MG/YA Book Reviews by a MG/YA Writer
Table of Contents
Welcome to the September edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
As mentioned in my August update, I’m revamping my monthly blog. I’ll be posting 2 book reviews every month (down from the 4+ of yesteryear), with my usual emphasis on constructive criticism, not snark.
Why am I downsizing my blog?
Because life as an indie writer and publisher is INSANELY busy. I won’t be able to keep up if I don’t cut back a bit. And hey, nobody’s ever complained that a monthly blog/newsletter is too short!
You’ll notice a few changes around here. I’ll be leaving picture books behind to focus exclusively on MG and some YA, wherever the book fairies take me during a particular month. I’m a notoriously moody reader and and read across a wide variety of genres, so where exactly I end up remains to be seen. Still, MG and YA will be the focus going forward.
In author news this month, I’m finally moving onto formatting and proofreading, the final stages of getting my SHADOW APPRENTICE manuscript ready for publication. If I can get my friend’s old Macbook up and running, I’ll be formatting with Vellum. I’m aware that the Atticus formatting tool can be used with Linux systems (and I wouldn’t give up by Linux computers for anything) but I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews about the product, which seems to be in development and still has some bugs to iron out. If things don’t work out with the Mac, then I’ll go with Atticus.
I also made the transition to double entry bookkeeping with a free cloud accounting program. This will save me from the arduous task of having to manually input data, which I hate. It also allows me to enter recurring bills, so I have an idea of my current and upcoming liabilities. (Look at me, going all accountant on you!) Best of all, I can now run REPORTS. (Super exciting, I know.)
Now that I’ve bored you all to death with this financial nerd-out (yes, this is a THING with me), it’s time to let you know more about September’s picks.
This month, we finesse our motel-running operations while trying to keep ahead of a an anti-immigration bill and a racist teacher. We also enter into the very dark world of fairy tales, where we try to outrun an unwanted past with a supernatural serial killer nipping at our heels.
I also (for some reason) managed to pick TWO SEQUELS to review, both of which were published in 2020. (Cue Twilight Zone theme music.)
So buckle up as we dive into this month’s sequels…I mean picks!
A quick note to new readers: books that are available from the Toronto Public Library will be marked #TPL, because books don’t have to be new or owned in order to be loved.
Middle Grade Novel
Three Keys (Front Desk Series #2), by Kelly Yang. (Scholastic, 2020)
Eleven-year-old Mia Tang thinks she’s got it made. She and her best friend, Lupe Garcia, get to run the front desk of the Calavista Hotel that is now owned by her family (instead of the famously tight-fisted Mr. Yao) and it’s been doing well with investor backing. Mia’s more convinced than ever that she wants to be a writer, and she is certain that she will make her mark in 6th grade. What could possibly go wrong?
Mia’s new teacher, Mrs. Welch, thinks that Mia’s writing needs a lot of work and gives Mia poor grades for her work. Worse, Mrs. Welch is also a supporter of Proposition 187, which would ban the children of illegal immigrants, like Lupe, from attending public school. As anti-immigration support grows, Lupe’s grandmother dies and Mrs. Garcia decides to travel back to Mexico to attend the funeral. Weeks pass without word from Mrs. Garcia, but Mr. Garcia cannot risk going to the police without exposing his own illegal status. When Mia posts a sign welcoming immigrants to the hotel to show her solidarity, some of hotel’s investors threaten to pull out, endangering the Tang family’s future. As support for Prop 187 grows and tensions mount, Mia wonders if her family – and the Garcias – will soon lose everything?
Kelly Yang’s sequel to Front Desk is an absolute treat. She’s crafted an entirely new story around Mia and her friends, and the wonderful world of the Calivista Hotel. Her richly portrayed settings and strongly-drawn characters will draw new readers into the series while they welcome old readers back.
Yang resists the temptation to stand on a soap box, choosing instead to explore how an atmosphere of fear and bigotry can poison everyone. A case in point is the conflict between Mia and her teacher, Mrs. Welch. Mia thinks that Mrs. Welch gives her poor marks because she’s racist. Mrs. Welch does treat white students differently than students of colour in her class. Yet, she’s also a stickler for good writing rules that she believes will help make Mia a better writer, and even offers extra tutoring to Mia. Mia refuses, because she doesn’t trust her teacher.
Yang crafts a thoughful resolution to this dilemma that doesn’t let Mrs. Welch off the hook for her racism, but also challenges Mia to look deeper at her own prejudices against her teacher. Might they be preventing her from getting the help she needs to become a better writer? Mrs. Welch, the person who seems the least capable of change, ends up surprising Mia, as do some of the hotel’s immigrant investors, who demonstrate that they are more than capable of bigotry against illegal immigrants like the Garcias.
These are big truths for middle graders to grapple with, but Yang helps her readers navigate their through an unjust and complicated world without ever promising them neat, formulaic endings. Like Mia, readers learn the power of how to speak up and advocate for themselves when facing systemic injustices that won’t easily be resolved, as well as how to live with the things they can’t change. For now.
Highly recommended, as is Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, the first book in the series. (#TPL)
The Doug and Sheila Browne Book Review
Each month, I pick an upper MG or YA book to review in honour of my parents, Doug and Sheila Browne, who always made sure that I had challenging books to reach for on my shelf. This month’s DSB pick is:
The Night Country (The Hazel Wood # 2), by Melissa Albert. (Flatiron Books, 2020)
Eighteen-year-old Alice Proserpine has fled from the Hazel Wood to New York City with her mother, Ella. Her grandmother, a writer of dark fairy tales, is dead and the supernatural world called the Hinterland where her grandmother’s stories came to life, is gradually dissolving.
There should no room for fairy tales in bright, brash New York city, but the fairy tale refugees from the Hinterland that who have washed up on its shores are proof that Alice’s old life might not be as far away as she’d hoped. She’d almost let herself believe that a fresh start in an unmagical world was possible until an unseen killer starts stalking and killing the Hinterland refugees. If that isn’t enough, Alice keeps getting letters from Ellery Finch, the boy who brought her to the Hinterland in the first place, intending to betray her in exchange for safe passage into that world. Alice hasn’t seen him since they went their separate ways, she to New York City and he to the Hinterland. How can she believe he is still alive?
Then the killer targets Alice, who must abandon all semblance of normalcy and let her Hinterland self loose in an attempt to stop the slaughter. But Alice’s Hinterland friends soon turn against her, suspecting that she’s the real killer. The truth is more terrible than Alice ever imagined.
I have to admit that I had very mixed feelings about this book and the first book in the series, The Hazel Wood. Melissa Albert is a wordsmith and she captures the dark, visceral violence of fairy tales beautifully. The Hinterland is pure Grimm, bloody and vicious. Any candy houses here would definitely be laced with poison.
Alice is a grim, jaded and at times, violent protagonist. Keep this in mind, if a likeable character is important to you. I found myself strangely transfixed, although I found Alice’s disregard for her mother painful to witness (in part, because it skimmed too closely to how I treated my own mother during adolescence). Also TW: there are graphic descriptions of murder and dismemberment in this book.
After the refreshing ‘nomance’ of the Hazel Wood, I found that the romantic elements in The Night Country were unconvincing. Alice is spectaculary traumatized from her ordeals. She doesn’t know how to connect to people, so much so that it was sometimes hard for me as a reader to connect with her as a character. How she transforms into someone capable of connection remains unclear, since she continually lashes out and seems unable to stop hurting people. She is even violent towards her mother.
Part of the problem is that the story is told in alternating voices. Alice Proserpine shares space with Ellery Finch. Both of their stories feel somewhat squashed as a result, and character transformation needs space and time. The plot feels disconnected from Alice at times, as if the scenes were written to advance a point or hint at another hidden aspect of the Hinterland rather than to develop her character. And there is little to no development of Ellery ‘s character. The world of the Hinterland still feels a bit convoluted and confusing to me. I don’t really get how the Hinterland’s inhabitants can be stories constrained by their teller (Alice’s grandmother) and yet still function as independent entities outside of her book. Albert might need to combine her ferocious talents as a wordsmith with tighter world building and a plot line that better serves her characters, but she shouldn’t make Alice any nicer.
Maybe only someone as hard, insensitive and angry as Alice could have survived long enough to stand up to the warped evil that lies at the centre of the Hinterland. Something to ponder.
For fans of The Hazel Wood (yes, the books need to be read in order), and for dark fantasy and fairy tale enthusiasts, from YA to adult. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! I’ll be back next month with more author disasters – I mean, news, as well as more MG and YA reviews. See you then!