Saturday, December 30, 2023

Larkin on the Shore, by Jean Mills

Trying to cope with her mother's descent into opioid addiction and a traumatic encounter at school, Larkin ends up bruised and drunk in a hospital emergency room.  In the aftermath, Larkin's father decides to send her away to spend the summer with her grandmother in a small coastal village in Nova Scotia.  There, she contemplates the virtues of ending her life (poetically, by attempting to swim to PEI) while her grandmother patiently pushes her towards finding hope through making new friends and helping set up a cafĂ©.

While well-written, the pacing is slow and the themes could easily have been further developed.  We're never exactly clear what happened to Larkin back at her school,  Meanwhile, the mother and her story doesn't really move beyond a brief recollection (and an even briefer dialog). Mills does a fine job in showing us how sad and depressed Larkin is and in capturing her panic attacks.  However, lacking the context deprives us of much of the punch or the necessary reader empathy to make it be something dramatic.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

100 Days of Sunlight, by Abbie Emmons

When an auto accident causes Tessa to lose her sight, the promise that the loss is probably temporary is small comfort.  She holes herself up in her room and cuts herself off from her friends.  Her grandparents decide to take things into their own hands and place an ad for a person to come help Tessa do things like dictation.  Tessa is enraged that they would do such a thing and when Weston shows up for the job, she takes her frustration out on him.  He isn't bothered, he's seen worse.

Weston is a double amputee -- the result of an untreated infection from an accident three years prior.  Through flashbacks, he describes the process he went through to come back, working through not only his disability but also his anger at his fate -- knowledge that he applies to Tessa's situation.  However, he has an advantage:  she doesn't know he's an amputee.

Over the next hundred days, through patience and stubborn persistence, Weston works through Tessa's barriers and gradually helps her deal with her blindness.  However, he knows that one day soon she'll get her sight back and then she'll see him as he truly is.  And he fears what she will do.

A terribly sweet and utterly gratuitous romance.  Weston is pretty much the Perfect Boy -- kind, considerate, generous, with just a small amount of naughtiness (he gets into fist fights).  He adores Tessa.  And of course, he has nothing better to do than dote on her for three months.  Needless to say, we know that his silly fears about her hating him when she sees his disability are nothing big, so we're flipping the pages waiting for that swoon-worthy happily-ever-after kiss.  And this is the kind of story that delivers just what the readers want.  In sum, pure unadulterated literary junk food.  Grab a pint of Ben & Jerry's or a package of Oreos and dig in!

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Land of Neverendings, by Kate Saunders

Three months after Emily's sister Holly has died, she is still processing the loss.  Her mother is always sad and Emily's friends are uncomfortable in her presence.  However, Emily is surprised to realize that the thing she feels the greatest sense of loss over is Bluey, Holly's teddy bear.  For while Bluey was definitely Holly's toy, Emily knows in her heart that if she could only confide to Bluey, everything would feel alright.  Unfortunately, they placed Bluey in the coffin when they buried Holly.

Amidst that longing for a lost toy and perhaps inspired by being cast in the lead for a school production of Alice, Emily stumbles across a portal to the world of Smockeroon, the land of the toys.  There she is presented with the entrancing idea that she could reconnect with Bluey (and perhaps even her own sister).  However, behind this opening between the "hardworld" and Smockeroon lies a sinister force -- a giant toad who wants to import all of the sadness of Emily's world into the world of toys, in an attempt to destroy the joy and happiness of that latter place.

In a very British way, this riff on CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll (with a unacknowledged debt to Pixar) explores the grieving of a child told through our relationship with toys and play.  The story is a bit chaotic and difficult to follow and the deeper themes will definitely fly over the heads of young readers.  Still, it's a clever book and it's nice to read something so sweet and innocent.  Entirely suitable for all ages.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

If He Had Been With Me, by Laura Nowlin

Autumn and Finn grew up together as best friends and next door neighbors.  Their mothers always assumed that they would end up together as a couple.  But by the time high school begins, they aren't really talking to each other anymore.  Autumn has Jamie and Finn has found Sylvie.  They both couldn't be happier in their respective relationships.  But somehow all that shared history bring Autumn and Finn back to each in their times of need.  

Mapped out over four years of high school, Nowlin's lushly written novel captures the trials and drama of Autumn and Finn's development and their largely inevitable coming together.  While beautifully written, covering such a long expanse of time leads to a lot of jumping around and senior year is largely a blur in this retelling. Throughout, I struggled to understand where the story was really going.  Yes, there are plenty of indications along the way that Finn and Autumn really ought to be together, but the book is full of so much more than that (subplots ranging from a pregnancy to a divorce to drugs to sexual abuse) that I wondered what the point of the book really was.  It's all very pretty and well-told, but does one need to cram every single good idea into the same book?

All that is a minor complaint compared to my thoughts on the book's shocking ending.  I won't spoil the story for others, but I feel very strongly that Nowlin basically ruined the story for me in the last ten pages with an unnecessary, pointless, and completely out-of-the-blue plot twist that lacks any foundation.  I'd suggest stopping on page 381 because I'm  now left seriously wondering why I read those first 380 pages.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Princess Solimar loves to watch the Monarch butterflies as they pass through on their annual migration.  This year, they have given her something in return:  the gift of prophecy.  In exchange for which, she must watch over the weaker butterflies and ensure that their travels this year go smoothly.

The gift comes at an awkward moment, when the king is absent and an attack from a neighboring kingdom threatens her home.  While she is only a child, as soon as the attacking king learns of her new powers, he wants to harness them for himself and he tries to detain her.  To prevent that from happening, Solimar flees the castle and tries to find her father so she can warn him.  She hopes that he'll find allies, beat back the attackers, and also save the butterflies.  An epic voyage through uncharted waterways awaits!

Like all of Ryan's other novels, this one has a distinctly Hispanic flavor and the setting is vaguely Mexican.  That is manifested mostly through terms, titles, and foods, but also the context (the attack occurs while Solimar is planning her quince).  I always enjoy this stylistic twist in her books although in this case it would have been nice to have a glossary at the back to help with less familiar terms.

More problematically, I didn't enjoy the story very much.  Unlike many of her novels, the stress here is on action.  Character development gets a very short shrift.  Solimar is supposed to go through a great transformation in her ordeal, but I didn't understand what it really was and I actually didn't care much either.  As for the action, it isn't well told, often requiring reading and re-reading passages to understand what is happening.  There's a lot going on and never a dull moment but it is hard to follow.  Definitely not in the same class as Ryan's Esperanza Rising or Becoming Naomi Leon.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Breda's Island, by Jessie Ann Foley

Thirteen year-old Breda has been caught one too many times stealing from others.  It's all petty stuff and mostly done for attention, but her mother, an undocumented Irish beautician, is at wit's end.  She decides that the best way to shape her daughter up is to send Breda to Ireland (a country where Breda's never been) to her grandfather (whom she's never met).  Predictably, the homecoming starts off rough but eventually Breda connects with the old man.  In the process, she sorts through her problems and gets her life back on track.  

As an overall story, there's nothing new here.  The rebellious teen and the crotchety old man straightening each other out is the worst form of trope -- a fantasy worth of a Hallmark show.   And the rural Irish setting is full of plenty of stereotypical blarney. But the book is full of surprises.

Breda has never had a father in the picture and returning to her mother's home gives her a chance to track him down.  Doing so dredges up a lot of buried grudges and anger.  It also causes her to stumble over the fact that her grandfather was also born out of wedlock.  And in his days, such children were abandoned to orphanages where they were subject to severe abuse.  His trauma is largely suppressed but played no small part is how he treated Breda's Mom (and thus Breda).  Coming to terms with Breda's feelings about the lack of a father means also dealing with her grandfather's legacy.  The result is a surprisingly complex story with pretty intense themes about family and abandonment, all of which might be a bit intense for middle readers but make for a surprisingly satisfying mature novel.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Hunger Between Us, by Marina Scott

For 900 days during the height of World War II, the city of Leningrad was under siege and blockaded by the Nazis, trapping over two million people inside to slowly starve to death.  An unfathomable tragedy, the horror was compounded by Soviet corruption and incompetence.  The death toll from German bombings, famine, and disease is estimated at over a million lives.  No one who grew up in the Soviet Union after the Great Patriotic War could possibly not know the story (although the version told in Soviet schoolrooms was largely sanitized), but Westerners are usually ignorant of this historical event.  So, it was something of a surprise to find this piece of historical fiction in the Teen section of the library.

In is the summer of 1942, the siege has been in place for a year.  In that time, the weak have largely died off.  The survivors are the resourceful.  Liza is a survivor.  Through petty theft and deceit, she has managed to scour up enough food to keep living.  As the story begins, Liza is secretly burying her dead mother in order to prevent officials from discovering the death and taking away her Mom's ration card.  Liza's best friend Aka comes across her after the disposal of the body and tells Liza that she herself is going to go to the "Mansion" (the headquarters of the NKVD -- the secret police) to earn some food.  There's plenty of food for the officials and they are willing to share what they have with pretty young girls for a price.  Liza begs Aka not to go, but what alternatives are left?

When Aka fails to return later, Liza goes out of her mind with fear for what has happened and starts to search for the girl.  It's dangerous to poke at the lair of the NKVD and Liza's desperate search takes her in dangerous places where a combination of strong wits, sheer luck, and a bitter detremination to survive carry her through.  Along the way, she renews acquaintances with two boys she knew from school who have taken drastically different paths:  Luka (who hides underground and has abandoned his pride and humanity) and Maksim (who serves in the local constabulary and tries to enforce the law in the face of anarchy).  Both boys try to help Liza, but in the end she has to take her own path to confront horrible secrets about the depths to which people will sink.

As grim and troubling as its subject matter, The Hunger Between Us explores what lines can and cannot be crossed and what survival really means.  It's a brutal story populated with starvation and desperation.  Scenes of physical and sexual violence, numerous references to (off-page) rape, murder, and cannibalism feature prominently.  All of this, however, is just a setting for the very difficult decisions that Liza makes throughout the book.  And she's definitely no saint.  Her primary virtue is her ability to survive and by the end of the story she has plenty of faults to atone for.  But observing her story in its context forces the reader to consider what they would do in the same place and that proves devastating.  A powerful and memorable book and an unusual one of the genre.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Friends Like These, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Jessica hates Tegan and the only reason she ever agreed to attend Tegan's end-of-the-summer party was because Jake convinced her to go.  Jake's blind to the fact that Tegan (who used to date Jake) wants him back and will do anything to get him.

At the party, Jake and Jessica get separated and, before Jessica can realize what is happening, someone is livestreaming hidden camera footage of Jake and Tegan kissing!  Worse, they have started to take off their clothes!  Utterly humiliated by her boyfriend's very public betrayal, Jessica flees the party vowing to have nothing further to do with Jake or Tegan.  But the next morning, Jake turns up covered in blood with no memory of his infidelity or of anything else that happened.  And Tegan has gone missing.

A rather steamy whodunnit that annoyed me the deeper I got into it. The characters spend a lot of time obfuscating the investigation, which drags everything out and more often than not puts them in a worse position.  There are odd priorities as well, with characters more concerned about statutory rape than homicide.  And finally a large part of the solution to the mystery relies upon information only introduced in the final forty pages of the book, which is frustrating for anyone trying to figure things out along the way.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Rat Queen, by Pete Hautman

Annie's father is fond of telling her stories from the Old Country, fairy tales from faraway Litvania.  They are strange stories and always end up in rather unsatisfactory and unhappy ways.  No one else seems to have ever heard of Litvania, but Papa assures her that it very much exists.

When Annie turns ten, her father gives her a peculiar instruction.  Henceforth, whenever she does something she regrets, she must write it down on a slip of paper and stuff the paper into a hole in the floor.  By doing so, she will be assuaged of all guilt and regret.  She does so and is surprised to find that it works.  But there also seem to be curious side effects:  the neighborhood becomes infested with rats and Annie seems to have stopped growing.  After her father makes several mysterious trips back to Litvania, he announces that they must go back together and it is there that the Litvanian queen reveals all.

A dark and fairly sinister story with great depth and plenty of color, but whose actual story felt uneven and unengaging.  Litvania, while fictional, is a lovely amalgam of Latvian and Lithuanian culture (neither of which is commonly found in American literature).  The story is littered with the dark and macabre fairy tales of Litvania, which riff nicely on the original Grimms (i.e., non-Disneyfied) Tales.  The rats and the entire concept behind the "eater of sins" is fascinating.  This is a story whose concepts will stick with me for some time.  

It is thus a shame that the story is so lame.  For the first two hundred pages, it is terribly slow and it took me some fortitude (and most of a week) to plow ahead, but then everything speeds up at the end in seeming recklessness.  Either way, I found the reading more of a chore than a pleasure, no matter how much I enjoy the Baltic and folkloric references.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

The Melancholy of Summer, by Louisa Onome

Summer Uzoma has been managing through her senior year alone.  Ever since her parents fled, going on the lam after being accused of credit card fraud, Summer has gotten by through sleeping on the couches of friends and scraping up money here and there.  She maintained her grades and graduated, but just a few weeks short of her eighteenth birthday, CPS catches up with her.  They reject her claims that she can manage just fine and threaten to put her in foster care.  

To everyone's surprise, it turns out Summer has family to help her.  Her cousin Olu, whom Summer barely knows, has made it big in Japan as a singer and is willing to take Summer in.  However, Olu is only twenty and has big issues of her own.  While Olu is wealthy enough to take care of Summer, she is in no position emotionally to handle the responsibility and Summer is simply counting down the days until she turns eighteen.

For Summer, it's all a bit too much.  In denial about being abandoned, she can't navigate the waves of big feels she has.  The wear and tear of spending the past year scraping by has also taken its toll.  And now, with her friends graduating and going away to college, Summer is aware that everyone is moving on and abandoning her.

I enjoyed the unusual ethnicity of the characters (Summer's Nigerian and Olu is Nigerian-Japanese).  Summer's love for skateboarding is a bit quirky and her resourcefulness in using it and the city busses to get around is pretty unusual.  However, the novel annoyed me with the way it dragged out the story through Summer's stubbornness, the inability of characters to finish important conversations, and the eventual swift resolution of all of the problems in the last twenty pages.  I didn't see the growth and it felt artificial.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Wishing Season, by Anica Mrose Rossi

Ever since Lily's twin brother Anders died, Mom has been lost in her grief, spending time (and money) on a woman who claims to be able to communicate with Anders's spirit.  Lily knows the woman's a fake because Anders has told her so.  Ever since the funeral, when Lily found Anders at the old swing they both loved, she's been able to spend time with him. In this "overlap" between the land of the living and the dead, Anders stays alive for her for the whole summer, giving her someone with whom she can share her sadness and her anger.

But as the summer comes to a close and Lily is about to return to school without Anders by her side, she has to move on.  Learning how to make new friends, accept that the overlap is temporary, and most importantly find a way to keep her dead brother in her heart while making room for the future becomes her summer journey in this sleepy lyrical book about grief.

It was all very beautiful, but this treatment of death and grief didn't really break any new ground and there have been stronger books on the subject.