Monthly Archives: September 2017

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore


by Kristin Cashore
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I was intrigued by this advance review in an email newsletter from Publisher’s Weekly, which described it this way: “Kristin Cashore’s first novel in five years is a fantasy—and a science fiction story, and a thriller, and a mystery, and a horror story. JaneUnlimited unfolds during a highly eventful weekend at an island mansion, in five different genres.” By the time the hold came in for me, I had (as usual) forgotten that premise, remembering only that something about it had intrigued me. In most cases, that’s fine, but in this case, I would have found a refresher on this premise very helpful. So my advice to anyone just picking this one up is to keep this in mind: Jane has five parts, each intended to be written in a different genre. Because the first genre was mystery, I read the next few expecting them to also be mysteries and to interlock with the first one in different ways, so it was a bit jarring when they each just… ended. But at some point I caught on and was much more satisfied once I did.

One thing I really liked about this book was how it challenged many of my assumptions at every turn. In terms of sexuality, race, and class, Cashore does a masterful job of addressing each in ways that poke at the status quo. One of the first things I noticed, for example, was that characters’ descriptions included race, even if they were white. (WHAT?!?!?! I know. But white people are the default, right? Why should we specify unless they’re not white???) It’s something I think about often, and I’m glad to see a writer putting this into practice. I’m also sad to realize again that it’s not anything I’ve seen before, but I do look forward to seeing it more in the future.

Jane has a romantic interest in several of the stories (the same person) and it was cool to hear her reflect in one of them that she couldn’t see herself jumping into bed with another of the characters, and why, and that she was comfortable with that expression of and attitude toward where she was with sex at that point in her life (18 years old). It was also interesting that she ended up with the same person each time, and one of many many things that this book gave me to chew on for a while.

Spinning by Tillie Walden


by Tillie Walden
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

Walden’s graphic novel memoir falls solidly in the same camp as Honor Girl and Tomboy (and is about as confusing and as much of a letdown as Honor Girl). From her website, it seems as though Walden is a very gifted cartoonist, but the drawings in Spinning are very simplistic and I had a hard time telling characters apart and following the story. It’s also hard to take a very fluid activity like ice skating and depict it in a static medium like drawing. It was also hard to watch her put so much time and money and effort into skating when she wasn’t really that into it. Much later, when she does actually quit, she wonders why she didn’t do it sooner, and I was left wondering why also. She touches briefly on her secret relationship with her girlfriend, Rae, but doesn’t really come to any grand conclusions about it, or about skating, or about anything really. She depicts being sexually threatened (harassed? assaulted? I’m not entirely sure how to describe what happened) by her SAT tutor, but it doesn’t really fit into the rest of the narrative in a meaningful way. She also touches on her relationship with her twin brother, who thinks that her being gay is wrong, but she also has other mentors who tell her she’s just fine, like her cello teacher, showing how important it is to have adults in your life who fully support you (unlike her dad, who asked if he had done something wrong to make her gay, which was sad). I’m not really 100% sure what the point of this was, other than an outlet for Walden herself and maybe another in the category of “it gets better” reads for LGBTQIA teens, but given that she’s only 20 it seems like a solid debut work. Plus I love ice skating, so it was interesting to get an inside peek at that world (and synchronized skating, too).

Refugee by Alan Gratz


by Alan Gratz
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This incredible book follows the stories of three refugees over the last 100 years at different times, from different countries, for different reasons. Their stories are harrowing and illuminating, even for a grownup who pays attention to such things.

Josef turns 13 in 1939, on a cruise ship carrying passengers and refugees from Nazi Germany to Cuba. The ship, the St. Louis eventually became famous because the passengers were not allowed to disembark in Cuba, and instead were turned back around. Josef has his bar mitzvah on board the ship, and his unique position as child-then-man plays a pivotal role in his story.

Isabel and her parents and neighbors, including her best friend Ivan, leave Havana in 1994 on a rickety motorboat. They weren’t ready to leave yet, so the boat has some problems, not least of which is running into the shipping lanes and their huge waves. Her mom is pregnant, due any minute – and does end up having the baby on the way.

Mahmoud and his family are fleeing Syria’s civil war in 2015. They are prepared to make their journey overland and are aided by smartphones and GPS. Eventually they have to leave their car behind and they hop from refugee camp to refugee camp with the eventual goal of Germany.

All three of them (all middle-school age, and forced on this precipice to become adults, with younger siblings and incapacitated parents) end up in boats at some point and the waves and the sharks and the sinking boats was terrifying. While this is a children’s book, it is NOT a happy read. I couldn’t read it at bedtime – things just got worse and worse and worse and then they got even worse. There are some pretty extensive notes at the end about some of the historical context that the kid narrators wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate. They are all fictional kids, but their situations were very real. Hopefully this book will help kids (at least, those who can stomach it) really empathize with refugees and understand the situations, both today and in the future.

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson


by Victoria Jamieson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Now that Imogene is 11 years old, she is ready to leave her Renaissance Faire family behind and attend public school for the first time. For a little while, things go fine – she makes friends relatively easily and keeps her weirdo family secret, and even gets to be a (paid!) knight in the Faire instead of just helping out her mom and little brother at the store. That is, until the ringleader of the group starts being mean. Impy meets another classmate, Anita, at the Ren Faire. Impy doesn’t understand middle school social structures that dictate that they must never be seen together at school, so Anita spells it out for her and things go on. Eventually Impy’s family “secret” comes out, but even then it’s not so bad. Her lab mate is cute and seems to like her, and things are good. But then Imogene, in an attempt to win the mean girl’s approval, draws caricatures of the teachers and other kids and mean girl copies them and tapes them up all over school and it all comes crumbling down. Imogene is suspended and her parents learn that she’s failing science. And it gets worse from there. But take heart! Our fearless knight eventually figures out how to make amends to Anita and to her brother (whom she’s also hurt in the process) and everything gets better. She learns that she can’t just run away from her mistakes and go back to being homeschooled, and she even figures out a little bit of how to deal with mean girls and have friends who will help her stand up to bullies.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli


by Jerry Spinelli

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

There’s a new girl at school in Mica, Arizona, and she’s making her presence known. Rumor has it she had been homeschooled and named herself Stargirl. Her parents are huge hippies and let her do whatever she wants, which is usually fine because she has a heart of gold, sending anonymous cards to people and singing happy birthday to them on her ukulele in the cafeteria. She becomes incredibly popular until she joins the cheerleading squad and cheers for the other team, and then she’s ostracized. The only person who will talk to her is our fearless hero, fellow tenth-grader Leo, who has gone and fallen in love with her. (But it’s a very chaste love, not all hormone-y, so this story is still appropriate for middle schoolers.) Mostly the story is about the social whims of the high school jungle. Stargirl, having been homeschooled, is oblivious to what people think of her, and needs Leo to tell her. His own reaction to her trying to become mainstream is a bit sad to someone who wishes more kids would learn to love themselves as they are, idiosyncrasies and all. One day she just up and disappears, and that’s where the story ends.

The only annoying thing about this book on CD this was that the narrator (who turned out to be John Ritter, who frankly should have known better, may he rest in peace) could not pronounce saguaro. Instead of “swarro” (as I’ve been told by people who live in Arizona), he says “cigar-o” and it irked me. Another thing that stuck out to me is that the story starts off told in the first person plural, which I’ve only ever seen in The Virgin Suicides. However, in Stargirl, Leo quickly emerges from the masses as an individual – notably, the only one who still talks to Stargirl after the ostracizing.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

by Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met Rishi… he already knew they were being set up by their parents, but she didn’t. So when he led with “Hello, future wife,” she understandably freaks out, throws her iced coffee on him, and runs away. Unfortunately, they’ve both signed up for the same 6-week pre-college app coding program, so getting away from him for good turns out to be futile, as is resisting his charms. Somehow, he’s the total package: nerdy, cute, funny, sensitive, suave (well except for the future wife part). Dimple, however, is not interested. She isn’t even sure she wants to get married, ever, since it would (she thinks) detract from her life goals of coding apps and programs to help change people’s lives.

After an alarmingly short time, Rishi has won Dimple over, so clearly that’s not the real conflict of the story. The real conflict is in two parts: one in which Dimple helps Rishi discover his real career ambitions, and one in which Rishi helps Dimple realize she can be in a relationship and be a career woman. There’s also a couple of side plots involving Dimple’s roommate at the summer program, a girl named Celia whose new friends turn out to be jerks. Celia and Rishi’s brother, Ashish, have a past that comes back up, and also Celia has to figure out how to dump her new friends – and come around to the understanding that she needs to lose them.

I guess I was expecting that the main story would be Rishi winning Dimple over, but in the end I’m glad that’s not what it was. I’m glad that Dimple was a little bit more complex than that, and really grappled with commitment to a relationship AND to her career ambitions, and all at the low low age of 18. Rishi is so level-headed that he stops them from having sex on not one but two different occasions so that they can really sort through how they feel about it (it’s the first time for both of them). I was a little disappointed that neither of them walked us through their thought process at all, or seemed to give it any thought other than when actively making out and heading down that road. And it didn’t seem to have any great effect on either of them, not even, most surprisingly, for Rishi the romantic. Both of their relationships with their parents (and, for Rishi, his brother) had plenty of nuance, which I loved, and things came together neatly and satisfyingly.

Geek love like: Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love

Generic love like: Anna and the French Kiss