Sunday, December 26, 2021

Lucky Girl, by Jamie Pacton

Considering the problems she has to deal with, Jane's real name (Fortuna) seems like a sad joke:  a dead father, a mother who hoards to cope with her grief, and a nasty ex-boyfriend.  But then she wins the lottery and the 58 million dollar grand jackpot.

Now, she has an even bigger problem:  How is she going to collect?  As a minor, she bought the ticket illegally and she can't just walk in and claim her prize.  If she hands it over to her Mom, her mother will just waste it all on junk.  The only person she knows who is over eighteen is her ex-boyfriend and THAT isn't going to happen!   While she tries to figure out what to do, she keeps quiet about it.  But her best friend Brandon is obsessed with identifying the winner and coming dangerously close to figuring it all out.

A comedic look at lottery madness.  In order to find a solution to her dilemma, Jane researches what prior lottery winners have done and uncovers the various ways that good fortune has generally turned bad.  The book thus is mostly a vehicle for exploring the sorts of crazy things that lottery winners do.  The ending, which relies on a rewriting of assumptions, felt a bit like a cop out, but the story itself is entertaining.  There are some potentially disturbing themes (death, mental illness, violence) but very little attention is drawn to any of these issues and the overall tone is light.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love, by Jared Reck

Oscar has no illusions of going to college.  The only classwork he really enjoys is cooking class and that's because it is what he does when he's not in school -- helping his grandfather run a food truck specializing in Finnish kebabs and Swedish donuts.  So, there really couldn't be a more opposite person at school than overachiever Lou.  She's taking all AP classes and set on being the valedictorian, and she's taken on a huge project for girl scouts that involves reducing landfill waste -- a project that involuntarily involves Oscar.  But as the two of them start working together, they find that Oscar's culinary skills and Lou's organization complement each other and that synergy spills over to the food cart.

While taking an out-of-the-blue left turn in the final fifty pages that disrupts the story, I really enjoyed this romantic comedy.  The strength of the story lays in its vivid characters.  Farfar (the grandfather) is a gem and adds a wonderful foil for a story that benefits from Reck's dry writing style.  Reck isn't a John Green, but he delivers a decent young male character who isn't (like most boys in male-written YA) obsessed with sex -- a feat worthy of supporting.  And while Lou is largely neglected, she gets enough development to make her an intriguing person in her own right.

The story takes a bit to really get going.  There is a wonderful back story involving Oscar's mother and  another about Farfar's former lover that truly were criminally overlooked, but I think Reck wanted to avoid long digressions.  Left as-is, the back stories provide depth without becoming integral to the story, but they do make the early pages a bit hard to follow as we are not quite sure at first where our focus as the readers should lay.  And the aforementioned late development to the story really serves to hijack where the author was leading us for most of the book.

I've never seen a story that mentioned the Aaland Islands before (and even Swedish-American stories are in short supply), so this book with its focus on Scandinavian street food will serve some multi-cultural value as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Lost Language, by Claudia Mills

As Betsy's mother struggles with getting a grant approved for researching and documenting dying languages, Betsy's best friend Lizard suggests that she and Betsy undertake a project to save a language by learning it and teaching it to their friends.  Between Betsy and Lizard, this is how things normally go:  Lizard is always coming up with the ideas and Betsy is left following her lead.  But when Betsy decides to audition for the school play on her own and makes a new friend, Lizard becomes jealous and lashes out.  The girls have a falling out.

At that moment, Mom's work stresses build up to a crisis and Betsy reaches out to her old friend for support.  But instead of reconciling, Lizard betrays Betsy.

Mills writes lots of middle grade books, but not usually in verse as she has done here.  The style works in this case because the story is so centrally about language and communication, but I don't think it was essential.  With few words and lots of white space, the book is a very fast read.  I would not call this one of Mills's best books, but it is a good read and deals with the popular topic of the strains that a friendship goes through as children grow older in an effective and sophisticated manner.

The story features some fairly mature themes, including adult mental illness and alcoholism.  These are handled in a straightforward and age-appropriate fashion.  As always, it's nice to see adults being treated like real people in a children's book.  It is also good to see children being treated as responsible enough to handle that reality.

Goodbye, Perfect, by Sara Barnard

When Eden's best friend Bonnie disappears, Eden is as shocked as everyone else.  Sure, Bonnie had told her about this guy named Jack who she was mad over, but she was so vague on the details that Eden wondered if Jack was even real.  So, it comes as a surprise when to learn that Bonnie has run away with him and that Jack is actually their music teacher at school.

With parents and police pressuring Eden for information, she finds herself in an awkward position of trying to be supportive of her friend by lying to the police about whether she is in touch with Bonnie.  But the longer Bonnie is gone, the more Eden starts to question just how well she knows her friend.  How can Bonnie just leave her family and friends, throw away her life, and embrace a fugitive life with a man who is twice her age?

A engaging story with enough adventure to keep the plot moving with delivering a surprisingly poignant look at a friendship being torn apart as two childhood friends grow up.  Barnard is consistently strong at realistic portrayals of human relationships as seen in her other novels (e.g., Fragile Like Us, Destination Anywhere), respectfully capturing how children and adults really interact.  As in her other novels, our protagonist Eden is provided a deep backstory that gives the reader a true sense of what her relationship with Bonnie means to her, all of which adds to the pathos of the way Bonnie's runner really tears Eden apart.  And while minor characters can't possibly get as generous of a treatment, Barnard does take the time to fill in enough details that no one present is a throwaway -- parents get to have flaws without being caricatures, children are not always right, and so on.  

It's a story that can't have a happy ending and it is not particularly inspirational subject matter, but Eden's journey to adulthood is emotionally satisfying as a story.  Highly recommended.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Hollow Inside, by Brooke Lauren Davis

Phoenix and her mother have been on the run for a while, but that is about to come to an end.  Years ago, a horrible wrong was committed against Phoenix's Mom and the two of them have returned to Jasper Hollow to make things right.  Phoenix's job is to do reconnaissance, finding out everything she can about Ellis Bowman, celebrated author and self-help guru.  Without intending it, Phoenix befriends Ellis's son and finds herself brought into the family circle.  And while she is supposed to be gathering intelligence to help her mother's plans for revenge, her loyalties are tested as she gets to know Ellis's family and falls romantically for Ellis's daughter.

Through flashbacks, the details of Ellis's original betrayal (and the complicity of the people of Jasper Hollow) is revealed.  And yet, the more the reader learns about the wrongs that were done, the more everything grows murkier.  Good people did bad things.  And then they did worse things.  The past is being revisited, but events are still unfolding and there is still time for people to make more mistakes.  By the time the story ends, no one is going to get what they truly want.

The thing about tragedies is that they are not particularly fun to read.  Or rather, the "fun" of reading comes from the realization of the inevitability of the story: a well-written tragedy in other words writes itself, which what happens here.  Events unfold effortlessly and each new page fills the reader with dread -- the proverbial train wreck.  That Davis is able to exceed expectations and pile tragedies beyond my imagination (without creating a melodrama) is testament to a well-constructed story with sound foundations.  With that effort upfront, the author exploits vengeance and fate for maximum effect.

This is a story where every major character has a purpose.  Ellis is the guilt-ridden king.  His wife the long-suffering queen who knows all but remains steadfastly loyal.  Ellis's pastor tries to protect them both but not out of any loyalty; he has his own guilt to avoid. With the adults carrying heavy parts of the backstory, the dramatic weight of the current moment falls heavily on the kids.  The relationship between Phoenix and Ellis's daughter Melody is particularly central.  There's not much romantic heat between them, but as representatives of the two sides of this conflict, they are a junior version of the conflict between Ellis and Phoenix's Mom.  Well-developed characters, they have a nice spark between them that makes their romance just another layer of complexity in a story without much time for love.

A compelling tragedy with strong characters and an engaging narrative.  Dedicate the time to finish the last hundred pages in one sitting.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Apple in the Middle, by Dawn Quigly

Apple feels like she is always between one thing or another, but never quite belongs to a particular identity.  Her family is rich, but she attends public school.  Her mother, who died giving birth, was Native American, but her father is white.  Her father remarried and she's been raised by her stepmother for most of her life, so she really doesn't know her mother's heritage.  As far as the white kids are concerned, her dark skin tags her as not one of them and for the Indians, her name is a joke ("apple" is a derogatory term for a half-breed, red on the outside but white inside).

One summer, her parents decide that she needs to get to know her mother's family better and they send her out to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.  Out there, she meets her relatives, learns more about her mother, and connects with her culture, changing her life forever.

A fairly predictable undertaking used as a vehicle to explore Ojibwe culture.  Despite that rather clumsy undertaking, this is a nuanced piece that occasionally lapses into an overly "teachy" (pedantic) style but has its heart in the right place.  The usual pitfalls of noble Indian or oddball life on the Rez are noth avoided.  Instead, it's a story with a lot to impart about the complexity of life for contemporary Native Americans.  I learned a lot through reading it.  At times, the story itself suffers from this grander purpose and loses its dramatic momentum, but it's not dull or dry.  Apple herself, who seems to have some traits of ADHD, is not always a likeable protagonist and seems overly quick to assume the worst of people, but ultimately is intelligent and insightful.  Her struggles to understand her family and their culture provide us with a sympathetic guide and help open up this fascinating culture.  A flawed but unique and valuable book.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista imagines a world in which there remains only one human being who can recall the stories, myths, and memories that make up human existence.  In doing so, it explores the importance of culture and the terrible cost of forgetting from where we have come.

Petra loves to tell cuentos and dreams of becoming a storyteller like her grandmother.  But destiny is about to seriously disrupt this innocent dream.  With the Earth about to be destroyed by a comet, a very small number of people have been chosen to board spaceships that will take them on a nearly-four-hundred-year journey to a distant hospitable planet in order to rebuild.  Petra's family are among the chosen ones.  They will sleep in suspended animation for the duration of the voyage, tended by monitors who will spend their lifetimes taking care of the ship, passing along their responsibilities to their children and grandchildren.  It will take many generations of these monitors until the ships reach their destination.

Years later, when the ships reach the end of their trip, Petra is awoken to discover that things have gone horribly wrong.  A totalitarian Collective has taken over the ship and enslaved everyone in the name of achieving a stifling consensus.  To maintain the control, the leaders use a combination of sedatives and ignorance.  Key among their policies is forgetting everything about the past and so they systematically erase the memories of the sleepers when they bring them out of hibernation.  No one can be allowed to remember how life was on Earth.  Instead, all thoughts must be focused on the Collective and its current mission.  For some reason, Petra proves resistant to attempts at wiping her memories and she sets about covertly to undermine the regime. Using her talents as a storyteller and her memories of Earth, she tries to enlist allies and save humanity.

Part Gabriel García Márquez and part Ben Bova (i.e., The Exiles Trilogy), Higuera creates a unique Hispanic-flavored science fiction story.  The narrative is uneven, with frequent flashbacks to Petra and her time on Earth jarring the narrative flow.  The overall depressing nature of the story (i.e., end of humanity) is not fully balanced with the optimistic message of Petra's cuentos and a very open endings leaves much of the dilemma unresolved.  Petra's stories (adapted from traditional folk tales) do not always align with the ongoing action.

As science fiction, then, the story does not always manage  to be a success, but the deeper message of the importance of oral history and culture as the root of what makes us human is powerful and quite moving.  Marketed to middle school readers, the serious themes and the upsetting nature of the material probably make it more appropriate for an older audience.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Carry Me Home, by Janet Fox

Lulu and her little sister Serena, along with their Dad, have been living in their car.  Dad is making money as a carpenter and promises to soon have enough so they can get a real home.  It's been fine so far as summer moves into fall and the girls start attending school, but the weather is getting colder.

And then one day her father doesn't come home.

He did this once before, back when they lived in Texas.  It was shortly after their mother died and he just got so sad that he had to go away.  It was a month before he returned, but the girls managed on their own.  And Lulu understands that it is best that way.  If people start to notice that your Daddy is missing, they call social services and the kids get taken away (and probably separated).  Lulu wants to avoid that at all costs. But as the days go by, keeping things together gets harder and harder and nosy adults begin to wonder where the girls' father is.  Twelve year-old Lulu is running out of ideas for how to prevent people from finding out.  And also running out of the means to keep her and her sister safe.

I've never been a fan of child abandonment stories or understood why so many of them get written.  The solution is obvious enough (adults find out and foster care turns out not to be as bad as the child imagined).  Dragging out that inevitable conclusion just seems like child abuse to me.

Setting aside that bias and preconception, this version of the story has some nice features to it.  Lula shows great resilience, taking care of her sister and even finding some time to have some fun.  I especially like the kindness of the people with whom Lulu deals  It's not just the expected kindness of the local librarian (which is sort of a requirement, no?) but lots of kind adults and kids as well.  Even a classmate who initially teases Lulu turns out to be a generous friend.  It must be something about Montana (where the action takes place)!  In any case, the positive, community spirit of the setting helps to buffer the traumatic nature of the material.  A happy ending helps as well.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Hello (From Here), by Chandler Baker and Wesley King

Maxine and Jonah meet while shopping.  They are both hunting for toilet paper and Maxine accuses Jonah of hoarding.  It's the spring of 2020 and the governor has just declared a full lockdown to deal with the rapid spread of COVID-19.  

All in all, an awkward time to kick off a romance, but life (as it has become) marches on.  Max is trying to make ends meet as a personal shopper, bringing quarantined people their groceries.  Her mother's dry cleaning business is grinding to a halt as people no longer need to clean their suits and dress slacks.  Meanwhile, Jonah ostensibly only has to deal with the cancellation of his long-planned trip to Paris this summer and the fact that his Dad is stranded in Spain.  But underneath these stark class differences, Max and Jonah share a great deal in common and as they endure those uncertain first months of the pandemic, their relationship undergoes unusual stresses and strains.

I've been waiting for a decent YA romance set in the contemporary moment for the simple reason that all of the traditional ones feel so unrealistic in today's world (where even kissing seems unwise).  Baker and King do an incredible job in capturing the mood of the times in a way that will make this book a go-to for young readers in the years to come trying to understand life in 2020.  Is it too soon for historical YA of that period?  No, I don't really think so.  Children's literature is as much about helping young people connect to their world as entertaining young readers.  What could be more relatable to a teenager right now than other young people trying to navigate a relationship that takes place with masks on and six feet apart?

Unfortunately, I found the story itself to be dull and aimless.  Reminiscent of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with its meandering unstructured format, this is a story that really does not have a goal.  There are a number of ideas (absent parents, illness, and poignant subplot about a famous movie director, rescuing a shelter dog, etc.) but no consensus about where to take the ideas.  It reads like two established writers with not-entirely-compatible styles that are playing literary tug-of-war.  Characters and situations introduced by one are pointedly ignored by the other.  For a team-written novel to really work, you need collaboration, which inevitably means re-writing large sections after you reach the end to make the exercise into a story.  This book is far too rushed to do that serious editing process.  The end result is simply boring.

So, not great literature, but fascinating material.  Hopefully, it will inspire others to tackle the subject.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Faceless, by Kathryn Lasky

Alice is a spy for the British and a member of the "Rasas" (as in Tabula Rasa) -- a long line of spies who have a genetic mutation that gives them perfectly symmetrical faces that are incidentally impossible to remember.  This inscrutability gives them an advantage when working undercover.  Rasa also have superior intellects and can memorize facts easily and acquire languages flawlessly.  In all, Alice and her family make formidable spies.

In the waning days of World War II, Alice and her parents are sent to Berlin to help assist an attempt to murder Hitler.  Passing herself as Ute, a star student, she infiltrates Hitler's inner circle.  The plot (based on a real event) ultimately fails, but Alice gains firsthand knowledge of life in Hitler's bunker.  She also befriends a Jewish boy who is hiding from the Nazis and helps him survive.

Throughout her mission, Alice is distracted with worry about her older sister.  Just prior to leaving for Berlin, her sister retired from service and declined to join them in Germany.  Instead, she went to work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  To her shock and amazement, Alice starts to catch glimpses of a young woman on streets of Berlin who looks like her sister.  Tracking that woman down reveals even further surprises.

The adventure is a bit too rushed to develop any strong feeling of suspense, but the story is rich with details that will be inspirational for further reading.  That strength can also prove to be a weakness when we get so bogged down in the details that there is not much room left over for story.

I was less taken with the subplot involving the Jewish boy and the mysterious sister.  The boy turns out to be largely inconsequential to the story and Alice's sympathy for him seems out of character and distracting.  It is also anachronistic -- glossing over the anti-Semitism of the period -- which is striking given the otherwise strong devotion to historical details.  The sister's story sticks out uncomfortably because it is neither well set-up in the beginning nor really effectively resolved at the end.  It also added little to the story.

The Rasa concept is a rich jumping off point for any number of adventures and one hopes that Lasky will take other points in history and give them the same treatment.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

You & Me at the End of the World, by Brianna Bourne

Hannah wakes up to find she's the only one left on Earth (that is, until she finds Leo!).  Everyone else has disappeared.  Now, it's just the two of them.  Houston Texas, population 2.

What would you do if you had the world to yourselves?  Neither Hannah nor Leo really know, but having the whole city to themselves, they are free to explore.  With an absence of any other human life, they also compare notes about their lives up to now.  The abandoned streets of Houston invite self-reflection.

Before this happened, they knew of each other, but definitely moved in different circles.  They are both seniors, about to embark on their real lives.  Hannah is on the verge of becoming a professional ballerina.  Leo, while a talented musician, seems destined to screw up his latest opportunity.  In an empty world, however, what future is there for a dancer and a guitarist?

An unusual story about what it would be like if all of the world's distractions were to disappear and you could really get to know another person.  I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic feel of an deserted Houston, but the implausibility of the scenario grated on me.  First of all, because there was little in the novel to give me a sense of place (Bourne made very little effort to bring up landmarks or invoke anything particularly Houstonian -- it may be a huge metropolis, but it definitely has plenty of local character!).  Secondly, because there is no way that a place would function very long if the entire living population suddenly disappeared.

As the story progresses, rather than address the implausibilities, Bourne stresses her protagonist's inner turmoil and pulls the characters into an emotional breakdown.  The story gets bogged down in insignificant chat.  The story's eventual resolution is a complete let down, especially given the potential of the premise.  It is all worsened by meaningless side trips (out to grandmother's house and later to a house party) that seem designed mostly to fill pages than to develop characters or move the story along.  Disappointing.