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."