Review: Pig Park

Pig Park
Title: Pig Park
Author: Claudia Guadalupe Martínez
Genre: Contemporary
Pages: 256
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Review copy: Digital Copy via Publisher
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: It’s crazy! Fifteen-year-old Masi Burciaga hauls bricks to help build a giant pyramid in her neighborhood park. Her neighborhood is becoming more of a ghost town each day since the lard company moved away. Even her school closed down. Her family’s bakery and the other surviving businesses may soon follow.

As a last resort, the neighborhood grown-ups enlist all the remaining able-bodied boys and girls into this scheme in hopes of luring visitors. Maybe their neighbors will come back too. But something’s not right about the entrepreneur behind it all. And then there’s the new boy who came to help. The one with the softest of lips. Pig Park is a contemporary Faustian tale that forces us to look at the desperate lengths people will go to in the name of community–and maybe love.

My thoughts: Masi worries about her neighborhood, the family bakery, and her parents too. She has many issues pulling at her emotions, but she is also a young person wanting to enjoy her summer hanging out with friends and maybe even experience a little romance along the way.

Masi looks at the neighborhood revitalization plan as one way to take care of several things. With everyone working together, she gets to spend time with friends and maybe a special someone along with solving her family’s financial problems. She gets behind the plan and works hard at every task she is given. I found it a bit unrealistic that the adults in the neighborhood signed onto the somewhat sketchy plan so quickly, but as a reader, I decided to just believe it anyway.

The book really focuses on community and their willingness to sacrifice and work for the greater good. It also gives a picture of a few people who are willing to say, do and sell anything to get what they want. There is a huge contrast between the two types of characters. There wasn’t a lot of gray area there.

The family bakery was my favorite place in the story. I wanted to spend more time in the kitchen. The descriptions of so many breads and cookies made my mouth water. I was truly hoping to see a recipe for the Ginger Pigs, or marranitos, by the end of the book. They look like gingerbread, though it is molasses that is giving it a distinct flavor and color rather than ginger. Since there was no recipe and they sounded so yummy, I started looking online and found many recipes for this traditional Mexican cookie, so I may still get to try them.

The main character is fifteen and her romantic interests are only a year or two older. Masi is a sweet and innocent girl and her flirtations are also. She and her friends are mostly together only around the community events. We don’t see them interacting much beyond the neighborhood issues so I had less of a sense of who the other teens were. I would classify Pig Park as a young adult book because of the ages, but it is on the younger side. It would be a great title to offer when people are asking for what they often call “clean reads” for teens.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you work with tweens or middle schoolers and want to add some diverse realistic fiction. Otherwise, borrow it someday. Even with financial issues and a potential family split, it is a fairly light and fun look into a unique urban neighborhood.

** To learn more about the author, you can check out her guest post from earlier this year: Why I Love Small Presses

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Review: the Ring and the Crown

18296016Title:  The Ring and the Crown
Author:  Melissa de la Cruz
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 384
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Review Copy: the library
Availability: August 5th, 2014

Summary: Princess Marie-Victoria, heir to the Lily Throne, and Aelwyn Myrddn, bastard daughter of the Mage of England, grew up together. But who will rule, and who will serve? [Image and summary via Goodreads]*

 

Review: The Ring and the Crown begins with two awesome quotations — one by Emily Dickinson, and one from a Beyonce song. It was a promising beginning to a story told from the point-of-view of four (yes, FOUR) girls living out their roles in royal and magical intrigue. Their world is an alternate take on Regency-era England, with the British Empire ruled by the queen and her sorceror Merlin. Glamour and magic is used for everything ranging from war to illusions and pretty dresses.

Each of the main four girls in the Ring and the Crown are involved in the treaty being made between Prussia and the Franco-British empire after a terrible war that was ended with dark magic. Having these four narrative threads to follow was difficult at first, but it got better — eventually. Once I got into the story that was unfolding, it was interesting to see four separate views of the events going down.

Unfortunately, even four POVs of one story was not enough to lay the foundations for the climactic scenes at the end when All is Revealed. Instead, the entire plot is summarized and explained away through several pages of exposition. It made sense, but felt a bit contrived. The minor appearance of token gay friends (and they were sassy!), plus the heavy use of men-mistreating-women as a plot device was also off-putting. Certain serious issues (mainly, sexual assault) were not handled well.

Setting aside the plot — an alternate universe where Regency-era England* is part of a magical British empire is not a new idea, but it’s one that is filled with potential. It was the strength of the Ring and the Crown, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t expanded on. Fortunately, the main characters themselves  (or, at least, two out of the four) are compelling enough to drive the story and keep it interesting. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, for that reason.

The Ring and the Crown is a relaxing light read, and great for anyone who is really into books set in long-ago England. If you’re not so into that sort of thing, or you’re looking for a book with a tight plot and more focused storytelling, look elsewhere.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, especially if you’re into alternate universe magical-British-empire books.

*Summary cut for length because it’s basically an inaccurate plot review.

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Review: Katrin’s Chronicles: The Canon of Jacqueléne Dyanne, vol. 1

Katrin's ChorniclesTitle: Katrin’s Chronicles: The Canon of Jacqueléne Dyanne, vol. 1
Author: Valerie C. Woods
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Fantasy
Pages: 205
Publisher: BooksEndependent
Review Copy: Received review copy from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: 13-year-old Katrin DuBois decides it’s never too soon to start an autobiography. She needs to set the record straight about the outrageous rumors concerning certain adventures that began when she was in 6th grade. That’s when her elder sister, 8th grader J. Dyanne, began exhibiting extraordinary detecting powers.

Volume 1 begins in the late summer of 1968 on the south side of Chicago, a turbulent time before cell phones, laptops and text messages became essential elements of pre-teen life. The girls manage to thrive in a world of social change with multi-generational family support, creative quick-thinking and fearless inquisitiveness. The dog days of August find them prohibited by their parents from visiting the Central Library downtown because of the riots during the Democratic Convention. However, there’s plenty of adventure in their own neighborhood as they become swept up in family mysteries, neighborhood political schemes and discovery of a surprising legacy of psychic, even supernatural, talent.

Review: Katrin’s Chronicles is an odd—but fun—little book that blends mystery and fantasy with the backdrop of 1968 Chicago and more than a dash of Sherlock Holmes. Katrin functions much as Watson did in the Sherlock Holmes stories: she is the narrator for her sister’s adventures (to set the record straight, as it were) while still being an important agent in the story.

And while Katrin is a great narrator, my major complaint with any story told in this style is that I often feel more removed from the story than I want to be. Katrin only explains what J. Dyanne picked up on and the deductions she made after events have concluded instead of in the moment, even though Katrin is telling the story three years after the fact. Katrin also has a few narrative affectations that take some getting used to and that occasionally pulled me out of the story. The book is also at an awkward crossroads between middle grade and young adult. Thirteen-year-old Katrin—with an impressive vocabulary—is telling the story of what happened when she was ten, but her teenage sister is the one spearheading the adventures. It left me more than a little confused about where I would shelve it, though I ultimately settled on the lower end of the YA spectrum.

That said, I really enjoyed the world Valerie C. Woods created. The world was all the better for the historical grounding, especially since the story needed a solid anchor once all of the psychic/supernatural elements started popping up. I do wish that the story had explained more about what rules/limitations the supernatural had, but I suppose that’s something that will be explored in more depth in later volumes. As it is, the hunches/dreams both J. Dyanne and Katrin get serve to point them in the correct direction as they go about solving various mysteries, but the girls generally still have to find the actual evidence they need. On occasion, the supernatural help sometimes makes the mystery seem too easy.

I enjoyed Katrin’s sprawling family, particularly in how so much has been hinted at but not explained, like how Katrin’s mother chose not to pursue her own supernatural talents. There are stories—many of them—skulking about in the background that make the world richer and, I anticipate, are seeds for the future installments of the series.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, especially if you like Sherlock Holmes-esque mysteries. The historical setting and supernatural elements are integral and appealing parts of the story. Katrin is a fun narrator, but the emotional distance with the three-year gap between recording the adventures and actually experiencing them may leave some readers cold.

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Mini-Review: Hungry

hungryTitle: Hungry
Author: H.A. Swain
Genres:  Dystopian, SciFi
Pages: 372
Publisher: Fiewel and Friends
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In the future, food is no longer necessary—until Thalia begins to feel something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. She’s hungry.

In Thalia’s world, there is no need for food—everyone takes medication (or “inocs”) to ward off hunger. It should mean there is no more famine, no more obesity, no more food-related illnesses, and no more war. At least that’s what her parents, who work for the company that developed the inocs, say. But when Thalia meets a boy who is part of an underground movement to bring food back, she realizes that most people live a life much different from hers. Worse, Thalia is starting to feel hunger, and so is he—the inocs aren’t working. Together they set out to find the only thing that will quell their hunger: real food.

Review: I admit that the premise of Hungry sounds both interesting and a bit far-fetched at the same time. The concept of having meal replacements is not a new concept in science fiction, but it is one that if the science isn’t done right can be very unbelievable. In her novel, Swain almost makes it work. She provides the science of how it works; society takes a substance called Synthamil that is calibrated for every person’s specific nutritional needs. The reason for the Synthamil is that there was a war over food, hence food shortages, and Synthamil was the answer. Therefore, one can assume that in Thalia’s world there has been a population explosion which immediately made me wonder “what about the poor folk?” And this is where Swain’s premise gets deep and the book becomes less about the fact that people don’t eat food but the social inequalities that exist because of it. At it’s core, Hungry is a study of the “Have” and the “Have Nots” as Thalia learns that the privilege life she has lived comes at a cost. By becoming involved with Basil (one of my critiques was the food names for people) Thalia is able to see how the other-half lived and really see how controlled her society has become.

While I enjoyed the novel and felt that it moved at a good pace, I was thrown out at times because I questioned a bit of the world building. I wondered how far into the future the novel took place because based on small clues given, it seems like Thalia could be my future granddaughter’s generation. If that is the case, some of the science Swain includes, such as Thalia’s genetic mutation for hunger, doesn’t work. In fact, Thalia’s mother is the inventor of Synthamil therefore making the product a fairly recent change. Because of that, I couldn’t believe that a society could completely change from one dependent on food (and the controls that went with it) to one without. I feel with Synthamil being so recent in Thalia’s world, that more people would be resistant and still feel hunger. I feel that Swain’s premise was an interesting one and attempted to ask questions about fairness and privilege, but her science just didn’t fully work. And when one is writing a science fiction/dystopian novel, one’s science really needs to work.

Recommendation: Borrow it

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Review: There’s a Name For This Feeling

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Title: There’s a Name For This Feeling: Stories
Author: Diane Gonzales Bertrand
Spanish-language translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 150 (half in Spanish)
Publisher: Arte Público Press
Review Copy: Received review copy from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: In the title story, Lucinda hatches a clever plan to get her boyfriend back and is crushed when she ultimately realizes that it’s impossible to force a guy to love you. Like all young people, she ignores the advice of her mom and learns that lesson—and many more—the hard way.

In this bilingual collection of ten short stories for young people, kids deal with both serious and humorous consequences after they ignore their parents’ suggestions and disobey rules. At a friend’s house on New Year’s Eve, Raymond plays with fireworks even though he promised his parents he wouldn’t. Kids on a track team search for a mysterious naked woman with embarrassing results. And two girls in a wax museum are in for a surprise when they ignore the signs about touching the figures.

These short and accessible contemporary stories are alternately amusing and poignant as they explore issues relevant to today’s youth. Teens deal with everything from grandparents suffering from dementia to difficult customers at a first job. And in one story, a young girl grieves the loss of her baby, a miscarriage her mom calls a “blessing.” These stories highlight the emotional tailspins of living in a complicated world.

Review: There’s a Name For This Feeling: Stories is aimed at the younger end of the YA spectrum, but this collection of ten short stories makes up for its slim page count with some hard-hitting vignettes. Each of the stories is tightly focused on a different character, and while some stories share similar elements (there are two stories involving grandmothers who have dementia, for example), the approach to each is unique.

Diane Gonzales Bertrand excels at showcasing a broad range of emotions in these short stories, and they come together to form a mostly compelling, slice-of-life exploration of Latin@ teenagers. The stories are a good mix of serious and funny and touching (and sometimes a bit of all of those).

My favorite of the short stories was “My Twisted Tongue,” mostly because it got me right in the heart. My father is Latino, and my mother is white, and neither I nor the rest of my siblings speak Spanish. I learned Spanish in school (the last class I had was over four years ago), and I’ve always panicked a little whenever someone tried to speak to me in Spanish, was surprised at my skill in English, or questioned why I didn’t speak Spanish. Ninfa’s dilemma and the conversation she had with her dad made me want to wrap her up in a fuzzy blanket until she felt better. Other standouts include “Crooked Stitches” and “A Small Red Box.”

While the collection is a pretty solid one, I wasn’t enamored with all of the stories. Neither “Agapito” nor “The Naked Woman on Poplar Street” were interesting to me, and I disliked the framing device in “Trajectory.” These stories only distract a little from the rest of the collection, but I do wish I had been able to enthusiastically endorse all of them.

Teachers may also be interested to know that the book also includes discussion questions (Ideas for Conversation) and writing prompts (Ideas for Writing). All of the stories, along with the discussion and writing prompts, are translated into Spanish. This collection would be an especially great addition to classrooms with Spanish-speaking students.

Recommendation: Get it soon, if you’re a teacher looking to expand your short story curriculum—otherwise, borrow it someday. It’s a short, fast read with some great slice-of-life explorations of Latin@ teenagers. The stories fall at varying places on the spectrum of “great” to “boring,” but the great stories make There’s a Name For This Feeling: Stories worth checking out.

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Review: For Today I Am a Boy

for today i am a boy

 

Title: For Today I Am a Boy
Author: Kim Fu
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 256
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review copy: the lovely library
Availability: January 14th 2014

 

 

 

 

Summary: Peter Huang and his sisters—elegant Adele, shrewd Helen, and Bonnie the bon vivant—grow up in a house of many secrets, then escape the confines of small-town Ontario and spread from Montreal to California to Berlin. Peter’s own journey is obstructed by playground bullies, masochistic lovers, Christian ex-gays, and the ever-present shadow of his Chinese father.
At birth, Peter had been given the Chinese name juan chaun, powerful king. The exalted only son in the middle of three daughters, Peter was the one who would finally embody his immigrant father’s ideal of power and masculinity. But Peter has different dreams: he is certain he is a girl. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ll be honest. I was hooked in by the cover design, which is gorgeous. (It looks even more beautiful in person.) When I read the description, I thought — I’ve got to read this. I read For Today I Am a Boy on a three hour train ride. When I got off the train, I still had the last quarter of the book to go, so I walked about the city in a daze, still reading.

For Today I Am a Boy matches its cover — it’s beautifully written and utterly heartbreaking. The story of Peter’s life, from her childhood to her thirties, is told in a series of memories, conversations, and moments all woven together. While far from straightforward and linear, it’s still very easy to fall into the rhythm and flow of the story.

At first glance, For Today I Am a Boy seems to be an issue novel about growing up as a transgender girl, but it’s not quite that. Though Peter yearns to be the girl she knows she is, the pressure and influence of her father forces her to conform to his standards of masculinity, even as her sisters’ flee from their father’s control. This is a story as much about sisterhood and culture as it is about gender identity. Fair warning, the book is incredibly grim for a large part of the book (despite an ambiguously happy ending). Do not read this as a pick-me-up.

I would hesitate to say that For Today I Am a Boy is strictly Young Adult literature, but I wouldn’t call it adult literature either. (What defines YA lit, anyway?) That being said, the categorization is unimportant. For Today I Am a Boy is a beautiful and incredible read that I would absolutely recommend to just about everyone.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.*

EDIT: This book grapples with a number of issues, including homophobia, transphobia, sexism, assault, and more. Please be aware that this is not a light book and can be triggering. For an article that discusses the book’s problems with trans representation, please read this.

*Rating has been revised after further reflection.

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