Book Review: The Belles

The BellesTitle: The Belles
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 434
Publisher: Freeform Books
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Review: I have to be honest that I struggled with what to say about “The Belles” because I found this book really disturbing. The novel has been described as “lush” and it is, with Clayton being extremely descriptive of the gowns, the setting, the food throughout the story, but for me after the initial few chapters, the excessive descriptions started to bother me. And then, midway through the novel I realized that this over-abundance of beautific descriptions was meant to be disturbing as to highlight how the notion of beauty has basically driven this society that Clayton created to madness, though they do not think they are mad. “The Belles” is a dark, disturbing novel that is a warning about what can happen when the desire to be beautiful reaches a point where reason is practically lost. The novel subtly explores the concept of slavery, yes that is what I feel the Belles are, even though they are celebrated, and the things people will do to keep making money off the backs of people. All in all, I realize that the point of the novel is to disturb the reader, to shake them up as the book is still with me days after I’ve finished it.

The strength of “The Belles” completely rides on the main character, Camellia (Camille) Beauregard’s, story. Camellia is a “Belle”, humans who have the power to make people beautiful, and has been trained since birth to harness her power with the intention of serving all the people the kingdom. She is one of six Belles of her generation who are debuting at the beginning of the book. She states that once she and her sisters debut, the previous generation leaves. This was my first disturbing thought – six Belles for an entire nation? Something wasn’t right. Soon, Camille realizes this exact notion when she first begins working at a tea house in the capital city. Then Camille replaces her sister Amber as the Queen’s favorite and she soon discovers how far people are willing to go to be beautiful, especially Princess Sophia. Clayton, I must say, wrote a perfect villain in Princess Sophia because it was clear that her desire to be beautiful, to mean something to someone, is what drove her to do the things she did, but her acts were so deplorable that I truly hated her. And this is where Clayton’s theme of slavery rings the loudest because Sophia has Camille to do some truly horrendous things and even though Camille knows they are wrong, she must obey. I truly felt for Camille and greatly wished she could stand up to Sophia in those moments but knew that for her, agreeing to perform those acts were all about survival. Camille does stand up to Sophia in her own way, but Sophia has ultimate power, which corrupts, and Camille unfortunately does not have enough power to truly fight Sophia. That power struggle was awful to read, butt also very real which truly added to this dark story.

I feel like “The Belles” is a true subversive book for our current time period as it hits on so many themes – the desire for beauty, power, slavery, exploitation, that it forces the reader to reflect on these themes that are uncomfortable but ones we need to ultimately examine. The Belles is the perfect book with which to have those conversations because it serves as a warning to us as to what can happen when we let our desire to be beautiful and our desire for power to get out of control.

Mini-Review: Code Name: Butterfly

Title: Code Name: Butterfly
Author: Ahlam Bharat, Translation by Nancy Roberts
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 90 pages
Publisher: Neem Tree Press
Review Copy: Copy from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Should you feel bad if your dad works for the Israeli occupiers? What if he loses his job? And how are you supposed to cope when someone close to you dies?

Butterfly is smart. Some people even say she’s shrewd, but that doesn’t make life any less confusing. Every day throws up new questions and some are too big for her to handle alone. Squirrelling away the difficult ones in her treasure chest, Butterfly creates a place of strength in her imagination. While her classmates turn to protest and violence, Butterfly finds her own form of resilience, her own secret way to find peace in a world of conflict and uncertainty.

Written with ironic humour and touching idealism, Butterfly looks back at a turbulent summer in her early teens, drawing us into her world of adult hypocrisy, sibling rivalries, power struggles with her school friends, unrequited love… and the daily tensions of Palestinian life under military occupation. A teenage perspective on one of the most protracted conflicts of our times, Code Name: Butterfly is a story for all teens grappling with friendship, family and the emotional storms ahead.

Review: Unfortunately American publishers export more novels than we import, therefore we miss out on numerous stories from around the world, specifically books in translation. That is why when I was offered the opportunity to read a book in translation, I jumped at the chance. Code Name: Butterfly allowed me a window in the world of a Palestinian teen who is trying to make sense and find her place in her world.

While no specific age is given, the main character, who never gives the reader her name and refers to herself as a butterfly, reminded me of my 7th grade students. At that age, they become goofy because puberty is hitting hard and they are trying to make sense of what their body is doing, as well as their brain moves into a different developmental stage and all of a sudden they are filled with all these questions and thoughts. Many times young teens tend to keep these questions to themselves, which is what our butterfly does – she keeps her questions in a mental treasure chest. I loved this aspect of her character because it was real to her and they way the author describes the chest and how she “writes” down the questions to put the chest, really brought to life the mind of a young teen.

In addition to her teenage struggles is the backdrop of living under oppression. Living in a village near an Israeli settlement, we learn what life is like for her family, friends, and the other people in her village. The tenuous relationship between the Palestinian and the Israeli people is shown through her father’s work at an Israeli farm in the settlement, as well as through the other systematic ways the Israeli’s control the Palestinian people. In one chapter, during summer vacation, due to the restrictions placed on her village the main character is not allowed to play outside. This completely broke my heart. And while these injustices to her people did not fully bring her down, a number of the questions that the main character asks is in relation to the treatment of her people and the question of when will they ever be free.

I really enjoyed this novella, specifically being with a character who is sweet, thoughtful, and mostly inquisitive. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into her life and the opportunity to set into the shoes of someone whose life is completely different from mine. My only wish is that this book was more readily available. It is on some book sites, but you’ll have to do some searching. I highly recommend librarians and teachers find a way to get this book and share it with your students, as books like Code Name: Butterfly will open up the world to them.

 

Book Review: Disappeared

Title: Disappeared
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 326 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.

Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.

Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.

Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.

In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

Review: Francisco Stork’s newest novel is a timely one that when put in the right hands would help folks understand how immigration, the hows and whys people come to America, is a very complex subject. Told in alternating voice between siblings Sara and Emiliano we learn the reason why the two are forced to leave everything and everyone they love behind to come to the United States. The alternate voice works especially well in telling this story as the events in Sara and Emiliano’s two stories are linked in a way that as a reader you realize is on a collision course. Of course, these normally close siblings are facing tough adult decisions, but as often when one wants to mull things over quietly, the two never share their concerns with the other. It’s a classic trope to create tension, but it worked really well in Disappeared. Each of the reasons the siblings have for not confiding in the other as they usually would, are compelling and realistic. There are consequences for both if they confide in the other and neither wants to pull their sibling into their drama. Unfortunately, both realize how their two situations are related, but at that point in the story both siblings are struggling for their lives. It is this realization, however, that pulls them closer and helps them cross the border.

I loved that the majority of the novel was set in Juarez, giving a reader a glimpse of what life is like in Mexico as a result of the cartels. In the novel, Juarez is recovering, slowly, from the damage the cartels left on the city but the corruption and influence the cartels had is still felt in some way. Sara and Emiliano have carved out a comfortable life in Juarez, but we do see a perspective of life from the poorest inhabitants to the richest. We learn about the many different ways the people of Juarez either fought back against the cartels or managed to live with them. Sara and Emiliano are examples of this complexity and this novel highlights how despite a community’s struggle, it still has home and home has meaning. Learning to love Juarez the way Sara and Emiliano do really hits home and hurts when they are forced to leave. It truly is a heartbreaking moment when they realize that they have to leave everything they hold dear because their lives are in danger. With any book, you want the main character to win, but with Disappeared you know that the happy ending both siblings wanted for their lives is over and now they have to start a new, and they are not really happy about it. This subverts the “happy immigrant” trope and really highlights how coming into the United States, specifically crossing the border, is never an easy decision for a person to make.

My only quibble with this novel is that I feel it ended to soon. I felt like Sara and Emiliano’s story was unfinished. I wanted to know if the decision they made (can’t tell because of spoilers) really paid off. I was left wanting more by that ending, but then again, the writer in me enjoyed that their story was practically unfinished because the story of immigration is not a complete story. It is forever changing and where we are in our country’s politics, at a point where compassion and understand for our fellow human beings must be reinforced. Therefore, Disappeared is not a novel about what happens when immigrants arrive in the US, but their story of how and why they come to the US. More of these stories must be told and for that reason, for the chance to live in Sara and Emiliano’s shoes for a brief moment, made this novel worth it.


Interview with Francisco X. Stork on Latinx in Kids Lit site. There is a hint about what is next for Sara and Emiliano – yes!

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

New Releases

A whole slew of new releases this week. The highly anticipated Dear Martin finally hits shelves, Malinda Lo’s newest is out this week, as well as National Book Award finalist “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter”. This is not a good week for my wallet.

Dear MartinDear Martin by Nic Stone 

Crown Books for Young Readers

Justyce McAllister is a good kid. Fourth in his class and captain of the debate team at his prestigious prep-school–where he’s one of only a handful of African-American students–he’s destined for success. But none of that prevents him from being falsely accused of a crime and held in too-tight handcuffs for hours.

With eyes wide open, Justyce begins writing letters to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to process his experiences, and respond through the lens of Dr. King’s teachings. But when Justyce falls victim to the exact kind of incident he’s worked so hard to avoid–an encounter with an off-duty police officer that ends in tragedy–everything Justyce believed about “The King’s Way” is called into question.

As Justyce struggles to process through his grief and the way he’s being negatively portrayed in the media, he’s faced with the biggest challenge of all: in a world full of odds that are obviously stacked against him, who is he going to be?

 

A Line in the DarkA Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Dutton Books for Young Readers

The line between best friend and something more is a line always crossed in the dark.

Jess Wong is Angie Redmond’s best friend. And that’s the most important thing, even if Angie can’t see how Jess truly feels. Being the girl no one quite notices is OK with Jess anyway. While nobody notices her, she’s free to watch everyone else. But when Angie begins to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school, Jess can see it coming a mile away. Suddenly her powers of observation are more curse than gift.

As Angie drags Jess further into Margot’s circle, Jess discovers more than her friend’s growing crush. Secrets and cruelty lie just beneath the carefree surface of this world of wealth and privilege, and when they come out, Jess knows Angie won’t be able to handle the consequences.

When the inevitable darkness finally descends, Angie will need her best friend.

“It doesn’t even matter that she probably doesn’t understand how much she means to me. It’s purer this way. She can take whatever she wants from me, whenever she wants it, because I’m her best friend.”

A Line in the Dark is a story of love, loyalty, and murder.

 

I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Knopf Books for Young Readers

Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

 

Like Water by Rebecca Podos
Balzer + Bray

A gorgeously written and deeply felt literary young adult novel of identity, millennial anxiety, and first love, from the widely acclaimed author of The Mystery of Hollow Places

In Savannah Espinoza’s small New Mexico hometown, kids either flee after graduation or they’re trapped there forever. Vanni never planned to get stuck—but that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, leaving her and her mother to care for him. Now, she doesn’t have much of a plan at all: living at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, distracting herself with one boy after another.

That changes the day she meets Leigh. Disillusioned with small-town life and looking for something greater, Leigh is not a “nice girl.” She is unlike anyone Vanni has met, and a friend when Vanni desperately needs one. Soon enough, Leigh is much more than a friend. But caring about another person stirs up the moat Vanni has carefully constructed around herself, and threatens to bring to the surface the questions she’s held under for so long.

With her signature stunning writing, Rebecca Podos, author of The Mystery of Hollow Places, has crafted a story of first love and of the complex ways in which the deepest parts of us are hidden, even from ourselves.

 

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

Banned Books Week: Sex in YA

It’s Banned Books week and to celebrate I thought I’d talk about a subject that many books are banned for – sex! Yes, that three letter word that often throws many adults in a tizzy when they think about children and teenagers being exposed to the natural thoughts and feelings that we all have. There is this thought, especially in America, that if we don’t talk about sex, read about sex, teach about sex, that teenagers will not engage in sex. Unfortunately, this silly myth persists despite evidence of the contrary. And authors have consistently bucked up against this belief and included sex into their novels.

In the past YA novels have been very careful with their depictions of sex, usually alluding to it with a lovely romantic “fade out”. However, I’ve noticed a difference in the past few years as more and more novels are being more umm, specific, in the descriptions of sex. In addition to including these moments, characters have also had discussions about their feelings, whether positive or negative, towards sex and their sexual identity. I’ve also noticed an increase in a discussions of consent regarding sex as the couple in question has a healthy chat prior and often the subject of protection is addressed as well.

It has been refreshing to see this change come about in the YA world as teens are much more sophisticated since they have access to so much information. The experiences and discussions YA characters face mirror many of the feelings teenagers have. Reading about a character who shares the same thoughts, has the same confused feelings towards sex can help many teens understand that sex, and all of its complex messiness, is perfectly natural and a healthy part of becoming an adult. It can also help teens understand the concept of consent, the importance of using protection, as well as help our LGBTQ teens see themselves on the page (see LGBTQ Teens Speak Out where some of my students speak out on the need for more representation). This movement in the YA world to be more open and honest about sex is encouraging to me, not only as a writer, but as a teacher who works with an age group who is starting to question the world around them. And so, I thought I’d finish off this post with two books I loved that handled sex and sexual identity in a beautiful way.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

 

 Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

 

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

 

 

What books have you read recently that you think got sex right?

The Next YA Movie Series

Earlier this month, the CEO from Lionsgate Films, which produced the Twilight and Hunger Games films, stated that he would love to produce more films or spinoffs from both of the series provided that both authors agree to it. Twitter was quick to point out that both series are well past their expired date and that there are many new series that could be adapted to movies. Others pointed out that now is a good time to adapt a series that has a character of color as the lead and I couldn’t agree more. So, I have some suggestions for the Lionsgate CEO for series with diverse leads that need to be made into a movie now!

All of these series are much loved with a ton of fans, so their movies would come with audiences ready to throw down tons of cash. All of these books also deal with deeper issues such as race and sexism, which, if done well, would add depth to a movie and have audiences not only be entertained by a great story, but think about those very same issues in our world. In addition, a few of these series are not finished, so the publishers could pull in new audiences by producing the first movie and having fans anticipate the second. It just makes great business sense, as we all know that movies with diverse casts to very well. So Lionsgate, contact these author’s publishers & agents and get negotiations started!

Killer of Enemies Series 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.

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

On the Fives court, everyone is equal.

And everyone is dangerous.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra’s near-comatose abuelo begins to say “Lo siento” over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep…. Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.

Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future.

Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.