Monday, September 27, 2021

The Princess Dolls, by Ellen Schwartz

Esther and Michi love to pretend that they are the Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, having adventures in Buckingham Palace and riding their horses.  One day, they see a beautiful pair of dolls in the local toy store window: replicas of Elizabeth and Margaret.  More than anything, the two girls want the dolls, but they are very expensive.  T

The good news is that they share the same birthday and it is arriving soon.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if they each got one of the dolls on their shared birthday?  When the day arrives, Esther gets the Elizabeth doll, but Michi does not get Margaret.  In the commotion and attention that Esther receives from the other girls, she neglects her friend and Michi slips away, feeling hurt and betrayed.

It's 1942 and while the war rages far away from their home in Vancouver, it still impacts the children.  Esther has an aunt and uncle who are trying to flee from Germany and her parents are anxious that they cannot find out anything about them.  Michi's danger lies nearer, when the government announces that all persons of Japanese descent on the Pacific Coast are being relocated.  Her family is forced to pack up and leave.  Before Michi leaves, Esther tries to reconcile with her, but it never happens.  Afterwards, Esther tries to figure out a way to make all of these wrong things right.

A sweet chapter book with beautiful illustrations and stellar design.  I didn't know that the Canadian government also interned their Japanese citizens, so this was an interesting subject.  But moreover, this is a nice story of friendships that get tried and tested.  The world events around them may be more significant, but for these two girls, losing each other's trust is far more important.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Give and Take, by Elly Swartz

One of the saddest days of Maggie's twelve year-old life was the day that her grandmother forgot who she was.  And then after that when Nana died.  Lately, it seems like there's a lot of leaving going on.  Her family has started fostering infants and, as much as Maggie understands that the baby is only with them for a few days, she grows attached and it hurt when the baby is settled with its new parents.

Maggie copes with her fears and anxiety by collecting things that remind her of people and storing them in boxes around her room.  Her attachment is obsessive and she became angry and upset when she feels that someone has gotten into her boxes.  By the time her habit is discovered, it has become a serious issue.  Her supportive family enlists the help of a child psychologist who helps Maggie work through her fears.  In the end, Maggie learns to let go and accept that not everyone stays, but memories are forever.

As a side not, Maggie has a very interesting hobby -- trap shooting -- which you don't find often in children's books.  It's terribly well integrated into the rest of the story, but it was obviously too good to leave out!

I enjoyed this sweet and affirming look at the issue of hoarding.  Maggie is resourceful and thoughtful, explaining reasonably articulately what her thought process is and why it is so hard for her to let go of her treasures.  The author does a good job of showing the gradual healing process of Maggie working through her issues.  The family is a bit too perfect for my tastes, but that reduces distractions and allows the book to focus on Maggie.  The loss of a favorite pet towards the end helps push Maggie to a full understanding of acceptance, but an ethical dilemma at a shooting tournament in the conclusion seemed a bit less vital to the story.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

If This Were a Story, by Beth Turley

For Hannah, sometimes it is simply easier to picture her life as a story.  If this were a story, Hannah would be a normal fifth grader who just happens to be an excellent speller.  And the hurtful messages that Hannah is receiving in school would be coming from mean girl Kimmy, who is jealous that Hannah keeps winning the spelling bee.  Hannah and her best friend Courtney would figure out a way to get the best of Kimmy, win the spelling bee, and even fix the discord between Hannah's parents along the way.

But the real world is much more complex.  No one can figure out who is bullying Hannah.  Kimmy isn't very nice, but Hannah's friend Courtney isn't very nice either.  The school counselor is trying to help Hannah get to the bottom of her issues, but there are things that Hannah can't say out loud about how she feels when her parents fight.  To articulate those feelings, Hannah  retreats into her storybook world, giving herself a voice through the characters or through inanimate objects around her.

A sweet novel, intended to be a middle reader, that is ultimately too complex for its target audience.  I loved the way that Hannah explains her feelings.  As a word whiz, she has an expansive vocabulary, but her emotional age makes it difficult for her to articulate her feelings -- that unique combination felt particularly authentic for Hannah.  But the sophistication of the book is largely wasted in a book targeted to middle readers, even if its topics of bullying, emotional abuse, and self-loathing will resonate.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Like Other Girls, by Britta Lundin

After getting kicked off the basketball team for fighting, Mara is given an ultimatum:  if she ever wants to play on the team again, she has to prove she can be a good team player in some other sport first.  In the Fall, that pretty much just leaves her with volleyball.  But Mara can't stand the volleyball.  It's not much of a sport and the girls actually wear makeup when they play!  While tossing a football after school, her best friend Quinn and her brother Noah jokingly suggest going out for football.  Despite the laughter, the idea doesn't sound half bad to Mara.

While no girl has ever played on the team, Mara knows what she is doing and, despite stubborn resistance from the coach and some of the other players, Mara shows that she's a fairly competent player.  With a lot of effort she earns a place and becomes grudgingly accepted as one of the guys.  But then four other girls announce they want to join the team.  Citing Mara as their inspiration, they don't have her skills but they are highly motivated to prove the point that girls can play.  While the boys accepted Mara, the publicity that having five female teammates brings stirs up resentments.  Mara herself is angry that her attempt to prove herself as a decent football player and a team player has been sidetracked by the other girls' political agenda.  She doesn't have anything to prove about being a girl player, she just loves football and wants to play.

However, as the girls struggle to be accepted, Mara comes to the realization that she was never "one of the boys" and that their fight is her fight as well.  Part of her growth is in accepting that she can be tough and a girl at the same time, that strength does not have to be a masculine.  The product of all this growth is a story that revels in good sports action, while taking a sophisticated look at gender roles and the maddeningly complex relationship that they have with society.  It's at times funny, almost always entertaining, and ultimately profound, defying YA stereotypes right and left about how "girly" girls and non-girly girls behave.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

How We Fall Apart, by Katie Zhao

When the star of Sinclair Prep ends up dead, her competition are prime suspects.  Especially so when an anonymous person starts posting accusations against them -- accusations that turn out to be true.  Because the thing that all four suspects have in common is that they each have a dangerous secret.  One by one, their secrets are exposed, destroying each of their reputations (alongside their academic futures).  In the high stress academic rat race these students are in, any weakness is failure and so they must fight with the lives to protect themselves against the anonymous informant.  But will the final reveal prove the deadliest?

This murder mystery/gossip-girl elite high school mash up is all over the place in styles and story, but does a really interesting job dissecting the psychological costs of Asian over-achievement.  The way that each of these young people have sold their souls to achieve their parents' dreams in a futile attempt to earn familial love is a sad commentary.  As a serious subject, it would have made a pretty stunning YA drama.  Instead, Zhao has been seduced into creating a gossipy tale of (mostly) rich NYC prep kids.  The result is fluffy and hard to take seriously.  The implausibility of the plot and the various motives doesn't help.  The strength of the story should have been the characters but they are underdeveloped and we never get invested in them in the way we totally should.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Stay Gold, by Tobly McSmith

When his family moves to Addison at the start of his last year of high school, Pony makes the decision that he's going to keep his trans identity a secret.  Things weren't exactly hostile at his last school, but it was uncomfortable having so much attention.  If he never tells anyone, he hopes he can just have a quiet final year.  But then he falls for Georgia, the prettiest girl on the cheerleading squad, and he realizes that things can only go so far before he needs to tell her what he is hiding.

Georgia is dealing with her own secrets.  Cheerleading is no longer the fun that she once thought it was.  She is developing other interests like writing and has grown uncomfortable with the attitudes of her fellow squad mates.  She's ready for a change but not sure if she's brave enough to come out.  Cheerleading has made her popular and she is afraid of what people will say about her if she were to quit.  Enter this exciting new boy who seems so self-aware, kind, and different.  And while he's not a football player like the guys that the other cheerleaders are dating, he seems so much more real.  He inspires her to take chances and pursue her dreams.

A well-written YA romance between a trans boy and a straight girl that moves briskly.  It touches on a variety of issues related to trans young people.  With the parallel between Pony's secrets and Georgia's suppressed dreams, there is an attempt to place the two young people in positions that build sympathy between them.  This helps to explain a lot of Georgia's growth along the way.  But the book also groans under the weight of some really distasteful characters, poor behavior, Pony's lack of growth, and the author's overall agenda.  I really hated the characters.  Pony is facing a lot of problems with a difficult family situation and the awkward school situation, but he is incredibly self-absorbed and selfish.  He takes nearly 150 pages to getting around to telling Georgia that he's trans and then is hurt when she is shocked (but not repulsed) by the revelation.

Georgia's reaction (which is mostly due to betrayal of trust) makes sense and initially that seems to be all that it is.  But when she also admits that she isn't sure that she wants a trans boyfriend or that she's ready to face social ostracism for dating him, the story turns on her pretty quickly. When confronted with a horrible act of violence, Georgia realizes the error of her ways and embraces Pony fully.  That didactic resolution left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  To me, Georgia's reservations were fair and worthy of consideration, but not in this story.  Instead, we're told that her reservations were as bad at the bigotry to which Pony is subjected.  Max, a friend of Pony's, makes this statement several times, serving as the author's Greek Chorus.  To me, not respecting the idea that physical sex is important to the CIS gendered as well as the transgendered is an ideological dead end.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Many Points of Me, by Caroline Gertler

Being the daughter of a famous deceased artist can make for a lot of awkward conversations, but Georgia is used to the weird way people treat her when they find out who her father is.  What she has never grown comfortable with is how they speak of him in the present tense, as if he were still alive.  They are of course speaking of his art and its continued relevance and vitality, but that doesn't stop her from feeling strange about it.  And the way that everyone seems to want to own a piece of him makes her jealous and possessive.

There's a retrospective of her father's work being planned for the Met.  Her mother is knee deep in curating the exhibit and their apartment is filled with Dad's old sketches and drawings.  Helping her mother, Georgia comes across a sketch he made of her when she was ten years old and realizes that it might be a draft of his most famous work -- the one he never painted but planned to.  Stunned by the fact that her fathers "lost" masterpiece was going to be of her, she hides the sketch away, which sets off a chain of events that get Georgia into a world of trouble.

An art mystery that does a wonderful job of showing readers how to better appreciate art (the author's background as a docent at the Met certainly shows through!).  I'm not a big fan of Georgia's poor decisions and the more cringeworthy consequences of them, but the story itself is a lovely examination of Georgia's acceptance of her father's passing and her more reluctant embrace of his legacy.  By the end, Georgia achieves some level of peace with the idea that her relationship with him was unique and is untouched by the fact that he was a public figure.  I would not have thought that such a rarified existence as the daughter of a famous artist would create a character who was so relatable, but Georgia is an easy heroine with whom to empathize.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Girl from Shadow Springs, by Ellie Cypher

Living on the edge of the Flats, Ellie knows that there are only two types of people who venture out on that frozen wasteland:  the desperate and the foolish.  She should know:  she supplements what she and her sister Bren have by scavenging off the frozen corpses she finds out there.

It is the remains of a particularly fine looking gentleman that brings her trouble.  No sooner has she discovered the body than another man shows up and demands that she turn over what she found.  When he doesn't find what he's looking for, he kidnaps Bren to ransom for what he is looking for.  With little in the way of resources (and no idea what the man wanted in the first place), Ellie sets out on to the Flats to recover her sister.  Along the way picking up the nephew of the dead man, the two of them face brutal weather, wild animals, thin ice, hostile human gangs, and a supernatural being who is at the root of the inhospitable conditions in which they live.

Rich in detail, the novel lovingly creates its Western-meets-Ice Age world, but gets bogged down by its stylization.

To feed the ambiance (and give the author a chance to have Ellie spout lots of tough posturing) Ellie's narration is full of lots of ungrammatical phrasing.  This provides some flavor but becomes distracting as the usage is inconsistent.  And it doesn't help that the text itself is marred by typos.

More annoying to me were the numerous scenes that were elongated by having the characters interrupt each other.  The device serves mostly to drag out the action and makes little sense in a life-or-death scene as they argue with each other instead of the fighting/running/shutting up they need to be doing.

Finally, numerous actions scenes seem to be inserted into the story simply to pad the novel, adding nothing to the story itself except to give Ellie another chance to tell us that the situation is impossible but that  she'll bravely forge ahead.  The fact that she manages through each and every one of these situations leaves one skeptical of her ability to accurately evaluate plausibility.  Such set-ups don't build suspense, they simply annoy the reader.

Beautiful writing, but repetitive and drawn out.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Alone, by Megan E. Freeman

Twelve year-old Maddie had only intended to have a secret sleepover with her best friends, but it has turned into a disaster.  They didn't even show up so she is stuck at grandparents' empty house by herself.  In the morning, she wakes to a shocking surprise:  everyone in her town is gone!  An emergency evacuation in the night transported everyone away and left her behind.

She doesn't know where they have gone but quickly realizes that her chances of survival will be greatly enhanced by staying put.  And as days turn to weeks and to months, that is what she does, managing to scavenge for food and supplies, avoiding looters, and surviving a series of natural disasters.  In these tasks, she proves remarkably resourceful following her intuition and practical problem solving skills.  But she finds that the hardest obstacle is loneliness and the emotional distress that being alone brings.

A gripping and fairly dark survival story, this novel-in-verse is a far cry from Home Alone.   I found it nearly impossible to put down as Maddie faces continual existential threats that I felt compelled to read to conclusion.  I would not have thought that verse novel would carry enough impact to grab me but in fact the structure is a strength: the spare nature of the verse was really effective at conveying how Maddie comes to live more and more within her head.  

The story did start to drag towards the end and the ending itself is disappointingly anti-climactic, but I really enjoyed the trip getting there.  Maddie is a compelling heroine, smart and tough. She has a playful side too, but when it matters she makes the good choices and saves herself (as there is no one else to do it).  An excellent read.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Nothing Ever Happens Here, by Sarah Hagger-Holt

Nothing ever happens in Izzy's quiet little town.  But all of that is about to change when her father announces to the family that he's actually a woman and has decided to come out as Danielle.  Izzy's little brother is too young to understand and wonders if it is a secret superhero thing.  Izzy's older sister is outraged about what this will do to her standing at school.  But Izzy herself worries that this means that her Dad is no longer going to be her father.  Through many supportive conversations with friends and each other, Izzy's family learns how to adapt to the change, rethinking their own family unit and dealing with the reaction of their neighbors and friends.

Geared towards a younger YA audience, the story does a good job of covering a wide variety of topics ranging from practical questions like how the kids will address their father to how they deal with a broad range of emotions (confusion, anger, grief, joy, etc.) that each of the family members experience. What truly makes the book shine is that it never gets preachy or teachy, but manages nonetheless to bring up a plethora of important issues while doing so in an entertaining way.

Like many British YA novels, the book assumes a level of innocence that you wouldn't find in an American treatment of this topic, but that actually serves the story well in this case as the adults are actively supportive and responsible.  As difficult as the changes may be for all, no one expects the children to deal with matters on their own.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss, by Amy Noelle Parks

Caleb and Evie have been friends since they were little, but they have never kissed.  Not that Caleb hasn't tried!  In fourteen attempts, Evie has always turned him down.  He's been OK with that since she has turned down everyone else as well, but when she starts dating Leo in their senior year, Caleb isn't happy about the situation.  It's not like he hasn't dated other girls in the meantime, but with the shoe on the other foot, Caleb feels hurt.

With just about everyone in the story (except Evie) knowing that she should be with Caleb, no one else is happy about it either.  What makes this well-trodden romantic path actually work in this case is how razor smart these kids are.  Everyone knows and everyone says so, so there's no mystery that Evie and Caleb are going to be together in the end.  Evie just needs to get over her fear of getting into a relationship with her best friend.

The best part of the story is actually Evie's growth as a person, which comes out in her quest (with Caleb's help) to win a prestigious national math award.  She's bright, intelligent, and articulate, but she suffers from anxiety attacks (to some extent fed by her mother's overprotectiveness).  To get over her fears, she has relied in the past on a support network made up of Caleb and her BFF Bex.  A good part of the novel then is her working through that and learning to do things on her own.  It's a very satisfying story of growth in itself, but this thread of the plot also reveals many disturbing issues that never really get addressed properly:  the sexism present in the mathematics community, Evie's difficult with dealing with her fear of being judged by others, and Caleb's unhealthy possessiveness of Evie.

Caleb and Evie have a fairly disturbing dynamic.  Evie needs Caleb to control her anxiety and Caleb needs Evie to "protect." This unhealthy codependency presages some pretty dysfunctional behaviors in their "happily ever after" romance and casts a shadow over the romance itself.  Add to this Caleb's nasty violent streak.  On several instances, he either commits acts of violence or threatens to do so in the course of "defending" Evie.  In a climactic moment, Evie preempts Caleb's anger and settles her own scores, but at no point does she (or anyone else) address Caleb's behavior.

All of that aside (and the book downplays this darker side so it is possible to do so), it's nice to find a book about science-savvy teens who are well-rounded and not geeks.  Caleb plays baseball, Evie's boyfriend and her friend Bex play soccer, and even Evie herself enjoys Yoga.  They make wisecracks about the humanities, but they are literate and articulate and do well in English class.  Evie's anxiety issues aside, they all have active social lives.  Smart kids in a smart story makes for some smart reading.  This is a good read that treats its young adults as intelligent people with nuanced lives.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Muse, by Brittany Cavallaro

It's the end of the Nineteenth Century and the great inventor Tesla is about to demonstrate at the World's Fair the awesome force of electricity.  But that is about all that will seem familiar in this alt-history in which America became a monarchy divided into great territories, each administered by a governor.  

In the grand city of Monticello-on-the-Lake (which we would think of as Chicago), the Fair is meant to be an opportunity for St Cloud (whose borders run from Canada down to the City of Orleans on the Gulf) to demonstrate their power of ingenuity and progress.  But sabre rattling and nativist rhetoric from their western neighbor Livingstone Monroe threatens the peace.

In the midst of this, Claire Emerson, the daughter of an unbalanced inventor, is plotting her escape from her father's dominion.  She dreams of a chance to strike out on her own and be her own woman, but the reality is the best for which she can hope is escaping her father by subjecting herself to a husband.  At first, the plan is for her to flee across the border in the midst of the Fair, but when St. Cloud is invaded, Claire finds her fate entwined with that of the young governor Remy Duchamp.  And while the conflict is ostensibly against Livingstone Monroe, the Daughters of the American Crown have insinuating themselves into the mix in an attempt to bring a woman into power.  Claire's instincts are to assist this feminist enterprise, but the DAC's anti-immigrant stance alienates her.  With no clear support, Claire makes do as best as she can, forming alliances that are both grandly political and personal at the same time, siding with Remy while simultaneously trying to claim power for herself.

As with any complex story, keeping track of all of the characters is challenging.  Some are definitely more memorable than others.  Her BFF Beatrix is a highlight -- providing useful gadgets and escape routes, as well comic relief.  Others, like Margarete (Claire's adopted sister and chambermaid) are underutilized in this book but may become more useful in the second half.  The boy Remy is fairly forgettable and while important to the story is fairly easy to ignore.  As for who is on whose side, forget about it!  Allegiances are fluid and the frequency of betrayals and double-crosses make tracking teams pretty futile.

The novel is sprawling and complex, with numerous competing plots and subplots. This first installment (of a duology) is naturally more expository, but you'll probably have to re-read it to refresh your memory whenever the second half comes out.  I hope she can manage to pull it all together!  Confusing and dense, but lively, original, and highly entertaining.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Hunted by the Sky, by Tanaz Bhathena

Gul's birthmark (a star) on her arm marks her as a threat.  A prophecy has foretold that a women with just such a birthmark will wield tremendous magic and be responsible for the death of the Raja and a revolution.  As a result, whenever a girl is found with such a birthmark, they are seized and never heard from again.  But Gul avoids capture when her parents sacrifice their lives to hide her.  Fleeing, she is taken in by a sisterhood of magician warriors who train her to defend herself.  But for Gul, defending her life really doesn't matter:  she has one goal and that is to kill the ruler to avenge the deaths of her parents.

Cavas is a poor boy living in the slums around the royal city.  He has no magic and no special powers, but he is determined to do whatever it takes to find enough money to buy the medicine that is keeping his sick father alive.  In the market, he randomly crosses paths with Gul.  But it is no coincidence and soon he finds himself helping her infiltrate the palace, where all is not quite as either of them expected.  The Raja's days are numbered, but Gul is little more than a puppet in the events that are unfolding.

Set in a fantasy world based on the Mughal empire, Bhathena has created a very dense and immersive setting for her story of magic and prophecy.  It's a complicated story and a very slow read.  That makes it hard to get into and at some point exhausting to track.  Some of the blame for this lies in the pacing, which ranges from glacial exposition to sudden plot twists and large chronological jumps.  Bhathena loves to tell us details about this universe and is constantly revealing new details. Maddeningly, large amounts of these details turn out to be inconsequential to the story.  While the sudden twists and jumps keeps us on our toes, it is tiring and frustrating.  Rather than good writing, it feels more like an author who cannot carry through on an idea.  A beautiful book, but average storytelling.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Flight of the Puffin, by Ann Braden

Four children (Libby, Vincent, "T", and Jack) struggle with being bullied and the feelings of powerlessness that come with being victimized.  Libby wants to be an artist, but her family does understanding anything except belittling others.  Vincent is a sensitive soul who loves puffins and triangles, and desperately doesn't want to get stuffed into another locker at school.  T lives on the street, trying to survive, and is afraid of calling home for help because of who he is.  Jack is a fighter who helps all of the kids at his small rural school.  So, when the school faces closure, he comes out swinging to save the place and only belatedly realizes that his actions are hurting people as well.  A pay-it-forward concept of giving strangers postcards with encouraging messages brings the four of them together and proves transformative for all.

The postcard idea (that everyone needs encouragement) is powerful and clever.  I'm sure some teacher will assign a project like it to students after they read the book.  I'm less comfortable with the idea that we should not judge others.  While most bullies have become the way they are because of how they themselves were treated, it's simplistic to imagine that you can break the cycle with kindness and understanding.  With much of the bullying in this book (Vincent being the notable exception) coming from adults against children, this is particularly disturbing.   It's an ambitious idea for a story, but I'm not altogether comfortable with the idea or its delivery.