Thursday, July 30, 2020

Be Not Far From Me, by Mindy McGinnis

When Ashley gets separated from her friends and then lost, she has to survive in the wilds of Tennessee for days.  With no proper equipment (and not even a pair of shoes), she stumbles about rushing from one catastrophe to the next.  With some cunning, a great deal of skill, and some luck, she stays alive.  The solitude gives her the opportunity to reflect on her life and the choices she has made that have ended her up in this mess.

I found the circumstances of her predicament utterly implausible.  Childish jealousy drives her into the deep woods without any shoes and she manages -- without footwear and utterly intoxicated -- to wander so far away that in spite of being a trained woodsman she can't find her way back.  She subsequently manages to stumble from Tennessee to Georgia on foot for fifteen days without running across any sign of human (no roads, trails, cabins, powerlines, etc.). 

If you accept those strained premises for an adventure, you get an unusually gritty and intense adventure.  If things like that are to your taste then read away.  I personally don't know if scenes of self-amputation are my cup of tea, but don't let me stop you if you need that in your life.  I admired Ashley's tough and complex personality, but she's not the type of character who is going to let you get too close.  Authentic but the result was no one I really wanted to get to know.  Well-written, but not a story I was ultimately drawn to.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The How & the Why, by Cynthia Hand

While Cass was adopted shortly after her birth, she's never felt that she somehow didn't have "real" parents.  Her Mom and Dad are in every way her real parents.  But as she turns eighteen, she's curious about her birth mother and she starts to make small steps towards tracking down that woman.  It's challenging because she was a closed adoption and whoever her birth mother is doesn't seem overly interested in finding her.  But the woman did leave behind a series of letters, written while the woman was pregnant recalling the circumstances of her conception and the process of deciding to put Cass up for adoption.  These unfold in alternating chapters against the contemporary story of Cass's search.

This fairly long novel also includes largely unrelated stories of Cass's attempt to get into the college of her dreams, her adoptive mother's search for a replacement heart as her own is failing, and some interpersonal issues with her best friend (also adopted) and a new boy at school.  These fit in, but largely don't add much to the story beyond feeding a very surprising (and slightly contrived) ending that pulls hearts strings but stretches credulity like a Bollywood romance.

There are plenty of novels out there about adoption and the vast majority of them split timelines to try to draw parallels between the lives of mother and daughter.  I think this one is more successful for not overdoing the parallels and for respectfully avoiding a forced reunion.  Also, never wavering from the conviction that adoptive parents are "real" parents seems truer to the experience and respectful to people who have been adopted.  Finally, while I found the subplots peripheral and largely extraneous, I enjoyed them as well.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Speed of Falling Objects, by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Danny lost one of her eyes in a childhood accident.  Shortly afterwards, she lost her father as he up and left her and her mother.  Convinced that she was at fault for her Dad's departure, she wrote him letters but never heard back.  But she watched every one of the episodes of his hit survivalist TV show as he fought nature and saved people's lives.  As strong as he seemed to be, he never seemed interested in what had become of her.  Then, right before her seventeenth birthday, he invites her out of the blue to participate in a new episode he is filming in the rain forests of Peru with hot young movie actor Gus Price.  Desperate to make a connection with her father, she begs her mother to let her go.

The trip ends up being more than anyone counts on when the plane they are flying into the jungle goes down in bad weather.  Lost in the rain forest, Danny, Gus, Danny's father, and a few additional survivors have to make their way back to civilization.  The jungle is full of dangers and the members of the party are gradually taken out one by one.  For Danny, it is possibly the last chance she will have to figure her father out, figure out how they became estranged, and discover who she really is -- a quest nearly as difficult as the physical challenge of survival.

Edge of the seat action moves this story briskly along, but it is the emotional journey that Danny goes through that ultimately makes this not only entertaining but fulfilling.  It's certainly not for the squeamish as there is stuff here to make just about anyone's stomach churn, but it is not overdone and the adventure feels real.  The obvious romantic angle between Danny and Gus hangs over this plot like a poisonous snake, but is mostly deflected.  Ultimately, the satisfaction of seeing Danny come to terms with the limitations of her parents and the recognition of her own weaknesses and strengths makes this novel enjoyable and worth reading.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

When the Stars Lead to You, by Ronni Davis

One unforgettable summer, Devon met Ashton on the beach.  As beautiful and wonderful as their summer romance was, it ended badly when Ashton disappeared without saying good bye, totally ghosting her.  A year and a summer later, Devon is starting her senior year and Ashton appears at convocation.  He's attending her school and subsequently back in her life.  Despite the reasoned pleas of her best friend, Devon can't help herself: she still loves him.  She doesn't entirely trust him, but this doesn't stop her from jumping back into an intense relationship again.  While she recognizes that she's getting in over her head (and that she can't afford to let it happen when she needs to be focused on her future), that doesn't stop her.

But some things have changed.  Ashton is fighting serious inner demons and Devon risks being swept away by his battle with depression.  And while family and friends on both sides try to intervene, in the end it comes down to Devon herself to make things right.

This is probably a book best avoided if you like your characters to behave rationally, because as much as one can understand the temptations that Devon is dealing with, her choice of a first love is pretty poor.  Never mind his clinical depression, this boy is manipulative and controlling.  He's really bad news.  As book smart and well-adjusted as Devon is, it's painful to watch her going down a rabbit hole for hormones and romantic fantasy.  But it's also painfully realistic and as much as we would all insist it would never happen, we all have either been there or know someone who has.  In sum, uncomfortable reading and, if that is your idea of a good romance, pretty intoxicating stuff!

Friday, July 17, 2020

Rules for Being a Girl, by Candace Bushnell and Katie Cotugno

Marin is a bright and intelligent senior nearly guaranteed a spot at Brown, her first pick, in the fall.  Editor of the school paper, she hopes to become a journalist.  And if she has a weak spot, it's her harmless crush on her English teacher (and newspaper advisor) Mr. Beckett. "Bex" indulges her, adores her, and promises to help her get into Brown, where he has connections and can pull a few strings.  But there's something a bit off, a bit too friendly about Bex and when he kisses her one afternoon, things start tumbling down.

At first, both of them try to ignore the incident, but as he starts retaliating against her in class, she decides in the end to make a public complaint.  The results are devastating as the school administration circles the wagons, the student body turns against her, and suddenly her future looks to be in jeopardy.  But refusing to step down, Marin fights for her dreams and her future, taking on the school and its entrenched prejudices.

Being a well-manufactured product of Allow Entertainment, this is slick storytelling and the story and its resolution is superbly satisfying.  Surprisingly, it is also a disjointed mess in a way that only writing-by-committee can achieve.  There's a second theme to the novel -- Marin's awakening as a feminist -- demonstrated through her founding of a feminist book club at school with the help of another sympathetic teacher.  This would seem like a good complement to the #metoo story, as a bunch of highschoolers discover Audre Lorde and achieve enlightenment, but instead it breaks down into long discussions about POCs and other tensions between liberal and radical feminism that the average reader is going to glaze over.  It never ends up having relevance to the story.  And as for the eponymous rules, while they are striking and make a great back cover, they aren't really more than a tease, fitting into neither thread.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Scars Like Wings, by Erin Stewart

A year ago, Ava was the sole survivor of a fire that took the lives of not only her parents, but also her cousin.  It left her covered with third-degree burns.  After several months in the hospital and multiple surgeries, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, eerily filling in the void left by the death of their daughter.  And now, with a year gone by, the doctors think it would be a good idea if she were to "re-integrate" to everyday life and return to school.

With a face that is heavily disfigured and a body covered with grafts, she is most people's worst nightmare and Ava finds it hard to imagine being back in high school.  But with some support from another burn victim (the vivacious and over-the-top Piper) and Piper's friend Asad, Ava discovers that there is a life worth living.  It's hardly a smooth journey though.  Bullies and misunderstandings aside, both Ava and Piper have to learn that their worst enemy is themselves.

A satisfying and well-written story of overcoming adversity.  What the story lacks in novelty or surprise it makes up for with strong and interesting characters and its two protagonists in particular.  The complicated dynamic between the two girls and their run-ins with their shared nemesis mean-girl Kenzie provides a good pay-off.  Asad, the helpless (and mildly hopeless) love interest and Ava's aunt and uncle are more disposable, but move the story forward.  Overall, some trimming down would have helped but the book never truly drags and remains entertaining throughout.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Arrival of Someday, by Jen Malone

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a transplant center and it was an eye-opening experience.  Few of us understand UNOS, MELD scores, or any of the other constituent parts of how organ transplant works in the United States.  Fewer still the agonies and joys of living (and waiting) for a donor to appear, when the vast majority of recipients will never get matched up.  In The Arrival of Someday, Jen Malone creates a story to explore all of this providing a decent primer to the process and a sophisticated story that respectfully portrays the emotional journey that a potential transplant recipient and their social circle go through.

Eighteen year-old Amelia has a rare liver condition, but she's learned how to make a good life by not letting it define her existence.  Active on local roller derby circuit in Cambridge, ready to start at UMass Amherst in the fall, and making a mark for herself as an artist, hardly anyone knows what she's dealing with because she ignores the disease (and the condition itself stays conveniently in remission). So, when she finds herself in the middle of a roller derby match coughing up blood on the floor, everyone is taken by surprise.

Her condition has turned for the worse and it has become imperative for her to receive a liver transplant.  There are plenty of tests at the hospital, good days and bad days, and struggles as she finds herself sometimes unable to do the things she used to do.  But Amelia has always been a fighter.  Just as she demolishes her opponents on the skate track, she goes after her disease with gusto.  The last thing she wants is for people to treat her as "the dying girl." But as her condition worsens, she has to come to terms with the way that her health doesn't just affect her.  It also involves her friends and her family, finding its way into all of her social interactions and eventually into her own mental health.  Is she really as fearless as she's always imagined?  Or is her bravery simply false bravado?

In sum, a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a young woman dealing with an extraordinary health challenge.  That, in itself, is nothing notable, but this work stands out for the time it spends on Amelia's family and friends.  Amelia's entire family is in this together and the way that this is portrayed is both realistic and makes the story more compelling.  One could draw fault with the messy ending and the sheer number of loose ends that Malone leaves us with, but I was impressed with the complexity of the human interactions portrayed and the messiness of the ending is perhaps the most realistic part of all.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

A Constellation of Roses, by Miranda Asebedo

Trix possesses a near-magical talent for stealing things without being detected.  It's a skill that has come in handy while she and her mother have scrambled to survive on the streets. Since her mother disappeared, it has been essential but not quite enough.  When she gets picked up by the police, she is faced with a decision:  go to jail or go live with her father's family.

She never knew her father and, as far as Trix has known before now, he had no living family.  But they exist and they are willing to take her in as long as she agrees to stay out of trouble and finish high school.

The McCabes turn out to be an eccentric matriarchy that run's their small town's pie bakery and tea room. And like Trix, each of them has their own special talent:  her great aunt can tell fortunes, her cousin reads people's darkest secrets on touch, and her aunt  bakes magical pies that heal emotional wounds.

Trix has lots of wounds to heal.  But can she open herself to trust this family she never knew?  Or will she fall back into bad habits and return to life on the streets?

It's a familiar story, but well-told this time.  The characters are vivid and break free of the usual stereotypes.  The writing is beautiful, especially as Asebedo waxes poetically on family and identity.  And while everyone seems entirely too forgiving and the hardships a little too easily overcome, it is still an enjoyable and uplifting read.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Here We Are Now, by Jasmine Warga

For her first sixteen years, Tal has had only her mother in her life. But a few years ago, Tal came across a shoebox of clipping and developed a suspicion that her father was a famous rock star.  But until Julian Oliver of SITA showed up on her front door, Tal didn't know for certain.  Sixteen years and suddenly he wants to know her!

The reason is simple enough (his father is dying and he thinks that Tal should meet her grandfather before it is too late) but it leaves her with lots of questions:  Why now? And how will his family treat her?

The homecoming is predictably awkward and messy, but Tal is surprised to find how welcome she is and how comfortable she feels with this family that she never knew.  And through some pressure, she gets her father and mother to tell the true story of how they met and why they separated and kept her in the dark about her father's identity.

Warga does well-developed characters and good dialogue and that makes this otherwise forgettable story compelling enough to read.  Some of the fault lies in Warga's focus on the parents' story.  It's interesting but don't get to know Tal and really appreciate how these discoveries help her grow.  Her own issues with trust are introduced but not developed.  A tangent (a budding romance with a neighbor) that could have tested Tal's trust issues is left hanging.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

That's What Friends Do, by Cathleen Barnhart

Sammie and David have been friends for ages.  But when a new kid Luke moves to town, things start to get weird.  David, who's never really given much thought to the fact that Sammie is a girl, resents Luke's attempts to hit on Sammie. Up until that moment, he didn't realize that he had feelings for her.  And Sammie, who's never really thought it mattered if you were a boy or a girl, is shocked at how she is treated by the boys. The resulting jealousies and misunderstandings that develop between the three of them will remind the reader of just how painful it was to be twelve.  But then, in an incident that occurs innocently yet is anything but, things go too far and the friendship splinters.  Feeling they have each been betrayed by the other, Sammie and David are left confused and unable to figure out how to repair the rift.

Meanwhile, Sammie is considering switching from baseball to softball.  She's the only girl on the team, but she's a good player and her father wants her to continue playing on the team.  But as she watches the other girls playing on the softball team, she realizes that it would be much more fun to be on their team than trying to prove that she can play with the boys.  Convincing her father to let her do so, however, proves difficult as he feels that switching from a "real" sport to softball would waste her talent.

An unexpected surprise of a book about sexual harassment, sexism, and the nature of consent in seventh grade.  Barnhart spins a terrifyingly plausible chain of events that plunge its protagonists into social situations that they are entirely unprepared to deal with.  The target middle school audience can learn a great deal from reading the story (and perhaps discussing with an understanding adult), but actually the book seems more beneficial to adult readers who can watch events unfold and better understand why things go as wrong as they do.  The side story about Sammie's rediscovery of the need for feminine companionship is perhaps not so integral to the main story, but fits in nicely.  In sum, a great age-appropriate contribution to discussions about sexual harassment and consent.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Beau & Bett, by Kathryn Berla

"Lucky in love, never lucky in life," Beau's father likes to say about their family. He's laid up from a work injury and unable to work.  Bett's sister is about to get married and money is tight all round.  And so when Maman is involved in a fender bender with the spoiled rich daughter of the Diaz's, the last thing the family can afford is a big repair bill.  Beau goes to the Diaz ranch, on behalf of his mother, to plead for forgiveness.  Mr. Diaz agrees to let the matter go, but only if Beau will come work off the debt at the ranch for the next four weekends.

And it's while he's working there that he gets to meet this troublemaking daughter, Bettina. She's got a reputation at school of being this horrible person which has earned her the nickname "the Beast." Beau finds out, however, that she's not like that at all.  And the more he gets to know her, the closer he feels towards her.

Allegedly a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the resemblance is slight.  Working off a debt, a misunderstood "beast," and eventually learning to love someone we found initially repulsive are three similarities, but they are hardly unique.  Trying to call that a retelling is a stretch and a distraction.   Rather, the book's strength is really the dynamic between its two characters. Earnest Beau is no match for Bett's social ineptitude, and the sparks that fly between them are unexpectedly hilarious.  The resulting love story is short and sweet.