Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

Brynn's teacher has assigned his students to write a letter to a hero.  Brynn chooses Rachel Maddow mainly because her ex-girlfriend was a fan.  After she writes her initial letter, writing to Rachel becomes a habit and all of her future writings for class are addressed to Maddow even though they remain in her drafts folder.  Brynn used to be an all-star student but after her brother's death from an overdose, her parents' divorce, and a break-up with her girlfriend, her grades have slipped and she is now in the basement of the school with other underachieving students.  Along with those issues she is also dealing with and overbearing stepfather and her mother who does nothing to help Brynn.  Despite these problems, Brynn is working on her grades so she can rejoin her beloved school newspaper and possibly break a big story that would take her over-privileged, arrogant nemesis down several pegs. 

Okay, that's a pretty crappy description of a book I liked a lot but I'm finding it a little hard to think of a really great hook for this story that is somewhat of a slice of life.  Brynn's voice is passionate and smart and I was easily swept up in her problems and triumphs.  As a librarian, I wish that she didn't use all the profanities in the entire world only because that will make it harder for me to sell the book to as many people, but the swearing was totally in place for Brynn's character.  Her gradual drift into the corrupt world of high school politics is wonderful and an all too accurate microcosm of real world politics, right down to voter suppression.  AND the resulting sense of hopelessness in trying to fight the power.  At least for this voter...

Brynn's orientation is not even addressed as an issue for her which is just lovely.  She is just a person with an ex and a new love interest and some sticky issues regarding all of the above.  Sure, her life is a mess but unlike so many other books, it's not because she's a lesbian or because she has to come out or any other specifically gay-related issues.  And the absolute best scene of political maneuvering is when someone papers the hallways with flyers, some that say "Brynn is gay" and some that say "Brynn sucks dick" and she asks which it is because it can't be both.  And then loudly reminds everyone that she is a lesbian without it being a thing at all.  I still like books where the character is dealing with coming out because that's still a real problem for people, but I'm also so happy that we are now getting to a place where gay characters can just be people.

One final love/hate from the book:  Brynn's mom is just so not good, mainly because she is more concerned with keeping her husband than her daughter. In a big (but quietly underplayed) showdown toward the end of the book I fully expected that Mom would finally come out from under her husband's thumb and choose Brynn because that's the formula.  As I was reading that section the back of my brain was hoping that Mom wouldn't come around because that would be more realistic.  But then when Mom was still a jerk, I was very sad and worried about Brynn.  To quote the author: "The sadness of that fills me from toes to heart."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

Amani is ripped from her family by the alien race that has taken over her star system, the Vathek.  She finds out why she was singled out when she meets Princess Maram and sees that they could be twins.  Amani is trained, sometimes violently, to be exactly like Maram in order to be her body double at events where Maram might be in danger.  The princess's father is Vath and Maram seems to be just like the cruel overlords so people are not looking forward to her ascension to the throne. But after a rough start, Amani begins to see that Maram might be more understanding and could possibly be turned into a good ruler.  In the meantime, Amani is sent into many situations along with Maram's politically convenient fiance, Idris, and soon the two find themselves growing close.

I set aside time today to finish this book because I just wanted it to be over.  I had heard such hype about it and was looking forward to an exciting sci fi adventure but instead it just dragged along.  The main sci fi thing about it is that the Vath are from somewhere else in the solar system.  But other than that knowledge about them, they basically act like humans (or like whatever the original people are on the planets where Amani lives), except meaner, so there's not much of a sci fi element.  The world that was built was fine but the mythology of the culture was not explained clearly enough for me to embrace it or even understand some of it at times.  I wasn't 100% sure what a tesleet was until at least half to three quarters of the way into the book.  The love scenes were long, particularly the actual consummation scene, without drawing me in with the descriptions of how Idris didn't speak the language but he could read what she was feeling, etc.  On a side note, that poem about ploughing and flushing - OH MY! 

Plot-wise, not a whole lot happened.  Once Amani got the knack of being Maram, there was the romance and some pretty clothes and a bunch of scenes where Amani met people are fooled them or confessed to them.  Even the spying was pretty lackluster.  I needed more political intrigue or action.  Finally, I expected some sort of revelation about why the two girls looked so much alike, especially since Maram is only half Andalaan (I think that's the ethnicity...) and all the Vathek look very much alike in coloring.  I assumed we'd find out they were sisters and then Amani would have to deal with her own tie to her oppressors, but no explanation was offered for the resemblance.  It's clear this is book one in a series so maybe that will come up later.  For now I have to assume that they're "cousins, identical cousins...". 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

To Be Honest by Maggie Ann Martin

After her beloved older sister heads off to college, Savvy is left home alone with her diet-crazed mom.   Ever since she was on the reality TV show Shake the Weight, her mom has been obsessed with her own and other's weight and she makes lots of not so subtle suggestions on how Savvy should improve herself.  Savvy is a little chubby but she is usually happy with herself so she mainly tries to stay out of her mom's way but that's going to be more difficult with Shake the Weight coming to the house to film a follow up segment.  Although she tries to be positive, the editors make it appear that Savvy is doing whatever she can to sabotage her mother's progress.  Luckily, Savvy has a new friend, George, who is supportive, cute and funny.  But is he as interested in her as she is finding herself to be in him?

Things I liked:  Savvy.  George.  Their relationship.  The focus of a book with themes of weight being about a person who was too thin rather than overweight. Savvy's ultra-supportive and fun best friend.  The "it's not even worth addressing" fact that her sister is gay.  Portrayal of a character who has panic attacks.  Condemnation of a reality TV show.  Most of the book.

But then.... I was thoroughly enjoying all of this book - even with the typical back and forth of a romantic relationship - up until the last couple of chapters where everything suddenly just ended.  Was the author under a high pressure deadline to wrap it all up?  Threads that were unsatisfactorily concluded for me:

  • Savvy's mom crashes which was not a surprise with the foreshadowing that had been included, but then she goes to the hospital and that's about it.  We hear third hand that she's going to to have spend a couple more weeks somewhere, but there's no real resolution between her and Savvy.  And with her eating disorder, is she suddenly just all better?  That's not usually how such things work.
  • George's problem is his insecurity about getting too attached but he says that and then Savvy says it and now they're all good?  
  • The initial panic attack was nicely written and Savvy mentions having a history of them at other times in the book, but otherwise that issue is dropped.
  • Savvy's article for the newspaper!  She goes to the award ceremony at the end of the book because her article was such a great thing but as readers we see so little of how she got there.  She interviews the coach, they crash a practice, and she talks to a former player.  But we are not let in on the writing and publishing of the article nor on the fallout from it other than a quick mention during the award scene.  George tells her how proud he is because she has worked so hard on it, but I didn't see that hard work, just a few threads that were leading to something explosive.
I wish the conclusion of the book had been as well done as the first three quarters.  The more I reflected on the story, the more unhappy I was with it overall.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dry by Neal Shusterman

Southern California has been rationing water for quite awhile but no one was expecting the Tap Out - the day that water stopped flowing entirely.  At first Alyssa's parents and neighbors assume the water will come back on in just a couple of days, but before too long people are starting to act a little crazed and her formerly peaceful neighborhood is turning into a war zone.  A lot of the frustration is aimed at Alyssa's survivalist next door neighbors, and their son Kelton, who have supplies and electricity when everyone else is without and that frustration turns violent as time goes on.  With Alyssa's parents missing and no relief in sight, she goes with Kelton and a strange girl to find Kelton's family's Bug out where they hope to survive until conditions improve.  But getting there is not all that straightforward either.

A few chapters into this I had to run an errand and decided it wouldn't be a bad idea to buy a case of bottled water just to have on hand because the speed with which society falls apart in the book felt entirely too realistic.  So in terms of making me think hard about how close most of us are to dropping civility in the face of a crisis, this book is right on target.  Unfortunately, after that good opening for a scary survival story, it was just fairly dry. I wasn't invested in any of the characters and felt that they often made poor choices.  Not the kind of poor choices that lead to interesting story developments, just some fairly illogical choices.  It seemed that Shusterman was going for a picture of the greater scene by including quick scenarios of the girl in the Target parking lot and Alyssa's uncle and the "saint" on the freeway, but I would've preferred more connection with our main characters.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Love à la Mode by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Rosie and Henry meet on the plane taking them to study at a prestigious culinary program in Paris.  They have an immediate spark and it seems like they might have begun a relationship when they kiss a few weeks later, but then a series of complications gets in the way.  Henry want to be a chef more than anything but his mother is pushing him to keep his options open for college or another career.  In order to "help" him think about other opportunities, she talks with his teachers and asks them to assign him extra work.  Now he is stressed out with his nonstop schedule and the pressure of trying to keep his grades high enough to satisfy his mom.  Rosie, meanwhile, wants to be a pastry chef and makes the best cakes, breads and desserts ever.  Unfortunately, she is not as great at all the other cooking and is worried she will be asked to leave the school if she doesn't measure up.  Throw into the mix the hot son of a celebrity chef to further complicate things for Rosie and Henry.

As I expected, this is a light romance following typical romance conventions.  Even so, it is very frustrating to me that the couple can't get together sooner because they won't just TALK to each other!  If Henry had just told Rosie about the pressure he's receiving from his mom she wouldn't have to wonder why he seems to be avoiding her, and so on.  But putting that aside, I liked all the characters and the group of supportive friends surrounding our two main people.  I was happy that hot boy Bodie wasn't a bad guy either, especially because I was sure he had somehow sabotaged Rosie's cheesecake.  The only caveat I would include about this book is that while I really enjoyed the cooking atmosphere and liberal references to real life chefs, terminology, and TV shows, I don't know that will work for every reader.  Perhaps the Parisian love affair will help overcome any issues for those who are not Chopped or Top Chef viewers.  I know I felt the romance of the city as Strohm wove it into the storyline.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Writing a pithy summary of this book feels impossible as it is actually a set of short stories with one connecting factor that adds interest to the stories but isn't required for most of them to be complete.  This sci fi book has six stories, the first of which begins somewhat in the future and then each subsequent story takes place a little further along than that.  Each story shows the progression of genetic manipulation as humans change themselves more and more, eventually ending up with things such as wings, large heads and skin in an array of colors by the last story.  As you might imagine, this is not a book celebrating all those advances...

If you had asked me when I was about 50% through the book I would've said that I wasn't sure if I liked it or not but by the end of it all I really loved it in its entirety.  Although I love sci fi in theory, it is sometimes hard for me to get going on a story because there is the new world which I have to figure out and wrap my head around.  Since there are six stories, I had to figure out six different worlds as the Earth had changed considerably between each new story.  Once I got the rules for each story figured out, I could relax and enjoy what was happening and each one was a great example of the best of sci fi - setting up a future that tells a good tale while still leaving lots of room for your own speculation.  By the time I was into the sixth story and figured out where the entire arc of the book was going, my last wall of skepticism melted and my mind was happily playing back what had gotten us to this point while appreciating how extremely clever Dayton was to make it seem like I was reading six different stories as she was actually leading me along one path the entire time!  I was already content with my book-reading experience but then I read the author's note with the pictorial representation of her inspiration and that was the cherry on top.

Although I basically dismissed the one obvious connecting factor in the stories - the Reverend Tad Tadd - I do love the additional story of his growth from a personal minister to a religion in and of himself.  Other than the one story in which he is a major character, he is thrown in as a mere mention in most of the others.  And yet Dayton has crafted the mentions so well that I can see his fanaticism and that of his followers along with the corruption of his message as it fits his own desires and those of so much of the rest of America.  (Or is that my own bias coming to bear?)

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Similars by Rebecca Hanover

As a new school year begins, Emma is still struggling with the suicide of her best friend at the end of the previous year.  She saw no signs that Ollie was depressed and carries guilt about things she didn't say during the last few weeks of his life.  Emma's school prides itself on inclusiveness so it is not a surprise that their headmaster has invited six clones to attend their private academy.  The six are clones of other students who already attend the school but were cloned without the knowledge or consent of their parents.  Emma's world is rocked when she sees that Oliver was cloned and that now she will be seeing his face every day on Levi.  The two clash immediately but soon Emma finds herself relying on Levi to help her after her roommate Pru is viciously attacked, nearly dying.  As anti-clone sentiment grows at school and in the country as a whole, Emma learns more about the Similars and their special abilities but the mystery of what is happening behind the scenes at the academy grows bigger every day.

I did NOT see that last twist coming!  That is something you hardly ever hear me say.  Most books I have figured out the twist well before I've gotten there or I at least have a pretty good guess I'm waiting to confirm.  When this one was revealed I was truly surprised and it hadn't occurred to me at all so that was very exciting!  Despite that, the book overall was fine for me, but not great.  Emma and Levi's relationship arc was the same as any other doomed lover affair - hate, forced together, discover the other is not so bad after all, get close, obstacle to love with one of them misunderstanding what's happening and the other not explaining, resolution of the obstacle, deepest love story every told, self-sacrifice.  Yawning as I type.  It was not a bad love story, just nothing new happening there to capture my attention.  As for the rest of the plot...

It kept me turning pages quickly to see if there was some answer to the many, many questions:
What are the Similars missions?
What are their special abilities?
Why do they have special abilities?  Are they NOT human?
Why is the school allowing the anti-clone protests when they preach open-mindedness?
What does Oliver's last message to Emma mean?
What does the message in the book from Pru's father mean?
Why is Emma's father so distant from her?
Is Pru dead?
Do The Ten do anything meaningful or do they just meet at midnight to haze and harass each other?  
Why would the principal allow Emma to just leave the lab after what she saw?  And why isn't Emma terrified for her life after that weird encounter?!
And more, not all of which are answered in this book. It was all a little too much without enough closure on all points.  Despite Emma apparently being extremely smart since she placed in "the Ten", she doesn't seem particularly adept at figuring much out.  Like I said, I was reading quickly because I was caught up in the story despite the flaws I kept finding.

Finally, there were just too many characters to keep track of once all the parents became involved.  I'm not sure how to fix that since the past is relevant to the present, but something needs to be done so that I can tell who has grudges from the past and which parents are supposed to hate each other now.  At least give some names that stand out or just call the parents Mr. So and So, Mrs. So and So.  But Jago and Jaeger?  And then the dinner on parents' weekend - Lord help me!