Monday, May 29, 2023

We Weren't Looking to Be Found, by Stephanie Kuehn

Two girls of color from different worlds room together at a residential psychiatric facility and seek clarity and connection.  With the possible exception of the racial diversity in this novel, this has been done so so many times, what could possibly make this iteration stand out? Insight, patience, and charisma.

Dani comes from a well-off family in Dallas.  Her mother is an ambitious black politico and she can't stand it.  To escape what she sees as the hypocrisy of her family, she drowns herself in alcohol, pills, and parties.  And when it all gets to be too much, she runs away and ends up getting sent to Peach Tree Hills, a facility for young woman outside of Atlanta.

Camila loves dance and after three years of auditions she's finally gotten herself accepted to a dance school.  But the stress of getting this far has taken its toll and Camila developed a habit of cutting to relieve her pain.  The breaking point, however, is when her parents inform her that she can't go because the money that was to have paid for school is gone.  In crisis, she tries to end her life and ends up at Peach Tree Hills.

Both girls are angry and frustrated, convinced that their issues have everything to do with their parents and other adults who want to keep them down.  But through patient guidance from the facility's caregivers and the bond that develops between them, they begin to dig their way out on the road to self-discovery.  A minor subplot about a cache of found letters written by a previous resident adds some pathos to their search.

The characters make this story.  Dani and Camila are intelligent and articulate advocates for themselves.  Even in the beginning when they don't have the focus they need to find their way out, they are fearless and determined.  They make plenty of mistakes and do things that are plainly stupid, but these are their mistakes to make and they accept the responsibility for them.  There are a few tears but never any self-pity from these girls.  That makes this novel rather unique in a genre that tends to wallow in navel-gazing and self-hatred.  There were times when the story seemed to drift (the whole letters cache being the most obvious example), but Dani and Camila kick ass from beginning to end.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Miracle, by Karen S. Chow

For Amie, her father has always been the muse for her art.  It is his love for music and his love for her playing that has helped her succeed at violin.  And while he is dying of cancer, she tries desperately to please him.  She know the prognosis but it can't stop her from hoping that somehow he will get better.  When he does eventually succumb, she is bereft and finds that she simply cannot play at all anymore.

In the ensuing months, she works through guilt and anger to try to find a new equilibrium and build a new hope of her own, rekindling her music.

A better-than-average story of grief and recovery, helped by the beautiful way that Chow works music into the story of Amie's relationship with her father.  Another aspect I liked was the contrast between the way that Amie and her mother copes with their loss, showing the complexity of dealing with one's own needs balanced against those of another.  While each of them attempt to solve their own problems in order to not burden the other, the find that it is really something they need to do together.  Finally, instead of a clean ending with some sort of full recovery, we find only hope for the future -- a solution that felt right.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories, by Hanna Alkaf

There are certain rules about the jungle that every Malaysian child knows:  always ask permission before you enter, never take anything without permission, and never give out your real name.  But Hamra doesn't care.  It's her thirteenth birthday and everyone has forgotten.  No one has done anything more than order her around.  So, she enters the jungle, brazenly refusing to seek permission, and takes a piece of fruit home to her family.

The fruit turns out to be magical and the fearsome weretiger who owns the tree it came from demands compensation for her offense -- Hamra must go on a quest to help the weretiger become a man.  That quest sends Hamra, her best friend Ilyas, and the weretiger on an adventure through the realm of fairies and demons.  They struggle with a variety of magical forces to restore the weretiger's humanity and unearth his history, which she finds is intertwined with her own family's history.

Heavily populated with Malaysian culture and folklore, Alkaf spins a story loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood and set in the middle of the Covid Pandemic.  It is a wildly incongruous setting where Hamra and her companions do things like use invisibility spells to dodge detection from police enforcing the quarantine.  That complexity doesn't always work, making the story feel crowded.  It is also long and repetitive as similar events (taking things without paying for them, narrowing escaping certain death through a surprise visitor, etc.) happen again and again.  After a while, the narrow escapes become largely indistinguishable.  A final complaint I would have is that the heavy use of unfamiliar words and settings, while delightful in theory, makes the story challenging to read and it takes a while to get into it.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Leeva at Last, by Sara Pennypacker (ill by Matthew Cordell)

Leeva's mother only cares about fame.  Her father only cares about money.  Neither of them cares anything about her.  When Leeva finds out that the town has a school and gets excited about attending, her parents laugh off the idea.  School?  What an absurdity!  What good could school ever do for you?  But Leeva is curious and when her curiosity leads her to sneak out of the house (violating the "Employee Handbook" her parents have created for her) she discovers a whole world out there.  It's a world full of books, homemade cookies, an orphaned badger, and a hypochondriac boy in a hazmat suit.  Most of all, it is full of human beings making connections.

In an absurd style that will remind readers of Roald Dahl or David Walliams, Pennypacker deftly explores a variety of topics including friendship, family, and creativity.  It's a story that cannot be taken seriously and younger readers who can't recognize the satirical elements may find it confusing.  I personally found the abusive nature of the humor disturbing.  But if you delight in books that are so cruel that it is "obvious" that they are not to be taken seriously, this can be a silly read.

Monday, May 15, 2023

A Song Called Home, by Sara Zarr

Lou and her sister Casey have a hard time adjusting to the changes brought on when their mother decides to get remarried and moves them out of the city and into the suburbs.  Their new stepdad Steve is a pretty good guy, but for the girls things were fine the way they were.  They had their school and their best friends.  Also, after dealing with their father's drinking problems, they don't exactly have a lot of trust.  Gradually, the family comes together.  A guitar, left for Lou on the doorstep (presumably by her father) provides a central theme to tie everything together.

The characters are all excellent, but the efforts of Steve to break through to the girls and Lou's complicated relationship with her sister were really the best parts. It's a busy book. In addition to the various challenges that each character faces in living together, there are some pretty serious topics raised, including alcoholism, co-dependency, and classism.  Casey acts out the most, but Lou picks up a habit of stealing  from family and friends (a problem which is never fully addressed).

While covering very little new ground, Zarr's story is well-written and a delight to read.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

I Miss You, I Hate This, by Sara Saedi

During the Covid Pandemic, I wondered what YA literature set during the period would look like.  This novel, while taking great artistic license, does a great job of exploring some of the key themes, but is ultimately knee-capped by that license.  In order to create a story that fits within a single academic year and has greater relevance to young people, Saedi creates a whole new pandemic called "Adema," with slightly different symptoms.  Adema is more virulent for the young than the old (thus forcing young people to quarantine and the elderly to be largely immune).  That switch allows our teen protagonists to truly be the center of the universe and to explore issues of isolation that during Covid were felt more intensely by older people.  

Parisa and Gabriela are two high school seniors who are best friends despite their differences.  Parisa is from a wealthy Iranian-American family and on her way to becoming valedictorian.  Despite this privilege, she suffers from panic attacks that the pandemic lockdown aggravates.  In contrast, Gabriela's two Moms struggle to make ends meet and when the pandemic destroys their catering business, Gabriela has to put her life on the line and get a job to help the family pay the rent.

Throughout the lockdown period (which for this disease runs during 2022-2023 school year), Parisa and Gabriela stay in touch through texting and work through a variety of issues including Parisa's crush on her sister's boyfriend and Gabriela's search to reunite with her estranged family.  When a sudden terrible mistake destroys their deep friendship, it takes an even deeper tragedy to bring them back together.

It's a fine story that really does take on a lot of familiar pandemic-era issues including the psychological trauma of isolation, the economic impact of the stay-at-home orders and the way "essential workers" were treated, and the uncertainty of the future.  It's therefore really distracting that in this parallel world, Covid never happened and instead this Adema ravages the country in a similar-but-different way.  I understand why Saedi went with a different disease but it's off-putting to have very real and salient recent events being fictionalized.