Half the World

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Half the World
Joe Abercombie
Del Rey
February 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

Thorn, a girl training to be a warrior of Gettland, has to work twice as hard in the training ring for half the respect (sound familiar, ladies?). When she is questionably accused of murder, it takes the minister of Gettland, Brother Yarvi, to rescue her from execution and start her down the road to become one of the greatest fighters in the kingdom. Brand grew up training with Thorn, and in defending her against the murder charge, gets his own warrior dreams dashed. Luckily Yarvi sees potential in him as well and recruits Thorn, Brand, and a band of misfits from different kingdoms to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to gain allies that will help the king and queen of Gettland lead an uprising against the High King and his abusive minister Grandmother Wexen. Thorn and Brand each have their moments to be the hero of the journey, but when they return to Gettland a year later and without as much support as they had hoped for, they find things have changed and war is threatening to bear down on Gettland. They must be ready to fight. Strong female characters and a thrilling duel at the end makes Half the World a compelling read that stays true to its high fantasy roots but includes a much more diverse characters, including people of color and some kick-ass women. Books like this move the genre in the right direction.

Half the World is the second book in the Shattered Sea series. I didn’t read the first book and never felt like I missed any information from the first book, Half a King. The next book, Half a War, is already out and is going on my to-read list.

Read Alikes

Graceling by Kristen Cashore
Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin

Audacity

audacity

Audacity
Melanie Crowder
Philomel
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the YALSA list of Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Melanie Crowder’s novel in verse tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a women’s labor activist in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. We follow Clara from the Russian shtetl where her family was the victim of pogroms to Ellis Island and a new but still impoverished life in New York. With her father and three brothers occupied studying Torah full time, Clara and her mother must find ways to earn money to support the family. Clara finds work in garment sweatshops with abusive managers, unreasonable hours and quotas, locked doors, child laborers, and unsafe working environments, all to earn less than $10 a week. Seeing the injustice and danger in working in such conditions, Clara sets out to unionize the female workers. She is met with opposition from her family, the men’s union, the managers, and their hired goons who beat her up on several occasions, but she won’t be silenced. At great personal cost, Clara perseveres and makes greater gains than her doubters could have imagined. While Clara’s story is compelling – even more so with the modern fight for wage equality and raising the minimum wage – the end of the book is unsatisfying and feels a bit unfinished. Extensive back matter elaborates on Clara’s story and labor issues of the time.

Clara’s family’s Jewish traditions and lifestyle were particularly interesting to me. I’m currently living in Jerusalem and am learning so much about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Much of it is unchanged from what the book describes in the early 1900s. Still today it’s very common for the men in ultra-Orthodox families to study Torah while the women of the family are the main providers, both financially and domestically, usually for families with 6 or more children. In Israel, the government has a welfare system to make sure these families don’t starve, but it is expensive and these families still live in relative poverty. Keeping Kosher while traveling and working on Shabbat are other issues that modern Jews still deal with, though access to packaged food and labor laws regarding religion make these much less of a big deal than they were for Clara’s family.

My other takeaway from this book – I’m shocked by how much Clara gets beat up! There is some serious violence against women in this book, and it is just amazing to me how this doesn’t scare Clara into silence. She really was so brave. She deserves to be held up as an example of standing up for what you believe in.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

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The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
Stephanie Oakes
Dial Books
June 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
William C. Morris Honor

Seventeen-year-old Minnow Bly is about as much an outsider as a teenage girl can be. A former member of a cult that lived isolated in the woods for more than a decade, she has no hands (they were cut off at the wrist while in the cult), no education, and is now in a juvenile detention center awaiting parole. What happened to this girl to land her in prison with no hands and great uncertainty about her future? In chapters that alternate between her present in the detention center and her past in the cult’s homestead, Minnow tells her story to Dr. Wilson, a counselor and government investigator who is trying to solve the mystery of the demise of the Kevinian cult and the death of its leader and self-proclaimed Prophet – you guessed it – Kevin. In exchange for information, Dr. Wilson offers to vouch for her at the parole hearing that could either free her or land her in adult prison for a long time. Questions about Minnow abound – what did she do to end up in detention? How did she escape the cult? What happened to her hands? How can she even function in the world when she hasn’t been a part of society since she was five years old? The answers come slowly and mount in suspense until the climactic, violent end of the past that led to her present situation. Minnow is introspective and comes across a little too mature considering she’s been living off the grid with a bunch of religious zealots for most of her life. Ironically she has opportunities and experiences in juvenile detention that she never had before – everything from making a best girlfriend to learning to read – prompting Minnow and the reader to think about the meaning of freedom and whether imprisonment is only about your physical surroundings. The ending is wide, WIDE open, so if you like your endings wrapped up tight, you might find the ending unsatisfying or infuriating.

I really enjoyed this book. I was addicted from the start. I’m fascinated and horrified, as I think a lot of people are, by cults, and Stephanie Oakes builds some mythology around the Kevinians that really makes them come alive. The book is set in Montana and captures the sort of folksy religiosity of the American West (people in their scripture have names like Chad, for example). I also saw some parallels with the Fundamental Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an unofficial and broadly condemned relative of the Mormon/LDS church – polygamy, child brides, old-fashioned dress, isolation, a Prophet who doesn’t practice what he preaches. To learn more and probably head down an Internet wormhole, google Warren Jeffs; Colorado City, Arizona; or FLDS.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly received a William C. Morris Honor for a book of distinction written by a first-time published author. As I read, I had to ask myself why it didn’t win the award, which went to Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda. I came up with a few reasons. First, there were a few times I really had to suspend belief in order to keep on reading, especially in the detention center. As part of my library outreach job, I go to juvenile detention centers once a month and some of the stuff in this book would never happen there. Ever. Maybe things are different in Montana? I don’t know, but the book lost some credibility there for me. Second, Oakes brought up some big issues, mostly in the detention center, that either didn’t get fully fleshed out or were solved way too easily – things like prison rape and intimidation, solitary confinement (which Obama recently outlawed for juveniles in federal prison), and being manipulated by other inmates, particularly in Minnow’s case. And third, again, Minnow just reads as way too savvy for a person who has been isolated and fed lies for most of her life. I don’t care how rebellious she was in the cult; it doesn’t convince me that she can handle herself that well in juvenile detention.

Read alikes

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Walls Around Us
 by Nova Ren Suma

The 2016 Hub Reading Challenge: Challenge Accepted

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Every year the Young Adult Library Services Association’s literature blog, The Hub, hosts a challenge to read at least 25 YA titles that were awarded or honored by the Youth Media Awards that year in a limited amount of time (this year the challenge runs January 25 through June 23). This is my first year doing it, and of course, I’ll be blogging all about the books I’m reading here. You can also find the books I plan to read on my Hub Challenge Goodreads shelf.

While there are 90-some-odd titles to choose from, my choices will be limited to whatever titles I can get in e-book from my libraries back in Boston, making it a little extra challenging. I’m living in Israel up until the last 3 weeks of the challenge and English books are expensive and difficult to find here. If I run out of options near the end, I may be forced to buy an e-book or two but I’m going to get as far as I can on library books.

Anyone can participate in the challenge, so please sign up! You can read more about the challenge – guidelines, a list of eligible books, prizes – and declare your participation at The Hub blog.

Bone Gap

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Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
Balzer + Bray
March 2015

In the small, cornfield-surrounded town of Bone Gap, Illinois, beautiful and foreign Roza mysteriously appears in the farmhouse of Finn and Sean O’Sullivan and after a few months disappears again under mysterious circumstances. Finn, known as Moonface and Sidetrack by the townspeople for his strange demeanor, was the only person to witness her kidnapping but cannot seem to recall enough of the incident to provide a good description of the kidnapper. Sean, like half the town, was in love with Roza and is finding it hard to forgive his younger brother for his lack of helpfulness in the investigation. Meanwhile Finn falls in love with fellow strange teen Petey, the daughter of the local beekeeper, who discovers the reason for Finn’s spaciness. Strange occurrences abound – Finn finds a beautiful horse in his barn which he takes for midnight rides with Petey to what seems like the other side of the proverbial veil. Roza, who narrates many of the chapters from her captivity, is moved from a house to a castle to a beautiful garden that are all able to magically transform. Can these fantastical, enigmatic happenings help Finn find Roza and repair his relationship with his brother, Petey, and the town? Or will he forever be the moonfaced kid with the missing link to an unsolved mystery hidden somewhere in his memory?

This book is so hard to pin down, especially while you are reading it. Looking back after finishing the whole thing, it fits into the coming-of-age, mystery, romance, myth/fantasy/horror genre – which is to say that it pretty much defies genre. Basically it is everything I hoped Swamplandia! would be when I impressed my YA expectations on that adult novel (HUGE mistake, by the way). The writing is beautiful and strange and sometimes that is the only thing you have to hold onto as you think to yourself “what is even going on right now?! No, actually, I don’t care. I’m just going to keep reading these beautiful words.”

{slight spoiler alert ahead!!!}
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This book was a finalist for a National Book Award, I imagine both for the writing and for the topical young-woman-gets-kidnapped, boy with disability saves the day. There’s an illuminating and awesomely crit-lit-esque interview with Laura Ruby on the National Book Awards site.

Read alikes

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

NOT Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (not that you shouldn’t read it. You should. Just prepare to be traumatized and schooled on how adult literature differs from YA.)

Update: Bone Gap won the 2016 Printz Award for most distinguished book for Young Adult published in 2015. Well deserved!