Saturday, September 18, 2021

How We Fall Apart, by Katie Zhao

When the star of Sinclair Prep ends up dead, her competition are prime suspects.  Especially so when an anonymous person starts posting accusations against them -- accusations that turn out to be true.  Because the thing that all four suspects have in common is that they each have a dangerous secret.  One by one, their secrets are exposed, destroying each of their reputations (alongside their academic futures).  In the high stress academic rat race these students are in, any weakness is failure and so they must fight with the lives to protect themselves against the anonymous informant.  But will the final reveal prove the deadliest?

This murder mystery/gossip-girl elite high school mash up is all over the place in styles and story, but does a really interesting job dissecting the psychological costs of Asian over-achievement.  The way that each of these young people have sold their souls to achieve their parents' dreams in a futile attempt to earn familial love is a sad commentary.  As a serious subject, it would have made a pretty stunning YA drama.  Instead, Zhao has been seduced into creating a gossipy tale of (mostly) rich NYC prep kids.  The result is fluffy and hard to take seriously.  The implausibility of the plot and the various motives doesn't help.  The strength of the story should have been the characters but they are underdeveloped and we never get invested in them in the way we totally should.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Stay Gold, by Tobly McSmith

When his family moves to Addison at the start of his last year of high school, Pony makes the decision that he's going to keep his trans identity a secret.  Things weren't exactly hostile at his last school, but it was uncomfortable having so much attention.  If he never tells anyone, he hopes he can just have a quiet final year.  But then he falls for Georgia, the prettiest girl on the cheerleading squad, and he realizes that things can only go so far before he needs to tell her what he is hiding.

Georgia is dealing with her own secrets.  Cheerleading is no longer the fun that she once thought it was.  She is developing other interests like writing and has grown uncomfortable with the attitudes of her fellow squad mates.  She's ready for a change but not sure if she's brave enough to come out.  Cheerleading has made her popular and she is afraid of what people will say about her if she were to quit.  Enter this exciting new boy who seems so self-aware, kind, and different.  And while he's not a football player like the guys that the other cheerleaders are dating, he seems so much more real.  He inspires her to take chances and pursue her dreams.

A well-written YA romance between a trans boy and a straight girl that moves briskly.  It touches on a variety of issues related to trans young people.  With the parallel between Pony's secrets and Georgia's suppressed dreams, there is an attempt to place the two young people in positions that build sympathy between them.  This helps to explain a lot of Georgia's growth along the way.  But the book also groans under the weight of some really distasteful characters, poor behavior, Pony's lack of growth, and the author's overall agenda.  I really hated the characters.  Pony is facing a lot of problems with a difficult family situation and the awkward school situation, but he is incredibly self-absorbed and selfish.  He takes nearly 150 pages to getting around to telling Georgia that he's trans and then is hurt when she is shocked (but not repulsed) by the revelation.

Georgia's reaction (which is mostly due to betrayal of trust) makes sense and initially that seems to be all that it is.  But when she also admits that she isn't sure that she wants a trans boyfriend or that she's ready to face social ostracism for dating him, the story turns on her pretty quickly. When confronted with a horrible act of violence, Georgia realizes the error of her ways and embraces Pony fully.  That didactic resolution left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  To me, Georgia's reservations were fair and worthy of consideration, but not in this story.  Instead, we're told that her reservations were as bad at the bigotry to which Pony is subjected.  Max, a friend of Pony's, makes this statement several times, serving as the author's Greek Chorus.  To me, not respecting the idea that physical sex is important to the CIS gendered as well as the transgendered is an ideological dead end.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Many Points of Me, by Caroline Gertler

Being the daughter of a famous deceased artist can make for a lot of awkward conversations, but Georgia is used to the weird way people treat her when they find out who her father is.  What she has never grown comfortable with is how they speak of him in the present tense, as if he were still alive.  They are of course speaking of his art and its continued relevance and vitality, but that doesn't stop her from feeling strange about it.  And the way that everyone seems to want to own a piece of him makes her jealous and possessive.

There's a retrospective of her father's work being planned for the Met.  Her mother is knee deep in curating the exhibit and their apartment is filled with Dad's old sketches and drawings.  Helping her mother, Georgia comes across a sketch he made of her when she was ten years old and realizes that it might be a draft of his most famous work -- the one he never painted but planned to.  Stunned by the fact that her fathers "lost" masterpiece was going to be of her, she hides the sketch away, which sets off a chain of events that get Georgia into a world of trouble.

An art mystery that does a wonderful job of showing readers how to better appreciate art (the author's background as a docent at the Met certainly shows through!).  I'm not a big fan of Georgia's poor decisions and the more cringeworthy consequences of them, but the story itself is a lovely examination of Georgia's acceptance of her father's passing and her more reluctant embrace of his legacy.  By the end, Georgia achieves some level of peace with the idea that her relationship with him was unique and is untouched by the fact that he was a public figure.  I would not have thought that such a rarified existence as the daughter of a famous artist would create a character who was so relatable, but Georgia is an easy heroine with whom to empathize.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Girl from Shadow Springs, by Ellie Cypher

Living on the edge of the Flats, Ellie knows that there are only two types of people who venture out on that frozen wasteland:  the desperate and the foolish.  She should know:  she supplements what she and her sister Bren have by scavenging off the frozen corpses she finds out there.

It is the remains of a particularly fine looking gentleman that brings her trouble.  No sooner has she discovered the body than another man shows up and demands that she turn over what she found.  When he doesn't find what he's looking for, he kidnaps Bren to ransom for what he is looking for.  With little in the way of resources (and no idea what the man wanted in the first place), Ellie sets out on to the Flats to recover her sister.  Along the way picking up the nephew of the dead man, the two of them face brutal weather, wild animals, thin ice, hostile human gangs, and a supernatural being who is at the root of the inhospitable conditions in which they live.

Rich in detail, the novel lovingly creates its Western-meets-Ice Age world, but gets bogged down by its stylization.

To feed the ambiance (and give the author a chance to have Ellie spout lots of tough posturing) Ellie's narration is full of lots of ungrammatical phrasing.  This provides some flavor but becomes distracting as the usage is inconsistent.  And it doesn't help that the text itself is marred by typos.

More annoying to me were the numerous scenes that were elongated by having the characters interrupt each other.  The device serves mostly to drag out the action and makes little sense in a life-or-death scene as they argue with each other instead of the fighting/running/shutting up they need to be doing.

Finally, numerous actions scenes seem to be inserted into the story simply to pad the novel, adding nothing to the story itself except to give Ellie another chance to tell us that the situation is impossible but that  she'll bravely forge ahead.  The fact that she manages through each and every one of these situations leaves one skeptical of her ability to accurately evaluate plausibility.  Such set-ups don't build suspense, they simply annoy the reader.

Beautiful writing, but repetitive and drawn out.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Alone, by Megan E. Freeman

Twelve year-old Maddie had only intended to have a secret sleepover with her best friends, but it has turned into a disaster.  They didn't even show up so she is stuck at grandparents' empty house by herself.  In the morning, she wakes to a shocking surprise:  everyone in her town is gone!  An emergency evacuation in the night transported everyone away and left her behind.

She doesn't know where they have gone but quickly realizes that her chances of survival will be greatly enhanced by staying put.  And as days turn to weeks and to months, that is what she does, managing to scavenge for food and supplies, avoiding looters, and surviving a series of natural disasters.  In these tasks, she proves remarkably resourceful following her intuition and practical problem solving skills.  But she finds that the hardest obstacle is loneliness and the emotional distress that being alone brings.

A gripping and fairly dark survival story, this novel-in-verse is a far cry from Home Alone.   I found it nearly impossible to put down as Maddie faces continual existential threats that I felt compelled to read to conclusion.  I would not have thought that verse novel would carry enough impact to grab me but in fact the structure is a strength: the spare nature of the verse was really effective at conveying how Maddie comes to live more and more within her head.  

The story did start to drag towards the end and the ending itself is disappointingly anti-climactic, but I really enjoyed the trip getting there.  Maddie is a compelling heroine, smart and tough. She has a playful side too, but when it matters she makes the good choices and saves herself (as there is no one else to do it).  An excellent read.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Nothing Ever Happens Here, by Sarah Hagger-Holt

Nothing ever happens in Izzy's quiet little town.  But all of that is about to change when her father announces to the family that he's actually a woman and has decided to come out as Danielle.  Izzy's little brother is too young to understand and wonders if it is a secret superhero thing.  Izzy's older sister is outraged about what this will do to her standing at school.  But Izzy herself worries that this means that her Dad is no longer going to be her father.  Through many supportive conversations with friends and each other, Izzy's family learns how to adapt to the change, rethinking their own family unit and dealing with the reaction of their neighbors and friends.

Geared towards a younger YA audience, the story does a good job of covering a wide variety of topics ranging from practical questions like how the kids will address their father to how they deal with a broad range of emotions (confusion, anger, grief, joy, etc.) that each of the family members experience. What truly makes the book shine is that it never gets preachy or teachy, but manages nonetheless to bring up a plethora of important issues while doing so in an entertaining way.

Like many British YA novels, the book assumes a level of innocence that you wouldn't find in an American treatment of this topic, but that actually serves the story well in this case as the adults are actively supportive and responsible.  As difficult as the changes may be for all, no one expects the children to deal with matters on their own.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss, by Amy Noelle Parks

Caleb and Evie have been friends since they were little, but they have never kissed.  Not that Caleb hasn't tried!  In fourteen attempts, Evie has always turned him down.  He's been OK with that since she has turned down everyone else as well, but when she starts dating Leo in their senior year, Caleb isn't happy about the situation.  It's not like he hasn't dated other girls in the meantime, but with the shoe on the other foot, Caleb feels hurt.

With just about everyone in the story (except Evie) knowing that she should be with Caleb, no one else is happy about it either.  What makes this well-trodden romantic path actually work in this case is how razor smart these kids are.  Everyone knows and everyone says so, so there's no mystery that Evie and Caleb are going to be together in the end.  Evie just needs to get over her fear of getting into a relationship with her best friend.

The best part of the story is actually Evie's growth as a person, which comes out in her quest (with Caleb's help) to win a prestigious national math award.  She's bright, intelligent, and articulate, but she suffers from anxiety attacks (to some extent fed by her mother's overprotectiveness).  To get over her fears, she has relied in the past on a support network made up of Caleb and her BFF Bex.  A good part of the novel then is her working through that and learning to do things on her own.  It's a very satisfying story of growth in itself, but this thread of the plot also reveals many disturbing issues that never really get addressed properly:  the sexism present in the mathematics community, Evie's difficult with dealing with her fear of being judged by others, and Caleb's unhealthy possessiveness of Evie.

Caleb and Evie have a fairly disturbing dynamic.  Evie needs Caleb to control her anxiety and Caleb needs Evie to "protect." This unhealthy codependency presages some pretty dysfunctional behaviors in their "happily ever after" romance and casts a shadow over the romance itself.  Add to this Caleb's nasty violent streak.  On several instances, he either commits acts of violence or threatens to do so in the course of "defending" Evie.  In a climactic moment, Evie preempts Caleb's anger and settles her own scores, but at no point does she (or anyone else) address Caleb's behavior.

All of that aside (and the book downplays this darker side so it is possible to do so), it's nice to find a book about science-savvy teens who are well-rounded and not geeks.  Caleb plays baseball, Evie's boyfriend and her friend Bex play soccer, and even Evie herself enjoys Yoga.  They make wisecracks about the humanities, but they are literate and articulate and do well in English class.  Evie's anxiety issues aside, they all have active social lives.  Smart kids in a smart story makes for some smart reading.  This is a good read that treats its young adults as intelligent people with nuanced lives.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Muse, by Brittany Cavallaro

It's the end of the Nineteenth Century and the great inventor Tesla is about to demonstrate at the World's Fair the awesome force of electricity.  But that is about all that will seem familiar in this alt-history in which America became a monarchy divided into great territories, each administered by a governor.  

In the grand city of Monticello-on-the-Lake (which we would think of as Chicago), the Fair is meant to be an opportunity for St Cloud (whose borders run from Canada down to the City of Orleans on the Gulf) to demonstrate their power of ingenuity and progress.  But sabre rattling and nativist rhetoric from their western neighbor Livingstone Monroe threatens the peace.

In the midst of this, Claire Emerson, the daughter of an unbalanced inventor, is plotting her escape from her father's dominion.  She dreams of a chance to strike out on her own and be her own woman, but the reality is the best for which she can hope is escaping her father by subjecting herself to a husband.  At first, the plan is for her to flee across the border in the midst of the Fair, but when St. Cloud is invaded, Claire finds her fate entwined with that of the young governor Remy Duchamp.  And while the conflict is ostensibly against Livingstone Monroe, the Daughters of the American Crown have insinuating themselves into the mix in an attempt to bring a woman into power.  Claire's instincts are to assist this feminist enterprise, but the DAC's anti-immigrant stance alienates her.  With no clear support, Claire makes do as best as she can, forming alliances that are both grandly political and personal at the same time, siding with Remy while simultaneously trying to claim power for herself.

As with any complex story, keeping track of all of the characters is challenging.  Some are definitely more memorable than others.  Her BFF Beatrix is a highlight -- providing useful gadgets and escape routes, as well comic relief.  Others, like Margarete (Claire's adopted sister and chambermaid) are underutilized in this book but may become more useful in the second half.  The boy Remy is fairly forgettable and while important to the story is fairly easy to ignore.  As for who is on whose side, forget about it!  Allegiances are fluid and the frequency of betrayals and double-crosses make tracking teams pretty futile.

The novel is sprawling and complex, with numerous competing plots and subplots. This first installment (of a duology) is naturally more expository, but you'll probably have to re-read it to refresh your memory whenever the second half comes out.  I hope she can manage to pull it all together!  Confusing and dense, but lively, original, and highly entertaining.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Hunted by the Sky, by Tanaz Bhathena

Gul's birthmark (a star) on her arm marks her as a threat.  A prophecy has foretold that a women with just such a birthmark will wield tremendous magic and be responsible for the death of the Raja and a revolution.  As a result, whenever a girl is found with such a birthmark, they are seized and never heard from again.  But Gul avoids capture when her parents sacrifice their lives to hide her.  Fleeing, she is taken in by a sisterhood of magician warriors who train her to defend herself.  But for Gul, defending her life really doesn't matter:  she has one goal and that is to kill the ruler to avenge the deaths of her parents.

Cavas is a poor boy living in the slums around the royal city.  He has no magic and no special powers, but he is determined to do whatever it takes to find enough money to buy the medicine that is keeping his sick father alive.  In the market, he randomly crosses paths with Gul.  But it is no coincidence and soon he finds himself helping her infiltrate the palace, where all is not quite as either of them expected.  The Raja's days are numbered, but Gul is little more than a puppet in the events that are unfolding.

Set in a fantasy world based on the Mughal empire, Bhathena has created a very dense and immersive setting for her story of magic and prophecy.  It's a complicated story and a very slow read.  That makes it hard to get into and at some point exhausting to track.  Some of the blame for this lies in the pacing, which ranges from glacial exposition to sudden plot twists and large chronological jumps.  Bhathena loves to tell us details about this universe and is constantly revealing new details. Maddeningly, large amounts of these details turn out to be inconsequential to the story.  While the sudden twists and jumps keeps us on our toes, it is tiring and frustrating.  Rather than good writing, it feels more like an author who cannot carry through on an idea.  A beautiful book, but average storytelling.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Flight of the Puffin, by Ann Braden

Four children (Libby, Vincent, "T", and Jack) struggle with being bullied and the feelings of powerlessness that come with being victimized.  Libby wants to be an artist, but her family does understanding anything except belittling others.  Vincent is a sensitive soul who loves puffins and triangles, and desperately doesn't want to get stuffed into another locker at school.  T lives on the street, trying to survive, and is afraid of calling home for help because of who he is.  Jack is a fighter who helps all of the kids at his small rural school.  So, when the school faces closure, he comes out swinging to save the place and only belatedly realizes that his actions are hurting people as well.  A pay-it-forward concept of giving strangers postcards with encouraging messages brings the four of them together and proves transformative for all.

The postcard idea (that everyone needs encouragement) is powerful and clever.  I'm sure some teacher will assign a project like it to students after they read the book.  I'm less comfortable with the idea that we should not judge others.  While most bullies have become the way they are because of how they themselves were treated, it's simplistic to imagine that you can break the cycle with kindness and understanding.  With much of the bullying in this book (Vincent being the notable exception) coming from adults against children, this is particularly disturbing.   It's an ambitious idea for a story, but I'm not altogether comfortable with the idea or its delivery.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Under Shifting Stars, by Alexandra Latos

Clare and Audrey are twins.  In their family, their older brother Adam was the glue that kept them together.  But when he dies in a car accident, the loss throws off the familial balance.

The girls are not identical.  While Clare is popular at school, Audrey struggles with autism which has led to her being enrolled at a special school.  She hates it and wants to be back at the regular school with Clare, but her parents are not sure that she is ready.  In truth, she doesn't know if she's ready either, but being apart from Clare is so hard, especially now when they are drifting apart.  When she makes friends with a boy in the park, she is surprised to find that she can develop friendships outside of her family.

With Audrey having so many special needs, Clare feels neglected.  The loss of Adam hit her particularly hard and set off a new feeling that she finds hard to articulate.  She feel best when she is wearing Adam's old clothes.  Her "normal" life at school feels false.  She's become as freaky to her old friends as her sister is.  It takes a new arrival at the school to open her up to who she really wants to become and to give her the strength to be the needy sister.

Through alternating chapters, the sisters piece together a life which has been riven by shared loss but held together by their lifetime bond.  Each of them are going through passages that are both personal and shared.  They struggle because they have trouble communicating and in understanding each other.  In the end there is the predictable reconciliation between them, but the journey through these misconceptions is what gives this novel its story.  It's well done, with beautifully drawn characters, but the story is not a particularly dramatic read.  To try to liven it up, the author flirts with a late attempt to add a crisis, but this is unnecessary and contributes to a sluggish conclusion.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Too Bright to See, by Kyle Lukoff

After the death of Bug's uncle, Bug starts to think about his uncle's life.  Bug's late uncle was a drag queen and loved fancy dresses and wearing make-up.  Bug's best friend Moira is big into make-up and boys.  She keeps trying to convince Bug that, with them both starting middle school in the Fall, they need to start learning how to be pretty, wear dresses, and wear make-up.  But Bug doesn't like to wear make up and dresses feel weird (even though they are pretty!).  Does that make Bug less of a girl?  Or is the truth that women and men don't all have to be a certain way (like how Uncle Roderick was more girlish than Bug).

Bug's house has always seemed haunted and during the summer it seems that the ghost of Uncle Roderick is haunting them, trying to get a message to Bug.  Be yourself, the ghost seems to be saying.  But what does that mean?  What is Bug supposed to be?

Too Bright to See is an unusual story that mashes up two middle reader favorites -- a haunted house adventure and a friendship story.  While trying to uncover why things are going bump in the night, Bug and Moira struggle with the way they are changing and drifting apart.  While it sounds discordant (and I wouldn't call this a particularly good ghost story), it all comes together surprisingly seamlessly in the end into a story about identity.  I found the ending saccharine and the characters unrealistically cooperative, but it's an uplifting story that addresses issues of gender identity in an age-appropriate and positive way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Mythic Koda Rose, by Jennifer Nissley

The illegitimate daughter of a famous dead rock star, there are plenty of people who know more about Koda Rose's father than she does.  She's not even a fan of his music.  She wishes it was different, but her Mom didn't really know him and has never really encouraged her to find out anything on her own.  Instead, she has tried to shelter Koda from the public eye.

As a result, Koda has developed a sense that somehow if she knew her father better, it would give her strength to work through her issues.  She certainly has plenty of her own issues, ranging from her social awkwardness to dealing with her infatuation with her best friend.  So, when she crosses paths with her late father's last girlfriend Sadie, it's an opportunity she cannot resist.  She befriends the woman and finds herself idolizing her, blind to the obvious reality that Sadie is a junkie.  For Koda Rose, all that matters is that Sadie is a connection with her Dad and she starts engaging in riskier and riskier behavior (throwing aside her mother, friends, and life) to follow Sadie.

I had occasional trouble keeping up with Koda Rose's erratic behavior, but I found the story complex and engaging.  The relationship triangle between Koda, her mother, and Sadie is nuanced.  It would be easy to imagine the two older women still harboring jealousies and anger from their youth over the lover that they shared, but neither one does.  For Koda, who imagines this non-existent conflict most strongly, this is deeply unsettling.  She needs her mother and Sadie to be at each other's necks and when they aren't she is forced to accept that her issues are really her own. While Sadie has serious issues, it is ultimately Koda who has to sort out the most.  The novel's lack of any effective resolution, while very frustrating, is ultimately the more realistic option, leaving open Koda's next steps for the reader to imagine.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wider Than the Sky, by Katherine Rothschild

Without any explanation, Sabine and her twin sister Blythe are moved to a run-down old mansion outside of San Francisco just a few weeks after the death of their father. Charlie, a man whom the girls have never met, is living with them for some reason.  Mysteriously, he seems to know a great deal about them.  Their mother seems fine with all of this and is evasive, refusing to provide a satisfactory explanation.  Naturally, the girls start sleuthing.  The answer is complicated and causes Sabine in particular to reevaluate her feelings about her father.

Meanwhile, the house itself is under renovation, in a plan apparently being run by Charlie. Sabine learns quickly that the plans violate local zoning ordinances, which in turn are rigorously enforced by a crotchety old woman who is threatening to seize the property unless the project is stopped.  The resolution to the problem will rely upon small-town insularity, some minor coincidences, and Sabine's tireless efforts.  Along the way, Sabine makes a series of poor and hurtful decisions that ultimately complicate everything.

Sabine and her selfish and downright mean decisions (which range from trying to ruin the house renovations to betraying her best friend) make for an unlikable protagonist.  She has a lovely quirk of "poeting" (where she starts word associating in the style of Emily Dickinson) but is otherwise largely irredeemable.  Perhaps, the author could have saved this clever piece of schtick for a more likable character -- it plays no role in the plot.

To provide a level of suspense, the story relies on an implausible level of secrecy, which begins with the crazy idea that a mother would uproot her daughters just days after their father's funeral without any attempt to explain why she was doing so.  The eventual solution to the housing problem is similarly strange and, while it draws on a number of ideas that have been developed throughout, felt strikingly out of the blue.  All of this speaks to a plot that was straining at the seams.

Final note:  Apparently, neither the author, the editor, nor any of the reviewers know the difference between legislation and litigation -- lawyers do not legislate, they litigate.  So, I guess it is a good thing -- as her dedication reveals -- that her Dad talked the author into being a writer rather than a lawyer.

Friday, August 20, 2021

We Are Inevitable, by Gayle Forman

When an asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, the effect wasn't instantaneous.  It took thousands of years for the dinosaurs to die out.  Did they realize it was happening, wonders Aaron.  Do we ever realize that the asteroid is barreling towards us and our remaining time is limited?  Aaron is sure that he doesn't want to be a dinosaur, but stuck working at his family's dying book store it's hard not to feel the inevitability of his demise.  Aaron's brother's addiction wiped out their money, the collapse of the local economy and poor business acumen is running the book store to the ground.  Aaron decides to avoid the inevitable by selling the store.

No sooner has he completed the arrangement, but a group of townspeople get it in their heads to save the store, volunteering their time and their own savings to rebuild the space and turn it into a better place.  It may be too late for Aaron to take back his decision to sell but that may not matter because he honestly doesn't want it anymore.  But with some help from friends that Aaron doesn't want, a girlfriend he wants for all of the wrong reasons, and the funniest gathering of old lumberjacks to grace a novel, Aaron is about to redefine what inevitability actually looks like.

A lively, well-crafted novel that is the perfect delivery vessel for an unworthy story.  The lumberjacks steal the show with their bickering over construction techniques and literature.  Aaron's unwanted sidekick, Chad the paraplegic, provides additional comic levity.  Romantic interest Hannah gets the best snarky lines.  The rest I can take or leave.  Aaron himself is whiney and tedious. He's also the annoying stereotypical YA boy -- profane, obscene, and immature -- and ultimately boring.  The story drags and isn't worthy of the strong supporting characters.  The message (that we frequently blame others to cover up the things we won't face ourselves) just isn't all that profound.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Indestructible Object, by Mary McCoy

Right after graduation, Lee gets hit with a series of set-backs:  her boyfriend and podcast co-host breaks up with her on their last episode, she loses her job as a sound engineer at the local coffee shop, and her parents announce they are separating.  To sort this out, Lee starts up a new podcast called Objects of Destruction.  While developing her first episode, she stumbles across an old videotape that gives her insight on the roots of her parents' unhappiness and helps her understand her own problems.  The story is made more complicated by Lee's romantic wanderings as she tries to sort out if she wants to be back with her old boyfriend or to hook up with Risa the cute girl at the bookstore who (along with her old family friend Max) is helping her work on Objects.

In sum, the novel is a quirky trip through hip Memphis with a pastiche of offbeat artists and musicians.  Responsible adults are few and far between and the kids are free to do whatever they want.  This sets up an original story with interesting characters, but the characters are largely the same -- artistic kids with endless free time and adults with no responsibilities.  They all seemed adrift and I found them hard to relate to.  There's a significant attempt at deep meaning in the end, but I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to get from it.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Home Is Not a Country, by Safia Elhillo

Nima knows that she wasn't meant to be called by the with which she ended up.  Her mother had intended to name her Yasmeen, but after her father died she became Nima instead.  It's a fine name, but Nima can't help but feel that her mother would love Yasmeen more than she loves Nima.  And after a random act of violence puts her best friend in the hospital, Nima finds herself transported to an alternate reality where Yasmeen exists and her father is still alive.

Exploring Nima's identity as an Arab American just after 9/11 through verse, Elhillo's novel is startlingly original.  It is also a bit weird.  The jarring shift from a very realistic depiction of fear and violence in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks into magical realism takes some getting used to.  Yasmeen appears first as a voice in Nima's head, changes to another physical person and then takes over Nima's self, before eventually becoming a conscience or some sort of jinn.  If you like the vagueness of this idea and a story whose meaning is open for discussion and debate, this is a great choice for you.  I found the verse hard to read and was put off by the story.  Pretty but tedious.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Summer of Brave, by Amy Noelle Parks

Lilla doesn't think of herself as dishonest, but according to her friend Vivi, every time she says something is OK when it isn't or stays quiet instead of speaking up, she's not being truthful.  Vivi thinks it's time for Lilla to be brave.  But is it worth the risk?  Lilla sees how much easier it is to just go along, to pretend that you want the same things as your friends, or that you are happy doing the things your parents want you to do.  What does it really matter that she would do things differently?  Most of all, she just wants people to be happy with her.  However, it's hard to please everyone all of the time and Vivi has a point about the dishonesty.  

When Lilla thinks about it, there are a lot of thinks that she doesn't speak out about.  Her parents are divorced and have developed an elaborate plan to share her between them.  Never mind that Lilla doesn't want to always be evenly split up.  Everyone thinks she should apply to a magnet school.  The only thing that they can't agree upon is whether she should focus on arts or sciences.  Lilla doesn't want to go in the first place, but her parents just assume that she's acting up.  Finally, when Lilla has to deal with sexual harassment from a fellow staff member at the museum summer program where she is volunteering, she is astounded when the supervisor downplays the incident.  Standing up for yourself isn't just about honesty, it's important for your well-being as well!

While I found Lilla implausibly articulate for a twelve year-old, that didn't really bother me.  Her anxiety about being taken seriously and her fear of standing up for herself are emotions that young readers will relate to.  That Lilla speaks out for herself impressively merely makes her a better role model.

Parks's story touches on so many important issues: the importance of honestly in friendships, of being heard within families, of defining safe boundaries, and of learning to communicate clearly and persuasively.  The book shows Lilla making good choices and difficult choices, and communicating those to her friends and to adults.  While she gets push back, she eventually is able to get even the grownups to respect and honor those choices.  In doing so, the author shows that if you can find the strength to say what you really want that you can realize your dreams.  The flip side of this is that no one likes someone who they can't trust to be honest.  These are good lessons for adults as well as twelve year-old girls!

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Where the Road Leads Us, by Robin Reul

Jack may be functionally living alone (with an absent mother and a dead father) but his life seems pretty good.  He has everything figured out for him.  He's got a girlfriend who is going out East with him.  He's about to graduate and go to Columbia.  But on graduation day, the only reason he drags himself to the ceremony is because he's the valedictorian.  No one cares what he says in his speech and he never actually finishes it.  His girlfriend dumps him

Jack realizes that the one and only thing he really wants to do is to go to San Francisco and find his brother, who's been lost to addiction for the past two years.

Hallie is struggling with cancer and it hurts her to see the way that her medical expenses have destroyed her parents' finances and their dreams.  She does whatever she can to help them but realizes that the next big incident could bankrupt them entirely.  But more immediately she's desperate to get to Oregon where a fellow cancer patient has given up and is about to terminate his life.  There's no time to lose.  With some help from a friend, she figures she can make it up and back on the bus fast enough that her parents won't notice.

Many typical road trip adventures await on their road trip from LA.  Coincidence finds Jack and Hallie on the same rideshare to the bus station.  Bad weather and a few more coincidences cause the driver to take them north himself up to San Francisco, where everyone strikes out on their own adventures.

The story itself follows the usual pattern of anecdotes and adventures, humorous encounters, and life growth, but Reul does manage to infuse some freshness into the story and create characters that are familiar but nuanced.  It never really grabbed me as a particularly exciting story, but the writing has an element of surprise throughout that kept the story interesting.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

The Summer of Lost Letters, by Hannah Reynolds

The discovery of a cache of old love letters that were sent to Abby's late grandmother sets off a great adventure. They aren't from the man who became her grandfather and, while Abby has no problem imagining that her grandmother might have dated someone else, she's surprised that she's never heard of the guy.  Through some sleuthing, she tracks downs the mystery man, Edward Barbanel.  He is still alive and lives in Nantucket.

Abby's grandmother came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in the late 1930s and - as far as Abby knew -- lived in New York City.  But apparently for at least some time she lived with Edward's family in Nantucket. With a dull summer between her junior and senior years before her and a growing obsession with this mystery, Abby decides to take a job on the island.

The problem is that the man -- a retired patriarch of a large wealthy clan -- doesn't respond to her inquiries, so she sneaks herself onto the family compound as a caterer.  While undercover, she becomes entangled with Noah, Edward Barbanel's handsome and suspicious grandson. who tries to stop her from her search.  He fears that her digging in the past will just cause friction in the family and he distrusts Abby's motives.  But in the end, he grudgingly helps her and she equally reluctantly follows his guidelines.  As the two dig deeper, the surprises start popping up, family secrets are unveiled, and (of course) Abby and Noah fall in love.

For the most part, this is a pretty typical beach romance material, but the mystery of the hidden romance (and a parallel search for a missing necklace) adds a nice dramatic element.  I actually found the mystery more compelling than the romance, but that was mostly because the romance was unambitious and cliched (poor girl falls for rich boy).  Most of the characters (the roommate, Abby's mother, the boss, Noah's family, and even the grandmothers) are throwaways but Abby and Noah themselves are interesting.  It all takes place in a beautiful picturesque setting that Reynolds gives us in lovingly tour guide presentation.  Entertaining fluffy fun that reads fast.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Between the Bliss and Me, by Lizzy Mason

While Sydney sometimes imagines that her Dad is right there with her, she knows that he's somewhere else.  Addiction destroyed his life and he abandoned the family long ago.  Sydney is certain that it's part of the reason her Mom has always been so clingy.

Mom's long insisted that Sydney should go to Rutgers when she graduates and live at home, but Sydney has her heart set on NYU.  NYU offers more options and it also puts her nearer to her crush Grayson.  Thanks to her grandparents, she can afford the tuition.

When they also kick in a generous graduation present to boot, Mom blows a gasket.  But why won't Mom let go?  It's not as if New York City is all that far away from central New Jersey.

Sydney flees to her grandparents' beach house for a week, where she learns some facts about her father that she never knew, in particular about the decline of his mental health and his current whereabouts.  Burdened with disturbing new information, she reexamines herself and her choices.

The story starts out strong as a study of Sydney and the way she copes with devastating truths about her family and herself, but it gets dragged down into the issues of how mental illness is mishandled.   There's a lot to be said about gaps in healthcare, underfunding of social services, and the difficulties of recovery, but there really is too much to say to cram it into a novel (not that that stops Mason from trying!).  By the second half of the book, the action has become simply a device for Sydney to engage with various people (e.g., grandmother, mother, family lawyer, psychiatrist, police officer, etc.) in long expository discourses about mental health and public policy.  The dialogue sounds less and less authentic, sapping the energy out of the story.  My interest in the characters waned and I ended up browsing through the last thirty pages just to finish it off.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Taking Up Space, by Alyson Gerber

Sarah loves playing basketball, but lately she's noticed that she has trouble keeping up.  Her uniform is getting tighter too.  Maybe she's just getting fat?  Certainly, that's what her Mom would think.  Mom would never say such a thing, of course, but Sarah knows how concerned her mother is about food.  So Sarah starts to develop her own rules about eating: deciding what she can eat and how much.  But when her friends start to notice her behavior, she is forced to come clean or give up basketball.

This being seventh grade, there's also plenty of drama floating around including a cute boy who teaches Sarah how to cook (and also enjoy eating).  Together, they decide to try competing in a cooking contest.  When Sarah develops a crush on the boy this triggers a problem because one of her teammates already has a crush on him.  So when Sarah doesn't promptly come clean to her friend, it drives a rift between Sarah and the rest of the basketball team.

An important topic, but this take on puberty and eating disorders is a clunky recitation.  Gerber has a good sense of the dynamics of middle school, but she doesn't handle dialogue well.  The kids talk aloud like they are IM'ing each other which sounds awkward, but the adults are the worst talking largely in mini lectures (except for Sarah's parents whose sole purpose seems to be to apologize and agree with everything she says).  The whole thing is stiff and artificial -- more of a PSA than a story.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

One Jar of Magic, by Corey Ann Haydu

In Rose's town, people collect magic in jars.  Big magic, small magic, magic that makes rain, magic that turns your finger nails pink forever.  And in Rose's town, it's her father who has amassed the largest collection of magic.  It is her father to whom the town turns when they need some special sort of magic.  Magic makes you powerful, says her Dad, and the more magic you have the more important you are.  Her father is very important.

Gathering magic isn't something you can do until you turn twelve.  And so the children look forward to the first time they will be able to fill their own jars.  They wonder how many jars they will fill.  But Rose doesn't worry about it because Dad has told her that she is special just like him.  He calls her "Little Luck" and tells everyone how powerful she'll be.  She believes him.  She always believes what he says because when she doesn't do so bad things happen.  And while she isn't really sure herself, she won't tell him her doubts because that will just make him mad.  And she doesn't want him to be mad.

The great day comes when Rose will go out and gather her first magic.  However, it doesn't turn out the way anyone expected.  Try as she might, she ends up with nothing more than a tiny bit of magic her brother helped her catch.  Why?  What does it mean that she wasn't the great magic collector her father said she would be?  And if she is in fact not intended for magic, who is she?  For years, she's made fun of the others for not being as magically-inclined as her family so payback is being subjected to the ridicule of her peers.  Worse though is how her father treats her for not fulfilling her promise.

This strikingly beautiful and original meditation on self-acceptance stands out as one of the best books of 2021. The magic that Rose's family collects in jars serves in so many roles.  First, as metaphor for status and prestige.  Second, as means to pursue the tragic consequences of greed and its accompanying corrosion of the family.  Third, as a safe way to explore the darker topic of domestic violence that lies underneath all of this.  Finally, as a device through which Rose rebuilds her sense.  This relatively simple concept also allows Haydu to delve into a variety of other topics like peer pressure, possessive friendships, bullying, crushes, and forgiveness, amongst others.  The result is a very dense book that delivers a strong emotional statement, but the text with its graceful prose feels light.  With such potentially triggering subjects, it is striking that one comes out in the end feeling refreshed and inspired (instead of drained and spent).

Haydu has written several lovely books (I have given strong positive reviews to at least two of them) but this novel is truly on a different level.  Strongly recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2021

It All Begins with Jelly Beans, by Nova Weetman

It all begins in the nurse's office where Meg and Riley meet and share a bag of jelly beans.  The two girls are very different.  Riley hangs out with popular girls like queen bee Lina, while Meg is a misfit who comes to school in ratty old clothes and a pair of bath slippers.  Yet, what they don't understand at first (but come to appreciate in time) is that the nurse's officer serves a common purpose for both of them:  a refuge from the pressures they are facing at the end of sixth grade.

Meg wears old clothes because her mother has become a recluse since the death of her Dad.  With her mother unable to leave the house, Meg has to find a way to feed and take care of them both, which involves relying on the generosity of a few adults.  This includes the school nurse, who finds ways to smuggle Meg leftovers from the teacher's lounge.  Riley, who seems so popular and happy, is in fact living in shame of her diabetes, for which she has to constantly monitor her glucose levels and wears a programmable pump.  This makes her stand out in a not-so-good way and she wishes her friends would not make fun of her for it (and maybe also whether they are truly her friends).

When both girls are tapped to give speeches at their graduation ceremony, the acquaintance they developed over candy blossoms into a real friendship.

While not very original material, Weetman's book about friendship, peer pressure, and standing up for oneself is heartwarming and sweet.  It features two of my least favorite scenarios (i.e., a child who won't seek help from adults and a child who succumbs to peer pressure at the risk of their own well-being -- in both cases out of pride), but it has a happy ending that shows that things don't have to be so bad and that there is a pay off for demanding what you need.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Kind of a Big Deal, by Shannon Hale

Josie peaked in high school.  Back then, she was the indisputable star of the stage.  When she won a nationwide drama contest, her teacher encouraged her to leave school and go to Broadway.  But life in the Big Apple was not the same and she quickly washed out.  Now, she nannies for a little girl in Missoula and tries to save money to pay off her credit card debts.  She's not only lost her dream, but also alienated her friends and grown distant from her family.

One day she walks into a bookstore and her life changes.  She hasn't read a book since high school and certainly not read one for fun for longer than that, so the owner talks her into taking a book (and throws in a pair of reading glasses since she finds she has developed nearsightedness).  Sitting in the park while her charge plays, she gets immersed in her book.  Literally completely immersed.  She's become a character in the story and while days pass by for her, when she is finally done (and finds herself back in the park) only mere moments have gone by.  This starts a new set of adventures for Josie.  But these immersions are far from harmless and by the time Josie realizes how much the books are changing her life (and not necessarily for the better), it is too late.

Shannon Hale is a very inconsistent writer in my experience.  I loved Princess Academy, Book of Thousand Days, and the Bayern series, but her more recent books have generally lost me.  This novel unfortunately continues that trend.  The device of the immersive books is very clever and it allows Hale to engage in some really hilarious skewering of a number of YA genres (e.g., romances, rom coms, zombie apocalypse stories, and even graphic novels) that really deserve to poked out.  I loved this part of the book and if she had managed to tie everything together in the end, this book would have gone down as one of my favorite YA satires (following in the absurdist traditions of writers like Libba Bray), but the ending tries to get too serious and is an absolute disaster.  It's as if Lemony Snicket wanted to write a problem story.  With a conscious effort to tie up her loose ends, Hales gets buried in all the inconsistencies (which were unobtrusive in a satire but are now glaring in her late conversion to realism).  The result is humor is far too mean to be taken seriously, a story far too wild to be explained, and characters too symbolic to be meaningful or interesting.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Glimpsed, by G. F. Miller

Charity is a modern-day fairy godmother.  Thanks to powers she inherited from her grandmother, she receives "glimpses" of the future that reveal some heartfelt dream of a stranger.  Far from benevolent, once she has had a "glimpse" she is physically obligated to do what she can to help the people involved (who she calls her "Cindies") realize their goal.  She's long seen this secret responsibility as a series of good deeds, but when she is confronted by Noah (a very angry victim of one of her projects) and another glimpse goes very very badly, she begins to wonder if this is really just a terrible curse.

Meanwhile, Noah blackmails Charity into helping him undo the damage of the glimpse that hurt him.  At first unwilling collaborators, the two of them predictably grow close.  That complicates the plan, which involves Noah finally getting back the love of his life -- another girl named Holly.  Will Charity successfully bring Noah and Holly together or will the growing affection between Noah and Charity undo it all?

Cute concept, with a well-written story and decent characters, but the book is grating.  The issue is poor storytelling.  Miller knows what she wants to happen, but her delivery is clunky and out of proportion.  The initial tension between Charity and Noah starts with them spraying each other with chemical weapons and Noah threatening Charity!  Once written into that corner, it is a major chore to bring our protagonists into romantic bliss.  Every dramatic moment in the book is like that -- exaggerated and so uncharacteristically shrill that they seem like they are from a different story.  Even the predictable happy ending is cringeworthy and over the top.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

American Betiya, by Anuradha D. Rajurkar

Rani is the type of girl that parents and aunties always point to when they want to show other children what a good girl should be like.  She helps take care of the younger children at parties, she does well in school, and she stays away from drugs and boys.  And while Rani is eighteen now, she knows that obeying her parents isn't just expected, it is essential in her Indian-American community.  She's seen what happens to others who stray away from traditions and adult expectations.

That works for her until she meets Oliver, a bad boy from a troubled family, but with beautiful ideas and a beautiful face.  Swept off her feet, Rani agrees to sneak around behind her parents' backs to see him.  There's no future in it and she makes sure that Oliver understands that she can never ever introduce him to her family.  That too works for a while, but Oliver is definitely unhappy and complains that it is unfair that he can't meet her parents.  He might not be Indian but he belives that he can prove that he's still worthy of dating their daughter.  Shocked that he cannot understand how offensive his presumptions and prejudices are, Rani begins to doubt the relationship itself, which drives Oliver to become more and more obsessive and clingy.

While a large part of the novel focuses on the tensions that exist in cross-cultural relationships, the story also addresses the more universal themes of obsessive first love.  Rani is pretty much an innocent thrown in the deep end, but Oliver's troubled background creates a combustible situation that she is ill-equipped to handle.  Rajurkar herself wants to call out Oliver's racist micro-aggressions, but for me Oliver comes across as more clueless than racist.  Their relationship is less an indictment of institutional racism than a case study in immaturity.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

This Will Be Funny Someday, by Katie Henry

Isabel is a good kid.  She doesn't cause any trouble at home, she gets good grades, and she doesn't make waves.  With her popular but controlling boyfriend Alex, Isabel always does whatever she can to be pleasing and smooth out conflicts.  But she misses the best friend that Alex made her dump, she feels hurt that her mother can never make time to be with her, and she's tired of always worrying about what everyone thinks of her.  She has plenty of thoughts, but no confidence to express them.

By a series of accidents, she finds herself on the stage at the open mic of a local comedy club.  To her surprise, she loves it and the whole opportunity to speak out on the things she hasn't felt able to before.  Afterwards, a group of fellow aspirational comedians invite her to tag along with them.  The problem is that they are all in college and she is still just a junior in high school.  Afraid that they won't like her if they know the truth, she lies and claims to be a college student just like them.  And while that lie creates tension and causes trouble, the liberating effect of her new persona as "Izzy V" are too important for her to ignore.

While this novel exhibits all of my least favorite YA tropes (e.g., lying when you know you'll get caught, refusing to seek help from friends and trustworthy adults, imagining that you are the center of the universe, amongst others), it deals with Izzy's failings in a very smart way.  For while Izzy's self-centeredness and dramatics are cringeworthy, they are called out.  The seemingly endless times that her friends advise her to smarten up eventually have an impact.  And, best of all, the dramatic payoff at the end isn't just a forgone conclusion, it's a well-earned dividend that exceeds expectations.

Henry hasn't uncovered any new territory in the topic of confidence-building, but with Izzy she has created a heroine who gives you something to cheer about.  Izzy doesn't just grow a backbone through self-reflection, she shows the way forward in a satisfying story of self-realization and growing assertiveness.  The result is a story that validates the fears that young women have about putting themselves forward and celebrates what successful personal development can look like.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Dragonfly Girl, by Marti Leimbach

While subject to ridicule at school, Kira is a precocious science wizard.  She has learned how to use her skills to win science contests to make money to help support her mother.  Not just little ones.  Her latest scoop in the international Science for Our Future, where she is slated to receive one of the finalists awards in Stockholm.  The problem?  The contest is intended for junior academics who have recently received their PhD and Kira has not even graduated high school (and if she doesn't pull up her English grades, she won't).

Somehow managing to get her reward without getting caught is simply the start of a journey that takes her into a part-time research job and a remarkable accidental discovery -- the ability to revive the recently deceased.  While Kira is stunned by the achievement for its scientific merits, she is not prepared for the dangerous attention that such a scientific feat brings to her.

The novel, broken into three very distinctly different parts, varies considerably in quality.  The first part, tracing her appearance in Stockholm, is by far the best.  Combining a rivalry with a snooty competitor named Will and some mildly comedic misadventures, it makes for a charming novella.  The second section, which deals with her scientific discovery, also further develops the rivalry with Will and is the logical extension.  But the last section for me is when things fly off the rail.  There's a cruelty and a sadism to this section that represents a dramatic break from the tone of the rest of the story.  In fact, the conclusion seems far removed from the rest of the story.  The result is a novel of discarded ideas (whether they are Kira's relationship with her mother, her problems at school, her romantic feelings for her co-workers Rik and Dmitry, or even the conflict with Will).  By the end, it is clear that none of that really mattered -- Kira's feelings and motives are largely ignored in the end.

The story was engrossing enough to keep reading, but the characters became less coherent and unimportant to that story.  So, a good read, but frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling.

Friday, July 09, 2021

These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong

Juliette is a multi-lingual flapper girl and heir to lead the Scarlet Gang.  Roma and his fellow Russian are their competitors, the White Flowers.  The two gangs view for control of Shanghai in the 1920s. 

Shanghai itself is a city in turmoil and chaos.  Foreigners hold all the power and the people are rebelling, some seeking the promise of independence provided by the Nationalists and others seeking to throw off the chains of their oppressors, as foreseen by the Communists.  Amidst all of this, a monster is on the prowl, bringing a terrifying contagion to the city that causes its victims to claw themselves to death.  Juliette and Roma were once secret lovers, but their warring clans divided them. Can the threat that the monster brings with it unite them together to save their city?

An extremely involved story that already has promised a sequel.  It mixes elements of historical fact with fantasy, adding a little flavoring from Shakespeare, and a decent serving of anachronisms, this novel seeks to provide a fast moving adventure.

It left me cold.  Rather than build up heat with the romance that you want to happen, Gong mostly ratchets up the body count to such a ridiculous extent that the violence no longer matters.  There are lots of characters and most of them die.  Few of them grow important or interesting enough to develop an affection for before they do so.  While there's lots of promise here, from all of the color of Shanghai to various different (and changing) conspiracy theories, so little of this gels together.  Having created so much exposition, the last fifty pages of this first installment tosses much of this aside and becomes largely incomprehensible.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Yesterday is History, by Kosoko Jackson

Recent kidney transplant recipient Andre considers himself pretty lucky to be alive. He's not simply gotten a chance to live his life, he has acquired a surprising side effect: the ability to travel back in time for brief periods.

One moment he's in his bedroom and it's 2020 and then suddenly it's 51 years earlier and he's in the same house -- with house's inhabitant Michael.  Michael is surprisingly nonplussed to see Andre and they hit it off.  But just as soon as he arrived, Andre is back in the present with lots of questions.  It doesn't take long to get answers when the family of the donor of Andre's new kidney contacts him and urgently wants to meet.  In a hastily arranged gathering, they explain that they are time travelers and when their son died and his kidney was transplanted, it apparently transplanted some of the dead boy's abilities to Andre.

To make sure that Andre uses his powers properly and responsibly, the dead boy's brother Blake becomes a reluctant teacher.  This is awkward and strained and made all the more so by a romantic triangle that develops between Andre, Michael (the boy in the past), and Blake.

I loved the character of Andre.  He's intelligent and a great mix of driven and impulsive.  He's also one of the more authentic black male characters I've seen in YA.  It's a role that could easily have been overblown (particularly when he's gay as well).  I also liked this particular vision of time travel, which focuses more on the emotional impact of being able to see the past than the usual scientific and ethical paradoxes.  The dialogue and the pacing are both brilliant.  I cared less for the wasting of characters (like Andre's alleged best friend Imogene who gets almost no air time) or the half-hearted love triangle.  Jackson does such a great job fleshing out Andre, but the two love interests were boring and there was almost no spark there.  I was supposed to feel some great poignant pain at the end, but it really comes across flat.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre, by Robin Talley

Mel lives for the theater and she has the fortitude and the organizational skills to have earned the right to be the youngest stage manager at her school.  But where she is able to keep a hundred things straight and solve others' problems without hesitation, her own life is a mess.  When her last relationship blew up spectacularly during the opening night of Romeo and Juliet, she made a promise to not fall in love with anyone again until after the Spring musical was over.  While her promise was not sworn in blood, it might as well have been!

Legend has it that the theater is cursed and the only way to avoid having a play performed there from falling apart into chaos is to perform a wide variety of "countercurses." So, for example, if an actor whistles or someone utters the name of the Scottish Play, there are ways to undo the damage.  But the most important thing is a special rule that the stage crew come up with each production.  And after the R & J disaster, the crew has decided that Mel's forswearing of love and romance should be the magical key that protects their next production.

Mel doesn't foresee the obvious:  that she won't just fall in love during the production of Le Mis, but that it will be the Love of Her Life.  But what are superstitions anyway?  How could Mel falling for pretty Odile be anything so cataclysmic?  But then the accidents and misfortunes start to beset the production.

Talley got some great advice and details to put in her book, but there's a stiffness to the storytelling that betrays her lack of comfort with the world of high school drama.  Too many details are dropped in for authenticity, rather than importance to the story, so I felt like Talley was trying to earn cred rather than describe kids doing a play.  Mel is too perfect (and too polished) to be believable, her fellow crew members too professional, and the always fascinating tensions between cast and crew too unexplored.  This is high school drama as it likes to describe itself, rather than as it actually is.

At over 400 pages, this is a long novel that doesn't offer enough of a payoff to reward the investment.  For a well-written book with some decent characters, it felt strangely cold for what should have been a heartfelt exploration of letting go.  Mel's blind spot for nurturing her own needs sits like the elephant in the room.  Like Mel, Talley races to bury herself in technical details of drama whenever the emotions start to get interesting.  While Mel has some growth at the end, it isn't really clear even in the epilogue that she's found life-work balance.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Don't Stand So Close to Me, by Eric Walters

It's early March, six weeks away from the eighth grade dance, and Quinn can't believe that Isaac (the class president) isn't taking it seriously!  There's so much to plan for and so many arrangements to make!  But then at an emergency school assembly, the principal announces that spring break has been moved up and is starting tomorrow (and is being extended for an extra two weeks).  It's all to do with this virus that Quinn has been hearing about from her Dad (an ER doctor at the local hospital) and the need for "flattening the curve." 

At first, having a longer break seems like fun, but things are so different and are changing fast!  "Non-essential" businesses are closed and no one is allowed to visit the residents at the local nursing home.  Her father moves down to the basement to distance himself from the family, her mother starts working from home out of their guest bedroom, and Quinn has to attend school through something called Zoom.  When the original date of the return to school is extended out (and eventually cancelled altogether), Quinn begin to wonder if life will ever return to normal.

This short middle grade book, given its topical content and short shelf life, was rushed out in the Fall of 2020.  As such, it's quite rough, with underdeveloped characters and clunky storytelling, but I think it is important that someone attempted to create a middle reader to address all of the changes that went on during the crazy early days of the pandemic.  Years from now, this will make a nice historical novella.  For now, it tells a story to which young readers will personally relate.

You Know I'm No Good, by Jessie Ann Foley

Mia is trouble.  She's never found a drink she wouldn't drink, a drug she wouldn't take, or a guy she wouldn't hook up with.  And when she assaults her stepmother, it's the last and final straw.  Her family has her sent to a rehab facility out in rural Minnesota.  She's furious about her involuntary relocation, but she doesn't really blame them.  After all, all she's been doing for the past couple of years is screwing up.  Her father and stepmother blame her bad choices on the lingering trauma of her mother's death, but Mia herself figures her behavior is just because she's a no good slut.  Tracing how she actually got from her brighter beginnings to this nadir is half of the journey of this novel.  Getting herself back out is the rest.

There are plenty of examples in the troubled-teen-in-rehab genre and while this follows the general model, it breaks from it in notable ways.  As usual, the reader is only slowly brought in on the details and Mia performs the duty of unreliable narrator with aplomb.  She rations out the facts slowly enough that gradual enlightenment substitutes for drama for most of the first 150 pages or so.  Similar to other examples in the genre as well is the colorful cast of misfits that our heroine meets in rehab.  Sympathetic counselor?  Check. Sadistic warden? Check. All per plan.

But these things are simply the furniture that makes the more complex story of Mia herself easier to tell.  She's a much deeper and interesting character for one thing.  She's certainly self-destructive but she's really conscious of her decisions.  The contrast between her anger and rage with her rationality is a shock.  And while she's self-critical, she's never self-pitying.  Mia, in a word, is compelling and wanting to find out what happens to her will keep you turning pages. The ending itself turns out to be is a real surprise (aliens invading Minnesota would have been more expected than what happens here) but is satisfying.  So, while this is a yet another book in a heavily used setting, this novel is a strong contribution.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

One Speck of Truth, by Caela Carter

Whenever Alma asks her mother about her father, Mom either gets evasive or angry. Alma knows that he died when she was really young (her Nanny told her that much), she knows his name, and she knows that he was Portuguese -- but that's about it. She can't even get her mother to tell her where he was buried. So, she searches for his grave whenever she can, dragging her best friend Julia around with her, but so far she's had no luck in finding him.

Then, out of the blue, her mother moves them to Portugal.  In the same way that her mother refuses to talk about her father, she is similarly evasive about why they have moved to Lisbon.  But Alma realizes that now she is finally able to meet her father's family and get some sort of truth.

I liked Alma's creativity and energy, but her family really drove me nuts.  The adults in this story are really horrible human beings, gaslighting Alma, outright lying to her, and refusing to answer her questions -- all because of some inflated idea that she isn't old enough to know some version of the truth.  What a load of pretentious crap!  I found the mother particularly self-absorbed and detestable.  Early on, the story intimates that she might be suffering some sort of psychic break from a recent divorce, but really she just seemed selfish. Predictably, Alma emulates her mother and struggles with being honest with the people she loves as well (she at least recognizes the problem and works on it). Still, the rampant abuse in this story really left a sour taste for me.

Monday, June 21, 2021

The Gilded Girl, by Alyssa Colman

Emma Harris has lived a life of privilege for her first twelve years. Like other girls of her status, her father has now enrolled her in Miss Posterity's Academy of Practice Magic, the best school mastering her "kindling." Emma may be rich, but unable to conceptualize poverty or class, she is open hearted to everyone and clueless of the social norms she is violating.  She doesn't recognize that her fellow students (with the exception of one shy girl) are simply exploiting her for her wealth.  And when she tries to befriend the servant girl Izzy, it is misinterpreted as ridicule.

While Emma and her classmates have a bright future before them, Izzy is condemned to a life of misery.  It's 1905 and, although there is talk in progressive circles about helping the poor, only the rich are allowed to kindle.  The poor are not considered worthy and are required to "snuff" out their magic when it develops in adolescence.  Without the ability to kindle, the poor will then stay poor as the best jobs require magic.

Emma's fortune changes suddenly when her father is killed in the San Francisco Earthquake.  Not only orphaned but destitute, the headmistress forces Emma into servitude to pay off her debt.  Her peers reject her now that she has been reduced to a servant (much to her innocent surprise).  While Emma is forced to work alongside Izzy, the servant girl distrusts her.  But through hard work and a true heart, Emma wins over Izzy and hatches a plan to attempt to kindle by themselves, flying in the face of convention and the law.  To succeed, she has to enlist a variety of allies ranging from a friendly newsie to the "house dragon."

Derived from the classic A Little Princess, the addition of magic is a nice touch, but Colman takes the story much further, adding a stronger theme of socioeconomic equity that draw on the Progressive Movement and the real historical currents of the Gilded Age.  It's a loving tribute to the sentimentality of the period (complete with an over-the-top rosy conclusion) and also a fun magical romp.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust

Soraya has lived her life to date as a prisoner in her own home.  Cursed at birth as a result of her mother's rash decision, Soraya is unable to touch anyone without killing them.  As a result, she has to wear gloves to protect others and is secluded in her family's palace as a secret to prevent the shame of her curse from becoming public knowledge.

On the occasion of her twin brother's ascent to the throne and marriage, she is offered the opportunity to break the curse, but it will require her to betray her family.  Despite some misgivings, she does so with the help of a young warrior named Azad,.  But breaking the curse has huge ramifications and it becomes clear that she has only understood part of the story of her origin.

A lush fantasy based on Persian myth and Zoroastrian beliefs.  Soraya is a fascinating combination of anxiety, anger, and long -- very much the paragon of adolescent angst -- and thus familiar and sympathetic in the eyes of young readers.  Her voyage from reclusive outcast to brave leader is a satisfying journey -- part physical and part emotional.  Overall, the result is a sophisticated and enjoyable read, but I found her romantic outings (and implied bisexuality) distracting and forced and the ending exhaustingly heavy with symbolism.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Read the Book, Lemmings! by Ame Dyckman (ill by Zachariah OHora)

I don't often review picture books, but that doesn't mean that I don't read them!  And when a really good one comes along, I want to give it a little publicity, as in this case.

First Mate Foxy and Captain PB of the SS Cliff wish that the lemmings would just read the book.  It's plain and clear:  Despite what people think, lemmings don't jump off cliffs!  But try to tell that to the lemmings!  Time and time again, the lemmings jump overboard and Foxy has to go rescue them.  Why won't they just read the book?!

From the team that brought you the delightful Wolfie the Bunny, this hilarious and clever book is well suited to dramatic reading.  Grownups (especially those working in documentation and end-user training), who have wondered why their own lemmings wouldn't just read the instructions will identify strongly with Foxy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Unscripted, by Nicole Kronzer

Zelda is dreaming of breaking into the Big Time in comedy, landing a job at Second City before getting plucked up by Saturday Night Live.  She's completely excited about the summer she is about to spend at improv camp.  If she can only land a spot on the camp's varsity team, she'll be able to perform for the famous alums who come back to watch the end-of-camp show!

Winning a spot turns out to be the least of her challenges.  Her fellow teammates are sexist jerks, who try to sabotage her performances and make her look bad.  Ben, the team's sexy coach, is the worst of the bunch.  Confusingly for Zelda, he's nice when they are out of practice.  He seems to be taking a special interest in her.  A wallflower, Zelda is flattered by the attention and Ben's blatant grooming, but things still feel off and fellow campers and Zelda's brother try to warn her off.  When Ben becomes possessive and violent, Zelda doesn't know how to cope.

This is a book that I had a hard time getting through.  Reading it was fine.  It was well written, the pace was brisk, and the story quite compelling.  However, Ben was repulsive and exaggerated to the point of caricature and Zelda was simply too wobbly and weak.  I understand the author's intention to show the importance of fighting back against sexism and violence, but when the villain is this transparent, there really is no justification for Zelda's perpetual stupidity while her friends and family spend most of the book giving her good reasons to get smart.  With so many reasons for Zelda to end this, the only reason that Zelda didn't stand up for herself seemed to be so the story would run a few more pages (oh! how I longed for us to reach whatever the page minimum for the contract was!).

All this dumbing down basically teaches young women is that bad men are pretty easy to identify and you'd have to be a moron to keep hanging on to them. I could find zero reasonable motivation for Zelda to not turn Ben in to the authorities, but that isn't realistic. In the real world, abusers are far less easy to identify and the forces that keep women from turning them in far more difficult to overcome.  Zelda has a group of supportive friends, a brother backing her, and even several grownups ready to come to her aid.  Few abused women have that much.  I too believe that #MeToo stories need to be told, but I want them to be mildly realistic so young readers understand the challenge.