Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

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.

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Book Review: SPOILERS: The Burning Maze Wrecked Me, and I Loved It

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

This whole review is a spoiler. The spoilers are what I want to talk about.

 

I think I had a few days’ time at least of understanding certain friends’ reactions to Sirius Black’s death—and I’m sorry I didn’t understand then. We had Sirius for 1625 pages. We had Jason for 3029 pages. And I’m being maybe generous to Sirius and stingy to Jason, starting from the verbal revelation that Peter Pettigrew is alive and including all of The Goblet of Fire, for most of which Sirius is off-screen, and starting with The Lost Hero, including all of The Heroes of Olympus, but excluding the first two books of The Trials of Apollo and any of the books taking place simultaneously to or between the end of The Blood of Olympus and The Burning Maze (so none of the Magnus Chase books or Percy’s explanations of mythology). I’m guessing this is why this death was so much worse for me. And social media and fan culture has only got stronger and more pervasive since Sirius’ death (though I was on discussion boards before Order of the Phoenix, and I’m on none for Riordan). For a few days Pinterest was painful to visit because there was all of this fan art and discussions of future conversations between the seven, and I just kept thinking, “The poor dears. They don’t know.”

I was messed up for a few days (that reading that scene and finding out about a real-world personal tragedy coincided admittedly did not help, but the fact remains that I was messed up about Jason for a few hours before I found out about the personal tragedy). I frantically searched for anyone who had already read the story or who wouldn’t read the story so that I could spew my feelings, even going so far as to query a professional Facebook group of which I am a part (and finding my solace there in mutual feels).

Now eleven days on (six days since I finished the novel), I am ready to fully admit that I am so proud­­ of—but also angry with upset with—Rick Riordan, ready to forgive and accept. I am horribly, terribly scared that this is his Eddard Stark, that this is his declaration that no one is safe, that all rules of rewards or punishments for desert are out the window. I am as proud now as I was of George Martin—albeit really belated because I only read The Game of Thrones in 2016, and it was first published in 1996—before he started bringing his protags back as zombies.

I was so excited and proud that Riordan had decided to break up Piper and Jason. I thought that was a bold step. I didn’t realize then that it was a precursor to a bigger step away from the fandom wish-fulfillment. I really should recognize this pattern now, of distancing the character beneath the ax blade’s shadow from the others so that their death hurts just that infinitesimal bit less (to write about as much as to read about, I think). Martin remains the only author in this genre that I’ve found that does not to do this when killing off a main protagonist. Rowling certainly does. But Martin don’t care. He’ll crush us. I’m potentially comparing apples and oranges though. Martin has no pretense about writing for adults alone; Rowling and Riordan both began these series as for children.

I’m going to need to read this book again. I’m going to need to read this book knowing what’s coming. I’m going to need to reread the scenes following Jason’s death, which were raw and real, especially for Piper. I’m going to need to appreciate those more later.

There’s little else I want to talk about except for the impact of that one character and that one scene. I do want to point out that the scenes of war council at the bottom of the cistern, fueled by take-out enchiladas, were wonderfully raw too, I particularly enjoyed the first. I want to point out how much I enjoyed the idea of Incitatus playing Caligula for his own agenda, to create a world dominated by horses, how much I enjoyed him as a villain (and I’m a little upset that he won’t be our main antagonist going forward).

Everyone was less annoying, more grounded, more heroic here. Everyone.  Everyone came into their own: Grover as a Lord of the Wild and protector but also as a staple of the Percy Jackson world since page 1 as if Riordan too was remembering how much Grover has seen with us, Apollo as a hero, Meg as a daughter of Demeter and friend of the Nature.  The pacing seemed better here too than in the previous two of this series, the whole of the story more solid, more weighty. I feel like this book is where this series, these characters finally hit their stride for me, and now I’m looking forward eagerly and apprehensively to the next—especially if Reyna and/or Hylla will be there (Piper says Reyna, but I’m kind of hoping the twist will be that we really need Hylla and the Amazons); Reyna seems too obvious.

*****

Riordan, Rick.  The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Shelfie 18: October 14 & 18, 2016: Young Love

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I was really excited to keep reading this series after I fell in love with The Raven Boys without even realizing or thinking that I had done.  I thought I didn’t love it–until I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  And this book–the second–became my favorite of the series.

I was excited too to find this apt description, this description that I didn’t know that I needed in my life till I’d read it, but which I now think about often:

“His mind was a box he tipped out at the end of his shifts.”

P.S. — Here is my review of The Dream Thieves.

Book Review: Everything I Love is in The Dark Prophecy–But So is Apollo

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That title seems harsh, but it is nonetheless true.

Some spoilers!

This is a story of overbearing fathers or fathers who overshadow their children—Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Zeus, Midas, Apollo himself, maybe even Ssssarah’s father should be included in the list (is that Tartarus?)—the weight that they put on their children, and the right and wrong ways to react to that weight.

Apollo seemed to me less annoying in The Dark Prophecy, whether because this is a god much humbled or because the supporting characters are larger, helping to balance him better. Here is Leo, already well-developed and greatly loved, and Calypso with him. Their relationship, one in which I was fairly invested prior to the beginning of this series, serves as a good breaker of a subplot to Apollo’s narcissism. Jo and Emmie, new characters, are large characters too (and if you want to give us the continued or previous adventures of Emmie and Jo, Uncle Rick, I won’t complain). They loved each other so much that they left the Hunters of Artemis and its accompanying immortality. They are also not just lesbians, but an older, married and settled lesbian couple, particularly underrepresented in children’s literature maybe partially because adults are so rarely the heroes in children’s literature. I’d love to see more teen and child heroes raised by two women in love—or two men in love.

Riordan has introduced another new character that I want to keep an eye on: Olujime (Jaime). Olujime is descended from the Yoruba people of Western Africa. He is a graduate student in accounting, working as a gladiator to support himself. He fights using Gidigbo and Dambe, both West African fighting styles, and lightning, which I and Apollo in this writer’s world take to suggest godly parentage or patronage. I am both excited and scared that the appearance of Jaime suggests that Rick is researching for another series. I’m not sure that it’s his place to explore Yoruba myth and tradition, but I’d be interested to read such a series–and I already know that I’d love the style if Riordan wrote such a series. Moreover, I love the idea of a adult hero from Riordan, suffering the horrors of graduate school while also having to battle monsters and gods–probably with a good sense of humor and a passel of friends.

Apollo is really attracted to Jaime but backs off when Jaime lets slip that he has a serious girlfriend. We get to see Apollo’s bisexuality not as a long-ago myth as with his labeling last book Hyacinthus as one of his greatest loves (the other being Daphne)—not just through his attraction to Jaime but also through his broken relationship with Commodus, a relationship we visit in its prime in flashbacks that Apollo experiences. This book more than in the previous one Apollo’s past comes back to haunt him.

I’ve said a lot about Leo and Calypso in this review. For all that, their relationship was a bit of a letdown. Given that Leo quite literally died to rescue her and that Calypso has been waiting eons to leave her island, I expected and wanted a glorious ship. But their relationship was built on a few weeks when Leo was stuck on her island and spent most of that time devising a way off for himself and, a good bit of that time, the pair spent sniping at one another, neither wanting to be stuck with the other’s company. Calypso softened to Leo during that time and Leo to her, and he left, vowing as most heroes seem to do, to come back and rescue her. They had not seen each other again until Leo landed, having narrowly escaped death, to rescue her. They’re relationship now is tense. They are discovering that they don’t really know one another, and Calypso particularly is discovering that she doesn’t really know herself. I hope soon that Rick will leave them alone to discover life outside of monsters and quests and new foster homes. Maybe I expected too much of them. Still, I was glad to have them here. I was especially glad to have Leo here. He made a good balance for Apollo.

This novel still for me though does not hold up to the sort of love that I have for the rest of Riordan’s series, though this far more than The Hidden Oracle, climbed near them. In fact, I think if that first book had been as good as this, I would be completely on-board with this series, but The Hidden Oracle drags this down because this one cannot stand well without it.

Here again are more human villains, a more relatable foe for the reader than the gods and Titans and giants of previous series. Leo and Calypso are here. Grover will be here!  Apollo was one of the gods I was most excited to see whenever he showed up in Percy Jackson in the Olympians, though more because he made me laugh with his horrible, egotistic haikus than because he was a solid character.  There’s so much potential here.  I just struggle so much with Apollo himself and his narration.

****

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

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Let’s Talk About The Ship of the Dead

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excerpt, trailer, and activity kit..

This review contains some spoilers. The worst of the spoilers are in white and can be seen by highlighting those sections.

We need to talk about The Ship of the Dead. We need to. This. Book. Is. Amazing. For all of the social conversations that it facilitates, for its timeliness. For the miles I walked in others’ shoes—so many shoes in so few pages. For not seeming to preach when it’s facilitating these conversations nor seeming to hide its darkness behind humor, but balancing the two wonderfully—better, I’d even argue than many of Riordan’s novels; this was one of the more somber of Riordan’s novels that I’ve read. One of the funniest scenes that I remember was T.J. walking through modern York and thanking every Englishman for remaining neutral in America’s Civil War.

Speaking of T.J., we need to talk about T.J. Thomas Jefferson Jr. is a Union soldier who died in the Civil War. He’s the son of an escaped slave. T.J.’s mother gives young T.J. the same talk about appearing at all threatening that too many mothers must today give young African American children: “‘You don’t get to play,’ she snapped. ‘You play-shoot at a white man with a stick, he’s going to real-shoot you back with a gun’” (186). That line reverberates across the pages and across the decades between that scene and today; it shouldn’t. It should be a historical peculiarity at most. Riordan’s inclusion of that conversation highlights its source in the undeniable racism of slave-ownership in America and the Civil War. And it’s important that we all hear that speech. I am a white cis woman. My parents never had that dread, never sat me down to warn me about walking down the street. But I need to know that there are parents who do have that dread, and I need to hear what they say, and to understand how that knowledge, that fear curtails the childhoods of too many children. I need to hear it till it does become a historical peculiarity.

We need to talk too about Sam. We need to talk about an Arab American, hijab-wearing, Muslim protagonist whose faith is important to her, who fasts for Ramadan and believes that doing so will make her stronger despite her friends’ and her fiancé’s fears and their reminders that she does not need to fast for Ramadan if doing so will be harmful to her as they fear it will be. We need to talk about her strength in completing this perilous journey, confronting all of these foes while fasting. We need to talk about her being right, that fasting and observing the religious holiday does make her stronger and better equipped for the final battle of the series. We need to talk about the positive, well-researched representation of Islam and of Ramadan.

We need to talk about Alex—again. In this story, Alex’s Mexican (Tlatilco) heritage becomes more central to his/her story. In today’s America, under this presidency with this rhetoric, positive, respectful, well-researched representations of Mexican Americans are especially important. The Fierros are wealthy businessmen, founders of a successful company that creates high-class, luxury goods and American jobs, further turning about the stereotypical, racist image that the president and others reinforce. His/her Tlatilco heritage further informs his/her views of gender fluidity, duality masks and figurines with two connected heads but one body being among those artifacts from the Tlatilco that have been found. Positive, well-researched, respectful representations of members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also important.

Hearthstone continues to be important. The other protagonists’ reaction to and willing accommodation for Hearthstone continues to be important. Each of the main protagonists from the former books (Magnus, Sam, Blitz, and Alex) uses sign language with Hearth but also with each other. It has become another language in which the friends can communicate. Hearth’s reclaims his othala rune in this story, facing his father and the memory of his brother both.

Magnus, sweet Magnus, is the glue that holds this group together in some ways. He is the narrator and the protagonist and his propensity to protect his friends makes him the primary warrior in the final battle despite the obvious challenges that he faces. His weapon becomes friendship and kindness and love and affirmation, and that ultimately trumps the trash talk that has historically been victorious in this particular battle form: a flyting. Riordan again turns the narrative around, replacing hate and cruelty with love and showing that love trumps hate.

I also need to thank Riordan here.  I knew going into this novel (because it’s all but stated at the end of the second book) that Percy Jackson was going to make an appearance.  Percy swoops in like a deus ex machina in the first book of The Trials of Apollo, the first series within the world of living Greco-Roman mythology where Percy is not a main protagonist.  I feared that he might be overbearing here too.  He was not.  He was subtle.  He was just enough to remind us that the Greco-Roman and the Norse mythologies live and breathe side by side, enough to be fan service but not a primary character or even much more than a footnote, a proper cameo in the novel.

It should also be noted for those following my journey through this series that I did not listen to the audiobook of this novel, and I did not falter on the names.  I have now learnt enough Norse mythology to be comfortable with all the primary characters and make decent guesses at the names of some of the new faces.  So yeah, I guess these books are educational in that sense too.

Magnus Chase means a lot to me.  Magnus as a hero–for his kindness and his compassion and his empathy, a demigod blessed with healing and disarmament rather than skills to be used for fighting (though Jack does a lot of the fighting so that Magnus doesn’t have to)–means a lot to me.  His friends all mean a lot to me too.  I’m glad to have spent these three books with them all.  I hope–and think–that we haven’t seen the last of them, though this series has come to a fitting close.

*****

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

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will ever touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: The Importance of The Hate U Give

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Click to visit EpicReads for links to order, summary, video, discussion guide, reviews, and author's bio.

This review is based off of an ARC of The Hate U Give.

I’ve officially lost count of the books that have made me cry but remain fairly sure that those books could still be counted without my needing any toes—possibly without my needing two hands.  This book has earned itself a finger in the count. By page 66, there was a large tear stain on my pillow. I flew through this book in six days (admittedly, the last three days that I was reading it, I could do little but lie still, having a recently acquired broken arm).

This book is important. It’s important now. It’s going to be important later. The rise of cell phones with video capability has increased public awareness of police violence. Despite civilian videos and despite body cameras and dashboard cameras for police, police are rarely convicted of murder or even manslaughter, and most often those killed are African Americans. This disparity between known and seen violence and convictions has led to many protests in city streets across America. Several have been large enough to have captured media attention and live as bywords. Ferguson. Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, unarmed and fleeing an altercation with Officer Wilson when he was fatally shot, protests took place, each over the course of several days, from August 2014 to August 2016. In September 2016, North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency as violence escalated between police and those protesting the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott near his parked car.

The events following the shooting of the fictional Khalil Harris follow a too familiar pattern, one I recognize from having witnessed—albeit via mass and social media coverage and never directly—the aftermath of shootings like Michael Brown’s and Keith Scott’s.

I hope one day that these events become history, that each new generation, each year, every few months won’t have another name to remember, and that this book can become a reminder of a time passed. This book will be important then.

For now, though, events like those in the book are too common. This book now serves not as a reminder of how black people were treated, but a reminder of how they are treated. It stands as a document, more easily accessible than strings of news reports, more tangible perhaps because it can be kept on display on a shelf. And it’s a deeply personal story, told from the perspective of a witness to police brutality, someone in the car at the time of a shooting, a witness to the suffering and resiliency and community of a poor, primarily black neighborhood, a member of that community. The book delves more personally into the feelings behind the protests, behind the frustrations and the anger, than any news article could do, and more personally into the everyday life of someone living within an affected community than most news articles bother to try to do.

Starr Carter is both insider and outside observer of this community. She lives in a neighborhood where rival gangs rage war but travels to a private prep school, where she is one of only a very few African American students. She sees and hears the concerns of the community where she lives, and she sees firsthand the reactions of her primarily white schoolmates. Because she is privy to both reactions, the novel can confront more issues than it could do if only one side was given space. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurtful, blasé reaction of white classmates who walk out of classes as protest—but as much to get out of class than out of rage. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurt of a community that feels like the system is designed against them and the hurt caused by the effects of that system.

Importantly too, this is a story about a movement, about a system, but it shows the humanity, the everyday experiences of its characters: boyfriends, fights, friendships, Twitter, Tumblr, watching TV together with family, playing video games.  There are a wealth of–not a token (or several token)–characters who are people of color.  There are strong, three-dimensional characters with individual and interwoven histories, strengths and flaws, doubts and convictions.  That in its way is just as important as its content.

The novel is told in a very casual, modern voice. It was at first a little jarring to me. The story opens on a crowded party in Starr’s neighborhood. Some of the slang and syntax was unfamiliar to me, but within a few pages, I was inside of Starr’s head and inside of the action of the story, and once I was inside I no longer was bothered by the casual tone of the novel. I urge anyone who picks up this book to stick with the novel for at least two chapters before deciding to put it down, and preferably to give it three chapters (which brings the reader to a round 50 pages).

*****

Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Angie Thomas, Balzer + Bray, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Alex Fierro and Magnus Chase

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We need to talk about Alex. And we need to talk about the Magnus Chase fandom.

Having enjoyed the first audiobook in this series, I found the second too. This second book is narrated by Kieran Culkin. I didn’t love the voices that Culkin did for these characters as much as I loved Guetig’s, but I found his Magnus more palatable, so I was not displeased. Of the voices that Culkin does for the characters, Blitz’s is most memorable. He has a strong accent that actually sounded more like a Brooklyn accent than a Boston accent to me, but Boston is a diverse city, and Blitz is from Nidavellir, so really he can have any accent that the narrator fancies and who can tell him that he’s wrong.

I went running to find the audiobook after the announcement that this book had won a Stonewall for 2017. The Stonewall Book Award is given to books that best relate the LGBT experience. Usually this award ends up going to books that could be qualified as issue books, books that set out with the primary intention of relating the LGBT experience. I would argue that that is not The Hammer of Thor’s primary intention. This book remains—as all of Rick Riordan’s middle grade novels have been—an action/adventure story, a quest, and a fantasy adventure, but Alex Fierro is gender-fluid, sometimes using he/him/his and sometimes she/her/hers. Alex’s experience as a central and primary character in the novel is highly visible, but the story is not wholly his/hers nor is his/her story the focus; preventing Loki from starting Ragnarok is the focus. I was impressed that any book that isn’t an issue book could win a Stonewall. I was going to probably eventually read this story anyway because I do very much enjoy Riordan’s adventures and they are perennial bestsellers that are easier to discuss with customers after I’ve read them, but my pleasure at this surprising win did push me to search harder for a copy to listen to.

Alex says openly to Magnus that he/she does not want his/her story to be taken as the story of every trans, queer, or gender-fluid person. I highlight that because I think it important to recognize that there are different experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. Riordan explicitly uses Alex to represent but not to define the LGBTQIA+ experience.

The primary characters of the novel are all fairly accepting of Alex’s gender fluidity. The einherjar at large and several of the gods are less so. Alex like Magnus comes from a well-off family but has spent time on the streets.

The more time I spend on Pinterest and the more pins about Magnus Chase that I find the more that I fall in love with Magnus. Other fans (particularly I credit Tumblr user magnusglows for these revelations) have noticed some of his more loveable quirks, like his tendency to refer to friends as “his.”  The series has made a point of discussing found family. Magnus is wonderfully supportive and respectful of his friends’ choices and feelings, and its wonderfully heartwarming to have a hero who is no less heroic for being so and no less heroic for being associated with healing and sunlight.

The more time I spend with this series the more disappointed I am by the first two Percy Jackson movies and particularly Riordan’s reaction to those movies. The representation in this series is so important, and I want this story to reach as many people as possible, but I know that Riordan will probably never allow another film to be made. He seems more supportive of the Percy Jackson musical, though, so maybe there’s hope for a filmed staged version.

*****

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

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor.  2016.  Narr.  Kieran Culkin. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, trailer, kaleidoscope instructions, and author's bio.

This review contains minor spoilers.

We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.

The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.

The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.

Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.

Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.

Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.

There is danger and action and heroism.

Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him.  And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.

It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.

There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.

I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet.  Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact.  This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.

****

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

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