Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachussetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they’re somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic.
Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all.
I feel like if you’re a queer person in New England, you’ve heard of this book. A magical realism read featuring queer characters and a diverse cast set not in Boston but in the nearby town of Chelsea. Its art is gorgeous, and I’ve spotted print versions of it in every single local bookstore. The locals are proud of this book, that’s for sure. With everything I’d heard and the pictures I’d seen when flipping through print copies, I was expecting something a bit different from what I got. Maybe more queer content? Maybe magical rules based in the here rather than in the “old world”? Regardless, I enjoyed it. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.
First, let’s talk about my favorite thing which was how much the author evokes the reality of the place of run-down New England towns in spite (or because of?) the magical content. My skin prickled when I read about Sophie and her best friend going to Revere Beach in the summer. It was just so damn accurate. I had a similar sensation when she talked about the feeling of being in a town that was once booming and now is struggling. There’s no doubt about it, the New England towns that were once booming from manufacturing and are now struggling simply feel dirty, and the author really evokes that. (I should know; I grew up in one). Oddly enough, this magical realism book brings out the feeling of small town struggling New England life more than a lot of realistic fiction I’ve read. If you want to know what it feels like to grow up in one of those towns, read this book.
Second, there’s the magical content. I was expecting something steeped in the local as well, but instead the magic was based entirely in countries parents and grandparents emigrated from. There’s nothing bad about that, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from a book so steeped in place. I also must admit that I found the whole vibe of “magic can only come from other places” to be a bit disappointing. America may be a young nation, but we have our own magic. I’d have liked to have seen a mix of both, rather than the magic be exlusively the domain of immigration.
Third, there’s the queer content. I think I was expecting it to take a more central role, particularly since this is ya (and was talked about a lot in the LGBTQ book reading community) but actually I found it to be more like how the local PCP just so happens to be Asian-American. It’s a thing some people just happen to be and not much is made of that. That’s not a bad thing, again, it just wasn’t what I was expecting.
Overall, this is a fun read steeped in local flavor that I recommend to anyone seeking a fantastical twist on struggling New England town life. That said, the second book in the series promises a journey to Europe, and personally what I liked best about this book was the local flavor, so I don’t think I’ll be continuing along.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)
Pen’s life was destroyed when an Earthshaker took away her family (even their dog) and destroyed the Los Angeles she once knew. She’s now on a quest to save them from the monstrous giants that rose up after (or with?) the Earthshaker. Along the way she finds other teens who’ve miraculously survived, each with secrets and talents of their own.
This book left me completely torn. I loved, oh how I loved, the representation of both bisexual (Pen) and trans (Hex, her boyfriend) teens. But the story to go with these teens failed to live up to both these wonderful characters and the beautiful title.
Let’s talk about the good first, because I don’t want it to be overshadowed by what didn’t work. Pen is a bookish teenager who generally prefers to stay in reading the Encyclopedia or The Odyssey to going out to parties. But she still has two close friends. She’s not a loner. She’s brave, open, loving, and sometimes makes rather short-sighted decisions. And it is gradually revealed throughout the book that she is also bisexual. The scenes exploring Pen’s bisexuality, and how it’s hard for her to be out about it, in spite of being completely comfortable with herself, are wonderfully done. Pen acknowledges that even though her parents have always told her that it doesn’t matter a whit if she is straight, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, that the world at large doesn’t always think that, and that’s part of what makes being out hard for her. The world is not always the welcoming place her family is.
The book early on establishes that Pen currently has a crush on a boy, so the reader may perhaps be surprised when she reminisces about an earlier crush on a girl, and how she first realized she liked girls too.
Thinking of how I once kissed Moira on the lips. We were drunk and dancing, and our lips just brushed for that electroshock nanosecond, and then she smiled at some boys who were watching us, laughed, and danced away from me like it was a joke. But I’d had an epiphany, even though I hadn’t fully accepted it at the time. I wanted to kiss girls. And it was no joke. (loc 2:14:53)
Similarly, Pen struggles with self-editing her past when telling Hex about her life before the Earthshaker. She is not sure if he’ll understand or accept the fact that she’s perfectly capable of having crushes on girls as well as boys like himself, so she edits herself when speaking to him. She’s telling him a story about a party she didn’t go to, and the picture that her friends sent her of a boy with her friend, Moira:
I went to sleep staring at the last image wondering not what his mouth tasted like but hers. This part, this last, I don’t tell Hex, although I trust him enough to tell him anything. Don’t I? So I’m not sure why I don’t. Because I don’t want him to know I had a crush on a girl? Or because I have a crush on him. (loc 1:39:44)
It’s rare to see a book explore so eloquently what it is to be bisexual, and these feelings Pen has while not universal still explore the difficulty of coming out and being out as a bisexual person, and they were so wonderful to see in a book that I had to restrain myself from jumping up and shouting “Yes!” when they showed up on my audiobook on the bus.
Similarly, Hex, Pen’s love interest and eventual boyfriend (this is not a spoiler, when Hex shows up he may as well have a giant neon “future boyfriend” sign over his head), is a FTM transman. Hex is just as nervous about being out to Pen and their other travel companions as Pen is about being out to him, probably more. Being cis myself, I can’t say as definitively about the quality of FTM representation as I could about bisexuality, however, the author certainly tries to broach topics that I believe would be of interest to a trans YA reader reading this book: acceptance (or not) by family members and impact on romantic relationships with other teens. Hex comes out to Pen as a transman only because she has fallen for him, and he wants her to know precisely who he is before anything more *ahem* romantic happens. Pen immediately accepts him and tells him he is clearly a boy to her, and this changes nothing about how she feels about him. They then have to navigate their sex life. Hex, like many trans people, is uncomfortable with his body. He would rather touch Pen than allow Pen to touch him. Eventually, they reach an arrangement that both supports and asserts Hex’s maleness and allows Pen to give the pleasure back to him that she wants to. I was glad to see a YA book “go there.” I frankly haven’t seen much of that even in adult literature including a trans person. It both addresses the “how do they….” question some YA readers would certainly have after learning about Hex and also serves a purpose in the story to demonstrate a mature, healthy, loving relationship between the two characters.
In addition to Hex and Pen, they also wind up with two male travel companions who become a couple. The characters themselves point out at one point how odd it is that the minority before the Earthshakers is now the majority (none of them are straight AND cis). I was glad the author acknowledged the quirk and had the characters process why that may be. The answer they decide upon is a positive one, rather than the potentially negative one of punishment.
So now let’s talk about what didn’t work. The plot and the setting. The book is meant to be a magical realism style story told in a non-linear way. This could have worked if in the end the overarching plot, when reassessed by the reader from beginning to end, made sense. But it doesn’t. For most of the book, Pen refers to everything in fantastical ways, such as saying “Earthshaker” for what appears to the reader to be an earthquake. Why is she saying “Earthshaker”? Was there something different about it? Does she just like prettying up her language? What is going on with that? Later it is revealed that an earthquake seems to have happened when some genetically engineered giants escaped (showed up? were released?). The whole world basically goes to shit overnight, though, and it just doesn’t seem logical that that would happen from just a few giants escaping. Similarly, there are other fantastical creatures who are never explained.
Similarly, although it is indicated early on that this is a modern retelling of The Odyssey, it doesn’t line up well with the original. In the original, Odysseus is trying to come home after a war and keeps getting swept into side-quests. In this book, Pen starts out at home and then quests away from home. It would have made more sense for Pen to be somewhere away from home (maybe on a school trip or something), have the disaster occur, and then have her have to find her way home encountering fantastical things along the way. Starting her at home just doesn’t work.
Several elements feel like they are just thrown in because they look pretty or work with the scene even though they don’t work with the book as a whole. For instance, butterflies appearing around people who can be trusted pops up in the middle of the book, but isn’t particularly present at the beginning or the end. Similarly, some characters are revealed to have magical powers toward the end of the book, with no foreshadowing about that, only to have them….not use them much beyond the scene where it’s revealed.
Also, I’m sorry, but the whole some evil scientist genetically engineered giants to be his children and now the giants are out to destroy us but also the whole world inexplicably now resembles a myth just really doesn’t work. First, it makes no sense why a scientist would even want to engineer a giant. To be his children? Really? Why would anyone want giant children? Second, to give the mystical elements that started this whole thing a scientific explanation but then leave the rest fantastical doesn’t work. Either they’re all explained by science or they’re all fantastical. I really felt the book went way downhill for me when there was suddenly a “scientific” explanation for the giants. But just the giants and nothing else.
Finally, we need to talk about the name of the book. It’s a beautiful title but it’s really wasted on this book. First, global warming doesn’t come into play in the book at all, so why is it mentioned in the title? Second, it’s clearly a send-up to Love in the Time of Cholera, but it has nothing in common with that book save both having elements of magical realism in them. It feels as if the author came up with a title that sounded pretty and couldn’t bring herself to let go of it in spite of it not fitting the book she actually wrote.
Overall, this is a short read featuring four well-rounded and written teen characters on the LGBTQ spectrum. YA readers looking for positive representations of bisexual and trans characters, in particular, and who don’t mind some inexplicable fantasy elements will enjoy this quick read. Readers who will easily be bothered by the title not matching the content, a mixture of magical realism and scientific explanations for things, and/or nonlinear plots that when told linearly don’t make sense should probably look elsewhere, in spite of the positive representations of underrepresented letters in the LGBTQ spectrum.
3 out of 5 stars
In a valley near a river in the wood near Indian territory lies a tree. A tree that sends out its roots throughout the valley and demands blood. It is in this valley that the godsman Lucas and his wife Tamsen find themselves wrecked and at the mercy of not just the man Jonah Duvall and his Indian bride Jezebel, but also at the mercy of the tree.
I decided to dip my toe into magical realism via a genre I love–horror. It turns out it’s not a genre that works for me, although Vernon does it well.
Magical realism is a style in which magic is blended into the real world and characters view it as a natural, normal part of the world. It is more realistic than fantasy but less realistic than traditional horror, for instance. Personally, I could not get into an evil tree that wouldn’t let the inhabitants leave the valley. I think, perhaps, I would have if the characters themselves had been more modern, but they have an antiquated magical feel to them as well.
The books’ main themes are sexual disloyalty and cannibalism. The story seems to be saying that these negative qualities are possible in all humans, but the tree draws them out. All I can say is that although these themes are ones that interest me, they just didn’t do it for me in this story. I reiterate that I think the issue is simply that magical realism is not my style.
The tale is not badly told, although the strongest portions of the story are the flashbacks to Tamsen’s and Lucas’s lost prior loves. Those tales are unique and beautiful, and I can’t help but wonder what made the author choose to tell them as flashbacks instead of as the central piece.
It is difficult to write a review of this book, for although I recognize that it is well-written, it is simply not for me. Some combination of the style and the order in which things are told just didn’t work for me, although there is nothing easily pin-pointed as being wrong with it.
Overall, this is a well-written story that will appeal to fans of both the grotesque and magical realism. You must have a tough stomach to be able to handle this tale, but also an ability to immerse yourself in a world of magic just below the surface.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
When the girlfriend of the minister for roads and highways spots a disgusting red lump of flesh in a hut in the village Sonokrom, what normally would have been ignored and left to the villagers suddenly becomes a matter of national importance. Inspector Donkor wants a promotion, and he believes that one of the only forensics specialists in Ghana–Kayo–can get it for him.
What Kayo finds in the village is a people still steeped in the culture of the countryside, in touch with Onyame and the ancestors, drinkers of palm wine mixed with aphrodisiacs. Although he arrives with the mind of a scientist, soon his perceptions begin to change.
Kinna is one of the international bloggers I discovered through Amy, and she is awesome! She lives and works in Ghana and is interested in spreading literacy and love of reading in her own country, as well as interest in African lit everywhere. So when she announced that she was hosting a week in hour of Ghanaian lit, I knew I wanted to participate. Using the wonderful resource of tags in LibraryThing, I hunted down a book that LibraryThing was “mostly sure” I would like and ordered it from my library. Yet again, the book blogging world has brought me to a book I never would have read otherwise, but am glad I did.
This book reminds me a lot of The Summoner, only with the distinct bonus that it is a crime mystery set in Africa written by an African instead of a westerner who has visited. This means our detective hero is distinctly Ghanaian. Like all detectives, he drinks, but his drink of choice is palm wine enhanced by the village medicine man. Just typing out that sentence gave me the shivers of delight I got when I was reading the scenes of drinking and eating in the hut, which is the village pub managed by a woman and her adult daughter. It felt simultaneously familiar and new, which is one of the thrills of reading literature not written by one of your own countrymen.
Unlike western detective stories though, Parkes does not seem to feel a need to give a scientific explanation for every mysterious event that occurs. In fact, it is actually easier to believe the magical explanation than to wonder about the scientific explanation. For that reason I would definitely categorize this as “magical realism.” It is almost as if Sonokrom is a world unto itself, existing in some sort of parallel universe where magic is just an ordinary part of life.
The characters are all richly drawn and well-rounded. I had no trouble telling them apart in my mind. The method of switching perspectives from Kayo to the old man in the village works well. It allows the reader to see both the scientific and traditional perspectives and make up her own mind.
Some people may be bothered by the ambiguous/open-ended ending, but personally I feel that this is what the story needs. It leaves the reader to ponder upon the values of both tradition and modernity. Perhaps that is the point of the whole story.
Now, the book does throw in some Twi words here and there, but those are easily decipherable by context. The more difficult aspect as a non-African reader is the presence of Pidgin. Since whole sentences are written in Pidgin they were much more challenging for me. I must admit this small book took me quite a while to finish, compared to my usual reading rate. The Pidgin is not impossible, though, particularly if you have read widely among the various American dialects. An English dialect is an English dialect, after all.
Overall, I recommend this to those who enjoy both mystery and magical realism and don’t mind exploring a new dialect.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Public Library
Daisy’s stepmother has convinced her father to send her off to England to live with her aunt and cousins, and Daisy really doesn’t mind. She hates her life in NYC anyway, and life in the countryside seems like a welcome change. Her cousins are quirky and fun, and Aunt Penn is sweet and practices a relaxed parenting style. When Aunt Penn goes away for a work trip, terrorist acts occur in London effectively leaving the kids on their own. On their own to explore feelings and actions they might not otherwise have felt free to.
The big rumblings about this YA book is that there is incest in it. In the grand scheme of shocking incest though, this incest is just….not that shocking. It’s between two cousins who’ve never met until they’re teenagers. *shrug* Plus, the incestuous relationship is really not the main focus of the story at all. It holds center stage for maybe two chapters. Two very chaste chapters. Oh sure, an astute reader knows what’s going on, but there are no lengthy sexual passages. The most we get to witness is a kiss. So, this book is really just really not about incest, ok? If that was keeping you from reading it, don’t let it. If that’s why you wanted to read it, go read Flowers in the Attic instead.
So what is the story about? Quite simply, it’s about the impact living in an age of world-wide terrorism has on young people. On their perceptions, decisions, morals, and more. As someone who was only a sophomore in highschool when 9/11 happened, I feel safe in saying that Rosoff depicts the experience of a young person growing up in this world very well. The mixture of relaxing and having fun while the adults panic around you with nights of fear are perfectly woven.
Daisy’s voice is wonderful to listen to. She’s an appealing, funny narrator with an acute wit. She is truly someone to like and root for. Similarly, her female cousin, Piper, who she becomes a pseudo-parent to, is extraordinarily interesting and appealing. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to name a character who isn’t well-rounded.
Unfortunately, all of these positives about the book come to a crashing halt at the end. All I can tell you without spoiling the ending is that Rosoff did not take her themes as far as I was hoping she would take them. In my opinion, she copped out, and I was sorely disappointed. The ending reads almost like the beginning of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and I was just left feeling as if Daisy and her cousins had let me down. What could have been an extraordinary book became just average.
Thus, if you are looking for a YA take on the impact life with terrorism has had on the younger generation, but aren’t expecting anything mind-blowing, you’ll enjoy this book. If what you’re after is shocking YA, however, look elsewhere.
3.5 out of 5 stars