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cover image for Does My Head Look Big in This?Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is sixteen and about to start her third term as an eleventh grader at the exclusive and expensive McClean’s Prepatory Academy when she realizes that she’s ready to wear the hijab full time.  But is she ready for the assumptions people will make about her – about her parents and her abilities and her dreams – if she starts wearing the hijab to school? To the mall? To job interviews?  And yet what will it say about her, and her faith, and her country if she lets fear and prejudice keep her from making her own choices.

Despite the rather slow moving plot and lack of action, I found myself liking this book quite a bit.  It’s not just that it offers a very compassionate and balanced view, and presents readers with a perspective that is sadly in short supply in YA.  Abdel-Fattah writes in a very compelling and engaging voice and I look forward to reading more books by her.

cover image for How Beautiful the OrdinaryHow Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

Boys who love boys.  Girls who love girls. New loves and old loves.  Teenagers forced to hide their true selves.  How Beautiful the Ordinary collects twelve stories from twelve authors who know what it’s like for their normal selves to treated as different, as outside the norm.

I expect a mixture of quality and taste when it comes to the content of anthologies, but that doesn’t excuse the disrespect for others that I found in a handful of the stories in this particular collection:

William Sleator’s Fingernail has it’s Thai protagonist and narrator telling readers that ” [English] is the most important language in the world” and pointing out that were it not for his abusive, European ex boyfriend, he never would have met his current, loving boyfriend from the West.  It’s not that it’s inconceivable for a young man like this to exist, and to have these kinds of thoughts, but that it’s not really appropriate or responsible for an white American to be putting these words into the mouth of a Thai character he created.

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s The Missing Person is in many ways a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of a girl who everyone else sees and treats as a boy.  Unfortunately, it also uses the misfortune that befalls a Taiwanese exchange student as a metaphor for the main character’s own struggles, rather than as an experience belonging to the exchange student herself, and as a source of common ground.

The stories are not all disappointing, however.  Jacqueline Woodson’s Trev is elegant and full of sorrow, determination, and hope.  Margo Lanagan’s A Dark Red Love Knot is twisted and cruel and beautiful.  Emma Donoghue’s Dear Lang, a testament to the meaning of family, left me in tears.  And lastly, Gregory Maguire’s The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H. contemplates paths not taken and shows us the costs of hiding in closets.

cover image for Lucy the GiantLucy the Giant by Sherri L. Smith

Fifteen year old Lucy Oswego has always towered over her classmates.  Not that she needs to in order for people to remember her, Sitka is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else – and their business.  Which is how all the bar owners know to call her when her dad gets so drunk he can’t even stumble home on his own.  So it’s no surprise that Lucy wonders what it would be like to blend in, to fit in – to be someone other than Lucy the Giant.  And when a crabbing boat crew mistakes her for an adult, and invites her to sign on, Lucy finds her chance to do just that.

Have I mentioned how much I love Smith’s books? Lucy the Giant is no exception.  Smith has a gift for finding the extraordinary in the everyday, and for centering the kinds of characters that tend to exist on the fringes of most mainstream narratives.  Lucy the Giant is a deceptively simple story; more complicated and subtle than it appears at first, and one that packs a punch despite it’s short length.

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cover image for PinnedPinned by Sharon Flake

Autumn’s learning disability means she struggles in school; Adonis is at the top of the class. Autumn is the star of the wresting team, feared by boys as well as girls; Adonis needs a wheelchair to get around.  Autumn is always surrounded by friends; Adonis is reserved and keeps to himself.  So what happens when Autumn decides that Adonis is the boy for her, but Adonis refuses to say more than the rare hello?

Told in alternating points of view, Pinned explores what it means to respect and care for others, and to understand and empathize with them and their circumstances.  Flake does an excellent job with the two characters different voices.  Autumn’s chapters are particularly well done; Flake manages to stay true to the kind of vocabulary and syntax Autumn would use without making her seem like a stereotype or less intelligent than she is.

cover image for Slimed!Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age by Matthew Klickstein

Slimed! consists of an exhausting number of interviews with a variety of people who worked for Nickelodeon from it’s inception through the 1990’s, from child actors to adult ones, producers, animators, writers, and everyone in between.

The decision to group the intervewees’ responses by topic, rather than by person, show, or chronologically was a good one.  It allows readers to get a balanced view of the range of opinions and memories are on various topics, from the the key design and marketing decisions that made the Nickelodeon we came to know and love, to more controversial topics such as the firing of the creator of the Ren and Stimpy Show and questions about about race and representation.

Unfortunately though, we also aren’t given an introduction as to who everyone is, which made following the interview responses fairly confusing at times.  I couldn’t have read this book without the help of google.  There is an index at the back of the book, but (and perhaps this is just my ereader) it’s not always as easy to flip pages on an ereader as it is with hardcopies, and it’s not evident that this index exists unless you read through the table of contents.

If you grew up watching You Can’t Do That on Television and The Adventures of Pete and Pete, as I did, it’s well worth a read, although perhaps not worth paying hardcover prices to do so.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

I’m not going to try to give a synopsis the way I usually do, because OMG this book.  Also, the synopsis might make it sound like it may be worth reading, and it’s NOT.  Except to mock it, which is part of how I was bribed into reading it.

There is nothing about this book that makes sense or follows any kind of logic.  It makes me want to laugh and cry and scream all at the same time.

two cover images for Throne of Glass

First, Celaena, the main character, is supposed to be a very skilled assassin, but we pretty much never see her being competent.  She’ll win and defeat her enemies at times (a very few times), but when you read what she does to do it, you’ll wonder how in the world she managed to survive.  Most importantly, she’s still a prisoner during most of the book, and spends very little time plotting her escape. And the time she does spend plotting and planning and preparing, she doesn’t spend well or intelligently.

Secondly, the castle is made of glass. (Some of it anyway.) In a kingdom that has outlawed magic, so sorcery can’t be the reason it hasn’t fallen down. And how do the doors work?  And what about temperature control? The whole idea makes my head hurt.

Third, Celaena likes dresses – A LOT. Which is not something I’m against! I’m not even put out that the character’s appreciation of fashion lacks depth. I’m annoyed by how the book’s presentation of fashion is so incredibly shallow, considering how much time is spent on it.  There’s no world building here, in terms of fashion or textiles, and what they indicate in terms of class, status, and the like.

Fourth, Celaena recovers way too quickly from essentially being tortured via working as a slave in the salt mines.  And I don’t just mean in terms of her body recovering too fast, I mean the fact that this experience only ever seems to affect her physically, mentally, or emotionally when it’s convenient for the plot.  There is no nuance to her experiences, and no understanding of how this kind of harm actually affects people, no recognition of the suffering of real people in similar situations.  It’s all very cartoonish, in a way that minimizes what this kind of injustice and deprivation actually does to people.

Lastly, there is way too much slut-shaming in this book. It’s bad enough that were told rather than shown that Celaena is a skilled assassin.  It’s bad enough that her love of “girly” things is presented so shallowly, rather than with depth.  And it’s particularly bad that she’s given a tortured past that’s dealt with very disrespectfully.  But on top of all that we get Celaena judging other women for doing the same things she does, and the narrative supporting her in this assessment.

I won’t say you shouldn’t read this book, but I do suggest that it be read in small doses, and with lots of alcohol and access to social media for mocking.

cover image for The Dream ThievesThe Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

 Gansey, Adam, Ronan, Noah, and Blue have managed to awaken the ley lines around Cabeswater, but their search for Glendower continues, and not without frustrations and setbacks. To further complicate matters, strangers have come to Henrietta looking for them and Ronan has been keeping secrets – and going off the rails (even more than usual).

 Full of the unexpected, The Dream Thieves stays focused on the tangled friendships and class conflicts that made that The Raven Boys so great, but it also  adds in even more magic and “BOOM!”  What makes this book so incredibly wonderful isn’t just the fantastic, or even how the fantastic and the realism blend together so seamlessly, it’s above all the emotional and moral weight that Stiefvater gives to the power and choices presented to her characters.

cover image for Living With Jackie ChanLiving With Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles

When Josh arrives at his uncle’s apartment, where he’ll be spending his senior year of high school, all he wants to do is forget.  Forget the year before, the plans he’d made with friends, and the mistakes he’s made.  Josh may be determined to interact with other people as little as possible, but his Uncle Larry has other plans. Josh is soon roped into helping his uncle with the karate class he teaches at the local Y.  If Josh isn’t careful, he might just start making friends and getting tangled up in other people’s lives again.

I didn’t know until near to the end of the book that this was a companion story to a previous novel, Jumping Off Swings. (My fault, not anyone else’s.)  Living With Jackie Chan makes some sense without having read the first book, but I think it would have helped a lot to have read Jumping Off Swings first.  Largely because that meant, for me, the Big Mystery for much of the book was What Did Josh Do? I suspect that me spending most of the book thinking about the really dark things Josh might have done is not quite what the author had in mind.  Rather, the suspense works much better if it’s simply about if Josh is ever going to confide in others – and how much he will and what he’ll say.  That keeps the focus on coping with an imperfect family and what it means to be a good friend.

cover image for Bandette, Volume 1Bandette, Volume 1 by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover

Bandette is the world’s greatest thief by night, and a teen girl by day.  With the help of her friends, she runs circles around both the police and her fellow thieves.  But when an international organization of villains wants her dead, is it more than Bandette can handle?

This particular version includes both the first series and a collection of additional comics and stories from guests authors and artists.  The main story is entertaining enough, if a bit old school (and the dialogue is a bit precious at times).  The extras are more of a mixed bag, as such things often are.

cover image for My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1 by Thomas Zahler, Ryan K. Lindsay, Katie Cook, Barbara Randall Kesel, Ted Anderson

see full review here

tl,dr: mediocre. except when it’s instead incredibly creepy and disturbing, and not in a good way.

cover image for UntoldUntold by Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass no longer has to keep what she knows about her town, Sorry-in-the-Vale, a secret.  Now practically everyone in town is aware that magic is the town’s legacy, and of the power that the Lynburn family once held over everyone else.  But the person Kami most wants to talk to is no longer speaking to her. Which poses a danger to more than just her heart, for Kami is going to need all the help she can get to stop Rob Lynburn from turning Sorry-in-the-Vale back into the Lynbrun’s own private kingdom.

This books starts with killer scarecrows and kisses in the dark and mistaken identities – and just keeps going from there.  SO MUCH WACKY DRAMA. (in a good way.)  I appreciate that Brennan didn’t undo everything that happened at the end of the last book, and that Kami and Jared (and others) instead have to live with and deal with the choices they made and the things they said.  Best of all, Brennan is really great at the overwhelming angst and other emotions that is typical of young adult novels, but without resorting to the kind of situations where everything would be solved if people would just talk.  And when people aren’t talking, it makes sense.

When does the next book come out again?

cover image for The Adoration of Jenna FoxThe Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

A seventeen year old girl wakes up without any memories of who she is.  All she knows is what she’s been told. Her name (Jenna Fox), where she is (in her parent’s house), and why she doesn’t remember anything (accident, then coma).  Her parents give her videos to watch, images of a past she doesn’t remember, in the hopes that they will help heal her.  Instead they simply prompt more questions, questions that no one seems willing to answer.

I think what I love most about this book is that it’s the kind of story that’s best told with a teenaged protagonist.  Not that I’m against young adult genre novels where the teens take on more adult roles, however unlikely that may be.  But I really do love when authors come up with scenarios that not only make more sense with teens as the center of the story, but that demonstrate how certain questions are best asked in that context.  It’s an easy read, but thought provoking nonetheless.

cover image for Mister Max: The Book of Lost ThingsMister Max – The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

Max knew he wasn’t late to the pier, but the ship that was supposed to take him and his family to India was no where to be seen.  And neither were his parents.  Now Max’s grandmother is insisting he move in with her until his parents return, but all Max wants are answers and some independence.  Suddenly presented with a pile of problems and mysteries, Max decides that his only option to be the person who finds the solutions.

I kept feeling like I ought to like this book, but instead it left me feeling like I was merely trudging through in order to be done with it.  I suspect it will hold more appeal for it’s middle grade target audience, but not nearly as much as it could have.

cover image for The Infinite Moment of UsThe Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle

I am going to skip the synopsis this time around because I CAN’T with this book.  It’s  a badly needed update of Judy Blume’s Forever (at least, that was my impression, and I’m clearly not the only one) and while I’d recommend it over that any day, and I’m so very glad both books exist, I was still frowning through most of this novel.

To be fair, this is in part because, in trying to show that it’s normal and ok and healthy for teens to have sex – as long as they are responsible – one ends up presenting that specific relationship as a model for how to Do Things Right, rather than exploring these characters in particular.  And this book really could have done better when it came to exploring the characters.

It’s the caveat (the “as long as they’re responsible” part) that’s the kicker.  Everyone should be responsible, not just teens, and putting that condition on teens’, and only teens’, right to take pleasure in their own bodies is bound to imply that only certain people have the right, and those certain people are usually going to be the ones that adhere to the status quo.  This may not have been was Myracle was going for, but it is the impression I got, particularly because of the way Wrenn and Charlie’s relationship was compared to Charlie and Starrla’s.  I suspect Myracle was simply trying to acknowledge that not all sex is healthy, but it came across as more: not all sex is healthy for teens.

And on that score, this book does have much to recommend it: teens having sex, girls in particular finding pleasure in sex, and all without either of the two main characters being punished for it!  Still, I am rolling my eyes so hard the way the book ends and absolutely everything involving Starrla – the sexually promiscuous and not very nice girl who acts as a foil to Wren’s innocence.

cover image for BelowBelow by Meg McKinlay

“On the day Cassie was born, they drowned her town.”

(Sorry, the opening for this book is just so perfect, I had to steal it.)

Twelve year old Cassie has lived her entire life in New Lower Grange.  But before she was born, before the damn was built, her family’s house was in Old Lower Grange.  Then, with the flip of a switch, an entire town was buried in water, leaving Cassie wondering what secrets may lie hidden beneath the waves.

Intriguing and full of wonderfully written lines (see above, also: “When I got home, Dad had a finger in someone’s eye and another in their ear.” and “Liam was clever yesterday. While I was worried about being prosecuted, he was counting his strokes.”) Below is one of those novels that I wish had gotten more attention.  While not without flaws (McKinlay’s opening lines aren’t quite matched by the rest of her writing) it’s both different and yet not, in all the ways a middle grade book should be: unique in concept, but familiar when it comes to themes and relationships.

cover image for Zebrea ForestZebra Forest by Adina Rishe-Gewitz

Annie and her brother live with their grandmother, the father dead and their mother having abandoned them.  With Gran’s brooding spells getting worse, Annie has her hands full keeping up at school and keeping the social workers of their backs.  She and Rew find their own solace in stories they make up about the father they never knew.  Until a stranger arrives and holds them hostage, and Annie and Rew learn the truth of their father’s death.

I ranted about this book earlier this year.  The short version being that my problem wasn’t so much that Annie was quick to forgive her father, but that the book did an inadequate job of exploring why, and why this might not be the safest choice for her to make.  Also, the backstory about their parents is disturbing in ways that the narrative seems dangerously oblivious to.

cover image for DreamlandDreamland by Sarah Dessen

When Cassie ran away, Caitlin lost more than a sister.  Her parents shock and grief absorbs all their energy, leaving Caitlin without anyone to turn to.  Then Rogerson Biscoe walks into Caitlin’s life and suddenly she once again has someone who listens.  But who will Caitlin turn to when Rogerson turns out to be more dangerous than she suspected?

While abuse in romantic relationships is a topic that deserves a lot more attention than it gets (in YA literature and out of it) this is, unfortunately, not the most engaging problem novel ever.  Possibly because it is so clearly a problem novel rather than a typical Dessen story about interesting characters dealing with various interpersonal issues.  Although Dreamland is far from an after school special, neither is it quite what it could have been.

cover image for The Madness UnderneathThe Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

After the events of The Name of the Star [redacted for spoilers], Rory’s parents have been understandably overprotective.  Neither they, nor her new therapist, believe her when she tells them that she’s more than ready to go back to school. It doesn’t help, of course, that she can’t tell any of them what really happened, or why she so desperately wants to return to Wexford.

I definitely did not expect this book to end up going in the direction it did.  So while it suffered from the typical middle book lulls at certain points, it still managed to push the story along in interesting ways. And yes, it made me cry.  And no, I wasn’t expecting that either.

cover image for The Garden of My ImaanThe Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

Aliya worries about getting her homework done. Avoiding bullies at school. When she’ll finally wear a bra like her friends.  If the holidays will be still be any fun now that her disapproving great aunt is coming to visit.  Now, on top of everything else, her Sunday school friends are asking if she’ll fast for Ramadan this year; Aliya doesn’t feel ready – but she doesn’t want to be a baby either.  And when a new muslim girl arrives at her elementary school, suddenly Aliya’s Glen Meadow classmates are full of questions about why Marwa wears a hijab and only eats halal, and why Aliya doesn’t.

The Garden of My Imaan is a typical middle grade story about friends and family and navigating one’s place in the world.  Except for all the ways in which it’s very much not your typical middle grade school story.  That is to say, except for the fact that it’s about a muslim girl whose household contains four generations of Indian Americans, rather than yet another Ramona Quimbly, Junie B. Jones, or Judy Moody.  What makes this story truly unique (although it shouldn’t be as unique as it is, alas) isn’t just the parts that make Aliya different from her literary peers, but the way that Zia keeps the story focused on Aliya and her dilemmas, rather than letting it become a Very Special Lesson for everyone else.

By the by – can we please stop saying things like “Aliya…may be a young Muslim girl of Indian descent, but her story is one that will resonate with readers of many backgrounds” when reviewing books that feature characters we rarely see in (Western) fiction?  That’s just insulting all around.  Why wouldn’t her story “resonate” with all kinds of readers?

I’ve read few books that have made me as angry as Rishe-Gewirtz’s debut novel, Zebra Forest, has.

[Caution: Serious spoilers ahead!] Read the rest of this entry »