Saturday, November 24, 2018

Elephant Secret, by Eric Walters

Sam and her father maintain a sanctuary for elephants.  It's a hard and difficult job, but their efforts have been rewarded.  The  elephants they have rescued and taken care of have become a family to them and they in turn have been brought into the herd.

Between the costs of running the place and the time it takes, they have plenty of worries.  All of this takes a back seat when a new baby is born, and she turns out to be a very special new addition.  One of their financial backers takes a special interest in the baby and the trouble starts.

While the "secret" that gives the book its title and its conflict is a bit over-the-top, the story itself is a lovely description of elephant behavior and Sam's growing skill at managing the herd. A nice subplot involving Sam warming to her father's girlfriend allows Sam to develop emotionally as well.

Walters could well have stopped there.  There's plenty of conflict to drive the story already (a new bull elephant they have rescued and, of course, the challenges of raising a baby animal that weighs more than you!), but he wants to do something more with the story.  That seems silly and younger readers will just delight in the animals.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, by J. Anderson Coats

Jane figures that there are few places worse than the mills of Lowell and Washington Territory sure sounds pretty good in the descriptions that Mr. Mercer gives.  And so she's looking forward to their arrival in the frontier town of Seattle.  Along with her widowed stepmother and half brother Jer, they set sail around the Cape and up the west coast.  Dodging Spanish warships and visiting post-quake San Francisco, they survive several months at sea to arrive and find that Seattle is just a muddy mill town and hardly better than what they left.

Jane, however, is a stubborn and sturdy girl who realizes that the only way you can make your way in the world is to do things yourself.  With fortitude and a willingness to learn new things and take risks, she pursues a path that mixes conventional and unconventional, achieving a success that is hardly at all the end that she originally envisioned. The conclusion is inspirational both in the sense of what it does for Jane as well as in motivating the reader to want to learn more about nineteenth-century life in the Pacific Northwest.

If there's a fault to this beautifully-written and rich fictionalized account of frontier Washington, it is the lack of a historical note or a bibliography.  Coats obviously knows her history and reveals a amazing collection of tidbits about the ways and mores of the time.  It's the sort of thing that makes you crave for more and a reading list would have been very welcome.

As for the story itself, Jane is one of those amazing inspiring characters.  The obstacles she faces are horrendous but she overcomes each in modest ways, often surprising even herself in how she does it.  Where tasks seem impossible, she finds a different way.  Where Plan A fails spectacularly, she picks herself up and finds a Plan B.  This isn't just some hokey "frontier spirit" thing, but the real thing.  Coats pretty much is showing how real people worked through their problems and survived in the harsh conditions of the region of the time.  It's not always perfect and it's certainly not pretty, but it gets the job done.  In that way, Coats captures not only the historical details of the period, but also the mindset of the people.  None of which is to say that this is a survival story.  There's room in there for humanity as well, as Jane not only takes care of her material well-being, but also builds friendships, bonds to a family, and develops a sense of pride and self-identity along the way.

A truly beautiful book and a gem of historical fiction.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Annie's Life in Lists, by Kristin Mahoney

Six Things You Need To Know About This Book

1.  The entire story is written in enumerated lists (like this one).
2.  It's a story about a fifth-grader named Annie who moves from Brooklyn to the small town of Clover Gap.
3.  In addition to her love of lists, Annie has an incredible memory.
4.  Sometimes having a good memory can get her into trouble because people think she's strange or she talks about something obscure she's remembered.
5.  But Annie's biggest problem is shyness.
6.  Which doesn't stop her from making new friends and working on making a new home.

Four Reasons I Liked the Book

1.  The lists were not as obnoxious of a literary device as I feared.
2.  Mahoney is a good storyteller.
3.  Even the mean characters were not so bad.  It was a fun and gentle story.
4.  The illustrations were cute and added some whimsy to the story.

Two Things I Didn't Like

1. The book's structure means that sometimes you don't get a lot of depth.
2. Occasionally, Mahoney cheats and adds an extended comment on the end of the list, which breaks the structure.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Let's Pretend We Never Met, by Melissa Walker

Moving and changing schools in the middle of the school year is pretty traumatic in sixth grade, so Mattie feels she is pretty lucky to find that her new next-door neighbor Agnes is the same age as she is. Instant friend! Agnes, though, turns out to be something of a surprise: she's impulsive and energetic, and "a bit off." And while Mattie mostly enjoys Agnes's company, Agnes can be a bit overwhelming.  And, as Mattie discovers when she starts attending school, Agnes isn't well-regarded by her peers.  Afraid that being associated with Agnes will hurt her chances of making friends at school, Mattie tries to distance herself from her neighbor when they are out in public. Heartrendingly, Agnes gives her that space.  However, as Mattie's social life grows, she finds less and less room for Agnes and eventually shuts her out entirely. To Mattie's surprise, this doesn't make her happy.  Interspersed with subplots about her parents struggling to adjust to the move and to caring for Mattie's aging grandmother, the book explores a number of different relationships.

The tone is sweet and ultimately affirming.  The characters, while different, are ultimately supportive.  The message:  regardless of age and situation, we all need to be validated and be included in social circles.  There's this lovely phrase -- "She knows things" -- that keeps cropping up throughout the book for different characters. It's part of an overall approach to the characters: as much as children and adults like to pretend that the other one does not understand, we all basically do. As a direct result, little of the plot is driven by ignorance, even though often the characters hold back on saying things that might hurt, simply out of kindness.

Walker, who writes pretty decent YA books, transitions to middle readers quite well, producing a sweet simple story that leaves you feeling good (albeit with a few tearful hugs along the way).

Friday, November 16, 2018

Always Forever Maybe, by Anica Mrose Rissi

Betts has dated before, but never with someone as wonderful and perfect as Aiden.  While the things Aiden does, from drinking coffee black to riding a motorcycle, are outside of her comfort zone and far removed from how she sees herself, Betts finds it easy to change.  After all, aren’t relationships about compromise? She is changing more and more, becoming more like he wants and less like she does. Without even realizing what is happening, she is losing herself.  At the same time, the relationship slowly becomes abusive.  But by the time anyone realizes what is happening, it is almost too late.

The obvious comparison is with Sarah Dessen’s novel on adolescent abusive relationships Dreamland, which is still the superior novel for probing the abandonment of self that young women go through in abusive relationships.  Rissi's novel, however, takes a different tactic and has its own strength:  focusing on the importance of friendships for rescue and recovery.  Even as Aiden attempts to isolate Betts, it is Betts’s strong bonds of friendship that ultimately save her (as Betts’s long-suffering BFF Jo ably represents).

The story becomes much more than an account of the descent into abuse, providing us a thread of hope. I still would have preferred if Rissi had spent more time showing how Betts was primed to be relatively easily ensnared in this unhealthy relationship from her relationship with her parents and her prior life choices (in contrast, she spends considerable effort showing what drives Aiden), because there is a story there as well and the silence leaves Betts as a passive victim of circumstances who  needs outsiders to help her out.

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, by Leila Sales

Winter is a past winner of the National Spelling Bee, a stellar student, fledgling writer, and a early admit at Kenyon College for next year.  She's always been a good girl and done what was expected of her.  But then, a careless post on social media of a joke that falls flat goes viral.  Suddenly, people she does not even know are attacking her online, calling her a racist or worse.  And the outcry is followed by far worse repercussions: her title is stripped away, her acceptance to Kenyon is revoked, and her mother's career is jeopardized.  Winter's attempts to apologize simply inflame mass opinion and make things worse.  Her plans and future destroyed from that single post, Winter embarks on a search to understand who she is, how she can move on, and what sort of future she can have.

A surprising and thought-provoking look at cyber-shaming, microaggression, and so many other interesting topics, this is a book begging for a book club discussion (if you've read it and have an opinion, I'd love to hear from you!).  And while the ending may be a bit naively optimistic, Sales has so many interesting things to say that I won't begrudge her attempt to "solve" some of the issue.

I loved the sheer complexity of the characters, who defy easy classification.  Winter's evolving relationship with her African-American BFF Jason is particularly interesting and worthy of an essay on its own.  The book's nod towards romance was also well done and complex, raising its own issues about prejudice.  The adults do get short shrift, but Sales knows that her readers won't mind keeping the attention on the kids.

I do wonder if events have overtaken this story.  Winter's own particular "crime" seems so trivial compared with the daily barrage of offenses trumpeted on the internet these days.  It's hard to imagine anyone would even care what she had said, if she said it today.  And that, in itself, would make a fabulous discussion topic.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Love Me, Love Me Not, by S. M. Koz

After years of abuse and neglect from her mother, seventeen year-old Hailey is now in the foster care system, but she has a hard time staying in any placement for long because her jealous boyfriend Chase keeps sabotaging them.  But on her most recent placement with a wealthy and generous family, she may not need Chase’s meddling – she’s fallen hard for her sexy foster brother Brad and gotten embroiled in an illicit tryst with him.

Finally offered an opportunity to graduate, maybe even go to college and make a future for herself, will she risk throwing it all away for a guy?  Well, you can pretty much can guess what comes next and how it turns out!

Occasional moments of implausible events aside, this was an entertaining read.  Nothing too heavy and the pace was brisk.  I was disturbed however by the premise of the romance.  Koz works hard to convince us that the boy isn’t exploiting Hailey, but there’s so many levels of inappropriateness taking place here (Hailey's emotional vulnerability, the class differences, the fact that Brad's family is providing shelter and material well-being, etc.).  And the damage done, while depicted, is played down.  The romance was simply too creepy for me to take as the blissful True Love thing Koz wanted to show it as.

Invisible Ghosts, by Robyn Schneider

Rose doesn't need to grieve over the death, at age 15, of her older brother Logan because she's been able to interact with his ghost for the past several years.  They watch old TV shows together (Buffy, Star Trek, Dr Who, etc.).  In doing so, she's allowed other social outlets to wane.  Obviously, explaining this to anyone is out of the question:  if she told them that she was hanging out with her brother's ghost, they would think she was crazy!  As far as she knows, she's the only one who knows he's there.

That comfortable status quo though is thrown off with the return to town of her former neighbor Jamie.  They were close as children and in the intervening years, he's grown into a very handsome boy.  But what really draws them together is the realization that he can see Logan as well!

While it comforts Rose that she's not crazy, Jamie's appearance threatens the relationship between Rose and her brother.  Falling in love, Rose spends more time with Jamie and less time with Logan.  Jealous and increasingly worried that Rose no longer needs him as much as he needs her, Logan becomes possessive and violent.

A quirky ghost story, or as one character puts it, "a love story with a ghost," but the story meanders.  There are some clever parts (like having a school production of Dracula), but so many ideas are not fully developed, be it Rose's affinity for costuming or Rose's growing independence (first from her passive social life and then finally from her brother), Jamie's ability to communicate with ghosts, and even Logan's growing instability. Throughout, Schneider struggles to develop and complete her ideas.  So, while there are many lovely parts to the book (and a very satisfying conclusion), the overall story is a frustrating string of incomplete thoughts.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Learning to Breathe, by Janice Lynn Mather

Growing up in a poor and dysfunctional family on an island in the Bahamas, Indy has had to deal with the reputation that her mother has left her with.  And being nicknamed "Doubles" on account of the size of her breasts hasn't helped either.  When her grandmother sends her away to live in Nassau with family, it seems she may have another chance.  But no sooner does she arrive than her cousin starts to sexually abuse her, eventually getting her pregnant.  Knowing without a doubt that she'll be thrown out on the street if her aunt finds out she is pregnant, Indy starts to unravel, missing school and staying away from home to avoid the cousin.  But then a fortuitous encounter with some sympathetic adults gives her an opportunity to fix things, if only she can find the inner strength to speak out and defend herself.

Sort of a Bahama-flavored Speak, what will surprise readers the most about the story is what it is not about: class and poverty.  While there is plenty of patois in the speech of the characters to make it clear where this take place, the setting seemed quite universal.  There was little here to exclusively place this in the Bahamas.  What there is in this novel is an engrossing heroine and many other vivid supporting characters.  There's some shocking cruelty depicted here, but it is balanced by plenty of kindness, as the adults generally rise to the occasion. 

I found the story engrossing and hard to put down.

All That I Can Fix, by Crystal Chan

When Makersville IN experiences a crazy wind storm, squirrels are falling out of the trees.  But the craziest thing is the old guy who lets his exotic animals go free and then promptly shoots himself dead.  For Ronney, it’s all reminiscent of when his father tried to off himself, missed his head, and shot his shoulder instead.  With Dad now stuck in a depressive funk and Mom doped up on prescription pills, it falls on Ronney to take care of his family and his little sister Mina.  And along the way, he’s picked up the attention of a very focused young boy named Sam who is convinced that Ronney should help him find his older brother, who has run away from home.

Wild animals are on the loose and they are hungry.  When these lions and tigers and hyenas and pythons (some fifty-odd animals in all) start mauling the locals, the locals pull out their guns.  Soon, outsiders are coming in to join the fun and hunt down the escaped animals, which in turn brings in the anti-gun people and the animal rights folks.  And when the hunters can’t find animals to shoot, they start shooting each other.

Now, if Ronney could just get his Dad to come out of his shell and take care of things.  Their house is falling apart and Ronney keeps skipping school to conduct home repairs.  Taking care of Mina is also burdening him.  Thanks to his Dad’s failed suicide attempt, Mina is terrified of gunshots, which in gun-happy Makersville IN right now are pretty much the only thing you can be certain of.

The critics call the story “life-affirming,” which probably isn’t true if you’re a squirrel or a tiger or a lion or a python.  And probably not true if you’re one of the humans in this high-body-count story that never quite takes itself seriously.  Given the violence and how flippantly it is recounted, I really couldn’t take it seriously myself.  For me, there are other problems.  Ronney’s rants against his father are understandable at first but just grow annoying and repetitive.  Thankfully, Ronney gets his comeuppance in the end, but I was really aching for it to come long before I got satisfaction.  Similar repetition plagues Ronney’s relationships with his best friends (Jello and George) and with the kid Sam.  In general, whatever the theme, Chan doesn’t seem to know what to do with it except repeat it again and again.  This only breaks suddenly at the end of the book and resolution comes – in many ways – out of nowhere.  The ending is satisfying but hardly satisfactory in a novel that really doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say and certainly doesn’t know how to say it.

How We Roll, by Natasha Friend

The good thing about having to move across the country from Colorado to Massachusetts is being able to start again.  Quinn can’t do much about the alopecia which has caused her to lose all of her hair, but with a good quality wig, she may be able to hide the condition from the kids at her new school.  But new schools don’t necessarily give you a chance to start again and with a little brother with autism, Quinn is still going to have a rough time fitting in.

Still, it's not the issues that you expect that challenge you.  The girls at her new school turn out to be surprisingly nice even when her secrets are inevitably revealed.  Harder is her developing relationship with Nick.  Nick, whose promising football career was cut short in an accident that led to the amputation of both of his legs, proves more challenging.  At first, she finds him to be someone who understands her anger and frustration at being defined (and found lacking) through physical conditions she cannot control, but the relationship grows complex.

A very busy story (one wonders if we really needed all of the health and developmental issues in a single story) but they do all gel together in the common theme of making the best of physical challenges and continuing to “roll” with them.  The characters were mostly charming and it was great to see some nice kids interacting (including especially nice girls), when so much children'sliterature focuses on bullying.

I could have done without Friend’s half-hearted effort to give the locals an Eastern Mass accent (which she does mostly be changing “-er” to “-ah” and tossing in a few random “wickeds”).  It didn’t really add much, was inconsistently applied, and ultimately just became distracting.  Another issue is the targeting of the story.  The subject matter seemed more pitched at middle readers, but some of the sexual scenes might be more appropriate for older readers – perhaps a later tween or early teen?  I'll class it as YA, but I think the subject matter may seem babyish.