Monday, April 25, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

Amelia Earhart has always been a legendary woman for me. A larger than life person who defied the odds and the conventions of the day, only to find her life cut tragically short (or was it?!) in pursuit of her dreams. But I have to admit, I've never known much beyond the myth, which is where Amelia Lost comes in, as Fleming does an amazing job of describing not only the myth of Amelia, but bringing to life the human woman as well.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia EarhartFleming skillfully uses alternating chapters to explore both the search for Amelia Earhart after she was lost in 1937, and a biography of her life up until that point. The book opens on the coast guard cutter Itasca, which was scheduled to meet up with Amelia and refuel her plane before she made the hop to Honolulu and then back on to the United States. As the crew of the Itasca grows frantic trying to contact the missing pilot, Fleming then brings us back to Amelia's childhood - where she was known early on as a tomboy.

Even though I knew how the story would end, Fleming does an amazing job building up the tension of Amelia's final flight, as she edged closer and closer to the final Pacific leg of the journey. A real nail biter. But what's perhaps most amazing is that Amelia had made it to that point at all. Flying in the 1920s and 1930s wasn't always the safest proposition, and it seems like Amelia may have had more than her fair share of accidents, in part because she was always pushing herself to establish or beat the next record.

If ever there was a book that seems like it's a candidate for the enhanced ebook treatment, Amelia Lost is it. Okay, I don't have an ereader so I have no idea if they're up to the task of handling all of the pictures (these are 99% black and white, so the grayscale e-ink wouldn't be a problem), but Fleming judiciously includes URLs in the text where appropriate - such as learning Morse code - that could easily be incorporated into the ebook version. She also includes links in the bibliography.

This is also a wonderfully designed book. I love the Art Deco-style chapter headings, which really add a historical flair to the story, and then the chapters about the search for Amelia are set apart on gray paper, giving an additional visual cue that this is a different part of the narrative.

If you've ever been at all curious about Amelia Earhart, Amelia Lost is definitely a must read.

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Writing Nonfiction for Children. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

I was super excited for this book - Australia, theater, and, most importantly, a bisexual protagonist! And in fact, there are lots of small things to love here, but I was never quite sold on our protagonist.

PinkAva has always been a dutiful daughter - going with the flow at her public high school, eschewing pink (and most other colors) from her utilitarian wardrobe, and spending lots of time with her radical anarchist girlfriend. Did I mention that Ava's parents are anti-establishment types? But Ava yearns for some normalcy in her life - demanding academics, pink argyle sweaters, and maybe even a boyfriend or two. So she convinces her parents that she should start attending a rigorous private school, a place where no one knows the old Ava and she can make herself over without anyone from her old life commenting on the change.

While her new look immediately ingratiates Ava with the popular "pastels" of the school, that doesn't make her new life easy. Joining the stage crew of the school musical (after an epic crash and burn at the actual auditions) in order to be close to the cutest boy on campus, Ava finds the "Screws" are the school's social lepers - and decides that she's now qualified to give them a social leg up even while she's precariously balancing her new social status, and hiding her new self from her old girlfriend and family. Most troubling to Ava is balancing her emotions - she still feels close to her girlfriend Chloe, but she undeniably finds the lead guy in the musical hot, and then there's the cute and helpful leader of the Screws who makes her feel all sorts of confused. Which Ava is the real Ava? And will she ever become comfortable with herself?

For me, Ava herself was the biggest problem of the story, in that she doesn't seem to actually grow in any meaningful way. The best illustration of this for me was when she tried to play matchmaker among the Screws, and it fails miserably, in part because Ava makes a lot of assumptions about the people whose hearts she's toying with. But in the end, Ava pulls the exact same stunt...only because it's a platonic set up everyone's okay with it? Also I have to say that while I love having a character proudly call herself a feminist, Ava has some extremely retrograde and ill-informed feminist thoughts. Which would be okay if she'd come up with them independently but considering her parents are professors and should be on the cutting edge of gender studies, it doesn't make sense that Ava would be so incredibly wrong sometimes (and really, asking the kid of Asian descent where he's "really" from? Wow, not okay. And that's pointed out in the text, but is again illustrative of just how out of touch with progressive and feminist thought Ava is).

BUT, it is encouraging to see a story with a bisexual protagonist - not that Ava uses the label for herself, but it's probably the closest label that fits. She makes it very clear that her relationship with Chloe is real and important and certainly not just a phase, and while it's a little preachy I did feel it was important to include some acknowledgement of the legitimacy of that relationship to make it clear that Ava wasn't just a lesbian until the "right guy" came along to straighten her out.

Also, science fiction geeks will have a lot of fun with Ava's stage crew friends, as they are huge nerds. In a delightful way. Lots of discussions of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings and zombies and...just general geekery. Gotta love that.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

My first introduction to Susan Vreeland was in high school when I read The Passion of Artemisia. At the time it was being considered for the BBYA list because of the teenage protagonist. It didn't end up making the list, but it was a powerful story - based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century painter who often depicted strong women of the Bible and mythology. A haunting and captivating story. So when I heard that Vreeland had a new book, I knew I needed to get it - I didn't even look to see if it was based on a real person this time around and just dove in!

Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A NovelLike Artemisia, Clara Driscoll is an artist constricted by society's attitudes about what women can and should accomplish. Instead of paintings, however, Clara works in glass, and is responsible for creating some of the most famous designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany's innovative glass lamps.

While working for Tiffany is a dream come true in some ways, it's incredibly stifling in others. The unionized male glass workers don't appreciate the women's department, headed by Clara, getting some of the greatest commissions. And while Tiffany is rather forward thinking in hiring women at all, he has old fashioned notions about married women, namely that they shouldn't be working. Clara resigned from Tiffany's once before to get married, but returned upon the death of her husband. She longs to have a romantic companion in her life again, but is also loyal to Mr. Tiffany, and then there's the matter of her life's passion in being an artist. How is Clara supposed to choose?

There are also wonderful subplots and minor characters - Clara has several gay friends she interacts with throughout the story, growing quite close to some of them, but my favorite recurring subplot had to be Clara's burgeoning social consciousness and labor organizing. When the male glassworkers start grumbling about all the work the women are doing, Clara organizes all of the women to march to work in solidarity under the banner of labor rights and women's rights. She counsels many of the young women in her department to improve their skills so they can earn more money to support their families, and delay marriage as long as possible to be sure they can start their married lives with a bit of money of their own. She also gets a bicycle, which just makes me want to read Wheels of Change even more (NYPL, Queens Library: WHY DON'T YOU HAVE IT YET?!). I have a feeling Clara's bike rides really illustrate a lot of what that book is talking about.

Clara has some thoroughly modern attitudes, but they're tempered by some truly Victorian attitudes that keep her from coming across as too 21st century, such as buying into the "benevolent" stereotype that women are more attuned to color so it's okay that they are segregated in their own department in the glass factory. She's overall a great character because she has so many different interests, passions, and problems that she truly comes to life. The same can't be said for all of the side characters, as especially some of the men in the periphery of Clara's life are hard to distinguish from each other.

So was Clara Driscoll a real person? Absolutely - though no one knew it until 2006. Because I'm a huge geek I would have liked a longer author's note at the end about Vreeland's research. While she relates the discovery of Clara's letters that led to the re-evaluation of the design of Tiffany lamps, I wondered how much of the characterization of other historical characters were based on fact - especially Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. But hey, I suppose I can find a biography of him on my own and try to learn for myself what may have been fact and what was fiction in Vreeland's complex depiction.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sci Fi Friday Double Review: ANIMORPHS #1 & #2, by K.A. Applegate

I've mentioned a few times before, here and in various blogger profiles I've done for other blogs, that I absolutely loved the Animorphs series when I was younger. It's been just about 14 years since I got my first book - Easter Sunday, 1997, I woke up to find a book tucked in amongst the candy in my Easter basket. A red book with a weird picture on the cover of a girl turning into a cat.

I stuck through the whole series for five years, through the ups and (devastatingly terrible) downs that the 62 book series took. I ran a fan website, wrote tons and tons of fan fiction, and made some of the best friends a girl could ever hope to have, all because of these books.

So even though the books didn't go out on the highest note, I was beyond excited when I heard they were getting re-released, with some small updates to correct mistakes and bring the books into the 21st century. And when Cindy asked me if I wanted to check out the galley copies she had, I about had a heart attack from excitement. I still have all of my original books (including that 14 year old copy of The well as a copy of the second print run version and a copy in German) but I wanted to see what had been changed in these new versions. What I was entirely prepared for was a) the huge wave of nostalgia I felt upon reading the opening lines and b) just how awesome these books still are all these years later! Trust me, there's nothing else like Animorphs out there for this age group right now.

The Invasion (Animorphs Book 1)The Invasion introduces us to Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie and Marco - five totally ordinary kids who make the fateful decision to walk home one night by cutting through an abandoned construction site. Their leisurely walk home is interrupted by a crashing space ship - and the kids make contact with their first alien, an Andalite called Prince Elfangor-Sirinal-Shamtul. He warns the group, telling them their planet is already being invaded by the Yeerks, slugs that crawl in through a person's ear before wrapping themselves around the brain and taking complete control of the body. Elfangor gives them the only weapon he can to defend their planet: the power to morph, to acquire the DNA of any animal and then change into that animal.

Jake, serious and responsible, quickly slips into the role of the leader of the group. The others all have strongly defined personalities as well: Rachel is fearless, Cassie compassionate, Marco a wiseass with a tragic past, and Tobias is quiet and shy with a good dose of tragedy of his own. Each book is told from a different character's point of view, so these first two give us the deepest looks into Jake and Rachel. If the other characters don't seem the most complex yet, just you wait.

The Visitor (Animorphs)The Visitor is set a short time later. Just long enough for the group to recover after some of the horrors they experienced in the last book before launching into another mission. This time we follow Rachel as she spends most of her time on reconnaissance missions into enemy territory, sneaking into the home of a friend in order to spy on her parents who are Controllers - people who have been taken over by the Yeerks. It's less action packed than The Invasion, but still filled with tension and drama of a different sort.

If you thought The Hunger Games was a little too violent...well, Animorphs isn't much better. It's not kids killing kids, but it does involve aliens being eaten alive by other aliens on a semi-regular basis. And Applegate doesn't pull away from these darker scenes - they're not gratuitous, but are certainly well-described.

K.A. Applegate absolutely doesn't condescend to her audience or pull any punches. I know the books end up dealing with some really serious moral issues, including war, murder/killing, the nature of evil and so on, but I'd kind of forgotten how outright violent they start. And I love it. The theme of the whole series is about war and its affects on people (much like the culmination of The Hunger Games), and you can't adequately explore that without getting into some bleak moments. Like I said, the descriptions aren't gratuitous - there isn't a grisly scene just for the sake of being edgy or dark - but they are definitely there, and are part of what really set these books apart (they're intended for ages 8-12...I was 12 when the series started. omg, I'm so old, and always have been in this fandom!).

There are also lots of little bits of awesome commentary that slip into these books. I immediately identified with Rachel back in the day (and she remains one of my favorite literary characters of all time), not only because she was tough and fierce and tall like I wanted to be, but she has lots of feminist moments, taking jabs at the boys when she thinks they are being unreasonably protective. There are also two characters of color - Marco is Hispanic and Cassie African-American. Their races are only mentioned in passing (until time travelling starts happening much later in the series), but it's there. There's also a bit of class consciousness - Marco's dad is extremely messed up after the death of Marco's mother a few years ago, meaning that money is short and they don't live in the greatest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile Rachel is the daughter of divorced parents but has her own credit card. It gets a little bit into Five Token Band territory (warning: TVTropes link), but as their distinct personalities develop it doesn't feel like lazy stereotyping.

For a 15 year old series (I got into the game a year late), it holds up surprisingly well. There's nothing here that screams mid-90s, and as someone who read these books obsessively, I can also tell you that the updating is quite minimal. The biggest update was changing a major continuity error in the first book (well, it wasn't a continuity error then, but they made a big deal out of the opposite thing happening in subsequent books). Otherwise it was like changing the name of a specific game system to just say "system." When I read the new Babysitter's Club prequel last summer, the writing felt like it definitely could have fit in with the original books...which wasn't the greatest thing. Those books were kind of clunky - like the template of the second chapter of every book detailing the characters. Nothing about these books feel dated, other than the fact that they are designed to be a monthly science fiction series - a genre you don't see at the book store too often anymore.

The Message (Animorphs , No 4)The Invasion and The Visitor will be released in May. Right now I believe the plans are for the first six books to get re-released over the next two years, so this definitely won't be the snappy pace I got used to back in middle school. Old school Animorph fans won't find much terribly new here - if your original books are still in your parents' basement, you're not missing out on anything if you just stick with those. But if tragedy struck so you don't have them anymore, and now you've got a serious craving for some old school Animorphs, you'll be pleased with these. Though I'm sad the corner morphing flipbook is gone :-( On the other hand: lenticular covers! The original cover style never excited me (that's book #4 to the right), and the new cover style isn't translating well into online images - the background patterns are much richer in real life, and the lenticular action is really quite good!

So, to sum up an incredibly long entry, let me just say this: I am so excited to see these books come back so that a whole new generation can get to know these amazing books.

Reviewed from galley copies. The Invasion and The Visitor will be released in May!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

Speech geeks unite!

Debate gets brought up all the time as a geeky competitive high school activity, but I never did it. Because I was caught up in something even geekier: forensics, aka competitive public speaking. So when I saw that Frances joins the speech team in this book, I knew I had to read it, because speech geeks don't get nearly enough love.

Bitter Melon
Frances's life revolves around her mother. Her mother, an immigrant from China, demands utter perfection from her daughter, sending her to an academically challenging high school to ensure Frances will get into a prestigious college with plenty of scholarships to propel her through medical school, after which Frances will be able to take care of her.

The only problem in this scenario - Frances isn't positive that she wants to follow her mother's map for her life. When Frances is accidentally assigned to speech class rather than calculus, at first she figures she'll just sit in the class for a week or two and then transfer to the right one before the deadline. But as the hip and cool teacher recognizes an innate speaking ability in Frances, she ends up sticking around - the first secret she's kept from her mother. Frances knows on the one hand she is being ungrateful - her mother truly has made great sacrifices, working long hours in order to afford Frances' tuition, not to mention clothes, food and rent. But until taking this speech class, Frances has never had the opportunity to consider her own desires, and what might be driving her mother's quest for Frances' excellence. Is her mother truly concerned for Frances' future? Or merely her own?

Frances's mother isn't a nice person. This is probably an understatement. Reading the physical and, especially, the verbal abuse she puts Frances through is absolutely painful. But Chow does an excellent job of slowly revealing the abuse, as Frances's world is slowly opened through her experiences on the speech team. It's not so much that the team magically opens Frances's eyes, but rather as her teacher encourages her hidden talent, Frances begins to understand the power that words can hold.

While Frances and her mother have a very complex relationship that is the core of the novel, most of the other relationships suffer from lack of definition. The friendship between Frances and Theresa especially seems to be one of convenience, as the girls quickly befriend each other after one kind act on Theresa's part, as Frances seems to have resented the girl for years. After that the friendship's up and downs seem to be defined more by what will complicate Frances' life more than anything else. The romantic subplot also takes awhile to get going, and while her crush's personality may not be the most well developed, the details of their relationship were refreshingly authentic - overpowering deodorant, clammy hands, and sweaty outfits all called to mind my early romances more than any idealized romance novel ever could.

As a speech geek, I can totally vouch for the authenticity of the competitive aspects of the book. Frances' competitions superficially differ from how mine were set up, but different states have different rules, and of course she was competing over 10 years before I entered the high school speech scene. But there are some emotional aspects that will always ring true - and every speaker has faced terrible audience members like Frances' nemesis throughout the book! In more ways than one, the scenes of Frances' speech career are a light and necessary break from the oppressiveness of her home life.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Month in review: March

I really hate seasons of transition, especially from winter to spring. The weather will give you a couple of unseasonably nice days, and then immediately plunge you back into wintry darkness that just make me feel blah and like not doing much of anything - hence things being all quiet on the blogging front this past week.

I also managed to not pick up a What Have I Missed book all month, which made me feel like a bit of a failure :-( My bad. I'll do two books soon to make up for it!

When I was blogging this month, Sci-Fi Friday made a brief return with Across the Universe and XVI. I have a double review coming up this week for SF, but after that my TBR list is sadly empty of SF titles. If you know of any upcoming science fiction titles, let me know and I'll add them to my TBR list! Last year we had some amazing science fiction books, including the Printz-winner Ship Breaker and the super entertaining Black Hole Sun. Where's the serious (and seriously fun) science fiction of 2011?

I also spent a lot of March thinking about history, first with the amazing Between Shades of Gray, which deserves every accolade and word of praise that has been heaped upon it. An amazing and moving look at an oft-neglected bit of history. I also took some time to reflect on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the books that brought that piece of history to life for me.

As the weather seems to finally be turning sunny for good now, I'm looking into doing some spring cleaning in real life and in my TBR list. I realized a few weeks ago that my TBR list already has more books on it than I managed to read in all of 2010 - and it's only April. So I'm going to have to really rein myself in on what is actually added to the list in the future. I'm going to spend more time focusing on issues that I'm really passionate about, so LGBT, feminist and class-conscious books (along with those elusive science fiction books!) are moving to the top of my list, and everything else is going to be secondary. I'm not going to be reviewing those sorts of books exclusively because, for example, I never would have discovered Between Shades of Gray if I'd stuck to those qualifications, but they are my priorities for now.

Here's hoping that April will be much more productive than March!
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