one imagines that Buchta is pulling on a lot of experiences working through these same issues with a lot of real kids.  That she creates an entertaining novel out of such emotionally authentic feelings is noteworthy.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, by Wai Chim

As the eldest daughter in her Chinese-Australian family, Anna carries a lot of responsibility.  Her younger sister and little brother need her help.  Her father is rarely home because he has the family restaurant to run.  Mother meanwhile is buried in her room, often for weeks at a time.  Ma suffers from fits of depression and bouts of psychotic delusions.  But in Chinese culture, one doesn't acknowledge these things.  Instead, we learn that one assumes that rest, "better thoughts," and time will solve everything.  It would be shameful to seek outside help. So, instead, Anna is forced to keep her family together, playing mother to her siblings as her father avoids coming home more and more often.

A boy with a past comes into Anna's life and provides both a romantic distraction and some useful insights for helping her cope.  But in the end when things grow so serious that Anna can't resolve them, the family has to face the facts that not everything can be solved by wishing for a better future.

An interesting cross-cultural look at mental illness.  Unfortunately, because the family is ultimately incapable of resolving the issues, it's an unsatisfying look.  Anna's acceptance of her responsibility for her entire family is questioned a few times by outsiders, but she never confronts it and the self-destructive behavior continues roughly unabated through to the end.  While the story ostensibly ends hopefully, a particularly grim postscript leaves us on a down note.  All of which leaves us with the question of what message we are supposed to take from this?  Otherwise, I loved the cultural details, the use of language, and especially the devotion to Cantonese cuisine (which left me with a strong hankering for Chinese take-out!).

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Girl and the Ghost, by Hanna Alkaf

Alkaf's new middle reader is a contemporary story based on Malaysian folklore.  Suraya is a lonely child but she has one true friend, an evil spirit, whom she calls Pink.  Born through witchcraft from the blood of a dead baby, Pink is bound to Suraya and Suraya (lacking any other friend) is bound to Pink.  This mutual need creates an uneasy symbiotic relationship.

But one day, Suraya makes a real friend with a girl at school named Jing who loves books and Star Wars and offers a bit of normalcy in her life that Suraya has lacked.  And Pink, who ought to be limitless in his power, finds he can't compete and unleashes a terrible vengeance.  Terrorized by her former friend, Suraya is forced to find help and share her secret.  Even with Jing's help, defeating a spirit will require ingenuity and great effort and the two girls sneak out and search for Pink's origins so they can return him from whence he came.

The clever merging of contemporary Malaysian culture and Malay folklore gives this book a unique feel. The local color, however, does not distract from a story to which young readers will relate (tackling meeting parental expectations, bullying at school, and the pressures of conforming to societal expectations).  The story in the end gets a bit muddled and felt rushed, but Alkaf writes well and the story and its two resourceful heroines were engrossing and fun to read.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Bloom, by Nicola Skinner

Sorrel is very good at following rules.  So good, in fact, that she is a shoo-in for Headmaster Grittysnit's new contest for the most well-behaved student, the Grittysnit Star.  She was last year's Head of Year and regularly earns Sensible Child and School Rule Champion certificates. How hard can it be? But that was before plants started growing out of her head! 

It all starts when Sorrel finds a packet of Surprising Seeds, learns the sad history of her hamlet of Little Sterilis from the owner of the town's neglected plant nursery, and accidentally releases an ancient curse.  With the help of her scientifically-inclined (but non-conformist) friend Neena, they find the cause of the unusual blooms.

Meanwhile, Headmaster Grittysnit won't tolerate sprouting scalps and when the pates of the entire school starts to germinate, he believes it is time to take drastic measures.  As the guardian for the forces of obedience, conformity, and rules (such as guide all sensible students!) the solution is paving over these unruly plants.  Sorrel realizes that that will never work, but to convince the others, she has to break the rules, jeopardizing her chance of winning the Grittysnit Star!

A very British satire attacking conformity. The targets (stuffy school administrators and property developers) are not particularly formidable and the struggle is not particularly fierce, but the whimsical text makes for a brisk and entertaining read.  For fans of Lemony Snicket and The Willoughbys.


[Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 16th, 2021.]

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Willa and the Whale, by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown

After the death of her mother, Willa returns to the Washington coast to live with her father.  Before she died, Mom was a marine biologist and instilled a great love of the ocean in Willa.  Early on, her father takes her out for a whale watching trip and, during the outing, Willa is surprised to find that a Humpback Whale named Meg is talking to her!  In subsequent weeks, Willa and Meg become close, with the whale offering advice to Willa about how to handle the loss of her mother, her problems integrating into her new home, resolving trouble at school, and fixing things with an old friend.  These issues are big, but nothing compared to Willa finding a giant Blue Whale run aground on her beach.  To solve her greatest problem yet, she has to round up family, friends, and her whale friend.

A rewarding middle school reader about problem solving.  Willa has a wide variety of issues (including grief, family conflict, rebuilding friendships, jealousy, and accepting failure) but addresses each of them in a positive way.  Her strength, which comes through again and again, is that she thinks through her problems and does her best.  She does not always succeed, but gains strength even from her failures.  The wide diversity of issues threatens to make the novel seem unfocused, but the unifying theme is the power of communication, seeking help from others, and creative problem solving.  The result is a warm book with a positive message that even the most terrible issues can be solved and that what initially seems like failure is simply the first step towards eventual success.

As an added bonus, frequent fun facts about whales which are sprinkled throughout the book make for entertaining Google searches for inquiring minds!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley

Davidsburg, Virginia in the 1950s was a place where everyone knew their place, white or black, man and woman.  But in 1959, after years of fighting in the courts, the school district is finally forced to integrate its schools.  Sarah is a senior and one of the first black students to attend Jefferson High.  It doesn't go well and in the first part of this novel, we are exposed to the immense cruelty and hatred that these young pioneers faced against the arrogance and ignorance of their peers.  It's a harrowing read and enough to turn your stomach, but well worth enduring for what follows.

In part two, we get introduced to Linda, a white girl and the daughter of the local newspaper's editor.  Like her Daddy, she's a proud opponent of integration.  The attempt of "Communists" and subversives to undermine the way things have always been cannot stand and she'll do everything she can to fight against Sarah and the other black students ruining her school.  She's a true believer in the separation of the races and the inherent superiority of whites over most blacks, but as the story progresses, she comes to question the things she's told herself are true.

All of that by itself would make for a a very powerful book, but Talley has grander ambitions.  The lies these characters tell themselves are not limited to issues of race and privilege alone, the novel also tackles sexism, classism, and even homophobia.  And while it is never said outright, the story makes it clear that not all problems were fixed by the Civil Rights movement.  The end result is a startling piece of historical fiction, brutal and unrelenting in its depiction of violence, cruelty, and indifference, but just as unrelenting in its vision of hope for a (not yet realized) better world.

I might quibble that Talley has bitten off a lot more than she really needed to (simply tackling racial injustice might well have been sufficient?) but there's a compelling logic to her decision to tie the way that all of these forms of arrogance and inequality are related.  And the ability of so many that stand on the sidelines and tacitly endorse the behavior with their silence is part and parcel of the same problem.  The forces that make a daughter subject to her father's physical abuse or the subjugation of an unmarried mother to economic injustice are no less destructive than a school full of racist bullies torturing their classmates and the complicity of the teachers and administrators who allowed it to happen.  For anyone who has been on the receiving end of injustice, this is a painful and uncomfortable read, but thought provoking all the more so for it.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Falling in Love Montage, by Ciara Smyth

Saoirse isn't much of a believer in love.  Aside from one major girlfriend and being the handy available partner to every girl in school who wanted to experiment, Saoirse hasn't had much experience.  She certainly doesn't find much love at home.  Mom's confined to a nursing home with early onset dementia and hardly even recognizes her daughter. It would seem that even a mother's love is temporary.  Dad's gone ahead divorced her and is going ahead and remarrying, further proving that love is temporary and nothing lasts forever.  

None of this stops Ruby, obsessed with romantic comedies, from trying to interest Saoirse in a fling.  Ruby's only staying the summer and will university approaching, no one is looking for forever anyway.  Instead, she proposes a virtual "falling-in-love montage" just like they do in the rom coms.  Armed with a list of common thing that happen in romantic comedies, the girls set out to have a whirlwind summer romance that will help Saoirse cope with her feelings of familial abandonment.

A functional romance but unremarkable and hard to get into.  The plot (girl forswears love yet falls in love in the end) is utterly predictable and surprisingly short on spark or drama between the two girls.  The novelty of this being a lesbian romance isn't really that novel anymore.  The tension between Saoirse and her father over how he has treated her mother fizzles as well (although I'm not sure where Smyth could have taken the story and it seems like one of those things that looked better in outline than fleshed out).  The most interesting relationship in terms of growth is actually Saoirse and Ruby's straight cousin Oliver, who go from enemies to actual friends by the end of the story.  It works well, with Oliver ironically assuming the role usually played by the gay friend.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert

Marva is eighteen, which means that she finally gets to take part in her first election.  She's completely on top of this.  She's been studying the ballot and she's been doing everything she can think of to help get others out to vote.  It's time to change the way things have been run and that will only happen when the right people get elected.  On the day of the vote, she gets up early and is even the first person in line at her polling place.  She's done well before school starts.

Duke is the same age and determined to vote, because in his family, being politically active is expected.  But his mind is really on his band's first paid gig tonight and he just wants to get in and get out.  However, that's not how it turns out.  He's not on the rolls and when Marva overhears his plight she takes him under her wing and drives him from place to place trying to get him his vote.  Through a day filled with every possible (and sadly familiar) set back from closed polling places to ballot shortages and long lines, the two young people become friends and more as they share the quest to participate in the democratic process.

It's a clever setting for a YA romance that would have made an excellent short story.  Even as a novella, it probably would have had room for all the politics that Colbert puts in (voter suppression, BLM, interracial marriage, racial identity, etc.).  As a novel though the material is too thin.  So, Colbert throws in dead siblings, failed relationships, and even a missing cat -- much of which seems distracting and immaterial to the story.  Sometimes a great story doesn't need to be a novel, but I guess it was a more commercial proposition to make it so.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Agnes at the End of the World, by Kelly McWilliams

At Red Creek, life is simple and straightforward.  The Prophet speaks for God and rules all.  His Patriarchs administer his will over their plural wives and children.  Technology is evil and the outside world is dangerous and forbidden.  While Agnes has struggled with parts of the doctrine, she has always found great comfort in the structure, routine, and faith of the place  But her younger brother Ezekiel suffers from diabetes and he will die unless she can continue to get him insulin, which she smuggles to him in direct violation of the Prophet's rules that forbid outside medicine.  That window to the outside brings with it a crisis of faith for Agnes when the Prophet announces that End Times are upon them and everyone must take shelter in Red Creek's underground bunker.

Faced with the reality that retreating to the bunker will spell certain death for her brother, Agnes decides to take him and flee to the outside world. There she finds that the Prophet's warnings are not far off the mark.  A global pandemic has shattered civilization.  Millions have fallen victim through a process where their skin turns crimson and hard and they eventually swarm into huge masses of semi-living beings called "nests." Amidst this chaos and disorder, Agnes and Ezekiel try to find a new safer home before realizing that Agnes has a calling and must obey her own prophecy.

This original dystopian novel sounds like so many things but ultimately transcends them all.  Part One, which outlines the oppressive and soul killing world of a religious cult and Agnes's plans to flee it will sound like any number of novels about teenagers in cult compounds.  Part Two takes us into The Stand territory with its peculiar share of Stephen King thrills (much of which resonates strongly in a COVID-19 world).  But by the time we hit Part Three, the story has left those tired genres and moved into Agnes's search for truth.  Like all good prophecy stories, Agnes initially resists her calling (aching to remain mortal and insignificant), feels anger at being placed in a role of such great responsibility, and ultimately understands the sacrifice that she was always going to make.

The author's prediction of pandemic was a lucky strike and gives the book some extra gravitas, but McWilliams has created a keeper without that bit of serendipity.  Her story is ultimately about how faith creates religion or how religion creates faith (and when the two are at cross purposes).  This is sermon-worthy material packed into an exciting action story that will keep you turning pages, leaving behind ideas that will have you thinking for long after you've read the last page.  A stunning, astounding novel that defies the genres it mines.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Lupe Wong Won't Dance, by Donna Barba Higuera

This is no greater hell on Earth than a middle school square dancing unit.

Lupe Wong has a hero:  Fu Li Hernandez, the Chinese Mexican pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.  As a fellow Chinacan/Mexinese, she figures he's got to know her frustration when filling out the race item on forms.  Lupe's uncle is friends with Hernandez and has promised Lupe that he'll arrange for the two of them to meet if Lupe can get straight As this year.  It should be easy.  She's doing well in all of her classes.  But then she discovers that they are going to have to learn to dance in phys ed and suddenly Lupe isn't sure she can do it!

Lupe is a problem solver, so she turns her energy towards finding a way to get the curriculum changed.  She tries to convince the adults that square dancing is harmful (no luck!).  Then she uncovers that the words to the "Cotton Eye Joe" song they are dancing to are suspect (the school changes the dance music). She starts a change.org petition to protest the fact that boys choose the partners (the school pledges to change the policy next time). And so on.  But in the end, the real solution is for her to find a way to just dance in her own way.

In general, this was a pretty amusing book.  Lupe is creative and persistent.  While she exploits the Culture Wars for her own selfish gain, she's astute and in the long run comes to see the bigger picture here (the author's long-term solution to Lupe's complaints is certainly discussion worthy and will give readers food for thought).  Ultimately, the story is a winner because it focuses on how thinking about others and their needs will make you a winner.  For as much as Lupe wants to meet her hero, she proves that she is willing to put that dream on the line to do the right thing.  That is ultimately a pretty heroic thing to do.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Jelly, by Jo Cotterill

Jelly is the class clown.  Adept at mimicking her classmates and their teachers, she makes everyone in eighth grade laugh. But the truth is that she's hurting inside.  She'd like to tell people the truth about how their harsh words about her weight hurt her feelings, but people don't want to hear that.  Instead, it's simply better to smile, act like it doesn't hurt, and laugh it all off as a joke.  Life goes on and making a big fuss won't solve anything.

While her decision to deflect through comedy gives her agency and the appearance of confidence, Jelly still finds that she comes home exhausted after a day of wearing her happy face.  She's hardly alone.  She's seen the way her mother pretends to be happy around her friends and how Mom tries to please the selfish men she dates and placate Jelly's abusive grandfather.  Jelly's mother just pretends it doesn't hurt.  

But then Mom gets a new boyfriend who's different from the others. He's supportive of Jelly's Mom and solicitous to Jelly's hopes and dreams.  He comes with novel notions that it is alright to feel bad and that appearances are overrated.  It's attractive and yet terrifying at the same time and Jelly and her mother have to decide how much longer they want to keep pretending?

It's a middle reader that surprises.  On its face, the book is safely in the beauty-is-on-the-inside realm.  Jelly learns that she doesn't have to hide behind self-deprecation and that she can get what she wants without always making people laugh.  But the novel, by bringing in her mother's example (and exploring the abusive nature of her grandfather's relationship with his family) bites off much meatier material:  exploring the way that abusive patterns develop and what it takes for a victim to free themselves from them.  Jelly articulates the feelings of her age well, but her fears and the angst surrounding them will resonate with almost every reader to one extent or another, making this story of building self-confidence a universal tale.  A good choice for multi-generational reading and sharing.

Wildfire, by Carrie Mac

Annie and Pete are that rare set:  the boy and girl who have remained friends from childhood without drifting into romance.  What has allowed that is their code of rules and a shared history.  Bonding over a variety of near-death experiences (mostly as a result of poor choices with dumb luck rescues), they understand each other in a way that no one else does.

Hiking through the woods of the Pacific Northwest (amidst hundreds of wildfires) they make one irresponsible decision too many and find themselves in a situation that can't get out of.  This elicits a stream of recollections of each of their previous close calls, used to tells us the story of how they become so close.  Unfortunately, it also leaves them further and further away from any chance of rescue.

There's a tremendous depth to the characters and I admired Mac's storytelling ability, but these Annie and Pete are a bit hard to take.  Pete in particular behaves really badly, selfishly putting Annie into some impossible situations. Occasional bad choices are the bread and butter of YA.  They create the situations that the protagonists get themselves out of.  But here, they come one after another and the characters seem determined to let them happen.

Self-destruction is not pretty and not terribly inspiring.  Smart kids doing stupid stuff isn't really a story I want to read.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Mermaid Moon, by Susann Cokal

Sanna is not like the other mermaids.  She knows that she obviously has a mother, but no one can remember who she is.  They know that her mother was landish, a human, and for this reason a spell was cast that would cause all concerned to forget about each other.  Now, Sanna wants to find her.  An old witch helps transform her into a landish girl so she can do her search.

On dry land, her sudden appearance and an incident involving the transforming of roses during a feast day cause her to be mistaken for a saint.  As a result, she comes to the attention of the ruler, Baroness Thryla.  Thryla announces that such an important person as Sanna must become betrothed to her son, a rather self-absorbed boy named Pedar.

Sanna is non-plussed.  None of this brings Sanna closer to finding her long lost mother.  She's not particularly interested in Pedar or even in the ways of landish romance.  Pedar does himself no favors, acting arrogantly around her.  And something is a bit off about Thryla.  In fact, the woman is a witch, who gathers souls to help elongate her life.  Sanna, with all of her magic, could be a powerful source.  To exploit her and retain her, Thryla must keep Sanna close by.  In the end, when Thryla and Sanna face off, the outcome surprises everyone.

A flowing and melodic fantasy novel, but plagued by a painfully slow pace that both suffers from repetition and also from skips and jumps that are confusing to follow.  I never got much into it, although I slogged through to the end.  The story eventually does resolve (we find Sanna's mother by the end) it really isn't very interested in telling a story.  Instead, it delights in its words.  There is also an underlying misandry (men portrayed as either rapacious or vain) and anti-religious thread to the entire book which is a bit disturbing.  This is addressed in an afterward from the author as some sort of literary experiment but seemed out of place and pretentious.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs, by Leslie Connor

Back when Lydia's mother was still alive, the two of them would work on collages.  Their collages, built off of pictures taken from an old forgotten family album, were their "goddesses" with each one signifying a different trait ("goddess of generosity", "goddess of the third heart", etc.).  Each of them is dear to Lydia now that her mother is gone and one of the very few things she takes with her.  With her father absent (aside from the annual birthday card which Lydia never opens), it's her Aunt who comes to take her home.

She relocates to the small town of Chelmsford, where Lydia's aunt lives with her partner in an old farmhouse with the house's owner, Elloroy.  The same week that Lydia arrives, the women decide to adopt a new dog.  Lydia isn't a dog person, so she isn't too sure about the dog, but despite his issues with becoming housebroken, the animal grows on her.  Likewise, while Lydia struggles with adapting to her new home and with coming to terms with her mother's death, eventually this home for her goddesses and for dogs becomes her home as well.

Full of lovely ideas, the execution of this fresh story of a non-traditional family leaves a lot to be desired.  So many of the themes of the story (adaptation, grief, identity, etc.) are handled piecemeal and largely unresolved.  A very late attempt to work out her father issues is half-hearted and incomplete.  The dog simply exists.  He struggles and she struggles but eventually they sort of bond, and there's no particular breakthrough beyond the realization that they have grown close.  And then there's the odd side trips that the story takes:  the hostile neighbor and a peculiar and upsetting case of animal cruelty,  Neither of these appear to serve much purpose.  The story's overall intent seems to be to simply show Lydia adjusting amidst a variety of challenges, but since none of these directly contribute, we left with wondering what the story was all about.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

In the Role of Brie Hutchens, by Nicole Melleby

Brie loves soap operas, but she never counted on her eighth-grade life becoming one.  She gets caught by her Mom looking at nude pictures of her favorite soap actress.  Embarrassed and trying to distract her mother, she blurts out that she's been chosen for the honor of crowning the school's statue of Mary.  This is one of the highest honors at her Catholic school and only granted to the very best student.  The problem is that Brie is not that sort of student and the honor has not actually been announced yet.  But if it means keeping her mother from finding out that Brie might like girls, then Brie will do whatever it takes to win that honor.  Along the way there are Brie's dreams of attending a performing arts school next year (too expensive for the family), her father's unemployment and tensions over money in general, and Brie's tentative exploration of her sexual identity with another girl at school.

The result is a wonderful tone-perfect book about coming out, suitable for young people who are aware enough of adult issues to begin YA, but needing the comfort of a middle reader.  While this is an LGTBQ children's book, it moreover a book about learning how to say what you want, how to ask others for respect, and growing up in general.  Brie's struggles with her mother over recognizing her homosexuality are heartbreaking, but credible and sensitively handled.  Her struggle to be acknowledged and accepted by Mom and for her mother's difficulty in letting go is universal enough to be relatable to anyone.  Brie's relationship with the girl she likes, Kennedy, has all of the sweetness and awkwardness that one expects from eighth grade budding romances.  In sum, Melleby has a good ear and had produced an authentic, age-appropriate, and sensitive story about developing sexual identity.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Lila and Hadley, by Kody Keplinger

A lot of things lately haven't been going well for Hadley.  Over the last few years, she's been undergoing the loss of her vision and is now legally blind  Because her mother got caught stealing from her employer and been sent to jail, Hadley's had to move in with her older sister, Beth.

She's developed a short temper with good reason.  Having to leave her friends is frustrating.  The way her sister won't stop bugging her about learning how to use a cane before she loses all of her sight makes her angry (even though the truth is she's scared at just how fast her vision is deteriorating).  Her Mom calls every night to talk, but Hadley hates how her mother lied to her and won't pick up the phone.  Hadley is so mad but she doesn't know what to do about it.

One day, when she's forced to accompany her sister to a local animal shelter where Beth works, she chances upon Lila, a shy pit bull.  Something clicks between the two of them, much to the surprise of the staff who have had no luck in socializing and training the dog.  But Hadley sees a kindred spirit in Lila (and Lila seemingly does as well in Hadley).  Can the two of them -- both feeling abandoned, angry, and scared -- save each other?

A fairly predictable middle school animal novel with a lovable dog and a testy protagonist.  Hadley is the weak point to this book.  Keplinger puts a lot of effort into showing how angry she is and while it is understandable that she would be so with all the stuff she's dealing with, it gets wearisome to deal with Hadley's endless rudeness, meanness, and self-centeredness.  The story is about Hadley's growth towards acceptance and inner peace, of course, but it's a story that is poorly plotted.  It's not so much a gradual growth as much simply a sudden stop.  A couple life lessons along the way are intended to provide the justification for change, but we don't see the lessons actually being learned as much as simply occurring.  The narrator's poor grammar works fine in dialogue, but gets excessive and precious in the first-person narration and it actually hinders our ability to see her internalization.  Animal stories work best with humor and hijinks, both of which are lacking for the most part from this story.  More dog and less girl would have made this a better book.