Friday, February 28, 2020

Wilder Girls, by Rory Power

In case you are looking for some fiction to put you in the mood for a global pandemic....

When the students at the Baxter School for Girls on a remote island off the coast of Maine start contracting a strange and fatal disease, they and their island are placed under quarantine.  The disease, which they call the "Tox" causes rapid mutations that painfully disfigure the body and appear to be tied to the ecology of the island itself, affecting the animals and even the plants.  While the CDC works on a cure, no one can leave.  Regular supply runs drop off what the girls and their teachers need to survive, but otherwise the residents are on their own as the they grow sick and die terrifying deaths.

They told us to wait and stay alive.

A year and a half later, junior Hetty recounts the state of existence for the survivors.  There is still no cure and a vast number of the girls (and nearly all of the adults) have died.  Supplies are running low and the wildlife on the island has grown so hostile that venturing outside of their school grounds is too dangerous to consider without weapons.  Things are coming apart.  Hetty (along with her friends Byatt and Reese) suspect that the government is giving up on them and fight a last ditch effort to survive as the supplies stop coming and panic sets in.

A grim and brutal horror novel that turns a boarding school into a killing field.  From the start, the tension was captivating, the situation dark and gruesome.  The suspense picked up as more discoveries and dangers unfurled.  But by the time we reach the half-way point, things start to tip into the realm of silly and unbelievable.  Characters start behaving irrationally and counter-intuitively,  A super generous interpretation would be that everyone started to go mad, but the stupidity of some of the actions belie a more plausible explanation -- trying to keep the action going and wrapping up the story.  In sum, the last hundred pages unravel the story in a not-so-glorious way.  Still, there's no denying the topical relevance of reading this book while you're riding in a plane with a bunch of coughing people.  Definitely, one of the creepiest reads I've had in a long while!

The Night of Your Life, by Lydia Sharp

It’s almost graduation and JJ has his senior prom to look forward to.  He’s taking his best friend Lucy with him and it’s bittersweet because when they graduate she will leave for school in Italy.  To complicate matters, he’s also taking Jenna – the recently ex-girlfriend of Blair and High School royalty -- who needs company.  It’s just as friend, but JJ could never deny that he would like a chance with her (even if he is strangely uncomfortable admitting as much in front of Lucy).

So far, so typical YA prom/romance.  But there’s an additional dimension.  Lucy and JJ’s just completed their joint science project -- a time machine -- which they actually got to work.  Sort of.  While all there preparations went well, the thing mysteriously failed during their presentation.  Or so they thought.  In fact, it triggered a time loop/glitch which causes JJ to relive again and again what will become the prom night from hell.

A story so much like Groundhog Day that there’s even a token groundhog in the story, this quirky time travel adventure may be all over the place but it is surprisingly entertaining and ultimately touching.  It turns out that Bill Murray really missed the boat – the purpose of repeating something again and again is not to get it right or become a better person:  it is to totally transcend the rules of the universe and embrace what you really expect from the world.  In sum, what JJ will ultimately learn is that we make out own fate.  That surprisingly deep lesson combines with stand out characters to create a fun read which breaks the mold of the calcified genres it has chosen.  Who knew a prom time-travel adventure could be so interesting?

[Discliamer:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is slated for release on March 3, 2020.]

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Candle and the Flame, by Nafiza Azad

The city of Noor lies in the crossroads, a mixture of Arab, Indian, and Chinese cultures.  Nearly destroyed when a chaotic band of Djinn attacked the city and slew almost everyone, it has been repopulated by refugees from many lands.  Thus creating a place of many cultures, faiths, and traditions.  But it is not a place of peace.  Rival factions of Djinn and humans struggle to gain control of the region.  A dizzying assortment of nobles and commoners play a part in this vivid and complex setting, key among them is Fatima, one of the few survivors of the attack.  She now bears special powers that even she doesn't fully understand, which could bring peace or annihilation to the people.

Strikingly original amalgam of cultures and ideas, Azad has drawn on a wide palate to create this crossroads world that combines not only different world cultures, but also different ideas of magic and religion.  The story takes liberties with many of these in its mashup and introduces a matriarchy and strong women characters that fit loosely on top of  the traditions it invokes.  That can at times feel revisionist, but it fits in smoothly.  Azad triumphs in cultural detail, obviously in love with the food, clothing, and smells of this world.  No meal takes place without a detailed description of what is being served.  No clothing is worn without extensive description of what is being worn and how it is accessorized.  If you are into that and have the patience to spend a lot of time in the Glossary (helpfully provided at the end of the book), then this is a rewarding read.  For more casual readers, it can seem like cultural overload and one longs for more story and less culture.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Girls of July, by Alex Flinn

Four girls in the summer before their senior year come to spend a month in a secluded cabin in the Adirondacks, where they have adventures and bond.  As usually happens in this subgenre, this involves rejecting the expectations of their parents and finding their true callings.  The adventures are mostly unremarkable (car trouble, a romance, helping a family in need), but each of the young women go through a very satisfactory personal growth arc in the story.  That said, the most interesting story probably belongs to the fifth character (the owner of the summer house and the grandmother of one of the girls).

At 470 pages, it seemed terribly long and it wore me out.  It begins strong with a certain amount of tension between the characters, but they break through that quickly and the second half of the novel treads water.  And while the girls start out different, they gradually lose their distinctiveness, which I guess is how we know that they are all getting along.

Night Music, by Jenn Marie Thorne

Ruby is the youngest member of the Chertok musical dynasty.  Her father teaches at the elite Amberley School.  But the truth is that Ruby is failing to make it and, after she botches her audition at Amberley, she realizes that she needs to find something else.  But what?

Oscar is a musical genius.  Taken under the wing of Ruby’s father, he is positioned to become something truly revolutionary. As a young black man, everyone wants to pigeonhole him as a ‘disadvantaged’ kid and use him to promote a diversity fund at the school, rather than pay homage to his actual talent.  Ruby seems to be the only one who can see beyond his race and truly appreciate his musical genius.  But with the shock to her own dreams, can any appreciation of him be truly selfless?  And is she hanging on him out of love or desperation?

A smart and fun romance with smarts in a glorious rarified setting.  It's got rich kids in Manhattan, classical music, fancy parties and glitz, and a final climax at the Lincoln Center.  On top of this is an intelligent take on how race and class (and a large generation gap) play out in elite artistic circles.

Beyond the story, Ruby and Oscar are fun and complicated.  Oscar does tortured artist well, but it is Ruby’s family and their beautiful psychopathy that steals the show.  In short space, Thorne packs a strong emotional punch with each member of the Chertok family (regretful father, cold and steely mother, siblings unable to reconcile).  The result is light and enjoyable entertainment, with some depth and substance behind it to give you the feeling that you aren't just reading a romance. A beach read, to be sure, but a superior one at that.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland, by Rebekah Crane

When Zander shows up at Camp Padua, a summer retreat for at-risk teens, she insists that there is nothing wrong with her.  That makes her stand out.  Everyone knows that Cassie is anorexic, Bek is a liar, and Grover is just odd.  But the most that can be said about Zander at first is she doesn't like apples.

Faced with a summer of group therapy and outdoor games that is about to change.  Grover's, convinced that he is destined to become schizophrenic, and similarly persistent that Zander and he are a couple.  Amidst Cassie's snarky observations about just about everyone are a few pointed ones at Zander that show that she sees far more than anyone else at Camp.  And Zander will open up and address the feelings and behavior that wound her up here.

A familiar story of institutionalized teens healing gets a lift in this case from some fresh characters.  Cassie and Grover are the most colorful and provide excellent soundingboards for Zander.  Character growth is a given in this genre but follows a less predictable arc that gives us some suspense and a better pay off in the end.  The language is smart and mixes believably vulnerable adolescence with intelligence.  A pleasant enough read but not terribly noteworthy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Oh, Rats! by Tor Seidler

Phoenix is one impressive squirrel.  The largest in his litter, his luxurious fur and big fluffy tail make him a great catch.  But unfortunately, that vanity costs him when he is caught by a hawk instead and swept away from his New Jersey home.  Making it through a series of near-death experiences, Phoenix finds himself in New York City, but without his fur and his tail now bare.  He looks almost like a rat!

While the local rats don't really trust him, he proves to be their good friend, helping to protect the abandoned wharf they call home from a greedy real estate developer.  It will take serious climbing, inventiveness, help from a bird of prey, and a few sticks of dynamite, but Phoenix is determined to save the day.  In the end, he finds that home is where you make it, even if you are a hairless squirrel from Jersey!

On a whim, I picked this up from the new middle school bookshelf.  It looked cute and even a bit funny.   It proved to be strange and more than a little bit dark. It is cute, but not very funny.  I also fail to see how it really qualifies as a book for middle schoolers, although I'm at a loss to say what the audience should be.  It's not a bad adventure, but between the violence, some mature themes (alcoholism, family abandonment, etc.) it doesn't really seem age appropriate. But at the same time, the talking animal genre tends to skew young.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

We Are the Perfect Girl, by Ariel Kaplan

In this retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, Aphra is the brave and fearless fighter.  Skilled with words and outspoken, she's a loyal friend to her little brother and to her best friend Bethany.  While Bethany definitely has the looks, she becomes tongue tied in the presence of handsome Greg.  And as much as Aphra keeps trying to encourage her, Bethany seems condemned to sit on the sidelines.  Aphra won't stand for that though and she helps Bethany find the words to capture Greg's attention.

Meanwhile, Aphra is developing a phone app that uses artificial intelligence to chat with people.  The app is supposed to be anonymous and confidential, but when the program starts failing, Aphra fakes results by intervening and writing the app's responses herself.  That's when she discovers that Greg has been confessing to the app.  Unable to help herself, Aphra responds, trying to gently nudge him towards her best friend.  It doesn't take long for Greg to figure out that the responses are not coming from a computer.  And when he calls her out, she is forced to confess, but due to unfortunate circumstances, he mistakenly assumes that the app's author is Bethany.  Now smitten, he falls madly in love with her.  This leaves Aphra in the unenviable position of coming clean with Greg about her true identity and confessing to her best friend that she's been secretly chatting with her love.  The fact that Aphra actually likes Greg as well only complicates matters.

Clever is the way that Kaplan has managed to modernize and adapt Rostand's classic play, the book also shines for its clever writing. The book is hilarious, with a whole slew of amusing and original anecdotes and scenes (ranging from an awkwardly misplaced swimsuit donut to a grand confession in front of an entire school assembly).  At times, these are so clever that they overwhelm the story itself, threatening to make the novel just one funny scene after another, but it mostly works.  Meanwhile, I loved the characters.  The dynamics with Aphra's family are particularly refreshing (I'm always a fan of parents who actually do more than forbid the heroine to do something and then ground them afterwards).  And Aphra's journey from self-obsession towards self-acceptance is real and meaningful.  A delightful read.

Sadly, the unusual and notable inclusion of rarely-seen-within-YA Russian to the story falls flat due to the multiple errors in its usage in the book.  But A for effort, nyet?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Undoing of Thistle Tate, by Katelyn Detweiler

At seventeen, Thistle is the author of two bestsellers.  The third installment of her Lemonade Skies trilogy is almost finished.  But as successful as she is, she carries a terrible secret: she’s not the author.  Rather, it is her father who produces the books with Thistle listed on the jacket.  After years of unsuccessfully attempting to get published, he resorted to this subterfuge as a hook to get the manuscript noticed.  At the time, they were in desperate financial straits and risked losing their home.  Thistle, just fourteen at the time, agreed to go along with this ruse because she knew it would make her Dad happy.

The home and her father is pretty much all that Thistle has left of her mother.  Dad, though, is close-lipped and reluctant to tell her much about Mom, who died when she was only three.  But the Lemonade Skies series, which features a young heroine searching through the afterlife for her lost mother, is a rather heavy handed analogue to their real life.

Dad always promised that the third book would be the last and that Thistle would no longer need to carry on the charade.  She would go to college, get her own life, and move on.  But Dad’s been wavering about the future of the series and Thistle is worried that she’ll be trapped forever.  But then those fears are swept aside, and Thistle and her Dad find their hands forced by a tragic chain of events.

While a little slow at first, the story picked up steam and gained a poignancy as the initial deceit and cover up is replaced by Thistle’s search for her mother.  The ending, while perhaps a bit overly rosy, is deeply satisfying.  Tear jerking occurs and key life lessons are expounded.  In sum, the story is good.  Thistle wallows a bit much in self-pity and makes the usual bad choices of lying and deception that seem to plague young women in YA novels, but she’s strong willed and brave and comes through in the end.  The love interests suffer more and the relationships are a bit of a yawn.  Read this for the story, not for the characters.