Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, by Axie Oh

Mina's village has been subjected to more and more violent storms every year.  The Sea God no longer protects them because of a curse; a curse that can only be broken by the sacrifice of a young maiden.  Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl and the love of Mina's older brother, has been sent to the ocean to be given over to the Sea God.  He's heartbroken and Mina is determined to interfere.  Before Shim can be tossed in, Mina offers herself instead.

In the Spirit Realm where gods, demons, dragons, and many fearsome creatures dwell, Mina finds the Sea God in a deep sleep.  And someone is trying to make sure that he stays that way.  Making strange alliances, Mina tries to outwit the gods with rather unexpected results.  She finds herself locked in a celestial love triangle with enormous implications for both the Spirit Realm and the world above.

A dizzying retelling of a Korean myth that is beautiful done but which I found maddeningly difficult to read. The unfamiliar world of gods and spirits presents quite an initial barrier to overcome.  The story unfolds with lots of unexpected surprises (many of which did not make much sense).  In the end, I gave up trying and simply let the story carry me along, but I missed out on a lot of things.  It didn't help that there is a large cast and not much effort to build the characters.  So, I give the story high marks for creativity and vivid world-building, but found it a very difficult slog and nearly impossible to follow.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Cress Watercress, by Gregory Maguire (ill by David Litchfield)

When Papa doesn't return to the warren, Cress, Mama, and baby Kip relocate to another part of the forest.  Mama won't say anything about Papa's disappearance, but with a fox in the woods and the "Final Drainpipe" (a deadly, but never-seen snake) in the woods, one can only imagine what happened to him.  Cress has trouble adjusting to their new home (a broken-down oak tree run by a grumpy owl and populated by a nosy field mouse and a loud family of squirrels), but she is an adventurer and has plenty of mishaps in the woods with her new neighbors.

Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book is quite pretty to flip through, but the story fails to live up to the gorgeous artwork.  A series of short adventures (many of them life-threatening) pass in place of an overall story.  Add in a jumpy narrative and characters who seemed more designed to deliver one-liners than to actually build a story and I was left unengaged and largely uninterested.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Karma Khullar's Mustache, by Kristi Wientge

Karma and her BFF Sara are about to enter middle school this year.  There are are a great deal of changes taking place and so much of it seems to mean change for the worse.  Karma sees her relationship with Sara growing distant as their interests are diverge and Sara has grown closer with mean new girl who moved in during the summer.  Karma's father has lost his job and spends the days at home.  Her Mom is working extra hours to make up for the loss of income.  Her older brother is having trouble at school.  Worse of all though is the unwelcome arrival of visible facial hair above her lip.  While she tries to figure out what to do about, her initial hope that it would go unnoticed is quickly dispatched when she becomes the target of bullying.

While traipsing over very familiar middle grade topics (changing friendships, bullying, family conflicts, and puberty), Karma's mixed racial (half-Punjabi, half-white) background adds an interesting twist to the story.  Her interest in her heritage and her love of her father's ethnic cooking add dimension to her character.  Moreover, Karma herself has a relatable mixture of kind-heartedness and ego-driven anxiety that feels true to her age (i.e., a mix of wanting to be pleasing  and to be important enough to fix her family's problems while not adding any of her own).  As is so often the case, an early decision to seek adult input would have solved many of Karma's problems, but there is an emotional payoff in watching her attempt to fix the things that she can on her own.  A satisfactory combination of resolved and unresolved issues at the end felt realistic.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Stand on the Sky, by Erin Bow


A young Kazakh girl rejects tradition and becomes a champion eagle huntress.  Similar to the documentary The Eagle Huntress, thirteen year-old Aisulu struggles against immense odds to develop the skills  and the rapport with a golden eagle to not only become a huntress but to compete in the annual Eagle Festival.  The stakes in this fictional tale are significantly higher than the film because the prize money from the Festival could cover her crippled brother's medical expenses. Without it, the family will be forced to sell their livestock and abandon their life as nomadic herders on the steppes.  Finding allies and friends in unexpected places, Aisulu learns lessons about family and loyalty in a rewarding story of animal bonding and coming of age.

While The Eagle Huntress was (mostly) real, I actually found this novel more realistic.  Bow spent considerable time in Mongolia researching the people and their lives and the story is abundant with cultural details.  While some critics have decried "cultural appropriation" and I found more than a few Westernizations that rang false, overall the story provides a rich and respectful depiction of daily life and cultural values.  The result of that hard work is a deeper, more rewarding story about how Aisulu, through the experience of building a bond with her eagle, in turn builds a stronger bond with her community.  More could certainly have been done with this material (for example, her estrangement from her own mother was a frustratingly neglected thread) but the theme gave the story gravitas beyond the single-focused girl-power message of the film.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Out of Range, by Heidi Lang

As the story begins, three estranged sisters (Abby, Emma, and Ollie) are lost in the woods.  Angry with each other and carrying deep grudges, they blame each other and fight.  Needless to say, this doesn't help, but in fact makes their situation worse.  As the weight of the danger they are in becomes clear though they find a way to cooperate.  

Through flashbacks, the story of how they got to this point unfolds.  Once the closest of friends, innocent pranks led to hurt feelings and vindictive acts of revenge, escalating to the point where the three girls could not stand each other.  Their parents, seeking a way to break through the impasse, send them to survival camp, which is where they end up lost in the woods.

Built on strong and vivid characters, this thrilling survival story for middle readers is a great read.  Its messages of forgiveness and cooperation are such no-brainers and the eventual reconciliation between the sisters so predictable that the journey itself becomes the point of the story.  I enjoyed it but, as an adult, I wondered about the girls' parents and their seeming inability to help their children navigate their problems.  Middle schoolers will simply enjoy a thrilling adventure, the familiar grudges and battles of siblings, and the comfort of the resolution.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Private Label, by Kelly Yang

Being Chinese-American in a overwhelming white SoCal community is hard.  Serene has managed it by buying her friends.  For her twelfth birthday, her fashion designer mother set up an expensive party that put Serene on the A list.  Ever since, periodic offerings of her Mom's collection pieces to the other girls helps to grease Serene's social standing.  

Lian doesn't have that option.  All he can offer is his homework, which his "friends" eagerly copy.  

They also struggle to realize their dreams.  Serene's dream is to become a fashion designer like her mother, but the financial stakeholders in her Mom's company are resistant to her.  And when her own mother falls terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, they make a power play to take over the company and shut her out.  

Lian dreams of some day being a stand-up comic, having his classmates laugh with him, rather than at him.  His immigrant parents are committed to send him to MIT as an engineer, but he can't stand the idea.  As they will never accept his dream, he goes around behind their back trying to make it come true.  The results are predictably disastrous.

Though they share a similar experience of racism and challenges in their lives, they don't realize it because they move in different circles.  However, a fortuitous decision by Lian to found a Chinese Club in his school and Serene's impulsive decision to attend it brings the two of them together and they find that they each have a key to the other's future success.

It's a winning tale of two kids who have dreams and whose hearts are in the right place, but it is a story that is best to not overly analyze.  The characters are fairly thin, the issues oversimplified, and the resolution a bit too easy.  However, I enjoyed reading and, as things finally fell into place, I found the book hard to put down.  Good light reading.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Daughter of the Pirate King, by Tricia Levenseller

As the daughter of the Pirate King, Alosa is a pretty unusual seventeen year-old but she is also quite relatable.  On a mission from her father to help him locate two of the three pieces of a map that will reveal the greatest treasure of all, she allows herself to be taken captive.  It's her father's plan and she has to do what Daddy wants.  But while she's cold blooded enough to think nothing of sacrificing her men's lives, she insists that she will only surrender as long as she retains access to her vast wardrobe and makeup.  A girl's got to look good when she's pretending to be a prisoner so she can spy on her enemy!

And while her captives think they have the upper hand, she proves them wrong repeatedly as she escapes the brig night after night so she can conduct her search.  Captain Draxen is cruel boy and quickly loses his patience with her games, but his more thoughtful, kinder, and (coincidentally) better looking brother Riden in intrigued by her.  And while Riden must play his role as her captor, there's no denying the reluctant bond that is forming between them that will involve plenty of bloodshed, some delicious kissing, and lots of respectful intimacy.

While well-paced and entertaining, I never knew quite whether to take it seriously or not.  For while Levenseller wants to portray her heroine as a tough and resourceful warrior, she also expends concerted effort in making Alosa the type of girl to whom suburban teens can aspire (obsessed with fashion, loyal to her besties, skilled at keeping boys in their place, etc.).  Don't get me wrong, I can fully see the parallels between adolescent girls and bloodthirsty pirates, but the joke's taken a bit far and the silliness detracts from the story.  There's also the small matter of magic, which makes an appearance about half-way through the story providing a surprisingly boring reason for Alosa'a extraordinary skills (instead of basing them on Alosa's hard work and determination).

As the first in a series, though, the book really has only one purpose: to entice people to read the rest.  So, the book provides a strong introduction to Alosa's character, giving her enough resources and talents to take her boldly into a planned series of adventures of unknown duration.  Multiple characters (including Alosa's own band of teen girl pirates) are briefly introduced, giving us a teaser of what awaits when Alosa and her besties set sail in search of wealth and handsome frocks!

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Fight + Flight, by Jules Machias

Avery is a dirt bike enthusiast facing a recent diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that causes hypermobility and puts her in unmanageable pain.  Facing a life full of physical therapy and gradual deterioration, she feels out of control and overly dependent on others.

Sarah suffers from a panic disorder, set off a few years ago by the death of a beloved aunt.  While she has a number of coping mechanisms, notably including sketching and doodling, she struggles with an overly protective mother, an emotionally disengaged father, and a very angry older brother.

Their poor coping skills experience an additional setback when their middle school performs an ill-advised realistic active shooter drill that injures Avery and aggravates Sarah's anxieties.  But the incident also motivates both girls to take action:  Avery funnels her anger at her declining health into a plan to seek revenge against the principal, while Sarah chooses the positive approach of rallying and organizing student opinion.  Both of them learn how to better cope with their personal issues through the experience.  In a somewhat disjointed way throughout the novel, Machias also addresses transphobia, classism, racial privilege, and bullying.

Machias is a developing talent.  I tried unsuccessfully to read her debut novel Both Can Be True, but abandoned it for being clunky and didactic.  This is a substantially better novel, but the tendency to stuff the story with largely unrelated topics (Avery's BIPOC friend Mason being the most notable example) suggests that her biggest challenge is keeping focus and knowing which stories she wants to tell.  It is unclear if Avery and Sarah were being set up to have a romantic relationship (there's plenty of points in the story where it felt that way), but in the end the idea is largely abandoned. 

All this superfluous material takes energy away from the main story (the girls' emotional growing ability to take responsibility for themselves).  It's a hard story to tell and didn't work for me in the end. While Machias makes some effort to create a catalyst, Avery's switch from avenging to forgiving is abrupt and her sudden willingness to communicate with adults felt implausibly rushed.  Sarah's growing bravery, prompted as much by her older brother as by internal changes, felt more plausible.

But there are also things in the book to love.  Avery's feelings of hopelessness are explored well, from her coping method of bossing others around to her denial of her symptoms.  The author's realistic portrayals of adults (always a big thing for me!) are much appreciated.  But very best of all is the whole design of the book.  Told by the girls in alternating chapters, Sarah's doodle-filled pages are a true delight.  Every page features original pen and ink drawings from the author, ranging from decorative borders to fanciful animal sketches to beautiful Spirograph creations (Heavens!  I had forgotten all about Spirograph!).  I strongly recommend spending some time just browsing the pages of this book just for the art!

Thursday, August 04, 2022

This Place is Still Beautiful, by Xixi Tian

In her family, Margaret is the smart one and Annelie is the cautious one.  Margaret also is the one who takes after their mother and the Chinese side of the family.  People often assume that the girls aren't even related because Annelie doesn't look Asian.  And in their quiet central Illinois town, it's always been easy enough for Annelie to fit in because she could pass as white.

But then a seemingly random act of vandalism, where an ethnic slur is spraypainted on their garage door, changes things.  Margaret is upset and wants to call out the attack, seek justice, and challenge the entire town's complacency.  Annelie wants to bury the matter and forget about it.  However, when she finds out that she may know the perpetrators, she has to make some difficult decisions about her choices.  

While the incident is a catalyst, the story is less about racism than about identity, as Margaret and Annelie work through their feelings about their family, their friends, and each other.  And those stories about human interaction are really what makes this novel shine.  It's less about the place than the people who live in it and the relationships that you build with them.

I enjoyed the warmth of the story and the complexity of the relationships.  Given the magnitude of what Tian wants to address (including two romantic relationships, a familial estrangement, mother-daughter conflict from both Margaret and Annelie's perspectives, childhood abandonment, and sibling rivalry) it's inevitable that some stuff falls through the cracks, but the magnitude of human interaction is really the point of the novel.  For while the ending is rushed and the entire subject of leaving home is a missed opportunity, the closing words are a fit conclusion, "I can allow myself to think that this place is still beautiful, even as I drive away."