Saturday, May 28, 2016

Book Review: To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson

Title: To Catch a Cheat
Author: Varian Johnson
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: After the shenanigans of The Great Greene Heist, Jackson is trying to keep his nose clean. Really! He is!  But he's framed for a cheating con, and the principal is all too eager to take the excuse to strike him down. Complicating matters are a fight with his best friend, and his attempts to kiss his sort-of girlfriend for the first time. (Yikes!) Still, Jackson's got to clear this up. What can a reformed con artist do, but con his way to the center of this mystery?

First Impressions: A fun romp, although I got lost more than a few times with all the characters. And I definitely spent some time wanting to knock Jackson and Charlie's heads together.

Later On: The things I liked (and the things I didn't) about the first one carried over into this book. I still loved the casual diversity (Jackson is black, Charlie and Gabi are Latinx, they have friends of other ethnicities as well) and the fine ear for the complexities of middle-school life. The con stuff got really, really involved, especially when the story juggled multiple characters of dubious intentions. Still, I think that this could become an entertaining MG series.

I was never entirely clear on why Charlie and Jackson were at odds, although I could see how it
played out. Charlie's been in Jackson's shadow a lot, and Jackson is just clever enough to be arrogant about it, and that arrogance would grate.

More: Kirkus
Book Nut

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Book Review: Shade Me by Jennifer Brown

Title: Shade Me
Author: Jennifer Brown
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: When the popular girl is murdered, Nikki feels strangely drawn toward the case, even getting entangled with the girl's sexy older brother.

First Impressions: Meh. I know she's supposed to be Tough and Independent but she was awfully cagey with the cop for no reason. And the book treated synaesthesia like a superpower or something. Just weird and unsatisfying.

Later On: Generally I really like Jennifer Brown's stories. She focuses tightly on characters and character development, and how relationships grow and change, especially under the pressure of horrible situations.

This shift to a more plot-heavy mystery didn't work at all for me, especially since the things that were so strong in her other stories suffered for Plot Reasons. We never meet the murdered girl, but somehow Nikki felt a connection, even though her assessment of the murdered girl before she was murdered was decidedly negative. There was a romantic subplot and I know I was supposed to feel a connection to it and to the romantic lead (whose name I can't even remember), but I really didn't.

I know it's fashionable, especially in noir stories, to mistrust the police, but I couldn't figure out any earthly reason for her not to bring the cop in on her suspicions, even partially. He wasn't actively undermining her, gaslighting her, or at any time seemed to be one of the bad guys. In fact, he kept coming around to say, "Look, can I help? I'm doing this; this is my actual job and I'm really trying to do it here. I have information, do you have information?" And she would say no because . . . suspense?! It was unsatisfying.

Finally, my issue with the use of Nikki's synesthesia. Brown did acknowledge it as something that has given Nikki learning difficulties, but it also functioned as a magical signpost to Things That Were Important to the mystery, and a connection to the murdered girl, who (minor spoiler) had synesthesia herself.   But my understanding, which because I'm not a neuroscientist is not exactly thorough, is that synesthesia works differently for different people. How could the dead girl possibly have known what would jump out at Nikki and what wouldn't? Just a little too convenient.

I'll read Brown's next book, but only if it's not a noir mystery.

More: Kirkus Reviews
Disability in Kidlit on repackaging disabilities as superpowers, which is not always a bad thing, but annoyed me in this book

Saturday, May 21, 2016

1001 Nights Doubleheader

I've had a busy few weeks at work, so I wasn't able to get any posts polished enough to go live. To make up for it(ish), I'm giving you a doubleheader today, where I review two books that are similar in some way and discuss what I think of those similarities and their differences.

Title: The Wrath and Dawn
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Published: 2015
Source: Local Library

Summary: Khalid marries a young woman every evening and in the morning he kills her. Nobody can stop him because, well, he's the king.

After her best friend becomes his latest victim, Shahrzad decides that she's going to take him on, find out why all the murders are happening, and then kill him. It's a good plan, but it goes a little off track when she starts to fall in love with him.

First Impressions: The story was compelling but OH MY GOD. The prose. PURPLE.

Later On: I struggled with this book. I know a lot of people who've been swept away by it, but my brain kept inconveniently breaking in. Like, Khalid? Um, why are you doing all this killing? Shahrzad, honey, why aren't you pointing out that this is super-not-okay? I get that you're falling in lurve and all but kiddies, love is about communication. You know what you're not communicating? THAT HIM KILLING ALL HIS PREVIOUS WIVES WAS NOT OKAY. He victimized his country, he terrorized families, he gave no reason, and OH YES A WHOLE BUNCH OF GIRLS ARE DEAD. I was genuinely questioning why he hadn't been the hell overthrown by now. A lot of the girls he picked were from powerful families - why didn't some of them send in an assassin and STOP THIS NONSENSE?

When a book makes me this WTF, I generally stop reading. This one, I kept reading because I actually did want to find out his reasons. Shahrzad is smart and spunky and loving and loyal, and she's gonna Queen like nobody's damn business, so I was initially in it for her. And then, aside from the whole lots and lots of dead wives thing (which would seem to be a dealbreaker), Khalid was an appealing and warm-hearted guy who seems to be genuinely falling for Shahrzad. We do actually get a reason for all the wife-killing and it's not that Khalid is a serial killer who just can't help himself. But it fell flat for me. I never felt the actual threat of it.

And, yeah. The prose. It seemed like every line had to remind us that Khalid had flashing hazel eyes or that Shahrzad had the shiniest most beautimous hair in the palace, or something.

I know a lot of people loved it, but this one really wasn't for me.

More: Cuddlebuggery
Book Nut

Title: A Thousand Nights
Author: E.K. Johnston
Published: 2015
Source: NetGalley

Summary: In this retelling of 1001 nights, the main character sacrifices herself to save her sister and marries a king who's murdered all his previous wives.

First Impressions: This was what I wanted The Wrath and the Dawn to be. The focus on women and the work/powers/community/ties of women was beautiful.

Later On: I still get a warm glow when I think of this book - of how important the relationships between women are. Sisters, mothers, aunts, female friends. There's a lovely little bit where the protagonist, who goes unnamed throughout the book, contemplates how her father's first wife, who is also her aunt, always functioned as another mother to her; a relationship that's not often portrayed this way.

This carries through to the palace. She begins to find out the history of the king's murders through talking to his mother and the palace craftswomen, gradually and patiently assembling the pieces into a whole that will let her save the country. Primarily, this is a story of a woman, backed by women, quietly, determinedly putting things right for a country that has gone terribly wrong.

Is it a swoony romance? No. The king is a man possessed by a demon, and there's no falling in love with this demon. At the end of the book, there's a hint that the man within might have started to catch feelings, but the love story here is the protagonist's love for her family, her community, and her country.

More: By Singing Light
Charlotte's Library
 
 Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880, taken from Wikipedia

So now for the compare and contrast portion of our show.

It's always interesting to see how two authors take the same base story and make such different things out of it. Where the first book focused tightly on the developing romance between the king and his queen (with touches of a love triangle and another couple's love story as subplots), the second focused on the larger implications of the king's destructive rampage and how it can be repaired. Maybe I'm Old and Fuddy, but that spoke to me more than the intimate romance. Anytime you get royal characters, I'm almost always more interested in the pressure of the fate of an entire nation resting on their choices and actions.

So my reviews, and the reviews linked here, are basically about how these books worked for generally white or white-presenting American ladies. There's a trickier question: how do they work as representations or interpretations of a piece of classic non-Western literature?

In the original story (Britannica.com), the king is killing women because his first wife cheated on him. Obviously, this doesn't play all that well as a trait of a romantic hero. While the books took different tacks, both wisely altered the king's motivation.

I tried hard to find writing about these books from Middle Eastern reviewers, but was unsuccessful. The 1001 Nights is basically the story that we know from Middle Eastern mythology. It is a framing device for retelling many other stories, but only Scheherezade and Aladdin (which was one of the stories told in the 1001 Nights) have entered Western canon to the point where we know the stories off the top of our heads.

From my extremely limited perspective, I would say that both novels used the Middle Eastern setting as an exotic locale or a fantasy land. This isn't that different from a lot of historical novels or historical fantasy. Did they respect the cultures? That's a trickier one because there's a few things at work here. I'm not of the culture. I'm not even very familiar with the culture. And the Middle East is a huge area, made up of many, many individual countries and subcultures, each with their own history. The effect of the Middle-Easternish fantasy land is to back away from that complexity while still retaining the otherness of the setting as a whole.

But some of the major Western stereotypes of the Middle East as a whole were avoided. Although polygamous marriage was an element in A Thousand Nights, in both books, women were largely respected by their male friends, husbands, fathers, and brothers. War and violence is something else Westerners associate with the Middle East, but in these stories, there was purpose to them.

Like I said, I'm not the person to really examine this. If you have background and opinions that are better informed than mine, please let me know so I can add some links.

FURTHER further reading

Islamophobia in YA

Renee Ahdieh, author of The Wrath and the Dawn, briefly discusses the process of worldbuilding a Middle-Eastern infleunced fantasy world

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Title: On the Edge of Gone
Author: Corinne Duyvis
Published: 2016
Source: NetGalley

Summary: On the eve of the apocalypse, Denise and her mom scramble to get to a shelter that will protect them (maybe) from the comet heading their way. Somehow, they luck onto a spaceship that plans to head for the stars. But can they keep their place?

First Impressions: Ahh this was good. Denise felt so real.

Later On: Like Duyvis's first book, Otherbound, this should have felt overstuffed, if we subscribe to publishing's prevailing mindset about intersectionality. A black autistic main character? With a trans sister? And a mother suffering from mental illness and addiction? (Not to mention it all takes place in the Netherlands, with Dutch characters.) But it works, oh how it works, and the reason it works is because these are details about their characters, not the plot. This is diversity in character building done right.

The focus is on Denise's struggle to carve out a place for herself and her family on the generation ship. Sometimes the reason it's a struggle is because of familiar autism characteristics, such as difficulties with social cues, hyper-focus on specific things, and sensory overstimulation, and how all these are ramped up by stress. However, it's also a struggle because of the shipboard bureaucracy, her mother's issues, worry over her sister, and oh yes. The world is ending. Denise's autism neither causes nor stands apart from any of that.

And finally, at the end, Denise finds her own place. She's not given it, she's not wedged in. She does things that are a challenge for her, she succeeds because of her own talents, and she earns her spot.

More: Waking Brain Cells
Disability in Kidlit

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: See How They Run by Ally Carter

Title: See How They Run
Author: Ally Carter
Published: 2015
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Grace has finally discovered the truth about her mother's death, but it was a lot more complex than even she thought. Secret societies and centuries-old conspiracies swirl around her as more disasters, both international and personal, loom ahead.

First Impressions: This took forever to get up and running but after that it was a pretty fast read. Still, it suffered from middle-book-syndrome. Too much left over from the first book, too many loose threads for the benefit of the third book. Agh.

Later On: I stick by my initial impression. Having read the first book a long time ago, it was hard to dredge up the details, and there were a lot of loose threads left waving at the end, clearly for the benefit of the next book. I was surprised that she killed off one character - I thought for sure he was going to stick around and be the third in a love triangle.

More: Book Nut

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Title: The Lucy Variations
Author: Sara Zarr
Published: 2013
Source: Local Library

Summary: Lucy was a piano prodigy who dramatically and publicly quit music about six months ago, to the rage and disappointment of her mother and grandfather. When her little brother (also being groomed to musical greatness) gets a new piano teacher, Lucy finds herself yearning to go back to the instrument. But the thought of letting herself in for the pressure of performing and achieving is still horrifying, and how can she have one without the other?

First Impressions: I'm glad Zarr didn't go the route of a full-on affair with Lucy and Will, but just brushed up against it. The characters are nicely complex and flawed.

Later On: Sara Zarr is one of those auto-TBR authors for me. She presents characters that are realistic, bumping up against other characters that are realistic, and never goes the obvious route. Lucy's relationship with Will is more about friendship and music, sort of leaning in the direction of sexual/romantic, but never quite getting there. (Phew.) Also, it never quite gets there because (spoilerish) Lucy realizes that Will is not quite the person she thought he was.

Lucy's relationship with music is a bit more tricky and Zarr handles that with compassion and shades of grey as well. Lucy loves music itself. After months of not even playing a note, she misses it like you miss the love of your life. But for her, music is wrapped around with her relationship with her mother and her grandfather, and even her dead grandmother. Their reactions to her dramatic departure from the public eye were anger and disappointment and feelings of betrayal (here we put all this effort into your education and this is how you repay us??) Lucy of course would rather do anything than return to music because it would mean they were right that she would miss it and want it back.
(I think Liz Burns put it best when she said they basically all went, "FINE!" "FINE!" and went off into different rooms to sulk and glare at each other.)

I loved how Lucy finds a way through all the morass of family expectations to work out what she wants and is prepared to do.

More: A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy
Bookshelves of Doom includes this book and a brief review on a roundup of piano-prodigy stories, so if that element appeals to you, here's some more reading.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review: The Fallout by S.A. Bodeen

Title: The Fallout
Author: SA Bodeen
Published: 2013
Source: Local Library
Summary: After living for six years in an underground bunker, mistakenly believing that the world had ended aboveground (and that his twin perished in the apocalypse), Eli and his family are trying to readjust to the real world - which was not destroyed. But their father's deception isn't over yet.
First Impressions: A pretty reasonable teen suspense novel, if a little on the quiet side for the genre. I really liked that Eli is very much a caretaker of his younger brothers and sisters, and in some ways his older sister. This nurturing aspect isn't one you see in teen male characters enough.
Later On: I think you really have to have read Bodeen's prequel, The Compound, to understand a lot of the family undercurrents that are moving underneath this story, particularly the messy stew of guilt and resentment that festers between Eli and his twin brother as they try to readjust to having each other again.
I think this did wrap up a lot of the threads from the earlier book, especially the uneasy adjustment to actually living outside the bunker again. The subplot about their older sister's parentage felt a little tacked on until it folded into the main story about their father's deceptions and machinations.
More: I couldn't find a review to share from my blogroll, probably because this is three years old. If you reviewed this, let me know!