Review: Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal

Ms Marvel vol 1Title: Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal
Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Artist: Adrian Alphona
Genres: Comic Books/Graphic Novels, Superheroes
Pages: 120
Publisher: Marvel
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Marvel Comics presents the all-new Ms. Marvel, the groundbreaking heroine that has become an international sensation! Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City – until she is suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the all-new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! As Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to handle? Kamala has no idea either. But she’s comin’ for you, New York! It’s history in the making from acclaimed writer G. Willow Wilson (Air, Cairo) and beloved artist Adrian Alphona (Runaways)!

Review: I decided to stray from strictly YA books for today’s review. Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal was my first foray into mainstream American comic books, and I’m thrilled to report that it was the perfect entry point for me. You don’t need to know several decades of comic book history to understand what’s going on; our heroine, Kamala Khan, is engaging; and the writing hits several of the best parts of an origin story.

Kamala is a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager who, in addition to suddenly acquiring shape-shifting powers, also deals with microaggressions, sexism, and a YA favorite: figuring out who you are. While the dialogue occasionally leans toward preachy, particularly in dealing with Zoe’s mix of insensitivity and meanness, there are several great moments where Kamala gains inspiration and support from her religion in order to go forward with various heroic actions. I also greatly enjoyed Kamala’s brand of geekery and humor. Several of my favorite origin story tropes pop up in this volume, including having the first big failure and needing to recoup in order to try again. I also enjoyed the mishaps and mayhem that Kamala inadvertently caused as she was getting used to her powers and superhero life.

I was less fond of the “strict immigrant parents” archetype, but G. Willow Wilson did a good job of giving Kamala’s father non-strict moments that were really quite lovely. I hope that in future installments, both Kamala’s father and mother (and her brother) will be able to branch out from primarily serving as obstacles to Kamala’s story and become better rounded characters. Kamala’s friends also felt a little underdeveloped, though they did have a promising assortment of building blocks for interesting personalities.

Artist Adrian Alphona made a strong showing in this first volume. While I occasionally had difficulty figuring out precisely how Kamala used her powers or movements in action sequences, the artwork enhanced the story. (Kamala has some great expressions, especially in comedic scenes.) Each important character is distinctive, and many of the locations are memorable. Alphona also hides some fun jokes/Easter Eggs in the artwork, and the many details help the world of Ms. Marvel feel grounded despite the shapeshifting heroics.

Recommendation: Buy it now. (In fact, I just bought the second and third volumes and pre-ordered the fourth.) Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal occasionally leans toward preachy and has some underdeveloped characters, but it is otherwise a delight. It’s a great place to jump into the Marvel comics universe.

Extras
9 Times Ms. Marvel Tackled Real Issues by Sofía Marlasca (spoilers for future issues)

Rebooted Comic Heroine Is An Elegant, Believable ‘Marvel’ by Etelka Lehoczky

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Review: The Weight of Feathers

The Weight of FeathersTitle: The Weight of Feathers
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genres: Romance, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Pages: 320
Publisher: A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.

Beautifully written, and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.

Review: The Weight of Feathers is a beautifully written book that depends not only on a cast of memorable characters but also a vivid, magical world. I purchased this book because I needed something to read on a late-night, three-hour airplane flight, and it kept me entertained the entire time.

The star-crossed lovers setup can lose a lot of its punch when the feud appears ridiculous or is easily circumvented, but Anna-Marie McLemore neatly dodges that trap with the tension between the Palomas and the Corbeaus. With the “inciting incidents” for the feud within living memory for the bulk of each large, tightly knit family, the conflicts feel immediate and raw. Deaths, sabotage, serious injuries, assaults—many members of each family have been perpetrators, victims, or indirectly affected. So when Lace is “cursed” with a feather mark during the disaster at Almendro and gets kicked out of her family, it takes no small amount of courage for her to venture to the Corbeau camp to try to earn her way out of the curse.

McLemore’s strength in creating engaging characters is immediately apparent with our two protagonists, Lace and Cluck. Their circumstances and personalities are well crafted and the arc of their friendship and romance felt believable and appropriately complicated due to their feuding families. There are a number of memorable characters in the supporting cast, though Cluck’s grandfather is easily the most interesting. Due to Lace’s exile, getting to know the other Palomas is a little harder, but I appreciated how McLemore compared and contrasted the two families. It was particularly interesting to me that each family thought the worst of each other, yet both were more than willing to do horrible things to their own people.

While my experience with magical realism is limited, I was immersed in The Weight of Feathers. McLemore created a world where magic ranges from practically mundane things like pairs of mermaid scales on skin or feathers hidden in hair to curses to radical transformations. It feels both surprising and expected at the same time thanks to being grounded by characters who worry about less fantastical things like fitting in, becoming an adult, stage makeup, family abandonment, abuse, and rape.

The Weight of Feathers has a few flaws—luckily, this book hit me at a time where I was in the mood for this style of prose. I imagine others will not be as thrilled, but that is something that can easily be found out by reading the preview chapters on Goodreads. Also, initially I was a little disappointed with the ending confrontation, but upon a second reading of the final chapters, I found myself far more satisfied with it.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you’re a fan of magical realism or star-crossed romances. While The Weight of Feathers isn’t perfect, it is a strong, engaging work that serves as a great introduction to magical realism. I look forward to future works by McLemore.

Extras
Where Our Magic Lives: A Queer Latina on Magical Realism at Diversity in YA

Magical Realism & Culture: Author Anna-Marie McLemore at YA Interrrobang

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Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer_front mech.inddTitle: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Publisher: Ace
Availability: September 1st, 2015

Summary: Magic and mayhem collide with the British elite in this whimsical and sparkling debut.  At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.  But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Zen Cho’s short stories are some of my favorites (if you haven’t read her anthology Spirits Abroad, you really should) — so I went into this book with very, very high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed. While Sorcerer to the Crown doesn’t read like her usual fare — this is very Jane Austen meets post-colonial fantasy — it was absolutely wonderful.

Sorcerer to the Crown features Zacharias Wythe, adopted son of Sir Stephen, England’s sorcerer to the crown. When he inherits Sir Stephen’s staff (among other things), he steps into the trying role of being England’s first black Sorcerer Royal. Along the way, he runs into the orphan and incredibly practical, sort-of schoolteacher Prunella Gentleman, who has an important role in the fate of English magic.

Set in a fantasy version of Regency London, Sorcerer to the Crown reminded me in tone of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer’s writing. The novel perfectly balances the setting of high society in Regency London with the fantasy plot. So if you like novel of manners books, or you love a good fantasy, you’re in for a treat — especially if you want a fantasy that doesn’t fall into the “everyone is white, even the elves!” trap. It’s like getting a bowl with the perfect ratio of rice to curry, and then discovering that there’s a pork katsu hiding in the sauce.

The best part of Sorcerer to the Crown, to me, was how real it felt. Sure, it was fantasy, but the characters themselves, the infighting of England’s magical society, and the various systems of magic all conspired to make the story work. What I find unbelievable about a lot of fantasy and fiction in general is how England (or whatever Western country the book is set in) operates in isolation of the rest of the world, and completely ignores the role colonialism played in making such a society possible. Thankfully, in Zen Cho’s novel, just the opposite happens.

Zacharias and Prunella exist in fantasy England, and experience all the daily microaggressions, and straight-up racism and sexism that follow. Magic-users from other countries make appearances throughout the novel, bringing with them different relationships with magic and throwing into question the nature of England’s political relationship with other nations. My particular favorite is Mak Genggang, a fearsome grey-haired witch who sails in and out of the story, turning it on its head. (I nearly threw my book out of excitement when I first encountered her, but I was riding a train at the time, and restrained myself.)

COKy3g-UsAAj7At.jpg large (2)

Basically, what I’m trying to say is — Sorcerer to the Crown is an awesome fantasy. If you’re into Regency era fiction, or if you’re into good fantasy, then read this book. If you’re not, then you should still read this book. It’s lovely stuff.

Recommendation: Buy it now!
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Book Review: All American Boys

all am boysTitle: All American Boys
Author: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 300
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Diouhy Publishers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available Sept. 29th

Summary: In an unforgettable new novel from award-winning authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galuzzi, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

But there were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.

Written in tandem by two award-winning authors, this tour de force shares the alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn as the complications from that single violent moment, the type taken from the headlines, unfold and reverberate to highlight an unwelcome truth.

Review: First off, let me share this tweet I wrote when I first began reading All American Boys.

No lie, I was sitting on a crowded train, heading into Downtown Los Angeles and I totally wanted to cry. Chills ran up and down my spine as I read the first chapter and when I got to the last 3 words on the page, I was a mess. I wanted to grab Rashad, my nephew, my godson, all of my former male students and hold onto them for dear life, then put them in a room where they would be safe and away from potentially dangerous interactions with the police. Mama Bear came out and she was ready to fight for her youngins’, but alas, I was on a train, so I took a deep breath in, fought those tears, placed the book on my lap, and stared out the window to compose myself. The opening was just that intense and then didn’t let up for the rest of the novel.

I had intended to read the novel slowly, to really digest Jason’s & Brendon’s words, but I got too caught up in the story, in Rashad’s and Quinn’s words, their thoughts, their feelings, that I ended up forgoing sleep to finish the book. And when I reached the end, this time I let the tears fall. I allowed myself to stay in the power of the moment, of the emotion of the two boys, of Quinn’s journey and Rashad’s first steps towards healing. I allowed myself to linger in the knowledge that I had read one of the most powerful books of our time and one that I believe will be considered a classic. A book that will be taught in classrooms (including mine) and talked about in all types of literary circles, and is the perfect example of how reading forces us to become more empathetic. All American Boys is timely and important, and needed in our country’s attempts to talk about racial inequality.

The dual narratives of Rashad (written by Jason) and Quinn (written by Brendan) is what makes this novel compelling. Each narrative could be read as a novel on it’s own, but seeing the event from two points of view just adds to the power of the narrative. The novel spans over a week timeline and we spend a section of each day with both young men. Rashad and Quinn attend the same high school, live in the same neighborhood, but do not know each other. For most of the book, Rashad is in the hospital healing from the attack, so we are mostly in his head as he starts to make sense of what happened to him. Quinn, on the other hand, gives the reader an insight into how a police officer’s family could potentially handle such a case, as well as provide the reader’s link to how the community reacts to the beating. I think the decision to not have the boys interact at all, until the final moments of the book, added to the power of both perspectives, giving the reader insight into a complex situation.

I loved Jason Reynolds first two books, and feel that both he gets the teenage voice perfectly. I loved Rashad’s sense of humor and how perceptive he is to the world around him. And that is why in the moments where he tries to make sense of the beating, that my heart broke for him the most. Rashad’s father had given him “The Talk” and Rashad prided himself on being able to read situations, but yet, he is severely by a cop who couldn’t accurately read his surroundings. Rashad believed, like so many, that if he did what was right all the time, nothing bad could happen. Because of the beating, his world is thrown out of whack and he has to work within himself to try to make it right again. He is able to lean on his mother, his older brother and his friends, but I feel that his relationship with his nurse is the one that helps him the most. Everyone that loves him comes from a place of defending Rashad, but his nurse Clarissa, sees him for what he is – a confused young victim of a crime – and is the only one who treats him normally. Through the quiet of his hospital room Rashad asks himself questions and draws (he is an artist) to find his own answers to explain what happened to him, and many others. The questions Rashad asks himself are the same ones we all have, and while we cannot know all the answers, we find a way to make sense of our world, just like Rashad.

I haven’t read anything by Brendan Kiely, but if All American Boys is any indication of his skills, I need to. Just like Jason, Brendan wrote a beautiful portrayal of conflicted young man in Quinn. Quinn is the oldest in his family and has taken on a more fatherly role for his little brother, but still tries to maintain some sort of teenage social life. He is placed in the tough position of being expected to side with Paul (the cop who beat Rashad), since Paul helped raise him after Quinn’s father died. However, Quinn witnessed the beating and was greatly disturbed by it. Through that experience, he begins to question all that he knows and slowly comes to an awakening of racial inequality in his neighborhood. Quinn initially believes, like well meaning folk, that he shouldn’t speak out because he feels he doesn’t have the right, but eventually realizes that by not speaking out, he only continues an unequal system. He has to make the decision to speak out against his family and friends, which is tough to do at any age, let alone when one is a teenager and your peers are your world. Quinn has to face hard truths in the novel, and like all of us do at some point, must decide how to take action. It’s an awakening to the large ugly of the world, and Quinn’s journey is a beautiful one to experience.

As you can tell, I loved this novel. I think everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, should read it. I also think everyone should talk about it and then really think about the meaning behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement, think about systematic racism & police brutality, and how we can all work together to change our world. All American Boys is not only a novel that gets at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but gets at the heart at how we can be compassionate human beings. It is a protest novel of its time, and will survive as a timely reminder for future generations of where our society once was, if we can heal the wounds that racism has brought and move forward, together, as one.

Recommendation: All American Boys is available for order now, so go buy it now and have it delivered to your residence on Sept. 29th. Or, better yet, be there when your local bookstore opens on Sept. 29th. Don’t just buy one copy; buy one for yourself and for someone else who needs to read this book. Let’s make this book debut on the New York Times Bestseller list and get people talking about it ASAP. Go!

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Review: Court of Fives

18068907Title: Court of Fives (Court of Fives #1)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Availability: August 18th, 2015

Summary: In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Little Women’s been on my mind, what with the recent announcement of a dystopian TV show adaptation of the classic novel. I know, sounds super weird. When I started reading Court of Fives, I immediately noticed that the four sisters had names that resembled the sisters in Little Women. The characters loosely match Little Women — especially Jessamy, the protagonist, who would totally jump fences with Jo.

That’s where the resemblance ends, to my mind. Court of Fives is set in a ‘Greco-Roman Egypt’ inspired world, where Jessamy yearns to escape her privileged Patron life (with a few catches) so that she can go run the competition known as the Fives. The Fives involves five sets of challenges and obstacles — and Jessamy is pretty good at it. When Jessamy meets Kalliarkos, a high-ranking member of the Patron class, the difference in their stations in life are starkly apparent.

When Kalliarkos was introduced, I was afraid this would become the usual story — less privileged girl falls in love with privileged boy who is somehow different from his peers. But just the opposite happened. Through subtle details and less subtle commentary from other Commoner class characters, Kalliarkos is shown to benefit from his privilege, while also being a sympathetic characters. I was pleasantly surprised at how well most of the race dynamics and class privilege handled in the book. (My grudge against Jessamy’s father will never cease, though.)

The story itself is incredibly compelling! After a slow start, the book picks up the pace — within a chapter, I was hooked and read the rest of the book in one sitting. The setting felt real, and the late reveal about the sins of the conquering nations (hello, imperialism!) was awesome. I’d love to gush about it more, but that would be spoiler city. Suffice it to say, that it’s magical and thought-provoking.

All in all, I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel. This was a solid book from start to finish, and Jessamy’s world is one I want to return to.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Book Review: Delicate Monsters

delicateTitle: Delicate Monsters
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 234
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

Review: In Stephanie Kuehn’s bio at the back of the book, it states that she is earning her doctorate in clinical psychology and having now read her third novel dealing with characters who have deep, deep psychological problems, it’s clear that her hard work is paying off. In a good way. Kuehn doesn’t create characters were mental illness is their “tragic flaw” but as a part of their physiological make-up and as a way that they see the world. Instead of seeing the characters as people to be fascinated by, we instead empathize with them, care for them, want the best for them and when the novel is over, we wonder what type of adults these teens will grow into. Even the characters we might not find so likable, and boy does Kuehn write unlikable characters well.

In Delicate Monsters, Sadie Su is one complicated young lady whose outlook on life is quite horrible (and she does some horrible things).  If she were a real person, I would clearly stay away from her, but as I read, I found myself connecting with her. I actually began to root for her, because I grew to understand her. And I really loved that such an unlikeable character ultimately became the hero in the end. Sadie is character who likes to think she isn’t a caring person, but ultimately her true nature shines through and when she performs an act of true courage, I was both happy and sad for her. Kuehn wrote a character with much depth, but who is also very complicated. I was actually very happy that Kuehn wrote such an unlikeable female character, as they are far and few between in YA literature. Not all girls can be the super special snowflake that have to choose between two guys. Sometimes, girls can be just as devious and cold-hearted as young men. And those girls deserve to be the hero too. Sadie is that type of girl and I loved her for it.

Delicate Monster is told using 3 narratives, that in the hands of a lesser author, would have been confusing. At first, I was wondering how Sadie’s, Emerson’s, & Miles’s stories would intersect as Kuehn slowly builds the story lines together and when then do…oh my. However, there is a lovely bit where Sadie doesn’t realize she’s befriended Emerson’s younger brother, so her relationship with Miles is truly genuine, and is ultimately what leads her to perform her courageous act once she realizes the connection. In that moment, her dislike of someone else leads her to show compassion, and act on that compassion, for another. I truly loved that aspect of this novel. Emerson wasn’t a horrible young man, he just was a victim, so to speak, of when mental illness is brush under the rug and hidden. He truly did not know how to cope with a part of himself that was prone to violence. When he did realize it, however, my heart broke for him. It is these lovely elements of the novel that drew me in and kept me reading. These three young people each called themselves “monsters” because of their behavior and thoughts, but I believe the opposite to be true. Sadie, Emerson, & Miles were struggling teens who did not know how, nor were given the tools to deal with the darkness that resided in them. They were not the monsters; it was the adults who failed to help them. And that is the true tragedy of this heartbreaking novel that stays with you days after you’ve finished it.

Recommendation: Get It Now!!!

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