Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Twenty Things I Learned from Reading 2000 Books

As I approached the milestone of my 2000th book review, I wanted to be able to share some sort of profound observations about young adult and children’s literature, but inspiration never quite struck.  Instead, I thought I might share some tongue-in-cheek pearls of wisdom I have learned from my time spent over the last sixteen years.  In no particular order, here is the World According to Middle Grade and YA literature:

1) If your parents throw a birthday party for you and invite the whole class, no one will come.

2) If the story is intended for Middle Graders and contains an animal, it will be the focus of the story.  If the book is YA, the animal will be quickly forgotten.

3) If you are American, you will always have two best friends.  If you are English, you will have only one.

4) Every teen party will be unchaperoned and have a keg.

5) Every time you consume alcohol, you will drink too much and vomit in the bushes.

6) Your phone will always either be turned off/muted or have a dead battery.

7) Assuming your parents have not bought you an expensive car, your vehicle will be a junker and have a cute name.

8) Kids only listen to music that was popular when the author of the book was a teenager.

9) Showing up for work is optional.  Your boss at the coffee shop will rarely mind if you miss work, especially for a good reason like having a fight with your boyfriend.

10) With the exception of the protagonist, pretty people are always popular and always mean.

11) Protagonists are always beautiful, even if they think they are not.

12) All girls have at least two eligible, handsome boys to choose between.  One of them will be nice and the other one mean, but the heroine will be the only person in the book who can’t figure out which one is which until the end of the book.

13) Teens only read nineteenth century English literature for pleasure.

14) When you are eleven or twelve and are the subject of the story, you will get your first period.

15) Schools don’t exist for learning.  Their job is to supply cafeterias, gyms, and libraries.  They also serve as useful settings for public humiliation.

16) Malls don’t exist for shopping.  Their job is to provide a place where you can run into people you are trying to avoid.

17) Never turn to an adult to solve your problem when you can spend 200 pages of pointless drama trying to solve it by yourself first.

18) Keeping secrets from your BFF/teachers/parents is never a conscious decision, but just something that happens.  It is always a good idea…until it isn’t.

19) Every family owns a beach house.

20) Mothers are usually dead.

Have I forgotten your favorite trope?  Let me know what it is!

Refraction, by Naomi Hughes

A year ago, an alien spaceship came to Earth.  No one knew what it wanted, but when it broke up in orbit into hundreds of shards and pieces, the world changed.  The stars realigned and the sky darkened.  The world came to an end and only three places still supported life:  London, Singapore, and Cisco Island.  On the latter, a stalwart group struggles to survive, fortifying themselves from the terrors of the mainland.

Reflective surfaces have become portals that spread thick fog everywhere and through which horrible monsters emerge.  Staring into a mirror is suicide and owning one has been quickly outlawed.  But people still needed mirrors, lenses, and other shiny objects and that is where Marty makes a living as an underground dealer in reflective contraband.  It's a dangerous occupation, both because of the materials handled and the classification of dealing as a capital offense, but Marty has no choice.  He needs to find his brother who he believes is in London and getting there is going to take money.

Before he can manage to make the money he needs, Marty gets caught and is summarily exiled from the island.  Along with him is the son of the mayor, exiled for the "crime" of having captured and turned Marty in to the law.  Now, ironically dependent on each other for survival, the two boys try to stay alive in a world of fog and danger.  With the enemy hiding in the fog and reflective surfaces, the paranoia and fear will keep you on the edge of your seat. But as scary as that world is, we quickly learn that the situation is much more complex and terrifying.

This highly entertaining science fiction adventure combines a terrifying premise with complex and interesting characters.  Marty suffers from OCD, which causes minor tics like his need to tap doorframes and triple check locks, but which also plays a significant role in the story.  Without giving away major spoilers, the OCD becomes an integral part of the solution to the story.  His complicated relationship with the mayor's son adds additional tension to the already tense and paranoid setting.  The result is a taut and scary thriller that gave me nightmares.  It stumbles at the end, but mostly because of the impossible standards it sets us up for.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Tweet Cute, by Emma Lord

I'm pretty convinced that the challenge I would face in writing decent YA would not come from the difficulty of remembering the trials of adolescence as much as my pedestrian understanding of social media and the prevalence of technology in contemporary adolescent life.  Lots of other authors seem to suffer from that same deficit, so it's nice to read a novel written by someone who handles it all with elan!

Pepper is an academic achiever and a driven perfectionist in everything she attempts, whether it is being captain of the swim team or baking amazing desserts. So when her mother's burger chain business Big League Burgers is struggling to make a bigger impact on Twitter, she naturally agrees to help their hapless social media director.  

Jack, who always feel like the lesser of his identical twin brother, does everything he can to help his family running the neighborhood deli.  At school, he's considered something of a clown and not the star achiever that his brother is.  But he has a secret: he's a coding genius and he's created the social media app Weazel which allows students to communicate anonymously.  It is both wildly popular and completely banned by the school.

When Big League Burgers unveils its new sandwich, Jack and his brother notice an uncanny resemblance to their own deli's fave.  Convinced that the corporate giant is trying to steal from their family, they launch an attack on Twitter that takes off.  Soon, although neither one knows initially that the other is behind it, Pepper and Jack find themselves wrestling in an internet battle using their family's corporate accounts.  At the same time, they are similarly haplessly entwined with each other on Weazel.

This update of You've Got Mail has all the usual rom-com charms.  It's a bit crowded between the Twitter battle, Pepper's baking finesse, and the Weazel app, but it manages to tie everything up neatly in the end (with some help from some convenient coincidences).  With all that stuff going all, it's a bit of a slog to get through the first eighty pages.  To really get the storying moving in fact, some of the key elements at the beginning simply drop away (Pepper's grade point average takes a dive, the swimming fades away, etc.).  So, this isn't anything spectacular, but it is fun if you don't overthink it.  And after I've had my head in the world of Panem for three days, I definitely didn't mind some food porn and smoochy bits!

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Suzanne Collins

Taking place decades before the events in The Hunger Games trilogy, this prequel gives us a taste of the early years after the war, opening with the tenth Hunger Games.  It is also an opportunity to give us background on Snow and how he came to see a young woman like Katniss Everdeen as his nemesis.

The story begins on familiar ground as we walk through the events of the Hunger Games themselves (as we did in books I and II) but where those were smooth running affairs, it is apparent that at this early date, they were still working out the kinks.  In striking contrast, the body count has racked up long before the Games even start.  

Snow is a student at the Academy and in a novel new twist this year the students have been enlisted to "mentor" the tributes.  Snow gets assigned to the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray.  She's a musician and and a member of a wandering troupe of romani-like entertainers called the Covey.  Like a gypsy, she flits around in colorful skirts and charms the people around her (including Grey himself) which proves decisive in her ability to stay alive and defeat much more able opponents.  But there is more than charm at play.  They have a mutual shared interest in her staying alive.  Her success in the Games will help Snow get a college scholarship he desperately needs.

That works fine during the Games, but when things go awry and the story shifts to District 12, their roles change.  The mutual interest persist, but there is suspicion and distrust and Snow doesn't know if he can trust her anymore. But in all honesty, could he ever trust her?

There are several things that make this a very different sort of story.  One obvious difference is the point of view.  In the trilogy, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Katniss and her rebellion against the Capital District.  Here, the story is told through Snow and life in the Capital is nowhere near as easy as we have grown used to it.  Some of that is because the Capital is still rebuilding from after the war, but Collins is also showing us that even those who benefit from the power structure suffer.

This is the origin story of a tyrant. While Katniss was heroic and fighting a good fight through most of the story, Snow is a troubling protagonist.  Some of his ideas (in particular his obsession with order and his selfishness) are odious.  One starts feeling uneasy when the book pushes us to root for the oppressors and we hope that the rebels get caught and killed.

But there's more going on in this novel than simply cashing in on the popularity of the trilogy.  While the trilogy used the Games as a metaphor for the cutthroat competition for college placement and job seeking, the goals here are simultaneously grander and more obscure.  Hints of that are seen in the five quotes that precede the story.  The first three come from the trifecta of liberal democracy -- Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau -- all speaking about the Social Contract.  Wordsworth follows with his ties to Rousseau.  The last quote comes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which might seemingly be intended for the shock value of a monster let loose, but that would ignore Shelley's ties to her parents (Godwin and Wollstonecraft) and their critique of Rousseau.   Although heavy handed, this presages Collins's grander ambition in this story of critiquing the Contract itself.  The idea that we sacrifice our freedom in exchange for the order of authority is a key principle in our culture, and the tension that exists in that surrender was never fully worked out by liberal philosophers.  That it has these nuances is obviously lost on Snow and is the point that Collins in making.  While the Games were presented as a perversion of liberal democracy in the Trilogy, here it is dissected as a central component of it (seen much more clearly in the raw early years of Panem).  In an understanding with more than small nod to Foucault, Collins is demonstrating that the sacrifice of freedom does not give us order, but rather serves us control.

An interesting message to explore in a YA book, but what about the story itself?  It's long and meanders a lot.  Once the Games are over, the story truly drifts away from its focus, but it does eventually come back together in the end, in a rushed finale that solves problems by largely killing off characters (an approach also found in Mockingjay).  This is a less accessible story.  It is hard to imagine someone picking up this book without already having been drawn in by the trilogy.  In sum, not just a prequel but an ambitious political critique that is fated to be read by fans looking for some Katniss magic and disappointed to find only gloomy portents of the things to come.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Audacity, by Melanie Crowder

Clara Lemlich, an early labor organizer in New York and leader in the Triangle Shirtwaist Uprising, is the subject of this biography in verse.  Tracing the story of her life from a shtetl in Russia and her family's immigration to the United States to her involvement in organization women in New York's sweatshops, Clara makes an compelling subject.

Struggling against sexism, tradition, racism, and economic injustice to realize her dreams, it's a battle that one cannot truly say that she ever won, which makes the decision to tell her story in verse particularly poignant.  So much of what she faced and fought with goes unsaid in this novel.  For those parts of her life left in ellipses, a brief biographical essay and the transcript of the author's interview with her descendants fill in some details.

The verse is occasionally ambitious but overall sufficient to convey the action of the story and pull our focus to Clara's personality, accent her drive and ambition, and call out her doubts.  Faced with so many obstacles, she is particularly ravaged by regrets as the failures of her actions and the costs of those failures start to pile up.  Verse gives us the silent spaces and moments of reflection that a more standard text would have felt compelled to push through.  And so my usual skepticism about the format is set aside.  This is a good book, providing an inspirational approach to labor history and the role of women activists in the labor movement.  Recommended.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, by Samira Ahmed

Stung by a humiliating academic failure when her application to art school is rejected, Khayyam accompanies her parents to Paris in disgrace. She was so certain that she had uncovered an earthshattering connection between author Alexandre Dumas and the artist Eugene Delacroix, but her thesis was demolished by the judge.

Her father is French and her mother a Muslim Indian, which makes her an exotic American transplant.  Right now, Khayyam wouldn't mind some quiet to take stock.  In addition to her bungled scholarship application, there's her frustration with her sort-of boyfriend back in Chicago.

But Paris simply takes her closer to the causes of her woes.  Surrounded by the places where Dumas and Delacroix lived, Khayyam picks back up her search.  In the process, she stumbles across a young man with a similar quest (and strangely enough a direct descendent of Dumas!).  Together they learn of a Muslim woman named Leila who crossed paths with not only Dumas and Delacroix, but also with Lord Byron.  A historical mystery (interspersed with Leila's story from her voice) unfolds.  Along with it, a contemporary romance in the streets of Paris develops.

While listed as Young Adult, this literary mystery is really more of an adult novel with a young protagonist.  Khayyam has some angsty teen moments, mostly involving the triangle with her American boyfriend and the young Dumas, but otherwise there is nothing here that particularly speaks to adolescence.  That doesn't mean that young readers will not enjoy the unraveling of the mystery or characters, but simply that the novel will appeal to a broader audience.  As a mystery it works pretty well.  

The book is less effective at promoting Ahmed's ideological goals. Using Edward Said's critique of orientalism as a launching point, she uses the example of Leila (and Khayyam's obsession with telling the woman's story) to illustrate the process of giving voice to women in history. Byron, Dumas, and Delacroix and their odious relationships with women make easy cannon fodder and this is entry-level criticism aimed at younger readers. Here, it hangs uneasily, much as her bombastic novel Internment did for anti-Trumpism. The polemic, which only becomes fully developed in the latter part of the novel, does not add much and largely occurs at the cost of Khayyam's story of personal growth and confidence building.

Monday, December 21, 2020

What Unbreakable Looks Like, by Kate McLaughlin

Bound as sex slaves in a seedy Connecticut motel, "Poppy" and the other girls live a hellish existence.  But the trauma doesn't end when she is rescued in a police raid and claimed by an estranged aunt and uncle.  For as much as they want to help her rebuild her life, Lex (her real name) has a lot to process and work through.  A process that experiences a serious set back when she tries to return to school to get her diploma and falls victim to an attack by her fellow students. 

Seeing herself as damaged, she can't believe that anyone would want her (and readers will also be similarly impressed at the amazing generosity of the aunt), but with time we Lex learns to trust again.  Eventually, she even gains enough strength to fight back.

The book's subject matter is difficult to read and one of the strengths of the novel is the careful attention to detail that McLaughlin gives to it.  It's well-researched and no holds are barred in its explicit (but not exploitative) details.  Lex is similarly memorable.  A curious combination of insightful and ignorant, her voice is a bit hard to pin down.  In the beginning, I underestimated her as an inarticulate drop-out but as she regains confidence she becomes reflective and wise beyond her years.  Ironically, the great strength of her characterization can be credited to the weak writing of the book (more on that below).  In failing to develop a consistent voice for her protagonist, McLaughlin actually makes her a compelling study on contrasts.

But in the end, the book suffers from its writing. Frequent repetition and jarring plot jumps suggest that more revision and editing was needed.  McLaughlin has lots of great detail to share and is reluctant to pare it down so by the end she resorts literally to a lecture to fit it all in.  That may achieve political aims, but it sidelines Lex and her story and relegates her to a case study.  And the obvious dramatic payoff of watching Lex's attackers come to justice is diminished by not depicting any of it.  With all this good raw material and a compelling concept, it seems a disappointment. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Loop, by Ben Oliver

Luke has been imprisoned in the Loop for over two years.  Every day is the same:  stuck in isolation for most of time and subjected every day to body-draining "harvests" where his life force is drained from him as an energy source to power the Loop.  The only thing that lightens his day are the books that a kindly warden brings him to read.  There is no end to this.  Eventually, he will either die or get sent to the Block (a similar jail for adults) and then he will most certainly die.

One day, the routine suddenly stops and the Loop goes quiet.  Something is happening and the only way Luke will find out is to escape the Loop.  With help from other inmates, he manages to do so but what they find outside is even more horrifying: an existential threat to humanity itself.

The great strength of this book is the author's love for nasty sadistic details.  There's sheer delight and glee in the way he documents the inhumane tortures of living in the Loop and then finding equally horrific things to match it on the outside.

It's a very very complex dystopia, but the complexity is the major weakness of the story.  Hemmed in by so many elements, so many characters, and so many rules, the story really struggles to emerge.  Oliver is clever and full of idea, but he's lousy for story and plot.  The story, such as it is, is incoherent and largely pointless.  The heroes show their mettle largely through stupidity, hesitation, and cowardice in the face of raw evil (it's a very uneven match).  There's a mystery unfolding that might explain the contradictions and weird plot twists, but you'll have to read the sequel to have a chance of figuring it out.  There's no conclusion, no real accomplishments, and largely no logic to what happens in this book.  But there are fantastic, gruesome, and nasty details!

I would give this book (and the forthcoming sequel) a hard pass.  It's creative and innovative, but lacks a story or characters worth caring about to support it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Blue Skies, by Anne Bustard

After WWII, in thanks for the sacrifices that the United States made both to defend and rebuild their country, the people of France sent forty-nine train box cars full of gifts.  The so-called "merci train" transported those boxcars to each of the 48 states (the 49th car was for DC and the Territory of Hawaii) making stops along to way.  In this lovely middle grade historical novel, one of those stops for Texas's boxcar of gifts was in Gladiola TX, where Glory Bea awaits it anxiously.

Her father went MIA on Omaha Beach and for three years she's been waiting for him to return.  She's convinced that he'll be on that train (especially since they have been promised that there will be a VIP on the train and who could possibly be more important than her Daddy?).  And so, she prepares for his return making sure that the day that the train arrives will be perfect in every way.  With growing consternation, she realizes that his return will be none too soon.  One of her father's comrades from the War has come to visit and everyone can see that he has eyes for her mother!

With loving attention to period details and a penchant for providing local flavor, Bustard successfully transports the reader to life in a small Texas town in the late-1940s.  From Glory Bea's charming family to the tight neighborly attitude, this is a warm and safe space for Glory Bea to come to terms with her loss.  The story is heartbreaking because everyone except Glory Bea knows how things are going to turn out, but she comes through well enough in the end thanks to her strong character.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Break the Fall, by Jennifer Iacopelli

Audrey Lee has been planning her whole life for Olympic gold. But in the aftermath of her victorious bid to qualify for Team USA, there are a series of scandals.  First, a teammate is accused of doping and is disqualified.  Then, a day later, their coach is accused of sexual harassment and rape, blowing open a huge sex scandal in the sport.  With increased media pressure, an active FBI investigation, and growing distrust between members of the team, the gymnasts must somehow put these events aside and continue their focus if they are to reach victory.  For Audrey, all of this comes on top of years of physical injury that mean, regardless of how she does, the Olympics will be her very last competition.

Seemingly torn from the headlines, one of the shocking things about this book is that the real-life sex scandal in women's gymnastics that most resembles the events in the novel (i.e., Terry Gray's arrest) actually happened after this book was published.  That probably says a lot about the sad state of women's gymnastics as a sport beset by so much scandal and so thoroughly in need of some self-examination.

The book aims for a lot of things, but it is unclear where it actually succeeds.  There's a lot of broken storylines: a fairly useless romance, a potential peer conflict between Audrey and some girls who get cut from the team, hints of judging bias, and some tension between Audrey and the replacement coach.  All of these threads could have gone somewhere but never do. Even the main topic (about solidarity in the face of an abuser) is largely anti-climactic and never really developed.  I can understand not wanting to flesh out all of these ideas, but what was the book supposed to be about?   Iacopelli definitely does enjoy describing the blow-by-blow details of a gymnastics match and the fine details of a routine in loving detail.  If you're a serious fan (and someone ho picks up this book is likely to be), that will be a lot of fun.  But without that character development, the action reads like the sports pages and failed to engage me emotionally.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Jane Anonymous, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Jane was abducted by a stranger and held captive in a basement cell for seven months until she managed to escape.  Unable to piece together what really happened during those months, she finds her recovery nearly as traumatic as her ordeal.  Central to it all, her attempt to rescue a fellow internee named Mason meets blank incomprehension as no trace can be found of him.  But if he never existed, then who was her sole ally through the months she spent locked up?

A taut and tense thriller that alternates between the time she spent locked up ("then") and the time she spends afterwards trying to recover ("now").  Of the two, "then" is really the most interesting and dramatic. Thankfully it is not nearly as icky as it could have been.  Jane's emotional health takes a beating during her lock up, but thankfully there is no overt violence.  For the subject matter, this is relatively trigger-free.

But the "now" time is more problematic.  I spent much of it in deep frustration watching Jane get some really poor counseling and familial support.  While being kidnapped and locked up is certainly an ordeal, no one should have to suffer through the nearly abusive treatment she receives afterwards.  It seemed unnecessarily cruel and more than a little implausible.  There's also less coherence to the story in "now" as certain threads (e.g., her parent's marital problems) remain frustratingly unresolved and disconnected from the story.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

The Quilt Walk, by Sandra Dallas

In the spring of 1864, Emmy and her family pull up stakes and leave their home in Quincy, Illinois.  Pa has been out West and has come back with a plan.  He wants them to resettle in Golden, Colorado where he will make a fortune off of folks trying to strike it rich in gold.  Ma isn't convinced, but she has little say in the matter and has to reluctantly say goodbye to her friends and family who remain.  Her only memories are in heirloom quilts that she insists on bringing with them.

With all of their possessions in a wagon, they join other families and travel hundreds of miles across modern-day Missouri and Nebraska.  Disease, hostile animals, Indians, and homesickness plague the wagon train.  Some give up and go back home.

Based on historical fact and full of period details, Emmy's engaging first-person account of life in a wagon train will appeal to middle school readers and to fans of the Little House books.  Dallas's attention to detail certainly feels very familiar (although I think Dallas hasn't tried to cram as much in here which it makes the book an easier read).  As the title suggests, there's a lot said about quilts in the book, but without illustrations or at least a list of titles for suggested further reading, it's a bit of a let down.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

My Calamity Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

In this hilarious piece of historical fiction (stressing the latter), Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok's Traveling Show are pulling off trick shots and impressing the locals.  But on the side, they are secretly hunting down "garou" (i.e., werewolves, to the like of you and me).  Wild Bill and the gang are on the hunt for the legendary Alpha who is organizing the garou.  And when a stranger comes to town and announces that she means to join them, they aren't too thrilled for the company or the attention.  But this new girl Annie is quite the shooter and, by the end of it all, we've heard just about every variant of "Annie, get your gun!" that we will ever need to.

Their initial attempt to crack a garou ring in Cincinnati goes bad and (for various different reasons) they find themselves in Deadwood, confronting the Alpha, where all is not quite as it seems.  Jane, at the center of the story, finds that the fight is far more of a family affair than she anticipated.  Annie learns that you can indeed get a man with a gun.

I might have been better prepared if I had read the first two books in the Jane series, but there's no greater test of a serial than picking it up mid-stride and seeing if it can work.  For the most part it does.  I tend to break into hives when I find out that the book in my hands runs past page 320, but I managed to stick with this one through all 516 pages even if my interest flagged a bit in the last hundred or so.  Hand, Ashton, and Meadows all have well-developed literary careers that tend towards contemporary romances and romantic fantasy.  In this project they've downplayed the romance and a sassy alt-history that combines random historical facts, tremendous license, and lots of nudging and winking pop cultural references and anachronisms.  Driving all of this (and definitely essential for keeping things moving briskly) is a constant Greek Chorus of side comments that help to remind you that this is all intended to be silly fun.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, by Kate Hattemer

Jemima loves her school but hates its sexist traditions.  Chawton Academy was once all-boys and it shows from its dress codes to its prom.  As a self-described feminist, Jemima has often enjoyed being a thorn in the side of the student body.  Now, in her senior year and sitting in student government, she has an opportunity to change things.  She decides that she wants to shake up the whole ritual of promposals.  Instead of having the boys ask the girls to the prom, she devises the idea of having people enter their choices into a computer program, which will then match up people who have independently chosen each other.  It's clever and surprisingly popular until somehow the choices get leaked, causing embarrassment and anger across the senior class.

Meanwhile, Jemima is struggling with the whole concept of what it means to be a "feminist." After all, when it comes to discriminating, Jemima herself is pretty hard on women.  She does her fair share of disparaging girls who dress fashionably.  And is she really helping when she discounts the chances that her geeky Asian friend Jiyoon could get elected to student government?  Are her attacks on Chawton's traditoins about fighting patriarchy or is she only trying to draw attention to herself?  Closer to home, how should she deal with boys?  That's always been theoretical in the past, but when football player Andy (the object of her current crush) starts showing interest in her, she struggles with how to define what a true feminist would and would not do in response.

A peculiar, but ultimately entertaining romantic comedy.  The prom story is pretty stock material, as are the general characters (jock, queen, nerd, gay sidekick, etc.) but its the treatment which really stands out.  For one thing, there's a lot of explicit sex in the book, described in pretty visceral and physical terms by Jemima.  There's a lot about how good it feels, but not really much about her emotions surrounding it.  I get the idea here (i.e., being sex positive), but it's pretty clinical and not very romantic.  A similar practical approach appears elsewhere as well:  Jemima's potential foil, social director and queen bee Geniffer, turns out to be pretty nice and points out that any antagonism between them is more due to Jemima's judgment (and not anything Gennifer has ever said).  The jocks also prove to be surprisingly reflective and academically-inclined as Hattemer seems to want to flip all of these archetypes on their head.  It makes the book memorable and stand out, although it does grate a bit having people fail to follow their usual assignments.  I'm less sure I agree with Jemima's read on "feminism" but Hattemer has certainly created a memorable read on the idea.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Last True Poets of the Sea, by Julia Drake

Violet has been shipped off to her uncle in Maine.  It's their family's ancestral home and Violet's family has been there so long that they actually helped to found the town, after her ancestor was shipwrecked off the coast.  

Shipwrecked is precisely the way Violet feels.  Her family is falling apart.  Her disturbed brother has been institutionalized and her parents are in counseling.  Violet feels discarded.

Spending a summer in Maine is quite a change from her home in New York City and she surprises herself by quickly acclimating to it, even if she is a walking disaster at her volunteer job at the local aquarium.  She makes friends with her co-worker Orion and with Liv, a local history fanatic who is researching the circumstances surrounding the town's founding (and is ecstatic to have an actual descendent with whom to talk).  When Violet agrees to play matchmaker between Orion and Liv, she discovers to her surprise that the girl's actually falling for her instead!  The story culminates in a search for the remains of the ship that wrecked off the coast and started the whole thing in what is intended to be a loose adaptation of Twelfth Night.

I don't know about the Shakespearean aspirations, but what starts off as a fairly complicated beach summer story gradually morphs in the end into something with pretensions of...well, something-I'm-not sure-what!  I was happy reading the mystery of the shipwreck, the crazy miscommunications of the Violet/Orion/Liv love triangle, and the madcap adventures with tourists and townies.  But in the last seventy pages or so, we start drifting into deep messages and meditations on fraternal love and the whole novel starts to lose me.  The end is basically another shipwreck and I didn't care for it as much.  Still, there's a good story here and great characters and the bulk of the book is an enjoyable read.  So, a mixed review for me!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Foul Is Fair, by Hannah Capin

Most YA stories about rape focus on recovery.  The victim works through the trauma and gets on with their life in some way or another.  The attacker may/may not go to jail (or perhaps fall victim to some random act of nature that serves in lieu of a final judgment).  In Foul Is Fair, the attacked becomes the attacker in an unrestrained blood-soaked revenge.  Allegedly inspired by Macbeth but with a good nod at works ranging from Hamlet to Heathers, this unapologetically violent and unrelenting revenge fantasy takes us in new directions.

Drugged at a party and then gang-raped, Elle is reborn as "Jade." She cuts her hair and enrolls at the school that her attackers attend, plotting an elaborate and brash revenge plot.  With the help of her three besties, she befriends the boys (who fail to recognize her) and gradually gets them to kill each other off, exploiting their vanity, ego, and arrogance.  This is ruthless and cold-blooded and she repeated assures us (all the way through the bloody end) that she doesn't care.

And that ultimately is what made this story not work for me.  She's so obviously sociopathic that it's hard to feel anything at all for her in return.  I get the initial appeal of a strong kick-ass heroine who rights wrongs by ruthlessly taking out the bad guys, but a story like this only works if there's some growth in the end.  While there's some tension mid-way as we begin to wonder if her will will falter when it comes to Mack (the one boy she appears to have a soft spot for), the author is really just playing with us.  It is sufficient to quote the last words of the book ("I'm not sorry") to get a sense of how much Elle/Jade grows as a character.

Bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth is a compelling character because she is a figure of tragedy.  Is Jade intended to be that same way?  Perhaps, but Capin wants us to see her as a victorious warrior and that's hard to see when everything ends up so badly.  You can't have things both ways.  Either this is tragedy or it is not.  As tragedy, she can't be an inspiration.  As inspiration, she has to be somehow redeeming.  She has her vengeance and it is certain that the boys will never hurt another girl, but in doing so no great strides have been made for her, other young women, or the readers.  Annihilation is not empowerment.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

What Stars Are Made Of, by Sarah Allen

Seventh grader Libby has big dreams.  When she hears that there is a contest being sponsored by the Smithsonian for the best essay on a female pioneer in science, she knows exactly about whom she wants to write:  early astronomer Cecilia Payne (who, among other things, is credited with determining the composition of stars).  Open to children from seventh to twelfth grade, she knows that the competition will be formidable and that she is in way over her head.  That doesn't stop her.  She'll just have to do something really audacious to win!

She has to win the contest.  First of all, the grand prize is a $25K cash prize and Libby wants more than anything to help her older sister and her husband out.  They are in a financial tight spot and Libby knows that the money would make a world of difference, helping them to make a down payment on a new home.  But there is another even more important reason: to prove that she can do it.

Libby has Turner Syndrome, a chromosomal deficiency, which causes numerous physical challenges for her.  Through medication and therapy, she struggles to have a normal day.  Facing bullying from classmates because of physical deformities makes things even harder.  But Libby has learned to persevere and keep positive, summoning up examples like Cecilia Payne to get through the day.

This warm and inspiring story of a girl carrying a whole set of challenges with which to deal but a heart of pure gold hits all of the right spots.  The pitch can stray a bit as she gets pedantic and teacherly, but there is something endearing about Libby's book smarts.  Well read, but socially awkward (there's some intimation that she may be on the spectrum), she uses her knowledge bank to maneuver bravely through situations that she doesn't quite understand.  She makes a few mistakes along the way and is prone to exaggerating her impact on other people's problems, but these flaws is largely sympathetic failings.  With her big heart, Libby shows readers how to be kind without being a pushover, how to be smart without being a snob, and how to be brave without lashing out against others.  While she may not always win her struggles, she's a pretty impressive runner up.  As is this book.

[Fun side note:  There's an excellent biography of Cecilia Payne with the same title for more advanced readers who want to learn more about Libby's inspiration]

Friday, November 27, 2020

Little Universes, by Heather Demetrios

Mae and Hannah are close to each other, but there are forces in the universe trying to pull them apart.  In the middle of their senior year, their parents are called by a typhoon while vacationing.  With their parents gone, the girls are forced to relocate to Boston to live with their aunt and uncle.  That would be trauma enough for two girls in the middle of their last year, but even before the loss, Hannah was struggling with drug addiction and grieving over her decision a few months earlier to terminate her pregnancy.  The rest of this long novel deals with the ways that the girls cope (or mostly don't cope) with their circumstances and their losses.

From the start, Hannah obviously seems the least stable of the pair.  Already struggling with staying clean, she befriends a drug dealer at school, who turns out in the end to be a pretty good guy (and gives up dealing along the way).  Her role in the story is to attempt to stay sober, broken up periodically by relapses that throw the rest of the family into turmoil.

In comparison, Mae's the shining star.  With an excellent academic record, she's heading to Annapolis to become a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and (eventually) an astronaut.  But while Hannah's problems threaten to derail her, Mae is actually less in control than she imagines.  The loss of her parents (and her father in particular) and the cruel reality that she might not be able to save her sister is nearly impossible for her to accept and this makes her ultimately the least stable of the sisters.

Along with the grieving process, family secrets come out that threaten the image of perfection that the girls had about their parents.  Neither one of girls is particularly adept at handling this reality.

The result is a very long (and emotionally painful) novel that explores the many ways that hurting people can hurt each other further.  It's not a particularly redeeming trip and one wonders if some of their issues couldn't have been resolved quicker with a pet or a good project to distract them and give them some purpose.  Because, while their aunt and uncle encourage them to find things to do, it is obvious that Hannah prefers her drugs and Mae prefers having her sister to take care of.  That makes for a pretty tiresome read. With lots of room to work with, the characters are really well developed and identifiable.  I just didn't have much interest in them in the end.

The story is well written, with lovely philosophizing on topics ranging from Yoko Ono to the nature of the universe.  But when your story is basically about two people trudging through grieving with nothing much to say beyond the fact that it's tough, you just don't have much of a literary purpose.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Willoughbys Return, by Lois Lowry

Thirty years have passed since Mr. and Mrs.Willoughby froze on a Swiss mountaintop.  Now, thanks to global warming, they have thawed out.  Completely unaware that they have been gone for the past three decades, they are flummoxed by the fact that no one seems to speak English anymore.  Everyone is talking about "googling" and "YouTubing." Convinced that "Uber" is some sort of Swiss torture device, their effort to return home is full of adventures.

Meanwhile, the children have grown up.  Tim has taken over Commander Melanoff's confectionary business, but that has fallen on hard times as the American Dental Association has managed to get candy outlawed.  With possession of Lickety Twists now considered a felony, the fortunes of the family are about to collapse.

Tim's son, Richie has every toy one could want, but is lonely.  He finds friendship next door with the impoverished (and aptly named) Poore children.  Their father, an unsuccessful encyclopedia salesman has left the family with no means of support.  To eke a living, they open a B and B which brings in some special guests.  All these various chaotic pieces end up well enough in the end, in a way that Willoughbys always seem to do.

Sadly, the sequel is not nearly as charming as the original installment.  The same rude Lemony Snicket-style humor of the original is present, but the clever satire is missing.  In its place, the theme seems to be encyclopedias and a criticism of the modern obsession with technology, but this is neither very funny nor terribly original.  In particular, Lowry has a peculiar notion of how much/little has changed in the past thirty years (microwave ovens and bed and breakfasts, for example, were already well known thirty years ago).  The original's send-up of classic children's literature and it fancy archaic lexicon was timeless and done in love.  This seems tired and less inspired.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

The Willoughbys have four children: the eldest Tim, the twins (both named Barnaby), and little Jane.  Being an old-fashioned family such as one reads about in old children's books with burgundy covers, the children plan to become orphans.  As their parents are still living, this poses some difficulty.  Luckily, their parents are hoping to abandon the children, either by deserting them deep in the woods or by departing on a tour of Switzerland (the end up choosing the latter).  But with the help of an odious Nanny, the children manage to find a rich benefactor, as old-fashioned children always do.

An enormously tongue-in-cheek send up of classic children's literature, this short and clever satire is small parts Lemony Snickett and Edward Gorey, but mostly knowing winks.  Highlights include the story's convoluted plot which comes together in the end through ridiculous coincidences that combine together the endings of a dozen classic novels. Throughout, various asides and non-sequiturs provide the opportunity to reflect upon deep matters like why helpful nannies are so easy to find and Swiss people are so helpful. The glossary of fancy words at the end and a hilarious annotated bibliography of the source material is worth the price of the book many times over.  Brilliant satire and utterly wasted on modern children.

And now, after twelve years, with a sequel....

Monday, November 23, 2020

Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten year-old Della likes to think of herself as a wolf, in the sense that she is brave and fearless.  But wolves don't act alone.  Like a wolf relies on their pack for survival, Della has always relied on her older sister Suki.  Suki has always been there for Della, when Mom was arrested years ago for meth and through years sexual abuse.  And now that the man who abused them is awaiting trial and the girls have been taken in by foster care, Della assumes that things will stay like that.  But Suki is tired of the responsibility and Della feels rejected and resentful at the changes.

Neither girl has much trust and faith in adults, but while Suki hides and lays low, Della wants to take on the whole world.  She's eager to testify in court against their abuser and she even fights back against a bully in school who is touching the girls inappropriately.  She can't understand why her sister won't fight as well.

As a middle grade reader, this story of drug abuse, sexual abuse, and self-harm is pretty intense subject matter, but the book could find its audience with some guidance.  The book contains a series of talking point questions at the back that could help adults guide children through this.  Moreover, the story is full of supportive adults, which will help younger readers deal with the scary parts, but is also a problematic aspect of the book. Della and Suki's good fortune in finding grownups willing to fight for them isn't as common of an experience for young victims as we would like and seems mildly implausible.  It's a fine line between wanting to make make this story appropriately reassuring for young readers, while still maintaining authenticity.

It's certainly powerfully written.  I especially liked the idea of bring in the classroom bully as it pulls the story down into a microcosm that is easier to understand.  A ten year old boy who doesn't comprehend why his fun is harmful makes a poignant contrast to the grownup bogeyman of the adult molester (who we never - thankfully - encounter in the story).  The boy's mother's incomprehension of the danger of her son's behavior is chilling but sadly not explored.  The overall message about the need to bring childhood sexual abuse into the open is well presented and the fact that it will make many readers uncomfortable is probably the most convincing argument for the importance of this book.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Echoes Between Us, by Katie McGarry

Veronica lives with death.  There's the tumor in her brain that causes her unbearable migraines and whose severity she hides from her Dad.  And there's also the ghost of her dead mother that haunts the house and keeps her company, giving her the strength to face her illness.

Downstairs, in the apartment that they rent out, is Sawyer and his mother and little sister.  Veronica knows Sawyer but they are not on good terms.  Sawyer's part of a popular clique and he and his friends delight to tormenting Veronica and her friends.  They shouldn't even be talking to each other, but Veronica has an intuition about him.  When she finds herself needing a partner for their senior project, she reaches out to him.  Sawyer, for reasons that mystify his friends, accepts.

But as far as surprises are concerned, Sawyer turns out to be much more complex than even Veronica could imagine.  He's covering for his mother's erratic behavior, justifying her drinking, and trying to make everything look normal.  Things are far from normal.  Sawyer's getting injured and hurt, and the truth is that he's inflicting it on himself.

A girl with her mind set on dying and a boy being driven to self-destruction make a complex and powerful couple.  The novel, which adds supernatural and historical elements (a diary written by a young woman dying of TB in 1918 plays a part) to its tale of addiction and learning to let go, is ambitious.  Parts of it work well, others do not.  It is difficult initially to see much of a connection between the two very different struggles that Veronica and Sawyer face, but it eventually comes together powerfully.  The attempt to draw pathos from the historical tie-in to the diary and a nearby abandoned TB hospital falls resoundingly flat and contrived.  It's not an easy read and may not be to many people's tastes, but I found it interesting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

It Sounded Better in My Head, by Nina Kenwood

Natalie's parents take ten months to get around to telling her -- on Christmas Day! -- that they are getting divorced, her two best friends Zach and Lucy are suddenly a couple, and Zach's brother Alex may like her (but she can't really tell!).  Everything confuses Natalie.  And it couldn't happen at a worse time.  Now that Natalie's eighteen, she has to figure out what she'll do with her life.  She'd put the whole business off, imagining she'd live at home forever (no longer an option as her parents are downsizing).  And boyfriends?  Well, it was never going to happen!  Natalie's her own worst enemy, finding a way to sabotage every chance of romance, which is what makes Alex's interest in her all the more perplexing.

Aussie YA is seemingly always a challenge for me.  For reasons I can't really explain, I leave more Australian YA novels unfinished than I complete.  Usually, the storylines simply don't engage.  It isn't so much the cultural differences but really the overly dense style that seems to predominate.  This novel is no exception.  I struggled throughout to track the action which jumps through a large number of parties and dramatic interactions with decisions and actions that don't instinctively make sense.  But what made the book ultimately work for me was Natalie herself.  I stopped worrying about what she was doing and spent more time listening to her.

Natalie is ostensibly as much of a navel-gazing angst-ridden teen girl as you will ever find in YA, but the extent to which she self-doubts and owns that doubting is adorable and outright hilarious.  Natalie's fumbled seduction attempt on Alex had me in stitches. The best part of being witty and self-deprecating at the same time is that we can sympathize with her flaws and easily admit to the ones that we resemble far too closely.  So, while I have only a vague sense of what the book was actually about, I loved the heroine!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Scared Little Rabbits, by A.V. Geiger

Nora is really excited to be spending the summer in an elite tech summer program at Winthrop Academy.  She's hoping to win the camp's contest, wowing judges including Emerson Kemp, the founder of augmented reality social media sensation InstaLove.  Not that she knows much about InstaLove the program (which her parents won't let her download) or love in any real life sense either!  But she's optimistic that this summer will be different and that she will burst out of her caccoon.

Things don't start off propitiously.  Everyone seems to know everyone else and queen bees Eleanor and Reese take a profound dislike towards her.  Saving the day, moody dreamboat Maddox has eyes for her, although Eleanor is a jealous ex- and tries to keep them apart.  That said, nothing is all that simple.  Eleanor is blackmailing Maddox and hiding secrets from just about everyone.  As the contest creeps closer, a sudden death sends everything into a frantic and tense conclusion.

While rooted in tired YA tropes (unsupervised summer campers get in big trouble while awkward and inexperienced girl gets an A-list boy to fall head over heels for her), the augmented reality stuff is kind of fun.  InstaLove, combining Instagram and PokemonGo sounds plausible enough to make a fresh foundation.  The story is paced well and the mystery largely maintained with a lot of distracting false leads to keep us off track.  However, the ending gets rushed and overall I just didn't find Nora interesting enough, boy toy Maddox sexy enough, or Reese and Eleanor bad enough to make this worth recommending.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

I'll Be the One, by Lyla Lee

Skye loves dancing and singing.  She dreams of one day becoming a K-pop performer, but the reality is that Korean culture expects female performers to be thin and petite.  Skye is strong and healthy, but not some 110-pound waif.  Her mother repeatedly warns her that she needs to lose weight if she has any hope of becoming famous.

When a contest in announced in LA for contestants in a new Korean entertainment competition, Skye is so psyched to be in it, but her mother won't even allow her to take part (her father has to step in to give permission).  But sixteen years of being bullied and fatshamed has toughened Skye and she is determined to prove her mother, a bullying judge, and all the doubters in the world that fat girls can dance and sing and do it well!  Along the way, she wins the heart of the cute boy and makes a great group of friends as well.

Its a story told in a rich cultural context.  Not knowing much about K-pop, I surmise that the author has done her homework (and/or is a serious fan).  She name drops plenty of real groups and songs, and tirelessly notes what makes particular songs significant.  A similar love is given to Korean food and culture.  For outsiders, this culture lesson is really the best part and is effortlessly delivered alongside the winning storyline.

In sum, this is a feel good romance about body positivity.  There's no end to the trials that Skye endures ranging from thoughtless comments to outright emotional abuse, but Skye is a poster child for standing up for herself.  One wonders exactly where she got this strength, but Lee's not terribly interested in exploring the sources for Skye's strength as she is in promoting the healthy result.  There's a similar approach to the mother's cruel emotional abuse, which is ultimately and disappointingly side-stepped.  The mother's behavior goes far beyond Tiger Mom stereotypes into darker spaces, but this is far too lighthearted of a book to dwell on anything truly serious.  A rousing climax complete with song and dance and a curtly dismissed villainess wraps up the adventure satisfactorily.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Ballad of Ami Miles, by Kristy Dallas Alley

In post-apocalyptic Alabama, Ami lives with her grandparents, aunts, and uncles at the Heavenly Shepherd compound.  Great grandfather packed away supplies so the family would be well taken care of and they just laid low, studying the Bible and living a righteous and obedient life.  Mama had to flee a few years ago when the government rounded up the few remaining fertile women and Ami hasn't seen her since.  It's safe here and Ami is well-fed, but the strict rules and the lack of anyone Ami's age makes it a lonely existence.  The final straw comes when her grandparents announce that she has to marry an older man she's just met in order to preserve the family line.  With help from her uncles and aunts, Ami flees for freedom.

Searching for her mother, she ends up at a repurposed campground with people who have different ideas about how to live -- ideas that shock Ami and open up her horizons at the same time.  The stories she was told growing up turn out to not be so true and the principles she has lived by turn out to not be so useful.  Life is very much more complex than she ever imagined.

Like Ami's struggle with her perceived reality, my notions of what the template for a dystopian novel should got really shook up by this novel.  I expected ruined towns, anarchic bandits, and some big final showdown with the family she left behind.  Some of that happened, but not quite as I expected.  No guns are fired.  No zombies or enemy armies.  No one dies in the entire book.  And the bad guys are profoundly ineffectual and inconsequential.  What I totally did not count on was the human coming-of-age story for Ami.  Rather than action and adventure, the drama of the story comes a very sweet romance and a complex coming to terms between Ami and her mother.  Both provide depth to this novel that takes the dystopian framework and crafts a profound story about exercising freedom of choice.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Fault Line, by C. Desir

Ben and new girl Ani hit it off at the beginning of senior year.  It's a great relationship.  Ani is spunky and spirited and knows how to keep Ben on his toes.  Ben adores her.  They have even begun to think of spending the summer after graduation taking a road trip across the United States.  But then there's a party that Ben can't go to and something happens.  Ani's best friend Kate calls Ben and begs him to come to the hospital.  Ani's been hurt.

When Ben gets there he learns that Ani's been raped, but she can't remember what happened.  Everyone else seems to know, however, and soon afterwards the rumors start spreading around the school.  About what Ani did and how much fun she had doing it.  Ben knows these are lies but they still hurt to hear.  He wants to defend Ani and take care of her, but she won't let anyone help her.  Instead, she closes off and pushes away all of her friends.  And Ben watches helplessly as her life spins out of control, taking him down with her.

Dark and depressing with an ending that left me deeply unsatisfied, the novel is hard to like.  I appreciated the nuanced portrayal of Ani and the depth of Ben's feelings. His struggle between acknowledging his own pain and the need to be supportive of Ani felt very immediate and sympathetic.  Ben is a bit too much of a tough guy jock for my tastes, but he you feel for how he is way out of his depth.  Not that any of his efforts really matter because Ani is pretty determined to be her own worst enemy.  And that's largely what makes this book so hard to take.  The story is not ultimately about rescuing Ani but about rescuing Ben, and I didn't really care as much about him.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Diplomatic Immunity, by Brodi Ashton

Piper dreams of becoming a journalist.  But to realize her dream, she needs to get into a journalism program and to do that she needs someone to pay for it.  That has always made the prestigious teen journalism-focused Bennington scholarship part of her plan.  Attending the elite Chiswick Academy in DC is part of the plan as well and when Piper gets a scholarship mid-way through her senior year to finally go she knows she has to move fast to be a contender for the Bennington.  But what can she write about?

Chiswick has a large foreign student contingent, made up mostly of the children of diplomats.  These golden kids flaunt their privilege and their unique ability to weasel out of trouble.  It's diplomatic immunity, both in the literal sense or simply from the ability to invoke the names of their powerful parents to get out of tight situations.  For scholarship kids like Piper, it all seems terribly unfair.

And then suddenly Piper realizes she has her story.  Ingratiating herself with Raf, the son of the Spanish ambassador, she slips into the private world of expat parties, where alcohol and drugs flow freely.  But as Piper collects her material, she finds herself growing close to Raf in a distinctly non-professional way. She realizes she has to choose between her ambition and her heart.

A well written, but mostly by-the-numbers YA romance.  Nothing really shouts out in this story.  The characters are fine but break no major new territory.  The romance has some nice moments but doesn't particularly heat up.  The scandal and action are slow moving.  It reads fast but doesn't deliver any notable punch.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

The Burning, by Laura Bates

When Anna's ex-boyfriend creates a revenge porn site dedicated to her, she and her mother change their identities and move to a town up in Scotland.  There, Anna tries to start a new life, cautiously making friends and return to her studies.  A history assignment has her writing about a local famous personage and she chooses a woman who was persecuted for witchcraft in the 16th century.  With help from a local historian, she tracks down more information about this woman and her tragic circumstances.

Meanwhile, it doesn't take long until some of the students in her school track down her past and soon the harassment resurfaces.  The attacks spread beyond her to encompass her friends and her family.  As they do, Anna is struck by the similarities between her situation and that of the subject of her study.  A series of historical flashbacks help make the parallels clearer.  The school, unable and unwilling to help Anna, allow the bullying to continue until Anna and her mother finally stand up to it.  The witch fares less well.

British YA tends to be pretty heavy handed, especially with hot button social topics like this, but I was actually pleased at how few polemics were in this story.  While I am shocked at the ineffective adults and the non-existence of law enforcement (does Scottish law tolerate child porn more than the US?), it does permit Anna to defend herself, which is ultimately more fulfilling.  The juxtaposition of Anna and Maggie (the accused witch) is surprisingly effective.  It lack historical integrity, but serves its literary purpose quite well providing a stark parallel in how latent misogyny tends to emerge in mob rule situations.  No real surprises in other words, but if it fires up a couple young readers, then no foul!  Helpful discussion questions provided at the end of the book for those young people who are forced to read this instead.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

I Love You So Mochi, by Sarah Kuhn

There is a subgenre of YA and NA literature that I like to call "tour guide romance" which basically consists of a story about a young woman who travels somewhere (usually overseas), meets a foreign boy, and tours the exotic scenery.  Most of the time, one suspects that the author has herself been to the milieu in question and started planning the novel during their trip.  Such stories usually consist of key tourist must-sees being used as a backdrops for a trans-continental romance.  Local culture is studied, kissing occurs, and occasionally cultural differences cause complications.  Eventually, the girl and boy come face to face with the reality that, in a few short days, their special romance will become long-distance.  Cinematic versions of this include Karate Kid 2 and Before Sunrise, but there are far more numerous examples that have never made it to the silver screen.  The key to the success of any new contribution is the ability of the author to capture what makes the chosen locale interesting and finding some way to imbue the local culture seamlessly into the story.

I Love You So Mochi follows Kimi's trip to Kyoto, ostensibly to meet her maternal grandparents and get some distance from her mother, with whom she is currently fighting.  The love interest is Akira, a young man helping his uncle sell mochi balls, but who dreams of studying to become a doctor.  Kimi doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, but she does know that she doesn't want to be a painter, even though she's been accepted to an art school.  That decision, with surprised both her and her mother, is why things have grown so tense between them.  But what else could she do when it was clear that art did not bring her joy?

As far as her actual desires are concerned, the only thing that Kimi really likes doing is designing outfits for herself and her friends.  Why this doesn't occur to her as a career choice until half-way through the book is a mystery, but it at least provides a pretext over which Kimi and Akira can bond.

The story is full of lots of cultural detail and given some emotional punch by the strained dynamics between Kimi, her mother, and her grandparents, but one can't escape a sense that this is playing safely by a formula.  Family conflict, romance, and the requisite cultural detail are all inserted at the right spots and worked through appropriately.  Grandparents are charming, boy is amazingly supportive, and BFFs at home are peripheral.  It's a charming read, but there are no surprises and, aside from the local flavor, not much value imparted.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Genesis Begins Again, by Alicia D. Williams

When Genesis and her family get evicted, it's just the latest in a series of hardships she and her mother have had to endure.  Neither of them can believe it when her father takes them to a fancy suburban house in a nice neighborhood.  No way they can afford it but Dad promises that things are going to change.  But as much as Genesis wants to believe it, she knows that Daddy loves the bottle more than her and Mama.  And she can even tell you why:  her skin is too dark. Mama has lighter skin, but Genesis's is as black as Daddy (or, as her maternal grandmother informs her, darker than a grocery bag!).  And by that measure and other things like her nappy hair, she knows that she's not worth much.  She's even developed a long list of things that are wrong with her to keep track of all of the reasons that she dislikes herself. But when the kids at her new school start acting friendly and her attempts to "fix" her problems just make things worse, Genesis has to reevaluate her explanations and consider the possibility that there's nothing wrong with herself at all.

A poignant and often painful novel of a young girl with a serious self-esteem problem.  While I'm hardly an expert in African-American YA, Colorism is a delicate and uncommon subject and I liked the treatment here.  For me, it opened a window on a world I have never seen.  For young readers of color, it could possibly mean even more.

Genesis can be a bit hard to take.  She often is her own worst enemy in her harsh self-judgements.  She's makes poor decisions and has trouble accepting responsibility (a trait that she insightfully realizes is learned from her father).  She's often not as kind or as loyal as she ought to be.  But she has a great sense of inner strength and stands up for herself.  Her journey from self-loathing to qualified acceptance is realistically portrayed and fulfilling to share.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Diana and the Island of No Return, by Aisha Saeed

Diana is fierce and brave.  She loves her home on Themyscira and is immensely proud of the work the women of the island perform guarding the entrance to the Underworld.  She begs her mother to let her learn more about fighting, but for now she is largely stuck watching the older women train.  

On the eve of an important festival, a spell is cast that puts the adults to sleep.  At around the same time, Diana and her best friend Princess Sakina discover a stowaway boy.  He has cast the spell and begs Diana and Sakina to come with him to his island in order to save his people from a demon who has taken over.  In exchange, he'll reverse the spell. It's a dirty trick, but Diana and Sakina don't see any alternative:  not only because it is the only way to wake the grownups, but also because even little Diana knows that it is her people's duty to fight evil.

And so begins the first in a series of middle grade readers for young fans of Wonder Woman.  It goes without saying that being familiar with the source material will make this a more enjoyable read.  I have not seen the recent films, but I imagine that there are plenty of Easter eggs in the story for fans.  Saeed certainly assumes we know a little about the locale and the characters.  But even so, the book on its own has several things in its favor:  it's fast paced and packed with action.  It also carries on the themes of female empowerment for which the originals are famous.  Even at twelve, Diana is no shrinking violet and makes quite a role model.  She bravely launches forth, even when the odds seem impossibly against her.  She's kind to others and loyal to friends and family.  The story is not terribly deep and my hopes that Saeed would imbue the formula with some deeper meaning are largely disappointed, but it's still a good book.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

We Dream of Space, by Erin Entrada Kelly

In January 1986, Bird and her classmates are infected with space fever.  The Challenger is about to send the first teacher into space and schoolchildren across the country are studying space and the space program in preparation for the launch.  Bird's science class has split into teams of seven to match each member of the crew so the kids can be prepared to watch every step of the mission and write about it.  Most of the kids are bored, but Brid is in heaven!

Bird loves space, science, and taking things apart and drawing their innards.  She's endlessly fascinated by what makes things work.  And like she does with complicated machinery, she's dissected her family and noticed how her parents are always fighting, how her older brother Cash can't seem to find any enthusiasm for studying, and how her other brother Fitch is prone to sudden angry fits and spasms.  In sum, how her complicated dysfunctional family operates.  She'd like to feel she can control things by drawing their schematics, but when she watches her dreams literally explode in front of her, she faces a choice between giving up and change.  In doing so, she discovers unexpected allies.

A promising story with a strong and poignant ending suffers from a slow moving and poorly constructed plot.  While the book certainly made me flash back to where I was in 1986 (sophomore in college, hanging out in my dorm's kitchen when I heard the news), the story really didn't live up to its hype or its promise.  And there is a deeper frustration at how little is resolved in the story and its general downer conclusion.  There are so many things hinted at in the story, but none of them are really followed up on.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Chirp, by Kate Messner

Mia is spending the summer helping her grandmother manage a new venture growing crickets as a food source.  It's an uphill battle trying to convince people to try them, but they taste delicious and folks eventually warm to them.  Plus Mia is creative and motivated to help her grandmother's success, enlisting her friends and some fellow campers at a summer program she's in for young entrepreneurs.  

However, things keep going wrong with the equipment and with pests.  So many things, in fact, that Mia grows suspicious that someone is actively sabotaging the business.  Can Mia and her friends figure out who is causing the damage and stop them before its too late?

That would have been a straightforward story and made this middle grade reader less of an attention grabber, but Messner has a second storyline:  Mia used to be an aspiring gymnast, but then she got injured and now she just doesn't feel like doing it.  At least that is what she tells others.  In truth, she's lost her confidence and become afraid.  Something happened to her and she isn't really sure to whom she can turn to express her fears.

They are both good stories, but being unrelated they pull at each other for attention.  And given that the second is far more sensationalistic (and is basically why the book has endorsements from a collection of big name writers) it feels a exploitative, like Messner didn't feel that a detective book could sell and so threw in the heavier themes of her second topic.  I honestly think it wasn't necessary:  there's so much about Mia that is inspirational and positive that her story is a winner without any big message attached.

Either way, I enjoyed Mia and I liked her creative ideas and the way she interacted with the other kids.  There's lots of great positive energy here about following your dreams.  The ending gets a bit too perfect and rosy, but not everything works out in Mia's favor and that has lessons as well.  The fact that she is genuinely happy for the success of people other than herself though makes her a real winner in my mind.  And of course watching her seize the day and regain her confidence in the end is the pay off that brings the book to a rewarding close.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Time of Our Lives, by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka

Fitz is a reluctant prospective student.  It's not that he doesn't want to go to college, but rather that he knows that looking at other schools is a waste of time.  He's got the grades to attend pretty much anywhere he wants, but with his mother's failing health, he'll have to stick close to home.  Still, to make his mother happy, he's embarked on a week-long college visit tour of the northeast.

Juniper longs to go away to school.  She too has the grades and she's determined to go as far away as she can.  Being the eldest child in a large family however means that she's constantly in demand and that her family is reluctant to have her go away.  They are less-than-thrilled that she is considering schools that are not nearby and vocally unsupportive of her desire to move away.  But, in spite of her family's pressure, Juniper is set to find the school of her dreams and to do so with or without her family's help.

Fitz and Juniper cross paths in Boston at the beginning of their respective trips and then subsequently continue running into each other as they wind up visiting the same schools.  By the time they've worked their way to New York, they are basically traveling together.  Predictably enough, a romance develops, but its overshadowed by the emotional baggage that they each bring to their college search.

There are strikingly few YA books that deal with adolescent apprehensions about going away to college.  There are plenty of melancholy memories of final summers and lots of impatient longings for moving away, but the more quieter meditations on the end of childhood are surprisingly few.  And this is a surprisingly good contribution to the topic.  The characters are interesting and their well-researched roadtrip of Ivies and well-known state schools is fun and familiar to anyone who has attended such schools.  Personally, I was most drawn to the kids' apprehensions of the future, but there's plenty of other things going on here.

Moreover, the co-writing team of Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka has surprising chemistry.  Co-authored novels are inevitably battles of egos and styles.  You usually can tell who is writing what and there's usually some tension as the writers force each other into places that you can tell they don't want to go.  I didn't get that sense here.  As the authors pass the baton, there is instead a warmth, as if the other can't wait to continue what has been written so far. It makes the reading all the more joyful.