Sunday, May 26, 2019

Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

As a kid
I told my mom
I wanted to be a bird
when I grew up.
She never said
I couldn't.
So for years
I bird-sang my words.
And saved dryer lint
and old gift ribbons
for future nests.

For twelve year-old Birdie, everything around her seems to be changing.  Since her father died in a fire fighting accident, she's relied on Mom and their elderly friend Maymee for stability.  And her friends Nina and Martin are always there as well.  But Maymee's found a beau and even Mom has started dating.  While she is happy about the former, the latter feels like a betrayal of her father and Birdie resists the boyfriend's attempt to befriend her.  Birdie's thought that it might be nice to have Martin as a first boyfriend is thwarted when he and Nina start dating.  About the only thing that provides stability in Birdie's life are the birds that she watches, dutifully collating observation lists every day.

A delightful middle grade story in verse that combines the usual thematic suspects for anxious teen readers: changing friendships, the sudden importance and difficulty of romantic entanglements, evolving families, and growing responsibilities.  The material is not new and the verse is functional, but this compact story is pleasing on several levels.  Particularly endearing are Birdie's gradual acceptance of her mother's new boyfriend, the instructive lesson of Maymee's romance and its challenges, and her struggles with both positive and negative ways of dealing with her jealousy towards Martin and Nina.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Beauty of the Moment, by Tanaz Bhathena

Susan and her family have immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia, but the family tie is strained by her father's decision to stay back in Saudi and work, leaving Susan and her mom to fend for themselves in the new country.  Susan is a good student but doesn't want to become the doctor or engineer that her parents want.  She'd rather be an artist.  Tasting the freer life in North America (as epitomized most by getting her driver's license) makes her more willing to explore those desires.

Malcolm, born in Canada but Parsi and raised in a Zoroastrian family, is an angry young man.  After his mother died from cancer and his father turned to physically abusing him, Malcolm drifted, getting into fights and other trouble.  He couldn't be a starker contrast to straight-A Susan.  Naturally enough, then, the two of them connect and form a tentative relationship.  Cultural differences, family pressures, and awkward adolescent moments intervene.

A rather more sophisticated teen romance than the typical sort, heavily imbued as it is with Middle Eastern and South Asian cultural references.  But the complexity goes far beyond the cultural nuances.  Susan and Malcolm have complicated families.  Between the strains in Susan's family as her parents contemplate divorce and Malcolm's tense relationship with his abusive father and new stepmother, these kids have a lot on their plates.  That it flows over into their relationship with each other is understandable to readers, yet it is an understanding that rarely finds its way in YA romances (where usually the romance lives in isolation from the family's troubles).

This busy novel hardly needs the subplots of Susan's artistic ambitions or the more mundane story of getting her driver's license or the story of an upcoming school project.  Still, these details nicely root the story in how normal and everyday these kids are.  This, in turn, make the story easy to relate to, despite the unusual backgrounds from which Susan and Malcolm come.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Secrets of a Fangirl, by Erin Dionne

Sarah Anne has never really thought much about her dedication to the Nightshade series.  But when she stumbles across a contest to identify the world’s #1 fan she finds that the bank of qualifying questions are amazingly easy.  So she decides to compete and is surprised to find that she's a winner.  But taking part in a contest means going public and that presents challenges: fandom is sexist and she struggles to be taken seriously.  Worse, though, is the public exposure.

Back at school, she’s officially over Nightshade.  She and her BFF Roxy agreed last year to give up all of that stuff and focus on what “really” matters:  fashion, boys, and popularity.  If it got out that she was competing in this contest, it would be an act of social suicide.  She'd lose her place on the A list and probably lose Roxy’s friendship as well.

But winning the contest means showing the guys that girls know fandom as well and it's a chance for Sarah Anne to excel at something she really enjoys.  As the contest continues and Sarah Anne continues to lead the pack, keeping everything secret becomes harder and harder.  She comes to realize that she can’t do it all and she has to choose what is most important to her.

I’m pretty certain you can guess the outcome and it is every bit as satisfying as you would expect.  This is no deep thought novel, but it is deep fun.  Sarah Anne is smart, strong, and in the end surprisingly good at taking care of herself.  Lots of good empowering messages for girls and a few observations about fandom sexism to boot.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on May 28th.]

Spindrift and the Orchid, by Emma Trevayne

When Spindrift washed ashore after the sinking of her parents’ ship, she was found with a defective crystal ball.  Unlike the balls in her grandfather’s magic shop, this one appeared to do nothing.  Nonetheless, Spindrift kept it as a memento of her drowned parents.  Then one day the ball reveals a flower inside of it -- a black orchid that blooms in front of her.  The flower in turn becomes a magical woman who grants wishes.  Any thing -- as long as it is an object (and not a person) -- that Spindrift wants, the woman will give Spindrift.

With help from her grandfather, Spindrift learns that this ball is one of seven – each of a different color and each with a different power.  She also discovers that the balls and their orchids are being hunted down by Roland, a former member of her parents’ crew, whom she also suspects of being responsible for their death. Following clues left in her mother’s correspondence with her grandfather, Spindrift and her young friends try to locate the orchids before Roland can collect them all together and wield immense power.

A challenging story to follow, Tremayne has many great ideas but few of them are developed (orchid hunters, the legend of the seven sages, the nature of greed, the idea that the balls are associated with particular families, magical wings that allow the children to get around, etc.).  Spindrift’s journey is novel enough, but these loose ends and holes give it a feeling of being unfinished.  This not only affects the strength of the story, but also the development of the characters whose importance to the story is never really explained.  Spindrift's friends are disposable and distracting.  They didn’t contribute much.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

How much thought have you ever given to Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters?  The ones who (in the original version of the story) chopped up their feet in a failed attempt to fit into the glass slipper?  And after poor Ella went to live happily ever after, what happened to them and their equally odious mother?  “Good riddance!” was probably the lesson we were all supposed to take from their example.  There was nothing to like in them.  Rather, we were taught that Ella’s humility and her beauty made her the victor.  And the great prize at the end of the day was to be the prince’s trophy wife.

Rewriting Ella’s fate (or how she achieved it) has been done many times before, usually with a focus on empowering Ella as even more virtuous and strong (often at the expense of the vain fashion-conscious stepsisters).  But this novel takes a different path, positioning the stepsisters as victims of societal pressure and an overly ambitious mother, and suggesting that Ella’s passive acceptance of Chance or Fate (take your pick!) is not really the path to living happily ever after.  In this retelling, the stepsisters never did have a chance, twisted as they were by jealousy and the expectation that they should do whatever it took to score a husband.  The story goes further, providing a backstory that the three girls, before any of these expectations had been imposed, lived together in innocent friendship.

Much like Damsel (a novel I reviewed a few weeks ago), I was intrigued by the novel direction of the story and dove into the book with high expectations.  Unfortunately, after introducing her critical ideas, Donnelly runs out of steam and turns her heroine (the elder stepsister Isabelle) into a sort of fairy-tale Katniss.  There’s an entirely unnecessary diversion into Herstory to lay out the fact that female warriors are so often written off and then it goes full-blown silly as the three sisters reconcile and defeat evil.

But if one ignores the heavy handed implementation of the premise and the action-packed and vapid finale, there’s a great story here about the heroine Isabelle, who grows from a vain girl (desperate to be pretty) to a mature decision maker.  In doing so, she finds a balance between bravery/strength and compassion/kindness that even Cinderella has not mastered (or, for that matter, most human beings).  Ironically, this conclusion forces an uncomfortable new dilemma on the reader:  might these similarly unrealistic measures of success just be replacing one misery with another?  Perhaps this could be material for a sequel?

[Disclaimer:  I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (and some nifty swag) in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book was originally scheduled for release on May 28th but is already out]

The Truth About Leaving, by Natalie Blitt

With her mother working in California this year, Lucy and her father have their hands full taking care of her little brothers back in Chicago.  It's her senior year and Lucy needs to make plans for her future.  It's always been assumed that she would go to Northwestern, but now she isn't sure.  Having her boyfriend dump her before the start of the year had made her her realize the pitfalls of always trying to please others (as well as making her initially swear off boys for a while).

Then, a new student shows up in her poetry class.  Dov is an exchange student from Israel, with a soft demeanor and a reticence that suggests some dark history.  As this is a romance, Lucy naturally tries to break through his shell.  When she finally succeeds, the two of them develop a very intense relationship, haunted by the reality that Dov is going back home in a few months and start his three years' of military service.  But while the relationship is overshadowed by this grim reality, Dov's devotion is an inspiration and helps Lucy figure out what she should do with herself.

It's mostly by-the-numbers YA romance: the sulking, but polite and responsible boy; the spats, falling outs, and eventual reconciliation; and of course the doubting grownups who are proven wrong by the true lovers.  The differences lie in the characters, and Dov in particular.  Lucy is far too perfect to be interesting but Dov's serious demeanor, grim backstory, and maturity makes for a fascinating protagonist.  Haunted by the death of his brother and an ugly way he handled his grief, he is obsessed with serving his country in a way that seems selfless, but which he comes to understand is selfish.  The story is actually well served by sweet chaste romance.  There's a surprising lack of sex in an otherwise very intense relationship, which serves mostly to underscore a rather sober and mature approach to the challenges of their relationship.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Dream Within a Dream, by Patricia MacLachlan

Louisa and her little brother Theo get dropped off on a remote island to stay with their grandparents while Mom and Dad go off on a birdwatching tour.  Twelve year-old Louisa doesn't like change, but it seems that the summer will be full of them.  Her grandfather is losing his vision and has to adjust to the growing list of things he can no longer do.  Her brother will fall in love with the island and want to stay.  And Louisa will meet George who will be her friend and teach her words in Swahili.

MacLachlan's typical sparse style shines out in this simple setting.  As with her other books, the leanness means that there is very little going on on the surface.  But that is deceiving as the book reveals more with repeated reads.  The style was beautiful in Sarah, Plain and Tall because the subject matter was so angsty.  Whether this book is enticing enough to make a reader come back is a different matter.  I found it nice and kind, but ultimately dull.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Come Find Me, by Megan Miranda

A year ago, Kennedy saw her brother Elliott fleeing their house.  Inside, her mother and her boyfriend were dead.  The evidence against him was overwhelming:  gunpowder residue on his body, his fingerprints on the gun, the lack of an alibi, and Kennedy's witness statement; but something doesn't feel right and Kennedy can't get her testimony straight.  The trial is coming up soon.

In a county next door, Nolan and his family are still grieving the disappearance of his older brother, who simply vanished during a family picnic.  His parents have dedicated themselves to finding lost children.  Nolan has turned to ghost hunting, convinced that his brother is sending him messages from some hidden place.

Two young people with mysteries that haunt their lives, but very little else in common.  They get brought together by a series of supernatural events -- someone or something is reaching out to them.  But who/what is it?  And why have they been drawn together?  Soon the messages and the mystery are sending them on a search that, while for different things, seems to follow the same path.

At times a bit hard to piece together, this is a nice suspense novel that works best while giving it less deep thought. The events that tie it together are presented in such a way that there may be something supernatural going on, but it is not required.  That turns out to be the best way to tell this story that's big on action and fairly short on character.  That's a missed opportunity as a deeper and more interesting novel would have explored the guilt that Nolan and Kennedy are going through (instead, it is stated, but never really shown). There's a little romance of course, but it mostly seems driven for the obligation that boy and girl have to kiss at some point, and not from any particular bond between the characters.  There really isn't much room in this novel for much of an emotional connection between the characters.

Friday, May 10, 2019

On a Scale of One to Ten, by Ceylan Scott

Fictional, but based heavily on the author's own experience being institutionalized at the age of sixteen, this novel traces Tamar's arrival in a residential mental health facility for adolescents and the days spent. It's a story that's been done before plenty of times, but this book stands out for its immediacy -- the author started writing it shortly after being discharged.

Unlike almost every other example of this genre, it isn't really about the healing.  After all, usually the protagonist is in denial for the bulk of the story. The great breakthrough -- usually at the end -- is her recognition of her special issue and the confrontation with her delusion.  Obviously, there is a small bit of that here, but it secondary to Scott's interest in the experience itself: how people interact, what it is like to be medicated, and the relationships with the staff.  It's not terribly dramatic.  It's even a bit hard to follow; as one would expect from a mildly psychotic narrator.

Does that make it a good book?  It doesn't have a big emotional payoff or provide any startling revelations about mental health,  but it does give a good slice of life and exposure to the world.

[Disclosure:  I received an Advance Reviewer's Copy of this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled to be released on May 14th.]

Even If I Fall, by Abigail Johnson

A year ago Brooke’s brother killed his best friend.  In their small town, whoever didn’t judge the family by that heinous act was eventually convinced to avoid them by the trial and the publicity.  Brooke’s little sister won’t talk, Mom can’t stop crying, and Dad has retreated to the basement to work on projects. Only Brooke and her mother are willing to visit her brother in jail (Dad and little sister outright refuse).

Brooke subjects herself to daily humiliation from her boss at the skating rink.  She does so out of guilt and because it gives her an opportunity to continue to skate (even if she has pretty much given up her life dream of skating professionally).  The only friend she has these days is a new girl in town who doesn't (yet) know of Brooke's notoriety.

But then Brooke finds a confidant, someone who understands what she and her family is going through – Heath, the younger brother of the guy that Brooke’s brother killed.  It’s an awkward friendship that has to be kept secret, a friendship that would tear their families apart if it came out into the open, and one which can never be allowed to become more serious.  And then it does.

Surprisingly low-key for such a melodramatic premise, the story has a number of tracks to it (family recovery, most importantly, but also Brooke’s search for the truth about the murder, and finally her parents’ unresolved past) that make the story complex and rewarding.  Similarly, Johnson avoids any sort of drastic resolution, settling for an ending that, while modest, feels realistic and plausible.  Characters are less developed as the pace is fast and emotions tend to run so high that we don’t get reflective moments, but I enjoyed it.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Picture Us in the Light, by Kelly Loy Gilbert

There’s always been something odd about the way Danny's parents behave.  From the way they abruptly moved from Texas to California to all the rules they have about socializing to the secrets they jealously keep. They are hiding something, but what?

When Danny’s father loses his job and the family is forced to relocate, the fabric that keeps the secrets in place starts to unravel.  Danny, who realizes that his ignorance endangers his own future, pushes back and starts demanding to know what is going on.  The more he learns, the worse everything becomes.

A startling story of the cost to a family of parents who have secrets too dark to share even with their son.  It starts very slowly and the writing is so dense that I almost gave up, but I’m glad I persisted.  As I acclimated to the writing style, I found it more and more rewarding.  There’s a lot going on in the story.  Thankfully,  it mostly comes together in the end.

I particularly like the complex relationships, whether between Danny and his best friend Harry (whose affection for each other is probably one of the most underplayed gay relationships in YA) or between Danny and his parents (much more tragic).  While following some of the stereotypes of Asian families, it bends those stereotypes.  What appears stock up front (like the parents' obsession over Danny's future) proves to be complex as the story unfolds.  The ending, while overly rosy, is immensely satisfying and well-earned.

Sadie, by Courtney Summers

Shortly after her younger sister Mattie is murdered, Sadie skips out of town.  She's looking for a man, one of the ex-boyfriends of her mother. And she intends to hurt him.

An investigative reporter researching the murder becomes interested in Sadie's own story and tries to track her down.  Told in chapter alternating between Sadie's trip and the reporter's chase, the mystery of Mattie's death and Sadie's obsessive quest unfolds.

The story ends in just about as much of a mystery as it started.  In between it's an interesting ride, but certainly not an uplifting tale.  The settings are dreary and gritty and almost no one is all that appealing.  I found the reporter particularly annoying and whiny.  For more interesting was Sadie herself, who comes across as hardened and even a bit cruel.  It's immersive, but didn't find much of a purpose to the story.