Sunday, June 16, 2024

Kyra, Just for Today, by Sara Zarr

Things used to be really bad back when Kyra's mother was still drinking.  But five years ago, her Mom sobered up and started attending AA meetings.  Kyra too started going to her own meetings for kids with family members who have addiction issues.  And through group, Kyra got to know Lu, another girl at her school with a father who drinks.  They became best friends and confidants, which made coping a lot easier.

But as seventh grade begins, things are changing.  Lu is making new friends and doesn't seem to want to hang out as much.  She doesn't even always show up at group anymore.  It's as if Lu is embarassed by the whole thing and doesn't want her new friends to find out.  It could not happen at a worse time.  Kyra thinks her Mom has started drinking again and she really wishes she could talk with Lu about it, but Lu is avoiding her.

As things get worse, Kyra struggles to keep things together.  She knows that she can't solve her Mom's addiction, but when Mom is the only thing she has, she has to do something!  When a crisis occurs and Kyra finds herself truly on her own, she has to make a decision about whether she's going to let her mother hold her down or whether she's going to look out for herself and make a call for help that may get her mother in trouble.

Told with great sensitivity and insight (and obviously based on real-life experience), Kyra's struggles create a compelling story about love and the challenge of preserving familial love when it is being torn apart by the impact of addiction.  Written in a way that remains authentic, while being entirely age appropriate for middle school readers, Zarr has crafted a story that will resonate with children coming from similar situations.  One hopes that such a young reader will feel validated by this story.  However, I would offer a far more important wish that they have a good friend or two who will read this book and be better able to help their struggling friend through a deeper understanding.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Atlas of Us, by Kristin Dwyer

When Atlas's father dies, he leaves behind a list of to-do's, one of which was to reopen a trail in the western Sierras and hav ethe two of them hike it together.  Atlas can't ever do that hike with her Dad, but she gets a job on the team that is rehabilitating the trail during the summer.  

It's hard and dangerous work, but the project gives Atlas some focus and takes her mind away from her grief.  Best of all, there's a policy that everyone uses aliases (Atlas renames herself "Maps") and no one is allowed to tallk about their pasts or where they came from.  The anonymity suits her fine.  But when she finds herself falling in love with King, the guy in charge of their team, she's in far over her head.

Featuring a diverse and distinct cast of characters, each of which are drawn out in fine detail, Dwyer's novel explores the slow reopening of Atlas's heart, her healing from loss, and her struggles with grief and depression.  The material is not new and Dwyer doesn't produce any fresh revelations, but the pacing is excellent and the storytelling compelling.  Dwyer knows how to feed the romantic flames gradually, never overloading the fire with excess fuel, and the result is a steady burn of a romance that relies as much on what is not said as what is.  The development of Atlas and King's relationship feels rough and raw and entirely authentic.  Combined with the aforementions strong supporting roles played by the other young people on the team produces a surprisingly warm story of bonding in the woods.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Simon Sort of Says, by Erin Bow

If you're going to write a book about school shootings for middle school-aged readers, there's something to be said for making it deliriously funny.  Throwing in radio telescopes, a mortuary, sackbuts, a quirky small town in western Nebraska, crazed emus, birthing goats, the Jesus Squirrel, and an amourous peacock is just the sort of thing to take the reader's mind off of a grimmer story of PTSD and survivor guilt.

Simon is the sole survivor of a classroom shooting two years ago.  To escape the media attention, his family relocated to the small town of Grin and Bear It, Nebraska.  GNB, as the locals call it, isn't just in the middle of nowhere, it's the home of a series of radio telescopes and thus ruled a National Quiet Zone, where wireless transmissions and the internet are banned.  The prohibition is intended to maintain the quiet that the radio astronomers need to conduct their work, but it also provides cover for Simon and his family -- atown that lives off the net.

In the remote quiet of GNB, Simon is able to make new friends and start a new life -- which in his case involves a seriously sophisticated plan to prank the astronomers.  However, keeping his origins a secret is nearly impossible (especially when a missing corpse brings unwanted attention to GNB) and when the cover is blown, Simon has the come to terms with what he is hiding from.  With the help of the emus and Pretty Stabby the peacock, he manages to do so.

Uproariously funny and full of absurd non-sequitors that come together in the end, the author reveals a great wit that doesn't triffle over the details (like when she confuses the beginning of the movies Contact and Armageddon). It's a shame to limit this to tween readers as I was laughing with every page and adults will enjoy the chaos and lighthearted nature of the storytelling.  That it is ultimately about somethimg super serious makes the book that much more remarkable.  You'll laugh, but you probably won't cry (unless you're the Jesus Squirrel, in which case things might not go so well for you!).

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Borderless, by Jennifer De Leon

Maya may live in a poor section of Guatemala City, but she has big dreams.  She's a scholarship student at a school for fashion and she's making a big impact with her designs.  She's even secured a spot in a fashion show which boasts a large cash prize and a chance to sell her clothing.  Her dreams may be big, but she's making it there slowly but surely.  

However, around her the gangs are taking over the streets in her neighborhood and it's becoming harder and harder to avoid the violence they bring in with them.  When Maya make a series of bad decisions, she finds her life and the life of her mother endangered.  Suddenly, her future in fashion is discarded.  Instead, they must flee north and Maya finds herself on the run and hoping to make it to the United States to request asylum.

The point of the story, of course, is to put a human face on the news stories about refugees at the southern border.  But the novel succeeds by actually spending fairly little time on that subject, concentrating instead on Maya's life in Guatemala.  That she becomes a homeless refugee works better dramatically when we've grown accustomed to her life before.  It also proves frustratingly because so many parts of her life and the story simply get dropped aside.  Her best friend, the contest, her fashion designs, and her boyfriend are ripped away from here and abruptly disappear from her story.  The break between before and after is actually the crux of the story, so while it violates a directive of dramatic narrative, it's effective literary choice here.

There were times when I didn't particularly care for Maya, especially when she endangers herself and her family, but I found her story engrossing nonetheless.  The novel itself won't settle any argument in the immigration debate, but for a young reader trying to understand why people would feel compelled to risk their lives to seek asylum elsewhere, it its educational in a good way.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Ever since her father was mysteriously killed, Marjan has been trying to keep the family's veterinary clinic going.  The staff do the actual animal care.  She simply tries to sort out the bills and hold things together.  But quickly Marjan becomes aware that her father had a secret sideline when a stranger arrives and demands that Marjan fly to England to care for a mysterious patient.  For reasons she cannot explain, she feels compelled to go and discovers the truly unusual nature of the charge:  her patient is a dying gryphon.

When Marjan was little, her farther delighted in telling her old Persian fairy tales.  Each one beginning with "once was, once wasn't," they told stories about magical creatures (faeries, manticores, djinns, dragons, unicorns, and even gryphons) and mankind's fateful dealings with them.  Now, Marjan is coming to understand that the stories contained elements of truth and that her father (and in fact the entire family line) has a special calling to care for these magical creatures.

Care is desperately needed.  Secret forces are at work to wrest control over the magical realm and the conflict threatens all of humankind.  But at the same time, the conflict is also personal.  Somehow, her father's death is tied in to all of this and Marjan needs to figure out how.  With time running out and desperately searching for answers, Marjan must bravely face any number of fearful situations, all the time dealing with nagging doubts about herself and her family's role in all of this.

A beautifully-written fantasy with a byzantine power struggle, interspersed by stunning retellings of Persian folk tales.  I especially liked the tale of the manticore, a morality tale about the cost of vengeance, but each of the stories within the story carry the dual purpose of furthering the story while being sold self-standing tales within the novel.  While this could have easily become a cutesy fantasy about a girl getting to take care of cuddly animals (and there is no denying that the story will appeal to young readrs who like animal books), Monsef has higher ambitions: calling into question human intervention in the animal world and the ethics thereof.  

The overall story has some rough patches, but the final fifty pages deliver one of the best bittersweet endings of recent memory and tie up all of the loose ends in a beautifully messy fashion.  An instant best seller that deserves all of its acclaim.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, by Kathryn Ormsbee

Tash and her best friend Jack have been producing a homespun web-based serial of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina called "Unhappy Families."  It's just something she and a bunch of her friends put together and they get a few dozen hits.  But suddenly one day, the show picks up a mention from an influencer and it blows up.  Tens of thousands of followers later, fan sites have sprung up and the show has been shortlisted for an award.  Rather than bring happiness, the fame drives wedges between Tash and Jack, and resurfaces issues from the past.

The novel breaks some ground by making Tash asexual and addressing the problems that this causes her.  This would have been more interesting if it had featured more prominently throughout the novel, but it really only rises up in the last thrid of the book.  In a similar way, other subplots (like Jack's father's cancer and Tash's relationship with her sister) get rather sketchy treatment and feel like afterthoughts.  Many of the subplots are of course riffs on Tolstoy, but readers without the reference point are largely left in the dark and the result is a novel that doesn't stand up well on its own.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Breathing Underwater, by Abbey Lee Nash

Tess is well on her way to a swimming scholarship, dominance in the nationals, and even perhaps a slot on the Olympic team when she is slapped with a diagnosis of epilepsy.  It's a serious set back -- having a seizure while swimming could literally kill her.  Her Mom wants her to quit swimming altogether and it seems the sane thing to do, especially since her condition makes the type of intense training she is  undergoing particularly dangerous.  But competitive swimming has been her dream for years and finding a new dream seems impossible.

Billed as a romance because of a subplot involving an aimless boy who takes her lifeguarding job when she can no longer do it, this story is really about Tess's struggle to rejig her plans and salvage the vital parts of her dream that are attainable.  But it's hard to see the struggle and the focus necessary to succeed when Tess keeps screwing around.  Tess frankly lacks discipline.  I lost my faith in her by the third time she snuck out of the house and broke all of the warnings of her doctors (and -- surprise! -- got very sick).  If you face a protagonist up against an insurmountable disease, you need to give the woman some spunk, some fortitude, and some will. But screwing up and then wallowing in self-pity got plain old and that seemed to be all Tess had to offer.  I don't have the patience that her parents (or apparently her coaches) had.  On a bleak positive note, I appreciated that at the end of the novel we don't see Tess getting rewarded with the happyb fulfillment all of her dreams.  A realistic bittersweet ending was the least the author could offer us.

Friday, May 24, 2024

The Lightning Circle, by Vikki Vansickle (ill by Laura K. Watson)

With a broken heart from an unrequited love and a strong desire to be alone and lick her wounds, Nora is reluctant to be stuck at summer camp, taking care of a cabin of thirteen year-old girls.  But it's what she signed up for and so she goes.  It's hard to find the space to do her own grieving and there's no time for it. From the moment the campers start arriving, she gets thrown into the thick of her charge's own dramas.  

It doesn't help that it's her first summer and she's never been a camper herself.  Being a camp "virgin," every ritual is a surprise for her and she approaches the experience like it is a foreign land.  But with good instincts and a little help, she manages to survive the summer and learns a great deal, growing to love the place and its people.

A beautiful piece of nostalgia for the summer camp experience, this novel in verse is illustrated with sketches of camp miscellania (a bunk, a horse, a pencil, fellow campers, etc.) that beautifully evoke the innocence of the experience.  It is a very gentle story with no particularly severe traumas but instead chock full of authentic memories lovingly retold by the author.  While fictional, you can't make stuff like this up, so it is clearly drawn from Vansickle's own childhood at camp (in the afterward, she admits as much).

For anyone who was lucky enough to go to camp, reading this book will send you down memory lane.  For others, the book and its exploration of friendships formed and social skills learned in a summer will explain the appeal of this rite of passage.  Definitely a children's book much better appreciated by adults!

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Boy You Always Wanted, by Michelle Quach

Francine's grandfather is dying and he carries one major regret:  he has no male heir to carry on the family name and tend to the family's graves.  For a Chinese Vietnamese, this is a big deal and a thing that Francine can do little to help.  But when she learns that there is a tradition where families could adopt an unrelated young man to serve as the heir, she thinks she may have a solution and a way to make her grandfather's final days happy.  She just needs to find someone to become her grandfather's honorary heir.  They don't even have to carry through on it, just promise to do so until grandfather passes away.

Francine is a good student and extremely conscientious, but none of that has made her popular at school.  The only male acquaintance she can think of would be Ollie and they are hardly friends.  Ollie for his part is always a bit amused by Francine, but doesn't think of her as a friend either.  And he certainly has no interest in participating in what Francine has taken to calling "The Plan." But when Ollie turns out to need Francine's help, the two of them devise a transactional arrangement and Ollie finds himself sucked into Francine's family's drama.  It's actually a welcome change for Ollie because his family couldn't be any more distant from each other.  And while the entire set-up is based on deceit, a true attachment arises that proves to be surprisingly genuine.

The creepy premise of the story initially put me off the story, but it ends well and the truth is surprisingly liberating.  Largely a story about family and about learning to accept change, everyone gets a chance to learn a thing or two.  While there are a few rough spots and a subplot about a scheming best friend that never quite connects with the main story nor becomes the humor relief it is intended to serve, I enjoyed the cultural details and the nuanced characters.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Playing for Keeps, by Jennifer Dugan

June is baseball prodigy.  When the expectation was that she'd graduate over to softball, she stuck with the boys and has become one of the best pitchers in the league instead.  She and her father (who himself was once a rising star in the Minors) aim for her to go all the way, get a scholarship, and eventually play in the pros.  

Ivy gave up playing when she was young, but she never lost her love of sport; she just found a new way to express it -- by officiating games.  Just as June has laser focused on her pitching skills, Ivy has dedicated herself to the dream of one day becoming one of the few women to ever ref for the NFL.  Now, if she could get her parents on board with the dream!  But they want her to go to college and study something practical.

Girls with dreams of making it big, but who fall in love with each other instead.  For Ivy, this is disastrous as referees can't date players, so they have to keep everything hush hush.  For June, things are worse as she not only has the relationship to keep secret, she also is having physical problems with her throwing arm that are getting harder and harder to hide.

With all that going on, there is plenty of action to move this story, but the real high drama comes from the fiery romance itself.  Neither June nor Ivy are particularly emotionally mature and theirs is a romance that is more often off than on.  That provides plenty of opportunity for fights and counsel with BFFs (whom neither girl pays much attention to).  But I found them hard to digest and relate to (and even hard to differentiate from each other).  I liked the story well enough, but the characters simply didn't interest me.  That made the novel a slow read.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Conditions of a Heart, by Bethany Mangle

The primary characteristic of the disease that Brynn Kwan suffers from is the easy tendency of her joints to dislocate.  Keeping herself intact (as well as managing the pain of her condition) is a major undertaking and an obsession.  In a similar fashion, she's tried to hide her condition from her classmates as she's found how uncomfortable her illness makes other people.  But when she finds herself accidentally in the middle of a schoolyard skirmish and gets suspended because of it, all of her careful plans come apart.  Prohibited from the social activities that give her something to look forward to, she suffers an existential crisis.

Any story introducing a new condition (in this case, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) is intrinsically interesting to me.  Giving us an opportunity to explore how this chronic disease challenges Brynn and how she faces that challenge is a good part of the drama of the story and I ate that stuff up.  And while the occasionally repeated rant about how the post-COVID world abandoned the disabled is muddy and unclear, there are a lot of good points about how prevalent ableism is in our society.  That is the novel's strong suit and it does it well.

Much of that was expected.  What I didn't expect was how funny the book would be.  Brynn's cat cafe-owning cousin steals the show in the otherwise slow second act as we wait for Brynn to get her life together.  And Brynn's sister, while insufferably self-centered, pulls off her narcissism in such a purely unself-conscious way that you just have to love her as much as Brynn actually does.  The grownups, the antagonists, and the allies (off-on-off boyfriend included) are disposable, but I didn't mind that in the midst of Brynn's combustible performance.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

The Absinthe Underground, by Jamie Pacton

Esme and Sybil are poor working girls, scraping a living by stealing posters off the walls and reselling them to collectors.  When they are caught trying to sell a valuable poster advertising the Absinthe Undergound (the hottest nightclub in town) by the owner of the club herself, they are presented with a proposition:  The woman needs a pair of thieves to journey to the land of the faeries, break into the Queen's castle on the night of the Equinox, and steal the Queen's crown jewels.  In exchange, she'll make the girls wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.  That promise (and the fact that the woman's offer cannot actually be refused) sends Esme and Sybil on a series of heists and a grand adventure into a world that they never before knew was real.

While the storytelling (with its persistent habit of overly convenient late reveals) annoyed me, the story itself is exquisite.  Combining Belle Epoque with fantasy creates a beautiful setting for some nail-biting suspense as the girls work through a series of problems. Their very slow developing (and largely chaste) romance comes off with perfect timing.  The characters themselves are distinct in numerous ways and well-developed.  I enjoyed the humor, the writing, and the originality of the novel.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Home Away From Home, by Cynthia Lord

Going to visit Grandma in Maine in the summer is an annual tradition to which Mia looks forward.  This year is different.  Mom is in the process selling their house and Mia is going to have to move away from her neighborhood (and maybe even her friends).  Mom is sending her alone to Grandma's to get her out of the way during the staging.  All alone, it's hard for Mia to feel good about the stay.  

Things only get worse when Mia discovers that her grandmother has a new friend -- a boy of her age named Cayman who seems to always be hanging around.  It's bad enough that she's losing her own home, but now she has to share Grandma?

But the summer is full of surprises.  There's Cayman himself, who turns out to have a complicated history and is much less of a threat than Mia first imagined.  There's a stray cat who is hanging around the house for whom no one can find a family.  And there's a rare bird -- a Gyrfalcon -- that has blown off-course and taken to harassing the local  resident Bald Eagles.  And when Mia makes a tragic mistake that endangers the bird, everything changes.

I found this to be a satisfying middle reader with lessons about personal responsibility and caring for others.  There are lots of details about birds and cats and the proper care of each to satisfy young curious minds.  And there are nice dynamics between Mia, Grandma, and Cayman.  While the topic of alcoholism is briefly brought up, it is handled in a very safe and age-appropriate manner.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, by Kim DeRose

Witchcraft stories full of teen girls forming covens are not a genre that has ever held much appeal to me.  While fantasy novels with magic are fine, the whole witch thing always seemed a bit pitiful.  I figure that the audience for this type of book was some fourteen year old mini-goth with family issues and a lack of friends at school. But in this book, the author has thrown that bias right back in my face.  For, while the premise of the story sounds like some teen's pathetic revenge fantasy, the novel is anything but.  In fact, it's a pretty scathing screed against sexual violence that subtly creeps up on you before smashing you on the back of the head with a brilliant purple ball of magic.

Elliott is getting tired of the group for teen survivors of sexual abuse that she's ended up in.  The other girls in the group just seem weak and resigned, unwilling to fight and instead merely trying to cope.  Elliott is angry, full of rage, and wants to do something.  Group therapy isn't enough.

She's found a new path.  Amid a pile of her deceased mother's belongings, Elliott has found a book that claims to allow its readers to practice magic, to right wrongs, to do whatever the person who casts the spells within it needs.  Following the book's instructions, Elliott recruit other girls from the group and they form a coven. Though all of them are skeptical about magic, the book surprisingly delivers on its promises and soon the girls are devising terrifying vengeance upon their assailents.

Their acts of revenge are effective but provide little comfort.  Instead, their spells cause unintended collateral damage and prove less cathartic than they hoped.  As they progress through their grim business of punishing the guilty, the girls find themselves pulled in different directions.  Some of them are scared of the results while others can't get enough of the thrill.  Would it be better to give up and move on or is it time to escalate and attack larger and larger groups (after all, finding misogynists is not particularly difficult)?  Meanwhile, their use of magic is having unexpected physical effects on their bodies.

On the surface, the novel is well-written and well-paced.  The story stays interesting and the characters are fully formed and wonderfully discrete and different.  Their stories though are what takes this to another level.  A vast majority of the YA novels about sexual assault are pedantic and simplistic.  The violence depicted is clear cut and the fault obvious.  This has always bothered me because it creates a false narrative that a young person will be able to easily identify when they have been victimized.  Reality is not always so clear cut and the stories that DeRose has chosen to depict really stand out.  Every single incident is a clear case of rape, but none of them would be easy to argue in a courtroom.  That makes the stories so much more painful to read because you know that a vast majority of real-life cases are like this.  And most people don't have access to a magic book of spells.

The final element that really takes this novel into the realm of overachievement is its depiction of healing.  While ostensibly still relying on spells and witchcraft, the book concludes with a powerful metaphor that evades simplistic homilies about acceptance and forgiveness.  Instead, it calls on cultivating allies through trust and confronting false friends.  Real world victims may not have a spell book, but they do have a coven of friends and family and plenty of magic within on which to draw.  From the depressing terrain that DeRose looks at unflinchingly, she finds a magical ball of hope.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Lost Library, by Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass

The mysterious appearance of a little free library spawns a series of other mysteries:  Why did the town’s only library burn down years ago and why was it never rebuilt?  Why are all of the books in this new little free library from that library and why were they all returned on the day the library burned down?  Why is the name of H. G. Higgins (a famous mystery writer) on one of the books?  And why won’t the grownups of the town answer fifth-grader Evan’s questions about any of this?

Told from three perspectives (Ryan, a ghost librarian, and the library’s cat Mortimer), this latest outing by Stead and Mass has all of the quirky fun (and hidden lessons) of their previous foray Bob.  I especially enjoyed Mortimer and his atypical relationship with the local mice.  It has a few flaws.  At times, the story strays into subplots that the authors don’t really seem to want to develop.  Older readers will find the mysteries largely lacking in suspense as well.  However, I found it overall to be an entertaining, brisk, and generally fun mystery novel.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge

In the land of Raddith, some people grow "curse eggs" within them.  Given a strong enough grudge, the egg can hatch and its bearer will lash out and lay a curse upon the target of their anger.  Society has learned to deal with the cursers by locking them away, but the cursed are never freed.  Until now.

Kellen has found himself in possession of the ability to unravel curses.  But the power comes with caveats:  he must know who made the curse and why the curse was made.  For now, he uses the power as a means to make a modest living, but as word of his potential gets around, the power makes Kellen a target.

Someone is rescuing accused cursers and abducting people with unhatched curse eggs.  And that same someone has now cursed Kellen.  All he knows is that the person is somehow connected with a shadow organization called Salvation that lurks in the dangerous and untamed wilds outside of human civilization. So, he joins up with his friend Nettle, her cursed brother Yannick (who lives life as a sea gull), and the help of a warrior and his bonded horse monster, and they head into the wilds to find out who is doing all of this.  Along the way, they uncover the mystery of where curse eggs come from and why Kellen is able to unravel curses.

Its a long and very complicated fantasy adventure with a delightfully original internal logic and lots of twists and turns.  I particularly enjoyed the logic of curses, an idea that combines magic with some behavioral observations about the way anger and grudges can consume a person and about how unsatisfying revenge truly is.

Friday, April 12, 2024

You Are Here: Connecting Flights, ed Ellen Oh.

Ellen's Oh's collection of short stories features twelve interrelated tales set in a Chicago airport during a rain storm that cancels or delays everyone's flights.  Each story features an Asian-American protagonist and explores elements of identity and family.  And they are tied together by a series of racist incidents and racially-motivated micro-agressions that challenge each of the characters.  Written by an excellent ensemble of Asian-American writers (including such well-known literary figures as Erin Entrada Kelly, Linda Sue Park, and Ellen Oh) the stories seemless fit together is sometimes quite amusing ways.

I enjoyed all of the writers, which is pretty unusual for a collection, and especially so given the similiarity of the stories.  Almost all of the stories involve their characters embarking on a trip back to Asia (usually for the first time) and their fears about making the trip.  That could have grown old quite quickly, but surprisingly it doesn't.  Each character approaches the problem differently and not all of them resolve the same way.

The acts of racism that tie everything together didn't work as well for me.  It is important to discuss anti-Asian sentiment, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 Pandemic, but what's here isn't believable.  Instead of stirring indignation, it just felt petty and fake.  Of course, the reason it is so camped up is because this book is targeted at middle readers.  However, I think even young readers can be trusted to realize that you don't have to clownishly shout "go back to China" to be racist.  So, while I think the intent was good and the purpose was important, I would have strongly preferred a more realistic (and thus more provocative) depiction of the ways that Asian-Americans experience prejudice.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Something Like Home, by Andrea Beatriz Arango

Laura has never really been around her aunt before, but now she is living with her.  And it's all her fault.  It was Laura, after all, who called 911, which led to the police taking her parents away and a social worker taking her to her aunt.  But it's OK, because Laura is going to make things right and she'll be back with her parents by the end of the week!

And when things don't work out quite as she planned, Laura finds that there are other solutions. Like the abandoned stray puppy that she brings home and trains to become a therapy dog.  Like the boy at school whom no one likes, but who Laura learns is dealing with his own problems.  Or like her aunt, who is struggling just as much as Laura to figure out this new arrangement.  

A sweet, albeit rather predictable middle grade book in verse about a girl figuring out how to adapt to changing circumstances she cannot control (and finding a few things that she can control along the way).  It contains a smattering of Spanish and Laura and her family are Puerto Rican, but these are not particularly integral to the story (despite the novel being a Belpre Honor book).  Instead, the story deals with the concept of family and home and how both are wherever you find them.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

Ellie Haycock Is Totally Normal, by Gretchen Schreiber

Ellie has been in and out of hospitals all of her life.  And her mother has documented every stay, every surgery, and every success and failure, and publicized it to the world in her popular blog. Now a teen, Ellie isn't so thrilled about having her medical care being broadcast to the general public.  She's trying to have a "normal" life and not let her most recent hospital admission derail her speech tournaments and her relationship with a boy.  To keep things on track, she's devised a strategy of keeping school things at school and hospital things at the hospital.  But a combination of some poor judgment from her mother and a rare comraderie with other teens at the hospital wrecks those careful plans and opens unexpected new opportunities.

Books about sick kids tend to grab you by the emotional jugalar and take no prisoners, and for that reason many readers shy away from them altogether.  Usually at least some of the characters die (and maybe a few will live and get better).  Regardless, they are difficult books to read.  I've been drawn in the past to books that took the formula and did something exceptional to it and thus loved John Green's The Fault In Our Stars for its humor and its tough protagonists.  This book has some particular virtues worth calling out.

First of all, the novel's look at illness feels fresh.  Ellie is a jaded patient with a learned cynicism towards the medical profession.  Her devastating take on doctor hubris and the vanity of nurses (or is that doctor vanity and the hubris of nurses?) won't surprise anyone who's spent a significant time in a hospital, but it's an approach that is surprisingly rare in literature.  Secondly, there's the novel idea of choosing a disease -- VACTERL -- that can't actually be curied.  Rather, it's a disease with a moderate survival rate that helps ensure (spoiler alert!) that Ellie isn't going to have a tragic death.  But she isn't going to be cured either.  And both she and we have to accept that and be comfortable that the ending isn't going to be about Ellie's medical transformation.

In the end, this is not a story about a disease or Ellie's brave fight with it, but a story about Ellie herself.  And while there is some tremedous emotional growth shown when Ellie learns to trust her friends a bit more and open her heart, the really stellar performance is between Ellie and her mother.  For the first half of the book, I really loathed Ellie's self-obsessed and narcisistic mother.  The blog, which is liberally quoted, amounts to endless whining from Mom about how much she's suffered, how unappreciative her daughter is, how hard she's trying to be a good mother, ad nauseum.  But at the same time, Ellie is horribly cruel in her lack of sympathy for her parents in a way that (while you can see where it is coming from) is really painful to read.  It takes a major showdown between mother and daughter for them to break out of their toxic relationship and that provides the most emotional part of the story.  

In other words, this is not a story that will break your heart because Ellie is a fine young woman struggling with a horribly painful and debilitating rare chronic condition.  It is a story that will make you cry because it is about parents and children wrestling with a much more common chronic and debilitating condition:  parents learning how to let your children become adults and children figuring out how to grow into being that adult.   Universal and relatable, and ultimately empowering and hopeful.  Tears, but ones that feel good.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The Big Sting, by Rachelle Delaney

Leo's Dad, currently between jobs, has discovered a personality test that he believes can correctly identify your key behavioral traits.  He tests it out on the family and Leo's little sister Lizzie is an "adventurer," which makes sense because she is always getting into trouble without a second thought.  Leo comes up as an "auditor" which reflects his cautious nature and non-adventurous personality.  It frequently falls on him to keep Lizzie out of trouble.

These personality traits get tested when the family goes to visit grandpa on a remote island off of the coast of British Columbia.  One night grandma's beehives are stolen and the kids and their grandfather launch a search to find them.  While Leo is reluctant to do something as risky as to try hunting down potentially dangerous bee thieves, he rises to the occasion, proving that labels aren't everything.

Pleasant and lively middle reader.  The life lessons are largely in second place to a riotous cast of quirky supporting characters and some low-key adventuring.  While the kids fall into some dangerous situations, there's nothing too scary and Leo largely saves the day.  Sadly, there's not not very much on bees themselves.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Girl Next Door, by Cecilia Vinesse

Cleo and Daniel have been collaborating on installments of their high school film club's ongoing soap opera project for years and they both dream of getting into NYU and eventually taking Hollywood by storm.  But that's until Daniel cheats on Cleo by hooking up with Kiki.  In the aftermath, Kiki's ex-girlfriend Marianne and Cleo commiserate.  

Marianne and Cleo are next-door neighbors and once upon a time they were best friends too, but they went their separate ways.  In their shared misery they rebond quickly and, when the people around them start to assume that they are dating, they decide to go along with the plot.  But what starts as fake dating to get back at their unfaithful partners becomes a real relationship.

While the plot sounds largely unremarkable and a bit contrived, the novel is well-written and breathes a bit of freshness into an old story.  The setting is dense and immersive.  That means both that it relishes its details and the realistic feeling that such details gives its charcaters and also that it takes a bit to keep all of those details straight.   I had some trouble getting into the story and was frustrated by the lack of distinctiveness to all of the players.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Elf Dog & Owl Head, by M. T. Anderson (ill Junyi Wu)

In the midsts of a lockdown triggered by a global pamndemic, Clay doesn't have much to look forward to this summer except long solitary walks in the woods.  But when he discovers a stray magical dog, his world changes.  Quite literally.  The dog takes him to other worlds -- a land with a huge wishing lake, a village of people with owl heads, and group of sleeping giants.  But the dog belongs to the Kingdom Under the Mountain and her owners want her back!

A rollicking adventure of strange creatures, battles, and subterfuge.  Filled out with delightful illustrations, this fast-paced story is an easy read.  I found it terribly violent and a bit thin on character, but it won plenty of awards (including a Newbery Honor last year).

Sunday, March 24, 2024

With A Little Luck, by Marissa Meyer

Jude's idea of risk is rolling dice for the D&D campaigns for which he dungeon masters.  He knows that there is no way he'll ever realize his dreams in real life.  He'll always be a mediocre artist, an average student, and he'll never get the girl of his dreams, Maya.  But things seem to change for him when he stumbles across a beautiful twenty-side die on the turntable at his parents' record shop.  Suddenly, everything starts going right.

Defying the odds, he finds a rare signed record that everyone's overlooked, he wins a radio contest for two tickets to see a British hearthrob in concert, he finds missing homework, and he's rolling d20s perpetually.  With the tickets, he gets the courage to ask Maya out on a date and she surprisingly accepts.  And then she surprises him further revealing that she loves fantasy roleplaying as well and becomes an essential part of his D&D parties!  It would seem that there is no limit to the things that Jude can do with his magic die until, that is, his luck changes.

Maya turns out to be a lovely person but not the love of his life.  His true love is actually with someone else.  His grade start slipping again.  Every good deed he tries to perform backfires on him.  It would seem that the die has now cursed him and he can only roll d1s.  But for everything that goes wrong, some new opportunity arrives.  Jude begins to discern that it isn't a simple matter of good and bad luck.

For a novel based (as its predecessor Instant Karma was) around Beatles references, the lesson of this story actually comes to us from the Stones -- "you can't always get what you want...you get what you need." As Jude's luck seems to reverse, he comes to understand that luck itself is overrated.  And the best things in life are not determined by fate, but by courage and taking chances.

Continuing the unobtrusive magical nature that Meyer played with in Instant Karma, there are plenty of similarities but is is an imminently more satisfying story.  Prudence and Quint from that book play minor roles here to give us some foundation, but Jude's struggles to gain self-confidence and his acts of bravery are much more relatable that Pru's acts of karmic vengeance.  And while a string of hillariously improbable coincidences at the end of the story might have derailed the whole thing, they in fact are quite in keeping with the spirit of this fun and enjoyable read.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Cupid's Revenge, by Wibke Brueggemann

Ever since their mutual best friend died, Tilly and Teddy would do anything for each other.  So, when Teddy begs Tilly to accompany him to tryouts for a musical revue called "Cupid's Revenge," she comes along, even though she has no interest in acting or singing.  The truth is that he isn't too keen on them either but he is trying to impress a girl named Katherine.

Katherine doesn't seem very impressed with Teddy but Katherine and Tilly have instant chemsitry and that makes things awkward. Tilly knows better than to date Katherine, but the heart wants what the heart wants.  And, anyway, you know how this trope works so I don't really need to lay out the rest of the story.  Furthermore, the setting -- rehearsing a play -- is tiredly familiar. No surprises!

What's a little more off script is the rest of the story:  Tilly's oddball family of professional musicians and dancers (so, so unlike Tilly) are colorful and humorour.  The drama of taking care of Tilly's recently-diagnosed-with-dementia grandfather, who's come to live with them and proves to be alternatingly a huge handful and a great help, provides pathos.

Full of humor, some lovely romance, frank depictions of sex, and a fantastic cast of characters, Cupid's Revenge (the novel) is a stand out for both refreshing a tired plot and being a surprisingly good read.  I have a poor record with British YA (or NA, in this case) as it tends to be preachy and condescending, but this book surprised me.  It's not just a heroine with a good head on her shoulders but a full cast of characters who act like normal people and behave sensibly.  The story and its humor comes through so much bettter without lots of false drama and contrived circumstances.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Drawing Deena, by Hena Khan

Pakistani-American Deena is a good artist and her friends are always raving about her drawings.  But she isn't really sure and she wishes there was money to pay for art classes so she really could become good.  But money is tight.  Deena knows this because her parents fight about it all the time.  And there are other priorities like the dental work that Deena needs for her teeth grinding and like her mother's failing clothing business.  It's causing Deena to lose sleep and she has trouble eating in the morning.  After a panic attack at school lands her at the nurse's station, the school recommends counseling and she finds it helpful.

Deena is also capable of solving her own problems.  With some help from her friends, they help set up a social media site for her mother's business.  They develop policies and plans for her mother's commercial success.  Along the way, Deena learns to stand up for herself and her family.

Full of lots of ethnic details (mostly about clothing and food), Khan's book is really about portraying a typical American malaise:  children stressing themselves sick.  What it doesn't do is spend much time on the treatment.  Rather, Deena just sort of recovers at the end, gaining assertiveness and confidence.  So, even though there's plenty said about Deena's condition and its prognosis, there's hardly anything on strategies for stress relief.  That makes her recovery something of an article of faith rather than a shared journey and sucks much of the pay-off out of the story.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Ruptured, by Joanne Rossmassler Fritz

While Claire and her mother are eating lunch, her mother confides that she's thinking of separating from her father.  Before Claire can ask her mother to reconsider, Mom collapses on the floor from a brain aneurysm. For the next couple of weeks, her mother's situation is tenuous but she does begin a slow path to recovery.  Once conscious, it becomes apparent that she has trouble keeping events straight and she can't remember the day of the attack.

Claire wavers over whether she should tell anyone what her mother said.  Perhaps she no longer believes it.  But what will happen when Mom does remember what she was feeling?  Claire's previously distant Dad has been devotedly doting on his wife.  Perhaps, his actions can make up for whatever triggered her mother's doubts about the marriage in the first place?

This quick read is all the more speedy for being written in verse.  It's not a particularly compelling use of the method and mostly just allows the action to race ahead without much attention to character development.  Outside of Claire herself, there isn't much room to expand on much of anyone.  There's some sketchy drama with a friend and some set backs in Mom's recovery, but these are glossed over.  I found it pretty thin.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Hope In the Valley, by Mitali Perkins

There were still farms and orchards in Silicon Valley in 1980, but they were becoming rarer as the cost of property drove the farms out of business.  If the town of Sunny Creek has its way, there will be one less.  For Pandita, the abandoned home across the street has always been a refuge and it carries a lot of memories.  When her mother was still alive, the two of them would sneak over and spend hours on the  house's porch swing.  It's the strongest connection Pandita has to her mother and, with the pact that she and her sisters made to not mention Mom around their father, it is likely to be the only one.  She needs to do everything she can to save it.

Her attempt fails as she is literally unable to speak up in defense of the house's preservation.  Pandita must accept that she has to let it go, but does that mean that she must accept every else that is going wrong in her life?  Does she have to watch her father start dating again?  Or tolerate the way that her sisters never respect her wishes?  Or the fact that her BFF has abandoned her to hang out with a classist popular girl?

Pandita's world seems to be spinning out of control and it would be easy for her to get sucked in by all of the drama, but the something unexpected happens.  She gets asked by the local historical society to help review the contents of boxes of abandoned documents from the old house to search for items of historical importance.  As she does so, she unearths the forgotten history of the "Valley of Heart's Delight" (as Silicon Valley was once known) -- a history full of discrimination and prejudice and people who fought it.  Through these rveleations, she gains confidence in herself and develops a voice strong enough to speak out for what she believes in.

There's a lot going on. First, there is the tween-appropriate introduction to NIMBYism and the politics of housing and urban development.  The is the story of Pandita's family rebuilding and moving on after a loss of her mother.  And finally, there is Pandita's personal journey from quiet middleschooler to strong voiced and confident orator.  Despite the many threads to the story, this is a surprisingly easy book to read. Charming.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Shut Up, This Is Serious, by Carolina Ixta

Ever since Belén's father left them, a darkness has fallen across her home.  Her mother has been distant or not at home.  Her older sister Ava is mad at her.  Belén doesn't see much of a point to anything and she's stopped going to her classes and may not graduate.  She's angry and upset and doesn't know how to pull things together.

Her best friend Leti ought to have everything going for her.  She's an honor student and doing well at school, but now she's also pregnant.  Worse, the father is a black kid that Leti's racist parents would never accept in their house.  She knows that eventually she'll have to tell her parents, but Leti procrastinates.  In their seemingly impossible situations, the two girls struggle to find solutions.

Deftly sifting through a wide array of issues, including child abuse, teen pregnancy, abandonment, prostitution, racism, and poverty, Ixta packs a huge punch into her debut novel about coming of age in East Oakland.  Belén herself drove me crazy with her endless series of bad decisions and her stubborn unwillingness to accept help, but I was still captivated enough to hang in there for her.  She felt real and in fact really quite beyond my judgement.  I won't ever really know what it is like to grow up in Mexican-American household, but this novel opened a portal that allowed me to see it with all the good and the bad.  A rich and rewarding story.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

If I Promise You Wings, by A. K. Small

The lyrical magical realist tale of Alix, an aspiring Parisian artist who dreams of creating feathery costumes for the Moulin Rouge.  It is an aspiration that was hatched with her best friend Jeanne who then tragically died in a car accident.  Grieving from the loss, Alix throws herself at the doorstep of the famed artiste de plumes Salome, begging to be taken in and given training.  Mme Salome accepts her and sets her to work sweeping floors, but also giving her an opportunity to help work at the feather boutique.  There, Alix shows a special talent for the work which draws on her ability to communicate with the feathers and with the guidance of the unsettled spirit of Jeanne.

Torn between the attention of Salome's mercurial son Raven and a musician Blaise, Alix drifts through her work, struggling to find her place and move beyond her grief.  In the end, a series of  bad choices catch up to her and a final betrayal forces her to break out of her malaise.  All of this set against dreamy Parisian landscapes.

Beautifully written with lots of details for Francophile readers.  I personally found much of this to be distracting.  An occasion bon mot would have been delightful, but it's a bit too frequent for my taste, slowing down my reading as I utilize my forty-year-old High School French to decipher the text.  And while I'm sure that the various streets of Montmatre are very significant, they don't particularly add to the story for me.  If those criticisms seem invalid to you, you'll probably really enjoy the story a lot.  I did enjoy it, but for the fantasy elements and the beautiful feathery imagery.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Good Different, by Meg Eden Kuyatt

Selah is well aware that the ways in which she responds to loud noises, bright lights, or being touched by others are not "normal." To pass and help get by at school, she's developed a set of rules.  But when her rules fail her and she gets suspended (and nearly expelled) for hitting a fellow student, she has to revisit those rules. In doing so, with the help of a supportive grandfather, she is surprised to find that normal is overrated.  While she is certainly different from others, there are plenty of people like her and lots of good wisdom to draw upon from them.  And she finds that, while there are certainly people who will hate her or fear her for being different, many more want to be her friend and help her.  Through poetry, she finds her words and learns to stand up for the things she needs to succeed.

An inspirational story in verse about a neurodivergent girl in the process of self-discovery.  The verse itself is not particularly extraordinary, but the choice to write this book in verse is brilliant as it captures the process of Selah's inner dialog much better than prose would have done. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Red, by Annie Cardi

When Tess becomes pregnant and decides that getting an abortion is her best option, part of her calculation is that no one back in Hawthorne will ever have to know that she was pregnant.  No one will ever ask her who the father is.  Things will go back to normal.  

But when she and her mother get back home, they are suprised to find that somehow people did find out.  A picture of them leaving the clinic is being distributed and someone has painted a red A on her locker.  Tess is no longer welcome by the congregation of their church or allowed to sing in her beloved church choir.

The hostility from the community is not nearly as hard as the loneliness that Tess feels.  But a chance meeting with a group of band geeks who don't seem to care about Tess's reputation help rebuild her confidence.  Gradually, through music, she puts her life back together and eventually confronts the events that caused her to need the abortion in the first place and challenge a pattern of abuse that she was caught up in.

I enjoyed Tess, a young woman with a strong sense of faith.  It's so easy in books like this to demonize organized religion, but Cardi creates a protagonist who refuses to let that happen.  She certainly suffers some doubts, but her constant reassertion that she doesn't want to lose the comfort of her religion is a nice change of pace.  While Cardi herself struggles a bit in differentiating between the faith and the people in power of the church, the most inspiring part of Tess for me was her desire to not allow herself to be driven off.

While Tess starts off being afraid to speak out and spends the arc of the story finding her voice, there's an articulate mind there all along, making an easy character to which to relate.  But while the book delivers a strong message about the insideous danger of silence in the face of sexual abuse and ends on an affirming note of empowerment, I found the story predictable and laborious in getting to its conclusion.  For all of the originality behind Tess (and in fact most of the characters in this novel), the lack of inspiration in what to do with them is a disappointment.  I was particularly disappointed in how quickly the musician friends are largely forgotten about in the end.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Cold Girls, by Maxine Rae

Rory always felt that she wasn't good enough for her friend Liv.  While Rory stresses over every thing, Liv gives the world the finger without a second thought.  But eight months of grieving after a car accident in which Liv is killed, Rory isn't so sure anymore about Liv's detachment.  In a series of flashbacks, we see that the nature of Liv's coolness was much more complicated than anyone ever understood. And the relationship between Rory and Liv similarly complicated by trauma and secrets.

A complex emotional story that hints at much more than it says, Rory and Liv are anything but the cold girls that they projected to the outside world.  In fact, it was the shared knowledge that there are these strong current underneath that bonded them together. It was also a relationship that was coming to an end as the girls were about to graduate and move on.  Neither girl could ever hope to maintain the facades and there are moments when each of them crack, but by dying Liv avoided ever having to face those feelings as much as Rory ends up doing (on her own).

The story starts strong and quickly gets us deep into the hidden world that these two girls share, but I found the middle section a hard slog.  With little clear sense of where we were going or why we were going there, the multiple characters and complex relationships between them become a chore to keep straight.  The constant time shifts become trying as well as I had to keep reminding myself what was happening at a point of time we haven't rveeisted for the past fifty pages. It's only towards the end, that the story's pace picks up.  An end point becomes visible and I tuned back in.  I think the story would improve with a re-reading and if you enjoy a book that you can get more out of with a repeat then this might be for you.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Absolutely, Positively Natty, by Lisa Greenwald

After her Mom leaves the family, Natty's father relocates them to his old hometown.  Natty, refusing to let it (or anything else) get her down, insists on looking at the positives.  If you just have a positive mindset, nothing can ever go wrong!  The town of Miller Creek could certainly use some help.  The school is falling apart and no one (students or teachers) has any enthusiasm.  Everyone Natty meets seems to be angry at something or someone.  If Natty's plan to always be positive is going to work, she needs to stir up some positive vibes around her.  So, she starts a pep club.

Practically no one has any interest in the idea, but Natty is determined  to make it happen and through persitance and stubboness she manhandles a band of skeptical kids and demoralized adults to come together.  But is being relentlessly positive a good thing and can it really change anything?  Natty is convinced it will all work out, as long as she can just keep a sunny outlook.  For whether that is true or not, you'll have to read the book.

There is certain level of frustration with a story that never actually resolves, but my biggest issue with this book was the flimsyness of the premise.  From nearly the first page, just about everyone is pointing out to Natty what a foolhardy exercise it is.  Her unwillingness to accept any truth in that isn't all that interesting.  That doesn't leave much to grow on and the conclusion is largely inevitable.  And when the refusal to acknowledge that bad things are happening causes Natty to gaslight her friends, it doesn't make her look very kind. There's not much learned in the end and not really a lesson worth learning.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Pieces of Me, by Kate McLaughlin

Dylan wakes up to find herself in a strange bedroom with a stranger.  She doesn't know the people and they are all calling her by a different name.  But the biggest shock is when she realizes that she has no memory of the past three days!  In recent years, Dylan has been dealing with a lot of problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, and has a history of blackouts, but not anything that would last this long.  Her mother takes her to a doctor and a psychiatrist but no one can find any explanation until the psychiatrist trips over the possibility that Dylan is suppressing traumatic childhood memories.  The epiphany is overwhelming for reasons that Dylan can't explain at the time and she finds herself in a hospital after a suicide attempt she can't remember.

She is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a condition characterized by having vivid alternate personalities that manifest in a person and are usually formed as a coping mechanism for an early childhood trauma.  The actual particulars of  Dylan's trauma take a while to be uncovered and the real itself is anticlimactic.  The story focuses instead on Dylan's growing understanding of her condition and  her learning to cope with it.  Unfortunately, this part of the book (roughly the middle) is also the weakest section.  

I was really captivated by the story from the start and reminded of how much I enjoyed novels dealing with mental health.  There's a compelling mystery with all sorts of interesting elements that are slowly revealed.  Up to the diagnosis, this is a real page turner.  But once we know what is happening, the pacing really slows down and becomes this big educational text where we're introduced to Dylan's "system" and her "alters" who "front" for her from time to time because of various conditions.  Not much actually happens in these 150 or so pages beyond a bunch of repetitive and strikingly boring conversations.  It's only when the culprit (a completely new character never mentioned prior to that point of the story) is revealed that the pace picks up again.  But here McLaughlin is at a loss as to how to portray the moment of confrontation and the last sixty pages reads more like a lengthy postscript than a climax.  There is no dramatic conclusion.  In fact, there really is no conclusion at all.

A fascinating topic but the presentation sucks the life out of the story. It starts strong but then treads water, before dying at the end with a whimper.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Opportunity Knocks, by Sara Farizan

Everyone around her seems to have a thing, except for Lila.  Her best friend is super good at soccer.  Her older sister is good at everything!  Lila, though, can't seem to find her place.  Her attempt on the stage was a disaster when she blanked out on all of her lines and ended up getting cast as a tree!  She finally finds a space, playing the triangle in band (although she still misses her cues).  But then disaster strikes as the band leader announces that the program is being shut down for lack of funds!

Enterprising Lila doesn't let this hold her back.  She marches down to the bank and tries to apply for a loan for the band program.  She gets turned down, but she comes across a strange box lying on the floor of the lobby.  The box turns out to contain a magical being who calls herself Felise and brings good luck for a week to the bearer of the box.  Lila doesn't know what to do with her good fortune but she manages to spin it into a number of small successes, raising money for the band program.

Then, just when things are really starting to look good, the owner of the box comes looking for it and wants it back!

A lovely, albeit heavy-handed, middle grade reader story about the magic of friendships and self-determination.  The magic that Felise brings, in contrast, is downplayed and much of Lila's good fortune is attributed to Lisa herself,  Lila exhibits an infectious combination of bravery, compassion, and good ideas that makes her a perfect friend. And while that point is sometimes thrust a bit too forcefully in the reader's face, the book is a pleasing combination of a fun story and positive messages.  Having enjoyed her YA novels, it's nice to see her doing equally well with a younger demographic.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Stranded, by Sarah Daniels

The Arcadia was a luxury cruise vessel.  When the countries of Europe destroyed themselves in biological warfare, the ship (and many others like it) became an escape route for refugees.  But when the boats reach the Federated States on the other side of the Atlantic, anti-immigration forces refused to allow them to disembark.  Forty years later, the passengers and their descendants are still quarantined off the coast and the government has tired of maintaining them.  It initiates a plan to solve the issue for good by imprisoning in labor camps or massacring the inhabitants.  But the passengers won't go down quietly.  A rebellion has long been brewing to liberate the passengers and with the ships being cleared, a plan kicks into high gear.

Esther is a sixteen year-old studying to become a medic and, if she can pass her exam, win a coveted slot to study on the mainland.  She and her boyfriend Alex are loyal citizens, but they find themselves dragged into the conflict as the land forces ratchet up their suppression and start implementing their genocide. 

There is some elaborate world building but the book doesn't waste much time before diving into the thick of the action.  Told in alternating chapters by three narrators -- Esther, her older sister's boyfriend Nik (who works for the rebellion), and Hadley (the leader of the government forces charged with controlling the boat) -- it maintains a breathless pace through over 400 pages.  It's a fast read, but doesn't leave much time for sorting out the characters or for the reader to establish much attachment to them.  Rather, the story screams out "film option!" and seems designed for a visceral and visually immersive adventure.  It would probably make a great film, but as a dystopian novel it's fairly average.

Friday, February 09, 2024

Long Road to the Circus, by Betsy Bird (ill by David Small)

No one ever truly leaves Burr Oak, Michigan, but twelve year-old Suzy means to make a good try of it.  She has a great role model in the form of an eccentric retired circus performer, the mysterious Madame Marantette.  Madame left Burr Oak and, while she returned after retiring, Suzy figures she knows a thing or two about how to see the world.  However, she has to figure out a way to ask the woman.

Suzy's opportunity comes when she notices that her uncle keeps slipping away early in the morning.  Suzy sneaks out of the house and follows him all the way to Madame's house.  Uncle Fred, it turns out, has been helping train Madame's horses and taking care of a flock of ostriches that she owns.  Suzy's never seen an ostrich before but soon she's smitten by them.  Gaucho, the feistiest bird in the flock, is being trained to pull a surrey alongside a horse.  It's an impossible task and Fred has been struggling. Suzy insists on helping him by learning to ride Gaucho for herself!

Suzy knows plenty about horses, but ostriches are an entirely different thing.  And with a lot of trial and a lot more error, Suzy steadfastly pursues her task with the hopes that if she can master Gaucho she could earn a ticket to join the circus and leave Burr Oak.

Set in the 1920s, this charming story features lots of humor and plenty of adventure.  It also is an unusually innocent book.  Aside from breaking some family rules (and being punished for doing so), there's hardly anything for even the most anxious parent to object to. Suzy's family may strike modern children as being overly strict, but Suzy is clever and knows how to bend the rules to get what she wants in the end.

Suzy is also not much of an intellectual, but instead relies on a lot of horse sense and instinct, and just stubbornly holding on to what she wants.  One of the lessons she learns in this book is that sometimes you do have to let go and having the wisdom to know when is a big part of growing up.  Charming illustrations enliven the text and a fascinating appendix describes the real people who inspired the story.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Dog Star, by Megan Shepherd

Inspired by the tragic and true story of Laika, the first living creature from Earth in space, we get this middle school novel told in alternating chapters by Laika and Nina, the girl who grew to love Laika before she was sent on a one-way ticket to the stars.

Laika is a stray, a "cold dog" in her words.  Very much unlike the "warm dogs" who have warm house to live in and food to eat.  Instead, Laika must survive on scraps and her street smarts to get by.  But a careless lapse leads to her capture and enrollment in a program to train canines to undergo the rigor of space travel.  She excels at it despite her distrust of human and other dogs.

Nina is a proverbial "cold girl" whose very best friend has abandoned her by defecting along with her family to America.  because of the family's betrayal, Nina is told that she must denounce her friend in order to protect her own family.  She struggles with the idea and is horrified to find the things that are being said about her friend.  Confused by the way her fellow students and teachers are betraying their ideals, she seeks solace in the presence of animals and bonds with Laika. The two grow close and, when Nina discovers that Laika won't be able to return from her trip, Nina becomes convinced that she must do something to save her best friend.

One can question the wisdom of writing a children's book about a girl and her slated-for-death best friend.  The true story of Laika is one that sits uncomfortably in history and there will be many people who would simply never read this book on principle.  Shepherd makes this much worse in two ways:  by developing a strong emotional story between the girl and the dog and by telling half the story through Laika's voice.  The chapters told from Laika's trusting point of view -- including her final moments on the rocket -- take a rather strong stomach (or severe detachment) to read.  Shepherd makes the argument in her afterward that the story, while tragic, needs to be told because of Laika'a major contribution to science and the nobility of her sacrifice, but one might counter that argument by pointing out that Laika never actually chose to make the sacrifice so what we are basically witnessing is a living creature being murdered.

Setting those ethical questions aside, the story felt uneven.  The story of Laika and Nina opening up to each other was lovely, but the political elements of the story are half-heartedly developed.  The bullying at school is poorly explained.  An over the top attempt at last minute sabotage rings untrue and largely undermines the emotional seriousness of the story.  One almost wishes that these diversions had been skipped altogether.