May 22, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Synopsis: I haven't read Jennifer Latham's first book Scarlett Undercover, about a teen Muslim girl detective, but after reading and enjoying Dreamland Burning, I plan to look for it. Dreamland Burning is really two parallel intertwining stories, one in the past and one in the present (a device which, I'll admit, I tend to really gravitate towards).

The historical narrative in this book concerns the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a tragic and horrifying incident which I freely admit I hadn't really known about before in which the prosperous, bustling black side of Tulsa—Greenwood—was burned, its residents rounded up by a white mob, many of them killed. Caught up in the violence is a young man named Will Tillman, trying to figure out right and wrong in a Jim Crow world that largely teaches him black people are to be feared and resented.

In the present, the story is told by teenage mixed-race girl Rowan Chase, who lives in present-day Tulsa. When a building crew doing renovations on their guest house discovers a skeleton under the floor, Rowan launches herself into solving the mystery of the body and how it got there. In the process, she realizes the extent to which the troubled racial history of Tulsa is still an ongoing legacy—one that intertwines with her own family's history.

Observations: With alternating chapters between past and present, both in first person, this is a fast-moving page turner. The often stomach-turning realities of being a black person in the 1920s South are juxtaposed with the still-problematic experience of being mixed race in the present day, with plenty of food for thought as a result. While I thought that part of the story could have been pushed a bit more, the focus on the mystery plot kept things moving forward and probably also kept the book from being obviously didactic. In fact, there were plenty of seeds planted here for readers to think about in terms of social and racial justice, from Rowan's best friend James's tutoring English to immigrants at the library, to the uneasy facts of Rowan's own racial identity and history.

Because so much conversation has been going on about Own Voices, I feel compelled to point out that this is not (to my knowledge) an Own Voices book, but from my personal perspective, it was sensitively written and focused on characters of color and the history of people of color in this country. It's a book that received a lot of positive reviews and starred reviews, and one can only hope that doesn't occur at the cost of any equally well written and researched Own Voices narratives. If you follow our blog, you already know we try to read and review as widely as possible within our areas of interest, so in our little corner of the blogosphere I don't think we're ignoring or slighting Own Voices—in fact, it's always been a focus of ours even before there was a hashtag. So. There you go. Disclaimer-y thing over.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed Ashley Hope Perez's Out of Darkness and other gripping novels that bring to life some of our most troubling historical moments—and leave you with hope as well as the desire to change our world for the better—check this one out.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 15, 2017

Monday Review: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

I LOVE this cover. It's gorgeous.
Synopsis: Lazlo Strange is a librarian, a former monk, and an orphan—his last name, "Strange," is simply the one given to any child of unknown origin, and not necessarily a descriptor. His colleagues at the library think he's a bit odd, though, mainly because of his obsession with the lost, possibly mythical city known only as Weep. He hoards information about Weep; dreams about it and theorizes on its existence and its fate; learns its forgotten language; imagines himself as one of its fabled warriors. He is, indeed, a dreamer.

But Weep lies across an impassable desert, if it exists at all. Most people believe that it's simply a legend—until the day a hero called the Godslayer appears, and Lazlo embarks on the adventure of a lifetime, one that he alone is uniquely poised to inhabit…

Observations: There isn't much more I can share in terms of the plot of this story, lest I ruin the sense of awe and wonder with which it unfolds. Laini Taylor has an affinity for this type of dreamlike story of gods and humans, replete with mystery and imagination and a fully developed mythology of its own. Lush sensory descriptions make Lazlo's world feel real, and the fact of his ordinariness (aside from his unusual scholarly interests) makes him an easy character to relate to and root for. This is the type of story that clutches at your heart, moves in, and subtly changes you—it's Neil Gaiman-esque in that respect, though the storytelling is very much Taylor's own.

Conclusion: Strange the Dreamer is epic and ambitious, and if you're a fan of fantasy and/or magical realism, you should read it now. Also, it appears there will be a sequel, which I'm already excited about. This one's my favorite Laini Taylor book yet!


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 09, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: MAUD by MELANIE FISHBANE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Maud has been left behind by her father, who has gone away to make a success of himself after the death of Maud's mother so long ago. Maud has been with her strict grandparents ever since, sweating away the muggy summers, longing to strip off her stockings and run down to the shore. Trouble at school found her sent away from her grandparents to act as live-in nanny and help raise her cousins for a while. Now she's back with her grandparents and meant to prove to them that she can be a good girl.

Unfortunately, trouble seems to find Maud wherever she goes. A friendship with the Baptist minister's son is seen as a signal that her morals are in question; regular girlish hijinks are reported on as being "just like her Mother." Maud has no idea what her mother was like -- she died when Maud was only a toddler, and no one will speak of her. Her grandparents clearly disapprove of Maud's father -- and now rumors are wafting about which confuse her even more. fortunately, Maud's father at long last sends for her. It's a treat to leave behind Price Edward Island and see the rest of the country, but when Maud arrives at her father's household, it's not quite as she expected. Her stepmother doesn't seem to like her very much, and it seems she'll be closest to the maid, instead of her new step-siblings. It seems that at every turn, Maud faces disappointments -- not truly feeling wanted within her own family, feeling tremendous pressure to have a beau, be the perfectly poised and ladylike person expected, to do her "duty" for her family at home and not go to school, to take care of others, and bite her tongue. It's a triumph when Maud finally does get a break, but it's a bittersweet story that a girl whose tales transported others lived such a sad story herself.

Observations: Not every classic stands the test of time. If I go back and read ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, the book is still a lovely memory of childhood, of kindred spirits and bosom friends, but Anne herself isn't as clear a favorite (EMILY OF NEW MOON, published fifteen years after Anne, shows Montgomery's skills to a much better advantage, but for some reason, the rabid fave is still Anne). Her constant imagination-induced scrapes and good-hearted sweetness can be a little much if one is unprepared, and reading now I see some of the narrowness and racism of Edwardian era British life reflected in Anne's eyes. Still, L.M. Montgomery's gifts somehow never lose their appeal, even over a hundred years later.

The voice in this book has a reserved and less immediate feel to it, reminiscent of Montgomery's books, but somehow not quite. I felt that the author had pulled a screen between me and the emotions of Maud as a character, whereas with any of L.M. Montgomery's work, its trademark is that the reader practically weeps and laughs with the character; somehow Montgomery's characterizations are that sharply felt. The story itself is a bit depressing; I knew a bit about Montgomery's life, and knew it had been an unhappy one, but found it difficult to connect this Maud in the historical fiction to the facts about her life. Many readers might find that this novel opens slowly, but it moves more quickly after Anne leaves Cavendish behind and heads to her father's house. Subsequent developments in her life feel a bit more energetic, as the author leaves the focus on Maud alone, instead of writing with more detail on the immense cast of secondary characters. It was fun finding out that Maud had a nickname with also had a particular spelling upon which she insisted ("With An E!") and to discover how much Anne and Maud were a lot alike, in some charming and vexing ways.

Conclusion: While this book is published in the YA/children's lit category, I feel like this book's best audience is adults. Tweens who read L.M. Montgomery books now can find them a little tough to get into the adventures of an Edwardian era orphan, and so a fictionalized biography of the author might not appeal, but for those of us who cut our teeth on Anne's adventures and her big-hearted emoting, this will have crossover appeal, and echo faintly of Anne.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After May 16th, can find MAUD by Melanie Fishbane at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 08, 2017

Monday Review: REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Synopsis: Shannon Hale is amazing. Just look at the range of YA and MG fantasy she's written, how awesome they all are, how beloved she is. And LeUyen Pham has long been one of our favorite illustrators here at Finding Wonderland. Now they've teamed up (SQUEE) on a heartfelt, hopeful middle-grade graphic novel that also happens to be a memoir of the author's tribulations with sisters and friends throughout elementary school.

Observations: Though some names and identifying details have been changed, at its heart this is still a story about Shannon herself as a girl. Imaginative, anxious, and eager to please, she finds that friendship is a bit more difficult to navigate than it had first appeared: friends move; friends change and grow apart; and sometimes friends become frenemies.

Unfortunately, sometimes bullies aren't only limited to school. This graphic novel tackles the difficult but important topic of bullying by older siblings. Shannon, as the middle sister of five siblings, struggles with finding her place at home as well as school. In the end, though it's not an easy or quick process, she discovers that it is possible to find true friends—and even repair broken relationships that once seemed hopeless. Change, after all, can be for the better.



This story handles tough situations like childhood anxiety and bullying with the gentle touch of someone who is no stranger to these challenges that many children face on a daily basis—but with a minimum of anger and blame. Not that Shannon-the-girl didn't get mad, or sad, or lay blame; but, from a later, wiser perspective, the story shows that patience and self-acceptance and kindness do bear fruit. And, as always, the artwork from LeUyen Pham strikes a perfect tone of charm, humor, and relatability, working seamlessly with the text to tell the story.

Conclusion: This book came out on May 2; this review is based on an advance reader's edition received from the publisher. Any kid who is struggling with friendship and finding their place in the world—and isn't that most kids?—will find a lot to recognize in this story, and hopefully will also find a lot of reasons to take heart, too.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 04, 2017

Thursday Review: SPILL ZONE by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland



Synopsis: If you've ever read Scott Westerfeld's early trilogy The Midnighters, you'll know he does scary really, really well. And actually, he does various kinds of scary really well. Spill Zone seems to collect all those different kinds of scary in one graphic novel (which is only Vol. 1, by the way) designed, apparently, to give me nightmares: Creepy talking doll. Creepy NOT-talking kid. Radioactive-mutant-nano-infected monsters. Floating human meat puppets (which sent me off into a temporary YouTube black hole). Oh, and mysteriously plotting North Koreans.

The Spill Zone is what is left of Poughkeepsie, New York after a bizarre accident has left the town a no-go zone of horrors. But the Spill Zone is also how Addison makes her living, selling anonymous photos of the zone's peculiarities to discerning art collectors so she can support herself and her little sister Lexa. The most important rule she follows is: never step off her motorbike. The day she does leave the safety of her bike…is the day things get REALLY weird.

Observations: This is a suspenseful, edgy post-apocalyptic adventure from an accomplished storyteller in the genre—and I was pleased to see that Westerfeld's ability to convey a truly creepy atmosphere also applies to the graphic novel format. The partnership with artist Alex Puvilland (who is married to the incomparable LeUyen Pham, BTW) is a good one: the art has this scratchy, crackly quality that fits well with the tone of the story, and the important details are highlighted with clarity and simplicity.

   


Conclusion: The plot of this one is gripping, and I can hardly wait for the next installment (talk about a cliffhanger ending).


SPILL ZONE just came out this week! I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find SPILL ZONE by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 25, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: ROAD SIGNS THAT SAY WEST by SYLVIA GUNNERY

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: A content warning for suicide and troubling attention from adult men.When their parents depart on their long-planned for trip to Europe, 19-year-old Hanna springs the plan on her sisters, Megan and Claire - to take Mom's car the following day and go on a cross-country drive, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Nova Scotia to Vancouver. Adventure, in the form of the Trans-Canada Highway is just a breath away - if they'll agree to it. 17-year-old Megan's not interested. She has a job and a life plan, to get fit for swim team tryouts come the fall, and she wants to stick to it. She likes adventure in measured, planned doses, nothing spur-of-the-second, like Hanna seems to always be. Claire, at fifteen, idolizes her older sisters, and only wants peace. If Hanna offers adventure, Claire wants to make sure she gets in on it - and that Megan goes along. And she does -- grudgingly -- briefly helping Claire create the united front of sisterhood. It lasts -- briefly -- until cracks begin to show.

There are other road-trippers along the way, hitchhikers, families, street buskers. Like a friendly butterfly, Hanna seems to alight on each one and engage with them, much to Megan's bitter observation. Aren't the sisters enough? Why does Hanna always have to go? Why can't she be average, like everyone else? She quits everything she starts - first University, then her nannying job in Italy, and now their big sisterhood trip. She talks them into attending the weddings of strangers, of bowling and partying, and she's not paying enough attention to Claire. She's such a sucky big sister.

There's something Hanna and Megan aren't telling Claire - something that happened with Hanna in Italy. Sometimes, Claire hates being the youngest, gets tired of keeping the peace between Megan's acid tongue and Hanna's blithe merriness. Can't Megan see there's something wrong with Hanna? No... of course not. Megan's suddenly got a crush on one of the people they meet along the road - and it's flaring up faster than Claire's ever seen. Hanna keeps disappearing, and Megan doesn't even notice. And, neither of her sisters can quite see that not all is well with Claire, either.

What started out as a lark turns into something deeper and broader, as the last summer three sisters are together ebbs and flows. They share a closeness and silently affirm their love, even as their good time eventually fades, like all things do, into memory.

Observations: This is a quiet book, a literary book, and a difficult story to cram between two plain paper covers. A sisterly Bildungsroman is both vast and deep; it covers the happenings over a summer, but also the tendencies of a lifetime thus far, in a way. The narrative is more a series of observations from inside the mind of each girl, and isn't always seamless. The "head-hopping" can be frustrating for a reader seeking a typical narrative with a rising narrative arc, and this book might be more appropriate to an older reader. I think it crosses over well into being an adult read.

Things happen in this novel, and yet, not much does. It's a road trip; there are long silences, periods of silent anger, spontaneous, giddy parties with strangers, and a lot of examining internal thoughts. Hanna thinks a lot about the terrible job in Italy, and the way it ended, with confusion and accusation of things which didn't happen - but things which, she is ashamed to admit, she dreamed of happening. Are we responsible for our dreams? Because we might want something, does that make us as bad as if we'd reached out and tried to take it? Does that mean we attract more of the same? Is it our fault?

Megan seems merciless; unforgiving, exacting, keeping count of how many times Hanna has disappointed her, to the detriment of her own enjoyment of life, and of her seeing Claire as anything but Hanna's yes-woman. When she finally thaws, her sisters are surprised -- but she freezes up again quickly. The novel unfortunately doesn't spend as much time with Megan, or on expository dialogue to help the reader see her inner mind, and the reader is left wondering what she really wants, except for her sister, Hanna, to stop leaving her behind. Her prickly resentfulness is shown at the end as a held-over childhood resentment, which makes her seem more pathetic than angry.

Claire's loss is recent enough that the shock hasn't finished with her. She's walking wounded, but doesn't know it, until she sits down long enough for the thoughts to filter through. It hits her, on this trip, that the friend she lost is never coming back, ever. She doubts herself, and second-guesses all of the conversations she had. Why hadn't she seen it coming? What does it say about her, that she missed so much pain? What if it happens again? Suddenly, Claire feels like a tiny speck in a massive world that has spun out of control... and her sadness is so great that it's crushing her. Maybe this is how her friend had felt, too...

The novel ends with trailing threads, and for some, the end will seem jarring. But, a road is a constant, just as the narrative of sisterhood and the process of growing, maturing, and separating is a common experience, in many ways. This constantly shifting narrative means that some things aren't resolved in this novel - bitterness remains bitter 'til the end, losses still pain, good times are ephemeral. The road goes on, but the one thing that remains is sisterhood. Despite everything, these girls will always be related.

Conclusion: Definitely not for the common crowd, this novel is made up of the pauses between growing pains, and will find its audience among those who have wished to draw closer to their families and see them as complex and enigmatic human beings, instead of the familiar souls they've always known. Perfect for people transitioning through stages of life, and wondering what more is out there.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishers. After May 1, you can find ROAD SIGNS THAT SAY WEST by Sylvia Gunnery at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 24, 2017

Monday Review: THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Synopsis: The Hate U Give has been reviewed, starred, and buzzed about for several weeks and I'm a little late to the party, but it deserves all the attention it has received, and more. The plot is ripped from the headlines: a young black man, Khalil, is shot and killed by the police during a traffic stop—but of course, that isn't the whole story. It never is. The police and media take the all-too-easy, well-trodden route of trying to paint Khalil as a thug, a drug dealer who may have been reaching for a weapon when the cop shot him out of "self-defense."

But there's another side to the story, and that's where our narrator comes in. Starr Carter lives in the same neighborhood as Khalil—a neighborhood she's known all her life, though she attends a suburban prep school; it's the neighborhood where her mother works as a clinic nurse and her father owns a grocery store. She was in the car when Khalil was shot, and is the only one who can give an observer's account of what happened.

Observations: This book does so much to humanize a situation that for many of us is only experienced as words and images coming from our television box. It puts us in the position of those whose communities suffer this type of institutionalized fear every day, and it isn't a comfortable position. Not for us readers, and certainly not for people in socioeconomically marginalized neighborhoods.

I have never felt such a complete understanding before of the complexity of social conditions that might lead to police shooting an unarmed youth—nor the tragedy that underlies these situations. I don't just mean the obvious tragedy of bereaved families or torn-apart communities, but the tragedy of impossible choices that poverty leads to, and the institutionalized prejudice against people of color and the poor that means a snap judgment call will almost inevitably go against them. Then there's our eager-to-jump-on-the-bandwagon media culture that virtually eliminates the idea of benefit of the doubt or opportunity for a fair defense. It's unconscionable and dehumanizing, which is why humanizing stories like this are so, so important.

But the book is not just about those who inhabit disadvantaged neighborhoods or are socioeconomically segregated (and I'm sorry to use that word, but I'm even sorrier that segregation is still a Thing That Happens); it's about ALL the liminal, uncomfortable spaces that people of color often find themselves inhabiting. Starr, the narrator, juggles two worlds: her suburban private school, where she excels but never quite feels like she fits in, and her home neighborhood, where she and her family do their best to stay away from drug deals and gang violence while also putting their all, their heart, into improving their community. There is a lot in this story about Starr finding her place in the world, and without giving too much away, I love how that aspect of the book was resolved, by Starr, her friends, and her family.

Conclusion: Do yourself and the world a favor and read this, please. Society cannot make progress without people understanding one another, but stories help us do that.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!