Lowriders in Space

One more late addition to Latin@ week!  Lowriders to the Center of the Earth was a Cybils finalist this year, and I thought I’d read this first Lowriders book while waiting for the second to arrive at my library.

Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper and Raul the ThirdLowriders in Space by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third. Chronicle Books, 2014.
This book is a love song to the Mexican-American lowrider culture (with which I was utterly unfamiliar), with kid-friendly animal characters.  Three best friends, all working together at an auto shop, plan to win a car contest so that they can open their very own shop.  They will make a beautiful lowrider that will “go low and slow, bajito y suavecito.”  Lupe Impala is the “mechanic extraordinaire” who will take the old rust bucket that’s all they can afford and make it hum.  El Chavo Flapjack Octopus does the cleaning and polishing, while Elirio Malaria the mosquito is the detail artist.

The plot here is definitely third place behind the world-building and characters: the friends fix up the car using rocket engines, which take them to space and help make their car even cooler.  There are plenty of Spanish words mixed in to the dialogue, all defined at the bottom of the page where they’re used.  I saw some reviewers complaining that the definitions are overly simplistic.  My Spanish is rudimentary at best, but I will note that they use the word “Órale”, which Stef Soto, Taco Queen specifically called out as a word with many shades of meaning, as just “let’s go.”  I still loved seeing the Spanish, especially the poetry of rhyming phrases like the oft-repeated bajito y suavecito. The art, done in three colors of ballpoint pen on brown paper, made me work a little harder than the bright digital colors that are so common now, but packs in lots of detail and expression.  It ultimately succeeded in drawing me in and emphasized the homegrown artwork the book is about.

I’m so not a car person – to be honest, I resent the local car industry for doing away with robust public transportation in my state – so I wouldn’t have picked this up on my own.  The love of our characters for each other and for their cars is so joyful that I couldn’t help but be won over in spite of myself, and the notes at the end helped me appreciate the many details built into the book. This is perfect for car-loving kids.  I’m now very curious to see the second book.

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’m continuing Latin@ week at alibrarymama with a book that’s become a classic just in the five years since it came out.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire SáenzAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Read by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013.

Fifteen-year-old Ari has no friends and an inner boiling anger that he doesn’t understand.  One summer day at the pool, he meets Dante, friendly and cheerful and refusing to be put off by Ari’s bad temper.  He offers to teach Ari to swim, and slowly, Ari learns how to have and be a friend.  Dante’s openly affectionate, bantering relationship with his parents is baffling to Ari, raised on silent affection and family secrets, including a refusal to talk about his jailed older brother.  And just as Ari feels like he might be figuring the friendship thing out, Dante’s parents decide to move to Chicago for a year.  Ari adopts a dog, learns to drive, asks his parents for a red truck – but none of these stop the nightmares that keep him from sleeping well or help him figure out how to write letters to Dante.

Though there are exciting events, this book is high on self-reflection with a slow, slow two-summer journey from friendship to romance – I would have liked a little more on the romance side, myself, but that may just be my incurable romantic speaking.  There are desert stars, underage drinking and weed use, running, swimming, poetry and art, and pondering what it means to be a Mexican-American.  It is beautiful and literary. It made me wonder (again) – when does historical fiction start?  This book, set firmly in the 1980s, is within the period of my own memory, but this time before emails and texting will likely seem foreign to today’s teens.

I’d heard many people rave about this book being read by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  He does a very convincing voice, reading in a flatter tone than I’m used to for narrators, but which grew on me as it fit so well with a boy trying to keep his feelings tamped down.  This is good for introspective readers, as well as providing lots of fodder for group discussion.

Sáenz’s new book, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, is out this month from Clarion Books.

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Hour of the Bees

I’m hereby declaring it Latin@ week here at alibrarymama and following yesterday’s review of Stef Soto, Taco Queen with another book starring a Latina middle schooler.  This is a subtly magical book for older middle grade readers, one of the many books that I read during Cybils season and got behind on reviewing.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay EagarHour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar. Candlewick, 2016
Carol  is forced to spend her summer on her grandfather’s dried up ranch in the desert of New Mexico. He suffers from advancing dementia and her parents have decided it’s time to get the house ready to sell and move him to a nursing home. Carol is resentful of not having her planned summer of swimming and shopping with friends, and being called CaroLEENa by her grandfather. babysitting her baby brother and helping to pack up the house are no kind of substitute.  Her older sister Alta keeps finding ways to leave, adding to Carol’s bad mood.

But, like Cat in Ghosts, this summer is a catalyst for Carol learning more about her heritage and the Mexican-American culture her birth family hasn’t really connected to. (I am not tagging it for Read Diverse, because I was unable to find out if the author has any Mexican heritage herself.) Her grandfather Serge, incoherent with almost everyone except for shouting matches with Carol’s father, tells Carol stories of the bees that took the lake away and vanished forever, leaving the village in drought ever since.  Carol doesn’t believe the story, especially since bees seem to follow her everywhere.  Slowly, slowly, Carol connects more with her grandfather and pieces together the unbelievable truth behind the old stories and the forgotten magic.

I hesitate to call this magical realism, because the magic is definitely real. But those coming in looking for large doses of magic are going to be disappointed, because the magic is all in the stories until the very end of the book.  This is perfect for those who like slow, lyrical explorations of character, the complications of family and coming to terms with old age.  That sadly makes me feel that its audience for middle grade readers is going to be small, but those few readers will love it.

The lyrical magic with bees reminds me of Robin McKinley’s Chalice, a full historical fantasy with a magical beekeeper.

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Stef Soto, Taco Queen

Here’s one of the books I put on my Top 10 Books I Am Looking Forward to for the First Half of 2017 post (wow, that’s a long title!), based on hearing an interview with the author on PW KidsCast.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer TorresStef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. Hachette, 2017.
Middle school, with its shifting friendships, is already hard ground.  Stef – Estefania to her parents – finds it especially humiliating that her father insists on picking her up from school in the family’s taco truck, Tia Perla.  It only provides fuel for her former best friend, Julia Sandoval, who’s now openly hostile.  Fun and real life collide as Stef tries to convince her father to let her go to a big concert with her current best friend Amanda, while her father’s business is put in danger by proposed food truck regulations. There’s a sideline of humor and chef respect as her father keeps trying to come up with new tasty dishes for Stef’s other best friend, Arthur Choi, who’s vegan and allergic to nearly everything.

I loved so much about this book. Stef herself, despite her conflicts with her parents and other flaws, is still devoted to them and unafraid to help out with the taco truck.  This is a close look at a new American family, trying their best to live the dream and do right by their daughter even as they as parents just don’t get parts of the culture.  There are Spanish words sprinkled through the text – especially “Órale”, which Stef says is a “word that comes in lots of flavors,” (mostly affirmative), and which is use throughout with various shades of meaning.  The parents’ dialogue is written in unaccented English, which I appreciated, though it’s clear in context that they’re speaking Spanish at home.  I appreciated the depth given to the “mean girl”, who isn’t randomly picking on Stef out of pure native meanness or for racial reasons.  This is a quick and cheerful read, perfect for those looking for realistic fiction about kids navigating middle school and realizing that they have the power to make a difference in the world.

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How One Mama Reads 250 Books a Year

Last week on Fangirl Happy Hour’s Question Tuesday, Ana and Renay discussed when and how they make time for reading and asked listeners to tell them how we read.

I meant to write an answer and post it the same day I listened, but fate intervened in the form of the biggest wind storm and subsequent power outage that Michigan has ever seen.  My workplace lost power for four days.  My home lost power for five (luckily, we have a wood stove, so we were able to stay warm.) But we had no internet connection.

Now I’m back online, and ready to share with you how a working mother with young children is still able to read over 250 books a year.  I am not able to block off an hour at a time to sit and read, but I have found lots of ways to fit reading in over the course of the day.  Here are my (no longer) secrets. Continue reading

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Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan

The winner of this year’s Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Cybils Award!

Shadow Magic by Joshua KhanShadow Magic by Joshua Khan. Disney-Hyperion, 2016.
Young Thorn, after a series of events gone wrong that are slowly disclosed to the reader, is up for sale as a slave.  He’s bought by Tyburn, the executioner to Castle Gloom of the dark kingdom of Gehenna.  Naturally, being taken to a place reported to be defended by the undead only increases his desire to escape and continue his hunt for his missing father.  Events on the way change his mind, though, and he is forced to reevaluate his preconceptions about Castle Gloom.

There are no more zombie warriors at Castle Gloom, though there are plenty of bats and its graveyards are impressive.  Its princess, Lilith, Lady of Shadows, is a girl his own age, thrust suddenly into ruling the kingdom by the assassination of the rest of her family, all except her drunken Uncle Pan, who never could use magic anyway.  Lily, being a girl, isn’t allowed to use the family’s magic and so is being forced to marry Gabriel, prince of the Kingdom of Light, to end the war that has defined both kingdoms.  Also joining the group of kids the same age coming together for individual reasons is Prince K’leef of the Kingdom of Fire, held hostage by the Kingdom of Light, who finds Gabriel just as much of an obnoxious bully as do Thorn and Lily.  Lily’s former best friend, her maidservant Rose, never quite makes it into the gang.

Thus follows a pleasing adventure in which, predictably, Thorn puts skills learned from his father to good use and discovers secrets in the castle, Lily finds success in ignoring rules about proper female behavior, and K’leef thinks about his future.  Unpredictably, Lily has some good arguments in favor of using undead instead of living people as soldiers and has a very nasty shock coming to terms with the extent she’s relied on her privilege.  Also unpredictably but happily, K’leef is initially set up to be a traitor but escapes that role, though I still felt his character could have been better developed.

I was a little and perhaps unreasonably put off by little things like Thorn’s written-out country boy accent and added a new item to my list of modern things included in historical fiction and fantasy that make me and no one else twitchy.  This list has included potatoes (a New World discovery), velvet before the 14th century, and walzes prior to the 19th.  Lily has a Labrador puppy, which struck me as wrong. I looked it up to be sure – the breed dates to 1903 – and led me to the Medieval Dog Breeds wiki , where I decided that a lap-sized spaniel would have felt perfect for her.

It’s a high action story with a balance of humor and darkness in a world well-developed enough for more stories. The sequel, Dream Magic, comes out in April.  It would pair well with the contemporary Dark Lord fantasy series by Jamie Thompson.

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Labyrinth Lost

I first heard about this book from Naz at Read Diverse Books, but it finally made its way to the top of the list when it was declared a Cybils Finalist in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction category.

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova. Sourcebooks Fire, 2016.
Alejandra – who usually goes by Alex – has been fighting her magic ever since her aunt Rosaria died and her father disappeared, both, she’s sure, connected to their magic use.  Her older sister has happily embraced her healing powers, and her younger sister her visions of the future – but Alex remained unconvinced it’s worth it. When her magic finally becomes so powerful that she can’t stop it anymore, her family is thrilled and plans a big Death Day celebration to dedicate her powers to the Deos.  Alex hopes both to give her powers back to the Deos instead – with suggestions from a handsome and mysterious brujo boy she meets at the magic shop – and to sneak away from the party early with her best friend, Rishi, whom she hasn’t told about her family’s magic. Continue reading

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Diverse Reading Round-Up

This year, instead of focusing just on reading diverse authors, I’m working on something even harder for me – trying to keep up with writing reviews. I’m linking up my reviews of #ownvoices books at Read Diverse Books. Here’s what I read in January and February this year. Links are to my own reviews where available.

Diverse Authors

  • Sacrifice by Cindy Pon
  • Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick
  • Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – I read this on the recommendation of Renay from the Fangirl Happy Hour. It’s a book adapted from a workshop they run aimed at authors who would like to write about people different from themselves without being offensive, and useful for bloggers like me as well.
  • Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova – review to come
  • Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres – review to come
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – review to come

White Authors, Diverse Characters

  • Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – I didn’t note in my original review, but this is chock full of diversity of all kinds. Just among the humans, brown is the default human skin color and one of the techs is a Little Person. There are also multiple interspecies as well as same-sex romances.
  • The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein – Part of Wein’s less-well-known Arthurian spin-off series. This is set in medieval Ethiopia, told from the point of view of Telemakos, mixed-race son of Mordred and an Ethiopian princess. Just as suspenseful as you’d expect from the author of Code Name Verity.
  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie – the final volume in the Imperial Radch trilogy, which began with Ancillary Justice.
  • The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton – review to come.
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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

This is one I heard about from British bookish folk, and then had to wait a very long time for it to come out in the U.S., where it just came out last year, and a bit longer for it to burble to the top of the pile.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Harper Voyager, 2014.
As our story opens, Rosemary Harper has just been hired as a clerk for a small, ramshackle tunneling ship that never was so official as to have someone to handle their legal paperwork before.  She’s got her secrets, but has at least legitimately gone through the training she’s claimed to. The crew of the small ship consists of some humans, including Captain Ashby; the cranky and anti-social Corbin who manages the algae the supply the ship’s power; and Jenks and Kizzy, the fun-loving techs.  It also includes the pilot, Sissix, a member of a cuddle-loving lizard-like species; Dr. Chef, who sounded rather like a large caterpillar; and Ohan the navigator, deliberately infected with a virus that allows for seeing through space/time, so that Ohan is now considered plural.

The ship’s work of creating the tunnels through space which allow for practical interstellar travel is considered unglamorous, but it does allow for lots of adventures.  Though there is a big mission towards the second half – the “angry planet” of the title – this is about the characters and the vignettes, as well as observations on cultural differences, both between species and between the different groups of humans.  I saw some people complaining about these in their Amazon reviews, but I liked the feeling that it gave me of classic sci-fi, only with modern ideas and characters I actually cared about.

It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Firefly with the ragtag crew and the cobbled-together ship, though this one goes on much more official missions.  But if you, like me, enjoyed the interpersonal relations in Firefly as much as the official Plot, this might be for you.  My love, when I described it to him, though it might be rather like his beloved Maturin/Aubrey seafaring books, which are much more about the journey than the destination.  This is written for adults, with references to a fair amount of sex and illicit drug use, none of it explicit.  I’d give it to sci-fi loving teens if I knew them and probably their parents well.  Definitely recommended for anyone looking for a character-focused space ramble.

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Towers Falling

I was interested to see what the author of Cybils finalist Bayou Magic would do with the topic of September 11, just recently far enough in the past for students to need to learn about it in school.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker RhodesTowers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Little, Brown and Co., 2016.
The good news is that Deja’s family is still together.  The bad news is that they’re at a homeless shelter.  Her father can’t hold down a job, and her mother can’t make enough to afford housing for their family of five. Deja has to start at a new school, along with taking care of her two younger siblings.  When her new teacher tells the class that they’re going to be learning about 9/11, she wonders what it could possibly have to do with her. As she works with her new friends, Ben from Texas and Sabeen, whose family is from the Middle East, she learns a whole lot about the connections that hold families and communities together, and how the effects of the past reverberate into the future, and what America and being American means to different people.  It turns out that this event that she thought had nothing to do with her has directly affected her family.

It is so hard to write a book on such hard topics that works for middle grade kids. The adults here emphasize both the importance of knowing what happened because it’s had such a large effect on daily life to this day, but also that kids shouldn’t be exposed to the videos to see the full horror of that day.  Deja is attending the school that in real life saw the events unfold through their windows. But Rhodes keeps the story positive by showing people of lots of different ethnic backgrounds using the past to create a better future.  This is a friendship and family story, just as much as it is a history story, and an excellent entry point to start discussions on 9/11 for older elementary and middle school students.

This book was nominated for the Cybils in the audiobook category, and I’m sorry to say that it is a case of the author not being the right choice to narrate her own book.  She made a couple of narrative choices that make sense individually – Deja is understandably unhappy, and sounds it. The text is lyrical, and she emphasizes this by carrying the words together in long arcing phrases.  The net effect, though, was that the book is read in a sustained whine that got under my skin like a kid begging for candy.  I had to stop the audio (which had kindly been provided to me by the publisher), and turned instead to the print version from the library, which worked beautifully.  Your mileage may vary, of course – but I recommend reading this book in print.

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