Sunday, January 31, 2021

Jelly, by Jo Cotterill

Jelly is the class clown.  Adept at mimicking her classmates and their teachers, she makes everyone in eighth grade laugh. But the truth is that she's hurting inside.  She'd like to tell people the truth about how their harsh words about her weight hurt her feelings, but people don't want to hear that.  Instead, it's simply better to smile, act like it doesn't hurt, and laugh it all off as a joke.  Life goes on and making a big fuss won't solve anything.

While her decision to deflect through comedy gives her agency and the appearance of confidence, Jelly still finds that she comes home exhausted after a day of wearing her happy face.  She's hardly alone.  She's seen the way her mother pretends to be happy around her friends and how Mom tries to please the selfish men she dates and placate Jelly's abusive grandfather.  Jelly's mother just pretends it doesn't hurt.  

But then Mom gets a new boyfriend who's different from the others. He's supportive of Jelly's Mom and solicitous to Jelly's hopes and dreams.  He comes with novel notions that it is alright to feel bad and that appearances are overrated.  It's attractive and yet terrifying at the same time and Jelly and her mother have to decide how much longer they want to keep pretending?

It's a middle reader that surprises.  On its face, the book is safely in the beauty-is-on-the-inside realm.  Jelly learns that she doesn't have to hide behind self-deprecation and that she can get what she wants without always making people laugh.  But the novel, by bringing in her mother's example (and exploring the abusive nature of her grandfather's relationship with his family) bites off much meatier material:  exploring the way that abusive patterns develop and what it takes for a victim to free themselves from them.  Jelly articulates the feelings of her age well, but her fears and the angst surrounding them will resonate with almost every reader to one extent or another, making this story of building self-confidence a universal tale.  A good choice for multi-generational reading and sharing.

Wildfire, by Carrie Mac

Annie and Pete are that rare set:  the boy and girl who have remained friends from childhood without drifting into romance.  What has allowed that is their code of rules and a shared history.  Bonding over a variety of near-death experiences (mostly as a result of poor choices with dumb luck rescues), they understand each other in a way that no one else does.

Hiking through the woods of the Pacific Northwest (amidst hundreds of wildfires) they make one irresponsible decision too many and find themselves in a situation that can't get out of.  This elicits a stream of recollections of each of their previous close calls, used to tells us the story of how they become so close.  Unfortunately, it also leaves them further and further away from any chance of rescue.

There's a tremendous depth to the characters and I admired Mac's storytelling ability, but these Annie and Pete are a bit hard to take.  Pete in particular behaves really badly, selfishly putting Annie into some impossible situations. Occasional bad choices are the bread and butter of YA.  They create the situations that the protagonists get themselves out of.  But here, they come one after another and the characters seem determined to let them happen.

Self-destruction is not pretty and not terribly inspiring.  Smart kids doing stupid stuff isn't really a story I want to read.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Mermaid Moon, by Susann Cokal

Sanna is not like the other mermaids.  She knows that she obviously has a mother, but no one can remember who she is.  They know that her mother was landish, a human, and for this reason a spell was cast that would cause all concerned to forget about each other.  Now, Sanna wants to find her.  An old witch helps transform her into a landish girl so she can do her search.

On dry land, her sudden appearance and an incident involving the transforming of roses during a feast day cause her to be mistaken for a saint.  As a result, she comes to the attention of the ruler, Baroness Thryla.  Thryla announces that such an important person as Sanna must become betrothed to her son, a rather self-absorbed boy named Pedar.

Sanna is non-plussed.  None of this brings Sanna closer to finding her long lost mother.  She's not particularly interested in Pedar or even in the ways of landish romance.  Pedar does himself no favors, acting arrogantly around her.  And something is a bit off about Thryla.  In fact, the woman is a witch, who gathers souls to help elongate her life.  Sanna, with all of her magic, could be a powerful source.  To exploit her and retain her, Thryla must keep Sanna close by.  In the end, when Thryla and Sanna face off, the outcome surprises everyone.

A flowing and melodic fantasy novel, but plagued by a painfully slow pace that both suffers from repetition and also from skips and jumps that are confusing to follow.  I never got much into it, although I slogged through to the end.  The story eventually does resolve (we find Sanna's mother by the end) it really isn't very interested in telling a story.  Instead, it delights in its words.  There is also an underlying misandry (men portrayed as either rapacious or vain) and anti-religious thread to the entire book which is a bit disturbing.  This is addressed in an afterward from the author as some sort of literary experiment but seemed out of place and pretentious.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs, by Leslie Connor

Back when Lydia's mother was still alive, the two of them would work on collages.  Their collages, built off of pictures taken from an old forgotten family album, were their "goddesses" with each one signifying a different trait ("goddess of generosity", "goddess of the third heart", etc.).  Each of them is dear to Lydia now that her mother is gone and one of the very few things she takes with her.  With her father absent (aside from the annual birthday card which Lydia never opens), it's her Aunt who comes to take her home.

She relocates to the small town of Chelmsford, where Lydia's aunt lives with her partner in an old farmhouse with the house's owner, Elloroy.  The same week that Lydia arrives, the women decide to adopt a new dog.  Lydia isn't a dog person, so she isn't too sure about the dog, but despite his issues with becoming housebroken, the animal grows on her.  Likewise, while Lydia struggles with adapting to her new home and with coming to terms with her mother's death, eventually this home for her goddesses and for dogs becomes her home as well.

Full of lovely ideas, the execution of this fresh story of a non-traditional family leaves a lot to be desired.  So many of the themes of the story (adaptation, grief, identity, etc.) are handled piecemeal and largely unresolved.  A very late attempt to work out her father issues is half-hearted and incomplete.  The dog simply exists.  He struggles and she struggles but eventually they sort of bond, and there's no particular breakthrough beyond the realization that they have grown close.  And then there's the odd side trips that the story takes:  the hostile neighbor and a peculiar and upsetting case of animal cruelty,  Neither of these appear to serve much purpose.  The story's overall intent seems to be to simply show Lydia adjusting amidst a variety of challenges, but since none of these directly contribute, we left with wondering what the story was all about.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

In the Role of Brie Hutchens, by Nicole Melleby

Brie loves soap operas, but she never counted on her eighth-grade life becoming one.  She gets caught by her Mom looking at nude pictures of her favorite soap actress.  Embarrassed and trying to distract her mother, she blurts out that she's been chosen for the honor of crowning the school's statue of Mary.  This is one of the highest honors at her Catholic school and only granted to the very best student.  The problem is that Brie is not that sort of student and the honor has not actually been announced yet.  But if it means keeping her mother from finding out that Brie might like girls, then Brie will do whatever it takes to win that honor.  Along the way there are Brie's dreams of attending a performing arts school next year (too expensive for the family), her father's unemployment and tensions over money in general, and Brie's tentative exploration of her sexual identity with another girl at school.

The result is a wonderful tone-perfect book about coming out, suitable for young people who are aware enough of adult issues to begin YA, but needing the comfort of a middle reader.  While this is an LGTBQ children's book, it moreover a book about learning how to say what you want, how to ask others for respect, and growing up in general.  Brie's struggles with her mother over recognizing her homosexuality are heartbreaking, but credible and sensitively handled.  Her struggle to be acknowledged and accepted by Mom and for her mother's difficulty in letting go is universal enough to be relatable to anyone.  Brie's relationship with the girl she likes, Kennedy, has all of the sweetness and awkwardness that one expects from eighth grade budding romances.  In sum, Melleby has a good ear and had produced an authentic, age-appropriate, and sensitive story about developing sexual identity.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Lila and Hadley, by Kody Keplinger

A lot of things lately haven't been going well for Hadley.  Over the last few years, she's been undergoing the loss of her vision and is now legally blind  Because her mother got caught stealing from her employer and been sent to jail, Hadley's had to move in with her older sister, Beth.

She's developed a short temper with good reason.  Having to leave her friends is frustrating.  The way her sister won't stop bugging her about learning how to use a cane before she loses all of her sight makes her angry (even though the truth is she's scared at just how fast her vision is deteriorating).  Her Mom calls every night to talk, but Hadley hates how her mother lied to her and won't pick up the phone.  Hadley is so mad but she doesn't know what to do about it.

One day, when she's forced to accompany her sister to a local animal shelter where Beth works, she chances upon Lila, a shy pit bull.  Something clicks between the two of them, much to the surprise of the staff who have had no luck in socializing and training the dog.  But Hadley sees a kindred spirit in Lila (and Lila seemingly does as well in Hadley).  Can the two of them -- both feeling abandoned, angry, and scared -- save each other?

A fairly predictable middle school animal novel with a lovable dog and a testy protagonist.  Hadley is the weak point to this book.  Keplinger puts a lot of effort into showing how angry she is and while it is understandable that she would be so with all the stuff she's dealing with, it gets wearisome to deal with Hadley's endless rudeness, meanness, and self-centeredness.  The story is about Hadley's growth towards acceptance and inner peace, of course, but it's a story that is poorly plotted.  It's not so much a gradual growth as much simply a sudden stop.  A couple life lessons along the way are intended to provide the justification for change, but we don't see the lessons actually being learned as much as simply occurring.  The narrator's poor grammar works fine in dialogue, but gets excessive and precious in the first-person narration and it actually hinders our ability to see her internalization.  Animal stories work best with humor and hijinks, both of which are lacking for the most part from this story.  More dog and less girl would have made this a better book.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Nevertell, by Katharine Orton

Lina has never known life outside of captivity.  Born inside a Soviet prison camp, she ekes by with her mother and her best friend Bogdan.  The Commandant has a soft spot for her (which many in the camp believe is because he is her father), but life is still very hard.  One night, Lina and Bogdan escape, with instructions to find someway to get to Moscow, where Lina's grandmother will help them.

The world outside of the camp is dangerous.  Not only are they in the middle of frozen Siberian steppe, but the land itself is full of spirits and sorcerers.  Ghost wolves and Baba Yaga herself roam free.  Constantly thrown from one danger to another, Lina and Bogdan navigate through a world that mixes Soviet reality and Russian folk tale in a magical quest.

The amalgam of historical fact and folktale is peculiar, and one that I never got used to.  Despite the inspirations, there was nothing that really felt particularly Russian about this story.  Names, places, and ideas were all there, but the characters were distinctly English.  The story itself is wildly chaotic and hard to really follow.  The bad guys (the Commandant and the witch Svetlana) are strange and inconsistent characters, and their motivations contradictory and obscure.  The goals of the quest are constantly changing.  By mid-point I gave on trying to keep track of why we were going places and doing things.  The plot had more loose ends than a well-worn Central Asian rug!  A colossal mess of a novel.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Girls Save the World in This One, by Ash Parsons

June and her friends are super psyched about attending ZombieCon! They've been saving all summer for the passes and this is going to be the last major blow out before they go their separate ways for college.  Zombies have been June's favorite thing for years and she's super psyched to meet her heroes - the stars of Human Wasteland -- in the flesh.

Despite some snafus accomplishing their goals and some run-ins with a former friend, the Con is turning out to be everything they hoped it would be.  However, something seems off.  A few of the cosplayers seem a bit too realistic. And then during the full cast panel discussion, the girls find themselves in the middle of a real life zombie attack!  As the infected attack the convention attenders, June and her friends team up with the cast of the Human Wasteland fighting from ballroom to atrium trying to save their lives.

As the girls call upon their fan knowledge of their favorite show, proving to often be savvier than the cast members, there are lots of little Galaxy Quest moments, but not nearly as many as one would have expected.  Instead, Parsons plays this mostly straight.  Part of the reason for that is that the story is really torn between two directions:  June's ambivalence about growing up (and a side story about a falling out with her ex-BFF) and the whole saving-the-world-from-Zombies thing.  The stories are distractingly different and Parsons only real solution is painstakingly attempting to connect them.  This leads to pretty jarring shifts in pacing.  In the end, I just wasn't invested enough in June and her friendships to follow the drama and focused instead on her slaying of the infected rotting corpses of her fellow fans.  Overall, a clever concept full of unrealized potential.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

What I Want You To See, by Catherine Linka

The art scholarship was supposed to be Sabine's ticket out of poverty.  After her mother died, she's ended up on the street.  The scholarship, with a free ride and money to cover living expenses, would carry her through.  And then after art school, there would be a future as long as she worked hard enough.

The reality is that the scholarship solved little. It doesn't really cover her needs and it leaves her vulnerable.  An unsympathetic teacher, cut- throat competition from the other students, and a past that she can't run away from fast enough put her in a precarious place.  Worst of all, Sabine carries a chip on her shoulder.  Resentful that she always has to work so hard and the world is ganging up on her, Sabine makes a tragic error of judgment that snowballs.  As a result of her decision, she finds herself embroiled in a forgery scandal, the untangling of which will finish her career before it even starts.

After everything she has been through, Sabine can't imagine throwing it all away.  Her mother always told her that "the only way out is through." For Sabine, finding the strength to bravely plow on through her mess may be the only way out.

A tense story, combined with a protagonist who makes all the worst decisions (with the best of intentions), creates a novel that engages from start to finish.  You really want to root for this young woman, whose heart is truly in the right place, but her problems seem so insurmountable (and they keep on coming).    Along the way, she travels a truly impressive growth, moving beyond anger and wrath towards acceptance and forgiveness.

Ending a story like this was always going to be challenging, but Linka does a great job of providing a conclusion that, while not particularly rosy, at least offers some hope.  Given what Sabine has to endure, hope might be good enough.  So that, even if she doesn't get what she wanted, she gains understanding and growth that is its own reward.  That journey makes Sabine's hard slog a rewarding read.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Fable, by Adrienne Young

The Narrows are a dangerous place, where traders try to make a living sailing treacherous waters and navigating trade between people who have little and want more. It is a place only for the ruthless. It is a place where whenever you are on the verge of making it, there's someone ready to pull you back down. Nothing is free, Fable's father told her and she's learned the lesson well.  Four years ago, Fable was abandoned to fend for herself on a scrappy island.  Through struggle, ingenuity, and her wits, she's managed to make it to her seventeenth year, but she's running out of options.

Just as she is on the verge of losing her life, she finds rescue from a trader named West who leads a band of four young sailors on a ship called the Marigold.  While Fable wasn't exactly in a place to be choosy, there is definitely something wrong going on here.  In a place like the Narrows, everyone has secrets but the crew of this ship seem to have the sort of past that attracts trouble and gets people killed.  Nonetheless, they manage to reach the port of Ceros where Fable plans to confront her father -- the man who abandoned her four years ago.

Nothing ever works out like one hopes and the Narrows have a way of defeating you just as you think you have won.  Except now, Fable finds she has much more to lose,  "Never, under any circumstance, reveal what or who matters to you," her father also warned.  Far too late, Fable finds that more people are important to her than she have ever realized.

A breathtaking fantasy story set in a naval setting.  Young creates a tense world, teetering unsteadily between order and chaos.  Danger is ever present and haunts these young people's lives. There's never a restful moment in the story (Fair warning: as this book is the first of a duology, you won't even find rest at the end of this book!).  The tense storyline is enhanced by the complex relationships between the five young people on the ship and the overlapping threads with their antagonists.  There's rich drama here/

There is, in fact. much to love in this book:  an immersive and plausible setting with a complex socio-political structure, vivid scenery, lots of naval action, and meaningful human interactions between Fable and the four members of the Marigold.  Romance, a late arrival to this passionate story, almost seems like an unnecessary afterthought, but it certainly doesn't detract from the story.  The focus though is the usual lifeblood of a great adventure:  loyalty, betrayal, legacy, and destiny. A gripping page turner.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah), by Ann Hood

In 1964, Trudy Mixer discovered the Beatles and she founded the first Beatles fan club in Rhode Island at her middle school.  They would sent fan letters, make posters, and whenever a new album came out, the members would pore over it.  Trudy could even get her Dad to join her in listening (Mom preferred Sinatra to four boys who needed haircuts!).  The Beatles and the affection she shared for them with her peers and her father were forever!

But two years later, the numbers in the fan club are dwindling as Trudy's friends drift away to cheerleading, her father has less time for her, and even the Beatles are changing the sound of their music.  With the world changing in both big and small ways, Trudy wants to find some way to bring everything back to the way it was.  When she learns that the Beatles are coming to perform in Boston in August, she realizes that this is what could finally do it!

A sweet period piece that captures lots of atmosphere.  The theme of learning to cope with change is tried and true material of course.  With a focus on what would seem most striking to young readers, we've got everything from the advent of disposable diapers and the first Barbie doll to Betty Friedan and the Vietnam War.  And then there's the Beatles themselves, which form an appropriately formidable place in Trudy's obsessed mind.  The strength of the story of course rests on Trudy who carries the story with a mix of determination and insecurity that make her relatable to middle schoolers.  The book's fantasy ending, which could have seemed overly contrived, works as it provides both payoff and a means for wrapping up a story that is more about friendship and loyalty than the music.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Burn Our Bodies Down, by Rory Power

Margot hasn't had much in the world except her mother (which isn't saying much).  Their relationship could at best be called "abusive," with Mom largely neglecting her daughter and leaving the girl struggling to find love and affection, but Margot has had no one else.  When Margot stumbles across the discovery that she has a living  grandmother, and that Gram wants to meet her, she is overwhelmed with the hope of finding love and a home at last.  Despite her mother's warnings, Margot flees to Gram's farm in rural Nebraska.

It is not the warm welcome she was hoping for.  All is definitely not right.  The townspeople eye her suspiciously, accusing of things that they refuse to explain.  A fire kills a girl that no one recognizes, but who bears a striking resemblance to Margot and whom Margot has never seen before.  Gram, denying knowledge of any of this, refuses to explain herself.  The mysteries pile up.

A creepy story that relies largely on gaslighting to propel its story.  It's well written, but the cruelty and abuse that permeates the novel (and is present in every adult character in the book) got to me quickly.  More so since this is a story that would have largely been resolved if people had actually started conversing and comparing notes.  Still, the ending feels compelled to go far into the deep end of implausibility making that ending poetic but a dramatic shambles.  A fast read that never dragged, but it never became particularly enjoyable.