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 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.