November 24, 2014

Vivian Apple at the End of the World

by Katie Coyle
First sentence: "There came a time when the American people began to forget God."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 6, 2015
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is teenage drinking and a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also frequent off-screen violence. It'll be in the Teen Section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

In this sort-of future, American has been taken over by the conservative, pseudo-Christian  Church of America. Except "taken over" is too strong. It's not like America has become a theocracy. No, it's just that the Church of America founder, Beaton Frick, has predicted the end of the world. The rapture will come on a night in March, and all the faithful will be taken up.

Even though a good majority of Americans follow the Book of Frick, as it came to be called, Vivian Apple doesn't. Her parents do, though. They're faithful believers. And so, when the "rapture" comes, they disappear, leaving Vivian behind.

I'm going to stop right here for a minute. I've read a bazillion dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels and this is the first time I've come across the rapture as the cause. (At least in mainstream fiction. Is this a theme in Christian fiction?) In fact, this is what compelled me to pick the book up. I'm often curious about the way religion is portrayed in mainstream fiction, and I thought this could be an interesting take on it. And it was, even if it wasn't necessarily a kind one. Religion and believers come off badly in this book, as people who believe anything they hear without question and are willing to commit acts of violence for the sake of their belief. More than once, I cringed at the "religion" and marveled at what I saw as pot-shots against the religious right.

But I digress.

Vivian determines that it's all a hoax and she sets out from her hometown in Pittsburg to the Church headquarters outside of San Francisco with her friend, Harp. She just wants to know answers. They pick up a boy along the way, Peter, who seems to be on their side. Little do they know what's waiting for them.

There is some good in this book: I really liked the tentative romance that budded between Vivian and Peter. I liked that Harp was Indian. I liked the way Vivian grew and became more willing to make decision and to Act in her own life throughout the course of the book. And I can even forgive that the book didn't end, but rather left me hanging with more questions than answers.

But this one will be a tough sell around here.

November 22, 2014

Graphic Novel Round-Up, November 2014

I spent a Saturday recently just reading graphic novels to help me out of the slump. I think it might have worked; I feel much more interested in reading a full-length book now. Also, both A and K picked some of these up and found themselves completely engrossed. So, it's a good batch.

Odd Duck
by Ceci Castellucci and Sara Varon
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's nothing. And the words/ideas are pretty simple. It's good for reluctant readers as wel as those who just want a good, short story. It'd be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Theodora is an ordinary duck. She does her ordinary duck exercises in the morning, goes for her ordinary duck walk (because she doesn't like to fly), and reads ordinary duck books in the afternoon. She lives a nice, quiet life and is very happy.

That is, until Chad moves in next door. Chad is not an ordinary bird. He does not do his exercises in an ordinary way (if at all), He dyes his feathers weird colors. He does art (gasp)! Theodora is not happy. But then, come winter, she and Chad bond (because they don't fly south). They discover that they have things in common, and that they really enjoy each other's company. And that maybe being different isn't so bad.

It's a charming little graphic novel, full of adorable art and sweet little lessons, but it's never heavy-handed or didactic. Perfect for younger and reluctant readers.

Monster on the Hill
by Rob Harrell
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Content: Linguistically, it's more challenging. But it's probably on par with the Amulet books, which means it's probably good for 3rd grade and up. Content-wise, there's some monster violence, but that's it. It'd be in the middle grade graphic noel section of the bookstore.

In this version of 1860s England, there are monsters that terrorize every town. But never fear: that's what the townspeople want. (Seriously.) But, in Stoker-on-Avon, they have a problem: their monster, Raymond, doesn't do anything but moan and complain. It's bringing the town down. So, the town leaders send the eccentric Dr. Charles Wilkie (and a street urchin, Timothy, hitches along for the ride) to convince Raymond to buck up and do his job.

This leads to a road trip, a lot of bonding, some lessons learned, and a giant battle against an unstoppable foe before everything is set to rights again.

This one had me eating out of the palm of its hand. I loved Raymond -- he was delightfully pathetic -- and his schoolmate, Noodles (aka Tentaculor) and their relationship. There was so much that had me just laughing out loud. True, there could have been a female character (just one? Please?)  or perhaps some diversity (though it was England in 1860-something), but for the most part, I found this simply charming.

by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It's about the Holocaust, so there will definitely be things to discuss. It glosses over the worst of the horrors; there's a passing image of a concentration camp survivor, as well as illusions to other horrors. Even so, it's very kid-appropriate. It's in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This one is your standard Holocaust fare. Mostly. Framed as a story a grandmother is telling her granddaughter about the time when she was a child, Dauvillier focuses mostly on the Resistance and the people in France who helped those who were Jews get away.

It's a very tender story of a young girl, Dounia (the grandma) whose parents were taken to the concentration camps in 1942, near the end of the war. Even though Dounia hides during the inital raid, the neighbors (some of whom are part of the reistance), know they'll be back, looking for her. So, they arrange for her to live with a woman in the country. In the act of escaping, the neighbor's husband is caught, though he's only arrested and released. He manages to find his way back to his wife and Dounia. Her main concern, though, is finding her parents again and so they keep looking, especially once France is liberated. Eventually, they do find her mother, and the story ends.

I liked this one well enough, but (possibly because it's tamed down a bit) it lacks the emotional punch that other Holocaust books have. Still, it's a good introduction to the topic.

November 21, 2014

The Blood of Olympus

by Rick Riordan
First sentence: "Jason hated being old."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series:  The Lost HeroThe Son of NeptuneMark of Athena, The House of Hades
Content: There's some mild kissing and lots of fantasy violence. It's in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it's more than appropriate for Percy Jackson fans of all ages.

The doors of Hades have been sealed, but Gaea is awakening anyway. Our heroes have split up: seven on the Argo II trying to go get to Athens to stop Gaea, the other two (plus Coach Hedge) are shadow-traveling the Athena Parthenon to Camp Half-Blood as a goodwill gesture from the Roman camp to the Greek camp. Both sets are facing Great Odds: monsters and minor gods that have switched sides as well as Octavian and the Roman camp's impending invasion of Camp Half-Blood. Will they be able to stop everyone in time?

It's a good ending. Not a great ending, not a fantastic book, but a good, solid one. It was a nice send-off to characters I've come to know and love for 10 years. And I was more than happy to take this ride with them. I was glad that the unsung characters -- Piper, Reyna, and especially Nico -- got a chance to shine. I enjoyed the whole book well enough, but I REALLY enjoyed the Reyna/Nico chapters. I just felt like that was where the more interesting story was, with saving Camp Half-Blood and fighting Orion and Octavian, and they were just awesome. Period. Everything else paled in comparison.

I do have some theories about the end (which ticked off A, by the way) but I'm not going to go into my theories here. I have some complaints about the sort of writer Riordan's become; he's become much too much of a formula writer for my taste. But I understand the demands of publisher's and fans and the constraints of storytelling and I'm still more than happy to give everything he writes a read.

I will be sad to see this series end; it's been a good ride.

November 19, 2014

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

by Meg Medina
First sentence: "Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There's some mild swearing. The real reason it ended up in the Teen (grads 9+) section is for the bullying and the violence. It's pretty graphic and the fallout is pretty severe.

Piddy Sanchez is starting a new school. It's one of those inner city schools in a Hispanic neighborhood in Queens, the kind that justifies every bad stereotype there is. Just a few weeks in, and someone informs Piddy that Yaqui Delgado -- whom Piddy has neither seen nor spoken with -- is going to kick her ass. Why? Because she thinks Piddy is flirting with her boyfriend. (She's not.)

It's this threat, among other things, that begins defining Piddy's life. She doesn't feel like she can talk to her mother, who is working extra shifts to try and provide for the both of them. She does turn to her aunt Lila, but even then she keeps the awful details to herself.

It's a harsh journey, one that I wouldn't wish on any kid. I did like that there was a range of diverse people in this one; not all white characters were "good" and not all Latin@ ones were "bad". There was a wide range of personalities, and the color of the skin just happens to be incidental. I also enjoyed how Piddy embraced her culture and loved her neighborhood.

I was glad for the solution to this one, as well. No one really "learned their lesson" and the bully wasn't reformed and they didn't become friends and live happily ever after. No, it was much more realistic and messy and showed that sometimes the best option isn't always the most noble one.

It was a tough read, emotionally raw especially for me (because of the whole daughter thing), but I'm glad I did.

November 17, 2014

Two Transgender Books

I thought about reviewing them separately, but then I realized that the authors of the two books actually dated at one point, and I think Simon & Schuster kind of meant for them to be a pair. So, here they are, together.

Rethinking Normal
by Katie Rain Hill (with Ariel Schrag)
First sentence: "I really, really hate flies."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a few f-bombs, and some frank talk about genetalia. Also, some frank talk about having sex, though it's not graphic. That, and the subject matter (which isn't necessarily not for younger kids, but maybe parents want to have a chat with the younger set while they read this), put this in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Katie is a trans girl. Which means -- if I get this correctly -- she was assigned the male gender at birth, named Luke by her parents, and as she grew up, she felt increasingly at odds with her physical body. She didn't feel "male"; she was attracted to males, but wanted them to see her as a woman. This is the story of her journey.

It's not an easy one for her. For her first few years, she was okay, but as she grew older, she became depressed. She didn't know what was wrong with her, or why she didn't feel comfortable in her body. Why she wasn't compelled to do traditional "guy" things. She went to therapists, but they didn't help. Most just threw medication at her. It wasn't until she was 13 that she discovered a transgender website that opened the doors to what she was experiencing. She found a support group, a doctor who was willing to take her seriously (turns out that she was intersexual; she had high levels of estrogen in her body and undeveloped ovaries as well as a penis), and she was on the path to becoming who she truly felt she was.

I was hoping, I think, for this to shed some light on transgender(ism? Can I say that?) for me. It didn't; but then I think my expectations were too high. One person's story is going to shed light on just that: one person's story. And even though the writing style was overly casual (imagine Katie sitting down and just rambling her story at you), I was fascinating by her experiences. And ashamed; this was set down in Oklahoma, and unfortunately, the religious people Katie knew did not treat her well. That always makes me feel sad; I do hope that there would be more acceptance and charity and kindness in these sorts of stories.

I am glad Katie wrote this book, though. The first step to making the unknown more knowable is to learn someone's story. And this book does just that.

Some Assembly Required
by Arin Anderson (with Joshua Lyon)
First sentence: "Getting dumped at prom sucks."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Same as above.

I didn't have as positive an experience with this one. I'm not quite sure why, so this is mostly going to be me ruminating about why I bailed on this memoir, when I found the other one fascinating

First off, Arin is a trans boy, which means he was assigned the female gender (and had female body parts) when he was born. He struggled with this, but unlike Katie, his struggles seemed to come off as "I don't like the clothes/pageants my mother is putting me in." He was a tomboy as a child, even though he enjoyed the dance classes his mother insisted he take. He didn't want anything to do with anything else about being a girl, and was repulsed when his body started to change.

I'm not asking for a justification or an explanation, but this seems weak to me. Especially in the light of the experiences Katie had. The way Arin presented himself (to me) came off as much more shallow. Or maybe it was because I'm a woman, and I had some of the same struggles with expectations and my body image. (I just turned feminist instead of trans, though...) I wanted to know what made his experience DIFFERENT from mine. How I could have a similar reaction to clothes/pageants/activities/my body changing and NOT be trans. Maybe I was expecting too much

Growing up in Oklahoma, Arin had a tough time. He came out as bi, and then trans, both of which were strongly rejected by the community, the religious school he was attending, and his mother.  (Of course, since religious people are closed-minded, duh.) In the end it was the the way these so-called Christians treated him that made me put down the book.

But, I also had to admit that my perception of Arin was skewed from the beginning; he shows up in Katie's book, and while she isn't cruel, he comes off as a whiny, clingy, needy boy. I couldn't shake that image as I tried to read this one.

So, maybe the best thing is to pick one or the other, and immerse oneself in that individual story, recognizing that it's just that: one individual story. Even so, it's something that isn't talked about much, and both of these books would be good for discussion.