Author: Neil Shusterman
Downsiders, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
In the wake of her parents’ separation and her mother’s latest whimsy (a long-term trip to Africa), Lindsey finds herself shunted off to New York to live with her distracted father and her odious step-brother Todd. Meanwhile, deep beneath that same city, Talon finds himself challenging the precepts and perspectives of his own culture–a people who live beneath the city with their own noble way of life, isolated from the Upsiders whom they view as stupid. And when these two teenagers’ worlds collide, the result is staggering . . . possibly even devastating to both worlds.
Shusterman is one of my favorite authors, as is pretty obvious just from this blog. His books have such a different way of viewing things; they’ve very unique. Downsiders is true to his norm in that it’s quite different from anything I’ve ever read, but it’s also pretty different from any of Shusterman’s other writing. While there are aspects that are similar, I’m not sure I could have picked him out as the author if I hadn’t known. The pacing, while great for this story, is slower than in a lot of his books, and there just isn’t quite as much spark . . . I don’t know how else to put it. Also, the flavor is almost–I want to say Dickensian, but that’s not quite right–it’s as close as I can get to describing it, in any case. Still, while all that sounds kind of negative, I did actually enjoy this book. The concept of a complete, isolated culture living in the abandoned tunnels and forgotten structures beneath New York City is fascinating, and the actual development of this culture in the book was well written. The characters were also believable, and the choices and changes they went through during the course of the story felt true, honest–and important to us as readers because of that. The ending, largely due to those decisions being honest choices not fairy-tale ones, is both beautiful and bittersweet; the story is better for its being so. I wouldn’t recommend Downsiders for everyone, but if you’ve got the patience to dig into it, this book is a rewarding read.
Author: Julia Álvarez
My rating: 2.5 of 5
After his parents’ divorce, Miguel, his mom, and his bratty little sister Juanita move to Vermont to start a new life. Of course, Miguel misses his friends in New York, his baseball team, and his artist father who is always teaching him the names of colors. But soon, it seems, he’ll have more to worry about in Vermont. Mami’s Tía Lola is coming all the way from the Dominican Republic to stay with them for a while and help out. Tía Lola is embarrassing–she’s colorful and loud and talks to everyone, but she only speaks Spanish! But maybe she’s not all bad. . . .
Well, I must admit, How Tía Lola Came to
Visit Stay was a surprise for me. I really expected to love it. I probably ought to have loved it. It’s a solid middle-grade story with all the right stuff–helping kids deal with divorce, sports, family, cultural diversity, the works. Plus it gives a good look into Dominican culture, and it helps introduce kids to lots of Spanish words. Plus it teaches about giving people a chance and looking for unexpected ways to handle problems. But the truth is that this book just fell kind of flat for me. A large part of it is that the entire story is written in present tense, which has always been challenging for me to adjust to in a book. I love the premise of playing with tenses and persons in writing, but when it comes down to it, present tense is just awkward in large quantities. Also, for all the colorful details Álvarez put into the characters, they never felt like solid, real people; I could never really see them or connect to them. So, although I think I would like to give Álvarez’s writing another try in a different book, I didn’t love How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay like I expected and wanted to.
Author: Marguerite Abouet
Illustrator: Clément Oubrerie
Aya, vol. 2
My rating: 3.5 of 5
The town of Yopougon is booming with life. While Adouja struggles to care for her new baby, her father roams the streets taking pictures of everyone he can in an attempt to identify his grandson’s father. Adouja’s friends try to help her with the baby while attending to their own lives as well (like Bintou’s new boyfriend). A beauty pageant is in the works for the whole of Yopougon. The local beer factory struggles to stay in business, making uncomfortable cuts in employment to do so. All over town, couples pair off and make love. And in the midst of it all, young Aya lives circumspectly, kind and beautiful, devoted to her studies and her friends.
Aya of Yop City was a graphic novel I randomly picked up off the shelf after seeing it mentioned several times in various places. I’m glad I did, even though it isn’t my favorite graphic novel by any means. For one thing, it provides a really insightful look at daily life in Ivory Coast in the 1970’s–and how often do you find a book that takes you there? I think this is the first book I’ve found that is set in Ivory Coast at all, regardless of the time period. And I think the style and plot of this book allow it to present a good picture of the culture, which is really neat. Furthermore, the story is funny (especially Hyacinte going around taking snapshots of everyone) and warm. I found the author’s explanations in the back of the book about child-rearing in this sort of community was also really interesting, as well as the way this is played out in the plot. The art is really attractive and bright; it fits the story well and gives a great feel for the community. On the other hand, I found the extent to which the book was scattered around numerous people and plots to be somewhat distracting. And the number of affairs going on in the story was a bit much. . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would have enjoyed this graphic novel even more if it had been more focused on Aya herself, who is a fascinating character. Maybe it’s my own fault for jumping in on the second volume (although I have to say that this volume is generally quite easy to get into without feeling like you missed a lot from the first volume). In any case, for those who enjoy graphic novels full of drama and culture, I think Aya of Yop City would be an interesting choice to try.