The Golden Age by Roxanne Moreil, Cyril Pedrosa

Introduction

Goodreads: The Golden Age
Series: Golden Age #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018, trans. Feb. 2020

Summary

On the eve of her coronation, Tilda finds herself imprisoned by her younger brother, who has staged a coup. Now she must escape, flee across the countryside, and attempt to find allies to rally to her cause. But the people are rising because they want democracy. Will Tilda join with the rebels? Or will she continue to fight for her crown?

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Review

I initially picked up The Golden Age because the artwork seemed so intriguing. Intricate and almost abstract, it is very different from the more cartoony graphic novels I tend to read. This, paired with a fantasy setting and promised political intrigue, made The Golden Age seem exactly like the type of book I would enjoy. Unfortunately, however, I ultimately found the the storyline lackluster, the characterization vague, and the artwork more confusing than interesting.

Though the publisher compares The Golden Age to Game of Thrones, the story is certainly not capable of living up to this praise. “Political intrigue” makes it sound like our protagonist Tilda must match wits with the court and figure out who is honest and who will betray her. But all we get is a girl who is saved by a loyal friend and who otherwise just races across the countryside, periodically fainting for unexplained reasons, while said friend and his servant repeatedly save her. There are few political machinations beyond that, unless you count the peasants who are sick of being underfed and overworked, and who are now rallying to the cries of a rebel who wants to return them to the legendary Golden Age of human equality. But fantasy stories where the people want to install a democracy in lieu of the monarchy seem rather popular these days, and The Golden Age does nothing to differentiate itself. To compare this book to Game of Thrones seems almost laughable. It does not have one-tenth of the scope.

The characterization does nothing to save the plot. Tilda is extremely uninteresting, doing nothing much to advance her own cause and appearing somewhat arrogant and cranky when she is not simply bland. One has trouble imagining the people wanting to rally to her side, even though she claims she needs to claim power in order to save them. Her friend and his servant are equally bland, which made it difficult even to remember their names. There are other side characters, but no one who stands out.

However, I did first pick up The Golden Age for the artwork and, initially, I had hope that the unique illustration style would be exciting. Fairly quickly, however, I realized that the detailed and abstract nature of the illustrations actually make it incredibly difficult to follow the story. Everything blends together, so telling characters apart proves tricky, let alone figuring out what those characters are supposed to be doing in some of the panels. I appreciate the vision, but it just does not work for a graphic novel.

The Golden Age promises a high fantasy adventure for fans who love complex stories like Game of Thrones, but it fails to deliver. The storyline is simplistic and unoriginal, while the illustration style makes it almost impossible to follow parts of the action. There is a sequel coming out, but I cannot say I intend to read it.

2 star review

The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: The Insomniacs
Series: None
Source: ARC from publisher giveaway
Published: September 1, 2020

Summary

Seventeen-year-old competitive diver Ingrid froze on the board. Suffering from a concussion, she’s staying home on the doctor’s orders. All she can remember from before her injury is noticing her neighbor and crush Van sitting on the sidelines with his girlfriend. But what really caused her to mess up? She’s kept awake at night wondering.

It turns out Van is experiencing insomnia, too. He can’t remember the details of a weird night in which he fought with his best friends and caused his girlfriend to get angry with him. But no one will tell him what really happened. Now Van and Ingrid are staying awake together, trying to piece together the truth. But what if they don’t really want to know?

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Review

The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg is a riveting YA mystery that keeps the focus on the developing relationship between its protagonists even as it builds suspense. Ingrid is a competitive diver who cannot remember what she saw that made her hit the board. Van is her next door neighbor and longtime crush. He is having trouble remembering an evening with his friends. Together, they begin to stay up all night, trying to to piece together their missing memories. As time passes, however, their nights together start to mean something more. But Van does not seem to want to bring their relationship into the day. Weisenberg expertly increases the tension in her novel, often moving away from the mystery and towards her characters, but always keeping the suspense in the background.

The Insomniacs is not necessarily the type of book I would have picked up on my own. However, since I had a copy, I read it, and I found myself gripped by the narrative. It was only when I was halfway through that I realized that, although the summary makes this book sound like a thriller, with Ingrid and Van seeking clues to their missing memories, it is really more of a story about Ingrid finding herself. She has to let go of her father, who left her; figure out what she wants out of a relationship with Van; and acknowledge to herself that much of her life she has spent chasing her coach’s approval, using him as a surrogate father figure. She has to decide why she is really diving, if she wants to continue, and how she will continue when she is afraid to go back on the board.

Still, even though I was focused on Ingrid’s character arc, I still wanted to know what had happened to her on the day of her accident. Ingrid may have seemed to have left it behind, but I could not. I think it is a testimony to Weisenberg’s skill that the mystery does not have to be at the forefront of the story to be compelling. Indeed, having Ingrid lose focus perhaps makes the reader even more interested–it raises the possibility that Ingrid might simply let everything go, leaving the reading hanging forever!

Ultimately, The Insomniacs delivered a satisfying conclusion, giving Ingrid important character growth and revealing what happened both to Ingrid and to Van. The book is a gripping read, one that lovers of YA thrillers will enjoy, but one that will also appeal to readers who might not normally pick up this kind of fare.

4 stars

Supergirl: Being Super by Mariko Tamaki, Joelle Jones

Supergirl: Being Super Cover

Information

Goodreads: Supergirl: Being Super
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020 re-release

Summary

Sixteen-year-old Kara Danvers has pretty great parents and great friends. She should be happy. But she also possesses powers she cannot explain–and now they seem to be going rogue. Then an earthquake strikes her small town. Will Kara embrace who she truly is? Or will she continue to hide away from the world?

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Review

Supergirl: Being Super is a phenomenal introduction to the Girl of Steel. Kara Danvers has wonderful adoptive parents and two great best friends, but she is still troubled at night by her strange dreams and how she cannot remember her past. Worse, her alien powers seem to be malfunctioning, but she is afraid to talk about it to her parents, because they fear what would happen if their small town found out Kara is different. Supergirl: Being Super introduces readers to a teenage girl who has not yet decided to become a superhero, but whose story of self-discovery is as gripping as it feels relevant. Readers will fall in love Kara, and cheer her on as she decides what she wants out of life.

Supergirl: Being Super is so wonderful in part because Kara feels so relatable. Even though she has super speed and super strength, she feels like the average teenager. She loves her parents, but does not want to admit it to them. She feels a little ironic about school. She is worried about her future and trying not to think too hard about things like impressing college scouts. Her weird fluctuating powers may be a big concern to her, but readers may feel Kara is not so different, after all. She really wants the same things most people do: a loving home, a certain future, a general sense of safety and stability.

This message of common longings is the subtle heart of the story. Mariko Tamaki never says it explicitly, but Supergirl: Being Super is about who embraces or does not embrace the stranger, the refugee, the person who is different. Some of Kara’s relatives love her unconditionally, but others do not. And there are some who believe that Kara does not deserve protection or dignity simply because she is not from Earth. Kara herself grapples with these issues, sometimes fearing to reveal her true self in case of rejection, but also sometimes clearly fearing that she might, after all, not really belong. Her story is about reminding others that she is worthy, but also about reminding herself.

I fell in love with Kara from the start. Though she doubts herself, she possesses bravery and a true heart. Even if she never decided to be a superhero, she would have been enough. I think most readers will fall in love with Kara, too. So if you were wondering where to start with Supergirl, or even if the Supergirl comics were for you, Supergirl: Being Super might just be the book you were waiting for. The book that will show you we all need a little bit of Supergirl and her love in our lives.

4 stars

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Pride by Ibi Zoboi Cover

Information

Goodreads: Pride
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Zuri Benitez is proud of her Bushwick neighborhood and proud of her heritage. She is not thrilled when a wealthy Black family moves in across the street. They must be so stuck up! But she has other things to worry about, like her college applications and the gentrification of her neighborhood. But that Darius Darcy boy sure looks attractive…

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Review

Pride is a fresh retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that pays homage to the original story while making the tale fully its own. Zuri Benitez is one of five daughters growing up in Brookly, and she is planning out a future full of dreams–one where she goes to Howard and then comes back to help transform the neighborhood she loves. When two handsome, rich brothers move in across the street, however, Zuri will be confronted with some of her own prejudices. She does not think the boys belong in her neighborhood, but they may not be as stuck up as she believes. Readers looking for a contemporary story lead by a fiercely independent heroine and told in brilliantly strong prose will be enthralled by Ibi Zoboi’s Pride.

Zuri’s voice carries Pride, making readers fall in love with her, her neighborhood, and her family. Her life, as she tells us, is one full of love, and that comes across on every page as Zuri defends the place she calls home and describes the camaraderie and the care she finds there. She knows some people think her neighborhood is not safe. She knows that people are judging her for where she lives. But she wants them to know that everyone on her street knows the code and they all look out for each other. Her story is a celebration–a celebration of all the good she finds in the people around her, and the ways that goodness uplifts her.

Of course, this is a Pride and Prejudice retelling, so Zuri’s pride ultimately is her undoing when it moves from an understandable love of her home to prejudice against anyone she sees as an outsider, or not like her. She is immediately suspicious of the handsome and rich Darius Darcy and his family because she believes they must look down upon her and her family. Almost as a defense mechanism, she begins to accuse Darius of any manner of things–essentially not being “Black enough” because of the music he likes, the school he attends, the way he behaves with his friends.

This part of Zuri makes for a compelling story and, indeed, makes her a compelling character. But I do think it lessens the realism of the story a bit. While readers may understand some of Zuri’s feeling, since they get to hear the story from her, it is difficult to understand why Darius falls in love with her. Zuri basically attacks him for not being good enough from day one, and she never lets up, eventually telling him that she needs a “boy from the hood” like Warren–not some rich boy like Darius who has a big house and does not understand the street code. Darius never does anything to deserve the attributes Zuri ascribes to him and he never does anything that seems like it should provoke her into insulting him. Indeed, he reads like the perfect YA boyfriend–handsome, strong, smart, and sensitive, always saying just the right thing. Why he wants to date someone who has never said a kind thing to him is kind of confusing. Maybe readers are supposed to assume that he somehow sees past everything she says to some inner part of her she never actually reveals to him in the book?

This is a minor critique, however, and one not likely to bother the average reader. After all, this is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so readers probably expect the characters to be, well, proud and prejudiced. The appeal of the story is watching the characters work past that to something more. And Zoboi delivers that story in powerfully vivid prose, one that makes Zuri’s voice come alive. It’s a voice that comes across with great emotion through the wonderful audiobook read by another talented YA author, Elizabeth Acevedo.

Pride is a book that will, of course, appeal to fans of Jane Austen, but it is truly its own story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone who loves contemporary YA romance, fierce heroines, and strong prose will likely enjoy Ibi Zoboi’s powerful and original novel.

4 stars

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

Dragon Hoops Cover

Information

Goodreads: Dragon Hoops
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

The Bishop O’Dowd boy’s basketball team has made it to many state championship games, but they have never won. Could this be their year? Gene Luen Yang, computer science teacher and graphic novelist, begins to get interested in their story. And it just might help him confront some major life changes of his own.

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Review

Award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang’s latest book, Dragon Hoops, diverges yet again from his other works, but in a powerful way. In it, he tells the story of the boys’ varsity basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd High School, where he teaches, as they try once again to earn an elusive victory at the California State Championships. His own story intertwines with those of the players as he reflects on his teaching, writing, and family life, and what changes he might have to make to find fulfillment. The result is a sort of-memoir, obviously fictionalized in places, but also going beyond Yang’s life and experiences to explore those of the young athletes who, somehow, begin to make Yang care about sports. Part memoir, part sports history, Dragon Hoops is an experimental book that once again demonstrates why Yang is a giant in the comics scene.

I entered Dragon Hoops not quite knowing what I should expect and, like Yang, not quite sure I was going to enjoy a thick tome all about basketball. It is not a sport I follow. However, Yang’s book goes beyond the game to explore the history of the sport, its problems with sexism and racism, and the effects it has had not only on Americans, but also people around the world. He particularly tries to focus on the players at Bishop O’Dowd, who have all faced challenges in arriving where they are, but who sometimes prove reluctant to share their stories. As Yang faces doubts in his own life over whether he should take on a major Superman project, or if he should even consider leaving teaching to work as a cartoonist full time, he begins to find inspiration in the basketball players. His desire to understand them, and his desperate hope that they should finally get their happy ending, seems in part because he needs reassurance that he, too, can overcome the challenges of life and find a peaceful resolution.

Dragon Hoops feels so experimental, however, because of its structure, which seems to move around in a way that is not quite precise. The book begins seemingly about Yang discovering the basketball team and deciding to write a book about them. But it sometimes digresses into a history on how basketball formed, or a musing into why women’s sports are not as popular as men’s, or a little lesson on the parts of Gandhi’s life that they don’t teach in school. Readers seem expected to find their own connections and to make their own meaning of the story.

Indeed, storytelling is placed at the forefront of Yang’s book, which is very meta. The Yang in the story is also the Yang telling the story. He must decide how to write a book when he cannot get his protagonists to talk to him about their lives. He has to figure out how to draw the players, then take into account their feedback about his drawings and change them (or not) accordingly. But his biggest concern is whether to include a figure who is important to the history of the basketball team, but who left the school shrouded in scandal. Yang talks his readers through many of his storytelling choices even as he tells the story, making Dragon Hoops as much a comic about comics as it is about basketball.

Gene Luen Yang’s work has never disappointed me yet, and he delivers once again in Dragon Hoops. It is a thought-provoking read that raises questions about the nature of the stories we tell and why we tell them. You don’t need to be interested in basketball to read this book. It is very likely, however, that Yang will make you like basketball, anyway.

4 stars

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

House of Salt and Sorrows  Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: House of Salt and Sorrows
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Annaleigh lives with her sisters in Highmoor Manor, a house by the sea. Once there were twelve of them, but four of her sisters are already dead, and Annaleigh is beginning to think that is no accident. Each night, she and her sisters sneak out to attend glittering balls. But who–or what–are they really dancing with? Now Annaleigh must place her trust in a mysterious and handsome stranger if she is to break the curse that haunts her family.

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Review

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig is a darkly atmospheric retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Annaleigh and her eleven sisters live in a manor by the sea, but now four of them are dead. At first, the deaths seemed like accidents, but the locals are murmuring of a curse, and Annaleigh is beginning to suspect murder. When another of her sisters begins claiming that she can see and speak with the ghosts of their dead siblings, Annaleigh must discover the truth before someone else gets hurt. House of Salt and Sorrows is a refreshingly original take on an old tale–one that will have readers afraid to go to sleep at night.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has seen its share of retellings, but I am not sure I have yet read one that embraces the horror genre so strongly. Upon reflection, however, horror is the perfect genre for this story. Twelve girls go dancing at night in a mysterious underground world populated by–what? Monsters? Demons? Certainly someone out to get them. Amping up the terror by adding ghosts seemingly intent on revenge simply makes sense. Readers who enjoy creepy tales will not be disappointed by this one.

Admittedly, however, though I enjoyed the scary aspects of the book, I did find that the allure of the unexplained dissipated rather quickly as the book neared its conclusion. Perhaps this is inevitable. The protagonists need to uncover information related to the mystery in order to solve it. But more information means less fascination–once you know what the ghost is, it will never be as frightening. To compensate for this loss, Craig adds a great deal of action and drama. But I would have preferred more atmospheric creepiness to the fast-paced conclusion.

I was also somewhat disappointed by the book’s romance. Annaleigh spends very little time with her love interest, making it difficult to buy into their relationship. She knows next to nothing about him–about what kind of person he is, what values he holds, what future he envisions. As a result, I could not feel very excited about his appearances, nor could I really believe that Annaleigh and he shared some sort of earth-shattering romance that could defy the fates themselves. He was really just kind of…around. Honestly, I can’t even remember his name.

Still, despite a few weaknesses, House of Salt and Sorrows is a satisfying YA fantasy. Fans of fairy tale retellings will likely want to pick it up. It may not be life-changing, but it is solid and enjoyable.

3 Stars

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped

Information

Goodreads: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 2020

Official Summary

A timely, crucial, and empowering exploration of racism–and antiracism–in America

This is NOT a history book.
This is a book about the here and now.
A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.
A book about race.

The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.

Through a gripping, fast-paced, and energizing narrative written by beloved award-winner Jason Reynolds, this book shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas–and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives.

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Review

Popular middle grade and young adult author Jason Reynolds offers a “remix” of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s  Stamped from the Beginning for the teen crowd. Essentially, the book is a distillation of Kendi’s, a focus on some of the key moments and figures in the history of racism and antiracism in Europe and the U.S. Although assured that they are not reading a history book, teens, will, in fact, learn a history of ideas, starting with the “world’s first racist” and ending with the election of President Barack Obama and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a succinct, accessible overview and it is no surprise that educators and librarians have been eager to pick up and share this stunning new release.

Some readers may fear nonfiction or worry about picking up a book that is meant to be “educational.” Jason Reynolds expertly seeks to engage these readers, promising them that he is not writing them a history book (although he clearly is–maybe just not the kind they expected) and crystallizing ideas into easy-to-understand images and concepts. Readers can power through what is not really a lengthy book, by any means, and still close the pages feeling like they have learned a lot–a lot they certainly never learned in school. Though the book is marketed as young adult, it will appeal to anyone looking for a history book that feels accessible and relevant.

Because the book is really just an overview, some readers may be disappointed by what appear to be possibilities for lengthier discussion. For instance, the book’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln is one I have seen cropping up more regularly in recent history books. This is the announcement that–surprise, surprise!–Lincoln isn’t the hero you think he was. He did not set out to end slavery when he was elected president, it took him a long time to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, and the proclamation was largely powerless since it only applied to states in rebellion, over which the U.S., at the time, had no control. Newer history books try to shock readers with these “revelations.”

However, Lincoln’s complexities and seeming contradictions are no secret. Any decent biography acknowledges all this. The interesting part of the story is possibly not so much that Lincoln was not the ardent abolitionist some people assume, but the political machinations of his day. For instance, Lincoln did run on a platform that was anti-expansionist (against the expansion of slavery into any of the new territories) and not one that was abolitionist (a promise to end slavery everywhere), but why? Despite Lincoln’s personal beliefs that slavery was wrong, he also recognized that, even in the North, abolitionism was seen as a fringe movement. He probably would not have won by promoting abolitionism. So, a more interesting question might be something along the lines of: Is it okay to compromise some of your beliefs in order to achieve some good rather than zero good? Additionally, Reynolds talks about how some people can hold racist, assimilationist, and antiracist views throughout different periods of their life, or even at the same time. How can we understand Lincoln and his political choices more fully through these definitions? Unfortunately, because the book tries to hit so many key points so quickly, readers are not going to get this type of discussion out of it, and will have to do more research on their own.

Another area readers might wonder about in terms of expanded information might be the War on Drugs and how both Democrats and Republicans participate in it. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness argues that “felon” has become synonymous with “Black” and is society’s last/most recent acceptable way to impose racial order by incarcerating unprecedented numbers of black and brown men in a country that “does not see color.” Alexander argues that even Barack Obama failed to act meaningfully to end to the system, and suggests that even he at times fell into the pitfall of accusing Black communities for their incarceration problems. In contrast, Reynolds’ account of Obama’s presidency is largely positive, and he argues that Obama spoke out against “uplift suasion”–the idea that Black people must act a certain way in order to be accepted by white people. These are competing views of Obama’s legacy that the book does not address, again probably because it does not have the space. But also, probably, partially because the book wants to end in a message of hope, not a critique of the nation’s only Black president. It is a book written for teens, however, so I can understand the motivation. People generally expect YA books to have positive endings.

I also, despite the glowing reviews about how Reynolds speaks so to this new generation, found the tone of the book a little distracting. To appeal to teens, the narrative voice takes on the tone of a “friend,” a guy who’s just giving it to you straight. It also seeks to connect to the youth by making comparisons to things like football and Nike sneakers. Some might argue that teens really love these things and the book is just trying to be relatable. However, even as a teen, I always wondered why teachers thought everyone loved football and wished they would stop trying to be hip by making allusions I didn’t care about. This is just my personal preference, however. The football and Nike lovers of the world might really find the book’s tone appealing. And if talking about football convinces more people to read history, why not?

These critiques are, of course, minor. Stamped has rightly received national attention because it teaches history many people probably were previously unaware of. And it does so by making that history easy to understand and easy to read. Most reviewers have given the book glowing reviews without any negative mentions, probably because the content and the effort to teach antiracism outweigh any quibbles over how relatable the average teen finds any specific sport allusion. Because the book is an overview, it will not cover the complexities of every topic it raises. But it does serve as an excellent starting point for individuals to start learning more.

4 stars

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap 'When You Land

Information

Goodreads: Clap When You Land
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Every summer, Camino Rios waits for her father to visit her in the Dominican Republic. But this year his plane never lands. Then she learns that he had another family, another daughter, in the U.S. In New York City, Yahaira Rios learns about her father’s death during school. She never imagined he had a daughter somewhere else. But, even as the two girls struggle to accept their father’s loss, they realize that they may have the opportunity to gain another family member.

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Review

Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land is a powerful novel-in-verse that explores loss, grief, and the ties that bind families together. When Camino Rios hears that her father, who visits her in the Dominican Republic every summer, has died in a plane crash, she is devastated. He always brought his warm laughter and his unconditional love with him, even if he could not always be with her. So she is stunned to learn that he had another family back in the U.S. Meanwhile, Yahaira Rios, living in NYC, has been grappling with the discovery that her father had been previously married. What she didn’t know was that he also had another daughter. How could he do this to her? Their worlds collide when Yahaira decides to visit Camino. Can they form a new friendship out of unthinkable loss?

Acevedo chronicles Camino’s and Yahaira’s emotional journeys in a way that brings readers inside their lives, making all their struggles, hopes, and dreams burst intensely onto the page. What they are experiencing seems very different. Camino, for example, lives in relative poverty. She dreams of moving to the U.S. to attend university there because she knows opportunities for girls where she lives are scarce. Every day she is hounded by a man who clearly wants to lead her into a life of prostitution. Meanwhile, Yahaira’s biggest worry seems to be dealing with her father’s disappointment that she no longer plays competitive chess. And Camino believes Yahaira’s idea of a dangerous man is one who catcalls her on the street. But Acevedo shows that both feel their grief, fear, and betrayal as intensely as the other. Their economic differences, which Camino resents so much, cannot cancel their sisterhood.

Acevedo tells their stories in her signature powerful and vivid verse. Clap When You Land is a book that begs to be read aloud, or to be experienced as an audiobook. The intensity of the emotions feels greater, somehow, expressed in poetry. The choppiness, the fragmentation, the burning images all combine to express the girls’ devastation and disorientation. But, the power of words also promises to bring them back from the brink. A message over social media. A promise of help. An honest answer. Words shout the girls’ searing grief, but words also bring them together.

Fans of Acevedo’s work will not want to pass by Clap When You Land. Acevedo’s insight and sympathy with her teen characters combine with her talented verse to tell a story you probably have not heard before, but one that is clearly dear to the author’s heart. There’s no question Acevedo is a rising star in YA–and this book makes it clear why.

4 stars

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War

Information

Goodreads: The Chocolate War
Series: Chocolate War #1
Source: Gift
Published: 1974

Official Summary

Jerry Renault ponders the question on the poster in his locker: Do I dare to disturb the universe? Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do. But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war. Now, the only question is: Who will survive?

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Review

The Chocolate War is one of those books destined to be polarizing. Set in an all boys school where a “secret” gang harasses both students and teachers, it asks readers to become invested in a story about unlikable characters–and to believe that incredible trouble can arise from a seemingly innocuous fundraiser. It’s hard to find someone in the story to root for–the nicest characters are side points and tend to remove themselves from the drama–but the story itself is compelling and an interestingly dark portrayal of high school.

Part of the fascination of the book is that is seems both realistic and unrealistic at the same time. The characterization is unflinchingly, introducing high school boys who are cunning and ruthless but who also have vulnerabilities and do completely normal things like moon over girls or worry about getting onto the football team. These definitely aren’t the boys readers will find in a lot of YA today, which tends towards portraying them as swoonworthy love interests who smell like sandalwood and know just the right sweet and suave things to say. And I found it refreshing.

On the other hand, it’s crazy to think that half the things that occur in the book are possible. An underground gang practically running a school? A guy in charge who seems to be some sort of mysterious but twisted genius? An entire school going to war over whether or not one guy sells chocolates for just ONE of many yearly fundraisers? It’s interesting, but it falls a bit in the realm of The Lord of the Flies for me; I can hardly believe this is what would happen under this set of circumstances.

However, I do actually like that so much fallout comes from something so insignificant, the fact that one kid saying he won’t sell chocolate causes everyone to go wild and things to fall apart. That is, really, the point of the book: that something that shouldn’t be that important ends up affecting so many things, that selling or not selling the chocolate ends up being a symbol of something greater.

I know a lot of people hate this book because of the awful characters and maybe the overall grimness, but I enjoyed it–if that’s the right word. It’s so different from most of the YA that’s being sold now that I found it incredibly refreshing. It stands on its own merits, as well, of course, as the author tells an interesting and thought-provoking story.

Briana
4 stars

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson, Leila del Duca

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed

Information

Goodreads: Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: June 2020

Summary

Princess Diana is excited to be accepted into the Amazon tribe on her 16th birthday–she hopes that the weird changes she has been experiencing will disappear, and the others will recognize her strength. But then a group of refugees make it through the weakened Themysciran barrier. The Amazons want to leave them to their fate, but Diana believes that it is their duty to help those in need. But when she leaves the island, it disappears behind her. Now a refugee herself, Diana has to try to figure out what it means to be home.

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Review

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed continues the noble tradition of superhero stories engaging with real-life social justice issues. In one slender volume, Anderson manages to address war and refugees, child trafficking, child hunger, gentrification, homelessness, immigration, and teen activism. It’s a lot to pack into one story, but it is valuable for readers to see the world through Diana’s eyes. Themyscira may be a paradise, but our world is not. And Diana shows that it is up to each individual to stand up and make a difference.

I grew up watching the Wonder Woman TV show with Lynda Carter, so Wonder Woman holds a special place in my heart. I admired that she did not seek to meet violence with violence, but, rather, routinely saved the day through truth and love. She does, of course, fight when necessary, but she is an inspirational superhero to me because her superior strength and speed are not really what helps her uphold justice. They are, rather, supplemental to what makes her heroic: her belief in the goodness of humanity and her willingness to help humanity to live up to that ideal. Anderson’s Wonder Woman, though just starting out on her superhero journey, continues to look upon humanity as what they could be, rather than as what they are–and I loved that about her.

Also important to me is that Anderson’s Wonder Woman fights evil as part of team of strong women. To end injustice, we all must work together, and Anderson’s story illustrates that we are more effective when we do. Wonder Woman may have the physical strength and the bullet-proof bracelets, but she succeeds because she is surrounded by people who care–about her and about the causes she champions. It would be easy for Diana to dismiss the humans around, to imagine that they can never measure up to the power of the Amazons. But Diana chooses, instead, to see that she can learn from them–from their empathy, their concern, and their passion. We all have our strengths and we all have a role to play. And Diana, time and again, chooses to appreciate the inner beauty of everyone she meets.

To say that Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed is important and inspirational feels a little like an understatement. Anderson has given readers a perfect superhero for this moment–one who will not turn a blind eye to injustice, who is willing to suffer to do what is right, who is dedicated to forming a team of people who care as actively as she does. Just thinking about it makes me a little teary-eyed. And I really hope that this is just the start of Diana’s new adventures.

5 stars