Monday, April 26, 2021

Deepfake, by Sarah Darer Littman

At Greenpoint High, nobody knows more about who is doing whom or who got in trouble than the anonymous poster of Rumor Has It.  For years, the blog has been posting the juiciest gossip.  And while no one wants to be a subject of the blog, everyone likes to read it.  All the more so when the gossip involves the two smartest seniors in the school.

Dara and Will have been neck and neck for the valedictorian spot and, for at least the past couple of months, they have also been secretly dating.  When their secret is blown by Rumor Has It, no one is more surprised (and hurt) than Will's best friend MJ.  She can't believe that Will wouldn't confide in her.  Coupled with her recent rejection by her first choice school, life really seems to be going downhill fast for MJ!

But even MJ's issue pale in comparison to the trouble caused when Rumor Has It posts a video that shows Dara accusing Will of cheating on his SATs.  Will's spectacularly improved SAT scores come under scrutiny and he finds his own college chances now in jeopardy as he struggles to clear his name.  Given that she's his girlfriend, why would Dara even make such an accusation? She claims she never said the words, even though everyone can see from the video that she did.

A clever story that takes the controversy around deepfake technology and places it in a high school milieu.  Some elements of the story are a bit of a stretch, but Littman has crafted a fun mystery that starts off with a bang.  The middle drags, but the story picks up again at the end as the blogger behind Rumor Has It falls into their sights.  This isn't classical literature and it will age very poorly, but it is an entertaining quick read and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, by Gail Carson Levine

Loma loves little children.  Living in a big family, Loma has plenty of younger siblings and nieces and nephews to take care of.  While she is young, she dreams of getting married and having many of her own.  When she asks Belo, her grandfather, he always demurs.  She's his favorite granddaughter and an indispensable traveling companion on his trips. She takes care of him during their travels and he refuses to let her leave him.  And he, in turn, has become an essential player in protecting the Jews of Spain, which makes her just as indispensible.

It's the fifteenth century and Jews live uneasily alongside the gentiles on the Iberian Peninsula, but that is about to change.  For little Loma, there is her longing to keep her family together and one day start one of her own, but the bigger existential concerns are overtaking such fragile dreams.

An exciting historical novel that is more entertainment than history.  It gives readers a sense of the key features of the period (the ever-present fear of anti-Semitic violence, the role of social status, and some elements of everyday life), but Levine isn't terribly attached to the need to achieve painstaking accuracy.  She has a story to tell with a strong and independent heroine who is quick on her feet and sharp witted.  With a large cast of characters and a timeline that lurches forward in service of keeping up the pace, Levine doesn't put much into any one of them.  Even Loma and her grandfather, who are the central players, never really develop their relationship.  Loma is devoted to Belo and while she occasionally expresses resentment, those feelings are not explored.  That keeps the pace going, but makes the book unremarkable.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When You Know What I Know, by Sonja K. Solter

After Tori's uncle touches her in a bad way, she wants to be a good girl and tell an adult, but she has trouble getting the words out.  Her mother initially doubts her story and her grandmother steadfastly refuses to believe that Uncle Andy would ever do something like that! Surely, she has misunderstood!

Thankfully, Tori's mother does see the truth and does the right things in the end, but none of it really addresses the mixture of pain, guilt, and anger that Tori feels.  Telling is hard and more so since Tori doesn't feel that anyone is really listening.  Even her best friend misinterprets Tori's withdrawal as an attack.  And when her father reaches out and offers to take her away, she realizes that he is only using the incident as an excuse to try to regain custody and hurt her mother.

Heartbreaking and poignant, the story is insightful and grasps many of the nuances of childhood sexual abuse.  However, it suffers from the author's decision to tell the story in verse.  As I never tire of mentioning, verse novels can be very powerful but they face a steep challenge in trying to convey complexity in sparse exposition.  The text is pretty, but that isn't really the message that is needed here.  We struggle to really get inside the heads of the characters who wax poetic but never really get the opportunity to bare their souls.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

It's Kind of a Cheesy Love Story, by Lauren Morrill

Beck has spent the first sixteen years of her life trying to live down her notoriety as the girl who was born in the bathroom of the local pizza joint.  Sure, being the "Hot n' Crusty Baby" earned her free pizza for life, but it's not exactly something she wants to be known for.  She's trying to fit in and play down the embarrassing facts about her life and this hardly helps!  But she needs work and, in addition to the free pizzas, the boss of the restaurant promised her a job when she turned sixteen.  So, here she is answering phones and greeting customers at the site of her birth!

Afraid of what her cooler friends will think, she tries to hide the fact that she's working at Hot n' Crusty.  That gets hard as her long hours interfere with her ability to hang out and as she finds that she likes her co-workers (and the dark and distant delivery driver Tristan in particular).  She has fun at work and with her new friends, but she remains worried about what each group will think of the other and so she holds the two worlds apart.

Inevitably, she finds that she can't really separate them and, faced with losing both sets of friends, she has to stand up for who she is and stop trying to be what others think she should be.  The shocking realization that she was the only one who really cared about her image is an eye opener and everything ends up just fine.

It's sweet and entertaining, but light on substance.  The characters are largely stock and the situations recycled from other teen romances.  It is striking that everyone's pretty nice to each other.  You won't find any mean girls in this book! That makes for gentle reading but also very little drama.  Harmless, but also pointless.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

When Life Gives You Mangos, by Kereen Getten

Ever since the last hurricane hit, Clara has had trouble remembering what happened last summer, but she senses it must be a bad thing because of the way other people in the village look at her.  Even her best friend Gaynah doesn't seem to want to be her best friend anymore.  About the only person getting as many sidewise looks as she is getting is her uncle, who lives alone up the hill and who Pastor Brown calls "the devil."

Her coastal village in Jamaica is a quiet and boring place.  The tourists who come to surf it consider it exotic, but nothing ever happens here.  So, when a new girl shows up from America, Clara is excited to show off the sights to her.  She just hopes that she can do so before Gaynah interferes and wins over the girl for herself.

Packed full of culture and local flavor, this debut novel creates a vivid image of life in a poor Jamaican coastal community.  The story it tells is terribly complicated however, involving historical animosities and suppressed regrets, and it compounds it all with a major twist towards the end that reframes most of the story.  That complexity makes this short book worthy of a re-reading or two to get full enjoyment and appreciation.  I did not find it compelling enough to return to, but I did enjoy the insight into Jamaican life.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

American as Paneer Pie, by Supriya Kelkar

Being the only South Asian in her school has always been difficult.  Lekha has managed it by keeping a low profile -- ignore the teasing, smile when someone asks an offensive question, and play down the differences.  So what if the other kids don't understand the importance of Diwali?  Or if they make fun of the food you eat?  But even though Lekha thinks she manages pretty well to fit in, it's hard to say that she's happy, but she consoles herself with the idea that it's a decent way to get by.

When a new Indian girl named Avantika moves in nearby and she turns out to be Indian herself, Lekha is excited to no longer be alone.  And she is determined to help Avantika keep a low profile as well and help her fit in.  But to her surprise the girl has totally different ideas.  She isn't afraid to stand up for herself and confronts their classmates' prejudices head on.  With a bravado that Lekha has never been able to manage, Avantika puts her appeasement to shame.  Hurt and embarrassed, Lekha betrays the girl.

Then a series of racially-motivated attacks (one involving family friends far away and the other incident very close to home) open Lekha's eyes to the importance of standing up for yourself and not allowing people to shame you into pretending to be someone that you are not.  Lekha feels compelled to act and finds her voice.

While at times preachy, Kelkar's story of a young woman's search for identity and for self-confidence is a natural heart-warmer.  One hopes that its descriptions of a nativist race-baiting politician will become dated, but the overall story about being proud of who you are and the importance of standing up for yourself will never grow old.  You don't have to be a South Asian kid to relate to the story:  Anyone who has ever been reluctant to defend yourself for fear of "offending" others knows very well the pain that Lekha goes through and how difficult it is to overcome that fear.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

How to Be a Girl in the World, by Caela Carter

It may be hot outside, but the only way that Lydia is going to be comfortable is by covering every inch of exposed skin.  She's roasting, of course, but ever since boys started teasing her about her body in sixth grade, she's been unable to be in the presence of boys or men without being wrapped up like a mummy.  Her cousin Emma (who lives with them) and her Mom keep demanding an explanation, but Lydia can't actually say what she is feeling out loud.  Whether it's the boys and their jokes or the way that grown men look at her on the subway, she feels overwhelmingly self-conscious.  Worst of all is Mom's boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs last too long and who always seems to find an excuse to touch her.  Lydia would say something, but Mom likes him a lot and he's good to the family, so Lydia doesn't want to do anything that would make her Mom angry.

That same summer, Mom surprises Emma and Lydia by buying a fixer-upper.  While the house is badly neglected, Mom assures the girl that it can be rehabilitated.  But first of all, the house needs to be cleaned out.  The former tenants left it full of abandoned possessions and the three of them work hard over the summer to clean it out.  While cleaning, Lydia finds a secret room full of vials and dried herbs.  A leather-bound book left behind claims to explain how to use them to cast spells for love, fortune, and (most important of all) protection.  Convinced that the only way that she will be able to ever go outside uncovered and looking like a normal person is to enlist some supernatural help, Lydia tries to concoct a magical talisman.  In the end, she finds that the way to protect yourself is much more straightforward.

An extremely fast 300-page read (I had intended to only start it this afternoon, but ended up finishing it instead).  Lydia's inability to speak up throughout most of the book drove me nuts, but given the sensitive nature of the subject, I can accept it.  And, in showing us how even a shy girl can find the strength to say what needs to be said to protect herself, Carter is providing a roadmap for young readers who may feel themselves in a similar situation.  It's no easy journey as Lydia discovers that not every grownup is going to help her or that she will always be understood even when she finds her voice.  But in the end, the right people do the right things.

The story gently and age-appropriately clearly conveys the message that only you get to decide how your body will be touched.  I can't think of a more important message. While there are actually a fair number of good books for middle school readers about privacy, body positivity, and the importance of boundaries, sadly there really cannot ever be too many.

How to Disappear Completely, by Ali Standish

Life could always be lonely for Emma, so she cherished the time she spent with her grandmother.  Gram filled Emma's world with stories of fairies, gnomes, and forest spirits.  They even had a special place in the forest that they would visit -- the Spinney -- where Gram's stories took place.  And they shared Gram's favorite children's book, the R. M. Wildsmith's The World at the End of the Tunnel.  So when Gram dies, Emma is devastated.  All the magic she once felt all around her has vanished and she is inconsolably lonely.

Without friends of her own, starting seventh grade would be hard enough.  But it is made more difficult when Emma discovers white patches developing on her dark skin.  She is developing vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin.  Self-conscious about how the blotches on her skin makes her look to others, Emma wishes now more than ever that Gram was still around.  She would know how to deal with this!  But working with what she has left (a supportive family and some classmates who want to be friends regardless of what she looks like), Emma learns how to make her own magic.  Along the way, she also makes an important discovery about her family history which helps her come to terms with her grandmother's passing.

A subtle, slowly paced, but ultimately immensely satisfying book about the bonds of family, the rewards of trusting others, the importance of kindness, and the healing magic of a creative mind.  It is a hard book to start (I nearly tossed it during the first hundred pages because I found it dull), but I had a sense that the book would reward me in the end and it did!  It's hard to pin that success on any one factor.  Emma is a sweet and clever protagonist with a kind heart.  The story introduces important lessons about friendships (both good and toxic).  Emma's ability to resist the desire to strike back, while setting limits for what she will accept is great modeling for young readers navigating their own relationships.  Emma also has a similarly keen ability to sort out the fascinating mystery that unfolds.  But in the end, what makes this book enjoyable is the overall positive message that everyone has problems with which they are dealing and that the best approach is always sympathy.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly, by Jamie Pacton

Kit's loves her job at the Castle as a serving wench.  She loves the excitement and adventure at this medieval-themed dinner theater (heavily based upon Schaumberg's Medieval Times), but she hates the sexism of the routine.  The idea that woman did nothing more useful than serve food in the Middle Ages is a stinking pile of horse manure!  She wants to be a knight and ride out and fight the other knights!  She's been training herself for years and learned a lot from her brother who is the troupe's Red Knight.  But corporate policy states that only men can be knights (and incidentally make the better-paying salaries associated with the job).

In response, Kit starts a campaign to force the restaurant to let her become a knight and rallies her girlfriends to the cause by training them to fight with her.  She creates a social media campaign and publicly confronts the company over their policy.  But at the end of it all, does she have all of the skill necessary to truly bring about justice and carry the day?

A bit corny, but it's a romantic comedy with its heart in the right place.  Treat the book as a rollicking adventure, with Kit front and center suffering through an endless series of amusing misfortunes.  The characters are not terribly deep and the story itself is poorly researched, but Pacton can keep the pace up and creates a lively story that gives Kit a chance not only to exercise prowess on the field but also demonstrate the skills of humility, wisdom, and charity that make one a true Peer of the Realm.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf, by Hayley Krischer

My wife never asks me why I read children's books, but she does ask me why I read the depressing and distressing ones.  Complete with a book title that sounds like an After School Special, Hayley Krischer's novel covers some extremely intense subjects (rape, sexual exploitation, and drug abuse) in explicit detail, but it does so with great sensitivity and insight.

Ali has a serious crush on Sean.  She's been obsessively scrapbooking about him. While she'd be too shy to act on her feelings, she's over the moon when he invites her to a party.  At the party, when he invites her upstairs and plies her with alcohol, she apprehensive but eager to please.  When he goes too far and brutally rapes her, she is devastated, but afraid to say anything.  Everyone saw her go upstairs willingly.  Sean is a known player.  There were plenty of drugs and alcohol around.  What did she expect?  But even Sean knows that things did not quite go down right (the blood may have been a clue!) and he tearfully  turns to his friend Blythe to help him.  Will she befriend Ali and talk her out of getting him in trouble?  Blythe, desperately in love with Sean herself, will do anything to please him and doesn't hesitate to seek out Ali's friendship.  As one of the "Core Four," Blythe can offer Ali social status and a better life at High School.  All Ali needs to do is forgive Sean or just let the matter quietly go.  What poor wallflower (like Ali) wouldn't jump at the opportunity?

But Blythe's plans start to go seriously off the rails from the start.  The two girls share a common background of maternal abandonment, a similarity that Blythe attempts to exploit, but Blythe finds herself more dependent on Ari than vice versa.  Blythe may be one of the Queen Bees but she got there through a brutal (sexual) initiation she and the other Core Four went through three years ago.  The trauma of that experience and the expectation that she is soon expected to perpetuate it herself has left Blythe more fragile than she expected in the face of Ari's recent experience.  While Blythe thought she was the strong one, it would seem that Ari is actually more together than Blythe.  Ari decides to stand up for herself and ignore Blythe's attempts to get her to forgive Sean, Blythe lashes out ferociously.

While rape culture plays a key role as a catalyst, the story is about how young women respond to that culture as both resisters and participants. My synopsis makes the book sounds exploitative, but it really is not.  Instead of tracking a police investigation and court case, the novel dives in to the psyche of Ari and Blythe -- what makes one girl endure her trauma and come out on top while another who seemingly copes well succumbs in the end?  Neither girl really plays her part. While Ari is the obvious heroine to this story, she is hardly a strong one.  She makes ample mistakes and sometimes simply stumbles.  Blythe is the girl you want to hate for the pure evil of her plot to seduce Ari with a promise of popularity, but in the end her love for Ari is undeniable and the cause of her downfall.  If one doesn't see something to redeem in Blythe, at least there is a lot to pity.  In sum, these are complicated characters with a fascinating codependency.

If it makes any difference to you, the story ends on an optimistic note, but if you don't have the stomach for real dark character studies, this is not a book for you!

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Dress Coded, by Carrie Firestone

As if middle school, with all of its emotional drama and body changes, were not stressful enough, Molly is tired of the way the school's dress code.  Everyone knows that the rules are only applied to the girls (and the ones that are more developed at that!).  This is hardly a minor annoyance.  Beyond the emotional trauma of having attention drawn to their bodies by (male) adults, the girls who are called out miss classes (and even exams) that they are not allowed to make up.

Molly and her friends are near graduation, but when Molly's friend Olivia is humiliated by the principal for trying to cover up an embarrassing stain and then blamed for the cancellation of an end-of-school camping trip, Molly decides to take action.  She starts a series of podcasts interviewing other students who have been victimized by the policy and discovers that the impact of the code is further ranging than even she imagined.  Eventually, the podcasts trigger a social protest that draws notice from the community.

A great topic for a middle grade read.  It's handled a bit clumsily here in two ways:  First, by making the school administrators particularly incompetent, which makes defeating them far too easy.  This makes the story satisfying, but doesn't really give fair time to other points of view that could have made this topic more interesting.  For example, a fleeting reference to school uniforms would have made a powerful counterpoint that Molly and her friends could have addressed.  The second weakness of the story is the plethora of sub-plots.  Middle school is a busy time so naturally Molly and her friends have plenty of other things on their mind.  That's fine, but I'm not sure what particular value the struggles of Molly's older brother with addiction added to the story?  I kept waiting for that to get tied in, but it was basically a separate story altogether.

The book is a fast entertaining read about an important and relevant topic, but it could have been better with more exploration of dress codes and their pros and cons, and fewer distractions.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Watch Over Me, by Nina Lacour

When Mila ages out of foster care, she is offered the opportunity to be an intern at a remote farm on the coast that takes in foster kids.  It's a way to give back and also a supportive place for young people who share an understanding of what it is like to be left behind.  There she bonds with a young boy named Lee who shares her background and the two of them confront the ghosts in their past.  Complicating matters, the farm is actually haunted and the kids and the counselors interact with these ghosts as well.

A strange and peculiar novel that I couldn't connect with.  The narrative structure is complicated and the story itself is short.  I'd find myself just starting to understand something and then get thrown into another alien situation.  The figurative and the "real" ghosts interact in peculair ways and the timeline is split as Mila shifts between present and past (often unsure herself of where she is)  I think that Lacour tied everything up at the end, but I'd be hard pressed to explain how it was done or what it meant.  I know some people enjoy working a bit harder to understand what they are reading, but I don't feel the need to be challenged when I'm relaxing.  By far, this is Lacour's most challenging and ambitious book to date and my least favorite as well.