Purple Hibiscus (CBR13 #69)

Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age story and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s debut novel. It is the story of fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja who lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. In some ways they are completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, it is revealed rather quickly that things are less perfect than they appear. Although her Papa is generous and well respected, he is fanatically religious and tyrannical at home—a home that is silent and suffocating. As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent to their aunt, where they discover a life beyond the confines of their father’s authority.

The mechanics of Purple Hibiscus are very strong. The atmosphere of living with an abusive parent was captured well and the book is full of expressive prose that captures the emotional turmoil of adolescence. While the writing itself was excellent, I had a hard time with everything that those mechanics were meant to be delivering. It can be easy to be swept up in beautiful language but there was lurking here a hollowness that I couldn’t see past. The character of Kambili is the easiest place to explain the problem. I was made to feel sympathetic towards her (and her mother and brother), but it wasn’t because of a connection to them, but instead because of an understanding of the monster lurking in Kambili’s father that was never very far below the surface.

CW: miscarriages due to physical abuse (mostly off-page), spousal abuse, child abuse.

Reviewer’s note: it should be noted that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a history of anti-trans and pro TERF statements, including a defense of J.K. Rowling in late 2020. I have attempted to review this work without taking that knowledge into account, but it is likely that this is my last Adichie novel. While it is possible to separate the art from the artist, I find it difficult to do so in cases where the author is promoting views which are actively harmful to our trans and non-binary siblings.

Other Words for Home (CBR13 #59)

Other Words for Home

I read Jasmine Warga’s debut My Heart and Other Black Holes in 2016, and its one of the books that has stayed with me most as it contained some of the truest descriptions of being a teenager that I have ever read. When I was hunting for a book to fulfill the Muslim Middle Grade novel task for the Reading Women challenge and came across Warga’s name I decided that Other Words for Home would be the book I read, without looking any further into what the story actually contained. While a dangerous move, it was not a mistake.

Told in verse, Other Words for Home is Jude’s story. When things in her Syrian hometown start becoming unstable, Jude and her mother go to live near Cincinnati with her mother’s brother and his family, leaving behind her own father and older brother. Jude was happy in Syria and initially doesn’t want to make the move but promises to be brave. From there, the story traces Jude’s experiences in all that is new to her in the United States, from making new friends, living with whole new family, through to a school musical that Jude might just try out for.

This one is geared towards middle grade readers, but certainly not out of place on any grown-up’s shelves. This book tackles big things as it is set in the midst of the Battle of Aleppo (where Jude’s brother goes), and touches on prejudices against Muslims writ large and refugees and immigrants. Warga also doesn’t shy away from the way people, particularly white women, can choose to see choices that are not their own as not a choice at all.

I’m glad to have read this one, and not ashamed that it made me tear up several times, something I was not expecting in a novel in verse since I so often struggle with poetry.

“There is an Arabic proverb that says:
She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.

It is said about
the nicest
kindest
people.
The type of people
who help you
rise.”

Blackout (CBR13 #49)

Blackout is a novel comprised of several short stories covering five hours in the course of one night in New York as it experiences a blackout. Tiffany D. Jackson writes The Long Walk which is broken up into five acts, Nic Stone contributes Mask Off (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), Ashley Woodfolk’s Made to Fit, Dhonielle Clayton provides All the Great Love Stories… and Dust, as well as being the person who sparked the project into existence, Angie Thomas’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and the Nicola Yoon penned Seymour and Grace. (It should be noted that Nicola Yoon just made headlines this past week as part of the YA Authors NFT cluster.)

Of these authors, I’ve only personally read The Hate U Give by Thomas. While I found that work very, very good, there isn’t much in this collection that ranks at that level – but it is still definitely worth your time. I love the premise of Blackout, following six pairs as they experience the big, dramatic love stories that we don’t often get to see Black teens have in our pop culture. We get a full swath – first meetings, friends of longstanding who might be more, bitter exes forced to spend time together, and unexpected opportunities. There’s also a wide variety of identities present, we’re treated to m/m pairing as well as f/f, non-binary persons, immigrant families, single parent households, and on and on.

The book has been optioned by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company to turn it into a six part anthology and I’m quite excited for it to eventually make its way to Netflix because the entire time I was reading I was seeing it as a movie, bouncing from one interconnected group to another as they each make their way to converge at the block party.

Read Women 16: Read a Queer Love Story

Read Harder 17: Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain

The Disasters (CBR12 #30)

The Disasters by M.K. England

My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)

The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.

We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.

I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.

As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.

#NotYourPrincess (CBR12 #25)

#Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women

I keep doing reading challenges for a couple reasons, but one of them is that it tends to point out areas that my reading habits need to expand. This year the Read Harder Challenge includes tasks for both YA Non-fiction read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author. I’ve already read one YA Non-fiction this year, but while I was hunting up titles I came across #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. It also didn’t hurt that the Reading Women Challenge has a task for reading an anthology by multiple authors.

And this is a really great choice for all those tasks. #NotYourPrincess is a feminist nonfiction collection of poetry, artwork, and personal essays, all revolving around the identity of Native American women aimed at young people. The book contains stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping but it never felt oppressive – there was an underlying hope and pride and reclaiming their self-value, highlighting their struggles. Every single contributor is a woman, and they speak to their own experiences, which are as diverse as they are. The book is split up into four sections: The Ties That Bind Us, It Could Have Been Me, I am Not Your Princess and Pathfinders. While I appreciated the breaks between sections, and some of them held together very tightly, they didn’t all.

The part of the book I liked the most was how the artwork was linked to all the written components. But, the overall format of the book is the only downside. The book is just over 100 pages but it’s the size of what I typically makes me think of a picture book. But more than that, it’s a little tough to maneuver and to hold onto while reading. The physical reading experience wasn’t comfortable, but the art in the book is worth the size.

Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; P.S. I Still Love You; Always and Forever, Lara Jean (CBR #13-15)

Image result for to all the boys series covers

With the release of the To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love You on Netflix this week I decided to give in and read the series. I really liked the first movie in 2018 but didn’t pick the books up then. I was smitten with the movie and didn’t want to mess with that feeling. But eighteen months later I felt the time had come.

In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before we are introduced to Lara Jean Song Covey, middle sister of three, and a dyed in the wool romantic. Older sister Margot has stepped into the mother role following the accidental death of their mom years earlier. But Margot is about to go to university in Scotland, and just broke up with Josh, her boyfriend of two years who has served as a de facto Covey sibling, so Lara Jean will have to step up to take care of youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty is sassy and the best character in the series, I love her the most. Our other main player is Peter Kavinsky, the most handsome boy in town (with possibly the largest ego) Lara Jean’s first kiss and soon to be fake boyfriend. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

The meat of the story is Lara Jean’s love life or lack thereof. Lara Jean has never been on a date, or had a boyfriend, but she writes letters to the boys she has crushes on and puts them in a hatbox her mother gave her in order to get over the feelings. (Lara Jean is focused on protecting herself, which the series deals with over time.) The letters aren’t meant to be read, but someone sends them anyway. Peter Kavinsky, confronts Lara Jean – he’s a recipient of one of the letters – and as Margot’s ex Josh heads towards them, another letter recipient, Lara Jean kisses Peter in a moment of panic and runs. Following some drama with Peter’s ex girlfriend (and Lara Jean’s former friend) Peter and Lara Jean agree to pretend they are dating. Peter wants to make Gen jealous and get her back. Lara Jean is using Peter to show that she is over her crush on Josh. Fake emotions turn into real ones and Peter and Lara Jean have to decide what they want from each other and if they can salvage something from the deceptions.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before very quietly crafts its complex relationships, taking the time to set up the intricate web of emotions at play. Han dives into the inner life of Lara Jean. We’re with her through her ups and downs and things progress much slower. While the reader never gets inside his head, Peter has as complex an inner life as Lara Jean. The first book ends on New Year’s Eve, with several plot points that the movie adaptation resolved still being up in the air.

P.S. I Still Love You follows immediately picking up on New Years Day. Though Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship has changed from a contracted fake relationship to romantic real one, things do not go smoothly. Freshly after making up (in a scene I liked much better than the movie’s version), a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s romantic moment in a hot tub on the school ski trip (which gets pulled into the first movie) surfaces and goes viral on social media. The book expands the hot tub tape aspect of the story, giving it much of the first half of the book, which felt accurate.

Beyond the tape and all its attendant drama, Lara Jean is having difficulty controlling her feelings about Peter’s continuing relationship with Genevieve. Peter tells Lara Jean that she’s going through a “rough time” and needs him as a friend.  Lara Jean internalized this as Peter putting Gen first even though he is in a relationship with her. As things get complicated, Lara Jean finds herself distracted by the appearance of John Ambrose McLaren, another letter recipient.  As they begin to reconnect, Lara Jean wonders if she can have feelings for two boys at one time, and what that means about her relationship with Peter. This is a book full of teenage jealousy and hormones and misunderstandings and those great aspects of a young adult novel. The second half of the book picks up with the introduction of the Assassin’s game (I’m not a huge fan of the John Ambrose sections), which pits Lara Jean and Peter against each other and their friends. All those messy young adult emotions are in action and moving the plot the way you would expect in a well-written YA.

Unfortunately, the execution of P.S. I Still Love You is a little uneven, and weaker than the first. And my least favorite of the series.  Han sells the subplot on social media bullying and sexual double standards very well, but most of the rest fell flat. I particularly struggled with Peter’s characterization. He is emotionally flat and unavailable in this one and seems unaware of how his actions affect Lara Jean emotionally, and not paying attention to how Lara Jean is negatively comparing herself to Genevieve at every turn.  This doesn’t track with the character development Peter went through in the previous book. Initially Jenny Han was planning to end the series with this book and I’m glad she didn’t.

In the final book, Always and Forever, Lara Jean, Lara Jean and Peter have recovered from their temporary break up in the second book and are a real couple, dealing with real couple things. It’s spring of senior year and a staple of young adult novels comes into play: college decisions. There are also changes on the home front, when her father shares his intention to marry their neighbor, Trina. Lara Jean navigates a lot of adult decisions here, from her choices regarding college to balancing Margot’s dislike for Trina against their father’s love for his new fiancée and her own affection for her. She and Peter also get close to having sex, which is something that had not really been brought up in the books before, although the movies have been dealing with it. Han’s use of it as a plot point is handled in a way I haven’t really run across in YA and I was interested in the way it was woven in.

Overall, the series was as expected, they are sweet and funny and that’s a good thing. The plot of these three novels follow a lot of the topics that YA novels typically hit: conflicts with family, jealousy in relationships, the prospect of college, big decisions regarding life and sex and love. For the depth she manages, Han also keeps the writing light – these are incredibly quick reads, even when they are focused on serious and heavy topics. As to the characters, Peter and Lara Jean felt like teenagers — they made dumb choices and said stupid things and didn’t know how to manage their emotions or communicate them very well. The friendships, especially Lara Jean’s with Chris and Lucas and Peter’s friends on the lacrosse team, dove into the complicated networks that make up our lives. I also appreciated that Margot — who hadn’t been around while her dad and Trina fell in love — resented the engagement and wasn’t interested in the wedding, it all rings true. Thematically I appreciated how much their mother’s Korean culture and family history is woven into the books and how the strong bonds of sisterhood, which are tested several times throughout the book, are never broken. While these books are all three stars for me, I can see their appeal on the larger scale, and look forward to the third book’s movie adaptation which is already filmed and listed with a 2020 release year… so maybe this fall? A girl can hope.

Emergency Contact (CBR11 #39)

Image result for emergency contact choi

When Rainbow Rowell says a book is her favorite of the year, I am going to add it to my to-read list and am likely to track it down relatively quickly. In the case of Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact it fitting into a CBR11 Bingo Square category (Youths!) made it all the better.

Let’s get the big verdict out of the way early: this debut is very good and Choi does the thing that I like best about Rowell’s work, she builds imperfect and entirely understandable and relatable characters who feel real and whose world feels lived in. If Rowell is your jam, or you are in the mood for a college age YA (several of our main characters are 18, one is 21) then this one should be on your list.

Now to the less fun portion of the review. It would be poor form on my part to ignore the rabble being roused on the internet (and specifically on Goodreads) about this book. There is the debate about between flawed and unlikeable, as well as the notion that a book that contains problematic characteristics for its main characters is, in and of itself, problematic. To the first, I believe that’s a matter of taste – whether a character is too “unlikeable” for you to read the book is something only you will know for yourself, but I find it to be a method of judgement that I have simply moved passed. Penny’s as a character is judgmental and a tough cookie, someone difficult to get to know. She is also at times quite immature and has internalized some trauma – in other words she is 18.

As to the problem of problematic contents… a lot of the criticism I’ve seen elsewhere leave out authorial intent. Or, if they are discussing it, they are undervaluing the craft. Choi’s book contains shaming, assumptions, stereotyping, sexism, and racist comments because the realistic characters she is writing exist in a world that also has these things. This is YA, not a morality tale.

Is it perfect? No, of course not. Choi doesn’t nail the vernacular of young adults today, instead her characters sound more like the young adults we were (Choi and I are of a similar age). Choi’s next book Permanent Record will be released September 3rd, 2019.

The Dire King (CBR10 #55)

Image result for The dire king

While I have a couple of series underway, there was only one where the final book was the only one I had left to read, so the This Is The End square was a simple choice. The Jackaby series is comprised of four books, Jackaby, The Beastly Bones, Ghostly Echoes, and The Dire King. I have absolutely enjoyed my time with the series over the past few years, but the fourth book was unfortunately the weakest.

The Dire King continues the story of the Seelie and Unseelie War that is enveloping New Fiddleham. Abagail,  an independent, self-assured, feminist, and delightfully sarcastic lead character and assistant to Jackaby, the Seer, who is just kooky enough to be interesting without being off-putting are gathering the forces of good to battle the forces of evil as led by the Dire King we met in Ghostly Echoes. As is often the case in series closers The Dire King takes the status quo and turns it on its head. While there were some tropes that I was happy to see, there were several others that left me wishing that William Ritter had chosen something else. A hero’s journey is expected, but the end game of that journey doesn’t have to look so similar to other journeys out there in the world of YA. But, just as I was feeling the need to roll my eyes Ritter breaks out a few tricks he had hinted at along the way and I was won over again.

My only major complaint (which honestly didn’t keep me from reading the book in two nights) was that this book is very clearly part two of Ghostly Echoes. One of the things I loved about Jackaby was that while it left the door open for more stories in the world, that it was self-contained and complete. The three other books in the series are much more tightly linked and while it didn’t bother me in Ghostly Echoes, it absolutely did in The Beastly Bones and this one.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Ghostly Echoes (CBR10 #24)

Image result for ghostly echoes

Back during CBR7 I picked up Jackaby by William Ritter because it featured a bit of a paranormal mystery with a sassy female protagonist who doesn’t have a romance with the male protagonist. While I love a Romance novel, I don’t need romance in all my stories. As it turns out Jackaby was a strong book and over the years I’ve kept up with the series in a (mostly) timely manner.

Ghostly Echoes is the third full novel in the series (there’s one short story as well, The Map) and the character who is the driver of the story is the ghostly owner of 926 Augur Lane, the headquarters of Jackaby’s detective agency. There’s corruption and murder afoot in New Fiddleham and it all links back to how Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered a decade ago and the disappearance of her finance the night she died. As Abigail races to unravel the mystery of how and why people keep turning up missing or dead flinging herself more deeply into her friends’ grim histories, Jackaby leads a cast of familiar characters across the cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England and down to the mythical underworld  and back again, solving the case at hand and setting up the endgame in the next book.

The Jackaby series blends a bit of fantasy and folklore with a touch of mad science and its author, William Ritter, isn’t afraid to throw a touch of social commentary into his YA. This time we get a transgender character whom Jackaby speaks to and interacts with using all the care, class, and affirmation that one could hope for.

These books are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for what I’m assuming is the closing chapter in the next book, The Dire King.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.