Saturday, July 27, 2019

Spark, by Alice Broadway

It is now the day after Leora Flint's grand reveal, the event that formed the finale of Ink (reviewed here on June 21, 2019).  Leora faces exile, but Mayor Longsight's given an alternative: go into the forest and find the Blanks (the heretics who don’t ink their skin), uncover their plans and preparedness for war, and report back.  Leora knows she's being manipulated (and probably betrayed), but as in Ink she really doesn't have an alternative:  the Mayor and his henchman Minnow hold her family and friends hostage.

For Leora, it is also a chance to learn about her roots and maybe uncover the truth about her real mother.  Eager to determine how the Blanks have gone so far astray and understand their hostility to inking and to her people, good can come of this mission.  What she finds is very disturbing to her.  The Blanks, far from being evil, turn out to follow a very similar belief system as hers.  Their canon of myths and fables are strikingly similar to the ones that Leora was raised on, but just slightly different.  The differences, however, are crucial and form the crux of the schism that exists between the inked people and the Blanks.  It's a difference that brings the threat of war -- a conflict which is being fed and encouraged by forces that Leora is yet to understand.

As the second book in a (presumed) trilogy, readers will understand that there is no resolution or ending quite yet.  Similarly, it really helps to read these books in quick succession to keep up with the complicated relationships between the characters. So, what have we learned in this installment? The themes of family loyalty and adherence to faith continue, but Leora’s challenge now is finding her faith in a sea of doubt. Scepticism is the main theme of part two. Presented with the small but nonetheless striking differences between the beliefs of the Blanks and her home, Leora feels pressured to choose between them (the faith of her upbringing vs the faith of her ancestors).  She's resistant and ultimately led to question whether either tradition is right for her.

I'm enjoying the way that Broadway has not only created a very original setting for her story, but also done so much more with it.  The action is compelling and the various crosses and double-crosses dizzying, but underneath it all is a novel that explores faith.  Leora's questioning of her childhood convictions will resonate with anyone who has ever grown up (or is facing the process now).

[Disclaimer: I received an Advance Reviewer’s Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book was originally slated for release on July 30th, but has already been released]

Truly Madly Royally, by Debbie Rigaud

As ambitious Zora arrives for her summer study program at the prestigious Halstead University, she knows she’s out of her element.  She’s the only attender who’s taken public transit to get there.  Her peers all come from money and it shows.  She's pretty much the only student who’s black.  Her plan is to basically lay low.  Hiding out in the library one day, she meets a nice young man named Owen, who sweeps her off her feet.  It turns out that he’s the Prince of Landerel and suddenly Zora’s potentially in over her head in publicity and attention, as everyone wants to know the Prince's new romantic partner.  But Zora has a cool head and she keeps her focus on her goals, her causes, and her people.

It’s a perfectly fine story – light and entertaining summer reading.  The royal element reminds one of a black girl’s Meg Cabot.  The empowerment pep talk that carries through the story gets a little tiring and doesn't always fit organically in the story.   Zora’s flawlessness can make her seem awfully precious and doesn't give the reader much to identify with.  Still, Rigaud does great characters.  Zora’s family and neighbors are particular stand-out.  It's a fun read.

[Disclaimer:  I received an Advanced Reviewer's Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  The book is scheduled for release on July 31st.]

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Boys of Summer, by Jessica Brody

Grayson, Mike, and Ian have been best friends since they were children.  As residents on a vacation island, the summers have always been an adventure of dealing with the tourists.  But this last summer together promises to be very different.

In the past year, Ian's father was killed in Afghanistan and, while relations between he and his mother are strained, he seems alright to the others.  Mike and Hunter have been a pretty permanent couple for years, but this time it looks like their little break-up could be permanent, especially because Grayson and Hunter have started to secretly hook up.  Grayson, meanwhile, has to find the strength to admit to his father (and himself) that the little injury he sustained has ruined his ability to play football and jeopardized any possibility of taking the football scholarship that was supposed to get him through college.  There will be girls (of course), family conflict, and lots of bonding and secrets in a final summer together.

In other words, it's a girl's book about guys.  If there's anything funnier than how misportrayed female characters are by male authors, it's just how awfully bad female authors can get young men.  It's not really Brody's fault in this instance, but more like an impossible project:  create a story of friendship between young men that would be relatable to young woman readers.  They're a sensitive trio, all of them terribly worried about how the others feel and trying to avoid hurting each other's feeling.  In a mild nod to testosterone, there's a bit of fighting, but it's usually about protecting others (usually women) than about ego and pecking order.  Most silly of all is the alleged "Guy Code" that you can't date each other's ex's.  I have no idea if girls have such a thing for real (although you hear it invoked in plenty of books) but I can say with some certainty that guys don't believe in such things.  Grayson, Mike, and Ian could just as easily been Taylor, Micaela, and Iona and very little of the story would have need to be altered.  But then, it would just be a sweet beach romance of three BFFs enjoying their last summer before college, which come to think about it, it basically is.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, by Ashley Herring Blake

After twelve year-old Sunny makes it successfully through a heart transplant, she’s determined to change her life.  In the days leading up to her surgery, she was always so sick. Worst of all, her BFF Margot betrayed her.  She’s determined to do new things, key among them is to find a boy and kiss him.

But life is so much more complicated.  Her mother (who abandoned her eight years ago) has returned and wants to be part of her life.  At first, Sunny is resistant and suspicious and has to be urged on by her guardian Kate.  But when mother and daughter bond, the new relationship put a stress on Sunny and Kate's own one, particularly as Kate finds herself protecting Sunny from some of her Mom's darker secrets.

More important is Sunny's new friend Quinn, who is helping her in the Boy Quest.  The girls are not terribly successful, at least in part because Sunny finds herself thinking that she’d rather be kissing Quinn instead.  Does that mean she's a lesbian? 

With so many traumas going on, the novel runs the risk of being cluttered, but Blake does a good job of keeping things moving along.  It helps that the many different stories eventually interweave making the complexity organic and less distracting.  Delightfully, Sunny’s forays into exploring her gender identity are sensitively handled.  The overall result is a beautiful story full of honest emotion, and respectful to both adults and children.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Angel Thieves, by Kathi Appelt

The Buffalo Bayou is a landmark of Houston and in this rather dreamy novel, Appelt uses it as a means of telling four different stories that cross time periods but still overlap.  There's Cade who, along with his father, steal angel statues off of forgotten graves.  Soleil is the sweet girl who falls for him and wants to believe in him.  A hundred and sixty years earlier, a former slave is trying to smuggle her two little girls to safety in Mexico.  And back in the present, an ocelot in a cage fights for its survival as the Bayou's waters rise up.

If those seem pretty disconnected, they largely are. Not that it really matters as Appelt is mostly in love with the concept of the Bayou as a swiftly flowing body of water that shifts and surges, swallowing up (and occasionally disgorging) objects and people.  She's so in love with the idea that she repeats it again and again. Repetition is key in this story and established themes are repeated again and again like a piece of music.  The issue, for me, is that what works nicely in a score comes across as boring in a story.  Most of all, as pretty as this book is, it is not a YA book and it is poorly marketed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hurricane Season, by Nicole Melleby

Fig is not a fan of storms.  Their coastal New Jersey town gets a good share of them.  It’s not the wind, dark clouds, or rain, but rather the impact that the storms have on her father.  

Her father was once a great composer but after Fig was born and her mother skipped town, Dad stopped composing.  For days at a time, he checks out altogether.  When a storm comes, he wanders outside and puts himself in danger.  The last time he did so, Fig had to call the police to help, but that just made things worse as now the authorities are watching and threatening to put Fig in foster care.

When a new neighbor moves in and tries to help, Fig is wary.  Every adult is a risk.  But it’s a lot to ask of a sixth grader who just wants to fit in and have some friends.   Fig has to learn that it is OK to accept outside help for her and her Dad.  Along the way, Fig is learning about the life of Vincent Van Gogh and his relationship with brother Theo provides inspiration and helps her understand her father. (It also inspires the gorgeous cover of the book)

A touching story about family and friendship.  The characters are complex and the relationship between father and neighbor is a nicely nuanced romance.  A subplot about Fig’s ability to judge her own friendships is a pleasing analogue.

Heroine, by Mindy McGinnis

When star catcher Mickey and her best friend Caroline (their team's pitcher) are seriously injured in a car accident, the girls are terrified that they won't heal in time to play for their senior year.  It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of pain to rehabilitate.  But Mickey discovers that the Oxycodone she's been prescribed really helps.  It works even better when she ups her dose.

But when she uses up her entire prescription, she finds that she can't get any more from her doctor.  Without it, she won't be able to push herself as much as she feels she needs to in order to be able to play. So she resorts to drastic measures, finding an old lady who's selling drugs dispensed for other people.  With this new source, Mickey starts increasing her doses gradually as the lighter doses are no longer enough.  Mickey has to turn to stealing and deception to maintain her supply, but all along she is convinced that she'll be able to stop just as soon as the season is over.  But then she finds that she can't quit.

A brutal and frank description of addiction and the process of falling into it.  As a story, it's pretty bleak stuff.  McGinnis does a great job of depicting Mickey's demise, the ease at which she ignores warning signs and the way she convinces herself that she'll be okay.  It's a bit matter-of-fact to be art, but works fine as an educational primer and a warning to any young people who are feeling invulnerable.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds

Jack meets Kate at a party during a weekend visit to Whittier, the school he plans to attend.  And Kate is the best thing that's ever happened to him.  Unlike his best friends Franny and Jillian who have each other, Jack has always just missed a happily-ever-after story.  The next four months though are amazing!  Sure, Jillian and Franny both have their rough patches, but things are mostly great for Jack and Kate...until she unexpectedly dies.

Suddenly Jack finds himself back at the party, the same party where he first met Kate four months ago.  He's been given a do-over. Like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, Jack is condemned to relive those four months all over again.  And, again as in that movie, Jack tries to tweak the outcome to make things turn out better.  But this isn't a comedy and Jack finds his choices each have consequences -- some of them dire.

While the gist of the story has been done before, the angle here is different.  For Jack, there is a lot to learn about love, friendship, family, and loyalty.  Being a boy book, the relationship stuff is mostly about keeping appearances and pride (rather than tears and jealousy) but the complicated family relationship of Franny and his jailbird father is just one piece that gives this novel a serious tone.  There really isn't much doubt of how the story should end (and it delivers) but there is a very satisfying dramatic arc of personal growth for Jack.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Sparrow, by Sarah Moon

When they find Sparrow standing on the edge of the roof of her school, everyone presumes that she was planning to jump.  She knows she wasn't.  She was planning to fly away like a bird.  But if she tells anyone that, then they will know she is crazy!

The thing is that Sparrow has always found talking about things to be hard.  And ever since her traumatic first day of school, she's generally avoided talking to others. Instead, with the support of a friendly librarian, she's found a way to avoid social situations and conversations in general. This has gotten her a reputation for being a snob and made her a target for bullies and hasn't exactly kept people away from her.

The rooftop incident sends Sparrow into counseling and her persistent counselor finds that the key to break through Sparrow's insecurity is through music (the angrier the better!).  The doctor goes on to suggest that Sparrow attend rock band camp this summer.  The idea astounds both Sparrow and her mother, who both know that Sparrow will never survive away from home, living with strangers, for four weeks.  But the counselor is convinced that this is just what Sparrow needs.

A sweet and inspiring story of a girl who finds the strength to face the world and embrace it.  There are no surprises here, but the story is well told, with good characters and a bit of fun.  Perhaps more could have been done with Sparrow's love of birds, but Moon's answer is that freedom lies in music, not ornithology.  I might beg to differ, but the point is well taken.