Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Museum of Lost and Found, by Leila Sales

Twelve year-old Vanessa has a lot on her mind. She is trying to understand why her childhood friend Bailey no longer wants to be her friend.  She's missing her father who is serving overseas somewhere in eastern Africa.  And finally, she's trying to figure out a way to stop picking at the skin on her cuticles.  It hurts and people around her think it's disgusting, but she can't seem to manage to stop.

After a particularly bad day, she goes on a walk and finds herself in front of an abandoned building.  Finding a way inside, she discovers it once was a museum and it still has the old display cases and even an abandoned painting inside.  This gives her the idea that she could use the space to stage her own exhibit dedicated to her lost friendship with Bailey.  She invites other kids to visit and some of them want to stage their own exhibits.  The building is large enough, so they open the whole thing up to other kids to stage their own exhibits, creating a groundswell of interest in exhibition.

While an original premise, this is a fairly typical middle grade story about friendships and family, which wraps up most of its issues in the end.  As an adult, I was a bit twitched about depicting children running around in an abandoned building.  More problematically, I found Vanessa a rather unsympathetic character.  She's bossy and vengeful, taking particular pleasure in using her exhibit to slander her former friend.  And while she reconciles with Bailey and makes some amends in the end, her instincts don't tend to lean towards kindness.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

A Gentle Tyranny, by Jess Corban

In the 23rd century, a Matriarch and a council of female senators rule over the surviving world.  Two hundred years earlier as the world seemed bent on enslaving and subjugating women, there was a "liberation." In the ensuing years, males have been pacified and are now known as Gentles, serving woman in menial tasks.  

At eighteen, every young woman chooses her "destiny" (the career path that calls to her).  For Reina, she is pretty certain that she wishes to become a member of the elite praetorian guard -- the Alexia -- that keep order throughout the land on behalf of the Matriarch.  But Reina's grandmother, the Matriarch herself, has other ideas.  She is growing too old to rule and she wants to choose a successor -- Reina.  But to become Matriarch, there is a competition and Reina must prove herself a better candidate than the other women who want to rule.

Complicating matters is the recent stirring of unrest on the border.  Legend tells that two hundred years ago "Brutes" were entirely eliminated.  But now there are rumors of strong and savage men raiding settlements near the border and committing atrocities.  Have the Brutes returned?  It is a time for strength -- does Reina have the necessary will to fight off this uprising that threatens their civilization?  Grandmother isn't so sure and she has a secret agenda.

Dystopian novels have become rather too common and it's hard to find a really good stand out example.  However, this one rises to the top.  Not so much for the premise (which is riddled with holes) but for the writing and the attention to details.  It's a busy story with lots of power politics to navigate, but Corban manages to fit in a bit of family and even a proto-romance into the mix without ever really distracting from the overall story.  And I enjoyed the politics of this story, which touch on the conflicting nature of family loyalty and power politics.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Immeasurable Depth of You, by Maria Ingrande Mora

Brynn obsesses about death and suffers from panic attacks.  When her Mom catches wind of a post that Brynn posted that reads like a suicide note, her mother freaks out.  Her phone is taken away and Brynn finds herself shipped down to Florida to spend the summer --without her phone or Internet -- with her Dad on a houseboat.  Cut off from her friends, Brynn explores the bayou around her Dad's boat and meets a friendly girl that she's attracted to named Skylar.  But when she tries to tell her father about Skylar, he gets upset:  Skylar committed suicide five years ago.

When Brynn later confronts Skylar, this ghost girl tells another story altogether:  yes, she's dead, but she was murdered.  Skylar can't recall any of the circumstances of her death, but Brynn finally has a strong sense of purpose.  She swears that she'll get to the bottom of it and get justice on Skylar's behalf.  That passion for the cause helps Brynn overcome many of her fears, but exposes buried pain and upsets both Brynn's parents and the bereft parents of Skylar.

A surprisingly poignant story about grief with a slight supernatural note to it.  Those latter elements never become distracting and the focus of the story remains firmly on Brynn taking on responsibility for her healing.  All of the characters are strong, but I particularly liked the adults, who are both respectful and respected (although Brynn has a terrible habit of sneaking off and breaking promises).  I'm somewhat less taken by the busy storyline which features several instances of peril largely unrelated to the story and thus grows distracting.  However, the story delivers a strong pay off in the end that makes this fast read very rewarding.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Dream to Me, by Megan Paasch

Still reeling from grief and feelings of guilt related to the recent death of her father, Eva and her half-sister Rhonda pull up stakes in New York and relocate to a small town in rural Washington.  Eva's great aunt bequeathed them the family mansion, which turns out to be an old house that is falling apart in the woods.  

The local residents want nothing to do with them.  Eva's people, it transpires, have long been rumored to be witches. It doesn't help things that, shortly after their arrival, people in town start falling into mysterious comas.  Suspicions circulate that Eva is casting hexes on the victims.  But while the comas are the work of magic, it is not Eva's doing.  Rather, as Eva learns, it is her destiny to rescue these people.  In order to do that, she must uncover a hidden history series of events in which she and her family played a major role.

A suspenseful, well-paced supernatural thriller with some significant things to say about guilt and addressing guilty feelings before they (literally, in this case) eat you up.  That balance between an engrossing story and some weighty advice about coping with guilt makes this a good read.  I won't claim to have followed every bit of the story and there isn't much character development, but I enjoyed the ride.  In sum a brisk and fun weekend read for people who enjoy non-gory horror.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Belittled Women, by Amanda Sellet

Growing up, Jo and her two sisters (Meg and Bethamy) often enjoyed their Mom's Little Women obsession.  And there were worse ways to earn a living than reenacting scenes from Louisa May Alcott's classic for tourists in a review they call Little Women Live!.  But as Jo grows older, the exercise becomes burdensome and humiliating.  The productions are decidedly amateur, often ridiculous, and Jo longs to be a normal teenager.  She's sick of Little Women and wants out.

When a sophisticated travel writer and her cute son come to see what the show is all about and do a write-up in a national periodical, Jo sees an opportunity to branch out and reach for her dreams.  She gains the woman's confidence and support.  She starts planning her escape to New York City and becoming a writer.  But in the end, she learns that not all dreams are what they seem and the only true security comes from family -- not-all-that-dissimilar message than from the classic inspiration.

While paying tribute to the original, Sellet's novel excels for its depiction of the fractious relationship between the three sisters.  The constant snarky barbs and petty acts of vengeance weave a complicated story of girls whose familiarity breeds strong contempt and deep affection.  I won't pretend to understand it fully, but it felt authentic.  I also enjoyed a number of casual asides about Alcott the writer and the place of the novel in the Canon -- comments which felt informative without being stodgily educational.  A good amount of humor rounds the story out.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Flowerheart, by Catherine Bakewell

Clara has been struggling with her training to become a witch for years.  As she approaches Midsummer in her sixteenth year, the traditional time when young witches are promoted, it seems that she won't ever be accepted.  Her magic is simply unpredictable and uncontrolled.  The Council has begun to suggest that she should be simply stripped of her magic altogether in the interest of public safety.  And when she accidentally poisons her father and nearly kills him, it would seem to prove their point.

But Xavier, the youngest member of the Council and her childhood friend, speaks up on her behalf and promises to help her succeed.  She has not heard from Xavier in years and assumed from his long silence that he hated her, so his offer to help takes her by surprise. Perhaps he cares for her more than she realized?  But he reveals ulterior motives and she finds he is harboring dangerous secrets.  And while Clara initially relies upon his help to rescue her father and her own magic, he will eventually come to rely on her for much more.

A parable focusing on building self-confidence through the guise of Clara's search for mastering her magic.  Discordantly, there's also a striking subplot about a potion called "Euphoria" that bears a strong semblance to Meth and against which Clara and Xavier must find a way to neutralize.  A separate subplot about Clara's estranged mother bears all the markings of the trope of mother-child reconciliation, but is left dangling strangely unresolved. It's a busy story!

I liked the world building.  It's a colorful setting and Clara's botanical magic is vivid.  However, the pace of the storytelling is very slow and the plotting is aimless. While it seems envisioned to be YA, the language is simplified and pitched at middle readers.  It's not even entirely certain at times what we are seeking for.  

<Spoilers>Is the point of the story for Clara to master her magic?  She never quite does that.  Is it to form a romance with Xavier?  They end up friends and a hint of something more.  Is it to cure the Euphoria epidemic?  They find a treatment but never work out who is promoting the abuse of the potion.</Spoilers>  

Overall, I'm struck with a story that hangs heavily.  The elements never quite come together.  The characters change but never really grow.  

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Dear Medusa, by Olivia A Cole

Alicia has given up caring what her classmates say about her.  And she's given up feeling anything for the random older men with whom she hooks up.  She's quit running and is no longer friends with her born-again BFF Sarah.  And it can all be traced back to the Colonel, her science teacher.  He's well loved and known for his welcoming open door policy, but no one else seems to know that secretly he's a "wolf" when the door closes.  And Alicia is a sheep.

Jaded by the banal commonality of inappropriately older men propositioning her and other girls, Alicia finds inspiration in the story of Medusa -- punished for sex and ultimately slain by men (with the connivance of women) for what she was turned into against her will.  Medusa was maligned (just as Alicia is) and she is determined to emerge victorious and rise above the rumors and prejudice.

Also tackling racial profiling, slut shaming, agency, and a variety of other topic, this densely-packed novel in verse is brutal reading.  I might question its bleak outlook, but it's hard to dispute that these things do happen and Cole's uncompromising writing says what needs to be said.  This is hardly the first feminist call-to-arms in verse, but it is one of the better ones.  I'll warn you that the story never reaches resolution, which one really wants simply to get relief at the end and so doesn't really prove very satisfying.  However, you'll read some beautifully written verse in this incendiary call to arms against statutory rape.