Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Lolo's Light, by Liz Garton Scanlon

At the age of twelve, Millie gets her first experience of babysitting for their neighbor's four month-old baby, Lolo.  The evening goes fine and Millie is so happy that she's managed so well as a child carer.  But the next morning, there is terrible news:  sometime in the night after Millie went home, baby Lolo died.  Attributed to SIDS, Lolo's death is not Millie's fault, but that's not how Millie sees it.  

Suddenly, nothing feels safe or secure.  Withdrawn into grief, Lolo cuts herself off from her friends and it struck with panic attacks at school.  She becomes convinced that the spirit of Lolo still lives and imagines she can see the light of that spirit shining from her neighbor's windows when she walks by.

A poorly timed science project in which the class incubates and hatches chickens stirs up the worst of her fears and anxieties.  Millie becomes obsessed with taking care of the eggs and their incubation and grows inconsolable when some of the eggs fail.  Her parents, the science teachers, and a counselor all attempt to help, offering different perspectives on life/death and reconciling to it.

Stories about grief don't generally allow much room for maneuver in the plot. It's pretty much a given that you'll work through the stages of grief and come out at the end of the story in a state of acceptance, prepared to move forward.  It's an inward journey and can get really dull, unless it is particularly well-written.  In this case, the challenges are compounded by the author's decision to tell the story in third person voice.  Millie is sad.  Millie is angry.  Millie won't tell people how she's feeling.  It's an incredibly passive way to experience her emotional state and one that is very hard with which to connect. I couldn't get invested in her story.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Remember Me Gone, by Stacy Stokes

Tumble Tree is such a remote small town that there is no cell service.  All it has going for it is the mine where half of the town is employed and Memory House.  Memory House is the outfit that Lucy's father runs:  a place where people go to forget their troubles.  Dad is a unique skill:  he's able to erase people's bad memories, leaving them free to go on with their lives unburdened by what they want to forget.

But something is not quite right.  Lucy keeps having flashes of memories that don't make sense and periods of time for which she can't account.  People are giving her vague answers and tell her things that can't be true.  Someone's hiding something and going to great pain to do so, and it's almost as if someone like her father has been wiping her memories.  However, Lucy knows that her Dad would never practice on an unwilling person.  It all seems to center around the mines and the mayor.  Lucy and the mayor's nephew, Marco feel that they are tantalizingly close to uncovering the mystery, but plagued by the sense that they may have been in this same place before.

A wonderful edge-of-the-seat thriller that mixes just the right amount of suspense and paranoia to keep you hooked.  Lucy and Marco have great chemistry (even though the novel never slows down enough to give them space for romance) and a series of creepy antagonists keep readers on their toes.  Things get a bit strained towards the end as Stokes tries to wrap everything up and some of the explanations didn't make much sense, but the adventure is so much fun along the way that you want to just let it go so you can enjoy the ride.  Great read!

Saturday, March 11, 2023

I Was Born for This, by Alice Oseman

Angel lives for The Ark, a boy band she's been following since they were posting amateur videos on YouTube.  She's a obsessive fan for a band that has one of the hardest core fandoms in the world.  Hardly an hour goes by without her monitoring Twitter for the latest information about The Ark.  She loves them sooooooooooo much!

She's finally saved up enough money to travel to London to see them perform and spend a week hanging out with Juliet, another fangirl.  She's sure that it will be amazing and she's going to have a great time because every time she's hanging out with The Ark, she feels all the love the band gives out.

After five years, life as a member of the band in The Ark is wearing Jimmy down.  Secretly suffering with anxiety and panic attacks (which his PR people keep under wraps), he struggles to get through  days of pointless interviews and photo-ops.  He longs for the days when he could just go out on the street and not get accosted by some vapid fangirl who allegedly "loves" him.  How can they when they know nothing about him?  With the record company pressuring them to sign a more restrictive contract, he feels more and more pressure to just step away.  And as they return to London to finish up their latest tour, the band is falling apart.

In the week that follows, nothing turns out quite like either Angel or Jimmy planned.  Being in a band or being a fan of the band isn't what they imagined.  And as their plans come apart, both of them are forced to confront the fact that they aren't loving the one person they need to love -- themselves.  

With a ethnically and gender-diverse cast that is Oseman's signature, she explores fame and the people who put people there, the fans.  Despite such an unoriginal topic, Oseman has a surprisingly large amount of original things to say about it.  And a cast of characters who are not only diverse but original, vivid, and (at times) outrageously funny makes this a great read.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Justine, by Forsyth Harmon

An unusual illustrated novel tells a familiar story, presented in an entirely original way, about a teenager growing up on Long Island in the late 1990s.  Aimless and lonely, Ali picks up a job at the local convenience store where she meets Justine and falls into a deep obsession.  Ali's been experimenting with boys and finding nothing there for her and so falling head over heels for tall enigmatic Justine makes a certain sense.  

Justine is not a terribly good role model.  She teaches Ali how to memorize produce codes and bag groceries, but also how to purge to stay thin and how to shoplift from stores.  Apathetic and bored with her own life, Ali doggedly follows Justine's example in every way.  It ends badly and on a tragic note.

This is a very short story (135 pages, nearly half of which are illustrations) and a quick read.  It's not really a story per se, but more a series of journal entries, with ink line drawings of common everyday objects (a Coke can, a bag of potato chips, a gas station sign. etc.).  The banality of the drawings and the story itself is part of its charm.  Ali's life isn't particularly big or important to the world, but it is a complex swirl of emotions and feelings for Ali herself, most of which she is unable to process or contextualize.  It's a tragedy, but not one that Ali really cares much about.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Girls at the Edge of the World, by Laura Brooke Robson

In the kingdom of Kostrova, The Captain's Log has foretold a series of ten storms that will bring on a great global flood in its conclusion.  It's not supposed to come for many more years, but as the storms start occurring as they have been described, people start to panic.  There are no preparations and not nearly enough boats for everyone.  It readily becomes apparent that people will do anything to find a place on one of them.  Natasha, the leader of the elite Royal Flyers (a group of young women who perform acrobatic ballet on silk ribbons, has her eyes on the attentions of King Nikolai who is searching for a wife.  

For the elite Royal Flyers themselves, their chances are slightly better than average. So, when a vacancy appears, many apply.  For most of the applicants, getting a foot in the door would improve their chances of survival.  For Ella, she knows she is doomed regardless and she doesn't care.  She's joining the Royal Flyers for an entirely different reason:  to exact revenge by killing King Nikolai.

As the storms progress, and the prophecy unfolds as it was foretold, social unrest breaks out and palace intrigues start to emerge.  There is tug of war between Nikolai and the faith's leader, mass poisonings, and acts of arson.  However, in the end, everyone's plans get thrown off and things take their own course.

I loved the immersive world building.  While I found it a little distracting, I even enjoyed the faint Russian and Finnish references in the novel.  However, the ending is a rushed mess in which so much of what is built up in the story gets tossed aside.  It keeps us on our toes but so little of what happens in the end is actually built during the story.  The storms, the revenge, the struggle over the crown, competition for the king's hand, and even the planned murder weapon become irrelevant for how the story wraps up.  And a romance that is barely hinted at during the bulk of the story becomes determinant in the end.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Afterlove, by Tanya Byrne

Ash and Poppy meet on a school trip and embark on a whirlwind romance that quickly turns serious. For Ash, this comes as a surprise because she's never had much luck in her previous relationships.  The two girls are from drastically different socioeconomic situations.  In spite of that, her doubts are swept away as she becomes convinced that Poppy is the one whom (in the words of Death Cab for Cutie) she'll "follow into the dark." Poppy is a keeper and Ash is starting to consider how to introduce Poppy to her conservative family.

But then Ash is suddenly struck down in a hit-and-run and dies on New Year's Eve.  As the last teenager to die in the year, she is assigned the role of "reaper" to help guide the recently deceased to the beach and to Charon's waiting boat to take them to the afterlife.  Life as a reaper, while ostensibly similar to Ash's life before, has its own set of rules.  Key amongst them is that, while people can see you, you don't look like you did before.  Only those who are about to die can see the real you.  She is also warned away from visiting friends, family, and (especially) Poppy.  But Ash can't resist the temptation and when she goes anyway she is hit with a rude shock when Poppy can actually see her!

An interesting paranormal romance with a split personality.  The first half plays out as a typical teen lesbian romance, with a lot of struggling over whether to come out to their families.  There's some lovely character building here between mother and daughter, and we get a real strong sense of the tension between Ash's intense feelings for Poppy and her loyalties to her family.  It's thus a big shock in the second half where the focus is entirely on Ash's superficial relationships with her fellow reapers and the doomed romance with Poppy.  The family is barely mentioned and her mother is forgotten.  Moreover, the second half is not even that interesting.  The potential drama of finding out that your girlfriend is about to die is not really developed.  Another potential flash point with a head reaper Deborah (and a really easy potential replacement for Mom) remains a cypher -- an utterly wasted character.  The story disappoints.

I did love the not-safe-for-Florida cover art though!

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Wishing Upon the Same Stars, by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman

The move from Detroit to San Antonio is a big change for Yasmeen.  She's used to her predominantly Arab community and San Antonio is so different.  She just hopes that she'll fit in and that people will like her.  What she finds is a bit more complicated.  She is surprised to find that stories of Texan hospitality really are true.  Her neighbor Waverly warmly welcomes her.  The neighbors, while a bit taken aback by Yasmeen's family, are largely friendly.  But there are others who see her differences as something to hate, from the mean man at the restaurant who threatens her father to the bully at school who accuses Yasmeen of being a terrorist.  But the most complicated relationship of all is with Ayelet, a girl who is also from the Middle East, but who's Israeli.  In principle, the girls have a lot in common as immigrants, but the shadow of the conflict in their homeland hangs over them.  Can they forge a friendship against so much pressure to hate?

As is typical in a middle reader, there's plenty going on in this book:  Yasmeen has to learn how to dance, Yasmeen's sister goes to the National Spelling Bee, grandmother comes to live with them, and so on. With fairly simple age-appropriate explanations of the intifada, a faint hint of a romantic interest (but not even a kiss), and a story of largely well-behaved young people, this novel has little to object to.

The key message is about forging true friendships based on loyalty and kindness.  Through determination and a fair amount of bravery, Yasmeen stands up for what she wants:  to have the friends she wants to have, to be so the things she wants to do, and to be the person she wants to be.  And while everything comes together a bit too neatly and the book's ending stops just short of solving the Mideast Crisis, it's a charming story of young people trying to break free of their parents' prejudices.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Meant to Be, by Jo Knowles

In this companion to Where the Heart Is, the focus shifts to Rachel's little sister Ivy and jumps ahead a few months to the aftermath of the family's downsizing to an apartment in the city.  While most of the family is sad about losing their country home, Ivy is much happier in this new place.  She doesn't mind that it's smaller.  And she enjoys sharing a room with her sister.  There are more kids to play with and she feels less isolated.

But having children to play with presents new challenges.  When Ivy makes an unintentionally insensitive remark to her new best friend Alice, she's surprised at Alice's angry response.  And when she quickly apologizes, she's hurt when Alice doesn't immediately forgive her.  In fact, nowadays it seems that Ivy can't say anything without offending someone.  Maybe life really was better out in the country!  But with some guidance from her older sister, the superintendent of the apartment, and some other adults, Ivy learns some valuable lessons about being patient and loving with one's friends.

I didn't remember Ivy so well from the original book, but she is fleshed out as a resourceful and intelligent (and perhaps overly precocious?) nine year-old.  Her primary talent and love is cooking and she shines in her clever ability at coming up with substitutions when she lacks specified ingredients.  That talent extends to her ability to solve the problems in her interpersonal relationships as well, bootstrapping her way through her challenges.  The author claims to also be addressing Ivy's anxiousness, but I really didn't notice much of that.  She's a bit emotional, but not in a way that seemed particularly remarkable for her age.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Where You've Got to Be, by Caroline Gertler

At the start of sixth grade, Nolie's best friend Jessa decides that Nolie should start using her full name (Magnolia), which Nolie doesn't like.  Also, that Nolie needs to wear her skirts shorter and hang out only with the right kids.  Nolie doesn't like any of it, but when she tries to stand up for herself, she finds herself cast out of the old friendship circle.

And that isn't the only thing that is changing.  At home, her sister's just been cast in the lead role for The Nutcracker and now their parents are totally centered around her sister's needs.  Feeling ignored and self-pitying, Nolie starts "borrowing" objects that don't belong to her:  a necklace, a package of candy, and her grandma's antique compass.  When she gets caught, Nolie realizes that she's in too deep and, amidst all this change and challenge, that she's lost sight of who she is and who she wants to be.  Seeking guidance in her faith, she tries to atone and fix things.

A nice conduct-of-life middle reader with a large agenda of issues to address (including sibling rivalry, changing friendships, bullying, and even anti-Semitism).  It comes together a bit too abruptly at the end, but the right notes are struck. Ultimately, strong family ties, forgiveness, and making good choices are the path to a solution.  I would have liked to see more done with Nolie's interesting new BFF Serena, but there was a lot of material to cover in the story.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Lifeling, by Kirsty Applebaum

While only twelve years old, Lonny looks older on account of the magic he possesses.  When Lonny comes in contact with someone or something on the verge of death, he is faced with an irresistible urge to lay hands on them and save their life.  Unfortunately, every time he does so, he ages and loses a part of his life proportionate to the life he has saved.  Given the compulsive nature of his magic, being around others is dangerous and his family has tried to keep him hidden from the public.  To pacify Lonny, they have created a story of public hatred and fear of "lifelings" like Lonny that make it imperative for Lonny to lay low.  But Lonny longs to see the world and when he and his younger brother Midge sneak out to the city, they discover that lifelings are not feared, but honored. Lonny makes the fateful decision to reveal himself.

A quirky timeless story that reflects on the value of life within the bounds of a family of memorable characters.  I enjoyed its original juxtaposition of magic and mundane.  At times the story seems to be a medieval fairy tale and then someone pops up with a cell phone or a car to shake things up!  I loved the premise of Lonny's magic and the severe conundrums it presents.  And finally, the cast is wonderful.  However, I was less taken with the storytelling, which I found uneven and difficult to follow.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Why Would I Lie? by Adi Rule

Viveca is an obsessive overachiever, getting better than perfect grades in her classes.  She doesn't have a lot of friends (she simply doesn't have time for a social life).  Instead, she is driven to her (better than) perfect record to make up for some stupid mistakes in her past and the singular goal to get accepted to the one prestigious college that her mother attended.

At the start of her senior year, she's definitely on track to do so and to become the class valedictorian.  But then a new boy named Jamison comes to the school.  And he's amazing.  He's transferred from an elite French school, does virtually everything, excels at everything, and seems just about...well, perfect. 

Viveca is suspicious about his claims.  Too many things seem implausible, too many coincidences are convenient, and too many things don't line up.  Viveca knows all about liars.  Her father's ruined his life (and hers) through pathological lying.  She learned long ago that little he said could be trusted and she has had to deal with the consequences of his dishonesty as her father has lost jobs and friends along the way.  So, while it seems like every teacher and student in the school is willing to accept Jamison's stories, Viveca eyes him suspiciously.  Confronting and exposing Jamison, however, proves to be difficult and as she tries to do so, he goes on the offensive and attempts to discredit and destroy Viveca's reputation.  Without much social support, she quickly finds out how vulnerable she is to her peers and the fleeting loyalty of her teachers.

In the end, Viveca learns that no one can really destroy your life.  That is something only you can do.  However, it is a lesson she'll only learn once she's lost everything she thought mattered.

If you can read this lightly and without getting too invested, this is probably a pretty enjoyable book, but I found myself growing more and more infuriated at the set-up.  The level of bullying, Viveca's inability to defend herself, the connivance of the adults, and the nastiness of Viveca's peers was all pretty upsetting.  There is a good message about Viveca's need to gain some perspective, develop empathy, and work on her social skills, but the level of cruelty is a bit much for me.  The ending, where justice is (thankfully!) served is far too brief, not nearly satisfying enough, and surprisingly rushed for what we've endured in the reading.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

This Raging Light, by Estelle Laure

Lu has been stuck taking care of her kid sister since her parents left (Dad was committed and Mom left town shortly thereafter).  Still in school herself, Lu has to figure out a way to hide the situation from the neighbors and her teachers.  But as bills come due and there's no source of income, it is pretty rough.  At first, Lu falls back on the help of her best friend Eden, but that friendship is stretched to the breaking point when Lu falls romantically for her twin brother (who is already in a relationship).  With everything collapsing around her, the last thing Lu really needs is to embroil herself in infidelity.

And that's probably one of the bigger problems with this story, which pulls me back and forth between really caring for this girl and hating her various mistakes.  It would help if there was something interesting about the guy to like.  At no point in the book did I get the sense that the two of them even liked each other.  There's no heat at all between them.  Allegedly the boy has been in this super serious relationship for the past two years and then, despite the fact that Lu and him have known each other for ever, suddenly he can't live without Lu and he's ready to dump the previous Love of His Life.  Nope.

This is a tough genre to love:  I always always always find these child abandonment stories to be cruel and nasty.  In this one, Laure pulls her punches by producing an endless parade of helpful adults.  That keeps the suffering to a minimum, but it also feels manipulative as we get presented with these really bad situations which all turn out OK in the end.  And it presents a different problem:  once Laure has miraculously solved all of Lu's financial, legal, and ethical problems, she's left with no story.  So then it's time to bring in a weird out-of-the-blue accident that sends one of the characters to the hospital in a coma.  That's the point where you know the story's in trouble!

This was Estelle Laure's first novel and she's written plenty of good ones since.  It's been nothing but up since this one!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Most Likely, by Sarah Watson

In January 2049, on the occasion of her swearing-in as POTUS, president-elect Diffenderfer pauses for a moment to think back to her formative senior year.  Flashback to 2019, when four seniors, each of whom have impressive bona fides struggle through the drama of their last year of high school (alongside their friend Logan Diffenderfer). Which one becomes the President thirty years later?  You'll have to read the book to find out!

The four young women, friends since before kindergarten, are inseparable, yet strikingly different.  Ava has the grades to get into a top notch school like Stanford, but dreams of pursuing her art at RISD.  Martha also has the grades for a great school but lacks the financial resources and has to figure out a way to pursue her dream of being an engineer.  CJ can't manage to crack 1150 on her SAT and finds herself challenged by a volunteer stint at an afterschool program for wheelchair-bound youngsters and the critical appraisal of the program's director.  And finally there's Jordan, who dreams of turning her amateur investigation of a local politician's attempt to shut down a local park into an award-winning investigative piece.  While she doesn't find the scandal she's looking for, she instead finds a potential romance with a legislative aide who doesn't realize that she's underaged and over-her-head.  All four of them, at one time or another, find themselves confiding (or more) with the amenable Logan Diffenderfer.

While reading the novel, I twitched at the way that I kept looking for clues, not in the young women's leadership skills, but in their relationships with Logan -- knowing that the one who became Mrs. Diffenderfer becomes the President.  That seemed too sickening like the trope that behind any great woman there had to be a great man, but thankfully that never actually is in the cards.  Instead, the novel proved to be a much more fascinating study about the character of successful people.  Each of these women exhibit multiple character traits (intelligence, loyalty, empathy, resourcefulness, conviction, courage, and others) that made any of them likely candidates for a future president.  And that is really the point of a story like this:  showing how character builds leadership.

It's a winner from several perspectives in my mind:  a story with strong and admirable protagonists, a tale based on kindness and loyalty, a book with an important message to convey about how one confronts adversity, an uplifting story of empowerment for young women, and ultimately a paean to the American Dream that people of character (no matter their background) can change the world.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Again, but Better, by Christine Riccio

Shane is stuck in a life that she cannot stand. She majors in premed solely because her parents insist upon it and she struggles to make friends because she is shy.  And a boyfriend?  Forget about it.  When the opportunity arises for her to study abroad in London, she jumps on it.  A new place.  A chance to restart and be the person she wants to be.  Have friends.  Study creative writing (because writing is what she truly loves).  Because her parents would never approve of her studying anything other than medicine, she lies to them and claims to be continuing her premed program.

Once there, she does manage to come a little out of her shell and make friends with her flat mates.  And she falls head over heels for a boy named Pilot.  He sends encouraging signals but turns out to have a girlfriend already.  And after a few close encounters, he becomes cold and distant.  Eventually, her parents find out about the deception and are furious at her, forcing her to abandon the dream of writing.  By the end of the semester, nothing has worked out as Shane had hoped and she returns to the States in shame and disappointment.

Flash forward six years when Shane is ostensibly a successful doctor, but still torn apart by the unfinished business in London.  She finds herself presented with the opportunity to go back in time and re-do the whole thing.  Given how horrible it was, is this something she would really wish upon herself?  But what if, armed with the knowledge of when she made mistakes and six years to consider better choices, she could do it right?  Would it make any difference?

A little like Groundhog Day but more similar to Before Sunset, this charming story of what you might accomplish with a do-over is a crowd pleaser.  First of all, it has the adventure of impulsive youth set loose on Europe, which is always good makings for a beach read.  But when we shift to the second half,  the book shifts tone significantly and there's some wonderful opportunity for reflection on how we change as we grow up.  It's helpful to pay close attention to the first half of the book as much of it is referenced in the second half, and it is apparent that the initial run through was full of misperceptions.  So, even though you are running through much of the same story a second time, it's really entirely new.  The book's clever, but it is also no small feat to engineer a book that well.  I did think that the end comes on a bit too fast and loose ends get wrapped up entirely too neatly in a brief epilogue, but I enjoyed the book.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Somewhere Between the Trees and Clouds, by Chuck Murphree

Dylan struggles with violent behavior and bouts of self-hatred.  The recent death of his mother buys him sympathy from others but the truth is that Dylan's problems go back to when he was twelve and his uncle molested him on a hiking trip.  He's never found the strength to tell anyone besides his best friend TJ about what happened until he meets Audrey.  Audrey has just transferred to their school to get away from bullying and harassment that started when she was raped at a party and tried to press charges.  The transfer didn't help and her "reputation" has followed her to Dylan's school.  

Drawn to each other through their recognition of how much they have in common, Dylan and Audrey's relationship that should have warning flags all over it.  Two fragile people grappling with the scars of sexual assault and self-loathing and somehow helping each other seems like a very bad idea, but in this story it all works out.  Each of them finds the strength to rise to each other's aid and also rebuild their own lives.  It's depicted in a way that seems so deceptively easy.  Yes, there are some relapsing and plenty of bad days, but they are basically perfect to each other and manage to never hurt each other.  That's not how these things play out in the real world.

Beyond my reservations about the wisdom of the blatantly codependent relationship that is at the core of the story, I was put off by the writing itself.  This is a verse novel with nothing particularly outstanding about the verse.  Instead, it is more of a trick to turn a really thin story into a nearly 400-page book.  In fairness, there are some great characterizations here and I think it's great to have a book that explores the impact of sexual violence on boys (a topic that is rare in YA literature), but it's a disappointing read.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Breathe and Count Back from Ten, by Natalia Sylvester

Since she was little, Verónica has always wanted to be one of the performers in the Mermaid Cove show, to be a mermaid swimming beautifully in the water.  In reality, she's a girl with hip dysplasia, enduring multiple surgeries and the bearing the scars to show for it.  For her parents, she must be the good girl who stays away from boys and studies hard.  For her friends, she must be a brave warrior fighting the pain she lives with.  And to strangers, she must hide her scars and do anything she can to avoid their pity.  She never does anything for herself.

When a position opens at Mermaid Cove, Verónica's friends try to convince her that she should try out for the part.  Her parents are utterly opposed.  Performing in public as some sort of sex object in the water is hardly something her immigrant parents approve of (or even understand).  But Verónica is tired of never having a say in her life.  After enduring years of submitting to painful surgeries and denying herself the things she wants, it's time to take responsibility and take charge.  And with support from her secret boyfriend and from her friends, she takes the scariest step in her life.

While ostensibly the well-trod story of an intrepid first-generation teen breaking free from the bounds of her conservative parents (for heavens sake, can we have a story about permissive immigrant parents sometime?!), this novel actually avoids wallowing in that morass and finds something exceptional.  So while we do have to endure the endless refrains of "good girls don't" from her parents, the sneaking out/lying, and the inevitable getting caught, we also get treated to an strong story of a young woman rejecting ablest labels.  The parental disapproval is actually a side show to the bigger problems Verónica faces with societal judgments of her body and her capacity.

<Spoiler> The parental resistance is never truly overcome, and instead Verónica and her parents achieve an uneasy peace.  They come to mutually accept that there will always be conflicts between what her parents and what she needs and that the family can still love one another in spite of this.  So, rather than the catastrophic corner that these stories usually find themselves in (where either the parents or tghe child have to bend), Sylvester allows the characters to back away, retain their beliefs and creeds, and yet recognize that doing so doesn't mean having to give up on what is truly important:  each other.</Spoiler>

Sunday, January 29, 2023

A Bird Will Soar, by Alison Green Myers


Axel loves birds.  The way they live, where they nest, and where they go is so easy to understand.  And for Axel, who is autistic, there is a comforting simplicity in that.  But when a tornado comes through and damages not only Axel's house, but also the nest of a local pair of bald eagles, even simple things become complicated.  Like the way his father, who he hardly ever sees, shows up to repair the house.  Or the way that everyone comes to help when they discover an abandoned eaglet. The world is full of mysteries, secrets, and things that transcend rules -- the love of an extended family, for one!

A sweet meditation on the complexities of family, depicting the way that behaviors are far from fixed, but instead can bend when needs arise.  Myers is an excellent builder of characters, creating memorable protagonists in this gentle story which is about people doing good things and helping each other.  I did find that Axel gets on my nerves from time to time, but his is a fine sympathetic portrayal that articulates his confusion as he is presented with new situations in a way that was insightful and helpful to the reader.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Before Takeoff, by Ali Alsaid

James and Michelle are two strangers, stuck at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) when their flights (and in fact every other flight) are delayed.  It's a common enough story until they discover a strange blinking button on the wall and decide to push it.  Suddenly, the laws of the universe change.  It starts snowing in Terminal B but becomes unbearably hot and humid in Terminal C, where a jungle sprouts up.  Terminal F becomes a small microcosm of the world, with passengers breaking off into national identities that match their original destinations. As the delays continue (this being Delta, no flights ever get cancelled), people start disappearing, mobs of zombies appear, and strange monsters lurk.  Terminal C's Sky Club is taken over by the Diamond Medallion frequent flyers and they set up their own oligarchy.  Earthquakes and sudden death abound.

It all eventually ends, but not in a way that is particularly satisfying or meaningful.  Cutting to the chase, I found the novel pointless and normally would never have finished it -- if it wasn't about an airport that I know like the back of my hand.  And the author seems to know it pretty well also, except for the strange decision to describe massive windows everywhere (a mistake also featured in the cover -- which looks more like Detroit).  After all, the one very defining characteristic of ATL (and indeed ATL's most terrifying characteristic under normal circumstances) is its lack of windows.  It is a terribly claustrophobic airport.  For some reason, while Alsaid spends a lot of effort making up terrors, he skips past the one that is inherent to the airport -- the lack of windows.

So, why did I read a book I hated so much?  At first, I enjoyed all the details and the pleasure of recognizing the landmarks.  Throughout, I occasionally enjoyed the clever in-jokes ("fresh" sandwiches and salads, that SkyClub takeover, the patchy airport WiFi, etc.).  As we raced through larger and larger catastrophes, I kept hoping the pointless violence and high body count would amount to some sort of clever ending, but it never comes.  Alsaid proudly calls this a "weird trip of a book" but you need something more than weirdness to create a book worth reading.  And this flat out fails to deliver.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Wolves Are Waiting, by Natasha Friend

Fifteen year-old Nora finds herself lying on the golf course with no idea how she ended up there.  Last thing she remembers, she was attending a party and drinking a root beer.  In the aftermath, her best friend Cam urges her to immediately collect evidence and report the incident, but Nora doesn't want the attention.

In the ensuing weeks, Nora continues to resists her friend's entreaties.  Cam takes things into her own hands and starts investigating what happened and uncovers a tradition of sexual assault, which implicates Nora's own family.  Eventually, Nora comes around and testifies in the name of helping other victims.

Fictional, but based on actual events, the novel explores a wide variety of topics including toxic masculinity, slut shaming, sexting, fraternity hazing, college sports, and the ethics of college disciplinary practices.  None of the topics are particularly novel and the story does veer a bit into fantasy, but it is immensely entertaining and posits a few good talking points about addressing rape culture amongst high schoolers and undergraduates.  In an attempt to build a truly dramatic dilemma, Friend paints herself into an impossible situation at the end that she is unable to resolve, but that leaves a bit of poignant unfinished business that actually works in the story.

There were definitely parts of this story that put me on edge.  I really didn't like Cam's pushiness and her inability to respect Nora's privacy and her decisions.  That felt very much like a violation and Cam got off far too lightly for what was really a terribly selfish act of breaking confidentiality.  I also found Nora's conversion to activism unrealistic and her family's turnaround far too easy.  The ending was definitely rushed and sucked out a lot of the energy that the story had built up.  The "wolves" (a term which one presumes was supposed to refer to the public reaction to Nora's assault) are largely underplayed, depriving the story of much of its dramatic impact.  The end result is a surprisingly tame story.

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Agathas, by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson

Alice is a girl with a scandal in her past.  Last summer, she disappeared, setting off a huge manhunt, before reappearing a few days later.  Her little stunt cost her her credibility and a lot of friends. In contrast, Iris is a girl with no history.  No one notices her.  She's bright and intelligent but off of everyone's radar.  The two of them are thrown together when their guidance counselor decides that Iris would be the perfect tutor for Alice.

And then in an eerie repeat, a girl named Brooke disappears.  Brooke was once Alice's best friend but the girls were split apart when Brooke stole Alice's boyfriend.  And it is at a Halloween party, where Alice confronted Brooke that the latter girl disappeared.  But it was Iris who saw Brooke fleeing the party and was probably the last person to see her.

When Brooke's body turns up dead, Alice and Iris discover that they  share a fascination with mystery and solving crime.  And they also find that the deeper they go into investigating what happened to Brooke, the more the grownups around them seem to want to stop them.

Through a fabulous series of twists and surprises, the adventure never stops as these two teen sleuths (with an immense debt to Agatha Christie) solve true crime.  I've never been much of a fan of detective novels, but I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  I think most people will.  It's already part of a series, so there's more out there if you want it!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough

After Em's older sister was raped, Em supported and fought for her sister through the whole process of seeking justice.  And when the jury found the attacker guilty, she rejoiced that her quest was at an end.  But when the judge sets aside the verdict and releases the rapist with time served, Em realizes that the fight is not over and never will be.  And while her sister and her family want to move on, Em finds that she can't.  Everywhere she looks she sees the toxic masculinity that perpetuates violence against women.  So, instead, she funnels her anguish into a story she is writing about a medieval woman who seeks vengeance for the violence inflicted upon her family.  The story, meant to provide release and catharsis, instead takes over Em's life, leading to life-threatening consequences.

I loved the conceptual structure of the book, which tells the contemporary story in prose while placing the historical story-within-a-story in verse.  However, the concept eventually fell flat because the verse was simply not very good.  In fact, given the lyricism of the main character, I think I would have preferred Em's story to be in verse and her historical novel to be the part in prose.  

The story also suffers because the heroine is simply not all that compelling.  Em's character is intense, angry, and wound-up...and largely painted into a corner.  As angry as she starts off, she can undergo very little growth throughout the story, which makes her a hard sell for the reader.  The story itself was strong, though, and I particularly liked the nuanced depiction of the family members, showing how each was affected differently by the assault and the subsequent failure to punish the assailant.  McCullough writes excellent characters but made a strategic misjudgment in the portrayal of Em.

Overall, a story with a lot of promise and a tremendously important topic, but ultimately failing to deliver a story that truly moved me.

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei, by Christina Matula

Holly-Mei has a bad habit of speaking rashly and getting herself in trouble.  And when she gets her whole class in trouble, she makes herself persona non grata.  So, when Mom announces that she is being relocated to Hong Kong for work, Holly-Mei actually feels a sense of relief.

Sure, a new place can be strange and scary, but it will also mean a fresh start!  Holly-Mei is excited, even if she has to leave his beloved grandmother behind. It is her grandmother who warns her that moving won't be easy and she'll experience some tough times even if things work out in the end, but Holly-Mei can't imagine it will be worse than things are for her now.  

Hong Kong does provide a fascinating change of scenery, but Holly-Mei learns that kid are pretty much the same everywhere and that she still needs to watch what she says aloud.  More so, because in China, families are judged by the behavior of their members.  Now Holly-Mei's mistakes won't just be her own problem, they could also affect her parents.

The cultural details of this book are its strength. The author, who spent fourteen years living in Hong Kong, delights in sharing her favorite parts of the city and readers will enjoy learning about the fun things one can do there.  I'm less taken by the story (which felt superficial) or the characters (who seemed spoiled and privileged).  Holly-Mei and her friends are rich (in the chauffeur, private yacht, and fancy penthouse level of wealth) and while she is mildly aware of being slightly lower on the totem pole than her friends, she lives a pretty exalted life.  This isn't Hong Kong as most of us would experience it and that makes the cultural details less interesting than they might have been.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher

As the third daughter of the royal family of a small and weak kingdom, Marra never had much in the way of ambition beyond life in a convent. It was the eldest who was married off to the crown prince of the  neighboring Northern Kingdom.  And when she died, it was the middle daughter who replaced her on the throne. Marra might have been happy to stay where she was, embroidering tapestries and assisting the midwife.  However, after a rare visit with her sister for her niece's christening, Marra grows suspicious about her sister's situation and after the child's death she learns of the abusive nature of the marriage.

She is torn apart by the news of her sister's suffering, but can a princess in a convent do about it?  Rescuing her sister from the grasp of a jealous husband, especially one of royal blood, seems impossible.  But Marra is determined to try.  Through a series of feats ranging from reanimating a dog from its bones to shopping at a goblin market to interviewing the dead, Marra bravely tackles one impossible task after another, all to rescue her sister.  A quirky cast of characters (an old woman who talks with the dead, a fairy godmother, a disgraced warrior, a demon chicken, and others) join her on her epic adventure.

A lively and lovely horror/fantasy tale that entertains, even as it addresses the sobering topic of domestic violence.  That said, while this is feminist-inspired fantasy, the storytelling itself is too fast paced to dwell for any significant time on the topic.  In other words, we acknowledge the oppressive patriarchal structures of traditional fairy tale narratives, but then move on to the next adventure.  And that's much of the way of this novel overall.  There's some hint of a romance, but the story never slows down enough for that either.  Instead, it is mostly an endless parade of supernatural monsters and magic.  You'll like this if you enjoy stories of ghosts, demons, and the undead.

Friday, January 06, 2023

Little Bird, by Cynthia Voigt (ill by Lynne Rae Perkins)

Little Bird is a crow who has struggled because of her diminutive size to get the rest of the crows to respect her.  But when the flock's Our Luck, a human's necklace and their protective talisman, is stolen from the nest where it's kept, Little Bird vows that she'll find it and return it.  Facing unfamiliar dangers (including other crows, hostile birds, cats, and humans), Little Bird spreads her wings on a life-changing odyssey.  Crows are clever and intelligent birds and Voigt tries to capture the mixture of wisdom and bafflement with which Little Bird explores the world.

The quirky premise attracted me to this book, but its overall tone and approach of the story seemed inappropriate for its target audience.  This is a dark story that is full of animal imperilment and features a number of complex issues.  In other words, this is not a sweet animal story, but rather something fairly mature.  It isn't so much that I think it will traumatize young readers, I just can't see them really enjoying its somber mood and complicated themes.  As for myself, it just didn't have much charm.  Dana Lorentz's Of a Feather is a much better bird story and does a better job of explaining bird behavior than the rather superficial look at crows that this novel provides.

Monday, January 02, 2023

A Cuban Girl's Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, by Laura Taylor Namey

After Lila suffers the trifecta of losing her beloved grandmother, being abandoned by her best friend, and being dumped by her boyfriend, she's lost.  Yes, she'll always have Miami in her heart and Cuba in her soul (as well as her abuela's love of the kitchen), but none of it makes any sense.  Her family, panicked at her existential crisis, take desperate measures and send her to spend the summer with family friends in Winchester, England.

With its cold gray weather and its complete lack of Cuban culture, Lila hates England and feels even more out of place.  But she slowly rediscovers herself by introducing the people there to the fine art of Cuban cooking.  A cute boy from a local tea shop and his troubled little sister also help as well.  By the end of the summer, Lila realizes that she has the potential to be much more than she ever knew before.

Cute romance that pushes most of the right buttons, but gets fussy at points and thus misses the mark for me.  Like most books centering around food, it struggles with how to convey the glory of its cuisine.  Namey's choice is to mostly have characters gushing about how wonderful everything is.  That only goes so far before it becomes repetitive and boring.  I get the point (everything this girl bakes is amazing) but I didn't believe it.  

There are problems with the central character as well:  for all of her troubles, Lila definitely does not suffer from low self-esteem.  You know with that set up that she'll get humbled a little and do some growing from the experience, but it doesn't really happen to any serious extent.  She's just arrogant and obnoxious throughout.  

Finally, there just isn't much going on here.  There ought to be some drama (for example, in having to choose between Miami and England) but nothing really develops.  In a super happy ending, everyone else ends up accommodating for Lila.  Sure, she's calmed down a bit but she's still living the same charmed existence that she started out with.