Archive for the ‘YA books’ Category

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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knifeIn many ways Hayley Rose Kincain is like the rest of her peers–the ones that inhabit YA books about high school. She starts off as the typical new kid, unused to the social pecking order after years of homeschooling on the road with her dad. A self-imposed loner, she is readily armed with a snarky response to everything high school throws at her. And just by being herself, she catches the attention of Finn, a “swoon-worthy” jockey nerd/nerdy jock who pursues her in his quest to find writers for the school paper, whom she promptly declines.

But Hayley also has an exhausting secret she is trying to keep. Everyday after school, she monitors the odometer on her father’s truck to see if he actually went to work that day. She checks the contents of the fridge to see if her father’s been eating (good) or drinking (bad). And she does her absolute best to keep everyone else in her life at arms length, lest they realize how poorly her father is coping with civilian life after the trauma of serving tours in Iraq–and take her away from him.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, it’s clear that as Hayley’s dad teeters on the brink of despair and destruction, Hayley is trapped just as trapped there beside him, even if she didn’t physically go to war. (more…)

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floraLisa: Hello! So, Newbery reactions!
It was a good year for squirrels
Jen: and a good year for Floras!
Lisa: yes. I haven’t read Flora and the Flamingo but I could see Ulysses’ Flora attempting to dance with a flamingo
Jen: really? I think she’d be too cynical
Lisa: well, if her mother stuffed her into a tutu…
and there was a pink bird nearby…
soooooo, anything surprise you about this year’s ALA youth media awards?

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It’s the most wonderful time….to roll out our favorite reads of this year! Now we’re primarily a middle grade book blog–that’s our niche. But this year, we thought we’d flip the tables and try something different. Doll Bones and Hero on a Bicycle aside, we’re recommending our favorite YA titles of 2013, and we’re asking for your middle grade recommendations, instead.

easyOut of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys–As resourceful, intelligent Josie Moraine plots to leave her messy family situation (her mother’s an aging prostitute) and past behind, Sepetys brings New Orleans, in all its gaudy splendor, to life. We only wish the ending didn’t resolve so abruptly, because Sepetys definitely left us wanting more!

Cover_of_Rose_Under_Fire_by_Elizabeth_WeinRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein–In this companion novel, Wein wisely avoids writing another Code Name Verity, but the friendships Rose makes in Ravensbrück are just as heart-wrenching and root-worthy. She also shines a light on a part of WWII history we’ve never heard of: the Ravensbrück “rabbits.” Also, Maddie gets some closure, Rose gets a future, and we get some tissues.

ghost_hawkGhost Hawk by Susan Cooper–Cooper explores the events leading up to King Philip’s war through the fictional characters of Little Hawk, a member of the Pokanoket tribe, and John Wakely, a Pilgrim boy. Leaving aside the historical fiction/fantasy debate (and an epilogue we could have done without), we admired the writing, the rich characters and the narrative structure–there’s a surprise halfway through that will mess with your head.

Which books delighted you this past year? Let us know–we’re itching to read some satisfying children’s books over the holiday break. Bonus points if they’re middle grade titles or non-fiction!

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To follow-up on Jen’s post about sympathetic magic, I started thinking about all the other books that have sparked the Code Name Verity Effect–or rather, the [Insert Book Title] Effect. Like Jen, I don’t seek out those experiences to feel closer to the book. It’s the other way around–they introduce me to new concepts/places/things, or they make ordinary experiences extraordinary. For example:

  • In What Came From the Stars, Tommy Pepper hears a haunting rendition of Bach’s Sleeper’s Wake, the same song he used to play on the piano. That compelled Jen and me to find the music and try it out as a flute duet…with cacophonous consequences.
  • I never wanted to learn how to knit until I read The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer. I’m far from sending secret messages in coded stitches, but someday…

I also associate certain books with everyday objects. It’s like an inside joke only I can understand:

  • After reading Holes by Louis Sachar, I had a persistent urge to eat raw onions, even though I prefer them cooked. And I still think of Sploosh every time I see a jar of peach jam.
  • Every time I see a rabbit in profile, I’m reminded of the Watership Down book cover. Then I start wondering if the rabbit lives in a totalitarian society, or is a hero intent on saving said society from the tyrant.
  • The effect isn’t always permanent. For the first week after reading Out of the Dust, I couldn’t play the piano without thinking of Billie Jo’s burned hands and wincing in sympathy. Lucky for me, I got over it.

And of course,

  • Tea time is at four. We’ve never had tea time, but we know that’s when it would be, if we did.

Surely we’re not the only ones with literary inside jokes. What are yours?

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