Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10

Weekend Shorts: Ms. Marvel

The shorts this week are more like one long, in that I read the first volume of a comic series and I always have way more to say about the first volume than the ones that come after. So, here are some thoughts about six issues of a so-far-pretty-awesome comic!

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1I almost couldn’t not read this first volume of the new Ms. Marvel, because it has been everywhere on my internets for ages. Excitement when it first came out, more excitement with the release of the first collected volume, and not terribly much less excitement in between. I had bought the first issue when I saw it in my comic shop and never bothered to read it, but with so many people telling me how awesome it was, and with an urge to throw my dollars at a project that sounded so fantastic, I went ahead and ordered the trade and threw myself into it.

First, for those not inhabiting my particular corner of the internets, a quick summary: Kamala Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani teen living in Jersey City who becomes the superhero Ms. Marvel but still has to, like, be a Muslim, Pakistani teen living in Jersey City. Lady superhero? Sold. Non-white superhero? Tell me more. Jersey City? Eh, that’s okay.

But really, I was lured in by promises of fanfic writing and Wolverine crushing (as in having a crush on, not, like, smushing), but I guess none of that happens in the first six issues. Super disappointing. I suppose that means I have things to look forward to, though…

What actually happens in these first issues is a lot of backstory. We meet Kamala and her friends and establish that Kamala’s family is pretty conservative and incredibly protective of her as the only daughter. Kamala’s friends are a little protective, too, especially around some falsely nice classmates who clearly do not understand how to interact with a person unlike themselves. And, to be fair, Kamala doesn’t really know how to interact with anyone — she is torn between frustration with her family’s rules and her need to defend them to her classmates, she makes trouble at Saturday School over sexist rules and teachings, and she has a boy totally crushing on her and she doesn’t even know.

The big theme of this volume, titled No Normal, is that Kamala really really really wants to be just like everyone else because it would be so much easier. When she first gets her Ms. Marvel powers via creepy mist, she finds herself involuntarily turning into the tall, leggy, blonde, skimpily clad Carol Danvers (the erstwhile Ms. Marvel turned Captain Marvel) in addition to growing and shrinking and stretching slightly less involuntarily. But as the story progresses, Kamala realizes that a) that outfit is hella uncomfortable and b) being herself requires way less effort all around. I think my favorite part of all this is that Ms. Marvel’s new outfit is a burkini, which, holy cow, why isn’t every superhero wearing one?

As almost an afterthought to all this coming of age and discussion of religion and ethnicity, there is also — you’ll never guess — villainy! Kamala finds herself rescuing (well, trying and then later succeeding) that aforementioned boy’s brother from a shadowy group serving a shadowy leader called The Inventor and possibly also the Birdman, which probably means something to someone but definitely not to me, so I am intrigued to see where that plotline goes. I hope that with the big exposition out of the way, we can move on to adorable fangirling and also asskicking posthaste!

Recommendation: Read it. Do it now.

Rating: 9/10

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

ZeitounSometimes I get a book club read that makes me regret the day I joined a book club, like A Reliable Wife, and sometimes I get a book that makes me super glad that I had a book club to make me read it, like Zeitoun.

I had heard a bit about this book when it came out, but it’s a memoir-ish thing and it’s about race and class and Hurricane Katrina and so I was like, snooze-fest, and moved on with my life. And when my dear Mary-friend suggested it for the club, I was like, well, let’s try to stay awake for this.

And at first, yeah. The book starts with basically an introduction to the Zeitouns and the impending hurricane and how people in New Orleans eat hurricanes for breakfast and all that, and I was certainly interested by this Muslim lady called Kathy and her husband (generally called Zeitoun) with the overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I read probably the first half of the book in bits and pieces, appreciating the dramatic irony of the hurricane non-preparations and then regretting that appreciation when people’s houses became pineapples under the sea.

But then right in the middle of the book Eggers finds the hook that really catches me — Zeitoun, in New Orleans, wanders away from the phone to see who’s at the door and Kathy, on the other end of the line and in Arizona, doesn’t hear from him again that day, or the next, or the next. Eggers does a fantastic job here of panicking me, a person who knows that Zeitoun kind of has to be okay. And when he picks back up with Zeitoun the story isn’t much less anxious-making. And so when I looked up again the book was over and it was a couple hours later!

It was fantastic to read this book with my book club, because I know next to nothing about Hurricane Katrina or Muslims or Middle-Eastern culture or having a family that makes you angry but there was someone in the group to explain everything to me! I still don’t really understand it, of course, but a lot of things made a lot more sense after talking it over. I highly recommend this course of action.

So the book is definitely educational and intriguing, and I got through the bulk of the book feeling like it was pretty well done (for a memoir, you know), but you know what happened then? An epilogue. Ugh. Y’all know how I feel about epilogues, and this one irked me more than most, I think largely because after Eggers spends the whole book getting into really minute detail about Zeitoun’s brother’s swimming achievements or whatever, he just tosses out facts about our protagonists without a lot of context or discussion. There’s PTSD and it sucks; there’s litigation against a metric crap-ton of people who did Zeitoun wrong and it’s not going very well. Mmhmm. Fantastic.

Right, anyway, so, aside from that last part I do think that this book is totally worth a read, especially if you managed to avoid a lot of the Katrina shenanigans like I apparently did. Though if you’re already depressed and/or disgusted by government mismanagement, you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 9/10 (if we just forget about that epilogue, which, what epilogue?)