Sunday, June 27, 2021

Don't Stand So Close to Me, by Eric Walters

It's early March, six weeks away from the eighth grade dance, and Quinn can't believe that Isaac (the class president) isn't taking it seriously!  There's so much to plan for and so many arrangements to make!  But then at an emergency school assembly, the principal announces that spring break has been moved up and is starting tomorrow (and is being extended for an extra two weeks).  It's all to do with this virus that Quinn has been hearing about from her Dad (an ER doctor at the local hospital) and the need for "flattening the curve." 

At first, having a longer break seems like fun, but things are so different and are changing fast!  "Non-essential" businesses are closed and no one is allowed to visit the residents at the local nursing home.  Her father moves down to the basement to distance himself from the family, her mother starts working from home out of their guest bedroom, and Quinn has to attend school through something called Zoom.  When the original date of the return to school is extended out (and eventually cancelled altogether), Quinn begin to wonder if life will ever return to normal.

This short middle grade book, given its topical content and short shelf life, was rushed out in the Fall of 2020.  As such, it's quite rough, with underdeveloped characters and clunky storytelling, but I think it is important that someone attempted to create a middle reader to address all of the changes that went on during the crazy early days of the pandemic.  Years from now, this will make a nice historical novella.  For now, it tells a story to which young readers will personally relate.

You Know I'm No Good, by Jessie Ann Foley

Mia is trouble.  She's never found a drink she wouldn't drink, a drug she wouldn't take, or a guy she wouldn't hook up with.  And when she assaults her stepmother, it's the last and final straw.  Her family has her sent to a rehab facility out in rural Minnesota.  She's furious about her involuntary relocation, but she doesn't really blame them.  After all, all she's been doing for the past couple of years is screwing up.  Her father and stepmother blame her bad choices on the lingering trauma of her mother's death, but Mia herself figures her behavior is just because she's a no good slut.  Tracing how she actually got from her brighter beginnings to this nadir is half of the journey of this novel.  Getting herself back out is the rest.

There are plenty of examples in the troubled-teen-in-rehab genre and while this follows the general model, it breaks from it in notable ways.  As usual, the reader is only slowly brought in on the details and Mia performs the duty of unreliable narrator with aplomb.  She rations out the facts slowly enough that gradual enlightenment substitutes for drama for most of the first 150 pages or so.  Similar to other examples in the genre as well is the colorful cast of misfits that our heroine meets in rehab.  Sympathetic counselor?  Check. Sadistic warden? Check. All per plan.

But these things are simply the furniture that makes the more complex story of Mia herself easier to tell.  She's a much deeper and interesting character for one thing.  She's certainly self-destructive but she's really conscious of her decisions.  The contrast between her anger and rage with her rationality is a shock.  And while she's self-critical, she's never self-pitying.  Mia, in a word, is compelling and wanting to find out what happens to her will keep you turning pages. The ending itself turns out to be is a real surprise (aliens invading Minnesota would have been more expected than what happens here) but is satisfying.  So, while this is a yet another book in a heavily used setting, this novel is a strong contribution.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

One Speck of Truth, by Caela Carter

Whenever Alma asks her mother about her father, Mom either gets evasive or angry. Alma knows that he died when she was really young (her Nanny told her that much), she knows his name, and she knows that he was Portuguese -- but that's about it. She can't even get her mother to tell her where he was buried. So, she searches for his grave whenever she can, dragging her best friend Julia around with her, but so far she's had no luck in finding him.

Then, out of the blue, her mother moves them to Portugal.  In the same way that her mother refuses to talk about her father, she is similarly evasive about why they have moved to Lisbon.  But Alma realizes that now she is finally able to meet her father's family and get some sort of truth.

I liked Alma's creativity and energy, but her family really drove me nuts.  The adults in this story are really horrible human beings, gaslighting Alma, outright lying to her, and refusing to answer her questions -- all because of some inflated idea that she isn't old enough to know some version of the truth.  What a load of pretentious crap!  I found the mother particularly self-absorbed and detestable.  Early on, the story intimates that she might be suffering some sort of psychic break from a recent divorce, but really she just seemed selfish. Predictably, Alma emulates her mother and struggles with being honest with the people she loves as well (she at least recognizes the problem and works on it). Still, the rampant abuse in this story really left a sour taste for me.

Monday, June 21, 2021

The Gilded Girl, by Alyssa Colman

Emma Harris has lived a life of privilege for her first twelve years. Like other girls of her status, her father has now enrolled her in Miss Posterity's Academy of Practice Magic, the best school mastering her "kindling." Emma may be rich, but unable to conceptualize poverty or class, she is open hearted to everyone and clueless of the social norms she is violating.  She doesn't recognize that her fellow students (with the exception of one shy girl) are simply exploiting her for her wealth.  And when she tries to befriend the servant girl Izzy, it is misinterpreted as ridicule.

While Emma and her classmates have a bright future before them, Izzy is condemned to a life of misery.  It's 1905 and, although there is talk in progressive circles about helping the poor, only the rich are allowed to kindle.  The poor are not considered worthy and are required to "snuff" out their magic when it develops in adolescence.  Without the ability to kindle, the poor will then stay poor as the best jobs require magic.

Emma's fortune changes suddenly when her father is killed in the San Francisco Earthquake.  Not only orphaned but destitute, the headmistress forces Emma into servitude to pay off her debt.  Her peers reject her now that she has been reduced to a servant (much to her innocent surprise).  While Emma is forced to work alongside Izzy, the servant girl distrusts her.  But through hard work and a true heart, Emma wins over Izzy and hatches a plan to attempt to kindle by themselves, flying in the face of convention and the law.  To succeed, she has to enlist a variety of allies ranging from a friendly newsie to the "house dragon."

Derived from the classic A Little Princess, the addition of magic is a nice touch, but Colman takes the story much further, adding a stronger theme of socioeconomic equity that draw on the Progressive Movement and the real historical currents of the Gilded Age.  It's a loving tribute to the sentimentality of the period (complete with an over-the-top rosy conclusion) and also a fun magical romp.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust

Soraya has lived her life to date as a prisoner in her own home.  Cursed at birth as a result of her mother's rash decision, Soraya is unable to touch anyone without killing them.  As a result, she has to wear gloves to protect others and is secluded in her family's palace as a secret to prevent the shame of her curse from becoming public knowledge.

On the occasion of her twin brother's ascent to the throne and marriage, she is offered the opportunity to break the curse, but it will require her to betray her family.  Despite some misgivings, she does so with the help of a young warrior named Azad,.  But breaking the curse has huge ramifications and it becomes clear that she has only understood part of the story of her origin.

A lush fantasy based on Persian myth and Zoroastrian beliefs.  Soraya is a fascinating combination of anxiety, anger, and long -- very much the paragon of adolescent angst -- and thus familiar and sympathetic in the eyes of young readers.  Her voyage from reclusive outcast to brave leader is a satisfying journey -- part physical and part emotional.  Overall, the result is a sophisticated and enjoyable read, but I found her romantic outings (and implied bisexuality) distracting and forced and the ending exhaustingly heavy with symbolism.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Read the Book, Lemmings! by Ame Dyckman (ill by Zachariah OHora)

I don't often review picture books, but that doesn't mean that I don't read them!  And when a really good one comes along, I want to give it a little publicity, as in this case.

First Mate Foxy and Captain PB of the SS Cliff wish that the lemmings would just read the book.  It's plain and clear:  Despite what people think, lemmings don't jump off cliffs!  But try to tell that to the lemmings!  Time and time again, the lemmings jump overboard and Foxy has to go rescue them.  Why won't they just read the book?!

From the team that brought you the delightful Wolfie the Bunny, this hilarious and clever book is well suited to dramatic reading.  Grownups (especially those working in documentation and end-user training), who have wondered why their own lemmings wouldn't just read the instructions will identify strongly with Foxy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Unscripted, by Nicole Kronzer

Zelda is dreaming of breaking into the Big Time in comedy, landing a job at Second City before getting plucked up by Saturday Night Live.  She's completely excited about the summer she is about to spend at improv camp.  If she can only land a spot on the camp's varsity team, she'll be able to perform for the famous alums who come back to watch the end-of-camp show!

Winning a spot turns out to be the least of her challenges.  Her fellow teammates are sexist jerks, who try to sabotage her performances and make her look bad.  Ben, the team's sexy coach, is the worst of the bunch.  Confusingly for Zelda, he's nice when they are out of practice.  He seems to be taking a special interest in her.  A wallflower, Zelda is flattered by the attention and Ben's blatant grooming, but things still feel off and fellow campers and Zelda's brother try to warn her off.  When Ben becomes possessive and violent, Zelda doesn't know how to cope.

This is a book that I had a hard time getting through.  Reading it was fine.  It was well written, the pace was brisk, and the story quite compelling.  However, Ben was repulsive and exaggerated to the point of caricature and Zelda was simply too wobbly and weak.  I understand the author's intention to show the importance of fighting back against sexism and violence, but when the villain is this transparent, there really is no justification for Zelda's perpetual stupidity while her friends and family spend most of the book giving her good reasons to get smart.  With so many reasons for Zelda to end this, the only reason that Zelda didn't stand up for herself seemed to be so the story would run a few more pages (oh! how I longed for us to reach whatever the page minimum for the contract was!).

All this dumbing down basically teaches young women is that bad men are pretty easy to identify and you'd have to be a moron to keep hanging on to them. I could find zero reasonable motivation for Zelda to not turn Ben in to the authorities, but that isn't realistic. In the real world, abusers are far less easy to identify and the forces that keep women from turning them in far more difficult to overcome.  Zelda has a group of supportive friends, a brother backing her, and even several grownups ready to come to her aid.  Few abused women have that much.  I too believe that #MeToo stories need to be told, but I want them to be mildly realistic so young readers understand the challenge.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

These Vengeful Hearts, by Katherine Laurin

Ever since her older sister was permanently crippled during a high school prank run amok, Ember has wanted to wreak vengeance against the secret society that was responsible for the injury.  The Red Court is an anonymous group of girls at her school who have the ability to grant anyone's wishes and the power to enforce their will through blackmail and extortion.  Once you've engaged the Red Court, you can be sure of two things: what you ask for will happen and you'll then be permanently in their debt.

Ember is determined to take them down and gets herself invited to become a member with the intention of destroying the organization from within.  Her plan is to work her way up the ranks from a lowly initiate to the inner circle, where she'll expose the "Queen of Hearts" who leads the group.  But despite her intention to avoid causing harm along the way, she finds that hard to do as a member.  Instead, as she gets sucked into the string of lies and deceit that the group relies upon, she finds that  she is losing her bearings, her moral compass, and her friends.  

The characters are not well drawn and are developed unevenly (Ember's sense of horror in discovering that she enjoys extortion is more stated than shown, her aversion to committing her assignments cursory and shallow, and the on-off relationships with her allies confusing). With few to no sympathetic characters, the book falls back heavily on the plot, which is all over the place! Possibly (just possibly) a younger teen reader might find this story plausible, but most readers will recognize how silly the set up and the entire plot is. The author is at extreme pains to explain how this amazingly fragile arrangement could work, frequently revealing in the exposition why it really would not.  There's also this annoying repeated attempt to debate the morality of the group, but it falls on the same silly arguments (the people who ask for the favors are as guilty as the Red Court members) that grows weaker and weaker each time it is brought up.

Still, readers might enjoy this simply for the campy fun of watching mean girls exercise power.  After all, this is breezy read!  But we've seen much better versions of this story before.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Truth Project, by Dante Medema

Cordelia is feeling pretty smug about her senior year.  She's going to ace her senior project, basically by copying her older sister's one:  using the results of a genealogy test to create a poem about who she is.  But when she gets the results back, she's in for a big shock:  her sister is actually only her half-sister.  Her father is not her biological father.  Her parents have lied to her!

Feeling betrayed, Cordelia seeks solace from childhood playmate  and occasional heartthrob Kodiak.  Last year, he had a rough time where he dropped out and got his girlfriend pregnant.  Now that he's putting his life together, he can appreciate the difficulties that she is having coping with the lies.  While her mother discourages her, Cordelia reaches out to her biological father and immediately feels a strong bond.  In her mind, he's the missing link and suddenly all the times she felt like an outsider make sense.  But he's also surprisingly reluctant to meet her  in person and the harder she pushes for direct contact, the more he pulls away.

A story about the meaning of family and identity (spoiler: it's more than DNA) told in a mixture of verse, snippets of IMs, and emails.  The format is thin and the many half-blank pages make this book a really quick read.  There's plenty of drama but not much depth and Kodiak's story, while interesting, is not always a good fit and becomes distracting.  Occasionally, it provides useful contrasts (e.g., when comparing the circumstances of Cordelia's inception and Kodiak's previous year misadventures).  Still, it feels like a weak link in the story.

Placed in Alaska, where there ought to be lots of potential for scenery and local color, the setting is underexploited.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Blood Moon, by Lucy Cuthew

When Frankie and Benjamin start liking each other, things follow their natural progression, except that when they hook up for the first time in what what otherwise have been an amazingly romantic and sexy experience, Frankie gets her period.  She's mortified, even as Benjamin assures her that it's not a big deal to him, but the whole matter seems like something that they can just put aside.  Then someone posts a hideous meme about the incident and suddenly not only the whole school, but the whole world knows about the time that Frankie fooled around while she was having her period.

Who would have done such a thing?  Benjamin denies it was him and the only other likely suspect is Frankie's former BFF Harriet, who has recently grown really mean.  But even she wouldn't be that cruel, would she?  Not that it really matters who did this as the public humiliation is ruining Frankie's life, until she decides to take matters into her own hands.

The novel is awfully thin, written in sparse verse that makes for a very fast read (it took me just over two hours to read the entire thing).  It's not very memorable verse either. While the book is pitched as a feminist paean to body positivity, the incident involving Frankie and Benjamin does not even occur until 140 pages into the book.  The story is really about bullying and the way that social media amplifies and distorts jealousy and petty acts of vengeance.  The themes of sex positivity are clearly reinforced (by both the teens and the adults), but it didn't really sum up to much.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Who I Was With Her, by Nita Tyndall

When Maggie dies in a car accident, her girlfriend Corinne has no one to turn to.  Publicly, Corinne and Maggie aren't even friends.  Corinne, as far as all of her friends know, is straight.  The only person who knows is Maggie's brother who in turn introduces Corinne to Elissa, who dated Maggie before Corinne came along (a fact that comes as a shock to Corinne).

At home, Corinne can't seek solace from her parents.  Her mother refuses to come out of the bottle.  Her father is obsessed with only one thing: seeing Corinne get an athletic scholarship so she can go to college and get away.  Neither one of them would be ready to deal with a bisexual daughter.  And Corinne, who was never willing to have her relationship come out in the open, doesn't want to risk what little family she has.  Instead, she struggles to maintain the status quo, even as it becomes more and more untenable.

The story suffers from poor pacing.  It starts off very slowly and covers pretty well-trodden material with little to add to the grieving-a-secret-lover rubric.  However, towards the end the novel grows more interesting as, through flashbacks, it becomes clear that Corinne's memories of the relationship are flawed and she has some difficult truths to face about herself.  None of that redeems the poor integration of the stories of the parents, which end up as peripheral to the story.  That seems a wasted opportunity as it ought to be possible to connect the dots between her unhappy family situation and her other difficulties.

Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math, by Jeannine Atkins

Continuing a model Atkins used successfully in Finding Wonders, this book explores the lives of seven women who made a difference through math:  Caroline Herschel, Florence Nightingale, Hertha Marks Ayrton, Marie Tharp, Katherine Johnson, Edna Lee Paisano, and Vera Rubin.  Though the book's primary intent is to encourage girls to study math through the inspirational stories, Atkins focus on their childhood and the early challenges each remarkable woman faced make each story a pleasure to read.

Written entirely in verse, the stories could easily have been trite, but in most cases the opposite is the case.  Verse allows Atkins to focus on specific formative anecdotes without having to tie them all together, relying on the reader to connect the dots.  Subtle cross referencing between the stories intimates the way that science itself (and the growing role of women in science) builds off of the efforts of those that came before.

Each story, while calling out each woman' accomplishments, also notes external obstacles (which range from family commitments to institutional sexism) as well as personal challenges (failing grades, research setbacks) making it clear that success did not come without effort.   And in each story, a personal connection is found, whether it be a favorite dress, a marriage proposal, or a first child, showing that these women's lives were more than just professional accomplishments.  The overall theme is that girls may have to struggle harder to realize their dreams, but those dreams are still attainable.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Love in English, by Maria E. Andreu

Ana has always had a way with words in her old home in Argentina, but when she and her mother emigrate to New Jersey to join her father, she realizes that years of studying English in school and of watching TV shows has not prepared her for living in the United States.  Everywhere she goes, she is confused by cultural differences and the language barrier.  At first, every other word is #### and #### and we share her frustration while she tries to figure out what is going on.  But she makes friends and slowly develops the tools she needs to express herself as she wishes.

Life brings other challenges for Ana as she grows close to two boys:  Harrison (the sharp looking American boy who is everything she has ever imagined having an American boyfriend would be like) and Neo ( the Greek boy in her ESL class, who shares her challenges and truly understands what it is like to adapt to life in a new country).  Unlike English, there is no class for learning to juggle the feelings with which  Ana is dealing.

Sweet and humorous, this is good YA romance fare, but with the delightful twist of Ana's astute observations on the surprises of American life and the devious complexities and contradictions of English.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Every Single Lie, by Rachel Vincent

Things have been tough since Beckett's father died from an overdose of the OxyContin he was taking to numb his battle injuries.  In the aftermath, Mom spends too much time down at the station focusing on her job as a police detective.  Beckett's little sister Landry obsesses over cooking healthy meals and her older brother Penn is getting pumped up for her West Point application. Beckett herself has grown tired of the looks and the rumors at school.  Her boyfriend is hiding things from her and she's had enough of all the deception and secrets.

All of this pales in comparison to what happens when Beckett discovers a dead baby in the girls' locker room.  Within hours people are claiming it was hers!  There is no way it could be, but in her small town, there is nothing people like more than a juicy rumor and Beckett's family is already in the crosshairs of the town's gossips.

The rumors don't just stay local.  Thanks to the attention drawn to the dead baby by an anonymous Twitter account, the story goes viral and the crazies start coming out, threatening Beckett's life.  There's little she can do to change the things that people want to believe, but she's left wondering whose baby it actually was, especially since all the evidence does actually point her direction.

A suspenseful page turner that explores the way people like to talk and make up stuff.  Sometimes brutally, Vincent puts her heroine through the paces of being a small town pariah.  It will make you mad and sad to read about, yet it felt very realistically portrayed.  Some of the twists of the plot (and especially the ending) stretched credulity, but none of that diminishes a well-written story.  It's not deep and it won't teach you new things about addiction, teen pregnancy, or the corrosive impact of secrets and gossip, but it tells a good story well.