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 of it 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.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Bliss Adair and the First Rule of Knitting, by Jean Mills

The first rule of knitting is "don't look too far ahead" and for Bliss that has been as good of a rule for life as any.  Keeping her head down and letting things happen as they will won't make her a hero but it keeps her out of a lot of trouble.  

So, she plays thing safe.  She has a crush on Taz Fenwick's "perfect proportions" that seems unlikely to ever be consummated, which is just as well since she's still a bit afraid of boys. She has a small group of friends. She helps her parents out at the family's yarn shop, helping people fix their knitting mistakes.  Her two loves --  math and knitting -- provide comforting boundaries.

Two things shake up that comfortable world.  First, the arrival of the pregnant girl (the granddaughter of a customer) challenges Bliss to accept that some problems are out of her league. But it is accidentally eavesdropping of a conversation between a classmate's mother and her lover that presents a quandary for Bliss.  Should she tell her friend about the infidelity or is it kinder to mind her own business?  And do the rules change when the friend becomes a romantic interest?

Interspersed with lots of knitting references, this novel gently explores Bliss's growing awareness of life's imperfections.  At times perhaps unrealistically mature, Bliss still has enough room for growth to teach the us a few things.  The positive supportive atmosphere of the story and the realistically unresolved ending leaves the reader a satisfactory conclusion.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Check & Mate, by Ali Hazelwood

Of all the books I've reviewed in the past year, this one has probably had the most buzz of any of them.  Aside from the fact that Hazelwood is an accomplished author of adult romance, is it worth the hype?  In short, not really.  It's a charming YA romance with rather mature sentiments, but it breaks no new ground and suffers from shockingly thin research.  (OK, I will forever hold a grudge against any author who places her action on the Penn State campus, but claims that it is located in Philadelphia! -- page 76)

Mallory was once an up and coming chess whiz until she quit playing at fourteen, due to some painful events surrounding her father's death.  Ever since then, she's been trying to get as far away from chess as she can.  But the sport won't leave her alone and she gets aggressively recruited by a chess school to come and be a fellow for a year.  When she loses her existing job as a car mechanic (!) and faces the reality that she's the sole breadwinner for her sick mother and two younger sisters and has no means of paying the bills, she agrees reluctantly to take the offer.

The boy is Nolan, the world's current #1 rated player.  Of course, he's a sullen bad boy with a reputation and gloriously single (as is Mallory).  In a sport which is notorious for having a poor work-life balance, the two of them have an amazing amount of time to hang out.  They take advantage of this by studiously avoiding falling into each other's arms (until of course they do).  But anyone looking for sex will be saddened to learn that in this novel there are far more cases of the f-word being spoken aloud than being performed.

All that mockery aside, the story is entertaining and while I don't believe for a minute that either Mallory or Nolan know how to play chess (or car mechanics), I really enjoyed reading the book.  It moved fast, had funny moments, and contained a delightful cast of characters.  Most importantly, there's some wonderful things said about the sexual discrimination that plagues professional chess, although the point gets beaten to death.  The sisters got on my nerves, but I think that was intentional and it furthers the plot.  As for the things that most drive me nuts (the worthless mother, Mallory's self-pity, and the author's affection for contemporary youth culture references), they can be put aside and the book enjoyed.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Briar Girls, by Rebecca Kim Wells

Lena has spent her life wearing gloves and avoiding close contact with others.  Thanks to a curse from a witch, she is unable to touch people without killing them.  And given that sort of power, she's also had to maintain a low profile to avoid attracting too much attention.  After an unfortunate accident, her father has moved them to a remote community on the edge of a vast forest called the Silence -- a place that people who enter never return from.  And one night, she is tempted to enter it herself by a mysterious girl named Miranda.  

Miranda promises that she can help Lena break the curse in exchange for Lena's help in helping bring down an evil tyrant who holds sway over the city of Gather deep within the Silence -- a feat which requires killing or setting free a sleeping princess protected within a castle surrounded by impenetrable briars. But it quickly becomes apparent that Miranda is not telling the truth and, as various adventures unfold, she's far from unique.  Just about everyone in this story has hidden agendas and is hiding something.  Lena has to figure out who to trust and often must take temporary advantage from unreliable allies.

Featuring dragons, wolves, blood magic, curses, prophecy, and the rather enigmatic Silence itself, Briar Girls is a densely written, fast-paced fantasy adventure.  It sacrifices a great deal of character development in the process.  For while we get a chance in the beginning to meet Lena and to develop her rebellious and largely disobedient personality, most of the other characters are underdeveloped.  A sexual encounter between Lena and a boy named Alaric is sweet but strangely clinical.  A professed love with Miranda goes largely unconsummated, but does feature some brief moments of jealousy that suggest at feelings that are never quite allowed to develop.  As far as side characters, most of all I enjoyed the dragons, who were delightfully sadistic (as well as being snobby epicureans).  A story like this lives and dies on the action and the world building, both of which are stellar so any flaws in the characters can be overlooked safely.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

All That's Left in the World, by Erik J. Brown

In the wake of a global flu pandemic that has killed the vast majority of the human race, pockets of survivors attempt to eke out a living by scavenging for supplies.  Sixteen year-old Andrew is heading south when he has the misfortune to get caught in a bear trap.  He stumbles his way across a remote cabin, where its lone survivor Jamie is holed up.  Jamie helps Andrew recover and an awkward friendship develops between them -- awkward because Jamie's gay and attracted to straight Andrew.  

But before any sort of romance can develop, the two boys are forced to flee when more hostile invaders arrive on the scene.  The two of them set out roughly following Andrew's original plan, heading south to the remains of Washington DC.  And when things don't work out, they then go down to Florida, encountering both friend and foe.  Along the way, they find vivid examples of how different choices have fared for the varied survivors.

While the writing is decent and the characters well-developed, the author really struggled to come up with a story.  The bulk of the novel is just a series of encounters with strangers stringed together.  Some go well and some go poorly, but they don't add up to a story and do get very repetitive.  The overall goal of the trip, which might have formed a true plot, keeps shifting.  It feels like Brown just fell in love with the idea of a post-apocalyptic survival story between two (maybe) gay boys.  However, even the romance is not really consummated and notably lacking in any heat. 

In the author's notes at the end, Brown attests that the story's similarities to recent events is largely coincidental.  It was originally drafted in 2015 (and thus predates COVID) but it's hard not to draw parallels.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Love & Resistance, by Kara H. L. Chen

Combining Olivia's love of history and political science with her shrewd observations about high school cliques and her struggles for popularity (or at least acceptance), Love & Resistance imagines a secret society of nerds.  The so-called NerdNet plot a revolution to overthrow the social hierarchy of their school.  Dominated by popular social influencer Mitzi, Plainfield High is portrayed as a totalitarian dictatorship, in which a small power elite brutally suppress all forms of dissent.  Olivia wants to change that and she and her group (with some help from the drama club and the local poetry scene) try to wrest control and rebuild a more egalitarian school.  

None of this plays out realistically, but it's a whole lot of fun and all in service to a good cause:  addressing bullying and racism.  At first, Olivia and her friends are all focused on getting revenge and striking back, but as those strategies largely fail, they make the important realization that the best way to confront power is to render it irrelevant.  A society based on fear and conformity can't survive when its values are ignored.  Chen never draws the analogy out to anything greater than Olivia's school, but the novel's epilogue all but connects the dots to a challenge to our larger society.

The character building seemed weak to me and the love stories lacked much fizz, but I enjoyed the story --in the beginning because it was fun and then in the end because it had a lot of useful advice for young people who find themselves too wrapped up in social media and trying to please everyone around them.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Fault Lines, by Nora Shalaway Carpenter

Viv has a reputation in her small West Virginia town of being difficult and unfriendly.  But while she's carrying a grudge against some of her peers, her real anger is directed against the fracking and pipeline companies that are tearing up the area.  When her hunting stand literally explodes from under her, she knows that the culprit is the local fracking operation, although she can't prove it.  So when she finds out that her Dad is about to cave in and sell land rights to a pipeline company, she becomes determined to take the company down.

Dex and his mother have recently moved to the area so Mom can work on the pipelines.  Drowning in medical bills, this is the first real job that she's had in years.  So while Dex isn't entirely unfamiliar with the environmental damage that fracking causes, his family has different priorities.  In any case, what happens here is of little concern to him.  He's signing up for the Army.  His mother doesn't approve, but he knows that serving will get him out of his mom's hair, give him an income, and send him to college.

The two of them, in sum, should have no reason to connect.  Viv hates what Dex's mom does for a living.  Dex, with his eyes set on the Army, has already checked out.  But as two outsiders, they become attracted to each other and eventually form an alliance to stand up for themselves and their beliefs.

Despite the attention paid to the environmental devastation being caused in West Virginia (and the author's loving depictions of the natural beauty of Appalachia), this is not solely a screed for environmentalism.  Rather, it is a tale of two young people emerging from their shells.  Viv and Dex both come from families dealing with loss (Viv's mother is dead and Dex's father is a struggling alcoholic whom was kicked out of the house).  As a result, their single-parent households fail to provide much of a role model for moving forward.  That they each do so is ultimately quite satisfying.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Every Bird a Prince, by Jenn Reese

Seventh grader Eren isn't thrilled that her mother has started dating a creepy lawyer.  And she's even less thrilled about the idea of dating herself, but her friends are all picking out crushes so they can all have partners for the dance.  Facing the pressure to be a good friend and social pressure to have a date, she picks popular soccer star Alex and her friends set the two of them up.  Eren has more than enough anxieties and doubts about herself, but trying to be romantic with Alex just surfaces more of them.  She doesn't feel that way about him and the more she tries, the less she enjoys being around him.

Seeming unrelated, things start to change for her when she rescues a bird in the woods.  He's a prince and he wants to reward her for her bravery and kindness by making Eren his champion.  What does a bird's champion do?  They fight "frost fangs" -- wolf-like creatures that feed on people's insecurities.  

It turns out that these frost fangs have been waging a war and the birds have been the sole defense, but their strength is diminishing.  If no one does anything, the frost fangs will take over and humanity will be lost to its insecurities.  This being a middle reader, everything will fall on Erne, Alex, and a few of their friends to save the world (or at least their school).  The showdown takes place at the school dance, where Eren must first overcome her own fears and anxieties and then convince her peers to do likewise.

I found it a clever fantasy novel with some heavy-handed messages about building up self-confidence and learning to turn off voices of doubt in your head.  There's some messy stuff about whether Erne is "aromantic" or simply not ready for romantic relationships -- given her age, in my opinion, the difference is unimportant and distracting. The far stronger message is that everyone has doubts about themselves, but it is important to not let them paralyze you from living your life and standing up for what you believe in.  It's not a new message, but the packaging here is quite clever and the story is memorable.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Hot Dutch Daydream, by Kristy Boyce

Borrowing some characters from her previous novel, Hot British Boyfriend and repurposing that story's key ingredients, this light surprisingly chaste romance takes an American girl to Europe for a summer of tourism and love.  Originality is less important than a well-paced story that delivers endorphins on a steady drip.

Sage has landed herself an ultra prestigious internship with Dr. Reese, a leading oncologist, at her research laboratory in Amsterdam.  She'll have to take care of the doctor's three-year-old son during the day and do a lot of drudge work, but in exchange, she'll get to attend a conference in Berlin and make a lot of connections.  There's just one catch:  she must stay away from Dr. Reese's gorgeous eighteen year-old son, Ryland.  You already know how this is going to turn out....

Ryland and Sage spend the summer going from hatred to reluctant coworkers to secret lovers (although the relationship doesn't move much further along than furtive kissing).  Along the way, they visit all of the sites, including two of my favorites:  the Zoo and the Kattenkabinet (Amsterdam's museum of feline art).  There's tastings of all the local culinary favorites and even a (slightly ridiculous) drop in at a coffee shop.

On the whole, there was nothing particularly objectionable about the book, but it felt like a pale imitation of its predecessor.  Sage is not nearly as interesting as Emmie from that book, lacking the compelling backstory which made rooting for Emmie more rewarding.  Sage, in contrast, is a grind with a serious work-life imbalance.  If you haven't read Hot British Boyfriend, start there and then pick this one up afterwards and see if you agree that we might have been better off with a one-and-done.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

A Far Wilder Magic, by Allison Saft

Every year or so, the hala makes its appearance.  Fox-like, it lurks in the woods causing increasing amount of damage to its surroundings until the Halfmoon Hunt commences.  There, during the hunt, the best marksmen partner with the strongest alchemists to create a weapon that can match the hala's power.  Many fail and die (there hasn't been a confirmed kill in over 200 years) and the Halfmoon Hunt itself has taken on a tremendous symbolic, religious, and political value for society.

Margaret's mother was obsessed with finding the hala because she believed it was the key ingredient for making the Philosopher's Stone (from which in turn she could gain immortality and omnipotence).  She was so obsessed in her search that she abandoned her daughter to search for the beast.  And in her absence, the hala has come to Margaret instead.  Once Margaret knows it is nearby, Margaret is obsessed in her own way to slay the creature, not for the glory it will bring her but the opportunity to win back her mother's affection by delivering her mother the remains for her potions.

Wesley isn't an alchemist but he hopes to be so one day.  Searching for a teacher, he shows up on Margaret's doorstep looking for her mother.  Instead, the two of them team up to enter the Hunt.  Aside from the fact that Wes still knows very little about alchemy, there is resistance from the authorities to their participation in the hunt.  Wes is a poor Banva and practices the minority Sumic faith.  As opposed to the majority Katharists, Sumics don't even support the hunt, believing that the hala is a sacred creation of God.  Margaret is a Yu'adir, which is even worse.  For the elite (personified by the mayor's bigoted son, Jaime), the idea that a Banvish Sumic and Yu'adir could defeat Katharist is an abomination.  The Katharists will do anything to prevent this from ever happening.

The resulting novel contains a complex and immersive world that summons up themes of religious intolerance, racism, and classism, as well as a complicated system of alchemy.  I enjoyed that complexity and the many ways that the book subtly brings up its real world paralels.  The Katharists and the Sumics are a mishmash of largely Christian theologies, but the Yu'adir are unequivocally Jewish.  Even the slurs made against Margaret are right out of anti-Semitic screeds.  The Banvish and the discrimination against them similarly resemble Irish immigrants in the United States.  Wesley dreams of a career in politics, changing the status quo in much the same way that Irish politician did in the twentieth century.  The calls to action against Katharist primacy would be described as "woke" by American conservatives.

And, as if all that world building is not enough, there are the various subplots that fill out the story:  Margaret's heartbreaking struggle with her mother, Wes's battle with dyslexia, and the unanswered question of what the hala actually is.  And, of course, there is the predictable steamy romance with Wes, which features several tasteful but entirely unambiguous sex scenes.  The novel ends with a very satisfying consummation (in both the emotional and physical sense) of their relationship.  The hunt is less satisfactorily resolved in a great rush at the end.