Hortense and the Shadow – Natalia O’Hara (author), Lauren O’Hara (illustrator)

Hortense and the Shadow CoverFirst Published: 5th October, 2017
Genre: Children’s Fairytale Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Hortense hates her shadow and wants to get rid of it.

I loved the atmosphere of the book. It’s an eerie fairytale, with Hortense living alone in a dark wood, and her shadow as something that can act independently.

There’s a poetic feel and it rhymes in places. Some of the pages have words spread out in artistic ways. This is great for children who love finding words, but could hinder those who struggle. The main thing is to be ready to help struggling readers find their way.

The artwork is intricate in muted tones. The creators were inspired by stories from their Polish grandmother, which particularly shows in the setting. The winters are snowy. The characters wear fur hats and fur-lined clothing. They have black hair and high cheekbones. This is one time where having Eastern European characters as the villains (a group of bandits) actually works, because Hortense is clearly the same ethnicity. It’s not saying that criminals look like this and heroes look like that.

The book has an overall positive message about self (or shadow) acceptance. I appreciated that when Hortense is shouting at her shadow, she doesn’t resort to ableist slurs or similar. It’s a cute book, and will appeal to children who like fairytales with a touch of darkness.

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

Ada Twist, Scientist – Andrea Beaty (author), David Roberts (illustrator)

Ada Twist CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ada Marie Twist loves to explore things and ask questions. It might just be that she’s a scientist.

The story is in rhyming verse and broadly splits into two parts. The opening has Ada as a baby growing up. Her family notice that she loves to explore things, along with the chaos this causes. Once she starts talking, she has endless questions about the world. This introduces the general idea of the things that make a good scientist.

I liked that Ada doesn’t speak until she’s a toddler. Children don’t follow an exact timeline of development, and it’s treated as something to not worry about. However, the text does assume she will speak eventually. This could hit the wrong way for children who are non-verbal, in presenting speech as something that will happen for everyone.

This thread wouldn’t have sustained the whole book, but it then switches to the second part. Ada notices a really terrible smell, and decides to investigate what’s causing it. She doesn’t find the solution, but the evidence is there in the pictures and the answer can be guessed. This shows science doesn’t have all the answers and encourages readers to come up with the answer. However, it does mean the plot trails off rather than having a firm resolution. This may not work for some readers.

The artwork is done with watercolour, pen and ink. Graph paper and pencil elements are used for the backgrounds. The characters have great expressions. I especially like Ada’s sibling, who is often shown pointing at Ada when she’s made a mess.

This book is in a series of similar books about children with science and technology interests. There’s some reference to that, as they all go to the same school, but it isn’t needed to read the others before this one. It is very clear that it’s an American school, as Ada’s class is referred to by grade, so it could cause some confusion for children in other countries.

My biggest reservation happens outside the story, because there is an author’s note at the end. Ada’s namesakes are introduced: Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie. There’s also a comment that women have always been involved in science. This is true, but the book shows Ada as a black girl. The two named examples are not. I’d have liked to see at least one black woman named, even if she wasn’t Ada’s namesake. The obstacles Ada (and readers like her) will face are not only going to be about gender.

In general, I thought it was a cute book with a positive message about young girls interested in science. The way the plot ends is likely to work for some readers and not for others, so that’s worth keeping in mind. The family cat does face some peril at points in the story, but it’s stopped before the cat comes to any harm.

Polenth’s Dream Rep Bingo

The #dreamrepbingo challenge is to make a bingo card with things we personally want to see in book representation. This isn’t a list of things that are the least represented overall or anything like that. It’s my personal bingo, for things I’ve looked for and rarely found.

My bingo is a different format to a lot of book bingos, because this is the form I grew up playing. I’m probably going to use this more as a reminder of things to include when I write, rather than read, because for some I don’t know any work that isn’t something I wrote. It wouldn’t work very well as a reading challenge for that reason. But if you manage to fill all the squares you will win the eternal prize of knowing you’ve read a lot of really obscure stories.

Here is the card. Click on it for a bigger version. The description below explains each square in text for those who can’t see the image, as well as providing some expanded thoughts on the choices.

Image Caption: A bingo card with three rows and nine columns. There are five content squares randomly placed in each row, which list an item of book representation. The other squares are plain blocks of colour. Each column is one rainbow colour: the text and plain blocks in that column are that colour. It starts at violet on the left and goes through to red on the right.

Bingo Items List:

  1. Tinnitus from birth with hidden hearing loss – It’s rare to see tinnitus at all, but it’s usually shown as coming from later accidents. This is a problem in medical literature as well, to the point I’ve met doctors who are amazed I’ve had tinnitus from birth. Hidden hearing loss can go with that: this is a type of hearing loss that doesn’t show up with standard tests, as it only shows in loud environments. A lot of doctors haven’t heard of that either.
  2. Delayed sleep phase syndrome – The daily sleep cycle naturally drifts towards going to sleep in the early hours or morning, rather than at night. In short, this means being nocturnal, but not due to being a secret wereowl.
  3. Non-white character with uncertain ancestry – Not everyone knows their ancestry to the point of being able to list percentages. Uncertainty is not that uncommon in the real world, but somehow book characters know it all, unless they’re secretly descended from aliens/fairies (to be revealed by the end of the book). I’d like the character to be uncertain and stay that way without any tidy answers.
  4. Marginalised in five or more ways – All in the same character or it doesn’t count, because people act like even two marginalisations is pushing it and totally unrealistic.
  5. Multiply marginalised character is happy – Everyone is not dead, they have friends and family, and a fluffy pet kitten. Maybe they get what they want for a change.
  6. Dyslexic character can read/write well – Dyslexia is often revealed because a character cannot read or write at all, to the point where it’s really notable when this isn’t the case. This focus also ignores how things change during someone’s lifetime, as though all dyslexic people are locked in childhood. Teens and adults can have other things going on, such as difficulty with schedules and organising tasks, which rarely gets shown because authors are obsessed with small children reversing letters. I still reverse letters sometimes, but it’s really not the most noticeable part of being dyslexic these days.
  7. Ambidextrous character dithers on side choice – Often where an ambidextrous character is shown, it’s like a special superpower to not have a dominant side. So I’d like to see some of the un-superpowered realities of being ambidextrous, including the dithering that happens due to not having an automatic side for things. An example is being hit by a ball because it takes too long to decide which hand to use to catch the ball.
  8. Not feeling emotions is totally fine – Not feeling certain emotions (or any emotions) is often used to show characters as being inferior. If they gain them, they become more human, and therefore more worthy. If they don’t gain them, they’ll probably be the villain. Less of that. More people with different emotional experiences getting to be the hero with no attempt to change them.
  9. Human has phantom limb tail with no supernatural cause – This is me unless I’m secretly magical and don’t know it. I don’t mind the whole wish fulfilment thing of finding out you’re a werecreature and all that. I’ve written such stories too. But sometimes it’s nice to see these themes handled in a more realistic way.
  10. Non-humans with marginalised humans – I love stories with non-humans of various kinds, be they robots, aliens or strange critters from the deep ocean. But so often they’re used to replace marginalised people, rather than being written as their own thing. I also like seeing how marginalised non-humans and marginalised humans interact.
  11. Working class character is not the one good exception – It’s clear how middle class a lot of authors are by their handling of working class characters. You get the working class person with the heart of gold. But expect their community, and often their own family, to be the worst of working class stereotypes. Bonus hatred points if that one working class character gets to become middle or upper class by the end, due to their pure heart and hard work. It just reinforces the idea that most people are working class because they deserve it, and those who don’t deserve it will be elevated. Class structures are not fair, so I don’t want stories pretending they’re fair.
  12. Intersex character with no genital descriptions – There’s apparently no possible way to know someone is intersex without someone feeling up their genitals, seeing them naked in the shower, or other such things. Maybe instead of ever more creative ways to show genitals, someone could just say they’re intersex.
  13. Asexual character not placed in awkward sexual situations – It’s okay to have an asexual character say they’re asexual. It doesn’t have to be revealed by making them walk into the sexbot district and feel uncomfortable because everyone wants to have sex with them.
  14. Non-binary person is not misgendered – It’s like authors think if they have a non-binary person, someone has to misgender them and highlight their gender assigned at birth. This links to a trend where non-binary people are constantly referred to based on their assigned at birth genders (AMAB non-binary and AFAB non-binary, but never plain old non-binary). Some people are really uncomfortable if they can’t continue to split non-binary people into binary categories.
  15. Romani people aren’t inherently magical – I still remember that time I critiqued a piece and commented on the “gypsies” being shown as though they were inherently magical. The author replied that it was okay because she’d always considered them to be like magical fairy creatures and that was totally the vibe she wanted. There are a lot of other stereotypes, including even otherwise progressive spaces being happy to have the dark traveller as the shady criminal who attacks the pure blond main character, but the first step is to understand Romani people are not actually fairies. I’m starting small here.

Spelling the Hours – Rose Lemberg (editor)

Spelling the Hours CoverFull Title: Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology
First Published: 18th July, 2016
Genre: Science Poetry / Poetry Collection
Poets: Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas; Mary Alexandra Agner; Michele Bannister; Lisa M. Bradley; Sofia Samatar; Sonya Taaffe; Bogi Takács; A.J. Odasso; Lev Mirov; Mari Ness; na’amen
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This poetry collection contains twelve poems about marginalised people in science and technology. Each poem also has notes about the scientists featured in the poem, to provide some context.

“noble, nobel” (na’amen) and “Augur Effect” (A.J. Odasso) are an interesting contrast, as they cover the same three women (Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu and Jocelyn Bell Burnell). The former poem is longer and considers the specific work of each involved. I liked the shifting rhythms as it goes from areas with short lines to longer passages. The latter poem takes a more personal approach, linking the poet’s overlooked contributions to those of others, and how the poet was also part of erasing the names (however unknowingly) when writing about science. I do like that both poems were included, rather than trying to stick to one poem per scientist, as they provide very different approaches.

My favourite poem was “Madrepore” (Mari Ness). Aquarium ecology interests me as a fishkeeper, but I also liked the connections back and forth between Anna Thynne’s work and her family. Science doesn’t happen in isolation from the rest of life.

Another strong poem was “Never Cease” (Bogi Takács), which focuses on Rózsa Péter. This also handles how science interacts with life, but on a wider political scale. Rózsa was barred from her profession due to being Jewish. This is a bilingual poem in English and Hungarian.

One of the most interesting structures was “Girl Hours” (Sofia Samatar), as it’s like a scientific report in reverse. This one doesn’t have addition notes at the end, as the notes come first as part of the poem. It wasn’t my favourite in the collection, but I did like the choice of arrangement.

Some of the poems focus on named individuals. Other poems focus on anonymous contributions, such as the women employed as computers and the Nahua artists who illustrated the Florentine Codex. People included as central figures in the poems are Alan Turing, Christopher Morcom, Priscilla Fairfield Bok, Bart Bok, Anna Thynne, Agnes Pockels, Paris Pişmiş, Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, James Barry, Axiothea of Phlios, Rózsa Péter and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. The cover features Mary Alice McWhinnie.

The introduction by editor Rose Lemberg comments that the poets tended to write about people they already knew about, and had some meaning for them, rather than finding out about the people they didn’t know. This did produce a range of responses, though I’d also be interested in who we might find by wandering in search of stories we didn’t know existed. An area that didn’t surface in the poems, despite some set during older history, were the accomplishments outside Europe before the impact of colonialism.

It’s a strong collection which will appeal to those who enjoy poetry with scientific themes. It delivered on its promise of highlighting marginalised people in science and technology, including a few who were new to me.

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

When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon

Dimple CoverFirst Published: 1st June, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Romance / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Dimple is heading to Insomnia Con, a summer course with a contest to design an app. What she doesn’t know is Rishi, the boy her parents have arranged for her to marry, will also be there.

I liked Dimple’s relationship with her family. There’s tension between her dream of a career in computing and their dream of her marrying a nice Indian man. Dimple faces not being seen as Indian enough by Indians due to growing up in the USA, or American enough by white Americans because she’s Indian. This is also contrasted by Rishi, who has a different approach to the conflicting cultural expectations.

Unfortunately, the edition I read had all Hindi words in italics. This included direct speech and words like salwar kameez. I’m not fond of this formatting choice at the best of times, because it serves to emphasise and other anything that isn’t in English. But in this case, it made the first section a nightmare to read, due to the volume of italics sprinkled throughout. This is a publisher choice rather than an author choice, but I’d hope they’d consider revoking italicising privileges for the book formatter when it comes to the next edition.

There are things I liked about the romance. Dimple and Rishi genuinely like each other and get along, rather than hating each other and only dating because they think the other is hot. The issues they’re navigating are mainly about figuring how things will fit with their lives.

However, there were some things I didn’t like. Dimple hits Rishi frequently. Not realising that playful punches are too hard is something I had issues with as a teen, so I could relate to that (though it wasn’t cute or funny, which is how the book portrays it). But when Dimple wanted to punch him because she was angry, that was something else. I don’t find it cute when someone wants to hit their partner to hurt them, whether they manage to pull back from striking them or not. There are also other instances of ignoring boundaries, such as pressuring Rishi into eating something he doesn’t want to eat. There’s some pushback when she invades Rishi’s privacy, but overall, it’s shown as a good thing to ignore people’s boundaries because it’s for their own good.

The romance also means everything else stops. The plot is gone, the family relationships move to the background, and Dimple’s friendship with Celia isn’t particularly explored. I’d hoped for more of a balance between the elements.

This wasn’t the book I expected when it came to the overall theme. Coding is Dimple’s passion, yet it’s minimised throughout the book. There’s a discussion about Dimple’s app idea, and after that, a few token references here and then. In contrast, Rishi’s passion for art does have development. He’s shown drawing and going to art events. The art aspects of the course are the ones that get the most time, such as the photography icebreaker and the talent show. It’s much more of a book about art than one about computer science, which wasn’t what I was hoping to read.

The lack of time spent on the app development had another issue due to Dimple’s idea. She wants to make a reminder app for people who have medication to take, which will work as a game with rewards. This is based on her dad finding it difficult to remember to take his medicine as a diabetic. She doesn’t discuss this with her dad, and no disabled people are involved at any point in the process, which means it’s based on what she’s assuming people need. Non-disabled people having control of resources for disabled people is an issue, so it doesn’t sit well here.

Being marginalised can mean facing microaggressions and bullying constantly, particularly in spaces dominated by more privileged people. The book tries to tackle this, but I have mixed feelings about how this turned out. Dimple is on high alert for signs of such behaviour, often assuming the worst before it happens. This is a realistic reaction to being in an unsafe space. But the narrative is arranged so that Dimple is never wrong. She never lashes out at someone based on an assumption that doesn’t turn out to be true. When she assumes a group of people are obnoxious based on their appearance, it turns out they’re really terrible. When she assumes someone is going to cause issues about her name, that person does indeed end up causing issues. I’d have liked to see some nuance here, in that assuming the worst and reacting aggressively will mean sometimes getting it wrong and having to smooth it over. I don’t count her initial reaction to Rishi here, as that was a case of reacting to behaviour that appeared threatening, rather than assuming he would do something like that in the future based on his clothing.

The strength in representation is that Dimple and Rishi are Indian and Hindu. The other areas are mainly on the side, as they’re supporting characters rather than the main characters. Dimple’s dad is diabetic and her auntie uses a wheelchair. Dimple’s friend Celia is bisexual and half Dominican. Celia does stray into some bisexual tropes, such as being the one with the active sex life and her relationships with boys being shown as much more serious (in other words, it’s just a phase for a girl to be interested in girls). I would also have liked to see other girls (including other Indian girls) who were at the convention to code. As it stands, it had a not-like-other-girls vibe, as the two other girls shown don’t appear to be heading into computing professions.

There was also the issue of small jarring references which could easily have been cut and kept the story exactly the same. For example, the evil rivals are compared to intersex people at one point as an insult, by stating they have micro penises. Also, Dimple criticises the use of “Aight” by saying no one she knows uses it unironically. There are things to be said about a rich white boy using AAVE to sound cool, but criticising him for not sufficiently making fun of AAVE is not one of those. And for my last example, the line where Dimple notes Rishi is “dressed pretty sanely for a psychotic attacker”, because obviously creepy people are all psychotic and insane. There were enough small things like this to bother me. I’d have liked it better if no marginalised group appeared only as a punchline or an insult.

This was a light read with a few funny moments. Though there were some things I didn’t like, I thought it was okay in general. I’m not really the audience for romances that only focus on the romance, so the lack of development of the contest plot and the non-romantic relationships were big downsides for me. This will appeal to fans of contemporary romance, but will likely be a disappointment for those interested in the STEM angle.

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