Rebel Rose – Emma Theriault

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book, which is a sequel to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (specifically the live-action one, based on certain details) set during the French Revolution.

I loved the worldbuilding, how Theriault fit the existing story into history, and how she kept us guessing about various secondary characters’ allegiances, particularly Marguerite and Bastien. Belle’s journey of learning to trust her instincts rather than constantly second-guess herself and/or let herself be over-ruled by higher-ranking male figures was compelling, though “trust your instincts rather than anyone else” is not really a great message for a ruler! The plot was tense and exciting, there were queer characters that were better depicted than what I’ve heard of the live-action movie, and the foreshadowing made sense in retrospect without giving away the whole plot. My main quibble was that we didn’t see enough passion for me to believe that [SPOILER] was a fanatical revolutionary. It would almost have made more sense if [SPOILER] was trying to take the throne rather than bring it down.

This is Theriault’s first published novel, and it’s for a very prominent IP. I was super impressed with how she pulled it off! I can’t wait to see what she does next, and what the next author will do with this series.

The Silent Stars Go By – Sally Nicholls

Disclaimer: I received an ecopy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This is the heartbreaking though not ultimately tragic story of Margot Allen, a vicar’s daughter in 1919 who accidentally became pregnant at sixteen and whose son is now being raised as her younger brother. Meanwhile, the father, formerly Missing in Action in WWI, returns, and nineteen-year-old Margot still hasn’t told him what really happened or why she stopped speaking to him. Over Christmas, she gets a second chance to determine the course of her life, but can she overcome her fear to tell her maybe-ex-boyfriend that he’s a father, and can she reveal the truth and raise her own child without irreparably hurting her mother–who lost her own baby a few years ago?

There’s a lot of exposition that could probably have been handled more smoothly, though some of it is necessary as major events in the storyline took place years before the book starts. Margot is an unusual YA protagonist. She doesn’t have any big dreams or strong interests even before the depression that comes with her unwanted pregnancy and the trauma of giving up her child. She’s pretty and social and her intelligence is mostly ignored by others, but she doesn’t stress it herself. She was a child before she had her baby and her new adult self is a mess of hurt; her pain is her defining feature. She “funks” telling her boyfriend when he first returns, and is trying to figure out if she dares try again.

But she’s very real despite the vagueness of her character in many ways. The novel totally immerses you in Margot’s head over the course of a fateful Christmas break, and doesn’t provide any easy answers to Margot’s dilemmas. Nor does her brother Stephen have a closed arc–his dissatisfaction and trauma after his wartime service is left open, as many things in life are. Margot’s lover Harry is almost too good to be true, but he has complex feelings of his own. The ending is neither completely happy nor hopeless; it’s a bit abrupt but fits with the realness and messiness of the whole experience. I was crying by the end of the book. Despite some of the overly expository and simple style of writing, it was incredibly moving.

 

 

 

2020 YA Titles Not To Miss!

Here’s a look at some of the YA books I’m most looking forward to in 2020.

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 3.58.46 PM1. Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena
After A Girl Like That, the story of an Indian half-Parsi orphan growing up in Saudi Arabia, I will read anything Bhathena writes. This Indian-inspired epic fantasy dealing with class and politics looks like a lot of fun.

2. Open Fire by Amber Lough
I had the privilege of reading a draft of this take on the Women’s Battalion of Death, a Russian Revolution-era all-female military unit. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet patriotic-but-increasingly-conflicted Katya and follow her journey in WWI.

3. Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen CorcoranScreen Shot 2019-10-04 at 3.59.32 PM
This fantasy novel from a debut Irish author features a romance between an idealistic new queen and her female spymaster, as well as plenty of political intrigue.

4. Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
A fantasy retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” tying it to the the dancing plague in 15th century Strasbourg and the persecution of the Romani people. Sounds super interesting, and McLemore’s previous work, though I haven’t read it, is highly praised.

5. All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred D. Taylor
We (for values of we that mean Americans of my generation) all read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry growing up. I’ve always wondered what happened to Cassie and her brothers and friends after The Road to Memphis, and now we finally get answers in this story of grown-up Cassie in the Civil Rights Movement.

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 4.00.52 PM6. The Silence of Bones by June Hur
A teenage girl in 1800’s Korea is an indentured servant working for a police detective. Together, they investigate the murder of a noblewoman. This one certainly has a unique setting and premise! I don’t think I’ve read any YA set in Korea before the Japanese occupation.

Firebird – Elizabeth Wein

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 10.15.06 PMThis novella was written specifically for teenage dyslexic readers, so it uses more dyslexic-friendly language, length, and formatting, while diving into some tough subject matter and using sophisticated narrative strategies. The book is framed as the written testimony of Nastia, a Soviet pilot in World War II who is accused of treason. She gives an account of her wartime experiences and the incident that led her to be accused.

A “the lady or the tiger” ending leaves readers uncertain as to Nastia’s eventual fate. Is she shot as a traitor or released? This also subtly gives the readers a clue that life in the USSR is not always as Nastia (the loyal daughter of Communist Party members) makes it out to be.

There’s a lot of information on the female pilots of World War II (Nastia is not a bomber pilot or Night Witch, but rather a fighter pilot). Wein clearly outlines her sources for different parts of the story in an author’s note. She is also about to release a nonfiction book on the pilots called A Thousand Sisters.

Part of the plot goes back to the Russian Civil War (which Nastia’s parents and her mentor the Chief participated in) and the fate of the Romanov sisters. I think the story would have been stronger without the somewhat implausible Romanov link, but I also think a lot of young readers will enjoy that aspect and after all, the book is directed at them.

The Chief and Nastia are great characters–indeed, characterization is a major strong point of the book. The Chief is a tough woman who wears her elaborate makeup as a shield and rebuilds her life over and over again. I read her as asexual or aromantic (or both) because of comments she makes about how loyalty has meant more to her than love in her life.

Nastia is an enthusiastic and idealistic young person. She worries, however, that her courage is not sufficient. She also experiences no romances over the course of the story, but in her case, this is less about fundamental aspects of her character and more about the circumstances she finds herself in. She is unquestioning of the Soviet system (and may even be playing up her loyalty to it, given the circumstances in which she writes her account). She deals with period-typical sexism, from being turned away from a recruiting office in the early days of the war to her otherwise supportive father not wanting her to learn to fly. Ultimately, she faces a dangerous choice–should she return to Soviet territory after ending up behind enemy lines?

The climax of the story was a little bit rushed, after being foreshadowed in the first pages, and I wanted a bit more out of those scenes. There were also a few details I thought were implausible, such as the Romanov link at the end and the letter Nastia’s father is able to send her from besieged Leningrad telling her of the horrors of the blockade–surely a letter from a besieged city to a serving airwoman would have been censored?

However, the novella as a whole is very strong. Wein commits to the quasi-epistolary nature of the novella, showing everything from Nastia’s point of view while leaving room around the edges for the things Nastia wouldn’t say or think. The reader does have to go in with some knowledge of the Soviet Union because of how deeply the novella is in Nastia’s point of view, which might be an issue for younger readers.

The details of wartime are fascinatingly portrayed and the author’s note is highly informative. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novella most for the characters, and found myself hoping that somehow against the odds, Nastia would be acquitted. The fact that we never find out her fate is daring for a YA/MG novel, but the author of Code Name Verity has never shied away from narrative sophistication or tearing up readers’ hearts.

The Hollow Girl – Hillary Monahan

Hillary Monahan, who is part-Romani and a sexual assault survivor, explores both topics in this wrenching but flawed novel. I really wanted to like it more than I did, but though I devoured it, I couldn’t give it more than three stars.

Bethan is a Welsh Romani girl who has been raised by a woman whom she believes to be unrelated to her. Her guardian is a witch in a world where magic is rare but real, and she wants Bethan to follow in her footsteps. Bethan is more concerned about dealing with her harasser, Silas, whose father is a leader who won’t accept that his son could do wrong. She’s also enjoying a budding friendship (or maybe something more) with diddicoy (part-Romani) farmboy Martyn, who is curious about her culture and helps her out at the market.

Things go seriously wrong when Silas attacks Martyn and Bethan, raping her and nearly killing her friend. Bethan turns to her grandmother’s arts to engage in a gruesome ritual to save Martyn and avenge herself on Silas and his accomplices. She deals with dissociation after the attack, and also has to consider whether or not she wants to continue along the path her grandmother set her on.

The ethics of the book are downright weird, with outright slavery in the form of a magical bond being condoned. The prose is also not at the level I hoped it would be. The setting is vague in terms of time–it seems to be in the past, but there aren’t a lot of clues as to when. Nevertheless, the characters sometimes use very modern language when discussing racism and other topics. And the grandmother character’s backstory somewhat unbalanced the book–I felt like it should have taken up either less space or more.

That said, it’s an interesting and readable book. Monahan brings her personal knowledge and experience to bear on two very important topics, and reading the book was certainly educational for me. But I feel like it had a lot of unrealized potential in terms of the writing.

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’m not an automatic fan of everything John Green writes- I loved Looking for Alaska but couldn’t get into An Abundance of Katherines and never read The Fault in Our Stars. However, he is immensely talented, as this book reminded me. It’s the single best portrait of OCD I’ve ever read, probably in part because he himself suffers from this illness, as I do. #ownvoices stories can be found in the most unlikely places, and a white male superstar of YA lit has written a raw, intense novel about mental illness that I hope is not dismissed by those who are sick of his fame or think he’s overrated due to his privilege. These are valid complaints, but Turtles All the Way Down does not stop being an important book because of them.

I related to so many little details, even though main character Aza has a very different form of OCD from mine. Green gets the shame, fear, evasions, and irrationality all down on paper–the fear of getting triggered in a romantic moment, the desire not to go through with effective but painful Exposure-Response Prevention therapy, the way these bad patches reccur throughout life, the self-centeredness that happens when you literally can’t get out of your own head. If I had to recommend one book to people who don’t have this illness to understand it, it would be this one.

One thing I didn’t like was that while fandom played a part in the story, it was treated satirically (Aza’s best friend is a Rey/Chewbacca shipper ffs). Satire is fine but it meshed uneasily with the otherwise realistic portrayal of Aza’s relationship with her best friend, tested by class, mental illness, self-absorption, and other barriers. I also thought that it would be interesting to read a story about a character like Aza’s friend, who is poor, dealing with mental health issues without resources, but that would be another story entirely. It’s not just middle-class people who suffer from this illness.

However, these quibbles didn’t stop me from absolutely loving the book. In addition to the OCD parts, Green captures the importance of transient relationships. Just because a romance doesn’t last doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a positive effect overall. He also discusses an interesting problem, that of virtual vs in person romance, without dismissing one or the other.

I could ramble on further but basically: Go read it. Now.

Russian and Research: Interview with Among the Red Stars author Gwen C. Katz

Something a little different this time!30122938

Gwen C. Katz‘s debut novel, Among the Red Stars, is out October 3rd! It follows Valka, a Russian teenager who becomes one of the “Night Witches”–an all-female unit of Soviet bomber pilots in World War II. The blurb is vague on the plot, but I believe it involves a daring and unauthorized rescue that flips the damsel-in-distress trope on its head. Anyway, here’s the cover copy:

World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.

Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.

As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.

Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.

Katz kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this blog, with a special focus on her learning Russian and Russian-language sources. Below is the interview:
Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 10.28.28 PM
Q: I read on your Twitter that you learned Russian for research purposes while writing this book. Tell us a bit about that, and how you became proficient enough to do primary source research.

A: I did four semesters of Russian and then worked independently in preparation for this book. A lot of English speakers rate Russian as a very difficult language but I found it rather intuitive (to read, anyway), possibly just because I have a fair amount of experience with foreign languages by now.

Q: What was the most useful source you accessed in Russian?

A: tamanskipolk46.narod.ru is a great Night Witches fan site with extremely detailed information about the different women that isn’t available in English, such as their ranks and how many missions they flew, along with many stories from their time in the war. rkka.ru has a ton of information about the Red Army, including lots of photos of uniforms and equipment.

Q: What Russian-language source would you love to be able to share with English speakers?

A: Raisa Aronova’s “Ночные Ведьмы” is surely the best history of the Night Witches. It is baffling that it has never been translated.

(Maya’s note: Raisa Aronova was herself a veteran of the unit.)

Q: How did learning Russian affect how you wrote Valka’s story in English?

A: You always try to emulate the patterns of the language your characters are meant to be speaking, although it’s impossible to capture fully. And of course there’s the bit where Valka mistakenly refers to an American plane as a “V-24.”

Q: The female soldiers and airwomen of the Soviet Union encompassed many different ethnicities. How did you research their diverse experiences?

A: The Soviet Union was a much more diverse place than most people realize. So I was disappointed to discover that Aviation Group 122 was a pretty homogeneous group. The only airwoman of color I was able to find was Kazakh navigator Hiuaz Dospanova. She had an incredible story: barely survived a crash, pronounced dead at the hospital, recovered and lived to fly with the 588th again. Originally she was in this book and she had a big subplot. But her story was too complex for me to give it the treatment it deserved, and my agent decided it should be cut. Maybe I’ll return to her in a future project!

Q: How did you approach including real-life people in your story, and integrating Valka into a well-documented group?

A: The women of Aviation Group 122 were such cool people that early on I decided I wanted to include the real historical figures in the cast instead of making up a supporting cast. This was a big challenge, since it exponentially increases the number of facts you need to check, and ultimately I had to move around a few dates and locations in order to get everyone where I wanted them. But it was a lot of fun thinking about how Valka would interact with all these different people!

Thanks to Katz for a great interview! You can preorder Among the Red Stars.


Katz is also an artist, and has drawn characters Valka (right), Iskra (center), and Pasha (left), pictured above. Check out more art drawn from the story at Katz’s gallery here.

And if you’ve preordered, get a free bookplate with another of Katz’s illustrations here!

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

f043712f-4655-4c8a-b60f-fca1e4c6ca9fAngie Thomas’s debut novel about the Black Lives Matter movement rocketed to the top of the NYT Bestseller list when it came out recently. And while I have some quibbles with it, I can certainly see why.

Starr Carter lives in the majority-black poor neighborhood of Garden Heights, in an unnamed city, but she attends a wealthy prep school outside it. Her worlds collide when a childhood friend is wrongfully shot by police as she watches. She will have to face down her trauma, a grand jury, a media quick to vilify her friend, and King, a gang leader who’s trying to claim the victim as one of his own.

Meanwhile, the effects of Starr’s political awakening and traumatic experiences ripple through her life, affecting her relationships with her prep school friends Hailey and Maya, and her white boyfriend, Chris.

Some positives about this book:

-The characterization of Starr’s family, particularly her larger-than-life father, an ex-convict who’s left the gangs behind but finds himself making more compromises than he’d like with King, until the moment King goes too far. Starr’s father is also politically committed and keeps living in Garden Heights, where he owns a small business, because he believes that moving would be selling out his people. Above all, he loves his kids. Over the course of the book, he changes in many respects, but not that one. He’s an example of well-done character development of an adult character in YA fiction. This is one YA where the parents aren’t absent.

-I also loved the plotline involving Starr’s half-brother, whose mom is dating King. Starr’s brother wants to protect his mother from her abusive and murderous boyfriend, but as Starr points out, it’s she who should be protecting him.

-The relationship between Starr and Chris was a great example of a supportive interracial relationship. They had awkward moments, but Chris ultimately is willing to put himself in uncomfortable situations for Starr and Starr is willing to let him into her life. It’s hard-won but beautiful.

-Starr’s relationship with Khalil, the victim of the police shooting, struck a chord with me because despite her love towards him, circumstances have pushed them apart by the time the shooting happens. It’s more complicated than “her best friend got shot” and yet the intensity of feeling is still there.

The negatives:
-Okay, this is a minor thing, but Maya (not me, but Starr’s Taiwanese friend) basically exists to be a Good Minority Friend to Starr and validate her feeling that Hailey is a Bad White Friend. Neither of them is super-developed, but Hailey felt real–Maya is very thinly characterized. As she’s one of the few characters who’s neither white nor black, it felt like a missed opportunity.

-Sometimes the author seems worried the reader won’t get it without her explicitly summarizing what’s going on emotionally and politically in the book. The “telling” outweighed the “showing” at times.

-The plot was a bit episodic, though it comes together really well at the climax, the night the grand jury decision is handed down.

Overall, the excellent characterization and relationships, as well as an exciting climax, outweighed some problems with didacticism and pacing. Plus, the book has an important message, and I’m not going to pretend that didn’t affect my view of it.