Monday, May 30, 2022

Loveless, by Alice Oseman

Georgia has never been too worried about her lack of romantic experience until the day she realizes that everyone else has had some.  She's never even kissed a boy, let alone dated one.  And now that she's started her first year at university, its seems like dating and sex are pretty much at the center of everyone's lives...except hers.  

It's not like she hasn't thought about it, but whenever she tries to think of someone she'd like to date, it doesn't seem right.  And kissing?  Eww!  And no, she's not gay either -- girls hold no more interest for her than boys.  Friends and family try to reassure her that she'll get there eventually.  Someday, she'll meet her "special someone." But she doesn't believe it.

So, what does that mean?  If she never feels a sexual attraction or a romantic desire, is she destined to end up alone and lonely? Will her friends drift away as they marry off and start families, leaving her to live by herself?  Is there such a thing as love without romance?  Is there life without love?

Oseman's groundbreaking novel of an aro/ace young woman explores the sexual orientations that aren't -- asexuality and aromantic (that's the tail end of the LGBTQIA+ acronym, by the way) .  I have only passing familiarity with the concept (if knowing two ace people in real life counts) so this was all a big education for me.  My jury's still out about my personal feelings about asexuality as an identity, but the fact that Georgia identifies with it is enough for me to be interested in learning more.  This is a fairly painless way to do so.

However, I found the novel a bit of a chore.  Written in a fanfic style that rambles on and on, Loveless is a long soap opera of the first year of college, with lots of bed hopping, too much alcohol, and very little studying.  It comes off like a non-hetero British version of Felicity and can be just as grating.  The writing is in desperate need of an editor and a lot of trimming.  The protagonists break character frequently, when they are not repeating themselves.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna

Deka has always been treated as an outsider by the village.  Her mother came from the southern provinces and Deka's dark skin stands out against the pale faces of the north.  But now, in her fifteenth year, Deka is about to undergo the Ritual of Purity.  She'll be cut by the priests and, as long as her blood is red, she'll be judged pure and she'll be accepted.  However, when she ends up bleeding gold, her worst fears are realized.  She is imprisoned and sentenced to death.

From the prison where she is being held, a stranger rescues her.  The stranger won't give her name, but Deka takes to calling her "White Hands" and the name sticks.  Deka is taken to a training camp where she meets other "impure" girls.  They are called the alaki and are condemned as abominations and demons by men.  But they are also super strong and incapable of easily being killed and so feared as well.  This combination of revulsion and fear permeates the rest of the novel as Deka and her sisterhood of aleki are trained by White Hands and other women to help rid their lands of even more fearsome demons called "deathshrieks."

The training and preparations for a final battle of men and the despised (and indispensable) aleki against their shared foe becomes complicated as Deka starts to develop strange powers.  As she learns to master these powers, she becomes simultaneously more knowledgeable of the deathshrieks.  In the end, she comes to understand that she is fighting for the wrong cause.

This rich tale of female empowerment has a surprisingly upbeat ending, but the story doesn't start out that way.  It's a pretty grisly tale full of gore and violence.  Female endangerment features prominently throughout the story.  I would hesitate to accuse it of being gratuitous since the violence itself is integral to the story, but the sheer mass of it may turn some readers off.  It's that brutality that has probably earned Forna the moniker of being "the Toni Morrison of fantasy YA." The drama itself, covering the damage of patriarchal misogyny and the damage it has wrought is hardly new material, but her treatment of PTSD in its victims is a a rarity.

I actually had a different issue with the book.  Forna does a poor job of allowing her story to unfold.  Instead, major plot developments appear out of thin air as important details are simply dropped into the story, unconnected to anything that occurred prior.  Much of the drama of the story relies on the late introductions.  Still, despite its flaw, the novel is an immersive and easy read.

If you want more, the novel's sequel, The Merciless Ones will be released on Tuesday.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Da Vinci's Cat, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

A boy from 16th century Rome and a girl from 21st century New Jersey discover a time machine and accidentally set off a chain of events which could rewrite the history of the Italian Renaissance.  

Young Federico, kept hostage by the Pope, is on friendly terms with the artist Raphael and familiar with the far grumpier Michelangelo.  They are fine artists but he doesn't understand the intense interest in them from strangers wearing strange clothes who appear out of a closet in the Palace.  These strangers are desperate to acquire cast offs from Raphael and Michelangelo.  Even rough sketches excite them (especially if they are signed)!  And in return, they bring Federico the most delicious sweets, made from something called "chocolate." Federico has never tasted anything better in his life and sees no harm in absconding with a drawing or two in exchange for more of it.  But when Bee shows up, history is changed and only the cat seems to understand it all, and she doesn't say much.

An amusing time travel story with some educational value from the attention it gives to the artistry of Raphael and Michelangelo and to its many lovely details about everyday life in 16th century Italy.  The story doesn't always pace well and some parts get confusing (as is true with many time-travel stories!), but it is entertaining.  Absolutely lovely sketches of the cat Juno throughout the novel are a high point.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

That Thing About Bollywood, by Supriya Kelkar

Sonali is upset that her parents are separating.  While it's a bit of a relief since they are always fighting when they are together, she wishes she could talk with someone about it.  Her father, however, doesn't believe that anyone should talk about their problems outside of the family.  And while even Sonali's mother thinks Sonali should be able to tell whoever she wishes, Sonali obeys her father.  Unable to say the things she needs to say, she cuts herself off from her friends, which makes things worse.

The pressure drives her so crazy that an unexpected thing happens:  her life becomes a Bollywood film!  Now, when things get bas, she breaks out into lavish song and dance numbers.  Colors become brighter.  A musical soundtrack starts up.  The people around her become a chorus and background dancers.  In her songs, Sonali finally expresses her real feelings.  She calls it "Bollywooditis," where music, dancing, and a larger-than-life world becomes the only place Sonali can be heard.  But she knows that it is not real and as much as she loves it, she wants things to be normal again.

This magical Disney-esque conceit serves as a loving tribute to Bollywood and all of its camp.  While the story itself is fairly basic and carries no particular surprises, it becomes a vehicle for Kelkar to bring up all of her beloved tropes of  "filmi magic." For a Westerner with limited exposure to Bollywood (I once shared an apartment with a group of Indian students who watched nothing else all summer), I could recognize and appreciate only some of the references, but for true fans there is a lot to enjoy.  Kelkar pulls out all the classic ingredients and creates a story that puts American middle school drama into the Bollyverse.  I enjoyed the novelty of the concept and the sweet way that it was implemented.  Perhaps I should watch a filmi again?

Sunday, May 22, 2022

How Not to Fall in Love, by Jacqueline Firkins

From working in her mother's bridal shop, Harper has seen the very worst of romance.  The whole wedding thing, with its impossible pressure to create The Perfect Moment, brings out people's worst natures.  The various Bridezillas (described in glorious anecdotes)  that permeate this story have jaded Harper's perspective.  Love is a fiction.

But her best friend, boy-next-door Theo, is in complete disagreement.  For him, there is nothing greater than love and he proves it by falling in love every week!  And overtures are spurned, the objects of his affection flee, and his heart inevitably crushed, he picks up the pieces and finds another girl to chase. Theo's hobby (LARPing) with it's drama and romance feeds his obsession and his perpetual optimism.  He loves the whole idea of the grand gesture.

Theo despairs that he'll never be fully happy.  Harper thinks he should stop trying so hard.  She promises him that if he would just relax and stop making such a big deal out of love, he could be happy.  He argues that she is in no position to judge because she's never been in love.  A challenge is hatched:  they will prove each other wrong.  And, of course, since this is a rom-com, it will all go completely off-plan, surprising the two of them when they find each other in the end.

Based on the classic trope of the girl dating the wrong guy in order to find the right one, we have all the basic ingredients in place:  the long suffering (and coincidentally, cute!) neighbor boy, the studly (and wrong) initial love interest, and the supportive BFF who selflessly supports Harper.  Fabulous bridal shop anecdotes provide humor (a function also provided by some brief LARPing).  A very supportive mother helps Harper sort through her adolescent angst.  Some pretty hot sex scenes spice things up.  At the end of it all, a completely over-the-top public confession adds the cherry on the top of this caloric romantic confection.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

True Letters from a Fictional Life, by Kenneth Logan

James lives an awkward double existence.  To his friends, he's a great athlete, a decent student, and boy that is too shy to express his thoughts or ever reciprocate his friend Teresa's affections.  But when he is alone, he has lots of private feelings, which he spills into letters.  He tells his teammates how they drive him nuts, apologizes to the poor gay kid who he and his teammates bully, and tries to explain to Teresa why he doesn't want to date her ever.  And he writes love letters to guys.  But none of these letters ever get sent out.  They live in his locked desk drawer.

For all of his life, James has struggled with these thoughts:  finding the courage to say what he really feels.  He wonders if any of it is worth saying.  He questions what he really wants.  When he meets a gay boy named Topher, it motivates him to step out.  He's afraid of what will happen but taking things slow is OK and seem to be going well.  But then someone breaks into his desk drawer and steals his letters.  And they start showing up in people's mailboxes.

I found this story disorganized and unfocused.  The pace is uneven and aimless.  I never really got a sense about what James saw in Topher and about why he was willing to come out because of him.  The great letter fiasco proved to be anti-climactic.  And Teresa, who could have been all sorts of things to this story about coming out, just came off as selfish and annoying, with little indication of where her appeal to him ever lay.  So, while I was sympathetic to James, he didn't seem to have interesting friends or an interesting life.  I never engaged with the story.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

A Place to Hang the Moon, by Kate Albus

To say that Grandmother took care of William, Edmund, and Anna would be an overstatement because in truth she wanted nothing to do with them.  Officially, she was their guardian after the death of their parents, but it was the housekeeper who did what little passed for parenting for the three children.  Still, things could be much worse and when the Grandmother passes away, the children are faced with the awkward question of who will take care of them?  The last thing they want is to be separated, but with a war with Germany on the horizon, there seems little possibility of an appropriate foster home being found for them.  And at the same time, great discretion is advised as the three children are wealthy and could easily be exploited by some unscrupulous person.

It is their solicitor who lands on the idea of having the children join in the evacuation of London, pretend to leave their parents behind, and settle with a host family in the countryside.  Preposterous as it might sound, perhaps they will uncover a suitable foster home?  A place where, as the children put it, they might find someone who thinks that they "hang the moon."

Reality is much harder of course and the children find themselves shuttled from one unsuitable place to another.  Faced with different types of abuse and neglect, the one bright spot in their lives is a kindly librarian, Mrs. Müller.  The children adore her and she reciprocates, but she cannot host them.  She has been judged an unsuitable guardian due to the questionable loyalty of her husband, a German national who left her and disappeared at the outbreak of the War.

The orphan genre is truly a golden part of children's literature and this one pays homage to the greats.  It's a predictable formula but one that is very effective.  It combines adventure as the children face peril and yet emerge happily in the end in the arms of a loving family.  The emotional pay off is strong.  In this particular case, period detail about the evacuation of children into the countryside gives us some meaty subject matter as well.  The result is an enjoyable and memorable read.  Recommended.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Daughter of the White Rose, by Diane Zahler

The story of a twelve year-old butcher's daughter in late 15th century England ought to be pretty spare, since the reality of life for children (and girls in particular) would have been harsh and short.  However, this is the 21st century and so the setting provides a colorful background for an adventure instead.  

Nell was born at the same time as the Queen's son and, by virtue of the friendship between her father and the royal family, Nell and "Ned" (as she calls the Prince of Wales) have always been close.  She frequently  passes days in the royal nursery playing with Ned and his sisters,  the princesses royal.  And when the Queen and Nell's mother are again concurrently pregnant, their sons are born at close to the same time and become playmates as well.

In this idyllic environ, Nell sometimes fantasizes about marrying Ned, even though she knows it is not possible.  That doesn't stop her from practicing her reading and writing skills by confiding such thoughts in her journal. 

Such wishes get put aside as events overtake the children.  Following the death of the King, his brother Richard (the Third) imprisons Ned and his brother and usurps the throne.  By request of the deposed Queen, Nell and her brother are sent to the Tower to keep the princes company and await their fate.  Nell is not willing to sit and wait.  When an opportunity arises, she takes it and sets out to effect an escape.

Very loosely based around historical events, but with frequent anachronisms and modern sensibilities, this is a story that works better as fictional adventure than historical novel.  I liked the story and I loved Nell's character, but I was endlessly distracted by the inaccuracies.  Perhaps the biggest howler for me was not historical but practical: in one scene, a printer laments that he must reprint a single copy of an entire book in a single afternoon on his printing press (as if it was some sort of laser printer and not a device where each page would need to be manually set)!  It really would have been better to dispense with the pretense of historical basis and simply make this a fantasy story, for which our strong heroine would have been perfect.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

365 Days to Alaska, by Cathy Carr

For eleven year-old Rigel, the only life she's ever known is wild remote Alaska, but when her parents decide to divorce, Rigel and her sisters have to leave with her Mom and settle in Connecticut with her grandmother.  She hates it.  It's too crowded and loud and bright.  She has to attend a large middle school with mean teachers and meaner students.  And while she can't deny that there are some good things (like running water and lots of fresh vegetables), she misses Alaska.  She misses her Dad.

But she knows a secret.  Before she left, her Dad promised that, if she could just make it through the next year, that he would find a way to let her come back and live with him.  So now she keeps herself going by counting down the days before she can go back home.  However, as the number of days dwindle, her father becomes more distant and unreliable.  She also begins to realize that maybe Connecticut isn't so bad and that home is where you make it.

While hardly surprising material, the book charms with its main character.  Rigel is an engaging heroine with a strong will and a deep and enchanting love of nature.  Her confidence, derived from the life in the wild, serves her well in negotiating the hostile halls of middle school.  Her supportive family allows Rigel the space she needs to make the transition to the "outside" world.  Enjoyable, with lots of fun anecdotes about living in remote Alaska.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Of a Feather, by Dayna Lorentz

Rufus is a Great Horned Owl who lacks confidence.  He's a poor hunter and still relies on his mother to help him find food.  His older sister enjoys terrorizing him, but honestly he's afraid of everything.  When his mother is injured, Rufus finds himself alone in the woods.  Unable to cope for himself, he is injured and ends up caught in a trap.

Reenie is an eighth grader, uprooted from her home and school, and transplanted with an aunt that she hardly knows. Her mother suffers from depression and keeps falling apart, leaving Reenie in an insecure state.  From her struggles, Reenie has learned that she can't trust anyone and so she never does.  But at her new school, she slowly warms to a boy and a girl in her class and forms friendships.

More importantly, Reenie's aunt is an animal rehabilitation specialist and a falconer.  While initially skeptical of her aunt's activities, Reenie quickly is enchanted by the birds.  Exploiting Reenie's enthusiasm, her aunt enlists her assistance.  Her aunt even helps Reenies try to capture a falcon of her own to train.  But instead of a falcon, they capture an injured Great Horned Owl.

Owls are largely untrainable, her aunt warns her, but this one forms an inexplicable bond with Reenie and the two of them regain their confidence together and learn to reach out again.  However, as with all wild animals, Reenie must learn to let go of Rufus once he has finished his rehabilitation.

A terribly sweet story highlighted by numerous interesting bird facts and some very funny owl dialog.    While the story may be a bit contrived, the message about trust, family, and being brave plays very nicely through both of the story's protagonists. The anthropomorphism is less jarring than one would think as it draws on known owl behavior.  A truly delightful read!

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Almost There and Almost Not, by Linda Urban

With her father grieving the death of her mother and unable to take care of his daughter, California finds herself passed from one relative to another, landing in the end with Aunt Monica.  Aunt Monica is far too buried in a book project to have much time for California.  Annoyed that California isn't able to drive a stick (she's 11!) she grudgingly enlists her to help with book research instead.

Their subject is Eleanor Fontaine, the author of several books on etiquette.  To familiarize California with the woman, Aunt Monica assigns her Fontaine's Proper Letters for Proper Ladies which California finds to be difficult and tedious reading.  But when California discovers that Aunt Monica's house is haunted with the spirit of the Eleanor and of a friendly dog, she begins to take a more active interest in the Fontaine's life.

Eleanor's ghost is very sensitive and seemingly unaware of her passing.  Whenever California does something to let that fact slip, the ghost dematerializes (only to reappear some time later but always a few years younger than before).  For researching the biography, the ghost proves very useful and makes California a great help to her aunt.  But as it becomes younger and closer in age to California, it becomes a friend and confidante for an otherwise lonely child.

A quirky and charming story that defies easy generalization.  California's abandonment is a heavy subject, but hardly the sole focus of the story, which also addresses grieving, hidden family history, and alcoholism. The supernatural themes are subtle and don't take the story too far away from realism.  Throughout, California's innocent malapropisms and tendency to overshare provides numerous hilarious exchanges (most notably through the many letters that she writes, following a bit too literally the guidelines of Eleanor Fontaine).

Urban's Crooked Kind of Perfect is among my all-time favorite children's books.  This one is not quite at that level, but is a superior book nonetheless.

The Star Outside My Window, by Onjali Q. Rauf

Due to repressed memories, Anjali is still a bit fuzzy on the details of how she and her little brother Noah ended up in foster care.  She knows that her mother disappeared, but no one is telling her why and Anjali has trouble speaking (let alone forming the words to ask her questions).  But when it is announced that a new star has appeared, Anjali suddenly knows where her mother is!  Mum explained to her once that when good people die they becomes stars in the sky.  So, it makes sense that her Mom would appear as a star!

There is a complication.  As a promotional stunt, the Royal Observatory is holding a contest to name the star.  Anjali knows she has to make sure that no one gives her mother the wrong name, but what can she do about it?  The contest has tens of thousands of entrants (and children aren't allowed to enter anyway!) so she has no way to effect a result directly.  She'll have to go and explain to the adults that they can't give her mother's star a different name.  Getting from Waverly Village (outside of Oxford) to Greenwich seems an insurmountable task for a ten year-old, but with some help from her friends, she and Noah set out on their bicycles to prevent the Observatory from giving the new star a wrong name.

Holding aside the breathtaking danger of the premise, this is a stirring adventure with resourceful children sticking together and accomplishing their goals.  Tt is all wrapped up a bit too neatly, but along the way the children get to show a few skills.  The suppressed memories that prove the motive for Anjali's obsession with naming the star have a poignancy to them that gives the story some weight.  Spending more time addressing those feelings would have fleshed the story out better, but (again) this being British kidlit, we don't have much comfort with exploring emotions.  Instead, the conclusion has to be that the adults will step in at the end and make everything better and Anjali and her friends don't need to worry themselves over grownup matters.  That's not a very empowering message, even if it is motivated by good intentions.