Tag Archives: contemporary

Recent Reading: Thomas, Shannon, Shaw, Hoose

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Does my Nice White Lady opinion about this book matter at all? Probably not. But sometimes you read something so good that even though it isn’t meant for you, it is worth talking about. And for whatever it’s worth, I loved Bri’s story.

It’s about the pressure of family history and making your own choices, about ambition and achieving your dreams. There were moments when as an adult I was concerned about the choices Bri was making, but I also understood why she was making them and they felt very realistic for a teenager under pressure. Personally, I found the conclusion very satisfying, and I appreciated where Thomas chose to end the story.

Although I’m not someone who tends to listen to rap, I really admired how well Bri’s skill is shown. Having that first person narrative during her rap battles showed her talent and quick wits, and kept it engaging.

Some authors have one great book in them–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–but I think On the Come Up proves that Angie Thomas is here to stay.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I wanted to like this one a lot! But it didn’t quite fulfill my expectations, despite being full of things that I should have, in theory, loved. Dragons! Historical fantasy! Spies! Ladies being friends and/or falling in love. Somehow the characters never quite felt fully inhabited and, in a common failing for epic fantasy, it felt weirdly conservative in its undertones even when it seemed to be about remaking the world. I don’t know! I read the whole doorstopper book, so I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I would also say it never quite reached its full potential. On the other hand, lots of other people loved this one, so it’s entirely possible that this was a me issue.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

This is a great example of a book that I liked and just don’t have much to say about. It’s a supernatural mystery featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to mythical creatures (vampires, gremlins, etc). Meanwhile something bad is happening in London–a murderous cult who worship a mysterious object underground. It’s perfectly fine and competent and I liked the inclusion of some classic vampires who were, the book argues, very misunderstood by Bram Stoker, etc. I will probably read the next one. 

Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

While I kind of wish that this book had not been written by a white guy, I did really appreciate the look at sports and Indianapolis history. Obviously, I have a connection to the location, and I thought Hoose did a good job of laying out the history of the city and state’s racial tensions, as well as the resilience and community of the Black residents during the 1920-1950s.

The text was based heavily on interviews with the surviving players and I felt that overall their voices and memories were showcased. I’ve driven by Crispus Attucks High School many times and been vaguely aware of its history, but now the history of both the high school and area have been really brought to life–in a bittersweet way, since so much of it has now been lost. I’d recommend this for basketball fans, but also for almost anyone from Indianapolis who wants to learn a little more about our history.

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Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

The hook of Comics Will Break Your Heart is pretty obvious. Miriam, the granddaughter of one of the co-creators of the famous TomorrowMen has grown up in the shadow of her grandfather’s legacy, the knowledge that things could have been different. As it is, her small Nova Scotia town sometimes feels like a trap she will never be able to escape. Then Weldon Warrick, the grandson of the other creator of the TomorrowMen shows up for the summer, and old family hurts come to the surface. Will Weldon and Miriam be able to find another way, or are they doomed to repeat their families’ past?

Anyone who knows basically anything about the tumultuous relationships between comics co-creators, from Bob Kane and Bill Finger to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby will see the pretty obvious reference here! The title is even a quote attributed to Jack Kirby himself! And Hicks, a seasoned graphic novel writer and artist, weaves in a lot of fun superhero comics moments, like the perennial debate about capes. However, the novel itself is much less about comics than I expected, so it should be relatively accessible even if you are not a fan yourself.

Instead, the story she tells develops in a different direction. Rather than packing it full of comics lore, Hicks chooses to focus on the weight of family history. Miriam and Weldon are confronted by their grandfathers’ collaboration and later falling-out, and the fall-out from that, which left Miriam’s family with a small settlement and Weldon’s father in control of a vast fortune and empire. One which is about to grow even more with the release of the long-anticipated TomorrowMen movie. When it comes down to it, Hicks seems to say, it’s all about choice. Will they keep enacting the same pain that has plagued the previous generations? Or will they find their own way? That’s a theme that resonated with me quite a bit, and I appreciated the way the family history aspect was handled.

In addition, Hicks really uses the small town Nova Scotia backdrop. Miriam is also one of three close friends, but the only one who has a real plan and chance at getting out of their town. It’s a bittersweet look at the way class and social mobility can affect friendship. What does it mean when one person gets to move on? Can you still be friends knowing your paths will diverge?

I went into Comics Will Break Your Heart expecting one kind of story and found one very different. And yet, I appreciated a lot about the story that I found. Miriam’s sweet, slightly eccentric family, Weldon’s relationship to his mother, the way almost all the characters are treated generously. I was only so-so on the romance thread, but I enjoyed the rest thoroughly enough to still recommend it if you have an interest in comics, or slightly melancholy coming-of-age stories.

Other reviews:
Alethea Kontis at NPR
Literary Treats

 

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Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

When Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi E’s dad start seriously dating, neither girl is very happy. After all, who’s ever heard of two Naomis in the same family? And it’s hard to be okay with big changes, especially when it seems like the adults involved don’t realize how tough it is on their kids. As their parents’ relationship develops, the two Naomis have to navigate a new definition of identity and family.

I’ve wanted to read Two Naomis because my friend Brandy has been talking it up basically since it was published in 2016. And with the sequel published last September, I figured I should finally pick it up!

Stories for middle grade readers are sometimes my favorites, because they don’t pull their punches. Sometimes adults think of books for kids as sweet and light–and there is certainly a place for those. But there is also a place for the books that really take a tough topic and look at it seriously from a kid’s perspective. Here, Rhuday-Perkovich and Vernick write a thoughtful and careful story of a blended family and adapting to change.

Naomi Marie and Naomi E do not instantly take to each other, and they both resent the fact that their parents are trying to push them together (or at least that’s how it feels to them). After all, they’re very different girls even if they do share a name. I was expecting a resolution a bit earlier, but as I thought about it, I actually really appreciated the fact that the story allows them the space to be sad and mad about what’s happening. It felt true and respectful to the kids who might need this story, and it gave the eventual resolution more weight.

I also loved how much the neighborhood shapes the setting of the story. I’ve lived in Midwestern cities for most of my life, and your neighborhood does play such an important part of your experience and perception of the city.

It’s worth mentioning that Naomi Marie is Black and Naomi E is white (as are Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick). Most of the plot doesn’t focus on race, but it comes up in a couple of subtle ways, like Naomi Marie’s little sister’s dolls. I don’t know how this would register for kids, especially white kids who aren’t already used to thinking about race, but I’m glad it wasn’t ignored.

All in all, this is a story that’s thoughtful and generous towards its characters and, by extension, its readers. Recommended for fans of The War that Saved My Life, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and Merci Suarez.

Other reviews:
Life Writings of a Reader
Novi books
YA Books Central

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Three Graphic Novels (2018)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (2015)
Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry (2014)
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)

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Recent Reading: Yoon Ha Lee, Theodora Goss, and Sara Farizan

Oh boy, it’s been a weird, tough couple of weeks over here. Some sort of late-winter funk hit me pretty hard and I’m just now finding the motivation to write about books again, even though I’ve been reading the whole time. All three of these could easily be their own post but at this point I’m going to wrap them up and move on.

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

The latest release from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint (an endeavor that I have 10,000 thoughts about and am endlessly fascinated by) and it’s by Yoon Ha Lee, whose adult fiction I’ve loved for years, and it’s a middle grade scifi? Obviously I was going to read this!

Initially, I found the story slightly baffling in places–there were several moments where I expected some emotional fallout or repercussions from a plot point that just…didn’t happen. But once I adjusted to that, the second half of the book was really lovely and the end made me choke up a little. There’s a glorious sense of wonder and eeriness that a lot of scifi I like conveys, and that’s present here too. This is science fantasy in a lot of ways, and yet I found the ship scenes and the fox magic equally compelling.

(It’s also all about siblings and friendship, those two eternal middle grade themes that are my favorites!)

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel planned for this one, but I could easily see it working–or letting it be a standalone with a beautiful ending full of love and loss and possibility.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

THIS IS SUCH A LONG BOOK.

Look, I liked the story a lot, and I’ll even say I liked the experience of reading this book, but IT’S SO LONG. And I both love long books and sometimes feel like they could have been edited down a lot. In this case I finished reading and still really think that the length wasn’t entirely earned. Especially in the middle section, there were a lot of “this happened and then this happened” details which moved the characters around the map to the places they needed to be but made the whole effect kind of plodding. I get that this is 1) very consciously hearkening back to the Victorian doorstoppers of yore and 2) very consciously a travelogue where details of traveling make a lot of sense. But still! I would have been fine with a few things not being spelled out and some pages being cut.

That said, I do really like the actual story. The concept of the Athena Club–the daughters and creations of the protagonists of Victorian SFF–is one that could be a bit hokey but is quite powerful in Goss’s hands. She allows the main characters to be brought together by affection, but mostly by circumstances. They have very different attitudes towards their fathers, towards the world, and towards themselves. And so the relationships between them are all complex, with disagreements and sometimes a feeling of almost being trapped together. At the same time, they’re learning how to be protagonists of their own story, rather than passive creations. And I enjoy the asides a lot!

So, despite the length, I’m still planning to read the third (and, I believe, final) volume of the Athena Club when it comes out!

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

I didn’t really have a lot of expectations from this book (sometimes I know exactly when and why I decided to read a book and other times I have no idea) but I ended up liking it quite a bit. It’s a book about race and prejudice, but equally about family and friendship and what it means to be part of a team. Without being a “redeem the racist bully” storyline at all, there are some surprises from a couple of characters and we get to see Bijan’s growth in his relationships as well.

Also, I just liked Bijan a lot. Since it’s a book that’s so focused on big, heavy topics, there’s always a chance that it could feel trite or forced. But Bijan has a nice snark to his narration that keeps the story feeling realistic overall.

I did personally find one aspect of the storyline to be wrapped up a little too simply. But aside from that, Here to Stay does a great job of tackling some really important topics in a way felt thoughtful and genuine, while also being a kind and funny look at one boy’s story.

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Overlooked favorite books

 

Since reading and reviewing A Spark of White Fire, I’ve really been thinking about books that are a bit overlooked but that I really enjoyed.  Of course “overlooked” can be hard to quantify. What if my corner of the internet vocally adores a book, but the public at large never picks it up? So I made a list and then checked it against the number of Goodreads ratings–even though this isn’t a truly scientific approach, it gives a broad sense of the size of a book’s audience. Here are ten books published in the past two years that I loved and think more people should pick up (links go to my reviews where applicable).

 

Company Town by Madeline Ashby: A futuristic scifi thriller that also manages to be extremely progressive. And despite the gritty backdrop, the main character is competent and engaging. 

Peas & Carrots by Tanita S. Davis: Oh, I loved this realistic YA about two foster sisters who struggle to get along. Davis has a great ear for voice and Dess and Hope leapt off the page for me. 

Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall: A marvelous surreal fantasy for the middle grade crowd. I don’t know how many people will get this reference, but if you loved The Children of Green Knowe, it has a bit of the same sense of wonder and danger and beauty all combined. 

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig: The first in a trilogy, this YA fantasy takes the rebellion/revolution theme that’s so common in YA and really engages with what that would mean. The narrative style is unique and really cool, and I appreciated the representation of mental illness a lot.

Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: I will just quote my original review: ” Essentially, this book takes an SF premise, the discovery of Terra Nova, and uses it to tell a quiet, thoughtful story of family, friendship, and identity.” I loved the way Khorana uses SF as a backdrop for a story that digs into some deep themes. 

Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon: I read this book, thought to myself, “I bet a bunch of reviewers on Goodreads called Rilla unlikeable” and I was right. So if you’re a fan of books about unlikeable girls who are good at things, fraught friendships or sibling bonds, and learning to write your own story about yourself, check it out. 

A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna: I’ve been talking this one up on different platforms a lot so I won’t go on and on here, but basically it’s a fantastically twisty political scifi/fantasy genre-bending YA with gods and curses and a really awesome, competent main character. 

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier: I’m a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s books anyway, but this one was sharp and clear with a fascinating political and social dynamic. It’s another twisty political fantasy that asks big questions about family relationships and the limits of agency. I also loved Oressa a lot–she’s a resourceful and strategic character. 

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera: This is a sweeping story, narrated by an older version of one of the main characters. It’s the kind of book that looks seriously at fate and love and how much of our lives we choose for ourselves. It’s historical fantasy but not quite as I usually think of it. I have the sequel out right now and I can’t wait!

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar: I’ve been shouting my love for this book from the rooftops since I read it in 2017, but it literally has everything I love. Amazingly beautiful prose, a really thoughtful and deep look at history and politics and religion all cast through the lens of women’s voices and experiences. It is rich and dense and layered and I cannot stop thinking about it. 

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I love all of Genevieve Valentine’s novels a lot, but Persona stands out because it takes an interesting near future premise and uses it to say interesting things about public facing personas, the intricacies of identity, and what it means to be perceived as powerless. The follow-up book, Icon, is also great. 

Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein: I love Elizabeth Wein’s books, as probably any long-time reader of the blog knows. And here she wrote a middle grade Star Wars book giving us Rose’s backstory before The Last Jedi! It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and has a fantastic Leia moment in the middle. 

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January 2019 reading

I did not read as much as I wanted to this month, but I read some really awesome books. A few of these I suspect will end up on my end-of-year favorites list! As I mentioned the other day, I’m trying out a new system for my active TBR, and I’m hoping it will result in getting more books either read or passed on.

The Winged Histories –  Sofia Samatar [review]
Sawkill Girls  – Claire Legrand [review]
The Prince & the Dressmaker – Jen Wang
Nate Expectations – Tim Federle
I, Claudia – Mary McCoy [review]
Frederica – Georgette Heyer
Begone the Raggedy Witches – Celine Kiernan [review]
Merci Suarez Changes Gears – Meg Medina
The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams
Sanity and Tallulah – Molly Brooks
A Spark of White Fire – Sangu Mandanna [review]
The Girl with the Dragon Heart – Stephanie Burgis

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 2

Favorites:

  • The Winged Histories
  • I, Claudia
  • Begone the Raggedy Witches
  • Merci Suarez Changes Gears
  • Sanity & Tallulah
  • A Spark of White Fire
  • The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Other posts:

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

Claudia McCarthy wants to be a historian and she isn’t interested in politics. Really. But when betrayal and intrigue at her upper-class private school leave a power vacuum in the student government, someone has to step in. What happens next is really not her fault, right? I, Claudia (Carolrhoda Lab, 2018) is a loose retelling of Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius, transplanted to high school.

It’s been a bit since I’ve read I, Claudius but I remember enjoying the gently snarky tone and the vivid descriptions of Roman politics and society. I was very curious about how this would play out in the context of high school.

I do have to say that the cover is not doing the book any favors. It doesn’t fit the tone and it has negative teen appeal. Not sure what’s up with that, Carolrhoda!

However, I did end up really liking the way McCoy approached the story. Claudia is a defensive character in a lot of ways, holding her cards close to her chest. And ultimately her responsibility and role in what happens is left very ambiguous. Are you at fault when you’re swept up in events you didn’t start? Do your good intentions matter when the result of your actions is harm to others? There are no final answers here, but lots of complicated characters.

The main bulk of the narration is Claudia’s telling the story of what happened, how she ended up here. But we’re also given other voices, especially at the end of the book. Claudia is not an entirely reliable narrator, and I liked the ways we see glimpses of how other characters view her. These aren’t always positive, but it’s a chance to keep the story from being too weighed down by one perspective.

Overall, this is probably not a book that will be for every reader, but I think for the right person it could be really magical. There’s a keen sense of observation and intelligence, matched with a complex take on morality and what we both owe and are owed in our relationships with others. Above all, Claudia’s voice is pretty fantastic. I wasn’t sure what I would think of this as a retelling, but I ended up enjoying it very much on its own merits.

Favorite quote: “You know how, when somebody likes you for exactly the reason you most want to be liked, it makes you like them even more? If they’d written I was nice or funny or smart, it wouldn’t have hit me so hard, and all of the feelings I usually kept shoved down wouldn’t have threatened to come leaking out right there in Art History class.”

Related links:
Mary McCoy on her favorite unreliable narrators
The Literary Invertebrate
Post-It Note Review at Teen Librarian Toolbox

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Previously, on By Singing Light:

The Queen’s Thief Week Myths part 1 (2012)
Bujold Week: Cordelia’s Honor, part 2 (2014)
True Pretenses by Rose Lerner (2015)
Making Without Context (2016)
Favorite children’s & YA books (2017)

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