Sunday, March 26, 2023

That's Debatable, by Jen Doll

Millie is an excellent debater and, on the Lincoln-Douglas debate circuit, she's practically unbeatable.  Despite having to wrestle with constant sexual harassment from other students, their coaches, and even the judges, she repeatedly wins her debates,  She has won the Alabama state championships for three years in a row.  Now in her senior year, she stands to set a record by winning all four years.  This coincidentally also carries with it a scholarship that could help pay for college, which she will otherwise have a hard time affording.

Tag doesn't have to worry about paying for college.  His family is wealthy enough that scholarships are not a major consideration.  But doing well in debate is the sort of extracurricular asterixis he needs to impress admissions committees.  It's certainly what is driving the other students on his school team to do well.  The problem is that he doesn't care.  He isn't even sure he wants to go to college.  And the debates have become just as meaningless to him.  In debates you have to argue the side that you are given, but Tag is done with that.  He wants to argue the position that he believes in, the position that is right.  Even if it means his team loses.

When a crisis and some quick thinking throws Millie and Tag together into an unusual situation, two opposites find that they share a love for the same things.  And while debate will always be important to them, they find that maybe the feelings they have for each other are just as important.

A lovely romance with a lot to say about taking a stand for what you believe in and a really great introduction to the arcane world of Lincoln-Douglas Debates -- a subject that I knew absolutely nothing about before I read this book.  I enjoyed that education, I was caught up in the (occasionally over-the-top) drama, and I loved the message.

Friday, March 24, 2023

This is How I Roll, by Debbi Michiko Florence

Sana loves cooking and dreams of becoming a famous sushi chef like her father.  She'd love to spend the summer getting pointers from Dad and cooking with him, but he refuses to teach her and just finds excuses to go in to work instead.  Sana suspects that he doesn't believe that women should make sushi.

One day she meets Koji, a boy who is helping landscape her Dad's restaurant.  He seems nice but her best friend warns her that he has a reputation.  Rather than dissuading her, the news simply makes her curious (and then cautious about telling her friend anything more about him).  She and Koji become friends and he takes her to meet his Mom who turns out to be an amazing cook.  She offers to teach Sana what she knows about Japanese cuisine.  Soon, Sana is sneaking over to Koji's house in order to take lessons from Koji's Mom (and to see Koji as well!) and he even helps her put together YouTube tutorials about kawaii sushi. All of this Sana has to keep secret from her parents, even though she knows that all this sneaking around will lead to nothing but trouble!

A predictable and formulaic middle reader with a determined heroine and an unusual hobby.  While Sana makes a number of ostensibly dangerous choices, the entire environment of this book feels very safe secure.  Yes, Sana is hanging out with strangers without her parents' knowledge, but this is terribly tame stuff by children's book standards.  Predictably, she gets caught and (similarly predictably) she gets off pretty lightly.  Even the romance is safe and chaste (some hand holding and one furtive kiss).  The ending is saccharine and very tidy.  Nothing remarkable, but pleasant enough to read and appropriate for tweens.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Lolo's Light, by Liz Garton Scanlon

At the age of twelve, Millie gets her first experience of babysitting for their neighbor's four month-old baby, Lolo.  The evening goes fine and Millie is so happy that she's managed so well as a child carer.  But the next morning, there is terrible news:  sometime in the night after Millie went home, baby Lolo died.  Attributed to SIDS, Lolo's death is not Millie's fault, but that's not how Millie sees it.  

Suddenly, nothing feels safe or secure.  Withdrawn into grief, Lolo cuts herself off from her friends and it struck with panic attacks at school.  She becomes convinced that the spirit of Lolo still lives and imagines she can see the light of that spirit shining from her neighbor's windows when she walks by.

A poorly timed science project in which the class incubates and hatches chickens stirs up the worst of her fears and anxieties.  Millie becomes obsessed with taking care of the eggs and their incubation and grows inconsolable when some of the eggs fail.  Her parents, the science teachers, and a counselor all attempt to help, offering different perspectives on life/death and reconciling to it.

Stories about grief don't generally allow much room for maneuver in the plot. It's pretty much a given that you'll work through the stages of grief and come out at the end of the story in a state of acceptance, prepared to move forward.  It's an inward journey and can get really dull, unless it is particularly well-written.  In this case, the challenges are compounded by the author's decision to tell the story in third person voice.  Millie is sad.  Millie is angry.  Millie won't tell people how she's feeling.  It's an incredibly passive way to experience her emotional state and one that is very hard with which to connect. I couldn't get invested in her story.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Remember Me Gone, by Stacy Stokes

Tumble Tree is such a remote small town that there is no cell service.  All it has going for it is the mine where half of the town is employed and Memory House.  Memory House is the outfit that Lucy's father runs:  a place where people go to forget their troubles.  Dad is a unique skill:  he's able to erase people's bad memories, leaving them free to go on with their lives unburdened by what they want to forget.

But something is not quite right.  Lucy keeps having flashes of memories that don't make sense and periods of time for which she can't account.  People are giving her vague answers and tell her things that can't be true.  Someone's hiding something and going to great pain to do so, and it's almost as if someone like her father has been wiping her memories.  However, Lucy knows that her Dad would never practice on an unwilling person.  It all seems to center around the mines and the mayor.  Lucy and the mayor's nephew, Marco feel that they are tantalizingly close to uncovering the mystery, but plagued by the sense that they may have been in this same place before.

A wonderful edge-of-the-seat thriller that mixes just the right amount of suspense and paranoia to keep you hooked.  Lucy and Marco have great chemistry (even though the novel never slows down enough to give them space for romance) and a series of creepy antagonists keep readers on their toes.  Things get a bit strained towards the end as Stokes tries to wrap everything up and some of the explanations didn't make much sense, but the adventure is so much fun along the way that you want to just let it go so you can enjoy the ride.  Great read!

Saturday, March 11, 2023

I Was Born for This, by Alice Oseman

Angel lives for The Ark, a boy band she's been following since they were posting amateur videos on YouTube.  She's a obsessive fan for a band that has one of the hardest core fandoms in the world.  Hardly an hour goes by without her monitoring Twitter for the latest information about The Ark.  She loves them sooooooooooo much!

She's finally saved up enough money to travel to London to see them perform and spend a week hanging out with Juliet, another fangirl.  She's sure that it will be amazing and she's going to have a great time because every time she's hanging out with The Ark, she feels all the love the band gives out.

After five years, life as a member of the band in The Ark is wearing Jimmy down.  Secretly suffering with anxiety and panic attacks (which his PR people keep under wraps), he struggles to get through  days of pointless interviews and photo-ops.  He longs for the days when he could just go out on the street and not get accosted by some vapid fangirl who allegedly "loves" him.  How can they when they know nothing about him?  With the record company pressuring them to sign a more restrictive contract, he feels more and more pressure to just step away.  And as they return to London to finish up their latest tour, the band is falling apart.

In the week that follows, nothing turns out quite like either Angel or Jimmy planned.  Being in a band or being a fan of the band isn't what they imagined.  And as their plans come apart, both of them are forced to confront the fact that they aren't loving the one person they need to love -- themselves.  

With a ethnically and gender-diverse cast that is Oseman's signature, she explores fame and the people who put people there, the fans.  Despite such an unoriginal topic, Oseman has a surprisingly large amount of original things to say about it.  And a cast of characters who are not only diverse but original, vivid, and (at times) outrageously funny makes this a great read.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Justine, by Forsyth Harmon

An unusual illustrated novel tells a familiar story, presented in an entirely original way, about a teenager growing up on Long Island in the late 1990s.  Aimless and lonely, Ali picks up a job at the local convenience store where she meets Justine and falls into a deep obsession.  Ali's been experimenting with boys and finding nothing there for her and so falling head over heels for tall enigmatic Justine makes a certain sense.  

Justine is not a terribly good role model.  She teaches Ali how to memorize produce codes and bag groceries, but also how to purge to stay thin and how to shoplift from stores.  Apathetic and bored with her own life, Ali doggedly follows Justine's example in every way.  It ends badly and on a tragic note.

This is a very short story (135 pages, nearly half of which are illustrations) and a quick read.  It's not really a story per se, but more a series of journal entries, with ink line drawings of common everyday objects (a Coke can, a bag of potato chips, a gas station sign. etc.).  The banality of the drawings and the story itself is part of its charm.  Ali's life isn't particularly big or important to the world, but it is a complex swirl of emotions and feelings for Ali herself, most of which she is unable to process or contextualize.  It's a tragedy, but not one that Ali really cares much about.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Girls at the Edge of the World, by Laura Brooke Robson

In the kingdom of Kostrova, The Captain's Log has foretold a series of ten storms that will bring on a great global flood in its conclusion.  It's not supposed to come for many more years, but as the storms start occurring as they have been described, people start to panic.  There are no preparations and not nearly enough boats for everyone.  It readily becomes apparent that people will do anything to find a place on one of them.  Natasha, the leader of the elite Royal Flyers (a group of young women who perform acrobatic ballet on silk ribbons, has her eyes on the attentions of King Nikolai who is searching for a wife.  

For the elite Royal Flyers themselves, their chances are slightly better than average. So, when a vacancy appears, many apply.  For most of the applicants, getting a foot in the door would improve their chances of survival.  For Ella, she knows she is doomed regardless and she doesn't care.  She's joining the Royal Flyers for an entirely different reason:  to exact revenge by killing King Nikolai.

As the storms progress, and the prophecy unfolds as it was foretold, social unrest breaks out and palace intrigues start to emerge.  There is tug of war between Nikolai and the faith's leader, mass poisonings, and acts of arson.  However, in the end, everyone's plans get thrown off and things take their own course.

I loved the immersive world building.  While I found it a little distracting, I even enjoyed the faint Russian and Finnish references in the novel.  However, the ending is a rushed mess in which so much of what is built up in the story gets tossed aside.  It keeps us on our toes but so little of what happens in the end is actually built during the story.  The storms, the revenge, the struggle over the crown, competition for the king's hand, and even the planned murder weapon become irrelevant for how the story wraps up.  And a romance that is barely hinted at during the bulk of the story becomes determinant in the end.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Afterlove, by Tanya Byrne

Ash and Poppy meet on a school trip and embark on a whirlwind romance that quickly turns serious. For Ash, this comes as a surprise because she's never had much luck in her previous relationships.  The two girls are from drastically different socioeconomic situations.  In spite of that, her doubts are swept away as she becomes convinced that Poppy is the one whom (in the words of Death Cab for Cutie) she'll "follow into the dark." Poppy is a keeper and Ash is starting to consider how to introduce Poppy to her conservative family.

But then Ash is suddenly struck down in a hit-and-run and dies on New Year's Eve.  As the last teenager to die in the year, she is assigned the role of "reaper" to help guide the recently deceased to the beach and to Charon's waiting boat to take them to the afterlife.  Life as a reaper, while ostensibly similar to Ash's life before, has its own set of rules.  Key amongst them is that, while people can see you, you don't look like you did before.  Only those who are about to die can see the real you.  She is also warned away from visiting friends, family, and (especially) Poppy.  But Ash can't resist the temptation and when she goes anyway she is hit with a rude shock when Poppy can actually see her!

An interesting paranormal romance with a split personality.  The first half plays out as a typical teen lesbian romance, with a lot of struggling over whether to come out to their families.  There's some lovely character building here between mother and daughter, and we get a real strong sense of the tension between Ash's intense feelings for Poppy and her loyalties to her family.  It's thus a big shock in the second half where the focus is entirely on Ash's superficial relationships with her fellow reapers and the doomed romance with Poppy.  The family is barely mentioned and her mother is forgotten.  Moreover, the second half is not even that interesting.  The potential drama of finding out that your girlfriend is about to die is not really developed.  Another potential flash point with a head reaper Deborah (and a really easy potential replacement for Mom) remains a cypher -- an utterly wasted character.  The story disappoints.

I did love the not-safe-for-Florida cover art though!