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22

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Revolution by Deborah Wiles

On 22, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RevolutionRevolution by Deborah Wiles

From GoodReads: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.

So as an introduction this is the second book in the Sixties Trilogy. The first was Countdown which was a story about Franny. In Revolution we meet Sunny, a young, white girl. While the two books are part of a trilogy they are really companion novels. Franny’s older sister was getting involved with the Civil Rights movement in Countdown. In Revolution she shows up in Mississippi for Freedom Summer working with various organizations that were getting African American citizens registered to vote in a very contentious area. She does not play a major role in the story exactly, but she is here and Franny is mentioned. You do not have to read these books in order.

I found Countdown to be very successful in integrating the ephemera and the story and in telling the story of Franny and her family and friendship struggles set against a turbulent historical time. My first thought upon seeing Revolution was, wow that’s long. And sadly I think that will be most kids reaction to this as well. Even though there are pictures that technically cut down the 495 pages I have a hard time believing most middle school kids will be willing to look past that page count.

It wasn’t nearly as successful with using photos, clips, and quotes as Countdown. Here many of the snippets were overly long and felt tangential at best. Often times it felt like Wiles was trying to make a point with them and a connection to the story, but it was only truly successful a few times. More often than not I found myself skimming them and feeling like I was missing something if I would only dig deeper. For a book that is this long I think you will be hard pressed to find a student who would sit down and puzzle out the connections.

All of this isn’t to say the story itself wasn’t good. It’s definitely a character-driven book and follows Sunny through a difficult time in her life as she adjusts to family drama and changes and learns to look outside herself. Sunny is rather selfish but she grows as the story moves along which makes her infinitely more likable. Sunny has a non-traditional family, but they are supportive and loving which is refreshing.

The story also squeezes in bits about an African American boy who becomes linked to Sunny and wants to get involved in the Freedom Summer movement. In a lot of ways I wished the story was more about him simply because this is still a book about a white girl and her white girl problems. The book does get points for having a diverse cast of characters, including central ones. Wiles also gets major points for the research she put into the story. She has a long note at the end about Freedom Summer and an extensive bibliography.

I know the book was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it kind of feels like it could be one of those books where it’s a good book grown-ups push on kids. I guess I just can’t get past the length and not plot driven enough to entice kids to read it in droves.

This isn’t to say the story wasn’t enjoyable- rereading this review it sounds like I hated the book, which I didn’t at all. You’re just going to have to find the right reader for this one. I’m sure they are out there. Personally I stuck with the book because of a family connection. My father in law grew up in the delta region of Mississippi. He remembers this time, and especially this summer, and told me the events really changed his mind about the Jim Crow laws he grew up with.

If this is a time period/topic that interests your readers I would also suggest The Watsons Go To Brimingham- 1963. For friendship and race relations I cannot recommend The Lions of Little Rock enough. That one is also a lot shorter. For a nonfiction suggestion try Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

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10

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Guest Post: September Girls by Bennett Madison Review

On 10, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

So today I have the very first guest post on my blog. My best friend Alexis and I share similar (read: excellent) taste in books. She is always very thoughtful and insightful when we talk about literature so I love suggesting titles for her to read that I have found intriguing. A few months ago I read and reviewed September Girls by Bennett Madison and loved it. I was surprised to find there were a lot of people who thought it was sexist, so I asked Alexis if she would read it and see what she thought. Alexis kindly agreed to share her thoughts on the book with me and here on the blog. Thanks, Lex!

September GirlsIt took me a long time to get into this book. It took me weeks, and two tries. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because it was so worth it. Overall, the book was beautiful, lyrical, and thought-provoking. I found myself mulling over this story long after I had finished it, turning plot points and ideas over in my head in a way I haven’t had cause to do in a long time.

I had a hard time starting out because the narrator is rather obnoxious at the beginning. He’s a typical teenage kid, spewing snarky, apathetic nonsense about dicks and boobs and how fed up he is with his family. And while I recognized a lot of my own obnoxious teenage attitude in Sam, I knew that if I had to read a whole book of it I would throw it across the room. Luckily, this was not the case. As Sam arrives at the beach and begins to experience its beauty, its dilapidation, and its strangeness, his narrative voice begins to change. As he begins to accept what is going on around him, begins to think for himself, and allows the people he meets to affect him, he matures (as we all do). Sam’s slow growth is a joy to experience as he allows others to see who he truly is rather than what he thinks society expects him to be. He begins to be honest with himself, with others, and with the reader.

The other characters have wonderful arcs as well. Sam’s brother starts off even more obnoxious than Sam (he is clearly where Sam gets many of his misguided ideas of what it is to “be a man”) but slowly calms down and matures throughout the story. DeeDee, one of The Girls that Sam meets and gets to know well, undergoes a similar journey to Sam; finding herself and becoming true to who she is and what she wants rather than succumbing to the expectations of her community. Even the more peripheral characters such as Sam’s parents and a few of the other Girls don’t stay one-dimensional, even if their arcs aren’t as clear-cut or fleshed out as those of the main characters.

Bennett Madison’s writing is just fabulous. He manages to make even the most run-down, tacky, tawdry settings seem beautiful in their own strange way. When Sam arrives at the beach, the writing is ethereal and dream-like. Everything is rather vague, as though seen through water or through a summer haze, and not everything has quite taken shape. Characters seem to have vague and unexplainable reasons for doing things, like one has in a dream. Strange things happen and characters don’t question them as much as one would expect. Sam also starts off quite passive, allowing things to happen around him and wash over him, but not quite taking part yet. Unfamiliar things seem familiar, in a tip-of-your-tongue, memory-slipping-away sort of way. As the story and characters take shape, the writing also sharpens, reflecting the characters’ realizations of themselves and their desires. By the end, Sam is his own person rather than a collection of others’ expectations, and the other characters define themselves more honestly and definitively than they did at the start of the story. This is even more concretely exemplified in DeeDee’s transformation. She describes herself as quite literally taking shape as she discovers who she wants to be, and she learns that although we might think we want something, part of growing up is learning that things aren’t always what they seem.

I think what most surprised me as I reflected on this book, was how metaphorical it was without ever feeling metaphorical. I hate books where the author is clearly trying so hard to make metaphors, and it feels so contrived. “Oh I see, the car was a metaphor for life. How deep!” Blech. This book dealt with big themes and big ideas and never once did I feel like the author was beating me over the head with them. One of the themes that really resonated with me was the connection between growing up and going home. As we leave childhood and transition to adulthood, we often long for the simpler days when home equaled comfort and everything was simple and answers to questions were whatever Mom said they were. But as we grow up, we realize that we have to go find our own version of home, and make up our own path and our own answers along the way. Even if we return to what was once home, it can never be the same because we have changed, and it has changed in relation to us. This book dealt with that idea and its permutations so beautifully and gently.

The only thing that bugged me throughout the book were the few Little Mermaid references. So much of the story felt ethereal with just a hint of darkness lurking beneath. It was a perfect mood for the book, and pulled off so well. So the references felt jarring when they did appear. There weren’t many of them, but all the ones I noticed were, bizarrely, references to the Disney production. The reminder of that joyful, colorful, bubbly movie really clashed with the rest of the writing and took me out of the moment. I thought, if anything, there would be references to the original, and much darker, Hans Christian Anderson story. However, as complaints go, it’s really my only one and it’s rather small. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a beach and read up on Mermaid lore and mythology.

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31

Oct
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Ghost Story Anthologies

On 31, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Scary Stories

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.

Collected Ghost StoriesIf 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 San Francisco Noirreading 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?

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12

Sep
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

On 12, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Rebel BelleFrom GoodReads: Harper Price, peerless Southern belle, was born ready for a Homecoming tiara. But after a strange run-in at the dance imbues her with incredible abilities, Harper’s destiny takes a turn for the seriously weird. She becomes a Paladin, one of an ancient line of guardians with agility, super strength and lethal fighting instincts.

Just when life can’t get any more disastrously crazy, Harper finds out who she’s charged to protect: David Stark, school reporter, subject of a mysterious prophecy and possibly Harper’s least favorite person. But things get complicated when Harper starts falling for him—and discovers that David’s own fate could very well be to destroy Earth.

I was worried when I started reading Rebel Belle. There was so much talk about dresses and dates and lip gloss. I know there’s an audience for those books, but I don’t especially enjoy them. This book had gotten good reviews in a couple places so I stuck with it and I’m really glad I did because it picked up pretty quickly and got into some intense action. It’s still a light read, but it’s interspersed with action scenes and bits about Harper’s new found calling as a Paladin. There is a focus on being put together and on manners but not at the expense of the story.

Harper Price is one of those perfect, popular girls. She is a cheerleader, on all kinds of committees, dance organizer, dating the cutest guy in school, and wealthy. But her need for perfection is driven by something quite dark. Her sister made one bad decision, to drink and drive, and ended up dead. Now Harper is desperately trying to keep up appearances and keep people from measuring her by her sister. Plus staying busy keeps her from giving into the grief. I’m not sure she would make the most interesting friend, but she hasn’t really found herself yet and the action makes up for any lack of character development.

Unexpectedly at a dance she meets the school janitor who has just been dealt a killing blow. He gives her powers that she didn’t ask for and didn’t know about and now she is sworn to protect the most irritating boy in school. The complications that come from this threaten to throw her carefully constructed life to the wind. Harper tries to take it in stride and, even though she doesn’t want the to, she eventually rises to the occasion. That made me think we’ll see her grow more in the next book(s).

I will warn you, there is a love triangle of sorts. I know those bother some people, but I am not one of them. I thought that her switch from her cute, but rather bland boyfriend to David, the boy she is protecting, who also happens to be a lot like Harper made for a more interesting romance. And Harper doesn’t spend forever dwelling on choosing one boy or the other. More often than not, Harper is exasperated that she has to help David and she is often busy with that task.

As you might expect with a novel set in a small Southern town, there are a few characters. Harper’s aunts get together to smoke and play cards every Friday and they are a hoot. Harper often joins them and she ends up using them to get some information about funny goings on in the town when she is trying to piece together what has happened to her. People often resort to the polite manners I think we stereotypically associate with good Southern breeding. Then there is Saylor Stark head of the Cotillion ceremony. She is also the aunt of the boy Harper is sworn to protect and it turns out she is involved with it. She is also the epitome of proper which keeps Harper in line even in dire situations.

The mystery organization and Southern setting reminded me of the Hourglass series. I think fans of that may enjoy this one too. I would also try it with kids looking for a light action novel.

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05

Sep
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgewick

On 05, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

She Is Not InvisibleFrom GoodReads: Laureth Peak’s father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers – a skill at which she’s remarkably talented. 
Her secret: she is blind. 
But when her father goes missing, Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin are thrust into a mystery that takes them to New York City where surviving will take all her skill at spotting the amazing, shocking, and sometimes dangerous connections in a world full of darkness. 

I like Sedgwick’s writing, but I always come away with the impression that he’s trying to do something that I can’t quite put my finger on. His picture in the back of the book really makes me think he’s outsmarted me. In the best possible way. That feeling makes me want to come back to his books and keep thinking about them. I also appreciate that the two novels by Sedgwick that I’ve read are short. I think he accomplishes telling a complex and interesting story with interesting characters without taking forever.

On the surface She Is Not Invisible is a mystery, although there aren’t exactly clues that would help you solve it before you reach the end. There is a lot about coincidence, but I didn’t find many coincidences occurring within Laureth’s story which I almost found disappointing (this maybe where Sedgwick outsmarted me). Underlying the mystery, the story was about Laureth making herself visible (hence the title). As a child she had a transformative experience where, because she was blind, a woman in a candy shop didn’t interact with her, only with her mother. This made Laureth feel invisible and she decided she needed to learn how to function in a sighted world by being confident and composed even if she doesn’t feel that way. But I think Laureth hasn’t put together that, at this point, she wants to be visible to her parents, not necessarily the outside world. She’s conquered the sighted world in a lot of ways. Her trip to New York was a brash way of making her parents see her on her own terms and see her as a capable individual.

I think where this book also shines is in showing Laureth as blind and how she really wants to be treated normally. She does a lot to call out our prejudices and stereotypes. However, she also does a lot to appear sighted and is then offended when people are taken aback that she is, in actuality, blind. The conflict she feels here really makes her sound like a 16-year-old trying to figure out how she fits into the world and how she wants to fit into the world.

She Is Not Invisible would make a great book club selection. There is a lot to talk about in terms of diversity, adventure, parental relationships, coincidence, and the number 354. Fans of light mysteries would probably have fun with the book, but as I said it isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense. Philosophical types will also find a lot to like with the father’s research into coincidence, sychnronicity, and probability. Kids who like diverse characters and strong girls may also really click with Laureth. This may appeal to middle grade audiences and is certainly appropriate for them even though Laureth is high school age.

One note, all the first words of each chapter (and the first words from the excerpts from her dad’s notebook) come together to make a couple sentences. Sedgwick says as much in the last paragraph of the book, but he’s subtle about it. While I thought the idea was neat, it made for some awkward and abrupt first lines in a number of the chapters.

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29

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

On 29, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Grisha Trilogy

I loved this trilogy. I often like first books, but won’t continue with a series simply because there is always a long list of books to work through. But the Grisha Trilogy warranted a full read. Warning, I may spoil certain parts of the books because I am reviewing the three as a whole.

For me I was drawn to the mythology, culture, and world building. The story is clearly set in a country based on Russia and her folklore. I know very little about Russia as it doesn’t tend to be a country we study much in the US, except as the enemy. And that hardly delves into their rich culture. As much as we celebrate diversity as something involving non-white people, I think there are plenty of white people who we know little about and are, in actuality, very different from us. Russia has some incredible fairytales and myths and how their environment shaped their culture and society is fascinating. The Grisha trilogy doesn’t detail any Russian history, but it does draw on the country (from the Czarist days) and you can easily see the parallels. Themes and characters from the folklore is woven very deftly into this world.

I was also drawn to the romance in the book. I’m not normally a romance fan per se, but the romance between Mal and Alina really added to the tension of the book. You really want to see them together, but you also know it can’t help but end poorly. They are also friends before they are lovers which is a dynamic I like to see because I think friendship is an incredibly important aspect of romance and romantic relationships. I will warn anyone purchasing this book for a collection, there is no sex in the first two books although it’s hinted at and there are some steamy kissing scenes. The third book, however, has an incredible first-time sex scene for Alina. It’s very beautiful and romantic, but it is sex and although it’s not graphic it doesn’t exactly happen off page either. (Side note, when Mal tells Alina he just wants to push her against the wall and kiss her so much she forgets that other men exist made even practical, unromantic me swoon.)

For the intended audience, I think teens will certainly like the romance and may be curious about the books’ cultural connections to Russia. But I think Alina will be the real draw. She’s a complicated character. Life has not been easy for her and denying the magic in her has cost her a lot in terms of her health, mental and physical. Besides Mal, she has never had a real friend and things are complicated with Mal. When she is taken under the Darkling’s wing it’s easy to see why she is drawn to him. He feeds right into her vulnerabilities. Thankfully she  figures this out. Her lack of confidence in all areas is endearing, instead of irritating. Knowing her history it’s easy to see where it comes from and it makes her very human and relatable. She’s cantankerous, but under her prickly exterior she is compassionate and generous. Despite the emotional baggage she has, she’s a strong young woman interested in helping her people.

One last thought, Leigh Bardugo can write. She weaves an amazing story into a fascinating world and works the language of Ravka into conversation and description. Nothing feels stilted or awkward.

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26

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Review: Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

On 26, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Tiny SunbirdsFrom GoodReads: When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.
   But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.

I absolutely loved this book and then I realized the author was white. And now I’m not sure if that changes how I view the book. Which isn’t to say an author has to limit themselves to their own gender, culture, experience, etc. but their research needs to be solid. If the relationships and themes are authentic and transcend anything superficial then the author has succeeded.

This was such an easy book to fall into. The setting was finely drawn.The life before and after the father’s affair is discovered. The living situation at the grandfather’s compound. The political situation in the delta region. The characters were likable and had depth. The slightly kooky grandfather. The grandmother who had learned to work within the traditional system to earn freedoms. The new wife who was loud and unabashed.

But Tiny Sunbirds is really the story of Blessing’s ascendency. She begins as rather shy and retiring, passive even. Used to a life with enough to eat, running water, a flush toilet, private schools, and air conditioning. The move to Warri breaks her away from this world and becomes an eye opening experience. Girls are not highly valued. Ultimately, when money runs thin, Blessing is pulled out of school, where she wasn’t especially welcome anyway. Instead of wilting away, though, Blessing connects with her grandmother who begins to teach her to be a midwife. Through this Blessing finds a purpose and a future. She comes to grips with the physical violence of her old home. Slowly she comes out of her shell and begins to see and understand the world around her, including some of the choices her mother makes.

In counterpoint to this is her brother  Ezikiel. It is painful to watch Ezikiel flounder. He has already lost his father, a poor role model to begin with, at a critical time, so he probably suffers the most as his mother slips aways. His grandfather means well, but does not take Ezikiel under his wing the way the grandmother does Blessing. Ezikiel has a severe allergy to groundnuts which makes eating nearly impossible. There are few alternatives to the groundnut oil used to fry food that cannot be kept refrigerated and no one seems to understand the severity of the allergy. When money runs short Ezikiel’s medication supply nearly runs out, leaving him in constant danger. As a boy, a lot of pressure is placed on him to do well in school and to learn to lead the family. Ezikiel tries to rise the occasion and although we don’t hear his internal struggles, it is clear he places a lot of stress on himself. Add to this Blessing beginning medical training when that is what Ezikiel wants and her growth when his seems stunted. It’s a toxic recipe. Because he is older he may have a better understanding of what went on in their house before their mother left their father and may have a better grasp on how their mother may be earning money to pay for his medicine and school. When he fails his school exams that would lead to medical school his downward spiral really begins.

I really felt for their mother. She is between a rock and hard place. She has endured physical abuse at the hands of a man she broke with her family over. When she discovers his affair, she returns home with her tail between her legs and her two children in tow. The family desperately needs money, so she goes to work. While she deals with the emotional fall out of her marriage, most of which we can only assume she is dealing with, she is forced to work more and more. The ones who suffer most are her children, whom she has little time for. She sees the money she is providing, that puts food on the table and pays school fees, as a substitute for her presence and attention; poor substitute, but a necessary one. Of course her children want more, but I doubt she could have given more under the circumstances. It is never entirely clear whether some of the money she earns comes from prostitution, but she clearly struggles with the option. She also watches her daughter grow away from her and need her less, which must have been hard. She watches as Blessing connects more with the mother she never fully understood. Blessing assumes her mother sees her father in her and dislikes that reminder, but I think what really troubles her mother is seeing her grandmother in her. Someone she did not connect or agree with for most of her life.

I also like the second wife, Celestine. The grandfather decides, at some point, that he wants a son and needs to take a younger, second wife. When Celestine arrives she is obnoxious. No one can stand her and yet she persists. She is poorly educated and because she is older than Blessing and married to a much older man you forget that she can’t be more than 18 or 19, a child herself. As the story progresses, however, she really comes into her own. She makes plenty of foolish mistakes along the way, some that are funny, some that are heartbreaking, some that are cringe-inducing. But she learns and she becomes a part of the family, accepted and accepting.

This is technically an adult book and it deals with some very mature themes, like female genital mutilation and physical abuse, that I think younger audiences need someone to walk them through, but Blessing is a charming character. This would be a good suggestion for more mature readers who like serious books, readers interested in Nigeria, or as an English class option. Although Blessing finds herself in a different situation from most Americans, I think the theme of finding yourself in very different circumstances and with a sink-or-swim dilemma is universal. Did Watson succeed in writing a book that was true to the culture of Nigeria, I don’t know. In terms of characters and themes I think she did, though.

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22

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

On 22, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

A Time To DanceFrom GoodReads: Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyamdance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
 
Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

This was a lovely, quick novel. Ever since I read my first novel in verse I have kept my eye out for them. I find them to be really enjoyable as the story feels as though it is told through little vignettes or pictures. They are quick to read, but the sparseness of the language that is required, even by free verse, really emphasizes the language chosen and makes for impactful reading.

A Time to Dance reminded me a lot, a lot, of The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanan, but I clicked a lot more with Veda. I think I preferred her struggle to find a more spiritual connection with her dance after her accident instead of focusing on winning competitions. By the end of the story she really found peace with what happened to her emotionally and to her body.

I liked the romance in this book. It felt very authentic. There were a few fireworks but even though Veda and Govinda were physically attracted their connection felt like it was based more on shared interests and passions. They also balanced each other well. Govinda was softer with the sharp edges taken down, a people pleaser to some extent. While Veda was hard, direct, and intent on dong what she felt was right for herself, not what is expected.

Now I know novels in verse are technically poetry and poetry can be a hard sell, especially with the YA set. They start thinking about all those boring, overwrought poems they’ve had to dissect ad nauseum in English class. Novels in verse never feel pretentious to me and if you can get them past the idea that it’s poetry, novels in verse are great for reluctant readers.

The audience for this one is wide: dancers, kids who like diverse characters, fans of India, reluctant readers. Although, based on Veda’s age this is YA, I could certainly see this appealing to older MG readers (say 7th and 8th grade). There isn’t anything that is remotely questionable in content. Even the scene with the accident is not particularly jarring.

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19

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Round Up: Miscellany

On 19, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

More Summer Reading

A disparate selection of titles I read this summer. Again, for the sake of brevity I have linked to their GoodReads page where you can read the synopsis.

Zebra Crossing / Meg Vandermerwe: I picked this one up because it had three diversity points- Zimbabwean emigrants, South African setting, and an albino. The story didn’t sound exactly upbeat, but it sounded interesting and appealing. Turns out it was downright depressing. I really liked the main character, Chipo. She had not had an easy life, but she was a friendly girl with capable of making friends and feeling deeply. She could have stood to be more assertive, but I think she always intended to be, but wasn’t given the chance. I liked the book, but it would take a special reader to really click with this one because it is so sad. (YA)

School for Good and Evil / Soman Chainani: This was a rare DNF (did not finish) for me. The premise of the book was actually very clever and I can see a lot of fairytale elements which is what attracted me to it in the first place. I just had a really hard time connecting with the characters. More often than not I found myself frustrated by Agatha’s willful blindness to the fact that Sophie is a terrible friend and Sophie’s blindness to what a good friend Agatha could be. The message that looks can be deceiving also felt heavy handed to me. Plus I got at least 100 pages in and not much had happened to really further the plot enough for my tastes. However! I think had I made it to the end, things would have worked themselves out. This felt a lot like a case of me clearly not being the target audience. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to kids who like friendship stories and fairytales. Especially fractured fairy tales. There are even a few Harry Potter elements mixed in here. (MG & younger YA)

Claire of the Sea Light / Edwidge Danticat: This is technically an adult novel and I didn’t pick it up because it was touted as a crossover, but any teen who likes literary novels and diversity could easily slip into this novel. It was not especially long either, which is often a plus with teen readers who are pressed for time. I cannot say how much I loved this novel. Danticat’s writing style is so lyrical and lovely, but not dense at all. The stories in this book, that follow a variety of people from the town Ville Rose around, felt like peeking into secret parts of people’s lives. Like when you see people driving and wonder where they are going and who they are. It was a sad novel, but not without hope. It also embraced the idea that things in life can come full circle. (YA)

The Martian / Andy Weir: This book was incredible. It was so good I made my husband read it. It was so good he, who reads a book every couple of years, finished it in two days. It was that good. It was definitely a plot driven novel, but there was enough character development to make it interesting for the people in the book. While it’s a survival story, Mark Watney is a funny guy. His quips and general attitude toward his situation make for good reading. And he is so clever in solving problems that seem insurmountable, like surviving on Mars. Interestingly, everything he talks about is technically possible and all of the equipment and technology is currently available even if it can’t quite be used to get to Mars just yet, so there is a realistic bent to a story that seems impossible. Another adult novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a YA audience. I would even give it to a middle schooler who is nuts about space travel, just be aware that there is a mention of sex (although no actual sex) and several swear words. (YA)

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15

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Mambo in ChinatownFrom 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.

 

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