The Gauntlet – Karuna Riazi

Gauntlet CoverFirst Published: 28th March, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Farah and her friends get caught in a magical game. They’ll have to win challenges if they want to escape.

Farah is a quiet and analytical sort of person, who comes from a family that play a lot of games. I liked that she is Bangladeshi and a practising Muslim, who wears a hijab. This is treated in a positive way. Her friends have known her for a long time, so there’s no hostility or questioning from them (there’s some from the children from Farah’s new school, but this isn’t shown in detail).

Some of the side characters are fun, such as the giant lizard, but I wasn’t really feeling Farah’s two friends. Part of the issue was the time limit on everything they did, so there wasn’t the sort of downtime where they could talk to each other. There’s an added distance because Farah hasn’t seen them for some time and doesn’t know what to say.

When it comes to the gameplay aspect of the story, the book delivers on its promise. The game world is an elaborate clockwork construction with multiple layers. The children have to play games, solve puzzles, and all the while keep an eye on the bigger stakes. Due to them looking for Farah’s younger brother, Ahmad, there’s time for exploration of some of the world’s secrets. It’s very imaginative with a steampunk vibe. Though again, there were points where things rushed by rather quickly, as the characters weren’t in some areas long enough to really get a feel for them.

My biggest issue was with Ahmad. He’s a seven-year-old with ADHD. Before ADHD is mentioned, I thought he must be dying, because the family avoids upsetting him and doesn’t set any boundaries for him. Farah is expected to go along with anything Ahmad wants. She has to play with him instead of her friends and she has to let him win every game. Ahmad has to have presents on anyone’s birthday, though still demands to open and own Farah’s presents. When she stands up to him, she knows she’ll get in trouble if he throws a tantrum, as though it’s unreasonable for Farah to want things for herself. This is blamed on ADHD, when it’s really about how the family react to Ahmad. Added to this, Ahmad’s mind is described as maze-like, as though he’s an unfathomable puzzle to be solved. I wondered if all this might be addressed later in the book, but it isn’t.

I was down with the steampunk game, the people that lived inside it, and the overall puzzle-solving plot. I liked Farah as a main character. However, Ahmad’s treatment made me uncomfortable. It also felt like the pace moved a bit too quickly in places.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Project Mc2 (Season One)

Project Mc2 LogoGenre: Children’s Spy / Television Series
Main Cast: Mika Abdalla; Ysa Penarejo; Victoria Vida; Genneya Walton; Danica McKellar; Melissa Mabie; Antonio Marziale
First Shown: 7th August, 2015
Available: Netflix

A space launch is threatened, so teenaged spy McKeyla McAlister (Mika Abdalla) is sent to investigate. When some of the girls at her new school figure out she’s a spy, McKeyla is forced to work with them.

Project Mc2 (Project Mc-Squared) aims to promote S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) among girls. The series is linked to its own toy range, including fashion dolls, science experiment kits, and fashion dolls that come with science experiments kits. I’m all for encouraging girls to blow things up (in totally safe ways) but my review focus will be on the programme side of it. However, I think it’s useful to know the full context of the series.

The characters are the core of the series, so I’ll start there. McKeyla is the lead spy. I liked that she was a generalist, rather than a specialist. Her focus is learning to be a leader, as she’s used to working alone. She’s the most serious of the girls. I’m pretty sure she’s intended to be read as white.

The two girls who initially notice something is odd about McKeyla are best friends. The first is Camryn Coyle (Ysa Penarejo). She’s into skater fashions and carries her skateboard around. She’s also the engineer of the group. Not a lot is discussed about her background, but the actress is Filipina-American. Her hair is dyed red (in an obviously dyed way), which I presume was to make each fashion doll have somewhat different hair.

Bryden Bandweth (Genneya Walton) is the computer expert and is very into social media. She talks in hashtags and posts everything to social media, even at times when she really shouldn’t. I did find this a little difficult at first, as she speaks very quickly. Bryden is black with wavy hair.

When the two girls realise they don’t have all the skills they need to figure out what McKeyla is up to, they approach Adrienne Attoms (Victoria Vida), a culinary chemist. Adrienne is very feminine, wearing skirts and heels, and carrying all her stuff around in a handbag. She’s the only character who has her background really expanded on in this season. She’s from Spain and speaks with a Spanish accent. I’m noting her as a Latina character as I’ve seen the actress say that’s the case (the actress is Latina herself). This is where I didn’t like the styling, as Adrienne has bleached blond hair. Though the initial thought may have been to have a doll range with different hair colours, much like Camryn’s hair dye, it also serves to make Adrienne look whiter. That didn’t sit well with me.

This is a short season, coming in at only three episodes. It tells one long story across the episodes. The space flight in question is a publicity thing for Prince Xander (Antonio Marziale), who is teenaged British royalty. I wasn’t too keen on this as the central plot. I never did the celebrity crush thing, so this has always been rather outside my experiences. Swooning over hot British royalty is more of an American thing, so I had a certain amount of eyerolling as a British person. It’s not that anything is wrong with this as such, but it wasn’t to my tastes. Fortunately, the plot focuses more on the girls learning to work together, so there is something there for people who aren’t interested in the celebrity crush angle.

The science ranges from things that are somewhat improbable to things that are rather simple. For example, Bryden’s hacking is mostly shown with her typing quickly without showing the screen. She is improbably fast at hacking things like this. Later, she hacks a security code with a simple number generator, which is a project most viewers could code with a little training. This may not be science realism, but it did work for the concept of the series. It means some of the science shown could be done by viewers, without being science geniuses. I also liked that The Quail (Danica McKellar), the woman who oversees the girls, is played by a real mathematician.

This season doesn’t push science at the expense of feminine girls. Adrienne is taken seriously from the start, as the other girls approach her for help. There’s a running joke of people not knowing what culinary chemistry is, but it’s more that this is a rarely represented field, rather than the practise of it being funny. I did enjoy the moment where she adds a dash of cinnamon to fingerprint powder, and no one else really knows enough about the subject to question it.

In general, this isn’t a “not like other girls” story. The leads are supposed to be the smartest, but there isn’t criticism of other girls and women. It’s adult men who are their main obstacle, as they don’t take the girls seriously. This is handled in a light way, but is unfortunately a very real thing that girls are likely to face if they go into science.

The girls are quite diverse when it comes to race. However, the show is weaker in other areas. Everyone is relatively thin, there are no disabled people, no QUILTBAG characters, and so forth. It wasn’t negative in those areas. There wasn’t fat-shaming or similar, and I’m glad they ate the baked goods Adrienne made without any comments on calories or diets. But I’m always pushing to see more representation in shows for this age group.

I think this series mostly hits its targets. It’s very colourful and bubbly. The central focus is on friendship and awesome science experiments. The girls don’t face more than some mild peril, so it’s not going to be scary for anyone but the youngest of viewers. It’s targeted very well at the tween and younger market, particularly for those looking for something fluffy and silly, rather than serious. My biggest issue is I’d like to see them broaden out who is included.

Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]