Friday, August 30, 2019

A Kind of Paradise, by Amy Rebecca Tan

Straight-A student Jamie has messed up badly.  Blinded by her desire to impress a boy that she has a crush on, she's been caught violating her school's Honor Code. As a consequence, she has to spend the summer doing community service. There will be no camp and no vacation trips.  Instead, she has to work at her town's public library.

But to her surprise, Jamie quickly discovers that the library is full of lots of fun people (both staff and patrons) and that the work is actually pretty interesting as well.  Moreover, the people have lessons to impart, helping Jamie see where she went wrong and develop her interpersonal skills along the way.  In return, Jamie helps an effort to save the library from closure.

Half a love letter to public libraries and the other half a personal development story, there's lots going on here.  Given the target audience, very little of it is subtle. The ending is all a bit too rosy for me as just about everything works out.  I didn't find the dialogue very realistic, but the characters are quirky, charming, and memorable.

Hope and Other Punch Lines, by Julie Buxbaum

Perhaps one of the most iconic photographs from 9/11 is the one of “Baby Hope.” You know the one with the one year-old baby girl in a princess dress being rushed away from the Towers after the first plane hit.  But sixteen years later, Abbi wishes everyone would just forget about it.  She’s endured endless moments of recognition from strangers, who want to hug her and tell her how much that picture meant to them (as if she had actually done anything!).  All she wants is to enjoy a quiet summer, when - just for once - she can just be herself and not some icon of a horrific event.

But two things lurk over her to prevent this.  The first is a persistent and worsening cough, which may be a legacy of toxins she was exposed to when the Towers collapsed.  The other problem is a persistent boy named Noah.  Noah has an obsession: he wants Abbi to help him track down the other people in that famous picture.  To Abbi, this is the type of painful and tiresome task she is trying to avoid, but Noah has good reasons and they are ultimately devastating

I really enjoyed this original take on 9/11, a topic which is fairly remote to today’s young readers.  By looking at it in the contemporary moment, seeing the long-term effects of the event through today's young people is genius stroke, giving the idea relevance and immediacy.  Buxbaum is an excellent writer and has managed to fit in a lot of true stories amidst her admittedly simple story. Pretty much all of the specifics of the novel (including the “Baby Hope” photo) are made up, but they are all based on real events, people, and facts.  It’s this sort of painless education which always impresses me.  Unique and recommended.

How It Feels to Float, by Helena Fox

Almost ten years ago, Biz lost her father to depression.  While his suicide made her sad initially, she felt better when he came back to her and spoke to her when she needed him.  This was not so unusual for her.  Lots of other things speak to her: the ocean, the photographs she takes with Dad’s old film camera, and so many other things.  But what about the new boy at school with a mysterious limp?  The one who rescued Biz from the waves when the ocean was convincing her to join it?  He doesn’t speak to her, but she wishes he would!

After a traumatic event pushes Biz into outcast status and gets her suspended from school, her happy world collapses around her.  Lost in depression, she determines that the only thing she can do that would make any sense is to seek out the places where her father lived and see if they (or him) would speak to her again.  So, she goes out on a quest to find her father and join him under the water…where he drowned himself.

A fresh, albeit occasionally creepy look at life with inherited psychosis.  As Biz makes her own descent into madness, she's all too aware that she’s following her father’s path, but less and less concerned about what that could mean for her.  There’s something quite gentle and beautiful about the way that her world falls apart, which makes the journey all the more terrifying.  The reader is forced to take the plunge with her.

In a field with a lot of similar books about mental illness, I found Biz a compelling character and the story an excellent read.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Goodnight, Anne, by Kallie George

It's bedtime for Anne, but before she can nod off, she wants to wish everyone a goodnight.  Whether it is Marilla or Matthew, her bosom friend Diana, or even horrid Gilbert, Anne (with an e, thank you!) has a bedtime wish for them all.

A charming bedtime picture book that will please small children with its pretty artwork by Genenieve Godbout, but is far more rewarding for older ones who are familiar with Anne of Green Gables. They will delight in remembering Anne's adventures as they drift off to sleep.  If you find "goodnight" books to be dull and boring, you may end up giving this a pass, but for fans of L. M. Montgomery's classic, this is a sweet diversion.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Raven's Tale, by Cat Winters

A whimsical biography of Edgar Allan Poe's early years, set mostly on Poe's year away at UVA.  Torn between two muses (one that embraces the macabre and another young Eddy's Byronesque romantic side), Edgar struggles to find his way and choose what sort of writer he wishes to be.  But most of all, he wrestles with his stepfather's aim of destroying his literary ambitions altogether. I call it whimsical because Poe's muses in this story are incarnate, visible, and interacting with the people around them.

An interesting concept that I found hard to get into.  Partly, it is hard to follow the cast of characters (most of whom are based on real people but not being already familiar with Poe's life, were hard to keep track of). Partly, it was the story's uneven pacing.  But mostly, it is the supernatural elements of the story (the muses and their rather corporeal magic, which is itself intended to to have a Poe-like tenor). If I was a Poe fan, then Winter's riff would probably be more meaningful.  But as a story on its own, it just doesn't have much going for it despite the obvious love and dedication of the writer to the hero.

Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr

Astrid is a thunderbolt, a force of nature in her mountain home of Glimmerdale.  Her joys in life consist of sledding down hills, singing at the top of her lungs, and driving grumpy Mr. Hagen crazy (children, in his opinion, should be silent and kept indoors).  But amidst the beauty of her Nordic paradise, there is something she lacks:  some other children with whom to play.

The novel covers three important events in Astrid's life:  First of all, her efforts to ride a sled all the way from her high mountain home down to the town on the shore of the fjord.  Then, secondly, the moment when her dream of having other children come is answered but it seems that the children will go away almost as soon as they arrive.  And ultimately with the return of a young woman that Astrid never even knew existed.

Inspired by Heidi (and a bit by Pippi Longstocking as well), Astrid fits comfortably into the tradition of irrepressible young heroines.  The book, translated from Norwegian, is quirky and very much a cultural artifact – written in a style that makes it seem old fashioned, even though it is set in modern day.  The fact that the children are always playing outdoors and no Game Boys, texting, or Net Flix are to be found can be disconcerting.  Like Johanna Spyri, the author of Heidi, Parr promotes the benefits of outdoor living and that can seem anachronistic for a contemporary novel.  But as alien as the setting may be, Astrid's joyfulness and energy has universal appeal.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Running through Sprinklers, by Michelle Kim

Sara is looking forward to spending the last year of middle school with her best friend Nadine.  However, at the end of summer Nadine announces that she's skipping a grade and starting high school.  It isn't just that they are spending the year in different schools.  Suddenly Nadine is too busy to spend time with Sara and scoffs at Sara's "childish" ideas.  In anger, Sara makes friends with Nadine's little sister, but it doesn't help bring the girls back together.

I tend to like these bittersweet and nostalgic stories of friends growing apart.  They are certainly common in books for middle grade readers.  This one, though, is surprisingly cluttered.  Full of subplots (including a strange abduction story that just is left dangling in the end), the story gets overwhelmed but everything else.  There's bra shopping and the first periods as one would expect for a book targeted for girls in this age group, but even coming of age seems buried, despite its obvious relationship to Sara and Nadine's estrangement.  Critics have lauded the book for its multicultural elements (both Sara and Nadine are bi-racial) but while a certain amount of attention is spent on Sara's Korean heritage, it's hardly an important element.  The book is just noisy and distracting.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Eventown, by Corey Ann Haydu

Eventown is a perfect place.  In it, the most beautiful roses grow, food is delicious, everyone is perfect, and every house looks the same.  The people are happy and content, but all extreme emotions have been banished.  Everyone is even.  Everyone is the same.

Elodee and her twin sister Naomi are turning twelve and drifting apart.  The easy bond that they once had has frayed by a family trauma.  So when Mom gets a job offer in Eventown, moving and starting a new life sounds like a great idea.  And while Elodee has reservations about some of the strange things about their new home, she likes how nice everyone is and how easy the life is.  But over time, Elodee's reservations grow stronger and she finds herself rebelling against the "even" way of life.  This proves to have severe consequences for Elodee, her family, and the town as a whole.

A peculiar and fascinating tale that explores the costs and benefits of sacrificing risk and chance for the security of an unchanging world. While written for middle graders, the subject matter (which is ultimately about enduring tragic loss) seems a bit heavy for the target audience.  The metaphor of the utopia also seems likely to be lost on them.  Adults however will find that the book has a lot to say in the end about love, community, memory, and the value of embracing differences.  It's a beautiful and haunting story.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? by Kelly Jones

In this sequel to Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, Sophie continues her explorations of raising chickens.  Now the proud owner of Agnes's old farm, Sophie is challenged with the process of fixing the place up and reestablishing the farm's poultry business, starting with hatching some new chickens.  And while the chickens may have extraordinary powers, the business of hatching and raising is pretty much the same as with normal chickens.  Learning all of that and soliciting the help and input of her community teaches Sophie a lot about humans and chickens alike.

As with the first book, a small dose of fantasy (teleporting and fire-breathing chickens) aside, this is a story about a girl working hard to achieve her goals.  Packed full of useful and interesting instructions about chicken care, this delightful story will entice readers to learn more about chickens.  Gently delivered messages about tolerance and forgiveness add substance.  Copious illustrations throughout provide the icing on the cake.  Fun, educational, affirming, and pretty to flip through -- what more could you ask of a middle reader?

Friday, August 09, 2019

The Surface Breaks, by Louise O'Neill

Gaia and her sisters are mermaids, living off the coast of Ireland.  In their society, men are in charge and their duty is to be demure and subservient to men in general and the Sea King in particular.  He in turn uses her daughters to reward his most loyal soldiers.

Gaia, who has just turned fifteen has been informed that she will be given away to the odious (and much older) Zale.  The idea repulses her.  Her mother, who might have stood up for her, is gone.  She was lost many years ago when she went to the surface and was captured and tortured by the humans.

And much more was lost.  It was Gaia's mother who had carefully crafted peace between the mer-people and the wraith-like Rusalki (the spirits of wronged women who skulk in the dark and attempt to lure sailors to their death).  But since her death, the King, Zale, and the other mer-men have been plotting war.

For her birthday, Gaia has been granted the opportunity to go to the surface for the first time.  Mindful of her mother's fate, she is cautious, but nonetheless she becomes enchanted by Oliver, a human boy.  Aware that she has no chance with him in her fishy form, she makes a bargain with a sea witch:  she will be granted human legs but only for a short period.  In that period she has to get Oliver to love her.  Otherwise, she will die.

A grisly and dark retelling of The Little Mermaid with a strong feminist twist that becomes especially pronounced in the ending.  It works but I found the story depressing.  The essential message seems to be:  love is pain and suffering, while freedom from men is death.  It’s well within the eco-feminist cannon (although perhaps a bit more Andrea Dworkin than Susan Griffin), but this isn't usual territory for YA.  Curious and original, but it is hard to imagine this dark and unhappy story finding much of an audience.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC in return for an unbiased review.]

Not If I Can Help It, by Carolyn Mackler

Willa has issues with things around her that feel wrong.  A sensory processing disorder makes certain sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or feels for her entirely unbearable.  Every day is a struggle but through routine she is able to manage her adverse reactions.  But any change is a challenge.  She definitely doesn't like changes!

So when her father announces that he’s dating again, Willa isn't happy.  Worse, his girlfriend isn't some stranger, but rather the mother of Willa’s BFF Ruby.  Willa is not OK with the idea of Dad having a girlfriend.  As much as she loves Ruby, she doesn’t want Ruby to be her sister.  But change is in the air and Willa has to learn to cope with it.

A short, but well-written middle reader about a condition that I don’t believe has been touched on before.  Willa's hypersensitivity can make her seem difficult, but Mackler navigates that challenge well, showing how difficult these situations are for her.  At the same time, everyone’s a bit too perfect for my tastes (Willa’s parents in particular deserve some major reward!), but it’s a kind story that really just is focused on Willa’s difficulties.  That might be the bigger issue:  while we get a good picture of Willa’s struggles, there’s not much growth here.  So, the pattern is Willa finds out about a change and then gets upset and then eventually moves on.  Repeat.  That’s actually pretty dull over the expanse of an entire novel.

[Disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher in return for an unbiased review]

Friday, August 02, 2019

Mun Mun, by Jesse Andrews

In this most striking science fiction novel of 2018 that you've never heard of, Mun Mun describes a world where your net worth defines your physical size.  Based on the amount of "mun mun" (money) you have, you can be anywhere from the "littlepoor" (about the size of a squirrel) to "bigrich" (where the sky's the limit on size and height).  Being as small as a rodent has some significant disadvantages, ranging from having trouble working at a normal job to simply not being eaten as a snack by a free-range kitty.

Littlepoors Warner and his sister Prayer have dreams of making some mun mun of their own and maybe becoming middlepoor some day, but their plans run astray and Warner ends up in jail.  But then a well-meaning family of middleriches rescues him, trying to prove that, with a little mun mun, anyone can pull themselves out of poverty and littleness.  But as the author grindingly makes clear, mun mun by itself can't change the legacy of who you are and where you came from.

With a wit that owes much more to Jonathan Swift's satire than any modern day dystopian novel, Andrews says a lot about class, privilege, and the inherent flaw in so many well-intended attempts to "fix" these social evils.  The result can be depressing at points, but just as Gulliver's Travels was able to say so much of contemporary relevance in its day through fantasy, Andrews knows that the message is so much clearer when you are not expecting it.  It's unwillingness to embrace either Left or Right will probably upset some folks, but there's little to argue with here.

The ending grows a bit weird as Warner becomes unhinged from his suffering and his character transforms to a dark anti-hero with whom it becomes hard to identify and sympathize, but the originality and biting observations of this allegory make this novel a stand-out work.  It's a largely neglected book that deserves a wider audience.  Highly recommended.

A Week of Mondays, by Jessica Brody

Ellie is having the worst Monday ever.  Her parents are fighting, she gets a ticket for running a red light on the way to school, and her hair is ruined in the rain and it’s school picture day.  In rapid succession, she then flubs a quiz, botches her campaign speech for class vice president due to a food allergy, and fails her tryouts for varsity softball.  To top it all off, at the end of the day her boyfriend dumps her.  What she wouldn’t give for a do-over!

And then she gets the chance: her whole horrible Monday repeats all over again.  With the advantage of foresight, some things she can fix but others are worse for the meddling.  But our chances are far from over and the day repeats again. She gets to tinker with and tweak this fateful day, never quite fixing it, because she’s really missing the big picture.

This would be the second Groundhog Day rip-off I’ve read this summer (see Opposite of Always on July 6th for the other one).  It’s a cute device, of course, and overflowing with comic potential.  In this case, it also has a weightier moral about being oneself instead of trying to be perfect for others.

The book does have a decent heroine and a fun story going for it.  The guys are largely throwaway but Ellie is sympathetic with the right mix of skills and mistakes to make her believable.  It makes for pleasant reading even if not treading much new ground.