book review · books · shanti · Uncategorized

Fervent Fairytales in Silver and Gold

Uprooted is a book that I have waited for. I have seen people talking about it and enjoying it ever since it came out, and I had the vague idea that it was Eastern European and somehow based on a fairy tale, and not really about a dragon. I checked the book out from the library several times but never managed to get beyond the first few pages. It took an audiobook to change that, and then the minute I finished it, well , to be precise, several hours in, I already knew I wanted Spinning Silver.

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blogging · books · features · shanti

Interview: Michelle Cooper, Author of Dr. Huxley’s Bequest

Hi Virtually Readers! Remember a few weeks ago when I reviewed Dr. Huxley’s Bequest, a really wonderful exploration of the history of medicine that covers a lot of ground? It’s a fascinating book, and Michelle Cooper, who wrote it, is one of my favourite authors. She is an incredible researcher, and uses her characters and stories to bring history–and now science–to life. She was gracious enough to let me interview her (which I promptly derailed by losing her email in my spam folder). If you want to learn about Tasmanian Devil milk and Michelle’s research process, you’ll definitely want to read the interview below.

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book review · books · shanti

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman seems to often write about death. Unwind was one of the few books that has truly scared me—I remember staying up late reading it when I was about twelve, feeling sickened and enthralled at once. In that book, he examines what it means to have someone else choose your death. In Everlost, he explores what might happen after death, the things that are able to change and the things that don’t. Again, it’s spooky, atmospheric, and very, very compelling. I’ve been hearing about Scythe for a long time—mostly, people raving about how good it is—and so, after checking it out from the library, not reading it, waiting in the holds list, checking it out again, not reading it etc. about five times, I have finally finished it.

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book review · books · shanti

Review: Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now

Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now is an incredibly complex novel, and one that fits a lot into it’s short timeframe of seven days. I loved Tiffany Sly and I love all the pieces of her that Dana L. Davis uses for her story. It’s a story about figuring stuff out, and how the process is more important than any potential answers.

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book review · books · shanti

I Was Born For This

Hi Virtually Readers! I like to escape to other places, though I’m not good at doing it. I like books and cake and essays and blogging. I have never gotten deep into a fandom—I think you need a tumblr account for that—but I would still call myself a fan of many things. And I Was Born for This is a book about fandom. While I don’t see myself in the obsessive fandom that Angel has for The Ark, I still loved how Oseman writes about obsession and immersion in other people’s lives. After all, that’s why I read. (a copy of this book was provided for review by Harper Collins New Zealand, which was nice of them, but it has not impacted my thoughts because I knew I was gonna love it)

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book review · books · shanti

A Quiet Kind of Thunder (my heart, beating)

Hi Virtually Readers! Today is a review day, and I’m reviewing the truly excellent A Quiet Kind of Thunder, which I loved (so much that I immediately went and got the author’s other book from the library) The narrative was nuanced, Steffi an appealing main character, and otherwise it blended ‘cute’ and ‘contemplative’ very effective. These qualities totally made up for what was otherwise quite a predictable plot (the foreshadowing was as subtle as a sledgehammer)

Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.
Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder.

30197201Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

Barnard has obviously done lots of research, and that totally showed in the story. I’m not part of any the minorities–Deaf, black, anxiety, whatever, but I think she managed to not make a huge deal of ‘LOOK AT MY DIVERSITY’, it was just incorporated into the story of healing. I loved that the characters talked about how they found spaces of both exclusion and inclusion. Steffi’s mixed up family was also dealt with really well imo. I don’t know, I just felt like the whole narrative was honest, and the diversity was excellent–not ignored, but also not shoved in your face. I loved that I learnt quite a lot from the story too, especially about British Sign Language.
Steffi is a wonderful main character. She’s quiet, obviously, and aware of that. But she’s also so strong. I find that in a lot of ‘issue’ books, the character’s only flaw is the issue, which doesn’t make sense, because anxiety and so on are just part of who you are. But Steffi did get frustrated easily. She was over sensitive about things, and a bit self obsessed. She had problems in her relationship which she had to work out. She was not perfect, and that’s what made her such a delight to read. The strength of her character–her friendships, love of dogs, family, and desire to go to university–pulls this story together. It’s not a strong plot, but it’s how she overcomes obstacles and becomes more herself.
This book has the sweetness of first love, balanced by the rounder, fuller flavours of loss and mental illness and fear and how they intersect with life. This balance worked so well for me. The book is addictive, a perfect full meal that is enjoyable the whole way through. It made me happy to read, and I loved that so much. The different elements of the narrative combine in really wonerful ways–not too overwhelming, just lovely and fits-just-right.
The plot is kind of non-existent, but this was very enjoyable and well thought out and I love all the characters, so that makes it worth it. I’m so glad I read A Quiet Kind of Thunder, and recommend it to anyone who wants to read about dealing with anxiety, and falling in love, and most of all, learning to listen.

books · discussions · shanti

Wanted: Settings from Elsewhere (ideally, ownvoices)

Good day, Virtually Readers! (I’m trying to mix up the greeting, clearly at risk of sounding like a stuck up 19th century nobleperson) I love love love talking about settings (did The Bookish Planet or my guest post at The Silver Words clue you in?) so today I thought I’d talk about why I’m sick of some settings. (I kind of alluded to this in my North of Happy post) Also, why setting matters so much. I kind of did this in my ‘exotic’ post, but you know, it’s been a while and I’ve had more ideas. So.

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Firstly, some settings I’m sick of

  • small town America
  • New York
  • LA
  • Medium sized town America
  • Boston
  • Rural America
  • actually anywhere in America
  • London
  • anywhere in Europe if the character is not European
  • Cruise ships
  • magical islands
  • magical forests
  • Medival European fantasy worlds

These settings aren’t inherently bad. There are a lot of people who live there—in fact, that probably includes most of the people who read and buy YA. But for me, who has never been to America, who hasn’t spent much time in Europe, I find that these settings don’t describe my lived experience. That’s fine. I have a vivid imagination; I can imagine myself in those places. In fact, at this point, I basically feel like I’ve been there. But I wish that there were more settings outside these narrative boundaries.

What makes me really sad is when stories bend to these expectations. A story doesn’t have to be #ownvoices for setting, but I’ve seen New Zealand, Australian, British, Mexican and Indian writers set their stories in the US, when the settings could just have been the countries they come from, which I’d prefer. I don’t know why this is; maybe they write it that way, maybe the setting proved a point, maybe the publisher asked for it. But it seems like a power imbalance to me.

When you belong to the setting you’re writing, it’s going to be more authentic. It’ll have details that generic, nameless settings won’t. That makes a difference to me, even if it’s not a setting I’m familiar with.

So I’m going to segway into part two: some settings that I do want to see more of—or that I wish existed.

  • South American settings/inspired tales. There are an okay number of Latinx characters in YA books, but very few Latin settings. Give me a story in the Yucatan peninsula or Bolivian highlands or Colombian coffee plantations or Atacama desert.
  • Sci-fi and dystopia that is outside of the US and is international. Something that always troubles me about dystopias like The Hunger Games and Divergent is that they never mention other countries. I want more stories like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (futuristic South Africa).
  • Contemporary Middle Eastern stories. This goes for China as well: there are lots of fantasies that use elements from these cultures, but I want more. (I’m very demanding)
  • More #ownvoices fantasy, with Pacifika people, or maybe Caribbean, like Brown Girl in the Ring.

I don’t really know what this post is about. The need for #ownvoices settings, I suppose. And that’s really on the publishing industry, what they decide is sellable. But readers are the ones who buy, and if I don’t buy bland American settings, if I buy ones like the ones I’ve described, or even ones I can’t imagine, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi or dystopia, I can make a difference.

I’m a good like individualistic capitalist. The corporations are fond of me. (Sorry, I’m reading Beauty Queens right now and anarchy is on the mind)

I have a lot more to say about setting and why it’s important to me but I have a lot more time to say it, so I’m going to leave this here.

Do you like your settings to be ownvoices? What’s a setting you’d love to read about? (and yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘the place where I live’) Tell me in the comments!

book review · books · shanti

Literally just a book about YA books

I heard about Literally a few weeks ago. It’s a book about a girl called Annabelle who discovers that she’s living in a YA book. It’s less fun than you might think. It was a lot of fun, and very easy to read, but didn’t quite achieve the trope reversal it promised.

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Tropes include….

    • falling in love with your brother’s best friend (about equivalent to your best friend’s brother)
    • a love triangle
    • many underdeveloped elements (which I’ll get to)
    • White middle class girl with professional parents
    • divorce
    • background best friends
    • realising you love someone at a party
    • surfer boys
    • driving everywhere (there were a *few* cycling scenes which made a nice change
    • “normal” “good” girl finds freedom in rulebreaking
    • and more

There were more, too, but those were the ones that came immediately to mind. Now, I’m not totally against tropes, and some of these are ones I actually liked. A lot of the tropes were used in a very self aware way, but other’s weren’t. For example, “Lucy Keating” wrote the perfect boy into Annabelle’s (the protagonist’s) life, but made a love triangle, yet Annabelle fell for the “unobvious” person in the love triangle. The whole point of love triangles is that there is a conflict with who to choosed, because both have good points and represent some part of the protagonist’s personality. There was none of that here. I was waiting the whole time for Lucy Keating to prove that the love triangle thing was silly by having Annabelle fall in love with someone else–but no, that didn’t happen. (I don’t really think that’s a spoiler). Basically, it was hard to tell how many of the tropes were intentional; I’m okay with that ambiguity I wanted to be okay with that ambiguity; the trope reversal could have been more clever than it was, but I do see what Keating was trying to do. Still, I was not on board with either side of the love triangle.
Then there were a lot of things that were underdeveloped. The biggest one was my pet peeve: Annabelle was editor of the school newspaper. As a high school senior at like the exact stage of life before graduation that she was AND A NEWSPAPER EDITOR, I wanted to see her being stressed over newspaper and have it consume her life (that’s what happens in real life) but that did not happen. I did relate to this quote though: “I love to take a group of words that just aren’t working and turn them into something readable and interesting.” Same thing with her getting into Columbia. YA makes Ivy Leagues look easy, but Annabelle didn’t talk about this much. Her parents getting divorced didn’t impact her much; she jsut decided not to talk about it. And a lot of the details of the world (how was the author able to actually talk to the characters? Why did “Lucy Keating” tell Annabelle about writing her life? WHAT IS REAL?) Again, I can totally see how this could have been self aware underdevelopment (for instance, the bland best friend, Ava, was absolutely self aware) but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more development (which would have enhance the whole metafiction thing). After all “What’s the harm in living outside the lines?” (or writing outside the lines, as the case may be).
Still, despite the tropes, I really like what Keating was trying to do here. She clearly reads a lot of YA, and was able to imagine how annoying it would be to be a main character.  Annabelle was an interesting character, clearly coping with a lot of things (like most teenagers) and doing her best to understand. I related to her “just a teenager” thing, too; as a seventeen year old, this made a lot of sense.

“There are no promises here. But I’m seventeen years old […] And maybe tomorrow, it will all be different. But I don’t care.”

Both Keating and Annabelle got how crazy it all was, and I liked that the book made fun of how unrealistic YA while also examining why it’s appealing to so many people. There was lots of fun banter, and Annabelle was interesting, and the ending worked really well for me. Also, these are some quotes I liked.

“You’ll find your Happy Ending, and it’s not about with whom you end up. I am only just beginning to figure that out.”
“And just because something ends doesn’t mean it didn’t mean anything. Sometimes, you just have to take the risk.”
“Life is filled with plot twists. That’s what life is.”

So, Literally was sort of all over the place, but it was relatable to me, and it was self aware (even if it could have taken everything a step further). This and Dreamology have shown me that Lucy Keating writes really cool concepts that are fun to read, and so I’ll keep reading her books.

What’s a book that hasn’t quite worked for you? Do you enjoy tropes, or making fun of tropes? And have you read Literally? tell me in the comments!

book review · shanti

Saving Francesca and friendship

A couple of months ago I read a pretty famous YA novel–Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca. It’s about friendship and family and working out where you fit into the world, and I really enjoyed it, because it felt so real. It also has lots of interesting themes and amazing characters.(also, just fyi, it may take a little while to get back to your comments because this is a scheduled post.)

82434Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastian’s, a boys’ school that pretends it’s coed by giving the girls their own bathroom. Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an impossibly dorky accordion player. The boys are no better, from Thomas, who specializes in musical burping, to Will, the perpetually frowning, smug moron that Francesca can’t seem to stop thinking about.

Then there’s Francesca’s mother, who always thinks she knows what’s best for Francesca—until she is suddenly stricken with acute depression, leaving Francesca lost, alone, and without an inkling of who she really is. Simultaneously humorous, poignant, and impossible to put down, this is the story of a girl who must summon the strength to save her family, her social life and—hardest of all—herself.

So when I read contemporary, I mostly read American contemporary books, most of which have characters in high school. Many of these books emphasise cliques, and crazy parties and a lot of other things which have very little in common with my own high school experience. While obviously a book can’t be exactly the same as what I’ve experienced, I loved that this book showed how fluid friend groups can be, and the way you can feel alienated even within your own friendships, and how teachers can be totally compassionate even when you don’t want to learn, and how younger siblings effect you, and how your attitude to school can change, and how boys can be jerks sometimes, but so can girls, and how labels can change, and popularity matters, but not as much as you want it to. Marchetta’s voice was just SO PERFECT and she got it really really right in an essential way, never resorting to stereotypes, but using their existence very effectively.

“Tara’s already been called a lesbian because that’s how the Sebastian boys deal with an girl who has an opinion.”

“I think I’m a bit in love with these girls. They make me feel giddy. Like I haven’t a care in the world. Like I’m fearless. Like I used to be.

This book has some really important themes. For one thing, it talks about identity, which is a key part of the book. Francesca has relied on other people to show her how she belongs for a long time, which has made her totally unsure of who she is without them. Her new school, and the alienation she feels in it, as well as the judgemental attitude she has cultivated towards the other girls, leaves her totally unsure of herself. The fact that her family seems to be disintegrating due to her mother’s depression doesn’t help at all. Francesca has to figure out who she is on her own, who she wants her friends to be, and how she wants to make a difference. this is emphasised throughout the text by her various proclamations ‘when I grow up I want to be a teacher’ to ‘when I grow up I want to be my mother’ I loved that development, and these themes of identity and friendship keep the narrative cohesive. The stuff about her friendships evolving was something that I could really relate to.

“I miss the Stella girls telling me what I am. That I’m sweet and placid and accommodating and loyal and good to have around.[…]But I’m a noun. A nothing. A nobody. A no-one.”

” Oh yeah, I’m so smart. That’s why I’m God knows where and my friends, who I thought were my friends, aren’t and the ones who are my friends, who I have never considered my friends, aren’t talking to me, and the guy I’m in love with isn’t happy enough to put a girl between us but now has to put a body of water between us.”

“Why do I feel as if something’s missing in my life without them and they don’t feel the same way about me?”

Francesca is a fabulous character, and I loved how she developed through the story. But Marchetta’s true skill lies in how she creates this vivid landscape of side characters. There’s Justine, who plays accordion and is nerdy and passionate and cool; Tara, who is an activist of all kinds, and totally fervent and really enthusiastic; Will, who is a prefect with issues but also sweet; Mia, Francesca’s mother who’s lost in depression; Luca, Francesca’s amazing, sweet, little brother; Francesca’s vibrant Italian extended family; Thomas, who is kind of jerk but also kind when it’s important, and totally astute; Siobhan, who is labelled as a slut, but is so much more than that; Robert, Francesca’s dad, who is kind and lost and needed more than he knows. I loved all these characters so much, and their relationships with Francesca really help show who she is, as well as being fabulous in their own right.

“You go an shake your foundations, Will. I think it’s about time I saved myself.”

“At times, I hate myself so much that it makes my head spin.”

“We dance in a way that’s only possible when there’s not boys around.”

The one thing that sort of bothered me about this story is that the pacing felt…just off? I read Jellicoe Road a long time ago and really liked it, but have basically forgotten everything. But I read Finnikin of the Rock earlier this year and mostly didn’t like it, and the only similarity it bears to this book is the odd pacing. Some important things were skipped, others were not lingered on, and the conclusion just felt really rushed and out of touch with the rest of the story. But apart from that, I loved this story, because it felt so delightfully real.

What is your favourite book that’s set in a school? Do you like realistic friendships? tell me in the comments.