Sunday, December 26, 2021

Lucky Girl, by Jamie Pacton

Considering the problems she has to deal with, Jane's real name (Fortuna) seems like a sad joke:  a dead father, a mother who hoards to cope with her grief, and a nasty ex-boyfriend.  But then she wins the lottery and the 58 million dollar grand jackpot.

Now, she has an even bigger problem:  How is she going to collect?  As a minor, she bought the ticket illegally and she can't just walk in and claim her prize.  If she hands it over to her Mom, her mother will just waste it all on junk.  The only person she knows who is over eighteen is her ex-boyfriend and THAT isn't going to happen!   While she tries to figure out what to do, she keeps quiet about it.  But her best friend Brandon is obsessed with identifying the winner and coming dangerously close to figuring it all out.

A comedic look at lottery madness.  In order to find a solution to her dilemma, Jane researches what prior lottery winners have done and uncovers the various ways that good fortune has generally turned bad.  The book thus is mostly a vehicle for exploring the sorts of crazy things that lottery winners do.  The ending, which relies on a rewriting of assumptions, felt a bit like a cop out, but the story itself is entertaining.  There are some potentially disturbing themes (death, mental illness, violence) but very little attention is drawn to any of these issues and the overall tone is light.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love, by Jared Reck

Oscar has no illusions of going to college.  The only classwork he really enjoys is cooking class and that's because it is what he does when he's not in school -- helping his grandfather run a food truck specializing in Finnish kebabs and Swedish donuts.  So, there really couldn't be a more opposite person at school than overachiever Lou.  She's taking all AP classes and set on being the valedictorian, and she's taken on a huge project for girl scouts that involves reducing landfill waste -- a project that involuntarily involves Oscar.  But as the two of them start working together, they find that Oscar's culinary skills and Lou's organization complement each other and that synergy spills over to the food cart.

While taking an out-of-the-blue left turn in the final fifty pages that disrupts the story, I really enjoyed this romantic comedy.  The strength of the story lays in its vivid characters.  Farfar (the grandfather) is a gem and adds a wonderful foil for a story that benefits from Reck's dry writing style.  Reck isn't a John Green, but he delivers a decent young male character who isn't (like most boys in male-written YA) obsessed with sex -- a feat worthy of supporting.  And while Lou is largely neglected, she gets enough development to make her an intriguing person in her own right.

The story takes a bit to really get going.  There is a wonderful back story involving Oscar's mother and  another about Farfar's former lover that truly were criminally overlooked, but I think Reck wanted to avoid long digressions.  Left as-is, the back stories provide depth without becoming integral to the story, but they do make the early pages a bit hard to follow as we are not quite sure at first where our focus as the readers should lay.  And the aforementioned late development to the story really serves to hijack where the author was leading us for most of the book.

I've never seen a story that mentioned the Aaland Islands before (and even Swedish-American stories are in short supply), so this book with its focus on Scandinavian street food will serve some multi-cultural value as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Lost Language, by Claudia Mills

As Betsy's mother struggles with getting a grant approved for researching and documenting dying languages, Betsy's best friend Lizard suggests that she and Betsy undertake a project to save a language by learning it and teaching it to their friends.  Between Betsy and Lizard, this is how things normally go:  Lizard is always coming up with the ideas and Betsy is left following her lead.  But when Betsy decides to audition for the school play on her own and makes a new friend, Lizard becomes jealous and lashes out.  The girls have a falling out.

At that moment, Mom's work stresses build up to a crisis and Betsy reaches out to her old friend for support.  But instead of reconciling, Lizard betrays Betsy.

Mills writes lots of middle grade books, but not usually in verse as she has done here.  The style works in this case because the story is so centrally about language and communication, but I don't think it was essential.  With few words and lots of white space, the book is a very fast read.  I would not call this one of Mills's best books, but it is a good read and deals with the popular topic of the strains that a friendship goes through as children grow older in an effective and sophisticated manner.

The story features some fairly mature themes, including adult mental illness and alcoholism.  These are handled in a straightforward and age-appropriate fashion.  As always, it's nice to see adults being treated like real people in a children's book.  It is also good to see children being treated as responsible enough to handle that reality.

Goodbye, Perfect, by Sara Barnard

When Eden's best friend Bonnie disappears, Eden is as shocked as everyone else.  Sure, Bonnie had told her about this guy named Jack who she was mad over, but she was so vague on the details that Eden wondered if Jack was even real.  So, it comes as a surprise when to learn that Bonnie has run away with him and that Jack is actually their music teacher at school.

With parents and police pressuring Eden for information, she finds herself in an awkward position of trying to be supportive of her friend by lying to the police about whether she is in touch with Bonnie.  But the longer Bonnie is gone, the more Eden starts to question just how well she knows her friend.  How can Bonnie just leave her family and friends, throw away her life, and embrace a fugitive life with a man who is twice her age?

A engaging story with enough adventure to keep the plot moving with delivering a surprisingly poignant look at a friendship being torn apart as two childhood friends grow up.  Barnard is consistently strong at realistic portrayals of human relationships as seen in her other novels (e.g., Fragile Like Us, Destination Anywhere), respectfully capturing how children and adults really interact.  As in her other novels, our protagonist Eden is provided a deep backstory that gives the reader a true sense of what her relationship with Bonnie means to her, all of which adds to the pathos of the way Bonnie's runner really tears Eden apart.  And while minor characters can't possibly get as generous of a treatment, Barnard does take the time to fill in enough details that no one present is a throwaway -- parents get to have flaws without being caricatures, children are not always right, and so on.  

It's a story that can't have a happy ending and it is not particularly inspirational subject matter, but Eden's journey to adulthood is emotionally satisfying as a story.  Highly recommended.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Hollow Inside, by Brooke Lauren Davis

Phoenix and her mother have been on the run for a while, but that is about to come to an end.  Years ago, a horrible wrong was committed against Phoenix's Mom and the two of them have returned to Jasper Hollow to make things right.  Phoenix's job is to do reconnaissance, finding out everything she can about Ellis Bowman, celebrated author and self-help guru.  Without intending it, Phoenix befriends Ellis's son and finds herself brought into the family circle.  And while she is supposed to be gathering intelligence to help her mother's plans for revenge, her loyalties are tested as she gets to know Ellis's family and falls romantically for Ellis's daughter.

Through flashbacks, the details of Ellis's original betrayal (and the complicity of the people of Jasper Hollow) is revealed.  And yet, the more the reader learns about the wrongs that were done, the more everything grows murkier.  Good people did bad things.  And then they did worse things.  The past is being revisited, but events are still unfolding and there is still time for people to make more mistakes.  By the time the story ends, no one is going to get what they truly want.

The thing about tragedies is that they are not particularly fun to read.  Or rather, the "fun" of reading comes from the realization of the inevitability of the story: a well-written tragedy in other words writes itself, which what happens here.  Events unfold effortlessly and each new page fills the reader with dread -- the proverbial train wreck.  That Davis is able to exceed expectations and pile tragedies beyond my imagination (without creating a melodrama) is testament to a well-constructed story with sound foundations.  With that effort upfront, the author exploits vengeance and fate for maximum effect.

This is a story where every major character has a purpose.  Ellis is the guilt-ridden king.  His wife the long-suffering queen who knows all but remains steadfastly loyal.  Ellis's pastor tries to protect them both but not out of any loyalty; he has his own guilt to avoid. With the adults carrying heavy parts of the backstory, the dramatic weight of the current moment falls heavily on the kids.  The relationship between Phoenix and Ellis's daughter Melody is particularly central.  There's not much romantic heat between them, but as representatives of the two sides of this conflict, they are a junior version of the conflict between Ellis and Phoenix's Mom.  Well-developed characters, they have a nice spark between them that makes their romance just another layer of complexity in a story without much time for love.

A compelling tragedy with strong characters and an engaging narrative.  Dedicate the time to finish the last hundred pages in one sitting.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Apple in the Middle, by Dawn Quigly

Apple feels like she is always between one thing or another, but never quite belongs to a particular identity.  Her family is rich, but she attends public school.  Her mother, who died giving birth, was Native American, but her father is white.  Her father remarried and she's been raised by her stepmother for most of her life, so she really doesn't know her mother's heritage.  As far as the white kids are concerned, her dark skin tags her as not one of them and for the Indians, her name is a joke ("apple" is a derogatory term for a half-breed, red on the outside but white inside).

One summer, her parents decide that she needs to get to know her mother's family better and they send her out to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.  Out there, she meets her relatives, learns more about her mother, and connects with her culture, changing her life forever.

A fairly predictable undertaking used as a vehicle to explore Ojibwe culture.  Despite that rather clumsy undertaking, this is a nuanced piece that occasionally lapses into an overly "teachy" (pedantic) style but has its heart in the right place.  The usual pitfalls of noble Indian or oddball life on the Rez are noth avoided.  Instead, it's a story with a lot to impart about the complexity of life for contemporary Native Americans.  I learned a lot through reading it.  At times, the story itself suffers from this grander purpose and loses its dramatic momentum, but it's not dull or dry.  Apple herself, who seems to have some traits of ADHD, is not always a likeable protagonist and seems overly quick to assume the worst of people, but ultimately is intelligent and insightful.  Her struggles to understand her family and their culture provide us with a sympathetic guide and help open up this fascinating culture.  A flawed but unique and valuable book.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista imagines a world in which there remains only one human being who can recall the stories, myths, and memories that make up human existence.  In doing so, it explores the importance of culture and the terrible cost of forgetting from where we have come.

Petra loves to tell cuentos and dreams of becoming a storyteller like her grandmother.  But destiny is about to seriously disrupt this innocent dream.  With the Earth about to be destroyed by a comet, a very small number of people have been chosen to board spaceships that will take them on a nearly-four-hundred-year journey to a distant hospitable planet in order to rebuild.  Petra's family are among the chosen ones.  They will sleep in suspended animation for the duration of the voyage, tended by monitors who will spend their lifetimes taking care of the ship, passing along their responsibilities to their children and grandchildren.  It will take many generations of these monitors until the ships reach their destination.

Years later, when the ships reach the end of their trip, Petra is awoken to discover that things have gone horribly wrong.  A totalitarian Collective has taken over the ship and enslaved everyone in the name of achieving a stifling consensus.  To maintain the control, the leaders use a combination of sedatives and ignorance.  Key among their policies is forgetting everything about the past and so they systematically erase the memories of the sleepers when they bring them out of hibernation.  No one can be allowed to remember how life was on Earth.  Instead, all thoughts must be focused on the Collective and its current mission.  For some reason, Petra proves resistant to attempts at wiping her memories and she sets about covertly to undermine the regime. Using her talents as a storyteller and her memories of Earth, she tries to enlist allies and save humanity.

Part Gabriel García Márquez and part Ben Bova (i.e., The Exiles Trilogy), Higuera creates a unique Hispanic-flavored science fiction story.  The narrative is uneven, with frequent flashbacks to Petra and her time on Earth jarring the narrative flow.  The overall depressing nature of the story (i.e., end of humanity) is not fully balanced with the optimistic message of Petra's cuentos and a very open endings leaves much of the dilemma unresolved.  Petra's stories (adapted from traditional folk tales) do not always align with the ongoing action.

As science fiction, then, the story does not always manage  to be a success, but the deeper message of the importance of oral history and culture as the root of what makes us human is powerful and quite moving.  Marketed to middle school readers, the serious themes and the upsetting nature of the material probably make it more appropriate for an older audience.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Carry Me Home, by Janet Fox

Lulu and her little sister Serena, along with their Dad, have been living in their car.  Dad is making money as a carpenter and promises to soon have enough so they can get a real home.  It's been fine so far as summer moves into fall and the girls start attending school, but the weather is getting colder.

And then one day her father doesn't come home.

He did this once before, back when they lived in Texas.  It was shortly after their mother died and he just got so sad that he had to go away.  It was a month before he returned, but the girls managed on their own.  And Lulu understands that it is best that way.  If people start to notice that your Daddy is missing, they call social services and the kids get taken away (and probably separated).  Lulu wants to avoid that at all costs. But as the days go by, keeping things together gets harder and harder and nosy adults begin to wonder where the girls' father is.  Twelve year-old Lulu is running out of ideas for how to prevent people from finding out.  And also running out of the means to keep her and her sister safe.

I've never been a fan of child abandonment stories or understood why so many of them get written.  The solution is obvious enough (adults find out and foster care turns out not to be as bad as the child imagined).  Dragging out that inevitable conclusion just seems like child abuse to me.

Setting aside that bias and preconception, this version of the story has some nice features to it.  Lula shows great resilience, taking care of her sister and even finding some time to have some fun.  I especially like the kindness of the people with whom Lulu deals  It's not just the expected kindness of the local librarian (which is sort of a requirement, no?) but lots of kind adults and kids as well.  Even a classmate who initially teases Lulu turns out to be a generous friend.  It must be something about Montana (where the action takes place)!  In any case, the positive, community spirit of the setting helps to buffer the traumatic nature of the material.  A happy ending helps as well.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Hello (From Here), by Chandler Baker and Wesley King

Maxine and Jonah meet while shopping.  They are both hunting for toilet paper and Maxine accuses Jonah of hoarding.  It's the spring of 2020 and the governor has just declared a full lockdown to deal with the rapid spread of COVID-19.  

All in all, an awkward time to kick off a romance, but life (as it has become) marches on.  Max is trying to make ends meet as a personal shopper, bringing quarantined people their groceries.  Her mother's dry cleaning business is grinding to a halt as people no longer need to clean their suits and dress slacks.  Meanwhile, Jonah ostensibly only has to deal with the cancellation of his long-planned trip to Paris this summer and the fact that his Dad is stranded in Spain.  But underneath these stark class differences, Max and Jonah share a great deal in common and as they endure those uncertain first months of the pandemic, their relationship undergoes unusual stresses and strains.

I've been waiting for a decent YA romance set in the contemporary moment for the simple reason that all of the traditional ones feel so unrealistic in today's world (where even kissing seems unwise).  Baker and King do an incredible job in capturing the mood of the times in a way that will make this book a go-to for young readers in the years to come trying to understand life in 2020.  Is it too soon for historical YA of that period?  No, I don't really think so.  Children's literature is as much about helping young people connect to their world as entertaining young readers.  What could be more relatable to a teenager right now than other young people trying to navigate a relationship that takes place with masks on and six feet apart?

Unfortunately, I found the story itself to be dull and aimless.  Reminiscent of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with its meandering unstructured format, this is a story that really does not have a goal.  There are a number of ideas (absent parents, illness, and poignant subplot about a famous movie director, rescuing a shelter dog, etc.) but no consensus about where to take the ideas.  It reads like two established writers with not-entirely-compatible styles that are playing literary tug-of-war.  Characters and situations introduced by one are pointedly ignored by the other.  For a team-written novel to really work, you need collaboration, which inevitably means re-writing large sections after you reach the end to make the exercise into a story.  This book is far too rushed to do that serious editing process.  The end result is simply boring.

So, not great literature, but fascinating material.  Hopefully, it will inspire others to tackle the subject.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Faceless, by Kathryn Lasky

Alice is a spy for the British and a member of the "Rasas" (as in Tabula Rasa) -- a long line of spies who have a genetic mutation that gives them perfectly symmetrical faces that are incidentally impossible to remember.  This inscrutability gives them an advantage when working undercover.  Rasa also have superior intellects and can memorize facts easily and acquire languages flawlessly.  In all, Alice and her family make formidable spies.

In the waning days of World War II, Alice and her parents are sent to Berlin to help assist an attempt to murder Hitler.  Passing herself as Ute, a star student, she infiltrates Hitler's inner circle.  The plot (based on a real event) ultimately fails, but Alice gains firsthand knowledge of life in Hitler's bunker.  She also befriends a Jewish boy who is hiding from the Nazis and helps him survive.

Throughout her mission, Alice is distracted with worry about her older sister.  Just prior to leaving for Berlin, her sister retired from service and declined to join them in Germany.  Instead, she went to work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  To her shock and amazement, Alice starts to catch glimpses of a young woman on streets of Berlin who looks like her sister.  Tracking that woman down reveals even further surprises.

The adventure is a bit too rushed to develop any strong feeling of suspense, but the story is rich with details that will be inspirational for further reading.  That strength can also prove to be a weakness when we get so bogged down in the details that there is not much room left over for story.

I was less taken with the subplot involving the Jewish boy and the mysterious sister.  The boy turns out to be largely inconsequential to the story and Alice's sympathy for him seems out of character and distracting.  It is also anachronistic -- glossing over the anti-Semitism of the period -- which is striking given the otherwise strong devotion to historical details.  The sister's story sticks out uncomfortably because it is neither well set-up in the beginning nor really effectively resolved at the end.  It also added little to the story.

The Rasa concept is a rich jumping off point for any number of adventures and one hopes that Lasky will take other points in history and give them the same treatment.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

You & Me at the End of the World, by Brianna Bourne

Hannah wakes up to find she's the only one left on Earth (that is, until she finds Leo!).  Everyone else has disappeared.  Now, it's just the two of them.  Houston Texas, population 2.

What would you do if you had the world to yourselves?  Neither Hannah nor Leo really know, but having the whole city to themselves, they are free to explore.  With an absence of any other human life, they also compare notes about their lives up to now.  The abandoned streets of Houston invite self-reflection.

Before this happened, they knew of each other, but definitely moved in different circles.  They are both seniors, about to embark on their real lives.  Hannah is on the verge of becoming a professional ballerina.  Leo, while a talented musician, seems destined to screw up his latest opportunity.  In an empty world, however, what future is there for a dancer and a guitarist?

An unusual story about what it would be like if all of the world's distractions were to disappear and you could really get to know another person.  I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic feel of an deserted Houston, but the implausibility of the scenario grated on me.  First of all, because there was little in the novel to give me a sense of place (Bourne made very little effort to bring up landmarks or invoke anything particularly Houstonian -- it may be a huge metropolis, but it definitely has plenty of local character!).  Secondly, because there is no way that a place would function very long if the entire living population suddenly disappeared.

As the story progresses, rather than address the implausibilities, Bourne stresses her protagonist's inner turmoil and pulls the characters into an emotional breakdown.  The story gets bogged down in insignificant chat.  The story's eventual resolution is a complete let down, especially given the potential of the premise.  It is all worsened by meaningless side trips (out to grandmother's house and later to a house party) that seem designed mostly to fill pages than to develop characters or move the story along.  Disappointing.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Salty, Bitter, Sweet, by Mayra Cuevas

Still reeling from the recent death of her grandmother and her father's decision to start a new family, Isa is looking for a direction in her life. Thanks to her grandmother, she has always loved food. Winning a coveted place in an elite training program in a Michelin-starred chef's kitchen seems like just the ticket for Isa. She is prepared to throw herself into it, even though it means that she'll be living uncomfortably in the house of her father and his new wife (with baby coming).  

That dedication to her craft is precisely what drives her crazy about lackadaisical (but infuriatingly attractive) Diego.  He's lazy and carefree, with no serious ambitions of his own.  Worse, he's staying at the house as he's the stepson of her stepmother.  Managing the intensity of her culinary program and keeping Diego out of her hair and her heart is enough to drive her crazy. But, of course, opposites attract.

As she warms to Diego and appreciates his more relaxed approach to life, she also discovers that maybe studying to become a master chef isn't what she wants after all.  If only her grandmother was still alive to offer her guidance.  All she has of her is her grandmother's cookbook, which she can't bring herself to open and read.

An engrossing story of fine food, dedicated culinary arts, and a general sense of how dysfunctional world culinary fame can actually be. Lot of details for dedicated foodies and enough fun stuff to keep even us amateurs enraptured and hungry.  However, I have a bone to pick about Isa's taste in guys.  I found Diego really hard to take at first.  I get that we're supposed to root for him and see Isa as unbalanced and uptight, but I couldn't get past how inconsiderate he was about the things that mattered to Isa.  It's only fairly late in the book that Isa starts coming around to the notion that she herself might be a bit too high strung.  At that point, Diego's arrogance starts to look a bit more like care and concern, but that doesn't change the way he fails to respect the things that are important to Isa. That she finds her true calling at the end is small comfort since it seems to require that Diego be part of the package.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Big Boned, by Jo Watson

Lori defines herself through the way she thinks people see her:  as a large overweight young woman.  Certainly not as anyone attractive, let alone beautiful.  However, at her art high school in Johannesburg, she has made friends and come mostly to terms with a traumatic assault she endured a few years before.

When Lori's autistic brother needs to move to a new school, it's exactly what her mother needs as well:  leaving Joburg and moving to Cape Town and starting again. There, Mom buries herself in her new career, generally ignoring them and leaving Lori with the responsibility of taking care of her brother.  While Lori is happy that her brother is getting the help he needs, Cape Town's sporty vibe is not for her.  Her new high school is all about water sports and Lori can't stand athletics and fears the water.  But some of that could change thanks to Jake, a friendly water polo captain.  He would normally be out of her league, but his attention-deficit younger sister attends the same school as Lori's brother and the younger siblings have become fast friends.  It doesn't take long, to Lori's surprise, before genuine sparks ignite between her and Jake as well.

With some support from Jake, another girl in Lori's class who aspires to design clothing for plus-size women, and a witty counselor, Lori learns how to deal with her fears, embrace her aspirations, and confront her mother.  Along the way, she discovers an aptitude for street art. The result is a winning story about believing in yourself and overcoming your fears.

Jo Watson is a revelation.  While covering familiar ground and all the usual scenes (the mirror, dress shopping, binging, and bullying) that one would expect in a story about a full-bodied young woman, Watson quickly leaves that behind and shows Lori really grabbing on to self-improvement.  She has her insecurities, but they really don't stop her from trying (and succeeding!) in shedding them. All of this success can make the novel seem unrealistically rosy (so much so that the protagonist even complains at one point that things like this don't happen "unless we're in the pages of some unrealistic YA book that totally throws social conventions out the window and sets itself in this totally made-up world where fat girls win and the guy looks past all her cellulite and sees the girl inside"). Yes, Lori, that's basically what this story is...and it's a winner!

As an aside, I don't believe that I have ever read a YA novel by a South African writer.  The different settings were a mildly disorienting, but pleasant change.  For while I've visited SA, I tend to see it only through a political lens.  I'm happy to report that angst-ridden adolescence is pretty much the same (if not better) there!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Hot British Boyfriend, by Kristy Boyce

Ellie's habit of following her impulses gets her in trouble and leads to public humiliation when she throws herself at a boy at school, only to find out that he likes her best friend instead.  Needing to escape, she signs up for a high school study abroad program in England.  Armed with her Jane Austen novels, she's determined to meet a cute British guy and forget all about what's-his-name back home.

While the academics are far more rigorous than she's prepared for, she seems to get her wish pretty quickly when she meets Will at a flea market.  He's not only gorgeous but also insanely rich, shuttling her around in his Jaguar and taking her out for fancy dinners at posh places.  But Ellie is never quite comfortable in his presence.  He's so much better than she is and she expends all of her energy trying to impress him and prove herself worthy.

All the time she is trying to impress Will, she is missing out on her friends, her chances to get to know England, and the things that are really important to her.   And, in that pesky way that romances do, there's a sweet quiet boy in their group that Ellie can't quite seem to forget.  Dev is understanding, patient, and supportive.  And while he isn't British, maybe she needs to stop and think about what she really wants in the boyfriend?

No surprises and none expected, but I found this romance a bit more cringeworthy than normal.  Ellie comes across as shallow, throwing away her unique opportunity to study in England in the name of chasing a boy (a boy who doesn't even come across as worth it).  It's easy enough to toss Will aside in the end because the relationship between Ellie and Will seems so superficial.  While it is fine to hate the bad choice and be rooting for the good one, I found myself actually hoping that poor Dev would wake up and realize that Ellie herself wasn't that much of a prize.  All of which begs the question:  if you don't like the protagonist, how exciting can the romance actually be?

Friday, November 19, 2021

Transcendent, by Katelyn Detweiler

Sequel to the novel Immaculate, in which normal teenager Mina became the center of controversy when she has an immaculate conception.  At the end of Immaculate, Mina faked a miscarriage and fled into obscurity.  This story picks up eighteen years later when a terrorist attack at Disney World has left over ten thousand people dead and many more of them injured.

Reeling from the trauma of the event, people are desperate to find meaning in the loss.  A father of one of the victims tracks down Mina and her now grown daughter Iris.  Believing that Iris is a Messiah, he insists that she has to cure his dying daughter.  And when she refuses, he outs her to the public. The ensuing media storm as fanatics on both sides come out of the woodwork.  Believers want and demand her help.  Refusing to believe her protests that she is nothing special, they respond violently to her refusals to help and then just as badly to her failures.  Meanwhile, others claim she is a fraud and want to punish her.

Frightened by this mixture of adoration and hatred, Iris runs away, trying to sort out what she should do.  She finds unlikely help in the guise of Zane, a boy at school with a troubled background.  After much deliberation, she figures out her path forward.

Put a strong stress on that "after much deliberation." The book starts off strong as it unveils a turbulent America that is well-primed for a savior.  Iris's reluctance to take on that role (especially with the threatening behavior of those who would follow her) is understandable, but Detweiler doesn't seem to know where to go with this.  Instead, the book drags down as Iris waffles back and forth, ignoring advice and generally repeating herself.  By the end, even the solution seems weak.

In sum, a promising premise but one which the author doesn't really seem to know how to resolve.  And certainly not needing 400+ pages to resolve.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Denis Ever After, by Tony Abbott

Like most people who have died, Denis doesn't remember the particulars of what took his life away five years ago, but he's at peace with it and ready to let go and move on.  But his still-living twin brother Matt can't let go of him.  And as long as Matt refuses to let go, Denis is stuck in Port Haven (a waiting area for recently-departed souls).  There's only one thing to do about it, Denis must return to the living world and convince his brother to let go.

While the case was never resolved, Denis was murdered and Matt wants to know who did it and why.  The two boys tackle the mystery using clues dug up by Matt and his friend Trey.  Denis who initially can't recall anything, finds his memory being jarred loose by revisiting the scenes of the crime and the mystery gradually is resolved.  However, time is running out.  With every visit he makes to his brother, Denis is putting his own soul in jeopardy.

Denis is no Patrick Swayze and Matt is no Demi Moore, but you know this story well enough.  I didn't always follow the plot developments, but the mystery unfolds at a nice pace keeping us wondering until the end what really happened to Denis.  I personally didn't find the story all that compelling.  The boys are pretty whiney and their parents are grating and annoying.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Take Three Girls, by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell, and Fiona Wood

A mandatory "wellness" class at St Hilda's creates an unlikely pair up.  To break up the usual cliques, the facilitator makes the students form groups based on thumb size.  As it turns out, queen bee Ady, smart Kate, and swimming champion Clem all have similarly long appendages, but at their school they would otherwise have no reason to hang out together.  To their surprise, as they spend the weeks of the program together, their personal lives begin to overlap and they grow close, especially when they all become targets of a vicious anonymous gossip website.

Team-written by three popular Aussie YA writers, this book explores identity and life choices.  Ady is dealing with her family falling apart as her father succumbs to addiction, Kate is having second thoughts about her career path, and Clem is making bad choices in love.  To a lesser extent, the website issue provides some ground to cover cyber bullying. 

The wellness class and its weekly writing prompts serve as launch points and themes for each stage of the story, which the authors each run with.  It's not a seamless process.  Team writing rarely works in my experience:  most authors have such different styles and those differences and egos turn the book into a competition as the authors try to control the story.  Here, as a three-way, the approach becomes especially messy.  At several points, you can tell that one author didn't like what another had done in a preceding chapter.  Sometimes the chapters overlap chronologically.  Sometimes, there are large gaps.  But what there rarely is is coordination between them and no great attempt to edit out the rough edges. It's great to have each girl have their own voice, but without an overseeing editor to iron out the rough spots, this is a bumpy ride. The approach is more distracting than clever.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Soulswift, by Megan Bannen

When she was a child, Gelya was taken from her village in the north by the Goodson and brought to the Convent of Saint Vinnica to serve as a Vessel of the Father and sing His sacred songs. There, she also helps translate the sacred songs into Kantari, the language of the infidels to the south -- a place that fascinates her because of the inhabitants' belief that the demoness that the Father imprisoned hundreds of years ago was actually a Goddess.

That conflict of belief has led to war and, at a hastily called summit hosted at the Convent, ambassadors meet to try to sort out the situation.  With her language skills, Gelya is brought in to translate for the interrogation of a young Kantari assassin.  The interview has only just begun when the proceedings are interrupted by a betrayal and massacre of the delegates.  Fleeing for their lives, Gelya and the Kantari (whose name is Tavik) find themselves unlikely partners.

That's when things start to get complicated. Tavik's mission is to free the Goddess (who he has found is imprisoned on the Convent's grounds), but doing so has unforeseen consequences and Gelya's body becomes possessed by the spirit.  Burdened now with carrying a presence that her faith has taught her is ultimate evil (but who Tavik venerates as a divine being), both of them must avoid capture.  They ostensibly share the same goal (free the being that Gelya is carrying within her) but with different motivations.  Along the way, their diametrically opposed worldviews coalesce through a shared struggle.  Mortal enemies become friends, lovers, and something a bit more transcendental.

A rich immersive fantasy with strong characters with interesting motivations and back story.  Both Gelya and Tavik are orphans of conflict and we spend some time getting to know how this affected them.  And while it is inevitable in a story like this that their initial distrust will break down through shared conflict to a romance, Bannen never lets that distrust too far out of their sight.  This is a fragile relationship and constantly under challenge as neither of the young people have much reason to believe the other.  As orphans, there's also a hypersensitivity to abandonment in their interactions that is particularly heartbreaking.

The world building is exquisite as the beautiful cover.  A wide variety of plausible cultures are presented and depicted.  The book makes good use of that diversity and also of different languages spoken by its people (although there is a fair amount of contemporary vernacular that can be jarring ("ass kicking," etc.).  The action gets a bit gory and the author is awfully fond of bad smells, but the story flows wonderfully and holds up the reader's interest through all 460 pages.

While themes of climate change and gender roles are present, it is religion and systems of faith that really predominate in this story.  I really liked the religious elements of the story, which are carefully thought out. Faith plays such a small part in most mainstream YA literature and the deep religious roots of the characters (particularly because they are so opposite of each other) allow some exploration of where beliefs come from and how we learn to coexist with people from different traditions.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Between the Water and the Woods, by Simone Snaith

As every child in the little village of Equane knows, you should never cross the moat that separates them from the dark woods.  When Emeline's little brother crosses the water on a dare from his friends, she is fast on her feet to fetch him back.  But not fast enough.  In the few moments that they are on the other side of the water, a dark creature appears that Emilene manages to drive off with water.  Safe back on their side, they notify their family and the town.

The town falls into an uproar.  It's an Ithin, a dark creature, and a long standing royal edict demands that any contact with dark creatures must be directly reported to the king by the witnesses.  So Emiline and her brother, accompanied by Emeline's father and a friend with a trusty wagon, venture to the capital city.  A grand adventure for children who have never left the village, but full of danger.  Along the way, they befriend Reese, a lash knight, who protects them and they arrive safely after further encounters with the Ithin.

Reaching the capital is only the beginning of their troubles.  The king is ailing and the royal court is split between two competing factions:  the Theurgists who honor magic and the Sapients who follow their belief in empirical science.  Each seeks to promote an agenda that will bring their group to power and the potential existence of the Ithin threatens the balance of power.  Both sides wish to exploit it for their own aims. More uncomfortable in this context is a growing realization that Emeline might wield her own magic.

A generally satisfying fantasy novel that unfortunately is marred at the end by a rushed conclusion and a plethora of sudden revelations that wrap up the adventure rather abruptly (but notably with enough loose ends that a sequel is plausible).  Most of the writing is fine, but Snaith gets caught up in tedium, worrying about where everyone sleeps, how they wash up, and where meals are coming from.  The attention to detail is admirable, but it drags on the pacing of the story and needed to be trimmed.

There are seven lovely full-page illustrations that seemed like they would have been better in color.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty

When she was eight years old, Lucy was struck by lightning.  As a result of the experience, she suffered permanent brain damage that gave her unusual mathematical skills.  For the past four years, she's been homeschooled, mastering all of high school math and most of college-level as well.  At twelve, she feels ready to go away to study at a university.  However, her grandmother (and guardian) isn't so sure.  She feels that Lucy needs to spend more time with her peers and challenges Lucy to mainstream and return to middle school.  If Lucy can make it through a year, make at least one real friend (on-line math buddies do not count), participate in an activity, and read a book about a non-mathematical subject, grandma will consent to Lucy's promotion.

For Lucy, middle school is an unsolvable equation.  Between her long  absence from socializing to her issues with OCD (another side effect of the lightning strike), middle school is particularly challenging.  But with some bravery, Lucy figures out a way to navigate seventh grade, even if it involves making a fair share of mistakes along the way.

A winning story of friendship (with all of its messy foibles) and of a girl who tackles the unpredictable world of real life adolescence.  There are some tear jerking moments of animal peril, but the story is mostly about Lucy sorting out the unpredictable nature of the social humans.  It's a storyline without particular surprises, but that makes it no less enjoyable.  Lucy's bravery with stepping outside of her comfort zone is inspirational. 

Friday, November 05, 2021

Not Here to Be Liked, by Michelle Quach

Eliza Quan is certain that she will be the school newspaper's editor in chief next year.  She's been working up to the position throughout high school and there really is no competition.  Sure, she can be a bit tough on the writers, but she knows what she is doing and she gets the job done.  However, at the last minute, Len (a junior reporter and popular jock) throws his hat in the ring and wins.  Shocked and hurt by the rejection, Eliza writes a private diatribe accusing the staff of choosing Len because he is guy.  A few days later, she is surprised to find her writing has been published.

Embarrassed to have the essay in circulation, Eliza tries to withdraw it but it has a life of its own.  What she has written about the preference for putting boys in positions of power resonates with many of the students.  The incident propels the issue of sexism in high school politics into the forefront and the school breaks into factions.  One side demands that Len resign and that Eliza be instated as the editor.  Others mock this as out-of-control woke culture.  Complicating matters, Eliza and Len discover a mutual attraction, which they try to keep private to avoid confusing the issue.

Entertaining and at times superficial, the novel actually brings up a lot of powerful questions about sexual equality in our relatively more complicated contemporary political landscape.  For an older reader, it is fascinating how sophisticated the dialog has become.  And while it is tempting to write  off some of the complexity of the dialog as being out of character for young people, I suspect that that is just me being an old guy not giving the kids their due.  High schoolers are now savvy enough to have discussions and debates like this.  Popular culture has pretty much ensured it.  There are two issues at play here -- the relatively easy question of the double standards that girls and boys are subjected to in high school and the more fascinating intersection of romance and sexual equality (and whether "sleeping with the patriarchy" undermines being a feminist).  

While there are a certain number of side characters, I felt all of the major players were used effectively.  Eliza and her friends (Winona and Serena) bring different perspectives to their notions of feminism and what the role of women should be that prove quite provocative.  A brief cameo with Eliza's mother discussing her notions of the proper role of women in the family provides some lovely insight on generational differences (and undermines some stereotypes about Asian women).  

Quach's book is ripe for discussion. This is first and foremost a romance and not a political novel, but I think it is okay to be both entertainment and edification.  Quach does not uncover anything particularly new, but the novel manages to highlight a variety of interesting thoughts that are worthy of group exploration.  I don't know if young people actually discuss books they have read, but if they do, this would be fun to talk about (and I would enjoy being a fly on the wall of that chat).

Monday, November 01, 2021

Instant Karma, by Marissa Meyer

Prudence has always believed that hard work should earn a person success.  So, when her biology teacher gives her a poor grade for a project that she slaved away on, she's incensed.  But when she learns that her "partner" (a lazy slacker named Quint who couldn't even be bothered to show up to class on time, let alone help her) is getting a better grade than she did, she's determined that there's something wrong in the universe.  There must be some sort of karmic pay-off for all of her effort.  

Her teacher explains that she lost points for not collaborating with her partner and that, in order to raise the grade, she'll have to re-do the work but this time with Quint's involvement.  Reeling from the injustice of the situation, Prudence is nonetheless committed to doing whatever it takes.

Parallel with class project do-over, Prudence suffers a mishap during a local karaoke contest that suddenly gives her the power to cause karmic payouts.  When she witnesses an injustice, she can right it in a particularly appropriate and poetic manner, causing good things to happen to good people and bad things to bad ones.  It would seem that some force has granted her the ability to finally mete out the justice she wants.  However, strangely, it doesn't work on Quint.

Forced to work together, Prudence finds out that Quint is different than she thought.  He works at an animal rescue that is down on its luck.  Prudence, who has never met a problem she didn't want to fix, sees potential for helping the place back on its feet.  Before she realizes it, she's committed to working with Quint to save the center and she's falling head over heels for Quint.  In typical romance fashion, he turns out to have charms that might even tame Prudence's obsessions.

Two separate ideas, which interrelate throughout the story, make it hard to explain the purpose of the story.  The rescue center is a more typical YA romance setting -- struggling business gets bailed out by a clever girl and an admiring conveniently-single boy.  The supernatural ability to impose karmic payback is different and more about learning to be a better person and less judgmental of others.  It would have made a decent novel by itself, but together, the story heads in two different directions and never really arrives.

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Skylark's War, by Hilary McKay

Clarry Penrose is cherry and upbeat, finding the positive in everyone around her.  Even though her father sees no value in her education, she persists in her dream of becoming an independent woman.  Her brother comes through and encourages her to study.  Summers are spent in Cornwall with their cousin Rupert, who is older and wiser, and he also encourages her.  And so, despite the odds, Clarry is on her way.  But with the arrival of the Great War comes Rupert's surprise decision to enlist and Clarry worries that he may never return.  When in fact a telegram arrives stating that Rupert is lost in action, Clarry agonizes and drops everything to find him, jeopardizing the pursue of her dreams.

A surprisingly retro book, written in a style of children's literature that really hasn't been actively practiced much in recent decades.  Clarry doesn't really have any adventures of note and you'll search hard for any passages that are particularly humorous.  This is simply a straight chronological account of her education progress and various troubles that her brother, cousin, and related family members go through.  There's no real message or defined purpose.  It's just a glimpse at a life.

The story is well written, but I am a jaded modern reader and I want a novel to have a purpose or a concept to justify its existence.  This instead just seemed trite, wasting opportunities to explore all of the societal changes occurring in the era (that McKay talks about in the afterword but never really explores in the story).

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Lily's Promise, by Kathryn Erskine

Lily's been homeschooled for the first five years of her education, but after her father passes away, there's no one to do the teaching and Mom insists that she start attending regular school for sixth grade.  While Lily expects changes, the one things she dreads the most is making friends and speaking in public.

Before her father died, he made her promise that she would "strive for five" and do five things that scared her and she figures to putting herself out there will be worst. She is surprised to find how easy the friend-making is as long as you approach people with an open mind.  She quickly makes friends with Hobart, a curling fan and the target of abuse from the class's bully Ryan.  Ryan has lots of targets, amongst them Dunya, a recently arrived Iraqi refugee.  Lily likes Dunya and is surprised by all the people (including Hobart's father) who dislike Dunya simply because of where she came from.

What Lily is coming to realize is that it is not enough to be kind, one must also be brave enough to confront hatred.  A chance comes for Lily to commit a truly powerful act:  run for class president.  She's terrified of speaking in public, but the alternative is Ryan.  He's set up a campaign based on lies, false promises, and smear campaigns (in a not-so-subtle allusion to recent national politics).  Lily puts herself in contrast by running a positive.  With the help of Hobart and Dunya, she sets her sights on fulfilling her promise to her father.

Cleverly albeit jarringly, the novel also contains a Greek Chorus in the form of the book itself.  Alternate chapters break from the action to allow "Libro" to discuss the preceding events and comment on the author's choices.  Some of the observations are quite amusing (like when Libro tries to rally the reader to prevent the author from allowing a dog to come to harm), but the constant interruptions disrupt the flow of the story and grow didactic when the author feels that a point hasn't been driven home hard enough.

While I appreciate the urgency that Erskine must have felt in creating this political work at the time, it hasn't aged well and the sentiments are saccharine.  It also comes at some cost to the original point of the story.  For while the arguments for kindness and positivity are pretty thoroughly presented, Lily's journey in developing self-confidence is forced to the background.  The expected pay-off doesn't even occur as the book ends abruptly.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

A Night Twice as Long, by Andrew Simonet

A blackout that stretches out over several weeks provides an unusual setting for this unconventional road trip story.

Before the lights went out, things were already going pretty badly for Alex.  Her father has abandoned the family.  Her severely autistic brother, Georgie had been removed to foster care.  Her mother had surrendered to depression.  But a world with no electricity seems to Alex like an opportunity to reset and fix things. She kicks things off by shaving off her hair.

Meanwhile, her neighbor and best friend Anthony has heard a rumor that some guys at the VFW a few towns over have a shortwave radio and can use it to communicate with the outside world.  He wants to go and see if he can contact his mother who is currently stationed overseas.  Alex agrees to go with him and the two teens set out on foot.  The trip is supposed to take just a few hours, but becomes an overnight adventure, during which the kids find out that the loss of electricity has brought out the weird in people.  From nudists to schools without walls to Christian survivalists, Alex and Anthony (along with Georgie who they pick up along the way) find that, in a world without lights, so many hard things seem possible.

Misclassified as YA, this is really an adult book with teenage characters.  It has some powerful observations about race (Anthony is black), class (they are both poor), and developmental disability.  Simonet is particularly eloquent on the latter subject letting Alex rant profusely about the awkward way that people treat autism and families with autistic members.  While autistic characters like Georgie are no longer exceptional in YA, the subject of their families is rare in any genre so that makes this novel stand out.  But beyond this, Simonet does not offer much for the story.  The blackout is more background than focus (so no post-apocalyptic moments of note) and is more of an excuse to give the kids a reason for their two-day hike.  I liked the characters, finding them firm, resourceful, and yet flawed, but there isn't much for them to do here.  I think there was room here to take all of these nice observations about humanity and also fit in a real adventure.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Cold Is in Her Bones, by Peternelle van Arsdale

Milla has never left her family farm.  Her parents won't allow it.  They also require her to line every entrance and window sill with salt to keep away the demons.  As long as Milla is dutiful and obedient, they tell her, she will be safe.  But from what?  When her brother's fiancée Iris comes to live with them, Milla hopes for answers.  But Iris brings only scary fairy tales and vague warnings about what happens to girls who become cursed.  And then when Iris herself becomes possessed by the demon and is sent away, Milla discovers the truth about what happens to girls who fall under the thrall of evil.

The Cold Is in Her Bones is a story of evil legacies, family secrets, and communities far too eager to sacrifice their young women rather than undo a wrong committed long ago.  It is an ambitious story, but hard to follow.  While the prose can be quite beautiful, it was frustrating to track the action or why exactly we were taking the turns we did.  In the end it is near impossible to explain what the story was really about or whether it was truly resolved.

The cover is pretty though!

Monday, October 18, 2021

Destination Anywhere, by Sara Barnard

Fleeing from a painful series of events, seventeen year-old Peyton manages to run away all the way from her home in Surrey, UK to Vancouver Canada.  She knows no one, has no plan, but is determined to get away.  By extreme good fortune, she befriends a group of young people who are independently traveling and hooks up with them in adventures across the continent.  Along the way, she recalls in flashback the years of bullying, risky and bad choices she made to cope with it, and her eventual arrival in Canada.  Her new friends help her develop a better understanding of how human relationships are supposed to work and to better understand herself, helping her on to the road to recovery.

Barnard has previously wowed me with her chilling toxic-relationship novel Fragile Like Us and again she delivers a cut-to-the-bone look at the dynamics of friendship.  Her characters are never perfect, but are perfectly depicted.  In this case, we come to understand (alongside Peyton herself) the dysfunctional behaviors she developed while being bullied and even the root causes (over-sensitivity, anxiety, unrealistic expectations) that put her in that position.  This includes dealing with the PTSD she experiences as seemingly normal events trigger bad memories, the slow rebuilding of her trust in others, and the confidence to stand up for her needs.\

She doesn't do any of this alone.  Along the way, there are plenty of good conversations with her fellow travelers who each have lessons to share (it's hard not to feel jealous for the kindness that Peyton receives from her friends in Canada -- it's a dream team of youth hostelers).  Peyton gets a lot out of these experiences.  She is reflective and always the agent of her own healing.  That is an empowering message for readers.

Another aspect of the book that I found empowering was the maturity of its discourse.  Payton's interactions with others show maturity, kindness, and empathy.  You know that you would be good friends with her if she were real.  Even Peyton's conflicts with her parents are handled maturely and respectfully.  Barnard doesn't create selfish parents for Peyton to rebel against.  Instead, the grownups have needs that are presented as just as valid as Peyton's.

The drama in the story is real and authentic.  Growing up is hard and Peyton shows us the way to get through.  I have to say that my affection for the book is at least somewhat tied to the gut punch it gave me and the extent to which I personally related to Peyton's issues.  If you have ever doubted your interpersonal skills or felt that your ability to make friends was being held back by your distrust of others, there are some chilling moments of self-recognition awaiting you in these pages.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim

Shiori, princess of Kiata, has been betrothed to a minor noble from the far cold north.  Even her six brothers agree that it seems like a demotion.  She'll do anything to duck out of it -- even taking a dangerous splash into the ocean to avoid the betrothal ceremony.  But when that runabout exposes Shiori's unusual magical acumen, it becomes a greater threat than an unwelcome union.  Magic is forbidden in Kiata and (until now) Shiori has been able to hide her abilities.

When she first arrived, Shiori loved her stepmother.  The brothers were cooler, but Shiori latched on to her, pining as she did for her deceased mother.  But as they all grew older, the positions flipped and a distrust developed between Shiori and her stepmother just as her brothers started to like her.  When the ocean incident brings Shiori's powers to her stepmother's attention, Shiori realizes too late that her stepmother is herself a sorceress and a threat.  Shiori tries to warn the family, but the woman curses her and her brothers.  Her brothers are transformed into six cranes and forced to flee while Shiori is banished to a faraway island, affixed with a wooden bowl over her head, and threatened to never speak.  For every word she speaks, she is told, one of her brothers will die.

Transported to a strange land with nothing except her clothes, Shiori must find a way to survive, reunite with her brothers, and figure out how to break her stepmother's curse.  Doing so will involve skills and fortitude that she never knew before that she possessed and enlisting the support of a wide variety of resources, including the help of her despised suitor.

This rich and vivid fantasy with a mildly Asian flavor features a complicated story with nearly constant and relentless action.  Full of betrayals and broken promises, the story has a fair share of twists and turns.  It contains a lot of what I'll call "false leads" (i.e., plot points which seem to suggest certain events that turn out to never materialize).  The old chestnut that if a gun appears in Act 1 that it will be used in Act 3 does not apply here.  Instead, Lim seems to delight in setting up a situation and then suddenly switching directions.  For example, given the way the story began, I presumed that we would have a big final show down with the stepmother about fifty pages before the end, Shiori would be victorious, and things would wrap.  I won't give any spoilers beyond simply saying that it doesn't happen (and not simply because there's a second book coming out).  The novel is chock full of these false leads:  lengthy preparations for conflicts that never materialize.  That doesn't mean that the book is particularly original, but simply that Lim doesn't want you to be able to guess what is going to happen next.

What is more predictable is the way that Shiori develops as a character.  She starts spoiled, self-absorbed, and impulsive.  Through her curse, she learns humility and circumspection.  With her struggles, she develops interpersonal skills and leadership.  Finally, with her betrothed, she learns to love.  None of this is dwelled upon but instead comes out organically as a result of all of the action, creating an appealing protagonist and a coming-of-age story that is a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

From You To Me, by K. A. Holt

At the start of eighth grade, Amelia accidentally receives a letter that Clara, her sister, put in a time capsule shortly before she died.  In the letter, Clara made a list of her own goals for eighth grade.  Amelia is still grieving the loss of Clara after all these years.  Feeling inspired by the list, Amelia tries to complete Clara's goals as a way of honoring her sister.  But the two girls are very different and Amelia struggles to do even one thing from the list.  In the end, she learns that she has to go her own way, including how she copes with her sister's death.

There's not really anything new here, but Holt does a nice job of showing Amelia's struggle and her eventual ability to resolve her issues.  Along the way, Amelia makes some bad choices and also learns a bit from the mistakes of her friends.  Overall, a short and functional story of grief and recovery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Small Favors, by Erin A. Craig

At eighteen, Ellerie is on the verge, but her future is not yet clear.  Unlike her twin brother Sam who will inherit the farm and have a place in the leadership of their small isolated town of Amity Falls, Ellerie's future will be tied to whatever man she ends up marrying.  It seems terribly unfair when Ellerie is the one who is loyal to her family, dutiful on the farm, and doting on the family's bee hives.  But Amity Falls is a community built around rules, order, and custom -- notions that have brought peace and modest prosperity to the townspeople.

When the incidents start to occur (animal attacks in the woods, strange mutations, withered crops, fires, and random acts of vandalism), it seems really like a string of bad luck.  But everyone's a little suspicious.  Tongues, primed by suppressed jealousy and resentment, far too easily spout forth accusations.  And those accusations in turn spawn counter-claims, petty vengeance, and violence.  The rules that seemed to bring order to the town, have simply hidden the true feelings of its inhabitants.  Let loose, the rage and fury tears the town apart.

And on the sidelines, a malevolent dark force is watching and entertained.

A creepy and deeply immersive horror set in a small isolated community, roughly in the late nineteenth century.  If your thing is supernatural horror, this novel provides it in spades.  While it is pretty easy to figure out that something is going on, the reader is left guessing at just how widespread the problem is until nearly the end.  And so while we are not entirely surprised by the reveal, its scope is shocking.

What really powers the story is not the sporadic acts of horror, but the complex web of combustible relationships that Craig has built.  Almost everyone has some reason to distrust everyone else.  Manipulated by evil forces that the townspeople never quite fathom, those doubts and insecurities are easy picking.  The result is a sobering story about the corrosive effects of distrust (made all the more chilling by the townspeople's own creed of unity-at-all-costs).  While the story ends on a note of hope, the overall Hobbesian message is a downer.

Beautifully written, finely nuanced, and deep thinking, Small Favors is book that will haunt you.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space, by Shaun David Hutchinson

This space satire opens with Noa finding himself outside of a spaceship with no memory of how he got there.  Inside the ship, a stranger named DJ is trying to keep the ship from exploding.  Together, the two boys manage to figure out the immediate issue.  Saving the ship and their lives doesn't bring them any closer to solving the mystery.  On the contrary, the story keeps getting more and more complicated.  Joined soon by girl named Jenny, the three young people battle stowaways, overheating reactors, space monsters, and eventually the most perverse high school in the universe.  And through it all, Noa and DJ develop a romance whose most surprising element is a sense of deja vu.

Much like Red Dwarf (if Lister and Cat were in fact gay -- in other words, just like Red Dwarf!), this is science fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously.  In fact, the story only starts to flag as Hutchinson seeks to find a way to end the story, explain the mystery, and say something deep and meaningful about mass culture.  The metanarrative of using sci-fi tropes to comment upon commercialization didn't work for me, but up to that moment, this is a pretty hilarious and entertaining read.  Noa and DJ make a great romantic couple and their relationship has a lively sparring that keeps things interesting (although I felt bad for how underutilized Jenny is as the third wheel).  Quirky and disruptive this is a story that works best as satire and shuns deep thinking.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

The Forever Horse, by Stacy Gregg

Maisie is horse crazy and spends her days at school drawing sketches of them during lectures.  Her teachers consider it distracting but her father doesn't mind.  He sees her latent talent and instead submits a sample to a prestigious art school in Paris, who in turn invite her to enroll.

There, her talents are less appreciated and Maisie has to deal with a hostile teacher who questions her youth, her commitment to art, and her lack of depth.  While despairing over her struggle, she stumbles across an old diary, which turns out to have belonged to a young artist of the nineteenth century who also loved to draw horses (and was similarly disparaged).  Reading the diary, Maisie finds inspiration from their common struggle.  But it is a shocking turn of events on the streets of Paris and a brave and heroic horse which put Maisie in a place to finally let go of her inhibitions and become the artist she longs to be.  

A superior (albeit formulaic) girl-and-horse story that will appeal to lovers of the genre. Lots of great horse details combined with stirring adventure and a heroine who is strong, brave, and loyal to her steed are all you really need and Gregg is an established master.  As with most novels that tell parallel stories, I always find that one of the two is the better and in this case it is really the historical one told on the pages of the lost diary.  Maisie's struggle, while full of contemporary resonance, seems less gripping and less interesting.   

 [Disclaimer:  I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  I am donating the book to charity.]

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Our Year of Maybe, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Sophie and Peter have been friends from childhood, but there has always been an imbalance in their relationship.  Peter is sickly, suffering from kidney dysfunction, and Sophie has always felt the need to sacrifice her happiness for him and to give him whatever he wants.  When she turns 18, that means donating a kidney to him.  She's a match and she can't think of anything she wouldn't want more to do than see Peter be healthy.  Her family and friends advise it, but she is adamant.

After the transplant, however, things go awry.  Sophie is distressed to find Peter is drifting away from her.  She thought that the experience would cement their relationship together, but instead her healthy Peter is gaining his independence.  Sophie, who has always defined herself in relation to him, doesn't want to lose him and doesn't even know how to move on.

Well-written, but excruciating to read.  Simply put, the characters are not very likeable.  Both of them self-centered, but it is Sophie's sense of entitlement that comes across the worst.  Despite her protestations that being a donor merits her to nothing, it is obvious that she feels nonetheless that Peter is hers and that he owes her his life in exchange for her loyalty to him. Peter, in contrast, is mostly oblivious to this and ultimately clueless (although at some points in the book, it seems that he knowingly exploits Sophie's dependence for his own benefit).  These are not people, in other words, who respect each other as people or who can get beyond their sense of what the other one owes them.

The story has many distractions. Sophie's younger sister is an unwed mother, which might have been useful as a contrasting relationship, but it is largely unexploited.  But the bigger non-sequitur is Sophie's and Peter's separate awakening sense of Jewishness.  I wasn't really sure where we were going with this, but I was hoping it would either become a path that one or both of them could follow as a way of breaking their codependence (Peter briefly flirts with the idea of going on a Birthright trip to Israel to give him some distance from Sophie) or that they could use as a way to guide them through their issues.  But instead, we get a couple of conversations and a random visit to temple for what are otherwise a pair of self-described "High Holiday Jews."

Finally, there is the way it all ends up.  I won't talk much about that because I don't want to spoil the ending, but the fact that the end of relationship (and the book) is blamed on a specific "heartbreaking night" (as the blurb puts it) really cheapens the over-350 pages of dysfunction that we have witnessed along the way.  This is a relationship that was destined to combust without an impetuous mistake.

In sum, a great story of two people in a relationship that you would never want to be in.  Whether you want to read about it is up to you!

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Princess Dolls, by Ellen Schwartz

Esther and Michi love to pretend that they are the Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, having adventures in Buckingham Palace and riding their horses.  One day, they see a beautiful pair of dolls in the local toy store window: replicas of Elizabeth and Margaret.  More than anything, the two girls want the dolls, but they are very expensive.  T

The good news is that they share the same birthday and it is arriving soon.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if they each got one of the dolls on their shared birthday?  When the day arrives, Esther gets the Elizabeth doll, but Michi does not get Margaret.  In the commotion and attention that Esther receives from the other girls, she neglects her friend and Michi slips away, feeling hurt and betrayed.

It's 1942 and while the war rages far away from their home in Vancouver, it still impacts the children.  Esther has an aunt and uncle who are trying to flee from Germany and her parents are anxious that they cannot find out anything about them.  Michi's danger lies nearer, when the government announces that all persons of Japanese descent on the Pacific Coast are being relocated.  Her family is forced to pack up and leave.  Before Michi leaves, Esther tries to reconcile with her, but it never happens.  Afterwards, Esther tries to figure out a way to make all of these wrong things right.

A sweet chapter book with beautiful illustrations and stellar design.  I didn't know that the Canadian government also interned their Japanese citizens, so this was an interesting subject.  But moreover, this is a nice story of friendships that get tried and tested.  The world events around them may be more significant, but for these two girls, losing each other's trust is far more important.