Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Land of Forgotten Girls, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Ever since their Dad abandoned them in America and went back to the Philippines, Sol and little sister Ming live have been stuck living with their stepmother.  Vea, their stepmom, isn't very nice and the girls reciprocate by rebelling against her.  To comfort her sister, Sol makes up stories about magical queens and monsters, while herself seeking help from her dead sister Amelia and (more temporally) from her neighbor Mrs. Leung and the local junk man.

It's a story of sisterhood that combines mundane life in a sleepy Louisiana apartment complex with touches of magic.  I think it's a bit too slow and strange for the young readers it is targeted to (I pity the parent who tries to explain the story to an inquisitive listener), but it has its charms.  The cast of characters are diverse and interesting and I especially enjoyed the large role that silences play in the story (particularly, with Ming and with Mrs. Leung).  At the same time, Sol was a bit bratty and seemed to enjoy antagonizing her stepmother, so I enjoyed her less.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Incident on the Bridge, by Laura McNeal

Popular opinion would have it that Thisbe Locke was generally a good kid on her way to a decent college, but then she was led astray by bad boy Clay.  And after the humiliation that Clay subjected her too, she neglected her studies and withdrew.  So, when she disappears one night on the top of a bridge, it is assumed that she's jumped in despair. But the story is more complicated than that.

Told through the voices of nearly a dozen characters, the mystery unfolds in many different directions. And it is that random and chaotic nature of the narrative that I found frustrating.  The book's length is largely based upon misunderstandings and missed cues, and elaborate introductions of subplots and minor characters.  But rather than stitch all of this together, the extremely abrupt ending just closes the mystery without resolving much of anything.  Thus, we spend a tremendous amount of time developing characters and stories which turn out to be inconsequential to the story.

Queens of Geek, by Jen Wilde

Three Aussies come to the States to attend SupaCon (a.k.a. Comic Con) in Los Angeles.  There’s Charlie who has come to promote her new Zombie flick and is still nursing her wounds from a nasty public break-up six months ago with her co-star Chase.  That process is complicated by Chase’s unexpected and obnoxious presence at the Con.  Charlie would rather move on and make some moves on Alyssa – a hot and rising actress -- but can't tell if the feelings are reciprocated.

Taylor and Jamie are her friends and – as everyone but they can tell – madly infatuated with each other.  Bringing them together is complicated by the fact that Taylor was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s and is very sensitive to being out in public.  Coming to terms with the limits of that condition, she isn't sure that she's up for dealing with her feelings towards Jamie.

Ostensibly a typical romance plot, but with a rainbow cast of characters representing multiple races, sexual orientations, and disabilities.  It’s a PC dream novel (and probably got on my reading list because of a CCBC recommendation), but really it’s a great story where the diversity isn’t the point of the story.  So, if the novel can be used to show that everyone can and does fall in love, then so be it.  But the most important thing is really that it shows good people doing good things.  These are nice people and the ending, while a bit over the top, rewards its characters for their struggles with a satisfying pay-off.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Go-Between, by Veronica Chambers

Camilla's mother is a famous telenovela actress in Mexico.  As a result, her family lives a life of privilege.  But for Cammi, it is a lonely life as she has to be protected from the threat of kidnappers and constantly must question the motives of people who want to be her friends.  When Mom lands a role in a new American TV show, Cammi welcomes the chance to move to America and (she hopes) become anonymous.

In Los Angeles, she enrolls at an elite private school and her classmates assume that she's a poor immigrant on a scholarship, with parents who work menial jobs.  This presumption so fascinates Cammi that she goes along with it.  At first, it seems like a dream come true: completely ignorant of her famous mother, Cammi can live a "normal" life. But the racist prejudices of her classmates shock her at the same time.  The lie itself entangles her and she finds herself unable to come clean with her new friends.

It's an ambitious story that tackles a wide list of topics:  immigration, racism, class conflict, as well as a normal dose of romance and interpersonal strife.  Being a short novel (under 200 pages) this is a overly ambitious.  The ending felt particularly rushed as the coming-clean is followed up by a block party and a movie-watching party (neither of which seem to serve any particular purpose except to show the characters having fun).  While many of the subplots suffer, I think the theme of how immigrants grapple with the balancing of old and new worlds is well-explored.  And I particularly enjoyed the early description of Cammi's privileged life in Mexico, as we don't see many stories set in contemporary Mexico that are not set in poor rural areas.

And We're Off, by Dana Schwartz

Nora has had some modest success with her fanfic cartoons and she dreams of becoming a professional artist, like her grandfather.  When she is selected to attend a selective art program in Ireland, she feels she is on her way.  And after dealing with her mother’s skepticism and the pain of watching her BFF hook up with her ex-, Nora will be glad to get away.  Her grandfather has agreed to pay her way and is sending her to explore Europe with a series of assignments, each one sealed in an envelope to be opened at an appointed time.  She’ll be completely beautifully alone and independent.

But then her mother makes a last minute decision to come along, claiming that she won't be any bother.  But, as mothers are prone to do, she goes on to completely ruin everything.  Will Nora be able to still explore the world the way she wants, find a cute foreign boy, and develop into a great artist with her mother in tow?  The answer will surprise them both, but the journey is of course the story!

A surprisingly spare tale that is mostly good entertainment. It reads like an entertaining correspondence with a good friend. Schwartz isn’t creating much that is new here (the debt to Maureen Johnson’s Thirteen Blue Envelopes is acknowledged), but she does it well.  And Schwartz even has the wit to acknowledge that life is rarely this easy or simple.  The conflict with the mother is a bit repetitive (the argue over the same things repeatedly) and the conflict with the romantic interest a bit too brief, but for the most part this is a satisfying read.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grace and the Fever, by Zan Romanoff

Grace has always considered herself a loser and a nobody at school, but online she's "Gigi" and maintains a super popular blog on Fever Dream, a boy band she's followed for years.  It's a secret obsession that she's hid from her mother and her friends, who would consider the whole thing immature and pointless.

Then, one night by chance she runs into Jes, the lead singer of the band and is mistaken by a paparazzo for being Jes's new romantic interest.  The notoriety pulls her into Fever Dream's world and before she knows it, Grace really is dating Jes...or so it seems to the outside world. But once admitted into the band's life, Grace finds that the reality is quite different from what she had imagined.  The group is falling apart and crumbling under the weight of hiding their private lives from the fans. And if the band realized that Grace and the notorious Gigi are actually one and the same, it would be a disaster for everyone.

A fascinating look at fandom and how fans think and create worlds of their own that feed off of each other, only using the alleged focus of their attention as an excuse to bring them together.  Grace lives in an all-encompassing and consuming world that comes off as even less healthy than the fame-fueled world of her boys.

Grace herself is a major tour-de-force.  Fans (or groupies) don't get a good rep, but Grace is articulate and sharp.  She's invested and emotional enough to prove her devotion, but she's also smart enough and honest about her obsession and her needs.  Even when she's head over heels crazed for the band, she's able to see (and explain to the reader) just why she gets that way in words that are lucid and believable.  I genuinely understood her and what drove her.  And I never imagined that could be possible as our worlds couldn't be any further apart!

In A Perfect World, by Trish Doller

Caroline's mother has always had a dream of doing humanitarian work in a foreign country, but the family had assumed it wouldn’t happen until Caroline had left for college.  But then an opening comes up during Caroline's senior year to set up a clinic in Egypt and Mom decides that they have to seize the opportunity. Caroline knows very little about Egypt beyond that it is old and full of Muslims.  And she's aware and a bit apprehensive about whether Americans will be welcome there.

Moving to a foreign country to actually live there is hard.  Hard to adjust to the climate and the customs and harder still to leave her home and friends behind.  But she discovers a love for her new home, despite its strange people and customs.  A love which is helped in no small amount by a forbidden romance with an Egyptian boy.

The romance was probably a required nod to the genre, but it hangs uncomfortably amidst Doller’s attempt to authentically describe contemporary Egyptian society.  The problem is that there really is no way to plausibly explain the relationship beyond what feels more like wishful Western thinking.  It doesn’t so much detract from the story as simply feel superfluous and alien.

What does stand out is the beauty with which Doller depicts Egypt and its people.  I related to this story as I too have spent time in Egypt as a teenager (albeit a bit young and for a shorter period).  While that was a long time ago and the cultural and political environment has changed, the descriptions feel authentic and Doller’s ability to capture the warmth of Egyptian people is welcome.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Rent A Bridesmaid, by Jacqueline Wilson

Tilly would love to be a bridesmaid, so when her best friend Matty gets the job, Tilly wants all the details.  Tilly is aghast when she finds out that Matty thinks the whole thing's silly and can't stand the wedding.  But since Tilly seems to think it is a big deal, Matty gifts Tilly with the dress after the wedding's over.

Tilly is ecstatic and loves trying on the dress.  The problem is that there's no occasion at which she can wear it.  Dad's single (although Tilly holds out hope that he'll get back together with Mum) and no one else she knows seems to want to tie the knot.  Then Matty suggests that Tilly rent herself out as a bridesmaid to weddings in need.  The idea seems daft, but takes off and before she knows it, Tilly's getting a chance to pursue her dreams of wearing a pretty dress and marching solemnly behind the bride!

All of which is just the framework to pursue more serious issues like Tilly's struggle with her insecurity as she learns to share her friend Matty with another girl.  And then there's the darker subject of Tilly's neglectful mother and Tilly's unrequited devotion for a woman who can't find love for her.  But through it all, Tilly and her friends live in an idyllic world where children respect their elders and live safely with sensible caregivers.

The story is cute and adorably British (while other Jacqueline Wilson books have been released in American editions, this one has not yet -- it came to me on a recommendation from an English friend).  The constructive (and non-adversarial) relationships between children and grown-ups (not just with parents, but also with teachers and others) are refreshingly different from the more Disney-esque American notion of snarky kids and clueless adults.  The relative innocence of the story is charming as well.  None of which means that serious topics are avoided.  The scene where Tilly finally comes to understand how shallow and neglectful her mother is is heartbreaking, but told in a way the reinforces to the reader that she still has people around her who love her.  Overall, it's a lovely book for younger readers.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Finding Wonders, by Jeannine Atkins

Through verse, Finding Wonders explores the childhoods of Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell (early pioneers in biology, paleontology, astronomy respectively), showing how their interest in the world around them developed.  While a century or more separates each of them, there are similarities in the support they received from their families and in their own persistence and endurance.  And, of course, there are plenty of similar obstacles from males around them who find the idea that a women (let alone a girl) would have any aptitude in the hard sciences.  The stories focus on their early struggles, but each time Atkins traces their life stories through to adulthood to show the eventual success and recognition that each of these women achieved.

It's compelling material, but I was disappointed with the final product.  Atkins notes that she had rather thin documentary material to call on for the lives of Merian and Anning.  The verse style was her strategy for glossing over those deficits (as it allows her to skip about and leave unfinished business).  It also leaves a superficial feel to the story.  We never get a strong feel for these girls and what really drove them on.  That is, except for Mitchell's story.  Now, Mitchell's story is more compelling to me for at least two reasons (her upbringing as a Quaker and her later career as an instructor at my alma mater, Vassar College), but it is plain to see the difference that richer sources bring to the story.  And while the verse is still trite, the story itself is significantly more moving.

Excellent notes and a bibliography at the end will be invaluable to stimulating readers to search out more about the lives and impact of these women.  That will make the book appealing to librarians and educators.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The Names They Gave Us, by Emery Lord

Lucy suffers a crisis of faith when her mother's cancer returns.  But as much as she hates God for letting this happen, she's committed to spending the summer helping her parents run their Summer Bible camp, just as she's always done.

But her mother has other ideas:  she wants Lucy to work as a counselor at a camp nearby for troubled kids.  Way outside of Lucy's comfort zone, Lucy is reluctant to go.  These are not her kind of people and being there will mean not being with her mother for what might be their last summer together.  But in the end, Lucy honors her mother's wish.

Working at Camp Daybreak is every bit as hard as Lucy has imagined and more so.  Her own doubts in Divine Providence aside, she cringes as the children have even less belief in God.  While she initially falters at her new job, she slowly learns how to deal with young people from different backgrounds and develops a greater ability to manage her own world, coming to peace with her own doubts and her fears for what is happening to her mother.

I love a novel which knows how to handle faith and religion.  Neither dogmatic nor condescending (as so many books about young Christians tend to be), Lord portrays Lucy's search for meaning as a reorganization of her attic of faith.  Lucy doesn't code everything in religion, but instead finds herself naturally drawn back to core principles that sound authentic in a person who has been raised in such a world.  Lucy is no zealot, but lives in her faith more comfortably than even she realizes.

I also love Lord's writing style.  There are amazing individual passages in this novel that take your breath away.  The final three pages are probably the most heart-wrenching and merciless prose I have read in years.  A constant barrage of such force would be exhausting, but a tighter less-distracted narrative would have kept up the emotional impact.  Instead, to a maddeningly degree for such a well-written novel, Lord piles in idea after idea (there's an ex-boyfriend, a new romance, a couple different camper hard-luck cases, conflicts with co-workers, and -- way too late -- a family secret that serves no purpose to the overall story).  It's distracting!  I wish her editor had said to her, "That's beautiful, Emery, but why don't you save it for another novel?  Don't you think poor Lucy has enough going on?"

Friday, September 01, 2017

Geekerella, by Ashley Poston

With a nod to Cinderella, Geekerella gives us Elle who lives for her favorite TV show – the long-since cancelled Starfield.  It helps her escape from the hell that is home and forget about her evil stepmother or her spoiled stepsisters.  Starfield was the one thing that Elle shared with her late father.  Her stepmother will stop at nothing to obliterate that legacy.

Darien Freeman is the heartthrob star of soap Seaside and his overbearing manager/father has gotten him the lead role in the Starfield reboot.  But while the fans are disgusted by this cynical commercial ploy (in an attack led by Elle herself on her fan blog), no one knows that Darien is actually a huge fan himself.  Feeling trapped by his inability confess his geekiness to fandom, he starts to secretly text to another fan (who, as it turns out, is Elle).  And the two fall in love over their texts without knowing each other’s true identity.  This culminates at the cosplay ball at a sci-fi con and includes the conniving stepsister, a giant pumpkin for transport, and even a forgotten glass slipper.

In sum, a lot of silly fun.  And I did enjoy the tributes to sci-fi fandom.  But the Cinderella stuff was either too dark or way over the top.  Abusive and nasty, it really clashed with the fun, and it wasn’t very realistic.  Poston doesn’t really do any of the antagonists very well, giving them fairly pathetic justifications for their actions and making them thin and hysterical – more laughable than anything else.