Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

Book Reviews: Dragonbreath is My Tonic for a Pandemic Reading Slump

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Continuing my quest for books that are enough like cotton candy that I can handle them in the middle of a pandemic, I stumbled across the Dragonbreath series in late September, and was very pleasantly surprised.  This series has been my best pandemic companion so far.

Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon with an overactive imagination and a predilection for cult movie genres, living in a suburban American community of less mythical reptiles and amphibians, has to struggle through the trials of middle school—homework, bullies, questionable cafeteria food….  His best friend, Wendell, an iguana and a straight-A student, is by his side—despite the many adventures and trips to the emergency room.  The protagonists’ relationship dynamic is one that I enjoy a great deal: the impulsive, reckless daredevil and the worried, doubtful, loyal friend. 

The parents too are individuals.  I enjoy that they have their own lives and quirks and are not just vehicles for the plot, not just support for (or hindrance to) Danny, and I like that his two parents complement one another and seem to have a good, working partnership.  Also Mrs. Dragonbreath is me in the morning.

The books blend adventure with the school story, fantasy with nonfiction (they squeeze in factoids among ninja frogs and were-wieners, making me feel like I do learn and that the books aren’t total cotton candy), and prose with the graphic novel format, where the prose occasionally breaks for an often very expressive bit of illustration with dialogue in speech bubbles and the text is sometimes broken by a full or partial page illustration.  The color palette is simple: primarily black, white, and shades of green. 

These are pretty nearly exactly what I’ve needed during this pandemic.  They are light.  They are ridiculous.  But there is enough plot that I feel that there are stakes, that the story has a reason to exist beyond laughs.  I began reading these mostly at night on my phone while battling insomnia, but once I read all that the Libby app had to offer, I moved on to print copies in the daytime.

Although I think that they’d read fairly easily independently of one another, successive books reference early ones. The first five books teach 1) marine life and oceanic geography 2) ninjas and samurai 3) werewolf mythology 4) Zapotec mythology and bat biology and lifestyles 5) the fraud of spiritualism and ghost stories from around the world.

SPOILERS.

Dragonbreath, Book 1.  2009.

Danny Dragonbreath is given the chance to rewrite a paper, but no way is going to read a book to learn about the ocean.  Instead, he’s going to the mythical Sargasso Sea to visit his cousin the sea serpent.  And Wendell is coming too.  Edward takes the two on a tour of the ocean, a mostly educational foray until in a deep-sea trench they are attacked by a giant squid and the book becomes more of an adventure as they have to be saved by Edward’s friend, a sperm whale.

Book 2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs.  2010.

Wendell is crushing on the foreign exchange student, Suki, and Danny is less than pleased about Wendell’s attempts to coax a girl to join them in the lunchroom.  A scream in the park after school draws Danny and Wendell to the rescue—because the chance to be a hero isn’t to be ignored, and maybe they’ll find an adult to help them on the way.  They find Suki fighting off two ninja frogs, who when Danny and Wendell arrive flee, leaving Suki behind.  Suki doesn’t know what to do about the ninjas, who seem to be stalking her.  Danny takes her to mythical Japan to visit his great-grandfather and learn about samurai and ninjas. They allow themselves to be captured by the ninjas to lead a group of samurai to the ninjas’ hideout.

Although this parodies ninja films far more than any kind of Japanese history or even (I think) any Japanese mythology, Vernon still finds time to squeeze in a few factoids about historical ninjas and samurai. 

Although Danny’s views of girls are disappointing, I like Suki herself as a character.  Also disappointing was the implication that a boy identifying in a way that is historically feminine is worthy of derision.  I have not seen that called out as much as I have Danny’s aversion to associating with a girl.  It was only this one page, but rereading this book, that moment was a gut-punch.

Book 3: Curse of the Were-wiener.  2010.

The tale of suspect cafeteria food continues.  Wendell is bitten by a disturbingly red hot dog served to Danny in the school cafeteria.  He and many other members of the student body begin to sprout hair all over his body, which itches terribly.  Sneaking into the school kitchen, Danny discovers the packaging for the wieners, Transylvanian were-wieners that are known to have caused lycanthropy.  The company’s toll free number, however, provides them with little help but the information that they can cure Wendell and the others if they kill the alpha.  Danny and Wendell travel to the sewers to enlist the help of the animate potato salad that Danny released in the first book and get help from the rats that treat the potato salad reverentially and have been adding to its mass with tributes.  But their quest is a race against the clock because in three days Wendell and the others infected by the rogue were-wieners will be under the sway of the alpha wurst, determined to protect the alpha and unable to be cured of their lycanthropy.

Book 4: Lair of the Bat Monster.  2011.

In this Danny and Wendell rescue a bat from a pool drain, and not sure what to do to help it, Mrs. Dragonbreath sends them to Mexico and Danny’s cousin Steve, who researches bats.  While investigating the cave in the Mexican jungle that is the focus of Steve’s studies, Danny is carried off by a monstrously large bat who seems to be the Zapotec god Camazotz, leaving Wendell and Steve to track down the bat and rescue Danny, which of course does not go smoothly.  Wendell barely squeezes through the spider-infested crevice to get to Danny in Camazotz’s cave, and Camazotz is blocking the easier exit, so the two go deeper into the cave and discover the Camazotz who abducted Danny has a mate—and he’s hungry.  Bat species and behavior and Zapotec mythology are the areas of study in this novel.  I may be partial because I know a bat researcher and I didn’t know any Zapotec mythology, so I learned lots (and I love a good myth), but this has been my favorite so far.

Book 5: No Such Thing as Ghosts.  2011.

Danny Dragonbreath makes a Halloween special.  Dared by Big Eddy to enter a haunted house on Halloween night, Danny can hardly refuse when socially awkward, self-assured doubter Christiana agrees to go in—and Wendell follows rather than be left with Big Eddy.  Once locked inside, the three disentangle the explicable from the supernatural and turn around to scare Big Eddy with their knowledge of the house.  But even with Big Eddy fled, the three are locked in… and they may not be alone.  Still no one can explain how that creepy crying clown painting was replaced by one of a mundane flower vase, and the walls are oozing something that looks like… raw eggs….  And what is that in the doorway!?  I do not handle horror books well.  I managed to get through the creepy clowns and slamming doors, but… the thrills were atmospheric.  There were fewer factoids in this than in previous novels, though Wendell drops some knowledge of ghosts from around the world and Christiana briefly explains the scam of spiritualists. 

  —

I expect that I will finish this series if it is at all possible.  I currently have book 6 out from the library.  Episodic as these books are and as the reviews that I’ve been writing for them have become, I don’t want to subject you to a full review of all 11 in the series.  So maybe we’ll split them here, the first 5 and the last 6.  That I’m enjoying these enough to seek out the physical copies from the library really ought to be most of the review that you need, but if that isn’t enough:

These are a lot of fun.  They’ve been exactly the right level of nonsense and cohesive plot for me during this pandemic.  Read them.  Try one.  You don’t have to, it seems, read them in any particular order, so pick up whatever topic interests you most.

Objectively, the series overall is probably more of a

****

but during these weird times, when they have been everything I’ve needed in a series, it is tempting to bump them up to

*****

This review is not endorsed by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books for Young Readers, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Vernon, Ursula. Dragonbreath series. New York: Dial-Penguin Random, 2009-2011.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit the Penguin Random House for links to order and summaries.

Book Review: Friendship as a Superpower in Hilo

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Spoilers!

It was the jacket blurb on the back of the most recent (6th) book in the Hilo series that got me interested in this graphic novel series:  “Being a hero isn’t easy.  But Hilo had no idea it would be this hard.  Hilo came to earth because he was running from Razorwark.  But he’s done running.”

DJ Lim feels mediocre in the shadow his four siblings.  In the absence of his best friend, Gina Cooper, who moved to New York 3 years back, he feels alone.  Being friends with Gina was the one thing that he felt he was good at. 

Alone, he goes to investigate a fallen object and finds a pale-skinned, blond boy in metallic underwear in the crater.  The boy speaks English—or he does after a static shock occurs between him and DJ—but he knows nothing of Earth—not grass, not milk, not rice—and delightfully believes that humans scream at one another in greeting—nor does he know anything about himself or where he came from or why he fell from the sky.  He gives DJ no choice but to befriend him as he asks the way to DJ’s house and then leads the way there with a cry of “outstanding!”  Hilo faces anything short of life-threatening (and even a few things that are life-threatening) with exuberance.

Over the course of the book, Hilo begins to remember more about his life before he fell.  It comes to light that he is a robot who can shoot lasers from his hands and fly and that his mission is to stop Razorwark, a robot who destroyed the capital city where Hilo lived.  In his more technologically advanced parallel universe, robots do most work for humans, but some robots have become noncompliant and are seeking to destroy instead of serve humans.  Hilo was created to stop the noncompliant, “bad” robots, the most powerful of which is Razorwark (155). (Razorwark’s methods of rebellion, destroying the whole city, are extreme, but I’ll be interested in more discussion in later books about whether the cause itself is wrong.)

There is a great deal of action in this book, whole pages of battle without dialogue.  There are too many jokes about burping for my taste.  Although with Hilo’s photographic memory and ability to breeze through a dictionary and most of an encyclopedia collection in 20 minutes, Winick squeezes in factoids about Texas and some difficult vocabulary words like “octoped” and “astronomy” and “vacate.”

Although the titular character bears the appearance of a white male, I appreciate the diversity in this cast.  DJ, who I would argue is the primary POV character, is Asian American, and his best friend, Gina—who happens to return to town the same day that Hilo crashes there—is Black. 

I really appreciated the lesson about the elasticity of friendship and about what makes a person interesting: 

(p. 125 and 132)

DJ by protecting Hilo reminds Hilo that he was made to protect others.  DJ learns the strength and importance of his skill in friendship, although it is difficult to put on a college resume. 

Hilo returns to his universe to protect the people of this, his friends DJ and Gina and their families.  But it isn’t enough.  In the final pages, Razorwark comes through the portal through which Hilo fell, making quite a hook for book 2 in the series.

***

Winick, Judd. Hilo, Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. New York: Penguin Random, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Penguin Random for links to purchase, summary, sample, reviews, and author’s bio.

This review is not endorsed by Judd Winick, Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ghosts’ Spirit Is Good But

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Raina Telgemeier is a name any children’s bookseller knows (even if I’m not sure how many of us—myself included—are sure of the pronunciation of that surname. I just checked myself, and I have been pronouncing it correctly!  Scholastic has videos on its YouTube channel where she introduces herself, like this one for Ghosts.).  Her books are frequently bestsellers, frequently were on company-mandated displays, are frequently requested, and Drama is also frequently on the challenged books lists.  Of her many books—Drama, the Smile series, the first set of the new Babysitters’ Club graphic novels, etc.—Ghosts is the one I was most excited to try, the only one, I believe, to have any element of fantasy—which, if you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know to be my genre of choice.  I was excited too to see the representation of Mexican culture.

And so one night as I struggled for sleep, I found myself reading Ghosts in its entirety on my phone using the library’s most-nifty Libby app (seriously, Libby has been a Godsend during the pandemic, and I 100% recommend getting in touch with your library to see if they use it or something similar).

Cat, Maya, and their family are moving from a southern Californian town to a northern one called Bahía de la Luna.  Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the salt air of the seaside town is supposed to be good for her.  Cat is sad to be leaving behind her home and her friends.  Bahía de la Luna is foggy and cold and has a strange reputation for hauntings.  Their neighbor, Carlos, is a ghost tour guide, who gels with Maya almost immediately.  He and his family help Cat and Maya and their mother (who is a fully assimilated Mexican American married to a white man) reconnect with their Mexican heritage.  When with Maya’s prodding, he takes the girls to the haunted mission, the ghosts’ interaction with Maya, though friendly, brings on such a violent reaction that she is home-bound for the first months of the school year.  Cat gets to experience a life at school where others don’t know her sister, where she is neither beneath the shadow of her sisters’ illness nor sharing her friends with her sister.

Maya hopes on Día de los Muertos to be visited by the ghost of their estranged Mexican grandmother. Cat, far more nervous of the ghosts than anyone else, including Maya, has to be persuaded by Maya to attend the town’s midnight Día de los Muertos celebration at the mission and face her fears. Once there, she makes peace with the ghosts, who party with the living on that night, even bringing one of them, Carlos’ eight-year-old uncle, back to the house to meet Maya. With José’s help, Cat comes a bit more to terms with the possibility of her sister’s premature death, because in Bahía de la Luna, death is not a permanent goodbye. It is implied that their grandmother comes back to the family as a cat.

I appreciate the story of a family reconnecting with their heritage, but reviews tell me to curb my enthusiasm for Telgemeier’s representation here of Mexican culture and history.  I’m not the most informed voice to listen to there, and I’ll refer you to others’ reviews (Debbie, Kimberly, Booktoss). In sum, the main critiques seem to be that the history of the missions and the Mexican people’s experiences in missions is grossly misrepresented and that the celebration of Día de los Muertos is poorly handled and disconnected from the honoring of family, becoming instead a town-wide party that includes the living and the dead, where the dead interact equally with family and strangers and friends made after their passing.

Cat goes trick-or-treating and then to the Día de los Muertos party dressed as her namesake, La Catrina, a figure of Día de los Muertos, whom she learns about from her friends earlier in October. La Catrina is a Mexican cultural icons that is too often used as a costume, appropriated by those outside of the culture and who do not celebrate Día de los Muertos. It is better that Cat, newly learning about her Mexican heritage, dress as La Catrina than that one of her white or Black friends does, and La Catrina is an appropriate costume it seems for Día de los Muertos, but I still don’t know how I feel about seeing La Catrina as a Halloween costume, even on Cat.

As a note, this book came out the year before Coco, which brought Día de los Muertos even more into the public conscious and spotlight and, from reviews that I remember reading at the time, seems to have been better received by the community.

I also can’t speak to the accuracy of the representation of cystic fibrosis and will refer you to Sharon’s review on that or this by Gunnar Esisaon.  (I was an older sibling with a childhood illness that left me home-bound, but I am almost wholly unfamiliar with CF.)  I appreciate Telgemeier shining a light on childhood illness and on a less-often represented illness.  I appreciate that Maya’s illness is represented as something both that she has to manage, that does disable her and keep her from doing “normal” things sometimes, but also something that she has largely accepted.  Maya is neither a morose, bedridden figure nor the shining success story of a miraculous recovery.  Sometimes recovery isn’t possible, and management is the goal, and that’s hard, but that’s real. Cat struggles to accept Maya’s illness and struggles with the shadow of being Maya’s sister, of having to share her friends when Maya can’t go out to make any of her own. I appreciate the representation of Cat’s struggle both with being the sister to a chronically ill sibling and with the possibility of Maya’s premature death.

Ghosts tries to achieve a lot, and the story is good.  Where it falls is in its connection with the ghosts of the story to Mexican culture and tradition.  As much as this wouldn’t be a story of reconnecting with heritage if the parts about Mexican heritage and culture had been left out, I wish that more research had been done, more sensitivity readers consulted before the book’s publication.  It seems that a few fairly simple changes would have made this a far less problematic book. Perhaps even just the exclusion of the mission altogether.

The less than accurate representation does present an opportunity for learning in the classroom and for all of us though.  There were details that Telgemeier got correct, and those make a jump point for curious readers.  We just have to be curious enough to correct our impressions from the book.

I can’t quite offer this book four stars because it did fall too short too often, but it was also an impressive undertaking, so a medial three stars seems too little.

***1/2

Telgemeier, Raina. Ghosts. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2016.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Scholastic for links to order, summary, preview, trailer, and discussion guide.

This review is not endorsed by Raina Telgemeier, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Tyrant’s Tomb and Writing an Asexual Character

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There are SPOILERS here, but about one character, and the spoilers here have to do with one really quite minor subplot of the novel.

So to follow up on my review of the previous book in this series, the prophecy did refer to Reyna and not Hylla.  And most of this review will be about Reyna.  (I don’t want to promise it, but maybe this book deserves another review about it more broadly.)

A conversation between Reyna and Apollo at the end of The Tyrant’s Tomb makes it sound like Riordan is suggesting that Reyna is asexual (405-406 for those following along).  I thought so when I read it in January.  A friend of mine in the community thought it too and mentioned it to me when she read the book later.  I see it again re-reading the novel in September.  But at no point in the text is the word used.

Finding confirmation took some digging.  Searching for “Reyna Avila Ramírez-Arellano” brings up only one Wiki site on Google’s first page that mentions her asexuality being confirmed as a footnote.  To find more sources of confirmation and the Tweet, I had to do a fairly specific Google search for “Reyna asexual.”  Thankfully one Tumblr user, Hazel the Writer (and if you find this, your cosplays are fantastic, but I haven’t got a Tumblr to show my appreciation on the proper platform), had taken a screenshot of the Tweet from Riordan on July 3, 2020 confirming that he sees Reyna as romantic asexual.  (I don’t know why… but as I write this Riordan’s Twitter feed has been cleared of anything prior to August 29, 2020).

When I first began this review I thought that a Twitter confirmation by the author would be enough to sate me, but I realized, writing this, that it is not.  Most Wiki fansites (except thankfully the first one to appear when you search her name) and official sites are not reporting Reyna’s orientation.  The tweet has been erased.

No one unfamiliar with the term “asexual” would do the search that I did to find the confirmation nor know that there was anything to confirm.  I was in my late 20s before a friend mentioned asexuality on Facebook.  (I’ve talked about this on the blog before.)  If I had found the term earlier, I think it would have spared me and others pain.  Asexuality just doesn’t have the visibility of other orientations and identities—and that invisibility hurts those aware and unaware of the term.

That said, I recognize that writing an openly asexual character presents a challenge with which too few writers have wrestled for me to have a clear idea of how it’s best done.  Characters of most other sexual orientations can be identified by the relationships that they engage in, by the physical interactions that they have with other characters.  (It occurred to me writing this that I’m actually uncertain whether the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” were ever actually used in the text of Riordan’s books, and it would be an extensive and difficult search to see whether they are.)  An asexual relationship may not include those same physical interactions (or they might; it is not the absence of physical affection that defines asexuality, as I understand it, but a lack of desire for such affection; some may be more willing than others to engage in those acts for various reasons).  

“Hey, I’m asexual,” isn’t always the kind of comment that comes naturally in a conversation, and Reyna, a woman caught for a while out of time while on Circe’s island for however long and so a child of I’m not sure which decade, might be less comfortable than some with the term, which frequently spawns confusion in those of other orientations confronted with it and does not always win a person’s respect. 

But conversations about sexual and romantic desire may be the only way to absolutely identify asexual characters that aren’t the POV characters.  Reyna talks with Apollo after he offers to be her romantic partner.  Nancy too becomes explicit about her expectations and disinterest when other characters begin to express interest in her in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway (the only book I’ve yet read to use the word “asexual”).  In The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue Mackenzi Lee has Felicity talk to her brother about to whom they are or are not attracted, and then Felicity, her asexual character, becomes her narrator in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.  Lee confirmed Felicity’s orientation on Goodreads, but does not name her asexuality as such in the text.

The trouble is, without these conversations openly naming the orientation, they speak to those in the community and aware of the orientation, but not to those who don’t know or don’t understand.  They might represent a shared feeling and give a reader a brief sigh of relief and that feeling of being seen, but they give the reader no term to go to further research, no recognition of that there’s a community for those who have this feeling, that there’s a name for this feeling; it remains an unnamed and un-nameable experience, though an acceptable feeling. 

And maybe not every asexual character will be in a scene where such a conversation might realistically happen—or feel comfortable expressing themselves in such a conversation.

I appreciate Riordan’s desire to leave the interpretation up to the reader, but with an identity so poorly understood and so sorely underrepresented, I just don’t think it’s the most responsible option—especially for a writer of his popularity.  Alex in his Magnus Chase series gets to name herself (himself, whichever is appropriate in the moment) as gender fluid and transgender.  Why not Reyna too?

I’ve praised—and will continue to praise until corrected—Riordan for the representation in these books before (Riordan’s books include openly gay, bisexual, lesbian, gender fluid, and arguably pansexual characters), and I hope that other communities feel more seen than this almost representation has made me feel.

This book, this author could do so much for the asexual community by giving us this badass, already beloved heroine in a widely read series—but because of the orientation’s invisibility, I want him to do so explicitly in the text.  Because there’s only more book in the series (released today actually!) and Reyna is not likely to play a large role in it and I think Riordan has said he will be finished with this Greco-Roman story arc after this last book, I have little hope of this.

And hey! in case you want to read up on asexuality, check out asexuality.org, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), to start.

And if you know of any awesomely written asexual characters that I should check out, let me know! I’m always looking for more.

****

I want it noted too… I have read this book twice now… but I have never read this book while feeling healthy. One day I will, and I wonder if then this book will earn another star.

Riordan, Rick.  The Trials of Apollo, Book 4: The Tyrant’s Tomb.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2019.

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: Flora & Ulysses: An Unlikely Superhero Tale

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I have been struggling to read recently—struggling with all aspects of reading: the concentration required, the imagination required, having enough to pay the emotional and mental toll that a book can demand.  About the only books that I had been able to handle had been short, children’s, absurdist humor novels: Wayside School and Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment.  I reached out to experts (children’s leads working at Barnes & Nobles across the country) asking for recommendations like these, having exhausted my own library.

I was given many good suggestions, but the easiest for me to acquire (the one that was both available digitally from my local library and not currently checked out to anyone else) was Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery winner, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.

As a Newbery winner it seemed like a book that I ought to read besides.  And despite this being DiCamillo’s third Newbery winner, it’s the first of her novels that I’ve read.

It was the absurd premise that drew me into Flora & Ulysses.  Flora is reading comic books—a genre banned by her mother, who is a romance writer—when she is alerted by a shout to the plight of her neighbor and the squirrel that her neighbor has accidentally sucked partway into her vacuum.  Flora, using the information that she has gathered from informational comics, rescues the squirrel, performing CPR.  The squirrel, once he has come to, has gained superior squirrel intellect and understanding and super-squirrel strength.

This book is more than that though.

Flora is caught between her parents’ strained divorce.  She feels ignored by her mother, awarded less attention than her mother’s career.  Her cowed and shy (and yes, slightly odd) father does not stand up for himself or for Flora.

The story is told in a combination of prose and comic.  Flora and the squirrel that she names Ulysses after the vacuum that nearly claims his life share primary narration. 

Flora’s mother, who dismisses comics as “idiotic high jinks” in opposition to “the bright light of true literature,” does not believe in the powers of the squirrel—or that squirrels ought to be allowed in the house (9).  She foists the job of killing the squirrel onto her estranged husband.  

He finds the courage to defy her, to help Flora, when the squirrel, impossibly, flies.  He recognizes in Ulysses as does Flora the possibility of the impossible.  He is, after all, the one who introduced her to superhero comics.

The squirrel Ulysses, the possibility of the impossible that he represents, opens the hearts of all of the Buckhams and their neighbor Tootie Tickham and her great-nephew William Spiver, temporarily blinded, he says, by the trauma of having been sent away from his home after he drove his emotionally neglectful stepfather’s truck into a pond.

This is a story of broken hearts repaired and shuttered emotions uncaged.  It’s the story of the characters learning to open themselves to each other and to the wonders of the universe through belief in an improbably magical squirrel.

Flora & Ulysses is the superhero Ulysses’ origin story—but not the superhero origin story that I had expected from the novel’s sample in Libby.  Ulysses is not using his might to battle super-powered villains.  He uses his heart, his vulnerability to battle the monsters of ordinary, human unkindness, and he defeats these villains by changing their hearts, not by besting them in combat.

I’m interested in the different traditions on which this story draws: contemporary fiction, family drama, superhero comic, literary fiction, but also the horse story, where a wild creature is tamed by a patient child whose parent tries to take away that creature, the creature standing in for the freedom longed for by the child.

From its cover I expected more of the horse story than anything else.

And as often happens, writing this review has helped me to suss out some of what makes this novel Newbery-worthy, but it has taken this review to make me see it as more than a novel to pass the time.  I expect there are more layers of this onion that I could with more time and more analysis peel back; I’m not sure that I’ve yet reached this story’s kernel.  If I’m absolutely honest, this book was more meat than the cotton candy that I was seeking, but was somehow also not the meat and potatoes either that I would have wanted at another time, lacking I think the action-packed plot that I would have liked:  It was too much at the time of my reading and too little for a hearty meal.  But I’ll be drowned out by its fans.    

***

Note: Page numbers come from the publisher’s default on my phone’s Libby app.  I think but do not know that they correspond to the print pages.

DiCamillo, Kate.  Flora & Ulysses.  Illus. K. G. Campbell.  Candlewick, 2013.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Kate DiCamillo, K. G. Campbell, or Candlewick Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Shelfie: September 17-23, 2017: Sacrifices and Those Left Behind

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It’s been a weirder and more stressful week than even has become the usual for 2020.  I had been listening to a snippet of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text‘s 6th season with my housemate as we drove in the dark.  As we pulled into the driveway, I saw the first flash of lightning—far off I thought.  Within minutes (just as long as it took the kettle to boil), the rain began lashing the house.

Storms have been speaking to me more than usual lately.  I have always enjoyed the ionized air and whipping wind that JUST precedes a storm and enjoyed the petrichor.  Lately I’ve enjoyed the feel of the rain against my skin.  Not just the fine mists that the wind whips onto the porch, but the hard drops that sting.

I was on the porch with the wind flinging rain sideways beneath the overhang.

I was thinking of myself as a widow—a sailor’s wife, staring out at the sea in a storm and not knowing if my husband would return—you know, as sometimes you just settle into the minds of historical figures (Others do this too, right?).  I was thinking of sacrificed lives and deaths and the ones left behind.  I was thinking of who makes the sacrifices and who gets left behind.

And I was thinking about this story.  I don’t know why this one in particular; I haven’t read it since 2017.  I was thinking about it before I remembered that it was the next photo set in my shelfie list.

But having thought about it, because it is the next in the set, I feel I ought to present you a series of photos that I took during my last read of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian.

Spoilers obviously.

Book Review: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: Modern Little Women

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

Spoilers.

After 150 years, it was perhaps time for an updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This isn’t the first attempt to update the classic, but I think it might be the first to do so as a graphic novel, and it is the first that I have read. In this, the sisters are from a blended family. Jo is Mrs. March’s daughter by her first marriage, Meg is Mr. March’s by his first marriage, and Beth and Amy are Mr. and Mrs. March’s. Meg and Mr. March, who is a soldier stationed in the Middle East, are African American. Mrs. March and Jo are white. Amy and Beth are mixed race, but as Jo explains to Mr. Marquez (who has replaced Mr. Laurence) and Laurie, even without the ties of blood to Meg, they are all four of them sisters.

Terciero and Indigo have moved the story from small town Concord to the more vibrant New York City with the Marches living in Brooklyn.

Chapters are frequently ended by emails sent by one of the girls to their father abroad.

On the whole this novel sticks well to the original’s plot, but there are some significant changes that Terciero and Indigo make to the original.

In this Jo has a secret she is keeping from her family, hinted at in diary entries and in her dialogue, which I don’t remember her having in Alcott’s original (it’s admittedly been a while…). And it isn’t the secret that I thought that it might be. I thought it likely that Jo would come out as transgender by the novel’s end but instead she comes out as lesbian. Her bravery in coming out to her family encourages Aunt Cath to wrestle with her own prejudices and come to the revelation that she herself is lesbian.

Meg does not marry the rich and well-connected Brooks when he laughs at her notion to become a lawyer for the less fortunate instead of taking the Vogue internship that he with his connections has secured for her. She is the catalyst in her family attending the Women’s March in DC. I was disappointed not to see Aunt Cath with them there, knowing that Meg had wanted her to come.

The novel still has the symmetry of the original, opening and closing on Christmas, covering only Little Women and not Good Wives, which is often nowadays released as the second half of Little Women, the two together in a single volume.

This was a longer graphic novel with a lot of text on each page compared to others that I have read, but still a much more accessible adaptation of the original work for both its length, its color, and its modern vernacular.

This story remains a celebration of familial love and a wholesome read in a time of darkness. It’s only that what was revolutionary in 1860s is less so now.

I think it a great introduction to the story, characters, and themes of Little Women, though those who are looking for the classic story on a one-to-one level, the text only modernized and simplified for a younger, more modern audience, would find other abridged versions more to their taste—and there are many.  I would consider this an excellent companion and comparison piece more than a abridgement.

But I personally really enjoyed what Terciero and Indigo have done with the story and celebrate this more diverse adaption.

****

Terciero, Rey and Bre Indigo. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rey Terciero, Bre Indigo, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: DNF But I Have Opinions

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Now for something a little different

This year there were a few books that I never finished but about which I still wanted to say a few words. I realized that when I pass them on to someone else and take them off my Goodreads lists as neither read nor to be read, I will lose any reviews that I might leave on them, so I’m taking advantage of having a blog, and leaving those thoughts here. Even if I never finished these books, I hope my thoughts will help you decide whether or not to begin them yourself.

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and awards list.

Mahurin, Shelby. Serpent & Dove, Book 1. New York: HarperTeen-HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 14+.

I left off reading the ARC of this book at page 257 of 514, but I want to take a moment to organize my current thoughts about the novel:

I’ve struggled to enjoy this one.

First I didn’t realize going into this book that it is far more a new adult novel than a young adult or teen novel. I perhaps should have known, knowing that the protagonists are married. I have read so few new adult or even adult novels that I wasn’t prepared for the tone and the themes.

But what is most keeping me from connecting with it I think is the seemingly unequal power dynamic of the supposed romance, which thus far in the novel, does not feel like a romance, though Reid is starting to begin making an effort towards connection with Lou. Lou is choosing to live with the threat that Reid poses to her because he poses a threat to those who would harm her too, choosing to live with him though she knows that if he knew her secret he would regard her as inhuman and fit only for death. That to me is unsettling. Perhaps we are meant to think that she too poses a threat to him, but Lou hasn’t killed; she does not view even witch-hunters like him in the same inhuman way as he does witches. I don’t like to see that sort of unequal power dynamic romanticized or marketed as a romance.

I think I would have given up this book entirely after the book club discussion except that I read a summary of the plot, and I now know where the novel is headed. I like the spoilers that I have, but I don’t know if it will be worth slogging through the uncomfortable relationship to get to see them acted out, and after several months of not touching the book I have decided to give up and give my copy of this book to someone who I hope can enjoy it more than I.

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

Wen, Abigail Hing. Loveboat, Taipei.  New York: HarperTeen-HarperCollins, 2020.

Intended audience: Ages 13+.

Spoilers between the asterisks.

There are so many parallels between this and Christine Riccio’s Again, but Better. The protagonists of both books are girls whose parents set them on tracks for medical school but who would rather pursue the arts, who travel for the first time abroad to study, who find ways to circumvent their parents’ plans for their time abroad, who struggle with liking boys who already have girlfriends, who make lists of things that they will do to reinvent themselves while abroad, who drink for the first time, who dance in a club, who kiss a boy.

But Wen’s was so much better written!

I all but forgot every character of Riccio’s except the main romantic pair, Shane and Pilot, after reading this book—and Shane I keep wanting to call Christine for her strong parallels to the author, a booktube celebrity, and Pilot I was never sure I wholly liked.

The characters of Wen’s novel are fully-fledged and interesting. Their lives are complicated. They have motivations and individual desires. They are many of them shaped by their parents’ expectations.  They each get to defend themselves, to explain themselves to Ever.  They don’t feel like props or catalysts for the protagonist Ever. Two characters are dyslexic. It feels like anyone of the characters could have held the story on their own.

Reading Wen’s novel, I was given a peek into another culture than my own. Almost every character is Taiwanese American or Chinese American or a local Taiwanese citizen. The default is not white.

Despite it being outside of my usual genre, I found compelling Ever’s fight between her passions and her duty to her family and their expectations for her. I might have continued to read if it were any closer to a genre that I generally enjoy. I may hang onto this one, and I might go back to it one day, but there’s no magic system here for me to explore, there’s not a whole lot of the type of adventure that I enjoy, and frankly the drama of teenage romances is just… not holding my attention. It didn’t in high school, and it doesn’t now.

But I want to know if Xavier can finally get the help that he needs. I want to know if he’ll be okay. (If someone who has finished this book wants to tell me the answer to that question in the comments, I’d thank you.)  I already read a spoiler * promising that Ever gets her parents’ approval of her passion for dance in the end *—though I have not found out yet which path she ultimately pursues in college.

This is a book I will recommend to those who tell me that they enjoy this genre—and definitely to anyone who read Again, but Better.

I am currently on page 240 of 414 of this ARC.

This review is not endorsed by Abigail Hing Wen, Shelby Mahurin, HarperTeen, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Well Written, Realistic Tale in Awkward

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

I read Awkward to prep for an event for work, but it is one that has caught my eye before with its adorable leads, embarrassed it seems on the cover by the nearness of the other, and the later books, the next of which features a girl in a hijab (Akilah we learn in Awkward).

Peppi Torres manages to break Cardinal Rule #1 of surviving on the first day at her new school when she smacks into a boy in the hallway, causing a scene, and getting noticed by the bullies of the school. He shoves away the boy when he tries to help her, and almost immediately the guilt of doing so shreds her conscience. She knows that she ought to apologize to him, but she can’t seem to make herself do it; she is too embarrassed by what she has done and too afraid of his reaction to her.

Fate thrusts the two of them into an awkward alliance when he becomes her assigned science tutor. It seems for a moment that they might smooth over the awkwardness of their initial encounter, though still Peppi can’t force the apology out.

But then of course Peppi discovers that Jaime is in her art club’s rival science club, which makes talking to him outside of tutoring even more impossible.

The two clubs are competing for a table at the club fair, and the principal has said that the club that the school votes as having made the greatest contribution to the school will win the table. The rivalry, the pranks only escalate in the face of the competition.

The diversity in this novel is fantastic, not only racial diversity in Peppi Torres herself, the students in the clubs, and in the fantastically cool, African American science teacher, Miss Tobins; the diversity within the student body and clubs themselves, but also with the inclusion of Jaime’s mother, a successful artist who happens to use a wheelchair, at least one character who is differently-able. Chmakova has realistically peopled her middle school. I see many students and teachers that I have known in the ones at Berrybrook. Each character seems to have such dimension, even the ones whose names I know only from the character design gallery at the back of the book.

Peppi is a realistic role model. She may not always do the right thing, but she wants to do the right thing. She is a clever problem-solver, and that makes her a leader.

It is also really refreshing for a book to so honestly deal with a crumbling marriage and an emotionally abusive father. The book does not spend long on the situation, but it is good to see so stresses acknowledged and openly discussed on this level.

This is a book of lessons in being your best self, how to react in awkward situations: new schools, competitions that seem to prevent cooperation and stymie friendships, being asked by a friend to help them do something wrong and against the rules.

Ultimately, Peppi and Jaime, who become friends outside of school when they discover themselves to be neighbors, help the two clubs come together to complete a project that requires the talents of both groups, and their collaboration helps them face down the bullies that are the true enemy of them all.

I appreciated the absence of any romance in this novel.

This book uses a limited, pastel palette that is easy to read, soothing to look at.

This story is very well structured, using the title Awkward and the refrain situations defining “awkward” as “This.”  It encourages the exploration of several hobbies: art, cartooning, tinkering, science, and geocaching.

I enjoyed this time at Berrybrook, though here was nothing earth-shattering, no thrilling quest.  These were good characters to get to know.

****

Chmakova, Svetlana. Berrybrook Middle School, Book 1: Awkward.  JY-Yen, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12 per a comment by the author on Goodreads.

This review is not endorsed by Svetlana Chmakova, JY, or Yen Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.