Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, by Barbara Dee

Haven worries about the future of the planet.  A lot.  So much so that she can't sleep at night and can't focus on her classes.  She keeps reading things melting ice caps and dying penguins and polar bears and how all the animals will die!  Even her friends don't want to be around her because all she does is talk about it and get angry.  But to Haven, it seems like no one wants to do anything about climate change and that if they don't there probably won't be a planet to live on by the time Haven grows up.  She's do something herself, but what can a twelve year-old possibly do?

Her science class is studying the local river -- a project undertaken every year by the science class -- and they start to notice things are different this year.  The usual resident bugs and insects are missing, the water's pH levels have grown noticeably more acidic since last year, and (most glaringly, in a waterway that was always teeming with amphibians) there are no longer any frogs!  Something is poisoning the river!  Haven suspects the new glass factory that moved in during the last year, but without proof, she can't start making accusations.  Still, Haven feels that she has to do something.  So, she organizes a community protest that brings attention to the problem.

A nice middle reader for young people who find all the grown-up discussion of climate change overwhelming.  I did not realize that "eco-anxiety" was an actual condition, but apparently it is, and I think Dee has done a nice job of providing a great role model for children who suffer from it.  It helps that Haven has lots of other middle school problems (changing friendships, changing gender relationships, self-confidence issues) that Dee slips into the narrative, to which readers will relate.  In the process of organizing her protest, she learns lots of valuable lessons.  While her anxiety is quite debilitating, her family and school are portrayed as supportive and nurturing and Haven deals with her issues proactively.  We never quite get to the root of her issue, but she starts to develop insights into the causes of it which will help her learn to cope in the end.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

A Venom Dark and Sweet, by Judy I. Lin

This is the sequel to A Magic Steeped in Poison, which I reviewed two months ago.  At the conclusion of the first book, the tea competition was swept aside by a power struggle over who was going to rule after the death of the emperor.  The emperor had been slain, General Li had seized power, and Chancellor Zhou had been revealed as the power behind the coup.  Both our heroine Ning and Princess Zhen were on the run.  

This book picks up right where we left off and traces Ning and Zhen's search to find allies and uncover what actually just happened at the palace.  What becomes clear quite quickly is that this isn't just some  normal palace coup d'état.  General Li and Chancellor Zhou may have plotted to claim the throne, but behind them lurk far more powerful demonic forces with aims much deeper than simply claiming the throne.  To defeat such evil, ancient relics and magic will be necessary.

In a clear break from the first book, the story is now broken into two points of view:  Ning's continuing narration and the general's son Kang's story.  Given his rather confusing role in the first book as both Ning's love interest and as a turncoat that betrays her, he ought to be the most interesting character, but Kang is largely relegated to reporting what is happening amidst the bad guys.

The first book focused on a tea competition and captivated me with its innovative use of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the story.  In combining elements that (while exotic) were based on real practices with magic that was more fantastic, we were treated to what I would consider a true Western fantasy novel with Chinese characteristics.  The sequel loses much of that charm and instead embraces a far more traditional story of swords and sorcerers.  It's a well-told story with a lot of color and non-stop action, but nothing that really makes it stand out.  

In any case, note that this is not a book that you can just pick up without having read the first book. There's no recap and no re-introduction of characters.  If you don't remember book one, you'll be largely lost for much of book two.  Since the first book is the superior installment, that's no great sacrifice.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Some Mistakes Were Made, by Kristin Dwyer

Ellis has refused to speak with Easton ever since Easton's mother Sandry sent her away to California.  Now, a year later, Ellis isn't sure that she wants to return.  But they have a long and complicated history (that takes the rest of the novel to fully explain), but in summary:  Ellis's parents largely abandoned her (her father was a repeat offender -- going in and out of jail -- while her mother routinely disappeared for weeks at a time, burning through child welfare payment on drinking binges).  Sandry, an old friend of the family, picked up Ellis and brought her home and raised her as a daughter.  Sandry provided a stable home and her family became Ellis's family (much to the anger and resentment from Ellis's people).  However, a codependent relationship between Ellis and Easton develops that while not really incestuous, proves to be wildly dysfunctional.

With a great attention to detail, Dwyer takes this tragic situation and untangles all of the complicated interactions that develop from it:  Ellis's troubled relationships with her parents, the maternal attachment of Sandry with Ellis, the class resentments between Ellis's extended family and Easton's well-to-do family, and of course between Ellis and Easton.  It's difficult reading because there are so many layers of pain and so much history in this situation.

The result is definitely a tear-jerker with some majorly poignant moments, with some beautiful character studies.  Dwyer definitely has a skill with showing how personalities play off of each other.  However, the story really failed for me for two reasons.  First of all, Dwyer's strategic decision to not explain the important elements of the situation (most notably why Ellis was sent away in the first place) until 3/4 of the way through the book might build up the drama but it leaves a huge gap in the story.  We know that people are upset and we know that Ellis did something horrible that got her kicked out, but without knowing even in broad terms what happened, it's frustrating to just see people blowing their tops all of the time with no real explanation.  

All of which takes me to the second (and more critical) complaint: the shrill and melodramatic nature of the characters.  This is a classic depiction of codependency, with characters who blame each other for all of their woes and lack the ability to look inwardly.  It gets old and tired.  In the beginning, I was hoping for a breakthrough where someone would simply say, "You know what?  I need to start fixing myself!" But that doesn't happen.  Instead, we get endless drag down screaming matches where the characters relentlessly rehash gripes and grievances.  I get that everyone is hurting but with no one making an attempt to grow, I just stopped caring.  I feel bad about Ellis having shitty parents (heaven knows that I despise YA books about children trying to survive neglect!) but she's not doing anything to be an inspiration and I don't really see the point in reading a story about people who repeat their parents' mistakes.

Good writing, complex and insightful story, but with characters who did nothing to make me care about them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Full Flight, by Ashley Schumacher

Marching band members Anna and Weston share a duet and fall in love in the heart of football-loving Texas.  Anna is the good girl with a spotless reputation, while Weston is the rogue loner who is misunderstood and shunned by the community for his alleged past involvement in an act of vandalism.  While essentially opposites, it turns out that Anna is harboring a passion for living on the wild side and Weston needs security in the midst of dealing with his broken family.  They click and become inseparable from first sight, despite the disapproval of just about everyone. 

There's more, which you can read in the book's blurb, if you like spoilers, but otherwise simply know that this is more than some sweet story of teen-aged, star-crossed love.  What it is remains a mystery to me.  It's not a love story as Anna and Weston never really develop much beyond adolescent obsession for each other.  It's not about two misfits finding each other in a insular small town as that idea is barely explored.  And it's certainly not about the shocking ending that comes out of nowhere on page 257 of a 309-page story.

There's lovely writing here and two great characters who are sweet in a painfully naïve way.  Lots of detail and a panache for capturing the marching band subculture.  Sidekicks who are fleshed out and actually get to play roles in the story are a major plus.  The parents don't completely suck.  However, there really isn't much of a story and there definitely isn't a point to it.  And I'd just skip those final fifty pages as they add nothing of interest to the story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

I Shall Awaken, by Katerina Sardicka

Twelve years ago, four children disappeared from their kindergarten.  Now, three of them have returned, with no memory of what happened to them or of what became of the fourth child.  The villagers in their small rural town are superstitious and the whole thing smells of witchcraft.  Mysterious animal deaths in the forest, combined with two suicides in the town start to direct people's eyes towards the returning children.  But underneath the accusations lie a twisted set of buried truths and secrets.

Translated from Czech, the story is rooted in Slavic mythology and has a strong Central European flavor to it.  The setting is timeless and, if it were not for a small number of modern references, it would be easy to imagine the story taking place in medieval (or at least pre-industrial) days.  It is in sum a Fairy Tale, in the Grimm's tradition with all the blood, gore, and brutality of which the original tales are full.  Characters (or even motivations) don't really matter as much as the jostling for power and control, and the long arm of fate directing everything.

It's not really the type of story I am drawn to, but if you like dark and primitive horror, this unique and well-styled book makes a good read.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Practice Girl, by Estelle Laure

Jo's not had very much luck in love.  She's dated a couple of boys (mostly on the wrestling team that she manages) but they always seem to lose interest in her.  Then she overhears the boys talking about how they consider her a "practice girl" -- a person you use for learning how to make your moves.  Horrified to discover that the guys she thought were her friends have just been exploiting her for sex, she quits the team and shuts them out.  But a realization dawns on her:  acting ashamed means letting them get away with it and Jo decides that she refuses to be a victim.  So, she turns up at the coach's office and announces that she wants to be on the team as a wrestler instead of managing.  And through tremendous effort (and practice) she proves to everyone that she is more than something to be used and discarded.

But this story is more than some satisfying girl-power call to fight back against adolescent toxic masculinity.  Jo has issues of her own with which to deal. Her propensity for falling in love easily and the tendency to classify every relationship with boys as romantic.  Alongside the unrealistic romanticism, there is her rather ugly  misogyny that sees girls as competition and enemy.  If she's really going to outgrow her reputation, she has to do more than simply change other people's perceptions.  She has to change herself.

After the "practice girl" revelation, Jo swears off of boys (and wrestlers in particular) but it is a hard promise to keep.  First, there is Sam, her long-time best friend, with whom the relationship has always been a bit complicated (friends with benefits, they lost their virginities with each other in what they ironically called "practice" at the time).  But the greater challenge comes when Dax, a wrestler from another team, starts paying her attention.  As much as she has grown in her understanding of her bad habits, the old muscle memory drives her towards to same old bad moves.  But what if this time it's the real thing?  Has Jo grown enough to tell the difference?  Can she trust her instincts?

If teen romantic drama is not your thing, then this novel isn't for you, but I really enjoyed this book for a variety of reasons.

First of all, for the amazing character of Jo herself -- growing in deeper levels of self-understanding with every chapter.  She's a very flawed person (selfish, unable to trust others, quick to anger) but these flaws make her eminently relatable as her flaws are common to the rest of us.  Her ability to recognize her failings, dissect what she can fix and what she needs to let go, and do the difficult work is inspirational.  She's a work in progress, but its a progress that we can enjoy watching unfold.

I loved the grownups in this book.  As you know if you've been reading my reviews, I love strong realistic adult characters.  I understand that teen readers might feel more comfortable having the adults be stupid, nasty, or clueless, but that isn't real.  Real adults don't bring superhuman powers to the table, but they do bring a wealth of experience and occasionally letting them do their thing can be helpful.  In this case, both of her parents get the opportunity to impart some real advice (both about relationships in general and about their relationship with each other) that show that Jo's journey is far from novel yet no less difficult and challenging for being shared by all.  Giving the grownups a moment to say a few wise words about relationships doesn't do anything to detract from the fact that this is Jo's story and she is ultimately responsible for her incredible emotional journey.  And it demonstrates that parents don't have to be a barrier to overcome.

Finally, I was swept away by the sheer depth and complexity of the two male characters in Jo's life, without whom the drama in her life would have no foil to play against.  It's rare for male characters is a "girl" book to have much depth behind them.  In this case, though, it's critical for telling Jo's own story.  Sam and Dax both develop alongside her as the three of them begin to see the ways that their behavioral problems interrelate and grow to understand that love is an interaction not something that develops in isolation.  It's a love triangle, full of all the usual hurt and tears, but one that defies the usual conventions by having everyone evolving.

In sum, a surprisingly complex story of a young woman and her friends moving beyond selfish, self-regarding love to something deeper and less fairy tale-ish.  A hard read that may not be what you enjoy for casual fun reading, but ultimately as rewarding as the love itself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Every Word You Never Said, by Jordon Greene

Skyler suffers from two issues: mutism (an inability to speak that has been with him for the past ten years or more) and anxiety (caused from the trauma of being a foster child).  Now settled in North Carolina with very open-minded foster parents, he faces two new major challenges:  getting the school to accept his desire to wear dresses in school and his first boyfriend, Jacob.  While Skyler's foster parents are supportive of his choices, Jacob's father is leading a crusade to keep boys in pants and keeps gays out of the schools (that the two things are unrelated but keep getting classed together is  a consistent source of confusion for the characters and the book).  

Of course, young love is not smooth sailing. The two boys struggle to form a romantic attachment amidst the chaos of their battle with the school board over the dress code and with Skyler's fears of abandonment.

It's a fun read, but I was bugged by its flaws.

As a romance, the novel follows the typical drama cycle (boy loses boy, boy forgives boy) and can be quite endearing.  However, it gets bogged down in Skyler's insecurities.  And while those are understandable, Skyler comes off poorly and one can't help but feel bad for Jacob (who certainly has a harder family situation with which to deal).

The romance also sucks some life out of the crusade to overturn the dress code, but that part of the story is in trouble from the start.   The conflict is rather lame, the bad guys are drawn paper thin, and the arguments on both side are repetitive and poorly articulated.  I know that this is a book in which we are supposed to root for our boys, but there's no real drama to the story.  The role of homophobia in the debate is largely ignored, leaving the whole thing to rhetoric.  Given how poorly positions are presented, we have no plausible reason to accept that Jacob's father would convince anyone to follow him.  

And then there is all the stuff that was left on the table.  The mutism, while important in the beginning,  never gets used in any particularly important way (largely getting in the way by the end).  It was a cute idea, but I would have saved it for another book where it could be part of the story.  And despite all of the attempts to explain that being gay and wearing dresses are not the same thing, Greene's decision to make his character gay and a cross dresser creates a grey sexual area that could well have been explored.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Remember Me, by Estelle Laure

Blue finds a note that tells her to be on a certain bus at 7:45 on her birthday.  She might have ignored it, but she has a nagging feeling that it's important and something she should do.  She's been having lots of those strange feelings recently and a larger sense that she somehow is missing some big part of her life.  People around her are acting strange, talking about things behind her back (as well as insisting that she keep drinking orange juice!).

Riding on the bus, she is approached by a young man named Adam who explains that he's her boyfriend and has known her for years.  A far as Blue is concerns, she's never seen him before in her life.  However,  something about him does feels familiar.  He tries to explain what has happened:  she's undergone a procedure to "cancel" parts of her past, erasing all memories of certain key events and people (including him).  

While she doesn't know what these presumably horrible things in her past are, she can't help feeling that this was a huge mistake.  Who would choose to forget one's past and the people who make it up?  That search for an explanation for the decision that she apparently made leads her to the doctor who performed the procedure.  It also causes her to cross paths with another doctor who is willing to undo the erasure of Blue's memories.  With that doctor's help, those memories are restored with traumatic results.

An interesting concept that is poorly developed.  Blue weak will and inability to cope with her emotions do not make a very compelling character.  But it is the disjointed nature of the novel that really caused me to lose interest.  The story itself is broken into two sections.  The first section provides the meatier stuff (the search for what happened, investigating the clues for an idea of why she made the decision, and the reaction of her friends and family to her attempts to uncover the truth).  It transitions abruptly into the second part where her memories are restored piecemeal through a series of flashback vignettes.  This is such an abrupt shift that Laure has to essentially write out all of the characters we've met in part one:  leaving Blue reliving her memories in a series of vignettes.  This piecemeal reconstruction is intended to add up to a tragic and ironic conclusion, but there isn't really much pathos there (with the possible exception of Blue's mother's behavior).  So, the inevitable conclusion (she gets her memories back and has to go on living her life with the "cancellation") doesn't deliver a pay off.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Fire Becomes Her, by Rosiee Thor

An alt-historical political thriller in which a young woman helps change the way that magic is distributed.  

Power is defined by who has flare -- a liquid that, when consumed, brings pleasure and gives the imbiber the ability to burn things.  A few people have more flare than they know what to do with and they flaunt it by consuming it in cocktails and using it to design fancy clothes.  For the vast majority, however, there isn't enough flare to heat their homes or provide for their basic needs.  Flare (or the lack of it) separates the rich and the poor.

Ingrid's father was sent to jail for stealing flare to feed his family and Ingrid was raised in an orphanage.  But a stroke of luck saw her granted a scholarship at a prestigious private school  And from there, she has ambitions of entering politics as an intern for presidential candidate Senator Holt.  At the same time, she also has ambitions on Linden, the Senator's son.  The Senator will never consent for lower class Ingrid to marry his son, but Linden is convinced that they can change his mind.  For all that plotting, it is fairly obvious that Linden can't manage to stand up to his Dad and Ingrid is condemned to sitting in the background, ignored and wasted on the Senator's staff.  

To make things harder, Ingrid cannot deny that Senator Holt's platform focus on law and order and enforcing the status quo does not align with her own beliefs.  It is his opponent, Gwendolyn Meyers -- running a campaign on flare equity and redistributing flare -- to whom Ingrid has personal reasons to be drawn.  In order to win Holt's approval, Ingrid volunteers to go undercover as a spy in the Meyers campaign, but she has conflicted loyalties from the beginning.  

By all rights, Meyers ought to be the popular favorite, but a group of terrorists is committing acts of violence designed to sabotage the election and Holt's focus on security undermines Meyers's promotion of equity. Stuck in the middle, Ingrid can't help but marvel at how convenient the terrorist activity seems to be and she suspects Holt is behind it, but the majority of the victims are Holt's people. 

A busy and compelling thriller which is marred by the looseness of its defining conceit -- flare.  Flare is a commodity in high demand.  It is both a basic necessity for life and also something that is wasted and misused by the wealthy (thus a stand-in for wealth itself).  It is a weapon used to destroy people but it can also somehow be used for defense.  It is used to vote (with some sort of weighting of ballots defined by the quantity of flare behind them).  It is incapable of being made by common people (until it is homebrewed later in the story).  It has addictive qualities (like opioids).  And it is some form of magic.  You get the idea. Flare is all sorts of things and never really clearly defined.  That looseness allows it to be used as a proxy for inequality, class, moral decline, and corruption; as well as a nifty weapon for action scenes.  It's a murky concept and almost everything touched by flare becomes similarly muddy.  So, while I liked Ingrid and I loved the complicated plotting and counter-plotting of the story, flare didn't really work for me.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Improbable Magic for Cynical Witches, by Kate Scelsa

Eleanor has never quite understood the fascination with witchcraft in Salem.  To her, it's always seemed like a stupid way to get rich off of the tourists and she's treated her part-time job in a witch-themed gift shop with distaste.  However, it pays the bills which is an important thing when your Mom is largely immobilized at home suffering from long-term Lyme disease.  And the job also distracts her from the shame of what happened last year after her way-too-public breakup with her girlfriend -- a humiliation that she tries otherwise to deal with by self-medicating with lots of marijuana.

So, when she receives a strange homemade guide to tarot cards, she's pretty much ready to chuck it in the trash until the most beautiful girl she has ever seen walks in the store and starts talking tarot and witchcraft with her.  And suddenly Eleanor finds herself willing to embrace magic, witchcraft, or whatever else this girl Pixie wants. 

Tarot cards never offer a definitive path or advice, but instead encourage a fair consideration of choices and alternatives.  Through an extended reading of most of the deck, Eleanor's full story unfolds (both what happened a year ago and the way that the current state mirrors and deviates from it).  And while the title promises some magic, this is more a story of healing, hope, and the faith to reopen a heart that has given up on love.

It's a charming story which cleverly uses tarot cards in a positive way to drive forward the plot.  Tarot cards (like Ouija boards) tend to get a bum rap as dramatic sources of evil, but Scelsa captures a more positive purpose as Eleanor comes to realize that her sufferings are really life lessons and her life is not pre-ordained but instead made up of forks in the road and a limitless opportunity for change.  The end result is a rewarding story of hope.  

Note: The rather heavy use of drugs in the novel may disturb some adults, but it is an essential to the story, is not glamorized, and is ultimately resolved in a positive manner.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Beguiled, by Cyla Panin

With her parents gone, young Ella must depend upon her skills at weaving to survive.  With great effort, she tries to produce the most beautiful fabrics in order to entice wealthy women to buy them.  She dreams of one day making enough money from a sale in order to open a shop, but for now she simply must make enough to feed herself and buy materials for her next project.  It is a hard life and despite all of her efforts Ella is slipping deeper and deeper into poverty.  When her shuttle breaks, Ella realizes that she has reached the end:  she can't afford the repairs and she can't live without a working loom.

There is one last alternative, although she shudders to consider it.  The spirit of an old washerwoman lives by the river.  Called the Bean-Nighe, she can grant great wishes but they come with terrible prices.  With misgivings, Ella goes to her for help and is surprised by the mildness of the spirit's price:  just a drop of blood sacrificed to the loom from time to time.  In exchange, Ella receives ample raw materials and begins to get noticed for her amazing and beguiling products.  But any deal with the spirits is never so simple and Ella finds that it is she herself who has been beguiled.

A rich atmospheric tale of magic, based loosely on Celtic mythology, but infused with some righteous feminism and radical egalitarianism. Ella is a very practical protagonist with a pragmatic understanding of her economic situation and great entrepreneurial spirit.  More importantly, I truly enjoyed Panin's riff on the role of fashion as literal magic.  Her overall message that is a world rules by powerful men, a woman has to flaunt whatever talents they possess may strike some readers as cynical, but it makes for a compelling character.  The other real problem that nagged at me was how naïve Ella is for thinking she can trick enough people to get what she wants.  For such a practical young woman, her hubris seems out of character.