Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Wishing Upon the Same Stars, by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman

The move from Detroit to San Antonio is a big change for Yasmeen.  She's used to her predominantly Arab community and San Antonio is so different.  She just hopes that she'll fit in and that people will like her.  What she finds is a bit more complicated.  She is surprised to find that stories of Texan hospitality really are true.  Her neighbor Waverly warmly welcomes her.  The neighbors, while a bit taken aback by Yasmeen's family, are largely friendly.  But there are others who see her differences as something to hate, from the mean man at the restaurant who threatens her father to the bully at school who accuses Yasmeen of being a terrorist.  But the most complicated relationship of all is with Ayelet, a girl who is also from the Middle East, but who's Israeli.  In principle, the girls have a lot in common as immigrants, but the shadow of the conflict in their homeland hangs over them.  Can they forge a friendship against so much pressure to hate?

As is typical in a middle reader, there's plenty going on in this book:  Yasmeen has to learn how to dance, Yasmeen's sister goes to the National Spelling Bee, grandmother comes to live with them, and so on. With fairly simple age-appropriate explanations of the intifada, a faint hint of a romantic interest (but not even a kiss), and a story of largely well-behaved young people, this novel has little to object to.

The key message is about forging true friendships based on loyalty and kindness.  Through determination and a fair amount of bravery, Yasmeen stands up for what she wants:  to have the friends she wants to have, to be so the things she wants to do, and to be the person she wants to be.  And while everything comes together a bit too neatly and the book's ending stops just short of solving the Mideast Crisis, it's a charming story of young people trying to break free of their parents' prejudices.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Meant to Be, by Jo Knowles

In this companion to Where the Heart Is, the focus shifts to Rachel's little sister Ivy and jumps ahead a few months to the aftermath of the family's downsizing to an apartment in the city.  While most of the family is sad about losing their country home, Ivy is much happier in this new place.  She doesn't mind that it's smaller.  And she enjoys sharing a room with her sister.  There are more kids to play with and she feels less isolated.

But having children to play with presents new challenges.  When Ivy makes an unintentionally insensitive remark to her new best friend Alice, she's surprised at Alice's angry response.  And when she quickly apologizes, she's hurt when Alice doesn't immediately forgive her.  In fact, nowadays it seems that Ivy can't say anything without offending someone.  Maybe life really was better out in the country!  But with some guidance from her older sister, the superintendent of the apartment, and some other adults, Ivy learns some valuable lessons about being patient and loving with one's friends.

I didn't remember Ivy so well from the original book, but she is fleshed out as a resourceful and intelligent (and perhaps overly precocious?) nine year-old.  Her primary talent and love is cooking and she shines in her clever ability at coming up with substitutions when she lacks specified ingredients.  That talent extends to her ability to solve the problems in her interpersonal relationships as well, bootstrapping her way through her challenges.  The author claims to also be addressing Ivy's anxiousness, but I really didn't notice much of that.  She's a bit emotional, but not in a way that seemed particularly remarkable for her age.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Where You've Got to Be, by Caroline Gertler

At the start of sixth grade, Nolie's best friend Jessa decides that Nolie should start using her full name (Magnolia), which Nolie doesn't like.  Also, that Nolie needs to wear her skirts shorter and hang out only with the right kids.  Nolie doesn't like any of it, but when she tries to stand up for herself, she finds herself cast out of the old friendship circle.

And that isn't the only thing that is changing.  At home, her sister's just been cast in the lead role for The Nutcracker and now their parents are totally centered around her sister's needs.  Feeling ignored and self-pitying, Nolie starts "borrowing" objects that don't belong to her:  a necklace, a package of candy, and her grandma's antique compass.  When she gets caught, Nolie realizes that she's in too deep and, amidst all this change and challenge, that she's lost sight of who she is and who she wants to be.  Seeking guidance in her faith, she tries to atone and fix things.

A nice conduct-of-life middle reader with a large agenda of issues to address (including sibling rivalry, changing friendships, bullying, and even anti-Semitism).  It comes together a bit too abruptly at the end, but the right notes are struck. Ultimately, strong family ties, forgiveness, and making good choices are the path to a solution.  I would have liked to see more done with Nolie's interesting new BFF Serena, but there was a lot of material to cover in the story.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Lifeling, by Kirsty Applebaum

While only twelve years old, Lonny looks older on account of the magic he possesses.  When Lonny comes in contact with someone or something on the verge of death, he is faced with an irresistible urge to lay hands on them and save their life.  Unfortunately, every time he does so, he ages and loses a part of his life proportionate to the life he has saved.  Given the compulsive nature of his magic, being around others is dangerous and his family has tried to keep him hidden from the public.  To pacify Lonny, they have created a story of public hatred and fear of "lifelings" like Lonny that make it imperative for Lonny to lay low.  But Lonny longs to see the world and when he and his younger brother Midge sneak out to the city, they discover that lifelings are not feared, but honored. Lonny makes the fateful decision to reveal himself.

A quirky timeless story that reflects on the value of life within the bounds of a family of memorable characters.  I enjoyed its original juxtaposition of magic and mundane.  At times the story seems to be a medieval fairy tale and then someone pops up with a cell phone or a car to shake things up!  I loved the premise of Lonny's magic and the severe conundrums it presents.  And finally, the cast is wonderful.  However, I was less taken with the storytelling, which I found uneven and difficult to follow.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Why Would I Lie? by Adi Rule

Viveca is an obsessive overachiever, getting better than perfect grades in her classes.  She doesn't have a lot of friends (she simply doesn't have time for a social life).  Instead, she is driven to her (better than) perfect record to make up for some stupid mistakes in her past and the singular goal to get accepted to the one prestigious college that her mother attended.

At the start of her senior year, she's definitely on track to do so and to become the class valedictorian.  But then a new boy named Jamison comes to the school.  And he's amazing.  He's transferred from an elite French school, does virtually everything, excels at everything, and seems just about...well, perfect. 

Viveca is suspicious about his claims.  Too many things seem implausible, too many coincidences are convenient, and too many things don't line up.  Viveca knows all about liars.  Her father's ruined his life (and hers) through pathological lying.  She learned long ago that little he said could be trusted and she has had to deal with the consequences of his dishonesty as her father has lost jobs and friends along the way.  So, while it seems like every teacher and student in the school is willing to accept Jamison's stories, Viveca eyes him suspiciously.  Confronting and exposing Jamison, however, proves to be difficult and as she tries to do so, he goes on the offensive and attempts to discredit and destroy Viveca's reputation.  Without much social support, she quickly finds out how vulnerable she is to her peers and the fleeting loyalty of her teachers.

In the end, Viveca learns that no one can really destroy your life.  That is something only you can do.  However, it is a lesson she'll only learn once she's lost everything she thought mattered.

If you can read this lightly and without getting too invested, this is probably a pretty enjoyable book, but I found myself growing more and more infuriated at the set-up.  The level of bullying, Viveca's inability to defend herself, the connivance of the adults, and the nastiness of Viveca's peers was all pretty upsetting.  There is a good message about Viveca's need to gain some perspective, develop empathy, and work on her social skills, but the level of cruelty is a bit much for me.  The ending, where justice is (thankfully!) served is far too brief, not nearly satisfying enough, and surprisingly rushed for what we've endured in the reading.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

This Raging Light, by Estelle Laure

Lu has been stuck taking care of her kid sister since her parents left (Dad was committed and Mom left town shortly thereafter).  Still in school herself, Lu has to figure out a way to hide the situation from the neighbors and her teachers.  But as bills come due and there's no source of income, it is pretty rough.  At first, Lu falls back on the help of her best friend Eden, but that friendship is stretched to the breaking point when Lu falls romantically for her twin brother (who is already in a relationship).  With everything collapsing around her, the last thing Lu really needs is to embroil herself in infidelity.

And that's probably one of the bigger problems with this story, which pulls me back and forth between really caring for this girl and hating her various mistakes.  It would help if there was something interesting about the guy to like.  At no point in the book did I get the sense that the two of them even liked each other.  There's no heat at all between them.  Allegedly the boy has been in this super serious relationship for the past two years and then, despite the fact that Lu and him have known each other for ever, suddenly he can't live without Lu and he's ready to dump the previous Love of His Life.  Nope.

This is a tough genre to love:  I always always always find these child abandonment stories to be cruel and nasty.  In this one, Laure pulls her punches by producing an endless parade of helpful adults.  That keeps the suffering to a minimum, but it also feels manipulative as we get presented with these really bad situations which all turn out OK in the end.  And it presents a different problem:  once Laure has miraculously solved all of Lu's financial, legal, and ethical problems, she's left with no story.  So then it's time to bring in a weird out-of-the-blue accident that sends one of the characters to the hospital in a coma.  That's the point where you know the story's in trouble!

This was Estelle Laure's first novel and she's written plenty of good ones since.  It's been nothing but up since this one!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Most Likely, by Sarah Watson

In January 2049, on the occasion of her swearing-in as POTUS, president-elect Diffenderfer pauses for a moment to think back to her formative senior year.  Flashback to 2019, when four seniors, each of whom have impressive bona fides struggle through the drama of their last year of high school (alongside their friend Logan Diffenderfer). Which one becomes the President thirty years later?  You'll have to read the book to find out!

The four young women, friends since before kindergarten, are inseparable, yet strikingly different.  Ava has the grades to get into a top notch school like Stanford, but dreams of pursuing her art at RISD.  Martha also has the grades for a great school but lacks the financial resources and has to figure out a way to pursue her dream of being an engineer.  CJ can't manage to crack 1150 on her SAT and finds herself challenged by a volunteer stint at an afterschool program for wheelchair-bound youngsters and the critical appraisal of the program's director.  And finally there's Jordan, who dreams of turning her amateur investigation of a local politician's attempt to shut down a local park into an award-winning investigative piece.  While she doesn't find the scandal she's looking for, she instead finds a potential romance with a legislative aide who doesn't realize that she's underaged and over-her-head.  All four of them, at one time or another, find themselves confiding (or more) with the amenable Logan Diffenderfer.

While reading the novel, I twitched at the way that I kept looking for clues, not in the young women's leadership skills, but in their relationships with Logan -- knowing that the one who became Mrs. Diffenderfer becomes the President.  That seemed too sickening like the trope that behind any great woman there had to be a great man, but thankfully that never actually is in the cards.  Instead, the novel proved to be a much more fascinating study about the character of successful people.  Each of these women exhibit multiple character traits (intelligence, loyalty, empathy, resourcefulness, conviction, courage, and others) that made any of them likely candidates for a future president.  And that is really the point of a story like this:  showing how character builds leadership.

It's a winner from several perspectives in my mind:  a story with strong and admirable protagonists, a tale based on kindness and loyalty, a book with an important message to convey about how one confronts adversity, an uplifting story of empowerment for young women, and ultimately a paean to the American Dream that people of character (no matter their background) can change the world.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Again, but Better, by Christine Riccio

Shane is stuck in a life that she cannot stand. She majors in premed solely because her parents insist upon it and she struggles to make friends because she is shy.  And a boyfriend?  Forget about it.  When the opportunity arises for her to study abroad in London, she jumps on it.  A new place.  A chance to restart and be the person she wants to be.  Have friends.  Study creative writing (because writing is what she truly loves).  Because her parents would never approve of her studying anything other than medicine, she lies to them and claims to be continuing her premed program.

Once there, she does manage to come a little out of her shell and make friends with her flat mates.  And she falls head over heels for a boy named Pilot.  He sends encouraging signals but turns out to have a girlfriend already.  And after a few close encounters, he becomes cold and distant.  Eventually, her parents find out about the deception and are furious at her, forcing her to abandon the dream of writing.  By the end of the semester, nothing has worked out as Shane had hoped and she returns to the States in shame and disappointment.

Flash forward six years when Shane is ostensibly a successful doctor, but still torn apart by the unfinished business in London.  She finds herself presented with the opportunity to go back in time and re-do the whole thing.  Given how horrible it was, is this something she would really wish upon herself?  But what if, armed with the knowledge of when she made mistakes and six years to consider better choices, she could do it right?  Would it make any difference?

A little like Groundhog Day but more similar to Before Sunset, this charming story of what you might accomplish with a do-over is a crowd pleaser.  First of all, it has the adventure of impulsive youth set loose on Europe, which is always good makings for a beach read.  But when we shift to the second half,  the book shifts tone significantly and there's some wonderful opportunity for reflection on how we change as we grow up.  It's helpful to pay close attention to the first half of the book as much of it is referenced in the second half, and it is apparent that the initial run through was full of misperceptions.  So, even though you are running through much of the same story a second time, it's really entirely new.  The book's clever, but it is also no small feat to engineer a book that well.  I did think that the end comes on a bit too fast and loose ends get wrapped up entirely too neatly in a brief epilogue, but I enjoyed the book.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Somewhere Between the Trees and Clouds, by Chuck Murphree

Dylan struggles with violent behavior and bouts of self-hatred.  The recent death of his mother buys him sympathy from others but the truth is that Dylan's problems go back to when he was twelve and his uncle molested him on a hiking trip.  He's never found the strength to tell anyone besides his best friend TJ about what happened until he meets Audrey.  Audrey has just transferred to their school to get away from bullying and harassment that started when she was raped at a party and tried to press charges.  The transfer didn't help and her "reputation" has followed her to Dylan's school.  

Drawn to each other through their recognition of how much they have in common, Dylan and Audrey's relationship that should have warning flags all over it.  Two fragile people grappling with the scars of sexual assault and self-loathing and somehow helping each other seems like a very bad idea, but in this story it all works out.  Each of them finds the strength to rise to each other's aid and also rebuild their own lives.  It's depicted in a way that seems so deceptively easy.  Yes, there are some relapsing and plenty of bad days, but they are basically perfect to each other and manage to never hurt each other.  That's not how these things play out in the real world.

Beyond my reservations about the wisdom of the blatantly codependent relationship that is at the core of the story, I was put off by the writing itself.  This is a verse novel with nothing particularly outstanding about the verse.  Instead, it is more of a trick to turn a really thin story into a nearly 400-page book.  In fairness, there are some great characterizations here and I think it's great to have a book that explores the impact of sexual violence on boys (a topic that is rare in YA literature), but it's a disappointing read.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Breathe and Count Back from Ten, by Natalia Sylvester

Since she was little, Verónica has always wanted to be one of the performers in the Mermaid Cove show, to be a mermaid swimming beautifully in the water.  In reality, she's a girl with hip dysplasia, enduring multiple surgeries and the bearing the scars to show for it.  For her parents, she must be the good girl who stays away from boys and studies hard.  For her friends, she must be a brave warrior fighting the pain she lives with.  And to strangers, she must hide her scars and do anything she can to avoid their pity.  She never does anything for herself.

When a position opens at Mermaid Cove, Verónica's friends try to convince her that she should try out for the part.  Her parents are utterly opposed.  Performing in public as some sort of sex object in the water is hardly something her immigrant parents approve of (or even understand).  But Verónica is tired of never having a say in her life.  After enduring years of submitting to painful surgeries and denying herself the things she wants, it's time to take responsibility and take charge.  And with support from her secret boyfriend and from her friends, she takes the scariest step in her life.

While ostensibly the well-trod story of an intrepid first-generation teen breaking free from the bounds of her conservative parents (for heavens sake, can we have a story about permissive immigrant parents sometime?!), this novel actually avoids wallowing in that morass and finds something exceptional.  So while we do have to endure the endless refrains of "good girls don't" from her parents, the sneaking out/lying, and the inevitable getting caught, we also get treated to an strong story of a young woman rejecting ablest labels.  The parental disapproval is actually a side show to the bigger problems Verónica faces with societal judgments of her body and her capacity.

<Spoiler> The parental resistance is never truly overcome, and instead Verónica and her parents achieve an uneasy peace.  They come to mutually accept that there will always be conflicts between what her parents and what she needs and that the family can still love one another in spite of this.  So, rather than the catastrophic corner that these stories usually find themselves in (where either the parents or tghe child have to bend), Sylvester allows the characters to back away, retain their beliefs and creeds, and yet recognize that doing so doesn't mean having to give up on what is truly important:  each other.</Spoiler>