Saturday, July 31, 2021

One Jar of Magic, by Corey Ann Haydu

In Rose's town, people collect magic in jars.  Big magic, small magic, magic that makes rain, magic that turns your finger nails pink forever.  And in Rose's town, it's her father who has amassed the largest collection of magic.  It is her father to whom the town turns when they need some special sort of magic.  Magic makes you powerful, says her Dad, and the more magic you have the more important you are.  Her father is very important.

Gathering magic isn't something you can do until you turn twelve.  And so the children look forward to the first time they will be able to fill their own jars.  They wonder how many jars they will fill.  But Rose doesn't worry about it because Dad has told her that she is special just like him.  He calls her "Little Luck" and tells everyone how powerful she'll be.  She believes him.  She always believes what he says because when she doesn't do so bad things happen.  And while she isn't really sure herself, she won't tell him her doubts because that will just make him mad.  And she doesn't want him to be mad.

The great day comes when Rose will go out and gather her first magic.  However, it doesn't turn out the way anyone expected.  Try as she might, she ends up with nothing more than a tiny bit of magic her brother helped her catch.  Why?  What does it mean that she wasn't the great magic collector her father said she would be?  And if she is in fact not intended for magic, who is she?  For years, she's made fun of the others for not being as magically-inclined as her family so payback is being subjected to the ridicule of her peers.  Worse though is how her father treats her for not fulfilling her promise.

This strikingly beautiful and original meditation on self-acceptance stands out as one of the best books of 2021. The magic that Rose's family collects in jars serves in so many roles.  First, as metaphor for status and prestige.  Second, as means to pursue the tragic consequences of greed and its accompanying corrosion of the family.  Third, as a safe way to explore the darker topic of domestic violence that lies underneath all of this.  Finally, as a device through which Rose rebuilds her sense.  This relatively simple concept also allows Haydu to delve into a variety of other topics like peer pressure, possessive friendships, bullying, crushes, and forgiveness, amongst others.  The result is a very dense book that delivers a strong emotional statement, but the text with its graceful prose feels light.  With such potentially triggering subjects, it is striking that one comes out in the end feeling refreshed and inspired (instead of drained and spent).

Haydu has written several lovely books (I have given strong positive reviews to at least two of them) but this novel is truly on a different level.  Strongly recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2021

It All Begins with Jelly Beans, by Nova Weetman

It all begins in the nurse's office where Meg and Riley meet and share a bag of jelly beans.  The two girls are very different.  Riley hangs out with popular girls like queen bee Lina, while Meg is a misfit who comes to school in ratty old clothes and a pair of bath slippers.  Yet, what they don't understand at first (but come to appreciate in time) is that the nurse's officer serves a common purpose for both of them:  a refuge from the pressures they are facing at the end of sixth grade.

Meg wears old clothes because her mother has become a recluse since the death of her Dad.  With her mother unable to leave the house, Meg has to find a way to feed and take care of them both, which involves relying on the generosity of a few adults.  This includes the school nurse, who finds ways to smuggle Meg leftovers from the teacher's lounge.  Riley, who seems so popular and happy, is in fact living in shame of her diabetes, for which she has to constantly monitor her glucose levels and wears a programmable pump.  This makes her stand out in a not-so-good way and she wishes her friends would not make fun of her for it (and maybe also whether they are truly her friends).

When both girls are tapped to give speeches at their graduation ceremony, the acquaintance they developed over candy blossoms into a real friendship.

While not very original material, Weetman's book about friendship, peer pressure, and standing up for oneself is heartwarming and sweet.  It features two of my least favorite scenarios (i.e., a child who won't seek help from adults and a child who succumbs to peer pressure at the risk of their own well-being -- in both cases out of pride), but it has a happy ending that shows that things don't have to be so bad and that there is a pay off for demanding what you need.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Kind of a Big Deal, by Shannon Hale

Josie peaked in high school.  Back then, she was the indisputable star of the stage.  When she won a nationwide drama contest, her teacher encouraged her to leave school and go to Broadway.  But life in the Big Apple was not the same and she quickly washed out.  Now, she nannies for a little girl in Missoula and tries to save money to pay off her credit card debts.  She's not only lost her dream, but also alienated her friends and grown distant from her family.

One day she walks into a bookstore and her life changes.  She hasn't read a book since high school and certainly not read one for fun for longer than that, so the owner talks her into taking a book (and throws in a pair of reading glasses since she finds she has developed nearsightedness).  Sitting in the park while her charge plays, she gets immersed in her book.  Literally completely immersed.  She's become a character in the story and while days pass by for her, when she is finally done (and finds herself back in the park) only mere moments have gone by.  This starts a new set of adventures for Josie.  But these immersions are far from harmless and by the time Josie realizes how much the books are changing her life (and not necessarily for the better), it is too late.

Shannon Hale is a very inconsistent writer in my experience.  I loved Princess Academy, Book of Thousand Days, and the Bayern series, but her more recent books have generally lost me.  This novel unfortunately continues that trend.  The device of the immersive books is very clever and it allows Hale to engage in some really hilarious skewering of a number of YA genres (e.g., romances, rom coms, zombie apocalypse stories, and even graphic novels) that really deserve to poked out.  I loved this part of the book and if she had managed to tie everything together in the end, this book would have gone down as one of my favorite YA satires (following in the absurdist traditions of writers like Libba Bray), but the ending tries to get too serious and is an absolute disaster.  It's as if Lemony Snicket wanted to write a problem story.  With a conscious effort to tie up her loose ends, Hales gets buried in all the inconsistencies (which were unobtrusive in a satire but are now glaring in her late conversion to realism).  The result is humor is far too mean to be taken seriously, a story far too wild to be explained, and characters too symbolic to be meaningful or interesting.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Glimpsed, by G. F. Miller

Charity is a modern-day fairy godmother.  Thanks to powers she inherited from her grandmother, she receives "glimpses" of the future that reveal some heartfelt dream of a stranger.  Far from benevolent, once she has had a "glimpse" she is physically obligated to do what she can to help the people involved (who she calls her "Cindies") realize their goal.  She's long seen this secret responsibility as a series of good deeds, but when she is confronted by Noah (a very angry victim of one of her projects) and another glimpse goes very very badly, she begins to wonder if this is really just a terrible curse.

Meanwhile, Noah blackmails Charity into helping him undo the damage of the glimpse that hurt him.  At first unwilling collaborators, the two of them predictably grow close.  That complicates the plan, which involves Noah finally getting back the love of his life -- another girl named Holly.  Will Charity successfully bring Noah and Holly together or will the growing affection between Noah and Charity undo it all?

Cute concept, with a well-written story and decent characters, but the book is grating.  The issue is poor storytelling.  Miller knows what she wants to happen, but her delivery is clunky and out of proportion.  The initial tension between Charity and Noah starts with them spraying each other with chemical weapons and Noah threatening Charity!  Once written into that corner, it is a major chore to bring our protagonists into romantic bliss.  Every dramatic moment in the book is like that -- exaggerated and so uncharacteristically shrill that they seem like they are from a different story.  Even the predictable happy ending is cringeworthy and over the top.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

American Betiya, by Anuradha D. Rajurkar

Rani is the type of girl that parents and aunties always point to when they want to show other children what a good girl should be like.  She helps take care of the younger children at parties, she does well in school, and she stays away from drugs and boys.  And while Rani is eighteen now, she knows that obeying her parents isn't just expected, it is essential in her Indian-American community.  She's seen what happens to others who stray away from traditions and adult expectations.

That works for her until she meets Oliver, a bad boy from a troubled family, but with beautiful ideas and a beautiful face.  Swept off her feet, Rani agrees to sneak around behind her parents' backs to see him.  There's no future in it and she makes sure that Oliver understands that she can never ever introduce him to her family.  That too works for a while, but Oliver is definitely unhappy and complains that it is unfair that he can't meet her parents.  He might not be Indian but he belives that he can prove that he's still worthy of dating their daughter.  Shocked that he cannot understand how offensive his presumptions and prejudices are, Rani begins to doubt the relationship itself, which drives Oliver to become more and more obsessive and clingy.

While a large part of the novel focuses on the tensions that exist in cross-cultural relationships, the story also addresses the more universal themes of obsessive first love.  Rani is pretty much an innocent thrown in the deep end, but Oliver's troubled background creates a combustible situation that she is ill-equipped to handle.  Rajurkar herself wants to call out Oliver's racist micro-aggressions, but for me Oliver comes across as more clueless than racist.  Their relationship is less an indictment of institutional racism than a case study in immaturity.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

This Will Be Funny Someday, by Katie Henry

Isabel is a good kid.  She doesn't cause any trouble at home, she gets good grades, and she doesn't make waves.  With her popular but controlling boyfriend Alex, Isabel always does whatever she can to be pleasing and smooth out conflicts.  But she misses the best friend that Alex made her dump, she feels hurt that her mother can never make time to be with her, and she's tired of always worrying about what everyone thinks of her.  She has plenty of thoughts, but no confidence to express them.

By a series of accidents, she finds herself on the stage at the open mic of a local comedy club.  To her surprise, she loves it and the whole opportunity to speak out on the things she hasn't felt able to before.  Afterwards, a group of fellow aspirational comedians invite her to tag along with them.  The problem is that they are all in college and she is still just a junior in high school.  Afraid that they won't like her if they know the truth, she lies and claims to be a college student just like them.  And while that lie creates tension and causes trouble, the liberating effect of her new persona as "Izzy V" are too important for her to ignore.

While this novel exhibits all of my least favorite YA tropes (e.g., lying when you know you'll get caught, refusing to seek help from friends and trustworthy adults, imagining that you are the center of the universe, amongst others), it deals with Izzy's failings in a very smart way.  For while Izzy's self-centeredness and dramatics are cringeworthy, they are called out.  The seemingly endless times that her friends advise her to smarten up eventually have an impact.  And, best of all, the dramatic payoff at the end isn't just a forgone conclusion, it's a well-earned dividend that exceeds expectations.

Henry hasn't uncovered any new territory in the topic of confidence-building, but with Izzy she has created a heroine who gives you something to cheer about.  Izzy doesn't just grow a backbone through self-reflection, she shows the way forward in a satisfying story of self-realization and growing assertiveness.  The result is a story that validates the fears that young women have about putting themselves forward and celebrates what successful personal development can look like.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Dragonfly Girl, by Marti Leimbach

While subject to ridicule at school, Kira is a precocious science wizard.  She has learned how to use her skills to win science contests to make money to help support her mother.  Not just little ones.  Her latest scoop in the international Science for Our Future, where she is slated to receive one of the finalists awards in Stockholm.  The problem?  The contest is intended for junior academics who have recently received their PhD and Kira has not even graduated high school (and if she doesn't pull up her English grades, she won't).

Somehow managing to get her reward without getting caught is simply the start of a journey that takes her into a part-time research job and a remarkable accidental discovery -- the ability to revive the recently deceased.  While Kira is stunned by the achievement for its scientific merits, she is not prepared for the dangerous attention that such a scientific feat brings to her.

The novel, broken into three very distinctly different parts, varies considerably in quality.  The first part, tracing her appearance in Stockholm, is by far the best.  Combining a rivalry with a snooty competitor named Will and some mildly comedic misadventures, it makes for a charming novella.  The second section, which deals with her scientific discovery, also further develops the rivalry with Will and is the logical extension.  But the last section for me is when things fly off the rail.  There's a cruelty and a sadism to this section that represents a dramatic break from the tone of the rest of the story.  In fact, the conclusion seems far removed from the rest of the story.  The result is a novel of discarded ideas (whether they are Kira's relationship with her mother, her problems at school, her romantic feelings for her co-workers Rik and Dmitry, or even the conflict with Will).  By the end, it is clear that none of that really mattered -- Kira's feelings and motives are largely ignored in the end.

The story was engrossing enough to keep reading, but the characters became less coherent and unimportant to that story.  So, a good read, but frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling.

Friday, July 09, 2021

These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong

Juliette is a multi-lingual flapper girl and heir to lead the Scarlet Gang.  Roma and his fellow Russian are their competitors, the White Flowers.  The two gangs view for control of Shanghai in the 1920s. 

Shanghai itself is a city in turmoil and chaos.  Foreigners hold all the power and the people are rebelling, some seeking the promise of independence provided by the Nationalists and others seeking to throw off the chains of their oppressors, as foreseen by the Communists.  Amidst all of this, a monster is on the prowl, bringing a terrifying contagion to the city that causes its victims to claw themselves to death.  Juliette and Roma were once secret lovers, but their warring clans divided them. Can the threat that the monster brings with it unite them together to save their city?

An extremely involved story that already has promised a sequel.  It mixes elements of historical fact with fantasy, adding a little flavoring from Shakespeare, and a decent serving of anachronisms, this novel seeks to provide a fast moving adventure.

It left me cold.  Rather than build up heat with the romance that you want to happen, Gong mostly ratchets up the body count to such a ridiculous extent that the violence no longer matters.  There are lots of characters and most of them die.  Few of them grow important or interesting enough to develop an affection for before they do so.  While there's lots of promise here, from all of the color of Shanghai to various different (and changing) conspiracy theories, so little of this gels together.  Having created so much exposition, the last fifty pages of this first installment tosses much of this aside and becomes largely incomprehensible.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Yesterday is History, by Kosoko Jackson

Recent kidney transplant recipient Andre considers himself pretty lucky to be alive. He's not simply gotten a chance to live his life, he has acquired a surprising side effect: the ability to travel back in time for brief periods.

One moment he's in his bedroom and it's 2020 and then suddenly it's 51 years earlier and he's in the same house -- with house's inhabitant Michael.  Michael is surprisingly nonplussed to see Andre and they hit it off.  But just as soon as he arrived, Andre is back in the present with lots of questions.  It doesn't take long to get answers when the family of the donor of Andre's new kidney contacts him and urgently wants to meet.  In a hastily arranged gathering, they explain that they are time travelers and when their son died and his kidney was transplanted, it apparently transplanted some of the dead boy's abilities to Andre.

To make sure that Andre uses his powers properly and responsibly, the dead boy's brother Blake becomes a reluctant teacher.  This is awkward and strained and made all the more so by a romantic triangle that develops between Andre, Michael (the boy in the past), and Blake.

I loved the character of Andre.  He's intelligent and a great mix of driven and impulsive.  He's also one of the more authentic black male characters I've seen in YA.  It's a role that could easily have been overblown (particularly when he's gay as well).  I also liked this particular vision of time travel, which focuses more on the emotional impact of being able to see the past than the usual scientific and ethical paradoxes.  The dialogue and the pacing are both brilliant.  I cared less for the wasting of characters (like Andre's alleged best friend Imogene who gets almost no air time) or the half-hearted love triangle.  Jackson does such a great job fleshing out Andre, but the two love interests were boring and there was almost no spark there.  I was supposed to feel some great poignant pain at the end, but it really comes across flat.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre, by Robin Talley

Mel lives for the theater and she has the fortitude and the organizational skills to have earned the right to be the youngest stage manager at her school.  But where she is able to keep a hundred things straight and solve others' problems without hesitation, her own life is a mess.  When her last relationship blew up spectacularly during the opening night of Romeo and Juliet, she made a promise to not fall in love with anyone again until after the Spring musical was over.  While her promise was not sworn in blood, it might as well have been!

Legend has it that the theater is cursed and the only way to avoid having a play performed there from falling apart into chaos is to perform a wide variety of "countercurses." So, for example, if an actor whistles or someone utters the name of the Scottish Play, there are ways to undo the damage.  But the most important thing is a special rule that the stage crew come up with each production.  And after the R & J disaster, the crew has decided that Mel's forswearing of love and romance should be the magical key that protects their next production.

Mel doesn't foresee the obvious:  that she won't just fall in love during the production of Le Mis, but that it will be the Love of Her Life.  But what are superstitions anyway?  How could Mel falling for pretty Odile be anything so cataclysmic?  But then the accidents and misfortunes start to beset the production.

Talley got some great advice and details to put in her book, but there's a stiffness to the storytelling that betrays her lack of comfort with the world of high school drama.  Too many details are dropped in for authenticity, rather than importance to the story, so I felt like Talley was trying to earn cred rather than describe kids doing a play.  Mel is too perfect (and too polished) to be believable, her fellow crew members too professional, and the always fascinating tensions between cast and crew too unexplored.  This is high school drama as it likes to describe itself, rather than as it actually is.

At over 400 pages, this is a long novel that doesn't offer enough of a payoff to reward the investment.  For a well-written book with some decent characters, it felt strangely cold for what should have been a heartfelt exploration of letting go.  Mel's blind spot for nurturing her own needs sits like the elephant in the room.  Like Mel, Talley races to bury herself in technical details of drama whenever the emotions start to get interesting.  While Mel has some growth at the end, it isn't really clear even in the epilogue that she's found life-work balance.