March 25, 2015

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal

by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's some talk of teen drinking and some violence, but I'd hand it to anyone who loves superheroes and is willing to sit through the Avengers movie. It's in the adult graphic novel section, but I wonder if it'd get more traction in the teen?

I'm sold. Seriously. I've heard the buzz (thanks to Leila and others) and I caved, and THEY WERE RIGHT. It's worth it: you should read it.

(Do I need to say more?)

Kamala Kahn is a 16-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and she's basically chafing against her life. She doesn't like being Muslim. She doesn't like having overprotective parents. She doesn't like not being "pretty" and "blonde". And so when Captain Marvel appears to Kamala (after a party she snuck out to) and gives Kamala an opportunity to reboot her life, Kamala wishes to be like Captain Marvel. Her wish is granted: she has super-powers. (And is tall and blonde.) Eventually, she figures out that the tall and blonde and "non-politically correct" costume isn't all it's cracked up to be. She accepts that she -- Ms. Marvel, as she dubs herself -- is Pakistani and goes with it, embracing (albeit reluctantly) her new superpowers.

Why did I love it? First: it's a Pakistani girl superhero! She's Muslim, and while she chafes against her parents' rules, she's faithful, which I appreciated. Which also means she's a character of color: not all superheroes need to be white. (Or drawn with super-skimpy costumes, so yay for that as well.) But it's more than that: Kamala is smart and funny, and the writing and art reflect that. I loved Kamala's ordinary-ness, and her devotion to her friends (and parents), and her struggle to figure out what all this means and to accept who she is.

It's completely worth the buzz. Fantastic.

March 23, 2015

Mark of the Thief

by Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: "In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There's violence, since it's set in ancient Rome, but it's not graphic. It's basically on the level of the Percy Jackson books, so I put it in the middle grade (grades 3-5, though it probably skews to the upper end of that) section of the bookstore.

Nicholas Calva is a slave in the mines, digging up stones and jewels for the wealthy of Ancient Rome. This is not something he chose to do; his family was captured in one of Rome's many invasions of other, smaller countries. Or sRomething he wants to do: he would much rather be a free man. But, because his mother was sold away, and because he needs to watch after his sister, Livia, he sticks around and is (mostly) obedient. Then, one day, his master sends him down to find and fetch Julias Ceasar's bulla, a medallion that he carried with him that was supposedly given to him by Venus. Nic finds it, of course, and fights the griffin guarding it, and is endowed with magical powers.

Which gets him in to all sorts of trouble.

See, the current emperor is weak, and there's a war brewing between the Praetors and the general of the army, and Nic seems to be caught in the middle. The question is, will he even survive long enough to pick a side?

I loved this one. Seriously. Nielsen knows how to create a world, and I was happy to immerse myself in an ancient Rome that had magic. (And pretty cool magic, at that.) Nic, much like Sage, is a impulsive character, one is more than willing to go out on a limb to do what he thinks he should, which makes him a lot of fun to read about. I enjoyed getting to know Aurelia -- his friend/pseudo romantic interest -- and thought she was a great foil for Nic impulsiveness. My only regret was that Livia was more an idea than a character; I never really felt the connection that Nic did for her, and was never really upset when her life was dangled before Nic as motivation.

But there are some nice twisty moments, especially at the end, and it's a solid first book in a series.

March 22, 2015

10 Feminist Books for Kids and Teens

Inspired by Shannon Hale's resurrection of #BoysReadGirls, I was going to write a post with books about girls that boys should be reading. Then I realized I did that already. But, I wanted to come up with SOMETHING for women's history month...

After much thinking, I came up with a list of feminist books for kids/teens. Which are also books that everyone should be reading. My standards were kind of loose: if it felt like a feminist book, then I'm calling it a feminist book. Which means, I probably missed a TON. Let me know what you would have added.

The Princess in Black, by Shannon Hale: "Princess Magnolia has a secret. She's a superhero, rescuing innocent and unprotected goats from the Big Bad Monsters. The thing is: princesses aren't supposed to be superheroes. They're supposed to be princesses. Right?  Well, aside from the stuffy Duchess Wigtower, no one tells Princess Magnolia she can't."

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly: " Callie discovers that studying the world around her is what she really wants to do. She spends as much time as possible with her grandfather -- in between piano recitals, forced sewing, school, and managing her brothers' crushes for her best friend -- living for and thriving off of the time spent studying and observing. Of course, since this is 1899 and Texas, Callie couldn't be allowed (allowed!) to proceed this way: good, proper, well-off girls just didn't tromp through the underbrush looking at bugs. For me, this was the heart of the novel, this pull for Callie to do what she wanted and not what everyone expected of her."

Amelia Lost, by Candace Fleming: "She flew not really because of skill -- often she didn't take the time to learn things thoroughly -- but because of determination. She was a feminist: she believed that just because she was a woman didn't mean she shouldn't do whatever she wanted to do. Including flying. She resisted the boxes that the time period wanted to put her in, and literally soared. No, she wasn't the most talented, or even the most skilled, but she was determined, and that made up for a lot."

No Cream Puffs, by Karen Day: "The second big thing, and probably the more defining one, is that Madison decides to play in the boy's baseball league. She's a brilliant pitcher, and is encouraged by her older brother to test her skill in the league (since there isn't a girl's league). Because of this, she makes waves in her little town. Some people want to make her a pariah: she's a girl, she has an unfair advantage because no one will want to hurt her, she'll bring down the level of the game. Others, her mother included, want to make her out to be a trailblazer, a feminist, someone who stands up for women's rights. Madison, refreshingly, just wants to play the game"


The Cure for Dreaming, by Cat Winters: "Sure, there's more plot to this one than that, but who cares? This one has a strong feminist agenda and it's not afraid of it. The father had me seething. The rich handsy boy whom the father liked made me want to smack him. Henri was nice enough, but I really loved Olivia and her struggle against the system (and the Man) and her desire to be Free. I was just cheering her on: you go girl!"

Lady Macbeth's Daughter, by Lisa Klein: " Lady Macbeth is only slightly better; she gives herself over to Macbeth because she knows no other way, and the motivations Klein gives her for encouraging Macbeth in his road to destruction evolve out of her feeling cornered in her life. In fact, Klein gives us an interesting dichotomy with her women characters: Lady Macbeth is what one would think is very traditional, very husband-bound; while Albia, on the other hand, is very modern and feminist, choosing her own path without being bound by men's expectations"

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E.Lockhart: "Frankie did something big; she proved something to herself -- and to her family -- that she can do something. Sure, they reacted badly, but then, most people react badly to people who think outside the box. Even if that box is something as simple and silly as a secret boys' club at a posh boarding school."

Poisoned Apples, by Christine Hepperman: "I didn't know what to expect, but what I got was a weird, wonderful, empowering collection of poems. Hepperman mixes fairy tale retellings with modern issues, from anorexia and photoshopping to the everyday over sexualization of women. It's a seamless transition from fantasy to reality."


Gabi a Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintero: "It was Gabi's awakening to the double standard, and her actively trying to do something about it -- which came near the end of the book --which endeared me to the book. There was so much crap going on in Gabi's life that I found it difficult, initially, to relate. But by the end, I was cheering for Gabi, for her attitude toward her life, and for Quintero's unflinching portrayal of her."


Glory O'Brein's History of the Future, by A.S. King: "Glory's visions are of a horrific patriarchal future, where women's rights are completely taken away, and the country ends up in another Civil War. This fascinates and terrifies Glory -- what's her role in this future? How does it come to be like this? Will it? -- and the act of having these visions pushes her into action."



And a couple of adult ones tacked on the end:

Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley: "A heady piece of feminist fiction. The first time I read this, I was enraptured by the way she tells the story [of King Arthur] from the women's point of view. "

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood: "I can't imagine -- more like, don't want to imagine -- a world where women are treated as nothing more than the sum of their bodies, where men get excused for their behavior because of their position, where women hate and loathe each other because of their roles. Wait... that, too much, describes what our world is like now. Without the religious framework, without the robes, without the martial law, there are elements of this world around us"

March 20, 2015

Red Butterfly

by A. L. Sonnichsen
First sentence: "Mama used to have a piano
with an on/off switch
and a dial to make drums beat."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It's pretty long, which will turn some readers off, though it's in verse, which makes it easier to read (but also might turn readers off). The Chinese words, while spelled phonetically, might also be a deterrent. It's in the middle grade (grades  3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kara was abandoned at birth, and in China, that generally means certain death. Especially since she is a girl and born with a deformed hand. But a kind, elderly American woman living in Tianjin took Kara in. Now, eleven years later, Kara is wondering why Mama never leaves the house, why she has never gone to school, and why they can't leave to go join Daddy in Montana.

It takes a while for things to spill out: Mama is always telling Kara to be content with what she has, and not long for something more, but things do eventually come to light. In China, one needs papers to be a legal resident. Kara, because she was abandoned and rescued, has none. And so, they've been in hiding all these years.

On the one hand, I enjoyed this peek into China, especially the lives of those children who are neglected and abandoned to the orphanages because of the one-child laws. It's told in verse, which suits Kara's contemplative nature and her desire to figure out who she is and where she belongs.  I liked the people Kara met and her interactions in the orphanages.

However, while I got to know Kara and her story, it felt, well... too American. An American pulled her off the streets when she was a baby. She befriended a New Zealander worker in the orphanage (not American, but English-speaking/Western). She ended up in Florida with a second adoptive family. There were Chinese characters, but they were almost afterthoughts in Kara's life. And while I understood why, I was sad not to get to know China or the Chinese.

It wasn't bad, overall, but it wasn't my favorite either.

March 18, 2015

Fish in a Tree

by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
First sentence: "It's always there."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: The chapters are short, and while there are some bigger words, there's nothing that a 3rd grader couldn't handle. It's in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ally doesn't like school. Part of that is the result of her moving so much -- her dad's in the military, currently deployed in Iraq/Afghanistan (it didn't say; I'm assuming this) -- of it is because Ally can't read. It's a fact she's hidden by becoming a troublemaker and through her art, but whenever she tries to read, the words swim, her head hurts, and she just. can't. do. it.

Enter in Mr. Daniels, the permanent sub for her regular sixth-grade teacher who's off on maternity leave. He picks up on Ally's defense mechanisms, and realizes that there's more going on than meets the eye. He espouses the believe that not everyone's smart in the same way (yay for that!), and draws on Ally's strength, giving her the confidence to make friends -- Albert, the science geek, and Keisha, a baker extraordinaire -- and to stand up to the classroom bully, Shay.

There are some nitpicky things that bothered me throughout that kept me from loving this as much as I wanted to. First, why did the teacher have to be male? I'm torn on this one: on the one hand, it's showing a man doing things that are "normally" reserved for women. He's concerned about his students, he's caring, and he reaches out. Not to mention that he's a man in a female-heavy profession. However, it seems to me in books like this -- where a teacher saves a struggling student -- the teacher is always male. It's the men who get to think outside the box, who find ways to connect with the struggling students, who make changes within the system. And that bothered me.

Additionally, there's a point when Albert comes out of his shell to fight back against his bullies, in order to protect Ally and Keisha from them. Perhaps that was in character for Albert, but it bothered me deeply. Why did he need to protect them? I initially thought it was because they were his friends -- maybe he'd do the same for boys who were his friends -- but then he says something about "never hitting a girl"and I cringed.

On the other hand, I was glad that Hunt included a broad spectrum of personalities and classes: there are people who are hyper, middle of the road kids, rich kids, kids on free lunches. The usual suspects -- drugs, bad parents, etc --aren't anywhere to be seen. The focus, really, is on celebrating our differences, and recognizing that intelligence isn't tied to doing well on tests. And that's worth celebrating.

So, while it's an uneven book, I'm glad it's out there.