Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tell Me Everything, by Sarah Enni

VEIL is a new social media app that allows artists to upload their work and comment on other people's art.  It's completely anonymous, local, and temporal.  Nothing is attributed, users see only posts from people within a five-mile radius, and after a week the postings disappear forever.

Ivy is obsessed with the app.  She follows it closely and has developed strong feelings about the submissions.  She's even tried to ferret out who the posters really are and suspects that many of them go to her school.  However, in spite of being an artist herself, she's never posted anything to the app.  She's never felt that her own work was good enough.

Instead, she's been trying to pay back the artists whose work she's enjoyed by doing kind things for them.  That requires figuring out their identities, but she finds that is the easy part.  Once she has ascertained who they are, she determines what would make them happy.  This starts off innocently with small anonymous gifts, but gets messed up with a separate scandal involving hate speech on VEIL and soon Ivy is in over her head.

If you live in the Bay Area (as these characters do), the idea of VEIL probably sounded great, but one has to wonder how interesting an app that only showed posts within a five mile radius would be if you live in the Midwest?  Or West Texas?

Beyond the silly premise is a story with fantastic clever ideas ranging from quirky bookstores to igloos to Ivy's wildly funny parents.  The problem is that the ideas don't really gel into a story. Layer upon layer upon layer gets added.  The result is rich but confusing.  My hope as I read the book that everything would get tied up (or at least the importance of the disparate items would become clear) is crushed in the end when the story concludes and it becomes apparent that much of the detail don't contribute to the story.  Telling everything in this case may not actually be beneficial.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard

Robinson (named after Jackie Robinson) is a tough girl.  When bully Alex Carter teases her, she decks him.  When Alex hurts her best friend Derek, she avenges the offense.  But as much of a fighter as Robbie is, she can't figure out how to fix her grandfather, who is slowly losing his faculties, and that feeling of powerlessness makes her very angry and scared.

Because of the incidents at school, Robbie gets assigned to group counseling, along with Alex and a number of other children in her class.  The experience is an eye-opener.  Being exposed to other people's problems helps her deal with her own anger and encourages her to open up about her fears and frustrations.

In sum, a sweet middle reader that explores extended families and the pain of watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's.  Robbie is certainly a strong enough heroine, but I found her anger and stubbornness a bit hard to take.  The behavior is age appropriate but doesn't make for a sympathetic character.  Being the only real character in the book, it is hard to get very deep into this story.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Fugly, by Claire Waller

At 18, Beth is an overweight outcast in a dysfunctional family.  In her own words, she's "fugly." Out in public she tries to be invisible.  She maintains an unhealthy relationship with bing eating and purging.

She's also a talented troll, able to dish out abuse and ruthlessly attacking and destroying people online whom she feels deserve her wrath because they are "too beautiful." Even she acknowledges that it may not be something to be proud of, but it gives her some comfort.  Then she meets another girl online named Tori, who turns out to be a kindred spirit in the trolling game.  However, Tori's much more brutal on line than Beth has ever considered being.  And while Tori's escapades seem initially thrilling, Beth has second thoughts when Tori starts attacking people closer to home.

The overall problem of this novel is the protagonist herself.  There's next to nothing to admire in the character.  She's self-pitying, self-centered, and mean.  I flat out hated her.  I felt no sympathy for her plight as it was largely self-inflicted and I didn't mind when it comes back to bite her on the ass.  A secondary problem is the utterly predictable outcome of the story.  There is no element of surprise beyond the idea that Beth could be unaware of what was going to happen to her. 

The originality of the story's idea saves this book from the trash bin, but I'd honestly give Beth and her story the treatment that all trolls deserve:  being ignored.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Wrong Side of Right, by Jenn Marie Thorne

When Kate's mother died, Kate still had no idea of who her father was.  So when a New York Times reporter discloses that the leading Republican candidate for the presidency is actually her father, she is as surprised as the man is. Drawn by curiosity about her father, she gets swept into the whirlwind of his presidential campaign.

People warn her that she is being used, but she finds it hard to turn away from the father she yet to know.  A political neophyte,  she finds she has many friends and enemies and it is often hard to tell who is who.  So, when the incumbent president's son turns out to be an ally and then something more, she doesn't know whether to trust him with her confidence or to be wary of his motives.  Or maybe both?

A fast paced, delicious page turner.  Perfect for socially-distanced beach reading in the middle of a campaign year. The political details provide spice and plenty of opportunity for adventure, but it is the fancy clothes, the safe G-rated romance, and a lot of poorly supervised fun that makes this a great light read.

How far we've gone!  While probably meant to be cynical in 2016 when it was written. it's rather innocent ideas of political spin now sound shocking naive.  But never let a little suspension of reality get in the way of a fun read!  This is how we wish politics was:  where you can sneak off on a date with the cute boy (who happens to be the son of the president) and live to tell the tale!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

All the Impossible Things, by Lindsay Lackey

Red has been passed around to quite a few foster homes, but she's counting down the days until her mother is released from jail and they can be reunited.  She knows it will be hard.  Her mother struggles with addiction and Red isn't always the best of kids, but Red believes that everything that seems impossible is simply a different degree of difficulty.  She's collecting a notebook of so-called "impossible" things to prove the point.

When she ends up with the Grooves family and their collection of exotic pets, Red feels that she's finally found a place she can call home temporarily. Dearest to her is their giant tortoise Tuck, with whom she bonds.  But when the tortoise goes missing, her foster mother gets sick, and Red discovers that her biological mother was actually released months ago and has been hiding out, Red becomes overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible nature of her situation.

While mostly a down-to-earth (and touching) story of a girl who wants to piece her family back together, Lackey has thrown in a hint of magic: Red has the seeming ability to summon up storms.  This is used mostly as metaphor up until almost the very end.  It's cute and restrained and adds a wonderful undercurrent that does not distract from the overall message of finding family where one may.  That is representative of this largely understated and modest story.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

If Only, by Jennifer Gilmore

In 2000, sixteen year-old Bridget finds herself pregnant.  Unwilling to terminate the pregnancy and unable to keep the baby, she navigates the world of adoption, meeting prospective parents and trying to decide the best future for the child.  Sixteen years later, Ivy realizes that she is now the same age as her mother was when she was born.  While the adoption was open, Bridget has disappeared and now Ivy is determined to track her birth mother down.

Switching back and forth between Bridget and Ivy, the novel attempts to tell the story of the adoption and make several grander observations about the emotional impact of the process.  To assist that goal, there are several seemingly unrelated chapters inserted periodically into the narrative.  Each of these outline alternate realities (how things might have turned out if different decisions had been made). Some of these decisions involve Bridget (what Ivy's life with different adoptive parents might have been like) while others go back much further into the 1950s and 1970s to discuss alternative timelines involving grandparents and others.  The device doesn't particularly work as the ties are often not all that clear and are weakly written.

As a whole, I'm not a big fan of the regretful-birth-mother story line.  The assumption that something is lost when a child is adopted seems unkind and unfair to the many happy adoptive families. Furthermore, not every adopted child seeks their birth parents nor even has an interest in them.  Gilmore skirts that issue by making Ivy's adoption an open one, but her sympathies are clearly laid bare when she brings up a closed one in one of her alternate realities.  And while Gilmore acknowledges that reunions are not always happy, it's obvious where her bias lies.  But mostly, in the end, I didn't find the story all that well crafted.  It rambles and meanders, causing my interest to lag.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

On reading the classics (thoughts on Little House in the Big Woods)

For all the reading I do in contemporary children's literature, I have plenty of big gaps in my knowledge of classic children's literature.  Lately, I've been participating in a small book discussion group which (for reasons of convenience and economy) has been focusing on classics (Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan, and now the Little House series). One doesn't really review a classic, but I thought I would take a small diversion from my usual blogging activity and talk about my amateur observations about what makes a book like Little House in the Big Woods so different from my usual diet.

Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical stories about life on the frontier in the mid-19th century.  This book covers a full year of life in the Ingalls' homestead near Pepin, Wisconsin.

For the reader, whether young or old, the most striking thing in this story is how very hard everyone worked in those days for the barest form of survival.  Yet as exhausting as the endless tasks seem, the story always manages to fit in some warmth and fun, be it a special treat from Ma or Pa pulling out his fiddle and singing the girls to sleep.  For as hard as the family worked, there is never a doubt of how much Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, and little Carrie love each other.  Danger comes mostly in the form of wild animals, but the family approaches the dangers quite pragmatically.  When Laura grows fearful of wolves, Pa shows her one so she can size the creature up for herself.  While the children misbehave and test limits, the no-nonsense discipline style of Ma and Pa leave no doubt that expectations are set and enforced.  Laura's childhood in the Big Woods is obviously a happy one.

There are probably many reasons for the book to appeal to young readers, but the key draw is the fine detail and Wilder's inexhaustible supply of historical facts.  Children delight in all the things that Laura's family did, the foods they ate, and the way that they lived.  Far more vivid than a history book, curious minds find plenty to mine in the book.

There are a number of striking contrasts with a modern book (the obvious contrast would be Linda Sue Park's Prairie Lotus, but I think we can speak more broadly about most contemporary children's books) that I would call out:

The unquestioned authority of the parent.  As adults today we live in a world where we are attuned to the complexity of ethics and morals.  We have seen power abused and question authority as a matter of course and live our lives as cynics.  And, for better or worse, we transmit that same doubt and skepticism to our children in the books we write for them.  Yet not once does Laura ever question the decisions of her parents.  The idea of such a rebellion is seemingly outside of her comprehension.  Nor, for that matter, do Ma and Pa ever really give her grounds for doing so as they are near-perfect in their judgments and actions.

Childhood on the periphery.  In your typical contemporary book, the focus is entirely on the child.  The parents (and adults in general) are either absent, ignored, or deceased.  Parents make at best brief appearances and the involvement is inconsequential to the story at best.  Frequently, they are a force to be defeated or outsmarted.  Little House though is really a story about Laura's parents.  For the first three chapters, Laura and Mary play virtually no role at all, except to be a task to which their parents  attend.

Focus on concrete tasks over emotions.  For readers who like to get inside of their protagonist's heads and feel their emotions, Little House in the Big Woods is a frustrating experience.  It's all about doing things and the other feelings or emotions we encounter are exhaustion and fatigue.  In the second half of the book, we learn how dreadfully dull Sundays are for Laura and we are introduced to her feelings of inadequacy in comparison with Mary over the color of their hair.  However, these matters are not key parts of the story but rather opportunities to learn lessons on (and over) Pa's lap.  The book is in fact one lesson after another, all rolling up to the big message:  life in the big woods was about working hard, being honest, and caring for each other.  It was not particularly concerned with your feelings and emotions.

Nothing I've said here is particularly original or earth shattering, but more thoughts spinning in my head as I leave Laura and return to my pregnant teens, runaways, and dystopian warriors in the modern world.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Birdie and Me, by J. M. M. Nuanez

Life wasn't particularly happy after the death of their mother, but Jack and her little brother Birdie found their Uncle Carl to be a sympathetic soul and living with him was pretty easy.  They ate a lot of Honey Bunny Buns and Uncle Carl didn't really care that Birdie liked to wear dresses and sparkly make-up to school.  But too many run-ins with the authorities caused their Uncle Patrick to step in.

Patrick isn't as much fun as Uncle Carl and insists on buying Birdie boy clothes.  He pressures both Jack and Birdie to make more of an effort to fit in.  And, as far as the kids can tell, he doesn't even like them!

Miserable, the children try running away.  When that doesn't work, they hatch a plan to get Uncle Carl to pull his life together (and become more reliable) so they can go back to live with him.  And when all of that fails, they try to win over Uncle Patrick.  Yet, in the end, Uncle Patrick turns out to be a better friend than they realized.

Quirky and full of potential, but the novel never quite grabbed me.  It was just too depressing!  Certainly, no one could accuse Nuanez of making life rose-tinted.  Each and every character here is flawed. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the adults in their life have pretty much all let them down.  Everyone has issues, the children chief among them.  That gets hard to take, sucking anything fun out of the funny parts and mostly making the reader angst over the fate of the kids.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

What Kind of Girl, by Alyssa Sheinmel

Maya has been putting up with her boyfriend's violence for the past three months, but when he blackens her eye, something snaps. She's no longer willing to cover up the assaults and she reports him to the school principal.  Predictably, this triggers side-choosing by the other students as some believe her and some believe him.  The story grows more complex and nuanced as Maya reveals faults and failings of her own that make her narrative less clear.

Maya's friend Junie, suffering from anxiety issues and a breakup with her girlfriend, falters between supporting her friend and being unable to do so.  She wonders how Maya could ever have allowed it to go so far.  What kind of girl would do that?  If Maya was truly being abused, why didn't she speak out?  And the more she learns, the harder it becomes to understand her friend's choices. Maya has no answers of her own -- she also wonders what kind of girl puts up with the violence.  But as the narrative reaches a critical juncture in Maya's story, Julie reaches her own crisis and her own bad choices prove overwhelming.

This is hardly the best novel about dating violence (I still hold up Sara Dessen's Dreamland for that honor), but it is probably the most complicated.  There's certainly room for trimming.  The bulimia and cutting that parallel the dating violence are clutter in my mind, but Sheinmel does manage to tie them in.  The romantic relationship of Junie and Tess is largely throwaway and never really added much to the story.  But the novel has many things going for it.

Sheinmel avoids absolutes (beyond the totally unacceptable nature of domestic violence) by creating flaws and nuances in all of her characters.  We want Maya to be a perfect person, so it hurts to acknowledge the mistakes she has made.  Ultimately, there is more pay off from this approach when the story reminds us that none of the flaws really matter in the end -- nothing Maya could have done would ever make her deserve to be treated as she was.  But in causing the readers themselves to waver it does challenged us with how easy it is to victim blame.

One little literary trick Sheinmel uses is particularly effective.  At the beginning of the novel, she doesn't initially name the narrators.  Instead, she gives them generic names ("the activist," "the popular girl", etc.) and we naturally assume a fairly broad cast of characters.  But gradually, we figure out that several of these narrators are actually the same person (just different parts of their psyche).  This serves a useful purpose: illustrating that people are not so internally consistent or singyularly focused.  They have complex (and competing) needs and motives.

On the subject of narrators, I was a bit sad to never hear from the boyfriend.  I recognize that Sheinmel didn't really want to give him a voice (she says at several points that it really doesn't matter why he hit her), but I think that's a strategic mistake.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

The House With Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson

Marinka would like to have a friend, a living friend for more than an evening.  But when you live with Baba Yaga and your line of business is guiding the dead to the Afterlife, you don't get too many living visitors.  Every night, Marinka helps her grandmother welcome the dead to their house (which does indeed have chicken legs!), get to know them, and then send them on their way.  But one night, Marinka decides to break the rules and waylays a dead girl, tricking the girl to stay on and become her playmate.  This act of disobedience triggers a cascade of events that quickly escalates out of Marinka's control and she must find a way to fix things.

An touching story with one of the most unusual likable characters (the house) you've ever read about.  Loosely based on Russian folk belief, the story is actually a true original and touches on the universal theme of trying to find one's way in the world, especially when the path expected of you is such an obviously poor fit.  The macabre setting (which in itself will appeal to Lemony Snicket fans) is ultimately incidental to a story that is about Marinka's search for warm friendship and a sense of meaning.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Ordinary Girls, by Blair Thornburgh

Young ladies may obsess now over to which college they will be accepted, instead of to whom they will marry, but in this modern send-up of Pride and Prejudice, the argument is made that little else has changed. Despite her best intentions, fifteen year-old outcast Plum has fallen for LSB (Loud Sophomore Boy) Tate.  Their old Victorian home is a death trap of peeling lead paint, thick walls that ensure that no one's cell phones have any reception, and bad plumbing.  When said plumbing fails altogether, Plum finds herself at Tate's house, borrowing use of his shower.

Her older sister Ginny anxiously awaits early acceptance at Penn  (but then, Ginny has a condition and is anxious about everything!).  Mother, who made her fortune illustrating a children's classic series about five country mice, is about to lose her source of income as her publisher decides to have all the illustrations redrawn by a new artist.  If Ginny cannot land a lucrative financial aid deal, what will happen to the family?

A clever mash up of Austen/Bronte tropes, modernized in a witty fashion, and guaranteed to appeal to the same gang that loved what Clueless did to Emma.  This is a more nuanced affair, maintaining more of the flavor and wit of the models, but does not necessarily break much new ground in the effort.  There is a point to be made here about the timelessness of Austen's books, but this is a rather peculiarly pedantic exercise in doing so.  Once made, the story itself is largely inconsequential and has much less to say about the world.