March 28, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE OTHER F-WORD, by NATASHA FRIEND

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I need to get every single one of the books this person has read, so I can bask in the sarcasm and snark of the dialogue. I really enjoyed all the 'feels' I had reading this book, and can practically guarantee that you will, too.

Synopsis: Milo lives with his two mothers, Frankie and Suzanne. Milo's had it kind of rough. He's skinny with wild, curly hair, and he's never quite fit into the world of junior high. In part, it's because Milo has catastrophic allergies -- peanuts, melons, tomatoes, coconut, gluten, wheat, dairy -- sooo many things. He's so tired of the EpiPen and the drama attached to every meal eaten away from home. He'd just like a piece of pizza, just once, hold the drama. He wishes desperately that he knew his sperm donor - not just as someone to figure out where the allergies are coming from, but sometimes... sometimes he'd just like someone else to talk to. About his life. And so, he contacts a girl he met when he was six -- who shared the same sperm donor, Hollis.

Hollis lives with her single mother - though once she had two. Pam died of cancer when she was in the second grade, and her remaining mother has been weird ever since. She cried for years, and drank wine. And now she's in the phase of talking to Pam's picture. She carries one with her. Hollis' mother seems not to notice that her wild-haired, Goth-influenced, tongue-pierced daughter isn't exactly thrilled about how her mother interacts with Pam's memory. Unfortunately, Hollis' mother doesn't seem to notice how conflicted Hollis is about everything. She's decided that... Pam would want Hollis to talk to Milo. That Pam would want Hollis to go and meet Milo in person. Hollis would like to call BS on the whole thing. This isn't about Pam! This is about Hollis, and she's ...snarky and angry and really, really, really wishes that she'd gotten to say goodbye to Pam when she died. But, a nurse's prejudice against a lesbian family and Hollis being only seven had worked against them. And there's more -- but Hollis isn't telling.

When Hollis and Milo meet - and soon find more children of this same sperm donor, through a website aimed at connecting donor progeny with their donors, it's amazing. FaceTiming and texting each other is great. Finding a group of people roughly the same age who have so much in common -- from looks to quirks to skills is like finding more ready-made family. There is an ease and joyousness to their interactions. And then, through Milo's research, and his weird friend JJ's persistent assistance, they find their sperm donor, #9677. Suddenly, Milo, Hollis, and their siblings are confronted with a real person -- and the other f-word... the father word. Are they ready for him? Is he ready for them?

Observations: This is an ensemble novel, which is narrated by turns, so it may take some readers time to find their feet. Hollis is an acquired taste - she holds grudges, is mean to her mother, and is basically you on a bad day, which may cause the more judgmental among us to hold back from her. Keep reading. This novel delves into the topic of in-vitro fertilization, bullying, friendship, and family. There is mild drinking and drug from some characters. The novel delves into sexual diversity in that two sets of parents are lesbian. Though JJ's adoptive parents are Jewish, there isn't much ethnic diversity in the novel, except for a stock character Latina maid.

This is a novel written by someone who knows the craft well. There is snark and sideways humor and geeky, cheesy parents and anxious, stressed, helicoptering parents. There is grieving and finding joy again, making out and deciding to stop. There is numbing of emotion, and letting oneself feel -- even feel fear and pain that goes with that feeling. There is an ending which is so perfect that I want to hug it and pet it a bit. It is spontaneous and joyful, and full of possibilities -- for both utter disappointment and terrifying happiness.

Conclusion: This is a great book - original, heartfelt, funny, sweet, and real. I wish I'd written it. Barring that wish coming true, I can at least press it firmly into the hands of every reader I know. ENJOY IT.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishing company You can find THE OTHER F-WORD by Natasha Friend at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 27, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: BERA THE ONE-HEADED TROLL

Synopsis: Bera is a troll girl...but, unlike other trolls in her world, she merely has one head, instead of two or more. (Horrors!) Also unlike other trolls we might know, Bera is more like a caretaker of the troll kingdom and not necessarily a human-chomping monster. In fact, she is good and kind, and accumulates a variety of friends from the animal and magical worlds as she goes on her quest to return a kidnapped baby to the human village.

Along the way, she deals with not-so-heroic heroes, a vengeful witch, hostile terrain, monstrous mermaids, goblins, wolves, and more. Lots of fun and new things are constantly appearing in this story, but it's paced well. Ultimately, the main character realizes her own abilities and there's a happy ending for all who deserve one. A classic sort of quest story.

Observations: While the story itself is a fairly simple quest tale, it uses fairy tale tropes in a fun way that blends the expected and the unexpected. As Bera adventures on, she collects friends through niceness and good deeds, a positive thematic element that I appreciated, especially since it's not rendered in an overly moralistic way.

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I loved the art on this one, too—like a blend of Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey, with monsters that are scary-cute like in Where the Wild Things Are. On our judging panel, there were mixed feelings about the rather monochromatic color scheme, which is understandable--this one isn't colorfully inked like many GNs for young readers. But I liked the spare use of color; it worked for me and gave it a sort of moodiness that I think will appeal to a broader age range.

Conclusion: First Second has such amazing offerings for elementary and middle grade readers, and this is another strong addition to that collection. Funny and adventuresome and not too scary.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find BERA THE ONE-HEADED TROLL by Eric Orchard at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 23, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MONSTRESS, VOL.1: AWAKENING

Synopsis: Not only does this Cybils YA graphic novels finalist have a cover blurb from Neil Gaiman, it also has an amazingly beautiful and intriguing cover design and this provocative jacket copy, all of which seem specifically aimed at my teenage self:
Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900's Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Count me in.

Observations: The whole "who's the REAL monster here" theme abounds throughout this book, in a world populated with gods, monsters, half-divine creatures, and powerful magical cats. The story is well constructed, and each side in this multi-faceted battle has its own strong motivations to succeed--but we are compelled here to root for the seemingly most powerless characters...who might, indeed, be the most powerful in the end. The depiction of oppression and power struggles is done well and subtly reminds the reader of the power struggles in our own world.

The art is, in a word, gorgeous. I love everything about it, from the lushly detailed monsters and mechanicals to the addenda that provide background information about the world and its mythology. I did have occasional issues identifying characters/telling some of them apart, and that caused some problems following the story from time to time, but it in no way inhibited my enjoyment overall.

Conclusion: This story is packed with action and fantasy, and draws in the reader with gorgeous artwork and a strong teen protagonist. Fantasy fans will be sure to love it, and its individual installments have a traditional comic-book feel and structure that fans of serials will like. It's definitely for older YA readers, though—"mature language and themes" might be a good disclaimer.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MONSTRESS VOLUME 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 21, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: A CROWN OF WISHES by ROSHANI CHOKSHI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

There's a lot of upheaval in moving house, and reading isn't something one often has time to do much of, but I'm choosing books which allow me to savor and enjoy them in snatches. This is one!

Synopsis: There were only impossible decisions left, and then Gauri, the princess of Bharata, was given as a prisoner of war to her kingdom’s enemies. They were supposed to kill her - but instead, Gauri was offered a choice: to play in the Tournament of Wishes—a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor - for the chance to gamble on everything and win it all - her kingdom back, her respect, the lives of her family and loved ones. But, is it even possible, to change everything on a single wish?

Vikram is the son of a king, for all the good it will do him. A weak king, led by his counselors, a man whose petty cruelties have raised his son to a high estate that he can never possibly maintain. He has a title, but no power, and now he's being offered entrance to the Game... and a chance to have it all. Only, he has to have a partner. This prisoner of war - fierce and sharp-tongued - is hardly the best choice, but she's all he's got, in order to get a chance.

The Lord of Wealth is twisty, and just finding the city where the Tournament is held thrusts Vikram and Gauri into mortal peril. There's too much to battle - too much real, and too many things from their own minds. There's really no way to win, and even if they do make it through -- only one wish? What good will that do?

As long as there's a chance, though, neither combatant - contestant - will give up. Is it worth working together? Can they trust their hearts, to give them what they desire? As beautiful, poison-skinned women swan about, feasting on their fears, and clouds of storytelling birds flutter past, nothing is as it seems - and everything is worth more than they could have wanted...and wanting anything is deadly.

Observations: Though this is a second book in a series, it reads, to me, as a book which could easily stand alone, so can be honestly called simply a "companion novel." The first book in this series enthralled many; this second book will make believers out of many more. It's even better than the first, by my lights.

I dislike having to put books down, and prefer to be a stem-to-stern reader, swallowing stories whole, but that's not always an option. This book is delightfully lush and filled with beautifully descriptive allegory, which can be digested in small bites. I'm reminded of a South Asian Odyssey, with shades of Christina Rosseti's "Goblin Market," and shades of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. There's a lot of loveliness here to take in, and I imagine fans of Cornelia Funke's INKHEART will find common ground here.

Conclusion: I love an adventure story which takes readers through the looking glass and down the metaphorical rabbit hole. Thrown together, two vastly different type of people must first see the value in each other's ways, then together, determine how best to travel the labyrinthine mythical lands and interpret clues and hints to find the Lord of Wealth, and beg entrance to the Game of these magical beings, most of which consider humans great sport, and tasty around the spinal cord... The beautifully written story is evocative and thought-provoking, and there are so many lovely turns of phrase. Also, a lot of sarcasm, anger, and a girl who's the fastest draw in the West with her dagger and sword. Surprisingly fun.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 28th, you can find A CROWN OF WISHES by Roshani Chokshi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 20, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MIGHTY JACK by Ben Hatke

Synopsis: I was a big fan of Ben Hatke's previous Cybils winner Zita the Spacegirl (reviewed here), and Mighty Jack--a Cybils finalist this year for Elementary/Middle Grade graphic novels--was a very fun reimagining of the Jack and the Beanstalk story. It's got lots of action and adventure, with imaginative killer plants and monsters and a dragon, and a strong female sidekick for the hero. It also definitely leaves things open-ended and ready for Book 2, so don't fret that you're left hanging at the end! There will be more to this story...

Observations: I like how this story depicts the idea of Jack and his family being poor in a modern setting rather than a fairytale one. His mother is working two jobs, and Jack is tasked with caring for a sister with challenges. He buys the magic seeds at a flea market. It's a very creative and intriguing reinvention of a familiar story. I like that there's a homeschooled friend, too—at heart these are all characters whose stories aren't shown as often, placed into the context of a story we all know. I sort of wish there wasn't such an abrupt ending to Book 1, though--as mentioned above, readers are kind of left hanging. That always vexes me a little when I don't have the sequel immediately at hand.

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Art-wise, I thought this one was wonderful! The pacing of the visuals vs. the dialogue was, in my opinion, perfect, and lends a lot to the storytelling style. The book was chock full of appealing characters and monsters, and I liked the scratchy-pen quality of the illustrations.

Conclusion: I honestly think you could hand this to any kid, especially fairy-tale fans--the balance of humor, fantasy, and adventure is perfect, and it isn't too scary for younger readers.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find MIGHTY JACK by Ben Hatke at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 16, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MS. MARVEL VOL. 5: SUPER FAMOUS

Synopsis: The level of fun in this teen-superhero series continues to be high (see my previous reviews of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 for some backstory). Kamala Khan is relatable and diverse, a girl who has concerns about friend and school and family and culture and struggles to balance them with her superhero lifestyle. There's lots of humor here, too, as Kamala makes mistakes like a teenager and they somehow compound themselves into total chaos. Here's the Amazon synopsis:
She's your new favorite. She's everyone's new favorite. And now she's joining the big leagues. Look out world, Kamala Khan is officially an Avenger! But will being one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes be everything she imagined? Or is life as a celebrity harder than she thought? But while saving the world is important, Jersey City still needs its protector too. A development company that co-opted Ms. Marvel's face for its project might well have more in mind for gentrification than just real estate. Can Kamala take down the evil suits destroying her home without ruining her personal life? Speaking of which, who exactly is that with Bruno? Get back on board and cling on, Kamala Korps, the ride is about to get wilder than ever!
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Observations: Bonus points for diversity here and for depicting a Pakistani-American Muslim family in positive terms (despite a minor linguistic quibble or two on my part) and for showing the diversity of Muslims as well. In this volume, we see Kamala's brother engaged to an African-American Muslim woman, and we see variation WITHIN a culture as well as variation between cultures. Besides this, I was impressed by the variety of themes covered here in a superhero comic—themes relevant to teen life and growing up, like how to be there for, and be true to, both self and family. It was also a fun addition to see Kamala having joined the Avengers, and struggling with yet another new role to play in her already-hectic life.

Oddly enough, perhaps, I'm impressed with the colorist on this series—the use of color adds a lot of atmosphere and helps focus attention on the characters and the action. As always, it's fun and well-drawn, and just a bit cartoony, appropriate to a superhero with goofy stretching and shrinking powers and a tendency to get into outlandish predicaments.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed the previous installments, you'll want to continue reading this series. There are so many good reasons to spread understanding and acceptance of Islam and Muslim Americans, especially now, and providing young Muslim girls (and young girls in general) with an all-American superhero they can identify with is an admirable accomplishment.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MS. MARVEL VOL. 5: SUPER FAMOUS by G. Willow Wilson, Leon Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 13, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: COMPASS SOUTH

Synopsis: Hope Larson! How much do I love her? This new work brings her talents together with illustrations by Rebecca Mock, with the usual enjoyable result. It's not surprising this one ended up as a 2016 Cybils finalist, what with all the starred reviews, NYT bestseller status, and whatnot. Here's the jacket copy:
It's 1860 in New York City. When 12-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra's father disappears, they join the Black Hook Gang and are caught by the police pulling off a heist. They agree to reveal the identity of the gang in exchange for tickets to New Orleans. 

But once there, Alex is kidnapped and made to work on a ship that is heading for San Francisco via Cape Horn. Cleo stows away on a steamer to New Granada where she hopes to catch a train to San Francisco to find her brother. 

Neither Alexander nor Cleo realizes the real danger they are in--they are being followed by pirates who think they hold the key to treasure. How they outwit the pirates and find each other makes for a fast-paced adventure.

Observations: Who doesn't love a rollicking pirate adventure that hits all the right notes? A thug seeking revenge from their previous life back in New York, stowaways, a tragic star-crossed love, a tromp through the jungle, a treasure map, twins and disguises, and ultimately, the discovery of friends and family.
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The story and dialogue here were really well written and appropriate to a story that's full of action and emotion. The focus on bonds of family and friendship above all—and the idea that shared adventure and experience can strengthen those bonds—was a good theme. It also stands alone well, though a sequel seems to be on the way. There were diverse characters, too, who were allowed to have their own stories rather than being simply props.

I really enjoyed the art on this one, too--the authors did an admirable job of differentiating the two sets of twins (although I was still occasionally confused) and the style was loose and fluid and appropriate to a tale of adventure. Action scenes were well done and clearly rendered.

Conclusion: This one was a finalist for Elementary and Middle Grade Graphic Novels, and it fits that age group really well, but it would absolutely appeal to older readers, too; it's just really well done.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find COMPASS SOUTH by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!