Tuesday, 15 July 2014

review: Shipwreck Island

by S. A. Bodeen
Feiwel & Friends, July 29 2014
middle-grade fantasy
ARC received via publisher (thank you!)

Sarah's dad and Marco's and Nacho's mom are getting married, and neither Sarah nor Marco are at all pleased (Nacho is on the fence). When the newlyweds decide to bring the kids on a family honeymoon, Sarah and Marco are sure it's going to be awful. But even they have no idea what they'll find on Shipwreck Island...
The cover:

Illustrations that show entire casts of characters are the best, and the grand scale of the scene depicted here lends a suitably dramatic tone that accurately reflects the genre (if not the actual writing). The neutral font is spiced up with interesting shadow-masking effects, letting the beautiful turmoil of the art shine.

The book:

Well, this was a bizarre read. Shipwreck Island starts out promisingly, with the mostly authentic voices of Sarah and Marco alternating chapters. The built-in tension in their family structure helps move the pace along initially, even though there's no sign of a story arc.

But then it becomes clear that this is the book's major flaw. The action steadily rises, but Bodeen fails to introduce any other stakes, goals or personal engagement beyond life-or-death. All the characters want is to get back to the mainland alive, and dropping hint after fantastical hint regarding the truth of the island ups the tension but not necessarily the reader's engagement. Simply put, the draw of finding out what's going on is not enough when the characters are pratically passive in the actual discovering.

In fact, Nacho is perhaps the only character who is original enough to enliven the story. His interactions with Sarah and Marco not only go a long way toward rounding out our main characters (more than their actual points-of-view do!), they make him fascinating enough to warrant being a protagonist himself. The parents are bland at best, and with such a small cast of characters, it's no wonder this book is startlingly short.

The end is quite, quite abrupt (all the more so for the attempt at a Dramatic Plot Twist by adding a new character), and with the island's secret as yet unrevealed, Shipwreck Island is neither a very good standalone nor a solid first book in the series.

Ethnic balance: 3 out of 5. Marco, Nacho and their mother are presumably Latin@ (though it's never specified), and the new character has "dark" skin.

Rating: 2.2 out of 5

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

spotlight: The True Meaning of Smekday/DreamWorks' Home

It's always fantastic when big-name film studios pick up children's books and develop them into full-length motion pictures. This is exactly what's happening to a hilarious, thoughtful and ambitious middle-grade sci-fi novel: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Disney-Hyperion, 2007). So I thought I'd feature it and the movie adaptation, DreamWorks' Home (in North American theatres March 27 2015), in a little spotlight.

When I say this book is ambitious, I mean it. It's sci-fi that doesn't take the science parts too seriously (watch this animated short teaser from DreamWorks for a preeeeetty accurate picture of what the alien race Boov look like) but does approach the human aspect to it exceedingly well. The theme of family drives Smekday's plot; our protagonist, Gratuity (her friends call her Tip), sets out on a cross-America trip when her mother is kidnapped by the invading Boov. This makes her prejudiced against the aliens, including renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo who becomes her sidekick, until her perceptions of what is right and who should win are knocked askew when yet another alien race approach to invade.

Structurally, this book is immensely fun. The novel starts out as an essay set by Tip's school to write an essay on the meaning of Smekday, and slowly evolves into a monstrous thing of fun from there. Adam Rex is also an illustrator (he illustrated quite a few famous authors' children's books, like Neil Gaiman's Chu's Day), and his pencil sketches dot the novel as pictures from the perspective of Tip's camera. Little six-page comics from J.Lo's perspective are also a rare treat.

You'll notice that this is DreamWorks' first animated film with a black female protagonist — well, you can bet that Rex doesn't shy away from addressing Tip's interracial family and the reception she gets when she tells someone "We're Italian". Then there's the Chief, a Native American who helps upend a few white privileged theories on their posterior as well. Basically, Smekday wins all the awards for racial diversity in a MG novel, which is why it's even more awesome that DreamWorks has made it into a film.

(You gotta watch the trailer just for the line "Oh, no! My hands are in the air like I just do not care!" The best.)

Rihanna voices Tip, and the Boov (now named "Oh") is voiced by Jim Parsons. Try not to freak out, now, but Jennifer Lopez is actually voice-acting in this movie. Yep, the author named his rogue Boov after her, and now she's going to be in his film as Tip's mom. Furthermore, Rihanna is recording a full-length concept album that will serve as this movie's sound track, which is all kinds of amazing.

Finally, here are ten reasons from Tip and J.Lo themselves, as illustrated by Adam Rex, why you should get onto this book & movie stat:

Sound good? Let me know if you have read or will read the book and/or will watch the film!

Monday, 16 June 2014

review: Emily's Blue Period

by Cathleen Daly; illustrated by Lisa Brown
Roaring Brook Press, June 17 2014
contemporary picture book
galley received via publisher (thank you!)

Summary (via Goodreads because it's too good not to use):
Emily likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up. Emily's life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn't live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.
“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”
It might last quite some time.
The cover:

It's a common affliction for picture book covers to have a complete lack of background, but here it works semi-well as a sort of blank canvas, referencing the theme of art. The hand-lettered title is also lovely and simple, a good contrast to the scattered assortment of art supplies framing the bottom of the design.

The book:

The structure of Emily's Blue Period defies conventional picture book formatting, turning it into its strongest point. To begin with, a short table of contents presents itself, an unusual addition that helps marcate the progression of this longer-than-usual picture book. The chapters aren't superfluous; in fact, they aid in moving the pace forward and jumping in time without forcing artificial stops in the story's flow by letting the reader know that a new scene can be expected to begin.

The illustrations also start spilling over the pages from the very first chapter. The artist, Lisa Brown, uses watercolour to render contained visual vignettes that complement the story perfectly, often in a sequential collage format to accompany the text as it moves from locale to locale. Little details such as a black cat that is never actually mentioned follow the story. And furthermore, the text is integrated fully into the art, so that speech bubbles show conversations sans dialogue tags and sentences are finished in the illustrations themselves.

Finally, the story itself is a simple one, but made above par by less-is-more writing and the theme of using art as a medium to express sorrow and change and to rediscover love and the meaning of home. Emily, her brother and her parents are characterized marvelously efficiently in just a few lines of dialogue, which ensures the ending of this book will have all the emotional resonance to make the final few words touching, rather than cheesy. My favourite page in the whole book is page 54; the combination of art plus text placement is simply stellar.

Ethnic balance: N/A.

Rating: 4.2 out of 5

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

reading & growth & change: some navel-gazing.

It's been around five or six years since I started this reading thing seriously. Reflecting upon the contents of each book, turning the filter of my mind to active instead of passively letting the words slide through, letting them fall where they may without thinking too hard. It doesn't feel as if much about my processing method has changed — but at the same time, I myself have changed tremendously, in the ways that count: principles, ways of thinking, outlook on life. And this revolution of self finds echoes, I find, in the way and the things that I read.

Backing up a bit: the change effects itself in the other way as well. What I read changes what I think and how I am, and that thus leads to more changes in what I read or choose not to read. In fact, I think my reading reflects myself in a parallel, mirroring fashion, rather than a cyclical, directional manner. So, although my reading and my change may be catalysts for each other, at the same time they are also firmly interlocked.

I'm intrigued by this concept, actually — how important it is to me that my reading meshes with the principles that I come to hold. It has to do with art imitating life, the possibility of fiction as an alternate universe of reality, I think. Because I have discovered this new way of processing life, I don't know if I can go back. I've changed.

What does this mean for my reading? Quite a few things. It means that I participated with joy in #WeNeedDiverseBooks (check out the Tumblr. Go on!); it means I angry-tweet about stereotypes; it means that now, I relegate books to the did-not-finish pile with sass, immediacy and aplomb. My reading tastes are changed, along with myself. Perhaps they are more specific, more demanding, but perhaps they simply reflect my reality now.

The age category + genre mix of young adult contemporary is halfway to a minefield for me right now. By virtue of the genre's definition, the immediacy of the action and the storyline and the characters means that if the book's characters do not reflect the diversity and variety that I've come to expect, then the reading experience becomes an intensely grating one. I don't want to read about a reality where the important people are white.

For some reason, removed genres under YA such as fantasy/sci-fi, historical and steampunk give me less problems, and I've yet to discover whether it's because the genres allow my sense of reality to relax, or because the genres themselves lend to greater diversity.

But where my true refuge lies is in an entirely different age category. Middle-grade is my safe place, the place where the possibility to be triggered negatively is at its lowest, where the books talk about themes that tug on feelings that I thought I'd lost in my revolution of self, in my changes of mind. It is — these books are — simultaneously nostalgia and hope for the future. Hoping that the future can still be what I thought it would be.

I've grown, now. These changes are here to stay. But so is my love of reading, my love of books, my love of writing. So they must all change with me.

Thanks for reading. ♥