Saturday, June 29, 2019

MMGM (7/1/2019): All Summer Long by Hope Larson (plus giveaway!)

For MMGM, I am wholeheartedly recommending the graphic novel All Summer Long by Hope Larson.

          Bina, the protagonist of All Summer Long, loves listening to music and playing her guitar, but her plans for the summer consist mainly of spending time with her best friend, Austin. These plans are thrown into disarray when Austin leaves for soccer camp, leaving Bina alone to face summer boredom. She starts to sink into the inescapable spiral of binge-watching television, but her mom forces her to get out of the house, and she runs into Austin's older sister, Charlie. Bina and Charlie immediately start to befriend one another (they even like the same music), and Charlie invites Bina on trips to the local soda fountain or to the house where Charlie babysits. But nothing is perfect, and Bina struggles to enjoy her summer, especially once Austin returns from camp with a different idea of their friendship. It's up to Bina to balance her stressful friendships, her musical hobbies, a bit of family drama, and more in order to make the best of her summer.
          There are so many things I love about All Summer Long! The first thing I want to mention is that Bina is one of the most realistic and most interesting protagonists I have seen in a long time. Even when she isn't with her friends, Bina still finds pleasure in listening to music (she discovers a new band at the beginning of the book and becomes obsessed) and teaching herself to play that music on her guitar. Bina is often anxious about her friendships with Austin and Charlie, but she is also comfortable with herself and her own interests. Bina's relationship with Austin is great; their connection is visible from the very first pages of the book (see a preview here), and their conflict is never overly dramatic or one-sided (you can see where both characters are coming from). Also, Bina's relationship with Charlie, who is several years older (she has a driver's license, while Bina is not even in 8th grade), seems not just plausible, but likely; it never feels forced or weird.
          Another thing I love about All Summer Long is the sheer variety of the plot events. From binge-watching television to babysitting, from going to soda fountain to going to a concert, from seeing older siblings on social media to seeing them in real life, All Summer Long has it all, and its combination of idyllic summer activities and modern distractions makes the book that much more lifelike and irresistible. I also love author Hope Larson's art. Each panel of the novel uses orange as an accent color, bringing summer to mind subconsciously as you read each page. Larson's art is clean yet expressive, with detailed settings and faces that convey emotion. (See the preview linked above if you are curious.) I also love some of the more minor aspects of the novel, such as Bina's family; she truly loves her two older brothers (who have moved out), and she gets to spend time with her father and learn about her mother throughout the novel. Finally, I love that All Summer Long is nonchalantly diverse: Bina's family is biracial, one of her older brothers is adopting a child with his husband, and the child Charlie babysits (with Bina tagging along) was himself adopted. This representation is never made into a big deal, and it makes me happy that so many more books exist that are showing children through simple acceptance that they are normal.
          All Summer Long is a book that I would recommend to absolutely anyone; perhaps the best praise I can give it is that I will definitely read the first of two sequels (slated for release on May 5, 2020). If I have convinced you that it is as good as I think it is, then you are in luck, because I am GIVING AWAY two copies (one of which is signed)! The rules for the giveaway are below:
  • To clarify, I am giving away two copies of All Summer Long; one is signed by author Hope Larson, and one is not.
  • As with all of my giveaways, enter using the Google Form below, NOT the comments.
  • You must enter an email address so that I can contact you for a mailing address if you win. I will not keep or share your email address.
    • Please, please, PLEASE give me an email address that you check regularly (including spam/junk), as I will choose a new winner if you do not respond within 48 hours (which I unfortunately had to do during my last giveaway).
  • You must also enter a nickname for me to post on my blog if you win; it does not need to be your real name (although it can be if you want).
  • The last full day to enter this giveaway is Thursday, July 4, 2019, as I will close the form the morning of Friday, July 5, 2019.
  • You can only win one copy of the book, not both.
  • One last thing: I know that some people love getting signed books, and I know that some may want a free book but not care if it is signed. The form asks you if you want to be entered in the signed copy giveaway (although you may still win the unsigned copy) or if you want to be entered in the unsigned copy giveaway only. Please choose the latter option if you do not particularly care about having a signed copy, so that someone who really wants the signed copy can have it!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

MMGM (6/17/2019): Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson

For MMGM, I am recommending Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson.

          There are three important things to note about Tabitha Crum, the main character of Nooks & Crannies. One: she loves reading mystery novels, especially the Inspector Pensive series (you will see excerpts from this "series" at the beginning of each chapter). Two: she has no friends except her pet mouse/investigative companion that lives in her pocket, Pemberley. Three: her narcissistic, self-absorbed parents despise her and ensure that she knows it. Tabitha's life is quite miserable until she receives an invitation to meet the secretive, wealthy, and charitable Countess of Windermere at her home, Hollingsworth Hall. Once there, she meets five other children who were invited as well: Oliver, the kind child of a rich family; Viola, well-known for the charitable donations she has made using her family's money; Edward, whose mind is filled to the brim with random facts; Frances, who will stop at nothing to put down the other children and gain the Countess's favor; and Barnaby, the bully at Tabitha's school who may have more to him than he lets on. None of the children know why the Countess has invited them, but that soon becomes the least of their problems: there are strange noises, deaths, and an unsettling number of knives at Hollingsworth Hall, and it is up to Tabitha and the other children to figure out just what is going on before any of them go from victims.
          One of the best parts of Nooks & Crannies is Tabitha herself. She has numerous interests and a realistic personality; as with any good book, you can often predict how Tabitha will react in a situation because you know her so well. Tabitha's shyness and struggle having conversations with anyone is well-depicted, as is the inferiority complex she deals with that stems from her parents' constant shaming and berating. Author Jessica Lawson uses an interesting method to characterize Pemberley, Tabitha's pet mouse; much of what we would consider characterization is simply what Tabitha imagines him to be saying or thinking, but the actions we see him take line up with Tabitha's thoughts about him, allowing even the imaginary words and thoughts to contribute to what we think about Pemberley as a character. The mystery of the novel progresses quite nicely, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the ending, which ties everything up in a wonderful little bow. I do wish that the book did a better job of reminding you of earlier plot points in the mystery when things are revealed; I often found myself thinking, "Wait, did we learn that earlier? I guess we did." I also think it is worth noting that the five other children in the novel act as more supporting characters than main ones; Nooks & Crannies is more interested in exploring Tabitha's inner thoughts and feelings than it is in fleshing out all six of the children (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but also isn't obvious from how the book is portrayed by the publisher). Despite these quirks, though, Nooks & Crannies is an extremely enjoyable read, with a main character you can root for, plenty of humor, and a mystery that will hold your interest until the very end!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

MMGM (6/10/2019): Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk

I'm back! (With another graphic novel review—I promise I have at least one review of a book in prose coming up.) Today, I am reviewing one of the most bizarre books I have read in recent years: Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk.

          The first thing I want to mention about Making Friends is that the publisher's description is not a very accurate depiction of what the book is. The description explains that the novel is about 7th-grader Danielle (or Dany), who feels lonely when her friends are placed in other classes during the new school year. The description goes on to explain that Dany inherits a special sketchbook that causes anything Dany draws in it to come to life. Dany decides to draw herself a friend named Madison (hence the double entendre of the title), but the description points out that, even if Dany has made herself a friend, she may be unable to keep her. The book sounded pretty interesting to me from this description, but the problem is that there is a lot to this book that the description leaves out. Namely, at the start of the book, Dany accidentally draws something else: the floating head of a semi-evil manga character that then becomes a supporting character throughout the novel and wreaks supernatural havoc. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds. (And there is a whole short subplot about Dany trying to draw a body for this floating head that then ends up just being a headless corpse of a body that she has to bury in a grave—how is this appropriate for MG readers?)
          I didn't stop reading this novel despite the weird start—to be honest, I found it a somewhat refreshing twist on the clichés that usually plague MG novels. However, the book never really found its footing for several reasons. One big problem with Making Friends is that its main character, Dany, is quite one-dimensional. She is characterized only by her struggle to make friends, and her interests (such as drawing or watching anime) and conflict-ridden extended family are alluded to many times but never explored. Dany honestly seems like a plot device to explore the lives of the novel's other characters. Another problem with the novel is that the plotting and ending are messy. Dany starts to make friends with several kids but then unlearns the skills she has built up, succumbing to pressure and bullying others. The end of the book does basically nothing to resolve the conflict, instead being a weird supernatural battle built on that most awful of clichés: the power of friendship! The book uses this cliché as a joke, but why is the climax of the book built on a joke? The resolution to Dany's making-friends plot line is that she then makes friends with an entirely new group of kids at a temporary new school, but this resolution essentially renders all of the work Dany did befriending other kids moot. It also seems to show that the book only values Dany when she makes other friends, not when she develops as an actual person and becomes content with who she is. Dany never really does become content with who she is, remaining a one-dimensional, miserable (often for comedic effect), and even mean child who desperately needs to prove to herself that she can be popular. Dany's portrayal honestly seems dangerous to young children, who might take away that kids without friends have no real personality and will never truly become happy with who they are. To conclude this laundry list of complaints, I also want to mention that the whole struggle with Madison (the made-up best friend) possibly leaving Dany is actually built largely on Madison having an existential crisis about not having any parents and essentially existing as Dany's slave. This crisis is probably the most fascinating thing about the graphic novel, but it is symptomatic of the larger identity crisis of this novel: it cannot decide whether it is trying to be darkly humorous, existentialist, and supernatural or (as the publisher's description would indicate) a classic MG novel about the struggle of having friends. Both the publisher and the author seem desperate to shoehorn this novel into being something that it isn't.
          Now that I have drowned you all in an endless rant, I want to conclude this review with something this book made me think about. As a very young child, I was basically as shy as humanly possible. In 7th grade (coincidentally, the grade Dany is in in the book), I recall speaking one sentence to any other classmates the entire year. I had no friends in school or outside of it, mainly because I was too nervous/awkward to try to make any. I know that there are other people who struggled in the same way that I did (and honestly still do), which is why it makes me insane when books have a main character that is purportedly "totally and completely lost" (per Making Friends's back cover) yet already has a group of incredibly kind and devoted friends outside of school that the character takes for granted and then continues to take for granted as he/she makes even more friends by the end of the book. Call it my insecurities seeping into this blog post, but I want to see a book with a main character like me, who actually has no friends and has to deal with the struggle to even exist, let alone speak, in a room with anyone else in it. I get that having a miserable main character with no friends makes for an unpleasant book, but I (as well as other readers, I suspect) am tired of books that pretend to be about someone like me, but are not (especially since they cannot actually give me the friends that the main character just takes for granted). Perhaps more authors should try to write books that actually are friends for the reader, as that is probably the most help an author can give to a lonely child (reading novels is certainly the way I coped and stayed happy as a young child). Or authors should understand and attempt to show readers that shy children do have personalities and can be content with who they are! (One novel that accomplishes this task quite well is The Year of the Book, which actually is about a shy girl who seeks refuge in other novels but still manages to build up meaningful relationships with children and other members of the community! If anything I said above resonated with you, I highly recommend that you go read The Year of the Book now!)