Friday, October 29, 2021

The Skylark's War, by Hilary McKay

Clarry Penrose is cherry and upbeat, finding the positive in everyone around her.  Even though her father sees no value in her education, she persists in her dream of becoming an independent woman.  Her brother comes through and encourages her to study.  Summers are spent in Cornwall with their cousin Rupert, who is older and wiser, and he also encourages her.  And so, despite the odds, Clarry is on her way.  But with the arrival of the Great War comes Rupert's surprise decision to enlist and Clarry worries that he may never return.  When in fact a telegram arrives stating that Rupert is lost in action, Clarry agonizes and drops everything to find him, jeopardizing the pursue of her dreams.

A surprisingly retro book, written in a style of children's literature that really hasn't been actively practiced much in recent decades.  Clarry doesn't really have any adventures of note and you'll search hard for any passages that are particularly humorous.  This is simply a straight chronological account of her education progress and various troubles that her brother, cousin, and related family members go through.  There's no real message or defined purpose.  It's just a glimpse at a life.

The story is well written, but I am a jaded modern reader and I want a novel to have a purpose or a concept to justify its existence.  This instead just seemed trite, wasting opportunities to explore all of the societal changes occurring in the era (that McKay talks about in the afterword but never really explores in the story).

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Lily's Promise, by Kathryn Erskine

Lily's been homeschooled for the first five years of her education, but after her father passes away, there's no one to do the teaching and Mom insists that she start attending regular school for sixth grade.  While Lily expects changes, the one things she dreads the most is making friends and speaking in public.

Before her father died, he made her promise that she would "strive for five" and do five things that scared her and she figures to putting herself out there will be worst. She is surprised to find how easy the friend-making is as long as you approach people with an open mind.  She quickly makes friends with Hobart, a curling fan and the target of abuse from the class's bully Ryan.  Ryan has lots of targets, amongst them Dunya, a recently arrived Iraqi refugee.  Lily likes Dunya and is surprised by all the people (including Hobart's father) who dislike Dunya simply because of where she came from.

What Lily is coming to realize is that it is not enough to be kind, one must also be brave enough to confront hatred.  A chance comes for Lily to commit a truly powerful act:  run for class president.  She's terrified of speaking in public, but the alternative is Ryan.  He's set up a campaign based on lies, false promises, and smear campaigns (in a not-so-subtle allusion to recent national politics).  Lily puts herself in contrast by running a positive.  With the help of Hobart and Dunya, she sets her sights on fulfilling her promise to her father.

Cleverly albeit jarringly, the novel also contains a Greek Chorus in the form of the book itself.  Alternate chapters break from the action to allow "Libro" to discuss the preceding events and comment on the author's choices.  Some of the observations are quite amusing (like when Libro tries to rally the reader to prevent the author from allowing a dog to come to harm), but the constant interruptions disrupt the flow of the story and grow didactic when the author feels that a point hasn't been driven home hard enough.

While I appreciate the urgency that Erskine must have felt in creating this political work at the time, it hasn't aged well and the sentiments are saccharine.  It also comes at some cost to the original point of the story.  For while the arguments for kindness and positivity are pretty thoroughly presented, Lily's journey in developing self-confidence is forced to the background.  The expected pay-off doesn't even occur as the book ends abruptly.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

A Night Twice as Long, by Andrew Simonet

A blackout that stretches out over several weeks provides an unusual setting for this unconventional road trip story.

Before the lights went out, things were already going pretty badly for Alex.  Her father has abandoned the family.  Her severely autistic brother, Georgie had been removed to foster care.  Her mother had surrendered to depression.  But a world with no electricity seems to Alex like an opportunity to reset and fix things. She kicks things off by shaving off her hair.

Meanwhile, her neighbor and best friend Anthony has heard a rumor that some guys at the VFW a few towns over have a shortwave radio and can use it to communicate with the outside world.  He wants to go and see if he can contact his mother who is currently stationed overseas.  Alex agrees to go with him and the two teens set out on foot.  The trip is supposed to take just a few hours, but becomes an overnight adventure, during which the kids find out that the loss of electricity has brought out the weird in people.  From nudists to schools without walls to Christian survivalists, Alex and Anthony (along with Georgie who they pick up along the way) find that, in a world without lights, so many hard things seem possible.

Misclassified as YA, this is really an adult book with teenage characters.  It has some powerful observations about race (Anthony is black), class (they are both poor), and developmental disability.  Simonet is particularly eloquent on the latter subject letting Alex rant profusely about the awkward way that people treat autism and families with autistic members.  While autistic characters like Georgie are no longer exceptional in YA, the subject of their families is rare in any genre so that makes this novel stand out.  But beyond this, Simonet does not offer much for the story.  The blackout is more background than focus (so no post-apocalyptic moments of note) and is more of an excuse to give the kids a reason for their two-day hike.  I liked the characters, finding them firm, resourceful, and yet flawed, but there isn't much for them to do here.  I think there was room here to take all of these nice observations about humanity and also fit in a real adventure.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Cold Is in Her Bones, by Peternelle van Arsdale

Milla has never left her family farm.  Her parents won't allow it.  They also require her to line every entrance and window sill with salt to keep away the demons.  As long as Milla is dutiful and obedient, they tell her, she will be safe.  But from what?  When her brother's fiancĂ©e Iris comes to live with them, Milla hopes for answers.  But Iris brings only scary fairy tales and vague warnings about what happens to girls who become cursed.  And then when Iris herself becomes possessed by the demon and is sent away, Milla discovers the truth about what happens to girls who fall under the thrall of evil.

The Cold Is in Her Bones is a story of evil legacies, family secrets, and communities far too eager to sacrifice their young women rather than undo a wrong committed long ago.  It is an ambitious story, but hard to follow.  While the prose can be quite beautiful, it was frustrating to track the action or why exactly we were taking the turns we did.  In the end it is near impossible to explain what the story was really about or whether it was truly resolved.

The cover is pretty though!

Monday, October 18, 2021

Destination Anywhere, by Sara Barnard

Fleeing from a painful series of events, seventeen year-old Peyton manages to run away all the way from her home in Surrey, UK to Vancouver Canada.  She knows no one, has no plan, but is determined to get away.  By extreme good fortune, she befriends a group of young people who are independently traveling and hooks up with them in adventures across the continent.  Along the way, she recalls in flashback the years of bullying, risky and bad choices she made to cope with it, and her eventual arrival in Canada.  Her new friends help her develop a better understanding of how human relationships are supposed to work and to better understand herself, helping her on to the road to recovery.

Barnard has previously wowed me with her chilling toxic-relationship novel Fragile Like Us and again she delivers a cut-to-the-bone look at the dynamics of friendship.  Her characters are never perfect, but are perfectly depicted.  In this case, we come to understand (alongside Peyton herself) the dysfunctional behaviors she developed while being bullied and even the root causes (over-sensitivity, anxiety, unrealistic expectations) that put her in that position.  This includes dealing with the PTSD she experiences as seemingly normal events trigger bad memories, the slow rebuilding of her trust in others, and the confidence to stand up for her needs.\

She doesn't do any of this alone.  Along the way, there are plenty of good conversations with her fellow travelers who each have lessons to share (it's hard not to feel jealous for the kindness that Peyton receives from her friends in Canada -- it's a dream team of youth hostelers).  Peyton gets a lot out of these experiences.  She is reflective and always the agent of her own healing.  That is an empowering message for readers.

Another aspect of the book that I found empowering was the maturity of its discourse.  Payton's interactions with others show maturity, kindness, and empathy.  You know that you would be good friends with her if she were real.  Even Peyton's conflicts with her parents are handled maturely and respectfully.  Barnard doesn't create selfish parents for Peyton to rebel against.  Instead, the grownups have needs that are presented as just as valid as Peyton's.

The drama in the story is real and authentic.  Growing up is hard and Peyton shows us the way to get through.  I have to say that my affection for the book is at least somewhat tied to the gut punch it gave me and the extent to which I personally related to Peyton's issues.  If you have ever doubted your interpersonal skills or felt that your ability to make friends was being held back by your distrust of others, there are some chilling moments of self-recognition awaiting you in these pages.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim

Shiori, princess of Kiata, has been betrothed to a minor noble from the far cold north.  Even her six brothers agree that it seems like a demotion.  She'll do anything to duck out of it -- even taking a dangerous splash into the ocean to avoid the betrothal ceremony.  But when that runabout exposes Shiori's unusual magical acumen, it becomes a greater threat than an unwelcome union.  Magic is forbidden in Kiata and (until now) Shiori has been able to hide her abilities.

When she first arrived, Shiori loved her stepmother.  The brothers were cooler, but Shiori latched on to her, pining as she did for her deceased mother.  But as they all grew older, the positions flipped and a distrust developed between Shiori and her stepmother just as her brothers started to like her.  When the ocean incident brings Shiori's powers to her stepmother's attention, Shiori realizes too late that her stepmother is herself a sorceress and a threat.  Shiori tries to warn the family, but the woman curses her and her brothers.  Her brothers are transformed into six cranes and forced to flee while Shiori is banished to a faraway island, affixed with a wooden bowl over her head, and threatened to never speak.  For every word she speaks, she is told, one of her brothers will die.

Transported to a strange land with nothing except her clothes, Shiori must find a way to survive, reunite with her brothers, and figure out how to break her stepmother's curse.  Doing so will involve skills and fortitude that she never knew before that she possessed and enlisting the support of a wide variety of resources, including the help of her despised suitor.

This rich and vivid fantasy with a mildly Asian flavor features a complicated story with nearly constant and relentless action.  Full of betrayals and broken promises, the story has a fair share of twists and turns.  It contains a lot of what I'll call "false leads" (i.e., plot points which seem to suggest certain events that turn out to never materialize).  The old chestnut that if a gun appears in Act 1 that it will be used in Act 3 does not apply here.  Instead, Lim seems to delight in setting up a situation and then suddenly switching directions.  For example, given the way the story began, I presumed that we would have a big final show down with the stepmother about fifty pages before the end, Shiori would be victorious, and things would wrap.  I won't give any spoilers beyond simply saying that it doesn't happen (and not simply because there's a second book coming out).  The novel is chock full of these false leads:  lengthy preparations for conflicts that never materialize.  That doesn't mean that the book is particularly original, but simply that Lim doesn't want you to be able to guess what is going to happen next.

What is more predictable is the way that Shiori develops as a character.  She starts spoiled, self-absorbed, and impulsive.  Through her curse, she learns humility and circumspection.  With her struggles, she develops interpersonal skills and leadership.  Finally, with her betrothed, she learns to love.  None of this is dwelled upon but instead comes out organically as a result of all of the action, creating an appealing protagonist and a coming-of-age story that is a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

From You To Me, by K. A. Holt

At the start of eighth grade, Amelia accidentally receives a letter that Clara, her sister, put in a time capsule shortly before she died.  In the letter, Clara made a list of her own goals for eighth grade.  Amelia is still grieving the loss of Clara after all these years.  Feeling inspired by the list, Amelia tries to complete Clara's goals as a way of honoring her sister.  But the two girls are very different and Amelia struggles to do even one thing from the list.  In the end, she learns that she has to go her own way, including how she copes with her sister's death.

There's not really anything new here, but Holt does a nice job of showing Amelia's struggle and her eventual ability to resolve her issues.  Along the way, Amelia makes some bad choices and also learns a bit from the mistakes of her friends.  Overall, a short and functional story of grief and recovery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Small Favors, by Erin A. Craig

At eighteen, Ellerie is on the verge, but her future is not yet clear.  Unlike her twin brother Sam who will inherit the farm and have a place in the leadership of their small isolated town of Amity Falls, Ellerie's future will be tied to whatever man she ends up marrying.  It seems terribly unfair when Ellerie is the one who is loyal to her family, dutiful on the farm, and doting on the family's bee hives.  But Amity Falls is a community built around rules, order, and custom -- notions that have brought peace and modest prosperity to the townspeople.

When the incidents start to occur (animal attacks in the woods, strange mutations, withered crops, fires, and random acts of vandalism), it seems really like a string of bad luck.  But everyone's a little suspicious.  Tongues, primed by suppressed jealousy and resentment, far too easily spout forth accusations.  And those accusations in turn spawn counter-claims, petty vengeance, and violence.  The rules that seemed to bring order to the town, have simply hidden the true feelings of its inhabitants.  Let loose, the rage and fury tears the town apart.

And on the sidelines, a malevolent dark force is watching and entertained.

A creepy and deeply immersive horror set in a small isolated community, roughly in the late nineteenth century.  If your thing is supernatural horror, this novel provides it in spades.  While it is pretty easy to figure out that something is going on, the reader is left guessing at just how widespread the problem is until nearly the end.  And so while we are not entirely surprised by the reveal, its scope is shocking.

What really powers the story is not the sporadic acts of horror, but the complex web of combustible relationships that Craig has built.  Almost everyone has some reason to distrust everyone else.  Manipulated by evil forces that the townspeople never quite fathom, those doubts and insecurities are easy picking.  The result is a sobering story about the corrosive effects of distrust (made all the more chilling by the townspeople's own creed of unity-at-all-costs).  While the story ends on a note of hope, the overall Hobbesian message is a downer.

Beautifully written, finely nuanced, and deep thinking, Small Favors is book that will haunt you.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space, by Shaun David Hutchinson

This space satire opens with Noa finding himself outside of a spaceship with no memory of how he got there.  Inside the ship, a stranger named DJ is trying to keep the ship from exploding.  Together, the two boys manage to figure out the immediate issue.  Saving the ship and their lives doesn't bring them any closer to solving the mystery.  On the contrary, the story keeps getting more and more complicated.  Joined soon by girl named Jenny, the three young people battle stowaways, overheating reactors, space monsters, and eventually the most perverse high school in the universe.  And through it all, Noa and DJ develop a romance whose most surprising element is a sense of deja vu.

Much like Red Dwarf (if Lister and Cat were in fact gay -- in other words, just like Red Dwarf!), this is science fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously.  In fact, the story only starts to flag as Hutchinson seeks to find a way to end the story, explain the mystery, and say something deep and meaningful about mass culture.  The metanarrative of using sci-fi tropes to comment upon commercialization didn't work for me, but up to that moment, this is a pretty hilarious and entertaining read.  Noa and DJ make a great romantic couple and their relationship has a lively sparring that keeps things interesting (although I felt bad for how underutilized Jenny is as the third wheel).  Quirky and disruptive this is a story that works best as satire and shuns deep thinking.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

The Forever Horse, by Stacy Gregg

Maisie is horse crazy and spends her days at school drawing sketches of them during lectures.  Her teachers consider it distracting but her father doesn't mind.  He sees her latent talent and instead submits a sample to a prestigious art school in Paris, who in turn invite her to enroll.

There, her talents are less appreciated and Maisie has to deal with a hostile teacher who questions her youth, her commitment to art, and her lack of depth.  While despairing over her struggle, she stumbles across an old diary, which turns out to have belonged to a young artist of the nineteenth century who also loved to draw horses (and was similarly disparaged).  Reading the diary, Maisie finds inspiration from their common struggle.  But it is a shocking turn of events on the streets of Paris and a brave and heroic horse which put Maisie in a place to finally let go of her inhibitions and become the artist she longs to be.  

A superior (albeit formulaic) girl-and-horse story that will appeal to lovers of the genre. Lots of great horse details combined with stirring adventure and a heroine who is strong, brave, and loyal to her steed are all you really need and Gregg is an established master.  As with most novels that tell parallel stories, I always find that one of the two is the better and in this case it is really the historical one told on the pages of the lost diary.  Maisie's struggle, while full of contemporary resonance, seems less gripping and less interesting.   

 [Disclaimer:  I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  I am donating the book to charity.]

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Our Year of Maybe, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Sophie and Peter have been friends from childhood, but there has always been an imbalance in their relationship.  Peter is sickly, suffering from kidney dysfunction, and Sophie has always felt the need to sacrifice her happiness for him and to give him whatever he wants.  When she turns 18, that means donating a kidney to him.  She's a match and she can't think of anything she wouldn't want more to do than see Peter be healthy.  Her family and friends advise it, but she is adamant.

After the transplant, however, things go awry.  Sophie is distressed to find Peter is drifting away from her.  She thought that the experience would cement their relationship together, but instead her healthy Peter is gaining his independence.  Sophie, who has always defined herself in relation to him, doesn't want to lose him and doesn't even know how to move on.

Well-written, but excruciating to read.  Simply put, the characters are not very likeable.  Both of them self-centered, but it is Sophie's sense of entitlement that comes across the worst.  Despite her protestations that being a donor merits her to nothing, it is obvious that she feels nonetheless that Peter is hers and that he owes her his life in exchange for her loyalty to him. Peter, in contrast, is mostly oblivious to this and ultimately clueless (although at some points in the book, it seems that he knowingly exploits Sophie's dependence for his own benefit).  These are not people, in other words, who respect each other as people or who can get beyond their sense of what the other one owes them.

The story has many distractions. Sophie's younger sister is an unwed mother, which might have been useful as a contrasting relationship, but it is largely unexploited.  But the bigger non-sequitur is Sophie's and Peter's separate awakening sense of Jewishness.  I wasn't really sure where we were going with this, but I was hoping it would either become a path that one or both of them could follow as a way of breaking their codependence (Peter briefly flirts with the idea of going on a Birthright trip to Israel to give him some distance from Sophie) or that they could use as a way to guide them through their issues.  But instead, we get a couple of conversations and a random visit to temple for what are otherwise a pair of self-described "High Holiday Jews."

Finally, there is the way it all ends up.  I won't talk much about that because I don't want to spoil the ending, but the fact that the end of relationship (and the book) is blamed on a specific "heartbreaking night" (as the blurb puts it) really cheapens the over-350 pages of dysfunction that we have witnessed along the way.  This is a relationship that was destined to combust without an impetuous mistake.

In sum, a great story of two people in a relationship that you would never want to be in.  Whether you want to read about it is up to you!