Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose OlderAuthor: Daniel José Older
Title: Shadowshaper (Book 1)
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: June 2015
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Length: 297 pages
Genre: YA urban fantasy
Why I Read: Heard DJO reading
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo | Indiebound | Book Depository

I don’t read urban fantasy. That was my main reason for not checking out Shadowshaper. I could see why people would like it, but despite the awesome cover and the positive reviews, the premise didn’t catch my interested. Then I attended NerdCon. Daniel José Older read from Shadowshaper. His vivid reading convinced me to finally check out his book.

Sierra Santiago, the Afro-Latinx (Puerto Rican) teen discovering her shadowshaping abilities, shines as the protagonist. She’s my favourite part of the book. Here are some reasons why: On the first page, she’s painting a mural of a dragon on the side of an abandoned building. I love that she doesn’t hesitate to call out Robbie (her crush and guide to the world of shadowshaping) when he’s not making sense. Robbie’s not the only one Sierra calls out. I was cheering for her in the scene where she shuts down her aunt. Sierra has to deal with too real situations of racism and sexism. She takes ownership of her power. She’s confident in her own skin. She steps up for her friends even when she’s afraid. I can see Sierra inspiring a lot of young women.

“You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?” Sierra went on. “We ain’t white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can’t even look in the mirror isn’t gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I’m glad! I love my hair. I love my skin. I didn’t ask your opinion about my life and I don’t wanna hear it. Not now, not ever.” (151-152)

If Sierra’s my favourite part of Shadowshaper, Older’s world building comes in a close second. He fuses his magical world of shadowshaping with the real world of Brooklyn in such a way that his story reads true. Shadowshaping (the ability to bring one’s art to life by channeling spirits through it) is a pretty cool concept. Older has created a fast-paced and action-filled story by providing just the right amount of information on shadowshaping – no info dumping or leaving out key details here. He leaves room to expand on the concept and community in future books.

Shadowshaping comes to life in the setting Older creates. This story could not be set anywhere other than Brooklyn, where Older lives and spent years working as a paramedic. The setting, in turn, is brought to life by its characters. Sierra isn’t the only cool kid in this story. Her friends, integral to the story, are just as well-defined as Sierra. I could imagine any one of them starring in their own story (I was excited to learn there’s a novella from the perspectives of girlfriends Izzy and Tee). The conversations between all characters (not just Sierra and her teen friends) flow so realistically, I felt like I was eavesdropping.

There are a lot of great things going on in this novel and I feel like I’ve only superficially scratched the surface. Whether you’re looking for a creative contemporary fantasy or for a young adult novel that doesn’t back down from topics such as racial identity and white supremacy, Shadowshaper is an excellent read.

The Bottom Line:

Shadowshaper finally has me hooked on an urban fantasy series! A fast-paced story built on a cast of a diverse characters, I’m looking forward to what Sierra gets up to in the forthcoming sequel Shadowshouse

Further Reading:

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This book was my pick for February (POC/ Biracial/ Multiracial Main Character/Lead – Afro-Latina)
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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Family Reads: Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Dad and Jenna read Every Hidden Thing

Why we chose Kenneth Oppel’s Every Hidden Thing

I had planned to attend Oppel’s talk, reading and signing at McNally Robinson at the end of September. As a Canadian growing up in the late 90s/early 00s, I devoured the Silverwing books. Recently I’ve enjoyed The Boundless and The Nest. Dad had accompanied me to a few other author events at McNally (Chris Hadfield and Will Ferguson come to mind), so I invited him along. Dad thought it would be neat to read the book after hearing Oppel give a presentation about it. I felt iffy about Every Hidden Thing (which has been described as Romeo and Juliet meets Indian Jones), but I decided to give it a go because I was curious to see what Oppel would do with dinosaurs and YA fiction.

Our Discussion

We used Every Hidden Thing as a jumping off point to discuss young adult literature. First, we tried to determine whether Dad had ever read YA literature. He recalls reading The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, which don’t quite make the cut.  I asked if he may have read The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or The Outsiders (all of which were not considered ‘YA lit’ back when they were first published but are today popularly read among teens). He couldn’t recall, but he noted that there was no Goodreads back in the seventies, so it’s hard for him to keep track 😛

I asked Dad what he liked about Every Hidden Thing, considering it was a ‘genre’ (more on that later) new to him. He appreciated the novel because he found it a light read – in general, not necessarily because it was YA. We agreed that the story moved at a good pace and had some surprises. The shifting perspectives occasionally tripped both of us up. We had to reread some paragraphs once we realized the narrator was not who we thought (this despite the change in fonts!). Overall, though, the two perspectives kept the narrative interesting without being too distracting.  I appreciated knowing ahead of time that Oppel was riffing off Romeo and Juliet, so I was prepared for the teen romance that’s central to the novel. (I am not a big fan of romance.) Dad liked the contrast between Sam and Rachel’s relationship and their fathers.

Dad and I agreed that the dinosaur fossil hunting was what really sold us on this book. Oppel gave a great presentation about his research process for Every Hidden Thing. You can read about how he wrote it in this article  from the CBC.

Finally, I asked Dad if he thought he might like to read more from the YA genre. He questioned whether YA is really a genre, and not just a marketing recommendation. We discussed some of the debate surrounding the use of a YA as a genre term rather than a general audience target. Dad says he would assume YA novels are an easier read than some of the adult fiction he reads, but he wouldn’t oppose reading a YA novel if it sounded interesting. He appreciated that he could read Every Hidden Thing in small pieces during his workweek and still be able to keep track of the characters and the plot.

I think most of my readers have grown up reading young adult literature. What books would you recommend for someone new to the ‘genre’? Have you read any novels about the discovery of dinosaurs?

Review: A Song to Take the World Apart by Zan Romanoff

Author: Zan Romanoff
Title: A Song to Take the World Apart
Format/Source: ebook/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA with touch of magical realism
Why I Read: Cover + comparison to Leslye Walton and Jandy Nelson
Rating★★★½
GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Hanging out with Chris was supposed to make Lorelei’s life normal. He’s cooler, he’s older, and he’s in a band, which means he can teach her about the music that was forbidden in her house growing up. Her grandmother told her when she was little that she was never allowed to sing, but listening to someone else do it is probably harmless— right? The more she listens, though, the more keenly she can feel her own voice locked up in her throat, and how she longs to use it. And as she starts exploring the power her grandmother never wanted her to discover, influencing Chris and everyone around her, the foundations of Lorelei’s life start to crumble. There’s a reason the women in her family never want to talk about what their voices can do. And a reason Lorelei can’t seem to stop herself from singing anyway.

I have to admit, I was completely baited in to read this book by the comparisons to I’ll Give You the Sun and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Those novels are two of my favourites in young adult, a category I’m very picky about. I didn’t expect A Song to Take the World Apart to stand up to those two books, but if it was even just a bit like the two, then I could see myself enjoying it. In general, I enjoy magical realism and mythical creatures and ocean settings, and I’m interested to see what can be done with them in a contemporary setting. At first, I wasn’t sure how the plot was going to go. The story starts out a bit slow and very much as typical teen romance. But as Lorelei’s abilities began to play into the plot, the story took on a more serious tone and became the kind of YA I adore.

What I liked most about this book is that the story isn’t just about first love. It’s also about love between friends and family. Lorelei’s best friend Zoe was one of my favourite characters in the book. She helps to ground Lorelei. Lorelei’s brothers, parents, and Oma also play a significant role in the story, just as important as Lorelei’s love interest Chris. Where the story is about teen romance, I appreciated how realistic it felt. I also appreciated how other characters reminded Lorelei that her high school romance was just that – a high school romance, of the sort rarely built to last. I’ve noticed some reviews crying ‘instalove!’ but for me, the development of Lorelei and Chris’ relationship was very natural and how I would expect a young relationship to grow, from my experience. I was so pleased they didn’t get a fairy tale ending. That relationship played out like I wanted it to. With regards to the relationships, I think that’s where this book finds some comparison with I’ll Give You the Sun. The relationships here aren’t as strong or striking but I think they’re just as real.

I also liked how Lorelei experiments with her ability and doesn’t fully know how to control it or use it. She gets caught up in it, as you might expect her to. She has darker moments of negativity where she allows her to use her abilities impulsively and selfishly, as she can’t really imagine the consequences. I thought this worked well as a something of a metaphor for growing up and realizing or learning how we can manipulate ourselves and others for our own greedy desires, even when we’re trying to be decent people. I think this is why I enjoyed the book. It’s not really a love story. It’s a story about growing and finding yourself.
 
When I think of Ava Lavender, I think of the particular and lovely prose. The prose here doesn’t really hold up to Ava Lavender. It’s standard contemporary YA stuff. But there are some great moments, particularly in 1) the descriptions of how Lorelei feels when singing and in 2) some dialogue that captured important concepts.  I wondered how the music scenes would play out, as listening to music can be such a unique and individual experience. Not to mention it’s a very physical thing! Reading a description of music is nowhere near the same as listening to that music. However, Romanoff doesn’t try to describe exactly how or what Lorelei sings. She instead describes the emotions of the experience, which she does very well. As for the dialogue, there were moments that touched on topics I considered important, things that maybe teens don’t hear or talk about enough. That being said, I was frustrated that Zoe and Lorelei (and Lorelei and Chris) don’t have any frank discussions about their relationships. Chris just becomes Lorelei’s boyfriend, without any talk about it. There’s a scene between Lorelei and Chris that I thought implied sex but later on when Lorelei speaks with Zoe, there’s talk about how Lorelei might be jealous because Zoe had sex before Lorelei, and Lorelei doesn’t comment on her own experience (of course the word sex is never actually used). I don’t like the dancing around the subject, though I suppose it is realistic. At that age everything is new and exciting and therefore a bit scary too.

The Bottom Line: Overall, Romanoff makes a solid debut with this contemporary YA tale and its good twist of magical realism. I recommend A Song to Take the World Apart for those who love high school setting YA but could use a little shake-up.

Further Reading:

Brief Thoughts: Urban Dystopia

Are these books technically dystopias? To me they are! If we want to describe them more generally, I’d call them ‘furturistic YA scifi’. 

In the Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman thrilled readers with the story of a society that deals with its out-of-control teens by “unwinding” them—transplanting more than 99% of their bodies into other people. In the latest installment of this sequence, Shusterman—along with collaborators Terry Black, Michelle Knowlden, Brendan Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman—explores even more aspects of a world that has accepted the unacceptable. These short stories examine the world of unwinding in a way we haven’t seen before, providing a fresh framework, new characters, and a different take on some events.

One last hurrah in the world of Unwinds! I have enjoyed every work I’ve read by Shusterman. Though I still think Unwind (the first book in the series) remains the strongest, Shusterman created a fascinating world that deserved the further exploration he gave it. Even after four books that tied up Connor, Lev, and Risa’s stories, there were questions and scenarios that us fans would love to read about. This book does not feature any stories about Connor, Lev, and Risa after the events of UnDivided(final book in the series). I feel that’s appropriate given, like I mentioned, their story was told in the actual series. There is one story featuring Hayden and Grace that alludes to what they might be up to.  Stories include background on Jasper and Roland, why Risa was sent to be unwound, and the experimental activities of the Dah Zey. Unbound makes a great read for anyone who’s still curious about the Unwind dystopia after finishing book four.

In this dark urban fantasy, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

I have only read Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequel A Gathering of Shadows, but those two were enough to enamour me to her. (The Archived has actually been on my TBR for a few years, though I can’t get motivated to read it since there’s no set publication date for the final book.) I enjoyed ADSoM so much that I became eager to read This Savage Song. I probably would not have read this book had it been written by anyone else. This book is YA gritty urban fantasy. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. After a somewhat slow start, the action picks up and the story remains quick-paced.  I should have known better than to expect I would fall in love with it just because of the author. It’s not my type of story. If you enjoy urban fantasy, I think you will enjoy this book. It is what I imagine to be standard in the genre. This is the first book in a duology. I liked it fine enough that I’ll probably read the second when it comes out. I want to know more about the monsters! They were different than I expected.

Have you read any books by Neal Shusterman or Victoria Schwab?   

2 Queer Reads from MG + YA

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl. George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be performing Charlotte’s Web George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy. With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

I started to write separate reviews of these books. Then I realized the key things I have to say about each are the same. George and Juliet Takes a Breath are great examples of queer fiction for young people, for the same three reasons.

  1.  Both books are written by authors who belong to the communities about which they write. (The authors’ respective Twitter bios identify themselves as ‘trans queer’ [Gino] and ‘queer latina’ [Rivera].)
  2. Both books can be enjoyed and appreciated by those who see themselves in the protagonists and those who don’t. One audience will value this story because they can say “Yes, that’s me, that’s my experience!” Another audience might learn a lot about experiences they will never have. For example – George could be a great read for middle graders coming to understand what it means to be trans. Juliet Takes a Breath doesn’t back down from tackling the problems in feminism that we’re starting to recognize today.
  3. Most importantly, both of the audiences mentioned above can enjoy these two books because they’re really good stories for anyone to enjoy, regardless of representation. George and Juliet Takes a Breath feature characters with clear voices and story-lines that will keep you hooked. The blurbs above are, for once, spot on in capturing the book’s contents. These stories speak truths about growing into your identity and being yourself. They could be stories about someone you know. They’re definitely stories about real people. This isn’t token diversity – this is good storytelling.

Here are I am writing about diversity again…Mostly because I’m still working on my own understanding of what ‘read diverse books’ means! I’m still a bit nervous to write anything for fear of getting it wrong 😛 I don’t really have anything to contribute to the read diverse books discussion, as plenty of people can say what needs to be said better than me. But, it’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the summer, and typing it out here forces me to engage with these ideas. So here I go! Reasons 1 and 2 should not be the only reasons why we read diverse books, but especially as an aspiring librarian I want and need to be aware about stories that represents a variety of experiences (Laura @ Literacious blogged about this earlier today). For kids struggling to find themselves in stories, being able to hand them and say “This is a book about a queer Latina girl written by a queer Latina woman” could be immensely helpful. Looking back at my post about diversity, I recall this quote from Naz – “The goal should be to make “diversity” obsolete, at least in the publishing industry, and aim for all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re “diverse” but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths.” That’s why these two books are great. At their cores, they are strong stories about being who you are and who you want to be. These kind of stories can be valued by anyone. One day, the fact that they feature a trans character or a Latina character will not be a ‘selling point’ but just one aspect of the story. One day, these stories won’t be considered ‘rarities’. But for now, because books are not as diverse as they could and should be, we need to make an effort to read and share diverse books.

One last note – As someone who doesn’t belong to the communities represented in these stories, I have a different take on these stories than a queer or POC reader. For another perspective on Juliet Takes a Breath, check out Naz @ Read Diverse Books’ ‘8 Reasons Why You Will Love JTaB‘. I am interested in reading a trans person’s perspective on George, but I haven’t yet been able to find one. Please link me up if you’ve read or written a review. Have you read either of these books? Can you recommend any other great MG/YA reads featuring queer protagonists?