Saturday, December 31, 2022

Gussy, by Jimmy Cajoleas

Gussy has been training to be a village protector for as long as she has lived with Grandpa Widow.  It's an important but tedious job as every ritual and rite must be performed with absolute precision in order to prevent the Great Doom from reaching them.

She's still learning the practices, but she's confident she can manage to keep things together for a few weeks when Grandpa is called away.  But on the first night, Gussy allows a refugee to enter the village, opening up the gates that must never be opened at night in order to do so.  She knows it's a mistake, but the refugee is a harmless little girl and poses no threat.

After that, things start to go bad.  Objects become possessed with evil and then a force starts taking over humans as well.  The Great Doom has breached their walls and defied all of the wards and spells that protect the community.  Gussy exhausts her knowledge of magic and protection rites, but the darkness are still descending upon them. If only Grandpa would come back, but there's no sign of him and Gussy knows that she'll have to figure out a way to defeat this evil that she may of unwittingly brought upon the village.

Excellent world-building and a strong and clever heroine with a lot of mojo gives us a decent (albeit fairly predictable) fantasy novel.  The storytelling drags at points and overall it may be a bit too cerebral for its targeted middle school audience, but the tale checks off all of the right boxes.  There are some good messages about the power of good teamwork and the importance of not holding on to grudges tossed in as well.

Friday, December 30, 2022

A Girl in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel

Allegra feels like she is torn into three parts.  Simultaneously being raised by her two grandmothers and her Dad, she has to tread carefully because, while they all love her, they cannot stand each other.  

Her grandmothers couldn't be any more different as people.  Joy is fiercely independent "woman's libber" who helps shelter women fleeing abusive husbands.  Matilde is no less fierce, but rejects all of those notions, focusing instead on hard work, perseverance, and tradition.  Meanwhile, her Dad is a beach bum and largely out of the picture.  

Allegra tries to find balance between them and wishes they would all get along.  There's some sort of historical reason why they hate each other so much but no one will share it with her.  But in the end, the three of them all surprise Allegra when she needs them most.

A period piece set in Australia in the 1970s that explores family and the different ways that people express love and loyalty.  The burgeoning of the second wave of feminism is the backdrop, but told through Allegra's twelve year-old perspective, this is a much more intimate story about growing up.

It has a less-than-stellar opening and a rushed ending, but the bulk of the novel is actually quite good.  The slow start can be blamed partly on culture shock and the lingo, but the real problem is the lack of proper exposition.  There's really no explanation for why Allegra is floating between her grandmothers' apartments and no indication of the period (until we are nearly half way through the book).  Aussie YA tends to be a bit thick, but this is even more so than normal.  Once we got through that, I really appreciated the vivid characters.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Breathless, by Jennifer Niven

Claude is looking forward to her last summer before college, spending time with her best friend before they go their separate ways and maybe hooking up with a guy and having sex for the first time.  Those plans get thrown askew when her mother announces that she and Dad are separating.  She's taking Claude with her for a summer away at the family's ancestral home on a remote island off the coast of Georgia.  

Shell-shocked by the revelation that her parents are breaking up and that her father is abandoning them, Claude's thoughts once they have relocated are far far away from sex and romance.  That is, until she meets steamy enigmatic (and conveniently available) Jeremiah, who's working with an Outward Bound group on the island.  Miah is the perfect anecdote for Claude's broken heart, guiding her back to trust and love.  And while they will have to leave each other at the end of summer, she can't help but fall madly in love with him.

Yeah yeah, it's a formulaic romance, but a beautifully written one. An exotic setting, some steamy sex scenes, and characters with some actual meat on them.  Claude is no shrinking violet, but a fiercely independent and articulate young woman who is confident about what she wants and why she wants it.  As if to prove she's a teen, she makes a few mistakes along the way, but it's hard to not be impressed by how together she really is in the end.  Whether it is in her relationship with her separating parents, her loyalty to her friend, or her no-nonsense assertiveness with boys, she is an inspirational model of conduct.  There's no deep thought or message here, but characters to love and a story with which to fall in love -- a great New Adult romance and coming-of-age story for older readers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Someone I Used to Know, by Patty Blount

Two years ago, Ashley was a victim of rape.  Targeted by the school's quarterback, she was simply a goal in a "scavenger hunt" organized by the school's football team.  But almost worse than the trauma of the attack or the way that her community turned against her in the aftermath was the fact that her older brother Derek, as a member of the team, participated in the scavenger hunt.

An unflinching look at rape culture, this won't be a book that anyone will particularly enjoy reading, but that is not really the point.  It's a story intended to start a discussion and a dialogue about why sexual violence is so prevalent in our society.  If that's all it was, it wouldn't honestly be all that interesting of a book, but where this novel stands out is in its broader ambitions -- looking at the impact of Ashley's assault on her family.

There's the pain and incomprehension of Ashley's parents and her oldest brother's decision to come home and try to knit the family back together.  However, it's her complicated relationship with her football-playing brother Derek that takes center stage.  Derek didn't just play along with the "game" that got his sister raped, he was an active participant.  And during the trial of the rapist, he made some unfortunate statements that hurt the case.  For rather complicated reasons, Ashley is convinced that he sabotaged the trial on purpose.  But the truth runs deeper:  the two of them have a history of buried antagonisms that the assault brings to light in the worst of ways.

Harrowing stuff!  Originally published in 2018, this was timed to take advantage of the attention on  the #MeToo movement, but the fact that it is still topical (and probably will remain so for many years to come, if not forever) is comment enough.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Don't Touch, by Rachel M. Wilson

Caddie goes to great lengths to develop ways to help her cope with events seemingly out of her control.  When her father moves out of the house, she tells herself that as long as she can manage to not touch or be touched by someone, he'll eventually come home.  But he doesn't and this story she tells herself turns into an obsession and an uncontrollable fear of touch.  She wears gloves to school and goes to great pains to avoid having physical contact with her friends.  It is a hard act to maintain but the tension also lands her a star spot as Ophelia in her school's production of Hamlet.  Ophelia's struggle with maintaining her sanity comes too close to Caddie's own fight as she falls in love with the boy playing Hamlet.

Ophelia is a popular choice to probe the subject of adolescent mental illness and a story about a high school Shakespeare production where life mirrors art is not particularly new.  But Wilson does a good job with this familiar territory by providing a complex and sympathetic depiction of obsessive compulsion.  Caddie is bright and intelligent, well aware of her problems, but often overly optimistic about her chances of overcoming them. I was less taken with her alleged friends who, with the exception of the love interest, seemed cruel or indifferent.  While it undoubtedly adds drama to the story, the overall lack of respect for personal space and consent was disturbing.  Even for a person who did not mind physical contact, there was behavior depicted in the story that I found troubling.

Overall, this story of self-discovery and struggle with mental illness doesn't cover much new ground, but  features a sympathetic and intelligent heroine who finds peace with her problems on her own terms in a rewarding way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Everything I Know About You, by Barbara Dee

For their class trip to Washington DC, the teachers have decided to assign roommates.  It means that Tally won't be able to be with her best friend Sonnet, let only her friend Spider, a boy who she has taken under her wing to protect him from being teased and bullied.  But it gets worse: Tally's forced to share a room with Ava, the queen bee of the "clone girls." Tally and Ava can't stand each other.  Ava is always putting down Tally's refusal to follow convention.

Tally's proud of being a free spirit and considers her stalwart loyalty to Spider to be one of her most redeeming qualities.  However, the trip forces her to confront certain uncomfortable truths about herself as her friends start making new friends.  When Spider starts branching out and befriends a former tormentor, Tally's concern becomes possessive and smothering.  And her free spiritedness comes with a judgmental thread (which comes out when she finds Sonnet starts befriending some of the "clone girls").  Harder still is Ava, who turns out to have a nice side and reveals to Tally that she has an eating disorder.  Tally finds herself in a bind between being loyal to Ava and obeying her conscience which is leading her to tell an adult about the situation.

Barbara Dee writes really nice middle grade books.  The topic here is pretty standard Afterschool Special material, but that doesn't make the story any less enjoyable.  The kids are pitch perfect and the sermon (about getting a grown-up involved when someone's in real trouble) is kept low-key.  The stand out part is Tally herself -- a wonderfully rebellious free thinker in the classic footsteps of Anne Shirley.  How can you go wrong?

Saturday, December 17, 2022

How We Ricochet, by Faith Gardner

Life changed forever for Betty, her sister Joy, and her mother when an angry young man opened fire at the store where they were shopping in the mall.  None of them were physically injured, but Joy was nearby the shooter as he turned his gun on himself.

Driven by anger, Mom throws herself into activism, proving to be a charismatic and articulate advocate for the gun control movement.   As she gains attention, she drifts away from her family.  Joy, on the other hand, withdraws into her room, becoming a substance-abusing agoraphobe.  In between, Betty tries to hold the family together.  

Trying to make sense of the whole thing, Betty becomes drawn to the shooter's younger brother, Michael (she vaguely knows him from school as they shared a class or two, but they were never friends).  Without letting on that her family were victims of his brother, she befriends Michael and (this being YA) the friendship starts to become romantic.  But becoming close with the shooter's family simply complicates the narrative she trying to form.  There are no explanations, just regrets and lost lives.

A sometimes dreary but ultimately positive story about making the most of what we have and letting go of the past.  The characters are all lessons:  parents who abandon the things that matter, a sister who destroys herself by refusing to let go of the past, and the child who achieves redemption by finding the good in the present and using it to build a better future.  The novel is well-written but it's not particularly inspiring except as a series of cautionary tales about how not to deal with problems.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Sea Knows My Name, by Laura Brooke Robson

Thea was named by her mother Clementine after the goddess of reason.  Her hope was that Thea would avoid all of her mother's mistakes and set out to conquer the world on her own terms.  Clementine had once been a brilliant scientist, but when she predicted the volcanic eruption that destroyed their civilization, no one believed her until it was too late.  After all, she was only a woman and what would a woman know about science?  In the aftermath, men of violence took over and women quickly became nothing more than "commodities of reproduction." Angry at how patriarchy essentially had destroyed their world, Clementine made a pact to exact revenge.  She turned to piracy, sent Thea to a boy's school to get the only education worth having, and determined that Thea would be part of her plan.

But Thea doesn't carry her mother's skills or her anger.  She's soft, afraid to fight, quick to flee, and the opposite of her fiery mother.  She wants to be as strong of a person and earn her mother's respect, but her mother's ways are not her own.  And when she attempts to stand up to her mother, a tragedy strikes that causes her to question her self-worth altogether.  Between her fears, the certain knowledge that she's a disappointment, and her anxious desire to prove that she can be her own person, she sets out on one last voyage to fix everything that has gone wrong.

A beautifully written fantasy novel that is more of a metaphor for the adolescent search for identity.  Not every teenage girl will have a pirate queen for a mother or will fight off boys with guns and swords, but Thea's struggle with her Mom over her future and her frustrations with being objectified and marginalized by men will resonate with many young readers.  This is an unusual fantasy novel.  It's a very dark story with a slow pace and it won't appeal much to people who want action and adventure. Much of the story is really about Thea's physical survival and her ruminations about how she got to this point  However, as a coming of age story, this is really an extraordinary read with a lot to say about growing up female.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Not a Unicorn, by Dana Middleton

Jewel has a long pointy unicorn horn on her forehead.  She wasn't born with it.  It just grew out as she got older.  And while most of the kids at school have grown accustomed to it, she still gets teased about it and she tries to keep her head down (literally).  So when her French teacher wants to put her forth for a regional speech competition, Jewel isn't sure that she's up for appearing in front of hundreds of strangers staring at her horn.  But there's one thing that might make her willing to compete.

After years of searching, she may have found a doctor who can remove the horn.  And while her mother is skeptical and worried about Jewel having surgery, Jewel convinces her to let the doctor try.  While the procedure is initially dubbed a success, it turns out to have surprising consequences and Jewel has to make some decisions about what is really important in her life.

A middle grade reader with a mixture of realism and magic that grows steadily more convoluted by the end.  I liked the symbolic nature of the horn and the way it opened discussions about self-image, self-acceptance, and public perception.  I was less taken by the author's attempts to explain its existence.  Also, the book bites off a whole lot of peripheral topics (bullying, broken families) that didn't really add much to its base message.  And then there is the invisible unicorn familiar and a magical graphic novel series that also plays a part (you'll have to read the book yourself to figure that out!).  Never mind the whole French competition! A lovely idea with a strange and very busy story around it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Message Not Found, by Dante Medema

Bailey shows promise as a programmer and has a deep interest in artificial intelligence (inspired in no small part by her mom's professional interests).  Fatefully, this proves useful when her best friend Vanessa dies in a car crash.  Grieving the loss, Bailey is bothered by one thing:  what was her friend doing on that road in the first place?  She realizes that AI might be able to give her the answer.  

Her Mom has been developing a bot that simulates human intelligence.  Bailey steals the program and feeds it with every piece of data she can find about Vanessa, hoping the bot will be able to assume enough of Vanessa's personality to answer her questions.  At first, the results are not promising but as Bailey starts uploading not only her own data but things she's stolen from their friends' private accounts and phone records, the answers Baily is seeking start to materialize.  But at what price?  And is knowing the truth necessarily what you really want in the end?

An interesting premise (using AI as a means to speak with the dead) that hooked me in early, combined with good characterization.  The pacing can be slow and the ending is WAY too drawn out, but the story mostly held up for me.  On its face, this is a typical YA-tragic story with its stages of grieving spelled out along the way.  However, the story is really more of a mystery and the unfolding of the truth has a good number of twists and turns to keep the tale interesting.  In the end, I really appreciated the originality of the story and all of the details in the storytelling.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Dear Friends, by Lisa Greenwald

Leni has always defined herself through her friendships.  Whether it's Sylvie (her BFF from birth) or Maddy (her best friend at summer camp) or Brenna (her best friend from Hebrew school), she always has a best friend.  But the summer's gone poorly.  For reasons that Leni doesn't understand, she and Maddy drifted apart and barely spent anytime together at camp.  And she's returned home to find that Maddy is more interested in her new friends.  The final straw comes at the party to celebrate the beginning of sixth grade, where Leni discovers she's not even invited to Sylvie's sleepover.

At a loss to explain what is happening, Leni starts a "Friendship Fact-Finding Mission" (FFFM) to uncover why all of friendships have become friENDships.  What she finds is a variety of life lessons ranging from the fact that people change to the realization that she is not always a good friend herself.   She learns to let go of the notion that one must have a "best" friend and instead to embrace having a variety of relationships to enrich her life. Finally, while she can repair some of her past relationships, some of them have to be let go.

This is, in other words, the ultimate middle grade friendship book (a subject that is almost unfailingly coded as a "girls' book" since only girls apparently have friendships) in all of its ugly drama. It is exclusively focused on who is friends with whom, who is getting invited to whose parties, who wants to sit with whom, and what others are saying.  Greenwald has a great ear for the age group and the book will be quite relatable to young people.  The book really shines though for two reasons.

The first reason is having a really brave and articulate young heroine.  While Leni's worries can be excruciatingly excessive, but she is also capable of taking action to fix things, showing initiative and displaying proactive interpersonal skills (certainly outshining her disturbingly codependent mother!).  By the book's end, she not only identifies her issues, but also tackles them as well, reaching out to former friends and bravely initiating honest and painful conversations with them about where things went wrong.

The second reason I liked this book was the excellent advice unobtrusively delivered in the context of the story and helpfully summarized at the end of the book. There are plenty of non-fiction books for tween girls about friendships that parents can foist on them but it's much more fun to learn this from a fictional character who feels like she might go to your school.  I know grownups will look on a book like this book with a combination of revulsion and condescension (who would ever want to relive the hell that was sixth grade?) but there's decent advice in here for adults too.  So, maybe some child will pick up this book and suggest it to her/his mother to read and make a difference in both of their lives?  You're never too old to learn some ways to make better friends.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, by Barbara Dee

Haven worries about the future of the planet.  A lot.  So much so that she can't sleep at night and can't focus on her classes.  She keeps reading things melting ice caps and dying penguins and polar bears and how all the animals will die!  Even her friends don't want to be around her because all she does is talk about it and get angry.  But to Haven, it seems like no one wants to do anything about climate change and that if they don't there probably won't be a planet to live on by the time Haven grows up.  She's do something herself, but what can a twelve year-old possibly do?

Her science class is studying the local river -- a project undertaken every year by the science class -- and they start to notice things are different this year.  The usual resident bugs and insects are missing, the water's pH levels have grown noticeably more acidic since last year, and (most glaringly, in a waterway that was always teeming with amphibians) there are no longer any frogs!  Something is poisoning the river!  Haven suspects the new glass factory that moved in during the last year, but without proof, she can't start making accusations.  Still, Haven feels that she has to do something.  So, she organizes a community protest that brings attention to the problem.

A nice middle reader for young people who find all the grown-up discussion of climate change overwhelming.  I did not realize that "eco-anxiety" was an actual condition, but apparently it is, and I think Dee has done a nice job of providing a great role model for children who suffer from it.  It helps that Haven has lots of other middle school problems (changing friendships, changing gender relationships, self-confidence issues) that Dee slips into the narrative, to which readers will relate.  In the process of organizing her protest, she learns lots of valuable lessons.  While her anxiety is quite debilitating, her family and school are portrayed as supportive and nurturing and Haven deals with her issues proactively.  We never quite get to the root of her issue, but she starts to develop insights into the causes of it which will help her learn to cope in the end.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

A Venom Dark and Sweet, by Judy I. Lin

This is the sequel to A Magic Steeped in Poison, which I reviewed two months ago.  At the conclusion of the first book, the tea competition was swept aside by a power struggle over who was going to rule after the death of the emperor.  The emperor had been slain, General Li had seized power, and Chancellor Zhou had been revealed as the power behind the coup.  Both our heroine Ning and Princess Zhen were on the run.  

This book picks up right where we left off and traces Ning and Zhen's search to find allies and uncover what actually just happened at the palace.  What becomes clear quite quickly is that this isn't just some  normal palace coup d'état.  General Li and Chancellor Zhou may have plotted to claim the throne, but behind them lurk far more powerful demonic forces with aims much deeper than simply claiming the throne.  To defeat such evil, ancient relics and magic will be necessary.

In a clear break from the first book, the story is now broken into two points of view:  Ning's continuing narration and the general's son Kang's story.  Given his rather confusing role in the first book as both Ning's love interest and as a turncoat that betrays her, he ought to be the most interesting character, but Kang is largely relegated to reporting what is happening amidst the bad guys.

The first book focused on a tea competition and captivated me with its innovative use of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the story.  In combining elements that (while exotic) were based on real practices with magic that was more fantastic, we were treated to what I would consider a true Western fantasy novel with Chinese characteristics.  The sequel loses much of that charm and instead embraces a far more traditional story of swords and sorcerers.  It's a well-told story with a lot of color and non-stop action, but nothing that really makes it stand out.  

In any case, note that this is not a book that you can just pick up without having read the first book. There's no recap and no re-introduction of characters.  If you don't remember book one, you'll be largely lost for much of book two.  Since the first book is the superior installment, that's no great sacrifice.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Some Mistakes Were Made, by Kristin Dwyer

Ellis has refused to speak with Easton ever since Easton's mother Sandry sent her away to California.  Now, a year later, Ellis isn't sure that she wants to return.  But they have a long and complicated history (that takes the rest of the novel to fully explain), but in summary:  Ellis's parents largely abandoned her (her father was a repeat offender -- going in and out of jail -- while her mother routinely disappeared for weeks at a time, burning through child welfare payment on drinking binges).  Sandry, an old friend of the family, picked up Ellis and brought her home and raised her as a daughter.  Sandry provided a stable home and her family became Ellis's family (much to the anger and resentment from Ellis's people).  However, a codependent relationship between Ellis and Easton develops that while not really incestuous, proves to be wildly dysfunctional.

With a great attention to detail, Dwyer takes this tragic situation and untangles all of the complicated interactions that develop from it:  Ellis's troubled relationships with her parents, the maternal attachment of Sandry with Ellis, the class resentments between Ellis's extended family and Easton's well-to-do family, and of course between Ellis and Easton.  It's difficult reading because there are so many layers of pain and so much history in this situation.

The result is definitely a tear-jerker with some majorly poignant moments, with some beautiful character studies.  Dwyer definitely has a skill with showing how personalities play off of each other.  However, the story really failed for me for two reasons.  First of all, Dwyer's strategic decision to not explain the important elements of the situation (most notably why Ellis was sent away in the first place) until 3/4 of the way through the book might build up the drama but it leaves a huge gap in the story.  We know that people are upset and we know that Ellis did something horrible that got her kicked out, but without knowing even in broad terms what happened, it's frustrating to just see people blowing their tops all of the time with no real explanation.  

All of which takes me to the second (and more critical) complaint: the shrill and melodramatic nature of the characters.  This is a classic depiction of codependency, with characters who blame each other for all of their woes and lack the ability to look inwardly.  It gets old and tired.  In the beginning, I was hoping for a breakthrough where someone would simply say, "You know what?  I need to start fixing myself!" But that doesn't happen.  Instead, we get endless drag down screaming matches where the characters relentlessly rehash gripes and grievances.  I get that everyone is hurting but with no one making an attempt to grow, I just stopped caring.  I feel bad about Ellis having shitty parents (heaven knows that I despise YA books about children trying to survive neglect!) but she's not doing anything to be an inspiration and I don't really see the point in reading a story about people who repeat their parents' mistakes.

Good writing, complex and insightful story, but with characters who did nothing to make me care about them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Full Flight, by Ashley Schumacher

Marching band members Anna and Weston share a duet and fall in love in the heart of football-loving Texas.  Anna is the good girl with a spotless reputation, while Weston is the rogue loner who is misunderstood and shunned by the community for his alleged past involvement in an act of vandalism.  While essentially opposites, it turns out that Anna is harboring a passion for living on the wild side and Weston needs security in the midst of dealing with his broken family.  They click and become inseparable from first sight, despite the disapproval of just about everyone. 

There's more, which you can read in the book's blurb, if you like spoilers, but otherwise simply know that this is more than some sweet story of teen-aged, star-crossed love.  What it is remains a mystery to me.  It's not a love story as Anna and Weston never really develop much beyond adolescent obsession for each other.  It's not about two misfits finding each other in a insular small town as that idea is barely explored.  And it's certainly not about the shocking ending that comes out of nowhere on page 257 of a 309-page story.

There's lovely writing here and two great characters who are sweet in a painfully naïve way.  Lots of detail and a panache for capturing the marching band subculture.  Sidekicks who are fleshed out and actually get to play roles in the story are a major plus.  The parents don't completely suck.  However, there really isn't much of a story and there definitely isn't a point to it.  And I'd just skip those final fifty pages as they add nothing of interest to the story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

I Shall Awaken, by Katerina Sardicka

Twelve years ago, four children disappeared from their kindergarten.  Now, three of them have returned, with no memory of what happened to them or of what became of the fourth child.  The villagers in their small rural town are superstitious and the whole thing smells of witchcraft.  Mysterious animal deaths in the forest, combined with two suicides in the town start to direct people's eyes towards the returning children.  But underneath the accusations lie a twisted set of buried truths and secrets.

Translated from Czech, the story is rooted in Slavic mythology and has a strong Central European flavor to it.  The setting is timeless and, if it were not for a small number of modern references, it would be easy to imagine the story taking place in medieval (or at least pre-industrial) days.  It is in sum a Fairy Tale, in the Grimm's tradition with all the blood, gore, and brutality of which the original tales are full.  Characters (or even motivations) don't really matter as much as the jostling for power and control, and the long arm of fate directing everything.

It's not really the type of story I am drawn to, but if you like dark and primitive horror, this unique and well-styled book makes a good read.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Practice Girl, by Estelle Laure

Jo's not had very much luck in love.  She's dated a couple of boys (mostly on the wrestling team that she manages) but they always seem to lose interest in her.  Then she overhears the boys talking about how they consider her a "practice girl" -- a person you use for learning how to make your moves.  Horrified to discover that the guys she thought were her friends have just been exploiting her for sex, she quits the team and shuts them out.  But a realization dawns on her:  acting ashamed means letting them get away with it and Jo decides that she refuses to be a victim.  So, she turns up at the coach's office and announces that she wants to be on the team as a wrestler instead of managing.  And through tremendous effort (and practice) she proves to everyone that she is more than something to be used and discarded.

But this story is more than some satisfying girl-power call to fight back against adolescent toxic masculinity.  Jo has issues of her own with which to deal. Her propensity for falling in love easily and the tendency to classify every relationship with boys as romantic.  Alongside the unrealistic romanticism, there is her rather ugly  misogyny that sees girls as competition and enemy.  If she's really going to outgrow her reputation, she has to do more than simply change other people's perceptions.  She has to change herself.

After the "practice girl" revelation, Jo swears off of boys (and wrestlers in particular) but it is a hard promise to keep.  First, there is Sam, her long-time best friend, with whom the relationship has always been a bit complicated (friends with benefits, they lost their virginities with each other in what they ironically called "practice" at the time).  But the greater challenge comes when Dax, a wrestler from another team, starts paying her attention.  As much as she has grown in her understanding of her bad habits, the old muscle memory drives her towards to same old bad moves.  But what if this time it's the real thing?  Has Jo grown enough to tell the difference?  Can she trust her instincts?

If teen romantic drama is not your thing, then this novel isn't for you, but I really enjoyed this book for a variety of reasons.

First of all, for the amazing character of Jo herself -- growing in deeper levels of self-understanding with every chapter.  She's a very flawed person (selfish, unable to trust others, quick to anger) but these flaws make her eminently relatable as her flaws are common to the rest of us.  Her ability to recognize her failings, dissect what she can fix and what she needs to let go, and do the difficult work is inspirational.  She's a work in progress, but its a progress that we can enjoy watching unfold.

I loved the grownups in this book.  As you know if you've been reading my reviews, I love strong realistic adult characters.  I understand that teen readers might feel more comfortable having the adults be stupid, nasty, or clueless, but that isn't real.  Real adults don't bring superhuman powers to the table, but they do bring a wealth of experience and occasionally letting them do their thing can be helpful.  In this case, both of her parents get the opportunity to impart some real advice (both about relationships in general and about their relationship with each other) that show that Jo's journey is far from novel yet no less difficult and challenging for being shared by all.  Giving the grownups a moment to say a few wise words about relationships doesn't do anything to detract from the fact that this is Jo's story and she is ultimately responsible for her incredible emotional journey.  And it demonstrates that parents don't have to be a barrier to overcome.

Finally, I was swept away by the sheer depth and complexity of the two male characters in Jo's life, without whom the drama in her life would have no foil to play against.  It's rare for male characters is a "girl" book to have much depth behind them.  In this case, though, it's critical for telling Jo's own story.  Sam and Dax both develop alongside her as the three of them begin to see the ways that their behavioral problems interrelate and grow to understand that love is an interaction not something that develops in isolation.  It's a love triangle, full of all the usual hurt and tears, but one that defies the usual conventions by having everyone evolving.

In sum, a surprisingly complex story of a young woman and her friends moving beyond selfish, self-regarding love to something deeper and less fairy tale-ish.  A hard read that may not be what you enjoy for casual fun reading, but ultimately as rewarding as the love itself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Every Word You Never Said, by Jordon Greene

Skyler suffers from two issues: mutism (an inability to speak that has been with him for the past ten years or more) and anxiety (caused from the trauma of being a foster child).  Now settled in North Carolina with very open-minded foster parents, he faces two new major challenges:  getting the school to accept his desire to wear dresses in school and his first boyfriend, Jacob.  While Skyler's foster parents are supportive of his choices, Jacob's father is leading a crusade to keep boys in pants and keeps gays out of the schools (that the two things are unrelated but keep getting classed together is  a consistent source of confusion for the characters and the book).  

Of course, young love is not smooth sailing. The two boys struggle to form a romantic attachment amidst the chaos of their battle with the school board over the dress code and with Skyler's fears of abandonment.

It's a fun read, but I was bugged by its flaws.

As a romance, the novel follows the typical drama cycle (boy loses boy, boy forgives boy) and can be quite endearing.  However, it gets bogged down in Skyler's insecurities.  And while those are understandable, Skyler comes off poorly and one can't help but feel bad for Jacob (who certainly has a harder family situation with which to deal).

The romance also sucks some life out of the crusade to overturn the dress code, but that part of the story is in trouble from the start.   The conflict is rather lame, the bad guys are drawn paper thin, and the arguments on both side are repetitive and poorly articulated.  I know that this is a book in which we are supposed to root for our boys, but there's no real drama to the story.  The role of homophobia in the debate is largely ignored, leaving the whole thing to rhetoric.  Given how poorly positions are presented, we have no plausible reason to accept that Jacob's father would convince anyone to follow him.  

And then there is all the stuff that was left on the table.  The mutism, while important in the beginning,  never gets used in any particularly important way (largely getting in the way by the end).  It was a cute idea, but I would have saved it for another book where it could be part of the story.  And despite all of the attempts to explain that being gay and wearing dresses are not the same thing, Greene's decision to make his character gay and a cross dresser creates a grey sexual area that could well have been explored.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Remember Me, by Estelle Laure

Blue finds a note that tells her to be on a certain bus at 7:45 on her birthday.  She might have ignored it, but she has a nagging feeling that it's important and something she should do.  She's been having lots of those strange feelings recently and a larger sense that she somehow is missing some big part of her life.  People around her are acting strange, talking about things behind her back (as well as insisting that she keep drinking orange juice!).

Riding on the bus, she is approached by a young man named Adam who explains that he's her boyfriend and has known her for years.  A far as Blue is concerns, she's never seen him before in her life.  However,  something about him does feels familiar.  He tries to explain what has happened:  she's undergone a procedure to "cancel" parts of her past, erasing all memories of certain key events and people (including him).  

While she doesn't know what these presumably horrible things in her past are, she can't help feeling that this was a huge mistake.  Who would choose to forget one's past and the people who make it up?  That search for an explanation for the decision that she apparently made leads her to the doctor who performed the procedure.  It also causes her to cross paths with another doctor who is willing to undo the erasure of Blue's memories.  With that doctor's help, those memories are restored with traumatic results.

An interesting concept that is poorly developed.  Blue weak will and inability to cope with her emotions do not make a very compelling character.  But it is the disjointed nature of the novel that really caused me to lose interest.  The story itself is broken into two sections.  The first section provides the meatier stuff (the search for what happened, investigating the clues for an idea of why she made the decision, and the reaction of her friends and family to her attempts to uncover the truth).  It transitions abruptly into the second part where her memories are restored piecemeal through a series of flashback vignettes.  This is such an abrupt shift that Laure has to essentially write out all of the characters we've met in part one:  leaving Blue reliving her memories in a series of vignettes.  This piecemeal reconstruction is intended to add up to a tragic and ironic conclusion, but there isn't really much pathos there (with the possible exception of Blue's mother's behavior).  So, the inevitable conclusion (she gets her memories back and has to go on living her life with the "cancellation") doesn't deliver a pay off.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Fire Becomes Her, by Rosiee Thor

An alt-historical political thriller in which a young woman helps change the way that magic is distributed.  

Power is defined by who has flare -- a liquid that, when consumed, brings pleasure and gives the imbiber the ability to burn things.  A few people have more flare than they know what to do with and they flaunt it by consuming it in cocktails and using it to design fancy clothes.  For the vast majority, however, there isn't enough flare to heat their homes or provide for their basic needs.  Flare (or the lack of it) separates the rich and the poor.

Ingrid's father was sent to jail for stealing flare to feed his family and Ingrid was raised in an orphanage.  But a stroke of luck saw her granted a scholarship at a prestigious private school  And from there, she has ambitions of entering politics as an intern for presidential candidate Senator Holt.  At the same time, she also has ambitions on Linden, the Senator's son.  The Senator will never consent for lower class Ingrid to marry his son, but Linden is convinced that they can change his mind.  For all that plotting, it is fairly obvious that Linden can't manage to stand up to his Dad and Ingrid is condemned to sitting in the background, ignored and wasted on the Senator's staff.  

To make things harder, Ingrid cannot deny that Senator Holt's platform focus on law and order and enforcing the status quo does not align with her own beliefs.  It is his opponent, Gwendolyn Meyers -- running a campaign on flare equity and redistributing flare -- to whom Ingrid has personal reasons to be drawn.  In order to win Holt's approval, Ingrid volunteers to go undercover as a spy in the Meyers campaign, but she has conflicted loyalties from the beginning.  

By all rights, Meyers ought to be the popular favorite, but a group of terrorists is committing acts of violence designed to sabotage the election and Holt's focus on security undermines Meyers's promotion of equity. Stuck in the middle, Ingrid can't help but marvel at how convenient the terrorist activity seems to be and she suspects Holt is behind it, but the majority of the victims are Holt's people. 

A busy and compelling thriller which is marred by the looseness of its defining conceit -- flare.  Flare is a commodity in high demand.  It is both a basic necessity for life and also something that is wasted and misused by the wealthy (thus a stand-in for wealth itself).  It is a weapon used to destroy people but it can also somehow be used for defense.  It is used to vote (with some sort of weighting of ballots defined by the quantity of flare behind them).  It is incapable of being made by common people (until it is homebrewed later in the story).  It has addictive qualities (like opioids).  And it is some form of magic.  You get the idea. Flare is all sorts of things and never really clearly defined.  That looseness allows it to be used as a proxy for inequality, class, moral decline, and corruption; as well as a nifty weapon for action scenes.  It's a murky concept and almost everything touched by flare becomes similarly muddy.  So, while I liked Ingrid and I loved the complicated plotting and counter-plotting of the story, flare didn't really work for me.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Improbable Magic for Cynical Witches, by Kate Scelsa

Eleanor has never quite understood the fascination with witchcraft in Salem.  To her, it's always seemed like a stupid way to get rich off of the tourists and she's treated her part-time job in a witch-themed gift shop with distaste.  However, it pays the bills which is an important thing when your Mom is largely immobilized at home suffering from long-term Lyme disease.  And the job also distracts her from the shame of what happened last year after her way-too-public breakup with her girlfriend -- a humiliation that she tries otherwise to deal with by self-medicating with lots of marijuana.

So, when she receives a strange homemade guide to tarot cards, she's pretty much ready to chuck it in the trash until the most beautiful girl she has ever seen walks in the store and starts talking tarot and witchcraft with her.  And suddenly Eleanor finds herself willing to embrace magic, witchcraft, or whatever else this girl Pixie wants. 

Tarot cards never offer a definitive path or advice, but instead encourage a fair consideration of choices and alternatives.  Through an extended reading of most of the deck, Eleanor's full story unfolds (both what happened a year ago and the way that the current state mirrors and deviates from it).  And while the title promises some magic, this is more a story of healing, hope, and the faith to reopen a heart that has given up on love.

It's a charming story which cleverly uses tarot cards in a positive way to drive forward the plot.  Tarot cards (like Ouija boards) tend to get a bum rap as dramatic sources of evil, but Scelsa captures a more positive purpose as Eleanor comes to realize that her sufferings are really life lessons and her life is not pre-ordained but instead made up of forks in the road and a limitless opportunity for change.  The end result is a rewarding story of hope.  

Note: The rather heavy use of drugs in the novel may disturb some adults, but it is an essential to the story, is not glamorized, and is ultimately resolved in a positive manner.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Beguiled, by Cyla Panin

With her parents gone, young Ella must depend upon her skills at weaving to survive.  With great effort, she tries to produce the most beautiful fabrics in order to entice wealthy women to buy them.  She dreams of one day making enough money from a sale in order to open a shop, but for now she simply must make enough to feed herself and buy materials for her next project.  It is a hard life and despite all of her efforts Ella is slipping deeper and deeper into poverty.  When her shuttle breaks, Ella realizes that she has reached the end:  she can't afford the repairs and she can't live without a working loom.

There is one last alternative, although she shudders to consider it.  The spirit of an old washerwoman lives by the river.  Called the Bean-Nighe, she can grant great wishes but they come with terrible prices.  With misgivings, Ella goes to her for help and is surprised by the mildness of the spirit's price:  just a drop of blood sacrificed to the loom from time to time.  In exchange, Ella receives ample raw materials and begins to get noticed for her amazing and beguiling products.  But any deal with the spirits is never so simple and Ella finds that it is she herself who has been beguiled.

A rich atmospheric tale of magic, based loosely on Celtic mythology, but infused with some righteous feminism and radical egalitarianism. Ella is a very practical protagonist with a pragmatic understanding of her economic situation and great entrepreneurial spirit.  More importantly, I truly enjoyed Panin's riff on the role of fashion as literal magic.  Her overall message that is a world rules by powerful men, a woman has to flaunt whatever talents they possess may strike some readers as cynical, but it makes for a compelling character.  The other real problem that nagged at me was how naïve Ella is for thinking she can trick enough people to get what she wants.  For such a practical young woman, her hubris seems out of character.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Moth Girl, by Heather Kamins

Anna's life transforms when she is diagnosed with a rare, chronic (and entirely fictional) disease called "lepidopsy" which causes her to unexpectedly levitate and be attracted to bright lights (as well as causing unbearable joint pain and problems with breathing).  As a result, Anna finds herself thrust into a frightening world of endless specialists and tests, vague prognoses, and medications with unknown benefits and scary side effects.  Every day brings new surprises (most of them unpleasant and unwanted) as the disease manifests itself in new symptoms.  At home and school, the disease changes what Anna can do, limiting her ability to study, socialize, or pursue her normal life.  And as those challenges pile up, she struggles to cope and figure out what the future will mean for her.  A gamut of emotions (anger at the loss of normalcy, depression and feelings of hopelessness as set backs occur, and the draining fatigue of a struggle that never seems to end) tear at her.

The author's clever decision to use a fictional disease means that the story focuses less on the symptoms of the disease (which are admittedly fascinating) than on the universal experience that Anna is going through.  And, this being YA, more on the social aspects of the experience than the physical.  Anna finds that being sick doesn't just change her as much as it changes how people interact with her and vice versa.  Friends don't know how to relate to her and she feels tempted to shut them out as she becomes frustrated by their lack of understanding and sympathy.  I think back on my own experience and I was lucky enough to get my own diagnosis in my thirties when the impact on my social life was less traumatic (and less important), but that does make the alienation that Anna feels any less familiar.

And it's the book's ability to connect to my own experience that draws me to it so strongly.  Kamins has created the book that, as she says in the afterward, she wishes she had had when she was diagnosed as a teen with lupus.  I certainly found myself chuckling from time to time in recognition of shared moments and experiences (and more poignantly, painful experiences that I have suppressed from that time).  For anyone who has received a diagnosis of a chronic disease, Anna's story will be familiar and ring true. It may be a book written for teens, but adults will benefit from it as well. We talk a lot these days about the importance of recognition -- creating stories that acknowledge groups whose voices are not heard.  This is a book for the many millions of people who live with diseases that can't be cured.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Arden Grey, by Ray Stoeve

Arden's mother has moved out, abandoning her family and leaving Arden and her brother lost, confused, and angry.  Meanwhile, Arden's  trans best friend Jamie has started dating his first girlfriend and suddenly doesn't want to be around Arden.  And finally, Arden is dealing with a first crush of her own with a girl in the photography club -- a girl she likes a lot but for whom she feels no sexual desire.

Packed into this melodrama are a number of other fairly intense issues including sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and alcohol abuse  And there's a more traditional thread with Arden overcoming her fears of failure and submitting her work for a local gallery showing.

Despite being a very busy book, most of it runs pretty smoothly, mostly because of Stoeve's talent for forming strong characters.  As many things as Arden has going on in her life, I never really lost track of them.  And even the secondary characters have enough depth to them that it is fairly easy to track everyone and keep up with the story.  Still, there were some important threads (like Jamie's romantic relationship) that felt very rushed and poorly developed.

<Soapbox>And then there's my own discomfort with the ideology of the book.  Representation is important, but it seems silly to portray a sixteen year-old's reticence about sex as an orientation.  She could very well turn out to be Ace (as she worries endlessly about) but when did we get to the point where sixteen year-olds were so expected to have libidos that not displaying one needed to be explained with a sexual orientation?  I felt sorry that Arden feels so guilty about not wanting to have sex that she has to come up with her self-diagnosis (a decision she never really seems entirely comfortable with).  Honestly, it really doesn't matter at that age!  What's wrong is the pressure to choose a sexual orientation of any sort before you are ready!</Soapbox>

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Wrecked, by Heather Henson

While Miri has never seen the lab, she has a pretty good idea about what her father is doing on a stretch of their property and she has a pretty good idea of why he's called "the Wizard." She'd prefer not to think about any of that.  She just wants to focus on her motorbike and dreams of spending her life being a grease monkey and getting as far away from her Dad's life as she can when she turns 18.

What isn't so common is city boy Fen, recently relocated to the area to live with his father. His favorite pastime is sampling sounds and using the snippets to create sound collages.  It's a hobby that got him in trouble back in Detroit and it will soon enough get him into trouble here.

When the two of them literally run into each other, they click as just the thing the other person needs.  And while he is heading to college someday, that doesn't stop them from getting close and the two them develop a close fantasy romance -- living in an idyll that ignores the literally explosive events that are happening around them.

The result is a tense and taut tragedy, loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the contrasts the innocence of young love with the harsh world of the opioid epidemic.  While it is easy in the beginning to ignore the danger and fall in love with Miri and Fen's optimism, by the end it becomes painful to watch the romance knowing just how bad things are about to go. And while the tragedy is pre-ordained, Hanson packs in enough surprises at the end to surprise us.  

It's precisely the ending that becomes the weakest part of the story -- so much gets packed into those final pages that it can't help but feel rushed (and adding an epilogue on as well seemed excessive).  Still, I found the story compelling in the way that good tragedy can be:  where everyone except the characters can see how sidewise everything is heading and the whole thing becomes sickeningly inevitable. Thrilling!

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Golden Girl, by Reem Faruqi

Aafiyah enjoys a pretty good life. She's pretty, close with her next door neighbor Zaina, plays excellent tennis, and is bright and inquisitive.  Her favorite hobby is studying weird and obscure facts.  But she's about to suffer a string of setbacks, beginning when her father is detained by the Pakistani authorities during a family visit to relatives there.

Her father has been accused of stealing from his company, an accusation that hits particularly close to home for Aafiyah, because she has come to recognize that she has a problem with "borrowing" things from her peers.  They are always little things (lipstick, a pencil sharpener, etc.) and most of the time she returns the item in a few days.  But sometimes she keeps them.  Aafiyah knows that it is wrong to take things that don't belong to you, but she can't figure out a way to resist the impulses and so ironically she continues to do so while wishing for her unjustly accused father to be vindicated.  Predictably, Aafiyah eventually gets caught.

Told in verse, this swiftly-moving and engaging story roars through a wide variety of topic, including not just Aafiyah's kleptomania, but also issues of class and racial discrimination, gender relations, self-image, friendship, and family loyalty.  The writing style does not lend itself to much character depth, but the topics raised are important, and the story is beautifully organized.  There would certainly be plenty of material for a book discussion!

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Queen of Junk Island, by Alexandra Mae Jones

Ever since Dell's mother found out about the nude photos circulating on the internet, there's been a thick layer of distrust between them.  Allowing her boyfriend to take them showed poor judgment and Mom isn't ready to let Dell out of her sight.  So, when they get a call that they need to come up and check out the family cottage up north, Dell gets dragged along.  There they find that the house, the surrounding woods, and their lake have been being used as an illegal dumping ground.  It will take the entire summer to clean it up -- a perfect getaway for Dell.

Before this, Dell has never spent much time at the cottage.  When they were still alive, her grandparents lived there but Dell and her mother rarely visited.  So spending time there now is a chance to learn more about her family and there is much she doesn't know.  For example, one of the most striking early discoveries is that Dell had an aunt, who died around the time that Dell was born.  The circumstances of that death are shrouded in mystery and no one wants to talk about it, but Dell has her suspicions.  And when she is alone in the woods, she starts to imagine that she's able to commune with her dead aunt.

And then there's Ivy, the daughter of her Mom's new boyfriend.  Against Dell's wishes, she's come to stay with them all summer.  Dell's mother is convinced that Ivy will be a good influence and perhaps get Dell back on the straight and narrow, and tries to force them to bond.  However, neither mother nor daughter truly understand Ivy or can fathom how much she will change Dell's world.

In sum, it's a striking and engaging story of family, secrets kept too long, and sexual desire.  Lots of sexual desire.  Masturbation is a frequent topic in this book and may shock or titillate more than a few readers.  The author's primary interest is Dell's developing sense of bisexuality.  Strangely (for me), the author assumes that the characters (and perhaps the readers as well) will find this hard to accept.  As an afterward explains, biophobia was apparently quite common in Ontario in the 2000s when the author was growing up.  I find this odd because my own personal experience was different -- in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, bisexuality was probably more accepted than homosexuality.  So, the premise of the book rings strangely for me.  I guess Canadians are a bit more backward in this regard.

Beyond the themes intended to shock, there lies a nice story with some odd supernatural moments involving the aunt's ghost.  Mostly, it serves up a very satisfying reconciliation of family and revelation of secrets.  For anyone who enjoys a good family drama where through struggle and tears (but no tragic ending) old wounds are healed, this book is rewarding and enjoyable.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, by Chesil (trans. Takami Nieda)

Ginny Park is delivered an ultimatum by her principal:  either start doing the work or leave.  It wouldn't be the first time she's been kicked out.  After she was expelled from her school in Hawaii, Stephanie, a renown children's book illustrator, rescued her and brought her to Oregon.  But Ginny's troubles started back in Japan, where she experienced racial discrimination and sexual violence for being Korean.  In response to which she committed a striking symbolic act.

As Ginny explains to Stephanie, the expression which make up the book's long title is a rough translation of a Japanese saying.  It means that the way that you perceive simple things will dictate everything about your heart and your life.  Shift the way you see those things and you instantly transform your life from bad to good (or good to bad).  For Ginny, her experience of being Korean (and North Korean specifically) have informed her life and transforming how she viewed her victimization in turn changes her.

Told in spare and often cryptic chapters that are mostly retrospective, Chesil's short award-winning short novel was a sensation when it was published in Japan six years ago.  Translated into English, the story has a opaque tone that is often hard to follow.  Like haiku to a sonnet, Chesil's storytelling implies far more than it tells.  That works to the book's advantage at some points and frustrates at others. Key details (what actually happened in Hawaii, how did Stephanie come into the picture, etc.) are left undeveloped.  It's a bit surreal to read a book set in Oregon that was originally written in Japanese and those parts are the hardest to follow and feel the least authentic.  Only when the story shifts back to Japan does it really come alive.

For readers unfamiliar with Japan's unhappy relationship with its ethnic Korean citizens, much of this story will be a revelation, but the subject is hardly novel (the landmark 1968 Japanese film Death by Hanging is the earliest example with which I am familiar, but I am sure there are earlier examples).  What was more interesting to me was the North Korean-Japanese relationship that is particular to this story.  Regardless, I find it hard to imagine this subject would be of particular interest to adolescents in the United States and the writing's impenetrable prose will be a turn off as well.  In truth, this is more modern adult than contemporary YA (publishers need to stop assuming that adult books with an adolescent protagonist are automatically YA).  This novel is unlikely to attract much of a teen audience.

Monday, October 10, 2022

This Is Not the Jess Show, by Anna Carey

It's 1998 and Jess is a typical junior in her perfect town of Swickley.  But typical in Swickley always seems to have a dramatic flare, like the hurricane that damaged the town one spring or diagnosis of her younger sister's rare terminal disease (also in the spring) or the fact that half the town is home sick with the flu (springtime again).  And if that wasn't weird enough, Jess keeps hearing voices chanting from far away.  And there's that time that one of her friends dropped a strange black rectangle with an apple logo on it. All of these weirdnesses start piling up and soon Jess is questioning the nature of her world and whether it is even real...which it isn't.

Strangely enough, for a novel about a person who finds that their life is one big television show, the one reference that no one makes is to the 1998 Jim Carey film, The Truman Show. The similarities don't just lie with the basic premise but also with the critique of reality shows and celebrity obsession.  For Anna Carey, there's so much more to call out now (social media, TikTok, the gig economy, etc.), but all that does is make the story darkly nihilistic.  

In the movie, Ed Harris's Christof eventually gives up and lets Truman go, but the "producers" of the Jess Show (who are largely off-screen) are beyond the reach of some sentimental happy ending. Jess doesn't stand a chance against the corporate behemoth that Carey concocts.  That leads to a heartbreaking conclusion that the story chooses not to dwell on, leaving a strong sense of injustice and unfinished business that will feed some desire for the sequel, which promises to be darker still.

The pacing is quite brisk and this is a hard book to put down.  I enjoyed the first half as Jess slow revealed clue after clue that her town isn't the place she thought it was.  The second half, in which Jess goes to ground, doesn't work as well for me as there wasn't much of anywhere to go with the story.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

This Might Get Awkward, by Kara McDowell

In social situations, Gemma struggles with uncontrollable anxiety.  That doesn't mean that she don't want to have a social life, friends, and a boyfriend, but she knows that she'd never be able to handle the real thing.  So, when she finds herself trapped at a beach party, she does her best to lay low and simply observe like a fly on the wall.  That includes gazing longingly at Beau Booker, the guy she's long desired.  While stalking him might be creepy, it puts her in a unique position when he suffers a life-threatening injury in the water and she's the only one who sees it happen.

After she rescues him, he is taken to the hospital and put in a medical coma.  A misunderstanding develops and Gemma gets identified as Beau's girlfriend.  Gemma, paralyzed by her social anxiety, can't bring herself to contradict the story.  With impending dread of what will happen when Beau wakes up, Gemma feels compelled to play along and things pretty much run away from her.  The only one who seems to think that something is off is Beau's brother Griff.  That suspicion turns to unexpected friendship as the weeks go by and Gemma and Griff start developing feelings for each other that complicate everything.

While there is some serious attention given to social anxiety and clinical depression, as well as to the environmental damage taking place at Lake Powell (where the novel takes place), this is first and foremost a rom-com.  As such, it relies on the appeal of its characters and is where the book didn't work for me.  I really didn't feel more attraction to them.  Gemma isn't just socially awkward, she's dysfunctional and grating.  The scenes that are supposed to be funny just seemed painful and cruel. The boys are self-absorbed.  Beau (playing the role of the "wrong boy") is shallow and unworthy of any sort of crush.  While Griff expresses concern for Gemma and gets to be the good guy who works her through some of her anxiety, he's ultimately controlling and manipulative.  They just weren't characters I ended up caring about.

Friday, October 07, 2022

I Am the Ghost In Your House, by Mar Romasco-Moore

It's one thing to feel invisible, to agonize over the idea that no one sees who you are (or notices you at all), but what if you actually were invisible?  

No one can see seventeen year-old Pie, except her mother (who is also invisible).  Corporal but not seeable, they can be injured or get sick, need food and shelter, and have all the basic emotional needs of others. Pie and her mother can slip in and out of places without being seen, but they have to be especially careful where they walk (otherwise people will run into them or cars will hit them).  They can't work jobs or go to school.  Instead, they live a nomadic life, squatting unnoticed in people's spare bedrooms and stealing whatever food or other things they need to live.  Revealing themselves to others would be unimaginably dangerous, so they live totally isolated lives.

That remarkable existence is threatened when Pie's mother mysteriously vanishes, becoming invisible to Pie as well.  Abandoned and scared, Pie seeks solace amongst a group of young artists and musicians.  Desperate for companionship, she even breaks their cardinal rule of keeping to themselves and reaches out, revealing herself to these people. To her surprise, she is accepted.  However, there are complications, particularly when Pie's past comes to haunt her.

This idea of an invisible girl takes a bit of explaining, but proves to be fertile ground for examining image, presentation, and the ways we perceive others.  Some of the elements of the story work better than others -- Pie's relationship with her visible friend Denise was sweet, while Pie's mother was thinly developed and the search for her was clunky and underdeveloped -- but the story was well-written and intriguing. Pie for all of her exotic novelty is relatable and normal enough to be sympathetic to the reader. I enjoyed the book.

Monday, October 03, 2022

A Magic Steeped in Poison, by Judy I Lin

Ning's mother was a shénnóng-shì, a master of the art of Tea and of Chinese medicine, before she died from drinking poisoned tea that Ning had unknowingly brewed for her mother and her sister.  There had been a warning, but Ning ignored it.  Now, her sister still lives, but barely.  Hope comes in the form of an invitation for the shénnóng of the empire to come and compete for the position of court tea master.  Ning has barely studied her mother's art (it was always her sister who was supposed to take on the role), but she knows some of the skills and she really has no other choice.  Only by winning the contest and receiving the prize of a wish granted by the princess can she save her family from ruin and subsequently cure her sister.  So she heads out to the imperial capital.

The poisoned tea was
 not a random act.  Bricks of it were found throughout the kingdom.  It is clear that it was part of a bigger plot to destabilize the empire, but who is behind that?  As a country girl, Ning is quickly out of her depth as she finds herself deep in court intrigue, but she has good instincts and hidden strengths that surprise her as she gathers friends and supporters (as well as making new enemies).  In comparison to the plots against the emperor and his daughter, winning the contest may become an afterthought, but it too is tied in with this struggle for power.

While little of the medical lore used in the story aligns with the actual modern practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is a loving tribute to its sensibilities.  And as a dedicated Chinese teahead, I really enjoyed all the references to tea (some real, some imagined).  It's a story that takes a small bit of Chinese history, throws in a generous helping of Chinese myth, and spices the whole brew with modern fantasy, and then allows the whole thing to steep in its gaiwan before being served up.

And for those who love action and intrigue, the story is full of nearly endless activity.  A large cast of characters ensure that there is rarely a dull moment.  The endless parade of places with names like the "Hall of Reflection" or the "Courtyard of Promising Future" provide an oriental exoticism.  While it can also prove disorienting and make the story hard to follow, this just makes the ride more fun.  In stories like this, it's best to just let the plot take you along.

In sum, a richly textured and complexly drawn tale based on Chinese mythology and imbued with enough modern sensibility to make the story exciting and palatable to a contemporary audience.  An enjoyable beginning to a series, whose second installment was released a little over a month ago.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Daughter, by Kate McLaughlin

At seventeen, Scarlet is getting pretty tired of the way her overprotective mother interferes with her life.  Outside of seeing friend, Scarlet is rarely allowed to go anywhere.  In a normal novel, that would be the story.  But in this thriller, that is when the FBI shows up.

From the visit, Scarlet learns that her father (who she always thought was a deadbeat) is actually an infamous psychopathic mass murderer, who went to jail when she was only two years old.  In order to escape intense media scrutiny, her mother took her and fled, assuming a new identity.  Now, the man is dying and he has promised to reveal the identity and final whereabouts of hitherto unknown victims.  But only if he can see his daughter.

Once Scarlet gets over the shock of finding out her true identity, she's repulsed by the idea of meeting such a man, even if he is her biological father.  The FBI, however, are eager to get her to do it.  There are dozens of cases that they suspect are tied to the man and solving even a few of those cases would make a world of difference to the victims' families.  Conflicted between the desire to maintain some privacy and a feeling of obligation to the victims, she goes and meets the monster.

While setting up this implausible scenario takes some work, once McLaughlin gets us through the prerequisites, the rest of the story basically writes itself.  It has all of the seductive yuck factor of Silence of the Lambs and it's a page turner from beginning to end.  It's precisely that appeal that turns out to be the point in the end.  A steady theme throughout is exploring why people are so obsessed with stories like this.  Do we just like macabre things or are there people who harbor dark fantasies that they live out through histories like these?  And why draws women to men who murder remorselessly?

In addition to such deep and dark ruminations, there's some attempt to work in a romance, but this isn't a story one gets feeling sexy about.  Lots of drug references may make some readers more uncomfortable than the grisly subject matter.  But overall, this is great entertainment, which is probably proving the author's underlying point.