Friday, April 12, 2024

You Are Here: Connecting Flights, ed Ellen Oh.

Ellen's Oh's collection of short stories features twelve interrelated tales set in a Chicago airport during a rain storm that cancels or delays everyone's flights.  Each story features an Asian-American protagonist and explores elements of identity and family.  And they are tied together by a series of racist incidents and racially-motivated micro-agressions that challenge each of the characters.  Written by an excellent ensemble of Asian-American writers (including such well-known literary figures as Erin Entrada Kelly, Linda Sue Park, and Ellen Oh) the stories seemless fit together is sometimes quite amusing ways.

I enjoyed all of the writers, which is pretty unusual for a collection, and especially so given the similiarity of the stories.  Almost all of the stories involve their characters embarking on a trip back to Asia (usually for the first time) and their fears about making the trip.  That could have grown old quite quickly, but surprisingly it doesn't.  Each character approaches the problem differently and not all of them resolve the same way.

The acts of racism that tie everything together didn't work as well for me.  It is important to discuss anti-Asian sentiment, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 Pandemic, but what's here isn't believable.  Instead of stirring indignation, it just felt petty and fake.  Of course, the reason it is so camped up is because this book is targeted at middle readers.  However, I think even young readers can be trusted to realize that you don't have to clownishly shout "go back to China" to be racist.  So, while I think the intent was good and the purpose was important, I would have strongly preferred a more realistic (and thus more provocative) depiction of the ways that Asian-Americans experience prejudice.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Something Like Home, by Andrea Beatriz Arango

Laura has never really been around her aunt before, but now she is living with her.  And it's all her fault.  It was Laura, after all, who called 911, which led to the police taking her parents away and a social worker taking her to her aunt.  But it's OK, because Laura is going to make things right and she'll be back with her parents by the end of the week!

And when things don't work out quite as she planned, Laura finds that there are other solutions. Like the abandoned stray puppy that she brings home and trains to become a therapy dog.  Like the boy at school whom no one likes, but who Laura learns is dealing with his own problems.  Or like her aunt, who is struggling just as much as Laura to figure out this new arrangement.  

A sweet, albeit rather predictable middle grade book in verse about a girl figuring out how to adapt to changing circumstances she cannot control (and finding a few things that she can control along the way).  It contains a smattering of Spanish and Laura and her family are Puerto Rican, but these are not particularly integral to the story (despite the novel being a Belpre Honor book).  Instead, the story deals with the concept of family and home and how both are wherever you find them.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

Ellie Haycock Is Totally Normal, by Gretchen Schreiber

Ellie has been in and out of hospitals all of her life.  And her mother has documented every stay, every surgery, and every success and failure, and publicized it to the world in her popular blog. Now a teen, Ellie isn't so thrilled about having her medical care being broadcast to the general public.  She's trying to have a "normal" life and not let her most recent hospital admission derail her speech tournaments and her relationship with a boy.  To keep things on track, she's devised a strategy of keeping school things at school and hospital things at the hospital.  But a combination of some poor judgment from her mother and a rare comraderie with other teens at the hospital wrecks those careful plans and opens unexpected new opportunities.

Books about sick kids tend to grab you by the emotional jugalar and take no prisoners, and for that reason many readers shy away from them altogether.  Usually at least some of the characters die (and maybe a few will live and get better).  Regardless, they are difficult books to read.  I've been drawn in the past to books that took the formula and did something exceptional to it and thus loved John Green's The Fault In Our Stars for its humor and its tough protagonists.  This book has some particular virtues worth calling out.

First of all, the novel's look at illness feels fresh.  Ellie is a jaded patient with a learned cynicism towards the medical profession.  Her devastating take on doctor hubris and the vanity of nurses (or is that doctor vanity and the hubris of nurses?) won't surprise anyone who's spent a significant time in a hospital, but it's an approach that is surprisingly rare in literature.  Secondly, there's the novel idea of choosing a disease -- VACTERL -- that can't actually be curied.  Rather, it's a disease with a moderate survival rate that helps ensure (spoiler alert!) that Ellie isn't going to have a tragic death.  But she isn't going to be cured either.  And both she and we have to accept that and be comfortable that the ending isn't going to be about Ellie's medical transformation.

In the end, this is not a story about a disease or Ellie's brave fight with it, but a story about Ellie herself.  And while there is some tremedous emotional growth shown when Ellie learns to trust her friends a bit more and open her heart, the really stellar performance is between Ellie and her mother.  For the first half of the book, I really loathed Ellie's self-obsessed and narcisistic mother.  The blog, which is liberally quoted, amounts to endless whining from Mom about how much she's suffered, how unappreciative her daughter is, how hard she's trying to be a good mother, ad nauseum.  But at the same time, Ellie is horribly cruel in her lack of sympathy for her parents in a way that (while you can see where it is coming from) is really painful to read.  It takes a major showdown between mother and daughter for them to break out of their toxic relationship and that provides the most emotional part of the story.  

In other words, this is not a story that will break your heart because Ellie is a fine young woman struggling with a horribly painful and debilitating rare chronic condition.  It is a story that will make you cry because it is about parents and children wrestling with a much more common chronic and debilitating condition:  parents learning how to let your children become adults and children figuring out how to grow into being that adult.   Universal and relatable, and ultimately empowering and hopeful.  Tears, but ones that feel good.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The Big Sting, by Rachelle Delaney

Leo's Dad, currently between jobs, has discovered a personality test that he believes can correctly identify your key behavioral traits.  He tests it out on the family and Leo's little sister Lizzie is an "adventurer," which makes sense because she is always getting into trouble without a second thought.  Leo comes up as an "auditor" which reflects his cautious nature and non-adventurous personality.  It frequently falls on him to keep Lizzie out of trouble.

These personality traits get tested when the family goes to visit grandpa on a remote island off of the coast of British Columbia.  One night grandma's beehives are stolen and the kids and their grandfather launch a search to find them.  While Leo is reluctant to do something as risky as to try hunting down potentially dangerous bee thieves, he rises to the occasion, proving that labels aren't everything.

Pleasant and lively middle reader.  The life lessons are largely in second place to a riotous cast of quirky supporting characters and some low-key adventuring.  While the kids fall into some dangerous situations, there's nothing too scary and Leo largely saves the day.  Sadly, there's not not very much on bees themselves.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Girl Next Door, by Cecilia Vinesse

Cleo and Daniel have been collaborating on installments of their high school film club's ongoing soap opera project for years and they both dream of getting into NYU and eventually taking Hollywood by storm.  But that's until Daniel cheats on Cleo by hooking up with Kiki.  In the aftermath, Kiki's ex-girlfriend Marianne and Cleo commiserate.  

Marianne and Cleo are next-door neighbors and once upon a time they were best friends too, but they went their separate ways.  In their shared misery they rebond quickly and, when the people around them start to assume that they are dating, they decide to go along with the plot.  But what starts as fake dating to get back at their unfaithful partners becomes a real relationship.

While the plot sounds largely unremarkable and a bit contrived, the novel is well-written and breathes a bit of freshness into an old story.  The setting is dense and immersive.  That means both that it relishes its details and the realistic feeling that such details gives its charcaters and also that it takes a bit to keep all of those details straight.   I had some trouble getting into the story and was frustrated by the lack of distinctiveness to all of the players.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Elf Dog & Owl Head, by M. T. Anderson (ill Junyi Wu)

In the midsts of a lockdown triggered by a global pamndemic, Clay doesn't have much to look forward to this summer except long solitary walks in the woods.  But when he discovers a stray magical dog, his world changes.  Quite literally.  The dog takes him to other worlds -- a land with a huge wishing lake, a village of people with owl heads, and group of sleeping giants.  But the dog belongs to the Kingdom Under the Mountain and her owners want her back!

A rollicking adventure of strange creatures, battles, and subterfuge.  Filled out with delightful illustrations, this fast-paced story is an easy read.  I found it terribly violent and a bit thin on character, but it won plenty of awards (including a Newbery Honor last year).

Sunday, March 24, 2024

With A Little Luck, by Marissa Meyer

Jude's idea of risk is rolling dice for the D&D campaigns for which he dungeon masters.  He knows that there is no way he'll ever realize his dreams in real life.  He'll always be a mediocre artist, an average student, and he'll never get the girl of his dreams, Maya.  But things seem to change for him when he stumbles across a beautiful twenty-side die on the turntable at his parents' record shop.  Suddenly, everything starts going right.

Defying the odds, he finds a rare signed record that everyone's overlooked, he wins a radio contest for two tickets to see a British hearthrob in concert, he finds missing homework, and he's rolling d20s perpetually.  With the tickets, he gets the courage to ask Maya out on a date and she surprisingly accepts.  And then she surprises him further revealing that she loves fantasy roleplaying as well and becomes an essential part of his D&D parties!  It would seem that there is no limit to the things that Jude can do with his magic die until, that is, his luck changes.

Maya turns out to be a lovely person but not the love of his life.  His true love is actually with someone else.  His grade start slipping again.  Every good deed he tries to perform backfires on him.  It would seem that the die has now cursed him and he can only roll d1s.  But for everything that goes wrong, some new opportunity arrives.  Jude begins to discern that it isn't a simple matter of good and bad luck.

For a novel based (as its predecessor Instant Karma was) around Beatles references, the lesson of this story actually comes to us from the Stones -- "you can't always get what you want...you get what you need." As Jude's luck seems to reverse, he comes to understand that luck itself is overrated.  And the best things in life are not determined by fate, but by courage and taking chances.

Continuing the unobtrusive magical nature that Meyer played with in Instant Karma, there are plenty of similarities but is is an imminently more satisfying story.  Prudence and Quint from that book play minor roles here to give us some foundation, but Jude's struggles to gain self-confidence and his acts of bravery are much more relatable that Pru's acts of karmic vengeance.  And while a string of hillariously improbable coincidences at the end of the story might have derailed the whole thing, they in fact are quite in keeping with the spirit of this fun and enjoyable read.