Monday, April 27, 2020

The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World, by Amy Reed

Billy lives with his grandmother.  His Mom was a junkie and his uncle's a famous rock star recovering from being pretty much the same.  Given grandma's penchant for smacking Billy around, it isn't too hard to see how she messed up her children.  Billy is your typical shy loser who gets alternately beaten up by the bullies at school and his grandmother.

Rome and Carthage are dead-end, washed-out western Washington town, whose glory days lay in lumber.  Aside from the uncle, the only notable thing about them now are being the setting for a popular series of YA fantasy books.  Dying industry has left behind a bunch of drug-addled losers who worship president King (a mildly incoherent and majorly narcissistic leader with a habit of threatening to bomb people).

Lydia dreams of dancing professionally.  Before her mother died, she loved her dance lessons, but afterwards there was no money for lessons.  All of that starts to change when Billy's uncle disappears from the public eye and reappears in Billy's attic.  And that isn't the only weird thing that happens.  There's a freak tornado that leaves behind a giant pit in the earth, growing evidence that Sasquatch is loose in the woods, and plenty of signs that Billy's house intends to eat him.  And, of course, the end of the world is coming very soon.

Wry and biting story that, despite its rather loony plot, has a great deal of fun along the way.  The style is very much in the Libba Bray tradition and anyone who enjoy the absurd humor of Going Bovine will love this novel. I don't know if I needed the end of the world to shake things up at the end, but it did conveniently ties up a lot of disparate ideas.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Stay, by Bobbie Pyron

Piper and her family arrive in town with little to their name.  Her father is searching for a job, their car has died, and her family is stuck in a shelter.  When Piper reflects on the previous months and how they've lost nearly everything in that time, it's hard to find anything worth hoping for.

Two things change her view.  The first is the local Firefly troop at the shelter.  In the old days, she was an active Firefly and even held a sales record for Firefly brownies.  The idea that she can have that piece of normalcy again provides comfort.  The second thing is a cause:  a homeless woman named Angel and her little dog Baby.  When Angel gets sick and taken to a hospital and Angel ends up in the pound, Piper and her Firefly friends try to figure out a way to help.  In a series of brave acts, the girls find that they can make a difference.  For no matter how much these girls have lost, there are people with greater needs.

If you like getting sucker punched with a story of a cute dog, a brave and kind young girl, and some kind adults, you can't really go wrong. Piper's generosity makes a nice role model and her intelligence and people skills are inspirational. It's all heartwarming and tear jerking (as one would expect), albeit far too traumatic for sensitive readers (my wife won't touch the book).  Still, this is a really sweet story with a message, covering issues of homelessness, mental health, and discrimination in an age appropriate way.  The story will give young readers something to ask good questions about.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker

Ware doesn't like playing with other kids.  They make far too much noise.  He'd be happiest spending the summer at home alone, but his parents have other ideas.  They want him to make "meaningful social interactions" with kids his own edge at the Rec (a local summer program), a place which Ware can't stand. 

But he's found a way to make things work.  There's an abandoned half-demolished church next door where Ware can escape to and explore.  Imagining himself as a knight, he transforms the ruined building into his castle, complete with a throne and a moat.  But he's not alone.  There's a girl named Jolene there who is trying to plant a garden of papayas, with dreams of making money by doing so.  In her mind, Ware is full of silly ideas and he should start living in the real world as she does.  In time, Ware learns enough about Jolene to understand from where her cynicism comes.

The resulting tale is a gentle story of two outcast middle schoolers spending a summer together at their own speed.  There's a world of discovery and adventure here, all placed in a single abandoned lot.  For Ware, the summer is about learning to embrace his quiet introverted nature.  For Jolene, it is about finding that even the real world can have some happiness within it.

As rooted as this story is in reality, it has all of the whimsical magic of Pennypacker's animal adventure Pax.  Like that novel, Ware and Jolene innocently explore a world full of greater evils than they can really imagine, safe by fate and good fortune.  Sweet and magical.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Sick Kids in Love, by Hannah Moskowitz

During one of her infusions, Isabel meets Sasha, who's getting his own treatment.  Isabel has rheumatoid arthritis, Sasha Gaucher Disease (a rare genetic disorder).  They'd hit it off right away, but Isabel decided long ago that she wasn't going to date.  Dating is complicated.  Trying to explain herself, her disease, and maintain a relationship is simply too hard.  But with Sasha, it should be easier:  He also has a chronic disease.  He totally gets the paradox that they are both more than their disease, but also defined by it.

Isabel finds that she can relax in his presence.  She even finds herself opening up more to others as a result of the relationship she is forming with Sasha.  He's good for her.

But Sasha also opens Isabel to the realization that her control issues, her fear of making decisions, and her aversion to conflict are not actually related to having a chronic disease, but are in fact unrelated.  She has conveniently looked past and ignored them because she could blame everything on the arthritis.  When Sasha asks her to commit to their relationship, she finds to her own horror that she doesn't know how.  And that is just the start of a series of emotional challenges!

One of the greatest parts of this book is the subtitle ("they don't die in the end") because it completely throws off the trope of these books.  A death would have been convenient.  Once Sasha died, we'd have a teary funeral and Isabel would pick herself up and move on, always keeping the memory of her fleeting romance with Sasha in her heart!  We all would have cried.  Instead, Moskowitz presents us with a much harder ending:  everyone lives and they are both still sick.  That's what a chronic disease is about.  It doesn't ever go away.  Somehow life goes on and when you have a chronic disease and you're young, you have many years before you.  You know that what awaits you are good days and bad days.  Sometimes you will be well, sometimes you'll be in the hospital.  It's not particularly dramatic but it's a hell of a lot more scary.  Watching Isabel come to accept that she wants Sasha in her life and embrace all that that entails makes for some pretty heady romantic stuff!

I loved the growth of Isabel's character, her strength in confronting her demons, and the hugeness of her heart.  This is a really lovely story about two young people in a very difficult place, doing what needs to be done to grasp on to their piece of happiness.  It's an affirming and inspirational story.  Highly recommended. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

In Victorian England, young women do not pursue careers in the sciences.  Faith's interest in her father's studies in natural science is thus discouraged.  But for every time her mother tried to keep her close to the hearth, Faith doggedly tagged along with her father.  It was she as a little girl, after all, who found her father's most famous fossil discovery.

Now a young woman, Faith is concerned as her father (and the family by extension) falls into disgrace because of evidence that her father's work is fabricated.  A fortuitous summons to the small island of Vane to participate in a dig is just the tonic for escaping scandal.  But the scandal and worse follows the family and Faith becomes aware that father is hiding a much larger secret: a rare plant that survives in pitch darkness, lives on lies, and produces a fruit that can allegedly provide True Knowledge.  Confronting her father, she is taken into his confidence and helps to secure the tree in a safe place.  The next morning, her father is dead, allegedly from suicide.  With time running out, Faith must unravel the mystery of her father's death, the identity of the killer, and the mystery of the tree itself.

A dark Victorian mystery with some wonderful creep factor and macabre images.  Lots of twists and surprises and a stellar well-written cast of characters.  I'm not a big mystery fan, but this was enjoyable on several levels.  A story with depth, competing motives for doing both great good and dark evil.  And, of course, the tree itself which is everything one wants from a diabolical plant. Without introducing any jarring anachronisms, Hardinge does a great job of introducing an empowering and empowered heroine who exposes and challenges gender inequality while being equally and fatally blind to it in the story's most clever twist.  It adds just another dimension to this satisfying story of dark deeds and tragedy.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Out of Place, by Jennifer Blecher

Cove is crushed when she learns that her best friend Nina is moving away to New York City.  Cove has lived her whole life on Martha's Vineyard and never left the island.  Her mother, for reasons never fully explained, refuses to leave.  As a result, it is unlikely that Cove will ever be able to visit Nina.

Without Nina, there will be no one to defend her at school and no one to be her friend.  And while Cove has to endure some fairly intense bullying at school, she finds there are plenty of new friends to make and things to learn. One of those friends helps Cove learn of an audacious way that she might earn a free trip to New York City.  She knows that she has to take the leap, even if it means risking everything she believes in.

A surprisingly sophisticated middle reader that covers bullying, PTSD, and socioeconomics, as well as a familiar story of friends being separated.  My favorite part was a subplot about a retired seamstress teaching Cove how to use a sewing machine (I'm a sucker for the forgotten-master-teaching-the-young-acolyte tale).  Vivid characters and lively writing make this complex story surprisingly enjoyable.  Blecher knows how to make her points economically and the result is an enjoyable book that delivers a big punch in minimal pages.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Where the Heart Is, by Jo Knowles

Thirteen year-old Rachel is tired of being teased about her alleged romance with Micah.  Yes, when they were six, they pledged their undying love, but people grow up, right?  For Rachel, it certainly seems that way!  But Micah obviously still likes Rachel and grows jealous when she starts to explore relationships with other boys (and even dabbles with a flirtation with a girl).

Rachel meanwhile is learning to take care of her neighbor's animals and coming to terms with the fact that those animals are slated for the dinner table.  And along with everything else, Rachel's family is struggling financially and on the verge of losing their home.

While a pleasant read, this book suffers from a pacing problem.  The build up to the supposedly central issue of the book (coping with the loss of the family home) is introduced very late in the book.  And, once introduced, Knowles does not have much to say about it and rushes it along.  The real story is probably Rachel and Micah, but this gets buried in the rest at the end.  The end result is a bunch of loose ends.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Start Here, by Trish Doller

Willa, Taylor, and Finley were supposed to take a grand boat trip together from Ohio to Key West after high school graduation, but then Finley succumbed to her leukemia and didn't make it.  But they still have the boat and a list of clues Finley created for them to solve on the route. 

Neither one of them is truly enthusiastic about taking the trip.  Finley was the glue that bonded the three of them together.  In her absence, Willa and Taylor aren't really close enough to survive close quarters and 2000 nautical miles.  But their loyalty to their late friend and a shared desire to honor her drive them on.  And during their coastal road trip they survive threats both emotional and physical, find love, discover themselves, and come to terms with life after Finley.

No literary masterpiece, but a nice solid road trip story with an unusual setting.  Knowing just about nothing about sailboats, there was just enough detail here to entertain me.  Great characters and some fun lighthearted romances gave me something to enjoy.  Finally, just enough adventure to explain the transformations and growth that I basically was craving for.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Lalani of the Distant Sea, by Erin Estrada Kelly

Inspired by Philippine mythology, this fable tells the story of a little girl named Lalani who must save her dying people by crossing from her island to the next door one where Mount Isa lies.  There, a golden flower will bring everything you wish.  Countless great warriors in the best ships have tried to make the trip before and none have succeeded.  How possibly could twelve year-old Lalani in a tiny boat make it?

A complex story involving a series of mysteries that gradually come together.  The narrative itself is a bit of magic, combining not just Lalani's story, but also the tales of dozens of other characters.  Kelly continues through to the end to introduce more and more characters, often in a second-person voice that feels quite immediate, like a campfire story.  The quantity of names and beasts gets overwhelming, but the story's richness is the payoff. 

While individual moments can get quite dark (there's a lot of death), general themes about self-discovery and standing up for what is right give this some heft.  I enjoyed the richness and the internal consistency of the story.  I'm not sure that I've truly appreciated it from only one reading.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Good Luck Girls, by Charlotte Nicole Davis

Sold to a bordello when she was little, Clementine has turned sixteen and is about to have her "Lucky Night" (when she is sold to the highest bidder for her first working evening).  When the John ends up dead, Clem has to make a run for it.  With the help of four friends, they make a daring escape that sets up a desperate race for freedom.  But the world they live in -- called the Scab -- isn't just populated with corrupt lawmen and people willing to give you away for the right amount of Shine.  Raveners, who were once men, but have now become something truly evil, that can enter your mind and destroy you from within.  And there vengeful spirits come out at night and tear you apart.   Against all these forces, what chance do five young women have to survive?  Yet the drive to survive and be free is strong and the resulting adventure is a wild one in this fantasy/Western hybrid.

As the story starts out, I was reminded of the "Heart of Gold" episode of Firefly because of its combination of Western and fantasy/sci-fi tropes.  Aside from the fact that they both begin at a brothel, the stories aren't similar, but the feeling of this novel owes a debt to Joss Whedon -- not just Firefly but also a good dose of Buffy.  Davis has woven a complex and immersive landscape for this book.  The Wild West stuff mixed up with this crazy paranormal stuff could have been a colossal train wreck, but she's made it effortlessly fit together.

The plotting of this story is relentless.  We never really get a break as we careen from one moment of peril to the next.  That pace is hard to maintain and at some point it starts to feel contrived.  Just how many near-death situations can these girls escape?  The ending fizzles out as Davis can't one-up herself enough to create a true climax.  All of which leads us to the other issue:  character building.  I'm not going to say that she didn't put a lot of effort into these characters, but they are fuzzy and amidst all of the action I sometimes had trouble keeping straight who was doing what.  Five (six if you count the boy) characters are a lot to sort through and build up to be sufficiently distinct (I never did quite figure out Tansy and Mallow in particular).  Major kudos for creativity and an excellent setting, high marks for a story I got fully engrossed in, but maybe do less and make more of it by building up those characters and throttling back on the mayhem?