Sunday, April 30, 2023

Sweet and Sour, by Debbi Michiko Florence

Up until two years ago, Mai and her family has spent every summer with Zach and his family.  That was the year that Zach's family moved to Japan.  It was also the summer that Zach betrayed Mai, hurting her deeply and causing her to swear lifelong enmity for her former best friend.  Now, Zach is back and Mai has to spend another summer with him.  She's sworn to get revenge for his unforgivable cruelty.  However, she finds him changed and her anger and desire for vengeance wavers.  Can she stay the course or will she choose the much harder path of forgiveness?

A sweet middle grade book about friendship and forgiveness, with all of the messy subjects of acknowledging hurt and learning how to let go of negative feelings.  In a vast universe of books about friendships and how to cultivate them, this story has some valuable life lessons to offer and the work that is involved in being a good friend.  I found Mai's stubborn attachment to vengeance a bit arrogant and it made it hard to like her, but she's certainly a good educational example.  The lessons come on a bit too heavy and elements of the story will age poorly, but the kids in the story are relatable and there's a sweet romance and an overall innocence to a story that is hard to find nowadays.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Each Night Was Illuminated, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

When Cassie and Elias were young children, they witnessed a horrific train accident together. Cassie lost her faith in God that day, unable to conceive how such horrible suffering could have occurred.  And shortly after that, Elias moved away.  In the ensuing years, they corresponded and stayed in touch.  Elias returns when they are now in High School, with an obsession with finding ghosts and he enlists Cassie to help him contact the victims of the train accident.

When he is not searching for ghosts, he plots elaborate pranks against Father James -- a mean-spirited blowhard priest who dominates their parish.  Cassie, who has never liked Father James, finds it amusing but it is very dangerous.  And when Elias gets caught, Father James turns the community against him and he and his family are forced to move away again.  Lonely without her friend, Cassie is determined to continue her search for the ghosts.  Her search comes to an end with a cataclysmic flood.  

An ambitious novel that is loosely based on the life of Saint Eia of the Celts which explores Cassie's search for God and contains a heavy ecological theme.  As a straight story, the plot is a mess, taking significant shifts at several points and drifting between ideas.  That said, the writing is lovely and deep and there are profound moments scattered throughout the book.  It's artistic, but it's a strange read.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Falling Girls, by Hayley Krischer

Shade and Jadis have always been there for each other.  United in their distaste for the popular kids and things like Homecoming and Prom, they have enjoyed being outsiders.  But Shade is changing.  She thinks she might like to belong to a group after all.  She misses the gymnastics she excelled at when she was young and regrets never having made it on the cheerleading team.  So, she decides to try out.

She is surprised to find that she is actually warmly received.  Even the "three Chloes" (queen Chloe Orbach, insecure Chloe Schmidt, and pleaser Chloe Clarke) who rule the cheer team accept her as a team member.  Jadis is shocked though and feels betrayed.  She warns Shade that she's being exploited but Shade doesn't care.  And to everyone's surprise, Shade and Chloe Orbach grow surprisingly close, upsetting the prevailing social hierarchy.

Then, at the Homecoming dance, while the girls are experimenting with Ecstasy, Chloe Orbach collapses and dies.  Suspicion falls on Jadis (who supplied the drugs) and Shade (who connected them).  But would Jadis really try to kill her perceived competition?  All signs seem to indicate so, but Shade isn't sure she believes it  Jadis meanwhile tries to warn Shade that the remaining Chloes are out to frame them.

A taut psychological thriller about adolescent insecurity and the depths that girls will go to in order to preserve their friendships and their place in the social hierarchy.  Less exploitative than other novels in the genre, I was taken by the complex relationships between the girls.  I also liked the way the adults were portrayed, with greater-than-usual multi-dimensionality.

Big Rig, by Louise Hawes

Hazel (or as she likes to call herself, “Hazmat”) and her father are creatures of the road, making a living as long haul truckers.  While only eleven, Hazmat already knows how to keep travel logs and manage the business.  She knows all about loading and unloading cargo.  She even understands the theory of how to operate a truck (although she’ll have to be 18 before she can apply for her CDL).  She loves everything about the job and the lifestyle.

But things are changing and she worries that automation will end the use of human operators and there may not be jobs for her in the future.  That may be far-fetched worry, but she also knows that her Dad wants to find them a stable home now that she’s about to become a teenager.  The trouble is that she doesn’t want to ever settle down to a house in the burbs with a frilly bed in a pink bedroom.  She’s rather live free on the road.

A bit thin on an overall plot, the book consists mostly of vignettes (some of them quite outlandish) that fill the pages but don’t really advance the story.  I liked the characters, but when we’re adopting cats who survive plane crashes and rescuing a group of special needs children from flood waters, I have to start questioning the realism of the story.  It's a fast entertaining read that taught me a bit about the trucking lifestyle and the basics of the business, but didn’t have a compelling dramatic arc to carry it through. 

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Grace of Wild Things, by Heather Fawcett

Grace's wild imagination and her conviction that she is skilled at magic hasn't exactly endeared the young orphan to any adoption prospects.  So she decides to run away from the orphanage and present herself to the local witch.  At worst, the witch might try to roast her in her oven (which she in fact does), but it would be better than having her wild imagination suppressed.  

Grace manages to convince the witch to give her a trial -- to cast the 100 (and a half) spells that are in the witch's grimoire.  If Grace can do this before next spring, the witch will take her on as her apprentice.  If not, then the witch will take away any talent Grace has for magic.  It's a challenge that seems insurmountable, but Grace is as determined as she is melodramatic and with the help of a few friends, she works through the task.

Some elements of the story will feel quite familiar.  Inspired by the classic Anne of Green Gables, many of Grace's adventures (from smashing the school bully with her slate to accidentally intoxicating her best friend) are taken from Anne Shirley's mishaps.  The setting on Prince Edward Island is also the same.  But Grace, while prone to Anne's loquaciousness and inspired imagination, is an aspiring witch and this story is magic fantasy with faeries, ghosts, and spirits.  That Fawcett manages to also work in the themes of imagination and found homes is a marker of the cleverness of this novel and a testament to the universality of the inspiration.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Talent Thief, by Mike Thayer

After her grandmother passes away, Tiffany knows she has been cursed.  How else could you explain the string of embarrassing incidents that plague her middle school existence?  Or what about the fact that her Dad is about to lose the planetarium that he has devoted so much effort to keeping afloat?  It will take a miracle to flip things around.

When two meteors collide one night in the skies above her, Tiffany feels like something significant has changed in her life.  Inexplicably, she finds herself gifted with talents that she never imagined possessing.  She gains the ability to sing like queen bee Candace, the talent to sink three-point shots like smoldering Brady, and even the ability to do card tricks like her grandmother's old friend in the nursing home.  But the magic comes with two caveats:  it is temporary and it requires that Tiffany steal it away (the person who had the talent becomes normal while Tiffany possesses it).  

With such magic, Tiffany could really fix things and make everything right.  But the ethics of the power vex her.  Very quickly she realizes how much harm she can cause to others.  And while there are instances when hurting others might feel justified (stealing Candace's voice before a performance so she flubs it), it is never nice.  And moreover, what does it say that you can only get ahead by stealing from others?  In the end, Tiffany comes to realize that being successful comes as much from self-confidence and the support of others as it comes from any talent.

A fine fantasy novel that approaches the morality of playing fair.  I was put off by the character of Tiffany who never really felt authentic to me and by the setting (planetarium? really?).  I also found the characters rather thin.  But I appreciated the nice age-appropriate development of a theme that allowed Tiffany to explore the pitfalls of her incredible power.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Rare Birds, by Jeff Miller

Graham's mother is waiting for a heart transplant.  Over the past years, they've traveled from one hospital to another and finally ended up back home in Florida.  While Mom's in the hospital, Graham stays with his uncle and his cousin Nick.  While it's great to reconnect and learn a bit about what Mom was like when she was younger, the situation is not ideal.  Nick has his own issues with his mother and takes out his frustrations bullying Graham, but Graham's been through so much that he doesn't really care anymore.

While waiting at the hospital, Graham meets Lou who coincidentally is also waiting with her family for a donor heart to come.  With their shared situation, Lou and Graham bond easily and they discover a shared love for birding.  Going through Graham's mother's old things back home, they find Mom's birding journal and learn that she had been on a quest for a rare bird called a Snail Kite that she never found.  Determined to complete his Mom's quest in her honor as she waits for a donor, he and Lou set out on an adventure to find the Kite.

A lively middle grade adventure story that manages to cover two separate topics (organ transplants and ornithology) with a good mix of information and entertainment.  While the two main subjects are unrelated, I thought the birding helped to lighten the otherwise heavy nature of the medical stuff (especially given the story's rather heavy ending).  I was a bit annoyed at how passive Graham was and it soured me a bit on his character.  And I would have preferred if Nick had gotten some sort of comeuppance for his meanness.  However, the birding stuff was great and may encourage a few young people to pick up a pair of binoculars.

Saturday, April 08, 2023

Whispering Alaska, by Brendan Jones

In the aftermath of their mother's death from COVID, Nicky and her twin sister Josie have ceased communicating with each other.  To help heal the rift and the family, their father decides to move them from Pennsylvania to join his family in southern Alaska.  But the peace that the family was trying to find is shattered by a conflict that has split the community: whether to clear cut the forest to bring in revenue.  Times are tough from the pandemic.  Tourists have stopped coming and bringing their spending money and so the search is on for alternative sources of revenue.  Without the infusion of cash that the lumber could bring in, people won't be able to make a living and the community will break up.  But at the same time, these are thousand year-old spruce trees that folks are talking about cutting up.  The damage will be long lasting.  While the girls are new to Alaska, they have been enchanted by the Tongass forest.  United by a calling to save the trees, the twins find a point of connect and a way to heal their grief.

A sweet and actually pretty fresh story that mostly defies its genre.  We have the dead mother, but don't dwell on her.  There's the pandemic, but that's mostly background.  There's a mild supernatural element, but it is largely ignored.  And the eco theme, while central to the story, is toned down.  The ultimate solution is a compromise (i.e., responsible stewardship of resources) and while overly optimistic, does portray the types of win-win solutions that generally have underlaid real life conservation success stories.  I might in fact criticize the story for not really pursuing any of these themes in any major way, but that decision leaves the book more digestible and less didactic.  What results is sufficiently educational with a light touch and has little bits of stuff (emotions, interpersonal relationships, magic, and adventure) to excite the reader.

Sunday, April 02, 2023

The Roof Over Our Heads, by Nicole Kronzer

Finn's family are all about the theatre.  They even live in a Golden Age mansion owned by the region's major theatre Beauregard.  But appearances can be deceiving on the stage:  the mansion is falling apart and, while Finn's mothers and siblings are all successes, Finn is always flubbing his lines.  The truth is that Finn is really much more successful in the kitchen than on stage.

Family is family and the one thing that has kept Finn's family together is this old mansion.  So, when the new artistic director for Beauregard announces that they can no longer afford to maintain the property and need to sell it, the family comes together with a plan to save it.  It is a family dream to stage a historical murder mystery about the original inhabitants of the mansion -- the Jorgensens -- in the house itself.  But with the dire need for funds, the plan is now extended to host a special dinner for VIPs at $1000 a plate as part of an exclusive televised performance.  That's all well and good until things start going wrong.

Mix into all of this a complex web of subplots worthy of Downton Abbey and you get the whirlwind of this novel.  There's romance and intrigue, coming to terms with the past, and a main protagonist who sorts his entire life out in 340 action-packed pages.  With a huge cast of characters it can be hard to keep up with everything that is going on, but the story is forgiving and coaches you so you don't get completely lost.  There are many things to like about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the mash-up of manor home posing with modern sensibilities as the cast (largely made up of high school drama kids) are forced to live in character as upstairs and downstairs inhabitants of the play.  Great fun!

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Then Everything Happens at Once, by M-E Girard

Baylee has never been in a relationship.  And given her size, she figures she'd be lucky if anyone ever noticed her.  She remains oblivious to the friendliness of her neighbor Freddie, on whom she actually has a crush.  When she starts texting with Alex, a stranger she's met online however, she realizes that things could change.  But it's all very awkward as Baylee isn't used to navigating romantic relationships.  Suddenly, she goes from famine to feast when Freddie reveals his interest.  Instinctually, Baylee returns the affection, putting her in the awkward place of juggling two relationships where once there were none.

And things are about to get a lot more complicated because this is March 2020 and news stories about a virus sweeping the world are just starting to pick up.  With Baylee's complicated love life, she doesn't have much time to pay attention to any of that (although having school get cancelled helps give her time to focus on sorting things out).  Even as lockdown is declared, Baylee can't really conceptualize the weight of the matter, despite repeated entreaties from her Mom and the authorities.

During the early days of the Pandemic, I had wondered what sort of YA stories would come from it.  This sort of dazed-and-confused romance makes a certain amount of sense.   Baylee's an interesting protagonist.  Aside from cheating on Alex, she's actually very candid.  While she's articulate, her mind is truly confused by all of the novel things that are occurring to her:  first love, first kiss, and first sexual experience.  Putting it all in the context of lockdown raises the stakes a bit and Baylee proves largely (and realistically) incapable of adapting to the restrictions.  As an adult, it's hard for me to be sympathetic to her selfishness and to the degree she puts her family (and her vulnerable little sister in particular) at risk by her quarantine violations.  However, it felt authentic and even if it made me dislike her, I recognized that as a sign of my degree of investment in the story.