Monday, August 30, 2021

Under Shifting Stars, by Alexandra Latos

Clare and Audrey are twins.  In their family, their older brother Adam was the glue that kept them together.  But when he dies in a car accident, the loss throws off the familial balance.

The girls are not identical.  While Clare is popular at school, Audrey struggles with autism which has led to her being enrolled at a special school.  She hates it and wants to be back at the regular school with Clare, but her parents are not sure that she is ready.  In truth, she doesn't know if she's ready either, but being apart from Clare is so hard, especially now when they are drifting apart.  When she makes friends with a boy in the park, she is surprised to find that she can develop friendships outside of her family.

With Audrey having so many special needs, Clare feels neglected.  The loss of Adam hit her particularly hard and set off a new feeling that she finds hard to articulate.  She feel best when she is wearing Adam's old clothes.  Her "normal" life at school feels false.  She's become as freaky to her old friends as her sister is.  It takes a new arrival at the school to open her up to who she really wants to become and to give her the strength to be the needy sister.

Through alternating chapters, the sisters piece together a life which has been riven by shared loss but held together by their lifetime bond.  Each of them are going through passages that are both personal and shared.  They struggle because they have trouble communicating and in understanding each other.  In the end there is the predictable reconciliation between them, but the journey through these misconceptions is what gives this novel its story.  It's well done, with beautifully drawn characters, but the story is not a particularly dramatic read.  To try to liven it up, the author flirts with a late attempt to add a crisis, but this is unnecessary and contributes to a sluggish conclusion.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Too Bright to See, by Kyle Lukoff

After the death of Bug's uncle, Bug starts to think about his uncle's life.  Bug's late uncle was a drag queen and loved fancy dresses and wearing make-up.  Bug's best friend Moira is big into make-up and boys.  She keeps trying to convince Bug that, with them both starting middle school in the Fall, they need to start learning how to be pretty, wear dresses, and wear make-up.  But Bug doesn't like to wear make up and dresses feel weird (even though they are pretty!).  Does that make Bug less of a girl?  Or is the truth that women and men don't all have to be a certain way (like how Uncle Roderick was more girlish than Bug).

Bug's house has always seemed haunted and during the summer it seems that the ghost of Uncle Roderick is haunting them, trying to get a message to Bug.  Be yourself, the ghost seems to be saying.  But what does that mean?  What is Bug supposed to be?

Too Bright to See is an unusual story that mashes up two middle reader favorites -- a haunted house adventure and a friendship story.  While trying to uncover why things are going bump in the night, Bug and Moira struggle with the way they are changing and drifting apart.  While it sounds discordant (and I wouldn't call this a particularly good ghost story), it all comes together surprisingly seamlessly in the end into a story about identity.  I found the ending saccharine and the characters unrealistically cooperative, but it's an uplifting story that addresses issues of gender identity in an age-appropriate and positive way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Mythic Koda Rose, by Jennifer Nissley

The illegitimate daughter of a famous dead rock star, there are plenty of people who know more about Koda Rose's father than she does.  She's not even a fan of his music.  She wishes it was different, but her Mom didn't really know him and has never really encouraged her to find out anything on her own.  Instead, she has tried to shelter Koda from the public eye.

As a result, Koda has developed a sense that somehow if she knew her father better, it would give her strength to work through her issues.  She certainly has plenty of her own issues, ranging from her social awkwardness to dealing with her infatuation with her best friend.  So, when she crosses paths with her late father's last girlfriend Sadie, it's an opportunity she cannot resist.  She befriends the woman and finds herself idolizing her, blind to the obvious reality that Sadie is a junkie.  For Koda Rose, all that matters is that Sadie is a connection with her Dad and she starts engaging in riskier and riskier behavior (throwing aside her mother, friends, and life) to follow Sadie.

I had occasional trouble keeping up with Koda Rose's erratic behavior, but I found the story complex and engaging.  The relationship triangle between Koda, her mother, and Sadie is nuanced.  It would be easy to imagine the two older women still harboring jealousies and anger from their youth over the lover that they shared, but neither one does.  For Koda, who imagines this non-existent conflict most strongly, this is deeply unsettling.  She needs her mother and Sadie to be at each other's necks and when they aren't she is forced to accept that her issues are really her own. While Sadie has serious issues, it is ultimately Koda who has to sort out the most.  The novel's lack of any effective resolution, while very frustrating, is ultimately the more realistic option, leaving open Koda's next steps for the reader to imagine.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wider Than the Sky, by Katherine Rothschild

Without any explanation, Sabine and her twin sister Blythe are moved to a run-down old mansion outside of San Francisco just a few weeks after the death of their father. Charlie, a man whom the girls have never met, is living with them for some reason.  Mysteriously, he seems to know a great deal about them.  Their mother seems fine with all of this and is evasive, refusing to provide a satisfactory explanation.  Naturally, the girls start sleuthing.  The answer is complicated and causes Sabine in particular to reevaluate her feelings about her father.

Meanwhile, the house itself is under renovation, in a plan apparently being run by Charlie. Sabine learns quickly that the plans violate local zoning ordinances, which in turn are rigorously enforced by a crotchety old woman who is threatening to seize the property unless the project is stopped.  The resolution to the problem will rely upon small-town insularity, some minor coincidences, and Sabine's tireless efforts.  Along the way, Sabine makes a series of poor and hurtful decisions that ultimately complicate everything.

Sabine and her selfish and downright mean decisions (which range from trying to ruin the house renovations to betraying her best friend) make for an unlikable protagonist.  She has a lovely quirk of "poeting" (where she starts word associating in the style of Emily Dickinson) but is otherwise largely irredeemable.  Perhaps, the author could have saved this clever piece of schtick for a more likable character -- it plays no role in the plot.

To provide a level of suspense, the story relies on an implausible level of secrecy, which begins with the crazy idea that a mother would uproot her daughters just days after their father's funeral without any attempt to explain why she was doing so.  The eventual solution to the housing problem is similarly strange and, while it draws on a number of ideas that have been developed throughout, felt strikingly out of the blue.  All of this speaks to a plot that was straining at the seams.

Final note:  Apparently, neither the author, the editor, nor any of the reviewers know the difference between legislation and litigation -- lawyers do not legislate, they litigate.  So, I guess it is a good thing -- as her dedication reveals -- that her Dad talked the author into being a writer rather than a lawyer.

Friday, August 20, 2021

We Are Inevitable, by Gayle Forman

When an asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, the effect wasn't instantaneous.  It took thousands of years for the dinosaurs to die out.  Did they realize it was happening, wonders Aaron.  Do we ever realize that the asteroid is barreling towards us and our remaining time is limited?  Aaron is sure that he doesn't want to be a dinosaur, but stuck working at his family's dying book store it's hard not to feel the inevitability of his demise.  Aaron's brother's addiction wiped out their money, the collapse of the local economy and poor business acumen is running the book store to the ground.  Aaron decides to avoid the inevitable by selling the store.

No sooner has he completed the arrangement, but a group of townspeople get it in their heads to save the store, volunteering their time and their own savings to rebuild the space and turn it into a better place.  It may be too late for Aaron to take back his decision to sell but that may not matter because he honestly doesn't want it anymore.  But with some help from friends that Aaron doesn't want, a girlfriend he wants for all of the wrong reasons, and the funniest gathering of old lumberjacks to grace a novel, Aaron is about to redefine what inevitability actually looks like.

A lively, well-crafted novel that is the perfect delivery vessel for an unworthy story.  The lumberjacks steal the show with their bickering over construction techniques and literature.  Aaron's unwanted sidekick, Chad the paraplegic, provides additional comic levity.  Romantic interest Hannah gets the best snarky lines.  The rest I can take or leave.  Aaron himself is whiney and tedious. He's also the annoying stereotypical YA boy -- profane, obscene, and immature -- and ultimately boring.  The story drags and isn't worthy of the strong supporting characters.  The message (that we frequently blame others to cover up the things we won't face ourselves) just isn't all that profound.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Indestructible Object, by Mary McCoy

Right after graduation, Lee gets hit with a series of set-backs:  her boyfriend and podcast co-host breaks up with her on their last episode, she loses her job as a sound engineer at the local coffee shop, and her parents announce they are separating.  To sort this out, Lee starts up a new podcast called Objects of Destruction.  While developing her first episode, she stumbles across an old videotape that gives her insight on the roots of her parents' unhappiness and helps her understand her own problems.  The story is made more complicated by Lee's romantic wanderings as she tries to sort out if she wants to be back with her old boyfriend or to hook up with Risa the cute girl at the bookstore who (along with her old family friend Max) is helping her work on Objects.

In sum, the novel is a quirky trip through hip Memphis with a pastiche of offbeat artists and musicians.  Responsible adults are few and far between and the kids are free to do whatever they want.  This sets up an original story with interesting characters, but the characters are largely the same -- artistic kids with endless free time and adults with no responsibilities.  They all seemed adrift and I found them hard to relate to.  There's a significant attempt at deep meaning in the end, but I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to get from it.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Home Is Not a Country, by Safia Elhillo

Nima knows that she wasn't meant to be called by the with which she ended up.  Her mother had intended to name her Yasmeen, but after her father died she became Nima instead.  It's a fine name, but Nima can't help but feel that her mother would love Yasmeen more than she loves Nima.  And after a random act of violence puts her best friend in the hospital, Nima finds herself transported to an alternate reality where Yasmeen exists and her father is still alive.

Exploring Nima's identity as an Arab American just after 9/11 through verse, Elhillo's novel is startlingly original.  It is also a bit weird.  The jarring shift from a very realistic depiction of fear and violence in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks into magical realism takes some getting used to.  Yasmeen appears first as a voice in Nima's head, changes to another physical person and then takes over Nima's self, before eventually becoming a conscience or some sort of jinn.  If you like the vagueness of this idea and a story whose meaning is open for discussion and debate, this is a great choice for you.  I found the verse hard to read and was put off by the story.  Pretty but tedious.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Summer of Brave, by Amy Noelle Parks

Lilla doesn't think of herself as dishonest, but according to her friend Vivi, every time she says something is OK when it isn't or stays quiet instead of speaking up, she's not being truthful.  Vivi thinks it's time for Lilla to be brave.  But is it worth the risk?  Lilla sees how much easier it is to just go along, to pretend that you want the same things as your friends, or that you are happy doing the things your parents want you to do.  What does it really matter that she would do things differently?  Most of all, she just wants people to be happy with her.  However, it's hard to please everyone all of the time and Vivi has a point about the dishonesty.  

When Lilla thinks about it, there are a lot of thinks that she doesn't speak out about.  Her parents are divorced and have developed an elaborate plan to share her between them.  Never mind that Lilla doesn't want to always be evenly split up.  Everyone thinks she should apply to a magnet school.  The only thing that they can't agree upon is whether she should focus on arts or sciences.  Lilla doesn't want to go in the first place, but her parents just assume that she's acting up.  Finally, when Lilla has to deal with sexual harassment from a fellow staff member at the museum summer program where she is volunteering, she is astounded when the supervisor downplays the incident.  Standing up for yourself isn't just about honesty, it's important for your well-being as well!

While I found Lilla implausibly articulate for a twelve year-old, that didn't really bother me.  Her anxiety about being taken seriously and her fear of standing up for herself are emotions that young readers will relate to.  That Lilla speaks out for herself impressively merely makes her a better role model.

Parks's story touches on so many important issues: the importance of honestly in friendships, of being heard within families, of defining safe boundaries, and of learning to communicate clearly and persuasively.  The book shows Lilla making good choices and difficult choices, and communicating those to her friends and to adults.  While she gets push back, she eventually is able to get even the grownups to respect and honor those choices.  In doing so, the author shows that if you can find the strength to say what you really want that you can realize your dreams.  The flip side of this is that no one likes someone who they can't trust to be honest.  These are good lessons for adults as well as twelve year-old girls!

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Where the Road Leads Us, by Robin Reul

Jack may be functionally living alone (with an absent mother and a dead father) but his life seems pretty good.  He has everything figured out for him.  He's got a girlfriend who is going out East with him.  He's about to graduate and go to Columbia.  But on graduation day, the only reason he drags himself to the ceremony is because he's the valedictorian.  No one cares what he says in his speech and he never actually finishes it.  His girlfriend dumps him

Jack realizes that the one and only thing he really wants to do is to go to San Francisco and find his brother, who's been lost to addiction for the past two years.

Hallie is struggling with cancer and it hurts her to see the way that her medical expenses have destroyed her parents' finances and their dreams.  She does whatever she can to help them but realizes that the next big incident could bankrupt them entirely.  But more immediately she's desperate to get to Oregon where a fellow cancer patient has given up and is about to terminate his life.  There's no time to lose.  With some help from a friend, she figures she can make it up and back on the bus fast enough that her parents won't notice.

Many typical road trip adventures await on their road trip from LA.  Coincidence finds Jack and Hallie on the same rideshare to the bus station.  Bad weather and a few more coincidences cause the driver to take them north himself up to San Francisco, where everyone strikes out on their own adventures.

The story itself follows the usual pattern of anecdotes and adventures, humorous encounters, and life growth, but Reul does manage to infuse some freshness into the story and create characters that are familiar but nuanced.  It never really grabbed me as a particularly exciting story, but the writing has an element of surprise throughout that kept the story interesting.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

The Summer of Lost Letters, by Hannah Reynolds

The discovery of a cache of old love letters that were sent to Abby's late grandmother sets off a great adventure. They aren't from the man who became her grandfather and, while Abby has no problem imagining that her grandmother might have dated someone else, she's surprised that she's never heard of the guy.  Through some sleuthing, she tracks downs the mystery man, Edward Barbanel.  He is still alive and lives in Nantucket.

Abby's grandmother came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in the late 1930s and - as far as Abby knew -- lived in New York City.  But apparently for at least some time she lived with Edward's family in Nantucket. With a dull summer between her junior and senior years before her and a growing obsession with this mystery, Abby decides to take a job on the island.

The problem is that the man -- a retired patriarch of a large wealthy clan -- doesn't respond to her inquiries, so she sneaks herself onto the family compound as a caterer.  While undercover, she becomes entangled with Noah, Edward Barbanel's handsome and suspicious grandson. who tries to stop her from her search.  He fears that her digging in the past will just cause friction in the family and he distrusts Abby's motives.  But in the end, he grudgingly helps her and she equally reluctantly follows his guidelines.  As the two dig deeper, the surprises start popping up, family secrets are unveiled, and (of course) Abby and Noah fall in love.

For the most part, this is a pretty typical beach romance material, but the mystery of the hidden romance (and a parallel search for a missing necklace) adds a nice dramatic element.  I actually found the mystery more compelling than the romance, but that was mostly because the romance was unambitious and cliched (poor girl falls for rich boy).  Most of the characters (the roommate, Abby's mother, the boss, Noah's family, and even the grandmothers) are throwaways but Abby and Noah themselves are interesting.  It all takes place in a beautiful picturesque setting that Reynolds gives us in lovingly tour guide presentation.  Entertaining fluffy fun that reads fast.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Between the Bliss and Me, by Lizzy Mason

While Sydney sometimes imagines that her Dad is right there with her, she knows that he's somewhere else.  Addiction destroyed his life and he abandoned the family long ago.  Sydney is certain that it's part of the reason her Mom has always been so clingy.

Mom's long insisted that Sydney should go to Rutgers when she graduates and live at home, but Sydney has her heart set on NYU.  NYU offers more options and it also puts her nearer to her crush Grayson.  Thanks to her grandparents, she can afford the tuition.

When they also kick in a generous graduation present to boot, Mom blows a gasket.  But why won't Mom let go?  It's not as if New York City is all that far away from central New Jersey.

Sydney flees to her grandparents' beach house for a week, where she learns some facts about her father that she never knew, in particular about the decline of his mental health and his current whereabouts.  Burdened with disturbing new information, she reexamines herself and her choices.

The story starts out strong as a study of Sydney and the way she copes with devastating truths about her family and herself, but it gets dragged down into the issues of how mental illness is mishandled.   There's a lot to be said about gaps in healthcare, underfunding of social services, and the difficulties of recovery, but there really is too much to say to cram it into a novel (not that that stops Mason from trying!).  By the second half of the book, the action has become simply a device for Sydney to engage with various people (e.g., grandmother, mother, family lawyer, psychiatrist, police officer, etc.) in long expository discourses about mental health and public policy.  The dialogue sounds less and less authentic, sapping the energy out of the story.  My interest in the characters waned and I ended up browsing through the last thirty pages just to finish it off.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Taking Up Space, by Alyson Gerber

Sarah loves playing basketball, but lately she's noticed that she has trouble keeping up.  Her uniform is getting tighter too.  Maybe she's just getting fat?  Certainly, that's what her Mom would think.  Mom would never say such a thing, of course, but Sarah knows how concerned her mother is about food.  So Sarah starts to develop her own rules about eating: deciding what she can eat and how much.  But when her friends start to notice her behavior, she is forced to come clean or give up basketball.

This being seventh grade, there's also plenty of drama floating around including a cute boy who teaches Sarah how to cook (and also enjoy eating).  Together, they decide to try competing in a cooking contest.  When Sarah develops a crush on the boy this triggers a problem because one of her teammates already has a crush on him.  So when Sarah doesn't promptly come clean to her friend, it drives a rift between Sarah and the rest of the basketball team.

An important topic, but this take on puberty and eating disorders is a clunky recitation.  Gerber has a good sense of the dynamics of middle school, but she doesn't handle dialogue well.  The kids talk aloud like they are IM'ing each other which sounds awkward, but the adults are the worst talking largely in mini lectures (except for Sarah's parents whose sole purpose seems to be to apologize and agree with everything she says).  The whole thing is stiff and artificial -- more of a PSA than a story.