Friday, June 14, 2024

The Atlas of Us, by Kristin Dwyer

When Atlas's father dies, he leaves behind a list of to-do's, one of which was to reopen a trail in the western Sierras and hav ethe two of them hike it together.  Atlas can't ever do that hike with her Dad, but she gets a job on the team that is rehabilitating the trail during the summer.  

It's hard and dangerous work, but the project gives Atlas some focus and takes her mind away from her grief.  Best of all, there's a policy that everyone uses aliases (Atlas renames herself "Maps") and no one is allowed to tallk about their pasts or where they came from.  The anonymity suits her fine.  But when she finds herself falling in love with King, the guy in charge of their team, she's in far over her head.

Featuring a diverse and distinct cast of characters, each of which are drawn out in fine detail, Dwyer's novel explores the slow reopening of Atlas's heart, her healing from loss, and her struggles with grief and depression.  The material is not new and Dwyer doesn't produce any fresh revelations, but the pacing is excellent and the storytelling compelling.  Dwyer knows how to feed the romantic flames gradually, never overloading the fire with excess fuel, and the result is a steady burn of a romance that relies as much on what is not said as what is.  The development of Atlas and King's relationship feels rough and raw and entirely authentic.  Combined with the aforementions strong supporting roles played by the other young people on the team produces a surprisingly warm story of bonding in the woods.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Simon Sort of Says, by Erin Bow

If you're going to write a book about school shootings for middle school-aged readers, there's something to be said for making it deliriously funny.  Throwing in radio telescopes, a mortuary, sackbuts, a quirky small town in western Nebraska, crazed emus, birthing goats, the Jesus Squirrel, and an amourous peacock is just the sort of thing to take the reader's mind off of a grimmer story of PTSD and survivor guilt.

Simon is the sole survivor of a classroom shooting two years ago.  To escape the media attention, his family relocated to the small town of Grin and Bear It, Nebraska.  GNB, as the locals call it, isn't just in the middle of nowhere, it's the home of a series of radio telescopes and thus ruled a National Quiet Zone, where wireless transmissions and the internet are banned.  The prohibition is intended to maintain the quiet that the radio astronomers need to conduct their work, but it also provides cover for Simon and his family -- atown that lives off the net.

In the remote quiet of GNB, Simon is able to make new friends and start a new life -- which in his case involves a seriously sophisticated plan to prank the astronomers.  However, keeping his origins a secret is nearly impossible (especially when a missing corpse brings unwanted attention to GNB) and when the cover is blown, Simon has the come to terms with what he is hiding from.  With the help of the emus and Pretty Stabby the peacock, he manages to do so.

Uproariously funny and full of absurd non-sequitors that come together in the end, the author reveals a great wit that doesn't triffle over the details (like when she confuses the beginning of the movies Contact and Armageddon). It's a shame to limit this to tween readers as I was laughing with every page and adults will enjoy the chaos and lighthearted nature of the storytelling.  That it is ultimately about somethimg super serious makes the book that much more remarkable.  You'll laugh, but you probably won't cry (unless you're the Jesus Squirrel, in which case things might not go so well for you!).

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Borderless, by Jennifer De Leon

Maya may live in a poor section of Guatemala City, but she has big dreams.  She's a scholarship student at a school for fashion and she's making a big impact with her designs.  She's even secured a spot in a fashion show which boasts a large cash prize and a chance to sell her clothing.  Her dreams may be big, but she's making it there slowly but surely.  

However, around her the gangs are taking over the streets in her neighborhood and it's becoming harder and harder to avoid the violence they bring in with them.  When Maya make a series of bad decisions, she finds her life and the life of her mother endangered.  Suddenly, her future in fashion is discarded.  Instead, they must flee north and Maya finds herself on the run and hoping to make it to the United States to request asylum.

The point of the story, of course, is to put a human face on the news stories about refugees at the southern border.  But the novel succeeds by actually spending fairly little time on that subject, concentrating instead on Maya's life in Guatemala.  That she becomes a homeless refugee works better dramatically when we've grown accustomed to her life before.  It also proves frustratingly because so many parts of her life and the story simply get dropped aside.  Her best friend, the contest, her fashion designs, and her boyfriend are ripped away from here and abruptly disappear from her story.  The break between before and after is actually the crux of the story, so while it violates a directive of dramatic narrative, it's effective literary choice here.

There were times when I didn't particularly care for Maya, especially when she endangers herself and her family, but I found her story engrossing nonetheless.  The novel itself won't settle any argument in the immigration debate, but for a young reader trying to understand why people would feel compelled to risk their lives to seek asylum elsewhere, it its educational in a good way.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Ever since her father was mysteriously killed, Marjan has been trying to keep the family's veterinary clinic going.  The staff do the actual animal care.  She simply tries to sort out the bills and hold things together.  But quickly Marjan becomes aware that her father had a secret sideline when a stranger arrives and demands that Marjan fly to England to care for a mysterious patient.  For reasons she cannot explain, she feels compelled to go and discovers the truly unusual nature of the charge:  her patient is a dying gryphon.

When Marjan was little, her farther delighted in telling her old Persian fairy tales.  Each one beginning with "once was, once wasn't," they told stories about magical creatures (faeries, manticores, djinns, dragons, unicorns, and even gryphons) and mankind's fateful dealings with them.  Now, Marjan is coming to understand that the stories contained elements of truth and that her father (and in fact the entire family line) has a special calling to care for these magical creatures.

Care is desperately needed.  Secret forces are at work to wrest control over the magical realm and the conflict threatens all of humankind.  But at the same time, the conflict is also personal.  Somehow, her father's death is tied in to all of this and Marjan needs to figure out how.  With time running out and desperately searching for answers, Marjan must bravely face any number of fearful situations, all the time dealing with nagging doubts about herself and her family's role in all of this.

A beautifully-written fantasy with a byzantine power struggle, interspersed by stunning retellings of Persian folk tales.  I especially liked the tale of the manticore, a morality tale about the cost of vengeance, but each of the stories within the story carry the dual purpose of furthering the story while being sold self-standing tales within the novel.  While this could have easily become a cutesy fantasy about a girl getting to take care of cuddly animals (and there is no denying that the story will appeal to young readrs who like animal books), Monsef has higher ambitions: calling into question human intervention in the animal world and the ethics thereof.  

The overall story has some rough patches, but the final fifty pages deliver one of the best bittersweet endings of recent memory and tie up all of the loose ends in a beautifully messy fashion.  An instant best seller that deserves all of its acclaim.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, by Kathryn Ormsbee

Tash and her best friend Jack have been producing a homespun web-based serial of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina called "Unhappy Families."  It's just something she and a bunch of her friends put together and they get a few dozen hits.  But suddenly one day, the show picks up a mention from an influencer and it blows up.  Tens of thousands of followers later, fan sites have sprung up and the show has been shortlisted for an award.  Rather than bring happiness, the fame drives wedges between Tash and Jack, and resurfaces issues from the past.

The novel breaks some ground by making Tash asexual and addressing the problems that this causes her.  This would have been more interesting if it had featured more prominently throughout the novel, but it really only rises up in the last thrid of the book.  In a similar way, other subplots (like Jack's father's cancer and Tash's relationship with her sister) get rather sketchy treatment and feel like afterthoughts.  Many of the subplots are of course riffs on Tolstoy, but readers without the reference point are largely left in the dark and the result is a novel that doesn't stand up well on its own.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Breathing Underwater, by Abbey Lee Nash

Tess is well on her way to a swimming scholarship, dominance in the nationals, and even perhaps a slot on the Olympic team when she is slapped with a diagnosis of epilepsy.  It's a serious set back -- having a seizure while swimming could literally kill her.  Her Mom wants her to quit swimming altogether and it seems the sane thing to do, especially since her condition makes the type of intense training she is  undergoing particularly dangerous.  But competitive swimming has been her dream for years and finding a new dream seems impossible.

Billed as a romance because of a subplot involving an aimless boy who takes her lifeguarding job when she can no longer do it, this story is really about Tess's struggle to rejig her plans and salvage the vital parts of her dream that are attainable.  But it's hard to see the struggle and the focus necessary to succeed when Tess keeps screwing around.  Tess frankly lacks discipline.  I lost my faith in her by the third time she snuck out of the house and broke all of the warnings of her doctors (and -- surprise! -- got very sick).  If you face a protagonist up against an insurmountable disease, you need to give the woman some spunk, some fortitude, and some will. But screwing up and then wallowing in self-pity got plain old and that seemed to be all Tess had to offer.  I don't have the patience that her parents (or apparently her coaches) had.  On a bleak positive note, I appreciated that at the end of the novel we don't see Tess getting rewarded with the happyb fulfillment all of her dreams.  A realistic bittersweet ending was the least the author could offer us.

Friday, May 24, 2024

The Lightning Circle, by Vikki Vansickle (ill by Laura K. Watson)

With a broken heart from an unrequited love and a strong desire to be alone and lick her wounds, Nora is reluctant to be stuck at summer camp, taking care of a cabin of thirteen year-old girls.  But it's what she signed up for and so she goes.  It's hard to find the space to do her own grieving and there's no time for it. From the moment the campers start arriving, she gets thrown into the thick of her charge's own dramas.  

It doesn't help that it's her first summer and she's never been a camper herself.  Being a camp "virgin," every ritual is a surprise for her and she approaches the experience like it is a foreign land.  But with good instincts and a little help, she manages to survive the summer and learns a great deal, growing to love the place and its people.

A beautiful piece of nostalgia for the summer camp experience, this novel in verse is illustrated with sketches of camp miscellania (a bunk, a horse, a pencil, fellow campers, etc.) that beautifully evoke the innocence of the experience.  It is a very gentle story with no particularly severe traumas but instead chock full of authentic memories lovingly retold by the author.  While fictional, you can't make stuff like this up, so it is clearly drawn from Vansickle's own childhood at camp (in the afterward, she admits as much).

For anyone who was lucky enough to go to camp, reading this book will send you down memory lane.  For others, the book and its exploration of friendships formed and social skills learned in a summer will explain the appeal of this rite of passage.  Definitely a children's book much better appreciated by adults!

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Boy You Always Wanted, by Michelle Quach

Francine's grandfather is dying and he carries one major regret:  he has no male heir to carry on the family name and tend to the family's graves.  For a Chinese Vietnamese, this is a big deal and a thing that Francine can do little to help.  But when she learns that there is a tradition where families could adopt an unrelated young man to serve as the heir, she thinks she may have a solution and a way to make her grandfather's final days happy.  She just needs to find someone to become her grandfather's honorary heir.  They don't even have to carry through on it, just promise to do so until grandfather passes away.

Francine is a good student and extremely conscientious, but none of that has made her popular at school.  The only male acquaintance she can think of would be Ollie and they are hardly friends.  Ollie for his part is always a bit amused by Francine, but doesn't think of her as a friend either.  And he certainly has no interest in participating in what Francine has taken to calling "The Plan." But when Ollie turns out to need Francine's help, the two of them devise a transactional arrangement and Ollie finds himself sucked into Francine's family's drama.  It's actually a welcome change for Ollie because his family couldn't be any more distant from each other.  And while the entire set-up is based on deceit, a true attachment arises that proves to be surprisingly genuine.

The creepy premise of the story initially put me off the story, but it ends well and the truth is surprisingly liberating.  Largely a story about family and about learning to accept change, everyone gets a chance to learn a thing or two.  While there are a few rough spots and a subplot about a scheming best friend that never quite connects with the main story nor becomes the humor relief it is intended to serve, I enjoyed the cultural details and the nuanced characters.

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.