Showing posts with label young adult. Show all posts
Showing posts with label young adult. Show all posts

Monday, February 11, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi | Review

I find myself, once again, at odds with the broader literary community.

It's exhausting, isn't it? You must be saying to yourself: "Why do I even bother to read this book blog, when all the writer ever does is muse about her inability to agree with most readers about whether or not a book is good? (When she even bothers to write at all!) Isn't it obvious that she's just not a very good reader?" And, dear reader of this blog, I wouldn't blame you for a moment if you packed your bags and left these dusty halls forever. Believe me, I'm just as exasperated as you are.

The case of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone feels a little bit more complicated than most of my recent literary disagreements. To begin with, I did generally enjoy the book! I thought there were a lot of things it did fairly brilliantly, and I enjoyed many aspects of its mythology a great deal. But as I read it, I was repeatedly struck by a rather curious sensation that I was not reading something particularly... original.

If you're rolling your eyes now and declaring me to be an absolute fool, it's okay. I understand. After all, Adeyemi's young adult novel has been touted for its originality in rooting a fantasy story in West African mythology! And I don't deny that for a moment. The ways in which Adeyemi sidestepped the more common (and yes, at this point boring) Western European fantasy tropes was quite refreshing. It speaks to a boldness of storytelling. Yet it wasn't quite enough for me.

One of my favorite book blogs, The Book Smugglers, write in their Goodreads review that Children of Blood and Bone is "a superb, exciting, astonishing mix of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Black Panther". It's the sort of endorsement that should really set my blood pulsing. I have my issues with "Black Panther" as a film overall, but I loved the worldbuilding and the degree to which it played with different mythologies at its root. And I adore the show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (ATLA).

Perhaps if I had read this review before reading Children of Blood and Bone, it would have more positively shaped my impression. Ultimately, I agree with half of the Book Smugglers' assessment: Children of Blood and Bone most definitely could feel like the lovechild of ATLA and "Black Panther", and it is precisely this that made me rate the novel that much lower.


It occurred relatively early in the book. As the narrative settled down and three POV were introduced, I was struck by several seemingly superficial similarities between Children of Blood and Bone and ATLA. We have a brother and sister from a persecuted class, in which the sister has a previously untouched form of magic and the brother is magic-less. We have a princess with a powerful artifact joining the siblings (quickly becoming a love interest for the brother). And we have her brother, the prince, hell-bent on chasing these three fugitives across a wide swathe of land in order to capture them, though his motivations may actually be more pure than previously believed... or maybe not. Oh, and the trio have to achieve their highly specific goal to restore balance... er, I mean magic... on the date of a celestial eclipse. Which is in less than a month!


With the exception of the princess, does this sound a bit familiar?


Like the Book Smugglers, my first thought was instantly of ATLA. The similarities to the story felt so pronounced that I could quickly guess how the story was panning out. In fact, it even ruined certain plot points for me because I could so easily figure out what they were supposed to be. For an "original" story, Children of Blood and Bone simply felt like a West African inspired version of ATLA, though perhaps a little bit more grown-up. Unfortunately, comparisons to ATLA will rarely end well for the piece of art in question - ATLA is one of the rare shows that works on a stunning range of levels. Few stories have quite reached its caliber, fewer still that attempted to mimic it too strongly.


Children of Blood and Bone does a lot of good things in its pages. Its exploration of racist power structures is obviously important, and there is no doubt that there's a lot to enjoy in the way Adeyemi crafts her world. I was also particularly impressed by her decision to include a meta-question about whether or not magic is inherently good and should be brought back. In the second half of the book, characters are confronted with both the importance and danger of magic. The lingering question remains, with little in the way of an easy answer or neat solution. In fact, the cliffhanger ending almost seems to emphasize the question. And when magic is so clearly linked to ethnicity and cultural expression, doesn't its suppression inherently mean the oppression of those who have it? These are interesting questions that fantasy too rarely explores, particularly when magic is a weak stand-in for real-world prejudices.


In other aspects, unfortunately, Children of Blood and Bone just falls apart. First and foremost, as I already mentioned, the story didn't feel original to me. The overwhelming similarities to ATLA (just swap the roles of a couple characters and you're good!) had me rolling my eyes, rather than delighting in the story as an homage. It's possible that this is simply my own, unfair jaded reading, but I couldn't shake off the feeling the entire time I was reading and I grew tired of constantly comparing certain creative choices with those that so neatly aligned with those from ATLA. It also left me cold whenever the book did diverge, because it felt like too little too late. At the end of the day, it felt too familiar, and not in a way that gave me warm, nostalgic vibes. (Maybe if I had seen ATLA as a child and not as an adult just a few years ago...?) 


It's not just that, though. The book also does a fairly bad job as distinguishing the voices of its three POV characters. Our magical Avatar stand-in (or rather, Aang-Katara mix), Zélie, doesn't sound all that different from her fierce enemy-later-love-interest (Zutara wish-fulfillment...?) Inan, nor from his sister Amari. I often forgot whose chapter I was reading until a reference to one of the other characters clarified it for me, and that is not the way POVs should work. The characters had such distinct character traits, yet they ended up feeling so similar on the page.


And there's also the writing.

Or rather. The melodrama of the story.

The way every line of moderate importance gets its own punchy paragraph.

But then these are quickly followed by more punchy paragraphs.

The chapters are short and dominated by writing of this style. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with punchy chapter-ends as a concept. I actually kind of love them as a way to build drama. I rather write that way myself, with all my sentences that begin with "but"! But... the insistence on having so many dramatic pauses and paragraph breaks left me tired. It felt like I was reading a book that simply hadn't been edited properly. Rather than feeling focused and tight, every chapter felt like it lost some sort of thread as it tried to sound more and more dramatic.

If it sounds as though I'm being unduly harsh on Children of Blood and Bone, I... don't really mean to be. It's not a bad book! But it's also not as great a book as I was hoping. Even setting aside ostensibly personal things like the ATLA comparison (which is clearly very subjective, since different fans had different reactions to the degree of similarities), I was deeply bothered by the way the romances were written. I thought the pacing was rushed (largely due to the compressed time-scale the book had to work with). I struggled with the writing in many parts. But I also liked a lot, which left me feeling almost more disappointed. I was looking forward to this book more than almost any other recent YA, yet even something so universally acclaimed let me down somehow. Children of Blood and Bone may simply emerge as another example of hype not bearing out, but considering the praise, it's hard not to wonder at this point what is wrong with me specifically.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

WITMonth Day 26 | 10 Recommended Kids and YA Books


Literature in translation is, alas, too often associated with stuffy, long, pretentious novels by dead Russian men, and as something uniquely mature. But what most readers don't realize is that many childhood classics from around the world actually do get translated and shared, even in English! Children are not lacking for any literature in translation, whether it's picture books, chapter books, or YA epics. While most of the translated literature by women writers has thus far come out of Europe, there is still plenty from around the world as well. Let's dive in.

  1. Maresi - Maria Turtschaninoff (tr. from Finnish Swedish by A. A. Prime): A dark but ultimately optimistic YA fantasy that marks the beginning of a fiercely feminist series.
  2. Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren (tr. from Swedish by Florence Lamborn, among others): The children's classic full of adventure and excitement continues to charm and delight children to this day, without them even realizing its original language isn't English!
  3. Samir and Yonatan - Daniella Carmi (tr. from Hebrew by Yael Lotan): Two boys - Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish - in a children's hospital begin to form a friendship in the shadow of Middle Eastern conflicts of the 1990s.
  4. Tomorrow - Nadine Kaadan (tr. from Arabic by the author): The story of how a child sees war around him and live on. (Expected publication: September 1st, 2018)
  5.  The Happiness of Kati - Jane Vejjajiva (tr. from Thai by Prudence Borthwick): A girl comes to terms with her absent mother's advancing illness, while finding her own path to happiness.
  6. Wonderful Feels Like This - Sara Lövestam (tr. from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg): A music-loving teen befriends an elderly former jazz player, as their stories unfold side-by-side.
  7. Moriboto: Guardian of the Spirit - Nahoko Uehashi (tr. from Japanese by Cathy Hirono): A prince, his bodyguard, and a hero's journey, wrapped up in mythology and subversive gender roles.
  8. Inkheart - Cornelia Funke (tr. from German by Anthea Bell): The magic of books literally comes alive in a swashbuckling, fantastical series.
  9. An Elephantasy - María Elena Walsh (tr. from Spanish by Daniel Hahn): No adventure can manage to not be whimsical when an elephant is involved!
  10. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow - Faïza Guène (tr. from French by Sarah Adams): A cynical teenager comes of age in the suburbs of Paris, struggling to understand her place in the world.
It's important to note that this list was also very difficult to compile, and that for a field allegedly "dominated by women", children's and YA literature in translation remain sadly almost as imbalanced as adult literature when it comes to women writers. Kidlit and YA are critical in normalizing the existence not only of literature in translation as a concept, but also in allowing children and young adults to experience worlds utterly different from their own... but also the same! In the same way that kids "need diverse books", kids also need books that reflect the wonderful range and diversity of the whole world (and not just one language).

I've left off a few of the big ones here (Heidi, the Moomins...), but what else do you think is missing? What are your favorite kidlit or YA books written by women in translation? And if you read in languages other than English as well, what kidlit/YA books from your native language by a woman writer would you like to see translated into different languages?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WITMonth Day 13 | Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

There was something instantly familiar and comfortable about Maresi.

I can't say what it was. I went into Maria Turtschaninoff's young adult fantasy (tr. A. A. Prime) knowing that the book was ostensibly a feminist-minded novel, and I couldn't help but be intrigued right off the bat. I also knew that the story takes place on a woman-only island, a sort of feminist utopia.

I didn't think of it at the time, but it seems that my mind must have subconsciously begun to call back to older feminist fantasy novels I read as a teen. Books like Marion Zimmer Bradley's novels (particularly The Mists of Avalon series) or Tamora Pierce's Tortall books. This, at least, is what happened once I started reading: I was instantly sucked into Maresi's world and found myself completely emotionally invested. Maresi - despite a fairly simple, at times more childish writing style than I was expecting - is exactly the sort of fantasy book I used to drink like water as a preteen. The characters are sharply drawn, the world is rich and easily called to mind, and the magic is present but lurking just beneath the surface.

Suffice to say: I really enjoyed Maresi.

It's not just nostalgia. Sure, there's a healthy heap of that too (who doesn't want more Tamora Pierce-like feminist fantasy novels?!), but it's mostly about the story that Maresi herself tells and the powerful message Turtschaninoff conveys about women and women's place in the world. Not only does The Red Abbey Chronicles create this pleasantly evocative little utopia, it also addresses why it's needed. Unlike many gritty, masculine fantasies that reference the subjugation of women as an afterthought, Turtschaninoff explicitly references the struggles that women - and more specifically young girls - go through. Women are abused, attacked, raped, sold off... and the Red Abbey provides a safe haven for them. Other women provide a safe haven for young girls.

In this sense, this is honest YA. The story is bluntly uncomfortable in parts, but it's never dark for the sake of being dark, and it's never painful. Maresi as a narrator frequently highlights the good moments, even as she struggles with the darkness that has come to invade her home. There is a warmth and strength in her voice that I immediately connected with, though again, I did find the writing to be a tad bit simplified in a way that didn't always match the story. The story is fairly predictable, but it also isn't really trying not to be. It works, somehow, in the same way that Tamora Pierce's early books (specifically the Lioness quartet) don't really need overly complex plotting in order to feel wonderfully rich and interesting.

This probably won't be the book for everyone. While the fantasy elements are relatively limited (mostly through a religious lens, with the three-part Goddess effectively contributing to all of the magic), it's still very much a YA fantasy. That's part of what I loved about it, but I recognize that fantasy YA is not exactly a universally beloved genre. And yet. For those readers who do love fantasy, who want to explore diverse YA, who want their historical fantasies to have just a bit (or a lot!) more feminism to them, Maresi is the way to go. It's a great little book, the sort that left me hungry for more books from this world.

Luckily, the next book in the series has already been released...

Thursday, August 3, 2017

WITMonth Day 3 | Wonderful Feels Like This by Sara Lövestam

There's a reason I often crave more YA in translation. There's something about fiction that's a little simpler, a little cleaner and clearer and geared towards younger minds, that comes stripped of a lot of the stylistic baggage that bogs down much of the high-brow "literature in translation". Whether a fair assessment or not, translated literature comes with a fairly heavy price-tag for most readers: the perception that the topics are heavy, the style is dense, and the reading experience bleak. Others still associate translated literature with those old classics, dusty and decaying on the shelf.

Wonderful Feels Like This - with its bright yellow cover and bright confetti splashed all over - seems a perfect antidote to readers who don't care for the heavier style. It's also a lovely, if at times awkward little YA novel, part historical fiction and part contemporary coming-of-age. For readers deterred by translation - particularly for younger readers seeking titles that might be a bit more relatable - Wonderful Feels Like This is a pretty nice starting point. Not the greatest contemporary YA you'll read this year, in all likelihood, but not an embarrassing addition to the collection either. A solid, pleasant, and interesting book that carries with it an important message: it's possible for YA to cross borders without anything getting lost.

In Wonderful Feels Like This, author Sara Lövestam (translated from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg) explores pretty standard YA topics. Main character Steffi is an outcast with a deep love of music, struggling to get by at her small-town school and trying to forge her own path. She is persistently bullied by the girls at her school (and at home, by her older sister), often uncomfortable in her own skin, and isn't really sure about many aspects of her own identity. But Steffi loves music - writing music, listening to music, talking about music.

The book dives into the story immediately - one day on her way home from school, Steffi hears the sounds of her favorite jazz musician playing. This is the novel's "meet-cute", in which Steffi is introduced to the elderly Alvar (at his retirement home), a former jazz musician himself who begins detailing his history and story to the enraptured Steffi.

The stories then progress in an awkward sort of parallel, with Alvar's narration running alongside Steffi's attempts at navigating her fairly awful teenage experience. There are few thematic similarities between the two stories and at times it felt like Alvar's narrative crowded out Steffi's growth, but the stories work reasonably well. Honestly, at times it felt as though the story was actually better suited to the film medium: there's something very cinematic in the way both Steffi and Alvar's stories play out, and I can imagine a rather lovely adaptation.

As Alvar tells Steffi about his love of music and introduction into Stockholm's jazz music scene during World War 2, Steff herself is undergoing a different sort of growth. Rather than the dramatic goings on of the young Alvar, Steffi is dealing with commonplace school problems. She applies to high schools (including a music school in the city), she quietly tracks the desperate - and at times painful - messages her schoolyard nemesis sends her online alter-ego "Hepcat", she attempts to maneuver her family's assumptions that she's gay (which she doesn't really think about quite as much as they seem to), as well as a strained relationship with her older sister. These events occur fairly quickly - blink and you'll miss them - but they have a rather realistic, comfortable vibe to them too. Like I said: movie-like, with things shown and not necessarily fully developed.

I read Wonderful Feels Like This over one morning, pleased and charmed and entertained. It's truly a "feel-good" book, even as it raises difficult themes. It's not especially plot-heavy (focusing more on the characters and Alvar's backstory) and there were moments when I wished the story could have been a bit fuller, I found that I enjoyed the book a great deal. A sweet afternoon sort of read - the sort of book that leaves a pleasant taste in your mind.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

I was about 150 pages into The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas when a thought struck me: How many contemporary YA books had I read with a black protagonist? The mental list ran stunningly short, complicated by the realization that I had read significantly more historical fiction about young black teens than I have about today's. As well as significantly more literature about Latino, East Asian and Middle Eastern teens than black ones. This ended up framing a lot of how I kept reading THUG, with that constant question in the back of my mind if I could really accurately review a book that described a world I was only just getting to see.

So I will preface the remainder of this review with the reminder that as a non-black reader (and more specifically, a non-African American reader), there is a lot about THUG that is not really "about me". There's the added fact that as a "part-time" American (that is... someone who spent some of her childhood in the US, but grew up in predominantly Asian-American, Latino, and Jewish environments and has since lived her entire adult life in not-US), there are racial nuances from the past few years that I have only encountered secondhand or from stories. It ultimately means that there are multiple dimensions to THUG that I feel I cannot critically speak for.

But I can say what I thought of the book in spite of these limitations. Simply put: It was good.

My familiarity with American black culture is, as I've already mentioned, fairly limited: a handful of books, certain columnists and bloggers, several films by black women, and so on. This may seem like an unnecessary bit of information, but it actually became strikingly obvious once I started THUG: much of the slang was unfamiliar to me. After all, I'm not an African American teen, I'm an Israeli twenty-something who hasn't lived in the US in over a decade. This meant that it took me about two chapters to get into the rhythm of the writing, after which I was in.

Because again: THUG is a good book. It's sharp, it's timely (perhaps too timely, but I'll get to that in a moment), it's almost disturbingly nuanced, and it's wonderfully written. The book practically pulses - from the moment I got into the rhythm, there was simply no question as to whether I'd set the book down or keep reading. (Not-a-spoiler alert: I kept reading and finished the book just after midnight. Worth it.) Starr is a stellar YA narrator: mostly focused on herself, yes, but reflective enough and more importantly communicative enough that we grasp the world around her intuitively.

But what, you might ask, is THUG really about? Why is it "timely"? Why is it so buzzed right now?

THUG is about police violence, "Black Lives Matter", black culture and experiences, and more broadly what it means to be black in the modern US. Does that all sound a bit much? A bit grand, a bit heavy for a contemporary YA novel? It shouldn't - THUG isn't a difficult book. As someone who reads a lot of essays by young black writers about these issues, I can't even say that there was all that much new to THUG either. But... that doesn't mean it was fresh. And it doesn't mean it wasn't done very well.

THUG centers on Starr Carter, 16-years old and caught between her two worlds: her black "ghetto" neighborhood and her mostly-white prep school (complete with a white boyfriend and a white former-best-friend, as well as an Asian-American still-friend). The novel kicks off with Starr's old best friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a police officer... with Starr as the sole witness. From there, THUG explores many of the issues that inevitably emerge from these sorts of police shootings: media manipulations, the framing of the police officer as a "good guy" who just "wanted to get home safely to his family", Starr's problematic role as sole witness, the vilification of Khalil as a "drugdealer thug" who deserves what he got, the grand jury trial, protests, and so on.

THUG doesn't shy away from the complexities of this problem. While there is a distinct YA feel to the surrounding drama that Starr faces in her life (specifically her sense of belonging "between two worlds", boyfriend issues, friend issues, etc.), Thomas pulls no punches when it comes to addressing how deeply wrong many of the post-shooting narratives become. Starr frequently wonders to herself how it can be that the entire shooting has been reframed in such a way as to make the victim - an unarmed teenager who was simply driving home after a party - the villain who is on trial, while the perpetrator - an adult, trained police officer who shot an unarmed teenager three times - is cast as the victim. This refrain is of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that does not take away from its power in-text. In general, Starr emerges as a sort of proxy for many social justice ideas and concepts, but not in a way that crowds out any plot. Nor does it ever feel preachy. Starr is simply a sharp girl who rejects the social injustices around her and makes much of that rejection clear.

If I had to point to the novel's biggest flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that it will require footnotes in the future. Not simply for subtle (and sometimes not subtle) references to real-world victims of police shootings, but also for the way it's a story thrumming with modern culture. Starr does more than just talk about social media in the abstract - she specifically references certain websites and their unique social justice subcultures (Tumblr, mainly, though Black Twitter gets a few shout-outs too). While not inherently a bad thing (I have no problem with stories that embrace current technological trends, nor stories that are ostensibly "ripped from the headlines" or in other words culturally relevant), it gave me the feeling that the book will feel a tad bit dated in just a few years, which would just be a shame... This is the sort of book that should become part of the young adult literary canon, not simply as a "social justice" text, but also as an intelligent novel about what it means to be sixteen.

There are other minor quibbles too. I felt the book stumbled somewhat in its sidelining of Starr's friend Maya, whose Asian-ness only becomes relevant to Starr when it overlaps with her own experiences. For a novel that spends so much time drawing clear class-based racial lines (emphasizing the impact class differences have for black people), it felt odd that Thomas did not address the different ways class and race intersect for non-black marginalized groups. THUG would eventually recognize that Maya faces bias and bigotry herself, despite "belonging" to this "white world", but it felt oddly one-dimensional for a novel that lives and breathes in three. Obviously, this need not have been the focus of the novel - Thomas is specifically writing and examining black lives - but I found myself wishing it had been developed just a tiny bit more. This applies to Starr's occasionally binary thinking in regards to race/class as well, but these points are ultimately not the focus.

These issues are exceedingly irrelevant in the face of a novel that does two things remarkably well: THUG tells a story in rapid-fire, pulsing, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable prose, and it tells a powerful story that has cultural importance in more ways than one. As I said early in this review, I cannot speak for black teens, but I have seen how most readers have responded. Regardless of race or background, readers remain enthralled by the stellar writing and meaningful story. That is not to say all readers: some have taken issue with Starr's frustrated dismissal of "white people", though these reviewers frequently neglect to recognize the in-text examination of system racism and the ways in which that impacts things like microaggressions or racist commentary. And I also cannot shake the feeling at times that THUG is a book meant to appeal to well-meaning non-black readers who want to boost their social-justice credibility, largely because its reviewers are overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black), though this too does not diminish from the power of a book that clearly stems from the author's personal experiences (in part, at least).

THUG is one of the most highly-hyped books of the past year. Well-deserved for a well-written book.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Revisiting Speak

Contains mild spoilers for Speak which everyone probably already knows by now or doesn't care about in the first place...

I read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak in the summer before 9th grade. I had long seen it on recommended lists for high school students, recommended lists for teenagers, on Amazon (which at the time had a slightly normal recommendation algorithm), and finally it was personally recommended to me. And so I read it.

Speak has become by now a classic of young adult literature. Regardless what I might have thought upon rereading it, there is no doubt that it deserves that status. Reading it as a teenager was enlightening - this was the first book I had ever read that had included an explicit rape scene, and had then, firmly, sharply, pointedly called it a rape. Reading it was like opening a door to an ugly new reality of adulthood - bad things happen. They happen because you make small mistakes, or even without you making any mistakes, they happen violently, they happen quietly, but they happen. And they leave their marks. At the time, Speak was a hugely powerful book, one that shook me to my core. At the time, I didn't care what adults thought of the book on a critical level (this was just a bit before I became fully immersed in the literary/critical world), but it was clear to me - from my reaction and those of other young adults around me - that the book deserved its praise and classic status.

And rereading it as an adult, I stand by my judgement.

I can't disconnect my first experience from this one. I remembered the story and I remembered the important plot points; nothing could really surprise or shock me the way it did the first time. Yet as I dove in (from the middle, then quickly rushing back to start again from the beginning, then jumping back to the point I had left off near the end), I realized how much I had forgotten about the book. I'd forgotten how much more Speak is about Melinda's struggle than it is about her growth. How little of the book takes place after her revelation and her confession. How much the book focuses on the minor (and major) hells of high school.

Speak will always be "the rape book", because ultimately that's what it's about. That's its core, that's the issue that haunts Melinda and haunts the reader as well. But bigger picture, Speak is also just an outstanding example of how young adult literature gets it right. Anderson doesn't talk down to teens, rather writes a book that feels like it's really coming from their level. Melinda's voice is pure and powerful and affecting, no matter your age.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns | Review

Ah, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With your cliched title (a mix of Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games referencing), your bland fantasy cover and your hyped marketing back when you came out, I was prepared to hate you. In fact, I wasn't even sure what drove me to read you in the first place - it may simply have been the front cover blurb by Tamora Pierce (who rarely blurbs), or perhaps I had seen a positive review recently. I'm not sure what it was. Somehow, I checked you out of the library. I read your first few pages and scoffed. And then I read the rest of you, and my mouth shut tight. Because, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you are one of the most unexpected, subversive and intelligent young adult books I have read in very many years.

The story begins blandly enough, with a generic young adult fantasy description of "dark magic", the "chosen one" and a dull hint of romance. The first chapter echoes this emptiness as well - it begins with Elisa's marriage to the surprisingly young, handsome and friendly King Alejandro. But even in this predictable setup, Rae Carson manages to slip in important details that will shape the remainder of the book. First, we learn that Elisa is dark and fat, and that beyond her weight is an underlying eating disorder - Elisa eats at her unhappiness. These descriptions are perhaps not uncommon in young adult literature, but they are rarely found in stories of the "Chosen one".

As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Elisa's insecurities are not simply a minor matter, but the crux on which her hero's story is built. Elisa's status as Alejandro's wife is kept secret in her new home, and she is uncomfortably aware of her "other" state. Beyond that, her status as the "chosen" (in this case, bearer of the Godstone) complicates her ability to live a normal life. Her nurse is a bodyguard, her status kept secret, and she is ultimately kept in the dark about much of the Godstone's history.

It's from this position that The Girl of Fire and Thorns takes off into wildly unexpected realms. Elisa undergoes the standard heroes journey, but her growth is genuine and believable. The story takes place over many months, during which Elisa forms believable relationships with the people around her. She's a complex character, lacking in certain forms of confidence, yet excelling in others. In one scene, she essentially muses over "fake until you make it", mimicking her more confident older sister to achieve her means. Elisa is also skilled in matters of military strategy, but we see this as a natural offshoot of her curiosity, less as a result of Mary-Sue perfection.

Much of the book focuses on confidence, largely seen through the lens of Elisa's weight. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa is a bit strange in this regard for a young adult heroine - she is not physically fit, particularly tough, or adept at playing the, ahem, game of thrones (sorry, I couldn't resist). She is, however, a sharp military mind, brave in her own way, and trying desperately to forge her own path in life. We see this reflected in the way her weight is viewed by those around her - those who recognize her even after a significant physical change (due, I should emphasize, to a legitimate plot point and not some fluffed up "progression"), those who view her weight as a nonissue (someone who casually references fitting into her old, bigger dresses in the form of a compliment), and Elisa herself, who responds to her weight loss by marveling at her own body without obsessing over it, and recognizing that she may regain some of that weight and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Another important theme - and more plot relevant - is that of religion and faith. Like many fantasies, there's a level on which faith in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is irrelevant - there is magic, there is a Godstone, and so there clearly is a god. And yet the novel observes faith as sharply as it might be viewed in the real world. Yes, Elisa has a certain level of "proof" that her god exists, yet she doesn't understand god's motives or plans for her. The physical evidence may cheapen the effect somewhat, but religion is tackled here in an honest way that is rarely seen in young adult literature (or adult literature, for that matter). Elisa is not always certain of the religious ceremonies and traditions that rule her life. There is a journey of faith in the book, but Carson makes sure not to alienate readers by keeping the morals somewhat vague. Though the religion is clearly Judeo-Christian in style (monotheistic, with many phrases that echo Judeo-Christian values), the god of The Girl of Fire and Thrones did not feel defined enough to possibly offend readers of other religions and faiths.

These themes - confidence and faith - are only two ways in which The Girl of Fire and Thorns manages to eschew expectations. From a plotting perspective, Carson keeps things tight and believable, with a balanced timeline and good spacing. Almost all of the characters were given more than one dimension, most were even lucky to get to three. Carson, unlike almost every other author ever, also acknowledges when she isn't giving enough attention to a character: Elisa notes at some point how little she knows of one of her traveling companions because he is so quiet. It's a small moment, but it adds tremendous depth to a world that's already surprisingly broad. By acknowledging that Elisa is not aware of everyone - by tossing the notion of the "red-shirt" - Carson subtly builds a world that goes far beyond its tight, core cast.

The book is not flawless. While most of the book is carefully built and well defined, the last few pages felt disappointingly rushed, mostly in that I could not easily visualize the action occurring onscreen (even after rereading it). Small movements seemed to get lost as the story lurches towards its climax, in a scene that also felt a little clumsily written. In general, the writing is that first-person present-tense that is so common in young adult literature today, but is never really to my liking. It's not bad, but it's definitely not my favorite.

All in all, I was incredibly surprised by The Girl of Fire and Thorns and look forward to its sequels most eagerly. In a market that can easily seem saturated with sloppy fantasies and dystopias, this is a novel that deserves its own space. It's not necessarily the most unique premise for a story, but the way it develops its characters and the way it builds its world certainly is something special. Readers - younger and older - may find themselves with a lot to think over and discuss by the end.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

WITMonth Day 16 - What about the kids?

One of the things that's been really important for me in planning WITMonth is that we focus not only on very Serious Grown-Up Literature, but also take a moment to appreciate books in other genres or designations. There's not much children's literature translated from other languages, but of those few books that are translated, quite a few are actually written by women.

First up is Cornelia Funke, who is quite well known as a young adult/middle grade fantasy writer. Inkheart came out just near the end of my fantasy phase in middle school, but I remember really enjoying it at the time. Somehow I managed to never finish the series, but there's no denying that she's one of the premier women in translation of the kid-lit world.

Next is Janne Teller's Nothing, a book I found as frustrating as it was interesting. It's not a perfect book by any means and its weird mix of extremely simple writing with lots of pseudo-philosophizing made me want to throw the book at the wall several times while reading it, yet it remains the only book in translation (that I'm aware of) to have won a Printz Honor. In a younger field, we also have writers like Tove Jansson, best known in literary circles for books like The Summer Book or The True Deceiver, yet known worldwide for her Moomins series.

Breaking away from Central Europe, we also have one of my personal favorites: Daniella Carmi, whose Samir and Yonatan remains the only book translated from Hebrew that I've ever read in English and not in the original (accidentally! I did not realize at the age of nine that this was a translation, and was extremely embarrassed once I identified the original in our family's bookcase). I used to reread Samir and Yonatan a lot when I was a kid - it's a powerful book that always gave me hope.

What are your favorite kids/young adult books by women in translation?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Abandoning Akata Witch

I'm just about a quarter of the way through Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor and to be perfectly frank, there is no point in continuing. I read Okorafor's Who Fears Death years ago, and while I found the novel to be an interesting break from the vast majority of modern fantasy, I had a really hard time with the technical side of things. The writing was clunky, the plotting bothered me, the characters never quite clicked... all in all, I appreciated the book much more than I actually liked it.

And with Akata Witch... I just can't.

Okay, I can see glimmers of intrigue in Akata Witch's premise. Not only its Nigerian locale, but also how quickly it hammers out messages about belonging, appearance, culture, and race... way too strongly. I'm dropping the book just as the potential for fantasy is about to hit, but something about the entire concept feels very weak to me. And then there's the writing, which reminds me a bit of how I used to write in middle school - lots of exclamations, clumsy introductions to characters, very not-subtle infodumps and a general lack of flow. This is the same type of writing that frustrated me in Who Fears Death, except here - perhaps because of its younger intended audience - it feels even clunkier.

I could force myself to finish the book - it's not too long and is far from too complex. But I'm not enjoying it. I like books to have a bit more subtlety than Okorafor is providing me with, and I find the writing to be both a distraction and an annoyance. I don't feel like in a quarter of the book Okorafor has convinced me to care about any of the introduced characters, nor feel a particular attachment to the their world. I'm sure Akata Witch has its relevance, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good book. So... abandoned.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts | Books for boys, books for girls

I don't remember where I first read about The Monstrumologist, but I clearly remember the major critique the reviewer had against the book: its complete and total lack of female characters. The general details of the book faded from my memory, but that one notion that a book could have absolutely no relevant female characters intrigued me somewhat. And so I kept that idea in mind as I finally delved down to read the book as a sort of mind-wiping distraction.

It's a relatively good assessment of the book, and an accurate indicator of its target audience. The Monstrumologist is a boy's book through and through, whether because of its clear tendency towards all things gory, or because of its masculine approach to hunting monsters, or even simply because of that one factoid someone mentioned years ago: there is not a single female character throughout The Monstrumologist. No romantic interest, no token female... nothing. And it's not even that the cast of characters is necessarily so small. It's just that every single character happens to be male, and happens to behave in what we traditionally label as a masculine behavior.

Then I got to wondering: how much should this actually influence the book itself? Is the book necessarily weaker for the fact that it has no female characters? I think it isn't. The characters are all of a certain cut. There's the insane monster hunter, the out-of-touch doctor, the revenge-thirsty teenager, the skeptic policeman... The characters themselves are fairly routine, and truthfully, adjusting the gender of one of them would have been significantly worse than the fact that there were no women overall. True, this indicates some kind of weakness in Yancey's ability to write well-rounded characters as a whole, but there's nothing inherently sexist about it. I didn't get the vibe that Yancey didn't want to write about girls for some defined reason, rather that he had a specific "boy's tale" in mind. Is that so terribly wrong?

I'm split. On the one hand, I know that young men read significantly less than young women, and that books are very rarely marketed exclusively for guys. On the other hand... how can a book so completely lack characters of the opposite gender? But now I'm realizing that this isn't just in "boys books". Often, the only male characters in books for young women is the romantic interest. How is that better? When you start looking at it, young adult books are often split along gender lines. It's... strange. And extremely problematic.

I've had months to think about this, and really... I've reached no conclusions. It bothers me that a book could be so utterly limited in its characterizations, but if those are the characterizations that make the book better, I really can't fault the author. The Monstrumologist overall isn't much more than mediocre (for reasons well beyond gender imbalances), but its clear boy-focus is inherently tied to its story. Something else probably would have rang false. So... thoughts?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diversity in NPR's list of 100 Best Ever Teen Books

A couple months ago, NPR hosted an online poll in order to create the "100 Best Ever Teen Books". Nominations flooded in, a list comprising of a couple hundred books was put online, people voted for their ten favorites, and the list was born. The end result is problematic, to say the least. Time to try to organize my thoughts:
  1. Your age is showing - There's a clear divide between the titles older versus younger readers voted for. When I first went over the list, I was struck by the sheer number of officially classic titles that have long faded from the generally accepted young adult literary canon. When my older sister looked at the list, she too noted the strange discrepancy between the titles she didn't recognize (as being too recent) and the titles she vaguely remembered as being "old" when she was younger.
  2. Your author bias is showing - It's clear that certain fanbases really came out in full force. Not that I have anything against John Green, but not every single one of his novels is deserving of being on a list of the top young adult books. Yet every one is on the list. Similarly, Sarah Dessen has four books on the list - sadly, these four do not include her finest novel (Dreamland), and they generally fall well below my standard for "best ever teen books".
  3. Defining young adult - NPR attempted to respond to this claim with this post, but the fact is that the list is entirely inconsistent. My Sister's Keeper, young adult? Hardly - it's a book that's mostly about adults, written for adults. And if The Dark is Rising is considered young adult, then yes, a book like Ella Enchanted is definitely young adult. And certainly a book like Ender's Game should be considered young adult.
  4. The white elephant in the room - Race. Because no matter which way you look at it, NPR's list is overwhelmingly white. Astoundingly white. This is probably in part because NPR's audience is very, very white (87%), but there's a larger issue at hand as well. I want to be clear, though: it's not because readers are racist. It's not because readers knowingly prefer books about white characters. It's because most young adult books do happen to be written by white authors, about white characters. It's because there's something of a white default in young adult literature (and no, I have no idea what the reasons for this is and I have no intention of getting into that discussion).
  5. The books that are missing - The problem with the overwhelming white-ness of the list isn't that books with characters who are not-white (or not default white, at least) do not exist. The problem is that they somehow did not make it to this incredibly subjective list (recall: this was a reader poll for favorite books, not necessarily the critical "bests"). The problem is that despite being award winners, and classics, and truly powerful works of fiction, these novels remain the exception to the rule that most main characters are white. And that is... disappointing. Angering, in fact.
  6. This is not the list I would create - NPR's list needs to be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, there's the fact that it's a poll of favorite books: it's never going to be truly definitive. In general, no list is ever truly definitive. That's the nature of best-of lists (one of the reasons why I hate them). Second, there's the obvious tilt in the direction of certain authors and fanbases which, while displaying the popularity of these authors, skews the results somewhat. Then there are the missing authors and books - the missing diversity. Because books like Monster by Walter Dean Myers would certainly make my list, as would Virginia Euwer Wolff's excellent Make Lemonade series*. If we loosen the definition of young adult, Laurence Yep, Linda Sue Park,  Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Mildred D. Taylor would all make the list as well.
  7. I don't know why this exists - It bothers me. It has to. The fact that there is a white default is an unpleasant thing to think about. The fact that it shows so obviously in a user-generated list is even more upsetting. But I cannot begin to speculate as to the cause of it, and I'm hesitant to claim that there is any kind of clear racism at work here. An imbalance, certainly, and something we should probably all think about.
So let's think about it.

* Make Lemonade is technically a racially ambiguous series. I should point out that most books that avoid specifying races do not qualify for diversity points. Virginia Euwer Wolff, however, has explicitly said on the fact that she wanted her characters to be viewed as any race, commenting that her favorite letters came from readers of all races who felt that the characters were like them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Black and white oversimplifications | Divergent

A few weeks ago I read the recently popular Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book was mostly what I expected it would be - exciting and fast-paced in the style of The Hunger Games, with the unreasonably kick-butt heroine and the ominous oppressive dystopian society, but it is otherwise uninspired. Despite the fact that I was interested enough to read the book late into the evening, I struggle to call it a good book. This is largely because Divergent has a disturbingly black-white view of the world.

This happens in young adult literature... a lot. It's been happening too frequently. Young adult literature has advanced tremendously over the past decade, but in some regards it is still its own genre. It still has its own definitions and cliches and predictable pitfalls. The predictable romances found now within the pages of almost every single young adult title is a troubling trend that alienates boys*. The current fad of dystopias-lite ignores the original purpose these novels served. And worst of all, there is a growing trend of explicit one-sidedness: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and there are the masses. This is a problem.

Divergent highlights this problem all too well. Main character Beatrice is obviously our good guy - she has to be, by definition. She is described as small and plain, but she nonetheless is special and strong. She is unique. She, aside from her love interest, is practically the only one who is unique. From a literary perspective, this is obviously a flattening of a potential character in order to make her more appealing, but I'll let it slide. No, I'm looking past the bland Beatrice to the bigger issue - everyone else. Divergent is a novel about factions that are determined by a certain personality trait or frame of mind. This already leads to gross over-simplification, in an attempt to set the stage for the sequels and to emphasize the dystopia-ness of the world. But even when I ignored this (for the sake of the story), the lack of depth in the other characters became increasingly disturbing.

Veronica Roth tackled her world with all the grace of an elephant. The good guys have "Good Guy" practically emblazoned on their foreheads. The "bad guys" are obvious from a mile away. This is all still well within the normal realm. Even when characters abruptly switch sides, it didn't feel like complexity, it felt like cheap manipulation on behalf of the author. The problem gets even worse when Roth attempted to add additional layers. Suddenly we have a layer of those who manipulate and those who are manipulated. Instead of creating believable, breathing characters with realistic motivations, Roth ensures that every character will be absolutely one-sided.

A lot of this has to do with the world of Divergent, which determines a specific character-trait faction for every character. I kept getting the feeling that Roth wanted me to see how she's "toying" with these definitions, and how she's showing that people are not defined by a single trait. But she didn't do that. Instead, almost everyone belonging to a certain faction has the same general personality and motivations. There is absolutely no grey. Except, of course, Beatrice (and possibly her love interest). I'm sorry, but I don't call that depth. I call that bad writing**.

I see the appeal of a book like Divergent. Heck, even I technically enjoyed the action of the book, until I really started to think about it (about five minutes after I finished it). Just because you know your book is going to have sequels doesn't mean that you can ignore developing your world at first. Just because you want to create a stark contrast in your "dystopia" doesn't mean you need to oversimplify your characters. Roth's mistakes aren't overt, but they're subtly problematic for any reader who takes a step back and thinks about the book for a moment. Why are we encouraging oversimplification? Why aren't we fighting this?

* And no, I don't understand how this trend flips itself for adults, such that books geared towards women are often shunted to a lower class while books geared towards men gain literary acclaim. It doesn't make sense to me either.
** In general I wasn't thrilled with Roth's writing. I'm not always a big fan of present tense and I felt like a lot of Roth's straight-up writing wasn't too clean.