Saturday, April 30, 2022

Rescue at Lake Wild, by Terry Lynn Johnson

(After all those heavy dark novels, I needed to take a break...)

Madison has received an ultimatum from her parents:  no more strays!  If she brings home one more needy animal, the trip they are supposed to take in two weeks to hear and meet Jane Goodall will be off.  That's pretty important for Madi, who has been trying to learn as much about wild animals as she can.  But when she and her friends find two dead beavers and then rescue two hungry kits, Madi can't help but take the babies home to save them.  Keeping her parents from finding the babies is going to take ingenuity, but there is a bigger issue:  who is killing the beavers?

A light and delightful adventure and mystery.  The storytelling is disjointed and full of loose ends.  I wasn't entirely thrilled with the behavior that was being modeled (some of which was seriously dangerous and some of it mildly unlawful).  However, the overall intelligence of the story and the good advice about how to interact with wildlife was a net positive.  I also enjoyed Madison's strong and inspiring character.  Perfect for young animal lovers and anyone who likes cute baby animals.

Friday, April 29, 2022

At the End of Everything, by Marieke Nijkamp

A group of incarcerated youth at a remote correctional facility in the Ozarks suddenly find that their jailors have gone missing and the doors have been left unlocked.  There's no explanation, but when they attempt to walk into town, they are met by a military roadblock and the news that a severe case of Plague is ravaging the country.  It would appear that they have been abandoned by their keepers.  More than that, they have been forgotten by society as well.

With no one to guard them or take care of them and public attention elsewhere, the kids struggle to take care of themselves.  That grows challenging as they run low on supplies, utilities start to fail, and they start getting sick.

While not about a pandemic, this story of survival and coping with the stresses of the mass outbreak of disease draws on the Covid-19 experience, and it does so in a way that is strikingly more effective than any of the books that have been written to date about the Covid Pandemic.  Characters voice very familiar fears (about getting sick, distrusting others, longing to be around people, and being anxious about the future) that will feel familiar to all readers.  As a story, it never really goes anywhere and some elements (like a trans character) seem to really lack any purpose, but as a study of coping it's actually a fairly engrossing read.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

I had no idea how innovative mecha literature could be!  But between War Girls (reviewed in January) and this novel, it would appear that the reign of the dystopian novel has passed.  We can now celebrate the rise of blood thirsty feminist-imbued robo-warfare!  And while Iron Widow looks a lot like War Girls, there are a number of key differences as well, beyond the obvious difference in cultural setting.

Huaxia has long been protected by the Great Wall.  But defending the empire from swarms of alien Hunduns also requires special robotic war craft called Chrysalises.  Run off of the qi of two young pilots, they are capable of mutating into a variety of forms, depending on the level and source of that qi.  Proper operation requires a strict hierarchy: in the more powerful yang seat sits the young male pilot.  Alongside with him, in the yin seat, sits a young woman.  Occasionally, the two co-pilots can balance their qi and become a "perfect match" but far more often the qi of the male overwhelms the female and she is annihilated during combat.  So, while a male pilot can be feted as a hero, female pilots are almost always victims.  Still, despite the near certainty of death, families willingly sacrifice their girl children for the opportunity to bring glory to the family.

For Zetian, there is another motivation for enlistment altogether.  Her older sister was killed by a male pilot and she wants revenge.  When she gets it, murdering her male co-pilot in cold blood, she gains the moniker of "the iron widow." To her surprise, she is not killed, but instead is reassigned to co-pilot with Shimin, a notorious psychopath and the holder of the strongest qi in the empire (rumored to be almost as strong as the great lost emperor himself!).  The presumption is that he will destroy her in combat but that doesn't happen.  Instead, Zetian and Shimin are found to be a perfect match and pitched as the best chance of finally eliminating the Hunduns.  Their survival now depends upon making themselves indispensible and they find themselves in an even more dangerous game of intrigue -- a game that may just undermine the foundations of their civilization (if the Hunduns don't get them first!).

A rollercoaster ride of blood-soaked action, full of twists and turns.  The plotting is sufficiently byzantine to keep me enthralled and always guessing as to what will come next. Zhao's vision (and the logistics of qi combat in particular) are breathtaking.  I won't claim to fully follow the ending of the story, but I did appreciate the true originality of the fight sequences.  The Chinese-esque setting is sweeping and beautiful without falling into twee orientalism.  It is masterful storytelling.

This is also an uncompromising feminist work.  From the obvious (attacks on the politics of foot binding) to the unexpected (a defense of polyamory), the writing is an unrelenting attack on sexism and patriarchy that is nearly as intense as its robot wars.  The Chrysalis itself serves a particular sexual function that Zhao exploits in a variety of different ways throughout the story.  Who knew that mecha could be so erotic?  Or so useful as a literary device?

It's all quite dark though so if you don't like your YA dark, bloody, and unrelentingly political, then this is one to pass by.  But by doing so, you are definitely missing one of the best science-fiction YA novels of the past year!

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Mirror Girls, by Kelly McWilliams

Before she dies, Charlie's grandmother wants to be taken back to Georgia, to the town of Eureka where she was born.  Charlie who grew up in Harlem knows little of the town, except that it's deep in the South.  And while folks are beginning to protest segregation up north, it's 1953 and the South is still stuck in the mire of Jim Crow.  So, for Charlie, the casual and vicious segregation is an eye opener.

But when they get there, Charlie's in for another surprise.  There's more to the trip than a dying wish.  It's time for a prophecy to be fulfilled.  Charlie learns that she has a twin sister, named Magnolia -- a girl who's lily white and been passing as a member of the southern gentry in Eureka.  Shortly after the girls were born, their parents were murdered for mixing races.  The girls were separated.  Their white paternal grandmother wanted Magnolia because she looked white enough to pass as an heir.  And she likewise had no use for Charlie.  Unable to stop the separation, Charlie's maternal grandmother took Charlie north.  But the separation of the twins triggered a series of supernatural events in Eureka.  And the reunion eighteen years later rouses old ghosts, the men and women who live in the "veil" between life and death because of the racial injustice they experienced during their lives.

A swirly atmospheric horror story with plenty of magic, but also more grandiose attempts to explore the curse of slavery and racial inequity.  I was pretty excited at first at the audacious ambition of the idea.  McWilliams's previous novel (Agnes at the End of the World) showed that she had the skills to pull this off.  However, despite her affinity with the characters, she doesn't have much understanding of the subject matter.  Her vision of the south is largely stereotypes and two-dimensional characters (sadistic white racists, virtuous blacks).  There's little of the nuance that would show how the evil of segregation could exist -- the evil that is precisely what the novel is focusing upon).  It's all interesting as an idea and the melodramatic finale is surprisingly effective and original, but for the most part the storytelling is simply not executed very well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Willodeen, by Katherine Applegate

Willodeen lives in the village of Perchance.  Perchance is known for its annual Bumblebear Faire, where the cute little winged bears and their bubble nests are honored and celebrated.  The Faire brings much needed tourist money to the village.  But in recent years, a combination of increased forest fires and the mysterious dwindling of the Bumblebears themselves has jeopardized the future of the Faire.

The key seems to the decline of the Bumblebears seems to lie with the Screechers -- a unloved pest that plagues the countryside and which only Willodeen seems to appreciate.  Most people would prefer to eradicate the Screechers and concerted recent efforts to kill them have been almost successful.  Willodeen proves that that was a mistake.  However, even after Willodeen discovers the link between the animals, she still has to find the personal strength to present the unfortunate news to the grownups in Perchance, overcoming her fear of public speaking and criticism.

With its ecological theme, Willodeen has a political angle, but it is also a universal story about finding one's voice and learning to articulate it.  Both themes are valuable.  I felt that the backstory that explains Willodeen's fear of the public was sketchy and could have been better developed, but the depiction of how Willodeen followed the scientific method to identify the interrelation between Screechers and Bumblebears was clever and exciting.  A fast read, suitable for early readers but enjoyable to much older ones.  Fans of Greta Thunberg should consider the book to be obligatory reading.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Called Upon, by Bethany Lee

After yet another year of being bullied at school, Kaitlin is looking forward to a summer away from her peers.  So her mother's sudden decision to send her away to some fancy summer camp fills her with dread.  But Kaitlin is pleasantly surprised to overcome her fears of social interaction and to actually make friends in her first week there.  

However, the camp itself is strange:  largely unsupervised, the kids are free to roam, but they are painfully aware of the watchful gaze of the creepy security guard and their grey-eyed counselors.  When campers start to disappear, Kaitlin and some of the others start to get suspicious.  And when she falls ill with mysterious symptoms, things turn deadly.  She'll have to draw on strengths hidden inside of her and learn to believe in herself.

Adding to the mystery, the story is also told through the perspective of two other characters (Ashley, an unwed mother of twins, and Parker, a young man with an intense hatred of his father).  Who these people are and how they fit in with the nefarious affairs of this summer camp unfolds only slowly.

While it starts slow and it takes a while to accept the multiple narrators (especially when it becomes clear that Ashley and Parker don't have much to contribute to the story), Lee does an excellent job of building up her mystery.  However, the story becomes less interesting as the implausible truth unfolds.  Once things unravel, the explanation just seems silly.  It probably works as a juvenile thriller, but really fell apart for me.  In the end, I found it entertaining, but not particularly rewarding.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Instructions for Dancing, by Nicola Yoon

After her father leaves the family for another woman, Evie decides that she's given up on love.  All it seems to do is leave people hurt in the end.  She swears off relationships.  She even drops her favorite romances off at a neighborhood free library.  

While doing so, she runs across a mysterious old woman who basically pushes a book called "Instructions for Dancing" into her hands.  And while Evie has no interested in learning to dance, she finds herself heading to a nearby dance studio (whose address is written in the book).  There, still on impulse, she enrolls in a class and meets X who proves to be the perfect dance partner.  After much practice and a lot of getting to know each other, the two of them compete in a local dance contest.

But as happens often in Nicola Yoon's novels, there's a parallel more fantastic story.  After meeting the old woman, Evie starts having visions; foreseeing the future of relationships.  If she sees a couple kiss while they are in love, she can see the course of their relationship all the way until its end.  Needless to say, none of this helps dissuade Evie from her conclusion that all relationships end up badly.  To escape from these visions, she tries to avoid seeing any of her friends together.  And when she and X start developing feelings for each other, Evie is terrified of what she will find if they ever kiss.

The dual storylines are Yoon's trademark and I'm afraid to say that I'm not really a fan of them.  The approach worked in Everything, Everything but proved a burden in The Sun Is Also A Star.  Here, we're more in the latter camp.  Unlike a subplot which would simply divert attention, the two threads here are really co-equal and distracting.  Is this a story about learning to dance (in all of its literal and figurative senses) or is it about grappling with the ability to let go?  It's actually both and while the two ideas overlap and interrelate, there is a competition between them.  At any given time, one of them is being neglected.  The rushed ending (for both threads) doesn't help either.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Half-Orphan's Handbook, by Joan F. Smith

Her father's suicide has taught Lila that loving and trusting people is too dangerous.  In her "handbook" for 'half-orphans" like herself, she has created two rules:  love no one and stay away from liars.  She loved her father, but he betrayed her by lying to his family that he loved them.

From these rules, she concludes that the best thing she can do is cut herself off from others.  So, her mother's idea that she should spend the summer at a "grief camp" with other children who are dealing with a recent loss seems the last thing she wants to be doing.  But her mother is insistent and Lila finally agrees to go for a single week.

Once there, it is everything she feared it would be and she hates it, but in the end she stays the entire eight weeks.  And in that period, she gradually opens up again and begins to re-learn how to trust and develop close relationships.  She also works through her anger at her father and understand what drove him to end his life, achieving peace with his decision.

While the story is largely predictable in its outcome, it does an excellent job with the material.  Lila's path to healing is very much intertwined with the relationships she develops at camp (and at some distance with her mother back home as well).  The author does an excellent job of building that journey in a gradual and believable fashion allowing us to follow along and understand the process organically.  Some of Lila's discoveries are from discoveries she makes about her father's background (learning to understand how her father could both love her and still end his life), but many more of them come from learning about her fellow campers.  A relationship with a boy with an entirely different sort of loss helps to illuminate that not all grief comes from death.

Overall, a familiar topic, but dealt with in an original enough way to make it interesting and enlightening.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher

Mona's magic isn't big and spectacular.  Her skill is manipulating bread:  she can make dough do what she asks it to do and she has a very special relationship with Bob, her sourdough starter.  All that would be more than enough for a shy fourteenth year-old orphan and apprentice baker.

However, when she discovers a dead body in her bakery and subsequently crosses paths with Inquisitor Oberon, she finds herself plunged into the middle of a conspiracy against her beloved city.  Someone is killing off the town's wizards and magicians and she is targeted.  With help from a street urchin named Spindle and her aunt, she convinces the Duchess that they need to strike back. However, by this point she is the only remaining wizard and must call upon her powers (and creativity) to defend the city...with baked goods.

A witty fantasy tale with a playful nudge-and-a-wink to the genre.  The author struggled for many years with the manuscript and it has many rough edges.  Bob, the sourdough starter, steals the show and probably is one of the more original monsters ever created.  However, by the end, the witty references to cookery get a bit stale.  Kingfisher also had difficulty getting Mona's voice to be right and that too still unfortunately shows as Mona wavers between young child and mature adult throughout.  All that said, the rough edges of the story add character and overall I enjoyed this celebration of creativity (and of baking in particular).  An enjoyable read.

Saturday, April 02, 2022

The Girls I've Been, by Tess Sharpe

At a fundraiser the day before, Nora's ex Wes found Nora and Iris kissing.  Now, the three of them are having the most awkward moment together in the teller line at the bank, depositing yesterday's receipts and struggling with communicating with each other.  But everything gets pushed aside when two men pull out weapons and announce a bank robbery.  In the end, the surprise is going to be on them:  they don't realize who they've captured.

Nora isn't the sweet girl she pretends to be.  Nora isn't even her real name. She's a con artist and the daughter of a con artist.  But now her mother is in jail and Nora lives with her older sister (also a con artist).  And for the next eighty pages or so, we see how clever Nora is and how easily she can manipulate the bank robbers.

But then the story takes a serious and radical turn.  Nora's life hasn't been all clever manipulation and exploiting stupid people.  There's been a slew of abusers and Nora's talents have been more of a survival mechanism.  Her mother hasn't always been an ally and Nora has had to do some pretty drastic things to get through it.  Through flashbacks, we find out the depths to which she will go and, in the present time, we find that struggle continue to get her and her friends out alive.

I started off really liking Nora's character.  She is resourceful and intuitive, with a good head on her shoulders and full of wit, but as the story drifts into her past I lost a sense of what the story was really about and what the author really wanted to achieve.  By the end, it all just felt exploitative.  I lost interest in the characters who began to seem less and less realistic or even meaningful.  The original story about Wes and Iris?  It's largely buried under the action and the blood/gore.  

There's the de rigueur list of abuse resources at the end of the book to imply that Sharpe is making some deep study about a survivor, but we don't really learn anything about abuse here.  If Nora is supposed to be exhibiting survival strategies by stabbing and murdering men, I'm not sure exactly how it will be helpful to anyone.

Apparently, it's coming to Netflix soon.