Sunday, January 30, 2022

Written in Starlight, by Isabel Ibanez

Catalina was supposed to be a seer -- a person blessed by Luna with the ability to perceive the future -- but she's failed miserably at the task.  Betrayed by her own people, she has lost her throne and been exiled to the jungle to die.  

Given her sheltered prior existence, her chances in the wild are not good.  The jungle is a treacherous place.  Treacherous wild animals are everywhere and even the plants are dangerous.  But she is fortunate enough to run across an old friend -- her former guard Manuel -- who still feels loyalty towards her.  Together, they battle with caimans and jaguars, and try to stay ahead of the indigenous Illari who are hostile to their presence.  Yet it is precisely these Illari to whom Catalina must turn.  If she is to regain her throne, she'll need their support.

The Illari, however, want nothing to do with her dynastic squabble and they have something rather more pressing to deal with:  a mysterious force that is killing off all life -- human, animal, and plant -- within the jungle.  The Illari at first blame Catalina and Manuel for bringing this evil, but the true cause is far more serious and poses an existential threat to the world.

A very lush story that sets fantasy elements within a South American rain forest setting.  The adventure moves at a luxurious but utterly satisfying pace as Catalina faces a variety of challenging situations trying to survive in the jungle.  A history of forbidden attraction between Catalina and Manuel gives the story some smoldering passion.  A romantic triangle opens up when they reach the Illari.  It all proceeds swimmingly. Unfortunately, things get really rushed in the last fifty or so pages as a whole new series of facts and characters are introduced.  The climax, which develops out of thin air in a breathtaking ten pages, is strongly out of character with the rest of the book and it's hard not to feel like it was a rush job and a cheat.

While it is not acknowledged anywhere, this novel is a sequel to Ibanez's Woven in Moonlight.  I suspect that having the full backstory would have made reading this book more enjoyable.  Some of the confusing innovations at the end are apparently based on characters and ideas developed in the first book.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Clues to the Universe, by Christina Li

Ro and Benji are complete opposites.  Ro is organized and methodical -- the type of person who excels at science.  She has a mission.  Before he died, she and her father were building a rocket together and now she is determined to finish the project and win the science fair.  Benji, on the other hand, is a dreamer.  He'd rather focus on his drawing and comic books.  He suspects that his absent father is actually the creative force behind his favorite comics series but doesn't know how to find out for certain.  More immediately, his Mom has warned him that, if he doesn't pull up his science grades, she's going to pull him out of art class.

When Ro and Benji are paired up as science partners, they both have strong motivations to do well, even if their approaches are different.  They make a deal:  Benji will assist Ro in her rocket experiment and Ro will help Benji find his father (a not-so-insignificant task in the pre-Internet setting of the story).  Significant set backs along the way present challenges that they have to overcome.  And an act of betrayal triggers a chain of events that force them to reconsider their priorities.

A predictable and safe story of friendships formed and challenged -- standard middle grade stuff.  The vaguely 1980s or early 1990s setting may confuse readers as only the absence of computers and cell phones provide clues to the era.  Bullying, divorce, and grief are all raised as issues, but not really dealt with in any depth.  The story ends on a set of super happy notes.  It's a fine read, but not overly memorable.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions, by Sheena Boekweg

 "...throughout history, anonymous has been a woman."

In this alt-history, Abigail Adams's threat to her husband to pay attention to the women bears fruit in the formation of a shadow organization of women, called the Society.  Throughout American history, it has indirectly held on the reins of power through the manipulation of  husbands. Broken into castes, Matrons rule, Spinsters fight, and Gossips maintain surveillance.  Young men are noted and earmarked for success by the Gossips and promising young women -- pledged to be loyal to the Society -- vie for the affections of these men so they can be positioned to control them when their husbands rise to power.  Never in the spotlight, these women know that the only way they can hold power is to pull the strings in secret.  The world would never tolerate a woman in charge.

It's 1926 and 17-year-old Elsie is one of a set of girl who have Andrew Shaw in their sights.  With help from their Society sisters, they try to win his heart.  Ellie wants to make a difference in the world and marrying the man most likely to become president is the way to do it.  But Ellie's heart is not really into the hunt.  Her older brother, supported by the Society through his well-place spouse, is making a name for himself.  Ellie wonders why she can't do so as well in her own name.  Andrew Shaw, while his heart seems to be in the right place, is nice enough but Elsie doesn't really fancy him.  She prefers the brooding and dangerous Patch, a young man with a revolutionary agenda.  And when his plans lead to tragedy, Elsie is forced to decide whether to pursue her plan of gaining power by becoming Mrs. Andrew Shaw or whether to follow her own dreams.

A striking and original story that explores a variety of contemporary feminist topics in an easily digestible format.  Don't let the highly retrograde-sounding premise and the historical setting fool you into thinking this is just some young women wearing fabulous gowns and throwing themselves at a guy (although there are fabulous gowns and a guy).  This is really a much deeper discourse about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times. Race, class, sexual orientation, body positivity, and gender identity all take a turn making an appearance (in this alt-history, folks are surprisingly worried about equality and economic injustice).  But it is really the oldest issue of all -- agency -- that takes center stage.  All the more so because of the inherent contradictions that are present in the premise of women seeking power through marriage and children.

This is a book which I would truly love to hear young people discuss.  As a member of the previous generation of feminists, some of the arguments here are unfamiliar or strange to me, but I know I would learn a lot by hearing the next generation tackle them.  And the book is full of quotable passages (like the one above) that act more as landmines than hidden gems.

Nothing is perfect.  I found Ellie's growth as a character unsatisfying and the fluidity of the story gets sacrificed for the more ideological aims of the novel.  However, this is a very thoughtful book which has used the alt-history rubric in the best possible way: to facilitate deeper thought and discussion about feminine ambition in contemporary society.  A memorable read.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Breathing Underwater, by Sarah Allen

Living with an older sister who has been freshly diagnosed with severe depression is challenging for Olivia.  And while she knows that Ruth is really sick, she wishes that her sister would not give up.  On a cross-country roadtrip with family friends, Olivia hopes to have a break through with her sister.

Three years ago, before the family moved from California to Tennessee, the two sisters buried a time capsule on the beach.  Now, they are heading in an RV back to California.  Maybe if Olivia can remind her sister of the good days they used to have -- topped off by digging up that time capsule -- she can fix her sister.  But as the trip progresses, Olivia's efforts are largely in vain and she has to confront the truth that her sister's problems are out of her control.  And that issues that are bugging her are really problems that lie within.

A short and sensitive look at the challenges of having a loved one struggle with clinical depression.  The novel is wonderful as far as it goes, but it is basically a one-note story.  There's not much to say that isn't stated outright in the first fifty pages.  A final climactic blowout attempts to break through to new ground, but the subject matter doesn't realistically lead to a breakthrough.  Well-written, but with no particular place to go with the story, it's a bit of a disappointment.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

War Girls, by Tochi Onyebuchi

A dystopian YA for readers of The Economist.  The story in brief: take the Biafran conflict (a civil war that took place in Nigeria in the 1960s) and project it forward two hundred years.  Add nanotechnology, cybernetics, and man/machine robots taken from Mobile Suit Gundam.  Mix in child soldiers, ethnic cleansing, and climate change.  When nearly done, generously garnish with a complicated sibling-like relationship between two really tough protagonists.

Onyii and Ify look out for each other in the War Girls camp, a rebel base of girls hidden in the jungles of Biafra, near the irradiated and uninhabitable Middle Belt.  Onyii has developed a reputation as the "Demon of Biafra" with numerous kills while operating her mech against the Nigerians.  Ify's talents are quieter -- an ability to hack into any computer system and to synthesize limitless data.  When a surprise attack from the Nigerians knocks out their camp, the girls are separated.  Ify is taken by the Nigerians back to Abuja.  Onyii is "rescued" by the regular Biafran army which fails to see any value in a force made up of young girls.

While both girls manage to survive, their attempts to reunite are thwarted.  At least part of the problem is that they are both being exploited, albeit in different ways.  Onyii's ferocious anger and her surreal fighting skills are an asset to the Biafra military while Ify finds herself a pawn being passed back and forth between the sides.  An armistice, brokered by the developed nations (who have all fled to outer space as Earth itself has become largely uninhabitable) brings into stark contrast just how disposable child soldiers are in peacetime.  Without a war to fight, the girls have to come to terms with the horrible things they have done to others (and the ways they have even betrayed each other).

A strikingly original vision by a brilliant Nigerian writer.  For those who don't have a working knowledge of Nigerian history and/or African politics (i.e., most of the readers who will pick up this book), I strongly recommend starting at the back of the book and reading the author's historical notes.  Nigeria is an interesting nation-state and Onyebuchi is following a fine tradition of self-reflection in Nigerian literature.

I was most struck by the armistice.  The author's observations about rehabilitating child soldiers and the anecdotes in the novel are heartbreaking.  His damning critique of foreign aid and truth and reconciliation tribunals are incisive.  As one character observes, when most people see a African, they don't really see a person.  Our understanding of Africa is full of oversimplified analysis and indignation.  This novel goes some ways towards trying to explain the cause of conflict from a grassroots perspective.

Personally, I found the extreme amount of violence to be numbing and cumulatively boring.  Every few pages, we are subjected to a blow by blow description of woman and machine conflict where bones break, blood spills, and limbs decapitate.  Each encounter seems terminal, but thanks to the superior bioengineering of the future, the characters are ready to jump back into action a few pages later.  As the violence never seems to have consequences, it becomes less and less interesting.  I eventually just started flipping past the battle scenes to get to the parts that interested me more.  That those scenes were worth flipping to will give you an idea of how compelling I found this book.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Middletown, by Sarah Moon

Eli and her older sister have their differences but they have allied over having to deal with their erratic and alcoholic mother.  However, when Mom gets sent away to three months of mandatory rehab, they struggle to keep things together.  Anna manages to impersonate a long-lost aunt and become Eli's court-appointed guardian, but the girls still have to figure out a way to feed themselves and pay the rent.  When inevitably things start to collapse, the girls run away and seek out long-forgotten family connections.  In doing so, they learn a lot of family secrets and a bit about the strength of family ties.

While not so original as a story, Moon's quirky novel is full of original and memorable characters.  The girls' (real) Aunt Lisa steals the show with her feisty and world weary outlook, but I also enjoyed the tentative romance between Eli and her best friend Meena.  The exploration of alcoholism and the way it tears families apart is a great topic but is never fully developed -- which would be my overall criticism of the book (that manages to never really take things as far as they could have gone).

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Set Me Free, by Ann Clare LeZotte

Described as a "companion," LeZotte's Set Me Free is actually more of a sequel to her groundbreaking Show Me A Sign.  Picking up three years after the events of that first novel, Mary, still wary of mainlanders and overcoming the trauma of her abduction and escape, is swept into helping a young girl who may be suffering the same fate.  

One of a large community of deaf settlers in Martha's Vineyard, Mary has learned from her experiences that outside of her home, deaf people are despised and persecuted.  She's restless living in Martha's Vineyard, but afraid of that outside world.  But an old friend has written to Mary and told her about the strange feral eight year-old girl who lives at the manor house where she is serving.  She begs Mary to come and see if the girl is in fact deaf and if Mary can do something to help her.

Mary realizes that she must do what she can to help the girl and so she accepts the invitation.  When she arrives at the estate, she is shocked to find the girl is imprisoned, kept shackled, and frequently beaten and abused.  She tries to reach out to the girl, but finds that all of her well-meaning ideals pale in comparison to the task.  Humbled by the experience, Mary gradually comes to understand the girl and eventually engineers her escape for her captivity.

A much better book than its predecessor (which I will admit that I never finished), it throws light on a number of neglected facets of early American history ranging from the poor understanding and treatment of deaf people in the late 18th century to the practice of separating Native American children from their families.  The woke idealism of Mary's character is gratingly anachronistic, but serves the valuable purpose of drawing attention to the norms of general society of the period.  As an educational work (i.e., the sort of book one gets assigned in school) it checks off all the right boxes.

More in spite of this agenda than because of it, it's also a very entertaining book.  A suspenseful story that kept up my interest and a character that gains insight and self-confidence as the novel progresses made this a much better book than its predecessor.  In sum, I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal from it.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Catch the Light, by Kate Sweeney

For a family dealing with grief, a move across country could be a new beginning or running away, or maybe a little of both.  Nine months ago, Mary's father passed away and now Mom has decided to move Mary and her younger sister from Los Angeles to upstate New York.  For Mary, it is the start of her last year of high school -- time for thinking of moving on anyway -- but she finds herself mired in grief and depression.  Unable to complete her college applications, lost in her new home, and burdened by her inability to heal her mother or help her sister cope, Mary feels like she is under water.  She is blessed by a good new friend and a potential romantic interest (with whom she shares a love of old fashioned film photography), but she feels trapped between her past life back in California and the unwelcome sense that her new home in New York actually feels more real to her.  Through it all, she is terrified that her memory of her father is slipping away.

While built on a common YA theme (why are there so many dead parents in YA books anyway?!), Sweeney's treatment is actually pretty stand-out.  That's hard to explain as everything from the sassy younger sibling to the petty misunderstandings to the inability to tell the truth are pretty much canon.  But Sweeney's writing is nuanced and while situations feel very familiar, one also feels like we actually understand where Mary's behavior is coming from.  In other words, this isn't paralysis for the sake of filling pages, but a story really being told.  I never felt manipulated and I wasn't having my heart strings pulled at gratuitously.  In fact, this isn't a story in the end that packs a huge emotional punch, but instead tells a story well about imperfect people who are trying to sort things out.  Mistakes are made all round, feelings of hurt are aired, compassion is shown, and realistic forgiveness and healing develop.

Off-tangent rant:  Like the mix tape, analog photography really has no place in contemporary literature.  Yes, I get that dark rooms are excellent places for intimate feelings to be explored (they certainly were in the 1980s when I was a teenager!) and I see how much fun it is to use the chemical process of film development as a metaphor for emotional change.  But really?!  Digital photography has long supplanted the whole business.  More to the point, a creative writer could probe the complexities of LightRoom and the amazing potentials in digital aesthetics and break some new ground.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo (ill by Sophie Blackall)

Everyone at the monastery is afraid of Answelica the goat.  She's mean and angry and bites.  So, the monks are surprised one day when they find a girl sleeping with Answelica.  The girl is an unknown stranger who can remember only one thing about herself:  her name is Beatryce.  But from the very start, she is exceptional.  The girl can read and write, which is forbidden for commoners and women overall.  She is fearless and brave and stubbornly determined to confront the king for reasons she does not yet fully understand.

But Brother Edik has an idea of what is going on:  there is a prophecy that declares "that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king.  The prophecy states that this child will be a girl.  Because of this, the prophecy has long been ignored." And while the prophecy is often disregarded, no one is ignoring it now.  The king's men are hot on Beatryce's tail and it falls upon Brother Edik to convince her to hide.  But being stubborn, Beatryce instead befriends a local boy (Jack Dory) and a former king (Cannoc) and reveals herself to the king in order to fulfill her destiny.  Along the way, she drafts a fairy tale of her own that eventually supplants the prophecy of the main story in a very meta literary moment.

DiCamillo falls into extremes.  She is undeniably a great writer and full of original and clever ideas that challenge and disrupt typical formulae and tropes.  Sometimes this works fantastically (Because of Winn-Dixie, Flora and Ulysses) but other times the story flies so far off the rails that only adults can really enjoy it (The Tale of Despereaux).  Here, it's more the latter.  The story and its many layers is clever but I can't imagine children being able to keep up with it.  It sounds like a children's fairy tale, but is too knowing and subtle.  It's self-destructive narrative is far too aware of its own cleverness.

That said, it is a very pretty book, with beautiful illustrations (both full plates and marginalia) by Sophie Blackall.  The layout and presentation is truly gorgeous and Blackall probably deserves a third Caldecott for this book.  The design perfectly complements the text and makes for a handsome overall package. Aware that this is a truly outstanding work, there's even an upgraded "collector's edition" of the book featuring more of all of this, which I would be very tempted to own if it weren't for the hefty price tag and my lukewarm feelings for the story.