Friday, August 31, 2018

The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas

When they were children, Callie and Tessa were the key witnesses in a trial that put away the alleged mass murderer of a string of prostitutes in their area in rural Pennsylvania.  After the trial, Tessa's family life fell apart and she was sent to live with her grandmother in Florida.  On the occasion of her father's death, she returns to her old town.  When she arrives, she learns that she has just missed her mother and older sister (neither of whom she has seen since she was sent away).  Trying to track them down, she starts to make a series of shocking discoveries.

Coincidentally, a judge has recently granted a hearing to the convicted man to present new evidence.  The idea that the man they helped put away may get released terrifies both girls.  While Callie remains convinced that they did the right thing, Tessa has grown to doubt the accuracy of her own testimony in the intervening years. Moreover, Tessa's search for her family keeps crossing paths with the convicted man and those murders from long ago. And when a new murder occurs that bears a striking resemblance to the others, it really does seem that Tessa and Callie helped to convict the wrong man.  And worse, that Tessa's family is messed up in the whole thing.

A brisk crime thriller with lots of twists and turns.  Unfortunately, by the end, the story has grown so convoluted that Thomas has to cram the resolution into a brisk recount.  That's a frustrating way to end a tale which is so well-paced up to the last thirty pages. With such a busy story, there isn't much time to do thorough character development, but Thomas excels at color and depicting an environment and characters who are just threatening enough to keep the tension going.  While Thomas keeps us a bit off-balance about where exactly the story takes place, you can feel the rural northern PA vibe to the story vividly.

The Ugly One, by Leanne Statland Ellis

In this historical novel set in the Incan empire (pre-conquest), Micay’s deep facial scar has marked her as ugly and detestable in her village. Tormented by a boy her age named Ocho and avoided by most of the village, she is terribly lonely.  But when a stranger comes to town and gives her a baby macaw to take care of, her world begins to change.  She is drawn to the local shaman and begins to learn his ways and then is invited to go to the sacred city of Machu Picchu.

With limited information on the Inca, Ellis has made the most of the documentary evidence, delighting in recalling the diet and manners, and then elaborating on it with a certain amount of idealism (blithely informing us that while the Inca may have practiced human sacrifice, the victims went willingly and joyfully).  More important in her Rousseauian idyll, the people lived one with nature and were gentle users of the planet.

As a story, Micay’s journey is satisfying, showing her growth from timid and afraid to gaining the confidence she needs to serve her leadership calling.  Some key story elements (like the reason for Micay’s facial scarring) are held back too long, but provides a better dramatic arc.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Stick & Stones, by Abby Cooper

Elyse has an extremely rare condition:  when people call her names, the words appear on her skin like tattoos and stay there for a few days, fading away slowly and being replaced by new words.  She’s had the condition since birth but when she was young, the words were mostly nice ones.  Now in sixth grade, the words that appear on her skin are more likely to be nasty.  And the symptoms have grown more severe:  now she can make words appear by thinking them on her own.

With the help of anonymous notes from someone at school, she discovers that she can control the way her body responds to the words, by developing self-confidence and telling herself that she has many positive traits to counter the nasty words.  The opportunity to run for class office, while frightening at first, provides her a chance to prove that the words that describe her are overwhelmingly positive.

The story is not subtle, but Cooper’s self-positive message is great for middle readers.  Elyse’s struggles and eventual triumph, in the face of doubts from even her own family, are inspirational.  And the story isn't only about self-actualization.  Along the way, Elyse also has some adventures sorting out friendship issues and even explores the scary world of middle school romance.  The overall message that we need to wear the words that people use about us with pride (instead of fear) is positive and affirming.

When My Sister Started Kissing, by Helen Frost

Summer for Claire has always meant a few weeks at Heartstone Lake with her older sister Abigail and her father.  But this year, things are different.  In the past year, Dad has married Pam and now Pam is pregnant.  While it is hard to deny that she is excited about the imminent step-sibling, Claire resents Pam's presence.  Meanwhile, Abigail is bonding with their stepmother, spending more time hanging out with boys, and wants to be called “Abi.” Claire longs for her real mother, her real sister, and for all of these changes to stop happening.

Told in a variety of poetic styles, Frost’s paean to summer memories and changing families doesn’t break any new ground in theme or in style.  That doesn't make it any less of a lovely mood piece, articulating that perennial tween angst about changes.

What Girls Are Made Of, by Elana K. Arnold

Nina defines herself through her boyfriend and their relationship.  When he ditches her, she has to figure out who she is.  The process is fraught with a number of detours, ranging from comparing her life to an unwanted animal in the shelter where she works to recalling the grim fate of early Christian martyrs.  Written non-linearly, Arnold’s novel becomes a series of short essays on femininity, sexual politics, virginity, art history, and the role of love in a conditional world.

It’s an angry polemical book (more than a novel) and angry in a way that is largely deserved.  Arnold makes a number of good points.  It’s also a painful book as it calls out practices ranging from animal endangerment to rape.  But at times it can seem simply angry.  Arnold doesn’t allow space to explore unconditional love (having her character reject it out of hand) or even kindness.  Everything is about people treating each other badly (usually men to passive women).  Like reading an Andrea Dworkin book, it is too easy to fall into despair and paralysis from all this anger, rather than grow (although Arnold's style reminds me more of Susan Griffin and other eco-feminists).  Still, it’s beautifully written.  The short essay format allows Arnold to achieve maximum impact with her messages.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Star-Crossed, by Barbara Dee

Mattie's had a crush on Elijah for years, but now that she's in eighth grade, she isn't so sure she likes him anymore.  More surprisingly, she finds that she may like Gemma instead.  Does that mean she likes girls instead of boys?  Mattie isn't sure.  And moreover, she worries about how her classmates and her friends will treat her if they find out.

All of this gets complicated when Gemma is cast as Juliet in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.  During rehearsals, Romeo drops out of the play, and Mattie finds herself cast in the role as Romeo.  In a story that makes clever use of Shakespeare's tragedy, Dee spins an insightful and gentle age-appropriate exploration of sexual identity.

It's the type of book which will raise the hackles of conservative parents, but it's really quite chaste.  Dee's treatment very gently explores the sexuality question, speaking mostly about the difference between friendship and being more than friends. As it turns out, middle school romance between girls is every bit as awkward as between girls and boys.  Homosexuality is accepted pretty much at face value in this book, which may feel unrealistic to some readers, but it is also largely beside the point:  these kids are not having sex (they are barely at kissing!).

I found this to be a truly remarkable book.  It doesn't preach or make a big deal about its message.  It's really just a beautiful story of children exploring relationships, be they romantic or just friends.  The only difference between it and other well-written middle reader romances is the fact that Mattie and Gemma are both girls.

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, by Heather Smith

For years, Bun has watched the steady decline of her emotionally unstable mother as the woman starved herself and Bun, and filled their home with junk.  Finally, in a fit of pique, she tosses Bun out on to the streets.  Bun, suffering from some sort of social condition (it's never quite clear if she's on the spectrum or a victim of emotional neglect or both), would have struggled to survive, but for a chance encounter.  Taken in by a ragtag group of drifters, she is sheltered and fed.  And, while the situation is dangerous, the group helps Bun reconnect with humanity, providing a surrogate family and helping her relearn what love is.

In sum, a fairly dreary novel about an at-risk child and a group of well-meaning but not altogether reliable friends.  There's not really any deep message or meaning here and the characters, while colorful, were not all that sympathetic. The book had originality but the story never grabbed me and the threatening situations (including a scene in which Bun gets molested) were often quite disturbing.

American Panda, by Gloria Chao

Growing up in the pressure cooker of a traditional Taiwanese family, Mei knew what was expected of her:  get perfect grades, attend MIT, and become a doctor.  Then afterwards marry a nice Taiwanese doctor and produce lots of babies (preferably male).

Her problem is that she doesn't quite measure up:  Mei is a germaphobe, can’t stand biology classes, and has no interest in the kind of boys her parents want her to marry. She’d rather run a dance studio and explore what the world has to offer.  And she’s found a Japanese-American guy who she thinks is pretty cute!  Her parents are aghast.  They already disowned Mei's bolder brother when he cast off their restrictive aspirations and now it looks as if the same thing will befall Mei.

So far, so typical – and the world hardly needs another story about an independent young woman trying to break free from traditional constraints and overbearing parents.  But then, the story takes off into less conventional directions, exploring why the parents are so tradition-bound and, more broadly, discussing what the purposes of traditions actually are. The character of Mei's mother does a major 180 – morphing from annoying tiger mom to and sympathetic and even tragic figure.  And while the story itself ends in a rosy happy place, Chao has done much more with the material in the interim.