Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Title: Labyrinth Lost
Author: Zoraida Cordova
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Alex is a bruja, a witch. She doesn't want to be, but her magical gifts are passed down from her entire family, and the whole family is likewise looking forward to her deathday, the ceremony that will bring her into her full power as a bruja. So she knows that when she sabotages the ceremony in hopes of getting rid of her powers forever, people aren't going to be happy.

She didn't expect her entire family, living and dead, to get sucked into Los Lagos, the otherworld of powerful magic, strange creatures, and unfathomable rules. Now with the help of mysterious Nova, she's the only one who can get them back, using the very powers she was trying to escape.

With a fascinating mythology drawing on multiple Latin American traditions and beliefs, this is a whole new kind of fantasy.

First Impressions: The premise and the setting were amazing, the characterization not so much. But I did love some things about this.

Later On: I loved this world. I loved the complexity of her family dynamics, and the pressures on her from all sides to be something she's not particularly ready for. I loved the dangerous and mysterious world of Los Lagos, with the classic mythical trope of rules that our heroes don't know, but must abide by or pay the price.

I particularly loved that she is attracted to both bad-boy Nova and her BFF Rishi. While her own bisexuality seemed to be news to her, it was no big thing within the larger arc of the story.

My beef with the characterization is that everyone was pretty static and flat. While Alex was our main character, she was more of a conduit to narrate what was happening to her. Still, the world and the conflicts set up mean that I'll be back for the rest of the series.

More: Latinos in Kidlit
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Cuddlebuggery
An essay from the author, talking about the difficulties of writing a story that reflects her own background in fantasy, over at Diversity in YA

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book Review: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Title: Towers Falling
Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Deja doesn't know why she and her family have gone from bad to worse over the years, her father constantly losing jobs and sinking into deep depressions. Now they're at their lowest point yet, living in a shelter. But her new school is a boon, with new friends and a teacher who asks them to consider how history affects them personally. Is it possible that she could begin to understand the mystery of her father's illness?

The answer reaches back to a September morning, fifteen years ago.

First Impressions: This was SO HARD to read, and yet so wrenchingly honest. Wah.

Later On: With last year being the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there was a little flurry of books published to tie into that, especially since kids in school now have little to no direct memory of it. At the same time, while the adults in their lives have this massive shared memory, it is still so swamped in pain that we find it difficult to talk about.

Rhodes riffs on this disconnect, and how it could lead to exactly Deja's situation where she has no awareness of the 9/11 attacks at all, and learning about it, even years after the fact, brings about the same wrenching emotions that we suffered watching it unfold live. (Just as many people saw it live on TV, she sees the airplanes slam into the towers in a YouTube video.) She also witnesses Islamophobia visited upon the family of her friend Sabeen, and realizes that this is another wound on the American psyche.

I also appreciated that ultimately, her father's physical illness and his mental illness are portrayed in the same way. Just as he can't help the days that he's coughing too hard to get out of bed (from breathing in the dust and debris on 9/11) he also can't help the days he can't get out of bed due to depression. Deja's revelations are not a panacea for either illness, but they do help her learn to understand her father better, and in that way their strained relationship starts to rebuild.

Like I said in my first impressions, this was hard to read, so it's very difficult to assess it. However, I do think the honesty of this book, its acknowledgement of pain and how it ripples outward even when it's something you never experienced yourself, will speak to kids, especially those living with the aftereffects of 9/11.

More: Ms. Yingling Reads
Book Nut

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

Title: The Swan Riders
Author: Erin Bow
Published: 2016
Source: Local Library

Summary: After sacrificing her humanity for the good of her people and the ones she loves, the once-Princess Greta journeys with the older AI and two of his Swan Riders across the Canadian wilderness, trying to make sense of how to live as an AI and still remain herself.

First Impressions: Slower-moving than the first one - I took several days to read it. But I loved its meditation on what it means to be human, and how you have be at least a little human to be a ruler.

Later On: This builds heavily on the first book - on the world that's been set up, on the horrors and terrors and various interpersonal relationships that were established. So it's best to read this after The Scorpion Rules. 

In the first book, the Swan Riders lurked in the background, mostly just Tallis's horrifying, death-dealing minions. In this book, the histories and present lives of individual Swan Riders, as well as other functions they serve for Tallis, come to the fore. Though Greta is now an AI like Tallis (and presumably may make use of the Swan Riders herself), it is their secrets and the ways they keep their humanity that drive this book. Witnessing the slow unfurling of this information shows Greta how to navigate the increasingly tricky path of her new AI powers and abilities, while retaining her own humanity.

Tellingly, Greta realizes that one of the ways they keep their humanity is to keep a little bit back from Tallis - something that is solely theirs. And further, she realizes that in order to continue to lay claim to her own humanity, her own decency and sense of right and wrong on a micro level, she has to let them.

While slow and intricate and not for everyone, if you loved the Scorpion Rules, you should read this book.

More: School Library Journal
My review of The Scorpion Rules

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Review: Dara Palmer's Major Drama by Emma Shevah

Title: Dara Palmer's Major Drama
Author: Emma Shevah
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Horrors! Dara Palmer, in spite of being clearly destined for stardom, has been passed over for the part of Maria in the school production of The Sound of Music. How could they?! Is it because she doesn't look right? Is it because the drama teacher hates her? Well, no matter. Dara Palmer is going to be a star one way or the other.

First Impressions: This was a delightful stew of serious topics like adoption and identity and the loss of friends, blended with Dara's hyperdramatic and hilarious tone. It just went together so nicely.

Later On: Dara was adopted from Cambodia, and feels decidedly out of place in her family. Both her siblings are white (one adopted from Russia, one the biological child of their white British parents) and she feels like she sticks out wherever she goes, especially since she knows very little about the country where she was born. At the same time, she's conflicted over whether to probe more into Cambodia and her own past, feeling disloyal to her parents. And of course, at the same time she's being your typical tween girl, obsessed with her acting dreams, school, and friends.

It can be hard to like Dara at first. She's vain, self-centered, and severely lacking in self-awareness. (In other words, she's a pretty typical girl of her age.)

But she's also completely hilarious, and it's her slow awakening to the inner lives of others and her acknowledgement of her own complex and evolving identity that will win you over. And I love that this isn't a story solely about being adopted. Dara's struggles and triumphs are multi-faceted, just like her.

More: Waking Brain Cells
Ms Yingling Reads

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: Interference by Kay Honeyman

Title: Interference
Author: Kay Honeyman
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Disgraced and expelled from her exclusive private school at precisely the wrong time for her father's campaign, Kate finds herself banished to the tiny Texas burg where he was raised, She's a world away from everything familiar. But she's not going to let that stop her. Even in the middle of nowhere, she can still do some good - right?

First Impressions: This was at its best when it wasn't consciously trying to hit the beats of Emma. I liked that her political savvy both helped and hurt her.

Later On: I'm sure that the fact this was a contemporary retelling of Emma was why I requested this, but I'd forgotten that by the time I got around to reading. It wasn't until one very obvious parallel whacked me over the head that I remembered it. Like I said above, it worked best for me when it let go of slavish imitation of the original plot and focused instead on the theme - a well-meaning, somewhat overbearing girl learning more about herself and the people around her.

More: Kirkus

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

Title: Steeplejack
Author: A.J. Hartley
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Anglet is a chimney-climber, accustomed to risking her life on the rooftops, knowing she won't be mourned or even cleaned up if she falls to her death on the cobblestones. It's the risk you take. But when another chimney-climber plummets to his death under mysterious circumstances, she also knows she's the only one who's willing to figure out what really happened to him.

Threading her way through three very different and uneasily mixed societies, Ang will uncover a far bigger pit of snakes than even she was expecting.

First Impressions: As a mystery, it was decent, even if there was some Sudden Knowledge at the end. As a book about a girl navigating her racial/ethnic identity, not so much.

Later On: Ang's quest for the truth takes her through the highs and lows of a fantasy metropolis. The world she navigates, based on South Africa's mix of Dutch, Indian, and South African cultures, is one we haven't seen in fantasy before. The story, both in the plot and the world-building, clicked along in an interesting way, although an unsupported revelation came out of nowhere at the end and weakened the mystery somewhat.

However, my issue is with the portrayal of Ang moving within and around the culture she was born into. When she visits the area of town where she grew up, her tone is not that of someone visiting their estranged home and family, but instead an anthropologist. There's no clear emotional connection to the beliefs, the customs, and the surroundings of her origin, or what's left of her family. She might as well be talking about either of the other two cultures in the book.

While I can appreciate the narrative of alienation from your own culture (it's very close to my own experience), it felt like she'd never spent any time in that culture and was observing it from the outside. Given that she was supposedly struggling with this issue, and that something related to this was the great revelation at the end, this was a part of the book that fell flat for me.

More: Writing POC While White  an article by the author which shows that while they are conscious of the issues, it didn't translate very well to the page
Kirkus

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Review: Run by Kody Keplinger

Title: Run
Author: Kody Keplinger
Published: 2016
Source: Edelweiss

Summary: Born with severely limited vision, Agnes Atwood is even more protected than most girls in her tiny Southern town. Her parents barely let her step out the front door without someone to watch over her, usually her best friend, who seems to be using their friendship for Christian brownie points. As Agnes gets closer to graduation, she feels like she'll never escape, that she'll be Poor Agnes the Blind Girl forever.

Then she meets Bo.

Bo Dickinson of the Dickinsons, the infamous hellraising family that every tiny town seems to have. Bo swears, drinks, smokes, and sleeps around. But she's also the best friend Agnes will ever have, because she knows exactly what it's like to feel trapped, to yearn for escape, and to fear that the chance will never come.

But when it does, will their friendship survive?

First Impressions: This was incredibly touching, although I feel like I want to chew on the ending for awhile.

Later On: This book is told from two alternating viewpoints - Bo's, in the present, and Agnes', looking backward over the path of their friendship. I generally enjoy this because it's interesting to see the different perspectives. However, I felt like I got more into Agnes' head than Bo's, maybe because I spent so much time trying to work out what was going on during the night of their escape. Also maybe because Agnes' half of the story is slower-paced, and Agnes herself is more given to introspection. But both girls are compelling, flawed, and extraordinary friends to each other and no matter who was telling it, I didn't want to put it down.

SPOILER - what I want to chew on about the ending is that Bo and Agnes part ways. Agnes goes back home and Bo stays where she ends up. You have the sense that their friendship will never again be what it was, but it's not handled in a tragic way or an angry way. Rather, it's a friendship that both girls badly needed at the time, and that forced them both to learn and grow - which is not something that this kind of ending usually declares. SPOILER

More: Disability in Kidlit: The Beautiful Tragedy The author talks about the "beautiful tragedy" disability narrative. That was something I appreciated about this book, is that Agnes is nobody's inspirational disability story, and in fact chafes against a former BFF who just seems to be using her for Christian brownie points.
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