Saturday, June 29, 2019

Days of the Dead, by Kersten Hamilton

Since her mother died, Glorieta has mourned the fact that her aunts won't speak about their sister.  Suicide is a sin and Tia Diosonita won't allow her offense to besmirch the family's honor.  Papi even had to cremate the body or else have Mama buried in unconsecrated ground.  With the Day of the Dead approaching, Glorieta hopes to somehow get her Tia to accept their sister back and let her be buried with the rest of the family.

Meanwhile, in their small town of Epoch NM, things are changing.  Glorieta's step siblings Lilith and Angus have come to stay, dumped off by their abusive father.  Angus gets along fine, but Lilith does everything she can to fight her step sister.  In a particularly harrowing passage, Lilith goes so far as to betray Glorieta to ICE agents causing Glorieta to be rounded up erroneously as an illegal.

This mixture of family, tradition, and current events creates a memorable story.  The ICE passage may be too intense for younger readers but is very topical given recent weeks' news.  This is not really a story about that though, but of the ties of family and of the power of forgiveness.  I felt that Glorieta did a bit more forgiving than she really ought to have done, but perhaps I am not as big or brave of a person as this little girl.  Her story, though, is inspiring.  Between that and the strong characters and vivid setting make this a remarkable book.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Weight of the Stars, by K. Ancrum

Ryann is so busy taking care of her family and her set of misfit friends, that she barely has time to worry about the things she can’t have.  She dreams of traveling to space, but aside from a quirky opportunity a few years ago when a group of young women were sent out on a one way trip to the stars, opportunities don’t come often.  Stuck in her trailer park and barely getting by, she’s hardly the Right Stuff.

But then a chance encounter with a new girl named Alexandria changes everything.  Alexandria is the daughter of one of the women who went into space.  She was world-famous at the time of her mother's departure because she wasn't supposed to exist. If people had known that one of the women leaving on a no-return trip was the mother of a newborn, they never would have stood for it.  So the situation was kept secret until it was too late: her mother left and abandoned Alexandria on Earth.

Years later, Alexandria stays up at night monitoring the skies, hoping to hear a message from her mother transmitted over the growing distance between them.  For Ryann, Alexandria becomes another project, but she also is a key to future that Ryann had almost given up on.

A gentle meditative novel that is full of lots of clever writing, but not very coherent storytelling.  Lots of originality here and the mixture of angst and science fiction is interesting, but the afterward where Ancrum explains the symbolism of each of her characters underscores the problem:  if those messages were there, I should have been able to find them without the lecture.  In retrospect, I began to understand parts of the book that made no sense when I first read them, but that is too much work for the entertainment I was seeking (and given the large number of loose ends, the overall payoff for looking back is relatively meager).  It really isn’t enough to be a good and clever writer, you also need to be able to tell a story.

Sorry Not Sorry, by Jaime Reed

When Alyssa collapses in the midst of a hurricane recovery fundraiser, only Janelle knows that it’s her diabetes and that her condition is getting worse.  The problem is that Janelle and Alyssa aren’t friends anymore.  Years of being best friends have long been forgotten and the girls have turned to bitter enmity.  So, how should Janelle respond when officially they have nothing to do with each other?

This dramatic reveal of Alyssa’s secret condition brings out the worst in her friends.  Her new besties rally around her, but mostly to try to grab the limelight.  Only Janelle really seems to care about her.  Those feelings are part driven by nostalgia, but also underscored by Janelle's history of altruism.  Driven by her feelings, Janelle makes a fateful decision: she will donate one of her kidneys to save her ex-BFF.

It’s a plot that stretches credulity and Reed puts a lot of effort into convincing us that it’s plausible.  Janelle’s family background, some miraculous genetic matches, and some happy coincidences all contribute to the set-up.  In the end, though, Reed doesn’t have much to actually say about donation or about friendship.  The clever idea is about all the story has.  That's a wasted opportunity for a novel that could have really dug into the power of nostalgia, the altruism of organ donation, and the issues of chronic disease.  The topics are certainly brought up, but the book doesn't seem to know how to take the next step and really address them.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ink, by Alice Broadway

In Leora’s world, people tattoo their bodies with the story of their lives:  their family trees, their failures and accomplishments, and their shames.  At death, their bodies are flayed and the skin is turned into a book, from which anyone can read their story.  When the book is ready, it is judged and a virtuous person’s book is brought home by their descendants and honored.  But if their lives are judged unworthy, then the book is tossed on a great fire and burned and the person’s life is forgotten.  There is no greater misfortune for the person or their family.

Leora has always considered her father a kind and good man.  When he dies, she is certain that his honor is assured.  So when she finds out that his body contains a black mark that identifies him as unworthy of being remembered, she is sure that it is mistake.  Desperate to save his book from the fire, she searches for a way to protect his legacy, along the way making shocking discoveries about her community.

A stunningly unique dystopia which imagines a universe where things are black/white and as permanent as a tattoo.  Your life is public knowledge, visible on your skin for others to see.  Designs and symbols have special meanings and nuances.  It’s both a wonderfully complex metaphor and a vehicle for a great adventure.

The story itself twists and turns with plots and counter-plots.  At times, it’s hard to keep up, but even when I lost the track, it was compelling enough to keep reading.  And for those who can’t get enough, there’s a sequel coming out next month (that I will review closer to its release).  At this point, most of the effort is spent on introducing the complexities of Leora's world.  The characters have not yet grown particularly interesting (although the ending is pleasingly shocking).  I imagine she and her compatriots will grow on me.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased review.]

A Danger to Herself and Others, by Alyssa Sheinmel

After her roommate is seriously injured in a fall, Hannah is accused of causing the accident. It is all just a result of a love triangle involving Hannah, her roommate, and Jonas (Hannah's boyfriend that her roommate wanted for herself).  But no one is interested in the story.  Instead, she's been involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation.  She's dangerous, or so they say, to herself and others.

To prove them wrong, Hannah just needs to win over the staff at the hospital so they will listen to her story and help her out.  It's what she's always done, proving to adults like her parents how responsible and mature she is, even when she is inwardly afraid.
But at a critical point, Hannah's worldview falls apart. Things stop making sense.  Not only the explanations but the people involved in them turn out to be very different from how Hannah understood things.  Faced with a drastic correction of her reality, Hannah has to reevaluate what actually happened.

A story of mental illness that stands out for its ability to throw you off and also for its reluctance to resolve Hannah's issues easily.  Stories about returns to sanity are pretty common.  At the risk of a spoiler, it's interesting that in this one the journey is really only beginning at the end of this book!  That said, the ending is repetitive and drags on too long.  Sheinmel's only real point is that fighting mental illness is an ongoing affair and that the dangers lie mostly to the sufferer.  Struggling with making that point definitively, the novel ends with a whimper.

A Good Kind of Trouble, by Lisa Moore Ramée

Shayla is a good girl, follows the rules, and keeps out of trouble.  But starting junior high this year, the rules seem to have changed.  She and her two best friends and her are facing competing loyalties as their classmates value racial identity over friendship and pressure the girls to hang out with their own kind (Shayla is black, while the other two are Asian and Latina).  Just complicating matters, boys and girls have started "talking" and the three girls don't really want to have anything to do with that.

Outside of school, the rules seem to have changed in even crazier ways.  The community is riled up over a police shooting.  Shayla is growing more aware of the inherent racism around her as her family takes part in various protests.  And when an incident presents itself to Shayla in her own school, she has to decide if she will be brave enough to speak out, even if it means breaking the rules.

Empowering and educational.  The story is a bit too topical and won't age well, but this is a good book about being an African American tween -- a lovely mixture of the familiar tropes of white-girl middle readers (i.e., most of the books out there) with some distinctly black themes.  It isn't very subtle, but it doesn't need to be as these kids, while articulate, are not particularly sophisticated yet.  YA protagonists of color are rare and, when they appear, are either totemic or white washed.  Shayla is neither -- a normal twelve year old who is black.  She's proud of that identity, is race conscious and racially proud, but she's lots of other things as well.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Art of Losing, by Lizzy Mason

When her drunken boyfriend causes an accident that nearly kills her younger sister, it's the last straw for Harley.  The fact that she caught them fooling around shortly beforehand doesn't help and leaves Harley with conflicted feelings.  With her sister seriously injured and lying in the hospital in a coma, Harley has no opportunity to work through her anger with her sister.  Instead, Harley finds herself wracked with guilt as she keeps vigil over her, recalling the good and the bad in their relationship.

For her boyfriend, she's more decisive.  It's not as if he's been a saint up to now either.  Through flashbacks, we see how his addiction to alcohol has slowly corroded the trust that existed between them and also destroyed the other friendships around him.

It is thus with some irony that while processing all of this, Harley rekindles old feelings for the boy next door, Raf.  While Harley and Raf were close as children, his own demons led him to addiction as well, and eventually to rehab.  Now in AA, Raf helps Harley understand her ex-boyfriend's struggle.  But are these strong feelings they are developing with each other a good thing or just another dangerous trap for Harley?

A complex story about addiction and its destructive impact on families and other relationships.  And also a parallel story about sisterhood and the bonds between siblings.  That Mason balances these two separate threads is a testament to her talent at formulating a good story.  It's far from perfect though.  The addiction material is her crusade, of course, and she packs in a bit more material than truly fits (giving the story a preachy character it did not need), but the material is well researched and generally interesting.  The relationship between  Harley and her sister gets relatively neglected but resolves satisfactorily.  While this is a good book about teen alcoholism, it has fewer insights on the love/hate relationship between sisters.

Friday, June 14, 2019

A Monster Like Me, by Wendy S. Swore

Disfigured by a blood tumor, Sophie has learned to cope with unwanted attention by hiding.  And she's created a complicated narrative for herself that she’s been cursed by a witch.

Armed with an encyclopedia of monsters, she not only has identified her monstrous self, but has no problem spotting the goblins and demons at school (disguised as her classmates and teachers) that torment her.  Her new friend is obviously a fairy and the girl’s sweet grandmother a (good) witch.  Her Mom’s new boyfriend is a demon trying to steal her away and Sophie has ways to ward that and the other evils off.  But her deepest fears is her mother discovering that Sophie is really a monster inside.  Will she keep her or throw her out?

Initially sweet and funny (and even a bit educational as the book-within-the-book provides nice summaries about the history of bestiaries and eventually some good life advice), I found Sophie’s character a bit too self-absorbed and tedious.  Her stubborn refusal to listen to what she is told is basically the only thing that drives the drama in this story. And it is hardly an endearing quality.  Yes, eventually Sophie will show a heart of gold, but it’s that refusal to pay any attention to the adults that really defeats her along the way. Even her redemption in the end is based on her refusal to listen to what has been said and instead claim that it is her magic that saves her friend's little brother Will.  She never quite manages to break out of her denial of reality and that is ultimately disturbing (and not inspirational).

Friday, June 07, 2019

The Line Tender, by Kate Allen

When a fisherman hauls home a great white shark that got snared in his nets, Lucy and her friend Fred are entranced by the creature.  The kids have been working on a field guide to local birds and animals and both of them love nature.  

It doesn’t hurt at all that Lucy’s mother was a marine biologist who specialized in great white whales.  For Lucy, studying them now is a way of getting close to her late Mom.  And when tragedy strikes and Fred is killed, Lucy escapes into that interest in sharks, drawing sketches of them and writing postcards to her deceased friend.  She also meets former colleagues of her mother’s who carry on her mother’s work.

Richly illustrated with sketches of sharks, the book is more of a paean to sharks than a story about a girl who is struggling with grief, although both threads are important.  I found it meandering and unfocused, but it has some charming passages, including the explanation of the title (a reference to the watch on a dive who takes care of guiding and retrieving the diver).  It’s nicely written, but hard to track.  I was disappointed.

The Fall of Grace, by Amy Fellner Dominy

When Grace’s mother is accused of running a Ponzi scam, only Grace believes in her mother's innocence.  And when Mom suffers a stroke during her arrest, she’s not there to explain herself so the weight of defending her falls on Grace.

But it isn't only her mother who is going under scrutiny.  After all, Grace benefited materially from her mother's malfeasance. And her association was not entirely benign and innocent.  Grace may have had no direct knowledge of the scam but all through her life, Mom put her out literally front and center, featuring little Grace on the cover of the prospectus.  Suspicions mount that not only did Grace herself know what was going on, but also that she has knowledge of to where the money has disappeared.

Now, months later, Grace has boarded a bus to travel to a place that she believes has answers.  She is tailed by Sam, a loner boy at school with a dead older brother who suspects she is going to collect the missing money.  While she tries to convince him that it is nothing like that, she can’t tell him her secret -- why she is driven to visit a remote location high up in Colorado.  But sharing secrets is what they will do as Grace and Sam risk everything to complete Grace’s desperate quest.

An interesting story that never quite worked for me for two reasons:  the unending brutal horror of the way people turn against Grace (told mostly in flashback) which never really reaches any sort of redemption; and the attempt to spark a romance between Grace and Sam.  I get that they are both outcasts and they both have issues, but I couldn’t care enough to want them together or be happy as they reached any sort of connection.  Plus, how utterly cliché!  So, the story was just a bit too cheesy for me.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

XL, by Scott Brown

Will knows what it means to be looked down upon.  At 4’11”, he’s stuck wearing kid’s clothes.  His stepbrother Drew towers over him at 6’3” and their mutual friend Monica is 5’11”.  Still, Will has big ideas that are all part of The Plan that the three of them have to go to school together after high school, with Drew landing a star turn on the basketball team (even Will doesn’t dream that big for himself!).  When Will makes things complicated by trying to make a move on Monica, he finds that suddenly Drew and Monica are an item and he has been relegated to the short sidekick.

Then the story takes a sudden twist.  Will starts to grow and grow and grow.  He quickly shoots through normal heights and surpasses Drew and just keeps growing.  There seems to be no limit to how large he can grow.  But with big things come big responsibilities.  Things (like The Plan) that were so simple before have grown complicated as all three of them are changing.

Boy books tend to be noted by two characteristics (both of which are present in this book): snarky gross humor and the pedestaling of the love interest.  Whether this is because they are written by male authors (guys who find jokes about semen amusing and can’t create believable female characters) or because we all think that this is what boys want to read (News flash! These books are mostly read by girls!) is up for debate. Admittedly, the book is pretty funny and that certainly makes it easy on the eyes.  But the Monica character is amazingly frustrating.  Like Alaska in John Green’s classic, Searching for Alaska we don’t much chance to know what is going on in her head except that she is pretty angry that Will and Drew don't get her.  As a cipher, she comes off as contradictory and illogical and largely unfathomable.  This is in striking contrast to the boys who seem to be quite articulate and easily read each other.

Louisiana's Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

One night Louisiana's grandmother wakes her up and herds her out to the car.  It's only when they've crossed into Georgia that Louisiana realizes that Granny has no intention of ever returning to Florida.  Instead, Louisiana finds herself in the little town of Richford GA, where she has to literally sing for her supper and the roof over her head.  Granny, driven on by a curse that Louisiana fears haunts her as well, makes a fateful decision that changes everything Louisiana thought she knew about herself.  Shaken to the core by the revelations, Louisiana now has to decide who she wants to be.

Mixing the small town charm that DiCamillo did so well originally back in Because of Winn Dixie, this story features another strong heroine and motley cast of characters who explore the bonds that bring a community together.  Less groundbreaking (of course) and less magical (unfortunately), there is still a wonderful variety to the characters ranging from the surly hotelkeeper to a boy with the pet crow.  And there is a beautiful final lesson about finding one's place wherever life happens to land you.  Charming, albeit a bit slight.

Very Rich, by Polly Horvath

Rupert's family is unbelievably poor.  He doesn't own a coat and he has to sleep under the bed with his brothers.  His family subsists on oatmeal and kitchen scraps that they scavenge.  He dreams of growing up to become someone special so he can help his family.  But when he can't even get a hamburger, how is he ever going to manage something big and life-changing?

Then at Christmas, as the result of a series of random events, he finds himself a guest with the Rivers family -- people who are the opposite of him (i.e., the very rich).  They feed him more food than he's ever seen and lavish him with presents.  But then suddenly all of it is taken away and Rupert is sent home with nothing but fond memories and a full stomach.

That is not the end of it.  In the months that follow, individual members of the family show up and take Rupert away on adventures:  cooking at a fancy restaurant, traveling through time and across the country, and even visiting the White House with the future president.  Not that any of it manages to get Rupert a hamburger, let alone a way to help his family.

A clever and witty story that is very much in the style of Lemony Snicket. It is largely nonsensical and probably best enjoyed as silliness.  The tone is dry and droll and taken literally more than a bit cruel and mean.  But if you like these stories (think Willy Wonka or Series of Unfortunate Events) then you will probably enjoy this one as well.  For myself, I have trouble with its cruelty.