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.

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.