By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old John Fischer Jr., or “Little John” as he’s always been known, is spending his summer helping his father with his tree removal business, clearing brush for Mr. King, the wealthy owner of a chain of Texas dollar stores, when he hears a beautiful song that transfixes him. He follows the melody and finds, not a bird, but a young girl sitting in the branches of a tall sycamore tree.
There’s something magical about this girl, Gayle, especially her soaring singing voice, and Little John’s friendship with Gayle quickly becomes the one bright spot in his life, for his home is dominated by sorrow over his sister’s death and his parents’ ever-tightening financial difficulties.
But then Mr. King draws Little John into an impossible choice—forced to choose between his family’s survival and a betrayal of Gayle that puts her future in jeopardy.
Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, Nightingale’s Nest is an unforgettable novel about a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a girl with the gift of healing in her voice.
I’m not really sure what I expected from this one. I guess I thought it would be more fantasy than it was. It ended up being magical realism, which really isn’t my thing. That being said, it was beautifully written and very moving which is why I finished reading it despite knowing early on that I wouldn’t personally click with it.
On the surface this is a story coming of age story wherein Little John learns to stand up for what is right and to deal with his grief over the death of his sister. Nightingale’s Nest runs deceptively deep though. It tackles poverty, child abuse, death, grief, and loss, the idea that money can’t buy happiness, and creepy old men.
This could easily be my personal bias talking, but Nightingale’s Nest felt more like a children’s book written for adults. It would certainly be the right book for a particular kid. If you have one of those kids in your library, you’ll know just by reading the synopsis who to give it to. I would note that the description calls it “inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story” and that would be about right. I’m not super familiar with the particular story, but it didn’t read much like a fairy tale, not even one set in a modern time. Even though the story ends on a hopeful note, it’s still awfully depressing and Little John can certainly be a sad sack. It skews young in terms of the vocabulary and complexity of the writing (not in how well it is written, but in a technical, mechanical sense!) but the themes and ideas and tacit messages of the book skew much older. The writing also had a dreamy, often almost unreal quality, that I tend to find magical realism books to have. I could see that being a challenge for a younger audience.
A number of the characters in the book are terrible people, but Loftin was really good at fleshing them out, making them flawed with motivations to be the people they are instead of caricatures. On the flip side, Little John was such a good guy. He got a lot of guff from his parents and other adults around and he beat himself up over his sister’s death, but none of it is his fault. It was interesting to see him come into his own and still make mistakes as the story unfolded.
I could see fans of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy enjoying this one if they’re ready for something a little more complex and little darker.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This summer I read a number of graphic novels. I thought I would round my reviews of them up into one post. Since there are quite a few I’ve just linked their title to their GoodReads page if you would like to hop over and read the descriptions. As a general comment, all these graphic novels had excellent, if very different, art.
Skim / Mariko Tamaki: I loved Skim for how it nailed the angst and tension of high school. In some ways Kim could be a total cliche. She tries out religion (Wicca), has a crush on her teacher, goes on awkward dates, has a friend who isn’t such a great friend, and even finds a friend in an unexpected person. But who didn’t have all (or most) of these experiences in high school? This universality makes the story transcend cliche. I was also really impressed by the length of the book. How many times do you read a graphic novel and think “that was short”? It usually doesn’t have any bearing on liking it, but I find myself wishing the reading experience had lasted longer. The length of Skim did not leave me feeling that way. (YA)
Anya’s Ghost / Vera Brosgol: I thought this one was very atmospheric and creepy, but the ending felt a little silly to me. I think this was the combination of ghost story combined with some more serious topics like fitting in, the immigrant experience, and damaging, dysfunctional romantic relationships. Minus the final scene with the ghost I think Anya’s Ghost did something really interesting using the ghost story to frame and highlight these issues. Despite the final scene with the ghost, though, I still really enjoyed the book as a whole. Anya was a likable and realistic teenager. And I’m always a sucker for a good creepy (but not to scary!) ghost story. (YA)
Amulet: The Stonekeeper / Kazu Kibuishi: This one wasn’t short on action by any means. This was a graphic novel I wanted to last longer because it was so exciting. There was a lot of mystery and suspense to keep the pages turning and combine with the graphic novel format, makes this a good book for reluctant readers. (Kidlit, MG)
Cleopatra in Space / Mike Maihack: Why, why why were these kinds of books not around when I was growing up?! I’ve never been a huge science fiction fan, but this has some aspects of Ancient Egypt in it so I would have been all over it. Even as an adult I really loved this story. Cleopatra isn’t your traditional heroine in that she is beautiful and good at everything. In fact she isn’t really into school and isn’t all that good at academics. But when it comes to guts and bravado (and the ability to aim a gun) she dominates. She’s also fairly self confident even if she feels a bit different and lonely, which could grate, but she’s not flawless so it felt more endearing and fun. She’s the kind of kid you would want to be friends with in middle and high school. A good one to recommend to fans of Zita the Spacegirl, reluctant readers, and Egypt fans. As a related side note, I wish the cover of this didn’t look so much like Zita. I feel like it makes it look more like it’s capitalizing on Zita‘s popularity (although I’m not sure which was published first, come to think of it). (Kidlit, MG)
Zita the Spacegirl / Ben Hatke: This was a graphic novel? I came away from it feeling like it read more like a regular novel. The story had complexity, adventure, awesome characters, and good world building. I’m not really sure what else to say about this one. I enjoyed it. Zita is a plucky girl with a good heart, but the story doesn’t come across as didactic. Again, I’m not really a sci-fi fan, but the story is a lot more complex than a genre. In fact I would say it’s more about doing the right thing and about friendship (although, again, it isn’t preachy). I would give this one to any kid that likes adventure, space-related or not. It’s just an all around good book. (Kidlit, MG)
Jane, the Fox, and Me / Fanny Britt: Helene and I share a love of Jane Eyre. I think she saw herself more in the pages than I ever did (I loved the hopelessly romantic and dramatic elements of it), but that was reason I picked up this one. It turned out to be a really beautiful story about the transformative power of friendship. I think a lot of girls can relate to Helene, who you might call a late bloomer. Her old set of friends has become far too cool and are awfully mean to her, (falsely) teasing her for being overweight. Helene really takes their messages to heart, as I think many girls who are teased do. She vacillates between wanting to appear cool and retreating into an escapist world found in Jane Eyre. However, the end is hopeful. On an overnight class trip she discovers a friend and ally in a girl who breaks with the popular crowd, possibly over the treatment of Helene. Stopping wallowing in her self pity does wonders for Helene’s outlook on life and Helene comes to see that being different may not be such a bad thing. She also realizes that she’s hearing some less than positive messages about weight from her mother (as well as her former friends) and that maybe she shouldn’t let their teasing get to her as much. As a school librarian, I’ve known kids like this and the story rang very true. (MG)
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins: This is an incredible book. Jenkins has taken an ostensibly boring subject (the evolution of the eye), and using the layout, the illustrations, and the selection of information, made a book that will capture your interest. It would be more useful as a title to browse and pique interest or as a resource for a report on the evolution of the eye than as a resource for any specific animal. But kids are naturally curious about the world around them, so it’s the type of book that will keep their engagement in tact instead of boring it out of them. I even read this one (in very small sections) to my three-year-old. With some interpretation and extra explaining, mostly to define words she didn’t know, even she was able to enjoy the book. The animals a certainly familiar, but the context is very fresh.
Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals by Michael Hearst: The slightly off colors of this book give Unusual Creatures a throwback quality. The format and small tidbits of information are reminiscent of the Guinness Book of World Records books that I loved as a kid and know are still popular. More importantly, I think, this book was funny. From the ridiculous title, to the introduction, to the Did You Know facts. It’s a good way to get kids reading nonfiction. The format would even allow more reluctant readers with high interest to dip in and out of the book.
Bone Collection: Animals by Rob Colson: This is another one kids can dip in and out of. Although this is more like visiting a natural history museum. The skeleton illustrations are amazing. What really struck me about the book, though, was the presentation of the information. Each skeleton is on a two-page spread that primarily has information about the specific animal. The next two-page spread moves out to a broader set of animals. So for example from the cod to fish. What I think is important about this is it shows kids how to make observations about things in their world, a specific animal in this case, and make generalizations and connections to broader ideas. Albeit this is subtle, it is still a good example of how science often works and makes their own natural thinking processes a little more explicit.
All three of these books have higher reading levels (upper elementary), but I think that’s due in large part to a complicated vocabulary. However, they are also pretty high interest subjects so this could motivate lower readers to tackle them and the context of the vocabulary really aids the reader in understanding it. They are also broken into small chunks of information which any reader can move through at their own pace.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Jun 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This month I decided to plug away at my list of fairy tales. I’m really glad I did, because after one or two titles that I wasn’t so fond of I hit a streak of really wonderful books. I really slowed down this month in my reading so I’m still working my way through the fairy tale TBR pile, so I may come back and add a couple titles. In an effort to keep this post shorter I have linked the titles to their GoodReads records where you can read the plot synopses.
I have three more that I’m going to read, but Andy Weir’s The Martian came in at the library for me and there’s a long list of people waiting for it so I’m shelving the last three fairy tales in order to plow through it. Not that it’s a chore, I can hardly put it down. I’ll write up the other three once I finish them.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
This was a book I wasn’t really fond of. It was a little to precious for me. The characters, especially Ophelia, were just a little too twee and sad. The message of overcoming grief and self doubt was also a little to loud for my tastes. But I know there are kids who like these kinds of books and it got tons of starred reviews. Just another case of every reader their book and every book its reader.
It was a loose retelling of the Snow Queen tale and for that it was interesting. I was also really captivated by the museum where the majority of the book was set. It was full of amazing rooms and displays of all sorts of objects from spoons to doll houses to dinosaurs. I wished the book had been more about the museum.
The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee
I picked another book by Foxlee completely by coincidence. After slogging through Ophelia I decided I would use the 50-page rule on this one and see if it was the other book or her writing that I didn’t personally enjoy.
The Midnight Dress was incredible. The writing was so beautiful and descriptive. The structure of the story goes between four times or interconnected stories, which could have been confusing, but was handled perfectly. It had the air of a fairy tale, but under the hint of magic it was just a murder mystery.
I was especially taken with the relationships, especially the one between Edie and Rose. Rose is surly and sullen, but Edie takes it in stride and takes Rose under her wing while teaching her to sew. Rose absorbs a lot from Edie without realizing it and the stories Edie tells force Rose to live a little less in her self pity. I was unimpressed with Pearl as a person and friend, but think the friendship between her and Rose is incredibly authentic.
Rose also becomes very enamored with the surrounding environment. She hikes around the beach and up the mountain. I really loved this picture of her being outdoorsy and a bit whimsical, especially since she is normally so closed off and cynical. Again, the writing plays into the beauty of the story here. Foxlee’s descriptions of the Australian forest and coast are so descriptive and evocative. You can’t help but picture the setting and feel as if you are there with Rose, enjoying it.
I want to complain just for a moment about the dress on the cover of the book. It looks like a towel wrapped around that girl, nothing like the dress Rose creates in the story. The color is wrong too, too blue. I wish they had used the dress that’s (also inexplicably) on the cover of Hourglass.
The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman
I need to start this one by talking about the cover (what is it with good books and terrible covers?). I’m sorry, but that girl on the cover looks waaaay too rockabilly. All that red lipstick and red nail polish. It doesn’t fit the story at all and it actually ruined the picture of Fiona in my head. And why is she all sexy with her fingers in her mouth? Also completely off and inappropriate for the story. I’m a little baffled by the title. There is a glass casket, but it only makes a very brief appearance and, unless I missed a major plot point, didn’t play a role in any of the events.
Cover aside, this was another fantastic book. Again, this one was beautifully written. The story was incredibly compelling and while it was super creepy, it wasn’t so scary that I couldn’t read it before bed (I’m a huge chicken when it comes to horror). This one felt a lot more like fantasy and fairy tale than magical realism and it is definitely dark. There is a pretty big twist toward the end, but it didn’t feel like a twist you might predict (although I’m sure it’s possible to predict it). The blurb is a little misleading or maybe confusing because the soldiers have very little to do with the story once they’re found. I don’t know if the blurb is trying to be misleading or if it was just intentionally vague about details. Either way, there’s a lot to this story that isn’t found there including a new family in town that Rowan (the MC) is forbidden to speak to by her father, some mystery surrounding the death of Rowan’s mother, a friendship that will be tested, even a little romance.
The Princess in the Opal Mask by Jenny Lundquist
I can’t say too much about the specifics of this story because there are several twists, a couple of which I found predictable, probably largely because I’ve read enough to know some of the story tropes. The writing wasn’t anything overly fabulous, the characters were deep enough, but not super complex. But the story was really exciting and enjoyable. As I’ve said many times before, I was not a strong reader or fast reader as a teen, but I wanted to be. This would have been one of those books I would have and could have devoured.
I was invested enough by the first 50 or so pages to actually get frustrated with one of the characters. Elara, one of the main characters and narrators has a male friend she’s known forever. He apparently has some feelings for her. But Elara has endured so much emotional (and physical) abuse at the hands of her adoptive “family” that she has tucked any feeling parts of herself away. Cordon, her friend, kind of upbraids her for not returning his feelings and dismisses her when she shows a tiny spark of her inner turmoil over the feelings she does have for him.
I really appreciated that Elara was a plucky character. She certainly keeps her wits about her and despite all she’s been through she isn’t completely broken. While many of her decisions are selfish, she isn’t incapable of making decisions that take others into account. I also liked that Wilha begins as such a pushover, but comes to find some inner strength. I also like that she still maintains some of her docile characteristics as I think it would be a long journey to totally overcoming a lifetime of passivity. I will definitely be reading the second book.
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce
This one took a little over one hundred pages to really get going and suck me, but once it did I really liked it. In a lot of ways the writing reminded me of a Victorian novel. The slowness and mundane-ness of parts of the story, the way time crept along, certainly the setting. However the dialogue and syntax was modern which made it much easier to read.
I have to admit, I never found the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin especially disconcerting. I certainly didn’t like that the miller’s daughter married the king who was clearly greedy and forced her to spin gold, but I always kind of thought that was an ends to a means in the story to get her the baby Rumplestiltskin would demand. Plus she’d probably be a fool not to marry a king and the story makes no mention of love, just marriage.
Still, A Curse Dark as Gold is a brilliant retelling that gives the miller’s daughter a name and a lot of agency. As an adult I found her rather exasperating at times, but those moments were few and far between.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
I didn’t finish this one. It read like manual for how to be a crappy parent and teacher (not really). I know there are kids with crappy parents and teachers, I’ve been one of those kids (hated by a teacher) and I know these kids need books that reflect them. But it just absolutely breaks my heart to read about them and I couldn’t do it. BUT, what I read was also incredible. Ursu is an talented writer. She really evokes the setting with such descriptive and creative turns of phrase. The characters are totally believable. Obviously, since I couldn’t get past how awful the adults were (and some of the kids). Even the plot was really fascinating and moved along at a good clip without sacrificing characters or setting or mood. Don’t let my hang ups hold you back from reading or recommending this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Jun 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When Sam’s dad whisks him and his brother off to a remote beach town for the summer, he’s all for it– at first. Sam soon realizes, though, that this place is anything but ordinary. Time seems to slow down around here, and everywhere he looks, there are beautiful blond girls. Girls who seem inexplicably drawn to him.
Then Sam meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, and she’s different from the others. Just as he starts to fall for her, she pulls away, leaving him more confused than ever. He knows that if he’s going to get her back, he’ll have to uncover the secret of this beach and the girls who live here.
I haven’t read many professional reviews of this, so I was totally surprised when I saw its rating on GoodReads and began scrolling through some really scathing reviews. I gather that the biggest complaint about this book is that, on the surface, it seems like a really sexist book (although I think on the surface both Sex & Violence and Crash and Burn seemed a lot more sexist and neither really was). I really disagree with this interpretation, though, so here goes my attempt to talk about a complex book.
Actually, before I start I should say that these are more my thoughts or a loose analysis of the book, not a review. I’m may or may not spoil certain points of the book, although my thoughts are pretty general.
I think generally September Girls is a modern coming of age story for both Sam and DeeDee. But they come of age through different lenses, much as teens (and new adults) do now. Sam’s growing up is seen through and defined by the idea of “being a man”. DeeDee is through how having sex for the first time changes you as a woman, how expectations about you are, in many ways, different after that.
Because the story drew on mythology and legend I think it indicated a deeper meaning to the sexuality and sexism on the surface. Sam doesn’t understand what is meant by “be a man”, but discovers through DeeDee and the Girls both what societal expectations of him are and how backwards and damaging those expectations are. I think DeeDee discovers once you break from the societal expectation of a “good girl” and embrace your sexuality, that you are much freer. This freedom is both figurative and literal. Both are let down by societal expectations in general and in their relationship.
The book is incredibly well written and literary in nature. The pacing was excellent. The characters all had depth and complexity. Even the secondary and minor characters gave the impression of depth. I’m always a little baffled by complaints that minor characters are flat because I sometimes feel like time is better spent developing the main characters and page space is limited. But this book hit home for me how you can at least give the perception of depth even if it isn’t the secondary character’s story.
The ending of the book I think showed how sex and relationships should end. DeeDee was her own woman and the sex made Sam feel limitless, especially in light of the societal expectations we have for sex and relationships. While they were both sad that their relationship ended, it wasn’t a dead weight. It was something they learned from and were able to use to move forward, into their adult lives.
This is a book I would love to read through several times in order to find passages that support all these ideas. Unfortunately this was also a library book (as are all the YA and MG I read) that needed to be returned and I had a stack of other books from the library waiting to be read. I may, in the coming months, return to this though. And I think that speaks volumes about the quality of this book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, May 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
My reading has really lessened in the last month or so, but I did squeeze in a few really wonderful titles, including several with diverse main characters. I apologize, this is a long post. You may want to read it in parts to break it up. For brevity’s sake I linked the title of each book to the GoodReads record instead of including the plot description.
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater: Finally! A middle book in a trilogy (series?) that doesn’t read like it’s just trying to get you to the next one. Actually that’s not fair, I’ve read a number of good middle books, but they always feel so few and far between. I picked up the first book because it was getting such good reviews, but enjoyed it so much that I decided I would keep reading the series. I find a few of the characters a bit exasperating (Blue is occasionally obtuse and Adam needs to work on that chip on his shoulder), but they are all so well drawn, so human, and just on the other side of weird that I love them. Gansey especially. I mean, I know he’s a golden boy (cool, composed, rich, well-educated, etc.) but he has this obsessive side when it comes to finding Glendower that just doesn’t fit with all that and makes him incredibly interesting. Ronan is also a favorite of mine. Truth be told if I was 16 again he would be the one I had a crush on. He’s a bit dangerous and unpredictable, but he’s had tragedy that explains a lot of that. He’s also smart, incredibly loyal, and a good friend despite his gruff exterior. Dream Thieves was primarily about Ronan which if the series continues to focus on different characters (it seems the next one will feature Blue) I like that format. It really gets you into the story in different ways and allows you to see if from fresh angles. I have to say I’m still wondering where it’s all going. I suppose there are glimpses, but I’m not sure exactly how the quest will resolve and how all the pieces will fit together. I can’t decide if this means the story feels less polished or if it makes it better that you can’t figure it all out early on.
Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faize Guene: This was a quick, but really worthwhile, read. Doria lives in the projects just outside Paris and she and her mother just can’t seem to catch a break. Her father has recently left them to move back to Morocco to marry a younger woman which starts a downward spiral. Not only does this essentially leave Doria and her mother destitute, it leaves them angry and broken. Doria’s mother has never worked and can only find a job as a hotel maid where the hours are long and she is constantly put down. Both Doria and her mother struggle with their new situation and seem to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Doria is failing in school where she can’t focus and where teachers don’t seem to care, so she’s sent off to a beauty school for her final year in high school, something she is less than thrilled with. But, while Doria’s a little sad and maybe even a little self pitying, she is incredibly funny. “I saw myself more with MacGyver. A guy who can unclog a toilet with a can of Coke, fix the TV with a Bic pen, and give your hair a perfect blowout with his breath. A human Swiss Army Knife.” About her dentist, “When she was a teenager, she must have had to choose between wrestler, riot cop, and dentist. It can’t have been easy to decide, but she picked the one job out of the three that combines violence with perversity. No doubt it was more fun for a psychopath like her.” I laughed out loud so many times. And I think this sums up the book pretty well. Doria ultimately finds something to be hopeful about. Things to begin to look up. There are a couple social workers who visit regularly and they get them services they need. Doria’s mother takes classes and learns to read. She gets a better job and is actually home more with Doria. She even makes friends with the woman who taught the French classes and now has someone to talk to. Doria’s only friend from the projects cleans up his act (mostly) and begins dating the young woman who Doria babysat for. She makes peace with the beauty school and decides she can use it to get a job and as a stepping stone. And she may have even found a friend (or boyfriend?) in one of the Arab boys that lives in the projects too. Life doesn’t seem so bleak.
Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick: I picked this one up because it was set in Russia. I’m personally interested in reading fiction set in Russia right now thanks to the Grisha trilogy. Unfortunately this one didn’t quite live up to my personal standards. I did read it all and I wouldn’t say it was bad, just not super interesting to me and I didn’t fall in love with the language of it. However, I can see it really appealing to teens because it has a lot of really great elements. It’s based in exciting historical events (the Russian revolution and downfall of the Russian monarchy), but has bits of magic woven in, primarily in the form of a magical Faberge egg. There is friendship and betrayal and secrets. There is even romance that is quiet and slow-growing but still swoon-y. Plus Natalya is surprisingly plucky and determined even if she isn’t particularly savvy or brave and despite the fact that she’s set up as a spoiled rich girl. She also doesn’t give up her beliefs just for the boy she has a crush on. So maybe this one can be chalked up as great YA, not such a great crossover?
The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas: This was an awesome book! In addition to consciously selecting books with diversity I am also trying hard this year to read genres that I don’t read much in. Fantasy is one of these, although I always enjoy the fantasy that I read so I couldn’t explain why I don’t read much of it. I think one of the reasons I really loved The Burning Sky was because it put me in mind of one of my favorite steampunk series, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I’m pretty sure it was the convincingly cross-dressed girl combined with a prince that did that. Iolanthe is a great character although we don’t learn much about her. She herself is surprised to find she doesn’t know much about herself fairly early on. She’s reluctant to be sure, but she’s also loyal, frightened, brave even is she doesn’t know it, and a survivor. Plus she essentially makes a bunch of “your mom” jokes and is accepted into the pack of boys at Eton. Prince Titus is kind of an enigma, but I think he is also unsure of who he is. His whole life he’s been living for his mother’s prophecies, waiting for one in particular to come to pass, one that will set things in motion to free his people from the rule of Atlantis. It will also set into motion events that will ultimately kill him. That’s some weighty stuff to live under. But he is nothing if not prepared and he’s quite clever in how prepared he is. He has learned all sorts of magic, created a place for this other person who will eventually join him at Eton (that would be Iolanthe, but he doesn’t know it until “the event” has passed), learned to fight and done a fair amount of studying of history so he has tactics and information to help. He isn’t really living for himself, but for his people and the revolution that may set them free. There was plenty of adventure in the book, as well as romance, suspense, and inaction. The pacing was really good, actually, but this could be because there are supposed to be two more books. It could have felt like there was too much crammed in. I will say the world building was strong in some regards and weak in others. It was unclear to me how their kingdom/land tied in with Victorian England. I wasn’t sure if Atlantis is actually mythological Atlantis or just the name borrowed. The rest of the magic and fantasy aspects I think were either self-explanatory or quickly became obvious.
On a totally useless side note, I just saw this fire dragon/phoenix thing that’s on the front cover on the cover of another book. And now I can’t remember or find what other book. I think it was an older book, but seriously I cannot remember. I have to say I hate it when publishers reuse images (pictures, graphics, etc.), but I feel like librarians may be some of the only people who notice because we see so many books. Of course none of this has anything to do with the quality of The Burning Sky.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich: I know Louise Erdrich is one of the premiere Native American authors, but her adult books sound way too depressing. That’s actually one of my biggest complaints about adult literature is how damn depressing it is without ever feeling hopeful and that, in turn, is why I prefer YA. The Birchbark House is actually totally appropriate for middle and lower school students and it’s a really wonderful book. I picked it up because it was recommended as an alternative to the Little House on the Prarie series by Angie Manfredi in her Circulating Ideas interview. I read the Little House books ages ago as kid and don’t really remember how I felt about them. However, Angie points out that they’re pretty problematic in their depiction of the Native Americans (the TV show apparently cleaned a lot of that up). I think if you’re reading them in a historical context and are aware of it, that’s okay, but most kids pick them up and read them as some of the first chapter books they read on their own and therein lies the problem. The Birchbark House is simply a depiction of Little Frog’s life in the same time period. It’s just a beautiful, slow story about life over one year. There is joy and tragedy, hunger and abundance. There isn’t really any adventure (unless you count Little Frog’s encounters with a playful pair of bear cubs), but there is storytelling around the fire. You see how bleak their lives could be in the deep of winter, but you also see how beautiful their connection with nature can be too. Smallpox does come to their island home and what happens is incredibly sad, but Little Frog also comes to accept and deal with the loss and sorrow. While this is easy enough for kids who read the Little House books to tackle on their own, I think it would make a really wonderful read aloud too.
The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason: I was so-so on this one. I liked that it combined a vampire hunter (Bram Stoker’s much younger sister) and a detective (Sherlock’s niece) but I wasn’t especially fond of either of them. They were both a bit petty, although the ending humbled them quite a bit and I wonder if further installments would be better. I didn’t think the steampunk was well enough explained either, but that’s probably just a personal preference. Really I picked it up because the cover is awesome and I always read things with Egyptology/Egypt themes. Even if they’re terrible. All that said I can totally see why this would appeal to the real YA audience and actually I think it would have been a good fit for me in high school. The writing was certainly fine and the story exciting and dramatic.
Delilah Dirk and Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff: This is the type of book I wish had been around when I was younger. It’s got adventure and a beautiful but smart and accomplished heroine. Delilah likes to make trouble but she’s clearly got some kind of Robin Hood style plan up her sleeve. Poor Selim, he’s a good guy and is obviously tied to being neat and tidy and in a routine, but he gets sucked into the hurricane that is Delilah. And yet, he learns to go with and actually seeks her out after some time apart. 🙂 The graphic novel format makes this one go down easy. Which isn’t to say that graphic novels are lesser than novels, just that when I wasn’t as strong of a reader I needed the picture support and visual breaks instead of so many words. My one complaint was that in the beginning Delilah looked a lot more like her Greek heritage and at some point she shifted to looking a lot more white. I was really confused by this and it took some flipping back and forth to figure it out. Still, she drives (?) a flying boat and kicks a lot of ass. How can you not love this book?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
In the world of Sorrow’s Knot, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. The dead can only be repelled or destroyed with magically knotted cords and yarns. The women who tie these knots are called binders.
Otter is the daughter of Willow, a binder of great power. She’s a proud and privileged girl who takes it for granted that she will be a binder some day herself. But when Willow’s power begins to turn inward and tear her apart, Otter finds herself trapped with a responsibility she’s not ready for, and a power she no longer wants.
For some reason this book was really slow going for me. I can normally finish a book in two days and because I’m trying to muscle through my TBR pile I’ve really been trying to get through the books quickly. Not so with Sorrow’s Knot, but I don’t think this was a flaw of the book. Quite the contrary. What slowed me down was the writing style, lyrical, beautiful, and cleverly crafted, and the fact that the story and story building was so incredible.
I’m rather sorry this book doesn’t seem to have gotten much fanfare. I’ll admit the slow pace of it all wouldn’t appeal to everyone (it is light on heart-pounding action), but it was such an amazing story. Bow manages to create a world in North America that is both familiar and foreign. She peoples it with all sorts of interesting native people. She even creates a storytelling tradition complete with stories for the Shadowed People, Otter’s tribe. It’s all clearly well-thought out and she gives you little glimpses here and there of the world beyond the Shadowed People and slowly you piece together how things work in this North America. You discover (approximately) where they live, what their traditions are, what their relationship is to their world and to the other people who live in it. It’s familiar enough that you don’t need an info dump, you can discover bits and pieces as the story goes along.
But it isn’t completely familiar. There are the ghosts. There are small shadowed things that suck the warmth and life from you. They aren’t especially powerful and are easy to avoid as well as fend off. These are easily dispatched with the blessed cords and knots the binders* make or by the spears of the rangers too. Then there are the White Hands, which are really the crux of the story. They are tied to the problem Otter and her mother are having with the cords and knots. And they are very dangerous. If touched by one you have nine days until it overtakes your mind. The book is, at heart, a ghost story. Something I didn’t really realize until I started reading.
This is where the stories come in. Bow created stories for the Shadowed People and they are an integral part of the book. Otter must use them to understand what is going on. She uses them to find where she needs to go and what she needs to do to help her people and her friends. Some stories are only hinted at, but others are told in full and more are revealed as the book progresses. They don’t feel like stories within a story, but they essentially are. Bow is so deft at crafting them in, that they fit within the book fluidly.
Sorrow’s Knot is also a friendship story. While the focus of the story and events are around the Shadowed People and their problems with binding and with the ghosts, it really focuses on how these things affect Otter and her two friends Cricket and Kestrel and eventually Orca. The three teens have such a strong bond and when Cricket and Kestrel fall in love and pledge themselves to each other, no love triangle appears and Otter doesn’t feel any jealousy over their relationship. That was a breath of fresh air. Otter and Kestrel also have such a strong, healthy female friendship. It was really refreshing to see them, not as rivals, but as allies and support for each other.
I would like to note I’m not wild about the cover. It certainly fits the book in that it shows elements of the story, but the glowing cords feel really out of place. Like it might be sci-fi. Just a minor complaint. At least the girl on the cover looks like she could be Native American (she does fit the description of Otter) and isn’t white. I know showing a character on the cover really bothers some people. I am not one of them, so it didn’t really matter to me. I do wish the graphic part filled the cover a little more and the title was a little better integrated? I don’t know. I’m not good at identifying what it is exactly that bothers me with graphic design.
All in all a really, really wonderful book.
*I’ll clarify here that being a binder is job. Being a binder means you weave/braid cords from various fibers. You also tie knots and patterns much like a game of cat’s cradle. Only binders have real power behind these knots although everyone can tie knots and do simple cat’s cradle figures. The knots bind the dead, they can get rid of the small ghosts, and they ward off danger. Primarily a binder’s knots deal with death and the dead.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Last month I made a point to read a bunch of books that took place either in diverse settings or had diverse main characters. I know the debate of the lack of diversity in Kid Lit and YA is exploding yet again, but it is new to me and it really got me thinking and evaluating both my personal collection and my values as a reader and potential collection developer. I value having books in my own personal collection for my daughter that show a variety of cultures and a variety of histories but there really isn’t a lot of that. Nor is there a lot that shows diverse people just being regular people. It is also incredibly easy to default to reading about white or Western European cultures and protagonists. Even the Eastern Europeans get left out (think anything Russian that doesn’t have to do with the Cold War or WWII). So in addition to limiting my reading this past month I am also going to try very hard to be sure I am selecting books to read in the future that show diversity.
So here’s the round up on what I read last month and my thoughts on them. For the sake of brevity I did not include descriptions, but if you click on the title it will take you to the GoodReads page where you can read it.
A Moment Comes / Jennifer Bradbury: I know there isn’t infinite time in history class to get through all culture and countries, but I wish there was more diversity in what we studied in history class. I don’t think I ever studied Indian history. Well, we watched the movie Gandhi, but I hardly think that should count. I was ignorant enough when I read this book to have to look up where this was taking place and I checked a few other places on the map too. I really enjoyed this novel. The three different perspectives, which were diverse in religion, ethnicity, and gender, was a really interesting way to come at this moment in history. There was a sort of love triangle, something I am beginning to find to frequently in YA and find irritating, but it wasn’t exactly the focus of the story and it doesn’t play out in the typical way. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I was reminded of Rumer Goden’s Peacock Summer which I believe takes place a little earlier and in a different part of India, but had a similar flavor. I think A Moment Comes, without sounding like a history text, did a beautiful job of showing the history of the split between India and Pakistan and the people who were caught in the event. I would even say it could be appropriate for upper middle school, but would be equally appealing to high school.
Copper Sun / Sharon Draper: I couldn’t finish this one. It was well written, but there is only so much tragedy and violence I can take. And it just kept coming with this book. I think it was the relentlessness of the killing, beating, rape, etc. that turned me off. I know it all happened and was probably a lot worse than what this book portrays, but I just couldn’t get through it.
Liar / Justine Larbalestier: I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time and just hadn’t gotten to it. I knew very little about it except that the narrator was unreliable which struck me as very interesting. When I finished the book all I could think was “what the did I just read?”, but in a really good way. In a way that made me think Justine Larbalestier can write and I need to read that again. It also made me think of I Am the Cheese, for the unreliable narrator, the possibility that what is going on is being shown but also being distorted by the narrator through the narration, and living in the past. Although I admit haven’t read I Am the Cheese in a long, long time. I was surprised to read the debate over Liar, about Micah being unlikable. I was rather surprised by this criticism. I don’t think I ever thought of her in the light of likable/unlikable. There wasn’t time. I was trying too hard to figure out what was going on. I mean I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, but unlikable? She’s not actually real. I’m not sure I think of any character as likable. Plus I don’t think you have to like a book character to click with them. I’m sure I would find my tween and teenage self unlikable if I met her, so I hardly think that would be a fair standard to judge book characters by.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name / Cynthia Leitich Smith: I liked that this book was about overcoming a tragedy and dealing with grief in a positive way. It was nice because the story, while it acknowledge and dealt with the fact that Rain was Native American, it wasn’t about the Native American Experience. She was proud of her heritage, but it wasn’t the story. It was also a quick read (GoodReads says 144 pages, but that would be counting the title page and stuff) which even for a good reader is sometimes a nice break. It was really well written and compelling.
A Girl Called Problem / Katie Quirk: This book was problematic for me and it called into question a white author writing from a non-white (Tanzanian) perspective and I hate that I had that thought, because I don’t think it’s especially valid. First and foremost it read like a hi/low novel, but I don’t think it was. I think I felt like this because it read a lot like a middle grade novel, but the cover and the fact that you don’t tend to study modern sub-Saharan African countries until high school or even later made it seem like it shouldn’t have been MG. If that makes any sense. There was also a huge, clunky info dump at the beginning. So I guess it was the writing in this that was the problem. It was an interesting story about a historical event I hadn’t heard of.
The Vine Basket / Josanne La Valley: This was an interesting one to compare to A Girl Called Problem as they were both written by people who were not from the culture they were writing about but had traveled to the region and were taken by the people. But the writing in this one was so polished. It was such a beautiful story that focused less on the historical event of what was going on, although it did emphasize the plight of the Uyghr people (I’m sure I spelled that incorrectly, but they are an ethnic group in Western China), and more on developing the characters, the relationships, the setting, and the story. It was a quiet story without a lot of dramatic plot points, but it was beautiful and hopeful.
Bird / Crystal Chan: I spent most of this book, a book about family and friendship, thinking how awful everyone was to each other. Not Jewel so much, although she’s pretty hard on herself. Especially John; especially him. Sure he has problems but he pretty unabashedly does some crappy things. Especially initially. I know they all have problems but, sheesh people, get some help and figure it out! That being said this was a fabulous book. It was beautifully written. Or they tried to at least. Bird was slow moving story about how a broken family and how they begin to mend. It’s also about the damage that can be done by remaining silent and never engaging with the grieving process (again, get a therapist people!). Regardless of family tragedy I think it’s easy to identify with the difficulty we can have communicating with our families and in how hard we can be on ourselves over perceived let downs. The family had an interesting mix of cultures too, in a rather white small town, which was a nice touch. I don’t think they had to be different from their neighbors, but the way the author wove in aspects of the Latin and Jamaican heritage really made the story.
The Tyrant’s Daughter / J.C. Carleson: This was a really interesting book. It was well written, if not literary and lyrical in the way that The Vine Basket was or Sorrow’s Knot, but definitely well written. We’ve all heard the news stories about the strife in the Middle East and the fall of several powerful dictators. In an interesting twist Carleson takes the perspective of the daughter of an unnamed dictator. It is never specified which country she is from and it doesn’t really matter. (In her author’s note Carleson says she drew events and ideas directly from headlines so everything has a familiar flavor.) What matters is you see everything from a very different perspective. It’s hard to think of the dictators and regimes as people, but Laila makes it clear they are. Laila is such an interesting character. She’s conflicted about everything- her father, her family’s power and money, boys, clothes, friendship, returning home, making a new home. She is horrified to discover the things her father did while in power, but on the other hand she is rather unapologetic about having benefited from their wealth and power. The year in the US brings her to some realizations and changes her in a lot of ways, but also makes her realize there are parts of herself and her culture she doesn’t want to change or to lose. She loses her naiveté and uses that to become a better person to discover what she wants going forward.
Alif the Unseen / G. Willow Wilson: This one is technically an adult novel, but I can see it appealing to older teens for sure. Wilson is an impressive author and it shows both in her writing here and the creativity of the story. She so deftly and cleverly weaves mythology and folklore with modern technology. The story of a computer hacker who creates a program that can identify individuals and is then pursued by the government and becomes entangled with jinn and magic shouldn’t work. But it does. You can really see Wilson’s reverence for the Middle East and its history and culture here, but she doesn’t shy away from computers and sex or religion. It took me awhile to get through this one, but it wasn’t a slow slog. I was enjoying her writing style and the story which gets complicated to say the least. It’s so worth the read if you can stand a story with some coding jargon.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?
This was a rare one for me – I wanted to read it again as soon as I finished it. I like a lot of the books I read, love a lot of them even, but I rarely feel like I want to read them again. Unfortunately I did not have time to do that, but I have put the title back in my TBR pile so I will get to it again.
So this one I think is touted as a Middle Grade Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Having read Diary I get the comparison, but I’m going to be totally honest, I enjoyed Diary, but wasn’t as taken with it as I was with this one. I know that’s like YA Div-Lit blasphemy, but there it is. If I Ever Get Out of Here felt like there was more of a plot to it and the fact that Lewis was a Native American was less of the issue (which I felt was the point in Diary) than the other aspects of the book. And I felt that’s a big part of what made If I Ever so good. It gives you compassion for how Native Americans live (lived? I doubt conditions on the reservations are much better these days, but I certainly hope they are), but ensconces that in a story that is so relatable for the middle school set- embarrassment over family and where you live, parents who don’t “get” you, making friends, fitting in at school, a bully at school. Middle school kids experience all of that so seeing Lewis struggle with and overcome these things humanizes the more foreign parts of his story.
If I Ever Get Out of Here was also so well written and crafted. Lewis has a passion for music (primarily 1970s pop & the Beatles) and that was woven throughout the story and even into the structure of the novel. That was something I thought could have felt incredibly forced, like Gansworth trying to prove how much he knew about Wings, but it wasn’t at all. It was just another layer to Lewis that felt organic and relatable.
One of the things I really appreciated about the story was Lewis’ uncle. I get frustrated reading about parents who don’t care or are aloof or absent. Or parents who seem to willfully misunderstand their kids or want to mold them into someone they are not. Liz Burns recently wrote a post about why kids need to see those kinds of parents in MG and YA lit and I totally agree. But it doesn’t make me like those parental characters any more! They just make me sad and frustrated knowing that there are real people out there like that and I get tired of feeling so bad for all those kids out there. Lewis has some pretty dysfunctional parents, sadly, even though his mom tries, but he has his uncle. His uncle is a little odd, sure, but he gets Lewis, offers good advice, calls Lewis out on his shenanigans, and genuinely cares for and loves Lewis. It was so heartening to find a character like that in such a bleak situation.
I know one of the hallmarks of MG literature is that it tends to a bit more hopeful than older YA (I know this is a generalization) and that is why I often find that while I appreciate MG I don’t love it. I’m a realist at heart, what can I say? However If I Ever did something very unexpected for me. The ending while hopeful didn’t have one of those neatly wrapped up, everything worked out perfectly happily ever after endings. It’s a bittersweet ending and a little unclear if Lewis will ever get out of there. The story wraps up a little more in his head where he has had his perspective on life shift and that’s where the hope comes from. Not from getting the girl, the house, the friends, the family, the education.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I just got through reading two awesome books that I would categorize New Adult! Although I doubt they are being marketed as such. Just to quickly rehash the discussion, New Adult seems to be primarily focused on romance or romantic novels and are of dubious quality. That’s fine, except I kind of want to read New Adult (not that I don’t love my YA) because in theory it should be pretty reflective of where I am now and was just a few short years ago. Romance, although a popular and genre, just isn’t my thing, so I was rather elated to pick up two books that were right up my alley and NA.
I love books set in Western Africa. I think it hearkens back to a sub-Saharan African cultures class I took in my undergraduate years. I was completely taken with the cultures we studied, especially the music. My professor had done her doctoral (and continued) research with the Hausa so she tended to focus on West Africa so my exposure is a little limited (Africa is a big continent!), but I found what slice we got to be incredibly beautiful and fascinating. So any opportunity I get to read authors from West Africa, I take.
I can’t remember how I came across Aya of Yop City. I know it was through one of my library blogs, but I was intrigued because it was set in Cote d’Ivoire. It was also a graphic novel, a format I like when I read, but don’t tend to specifically seek out. Win-win so far. Unfortuately I was only able to get a copy of the first volume (if you go over to Goodreads, you’ll notice the cover/edition I have shown here is actually a compilation of the first three volumes).
Interestingly this one is shelved with the teen collection in our library system and the characters are on the younger end (late teens, I believe) so I can see why. But their lives and issues seem to be more in line with the New Adult crowd. Men- good ones and bad ones. Marriage. Babies. Family. Parents. Finding yourself and what you want to do. School. While it has some unique struggles for the characters that are a function of time and place (1970s West Africa), I think there are a lot of universals here as well. So even as a white suburban woman I found the characters and situations relatable and sympathetic. I could certainly see teens liking these characters, especially those teens on the cusp of adulthood. But I also see the appeal for new adults.
The Butterfly Mosque I picked up because I realized the author had been in Cairo around the time I was. It turned out we arrived at the same time, were there at the same time and lived in the same neighborhood for the time I was living there. It was little uncanny. But what really struck me was how our experiences diverged so completely. She had the experience I thought I would (mostly).
For years (we’re talking more than a decade) I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I worked hard toward that goal in college, getting archaeology experience, getting my degree in anthropology, making friends in the field. The next logical step was to spend a semester abroad in Cairo. The program was actually a year abroad, which was fine with me. I thought I would fall in love with the country and never come home. In reality, the experience was a disaster. For the purposes of this book review I don’t need to go into details (although maybe I can share another time), but I left a semester early, decided not to pursue archaeology, didn’t accept any grad school offers, and spent the next few years anchorless, wondering what the hell I wanted to do. It was traumatic to say the least.
Willow Wilson took a job teaching English, converted to Islam, met and married an Egyptian man and went on to become a writer. It was never easy for her, but she didn’t suffer the way I did. For that alone it was comforting to read her story and know that the country I so wanted to love wasn’t in fact unlovable. It was just me.
Like Aya, The Butterfly Mosque really tackles some issues that I have seen myself and my friends struggle with despite how different her circumstances were. She examines faith and religion, obviously, however there is also the issue of marriage and falling in love. She examines what she wants to do, how she views the world, and balancing old friendships with the changes in her life. There is even a bit about finding her place in her family and in the world. She has the quirky first job, a story everyone seems to have, and she goes on to start following and discovering what it is she really finds herself called to do. Not everyone wants to write about Islam for the West, but we all have spent time finding our callings.
The only thing I wish is that she had written this a little later and been able to include more about how she and her husband faired in the States, about having their daughter (whom her next book was dedicated to), and how the Arab Spring impacted them. But maybe she’s saving up for another memoir. 🙂 I certainly hope so.