Spring 2017 Diverse Reads

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  • March (disability – club foot) – Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell
  • April (mental health – depression) – More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
  • June (sexuality and gender identity – transboy) When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Handbook for Dragon Slayer'sThirteen-year-old Princess Matilda, whose lame foot brings fear of the evil eye, has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess’s responsibilities.

When a greedy cousin steals Tilda’s lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.

 

  • First book I read by Merrie Haskell, though I have already read another!
  • This book received a positive own voices review at Disability in Kid Lit, which led me to select it for the March topic. Aimee Louw writes far more eloquently about Tilda’s club foot than I could, so be sure to check out her post. I especially agree with her observation that the “dichotomy between the desire to improve or better oneself and the perceived need to overcompensate for the lower expectations placed on oneself because of disability was portrayed exceptionally well.”
  • One aspect of the book I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did was the setting. Handbook for Dragonslayers takes place in a more realistic medieval setting than I’ve encountered in most children’s literature. The presence of religion plays a significant role in that. I love that Tilda wanted to join a cloister so she could copy books. The concept of sin influences Tilda’s actions; she celebrates Christmas Day. Other details that added realism for me included Tilda’s duties as a princess and the design of the castle.
  • I found it a little heartbreaking that part of the reason Tilda wants to become a grand writer is to disprove the cruel things people believe about her. I don’t have the direct quote, but there was a line about how Tilda wanted to be free of people who thought they knew her (pg. 52). That’s a feeling I think many readers have experienced at one time or the other. It gives able-bodied readers like myself a better insight into what Tilda experiences.
  • Although not much else about the plot or characters stands out for me now, fans of the genre will likely enjoy Handbook for Dragon Slayers  (as long as they don’t expect too much of the dragons!).

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

More Happy Than NotIn the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

 

  • Finally read a book by Adam Silvera! He’s a popular author in my Twittersphere. If it weren’t for this challenge, I wouldn’t have read any of his books as I’m generally not a fan of the genre (contemporary) or the type of stories (mostly dark, romance-centric) he writes. That’s the main reason for my low rating. More Happy Than Not just isn’t the my thing.
  • That being said, I thought the story picked up when the Leteo Institute started to play a role, and I enjoyed the later part of the novel far more than the earlier part.
  • A lot of things about the book didn’t suite my tastes; that doesn’t mean they were poorly written or objectively bad. Own voices reviewers have highlighted how important the story is to them and how realistic it is (1 | 2 | 3 ; thanks to Taryn for bringing some of these to my attention). However, I found Aaron’s stubborn opinion on Thomas’ sexuality frustrating and wish it could have been identified as problematic within the story. And I’m not even talking about bierasure – I was thinking about making assumptions about other people and taking that as truth with no truth from the person themself.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

When the Moon Was OursTo everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

 

  • Thanks to Monika @ The Lovely Bookshelf, from whom I won a copy of this book in a giveaway! You can read her review here.
  • Ooh, what to say about this one? When the Moon Was Ours exemplifies why I love magical realism (it can make me fall in love with a YA novel!). All those wonderful things you’ve heard about it are true.
  • McLemore’s prose elevates this book to a high rating for me. In crafting a magical realism tale, she takes the opportunity to describe wonderous sights and miraculous happenings. Her descriptions of the colour of pumpkins and roses, the relationship between the Bonner girls, and the glows of Sam’s moons are just a few examples that come to mind.
  • McLemore’s prose creates not only beautiful imagery; she also builds her characters through evocative descriptions. One example that stood out to me: “Because together they had so much shared gravity they pulled toward that navy blue houses anything they wanted. Because they were four brilliant red lynxes, and she could not run” (pg. 44).
  • I was totally into the romantic relationship. Gasp, a romance I can get behind?! I liked that Sam and Miel already had a strong relationship at the start of the novel and were essentially ready to proceed to a romantic relationship. There are some steamy scenes in this book, which I credit entirely to McLemore’s evocative and creative writing. She addresses physical interaction without being too explicit – i.e. it’s still beautiful prose without turning to clunky descriptions of physical movement, yet it is also specific enough to clearly portray the interactions (and the complexity of those interactions) between Miel and Sam.
  • Even the afterword I found touching. It sounds like McLemore drew a lot of inspiration from her and her husband (who is trans)’s relationship in writing this novel.
  • Highly recommended. Will likely be in my top ten reads of the year.

These last three books are pretty diverse in their genres, let alone their characters. Have you read any of them? Which one would you be most interested in reading?
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I Have Many Thoughts on Radio Silence

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Radio Silence by Alice OsemanFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: 28 March 2017
Publisher: Harper Teen
Length: 474 pages
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: ★★★★½
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Radio Silence blew me away. I imagine it’ll be one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s a rare YA novel that I can objectively appreciate and also personally connect with. I have a lot of thoughts on this book. The following review is broken into four sections: representing the modern high school experience, atmosphere, racial and sexual diversity, and attending university.

Representing the Today’s High School Experience

Upon first seeing the author photo of Alice Oseman, I thought she looked really young. She is – she was born in 1994. (That’s my baby sister’s age?!) Oseman’s age goes a long way to explaining how Oseman wrote such a realistic novel. She lived her teen and uni years just as I lived them. I found the experiences described in Radio Silence to be spot on as to my coming of age years. This includes small things (such as certain mannerisms) and bigger things (such as engagement in online communities). Frances narrates with blunt and dry humour. There’s no sense of “Haha, I’m so awkward” that sometimes happens when authors try to recreate teen life. I’ve never read text message conversations that felt so real, like they were lifted straight out of a friend’s phone. (That’s one thing that can be particularly different for adult writers to get right, I’ve found).

Apart from accurately representing what it’s like to grow up in the 2010s, Radio Silence cut close to home for me in a couple other ways. Frances’ friends at school don’t really know her. They have one impression of her (boring and studious). She doesn’t know how to show them what she’s really like. They don’t believe that person (the real Frances) could exist. I felt that hard in my last years of high school/first years of uni. I changed, and my friends’ understanding of me took a lot longer to catch up. It was a frustrating time, and one I’ve not really seen depicted in YA before (admittedly, my YA scope is very small).

The other aspect of the book that I deeply related to was the lack of romance and the friendship between Frances and Aled. My best friend is a guy. It has taken many of years of us being ‘just’ friends for people to start accepting that there aren’t any romantic feelings between us. I would love to see more strong friendships, like Frances and Aled’s, in YA. The lack of romance also mirrors my high school experience. My friends and I didn’t date much; we weren’t searching for our one true loves. Our friendships were definitely more important than our romantic relationships at that time.

Atmospheric

Radio Silence captures a particular atmosphere that I hadn’t previously experienced in YA. The characters live in the real world, but the mystery of where Carys went and what Radio Silence (the underground YouTube podcast that the novel centers on) lends a mysterious air to the story. Oseman has said Welcome to Night Vale inspired Radio Silence – it definitely has a similar vibe. I’m also reminded of Stranger Things, with its focus on friendships in a spooky setting. Frances’ first person narration is down to earth and realistic, but it also gives a particular insight into one bright and creative girl’s mind.

Sexuality and Racial Diversity

I have a read few interviews with Oseman (who is White and British) where she stated she dislikes her debut novel Solitaire for its lack of racial diversity. She made a concentrated effort to improve diversity in Radio Silence. Frances is British-Ethiopian, with a White mother and an Ethiopian father (who does not play a role in the story). Frances’ race is not integral to the story (as it is, for example, in The Hate U Give).  As I am White myself, I don’t feel confident evaluating whether Frances is a good example of biracial representation. I applaud Oseman’s efforts to diversify her cast of characters, though. (Supporting characters include Daniel [Korean]  and Raine [Indian]).

The characters are also diverse in their sexuality. Frances is bisexual and Aled is asexual. Aled’s sexuality is something that he works out throughout the book. It’s not something that he immediately knows. Frances’ sexuality is similar to her racial identity, in that that’s just a part of her identity – it’s not a big deal. I appreciate the ace representation and normalization of bisexuality.

“You Don’t Have to Go to College”

 

I have mixed feelings on the “you don’t have to go to university” message. I agree that kids shouldn’t be pressured into attending university just because it’s the thing to do. A university degree does not guarantee employment, let alone employment in your desired field. University also isn’t the only choice for higher education. High school students should be made aware that they have a variety of options and that they they have the power in choosing what they want to do, be that art college or world travel or cabinet making or university. Personally, I think if you’re going to pursue further education, you should at least have some general idea of what you might want to do afterwards. I think few people are privileged enough to engage in higher education purely for education’s sake. My experiences with formal education have been thankully positive. I have always enjoyed being a good student, and I have always known the path I wanted to take through higher education (English degree, followed by MLIS, followed by career as a librarian). I am trying not to let my own experience colour my exploration of university in Radio Silence too much, as I understand my experience is the exception, not the norm. Now that I’ve laid out my general thoughts on the topic, here’s what I think about some characters’ attitudes towards university in Radio Silence.

This section contains spoilers for events towards the end of the novel.

I found Frances’ experience very sad. She had always been a committed student, not because she enjoyed education nor due to any pressure from friends or family, but because she just thought it was always what she had to do. Even with a mother encouraging her to take a break from studying and enjoy other aspects of life and a teacher encouraging her to pursue art, Frances committed herself to something that she didn’t really connect with. I wonder, how did she end up in that situation? How could that have been avoided? Aled, on the other hand, never actually wanted to go to university but pursued that path because of his abusive mother. Aled’s disdain for university felt more grounded to me than Frances’.

Carys gets her own paragraph. I hope I’m not being too cynical when I say I found Cary’s experience exaggerated. Carys fails all her exams in her final year of high school (I interpret this as meaning she didn’t graduate), yet manages to find a well-paid job in London, with no connections or experience. At one point, a character asks Carys how she got her job running workshops for the National Theatre without any qualifications (423). Carys replies that they didn’t ask her for any. And she doesn’t have any work experience. Really?

I imagine Carys’ situation is exceptional, not something high school students should count on. I don’t mean to come across as a person for whom school grades are the be all and end all. Some students will face immense pressure and difficulties in their high school studies. Some students won’t have access to resources that might have helped them succeed. Carys’ story, however, comes off to me as wishful thinking. I wouldn’t want students who are struggling in school to think, “Oh, I’ll just flunk my exams and get a great job with no qualifications or experience anyway”. Even though I have tried to not let my experiences influence my attitude towards Radio Silence’s university message, of course they have! So I’m curious – am I too biased in my assessment of Carys? What are your thoughts on higher education and finding employment?

Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think students face more pressure to go to university than they should. Radio Silence could and should be an eye opener for some students, whose talents and dreams can be found outside academia.

The Bottom Line:

Radio Silence exemplifies what contemporary young adult novels can be. Highly recommended for its realistic depiction of teen life, including diverse racial and sexual identities and commentary on the pressure to succeed academically.

Further Reading:

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday #1

Diversity Spotlight Thursday
Hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks

Finally, I’ve written a Diversity Spotlight Thursday post! The purpose of this meme is to share three diverse books: One you’ve read and enjoyed, one release that you haven’t yet read, and one that hasn’t yet been released. I actually enjoy reading this meme on other blogs. It’s a great way to promote diverse books and find new ones to add to the TBR. (I haven’t seen many posts about this lately so I’m not sure it’s a still a thing?? I like the idea anyway, haha.)

Read and Enjoyed: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina's Voice

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Goodreads | I’m also participating in the 2017 Diverse Reads Challenge, which has a theme for each month. I somehow mixed up April and May’s themes, which meant I read Amina’s Voice in April. (I had selected it to keep with May’s themes of ‘religious diversity’.)

I’m going to talk about this book from my personal perspective, a White girl who attended church as a kid. (I think this book would be a great read for Pakistani-American kids, but that’s not really my case to make.) Many of my friends also attended Sunday school. I didn’t know anyone who was particularly zealous about it. For most of us, it was just something we did. In Amina’s Voice, going to a mosque, participating in a religious community, etc. are everyday activities – ones that won’t seem so ‘foreign’ for church going kids.

Some of Amina’s problems come from those activities (she has to participate in a Qu’ran recitation competition but she has severe stage fright), but she worries about her friendships as much as you would except a middle grader to. The relationships Amina has with her friends and family felt very realistic. Her parents are positive figures in her life. In particular, I appreciated the missteps and assumptions she made about her friendships with Soojin and Emily. There is a lot for readers to connect with in this book, whether in the joys and trials Amina finds in her religion or in her relationships with friends and family.

The book that I should have read in April (mental health) but am going to read this month instead is…

Released but Not Yet Read: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

Goodreads | More Happy Than NotTwitter brought Adam Silvera to my attention. I decided to give him a go for the Diverse Reads challenge, as I likely wouldn’t pick up his books otherwise (I’m not big on contemporary YA). I have heard a lot about his new release, History is All You Left Me, but MHTN’s premise appeals to me more. I always forget about that little scifi bit at the end – I’m definitely curious as to how it plays out.

Not Yet Released: the Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana

The Library of FatesNo one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.

The unthinkable happens, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos of a palace under siege. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.

Goodreads | That gorgeous cover and library reference in the title convinced me to add this to my TBR without even knowing what it is about. Look for it on July 18.

This post focuses all on 2017 releases. I hope to highlight more backlist diverse books in future posts. What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
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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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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?