Sunday, January 29, 2023

A Bird Will Soar, by Alison Green Myers


Axel loves birds.  The way they live, where they nest, and where they go is so easy to understand.  And for Axel, who is autistic, there is a comforting simplicity in that.  But when a tornado comes through and damages not only Axel's house, but also the nest of a local pair of bald eagles, even simple things become complicated.  Like the way his father, who he hardly ever sees, shows up to repair the house.  Or the way that everyone comes to help when they discover an abandoned eaglet. The world is full of mysteries, secrets, and things that transcend rules -- the love of an extended family, for one!

A sweet meditation on the complexities of family, depicting the way that behaviors are far from fixed, but instead can bend when needs arise.  Myers is an excellent builder of characters, creating memorable protagonists in this gentle story which is about people doing good things and helping each other.  I did find that Axel gets on my nerves from time to time, but his is a fine sympathetic portrayal that articulates his confusion as he is presented with new situations in a way that was insightful and helpful to the reader.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Before Takeoff, by Ali Alsaid

James and Michelle are two strangers, stuck at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) when their flights (and in fact every other flight) are delayed.  It's a common enough story until they discover a strange blinking button on the wall and decide to push it.  Suddenly, the laws of the universe change.  It starts snowing in Terminal B but becomes unbearably hot and humid in Terminal C, where a jungle sprouts up.  Terminal F becomes a small microcosm of the world, with passengers breaking off into national identities that match their original destinations. As the delays continue (this being Delta, no flights ever get cancelled), people start disappearing, mobs of zombies appear, and strange monsters lurk.  Terminal C's Sky Club is taken over by the Diamond Medallion frequent flyers and they set up their own oligarchy.  Earthquakes and sudden death abound.

It all eventually ends, but not in a way that is particularly satisfying or meaningful.  Cutting to the chase, I found the novel pointless and normally would never have finished it -- if it wasn't about an airport that I know like the back of my hand.  And the author seems to know it pretty well also, except for the strange decision to describe massive windows everywhere (a mistake also featured in the cover -- which looks more like Detroit).  After all, the one very defining characteristic of ATL (and indeed ATL's most terrifying characteristic under normal circumstances) is its lack of windows.  It is a terribly claustrophobic airport.  For some reason, while Alsaid spends a lot of effort making up terrors, he skips past the one that is inherent to the airport -- the lack of windows.

So, why did I read a book I hated so much?  At first, I enjoyed all the details and the pleasure of recognizing the landmarks.  Throughout, I occasionally enjoyed the clever in-jokes ("fresh" sandwiches and salads, that SkyClub takeover, the patchy airport WiFi, etc.).  As we raced through larger and larger catastrophes, I kept hoping the pointless violence and high body count would amount to some sort of clever ending, but it never comes.  Alsaid proudly calls this a "weird trip of a book" but you need something more than weirdness to create a book worth reading.  And this flat out fails to deliver.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Wolves Are Waiting, by Natasha Friend

Fifteen year-old Nora finds herself lying on the golf course with no idea how she ended up there.  Last thing she remembers, she was attending a party and drinking a root beer.  In the aftermath, her best friend Cam urges her to immediately collect evidence and report the incident, but Nora doesn't want the attention.

In the ensuing weeks, Nora continues to resists her friend's entreaties.  Cam takes things into her own hands and starts investigating what happened and uncovers a tradition of sexual assault, which implicates Nora's own family.  Eventually, Nora comes around and testifies in the name of helping other victims.

Fictional, but based on actual events, the novel explores a wide variety of topics including toxic masculinity, slut shaming, sexting, fraternity hazing, college sports, and the ethics of college disciplinary practices.  None of the topics are particularly novel and the story does veer a bit into fantasy, but it is immensely entertaining and posits a few good talking points about addressing rape culture amongst high schoolers and undergraduates.  In an attempt to build a truly dramatic dilemma, Friend paints herself into an impossible situation at the end that she is unable to resolve, but that leaves a bit of poignant unfinished business that actually works in the story.

There were definitely parts of this story that put me on edge.  I really didn't like Cam's pushiness and her inability to respect Nora's privacy and her decisions.  That felt very much like a violation and Cam got off far too lightly for what was really a terribly selfish act of breaking confidentiality.  I also found Nora's conversion to activism unrealistic and her family's turnaround far too easy.  The ending was definitely rushed and sucked out a lot of the energy that the story had built up.  The "wolves" (a term which one presumes was supposed to refer to the public reaction to Nora's assault) are largely underplayed, depriving the story of much of its dramatic impact.  The end result is a surprisingly tame story.

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Agathas, by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson

Alice is a girl with a scandal in her past.  Last summer, she disappeared, setting off a huge manhunt, before reappearing a few days later.  Her little stunt cost her her credibility and a lot of friends. In contrast, Iris is a girl with no history.  No one notices her.  She's bright and intelligent but off of everyone's radar.  The two of them are thrown together when their guidance counselor decides that Iris would be the perfect tutor for Alice.

And then in an eerie repeat, a girl named Brooke disappears.  Brooke was once Alice's best friend but the girls were split apart when Brooke stole Alice's boyfriend.  And it is at a Halloween party, where Alice confronted Brooke that the latter girl disappeared.  But it was Iris who saw Brooke fleeing the party and was probably the last person to see her.

When Brooke's body turns up dead, Alice and Iris discover that they  share a fascination with mystery and solving crime.  And they also find that the deeper they go into investigating what happened to Brooke, the more the grownups around them seem to want to stop them.

Through a fabulous series of twists and surprises, the adventure never stops as these two teen sleuths (with an immense debt to Agatha Christie) solve true crime.  I've never been much of a fan of detective novels, but I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  I think most people will.  It's already part of a series, so there's more out there if you want it!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough

After Em's older sister was raped, Em supported and fought for her sister through the whole process of seeking justice.  And when the jury found the attacker guilty, she rejoiced that her quest was at an end.  But when the judge sets aside the verdict and releases the rapist with time served, Em realizes that the fight is not over and never will be.  And while her sister and her family want to move on, Em finds that she can't.  Everywhere she looks she sees the toxic masculinity that perpetuates violence against women.  So, instead, she funnels her anguish into a story she is writing about a medieval woman who seeks vengeance for the violence inflicted upon her family.  The story, meant to provide release and catharsis, instead takes over Em's life, leading to life-threatening consequences.

I loved the conceptual structure of the book, which tells the contemporary story in prose while placing the historical story-within-a-story in verse.  However, the concept eventually fell flat because the verse was simply not very good.  In fact, given the lyricism of the main character, I think I would have preferred Em's story to be in verse and her historical novel to be the part in prose.  

The story also suffers because the heroine is simply not all that compelling.  Em's character is intense, angry, and wound-up...and largely painted into a corner.  As angry as she starts off, she can undergo very little growth throughout the story, which makes her a hard sell for the reader.  The story itself was strong, though, and I particularly liked the nuanced depiction of the family members, showing how each was affected differently by the assault and the subsequent failure to punish the assailant.  McCullough writes excellent characters but made a strategic misjudgment in the portrayal of Em.

Overall, a story with a lot of promise and a tremendously important topic, but ultimately failing to deliver a story that truly moved me.

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei, by Christina Matula

Holly-Mei has a bad habit of speaking rashly and getting herself in trouble.  And when she gets her whole class in trouble, she makes herself persona non grata.  So, when Mom announces that she is being relocated to Hong Kong for work, Holly-Mei actually feels a sense of relief.

Sure, a new place can be strange and scary, but it will also mean a fresh start!  Holly-Mei is excited, even if she has to leave his beloved grandmother behind. It is her grandmother who warns her that moving won't be easy and she'll experience some tough times even if things work out in the end, but Holly-Mei can't imagine it will be worse than things are for her now.  

Hong Kong does provide a fascinating change of scenery, but Holly-Mei learns that kid are pretty much the same everywhere and that she still needs to watch what she says aloud.  More so, because in China, families are judged by the behavior of their members.  Now Holly-Mei's mistakes won't just be her own problem, they could also affect her parents.

The cultural details of this book are its strength. The author, who spent fourteen years living in Hong Kong, delights in sharing her favorite parts of the city and readers will enjoy learning about the fun things one can do there.  I'm less taken by the story (which felt superficial) or the characters (who seemed spoiled and privileged).  Holly-Mei and her friends are rich (in the chauffeur, private yacht, and fancy penthouse level of wealth) and while she is mildly aware of being slightly lower on the totem pole than her friends, she lives a pretty exalted life.  This isn't Hong Kong as most of us would experience it and that makes the cultural details less interesting than they might have been.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher

As the third daughter of the royal family of a small and weak kingdom, Marra never had much in the way of ambition beyond life in a convent. It was the eldest who was married off to the crown prince of the  neighboring Northern Kingdom.  And when she died, it was the middle daughter who replaced her on the throne. Marra might have been happy to stay where she was, embroidering tapestries and assisting the midwife.  However, after a rare visit with her sister for her niece's christening, Marra grows suspicious about her sister's situation and after the child's death she learns of the abusive nature of the marriage.

She is torn apart by the news of her sister's suffering, but can a princess in a convent do about it?  Rescuing her sister from the grasp of a jealous husband, especially one of royal blood, seems impossible.  But Marra is determined to try.  Through a series of feats ranging from reanimating a dog from its bones to shopping at a goblin market to interviewing the dead, Marra bravely tackles one impossible task after another, all to rescue her sister.  A quirky cast of characters (an old woman who talks with the dead, a fairy godmother, a disgraced warrior, a demon chicken, and others) join her on her epic adventure.

A lively and lovely horror/fantasy tale that entertains, even as it addresses the sobering topic of domestic violence.  That said, while this is feminist-inspired fantasy, the storytelling itself is too fast paced to dwell for any significant time on the topic.  In other words, we acknowledge the oppressive patriarchal structures of traditional fairy tale narratives, but then move on to the next adventure.  And that's much of the way of this novel overall.  There's some hint of a romance, but the story never slows down enough for that either.  Instead, it is mostly an endless parade of supernatural monsters and magic.  You'll like this if you enjoy stories of ghosts, demons, and the undead.

Friday, January 06, 2023

Little Bird, by Cynthia Voigt (ill by Lynne Rae Perkins)

Little Bird is a crow who has struggled because of her diminutive size to get the rest of the crows to respect her.  But when the flock's Our Luck, a human's necklace and their protective talisman, is stolen from the nest where it's kept, Little Bird vows that she'll find it and return it.  Facing unfamiliar dangers (including other crows, hostile birds, cats, and humans), Little Bird spreads her wings on a life-changing odyssey.  Crows are clever and intelligent birds and Voigt tries to capture the mixture of wisdom and bafflement with which Little Bird explores the world.

The quirky premise attracted me to this book, but its overall tone and approach of the story seemed inappropriate for its target audience.  This is a dark story that is full of animal imperilment and features a number of complex issues.  In other words, this is not a sweet animal story, but rather something fairly mature.  It isn't so much that I think it will traumatize young readers, I just can't see them really enjoying its somber mood and complicated themes.  As for myself, it just didn't have much charm.  Dana Lorentz's Of a Feather is a much better bird story and does a better job of explaining bird behavior than the rather superficial look at crows that this novel provides.

Monday, January 02, 2023

A Cuban Girl's Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, by Laura Taylor Namey

After Lila suffers the trifecta of losing her beloved grandmother, being abandoned by her best friend, and being dumped by her boyfriend, she's lost.  Yes, she'll always have Miami in her heart and Cuba in her soul (as well as her abuela's love of the kitchen), but none of it makes any sense.  Her family, panicked at her existential crisis, take desperate measures and send her to spend the summer with family friends in Winchester, England.

With its cold gray weather and its complete lack of Cuban culture, Lila hates England and feels even more out of place.  But she slowly rediscovers herself by introducing the people there to the fine art of Cuban cooking.  A cute boy from a local tea shop and his troubled little sister also help as well.  By the end of the summer, Lila realizes that she has the potential to be much more than she ever knew before.

Cute romance that pushes most of the right buttons, but gets fussy at points and thus misses the mark for me.  Like most books centering around food, it struggles with how to convey the glory of its cuisine.  Namey's choice is to mostly have characters gushing about how wonderful everything is.  That only goes so far before it becomes repetitive and boring.  I get the point (everything this girl bakes is amazing) but I didn't believe it.  

There are problems with the central character as well:  for all of her troubles, Lila definitely does not suffer from low self-esteem.  You know with that set up that she'll get humbled a little and do some growing from the experience, but it doesn't really happen to any serious extent.  She's just arrogant and obnoxious throughout.  

Finally, there just isn't much going on here.  There ought to be some drama (for example, in having to choose between Miami and England) but nothing really develops.  In a super happy ending, everyone else ends up accommodating for Lila.  Sure, she's calmed down a bit but she's still living the same charmed existence that she started out with.