Saturday, December 30, 2023

Larkin on the Shore, by Jean Mills

Trying to cope with her mother's descent into opioid addiction and a traumatic encounter at school, Larkin ends up bruised and drunk in a hospital emergency room.  In the aftermath, Larkin's father decides to send her away to spend the summer with her grandmother in a small coastal village in Nova Scotia.  There, she contemplates the virtues of ending her life (poetically, by attempting to swim to PEI) while her grandmother patiently pushes her towards finding hope through making new friends and helping set up a cafĂ©.

While well-written, the pacing is slow and the themes could easily have been further developed.  We're never exactly clear what happened to Larkin back at her school,  Meanwhile, the mother and her story doesn't really move beyond a brief recollection (and an even briefer dialog). Mills does a fine job in showing us how sad and depressed Larkin is and in capturing her panic attacks.  However, lacking the context deprives us of much of the punch or the necessary reader empathy to make it be something dramatic.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

100 Days of Sunlight, by Abbie Emmons

When an auto accident causes Tessa to lose her sight, the promise that the loss is probably temporary is small comfort.  She holes herself up in her room and cuts herself off from her friends.  Her grandparents decide to take things into their own hands and place an ad for a person to come help Tessa do things like dictation.  Tessa is enraged that they would do such a thing and when Weston shows up for the job, she takes her frustration out on him.  He isn't bothered, he's seen worse.

Weston is a double amputee -- the result of an untreated infection from an accident three years prior.  Through flashbacks, he describes the process he went through to come back, working through not only his disability but also his anger at his fate -- knowledge that he applies to Tessa's situation.  However, he has an advantage:  she doesn't know he's an amputee.

Over the next hundred days, through patience and stubborn persistence, Weston works through Tessa's barriers and gradually helps her deal with her blindness.  However, he knows that one day soon she'll get her sight back and then she'll see him as he truly is.  And he fears what she will do.

A terribly sweet and utterly gratuitous romance.  Weston is pretty much the Perfect Boy -- kind, considerate, generous, with just a small amount of naughtiness (he gets into fist fights).  He adores Tessa.  And of course, he has nothing better to do than dote on her for three months.  Needless to say, we know that his silly fears about her hating him when she sees his disability are nothing big, so we're flipping the pages waiting for that swoon-worthy happily-ever-after kiss.  And this is the kind of story that delivers just what the readers want.  In sum, pure unadulterated literary junk food.  Grab a pint of Ben & Jerry's or a package of Oreos and dig in!

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Land of Neverendings, by Kate Saunders

Three months after Emily's sister Holly has died, she is still processing the loss.  Her mother is always sad and Emily's friends are uncomfortable in her presence.  However, Emily is surprised to realize that the thing she feels the greatest sense of loss over is Bluey, Holly's teddy bear.  For while Bluey was definitely Holly's toy, Emily knows in her heart that if she could only confide to Bluey, everything would feel alright.  Unfortunately, they placed Bluey in the coffin when they buried Holly.

Amidst that longing for a lost toy and perhaps inspired by being cast in the lead for a school production of Alice, Emily stumbles across a portal to the world of Smockeroon, the land of the toys.  There she is presented with the entrancing idea that she could reconnect with Bluey (and perhaps even her own sister).  However, behind this opening between the "hardworld" and Smockeroon lies a sinister force -- a giant toad who wants to import all of the sadness of Emily's world into the world of toys, in an attempt to destroy the joy and happiness of that latter place.

In a very British way, this riff on CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll (with a unacknowledged debt to Pixar) explores the grieving of a child told through our relationship with toys and play.  The story is a bit chaotic and difficult to follow and the deeper themes will definitely fly over the heads of young readers.  Still, it's a clever book and it's nice to read something so sweet and innocent.  Entirely suitable for all ages.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

If He Had Been With Me, by Laura Nowlin

Autumn and Finn grew up together as best friends and next door neighbors.  Their mothers always assumed that they would end up together as a couple.  But by the time high school begins, they aren't really talking to each other anymore.  Autumn has Jamie and Finn has found Sylvie.  They both couldn't be happier in their respective relationships.  But somehow all that shared history bring Autumn and Finn back to each in their times of need.  

Mapped out over four years of high school, Nowlin's lushly written novel captures the trials and drama of Autumn and Finn's development and their largely inevitable coming together.  While beautifully written, covering such a long expanse of time leads to a lot of jumping around and senior year is largely a blur in this retelling. Throughout, I struggled to understand where the story was really going.  Yes, there are plenty of indications along the way that Finn and Autumn really ought to be together, but the book is full of so much more than that (subplots ranging from a pregnancy to a divorce to drugs to sexual abuse) that I wondered what the point of the book really was.  It's all very pretty and well-told, but does one need to cram every single good idea into the same book?

All that is a minor complaint compared to my thoughts on the book's shocking ending.  I won't spoil the story for others, but I feel very strongly that Nowlin basically ruined the story for me in the last ten pages with an unnecessary, pointless, and completely out-of-the-blue plot twist that lacks any foundation.  I'd suggest stopping on page 381 because I'm  now left seriously wondering why I read those first 380 pages.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Princess Solimar loves to watch the Monarch butterflies as they pass through on their annual migration.  This year, they have given her something in return:  the gift of prophecy.  In exchange for which, she must watch over the weaker butterflies and ensure that their travels this year go smoothly.

The gift comes at an awkward moment, when the king is absent and an attack from a neighboring kingdom threatens her home.  While she is only a child, as soon as the attacking king learns of her new powers, he wants to harness them for himself and he tries to detain her.  To prevent that from happening, Solimar flees the castle and tries to find her father so she can warn him.  She hopes that he'll find allies, beat back the attackers, and also save the butterflies.  An epic voyage through uncharted waterways awaits!

Like all of Ryan's other novels, this one has a distinctly Hispanic flavor and the setting is vaguely Mexican.  That is manifested mostly through terms, titles, and foods, but also the context (the attack occurs while Solimar is planning her quince).  I always enjoy this stylistic twist in her books although in this case it would have been nice to have a glossary at the back to help with less familiar terms.

More problematically, I didn't enjoy the story very much.  Unlike many of her novels, the stress here is on action.  Character development gets a very short shrift.  Solimar is supposed to go through a great transformation in her ordeal, but I didn't understand what it really was and I actually didn't care much either.  As for the action, it isn't well told, often requiring reading and re-reading passages to understand what is happening.  There's a lot going on and never a dull moment but it is hard to follow.  Definitely not in the same class as Ryan's Esperanza Rising or Becoming Naomi Leon.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Breda's Island, by Jessie Ann Foley

Thirteen year-old Breda has been caught one too many times stealing from others.  It's all petty stuff and mostly done for attention, but her mother, an undocumented Irish beautician, is at wit's end.  She decides that the best way to shape her daughter up is to send Breda to Ireland (a country where Breda's never been) to her grandfather (whom she's never met).  Predictably, the homecoming starts off rough but eventually Breda connects with the old man.  In the process, she sorts through her problems and gets her life back on track.  

As an overall story, there's nothing new here.  The rebellious teen and the crotchety old man straightening each other out is the worst form of trope -- a fantasy worth of a Hallmark show.   And the rural Irish setting is full of plenty of stereotypical blarney. But the book is full of surprises.

Breda has never had a father in the picture and returning to her mother's home gives her a chance to track him down.  Doing so dredges up a lot of buried grudges and anger.  It also causes her to stumble over the fact that her grandfather was also born out of wedlock.  And in his days, such children were abandoned to orphanages where they were subject to severe abuse.  His trauma is largely suppressed but played no small part is how he treated Breda's Mom (and thus Breda).  Coming to terms with Breda's feelings about the lack of a father means also dealing with her grandfather's legacy.  The result is a surprisingly complex story with pretty intense themes about family and abandonment, all of which might be a bit intense for middle readers but make for a surprisingly satisfying mature novel.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Hunger Between Us, by Marina Scott

For 900 days during the height of World War II, the city of Leningrad was under siege and blockaded by the Nazis, trapping over two million people inside to slowly starve to death.  An unfathomable tragedy, the horror was compounded by Soviet corruption and incompetence.  The death toll from German bombings, famine, and disease is estimated at over a million lives.  No one who grew up in the Soviet Union after the Great Patriotic War could possibly not know the story (although the version told in Soviet schoolrooms was largely sanitized), but Westerners are usually ignorant of this historical event.  So, it was something of a surprise to find this piece of historical fiction in the Teen section of the library.

In is the summer of 1942, the siege has been in place for a year.  In that time, the weak have largely died off.  The survivors are the resourceful.  Liza is a survivor.  Through petty theft and deceit, she has managed to scour up enough food to keep living.  As the story begins, Liza is secretly burying her dead mother in order to prevent officials from discovering the death and taking away her Mom's ration card.  Liza's best friend Aka comes across her after the disposal of the body and tells Liza that she herself is going to go to the "Mansion" (the headquarters of the NKVD -- the secret police) to earn some food.  There's plenty of food for the officials and they are willing to share what they have with pretty young girls for a price.  Liza begs Aka not to go, but what alternatives are left?

When Aka fails to return later, Liza goes out of her mind with fear for what has happened and starts to search for the girl.  It's dangerous to poke at the lair of the NKVD and Liza's desperate search takes her in dangerous places where a combination of strong wits, sheer luck, and a bitter detremination to survive carry her through.  Along the way, she renews acquaintances with two boys she knew from school who have taken drastically different paths:  Luka (who hides underground and has abandoned his pride and humanity) and Maksim (who serves in the local constabulary and tries to enforce the law in the face of anarchy).  Both boys try to help Liza, but in the end she has to take her own path to confront horrible secrets about the depths to which people will sink.

As grim and troubling as its subject matter, The Hunger Between Us explores what lines can and cannot be crossed and what survival really means.  It's a brutal story populated with starvation and desperation.  Scenes of physical and sexual violence, numerous references to (off-page) rape, murder, and cannibalism feature prominently.  All of this, however, is just a setting for the very difficult decisions that Liza makes throughout the book.  And she's definitely no saint.  Her primary virtue is her ability to survive and by the end of the story she has plenty of faults to atone for.  But observing her story in its context forces the reader to consider what they would do in the same place and that proves devastating.  A powerful and memorable book and an unusual one of the genre.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Friends Like These, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Jessica hates Tegan and the only reason she ever agreed to attend Tegan's end-of-the-summer party was because Jake convinced her to go.  Jake's blind to the fact that Tegan (who used to date Jake) wants him back and will do anything to get him.

At the party, Jake and Jessica get separated and, before Jessica can realize what is happening, someone is livestreaming hidden camera footage of Jake and Tegan kissing!  Worse, they have started to take off their clothes!  Utterly humiliated by her boyfriend's very public betrayal, Jessica flees the party vowing to have nothing further to do with Jake or Tegan.  But the next morning, Jake turns up covered in blood with no memory of his infidelity or of anything else that happened.  And Tegan has gone missing.

A rather steamy whodunnit that annoyed me the deeper I got into it. The characters spend a lot of time obfuscating the investigation, which drags everything out and more often than not puts them in a worse position.  There are odd priorities as well, with characters more concerned about statutory rape than homicide.  And finally a large part of the solution to the mystery relies upon information only introduced in the final forty pages of the book, which is frustrating for anyone trying to figure things out along the way.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Rat Queen, by Pete Hautman

Annie's father is fond of telling her stories from the Old Country, fairy tales from faraway Litvania.  They are strange stories and always end up in rather unsatisfactory and unhappy ways.  No one else seems to have ever heard of Litvania, but Papa assures her that it very much exists.

When Annie turns ten, her father gives her a peculiar instruction.  Henceforth, whenever she does something she regrets, she must write it down on a slip of paper and stuff the paper into a hole in the floor.  By doing so, she will be assuaged of all guilt and regret.  She does so and is surprised to find that it works.  But there also seem to be curious side effects:  the neighborhood becomes infested with rats and Annie seems to have stopped growing.  After her father makes several mysterious trips back to Litvania, he announces that they must go back together and it is there that the Litvanian queen reveals all.

A dark and fairly sinister story with great depth and plenty of color, but whose actual story felt uneven and unengaging.  Litvania, while fictional, is a lovely amalgam of Latvian and Lithuanian culture (neither of which is commonly found in American literature).  The story is littered with the dark and macabre fairy tales of Litvania, which riff nicely on the original Grimms (i.e., non-Disneyfied) Tales.  The rats and the entire concept behind the "eater of sins" is fascinating.  This is a story whose concepts will stick with me for some time.  

It is thus a shame that the story is so lame.  For the first two hundred pages, it is terribly slow and it took me some fortitude (and most of a week) to plow ahead, but then everything speeds up at the end in seeming recklessness.  Either way, I found the reading more of a chore than a pleasure, no matter how much I enjoy the Baltic and folkloric references.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

The Melancholy of Summer, by Louisa Onome

Summer Uzoma has been managing through her senior year alone.  Ever since her parents fled, going on the lam after being accused of credit card fraud, Summer has gotten by through sleeping on the couches of friends and scraping up money here and there.  She maintained her grades and graduated, but just a few weeks short of her eighteenth birthday, CPS catches up with her.  They reject her claims that she can manage just fine and threaten to put her in foster care.  

To everyone's surprise, it turns out Summer has family to help her.  Her cousin Olu, whom Summer barely knows, has made it big in Japan as a singer and is willing to take Summer in.  However, Olu is only twenty and has big issues of her own.  While Olu is wealthy enough to take care of Summer, she is in no position emotionally to handle the responsibility and Summer is simply counting down the days until she turns eighteen.

For Summer, it's all a bit too much.  In denial about being abandoned, she can't navigate the waves of big feels she has.  The wear and tear of spending the past year scraping by has also taken its toll.  And now, with her friends graduating and going away to college, Summer is aware that everyone is moving on and abandoning her.

I enjoyed the unusual ethnicity of the characters (Summer's Nigerian and Olu is Nigerian-Japanese).  Summer's love for skateboarding is a bit quirky and her resourcefulness in using it and the city busses to get around is pretty unusual.  However, the novel annoyed me with the way it dragged out the story through Summer's stubbornness, the inability of characters to finish important conversations, and the eventual swift resolution of all of the problems in the last twenty pages.  I didn't see the growth and it felt artificial.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Wishing Season, by Anica Mrose Rossi

Ever since Lily's twin brother Anders died, Mom has been lost in her grief, spending time (and money) on a woman who claims to be able to communicate with Anders's spirit.  Lily knows the woman's a fake because Anders has told her so.  Ever since the funeral, when Lily found Anders at the old swing they both loved, she's been able to spend time with him. In this "overlap" between the land of the living and the dead, Anders stays alive for her for the whole summer, giving her someone with whom she can share her sadness and her anger.

But as the summer comes to a close and Lily is about to return to school without Anders by her side, she has to move on.  Learning how to make new friends, accept that the overlap is temporary, and most importantly find a way to keep her dead brother in her heart while making room for the future becomes her summer journey in this sleepy lyrical book about grief.

It was all very beautiful, but this treatment of death and grief didn't really break any new ground and there have been stronger books on the subject. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Look No Further, by Rioghnach Robinson and Siofra Robinson

Niko and Ali meet each other at an exclusive summer program for art students in New York City.  Underachiever Niko barely squeaks in on the waitlist.  Back home in California, art is his best subject but he's really more devoted to surfing than studying.  His mother and stepfather are white, but his biological father was Chinese. Showing up at the program, he's immediately pegged as an Asian artist, a characterization with which he is not fully comfortable.  

Ali is a local girl, a high achiever, and yet she feels out of place amidst the artsy types at the school.  She slavishly copies the other students in how they dress and even in the art they create.  She has little sense of who she is. 

When the two of them get assigned to work on a project together to trace how their heritage has informed their art, they quickly make a shocking discovery:  Niko and Ali have the same father!  Neither of them have ever met him, but with some research, they discover that he might be living in New York.  So, while trying to keep up on their studies, they decide to try to track him down to see if they can reconnect with him.  The search causes both of them to confront the parts of themselves that they are uncomfortable with and subsequently to grow.

Overall, this a well-written story about self-identity and finding oneself..  For Ali, this is the traditional  trope of discovering her own voice by ceasing to copy others.  It also involves her becoming comfortable  embracing her feelings for another girl.  For Niko, it is about connecting with his Asianess (raising several issues about anti-Asian racism along the way).  Either way, the novel has a well-paced dramatic arc and delivers a very satisfactory ending.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Fight for Midnight, by Dan Solomon

Alex's only friend is a crotchety old guy at an adult day care center, who delights in being read Game of Thrones (with particular attention to the beheadings).  It's all basically Alex's fault:  he's the one who let his best friend die from drugs and then got himself on the wrong end of two bullies from school.  Still, Alex wouldn't mind having a friend his own age.  So, when queen bee Cassie calls him out of the blue and begs him to come join her at a protest at the State Capitol, he figures he's gotten an opportunity and been granted a wish.  He has no idea what the protest is about and doesn't really care as long as it means spending some time with the girl of his dreams.

That's the set up that places Alex at the Texas statehouse in the summer of 2013 as the Senate debated HB2, a now largely-forgotten attempt to restrict abortion access.  The events are a matter of public record and the book sticks largely to the facts of the case (the author was a journalist covering the protests) so the plot is less important than the story, which tracks Alex's evolution from an apolitical and apathetic young man to a committed activist.  By the end of the story, his personal issues that form such a central role in his life largely fade away in comparison to his investment in the eventual outcome of Wendy Davis's historic filibuster.  Of course, a few years later the repeal of Roe v Wade would largely overtake the now seemingly small fry of that debate, so the novel is really less about any historic achievement than it is about how the events impacted Alex's life.  And that proves to be a surprisingly satisfying read.

Friday, November 24, 2023

The Secret Sisters, by Avi

In The Secret School, fourteen year-old Ida's experience teaching in her rural one-room schoolhouse brought her to the attention of Trudy, the local inspector.  In this sequel, Trudy invites Ida to move into town to attend high school.  Life in Steamboat Springs is drastically different from home and Ida has to cope with telephones, trains, and indoor plumbing amongst other modern marvels.  But it isn't just modern technology that Ida has to adjust to; there are all sorts of new modern ideas.  Steamboat Springs, like everywhere in 1925, is awash with new beliefs about culture, politics, and women's position in society.  For independent and string-willed Ida, the ideas are a revelation, but when she finds the more traditional and conservative principal of the school threatening to expel her, Ida has to decide what is more important:  her beliefs or her future?

A good historical novel for young readers that exposes readers to a variety of issues including women's enfranchisement (and the reaction against it), classism, and rural poverty.  Ida's stubbornness is touted as far more of a virtue than it probably is, but the book's allegiance to standing up for your beliefs at all costs is unequivocally clear.  A fast paced and enjoyable read.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Rosie Loves Jack, by Mel Darbon

Rose has Downs Syndrome and her boyfriend Jack suffered a brain injury that makes him now prone to violent outbursts.  Despite how often Rose's Mom assures her that she is capable and independent, no one seems to believe that they are really in love.  But Rose knows that when they are together Rose can be Rose and Jack can be Jack.  When Jack gets sent away to another facility and the two of them are separated, Rose is miserable.  And when she discovers that her parents are intercepting Jack's letters because they want to separate her and Jack, she decides that she needs to find Jack so they can be together.  

She figures out a plan and runs away from home.  At first, everything goes well, but when winter storms cancel the trains, Rose has to navigate the not-so-nice streets of London.  But she persists because she absolutely needs to get to Jack.

Told in Rose's voice, Darbon does an outstanding job of portraying a confusing and often threatening world as seen through the eyes of her young neurodivergent protagonist.  That's a real challenge and Darbon is clever in her way of depicting Rose's fine observational skills with in the bounds of her challenges at communication.  Some of the scenes in the book are downright terrifying, but the book avoids gratuitous melodrama in their depiction.  Rose herself shows inspiring fortitude and strength throughout but in a way which respects the challenges she experiences in her life.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Down Came the Rain, by Jennifer Mathieu

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, two Houston teens struggle with how to come to terms with the way that the storm uprooted their lives.

Eliza comes from a well-off family, but that didn't protect them from the flood waters and they have been forced to move in with other family while their house is rebuilt.  Meanwhile, the flooding of her school means that she will now be taking classes at a neighboring high school, where the students are traditionally disadvantaged. 

Eliza, who has been concerned with climate change for some time, sees Harvey are a warning that she must work harder to reverse the damage, knowing that it may be too late.  She decides to take action and puts together a club to educate her fellow students and promote more sustainable practices at school.

Javier was much luckier.  There wasn't any damage at his place, which is good since his family would never have been able to afford to rebuild, but the hurricane still has left its mark.  Whenever it rains now, Javier gets frightened and curls up into a ball.  He's falling apart but doesn't understand why.  Into his world (and his high school) comes Eliza and her club seems the perfect antidote for what is causing his fears.  It doesn't hurt that he finds Eliza inspiring and attractive.

While the club's efforts promise lots of positive changes, Eliza becomes frustrated at her inability to speed up the changes that she knows the world needs.  She loses her perspective, causing her to commit a terrible error that could well ruin both of their lives and derail their goals.

While at times preachy, the story is an entertaining and engaging young teen book about climate change anxiety.  It also takes on classism and racism, but not in any particularly new way.  For me, the most notable thing was the effort that Mathieu put in to showing adults struggling with the aftermath of the hurricane as well.  The teachers, in particular, were much more fleshed out as people than they commonly are (naturally enough, as the author is a school teacher).  This carried over to a really nice depiction of the troubled relationship between Eliza and her Dad.  It wasn't so much that the adults were the subject, but it was nice to give them a little depth and show that it wasn't only the kids who were hurt.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Language of Cherries, by Jen Marie Hawkins

Evie has been yanked out of her home in Miami, where her friends and Abuela are, and transplanted in rural Iceland by her father.  Stuck in a world with cold summers and a night that never grows dark, she feels disconnected.  But then she discovers a near magical cherry orchid that inspires her to create the most amazing paintings and causes her to meet Oskar.

Oskar has every reason to despise Americans.  It was an American tourist who caused the accident where his family were killed.  Five years later, Oskar hasn't been able to get over the loss and it has afflicted him with a stutter that he self-medicates with marijuana.  But despite her nationality, there's something about Evie that draws him close:  her paintings.  She has somehow drawn pictures of his family and of events from his childhood that she could not possibly have known about.  He is obsessed with finding out why.

Embarrassed by his speech problems, he stays mute around her and she  in turn misinterprets this as a language barrier.  Liberated by the idea that he can't understand her, she opens up and freely confesses her innermost thoughts -- her anger at her mother, her longing for her Abuela back in Miami, and her loneliness.  The more she confides, the more Oskar realizes he can't continue to let this go on.  He needs to come clean, but worries about what will happen when she learns the truth.

An extremely slow-paced and lyrical work full of unusual eclectic elements: Evie's Cuban heritage, Oskar's exotic mix of taciturn Scandinavian and pagan Scots, and touches of magic through the cherry trees.  The blurbs describe this as magical realism, but it isn't really that grandiose.  Instead, this is more a subtle supernatural element that enlivens but doesn't distract.  The characters are all quite memorable, but it is more of a study than a story.  The plot alludes to whole slew of plot points (e.g., forgiveness, mother-daughter conflict, intergenerational understanding, and coming of age) but the book is more of a mood piece and there's very little development.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Lola at Last, by J C Peterson

Lola returns from a disastrous year in France, to where she was sent after a scandal last summer.  She's determined to regain her position as a queen bee at school.  Instead, goaded by her deletant ex-boyfriend, she nearly burns up her brother-in-law's yacht.  Threatened with arrest for her (unintentional!) act of arson, she is offered an alternative: spending the summer in a wilderness program for young women.  Lola, whose idea of roughing it would be being seen in public in drug store make-up, is horrified.  But given the alternative, she reluctantly accepts her fate.

It's very rough going.  Lola is a mean girl and a terrible snob.  Unaccustomed to having to face consequences or take responsibility for herself, she's singularly unprepared for hiking nature trails.  So, she stumbles from one bad move to another, alienating everyone around her until she has no one left.  Forced to finally owns up to her situation, she manages to navigate her redemption.  Part of that involves shedding her toxic former friends and ex-boyfriend and finding new (and healthier) relationships.  Reconciling with her twin sister is also part of the equation.

Loosely based on Pride and Prejudice, this book is lively and quick reading.  I imagine that for fans of the original, the story will be seen as amusing and clever.  For myself, I found Lola too grating, nasty, and unsympathetic to ever really engage with.  Lydia Bennet worked as a character because of the time period in which she was living, but in the contemporary world a vain young woman who delights in knocking others down really don't succeed.  That Lola wins the nice boy and learns how to make a sincere apology in the end is not enough -- modern society has much higher expectations for young women.  Were I to meet Lola IRL, I would almost certainly dislike her and I would never trust her.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth, by Andrew Joseph White

In this depiction of alternative Victorian England, there is a Veil which separates the living from the dead and it is the duty of Speakers to guard that barrier.  The Speakers are all men and if a woman should appear with the abilities of a Speaker (signified by having violet eyes), she is persecuted and suppressed.  Silas Bell, a sixteen year-old trans boy aches to become a Speaker himself, but since society views him as a girl, it is impossible.  However, Silas is crafty and bravely impersonates a candidate for initiation.  When he is found is found out, he is sent to Braxton, an asylum and finishing school for girls who haven't learned to accept their place in society.

That's when things start getting very scary.  Silas quickly notices that the Veil is particularly thin around the school, a sign of unsettled spirits.  The Headmaster, it turns out, collects souvenir trophies of  the people he's killed and their desecration haunts the place.  But there is deeper evil afoot.  The students at the school are disappearing in particularly gruesome ways -- through medical experiments conducted in the basement.  But by the time Silas uncovers the full extent of the horror (and the widespread involvement of the men around her) it may be too late to do anything about it.

Beyond the extremely graphic depictions of eviscerations, involuntary surgeries (without anesthesia), and lots of blood, triggers in this novel include rape, molestation, bullying, and self-harm.  In other words, there's an awful lot of difficult material to digest here.  Personally, I found that I needed to take breaks (particularly in the second half of the book where the scenes become notably more intense).

So, why read it at all?  Despite being a painful story, I found it compelling because it is very well written and because much of the tortures described in the book are based on the real abuses committed by the medical profession in the period.  It is a work of fiction, but raises many uneasy questions about how we define abnormality and deviance.  Fans of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish will be in their element.  Readers with sensitive feels should almost certainly avoid this book.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Actually Super, by Adi Alsaid

After enduring the past few years of social turmoil, high school senior Isabel despairs that the world more full of bad than good.  In response, she has withdrawn and become obsessed with a chat forum called "Actually Super" where members report sightings of real-life superheroes.  These "supers" are people with secret supernatural powers and devoted to using them for good.  The evidence is scant and no one can point definitively to one of these supers, but Isabel is hooked.  Losing herself in the search for these defenders of humanity, she drops out of school and sets off on a tour of the world to find them.  The road trip that ensues takes her from her home in Michigan to Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Argentina, and finally Mexico.  Her search  is as much spiritual as geographic, opening her mind to the true potential of humans to be both good and bad, and revealing unexpected truths about our longing for superheroes in a world of uncertainty.

Ostensibly a spectacular road trip, this fascinating spiritual work about what ultimately makes us good and bad is a strikingly original work.  I was drawn in by Isabel's grasping for meaning and value in a world that has grown so cynical and distrustful of such searches.  When I was growing up, there were a number of popular novels that combined good storytelling with philosophical exploration -- where a fantastic journey led to enlightenment (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The World According to Garp, and Illusions amongst others) but that style of novel writing has largely fallen out of fashion.  Alsaid, whose previous work (Before Takeoff) was about the Rapture taking place at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is a bold enough writer to dust off this old form.  

The result is a book that, while set in the current day, becomes timeless in its universal search for meaning.  It could not occur at a better time.  We know that the past few years have been particularly hard on the mental health of young people. In our age full of cynical politics, climate change, pandemic lockdowns, and short attention spans, Actually Super speaks to recapturing meaning and appreciating the small kindness that we can all do -- the ways we can all become superheroes.  A book like this calls on the reader to set aside the harmful messages and look for goodness instead in the little things that make us so similar to each other all around the world.  It's an inspiration and an unforgettable read.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Reggie and Delilah's Year of Falling, by Elise Bryant

The trope of the young couple who never quite manage to hitch up gets a turbo charged treatment in this cute, but ultimately overdrawn romance of near misses and misunderstandings.  Through the course of an entire year, Reggie and Delilah agonize over whether to get together or not.  You can agonize along with them for nearly 400 pages.  Don't get me wrong, it's delightful and charming and these two young people make for a very appealing couple.  You just wish they'd get over their anxieties and get on with it!

Reggie is a rarity -- a black kid who loves Dungeons & Dragons.  And while it's the most important thing in his life, he can't share it with his family for fear of their rejection.  Reggie's passion isn't just limited to playing, but also to social criticism.  His anonymously written essays on racial prejudice in roleplaying games has gathered quite a lot of attention -- attention that won't translate to anything because Reggie is afraid of going public.  That's all so much unlike this girl he's met named Delilah who is an amazing singer and is so bravely performing in front of big crowds at local gigs.  He knows that she would never go for a loser nerd like him.

If you asked her, Delilah would never see herself the way Reggie sees her.  She has never felt particularly talented until she helps out some friends in a garage band and steps in front of a microphone for them.  As their singer, the band's popularity takes off, but her bandmates refuse to acknowledge her contribution and won't let her provide artistic input.  Should she risk everything by standing up for herself?  Looking at Reggie and how famous he is with his writing and how confident he seems to be, Delilah feels inspired to step up.

Each of them, convinced that the other is braver than they could ever be, try to be brave and become better people.  It has a positive end, but driven by lies and wishful thinking, there is a tragic nature to all this posturing.  When all things are revealed, can they salvage enough of their relationship to stay together?

All of this makes for a good romance that generally works well.  Beyond the romance, I found their struggle with racial identity interesting as well.  It was very organic and didn't carry the heaviness of a message book but also didn't feel like a whitewash.  Their racial identity informs who they are without being the only thing in who they are and a lot of good things about that got said through their mouths.  My only complaint is the one I noted at the beginning of this review: the drama drags out way too long.  A little less of that would have made for a better book.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Out of Character, by Jenna Miller

Cass is obsessed with on-line role-playing and her home is with a group of other teen girls who are writing scenes based on the Tide Wars duology.  While Cass has struggled with online addiction for some time, having her mother move out on her recently hasn't helped matters.  

It's not that she's particularly unpopular (her boyfriend -- before she decided that she was a lesbian -- is the school's quarterback and her best friend is one of his teammates), but that roleplaying allows her to escape from her real world problems.  Over the years, she has developed close bonds with the other players and feels closer to them than to her real life friends.

In the real world, however, no one knows about these activities.  All that time online is hurting her grades, but her father just assumes that the problems at school are due to her Mom. Cass is afraid to let him know what is really happening for fear that he'll cut her off and she'll lose the only support she feels that she has.  Meanwhile, she's hidden this geekier side of herself from her friends, for fear of their judgment of her.

When Taylor, a girl at school, on whom Cass has long had a crush, asks her out, Cass jumps at the opportunity.  Things grow complicated balancing the new romance with her secret online life.  While she freely tells the girls in her group about Taylor, she can't bring herself to Taylor about them.  More awkwardly, Cass discovers that she has feelings for a girl in the group and must decide whether she would rather be with this girl or with Taylor.

Cass has some serious of character flaws that make her pretty hard to like.  While she cleans up her act by the end, the way she treats her friends (and Taylor in particular) is pretty reprehensible.  There were definitely points where I was tempted to put the book down.  The whole lying-to-your-friends thing never ends well (especially in novels) and watching this train wreck unfold over the first 250 pages is pretty painful.  So, a lot is riding on those last 100 pages!  Cass redeems herself by being strong and communicative, and her ability to own her faults and (largely) address them.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the story and the representation of online role-play.  As someone who does a lot of RP himself, I can totally appreciate the dynamics of the activity and the way it can easily become an obsession.  The group's actual writing wasn't terribly good, but RP rarely is.  Miller largely gets the fact that while it is game and a fantasy, for those people who participate in it, you develop real friendships and invest real emotions into it.  And yes, RL (real life) is truly more complicated than RP, the dynamic of group on-line interaction can get pretty dramatic.  A late scene, for example, where one of the players quit their group was devastating in a way that felt very familiar.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Plan A, by Deb Caletti

In the summer after junior year, Ivy is planning for college, not for a pregnancy.  But when her test shows a plus sign, she has to make arrangements.  There's no doubt in her mind that she wants an abortion, but in Paris, Texas that's not a simple thing to accomplish.  Thanks to Texas's six-week limit, she can no longer have the procedure performed here, so she makes plans to go to Oregon where her grandmother lives.  She slips out of town with her boyfriend (who's not the father) and they embark on a road trip to Oregon.

At this point, the novel takes an odd turn as they take on a fairly leisurely road trip, visiting towns that are the namesakes of famous world cities (Rome, Lima, etc.).  It's a little hard to understand why they drag out the trip this way and it slows down the pace of novel considerably, but Caletti has her reasons.  Along the way, women come out and share with Ivy that they too have been in her position and that they also have had abortions.  By the time Ivy gets to Oregon, she finds that she is far from alone.

Caletti's purpose is to demystify (and de-shame) abortions but pointing out that, as uncomfortable as the public discourse is, there's plenty of private conversation going on as a large number of women have gone through the experience.  The book occasionally gets a bit preachy on the subject, but I thought it was a good talking point and allows the novel to make a constructive contribution to the issue.  

Another theme in this book are frequent violations of the fourth wall as Caletti calls out the tendency to overdramatize abortions in novels on the subject.  Ivy has some emotional turmoil, but she never wavers in her conviction that she's making the right decision.  The procedure itself is dealt with matter-of-factly and concisely with no complicated preliminaries.  There are not angry protestors, no last minute hysterics,  and no drama at all.  The only real tension is a bunch of petty harassment in her hometown (which seemed largely unnecessary and gratuitous).  Her point is that abortion is only as dramatic as we care to make it.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Summer of a Thousand Pies, by Margaret Dilloway

After Cady's father turns up at her school high on drugs, he ends up in jail and Cady is sent to live with an aunt she's never met.  Cady is sure her father will get out soon and bring her home, even though she knows that he's rarely provided much of a home so far.  Still, Cady is pretty stubborn and when she wants something, she sticks to it!

Aunt Shell runs a pie shop and it's struggling.  Cady doesn't see what the big deal is -- how hard can it be to bake a pie?  But when her first attempt fails spectacularly, she finds she has a lot to learn.  It takes a thousand pies to learn how to make the perfect one, her aunt tells her.  Cady's determined to try.  She's also convinced that if her aunt would only change her business plan, the shop could be successful.  But Aunt Shell is as stubborn as her niece and a test of wills develops between them.

This summer, it will take a lot more than a thousand pies to change Cady and Aunt Shell's world for the better.  It will take trust, a family bond, courage, and an openness to accepting a little help.

A pleasing middle reader without a huge amount of surprises.  Dilloway attempts to add some gravitas by bring in some undocumented workers to start a dialogue about immigration, but it's a half-hearted effort and doesn't add to the story.  Instead, Dilloway's message of opening your heart and being unafraid to take risks has a more lasting message for the reader.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

If Tomorrow Doesn't Come, by Jen St. Jude

Avery has had a rough first semester at Eaton College. She's washed out of the soccer team, making people question how she ever got a scholarship.  And her grades, always a source of pride in the past, are slipping.  She can't make any friends and her old friends from home are slipping away.  But more than anything, she feels an overwhelming sadness and a desire to just end things.  She decides to end her life.

But as she is in the process of drowning herself in the river, her plans are interrupted by the shocking news that the world itself is ending.  An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and will collide in nine days -- ending all human life for certain.  The result is global panic as people scramble to reunite with their loved ones and struggle to find meaning in their final days.  For Avery, it means abandoning her plans and reflecting through flashbacks upon how she got to this point.  In the process she discovers that people do love her and there is value to life.

Certainly an unusual story with its original combination of plotlines.  While it sounded intriguing, I didn't find it worked all that well.  Neither the end of the world nor clinical depression can really be addressed in a meaningful way in such a limited window and that sets the novel up to fail.  The pacing of the two stories is necessarily different. The end-of-the-world story is very immediate and very intense, while the flashbacks showing Avery's descent into despair are moody and languid.  Compounding the impossible stories is the fact that the book consists of almost entirely false starts.  It's hard to say what one could do in only nine days that would have meaning, but it really isn't clear why what these characters actually do during it amounts to a compelling read.  

Well-written but the concepts of the two stories never really pans out.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

A Song Only I Can Hear, by Barry Jonsberg

Rob is painfully shy and subject to panic attacks, but when he falls in love with Destry Camberwick at first sight, he knows he needs to make her notice him.  But how?  Everyone has advice for him:  from his cantankerous grandfather, to his parents, to his best friend Andrew.  However, it's when he starts to receive mysterious anonymous text messages, that things start to change.  They lay out a series of challenges that find Rob becoming a (surprisingly good) soccer goalie, performing Shakespeare in a talent show, and standing up for a cause he believes in.  Ultimately, the changes transcend his pursuit for Destry and expand into Rob becoming fearless about revealing his true self.

The majority of the book is actually hilariously funny.  Helped along by the irreverent behavior of Rob's grandfather and Rob's own snarky observations about his school and family, this breezy read (I finished the entire 300-page book in an afternoon) is good fun.  I would have been happy to have it end like that, but the author takes it in an entirely different direction that to me felt tortured.  If you go back and re-read carefully there is some foreshadowing for the ending but it really doesn't have to be present (see below if you don't mind spoilers).  And the book's final chapter, where the fourth wall is dropped altogether, really just seemed like nonsense to me.

<Spoiler> There will be readers who will feel it is really important to the story that Rob is trans, but honestly I found no value in that reveal except to give this book a new audience and an additional agenda it didn't need.  There's very little in this story that relies upon Rob's gender identity or birth sex.  Without it, this is a good story about a boy named Rob who had a grandfather who helped him find himself.  And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter that Rob was once named Roberta.</Spoiler>

All Alone With You, by Amelia Diane Coombs

When senior Eloise discovers that she needs some community service on her transcript if she's to have a hope of getting accepted by USC, she begrudgingly signs up.  The placement (at an agency that supports seniors through phone calls and home visits) is completely outside Eloise's comfort zone.  She's an anti-social loner who hates talking with strangers, but she needs the credit and she's driven and stubborn enough that she dives in.  The results are pretty disastrous until a coworker named Austin takes her to visit Marianne Landis.

Marianne is a septuagenarian rock star who once fronted a group called the Laundromats, who had a string of hits in the 1970s and early 1980s.  And, as stubborn as Eloise is, she makes a perfect match for curmudgeonly Marianne.  Eloise, who never thought she needed anyone or their help, discovers that Marianne is a fount of wisdom.  Most pressingly so, when Eloise finds to her horror that she is falling in love with Austin.

An above average romance with a set of life lessons in it.  Eloise and Austin are fine in their roles, but the romance follows the fairly conventional storyline and won't surprise at all.  Marianne, however is an absolute hoot and I could well have enjoyed a book about her alone.  I had a mental picture the whole time of Joan Jett and it wouldn't surprise me if Ms. Jett partly inspire the character (although there are plenty of differences).  The idea of a rock star having life lessons to hand out like a rock-and-roll Master Miyagi is hilarious in itself but who doesn't enjoy a story about a youngster learning at the feet of a senior?  The book has feel good written all over it and a brisk-paced storytelling made this an enjoyable light read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Other Side of Infinity, by Jean F. Smith

Nick has only been a lifeguard for three weeks when he gets his first rescue.  But instead of diving in and saving the man (who turns out to be a popular teacher at his school), he panics and freezes up. It is a swimmer nearby named December who pulls the man out of the water and starts CPR. But she doesn't want to be involved and flees the scene before help arrives and everyone assumes that Nick is a hero.

December's presence (and presence of mind) was not coincidental.  Ever since she was seven years old and her mother walked out of her life, she's been able to see the future.  In this case, she knew the man was about to drown and when Nick did nothing, she intervened, saved the man, and altered the timeline.  But as she did so, she foresaw that she and Nick would fall in love and that shortly thereafter he would die.

To avert that preordained outcome, she tries to avoid him altogether, but Nick can't stay away and she doesn't want him to do so.  In fact, not only do they fall in love, but he promises to help her find her Mom -- a search which sets off a tragic chain of events, not all of which are foreseen.

In brief, it is an often confusing story with a fascinating circularity.  So many subplots and they all eventually tie up together.  This is complex and madly clever writing and a definite recommendation for people who enjoy stories about fate.  While I enjoyed the story, I was less engaged by the characters in that story, finding it hard to really like either Nick or December.  And was also disappointed that some elements of the story (like Nick's dyslexia or a school bully with sexual predatory behavior) were so underdeveloped -- a predictable problem in such a complex story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The Paper Museum, by Kate S. Simpson

In the distant future, no one uses paper anymore and books have been consigned to the Paper Museum.  It's a sad and neglected place -- no one ever comes to visit it, but Lydia loves taking care of the old books and searching for abandoned bookmarks within them.  

Taking care of the museum has always been in the hands of Lydia's family, but since the mysterious disappearance of her parents and the subsequent departure of her beloved Uncle Lem, it's just been her and her mercurial Uncle Renald.  All these missing family members could not happen at a worse time:  technology is failing and the Mayor is convinced that it is the fault of unlawful acts of magic being practiced by Lydia's family.  Books are not only of dubious value but strongly associated with unlawful magic. The Mayor is on a mission to shut the museum down and destroy the books.  It falls on Lydia and her friends to stop him.

It's a quirky middle reader fantasy which I wanted to love for its clever observations on the magical power of books and its critique of how technology is in conflict with that magic.  It is a clever concept, but the storytelling is frustrating. In a mystery, one wants clues and at least the illusion that, if you read carefully, you could figure out what was going on before everything is revealed in the end.  But here there are no such clues.  Instead, we have to wait to the end to have things revealed to us by the author.  That's sort of the opposite of the magic that Simpson is trying to talk about.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Take, by Jennifer Bradbury

When her father disappears, Cara fears the worst. After all, it's not the first time this has happened.  He's done this before when he's gone off his meds, but usually she is able to find him within a few days.  This time, when Cara drops by his house, he's been gone for a week or more.  She finds maps, books, and (mysteriously) photographs of Japanese concentration camps pinned up on the wall.  More seriously, she finds his climbing gear missing.

When he was still healthy, Dad was a great climber and taught and Cara to be one as well. But climbing is a team effort and he's in no shape to be going it alone.  Whatever fool mission he has developed, he is in trouble.  So, with the awkward help of her ex-boyfriend, Cara searches for her Dad and tries to unravel what has made him go off the rails this time.  It's a search that will take her dep into her family's history and into a dangerous ascent.

Interspersed with a series of flashbacks of an ill-fated romance between a CCC worker and a Japanese-American farmgirl at the start of World War II, Take is an ambitious and ultimately uplifting story of love, family, and fateful choices, wrapped in a mountain climbing drama.  Bradbury does an amazing job providing a primer on climbing and the jargon of mountain climbers that guides the reader through a suspenseful journey into the mind and the madness of the sport.  And the contra positioning of mountain climbing and Japanese detention during WWII, while seemingly unrelated, comes together in a moving climax.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

I'm Not Here to Make Friends, by Andrew Yang

Hotel California is the name of a obscure reality show whose special niche is that it features an all-Asian cast.  Sabine is a big fan of the show and is ecstatic when she wins the opportunity to star in the third season.  Still, she's apprehensive because she's from Moline IL and not nearly as sparkly as her co-stars who all hail from big cities.

Sparkliest of all is Yoona, who has her own demons to face.  She's trying to prove she doesn't deserve the reputation she has back home of being a mean girl by being super nice to everyone on the show.  But her sarcastic wit rubs sensitive Sabine the wrong way and the two girls are quickly at each other's throats.  

Sabine worries that house is largely allied with Yoona and wonders how she'll make it through the season, but a helpful assistant producer feeds her advice and guides her on how to take charge of the situation.  When that advice starts making things worse, Yoona gets suspicious that the producers of the show are trying to pump up (not diffuse) the drama in search of ratings.  To prevent that from happening, Sabine and Yoona will have to learn to trust each other and break from their past behaviors.

It's a silly storyline that explores classism and bullying in the light context of a reality show fantasy.  Readers will enjoy the way the story shifts perspectives, starting off by portraying Sabine sympathetically and making Yoona seem scheming but then switching the roles about half way.  That serves a nice reminder of how perceptions can be easily misled, which in turn preps us to accept that both girls need to learn to be less judgmental.  That's about as heavy as things get.  This isn't a story that one should take too seriously, but it is certainly entertaining. It's also surprisingly chaste for a story about largely unsupervised teens and only a little rough language pulls this out of a G rating.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

This Is the Way the World Ends, by Jen Wilde

Waverly is an autistic scholarship student at Webber Academy and taking the first step on a career path to graduate from Yale Med and become a neurologist.  It's taken sacrifices from her family and great acts of generosity from the school to make this possible.  Waverley's grateful, but she can't help noticing the chasm that exists between her family and the families of her classmates.  

The contrast could not be starker when it comes to the school's Masquerade, where tickets cost $10,000 a piece.  Waverley could never find that sort of money so she isn't planning on going.  But then one of her classmates, Caroline gives her a ticket and loans her the fancy gown she was going to wear on the condition that Waverly pretends to be her (being a masked ball, no one will know that it's really Waverly in the gown0.  And so Waverly find herself sneaking in, under disguise.

That's when things start to go off the rails.  Waverly finds herself witness to a murder and uncovers a plot to take over the world, being led by the headmaster of the Academy.  It's a plan that that kicks off when the lights go out all over the world because of a solar flare.  With time running out, Waverly and her friends must find a way to stop the plans, all while dodging a fabulous party that is taking place around them.

The plot is absurd, but gains gravitas (and/or gets weighed down) by including lots of biting social criticism.  It's heavy-handed stuff. The leaders of the school and its supporters are connected with all the sources of wealth and power (politics, finance, technology, etc.) while Waverly and her gang of scholarship misfits are neuro-divergent, LGBT, and minorities.  It is literally the kids against the 1%.  That doesn't always work and there are several unintended humorous moments.  But occasionally, as when Waverly has her climactic showdown with the headmaster, some rather thoughtful dialog emerges and deep questions get asked.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Where the Sky Lives, by Margaret Dilloway

Tuesday Beals may only be twelve years old, but she knows a lot about Zion National Park, thanks to the fact that she's grown up there.  Her mother is the Park's staff archeologist, charged with researching old Indian sites and Mormon settlements.  Thanks to her recently-deceased uncle, she's a budding astronomer -- a pastime that is aided by Zion's legendary dark skies.

However, that darkness is about to change.  A developer has bought a ranch that abuts the Park and is planning a major housing project which will impact not only the skies around Zion but also the beauty and wildlife in the area.  Tuesday is determined to stop them.  The discovery of an endangered species on the land becomes a catalyst.  With the help of a social media influencer, she tries to bring publicity to the cause.

Tuesday is a fantastic protagonist.  She's persistent and intelligent, but in an age appropriate way that makes her very believable.  She's also super observant, intuitive, and touch averse -- traits that seem to be included to imply she may be on the Spectrum (although nothing is ever said about any of that).  The story itself is a great adventure, lovingly detailing Zion National Park and life at a ranger station.  Dilloway does a nice job of explaining some of the issues that come up in the story (land conservation, grief, changing friendships, and a few others) in a very age-appropriate way.  Younger children will appreciate the adventure and the animals.  Older ones will find inspiration in an outspoken heroine who doubts her ability -- as only a kid -- to change the world but who tries nonetheless to do so.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Brighter Than the Sun, by Daniel Aleman

By virtue of having been born in the United States and having a friend with whom to stay, Sol is able to attend high school in San Diego.  Every morning, she rises early and crosses the border and then crosses back over to Tijuana in the evening.  

With the family's restaurant business failing, her father asks her to try to find an afterschool job in San Diego.  Once she does and starts working before and after school, it is no longer feasible to go home every night so she starts staying over with her friend's family.  While this brings money home, it causes tension back in Tijuana as everyone struggles to adjust to her absence.  And for Sol, it causes internal conflict as she tries to decide if she is more at home in Tijuana or in San Diego, where the brightest future seems to lie.

This moving story of a family struggling to pool their resources to help their (equally hard working) children reach their dreams is powerful stuff.  Sol fights hard trying to earn money for her family while maintaining her academics, all under the strain of a daily border crossing.  But it is a team effort, for while her struggle is inspiring, it is equally clear that she has a number of allies along the way that make all of this possible in the first place.

The story also deals with significant contemporary issues, including racism and homophobia.  It depicts the unique and peculiar energy of the border zone where one can totally change worlds in a few steps.  It addresses the politics of immigration without depicting a single immigrant. I found it rich and populated with compelling characters that made it a pleasurable way to spend a day.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Cleaning Up, by Leanne Lieberman

Jess has plans.  She wants to finish high school, go to college, and start a landscaping business.  To do those things, she's going to have to save a lot of money.  She cleans houses and tries to keep her alcoholic and drug-addicted Dad from spending everything.  While there is a teacher at school who helps her (and turns a blind eye to the neglect she is undergoing), for the most part she is on her own.

While cleaning a new house during the summer, she discovers a diary that belongs to a girl who disappeared.  While she knows it is wrong to pry, she starts reading it and finds herself imagining a life with this mystery girl.  But the more she learns about the girl, the more she starts to lose her own sense of self.  Jess's success has always depended upon being disciplined and driven.  Now she risks losing that focus.

A nice character study of a troubled young woman who works hard against the odds.  There are definitely things about her I did not like.  I found her self-centered and stubborn, unwilling to accept help and dishonest (and never mind the whole invasion of privacy thing!).  But at the same time, she deals with great challenges, works very hard, and is surprisingly resourceful.  Lieberman writes in a sort of dumbed-down way that suggests that she's intentionally trying to pick up reluctant readers and I think that's an ideal target for this story of a girl coming from a lot of disadvantages but learning to navigate her way to success.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Borrow My Heart, by Kasie West

Wren likes her rules.  They keep her out of trouble and protect her from trusting others too much.  That's important when because she's still dealing with a mother who abandoned her family when she was ten.  But one day at her BFF's coffee shop, she meets a complete stranger and makes an split second decision that breaks those rules.  

Asher has been chatting online with a girl named Gemma whom he barely knows.  He's supposed to meet her for the first time at the coffee shop, but she's standing him up and everyone knows it, especially his friend Dale who's loudly planning his humiliation.  Wren takes pity on him and impulsively decides to present herself as Gemma.  Her intent is only to play this charade long enough to get Dale off of Asher's back, but she never finds a good time to come clean.  So, she ends up fake dating him, which naturally turns into real dating.  Needless to say, many more rules are broken.

In addition to this rather predictable love story, there's the parallel (but comparatively underdeveloped) story of Wren considering reconciling with her mother.  To me, this seemed like a very different plotline and the two mesh poorly.  It is like reading two separate books, both of which are fine in their own right, but that don't really belong together.  The storytelling moves along briskly enough, there's some lovely comedy with the animals (and with the unloved mutt Bean in particular), and the dynamics between Wren and Asher are fine, but there isn't much substance to this light summer read.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Medusa, by Jessie Burton (ill by Olivia Lomenech Gill)

Life in exile is lonely for Medusa.  Her sisters are often away and she is left in a cave on an island, tending the snakes that have replaced her hair.  One day, a boy named Perseus arrives on the island.  Both her sisters and the goddess Athena have warned Medusa that she must not allow herself to be seen, so she hides.  The boy is persistent though in his desire to meet her.  

They settle for a friendship (of sorts) speaking to each other through a wall.  Perseus relates his story of woe and Medusa reciprocates.  They find commonalities and bond, with Perseus pledging his love and Medusa fantasizing that she might be able to reveal her disfiguration and still be accepted by the boy.  However, when Perseus realizes who Medusa really is and she in turn comes to know the reason he has come to the island.

Feminist retellings of Greek myths (and the story of Medusa in particular) have been done before.  In modern eyes, Medusa's fate is a shocking tale of double standards and victim blaming, so it makes good material.  What makes this version so interesting is the presentation -- the illustrations from Olivia Lomenech Gill.  This is a beautiful book.  Gill's deceptively simple drawings add great depth to the story.  Combined with Burton's spare text, the book is truly greater than its parts.  This is really one of my favorite retellings to date.  It doesn't break new ground but is a remarkable package.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

A Walk Between Raindrops, by Amalie Jahn

Elise and her little sister Wylla have avoided each other for the past year.  Ever since Elise betrayed her by getting her boyfriend arrested, Wylla has been giving Elise the silent treatment.  But a bond of sibling rivalry drives both girls to compete to win a prize which sends them, along with a series of misfits, on a two week, all-expense paid trip of some of the greatest roller coasters in the United States.  Forced to interact in the tight confines of the bus and shared motel rooms, the two sisters find the courage to confront each other and all of the raw hurt that they feel.

A solid premise (a rollicking ride through the East Coast's finest amusement parks and iconic roller coasters, combined with some hearty exploration of sibling rivalry and anxiety) largely fails to crystalize into a compelling story.  For the most part, it's the complexity of juggling so many characters and such a large number of subplots that makes this story hard to track.  And the reveals, which are introduced gradually throughout the story (leading up to a major -- but predictable -- plot twist towards the end) felt inorganic and forced. 

Unrelated to the writing (but always an unnecessary distraction), I was disappointed at the poor quality of the editing of the book.  Not only were there spelling errors and missing words, but also layout issues which suggested that no one gave the book a final review (or didn't care to fix the mistakes that are there).