Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

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.

Book Review: What Again, but Better Needed to Do Better (and Why it Wasn’t for Me)

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Spoilers have been whited-out.  Highlight to read.

I was the wrong person to read this book, but this was another that work required.

I wasn’t aware of Christine Riccio as a booktuber, so I could not be blinded by stardom.

I read an ARC that, thankfully, was line-edited once more before being published because there were some spellings errors in my copy that grated on me particularly as someone once hired to edit to match Rowling’s canon (Horcrux was misspelled several times, but the misspellings were fixed in the final printed edition).

I don’t read many books that would be shelved as romances. I’m ace; romance tends not to interest me; it’s not my lived experience and not the constant, humanity-defining story that most think that it is. I don’t like that romance is so especially pervasive in teen literature—in any and every genre. I can, for example, read an adult or middle-grade fantasy and escape a romantic subplot, but I’m hard-pressed to name a book marketed as for teens without such a subplot. I am especially bored by white, cishet romances, which Riccio’s is here.

I too studied abroad in London—and only a year before the protagonist Shane does in this story. I’ve been to Rome. I’ve been to Edinburgh (though I haven’t gotten to climb Arthur’s Seat). Riccio had to convince me that she had been to all these places too. And and the first British person with whom Shane interacted (on the plane on her way to London) acted so aggressively against the British code of conduct that I was thrown out of the book, my disbelief animated, and Riccio struggled to draw me back. (This woman later is revealed to be an important, recurring character, which at least explains to some degree her trashing of cultural norms, but I think Riccio could have waited to introduce this character until Shane had at least interacted with one other British person—or had this woman not be British—and I would have been better able to suspend my disbelief for her.)

For all that Shane describes herself in the beginning as painfully socially inept and awkward, she makes friends quickly, she takes more initiative to travel than I did while abroad, she drinks more often than I did with friends, she dances in clubs, she makes up excuses to see friends. She rarely studies. She is not socially inept. She is a social butterfly and party creature compared to me when I was her age and studying abroad in London. I did my homework, went on trips with my classes, and I explored the parks and the museums on my own—and I enjoyed myself. (Admittedly, travel and engagement with London and with England was far more a part of our international program curriculum than it seems to have been for Shane—or for most international students studying in London.)

I never found Shane or her friends particularly relatable though Riccio tries painfully hard to make Shane so through popular culture references (not all of which I could catch), making her a Lost fanatic, a Potterhead, and a voracious reader as presumably is the person reading the book or following Riccio as a booktuber. I also didn’t find Shane particularly likeable. Though I can understand her desire to escape her parents’ expectations, her solution is so extreme that I don’t find her parents’ reactions entirely unjustified. [SPOILER] Certainly by showing up unannounced in London [END] her parents demonstrate a certain lack of thought for Shane’s plans, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. To justify Shane’s lie to her parents perhaps I needed to meet them prior to her betrayal of their trust. Or perhaps I am showing signs of adulthood, relating more to the adults than the child heroes, to Triton more than Ariel.  Pilot, her love interest, I was ambivalent towards too at best.  He seemed supportive, and he and Shane seemed at times very well matched, but he lacked emotional maturity and avoided his problems to such an unhealthy degree that I couldn’t consider him a healthy romantic partner for anyone.

The writing style (a close first person present)—especially in the first half of the novel—is somewhat juvenile. It’s possible that in the first half of the book especially this immaturity is intentional as the second half of the story revolves around the question of returning to old circumstances with new wisdom, but this makes the writing no more enjoyable to read—especially not knowing that maturity (or lack thereof) is going to become such a key part of the books’ plot.

Riccio did something a little different by adding an element of fantasy to this otherwise realistic, contemporary romance (set in 2011 and briefly 2017), but it wasn’t nearly enough to win me back. What it seemed to do was allow Riccio to play out two sets of mistakes for Shane and for Pilot.

Shane when the magic occurred didn’t react in a way that I found believable. [SPOILER] With her mind, soul, person thrown into the body and circumstances of her self from six years earlier, she didn’t seem to realize it, to realize that her body felt different, didn’t hurt as much, she was less tired, that her hair was probably different. These are the cues I think that I would recognize if someone were to shove me back to my college-aged self. Mostly I think I would notice that my body hurt less. [END]

A younger me might have enjoyed this story more, but present-me did not.  And really, what was the lesson?  You can’t have both career success and love without magic and more time than is available to anyone without magic?  That’s not what I want to hear, true though it might be.  Few I think read fantasy or romance books to lose hope; it’s certainly not what I seek in my escapism.

**

Riccio, Christine. Again, but Better. Wednesday-St. Martin’s-Macmillan, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-18.

This review is not endorsed by Christine Riccio, Wednesday Books, St. Martin’s Press, or Macmillan Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

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

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Shelfie: April 13 & 14, 2017: First Time with a Last Book

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I’m apparently not going to be mentally able enough for long enough when I’m free enough this week to finish the blog post that I almost have done.  So instead, I’m sharing with you a few more of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books.

These are both from my first, excited read-through of the final book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, The Raven King.

The usual warnings about SPOILERS, but actually I think these pages are pretty innocuous, and I know the lines that I’m extracting are safe.

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” ‘Where the hell is Ronan?’ Gansey asked, echoing the words that thousands of humans had uttered since mankind developed speech.”

For me, what words Gansey said are irrelevant.  That tag is amazing.

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” ‘I don’t want to talk about.’
” ‘ I do,’ Ronan said.
” ‘Well, I don’t.  I’m not proud of it.’
“Ronan patted her leg.  ‘I’ll be proud for you.’ “

I’m not sure why I love this exchange so.  Maybe just because it is so real.

I really can’t tell you often enough to give this series a try.  The first book in the sequel series is due out November 5, and I am so excited.  The first book in that series is called Call Down the Hawk.

Shelfie: March 19, 2017: Polished by a Second Reading

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This is an open page, so SPOILERS!

 

 

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Some books are just better the second time around.  Some writers’ brilliance is really only polished to a shine by a second reading.  This is a page from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, Book 1: The Raven Boys, which—hey—by the way, is being turned into a television series, and you should definitely read the books before you see the show.  This series has become one of my all-time favorites.  It lives in its entirety on the small bookcase in my nook of a bedroom.  It is one of the ones that I pull out to be comforted and to be drawn away.

This past week has been chaotic, and next week is likely going to be even more so.  I hope you won’t mind me putting off using my depleted brain to review and process books and will just enjoy some bookish photos and a trip down memory lane with me.

Shelfie: January 15, 2017: ReReading Blue Lily, Lily Blue

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Oops.  In planning for another adventure and just the day-to-day I never did get around to finishing a blog post (though I’m close on at least one).  I didn’t want to leave you without anything for the next two weeks, so enjoy some of these favorite lines of mine from Maggie Stiefvater’s Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third book in The Raven Cycle.

Needless to say, if you read the full pages, you might find some spoilers, but the quotes I’ve highlighted are all I think pretty safe.

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“She drifted toward the bedroom, on her way to have a bath or take a nap or start a war.”

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“Violence was a disease Gansey didn’t think he could catch.”

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“Blue was perfectly aware that is was possible to have a friendship that wasn’t all-encompassing, that wasn’t blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening.  It was just that now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.”

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.

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.