Saturday, October 28, 2023

Summer of a Thousand Pies, by Margaret Dilloway

After Cady's father turns up at her school high on drugs, he ends up in jail and Cady is sent to live with an aunt she's never met.  Cady is sure her father will get out soon and bring her home, even though she knows that he's rarely provided much of a home so far.  Still, Cady is pretty stubborn and when she wants something, she sticks to it!

Aunt Shell runs a pie shop and it's struggling.  Cady doesn't see what the big deal is -- how hard can it be to bake a pie?  But when her first attempt fails spectacularly, she finds she has a lot to learn.  It takes a thousand pies to learn how to make the perfect one, her aunt tells her.  Cady's determined to try.  She's also convinced that if her aunt would only change her business plan, the shop could be successful.  But Aunt Shell is as stubborn as her niece and a test of wills develops between them.

This summer, it will take a lot more than a thousand pies to change Cady and Aunt Shell's world for the better.  It will take trust, a family bond, courage, and an openness to accepting a little help.

A pleasing middle reader without a huge amount of surprises.  Dilloway attempts to add some gravitas by bring in some undocumented workers to start a dialogue about immigration, but it's a half-hearted effort and doesn't add to the story.  Instead, Dilloway's message of opening your heart and being unafraid to take risks has a more lasting message for the reader.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

If Tomorrow Doesn't Come, by Jen St. Jude

Avery has had a rough first semester at Eaton College. She's washed out of the soccer team, making people question how she ever got a scholarship.  And her grades, always a source of pride in the past, are slipping.  She can't make any friends and her old friends from home are slipping away.  But more than anything, she feels an overwhelming sadness and a desire to just end things.  She decides to end her life.

But as she is in the process of drowning herself in the river, her plans are interrupted by the shocking news that the world itself is ending.  An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and will collide in nine days -- ending all human life for certain.  The result is global panic as people scramble to reunite with their loved ones and struggle to find meaning in their final days.  For Avery, it means abandoning her plans and reflecting through flashbacks upon how she got to this point.  In the process she discovers that people do love her and there is value to life.

Certainly an unusual story with its original combination of plotlines.  While it sounded intriguing, I didn't find it worked all that well.  Neither the end of the world nor clinical depression can really be addressed in a meaningful way in such a limited window and that sets the novel up to fail.  The pacing of the two stories is necessarily different. The end-of-the-world story is very immediate and very intense, while the flashbacks showing Avery's descent into despair are moody and languid.  Compounding the impossible stories is the fact that the book consists of almost entirely false starts.  It's hard to say what one could do in only nine days that would have meaning, but it really isn't clear why what these characters actually do during it amounts to a compelling read.  

Well-written but the concepts of the two stories never really pans out.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

A Song Only I Can Hear, by Barry Jonsberg

Rob is painfully shy and subject to panic attacks, but when he falls in love with Destry Camberwick at first sight, he knows he needs to make her notice him.  But how?  Everyone has advice for him:  from his cantankerous grandfather, to his parents, to his best friend Andrew.  However, it's when he starts to receive mysterious anonymous text messages, that things start to change.  They lay out a series of challenges that find Rob becoming a (surprisingly good) soccer goalie, performing Shakespeare in a talent show, and standing up for a cause he believes in.  Ultimately, the changes transcend his pursuit for Destry and expand into Rob becoming fearless about revealing his true self.

The majority of the book is actually hilariously funny.  Helped along by the irreverent behavior of Rob's grandfather and Rob's own snarky observations about his school and family, this breezy read (I finished the entire 300-page book in an afternoon) is good fun.  I would have been happy to have it end like that, but the author takes it in an entirely different direction that to me felt tortured.  If you go back and re-read carefully there is some foreshadowing for the ending but it really doesn't have to be present (see below if you don't mind spoilers).  And the book's final chapter, where the fourth wall is dropped altogether, really just seemed like nonsense to me.

<Spoiler> There will be readers who will feel it is really important to the story that Rob is trans, but honestly I found no value in that reveal except to give this book a new audience and an additional agenda it didn't need.  There's very little in this story that relies upon Rob's gender identity or birth sex.  Without it, this is a good story about a boy named Rob who had a grandfather who helped him find himself.  And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter that Rob was once named Roberta.</Spoiler>

All Alone With You, by Amelia Diane Coombs

When senior Eloise discovers that she needs some community service on her transcript if she's to have a hope of getting accepted by USC, she begrudgingly signs up.  The placement (at an agency that supports seniors through phone calls and home visits) is completely outside Eloise's comfort zone.  She's an anti-social loner who hates talking with strangers, but she needs the credit and she's driven and stubborn enough that she dives in.  The results are pretty disastrous until a coworker named Austin takes her to visit Marianne Landis.

Marianne is a septuagenarian rock star who once fronted a group called the Laundromats, who had a string of hits in the 1970s and early 1980s.  And, as stubborn as Eloise is, she makes a perfect match for curmudgeonly Marianne.  Eloise, who never thought she needed anyone or their help, discovers that Marianne is a fount of wisdom.  Most pressingly so, when Eloise finds to her horror that she is falling in love with Austin.

An above average romance with a set of life lessons in it.  Eloise and Austin are fine in their roles, but the romance follows the fairly conventional storyline and won't surprise at all.  Marianne, however is an absolute hoot and I could well have enjoyed a book about her alone.  I had a mental picture the whole time of Joan Jett and it wouldn't surprise me if Ms. Jett partly inspire the character (although there are plenty of differences).  The idea of a rock star having life lessons to hand out like a rock-and-roll Master Miyagi is hilarious in itself but who doesn't enjoy a story about a youngster learning at the feet of a senior?  The book has feel good written all over it and a brisk-paced storytelling made this an enjoyable light read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Other Side of Infinity, by Jean F. Smith

Nick has only been a lifeguard for three weeks when he gets his first rescue.  But instead of diving in and saving the man (who turns out to be a popular teacher at his school), he panics and freezes up. It is a swimmer nearby named December who pulls the man out of the water and starts CPR. But she doesn't want to be involved and flees the scene before help arrives and everyone assumes that Nick is a hero.

December's presence (and presence of mind) was not coincidental.  Ever since she was seven years old and her mother walked out of her life, she's been able to see the future.  In this case, she knew the man was about to drown and when Nick did nothing, she intervened, saved the man, and altered the timeline.  But as she did so, she foresaw that she and Nick would fall in love and that shortly thereafter he would die.

To avert that preordained outcome, she tries to avoid him altogether, but Nick can't stay away and she doesn't want him to do so.  In fact, not only do they fall in love, but he promises to help her find her Mom -- a search which sets off a tragic chain of events, not all of which are foreseen.

In brief, it is an often confusing story with a fascinating circularity.  So many subplots and they all eventually tie up together.  This is complex and madly clever writing and a definite recommendation for people who enjoy stories about fate.  While I enjoyed the story, I was less engaged by the characters in that story, finding it hard to really like either Nick or December.  And was also disappointed that some elements of the story (like Nick's dyslexia or a school bully with sexual predatory behavior) were so underdeveloped -- a predictable problem in such a complex story.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The Paper Museum, by Kate S. Simpson

In the distant future, no one uses paper anymore and books have been consigned to the Paper Museum.  It's a sad and neglected place -- no one ever comes to visit it, but Lydia loves taking care of the old books and searching for abandoned bookmarks within them.  

Taking care of the museum has always been in the hands of Lydia's family, but since the mysterious disappearance of her parents and the subsequent departure of her beloved Uncle Lem, it's just been her and her mercurial Uncle Renald.  All these missing family members could not happen at a worse time:  technology is failing and the Mayor is convinced that it is the fault of unlawful acts of magic being practiced by Lydia's family.  Books are not only of dubious value but strongly associated with unlawful magic. The Mayor is on a mission to shut the museum down and destroy the books.  It falls on Lydia and her friends to stop him.

It's a quirky middle reader fantasy which I wanted to love for its clever observations on the magical power of books and its critique of how technology is in conflict with that magic.  It is a clever concept, but the storytelling is frustrating. In a mystery, one wants clues and at least the illusion that, if you read carefully, you could figure out what was going on before everything is revealed in the end.  But here there are no such clues.  Instead, we have to wait to the end to have things revealed to us by the author.  That's sort of the opposite of the magic that Simpson is trying to talk about.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Take, by Jennifer Bradbury

When her father disappears, Cara fears the worst. After all, it's not the first time this has happened.  He's done this before when he's gone off his meds, but usually she is able to find him within a few days.  This time, when Cara drops by his house, he's been gone for a week or more.  She finds maps, books, and (mysteriously) photographs of Japanese concentration camps pinned up on the wall.  More seriously, she finds his climbing gear missing.

When he was still healthy, Dad was a great climber and taught and Cara to be one as well. But climbing is a team effort and he's in no shape to be going it alone.  Whatever fool mission he has developed, he is in trouble.  So, with the awkward help of her ex-boyfriend, Cara searches for her Dad and tries to unravel what has made him go off the rails this time.  It's a search that will take her dep into her family's history and into a dangerous ascent.

Interspersed with a series of flashbacks of an ill-fated romance between a CCC worker and a Japanese-American farmgirl at the start of World War II, Take is an ambitious and ultimately uplifting story of love, family, and fateful choices, wrapped in a mountain climbing drama.  Bradbury does an amazing job providing a primer on climbing and the jargon of mountain climbers that guides the reader through a suspenseful journey into the mind and the madness of the sport.  And the contra positioning of mountain climbing and Japanese detention during WWII, while seemingly unrelated, comes together in a moving climax.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

I'm Not Here to Make Friends, by Andrew Yang

Hotel California is the name of a obscure reality show whose special niche is that it features an all-Asian cast.  Sabine is a big fan of the show and is ecstatic when she wins the opportunity to star in the third season.  Still, she's apprehensive because she's from Moline IL and not nearly as sparkly as her co-stars who all hail from big cities.

Sparkliest of all is Yoona, who has her own demons to face.  She's trying to prove she doesn't deserve the reputation she has back home of being a mean girl by being super nice to everyone on the show.  But her sarcastic wit rubs sensitive Sabine the wrong way and the two girls are quickly at each other's throats.  

Sabine worries that house is largely allied with Yoona and wonders how she'll make it through the season, but a helpful assistant producer feeds her advice and guides her on how to take charge of the situation.  When that advice starts making things worse, Yoona gets suspicious that the producers of the show are trying to pump up (not diffuse) the drama in search of ratings.  To prevent that from happening, Sabine and Yoona will have to learn to trust each other and break from their past behaviors.

It's a silly storyline that explores classism and bullying in the light context of a reality show fantasy.  Readers will enjoy the way the story shifts perspectives, starting off by portraying Sabine sympathetically and making Yoona seem scheming but then switching the roles about half way.  That serves a nice reminder of how perceptions can be easily misled, which in turn preps us to accept that both girls need to learn to be less judgmental.  That's about as heavy as things get.  This isn't a story that one should take too seriously, but it is certainly entertaining. It's also surprisingly chaste for a story about largely unsupervised teens and only a little rough language pulls this out of a G rating.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

This Is the Way the World Ends, by Jen Wilde

Waverly is an autistic scholarship student at Webber Academy and taking the first step on a career path to graduate from Yale Med and become a neurologist.  It's taken sacrifices from her family and great acts of generosity from the school to make this possible.  Waverley's grateful, but she can't help noticing the chasm that exists between her family and the families of her classmates.  

The contrast could not be starker when it comes to the school's Masquerade, where tickets cost $10,000 a piece.  Waverley could never find that sort of money so she isn't planning on going.  But then one of her classmates, Caroline gives her a ticket and loans her the fancy gown she was going to wear on the condition that Waverly pretends to be her (being a masked ball, no one will know that it's really Waverly in the gown0.  And so Waverly find herself sneaking in, under disguise.

That's when things start to go off the rails.  Waverly finds herself witness to a murder and uncovers a plot to take over the world, being led by the headmaster of the Academy.  It's a plan that that kicks off when the lights go out all over the world because of a solar flare.  With time running out, Waverly and her friends must find a way to stop the plans, all while dodging a fabulous party that is taking place around them.

The plot is absurd, but gains gravitas (and/or gets weighed down) by including lots of biting social criticism.  It's heavy-handed stuff. The leaders of the school and its supporters are connected with all the sources of wealth and power (politics, finance, technology, etc.) while Waverly and her gang of scholarship misfits are neuro-divergent, LGBT, and minorities.  It is literally the kids against the 1%.  That doesn't always work and there are several unintended humorous moments.  But occasionally, as when Waverly has her climactic showdown with the headmaster, some rather thoughtful dialog emerges and deep questions get asked.