Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Book Review Club - The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas

While I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, the chair of my department, Paula McClain, hired me to be one of her research assistants, caveat - I was the only white person. I had no idea what that meant when I started. I knew what it was like to be a minority. I'd lived in German during Desert Storm, when Germans protested the war, stoned the Kennedy Haus just meters from my apartment. It was the first time I tried to "pass" for someone I was not, namely German. I was afraid to be American.

In the years that followed, while I worked as Paula's research assistant, I had the rare opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. I began to understand how subtle racism can be, and how overt, but missed by somebody white because I only saw the world through white eyes.

I'm still learning. This book is seminal in that process of learning and understanding. Although it's been said a lot before, it's a timely story, one that fosters dialogue, that opens a window into what it means to be African American in the U.S. today. It's a book much-needed by our polarized culture.

Basic premise: Starr Carter, who is from a poor neighborhood and goes to school at a preppy suburban school, is the only witness when her friend, Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer one night. Starr is caught between her two worlds and deciding, basically, what kind of woman she wants to be. How will she handle the situation? Will she speak up? Will she keep quiet? Who are her real friends? Was she really Khalil's friends? This book is packed with so many existential and hard issues, decisions, and transforming situations. Every chapter is a discussion waiting to happen. It's challenged me to re-view the way I see the world, the way I interact with others, the way I perceive.

One of the most interesting craft aspects of this story is the use of language. Thomas moves between the way Starr talks when she's at home in her neighborhood (Garden Heights Starr), to the way she talks when she's at school (Williamson Starr). Khalil's death forces Starr's two worlds to collide, and Thomas cleverly uses linguistic variation and mixing to underscore and heighten the merging of those worlds.

While I worked for Paula, I collected data for updates to her book, Can We All Get Along. It's no easy feat. There are a lot of possible points for clashing. The Hate U Give addresses some of them, and what happens when we refuse to see beyond the easy answers, the stereotypes, when we don't see why those stereotypes may exist, or the role each of us plays in making our culture.  Ultimately, Paula gave me hope. Thomas gives me hope. Because they challenge me to grow and engage in getting along.

For more thoughtful reads this Spring, visit Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bundle!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Book Review Club - The Sun is Also a Star

The Sun is Also a Star
Nicola Yoon

Whenever a book gets a lot of buzz I am, for mysterious reasons, wary and skeptical. However, with The Sun is Also a Star there is plenty of merit to the buzz.

Basic Premise: Natasha and Daniel meet one fated day in NYC. Daniel is supposed to be pursuing the next step from high school to becoming a doctor--an interview for Yale. Natasha is doing everything she can to avoid her family's deportation. Their paths cross and they discover a new kind of love, one held shortly but as brightly as a supernova.

From a craft perspective, there is a lot to take away and chew on. Yoon weaves in the concept of muliverses, i.e. multiple universes existing at the same time (the Trekkie in me was thrilled). She also uses multiple POVs, as well as storytelling formats, to underscore the multiplicity of life going on in, around and through us.

Her use of both has me thinking hard. Sometimes, ever so rarely, a new form of storytelling is born, such as script format, play format, epistolary novels, text format, email format, a combination of all of the above. I don't think this particular combination of multiple POV, as well as light play format to divulge backstory and concurrent stories, will become a new form of storytelling. Rather, Yoon's compilation of pieces of different forms of storytelling to underscore the multi-nature of her story is singular, perhaps unrepeatable, because of its singularity of purpose and style, but it works. And it has me wondering, what else one could combine to underscore a story's plot, character, etc.

The other significant issue going on in this novel is that of immigration. In this case, Natasha's family is clearly, unequivocally, illegally in the U.S. from Jamaica, whereas Daniel's family moved her legally from Korea (and, ironically, eventually goes back to live between the two countries). There are novels of material for discussion here. How are immigrants treated, especially in the current U.S. climate? What happens when we deport illegal immigrants--to them, our society, and their native society? These are questions painfully in need of discussion now, if for no other reason than they help us as individuals mine and discover, perhaps even expand, the boundaries of our own humanity. Embracing the difficult conversations is something that seems to be getting lost in the current climate, and yet it is so integral to fostering a healthy, ethical, evolving community and country.

Okay, okay, enough of the soapbox. Enjoy The Sun is Also a Star. Writers, there is plenty to steal. Readers, there is plenty to ponder. For more pilfering great finds, sneak over to Barrie Summy's website. She's got a whole van full (down by the river :-).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Book Review Club - Spare and Found Parts

Spare and Found Parts
Sarah Maria Griffin
YA - Horror

I cannot watch scary movies. Can't do it. I went to Nightmare on Elm Street for my 16th birthday. It was the first and last scary movie I saw in a theater. I still have nightmares. Which is why I love the literary horror genre so much. It's limited by the reaches of my imagination, which is scared (and satisfied) with a lot less fright than your apparent horror movie buff. I'm such a wimp. Still, I have found my horror outlet. Yay!

Add to that that Spare and Found Parts is a retelling of Frankenstein (I own the annotated version because what is horror without proper annotation, I ask you?) set in a future Ireland. Irish horror? I'm hooked already.

Basic premise: Society was brought down by the almighty machine, i.e. computers, and is now in a post-computer (read: computerless) age. Humankind has suffered a pandemic that killed millions. Still, people are born without certain body parts. Enter Nell Crane. She became sick with the pandemic as a child and needed a new heart. Her father, renowned prosthetics maker, Julian Crane, fashions one out of metal for her. It ticks (there are overtures of The Wizard of Oz here too). The ticking makes Nell feel separate from others, not like them, so as her contribution--her buy in into society as a grown up--she decides to fashion a partner completely out of metal, a "new/old" android. The only thing missing is a brain, which her father ultimately supplies in the form of a contraband computer memory slip. Thus, Nell awakens her own monster, one to parallel her feelings of monstrosity. Will they fall in love? Can they? Will Nell's contribution be accepted or cause her to be ostracized from society? One must read to find out!

There is a lot more going on in the story, of course--an unrequited love interest toward Nell on the part of the local undertaker's son, Oliver, his secret claims to her, Julian's attempts to reanimate his dead wife, hidden computer archives, a best friend, an enormous statue fashioned by Nell's late mother that is a surrogate sister to Nell, and a grandmother who is a naturalist  and thus adamantly opposed to Nell's artificial life/monster--that add to the richness of this story.

There is one craft issue that has me puzzling. Griffin tells the story in omniscient third; however, she will, from time to time, in a separate chapter, use second person to hone in on Nell, but also step back from her. Nell is the focus of the soliloquy. It was unclear to me if the speaker is Nell reflecting on herself or an unknown narrator. Nor am I entirely sure what the change in POV is supposed to elicit. It does pause the storytelling and force the reader and Nell to focus more particularly on a particular event and/or moment in time. I don't dislike it. It isn't jarring. I just haven't quite puzzled out how I can take and make my own as a writer because I haven't discovered what it does for the piece for me. Again, always the sign of good writing for me--it makes me think.

For more good reads and things that go bump in the night, sneak over to Barrie Summy's website. There's no telling what stories (dead or alive) lurk there. Bwahahahahaha!!!!

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Book Review Club - The Greenglass House

The Greenglass House
Kate Milford
middle grade

Looking for a story to drive away the long hours that pile together in huge drifts winter break? This is just the tale.

Milo Pine is settling in for the long winter break at his family's hotel, The Greenglass House, when not just one but six unexpected visitors arrive. Milo, who feels most comfortable when things are exactly as they are supposed to be, is thrown off-balance, especially when Meddy arrives. About his age, Meddy is all about adventure, and finding out why the visitors have all descended on the hotel at the same time. A mystery is afoot. As it turns out, the house--which mostly serves the area's smugglers--was the home of the greatest smuggler in Nagspeake, Doc Holystone, who died under mysterious circumstances. Cue--ghost and increased tension. Then things begin to disappear, or are they stolen? Meddy and Milo play Odd Trails, a role-playing game to discover the truth, and it's more than either bargains for.

Yep, this book version of Clue is sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats and far away from winter boredom as they track down thieves, smugglers, cat burglars, hidden trains, ghosts, lost smugglers, last cargoes, hidden treasures, famous stained glass artists, and the like. Throw in a snow storm and hot chocolate, and winter break is over before anyone realizes it's begun, both in the book and in real life.

Admittedly, there are a host of characters to keep track of, and it took some getting used to when both Meddy and Milo took on different names for their role-playing characters, and switch back and forth depending on whether their playing or not.  And then there are the multiple stories within the story itself. It's a lot, but it works. I suppose some might say such complexity could challenge, even confuse, a young reader. Young readers are often grossly underestimated. They are far better at keeping track of characters and details with their spry little minds than almost any adult, and this one gives them so much to chew on.

So pull up a chair, get a cup of hot chocolate, and dive in. Just remember to get up and grab a cheese sandwich now and again.

For more great reads, stomp on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's pouring them hot and tasty!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Book Review Club - The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes

The Adventurer's Guide 
to Successful Escapes

Wade Albert White

Of late, I have been deep in middle grade. What a wonderful place to be. If Adult is all about "letting go" and YA is all about "getting a grip", then I'd say MG is all about unbridled exploration. Gene Rodenberry was a middle grade writer at heart.

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes (AGSE for short) doesn't disappoint. There are some significant archetypes in this story: orphan, arch villain, a quest. Yet, Wade embraces them as archetypes and then delves below in novel and unexpected ways. Imagination abounds.

Basic premise: Anne escapes St. Lupin's orphanage with her friend Penelope via a gauntlet and unexpected quest she is now bound to complete or die trying (or get thrown in jail for life if she fails). Hiro, a magician whose spells have some dire kinks, joins them as they race to solve the Quest Riddle and find Anne's true home in a world akin to our own, but filled with magic, divided into tiers, and based on a computer system with an error, and the clock is ticking. Oh, and don't forget the registered villain, St. Lupin's Matron, who has sworn to stop Anne or die trying. 

It's a fast-paced, fun adventure. What got me thinking is the use of omniscient third. The older I get, the more ambivalent I become about POV. Is there really only one voice that could fit a story? That seems like saying there is only one true soulmate for me in the whole world, which means if anything happens to him, I'm doomed to a life of lonely solitude (brightened only by middle grade reads). Given how we women tend to live A LOT longer than our male soulmates, I kind of hope that's not the case (no offense to the middle grade books out there). Or to POV. But come on, even Monet did his waterlilies from multiple angles.

So what does POV do for a story? In this case, omniscient third allows White to take both a bird's eye view and a soulful look into his characters, although that really only occurs for Anne, so this may be more of a case of close third. Nevertheless, I find that getting outside the character's skin makes a story feel more "told" ... in a good way. There is distance between the reader and what's happening, one that for young readers, creates a safety barrier. Coupled with simple past, they are in the story, but it's a story that already happened, that already had a resolution. Things are gonna be okay. Probably. It's truly ancient storytelling at it's best. "Sit back," the writer says, "And listen. I'm going to scare your socks off, but you'll get them back at the end. Probably."

Omniscient third also creates a bigger picture. We get to see more of the angles to the story. It gives it a more epic quality, perfect for a quest.

And finally, omniscient third allows us to take a break and look elsewhere, thus keeping the storytelling fresh as we move from one fast-paced turn to the next.

Or that's my take on it. For others, click on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's got a stackful.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Book Review Club - The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly Barnkhill
Middle grade

You know those books that make you feel like a kid again and full to bursting with all that could be? That's The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Luck seems to be smiling on me because the last couple of months I've stumbled across some incredibly delicious middle grade novels, and this is yet another one.

Basic premise: Oh gees, where to start...there are a number of intertwined storylines in this book. One focuses on Luna, who is abandoned in the woods, found by a witch, and instead of being taken to a family, raised by said witch. Don't worry, she's a Glinda, not a Wicked, although Xan is over five hundred years old. She accidentally turns Luna into a new witch by letting the baby drink moonlight. And that's when the magic starts.

Luna's mother is locked up for defying the Elders, who would sacrifice her child. Antain, nephew of one of the Elders who started the child sacrifice tradition to keep the people of the Protectorate in line, breaks with the Elders and becomes a carpenter instead, then later a father, whose child is to be sacrificed. All the while, Xan, together with a friendly Swamp Monster, Glerk, and dragon, Fyrian, work to raise Luna, who leaks magic onto everything and changes it. All of the story lines wind tighter and tighter around each other until they knot and then literally explode with the volcano underneath the woods. Did I mention there are paper birds that are enmagicked?

It's so much imagination to keep a reader riveted, and yet, I drank this book slowly, to savor all there is to discover. The one part I found slightly confusing is that many chapters begin with an unknown narrator telling a child a part of a story. I never could quite figure out who the narrator was. At one point, I thought it was Luna, looking back, but it wasn't entirely clear to me. I'm not sure if it was meant to remain uncertain and a little confusing, but that was the lasting effect for me.

Otherwise, I found this to be a nearly flawless weave of imagination into story. While there may be other flaws that other reviewers would find, the end effect was deep satisfaction, as if I'd finally found the kind of chocolate cake that actually leaves you feeling pleasantly full.

For other great reads this pumpkin season, roll on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's harvesting a bumper crop!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Book Review Club - Mark of the Dragonfly

The Mark of the Dragonfly
Jaleigh Johnson
middle grade / fantasy

This was my best summer read. It's a great beach book, and since I can't quite let go of sand and sun, I'm reviewing it.

Basic Premise: Girl saves world

A little more detail, you say?


Piper is a scrapper from the Meteor Fields of the Merrow Kingdom in the northern reaches of Solace, a world in which things fall through a hole in the sky from one world to another. There are hints that the world losing objects is ours and Solace is a parallel universe, but that isn't spelled out in book 1.

One of those objects turns out to be a girl, Anna, who is part human and part mechanical. She is sold to a ruthless politician/engineer (a new combination), Doloman, from the Dragonfly Kingdom. Merrow and Dragonfly are at war. Anna could be the key in turning that war, giving one side a weapons edge. Only problem - she seems irreparably broken. She won't wake up. Doloman journeys back to the north to find the scrapper who sold him Anna, hoping to learn more, but his caravan gets caught in a meteor storm. Enter Piper, who has a special (magical) gift with anything mechanical. She is a synergist. She discovers Anna in the caravan wreckage and takes her home to nurse her. In her presence, Anna reawakens, and they begin a journey of discovery that turns into one of flight as Anna's true identity as a machine becomes apparent, and her value.

It would be hard to sum up the story in fewer words. There is so much to discover. And I haven't even gotten to the chamelin on the train, Gee, who is a boy and also a winged creature. Or the train! For those who are Lord of the Rings fans, this will give you the same cozy, curl up and disappear in a fantastical adventure feel. Granted, there is a lot of world-building, and yes, information dumps. Watch out for those. The beginning is pock-marked with them. And, homage to Hunger Games. Piper is from Scrap Town Number 16 in the Territories and they're dirt poor.

Yet, the characters are interesting enough, the pacing fast enough, the mashing of steampunk and fantasy novel enough (and the sun and sand perfect enough) to forgive Johnson the dumps. In the end, I just had fun on this adventure, and I haven't said that in a good long time.

So, if you've feeling up for a jaunt into a fantastical world in which anything is possible, pick up The Mark of the Dragonfly. And for more great Fall Fun, take a gander through more Book Review Club reviews on Barrie Summy's site.