Thursday, September 28, 2023

Where the Sky Lives, by Margaret Dilloway

Tuesday Beals may only be twelve years old, but she knows a lot about Zion National Park, thanks to the fact that she's grown up there.  Her mother is the Park's staff archeologist, charged with researching old Indian sites and Mormon settlements.  Thanks to her recently-deceased uncle, she's a budding astronomer -- a pastime that is aided by Zion's legendary dark skies.

However, that darkness is about to change.  A developer has bought a ranch that abuts the Park and is planning a major housing project which will impact not only the skies around Zion but also the beauty and wildlife in the area.  Tuesday is determined to stop them.  The discovery of an endangered species on the land becomes a catalyst.  With the help of a social media influencer, she tries to bring publicity to the cause.

Tuesday is a fantastic protagonist.  She's persistent and intelligent, but in an age appropriate way that makes her very believable.  She's also super observant, intuitive, and touch averse -- traits that seem to be included to imply she may be on the Spectrum (although nothing is ever said about any of that).  The story itself is a great adventure, lovingly detailing Zion National Park and life at a ranger station.  Dilloway does a nice job of explaining some of the issues that come up in the story (land conservation, grief, changing friendships, and a few others) in a very age-appropriate way.  Younger children will appreciate the adventure and the animals.  Older ones will find inspiration in an outspoken heroine who doubts her ability -- as only a kid -- to change the world but who tries nonetheless to do so.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Brighter Than the Sun, by Daniel Aleman

By virtue of having been born in the United States and having a friend with whom to stay, Sol is able to attend high school in San Diego.  Every morning, she rises early and crosses the border and then crosses back over to Tijuana in the evening.  

With the family's restaurant business failing, her father asks her to try to find an afterschool job in San Diego.  Once she does and starts working before and after school, it is no longer feasible to go home every night so she starts staying over with her friend's family.  While this brings money home, it causes tension back in Tijuana as everyone struggles to adjust to her absence.  And for Sol, it causes internal conflict as she tries to decide if she is more at home in Tijuana or in San Diego, where the brightest future seems to lie.

This moving story of a family struggling to pool their resources to help their (equally hard working) children reach their dreams is powerful stuff.  Sol fights hard trying to earn money for her family while maintaining her academics, all under the strain of a daily border crossing.  But it is a team effort, for while her struggle is inspiring, it is equally clear that she has a number of allies along the way that make all of this possible in the first place.

The story also deals with significant contemporary issues, including racism and homophobia.  It depicts the unique and peculiar energy of the border zone where one can totally change worlds in a few steps.  It addresses the politics of immigration without depicting a single immigrant. I found it rich and populated with compelling characters that made it a pleasurable way to spend a day.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Cleaning Up, by Leanne Lieberman

Jess has plans.  She wants to finish high school, go to college, and start a landscaping business.  To do those things, she's going to have to save a lot of money.  She cleans houses and tries to keep her alcoholic and drug-addicted Dad from spending everything.  While there is a teacher at school who helps her (and turns a blind eye to the neglect she is undergoing), for the most part she is on her own.

While cleaning a new house during the summer, she discovers a diary that belongs to a girl who disappeared.  While she knows it is wrong to pry, she starts reading it and finds herself imagining a life with this mystery girl.  But the more she learns about the girl, the more she starts to lose her own sense of self.  Jess's success has always depended upon being disciplined and driven.  Now she risks losing that focus.

A nice character study of a troubled young woman who works hard against the odds.  There are definitely things about her I did not like.  I found her self-centered and stubborn, unwilling to accept help and dishonest (and never mind the whole invasion of privacy thing!).  But at the same time, she deals with great challenges, works very hard, and is surprisingly resourceful.  Lieberman writes in a sort of dumbed-down way that suggests that she's intentionally trying to pick up reluctant readers and I think that's an ideal target for this story of a girl coming from a lot of disadvantages but learning to navigate her way to success.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Borrow My Heart, by Kasie West

Wren likes her rules.  They keep her out of trouble and protect her from trusting others too much.  That's important when because she's still dealing with a mother who abandoned her family when she was ten.  But one day at her BFF's coffee shop, she meets a complete stranger and makes an split second decision that breaks those rules.  

Asher has been chatting online with a girl named Gemma whom he barely knows.  He's supposed to meet her for the first time at the coffee shop, but she's standing him up and everyone knows it, especially his friend Dale who's loudly planning his humiliation.  Wren takes pity on him and impulsively decides to present herself as Gemma.  Her intent is only to play this charade long enough to get Dale off of Asher's back, but she never finds a good time to come clean.  So, she ends up fake dating him, which naturally turns into real dating.  Needless to say, many more rules are broken.

In addition to this rather predictable love story, there's the parallel (but comparatively underdeveloped) story of Wren considering reconciling with her mother.  To me, this seemed like a very different plotline and the two mesh poorly.  It is like reading two separate books, both of which are fine in their own right, but that don't really belong together.  The storytelling moves along briskly enough, there's some lovely comedy with the animals (and with the unloved mutt Bean in particular), and the dynamics between Wren and Asher are fine, but there isn't much substance to this light summer read.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Medusa, by Jessie Burton (ill by Olivia Lomenech Gill)

Life in exile is lonely for Medusa.  Her sisters are often away and she is left in a cave on an island, tending the snakes that have replaced her hair.  One day, a boy named Perseus arrives on the island.  Both her sisters and the goddess Athena have warned Medusa that she must not allow herself to be seen, so she hides.  The boy is persistent though in his desire to meet her.  

They settle for a friendship (of sorts) speaking to each other through a wall.  Perseus relates his story of woe and Medusa reciprocates.  They find commonalities and bond, with Perseus pledging his love and Medusa fantasizing that she might be able to reveal her disfiguration and still be accepted by the boy.  However, when Perseus realizes who Medusa really is and she in turn comes to know the reason he has come to the island.

Feminist retellings of Greek myths (and the story of Medusa in particular) have been done before.  In modern eyes, Medusa's fate is a shocking tale of double standards and victim blaming, so it makes good material.  What makes this version so interesting is the presentation -- the illustrations from Olivia Lomenech Gill.  This is a beautiful book.  Gill's deceptively simple drawings add great depth to the story.  Combined with Burton's spare text, the book is truly greater than its parts.  This is really one of my favorite retellings to date.  It doesn't break new ground but is a remarkable package.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

A Walk Between Raindrops, by Amalie Jahn

Elise and her little sister Wylla have avoided each other for the past year.  Ever since Elise betrayed her by getting her boyfriend arrested, Wylla has been giving Elise the silent treatment.  But a bond of sibling rivalry drives both girls to compete to win a prize which sends them, along with a series of misfits, on a two week, all-expense paid trip of some of the greatest roller coasters in the United States.  Forced to interact in the tight confines of the bus and shared motel rooms, the two sisters find the courage to confront each other and all of the raw hurt that they feel.

A solid premise (a rollicking ride through the East Coast's finest amusement parks and iconic roller coasters, combined with some hearty exploration of sibling rivalry and anxiety) largely fails to crystalize into a compelling story.  For the most part, it's the complexity of juggling so many characters and such a large number of subplots that makes this story hard to track.  And the reveals, which are introduced gradually throughout the story (leading up to a major -- but predictable -- plot twist towards the end) felt inorganic and forced. 

Unrelated to the writing (but always an unnecessary distraction), I was disappointed at the poor quality of the editing of the book.  Not only were there spelling errors and missing words, but also layout issues which suggested that no one gave the book a final review (or didn't care to fix the mistakes that are there).

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Half Life of Love, by Brianna Bourne

Flint knows he's going to die in 41 days.  Almost eight years ago, he experienced the twinge of his half-life -- the body's indicator that it has passed the mid point of existence.  This isn't intuition.  In this alt universe, it's scientific fact that, if something specific (accident, violence, etc.) doesn't get him, the body's own "kill-switch" will take him out.  Ever since he experienced his half-life moment and entered the second part of his life, he's tried to avoid emotional attachment and keep his feelings to himself to spare his friends and family.  All of that changes when he meets September.

Just a few months ago, September lost her four year-old sister (her half-life occurred when she was two).  She hasn't been able to come to terms with the injustice of losing a sibling so young, but she has a chance of changing the way it works.  She's a teen science genius and doing an internship at the Half-Life Institute, where they are searching for a way to prolong life and beat the half-life.  Motivated and distracted by her grief, she's on the verge of a breakthrough.

The two of them meet by happenstance and neither admits their  true situation, which allows them to fall in love with each other.  Flint knows that he shouldn't be doing this in the last few days of his life (especially when he learns about September's grief), but his heart thinks otherwise. Eventually, the secrets will come out and nature will take its course.

An interesting premise that struggles a bit to establish itself.  Bourne addresses some of the contradictions of the set up, but wisely doesn't go too far into explaining how a world where people know exactly how long they will live actually works.  What it provides is fascinating food for thought about how one should live one's final days.  Is it worth getting an education when you know you won't live long enough to use it?  Is it worth being friends with someone you know is about to die?  What should one actually do as your "deathday" approaches?  Even concepts like ageism take on a different flavor when a persons actual longevity is known with such certainty.  It's a thought-provoking alternate reality.

The storytelling is nothing terribly memorable.  It's functional and well-paced, but I can't say that it was particularly outstanding.  Neither Flint nor September really caught my sympathy.  There's also lots of distracting detail that don't add much to the story.  For some reason, these characters actually attend high school between dying and saving the world.  Given that nothing actually happens at school, perhaps Bourne should have just set Flint's final 41 days in the middle of the summer?  Similarly, a best friend of Flint's pops up from time to time, but has no real impact beyond stealing time away from Flint and September.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Seven Percent of Ro Devereux, by Ellen O'Clover

With help from a family friend, Ro has developed a program called MASH which predicts your future based on the answers that you give to a series of behavioral questions.  It was intended as a senior project, but when she shares it with friends it spreads and goes viral.  Before she knows it, a local incubator wants to develop it and pitch it to a VC company making Ro famous and potentially very very rich.  Her father doesn't approve: he'd prefer she focus on college.  Her co-writer warns her that this is going to bite her in the end.  But Ro has dreamed of making it as a software designer and this seems to be her dream come true.  And it's even predicted by her own app.

There's a problem:  her app also predicts that she'll end up married to Miller, her former best friend.  And to prove to the world that the app actually works, Ro's going to have to make it look like she and Miller are hopelessly in love with each other.  In truth, they detest each other, but he agrees to go along with the charade until the VC company signs on in exchange for the money he needs to pay for college.  And so, Ro and Miller launch out, pitching the app to the media and trying to develop enough chemistry to get through the next few months.  Being a YA romance, you know what happens next between them.

I found the premise of an app that predicts the future not only silly but also morally wrong.  There is no such thing as "proven science" on how people answer questions (of any sort) or profound meaning that can be attributed to it.  The idea that a person's future can be 93% determined by those answers is ridiculous.  And the silliness of the premise is about the only thing that made its morally repugnant elements of predestination tolerable.  For, as Ro discovers in the end, there is an ethical problem with forecasting people's future (or at least convincing them that you can play god).  All of which made her realization at the end seem quaint and a bit dumb.  So, I hated the story.  

I liked the writing though.  O'Clover can create a well-paced story that makes even a silly plot readable.  I liked the characters and enjoyed the book.  So, I'll keep an eye open for her next book, which hopefully will feature something less cringeworthy for a premise.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Something More, by Jackie Khalilieh

Right before starting ninth grade, Palestinian-Canadian Jessie is diagnosed as autistic.  High functioning, her condition's not been particularly obvious to others.  They just considered her a bit weird.    Jessie struggles with understanding others and often has felts as if she was wearing a mask.  To avoid social situations, which she's always found challenging, she's kept to herself and been a bit of an outcast.  She isn't particularly comfortable discussing autism with others, but having an explanation comforts her.  Armed with that knowledge she pledges to make the year different:  she'll reach out and make friends, try out for drama, and maybe meet a boy (or two).

There's not much new here:  Jessie's love for 90s popular culture, the classic love triangle (bad boy Levi and sweet quiet Griffin), and having to sneak around behind the backs of her traditional ethnic parents.  Two elements -- the fact that she is autistic and her Palestinian roots -- are both attempts to breath originality into this otherwise by-the-numbers teen romance. Neither particular stands out because the author does so little with them.  

As much as Khallilieh wants to take her own experience as an autistic Palestinian and make a unique story, she doesn't seem to know how to present it as such.  Jessie sometimes misreads her best friends' behaviors, but so do most teenagers.  Jessie doesn't recognize that Griffin likes her as more than a friend, but that's the point of the romantic triangle trope.  In her afterward, Khalilieh acknowledges as much (noting that some neurotypical women may see themselves in Jessie's character) but still insists that there are differences.  I want to respect that but there's little in this story that separates Jessie from most other YA heroines.  If Jessie is different, somewhere in the story you have to explain how that is so.

Friday, September 01, 2023

One True Wish, by Lauren Kate

Once you are in sixth grade, you aren't supposed to believe in wish-granting fairies.  But that's OK, because when Phoebe (a wish-granting fairy) crash lands in Texas, she's incredulous herself -- because she doesn't believe in children!  However, if Phoebe is going to ever return to her home on the North Star, she's going to not only start believing but get Birdie, Gem, and Van to start making some serious wishes that she can grant.

What should they wish for?  Gem is struggling with body image problems, Birdie feels that her life-long friendship with Gem is falling apart and she doesn't know why, and Van (who is non-binary) misses their home in Ireland and is growing tired of being passed back and forth between their separated parents.  With all of their lives changing around them, there's in fact never been a better time to start believing in fairies!

Despite a promising synopsis and a potential tribute to J. M. Barrie, this is a disappointingly slapdash middle reader with a plethora of tropes and few ideas of what to do with them.  It's a story with tween girls, so let's talk about bras and periods!  It's a story with a non-binary character, so let's mention puberty blockers.  It's a story that takes place in Texas, so let's acknowledge that Van's plans for their future use of those blockers are being circumscribed by the State government.  But let's not actually do anything with any of these ideas.  Instead, there's a largely incomprehensibly story about finding the kids choosing their "truest" wishes and getting the fairy to grant them.  I found it to be a hot mess and gave up on trying to understand by the end.