Friday, May 24, 2024

The Lightning Circle, by Vikki Vansickle (ill by Laura K. Watson)

With a broken heart from an unrequited love and a strong desire to be alone and lick her wounds, Nora is reluctant to be stuck at summer camp, taking care of a cabin of thirteen year-old girls.  But it's what she signed up for and so she goes.  It's hard to find the space to do her own grieving and there's no time for it. From the moment the campers start arriving, she gets thrown into the thick of her charge's own dramas.  

It doesn't help that it's her first summer and she's never been a camper herself.  Being a camp "virgin," every ritual is a surprise for her and she approaches the experience like it is a foreign land.  But with good instincts and a little help, she manages to survive the summer and learns a great deal, growing to love the place and its people.

A beautiful piece of nostalgia for the summer camp experience, this novel in verse is illustrated with sketches of camp miscellania (a bunk, a horse, a pencil, fellow campers, etc.) that beautifully evoke the innocence of the experience.  It is a very gentle story with no particularly severe traumas but instead chock full of authentic memories lovingly retold by the author.  While fictional, you can't make stuff like this up, so it is clearly drawn from Vansickle's own childhood at camp (in the afterward, she admits as much).

For anyone who was lucky enough to go to camp, reading this book will send you down memory lane.  For others, the book and its exploration of friendships formed and social skills learned in a summer will explain the appeal of this rite of passage.  Definitely a children's book much better appreciated by adults!

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Boy You Always Wanted, by Michelle Quach

Francine's grandfather is dying and he carries one major regret:  he has no male heir to carry on the family name and tend to the family's graves.  For a Chinese Vietnamese, this is a big deal and a thing that Francine can do little to help.  But when she learns that there is a tradition where families could adopt an unrelated young man to serve as the heir, she thinks she may have a solution and a way to make her grandfather's final days happy.  She just needs to find someone to become her grandfather's honorary heir.  They don't even have to carry through on it, just promise to do so until grandfather passes away.

Francine is a good student and extremely conscientious, but none of that has made her popular at school.  The only male acquaintance she can think of would be Ollie and they are hardly friends.  Ollie for his part is always a bit amused by Francine, but doesn't think of her as a friend either.  And he certainly has no interest in participating in what Francine has taken to calling "The Plan." But when Ollie turns out to need Francine's help, the two of them devise a transactional arrangement and Ollie finds himself sucked into Francine's family's drama.  It's actually a welcome change for Ollie because his family couldn't be any more distant from each other.  And while the entire set-up is based on deceit, a true attachment arises that proves to be surprisingly genuine.

The creepy premise of the story initially put me off the story, but it ends well and the truth is surprisingly liberating.  Largely a story about family and about learning to accept change, everyone gets a chance to learn a thing or two.  While there are a few rough spots and a subplot about a scheming best friend that never quite connects with the main story nor becomes the humor relief it is intended to serve, I enjoyed the cultural details and the nuanced characters.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Playing for Keeps, by Jennifer Dugan

June is baseball prodigy.  When the expectation was that she'd graduate over to softball, she stuck with the boys and has become one of the best pitchers in the league instead.  She and her father (who himself was once a rising star in the Minors) aim for her to go all the way, get a scholarship, and eventually play in the pros.  

Ivy gave up playing when she was young, but she never lost her love of sport; she just found a new way to express it -- by officiating games.  Just as June has laser focused on her pitching skills, Ivy has dedicated herself to the dream of one day becoming one of the few women to ever ref for the NFL.  Now, if she could get her parents on board with the dream!  But they want her to go to college and study something practical.

Girls with dreams of making it big, but who fall in love with each other instead.  For Ivy, this is disastrous as referees can't date players, so they have to keep everything hush hush.  For June, things are worse as she not only has the relationship to keep secret, she also is having physical problems with her throwing arm that are getting harder and harder to hide.

With all that going on, there is plenty of action to move this story, but the real high drama comes from the fiery romance itself.  Neither June nor Ivy are particularly emotionally mature and theirs is a romance that is more often off than on.  That provides plenty of opportunity for fights and counsel with BFFs (whom neither girl pays much attention to).  But I found them hard to digest and relate to (and even hard to differentiate from each other).  I liked the story well enough, but the characters simply didn't interest me.  That made the novel a slow read.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Conditions of a Heart, by Bethany Mangle

The primary characteristic of the disease that Brynn Kwan suffers from is the easy tendency of her joints to dislocate.  Keeping herself intact (as well as managing the pain of her condition) is a major undertaking and an obsession.  In a similar fashion, she's tried to hide her condition from her classmates as she's found how uncomfortable her illness makes other people.  But when she finds herself accidentally in the middle of a schoolyard skirmish and gets suspended because of it, all of her careful plans come apart.  Prohibited from the social activities that give her something to look forward to, she suffers an existential crisis.

Any story introducing a new condition (in this case, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) is intrinsically interesting to me.  Giving us an opportunity to explore how this chronic disease challenges Brynn and how she faces that challenge is a good part of the drama of the story and I ate that stuff up.  And while the occasionally repeated rant about how the post-COVID world abandoned the disabled is muddy and unclear, there are a lot of good points about how prevalent ableism is in our society.  That is the novel's strong suit and it does it well.

Much of that was expected.  What I didn't expect was how funny the book would be.  Brynn's cat cafe-owning cousin steals the show in the otherwise slow second act as we wait for Brynn to get her life together.  And Brynn's sister, while insufferably self-centered, pulls off her narcissism in such a purely unself-conscious way that you just have to love her as much as Brynn actually does.  The grownups, the antagonists, and the allies (off-on-off boyfriend included) are disposable, but I didn't mind that in the midst of Brynn's combustible performance.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

The Absinthe Underground, by Jamie Pacton

Esme and Sybil are poor working girls, scraping a living by stealing posters off the walls and reselling them to collectors.  When they are caught trying to sell a valuable poster advertising the Absinthe Undergound (the hottest nightclub in town) by the owner of the club herself, they are presented with a proposition:  The woman needs a pair of thieves to journey to the land of the faeries, break into the Queen's castle on the night of the Equinox, and steal the Queen's crown jewels.  In exchange, she'll make the girls wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.  That promise (and the fact that the woman's offer cannot actually be refused) sends Esme and Sybil on a series of heists and a grand adventure into a world that they never before knew was real.

While the storytelling (with its persistent habit of overly convenient late reveals) annoyed me, the story itself is exquisite.  Combining Belle Epoque with fantasy creates a beautiful setting for some nail-biting suspense as the girls work through a series of problems. Their very slow developing (and largely chaste) romance comes off with perfect timing.  The characters themselves are distinct in numerous ways and well-developed.  I enjoyed the humor, the writing, and the originality of the novel.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Home Away From Home, by Cynthia Lord

Going to visit Grandma in Maine in the summer is an annual tradition to which Mia looks forward.  This year is different.  Mom is in the process selling their house and Mia is going to have to move away from her neighborhood (and maybe even her friends).  Mom is sending her alone to Grandma's to get her out of the way during the staging.  All alone, it's hard for Mia to feel good about the stay.  

Things only get worse when Mia discovers that her grandmother has a new friend -- a boy of her age named Cayman who seems to always be hanging around.  It's bad enough that she's losing her own home, but now she has to share Grandma?

But the summer is full of surprises.  There's Cayman himself, who turns out to have a complicated history and is much less of a threat than Mia first imagined.  There's a stray cat who is hanging around the house for whom no one can find a family.  And there's a rare bird -- a Gyrfalcon -- that has blown off-course and taken to harassing the local  resident Bald Eagles.  And when Mia makes a tragic mistake that endangers the bird, everything changes.

I found this to be a satisfying middle reader with lessons about personal responsibility and caring for others.  There are lots of details about birds and cats and the proper care of each to satisfy young curious minds.  And there are nice dynamics between Mia, Grandma, and Cayman.  While the topic of alcoholism is briefly brought up, it is handled in a very safe and age-appropriate manner.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, by Kim DeRose

Witchcraft stories full of teen girls forming covens are not a genre that has ever held much appeal to me.  While fantasy novels with magic are fine, the whole witch thing always seemed a bit pitiful.  I figure that the audience for this type of book was some fourteen year old mini-goth with family issues and a lack of friends at school. But in this book, the author has thrown that bias right back in my face.  For, while the premise of the story sounds like some teen's pathetic revenge fantasy, the novel is anything but.  In fact, it's a pretty scathing screed against sexual violence that subtly creeps up on you before smashing you on the back of the head with a brilliant purple ball of magic.

Elliott is getting tired of the group for teen survivors of sexual abuse that she's ended up in.  The other girls in the group just seem weak and resigned, unwilling to fight and instead merely trying to cope.  Elliott is angry, full of rage, and wants to do something.  Group therapy isn't enough.

She's found a new path.  Amid a pile of her deceased mother's belongings, Elliott has found a book that claims to allow its readers to practice magic, to right wrongs, to do whatever the person who casts the spells within it needs.  Following the book's instructions, Elliott recruit other girls from the group and they form a coven. Though all of them are skeptical about magic, the book surprisingly delivers on its promises and soon the girls are devising terrifying vengeance upon their assailents.

Their acts of revenge are effective but provide little comfort.  Instead, their spells cause unintended collateral damage and prove less cathartic than they hoped.  As they progress through their grim business of punishing the guilty, the girls find themselves pulled in different directions.  Some of them are scared of the results while others can't get enough of the thrill.  Would it be better to give up and move on or is it time to escalate and attack larger and larger groups (after all, finding misogynists is not particularly difficult)?  Meanwhile, their use of magic is having unexpected physical effects on their bodies.

On the surface, the novel is well-written and well-paced.  The story stays interesting and the characters are fully formed and wonderfully discrete and different.  Their stories though are what takes this to another level.  A vast majority of the YA novels about sexual assault are pedantic and simplistic.  The violence depicted is clear cut and the fault obvious.  This has always bothered me because it creates a false narrative that a young person will be able to easily identify when they have been victimized.  Reality is not always so clear cut and the stories that DeRose has chosen to depict really stand out.  Every single incident is a clear case of rape, but none of them would be easy to argue in a courtroom.  That makes the stories so much more painful to read because you know that a vast majority of real-life cases are like this.  And most people don't have access to a magic book of spells.

The final element that really takes this novel into the realm of overachievement is its depiction of healing.  While ostensibly still relying on spells and witchcraft, the book concludes with a powerful metaphor that evades simplistic homilies about acceptance and forgiveness.  Instead, it calls on cultivating allies through trust and confronting false friends.  Real world victims may not have a spell book, but they do have a coven of friends and family and plenty of magic within on which to draw.  From the depressing terrain that DeRose looks at unflinchingly, she finds a magical ball of hope.