Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Netgalley Roundup

Whew--got my third book in just under the wire this week.  I've got to get back on my game!  This week, all three books are ones I received on my Kindle from Netgalley, and all three come out during the month of August 2012.  These are actually all outside my usual styles/genres (I read mostly YA, mostly  faerie-free fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian/contemporary), but if you like action-packed survival stories, MG with heart (and/or dog stories), or tales of faerie folk, you might see something you like here.  I found something to enjoy in each one of them.

What I Read This Week:

The RaftThe Raft by S.A. Bodeen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Whew! I read this book all in one sitting--and a short sitting--because it was so action-packed. S.A. Bodeen (author of the edge-of-your-seat read The Compound) is a definite master of suspense. There were times I felt that the voice was a bit lacking, but to me the action made up for it, sucking me back in again as Robie, the main character, was thrown up against yet another life-threatening challenge.

Since so much of the book hinges on suspense, I won't say much about the plot, other than the obvious--after a plane crash, Robie is stuck on a raft with a man she barely knows, and must make the best decisions she can in the worst situation she can imagine. If you like survival stories (I do!) this is a good one to add to the collection; I think many of my students would enjoy the quick read, high stakes, and adrenaline-fueled story.

Kizzy Ann StampsKizzy Ann Stamps by Jeri Watts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, first: This was a really sweet story. I totally rooted for Kizzy throughout, and got really happy when things actually went her way (they often did not.) I also totally loved her wonderful, wonderful dog Shag. And I was interested to read about some details of life in the barely, uneasily integrated American South that I hadn't come across before (like the fact that dog shows did not permit African-Americans to show dogs.) In the author's note at the end, I learned that one of the characters, an African-American poet who (fictionally) ran a library for the town's black citizens was actually based on a real, published poet who lived in the town at that time. She's an interesting character--Kizzy is a little intimidated by her, at least as much because of her librarian ways and the fact that she's seen the inside of the library for white people as because she's a published writer. Ultimately, though, Kizzy starts to appreciate her, oddities and all, and by the end of the book decides that maybe she should get to know her better (I wished we saw some of that!).

That said--I was a little uneasy by how many of the active characters who helped Kizzy were white. The book is told in the form of letters to her white teacher in the formerly white school that Kizzy helps to integrate. I wished that we saw a lot more of Kizzy's teacher from her old school, a respected veteran teacher who gave up her job when the school for black children was shut down in favor of integrating the local white school. She was mentioned several times, but didn't spend a lot of time "on page", and she was so intriguing. Much of the book focused on Kizzy's relationship with her white teacher, a white (Scottish) man who teaches her how to train her border collie, and a white classmate and neighbor. As a teacher myself, I find it hard to resist a depiction of a dedicated, generous teacher who helps her students grow. And I appreciate that, in the last letter, the teacher writes back and sort of gives Kizzy some more agency when she says that she hopes Kizzy will be her student who goes on to do great things. We all hope for that student. It's a difficult narrative to write, though, as it can be hard to resist giving the saintly (white) teacher all the credit and the children (often children of color) none. This story just veers a little too close to that line at times.

I do think this book was a good-faith effort to tell the story of a young African-American girl living on the cusp of integration and having an experience that didn't tend too much to the usual extremes of either violence or happiness; Kizzy faces large and small obstacles because of her race, but it is overall a hopeful story. I think this is a positive contribution to the way-too-white field of MG literature, and like I said, I did really enjoy it. I don't think the author intends this to stand alone as THE representation of this era or anything, and I don't think it's a harmful portrayal. Kizzy certainly has to make hard choices and do hard work on her own at several points, so it's not like she's a one-dimensional or stereotyped character. I'm doing my best to read thoughtfully and critically, but I'd love to hear some other (probably better-informed) opinions, because really I'm no authority on race. I think it's hard to resist Kizzy and her story, and actually the book this most brought to mind was Love That Dog by Sharon Creech--Kizzy has a strong voice, and the relationship with the teacher is built really nicely even though we only hear Kizzy's side up until the very last letter. Give this one a try--it *will* make you smile--and then let me know your thoughts!

Innocent Darkness (The Aether Chronicles, #1)Innocent Darkness by Suzanne Lazear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, so. I'm going to preface this whole review with the information that the Fae (fairies/faeries/what-have-you) are generally speaking, not my thing. I can roll with them in riffs on the old-timey fairy tales, but otherwise I tend to run far, far away. So while this was a three-star read for me, I want you to know that I am in no way claiming to be objective here, just honest: this is a story dominated by faerie folk. I didn't love that about it, but it's certainly not an inherent flaw--in fact, one reason I chose to push on and finish the book and write about it anyway is because I'm sure some of my readers will like that about Innocent Darkness.

That out of the way, here are the things I did like. The Earth half of the setting is really interesting, and I think I would have done better with the faeries if they had spent more time in our world and we had spend less time in theirs (again--just me.) Noli Bradshaw--the garden-tending, flying-car-fixing, would-be-botanist in turn-of-the-20th-century California, is certainly an interesting protagonist. Her father has disappeared, her brother is away doing something that sends home money, and she is left with her bone-weary, well-meaning mother, who has sunk to the level of working for money. Horrors! This setup makes the stakes pretty high for Noli, and I would have been happy to read a totally realistic (well, except for the awesome steampunk elements like the flying car) version of her story. After crashing the flying car--the last straw for the officer who's picked her up one too many times--she is sent off to the world's worst finishing school, where you get tortured for such improprieties as speaking when not asked a question, failing to answer when you are, or possessing a book. I was fascinated by the dynamics of the girls at the school and would have been happy to stay there for an entire book.

...And then Noli winds up in the Otherworld with a dashing Faerie huntsman, who intends her as a sacrifice to save all of Faeriedom, but then accidentally falls for her, and then there's another guy in the mix (no spoilers here) and then there's some more love and then a terrible Faerie thing happens and basically we spend a lot of time in Faerie land. There are rules to follow and bargains to be made and tiny little faeries that flutter around bringing people berries. Essentially, the middle third of the novel is what people who like stories about faeries enjoy, and what I had the hardest time getting through.

By the end, though, there were enough threads of the story that I was invested in that I will probably actually read the second book--faeries and all. Lazear left Noli and her chosen love interest in a dilemma that managed to come back around to Victorian society mores in a way that I found really interesting, and I want to know how that resolves! I'm even kind of interested in learning more about the Faerie Queen and her huntsman--there aren't a ton of scenes between the two of them, but they sort of bring out the worst in each other and it made me more curious about both of them. (In parts, the huntsman actually kind of reminded me of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer--that reluctantly reforming good-for-nothing who can't be bothered to care about anything except a girl who pushes him away). So, if you like faeries, give this a shot. (Also, I should note that some of the romance gets a bit steamy. This is neither a warning nor an enticement--I just thought you should know. Do with that knowledge what you will.)

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