Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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This book has been around for about a decade and probably doesn’t need my feeble attempts to review it, but I read it in one sitting and then couldn’t get it out of my mind for days afterwards. Alternating between hilarity and heartbreak, this novel covers every emotion out there. The very things that make you laugh also make you cry.

Junior is 14 years old, part white, mostly Indian, and living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Born with hydrocephalus, he has a large head and weird eyesight and big hands and feet. He has faced mental and physical challenges his whole life, but he knows he is smart and that there is more to his life than the mocking and beatings he takes daily at the reservation school. The other Indians on the rez call him retard and faggot and after he transfers from Wellpinit High to a high school in Reardon, an apple – red on the outside, white on the inside. He’s the only Indian at Reardon, an all-white town school 22 miles from home. Well, the high school mascot is an Indian, and the name of the school sports teams is the Redskins. You can imagine how welcome he feels.

But the one thing that Junior has is hope. He doesn’t want to spend his life in an alcoholic haze, he doesn’t want to attend funerals every other week, he doesn’t want to settle for a life that is laid out bare in front of him. And he manages, through his brains and basketball skills, to make a name for himself at his new school. Which, by the way, is Arnold there.

Through it all, the good and the bad, Junior never loses his sense of humour and irony. The story of this one year in his life is about strength in the face of adversity, resilience when he is emotionally and physically knocked down once again, and finding the joy and laughter in life, even in times of sorrow and tragedy. Junior faces poverty and prejudice and death, and survives with his sense of self intact. He understands that poverty begets poverty, which in turn leads to hopelessness and belief that the life is deserved and can never be challenged or changed. He knows there is no dignity in it; the dignity must come from within the person.

Author Sherman Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and attended Reardon High as the only Native student. This story is based on his life, and is written with a humour and honesty that so beautifully shows Junior’s relationships to his family and friends (both new and old) and the people on his reservation. His love and understanding for his family and his devotion to friends are just facets of the kindness and strength that hold him up. The reservation itself, with the generations that have lived on it and those to come, plays a prominent role in his development and outlook on his life and future.

The illustrations done by Ellen Forney throughout bring the story to life even more so. Junior spends his life drawing to express himself, and I love the various styles – the more realistic portraits of his family, honest depictions of how he views each member, and slightly more cartoonish ones for situations when he wants to express feelings and impressions.

This book is full of mature themes, and may be tough for readers at the younger end of the YA range. But it offers educators and parents the opportunity to open many avenues of discussion. It should be on everyone’s to-read list.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was published September 12th, 2007 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Not Your Sidekick (#1)

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The characters in this novel will make your heart flip. They kick some ass and save the world and bond with friends and oh! fall in love in the absolutely cutest possible way.

It is post-WWIII Nevada, and almost 17-year-old Jessica Tran is a bit of an aberration in her family. Her parents are local superheroes (not that anyone knows thanks to their impeccable secret identities), her sister is following in their footsteps, and her younger brother is a super genius and college student that spends his days building things that tend to singe body parts. She’s not athletic, not motivated in school, and not sure what she’s going to do when she turns 17 and everyone realizes she has no powers.

The nuclear fallout from the Disasters one hundred years before caused a mutation in the gene and certain people are born with super powers. Some become heroes, and some become villains. Each city gets a set of each. Since Jess is without powers, she decides to get a job and find out what she can be good at. Bonus: getting a job gets her out from under her parents’ disapproving looks and constant questions about what she’ll do with her life.

And she ends up interning for her parents’ arch nemeses. AND with her secret crush, Abby. This could be the best job EVER. But her dream job takes on a dangerous element when she discovers that the heroes and villains are not all that they seem.

Holy crap, this is a fun book to read! It is charming and endearing and the characters are believable and likable and my heart truly melted over the romances.

Jess is an Asian-American child of immigrant superheroes, her dad is Vietnamese and her mom Chinese.  She is a wonderful protagonist for the story – kind and friendly and desperate for her powers to manifest. She lives with superheroes, collects comic books to read more about them, and belongs to the Captain Orion fan club. She is bisexual, asks people for their pronouns because she does not want to misgender them, and is totally intimidated only by her first real crush. As the child of immigrant parents of two cultures, Jess faces familiar issues. Although comfortable with the food and customs, she is not fluent in either language and never quite feels like she fit in with the Vietnamese or the Chinese communities in her town, while also feeling like an outsider in her own country.

Best friends Bells and Emma are also perfect. Bells is transgender and bright and hard-working, while Emma is cisgender, flirts with every boy that walks by, and is completely oblivious to the fact that Bells is in love with her. They are dynamic and quirky and completely hold their own in the story. And first-love Abby is red-haired and gorgeous and smart and athletic, and Jess is adorably tongue-tied and nervous around her. Their romance is funny and sweet and filled with hope and promise.

All the relationships in the novel are beautifully explored and developed. Author Lee takes everything from casual friendships and acquaintances to first loves and marriages and truly respects the different ties that people have to each other. Not one character seems like a token representation in this novel – various races and gender identifications are present and feel genuine to the story.

The world building in the novel does not take a back seat to the characters or plot. Fallout due to radiation is a common enough superhero backstory, but it is the perfect set-up for this novel. The world is now made up of Confederations, and water and food are not rationed but rather respected and not wasted. Lee has created a dystopian world filled with contrasts; each city has an assigned supervillain and hero to create havoc and order, there are wastelands and well populated big cities, there is extreme wealth with access to perks unavailable to the common population.

At the heart of it is the difference in perception and reality; who or what makes someone a hero or a villain? How do you resist pressure to be something you aren’t, and stay true to your own convictions? Especially when you learn that everything you thought was true is the opposite.

This is a great novel for everyone to read. No age limits, no restrictions. It is fun with fabulous messages, and I am just giddy waiting for the next book in the series!

Not Your Sidekick was published September 8th, 2016 by Duet Books.

Twenty Questions for Gloria

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15-year-old Gloria Jade Ellis is bored. Bored of school, bored of a family that seems disconnected, bored of friends that do the same thing every day, bored of a predictable future of university, marriage, job, and 2 kids. But what is there to do but drift?

Then one day Uman walks into class. He is different than anyone she has ever known, a breath of fresh air in a life that seems so stifling. And Gloria discovers that are things she can do to change things. She can challenge authority, she can bend the rules, she can rediscover the girl that was a free spirit and did her own thing, once upon a time. But is that a realistic way to live a life? And will it be too late when she decides yes or no?

I sat on this review for quite awhile. It took me some time to form an opinion about this novel, and I’m not sure that I have come to a concrete conclusion yet. It is not quite what it starts out as, but it finds its way regardless.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a story about a spoiled bored teen who isn’t getting what she wants, feels ignored, and selfishly takes off to “find herself,” and escape an unremarkable existence. And there are elements of that in the story. Both Uman and Gloria are self-absorbed and not entirely likeable. But it does go deeper. Gloria is finding her voice, finding a way to be who she is, finding her path to the future.

She is an interesting character. Bored and unable to see beyond a life of predictability, she is also recognizable. Who hasn’t stood at a train station or airport or sat in the driver’s seat of the car and thought about buying an open ticket or randomly picking a flight or not taking the turn-off to home? Who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to leave behind responsibility and start fresh if there were no consequences?

But of course there always are.

The book does not hide anything. Told from Gloria’s point of view through a police interview after she returns from her two-week disappearance, she is first questioned as a victim. But as details are revealed through her answers, it becomes apparent that events are not what they first appeared to be – a theme that runs throughout the story. The questions Gloria must answer reveal not only her motivations for her absence and disenchantment with her life, but also force her family members to confront their own directions and decisions.

The connection between Uman and Gloria is at the heart of the story. Their immediate attraction and growing relationship, the chemistry that is evident in their banter, how they run away together and discovered their own paths while ultimately looking for the same place.

I liked that even though Gloria knew it was right to come home when she did, she still acknowledged, at least to herself, that had Uman waited for her, had woken her and asked her one more time, she quite likely would have gone with him.

I hesitate to label the parts of the story I didn’t connect with as weaknesses. Rather, I think the story was unexpected, although not suspenseful or dramatic. There are no real surprises except maybe that there are no real surprises. It is a story of a girl and a boy each escaping their pasts and discovering their path to maturity.

The ending is perfect for the story. Completely open to interpretation, it is up to the reader to decide what Gloria learned from her adventure, and what she is willing to risk.

This book is appropriate for the entire YA range. It is a compelling read that looks at the time in our lives when we think we are grown-up enough to make all our own decisions, but maybe still too young to recognize the consequences.

Twenty Questions for Gloria was published April 12th, 2016 by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House.

Saving Hamlet

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Something fun to help me recover from a month of reading horror – theatre nerds, Shakespeare, time traveling, a bisexual BFF, and a plethora of cute boys to crush on, gay and straight. What more could a girl ask for?

15-year-old Emma is hoping to forget her freshman year at BHS. She started last year as a soccer star with long red hair and a bright future. But then the Hallowe’en party happened and she quit the soccer team and lost her friends. Life looked pretty bleak. Then Lulu sat at her lunch table one day and asked her to join the drama club, and suddenly life looked up again. She had a new best friend and a purpose.

So sophomore year looks good. Emma has changed her look  and she has changed her life. She has a sleek short haircut and a drama appropriate all-black wardrobe, is the assistant stage manager for the school production of Hamlet, the hottest boy in school is directing the play, what could go wrong? Well, how about a fight with her best friend, a sudden promotion to stage manager (a position she has just begun to learn), bad casting for the play, and a hole in the centre of the stage that she trips over and falls through.

And lands in Hell. Otherwise known as the basement below the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Yes, that one. The one in London, in 1601. And the players are preparing to stage Hamlet for the first time. And Emma is mistaken for a boy (how flattering) and as the assistant to the stage manager Mr. Wick, who is known as the book keeper.

Emma is NOT an actor in a story that is set in the theatre. I like that. She is self-conscious and endearing, funny and conflicted, and seems on the edge of losing control at all times. Thrust into the spotlight when the stage manager quits, she has to juggle fragile egos and a disastrous production in the making. Not to mention her no-longer-best friend’s life is imploding, and there is nothing Emma can do to help.

Emma (known as Master Allen in the Globe) encounters Shakespeare himself in her travels back to his theatre, and soaks up the atmosphere of the original production and studies his methods and motivations. She brings that knowledge and new-found confidence in her ideas back to her present day production, and back to her relationships.

Every kid in the novel is misunderstood and melodramatic and, therefore, a totally authentic teen. Small things become huge, and huge things actually become easier to handle. Who would have thought that traveling back in time 400 years would actually be preferable to working on a high school drama club production? (I may have just answered my own question there.)

Stanley and Lulu, Emma’s two best friends, are gay and bi and possibly two of the best-written characters I have read in ages, if not ever. They are beautifully developed with individual personalities and quirks and jealousies, they are complex and not “token”, which I have found so many of the diverse characters in other novels to be lately. And, to top it all off, they are sarcastic and funny, which pretty much made them my favourites.

But all the present-day characters in the novel are strong. I d0n’t necessarily like each one, but my reasons for not liking them are because of their personalities, not because they are poorly written. They aren’t. They are all so real and familiar to me, I am pretty sure I went to school with at least half of them. (Or, given my age, their parents.) And the characters from Shakespeare’s troupe of players and stagehands are exactly how I would picture each and every one, from Will himself to Burbage and Wick. Their humour and egos are spectacular.

The plot is FABULOUS. Author Molly Booth weaves Shakespearean facts and literature throughout the novel, illustrating all the magic that is present in his writing. This isn’t a novel that is filled with action, but rather with subtext and stories and growing up and learning all of life’s fun and not-so-fun lessons. The drama playing out in Emma’s life is mirrored in the theatre, as is the drama in each of her co-workers’ and friends’ lives. Who can be trusted, who is real, what is their motivation for their actions? It is as hilarious as it is poignant and adventurous.

Booth’s world-building showed meticulous research and thorough understanding of the time. Her attention to detail in both the Globe’s and the present day’s productions is impeccable, making me feel like I was breathing in the sawdust of the old theatre and smelling the rank odors of the costumes and players. 17th century London was full of interesting characters and Em’s adventures in that century had me on the edge of my seat.

This is a great novel for anyone with a yen for adventure and romance. And while knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t a requirement to understand the story, it certainly adds to the enjoyment. LOVE this one.

Saving Hamlet was published November 1st, 2016 by Disney-Hyperion.