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.