Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Thoughts: Connections to History

Firemen looking down hole in sidewalk, searchi...Image via Wikipedia
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It's a tragic event in our national history - 146 people, mostly young immigrant women, died because of unsafe working conditions. When a fire broke out in the factory at 4:40 PM on Saturday, March 25th 1911, the workers on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors found they were locked in. The fire escape tore away from the building, the elevators couldn't move fast enough to ferry the workers to the ground, and the fire department's ladders only reached up to the sixth floor. In desperation, many of the young workers chose to leap from the windows - choosing almost certain death from the fall over suffocation or burning to death.

It's an important part of history - of immigration, worker's rights, and women's rights. And yet I never learned about it in school - I was introduced to the fire through the book Ashes of Roses that I read on my own my senior year of high school. Auch's description of Rose in the fire was incredibly powerful, so much so that the book has stuck with me for almost 10 years and I've included it on my list of Feminist YA novels.

I think part of the reason I have remained fascinated by the Triangle fire is because it was the first historical event that was introduced to me solely through fiction. I've always read historical fiction - it might not be my favorite genre but I don't go out of my way to avoid it. However, I tend to gravitate towards stories that back up a prior interest - like the Salem Witch Trials or the Civil War. I picked up Ashes of Roses because of its connection to women's history, and was bluntly introduced to a tragic aspect of history that had never been mentioned in any of my history classes.

Since Ashes of Roses, historical fiction has become a much larger part of my reading repertoire. I can't say it's an absolute favorite genre because the quality can vary so much between books - good historical fiction must be well written and well researched, while a well written SF novel can entertain me even if some of the science is off. However, I'm always looking for the next story that will fill in the gaps I might not even know I have - like Between Shades of Gray and the Soviet deportations of Lituanians and other Baltic citizens, or Daughter of Xanadu and the life of a warrior princess in 14th century Mongolia.

And I swear I wasn't planning on writing this post when I posted two historical fiction reviews this week!

In commemoration of the fire and its victims, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has organized events both online and around the US, for this weekend. If you can't be in NYC, the official commemoration will be streamed online. In addition, two documentaries have been airing this week, one on HBO and the other on PBS (available to stream online!). I haven't had a chance to watch either yet, but I hope to this weekend.

For me, one of the greatest ironies of the Triangle Fire was that the building was toted as being utterly modern in that it was fireproof. And indeed the exterior was - the building is now the Brown Building and its used for NYU classes. Unfortunately for the 146 garment workers and their families, similar advances in technology weren't used on the interior. Today, take a moment to remember those workers, and those who came after them who fought tirelessly to try to ensure such a tragedy didn't happen again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang

Found via: Reading in Color

Considering how much historical fiction out right now is about privileged Western European and American girls in the last 150 years or so falling in love with various bad boys, it's refreshing to find a novel that is so completely different. In Daughter of Xanadu, we're talking 14th century Mongolia, and while there's a certain amount of privilege present (our protagonist is a princess), the romantic story arc is relegated to the back burner. Instead, this is a true coming of age story for a young woman trying to find her place in a world that is simultaneously foreign and totally familiar.

Daughter of XanaduEmmajin is the eldest granddaughter of the great Khan Khubilai. While her sister and other women of the palace are content with the life of luxury being royalty brings, Emmajin has one dream: to become a soldier in her grandfather's army. When foreigners from Christendom come to the palace on a trade mission, the Khan asks Emmajin to work as a spy and befriend the foreign man Marco Polo, and report back on everything she's learned. Emmajin agrees, hoping that her compliance, in addition to her amazing archery and horse riding skills, will ensure her entrance into the army.

Marco is utterly foreign to Emmajin. He cannot shoot an arrow or wield a sword - his only defenses are his wit and his storytelling, less than useless to Emmajin. And yet despite her best defenses, Marco's charm begins to work on Emmajin, and even as her dreams are fulfilled she finds herself questioning if the way of the warrior is truly her destiny.

One thing I absolutely loved about this is that Emmajin becomes a warrior on her own terms, rather than having to masquerade as a man. Yes, being a princess helped, but she also recognizes that in order to be accepted by the men she's going to have to be even better than they are - just as modern women often feel they have to be to compete in male-dominated fields.

Every once in awhile, the relationship between Marco and Emmajin made me a little anxious. Christendom (Europe) and Mongolia are often presented as total opposites - and more often than not Emmajin seems to be coming around to the Western view of how things "should be," so at times I was getting vibes of the Western man civilizing the wild savages of the east. Thankfully, Yang is able to thoroughly describe Emmajin's evolving ideas so it becomes clear it's not just Marco's influence. I'd have liked it if we could have seen Marco adapting a bit more to Mongolian ways so it would be more like a true cultural exchange, but the ending is left open enough that maybe Yang can pull together another book out of that!

Like I said in the introduction, above all else this is Emmajin's coming of age story. She's truly learning what it means to be an adult and have to make tough choices and learn new things about herself. Yang has done an excellent job describing 14th century Mongolia, and by including the familiar character of Marco Polo she has a seamless way to weave all of the amazing facts about this setting into the narrative while rarely dragging down the story. A refreshing change of pace from a lot of the historical fiction/romance out there today! (And a brief aside: a book with a wonderful cover! After the whitewashing controversies of the last few years, 2011 is shaping up to be an amazing year for proudly putting the faces of characters of color on covers!)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

I know it's only March, but I think we have here our first serious awards contender of 2011. If Between Shades of Gray were a movie, it would be a December-released prestige picture, an obvious ploy for an Oscar win, but one it would surely deserve.

Between Shades of GrayIt's 1941, and Lithuanian Lina leads a comfortable life. Her parents dote upon her and her younger brother, she has friends and family and crushes, and amazing skills with pencils and paintbrushes that are opening doors to her future education.

But that idyllic life comes crashing down around Lina late one night, when armed men break into the house and pull Lina, her mother and her brother from their beds without explanation.

And so begins Lina's journey - one that stretches thousands of miles, from the quiet suburbs of Lithuania into the frigid depths north of the Arctic circle, as Lina and her family become victims of Stalin's march in Lithuania and the Baltic states at the outbreak of World War II. Her only comforts are her family, her artwork, and her hope that her furtive sketches and notes will be passed hand to hand until they reach her father and he'll escape from wherever he's being held to come find his family.

Lina's and Lithuania's story was totally new to me. I vaguely knew that Stalin's Soviet Union wasn't a great place to be, but had no real idea about the elimination tactics that he used. It's horrifying to think that in some ways this man was our ally - and yet he was using the same tactics as Hitler. Sepetys does an amazing job portraying the dehumanizing tactics used by the NKVD (the predecessors of the KGB) - it's gut churning and horrifying.

Lina is an amazing artist and Sepetys uses her artistic eye to add some beautiful language to a story of hardship and terror. Lina doesn't draw strictly realistic - she's inspired by Munch - which gives Sepetys many opportunities for perfect metaphors, like the snakes crawling out from the neck of one particularly horrid guard's jacket.

I read this book over the course of just one day - and not even a weekend. Even when I had to take breaks, my mind was still in the book. At one point I paused to eat dinner with my husband, and I felt a bit of guilt sitting down to a full hot meal when part of my brain was still in Altai, the first camp Lina is sentenced to. And then when I could get back to reading and reached the end of the book I was crying - almost sobbing. And I don't easily cry at books.

While on the surface Lina's story isn't terribly different from any other fictional Holocaust account, I still feel it's an important contribution to the genre of WWII titles. The writing alone makes it worth a read, but it's also important to remember that in most any conflict there are indeed shades of gray - that even while we may call someone an ally, that doesn't make them (or even us) perfect examples of our ideals.

Reviewed from an ARC picked up at ALA Annual 2010. Between Shades of Gray is available today!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

I am so glad stories about all different sorts of disabilities have been coming out over the last few years. The Running Dream takes a slightly different twist from others I've seen though - in this case the disability is the sudden amputation of a leg after a terrible car accident. In most other stories I've seen, the disability has been something the protagonist has lived with for most/all of her life.

The Running DreamHours after setting a league record in the 400m dash, Jessica wakes up in the hospital - sure that her life is over. While she survived the accident that took the life of one of her teammates, Jessica has had one of her legs amputated below the knee. Sure, it could have been worse - but until now, running has been Jessica's life, the only time she felt relaxed and comfortable.

Returning to school, Jessica feels like a freak and an outcast, even more so when her tough math teacher has her move from her usual desk - which can no longer accommodate her so long as she's using a wheelchair - to the table in the back, where Rosa, one of the special ed students with cerebral palsy, sits.

As Jessica readjusts to school and learns how to walk again with a temporary, Frankenstein-ish, prosthetic leg, her team and the community rally behind Jessica's recurring dream: to run again. Jessica knows she is incredibly lucky to have such caring friends, and she wants to repay them in some way for their kindness and support. As Rosa shows she's deeper and more insightful than Jessica had ever bothered to notice before, she expands her personal running dream: now she's going to find a way to take Rosa with her across the finish line.

Something about this book was strangely compelling - when I stopped to reflect on it I could see it's a very traditional narrative arc/plotline and both Jessica and Rosa (especially Rosa) often slip into the inspirationally disadvantaged trope, which could certainly be annoying if not downright offensive to those who have been affected by disabilities. I cringed a lot around Rosa, but found Jessica interesting, if sometimes a little too positive and chipper. Yet something made me keep coming back - I read this in one day and when i did have to stop reading (stupid work!) I found myself thinking about the book constantly. In part, I think, because I was imagining all of the complex places the book could have gone - would other racers think that a running prosthesis would give Jessica an unfair advantage? Will Jessica over exert herself and get hurt? - and anxiously waiting to see if any of my predictions panned out.

If you're the sort that loves to watch inspirational sports movies (especially the ones Disney makes), you'll find yourself in familiar territory with The Running Dream - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Found via: Reading in Color

I was super excited going into The Latte Rebellion, not only because it's one of the few YA books to prominently and proudly feature multiracial characters, but because I was also part of founding a social justice club in my high school (a Gay-Straight Alliance). I had a lot of infrastructure to fall back on in my case, as opposed to the creation of a new movement from the ground up as Asha, Carey and Miranda do here, but there were enough similarities that I was quite excited. And for the most part, the book doesn't disappoint.

The Latte RebellionIt all started as a joke, really. A small money-making venture to fund a pre-college vacation. Tired of being treated as foreign and somehow "less-than" by their peers, Asha and Carey found "The Latte Rebellion" - a website with a manifesto about recognizing that people don't always fit into one neat racial, ethnic or cultural category, and lots of links to buy their T-shirts. But almost overnight, the site goes viral and takes on a life of its own. Actual Latte Rebellion clubs spring up at high schools and colleges across the country - while ironically Asha's own high school refuses to recognize them, claiming that there isn't sufficient need for a club that openly embraces multiracial students.

Undeterred, Asha continues the rebellion, along with her friend Miranda, while Carey shies away from the increasing attention and time the rebellion takes away from her homework, work and relationships. Asha is nervous herself - especially as the rebellion continues to grow and attracts undesirable attention. But she is convinced of the rightness of her cause, and even as she faces severe repercussions for her involvement, Asha  is determined that the rebellion, and herself, is recognized as a positive force.

While in many ways this is very much a story about race, it is also about much broader and universal topics like self-confidence, friendship and education. I especially enjoyed how Asha's relationships mature and change over the course of the novel, as it reflects a lot of the changes people go through during life-altering events, even innocuous and positive ones like graduating high school and just growing up in general.

What held me back from unabashedly loving this is that a lot of the plot feels like it's based on coincidences rather than moving forward organically. I wasn't quite convinced with the reasoning for the school rejecting the Latte Rebellion in the first place, and the quick jump to conclusions about the purpose of the group seemed far too fast. Just a few too many negative coincidences to keep me totally immersed in the story. While I've read of complaints about the Latte Rebellion being organized as primarily a money-making venture, the only problem I had with the idea is that Asha and Carey still planned on keeping most/all of the money for themselves even as it became clear how important people felt the cause was. It seems to me like as soon as other people started getting involved, they would have demanded to know what the T-shirt profits were going to go towards. When it was just a couple of friends goofing off with a website, Asha and Carey were free to do whatever they wanted, but once real people in their lives got involved, it seems like the plan should have changed a bit.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Wow, this book has been getting a ton of praise recently - including making the shortlist for the LA Times Book Prize in the YA lit category. So I knew I had to check it out.

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and ScienceMarc Aronson and Maina Budhos both have family connections to the sugar trade - Aronson's family worked with beet sugar in Russia, while Budhos' family, originally from India, worked in Guyana. This personal connection is an early indication that the story of sugar is going to take us around the globe. Aronson and Budhos trace sugar from its probably origins in New Guinea, through the Middle East to Europe, and then spend the bulk of the book looking at how sugar drove the slave trade in South America and the Caribbean. As a USian, for whom the story of slavery was tied to cotton, it was eye opening to see how slavery influenced a different cash crop.

There are also interesting facts about sugar peppered throughout the book. Sugar is the only flavor humans like naturally - we acquire our tastes for salty, bitter, and other flavors. While the story Aronson and Budhos share pretty much ends with slavery in the US (going on just a bit longer to look at the indentured servitude of Indians, as well as the Asians of many countries who were brought in to Hawaii), there are tantalizing hints that the story of sugar isn't over - we've developed high fructose corn syrup as a replacement for cane sugar, and artificial sweeteners like Splenda. I think, rather than spending so much time going over the horrors of slavery again, I would have liked to see more about the modern quest for cheap sweeteners. While slavery is certainly an important part of the story of sugar, since Aronson and Budhos say in their afterword that this is a book intended for high school students I feel like rehashing a lot of the stories of slavery that aren't too different from accounts of life in the United States, with which US students will already be familiar, dragged down parts of the book.

Another small thing that I feel is missing from the book is any account of the Caribbean natives who would have been displaced by these sugar plantations. The way the book is now, it seems like the islands were discovered as empty, pristine places, perfect for growing sugar cane. I know initially native populations were used as slaves for the Europeans - by the time the Europeans got around to growing sugar, had the native populations already been exhausted by other slave work and disease? I certainly don't know - the only mention of natives doesn't even merit a listing in the index, as they are just briefly mentioned as members of the maroon population in Brazil - communities formed outside of the plantations by escaped slaves, natives, and even some white Europeans.

There were also two small passages that dragged down the quality of the book for me, because they are phrased...awkwardly, to put them in the most positive light possible.

First, on page 39:
You might be lucky enough to be trained as a specialist - the person who watched the cane grow and who kept an eye out for when the plants were ripe and ready to be cut. Special knowledge did not make a slave any less a slave - you were neither freed or paid. But perhaps some of the enslaved people had the personal pleasure of realizing that they had knowledge that the plantation owners needed.
I checked to see if there was a note in the back explaining where this notion of pleasure in slavery came from - if there was a slave narrative that had someone taking some form of pleasure in their work, this would be a much more credible statement. But since no such note exists, it seems rather tone deaf to talk about taking pleasure in having knowledge that's going to benefit the person that keeps you as property.

Then again, on page 70:
Africans were at the heart of the great change in the economy, indeed in the lives of people throughout the world. Africans were the true global citizens - adjusting to a new land, a new religion, even to other Africans they would never have et in their homelands. Their labor made the Age of Sugar - the Industrial Age - possible. We should not see the enslaved people simply as victims, but rather as actors - as the heralds of the interconnected world in which we all live today.
I think this one is worse for me than page 39 was. The slaves in the Caribbean had no choice in their situation - they were kidnapped from Africa, and their ability to act freely was removed. The enslaved Africans rarely got to enjoy the fruits of their labor - working in sugar cane was dangerous and claimed so many lives that once the Atlantic slave trade was abolished slaves weren't reproducing fast enough to maintain or increase the slave population numbers, so the sugar workers weren't usually the ones buying their freedom and then going on to be consumers of sugar (or any other goods harvested by the hands of slaves). Edit 3/14/11 at 11pm: Author Marc Aronson has posted a comment further explaining these passages.

This is a worthwhile book for those interested in another aspect of the dark history of slavery - I just had to point out those two instances because they left me feeling uncomfortable. In both instances I get the points that Aronson and Budhos are trying to make - I just think they end up falling a little short of their goal, as both of these passages almost seem to soften the tragedy that slavery is.

Nonfiction Monday

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Chapter Book of the Day. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sci Fi Friday Review: XVI by Julia Karr

This has probably been one of my most-anticipated books of the year so far. What wasn't there to love about it? Dystopian SF that is actually feminist? So perhaps some of my ultimate disappointment comes from high expectations, but I'm pretty sure even if I'd gone in blind I would have come to a lot of the same conclusions.

XVIAll Nina Oberon wants is a totally normal, ordinary, boring life. Unfortunately, Nina is mere weeks away from turning 16 - an age all of her friends are eagerly waiting for, since they will receive their government-mandated tattoos and finally be "sex-teens," free to have sex whenever they want.

But Nina doesn't want to have sex. She doesn't even want a boyfriend. She wants to live in peace with her mom and little sister, and avoid her mom's skeevy boyfriend. But when her mother is mysteriously murdered, all of Nina's carefully laid plans are thrown out the window. With her dying breath, Nina's mother makes her promise to deliver a baby book to her father. The only problem: Nina's father died the night she was born. The truth about her father is one of many mysteries Nina must unlock, while trying to avoid her mother's evil ex, meeting a mysterious new boy, and trying to counter her best friend Sandy's increasingly sex-teen ways.

While the premise here is sound, it totally falls apart in the execution by committing one of the gravest sins in speculative fiction - failing to define the new world the readers are dumped in to. Many of the important aspects of this future society are left unexplained - most egregiously the importance of the titular XVI tattoos. Why on Earth is the government so invested in the sexual goings-on of teenage girls? And while I can easily come up with half a dozen reasons the tattoo is mandatory for girls but apparently not for boys, I'd really like to have seen at least the government cover story for the tattoo. Another under-explained point were the Female Liaison Specialists, or FeLS - we know it's really the only way for lower class girls to rise in rank and that they must be virgins, and we end up learning what the real purpose of the organization is, but the cover story is foggy.

Almost as bad, is the fact that I couldn't stand the protagonist. Nina is the worst kind of dystopian protagonist: the one that not only recognizes she lives in a dystopia, but coincidentally holds 21st century values and isn't afraid of telling us and anyone else that will listen why she is better than everyone else for her enlightened views. I don't know why she and Sandy put up with each other - Nina clearly is contemptuous of everything that Sandy finds important. Why would Sandy not only put up with that disdain, but consider Nina her best friend? Nina is also conveniently open minded about people from all classes - she doesn't have a classist bone in her body and goes out of her way to help homeless people, even when it means putting herself in great physical danger. Noble indeed, but very little textual support for having such a counter-cultural attitude.

Slang is a tricky part of any YA novel, and most SF in general, but Karr comes across as quite tone deaf when she makes one of the most-used slang words in the novel a 21st century slur against transgendered people. Really, there was no better way to refer to transportation as "transports" which is then shortened into "trannies"? It was especially disturbing when, before it was made clear what trans/trannies was short for, a character who's been in a fight is asked if he "kissed a trannie." It just made me really uncomfortable and kept pulling me out of the book (which happened quite often because damn do these kids talk about the various transportation options a lot). Please folks, if you're going to make up words for your book, do a quick Google search to make sure it's not associated with something else (do not Google "trannies" while at work - the first several hits are porn sites, which should be the first clue this wasn't the best word choice).

There's lots more I could critique here - including the mystical Asian healer stereotype and this being another entry in the trend of dystopian stories eliminating/ignoring homosexuality - but I think we'd be here all day.

The novel wraps up rather neatly, so I don't think this is going to be part of that growing trend of releasing dystopian stories in trilogies. On the one hand, there's clearly a lot of worldbuilding that could be expanded upon in a sequel, but on the other, all of the major storylines were wrapped up so neatly that there's very little actual story left.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda

Last January I read Devil's Kiss and really liked it - while it glossed over some things I wanted more explanation on, I really enjoyed it as an excellent work of urban fantasy with a kick ass protagonist who just happened to be bi-racial. In Dark Goddess, Billi is back and tougher than ever - this time tackling Amazon werewolves and Baba Yaga.

It's so cool, guys.

Dark Goddess (A Devil's Kiss Novel)While Billi is still mourning the loss of her best friend Kay, the supernatural creatures refuse to take a break to let her properly grieve. Last time Billi faced the Angel of Death - now she's up against the polenitsy, a pack of werewolves descended from the Amazons. They are searching for the Spring Child, an Oracle like Kay was, that they plan to sacrifice to their goddess, the infamous Baba Yaga. It's a mission that will uproot Billi from her familiar home in London and take her and her fellow Templars to Moscow and the wilds of Russia to team up with the Bogatyrs, the Templars' Russian counterparts, led by Ivan, the handsome descendant of the mysterious Anastasia Romanov. As the full moon approaches, Billi and Ivan will have to overcome their instinctive distrust of others to fight together for the common good.

One thing I really like about the supernatural creatures Chadda creates: they are the bad guys. Sure there are some shades of gray, but the polenitsy are not "kissing werewolves." No one is going to fall in love with these creatures because they are lean, mean, fighting machines, who are more likely to eat you than kiss you, if you were dumb enough to get that close. Additionally, Chadda puts some great twists on traditional folklore - there's the Amazon werewolf connection, which is awesome because Amazons are awesome, and then whole mythos of Baba Yaga. This isn't the scary little witch who runs around in a house on chicken legs; she wields unbelievable power as the physical embodiment of Russia herself. Scary. And awesome, like the werewolves that worship her. With a bunch of women in the roles of both adversary and ally, Dark Goddess has no problem passing the Bechdel Test. Yay!

The action is absolutely nonstop, which some can see as a good thing, but actually ended up undermining a bit of Chadda's worldbuilding for me. It's established early on that werewolves are bad news. As in, two fully-trained Templars could take on one werewolf and probably win - but their chances of survival decrease exponentially if a second werewolf is added to the equation. Yet Billi repeatedly tackles the werewolves, almost always with the odds against her, and she rarely even gets a full night's sleep, let alone a chance to really heal. Since she keeps coming out on top, it takes away the feeling that she's ever really in danger, thus dramatically decreasing the tension.

If you haven't read Devil's Kiss yet, I highly recommend you read that before Dark Goddess. Chadda throws us right into the action in chapter one and spends little to no time rehashing people or events from Devil's Kiss - so even if you have read the first book, you might want to re-read it as a refresher. These are the sort of fantasy books I want to see more of - women who know how to handle themselves and know what they want primarily, and the action is more important than the romance. And in the case of Billi SanGreal, you get all that, plus a bi-racial  heroine!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

I'm kind of a bad English major - I've actually never read one of Edith Wharton's novels. So why did I pick up this biography? Because even if I haven't read her work, I'm still fascinated by women who defied social expectations and made a career for themselves - and Edith Wharton was certainly one of those women.

The Brave Escape of Edith WhartonBorn into a wealthy New York family, Edith lived a charmed life from an early age, especially as she spent most of her early years in Paris. When she and her family returned to New York, it was at a time of social upheaval, as the old guard of society was clashing with the uppity new money folks, who had made their money off of coal or railroads, rather than inheriting it as Edith's parents had.

While her mother was heavily invested in maintaining the old ways - notably including the notion that a woman's name should appear in print only when she is born, married, or has died - Edith rebels subtly. Obsessed with the written word, Edith writes mostly for herself for years before finally striking out to publish her works publicly - and under her own name.

Wooldridge has put together a fascinating look at this woman who was well ahead of her time. Not only did Wharton not much for social conventions against writing, she also made waves for socializing primarily with men in Parisian literary salons, spurring on the modern interior decorating movement, driving fast cars, and organizing massive relief efforts in Europe during World War I. But despite these trailblazing efforts, we also get glimpses at her weaker moments, too - her self-doubt about the quality of her writing, and the painful deterioration of her marriage and love life. The book is also peppered with plenty of period photographs and copies of Wharton's letters and manuscripts, really bringing the era to life. Living in New York myself now, I'll admit I was entertained to discover that I now work in the same neighborhood that Edith Wharton lived in when she was young - and chuckled at the idea that 59th street was so far up town that her family was worried they wouldn't be able to safely visit a family member that had moved there.

This is a lovely book, and I wouldn't really want to change anything about it, but reading this out in public was a little unwieldy, and it made me realize that almost all YA nonfiction is in a larger format than novels, or even a lot of nonfiction published for adults. Now, some books absolutely require large pages for pictures and for multiple pictures to be included right alongside the text in order to do the subject justice - Frozen Secrets and its amazing panoramas of Antarctica as well as its charts and illustrations of complex scientific facts comes to mind - but why must a biography be in the same oversized format? It makes it more difficult to bring the book along for reading on the go. Anyone out there know why all teen nonfiction falls into this format?

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Picture Book of the Day. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sci Fi Friday Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

OMG, it's been forever since I've done a SF Friday post. Not for lack of wanting - there's just been a ridiculous lack of science fiction the last couple of months. And my TBR list doesn't have much coming up, either. Boo!

Across the UniverseAs the daughter of a scientist and a military strategist, 17 year old Amy is selected to be one of the people cryogenically frozen for the 300 year journey across the stars as Earth colonizes its first new planet.

250 years later, Amy wakes up. Alone. It's 50 years ahead of schedule, and thanks to the clumsy work of whoever pulled her out of the freezer, she can't go back under.

Amy must now try to make sense of how humanity has evolved aboard the Godspeed - a society where uniformity and peace are prized above all else. Her only allies are those who are different - Elder, who is to inherit the role of leader after the current Eldest's death, and Harley, an artist who lives in a hospital and fed a constant stream of medications to try to control his individualist ways.

But it quickly becomes apparent that waking Amy wasn't an accident. More people are being pulled from their cryo chambers, and being left for dead. Only Amy, Elder and Harley seem to understand the gravity of the situation, and it's up to the three individuals in a sea of uniformity to solve the crimes.

I was pretty much convinced going into this that this was going to be a love story. Lots of reviews are selling this on the merits of the interracial romance and then there's that Spider-Man kiss cover. However, I found this refreshingly light on the romance. Oh there's some romantic angst and questioning, but Amy and Elder are in such different places psychologically that only one of them really has the time/energy to contemplate romantic feelings. And yet the mostly one-sided romance doesn't come across as creepy/stalkery. Kudos there.

As far as the science fiction aspect goes, this definitely isn't hard SF, but it's not totally on the softer side of the spectrum, like a lot of dystopian YA SF has been in the last few years. I'm hardly a science expert, but there was enough science-talk to convince me this was a future society heavily invested in technology, but doesn't devolve into so much technobabble as to scare off SF newbies.

The rest of the story comes out in fits and starts, with lots of dramatic cliff hangers at the end of chapters, drawn out because Amy and Elder alternate narration duties. It's all pretty straight forward, and the forecasting of the bad guy's badness begins pretty early on (really, there wasn't a more subtle example than saying the bad guy views Hitler as one of the good guys?), but it's a nice enough story, more of a mystery than a romance, with some nice SF set dressing.

In closing, I do want to point out to anyone who missed it in December that Across the Universe was the victim of some subtle whitewashing, as pointed out at The Interrobangs. The original ARC cover emphasized Elder's non-Caucasian features subtly, while in the final cover there's nothing that really differentiates him from Amy (other than being a dude). This is a more subtle racefail than other examples (Liar, Magic Under Glass), which I imagine is why I haven't seen it mentioned much outside of The Interrobangs. Like with Magic Under Glass, I imagine part of the lack of controversy stems from the fact that Elder isn't any specific race - the humans of Godspeed have become monoethnic in the centuries between leaving Earth and Amy's awakening, meaning they all share the same olive skin, brown eyes and brown hair. Since we can't say Elder is supposed to look African, Indian or Japanese, and the fact the faces are almost in silhouette, it's easy to explain away/ignore the cover discrepancies. It probably never would have been noted - if Razorbill hadn't initially released the ARC with a more obviously non-Caucasian cover model.

But to end on a slightly more positive note, I'm desperate for some more SF in my life. Next Friday I'll have Julia Karr's XVI as a SF Friday review, but after that my TBR list is sadly light on the SF front. Someone please tell me there's more great SF on the way this year! I'm more excited about the books coming out in 2011 than I ever have been before, but so far it looks like a light year for SF? Say it ain't so! Give me some good news in the comments!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Thanks to the 21st century constantly-changing news cycle, this seems like old news now, but I picked up this book shortly after Southern Sudan's referendum vote for independence. Auspicious timing, since A Long Walk to Water is about one boy's experiences during the outbreak of the civil war 26 years ago - and how that boy has gone on to influence and improve others' lives.

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True StoryA Long Walk to Water tells two parallel stories, one in 1985 and the other in 2008. In 1985, Salva, becomes one of Sudan's "lost boys" as fighting breaks out near his school one day and he is forced to run into the bush, not knowing whether any of his family has escaped the terrible fighting. He joins other ragtag groups of refugees, constantly seeking safety and shelter.

In 2008, the fighting doesn't affect Nya, but she has her own hardships. It is her job to fetch water for her family, making the hours-long trek twice daily to try to keep her family supplied with fresh water.

This is a very slim book with spare writing that nevertheless does an impeccable job of conveying the hardships and horrors of living in Sudan in 1985, at the outbreak of their civil war, as well as the difficulties in contemporary Sudan of obtaining a basic need like clean water.

I often say that I most love books where the ending feels like merely an ending to this part of the story, but the characters have lives that go on. I don't think I've found a more powerful example of that than A Long Walk to Water - where Nya's opportunities are about to grow in ways she can barely fathom, all thanks to the installation of a well in her village.

The only downside of the length of the book is that I wanted moremoremore. Sometimes less can be more, but this is such a unique story, especially with the parallel stories of Salva in 1985 and Nya in 2008, that I craved more information about their lives.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: I Am J by Cris Beam

A book about a transgender teenage boy of color. Excellent. A book about a transgender teenage boy of color that I can recommend because it's a great book not just because it fills a void? Awesome.

I Am JFor as long as he can remember, J has been positive that he is actually a boy. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn't see him that way - to his parents, he is still Jeni, their beloved daughter, despite the short hair, boxers, and baggy male clothes. All his life, J has hoped and prayed for some sort of miracle - that he'd wake up one day and be in the body he belongs in. A few months before his 18th birthday, the next best thing happens: he discovers testosterone shots, the best chance he has before surgery of starting to look how he feels.

Comfortable in his decision to truly live the way he sees himself, J still has a host of obstacles to overcome. Parents that don't want to lose their daughter. A self-absorbed best friend that J might have feelings for. And the cute girl at the downtown Starbucks that definitely has feelings for J - without knowing what he's hiding beneath his layers of clothes. But J is determined that nothing will distract him from his ultimate goal - living as the man he wants to be.

Some of J's struggles are incredibly intense. Reading about the discord between him and his parents was terribly painful, mostly because both of J's parents seem like real people. They're well-meaning, but flawed, blinded by their love for the child they want to be raising rather than the child they have. We see more of J's mother than his father, but his father still makes quite an impact on the scenes he's in.

I loved that, unlike many other LGBT novels, the angst and main conflict in this doesn't stem from J questioning his identity and freaking out over it - from page one J knows that he should have been born in the body of a boy, and the conflict arises from his struggle to get the rest of the world to recognize the validity of that feeling. However, I'm not quite sure I buy the fact that J didn't learn about testosterone or chest binders until he was almost 18 - not when he says he's seen pictures of sexual reassignment surgeries online. But it's about the only convenient coincidence in the novel, and having J learn about these at the start of the novel means we aren't subjected to awkward info-dumps on Trans 101.

This is a beautifully multicultural book - one that reflects what New York City actually looks like. All sizes, shapes, colors, genders, and sexual orientations are represented in a very organic way. The downside is this also means the darker side of people comes out sometimes - it was a little uncomfortable to see gay and trans characters calling bisexuals "gross," but it does go to show that just because you are a member of one oppressed group, that doesn't mean you magically understand and love all others.

Being a cisgendered woman, I can't comment on whether J's story is actually authentic or not - all I can say is that it feels totally real, both the good and the bad parts. Beam includes an author's note that details her research process - she's written a nonfiction book about transgender teen girls and the ideas for J's story sprung from her notes and research on transgender boys that didn't fit into her nonfiction work. She definitely seems like she's done the research, and has done an excellent job of shedding light on an under-represented community.

Reviewed from an ARC picked up at ALA annual 2010. I Am J is now available - check it out soon!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Have I Missed? Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

This is supposed to be my February book...but I ran out of days in February, thanks to my vacation/honeymoon. So here's the anxiously-awaited (if responses to my Goodreads review tweet are any indication!) of 2005 Printz Award winner How I Live Now.

How I Live NowIn an attempt to escape her father and her horrible new stepmother, Manhattanite Daisy is spending the summer in rural England with family she hardly knows - her mother's sister and her four children. What is supposed to be a boring and relaxing summer takes a turn for the unexpected when, a day after her aunt has left the country on business, war breaks out in England.

Alone in the countryside, the five kids band together as a family in ways Daisy never imagined possible - from becoming so close they're practically telepathic to the decidedly more than familial love she shares with Edmond. But as the danger moves closer to their secluded outpost, Daisy must draw on reserves of strength she hardly knows she has to try to keep the little family together.

Pretty much every review of this I saw before going in brings up the incest - and now I guess I'm guilty of that too. But all of those reviews made such a big deal out of it I was sure I was going to end up with a romance story with some vaguely dystopian feelings. Let me assure you, that's totally not the case. Really, I'm kind of surprised that cousin-incest really gets people up in arms at this point. Just because you don't want to bang your cousin doesn't mean it's actually the grossest thing in the world. Much grosser: undead boyfriends that watch you sleep and try to control who you can spend time with. Or kidnappers. Abusive relationships of any kind, really. Priorities, people.

What this is, is a survival story. This is about how Daisy finds the strength, through extraordinary circumstances, to stop beating herself up and rediscovering her family and her will to live.

But ultimately, that wasn't quite enough to keep me riveted to the story. I put the book down a couple of times and wandered away to read something else. It may have had something to do with the writing style - it's very postmodern what with its complete absence of quotation marks. Considering the kids are pretty much psychic that makes it very hard to tell what is actually spoken and what is thought. The psychic-abilities were a bit random themselves - the whole of the writing just felt rather unsettling and unjustified.

What I did like was how Rosoff was able to subtly show how Daisy evolves over the course of the novel. There are hardly any moments when these changes are stated outright and instead they're left for the reader to pick up on and contemplate. An excellent example of an author trusting her audience to get it without hitting us over the head with character development or Messages.
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