Saturday, December 31, 2022

Gussy, by Jimmy Cajoleas

Gussy has been training to be a village protector for as long as she has lived with Grandpa Widow.  It's an important but tedious job as every ritual and rite must be performed with absolute precision in order to prevent the Great Doom from reaching them.

She's still learning the practices, but she's confident she can manage to keep things together for a few weeks when Grandpa is called away.  But on the first night, Gussy allows a refugee to enter the village, opening up the gates that must never be opened at night in order to do so.  She knows it's a mistake, but the refugee is a harmless little girl and poses no threat.

After that, things start to go bad.  Objects become possessed with evil and then a force starts taking over humans as well.  The Great Doom has breached their walls and defied all of the wards and spells that protect the community.  Gussy exhausts her knowledge of magic and protection rites, but the darkness are still descending upon them. If only Grandpa would come back, but there's no sign of him and Gussy knows that she'll have to figure out a way to defeat this evil that she may of unwittingly brought upon the village.

Excellent world-building and a strong and clever heroine with a lot of mojo gives us a decent (albeit fairly predictable) fantasy novel.  The storytelling drags at points and overall it may be a bit too cerebral for its targeted middle school audience, but the tale checks off all of the right boxes.  There are some good messages about the power of good teamwork and the importance of not holding on to grudges tossed in as well.

Friday, December 30, 2022

A Girl in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel

Allegra feels like she is torn into three parts.  Simultaneously being raised by her two grandmothers and her Dad, she has to tread carefully because, while they all love her, they cannot stand each other.  

Her grandmothers couldn't be any more different as people.  Joy is fiercely independent "woman's libber" who helps shelter women fleeing abusive husbands.  Matilde is no less fierce, but rejects all of those notions, focusing instead on hard work, perseverance, and tradition.  Meanwhile, her Dad is a beach bum and largely out of the picture.  

Allegra tries to find balance between them and wishes they would all get along.  There's some sort of historical reason why they hate each other so much but no one will share it with her.  But in the end, the three of them all surprise Allegra when she needs them most.

A period piece set in Australia in the 1970s that explores family and the different ways that people express love and loyalty.  The burgeoning of the second wave of feminism is the backdrop, but told through Allegra's twelve year-old perspective, this is a much more intimate story about growing up.

It has a less-than-stellar opening and a rushed ending, but the bulk of the novel is actually quite good.  The slow start can be blamed partly on culture shock and the lingo, but the real problem is the lack of proper exposition.  There's really no explanation for why Allegra is floating between her grandmothers' apartments and no indication of the period (until we are nearly half way through the book).  Aussie YA tends to be a bit thick, but this is even more so than normal.  Once we got through that, I really appreciated the vivid characters.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Breathless, by Jennifer Niven

Claude is looking forward to her last summer before college, spending time with her best friend before they go their separate ways and maybe hooking up with a guy and having sex for the first time.  Those plans get thrown askew when her mother announces that she and Dad are separating.  She's taking Claude with her for a summer away at the family's ancestral home on a remote island off the coast of Georgia.  

Shell-shocked by the revelation that her parents are breaking up and that her father is abandoning them, Claude's thoughts once they have relocated are far far away from sex and romance.  That is, until she meets steamy enigmatic (and conveniently available) Jeremiah, who's working with an Outward Bound group on the island.  Miah is the perfect anecdote for Claude's broken heart, guiding her back to trust and love.  And while they will have to leave each other at the end of summer, she can't help but fall madly in love with him.

Yeah yeah, it's a formulaic romance, but a beautifully written one. An exotic setting, some steamy sex scenes, and characters with some actual meat on them.  Claude is no shrinking violet, but a fiercely independent and articulate young woman who is confident about what she wants and why she wants it.  As if to prove she's a teen, she makes a few mistakes along the way, but it's hard to not be impressed by how together she really is in the end.  Whether it is in her relationship with her separating parents, her loyalty to her friend, or her no-nonsense assertiveness with boys, she is an inspirational model of conduct.  There's no deep thought or message here, but characters to love and a story with which to fall in love -- a great New Adult romance and coming-of-age story for older readers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Someone I Used to Know, by Patty Blount

Two years ago, Ashley was a victim of rape.  Targeted by the school's quarterback, she was simply a goal in a "scavenger hunt" organized by the school's football team.  But almost worse than the trauma of the attack or the way that her community turned against her in the aftermath was the fact that her older brother Derek, as a member of the team, participated in the scavenger hunt.

An unflinching look at rape culture, this won't be a book that anyone will particularly enjoy reading, but that is not really the point.  It's a story intended to start a discussion and a dialogue about why sexual violence is so prevalent in our society.  If that's all it was, it wouldn't honestly be all that interesting of a book, but where this novel stands out is in its broader ambitions -- looking at the impact of Ashley's assault on her family.

There's the pain and incomprehension of Ashley's parents and her oldest brother's decision to come home and try to knit the family back together.  However, it's her complicated relationship with her football-playing brother Derek that takes center stage.  Derek didn't just play along with the "game" that got his sister raped, he was an active participant.  And during the trial of the rapist, he made some unfortunate statements that hurt the case.  For rather complicated reasons, Ashley is convinced that he sabotaged the trial on purpose.  But the truth runs deeper:  the two of them have a history of buried antagonisms that the assault brings to light in the worst of ways.

Harrowing stuff!  Originally published in 2018, this was timed to take advantage of the attention on  the #MeToo movement, but the fact that it is still topical (and probably will remain so for many years to come, if not forever) is comment enough.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Don't Touch, by Rachel M. Wilson

Caddie goes to great lengths to develop ways to help her cope with events seemingly out of her control.  When her father moves out of the house, she tells herself that as long as she can manage to not touch or be touched by someone, he'll eventually come home.  But he doesn't and this story she tells herself turns into an obsession and an uncontrollable fear of touch.  She wears gloves to school and goes to great pains to avoid having physical contact with her friends.  It is a hard act to maintain but the tension also lands her a star spot as Ophelia in her school's production of Hamlet.  Ophelia's struggle with maintaining her sanity comes too close to Caddie's own fight as she falls in love with the boy playing Hamlet.

Ophelia is a popular choice to probe the subject of adolescent mental illness and a story about a high school Shakespeare production where life mirrors art is not particularly new.  But Wilson does a good job with this familiar territory by providing a complex and sympathetic depiction of obsessive compulsion.  Caddie is bright and intelligent, well aware of her problems, but often overly optimistic about her chances of overcoming them. I was less taken with her alleged friends who, with the exception of the love interest, seemed cruel or indifferent.  While it undoubtedly adds drama to the story, the overall lack of respect for personal space and consent was disturbing.  Even for a person who did not mind physical contact, there was behavior depicted in the story that I found troubling.

Overall, this story of self-discovery and struggle with mental illness doesn't cover much new ground, but  features a sympathetic and intelligent heroine who finds peace with her problems on her own terms in a rewarding way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Everything I Know About You, by Barbara Dee

For their class trip to Washington DC, the teachers have decided to assign roommates.  It means that Tally won't be able to be with her best friend Sonnet, let only her friend Spider, a boy who she has taken under her wing to protect him from being teased and bullied.  But it gets worse: Tally's forced to share a room with Ava, the queen bee of the "clone girls." Tally and Ava can't stand each other.  Ava is always putting down Tally's refusal to follow convention.

Tally's proud of being a free spirit and considers her stalwart loyalty to Spider to be one of her most redeeming qualities.  However, the trip forces her to confront certain uncomfortable truths about herself as her friends start making new friends.  When Spider starts branching out and befriends a former tormentor, Tally's concern becomes possessive and smothering.  And her free spiritedness comes with a judgmental thread (which comes out when she finds Sonnet starts befriending some of the "clone girls").  Harder still is Ava, who turns out to have a nice side and reveals to Tally that she has an eating disorder.  Tally finds herself in a bind between being loyal to Ava and obeying her conscience which is leading her to tell an adult about the situation.

Barbara Dee writes really nice middle grade books.  The topic here is pretty standard Afterschool Special material, but that doesn't make the story any less enjoyable.  The kids are pitch perfect and the sermon (about getting a grown-up involved when someone's in real trouble) is kept low-key.  The stand out part is Tally herself -- a wonderfully rebellious free thinker in the classic footsteps of Anne Shirley.  How can you go wrong?

Saturday, December 17, 2022

How We Ricochet, by Faith Gardner

Life changed forever for Betty, her sister Joy, and her mother when an angry young man opened fire at the store where they were shopping in the mall.  None of them were physically injured, but Joy was nearby the shooter as he turned his gun on himself.

Driven by anger, Mom throws herself into activism, proving to be a charismatic and articulate advocate for the gun control movement.   As she gains attention, she drifts away from her family.  Joy, on the other hand, withdraws into her room, becoming a substance-abusing agoraphobe.  In between, Betty tries to hold the family together.  

Trying to make sense of the whole thing, Betty becomes drawn to the shooter's younger brother, Michael (she vaguely knows him from school as they shared a class or two, but they were never friends).  Without letting on that her family were victims of his brother, she befriends Michael and (this being YA) the friendship starts to become romantic.  But becoming close with the shooter's family simply complicates the narrative she trying to form.  There are no explanations, just regrets and lost lives.

A sometimes dreary but ultimately positive story about making the most of what we have and letting go of the past.  The characters are all lessons:  parents who abandon the things that matter, a sister who destroys herself by refusing to let go of the past, and the child who achieves redemption by finding the good in the present and using it to build a better future.  The novel is well-written but it's not particularly inspiring except as a series of cautionary tales about how not to deal with problems.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Sea Knows My Name, by Laura Brooke Robson

Thea was named by her mother Clementine after the goddess of reason.  Her hope was that Thea would avoid all of her mother's mistakes and set out to conquer the world on her own terms.  Clementine had once been a brilliant scientist, but when she predicted the volcanic eruption that destroyed their civilization, no one believed her until it was too late.  After all, she was only a woman and what would a woman know about science?  In the aftermath, men of violence took over and women quickly became nothing more than "commodities of reproduction." Angry at how patriarchy essentially had destroyed their world, Clementine made a pact to exact revenge.  She turned to piracy, sent Thea to a boy's school to get the only education worth having, and determined that Thea would be part of her plan.

But Thea doesn't carry her mother's skills or her anger.  She's soft, afraid to fight, quick to flee, and the opposite of her fiery mother.  She wants to be as strong of a person and earn her mother's respect, but her mother's ways are not her own.  And when she attempts to stand up to her mother, a tragedy strikes that causes her to question her self-worth altogether.  Between her fears, the certain knowledge that she's a disappointment, and her anxious desire to prove that she can be her own person, she sets out on one last voyage to fix everything that has gone wrong.

A beautifully written fantasy novel that is more of a metaphor for the adolescent search for identity.  Not every teenage girl will have a pirate queen for a mother or will fight off boys with guns and swords, but Thea's struggle with her Mom over her future and her frustrations with being objectified and marginalized by men will resonate with many young readers.  This is an unusual fantasy novel.  It's a very dark story with a slow pace and it won't appeal much to people who want action and adventure. Much of the story is really about Thea's physical survival and her ruminations about how she got to this point  However, as a coming of age story, this is really an extraordinary read with a lot to say about growing up female.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Not a Unicorn, by Dana Middleton

Jewel has a long pointy unicorn horn on her forehead.  She wasn't born with it.  It just grew out as she got older.  And while most of the kids at school have grown accustomed to it, she still gets teased about it and she tries to keep her head down (literally).  So when her French teacher wants to put her forth for a regional speech competition, Jewel isn't sure that she's up for appearing in front of hundreds of strangers staring at her horn.  But there's one thing that might make her willing to compete.

After years of searching, she may have found a doctor who can remove the horn.  And while her mother is skeptical and worried about Jewel having surgery, Jewel convinces her to let the doctor try.  While the procedure is initially dubbed a success, it turns out to have surprising consequences and Jewel has to make some decisions about what is really important in her life.

A middle grade reader with a mixture of realism and magic that grows steadily more convoluted by the end.  I liked the symbolic nature of the horn and the way it opened discussions about self-image, self-acceptance, and public perception.  I was less taken by the author's attempts to explain its existence.  Also, the book bites off a whole lot of peripheral topics (bullying, broken families) that didn't really add much to its base message.  And then there is the invisible unicorn familiar and a magical graphic novel series that also plays a part (you'll have to read the book yourself to figure that out!).  Never mind the whole French competition! A lovely idea with a strange and very busy story around it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Message Not Found, by Dante Medema

Bailey shows promise as a programmer and has a deep interest in artificial intelligence (inspired in no small part by her mom's professional interests).  Fatefully, this proves useful when her best friend Vanessa dies in a car crash.  Grieving the loss, Bailey is bothered by one thing:  what was her friend doing on that road in the first place?  She realizes that AI might be able to give her the answer.  

Her Mom has been developing a bot that simulates human intelligence.  Bailey steals the program and feeds it with every piece of data she can find about Vanessa, hoping the bot will be able to assume enough of Vanessa's personality to answer her questions.  At first, the results are not promising but as Bailey starts uploading not only her own data but things she's stolen from their friends' private accounts and phone records, the answers Baily is seeking start to materialize.  But at what price?  And is knowing the truth necessarily what you really want in the end?

An interesting premise (using AI as a means to speak with the dead) that hooked me in early, combined with good characterization.  The pacing can be slow and the ending is WAY too drawn out, but the story mostly held up for me.  On its face, this is a typical YA-tragic story with its stages of grieving spelled out along the way.  However, the story is really more of a mystery and the unfolding of the truth has a good number of twists and turns to keep the tale interesting.  In the end, I really appreciated the originality of the story and all of the details in the storytelling.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Dear Friends, by Lisa Greenwald

Leni has always defined herself through her friendships.  Whether it's Sylvie (her BFF from birth) or Maddy (her best friend at summer camp) or Brenna (her best friend from Hebrew school), she always has a best friend.  But the summer's gone poorly.  For reasons that Leni doesn't understand, she and Maddy drifted apart and barely spent anytime together at camp.  And she's returned home to find that Maddy is more interested in her new friends.  The final straw comes at the party to celebrate the beginning of sixth grade, where Leni discovers she's not even invited to Sylvie's sleepover.

At a loss to explain what is happening, Leni starts a "Friendship Fact-Finding Mission" (FFFM) to uncover why all of friendships have become friENDships.  What she finds is a variety of life lessons ranging from the fact that people change to the realization that she is not always a good friend herself.   She learns to let go of the notion that one must have a "best" friend and instead to embrace having a variety of relationships to enrich her life. Finally, while she can repair some of her past relationships, some of them have to be let go.

This is, in other words, the ultimate middle grade friendship book (a subject that is almost unfailingly coded as a "girls' book" since only girls apparently have friendships) in all of its ugly drama. It is exclusively focused on who is friends with whom, who is getting invited to whose parties, who wants to sit with whom, and what others are saying.  Greenwald has a great ear for the age group and the book will be quite relatable to young people.  The book really shines though for two reasons.

The first reason is having a really brave and articulate young heroine.  While Leni's worries can be excruciatingly excessive, but she is also capable of taking action to fix things, showing initiative and displaying proactive interpersonal skills (certainly outshining her disturbingly codependent mother!).  By the book's end, she not only identifies her issues, but also tackles them as well, reaching out to former friends and bravely initiating honest and painful conversations with them about where things went wrong.

The second reason I liked this book was the excellent advice unobtrusively delivered in the context of the story and helpfully summarized at the end of the book. There are plenty of non-fiction books for tween girls about friendships that parents can foist on them but it's much more fun to learn this from a fictional character who feels like she might go to your school.  I know grownups will look on a book like this book with a combination of revulsion and condescension (who would ever want to relive the hell that was sixth grade?) but there's decent advice in here for adults too.  So, maybe some child will pick up this book and suggest it to her/his mother to read and make a difference in both of their lives?  You're never too old to learn some ways to make better friends.