Friday, January 15, 2016

Book Review: Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

Writing Quality: 3/5
Personal Enjoyment: 2/5
Wider Appeal: 4/5

So, this book. Everything, Everything has been on my to-read list since it came out. Honestly, that cover is absolutely gorgeous. I want to blow it up to poster size and put it on my wall, it's so pretty. And the premise is interesting: Madison is basically allergic to the world, and she lives with her mother in a house that's essentially a sterile bubble, visited every day by her nurse/care-taker, and infrequently by tutors and professors. It's always been this way, until a family with a son her age moves in next door, and Olly changes the way she sees the world. The story is told in diary entries, drawings, charts, and IM conversations. Very modern teen, and also surprisingly seamless and more than a little beautiful.

This book was unique in that its characters weren't both healthy, middle-class white teens. Madison is emphatically not healthy. She's also half Japanese and half African American, which is refreshing. It was, however, another drop into the growing pool of angsty realistic teen lit with lots of romance, and I felt like the things that were unique weren't enough to make up for the fact that there's so much of this stuff out there right now. Maybe I've just been reading too much teen lit lately.

I liked Madison, and I thought she was realistically dramatic and self-involved, as a teen should be. But every once in a while, the story (and Madison herself) just got a little too unbelievable. Madison has basically zero body-image issues, which I just couldn't believe, given that even a home-bound teen is going to be online and exposed to the media all the time. It's a pretty fantasy, but unrealistic. Also, why isn't she involved in any online communities? The Internet is an entire world unto itself, and a lot of sheltered/lonely kids find sanctuary and friends online. There's no way a teenager would only be online to shop and take classes.

I really enjoyed the sketches that David Yoon did for this book, and the way they were worked into the text. They were all simple black-and-white images (pen and ink?), and they added to the book without distracting from the story.

Overall, the book and the story were fairly average for modern teen lit, and the sheer averageness of it made it less enjoyable for me (I'm a high-maintenance reader, and I always want innovative writing). But I think the fact that there is a non-white female protagonist is important and appealing. We need more diverse books is not just a hashtag; it's a reality, and I think a lot of young people will read and enjoy this book simply because it puts a multi-racial character in the lead position of a normal modern novel.

I'd recommend Everything, Everything to anyone who's not sick of realistic teen fiction, readers who enjoy lots of romance, and readers who are ready for a story that's a little more upbeat than books like The Fault in Our Stars. :)

Recommended ages 12+. New York: Delacourt Press, 2015. Print. 310 pages. ISBN: 9780553496642.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: Oyster War, by Ben Towle

Writing Quality: 4/5
Personal Enjoyment: 3/5
Wider Appeal: 3/5

I bought Oyster War for the children's graphic novel section of my library, but I think it's appropriate for teens and adults as well. I feel like that's pretty rare: a book that can be enjoyed equally by all ages, without the adults feeling like they're being talked down to.

I'm not really sure what genre to categorize this book in. Historical fantasy? Magical realism? Mythology and folklore? Based on the Oyster Wars in the Chesapeake Bay that took place from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s, this story draws on superstition, real history, and local tall tales to create a fantastically fun book.

The characters are fun, if a little one-dimensional. The ending was fairly predictable, but I enjoyed the process of getting there, and there were a few surprises along the way.

Oyster War is a graphic novel, and it's one of those spectacular examples of the format that's written in such a way that the writing and the art cannot be divided without losing all the meaning. The art is beautiful and also super cool. :) I also loved that each character's face was so distinct! So many comics and graphic novels have characters whose facial features look so similar that they get confusing in busy panels, but take a look at the individuality of these characters:

While there is a good amount of text and dialogue, there are also quite a few wordless panels, and Ben Towle tells so much of the story so eloquently and without a single word.

At the end of the book, Towle writes about different aspects of Oyster War: what was true, what was made up, what was pulled from local folklore... I loved learning a little bit, while also being able to enjoy something that was so fantastical.

I would recommend Oyster War to any reader who seeks out unique graphic novels, and doesn't mind sacrificing depth of character for the sake of an interesting story. I'd also recommend it to anyone interested in the history and legends of the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding areas.

Recommended ages 10+. Portland: Oni Press, 2015. Print. 167 pages. ISBN: 9781620102626.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

Writing Quality: 5/5
Personal Enjoyment: 5/5
Wider Appeal: 5/5

The Fifth Season was the absolute perfect choice for my first read of 2016. It's the most innovative book I've read in a very long time, challenging the genre format and the idea of what fantasy traditionally is. The Fifth Season is not traditional genre formula fantasy.

N. K. Jemisin starts the book with the end of the world. This is already genre-shifting. Because in fantasy, the world doesn't end. That's the point. Someone is chosen to save the world, right? Here, she tells you right at the beginning: this story does not have a happy ending where a chosen one saves everyone from certain death, their loved ones survive, and they get the girl. The world ends. And the main character is a woman, and middle-aged, and a mother, and she has already lost her son.

The world ends, but the world has ended before. The land is rocked by frequent large and small quakes, and its population includes orogenes (aka roggas), people who can sense the vibrations and also control them, stilling or creating earthquakes. I can't tell you too much about the plot without giving it away, because Jemisin weaves tiny surprises throughout the book, slowly peeling away the story bit by bit to show you how characters are connected, and their histories and scars. There is not one big twist, but dozens of tiny ones, and the complexity of this story is absolutely beautiful.

The characters, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, are all roggas of different ages and different stages in life. Damaya is a child, taken from her family to be trained. Syenite is a four-ring orogene who is beginning to realize that she is really just a slave. Essun is a free woman, hunting down her husband after he murdered their son.

I loved so much about this book. The ideas were amazing, and one part in particular was utterly awe-inspiring when I imagined what it looked like (which was easy, given Jemisin's excellent writing). The characters were believable, and it was easy to empathize with them. It was especially easy because Jemisin (again in a very uncommon choice) wrote all of Essun's chapters in second person. I also loved her casual attitude toward gender and sexuality. Gay, bi, straight, trans, poly...It's all here, and while it's commented on, Jemisin writes it in the same way you might write that a character has kinky hair, or they went for a run this morning. It just is, and it's nothing overly special. Why can't more books be like this?

I always end my reviews by telling you what types of readers would particularly enjoy a book, but this one is difficult, because I'm having a hard time pinning down a particular audience to the exclusion of others. This book is for readers who enjoy fantasy in which the magic system is actually an integral part of the story and not just a sideshow, readers who like strong female protagonists who are also realistically flawed (not just clumsy) and complicated, readers who like their books to be multi-racial and/or multi-gendered without making a thing of it, readers who like stories that are so well-constructed that by the end you can practically trace the lines of each moment back to something in the past that caused or influenced it...

If you're reading this review, The Fifth Season is probably for you.

Recommended ages 16+. New York: Orbit, 2015. Print. 498 pages. ISBN: 978-0316229296.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

2015 Reads - Looking Back and Looking Forward

Last year at about this time, I was making my annual Goodreads challenge. I'd easily met the previous year's challenge, and I had just started a job as a children's librarian, where I was reading tons of children's books. So I picked 300 as a nice, round number of books to read in 2015. You know, like you do. :) Yes, I count children's books, picture books, and graphic novels (but not individual comic books, because those are basically like reading a single chapter). They're books. I read them. And I like to put them into Goodreads so I can remember reading them after I've read 300 books.

I almost made it. I read 297 books by the end of the year. Could I have crammed in another couple graphic novels or picture books? Yes. But by the end of the year, I was feeling a little silly about binge-reading picture books just to say I'd read some arbitrary number of books in 365 days. Instead, I looked at some information about the books I did read, and I found some startling (and not-so-startling) things. Prepare to geek out with me here.

I tag a lot of my books with multiple genres/topics, so this chart is not a 1-to-1 kind of chart. But, you I read a lot of fantasy. Like, almost 3 times more fantasy than anything else. Lots of the humor is children's books, because so many picture books are humor. But I definitely need to up my genre game. In 2016, I'd like to read more other stuff. More romance, more mystery, more crime, more poetry, more memoirs, more historical fiction, more books with protagonists with disabilities. Just more. If you've got some non-fantasy recommendations, I'm all ears. When it comes to fantasy, though, I've obviously got it covered. :)

YA = young adult     NA = new adult

Not surprisingly, most of my reads were children's (I'm a children's librarian, guys. No judgement. Although 12% is pretty low...), the formats were pretty evenly divided, and about half of the books I read last year were by men and half by women. That little 0% neither/both is one author who does not identify as either male or female (the author of George, which is, incidentally, amazing), but in the sea of so many books this year, one doesn't add up to a full percentage point.

The surprising (and embarrassing, and horrible) thing about my reads this year is that such a small fraction of them were authored by people of color. As a librarian (and a human!), I believe so strongly that #weneedmorediversebooks, and like so many white Americans, I've been following the #blacklivesmatter movement with mixed feelings of wanting to support it but not knowing how or what kinds of support would be welcome and what might be offensive.

Racism in the U.S. is a huge topic, and instead of speaking for others, I am going to simply direct you to a few people who can write about it more eloquently than I (links at the bottom of this post).

But one of the things I can do (and you can do) as a reader is take a critical look at our reading material. Are we supporting authors of color by reading and talking about their books? Saying #weneedmorediversebooks is pointless if we're not reading them! This is especially important for those of us who are also librarians. We're providing reader's advisory and information about books to patrons every day, people! We need to take a careful look at whether our own reading lists reflect our professed ideology.

Mine doesn't. So in 2016, I'm going to make a point of reading more books by non-white authors. And by "more," I mean more than 50%. Because I'd like my reading choices to reflect the actual world and not this strange white-washed version that I seem to have inadvertently settled into.

I'm not setting myself a crazy high reading goal this year. I want to read more adult books, and I want to focus more on quality, content, and diversifying both my reading material and the authors I read. So no binge-reading picture books in late December 2016. :)

Do you have any book recommendations for me? I'll never judge your reading preferences, and I'd love to discover books I may never have found otherwise.

Happy New Year!

Promised links:
I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People
This Is What White People Can Do to Support #BlackLivesMatter
Why Is It So Controversial When Someone Says "All Lives Matter"?
Between the World and Me - This is on my immediate to-read list for the year.