Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Mozart Girl, by Barbara Nickel

Nannerl Mozart is talented and creative, but when your little brother is the toast of Europe, you will find yourself in the shadows!  And not so much for the talent that he obviously possessed, but for being the boy.  For no matter how skilled and hard-working Nannerl is, she'll never be allowed to become a professional musician.  Her efforts will always be treated as a fancy and considered a gimmick.  Nonetheless, she is determined that none of that will stop her from her dreams.  And this Christmas, when she and her brother are performing in Versailles for the King and Queen of France, Nannerl intends to unveil nothing less than a full symphony that she's written!

A modest and enjoyable middle grade historical novel about a little known piece of musical and women's history.  Some of the adventures may strike the reader as implausible, but Nickel does a remarkable job of avoiding anachronistic thoughts and feelings, while still making Nannerl instantly relatable (especially for anyone who's experienced sibling jealousy).  The result is a heroine who is charming and inspirational, as she seizes the day and pursues her dreams.  The book ends with historical notes, a chronology, and a selected bibliography that will fulfill any wishes for readers who want to learn more about Wolfgang's older sister.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Don't Read the Comments, by Eric Smith

Divya is a hot online gaming sensation.  Her live feeds are followed by thousands, playing a game called Reclaim the Sun.  She has fans and endorsements and she makes a modest income from her playing which she uses to help pay for her mother's continuing education.  But she's also picked up some enemies, particularly among the gamer bro community who see her as an unwelcome trespasser. Some of them are your usual trolls (posting their bile whenever they can, but largely all talk and no action).  Divya has her strategy for dealing with their misogynist and racist comments:  she simply doesn't read what they have to say.  That's all fine and good until a group appears on her gaming session and attacks her and her friends.  The group, which calls itself Vox Populi then goes much further, turning to physical attacks in the real world.

The other half of the story is Aaron, who writes scripts for games and is part of a team that is on the verge of their first release.  He dreams of making it big and getting rich, but he can't even get the person running the project to pay him.  His mother, suspicious that he's being taken advantage of, discourages from spending his time writing.  Aaron, to escape from it all, plays on Reclaim the Sun, where he happens to stumble across Divya.  And in the midst of their two troubles, they find a common bond in their gaming.

Smith has a lot of knowledge about online gaming, using the jargon and understanding the dynamics of multi-player games in a way that shows that he's a fan.  I'm an outsider, so I'll defer to someone else about how authentic the story is, but nothing glaring shouts out.

I can speak more confidently about the storytelling.  Of the two main plot lines, Divya's is really the more interesting and meaningful.  Aaron, who struggles with standing up for himself and winning the respect of his parents is in familiar (and boring) YA territory.  Any spark of romance between Aaron and Divya is undeveloped and not terribly interesting, so we can nix the romantic angle.  That leaves us with Divya facing off against the misogyny in the gaming community, which I found interesting,having heard a little about this in the news.  The rest felt distracting.

We certainly could have used less distraction, because as entertaining as this book is, so much of the story never really gels.  Consider the long list of ideas that get introduced and just sit out there like unexplored worlds:  Divya's fan club, her relationship with her BFF Rebekah, Rebekah's own troubles with men, Divya's relationship with her mother (and that doesn't even get us near any of Aaron's more numerous loose ends).  It is a sloppy story, but that won't distract you from enjoying it, because even a poorly plotted story can be successful with some pretty things to watch and a lot of well-paced action -- sort of like playing a couple rounds of games.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Every Reason We Shouldn't, by Sara Fujimura

When Olivia crashed and burned in her last skating competition, it seemed that her dream of heading to the Olympics was basically dead. She would never get to reach the heights of her world famous Olympian parents, but instead simply be stuck in Phoenix helping out at her family's struggling ice skating rink.  Still, not everything about the change is bad.  No longer pursuing professional skating opens up the chance to be a normal teenager, attend regular school, and start exploring her other dreams.  And there are definitely downsides to a career in skating as she can see as her mother struggles with physical damage from her years in the limelight and her father is stuck out on a grueling tour with Olympians on Ice in order to pay the bills.

Then a young speedskater named Jonah shows up.  He and his family have relocated to Phoenix and he needs a place to practice for his Olympic bid.  He brings much-needed money to pay for his rink time, but he also reignites Olivia's interest in skating.  Chemistry builds between them, but their dreams are leading them in different directions.  Meanwhile, Olivia's mother is taking a turn for the worse and she needs expensive medical treatment that they cannot afford, unless they sell the rink, leaving Olivia without her home base.

A satisfactory romance and athletic adventure, but the storytelling slips off the rails too often for my tastes with muddled endings and incomplete idea.  Some of the key plot points that never quite get finished explored include Olivia's biracial background and the possibility of Olivia and Jonah skating together.  These are not casually mentioned ideas.  They are actually built up steadily through the story, but then get tossed aside and forgotten.  Climactic moments in this book tend to be confusing to track (I did a lot of re-reading).  Action just isn't Fujimura's strength.  That's a problem.  No matter how good the characters are, if the story doesn't deliver, they are basically orphaned, and that is what happened here.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Furious Thing, by Jenny Downham

Lexi has a fiery temper, is quick to verbally lash out when she feels attacked, and prone to violence.  Her peers and the adults around her can't make sense of it.  Little things seem to set her off. Her reactions are entirely out of proportion.  Her mother and stepfather-to-be fret and worry about what to do with her.  He thinks it might be time to look into medication or institutionalization.  And for the first hundred pages or so, the reader is pretty much in agreement:  Lexi's about as unsympathetic a protagonist as one could dream up.  I honestly was about to toss the book.

But then the veneer starts to crack and the reasons for Lexi's seemingly inexplicable behavior become -- shockingly -- clear.  Her family is deliriously dysfunctional.  Her mother is obsessed with pleasing her fiancee, a man who turns out to be a cruelly abusive control freak.  He gaslights the entire family and drives away anyone who has the strength to leave (including her first wife and his son).  For those who don't have the strength like her mother and her half-sister, Lexi stays around to defend them by "becoming the monster"-- turning violent as a way of redirecting his abuse towards her.

Lexi gets described midway through the book as a "survivor," but she's much more than that: a total badass, proto-mama bear, and general monster.  Lexi would describe life as a fairy tale, but she would mean that is the sense that it is a story in which you stuff witches in ovens and burn them alive.  She's a tough and brave character, but she's also achingly weak and lonely.  Ultimately, she's inspirational, working her way from victimhood to angry rage to choosing to cultivate love instead of hate.  And finally, to finding her voice and understanding that love isn't something we earn.  It's something we simply deserve. Because the writing is so good, I'll try tempting you to do so the same by giving away that things sort of work out in the end, so you can at least see Lexi pull herself out of her trap.  But you won't come out feeling that good about grownups.

Unpleasant characters and a gripping story line make this a novel you hate reading but don't quite manage to put down (unless you're strong enough to just walk away).  I'm not that strong, so I was there to the bitter end. This is an angry book (written by an author who wants us to be angry as well).  If you like a book to really piss you off, then this is an excellent read.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What I Carry, by Jennifer Longo

Muir has learned from seventeen years in foster care how to survive:  travel light and don't make friends.  That way it will all go easier when it's time to go.  Whenever things have gotten tough or they have gotten too good, she's known it was time to go.  Now, within a year of aging out of the system, she's almost out!

Being free is a mixed blessing. She'll also be without support and without a distinct plan.  But that's OK.  She'll figure out a way to manage -- she always has.

Aging out gracefully and starting anew, however, is thrown awry in her final placement.  She's been sent to an island and placed with a woman who is herself about to retire from fostering kids.  Muir, who has tried so hard to form no connections, finds herself drawing closer to her foster mother, forming bonds with two kids (Kira and Sean), and even becoming attached to the family dog.  No matter what Muir may intend, it would seem that one cannot always travel light.

A pleasing story about foster care that hits all the right notes. Longo has made some effort to avoid the usual tropes about violence and sexual abuse stories in foster care, and instead pulled up lots of unique anecdotes from foster children she's interviewed.  It gives Muir an intriguing backstory to share through the novel.  The ending is intentionally very happy (although leave it to Muir to try to sabotage it all the way up to the end) but avoids getting too weepy, retaining a modicum of authenticity and faithfulness to the characters.  That's challenging and the only real blemish on the story is a degree of repetitiveness that sets in as Longo struggles to get everything right.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Full Disclosure, by Camryn Garrett

After being essentially driven out of her old school, Simone is starting over again at a new one.  She's gotten to be the student director of her school's production of Rent and she's fallen for the very cute Miles.  But she's haunted by the truth she can't run away from:  she's HIV positive (and has been since birth).  And while this sensitive fact about her ought to remain private, she knows that she needs to come clean to Miles and to others she is close to.  Someone, however, is trying to beat her to it and leaving her anonymous messages threatening to out her if she doesn't stop dating Miles.  Determined to fight back, Simone risks everything to stand up and retain her life.

Garrett's debut novel shows a writer of great promise.  Simone is a complex protagonist: a mixed-race bi-curious young woman who is open about her feelings and her needs.  Her relationship with her two dads is something of a revelation in its closeness and mutual respect.  And pretty much all of the characters in this diverse and richly drawn story are interesting and unique.  Unfortunately, the story has serious execution problems:  from its clunky extortion plot to its lack of focus on its own plot points, this can be a maddening read.  Really interesting characters stumbling through a poorly developed script makes me hope for better on her next outing (and leaves me looking forward to checking out that novel).

Friday, August 14, 2020

I Know You Remember, by Jennifer Donaldson

Three years ago, Ruthie and Zahra were close friends, hanging out at a fort they created at an abandoned neighborhood playground, co-writing their own fantasy stories.  But when Ruthie's mother and father split up and Mom took Ruthie with her from Anchorage to Portland, the girls drifted apart.

Now, Ruthie's mother has died and Ruthie is returning to Anchorage.  She can't wait to catch up with her old friend.  But when she gets back, she finds out that Zahra has gone missing.  A few nights before, at a party where Zahra and her boyfriend Ben had a big blow-out fight, was the last time anyone's seen Zahra.  Like everyone else, Ruthie is eager to find her friend and she dives into the search effort.  But as Ruthie gets to know Zahra's new friends, she finds a lot has changed in the past three years and that maybe she doesn't know her old friend all that well anymore.

The review I thought I was going to write when I was reading this book was overshadowed by a large twist in the last forty pages of the book, when the story switches narrators and point of view.  Obviously, I don't want to spoil the ending, but it's quite jarring and a lot of the story that is built up gets tossed aside and abandoned.  Not just stories, but entire characters are discarded as the entire purpose of the story is re-formulated in front of our eyes.  I have done a bit of soul searching about this, thinking about whether I missed clues or foreshadowing, but there really isn't much to justify the shift.  It's jarring and it feels artificial -- a gimmick to startle the reader.

If we back up and consider the story up to the moment of the twist, this is fairly by-the-numbers stuff.  Ruthie's journey of discovery as she comes to understand the changes that Zahra has gone through and her fleeting romance with Zahra's ex-boyfriend create a decent character.  The setting in Anchorage is nicely atmospheric and the action unfolds at a decent pace.  It's a decent but unremarkable story.  But again, that very late plot twist mangles most of that set-up, leaving us with a new story that felt like it involved entirely different characters and seemingly unrelated motives.  Startling, but it didn't work for me at all.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Yes No Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

A topical story of two awkward teens who meet while canvassing for a long-shot Democratic campaign in a traditionally conservative Atlanta district (a fictionalization of the 2016 Ossoff race).  Jamie is a great organizer but terrified of public speaking.  He has no problem stuffing envelopes and doing what he can around the field office, but can't ever imagine himself knocking on doors to get out the vote.  Maya is struggling with finding her bearings as her family breaks  apart.  Her father has moved out. He and her Mom claim that they are taking advantage of Ramadan to reflect, but as things drag on, it seems that the separation might become permanent. Maya's mother suggests volunteering on the campaign to get Maya out of the house and Maya finds herself paired up with Jamie.

Through a summer of working on the campaign, Jamie and Maya discover a lot about the world.  Maya quickly finds that this campaign is about bigger issues than simply her guy winning.  The legislature is considering a ban on head coverings, which she sees as a blatant attempt to discriminate against Muslims.  As a Jew, Jamie imagines that he understands what it is like to experience prejudice but as they engage in politics, he finds out how little he has experienced to date.

While the book addresses a number of key topics about contemporary elections (the role of social media, public polling, the purpose of focused convassing, and acts of dog whistling and of gaslighting), this is a surprisingly superficial story.  Conversations occasionally turn to racism and cancel culture, but the authors make almost everyone sympathetic and shy away from deep discussions.  A farcical anti-semitic attack sends confusing messages.  The overall tone is light and the book seems more targeted towards middle schoolers.  That proves disappointing for a book so centrally focused on politics.  I get that the agenda is to stir some interest in contemporary politics, but the book is too superficial to achieve much.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

All the Stars and Teeth, by Adalyn Grace

When you have reviewed close to 2000 books, it becomes harder and harder to find a book that feels truly novel.  And in few subgenres (beyond summer beach romance) is the repetitive and formulaic found more often than fantasy.  Swords, magic, monsters, and teen angst -- it's been done again and again.  Yet it entertains and when you want to just sit back and relax, it's great choice of subject matter.  No great surprises, just bloodthirsty action and mayhem.  So, imagine my surprise when I read this startling original debut fantasy adventure from author Adalyne Grace!

Amora is the princess of Visidia, a kingdom made up of seven islands.  Each island practices its own type of magic (levitation, shape shifting, healing, earth moving, time enhancing, and "curse").  Each person can practice only one type of magic.  To attempt to master more than one is the path to madness and forbidden.  And ruling over them all is the magic of the Visidian royal family -- soul magic.  Heir to the throne, Amora must master the family's monopoly -- the ability to destroy a human from within by crushing their soul -- to prove herself worthy of her title.  And when she fails her test, not only her legitimacy, but her life as well becomes forfeit. To her rescue comes a young pirate Bastian who helps her escape.  Her doggedly loyal fiance Ferrick follows along and proves his value through healing.  With time, they also pick up a mermaid named Vataea as a guide.

The stakes are higher than Amora's challenges in mastering her magic. The entire kingdom (and the core principles that support it) are under challenge.  There is a rebellion afoot and the kingdom is under siege.  It is also under challenge from within.  Amora and her compatriots must confront an ancient curse that lays bare the corruption of their entire society and find a way to rebuild it.

There are plenty of familiar fantasy tropes in the bare story, but the directions that each one goes in will leave you surprised.  Even the obvious final showdown between Amora and the leader of the evil forces doesn't quite unfold according to plan.  And the defeat of the bad guys is in fact never truly confirmed in this enlightened 21st century take on the battle of good and evil.

That's where the story starts getting really interesting.  There's an obvious romantic triangle at play here (Amora, Bastian, and Ferrick), but it doesn't play out as one would imagine.  Magic interferes with free will and the characters don't quite cooperate with the usual unfolding of a fantasy romance.  Sure, there's some great passionate scenes in the story, but these characters are wiser than that. Amora, while she is fully capable of lust, is not throwing herself at either of these boys.  She has more important business at hand that picking up a prince.  It goes almost without saying that this a realm of unremarkable gender equality where men and women are equally capable fighters.

That's really just the beginning of Grace's social and political critique.  While there's no mention of American politics, it isn't hard to see the agenda and the striking critique of the story.  This is a fantasy novel for Trumpian America, from a king who knows no moral boundaries to holding on to power to an inner circle who struggle to maintain the status quo for the benefits they reap from it.  The gradual unveiling of the sheer scope of the degradation (through the concept of "soul magic" and the way it both empowers and corrupts) couldn't be a clearer parable to modern party politics.  This is a deliciously subversive book.

Finally, this is a great story.  Amora has a highly satisfactory dramatic arc, from callow, selfish, and materialistic, to ultimately self-sacrificing leader as a young woman who comes to understand the sacrifices one must make to earn the trust of her people and the wisdom necessary to rule.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Dark and Deepest Red, by Anne-Marie McLemore

A complicated story of magic and historical destiny.  In the 16th century, a curse befalls the city of Strasbourg.  Women start dancing uncontrollably, unable to stop until they collapse from exhaustion.  Two local Romani women are accuse of witchcraft, consorting with the devil, and causing the affliction.  Five hundred years later, Rosella Oliva, from a famous shoemaking family, finds her feet bound to a pair of red shoes that take over control of her body and make her dance.  Her friend Emil, a budding young chemist, comes to her aid to solve the mystery, which ultimately involves identifying his blood connection to the two women from the past.

It's a strange story, often difficult to follow, but beautifully written.  In general McLemore and their books are this way: thick and meaty prose combined with strange magic and deep meaning.  It makes for slow reading and a great deal of effort.  In this case, I'm not so sure that they succeeded as much as they had hoped. 

The story intends to combine a real historical event from the summer of 1518, when a large number of women were indeed afflicted with an uncontrollable urge to dance, with Han Christian Anderson's "The Red Shoes." It's clever but the author assumes the reader will make connections and be as obsessed.  You can see McLemore's excitement, but it's hard not to feel left behind.  In addition, attempts to work in themes about gender identity and sexual agency, while well-intentioned, felt forced and like an attempt to give a pretty and clever fairy tale some last minute gravitas.  Overall, I found the novel to be a collection of ideas that never really gels.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Busted, by Gina Ciocca

After Marisa helps a friend find out if her friend's boyfriend is cheating on her, it launches a small-time career for her as a private investigator of the infidelities of her junior year class.  But before she's gone too far, she finds herself in a tight spot:  her one-time friend Kendall is convinced that her boyfriend TJ is cheating, but Marisa can find no evidence of it.  Instead, Kendall finds herself falling for TJ herself and in the process discovers that the relationship between Kendall and TJ is rather more complicated than she was originally told.  Meanwhile, Maria's best friend Charlie is threatened with expulsion for an incident of test stealing she didn't do.  Soon Marisa is connecting the two events together, the stakes get raised higher, and a complex series of crosses and double crosses are exposed.

It's a dizzying complex story that leaves you pretty much guessing until the end.  That's the good part.  What I liked less was how hard it was to follow.  It's not a bad story but it's a story poorly told.  The characters lack much personality, making them melt together and leaving me flipping back and reminding myself who was who.  I'm still undecided if the complexity was necessary, but it was certainly a barrier that made the book more work than fun.