Sunday, June 16, 2024

Kyra, Just for Today, by Sara Zarr

Things used to be really bad back when Kyra's mother was still drinking.  But five years ago, her Mom sobered up and started attending AA meetings.  Kyra too started going to her own meetings for kids with family members who have addiction issues.  And through group, Kyra got to know Lu, another girl at her school with a father who drinks.  They became best friends and confidants, which made coping a lot easier.

But as seventh grade begins, things are changing.  Lu is making new friends and doesn't seem to want to hang out as much.  She doesn't even always show up at group anymore.  It's as if Lu is embarassed by the whole thing and doesn't want her new friends to find out.  It could not happen at a worse time.  Kyra thinks her Mom has started drinking again and she really wishes she could talk with Lu about it, but Lu is avoiding her.

As things get worse, Kyra struggles to keep things together.  She knows that she can't solve her Mom's addiction, but when Mom is the only thing she has, she has to do something!  When a crisis occurs and Kyra finds herself truly on her own, she has to make a decision about whether she's going to let her mother hold her down or whether she's going to look out for herself and make a call for help that may get her mother in trouble.

Told with great sensitivity and insight (and obviously based on real-life experience), Kyra's struggles create a compelling story about love and the challenge of preserving familial love when it is being torn apart by the impact of addiction.  Written in a way that remains authentic, while being entirely age appropriate for middle school readers, Zarr has crafted a story that will resonate with children coming from similar situations.  One hopes that such a young reader will feel validated by this story.  However, I would offer a far more important wish that they have a good friend or two who will read this book and be better able to help their struggling friend through a deeper understanding.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Atlas of Us, by Kristin Dwyer

When Atlas's father dies, he leaves behind a list of to-do's, one of which was to reopen a trail in the western Sierras and hav ethe two of them hike it together.  Atlas can't ever do that hike with her Dad, but she gets a job on the team that is rehabilitating the trail during the summer.  

It's hard and dangerous work, but the project gives Atlas some focus and takes her mind away from her grief.  Best of all, there's a policy that everyone uses aliases (Atlas renames herself "Maps") and no one is allowed to tallk about their pasts or where they came from.  The anonymity suits her fine.  But when she finds herself falling in love with King, the guy in charge of their team, she's in far over her head.

Featuring a diverse and distinct cast of characters, each of which are drawn out in fine detail, Dwyer's novel explores the slow reopening of Atlas's heart, her healing from loss, and her struggles with grief and depression.  The material is not new and Dwyer doesn't produce any fresh revelations, but the pacing is excellent and the storytelling compelling.  Dwyer knows how to feed the romantic flames gradually, never overloading the fire with excess fuel, and the result is a steady burn of a romance that relies as much on what is not said as what is.  The development of Atlas and King's relationship feels rough and raw and entirely authentic.  Combined with the aforementions strong supporting roles played by the other young people on the team produces a surprisingly warm story of bonding in the woods.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Simon Sort of Says, by Erin Bow

If you're going to write a book about school shootings for middle school-aged readers, there's something to be said for making it deliriously funny.  Throwing in radio telescopes, a mortuary, sackbuts, a quirky small town in western Nebraska, crazed emus, birthing goats, the Jesus Squirrel, and an amourous peacock is just the sort of thing to take the reader's mind off of a grimmer story of PTSD and survivor guilt.

Simon is the sole survivor of a classroom shooting two years ago.  To escape the media attention, his family relocated to the small town of Grin and Bear It, Nebraska.  GNB, as the locals call it, isn't just in the middle of nowhere, it's the home of a series of radio telescopes and thus ruled a National Quiet Zone, where wireless transmissions and the internet are banned.  The prohibition is intended to maintain the quiet that the radio astronomers need to conduct their work, but it also provides cover for Simon and his family -- atown that lives off the net.

In the remote quiet of GNB, Simon is able to make new friends and start a new life -- which in his case involves a seriously sophisticated plan to prank the astronomers.  However, keeping his origins a secret is nearly impossible (especially when a missing corpse brings unwanted attention to GNB) and when the cover is blown, Simon has the come to terms with what he is hiding from.  With the help of the emus and Pretty Stabby the peacock, he manages to do so.

Uproariously funny and full of absurd non-sequitors that come together in the end, the author reveals a great wit that doesn't triffle over the details (like when she confuses the beginning of the movies Contact and Armageddon). It's a shame to limit this to tween readers as I was laughing with every page and adults will enjoy the chaos and lighthearted nature of the storytelling.  That it is ultimately about somethimg super serious makes the book that much more remarkable.  You'll laugh, but you probably won't cry (unless you're the Jesus Squirrel, in which case things might not go so well for you!).

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Borderless, by Jennifer De Leon

Maya may live in a poor section of Guatemala City, but she has big dreams.  She's a scholarship student at a school for fashion and she's making a big impact with her designs.  She's even secured a spot in a fashion show which boasts a large cash prize and a chance to sell her clothing.  Her dreams may be big, but she's making it there slowly but surely.  

However, around her the gangs are taking over the streets in her neighborhood and it's becoming harder and harder to avoid the violence they bring in with them.  When Maya make a series of bad decisions, she finds her life and the life of her mother endangered.  Suddenly, her future in fashion is discarded.  Instead, they must flee north and Maya finds herself on the run and hoping to make it to the United States to request asylum.

The point of the story, of course, is to put a human face on the news stories about refugees at the southern border.  But the novel succeeds by actually spending fairly little time on that subject, concentrating instead on Maya's life in Guatemala.  That she becomes a homeless refugee works better dramatically when we've grown accustomed to her life before.  It also proves frustratingly because so many parts of her life and the story simply get dropped aside.  Her best friend, the contest, her fashion designs, and her boyfriend are ripped away from here and abruptly disappear from her story.  The break between before and after is actually the crux of the story, so while it violates a directive of dramatic narrative, it's effective literary choice here.

There were times when I didn't particularly care for Maya, especially when she endangers herself and her family, but I found her story engrossing nonetheless.  The novel itself won't settle any argument in the immigration debate, but for a young reader trying to understand why people would feel compelled to risk their lives to seek asylum elsewhere, it its educational in a good way.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Ever since her father was mysteriously killed, Marjan has been trying to keep the family's veterinary clinic going.  The staff do the actual animal care.  She simply tries to sort out the bills and hold things together.  But quickly Marjan becomes aware that her father had a secret sideline when a stranger arrives and demands that Marjan fly to England to care for a mysterious patient.  For reasons she cannot explain, she feels compelled to go and discovers the truly unusual nature of the charge:  her patient is a dying gryphon.

When Marjan was little, her farther delighted in telling her old Persian fairy tales.  Each one beginning with "once was, once wasn't," they told stories about magical creatures (faeries, manticores, djinns, dragons, unicorns, and even gryphons) and mankind's fateful dealings with them.  Now, Marjan is coming to understand that the stories contained elements of truth and that her father (and in fact the entire family line) has a special calling to care for these magical creatures.

Care is desperately needed.  Secret forces are at work to wrest control over the magical realm and the conflict threatens all of humankind.  But at the same time, the conflict is also personal.  Somehow, her father's death is tied in to all of this and Marjan needs to figure out how.  With time running out and desperately searching for answers, Marjan must bravely face any number of fearful situations, all the time dealing with nagging doubts about herself and her family's role in all of this.

A beautifully-written fantasy with a byzantine power struggle, interspersed by stunning retellings of Persian folk tales.  I especially liked the tale of the manticore, a morality tale about the cost of vengeance, but each of the stories within the story carry the dual purpose of furthering the story while being sold self-standing tales within the novel.  While this could have easily become a cutesy fantasy about a girl getting to take care of cuddly animals (and there is no denying that the story will appeal to young readrs who like animal books), Monsef has higher ambitions: calling into question human intervention in the animal world and the ethics thereof.  

The overall story has some rough patches, but the final fifty pages deliver one of the best bittersweet endings of recent memory and tie up all of the loose ends in a beautifully messy fashion.  An instant best seller that deserves all of its acclaim.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, by Kathryn Ormsbee

Tash and her best friend Jack have been producing a homespun web-based serial of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina called "Unhappy Families."  It's just something she and a bunch of her friends put together and they get a few dozen hits.  But suddenly one day, the show picks up a mention from an influencer and it blows up.  Tens of thousands of followers later, fan sites have sprung up and the show has been shortlisted for an award.  Rather than bring happiness, the fame drives wedges between Tash and Jack, and resurfaces issues from the past.

The novel breaks some ground by making Tash asexual and addressing the problems that this causes her.  This would have been more interesting if it had featured more prominently throughout the novel, but it really only rises up in the last thrid of the book.  In a similar way, other subplots (like Jack's father's cancer and Tash's relationship with her sister) get rather sketchy treatment and feel like afterthoughts.  Many of the subplots are of course riffs on Tolstoy, but readers without the reference point are largely left in the dark and the result is a novel that doesn't stand up well on its own.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Breathing Underwater, by Abbey Lee Nash

Tess is well on her way to a swimming scholarship, dominance in the nationals, and even perhaps a slot on the Olympic team when she is slapped with a diagnosis of epilepsy.  It's a serious set back -- having a seizure while swimming could literally kill her.  Her Mom wants her to quit swimming altogether and it seems the sane thing to do, especially since her condition makes the type of intense training she is  undergoing particularly dangerous.  But competitive swimming has been her dream for years and finding a new dream seems impossible.

Billed as a romance because of a subplot involving an aimless boy who takes her lifeguarding job when she can no longer do it, this story is really about Tess's struggle to rejig her plans and salvage the vital parts of her dream that are attainable.  But it's hard to see the struggle and the focus necessary to succeed when Tess keeps screwing around.  Tess frankly lacks discipline.  I lost my faith in her by the third time she snuck out of the house and broke all of the warnings of her doctors (and -- surprise! -- got very sick).  If you face a protagonist up against an insurmountable disease, you need to give the woman some spunk, some fortitude, and some will. But screwing up and then wallowing in self-pity got plain old and that seemed to be all Tess had to offer.  I don't have the patience that her parents (or apparently her coaches) had.  On a bleak positive note, I appreciated that at the end of the novel we don't see Tess getting rewarded with the happyb fulfillment all of her dreams.  A realistic bittersweet ending was the least the author could offer us.