Tag Archives: YA

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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Recent Reading: Gran, Moskowitz, Abbott

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran (Atria, 2018)

Book three in a series about Claire DeWitt, private investigator. I have not read the first two and didn’t mind that at all; this functions pretty much as a standalone novel. Claire is a tough character who is fueled by (sometimes barely believable) determination and a desire to find out the truth. It’s a weird foray into the mystery genre and  on paper it’s not a type that would necessarily appeal to me. But for some reason, despite the weird semi-mysticism, violence, and Las Vegas setting, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and intend to read the first two to catch up. I don’t know either! Something about the extremely surreal writing and characters was exactly what I wanted when I read it. We’ll see if the experience can be repeated. 

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz (Chronicle, 2018)

Four orphaned siblings left with a tenuous legacy of a ship and some monster hunting skills try to find the beast that killed their parents. Moskowitz just drops us straight into the world, which is a really fascinating approach. There’s not much in the way of backstory or world-building, but since this book is voicey as can be* it doesn’t really matter. The characters are compelling enough that I wanted to read on and cared deeply about what happened to them. Indi and his siblings operate in a weird sideways version of reality, more full of strange creatures and pirates than school and driving tests. But his desire to find his place, to find a home connects to that yearning that I think a lot of teens have–there’s something right around the corner if they can only just find it. It’s a slim book, but I’ve thought about it a lot since finishing it.

* a technical reviewing term, right?

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown, 2018)

An adult thriller about a woman who is suddenly confronted with her former best friend from high school. It’s been on my TBR for ages and I was in a mystery/thriller mood, so I gave it a try. I felt like it was weird about PMDD, which is a major part of the story but which was treated in a way that felt like it was there for shock value rather than feminist critique? I don’t know, I might be unfair here, but the story seemed in the end to reinforce stereotypes about the destructive power of female friendship rather than resisting them.

 

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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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A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna

An epic scifi fantasy written across planets and systems. A world where gods and curses have real power. A story of political and personal betrayal and heartbreak, as well as friendship and love. A Spark of White Fire (Skyhorse, 2018) weaves all of these strands together into a complex and engaging story.

I read this one because I heard about it from Mishma at Chasing Faerytales and it sounded really interesting. And having read it, I have one question: why are more people not talking about this one? It ticks so many boxes of things I love, including a sentient spaceship and a trickster god. I had some more thoughts about this on Twitter, but it boils down to being a bit frustrated with the way we all talk about the same few hyped books.

That’s probably too big a topic to really address  in the middle of a review, so going back to A Spark of White Fire! This was a book I just enjoyed reading a lot. Esmae, the main character, might err a bit on the side of hyper-competence–but I kind of feel that if we have a billion hyper-competent male characters in the world of literature, it’s nice to have a girl who’s super good at things too. And it also made sense in this context with both the gods’ gifts and the warrior culture of Kali.

Throughout the book it felt like Mandanna was using some of the usual beats of YA political fantasy–secret identities, last minute betrayals, being torn between family and love–but approaching them in a very fresh way. The story feels like it stands on its own, even though I could see similar patterns to other books when I looked for them. The way it crosses genre lines was fascinating too–there are fantastical elements, like gods and curses, superhuman gifts that act like magic. But it also takes place in space, with a sentient unbeatable spaceship and some interesting approaches to human settlements. It’s a fascinating example of what can happen when two genres are woven together really well. 

I also loved the setting and culture, and the way the physicality of the world was drawn. It’s a sweeping story, moving across a couple of different settings, and it would be easy for them to all blend together a bit. But for me the prose and descriptions were vivid enough that this didn’t happen. And I really appreciated what felt like a depth of worldbuilding. Maybe because this story is based on the part of the Mahabharata, there was just a great sense of a rich and epic background.

I haven’t said much about Esmae herself, but she is the heart of the book.  I thought the balance between competence and mistakes was just right for me. She is smart and strategic, but there are things she doesn’t know, and sometimes her heart betrays her. I loved the relationship between Esmae and her spaceship Titania, and the way even that showed aspects of her character we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. She’s not a truly unreliable narrator, but we certainly see things through her eyes and so we only know what she’s willing to reveal.

All in all, for me this was an incredibly enjoyable read that felt both familiar and fresh. If you like twisty political scifi or fantasy, do check it out! I’d recommend it strongly to both Ann Leckie and Megan Whalen Turner or Elizabeth Wein fans.

Other reviews of A Spark of White Fire:
Alex Brown at Tor.com
Reader Voracious

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Previously, on By Singing Light
Queen’s Thief Week: Myths in The Queen of Attolia (2012)
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood (2014)
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire; Between Silk & Cyanide by Leo Marks (2015)
Making Without Context (2016)

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