Friday, July 29, 2016

See No Color, by Shannon Gibney

At the age of sixteen, Alex is struggling with the growing dissonance between what she is trying to be and who she thinks she is.  She's a black girl adopted into a white family -- neither black nor white.  She's trying to live up to her father's dream of her becoming an excellent baseball player, even as her developing body betrays her.  And she's discovering that her changing body yields surprising strengths along with disappointments.

An interesting and often uncomfortable book about identity.  I squirmed through passages in this novel where Alex pondered how the "black mind" differed from the white one, but I understood her struggle.  Like her adoptive family, I'd like to maintain the position that race is irrelevant, but Gibney gives no quarter on this and points out (I believe correctly) to the damage that silencing difference brings.  Told through both gentle episodes (like one in which Alex gets her hair properly handled for the first time) and more striking ones (as when Alex tries to prevent her black boyfriend from meeting her white family). Gibney explores all sorts of elements of transracial adoption.  Not content to simply focus on the racial issues, sexuality and gender differences are also invoked. The novel, in sum, pushes all sorts of buttons and is ripe for discussion and explorations.  I found it fascinating.

Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt

When Joseph Brooks comes to Jack's family to be fostered, he's only thirteen years old, but he's deeply troubled and has already spent time at a juvenile facility.  He's also fathered a child.

Quiet, stubborn, and fearful of physical contact with others, it takes some time for Jack and his parents to break the ice, but gradually Joseph lets them into his world.  Jack learns that Joseph is much more complicated, mature, and intelligent than people have given him credit.  And once admitted in Joseph's confidence, Jack becomes obsessed with Joseph's struggles and (despite numerous warnings from adults) allows himself to be swept away by Joseph's influence.  Jack promises to look out for Joseph and "have his back" which becomes challenging when Joseph sets out to be reunited with his child.

Another well-crafted story by Schmidt, who has developed a strong track record for crafting sensitive books about boys and young men in trouble (a bit of a departure for me).  This is Jack's story of course, but both boys are well-developed.  Strikingly, the rest of the characters are not.  Adults and other children largely come off as flat and disposable.  Still, the story moves at a good clip and ends memorably with some suitable pathos.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Whisper to Me, by Nick Lake

During a summer, Cassie is diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.  As she quickly discovers, it colors people's perceptions of her.  Trying to avoid the stigma, she resists the diagnosis and refuses to acknowledge it to others.  Cassie's healing process is aided and complicated by her father (who suffers from PTSD) and a young man who likes her but to whom Cassie is not ready to open up.  Seemingly unrelated, her Jersey Shore community is struggling with a series of unexplained murders involving young women.

Billed as a romance, this extremely long story (544 pages!) is really more of a drama about mental illness.  The romantic thread plays only a minor part and actually seemed peripheral to the story.  This is an overall issue with this bloated novel.  Major threads (the missing girls and the father's own mental illness chief among them) are inconsequential and unresolved.

Another fault I found was that Cassie herself is a frustrating heroine.  Making mistakes and being imperfect is a typical characteristic in a YA protagonist.  But she develops so poorly, repeating mistakes again and again that you never get much sense of personal growth until suddenly at the end when she is -- poof! -- magically mature!  Without any development on display, we are basically  cheated of the most interesting part of the story and left with a largely unsympathetic main character for the bulk of the story.

Ruby on the Outside, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Ruby's mother is serving a twenty-five year sentence as an accomplice to murder.  To Ruby, it's almost normal that she can only see her Mom during supervised visits, that their phone calls are monitored, or that she has to live with her aunt.  Almost being the key word.

Ruby is stigmatized and too embarrassed even to tell her best friend about where Mom is.  But a new girl next door gives Ruby the courage to start writing about her feelings.  Through some literary therapy, she finds the voice to express her frustrations, fear, and anger.

This is a fascinating book that introduces the corrosive impact of the correctional system on families.  Readers (of any age) probably give little thought to the hardships that incarcerated mothers go through or the damage that is committed on their children.  Baskin deals with the subject sensitively and in an age-appropriate fashion, letting Ruby tells us what it means to her in a way that younger readers will find sympathetic (and that older readers will find heartbreaking!). It plays to Baskin's strength at creating very intimate books about children coping with trauma.  This one tugs on the heartstrings and educates.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Summer I Became A Nerd, by Leah Rae Miller

Ever since Maddie learned how uncool comic books and fantasy/science fiction stories are, she's hid her love for them.  Instead, she has carefully crafted a public persona (cheerleading, having a popular boyfriend, wearing trendy clothes) that has established her at the top of the social ladder.  But her secret is in danger of being exposed when she falls in love with the adorable (but certifiably geeky) clerk at the local comic shop.  As she succumbs to his charms and discovers the joy of expressing her passions openly, it becomes harder to keep her two lives separate.

My biggest problem with this fun (but pretty silly) book was buying in on the idea that Maddie actually had a second life.  She did geek so well (Miller obviously enjoyed showing off her knowledge of LARPing) that I couldn't see how it had ever been a secret.  Add to this that there wasn't much in the book about her popular girl/cheerleader side, and I was left doubting that Maddie had ever been anything other than a geek.  For a story about conflicting cultures, that seemed like a fatal weakness, even if it left her more sympathetic to the (presumably geeky) target audience.

If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo

After transgender teen Amanda is beat up by transphobes, she is sent to live with her father, in a town where no one knows that she used to be a boy.  Given what happened to her, Dad would like Amanda to keep a low profile, but when she meets handsome Grant, she's lovestruck.  He's a dream and seems smitten with her as well, and she cannot resist falling for him.

All of this, in spite of the inevitability that Grant will find out her identity in the end -- an outcome that Amanda actually accepts.  The mystery is how he will react.  What will he feel when he knows that she was born as Andrew?

A briskly-paced story about the complications of being adolescent and transgender.  I felt on edge the entire time I read the story, fearful of a violent end.  However, while danger is always present, Russo manages to impart a certain amount of fun and humor into the story.  In fact, there were times when the attempt to depict Amanda as a normal teen seemed to be too good to be true.  Amanda integrates surprisingly well into her setting and develops strong friendships that provide her with support and safety not commonly found by transgender adolescents in real life.  Russo admits in the afterward, that her story has taken liberties (downplaying not only social dangers of being identified as transgender, but also the difficulties and expense of surgical intervention).

But I liked the story nonetheless. It shows the complicated world of Amanda with sensitivity and emotional honesty.  Given the trendiness of the topic, we've seen a number of books like this recently, but I believe that this is one of the best I have read so far.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham

Before Katie's grandmother appeared in their lives, Katie didn't even know that she was still alive.  And now that she has, Katie doesn't understand why her mother is so eager to get rid of the woman.  For Katie, her grandmother is a key to a past that she knows nothing about and she races to find out as much as she can before the old woman's senility steals away all of her memories.

For Katie's mom, losing memories would be a blessing -- she's been living in denial of her past and resents the way her own mother's arrival has stirred the pot.  But Katie is obsessed with figuring out what drove her mother and grandmother apart.  And as she explores that secret and forbidden past, she is forced to confront issues in her present as well.

A complicated multi-layered tale of three generations of women with a lot of emotional baggage and dysfunctional behavior.  I found the mother particularly unpleasant; her bitterness hard to sympathize with.  Downham tries to redeem her in the end, but I found the transformation unconvincing.  It also took a while to get into the story as a whole.  Some pruning of the various peripheral subplots might have helped tighten the focus.  In all, it's an interesting concept and tale, but not presented in a compelling fashion.

The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

Summer’s family is having a run of bad luck.  Her parents have had to go to Japan to care for ailing relatives, leaving Summer and her little brother with their grandparents.  The family’s regular seasonal job of harvesting wheat for farmers has to be borne by the grandparents who are in poor health.  For Summer, this means helping her grandmother, whose back is weak and who seems to always find fault with her granddaughter.  Through various hardships, the experience helps Summer come to understand how even a young person can do a lot if she sets her mind to it.

An interesting setting (seasonal subcontractors operating combines for wheat farmers in middle America), combined with a multi-generational immigrant family, provides color and cultural diversity.  So, the whole thing starts off well, but it never engaged me.  This is a common issue I've had with Kadohata's books.  She writes well, of course, but the stories don’t go anywhere.  There are lots of ideas developed (Summer’s fear of contracting malaria, her learning to operate heavy machinery, helping her brother make friends, falling in love, etc.) that simply get dropped with a one-page wrap-up at the very end.  I suppose the resolutions are all intended to be implied, but the bare bones of storytelling simply aren’t there.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Fish In A Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

For years, Ally has had creative ways to avoid revealing that she can't read.  She tries to read, but the letters just seem to swim around and she can't put them together.  Her efforts to avoid detection, meanwhile, get her into lots of trouble -- with her teachers labeling her a troublemaker and her classmates teasing her as a freak.

But a new teacher sees through her subterfuge and helps her to uncover the cause of her learning differences.  And with the confidence that this brings, she discovers her strengths and inspires her classmates.

Pitched at middle readers, the story of a girl struggling with dyslexia is far from fluff.  Instead, it takes on a wide variety of serious topics including bullying, racism, poverty, and separated families.  I'd have preferred more focus, but the shotgun approach does permit quite a variety of discussion topics.  The ending is also a bit too perfect but the story picks a wonderful pay-it-forward theme that provides heartwarming and redeeming closure.  Readers will enjoy Ally's kind heart and perseverance, and despite her numerous flaws and mishaps, will cheer the way that the novel rewards her in the end.

First & Then, by Emma Mills

Devon feels like she is drifting through life.  She’s in denial about being infatuated with her friend Cas.  She’s avoiding the entire subject of college.  And she’s definitely not interested in football star Ezra.  But things are changing around her:  her cousin Foster has come to live with her family, Cas has become distant and inaccessible, and Ezra turns out to be really nice.  The rest of it all is predictable light teen romance stuff.

There’s some potential here to explore the expansion of Devon’s family and the relationship between Devon and her cousin is nicely played.  But overall, not much happens here of note.  There’s jealousy and some crossed signals, the obligatory Jane Austen love fest (second only in popularity in YA to out-of-date music – a trope which is blissfully absent here!).  For the most part, though, the characters are forgettable and hard to distinguish.  Unfortunately, the story as a whole is as well.

Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

As Theo's grandfather lies dying he tells her to look "under the egg." This cryptic message actually makes sense to her as there is a prominent painting over the mantle of an egg that he painted.  So, she looks where he told her, checking every corner and crack around and behind the painting, but finds nothing.  That is, until she discovers that the painting covers a richer and far older artwork:  a painting that Theo comes to believe (on the basis of her strong familiarity with art) might be a lost work of Raphael.

But why would the family possess such a priceless work of art?  Where did it come from?  And does the fact that her grandfather used to work as a security guard at the Met mean that it might in fact have been stolen?  With the help of another girl and a motley collection of characters including an Indian hot nut vendor, a priest with an art history background, a burly librarian, an eccentric French tea seller, her absent-minded mother, and her backyard flock of chickens, Theo finds her grandfather was much more than she ever imagined.

A middle grade mystery with lots of interesting historical notes, most notably about the theft of art from the Jews during World War II.  There is plenty of lighter material on exotic teas, urban chicken farming, and (of course) art history.  In many ways, it's a bit of a heavy work for middle grade readers, but the sensibilities are all appropriate.  You won't find a romantic thread here, but the girls are resourceful and brave, the story educational, and the pace brisk.  I found it fun and enjoyable.