Sunday, February 28, 2021

Beyond the Break, by Heather Buchta

One of the truly rarest themes in YA literature are stories with a strong respectful approach to religion.  In these days of no holds barred children's literature, religion remains the one truly awkward topic.  Holding aside books written specifically for the Christian market, it's hard to find books for teenagers that tackle faith.  So when one comes along, I like to call it out.

When Lovette's older brother was seriously injured (and nearly died) in a surfing accident, her parents flat out prohibited Lovette from being in the ocean, let alone surfing.  That hurt a lot and Lovette couldn't pull herself away.  With her brother's life hanging by a thread and her parents distant and distracted, it was on the waves that she found her comfort.  And when her friend Kelly took her along with her to her church's youth group, she found a similar comfort in Jesus.

For a twelve year-old from a largely non-religious family, Christianity hadn't meant much to her before.  But in the companionship and the Bible, she found a place and a meaning that she needed.  Part of that  was her pledge to remain pure -- not to date until she meets the One and not even to kiss until her wedding day.  And while she's not made a big deal about it, not dating has been a bedrock part of her life, given her focus, an become interwoven with her faith.  At the same time, so has her secret trips to the ocean to swim.

Years later, she becomes reacquainted with a boy named Jake, who reignites her love for the surf and inspires her to confront her parents about their prohibitions.  When she finds she has feelings for him as well, it throws her into a spiritual crisis.  It was so easy to be a good Christian when she was a twelve year-old girl, but does that pledge really still work for her when it stands between her and Jake?  And is questioning that defying Him?  How do you keep faith as you enter adulthood and your world becomes more complicated?

The story features strong and nuanced characters who act authentically and are often surprising.  The story moves effortlessly and has a lot of good surfing scenes for fans of the genre.  The relationships between Lovette and her family, between her and her friends, and the complicated relationship between her and Jake are make for good reading.  But, of course, the primary purpose of the book is the spiritual challenges she faces and that is what makes this compelling reading.

I understand why some people will avoid this book altogether -- the characters' unapologetic love for Christ will trigger some readers.  However, that fidelity to God is key to this story and there is an intrinsic beauty to Lovette's journey as she navigates the ways that her relationship with her parents and with her God are changing that makes this novel worthwhile. The author's background as a youth pastor serves the story well and one imagines that Buchta is pulling on a lot of experiences working through these same issues with a lot of real kids.  That she creates an entertaining novel out of such emotionally authentic feelings is noteworthy.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, by Wai Chim

As the eldest daughter in her Chinese-Australian family, Anna carries a lot of responsibility.  Her younger sister and little brother need her help.  Her father is rarely home because he has the family restaurant to run.  Mother meanwhile is buried in her room, often for weeks at a time.  Ma suffers from fits of depression and bouts of psychotic delusions.  But in Chinese culture, one doesn't acknowledge these things.  Instead, we learn that one assumes that rest, "better thoughts," and time will solve everything.  It would be shameful to seek outside help. So, instead, Anna is forced to keep her family together, playing mother to her siblings as her father avoids coming home more and more often.

A boy with a past comes into Anna's life and provides both a romantic distraction and some useful insights for helping her cope.  But in the end when things grow so serious that Anna can't resolve them, the family has to face the facts that not everything can be solved by wishing for a better future.

An interesting cross-cultural look at mental illness.  Unfortunately, because the family is ultimately incapable of resolving the issues, it's an unsatisfying look.  Anna's acceptance of her responsibility for her entire family is questioned a few times by outsiders, but she never confronts it and the self-destructive behavior continues roughly unabated through to the end.  While the story ostensibly ends hopefully, a particularly grim postscript leaves us on a down note.  All of which leaves us with the question of what message we are supposed to take from this?  Otherwise, I loved the cultural details, the use of language, and especially the devotion to Cantonese cuisine (which left me with a strong hankering for Chinese take-out!).

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Girl and the Ghost, by Hanna Alkaf

Alkaf's new middle reader is a contemporary story based on Malaysian folklore.  Suraya is a lonely child but she has one true friend, an evil spirit, whom she calls Pink.  Born through witchcraft from the blood of a dead baby, Pink is bound to Suraya and Suraya (lacking any other friend) is bound to Pink.  This mutual need creates an uneasy symbiotic relationship.

But one day, Suraya makes a real friend with a girl at school named Jing who loves books and Star Wars and offers a bit of normalcy in her life that Suraya has lacked.  And Pink, who ought to be limitless in his power, finds he can't compete and unleashes a terrible vengeance.  Terrorized by her former friend, Suraya is forced to find help and share her secret.  Even with Jing's help, defeating a spirit will require ingenuity and great effort and the two girls sneak out and search for Pink's origins so they can return him from whence he came.

The clever merging of contemporary Malaysian culture and Malay folklore gives this book a unique feel. The local color, however, does not distract from a story to which young readers will relate (tackling meeting parental expectations, bullying at school, and the pressures of conforming to societal expectations).  The story in the end gets a bit muddled and felt rushed, but Alkaf writes well and the story and its two resourceful heroines were engrossing and fun to read.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Bloom, by Nicola Skinner

Sorrel is very good at following rules.  So good, in fact, that she is a shoo-in for Headmaster Grittysnit's new contest for the most well-behaved student, the Grittysnit Star.  She was last year's Head of Year and regularly earns Sensible Child and School Rule Champion certificates. How hard can it be? But that was before plants started growing out of her head! 

It all starts when Sorrel finds a packet of Surprising Seeds, learns the sad history of her hamlet of Little Sterilis from the owner of the town's neglected plant nursery, and accidentally releases an ancient curse.  With the help of her scientifically-inclined (but non-conformist) friend Neena, they find the cause of the unusual blooms.

Meanwhile, Headmaster Grittysnit won't tolerate sprouting scalps and when the pates of the entire school starts to germinate, he believes it is time to take drastic measures.  As the guardian for the forces of obedience, conformity, and rules (such as guide all sensible students!) the solution is paving over these unruly plants.  Sorrel realizes that that will never work, but to convince the others, she has to break the rules, jeopardizing her chance of winning the Grittysnit Star!

A very British satire attacking conformity. The targets (stuffy school administrators and property developers) are not particularly formidable and the struggle is not particularly fierce, but the whimsical text makes for a brisk and entertaining read.  For fans of Lemony Snicket and The Willoughbys.

[Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on March 16th, 2021.]

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Willa and the Whale, by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown

After the death of her mother, Willa returns to the Washington coast to live with her father.  Before she died, Mom was a marine biologist and instilled a great love of the ocean in Willa.  Early on, her father takes her out for a whale watching trip and, during the outing, Willa is surprised to find that a Humpback Whale named Meg is talking to her!  In subsequent weeks, Willa and Meg become close, with the whale offering advice to Willa about how to handle the loss of her mother, her problems integrating into her new home, resolving trouble at school, and fixing things with an old friend.  These issues are big, but nothing compared to Willa finding a giant Blue Whale run aground on her beach.  To solve her greatest problem yet, she has to round up family, friends, and her whale friend.

A rewarding middle school reader about problem solving.  Willa has a wide variety of issues (including grief, family conflict, rebuilding friendships, jealousy, and accepting failure) but addresses each of them in a positive way.  Her strength, which comes through again and again, is that she thinks through her problems and does her best.  She does not always succeed, but gains strength even from her failures.  The wide diversity of issues threatens to make the novel seem unfocused, but the unifying theme is the power of communication, seeking help from others, and creative problem solving.  The result is a warm book with a positive message that even the most terrible issues can be solved and that what initially seems like failure is simply the first step towards eventual success.

As an added bonus, frequent fun facts about whales which are sprinkled throughout the book make for entertaining Google searches for inquiring minds!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley

Davidsburg, Virginia in the 1950s was a place where everyone knew their place, white or black, man and woman.  But in 1959, after years of fighting in the courts, the school district is finally forced to integrate its schools.  Sarah is a senior and one of the first black students to attend Jefferson High.  It doesn't go well and in the first part of this novel, we are exposed to the immense cruelty and hatred that these young pioneers faced against the arrogance and ignorance of their peers.  It's a harrowing read and enough to turn your stomach, but well worth enduring for what follows.

In part two, we get introduced to Linda, a white girl and the daughter of the local newspaper's editor.  Like her Daddy, she's a proud opponent of integration.  The attempt of "Communists" and subversives to undermine the way things have always been cannot stand and she'll do everything she can to fight against Sarah and the other black students ruining her school.  She's a true believer in the separation of the races and the inherent superiority of whites over most blacks, but as the story progresses, she comes to question the things she's told herself are true.

All of that by itself would make for a a very powerful book, but Talley has grander ambitions.  The lies these characters tell themselves are not limited to issues of race and privilege alone, the novel also tackles sexism, classism, and even homophobia.  And while it is never said outright, the story makes it clear that not all problems were fixed by the Civil Rights movement.  The end result is a startling piece of historical fiction, brutal and unrelenting in its depiction of violence, cruelty, and indifference, but just as unrelenting in its vision of hope for a (not yet realized) better world.

I might quibble that Talley has bitten off a lot more than she really needed to (simply tackling racial injustice might well have been sufficient?) but there's a compelling logic to her decision to tie the way that all of these forms of arrogance and inequality are related.  And the ability of so many that stand on the sidelines and tacitly endorse the behavior with their silence is part and parcel of the same problem.  The forces that make a daughter subject to her father's physical abuse or the subjugation of an unmarried mother to economic injustice are no less destructive than a school full of racist bullies torturing their classmates and the complicity of the teachers and administrators who allowed it to happen.  For anyone who has been on the receiving end of injustice, this is a painful and uncomfortable read, but thought provoking all the more so for it.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Falling in Love Montage, by Ciara Smyth

Saoirse isn't much of a believer in love.  Aside from one major girlfriend and being the handy available partner to every girl in school who wanted to experiment, Saoirse hasn't had much experience.  She certainly doesn't find much love at home.  Mom's confined to a nursing home with early onset dementia and hardly even recognizes her daughter. It would seem that even a mother's love is temporary.  Dad's gone ahead divorced her and is going ahead and remarrying, further proving that love is temporary and nothing lasts forever.  

None of this stops Ruby, obsessed with romantic comedies, from trying to interest Saoirse in a fling.  Ruby's only staying the summer and will university approaching, no one is looking for forever anyway.  Instead, she proposes a virtual "falling-in-love montage" just like they do in the rom coms.  Armed with a list of common thing that happen in romantic comedies, the girls set out to have a whirlwind summer romance that will help Saoirse cope with her feelings of familial abandonment.

A functional romance but unremarkable and hard to get into.  The plot (girl forswears love yet falls in love in the end) is utterly predictable and surprisingly short on spark or drama between the two girls.  The novelty of this being a lesbian romance isn't really that novel anymore.  The tension between Saoirse and her father over how he has treated her mother fizzles as well (although I'm not sure where Smyth could have taken the story and it seems like one of those things that looked better in outline than fleshed out).  The most interesting relationship in terms of growth is actually Saoirse and Ruby's straight cousin Oliver, who go from enemies to actual friends by the end of the story.  It works well, with Oliver ironically assuming the role usually played by the gay friend.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert

Marva is eighteen, which means that she finally gets to take part in her first election.  She's completely on top of this.  She's been studying the ballot and she's been doing everything she can think of to help get others out to vote.  It's time to change the way things have been run and that will only happen when the right people get elected.  On the day of the vote, she gets up early and is even the first person in line at her polling place.  She's done well before school starts.

Duke is the same age and determined to vote, because in his family, being politically active is expected.  But his mind is really on his band's first paid gig tonight and he just wants to get in and get out.  However, that's not how it turns out.  He's not on the rolls and when Marva overhears his plight she takes him under her wing and drives him from place to place trying to get him his vote.  Through a day filled with every possible (and sadly familiar) set back from closed polling places to ballot shortages and long lines, the two young people become friends and more as they share the quest to participate in the democratic process.

It's a clever setting for a YA romance that would have made an excellent short story.  Even as a novella, it probably would have had room for all the politics that Colbert puts in (voter suppression, BLM, interracial marriage, racial identity, etc.).  As a novel though the material is too thin.  So, Colbert throws in dead siblings, failed relationships, and even a missing cat -- much of which seems distracting and immaterial to the story.  Sometimes a great story doesn't need to be a novel, but I guess it was a more commercial proposition to make it so.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Agnes at the End of the World, by Kelly McWilliams

At Red Creek, life is simple and straightforward.  The Prophet speaks for God and rules all.  His Patriarchs administer his will over their plural wives and children.  Technology is evil and the outside world is dangerous and forbidden.  While Agnes has struggled with parts of the doctrine, she has always found great comfort in the structure, routine, and faith of the place  But her younger brother Ezekiel suffers from diabetes and he will die unless she can continue to get him insulin, which she smuggles to him in direct violation of the Prophet's rules that forbid outside medicine.  That window to the outside brings with it a crisis of faith for Agnes when the Prophet announces that End Times are upon them and everyone must take shelter in Red Creek's underground bunker.

Faced with the reality that retreating to the bunker will spell certain death for her brother, Agnes decides to take him and flee to the outside world. There she finds that the Prophet's warnings are not far off the mark.  A global pandemic has shattered civilization.  Millions have fallen victim through a process where their skin turns crimson and hard and they eventually swarm into huge masses of semi-living beings called "nests." Amidst this chaos and disorder, Agnes and Ezekiel try to find a new safer home before realizing that Agnes has a calling and must obey her own prophecy.

This original dystopian novel sounds like so many things but ultimately transcends them all.  Part One, which outlines the oppressive and soul killing world of a religious cult and Agnes's plans to flee it will sound like any number of novels about teenagers in cult compounds.  Part Two takes us into The Stand territory with its peculiar share of Stephen King thrills (much of which resonates strongly in a COVID-19 world).  But by the time we hit Part Three, the story has left those tired genres and moved into Agnes's search for truth.  Like all good prophecy stories, Agnes initially resists her calling (aching to remain mortal and insignificant), feels anger at being placed in a role of such great responsibility, and ultimately understands the sacrifice that she was always going to make.

The author's prediction of pandemic was a lucky strike and gives the book some extra gravitas, but McWilliams has created a keeper without that bit of serendipity.  Her story is ultimately about how faith creates religion or how religion creates faith (and when the two are at cross purposes).  This is sermon-worthy material packed into an exciting action story that will keep you turning pages, leaving behind ideas that will have you thinking for long after you've read the last page.  A stunning, astounding novel that defies the genres it mines.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Lupe Wong Won't Dance, by Donna Barba Higuera

This is no greater hell on Earth than a middle school square dancing unit.

Lupe Wong has a hero:  Fu Li Hernandez, the Chinese Mexican pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.  As a fellow Chinacan/Mexinese, she figures he's got to know her frustration when filling out the race item on forms.  Lupe's uncle is friends with Hernandez and has promised Lupe that he'll arrange for the two of them to meet if Lupe can get straight As this year.  It should be easy.  She's doing well in all of her classes.  But then she discovers that they are going to have to learn to dance in phys ed and suddenly Lupe isn't sure she can do it!

Lupe is a problem solver, so she turns her energy towards finding a way to get the curriculum changed.  She tries to convince the adults that square dancing is harmful (no luck!).  Then she uncovers that the words to the "Cotton Eye Joe" song they are dancing to are suspect (the school changes the dance music). She starts a petition to protest the fact that boys choose the partners (the school pledges to change the policy next time). And so on.  But in the end, the real solution is for her to find a way to just dance in her own way.

In general, this was a pretty amusing book.  Lupe is creative and persistent.  While she exploits the Culture Wars for her own selfish gain, she's astute and in the long run comes to see the bigger picture here (the author's long-term solution to Lupe's complaints is certainly discussion worthy and will give readers food for thought).  Ultimately, the story is a winner because it focuses on how thinking about others and their needs will make you a winner.  For as much as Lupe wants to meet her hero, she proves that she is willing to put that dream on the line to do the right thing.  That is ultimately a pretty heroic thing to do.