Sunday, May 22, 2022

How Not to Fall in Love, by Jacqueline Firkins

From working in her mother's bridal shop, Harper has seen the very worst of romance.  The whole wedding thing, with its impossible pressure to create The Perfect Moment, brings out people's worst natures.  The various Bridezillas (described in glorious anecdotes)  that permeate this story have jaded Harper's perspective.  Love is a fiction.

But her best friend, boy-next-door Theo, is in complete disagreement.  For him, there is nothing greater than love and he proves it by falling in love every week!  And overtures are spurned, the objects of his affection flee, and his heart inevitably crushed, he picks up the pieces and finds another girl to chase. Theo's hobby (LARPing) with it's drama and romance feeds his obsession and his perpetual optimism.  He loves the whole idea of the grand gesture.

Theo despairs that he'll never be fully happy.  Harper thinks he should stop trying so hard.  She promises him that if he would just relax and stop making such a big deal out of love, he could be happy.  He argues that she is in no position to judge because she's never been in love.  A challenge is hatched:  they will prove each other wrong.  And, of course, since this is a rom-com, it will all go completely off-plan, surprising the two of them when they find each other in the end.

Based on the classic trope of the girl dating the wrong guy in order to find the right one, we have all the basic ingredients in place:  the long suffering (and coincidentally, cute!) neighbor boy, the studly (and wrong) initial love interest, and the supportive BFF who selflessly supports Harper.  Fabulous bridal shop anecdotes provide humor (a function also provided by some brief LARPing).  A very supportive mother helps Harper sort through her adolescent angst.  Some pretty hot sex scenes spice things up.  At the end of it all, a completely over-the-top public confession adds the cherry on the top of this caloric romantic confection.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

True Letters from a Fictional Life, by Kenneth Logan

James lives an awkward double existence.  To his friends, he's a great athlete, a decent student, and boy that is too shy to express his thoughts or ever reciprocate his friend Teresa's affections.  But when he is alone, he has lots of private feelings, which he spills into letters.  He tells his teammates how they drive him nuts, apologizes to the poor gay kid who he and his teammates bully, and tries to explain to Teresa why he doesn't want to date her ever.  And he writes love letters to guys.  But none of these letters ever get sent out.  They live in his locked desk drawer.

For all of his life, James has struggled with these thoughts:  finding the courage to say what he really feels.  He wonders if any of it is worth saying.  He questions what he really wants.  When he meets a gay boy named Topher, it motivates him to step out.  He's afraid of what will happen but taking things slow is OK and seem to be going well.  But then someone breaks into his desk drawer and steals his letters.  And they start showing up in people's mailboxes.

I found this story disorganized and unfocused.  The pace is uneven and aimless.  I never really got a sense about what James saw in Topher and about why he was willing to come out because of him.  The great letter fiasco proved to be anti-climactic.  And Teresa, who could have been all sorts of things to this story about coming out, just came off as selfish and annoying, with little indication of where her appeal to him ever lay.  So, while I was sympathetic to James, he didn't seem to have interesting friends or an interesting life.  I never engaged with the story.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

A Place to Hang the Moon, by Kate Albus

To say that Grandmother took care of William, Edmund, and Anna would be an overstatement because in truth she wanted nothing to do with them.  Officially, she was their guardian after the death of their parents, but it was the housekeeper who did what little passed for parenting for the three children.  Still, things could be much worse and when the Grandmother passes away, the children are faced with the awkward question of who will take care of them?  The last thing they want is to be separated, but with a war with Germany on the horizon, there seems little possibility of an appropriate foster home being found for them.  And at the same time, great discretion is advised as the three children are wealthy and could easily be exploited by some unscrupulous person.

It is their solicitor who lands on the idea of having the children join in the evacuation of London, pretend to leave their parents behind, and settle with a host family in the countryside.  Preposterous as it might sound, perhaps they will uncover a suitable foster home?  A place where, as the children put it, they might find someone who thinks that they "hang the moon."

Reality is much harder of course and the children find themselves shuttled from one unsuitable place to another.  Faced with different types of abuse and neglect, the one bright spot in their lives is a kindly librarian, Mrs. Müller.  The children adore her and she reciprocates, but she cannot host them.  She has been judged an unsuitable guardian due to the questionable loyalty of her husband, a German national who left her and disappeared at the outbreak of the War.

The orphan genre is truly a golden part of children's literature and this one pays homage to the greats.  It's a predictable formula but one that is very effective.  It combines adventure as the children face peril and yet emerge happily in the end in the arms of a loving family.  The emotional pay off is strong.  In this particular case, period detail about the evacuation of children into the countryside gives us some meaty subject matter as well.  The result is an enjoyable and memorable read.  Recommended.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Daughter of the White Rose, by Diane Zahler

The story of a twelve year-old butcher's daughter in late 15th century England ought to be pretty spare, since the reality of life for children (and girls in particular) would have been harsh and short.  However, this is the 21st century and so the setting provides a colorful background for an adventure instead.  

Nell was born at the same time as the Queen's son and, by virtue of the friendship between her father and the royal family, Nell and "Ned" (as she calls the Prince of Wales) have always been close.  She frequently  passes days in the royal nursery playing with Ned and his sisters,  the princesses royal.  And when the Queen and Nell's mother are again concurrently pregnant, their sons are born at close to the same time and become playmates as well.

In this idyllic environ, Nell sometimes fantasizes about marrying Ned, even though she knows it is not possible.  That doesn't stop her from practicing her reading and writing skills by confiding such thoughts in her journal. 

Such wishes get put aside as events overtake the children.  Following the death of the King, his brother Richard (the Third) imprisons Ned and his brother and usurps the throne.  By request of the deposed Queen, Nell and her brother are sent to the Tower to keep the princes company and await their fate.  Nell is not willing to sit and wait.  When an opportunity arises, she takes it and sets out to effect an escape.

Very loosely based around historical events, but with frequent anachronisms and modern sensibilities, this is a story that works better as fictional adventure than historical novel.  I liked the story and I loved Nell's character, but I was endlessly distracted by the inaccuracies.  Perhaps the biggest howler for me was not historical but practical: in one scene, a printer laments that he must reprint a single copy of an entire book in a single afternoon on his printing press (as if it was some sort of laser printer and not a device where each page would need to be manually set)!  It really would have been better to dispense with the pretense of historical basis and simply make this a fantasy story, for which our strong heroine would have been perfect.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

365 Days to Alaska, by Cathy Carr

For eleven year-old Rigel, the only life she's ever known is wild remote Alaska, but when her parents decide to divorce, Rigel and her sisters have to leave with her Mom and settle in Connecticut with her grandmother.  She hates it.  It's too crowded and loud and bright.  She has to attend a large middle school with mean teachers and meaner students.  And while she can't deny that there are some good things (like running water and lots of fresh vegetables), she misses Alaska.  She misses her Dad.

But she knows a secret.  Before she left, her Dad promised that, if she could just make it through the next year, that he would find a way to let her come back and live with him.  So now she keeps herself going by counting down the days before she can go back home.  However, as the number of days dwindle, her father becomes more distant and unreliable.  She also begins to realize that maybe Connecticut isn't so bad and that home is where you make it.

While hardly surprising material, the book charms with its main character.  Rigel is an engaging heroine with a strong will and a deep and enchanting love of nature.  Her confidence, derived from the life in the wild, serves her well in negotiating the hostile halls of middle school.  Her supportive family allows Rigel the space she needs to make the transition to the "outside" world.  Enjoyable, with lots of fun anecdotes about living in remote Alaska.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Of a Feather, by Dayna Lorentz

Rufus is a Great Horned Owl who lacks confidence.  He's a poor hunter and still relies on his mother to help him find food.  His older sister enjoys terrorizing him, but honestly he's afraid of everything.  When his mother is injured, Rufus finds himself alone in the woods.  Unable to cope for himself, he is injured and ends up caught in a trap.

Reenie is an eighth grader, uprooted from her home and school, and transplanted with an aunt that she hardly knows. Her mother suffers from depression and keeps falling apart, leaving Reenie in an insecure state.  From her struggles, Reenie has learned that she can't trust anyone and so she never does.  But at her new school, she slowly warms to a boy and a girl in her class and forms friendships.

More importantly, Reenie's aunt is an animal rehabilitation specialist and a falconer.  While initially skeptical of her aunt's activities, Reenie quickly is enchanted by the birds.  Exploiting Reenie's enthusiasm, her aunt enlists her assistance.  Her aunt even helps Reenies try to capture a falcon of her own to train.  But instead of a falcon, they capture an injured Great Horned Owl.

Owls are largely untrainable, her aunt warns her, but this one forms an inexplicable bond with Reenie and the two of them regain their confidence together and learn to reach out again.  However, as with all wild animals, Reenie must learn to let go of Rufus once he has finished his rehabilitation.

A terribly sweet story highlighted by numerous interesting bird facts and some very funny owl dialog.    While the story may be a bit contrived, the message about trust, family, and being brave plays very nicely through both of the story's protagonists. The anthropomorphism is less jarring than one would think as it draws on known owl behavior.  A truly delightful read!

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Almost There and Almost Not, by Linda Urban

With her father grieving the death of her mother and unable to take care of his daughter, California finds herself passed from one relative to another, landing in the end with Aunt Monica.  Aunt Monica is far too buried in a book project to have much time for California.  Annoyed that California isn't able to drive a stick (she's 11!) she grudgingly enlists her to help with book research instead.

Their subject is Eleanor Fontaine, the author of several books on etiquette.  To familiarize California with the woman, Aunt Monica assigns her Fontaine's Proper Letters for Proper Ladies which California finds to be difficult and tedious reading.  But when California discovers that Aunt Monica's house is haunted with the spirit of the Eleanor and of a friendly dog, she begins to take a more active interest in the Fontaine's life.

Eleanor's ghost is very sensitive and seemingly unaware of her passing.  Whenever California does something to let that fact slip, the ghost dematerializes (only to reappear some time later but always a few years younger than before).  For researching the biography, the ghost proves very useful and makes California a great help to her aunt.  But as it becomes younger and closer in age to California, it becomes a friend and confidante for an otherwise lonely child.

A quirky and charming story that defies easy generalization.  California's abandonment is a heavy subject, but hardly the sole focus of the story, which also addresses grieving, hidden family history, and alcoholism. The supernatural themes are subtle and don't take the story too far away from realism.  Throughout, California's innocent malapropisms and tendency to overshare provides numerous hilarious exchanges (most notably through the many letters that she writes, following a bit too literally the guidelines of Eleanor Fontaine).

Urban's Crooked Kind of Perfect is among my all-time favorite children's books.  This one is not quite at that level, but is a superior book nonetheless.

The Star Outside My Window, by Onjali Q. Rauf

Due to repressed memories, Anjali is still a bit fuzzy on the details of how she and her little brother Noah ended up in foster care.  She knows that her mother disappeared, but no one is telling her why and Anjali has trouble speaking (let alone forming the words to ask her questions).  But when it is announced that a new star has appeared, Anjali suddenly knows where her mother is!  Mum explained to her once that when good people die they becomes stars in the sky.  So, it makes sense that her Mom would appear as a star!

There is a complication.  As a promotional stunt, the Royal Observatory is holding a contest to name the star.  Anjali knows she has to make sure that no one gives her mother the wrong name, but what can she do about it?  The contest has tens of thousands of entrants (and children aren't allowed to enter anyway!) so she has no way to effect a result directly.  She'll have to go and explain to the adults that they can't give her mother's star a different name.  Getting from Waverly Village (outside of Oxford) to Greenwich seems an insurmountable task for a ten year-old, but with some help from her friends, she and Noah set out on their bicycles to prevent the Observatory from giving the new star a wrong name.

Holding aside the breathtaking danger of the premise, this is a stirring adventure with resourceful children sticking together and accomplishing their goals.  Tt is all wrapped up a bit too neatly, but along the way the children get to show a few skills.  The suppressed memories that prove the motive for Anjali's obsession with naming the star have a poignancy to them that gives the story some weight.  Spending more time addressing those feelings would have fleshed the story out better, but (again) this being British kidlit, we don't have much comfort with exploring emotions.  Instead, the conclusion has to be that the adults will step in at the end and make everything better and Anjali and her friends don't need to worry themselves over grownup matters.  That's not a very empowering message, even if it is motivated by good intentions.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Rescue at Lake Wild, by Terry Lynn Johnson

(After all those heavy dark novels, I needed to take a break...)

Madison has received an ultimatum from her parents:  no more strays!  If she brings home one more needy animal, the trip they are supposed to take in two weeks to hear and meet Jane Goodall will be off.  That's pretty important for Madi, who has been trying to learn as much about wild animals as she can.  But when she and her friends find two dead beavers and then rescue two hungry kits, Madi can't help but take the babies home to save them.  Keeping her parents from finding the babies is going to take ingenuity, but there is a bigger issue:  who is killing the beavers?

A light and delightful adventure and mystery.  The storytelling is disjointed and full of loose ends.  I wasn't entirely thrilled with the behavior that was being modeled (some of which was seriously dangerous and some of it mildly unlawful).  However, the overall intelligence of the story and the good advice about how to interact with wildlife was a net positive.  I also enjoyed Madison's strong and inspiring character.  Perfect for young animal lovers and anyone who likes cute baby animals.

Friday, April 29, 2022

At the End of Everything, by Marieke Nijkamp

A group of incarcerated youth at a remote correctional facility in the Ozarks suddenly find that their jailors have gone missing and the doors have been left unlocked.  There's no explanation, but when they attempt to walk into town, they are met by a military roadblock and the news that a severe case of Plague is ravaging the country.  It would appear that they have been abandoned by their keepers.  More than that, they have been forgotten by society as well.

With no one to guard them or take care of them and public attention elsewhere, the kids struggle to take care of themselves.  That grows challenging as they run low on supplies, utilities start to fail, and they start getting sick.

While not about a pandemic, this story of survival and coping with the stresses of the mass outbreak of disease draws on the Covid-19 experience, and it does so in a way that is strikingly more effective than any of the books that have been written to date about the Covid Pandemic.  Characters voice very familiar fears (about getting sick, distrusting others, longing to be around people, and being anxious about the future) that will feel familiar to all readers.  As a story, it never really goes anywhere and some elements (like a trans character) seem to really lack any purpose, but as a study of coping it's actually a fairly engrossing read.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

I had no idea how innovative mecha literature could be!  But between War Girls (reviewed in January) and this novel, it would appear that the reign of the dystopian novel has passed.  We can now celebrate the rise of blood thirsty feminist-imbued robo-warfare!  And while Iron Widow looks a lot like War Girls, there are a number of key differences as well, beyond the obvious difference in cultural setting.

Huaxia has long been protected by the Great Wall.  But defending the empire from swarms of alien Hunduns also requires special robotic war craft called Chrysalises.  Run off of the qi of two young pilots, they are capable of mutating into a variety of forms, depending on the level and source of that qi.  Proper operation requires a strict hierarchy: in the more powerful yang seat sits the young male pilot.  Alongside with him, in the yin seat, sits a young woman.  Occasionally, the two co-pilots can balance their qi and become a "perfect match" but far more often the qi of the male overwhelms the female and she is annihilated during combat.  So, while a male pilot can be feted as a hero, female pilots are almost always victims.  Still, despite the near certainty of death, families willingly sacrifice their girl children for the opportunity to bring glory to the family.

For Zetian, there is another motivation for enlistment altogether.  Her older sister was killed by a male pilot and she wants revenge.  When she gets it, murdering her male co-pilot in cold blood, she gains the moniker of "the iron widow." To her surprise, she is not killed, but instead is reassigned to co-pilot with Shimin, a notorious psychopath and the holder of the strongest qi in the empire (rumored to be almost as strong as the great lost emperor himself!).  The presumption is that he will destroy her in combat but that doesn't happen.  Instead, Zetian and Shimin are found to be a perfect match and pitched as the best chance of finally eliminating the Hunduns.  Their survival now depends upon making themselves indispensible and they find themselves in an even more dangerous game of intrigue -- a game that may just undermine the foundations of their civilization (if the Hunduns don't get them first!).

A rollercoaster ride of blood-soaked action, full of twists and turns.  The plotting is sufficiently byzantine to keep me enthralled and always guessing as to what will come next. Zhao's vision (and the logistics of qi combat in particular) are breathtaking.  I won't claim to fully follow the ending of the story, but I did appreciate the true originality of the fight sequences.  The Chinese-esque setting is sweeping and beautiful without falling into twee orientalism.  It is masterful storytelling.

This is also an uncompromising feminist work.  From the obvious (attacks on the politics of foot binding) to the unexpected (a defense of polyamory), the writing is an unrelenting attack on sexism and patriarchy that is nearly as intense as its robot wars.  The Chrysalis itself serves a particular sexual function that Zhao exploits in a variety of different ways throughout the story.  Who knew that mecha could be so erotic?  Or so useful as a literary device?

It's all quite dark though so if you don't like your YA dark, bloody, and unrelentingly political, then this is one to pass by.  But by doing so, you are definitely missing one of the best science-fiction YA novels of the past year!

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Mirror Girls, by Kelly McWilliams

Before she dies, Charlie's grandmother wants to be taken back to Georgia, to the town of Eureka where she was born.  Charlie who grew up in Harlem knows little of the town, except that it's deep in the South.  And while folks are beginning to protest segregation up north, it's 1953 and the South is still stuck in the mire of Jim Crow.  So, for Charlie, the casual and vicious segregation is an eye opener.

But when they get there, Charlie's in for another surprise.  There's more to the trip than a dying wish.  It's time for a prophecy to be fulfilled.  Charlie learns that she has a twin sister, named Magnolia -- a girl who's lily white and been passing as a member of the southern gentry in Eureka.  Shortly after the girls were born, their parents were murdered for mixing races.  The girls were separated.  Their white paternal grandmother wanted Magnolia because she looked white enough to pass as an heir.  And she likewise had no use for Charlie.  Unable to stop the separation, Charlie's maternal grandmother took Charlie north.  But the separation of the twins triggered a series of supernatural events in Eureka.  And the reunion eighteen years later rouses old ghosts, the men and women who live in the "veil" between life and death because of the racial injustice they experienced during their lives.

A swirly atmospheric horror story with plenty of magic, but also more grandiose attempts to explore the curse of slavery and racial inequity.  I was pretty excited at first at the audacious ambition of the idea.  McWilliams's previous novel (Agnes at the End of the World) showed that she had the skills to pull this off.  However, despite her affinity with the characters, she doesn't have much understanding of the subject matter.  Her vision of the south is largely stereotypes and two-dimensional characters (sadistic white racists, virtuous blacks).  There's little of the nuance that would show how the evil of segregation could exist -- the evil that is precisely what the novel is focusing upon).  It's all interesting as an idea and the melodramatic finale is surprisingly effective and original, but for the most part the storytelling is simply not executed very well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Willodeen, by Katherine Applegate

Willodeen lives in the village of Perchance.  Perchance is known for its annual Bumblebear Faire, where the cute little winged bears and their bubble nests are honored and celebrated.  The Faire brings much needed tourist money to the village.  But in recent years, a combination of increased forest fires and the mysterious dwindling of the Bumblebears themselves has jeopardized the future of the Faire.

The key seems to the decline of the Bumblebears seems to lie with the Screechers -- a unloved pest that plagues the countryside and which only Willodeen seems to appreciate.  Most people would prefer to eradicate the Screechers and concerted recent efforts to kill them have been almost successful.  Willodeen proves that that was a mistake.  However, even after Willodeen discovers the link between the animals, she still has to find the personal strength to present the unfortunate news to the grownups in Perchance, overcoming her fear of public speaking and criticism.

With its ecological theme, Willodeen has a political angle, but it is also a universal story about finding one's voice and learning to articulate it.  Both themes are valuable.  I felt that the backstory that explains Willodeen's fear of the public was sketchy and could have been better developed, but the depiction of how Willodeen followed the scientific method to identify the interrelation between Screechers and Bumblebears was clever and exciting.  A fast read, suitable for early readers but enjoyable to much older ones.  Fans of Greta Thunberg should consider the book to be obligatory reading.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Called Upon, by Bethany Lee

After yet another year of being bullied at school, Kaitlin is looking forward to a summer away from her peers.  So her mother's sudden decision to send her away to some fancy summer camp fills her with dread.  But Kaitlin is pleasantly surprised to overcome her fears of social interaction and to actually make friends in her first week there.  

However, the camp itself is strange:  largely unsupervised, the kids are free to roam, but they are painfully aware of the watchful gaze of the creepy security guard and their grey-eyed counselors.  When campers start to disappear, Kaitlin and some of the others start to get suspicious.  And when she falls ill with mysterious symptoms, things turn deadly.  She'll have to draw on strengths hidden inside of her and learn to believe in herself.

Adding to the mystery, the story is also told through the perspective of two other characters (Ashley, an unwed mother of twins, and Parker, a young man with an intense hatred of his father).  Who these people are and how they fit in with the nefarious affairs of this summer camp unfolds only slowly.

While it starts slow and it takes a while to accept the multiple narrators (especially when it becomes clear that Ashley and Parker don't have much to contribute to the story), Lee does an excellent job of building up her mystery.  However, the story becomes less interesting as the implausible truth unfolds.  Once things unravel, the explanation just seems silly.  It probably works as a juvenile thriller, but really fell apart for me.  In the end, I found it entertaining, but not particularly rewarding.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Instructions for Dancing, by Nicola Yoon

After her father leaves the family for another woman, Evie decides that she's given up on love.  All it seems to do is leave people hurt in the end.  She swears off relationships.  She even drops her favorite romances off at a neighborhood free library.  

While doing so, she runs across a mysterious old woman who basically pushes a book called "Instructions for Dancing" into her hands.  And while Evie has no interested in learning to dance, she finds herself heading to a nearby dance studio (whose address is written in the book).  There, still on impulse, she enrolls in a class and meets X who proves to be the perfect dance partner.  After much practice and a lot of getting to know each other, the two of them compete in a local dance contest.

But as happens often in Nicola Yoon's novels, there's a parallel more fantastic story.  After meeting the old woman, Evie starts having visions; foreseeing the future of relationships.  If she sees a couple kiss while they are in love, she can see the course of their relationship all the way until its end.  Needless to say, none of this helps dissuade Evie from her conclusion that all relationships end up badly.  To escape from these visions, she tries to avoid seeing any of her friends together.  And when she and X start developing feelings for each other, Evie is terrified of what she will find if they ever kiss.

The dual storylines are Yoon's trademark and I'm afraid to say that I'm not really a fan of them.  The approach worked in Everything, Everything but proved a burden in The Sun Is Also A Star.  Here, we're more in the latter camp.  Unlike a subplot which would simply divert attention, the two threads here are really co-equal and distracting.  Is this a story about learning to dance (in all of its literal and figurative senses) or is it about grappling with the ability to let go?  It's actually both and while the two ideas overlap and interrelate, there is a competition between them.  At any given time, one of them is being neglected.  The rushed ending (for both threads) doesn't help either.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Half-Orphan's Handbook, by Joan F. Smith

Her father's suicide has taught Lila that loving and trusting people is too dangerous.  In her "handbook" for 'half-orphans" like herself, she has created two rules:  love no one and stay away from liars.  She loved her father, but he betrayed her by lying to his family that he loved them.

From these rules, she concludes that the best thing she can do is cut herself off from others.  So, her mother's idea that she should spend the summer at a "grief camp" with other children who are dealing with a recent loss seems the last thing she wants to be doing.  But her mother is insistent and Lila finally agrees to go for a single week.

Once there, it is everything she feared it would be and she hates it, but in the end she stays the entire eight weeks.  And in that period, she gradually opens up again and begins to re-learn how to trust and develop close relationships.  She also works through her anger at her father and understand what drove him to end his life, achieving peace with his decision.

While the story is largely predictable in its outcome, it does an excellent job with the material.  Lila's path to healing is very much intertwined with the relationships she develops at camp (and at some distance with her mother back home as well).  The author does an excellent job of building that journey in a gradual and believable fashion allowing us to follow along and understand the process organically.  Some of Lila's discoveries are from discoveries she makes about her father's background (learning to understand how her father could both love her and still end his life), but many more of them come from learning about her fellow campers.  A relationship with a boy with an entirely different sort of loss helps to illuminate that not all grief comes from death.

Overall, a familiar topic, but dealt with in an original enough way to make it interesting and enlightening.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher

Mona's magic isn't big and spectacular.  Her skill is manipulating bread:  she can make dough do what she asks it to do and she has a very special relationship with Bob, her sourdough starter.  All that would be more than enough for a shy fourteenth year-old orphan and apprentice baker.

However, when she discovers a dead body in her bakery and subsequently crosses paths with Inquisitor Oberon, she finds herself plunged into the middle of a conspiracy against her beloved city.  Someone is killing off the town's wizards and magicians and she is targeted.  With help from a street urchin named Spindle and her aunt, she convinces the Duchess that they need to strike back. However, by this point she is the only remaining wizard and must call upon her powers (and creativity) to defend the city...with baked goods.

A witty fantasy tale with a playful nudge-and-a-wink to the genre.  The author struggled for many years with the manuscript and it has many rough edges.  Bob, the sourdough starter, steals the show and probably is one of the more original monsters ever created.  However, by the end, the witty references to cookery get a bit stale.  Kingfisher also had difficulty getting Mona's voice to be right and that too still unfortunately shows as Mona wavers between young child and mature adult throughout.  All that said, the rough edges of the story add character and overall I enjoyed this celebration of creativity (and of baking in particular).  An enjoyable read.

Saturday, April 02, 2022

The Girls I've Been, by Tess Sharpe

At a fundraiser the day before, Nora's ex Wes found Nora and Iris kissing.  Now, the three of them are having the most awkward moment together in the teller line at the bank, depositing yesterday's receipts and struggling with communicating with each other.  But everything gets pushed aside when two men pull out weapons and announce a bank robbery.  In the end, the surprise is going to be on them:  they don't realize who they've captured.

Nora isn't the sweet girl she pretends to be.  Nora isn't even her real name. She's a con artist and the daughter of a con artist.  But now her mother is in jail and Nora lives with her older sister (also a con artist).  And for the next eighty pages or so, we see how clever Nora is and how easily she can manipulate the bank robbers.

But then the story takes a serious and radical turn.  Nora's life hasn't been all clever manipulation and exploiting stupid people.  There's been a slew of abusers and Nora's talents have been more of a survival mechanism.  Her mother hasn't always been an ally and Nora has had to do some pretty drastic things to get through it.  Through flashbacks, we find out the depths to which she will go and, in the present time, we find that struggle continue to get her and her friends out alive.

I started off really liking Nora's character.  She is resourceful and intuitive, with a good head on her shoulders and full of wit, but as the story drifts into her past I lost a sense of what the story was really about and what the author really wanted to achieve.  By the end, it all just felt exploitative.  I lost interest in the characters who began to seem less and less realistic or even meaningful.  The original story about Wes and Iris?  It's largely buried under the action and the blood/gore.  

There's the de rigueur list of abuse resources at the end of the book to imply that Sharpe is making some deep study about a survivor, but we don't really learn anything about abuse here.  If Nora is supposed to be exhibiting survival strategies by stabbing and murdering men, I'm not sure exactly how it will be helpful to anyone.

Apparently, it's coming to Netflix soon.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Counting Down With You, by Tashie Bhuiyan

Karina does what she can to make her parents proud.  She works hard in school.  She follows her parent's strict rules (5PM curfew, no boys, etc.) but she wishes that they would support her love of literature.  Instead, they push her to study medicine and are forcing her to focus on STEM classes even though she loves English more.  It's driving her literally crazy as she battles with anxiety trying to maintain the façade of being a perfect daughter.

When her parents leave to go on a month-long trip to Bangladesh to see the family, it's a breath of fresh air.  Her beloved grandmother comes to look after Karina and her younger brother Samir, but grandma is far less judgmental.  This is just as well because of what is about to unfold in Karina's life during the next four weeks.

Karina's English teacher asks her to help out by tutoring Ace Clyde, a young man without a care for his studies and a bad reputation.  Karina's parents would be scandalized (even though Karina and Ace are meeting in public) but since they are away Karina feels she can get away with it.  What she isn't prepared for is when he starts telling people that they are dating and he talks her into going along with the ruse.  Where this is going to go in four weeks when Karina's parents come back can't be anywhere good, especially when the ruse becomes reality and Karina and Ace develop real feelings for each other.

This is a rather painful plotline to set up an awkward romance with a big heavy shadow over it.  To mess it up further, it is a story that isn't really sure on what parts it wants to focus.  In the end, Bhuiyan wisely stresses Karina's longing to pursue her future career (rather than worrying about the boy) but the boy is never too far away.  It ends on an inconclusive and ambiguous note (although there's a lovely author's note at the start that partially makes up for the ending).

It also doesn't help that the characters are weak. The parents are horrid and never quite redeemed in the end, which undercuts Karina's motivations.  Karina's love for her parents is never really shown and feels more like an obligation than anything real (in striking contrast to her love of literature).  Karina is largely embarrassed and dismissive of her extended family of Aunties and Uncles.  Only the grandmother -- who steals the show overall -- ever really shows warmth and love.  This problem is repeated with the other characters:  Ace is more manipulative than caring, Karina's BFFs are well-meaning but hapless, and her brother weak and ineffectual.  Even Karina seems weak and non-inspirational -- she largely lacks agency, failing in the end to be the one who really solves her problems.

It's a fast read and entertaining.  It's lovely to see Bangladeshi-Americans represented.  Overall, the story is respectful of Islam and portrays a young woman with a strong commitment to her faith.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Me (Moth), by Amber McBride

Ostensibly a road trip story told in verse, Me (Moth) is a complex tale  tackling grief, depression, and suicide (with a few quick shots on racial injustice along the way).

Moth was in an accident that "split" the family car in half: leaving mother, father, and grandfather all dead.  Moth went to stay with her aunt, who ignores her and instead drowns herself in the bottle.  Moth is similarly ignored at school and left to fight off her grief and survivor's guilt on her own.

Sani, a new kid at school, untouched by the stigma of Moth's past, reaches out to her and they find they have a lot in common.  Sani is half-Navajo and has a strong attachment to the spiritual beliefs of his people, while Moth's grandfather was a follower of Hoodoo (a traditional spiritual practice among Black Americans).  Moth's grief is familiar to Sani because he takes anti-depressive meds to deal with the "waterfall" in his mind.  Moth's neglect seems idyllic to Sani who faces abuse from his stepfather.  Finally, on top of it all, they are both artists, reluctant and afraid to follow their dreams.

With a sense that there is nothing left for them at home, they decide to run away on a cross-country trip to the Navajo nation.  Along the way they draft up a "Summer Song" that encapsulates many of the ideas of the story, visit a number of landmarks, and explore their feelings towards each other and themselves.  A unexpected (but well foreshadowed) turn of events in New Mexico, however, forces Moth and Sani to acknowledge certain realities that they have been avoiding and generates an ending with startling pathos.

As I never tire of stating, verse either works or it doesn't.  There are no "okay" verse books and most of them are excruciating.  This is one of those brilliant exceptions.  McBride's writing is deep and complex, like for example when she has Moth describe her feelings for Sani ("Honey, you can keep me forever,/like a phantom limb").  But more often her writing defies soundbites and easy explanation.  It can be slow reading, but that is because there are a lot of nuances to take in.  Surprisingly, this is not a character-driven story -- we barely get to know either of the characters even though they are constantly talking.  Instead, this is a more moody exploration of generalized concepts: what it means to lose someone, what is our relationship with our ancestors, and what it means to accept death.  Heavy thoughts, beautiful words.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Serendipity: Ten Romantic Tropes Transformed, ed by Marissa Meyer

A collection of short stories that promise to "transform" tropes suggests some exciting original storytelling.  Heaven knows that the romance genre could use some enlivening.  When you can recognize these basic plots from their simple generic names ("matchmaker," "best friend love epiphany," "grand romantic gesture," etc.) then you pretty much have summarized the state of the field.  So, I was excited by the premise of the collection.  However, the book is more hype than revelation.

In some of these stories, originality is achieved by having the protagonists be gender queer, but in this day and age, that's hardly novel.  There are some clever settings (like Eulberg's story set in a London Eye capsule).  There are a few funny pieces (Meyer's own tribute to the two-friends-and-one-bed set up).  However, mostly this is more of the same old same old.  If you really like the idea of romance stories, then these exercises may appeal to you, but for me the draw of a romance is not the tropes, but the characters.  And within a maximum length of thirty pages, it's really hard to build the emotional attachment to the characters that gives a romance its pull.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Year I Stopped Trying, by Katie Heaney

If you're an overachiever, you probably have not spent much time thinking about the possibility of not putting everything into your work, but what do you really think would happen if you failed to do so?  For Mary, the idea seems terrifying and she would consider doing less than her best.  But when she somehow manages to forget to write a paper for her AP History class and nothing immediately happens, the experience is revelatory.

Seeing how little anyone cares that she's missed an assignment inspires her to expand on the experience by simply stopping doing any work at all.  As a good student with a reputation for being a hard worker, it takes a while for her teachers to even notice.  Once they do, most of them are so confused that they don't know what to do about her change.

Stopping working isn't enough for Mary.  She starts thinking about what else she could do to "wreck" her life.  She's never dated, but she's heard it said that getting involved in a romance can hurt your academics, so why not test that theory?  She ends up with ex-stoner Mitch, with whom she enjoys riding around town in aimless cruising, but nothing else ever happens.  She knows what she's supposed to do (kiss, make-out, and everything else connected with having a boyfriend), but she doesn't really want to do that either.  Having discovered the joys of underachieving, having a romance seems like too much work as well.

It's a hard book to describe and my synopsis probably makes Mary sound a bit hard to stomach, but she's actually one of the fresher voices in YA lit -- witty, very funny, and a completely original thinker. Like a modern Holden Caulfield, she's questioning the expectations that she's had laid out for her:

Everything I do--almost everything, anyway--I do to prevent a later guilt over not having done it....Nobody told me I had to wake up at exactly 5:35, but I know that when I hit snooze (which I've only done twice in my life), I wake up feeling like the laziest scumbag on planet Earth.  It passes soon enough when I complete the next available requirement, but the sting is acute, and apparently self-created.

Such a precocious acknowledgement and rebellion against the Protestant Work Ethic can seem like a premature mid-life crisis (or perhaps a bout of clinical depression) but presented in her lively prose is a joy to read.  This is a fun book to read.  Yes, her voice is often too wise for her age, but we'll give the author some leeway there because her observations are so totally on the mark.  Mary has a good head on her shoulders and she makes an inspiring role model as someone who is going to end up with a decent work-life balance as an adult.  While intended for teens, this is truly a YA book that adults can really enjoy, perhaps with the regret of never having been so cool when we were seventeen.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

A Rush of Wings, by Laura E. Weymouth

For this retelling of The Grimms Brothers' Six Swans, the setting has been transported to Scotland, throwing in a bit of Highland bravado into a story of breaking curses.

Rowenna was always supposed to learn the Craft from her mother, but Mom never felt she was ready.  And when a demon from the sea visits them and kills Mom in front of Rowenna, there is nothing she can do to prevent it.  Rowenna never learned enough about her powers to do anything.  And now that her mother is gone, Rowenna probably never will.

A few months later, Rowenna's mother returns to them and only Rowenna can tell that it is in fact the demon, now masquerading in her mother's form.  When Rowenna tries to stop the demon, it curses her with muteness and transforms her brothers into swans.  Turning the villagers against them, her mother forces Rowenna and her swans to flee for their lives.

To break the curse, Rowenna must knit a shirt made of nettles for each of her brothers.  To do that, Rowenna needs to lay low and avoid attracting attention.  But Scotland is seething under English occupation and Rowenna and the swans attract attention:  Torr, the English tyrant who leads the occupation, becomes obsessed with the powers that he believes Rowenna has and what they could do to enhance his own power.  And Rowenna, forced by him to develop those powers, is learning their true extant.

It's very hard to read this book and not compare it with Elizabeth Lim's Six Crimson Cranes, which also adapted the same fairy tale.  Weymouth's take is prettier, grounded in a more realistic setting, and more literarily ambitious, but Lim's novel is much easier to read and track.  Weymouth's proses drifts and wanders and it is frequently hard to follow the action.  It was probably mostly due to my recent familiarity with the story (from reading Lim first) that even made it possible for me to follow this version at all.  And for all the talk about highlanders and the occasional "aye" or "lassie," there is surprisingly little of Scotland here so even the advantage of the setting is largely wasted.  Where Weymouth's does do a better job is in showing Rowenna's character growth and her ability to navigate her conflict with her mother.  This is mostly due to Weymouth's more philosophical and cerebral take on the story, which Lim primarily treated as a swords-and-sorcery tale.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

You'd Be Home Now, by Kathleen Glasgow

Emory has always tried to be who others told her she was.  She wasn't as beautiful as her older sister, but she was the good one.  That's important after her brother Joey's drug problem came out into the open.  A car accident, in which a girl died and in which both she and her brother were in the car, has scarred the community.  People blame the driver and her brother for being high. Never mind that the accident was caused by bad driving conditions, because people see the drugs and they want to blame the drugs.  And Emory, who was sober, is guilty by being in the car, by being the sister, and by being alive.

Four months later, Joey is let out of rehab and returns home.  Emory is determined to make sure that everything stays fine.  She'll keep an eye on Joey and make sure he's fine and stays off drugs.  Never mind that her parents don't know how to cope with him and ignore her altogether.  Never mind that people at school want him dead for what he "did" to that dead girl.  It's all going to be fine.  That is, until Joey disappears.

A non-stop drama that builds up gradually and keeps your attention to the end.  It starts as a simple tale of identity about Emory's search for self and could have stayed in that realm and been successful.  There's a lovely minor character named Liza who steals the show by channeling all that good advice stuff about standing up for yourself and not taking crap from bullies that you wish every YA novel would have.  In a book about identity, she would have saved Emory and they would have lived happily ever after.

But the novel isn't really about standing up to bullies, it's about opioid addiction and the way it is destroying communities.  Emory's search for self isn't about facing off against a petty queen bee, it's about finding the inner strength to be the person her addict brother needs her to be.  As these things are a group effort, it's also about pulling her parents along with her and having the entire family come together to save Joey.  It's a harrowing, intense, and authentic look at a family struggling to deal with addiction.  Well-written and thought provoking.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Ciel, by Sophie Labelle

Ciel is starting high school this year.  They have always had a complicated identity, being non-binary, but in middle school people knew Ciel and had gotten used to them.  With a new school, there's  new people, and getting them and the teachers to refer to Ciel properly is trying. Stephie, Ciel's best friend, takes a different approach:  avoiding her trans status altogether and simply passing as a girl in school.  

Added to these questions of identity are Ciel's issues with maintaining the relationship they have with a boyfriend who has become more and more distant since he returned home to Iceland.  Keeping a transoceanic relationship going is hard and Ciel isn't even sure they want to keep trying:  there's a new trans boy in their sights!

Aside from the fact that the story is largely bereft of cisgendered  main characters, the book is surprisingly sparse.  So its appeal lies in the novelty of the characters.  The key plotlines (Ciel's relationship with the Icelander, their vlog and some negative reactions to it, Stephie's embrace of her feminine identity, and Ciel's conflicted relationship with gender overall) are present as ideas but not really developed.  It's busy, but doesn't really go anywhere.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

The Pants Project, by Cat Clarke

Liv is starting middle school this year.  There will be lots of new things to get used to:  being the youngest instead of the oldest, having new class options, and making new friends.  But the hardest thing for Liv is the new dress code and the rule that all girls must wear skirts.  Liv hates skirts and never wears them.  Boys are always bothering girls by trying to look up them and tights make Liv's legs itch!  But hardest of all, being sorted this way means that Liv not only has to wear a skirt but Liv also has to identify as a girl.  And, even if Liv has told no one else yet, Liv knows that he's a boy.

Coming out as a transsexual isn't something Liv is comfortable with doing yet.  Liv sees the way people look down at his non-traditional family (Liv has two mothers).

For Liv, standing up against the dress code is a smaller battle, something manageable.  After all, even some girls don't like wearing skirts.  So, while Liv works up the courage to come out, Liv can take on the school's rule.  But Liv's not entirely correct.  Fighting for the right to wear what one wants means putting everything on the line, jeopardizing old friendships and finding new allies.

The book is a busy story with lots of subplots, but an overall message of being yourself and resisting peer pressure.  Liv makes a few mistakes along the way, but she demonstrates maturity and generally makes good choices.  While Liv's gender identity is an important issue, Clarke wisely puts the topic in the background and focuses the story's drama on the fight over the dress code.  It's a paper tiger of an issue but that makes it a cleaner target for the middle reader demographic. And it gets the message across effectively.  There is a sense that Liv will prove just as capable at working out who Liv is.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

A Short History of the Girl Next Door, by Jared Reck

Tabby, the girl next door, has always been there for Matt.  They've hung out with each other since they were babies and know each other better than anyone else.  And while he's never dared to tell her, Matt believes that one day they will end up getting married.  So, when Tabby gets her first boyfriend and it is superstar senior Liam (and not him), Matt is seething with jealousy.  It would be easier if Liam was an asshole, but even Matt has to admit that he's a good guy.  While Matt knows he should be happy for his friend, he can't manage to let go of his anger and resentment.  He feels that he's losing his best friend to Liam.

Then an unexpected tragedy throws Matt into a bad place, where he could really use Tabby's support, but she's not there for him.  Grieving and angry, Matt lashes out at everyone around him.  It takes some hard lessons from his family for Matt to re-center himself and move on.  Learning to put his friendship with Tabby in perspective is central to that healing process.

A few months back, I reviewed Reck's latest book (about Swedish-American food truck sellers) and afterwards went looking for other books by Reck.  This is his first novel and, while it shows the same finely depicted characters, I didn't care for it as much.  There's a LOT of sports action in this one and I find that hard to get into.  If you like male bonding on the court, then there's some well-crafted scenes to take in, but I find it pretty boring stuff.  More important, I didn't find the story  (and its plot twist in particular) all that compelling.  There are so many books about grief and Jerry Spinelli and John Green have covered this territory well.

Reck is a great writer.  While the novel contains the swearing and flatulence humor that seems to be required in "boy" books, he gives a lot of depth to Matt.  There's a beautiful set of scenes mid-way through the book where Matt and Tabby have a real heart-to-heart about toxic masculinity that really makes the book.  Matt's relationship with his little brother is awfully sweet as well, showing that there's much more than just pining after the girl.  There really are not a lot of good contemporary YA books with believable straight male characters (in striking contrast to the past when all children's books were about boys).  I have no complaint with that shift in publishing trends, but it is still nice to see some strongly crafted, emotionally sensitive books about boys.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small Town America, ed Nora Shalaway Carpenter

One of my standing pet peeves about contemporary fiction is its strong urban and suburban bias.  Just as the mass media and popular culture as a whole have largely neglected life outside of metropolitan centers, YA literature rarely ventures into the countryside.  When it does so, it usually is simply to portray rural areas as some hellish landscape that our protagonist is trying to get away from.  Thus, when I saw this collection of short stories, I was terribly excited.  At last!  A group of fresh new writers who would take on the stereotypes and show us the great variety of life in the countryside.

Not so much.

There are a few outstanding pieces like Monica Roe's "The (Unhealthy) Breakfast Club" about poor rural kids doing their homework at the McDonalds in order to pick up decent Internet.  Joseph Bruchac's reminiscences about growing up in the 1950s are by their nature full of depth and nuance.  But for the most part, this collection is the same old same old.  Sensitive intellectual (and usually gender queer) teens who chaff at small town prejudice and ignorance.  It's tired stuff and insulting to its subject.  And it's not terribly realistic.

I would set out a challenge:  create a story about young people who like where they live and don't want to run away to the city.  Teens who by the nature of their socioeconomic status spend a good part of their day doing chores to help their families.  Who get up before the dawn and spend an hour on a school bus working on their homework.  Who see church as a social experience that gives them identity rather than as an enemy of their creativity.  Characters, in sum, who don't hate the culture they come from.  In this anthology, the only time a character seems to like their roots is when they are Latinx or Black or Native American.  That's more political than true to life.

Small town America doesn't have to be the bogeyman.  It's a shame that a collection that claims to challenge assumptions instead chose to reinforce prejudice.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Quiet Kind of Thunder, by Sara Barnard

Steffi suffers from anxiety-induced mutism.  In front of strangers or presented with stressful situations, she is unable to speak.  The harder she tries to overcome it, the worse she gets.  Her parents are concerned that she will be unable to handle independent living.  So, while she is convinced that she'll go to university after graduating, they worried that she won't be able to handle it.

Rhys is a new enrollee at school.  He's deaf.  The headmaster, aware that Steffi knows some British Sign Language (BSL) (which she picked up as a therapy for her mutism), asks her to orient Rhys and help him get acquainted with their school.  Despite the difference in their handicaps, they bond and become friends.  And the friendship morphs into a romance.

The relationship is far from smooth.  While both of them confidently believe they understand each other's challenges, they quickly learn how rudimentary their knowledge truly is.  And the petty misunderstandings that accompany any relationship become a bigger deal when dealing with such significant communication barriers.  With all of this added on to the whirlwind of a first romance for the two of them and it is not smooth sailing.  Things come to a head when the young couple slips away from London to spend a secret weekend in Edinburgh and an accident puts their physical limits to the test.

Sara Barnard continues to astonish me.  She writes books with modest premises that seem to blossom into these amazingly complex and significant observations.  On its face, the story is nothing spectacular or now.  What makes this book (and all of her other novels) stand out is her consistent strong character development.  Her characters are complex and defy stereotypes.  Motivations are nuanced.  Young protagonists have age-appropriate and realistic responses to their environment, being capable of both drama and intellect.  Adults are flawed but mature and responsible.  They understand their children and support them (even if they don't always do what the children want).  In sum, the characters feel like real people.

Steffi and Rhys have different challenges in growing up with their distinct disabilities, which are portrayed well, but Barnard also manages to show us similarities.  Both of them bear an adolescents' misunderstanding of responsibility and expectations (Steffi lacks confidence while Rhys is unrealistic about expectations). Both have trouble with trust, although Steffi's issues are rooted in bullying while Rhys's come from microaggressions.  Both of them are sensitive and aware of the way the world discriminates against them because of their disabilities although Steffi tolerates it better than Rhys does.  The fact that I can observe these subtle differences between their characters gives some sense of the nuance in the character development.

The novel is imperfect.  The story is laden down with a number of subplots (a dead stepbrother, a mother's anxiety, etc.) that are never properly addressed and Steffi's codependent friendship with her BFF Tem is imperfectly resolved.  Shedding the former might have provided an opportunity to better address the latter.  The overall beauty of the book, though, is its simplicity.  Getting to know these two young people -- in their flaws and glories - made me fall in love with them and their story.  It's just a boy-meets-girl romance, but with the character-driven approach of the narrative, they become people I truly cared about.  So I wanted to be there with them as they worked through their problems and to be able to cheer for them as they figured things out.

In sum, a modest story that proved to be a good read from a consistently excellent writer.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Sway With Me, by Syed M. Masood

Arsalan has been raised and homeschooled by his great grandfather Nana.  Since his mother died in a car accident a few years ago, it's just been the two of them (his abusive father abandoned them long before). Now Nana has decided that it is time for Arsalan to attend public school. Nana's tutelage, heavy on literature and neglectful of math or science, has left Arsalan's education unbalanced and his social skills non-existent.

Recognizing his weakness, Arsalan turns to the daughter of a prominent matchmaker in his class named Beanish, in hopes that she can find him a girlfriend.  Beanish has a request of her own:  she needs a partner for an upcoming dance contest.  Arsalan knows nothing about dance, but he'll do whatever it takes to get her help with his problem. She in turn solicits the help of Diamond, a stylish and athletic boy who helps Arsalan bulk up for his role.

The situation (and Diamond in particular, with his habit of referring to himself in the third person) is comedic and overall there is a rom-com element to this story, but it has several serious themes as well.  Beanish's dance is not actually for a contest but for a more important purpose:  saving her sister from an unwanted marriage.  And Arsalan is not just socially awkward, but also a survivor of horrific childhood abuse.  Masood's writing beautifully balances out the light and the heavy, often at the same time, as in this passage which so crushingly depicts Arsalan's association of love and abuse:

Before I could respond, her lips -- accidentally I am sure -- grazed the crook of my neck. Their touch was soft and impossibly delicate against the spot where my father had once pressed a match and threatened to burn me.

And it's not just Masood's sensitivity to complex emotional states that makes this story shine.  Culture and religion feature prominently and treated with some sophistication.  Some of the pious (the intended groom of Beanish's older sister and Arsalan's father) are negative, but Diamond (for all of his vanity) is a positive role model for religion.  Nana's skepticism (rooted in intellectual pursuits) contrasts with Beanish's instinctual rebelliousness.  Arsalan stands between them all, full of doubt, picking out his own understanding of faith.

Not everything worked for me.  I thought the father's abuse was over the top and not really sure it was necessary for it to be so, but overall this is a beautiful story.  Masood is such an original writer and the characters so vibrant and interesting that I can't help but recommend the book.  This is a joyous book about friendship, adopted family, and loyalty.  While rooted in Pakistani-American experience, there is nothing particularly exclusive about the story.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Pax, Journey Home, by Sara Pennypacker

In this sequel to the pacifist allegory Pax, years have passed and both boy and fox have grown.  The war which raged through the first book has ended and humans are rebuilding, focusing on cleaning away the ecological damage of warfare.  Restless and uncomfortable at home because of the memories the place stirs up, he joins up with the "Water Warriors" -- a group of young people restoring the lakes and rivers in his old stomping grounds.  Just as the water ways need to be cleansed of toxins left by the war, Peter also struggles under his feelings of loss and anger from the hostilities and the more recent loss of his father. Back in the woods, his memories of his former pet Pax dominate his brain and he yearns to see the fox again.

Pax, meanwhile has grown up and built a family.  Safe from war but now threatened by the return of the humans, he goes out in search of safer spaces to raise his young family.  While intending to leave his three kits with their mother, his stubborn daughter tags along and  Pax is forced to bring her along.  Pax introduces her to the forest and to the ways of the humans.  He tries to explain to her that some humans (like his Peter) can be kind.  The eventual reunion with Peter is marred by his kit falling ill and Pax must make a fateful decision to trust Peter to take care of the young one.

The original Pax always seemed a bit too complex to be a children's book -- its style too moody and its story difficult to follow.  The sequel is even more so.  This is partly due to the heavy reliance on actions and characters from the predecessor (I would strongly recommend reading or re-reading Pax before reading this book).  However, even standalone, the novel's primary themes of environmental devastation, suicidal ideation, and grief are more personal and much darker.

I really appreciated the karmic circularity of this story, allowing the themes of the first book to come back around and the arc to achieve pleasing closure, but this is overall a weaker story.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

In Deeper Waters, by F. T. Lukens

Having come of age, Prince Tal is now on his traditional coming out tour of the kingdom.  Few of his subjects know him because he has been hidden from view.  His family is supportive and highly protective, so his cloistering is not the result of shame, but of wariness.  His great grandfather was an evil and terrible mage who terrorized the kingdoms and sowed discord.  After his defeat. the royal family has had to work hard to recover any honor among their peers.  So the fact that Tal shows signs of possessing the same magic now is dangerous.  If the other kingdoms find out about Tal's powers, he and the entire family will be in danger form proactive attacks.  It is in this awkward and dangerous position that Tal must operate; remaining cautious about revealing his true self.

But Tal's plans to keep a low profile are thrown asunder when he rescues a mysterious boy named Athlen from a group of pirates.  The two young men form an immediate attachment in spite of knowing so little about each other's secrets.  And when Tal himself is kidnapped, it is Athlen who must rescue him and help him save his kingdom.  And along the way Tal must also deal with how to come out publicly as a mage.

Swashbuckling sea adventures in a fantasy world, but the book lacks much of the urgency of a good adventure.  The fantasy setting itself is also largely underdeveloped.  So what does the story have?  Lots and lots of exposition and discussion.  This is a story where the characters talk and talk and talk some more, so that by the time anything actually happens, we've pretty much hashed through it from all of the angles.

Homoerotic elements are present but largely played down, much to the detriment of the story as the potentially hot romance between Tal and Athlen never quite takes off.  In their world, homosexuality is a non-issue, so it is the side plot about Tal gaining the self-confidence to come out as a holder of magic is a cute way of writing in a coming out story.  All of which brings us to the crux of the matter:  the story has cuteness and potential, but it never delivers on its promise.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Kate in Waiting, by Becky Albertalli

Kate and Anderson have been friends for ages.  One of the best parts of having a gay friend is their ability to crush on the same guys as you do.  And as long as the objects of their longing are distant and far way, there's no harm or foul.  But when their shared summer crush Matthew enrolls at their high school in the Fall, suddenly it's a different story.  As much as Kate and Anderson realize that it would be best for their friendship if they both swore off Matthew, they realize that neither of them want to.  Instead, they agree that they will each be free to pursue Matthew and that they promise to have no hard feelings if they lose out.  Will their friendship survive this?

The novel is an extremely brisk read that I found nonetheless challenging to get into.  Albertalli drives the action forward almost exclusively through dialogue which sounds simple until you try to read it.  Exposition and reflection take a back seat to a rather relentless drive forward as one interaction leads to another.  Blink and you'll miss an important plot point.  You certainly never get bored, but you stand a good chance of getting left behind.  Admittedly, this is a pretty good depiction of the whirlwind of adolescent relationships, but in written form it makes it hard to invest in the characters.

The book's heavy use of the F-word is unnecessary and distracting, adding little to the story except to become numbing.  It probably also draw unnecessary attention to the book for people looking for excuses to keep it out of young readers' hands.

Otherwise this is a pretty much by-the-numbers dramarama adventure (i.e., kids put on a theatrical production -- Once Upon A Mattress in this case).  The eventual resolution of  Kate and Anderson's romantic lives and their friendship with each other is largely uneventful and unsurprising.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Clarice the Brave, by Lisa McMann

Clarice is just a little ship mouse.  Since her mother was washed out to sea, she's looked after her intelligent (but largely impractical) brother Charles Sebastian.  For the most part, this has involved avoiding notice from the humans, keeping away from the chickens, and trying not to get eaten by the cats.  It's a simple life with easy rules to follow (even though Charles Sebastian seems to still struggle).

Humans are far more complicated.  When the crew rise up in a mutiny, the captain and his supporters are set adrift in a small boat.  Clarice finds herself on the small boat, while Charles Sebastian is left behind on the ship.  Separated by leagues of open sea, Clarice is distraught and determined to find a way to reunite with her weaker brother.

What can a little mouse do?  With no one else to turn to, Clarice cleverly befriends Special Lady, the captain's cat.  Faced with a mutual need for each other's support in order to survive, Clarice and Special Lady form an unusual alliance.

An action-packed story of adventure and friendship.  I was nonetheless disappointed with the book.  Honestly, based on the cover and a cute blurb, I was hoping for a gentle animal story (i.e., Stuart Little-esque adventures on the high seas) but this story is too gory for that.  There's an awful lot of death (often by unpleasant means) and it's not a very cheery story.  It's also a surprisingly morally ambiguous story without any clear heroes and an ambivalent ending.