BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightening, a dystopia with a Navajo protagonist

Roanhouse, Rebecca -Trail of Lightning (1)Trail of Lightening
The Sixth World #1
Rebecca Roanhouse

After cataclysmic climate change reformed the borders of the United States, the Navajo (Diné) closed ranks and built a wall around their land. This Sixth World also changed the borders between the real and mystical realms, allowing figures like the Coyote (the Trickster) to manifest themselves.

Diné Maggie Hoskie thought her life was over when she and her grandmother were attacked. Instead, her clan powers manifested and immortal monsterslayer Naayéé’ Neizghání appeared, seemingly out of the blue. For several years, Maggie traveled with Neizghání who taught her how to fight and use her clan powers to her advantage. But after a gruesome battle, Neizghání left Maggie. She retreated to life in a remote area of Dinétah with only her rez dogs as companions. But then, a representative from the Lukachukai convinced her to help them find a young girl who was kidnapped by a monster.

Maggie successfully defeats the monster, but it’s unlike any she has ever seen before. Its arrival pulls her into a dangerous quest to find who is creating the monsters. Along the way, she partners with Kai Arviso, a medicine man-in-training, who carries secrets of his own. Together, they inexorably advance to an inevitable confrontation with Neizghání who may be more of a monster than monsterslayer.

Having a young adult dystopian novel with a female Native American protagonist makes this a book worth considering since representation is so important. And I was poised to like the book. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Maggie is an unlikable main character who is judgmental, defensive, isolated, distrusting, quick to judge, and with an over-exaggerated sense of her own importance. Sadly, she was not a unique character. I felt like her voice was indistinguishable from that of Mare Barrow in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, and probably several other protagonists in this genre as well. Like many of the books in this category, it’s told in present tense which isn’t my preference, but became irritating when some flashbacks were in present tense and some in past tense. In that area, consistency is important. The plot was poorly paced in my estimation, and the motivations of characters unclear, while the denouement offered me no payoff for the investment.

And, Roanhouse violated my cardinal rule regarding the treatment of animals. Maggie went off several times without any thought to her dogs. I wonder if labeling them “rez dogs” means it’s okay in her mind for them to fend for themselves. This is an irresponsible position. Today, Reservation Animal Rescue estimates that as many between 1,500 and 6,000 stray dogs roam the Navajo reservation. Spoiler alert: their lives are not good. Yes, Trail of Lightning is fiction, and yes, it’s set in a dystopian future, but still, the behavior of characters in fiction serves to normalize the attitudes of readers, especially those who are looking for a hero like Maggie. This type of dismissive, fend-for-themselves attitude towards dogs is irresponsible to perpetuate.

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BOOK REVIEW: Night of Miracles

Berg, Elizabeth - Night of MiraclesNight of Miracles

Elizabeth Berg

In the first chapter of Night of Miracles, Lucille Howard characterizes her thinking as traditional, hopeful, whimsical, and characterized by magical thinking. This description could also describe the book as a whole. A stand-alone sequel to The Story of Arthur Truluv, Night of Miracles focuses on denizens of Mason, Missouri: Lucille, an octogenarian retired teacher who now gives baking classes; Tiny and Monica, star-crossed lovers; Abby, Jason, and son Lincoln who are ripped by a family tragedy; and sophisticated newcomer Iris who came to Mason fleeing her past.

Sweet and charming, the book contains short chapters written in vignette-style switch between the primary characters’ perspectives. At times, it’s hilarious. In one chapter, Iris interviews with Lucille to be her assistant. Lucille has prepared a short quiz for applicants, and their interaction as Lucille reviews Iris’ responses had me cackling.

Night of Miracles emphasizes the power of connection among community members who are stronger together than when facing challenges alone. It is in the vein of A Man Called Ove, the genre of grumpy old people turned soft genre, and while mostly light-hearted, it does pack an emotional punch at times. Still, it is not as complex as Fredrik Backman’s novel or as skillfully written as Olive Kitteridge.

I found some areas of the book problematic. More than one character is overweight and decides to diet. Though Tiny observes that women really diet for each other, not for men, the book perpetuates fat shaming by linking being overweight to being insecure. Additionally, I thought the book completely belittled veganism/vegetarianism. Though much of the criticism came from a particular character’s point of view, the actual vegetarians in the book started eating meat, as though being vegetarian or vegan was a burden to be shed.

Given the structure of the novel and the multiple points of view, the characters have less development than if the book focused on fewer of Mason’s citizens. I understand the choice to include a tapestry of voices and show their interconnectedness but the trade-off is a lack of depth in characterization.

Finally, although the book had a mystical tone, some elements were so unrealistic as to be jarring. For example, once character receives a call from a doctor on a Saturday who personally schedules her to come in the next day, a Sunday. Seems unlikely! The timeline of the book, which seems to run from October through December, seems too short for all the events that occur. I kept second-guessing myself and checking the contextual clues and holidays for confirmation.

Despite these issues, Night of Miracles is a quick and easy read–I finished it in one sitting–that was emotionally satisfying with sympathetic characters.

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: Separate Is Never Equal, as true today as in 1944

Separate Is Never EqualSeparate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation tells about an important court victory against segregated schools in California, a story about which most people are unaware, and that occurred a decade before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Case. When Sylvia Mendez and her family moved from Santa Ana, California to Westminster, in 1944, the local public school would not allow her or her brothers to enroll, instead directing them to Hoover Elementary, the Mexican school Her father met with officials but none were able to give him a better reason than that was how thing had always been done. The Mexican school facilities were poor, in a small and dirty clapboard shack surrounded by a cow pasture.

Mr. Mendez tried to organize other parents through his group, “The Parents’ Association of Mexican-American Children,” but no one would sign his petition for fear they would lose their jobs on the farms owned by white families. Then, Mr. Mendez learned about David Marcus, a lawyer who helped integrate the public pool in San Bernardino. While Mr. Mendez and Mr. Marcus toured Orange County for families who would join the fight, Mrs. Mendez managed the farm. The men’s efforts were successful, and three other families agreed to join a lawsuit.

The Garden Grove school district superintendent testified at the trial that Mexican children were enrolled in Hoover Elementary because they lacked English language skills and needed to improve their social behavior, including personal hygiene. He claimed that Mexicans were inferior to whites “in their economic outlook, in their clothing, and in their ability to take part in the activities of the school.” Mr. Marcus’s case derailed Mr. Kent’s arguments, but Judge Paul McCormick took almost a year to deliver his decision: he struck down segregation in the county!

The school district appealed, and organizations across the country provided support, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, and more. The support from such diverse people surprised Sylvia, but her mother told her, “When you fight for justice, others will follow.” In April, the judges of the appeals court ruled in favor of the Mexican families and in June, California’s governor signed a law integrating schools.

Being one of the first students to integrate the local school wasn’t easy for Sylvia–she was teased and insulted–but her mother encouraged her and by the end of the year, she fit in.

In an author’s note, Duncan Tonatiuh notes that segregation has been on the rise. A 2012 study found that 43% of Latino students and 38% of black students attended schools were fewer than 10% of their classmates were white. A recent Newsweek article proclaimed that “School Segregation in America Is As Bad Today As It Was in the 1960s” (segregation being correlated with if not caused by economic segregation.) While segregation doesn’t surprise me, the extent of it is shocking, and with the nationalist and racist attitudes so prevalent in United States politics, the problem can only get worse.

Segregation is incredibly destructive to students in minority-dominated schools. The Cost of Segregation, a report by the Urban Institute, in a case study of Chicago, linked lower income levels, reduced educational attainment, and even the homicide rate among blacks to segregation. Combined, these effects hurt everyone in a community, not just minorities. Remedying this calamity requires changes not just in educational policy but in housing, development, and social services.

Because of the pressing need for change, Separate Is Never Equal is important not just because it tells a underrepresented story. It also brings awareness to the issue for young readers and their guardians. The book is well-researched and show’s a child’s perspective of complicated legal proceedings, highlighting the unfairness of the segregation policy. It seems the illustrations are inspired by Aztec art, without the violence, of course!

Aztec Art Collage

I was less happy with the writing style itself. It was very dry and while it was from Sylvia’s perspective, didn’t have the characteristics that to me define children’s books (grades 1 to 4 according to the School Library Journal and 2 to 5 according to Booklist): it wasn’t engaging, or lyrical, or have the callbacks and repetitions that capture children’s interest. At the same time, diversity is so needed in children’s books, and this story needs to be disseminated.

BOOK REVIEW: The Goldfish Boy, a twelve-year-old detective with OCD

Thompson, Lisa - The Goldfish BoyThe Goldfish Boy
Lisa Thompson

Matthew Corbin, a twelve-year-old who has lived on Chestnut Close his entire life, isn’t like most of his classmates. He suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and he is so fearful of germs that not only does he clean his surroundings and wash himself all the time, he is reluctant to leave his house. Instead, he watches the neighborhood from the upper windows of his family’s home, even keeping notebooks of the neighbors’ activities.

He watches when six-year-old Casey and fifteen-month-old Teddy, grandchildren of Mr. Charles, his next door neighbor, arrive for a month-long stay while their mother goes to New York for work, and he sees Casey push Teddy into Mr. Charles’ pond when Mr. Charles is out front talking to Penny Sullivan. He notices the neighborhood bully, Jake, his former best friend, torment Melody, a girl in his class who spends an unusual amount of time in the nearby graveyard. Matthew observes the widow, Old Nina, water her plants at 10:00 each morning, and his gym teacher, Mr. Jenkins, go for his daily runs.

When Teddy goes missing, then, Matthew is sure that he has seen more and knows the neighborhood better than the police, and it’s up to him to solve Teddy’s disappearance. After all, he has a record of his neighbors’ activities the day of the disappearance, and, noticing Teddy alone in the yard at midday, he might be the last person to have seen Teddy. But investigating is difficult when you can’t leave your house, and both Melody and Jake make a case for joining the inquiry. Together, the misfitting trio follow leads, ultimately finding the clue that solved Teddy’s case.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s compulsive washing is so extreme that the skin on his hands is broken, raw, and bleeding. His parents have told the school he has mono, but the authorities are beginning to question his long absence from school. Worried and feeling helpless, Matthew’s parents arrange for him to see a doctor, difficult when he doesn’t want to leave the house. A new therapist, Dr. Rhodes, offers him hope for healing.

For ages eight to twelve, The Goldfish Boy offers a realistic and painful depiction of obsessive compulsive disorder and its possible treatment. Though at times I thought it rather pedantic, the book is a a positive representation that allows any child with OCD to see themselves as a main character or children in general to learn about the condition and develop empathy.

The mystery itself is high-stakes, yet it isn’t scary or gory, so it seems like a good choice for students in the target age group. Not surprisingly, the adult characters aren’t as developed as the children’s, and at first, Matthew sees most adults with some degree of suspicion or distance, but some of the neighborhood residents reveal themselves to be allies. Matthew, Melody, and Jake are all multidimensional with interesting backstories, though the author might be overdoing it on the tragic past angle.

In The Goldfish Boy, the children are given a great degree of freedom which surprised me. I grew up a very, very long time ago, and I would not have been allowed the same degree of movement outside the home. I’m wondering if this is because of the dead-end street where they live giving a sense of security (though a toddler was just kidnapped, so that can’t be right), different expectations of children’s behavior in England, or me having had a very overprotective family.

The Goldfish Boy also provides a hint into how difficult Matthew’s condition is for his parents. Every time they entered the narrative, my blood pressure increased. While his mother attempted to understand his illness, his father was impatient. In their defense, Matthew wasn’t being completely honest about the event that triggered his OCD, but still. At one point, they decided to take down the wallpaper in his room and paint it without talking to him. This seemed to be so disrespectful and boundary transgression that I was beside myself, especially when his dad exhorted him to stop being silly. In response, his mother told Matthew that they’d been too easy on him, and what they were doing was for his own good. I expected Matthew to confide in the therapist and her to caution the parents about their very, very bad behavior. Instead, Matthew decided that he liked how his room looked after all. This sequence bothered me so much as it promotes the idea that parents-know-best, when that is not always the case, and that children should do what their parents say without having a voice. Sadly, I think my distress over this scene will last longer than some of the other more positive aspects of the book.

In any case, The Goldfish Boy offers a readable and at times funny mystery with a non-conventional protagonist that should delight middle readers and help them develop empathy for people who are different, with Matthew, Melody, and Jake all presenting examples of how the past affects the present. It also promotes the idea that friendships might be difficult but are healing themselves.

I like the UK cover so much better than the cover released in the US. What do you think?

Thompson, Lisa - The Goldfish Boy UK

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch Elm, where faulty memories make it difficult to solve a mystery

French, Tana - The Witch Elm KThe Witch Elm
Tana French

I am a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, so was thrilled when she released a new book, even though it was stand-alone. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

Life has always been charmed for Toby Hennessey, a PR manager for a small but exclusive Dublin art gallery. If he finds himself in a difficult position–which he rarely does–he is able to talk himself out of it, making friends in the process. But then came “that night.” After celebrating with his friends Sean and Dec at the pub for once again turning a bad situation around, this time at work, Toby walks home drunk. In the middle of the night, he heard noises and when he went to his living room to see what was going on, he found two burglars carrying out his expensive electronics. Instead of leaving, they beat him so badly he nearly died from the brain trauma. In addition to the memory loss, personality changes, and impaired cognitive ability, Toby suffered physical effects such a limp and loss of strength. For the first time, life wasn’t charmed. Toby knew fear, not just fear regarding his personal safety but fear that he might never be the person he was before the accident.

When his cousin Susanna calls to tell him their Uncle Hugo is ill and suggests Toby stay at the family’s Ivy House with him, Toby doesn’t give it any thought: he’s in no condition to take care of himself, much less another person. But his girlfriend Melissa convinces him he will regret it if he doesn’t spend time with Uncle Hugo while he can. Melissa, who is really so good and sweet that she’s an absolute bore as a character, agrees to go with him. The three of them quickly establish a set of comfortable routines, with Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research while Melissa spends the day at the retail shop she manages. Flitting through Ivy House are the uncles, Hugo’s brothers, their wives, and the cousins, Susanna, plus her husband and kids, and Leon. Toby spends much of his energy presenting a front to convince his family that he is the same as he ever was.

All their lives are disrupted, though, when Susanna’s son Zach finds a human skull in the majestic wych elm in the garden. The family hoped that the skull was possibly from the civil war, certainly from before they moved to Ivy House, but forensics tests showed that the body was there no longer than fifteen years, dating the death to around the cousins’ final year in school. When the police identify the body as Dominic Ganly, one of the cousins’ classmates, Toby realizes they aren’t just peripheral to the case: they are a part of it. He is desperate to know what happened, but his faulty memories present a clear impediment, and his narration becomes even more unreliable when it’s clear that his flawed memory likely predates his brain injury. He trusts no one, not even himself, as his tries to uncover the truth of the mystery before the police do in an effort to protect himself and his family.

For much of the novel, Toby is my least favorite character, which is funny to me since he is supposed to be so charming. Perhaps he was wildly mistaken about his personality or perhaps it was the result of the brain injury, but in any case, I did not enjoy being in his head for five hundred plus pages. Not many of the characters are likable, though, not even (especially not) Susanna’s children. And I found myself not even questioning the legitimacy of Dominic’s death as his behaviors were uncovered, something that greatly disturbed me!

The fulcrum of the novel, the uncovering of the skull in the garden, didn’t happen until about a third of the way into the narrative. Much of the book before that moment could have been edited for a tighter and I think more effective plot. After that point, nothing seems certain, which would accurately reflect Toby’s experience, though I wonder if he’d have had less paranoia if he’s smoked less pot.

We learn, with Toby, the truth about Dominic’s death, through a long explanation delivered by another character. The Trespasser also ended in such a way, and I didn’t like it then, either. I think mystery novels should be resolved more through action than exposition.

At the same time, the book seems to present a realistic portrait of brain injury and the strains it puts on the patient and his or her family (as well as the devastation of being a crime victim). Through the lens of the brain injury and Toby’s unstable identity, French questions identity and memory in general, and these themes along with her excellent writing redeem the novel to some extent.

The UK edition has a different title, The Wych Elm, as well as a different cover. This is a rare case in which I prefer the US cover design, though I’m not sure why “wych” had to be dumbed down for us.

French, Tana - The Witch Elm UK