Fumi Yoshinaga–Ōoku: The Inner Chamber, Vol. 1

The What: In an alternate 18th-century Japan, the Redface Plague sweeps through the populace and kills 75% of the male population. Women step into previously male roles, including that of the Shogun. The Shogun keeps an inner sanctum of men called the Ōoku for her, uh, recreational purposes. It is there that our plucky protagonist, Yunoshin Mizuno, finds himself when his samurai family falls on rough times. Mizuno trades in his freedom for money for his family by joining the Ōoku, but what price will he pay for his sacrifice…?

The Good: Oh, the artwork! The artwork! Crisp, clean lines bring the world of the Ōoku to life. Yoshinaga has a well-trained eye; there is enough detail to make a believable and engaging world, but not so much as to bog down the flow between panels. Beautiful. Also, her drawings of facial expressions are incredible. There is such subtlety in them. Outside of the artwork, there are substantive themes for the thinking reader to ponder. Questions about the nature of political power and the origin of gender differences abound. Also, with its many relationships between those of unequal social status and/or age, this title would be an excellent springboard for discussions of what constitutes consent.

The Meh: Rarely have I taken such pleasure in writing a “Meh” section of a review. Here goes: the cast of tertiary characters is poorly differentiated, the plot is ludicrous, the narrative takes a paperclip bend around the middle of the book and never recovers its momentum… and none of these problems hurt my enjoyment of the book. Yoshinaga has a sharp instinct for “feel,” for the big picture of her work, and she wisely chose to put her time and energy into the facets of the book that made it into the “The Good” section. The “meh” aspects aren’t vital to the book’s overall impact, so no harm, no foul.

Hand It To: Older teens (the sex isn’t particularly steamy, and fades to black without showing anyone’s, um, interesting bits, but the themes are mature), Japanophiles, and older reluctant readers.

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Francisco X. Stork–Marcelo In The Real World

The What: Marcelo Sandoval is on the Asperger’s spectrum. He has gone to a special-needs school, Paterson, for his whole life. In the summer before his senior year, his father Arturo insists that he enter “the real world”: Marcelo must work in his father’s law office for the summer. If he succeeds in navigating its challenges, he will be allowed to choose where he will finish his high school career. If he fails, his father will force him to attend public school so that he can learn to function in the outside world. Marcelo goes into the law office intimidated and unsure of how to interpret people, but little by little, he learns about them and finds a mystery whose answers will change his world forever.

The Good: Stork did a beautiful, masterful job of creating Marcelo’s voice. While clearly neuro-atypical, Marcelo is a brilliant narrator who is easy to care about. His use of the third person, attention to detail, and “internal music” make him unique and bring his world into life. As wonderful as Marcelo is, the book is not only about him. It grapples with great questions: what is good? What is evil? To what should we give our loyalty? How do we decide what to do when every path in front of us stands to cause harm? Without bonking the readers over the head, Stork engages them with important issues, and resolves them without pat or easy-way-out answers.

The Meh: Story readers won’t fall in love with this book. It’s shamelessly for people who read for characters and ideas, so if a brisk plotline floats your reading boat, chart a course for elsewhere.

Hand It To: NP’s character and language readers, teens looking to understand neuro-atypical friends or siblings.

Review Minis: Less Words, Just As Much Fun!

Hello, noble readers! In the interests of writing *some*thing about the heaps of books I’ve been nomming my way through of late, I decided to do mini-reviews. I’ll do one sentence each of my usual categories, so hopefully you’ll be able to get the flavor of the book even in this brief format.

Bizenghast, volume 6: Having conquered enough restless spirits, Dinah prepares to meet her new protector at the mausoleum, but new discoveries mar the experience. The art is better than ever, the vibe is deliciously macabre, and–one word–Edaniel! Unfortunately, the problem of uneven and difficult-to-follow plot development continues to dog the series. Hand it to Goths, fans of American manga, and anyone who likes cosplay.

Black, White, and Jewish: Rebecca Walker spent her formative years bouncing back and forth: between parents, between coasts, and between cultures. Her honesty is heartbreaking, and her experiences as a “Movement Child” are unlike anything I’ve read before. I would have enjoyed the book more if she had shared more of her adult reflections on her childhood; as it stands, she tells much of her story without unpacking it. Offer it to fans of memoir or feminism, or Nancy Pearl’s character readers.

Blood Roses: Francesca Lia Block brings us another book of magical realist urban fairy tales, this time in the form of short stories. The language is beautiful and shimmering, as always, and teenage girls will relate to the intensity and awkwardness that Block’s protagonists bring to their relationships. For longtime Block readers, there may be nothing new here, but the shorter story lengths may attract readers daunted by page count of the Dangerous Angels anthology. Suggest it to fans of magical realism, high school girls, and readers with an interest in urban glam.

Graceling: Katsa is Graced, meaning that she has a superhuman ability; her Grace is killing, which her uncle uses for his own nefarious purposes. Katsa’s journey from property to person takes her through literal and figurative lands, and the writing is good enough to make this fantasy plot feel fresh. Teens with conservative convictions may find the heroine’s takes on marriage and abortion to be off-putting. Try it on fantasy fans, older teens, and fans of non-conventional romances.

Nick Burd–The Vast Fields Of Ordinary

The What: Dade lives in the suburbs. Dade is gay. Dade is dating Pablo, if by “dating” he means “largely being ignored by and sometimes hooking up with.” His parents’ marriage has collapsed, his dad is never home, and his mom is propped up by white wine and pills. His last summer in town is looking bleak until he meets Alex, who is suspiciously attractive, and apparently interested in Dade. Based on this framework, you probably think you’ve read this story before. Patience, grasshoppers. Patience.

The Good: Nick Burd doesn’t describe, depict, or convey what it’s like to be a queer teen in the heteronormative suburbs. Nick Burd nails what it’s like to be a queer teen in the heteronormative suburbs. The neighborhoods take on a life of their own. They are lumbering, preternatural things, and Dade stumbles through them in his quest to externally reify his inner self-awareness. The people he meets along the way are the people we suburbs-raised folks have known since birth: the nouveau riche, the never-riche, the pill-popping, the norm-obsessed… Burd knows his subject, and he brings it to life with skill and nuance. Quite honestly, I haven’t ruled out writing him a drooling fangirl letter; we’re trying to do similar things in our writing with the-suburbs-as-space, and I’d love to learn from him.

The Meh: I can’t tell you the meh without ruining the plot for you, so suffice it to say that a major event toward the end of the novel was mistimed. By the time Major Event hits, neither the reader nor Dade are sufficiently invested in its outcome for the emotional impact to resonate.

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character, setting, and language readers; gay teens and those who like to read about them; suburban teens.

Tonya Bolden–Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl

The What: Tonya Bolden highlights the life of Maritcha Lyons, a free black woman in New York in the time of slavery. Her world comes to life through photographs, letters, and Bolden’s commentary.

The Good: Well-written, well-researched, lovingly presented: we the rabble can only hope that if a biographer tackles our lives, he or she will do so with the same skill that Tonya Bolden has brought to her biography of Maritcha Lyons. Photographs and quotations abound, allowing Maritcha’s world to come through to us on its own terms. Bolden does a masterful job of presenting the story, but also of staying out of its way. Books for young adults about free black people in the 19th century are in woefully short supply, and I’m thrilled to have a book on the shelf that can help my patrons learn more about the wide variety of lives that people of color have lived. I can see why this book received a deluge of awards, including the Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the James Madison Book Award. (For a full list, see the author’s website at http://www.tonyaboldenbooks.com/book-shelf/young-readers/maritcha.)

The Meh: The only “meh” inherent to the book, as far as I could tell, was its somewhat deliberate pace. I think that teens who are anything but passionate about this time period might find it hard to engage with the text, but YA readers of any age and interest might enjoy browsing the photographs.

Hand It To: history buffs, nonfiction fans, Nancy Pearl’s character and setting readers

Neesha Meminger–Shine, Coconut Moon

The What: Samar, better known as Sam, feels rattled in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Her mother, who is the only family she has ever known, has always told her that her Sikh heritage does not make her any different than her peers. Her classmates don’t seem to have gotten the memo, and as a child, Sam was treated differently because of her skin color and last name. Now a teenager, Sam feels like she blends in better. Her best friend Molly’s large Irish family has practically accepted her as one of their own. Then a turbaned man claiming to be her Uncle Sandeep appears on her front porch, and Sam starts to wonder what her family is like. Her mother has warned her that they are controlling and awful, but she wants to meet them for herself. What does it mean to be a Sikh, where does Sam come from, and how can she reconcile her past with her present?

The Good: The reviews that I’ve read about this book have focused on how sensitively and fully the author portrays the quest to integrate different parts of one’s history into one’s identity. That’s true, but what I found even more affecting was the relationship between Sam and her mother. It’s honest, it’s difficult, and it’s loving, and I don’t know a single young woman who hasn’t been through similar travails with her own mother. Sam’s experiences with Uncle Sandeep and her Nanaji and Naniji helped her to see how her mother came to be her mother, which helped her understand how she herself came to be. Also praiseworthy is the portrayal of Molly, who proves that being an ally doesn’t mean getting everything right. And Uncle Sandeep’s involvement in Sam’s life and unconditional love got me right in my heart parts. Oof, in a good way.

The Meh: If I’d read this manuscript in any of my writing workshops while I was getting my Creative Writing degree, I would have suggested showing rather than telling for the many, many sentences that involved lines to the effect of, “… and I knew things would never be the same again.” Okay, that’s valid, but tell us what Sam’s seeing. Tell us what she feels about it. You’re a good writer–we’ll get what you mean from your images and descriptions of emotions!

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character readers, teens straddling cultures, older teens

Carole Boston Weatherford–Becoming Billie Holiday

The What: Ms. Weatherford tells the story of Billie Holiday’s life in the first person, and in verse. She follows the singer from her parents’ meeting to her success in young adulthood. The poems are accompanied by illustrations by Floyd Cooper.

The Good: A novel! In verse! About Billie Holiday! With illustrations! Can you hear the happy? Weatherford takes the titles of Holiday’s songs as titles of and springboards for her poems. The result is a series of poems that reflect the life and art of this incredible woman. There are so many facts woven deftly into the lines, and they shed light on how Lady Day came to sing with such authority and insight. I love her music, but didn’t know much about her life; the inclusion of anecdotes as small as Billie being upset by a fly stuck in a car with her gave me a better understanding of the person, rather than the singer. Her early life was full of turmoil and disappointment, violence and abandonment. It makes the singer she became all the more impressive.

The Meh: Given that this story is being told in verse, I found much of the verse prosaic. I longed for the poems to have some sort of form constraint, rather than being whole sentences divided into seemingly arbitrary lines. That’s solely a personal aesthetic choice, and is no reflection of Ms. Weatherford’s talent as a writer.

Hand It To: Poetry fans, teens who are looking for a biography, Nancy Pearl’s language readers, and of course fans of Lady Day

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