The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

greatgreene This is in some ways a pretty easy book to talk up to people. Look at that cover. Do you think it looks awesome? A middle school heist book with a diverse cast sound like something you’d enjoy? There you go.

Personally, I do love a good heist story. Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Ally Carter’s Heist Society books–they all satisfy that part of me that likes a fast-paced story with some derring-do and slightly criminal activity. The Great Greene Heist is a fun example of the genre. Johnson clearly knows his stuff: snappy dialogue, main character who leads an unlikely team, betrayal, revenge, and a little bit of romance. He scales the normal heist story down so it fits in a middle school setting, but he never talks down to his audience. He expects them to follow the dialogue, to get the references.

And then there’s the setting. I started flailing on Twitter last night because no one had mentioned that The Great Greene Heist is set in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived from September 1993 to June 2006. Maplewood is a fictional school, but Easton Town Center, where Gaby goes with her aunt, and the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are not. (I loved the Whetstone branch because they had a little flower garden.) I am always happy when books are set in the Midwest, since it’s one of the less-valued areas of the country, even today seen as boring and full of farms. The reality of the Midwest is so much more interesting and complex than that and I love seeing authors choosing to show that in their books.

Johnson also chose to create an extremely diverse cast, and to consciously push back against stereotypes in several different ways. I actually prefer the second cover the book was given, because it shows more accurately what the story looks like, and because it makes it clear that Jackson is the main character but not the only character. The characters in the book are racially and ethnically diverse. They are also all firmly middle class; Jackson’s parents are professionals, and his mother is a professor at Ohio State. We don’t see many books written from this perspective, and it’s great to see it here.

At the same time, the characters also encounter casual racism, especially from Ms. Appleton, one of the school secretaries. Here’s the clearest quote, but it is echoed several other times in the book: “Jackson looked at his skinny brown hands. He never quite knew what Ms. Appleton meant when she said ‘boys like you.’ He hoped she meant something like ‘boys named Jackson’ or ‘boys who are tall,’ but he suspected her generalizations implied something else.” I mean, can’t you just hear someone saying that? I know I can. It’s not a violent racism, but rather the assumption that brown boys will always be in trouble, that they’ll never get anywhere. And by middle school, kids will most definitely have encountered this attitude from someone. They’ll get it.

But diversity of race is not the only kind we see here. Megan is a blonde cheerleader, the punchline of innumerable jokes, except that she’s also very smart and talented with computers (and speaks Klingon). Gaby plays basketball and it’s clear that she–and the rest of the girls’ basketball team–is much better than any of the boys playing (when she’s playing Jackson she is relieved because at least she doesn’t have to hold back). All of the main characters are shown in multi-faceted, complex ways.

All of this adds up to something really interesting–a mixture of the excitement of the heist plot, and this detailed realism that keeps the story on an everyday level. Normally, heist stories take place against the backdrop of a huge city: New York, Paris, London. It’s part of their glamor. But Johnson sets his in Columbus, gives us a cast that accurately depicts the diversity of our world, gives them a goal that fits into their concerns. These are not teenage spies or jewel thieves; their goal is to get the right person elected as Student Council President. As much as I love the good old-fashioned heist story, this is exactly right. It gives the kids it was written for a chance to see themselves, a chance to feel understood and valued.

In case it wasn’t clear, I also loved reading it myself. It was just plain fun. I’d love to see a sequel or two (or three!) and I’m so glad the Great Green Challenge gave it a boost to my radar.

Book source: bought
Book information: 2014, Arthur Levine; middle grade

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblin emperorThis is one of those posts that I don’t quite know how to write, because I what I want to say about this book is very simple: read it. But that’s not exactly convincing. Also, I am very late to this one, so I feel like everyone has already read it, which makes my voice superfluous. I know, logically, that this isn’t true, but, well, okay. I’ll say my piece anyway.

Katherine Addison is the pen-name of Sarah Monette, author of the Doctrine of Labyrinths, which I had not read but which was peripherally on my radar. And then it seemed like everyone whose tastes I share read The Goblin Emperor and loved it, which meant I had to read it too.

The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, half-goblin son of the emperor of the elves. He is ignored, exiled from court, abused by the tutor his father placed over him. But then he abruptly becomes the only living heir to the throne, and must take up the burden of ruling an empire which looks at him askance.

Although things certainly happen in this book, and it’s partly a mystery as Maia tries to discover what happened to his father and half-brothers, it’s primarily character-driven. This is the story of a young man coming to terms with power and his own relationship to it. It’s story of a young man growing into himself.

It’s hard in some ways to describe what I admire about this book, because if I say that it has a sense of hope, of duty, of loyalty and trying really hard, it makes it sound slightly old-fashioned and even a bit stodgy. Really, it’s the opposite. It’s all about passive resistance and quiet rebellion, of stubbornly and yet gently undermining the status quo. Maia, the Goblin Emperor, raised outside the politics of the court, challenges the assumptions and patterns of that court, without being revolutionary, exactly. It’s about friendship, overwhelmingly, and about choosing a path when it looks like you have no choice at all.

And in all that, Maia is so careful–so maddeningly, heart-breakingly over careful–to not abuse his power. He errs on the side of caution again and again, even when dealing with his old tutor who was clearly awful to him. It would be completely understandable if Maia used his new position to take revenge on him, but instead he uses it to win himself a little space and safety. I can’t tell you how much this made me care about him. If he had run amok with power, if he had turned into the anti-hero we see so often these days, I wouldn’t have liked this story nearly as well. Instead, he constantly worries about his own responses, the implications of his choices, his own complicity. He tries so hard to do what is humanly right, rather than falling back on the cold logic of political stances. The central conflict of the story is whether this will fail him, or whether it will carry him through.

If this is sounding somewhat familiar to some of you, it should. This is a wonderful readalike for Megan Whalen Turner’s books (especially King of Attolia), and for Lois McMaster Bujold, and for fans of Elizabeth Wein’s Telemakos. Maia is not Gen, or Miles, or Telemakos, but they share similar struggles and responses (less so Miles than the others, perhaps; Miles’ relationship to power is a different one).

Besides the story and the characters, Addison absolutely excels at the more technical aspects of writing. The prose fits the story perfectly, third person limited with just that hint of distance that keeps us worried about Maia, keeps us just separate from him and worried about him. It’s quietly understated, in a way that hides real talent and craft because it never puts a foot wrong and it looks so easy.

There’s also some wonderful worldbuilding here. Partly in the purely technical sense of giving the right amount of information without being infodumpy, but more in the way the world is set up. There are aspects which mirror our world, which provide interesting commentary and resonances (…and I’ve made it sound like a political tract, which it’s not). There are other aspects which are quite different. I felt that Addison had been entirely thoughtful and deliberate about this, that her worldbuilding had integrity in all its pieces, both large and small.

As I said about Sorrow’s Knot, I feel like I’m reducing this alchemy of beauty into its component parts. What I really want to say is: go, read this book. It is a beautiful thing.
_______

I loved this post from Monette on fantasy, grimdark, and hope. I suspect that if it resonates with you, you’ll really like The Goblin Emperor.

Other reviews of The Goblin Emperor:
Charlotte’s Library
The Book Smugglers
Liz Bourke

Book source: public library (but I WILL be buying it!)
Book information: 2014, Tor Books; published adult but a great YA crossover

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Airplane reading

I finally internet at home! So I should be around here more often. Yay!

In the meantime, I went to Boston for my sister’s college graduation, and then to Oregon for my brother’s high school graduation. I’m so proud of them both.

And of course, with two long plane rides, I had a lot of reading opportunities. On the way to and from Oregon, I ended up reading four books, and I could have read a few more, if only I had had them with me (there are advantages to ereaders).

my life next door pretender torn away creature of moonlight
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick: I had been aware of this one since it came out and impulse-bought a copy when I went to get my brother a graduation present. It was perfect airplane reading–fun, light, well done in a way that didn’t leave me any regrets. It’s a great summer romance story, and one I would recommend for fans of Jennifer Echols or Jennifer Smith.

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown: If you work with teens in the Midwest, I would definitely recommend getting this one for your collection. Brown really captures the Midwestern setting, especially the relationship with tornadoes. And there’s a drama to the whole story that I think teens will really enjoy. I liked the story without being 100% captivated by it, but I appreciated a lot about it.

Prentender by C.J. Cherryh: Eighth Bren Cameron book. I was nearly hyperventilating the whole way through–I have no idea what my seatmates thought of me. (Fortunately, my squeaks were probably disguised by the engine noise.) If there’s one thing Cherryh excels at, it’s creating a story that’s extremely intense and breath-taking without a lot actually *happening*. Okay, in this one things happen, and yet somehow I always feel that the can’t-stop-must-keep-reading response I have to this series is out of proportion to the plot. This is probably my favorite of the last few books; I really enjoy Tabini, for whatever reason, and like the books he’s featured in. Now on to Deliverer, which is already promising to be just as stressful.

Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn: This is a quietish book, with fewer dragons that the cover promises. But it’s a lovely exploration of what family and forgiveness are, and ultimately it’s the story of a girl finding a place for herself in the world. I liked the careful way Marni’s relationships with other women are depicted, and her voice had a kind of ring of truth to it that I really appreciated.

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48 hour challenge: update the last

Wow! I did it!
48 hours

This was my first 48 hour challenge, and I’m happy to say that I 1) successfully completed it 2) got a lot of reading done and 3) read some books I really enjoyed.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami-finished
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson-finished
Pointe by Brandy Colbert-finished

Cold Steel by Kate Elliott
A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury
Flygirl by Sherri Smith-finished
Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff
A Bride’s Story 2 by Kaoru Mori-finished
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes-finished
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear-finished
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci-finished
My Neighbor Totoro-finished
Melusine by Sarah Monette-finished

Reading time: 19 hours total
Blogging time: 45 min total

Brief reviews for the four I read yesterday:
Flygirl by Sherri Smith: The story of a young African-American girl during WWII who passes for white in order to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Smith tells the story well, with a lot of sympathy for Ida Mae, as well as a look at the consequences of her decision and what she both gains and loses. I will also admit that I thought a lot about Code Name Verity–this is a great readalike for CNV fans who like the flying bits. Also, someone mentions “Dream a Little Dream” which is just not fair; ow, my heart.

My Neighbor Totoro: An elementary age novelization of Miyazaki’s classic film which…I have not seen. The novelization stands well in its own right. There are some slightly awkward moments which I suspect are due to the vagaries of translation, but there’s also a lovely timeless, magical quality to the story.

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes: It seems strange to call a book set in New Orleans just before and during Hurricane Katrina gentle, but I kept thinking of Ninth Ward as just that. Lanesha faces extraordinary difficulties, but her story is about much more than the hurricane. It’s about friendship, and about family, about love and loss and finding out who you are. I also love the cover–perfect for the tone of the book, and for Lanesha herself.

Melusine by Sarah Monette: I loved The Goblin Emperor, written by Monette under the pen-name Katherine Addison, SO MUCH. So much that I immediately checked out the first book in her debut series, The Doctrine of Labyrinths. It’s very, very dark and intense, which means that I couldn’t quite love it as whole-heartedly as The Goblin Emperor. I do very much appreciate what it does, and some of the things that happened were horrifying because I cared so much about the characters. (I also think there would be an interesting little essay on how it fits into and resists the grimdark genre.) That said, I’m not sure if I’ll be reading the rest of the books in the series.

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48 Hour Challenge: update 3

48 hours

So yes, updating last night did not happen. Baking bread while reading did (and it even turned out!). Today I’m at work until 5, which means the bulk of my reading will have to happen this evening.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami-finished
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson-finished
Pointe by Brandy Colbert-finished

Cold Steel by Kate Elliott
A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury
Flygirl by Sherri Smith
Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff
A Bride’s Story 2 by Kaoru Mori-finished
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear-finished
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci-finished

Reading time: 11.5 hours total
Blogging time: 30 min total

On to short reviews!

Pointe by Brandy Colbert: This book is intense. Really intense. Also, heartbreaking, unsettling, and beautifully written. Theo’s story had me reading and reading because I couldn’t bear to stop before I knew how it ended. There’s a lot more to unpack in this one, but for now I’ll say that this is a very impressive debut and if you liked Charm & Strange last year, this is definitely one to look for.

A Bride’s Story 2 by Kaoru Mori: I’ve been liking this series of manga, set in Central Asia in the 19th century. It does a lovely job of both showing the characters as products of their time and place, and also not falling into the “any woman before now/any woman from a traditional culture was a repressed doormat!” The story also moves right along, and I love all the details of clothing and place that Mori depicts. A nice lighter break in the middle of some heavy books.

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear: Everyone has been reading and praising Range of Ghosts since it was published and I finally gave it another try (I had read the first few chapters and hadn’t felt enthralled by them). This time went much more smoothly. Bear’s writing is quietly lyrical, with the kind of understated emotion that I often like quite a bit. I liked the main characters quite a bit, though Temur reads as a bit callous to me in one particular respect (which I don’t want to spoil).

Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci: I was feeling a bit burnt out on heavy books, so I hunted around for something lighter to try. Well. Tin Star is not necessarily what I would call “light”. Its main character, Tula, is beaten and abandoned on a space station by the leader of her colony ship, she has to make her way through an alien world where humans are not very well regarded, and there’s a lot of betrayal or possible betrayal. It’s interesting, in certain ways, and Castellucci uses this kind of staccato narration effectively. But I never felt the slightest emotional connection to Tula or her struggle.

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48 Hour Challenge: update the second

48 hours

Another two hours of reading, and another book finished–Sister Mine, which is weird and lovely. Wonderfully intersectional too. I am confused regarding its winning of the Norton Award, since it does not read as YA to me, nor did I read Makeda as a teenager. But okay, fine. It’s an excellent book and I’m glad it was recognized.

So the updated list:
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami-finished
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson-finished
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Cold Steel by Kate Elliott
A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury
Flygirl by Sherri Smith
Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff
A Bride’s Story 2 by Kaoru Mori
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Total time: 3.5 hours reading; 30 min blogging

Now I’m heading home, so I’ll be internetless again. I may manage another update tonight, or it may have to wait till tomorrow morning.

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48 Hour Challenge Starting Line post and first update

48 hours
So, despite the fact that I still have no internet*, I decided to try to do the 48 Hour Reading Challenge (hosted at Mother Reader). Also despite the fact that I’m working 8 hours on Saturday. This is possibly ridiculous, but that’s okay. I have wanted to participate in some of the reading challenges that go on, but my work schedule makes this difficult. And given the focus on diverse books in this reading challenge, it was also something I felt strongly about wanting to support.

Here’s my (extremely ambitious) list:
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Cold Steel by Kate Elliott
A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury
Flygirl by Sherri Smith
Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff
A Bride’s Story 2 by Kaoru Mori
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

I am happy to note that most of these were already on my checked-out-to-read stacks! I started at 8 this morning (Friday) and have read for an hour and a half so far.

At this point, I have finished The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, which was absolutely charming, and a wonderful example of how diverse books can both be wonderfully specific and true (in this case to Indian culture) and touch on wider concerns, like friendship and family.

And now I’ve started Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine, which recently won the Andre Norton award. I am loving Makeda and the cadences of her narration.

* By the end of next week this should be fixed. Yay!

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