Chime: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I know you believe you’re giving me a chance–or, rather, it’s the Chime Child giving me the chance. She’s desperate, of course, not to hang an innocent girl again, but please believe me: Nothing in my story will absolve me of guilt. It will only prove what I’ve already told you, which is that I’m wicked.”

Chime by Franny BillingsleyBriony knows in her heart that every bad thing that has happened to her family is decidedly her fault. She looks sweet and innocent, the way her identical twin sister Rose looks when she isn’t screaming. But Briony knows that she is a blight on her family and probably on Swampsea as a whole–her stepmother made sure she knew.

Now Briony’s stepmother is dead and Briony is waiting to be hanged for her misdeeds. There are several places her story could start but it seems fitting, in its own way, to start with Eldric’s arrival because doesn’t every story truly begin when a good looking young man appears? Didn’t Briony’s fragile grasp on her life begin to crumble the moment she first saw his sunshine smile and his lion hair? in Chime (2011) by Franny Billingsley.

Chime was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Chime is a circuitous and layered novel written in Briony’s complicated first person narration. Long, winding sentences filled with tangents and asides lend this book the feel of a stream of consciousness and creates a strong textuality to the book.

Briony is a complex character. The loops and whorls of her consciousness are dense and exhausting to read. Just keeping up with Briony’s narration is a feat let alone penetrating it enough to get at what she is sharing and, often more importantly, what she is not sharing as she relates her story.

Chime takes place in an alternate historical England. Magic and magical creatures still flourish but industrialization is beginning to take hold in the form of electric lights and other technical wonders like metal paperclips. The contrasts between the fantastical and the technological are further emphasized in the dichotomy between Briony and Eldric as they try to make sense of each other.

Because of the peculiarities of the narrative and Briony’s initially cutting personality, Chime isn’t a book for everyone. Although it is a fantasy first and foremost, it is also a thoughtful romance and a bit of a mystery as readers unravel what brought Briony to the point of requesting she be hanged posthaste. Readers who can engage with the text and adjust to the writing style will enjoy the world building, the stories within stories, and the twists to be found.

Briony’s story is all about self-care and self love. Along the way, thanks to the vagaries of life and the calculated moves of certain characters, Briony loses sight of who she used to be and who she can become. Chime is about Briony’s journey to rediscover that lost girl of her youth and also to redeem herself–not in the eyes of others but simply for herself.

Best suited to readers who appreciate acerbic wit, rich fantasies, and multifaceted tales.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Hunter’s Moon by O. R. Melling, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

The Sun is Also a Star: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Because everything looks like chaos up close. Daniel thinks it’s a matter of scale. If you pull back far enough and wait for long enough, then order emerges.”

“Maybe their universe is just taking longer to form.”

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola YoonNatasha believes in science and facts. Her life doesn’t have room for fate or destiny. Which is why it’s so hard to hope for a miracle on her last day in New York City. Natasha’s family is going to be deported to Jamaica in twelve hours. Natasha doesn’t believe in long shots but it’s the only shot she has left to try and stay in the city that’s been her home since she was a child. She doesn’t have time to waste meeting a cute boy and maybe falling in love with him. Not when she is so busy trying to balance her practical nature with her hopes for some last-minute magic.

Daniel is used to being a good son. Not the best son because that’s always been his older brother. But solidly second best. Except now his brother screwed up big time and Daniel’s parents are pinning their hopes for having a Successful-Ivy-League-Graduate-Doctor in the family on Daniel. The problem is that Daniel wants to be a poet–something his Korean immigrant parents can’t understand. At. All. Daniel believes in poetry and fate which is why he knows the moment he sees Natasha on the street in Times Square that their lives are about the change forever.

It feels like the universe or fate or something Big is conspiring to bring Natasha and Daniel into each others’ lives. But over the course of a day filled with possibility, neither Natasha nor Daniel is sure if that will be enough to keep them together in The Sun is Also a Star (2016) by Nicola Yoon.

The Sun is Also a Star is Yoon’s second novel. It was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has received six starred reviews. (UPDATE:) The Sun is Also a Star also received an honor for the 2017 Printz Award.

All of that is impressive on its own but it’s also important to remember that we often hold contemporary romances like this one up to a higher standard when considering them for awards based on literary merit which makes this book stand out even more as both an exemplar of contemporary romance at its best and also as a generally excellent book.

The Sun is Also a Star is set over the course of one day but the plot is more far-reaching with interconnecting narratives and characters related to each other by six (or even fewer) degrees of separation.

The majority of the novel alternates between Natasha and Daniel’s first person narrations with their distinct voices and world views. Other chapters follow characters who are key to bringing Daniel and Natasha together including a depressed security guard, a subway conductor who has found god, and even Natasha and Daniel’s parents–all chronicled as brief histories. This shifting story maintains a consistent and deliberate voice thanks to the omniscient narrator whose sections contrast well with Natasha’s pragmatic nature and Daniel’s classic dreamer outlook in their respective narrations.

This thoughtful story also nicely subverts some of the traditional gender roles found in contemporary romances. Natasha is an unapologetically smart girl who works hard and knows that life isn’t fair. She is jaded and ambitious. Daniel, meanwhile, is a genuinely nice and optimistic boy who believes in the power of fate even while learning how to make his own choices and stand by them.

Everything in The Sun is Also a Star refers back–sometimes subtly and sometimes not–to the idea of love being a driving force in the universe. All of the tangential characters whose actions work to bring Natasha and Daniel together through happenstance or fate are working on some basis of love–the train conductor who has found god and loves life, the security guard who is lonely and mired in her own lack of love both from others and for herself, the attorney and his paralegal. It’s all love in one form or another. Even Natasha’s father and his actions are driven by his conflict between his love for his family and his love of performing.

Yoon does so many things in The Sun is Also a Star and she does them all well, while making it seem effortless with a combination of literary prose and a deceptively sleek plot. This book juggles multiple characters, narratives, and plot threads to create a coherent story about the many factors bringing Natasha and Daniel together as well as those which are conspiring to keep them apart. It evokes an authentic New York City setting not just a shiny tourist one but the dingy parts too. The Sun is Also a Star does all of that while offering an intellectually stimulating story that still manages to be upbeat and romantic. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

Nimona: A Graphic Novel Review

Nimona ny Noelle StevensonBallister Blackheart is a villain. He doesn’t necessarily like it, but there are only so many options available to professionally trained heroes after they lose an arm.

Abrosius Goldenloin has always desperately wanted to be a hero. So much so that he sacrificed his friendship with Blackheart in pursuit of his goal.

Nimona . . . well . . . no one is really sure what Nimona is or what she wants. Sometimes she’s a shark. Sometimes she wants to wreak havoc and mayhem and leave a trail of bodies in her wake. Sometimes she’s lonely and wants a friend.

Blackheart wasn’t looking for a sidekick when Nimona showed up at his hideout. Goldenloin never doubted the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics until his sworn enemy started asking the right questions. Together these unlikely allies and enemies might be able to bring down the Institution once and for all. But only if Nimona can control her powers and doesn’t kill everyone first in Nimona (2015) by Noelle Stevenson.

Nimona is Stevenson’s first graphic novel, originally seen as a webcomic online. Nimona was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

This graphic novel is entertaining and readable although not ultimately groundbreaking in terms of plot. Stevenson includes a fair bit of diversity. Blackheart has a mechanical arm. Nimona is refreshingly curvy. And the background characters come in all shapes and colors. Unlike many graphic novels, Nimona also features a self-contained arc which makes parts of the ending feel a bit rushed.

Although obviously appealing to teens, it’s also interesting to see Nimona published for the YA market when none of the characters are actually teens. (Nimona chooses to present herself as a teenaged girl but, like most of the things Nimona shares about herself, it seems very possible that is just a facade.)

Nimona is a lot of fun. Stevenson’s artwork has a decided cartoon aesthetic that is complimented with snappy dialog and sight gags throughout the story. The one failing here is that the lettering for the dialog is extremely small.

Stevenson blends a medieval setting with modern scientific technology to create a unique setting where she can create her own rules for the fantasy elements of the story. Nimona easily subverts the traditional archetypes for both heroes and villains throughout this story where nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Possible Pairings: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin

Challenger Deep: A Rapid Fire Review

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

Challenger Deep by Neal ShustermanIn a year when we have books like All These Bright Places with deeply damaging portrayals of mental illness, the literary world needed this honest portrayal of one boy’s struggle with schizophrenia. (Although it has to be said that the inclusion of illustrations from Shusterman’s own son felt a bit indulgent.)

Sadly, because I have a heart of stone, this book left me deeply unaffected. It’s one of those where I can tell it’s Important but I also can’t bring myself to Care on a personal level as a reader. I think Challenger Deep is a great book to recommend to readers; the way in which Shusterman weaves everything together clearly demonstrates his talents as an author. This book definitely and completely deserves the praise its been getting solely for what its done to get more people talking about mental health and mental illness.

The one flaw here is having Caden’s medications leave him numb. I don’t know where to begin with the fact that in his author’s note Shusterman says he experienced that effect himself when he accidentally took two pills. That’s not how treatment with medication works. At all. Why would his reaction to the pills be at all indicative of how someone who actually needs the pills would react to them? No. Just no.

Challenger Deep won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That says a lot about the level of skill in Shusterman’s writing while handling a difficult topic and wrestling with some complicated material. The way in which this story weaves together Caden’s reality with his hallucinations–seamlessly moving between moments of madness and clarity, as it were–is fascinating and intricate and handled very, very well. An interesting and important addition to the ongoing conversation about mental illness.

Endangered: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer (2012)

Endangered by Eliot SchreferIf you follow the book award season, you’ve probably already heard about this National Book Award Finalist from 2012.

Either way Endangered is an Important book about the political unrest in the Congo and the horrible state of affairs for Bonobo monkeys in the area. Sophie spends every summer with her mother in the Congo and expects this year to be much of the same. Until she becomes the reluctant (and unlikely) foster mother to a baby Bonobo she names Otto. Then war breaks out and Sophie is isolated and trapped with the Bonobos at her mother’s conservation preserve.

Schrefer went to the Congo to research this book and it shows in the details and nuances of the setting and Sophie’s relationship with Otto and the other Bonobos. The story is gripping and exciting. Because of the emphasis on action and survival, this is a great book for any reader. Endangered would also be a particularly strong choice for reluctant readers and/or readers who are hesitant to read books with a female narrator.

Reading Endangered it is immediately obvious why this book was a National Book Award finalist. As the story progresses it is also apparent why this book did not ultimately win. While Sophie and Otto are great characters in a page-turning story, Sophie’s voice was not always convincing. Sophie is fourteen during the events of the story. While her narration is insightful and contemplative, it also often sounds like a much older character. The epilogue is also frustrating. Without getting into spoilers it felt very incongruous to have an epilogue years later and have one of the supposed key things about Sophie’s life be that she is engaged and has dated several boys. There were so many other things to say, other details to share. After a totally empowering, dramatic read the epilogue brought Endangered to a close on a slightly sour note.

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

 

National Book Award nomination shenanigans: My Thoughts

This story has already been covered quite thoroughly by both popular media and the book blogging/librarian circuits. All the same, I thought it couldn’t hurt to compile my thoughts and some links to the coverage in question.

The basics: Last week the National Book Award finalists were announced. (You can see the full list on their website.) There are some great books getting some well-deserved attention in the Young People’s Literature category. Before getting into where things got weird, I want to really point out that these books have been getting a lot of buzz for months, several of them are on my “to read list” already, and the authors all deserve big huge congratulations. Being nominated for a book award, any award, but especially for a National Book Award is a SERIOUSLY big deal.

So this is the finalized list of nominees for Young People’s Literature:

Franny Billingsley, Chime
(Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc. )

Debby Dahl Edwardson, My Name Is Not Easy
(Marshall Cavendish)

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again
(Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

Albert Marrin, Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
(Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)

Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now
(Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Young People’s Literature Judges: Marc Aronson (Panel Chair),
Ann Brashares, Matt de la Peña, Nikki Grimes, Will Weaver

I say finalized because this wasn’t the list that was first announced. Chime was not on that original list; instead Lauren Myracle’s novel Shine was named as one of the nominees. Apparently the nominations were submitted via phone and somewhere along the way, Chime was confused with Shine. Which is still baffling since one would assume author names, publishers, etc. would be included with that initial nomination list.

Later, Chime was placed back on the list (it was the original nomination that was supposed to be there in the first announcement) and it was announced that Shine would stay on the nomination list as well. There were would be six finalists this year.

Then it was decided that would not happen. The upshot of all of this is that Lauren Myracle has since withdrawn from the NBA proceedings and the NBA has made a 5000 dollar donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation to make up for their mess (my words not anyone else’s). And I get that decision. The judges chose these nominees based on merits, they evaluated them. A book shouldn’t get a pass because of a mistake no matter how ridiculous that mistake is. What I found so sad, and so troubling, was that the NBA took so long to make that announcement causing everyone involved even more distress.

Publisher’s Weekly has a brief article about the whole debacle. For me the money phrase there was when Harold Augenbraum, the executive director for the NBA, said “The integrity of the awards is paramount” and Myracle withdrew her name to preserve said integrity. Aside from being shockingly insensitive to Myracle’s position in this whole predicament (that would be as the person who did nothing wrong by the way), I thought it was interesting to talk about integrity after such an egregious error on the NBA’s part. Does an award get to have “integrity” when it can’t even properly announce a nomination list? What kind of “integrity” is needed to keep raising an unsuspecting author’s hopes only to let her down repeatedly over the course of a week or two?

Unsurprisingly, Libba Bray has a very eloquent post on her blog about this whole mess which voices some of my thoughts in a much more concise and compelling way.

Finally, Lauren Myracle herself shares her thoughts on the whole thing in an interview with Vanity Fair.

In the end, I do think the decision makes sense even if the NBA managed to find the most hurtful and unhelpful way to get there. I still don’t understand how such an important announcement can depend on one phone call. I’m happy for the nominees and still excited to read them. And I’m so, so impressed by Lauren Myracle’s grace throughout this whole horrible thing.

There’s a lot of things to learn from this about awards in general (not the least of which being the value of email communication) . While they are wonderful, much like standardized tests, they don’t have an inherent meaning. Any award is an endorsement given by a group of people saying they liked a book. I’ll be a part of one such group with the Cybils this year. But the thing is, these groups that give awards are human. And being human, there is a chance for human error. There are better ways to learn such things but I do think this was a unique opportunity to see behind the curtain and see that even at as high a level as the NBA, mistakes can be made.

What I choose to take from this whole thing is that there are some fine NBA nominees in Young People’s Literature this year and there are a lot of ways that the NBA can improve their operations.

At the same time this mess confirmed that the community of YA readers/authors/bloggers/librarians/etc is a wonderful group of people who not only was willing to talk about this but was willing to rally for something they believed. But then, if you are a YA reader, you probably already knew that too.