Saturday, November 28, 2015

Jane, le renard et moi - by Isabelle Arsenault & Fanny Britt

My rating:             

I originally found the English translation of this book (Jane, the fox and me) when I was requesting more teen graphic novels for the bookmobile at the library where I work. I was trying to get in some more recent works and the illustrations caught my eye when I first saw the cover in our library catalog.

After reading this graphic novel, I can definitely say that the illustrations are still my favorite part. The book tells the story of Hélène, a young girl who is made fun of at school for her weight. The girls laugh at her and write nasty messages in the bathroom stalls, while the boys mostly ignore her. Then the school announces that everyone has to go to camp and Hélène is ready for the bullying to get even worse.

At first it seems like her fears might come true. Hélène seeks refuge in Jane Eyre, and she reads the book all the way to camp. When she can't curl up with her book, though, she still has to deal with the taunts of the other girls. The illustrations are stunning, but also complement the story very well. Hélène's reality is portrayed in varying shades of black, white, and grey to reflect the shame and loneliness she feels.

The scenes from Jane Eyre, on the other hand, are illustrated in color. This scheme stays consistent until Hélène meets a fox outside her cabin at camp, bringing color into her own life. Unfortunately one of the other girls comes outside and the fox runs off.

Hélène's life goes back to black and white as she becomes even more disenchanted with her life. The girls make fun of her, the boys run away from her, and she even scared away a fox. Eventually, though, Hélène finds a friend and realizes that some things are more important than the mean comments of her classmates. As she begins to spend more time with Geraldine and less time listening to the girls at school, the illustrations slowly incorporate more and more color, ending with this beautiful picture.
The story is nice, but felt overly simple. On the one hand, this book made for a beautiful, short read, but I still feel like it could have been even better if it were a bit longer. From the length and simplicity of the plot, I would almost be tempted to move this book to the children's area. In any case I think it's definitely right on the edge between children's and YA and I would probably recommend it to primarily middle grade readers if I were only judging the text. I would definitely give the illustrations 5 stars, though, and I think older readers and even adults (myself included) can enjoy this beautiful graphic novel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Water Knife - by Paolo Bacigalupi

My Rating:                  

Despite working in a library in the same state as the author, Paolo Bacigalupi, I had never heard about The Water Knife. Then a couple of friends suggested we read it for a book discussion. From their very brief description I went to pick it up from the library thinking it was some sort of realistic fiction novel about current water rights, which didn't sound especially exciting to me at the time. Instead, I ended up with one of the best sci-fi novels I've read in a long time.

While The Water Knife isn't contemporary, realistic fiction, references to the cultural and political situation make it clear that this takes place in the near future. The southwestern United States have essentially become a war zone because of water shortages. Catherine Case, queen of the Colorado, ruthlessly buys and cuts water rights from her offices in Las Vegas. These rights often put her totally in control of whether a city lives or dies, and she think Phoenix is about to die.

Bacigalupi brings the focus to Phoenix with narration by three separate characters. First we have Angel, originally from Mexico and later an immigrant to the US, he is pulled from prison by case to work as what the public refers to as a water knife. Basically, when Case decides it's time for a town to die so she can divert their water, water knives do the dirty work. Now she's sent Angel to Phoenix to see what the situation is.

Then we have Lucy, a journalist who always has an eye out for a story. Unlike most, Lucy moved to Phoenix by choice and is now writing what is known as "collapse porn"- stories covering the slow, but seemingly inevitable, collapse of the city. Her sister is constantly urging her to leave, but even as the bodies start piling up around her, Lucy is determined to stay put.

Finally we have Maria, a refugee from Texas. As the water dried up, the Texans were forced to pack up their lives and leave. Now that states are closing their borders, though, it looks like Maria's gotten herself stuck in Phoenix with nowhere to go.

The novel starts with each of these characters in seemingly unrelated plot lines, that slowly converge until, by the end, all three have come together. I feel like I've read a fair number of books where this process leaves all the characters in story lines that are too far fetched even for fiction, but Bacigalupi does a great job. The characters are wonderfully developed, and they never are never forced into doing something that doesn't seem natural just to bring the plots together. When all three characters finally end up in the same place, it feels not so much predictable, as inevitable.

I also love that the science part of this science fiction novel completely holds up. This might be because it's set in the very near future, but I know Bacigalupi has written other science fiction that isn't so close to our own time.While I haven't read his other works (yet), they seem very popular and I'm inclined to think that the believability of the science in this book also has a lot to do with Bacigalupi's skill as a writer. When I read science fiction, no matter how removed from the current reality, I want the author to convince me that the technology is sound and definitely possible. Otherwise I would read fantasy, which I love, but I don't expect the technical explanations that I do from sci-fi.

I also got a sense that Bacigalupi might be hinting towards a more drastic climate change situation worldwide, and not just the droughts in the Southwest, but not many people I've talked to about this book thought so. If it was on purpose, it was explicit, but there were plenty of mentions of huge increases in the number of hurricanes near New Orleans, weather problems in India, and the unceasing rain in the background every time Lucy would Skype with her sister. Regardless of whether or not there's some sort of statement about climate change, I would highly recommend this book to just about anyone. It's great sci-fi writing, but also current enough that I think even readers who aren't fans of the genre would really enjoy this novel. The Water Knife is a violent novel at times, but I felt it was done in a way that the depictions of violence contributed to setting the scene in a dystopian Phoenix. That said, if you can't handle some detailed descriptions of violence, I would stay away from this book.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

How to Be a Woman - by Caitlin Moran

My Rating:

I'd seen  How to Be a Woman on my library shelves numerous times and thought about picking up, but I actually ended up reading How to Build a Girl First. I loved Moran's novel so much that it finally convinced to pick up this book. I listened to the audio book, which is read by Caitlin Moran herself and I'm really glad I finally got around to reading How to Be a Woman.

What I like best about this book is the very informal tone. Especially with the audio, it feels like Moran is just chatting to you about her life and thoughts. While it doesn't come across as any sort of academic endeavor, I found this book to be much better organized than other memoirs or books of essays I've read. Moran starts each chapter with some of her childhood history, often including entries from her journal, and moves into how this shaped her idea of feminism and what it means to be a woman. In the second half or so of each chapter, she shares her thoughts on whatever topics her childhood reminiscing has brought her to whether that's something more serious like abortion, or less serious like her attempts to buy fashionable shoes. While I like a good, academic analysis of feminist issues as much as the next person (and probably more than a good number of people), I loved How to Be a Woman precisely because it is not that. If I want a serious book of essays on serious issues, I'll go pick up something else. This book, though, was absolutely hilarious.

I also noticed, when looking through reviews on Goodreads, that a lot of people took issue with this book for the reasons that I loved it. Many of Moran's comments are insensitive and not at all politically correct. I saw a lot of people calling her out for making racist comments or using the word "retard" and this definitely happened in the book. I disagree, though, that this book is, as some people claim, full of hate speech. I didn't get the sense that Moran wrote this book to preach hate for anyone. Maybe she has what some people consider to be poor taste in jokes, but I think a lot of the negative comments stem from the recent movement I've noticed towards not offending anyone ever. It's the same with all the negativity I've seen towards university professors who are offending students that seem to be getting progressively more sensitive. If these people are actually trying to kindle hatred towards others, that's one thing, but if they're making jokes that you don't like, that's entirely different in my opinion.

I was actually surprised to see these complaints that accuse Moran of ranting or claiming that this really a memoir masquerading as critical analysis. I have to ask myself if any of these people read the description of the book before picking it up, or at least before reviewing. The blurb from Moran's own website says:

"It's a good time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven't been burnt as witches since 1727.
However, a few nagging questions do remain...Why are we supposed to get Brazilians?
Should we use Botox? Do men secretly hate us? And why does everyone ask you when you're going to have a baby?
Part memoir, part rant, Caitlin answers the questions that every modern woman is asking."

So Moran is not, as many of the reviews I read claimed, trying to present this book as critical analysis. It is literally described as "part memoir, part rant", which is fine if that's not what you want to read, but then there's really no reason to complain about the book actually being a memoir or rant, because that's exactly what it claims to be. So congratulations to the reviewers who seemed very proud of themselves for discovering the true identity of this book, but I think they could have saved some time if they'd only read the description first. In any case, I loved How to Be a Woman, inappropriate jokes and all, and would highly recommend this book. It's a refreshing break from the more academic books on the subject and, if you have any sense of humor, pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh.

Friday, November 20, 2015

What did I do all quarter?

As usual, despite my optimistic plans to keep posting here once classes started, I instead disappeared for about ten weeks. Between class and work I didn't have much free time and when I did I was either trying (and usually failing) to keep my house somewhat in order or focusing on being as unproductive as possible. I didn't do a whole lot of pleasure reading during the quarter, but I did read about 75 children's books as an assignment for one of my library courses. Instead of reviewing all of these books, I've decided to share the highlights of my reading. So here are the best and worst, in my opinion, of what I read for my children's literature class.

Books I loved!

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! - by Mo Willems
I never got caught up in the popularity of these books when they were new, so I thought this class would be a great chance to meet the pigeon. I'm actually not a huge fan of picture books, since I don't currently read to kids and they don't make great reading for adults. The illustrations in this book are what really won me over - they're simple, but also adorable!

Stella by Starlight - by Sharon M. Draper
This book is a historical fiction novel about what it's like to be a young, black girl in the southern US during the 1930's. I actually read several books about similar topics, and this was definitely my favorite. The narration is very colloquial and we also see Stella working to overcoming her struggle with writing and spelling in the way the book is written. I like that this book is not overly optimistic about the reality of issues like the Ku Klux Klan, but doesn't feel dark and hopeless either.

Miss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful Cats - by Alicia Potter, illustrated by Birgitta Sif
This is another picture book that managed to intrigue me. While the illustrations are, again, adorable, the story line of this book really spoke to me. The plot is inspired by the author's own experience fostering feral cats and I love the message that love and patience can help these cats grow into confident individuals. If you're an animal lover or have fostered pets of your own, I would highly recommend this book.

Harry Potter - by J.K. Rowling
I hardly need to review these books again, but rereading the entire series over the course of my class reminded me of how much I love them. 

Human Body Theater - by Maris Wicks
I found this book when it came in as a new order at the library where I work. It's a graphic novel that goes over each system of the human body. The information is great, but the presentation is even better. Maris Wicks has managed to illustrate the insides of the human body in a way that makes just about everything seem cute. Each body system has its own "act" at the theater, all of which are introduced by our joke-making, skeleton host.

Books I hated!

Dark Day in the Deep Sea - by Mary Pope Osborne
This is one of the more recent books in the Magic Tree House series and I picked it up because I loved the series as a child. I was totally prepared to reminisce, when my dreams of nostalgia were ruined by the addition of a magic wand. While it may not seem like much, I loved reading about Jack and Annie because they are (or were...) two normal kids who had to rely on their own smarts, with some great books, to get out of trouble. Now they're battling sea monsters, who they realize aren't monstrous because of some weird telepathic communication, and fixing all of their problems with, literally, the wave of a wand.

Rain, Reign - by Ann M. Martin
After reading several other books that have autistic children as the protagonist (e.g., The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), our protagonist here, a young girl named Rose, reads like a stereotype. Martin drills into the reader's head that Rose is obsessed with homonyms. The rules of homonyms are the most important thing in the world! Except, the author can't follow the rules she lays down for her character. Supposedly Rose would likes to write out all the homonyms she thinks of in a sentence, so the author did this too... sort of. Martin sort of randomly drops some homonyms in parentheses throughout the book, which doesn't follow Rose's rules and is also quite annoying. I can only imagine listening to the audiobook narration. My biggest problem though, is the title itself. In the book you learn that Rose named her dog Rain - a name that is extra special because it has not only one, but two homonyms! This is extremely important, so I have to wonder why the title isn't Rain, Reign, Rein. 

39 Clues: The Maze of Bones - by Rick Riordan
Don't tell my professor, but I actually couldn't bring myself to finish this book and I still included it in my reading log. Another confession, I generally can't stand action movies. This is relevant because this book feels like a stereotypical action and they both drive me crazy for the following reasons.
1. The 'plot' is barely existent and so predictable you might as well have written the thing yourself.
2. Both are full of 'exciting', 'action-packed' events, which are really just catastrophes likes explosions or crumbling buildings. These events conveniently remove or slow down the bad guys, leave the good guys totally unscathed, and the question of collateral damage never comes up because this is no place for deep thoughts!
3. The characters are literally walking stereotypes, with no attempt to disguise this fact. The generally have no unique characteristics or personality traits and can only speak in action-y sounding clichés.
4. They are both ridiculously popular! Really people, do you not see that you're just consuming recycled stereotypes while the producers, authors, etc. get rich even though they're too lazy to come  up with an actual story?

On that note, I will officially end my rant about the books I hated. Overall though, I think I made it out pretty well as far the assignment goes. There were plenty of books I enjoyed very much, and I really had to think hard about which ones I should include in the list of books I loved. On the other hand, the three books on my hate list are the only three I could come up with that I truly despised.

Also, now that it's just about winter break, I will hopefully be updating this blog more frequently for at least the next month or so. I've already set a goal to stay on top of posts during the coming quarter as well so fingers crossed that I actually stick with it for once!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Shades of London Series - by Maureen Johnson

My rating: 

Since I'm behind on writing reviews, I'm going to cheat a bit and review this series as a whole. I actually checked out the first book, The Name of the Star, without realizing it was part of a series. I had just heard that it was a young adult book about Jack the Ripper, and put it on my to-read list.

The Name of the Star was actually a lot different than I was expecting. Without really knowing anything about the book other than it featured Jack the Ripper I was thinking historical fiction. The modern day setting was a surprise, but a pleasant one. I really enjoyed Rory Deveaux as the main character because she comes across as a very normal teen and very believable as a realistic character. Even when she becomes involved the mystery surrounding the Ripper murders, she still worries about the boy she might like and trying to pass her classes. The supernatural aspect also made this book a lot of fun and was a twist on the copycat killer plot line that I haven't read before.

The second book, The Madness Underneath, picks up as Rory is recovering from the attack by the Jack the Ripper copycat. She's forced to see a therapist even though she can't actually tell them that she can see ghosts, or that it was actually a ghost that attacked her. Eventually though, the Shades (the group of ghost hunters Rory's friends belong to) are able to pull some strings and get her back to school in London. My only complaint about this book is that not much happened in terms of the plot. All the characters were still great, but once Rory got back to Wexford I was expecting more to happen.

Even though the second book wasn't as great as I expected, I feel like The Shadow Cabinet more than makes up for it. After the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, we jump straight into the action as Rory tries to figure out how to find the ghost of one of her friends. Nobody even knows if Rory's theory worked, and maybe the ghost they're all looking for doesn't exist. Rory's school nemesis, Charlotte, is still missing after being kidnapped by Jane and her cult of followers. It also seems like they might be covering up the mass murder of ten people over forty years earlier. This book is just one surprise after another and the ending is no exception. Unfortunately for me, I read the first book thinking it was a standalone, then moved onto the second thinking I was getting into a trilogy. Now I have to endure the long wait for a fourth book.

Even though these weren't the necessarily the best books I've ever read, I'm still going to give the series a 5 paw rating just because of how invested in them I became. All three books had me staying up all night just so I could get to the end without having to take a break and it's been awhile since I've stayed up all night to finish one book, much less three in a row.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Simon vs.the Homo Sapiens Agenda - by Becky Albertalli

My rating:   

Somehow I hadn't heard anything about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda until all of my Goodreads friends starting reading it. Everyone had such great things to say that I finally decided to hop on the bandwagon.

The book starts when some of Simon's private emails fall into the hands of his classmate Martin. Simon has been emailing another boy at the school, known only as Blue, and neither of them are quite ready to come out as gay. Martin is hoping he has a chance with Simon's friend Abby, and so he blackmails Simon into introducing them. Simon agrees not only to keep his sexual identity private, but also to protect Blue's privacy.

Even after making a deal with Martin, Simon worries about his secret getting out. He realizes that he would rather come out to his friends and family on his own terms before they hear the news from someone else. Simon soon learns that coming out isn't one-time event either, but something he will have to keep repeating. I also love how Simon realizes that all the small changes in his life will effect how people see him, not just his sexual orientation. "But I'm tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again." 

With Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Albertalli takes a very relevant issue and comes up with a book that is a great balance of serious and fun. Simon is an adorably geeky boy without falling into the trap of that being his only personality trait as a character. He has a supportive family and friends, but the relationships aren't so idyllic that we never see them fight. This is an extremely enjoyable book and the writing is realistic and keeps you reading. Finally, the sentiment of this book can be summed up by Simon's wonderful quote: "White shouldn't be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn't even be a default."

That is probably my favorite quote from the book and it also makes me think of this wonderful picture I found recently.
This photo & other great ones from

Also, a summer reading update for the program I'm taking part in from This is my ninth book for the summer and I am, very fittingly, using it for the book about coming out challenge.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bad Feminist - by Roxane Gay

My rating: 

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, is another book that I had mixed feelings about. I find this much easier to accept with a book of essays, though, because I can look at each essay as it's own work. Some of them, I absolutely loved, some I didn't enjoy at all. I can say, that there weren't any essays I hated, and I enjoyed this book as a whole. I also think some of my disappointment in certain essays was amplified by how well I thought this book started off. The comparison to the parts I loved really made the aspects I didn't like so much stand out more.

Gay starts off with a wonderful introduction explaining her whole concept of a bad feminist. When women are held to such high standards by society in general, even trying to be a feminist seems like a burden. Some people view you as a crazy man-hater and others expect you to be the paragon of the feminist movement, or what Gay calls 'Capital-F Feminism'. Roxane Gay also admits that she was one of those women who looked down on feminists and didn't want to be labeled as such. Until she realized that being a bad feminist is a completely valid option and, as she puts it, better than being no feminist at all. As a bad feminist, Gay admits that she is imperfect and lives a life full of contradictions, but she is still a feminist. This is something I can really relate to, and I think anyone who is interested in gender equality can as well.

The first few essays after the introduction were very solid in my opinion. Gay writes in a very colloquial way that makes this book seem much more personal than a more academic look at feminism. She does a great job of dealing with tough topics like abortion, rape, or her experiences as a woman of color and then turns right around and makes you laugh with a story about competitive Scrabble tournaments. For me, Gay's weakness is in her essays that come off as an analysis of pop culture, either books, movies, TV shows, or anything else. In almost all of the essays of this type, the pacing seemed extremely awkward. I felt like the essay would trudge along with an overly detailed recap of the book / movie / other in question, then rush to some actual analysis at the very end before ending abruptly. I'll admit that my distaste for these essays might also be somewhat personal, as they remind me of some of my own poorly written essays. You know, the kind where you forget you had a paper to write until the night before and don't have time to do much research or reread the work you're critiquing to actually analyze it. Then you hastily write what little analysis you can think of, which is rushed and lacking in detail, and try to make up for it by filling in the rest of the page limit with an extremely repetitive retelling of the basic plot. Or maybe that's just me...

Overall though, Roxane Gay has put together a very enjoyable collection of essays. Bad Feminist is a book of essays, but is also an equal mix of memoir, humor, social commentary, and critical analysis. While I, personally, could do without the critical analysis, I loved everything else about this book. Bad Feminist is a great read for anyone who has any interest in feminism, especially if they don't want to be called a feminist.

This is also my eighth book for the summer reading challenge from and I will be using it for the challenge to read a book by an author of color.