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?

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Author: Naomi Novik
Title: Uprooted
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: May 2015
Publisher: Del Rey
Length: 435 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Why I Read: Intriguing description, pretty cover, strong reviews
Read If You: Enjoy magic fantasy set in older days
Quote: “His name tasted of fire and wings, of curling smoke, of subtlety and strength and the rasping whisper of scales.
Rating★★★★½
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
The back of this book features a number of accolades from distinguished fantasy authors including Urusula K. Le Guin, Gregory Maguire, Ellen Kushner, and Todd McCafrey. I try not to let blurbs from famous writers hold too much sway over me, but I was impressed, even more so when I saw glowing reviews from Goodreads friends. These praises are important because even though the description of Uprooted appealed to me, I’m wary of fantasy after too many disappointments (I am a picky reader especially in this genre). The glowing reviews convinced me it would be worth my time. 

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful. (1)

I’m hooked! I liked the premise. I liked these traditional castle medieval fantasies, which may be a misnomer but it’s a label I’ve stuck with since I was younger (cc: Tuesdays at the Tower, Stardust). I like the distant fantasy atmosphere the tale starts out with. Of course, as you become more familiar with the characters and setting it feels more real and less magical. I thought the story dragged a bit while Agnieszka was at the castle. I appreciated that it was time away from Sarkan for her to grow a bit more. I liked the dark wood, buuuuut I got a bit lost in the explanation of how it came to be. This is probably my fault, not Novik’s. I have a problem with rushing through the last 20% of exciting books. Generally, a successful and entertaining plot. I also liked the prose, though I’m not sure I can articulate why – it’s clear and pretty and suits a magical tale. I liked having Agnieszka as the first person narrator, which probably has a lot do with why I liked the prose. Though, I would love to hear the story narrated from Kasia’s perspective!

As Novik’s author bio informs the reader, she is “a first-generation American raised on Polish fair tales and stories of Baba Yaga.” Uprooted beautifully embraces the Eastern European influence, set primarily in, it appears, an alternate Poland ( in the book).  My knowledge of Eastern European fairy tales also appears to be woefully lacking. I suspect that this work contains many allusions to older fairy stories, to source stories that I have failed to recognize. At least, even I can catch the references to Jaga.

Please noteThe next paragraph of this review contains spoilers regarding romantic relationships. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

I finished this book, with great enthusiasm on January 8th. I put off writing this review because of the romance. I adored the romance (which, take note, is a minor subplot). When I told my sister “You’ll be surprised, because I actually really liked the romance in this book!”, she replied “Well, it must not be very romancy then.” The little one knows me well. Initially I couldn’t decide if I shipped Ag + Kasia or Ag + Sarkan more! (Sidenote, let the record show I kind of dislike that name, I think it makes me think of ‘snarky’, haha) I rarely feel inclined to ship, so this was a surprise. Certainly Ag + Kasia would have made for a more diverse read… I like the matter of fact, no nonsense, no pining after him or dying to be with him, attitude of Agniezska. There are clear moments when she would much rather he was there than not, but she didn’t need him (I feel this girl, haha). I yearned for them to get together. When he doesn’t make a move and clearly should have I was like, AUGGGGGH, and I squished my face. Then I was so pleased when Agnieszka took charge. Here finally is a protagonist I can relate to when it comes to matter of romance. But…(and here is where I’m going to go out on a limb and try to unravel my thoughts on this even if it would be easier to not say anything) I don’t want to say I find Ag relatable because I also know, intellectually at least, that this is a problematic relationship. The relationship definitely has Stockholm syndrome about it even though Agnieszka doesn’t experience a typical kidnapping. I don’t want to make excuses for Sarkan. He’s clearly an ass most of the time. Why do I feel that their romance works? So, I’ve been trying to reconcile whether I can enjoy this romance or if I ‘should’ be embarrassed by the fact that I enjoyed and supported it. I would be concerned about Agnieszka if she were my friend in real life and introduced Sarkan to me. But then – this is fiction, fantasy. I understand such a relationship might be problematic in real life. Should this understanding hinder my enjoyment of the tale? And now I’ve thought myself into a big scramble, trying to answer the question “What do I do if I like something problematic?” For me alone, enjoying this book doesn’t bother anyone. Whether this kind of romance has a greater cultural impact is not really a question I want to concern myself with at this time. It’s okay to just have fun reading a book…right? That’s the real question. Well, that’s what I want to do, whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I just want to enjoy this book, so I think I’ll stop here. Let me know what you think, especially if you think I’m out of line.

Whoo, there’s a load off my chest 😛 Moving on. Was this book wonderful enough for me to get into Novik’s other books? *checks descriptions* Hrm, no, I like my fantasy straight up, with no historical muddlings. If Novik ever ventures into ‘pure’ fantasy territory again, I’ll be sure to delve in. But for now I’ll be content with this book.

The Bottom Line:  An enjoyable fantasy unburdened by serious romance. Recommended if you like this sort of thing, even if you’re perhaps often disappointed by other fantasy novels. 

Further Information: