Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Root of Magic, by Kathleen Benner Duble

In the midst of a powerful winter storm in northern Maine, Willow, her brother Wisp, and her mother crash their car.  They are rescued by a plow driver who takes them to the small town of Kismet.  Stuck in town for a few days because of the storm, they have time to get to know the inhabitants and become aware that something a little fishy is going on.  The people of Kismet have an uncanny ability to anticipate things (like knowing what you want to order for dinner before you do so).  They also seem to be hiding a secret.

None of which seems to both Willow's mother.  Always a bit obsessed with monitoring the health of sickly child Wisp, she becomes convinced that living in Kismet may be the solution to his health issues.  For Willow, who has had to endure a fair amount of sacrifices for her brother's care, this is a final straw: She wants to go home and leave this place forever!

An entertaining fantasy novel, which poses questions about fate versus free will in terms that younger readers will understand.  Willow is observant, brave, and assertive, yet also kind and respectful (all traits that parents will appreciate in a book).  An age-appropriate romance with a local boy adds some fun and is nicely integrated into the tale.  The result is an easy reading and fun story.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, by Lauren Tarshis

Emma-Jean is really book smart, but she doesn't really understand her classmates.  With the odd way she talks and the way her mind flits around, they don't get her either.  Up to now, they've given each other a wide berth, but that changes in a fateful bathroom encounter between Emma-Jean and Colleen.  Colleen's having trouble with another girl in their class and Emma-Jean realizes she can help!  However, the help that Emma-Jean comes up with end up making everything even more complicated.  To fix the mess (which literally ends up with Emma-Jean falling out of a tree!), both girls will have to expand out of their comfort zones.

A sweet middle reader about building friendships, communicating with others, and the importance of kindness.  The general positivity of the story is a welcome anecdote to mean girl stories.  I enjoyed having a break from the doom and gloom of the other books I've been reading lately.

Emma-Jean is a fascinating character.  Somewhere on the Autism Spectrum (as apparently her late father was as well), she forms an interesting and sympathetic narrator as she tries to understand the people around her.  But Tarshis, while occasionally exploiting Emma-Jean's misconceptions for humor, never lets the story exploit her heroine, who in the end proves to be more insightful than any of us imagine.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Lie to Me, by Kaitlin Ward

Amelia is lucky to have survived her fall into the river.  All of which has folks shaking their heads and wondering why she was fooling around on the wrong side of the guardrail in the first place (although some folks think it was suicide).  Amelia also wonders what happened.  She's never been clumsy and the whole thing seems off.  While she can't remember much of the incident, due to the concussion she endured, she has a faint memory of being pushed.

It is easy to discount those notions until another girl is found in the same river (allegedly from jumping in as well).  Who would be doing this?  Who wants her dead and these other girls dead and why?  Amelia takes a hard look around her:  at her friends, her boyfriend, the creepy neighbor across the street, but nothing comes together.  As the body count grows, Amelia no longer knows who is safe and who is not.

Average mystery that has fine delivery, but suffers from a bloated story.  It feels like a short story that the author enlarged to novel length with trivial activities -- shopping trips, general socializing, school activities, and so on -- none of which really feed into the plot.  Of course, given the genre, some of it is there to mislead the reader, but a lot feels unnecessary.  As I read it, I found myself willing the filler to end so I could get back to the real story.

(Disclaimer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased and independent review.  The book is scheduled for release on January 7th.)

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Black Coats, by Colleen Oakes

It's been months since Natalie was murdered and her suspected murderer set free for lack of evidence.  The world has moved on, but her cousin Thea can't.  Lost in grief, she barely functions.

Then one day she receives a mysterious letter.  Intrigued, she follows its instructions and finds herself at an old house.  There, she learns that she has been invited to join the Black Coats.

Founded by a woman who was raped and couldn't get her assailant punished, the Black Coats are a secret organization of young women who engage in "balancings" (vigilante justice against the accused).  Recruiting only from victims or friends of victims, the young women in the group are personally driven to the cause of punishing men who escape justice because the victims were women.  Thea finds herself training in martial arts and covert ops with four other girls, learning the ropes and engaging in their own balancings.

Participation gives her confidence and Thea starts to bloom again at home and school, even sparking a romance.  But as the girls get more involved in the organization, Thea begins to have doubts about the "justice" that they are dispensing.  These doubts grow larger when the organization reveals its darker side.

While the premise raises eyebrows and the morality of vigilante justice was giving me doubts about this book early, it all begins in humor and fun.  Certainly the idea of young women gaining confidence and breaking free of debilitating grief is an empowering idea.  And, at least at first, a great deal of stress is placed on the idea that murder is out of the picture.  I felt sympathy for and interest in the characters and didn't stress over the violence.  Slipping a serial rapist a roofie actually seemed quite poetic to me.

As things turn dark and those earlier promises are tossed aside (and the body count starts to grow), the empowering themes are largely lost.  The book itself loses its way, forgoing the empowerment for psychopathy.  Oakes says in her notes that this book rose from the ashes of another about a girl recovering from grief.  That seems a shame as a more serious book would have been more meaningful.  By the last fifty pages of this one, as the violence grows and becomes largely girl-on-girl, I pretty much lost interest in this story.

Friday, December 20, 2019

We Set the Dark on Fire, by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Trained to be observant and quick thinking at the Medio School for Girls to become a primera (trusted companion, confident, and first wife) Dani is cautious and rational.  Top of her class, she is the opposite of Carmen, the top-ranked segunda.  Segundas, in contrast, are trained to be beautiful and sensual.  Every powerful man of Medio has two wives (a primera and a segunda).  It is an irony that these two schoolyard enemies end up married off to the same man – a boy who is slated to lead the interior ministry and aims to some day become president.

In the midst of all of this is  La Voz who seek to call attention to the inequality and injustice in society, and raise a rebellion against it.  La Voz is everywhere and while Dani’s husband is committed to crushing them, Dani has been recruited by them to spy on his husband and the family.  She does so at first because of blackmail, but eventually she develops sympathy for their cause and the backbone to support it.

Part one of a projected duology, this wonderfully Hispanic-flavored dystopian combines some great character development with a power struggle complex enough to rival any telenovela.  Things get really weird at the end, but it wraps up with a perfect lead-in to the sequel (not a cliffhanger, but rather a ramping up of the story that makes what comes next look interesting).

Girls on the Verge, by Sharon Biggs Waller

When Camille finds out that she is pregnant, she’s pretty certain from the start that she wants to terminate her pregnancy.  However, getting an abortion as a seventeen-year-old in Texas in 2014 is no easy matter.  She struggles with doctors and judges, traveling across the state, across the border to Mexico, and finally on an epic road trip to New Mexico.  This adventure creates a quirky road story.  Accompanied by her best friend Bea (who supports her but feels conflicted by her own pro-life beliefs) and Annabelle (who feels driven to help Camille figure this whole thing out for reasons of her own), the three young women find that nothing about America's culture wars is simple.

The story itself is really a bare-bones skeleton on which Waller layers a variety of legal facts and anecdotes in order to show how the politics of abortion has turned the experience of seeking one into a surreal and hellish landscape.  Given my beliefs, I have no personal issue with the author’s ideology and I even see the value in opening some eyes about how much politics has subverted things, but this is not a book that is going to be read through to the end by anyone with doubts about a woman’s fundamental right to choose.  And that raises a question about its utility.

As a story, there is not a lot here.  The girls have interesting differences and there is some perfunctory effort to allow them to grow a little during the story.  Some drama occurs with various challenges they experience (harassment, violence, and a brush or two with the Law).  But aside from the three girls, the other characters are stereotypes and lack substance.  Overall, the book comes across as a screed…to an audience who is already converted.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Birthday, by Meredith Russo

Eric and Morgan are best friends and share the same birthday.  With the exception of the year they got sick, the two of them have always spent their birthdays together.  Back when they were little and didn’t know better, they would tell each other that they loved each other.  They swore they would be best friends for life.

But things change as the boys get older:  Morgan’s mother dies of cancer, Eric’s parents are getting divorced, and the idea of love between the boys has evolved.  Eric knows he isn’t gay, but he’s always felt that Morgan was more girl-like, in a way that he found attractive.  Sure, Morgan is a guy (they play football together!) but somehow Morgan has always seemed pretty.  And Morgan who actually does find boys attractive, doesn't feel particularly gay either.  Instead, the body parts just feel wrong.  Morgan feels like a girl – a girl very much in love with her best friend.

Told over a period of six birthdays, the novel explores the development of Morgan’s gender identity and the love story between her and Eric.  Tracing key events and tracking all the emotional stages from exploration to self-loathing and depression to eventual acceptance, we get both Morgan's search to find peace as a trans girl and Eric's understanding of his romantic feelings for Morgan (i.e., being straight and romantically attracted).

It's a moving and informative work about a life journey for both Morgan and Eric that will be meaningful for trans teens and those who love them.  In many ways this is a similar story to Russo's debut novel, If I Was Your Girl.  But while the dead mother angle is tired cliche and exploitative, I find this sophomore effort more effective than her first book.  For one thing, being seemingly autobiographical, its more personal.  It's certainly better written and reads quickly.

You Asked for Perfect, by Laura Silverman

Ariel has managed to maintain a straight-A all-AP-courses workload almost all of the way through high school.  But in his final year, there just no longer seems to be enough time to fit it all in.  Even with tutoring from his friend (and potential boyfriend) Amir, it seems that as soon as he fixes one problem, another one pops up.  Trying to do everything and do it all perfectly is simply too much but he's so invested in being perfect that he doesn't feel he can stop trying.  Eventually, it all comes to a head, but in the end it takes a family tragedy to reset Ariel’s priorities.  These are immediately tested as he has to choose between his dreams and his friends.

The book has two notable elements:  the casual approach it takes to Ariel’s bisexuality and the strong role that religion (Judiaism, in this case) plays in Ariel’s life.  For readers used to sexuality being the focus of a book, the non-issue of Ariel’s sexuality is ironically notable for not being noted  Have we really normalized to that point or is Silverman making a point by playing it up?  As for the prominent role of faith, while Judaism is no foreigner to YA, the positive role of religion is a stand out and welcome.

The story however is pedestrian.  Ariel’s overworking and stressful lifestyle is blatant.  His eventual burnout is no surprise and the solution too straightforward.  The heavy handling of the topic would be more appropriate for a middle reader but seems preachy for a teen audience.