Thursday, June 29, 2023

When We Had Summer, by Jennifer Castle

Daniella, Carly, Penny, and Lainie have spent their summer every year on the Jersey shore.  And each summer, the self-proclaimed "summer sisters" pass their time completing a bucket list that Carly has assembled for them.  While there are a few items (like seeing a breaching whale) that they never seem to be able to achieve, the annual rite defines their friendship.

This summer, things are changing.  Lainie's family is moving away in August, Daniella has gotten a music scholarship in New York for most of the summer and will be away, and Penny is dealing with the disintegration of her parents' marriage.  But most traumatically, Carly isn't with them at all -- she died over the winter -- leaving a huge gap in their circle.

While going through some of Carly's things, Daniella discovers that before she passed away Carly had created a bucket list for the upcoming summer.  So, with the heavy realization that this will be their last summer together, the remaining three summer sisters pledge to honor Carly by completing this last list.  What starts with good intentions and passion ends up testing the girls' bond as they discover that the forces of change are powerful.

It's everything you would wish from a summer beach read.  But in spite of containing just about every trope in the genre (and yes, there's a boy in there too!), I found Castle's book surprisingly fresh and enjoyable.  It delivers the expected bittersweet conclusion that the story demands, but along the way there are some nice lessons about growing up, making new friends while cherishing the old, and accepting that one can move on.  It's not weighty stuff, but you finish it feeling like there was some nutritional value in it.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did), by Tess Sharpe

While looking very much like a cute romance book about two girls who are best of friends and come close multiple times to actually locking lips, this novel is actually weightier material.  The girls are Penny and Tate, daughters of two best friends who have known each other most of their lives.  Tate's mother is in need of a new liver and Penny's mother volunteers to donate a part of hers to save her friend.  To make the whole thing work, the four of them have to move in with each other.  That would be fine, except that Penny and Tate have a long and complicated history which they have generally tried to avoid discussing or revisiting.  That proves difficult when the events and people involved are not exactly going away.  

The story contains a number of typical rom com tropes like the two girls having the share a bed after a snafu with their hotel reservations, but it quickly becomes apparent that there's more to the book.  A few years ago, Penny and her father were in a kayaking accident in which  Penny's father was killed. Penny's mother has never worked through her grief (or allowed Penny to do so).  This has left an awkward dynamic in their relationship, which being in close proximity with their best friends make much worse.  It's really the reconciliation of this painful history that ties the entire story together, making the predictable eponymous kiss at the end of the book something of an afterthought.

I liked the dynamics between the characters.  The complicated relationship between Tate and Penny which is far less romantic than one would expect.  The mothers (with each other and with their daughters) also bring in complications that are handled with aplomb by the author. I find the story of suppressed grief to be compelling enough to push the story forward.  And I even find the near-miss kisses to be surprisingly more dramatic than one would find usually in a romance.  This is a book of great characters and powerful emotions.

It's also a terribly busy story.  As often happens in these cases, the ending is a really hard trek tying up all of the loose ends.  Things suffer along the way.  A subplot involving an ex-girlfriend (Leslie) does nothing for the story and is even a bit bizarre.  More importantly, even the liver transplant story feels superfluous -- it provides an excuse for everyone to be together, but adds little else to the actual story.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Time to Roll, by Jamie Sumner

Ellie is dealing with a lot of changes this summer.  Her Mom has  gotten remarried -- to her gym teacher -- and is traveling Route 66 with him for their honeymoon for the next month.  Her Dad, who's never been that close wit her, has come (with his new wife and their boys) to live with her for the month.  The result is chaos and Ellie would do just about anything to get out of the house.  Her best friend Coralee has an idea:  they should both compete in the Little Miss Boots and Bows together.  Coralee lives for beauty pageants, but Ellie wouldn't be caught dead in one.

One of the more obvious reasons Coralee doesn't like the idea is that she has cerebral palsy and needs a wheelchair to get around.  She's not embarrassed by this fact, but often annoyed by the way her wheelchair causes people to treat her.  But Coralee is persistent and Ellie agrees to go along with it.  It's just about everything Ellie feared.  And when the organizer starts using Ellie to promote the "diversity" of the event, Coralee grows resentful of the attention Ellie is getting.  Ellie decides she has to take control and do this on her own terms.

There's undeniably excellent representation here for children with disabilities and the best part of this story was the character of Ellie.  She has the right amount of spunk and intelligence to be interesting.  But the  story felt rough and unfinished.  The development of Ellie's relationship with her estranged father had potential but never really takes off and the tensions with Coralee get a rushed resolution.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Sky We Shared, by Shirley Reva Vernick

In the final days of World War II, two girls try to do what they can for their families and countries, and learn along the way that the right thing to do is often not as simple as grownups make it sound.

Nellie lives in Bly, Oregon.  Her father has been away for years now, defending the Aleutian Islands against Japanese advances.  Her next-door neighbors have just lost their elder son in combat in Europe and the younger brother, Nellie's best friend Joey, struggles with anger and grief.  Nellie knows that she can't really understand what Joey is going through but she wants to help him however she can.  Meanwhile, as a keen observer of his town, she sees the varying ways that the war has impacting the others around her as well.  It all seems to come down to luck! The war itself seems far away from her as all she sees first hand is rationing and blackout curtains.

In a village in southern Japan, Tamiko and her aunt sit worrying about Tamiko's brother who has trained as a kamikaze and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Empire.  Tamiko is proud of her brother but wishes he were home safe.  She understands the war in inevitable and everyone must give their best if Japan is to emerge victorious.  

So, Tamiko is excited to serve when her class is summoned to a factory to help assemble huge paper balloons.  They work long and arduous hours for weeks putting together these balloons with big sheets of washi paper.  At first she knows only that balloons are part of the war effort.  It's only when their work is completed that she learns that they will be used to drop bombs on the Americans.  She's OK with that as the Americans are the ones who are trying to hurt them, so anything that will bring victory quicker is to be celebrated.

But in the weeks that follow, things change dramatically for both girls.  The Americans start a ferocious bombing campaign of the Japanese mainland and Tamiko experiences war first-hand as her villages is destroyed.  And in Oregon, Nellie one night catches sight of what she thinks at first are shooting stars in the sky.  But instead, they turn out to be mysterious floating balloons.

A haunting story based on the true history of Japanese Fu-Go campaign which brought hundreds of floating explosives over North America in the dying days of the World War II.  For the most part, these attacks proved ineffective, but they did cause the only domestic casualties of the War in Bly, Oregon when one of the bombs killed a pregnant women and five children on a church picnic party.  Knowing nothing of the topic, I was fascinated and horrified at the way Vernick chooses to tie her two protagonists -- who never meet face to face -- together.

With a sometimes overly enthusiastic attention to historical detail, Vernick builds sympathetic portrayals of her characters who are typical young teens in so many ways but also products of their country's propaganda.  You clearly sense that they could be friends, but in a time of war such sympathy is impossible.  The novel becomes an unapologetic look at what causes hatred and fear for the alien other and what is necessary to pull back and learn to forgive.  Written for a middle school audience, the lessons are straightforward and unambiguous but there is wide room for discussion and debate for thoughtful adults as well.

This is children's literature at its finest.  It takes an interesting idea and spins it into an opportunity to explore the world and how it works.  It could be accused of trying a bit too hard at times (for example, a late inclusion of a nasty racist incident distracts from the general focus of the story), but there's so much here for readers to explore and think about.  It achieves its goals without sacrificing the story, which remains entertaining throughout.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Spin, by Rebecca Caprara

Caprara presents us a retelling of the story of Arachne, the young weaver who challenged the goddess Athena and was transformed into a spider for her hubris.  In this version, Arachne's antipathy towards the gods is born out of a life of economic hardship and social injustice.  The stories of the gods, clearly written to uphold patriarchal norms, hold no value to her.  She doesn't solicit divine intervention, but rather sets out through her own hard work to cultivate her talent.  Her efforts to set forth justice through her work is hindered at every turn by men, by the community, and ultimately by the gods themselves.

Not content to set the record straight on Arachne, Caprara takes apart most of the genre, calling out its misogyny, violence, and perversity with a strong grasp of the material.  Feminist retellings of classical literature have been done before, of course, but rarely as well as they are here.  The book is written in generally excellent verse and this gives the customary gravity but also evokes the epic style itself.  It's not Ovid, but it's a fitting tribute to the way such stories are told.

Caprara's instinct to make calls to action give the novel the taste of a screed (which will mostly be preaching to the choir as it is hard to imagine Ron DeSantis plucking up a copy of this book from his public schools' burn pile).  The writing could never be accused of subtlety!  A lot more could have been done without always connecting every dot.  However, that doubt in the reader's intelligence is a small flaw for this is a beautifully written tribute to Greek mythology and a work of great contemporary relevance.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Unseelie, by Ivelisse Housman

Iselia (or "Seelie") and her twin Isolde have managed to survive since they had to flee from home through their wits and their magic.  And it was their magic that first got them into trouble.  Seelie is a changeling who wields poorly-controlled magic that tends to get them into trouble.  But it is Isolde and her plan to burgle the home of the powerful enchantress Leira Wildfall that puts them in enough danger to set off the events of the story.  

While they are breaking in they find themselves face to face with another criminal duo (a boy named Maze and a girl named Odani) who are attempting to do the same thing.  The four of them are caught and have rely upon each other for their escape.  A much bigger heist/quest ensues where the four young people face greater and greater challenges, revealing strengths and powers that they didn't know they had.  All in all, pretty typical and unremarkable.

What makes this fantasy story about magic and fairies different from the rest is Seelie.  She's neurodivergent.  The idea is born from a theory the author has that people who were accused of being changelings or possessed by spirits were really autistic.  And so she imagines how an autistic person would understand a fantasy story.  Seelie's view of the world is our view.  From Seelie's understanding of her magic powers to the basic way she communicates with the others, she struggles.  Events are not always linear.  A huge stress is placed on sensory perception:  caves that are pitch black, walls that seem endless, lights that blind, and so on.  Scenes are not always easy to follow as Seelie sorts out what is going on around her, but they come together in their own way in the end.

The result is storytelling that is fresh and a voice that is unique and distinct.  However, I was less taken by story, which was repetitive (endless variations of the same basic set-up:   a battle that they inevitably lose, a hasty deal or a rash decision to escape the leaves Seelie disoriented, and then it just happens again).  There's an endless supply of new characters to supply these iterations of conflicts, but no clear direction to the story.  And a plot twist at the end suddenly undoes most of the understandings developed during the novel in order to create the requisite cliffhanger for the second half of this duology.  I'll entertain that my expectations for the story may bear a neurotypical bias, but I found the story boring.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent, by Ann Jacobus

Del suffers from anxiety and panic disorders, which she has in the past self-medicated with alcohol and narcotics.  A suicide attempt a year and a half ago brought her to live with her Aunt Fran, an art dealer in San Francisco.  Now in recovery, Del is planning to start school in the Fall, works on a suicide help line, and is excited that her high school crush Nick is coming to visit.

However, the panic attacks have not gone away and there is temptation everywhere for Del to relapse.  Nick is friendly, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with her because of all that baggage.  Helping suicidal people feels good, but it's challenging to Del and a failed rescue leaves her doubting her ability to do the work.  And then Aunt Fran starts showing signs of getting sick, which morphs into a terminal cancer diagnosis.

As Fran's condition declines, she decides to stop seeking treatment and starts hospice at home.  But it isn't enough.  Fran doesn't want to let the disease take its course and she asks Del to help her get to Oregon so she can get help in terminating her life on her own terms.  For Del, who has struggled so long with fighting her own suicidal impulses (as well as talking her callers out of them) she is reluctant to help her Aunt "speed up the process."

While plenty of YA novels use death as a dramatic device (dead mother, dying best friend, etc.), very few focus on the process of dying and hospice the way this novel does.  The book is well-researched and intelligently discusses the process of assisted suicide.  Moreover, the latter part of the book becomes a detailed catalog of the later stages of dying and it's quite eye-opening.  The story doesn't make for the cheeriest of reading but there's a raw honesty to the way the experience is portrayed and the impact on Del and her family and friends.  I feel that alone makes this a notable book.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

A Scatter of Light, by Malinda Lo

When pictures of Aria topless find their way on to Instagram, her parents decide it would be best if she spent her last summer before college with her grandmother in San Francisco rather than unsupervised with friends on Martha's Vineyard.  While she is naturally resentful of this decision, she eventually finds her summer to be memorable.  

Set in 2013, right after California legalized same sex marriage, Aria undergoes her own realization that she might be a lesbian as she falls in love with Steph, her grandmother's gardener  At the same time, her grandmother Joan opens Aria's eyes to art.  Aria, who wants to study astronomy and is on her way to MIT, has never entertained that she has artistic leanings, but under her grandmother's guidance, she starts to blossom as an artist.

In sum, a coming of age story with several different facets. Aria's transformation is interesting to follow, but she's a surprisingly dull protagonist.  She goes through a number of important self-realizations, but they mostly seem to bounce off of her and I felt largely excluded from what she was experiencing.  It doesn't help that both Joan and Steph are cut out of the story rather abruptly, leaving Aria on her own to sort things out at the end.  And instead of doing so, the novel simply jumps ten years ahead after everything has worked out.

Intended to be a companion work to a much heavier novel called Last Night at the Telegraph Club, this novel stands on its own and makes only fleeting reference to the characters of that book.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Remind Me to Hate You Later, by Lizzy Mason

As the subject of her mother's blog, Jules has lived her entire life in the spotlight.  It's not a place where she's ever been comfortable, but her mother refuses to stop writing about her daughter, often in great graphic detail.  Every embarrassing moment in Jules's life has been fodder for her Mom's millions of followers.  The more mortifying the event, after all, the better for ratings.  Never mind that the violations of privacy are driving Jules to depression and self-harm.  Tragedy ensues when, after a particularly invasive post that discusses Jules's burgeoning sex activity, Jules decides to end her life.

In the aftermath, Jules's best friend Natalie tries to cope with the loss.  She knew plenty about Jules's misery but she didn't understand how bad it was for her.  She despises Jules's mother for what she did to Jules. And she hasn't stopped.  Now she's writing a book to capitalize on the experience!  But Natalie also wants to explore her own role in the tragedy and address the guilt she feels for moving on.

The first half of the book, told by Jules, is a harrowing story of parental abuse.  But while it gives us a clear sense of what she went through, it turns out not to be the most interesting part of the novel.  It's really the second half, where Natalie takes over, that brings the pieces together.  For one thing, Natalie is a far more reliable narrator, with a strong sense of obligation to get the story right.  And while she is immensely sad and angry about what happened to her friend, she recognizes that there are multiple sides to the story.  She even eventually comes round to being willing to sit down with Jules's mother!  She also struggles with guilt as she and Jules's boyfriend develop romantic feelings towards each other.

The story packs a pretty heavy punch and is a compelling read, but it transcends the usual suicide tropes by spending considerable time on how people's lives go on after a tragedy.  So, while there is plenty of grief, the story doesn't really dwell on it. I also found the subject of social media addiction to be quite interesting.  A lot more could have been made of it, but Mason avoids preaching and simply sets out the point that Mom's narcissism (fed by her followers) really was the trigger for this tragedy.  And her daughter's compulsion for paying attention to those posts sealed her fate.  That leaves us food for thought.