Sunday, December 06, 2020

Clues to the Universe.

Li, Christina. Clues to the Universe. 
January 12th 2021 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC Provided by Netgalley

It's 1983, and Ro is starting a new school. After the death of her father, her mother could no longer afford the tuition at her private school. She is anxious about being new, but switches folders in science class with Benji by mistake, and the two are intrigued by each other and strike up a friendship, eating lunch together in the cafeteria instead of hiding. Ro is trying to build a model rocket, because she and her father were interested in the space shuttle, and Benji draws comics. Ro asks a neighbor, Mr. Voltz, for help with her project, since he was involved in radio operations during the war and is missing his own family. Benji is sure that the author of one of his favorites is actually his father, who left when he was very young. His mother won't discuss him, but his older brother is somewhat sympathetic to his search. There is a boy at school giving both Ro and Benji a hard time; he even destroys their science fair poster. Ro finds out that her mother is thinking about moving them closer to her extended Chinese family. When Benji finds out that his father is coming to a comic con a couple of hours away, he approaches Ro about going with him, but the two have a falling out. When Benji goes missing, Ro knows where to find him. Will the two be able to rectify their family lives, explore their own interests, and get on with their lives... even if they are separated. 
Strengths: This was well written and fairly engaging. Ro starts out very anxious, but quickly warms up and her passion for rocketry. Benji's interest in comics will connect with a lot of readers. Their friendship is mutually beneficial, and they learn from each other's strong points. I found the families to be particularly well portrayed. While both are missing their fathers, they are trying to find positive ways forward, which keeps the book from being too sad and slow. 
Weaknesses: If it hadn't been specifically stated that this was set in 1983, there would have been no way to know. Aside from the lack of technology, the setting and reactions seem very modern. It seemed very odd that Benji's mother would have been so secretive about his father. Also, any self-respecting middle school boy in 1983 would have gone by Ben rather than Benji, since the 1974 movie by that title was still fresh in everyone's mind. Half the dogs I knew were called Benji.
What I really think: The friendship between Ro and Benji, as well as their relationship with their family, makes this seem like more of an elementary school book. Had it been more humorous or had more adventure, I would have bought it, but since so much of the realistic fiction being published skews to the sad and philosophical, I am well stocked on titles like this. 

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