There were a lot of things I enjoyed about Natalie Whipple's Fish Out of Water. (I was given an eARC in exchange for an honest review). Like her other books, this is clever and clearly written.
Mika's looking forward to her summer vacation, days spent working at the pet shop (which she actually enjoys), working with her parents on their marine research, and building elaborate sand sculptures with her friend Shreya.
But two things happen, almost on top of each other, that upend her plans. Her manager hires his nephew Dylan, a spoiled rich kid who's at odds with his parents, and training him is a real downer. Then she goes home to find a crazy old lady ranting hateful, racist things about her neighborhood and her family--only to discover the woman is her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. Between learning to care for her grandmother and coming to better understand Dylan, Mika finds her heart stretched in ways she didn't think possible.
I thought Whipple did a nice job with Mika: she's smart (I loved how much she knew about fish) and she's loyal. I thought the prickly interplay with her grandmother was spot on--I also had a grandmother who was hard for lots of people to deal with, so I know what it's like to love someone you're not entirely sure you like. And I liked that Mika's friendships felt real: complicated and warm and sometimes unpredictable. I loved, too, the theme of second chances: that people could do hard, terrible things, but that wasn't the end of hope for them. The book seems to suggest that people can change--but more importantly, we can change how we approach people we struggle with.
There were some things I struggled with though: I never quite bought Dylan's change of heart--he did something fairly horrific before coming into Mika's life, and Mika is rightly horrified when she finds out. But then she finds herself falling for him without really making him account for what happened. There's also a subplot involving one of her friends getting kicked out by her parents--and while the subplot underscores the theme of dealing with racism/prejudice in our families, it also felt a little unnecessary. The book had plenty of complexity without introducing the subplot, I thought. Finally, Whipple did a little bit too good a job making Mika's grandmother hateful. I felt sorry for her and her Alzheimer's and the way she'd let prejudice destroy her life, but I never actually liked her, so it was hard for some of the scenes to have the same emotional resonance for me.
That said, I think it's worth reading: I think it's a thoughtful, clear-eyed look at the complexity of our relationships when we love (as we always do) imperfect people.