Book Review: He Said She Said

Title: He Said She Said
Author: Kwame Alexander
Genres: Romance, Contemporary
Pages: 330
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers
Review Copy: ebook from Amazon
Availability: On Shelves now

he saidSummary: He says: Omar T-Diddy Smalls has got it made: a full football ride to UMiami, hero-worship status at school, and pick of any girl at West Charleston High.

She says: Football, shmootball. Here’s what Claudia Clarke cares about: the hungry, the poor, the disenfranchised, Harvard, her GPA, Pat Conroy, the staggering teen pregnancy rate, investigative journalism…the list goes on. She does NOT have a minute to waste on Mr. T-Diddy Smalls and his harem of bimbos.

He Said, She Said is a fun and fresh novel from Kwame Alexander that throws these two high school seniors together when they unexpectedly end up leading the biggest social protest this side of the Mississippi—with a lot of help from Facebook and Twitter.

The stakes are high, the romance is hot, and when these worlds collide, behold the fireworks! — cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I have yet to read a “hip hop” novel because the genre doesn’t appeal to me, but I thought I’d check out “He Said, She Said” because I know of Kwame Alexander’s work with school kids and admire his Book-in-a-Day program. I know he is a talented poet and children’s author, so I was looking forward to reading his first young adult novel. Unfortunately, Alexander’s novel didn’t sway me into reading more “hip hop” novels.

When I teach creative writing with my students, I encourage them to “show, not tell” by adding dialogue to their short stories. Usually, in a creative work, the use of dialogue adds to the story, moves the plot forward, reveals character, etc. In Alexander’s novel, the overuse of a dialogue backfires and instead leads to more telling, rather than showing. Because Alexander relied heavily on dialogue to tell his story, I never got a sense of setting, of the physical world Omar and Claudia live in. For example, they protest that their school is run down, but there is not a single description of the school. In what way was the school run down? Were the walls filled with graffiti? Were all the toilets broken? Were there broken desks everywhere?  Dialogue in a story is helpful, but all the senses need to be engaged for a reader to really lose themselves in a story and Alexander does not make use of all the senses.

I’m big into writers creating well-rounded characters, flawed characters, characters that make us root for them. Again, unfortunately for Alexander, the male main character, Omar “T-Diddy” Smalls, is extremely unlikeable. The reader is supposed to not like him in the beginning so that we can see his growth, but the change truly comes a little to late. I think Alexander tried to have the reader like Omar earlier, but he would always ruin a moment of Omar’s growth by some gross sexist comment towards Claudia and “getting in her panties”. I understand teenage boys can be that foul, but even in his quiet moments, Omar’s thoughts were the same. It got really annoying after a while. I also felt that Claudia could have been written better instead of written as “the hard to get girl who eventually crumbles to the bad boy’s charm”.  It’s such a bad trope and not very true to life. At times it felt as if the feelings Claudia began to have for Omar came out from no where and not from a genuine place. In fact, both Omar and Claudia didn’t feel very genuine at all. They were one dimensional characters that were often there to occasionally shout platitudes towards fighting the man, and to create a very unconvincing love story.

He Said, She Said is a good premise – two unlikely people finding love while finding a purpose – but in execution, the story is lacking. I feel that Alexander could have relied less on the use of dialogue (literally pages at a time) and spent more time constructing the story. He Said She Said could have used a few more rounds of revision in order to make this a truly engrossing novel.

Recommendation: Skip It.

Mini-review: Akata Witch

Title: Akata Wakatalskjsljdsitch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genres: fantasy, contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Viking Children’s
Review copy: the charming library
Availability: April 14, 2011

Summary: Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ve been meaning to read Akata Witch for a while now since the cover is pretty awesome and everything by Nnedi Okorafor is bound to be great. This contemporary fantasy set in Nigeria has pretty much all the things I love in fiction — magic, friendship, and good food. Sunny, Chichi, Orlu and Sasha have completely different personalities and lives, but that only serves to enhance the camraderie they have. The solid worldbuilding neatly fuses the magical with the ordinary and Sunny’s initiation into the world of free agents, juju, and Leopard Knocks is fascinating to read. I only wish I had read this book sooner. I am definitely looking forward to the sequel Breaking Kola.

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love a good contemporary fantasy.

9 Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic Books Starring PoC

December always seems like the perfect time for looking back and making lists, so here are nine dystopian/post-apocalyptic books starring people of color:

Ship BreakerShip Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota–and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life…

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.

PartialsPartials by Dan Wells
The human race is all but extinct after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by RM, a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island while the Partials have mysteriously retreated. The threat of the Partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to RM in more than a decade. Our time is running out.

Kira, a sixteen-year-old medic-in-training, is on the front lines of this battle, seeing RM ravage the community while mandatory pregnancy laws have pushed what’s left of humanity to the brink of civil war, and she’s not content to stand by and watch. But as she makes a desperate decision to save the last of her race, she will find that the survival of humans and Partials alike rests in her attempts to uncover the connections between them—connections that humanity has forgotten, or perhaps never even knew were there.

The Summer PrinceThe Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Três shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Três will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

TankbornTankborn by Karen Sandler
Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. GENs are gestated in a tank and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.

When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds secrets and surprises; not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul’s great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night.

After weeks of toiling in their Assignments, mystifying circumstances enable Kayla and Mishalla to reunite. Together they hatch a plan to save the disappearing children. Yet can GENs really trust humans? Both girls must put their lives and hearts at risk to crack open a sinister conspiracy, revealing secrets no one is ready to face.

The Immortal RulesThe Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa
To survive in a ruined world, she must embrace the darkness…

Allison Sekemoto survives in the Fringe, the outermost circle of a walled-in city. By day, she and her crew scavenge for food. By night, any one of them could be eaten. Some days, all that drives Allie is her hatred of them—the vampires who keep humans as blood cattle. Until the night Allie herself dies and becomes one of the monsters.

Forced to flee her city, Allie must pass for human as she joins a ragged group of pilgrims seeking a legend—a place that might have a cure for the disease that killed off most of civilization and created the rabids, the bloodthirsty creatures who threaten human and vampire alike. And soon Allie will have to decide what and who is worth dying for… again.

OrleansOrleans by Sherri L. Smith
After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.

Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.

killer of enemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac
Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones—people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human—and there was everyone else who served them.

Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets—genetically engineered monsters—turned on them and are now loose on the world.

Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun.

As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.

proxyProxy by Alex London
Knox was born into one of the City’s wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy. His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

diverseDiverse Energies edited by Tobias S. Buckell and Joe Monti
In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.

In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more.

Book Review: Diverse Energies

diverse
Title: Diverse Energies
Edited By: Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction
Pages: 314
Publisher: Tu Books an imprint of Lee and Low
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves Now

Summary:  In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.

In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I was excited to get my hands on Diverse Energies. Dystopia is an area of young adult literature that has been flourishing over the past few years especially following the release of The Hunger Games, but there is still a need for more works featuring protagonists from diverse backgrounds. To spell it out more clearly, it would be great to see more young adult dystopias with protagonists that are something other than straight white teens. With Diverse Energies, the editors and contributors were hoping to help fill this need and create change in the landscape of young adult science fiction.

Before the stories begin, readers find a quote from John F. Kennedy: “The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.” This demonstrates the spirit of this book. There is a high value placed on diversity. The stories shared here reveal the strength and beauty of that diversity even in the midst of chaos.

Dystopian stories typically have a corrupt entity taking unfair advantage of the masses often after war or another apocalyptic event. Since that is a fairly standard storyline, I was wondering how unique these short stories could be. It turns out that the voices were distinct and each one has a different storyline with its own particular  flavor. There are stories of war, rebellious robots, child slavery, extreme economic disparity, time travel, among others.

Most of the stories manage to end with a bit of hope, but like many dystopians, they are all pretty bleak so they do tug on emotions. In the very first story by Ellen Oh, the pain took me by surprise. I didn’t expect so much intensity right away. These authors meant business. The very next story, Freshee’s Frogurt by Daniel H. Wilson, is told in a lighter tone though the subject matter is also intense. I appreciated hearing the stories told in radically different ways.

An anthology for me is like an appetizer sampler. The variety almost ensures that there will be something to appeal to everyone. Also, there isn’t such a large investment required of the reader when stories are so brief. I was happy to meet some new authors through this book and will be seeking out more of their works.

Recommendation: Dystopian fans buy it now and even if you aren’t a dystopian fan, I would recommend you read it soon. The worlds and characters are rich and it is amazing to see what the authors have imagined into being within just a few pages.

Extras: 
A Chat with Diverse Energies Authors
Joe Monti Discusses Diverse Energies and Book Covers
Excerpt from Diverse Energies

Are We Food?

One night as I was reading a novel, a character description, one that I’ve seen in countless stories, struck me as odd. The character in question was described as having olive skin. I know the type of picture that is coming to your mind when I use the words “olive skin”. However, on that particular night, whether I had just had a martini or seen a picture of olives or something, but suddenly the words “olive skin” to describe characters of color just didn’t feel right.

Let’s look at Exhibit A: A picture of people with “olive skin”
oliveskin
Exhibit B: A picture of olives.
olives-herbs-ck-1065517-l
Exhibit C: Do these olives fit?
olives-wallpaper
Do you see what I see? The images don’t exactly match. Now, I do know there are a variety of olives out there and maybe Exhibit C olives could work, but the question still remains, why and how did writers ever come up with using olive as a skin tone? As someone who falls into the olive skin tone category, I’m a bit insulted because my skin looks nothing like an olive. I don’t have greenish undertones to my skin, I have yellow. And really, human beings only have yellow or red undertones to their skin, but that is an entirely different essay on an entirely different type of blog.

 
While I’m focusing on the use of olive skin tones as my point, there is a larger question at work here. Why are characters of color often described using food metaphors? Think about it. We have chocolate, caramel, brown sugar, honey skin. Granted, I have seen white characters as creamy and milk, but there is a large reliance on authors to use food as a descriptor for characters of color. It’s not just non-POC writers who use food, but writers of color as well. We’ve internalized the use of food to describe each other in our communities so often, that it makes sense that we use the same descriptions in our writing. We’ve internalized these descriptions for so long, that we don’t recognize them as potentially harmful. Maybe it’s time for this to change.

 

 
There has been a call by a number of POC writers, specifically in the Science Fiction/Fantasy community, to end using food descriptions as metaphors. Many authors have written blog posts about how to write character of colors and get away from the stereotypical food descriptions. For me, at first I was unsure of how I felt on the topic, but when I was revising my novel I decided to not use food to describe any of my characters. It was a challenge for me, to change my way of thinking, but I am proud that I was able to write good character descriptions without having to use stereotypical metaphors. So, for any writers that read our blog, I challenge you. Try to write your characters without describing them as food (same for using almond eyes to note someone is Asian). Describe your characters differently. Maybe use a different metaphor; I read one that compared a character’s skin color to a brass doorknob. Or, as my mentor suggested, write skin tone in contrast to something different, like their clothing. It’s really up to you. The point is to extend your thinking and find unique and different ways to describe your characters.

Mini-review: Stormdancer

yuckTitle:  Stormdancer (The Lotus War #1)
Author: Jay Kristoff
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 313
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Review copy: the library
Availability: September 18, 2012

Summary: The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: To be honest, I was skeptical of this book’s self-proclaimed status as “Japanese steampunk.”* Still, I decided to give it chance because I love griffins and the book blurb promised me griffins. Sadly, my skepticism and doubts were not unfounded — Stormdancer’s use of Japanese culture as a convenient exotic setting was off-putting, to say the least.

The book takes place in Shima Isles (“Island” isles? Hm.) where Yukiko befriends a griffin (“thunder tiger”) and goes up against the dark conspiracies afoot in the empire. I did end up loving Buruu the griffin, who is pretty much the best part of the entire book. The prose was extremely detailed and occasionally beautiful, but this was also the book’s failing. The prose was so jampacked with detail that it felt like a wikipedia article full of feudal Japan factoids had somehow fused with the book, which brings me to–

Unfortunately, the book’s casual treatment of Japan as an exotic fantasy backdrop prevented me from enjoying the story. This ranges from the generic Asian-y atmosphere of the book to the offensively cavalier use of Japanese culture. In addition, Japanese words are misused and mistranslated in both the text and the glossary. Throughout the book, there’s a strong sense of cultural appropriation and shallow, careless research.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I believe this saying also applies to books. When it came to creating a book that respects the culture it uses as its setting, this village fell down on the job.

Recommendation: Just skip it.

For more in-depth reviews: the Book Smugglers and Dear Author
Further reading: Ellen Oh on The Importance of Proper Research

*Steampunk set in shogunate Japan is sort of like setting steampunk in medieval England instead of Victorian England. Um, what?