Shelfie: July 27, 2018: Next Week in Wales

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Time for my announcement!

This will probably be my last post for a little while as I am preparing next week to leave on a plane that will take me first to Ireland where after a few days I will I board a ferry and finally make it to Wales, a corner of the world that stole pieces of my heart long ago–probably as long ago as the first time that I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, which I’m fairly sure was some time before or around 2001, when I was but a wee thing not even introduced yet to Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Almost every free day that I had in July and the last bit of June has been taken up with more and more frantically researching, Pinning, and Google searching various places and things to do in both countries, skimming travel books, comparing prices and itineraries of this or that tour, trying to plan travel routes that will get us in any timely manner between one destination and another, emailing tour companies and hostels and B&Bs and student housing facilities with questions, finding the appropriate currency, finding the appropriate bags in which to pack for two weeks abroad, knowing that I intend to carry everything I bring with me up and down two different mountains, trying to plan a trip that will tick bucket list items for both my sister and I while being as inexpensive as is possible and while she and I are 5 hours off one another, my lunchtime her dinnertime so by the time I want dinner it’s nearing her bedtime–  Breathing has been difficult.  Forget writing.

This is really the first international trip that I am taking where I will be doing most of the planning–accompanied by my lovely sister, who is currently living in one of these two countries, but who wishes to see sights on this trip that she has yet to see, so where we’re both going a bit blindly.

You might remember my trip to Japan, where a great friend met me in the country where she lived and took me to her favorite sights.  I relied on her quite heavily to get me to where she wanted us to go, and did very little research, and had very few expectations prior.  I had to.  (I’ve learnt more Welsh more solidly than I had learnt Japanese before that trip, but I think my Welsh will be less useful, and frankly I still can’t say much, though I can convey that I like tea, and I have hello, goodbye, and thank you down pretty solidly–all of which are important.)

To create this post, I went through the house and found all the books I had that I read that were set in either of the two countries (and allowed one that leans very heavily on Welsh history and mythology but actually takes place here in the mountains of Virginia.  I will be in the same town where Owen Glendower set up a Welsh parliament.  My sister’s university also has a building named after the rebellious Prince).  I have read surprisingly few books set in Ireland; this might have to be mended when I return.

When I return, I hope to turn this blog into a travel blog for a little while, so that I can share with you all my adventures and some of my pictures, all of which I hope will be magical.

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Shelfie: December 28, 2016: Cozying Up

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First, a quick apology for all of the shelfies and so few of the reviews.  I’ve thought of a fun way to soon announce why this has lately been the case.

These were pictures that I took while writing up the Make Me Your Villain Book Tag posted in 2017.  A lot of my favorites are here.  Do you spot any of your favorites?  These pictures just make me feel warm and comforted.  I need to pile all my favorites into my bed again soon.  …But maybe not while it’s so hot will I have so many blankets around us.

Book Review: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Shelfie: December 9, 13, & 17, 2016: Christmas Prep 2016

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2016 was a fun Christmas.  We threw a holiday party at the store, for which I got put in charge of the decorations.  I ought to have done more, but I had fun with what I did do.  I underestimated the amount of decorations needed to make the whole store look grand.  I made one of our wreaths though, as I’d seen my mother do at home.  This year’s book tree was Hollins green and gold.

Book Reviews: February 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Loving Others

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls.  Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2015.  Intended audience: Grades 3-8.

I remembered Selina Alko from Why Am I Me? and was excited to see her explore this fairly local, historical story. She handles it with poetry and mostly with grace—though she does call Mildred’s skin “a creamy caramel” and later speaks of “people every shade from the color of chamomile tea to midnight;” I think we’re trying to move away from comparing anyone’s skin tone to food, the likening of POC to consumables.  For those who don’t know of the Lovings, this is the family that brought to the Supreme Court Virginia’s ruling that they could not be legally married because they were neither both pale- nor both dark-skinned.  The Lovings wanted to live in their home state of Virginia, but refused to give up each other, their love, their family for the sake of their state.  The Virginia law banning interracial marriage was deemed unconstitutional.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, activity pages, and author's bio.

Click, Clack, Moo: I Love You by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin.  Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy-Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is a Valentine’s book from the Click, Clack, Moo series. Farmer Brown shows his love in his care of the animals and the farm. Little Duck decorates for the Valentine’s Day party and makes Valentines for everyone. The chickens and the pigs bring potluck dishes, but the sheep bring nothing. A fox hears their party and invites herself. The farm animals are terrified. All except Little Duck. Little Duck hands the fox her last Valentine, the fox hands her one back, and they dance together “yip, quack, yip, quack, yip, quack, quack!” Their dance inspires the other farm animals to interspecies dance as well. This is a great Valentine’s story with a message that isn’t all hearts and roses and candies. It’s about finding friendship and fun among those who look different from oneself, about being welcoming to others, even when you don’t know them. Yipping like a fox is a lot of fun aloud too.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

The Peace Book by Todd Parr.  LB Kids-Little, Brown-Hachette 2017.  First published 2004.

Parr’s The Peace Book is all about good stewardship of the earth and care for all humanity. Peace is keeping the water blue. It’s saying sorry when you hurt someone. It’s helping a neighbor. It’s exploring other cultures. It’s fixing societal problems like homelessness and hunger. Illustrated in Parr’s very bright, simple style, this is a book for everyone! Seriously, there’s as much if not more in here for adults than the kids. It’s a good reminder of the simple ways that we can bring peace to others and to ourselves and to the world, and also of the big things that we need to work towards fixing. “The world is a better place because of you.” Was that a hijabi too, Mr. Parr?  Not a lot of story to this one, but a lot of good, needed sentiments.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

We Belong Together by Joyce Wan.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2011.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Mostly this is a fun exploration of pairs and wordplay. Like peanut butter & jelly, like pen & paper, like a pair of mittens, with smiling, rosy-cheeked characters illustrating each pair. There’s really not anything in the way of plot, but the wordplay is a nice addition to a sappy sentiment of perfect togetherness.

***

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

Ten Apples Up on Top by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by Roy McKie.  Penguin Random, 1961.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This is a fun counting book with three characters each bragging that they can carry more apples on their head, the challenges getting more and more outlandish as the number of apples and the number of participants in the game increase. Being Seuss, of course the text rhymes. The three do get their comeuppance for breaking and entering and raiding the fridge of a mother bear. The bear chases them outside, where gulls try to take the apples from the boasting friends.  The friends’ fun, their sticky fingers, and their boasting anger the other peripheral characters, who chase them trying to knock down the apples.  An accident creates more opportunity–a wealth of apples–and provided with more apples, the game expands, the ones who were trying to stop it, finding themselves happy participants instead. What a strange economics lesson. Mostly this book is just silly, but it’s one of those that I think you can read more deeply into if you want to do so.  Hoarding toys is going to make others angry with you. Supplying enough toys for everyone is the way to peace.  A surplus of resources makes everyone boastful, wasteful, playful rather than responsible.  Am I reading too much into this?

****

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by B. Tobey.  Penguin Random, 1965.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

A little blond boy wishes for various animal body parts. He has creative uses for each, but each of them gets him in trouble in some way or another. What he has against Big Bill Brown I don’t know, though it seems he might bully the protagonist–certainly the protagonist imagines that Bill would do so if the protagonist were to possess a long tail.  Still the vindictiveness of the protagonist’s references to Bill were somewhat unsettling to me, even if I can understand a bullied individual’s fixation, born of fear and constant threat, with his bully. The protagonist learns a lesson about being disliked and dehumanized for looking different. As a Which-What-Who with all the different animal parts on his body, he thinks that the townspeople would turn against him, be so scared that they’d call the policemen, who would catch him in a net and bring him to the zoo, where he’d be forced to eat hay in a cage. It’s a lesson too in self-love. The boy ultimately decides that since each new feature, each change that he could make to his body brings him grief in some fashion or another, the best thing to be is himself, just the way that he is already.

I was excited to read this one at this year’s celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday, because I remembered really enjoying it as a child, but I have to admit that it fell a bit flat as an adult, maybe because I failed to pick up as a child on the darkness of humanity that these characters display.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Books That I Read in 2017

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It’s Pride Month, and I’m feeling prideful. I wrote this post ages ago and stuck it in a drawer because, frankly, I am still embarrassed for myself and for the industry by how few books including LGBTQIA+ characters I had read in 2017, but those books still deserve recognition. So:

This year I want to start something new: Already I’ve started the list on Goodreads, but I want to highlight here too the books that either include characters from the LGBTQIA+ community or which offer support to the LGBTQIA+ community (because some are more explicit than others).

I read 237 books in 2017. Of those I’m counting only 10 that include characters who are explicitly or implicitly part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Those are pretty abysmal numbers (.04%), but I’m aware of the lack now, and I’m openly seeking and celebrating books that I find that include more diverse gender identities or sexual orientations because representation matters.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Sima’s book is not explicitly about gender identity or sexual orientation. It’s about a unicorn born under the sea with a diving helmet who thinks that he is a narwhal, though he never entirely fit in. He meets unicorns later in life and realizes that he is actually a unicorn. When he returns to his narwhal friends, he takes “a deep breath” and tells his friends “the news: It turns out… I’m not a narwhal.” “Of course you aren’t.” “I’m a unicorn.” “We all knew that.” His friends take “it quite well.” This conversation is coded like a coming-out. The book later makes possibly an argument for not having to choose to be one or another, neither land-narwhal with the unicorns or sea-unicorn with the narwhals. This might be about gender-fluidity or transgender identity or nonbinary identity. Possibly it’s an argument against the segregation of groups by identity, for diversity among friends. Whatever message the takeaway, whomever finds meaning it in, it’s an absolutely adorable story about finding yourself inside of community—and making your own community.

Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016.

Wong’s book has a pretty similar message to Sima’s. Quackers thinks that he is a duck because he’s grown up among ducks by the pond—until he meets cats, and they show him the ways of cats. Quackers decides that he is both duck and cat, sometimes doing duck things, and sometimes doing cat things.

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Alex Fierro is gender-fluid. He/She becomes Magnus’ love interest, and the two share a kiss in the final book. Loki is also gender-fluid and bisexual, having children with men and women. In the third book, Alex brings to life a gender-fluid clay figure, Pottery Barn, who uses they/them/their pronouns. The einherjar in Valhalla are not entirely comfortable with Alex’s gender-fluidity, but that there is a Norse word for gender-fluidity undercuts the argument that gender-fluidity is a new phenomenon, and by book 3, floor 19 has pretty much accepted Alex.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Apollo, the protagonist and POV character in this first person narrative is openly bisexual. In the second story, the heroes stay with two older, strong, well-rounded women who left the Hunters of Artemis and immortality to pursue their love for one another. They are raising an adopted daughter together. In the first, we also get to see Nico and Will together, and the camp seems quite accepting of their romance, though that Nico will pull out some creepy Underworld magic if separated from Will probably does help to keep people from complaining. 

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

The Raven Cycle, Book 2: Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2016. 

Ronan Lynch and Adam Parrish are in love, and by the final book, the two are comfortable enough to come together openly, sharing a kiss at a party. I think they may already be in love with another when we meet them, though their growth as individuals certainly deepens their attraction to one another. Joseph Kavinsky, who lusts after Ronan Lynch (I wouldn’t call it love), helps Ronan come to terms with his own sexuality.

Adult (Ages 20+)

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White. Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This historical fiction is in part the story of Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son from Georgia, whose father turns him out when he discovers Bobby in bed with another boy. Bobby grows up in exile from his family, living with his gentler grandmother. He later escapes Georgia and moves to New York City. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and Bobby loses his partner to the disease. His friends lose partners and friends to the disease.

Do you know or think that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know. I’m hoping the list of books that I read in 2018 that include LGBTQIA+ characters grows far longer than this.

Book Review: The Raven King Refuses Expectation and Surprises Despite Prophecy

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

Pretty much spoiler-free.

This is an odd review, because I’ve now read the book twice. I generally try to write my reviews while the story is still fresh in my mind but missed that pass when I first borrowed the hardback from the library not long after its release in April 2017. The paperback I read in late April 2018.

The Raven King wasn’t what I was expecting—and I don’t know why I thought it would be; no book in the series has been what I expected. But I guess I thought that by the fourth book, the only one that I couldn’t read immediately when I wanted to because I had to wait for its publication, I would have come to a point where at the very least the tropes of the genre would steer the book in a direction that I could anticipate. The tropes did not. Stiefvater ruthlessly undercuts expectations and genre clichés. And ordinarily I’m 100% down with that, but this time… it was a little bit of a let down, to read 4 books about a quest that ultimately falls a little flat.

But hold that phone.

I love how writing reviews can solidify my views of a book. Now that I’m thinking about the book less as a reading experience and more as an undercutting of every built-up expectation, I’m becoming more and more on board. And I guess I’ll just have to read it a third time and revel in its unmaking of the tropes (yeah, I said it).

What a fine, fine line to toe though, between failing to fulfill a reader’s expectations and desire and surprising them. There are lessons to be learnt here.

That ability to surprise me despite how many books I’ve read in the genre, despite both the first in the series and this last beginning with the characters musing about their foretold destinies, is astounding.

And I know I’m an easy mark, but still.

The second time, knowing the conclusion, I was more on board. I was more on board with an unconventional conclusion, with an unexpected resolution, with an improvised solution.

And of course I was here for the prose, the beautiful, beautiful prose that had me rereading passages and reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen to hope that they would revel with me in the language, in the thing so beautifully captured and expressed, in the pointed description that is at once perfectly succinct and poetic.

One of my favorite lines from the prologue is this:

“A Gansey reached bravely into the night-blind water, fate uncertain until the hilt of a sword was pressed into a hopeful palm.”

And of course I was here for the characters. Tumblr user h-abibti once described this series like “long road trips and the sound of laughter in a car full of people you love and its singing on the top of your lungs to lame music” (the quote continues beautifully; follow the link and read the full quote), and that’s so accurate. I think the intimacy with which the characters treat one another invites the reader into that intimacy and refuses to let the reader not care. I care deeply. These are friends. A stew of psychoses, yes, but friends. There are new friends here too. I want to give a shout-out to Henry Cheng, the unexpected, late addition to the court, Chinese/Korean American who though he has an extensive vocabulary and sharp wit struggles to communicate how he’d like to do out loud in English or any other language.

I have to give this book 4 stars because I was still not on board totally this second read, but I suspect that a third reading might raise my rating of the book.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King. New York: Scholastic, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.