Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Peach Rebellion, by Wendelin Van Draanen

During the Great Depression, Ginny's family traveled from farm to farm in the Central Valley, picking fruits and vegetables, making barely enough to survive.  A decade later, the hatred and the hurt from those years still lingers.  Bankers are still repossessing homes and people still hate the migrant workers, even while they rely on them to work cheaply.  People still call Ginny's family "okies" and don't trust them.  And Ginny, who remembers the ways that the farmers and the bankers treated her, doesn't trust them either.

Ginny's family has settled down nearby a peach farm where they once worked.  Ginny, who used to play with the farmer's daughter Peggy, reunites with her old friend.  But there are others less willing to form friendships. And her family has other demons to fight.  Ten years ago, Ginny and her father buried her two brothers in a shallow grave because the family could afford no better.  Mother never recovered from the loss and has slowly been sinking into depression ever since.  Now that Ginny is finally earning money of her own at the local cannery, she has the wherewithal to do something about it.  She decides that she wants to disinter her brothers and bury them properly in the local children's graveyard.  The audacious plan will require help but neither Ginny nor her family are good at asking for help.

Meanwhile, Peggy has her own issues.  Now seventeen, she realizes that in a few years she will have nothing.  For, despite working hard on the family peach farm, the entire place is going to her brother.  Girls don't inherit farms and there is no accommodation for her.  Instead, she is expected to marry and settle.  But that hardly seems fair when she has given so much.  Peggy's best friend Lisette has a different set of issues.  Her father is a banker and while she has enjoyed an easy life, she has also grown uncomfortable with the source of her wealth.  To her parents' chagrin, she wants nothing to do with it and wants to disown her father.

A very strong historical novel which provides a well-researched look at post-War California and the  deep societal changes that took place in the late 40s as men returned back to reclaim their jobs and unfinished business from the Depression-era reasserted itself as prosperity reigned in fits and starts.  There's plenty of material on this era, but this novel makes it come alive by focusing on the people and how they thought of each other and themselves.  

The story combines this sharp historical insight with three compelling protagonists -- young women who are not quite willing to accept the paths that their mothers have planned for them.  Strong and resourceful, they are driven on by an unusual and poignant mission to lay Ginny's brothers to rest.  While it would be easy to give Ginny, Peggy, and Lisette a contemporary spin, Van Draanen doesn't fall to the temptation.  They are strong-willed but definite creatures of their time.  For all of their independence, they each presume that marriage and family are their ultimate calling.  They simply want to renegotiate the terms of it.

Beautifully written and compelling reading.  Destined to find its way to book reports, but perhaps also to a special place on young readers' shelves.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Out of the Fire, by Andrea Contos

Six months ago, Cass was abducted while jogging alone through the woods.  She managed to escape but they never caught the guy and ever since then she's been receiving notes from her assailant.  They show up unpredictably in pink envelopes and always in either private places (her locker, bedroom, etc.) or with contents (photographs, stolen property, etc.) that indicate that the sender has extraordinary access.  Terrorized by the realization that he can move in and out of her life without being observed, she lives in dread of receiving the next one.

At school, she befriends three other girls who have been victimized recently.  One has been racially targeted by a teacher, one has an abusive step-parent, and one has an ex-boyfriend who is extorting her for sex.  Finding that they share common trauma, the girls form a pact to eke out revenge against their tormentors.  But while the other three girls have definite targets, Cass doesn't really know who is stalking her and the more she finds out, the scarier the truth becomes.  And while revenge is easy to envisage, executing it is messy and things quickly swing bloodily and fatally out of control.

Intended to be a thriller with gravitas that comes from exploring the myriad ways that women are exploited, the execution of this blood-soaked account of revenge fell very flat for me.  There is plenty of violence but little reflection and no exploration of anything.  In this story's world, evil things just happen.  The only response is nihilistic violence.  Everyone knows it is a dead end, but what can you do?  Burn it down (apparently).  None of that is particularly inspiring or even interesting.  Nearly constant hyperbolic statements about destruction, violence, or imminent death that quickly lose their meaning and their impact.  

The writing style drove me nuts.  Every other sentence is a fragment.  The choppiness is intended to give the writing an edge, but its impact wears off within fifty pages.  Every other one.  You can only read so much of that before you go mad.  Completely utterly mad.  By the end I wanted to throw the book into a fire.  Let it burn.  Ashes to ashes.  It is what it is.  You get the idea.

Monday, July 25, 2022

All the Best Liars, by Amelia Kahaney

In a thriller that builds suspense off of the insecurities that adolescents bring with them and the way that sudden wealth can intensify those feelings, three girls' lives are forever tied together by a murder.  One of them is the victim and the other two are implicated in the death.  But when the police start to investigate, the truth is far more complicated than the detective can understand. "Girl drama," she dismisses the story that initially unfolds and right she is, but the stakes are every bit as real as a grownup's.  Through flashback, the girls recount a story of childhood confidences betrayed and the lengths to which each will go to make things "right."

Perhaps the world does not need another sociopath/mean girl story, but this novel transcended the genre for me, going through great pains to show a chain of plausible events that gradually blew out of control.  The story gains gravitas by not limiting itself to the children.  For while immaturity is the spark, the fuel for this fire comes from the grownups.  The girls in many cases are simply copying the vanity, classism, and greed of their elders.  It's makes for grim, but compelling reading. The shocking reveal is perfectly unfolded.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Melt With You, by Jennifer Dugan

Fallon and Chloe were best friends growing up, but a night of no inhibitions right before Chloe went away to college led to an awkward goodbye and an end to the friendship.  A year later, they are no longer talking to each other, but they are going to have to work out their issues.  Their mothers are co-partners in an food truck, selling gourmet ice cream.  The business is struggling but there are interested investors.  The catch is that while the two women are meeting the investors, someone has to take the truck to some already-scheduled food festivals.  As a result, Fallon and Chloe are forced to take the truck on the road together alone.  Through their subsequent adventures on the road, they gradually break the ice, confront what happened between them, and work out what it means for their relationship now.

A lesbian romance set on a food truck -- part workplace hijinks and part road story -- that relies for much of its story on the central conceit that neither Fallon or Chloe are very good at communicating.  Rather, they are incredibly egocentric and inwardly focused.  It's so bad, in fact, that Fallon spends the first couple of chapters defending her stubbornness to the reader in a one-way Greek Chorus.  After a while though, Dugan gives up trying to justify the self-created tension of her drama queens and lets them just do their thing.  The result is frustrating as it becomes painfully obvious that if Fallon and Chloe just sat down and listened to each other (rather than constantly taking offense and having meltdowns) that they could happily settle down.  I just didn't care about them and I didn't like either of them.  

That pretty much kills a romance story.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Queen of the Tiles, by Hanna Alkaf

A year ago, Trina, a popular influencer and champion Scrabble player, reigned the Malaysian circuit as the "Queen of the Tiles," but then she mysteriously died literally on the game table during the finals.  Her friend Najwa hasn't really recovered.  After a year of absence from playing, dealing with panic attacks, guilt, and suspicions, Najwa has bravely decided to re-enter the world of competitive Scrabble.  

The police ruled Trina's death to be the result of natural causes, but looking around the room at all the familiar faces, Najwa wonders if someone here had something to do with it.  And when Trina's Instagram account suddenly comes back to life, broadcasting anagram clues that only a Scrabble maven would appreciate, Najwa grows convinced that whoever was involved last year is planning a re-match.

A tense whodunnit that follows the standard pattern of evolving prime suspects and theories, but manages to nonetheless deliver plenty of twists and turns to keep the mystery solving fun.  The Malaysian setting and the Asian characters provide unusual color and make the story more interesting.  But the real winner is Najwa herself who proves a formidably capable detective in the grand tradition, ably sleuthing out the guilty party through a mastery of the world's most popular word game.  The final reveal is a disappointing throwaway, but doesn't overly detract from an original story and Alkaf's stirring love letter to competitive Scrabble.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Seed, by Caryl Lewis

Marty's mother is a hoarder and between trying to take care of himself and keep social services from finding out about her, he has a pretty tough life.  And ironically few possessions of his own.  For his birthday, his grandfather gives him a large mysterious seed and invites him to plant it at their community garden.  Grandfather promises him that it will lead to a tremendous surprise, but for now he must wait.  And so, along with his best friend Gracie (a girl with a cochlear implant who wants to become a dancer) and his granddad, they nurture the seed.  And despite Granddad's reputation for being unreliable, it does indeed grow into truly something special involving giant pumpkins, sailing across the English Channel, and visiting the Eiffel Tower.

A whimsical middle grade fantasy that combines realistic issues (e.g., mental illness, disability, and neglect) with granddad's truly fantastical ideas.  And while the latter events of the story are highly improbable, the story's message of going after your dreams and taking a positive view of life is sweet.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Best Liars in Riverview, by Lin Thompson

Aubrey and Joel have complicated games they play in the woods.  Games involving pirates, tales with fairies and magic, and elaborate stories of survival.  No one questioned their activities when they were kids  They kept their games private because they knew the other kids would not understand their make-believe.  But now that they are in middle school, things have become more complicated and the rules are changing in ways that they don't quite understand.  Being a girl is more complicated that Aubrey ever realized and, witnessing the bullying that Joel is enduring at school, it would seem that being a boy is no walk in the park.

And so, it doesn't really surprise Aubrey when she learns that Joel has gone missing.  She may even know where he is, but she doesn't really want to give away the secret.  When the grownups start asking her what she knows about his disappearance or where he might be, she lies.  She feels guilty about doing so, but she realizes that really everyone is lying is one way or another.  Her lies may not ever be the biggest ones.  That knowledge also convinces here that she needs to be the one to find him.

The story of Aubrey's search for Joel (with the help of a mutual friend Mari and Aubrey's older sister Teagan, heavy with remembrances and flashbacks, is more of a means to quest for identity -- a search that Aubrey is not really truly aware that she is on until the end.  The reveal is drawn out, but natural and organic to the characters.  We never are really told what they are and how they feel, but more allowed to travel with them as they discover things for themselves.  We're left with a sense of evolving emotions. We can see where the two of them are now and how they got this far, but not really who they will be yet.  That, in itself, feels particularly appropriate for a middle reader.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Rising Above Shepherdsville, by Ann Schoenbohm

After the death of her mother, Dulcie loses her home and loses her voice.  Sent to live with her aunt Bernie in rural Shepherdsville OH, she can't talk, but she is a good observer of people.  In addition to silently help her aunt around the house, she spends much of the summer at the local Baptist church, where Reverend Love looks out for her.  A runaway named Faith shows up and gets taken in and becomes Dulcie's companion.  Evangeline, an older woman that the reverend has hired to lead the choir (to much displeasure from the community) sets both girls to work helping her make new choir robes out of scrap fabric.  But most important of all that summer is a family of swans hidden in the rushes near the church that Dulcie sneaks away to observe, imagining them as some sort of link to her deceased mother.

A gentle period piece set in 1977 (although the story itself is timeless) which is beautifully written, but not very adventuresome.  This is the sort of uncontroversial children's book that used to be more common.  The basic coming-of-age tale in which Dulcie comes to terms with the loss of her mother, learns some life lessons about honesty and kindness, and has some nice interactions with the three adults in her life.  There's nothing particularly wrong with this book, but it isn't really anything new (and books like Because of Winn Dixie have probably done it better).

Monday, July 04, 2022

Hopepunk, by Preston Norton

It was nearly a year ago that Hope's little sister Charity outed their older sister Faith to their parents.  In such a conservative family, the news that the eldest daughter was a lesbian did not go down well and Mom quickly prepared to send Faith away for conversion therapy.  But before that could be accomplished Faith ran away.  Now, the family struggles with angry, guilt, and grieving.  Mom defensively stands her ground but aches for her daughter to return home.  Dad guiltily tries to be a peacemaker between everyone.  Charity embraces the church, ignoring the rest of the family.  And Hope channels her grief and anger into music.

It seems that the family would just muddle through in dysfunction but then things are shook up when Hope's crush at school, a boy named Danny, comes out as gay and is thrown out of the house by his family.  In an act of atonement, Hope's family takes him in and an angry dynamic develops between Hope and Danny's twin brother Dylan.  Dylan is a nasty homophobe and forms a hate band called Alt-Rite, who write songs attacking Hope and her friends.  In response, Hope forms her own a band, a group of hopeless misfits called Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, who challenge Alt-Rite in their school's Battle of the Bands.  A lesbian science-fiction story runs in parallel through alternate chapters and an internet influencer plays a prominent role as well in this mixture of social commentary and satire.

Norton is a good writer and I was quickly drawn in to the family tragedy that unfolds at the beginning.  I didn't initially get (and never really warmed to) the science fiction story, but I loved the depth of the characters.  The three sisters and their parents each had distinct personalities and roles to play.  Even Danny's outing and the way the family reunited over sheltering him presaged a fascinating look at the conflict between religious intolerance and charity.  But Norton has grander intentions for the story and that's when things really started running off the rails.  From the blatant hate speech to the official tolerance of bullying to the eventual official maleficence, I found myself being pushed towards accepting greater and greater levels of implausibility.  The conclusion is so utterly over the top that I just tuned the mess out.  In the end, it seemed a shame to take what was a really nice character study and fully-formed family tragedy and turn it into something absurd and over-the-top, especially with a subject as important as homophobia and the normalization of hatred.  Profoundly disappointing.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Candidly Cline, by Kathryn Ormsbee

Cline dreams of becoming a country music star, like the women she idolizes:  Emmylou Harries, Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile, and her namesake Patsy Cline.  However, Mom reminds that music doesn't pay the bills.  Mom should know:  she had to give up her own dreams of playing in music in order to take care of the family.  So when a co-worker of her Mom's tells Cline about a workshop for young singer-songwriters, Mom tells her no.  But Cline knows she has to go. She doesn't have the money, she doesn't have a way to get to Lexington to attend the classes, and she'll have to find a way to sneak out, but somehow she'll figure everything out.

In comparison to the rest of her problems, this is small change.  Her grandmother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Cline is struggling to understand Gram's unpredictable health and behavior.  Cline also is grappling with her sexuality and why she likes girls more than boys  Also with the experience of being betrayed by her best friend when she confesses as much to her in confidence.

But for every bad surprise, there's a good one as well.  Through good planning, fortuitous moments, and a few karmic moments, Cline discovers that it takes a small kindnesses and a village to fulfill a dream.  And that when it comes to big dreams, there are more people who want you to succeed than to tear you down.  

I was slightly afraid that the book might end up tying off every problem with a cheery bow, but that's not really what happens.  While Cline benefits from some pretty good luck, there's plenty of things that don't work out, but for all those Cline comes to peace with the outcome. She makes plenty of errors in judgment (most egregiously the decision to go behind her mother's back), but she's courageous and dedicated.  Most importantly, the story shows Cline dealing with a wide variety of people of all ages, both sympathetic and not, and learning to navigate difficult social interactions with maturity.

In the end, this is a warm and positive story about working hard, taking responsibility, and owning your outcomes.  Good life lessons.

Saturday, July 02, 2022

Today Tonight Tomorrow, by Rachel Lynn Solomon

In this romance set in Seattle, Rowan and Neil are the two top academic stars at their high school.  For years, they have fought each other for each of their school's honors to a degree that everyone else considers obsessive.  And while some might suspect that there was a romantic tension behind their competition, Rowan is quick to reject that.  She hates Neil.  Now nearing graduation, they are approaching the biggest one:  who will be valedictorian.

But even when that ultimate is dispensed, their competition still remains fierce.  Their high school has an annual tradition -- the senior Howl, an assassination-themed scavenger hunt.  The seniors are given a list of fifteen items to find and the name of another senior for them to "kill" (by stealing the armband that each of them must wear). The goal is to find the fifteen items first and avoid getting killed by an opponent.  Rowan intends to annihilate Neil and end her high school career on a victory.  But instead, Rowan and Neil find themselves teaming up.  At first, they are reluctant, but gradually they grow close  enough that by the end their relationship becomes more important than the game.

I loved all the city details, with its combination of well-known and obscure spots that made up the scavenger hunt (this is definitely a much more fun story if you know Seattle!).  I was less taken by the story which seem drawn out and meandering.  For kids that are supposed to be such over achievers, they seemed awfully unfocussed and were far too easily distracted.  I would have had a better time with the story if they had just aced the hunt and then turned to focusing on their relationship -- that would feel more in character.

There's an interesting digression about Rowan and Neil's experiences as the only Jews in their school and a bonding that occurs in sharing their recollections of the microaggressions they have experienced.  It serves as one of the things that brings them together and it becomes character-defining, but it's introduced awfully late and abruptly (on page 119, in a strange scene where a classmate makes an anti-Semitic remark).  Somehow, we're supposed to accept that Rowan's Jewish identity is definitive, despite the fact that she doesn't mention a word about it for the first third of the book.

The story is a love letter to romance novels.  It reminded me a bit of Before Sunrise, with its combination of city exploration and extemporaneous adventures at night, but it didn't have much to add to the genre.