Monday, November 29, 2021

Salty, Bitter, Sweet, by Mayra Cuevas

Still reeling from the recent death of her grandmother and her father's decision to start a new family, Isa is looking for a direction in her life. Thanks to her grandmother, she has always loved food. Winning a coveted place in an elite training program in a Michelin-starred chef's kitchen seems like just the ticket for Isa. She is prepared to throw herself into it, even though it means that she'll be living uncomfortably in the house of her father and his new wife (with baby coming).  

That dedication to her craft is precisely what drives her crazy about lackadaisical (but infuriatingly attractive) Diego.  He's lazy and carefree, with no serious ambitions of his own.  Worse, he's staying at the house as he's the stepson of her stepmother.  Managing the intensity of her culinary program and keeping Diego out of her hair and her heart is enough to drive her crazy. But, of course, opposites attract.

As she warms to Diego and appreciates his more relaxed approach to life, she also discovers that maybe studying to become a master chef isn't what she wants after all.  If only her grandmother was still alive to offer her guidance.  All she has of her is her grandmother's cookbook, which she can't bring herself to open and read.

An engrossing story of fine food, dedicated culinary arts, and a general sense of how dysfunctional world culinary fame can actually be. Lot of details for dedicated foodies and enough fun stuff to keep even us amateurs enraptured and hungry.  However, I have a bone to pick about Isa's taste in guys.  I found Diego really hard to take at first.  I get that we're supposed to root for him and see Isa as unbalanced and uptight, but I couldn't get past how inconsiderate he was about the things that mattered to Isa.  It's only fairly late in the book that Isa starts coming around to the notion that she herself might be a bit too high strung.  At that point, Diego's arrogance starts to look a bit more like care and concern, but that doesn't change the way he fails to respect the things that are important to Isa. That she finds her true calling at the end is small comfort since it seems to require that Diego be part of the package.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Big Boned, by Jo Watson

Lori defines herself through the way she thinks people see her:  as a large overweight young woman.  Certainly not as anyone attractive, let alone beautiful.  However, at her art high school in Johannesburg, she has made friends and come mostly to terms with a traumatic assault she endured a few years before.

When Lori's autistic brother needs to move to a new school, it's exactly what her mother needs as well:  leaving Joburg and moving to Cape Town and starting again. There, Mom buries herself in her new career, generally ignoring them and leaving Lori with the responsibility of taking care of her brother.  While Lori is happy that her brother is getting the help he needs, Cape Town's sporty vibe is not for her.  Her new high school is all about water sports and Lori can't stand athletics and fears the water.  But some of that could change thanks to Jake, a friendly water polo captain.  He would normally be out of her league, but his attention-deficit younger sister attends the same school as Lori's brother and the younger siblings have become fast friends.  It doesn't take long, to Lori's surprise, before genuine sparks ignite between her and Jake as well.

With some support from Jake, another girl in Lori's class who aspires to design clothing for plus-size women, and a witty counselor, Lori learns how to deal with her fears, embrace her aspirations, and confront her mother.  Along the way, she discovers an aptitude for street art. The result is a winning story about believing in yourself and overcoming your fears.

Jo Watson is a revelation.  While covering familiar ground and all the usual scenes (the mirror, dress shopping, binging, and bullying) that one would expect in a story about a full-bodied young woman, Watson quickly leaves that behind and shows Lori really grabbing on to self-improvement.  She has her insecurities, but they really don't stop her from trying (and succeeding!) in shedding them. All of this success can make the novel seem unrealistically rosy (so much so that the protagonist even complains at one point that things like this don't happen "unless we're in the pages of some unrealistic YA book that totally throws social conventions out the window and sets itself in this totally made-up world where fat girls win and the guy looks past all her cellulite and sees the girl inside"). Yes, Lori, that's basically what this story is...and it's a winner!

As an aside, I don't believe that I have ever read a YA novel by a South African writer.  The different settings were a mildly disorienting, but pleasant change.  For while I've visited SA, I tend to see it only through a political lens.  I'm happy to report that angst-ridden adolescence is pretty much the same (if not better) there!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Hot British Boyfriend, by Kristy Boyce

Ellie's habit of following her impulses gets her in trouble and leads to public humiliation when she throws herself at a boy at school, only to find out that he likes her best friend instead.  Needing to escape, she signs up for a high school study abroad program in England.  Armed with her Jane Austen novels, she's determined to meet a cute British guy and forget all about what's-his-name back home.

While the academics are far more rigorous than she's prepared for, she seems to get her wish pretty quickly when she meets Will at a flea market.  He's not only gorgeous but also insanely rich, shuttling her around in his Jaguar and taking her out for fancy dinners at posh places.  But Ellie is never quite comfortable in his presence.  He's so much better than she is and she expends all of her energy trying to impress him and prove herself worthy.

All the time she is trying to impress Will, she is missing out on her friends, her chances to get to know England, and the things that are really important to her.   And, in that pesky way that romances do, there's a sweet quiet boy in their group that Ellie can't quite seem to forget.  Dev is understanding, patient, and supportive.  And while he isn't British, maybe she needs to stop and think about what she really wants in the boyfriend?

No surprises and none expected, but I found this romance a bit more cringeworthy than normal.  Ellie comes across as shallow, throwing away her unique opportunity to study in England in the name of chasing a boy (a boy who doesn't even come across as worth it).  It's easy enough to toss Will aside in the end because the relationship between Ellie and Will seems so superficial.  While it is fine to hate the bad choice and be rooting for the good one, I found myself actually hoping that poor Dev would wake up and realize that Ellie herself wasn't that much of a prize.  All of which begs the question:  if you don't like the protagonist, how exciting can the romance actually be?

Friday, November 19, 2021

Transcendent, by Katelyn Detweiler

Sequel to the novel Immaculate, in which normal teenager Mina became the center of controversy when she has an immaculate conception.  At the end of Immaculate, Mina faked a miscarriage and fled into obscurity.  This story picks up eighteen years later when a terrorist attack at Disney World has left over ten thousand people dead and many more of them injured.

Reeling from the trauma of the event, people are desperate to find meaning in the loss.  A father of one of the victims tracks down Mina and her now grown daughter Iris.  Believing that Iris is a Messiah, he insists that she has to cure his dying daughter.  And when she refuses, he outs her to the public. The ensuing media storm as fanatics on both sides come out of the woodwork.  Believers want and demand her help.  Refusing to believe her protests that she is nothing special, they respond violently to her refusals to help and then just as badly to her failures.  Meanwhile, others claim she is a fraud and want to punish her.

Frightened by this mixture of adoration and hatred, Iris runs away, trying to sort out what she should do.  She finds unlikely help in the guise of Zane, a boy at school with a troubled background.  After much deliberation, she figures out her path forward.

Put a strong stress on that "after much deliberation." The book starts off strong as it unveils a turbulent America that is well-primed for a savior.  Iris's reluctance to take on that role (especially with the threatening behavior of those who would follow her) is understandable, but Detweiler doesn't seem to know where to go with this.  Instead, the book drags down as Iris waffles back and forth, ignoring advice and generally repeating herself.  By the end, even the solution seems weak.

In sum, a promising premise but one which the author doesn't really seem to know how to resolve.  And certainly not needing 400+ pages to resolve.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Denis Ever After, by Tony Abbott

Like most people who have died, Denis doesn't remember the particulars of what took his life away five years ago, but he's at peace with it and ready to let go and move on.  But his still-living twin brother Matt can't let go of him.  And as long as Matt refuses to let go, Denis is stuck in Port Haven (a waiting area for recently-departed souls).  There's only one thing to do about it, Denis must return to the living world and convince his brother to let go.

While the case was never resolved, Denis was murdered and Matt wants to know who did it and why.  The two boys tackle the mystery using clues dug up by Matt and his friend Trey.  Denis who initially can't recall anything, finds his memory being jarred loose by revisiting the scenes of the crime and the mystery gradually is resolved.  However, time is running out.  With every visit he makes to his brother, Denis is putting his own soul in jeopardy.

Denis is no Patrick Swayze and Matt is no Demi Moore, but you know this story well enough.  I didn't always follow the plot developments, but the mystery unfolds at a nice pace keeping us wondering until the end what really happened to Denis.  I personally didn't find the story all that compelling.  The boys are pretty whiney and their parents are grating and annoying.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Take Three Girls, by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell, and Fiona Wood

A mandatory "wellness" class at St Hilda's creates an unlikely pair up.  To break up the usual cliques, the facilitator makes the students form groups based on thumb size.  As it turns out, queen bee Ady, smart Kate, and swimming champion Clem all have similarly long appendages, but at their school they would otherwise have no reason to hang out together.  To their surprise, as they spend the weeks of the program together, their personal lives begin to overlap and they grow close, especially when they all become targets of a vicious anonymous gossip website.

Team-written by three popular Aussie YA writers, this book explores identity and life choices.  Ady is dealing with her family falling apart as her father succumbs to addiction, Kate is having second thoughts about her career path, and Clem is making bad choices in love.  To a lesser extent, the website issue provides some ground to cover cyber bullying. 

The wellness class and its weekly writing prompts serve as launch points and themes for each stage of the story, which the authors each run with.  It's not a seamless process.  Team writing rarely works in my experience:  most authors have such different styles and those differences and egos turn the book into a competition as the authors try to control the story.  Here, as a three-way, the approach becomes especially messy.  At several points, you can tell that one author didn't like what another had done in a preceding chapter.  Sometimes the chapters overlap chronologically.  Sometimes, there are large gaps.  But what there rarely is is coordination between them and no great attempt to edit out the rough edges. It's great to have each girl have their own voice, but without an overseeing editor to iron out the rough spots, this is a bumpy ride. The approach is more distracting than clever.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Soulswift, by Megan Bannen

When she was a child, Gelya was taken from her village in the north by the Goodson and brought to the Convent of Saint Vinnica to serve as a Vessel of the Father and sing His sacred songs. There, she also helps translate the sacred songs into Kantari, the language of the infidels to the south -- a place that fascinates her because of the inhabitants' belief that the demoness that the Father imprisoned hundreds of years ago was actually a Goddess.

That conflict of belief has led to war and, at a hastily called summit hosted at the Convent, ambassadors meet to try to sort out the situation.  With her language skills, Gelya is brought in to translate for the interrogation of a young Kantari assassin.  The interview has only just begun when the proceedings are interrupted by a betrayal and massacre of the delegates.  Fleeing for their lives, Gelya and the Kantari (whose name is Tavik) find themselves unlikely partners.

That's when things start to get complicated. Tavik's mission is to free the Goddess (who he has found is imprisoned on the Convent's grounds), but doing so has unforeseen consequences and Gelya's body becomes possessed by the spirit.  Burdened now with carrying a presence that her faith has taught her is ultimate evil (but who Tavik venerates as a divine being), both of them must avoid capture.  They ostensibly share the same goal (free the being that Gelya is carrying within her) but with different motivations.  Along the way, their diametrically opposed worldviews coalesce through a shared struggle.  Mortal enemies become friends, lovers, and something a bit more transcendental.

A rich immersive fantasy with strong characters with interesting motivations and back story.  Both Gelya and Tavik are orphans of conflict and we spend some time getting to know how this affected them.  And while it is inevitable in a story like this that their initial distrust will break down through shared conflict to a romance, Bannen never lets that distrust too far out of their sight.  This is a fragile relationship and constantly under challenge as neither of the young people have much reason to believe the other.  As orphans, there's also a hypersensitivity to abandonment in their interactions that is particularly heartbreaking.

The world building is exquisite as the beautiful cover.  A wide variety of plausible cultures are presented and depicted.  The book makes good use of that diversity and also of different languages spoken by its people (although there is a fair amount of contemporary vernacular that can be jarring ("ass kicking," etc.).  The action gets a bit gory and the author is awfully fond of bad smells, but the story flows wonderfully and holds up the reader's interest through all 460 pages.

While themes of climate change and gender roles are present, it is religion and systems of faith that really predominate in this story.  I really liked the religious elements of the story, which are carefully thought out. Faith plays such a small part in most mainstream YA literature and the deep religious roots of the characters (particularly because they are so opposite of each other) allow some exploration of where beliefs come from and how we learn to coexist with people from different traditions.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Between the Water and the Woods, by Simone Snaith

As every child in the little village of Equane knows, you should never cross the moat that separates them from the dark woods.  When Emeline's little brother crosses the water on a dare from his friends, she is fast on her feet to fetch him back.  But not fast enough.  In the few moments that they are on the other side of the water, a dark creature appears that Emilene manages to drive off with water.  Safe back on their side, they notify their family and the town.

The town falls into an uproar.  It's an Ithin, a dark creature, and a long standing royal edict demands that any contact with dark creatures must be directly reported to the king by the witnesses.  So Emiline and her brother, accompanied by Emeline's father and a friend with a trusty wagon, venture to the capital city.  A grand adventure for children who have never left the village, but full of danger.  Along the way, they befriend Reese, a lash knight, who protects them and they arrive safely after further encounters with the Ithin.

Reaching the capital is only the beginning of their troubles.  The king is ailing and the royal court is split between two competing factions:  the Theurgists who honor magic and the Sapients who follow their belief in empirical science.  Each seeks to promote an agenda that will bring their group to power and the potential existence of the Ithin threatens the balance of power.  Both sides wish to exploit it for their own aims. More uncomfortable in this context is a growing realization that Emeline might wield her own magic.

A generally satisfying fantasy novel that unfortunately is marred at the end by a rushed conclusion and a plethora of sudden revelations that wrap up the adventure rather abruptly (but notably with enough loose ends that a sequel is plausible).  Most of the writing is fine, but Snaith gets caught up in tedium, worrying about where everyone sleeps, how they wash up, and where meals are coming from.  The attention to detail is admirable, but it drags on the pacing of the story and needed to be trimmed.

There are seven lovely full-page illustrations that seemed like they would have been better in color.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty

When she was eight years old, Lucy was struck by lightning.  As a result of the experience, she suffered permanent brain damage that gave her unusual mathematical skills.  For the past four years, she's been homeschooled, mastering all of high school math and most of college-level as well.  At twelve, she feels ready to go away to study at a university.  However, her grandmother (and guardian) isn't so sure.  She feels that Lucy needs to spend more time with her peers and challenges Lucy to mainstream and return to middle school.  If Lucy can make it through a year, make at least one real friend (on-line math buddies do not count), participate in an activity, and read a book about a non-mathematical subject, grandma will consent to Lucy's promotion.

For Lucy, middle school is an unsolvable equation.  Between her long  absence from socializing to her issues with OCD (another side effect of the lightning strike), middle school is particularly challenging.  But with some bravery, Lucy figures out a way to navigate seventh grade, even if it involves making a fair share of mistakes along the way.

A winning story of friendship (with all of its messy foibles) and of a girl who tackles the unpredictable world of real life adolescence.  There are some tear jerking moments of animal peril, but the story is mostly about Lucy sorting out the unpredictable nature of the social humans.  It's a storyline without particular surprises, but that makes it no less enjoyable.  Lucy's bravery with stepping outside of her comfort zone is inspirational. 

Friday, November 05, 2021

Not Here to Be Liked, by Michelle Quach

Eliza Quan is certain that she will be the school newspaper's editor in chief next year.  She's been working up to the position throughout high school and there really is no competition.  Sure, she can be a bit tough on the writers, but she knows what she is doing and she gets the job done.  However, at the last minute, Len (a junior reporter and popular jock) throws his hat in the ring and wins.  Shocked and hurt by the rejection, Eliza writes a private diatribe accusing the staff of choosing Len because he is guy.  A few days later, she is surprised to find her writing has been published.

Embarrassed to have the essay in circulation, Eliza tries to withdraw it but it has a life of its own.  What she has written about the preference for putting boys in positions of power resonates with many of the students.  The incident propels the issue of sexism in high school politics into the forefront and the school breaks into factions.  One side demands that Len resign and that Eliza be instated as the editor.  Others mock this as out-of-control woke culture.  Complicating matters, Eliza and Len discover a mutual attraction, which they try to keep private to avoid confusing the issue.

Entertaining and at times superficial, the novel actually brings up a lot of powerful questions about sexual equality in our relatively more complicated contemporary political landscape.  For an older reader, it is fascinating how sophisticated the dialog has become.  And while it is tempting to write  off some of the complexity of the dialog as being out of character for young people, I suspect that that is just me being an old guy not giving the kids their due.  High schoolers are now savvy enough to have discussions and debates like this.  Popular culture has pretty much ensured it.  There are two issues at play here -- the relatively easy question of the double standards that girls and boys are subjected to in high school and the more fascinating intersection of romance and sexual equality (and whether "sleeping with the patriarchy" undermines being a feminist).  

While there are a certain number of side characters, I felt all of the major players were used effectively.  Eliza and her friends (Winona and Serena) bring different perspectives to their notions of feminism and what the role of women should be that prove quite provocative.  A brief cameo with Eliza's mother discussing her notions of the proper role of women in the family provides some lovely insight on generational differences (and undermines some stereotypes about Asian women).  

Quach's book is ripe for discussion. This is first and foremost a romance and not a political novel, but I think it is okay to be both entertainment and edification.  Quach does not uncover anything particularly new, but the novel manages to highlight a variety of interesting thoughts that are worthy of group exploration.  I don't know if young people actually discuss books they have read, but if they do, this would be fun to talk about (and I would enjoy being a fly on the wall of that chat).

Monday, November 01, 2021

Instant Karma, by Marissa Meyer

Prudence has always believed that hard work should earn a person success.  So, when her biology teacher gives her a poor grade for a project that she slaved away on, she's incensed.  But when she learns that her "partner" (a lazy slacker named Quint who couldn't even be bothered to show up to class on time, let alone help her) is getting a better grade than she did, she's determined that there's something wrong in the universe.  There must be some sort of karmic pay-off for all of her effort.  

Her teacher explains that she lost points for not collaborating with her partner and that, in order to raise the grade, she'll have to re-do the work but this time with Quint's involvement.  Reeling from the injustice of the situation, Prudence is nonetheless committed to doing whatever it takes.

Parallel with class project do-over, Prudence suffers a mishap during a local karaoke contest that suddenly gives her the power to cause karmic payouts.  When she witnesses an injustice, she can right it in a particularly appropriate and poetic manner, causing good things to happen to good people and bad things to bad ones.  It would seem that some force has granted her the ability to finally mete out the justice she wants.  However, strangely, it doesn't work on Quint.

Forced to work together, Prudence finds out that Quint is different than she thought.  He works at an animal rescue that is down on its luck.  Prudence, who has never met a problem she didn't want to fix, sees potential for helping the place back on its feet.  Before she realizes it, she's committed to working with Quint to save the center and she's falling head over heels for Quint.  In typical romance fashion, he turns out to have charms that might even tame Prudence's obsessions.

Two separate ideas, which interrelate throughout the story, make it hard to explain the purpose of the story.  The rescue center is a more typical YA romance setting -- struggling business gets bailed out by a clever girl and an admiring conveniently-single boy.  The supernatural ability to impose karmic payback is different and more about learning to be a better person and less judgmental of others.  It would have made a decent novel by itself, but together, the story heads in two different directions and never really arrives.