Book Review: The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

 

Reviewed by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKClover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it. When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth. Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe…or who to trust.

MY TWO CENTS: The Last 8 is a solid science fiction read. For those who are passionate about sci-fi, the book presents a really enticing plot that keeps the reader on the edge of their seats. Readers are taken on a journey with Clover and forced to contend with the mysterious beings that have taken over the planet and decimated all forms of life (with the exception of a tiny population of which Clover is a member). Clover can find no way of killing them, and is completely clueless as to why they do not seem to notice her, even though they’ve obliterated every other living thing around her.

Her arrival at Area 51, six months after the initial contact with these otherworldly beings, introduces her to a seemingly random group of other teens who, like her, pass unnoticed by these violent beings. This group of teens, as it turns out, may not be as random as the reader thinks (but I won’t give any spoilers!). The plot is a pretty solid suspense ride, with thrills heightening as these teens try to figure out a way to overcome these new alien overlords.

The best thing about this book is Clover. Clover is a complicated and well-formed character.

She highlights a number of really interesting qualities that are not often explored in YA (or any) literature. First, though it’s never delved deeply into, she seems to be a character who is not immediately looking for romance or any sort of sexual relationship (i.e. Clover is aromantic/asexual – it’s never blatantly stated, but heavily implied). The reader comes to understand her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend, as one that Clover was appreciative of because she is able to appreciate people in her life without it needing to be about romance or sex.

Additionally, throughout her journey to Area 51, Clover goes through periods of serious helplessness and severe depression to the point that she realistically contemplates suicide. I find it refreshing that Pohl is up-front about Clover’s feelings as she travels through the country for the six months between the initial alien contact and her arrival at Area 51.

Another great thing about this book is that it involves a large and diverse cast. The readers see young people who come from all areas of this country, and even from abroad. There is a great variety of ethnicities and sexual identities. I appreciate that this is becoming more common in YA literature, but an example like this one, where the characters are intersectionally diverse (ethnically and sexually diverse at the same time) is particularly admirable.

While an overall good start to this series, there are a couple of weaker points. First, though it’s made clear that Clover has been flying planes for a large part of her life and that she is genetically designed to be better at this than any other living being on Earth, it was still hard to wrap my head around the idea that she’s not only adept at flying very high-level military grade aircrafts, but that she’s so adept she can fly several different ones with no training whatsoever. Now, I completely understand that this can be explained by the idea that she’s not entirely human and therefore has superhuman capabilities, but it was still a stretch for me.

Lastly, the ending was not only confusing, but it seemed very rushed and slapped together. This is particularly unfortunate because Pohl spends a good amount of time really building up the middle portion of the book. It would have been worthwhile to focus on continuing that trend through the rest of the novel.

Overall, though, this was a great read, and I’m excited to see what happens in the second book of this duology!

TEACHING TIPS: The Last 8 was a thoroughly entertaining read, and any lover of sci-fi or adventure novels would find it a fast and fun read.

This book’s greatest teaching points come from the conversations about relationships and mental health that the book encourages. I love that many YA writers make it a point to destigmatize the diversity of these two things and challenge the ways readers might think about these topics. Honestly, if you think about the situation that Clover finds herself in, it is plain that anyone would be overcome with a sense of hopelessness and loss. Pohl’s description of Clover’s thought processes is legitimate and accurate and can be a great way to begin having conversations about what loneliness and depression are and how both can affect our mental health.

The book also brings to light relationships and individuals that are healthy and diverse. Clover’s relationships with her grandparents, her ex-boyfriend, and her newfound group of friends illustrate how vastly different relationships can look. Additionally, Clover’s character is one that is in charge of the interactions that she wants to have with people. She’s open and honest about how she feels, romantically or friendship-wise, and that is absolutely something that should be explored more in conversations with youth and adults.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Author’s Website): Laura Pohl is a YA writer and the author of THE LAST 8 (Sourcebooks, 2019). She likes writing messages in caps lock, quoting Hamilton and obsessing about Star Wars. When not taking pictures of her dog, she can be found curled up with a fantasy or science-fiction book. A Brazilian at heart and soul, she makes her home in São Paulo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.

And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.

Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

MY TWO CENTS: Would it be hyperbolic to say that I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this? Reading We Set the Dark on Fire made me feel fifteen again, devouring every immersive fantasy book with a twist of romance that I could get my hands on. But where those books fell short in both diversity and female empowerment, We Set the Dark on Fire excels and exceeds.

Opening with a brief folkloric backstory, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s shining debut novel submerges its reader in the hierarchical world of Medio and its fraught borders. Medio’s tension with its border towns and what lies beyond its literal border wall finds roots in the mythology established at the beginning of the text: The disintegrating relationship between brother gods, both desirous of the same wife. Ultimately, the Sun God won the right to have a relationship with both an earthly queen, Constancia, and the Moon Goddess—his Primera and Segunda wives—over his brother, the Salt God. Scorned and cursed, the Salt God was banished. Mimicking this folktale, Medio’s contemporary social system is built around the upper classes having a Primera wife, who runs the household, and Segunda, for beauty and harmony. While the upper echelons superficially thrive on this model, the border and beyond—territory of the Salt God—suffers and is subjected to increasing violence.

Mejia’s worldbuilding in the first few pages of this novel are brilliant, thorough, and engaging in a way that doesn’t feel beleaguered. Though Medio’s world may seem leagues away, its tumultuous border disputes feel so grounded in our contemporary moment that readers will instantly latch onto this novel. The orders that those who would risk traversing Medio’s border wall be shot on sight seem jarring when reading the novel, but then I turn on my TV or open social media and I’m reminded, once again, of the exigency of a novel like this.

Additionally, Mejia’s masterfully and lovingly created world plays perfect backdrop to the complex relationship between new Primera wife, Dani, and Segunda wife, Carmen. Dani, an undocumented immigrant from beyond the wall, smuggled across when she was a child, has managed to stay under the radar, even through her new marriage to the most eligible and most politically well-positioned bachelor in Medio. But her passing comes at a cost: being indebted to the rebel group La Voz. As Dani performs increasingly risky tasks for La Voz, she becomes further entangled with their mission. Complicating matters is her at-first catty relationship with Carmen, but as Dani and Carmen grow more intimate, Dani’s investment in the revolution becomes all the more precarious.

We Set the Dark on Fire sets the stage for what (I hope, please Tehlor Kay Mejia, please, tell me there will be more) promises to be a robust and revolutionary universe. Carmen and Dani’s relationship, alone, is a revolutionary prospect. We are getting more and more queer Latinx books for young readers, but to see this kind of representation in a fantasy novel is just lovely and wonderful (even if the plot of the book is dark and gritty). Like I said, this is the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager. It doesn’t overemphasize its love story, but it makes Dani’s unfolding attraction to Carmen feel organic, naturally growing from their situation and Dani’s own burgeoning self-awareness. What’s more, the attention to Dani’s growth and empowerment will resonate with young readers, seeking similar empowerment from the texts they read. Finally, Mejia’s choice to make this a Latinx story is calculated and necessary. The names, foods, and contours of Medio’s spaces bespeak Latinx culture, but Mejia is careful to not overemphasize and caricaturize. This world feels real because it’s grounded in something real. Mejia’s given us a gift in this lush, rebellious, queer, Latinx story.

All-in-all, We Set the Dark on Fire’s otherworldliness, its devotion to strong and multifaceted female Latinx characters, and its queer romance subplot make it impressive, and Mejia’s immersive prose make it lasting. To be fair, it may be a little difficult to get into because it does move slowly, building tension at the same time as the reader digs deeper into Medio’s innerworkings; even so, it’s worth the wait. For fans of Anna Marie McLemore’s books, We Set Fire to the Dark is a must-read. We’ll be talking about this book for years.

 

Tehlor Kay MejiaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. We Set the Dark on Fire is her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.

 

 

Book Review: El Verano de las Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, translated by David Bowles

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKOdilia and her four sisters rival the mythical Odysseus in cleverness and courage as they embark on their own hero’s journey. After finding a drowned man floating in their secret swimming hole along the Rio Grande, the sisters trek across the border to bring the body to the man’s family in Mexico. But returning home turns into an odyssey of their own.

Outsmarting mythical creatures, and with the supernatural aid of spectral La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters make their way along a road of trials to make it to their long-lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must defeat a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and the bloodthirsty chupacabras that prey on livestock. Can these fantastic trials prepare Odilia and her sisters for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?

Now in Spanish and translated by David Bowles, the award-winning El verano de las mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love.

MY TWO CENTS: El Verano de las Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall and translated by David Bowles, was originally published in English in 2015 under the title Summer of the Mariposas. Bowles’s Spanish translation came out in March 2018. The content of the book itself has already been spoken on in the review written for the original publication (which you can find here!), so I won’t spend much time on that. I will say that, while this was not my favorite book by Garcia McCall, it was a wonderfully written book and I did appreciate the Spanish translation that I read (which I’ll explain a bit more further down).

First, though, there were a couple of issues that I had with this book. I thought that much of the plot was too far-fetched, even for a book filled with magical realism. This may have stemmed from my recurring frustration with the dynamics between Odilia, the oldest sister, and her four younger siblings. While one should recognize that Odilia is only 15, and that she and her sisters are going through a considerable amount of family stress and anxiety, the order and arrangements of this sisterhood were bothersome to me.

It was made very clear at the beginning of the book that Odilia had largely been playing the part of caretaker for her sisters since their father had left. Her mother emphasized this when Odilia makes a poorly-advised visit to her mother’s workplace. Even still, there were a number of situations where one of the four younger sisters commandeered control of a situation and were determined to do what they (whichever younger sister) wanted to do. This was in direct contradiction to what I felt the philosophy of the sisters’ mantra (“¡Cinco hermanitas, juntas para siempre, pase lo que pase!”). At different times throughout the story, this happened with every single sister. At times, they were almost killed simply because they would not follow Odilia’s lead. At those moments, the younger sisters seemed to be concerned only with their desires, forgetting the ultimate goal of the expedition and even the pledge of togetherness that they supposedly held dear. Seeing this recur throughout the book made the central focus of the story, the bond between the sisters and the theme of family, feel very ingenuine.

Apart from that, though, Garcia McCall has a wonderful way of putting words together that make a story, including this one, come alive. The language that she uses creates very vivid imagery, and brings to life the characters, setting, and action in a wonderful way. Even still, there are many interesting things that have been pointed out about the Spanish translation of this novel. Many native Spanish speakers have observed that the language seems strange, as it’s been translated almost word-for-word and the English sentence structure and phrasing often sounds weird. The exact translations of English idioms into Spanish might be surprising, or sound unusual. It has been pointed out that many of the English idioms are said differently in Spanish and have much more commonly used Spanish variations.

I believe that these are all valid points, but it is also my understanding that Mr. Bowles’s intent was to offer a translation of the book that reached beyond the audience of native Spanish speakers. I believe myself to be an example of the population for whom he may have written a translation like this. I grew up and lived most of my life on the border of Texas and Mexico (I could walk from my house and cross the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez in about 30 minutes). Even still, I am not a native Spanish speaker, or reader, for that matter. I solidified my Spanish reading skills while in high school and college. By the time I could speak Spanish fluently, most, if not all, of the English idioms found in Garcia McCall’s original manuscript were already solidified in my mind. As I was reading through the Spanish translation, my mind pretty easily translated the Spanish words into the English idioms and sayings.

But for readers like me, and for readers who have been speaking English for a good amount of time, many of the phrases that Garcia McCall uses to illustrate how the Garza sisters would speak sound perfectly normal, even in Spanish, because it’s recognizable as Border language. It often sounds exactly the way that Spanish is spoken around border cities because there is a rich mix of English and Spanish combined to create an entirely new dialect. Is it perfect? No, not always. Is it understandable by those who do not come from the area? Most likely. Language is fluid and ever-changing. I found it commendable of both Garcia McCall and Bowles that they kept the characters, setting, and language from the Borderland, the part of the world I’m from, as genuine as they could.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Lee & Low Books): Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. McCall is an up-and-coming talent whose debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio, Texas, area. You can find her online at guadalupegarciamccall.com.

 

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

 

Book Review: The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nuñez

 

Review by Elena Foulis

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: It is 1957 in Marianao, a suburb on the outskirts of Havana. Adela Santiago is thirteen years old and lives in a small blue house with her mother, father, brother, and grandfather. And yet something is amiss. Her neighbors are disappearing. Not only that, but her parents’ marriage seems to be disintegrating and her cousin is involved with a bombing at the Hotel Nacional. Welcome to a world where the sight of police officers shooting citizens in broad daylight is a normalcy, where every day there is a higher body count than the day before, where in the cramped pews of churches, in the creaking wood of backwards Havana alleys, a revolution is brewing. Welcome to Cuba.

MY TWO CENTS: Viviana Prado-Nuñez’s first novel, The Art of White Roses, is a beautifully told story of a young girl growing up in Batista’s Cuba. Adela, the protagonist, tells the story of her neighborhood, family, and friends as she tries to make sense of how disappearances, violence, and affairs affect her and the people she loves. The story looks deeply into family life, such as sibling interactions, her parents’ sweet but complicated relationship, and Adela’s abuelo. Despite the political conditions of the time—including repression, police brutality, and desaparecidos—Adela is most impacted by her family dynamics. As she tries to make sense of cruelty, mysteries, and her own disappointments, Adela is both observant and conversant about the possible deaths of universitarios whom they all knew and who were possible revolucionarios. She witnesses the death of Luis, a neighbor and troubled-young man who also might have been part of an uprising against the police, and her own family drama of her father’s affair. One of my favorite chapters is, “The night they met,” because Prado-Nuñez’s weaves happy memories of when Adela’s parents met and the present reality of their strained marriage. The author’s narrative choice, at once nostalgic, funny, and tragic, centers around Adela’s perspective with the backdrop of the revolution.

The novel is not always told chronologically, rather, each of the chapters tells the story of an event, family member, or place. The stories help the reader see the protagonist’s development, but it is not a typical coming-of-age story, meaning, there is no event that suddenly helps her find her voice. Instead, Adela’s understanding of herself is directly tied to her place and community, including the oppressive political circumstances that, in the end, force her family to move. Her future is uncertain—including her educational future—because of circumstances that have to do with her father’s affair first, and her Batista’s regime second. Prado-Nuñez’s detailed descriptions of places and people add to Adela’s understanding of the world around her, and the reader enjoys the author’s carefully crafted narrative. This is best exemplified by her discussion of the book’s title, connected to José Martí’s poem and personal story of choosing to love and forgive, in the face of pain, as Adela’s father explains, “white roses are hard times,” and later says, “white roses are hard for me, too.”

TEACHING TIPS: Taking advantage of today’s digital tools, a google earth exploration of Marianao, its surrounding neighborhoods, and its proximity to Havana, can help understand the setting and how that might determine the experiences of Adela and her family. Research on Hotel Nacional, a historical site, will add to discussion of time and place of the novel. There is a lot to explore visually via photography about Cuba, especially since it seems suspended in time. These already available resources, can lead to digital projects such as storymaps, digital storytelling and digital archival projects about neighborhoods and historical sites.  While the historical background of Bastista and Castro is important, it would be also helpful to study American influence in the country and how this might have affected Cubans during this time and how this has informed U.S.-Cuba relations today.

 

Viviana Prado-NúñezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Viviana Prado-Núñez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in a hospital with a 4.0 Google review rating and a view of the ocean. Previous publications include The Best Teen Writing of 2014, 4×4 Magazine, Columbia Spectator, and Quarto Magazine. She is also the 2017 winner of the Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature for her novel, The Art of White Roses.

 

 

 

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

 

Book Review: Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Meet teenage Wiccan Mila Flores, who truly could not care less what you think about her Doc Martens, her attitude, or her weight because she knows that, no matter what, her BFF Riley is right by her side. So when Riley and Fairmont Academy mean girls June Phelan-Park and Dayton Nesseth die under suspicious circumstances, Mila refuses to believe everyone’s explanation that her BFF was involved in a suicide pact. Instead, armed with a tube of lip gloss and an ancient grimoire, Mila does the unthinkable to uncover the truth: she brings the girls back to life.

Unfortunately, Riley, June, and Dayton have no recollection of their murders. But they do have unfinished business to attend to. Now, with only seven days until the spell wears off and the girls return to their graves, Mila must wrangle the distracted group of undead teens and work fast to discover their murderer…before the killer strikes again.

MY TWO CENTS: The opening scene of Undead Girl Gang is a funeral—the funeral of teenage bruja Mila Flores’s best and ONLY friend, Riley. It’s a bold start to a story, and Anderson gives Mila a voice that is so funny, so angry, and so captivating that by the end of the first chapter, I was ready to go on any ride as long as Mila was there.

And what a ride that was! Undead Girl Gang isn’t just about grief and losing your best friend; it’s about justice. Mila refuses to accept the official story, that Riley was the third person at school to kill themselves. Mila is convinced that her BFF was murdered. In a brilliant twist, Mila casts a spell to bring her friend back to life to solve her own murder, but accidentally revives all three girls who died. What transpires after this is shocking, illuminating, and utterly enthralling. Mila must care for the recently revived, all of whom revert to near-zombie-status the further away Mila is from them. But that’s easier said than done when the other two resurrected girls are… well, really, really mean.

Anderson does a fantastic job addressing the ramifications of bullying throughout the text, and as otherworldly as this premise may seem, there’s a stark realism to what unfolds. If teenagers were brought back to life, how would they actually behave? How would someone who was bullied react to being revived alongside one of their bullies? How would three teens deal with the restrictions that this situation would require of them? All these issues and so very many more are addressed throughout the novel, and Anderson’s style is a perfect match for such a strange story.

Twisty, heartbreaking, and wildly entertaining, this is one of the best YA novels of the year.

TEACHING TIPS: Undead Girl Gang is rich with detail and nuance, and there are many moments that can provide teaching opportunities within the book. Note how Mila refers to herself and her body, and how she talks about fatness; this book has absolutely stellar representation for different body types that are not white, and Anderson’s body positivity adds a necessary layer to the story. Since the novel deals with bullying head-on (all the way to the end!), there are fruitful conversations to be had about difference (and how people are punished for being different) and the power dynamics that are present in character interactions. Additionally, Mila’s brujeria is intricately woven into the story, and you can tell how well-researched it is; conversations about faith and mortality would be apt in dissecting this book.

 Photo by Chris Duffey ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lily Anderson is a school librarian and Melvil Dewey fangirl with an ever-growing collection of musical theater tattoos and Harry Potter ephemera. She lives in Northern California. She is also the author of THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN ME IS YOU and NOT NOW, NOT EVER. She tweets @mslilyanderson.

 

 

 

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his acclaimed debut YA contemporary fiction novel, and his follow-up, planned for 2019, is a magical realism/fantasy novel about self-discovery.

Book Review: Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

MY TWO CENTS: There are few authors writing at the level of poetic brilliance and crushing emotional complexity as Anna-Marie McLemore does with each novel. I’m a huge fan of Wild Beauty and When The Moon Was Ours, so I was eager to fall into another lush, layered world. McLemore writes in the tradition of magical realism, but manages to make each of her stories feel so vastly different from one another. Weaving together four distinct points of view, she captures the challenge the del Cisne sisters face: at some point in their life, one of them will be claimed by the swans and become them. Blanca, who has fairer skin and yellow hair, is expected to survive the curse, and Roja, who is darker-skinned with red hair, believes that she’s bound for an inevitable fate. But this thrilling element provides a chance for McLemore to delve deep into themes teenagers will find compelling: Love. Acceptance. Colorism. The terror of changing bodies, the fear of isolation. The del Cisne sisters love one another so much that they vow to save the other, no matter the cost to themselves.

Yet each new chapter builds the complexity of this novel, which borrows from a number of traditional fairy tales and myths, such as Snow White and Swan Lake. Two mysterious boys—Paige and Barclay—become wrapped up in the del Cisne’s attempts to outwit and manipulate the swans, and they are both fully-realized, unique characters. I love a book where I am eager to read every character’s POV, and McLemore accomplishes this with ease. It helps that this book is so effortlessly diverse, in skin color and culture, in gender identity and fluidity, in showing us just how many different ways you can love another person. It is one of the most outwardly queer books I’ve ever read.

And the writing is just stunning. This novel manages to balance realistic, modern dialogue with a hypnotic and lyrical prose that is overflowing with sentences and scenes that broke my heart. Made me laugh. Made me yearn for more words, more chapters, more of every bit of this gorgeous book. I thought I knew what I was in for because it was a retelling of stories I’m familiar with, but Blanca & Roja establishes an entirely different kind of tale, one that is distinctly from the mind of McLemore. I expect this book will appear on a lot of lists by the end of the year, and it deserves to be. The young adult world needs more books that are challenging, odd, and imaginative, and you can tell from reading this one that the author deeply respects her readers.

Embark on this journey. It’s worth it.

TEACHING TIPS: Blanca & Roja is the perfect novel to analyze for a lesson on metaphors, as there are so many fantastic ones utilized by McLemore to explore issues surrounding sexuality, gender, colorism, and familial ties. It would also serve as a fantastic chance to talk about retellings and how an author goes about making a story feel like their own, even if some of the pieces are taken from something else. But more than anything else, I was drawn to the story of Page, who alternates between using he and she pronouns throughout the book based on what they feel most comfortable with at the time. It’s a fantastic example of gender fluidity, and I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note upon finishing.

Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is the author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award, 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, WILD BEAUTY, a Fall 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, and BLANCA & ROJA, which released October 9, 2018.

 

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his acclaimed debut YA contemporary fiction novel, and his follow-up, planned for 2019, is a magical realism/fantasy novel about self-discovery.