Monday, May 31, 2021

Aftershocks, by Marisa Reichardt

Ruby can't deal with her mother starting to date her water polo coach.  She can't deal with her best friend Mila, whose life is going off the rails and into the bottle.  Even her boyfriend Leo is too much for her these days.  How much worse can it get?

Her answer comes at the laundromat, where she's in the process of getting a cute guy to go next door and buy her beer when the the walls start to shake and the world around her collapses.  It's an earthquake  (not so unusual in SoCal) and it's unlike anything Ruby's ever seen before.  With the foresight to shelter under a table as the building collapses, Ruby survives but finds herself trapped under the rubble.  Charlie, the guy she with whom was just talking, is similarly pinned down nearby.  Suddenly none of her problems seem that big of a deal.  Now she needs to stay alive.

Reichardt's story of survival after the Big One paints a fairly realistic portrayal of the disaster and its accompanying chaos.  As a story of Ruby's struggle for survival and reunion with her family and friends, it makes for an entertaining adventure.  It does less well at trying to address Ruby's life reprioritizations and how the trauma of living through the earthquake changes her life.  That it changes Ruby is very clear in the end, but Reichardt struggles with how to show that evolution and ends up simply making it so.  It is the process of that evolution that is so important to the success of the story and quite a cheat to simply skip ahead to the result.  There's some attempt through flashback to show the precedents for her growth, but without the growth itself, these segments seem wasted and distracting.  Similarly wasted is Ruby's boyfriend Leo, of whom she spends far less attention than she does over Charlie.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Year of the Witching, by Alexis Henderson

Thanks to Hulu, the true political subtlety of Margaret Attwood's Handmaid's Tale was long ago lost to the spectacle of exaggerated misogyny.  On its face, Henderson's debut novel seems to want to travel down that same blunt force approach to politics by creating a religious dystopia where women suffer for no other reason than because men can get away with making them do so.  With the blurbs on the back of the book, that's certainly the way the publisher is marketing this novel.  But Attwood's condemnation of Reagan's neoconservatism and reborn American exceptionalism was always more than a dystopian fantasy novel and Henderson's subtle and engrossing book is similarly more than the sum of its parts.  They are similar works, but not for the reasons that are immediately apparent.

In Bethel, the Prophet's interpretation of the Father's Will and the Holy Scriptures is law.  Along with his trusted Apostles, these men rule over the people, keeping order and surrounding them with fear of the outside and of the encroaching Darkwood forest.  No one dares to enter the forest, which is still teeming with the witches that Bethel's founder beat into submission ages ago.  Certainly, shepherdess Immanuelle would never venture there on her own free will.  But one day, chasing after a runaway ram, she is forced to enter it and is accosted by two witches who hand her a gift -- a journal belonging to her mother Miriam (who died in childbirth).  The book is full of forbidden writings and Immanuelle devours the book for glimpses of her mother's life.  Miriam, who had enjoyed the trust and love of the Prophet fell from grace due to infidelity.  For her actions, Miriam was persecuted, but not before setting up a terrible retribution of four plagues that now Immanuelle has unwittingly unleashed.

The plagues though are really the natural consequence of the betrayals, jealousies, fears, and hatreds that underpin the dangerous and ultimately unsustainable status quo.  As Bethel itself unravels, Immanuelle becomes the only one who can make it right, but doing so will require knowledge that she doesn't have, the assistance of people who refused to help, and mercy from people unaccustomed to granting it.  Can she succeed where no one else wants her to?

Dark and complex, there's a lot to chew on in this book.  I found it too gory and bloody for my tastes, so I wouldn't recommend it if copious descriptions of bodily fluids are not your thing, but it is a compelling story.  There is a complex back story that supports the twisted and overlapping contemporary alliances that drive the story and make it interesting (and difficult to fairly summarize).  This isn't a great book for developing sympathetic characters, but it is definitely good for creating really detestable villains.  Immanuelle herself becomes ultimately a dark anti-hero, but in the more ambiguous background of Trumpian politics, this works surprisingly well.

Friday, May 28, 2021

What We Found in the Corn Maze and How It Saved a Dragon, by Henry Best

Ever since the DavyTron (which can convert tomato juice into any delicious vegetable you want) came out, the family farm stands of the world have been going out of business.  Cal's family is one of those threatened with foreclosure if they can't make enough money on their corn maze (although some of their troubles date back to Cal's unfortunate accident with the family's Fireball 50 harvester that left it a charred wreck).  Cal could really use a miracle or at least a bit of magic.

And magic is what literally rolls by his astonished eyes when he and his friend Drew witness spare change rolling uphill on the ground in front of them.  They follow the errant coins to their neighbor Modesty, who has learned how to cast a spell that retrieves lost change.  It's one of many spells in a notebook that Modesty discovered in her locker, none of which seem terribly useful.  The spells can only be cast at certain times of day and have limited functions like opening a stuck jar lid or picking something up without having to bend over.  

Be that what it may, soon enough the three children find themselves on an adventure to a parallel world called Congroo, which is full of magic.  All is not well there.  A strange force is draining Congroo of magic, leading to global cooling, and it all points back to an evil magician named Oöm Lout.  The DavyTrons back in our world are part of this plan and the kids set out to save Congroo and coincidentally save the family farm by shutting down the DavyTrons.

A wild rollicking adventure that touches on themes of bullying and climate change, but it ultimately just good plain lighthearted romp with magic and dragons.  The story is full of puns and inside jokes for all ages.  So when you've had enough dystopian stories about abused children and just want to have a smart funny adventure, pick this one off the new releases shelf!

Sunday, May 23, 2021

He Must Like You, by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Perry Ackerman is a known pest.  All of the waitresses at The Goat know that he'll try to get his hands all over them given the opportunity.  So, Libby knows what she's up against when she has to wait his table.  But he's a good tipper and Libby can usually handle him.  However, things haven't really been normal for her.  Her college fund has disappeared and her parents are going to unceremoniously eject her from the house so they can rent her bedroom out for an Airbnb.  So, she needs the job and she needs the tip, but not enough to put up with the creep's pawing.  When he goes too far, she shocks everyone by dumping his drink over his head.  The repercussions of her action have even more surprising consequences.

Like the middle grade book Maybe He Just Likes You, this novel explores the social intricacies of sexual harassment.  Aimed at teenagers, the approach is far more complex and the author brings up a wide range of issues from family violence to workplace harassment (especially in the service sector) to racial violence.  As it turns out, Perry Ackerman is hardly the first male with whom Libby has had to negotiate matters of consent and the novel serves as a useful primer on a wide variety of issues revolving around consent in general.  Libby's toxic family and the story around them seems initially unrelated and distracting, but gets neatly tied into the story by the time we reach a gratifying conclusion.  It's a lightning fast and entertaining read about a serious subject and all ages can benefit from it.

Across the Pond, by Joy McCullough

By an unusual chain of events, Callie's family find themselves heirs to a castle in Scotland.  While renovating it will present quite a few challenges, the family decides to leave San Diego and move in.  For Callie, this is far more than a change of scenery, it's chance for a restart.  Her friends have abandoned her and no one will talk to her, ever since she got blamed for getting them all in trouble.  There's nothing she'll miss when she goes and everything to gain by going someplace where no one knows her or her past.

While living in a castle sounds very exotic and exciting, it's really just a dilapidated and very drafty old building.  And not terribly comfortable to boot!  Also, while she hopes that being an exotic American will give her special cachet, she realizes quickly that kids are basically the same and that nothing will fix her fear of going through the same trauma all over again. Her parents, concerned that she's not making friends, deliver an ultimatum that she needs to join a club.  She doesn't play sports or a musical instrument and the idea of being around strangers terrifies her.  In desperation, she tries the local birdwatchers club, but the sexism of the group's leader drives her away.  Still, when she learns that Lady Philippa (the old woman who lived in the castle before them) was an avid birder all of her life, Callie is inspired to follow in her footsteps.  Along with the granddaughter of her groundskeeper and a helpful local librarian, they compete in a Big Day contest against the established club.

There are lots of great ideas in this book, but it's terribly busy.  Is the book about Callie confronting her fears of standing up for what is right ever again?  Is it about the ways that her life mirrors the life of the Lady Philippa (whose story is told in the pages of a diary that Callie finds)?  Is it about helping the gardener's granddaughter come out of her shell?  Is it about girls taking charge and defeating the boys in the contest?  And that's not even covering the inclusion of some trauma involving a cat or the dangerous and forbidden castle keep -- both of which are underutilized as plot devices.  There is, in sum, plenty to talk about here but a plethora of ideas doesn't make a story.  Charming but rudderless.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Poisoned, by Jennifer Donnelly

Sophie is a good princess, but she won't make a good queen, so says her stepmother and anyone else who dares to speak of the matter aloud.  She's none too bright and far too timid and soft to be a leader.  She lacks the will to make difficult decisions and punish the people who could hurt her.  Proving her stepmother's point, Sophie is led by her huntsman into the woods and he cuts out her heart.  And so she dies.

"Mirror mirror on the wall!  Who will be the source of my downfall?" the Queen commands.  But despite the fact that Sophie has been disposed of, the mirror insists that it is the princess who is to be the cause of the Queen's demise.  But how can this be?

You'll have to read the novel to find out.

Donnelly's Stepsister was a clever, witty, and ultimately poignant reinterpretation of Cinderella. Here, she takes on Snow White.  But while the formula is intoxicating, the result is less impressive this time out.  Part of the reason for this failure is that the point of the story is a mixture of messages (the importance of confronting fear, the strength of kindness, and the value of ignoring naysayers) that never really gels.  Nor is the revelation that a Grimms tale can be told this way all that revelatory.  Sophie is nice, but she makes an uncompelling heroine.  She goes through a number of transformations, but is a slow learner.  Her most common response is the wail that her friends are dead (people die often and repeatedly in this story).  And having set up a very convoluted plot with at least two enemies to vanquish, Connelly has to rush the ending to accomplish it all.  The last fifty pages are mere sketches of a story.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Sea in Winter, by Christine Day

Maisie's plans of becoming a ballerina are sidetracked when she sustains a knee injury in class.  While there is some optimistic news from her physical therapist that she still might be able to practice again, Maisie struggles with depression.  All of her friends were in ballet class and now that she can't participate, they seem to have deserted her.  By no small irony. the girl who talked her into trying the dangerous pose that injured her is now headed off to New York for a summer program.  She will realize her dreams, while Maisie is stuck in Tacoma.  When a later tragic setback cements the fact that Maisie's career is probably finished, she falls back on a counselor, her family, and her rich Indigenous American traditions for support.

A promising book full of fine ingredients but that fails to deliver.  The story of dealing with injury and the struggle for a comeback is great dramatic material but is undeveloped and unexplored.  The injury happened, but without any sort of special note.  The fact that her friends have moved on and that Maisie is having trouble dealing is noted, but not used in the story in any particular way.  And while she mopes a little when it seems her career is over, the author simply skips over her counseling.  She simply doesn't find the story worth telling.

Moreover, Maisie seems largely secondary to the story.  There are long digressions about the mother's life story and various elements of recent Native American history.  All of which is actually fascinating, but is never tied in to the story.  It's as of the author really wanted to write a story about the mother or a non-fiction book about the Makah tribe in the Olympic Peninsula, which makes you wonder why she chose this half-hearted attempt at a story about recovery.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Goodbye from Nowhere, by Sara Zarr

Kyle has has an idealized notion of his family as a perfect gathering of different people united by love, best illustrated by the noisy messy gatherings of his extended tribe at his grandparents' farmhouse.  It's such a warm place and Kyle proudly shows it off to his girlfriend (as well as proudly showing her off to them) at Thanksgiving.

But then his father drops a bombshell on him; his mother is having an affair with another man.  Kyle responds by cutting off his friends,  ghosting his girlfriend, and quitting baseball.  Unable to tell anyone or confide in his friends, he turns to his cousin and eventually his siblings.  While his parents try to keep the affair a secret and fail miserably to keep their marriage together, the whole thing tears Kyle apart.  To put the icing on Kyle's miserable cake, his grandparents have decided to sell the farm.  And so now the whole family -- some in the know but most not -- are converging for a final family gathering.

An emotionally complicated story of family with some impressive nods to Russian literature.  The overall message is not so much a Tolstoyan tale of unhappy families, as it is about how families are really webs of imperfect people behaving imperfectly.  Kyle's idealism may take a hit, but in the end he comes out with a healthier understanding of what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect from family.  At the same time, the novel really does have a Russian feel to it -- an enormous cast of diverse characters who each deal with each other in unique ways.  I always have trouble keeping up with large casts, but in this case, it's really the dynamic of that large family that is the point.  Zarr does a superior job making the whole thing work.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Amelia Unabridged, by Ashley Schumacher

Amelia and Jenna are obsessed with N. E. Endsley's Orman Chronicles.  For Amelia, the books are a source of comfort since her father left and her mother withdrew.  For Jenna, who has the loving parents and wealth that Amelia lacks, the books are simply something to bond them together.  She enjoys bossing Amelia around and Amelia, happy to be pleasing, does what her friend tells her to do.

When it is announced that Endsley will be appearing at a local book festival, the girls have to go.  Jenna's parents get them VIP passes so their be able to meet the author and get their books signed.  But things at the festival don't go well.  Endsley cancels and Jenna betrays Ashley in a way that leaves them broken apart.  And then, before they can mend their relationship, Jenna is killed in a car accident.  Reeling from the tragedy, Amelia withdraws.  Despite Jenna's parents' attempt to draw Amelia out, eh loses her interest in reading or pretty much anything else.  

A mysterious package arrives for Amelia with something in it that should not exist.  Following clues left on the package, Amelia impulsively travels to a bookstore across the country.  There, she finds out what happened for real at that ill-fated book festival and a lot more.  By the end of a week-long stay, she comes to an important crossroads where she'll have to decide whose life she wants to live.

A creative and complex romance and coming of age story.  The writing is beautiful, the characters deep, and the story well-developed and fresh.  But I still found myself unmoved.  I enjoyed reading the book, but the subject matter didn't engage me.  I love reading, but I don't swoon over bookstores or book authors and Schumacher presumes that her readers will.  The book's epilogue, with its hypothetical suggestions of what is to come, nicely encapsulates the gauzy vision that the author seems to like.  It's a pretty style but it doesn't make commitments.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Four Days of You and Me, by Miranda Kenneally

Lulu and Alex have a way of coming together and breaking apart, but whenever they are apart, they ache to get back together.  In a story that traverses four years of high school, but which focuses on four class trips, we track the ebbs and flows of that relationship.  The class trips start modest (local science museum and amusement part) and grow increasingly elaborate (New York City and London).  The relationship grows correspondingly complex.

Lulu and Alex try to manage their fleeting interests in others and the competing claims of their career aspirations (he wants to play baseball and she wants to become an author of graphic novels).  If their career goals seem unrealistic, their relationship seems even more so.  Mostly, they don't seem to be able to keep their hands off of each other (which has an embarrassing habit of making them late for all of their class outings) but they are too emotionally immature to really mean the earnest commitments they make to each other.  Thankfully, the story ends before they do anything stupid.

It's a brisk and easy read, but the lack of an honest spark between Lulu and Alex and the sheer annoying quality of their self-centered personalities makes this a hard romance to swoon over.  The story's timeline ebbs and flows backways and forwards.  Sometimes that works, other times it gets distracting.  Kenneally packs in lots of amusing anecdotes which she has collected, but they feel exactly like that (i.e., anecdotes stuffed in to fill out the story and provide some amusement).  The  moments don't really fit in the story.  Some elements (like the student group from Italy) seem largely thrown away.  In sum, a readable but largely disposable romance.

Monday, May 03, 2021

The Poetry of Secrets, by Cambria Gordon

Isabel loves literature and runs risks sneaking out to listen to poetry recitals.  But for her family, recently converted to Christianity to protect themselves from anti-Semitism, life is far too dangerous to run risks.  For while life for the Jews is hard, the conversos are distrusted  even more and subject to much of the same violence.

Isabel has been betrothed to a lawman, who will be powerful enough to protect her, but she doesn't love him.  Instead, her heart belongs in secret to the son of the tax collector.  If that betrayal should ever become known, her fiancé could easily destroy her family -- all the more so when the Grand Inquisitor shows up in their town.

The second historical novel set in 15th century Spain at the time of the expulsion of the Jews that I have read this month. Unfortunately, that makes it hard not to draw comparisons between this one and Larson's (reviewed on April 25th).  Larson's book, while it had a number of anachronisms, makes more of an attempt to recount history and is mor of a survival story.  Here, the focus is on the romance between Isabel and her forbidden love and less on family.  This adds some heat to Gordon's story, but I think I prefer the suspense of Larson's novel.  Either book will give you a good feel for the basics of the historical context, so it's really a matter of your preference for romance or adventure.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Sparrow, by Mary Cecilia Jackson

Sparrow is a gifted dancer about to achieve her dream of starring in Swan Lake.  And she's caught the eye of rich and handsome Tristan King, who's become her first boyfriend.  But within a few months, things are going to hell.  Tristan treats her badly and when she tries to break up with him, he brutalizes her and leaves her for dead in the woods.  Her dance partner Lucas, wracked with guilt for not intervening forcefully enough before the assault, throws his own career into a tailspin by trying to administer vigilante justice.  Both of them hit rock bottom and have to learn how to put together their own lives, instead of trying to fix others.

In short, a grueling and ultimately unfulfilling story about rebirth and rebuilding.  Jackson knows how to stage out a traumatic scene and create characters that are deeply hurt, but she doesn't know how to tell the story about how they got there.  Rather than show the descent into hell or the healing to recovery, she simply jumps ahead (a few days, weeks, or months) until we are at the desired result.  Thus, we go from Sparrow and Tristan's first kiss directly to him smacking her around, with no transition and no explanation for why Sparrow stuck around.  The recovery is just as abrupt.  I don't mind reading traumatic stories, but that's because I want to see the process of recovery.  Simply being recovered at the end of the novel is not enough.

The other issue are the characters.  Both Sparrow and Lucas ought to be sympathetic protagonists, given the amount of suffering that they have endured, but they really are not.  Lucas, in particular, has an uncontrolled temper that goes way beyond a fleeting rush of anger.  He's downright pathological (and scary).  Sparrow's grief eventually gets explained, but it's frustrating and hardly as heroic as all the other characters profess it to be.  Perhaps this is realistic, but it's not inspirational.  In order to have a story about horrible things happening to nice people they have to be nice in the first place.