By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Our story. Our way.
I would have loved this book in my early twenties. I probably would have wanted to copy the idea of combining poetry and art. That isn’t to say I don’t like it now. I loved it now, I just wish I had had it back then too.
Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin were college roommates who were lucky enough to become close friends. When they got out of college they moved to New York together where life was not easy. This cemented their relationship even more.
Together they put together this slim book that combines poems written by Reynolds and art done by Griffin. The art and poems weave beautifully together to tell the story of how hard those first years out of college were and how hard it is to be young adult. I could certainly connect with their fears and anxieties about not knowing if they would make rent, worrying that they had made poor career choices, and wanting to find somewhere to belong. This is the book I would give to someone graduating from college. It so perfectly captures that weird stage between the relative safety of college and the time when you can look back and realize you’re really an adult making it in life. It’s also a wonderful glimpse into how strong the friendships and relationships you make at this stage in your life are. I think older high schoolers might find comfort in it too knowing that it’s okay for them not to figure it all out in college. Certainly the book skews toward a more middle class experience, but I don’t know what kind of SES either Reynolds or Griffin came from. Reynolds finished his college degree, but Griffin did not and he talks very honestly in the opening and ending of the books (two dual voice longer poems) about that decision and the doubts he had about it. I think it’s refreshing to see a perspective that didn’t take the college path and still managed to turn out just fine.
I know there is all kinds of vitriol about the new adult label, and I agree that it’s silly that it’s essentially come to mean steamy YA, but this is really what new adult is and should be. It’s a book about how difficult and confusing life can be after college. Especially since you’re sort of expected to strike out on your own (only failures live at home! which is of course not true at all) and know exactly what you’re doing. I’m really glad Reynolds and Griffin put their difficult experiences out there for others to draw comfort and strength from.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In the mountains of Northern China ancient custom demands that every man have a wife to keep him company in the afterlife. Deshi Li’s brother is dead–and unmarried. Which means that Deshi must find him an eligible body before the week is up.
Lily Chen, sweet as a snakebite, needs money and a fast ride out of town.
Haunted by the gods of their ancestors and the expectations of the new world, Deshi and Lily embark on a journey with two very different destinations in mind. They travel through a land where the ground is hard and the graves, where marriage can be murder and where Lily Chen is wanted–dead and live.
I would have eaten this book up as a teen. It’s dark, it’s darkly funny, Lily is both spoiled and silly but also just young and naive and vulnerable, and it’s ultimately a love story. A love story that revolves around murder. Also, it’s a graphic novel, perfect for the reluctant reader I was.
Lily is too big for her small town not to mention her parents are in some financial trouble and may marry her off to a creep of a government official. When Deshi shows up, surreptitiously looking for a woman’s body to bury with his brother, Lily sees a way out. As they travel through the remote regions of China, Lily and Deshi begin to fall for each other. Certainly Lily is pretty, but she’s got big ideas and this can make her abrasive. Deshi is kind of a wimp and pairs well with the spunk of Lily.
The illustration style is by turns gorgeous and silly. There will be these amazing spreads like this:
and then there will be pages of action with Lily and Deshi and their arms will look like noodles and Lily’s curves are often over emphasized. Even the man Deshi has hired to find a corpse bride has this egg-shaped head.
The book is great for high school, but I could see an upper middle school kid getting into it. For that age, it would be one I would hand sell. Lily and Deshi are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 20, I would guess, which makes them good for high school students to read about, but I think the book also falls into that new adult category (although not because it has sexytimes, I hate that definition of new adult). Lily and Deshi are trying to figure out what to do in their adult lives. Deshi has some hard choices to make and Lily is lured to Bejing by the bright lights and promise of a better life.
My one concern about the book is a quote at the very beginning from an article from “The Economist” about a problem with ghost marriages. While the story centers around this phenomenon the quote makes ghost marriages sound exotic, problematic, and like an epidemic. I don’t know the truth behind this, but it sounds awfully sensational and it also sounds a bit like applying western ideas of marriage and the afterlife to a non-western culture. I think the story stands on its own without the quote and all it does is cast a pall (no pun intended) over the story that makes it feel more salacious than it is.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.
I think technically this is an adult book. A good chunk of the narrative centers around adults and one of the major themes is the struggle of being a parent and wanting to protect your child even though you often can’t. However I think for older YA it’s a great foray into adult literature and does feature a teenage girl and boy very prominently.
In part, this was such a sweet story. You meet all these characters that live in a small dingy apartment building and hear their stories of why and how they came to the US. All have come for a better life and, while they may not have found great wealth, many of them are happy. Everyone is poor, but they manage to get by and support their families. You can’t help but feel for these people and come to care about them. The book certainly could have become overwrought trying to win your sympathy for poor immigrants, but it never felt disingenuous or contrived.
Alma and her husband (whose name is escaping me) have come to the US because Maribel, their daughter, has suffered a fall and a traumatic brain injury. Here they can get her into a good school that can help her recover and cope with her condition. Maribel is very beautiful, but her mind is not quite all there (although this begins to change as the story goes on). When they arrive Maribel is befriended by Mayor, a boy from downstairs. In the small moments he gets to know her and comes to love her for more than her beauty. While Alma is busy struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers and worrying over Maribel, Mayor comes to see her for herself and appreciate the girl she is post-accident- something Alma really struggles with.
There is of course strife, mostly inflicted by parents who are just trying to protect their kids. Maribel is being watched by some creep in the neighborhood and after an incident where he touches her, Alma tries to keep Maribel even closer. This interferes with her friendship with Mayor and gives it a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel. There is also sadness in the book, it is a story about immigrants who are just barely making it in America. But this is tempered with the stories of the people in Alma’s apartment block and Maribel and Mayor’s love story.
The book also does a wonderful job highlighting that all immigrants are not the same. Some came here as children, others came here as adults. Some have been in trouble with the law, others have always been on the straight and narrow. Some had good jobs and opportunities back home while others were forced to leave because of political conflict or because of a lack of options. Some have struggled others have maintained a certain level of quality of life all along. Some have found love, others have not. Some come from Mexico, while some come from various parts of Central America. They are as varied in their stories as the white middle class. It’s a refreshing glimpse into a community that often gets painted with a broad brush by the media and politicians.
I feel like I don’t know exactly what to say about the book. It was just so enjoyable despite the sad parts. It felt like peeking into cars as you drive along and realizing people have lives separate from yours and wondering they are going.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 31, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I may be the biggest chicken there is. I can’t watch horror films, dark rooms creep me out, and I can have a pretty active imagination when things go bump in the night. Still, I love to read spooky tales and ghost stories. While in college I stumbled across a couple ghost story authors that I absolutely love. They are primarily Victorian era authors, but there are a few more modern ones. The first few ghost story anthologies I read really got me into them, and from then on I started buying any anthologies I would come across. Sometimes this meant volumes of short stories by one author, but often it was collections from all kinds of authors.
If you’re interested I suggest looking for Wilkie Collins, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood (his Wendigo story still freaks me out ten years after reading it), Elizabeth Gaskill, and M.R. James. Penguin published a collection of ghost stories called American Supernatural Tales that included Poe and Stephen King as well as Washington Irving and was quite good.
To celebrate the Halloween season I’m reading through a couple of these anthologies that have been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long. So far they’re great. Scary Stories with illustrations by Barry Moser has a few tales that I’ve never read. My favorite thus far has been the first story in the book that has a little girl getting retribution for the death of her kittens. It’s more creepy than scary with an incredibly clever twist at the end.
I also have (yet another) collection of M.R. James tales. M.R. James was the author I came upon quite by accident when I was studying abroad in Cairo. I had way too much free time and was miserable to boot so I began wandering the American University’s bookstore. They had a really fabulous literature section and I began buying any and every book that piqued my interest. One of the first I got was this collection of ghost stories. If reading every saved me, it was then. And if there was one book that made me realize I could lose myself in books, it was this one. I still have the book and I return to it every once in awhile. I’m hoping that this new Oxford edition will have a few tales I haven’t read and will bring me back to some of my old favorites (“Casting the Runes “and “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”).
The other collection I have picked out is San Francisco Noir 2. The Akashic Noir series complies collections of ghost and supernatural stories from one city (there are a few geographical areas slipped in). Not all the stories are from the US either. There is Tehran Noir, Haiti Noir, and Bangkok, to name a few. I have also read New Orleans Noir which I bought in an old funeral home converted to a Borders bookstore in the Garden District. Awesome! I’m curious if the San Francisco one will have a similar feel to the New Orleans one. I highly recommend the series, especially if you live in or have visited any of the cities featured. Check out the GoodReads listing of the series here.
Ghost stories, especially anthologies, are great reading for high school (and even brave middle schoolers). If you go with the classics they’ll be creepy, but not inappropriate (unless, of course, you consider murder inappropriate). You can pick the book up for a few minutes and read a story, then put it down again without needing to keep the whole book in your head. The anthologies often contain some excellent authors, authors who may appear on the the AP exam, so you can frequently get a literary factor in there too. Plus the stories are always so engaging.
Any one else love to read these kinds of books? Any favorite ghost stories or authors out there?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
I think this one is technically an adult novel, although I didn’t realize that when I got it. I would call it New Adult with plenty of appeal for an older YA audience. I’m not sure why I decided to read it (must have gotten a good review from someone) since I tend not to be interested in adult novels, but I’m glad I did.
Hooray! This one was not about a miserable middle aged woman having a tepid affair. In fact it ends well and despite adversity and a lack of confidence, Charlie is a likable and relatable character who you’re happy to see things work out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on adult fiction after all.
Mambo in Chinatown tackles a TON of issues, but Kwok keeps it from turning into an after school special. The struggles Charlie faces make the characters and story feel real. Actually, it’s the variety of issues and problems that could broaden the audience this book would appeal to.
Not only is dance a large part of the story but it’s shown as a path to bettering her chances in life. Charlie never considered going to college. She has some undiagnosed learning difficulties and never really did well in school. It was refreshing to read a story about someone choosing a different path that is treated as equally valid (even if it’s difficult).
Tension between traditional ways (and generations) and the younger generation is also a major theme. The immigrant experience plays into this, as well as ethnicity. Charlie has rarely been out of Chinatown and it’s a big deal when she begins to work outside. Charlie’s sister also suffers an unexplained health crisis (it is explained toward the end). Their uncle is an eastern medicine practitioner and their father tends to prefer this type of treatment and defers to his brother. Charlie is skeptical of it, especially when her sister’s health continues to spiral downward.
I was especially taken with the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. They are eleven years apart and their mother died shortly after Lisa was born. With the added stress of being very poor, Charlie has had to grow up quickly and is more of a mother figure to Lisa than a sister. Charlie is wonderfully encouraging of Lisa and, because she is young and less tied to tradition, she makes a good advocate for her with their father, uncle, and larger community.
There’s been a lot of talk about NA being YA with sex and I even heard an author call Fifty Shades of Gray NA. I suppose it is in a way, but I think the idea that it has so much sex doesn’t make it NA. Sex is certainly a part of many (most?) people’s lives when they’re new adults but I think it’s rather simplistic to think that it’s the only thing that’s changed between young adulthood and new adulthood. Or the only part that new adults want to read about. Mambo in Chinatown has sex in it. One sex scene that really happens off page. It’s certainly not graphic. In fact I’ve read steamier sex scenes in YA novels. But I think the way Kwok handles this relationship in the book is how sex in a book appeals to new adults. If you want lots of graphic sex, read erotica. Read erotic NA. Here the sex is simply a part of the story, a minor but good part.
My one and only complaint about the book was that some of the metaphor gets a bit heavy-handed and obvious with big flashing red arrows pointing at them, but they were few and far between. Nor did they detract from the rest of the writing which was good.
Give this book to kids who are interested in dance, dance competition, diverse characters, tensions between tradition and modernity, and mother-daughter relationships.
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Jan 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Amir is twenty years old when she marries her husband, a boy named Karluk from a neighbouring village. Adjusting to life in a new household can be trying for any young bride, and Amira’s husband is eight years her junior. Amira was a strong, sophisticated hunter and horsewoman in her village, but though their villages were next to each other, their customs are very different. As Amira introduces Karluk to the foods and pastimes that were popular among her comrades back home, the warmth she feels for her young husband grows.
This was one of the series I read over the summer and it was so fabulous. This is what graphic novels/manga should be. The story is engaging and well written, even if it’s essentially uneventful. The art is incredible. What I wouldn’t give for an ounce of that artistic talent. *Sigh*
What really struck me about these books (especially the first two) was how it fit well within the New Adult category. I’ve talked a bit (or a lot) about how I don’t really see myself as an adult, but new adult is a category I could identify with. The story is about a girl in her early twenties who is newly married. She is finding her place both as a wife to her husband and in a new family. While we may not live in such a traditional society, it’s still awkward fitting in with your in-laws! Amir’s situation is not unfamiliar or unrelatable at its core.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to high school students based on the story alone, it’s a good introduction to the culture of Central Asia. The art really captures the clothing, housing, and art of the culture. I do think there is a segment of younger girls who would really connect with Amir. However, I think Amir’s story and position is incredibly relatable to the new adult and the new bride and while I don’t know much about the author (who is apparently a famous manga author) or her usual audience, I got the impression she is writing for a younger adult set (as opposed to a young adult set, if that makes any sense).
I enjoyed this one so much that I went on to read the rest of books available in the series. They were all equally good, although some of them are quite different. I would also note that the last couple books (volumes 4 &5) focus on much younger girls/brides. The girls are really silly and quirky, which makes them very relatable and fun despite the fact that they are getting married so young.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Jun 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Love is awkward, Amelia should know.
From the moment she sets eyes on Chris, she is a goner. Lost. Sunk. Head over heels infatuated with him. It’s problematic, since Chris, 21, is a sophisticated university student, while Amelia, is 15.
Amelia isn’t stupid. She knows it’s not gonna happen. So she plays it cool around Chris—at least, as cool as she can. Working checkout together at the local supermarket, they strike up a friendship: swapping life stories, bantering about everything from classic books to B movies, and cataloging the many injustices of growing up. As time goes on, Amelia’s crush doesn’t seem so one-sided anymore. But if Chris likes her back, what then? Can two people in such different places in life really be together?
I wasn’t totally bowled over by this book, but I really enjoyed it. I guess it wasn’t as swoony as I thought it would be, but I think because it wasn’t it felt more authentic.
What I found really fascinating about this book was the fact that it felt like both a YA novel and a NA novel. Amelia is definitely young and in love and her story is very much the story of a young adult. But the book alternates between Amelia’s narration and Chris’s journals. Chris is struggling with much more “adult” problems.
Personally, I connected more with his story than with Amelia which speaks to my getting older, not the quality or appeal of the book. Chris just had his heart broken. He isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life. His friends are growing up and getting jobs, houses, moving in with their significant others. He and Amelia are clearly good for each other and, age aside, would make a great couple, but they are in such different places in their lives. I think these struggles are pretty universal for 20 somethings, at least they have been in my circle of friends, including age differences making relationships difficult (although not quite to this extent!).
Even though I am not the target audience, I can see this story connecting with my high school self. I wasn’t especially interested in boys my age, like Amelia, and would have found someone as fun and interesting as Chris very appealing. Being naive and inexperienced as Amelia is, I also would have not understood how problematic a relationship would have been. All in all, a fun and interesting read even if it wasn’t my favorite I’ve read for The Hub Challenge. This would make a fabulous summer read.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, May 2013 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I came across an interesting editorial by way of Kelly at Stacked Books. In it The Horn Book‘s editor-in-chief suggested that maybe it was time to stop reviewing young adult novels. You can read the piece here, it’s pretty short, but I wanted to share a few of my thoughts about some of the things he said. I didn’t necessarily disagree with what he was saying, but I didn’t really agree either.
What struck me about this piece was a possible argument for labeling books as New Adult, which I talked a bit about in this post. My understanding is that he is suggesting children’s and youth review publications, like The Horn Book, stop reviewing YA novels, the stuff intended for 12 and up or maybe 14 and up. He makes the point that YA is read by a lot of adults and there is a lot of it out there. Sure, if it makes your job easier and it’s still labeled as YA so it’s easy for teen librarians to find, I think that’s reasonable.
Sutton notes that, as the years have passed, the age ranges have been shifting upward and the content is becoming more mature. He even receives requests to review books that are labeled as adult for The Horn Book, but points out that there is a distinctive and important line between adult books and children’s books. I totally agree. But I wonder if some of the books he sees as too old could and/or should be classed as new adult? This makes me wonder what age group is really reading all that YA? Because it might actually be “new adults”, like myself, who aren’t really interested in true adult literature and have some nostalgia for the late teen years. In addition classing some literature more accurately as NA could sort out some of the content that’s more for older teens and alleviate some of the pressure created by the amount of YA being published.
Along the lines of his final point, commenters wonder if teens are becoming guests in their own sections and I agree that’s what it sounds like. However one commenter went so far as to suggest filing YA with adult books and I think that would be a mistake. Teens won’t always go looking for them there and what about all that research into giving teens their own space. The teenage years are very different from the middle grade and adult years. That’s why all that literature is written for them.
I worry that by pushing YA more into the adult realm, however, it could make the work of youth services librarians seem unnecessary. It might be a leap, but if the literature they work with is somehow lumped in with adult literature, why not have adult services subsume youth services? I don’t think libraries are all about books, but I do think the two are very intimately connected, so when you erase a distinction between the adult and young adult literature the distinction between the two groups of patrons suddenly seems a little less clear.
All in all this sounds to me more like a broken or damaged publishing system. Labeling a book as “14 and up” feels a lot more like a marketing ploy to give adults (or new adults) permission to read something that really isn’t intended for them. Which isn’t to say adults can’t or shouldn’t read YA, just that it sounds a bit like publishers fishing for the next big cross over like Hunger Games or Twilight than a genuine suggested age range.