Book Review: Ghosts

ghostsTitle: Ghosts
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Genres:  Graphic Novel/Magical Realism
Pages: 240
Publisher: Graphix
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister’s sake — and her own.

Review: With Hispanic Heritage month just finishing and Dia De Los Muertos coming in a little over a week, I thought Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic novel would be a good fit for this week’s review. I’ve never reading anything by Telgemeier before, nor have I reviewed a graphic novel either, so I went into this book without any preconceived notions. I saw that the characters were Mexican and thought – cool! I saw the inclusion of Dia de los Muertos and got excited about an author who incorporated a culturally significant holiday. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay that way.

At it’s heart, Ghosts is a story about family, specifically sisters. At the beginning of the story there is a bit of tension between the sister, specifically on Cat’s behalf as Maya seems none the wiser, because they are moving to a small town in Northern California due to Maya’s cystic fibrosis. We also learn that the two shared friends which gives us insight into how much Maya depends on Cat, and how often Cat is responsible for her sister. While there is love between the two, and they are close, Cat does yearn to establish herself apart from her sister. Initially this makes Cat seem like a bit of a brat, but to me, she was written as the typical teenager who is trying to adjust to life just when peer relationships are becoming important. I was actually endeared to Cat because of it as I could totally understand where she was coming from. It also made her growth more believable. Through meeting friends and Maya’s illness taking a turn for the worse, Cat is able to come to a place of acceptance and be open to her new life in Bahia de la Luna.

I love magical realism and Ghosts is swimming with it because, well it is essentially a ghost story. Cat is really afraid of ghosts as they make her think about death, especially in terms of Maya’s illness, so much of Cat’s growth comes with accepting that she lives in a town that is filled with harmless ghosts. At the beginning Cat runs away from the ghosts because she believes they harmed Maya, while Maya just wants to get to know the ghosts. Eventually, in a lovely heart to heart, Cat decides to go to the midnight Dia de los Metros party the town has for the ghosts on behalf of Maya. This is also where the book falters. In incorporating Dia de los Muertos at this point of the story, Telgemeier changes the meaning of the holiday to fit the narrative. The celebration of Dia de los Muertos doesn’t come out of no where as Telgemeier does a good job of explaining the ofrendas, and having the girls make an alter for their grandmother, but the main crux of the holiday for Telgemeier is the big party at the end. Though, I will say this reminded me of the ending of The Book of Life (if I’m remembering it correctly) so I am a bit conflicted with Telgemeier’s use of a festival like atmosphere to the day instead of the close family atmosphere. I do know that Dia de los Muertos festivals are growing as more and more people come to celebrate the holiday, for example, my school incorporates Dia de los Muertos into our Halloween activities as we create a communal alter to celebrate deceased family members, so while her use of the holiday in such a manner is troublesome, it does reflect how the holiday is currently changing.

What I did love, besides the story of sisterly love, is how diverse this novel is. Bahia de la Luna is a small town but actually reflects the population of California as I know it. The friends that Cat meets are of all different backgrounds and in crowd scenes, the variety of the human palette is reflected. Telgemeier also has a character state that the ghosts prefer to speak in Spanish because many of the ghost there are from Mexico (which CA originally was) and she doesn’t translate the Spanish. All the interactions with the ghosts are in Spanish therefore the reader must figure out what the ghosts are saying if they don’t understand Spanish. To me, this inclusion is important because I feel like when Spanish, or any language really, is translated on the page, it’s made for the comfort of the reader and may not actually fit the story. The fact that her publishers allowed her to not translate the story made me respect them so much, and added to my enjoyment.

Recommendation: Overall, I enjoyed the book for it’s sweet story despite it’s troublesome elements. I think before this is shared with kids, an adult reads it for themselves and makes their own decision. Or even, read it with a group of students and use it as a learning tool for Dia de los Muertos.

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Review: Mirror in the Sky

25802922Title: Mirror in the Sky
Author: Aditi Khorana
Genres: Science Fiction, Contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Razorbill
Review copy: Library
Availability: June 21st 2016

Summary: For Tara Krishnan, navigating Brierly, the academically rigorous prep school she attends on scholarship, feels overwhelming and impossible. Her junior year begins in the wake of a startling discovery: A message from an alternate Earth, light years away, is intercepted by NASA. This means that on another planet, there is another version of Tara, a Tara who could be living better, burning brighter, because of tiny differences in her choices.

The world lights up with the knowledge of Terra Nova, the mirror planet, and Tara’s life on Earth begins to change. At first, small shifts happen, like attention from Nick Osterman, the most popular guy at Brierly, and her mother playing hooky from work to watch the news all day. But eventually those small shifts swell, the discovery of Terra Nova like a black hole, bending all the light around it.

As a new era of scientific history dawns and Tara’s life at Brierly continues its orbit, only one thing is clear: Nothing on Earth–or for Tara–will ever be the same again. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: If you’re into space (and who isn’t, considering all the exciting discoveries happening in the last few years), then Mirror in the Sky has, from the start, an arresting premise. Tara Krishnan is starting junior year at prep school without her best friend when the world is rocked by a discovery of, well, another alternate Earth somewhere in space. The effects of the discovery start to influence Tara’s life little by little.

Of course, as with most science fiction, a certain amount of good ol’ suspension of disbelief needs to happen. With this book in particular, I had to work especially hard to suspend any disbelief. I had a hard time believing the physics explanation introduced to explain a parallel Earth where they had their own version of Virginia Woolf, named Virginia Wool — and so on. (To be fair, I definitely switched out of my high school physics class in favor of TA-ing for English… so I may just be bad at physics.)

Tara’s narration of the changes in her world – in school and in the universe – is strong and distinct, with plenty of detail. There’s a definite melancholy, here-is-what-i-am-thinking tone to it, which may or may not be your cup of tea. There’s also Tara’s life at Brierly as she’s plunged into the social lives of the popular kids. It gets very Mean Girls, but with a much more serious tone to it, which melded well with all the space intrigue.

Honestly, if you need your sci-fi to have a strong scientific basis, or if you dislike school drama, then Mirror in the Sky may not be for you. These factors, along with the final events at the end, threw me for a loop.

But if you’re looking for a solid YA science fiction book, Mirror in the Sky is it. Definitely check it out when you get the chance! In my opinion, YA can always use more sci-fi, and this is a great addition.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, especially if you like science fiction!

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Review: Rebel of the Sands

rebelsandsTitle: Rebel of the Sands
Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Genres:  Science Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 314
Publisher: Penguin
Review Copy: My local library
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from.

Destined to wind up “wed or dead,” Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him…or that he’d help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is. — Copy image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I’m going to admit that when I first read Hamilton’s debut novel, I was so involved with the story that I read it in a day. However, there was something about the novel that didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I decided to read the novel again. I figured that I read it too quickly and might have missed some parts of the story, hence why I was feeling a bit incomplete. I couldn’t figure out why I had this, “I loved it but…” feeling. I enjoyed the main character, Amani, and her male counterpart, Jin; I enjoyed the adventure the two went on and enjoyed the reveal of Amani’s gift. So, why was I hesitant about this novel?

Then it hit me. I don’t feel like this novel is all that original. Hamilton’s novel hits all the checkmarks of all the current trend in female driven hero’s journey novels (outsider girl – check, desires to live a different life – check, meets handsome rogue stranger – check, leaves in a hurry/goes on the run – check, falls in love, but doesn’t act on it – check, discovers secret power that rogue stranger knew about but she didn’t – check, joins a rebellion – check, survives first fight to live on for sequel – check). The “difference” here is that Amani’s world was inspired by Arabian mythology and culture and the way that Hamilton incorporated the mythology and culture is what bothered me.

One theme that rubbed me the wrong way was Hamilton’s portrayal of Amani’s society’s attitude towards women. In order for Amani to stand out, to be original, the oppression that Amani experienced from her society was a bit over the top. Throughout the story Amani states how Miraji men believe women are lacking in intellect and treat them as nothing but property. This is a real stereotype attributed to Arabian culture and I was bothered by the fact that Hamilton chose to include this stereotype in her novel as a reason for Amani to rebel. I would have like a more compelling reason for Amani’s desire to leave her home instead of relying on a harmful stereotype of a culture.

I believe that Hamilton was really trying to be original with the world of her novel, and I will say that she did an excellent job of world building to make Amani’s world believable. In the story, we learn of more of the outside world other than Miraji and Hamilton creates a unique and interesting mythology with the First Beings and the Destroyer of Worlds. The rules of magic that she created made sense to the story. Her characters are well written and she also passes the Bechdel Test where Amani develops a friendship with another girl and they have conversations that don’t revolve around men. To see her develop a healthy female friendship in a hero’s journey was actually very refreshing.

Recommendation: Overall, I am filled with mixed emotions for “Rebel of the Sands”. There was much that I enjoyed from the novel and some parts of it bothered me. I found that when the story ended, I wasn’t quite ready to leave Amani and Jin and am looking forward to seeing where their next journey takes them.

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Review: The Girl from Everywhere

girl fromTitle: The Girl from Everywhere (The Girl from Everywhere #1)
Author: Heidi Heilig
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 464
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Review copy: Library
Availability: February 16th, 2016

Summary: Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination. As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.

But the end to it all looms closer every day. Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence. For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters. She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love. Or she could disappear. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When I first read the premise of The Girl From Everywhere, I was at once intrigued and baffled. Sailing across the centuries? Mythical lands? Time travel? That’s an awful lot going on. Given my love of fantasy and myth, I was more than ready to give it a try, even so.

The whole ‘sailing through the centuries to possibly mythical lands’ business works, once you decide to go with the flow and accept it — which is admittedly a little difficult, given that the book jumps into Nix’s seafaring, time-traveling life with very little explanation. But when you do get with the program, it’s a fun ride. Nix and her father’s ship crew sail to lands both real and mystical in a variety of times. The colorful descriptions of each place — little details such as the spread of New York food — bring each destination to life.

The casual interweaving of the mythical with the realistic is definitely one of the story’s strengths. The storytelling does take on a flowing, lyrical tone — which might or might not be your thing. At certain points, though, this takes an unfortunate turn as the vivid, descriptive style of the book manages to skip over actual, crucial plot details and set-up. There were several times when I was left flipping back through the book, baffled at a plot development that came out of nowhere. To be fair, I may not have been paying attention enough.

Though the novel’s perspective is that of the heroine, Nix, sometimes it didn’t feel like it. This may have been why several plot points seemed to come out of nowhere. As things happen and Nix makes crucial decisions, her thought process was occasionally left out of the equation. Even though Nix is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters — diverse in their backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexuality — it was hard to get a sense of who they were. The varying settings of the story outshone the characters — all except Kashmir, ship crew member and one corner of Nix’s love triangle. He was a lot of fun, and his moments with Nix were pretty cute.

The one thing about the many locales of The Girl From Everywhere that I enjoyed the most was its honesty. While it definitely did not go into Colonialism 101 (if only), certain truths weren’t avoided — such as the destruction of Hawaii’s sovereignty in the past and other historical injustices. This, more than anything else, won me over. I’d love to see more unflinching looks at history in YA lit.

The premise alone makes The Girl From Everywhere worth reading. If you’re a big fan of adventures on the high seas and time travel, then check this book out!

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re into the premise of time travel via sailing. Otherwise, maybe just borrow it someday.

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For the Record

21424692Title: For the Record
Author: Charlotte Huang
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 307
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Review copy: Library
Availability: November 10th, 2015

Summary: Chelsea thought she knew what being a rock star was like… until she became one. After losing a TV talent show, she slid back into small-town anonymity. But one phone call changed everything. Now she’s the lead singer of the band Melbourne, performing in sold-out clubs every night and living on a bus with three gorgeous and talented guys. The bummer is that the band barely tolerates her. And when teen heartthrob Lucas Rivers take an interest in her, Chelsea is suddenly famous, bringing Melbourne to the next level—not that they’re happy about that. Her feelings for Beckett, Melbourne’s bassist, are making life even more complicated.
 
Chelsea only has the summer tour to make the band—and their fans—love her. If she doesn’t, she’ll be back in Michigan for senior year, dying a slow death. The paparazzi, the haters, the grueling schedule… Chelsea believed she could handle it. But what if she can’t? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: For the Record chronicles small-town girl Chelsea when she joins a band on tour after losing on a music talent TV show (basically, the fictional equivalent of American Idol). She rocks out, falls in love, and gets famous — definitely a roller coaster of sorts. I read the entire book in one sitting, unable to tear my eyes away.

The events of For the Record are very much told and experienced in the present, in a linear fashion. The bus goes from one stop to the next, and Chelsea grows as a rock star with each show. The tour details and band drama provide an inside look at what goes on during tours (or maybe not? I don’t know, having never been a teen music sensation).

The story is so much in the present, in fact, that references to Chelsea’s backstory — that she was ostracized in high school, starred in an American Idol equivalent, and then signed on to replace the missing lead singer of the band Melbourne — ring almost hollow. It felt like there was an entire prequel missing, and I’d been thrown into the middle of something. Chelsea’s backstory, her history with her best friend Mandy, and her crush on Beckett all felt like facts told to the reader. I hate to trot out the tired old cliche of “show, don’t tell,” but it feels relevant in this case.

This is definitely a read that reels you in, but only if you can manage to suspend your disbelief when it comes to character motivations and the like. The drama and non-stop grind of show after show keeps you reading. Still, when I finished the book, I couldn’t say for certain that I understood any of the heroes of this story.

If you’re into rock-n-roll band stories and the lives of the famous, definitely pick up For the Record to read sometime.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Review: American Ace

American AceTitle: American Ace
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 123
Review copy: Purchased at local bookstore
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This riveting novel in verse, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Toni Morrison, explores American history and race through the eyes of a teenage boy embracing his newfound identity.

Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.

But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.

Review: 
It’s funny to think about identity,
Dad said. Now I wonder how much of us
we inherit, and how much we create.

Connor and his family go through some soul-searching as they find out their heritage is something other than what they had always believed. We see the unfolding story through Connor’s eyes. His family has suffered the loss of his beloved Nonna and Connor is concerned about his father’s grief and possible depression. Otherwise life had been moving along as expected. Connor spends a lot of time with his dad as he practices driving to get his license. Things become complicated quickly though when Connor’s father explains that he has no idea who his father was. The journey to discover their family history leads them to new ways of thinking about themselves and the society they inhabit. After learning about their more complicated heritage, Connor sees his school in a new way.

I walked between classes in slow motion,
seeing the ancient intertribal wars
still being fought, in the smallest gestures.
Little things I hadn’t noticed before:
the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.

The story is delivered in nine parts containing five vignettes each. These are made up of two twelve line stanzas written in iambic pentameter. I often forget that poetry can be incredibly mathematical. Such a structure makes for extremely deliberate choices. This format meant there wasn’t much room for explanation. Nelson kept things tight. I appreciate that and so will readers looking for something quick yet meaningful. I almost always enjoy a novel in verse. I like the way Nelson delivers small packages of information and makes every word count. The titles are even important.

In part seven, the text shifts a bit and becomes a paper for Connor’s Honors History class. This brought in something I really appreciated. Photos of airmen from WWII are included every few pages. These added a lot to the story. With the photos, the pilots became something more than history. They became individuals with lives and stories of their own. In the author’s note, Nelson explains about the information for Connor’s report, “I did not invent any of the facts Connor learns….That part of the story is true. And still amazing.”

One thing did shake me out of the story a bit. The setting appears to be the present day since Connor uses google and his father has rapid DNA testing. With Connor being a teen, it seems a little strange that his grandfather is old enough to have been a pilot in WWII. My grandfather fought in the war and my children are older than Connor. It sort of works because Connor’s father has a child and grandchildren from a previous relationship so he was not young when he had Connor. It made me do some math though because it seemed difficult to believe.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of verse novels or enjoy historical novels and want something quick. Otherwise, borrow it someday. I truly enjoyed the book, but if I were recommending Nelson’s poetry, I would first hand someone A Wreath for Emmett Till and How I Discovered Poetry.

Extra: Warning – the following interview reveals their family heritage. I tried not to do that here since the publisher’s summary didn’t. If you want to know precisely what history this book explores though, please read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with author

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