Sunday, March 31, 2019

Positively Izzy, by Terri Libenson

Another graphic novel from Libenson, the creator of Invisible Emmie (reviewed back in December).  This one traces two girls in middle school who are having problems with self-identity.  Izzy is creative, with a flair for the dramatic, and excels on the stage.  Her issue is that she has trouble focusing on her schoolwork and chores.  Briana couldn't be any more different:  she's smart and hardworking, but tired of having nothing special to make her stand out.  When her mother (the school's drama teacher) asks her to substitute for one of kids who's gotten sick, she's terrified to be on the stage, but it might be the opportunity she's been waiting for.

There's a very subtle twist in the story that is not fully revealed until the end and might even then be missed by careless readers.  Catching it makes the difference for this book, an otherwise unremarkable story of kids pushing boundaries.  Overall, I enjoyed Emmie more than this one as the earlier book had more to say and was quite a bit funnier.

Friday, March 29, 2019

After the Fire, by Will Hill

After living nearly her whole life inside the compound of the Lord’s Legion and believing with all of her heart that Pastor John was the divine messenger of God, seventeen year-old Moonbeam must find a way to cope with her return to the outside world.  The compound has burned to the ground and everyone she knows (with the exception of a handful of other children) are now dead.  Held in a rehabilitation facility with the other survivors she struggles to understand what happened to her and explain it to her therapist and to an investigator.  A harrowing tale of abuse, torture, and suffering pours out of her.

Obviously inspired by David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult, Hill touches on many of the key features of that group and their fate.  And despite his protestations to the contrary, there is a slightly exploitative feel to the story.  Hill never gets explicit but he doesn’t shy from suggesting all manner of horrific and traumatizing events.  For what actual aim?  A non-fiction account would have provided a similar picture of the combustible combination of madness, messianism, and the gullible nature of lost souls seeking truth.  What is the point of fictionalizing it?

Troublemakers, by Catherine Barter

Alena’s mother died when she was three years old and she’s been raised by her brother ever since.  He doesn’t talk much about it, nor does his partner (who isn’t otherwise so reticent).  Now fifteen, Alena is curious and wonders what the secret is.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more angry her brother gets.  It’s only when she accidentally discovers her mother’s history as a political activist and digs up one of her old friends, that the secrets start to be revealed.

Interspersed with this main story is a subplot about an anonymous bomber who is targeting supermarkets in the area and another one about violence against gay men (and a local coffee shop) in the neighborhood.  An opportunistic racist politician also plays a role.The subplots are all ways of illustrating the costs of radical politics in various different guises.  They hang loosely – either too obvious or too obscure – to really tie into the story.  This leaves them with a feeling of just being filler.

The novel has interesting ideas, but Barter’s delivery is awkward:  there’s an unforgivable repetitiveness in the interactions between Alena and her guardians that goes like this: they hide things from her, she gets suspicious and acts on her own, and then gets in trouble for the ramifications of her actions.  It takes a surprisingly long time for everyone to come clean and choose openness as a best policy.  And it's awfully tiring to hear the same lame excuse about the adults worrying that Alena is too young to handle the truth.  The evolution and growth of the characters is rough, uneven, and largely unnecessary.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Because of the Rabbit, by Cynthia Lord

Up until fifth grade, Emma has been home-schooled, but now she is going to start attending public school.  She is conflicted between fear and excitement by the prospect.  Her fear is mitigated on the night before the first day by a new addition to their household – a stray rabbit that she has rescued.

Public school is a hard transition for her.  It’s hard to make friends when everyone knows everyone else.  She finds herself alone with Jack, an autistic boy with an obsession with animals.  He’s nice, but Emma worries that being friends with him will drive others away.  She doesn’t want to lose out on making other friends just because of Jack.

A nice compact story about rabbits, friendships, and taking risks.  It’s not a terribly eventful story, but it is packed full of rabbit facts (which animal-loving readers will enjoy) and it has a nice unobtrusive introduction to the autism spectrum.  Nothing too strongly in your face, but enough to make the reader curious about what makes Jack the way he is.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 26th.]

Focused, by Alyson Gerber

Clea gets easily distracted but she’s always been able to cope and get her work done up to now.  But in seventh grade the work has gotten more difficult and her systems for coping can no longer keep up.  She’s not finishing her assignments and she’s failing tests.  Her parents are worried, but Clea figures that she just needs to double down – work harder and stop being so dumb.  If she doesn’t figure things out, she risks getting kicked off the chess team – the one thing at which she’s actually good.

A counselor at school suggests to Clea’s parents that she should get tested for ADHD.  That seems unlikely to Clea since she’s not hyperactive like those kids usually are, but her parents insist.  When it is found out that she does have ADHD, she is shocked but slowly comes to welcome outside help.  But even with medication and special accommodations, she finds it is still going to be hard work to overcome her condition.

A dense middle grade reader about ADHD and what it is like to cope with it.   I don’t generally like books that are basically non-fiction cloaked in a story.  They seem too preachy to me and more work than fun.  The characters just sound like they are taken off the pages of an encyclopedia with long speeches full of facts that are unlikely to roll off the tongue.  Clea's character does get to hang with friends, have a romantic crush, and deal with a fairly ineffectual bully, but it’s thin framework upon which to drape the factual information that Gerber really wants to talk about.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 26th.]

In Some Other Life, by Jessica Brody

Kennedy always wondered what her life would have been like if she had gone to Windsor Academy instead of public school.  As far as anyone else knows, she didn't exactly have a choice in the matter:  her application was turned down.  The truth though was actually more complicated:  she chose to not go so she could stay with her new boyfriend Austin.  Three years later, she is on the verge of getting accepted at Columbia, winning an award for the school newspaper, and happily still together with Austin.  Maybe she didn't need Windsor to be happy and successful after all?

But then it all goes wrong.  She finds out Austin is cheating on her  with her BFF and she blows the interview with Columbia.  Realizing that she made a terrible mistake with her life, she turns back to Windsor in desperation, begging them to take her in.  While at the school, a freak accident finds Kennedy transplanted into an alternate reality where her dream has come true -- a world where she chose Windsor instead of the boy three years ago.  A world, she comes to realize, that is no more closer to perfection than the one she came from.  And one where the costs are much greater than she expected.

The story could be passed off as trivial, but proves surprisingly deep in its exploration of the cost of dreams.  The alternate worlds idea is pursued more as a literary device than some sort of sci-fi fantasy concept -- a chance to illustrate that every choice has consequences and that there is rarely a right decision.  Add excellent writing with strong characters and you get a truly enjoyable read.  I raced through this book, reluctant to put it down.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

Felicity Montague has been waging a helpless fight against the stodgy physicians of Edinburgh, trying to convince them to let her study medicine.  But attitudes in the 18th century are calcified around the idea that a woman has no place in a surgery and no one is willing to let her study.  Her last hope would seem to be to entice an eccentric doctor named Alexander Platt to take her under his wing.  But to do so, she must travel to Germany, where he is about to be married -- coincidentally, to her nemesis (and former BFF) Johanna.  When Johanna goes missing from her own wedding, the adventure broadens and soon Felicity is stealing old drawings, hanging with pirates, and seeking out sea dragons -- all in the name of her prospective medical career.

A rollicking good time that plays fast and free with history and inserts an irreverent modern sensibility into its setting. The tone is generally light and, while danger is nearby, none of it can be taken too seriously. Felicity and Johanna are resourceful heroines with a strong sense of purpose.  If they speak and think more like 21st century young women, they are still rooted enough in their historical setting to at least add plausibility to their story (a point that the author valiantly stakes out, albeit missing the point that her characters still behave in an anachronistic fashion!).  I treat it as a fantasy based loosely around historical events.  It won't teach you much that is useful about the period or place, but you'll have an enjoyable time nonetheless!

Me and Me, by Alice Kuipers

Lark and her boyfriend Alec are canoeing on the lake when they hear a little girl crying for help.  They both jump into the water to save her but Alec hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious and starts to drown. Now there are two people who need saving and there doesn't seem to be enough time to save both of them.  Lark makes a decision that will change her life.

But does she?  One Lark chooses to rescue Alec and an alternate Lark chooses the little girl.  Both decisions have consequences, but the aftermath is not that simple.  In the weeks after the accident, she starts receiving strange messages on her phone – messages that seem to be coming from a parallel world.  A rift between these alternate realities needs to be repaired for things to be made right.

An interesting idea for a story but I couldn’t get into the execution.  Kuipers’s strength is dialogue and she sticks mostly to it, not bothering with much narration.  That makes for a jumpy story that can be exhausting to track.  Add in the odd tracking of parallel stories that are based on subtle differences and similarities.  It’s a lot of work and the conclusion is particularly enigmatic – a challenge that I couldn’t bring myself to care about.  A fun idea but a difficult read.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Broken Things, by Lauren Oliver

It was the crime of the century in Twin Lakes, Vermont.  A girl named Summer is brutally killed in the woods.  When news that the killing eerily resembles a ritual killing described in a fan fic sequel to the fantasy novel The Way into Lovelorn which Summer and her friends Brynn and Mia were writing, suspicion falls on the survivors. Brynn and Mia were eventually cleared, but the real killer was never found. 

Now on the anniversary of the death, Brynn and Mia stumble on new evidence that leads them to investigate the case on their own.  Doing so, they relive the days leading up to the death of their friend and uncover uncomfortable truths that they have buried about their friendship with the victim.  Alternately narrated by Brynn and Mia and in both the present and flashbacks to the past, the unfolding story tells of friendships, jealousies, and secrets long buried.

At times creepy (with a pretty traumatic ending), this is a classic mystery embroidered with the subplot of the girls' overactive imaginations.  The idea of team writing a fan fic that becomes the blueprint for murder is intriguing but I'm not entirely sure where Oliver wanted to take it.  Obviously, showing the whole thing as an obsession would have helped but in comparison with real obsessive compulsive behavior (like, for example Mia's hoarding mother), the storywriting never really comes off that way.  The idea seems unfinished and incomplete.  So, I was left not really feeling the inevitability of the story's ending. And the pull that the victim Summer had over her friends, while mentioned repeatedly, is never sufficiently illustrated.  For a psychological thriller that's pretty critical motive to build!

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Moxie, by Jennifer Mathieu

In East Rockport, TX, school is hell.  And if you're not a football player (and especially if you're a girl), it's far far worse.  The school is full of lovely "traditions" that exalt sexism.  A blind eye from the administration ensures that the hostile environment is allowed to persist.  But rather than tolerate this, quiet Vivian decides to fight back.  Inspired by her own mother's rebellious past, Vivian channels the Riot Grrrl subculture of the 1990s and produces a series of underground zines calling out the injustices present at the school.  She keeps her involvement a secret and is surprised when other girls join in and take her initiative much further than she could expect and it becomes a movement.

A well-paced novel that tells a great story of teens standing up for what they believe in and also tackles a number of important issues about race and class (as well as sexism) along the way.  The villains are a bit thin and the resolution done in flashback, all of which makes the ending a let-down, but the story along the way is fun.  The zines themselves (reproduced in full) are a great addition to the story and I'm glad they were included in the book.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Always Never Yours, by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

Megan Harper seems to have an uncanny ability for finding the perfect guy and losing him to someone else.  She's always the girlfriend right before the perfect couple met.  And while it's great to see your friends so happy, just once she wishes it was her in the perfect relationship!

Otherwise, Megan is content to be a behind-the-scenes gal.  She's made a name for herself directing for the school's drama group, but if she's going to attend drama school after she graduates this year, she has to do some acting as well.  So, grudgingly, she tries out for the school's production of Romeo and Juliet.  To her surprise and mortification, she is cast in the lead role.

That brings up some headaches as one of her ex-'s has been cast opposite her.  Soon enough it's hard to differentiate between the drama on the stage and what is going on backstage.  One thing is certain: Megan's romantic life is a mess and not for lack of trying.  Megan is fearless and not afraid to go after what she wants.  Now, if only she could figure out what that was!  And while the story is set against the tale of star-crossed teen lovers, the plot reminds one much more of Much Ado About Nothing.

I'm not entirely convinced that the world needs another YA romance that takes place during a production of Romeo and Juliet.  I get that young readers are more likely to have read it than any other of the Bard's works, but it's such an overused device at this point.  That said, this is a charming tale mostly because of its very unfussy look at romance and sex (yes, there's a fair bit of that in this book).  In the past, a character like Megan's would have been slutshamed (or at least her sexual history would have been the story), but here that potential plot line is quickly tossed aside.  Megan herself is having none of that.  She's loved well and no one is going to make her feel bad about it!  Being sex-positive in adolescence might be wishful thinking, but the only way to create that view of the world is to start writing it and the literary duo behind this novel mean to try.

With sex unimportant in this story, more tried-and-true themes of friendship and loyalty stand out front and center.  As for plot, Megan's growth from wallflower to assertive, proud, and brave young woman provides a very satisfying dramatic arc.  The result is a step up from simple light romance reading, but with nothing too heavy to weigh you down.  This is pop with substance.

Friday, March 01, 2019

This Heart of Mine, by C C Hunter

Leah has been carrying around her heart -- an artificial pump -- in a backpack while she waits to find a donor.  In a strange twist of fate, when a donor is found it turns out to be a boy who went to the same school as she does.  It's a discovery first made by the donor's twin brother Matt.

Matt is obsessed with finding his brother's killer.  The problem is that everyone -- the police included -- think that his brother killed himself and the case has been closed.  But following his intuition and a recurring dream Matt has of his brother being pursued by an unknown person. To their mutual shock when they discover it, Leah has been having the same dreams as well!  Matt is convinced that Eric is communicating with them (through a psychic bond between twins in his case and through his donated organ to Leah).

The story gets more complicated as romantic sparks fly between Leah and Matt -- a romance made strange by the fact that Leah has Matt's brother's heart inside her.  The couple mostly hides all of these things -- the identity of Leah's heart's donor, the shared dreams, and their search for the real killer -- from those around them.

It's a cute idea, but a bit thin for such a long novel. The idea that you can feel someone else inside you by having a transplant makes for a nice short story but at this length you have to take it literally and that stretches credulity.  By the end, Hunter herself has tired of the story and starts doing a literary fast-forward, giving us brief synopses of the passing days as if she can't wait to be done, which further reinforces the impression of a book that is far too long for its story.

Unbroken, ed by Marieke Nijkamp

An anthology of short stories about young people with disabilities, which features a wide variety of approaches to the topic.  Some of the stories are historical, some contemporary, and some outright fantasy.  As a rule, they don't really talk about what disability the character has, and in most of the stories you can't actually tell.  Rather, the focus is on how having any disability affects your personality.

As in any collection like this, some of the stories are better than others.  I particularly liked Heidi Heilig's "The Long Road"(a historical piece about a girl traveling the Silk Road to Persia in search for a cure for her unidentified malady) and Karuna Riazi's "Plus One" (set in Mecca during the haij). Both of these chose unusual settings to tell a beautifully contained and simple story.   Far more exotic was Corinne Duyvis's "A Curse, A Kindness" which explored the interesting idea of being subjected to a curse that forces you to grant people wishes.  I have no idea what that truly had to do with disability, but it was a memorable story.

And that would be my criticism with most of the stories (and the collection overall):  stories that seemed to have so little to do with the theme.  Worse, many of them have nothing to do with anything or are written in such an opaque style that you can't figure out what they are about.  Writing, in other words, that is too clever for its own good and sacrifices story for something obscure.  Those seemed wasted opportunities for what was a great premise for an anthology.