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Archive for the ‘YA books’ Category

ShadowHero-Cov-final1Grab a timer. I challenge you to name all the Asian and Asian-American superheroes you can think of in one minute. Go.

OK. Who did you come up with? How many were you able to name?

My point exactly. Unless you’re a diehard comic book buff, that was probably a frustratingly long and fruitless minute. When was the last time (or first time) superhero blockbusters, and their inevitable summer sequels and spin-offs, have featured persons of Asian descent gowning up in spandex to save the world?

Enter storytelling geniuses Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, hits all the marks of a great comic book–vibrant action sequences, ruthless villains, hero-defining moments, vigilante justice, justice in upholding the law–while finally giving a face to the mysterious Green Turtle. Take a step back, and his origins story is also a playful and nuanced exploration of the Chinese immigrant experience in pre-WWII America, as well as Chinese history, culture, and personal identity.

Growing up in Chinatown, teenager Hank Chu’s biggest dream is to carry on the family grocery business. Then there are his mother’s loftier aspirations for him. In a comedic turn of events involving a bank heist, a high speed car chase, and an appearance from a caped hero called the Anchor of Justice, Hank’s mom becomes determined to transform her reluctant son into the first Chinese-American superhero. Appropriately, Hank’s initial crime fighting escapades are downright embarrassing until, in true superhero tradition, personal tragedy propels him to embrace a new identity as the Green Turtle.

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I’m partway through Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it’s so good I can’t wait to finish it before writing a review. Written in the style of an A-Z guidebook, it’s best appreciated by connoisseurs of the genre, hardcore fans and weary eye-rolling readers alike. Jones skewers clichés, inconsistencies and the often faulty logic found in fantastical realms (as Jones helpfully reminds us, the Rules were created by the “Management,” aka fantasy authors, so it’s no use blaming her). It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Here are just a few of the delights:

CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER…It is thought that the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.

Of course. Who hasn’t wondered at the obvious impracticality of fighting, riding and trekking with a billowing blanket strapped to your neck?

FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile TREES. There will be giant SPIDERS too…

One of the many clear references to Middle Earth (“SPIDERS…lair in certain WOODS and in CAVES, where shorter and slighter Tourists may be seriously inconvenienced by their gigantic webs made of sticky, rope-thick strands. Often only a special SWORD will cut these webs, and it usually takes two or more Tourists to defeat the Spider.”)

Jones seems to be targeting copycat Lord of the Rings epics, and because Tough Guide was written in 1996, she didn’t have a chance to reference the Harry Potter craze, so we can only imagine what she would have done with that.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Hmm. Good point. Someone should get on that and invent Sauron’s XX cousin.

More to come once I’ve finished the book, including a note about the guide’s attitude toward names with apostrophes.

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My reaction to Veronica Roth’s widely popular New York Times best-selling YA turned motion picture was, to my surprise…Divergent. The very first chapter captured my attention, but the book as a whole failed to keep it. Was this an allegory for high school? Was Roth trying to depict the subtle power of cults over individuality? Or envision what a society of sociopaths would look like? Turns out, sort of and not at all.

To get the inevitable Hunger Games comparisons out of the way, Divergent is a coming-of-age story centered around a plucky (or should I say, dauntless) young woman from a grim dystopian future. Beatrice Prior has been raised all her life to practice self-denial in Abnegation, one of five trait-based factions that make up her society. At sixteen, she and all the youth her age take a virtual reality personality test to determine the proper House, I mean, faction, into which they should be sorted. The next day, they must choose wisely which faction to join; entering a different faction means leaving their old faction–and their families–behind, permanently.

Beatrice’s test comes up inconclusive, a very rare occurrence we’re told. The reason: Beatrice could conceivably belong in three of the five factions, making her (insert dramatic whisper) Divergent. I found this concept rather silly. Not being able to distill one’s personality down to a single overarching feature? Shocking. (more…)

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…because based on the trailer, I’m terrified. Let us count the reasons:

1. The set design: all that glass and steel makes the movie look like a slick YA blockbuster, a derivative mix of The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and the Divergent trailer. I’d always pictured the community as white picket fence suburbia, and I know I’m not the only one who expected part of the movie to be filmed in black and white–but everything in the trailer was in full color. They seem to be trying to drum up excitement with hovercrafts! explosions! stormtrooper police and an evil be-wigged Meryl Streep! so there goes any hope of subtlety.

2. There’s a redheaded teenage girl who I presume is Fiona. We see Jonas urging her to stop taking the medicine, to wake up and understand what the Community is missing. Presumably she listens, and at some point we see her kissing Jonas, which is ridiculous. I have no problem with an older Jonas, or even increasing Fiona’s role. But this is not the book to insert Extra Teenage Romance Angst. Save it for something where it would make sense (like Team Human, which is crying out for a campy, melodramatic adaptation). [Note: if I'm wrong, and it's actually Rosemary, that's even more messed up. Star-crossed lovers across time, yeesh]

3. The Giver hinges on the Community’s blissful ignorance: there’s no omniscient dictator suppressing his people, no nefarious plot to keep them docile. So why add Meryl Streep spouting clichéd lines about choice and freedom? You may as well replace her with President Snow or icy Kate Winslet from the Divergent trailer. The Community’s dystopia is chilling because it runs on autopilot, because the decision for Sameness was made long ago and no one is capable of understanding what Jonas and the Giver know. In the book, Jonas’ loneliness drives the plot. Make Fiona his sidekick and that tension disappears.

4. The worst possibility: we see Fiona injecting something into her wrist. I hope it’s just the daily injection. But if not, and she’s actually Released, then I have an awful feeling that watching her Release is what pushes Jonas to leave the Community. Compare that to what happens in the book, where he falls apart over the death of a baby he doesn’t even know, killed by his uncomprehending father. That compassion is kind of the point, not romantic angst…

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe the trailer is misleading us to increase controversy and publicity. But if I’m right, then the filmmakers have alienated a lot of people: those of us who grew up reading and loving The Giver, and others who’ve never read it, and now assume it’s a copycat Hunger Games thriller. Either way, that can’t be good for box office numbers. And worst of all, Lois Lowry will have to say she likes the movie, whether she does or not.

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ad-boxersboxBoxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!

Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.

Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).

Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints. (more…)

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boxers saintsIt’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.

Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations. (more…)

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I’m a quarter of the way through Eleanor & Park, and enjoying it a lot more than Jen did. I had the advantage of reading without high expectations, whereas Jen read it over the summer, right after it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and much praise from reviewers. That’s the danger with hype: even great books can easily fall short. Luckily, by the time I got to the book a week ago, my main concern was finishing it before SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books begins next week, and the only review I remembered was Jen’s.

Of course, hype can also work the other way: there was a lot of grumbling about What Came From the Stars before Jen and I read it. I like to think we would have loved it regardless of what the reviews said, but our low–or at least neutral–expectations didn’t hurt. We continue to be bewildered by those who fail to appreciate its genius.

Perhaps I should start avoiding certain reviews. I get most of my book recommendations through blogs, twitter, and The Horn Book. When all three sources start rhapsodizing about the same book, I get nervous about the book’s ability to deliver (notable exceptions: The Doll Bones, Bo at Ballard Creek, Team Humanwhich were simply too good). I could impose a quota: if there’s a book I’m going to read anyway, I pledge to read no more than X glowing reviews before I judge for myself? This seems like a superficial solution. Sometimes it takes a good five or six reviews to push me to read somethingie Between Shades of Gray, because I wasn’t ready to be depressed. I would hate to miss another book like that by avoiding what others have to say.

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