Tag Archives: YA

Recent Reading: Markus, Lord, McPherson, Gonzalez

Photo of Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez on a wooden background

Dared & Done by Julia Markus: After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord: I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson: This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez: After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

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Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina

burn_baby_burn_coverI read this book last month in the midst of a reading slump, when all I wanted to do was reread old favorites but the pressure of all the new books sitting on my library shelf was too much. I picked it up after getting home from work and read it in one evening, completely ignoring everything else I meant to do. I liked Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass a lot–in fact, I was on the Cybils panel that shortlisted it the year it came out. But Burn, Baby, Burn is even stronger, in my opinion. It does so much so well that the only challenge is which of the threads to talk about.

For instance, there’s been a spate of YA set in the 1980s & 90s which seems to have no reason for that setting aside from nostalgia on the part of the author. By contrast, Burn, Baby, Burn not only engages with its historical setting, it could not possibly have been set in any other moment. Medina writes out of personal memory and experience, as her backmatter notes make clear, but she doesn’t stop there. The atmosphere of the summer of 1977 is woven into every scene and character.

There’s also a kind of mythologized, idealized NYC that exists in a lot of YA, as in a lot of other media. Medina resists that as well, pushing back against the idea of the glittering city full of a thousand possibilities. Nora’s city is on the edge of something, full of danger, full of people trying to make their way in a difficult world. It would be easy to say that it’s gritty, and I think that is wrong: it’s also full of hope and excitement. But it’s not smooth; when Nora visits her father and his new family, we see briefly the kind of NYC that usually appears in YA and feel the same relief that Nora does when she returns to her neighborhood.

Most of all, though, the setting here underlies and informs the characters. Medina draws everyone with understanding and complexity, but at the heart of the book is always Nora. Like her neighborhood, Nora is not smooth: she’s prickly, both self-assured and self-doubting, brimming over with hope and joy and fear. Medina shows a very specific Latina girl growing up in a particular neighborhood in NYC at a particular time in a particular family. But at the same time, Nora’s journey towards becoming a young woman resonates deeply.

I’m also grateful for the way that Nora’s story includes other girls and women on their own journeys. While she does navigate falling for a boy, the story starts and ends with Nora and her best friend Kathleen. We see their similarities and differences, but we also see the older generation. Kathleen’s mother and her black best friend (one of Nora’s neighbors) are both feminists, but we see the differences in their experiences as well. Without being the History of Feminism, we’re also given a picture of what the struggle for equal rights looked like in that moment, which doesn’t erase the experiences and legacy of women of color.

The final strand I wanted to note is the depiction of Nora’s family. Over the course of the book we see Nora slowly, slowly coming to terms with the fact that her brother Hector is truly dangerous to himself and to others. And once she realizes that, she also has to decide what she’ll do with that knowledge, in the face of her mother’s determination to not see. It’s a tricky thing to show that undercurrent of things not being okay, and Medina does it really well. Nora’s final decisions and determination in keeping herself and others safe is a really great and powerful way to tell this story. More teens than we sometimes realize or want to admit have families where things are broken, and a lot of growing up is learning to acknowledge this and find your own path.

This is definitely a book where difficult things happen, where the hard parts of being a teen aren’t shied away from. But there’s also a tremendous sense of hope and joy. There are second chances and learning to find your own place to stand and grow. There’s so much more to talk about here, but the heart of it–what’s stuck with me in the last month–is Nora’s courage and determination to do the best she can, by herself and by other people.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Candlewick; YA historical fiction

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Out of the woods: books set in forests

I’m not entirely sure why forests are such a powerful setting and symbol in fantasy. Maybe it’s something to do with fairy tales, maybe something to do with how much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with vast acres of trees. Regardless, I love books that have forests as a main setting and I wanted to highlight some of them. They might engage with the mythology of forests in different ways, but they’re all playing with that sense of magic and danger.

out of the woods

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: The forest that Hazel and Ben enter plays a major part in this haunting book.

The Jinx trilogy by Sage Blackwood: The Jinx trilogy is almost entirely set in the Urwald, a magical forest that’s full of danger and secrets.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: In Otter’s world any shadow can hold one of the deadly White Hands, and so the forest that surrounds her home is both beautiful and terrifying.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll draws on fairy tale influences to weave her extremely creepy story of a girl who goes out into the dark woods.

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: The forest in this book is more benign than many of the others I’m featuring here, but it’s extremely delightful.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: Finley’s semi-imagined forest, the Everwood, drives a lot of this book, as well as being the place Finley feels the safest.

In the Forests of Serre (and several others) by Patricia McKillip: McKillip loves to write about forests, and she often does so with a sense of the edges where they turn magical.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne: Like the woods in The Ordinary Princess, The Hundred-Acre Woods are more benign than most of these stories. It’s still a magical and enchanting land.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A magical forest where the trees speak Latin and time is out of joint should definitely be on this list.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: I mean, they’re called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Also, a wonderful mix of funny and serious.

 

Am I missing a favorite book set in a forest or woods? Let me know! I’d love to read more of them.

 

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Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana

mirror in the skyMirror in the Sky is Aditi Khorana’s debut, and it’s a pretty neat take on YA speculative fiction. Tara Krishnan is an outsider in her rich, white school. But when a mirror planet is discovered–a version of Earth that’s just a little different from ours–Tara is jolted out of her usual life. Her mother might be joining a cult, she becomes friends with unexpected people, and she starts to wonder about the other paths she might have taken. 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.

The family strand is the one I had the most conflicted reaction to, which is mostly down to the depiction of Tara’s mom. I had mixed feelings about the fact that her choices are seen as selfish, that her decision to go to California is shown as being a bad mother. On the other hand, we’re seeing everything so much from Tara’s point of view, and from a teen perspective it rings pretty true. And by the end of the book, Tara has come to see some of why her mother might have made those choices. In the end, while I wasn’t wild about this storyline, I felt comfortable with the way it resolves.

Tara also becomes friends with Halle Lightfoot, one of the most popular people at their high school, and through Halle with a group of tight-knit kids. This opens her world, but also complicates it. A lot of this book engages with questions about friendship: who’s really a friend? How and why do we choose our friends? and having chosen them, when do we leave them behind? There aren’t really easy answers here, but the depiction of a group that is both close and at odds with each other was really well done.

And for Tara herself, the discovery of Terra Nova and her changing relationships call into question a lot of her identity. As the only brown, poor kid at Brierly, she’s often felt herself to be an outsider. Late in the book, there’s a powerful moment when Tara realizes, “I was afraid of the messiness that closeness brings, afraid of friendships that turn to something else, afraid of my own petty jealousies and the monstrous things that can come of them.” This is partly a book about learning to let people in and also stay yourself.

There are definitely some clunky moments in the story. Sometimes the images and thoughts are a bit repetitive and sometimes Tara’s conclusions are a little pointed. Nonetheless, this is an accomplished and impressive debut that’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I definitely recommend it for readers who are looking for a quiet, complex story.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Penguin Random House; YA speculative fiction

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July 2016 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos
The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson
Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan
False Hearts by Laura Lam

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Other books

Little White Lies by Brianna Baker and F. Bowman Hastie: I’ve been going back and forth about this one, and at a certain level I think I’m just not quite able to say from my own background whether it successfully does what it’s setting out to do. I’m glad to see exciting, timely YA contemporary fiction about a Black teen, but here it seems undercut a bit by the other point-of-character, who’s a middle-aged white man. It just–seems like a weird contrast and I’m not sure how it sits with me. If you’ve read this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Far From Fair by Elana K Arnold: Middle-grade contemporary. It’s a quiet look at family dynamics and end-of-life issues. While I can’t say my personal views align with the characters’ at all, I do think it could be a valuable book for the right reader. Overall, I thought Odette was really well drawn; as an adult reader I got a little impatient with her at points, but I suspect the target audience won’t.

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach: This is a look, not so much at the history of the space program, as at the history of the stuff needed to go into space. By and large, Roach has an easy breezy, readable style that is quite engaging. However, occasionally it’s a little at odds with her subject. And in one place I noticed a transition that came across as really, really racist (PRO TIP: don’t talk about how black women are ideally suited to being astronauts and then switch to black bears. Just don’t. This is why we need more diversity in publishing across the board.)

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks: Sometimes you just really need to reread a favorite, delightful book. This basically always means rereading Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, because it’s pretty much the definition of delightful.

Change Places With Me by Lois Metzger: YA scifi, a quietish book with some strong worldbuilding and characters. I can’t say much about the plot, because uncovering what happens is part of the fun, but I really liked it. I suspect that for the right readers it could be really great, and I hope it finds them.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Plamer: reviewed here
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey: reviewed here
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus: (review coming soon)
The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: (review coming soon)
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: (review coming soon)

TV and movies
Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, go see Ghostbusters. It’s so fun and lovely and yes.

I also have been watching The Great British Bake Off because it is on our TV screens once again! You should be able to watch it on PBS.org right now.

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Recent reading: 7-13-2016

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos: YA mystery about a girl whose father disappears. It’s a quiet-ish book that’s less about the mystery as such and more about Imogene’s journey as she tries to find out the truth about her parents. Podos grapples with the complexities of family and identity, as well as the stories we tell ourselves. There’s also an understated romance and an important friendship, which really help to round the book out. This is a debut, and I look forward to seeing what Podos writes next.

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly: This is Erin Entrada Kelly’s second middle grade book, about two sisters trapped with an actual evil stepmother. There’s a colorful cast of characters, but the heart of the book is really centered on Sol and Ming. From an adult perspective, I felt frustrated with the ending, and yet I can also see the realism there. Not every story ends perfectly, but this one does end well.

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson: For me, I think this is the standout of the recent crop of YA titles about fandom. I really saw the involvement with fandom, the relationships and how life-changing they can be. The last, oh, third? of the book took a turn away from this with some twists and revelations. I didn’t mind these, but I also wasn’t that invested in them. I’m also curious because I feel like several reviews and comments downplayed any romantic tension between Gena and Finn, and I saw quite a bit. Am I alone here?

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan: A YA fantasy retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, set in an alternate world where New York City is divided into the Light city (with Light magicians) and the Dark city (with Dark magicians). Lucie Manette becomes the main character, and we see the story unfolding from her point of view. SRB did a great job overall of engaging with the source text in interesting and resonant ways. However, this fell pretty flat for me at the end, when the plot seemed rushed and constrained by the original; I wanted to understand what this meant, for Lucie and for the other characters. I wanted to really feel something, and I almost did–but not quite. All in all, this is a really fascinating book, although maybe not for the reasons that I expected.

False Hearts by Laura Lam: Lam has written a couple of YA books, I believe, and this is her first adult. It’s set in a futuristic San Francisco, as Taema must rush to save her twin, Tila. They were once conjoined twins who were born into a cult and after their escape they were surgically separated. If that sounds like a lot to fit into a story, I had the same concern. But Lam pulls it off, by keep the focus pretty squarely on Taema, and weaving in the different strands around her. I also liked that Lam shows the shadowy side of San Francisco’s society, with its insistence on being perfect and blemish free, as well as conveying the very complicated relationship the twins still have to the cult. This rang pretty true with accounts I’ve read from cult survivors; that you never ever want to go back, and yet you still miss the good things about it. All in all, this was a fast, immersive read that pulled me in right away.

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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Lion Hunter

lion hunterThis month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I’ve already talked about A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird. This post discusses The Lion Hunter, which is the first of a two-part sequence within the series. Please note that there are spoilers!

This book opens with the birth of Telemakos’s baby sister, and a catastrophic attack by the lion he loves. These two interwoven events set up a kind of cascading effect that ties together many of the plot threads and themes from the previous books, and sets up new complications.

So it’s only right that siblings are one of the things that run through the book. Medraut and Goewin; Goewin and Medraut and Lleu; Telemakos and Athena; Abreha and Priamos (and their dead and absent brothers). And, although it’s not stated in this book, nor does Telemakos know this is the case: Gwalchmai and Medraut (which becomes significant later). While Athena and Telemakos are the most obvious sibling pair, the relationship between the other siblings I mentioned all have their own complexity and place in the story.

It’s also right that much of the book deals with what are called at one point, “wounds to the soul.” Turunesh, Medraut, and Telemakos all suffer in their different ways with what we might call post-partum depression and/or PTSD today. This was generally treated with sympathy and depth throughout the story, and I appreciated that a lot. I also liked the “wounds to the soul” phrase as something that both fit the characters’ understanding of the world and was not horribly ableist.

But what this book sets up and builds toward is really Telemakos’s leaving of childhood. In the past two books, he has been extremely competent, resourceful, and wise, but he has still been a child. Now he is growing up, which I think is symbolized by the loss of the lions he captured when he was younger.

This means that Telemakos is so much in a transitional stage–at one point, Abreha says, “I expect he does not yet have the measure of his dominion” and this is true on several levels. There’s a running theme throughout this book and The Empty Kingdom of Telemakos being almost literally unable to see himself as others see him. For instance, he seems to truly believe that people call him Morningstar to laugh at his fair hair, whereas a reader might see the real affection and respect that others feel for him. I suppose this belief does keep him from being insufferably arrogant, however.

It’s also quite interesting to note what other people name Telemakos. Telemakos Morningstar, Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Meder, Beloved, Bright One, Sunbird, Boy. The different names and titles have varying resonances throughout the book, but it’s interesting to note how many of them are how others see Telemakos. None of them, even Athena’s Boy, are necessarily how he thinks of himself, although to me Morningstar felt the most accurate. (As is the case throughout the series, there are some comparisons to Lleu, specifically via the title of Bright One.)

Both Morningstar and Bright One are nicknames given to Telemakos after he and Athena arrive in the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar, which is ruled over by Abreha Anbessa, who is himself Aksumite and the brother of Priamos. Abreha is a fascinating character to me; Goewin calls him a “manipulative political serpent” and he is. But Telemakos also sees his kindness, before he learns to see what Goewin does. Abreha is really, I think, quite a bit like Telemakos: clever and kind, but also utterly ruthless in defense of what he loves.

One of the things that Himyar gives Telemakos is a sense of companionship. He is used to being set apart from other children, but this changes from his first meeting with Iskinder to his later dealings with the Scions. “Never in his life had Telemakos felt so loved, and so at ease, with others more or less his own age.” And this companionship pays off later.

The last major thread that I noticed is of maps, tracking, navigation. He’s given Ginevra’s cross-staff, he has his father’s skill in tracking, and he is sent to be an apprentice to Abreha’s Star-Master. The maps that he copies are a plot point, but they also have a deeper resonance. So much of this story is about Telemakos learning to find his way, both literally, and symbolically.

However, this book is not the entire story. The ending shifts from the sense of warmth and companionship that has typified Abreha’s court, into a sudden reversal of betrayal (arguably on both sides) and distrust. It’s not quite as bad as the ending of The Two Towers, but not by all that much. I’ve never successfully managed to read it and not begin The Empty Kingdom as soon as possible. So I don’t quite have a conclusion, because there isn’t quite a conclusion; there’s an ending, but that’s not the same thing. It’s not until the second book that the build up begins to pay off and Telemakos comes into his own. Also, spoiler: I cry many tears. Next week I’ll talk about why.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2007, Viking/Firebird; YA

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