Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book: The Summer Prince
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Published: 2013
Source: ARC borrowed from a friend

In the future Brazilian city of Palmares Tres, they have a tradition. Every five years, they elect a king, who lives and revels for a year before he is sacrificed on the altar, and in his sacrifice, he selects the queen who will rule the city. This has been the tradition for hundreds of years, and nobody questions it anymore.

June isn't concerned with politics, even though her stepmother is an Auntie, a powerful political figure. She isn't concerned with anything except her best friend, Gil, and making art. She may be a waka, disdained and overlooked because she's under thirty, but she knows that her work can force people to sit up and take notice.

But when Gil falls in love with Enki, the new Summer King, June finds herself dragged along. Because Enki wants people to sit up and take notice, particularly of the injustices in their city, and June's art is fast becoming his favorite way to do it.

The copy I got had no summary or teaser on the back, so all I had to go on was the cover. When I picked this up, I vaguely thought I was in for another cookie-cutter dystopia, or possibly a faerie-world romance, and I prepared to put it down in 50 pages. (Cynical much?) By the time fifty pages rolled around, you couldn't've pried it out of my hands with dynamite.

Yes, some of the same elements are here. Palmares Tres definitely counts as a dystopia. There is a star-crossed romance, albeit one which includes a number of gutsy choices. There's sparkly tech and glittery parties. But make no mistake, this book is unique.

I'll start with the sexaulity. Not just the characters who have sex, but the  sexual orientation. Bisexuality seems to be the norm - June's mother remarried a woman after her father died, June divested herself of her virginity with her friend Gil and flirts with other female characters, and Enki, well, Enki sleeps with everybody. And it ain't no thang. I loved this. I loved it a lot, especially since Enki falls in love with both Gil and June and both are treated as valid and equally powerful at the same time. That's refreshing in the "one boy for-evah!!" culture that we seem have to going in YA right now.

Then there's the setting. How often do you see a South American setting in YA sci-fi? Or for that matter, any setting that's not basically Western European? I'll tell you: hardly ever. And while the book mentions that climate change has made the Tropic of Cancer just about the only livable portion of the planet, Palmares Tres is not a Western European city transplanted into the jungle. It has deep and flourishing roots in Brazilian culture. I got the sense of enormous richness in this setting, as if I could go digging around for several more books and still find new and interesting things.

Most of the elements I'm gushing about here fall into the "Wow! That's new and fresh and very cool!" category. But I want to emphasize that these are all backed up with crackerjack writing. The book is not a romance, even though it seems to be and will probably be sold as such. It's about politics and corruption and ageism and oppression and art and love (yes, even though it's not a romance). It's about a young woman beginning to understand that if she wants to affect the world, it's going to affect her right back.

According to the author's website, this is a standalone, so I am pouting to myself and hoping to see more YA from Johnson in the near future.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Review: Under Shifting Glass by Nicky Singer

Book: Under Shifting Glass
Author: Nicky Singer
Published: 2013
Source: review copy from publisher via Edelweiss

When her beloved great-aunt dies, Jess feels as if she’s gone into a tailspin. With her mother and stepfather totally focused on her twin baby brothers, and her best friend gradually pulling away in favor of boys and popularity, there’s nobody left who really gets her. She feels lost, overlooked, and helpless to change any of the big things happening in her life. Then, in a desk she inherited from her great-aunt, she discovers a bottle with a strange mist inside. What is it? Where did Aunt Edie get it? And mostly importantly, what connection does it have with her baby brothers, born conjoined and fighting for their lives in the hospital?

I’ll be upfront and say that I fell in love with this book, mainly due to the no-answers exploration of spiritual questions. However, it wasn’t perfect. The ending was a little too pat, everything slotting neatly into place when the point of the book prior to that was that there are a lot of mysteries out there and very few of them can be solved so easily and neatly.

But there were a lot of things going for this book anyway, even with the ending. Jess rings very true as a lonely girl whose life is changing at top speed, and every character has a little something more to them than you’d expect. I especially liked the resolution of her relationship with her best friend. As I said before, Jess also delves into spiritual and religious questions, visiting a Buddhist temple and thinking deeply about her own Christian theology for the first time. This book won’t be for everyone, but for a kid who wants to start tackling some of the mysteries of the universe, give it a try.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: The Garden of My Imaan, by Farhana Zia

Book: The Garden of My Imaan
Author: Farhana Zia
Published: 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

In many ways, Aliya is the girl next door. She has friends and enemies, she worries about popularity and bullying and grades. Though her family is Muslim, they aren’t strict about it. Though she tries to eat halal, she doesn’t have to wear the hijab.

Then Marwa comes to her school. Marwa is far more open about her Muslim-ness than Aliya, wearing the hijab and responding calmly in the face of racist bullying. Aliya starts to resent being “the other Muslim girl.” At the same time, she finds herself longing to explore the faith that she’s always taken for granted, talking to Allah in daily letters and trying to fast for Ramadan. But how can she possibly measure up to Marwa when she keeps failing so massively?

This is not a hugely dramatic book. Simple, everyday things happen - student council elections, class projects, social questions (do I go to Carly’s party or accept Marwa’s invitation to dinner?). Nobody’s house gets vandalized, no mosques get bombed. There is prejudice, but it touches Aliya’s life without shattering it. This is Islam in daily life, and an American Muslim girl starting to understand what that means.

I’d also like to mention that this book shows some of the variety to be found in American Muslims. While some characters are Arab-American or recent immigrants, Aliya and her family are Indian-American, and have been for generations. Some families are strict, some are not. Her great-grandmother Badi Amma, who might have been expected to be the “strict one” when it comes to matters of faith, is permissive and understanding, telling her that “Allah rewards good intentions.”

I’m always on the lookout for books that show different faiths in the lives of contemporary kids without being didactic, and this one fits the bill just right.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Reading Roundup: April 2013

By the Numbers
Teen: 14
Tween: 6
Children: 7

Review Copies: 11
Purchased: 1
Library: 13

Teen: Dark Trimph by Robin LaFevers
Yes, it is possible to get darker than Grave Mercy. Sybella has some nasty secrets in her past. If you can handle that, pick this up.
Tween: How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg
Short, self-contained chapters and plenty of gross details make this a natural for reluctant readers. Just don't read while eating. I can't emphasize this enough.
Children: 13 Planets: the latest view of the solar system
While the stuff about the classic nine planets was pretty old hat to me, it's presented in a quick and interesting way. And the newer planets (Eris, Ceres, and others) are downright fascinating.

Because I Want To Awards
Snarky Good Fun: Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
The first book by the Fug Girls had all the gleeful Hollywood sendups I expected, but with two strong and sympathetic protagonists, feeling their way toward being sisters to anchor the snark.
Gaaaaaaaaaaaaah Cliffhanger: Just One Day by Gayle Forman
Not so much a romance as a girl-finding-herself story, this book's last page made me shriek aloud.
Shut Up, I'm Busy Swooning: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
This sci-fi post-apocalyptic retelling of Austen's Persuasion (INORITE) was pretty fun for the chance to pick up similarities to the original. The next one is supposed to be based on The Scarlet Pimpernel. I'm so there.
Captures Middle-School Politics Perfectly: 33 Minutes by Todd Lasky
Sigh. Like the best middle-school books, this one reminds me why I wouldn't go back to that age of changing identities for any amount of money in the world. Extra points because this intensely interpersonal book is about two guy friends.
Loved the Family Dynamics: Tuesdays at the Castle and Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George
You don't know what you're missing until you see it. This book showcased a close and supportive family that worked together to fight off common enemies. In an age group that teems with evil adults and disdainful siblings, this was incredibly refreshing.