Monday, October 03, 2022

A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I Lin

Ning's mother was a shénnóng-shì, a master of the art of Tea and of Chinese medicine, before she died from drinking poisoned tea that Ning had unknowingly brewed for her mother and her sister.  There had been a warning, but Ning ignored it.  Now, her sister still lives, but barely.  Hope comes in the form of an invitation for the shénnóng of the empire to come and compete for the position of court tea master.  Ning has barely studied her mother's art (it was always her sister who was supposed to take on the role), but she knows some of the skills and she really has no other choice.  Only by winning the contest and receiving the prize of a wish granted by the princess can she save her family from ruin and subsequently cure her sister.  So she heads out to the imperial capital.

The poisoned tea was
 not a random act.  Bricks of it were found throughout the kingdom.  It is clear that it was part of a bigger plot to destabilize the empire, but who is behind that?  As a country girl, Ning is quickly out of her depth as she finds herself deep in court intrigue, but she has good instincts and hidden strengths that surprise her as she gathers friends and supporters (as well as making new enemies).  In comparison to the plots against the emperor and his daughter, winning the contest may become an afterthought, but it too is tied in with this struggle for power.

While little of the medical lore used in the story aligns with the actual modern practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is a loving tribute to its sensibilities.  And as a dedicated Chinese teahead, I really enjoyed all the references to tea (some real, some imagined).  It's a story that takes a small bit of Chinese history, throws in a generous helping of Chinese myth, and spices the whole brew with modern fantasy, and then allows the whole thing to steep in its gaiwan before being served up.

And for those who love action and intrigue, the story is full of nearly endless activity.  A large cast of characters ensure that there is rarely a dull moment.  The endless parade of places with names like the "Hall of Reflection" or the "Courtyard of Promising Future" provide an oriental exoticism.  While it can also prove disorienting and make the story hard to follow, this just makes the ride more fun.  In stories like this, it's best to just let the plot take you along.

In sum, a richly textured and complexly drawn tale based on Chinese mythology and imbued with enough modern sensibility to make the story exciting and palatable to a contemporary audience.  An enjoyable beginning to a series, whose second installment was released a little over a month ago.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Daughter, by Kate McLaughlin

At seventeen, Scarlet is getting pretty tired of the way her overprotective mother interferes with her life.  Outside of seeing friend, Scarlet is rarely allowed to go anywhere.  In a normal novel, that would be the story.  But in this thriller, that is when the FBI shows up.

From the visit, Scarlet learns that her father (who she always thought was a deadbeat) is actually an infamous psychopathic mass murderer, who went to jail when she was only two years old.  In order to escape intense media scrutiny, her mother took her and fled, assuming a new identity.  Now, the man is dying and he has promised to reveal the identity and final whereabouts of hitherto unknown victims.  But only if he can see his daughter.

Once Scarlet gets over the shock of finding out her true identity, she's repulsed by the idea of meeting such a man, even if he is her biological father.  The FBI, however, are eager to get her to do it.  There are dozens of cases that they suspect are tied to the man and solving even a few of those cases would make a world of difference to the victims' families.  Conflicted between the desire to maintain some privacy and a feeling of obligation to the victims, she goes and meets the monster.

While setting up this implausible scenario takes some work, once McLaughlin gets us through the prerequisites, the rest of the story basically writes itself.  It has all of the seductive yuck factor of Silence of the Lambs and it's a page turner from beginning to end.  It's precisely that appeal that turns out to be the point in the end.  A steady theme throughout is exploring why people are so obsessed with stories like this.  Do we just like macabre things or are there people who harbor dark fantasies that they live out through histories like these?  And why draws women to men who murder remorselessly?

In addition to such deep and dark ruminations, there's some attempt to work in a romance, but this isn't a story one gets feeling sexy about.  Lots of drug references may make some readers more uncomfortable than the grisly subject matter.  But overall, this is great entertainment, which is probably proving the author's underlying point.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Postcards from Summer, by Cynthia Platt

Lexi's never known much about her mother.  Her father has always demurred or evaded her questions.  So, when she receives a beautiful box covered with mosaics and full of her mother's ephemera, she is overwhelmed.  The seemingly random contents don't deliver the answers that Lexi is seeking, but they provide her clues.  Most importantly, they point her towards Mackinac Island, where apparently Lexi's mother spent her summers.  Lexi knows that there is no way her father and stepmother would ever let her go to visit, so she lies about taking a college tour and instead sneaks off to the Island on her own.  Picking up more leads when she gets there is hard work, but she makes interesting friends, including a retired Broadway starlet who offers emotional support.

In parallel to Lexi's story is the tale of Lexi's mother Emma (twenty years earlier). At the time, Emma is struggling to convince her parents of her conviction to pursue a career in the arts while her boyfriend Ryan is similarly fighting his ambitious politician father's plans for him.  The young people's fates get overtaken by a tragedy that has repercussions to the current day as Emma uncovers as she seeks out who her mother was.

Although some elements of the plot (e.g., the NDA) stretched plausibility, I found the story compelling although to keep reading.  I just wished that the story moved more briskly.  Both Lexi and Emma suffer from panic attacks, which is mostly manifested in the story through dialogue scenes where nothing actually happens.  The typical scene consists of one of them racing to find someone, having nothing to say when they find this person, and then dramatically fleeing afterwards.  The times when a character does not say what is on their mind or refuses to say what is on their mind or lies about what is on their mind is frustratingly frequent.  A certain amount of drama can be reasonably created from such plot padding devices but at some point one wants to see a breakthrough.  As a result, we actually find out surprising little about the characters.  Due to everyone's inability to express a complete thought aloud, little information is actually exchanged.  Thus, the progress of the story to its conclusion is largely dependent upon the periodic introduction of surprising new facts.

This extremely lengthy (566 page) novel definitely could have benefitted from trimming.  It also suffers from a rather higher-than-normal quantity of typographical errors, indicative of a poor final proofreading.  This is especially ironic as the author is an editor and trumpets her editorial service in the blurb.  This novel makes for an very unfortunate calling card.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Honeys, by Ryan LaSala

This horror story starts off with a bang as Mars awakens to find his sister unexpectedly home early from summer camp and aiming to kill him.  When he manages to overpower her and kill her instead, his wealthy and influential family covers up the traces and leaves Mars with questions.  What has been going on at the Aspen Conservancy Summer Camp that drove his sister to become a psychopathic killer?  There's only one way to find out and that is to return to the Camp himself.

Mars makes that decision with some trepidation.  He once attended regularly, but the camp's intolerance for Mars's gender fluidity and a violent hazing incident drove him away.  Returning now, he's determined to face the Camp's sexist and obsessive binary culture head on.  As expected, he's less than welcome by the boys.  But his sister's former cabinmates are surprisingly cordial.  Known as "the Honeys" for their mysterious Queen Bee ways and the fact that they tend the camp's bee hives, the girls make Mars feel at home -- inviting Mars to be herself when she's feeling more feminine and providing an alternative to the macho culture of the boys.

But the Honeys are far from benign.  Somehow, they are connected with his sister's madness.  It all has something to do with the bees.  Soon, further disappearances and unfortunate events are taking place.  And the longer Mars is at camp, the more and more he notices -- the way that the traditions have become tired, like the way the cabins are becoming decrepit.  There is an air of desperation among the administrators.  Aspen Conservancy itself is dying and taking the campers with it.

A slow burning but captivating thriller in the tradition of The Wicker Man (with a strong apiary theme), which stumbles a bit at the end when LaSala scrambles to tie up everything as the world crumbles.  The bees made a perfect malevolent yet amoral nemesis. 

But more than being gothic horror, LaSala truly has worked in Mars's gender identity into the story.  These days, it's hard to find a YA novel that isn't full of gender queer protagonists, but most of them are either afterthoughts or the identity issue is the point of the novel.  Here, the story truly needs Mars to be gender fluid.  His/her ability to drift between the conflicting worlds of the male and female campers is what gives him his insights.  And the sexual roles of bees being so different from those of human serve to accentuate Mars's non-binary identity.  This is not a book about being binary, but it is a story where it is critical that the key character is everything that Mars is.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Places We've Never Been, by Kasie West

Four years ago, Norah's best friend Skyler moved away.  She hasn't seen him since and they drifted apart after the move, but she's super excited to see him now.  Her family and his are going to embark on a month-long RV road trip across the West.  And it will all culminate in Seattle, where Norah has an interview at the college of her dreams.  

Nothing turns out like she planned.  When the trip begins, Skyler gives her the silent treatment and avoids her.  For some reason, he obviously can't stand her and now they are stuck together for weeks!  Meanwhile, something else is going on.  The idea of the trip came from their mothers and there is obviously more to the trip than the lame excuse that they "hadn't seen each other in a while." Even the college interview at the end doesn't quite turn out as she expected.  Combine the mystery with Norah and Skyler rediscovering each other and the usual adventures of a road trip featuring iconic sites like Death Valley, Zion, and Yellowstone, and you have yourself a light summer romance.

It doesn't get much more basic than this!  Some awkward moments, family squabbles, and the gradual blossoming of adolescent love make a solid story.  There are not many surprises and not much to make this book stand out, but West writes solid romance and this one is pleasing in all the right ways.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

A Kind of Spark, by Elle McNicoll

Addie is very surprised to learn in school that her small Scottish town was the site of a large witch trial.  It hits home because she knows, as an autistic person, that she would have been targeted as a witch herself if she had lived in those days.  Her attempts to interest her classmates and her neighbors in the subject enough to get the town to erect some sort of memorial for the victims falls on deaf ears.  People don't want to be reminded of past cruelty.

It doesn't stop them from acting cruelly in the present either.  At school, Addie faces bullying from her classmates, actively encouraged by an unsympathetic teacher.  And while the worst of it comes mostly from an old friend, Addie is aware that the others felt fine standing back and doing nothing to defend her.

Meanwhile, Addie is concerned about her older sister (who is also autistic) and the problems she is having coping at uni.  It would seem that the world has a hard time handling people with differences.  The most common reaction is fear and violence.

I enjoyed the book and found it to be one of the better recent novels about autism.  I found Addie a wonderful ambassador for neurodiversity.  The explanations she provides for how she processes sensory input are straightforward and insightful.  Her wise-beyond-her-years maturity made sense in the context of having to deal with so much more at a younger age.  Be warned that the abuse scenes are triggering and a bit over-the-top (unless Scotland's current treatment of autism is particularly dire) but certainly add dramatic tension to the story.

Monday, September 05, 2022

The Silence That Binds Us, by Joanna Ho

When May's brother kills himself, her family is left reeling.  He was so successful and even on his way to Princeton next year.  It's incomprehensible that he would be so unhappy that he'd commit suicide.  But while they can't figure it out, one thing is certain:  the accusation made by a local entrepreneur that the boy killed himself because of the excessive pressure that Asian parents put on their children is entirely false.  Stung by the racism behind the sentiment, May lashes out by sending a protest poem to the local paper.  Her parents, horrified by the backlash that they expect to ensue, urge her to lay low and not make a fuss.  But when the response does come, May is so incensed that she joins up with her Black and other Asian classmates to plan direct action to "take back the narrative."

With the help of a sympathetic teacher and some difficult lessons from her classmates, May learns more about the history of anti-Asian racism, the experiences shared with other minorities and how they differ, and also confronts her only biases.  At points this is interesting and educational reading.  At other times it can seem like a classic example of the excesses of well-meaning liberals (of the sort that the Right likes to call "wokeness") and a rosy kumbaya conclusion where the kids take over the asylum felt painfully naïve and over-the-top.  However, it never ceases to be enlightening, even if the brother's suicide is largely marginalized in the process.

Despite my misgivings, the book is well-written and engaging.  The relationship between May and her Black BFF Tiya is complex and fascinating.  There are some amazing deeply felt conversations about race and class that largely transcend the story.  Obviously, a polemical novel like this is going to alienate a quarter of its potential readership and bore the quarter whom are already convinced, but it's for the other half in the middle that such works are written.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs, by Laurie Morrison

Ivy prides herself on being kind and for thinking of others.  She's always looking at ways she can do more to be helpful and putting the needs of her friends and family before herself.  So, it surprises her when the news that her mother has decided to be a surrogate for her friends' embryo fills her with dread.  Given what her mother is facing, Ivy knows she should be supportive.  She certainly tries!  She makes special food for her mother, tries to help around the house, avoids bringing up her own problems, and most of all keeps her fears about what her Mom is doing to herself.

Meanwhile, Ivy's mantra about helping others seems to be getting her into trouble with her friends.  She's picked up an anonymous admirer of sorts who unloads their issues to Ivy through emails.  And the more Ivy tries to help this mystery person, the more she neglects her friends and they grow resentful of being shut out.  Ivy learns that you can't make everyone happy and that if you don't take care of yourself, you probably won't make anyone happy.

Delightful and brisk middle school story about the important topic (especially for girls) of the pitfalls of self-abnegation.  Morrison gently shows how Ivy's behavior is far from benign, both in the way that it leads her to ignore her own needs and in the way that it alienates others.  While making clear that it is fine to find satisfaction in making others happy, when the need to do so becomes obsessive the motivations are no longer benevolent, but ironically ego-driven (as Ivy's friends point out to her).  Ivy's ability to begin the process of negotiating a compromise between self-caring and other-caring brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, by Axie Oh

Mina's village has been subjected to more and more violent storms every year.  The Sea God no longer protects them because of a curse; a curse that can only be broken by the sacrifice of a young maiden.  Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl and the love of Mina's older brother, has been sent to the ocean to be given over to the Sea God.  He's heartbroken and Mina is determined to interfere.  Before Shim can be tossed in, Mina offers herself instead.

In the Spirit Realm where gods, demons, dragons, and many fearsome creatures dwell, Mina finds the Sea God in a deep sleep.  And someone is trying to make sure that he stays that way.  Making strange alliances, Mina tries to outwit the gods with rather unexpected results.  She finds herself locked in a celestial love triangle with enormous implications for both the Spirit Realm and the world above.

A dizzying retelling of a Korean myth that is beautiful done but which I found maddeningly difficult to read. The unfamiliar world of gods and spirits presents quite an initial barrier to overcome.  The story unfolds with lots of unexpected surprises (many of which did not make much sense).  In the end, I gave up trying and simply let the story carry me along, but I missed out on a lot of things.  It didn't help that there is a large cast and not much effort to build the characters.  So, I give the story high marks for creativity and vivid world-building, but found it a very difficult slog and nearly impossible to follow.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Cress Watercress, by Gregory Maguire (ill by David Litchfield)

When Papa doesn't return to the warren, Cress, Mama, and baby Kip relocate to another part of the forest.  Mama won't say anything about Papa's disappearance, but with a fox in the woods and the "Final Drainpipe" (a deadly, but never-seen snake) in the woods, one can only imagine what happened to him.  Cress has trouble adjusting to their new home (a broken-down oak tree run by a grumpy owl and populated by a nosy field mouse and a loud family of squirrels), but she is an adventurer and has plenty of mishaps in the woods with her new neighbors.

Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book is quite pretty to flip through, but the story fails to live up to the gorgeous artwork.  A series of short adventures (many of them life-threatening) pass in place of an overall story.  Add in a jumpy narrative and characters who seemed more designed to deliver one-liners than to actually build a story and I was left unengaged and largely uninterested.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Karma Khullar's Mustache, by Kristi Wientge

Karma and her BFF Sara are about to enter middle school this year.  There are are a great deal of changes taking place and so much of it seems to mean change for the worse.  Karma sees her relationship with Sara growing distant as their interests are diverge and Sara has grown closer with mean new girl who moved in during the summer.  Karma's father has lost his job and spends the days at home.  Her Mom is working extra hours to make up for the loss of income.  Her older brother is having trouble at school.  Worse of all though is the unwelcome arrival of visible facial hair above her lip.  While she tries to figure out what to do about, her initial hope that it would go unnoticed is quickly dispatched when she becomes the target of bullying.

While traipsing over very familiar middle grade topics (changing friendships, bullying, family conflicts, and puberty), Karma's mixed racial (half-Punjabi, half-white) background adds an interesting twist to the story.  Her interest in her heritage and her love of her father's ethnic cooking add dimension to her character.  Moreover, Karma herself has a relatable mixture of kind-heartedness and ego-driven anxiety that feels true to her age (i.e., a mix of wanting to be pleasing  and to be important enough to fix her family's problems while not adding any of her own).  As is so often the case, an early decision to seek adult input would have solved many of Karma's problems, but there is an emotional payoff in watching her attempt to fix the things that she can on her own.  A satisfactory combination of resolved and unresolved issues at the end felt realistic.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Stand on the Sky, by Erin Bow


A young Kazakh girl rejects tradition and becomes a champion eagle huntress.  Similar to the documentary The Eagle Huntress, thirteen year-old Aisulu struggles against immense odds to develop the skills  and the rapport with a golden eagle to not only become a huntress but to compete in the annual Eagle Festival.  The stakes in this fictional tale are significantly higher than the film because the prize money from the Festival could cover her crippled brother's medical expenses. Without it, the family will be forced to sell their livestock and abandon their life as nomadic herders on the steppes.  Finding allies and friends in unexpected places, Aisulu learns lessons about family and loyalty in a rewarding story of animal bonding and coming of age.

While The Eagle Huntress was (mostly) real, I actually found this novel more realistic.  Bow spent considerable time in Mongolia researching the people and their lives and the story is abundant with cultural details.  While some critics have decried "cultural appropriation" and I found more than a few Westernizations that rang false, overall the story provides a rich and respectful depiction of daily life and cultural values.  The result of that hard work is a deeper, more rewarding story about how Aisulu, through the experience of building a bond with her eagle, in turn builds a stronger bond with her community.  More could certainly have been done with this material (for example, her estrangement from her own mother was a frustratingly neglected thread) but the theme gave the story gravitas beyond the single-focused girl-power message of the film.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Out of Range, by Heidi Lang

As the story begins, three estranged sisters (Abby, Emma, and Ollie) are lost in the woods.  Angry with each other and carrying deep grudges, they blame each other and fight.  Needless to say, this doesn't help, but in fact makes their situation worse.  As the weight of the danger they are in becomes clear though they find a way to cooperate.  

Through flashbacks, the story of how they got to this point unfolds.  Once the closest of friends, innocent pranks led to hurt feelings and vindictive acts of revenge, escalating to the point where the three girls could not stand each other.  Their parents, seeking a way to break through the impasse, send them to survival camp, which is where they end up lost in the woods.

Built on strong and vivid characters, this thrilling survival story for middle readers is a great read.  Its messages of forgiveness and cooperation are such no-brainers and the eventual reconciliation between the sisters so predictable that the journey itself becomes the point of the story.  I enjoyed it but, as an adult, I wondered about the girls' parents and their seeming inability to help their children navigate their problems.  Middle schoolers will simply enjoy a thrilling adventure, the familiar grudges and battles of siblings, and the comfort of the resolution.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Private Label, by Kelly Yang

Being Chinese-American in a overwhelming white SoCal community is hard.  Serene has managed it by buying her friends.  For her twelfth birthday, her fashion designer mother set up an expensive party that put Serene on the A list.  Ever since, periodic offerings of her Mom's collection pieces to the other girls helps to grease Serene's social standing.  

Lian doesn't have that option.  All he can offer is his homework, which his "friends" eagerly copy.  

They also struggle to realize their dreams.  Serene's dream is to become a fashion designer like her mother, but the financial stakeholders in her Mom's company are resistant to her.  And when her own mother falls terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, they make a power play to take over the company and shut her out.  

Lian dreams of some day being a stand-up comic, having his classmates laugh with him, rather than at him.  His immigrant parents are committed to send him to MIT as an engineer, but he can't stand the idea.  As they will never accept his dream, he goes around behind their back trying to make it come true.  The results are predictably disastrous.

Though they share a similar experience of racism and challenges in their lives, they don't realize it because they move in different circles.  However, a fortuitous decision by Lian to found a Chinese Club in his school and Serene's impulsive decision to attend it brings the two of them together and they find that they each have a key to the other's future success.

It's a winning tale of two kids who have dreams and whose hearts are in the right place, but it is a story that is best to not overly analyze.  The characters are fairly thin, the issues oversimplified, and the resolution a bit too easy.  However, I enjoyed reading and, as things finally fell into place, I found the book hard to put down.  Good light reading.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Daughter of the Pirate King, by Tricia Levenseller

As the daughter of the Pirate King, Alosa is a pretty unusual seventeen year-old but she is also quite relatable.  On a mission from her father to help him locate two of the three pieces of a map that will reveal the greatest treasure of all, she allows herself to be taken captive.  It's her father's plan and she has to do what Daddy wants.  But while she's cold blooded enough to think nothing of sacrificing her men's lives, she insists that she will only surrender as long as she retains access to her vast wardrobe and makeup.  A girl's got to look good when she's pretending to be a prisoner so she can spy on her enemy!

And while her captives think they have the upper hand, she proves them wrong repeatedly as she escapes the brig night after night so she can conduct her search.  Captain Draxen is cruel boy and quickly loses his patience with her games, but his more thoughtful, kinder, and (coincidentally) better looking brother Riden in intrigued by her.  And while Riden must play his role as her captor, there's no denying the reluctant bond that is forming between them that will involve plenty of bloodshed, some delicious kissing, and lots of respectful intimacy.

While well-paced and entertaining, I never knew quite whether to take it seriously or not.  For while Levenseller wants to portray her heroine as a tough and resourceful warrior, she also expends concerted effort in making Alosa the type of girl to whom suburban teens can aspire (obsessed with fashion, loyal to her besties, skilled at keeping boys in their place, etc.).  Don't get me wrong, I can fully see the parallels between adolescent girls and bloodthirsty pirates, but the joke's taken a bit far and the silliness detracts from the story.  There's also the small matter of magic, which makes an appearance about half-way through the story providing a surprisingly boring reason for Alosa'a extraordinary skills (instead of basing them on Alosa's hard work and determination).

As the first in a series, though, the book really has only one purpose: to entice people to read the rest.  So, the book provides a strong introduction to Alosa's character, giving her enough resources and talents to take her boldly into a planned series of adventures of unknown duration.  Multiple characters (including Alosa's own band of teen girl pirates) are briefly introduced, giving us a teaser of what awaits when Alosa and her besties set sail in search of wealth and handsome frocks!

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Fight + Flight, by Jules Machias

Avery is a dirt bike enthusiast facing a recent diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that causes hypermobility and puts her in unmanageable pain.  Facing a life full of physical therapy and gradual deterioration, she feels out of control and overly dependent on others.

Sarah suffers from a panic disorder, set off a few years ago by the death of a beloved aunt.  While she has a number of coping mechanisms, notably including sketching and doodling, she struggles with an overly protective mother, an emotionally disengaged father, and a very angry older brother.

Their poor coping skills experience an additional setback when their middle school performs an ill-advised realistic active shooter drill that injures Avery and aggravates Sarah's anxieties.  But the incident also motivates both girls to take action:  Avery funnels her anger at her declining health into a plan to seek revenge against the principal, while Sarah chooses the positive approach of rallying and organizing student opinion.  Both of them learn how to better cope with their personal issues through the experience.  In a somewhat disjointed way throughout the novel, Machias also addresses transphobia, classism, racial privilege, and bullying.

Machias is a developing talent.  I tried unsuccessfully to read her debut novel Both Can Be True, but abandoned it for being clunky and didactic.  This is a substantially better novel, but the tendency to stuff the story with largely unrelated topics (Avery's BIPOC friend Mason being the most notable example) suggests that her biggest challenge is keeping focus and knowing which stories she wants to tell.  It is unclear if Avery and Sarah were being set up to have a romantic relationship (there's plenty of points in the story where it felt that way), but in the end the idea is largely abandoned. 

All this superfluous material takes energy away from the main story (the girls' emotional growing ability to take responsibility for themselves).  It's a hard story to tell and didn't work for me in the end. While Machias makes some effort to create a catalyst, Avery's switch from avenging to forgiving is abrupt and her sudden willingness to communicate with adults felt implausibly rushed.  Sarah's growing bravery, prompted as much by her older brother as by internal changes, felt more plausible.

But there are also things in the book to love.  Avery's feelings of hopelessness are explored well, from her coping method of bossing others around to her denial of her symptoms.  The author's realistic portrayals of adults (always a big thing for me!) are much appreciated.  But very best of all is the whole design of the book.  Told by the girls in alternating chapters, Sarah's doodle-filled pages are a true delight.  Every page features original pen and ink drawings from the author, ranging from decorative borders to fanciful animal sketches to beautiful Spirograph creations (Heavens!  I had forgotten all about Spirograph!).  I strongly recommend spending some time just browsing the pages of this book just for the art!

Thursday, August 04, 2022

This Place is Still Beautiful, by Xixi Tian

In her family, Margaret is the smart one and Annelie is the cautious one.  Margaret also is the one who takes after their mother and the Chinese side of the family.  People often assume that the girls aren't even related because Annelie doesn't look Asian.  And in their quiet central Illinois town, it's always been easy enough for Annelie to fit in because she could pass as white.

But then a seemingly random act of vandalism, where an ethnic slur is spraypainted on their garage door, changes things.  Margaret is upset and wants to call out the attack, seek justice, and challenge the entire town's complacency.  Annelie wants to bury the matter and forget about it.  However, when she finds out that she may know the perpetrators, she has to make some difficult decisions about her choices.  

While the incident is a catalyst, the story is less about racism than about identity, as Margaret and Annelie work through their feelings about their family, their friends, and each other.  And those stories about human interaction are really what makes this novel shine.  It's less about the place than the people who live in it and the relationships that you build with them.

I enjoyed the warmth of the story and the complexity of the relationships.  Given the magnitude of what Tian wants to address (including two romantic relationships, a familial estrangement, mother-daughter conflict from both Margaret and Annelie's perspectives, childhood abandonment, and sibling rivalry) it's inevitable that some stuff falls through the cracks, but the magnitude of human interaction is really the point of the novel.  For while the ending is rushed and the entire subject of leaving home is a missed opportunity, the closing words are a fit conclusion, "I can allow myself to think that this place is still beautiful, even as I drive away."

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Peach Rebellion, by Wendelin Van Draanen

During the Great Depression, Ginny's family traveled from farm to farm in the Central Valley, picking fruits and vegetables, making barely enough to survive.  A decade later, the hatred and the hurt from those years still lingers.  Bankers are still repossessing homes and people still hate the migrant workers, even while they rely on them to work cheaply.  People still call Ginny's family "okies" and don't trust them.  And Ginny, who remembers the ways that the farmers and the bankers treated her, doesn't trust them either.

Ginny's family has settled down nearby a peach farm where they once worked.  Ginny, who used to play with the farmer's daughter Peggy, reunites with her old friend.  But there are others less willing to form friendships. And her family has other demons to fight.  Ten years ago, Ginny and her father buried her two brothers in a shallow grave because the family could afford no better.  Mother never recovered from the loss and has slowly been sinking into depression ever since.  Now that Ginny is finally earning money of her own at the local cannery, she has the wherewithal to do something about it.  She decides that she wants to disinter her brothers and bury them properly in the local children's graveyard.  The audacious plan will require help but neither Ginny nor her family are good at asking for help.

Meanwhile, Peggy has her own issues.  Now seventeen, she realizes that in a few years she will have nothing.  For, despite working hard on the family peach farm, the entire place is going to her brother.  Girls don't inherit farms and there is no accommodation for her.  Instead, she is expected to marry and settle.  But that hardly seems fair when she has given so much.  Peggy's best friend Lisette has a different set of issues.  Her father is a banker and while she has enjoyed an easy life, she has also grown uncomfortable with the source of her wealth.  To her parents' chagrin, she wants nothing to do with it and wants to disown her father.

A very strong historical novel which provides a well-researched look at post-War California and the  deep societal changes that took place in the late 40s as men returned back to reclaim their jobs and unfinished business from the Depression-era reasserted itself as prosperity reigned in fits and starts.  There's plenty of material on this era, but this novel makes it come alive by focusing on the people and how they thought of each other and themselves.  

The story combines this sharp historical insight with three compelling protagonists -- young women who are not quite willing to accept the paths that their mothers have planned for them.  Strong and resourceful, they are driven on by an unusual and poignant mission to lay Ginny's brothers to rest.  While it would be easy to give Ginny, Peggy, and Lisette a contemporary spin, Van Draanen doesn't fall to the temptation.  They are strong-willed but definite creatures of their time.  For all of their independence, they each presume that marriage and family are their ultimate calling.  They simply want to renegotiate the terms of it.

Beautifully written and compelling reading.  Destined to find its way to book reports, but perhaps also to a special place on young readers' shelves.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Out of the Fire, by Andrea Contos

Six months ago, Cass was abducted while jogging alone through the woods.  She managed to escape but they never caught the guy and ever since then she's been receiving notes from her assailant.  They show up unpredictably in pink envelopes and always in either private places (her locker, bedroom, etc.) or with contents (photographs, stolen property, etc.) that indicate that the sender has extraordinary access.  Terrorized by the realization that he can move in and out of her life without being observed, she lives in dread of receiving the next one.

At school, she befriends three other girls who have been victimized recently.  One has been racially targeted by a teacher, one has an abusive step-parent, and one has an ex-boyfriend who is extorting her for sex.  Finding that they share common trauma, the girls form a pact to eke out revenge against their tormentors.  But while the other three girls have definite targets, Cass doesn't really know who is stalking her and the more she finds out, the scarier the truth becomes.  And while revenge is easy to envisage, executing it is messy and things quickly swing bloodily and fatally out of control.

Intended to be a thriller with gravitas that comes from exploring the myriad ways that women are exploited, the execution of this blood-soaked account of revenge fell very flat for me.  There is plenty of violence but little reflection and no exploration of anything.  In this story's world, evil things just happen.  The only response is nihilistic violence.  Everyone knows it is a dead end, but what can you do?  Burn it down (apparently).  None of that is particularly inspiring or even interesting.  Nearly constant hyperbolic statements about destruction, violence, or imminent death that quickly lose their meaning and their impact.  

The writing style drove me nuts.  Every other sentence is a fragment.  The choppiness is intended to give the writing an edge, but its impact wears off within fifty pages.  Every other one.  You can only read so much of that before you go mad.  Completely utterly mad.  By the end I wanted to throw the book into a fire.  Let it burn.  Ashes to ashes.  It is what it is.  You get the idea.

Monday, July 25, 2022

All the Best Liars, by Amelia Kahaney

In a thriller that builds suspense off of the insecurities that adolescents bring with them and the way that sudden wealth can intensify those feelings, three girls' lives are forever tied together by a murder.  One of them is the victim and the other two are implicated in the death.  But when the police start to investigate, the truth is far more complicated than the detective can understand. "Girl drama," she dismisses the story that initially unfolds and right she is, but the stakes are every bit as real as a grownup's.  Through flashback, the girls recount a story of childhood confidences betrayed and the lengths to which each will go to make things "right."

Perhaps the world does not need another sociopath/mean girl story, but this novel transcended the genre for me, going through great pains to show a chain of plausible events that gradually blew out of control.  The story gains gravitas by not limiting itself to the children.  For while immaturity is the spark, the fuel for this fire comes from the grownups.  The girls in many cases are simply copying the vanity, classism, and greed of their elders.  It's makes for grim, but compelling reading. The shocking reveal is perfectly unfolded.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Melt With You, by Jennifer Dugan

Fallon and Chloe were best friends growing up, but a night of no inhibitions right before Chloe went away to college led to an awkward goodbye and an end to the friendship.  A year later, they are no longer talking to each other, but they are going to have to work out their issues.  Their mothers are co-partners in an food truck, selling gourmet ice cream.  The business is struggling but there are interested investors.  The catch is that while the two women are meeting the investors, someone has to take the truck to some already-scheduled food festivals.  As a result, Fallon and Chloe are forced to take the truck on the road together alone.  Through their subsequent adventures on the road, they gradually break the ice, confront what happened between them, and work out what it means for their relationship now.

A lesbian romance set on a food truck -- part workplace hijinks and part road story -- that relies for much of its story on the central conceit that neither Fallon or Chloe are very good at communicating.  Rather, they are incredibly egocentric and inwardly focused.  It's so bad, in fact, that Fallon spends the first couple of chapters defending her stubbornness to the reader in a one-way Greek Chorus.  After a while though, Dugan gives up trying to justify the self-created tension of her drama queens and lets them just do their thing.  The result is frustrating as it becomes painfully obvious that if Fallon and Chloe just sat down and listened to each other (rather than constantly taking offense and having meltdowns) that they could happily settle down.  I just didn't care about them and I didn't like either of them.  

That pretty much kills a romance story.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Queen of the Tiles, by Hanna Alkaf

A year ago, Trina, a popular influencer and champion Scrabble player, reigned the Malaysian circuit as the "Queen of the Tiles," but then she mysteriously died literally on the game table during the finals.  Her friend Najwa hasn't really recovered.  After a year of absence from playing, dealing with panic attacks, guilt, and suspicions, Najwa has bravely decided to re-enter the world of competitive Scrabble.  

The police ruled Trina's death to be the result of natural causes, but looking around the room at all the familiar faces, Najwa wonders if someone here had something to do with it.  And when Trina's Instagram account suddenly comes back to life, broadcasting anagram clues that only a Scrabble maven would appreciate, Najwa grows convinced that whoever was involved last year is planning a re-match.

A tense whodunnit that follows the standard pattern of evolving prime suspects and theories, but manages to nonetheless deliver plenty of twists and turns to keep the mystery solving fun.  The Malaysian setting and the Asian characters provide unusual color and make the story more interesting.  But the real winner is Najwa herself who proves a formidably capable detective in the grand tradition, ably sleuthing out the guilty party through a mastery of the world's most popular word game.  The final reveal is a disappointing throwaway, but doesn't overly detract from an original story and Alkaf's stirring love letter to competitive Scrabble.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Seed, by Caryl Lewis

Marty's mother is a hoarder and between trying to take care of himself and keep social services from finding out about her, he has a pretty tough life.  And ironically few possessions of his own.  For his birthday, his grandfather gives him a large mysterious seed and invites him to plant it at their community garden.  Grandfather promises him that it will lead to a tremendous surprise, but for now he must wait.  And so, along with his best friend Gracie (a girl with a cochlear implant who wants to become a dancer) and his granddad, they nurture the seed.  And despite Granddad's reputation for being unreliable, it does indeed grow into truly something special involving giant pumpkins, sailing across the English Channel, and visiting the Eiffel Tower.

A whimsical middle grade fantasy that combines realistic issues (e.g., mental illness, disability, and neglect) with granddad's truly fantastical ideas.  And while the latter events of the story are highly improbable, the story's message of going after your dreams and taking a positive view of life is sweet.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Best Liars in Riverview, by Lin Thompson

Aubrey and Joel have complicated games they play in the woods.  Games involving pirates, tales with fairies and magic, and elaborate stories of survival.  No one questioned their activities when they were kids  They kept their games private because they knew the other kids would not understand their make-believe.  But now that they are in middle school, things have become more complicated and the rules are changing in ways that they don't quite understand.  Being a girl is more complicated that Aubrey ever realized and, witnessing the bullying that Joel is enduring at school, it would seem that being a boy is no walk in the park.

And so, it doesn't really surprise Aubrey when she learns that Joel has gone missing.  She may even know where he is, but she doesn't really want to give away the secret.  When the grownups start asking her what she knows about his disappearance or where he might be, she lies.  She feels guilty about doing so, but she realizes that really everyone is lying is one way or another.  Her lies may not ever be the biggest ones.  That knowledge also convinces here that she needs to be the one to find him.

The story of Aubrey's search for Joel (with the help of a mutual friend Mari and Aubrey's older sister Teagan, heavy with remembrances and flashbacks, is more of a means to quest for identity -- a search that Aubrey is not really truly aware that she is on until the end.  The reveal is drawn out, but natural and organic to the characters.  We never are really told what they are and how they feel, but more allowed to travel with them as they discover things for themselves.  We're left with a sense of evolving emotions. We can see where the two of them are now and how they got this far, but not really who they will be yet.  That, in itself, feels particularly appropriate for a middle reader.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Rising Above Shepherdsville, by Ann Schoenbohm

After the death of her mother, Dulcie loses her home and loses her voice.  Sent to live with her aunt Bernie in rural Shepherdsville OH, she can't talk, but she is a good observer of people.  In addition to silently help her aunt around the house, she spends much of the summer at the local Baptist church, where Reverend Love looks out for her.  A runaway named Faith shows up and gets taken in and becomes Dulcie's companion.  Evangeline, an older woman that the reverend has hired to lead the choir (to much displeasure from the community) sets both girls to work helping her make new choir robes out of scrap fabric.  But most important of all that summer is a family of swans hidden in the rushes near the church that Dulcie sneaks away to observe, imagining them as some sort of link to her deceased mother.

A gentle period piece set in 1977 (although the story itself is timeless) which is beautifully written, but not very adventuresome.  This is the sort of uncontroversial children's book that used to be more common.  The basic coming-of-age tale in which Dulcie comes to terms with the loss of her mother, learns some life lessons about honesty and kindness, and has some nice interactions with the three adults in her life.  There's nothing particularly wrong with this book, but it isn't really anything new (and books like Because of Winn Dixie have probably done it better).

Monday, July 04, 2022

Hopepunk, by Preston Norton

It was nearly a year ago that Hope's little sister Charity outed their older sister Faith to their parents.  In such a conservative family, the news that the eldest daughter was a lesbian did not go down well and Mom quickly prepared to send Faith away for conversion therapy.  But before that could be accomplished Faith ran away.  Now, the family struggles with angry, guilt, and grieving.  Mom defensively stands her ground but aches for her daughter to return home.  Dad guiltily tries to be a peacemaker between everyone.  Charity embraces the church, ignoring the rest of the family.  And Hope channels her grief and anger into music.

It seems that the family would just muddle through in dysfunction but then things are shook up when Hope's crush at school, a boy named Danny, comes out as gay and is thrown out of the house by his family.  In an act of atonement, Hope's family takes him in and an angry dynamic develops between Hope and Danny's twin brother Dylan.  Dylan is a nasty homophobe and forms a hate band called Alt-Rite, who write songs attacking Hope and her friends.  In response, Hope forms her own a band, a group of hopeless misfits called Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, who challenge Alt-Rite in their school's Battle of the Bands.  A lesbian science-fiction story runs in parallel through alternate chapters and an internet influencer plays a prominent role as well in this mixture of social commentary and satire.

Norton is a good writer and I was quickly drawn in to the family tragedy that unfolds at the beginning.  I didn't initially get (and never really warmed to) the science fiction story, but I loved the depth of the characters.  The three sisters and their parents each had distinct personalities and roles to play.  Even Danny's outing and the way the family reunited over sheltering him presaged a fascinating look at the conflict between religious intolerance and charity.  But Norton has grander intentions for the story and that's when things really started running off the rails.  From the blatant hate speech to the official tolerance of bullying to the eventual official maleficence, I found myself being pushed towards accepting greater and greater levels of implausibility.  The conclusion is so utterly over the top that I just tuned the mess out.  In the end, it seemed a shame to take what was a really nice character study and fully-formed family tragedy and turn it into something absurd and over-the-top, especially with a subject as important as homophobia and the normalization of hatred.  Profoundly disappointing.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Candidly Cline, by Kathryn Ormsbee

Cline dreams of becoming a country music star, like the women she idolizes:  Emmylou Harries, Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile, and her namesake Patsy Cline.  However, Mom reminds that music doesn't pay the bills.  Mom should know:  she had to give up her own dreams of playing in music in order to take care of the family.  So when a co-worker of her Mom's tells Cline about a workshop for young singer-songwriters, Mom tells her no.  But Cline knows she has to go. She doesn't have the money, she doesn't have a way to get to Lexington to attend the classes, and she'll have to find a way to sneak out, but somehow she'll figure everything out.

In comparison to the rest of her problems, this is small change.  Her grandmother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Cline is struggling to understand Gram's unpredictable health and behavior.  Cline also is grappling with her sexuality and why she likes girls more than boys  Also with the experience of being betrayed by her best friend when she confesses as much to her in confidence.

But for every bad surprise, there's a good one as well.  Through good planning, fortuitous moments, and a few karmic moments, Cline discovers that it takes a small kindnesses and a village to fulfill a dream.  And that when it comes to big dreams, there are more people who want you to succeed than to tear you down.  

I was slightly afraid that the book might end up tying off every problem with a cheery bow, but that's not really what happens.  While Cline benefits from some pretty good luck, there's plenty of things that don't work out, but for all those Cline comes to peace with the outcome. She makes plenty of errors in judgment (most egregiously the decision to go behind her mother's back), but she's courageous and dedicated.  Most importantly, the story shows Cline dealing with a wide variety of people of all ages, both sympathetic and not, and learning to navigate difficult social interactions with maturity.

In the end, this is a warm and positive story about working hard, taking responsibility, and owning your outcomes.  Good life lessons.

Saturday, July 02, 2022

Today Tonight Tomorrow, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

In this romance set in Seattle, Rowan and Neil are the two top academic stars at their high school.  For years, they have fought each other for each of their school's honors to a degree that everyone else considers obsessive.  And while some might suspect that there was a romantic tension behind their competition, Rowan is quick to reject that.  She hates Neil.  Now nearing graduation, they are approaching the biggest one:  who will be valedictorian.

But even when that ultimate is dispensed, their competition still remains fierce.  Their high school has an annual tradition -- the senior Howl, an assassination-themed scavenger hunt.  The seniors are given a list of fifteen items to find and the name of another senior for them to "kill" (by stealing the armband that each of them must wear). The goal is to find the fifteen items first and avoid getting killed by an opponent.  Rowan intends to annihilate Neil and end her high school career on a victory.  But instead, Rowan and Neil find themselves teaming up.  At first, they are reluctant, but gradually they grow close  enough that by the end their relationship becomes more important than the game.

I loved all the city details, with its combination of well-known and obscure spots that made up the scavenger hunt (this is definitely a much more fun story if you know Seattle!).  I was less taken by the story which seem drawn out and meandering.  For kids that are supposed to be such over achievers, they seemed awfully unfocussed and were far too easily distracted.  I would have had a better time with the story if they had just aced the hunt and then turned to focusing on their relationship -- that would feel more in character.

There's an interesting digression about Rowan and Neil's experiences as the only Jews in their school and a bonding that occurs in sharing their recollections of the microaggressions they have experienced.  It serves as one of the things that brings them together and it becomes character-defining, but it's introduced awfully late and abruptly (on page 119, in a strange scene where a classmate makes an anti-Semitic remark).  Somehow, we're supposed to accept that Rowan's Jewish identity is definitive, despite the fact that she doesn't mention a word about it for the first third of the book.

The story is a love letter to romance novels.  It reminded me a bit of Before Sunrise, with its combination of city exploration and extemporaneous adventures at night, but it didn't have much to add to the genre.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Forward March, by Skye Quinlan

With her father campaigning for President of the United States, Harper is trying to be a good girl and stay out of trouble (doubly so, since her Mom is the dean at her school, Golden Oaks Academy).  So, it's something of a surprise when Margot tracks her down.  Between the fact that Margot is the daughter of the Canadian ambassador (a man whom her father can't stand) and is widely rumored to be a practicing lesbian (a lifestyle Harper's homophobic mother can't put up with), Margot is not exactly in Hunter's usual social circles.  And she comes bearing a shocking tale.

Margot has been corresponding (explicitly) on Tinder with someone purporting to be Hunter.  The great mystery is who and why?  And while that person is definitely not Hunter, Hunter is surprised to find that she soon wishes it had been.  For while not entirely sure how she feels, Hunter has to admit that Margot is kind of cute and she does sort of/maybe likes girls.  Not, of course, that she could ever let that become public because of what it would do to her father's political career and to her mother.  However, when someone lets the secret out, Hunter has to make some decisions about who she is trying to please and whose life she is really living.

While purporting to be a marching band story, I honestly found that part of the story weak and distracting.  The story is really about finding out who your true friends are.  They certainly are not the ones Hunter has collected around her.  By the end, pretty much every friend Hunter had at the beginning of the story turns out to be toxic and she's ended up with a complete new set of friends.  That's just one of the many turn-offs of this novel.  Hunter is a weak character who largely lets people walk over her and I really didn't care that much in the end what happened to her.  And the things that happened didn't seem to matter either:  (as already mentioned) the marching band setting was largely inconsequential, the political stuff likewise, the parents were not worth reconciling with, the friends were repulsive, and Hunter's self-realization never really materialized.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Lawless Spaces, by Corey Ann Haydu

Mimi has struggled with a conflicting pair of desire: to be popular and to have a private life.  She's an influencer with a popular blog but is stunned at the cruelty of her readers.  As she turns sixteen, she is growing aware of the double standards to which young women are held.  Her mother is far from sympathetic, bitterly attacking her for not posting irresponsible pictures (i.e., not following the rules  of being a "good" girl) and failing to think through the consequences of her actions.  

Her mother knows all about those double standards.  She's in the midst of the backlash from her own decision to come out and accuse a public figure of having hurt her when she was sixteen.  Under that pressure, Mom shuts Mimi off and abandons her, just as Mimi is enduring her own version of the same events.

Mimi, left alone on her own sixteenth birthday, digs through old dusty journals she finds in the attic.  They turn out to have belonged to her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother -- generations of women, who at sixteen faced the same experiences, the same painful double-standards, and the same consequences.  While powerless to change their circumstances,  each young woman (within the "lawless spaces" of their private diaries) poured out the truth.  Taking in the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Mimi becomes determined to break the curse that has afflicted the women in her family (or perhaps all women?).

Reading a story of intergenerational sexual abuse (including an unwanted pregnancy and forced adoption) is perhaps not the most cheery piece of literature to be reading on the day that the Supreme Court overrode Roe v Wade, but it may in fact be appropriate.  As I am today making the mistake of reading people's Facebook feeds (and the comment streams in particular), I am reminded of the terrible tendency of human beings to oversimplify and choose witty snarks over complicated truth  This book reminded me that the world is not nearly as simply as we try to convince ourselves it is.

I went through distinct waves of emotion while reading the book.  At first, with its litanies of the wrong men do to women, I wondered what new ground could possibly be covered here.  Did we really need another story of girls being taken advantage of and having their lives destroyed?  As the sheer cruelty of Mimi's mother was revealed (and excused in the name of everything Mom was dealing with), I began to wonder if the author would ever connect the dots between the family's unhealthy psychology and its perpetual victimhood.  In developing that feeling, I wrestled with the guilt that I was blaming the victims.  I struggled with trying to explain why it was all so much more complicated.  I was already thinking about how to explain in this review that the women were not to blame for their being assaulted but were for their lack of compassion.  Then the author beat me to it and went so much farther than I had thought to.  By the last stanza, I was blown away by the beautiful and devastating way that Haydu captured the complex interactions of misogyny that make women their best friends and worst enemies simultaneously.  No matter that very little of the story is tied up at the end.  Instead, the book concludes with an understanding that acceptance does not necessarily come from neat ribbons and bows, and that that's OK.

Told in verse, this 490 page book is mostly white pages and a lightning fast read.  Poetry is useful in this case because it allow Haydu to leave things unsaid and unresolved.  It permits things to be implied and felt without having to actually spell them out.  Verse also has its weaknesses.  Within the poetry, all of the characters sound the same.  With voices from six different generations of women, there should have been nuances and differences in tone.  But while they had different values, they all sounded alike. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Aetherbound, by E. K. Johnston

Since the collapse of the Empire, the space stations have been cut off from each other, but travel still takes place.  On the sublight spaceship Harland, travel between stops takes decades and the ship is run by a  single family, breeding the crew that they need.  It is not a big happy family, but they get the job done.

Pendt, judged to be a waste of food and oxygen, is kept alive until her eighteenth birthday so she can then be sold off.  But just a few weeks before the sale, the ship makes a rare docking and Pendt takes the opportunity to run.  Doing so, she finds a new life, with a loving new family, but there are unintended consequences.  Her birth family returns with demands that threaten not only Pendt, but the entire universe as well.

While there is some fantastic universe building in this tale, the storytelling is rough and the pacing uneven.  Given the setting's complexity, the story is initially buried in historical background which, while interesting, bogs down the pace.  To make up for that slow start, we jump forward through events quickly, which allows only the sketchiest of development.  This leaves the general feeling of an unfinished story.  Aside from Pendt herself, just about everyone is an unfinished portrayal, motivations are largely declared with little demonstration, and the climax, while based on all that backstory, comes up quite abruptly and feels rushed. It's not a question of length -- given the book's short length (241 pages), this easily could have been filled out.  It's more an issue of manuscript not ready to publish.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating, by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani's friends don't believe that she's bi-sexual. They think it's just a phase and that she'll come round eventually to dating one of the guys they set her up with.  Their doubts annoy Hani but she doesn't want to rock the boat with her A-list friends.  In desperation, she lies and claims that she's already seeing a girl and that it's Ishu -- the class overachiever and the only other Bengali girl in their school.  The problem is that Ishu doesn't even like Hani!  Somehow, Hani needs to convince her to go along with this charade or risk public ridicule.

Ishu has bigger problems.  Her older sister is dropping out of school to get married and her parents are scandalized.  To distract them, Ishu wants to get elected Head Girl at school.  But only popular girls get elected and Ishu's never considered making friends to be priority.  However, when Hani comes to her with an unusual request and needs a big favor, Ishu sees an opportunity.  A deal is hatched:  Ishu will pretend to be Hani's girlfriend and, in exchange, Hani will help ingratiate Ishu into her social circles and build up some social capital so that Ishu can win the election.

In true rom-com fashion, this rather tortured premise blooms in unexpected ways and in the end Hani and Ishu find that their relationship may be more real than either intended.  The result is a sweet and funny LGBT story of high school romance between two Irish-Bengali girls (checking off quite a few diversity checkboxes in the process).  I loved the ethnic flavoring and the attention to the family life that plays such a big role in Ishu and Hani's lives.  I also enjoyed reading an Irish YA story for the chance to visit a slightly different milieu.  Good characters (with realistic flaws and insecurities to offset their strengths) and excellent pacing make this an enjoyable read.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Between the Lighthouse and You, by Michelle Lee

Alice doesn't believe that her mother is dead.  There was a boating accident, but the body was never found.  And as she researches the circumstances of the accident, she discovers something else:  the Aviles Islands (where the accident occurred) are a magical place.  The inhabitants believe that once a year they receive messages from their departed relatives, which appear washed up on the shore.  These "tidings" are the responsibility of the lighthouse keeper to collect and distribute to the intended recipients.  When she disappeared, Alice's mother was in the process of investigating the myth.

Now Alice wants to return to the islands and interview the family that runs the lighthouse to see if she could somehow receive messages from her Mom.  While her family is unsupportive, her father does in the end agree to go down to the islands for a visit.

Leo is just the eldest son in the crazy large family that lives at the lighthouse, but he bears a heavy responsibility.  While the whole family claims to love the Tidings, Leo feels like he's the only one who appreciates their true meaning.  When he receives a special message on a cassette tape from his dead grandfather, addressed only to him, he must find a way to listen to it (this involves a bit of an adventure in finding a player).  When he eventually gets to listen to the message, he is surprised to find it is addressed not only to him but to Alice's family as well.

With subtle and unobtrusive magic elements, this middle grade novel is really about grief and recovery.  Both protagonists are learning how to adapt to a world where their beloved family member is gone.  In doing so, they find their relationships changing with the adults and siblings around them.  I found the siblings overly obnoxious, but portraying them as such allows for a clearer lesson that one must love the family one has in order to honor the memory of those who are no longer with us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Memory of Cotton, by Ann K. Howley

Shelby has felt lost since the death of her little brother.  She's quick to grow angry and prone to being mean to her family.  While she recognizes that she's in trouble, she feels helpless to change.  The only real anchors she has are her best friend Darrin and her grandmother.

One day, going through one of her grandmother's boxes with Darrin, they discover a Ku Klux Klan robe.  When they ask grandma about it, she is initially reluctant to explain, but a short while later, she changes her mind.  She announces that she'll explain everything but she needs to revisit her hometown in North Carolina and she needs Shelby and Darrin to drive here there.  Shelby has never been there.  The homecoming goes on to uncover several family secrets and along the way explore the foundations of discrimination and hatred.

A mixed bag.  I found the characters interesting and the story compelling  but I had a hard time getting into the story.  The storytelling is sketchy and needed to be fleshed out.  The overall theme of where hatred comes from is powerful, but the pieces of it (the contemporary town bully, the KKK membership, a murder, and even familial rejection) are left lying about.  Distractedly, Shelby's reconciliation with her brother's death sort of hangs as an outside theme, never quite adhering to the rest of the story.  Seen as an early draft, this is a knock-out story, but it really felt unfinished.

[Disclosure:  I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased opinion.]

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Extasia, by Claire Legrand

After the war which ended the world, Haven became the lost outpost of humanity.  Protected by God's grace and the piety of its all-male elders, it seeks to protect itself by vigilantly guarding itself from sin .  To atone for their central rolein the downfall of civilization, the women of Haven pay a continual price -- in servitude and suffering.  Fifteen year-old Amity, despite being the daughter of a fallen women, has just been anointed as one of Haven's "saints" -- a vaunted position with the horrifying responsibility to cleanse the sins of the village through enduring brutal ritualized beatings.

But as proud as Amity is in this perverse honor, she is aware that there are forces on the outside that are bringing change to Haven, whether its people embrace them or not.  A coven of witches are encircling the town and plotting the downfall of its patriarchal regime.  Men are being murdered.  

Amity is stuck between two warring camps.  Through magic that she is just beginning to understand, she stands as a catalyst of change for her world. While Amity longs for an end to the suffering of her sisters, she also wants to protect her community and she is torn between those two desires.

A brutal and horrific setting featuring systematic physical and sexual abuse of young women.  While not  particularly explicit, this is a gory tale full of unpleasantries including child abuse, rape, and even a brief episode of cannibalism.  This is plenty of blood!  

Legrand is shooting for a grand statement about overcoming institutional misogyny through empowerment and reconciliation, but it never quite comes together.  The problem is that the book is so good at showing the cruelties and atrocities, that there is little space for forgiveness. It is hard to not agree with Vengeance (one of the witches with whom Amity allies) who would just as soon kill every man and every female ally who aided them.  Amity (or Rage, the name to which she changes her name mid-novel is not a convincing leader for a kumbaya moment.  The story, while excellent at wallowing in horrors, never really grapples with what drives misogynistic impulses and so the story lacks the depth to reach for solutions.  It works for a horror/fantasy novel, but lacks gravitas.