Tag Archives: LGBT

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

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

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: Family is Central to A Place at the Table

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reading guide.

This review includes a fairly detailed summary of the plot.  I leave the plot twist out though.

I’ve had an ARC of Susan Rebecca White’s book for years now. Sorry, Susan. But I’m glad that I waited this long to read it, because maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before I’d matured some more.

This is a heartbreaking story of pain and trauma, of otherness, of love and marriage and ultimately of survival, finding oneself, forgiveness, family, and accepting one’s roots and backstory.

This story follows three primary characters, whose lives all intersect over a cookbook and a shared love of food and a bright and cozy kitchen. It begins in 1929 in Emancipation Township, a black community in the rural, Jim Crow South. There we’re introduced to young siblings Alice and James Stone, close enough to believe that they are able to read one another’s thoughts. After refusing to play the meek black man, James is forced to flee North Carolina.

Leaving the Stones, we join Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son, white, probably upper-middle class, in 1970 Decatur, Georgia. His Meemaw lives in a neighborhood that is now mostly African American. He tries to befriend one of the neighborhood girls, but his brother’s racist language thwarts that. Later in 1977, he finds himself friends with a displaced Yankee, his equal on the track team. The two of them find themselves more than friends when alcohol, a late night, and a sleepover coincide, and Bobby begins a life in exile from his family, first with his Meemaw and later, in 1981, in New York City, where we stay with him through 1991. Bobby during his early years in New York finds himself working at the restaurant, a once-renowned haunt of writers and bohemians, where Alice Stone was once the well-known and –loved chef. He returns the restaurant to its gentrified-Southern roots and gains fame for himself. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s, and he loses his lover and partner to the disease.

Alice’s editor and friend has a niece, Amelia, living in upper-middle class Connecticut. She marries a Southerner from Georgia, who as they begin their life as empty-nesters in 1990, turns emotionally abusive towards her. She struggles with her desire to make her marriage successful and the fear for her own safety.

Individually, each character’s story of hardship and survival is fascinating.

If I was not necessarily eager to return to this book between minutes I was able to read, neither did I want to stay away, with which as much heartache as was in the book and knowing that I tend to avoid reading about characters in deep pain, I think must mean that these characters were well-developed and compelling.

For all that Alice is the glue that holds these stories together (it’s Alice’s restaurant that takes in Bobby, and Alice’s editor’s niece), it’s Bobby with whom we spend the most time, and whose story is explored most fully. As the true tale unwinds, Bobby, though, seems the outside observer, and the story seems more fully Alice’s and Amelia’s and James’. That was a little jarring, but Alice, Amelia, and James’ story makes up in emotional wallop what it lacks in page count.

What all these characters share—apart from a love of good food and cooking—is an exile from family, a crumbling of the idyllic family, and a longing for the return to home (Alice’s cookbook is Homegrown). Alice’s family is broken when James is forced to flee, and James’ worldview is shattered when he realizes himself to be part-white before being forced to flee his home. Bobby is kicked out of his family home after he is discovered kissing a boy. On his grandmother’s advice, he like James before him, leaves the hostile South altogether for the rumored, liberal paradise of New York City. Amelia has never spent time in New York—her family never visited, though they were nearby—but when her own marriage falls apart and with her children out of the house, she finds herself seeking comfort from her aunt, who lives there. Alice and Bobby both cling to their Southern roots through the food that they eat and prepare for others, even as they make new lives for themselves in New York. Amelia discovers her own Southern roots.

None of the characters return to the South but each of them is awarded some measure of reconciliation with their families. So it seems that family is the root to which White argues that one should return and with which one must reconcile to be fully known to oneself.

***1/2

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

This review is not endorsed by Susan Rebecca White, Touchstone, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, Miss White is an alumna of the graduate program at my alma mater.

Book Review: Dream Thieves: I Couldn’t Wait, and I Didn’t Wait (Long) Afterward

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Click to visit the publisher's teachers' page for links to order and summary.Note: I try not to do so, but this time, I just couldn’t resist: I started reading the next book in this series before finishing my review of this book, so there may be some bleed from book three into my review of book two. But I can definitely tell you that I loved book two.

I started this second book in The Raven Cycle pretty immediately after finishing the first, which is usually for me an accolade for the previous book, but The Dream Thieves I loved even more than The Raven Boys. The only reason I think that I didn’t continue on to book three straightaway after putting The Dream Thieves down is because a few books that I had been waiting for were released (ironically, I have not started the one that I paused this series to read, because I fell into a deep well of favorite rereads while waiting for that book to actually arrive—thinking of course that I’d be able to put those rereads down in the middle).

I was a bit surprised that I loved The Dream Thieves so because Ronan, arguably the primary protagonist here, is spikier than I usually like my characters, though in this story we got to see past some of that caustic, tattooed armor to the mushy, homesick, heartsick center—the Ronan that Gansey knew before and which the books reference rather frequently.

The story begins, “A secret is a strange thing. There are three kinds of secrets,” and the epilogue begins that way too. I would have been all over that if I hadn’t been hearing so forcefully the echoes of “The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.” I remember my burbling excitement when I first realized the circular echo that Rothfuss was employing in The Name of the Wind and then used again in The Wise Man’s Fear. Rothfuss definitely did it first (The Name of the Wind was published in 2008), but I want to believe—and do believe—that I’d have been as excited to see Stiefvater use language this way and employ this particular device as I was to see Rothfuss do so if I had seen Stiefvater’s first. It is a beautiful technique and a wonderful way to frame a story and a trick that requires a great deal of finesse and mastery.

Without dropping lots of quotes into this review, I really can’t explain to you why I have come to so love Stiefvater’s prose, her poignant observations and vivid, succinct images. While reading book three, I have taken so many pictures of wonderful lines that I wanted to remember. For this book, I took just one for this line: “His mind was a box he tipped out at the end of his shifts.” That line. I get that line. It captures a feeling that I never would have thought to describe so, but it describes that feeling with such cutting accuracy that I immediately conjure the feeling, the aches and pains and exhaustion.

The Dream Thieves introduces us to more magic. Such wonderful, awesome, terrifying magic. Magic that’s difficult to control, that comes at a terrible price.

While The Raven Boys, I’d be comfortable handing off to a mature 13 year old, this book introduces some darker and more mature topics: homosexuality, drugs, explosive, uncontrollable anger, suicide, murder, more of a romantic subplot, redemption, identity, love in its many forms…. This is a book for an older teen: maybe 14. Maybe. I asked Gwen whose opinion on such matters I trust, and she guessed maybe better to introduce the book to 15 or 16 year olds. As she said, there’s a lot of violence in this book, and an appreciation of the “shades of violence” is important to an understanding of this book’s plot and themes.

*****

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

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 Reviews: April and May 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2007. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I missed this one, I think, in my childhood. A boy writes to the zoo for a pet, and the zoo obliges. A box arrives. Opening it reveals an elephant. He is too big, so the child sends him back. The zoo then sends a giraffe, but the giraffe is too tall. It continues like this, until the zoo thinks very hard and sends the child a perfect puppy. The animals are never actually named, so it’s a primer for a more advanced toddler, one who’s already learnt all the animals’ names. Or this can be a read-aloud book where the reader names the animals for the child. Precious. And a perfect use of lift-the-flaps.

****

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Follow the Little Fish by Olivier Latyk. Sandy Creek-Sterling, 2015. First published 2013 by Templar. Intended audience: 2 years.

This was a surprisingly fun bargain book. The foil fish on the cover caught my eye. The book is rife with onomatopoeias. The fish jumps from one unlikely body of water to another (a pool, a glass of water), and ultimately ends up in a drainage pipe, then in the ocean. The foil does not remain past the cover, but the colors are bright, maybe even a little too loud. With the onomatopoeias especially, this would be a lot of fun to read aloud.

***

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Hi! by Ethan Long. Appleseed-Abrams, 2015.

This is a board book primer of animal sounds (though some of these are less readily associated with their animals like “yak” and “slurp”) and two basic English words: “hi” and “good-bye.” The animals’ sounds are in rhyming pairs, so I suppose it makes sense to have the final pages be the human “hi” and “good-bye” but the switch to human seems abrupt after all the pages of nonsensical animal sounds. Had the book opened with the “hi,” the animals’ sounds would have seemed like responses. Pairing the animals with images of day and night might have implied a “hi” and “good-bye” meaning to the sounds. Most of the images are set during daytime with each animal in its natural setting. Each animal waves to the one on the opposing page. Perhaps they were all meant to be saying hello (that was my first assumption), or maybe they are paired hellos and goodbyes. Because there is a page with all the animals and the boy opposite and finally the boy’s “hi” and the mom’s “good-bye” to the reader, perhaps the context is meant to be the animals’ greeting one another training the boy to greet his mother in his own tongue, but that’s hazy at best. There’s just no way to know the meaning behind the sounds, and that disappoints me, but the colors are bright and the illustrations welcoming.

**

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Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

The illustrator, Holly Clifton-Brown, deserves especial commendation for this book. I like to think that the author was in on the wonderful diversity that the illustrator slipped into the background of the story, but I have no proof. Diverse ethnicities and diverse family situations are slipped quietly rather than obtrusively into the story, making it a more enjoyable read, and making the diversity seem less of an issue to be dealt with, as can happen when an author is too “preachy,” and more “normal” and acceptable.  Though an issue book, this did not read as one.

The story focuses on Stella and her two fathers. Minor characters include a boy with two mothers of two races and a boy raised by his grandmother while his mother is away at war, as well as families of a mom and a dad. The students are all of varying ethnicities. I’m glad the publishing world was ready for this book.

Using the dilemma of whom a girl with two dads should invite to a class Mother’s Day party, Schiffer discusses the normality of a family of two dads, how there’s still someone to kiss boo-boos and read bedtime stories and pack lunches and all the rest. Stella does not feel badly for having no mother in her life. She realizes that she has a wide family who act as her mother. Her solution, suggested by a friend, is to invite her whole family to the party, since they all act as her mother.

The story leaves an opening for continuation with the mention of Father’s Day and in the background of Stella’s happiness the boy with two mothers beginning to wonder whom he will invite to that party.

*****

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Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2003. First published 1959.

I have found the source of that oft quoted, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Pop-ups add a spark of extra fun and excitement to this board book. This is a book really meant to be gifted and really only meant to be read once a year, and that is a sad thing, because it would be an inspiring anthem any day of the year. I appreciate this book more when separated from its title. The board book is abridged and less often mentions the festivities as birthday celebrations and makes it more universal; I actually prefer the abridged book over the original for its universality. Dr. Seuss’ rhymes always elicit a smile.

Maybe it’s not fair to rate Dr. Seuss (I couldn’t possibly give him a poor rating), but I feel as if this abridgement and pop-up deserves at least:

****

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Uh-Oh Octopus! by Elle van Lieshout and Erik van Os and illustrated by Mies van Hout. Lemniscaat USA, 2014.

The illustrations caught me on this one. Every page is beautiful and bright with rare realism. Every review I’ve read and even the descriptions posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble highlight the illustrations over the story.

I happened to flip the book open first to the last page, which got my feminist hackles up. So then I naturally had to read the story to see if my rage would be justified. Was it? I wasn’t entirely soothed, but I think it more just an odd little story than divisive propaganda. The story is this: The little octopus has a sweet pad in the reef, but one day comes home to find a too-big invader, its powerful, scaled tail sticking out of the entrance and its head hidden inside of Octopus’ home. The octopus runs away and asks all of the sea creatures for advice on getting rid of the invader, but Octopus is not comfortable taking any of the advice that they give. Ultimately, after he hears a mysterious voice asking what he would do, he goes to politely ask the invader to leave his home. The invader explains that it’s been stuck in the octopus’ cave for some time and asks for help freeing itself. Octopus again begs the help of the other sea creatures, and they free the invader, who turns out to be a classically beautiful mermaid. “‘Oh,’ Octopus blushe[s]. ‘If I’d only known you were a lady!  That’s different!’”  I don’t think the author intends to say that women or that beautiful women or that anyone to whom you’re attracted ought to be treated differently–certainly that’s not the book’s primary moral–but those messages could be found in that line.  Interspecies relationships are less taboo in picture books, but it still struck me as an odd ending and poorly worded as it did elicit that spark of feminist fury when read out of context. As a Dutch import, I am a little more willing to be lenient as well, expecting the book to either have been translated from its original language (and so putting the fault on the translator) or having been written in the author’s second language.

The illustrations deserve at least four stars. The story itself… maybe two, so:

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: The House of Hades Asks Readers to Rethink

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This review contains MAJOR spoilers.

It was a long wait for The House of Hades, fourth in The Heroes of Olympus, the sequel series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan.  The third book, The Mark of Athena, left our heroes literally plunging to a fate worse than death, and it didn’t seem likely that a rescue was possible without death or the sacrifice of someone to that worse than death fate.

Given all that, I was pleasantly surprised by the comparatively happy ending of The House of Hades.

Frank’s and Jason’s characters are greatly built up in this latest novel, as is Percy’s.  Riordan questions as he never has before the morality of the demigods’ way of life, killing to survive and drawing black-and-white battle lines, where all monsters are bad (Percy Jackson and the Olympians has previously questioned if all demigods are good).  Tartarus’ description never failed to be appropriately terrifying and disgusting.  Leo’s story is given a sharp plot twist, that I think has all of us cheering for him.

[The major spoilers begin here.]  The big story around The House of Hades is likely to be Nico’s revealed sexual orientation.  Riordan has said that Nico’s non-heterosexual orientation arose organically, that the character told him rather than Riordan telling Nico—and that’s as it should be; I’m pleased to hear it.  Though I recognize that Rowling revealed Dumbledore’s sexual orientation because she was prompted by a fan’s question and because to do so showed her support for LGBT community and because it did not effect her plot, doing so did not effect the plot or explain any actions that otherwise seemed out-of-character (I would have believed—and do believe—that Dumbledore’s instinct would not have been to kill Grindelwald, even if he and Grindelwald had never loved one another, and I did not question why it took so long for Dumbledore to confront Grindelwald because it didn’t effect the present plotline).  Revealing Nico’s sexual preference within the contexts of the plot, I am more open to hearing about it.  It reveals more about Nico’s prickly hesitation to try to belong or to become close to anyone.

But Riordan did not continue (or has not yet continued) along the plot trail as far as I wanted him to do (for the sake of good storytelling not because it is pleasant).

I have a greater understanding of the term “head canon” than I perhaps ever had before.  Nico’s distrust because of his sexual orientation and his fear that he will be rejected for it ought to be worse for him than for any other character who could reveal himself to be of a LGBT orientation because he is a child of World War II Europe.  Had it been any other character with the exception of Hazel, they would have been children of the 1990s.  Growing up and coming to realize that they were attracted to the same gendered characters, they might have feared bullying and social isolation, but in the 1930s and 1940s, had Nico not been whisked away to America and to the Lotus Hotel, he would have had to fear being dragged from his house and thrust into a crowded railcar.  He’d have had to fear forced labor, unethical scientific experimentation, gas chambers….  And this is why Nico’s painful confession, dragged out of him against his will through taunting, necessity, magic, and a beating, hurt me so much.

In my head canon, Hades, being a god, knew and took Nico away from Europe and away from his half-brother, Adolf Hitler, because he couldn’t bear to have one son kill another and wanted to protect Nico—because Hades really has seemed to be a surprisingly compassionate and present parent.

Many people have also been lauding the burgeoning of new powers in Hazel and Piper, both sorcerous.  While interested in the power to bend the Mist, I actually felt that very little was done with their characters this book.  I think partially because Piper’s and Hazel’s new powers are of a similar vein, I had a difficult time keeping the two of them distinct from one another.  Also, sorcery has often been viewed negatively in Greek mythology and within Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus, and while I don’t think it is Riordan’s intention to any way create negative associations for Piper or Hazel, I worry that I could academically argue that he has done so by making them both sorceresses in the vein of Circe, Medea, Pasiphaë (all villains in both Riordan’s series and most of mythological stories), and even Hecate, a minor goddess who had previously sided with the Titans.

I’m also very interested in the revelation that Greek and Roman may not be determined by birth, that a side can be chosen.  I think that that will have a major effect on the whole of the plot—and probably Jason ought to have revealed what he has learned about the definition of Greek and Roman to Reyna before they parted ways again so that she could reveal it to the Greeks and Romans in America—though I totally understand why he did not.  How does one casually tell a friend that one has decided to disown one’s race to identify with another race with which one’s birth race is currently at war?  Will deciding to identify as a child of Greece rather Rome affect Jason’s powers or personality?  I think not.

Peppered with the usual Riordan humor and plenty of “Perceabeth” moments, this was a well-paced novel, still not as breakneck as The Percy Jackson series, but more quickly paced than The Mark of Athena.

****1/4

Riordan, Rick.  The Heroes of Olympus, Book Four: The House of Hades.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2013.

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