March 23, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MONSTRESS, VOL.1: AWAKENING

Synopsis: Not only does this Cybils YA graphic novels finalist have a cover blurb from Neil Gaiman, it also has an amazingly beautiful and intriguing cover design and this provocative jacket copy, all of which seem specifically aimed at my teenage self:
Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900's Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Count me in.

Observations: The whole "who's the REAL monster here" theme abounds throughout this book, in a world populated with gods, monsters, half-divine creatures, and powerful magical cats. The story is well constructed, and each side in this multi-faceted battle has its own strong motivations to succeed--but we are compelled here to root for the seemingly most powerless characters...who might, indeed, be the most powerful in the end. The depiction of oppression and power struggles is done well and subtly reminds the reader of the power struggles in our own world.

The art is, in a word, gorgeous. I love everything about it, from the lushly detailed monsters and mechanicals to the addenda that provide background information about the world and its mythology. I did have occasional issues identifying characters/telling some of them apart, and that caused some problems following the story from time to time, but it in no way inhibited my enjoyment overall.

Conclusion: This story is packed with action and fantasy, and draws in the reader with gorgeous artwork and a strong teen protagonist. Fantasy fans will be sure to love it, and its individual installments have a traditional comic-book feel and structure that fans of serials will like. It's definitely for older YA readers, though—"mature language and themes" might be a good disclaimer.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MONSTRESS VOLUME 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 21, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: A CROWN OF WISHES by ROSHANI CHOKSHI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

There's a lot of upheaval in moving house, and reading isn't something one often has time to do much of, but I'm choosing books which allow me to savor and enjoy them in snatches. This is one!

Synopsis: There were only impossible decisions left, and then Gauri, the princess of Bharata, was given as a prisoner of war to her kingdom’s enemies. They were supposed to kill her - but instead, Gauri was offered a choice: to play in the Tournament of Wishes—a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor - for the chance to gamble on everything and win it all - her kingdom back, her respect, the lives of her family and loved ones. But, is it even possible, to change everything on a single wish?

Vikram is the son of a king, for all the good it will do him. A weak king, led by his counselors, a man whose petty cruelties have raised his son to a high estate that he can never possibly maintain. He has a title, but no power, and now he's being offered entrance to the Game... and a chance to have it all. Only, he has to have a partner. This prisoner of war - fierce and sharp-tongued - is hardly the best choice, but she's all he's got, in order to get a chance.

The Lord of Wealth is twisty, and just finding the city where the Tournament is held thrusts Vikram and Gauri into mortal peril. There's too much to battle - too much real, and too many things from their own minds. There's really no way to win, and even if they do make it through -- only one wish? What good will that do?

As long as there's a chance, though, neither combatant - contestant - will give up. Is it worth working together? Can they trust their hearts, to give them what they desire? As beautiful, poison-skinned women swan about, feasting on their fears, and clouds of storytelling birds flutter past, nothing is as it seems - and everything is worth more than they could have wanted...and wanting anything is deadly.

Observations: Though this is a second book in a series, it reads, to me, as a book which could easily stand alone, so can be honestly called simply a "companion novel." The first book in this series enthralled many; this second book will make believers out of many more. It's even better than the first, by my lights.

I dislike having to put books down, and prefer to be a stem-to-stern reader, swallowing stories whole, but that's not always an option. This book is delightfully lush and filled with beautifully descriptive allegory, which can be digested in small bites. I'm reminded of a South Asian Odyssey, with shades of Christina Rosseti's "Goblin Market," and shades of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. There's a lot of loveliness here to take in, and I imagine fans of Cornelia Funke's INKHEART will find common ground here.

Conclusion: I love an adventure story which takes readers through the looking glass and down the metaphorical rabbit hole. Thrown together, two vastly different type of people must first see the value in each other's ways, then together, determine how best to travel the labyrinthine mythical lands and interpret clues and hints to find the Lord of Wealth, and beg entrance to the Game of these magical beings, most of which consider humans great sport, and tasty around the spinal cord... The beautifully written story is evocative and thought-provoking, and there are so many lovely turns of phrase. Also, a lot of sarcasm, anger, and a girl who's the fastest draw in the West with her dagger and sword. Surprisingly fun.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 28th, you can find A CROWN OF WISHES by Roshani Chokshi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 20, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MIGHTY JACK by Ben Hatke

Synopsis: I was a big fan of Ben Hatke's previous Cybils winner Zita the Spacegirl (reviewed here), and Mighty Jack--a Cybils finalist this year for Elementary/Middle Grade graphic novels--was a very fun reimagining of the Jack and the Beanstalk story. It's got lots of action and adventure, with imaginative killer plants and monsters and a dragon, and a strong female sidekick for the hero. It also definitely leaves things open-ended and ready for Book 2, so don't fret that you're left hanging at the end! There will be more to this story...

Observations: I like how this story depicts the idea of Jack and his family being poor in a modern setting rather than a fairytale one. His mother is working two jobs, and Jack is tasked with caring for a sister with challenges. He buys the magic seeds at a flea market. It's a very creative and intriguing reinvention of a familiar story. I like that there's a homeschooled friend, too—at heart these are all characters whose stories aren't shown as often, placed into the context of a story we all know. I sort of wish there wasn't such an abrupt ending to Book 1, though--as mentioned above, readers are kind of left hanging. That always vexes me a little when I don't have the sequel immediately at hand.

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Art-wise, I thought this one was wonderful! The pacing of the visuals vs. the dialogue was, in my opinion, perfect, and lends a lot to the storytelling style. The book was chock full of appealing characters and monsters, and I liked the scratchy-pen quality of the illustrations.

Conclusion: I honestly think you could hand this to any kid, especially fairy-tale fans--the balance of humor, fantasy, and adventure is perfect, and it isn't too scary for younger readers.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find MIGHTY JACK by Ben Hatke at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 16, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MS. MARVEL VOL. 5: SUPER FAMOUS

Synopsis: The level of fun in this teen-superhero series continues to be high (see my previous reviews of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 for some backstory). Kamala Khan is relatable and diverse, a girl who has concerns about friend and school and family and culture and struggles to balance them with her superhero lifestyle. There's lots of humor here, too, as Kamala makes mistakes like a teenager and they somehow compound themselves into total chaos. Here's the Amazon synopsis:
She's your new favorite. She's everyone's new favorite. And now she's joining the big leagues. Look out world, Kamala Khan is officially an Avenger! But will being one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes be everything she imagined? Or is life as a celebrity harder than she thought? But while saving the world is important, Jersey City still needs its protector too. A development company that co-opted Ms. Marvel's face for its project might well have more in mind for gentrification than just real estate. Can Kamala take down the evil suits destroying her home without ruining her personal life? Speaking of which, who exactly is that with Bruno? Get back on board and cling on, Kamala Korps, the ride is about to get wilder than ever!
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Observations: Bonus points for diversity here and for depicting a Pakistani-American Muslim family in positive terms (despite a minor linguistic quibble or two on my part) and for showing the diversity of Muslims as well. In this volume, we see Kamala's brother engaged to an African-American Muslim woman, and we see variation WITHIN a culture as well as variation between cultures. Besides this, I was impressed by the variety of themes covered here in a superhero comic—themes relevant to teen life and growing up, like how to be there for, and be true to, both self and family. It was also a fun addition to see Kamala having joined the Avengers, and struggling with yet another new role to play in her already-hectic life.

Oddly enough, perhaps, I'm impressed with the colorist on this series—the use of color adds a lot of atmosphere and helps focus attention on the characters and the action. As always, it's fun and well-drawn, and just a bit cartoony, appropriate to a superhero with goofy stretching and shrinking powers and a tendency to get into outlandish predicaments.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed the previous installments, you'll want to continue reading this series. There are so many good reasons to spread understanding and acceptance of Islam and Muslim Americans, especially now, and providing young Muslim girls (and young girls in general) with an all-American superhero they can identify with is an admirable accomplishment.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MS. MARVEL VOL. 5: SUPER FAMOUS by G. Willow Wilson, Leon Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 13, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: COMPASS SOUTH

Synopsis: Hope Larson! How much do I love her? This new work brings her talents together with illustrations by Rebecca Mock, with the usual enjoyable result. It's not surprising this one ended up as a 2016 Cybils finalist, what with all the starred reviews, NYT bestseller status, and whatnot. Here's the jacket copy:
It's 1860 in New York City. When 12-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra's father disappears, they join the Black Hook Gang and are caught by the police pulling off a heist. They agree to reveal the identity of the gang in exchange for tickets to New Orleans. 

But once there, Alex is kidnapped and made to work on a ship that is heading for San Francisco via Cape Horn. Cleo stows away on a steamer to New Granada where she hopes to catch a train to San Francisco to find her brother. 

Neither Alexander nor Cleo realizes the real danger they are in--they are being followed by pirates who think they hold the key to treasure. How they outwit the pirates and find each other makes for a fast-paced adventure.

Observations: Who doesn't love a rollicking pirate adventure that hits all the right notes? A thug seeking revenge from their previous life back in New York, stowaways, a tragic star-crossed love, a tromp through the jungle, a treasure map, twins and disguises, and ultimately, the discovery of friends and family.
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The story and dialogue here were really well written and appropriate to a story that's full of action and emotion. The focus on bonds of family and friendship above all—and the idea that shared adventure and experience can strengthen those bonds—was a good theme. It also stands alone well, though a sequel seems to be on the way. There were diverse characters, too, who were allowed to have their own stories rather than being simply props.

I really enjoyed the art on this one, too--the authors did an admirable job of differentiating the two sets of twins (although I was still occasionally confused) and the style was loose and fluid and appropriate to a tale of adventure. Action scenes were well done and clearly rendered.

Conclusion: This one was a finalist for Elementary and Middle Grade Graphic Novels, and it fits that age group really well, but it would absolutely appeal to older readers, too; it's just really well done.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find COMPASS SOUTH by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 09, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: FAITH, VOL. 1: HOLLYWOOD AND VINE

Synopsis: This was another one of our finalists for this year's Cybils Awards in YA Graphic Novels, and it features a body-image-positive, female, smart, butt-kicking superhero. I'm going to let the jacket copy speak for itself here, since I can't really improve on it!
Orphaned at a young age, Faith Herbert – a psionically gifted "psiot" discovered by the Harbinger Foundation - has always aspired to greatness. But now this once ordinary teenager is taking control of her destiny and becoming the hard-hitting hero she's always known she can be - complete with a mild-mannered secret identity, unsuspecting colleagues, and a day job as a reporter that routinely throws into her harms way! Well, at least she thought it would... When she's not typing up listicles about cat videos, Faith makes a secret transformation to patrol the night as the City of Angels' own leading superhero – the skysoaring Zephyr!

But flying solo is going to be tougher than she ever thought when Zephyr uncovers a deep-rooted alien conspiracy. Two-bit burglars and car thieves are one thing, but when the world needs a hero to stave off a full-blown extraterrestrial invasion, will Faith find herself in over her head...or ready for her biggest challenge yet?

Observations: One of my usual comments in this genre is that superhero comics aren't everyone's cup of tea, although this one brings forth a protagonist who is much more of an everywoman, and more broadly relatable as someone who doesn't have an impossible body type and is a recognizable fangirl. However, the character—though she is a younger adult—is not a teen character per se. Not that that has ever been a problem for YA readers who like superhero comics, but this one seemed a bit older YA/adult to me, so I'd add that on as a possible asterisk.


Kudos, though, to the authors of this comic for their everywoman, fangirl superhero and for having fun with tropes like the Clark Kent-journalist cover identity--Faith works for an entertainment news website by day, as a mild-mannered nerdy reporter. I also appreciated the fact that this superhero DOESN'T have an impossible, gravity-defying perfectly sculpted Learn-to-Draw-the-Marvel-Way body. At the same time, body image is also not an issue or even really a topic of conversation. (I don't know about the realism of that--our society is not known for being able to shut our mouths about other people's perceived imperfections--but far be it from me to criticize realism in a superhero comic.)

Visually speaking, this is pretty good stuff—very fitting to the traditions of superhero comics in terms of style and overall feel. Very solid, easy to tell what was happening for the most part, and while it wasn't really to my personal taste in terms of visuals, it was well done.

Conclusion: Definitely hand this one to young readers who like comics and/or the superhero genre. It's a fun read, and it's great to see more titles that are turning superheroes into something that any gender can enjoy.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find FAITH, VOL. 1: HOLLYWOOD AND VINE by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 08, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: GOD SMITES AND OTHER MUSLIM GIRL PROBLEMS by ISHARA DEEN

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

While I've been pretty quiet lately (apologies, all: packing to move is no joke), I am still reading! I heard about this book from Sarah at SmartB's, and her enthusiasm for the book was catching! After the words "Nancy Drew" and "Muslim" were uttered together, I bought it immediately. I am urging all of you to buy it so I can get the sequel!!!! Reader be advised: while there's not a cliffhanger, and this "episode" is finished, there are loose ends which are effectively left untied; you'll find yourself feening for the next book, too!

Synopsis: Asiya Haque is a Bengali Canadian daughter, a student, a volunteer, a girl with a crush... and a faithful Muslim, which means the crush and the daughter part are kind of at odds. Being alone with boys is not a part of Asiya's life, attending after school activities in mixed company is not a part of Asiya's life, and her mother worries so much that Asiya is improperly supervised that she is reluctant to allow Asiya to volunteer at a local nature conservancy. Asiya's hard-won freedoms comes only for the sake of the Prize: University. Mrs. Haque believes strongly in education for women, and so Asiya has an unexpected opportunity - which leads her to run into her crush, Michael. Asiya, though she often pushes back against her mother, believes in what the Prophet says - she knows that boys are at the very least risky. Yet, she's also not sure she's going to burst into some sort of sexual behavior, so while she tells Michael that this isn't something her parents allow, she allows him to stick around, though she keeps a good three feet between them as they walk. When their impromptu race has Asiya stumbling across a dead body, Michael makes sure she her part is never reported. Asiya goes back to work, with no one the wiser that she was both alone with a boy and a dead body.

That is, until the police show up at school the next day... asking about Michael, and Michael is nowhere to be found.

This is serious - the Prophet teaches that it's Asiya's duty to help those in trouble. Can Asiya, in all honesty, not tell what she knows? ...even if it looks like she's implicating her crush?

Observations: My parents pretty much gave me the same talk about Satan being the third party with me and any boy alone together, So. Many. Times. I got that talk in variously oblique or direct ways, so I laughed out loud when I realized this same talk was Asiya's mother's go-to lecture. Asiya's parents are mine from another mother.

Conservative parents, who are strict for reasons of faith aren't often written about in YA lit in the same ways - because rebellion has higher stakes, potentially, than just being grounded or something. Loss of place within a family, loss of respect within the ethnic community - and possibly loss of place within one's religious organization. I related a lot to trying to figure out how to honor my parents while also not living my life as an exact pattern of theirs. It takes a lot more respectful dissent than you'd expect -- and the novel spends a good deal of time balancing that push-pull. Despite that, rather than this light mystery just being one long argument, which is what my teen years (and let's not lie, into college) felt like, this book is VERY funny. I appreciated that more than I expected. People expect religious communities to be humorless, and Muslims, especially, are within Western cultures misunderstood and feared. All people laugh - and you'll laugh, too, visiting the mind of Asiya Haque.

Conclusion: This book was mentioned as "Nancy Drew, but not," and while I don't think the mystery part of the novel drives the narrative, I like that Asiya wanted to know something, so she made it her business to find out. Her investigative skills were never greenlighted by anyone, especially her parents, but she kept asking questions anyway until they were answered to her satisfaction -- because she had to answer to her own conscience and ideas of faith. This was a lightweight book in some ways, but it had a lot to ponder and was such a delightful way to write about a teen character with a faith tradition - not making fun of the faith, but shining a light on the people of faith, with humor and heart. Religious people - even those in the Muslim faith - are not a monolith, and I appreciate that Asiya and her parents had different expressions of the same faith. I look forward to this sequel.



I purchased my copy of this book. You can find GOD SMITES, AND OTHER MUSLIM GIRL PROBLEMS by Ishara Deen at an online e-tailer or independent bookstore near you.