Thursday, September 21, 2023

Cleaning Up, by Leanne Lieberman

Jess has plans.  She wants to finish high school, go to college, and start a landscaping business.  To do those things, she's going to have to save a lot of money.  She cleans houses and tries to keep her alcoholic and drug-addicted Dad from spending everything.  While there is a teacher at school who helps her (and turns a blind eye to the neglect she is undergoing), for the most part she is on her own.

While cleaning a new house during the summer, she discovers a diary that belongs to a girl who disappeared.  While she knows it is wrong to pry, she starts reading it and finds herself imagining a life with this mystery girl.  But the more she learns about the girl, the more she starts to lose her own sense of self.  Jess's success has always depended upon being disciplined and driven.  Now she risks losing that focus.

A nice character study of a troubled young woman who works hard against the odds.  There are definitely things about her I did not like.  I found her self-centered and stubborn, unwilling to accept help and dishonest (and never mind the whole invasion of privacy thing!).  But at the same time, she deals with great challenges, works very hard, and is surprisingly resourceful.  Lieberman writes in a sort of dumbed-down way that suggests that she's intentionally trying to pick up reluctant readers and I think that's an ideal target for this story of a girl coming from a lot of disadvantages but learning to navigate her way to success.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Borrow My Heart, by Kasie West

Wren likes her rules.  They keep her out of trouble and protect her from trusting others too much.  That's important when because she's still dealing with a mother who abandoned her family when she was ten.  But one day at her BFF's coffee shop, she meets a complete stranger and makes an split second decision that breaks those rules.  

Asher has been chatting online with a girl named Gemma whom he barely knows.  He's supposed to meet her for the first time at the coffee shop, but she's standing him up and everyone knows it, especially his friend Dale who's loudly planning his humiliation.  Wren takes pity on him and impulsively decides to present herself as Gemma.  Her intent is only to play this charade long enough to get Dale off of Asher's back, but she never finds a good time to come clean.  So, she ends up fake dating him, which naturally turns into real dating.  Needless to say, many more rules are broken.

In addition to this rather predictable love story, there's the parallel (but comparatively underdeveloped) story of Wren considering reconciling with her mother.  To me, this seemed like a very different plotline and the two mesh poorly.  It is like reading two separate books, both of which are fine in their own right, but that don't really belong together.  The storytelling moves along briskly enough, there's some lovely comedy with the animals (and with the unloved mutt Bean in particular), and the dynamics between Wren and Asher are fine, but there isn't much substance to this light summer read.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Medusa, by Jessie Burton (ill by Olivia Lomenech Gill)

Life in exile is lonely for Medusa.  Her sisters are often away and she is left in a cave on an island, tending the snakes that have replaced her hair.  One day, a boy named Perseus arrives on the island.  Both her sisters and the goddess Athena have warned Medusa that she must not allow herself to be seen, so she hides.  The boy is persistent though in his desire to meet her.  

They settle for a friendship (of sorts) speaking to each other through a wall.  Perseus relates his story of woe and Medusa reciprocates.  They find commonalities and bond, with Perseus pledging his love and Medusa fantasizing that she might be able to reveal her disfiguration and still be accepted by the boy.  However, when Perseus realizes who Medusa really is and she in turn comes to know the reason he has come to the island.

Feminist retellings of Greek myths (and the story of Medusa in particular) have been done before.  In modern eyes, Medusa's fate is a shocking tale of double standards and victim blaming, so it makes good material.  What makes this version so interesting is the presentation -- the illustrations from Olivia Lomenech Gill.  This is a beautiful book.  Gill's deceptively simple drawings add great depth to the story.  Combined with Burton's spare text, the book is truly greater than its parts.  This is really one of my favorite retellings to date.  It doesn't break new ground but is a remarkable package.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

A Walk Between Raindrops, by Amalie Jahn

Elise and her little sister Wylla have avoided each other for the past year.  Ever since Elise betrayed her by getting her boyfriend arrested, Wylla has been giving Elise the silent treatment.  But a bond of sibling rivalry drives both girls to compete to win a prize which sends them, along with a series of misfits, on a two week, all-expense paid trip of some of the greatest roller coasters in the United States.  Forced to interact in the tight confines of the bus and shared motel rooms, the two sisters find the courage to confront each other and all of the raw hurt that they feel.

A solid premise (a rollicking ride through the East Coast's finest amusement parks and iconic roller coasters, combined with some hearty exploration of sibling rivalry and anxiety) largely fails to crystalize into a compelling story.  For the most part, it's the complexity of juggling so many characters and such a large number of subplots that makes this story hard to track.  And the reveals, which are introduced gradually throughout the story (leading up to a major -- but predictable -- plot twist towards the end) felt inorganic and forced. 

Unrelated to the writing (but always an unnecessary distraction), I was disappointed at the poor quality of the editing of the book.  Not only were there spelling errors and missing words, but also layout issues which suggested that no one gave the book a final review (or didn't care to fix the mistakes that are there).

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Half Life of Love, by Brianna Bourne

Flint knows he's going to die in 41 days.  Almost eight years ago, he experienced the twinge of his half-life -- the body's indicator that it has passed the mid point of existence.  This isn't intuition.  In this alt universe, it's scientific fact that, if something specific (accident, violence, etc.) doesn't get him, the body's own "kill-switch" will take him out.  Ever since he experienced his half-life moment and entered the second part of his life, he's tried to avoid emotional attachment and keep his feelings to himself to spare his friends and family.  All of that changes when he meets September.

Just a few months ago, September lost her four year-old sister (her half-life occurred when she was two).  She hasn't been able to come to terms with the injustice of losing a sibling so young, but she has a chance of changing the way it works.  She's a teen science genius and doing an internship at the Half-Life Institute, where they are searching for a way to prolong life and beat the half-life.  Motivated and distracted by her grief, she's on the verge of a breakthrough.

The two of them meet by happenstance and neither admits their  true situation, which allows them to fall in love with each other.  Flint knows that he shouldn't be doing this in the last few days of his life (especially when he learns about September's grief), but his heart thinks otherwise. Eventually, the secrets will come out and nature will take its course.

An interesting premise that struggles a bit to establish itself.  Bourne addresses some of the contradictions of the set up, but wisely doesn't go too far into explaining how a world where people know exactly how long they will live actually works.  What it provides is fascinating food for thought about how one should live one's final days.  Is it worth getting an education when you know you won't live long enough to use it?  Is it worth being friends with someone you know is about to die?  What should one actually do as your "deathday" approaches?  Even concepts like ageism take on a different flavor when a persons actual longevity is known with such certainty.  It's a thought-provoking alternate reality.

The storytelling is nothing terribly memorable.  It's functional and well-paced, but I can't say that it was particularly memorable.  Neither Flint nor September really caught my sympathy.  There's also lots of distracting detail that don't add much to the story.  For some reason, these characters actually attend high school between dying and saving the world.  Given that nothing actually happens at school, perhaps Bourne should have just set Flint's final 41 days in the middle of the summer?  Similarly, a best friend of Flint's pops up from time to time, but has no real impact beyond stealing time away from Flint and September.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Seven Percent of Ro Devereux, by Ellen O'Clover

With help from a family friend, Ro has developed a program called MASH which predicts your future based on the answers that you give to a series of behavioral questions.  It was intended as a senior project, but when she shares it with friends it spreads and goes viral.  Before she knows it, a local incubator wants to develop it and pitch it to a VC company making Ro famous and potentially very very rich.  Her father doesn't approve: he'd prefer she focus on college.  Her co-writer warns her that this is going to bite her in the end.  But Ro has dreamed of making it as a software designer and this seems to be her dream come true.  And it's even predicted by her own app.

There's a problem:  her app also predicts that she'll end up married to Miller, her former best friend.  And to prove to the world that the app actually works, Ro's going to have to make it look like she and Miller are hopelessly in love with each other.  In truth, they detest each other, but he agrees to go along with the charade until the VC company signs on in exchange for the money he needs to pay for college.  And so, Ro and Miller launch out, pitching the app to the media and trying to develop enough chemistry to get through the next few months.  Being a YA romance, you know what happens next between them.

I found the premise of an app that predicts the future not only silly but also morally wrong.  There is no such thing as "proven science" on how people answer questions (of any sort) or profound meaning that can be attributed to it.  The idea that a person's future can be 93% determined by those answers is ridiculous.  And the silliness of the premise is about the only thing that made its morally repugnant elements of predestination tolerable.  For, as Ro discovers in the end, there is an ethical problem with forecasting people's future (or at least convincing them that you can play god).  All of which made her realization at the end seem quaint and a bit dumb.  So, I hated the story.  

I liked the writing though.  O'Clover can create a well-paced story that makes even a silly plot readable.  I liked the characters and enjoyed the book.  So, I'll keep an eye open for her next book, which hopefully will feature something less cringeworthy for a premise.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Something More, by Jackie Khalilieh

Right before starting ninth grade, Palestinian-Canadian Jessie is diagnosed as autistic.  High functioning, her condition's not been particularly obvious to others.  They just considered her a bit weird.    Jessie struggles with understanding others and often has felts as if she was wearing a mask.  To avoid social situations, which she's always found challenging, she's kept to herself and been a bit of an outcast.  She isn't particularly comfortable discussing autism with others, but having an explanation comforts her.  Armed with that knowledge she pledges to make the year different:  she'll reach out and make friends, try out for drama, and maybe meet a boy (or two).

There's not much new here:  Jessie's love for 90s popular culture, the classic love triangle (bad boy Levi and sweet quiet Griffin), and having to sneak around behind the backs of her traditional ethnic parents.  Two elements -- the fact that she is autistic and her Palestinian roots -- are both attempts to breath originality into this otherwise by-the-numbers teen romance. Neither particular stands out because the author does so little with them.  

As much as Khallilieh wants to take her own experience as an autistic Palestinian and make a unique story, she doesn't seem to know how to present it as such.  Jessie sometimes misreads her best friends' behaviors, but so do most teenagers.  Jessie doesn't recognize that Griffin likes her as more than a friend, but that's the point of the romantic triangle trope.  In her afterward, Khalilieh acknowledges as much (noting that some neurotypical women may see themselves in Jessie's character) but still insists that there are differences.  I want to respect that but there's little in this story that separates Jessie from most other YA heroines.  If Jessie is different, somewhere in the story you have to explain how that is so.

Friday, September 01, 2023

One True Wish, by Lauren Kate

Once you are in sixth grade, you aren't supposed to believe in wish-granting fairies.  But that's OK, because when Phoebe (a wish-granting fairy) crash lands in Texas, she's incredulous herself -- because she doesn't believe in children!  However, if Phoebe is going to ever return to her home on the North Star, she's going to not only start believing but get Birdie, Gem, and Van to start making some serious wishes that she can grant.

What should they wish for?  Gem is struggling with body image problems, Birdie feels that her life-long friendship with Gem is falling apart and she doesn't know why, and Van (who is non-binary) misses their home in Ireland and is growing tired of being passed back and forth between their separated parents.  With all of their lives changing around them, there's in fact never been a better time to start believing in fairies!

Despite a promising synopsis and a potential tribute to J. M. Barrie, this is a disappointingly slapdash middle reader with a plethora of tropes and few ideas of what to do with them.  It's a story with tween girls, so let's talk about bras and periods!  It's a story with a non-binary character, so let's mention puberty blockers.  It's a story that takes place in Texas, so let's acknowledge that Van's plans for their future use of those blockers are being circumscribed by the State government.  But let's not actually do anything with any of these ideas.  Instead, there's a largely incomprehensibly story about finding the kids choosing their "truest" wishes and getting the fairy to grant them.  I found it to be a hot mess and gave up on trying to understand by the end.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Museum of Lost and Found, by Leila Sales

Twelve year-old Vanessa has a lot on her mind. She is trying to understand why her childhood friend Bailey no longer wants to be her friend.  She's missing her father who is serving overseas somewhere in eastern Africa.  And finally, she's trying to figure out a way to stop picking at the skin on her cuticles.  It hurts and people around her think it's disgusting, but she can't seem to manage to stop.

After a particularly bad day, she goes on a walk and finds herself in front of an abandoned building.  Finding a way inside, she discovers it once was a museum and it still has the old display cases and even an abandoned painting inside.  This gives her the idea that she could use the space to stage her own exhibit dedicated to her lost friendship with Bailey.  She invites other kids to visit and some of them want to stage their own exhibits.  The building is large enough, so they open the whole thing up to other kids to stage their own exhibits, creating a groundswell of interest in exhibition.

While an original premise, this is a fairly typical middle grade story about friendships and family, which wraps up most of its issues in the end.  As an adult, I was a bit twitched about depicting children running around in an abandoned building.  More problematically, I found Vanessa a rather unsympathetic character.  She's bossy and vengeful, taking particular pleasure in using her exhibit to slander her former friend.  And while she reconciles with Bailey and makes some amends in the end, her instincts don't tend to lean towards kindness.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

A Gentle Tyranny, by Jess Corban

In the 23rd century, a Matriarch and a council of female senators rule over the surviving world.  Two hundred years earlier as the world seemed bent on enslaving and subjugating women, there was a "liberation." In the ensuing years, males have been pacified and are now known as Gentles, serving woman in menial tasks.  

At eighteen, every young woman chooses her "destiny" (the career path that calls to her).  For Reina, she is pretty certain that she wishes to become a member of the elite praetorian guard -- the Alexia -- that keep order throughout the land on behalf of the Matriarch.  But Reina's grandmother, the Matriarch herself, has other ideas.  She is growing too old to rule and she wants to choose a successor -- Reina.  But to become Matriarch, there is a competition and Reina must prove herself a better candidate than the other women who want to rule.

Complicating matters is the recent stirring of unrest on the border.  Legend tells that two hundred years ago "Brutes" were entirely eliminated.  But now there are rumors of strong and savage men raiding settlements near the border and committing atrocities.  Have the Brutes returned?  It is a time for strength -- does Reina have the necessary will to fight off this uprising that threatens their civilization?  Grandmother isn't so sure and she has a secret agenda.

Dystopian novels have become rather too common and it's hard to find a really good stand out example.  However, this one rises to the top.  Not so much for the premise (which is riddled with holes) but for the writing and the attention to details.  It's a busy story with lots of power politics to navigate, but Corban manages to fit in a bit of family and even a proto-romance into the mix without ever really distracting from the overall story.  And I enjoyed the politics of this story, which touch on the conflicting nature of family loyalty and power politics.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Immeasurable Depth of You, by Maria Ingrande Mora

Brynn obsesses about death and suffers from panic attacks.  When her Mom catches wind of a post that Brynn posted that reads like a suicide note, her mother freaks out.  Her phone is taken away and Brynn finds herself shipped down to Florida to spend the summer --without her phone or Internet -- with her Dad on a houseboat.  Cut off from her friends, Brynn explores the bayou around her Dad's boat and meets a friendly girl that she's attracted to named Skylar.  But when she tries to tell her father about Skylar, he gets upset:  Skylar committed suicide five years ago.

When Brynn later confronts Skylar, this ghost girl tells another story altogether:  yes, she's dead, but she was murdered.  Skylar can't recall any of the circumstances of her death, but Brynn finally has a strong sense of purpose.  She swears that she'll get to the bottom of it and get justice on Skylar's behalf.  That passion for the cause helps Brynn overcome many of her fears, but exposes buried pain and upsets both Brynn's parents and the bereft parents of Skylar.

A surprisingly poignant story about grief with a slight supernatural note to it.  Those latter elements never become distracting and the focus of the story remains firmly on Brynn taking on responsibility for her healing.  All of the characters are strong, but I particularly liked the adults, who are both respectful and respected (although Brynn has a terrible habit of sneaking off and breaking promises).  I'm somewhat less taken by the busy storyline which features several instances of peril largely unrelated to the story and thus grows distracting.  However, the story delivers a strong pay off in the end that makes this fast read very rewarding.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Dream to Me, by Megan Paasch

Still reeling from grief and feelings of guilt related to the recent death of her father, Eva and her half-sister Rhonda pull up stakes in New York and relocate to a small town in rural Washington.  Eva's great aunt bequeathed them the family mansion, which turns out to be an old house that is falling apart in the woods.  

The local residents want nothing to do with them.  Eva's people, it transpires, have long been rumored to be witches. It doesn't help things that, shortly after their arrival, people in town start falling into mysterious comas.  Suspicions circulate that Eva is casting hexes on the victims.  But while the comas are the work of magic, it is not Eva's doing.  Rather, as Eva learns, it is her destiny to rescue these people.  In order to do that, she must uncover a hidden history series of events in which she and her family played a major role.

A suspenseful, well-paced supernatural thriller with some significant things to say about guilt and addressing guilty feelings before they (literally, in this case) eat you up.  That balance between an engrossing story and some weighty advice about coping with guilt makes this a good read.  I won't claim to have followed every bit of the story and there isn't much character development, but I enjoyed the ride.  In sum a brisk and fun weekend read for people who enjoy non-gory horror.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Belittled Women, by Amanda Sellet

Growing up, Jo and her two sisters (Meg and Bethamy) often enjoyed their Mom's Little Women obsession.  And there were worse ways to earn a living than reenacting scenes from Louisa May Alcott's classic for tourists in a review they call Little Women Live!.  But as Jo grows older, the exercise becomes burdensome and humiliating.  The productions are decidedly amateur, often ridiculous, and Jo longs to be a normal teenager.  She's sick of Little Women and wants out.

When a sophisticated travel writer and her cute son come to see what the show is all about and do a write-up in a national periodical, Jo sees an opportunity to branch out and reach for her dreams.  She gains the woman's confidence and support.  She starts planning her escape to New York City and becoming a writer.  But in the end, she learns that not all dreams are what they seem and the only true security comes from family -- not-all-that-dissimilar message than from the classic inspiration.

While paying tribute to the original, Sellet's novel excels for its depiction of the fractious relationship between the three sisters.  The constant snarky barbs and petty acts of vengeance weave a complicated story of girls whose familiarity breeds strong contempt and deep affection.  I won't pretend to understand it fully, but it felt authentic.  I also enjoyed a number of casual asides about Alcott the writer and the place of the novel in the Canon -- comments which felt informative without being stodgily educational.  A good amount of humor rounds the story out.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Flowerheart, by Catherine Bakewell

Clara has been struggling with her training to become a witch for years.  As she approaches Midsummer in her sixteenth year, the traditional time when young witches are promoted, it seems that she won't ever be accepted.  Her magic is simply unpredictable and uncontrolled.  The Council has begun to suggest that she should be simply stripped of her magic altogether in the interest of public safety.  And when she accidentally poisons her father and nearly kills him, it would seem to prove their point.

But Xavier, the youngest member of the Council and her childhood friend, speaks up on her behalf and promises to help her succeed.  She has not heard from Xavier in years and assumed from his long silence that he hated her, so his offer to help takes her by surprise. Perhaps he cares for her more than she realized?  But he reveals ulterior motives and she finds he is harboring dangerous secrets.  And while Clara initially relies upon his help to rescue her father and her own magic, he will eventually come to rely on her for much more.

A parable focusing on building self-confidence through the guise of Clara's search for mastering her magic.  Discordantly, there's also a striking subplot about a potion called "Euphoria" that bears a strong semblance to Meth and against which Clara and Xavier must find a way to neutralize.  A separate subplot about Clara's estranged mother bears all the markings of the trope of mother-child reconciliation, but is left dangling strangely unresolved. It's a busy story!

I liked the world building.  It's a colorful setting and Clara's botanical magic is vivid.  However, the pace of the storytelling is very slow and the plotting is aimless. While it seems envisioned to be YA, the language is simplified and pitched at middle readers.  It's not even entirely certain at times what we are seeking for.  

<Spoilers>Is the point of the story for Clara to master her magic?  She never quite does that.  Is it to form a romance with Xavier?  They end up friends and a hint of something more.  Is it to cure the Euphoria epidemic?  They find a treatment but never work out who is promoting the abuse of the potion.</Spoilers>  

Overall, I'm struck with a story that hangs heavily.  The elements never quite come together.  The characters change but never really grow.  

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Dear Medusa, by Olivia A Cole

Alicia has given up caring what her classmates say about her.  And she's given up feeling anything for the random older men with whom she hooks up.  She's quit running and is no longer friends with her born-again BFF Sarah.  And it can all be traced back to the Colonel, her science teacher.  He's well loved and known for his welcoming open door policy, but no one else seems to know that secretly he's a "wolf" when the door closes.  And Alicia is a sheep.

Jaded by the banal commonality of inappropriately older men propositioning her and other girls, Alicia finds inspiration in the story of Medusa -- punished for sex and ultimately slain by men (with the connivance of women) for what she was turned into against her will.  Medusa was maligned (just as Alicia is) and she is determined to emerge victorious and rise above the rumors and prejudice.

Also tackling racial profiling, slut shaming, agency, and a variety of other topic, this densely-packed novel in verse is brutal reading.  I might question its bleak outlook, but it's hard to dispute that these things do happen and Cole's uncompromising writing says what needs to be said.  This is hardly the first feminist call-to-arms in verse, but it is one of the better ones.  I'll warn you that the story never reaches resolution, which one really wants simply to get relief at the end and so doesn't really prove very satisfying.  However, you'll read some beautifully written verse in this incendiary call to arms against statutory rape. 

Monday, July 31, 2023

See You Yesterday, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

September 21st is a day that will live in infamy for Barrett Bloom.  It's the first day of classes at U Washington and Barrett starts it being woken up by her high school nemesis (who it turns out is also going to be her freshman year roommate).  From there, she's off to a catastrophic physics class, a totally botched interview at the school newspaper, and ends up at a frat party where she accidentally sets fire to the house.  It's a day that she'd love to forget, but she can't because it keeps repeats again and again.

Very quickly, she realizes that she's not alone in this loop in space and time.  Miles, her neighbor in physics, is also stuck in the loop.  And while he's rude and arrogant, she concedes that she needs his help (and he comes to the conclusion that he'll tolerate hers).  Their lives become an exploration of how they are going to escape from this one day cycle to the magic of tomorrow.  

The obvious inspiration is the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day and this is basically the latest in a long series of YA stories about being stuck in a day that continually repeats.  I particularly enjoyed this one for three reasons.  First of all, it acknowledges the debt.  Even the characters are familiar with the film (they actually watch it at one point) and they try out a few of the ideas from the movie.  Secondly, the book makes some attempt to explain why the loop is happening.  It's pseudo science, but it puts in the effort and doesn't just rely on "magic" or "fate." That gives the story a sense of adventure that is lacking in most renditions of this trope that I have read.  Finally, Solomon is just a delightful writer and the story just whizzes by.  It's a fun read.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Threads That Bind, by Kika Hatzopoulou

"Other-borns" are descendants of the gods (loosely based on the Greek pantheon) who embody elements of their powerful ancestors.  Those born from the fates can see the invisible threads that tie people with the people and the things that bring them joy and make their life come alive. In each generation, there are always three siblings:  one who can weave the threads, one who can draw them, and a third that can cut them and break the connection.  Io is the "cutter" of her family and widely feared and distrusted by mortals for her powers.

Io gets by in the flooded slums of the city, working with low-lifes and criminals as a private investigator.  When one of her assignments results in her witnessing her assignment being murdered by a woman who for all intents and purposes is already dead, Io realizes that there are bigger things at stake than her petty investigations into marital infidelity and fraud.  Following leads that take her from being hired by a criminal syndicate to a garden party in the home of the next mayor, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery that implicates the entire power structure of her world.  It will eventually force her to confront the gods themselves.

This is a pretty bare bones description of the story and is part of the issue I have with this novel.  There's always a fine line in fantasy novels between building enough of your alternative world that it is immersive and at the same time not going so far that the details swamp the story.  This proves even more challenging in a story that is more mystery than adventure.  In order to appreciate the byzantine politics of Io's world, we are introduced to endless factions and historical backstories.  It literally takes some 150 pages or so before we can get through a page of the story without being introduced to a new character or setting!  Little of this is actually superfluous and I can well imagine a frenzied editor fruitlessly trying to find some fat to cut out.  There simply isn't any!  So, as a result of this huge amount of exposition, there are lots of important elements of this story that largely suffer.  A really interesting emotional dynamic between the sisters, for example, largely gets shortchanged by the details of the setting and a drive to keep the action moving.

I suspect that there is a sequel to come and perhaps the need to provide so much exposition will subside and allow more time for character development.  This rich novel in the mean time will benefit from a re-reading and a patient study of the numerous elements.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Forget Me Not, by Alyson Derrick

In their conservative small town, Stevie and Nora have to keep their relationship a secret.  But they have plans to get away:  Stevie's been accepted to UCLA and Nora will get a job.  Nora has figured out how they can get by on their limited means.  It will be hard but it means that they can finally be out about their relationship.  Nobody in LA will care that they are gay.

But then Stevie suffers a severe concussion that leads to weeks in the hospital and results in partial amnesia:  she's forgotten who Nora is and everything about their relationship.  From being on the verge of running away together, Nora has become a complete stranger to Stevie.  Not only is it devastating to be unrecognized by her girlfriend but she can't even tell her the truth for the trouble it would cause.  And would Stevie even believe her?  For Stevie, this huge gap in her memories leave her with suspicions.  Who knows the truth about what was going on?  And who is now taking advantage of Stevie's amnesia to re-write history?

It's an interesting premise that locked me in.  Sure, it relies on the trope that love is predestined and that true love is not dependent on circumstances.  But as cynical as I am that there is no particular reason for Stevie and Nora to find each other again, you know we all are rooting for them to do so (although to be fair, Derrick allows some flexibility and not everything is like it was before). Somewhat less forgivable is the too-good-to-be-true ending which comes from out of nowhere and in fact runs against the entire direction of the rest of the story.  Do yourself a favor and skip the last chapter -- you'll thank me for that!  Other than that, I enjoyed the characters and the nuanced relationship between Stevie and her mother which exposes a lot about how families cope with children coming out.

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Sharp Edge of Silence, by Cameron Kelly Rosenblum

It's senior year at Lycroft Phelps and three students are finding out how they will embody the motto of the school, "Who will you be?" For Charlotte, it is her moment to shine as a guest choreographer for the ballet.  For Max, the stereotypical STEM nerd, it is a rare chance to join the A-team, as a coxswain for the varsity crew team and a seat at the most influential table at the school.  But for Quinn, who carries a legacy of six generations of Lycroft Phelps alums, it is the shame of having been sexually assaulted at the end of the previous year.

The contrast of Charlotte's and Max's dreams coming true against the nightmare of Quinn's descent to madness creates a stark narrative in the first half of the story, which otherwise largely follows the typical pattern of the boarding school subgenre of poorly supervised teenagers.  Charlotte has issues with her distant boyfriend, who she suspects of cheating on her.  Max, flattered by the perks of his new social status tentatively flexes his power by getting the nerve up to date his crush.  The crew team has initial success and starts planning pranks against a rival school.  Meanwhile, Quinn steals a gun and plots murder against her assailant.

But in the second half, the narrative comes apart.  Max is exposed to a secret society that the boys have formed to promote a rape culture and finds himself unable to stand up to it.  Charlotte questions whom her jealousy actually serves.  Quinn finds her voice and speaks out.  And at this point, the book takes another unusual step by bringing in the adults to help out and the children become (slightly) less unsupervised.  The story itself largely abandons its original trajectory as many of the important subplots (Quinn's homicidal plans, winning a big crew race, getting into college, and striking back at school rivals) simply are dropped and overshadowed by the bigger question of toxic cultures.

As far as that main theme is concerned, if the novel had simply been an indictment on toxic masculinity, it wouldn't be terribly original.  What is interesting is the focus on the young women finding their voice.  Whether it is Quinn learning to stop seeing herself as a victim, Charlotte refusing to excuse her ex-boyfriend's behavior, or Max's ex-girlfriend Alex standing up to well-meaning but largely inept Max, this is more about the important role that women can play in protecting themselves.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

You Bet Your Heart, by Danielle Parker

Sasha knows how much her mother has sacrificed so she can attend Skyline High and focus on her studies.  And ever since her father died, she's known that the best way to honor his memory is to excel academically.  But what she didn't know is that Ezra, her estranged childhood best friend, is locked in a tie for the highest GPA. That matters because the school gives a $30K scholarship to the Valedictorian and Sasha needs that money to go to school.

While they were once close friends, Sasha has not taken Ezra seriously in some time.  He goofs off and barely makes any effort in his classes.  But now that he knows how close the competition is, he's suddenly a greater threat than ever before -- acing tests, besting Sasha in oral exams, and tricking her into missing classes.  Before things go out of control, the two of them decide to declare a ceasefire and settle the whole matter with a bet:  based on just three major upcoming projects, the winner of at least two of them will take the prize and the loser will blow a future test to ruin their GPA.  This simplifies the competition but takes no heat out of their struggle.

Naturally, this being a YA romance, the two of them fall in love, have a major misunderstanding and falling out, and then reconcile dramatically in the end.

This may be formula but it works well.  Sasha and Ezra have good chemistry and much of the story is spent with them building mutual appreciation.  The book shines when the two kids just focus on each other, but the author seems uncomfortable with the genre, finding a need to force in some profundity with political facts or grand rhetoric.  An artificial and cringeworthy fight between Sasha and her friends mostly shows that even inclusive language can be weaponized in the hands of adolescents.  It's also emblematic of good material that is sabotaged by an agenda.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Truth About Everything, by Bridget Farr

Lark lives with her parents in a remote homestead in Montana.  Until the age of fifteen, she thinks that she's learned everything she needs to know.  She can hunt and fish, repair engines, and defend her family from the government.  But when she gets her first period, she doesn't know what is happening to her.  She thinks she's miscarried like her mother did with each of her pregnancies (except Lark).  It sets Lark wondering that there is a lot else she hasn't ever learned about.  Like how to read.  Like what really happened on 9/11. Like what normal teenagers do with themselves.

No longer content to stay sequestered in the family's remote fortress preparing for the Armageddon, she secretly enrolls in school and develops a longing for knowledge.  And the more she learns, the more she realizes the limitations of her parents and the way that their paranoia is killing themselves and her.

A grim story of a wildly abusive family.  I'm not a big fan of child endangerment, but I am inevitably sucked in by stories like this.  For as unpleasant as the setting is, I long for watching the child rise above their situation.  Lark doesn't disappoint.  She has a lot of handicaps, but her survivalist parents got one thing right:  making her intensely curious and fiercely independent.  So, for every time I cringed at her Dad's stupidity and her Mom's cowardice, I could still cheer at Lark's tenaciousness.  That's small comfort in a story that will just depress you and leave you wondering how many Larks there are out there and what happens to the ones who lack Lark's survival skills?

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

The Secrets We Keep, by Cassie Gustafson

Emma's carefully manicured world is torn violently open when her father is arrested.  He's accused of hurting an unnamed minor, who quickly turns out to be Hannah, Emma's best friend.  Initially, Emma and Hannah try to maintain their friendship as their families circle the wagons and break into opposing factions.  Emma loyally defends her father, but cracks in her resolve appear almost immediately.  Something has been going on and the question is whether Emma is mad at Hannah for what she said or mad at someone else altogether?

It's a harrowing tale full of triggering scenes of abuse.  The sexual abuse, I was prepared for.  It was Emma's monstrous mother and her emotional abuse I wasn't quite set for.  Not only in denial of what her husband is doing to her daughter, Mom actively blames Emma for it as well.  And while I'm aware that that behavior is not unknown in these situations, it's brutally hard to read.   Emma's autistic and neglected younger brother adds yet more weight to a situation that doesn't actually need it.

The writing is superb and the use of second voice flashbacks  to describe scenes that become less and less ambiguous particularly effective.  A more experimental use of fairy tales seemed too heavy handed and distracting, but it added some depth to the depiction of the emotional trauma that Emma is experiencing.  And, of course, Emma herself is a major force.  We're naturally drawn to be sympathetic to her, of course, but Gustafson rewards us with rich character development.  In sum, a moving, traumatic read about friendship, family, and abuse -- best taken with frequent breaks and reminders that the world is not completely populated with monsters.

Saturday, July 01, 2023

Boy In the White Room, by Karl Olsberg

A boy wakes up in a white room with knowledge of the world around him but no memories of how he acquired the knowledge (or indeed of who he is).  He eventually is greeted by his father who tells him his name is Manuel, his physical body is comatose, and that he is living within a virtual reality.  His father then introduces him to all of the wonderful things he can do in his meta world.

But something is not quite right.  When a girl claiming to be his sister tries to reach him, his father denies he has a sister and forbids him from contacting her. Suspicious, he uncovers the truth that the man is not his father and that his sister and her friends are trying to rescue him.  But no sooner is he successfully rescued than he finds he has merely peeled away one layer of mystery and revealed a new one.  Soon, he needs to be rescued from his supposed sister!

By the end of the story, Manuel is not sure who is real and who is made up, whether he has finally found the real world or is still living inside a simulacrum, what is his real name, or even if he is a real person.  In the extreme paranoia that this story presents, the conclusion simply raises more questions. It is simply not possible to answer the questions.

This sort of mindf**k book that poses a paradox (in this case of consciousness) would have deeply appealed to me as a teenager so I can appreciate it now.  Beyond that clever idea though, it's not a terribly exciting story and the characters are pretty flat.  So, fun to ruminate over and maybe discuss.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

When We Had Summer, by Jennifer Castle

Daniella, Carly, Penny, and Lainie have spent their summer every year on the Jersey shore.  And each summer, the self-proclaimed "summer sisters" pass their time completing a bucket list that Carly has assembled for them.  While there are a few items (like seeing a breaching whale) that they never seem to be able to achieve, the annual rite defines their friendship.

This summer, things are changing.  Lainie's family is moving away in August, Daniella has gotten a music scholarship in New York for most of the summer and will be away, and Penny is dealing with the disintegration of her parents' marriage.  But most traumatically, Carly isn't with them at all -- she died over the winter -- leaving a huge gap in their circle.

While going through some of Carly's things, Daniella discovers that before she passed away Carly had created a bucket list for the upcoming summer.  So, with the heavy realization that this will be their last summer together, the remaining three summer sisters pledge to honor Carly by completing this last list.  What starts with good intentions and passion ends up testing the girls' bond as they discover that the forces of change are powerful.

It's everything you would wish from a summer beach read.  But in spite of containing just about every trope in the genre (and yes, there's a boy in there too!), I found Castle's book surprisingly fresh and enjoyable.  It delivers the expected bittersweet conclusion that the story demands, but along the way there are some nice lessons about growing up, making new friends while cherishing the old, and accepting that one can move on.  It's not weighty stuff, but you finish it feeling like there was some nutritional value in it.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did), by Tess Sharpe

While looking very much like a cute romance book about two girls who are best of friends and come close multiple times to actually locking lips, this novel is actually weightier material.  The girls are Penny and Tate, daughters of two best friends who have known each other most of their lives.  Tate's mother is in need of a new liver and Penny's mother volunteers to donate a part of hers to save her friend.  To make the whole thing work, the four of them have to move in with each other.  That would be fine, except that Penny and Tate have a long and complicated history which they have generally tried to avoid discussing or revisiting.  That proves difficult when the events and people involved are not exactly going away.  

The story contains a number of typical rom com tropes like the two girls having the share a bed after a snafu with their hotel reservations, but it quickly becomes apparent that there's more to the book.  A few years ago, Penny and her father were in a kayaking accident in which  Penny's father was killed. Penny's mother has never worked through her grief (or allowed Penny to do so).  This has left an awkward dynamic in their relationship, which being in close proximity with their best friends make much worse.  It's really the reconciliation of this painful history that ties the entire story together, making the predictable eponymous kiss at the end of the book something of an afterthought.

I liked the dynamics between the characters.  The complicated relationship between Tate and Penny which is far less romantic than one would expect.  The mothers (with each other and with their daughters) also bring in complications that are handled with aplomb by the author. I find the story of suppressed grief to be compelling enough to push the story forward.  And I even find the near-miss kisses to be surprisingly more dramatic than one would find usually in a romance.  This is a book of great characters and powerful emotions.

It's also a terribly busy story.  As often happens in these cases, the ending is a really hard trek tying up all of the loose ends.  Things suffer along the way.  A subplot involving an ex-girlfriend (Leslie) does nothing for the story and is even a bit bizarre.  More importantly, even the liver transplant story feels superfluous -- it provides an excuse for everyone to be together, but adds little else to the actual story.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Time to Roll, by Jamie Sumner

Ellie is dealing with a lot of changes this summer.  Her Mom has  gotten remarried -- to her gym teacher -- and is traveling Route 66 with him for their honeymoon for the next month.  Her Dad, who's never been that close wit her, has come (with his new wife and their boys) to live with her for the month.  The result is chaos and Ellie would do just about anything to get out of the house.  Her best friend Coralee has an idea:  they should both compete in the Little Miss Boots and Bows together.  Coralee lives for beauty pageants, but Ellie wouldn't be caught dead in one.

One of the more obvious reasons Coralee doesn't like the idea is that she has cerebral palsy and needs a wheelchair to get around.  She's not embarrassed by this fact, but often annoyed by the way her wheelchair causes people to treat her.  But Coralee is persistent and Ellie agrees to go along with it.  It's just about everything Ellie feared.  And when the organizer starts using Ellie to promote the "diversity" of the event, Coralee grows resentful of the attention Ellie is getting.  Ellie decides she has to take control and do this on her own terms.

There's undeniably excellent representation here for children with disabilities and the best part of this story was the character of Ellie.  She has the right amount of spunk and intelligence to be interesting.  But the  story felt rough and unfinished.  The development of Ellie's relationship with her estranged father had potential but never really takes off and the tensions with Coralee get a rushed resolution.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Sky We Shared, by Shirley Reva Vernick

In the final days of World War II, two girls try to do what they can for their families and countries, and learn along the way that the right thing to do is often not as simple as grownups make it sound.

Nellie lives in Bly, Oregon.  Her father has been away for years now, defending the Aleutian Islands against Japanese advances.  Her next-door neighbors have just lost their elder son in combat in Europe and the younger brother, Nellie's best friend Joey, struggles with anger and grief.  Nellie knows that she can't really understand what Joey is going through but she wants to help him however she can.  Meanwhile, as a keen observer of his town, she sees the varying ways that the war has impacting the others around her as well.  It all seems to come down to luck! The war itself seems far away from her as all she sees first hand is rationing and blackout curtains.

In a village in southern Japan, Tamiko and her aunt sit worrying about Tamiko's brother who has trained as a kamikaze and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Empire.  Tamiko is proud of her brother but wishes he were home safe.  She understands the war in inevitable and everyone must give their best if Japan is to emerge victorious.  

So, Tamiko is excited to serve when her class is summoned to a factory to help assemble huge paper balloons.  They work long and arduous hours for weeks putting together these balloons with big sheets of washi paper.  At first she knows only that balloons are part of the war effort.  It's only when their work is completed that she learns that they will be used to drop bombs on the Americans.  She's OK with that as the Americans are the ones who are trying to hurt them, so anything that will bring victory quicker is to be celebrated.

But in the weeks that follow, things change dramatically for both girls.  The Americans start a ferocious bombing campaign of the Japanese mainland and Tamiko experiences war first-hand as her villages is destroyed.  And in Oregon, Nellie one night catches sight of what she thinks at first are shooting stars in the sky.  But instead, they turn out to be mysterious floating balloons.

A haunting story based on the true history of Japanese Fu-Go campaign which brought hundreds of floating explosives over North America in the dying days of the World War II.  For the most part, these attacks proved ineffective, but they did cause the only domestic casualties of the War in Bly, Oregon when one of the bombs killed a pregnant women and five children on a church picnic party.  Knowing nothing of the topic, I was fascinated and horrified at the way Vernick chooses to tie her two protagonists -- who never meet face to face -- together.

With a sometimes overly enthusiastic attention to historical detail, Vernick builds sympathetic portrayals of her characters who are typical young teens in so many ways but also products of their country's propaganda.  You clearly sense that they could be friends, but in a time of war such sympathy is impossible.  The novel becomes an unapologetic look at what causes hatred and fear for the alien other and what is necessary to pull back and learn to forgive.  Written for a middle school audience, the lessons are straightforward and unambiguous but there is wide room for discussion and debate for thoughtful adults as well.

This is children's literature at its finest.  It takes an interesting idea and spins it into an opportunity to explore the world and how it works.  It could be accused of trying a bit too hard at times (for example, a late inclusion of a nasty racist incident distracts from the general focus of the story), but there's so much here for readers to explore and think about.  It achieves its goals without sacrificing the story, which remains entertaining throughout.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Spin, by Rebecca Caprara

Caprara presents us a retelling of the story of Arachne, the young weaver who challenged the goddess Athena and was transformed into a spider for her hubris.  In this version, Arachne's antipathy towards the gods is born out of a life of economic hardship and social injustice.  The stories of the gods, clearly written to uphold patriarchal norms, hold no value to her.  She doesn't solicit divine intervention, but rather sets out through her own hard work to cultivate her talent.  Her efforts to set forth justice through her work is hindered at every turn by men, by the community, and ultimately by the gods themselves.

Not content to set the record straight on Arachne, Caprara takes apart most of the genre, calling out its misogyny, violence, and perversity with a strong grasp of the material.  Feminist retellings of classical literature have been done before, of course, but rarely as well as they are here.  The book is written in generally excellent verse and this gives the customary gravity but also evokes the epic style itself.  It's not Ovid, but it's a fitting tribute to the way such stories are told.

Caprara's instinct to make calls to action give the novel the taste of a screed (which will mostly be preaching to the choir as it is hard to imagine Ron DeSantis plucking up a copy of this book from his public schools' burn pile).  The writing could never be accused of subtlety!  A lot more could have been done without always connecting every dot.  However, that doubt in the reader's intelligence is a small flaw for this is a beautifully written tribute to Greek mythology and a work of great contemporary relevance.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Unseelie, by Ivelisse Housman

Iselia (or "Seelie") and her twin Isolde have managed to survive since they had to flee from home through their wits and their magic.  And it was their magic that first got them into trouble.  Seelie is a changeling who wields poorly-controlled magic that tends to get them into trouble.  But it is Isolde and her plan to burgle the home of the powerful enchantress Leira Wildfall that puts them in enough danger to set off the events of the story.  

While they are breaking in they find themselves face to face with another criminal duo (a boy named Maze and a girl named Odani) who are attempting to do the same thing.  The four of them are caught and have rely upon each other for their escape.  A much bigger heist/quest ensues where the four young people face greater and greater challenges, revealing strengths and powers that they didn't know they had.  All in all, pretty typical and unremarkable.

What makes this fantasy story about magic and fairies different from the rest is Seelie.  She's neurodivergent.  The idea is born from a theory the author has that people who were accused of being changelings or possessed by spirits were really autistic.  And so she imagines how an autistic person would understand a fantasy story.  Seelie's view of the world is our view.  From Seelie's understanding of her magic powers to the basic way she communicates with the others, she struggles.  Events are not always linear.  A huge stress is placed on sensory perception:  caves that are pitch black, walls that seem endless, lights that blind, and so on.  Scenes are not always easy to follow as Seelie sorts out what is going on around her, but they come together in their own way in the end.

The result is storytelling that is fresh and a voice that is unique and distinct.  However, I was less taken by story, which was repetitive (endless variations of the same basic set-up:   a battle that they inevitably lose, a hasty deal or a rash decision to escape the leaves Seelie disoriented, and then it just happens again).  There's an endless supply of new characters to supply these iterations of conflicts, but no clear direction to the story.  And a plot twist at the end suddenly undoes most of the understandings developed during the novel in order to create the requisite cliffhanger for the second half of this duology.  I'll entertain that my expectations for the story may bear a neurotypical bias, but I found the story boring.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent, by Ann Jacobus

Del suffers from anxiety and panic disorders, which she has in the past self-medicated with alcohol and narcotics.  A suicide attempt a year and a half ago brought her to live with her Aunt Fran, an art dealer in San Francisco.  Now in recovery, Del is planning to start school in the Fall, works on a suicide help line, and is excited that her high school crush Nick is coming to visit.

However, the panic attacks have not gone away and there is temptation everywhere for Del to relapse.  Nick is friendly, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with her because of all that baggage.  Helping suicidal people feels good, but it's challenging to Del and a failed rescue leaves her doubting her ability to do the work.  And then Aunt Fran starts showing signs of getting sick, which morphs into a terminal cancer diagnosis.

As Fran's condition declines, she decides to stop seeking treatment and starts hospice at home.  But it isn't enough.  Fran doesn't want to let the disease take its course and she asks Del to help her get to Oregon so she can get help in terminating her life on her own terms.  For Del, who has struggled so long with fighting her own suicidal impulses (as well as talking her callers out of them) she is reluctant to help her Aunt "speed up the process."

While plenty of YA novels use death as a dramatic device (dead mother, dying best friend, etc.), very few focus on the process of dying and hospice the way this novel does.  The book is well-researched and intelligently discusses the process of assisted suicide.  Moreover, the latter part of the book becomes a detailed catalog of the later stages of dying and it's quite eye-opening.  The story doesn't make for the cheeriest of reading but there's a raw honesty to the way the experience is portrayed and the impact on Del and her family and friends.  I feel that alone makes this a notable book.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

A Scatter of Light, by Malinda Lo

When pictures of Aria topless find their way on to Instagram, her parents decide it would be best if she spent her last summer before college with her grandmother in San Francisco rather than unsupervised with friends on Martha's Vineyard.  While she is naturally resentful of this decision, she eventually finds her summer to be memorable.  

Set in 2013, right after California legalized same sex marriage, Aria undergoes her own realization that she might be a lesbian as she falls in love with Steph, her grandmother's gardener  At the same time, her grandmother Joan opens Aria's eyes to art.  Aria, who wants to study astronomy and is on her way to MIT, has never entertained that she has artistic leanings, but under her grandmother's guidance, she starts to blossom as an artist.

In sum, a coming of age story with several different facets. Aria's transformation is interesting to follow, but she's a surprisingly dull protagonist.  She goes through a number of important self-realizations, but they mostly seem to bounce off of her and I felt largely excluded from what she was experiencing.  It doesn't help that both Joan and Steph are cut out of the story rather abruptly, leaving Aria on her own to sort things out at the end.  And instead of doing so, the novel simply jumps ten years ahead after everything has worked out.

Intended to be a companion work to a much heavier novel called Last Night at the Telegraph Club, this novel stands on its own and makes only fleeting reference to the characters of that book.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Remind Me to Hate You Later, by Lizzy Mason

As the subject of her mother's blog, Jules has lived her entire life in the spotlight.  It's not a place where she's ever been comfortable, but her mother refuses to stop writing about her daughter, often in great graphic detail.  Every embarrassing moment in Jules's life has been fodder for her Mom's millions of followers.  The more mortifying the event, after all, the better for ratings.  Never mind that the violations of privacy are driving Jules to depression and self-harm.  Tragedy ensues when, after a particularly invasive post that discusses Jules's burgeoning sex activity, Jules decides to end her life.

In the aftermath, Jules's best friend Natalie tries to cope with the loss.  She knew plenty about Jules's misery but she didn't understand how bad it was for her.  She despises Jules's mother for what she did to Jules. And she hasn't stopped.  Now she's writing a book to capitalize on the experience!  But Natalie also wants to explore her own role in the tragedy and address the guilt she feels for moving on.

The first half of the book, told by Jules, is a harrowing story of parental abuse.  But while it gives us a clear sense of what she went through, it turns out not to be the most interesting part of the novel.  It's really the second half, where Natalie takes over, that brings the pieces together.  For one thing, Natalie is a far more reliable narrator, with a strong sense of obligation to get the story right.  And while she is immensely sad and angry about what happened to her friend, she recognizes that there are multiple sides to the story.  She even eventually comes round to being willing to sit down with Jules's mother!  She also struggles with guilt as she and Jules's boyfriend develop romantic feelings towards each other.

The story packs a pretty heavy punch and is a compelling read, but it transcends the usual suicide tropes by spending considerable time on how people's lives go on after a tragedy.  So, while there is plenty of grief, the story doesn't really dwell on it. I also found the subject of social media addiction to be quite interesting.  A lot more could have been made of it, but Mason avoids preaching and simply sets out the point that Mom's narcissism (fed by her followers) really was the trigger for this tragedy.  And her daughter's compulsion for paying attention to those posts sealed her fate.  That leaves us food for thought.

Monday, May 29, 2023

We Weren't Looking to Be Found, by Stephanie Kuehn

Two girls of color from different worlds room together at a residential psychiatric facility and seek clarity and connection.  With the possible exception of the racial diversity in this novel, this has been done so so many times, what could possibly make this iteration stand out? Insight, patience, and charisma.

Dani comes from a well-off family in Dallas.  Her mother is an ambitious black politico and she can't stand it.  To escape what she sees as the hypocrisy of her family, she drowns herself in alcohol, pills, and parties.  And when it all gets to be too much, she runs away and ends up getting sent to Peach Tree Hills, a facility for young woman outside of Atlanta.

Camila loves dance and after three years of auditions she's finally gotten herself accepted to a dance school.  But the stress of getting this far has taken its toll and Camila developed a habit of cutting to relieve her pain.  The breaking point, however, is when her parents inform her that she can't go because the money that was to have paid for school is gone.  In crisis, she tries to end her life and ends up at Peach Tree Hills.

Both girls are angry and frustrated, convinced that their issues have everything to do with their parents and other adults who want to keep them down.  But through patient guidance from the facility's caregivers and the bond that develops between them, they begin to dig their way out on the road to self-discovery.  A minor subplot about a cache of found letters written by a previous resident adds some pathos to their search.

The characters make this story.  Dani and Camila are intelligent and articulate advocates for themselves.  Even in the beginning when they don't have the focus they need to find their way out, they are fearless and determined.  They make plenty of mistakes and do things that are plainly stupid, but these are their mistakes to make and they accept the responsibility for them.  There are a few tears but never any self-pity from these girls.  That makes this novel rather unique in a genre that tends to wallow in navel-gazing and self-hatred.  There were times when the story seemed to drift (the whole letters cache being the most obvious example), but Dani and Camila kick ass from beginning to end.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Miracle, by Karen S. Chow

For Amie, her father has always been the muse for her art.  It is his love for music and his love for her playing that has helped her succeed at violin.  And while he is dying of cancer, she tries desperately to please him.  She know the prognosis but it can't stop her from hoping that somehow he will get better.  When he does eventually succumb, she is bereft and finds that she simply cannot play at all anymore.

In the ensuing months, she works through guilt and anger to try to find a new equilibrium and build a new hope of her own, rekindling her music.

A better-than-average story of grief and recovery, helped by the beautiful way that Chow works music into the story of Amie's relationship with her father.  Another aspect I liked was the contrast between the way that Amie and her mother copes with their loss, showing the complexity of dealing with one's own needs balanced against those of another.  While each of them attempt to solve their own problems in order to not burden the other, the find that it is really something they need to do together.  Finally, instead of a clean ending with some sort of full recovery, we find only hope for the future -- a solution that felt right.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories, by Hanna Alkaf

There are certain rules about the jungle that every Malaysian child knows:  always ask permission before you enter, never take anything without permission, and never give out your real name.  But Hamra doesn't care.  It's her thirteenth birthday and everyone has forgotten.  No one has done anything more than order her around.  So, she enters the jungle, brazenly refusing to seek permission, and takes a piece of fruit home to her family.

The fruit turns out to be magical and the fearsome weretiger who owns the tree it came from demands compensation for her offense -- Hamra must go on a quest to help the weretiger become a man.  That quest sends Hamra, her best friend Ilyas, and the weretiger on an adventure through the realm of fairies and demons.  They struggle with a variety of magical forces to restore the weretiger's humanity and unearth his history, which she finds is intertwined with her own family's history.

Heavily populated with Malaysian culture and folklore, Alkaf spins a story loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood and set in the middle of the Covid Pandemic.  It is a wildly incongruous setting where Hamra and her companions do things like use invisibility spells to dodge detection from police enforcing the quarantine.  That complexity doesn't always work, making the story feel crowded.  It is also long and repetitive as similar events (taking things without paying for them, narrowing escaping certain death through a surprise visitor, etc.) happen again and again.  After a while, the narrow escapes become largely indistinguishable.  A final complaint I would have is that the heavy use of unfamiliar words and settings, while delightful in theory, makes the story challenging to read and it takes a while to get into it.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Leeva at Last, by Sara Pennypacker (ill by Matthew Cordell)

Leeva's mother only cares about fame.  Her father only cares about money.  Neither of them cares anything about her.  When Leeva finds out that the town has a school and gets excited about attending, her parents laugh off the idea.  School?  What an absurdity!  What good could school ever do for you?  But Leeva is curious and when her curiosity leads her to sneak out of the house (violating the "Employee Handbook" her parents have created for her) she discovers a whole world out there.  It's a world full of books, homemade cookies, an orphaned badger, and a hypochondriac boy in a hazmat suit.  Most of all, it is full of human beings making connections.

In an absurd style that will remind readers of Roald Dahl or David Walliams, Pennypacker deftly explores a variety of topics including friendship, family, and creativity.  It's a story that cannot be taken seriously and younger readers who can't recognize the satirical elements may find it confusing.  I personally found the abusive nature of the humor disturbing.  But if you delight in books that are so cruel that it is "obvious" that they are not to be taken seriously, this can be a silly read.

Monday, May 15, 2023

A Song Called Home, by Sara Zarr

Lou and her sister Casey have a hard time adjusting to the changes brought on when their mother decides to get remarried and moves them out of the city and into the suburbs.  Their new stepdad Steve is a pretty good guy, but for the girls things were fine the way they were.  They had their school and their best friends.  Also, after dealing with their father's drinking problems, they don't exactly have a lot of trust.  Gradually, the family comes together.  A guitar, left for Lou on the doorstep (presumably by her father) provides a central theme to tie everything together.

The characters are all excellent, but the efforts of Steve to break through to the girls and Lou's complicated relationship with her sister were really the best parts. It's a busy book. In addition to the various challenges that each character faces in living together, there are some pretty serious topics raised, including alcoholism, co-dependency, and classism.  Casey acts out the most, but Lou picks up a habit of stealing  from family and friends (a problem which is never fully addressed).

While covering very little new ground, Zarr's story is well-written and a delight to read.