Book Review: The Spy with the Red Balloon

spy with the red balloonThe Spy with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Historical Fantasy
356 pages
Published October 2018

This is the sequel to The Girl with the Red Balloon – though chronologically, it actually takes place first. Since it mostly deals with different characters in related but different events, though, it doesn’t really read like a prequel. Really the only bad thing I have to say is that it didn’t answer the question of what happened at the end of Girl with the Red Balloon, and to be honest, I don’t actually mind. Spy could be read as a completely standalone book and be just as satisfying. There’s very little overlap between the two books, even though they deal with similar themes, in the same world.

I personally think SPY is better than GIRL, but I find that a lot with second books. I think authors tend to have a little more confidence by the second book; they know a little more about their world. They’ve gotten feedback from readers about what worked and what didn’t in the first book, and can somewhat adjust course based on that if they’re good. And Locke is excellent. I really liked GIRL, don’t get me wrong, but I LOVED SPY. The characters were fantastic, and the way she addressed Wolf’s demisexuality was perfect.

The book is set in a time when being gay was straight-up illegal, and one of Wolf’s fellow spies asks him about it because it was apparently in his file. He tells her there’s no evidence of that because he doesn’t feel that way about ANYONE. (He’s lying, but we’ll get to that.) He can appreciate when people are attractive, but he doesn’t feel desire that way – except for one person. One person, who he’d known for years and been best friends with before those feelings showed themselves. They’d never acted on it, which is why there’s no evidence of it. Demisexual is on the asexual spectrum, and as such it varies wildly in terms of how sexual a person is, but Wolf’s demisexuality is the closest I’ve seen in fiction to my own, so it’s really special to me.

Veering away from representation specific to me, SPY, like GIRL, stars Jewish people at its heart. This time we have a pair of Jewish siblings from America, each fighting in WW II in their own way. Ilse with her brain, helping develop magic for the US, and Wolf more directly, sneaking around Germany and disrupting their forces. GIRL dealt more with the oppressed German Jews, while SPY shows us the other side – the Jews who are fighting back for their kin, even though they could stay in the US and be safe.

Both books are excellent reads. I’ve had the fortune to interact with Katherine Locke on Twitter quite a lot, and at this point I will pretty much read anything she publishes. I love her characters and her plotlines and the obvious care she takes with the representation. Fantastic book.

From the cover of The Spy with the Red Balloon:

In a nuclear arms race, you’d use anything for an edge. Even magic.

Ilse and Wolf Klein bear many secrets. Genius Ilse is unsure if her parents will ever accept her love of physics. Her brother, Wolf, strives for a quiet life, though he worries there’s no place in the world for people like him. But their deepest secret lies within their blood: with it, they can work magic.

Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes  behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the secret letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty – and find a way to help her brother – before their time runs out?

Loyalties and identities will be tested in this sweeping fantasy and fast-paced thriller that bravely explores the tensions at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Book Review: Headscarves and Hymens

headscarves and hymensHeadscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
240 pages
Published 2015

Headscarves and Hymens was the third book in Book Riot’s Persist: Feminist Book Club, which is what brought it to my attention. We’ve been reading roughly two chapters a week and talking about it via Instagram Live. It’s certainly not my favorite venue to use – for one, I can’t seem to find a setting to let me know when someone goes live on Instagram, so I have to set myself an alarm. (I missed one book club session because I just forgot.) I also can’t seem to watch the videos after they’re over, so I can’t catch up on what I missed. I much prefer the Twitter chat that YA_Pride does. I can go back through those, and still have conversations with other people that read the book (and follow them!) where I can’t do that easily with Persist.

But you’re here to hear about the book, not the club! HH is short, under 250 pages, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is basically an essay on a topic, from driving (“Roads Through the Desert”) to veiling (“Black Veil, White Flag”) to purity and Female Genital Mutilation (“The God of Virginity”). Eltahawy is well-researched, mixing anecdotes and statistics to show us both the big picture of what is going on, as well as making it personal and hard-hitting.

I’m glad we read it in small chunks – some of the chapters are harder than others (the chapter on FGM and sexual “purity” was particularly rough). Spacing it out let the information really sink in before moving on to another topic. Additionally, we were reading it at the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was also….unsettling.

This is a really eye-opening book, but be sure you’re emotionally prepared to read it. It’s probably healthier to set it down and walk away for breaks, rather than to read it straight through.

From the cover of Headscarves and Hymens:

The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces – political, cultural, and religious – that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.

Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men, against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.

Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.

Book Review: Educated

educated memoirEducated: a Memoir
by Tara Westover
Memoir
334 pages
Published 2018

I blurbed this on my Friday 56, but I actually read it a couple weeks ago. I had to take enough time to distance myself from the text before I could formulate my reaction into words. More than once, I had to set this book down and walk away because something hit me so hard I couldn’t continue. A phrase, a quote, or a chapter title would jump out and sucker-punch me.

Tara’s family was much more extremist than mine; though we were homeschooled until 8th grade (with public school after that), we had actual books and tests. Oregon actually has yearly required standardized tests for homeschoolers, so in that respect I was years ahead of Tara. (Though my science and history education were still very poor – I thought dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time until I was in my twenties.) We had birth certificates, and saw doctors regularly. We lived in town. But my family is conservative Christian, and learning that there are viewpoints outside that caused similar emotions to what Tara goes through. Educating myself out of bigotry, at the cost of a relationship with my family – THAT is what I have in common with this author.

Tara had a pretty horrific childhood. There were a lot of severe injuries among her family members that really should have been seen by a doctor, and never were. Her father’s bullheadedness (and undiagnosed bipolar disorder) probably led to several of the family’s injuries. Her father was more neglectful than abusive, though. It was one of Tara’s older brothers that was abusive.

Between her family, her isolation, her lack of education, and her poverty, Tara overcame so many issues to get into university. It’s really astounding. The pushback from her family is sadly unsurprising. What she’s done with her life is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

And what I really mean by that is that I’m proud of my life and my beliefs, even if my family doesn’t understand them or me.

There are so many parts of this book that speak directly to me, from quotes like

Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

to the part where she devours the classic books of feminism in grad school because until that point, feminism had always been a bad thing. I’ve done that. I grew up on Rush Limbaugh yelling about feminazis. To realize that was wrong, and read the books of the first and second wave, is an awakening I know all too intimately.

I checked this book out from the library, but I’m going to buy my own copy. This is a book I need to keep around to remind me that I’m not alone in this journey – someone else has been through it too.

From the cover of Educated:

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head for the hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes from severing ties with those closest to you. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.

Book Review: Love, Hate, and Other Filters

love hate and other filtersLove, Hate, and Other Filters
by Samira Ahmed
Young Adult Contemporary Fiction
280 pages
Published January 2018

This book made a big splash when it came out in January, and rightly so, as I’ve finally discovered for myself! Written by an Indian-American, Love, Hate, and Other Filters follows Maya Aziz, a seventeen-year-old born in America to Indian immigrant parents. She’s the only Muslim girl at her school, and while she feels like she sticks out, she doesn’t feel discriminated against until a terrorist attack happens in her state. She had -just- gotten most of her issues worked out before the attack, but in the aftermath of the attack, and the community’s response to it, her parents clamp down on her freedom, and she struggles to get her life back.

I really loved Maya in this book; I can understand her parents’ fears, but also her rebellion when they take away the freedom she values. I think my favorite character, though, was the side character Kareem. I kind of hope Ahmed writes another book and tells us his story. He was just so NICE.

I loved the writing and the characters overall, but there were a few sentences that made me pause and repeat them in my head because they were just outstanding.

“The vows are simple, the same kind of pledges I’ve heard at weddings of every faith. Except at the end, there is no kiss. I close in for the money shot anyway, hoping for a moment of rebellion from Ayesha and Saleem. But no. No public kissing allowed. Full stop. The no kissing is anticlimactic, but some taboos cross oceans, packed tightly into the corners of immigrant baggage, tucked away with packets of masala and memories of home.”

And also, about arranged marriages and being a good Indian daughter:

“And the Muslim? The Indian? That girl, she doesn’t even get the dream of the football captain. She gets a lifetime of being stopped by the FAA for random bag searches every time she flies. She gets the nice boy, the sensible boy, the one her parents approve of and who she will grow to love over years and children and necessity.”

Maya is a whip-smart young girl who wants to be a film maker, and she spends most of her time behind a camera, observing. Her observations are really what make this book shine, and her snark had me laughing throughout the book.

I really loved this book, if you couldn’t tell! I love minority-driven YA, and this one reminds me quite a lot of Saints and Misfits. Given how much I loved both of these, I really need to read When Dimple Met Rishi!

From the cover of Love, Hate, and Other Filters:

American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City – and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.

Library Loot Wednesday!

invisibleThe book I’m most excited about getting this week is Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine, by Michele Lent Hirsch. I have two autoimmune diseases (plus migraines) myself, so this book seems to be written FOR ME. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis in my late twenties, and this books speaks straight to my experiences.

love hate and other filtersI also picked up Love, Hate, and other Filters, which made a big splash a while back but I just haven’t gotten to until now. Figured since it’s Ramadan, I should fit in a Muslim-centered book along with all my Pride reading. The review will be up later today, since I’ve read it already!

persepolis 1On the topic of Muslim-centered books, I checked out the first volume of Persepolis, a graphic novel about a girl growing up in Iran. The second volume is requested but hasn’t come in yet.

Dread Nation finally made its way to me, there was a long wait list. I was really excited about this book before it came out, but the author is apparently a little ignorant of Native American issues, calling the schools where they indoctrinated Native children “well meaning” instead of racist. A Twitter thread about Dread Nation. So I’m a little wary of it now.

The last library book I got this week is Well, That Escalated Quickly – Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist, by Franchesca Ramsey. Ramsey is a Youtuber who apparently went unexpectedly viral and decided to use her platform for activism. It looks funny.

In related news, BOOK MAIL! 

I got my Book of the Month package early last week, which contained The Book of Essie (excellent and already reviewed), When Katie Met Cassidy (excellent, review coming next week), and The Kiss Quotient. (Haven’t read yet.) I also received some Goodreads Giveaways – Prisoner 155 – Simon Radowitzky, an unexpectedly large graphic novel, and How I Resist: Activism and Hope for the Next Generation. That last one I won all the way back in March, and was really excited to get the ARC, but they had some printing problem with the ARCs, and then it was backordered from so many pre-orders, so I actually didn’t get it until the second printing, AFTER it released! A little disappointing, but I’m glad to finally have it.

It’s Ramadan!

persepolis 1So many things going on this month, I almost forgot it’s also Ramadan! You can read all about it at that link, but basically it’s a month of fasting between sunup and sunset to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.

love hate and other filtersI’m not Muslim, but I like to link my reading to current events and holidays, so for Ramadan this year I’m reading the graphic novel Persepolis, about a young girl growing up in Iran, and Love, Hate, and Other Filters, a YA novel about a Muslim teen growing up in Chicago.

I’ve read a few novels in the past on the same topics:

City of Brass

Saints and Misfits

The Clothesline Swing

An American Family

A Hundred Veils

Happy Ramadan, if you celebrate it!