A Spy in the House

A Spy in the House (The Agency, Book 1)
Y.S. Lee

Teenager in Victorian dress  looking back at building

We meet Mary as a twelve year old destined for the gallows. Somehow, she is spared that fate, and next time we see her she is seventeen and about to become an undercover investigator for the very people who saved her life.

This is the first book in the “A Spy in the House” series. At first, I was thinking that the series might focus each book on a different Agency spy, but I looked at the cover again and saw that it says “A Mary Quinn Mystery.” That makes me happy, I’m looking forward to seeing Mary grow into her own even more fully.

In this book, she is to play a minor, supporting role in the Agency’s investigation into a shady London merchant. I was rolling my eyes, convinced she was going to swoop in and save the whole case and be the hero, but it didn’t exactly work out that way. And I was glad. We see her as a baby investigator, still with plenty of pluck, but it seems to be a more realistic depiction of how a situation like hers might actually happen.

I *love* that this book is concerned with social justice issues (and in a non-preachy way!) The main investigation centers around artifacts stolen from a Hindu temple in India, possibly brought to London from traders and installed in private collections. Stealing another culture’s treasures is something that pops up in the news now and again, bringing with it questions about where these items belong, and who should have the rights to them.

There’s a scene where Mary comes across obscene materials owned by the merchant she’s investigating. The subject matter is African slaves being sexually abused by masters – and this is recognized as particularly bad, as abuse, not just average titillating images. (It’s not something that is mentioned in explicit detail, and is not a feature of the book, for anyone that might have concerns.)

There are also questions surrounding Mary’s identity, which I won’t go into, but are sure to provide more material for future books.

Glad I read this one for #Diversiverse!

 

Dragonwings

Dragonwings
Laurence Yep

Book cover for Dragonwings, showing young Chinese boy holding a kite, standing next to his father, who is looking up towards a plane

This is my second review for #Diversiverse

I originally picked up this book intending it as a gift for my BBBS “little.” I figured I’d read it before I gave it to her so that we could talk about it if she wanted to. I finally got around to reading it recently, but now I’m debating whether or not to give it to her.

One one hand, the book is written in a very simplistic, almost childish tone. On the other, it seems like it might be a bit longer than a ten or twelve year old might want to read, especially since it took a good while for it to start capturing my attention.

Dragonwings  did capture some of the violence and resistance that many Chinese immigrants faced from whites. It also showed a fleshed out Chinese immigrant community, complete with family businesses, codes of conduct, a system of justice, and more. The characters help readers see the community as made up of more than flat characters with funny accents and an odd way of wearing their hair.

Overall I found the book too slow to get started and too choppy feeling with too abrupt an ending to be to my taste. But to each their own!

Want more like this? Try:

  • Hiroshima, Laurence Yep. I preferred this book to Dragonwings. Short, easy to read novella explores the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II from the perspective of some of the city’s young inhabitants. I appreciated that it also talked about the aftermath, and introduced me to the Hiroshima Maidens.
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luan Yang. Graphic novel in three parts, focusing on the modern day Chinese American youngster.
  • Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende. A Chilean woman immigrates to California in the midst of the Gold Rush.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle

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Do you ever retread a book that you loved when you were young, and find there were huge parts that went right over your head? That happened to me on my recent retread of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

I loved these books growing up, even though I never read much fantasy/science fiction. The fact that my mother let me read L’Engle should have been my first clue that they were on some approved Christian reading list somewhere. Which, hey, nothing wrong with that. I just loved Meg’s awkwardness, and hoped that one day maybe I would grow out of that gawky adolescent stage. Maybe I would go on some kind of epic time bending adventure where I would save the day and the whole world. I also was enthralled with the idea of time “wrinkling.” This simple illustration has a permanent place inside one of my own brain wrinkles:

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As a child, I loved when books presented a way to reconcile my family’s faith with imaginings and creations and, well, science. We practiced a faith that relied heavily on the literal interpretation of the Bible, or at least parts of it. The Earth was 6,000 years old, and anything not talked about in its pages didn’t exist. Unless we wanted it to, of course. I guess books – novels – were the first thing that made me realize that words on a page were open to interpretation.

A Wrinkle in Time is itself a book that is open to varying interpretations. Reaction from religious circles is split – some praise it, some try to ban it. The is certainly support for both positions in the text. Based on this interview with the author, it seems that hers is a more expansive view than the one I grew up with, and for that I am certainly thankful.

Banned Books Week: CRANK

Book cover for Crank. Black background with title in white letters.Crank
Ellen Hopkins

I I realize it’s Thursday of Banned Books Week and I still haven’t posted a review of a banned book, despite pledging to do so. Bad blogger. Well, here goes:

I read Crank a couple weeks ago when I was traveling. I pulled it out on my plane ride, and despite not really loving the book, finished about half of it by the time we landed. The book is nearly 500 pages long, but those pages are covered in free verse, leaving quite a bit of white space.

Number one: I was not a fan of this format. It didn’t feel like a book told in poems, but more like an outline of a book.

Number two: Lots of banned books are great books. This one… not so much.

The book is about a teenage girl who gets hooked on meth/crank/the monster. It’s based on the experiences of the author’s daughter. Spoilers Ahead: It’s rather juvenile and heavy handed in a way that I didn’t care for. Mom likes the beautiful lifeguard boyfriend who turns out to be a rapist and heavy drug user, while not being impressed with the “ugly” nice guy who trys to keep his drug use under control. There’s this whole “thank you for honoring your child” line that read as total BS when it turns out that the protaganist is pregnant by her rapist. Why is so difficult to portray abortion as a viable choice for a teenage meth addict who continues to intermittently use even after she finds out she’s pregnant? /End Spoilers.

Might it be valuable to show teenagers the dangers of trying meth? Sure. Do I think it should be banned? No. Do I think it’s a fine piece of literature? No.

Further Reading: Check out this interesting Mother Jones article about how Big Pharma is keeping meth cookers in business: Merchants of Meth.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Book Cover: The Miseducation of Emily PostThe Miseduation of Cameron Post
Emily M. Danforth

This is the third book I’ve read recently featuring girls sent away to camps designed to solve their troubles (the other two being Maya’s Notebook and The Girls of No Return). This time, the camp in question is meant to de-gay the youth attending. News flash: not all that effective! Um, at all!

There was a lot I liked about this book. The focus on a girl growing up and coming to terms with her sexuality was well done. I felt tranported back to high school when all your emotions are bubbling up and you can’t think straight. I also liked that the book recognized that there is a difference between gender identity and sexuality and that these categories don’t necessarily exist as binary.

My main complaint about this book was that it was just too darn long. It felt like the author should have chosen to either focus on before the camp, or the camp itself. And the camp itself was mainly horrifying, so I think less focus on that would have been better. Reading about the camp kept me in a state of heightened awareness and sensitivity.

~~~~~~

Orange Juice and Ginger Ale

My new favorite drink

Towards the beginning of the book, there’s a scene that mentions Cameron drinking orange juice and ginger ale. I’m a big fan or mixing club soda and juice, but had never thought of using ginger ale. I like ginger ale, I like orange juice. I figured I’d try it.

OMG IT IS SO GOOD.

I filled my glass about three quartes up with ice, then Vernor’s Ginger Ale about halfway up, then topped it with Tropicana Grovestand OJ. Grovestand = lots of pulp.

Side note: Tropicana recently went back to all Florida oranges, so I bought it. I’ve been drinking Florida’s Natural pretty much exclusively for the past couple of years. I’m a Florida girl, and I try to keep it local. There are some other small groves near me that produce their own stuff, but I have to buy it at the farmer’s market, and it’s not always available. Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice is also super local, but they use a type of orange that’s sweeter. I like my OJ to have a little sourness to it, but if that’s not youthing, I encourage you to try Natalie’s.

Have you had this delicious concoction? What other Juice + Fizzy drink combos do I need to try? Let me know!

Weekend CookingWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Lioness Quartet

Grid showing covers of four Lioness booksIn the past few years I’ve read a lot of Tamora Pierce. I’ve wished that I had read her earlier, as her characters are a model of strong young women that I can’t recall reading about anywhere else.

Her Song of the Lioness quartet is made up of Alanna: The First Adventure, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant. The boooks follow young Alanna of Trebond, a noble girl determined to become a night. The kingdom of Tortall used to have “lady knights” but hasn’t in hundreds of years.

Alanna leverages her early training, her cunning, determination, and skill to accomplish her goal. Along the way she has plenty of adventures, and helps save her kingdom more than once. She also has a few love affairs as she gets older.

I’ve seen other reviewers express serious reservations about Alanna’s romantic life, saying that it wasn’t a good role model for young girls, but I have to strongly disagree. Teenagers, especially around 16, will have sex. The books also make it clear that in Alanna’s world, girls were often married by that age. I appreciated tha Alanna was unsure about whether she wanted to be married, and was able to stand up to pressure from powerful parties when it would have meant giving up her vailiantly fought-for knighthood.

As good as Pierce is on gender, her writing on race leaves much to  be desired. In book 3, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, Alanna spends significant time with the Bahzir, a nomadic desert tribe. Pierce’s treatment of the tribe is rather awkward. There’s the same “white savior” theme that is at play in her later books, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen.

Overall, though, a solid series and one I’m glad I finally read.

Page by Paige

Page by Paige book coverPage by Paige
Laura Lee Gulledge

This graphic novel is heavier on the graphics than the novel, but the drawings and story are so sweet I really didn’t mind.

Paige Turner (yes, really) is a country mouse moving to the big city. She’s worried how she’ll fit in with so many new people, but at the same time wants to use the opportunity to develop her true self.

She falls in with a small group of creative kids at her school, and they bond over comics and other artsy endeavors.  Jules is a singer/songwriter, her brother Longo is a cartoonist, and Gabe is a writer (and maybe a love interest for Paige).

Paige devotes time daily to her sketchbook, and Gulledge uses the opportunity to show the reader what it looks like inside the mind of her introverted artist.

I lived in New York for a couple years, and I always marveled about how cool it would be to grow up in the city. Paige and her friends take advantage of it – decorating buildings with paper artwork attached with wheat paste, performing in shows, exploring the city. They do enjoy substantial priviledge – as Paige’s father points out, what they are doing may very well border on illegal. Some kids in New York can get away with that. Others, not so much.

Paige and Diana

Paige and Diana

I was excited to see Paige’s old friend Diana some to visit her in New York. Diana wasn’t jealous of Paige’s new friends. She fell right in with them. In fact, I was hoping there would be a little something between her and Jules. We know Jules is a lesbian, and Diana’s portrayal makes me wonder if Gulledge was trying to imply something about her sexuality. (Not that how one dresses or looks necessarily means anything about their gender identity of sexual orientation. In fact, Jules is pretty darn “girly” looking.)  Of course, they could both be lesbians and just be friends, which would be awesome, too! Not every lesbian in a book has to be attracted to any other lesbian that wanders across that pages. (Okay, I’m probably flubbing this up. Bottom line: I like that there was a lesbian in the book, and it was no big deal, and I want more of that. The end.)

Tiny quibble: I do wish the book would have been in color, but I understand that isn’t possible with many graphic novels. We know that Paige is a redhead, but in black and white she reads blonde to me.

Overall, a nice, if a bit idealist, coming of age story.

Diary of a Young Girl

Book cover for The Diary of a Young GirlThe Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank

There’s not too many people who don’t know the broad outlines of this book. Anne Frank, a young girl in Holland, hides in a secret annex with her family during the Second World War. There’s no happy ending here, as the entire family save the father, Otto, perishes in the Holocaust.

I never had to read this book when I was in school, so I was a bit worried that I’d missed the window when you “should” read this. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Anne is remarkably frank (ha) about her thoughts and feelings in this book. She is living through terrible times, but concentrates on honing her writing skills in a way that wonderfully captures her world.

The writing is surprisingly good. I was worried the book was noteworthy primarily for its subject matter and not as a piece of literature. I don’t mean to discount the subject in any way, of course. First hand accounts of historical events, especially a tragedy like the Holocaust, are invaluable. To find one that is also a quality piece of writing is truly remarkable.

If you haven’t read this, do. It’s worth it.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 Cover of Fahrenheit 451, showing a paper man on fire.
Ray Bradbury

I’ve been wanting to read this book for many years – at least ten. I was never assigned to read it in high school, but I bought myself a copy my senior year. I think I read about 5 pages and then somehow lost the book. Since I never got around to reading it, it was a perfect candidate for The Classics Club.

I’m sure most people are familiar with the basic premise – that we are in some dystopian future, where books are outlawed and firemen (yes, firemen) are charged with burning books rather than fighting fires. Our hero, Guy Montag, is a fireman who is secretly hoarding books as he wonders how his life has become meaningless, with a zoned-out wife who takes too many sleeping pills and can’t tear herself away from giant screens showing inane programming.

So off to tramp in the woods goes Guy, with a bunch of other guys, memorizing books written by guys. Not sure how they’re going to populate their hoped-for enclave of intellectualism after the first generation dies off, as there’s nary a mention of any uterus-havers. Minor problems.

Anyway, I read it.

Now a bit from my favorite blogger, Melissa McEwanon Ray Bradbury’s passing:

“Bradbury was famously an irascible critic of “political correctness,” so perhaps he would have found it ironic that it was Captain Beatty’s treatise on “political correctness” in Fahrenheit 451 which really started my thinking on the difference between “political correctness” and meaningful sensitivity to marginalized people:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.

…Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.

This, I knew from the first time I read it, was wrong—though I wasn’t certain precisely why yet. What I knew, viscerally, but could not articulate as a teenager, was that disappearing materials that reflect institutional harm, without or instead of any examination of systemic bias, is a solution to legitimate criticism of privilege, not a solution to harm. And trying to find a solution to legitimate criticism of privilege is the real partner to the anti-intellectualism also at the root of the tyranny in Fahrenheit 451,not the imagined (even by its author) solution to harm.”
~~~

Have you read this? What did you think?

I Read YA

Divergent 
Veronica Roth

The first book in another planned YA trilogy (second book out already, final in 2013). Interesting premise about choosing your family group based on your dominant traits. Throw in some creepy mind reading/control, and you’ve got something pretty fun – even if it does get kinda campy towards the end.

The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater

Mystical, bloodthirsty horses rising from the sea? Poor orphan girl struggling to help her remaining family survive? Harsh, windswept setting? Yes, please!

This was a fun, quick read. Yes, there were parts that made me roll my eyes pretty hard. There’s no excuse to forget the characters’ names, as they are mentioned on nearly every frickin’ page. The ending was a bit…conventional? Pat? Whatever. All the horses means overall I was happy. (I like horses.)

Matched
Ally Condie

Another YA trilogy, centered around a love triangle. Why is it that teenage girls can only see a problem with society when it’s through the lens of a romantic dilemma? Oh, wait – that’s just how it is in some books. Sorry, I’m having trouble containing the snarkiness about this book. I just wonder if the author recognizes the irony in writing about matches and planning and the pitfalls involved when her professed religion… ok, I’ll stop before I get into trouble.

But seriously, I do wonder how LGBT teens and people of color would relate to this book. Heterosexual seems to be the only recognized sexuality. Condie describes her characters pretty well, and they seemed to all be white – or at least, arguabley white. I can’t think of a single one that was definitely a person of color. (Of course, I could be mistaken. I know white readers often read characters as white even when they are intended to be otherwise.) Maybe these are more diverse characters in the second and third books. Maybe Condie puposedly left them out so we can see their exclusion is a problem that needs to be addressed. Maybe. Hopefully.

Have you read any of these? Share your thoughts!