Saturday, September 19, 2020

#IMWAYR (9/21/2020): Bloom, written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

I have to say two things before we get to today's review. First, the fact that Hachette Book Group is publishing J.K. Trolling's (pun still intended) ridiculously transphobic new book after she has already been ridiculously transphobic is, well, ridiculous. If you feel like educating yourself a bit about transgender people to fight those who run around espousing nonsense, read the fabulous MG book Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (which I reviewed here)!

Second, I am absolutely crushed by the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so much so that I felt I needed to say something here. It takes a certain kind of person to make decisions—informed, rational decisions that must be publicly explained, I might add—about a document as debated, as contemplated, and as vague as the Constitution. It takes a certain kind of person to work alongside not one, but two probable sexual abusers and still maintain the utmost composure. It takes a certain kind of person to be the second woman in one's field ever. It takes a certain kind of person to battle cancer on-and-off for 21 years and still fight for what they believe in. And it takes a certain kind of person to bring a sense of humor to it all—there's only one Supreme Court justice who wore a "dissent collar," and you know who it was. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a certain kind of person: a brave, smart, strong person who fought for justice all her life. And as we get swept away in the imminent political debacle, we must not allow Ginsburg's legacy to be overshadowed. She was like no other, and she will be dearly missed. May she rest in peace.

For #IMWAYR, I am reviewing the graphic novel Bloom, written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau.

A word of caution to any young readers: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains somewhat mature content.  

         Bloom was recommended to me by my sibling, and it is definitely an interesting book to discuss. Bloom's protagonist is Ari Kyrkos, a high school graduate who wants to move away from home with his four friends/bandmates (he plays keyboard), but is trapped helping his parents run their struggling bakery. In order to leave the bakery, Ari tries to find someone to replace him, and he ends up finding Hector Galea, who loves baking and is actually taking a year off from culinary school. Hector seems like the perfect replacement, but as Ari gets him ready to take the job, a friendship and subsequent romance blossoms between them. Ari starts to wonder if maybe what he originally wanted is what he truly wants in life...but he also needs to figure out how to actually be good to Hector.

          I remain somewhat confused about my verdict on this book, so maybe writing this review will help me figure out how I feel. First of all, I have to explain that Bloom is a book to be read with a specific mindset. You can't take all of the characters' actions or the plot elements too seriously, because their execution isn't flawless, and the book itself is more about conveying feeling than conveying plot. Exactly what Ari learns to do is what readers need to do to read Bloom: let go of your feelings, and bitterness, and expectations about what a book should be, and just get swept away in the fun, and the romance, and the art, and the joy. Trust me, doing that was not easy for me to accomplish—I'm more of an iron-death-grip-on-every-plot-element kind of reader—but it finally happened, and what I found was a relaxing, pleasant story with a romance that (as someone who doesn't tend to enjoy romance in books—basically the Flora Belle Buckman from Flora & Ulysses of YA readers) I couldn't help but root for, and get swept away in, and totally love! I am saying all of this here because I am going to criticize this book, in more than one way, but none of that means that it can't be a fun read. You just have to take it with a grain of salt and not expect some Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me-style moral message.

          (Random side note: while linking my Flora & Ulysses review, I came upon this message from me in January: "I hope everyone is enjoying 2020 so far!" Oh, how naïve I was. Silly Completely Full Bookshelf, enjoyment of 2020 is for no one!)

          Before I get into my criticism, a bit more specific praise. The flow of Bloom is just excellent, particularly regarding Ari and Hector's relationship. Ari and Hector's relationship develops a bit quickly at first, but the pacing of it smooths out into something totally natural. Graphic novels have the potential to not be as pedantic and analytical as prose books have to be to get a point across, and Bloom absolutely fulfills that potential. Ari and Hector are just totally adorable together, and at times, they bring out the best in each other, even though one is grumpy and hates baking and the other is happy and loves baking. I also appreciate the depiction of how money troubles can affect kids, especially ones in the planning-one's-future stage of life, as Ari finds himself tied down by his parents' need for help to keep the bakery afloat. Bloom has a fair amount (not quite as much as I'd like, but enough) of baking fun as well, with some gorgeous baking-montage spreads that hammer home how relaxing and fulfilling baking can be (as I'm sure any bakers reading this can attest to). (There's even a recipe for the sourdough rolls baked in the book!) The book's quiet diversity, with both a gay relationship at its center and the Greek and Samoan heritage of Ari and Hector, respectively, is quite nice to see. Finally, the art in general of this book is gorgeous: illustrator Savanna Ganucheau's style is lovely, with the right balance of detail and minimalism, and the serene blues that populate every panel are sure to relax you as much as the plot will (if you let it).

          Okay, now for some criticism. First off, I think the biggest thing I didn't like about Bloom is how it treats some of the unkindnesses of the characters. I'm not what you'd call an expert on interpersonal relationships, so I am often unsure where the boundary between oversensitivity and the right to get insulted or mad is exactly. And I think, in general, deciding how many flaws and mistakes you will put up with from the people you love before you decide to leave them is basically one of the biggest problems in human existence. Anyway, the point is: Ari has four friends, one of whom, Cameron, is mean to Ari, but Ari just lives with it (even as one of his other friends decries it). But then Cameron is mean to Hector, and Ari doesn't do anything in the moment; he later tries to get Cameron to stop privately but is a total pushover about it. It hurts Hector, and Ari still can't see how wrong his friends are and doesn't apologize; honestly it's very reminiscent of how Ari's own father sometimes snaps at him even though we're actually supposed to like him. They lay all this groundwork for us to totally psychoanalyze Ari and how his parental issues have led him to not grasp what is and is not acceptable or kind behavior from those you care about or toward those you care about...and then the book almost completely drops the topic. And I'm over here, with my aforementioned-iron-death-grip on the plotlines, completely flabbergasted. Call me Completely Flabbergasted Bookshelf. I mean, how could you lay all those details out so carefully and then forget about them? That's like making a careful breadcrumb trail to retrace your path in the woods, then running three miles away until you're totally lost! As the reader, I was left wondering if Hector is too forgiving of Ari, or if I should have a little more sympathy for Ari, or even if we're supposed to think Hector is overreacting, and I felt deeply irritated by the whole thing. This is the big "letting go of the book's flaws" thing you have to be able to do if you want to enjoy Bloom. By the end, I had done it (a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective), and I felt like I had read a fun, enjoyable book. But after having the bar for problematic relationships in books set by Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, I find myself expecting that kind of enlightenment in all the books I read. Bloom does not deliver that level of enlightenment, I'm sorry to say. In addition, there are two other, smaller flaws: Ari's "love of music" amounts to about 3 pages worth of content—not much for the protagonist's main interest. Also, Hector's position in the story is a little weird. He's not a protagonist, so we don't see as much about his personal life as we see with Ari—we certainly don't see any real character flaws (besides maybe being too forgiving). But he is also a very prominent character in the story, a character who readers will be liking and rooting for, so I wish we got to see a bit more about him.

          So, yeah. I think that's all my criticism (as if you can say "that's all" to a massive paragraph of ranting). Here's basically my final verdict—I think I've found it. Bloom is by no means a perfect book. It makes some pretty obnoxious mistakes that, honestly, make it a pretty bad example of how to have a relationship in real life. But it's also really fun. There's kisses, and quirky friends, and baking, and lying on the roof, looking at the stars (and then falling off the roof, which my Flora Belle Buckman self delighted in). The art is gorgeous, and you won't be able to help but root for Ari and Hector, separately and together. If you feel like you understand the risks (from all that ranting, I hope you do!), and you feel like you're kind of curious about this story, consider borrowing a copy from your library (or even buying one if you feel like living on the edge). I think you'll have fun, and I'd certainly love to hear your ranting-thoughts as much as I apparently love to hear my own. And, at the end of the day, the romance in this book managed to defrost my cold, dead heart more than anything else I've ever read—that makes Bloom a winner in my book. (Get it? My book? I couldn't resist.)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (9/14/2020): Displacement by Kiku Hughes

For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am wholeheartedly recommending the graphic novel Displacement by Kiku Hughes.

Although protagonist Kiku is a high schooler in this story, I believe this book is appropriate for MG readers and seems to be aimed at them (although YA readers will enjoy the book as well).

          I discovered this book on a post by fellow #IMWAYRer Sierra Dertinger at Books. Iced Lattes. Blessed in which she rounds up books with wonderful covers (and indeed, this book's cover is just one of countless gorgeous illustrations throughout the pages). Displacement is based on the family history of author/illustrator Kiku Hughes, and Kiku herself is the protagonist of the story. In Displacement, Kiku, a girl of half-Japanese ancestry, is on a trip with her mother to San Francisco, grasping for small details about the life of her grandmother, Ernestina, who was one of about 120,000 people sent to incarceration camps during World War II. (I should mention that Hughes uses the term "incarceration camps" to more explicitly show the awfulness of these camps than if she uses "internment camps," and I'll be using that term as well.) Suddenly, Kiku finds herself "displaced" back to the time and place of the incarceration camps, where she is forced into the camps alongside Ernestina and many others. Kiku, like virtually everyone in the United States, never learned much about the camps, and with no ability to return to the present, she has no choice but to live life like the other 120,000 Japanese Americans in the camps. She sees freedoms taken away and lives virtually destroyed, but she also sees a community of people band together when they can to face the obstacles presented to them. And she just might learn more about how the camps have affected Japanese Americans to this day and how, despite current hateful rhetoric, she might have the ability to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

          Wow. Honestly, this book is the next When Stars Are Scattered, and that is no small compliment. Considering that I discovered this book completely by accident, I was absolutely blown away by how stunning, heartbreaking, and insightful Displacement is. First of all, I think we can all agree by this point that all of the history we were taught in school was revisionist history, designed to cover up what actually happened (particularly when it paints the perfect United States in a bad light). I always recall history classes focusing far more on the Nazis rounding up Jews and murdering them than the Americans rounding up Japanese Americans and...well, mostly not murdering them, but still traumatizing them, upending or even destroying their lives, and even incinerating their culture and traditions, as I learned from Displacement. I've never read many books about war because I always thought they would be a pretty obvious recipe for sorrow, but as I've matured and gained the ability to deal with these topics (although, is it really an ability to feel sorrow less acutely?—food for thought), I've started reading books like Displacement and learning about things I was utterly clueless about.

          Displacement does an excellent job of depicting exactly what happened in the incarceration camps. We see the way people were treated like numbers, like tasks on a to-do list; make sure this one isn't dead, make sure that one isn't dead, murder that one "accidentally" and cover it up, etc. We see the way Japanese Americans were faced with impossible decisions, like whether to swear loyalty to the United States (thus losing their Japanese citizenship even though the United States would not actually give them citizenship—they could end up legally allowed nowhere on earth) or not to swear loyalty and risk...everything. We see the way that the United States forced Japanese Americans to stop speaking their language, to stop feeling joy and thus stop celebrating their traditions, to basically let their culture die—and it worked. But we also see something else. We see people standing up for themselves, for their rights. We see people working tirelessly to make their sheds into homes, to invite others into their lives, to create a new life for themselves even if it could be torn away from them in a second. Just as we saw in When Stars Are Scattered, just as we saw in White Bird, just as we saw in Efrén Divided, we see the unbreakability of the human spirit. We see that, no matter how many times people try to destroy others through pain and torture, hope and joy will never die. Even if they don't win, they are still there, waiting to be discovered when the time is right.

          Displacement is obviously not a memoir, what with the whole time-travel thing, but the protagonist is Kiku Hughes herself. Kiku is a thoughtful, brave protagonist who readers will absolutely root for and care about, but there's something else I want to zero in on about her. When we, as humans, think about traumatic events, we tell ourselves that they could never happen to us. No one will steal me from my family, because I'm not a minority. No one will put me in an incarceration camp, because our society is better now—that was just a one-time mistake. Someone will care about me enough to save me, because they have to. But the decision that Hughes makes, to place a character from the present, not the past, in an incarceration camp, strips all of those defenses away. Readers would never have expected Kiku, a character from 2016, to be stolen away to have her spirit broken (although, as she watched Donald Trump on TV in the story, ranting about starting a registry for Muslims [remember that?], she wasn't as doubtless as readers would have been). Seeing Kiku, a character safe in the present, subjected to the same horrors everyone else in the camps was subjected to, is an appropriately harsh reminder that all our ideas about why such atrocities would never happen again are meaningless. If we don't put in the effort to stop these horrors, who's to say that we, or the people we care about, won't be next?

          Now, the speed round of other things I loved about Displacement. First of all, it's wonderful to see Kiku and her mother learn to discuss their culture and its past together, instead of keeping everything all bottled up inside. Next, I liked that Kiku develops romantic feelings for another girl in the story; it's not a main point of the story, but it's always nice to see even small bits of LGBTQIA+ representation that show readers who wouldn't normally seek out such topics that being LGBTQIA+ is normal. Next, the time-travel aspect of Displacement is actually a pretty important one in the story, and I really liked the explanation in the story for what exactly is going on. Next, as with White Bird, I appreciate the explicit calling out of Donald Trump; talking about intolerance without talking about its primary origin point is simply insincere. Finally, I am completely unable to draw, but if I was able to draw, I would want my art style to be like Kiku Hughes's. As you can see in the (blurry) book preview on this Amazon page, Displacement's art has satisfyingly crisp and clean lines, plenty of expression (both like in Raina Telgemeier's art), and particularly gorgeous colors (tranquil blue-greens, deep reds, dusty tans, etc.). Particular panels almost look like frames from a Pixar movie, which, in my eyes, is a compliment. The style is minimalist yet evocative, and I absolutely love it.

          If you've read my reviews of the books I link above, you might think I sound like a broken record here. And, in some ways, I am. Displacement is just the latest of many fictional works that have substantially broadened my understanding of the real world, in ways that the books I used to tend to read did not. But Displacement also has its own value, its own merit, its own beauty in comparison to those books. Displacement does what graphic novels do best (but only if they can pull it off); it pulls you into a world, it sticks you in the protagonist's shoes, it forces you to see every facet of life and reality contained within its pages. You will learn from Displacement, you will see the beauty of Displacement, and, if you're anything like me, you will be reviewing Displacement on your own blog in a few weeks, saying exactly what I feel: "This book is so good!"

Saturday, September 5, 2020

#IMWAYR (9/7/2020): Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

Happy Labor Day! For #IMWAYR, I am recommending the stunning graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell.

A word of caution to any young readers: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains mature content.

          This book absolutely blew me away, and I am SO excited to tell you all about it! Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me chronicles the life of Frederica "Freddy" Riley. Freddy is a high schooler who spends her time Frankensteining old stuffed animals together with her best friend Doodle, hanging out at school with Doodle and fellow friends Eric and Buddy, or working at a lesbian-owned sandwich shop called Gertrude's. Freddy is dating a girl named Laura Dean, and some days, their relationship is picture-perfect. Other days...not so much. Laura Dean has broken up with Freddy 3 times, and she is far from good to Freddy. Yet Freddy gets sucked in to their relationship over and over again and pulled further away from the things she cares about. It takes the help of a mystic called the Seek-Her, an online advice columnist named Anna Vice, and a shocking revelation about her friends for Freddy to see that maybe her relationship with Laura Dean isn't all it's cracked up to be.

          In case I haven't been perfectly clear up to this point, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is one of the most perfect, most original, most stunning books I've read in my entire life. You might think that's an exaggeration, but it's not. There's so much I could say here, but first I want to ask something: how many books have you read that show what the middle of a relationship, not the beginning and not the end, is actually like? Count them. I can't think of a single one that zeroes in on this time, which is why this book is so starkly unique. This book isn't about Freddy falling in love with Laura Dean, and it's not about Freddy breaking up with Laura Dean and having to put herself back together. It's about what happens when you are already with someone, when you desperately want them, but they aren't good to you, and as you get sadder and more desperate, you aren't good to others. Freddy's relationship with Laura Dean is completely toxic, and we see all of the tricks and "tactics" Laura Dean (intentionally or not) pulls out to make Freddy feel like she's the only one who understands her and to keep her close in her own desperate way. I've seen people in these sorts of almost-abusive relationships myself, and the red flags practically pour off of Laura Dean. Yet, we get why Freddy struggles to see them. She isn't clueless, but she's a person, and pretty much any person can fall victim to these sorts of manipulative tactics and feel like they need the person who is manipulating them. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a reminder to readers that these behaviors, these tricks Laura Dean uses, are not okay, and we have to keep our eyes peeled for them, even if it hurts. It's an incredibly deep and wise premise, and one that all of society, not just YA readers, needs to see.

          You might think after all that that this book is sad, and it's not exactly joyous, but there's so much to love and be excited—even giddy—about in this book! First of all, this book is probably the most LGBTQIA+-friendly book I've ever read. Ever. There is almost-infinite LGBTQIA+ representation here! Freddy and Laura Dean are two girls dating, Eric and Buddy are two boys dating, Vi (I'll explain who she is) isn't straight, nor is Mo (I won't explain who she is). Freddy works at a sandwich shop called Gertrude's where I'm pretty sure all of the sandwiches are named after famous lesbians! There's normalizing the LGBTQIA+ world, and then there's Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. The book also strikes a great balance between letting its LGBTQIA+ aspects fall into the background, to allow Freddy's relationship with Laura Dean to take center stage, and ensuring that the depth and gravity of the LGBTQIA+ experience is far from ignored.

          The characters in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me are just wonderful as well! Freddy is wise and thoughtful—instead of narration from her, we see computer windows of the emails she keeps writing to Anna Vice, the advice columnist, throughout the story, providing an interesting way of looking into Freddy's world. Freddy's best friend, Doodle, is awesome as well—she's a manga-reading, Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing, technophobic girl who, along with Freddy, goes to thrift stores, finds old stuffed animals and dolls, and stitches their various body parts together into darkly hilarious Frankenstein's-monster-esque creatures! Doodle definitely deserves her own sequel. (Speaking of unnerving humor, the creatures also gossip to each other when people aren't looking.) And I also have to give a shout-out to Vi, a girl who Freddy has an awkward encounter with but then befriends. Vi has some truly wonderful lines—I wish I was the sort of person who said things like, "Well, I was about to go get a ridiculously overpriced waffle and some coffee. Wanna join me?"

          The art in this book is so good that I gave it its own paragraph so you wouldn't miss my comments on it. In case you can't tell from the cover, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me has absolutely gorgeous illustrations by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. The style is part-manga, part-beautiful-painting in every frame (a level of detail I've only seen matched in Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis). The layouts—montages, full-page spreads, and more—are wonderful and evocative. The color scheme—black, white, and pastel pink—is gorgeously used as well; instead of using pink as an accent in every frame, it is used sparingly to draw the eye to particular objects or people. The illustrations also give us a great look at the wonderful world Freddy and the other characters inhabit; if that world is based at all on a real place, take me to that place ASAP! You will absolutely get swept away in the beauty of these illustrations; that's probably why I stayed up late to finish reading this book!

          One final thought. One of the biggest flaws a relationship can have is one person needing the other person at all times. We definitely see that in Freddy and Laura Dean's relationship: Laura Dean is never there for Freddy, so when she is, Freddy doesn't want to miss it and pulls away from her friends. This pulling away causes Freddy to not know about a shocking, awful secret one of her friends is keeping for far too long. This secret is one I've never seen in a YA novel, even though it is unfortunately something that is far too common in our world. It's not violent or terrifying, but I'm still including a massively-spoiler-laden trigger warning here if you are concerned about it. Rest assured, though, that it is handled beautifully and with gravity in its own right, further cementing this book's status as a classic.

          At the end of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, we finally see the advice columnist Anna Vice's response to Freddy. Her advice is truly stunning; it's not obvious at all, yet it's something all of us need to know. I won't tell you all of it, but one piece stuck with me, which I will now quote: "Love should never take from you." That is a phrase that we should all carry with us, in lockets, in tattoos, on T-shirts, and etched into our minds and hearts. That one phrase could do so much good in the world if we all knew it and listened to it. "Love should never take from you." Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me isn't just a book, it's a life-changing experience. It's gorgeous art you'll get swept away in, it's fun characters you'll love and root for, it's tons of LGBTQIA+ content, and it's the best relationship advice you'll ever get. This book has cemented its place as one of my favorites of all time, and I urge you to read this book, and watch as it makes you realize things you never thought you would learn from a book.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (8/31/2020): On the Horizon by Lois Lowry, with illustrations by Kenard Pak

*Rant begins here* You might have noticed that I usually talk about books on this blog, but I do occasionally take moments to talk about TV, and I have to do so right now. If you've been paying attention to the animated TV landscape, you might have noticed that, between the influx of animated TV shows for adults and the launching of various "children's" animated TV shows that appeal to teens and adults, animation is no longer strictly for kids. And nowhere is that more apparent than Infinity Train, a show that just came out last August that I absolutely love. Infinity Train has 3 seasons, each of 10 11-minute episodes, that chronicle different kids finding themselves aboard a train of infinite cars filled with their own bizarre universes, all traveling to who-knows-where, as they try to figure out what the glowing numbers on their hands mean and how to avoid the various terrifying creatures trying to murder them. There's some substantial violence and horror that I would say gives it a teenager-or-older audience, but there's also some substantial exploration of real-world topics, most recently the ways in which people adopt discriminatory beliefs and hang on to them for dear life (an interesting allegory, considering, you know...*gestures at world*) (and also an allegory that's crazy-deep for any show, let alone a kids' show). And the show also manages to be fun and hilarious at times. You can maybe tell that the show is not a normal kids show, and that's precisely why I love it so much. The reason I'm telling you about it is that season 3 ended on a cliffhanger, which they've never done before, and of course now the show is teetering on the edge of cancellation if it doesn't get really good ratings. Since I have a voice to mindlessly yell into the Internet void with, I figured I would mindlessly yell this: watch Infinity Train! Please! It is now exclusive to HBO Max (you know, everyone's favorite streaming service that had an incredibly smooth and well-organized launch), and I know you can't watch HBO Max on Roku or Amazon Fire TV (wow, doesn't this just sound worse and worse to you?), but you can watch on phones, tablets, computers, Chromecast, PS4, Xbox One, and more—and you can get a 7-day free trial that's honestly plenty of time to watch the whole show, so click here, sign up, and enjoy the craziest, deepest, and most terrifying cartoon you've ever seen! (And no, I'm not sponsored by HBO Max.) *Rant ends here*

Okay! Now that all that's done, for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending On the Horizon by Lois Lowry, with illustrations by Kenard Pak.

          MMGM bloggers Patricia Tilton and Maria Antonia both recommended this book, so I finally read it, and I'm excited to discuss it with you all! On the Horizon can be described as many things: two-time Newbery medalist Lois Lowry's newest book, Lowry's first book in verse, an extremely short book (80 pages), or a book with beautiful illustrations by Kenard Pak. Above all else, though, On the Horizon can be described as a book that describes not the tragedies of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima during World War II, but the people who were affected by them (and yes, when I say "affected," I do mostly mean "killed"). When Lowry was a young child, she lived on an island in Hawaii where, she discovered after watching old home videos, the USS Arizona was visible on the horizon before it was sunk. Then, as an older child, Lowry and her family moved to Japan after the war was over, making her an outsider among people who had pretty good reasons to be wary of Americans (like the whole we-literally-killed-eighty-thousand-of-their-civilians-with-one-bomb thing). Lowry ties her proximity to both of these tragedies of the war into the stories of the people who actually died in (or lived through) these tragedies. On the Horizon is not a book of statistics or facts about war; it is a book about people, and how war sucks the beauty and life out of people everywhere.

          On the Horizon isn't a perfect book, but it definitely deserves credit for many things. From a young age, we are conditioned to think about war as something that is necessary or even interesting, ignoring the actual pain and suffering that results from it. We think of people who died as numbers, not as actual human beings with dreams and potentials and families and friends. On the Horizon attempts to counteract this mindset through many poems that act almost as micro-biographies for the people killed in the war, whether they are young parents on the USS Arizona or toddlers riding tricycles in Hiroshima. Lowry shares enough details, lists enough people, and spins enough meaning out of everything that you can't help but understand how even one death from a war is a tragedy of the highest order, much less the 1,200 from Pearl Harbor or the 80,000 from Hiroshima.

          For someone who has never written a book in verse before, Lowry's use of the form is quite impressive. On the Horizon doesn't read like prose that has line breaks; instead, the verse adds rhythm and meaning that would not be there in a prose novel. This is going to sound pretentious, but the spareness of verse also echoes the spareness and emptiness of the lives lost in these tragedies, which makes it that much easier for readers to understand why each death is such a loss. Three times in the book, Lowry uses a format of poem I had never heard of called a triolet in which the first, fourth, and seventh lines are the same, and the second and eighth lines are the same. Her poems in this format are particularly beautiful, especially with the repetition of each line (the format seems to put the repetition in the perfect places each time). I did find the transitions between loose-rhythm free verse and strict-rhythm rhyming verse throughout the other poems somewhat jarring, but it wasn't much of an issue.

          Some other thoughts: Lowry's own presence in the story is a mixed bag: sometimes it just feels shoehorned in, considering she wasn't actually someone terribly affected by the pain on either side of WWII, but sometimes she acts, interestingly, as a stand-in for readers, grappling with the same thoughts and feelings that readers are grappling with. I remain unsure whether or not giving equal weight to an event in which 1,200 military members died and an event in which 80,000 civilians died was the right thing to do, but I did like how doing so made sure that no side got more or less credit for killing more or less people, thus reiterating the point that all deaths are tragic, regardless of their quantity. I am a bit unsure what age range this book would be good for; the short length and some of the poems (particularly the rhyming ones) feel aimed at a young age, but the morals of the story might be better grasped by older readers. Lastly, I must give tons of credit to the illustrator, Kenard Pak, because his frequent minimalist illustrations (like that of the cover, but monochrome) add even more feeling and beauty to the story.

          All in all, although not every aspect of On the Horizon landed with me, the ultimate moral, which is that war is far worse than what mere statistics can portray, is one that I can absolutely get behind. Lowry's writing and Pak's illustrations further carry this story to excellence, and this book's short length ensures that pretty much all of you have time to read it, which I highly recommend you do!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

#IMWAYR (8/24/2020): Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy

For #IMWAYR, I am recommending Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy.

A word of caution to any young readers: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains somewhat mature content.

          I'm a big fan of Julie Murphy—I loved her super-popular book Dumplin' and its sequel Puddin', and her book Ramona Blue was actually the first YA book I ever reviewed on this blog! Thus, I knew I wanted to read Faith: Taking Flight, even though it is part of a genre of books I almost never read: the superhero genre. Faith: Taking Flight is the first of two books that tell the origin story of Faith Herbert, a superhero who has existed in various comics series (including some starring her) published by Valiant Entertainment since 1992. Valiant made a deal with Murphy's publisher, HarperCollins, to have her write these prose novels about Faith, presumably to get her out to a wider audience who wouldn't normally read about this character in comics. (Like me, for instance; unlike many of my close relatives, I did not inherit the love-of-comics gene. At all.) Before I get started, let me be clear: you do NOT need to have any prior knowledge about Faith or any comics at all to read this book.

          OK, now let's summarize. Faith Herbert is a senior in high school. Her parents died in a car crash several years prior (basically the only comics cliché this book doesn't avoid), so she lives with her Grandma Lou in the small town of Glenwood, Minnesota. Between her best friends Matt and Ches, her position on the school newspaper staff, her volunteering at the local animal shelter, and her realization that she can FLY (!!!), you wouldn't think Faith would have time for much else, but she crams in time to geek out over her favorite TV show, a long-running series called The Grove that her parents loved as well. When The Grove moves to Glenwood for filming, Faith meets one of the stars of the show, Dakota Ash, and their quickly-blossoming friendship veers close to romance (which is somewhat confusing for Faith, who already has a pretty strong crush on a fellow newspaper staff member named Johnny). Faith's life seems almost like a fairy tale, but when animals and people start vanishing from town without a trace just as a strange drug begins circulating around town, it just might fall to Faith, who's still trying to get a grasp on her superpowers, to figure out what's going on and save the day.

          I am not a comics or superhero person, but I. Loved. This. Book. So. Much!!! First of all, I didn't quite know what to expect from this book, so I wrote up a recipe for you: add one cup of the positivity of Millie from Murphy's Dumplin' and Puddin' and one cup of the ability to face life head on of Ramona from Murphy's Ramona Blue, mix these into a Julie Murphy novel with all of its fun small-town charm and complex slice-of-life issues, then pour in a massive evil conspiracy, superpowers, and some ominous violin sound effects. Bake for 20 minutes until you have Faith: Taking Flight! The first half of this book is largely realistic slice-of-life stuff, with the superheroics coming in around the halfway point, which is a good half-and-half balance that should pull in Julie Murphy fans and comics fans alike.

          I want to mention a few things I loved about this book. First of all, I am much like Faith with regards to my ability to geek out over things (*gestures at this review, then gestures at this blog post I wrote four years ago about my favorite TV show*), so I can completely relate to Faith's love for The Grove, as I suspect all readers can. Faith's love for The Grove has gotten her through hard times and acted as a connecting thread to her deceased parents (who were also mega-fans), and considering how my own favorite show is basically the only reason I am comfortable with who I am on a day-to-day basis, I can understand how she feels (and I imagine many readers will as well!). As someone who has connected to Murphy's own work enough to meet her in person at a book convention last year, it's sort of awesome to know that she gets how media (including that which she creates) can really affect readers and their emotions, hopefully for good.

          Since her comics debut in 1992, Faith has been a fat superhero, but more than that, she has been a superhero who happens to be fat. Superheroes almost always perpetuate ridiculous body standards, so it's absolutely wonderful to see a character whose body does not define her, does not prevent her from being strong or attractive or heroic or anything! If every superhero was as nonchalantly body-positive as Faith, we'd be one huge step closer to eradicating body image issues for good! (Murphy strikes a great balance between occasionally bringing up this aspect of Faith and allowing it to fall to the background, which is especially good if you've read Dumplin' or Puddin' and worried that this book would just rehash ideas from those two, where body image is far more in the foreground.) Also, in this book, at least (I don't know about the comics), Faith is also attracted to people of different genders, which again is a pretty low-key topic in the book that just gets accepted. Dakota from The Grove and Faith's friend Ches are also attracted to various genders, and Faith's friend Matt is attracted to boys, so the book is overall just a wonderful example of representation for LGBTQIA+ people.

          I quickly want to mention that the characters in Faith: Taking Flight are just wonderful! Faith is a truly layered, fabulous, super-realistic protagonist; Murphy manages to capture all of her conflicting feelings, all of her guilt and excitement and sorrow and kindness from the most minute to the most major, and it is amazing to watch. I also have to mention Dakota, the friend/love interest/The Grove star, who is incredibly multi-layered and who readers will care deeply about. And I have to give a shout-out to Grandma Lou, who is just a wonderful, loving person who shares Faith's ability to look life's pain right in the eye and face it, instead of pushing it deep down and denying it. Faith: Taking Flight also manages to cram in approximately 700,000 more topics that are all thoughtfully explored, from animal rights and third-wheel friendship feelings to dementia, grief (both on a small scale for loved ones and on a large scale for missing persons), and crime. I won't spoil these aspects, but they're something to behold.

          Finally, I have to say that, for Murphy's first superhero story, she absolutely knocked that aspect out of the park! There's tons of thrilling action and honestly-creepy moments that almost send chills up your spine, there's a massive conspiracy that is fascinating to watch be explained, and there's Faith's own internal crisis about figuring out confusing new powers that might not even be enough for her to fix anything (flying and stopping crime are two very different things; otherwise, we'd see a lot more birds running the criminal justice system). (How can Faith's superpower-related feelings seem so real when there is literally no real-life example to base them on?) This book also steers away from many superhero clichés (such as creating an actual logic for the underlying crisis and conspiracy instead of just using the here's-some-magical-stones-that-could-destroy-half-(just-half)-of-the-world logic we see all too much).

          All in all, Faith: Taking Flight is a truly amazing accomplishment. It is fun and uplifting, it is deep and thought-provoking, and it is thrilling and terrifying. Fans of Faith or of comics in general will love the care and superheroness that went into this book, and absolute haters of comics will love the realistic aspects and find themselves captivated by the action. Bravo to Julie Murphy for creating such a spectacular book—I'll be anxiously waiting for the sequel! (Although I think I can content myself with the third and final Dumplin' book, called Pumpkinlearn more here!)

Saturday, August 15, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (8/17/2020): The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd (a re-review)

If you read my recent review of Natalie Lloyd's MG novel Over the Moon, you know that I had very mixed feelings about the book. This was such a shame, considering the excellence of Lloyd's previous books, that I decided to re-read Lloyd's novel The Key to Extraordinary to comfort myself. Today, I am re-reviewing The Key to Extraordinary, as, although I reviewed it once here, I do not think that my review did it justice. And before I keep going, know that this is one of just two books (the other is Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead) that has had the honor of being re-reviewed by me, so that should tell you quite a bit about how good this book is!

          Emma Pearl Casey loves her life in Blackbird Hollow, Tennessee. She loves her Granny Blue and her big brother Topher, she loves the Boneyard Café where they live and work, she loves the adjacent graveyard that she gives tours of, and she loves the history, nature, and magic of her town. Emma's life isn't perfect, though, as her beloved mother died a couple years earlier. Emma wants to stay connected to her mother, and luckily for her, all of the generations of women in Emma's family have been connected by Destiny Dreams, dreams that tell these women their unique destinies (which range from suffragette to famous musician). Emma is waiting to have her Destiny Dream, but when she does, it seems to point her toward finding a mysterious treasure hidden in Blackbird Hollow. No one has found this treasure for centuries, and it also might be haunted, but Emma is prepared to find it (especially considering her family's café needs money to stay afloat) and fulfill her family's legacy.

         Every one of Natalie Lloyd's MG books has a magical, close-knit small town, and Blackbird Hollow in The Key to Extraordinary is no exception. The town is full of flowers that magically bloom everywhere (some of which have magic powers), the people of the town come to the Boneyard Café every week to dance to folk songs and eat pastries and Boneyard Brew (basically super-delicious hot chocolate), and there are quite a few supernatural occurrences as well (owing to the aforementioned graveyard in the town). Reading this book is as much about seeing the joy that permeates this wonderful town of traditions and stories as it is about following Emma's journey to fulfill her destiny (and trust me, despite some of the melancholy themes that are featured in this novel, the joy comes through loud and clear, more than any other emotion). It definitely helps that Blackbird Hollow is populated by a wonderful bunch of people: Emma is a multifaceted, thoughtful, and kind protagonist, characters like Granny Blue and Emma's deceased mother have their own stories, and even minor characters like my favorite, Aunt Greta (who rides around on a bright-pink scooter because of her bad hip) have fun little backstories.

          One of the best compliments I can say about The Key to Extraordinary is that it is one of, I don't know, seven MG novels that actually have something useful to say about grief (out of the approximately 3 bazillion that attempt to say something about grief). Emma's experiences learning about the destinies of her ancestors through a book where they are chronicled, as well as all of the time she spends exploring or giving tours of the graveyard next to her home, have given her quite a bit of experience thinking not about the pain of people's deaths, but the joy of what they did when they were alive. These experiences help Emma throughout the story in dealing with her grief of her own mother; Emma gradually begins to find joy, not just pain, in her memories of her mother. The Destiny Dreams that connect Emma's family also help her feel connected to her mother even after her death, and you could absolutely remove the magical aspect and apply the idea of continuing your family's legacy to real life. It's really amazing to see how all of the details in this story are not just there to make for a fun reading experience, but to actually move Emma along the path toward the last stage of grief, acceptance.

            Some other thoughts: Emma is joined in this story by two friends, Cody Belle and Earl, and they are both just wonderful! In contrast to the vaguely-defined best friend in Over the Moon (Adam), Cody Belle and Earl are completely distinct characters both from Emma and from each other, and the way that they and Emma care about each other and attempt to help each other is just wonderful. I am also a sucker for food in books, and I loved every second of the description of all of the pastries that Emma's Granny Blue and brother Topher make at the café (although since I can't stand lavender, I would almost-definitely dislike the peach-lavender muffins in the story). As with Over the Moon (and Lloyd's debut A Snicker of Magic, for that matter), Lloyd quietly and excellently represents various physical differences in this story: Emma is short and has a scar on her face, Earl is unable to speak, and Aunt Greta rides on the aforementioned hot-pink scooter. One small bummer in the story is that the series of clues involved in Emma's search for treasure is not as well-put-together as I would have liked, but I'll end with one last thing about this book that I loved: readers get to see the history of several of Emma's ancestors, and some of their accomplishments tie into real-life history in a really interesting way! This book isn't just a slice-of-life/fantasy combo; it's also a little bit of historical fiction!

          It's really amazing that this book accomplishes all that it does in just 227 pages; it doesn't drag on at all, but you never feel like you didn't get to see enough of Emma's world! All in all, The Key to Extraordinary is a truly delightful read that combines plenty of magic and world-building, wonderful characters, interesting thoughts about grief, a touch of history, and a balance of emotion that always leans toward happiness! Although you might not want to read one of Lloyd's books after seeing my review of Over the Moon, I cannot stress enough how that book is the exception rather than the rule. I can almost guarantee that you'll love this book, and I wouldn't be remotely surprised if it becomes one of your favorite books (just as it did for me)!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

#IMWAYR (8/10/2020): Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Before we get started, I want to mention that Completely Full Bookshelf is now 4 years old! I've had such a wonderful time reviewing books for so long. Thank you to MMGM for being a wonderful community where I was able to start my blog and improve my reviewing skills, and thank you to #IMWAYR for being such a welcoming group and allowing me to broaden my blog to YA reviews as well. And of course, I have to thank all of the amazing authors whose books have brought me so much joy!

Now, for #IMWAYR, I am recommending the graphic novel Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley.

A word of caution to any young readers: although this book doesn't fit precisely into the YA genre, it is not an MG (middle grade) novel and contains some mature content.

          I decided to read this graphic novel after seeing Jana Eschner recommend it on her blog, Jana the Teacher, and I'm so glad I did! Relish is a graphic memoir about a subject I think we can all get behind: food! Being the child of a chef and a foodie made author Lucy Knisley a huge fan of food and of cooking. Food permeates all of Knisley's memories, from helping her mother with catering jobs as a child to working as a cheesemonger later in life. In Relish, Knisley chronicles her life from childhood to present day and illustrates (literally) the ways in which food has influenced it; plus, she includes a recipe at the end of most chapters, with the steps illustrated in fun comic form!

          The funny thing about Relish is that I don't have a ton to say about it, but it is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read! First of all, Knisley has collected an absolutely wonderful selection of anecdotes about herself, family, and friends. Relish shows some of the ways in which food acted as a formative experience for Knisley, it contemplates the cultural value of food and people's differing palates, and it also sneaks in some coming-of-age experiences and a look at Knisley, her parents, and other characters as they age and grow. Although a couple chapters are a bit too similar, most chapters are varied, with their own interesting aspects ranging from travel and art school to cravings and junk food. (I'd tell you more, but I'd rather you read the book and experience each story for yourself.) Knisley is an excellent storyteller with a fascinating life, and she is incredibly skilled at pulling you into each chapter and making you feel like you are living Knisley's life! Relish doesn't have much conflict in its story, but instead of becoming dull as a result, it just becomes an incredibly pleasant and soothing read!

          Relish also deserves acclaim for its illustrations. Despite the strangely dull cover, the pages of Relish are rife with vivid colors, expressive facial expressions, and drawing after drawing after drawing of delicious food! (It helps that Knisley's prose is unusually descriptive for a graphic novel.) Knisley puts her illustrative talents to work in the recipe at the end of almost every chapter, whether she uses them to draw out the steps so that they are more clear (as with a recipe for sushi following a chapter set in Japan) or just to include fun visual gags (as with some butterflies flying around a butterflied leg of lamb in the second recipe). Knisley supplements her illustrations with numerous little captions pointing to aspects of almost every panel, which help to add an enormous amount of detail: in one panel detailing stores in Rhinebeck, New York (Knisley's hometown), there is a mention of Oblong Books, a real bookstore that I just ordered a signed book from a couple of months ago! This book is bursting with thoughts and details across every square inch, which ensures that, despite its short length (167 pages), it is still a wonderful reading experience!

          When the coronavirus pandemic ends and people can go on vacations again without endangering their lives, Relish would be a perfect book to read! It is a sweet, serene sanctuary that makes you feel as if you are sitting with a loved relative, listening to them tell stories of a bygone time. You might not want to wait and save this book for a vacation, in which case read it now, as it's a perfect book to read in this time of stress and tension. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Relish is that, although I hadn't previously heard of Knisley, I'll definitely be reading more of her books in the future! I absolutely recommend this book!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (8/3/2020): Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd

For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am reviewing Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd.

          Over the Moon is Lloyd's third MG novel, following A Snicker of Magic and The Key to Extraordinary. Those two novels have a wonderful and unique formula, which combines a strong yet caring protagonist, a small, close-knit town, and plenty of magic. Over the Moon has all of those things, but it puts a new spin on them that makes for a very different novel.

          Over the Moon follows twelve-year-old Mallie Ramble, who lives in the mountaintop village of Coal Top. In Coal Top, boys and men (no matter how young) spend their lives digging in the mines, and girls and women (including Mallie) work as servants in the nearby valley. The mountains and valleys are filled with Dust (with a capital D), which covers up the sky and stars, fills the air, and has the ability to bring dread and fear to anyone who inhales or touches it. It's a stark contrast to how the region was years earlier, when people pulled starlight out of the sky and wove it into clothes, blankets, and other objects that brought joy and peace to those who held or wore them. Mallie's job as servant to the Tumbrel family provides barely enough money to keep her family afloat, so she jumps at the chance to earn money from one of the town's Guardians, Mortimer Good, by riding atop flying horses to collect gold powder from the mountain range. But Mallie soon discovers an ominous secret about Coal Top that forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.

          What makes Over the Moon different from Lloyd's two previous MG novels is that, where those two novels had a joyous premise with some challenges mixed in, Over the Moon is built on a sorrowful, almost-dystopian foundation that I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, Lloyd has always had a knack for setting up a detailed world in her books, and she brings that talent to Over the Moon as well. Child labor, servitude, and literally-poisonous work underground all bring to mind a not-so-distant past in the real world, but the addition of the Dust acts both as an interesting metaphor for people's loss of hope and as an intriguing challenge to be overcome. On the other hand, I loved Lloyd's first two books precisely because they had such an infectious joy that ran through every word, every sentence, and every page. There are some happy parts in Over the Moon, such as Mallie riding her flying horse, Leo, through the sky, or Mallie's caring best friend Adam, but I found almost all of the good parts of this story to be lacking the extreme attention to detail that is present in Lloyd's other books. Characters like Adam, Granny Mab, and Ms. Marcia didn't get the character development that side characters in previous books got. (One particularly bothersome thing was that Adam and Mallie had drifted apart for some reason before the events of the book, but after their friendship was rekindled, it was never explained why they had drifted apart in the first place.) Sometimes, I think that the best books are the books that cram a ton of wonderful little details into a small space, and Over the Moon simply doesn't cram enough in.

          There are a number of things that I did like about this book. Mallie is an incredibly brave and mature character. In order to protect her beloved younger brother Denver from a life in the mines, Mallie pushes herself to work harder and harder to earn a living, even daring to ride atop a flying horse through clouds of Dust and terrifying weather. Mallie reminds me of a parent, doing as much as possible to keep the people she loves safe. Also, Lloyd has always depicted physically different characters in her novels (possibly inspired by Lloyd using a wheelchair and walker as a child, as is mentioned on her website), and she continues that trend in Over the Moon. Mallie has only one hand, a detail that strikes the right balance between influencing Mallie's life and fading into the background behind her other traits. In addition, Mallie's father is blind and mute, and another character in the story, Iggy, is quite short. I appreciate all of this representation in the story! I also liked the general importance of animals to the story; Mallie has a strong connection to her horse, Leo, as does Iggy, the aforementioned side character who serves as the horses' caretaker. Mallie's family also has a wonderful yellow bird named Honeysuckle, one of many Dustflights who essentially act as magical and literal canaries in the coal mine for the miners (although, instead of dying from danger, they can simply sense danger and alert their owners). One other random tidbit: my hardcover copy of this book has an excellent book design, with inspirational words printed on the endsheets and lovely pages to introduce each chapter, not to mention that each chapter has a title so you can actually find the parts of the book you loved once you finished the book! (Seriously, why doesn't every book have chapter titles?)

          This is normally the part of the review where I summarize how I feel about the book, but I honestly don't know how I feel about Over the Moon. I don't think Over the Moon is a bad book, but it doesn't live up to my expectations of a Natalie Lloyd novel either. You have to understand, just from her first two books, Lloyd is probably one of my top-five favorite MG authors (in fact, I will be re-reading and re-reviewing her book The Key to Extraordinary in two weeks, since my last review of it so utterly didn't do it any justice whatsoever). I love Lloyd's books so, so much, and I really wanted to love Over the Moon as well. However, there are so many excellent books in the world that I just can't tell you to spend time on Over the Moon unless you really want to; you'd be much better off reading The Key to Extraordinary or A Snicker of Magic instead!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

#IMWAYR (7/27/2020): Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

Before we get started, I wanted to mention that I put together a post showcasing several virtual and free panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2020 featuring authors such as Shannon Messenger and Raina Telgemeier! Many of them have already happened, but you can watch many of them after-the-fact by going to my post and clicking the "watch it here" link.

For #IMWAYR, I am reviewing Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee. This review is more of a "rantview," so be warned!

A word of caution to any young readers: this book is a YA (young adult) novel, not an MG (middle grade) novel and contains some mature content.

          Tash Hearts Tolstoy tells the story of high school junior Natasha "Tash" (pronounced tawsh) Zelenka. Tash has two loves: film and Leo Tolstoy's books, and she decides to combine the two by working with her best friend Jacklyn "Jack" Harlow on a YouTube web series based on Anna Karenina, which they call Unhappy Families. The web series has a small but devoted fandom, but when a popular YouTuber mentions it on her own channel, Unhappy Families suddenly blows up in popularity. Besides having to wrangle a finicky cast, Tash (and to a lesser extent, Jack) now has to deal with the highs (Tumblr GIFs, hashtags, and the nomination for a Golden Tuba Award) and lows (bitter, critical reviews online) of online popularity. In the midst of all this, Tash is also dealing with some family problems as her older sister Klaudie gets ready to go off to college, and Tash is also involved in a bit of a love triangle* between fellow YouTuber Thom Causer and Jack's older brother, Paul (further complicated by the fact that Tash identifies as romantic asexual). [* Footnote: When I say "love triangle" in any of my reviews, I mean a situation where one character cannot decide which of two others he is/she is/they are romantically interested in. The phrase may have other meanings, but that's the one I'm using.]

          Tash Hearts Tolstoy has an interesting premise, but unfortunately, it is clumsily executed in more than a few ways. First of all, you've probably heard the writing advice "show, don't tell" at some point—I'm not even a writer, and I've heard it many times! This book shows exactly what goes wrong when you ignore said advice. There's a number of interesting ideas in this novel, but almost every single idea is condensed into a paragraph or several in the first-person narration. Instead of seeing the challenges of making a web series based on a classic novel, Tash tells us the challenges. Instead of seeing Tash's unique family problems, Tash tells us about the multiple religions in her home and about how her mother misses her parents. There are a few issues that result from this kind of storytelling. First, all of the tension and interest is sucked out of these otherwise-interesting ideas. Second, pulling away from the interesting scenes in the book to spend a page or two explaining the backstory for what has happened disrupts the flow of the novel and makes the scenes less interesting. Third, having Tash explain so much to the reader makes her seem too observant and contemplative to be an actual teenager; if Tash's problems were shown and not told, it wouldn't seem like the author was trying to speak through Tash's mouth as much.

          That brings me to the second problem of this book: characterization. Tash could be a totally interesting character. She loves classic novels and puts her all into a project that has required her to learn camera work, managerial skills, publicity, and more. However, Tash Hearts Tolstoy doesn't focus enough on these aspects of Tash, and what we do see of her is wasted on her explaining various plot points (see above) or just blithering and being a typical teenager. We see too much of what makes Tash similar to other kids and not enough of what makes her different. I also have to mention something random: Tash's friend Jack is an absolutely hysterical character. She is strangely dark and grim at times, but she also cares about people deep down inside. So why isn't she the main character? Sometimes I feel like authors think of a neat character, but then they worry that the character won't appeal to every reader, so they make some bland protagonist and push the interesting character off to the side. I'd much rather read a book with a unique protagonist that I don't necessarily relate to than a book with a bland protagonist that I do relate to.

          And then we have the love triangle. Does it even count as a love triangle if it is so, so, sooooooo predictable that there is zero question how it will end? I can't stand love triangles, but even I wished the end was a little less obvious. The problem is, one of the two characters (I won't say who) has so little personality that it is truly amazing. Calling him a caricature would be too generous, because he doesn't even have some one-faceted personality or interest; he is literally a stick figure of a character, with his most distinctive attributes being the fact that he has a head, arms, and legs. Every time there was some attempt at tension injected into the plot, I always felt like it was just a delay of the inevitable. I did appreciate the representation of someone who is romantic asexual; it was interesting to see the challenges of romantically loving someone but not having sexual feelings toward them, even if they do toward you. I would have appreciated a slightly clearer explanation of Tash's feelings earlier in the book; there is a clearer one toward the end, but things stayed somewhat murky for quite a while. Also, I must say that I don't know enough about romantic asexuality to know if the way it is depicted in this book is truly, 100% realistic. As far as I could tell, the author herself is not asexual, and I have to wonder how thoroughly researched these ideas are: are they based on personal experience, the experience of a sibling or relative, thorough research, or just hearsay? Also, there is one point when Tash does something so mean and cruel and ridiculous and pointless to one of the two love interests that it was just insane. I suppose it was one way to add tension to the plot, but seriously? (I'm not going to spoil what it was, but you'll know when you get to it, trust me.)

          Two last criticisms before I get to anything good: Tash's grandparents died in a car crash, so you'd think she would be smart enough not to put her car in park in an intersection at night to talk to her sister because "no one else was on the road," but you'd be wrong. PSA: Do not put your car in park in the middle of an intersection when the few people who are out don't think anyone else is out either. Common sense, people, come on. Also, this book doesn't tie in too much to Anna Karenina (a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective), except when it spoils the book's ending! I don't suspect any of you have urgent plans to read Anna Karenina, but if you do, maybe hold off on reading this book.

          Despite what it may seem, there are some good parts to this book. As I mentioned before, Jack is a compelling character, and Tash's relationship with Jack and Paul in general adds a nice element of lightheartedness and comfort to the story (and unlike many other good elements in the book, this one actually gets enough "screen time," so to speak). The author of this book does have a skill at describing things and setting the scene, which allows readers to visualize many of the events of this book. The end of the book has Tash making a trip by herself to the Golden Tuba Awards, and it's totally fun to see Tash on her own, staying in a hotel by herself and going to an award ceremony to see if the project she put so much heart and soul into gets the recognition it deserves. (And I also appreciated that this is one of the rare book endings where, after a conflict with friends occurs, the person who did wrong actually makes concrete changes to their behavior in order to earn their friends back!) Finally, the book is quite funny at times; as an example, there are a number of entertaining moments where Tash "talks" to the poster of Leo Tolstoy (or "my man Leo," as she sometimes calls him) that hangs on her wall.

          Overall, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a bit (well, more than a bit) of a mess, but the funny thing is that I actually had fun reading this book. I enjoyed getting to dissect the problems in the novel (see the ranting above) and took pleasure in the occasional good moments. This book is not what I'd call a good book, but you might just have a fun time reading it!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book-related panels at Comic-Con @ Home 2020!

For those of us with an incurable thirst for all the details about every book ever, I wanted to let you all know that the San Diego Comic-Con 2020, which has gone completely virtual (and free!), has a few authors and publishers you might recognize holding virtual panels. It's worth noting that some of these panels seem to be pre-recorded, and some (though not all) will be available for viewing after-the-fact. Here are some of the ones worth noting:
  • Several notable graphic novelists, including Jerry Craft and Faith Erin Hicks, previously discussed new kids' graphic novels! This panel has already happened, but it is available for viewing after-the-fact. Learn about it here, or watch it here.
  • The former benevolent overlord of MMGM, Shannon Messenger, had a panel dedicated entirely to her Keeper of the Lost Cities series in which she talked with author J.C. Cervantes. This panel has already happened, but it is also available for viewing after-the-fact. Learn about it here, or watch it here.
  • Graphic novelists Raina Telgemeier (!!!) and Robin Ha have a panel on Friday from 11am to noon, Pacific time, in which they will be talking, drawing, and answering fan questions (so you might want to watch live). There's even a promo to get a bookplate signed by Telgemeier! Learn about the panel here, or watch it here.
  • A vaguely described panel in which "Personal, political, fictional, and factual creators tackle important topics that affect everybody" will include, besides several others who are not children' writers, Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, authors of the wonderful When Stars Are Scattered. This panel is on Saturday from noon to 1pm, Pacific time. Learn about it here, or watch it here.
  • Finally, representatives from Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing will be giving a sneak peek at the company's upcoming books during a panel on Saturday from 2pm to 3pm, Pacific time. There is also a giveaway of several ARCs! Learn about the panel here, or watch it here.
  • I might have missed some panels, so if you want to search the Comic-Con schedule for more stuff, click here.
I hope some of these panels look appealing to you! I know that I always seem to stumble upon interesting events like these the day before they are happening, so I wanted to give you all at least a little bit of warning if you happen to be interested. If you end up "going" to the panels, have fun!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (7/20/2020): Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (plus giveaway winner!)

Before we get started, I want to mention that the winner of my giveaway of Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy is...


Congratulations! Thanks to everyone who entered! Now, for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker.

          WOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Oh, sorry, I couldn't contain my enthusiasm for this book. Several years ago, MMGM showrunner Greg Pattridge recommended Lisa Bunker's debut novel, Felix Yz, and I must thank him for that recommendation, because I read and loved that book! (His review is here, and my review is here.) I bought a copy of Bunker's second book, Zenobia July, a while back, but I forgot to read it until now, and it is so good!!!

          Zenobia July's life has just changed dramatically at the beginning of this book. Zenobia (or Zen for short) has moved across the U.S. to live with her married aunts instead of her father. A transgender girl, Zen uses this move and the resulting start at a new school as an opportunity to live as a girl for the first time. But being transgender isn't easy, and it's not like making friends and dealing with bullies is a piece of cake anyway (nor is living with people who have never raised kids, for that matter). But as Zen meets fascinating kids, becomes more comfortable with who she is, and uses her skills at coding and hacking to help the school find the hate-spreading vandal of the school website, she starts to realize that her new life might actually be pretty great.

          There is so much nuance and joy and delight packed into this book that I truly could just go on and on and on, but I'll try to contain myself. First of all, the part of the description above that probably stood out to you most is that Zen is transgender, and, indeed, that is a very important aspect of this book. Zenobia July is an #ownvoices story, as Bunker herself is transgender, and I was really impressed with how Zen's experience of being transgender is depicted. Her dealings with body dysmorphia, misgendering, buying clothes, and being closeted are shown tenderly and skillfully—I definitely learned a lot. Also, like in Felix Yz, Bunker is basically determined to make up for the lack of LGBTQIA+ characters in literature by including as many as humanly possible in this book: there's Zen, her married Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil (just FYI, Aunt Phil does not seem to be trans—her name is just short for Philomena), her genderqueer friend named Arli, another transgender student at her school, and her aunts' friend, a drag queen who she calls Uncle Sprink. With all of the hate (specifically toward transgender people) being spread in the world of books by J.K. Trolling (pun intended), it's great to see a book doing everything it can to counteract bias toward LGBTQIA+ people, especially transgender people.

           One particular topic in this book that I felt warranted its own paragraph is Zen's experience dealing with prejudice from the family she has left behind, from other people, and even from herself. Zen's father (who she no longer lives with in the book) was not remotely accepting of her being trans, and she struggles in the story to reconcile her good memories of her father with his harmful beliefs and abusive behavior toward Zen. Zen meets a girl at her new school named Melissa whose family is not accepting of transgender people either (although remember, she is not out at her school, even though she presents as a girl), and she has to think about if Melissa's beliefs (largely originating from her family) make her a bad person or just misguided. Finally, Zen herself learned many beliefs from her original family, and her realization that she is trans does not automatically negate the other prejudices she has learned; there are minor moments in the story where words Zen's father might have used to describe the people she is around jump back into her mind and make her feel prejudiced. All of these depictions are incredibly impressive; they both prevent this book from being one-sided and make it useful for kids in real life who can't just erase prejudice out of the world. (A series of recurring chapters where characters discuss in first person [not the third person used in the main chapters] how they perceive Zen further ensures that the story pays attention to (though does not validate) other viewpoints.)

          There are a number of other things I love about Zenobia July. First of all, the characters in this book are fabulous! Zen isn't just a compelling protagonist, she is a protagonist who you would think of as just an awesome person in real life (which is surprisingly rare in books)! The side characters are excellent as well: I particularly loved Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil, who, despite being almost-polar opposites (one is a stiff professor, and the other is an optimistic almost-hippie), love each other and navigate the murky waters of raising a child quite well! (I would honestly read a spin-off book just about Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil.) The characters in this book all have their own interests (or "geekeries," as Bunker calls them), such as Zen's friend Arli's interest in words, or Zen's interest in coding and hacking (which is super-interesting to watch, even though it seems somewhat unrealistic at times—you hacked into your school's student information system, presumably made by a major manufacturer, and stole data out of it without getting caught???) In many ways, though, this book is a love letter to people's unique interests, and pretty much anyone who feels like they have weird hobbies or interests will feel at home in this book. Finally, Bunker's writing style is just fantastic; she has this incredible ability to be a touch snarky but also sincere at the same time, which makes this book incredibly fun to read!

          Read this book!!! It's so rare that you find a book that tackles important topics delicately and sensitively but is also total fun to read, and I was so happy to find out that Zenobia July is one of those books! Perhaps the best praise I can give this book is that my sibling read it as well, and basically every day, I've been going over to them and exclaiming, "This book is so good!" (which has been driving them somewhat crazy)! I wholeheartedly recommend Zenobia July!

(Random P.S. I feel like it deserves mention that Bunker, besides being a fabulous MG author, is also a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives! How can she possibly do all of that at the same time?!)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

#IMWAYR (7/13/2020): Parachutes by Kelly Yang (plus a giveaway of Julie Murphy's new book!)

For #IMWAYR, I am recommending Parachutes by Kelly Yang—and I'm also giving away a copy of Julie Murphy's new book, Faith: Taking Flight!

Review of Parachutes:

A word of caution to any young readers: Parachutes is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains mature content.

          I was intrigued by this book for quite a while, but I finally decided to read it after seeing it praised by Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, and I'm so glad I did! Parachutes is told in chapters that alternate between the points of view of Claire Wang and Dani De La Cruz. Claire lives in Shanghai, China, and, although her wealthy parents don't seem to be able to love her except by spending money, she is relatively happy with her life, having friends and a boyfriend—which is why it feels like her life is falling apart when her parents decide to send her to live with a host family she doesn't know and attend an American private school called American Prep (a practice that is more common than you think—such students [who are usually from China] are nicknamed "parachutes"). Claire ends up living in the spare bedroom of Mrs. De La Cruz and her daughter, Dani, who is the debate-team star at American Prep and the favorite of her coach, Mr. Connelly. Dani hopes that doing well enough in debate will lead her to a scholarship to Yale so that she can help her mother escape the cycle of poverty, which has led both Dani and her mother to work as maids in order to get by. Throughout the story, Claire deals with navigating a foreign nation and putting her social life back together from scratch, including dating a parachute named Jay that practically everyone has a crush on, and Dani deals with crushes of her own and deciding how much pain she is willing to put up with in order to succeed.

          This book is astoundingly good! I want to start off by mentioning that to many of you, the idea of students coming from China to the United States to live with families they don't know and attend schools with completely different cultures (and, quite frankly, abundant racism) may sound too insane to be real—but, indeed, it is very real. The main reason I was intrigued to read this book is that I actually attended a private high school where this practice was commonplace, but I am ashamed to say that I paid such students little attention while I was there and was pretty much clueless about how widespread of a practice this was. In Parachutes, Claire has to deal with living with a family she doesn't even know, being without her parents, having extreme freedom, being put in classes she is too smart for (she is lucky to be already fluent in English—many students at the school I attended were not fluent at all), and dealing with plenty of racism as well. I also appreciate that Claire is not the only student from China who gets attention in the story—in Dani's chapters, we hear from Dani's best friend, Ming, who, unlike Claire, has a terrible host family and does not have the wealth to automatically become the queen bee of the parachutes (like Claire does early in the story). I am glad that Parachutes is finally calling attention to the sometimes-nightmarish struggles that students from China have to deal with at American private schools.

          This book also deals with sexual harassment and rape. You might have just read that sentence and thought, "Oh, I'm closing this review right now," but hear me out. This book, at least for many readers, is revelatory when it comes to its depiction of these issues. Yang herself had to deal with sexual assault while she was in law school (which she writes about in the book's author's note), which means two things. One: she has things to say about these issues. Two: this book is an even more astounding accomplishment when you consider how it ties in to Yang's own experiences. Parachutes shows how sexual harassment and rape can be committed by people who the victims trust most, and it shows both the awful pain and shame that results from the crimes and the ridiculous expectations of victims in our criminal justice system. Here's an example: we expect victims of rape to go to the police immediately, to tear open their already-raw wound as they relive their trauma with police officers who aren't exactly trained in sympathy, instead of expecting them to spend some time going to therapy, or hiding at home, or doing something that is even remotely reasonable considering the circumstances. Parachutes doesn't torture readers with the most unpleasant details, but it nevertheless gets the pain across. Even so, there is still an element of hope to the story that makes reading about these issues not as unpleasant as you might expect.

          And now, the lightning round of other things I liked about this book. I haven't talked much about Dani yet, but she is a fabulous character: her drive to succeed in spite of all of the obstacles in her way is inspiring. Dani's devotion to debate is just one of many instances in this book of academics coming to the forefront, instead of being unrealistically pushed to the background like in many YA books. Except for one character readers are supposed to like named Zach (who I disliked quite a bit for some reason), the characters in this book are all fantastic; Claire and Dani are amazingly realistic protagonists (with a realistic relationship as well), and many side characters also get attention, bringing up issues such as being gay or being the child of unmarried parents that don't fit in the main plot line. The juxtaposition of the culture of China that Claire is used to (where pretty much anything reflects on one's family as a whole) with the American culture that she has to learn is incredibly well-developed (particularly because Claire's parents and their problems and advice factor heavily into the story). The juxtaposition between extreme wealth and poverty is also well-developed (the boundary between these factors is one that the characters learn to overcome over time). This book is long, but so much happens that you practically have to peel your eyes of off the pages in order to stop reading (I basically read the last third of the book in one day). Yang does an almost-superhuman job of bringing the many, many disparate elements of this book together into a whole that is not just cohesive, but requires each element in order to be understood.

          Parachutes doesn't just realistically depict the experience of students from China attending school in the U.S., and it doesn't just teach its readers an immense amount about the experience of those who suffer sexual harassment and rape. This book also manages to showcase the relationships between parents and kids, the experiences related to being rich or poor, and the experiences related to being non-white in the U.S. Parachutes is truly an amazing achievement, and I am unable to express to you all how much I wholeheartedly recommend this book!

Giveaway of Faith: Taking Flight:

On an unrelated note, I accidentally ordered two copies of Julie Murphy's new book, Faith: Taking Flight, so I figured I would give one of them away on this blog! Faith: Taking Flight is a prose YA novel that is based on a series of comics about a superhero named Faith. Julie Murphy had nothing to do with that series, but they brought her in to write at least two novels based on the comics. Since I am a huge fan of Julie Murphy (her YA book Ramona Blue was the first YA book I ever reviewed!), I am hugely excited to read this book! The publisher's description is as follows:


From Julie Murphy, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin', comes the first in a two-book origin story of Faith, a groundbreaking, plus-sized superhero from the Valiant Entertainment comics.

Faith Herbert is a pretty regular teen. When she's not hanging out with her two best friends, Matt and Ches, she's volunteering at the local animal shelter or obsessing over the long-running teen drama The Grove.

So far, her senior year has been spent trying to sort out her feelings for her maybe-crush Johnny and making plans to stay close to Grandma Lou after graduation. Of course, there's also that small matter of recently discovering she can fly….

When the fictional world of The Grove crashes into Faith's reality as the show relocates to her town, she can't believe it when TV heroine Dakota Ash takes a romantic interest in her.

But her fandom-fueled daydreams aren't enough to distract Faith from the fact that first animals, then people, have begun to vanish from the town. Only Faith seems able to connect the dots to a new designer drug infiltrating her high school.

But when her investigation puts the people she loves in danger, she will have to confront her hidden past and use her newfound gifts—risking everything to save her friends and beloved town. 


Sounds awesome, right?! I'm giving away an unsigned copy of this book—here are the rules:

  • FYI, I am shipping this book myself; it is NOT coming from a bookseller.
  • Entrants must have mailing addresses in the United States or Canada.
  • Enter using the Google Form below, NOT the comments.
  • Winners will be selected randomly.
  • You must enter an email address so that I can contact you via email 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 to my initial email within 48 hours.
  • 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 Wednesday, July 15, 2020, as I will close the form the morning of Thursday, July 16, 2020.
  • If you are reading this post in your email, click on the post title to open it in your browser and view the entry form below.