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Project Intentional Reading: January Checkin

As I mentioned, my goals this year include monthly requirements intended to diversify my reading. January is done, and it was a resounding success.

#OwnVoices

The first category I dove into was #OwnVoices, that is, stories written about characters of some minority background, by authors of that background. January’s Own Voices read fulfilled both my own reading goal and a work challenge.if-i-was-your-girl

Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl is a young adult novel following protagonist Amanda Hardy as she adjusts to a new school, makes friends, and falls in love. She’s also transgender. Now, I tend to like YA problem novels, filled with angst and feels… and this… wasn’t. It was a sweet story of friendship and first love that didn’t ignore the threats facing trans women, but it also didn’t focus on the angst. I was pleasantly surprised by this, heartened that a book like this exists for teens who may previously have not seen their experiences reflected in novels, or perhaps worse, only seen them cast in the light of tragedy.

 

 

New or Forthcoming

when-dimple-met-rishiBookRiot lists are dangerous for my to-read list, and this list of “Faces of Color on 2017 YA Books” made my to-read pile explode. From this list, I was able to get Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, courtesy of Eidelweiss. It doesn’t come out until May 30 of this year, but I can’t wait to squee over it with other readers when it does. The story deals with a topic that I haven’t seen much in YA lit—that of two Indian-American teens whose parents try to throw them together in an arranged marriage. Needless to say, this does not go over well with heroine Dimple, who faces uphill battle enough being taken seriously as an aspiring STEM professional without her overbearing mother focusing on her marriageability; Rishi is more open to the suggestion, old-fashioned and romantic without being conservative. The “arranged marriage” conceit may raise some eyebrows, but Dimple’s consternation at it will quickly draw in sympathy, and the day-to-day concerns of their shared summer program project are familiar ground for the genre. I did find myself wishing the secondary characters had been a bit better developed, but on the whole, this book left me smiling.

Non-typical Genre

true-gritOf all the categories, this one had me dragging my feet the worst, and really, it was my own fault, locking myself into what exact book it had to be. My library’s winter reading program theme this year is books-to-movies, so I decided to read Charles Portis’s True Grit for both the program and this category, since westerns are emphatically Not In My Wheelhouse. I’d started listening to the audio book a few years ago and got maybe halfway done, so this was going to be the year I did it, I vowed. And… it was pretty good. I don’t really like westerns, but I do love stories with fierce female protagonists, and Mattie Ross has moxie in spades. Her droll, driven voice made this revenge quest quite enjoyable, and I’m glad I got back around to it.

 

That was month one of my personal reading challenge done. February is well under way, though again, I find myself flying through #OwnVoices and New/Forthcoming categories and balking at atypical genre, so I think that area needs a bit more effort on my part.

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Review: All the Feels

Summer 2002 was significant to me for being the year Seether’s Disclaimer came out and waiting for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to come out. I spent hours upon hours listening to that album and diving full in to the fandom life; Livejournal and Fiction Alley were lifelines to this homeschooled and very socially sheltered then-teen. I wrote fan fiction, reviewed it, and made friends through it, some of whom are still part of my life today. I know the joys and anguish of fandom firsthand, the anticipation of a new installment and the disappointment when things didn’t quite go as you hoped they would.

So I’m pretty comfortable saying that Danika Stone’s All the Feels really gets the fandom allthefeelslife. Protagonist Liv is heartbroken when Spartan, the hero of her favorite sci fi franchise, is cruelly killed off in the most recent movie. After grieving with her friends and denying it through AU (alternate universe) fanfiction, and with the prompting of a fortune cookie fortune, she decides to do something about it. With the help of her best friend, the debonair and typically steampunk-clad Xander, Liv launches a series of fan videos suggesting that Spartan lives, in hopes of creating a grassroots movement to bring back Spartan. Life is not all fandom, though, and through this, she struggles to balance school and fandom and dating and all the stress of being a college freshman.

Honestly, I could probably review this story with one word: SQUEE! I think I smiled my way through the whole story, rooting for Liv and Xander and nodding in agreement at the sense of community depicted in fandom. Nerdom has become, one might almost say, mainstream in recent years with the popularity of Big Bang Theory and new Marvel blockbusters every few months, but I haven’t seen fandom depicted this well since Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (another squee-worthy book I adored). Fandom isn’t for everyone, and Stone could have shied away from how encompassing it can be—on the one hand, it is a large portion of Liv’s social life, but on the other, she can and does let it consume her life to the detriment of academics, forming one of the important conflicts of the story.

And I have to give a shout-out to the relationships in this book as well. At the beginning of the book, Xander does have a girlfriend, Arden, who could easily be painted negatively. And she isn’t. Arden is largely peripheral as it becomes clear that she and Xander are not long for coupledom, but she’s fundamentally nice, even helping set Liv up on blind dates after a crush on a classmate ends in disappointment. The depiction of women not tearing down other women is important, and feminist, and I love when that happens in stories, especially romances. The eventual romantic relationship of Liv and Xander grows very slowly and naturally out of friendship, which is a romance trope I appreciate. (And yes, ladies, there are cute nerds out there with dashing social graces—I married one of them… #sorrynotsorry)

Overall, I loved All the Feels, but I did have a couple issues with it. It seemed to straddle the line between young adult and new adult; my library at least classified it as YA, and the way the story scales back the intensity of a few certain scenes suggests YA marketing, but I think this was much richer as a new adult story, and I wish it could have more fully inhabited that space. I want to see a wider variety of new adult stories beyond hook-up stories, and if they’re nerd-positive in addition, even better. One scene I really enjoyed was the blind-date sequence initiated after Liv’s crush on classmate Hank ends in disappointment—because she never really dated when she was younger, Liv’s expectations of romance were dashed at the first disappointment, but Xander and Arden help her to learn the dating process as a series of meetings better meant to help her determine what she does want for herself. Hell, some adults still haven’t learned that skill; it’s an important one, and it was handled with the right amount of awkwardness and humor that rang true to life. I want more of this sort of storytelling, please, publishers; perhaps I’ll have to start writing some of it myself.

Hand a copy of this to anyone you know who secretly or not-so-secretly ever wrote fanfiction. Gift it to the Browncoat in your life still mad about only getting one season of Firefly. Hand it to your wistful romantic of a friend. Give it to the new college grad who is still puzzling through what it means to be an adult. And if any of these criteria fit you, then get thee to a library or bookstore and snag a copy for yourself.

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Review: The Raven Boys

I am not, by and large, a cynical reader—I dive into most books with an expectation of being reasonably entertained, and generally, I am. Occasionally, a book blows me away—Code Name Verity is the last book that I recall that did—but now I can add Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys to that list. When the last page was done, I just sat back and basked in the ride it took me on. By blurb alone, I probably would not have picked this book up, but people I trust kept saying I should, and I’m thankful for them. Continue reading

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Thoughts from Teen Lit class

Teen Materials has been one of the drool-inducing classes I’ve been looking forward to in my program of study. One look at the class goals, including the aim of giving students a better understanding of and appreciation for young adult (YA) materials told me I would be in for an enjoyable semester. And so far it is.

But.

The other day, instead of picking back up the beautiful coming-of-age story I should have been reading, I found myself with this thought: “Man, I just want to read a fluffy romance novel. One of the several I have checked out already, maybe.”

This reaction puzzled me at first, since this semester’s readings are full of materials that have been on my to-read list already or in a couple cases were things I already read and loved. Then a part of me wondered whether my impulse to read heteronormative romances had anything to do with this week’s focus on LGBTQ themes. But, again, back to the fundamental truth that these are titles I wanted to read already. Of course, there’s also the possibility of good old-fashioned stubbornness, that somebody making me do something is less enjoyable than doing it on my own; that one I can’t entirely rule out, but I was a pretty good English major, so I do know how to make myself buckle down and read.

Then it hit me: I’ve been reading a lot of YA literature these last couple months, between class and a city-wide library initiative for staff to read as much juvenile and YA materials as possible to improve our readers advisory in those areas. As one coworker used to joke at the end of the challenge, “I feel like I’ve come of age enough times, thank you very much.”

And there I had it: what makes YA literature so rich is also what makes it heavy sometimes–coming of age, figuring out who you are vs who you’re expected to be, railing against a world that seems and is fundamentally unfair–that’s heavy stuff. I care about (most of) the characters whose journeys I immerse myself in (I will vent no more about a certain novel rife with First-World Problems). Sometimes those journeys involve post-apocalyptic or dystopic settings. Sometimes it’s cancer. Other times, it’s navigating the waters of friendships. Or relationships. Or sexuality. Or religion. Or tough moral choices. Of course, the stories are rarely about just one of those things; after all, sometimes a story wrapped in vampire wrapping paper can really be about navigating the waters of friendships in the wake of growing up. Or a book about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can actually be about an eating disorder.

Fundamentally, growing up is hard. Yeah, it makes for rich stories, but boy it can get heavy sometimes. While I can immerse myself in the pages and care about the characters, there’s no guarantee that things will be “Okay? Okay” for them. I’m glad for the opportunity to read such a cross-section of materials, but I think the desire for something with a pat, guaranteed happily ever after is not so amiss amidst this YA-heavy few months of reading.

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Review: Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls

Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls, Mary Downing Hahn

In 1955, YA author Mary Downing Hahn’s town was rocked by the violent murder of two girls she knew. The murders went unsolved, and the incident haunted her for years afterwards. Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is her fictional exploration of the event and its aftermath.

When the story opens in 1956, it’s with a party the night before, a joyous end-of-school-year-beginning-of-summer celebration with teenagers sneaking off to do the things teenagers have always been told not to do—drinking, smoking, fooling around. Nora, Ellie, Cheryl, and Bobbi Jo are there with friends, never suspecting the events to come. The next morning, Cheryl and Bobbi Jo are shot on their way to school, and nothing will be the same after. Buddy, Cheryl’s ex-boyfriend, is brought in for questioning and cleared of the crime, but never can escape the stigma or suspicion. Nora, through whom most of the story is narrated, is the only person who believes his innocence, while she struggles to reconcile the pat answers given by her Catholic faith with the horrible events that have altered everything.

At first blush, the novel seems like it should be the set-up for a suspense novel. It opens with the perspective of “Mister Death,” as the killer dubs himself, planning his crime. Readers hoping for more of that suspense will be disappointed, as the focus is on the aftermath. Instead, it is firmly a novel of young adult themes—trying to understand the world when everything has been violently altered. Even as she grieves for her friends who will never grow old and experience life, Nora also tries to figure out what comes next after high school, whether she is damned for her lapsing faith, whether she wants to kiss a boy when the timing seems right, what to do about friendships that are fading with distance and the avoidance of painful shared memories. She feels authentic.

Hahn also explores other characters through diary entries and separate viewpoint chapters, providing a panoramic view. While pop culture and fashion references place the story firmly in the 1950s, the themes resonate in a world still shaken by violent events that leave people wondering “why?” In that sense, it tells an unfortunately timeless story.

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Review: Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood, Marcus SedgwickIt is my great delight to review Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood, not only because it is the 2014 Printz Award winner for excellence in YA literature, but because it is the first book in a long while that I am reading solely for my own enjoyment, not for an assignment. Ahhhh, can you hear that luxurious sigh?

The book opens in 2073 with journalist Eric Seven flying to Blessed Island to write a feature about this mysterious place where people are said to live forever, the result of a particularly potent orchid. There, he meets Merle and falls in love with her at first sight, but the island keeps its secrets, and a sacrifice must be made; as he is pinned down on a sacrificial altar, Eric realizes he’s experienced this before. From then on, each section of Midwinterblood travels backwards through time, from WWII to the 10th century to the earliest days of the island, simply designated as “time unknown,” revealing the very first lifetime and death that began it all.

For a love story that transcends the barriers of time and death, Midwinterblood is darker than might initially seem. Blood sacrifice, famine, infertility, and betrayal fill the pages. Yet the writing itself is lyrical and haunting and, in its way, lovely. Each section is written slightly differently, whether from a different point of view or even through chapter conventions, yet they all come together seamlessly, woven with recurring characters and motifs to provide continuity. That continuity is an amazing feat in a story that begins like science fiction, detours through WWII, and involves both Vikings and a vampire.

Midwinterblood has vivid, visceral imagery that will linger long after the book is closed, but the journey there is a fast one with very short chapters that keep the pages turning and characters that don’t feel as young as other young adult protagonists, making this a good crossover for adult readers. The closest blend of haunting, weird, and dark I’ve read has probably been Patrick Ness’s More Than This, another excellent YA novel.

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Review: Grave Mercy

Two word: assassin nun. I know, I know. It sounds like one of those mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Amish vampires, but Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, first of the YA His Fair Assassins trilogy, actually makes this strange pairing work.

Set in a fantasy version of 15th century Brittany, Grave Mercy follows 17-year-old Ismae, daughter of Mortain (Death) Himself, who is rescued from an arranged marriage with a much older man and given refuge in a convent dedicated to Saint Mortain. There, she learns the art of carrying out Mortain’s will through the arts of poison, weapons, and much to her consternation, seduction. Fortunately, she has friends in fellow initiates Annith and Sybella. Ismae takes to her education eagerly, excited to prove herself when the opportunity arises. For her third mission, however, she’s going to have to learn patience and the ways of court intrigue in order to figure out who is betraying Duchess Anne. Fortunately, or perhaps not so fortunately, she is assigned to pose as the mistress of Gavriel Duval to gather intelligence and navigate the social labyrinth—but what happens when the charade gives way to something more, and she is torn between her duties and her heart?

I have to say, the cover art made me intrigued enough to pick this up: it features a young woman in a Game-of-Thrones-esque red dress holding a cross bow with a castle in the background, with the question “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” written across the top. With its fantasy-like cover and promise of ass-kicking protagonist, I gave it a shot. Its premise of a protagonist serving as Death’s handmaiden was an enticing one, and the tools at Ismae’s disposal were delightful, ranging from a headpiece with poisoned pearls to a bracelet containing a thin garrote to a crossbow small enough to slip beneath her dress and, of course, the requisite daggers and stilettos tucked about her person.

Of course, the brutality of the weaponry is only matched by the machinations of court. In a world where even the highest-born woman can be bartered off in marriage for political gains, Ismae clings to the rare opportunity for power Mortain’s covenant provides her. Naturally, she is out of her element when her own feelings develop, but I was expecting that, and while such plot developments usually annoy me, this one didn’t, perhaps because the world-building and intrigues were fascinating enough to compensate, though I would have enjoyed seeing a bit more of her friendships with her fellow initiates. I did, however, love seeing her growth from naïve pawn to independent agent.

This is not necessarily going to be a good fit for all readers of young adult fiction; first and foremost, it is a book targeted toward female readers, between the significant romance subplot and the occasionally heavy-handed empowered-girl theme. Readers of fantasy will enjoy this one; indeed, unlike many readers, they will hardly blink at the 500-page-plus commitment. It is suspenseful and dramatic though not always fast-paced, and readers hoping for a lot of breakneck action and violent deaths will be disappointed as Ismae learns to wait and when to provide mercy.

The fantasy-historical feel to the book reminded me of Cynthia Voight’s novels of The Kingdom, and the premise of a young woman trying to find her own way in a hostile world that affords her few rights reminded me of Sheryl Jordan’s The Raging Quiet. For readers who want more of LaFevers’ world, the second book of the trilogy, Dark Triumph, follows Sybella, and the conclusion, Mortal Heart, centered on Annith, is due to be released in November of this year.

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Review: Mockingjay

Readers and non-readers alike are now familiar with Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, and even non-readers are probably familiar with the events of the second book, Catching Fire thanks to the movie. Mockingjay brings the trilogy to its conclusion.

Peeta has done what he does best—protect Katniss, and as a cost, he has been captured by Capitol forces. Katniss, between the trauma of two Hunger Games and not being able to save Peeta, is a broken shell of herself. Meanwhile, safe behind rebel lines, she finds herself once again used as a political chess piece, this time by the rebel forces who want her to become their Mockingjay, the symbol that will ignite the flames of revolution. But will Katniss be content to be somebody else’s pawn? Or is she too broken to care anymore?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. This is the first time I actually finished reading it, having previously started it and then wandered away from it due to a slow start. Katniss is not terribly likeable in the beginning; she is understandably upset, but it’s difficult to reconcile the proactive “I volunteer as tribute” Katniss with shell-shocked “I should be dead” Katniss. The love triangle persists in the earlier part of the book as well, and I found it frustrating to see our protagonist send such mixed messages and then get upset when others are confused by the signals.

And then, right around a third of the way into the book, it got better—though certainly no lighter. I have to give YA authors credit when they let their works go to dark places where characters are in danger and nobody’s happy ending is assured. There’s a weariness to the rest of the book as choices are made and consequences follow. Terrible things happen in war, and some good people die, while others make decisions that are morally questionable in the name of the greater good.

I’m honestly not sure how they’re going to translate some of the material into the movies (yes, every YA-based movie adaptation must now apparently end with the final book being split in two). I can guess where they might make the break, but I question whether they will be able convey some of the events without significantly lessening the horror of what transpires to maintain an appropriate rating.

Obviously, Collins’ trilogy is probably the most well-known of the YA dystopic fiction trend, but if there are still any newcomers to the genre or series, they should start at the beginning with The Hunger Games (the strongest installment by far) before jumping in with this volume. The closest read-alike to come to mind is Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, with another strong female lead and a movie adaptation due out later this month. For further dystopic picks, I recommend perusing Goodreads’ YA Dystopia list; with over 500 entries, there should be something for every taste.

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