Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Look No Further, by Rioghnach Robinson and Siofra Robinson

Niko and Ali meet each other at an exclusive summer program for art students in New York City.  Underachiever Niko barely squeaks in on the waitlist.  Back home in California, art is his best subject but he's really more devoted to surfing than studying.  His mother and stepfather are white, but his biological father was Chinese. Showing up at the program, he's immediately pegged as an Asian artist, a characterization with which he is not fully comfortable.  

Ali is a local girl, a high achiever, and yet she feels out of place amidst the artsy types at the school.  She slavishly copies the other students in how they dress and even in the art they create.  She has little sense of who she is. 

When the two of them get assigned to work on a project together to trace how their heritage has informed their art, they quickly make a shocking discovery:  Niko and Ali have the same father!  Neither of them have ever met him, but with some research, they discover that he might be living in New York.  So, while trying to keep up on their studies, they decide to try to track him down to see if they can reconnect with him.  The search causes both of them to confront the parts of themselves that they are uncomfortable with and subsequently to grow.

Overall, this a well-written story about self-identity and finding oneself..  For Ali, this is the traditional  trope of discovering her own voice by ceasing to copy others.  It also involves her becoming comfortable  embracing her feelings for another girl.  For Niko, it is about connecting with his Asianess (raising several issues about anti-Asian racism along the way).  Either way, the novel has a well-paced dramatic arc and delivers a very satisfactory ending.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Fight for Midnight, by Dan Solomon

Alex's only friend is a crotchety old guy at an adult day care center, who delights in being read Game of Thrones (with particular attention to the beheadings).  It's all basically Alex's fault:  he's the one who let his best friend die from drugs and then got himself on the wrong end of two bullies from school.  Still, Alex wouldn't mind having a friend his own age.  So, when queen bee Cassie calls him out of the blue and begs him to come join her at a protest at the State Capitol, he figures he's gotten an opportunity and been granted a wish.  He has no idea what the protest is about and doesn't really care as long as it means spending some time with the girl of his dreams.

That's the set up that places Alex at the Texas statehouse in the summer of 2013 as the Senate debated HB2, a now largely-forgotten attempt to restrict abortion access.  The events are a matter of public record and the book sticks largely to the facts of the case (the author was a journalist covering the protests) so the plot is less important than the story, which tracks Alex's evolution from an apolitical and apathetic young man to a committed activist.  By the end of the story, his personal issues that form such a central role in his life largely fade away in comparison to his investment in the eventual outcome of Wendy Davis's historic filibuster.  Of course, a few years later the repeal of Roe v Wade would largely overtake the now seemingly small fry of that debate, so the novel is really less about any historic achievement than it is about how the events impacted Alex's life.  And that proves to be a surprisingly satisfying read.

Friday, November 24, 2023

The Secret Sisters, by Avi

In The Secret School, fourteen year-old Ida's experience teaching in her rural one-room schoolhouse brought her to the attention of Trudy, the local inspector.  In this sequel, Trudy invites Ida to move into town to attend high school.  Life in Steamboat Springs is drastically different from home and Ida has to cope with telephones, trains, and indoor plumbing amongst other modern marvels.  But it isn't just modern technology that Ida has to adjust to; there are all sorts of new modern ideas.  Steamboat Springs, like everywhere in 1925, is awash with new beliefs about culture, politics, and women's position in society.  For independent and string-willed Ida, the ideas are a revelation, but when she finds the more traditional and conservative principal of the school threatening to expel her, Ida has to decide what is more important:  her beliefs or her future?

A good historical novel for young readers that exposes readers to a variety of issues including women's enfranchisement (and the reaction against it), classism, and rural poverty.  Ida's stubbornness is touted as far more of a virtue than it probably is, but the book's allegiance to standing up for your beliefs at all costs is unequivocally clear.  A fast paced and enjoyable read.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Rosie Loves Jack, by Mel Darbon

Rose has Downs Syndrome and her boyfriend Jack suffered a brain injury that makes him now prone to violent outbursts.  Despite how often Rose's Mom assures her that she is capable and independent, no one seems to believe that they are really in love.  But Rose knows that when they are together Rose can be Rose and Jack can be Jack.  When Jack gets sent away to another facility and the two of them are separated, Rose is miserable.  And when she discovers that her parents are intercepting Jack's letters because they want to separate her and Jack, she decides that she needs to find Jack so they can be together.  

She figures out a plan and runs away from home.  At first, everything goes well, but when winter storms cancel the trains, Rose has to navigate the not-so-nice streets of London.  But she persists because she absolutely needs to get to Jack.

Told in Rose's voice, Darbon does an outstanding job of portraying a confusing and often threatening world as seen through the eyes of her young neurodivergent protagonist.  That's a real challenge and Darbon is clever in her way of depicting Rose's fine observational skills with in the bounds of her challenges at communication.  Some of the scenes in the book are downright terrifying, but the book avoids gratuitous melodrama in their depiction.  Rose herself shows inspiring fortitude and strength throughout but in a way which respects the challenges she experiences in her life.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Down Came the Rain, by Jennifer Mathieu

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, two Houston teens struggle with how to come to terms with the way that the storm uprooted their lives.

Eliza comes from a well-off family, but that didn't protect them from the flood waters and they have been forced to move in with other family while their house is rebuilt.  Meanwhile, the flooding of her school means that she will now be taking classes at a neighboring high school, where the students are traditionally disadvantaged. 

Eliza, who has been concerned with climate change for some time, sees Harvey are a warning that she must work harder to reverse the damage, knowing that it may be too late.  She decides to take action and puts together a club to educate her fellow students and promote more sustainable practices at school.

Javier was much luckier.  There wasn't any damage at his place, which is good since his family would never have been able to afford to rebuild, but the hurricane still has left its mark.  Whenever it rains now, Javier gets frightened and curls up into a ball.  He's falling apart but doesn't understand why.  Into his world (and his high school) comes Eliza and her club seems the perfect antidote for what is causing his fears.  It doesn't hurt that he finds Eliza inspiring and attractive.

While the club's efforts promise lots of positive changes, Eliza becomes frustrated at her inability to speed up the changes that she knows the world needs.  She loses her perspective, causing her to commit a terrible error that could well ruin both of their lives and derail their goals.

While at times preachy, the story is an entertaining and engaging young teen book about climate change anxiety.  It also takes on classism and racism, but not in any particularly new way.  For me, the most notable thing was the effort that Mathieu put in to showing adults struggling with the aftermath of the hurricane as well.  The teachers, in particular, were much more fleshed out as people than they commonly are (naturally enough, as the author is a school teacher).  This carried over to a really nice depiction of the troubled relationship between Eliza and her Dad.  It wasn't so much that the adults were the subject, but it was nice to give them a little depth and show that it wasn't only the kids who were hurt.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Language of Cherries, by Jen Marie Hawkins

Evie has been yanked out of her home in Miami, where her friends and Abuela are, and transplanted in rural Iceland by her father.  Stuck in a world with cold summers and a night that never grows dark, she feels disconnected.  But then she discovers a near magical cherry orchid that inspires her to create the most amazing paintings and causes her to meet Oskar.

Oskar has every reason to despise Americans.  It was an American tourist who caused the accident where his family were killed.  Five years later, Oskar hasn't been able to get over the loss and it has afflicted him with a stutter that he self-medicates with marijuana.  But despite her nationality, there's something about Evie that draws him close:  her paintings.  She has somehow drawn pictures of his family and of events from his childhood that she could not possibly have known about.  He is obsessed with finding out why.

Embarrassed by his speech problems, he stays mute around her and she  in turn misinterprets this as a language barrier.  Liberated by the idea that he can't understand her, she opens up and freely confesses her innermost thoughts -- her anger at her mother, her longing for her Abuela back in Miami, and her loneliness.  The more she confides, the more Oskar realizes he can't continue to let this go on.  He needs to come clean, but worries about what will happen when she learns the truth.

An extremely slow-paced and lyrical work full of unusual eclectic elements: Evie's Cuban heritage, Oskar's exotic mix of taciturn Scandinavian and pagan Scots, and touches of magic through the cherry trees.  The blurbs describe this as magical realism, but it isn't really that grandiose.  Instead, this is more a subtle supernatural element that enlivens but doesn't distract.  The characters are all quite memorable, but it is more of a study than a story.  The plot alludes to whole slew of plot points (e.g., forgiveness, mother-daughter conflict, intergenerational understanding, and coming of age) but the book is more of a mood piece and there's very little development.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Lola at Last, by J C Peterson

Lola returns from a disastrous year in France, to where she was sent after a scandal last summer.  She's determined to regain her position as a queen bee at school.  Instead, goaded by her deletant ex-boyfriend, she nearly burns up her brother-in-law's yacht.  Threatened with arrest for her (unintentional!) act of arson, she is offered an alternative: spending the summer in a wilderness program for young women.  Lola, whose idea of roughing it would be being seen in public in drug store make-up, is horrified.  But given the alternative, she reluctantly accepts her fate.

It's very rough going.  Lola is a mean girl and a terrible snob.  Unaccustomed to having to face consequences or take responsibility for herself, she's singularly unprepared for hiking nature trails.  So, she stumbles from one bad move to another, alienating everyone around her until she has no one left.  Forced to finally owns up to her situation, she manages to navigate her redemption.  Part of that involves shedding her toxic former friends and ex-boyfriend and finding new (and healthier) relationships.  Reconciling with her twin sister is also part of the equation.

Loosely based on Pride and Prejudice, this book is lively and quick reading.  I imagine that for fans of the original, the story will be seen as amusing and clever.  For myself, I found Lola too grating, nasty, and unsympathetic to ever really engage with.  Lydia Bennet worked as a character because of the time period in which she was living, but in the contemporary world a vain young woman who delights in knocking others down really don't succeed.  That Lola wins the nice boy and learns how to make a sincere apology in the end is not enough -- modern society has much higher expectations for young women.  Were I to meet Lola IRL, I would almost certainly dislike her and I would never trust her.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth, by Andrew Joseph White

In this depiction of alternative Victorian England, there is a Veil which separates the living from the dead and it is the duty of Speakers to guard that barrier.  The Speakers are all men and if a woman should appear with the abilities of a Speaker (signified by having violet eyes), she is persecuted and suppressed.  Silas Bell, a sixteen year-old trans boy aches to become a Speaker himself, but since society views him as a girl, it is impossible.  However, Silas is crafty and bravely impersonates a candidate for initiation.  When he is found is found out, he is sent to Braxton, an asylum and finishing school for girls who haven't learned to accept their place in society.

That's when things start getting very scary.  Silas quickly notices that the Veil is particularly thin around the school, a sign of unsettled spirits.  The Headmaster, it turns out, collects souvenir trophies of  the people he's killed and their desecration haunts the place.  But there is deeper evil afoot.  The students at the school are disappearing in particularly gruesome ways -- through medical experiments conducted in the basement.  But by the time Silas uncovers the full extent of the horror (and the widespread involvement of the men around her) it may be too late to do anything about it.

Beyond the extremely graphic depictions of eviscerations, involuntary surgeries (without anesthesia), and lots of blood, triggers in this novel include rape, molestation, bullying, and self-harm.  In other words, there's an awful lot of difficult material to digest here.  Personally, I found that I needed to take breaks (particularly in the second half of the book where the scenes become notably more intense).

So, why read it at all?  Despite being a painful story, I found it compelling because it is very well written and because much of the tortures described in the book are based on the real abuses committed by the medical profession in the period.  It is a work of fiction, but raises many uneasy questions about how we define abnormality and deviance.  Fans of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish will be in their element.  Readers with sensitive feels should almost certainly avoid this book.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Actually Super, by Adi Alsaid

After enduring the past few years of social turmoil, high school senior Isabel despairs that the world more full of bad than good.  In response, she has withdrawn and become obsessed with a chat forum called "Actually Super" where members report sightings of real-life superheroes.  These "supers" are people with secret supernatural powers and devoted to using them for good.  The evidence is scant and no one can point definitively to one of these supers, but Isabel is hooked.  Losing herself in the search for these defenders of humanity, she drops out of school and sets off on a tour of the world to find them.  The road trip that ensues takes her from her home in Michigan to Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Argentina, and finally Mexico.  Her search  is as much spiritual as geographic, opening her mind to the true potential of humans to be both good and bad, and revealing unexpected truths about our longing for superheroes in a world of uncertainty.

Ostensibly a spectacular road trip, this fascinating spiritual work about what ultimately makes us good and bad is a strikingly original work.  I was drawn in by Isabel's grasping for meaning and value in a world that has grown so cynical and distrustful of such searches.  When I was growing up, there were a number of popular novels that combined good storytelling with philosophical exploration -- where a fantastic journey led to enlightenment (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The World According to Garp, and Illusions amongst others) but that style of novel writing has largely fallen out of fashion.  Alsaid, whose previous work (Before Takeoff) was about the Rapture taking place at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is a bold enough writer to dust off this old form.  

The result is a book that, while set in the current day, becomes timeless in its universal search for meaning.  It could not occur at a better time.  We know that the past few years have been particularly hard on the mental health of young people. In our age full of cynical politics, climate change, pandemic lockdowns, and short attention spans, Actually Super speaks to recapturing meaning and appreciating the small kindness that we can all do -- the ways we can all become superheroes.  A book like this calls on the reader to set aside the harmful messages and look for goodness instead in the little things that make us so similar to each other all around the world.  It's an inspiration and an unforgettable read.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Reggie and Delilah's Year of Falling, by Elise Bryant

The trope of the young couple who never quite manage to hitch up gets a turbo charged treatment in this cute, but ultimately overdrawn romance of near misses and misunderstandings.  Through the course of an entire year, Reggie and Delilah agonize over whether to get together or not.  You can agonize along with them for nearly 400 pages.  Don't get me wrong, it's delightful and charming and these two young people make for a very appealing couple.  You just wish they'd get over their anxieties and get on with it!

Reggie is a rarity -- a black kid who loves Dungeons & Dragons.  And while it's the most important thing in his life, he can't share it with his family for fear of their rejection.  Reggie's passion isn't just limited to playing, but also to social criticism.  His anonymously written essays on racial prejudice in roleplaying games has gathered quite a lot of attention -- attention that won't translate to anything because Reggie is afraid of going public.  That's all so much unlike this girl he's met named Delilah who is an amazing singer and is so bravely performing in front of big crowds at local gigs.  He knows that she would never go for a loser nerd like him.

If you asked her, Delilah would never see herself the way Reggie sees her.  She has never felt particularly talented until she helps out some friends in a garage band and steps in front of a microphone for them.  As their singer, the band's popularity takes off, but her bandmates refuse to acknowledge her contribution and won't let her provide artistic input.  Should she risk everything by standing up for herself?  Looking at Reggie and how famous he is with his writing and how confident he seems to be, Delilah feels inspired to step up.

Each of them, convinced that the other is braver than they could ever be, try to be brave and become better people.  It has a positive end, but driven by lies and wishful thinking, there is a tragic nature to all this posturing.  When all things are revealed, can they salvage enough of their relationship to stay together?

All of this makes for a good romance that generally works well.  Beyond the romance, I found their struggle with racial identity interesting as well.  It was very organic and didn't carry the heaviness of a message book but also didn't feel like a whitewash.  Their racial identity informs who they are without being the only thing in who they are and a lot of good things about that got said through their mouths.  My only complaint is the one I noted at the beginning of this review: the drama drags out way too long.  A little less of that would have made for a better book.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Out of Character, by Jenna Miller

Cass is obsessed with on-line role-playing and her home is with a group of other teen girls who are writing scenes based on the Tide Wars duology.  While Cass has struggled with online addiction for some time, having her mother move out on her recently hasn't helped matters.  

It's not that she's particularly unpopular (her boyfriend -- before she decided that she was a lesbian -- is the school's quarterback and her best friend is one of his teammates), but that roleplaying allows her to escape from her real world problems.  Over the years, she has developed close bonds with the other players and feels closer to them than to her real life friends.

In the real world, however, no one knows about these activities.  All that time online is hurting her grades, but her father just assumes that the problems at school are due to her Mom. Cass is afraid to let him know what is really happening for fear that he'll cut her off and she'll lose the only support she feels that she has.  Meanwhile, she's hidden this geekier side of herself from her friends, for fear of their judgment of her.

When Taylor, a girl at school, on whom Cass has long had a crush, asks her out, Cass jumps at the opportunity.  Things grow complicated balancing the new romance with her secret online life.  While she freely tells the girls in her group about Taylor, she can't bring herself to Taylor about them.  More awkwardly, Cass discovers that she has feelings for a girl in the group and must decide whether she would rather be with this girl or with Taylor.

Cass has some serious of character flaws that make her pretty hard to like.  While she cleans up her act by the end, the way she treats her friends (and Taylor in particular) is pretty reprehensible.  There were definitely points where I was tempted to put the book down.  The whole lying-to-your-friends thing never ends well (especially in novels) and watching this train wreck unfold over the first 250 pages is pretty painful.  So, a lot is riding on those last 100 pages!  Cass redeems herself by being strong and communicative, and her ability to own her faults and (largely) address them.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the story and the representation of online role-play.  As someone who does a lot of RP himself, I can totally appreciate the dynamics of the activity and the way it can easily become an obsession.  The group's actual writing wasn't terribly good, but RP rarely is.  Miller largely gets the fact that while it is game and a fantasy, for those people who participate in it, you develop real friendships and invest real emotions into it.  And yes, RL (real life) is truly more complicated than RP, the dynamic of group on-line interaction can get pretty dramatic.  A late scene, for example, where one of the players quit their group was devastating in a way that felt very familiar.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Plan A, by Deb Caletti

In the summer after junior year, Ivy is planning for college, not for a pregnancy.  But when her test shows a plus sign, she has to make arrangements.  There's no doubt in her mind that she wants an abortion, but in Paris, Texas that's not a simple thing to accomplish.  Thanks to Texas's six-week limit, she can no longer have the procedure performed here, so she makes plans to go to Oregon where her grandmother lives.  She slips out of town with her boyfriend (who's not the father) and they embark on a road trip to Oregon.

At this point, the novel takes an odd turn as they take on a fairly leisurely road trip, visiting towns that are the namesakes of famous world cities (Rome, Lima, etc.).  It's a little hard to understand why they drag out the trip this way and it slows down the pace of novel considerably, but Caletti has her reasons.  Along the way, women come out and share with Ivy that they too have been in her position and that they also have had abortions.  By the time Ivy gets to Oregon, she finds that she is far from alone.

Caletti's purpose is to demystify (and de-shame) abortions but pointing out that, as uncomfortable as the public discourse is, there's plenty of private conversation going on as a large number of women have gone through the experience.  The book occasionally gets a bit preachy on the subject, but I thought it was a good talking point and allows the novel to make a constructive contribution to the issue.  

Another theme in this book are frequent violations of the fourth wall as Caletti calls out the tendency to overdramatize abortions in novels on the subject.  Ivy has some emotional turmoil, but she never wavers in her conviction that she's making the right decision.  The procedure itself is dealt with matter-of-factly and concisely with no complicated preliminaries.  There are not angry protestors, no last minute hysterics,  and no drama at all.  The only real tension is a bunch of petty harassment in her hometown (which seemed largely unnecessary and gratuitous).  Her point is that abortion is only as dramatic as we care to make it.