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 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.