memoir · nonfiction

The Color of Love- Marra B. Gad

For all its ills, social media is useful for a lot of things (like finding out my favorite Indian restaurant closed *sob*), and one of them is connecting with other bookish people in various groups. I belong to a few readers’ groups on Facebook, along with a host of other various groups, and it was from one of those groups that I learned about The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad (Agate Bolden, 2019). The story was pitched as being about a mixed-race Jewish woman who eventually had to take care of a family member who treated her terribly. It’s that, but it’s so much more, and I’m deeply grateful I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

Marra Gad was biologically the child of a Jewish woman and a black man. Her first mother knew she couldn’t keep her baby, and thus a rabbi helped to find a Jewish family to adopt Marra. Marra’s parents were happy to have a baby at all; the child’s skin color made no difference to them, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how differently the world around them felt, and member by member, their family and circle grew smaller. Within pages, you’ll be gasping out loud in utter shock and total disgust at the comments that family and friends thought nothing of leveling at Marra. Despite your heartbreak and rage on Marra’s behalf, read on; this is an important story.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Marra is ostracized and made to feel different by the community that should have embraced her and celebrated her. Fortunately, she has her close family- parents, siblings, grandparents- to love her, fight for her, and instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. As the years go by and her family members begin to age and need care, Marra finds herself the only available family member to care for her out-of-state great-aunt, the woman who was perhaps the cruelest to Marra throughout her life. Despite the pain it causes her, she does so because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s never easy.

I won’t lie; this book brought me to tears multiple times. I kept turning back to Ms. Gad’s picture on the back inside flap and wanting so badly to both travel back in time and protect the vulnerable child that she was and to hug the adult she is now. I’m no stranger to racism; when I was young, my maternal grandfather was deeply, hideously racist, and I’ve heard racist comments coming out of family members’ mouths as recently as last year (you better bet I step in and say something these days, though. As a child, I didn’t, though I knew my grandfather was wrong. I’m not sure how well my correcting him would have gone over, but I remember having conversations with my mom on the way home from his house about why he was so awful regarding people of certain races). But the hateful comments directed toward Marra are just…soul-crushing. To have had such vitriol spat at you as a child and emotionally survive and still come out kind on the other side is an absolute miracle; I weep for the ones who did not.

Taking care of her hurtful great-aunt was difficult; there are many descriptions of tears and heartache on the journey to and from her care facility, and I deeply admire the fortitude of character Ms. Gad possesses to have kept returning and providing care in the face of such a difficult challenge. It may not have been what she wanted to do, but doing so was the kind of person she wanted to be, and so she did. This is something I strive for in my own life, though normally under much less challenging circumstances, so I understand her motivation and I applaud it.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a deeply emotional read, and will challenge any reader in just how far they’re willing to take their devotion to kindness and generosity.

I’m going to count this as the book for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book by a woman of color, but it won’t be my last for the year, not by a long shot (my next review is also for a book by a black woman, and my reading list for the year is bursting with diversity, as it should be). Read on, friends. 🙂

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

fiction · YA

I Love You So Mochi- Sarah Kuhn

I was just thinking this morning that 2020 is an Olympics year- super fun, because I love watching summer Olympics (winter, ehhhhhh- my apologies to my Norwegian heritage)- the swimming! The diving! The gymnastics! The fifty three million games of beach volleyball! It’s a whole lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it. I had added I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn (Scholastic, 2019) to my reading list because I needed a book set in Japan as part of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge, but I’d forgotten that particular prompt was because the 2020 Olympics will be set in Japan! Pretty cool to get to travel there via book before I get to travel there via my television. 🙂

Kimi Nakamura loves to create clothing. Her skills as a painter lend her ideas for bold designs with bright colors, and she’s easily able to translate what’s in her sketchbook to a fully wearable unique outfit. It’s something that brings her joy and makes her feel alive. After she realizes she no longer wants to go to art school and paint professionally the rest of her life, her relationship with her mother blows up, and a plane ticket and invitation to visit the Japanese grandparents she’s never met couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Kimi’s off to Japan on a journey of self-discovery, trying to figure out what her future should look like.

In addition to getting to know her grandparents, Kimi meets Akira, a cute boy who helps out at his uncle’s mochi stand, occasionally dressed as a large mochi. Together with Akira, Kimi visits the sights around Kyoto, taking inspiration from everything she sees- including her blossoming romance with Akira- and figures out where she fits in in the world.

It’s been a while since I read a book set in Japan (I tried one last year and DNF’ed it). Ms. Kuhn’s descriptions of the places Kimi visits with Akira and her grandparents are perfection, especially her descriptions of the fabric shop (I love fabric! I don’t sew as often as I would like, but I so enjoy checking out what’s on the shelves in fabric stores). Seeing Japan through the eyes of a teenager who had never been there before was incredibly charming, as Kimi is a very engaging character who feels things deeply.

I loved Kimi’s passion for sewing. One of my favorite books growing up, Baby Sister by Marilyn Sachs, featured a main character who loved to sew and who created outfits for herself. Combine that with the fact that sewing is just such a practical skill, and I automatically enjoy a character who sews. I’m trying to think of other teen characters I’ve read that sew, and none are coming to mind (although I’m certain I’ve read them before…). Because of that, Kimi’s a breath of fresh air, creative and bubbly and fun.

There was a lot that didn’t quite work for me, though. Everyone Kimi meets in Japan speaks fluent, near-perfect English. Their receptive language is also perfect, nothing is lost in translation, and everyone is able to understand even the most complicated idioms and teenagery slang, something I found entirely unrealistic. It’s explained about two-thirds of the way through the book that her grandparents have been taking English lessons for over twenty years (the exact number isn’t named, but they took them as a family when Kimi’s mom was young and she left Japan twenty years ago; I’m assuming they kept them up on their own afterwards for their skill levels to be this high), but unless they had some sort of practical application for their language skills outside of lessons (conversation group, maybe? Working with teenagers in order to learn their slang?), I can’t see how they could have maintained that kind of level of receptive and expressive language. Akira’s fluency is never explained, which I found equally as bothersome. It’s probably expected that the reader understands he studies English in school, but again, he’s a teenager, one who wants to be a doctor and who spends his time studying obscure medical textbooks, and because of this, I didn’t buy his extremely high level of skill with the English language. (And I say this as a former ESL tutor. The nuances of language can be tough and it takes a lot of time and opportunities to practice and learn. A brief explanation of Akira’s English acquisition- lots of work with tourists! Extra lessons! His best friend once lived in an English-speaking country and helps him practice!- really would have lent some credibility here, because Kimi goes full-on slang-talking teenager with him all the time, and I couldn’t buy that he never once misunderstood her.)

Akira as a character seemed a little bland to me. His romance with Kimi is adorable, but we never really learn all that much about him. He wants to be a doctor, he’s the youngest of six siblings (I think that was the number), he feels a strong obligation to his family, and…that’s about it. Does he have friends? He never once mentions them or does anything with them, and other than the times he’s helping his uncle out at his mochi stand, he’s with Kimi. Does he have no other commitments? No other hobbies or activities?

Kimi’s journey of self-discovery is a great idea in theory, but it didn’t end up being much of a journey. In the beginning, her mother insists that fashion is just a hobby, a distraction from real art, and both she and Kimi seem entirely unaware of the many careers that exist in which a degree in fashion design, or even sewing skills, can be useful. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I point out that the end results in Kimi’s journey aren’t exactly all that surprising. Had her mother been totally against Kimi going into fashion design in the first place and Kimi worked to find the confidence to stand up to her mother and point out all the reasons why this would be in her best interest, that would’ve worked better for me.

So while a lot of this didn’t quite work for me, it was still a cute book, and Ms. Kuhn’s writing helped to create beautiful pictures of Japan in my mind, ones that I’m sure will stick with me. I’m going to have to poke around and see if I can’t hunt down some sort of sewing class (that doesn’t cost like nine bazillion dollars, looking at you, local community college…), because I really would like to be able to have skills more akin to Kimi’s…

Visit Sarah Kuhn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS- Azadeh Moaveni

You ever go into a book thinking you’re getting one thing and then you wind up with another thing entirely? It’s kind of like ordering a pizza, but when the deliveryman knocks at your door, instead of a large with extra cheese, you get a platter of oysters. Now, plenty of people enjoy oysters; they’re served at some of the finest restaurants in the world, but when you were expecting a hot, gooey, cheese-covered pizza, that oyster platter may leave you puzzled.

That’s how I felt about Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni (Random House, 2019). With a title like that, I was very much expecting the book to be focused entirely on the women of ISIS. What inspired them to travel to Syria, what their lives were like before they arrived and after, what kept them there and what made them leave (if they could or did). And while Ms. Moaveni does include these stories, they’re more like brief interludes into the story of the conflict of Syria and the creation of ISIS. It’s a complex story, to be sure, and this book is very well-written; I would expect nothing less from Ms. Moaveni, who is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But the text of the book is overwhelmingly about the conflict itself; the stories of the women are briefly wedged into a larger narrative about the war in Syria. Some chapters have a few paragraphs about a woman’s story or her situation, and the rest follows the story of the war.

I kept waiting for the focus to be more on the women, and in the last twenty pages or so, it finally turns that way, only to introduce women not mentioned at all through the rest of the book. I’d really been hoping to get a better, deeper look into the mindset and daily life of these women who left behind fairly normal lives (albeit some poverty-stricken, others depressing), often in Western countries, to join ISIS, and while the brief pictures painted show bleak ones, I was expecting quite a different book based on the title and the blurb. So while this is absolutely a masterful piece of writing, it wasn’t at allwhat I expected it to be.

One thing that really stood out in the book was the story of the British teenagers (known as the Bethnal Green trio) that ran away from home to Syria, in order to become ISIS brides. The police knew they were trying to leave beforehand, but didn’t inform the girls’ parents. Related incidents at school also weren’t mentioned to the families. The parents had no idea of the girls’ plans; they were all good students with no issues at school, and religious parents generally don’t think to question increased piety and modesty in their children. How three fifteen year-olds were able to purchase plane tickets and get on planes, unaccompanied, and fly to foreign countries is beyond me. It seemed like there were a lot of times the story could have been stopped before it started, but too many people dropped the ball.

That said, these girls were fifteen when they left. Not legal adults, below the age of consent, at the age where society knows they’re still apt to make terrible, illogical decisions, and there’s some scary vitriol thrown their way by certain commentators, calling the girls ‘whores’ and demanding that any attempts by the government to return the girls to their parents (the police and the government didn’t seem to be doing much, if anything) be dropped. I’m by no means excusing their actions; leaving their families to join ISIS is obviously deeply horrifying, with terrible consequences for them (two of the girls are dead; one has watched all three of her children, which she gave birth to by the age of nineteen, die) and for the world. But I’m also far more reluctant to call fifteen year old girls whores and throw their entire lives out like trash than others, apparently. I hadn’t heard of these girls before this book, so this particular story was an eye-opener.

So tell me, dear readers: have you had this happen before, that a book turns out to be quite different from what the back cover or inside flap portrays it as? I’m pretty sure this has happened to me in the past, though not anytime recently. The reviews for this book on Goodreads are quite high, and I almost feel like I’m missing something, because my takeaways are so different from everyone else…

Visit Azadeh Moaveni’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Love From A to Z- S.K. Ali

Look what was FINALLY in at the library, you guys! I could have put it on hold, but I had plenty of other books to read in the meantime, but finally, FINALLY I went and Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali (Salaam Reads, 2019) was on the shelf! SQUEEEEEEEEE!!! I really enjoyed her Saints and Misfits this summer and was really looking forward to reading this one. The two books are quite different, but Love From A to Z didn’t disappoint one bit.

Zayneb is headed to Qatar to spend time with her aunt after being suspended from school after an incident with a racist, bigoted teacher. Adam is heading home to Qatar after leaving university, a fresh diagnosis of multiple sclerosis- the disease that killed his mother- taking up the majority of the real estate in his brain. Their brief encounter in the airport and on the airplane sets the tone for what becomes a friendship, because- surprise!- Adam’s family and Zayneb’s aunt know each other. It really is a small world.

Things are always more complicated than they seem, though. Adam’s terrified to tell his still-grieving father and adoring younger sister about his diagnosis, and his condition seems to be worsening. Zayneb is struggling to deal with the fallout of the racism and bigotry she left behind at home (and which seems to have followed her to Qatar as well). Both of them are trying to appreciate the marvels and oddities of life, while learning how to be honest with their parents and with each other, and taking life one step at a time.

(Content warnings for Islamaphobia, racism, bigotry, microaggressions, death of a parent, chronic illness, death of a grandparent, a few mentions of some grisly world events, and grief.)

This? Is a lovely, lovely book. Entirely heartfelt, with characters who seem so very real. Adam is sweet, charming, and grappling with what his diagnosis will mean for his family and for his future. He so badly wants to protect his sister and father from more pain and hates that he can’t. Zayneb is angry at the unfairness of her hideous teacher (who really is a jerk) and hates how powerless she feels, but along with her friends back home, she’s working to take back some of that power. She’s also exploring new aspects of her personality with the new friends she meets in Qatar, while still remaining entirely dedicated to her Muslim faith (her “Of course not, scarf for life” quip made me grin).

This book is representation to the max for Muslim readers, which I love, both for Muslim readers and for readers like me who get to learn and see Muslim characters as the heroes. (And sometimes cringe heavily at the racism, bigotry, and cringeworthy questions, comments, and microaggressions directed their way. There’s a scene where Zayneb wraps her childhood baby blanket around her when she’s sad over the loss of her grandmother and is answering the door with no time to ‘scarf up,’ as she puts it, and a non-Muslim character asks if that was something she had to wear when people die, ostensibly for religious reasons. *cringe* It’s better to ask than to assume, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to learn as much as I can in order to not necessarily be asking questions…like that one.) Qatar is a fascinating place to set a novel and I loved being able to see it through the eyes of two teenagers.

I got to thinking as I was reading the novel… Zayneb and Adam are both religious and very dedicated to their shared Muslim faith (Adam’s father converted when he was young, and Adam eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, which gave the novel a really interesting perspective), but this novel absolutely shines in ways that the Christian fiction I’ve read (most of it, anyway) hasn’t, and I’ve been pondering why these two types of novels, where faith is a major player, feel so different. In Ali’s novels, there’s no proselytizing; there’s no shaming for lower or different levels of observance. Faith is up to each character personally and is portrayed as their own private journey and not something that their neighbor is watching in on, ready to pounce and point them back to the right path. There’s no overall message of having to be or do or believe in a certain way; faith just is, but isn’t pushed. This is fiction where the characters are religious, but whose author has no religious agenda and that’s something I appreciated. It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Christian fiction (Always the Baker, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker was pretty good and, from what I remember, is a good example of Christian fiction that isn’t at all pushy in its message), so maybe the genre has changed since then? Love From A to Z felt like a breath of fresh air in that regard, though, and it’s something I’m still considering.

S.K. Ali goes onto my list of authors I’ll automatically read, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever it is she puts out next. Her characters are vibrant, and she makes them come alive, flaws and all. She’s such an exciting voice in YA fiction and I’m absolutely hooked on her writing.

Today only- that’s December 12, 2019- this book is available FOR FREE on RivetedLit.com, so what are you waiting for? GO GET IT!!!!!!!!!

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

middle grade · nonfiction

Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice- Veronica Chambers

I went to the library (I’m sure you’re shocked) a few weeks ago with a list of books for my daughter. As I was passing through the nonfiction shelves, I came upon a copy of Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice by Veronica Chambers (Harper Collins, 2018). Curiosity piqued, I grabbed it off the shelf and flipped through it. It looked right up my alley, so into the pile of 37482374983289 books for my daughter it went!

(I’m sure you’ll also be super surprised that the bag actually ripped as I was walking out to the car. 100% serious here! Whoops.)

Resist begins with an inspiring foreword by Senator Cory Booker, about how one person’s resistance to injustice made his entire life possible. Ms. Chambers then serves up short profiles of 35 historical and modern figures, each who fought or are fighting for the rights of those who have been oppressed. There are blasts from the distant past, including Joan of Arc and Martin Luther, the more recent past, like Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, and current rainmakers such as Malala Yousafzai and (much to my delight) Janet Mock. Civil rights, women’s rights, religious rights, migrant rights and more are covered in this stirring, yet easy-to-digest middle grade nonfiction book.

This is a cool little book that would make for a fabulous parent-child read, especially for when your kids overhear some of the terrible things on the news these days and they come to you, worried and scared about their futures. Ms. Chambers has chosen an excellent motley batch of people who have struggled and fought to bring justice to the masses, with little victories and big, with small losses, along with those who lost their lives fighting. Reading Resist, it’s possible to show your child that throughout history, there have always been brave people willing to step forward and do what’s right, even when it’s difficult, and there are still people working hard for the sake of justice today. These profiles of courageous people- adults and kids!- might help kids have a little hope for what seems like an increasingly uncertain future.

This is something I’ll head back to in a few years when my daughter is older. It’s something we can read together, either with me reading out loud to her, or with us sharing the reading-out-loud duties. There’s a lot of fodder for great parent-child discussions here too, so I’m looking forward to the day that she’s old enough to take part in discussing these stories about the lives of such brave people and what their actions meant to both the people in their lifetimes and to us today. Maybe she’ll even be inspired by them. I hope so.

Resist is a great biographical overview of what courage means and looks like, and for me, it was not only inspiring, it’s a good reminder that the middle grade section has a lot of hidden gems that I need to dig up more often. 😉

Visit Veronica Chamber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

When I Was White: A Memoir- Sarah Valentine

I love a good memoir. I love hearing a person’s own life stories, what they experienced and lived through from the life-changing to the mundane, from tales of growing up in unusual families to recountings of world travels and religious experiences, I’m here for it all. That’s why When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) leaped out at me from the New Books shelf last week. ‘What a provocative title,’ I thought, and after reading the inside flap, the book went into my stack.

Sarah Valentine (née Dunn; she explains her name change later on in the book, and it’s not due to marriage) was born the oldest of three children in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Growing up, her darker skin and frizzy hair were often the subject of questions or half-kidding jokes about the milkman, but Sarah accepted her family’s insistence that she was white, no matter what that nagging feeling in her gut told her. It’s only in her late twenties that she learns that she’s not, in fact, entirely white, that her family has been lying to her all these years, and that in doing so, they’ve denied her a huge portion of her identity. Sarah must then learn to carve out a place for herself as a black woman after having thought of herself as white from birth and restructure her relationship with the family who withheld- and is still withholding- the truth from her for so long.

(Content warnings exist in this book for racism, including racist remarks, and multiple stories of rape and sexual assault.)

Whoa. What an entire bombshell to have dropped on you- even if it’s something you had maybe-sort-of-somewhat suspected, having your racial identity and sense of self upended like that is huge. Finding out that half of you, genetically, has a history and a story that you’ve been denied is obviously life-changing in so many ways, and reading how Ms. Valentine navigated this rupture in her life was deeply intriguing. While this isn’t as immediately shocking as Tara Westover’s Educated, it’s still in the same category of memoirs whose central stories include abrupt realizations about one’s family of origin. Yet despite the book centering on racial issues, readers of every race need only to have undergone major life changes or a betrayal by a loved one in order to be able to relate to her family’s- in particular, her mother’s- duplicity. How deeply painful this must have been; my heart broke over and over for Sarah and what she missed out on as a child: the celebration of who she was in her entirety. Instead, her family, even her extended family, was complicit in suppressing a huge part of her, insisting that she was something else completely, and that what she- and others- were seeing was wrong. A famiy gaslighting, if you will.

Her mother’s outright racism, on display multiple times through the book, was stomach-turning to read, especially her casual dismissal of racism as “something that affects so few people,” so thus it’s not really a problem. (This is basically the theme song of casual racists everywhere, isn’t it? *sigh*) I’m not unaware of racism as a major, major problem- I’ve encountered it in my own family of origin and do my best to counter it when I do- but there’s something so very stark seeing it right there on the page and knowing that this came from the mouth of a parent who knew exactly what made up half of their child. I’m by no means a perfect parent (FAR, FAAAAAAAAAAR from it!), but we owe it to our children to move past our own crap attitudes and personal problems in order to bring them our best, instead of weighing them down with everything we refuse to deal with, and Ms. Dunn’s mother very obviously hadn’t done that, which may have been a product of her time (she may have had other issues; the phrase ‘personality disorder’ is tossed around multiple times, although there’s never a formal diagnosis). Her parents were mostly decent, however, and gave her and her brothers a good (for the most part) childhood, giving her a strong foundation on which to build her adult life.

Despite the trauma she’s been through, Ms. Dunn has emerged a compelling, interesting person with an incredible drive and dedication. She graduated with a PhD in Russian literature (yes, she speaks Russian, along with multiple other Slavic languages; she mentions she gets asked this all the time, although no one asks this from her white colleagues. I’d be the nerd asking anyone who mentioned studying Russian literature, because I’m so fascinated by foreign-to-me languages and so deeply impressed by those who speak them, especially those who didn’t grow up speaking them. I KNOW exactly how much work that is!), translates poetry, teaches language classes, she’s a writer, she’s lived multiple places and traveled widely. How lucky her students are, to learn from such an impressive woman!

If you’re looking for a memoir in which everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow at the end, this isn’t the book for you. While Ms. Dunn does write of the journey of attempting to discover her biological father, When I Was White is more about her discovering her sense of self as a woman of mixed race, when the knowledge of being both black and white- instead of just white- had been denied to her her entire life. If you’re interested in books of self-discovery and growth, however, you’ll find satisfaction in these pages.

Visit Sarah Valentine’s page at MacMillan Publishers.

fiction · YA

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter- Erika L. Sánchez

I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. Sánchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. 🙂

Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quinceañera they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).

But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.

Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.

Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. Sánchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.

Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. Sánchez speak next month.

Visit Erika L. Sánchez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

The Right Swipe- Alisha Rai

Ohhhhhh you guys. This has been a terrible month for reading. 😦

So, back in the second week of October, our weather went from about 75 degrees to a low of 33, and we had a massive cold front move in. And because of that, my body FREAKED OUT. I’ve got degenerative disc disease and sacroiliac joint dysfunction (and possibly more things, but who knows, specialists are expensive), and when there are either massive pressure changes or huge temperature swings, my pain becomes utterly unbearable. And that’s what happened a few weeks ago. My entire life got put on hold and I had to cancel a few things because I had pain zinging from my neck to my toes every second of the day.

Even sitting hurt. And driving? OMG. Nope. I still had to, though, and it was enough to make me sweat.

I’m doing a little better off now- driving doesn’t hurt so much, and I can do things around the house other than merely existing and going to bed at 8:30 every night to escape the pain- but during that period of about a week and a half, I pulled out an ARC of The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2019), sent to me by a longtime friend in Michigan (thanks again, Sandy!) and did my best to lose myself in the story in the brief periods where I could focus.

Rhiannon Hunter is creator of one of the most popular dating apps out there, but romance hasn’t really been in the cards for her, and her latest hook-up, someone she could’ve actually seen herself with long(er)-term, ghosted her after one unforgettable night, so she’s really not feeling this whole dating thing these days. It’s business only as she plans to grow her company by purchasing a smaller company, but it’s there she finds the ghoster himself. Samson Lima, former professional football player, is working for his kind-of aunt’s dating website as he tries to figure out his place in this world now that he’s left professional sports behind. He’s still grieving the loss of his uncle to CTE (caused by too many concussions), and he’s unsure of what the future holds for him. Having Rhiannon back in his life, once he explains the very real and very serious circumstances that led to him accidentally ghosting her, would help him feel more at ease with everything.

But it’s going to be a learning process for both of them, and Rhiannon isn’t going to have an easy time growing her business into what she knows it could be, especially not with her jackass of an ex in direct competition with her. She’s bound and determined to do this one hundred percent on her own…but as she’ll learn, all the best things in life happen when we let ourselves be vulnerable.

Rhiannon is an utter pistol of a character, nearly so driven that I had a little bit of a hard time trying to relate to her. Don’t get me wrong- she’s definitely a fabulous character, a highly motivated black businesswoman who knows her worth and refuses to settle for anything less than she knows she deserves. She’s surrounded by amazing friends and family who are supportive yet flawed (and still lovable!), and she works for what she wants with an almost pitbull-like strength. She’s basically #goals all the way. I am pretty much the exact opposite in every way and had an easier time relating to her best friend Katrina, who suffers from such terrible anxiety that she rarely leaves the house. (*nods at my blog title* If I’m not getting groceries or driving a kid or husband somewhere, I’m either at the library or at home, for real, so I feel you, Katrina…) I long for the confidence of Rhiannon Hunter and wish I could take her Master Class or sit in on her TED talk. She’s got some major trust issues to work through, but that’s not unexpected for romance novels, especially contemporaries, so it doesn’t necessarily detract from her strong personality.

Samson is an amazing hero. Principles for DAYS and he’s willing to put his money (and his professional sports career) where his mouth is. A man who stands up for his beliefs AND he’s in touch with his emotions AND he’s romantic and not at all a serial dater??? You guys, this dude is the sparkly unicorn of romance heroes! Can Samson teach a Master Class, too, one that’s required for all men to take? This could really, really work, y’all. If we can get a hologram all set up, I’m sensing a mammoth Alisha Rai enterprise…

There’s a lot going on in this book, including discussions of the #MeToo movement (so there’s a content warning there if you’re not up for that at the moment); Rhiannon’s ex-boyfriend is a blackmailing sleazebag and needs to be thrown out entirely (calling Whole Man Disposal Services…). If you’ve never read much on CTE (or Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, the neurodegenerative disease that makes the news often these days in regards to professional sports), this is a great primer; for further reading, Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is excellent and will give you an in-depth look at how the condition was discovered and all the NFL has done to try to bury evidence of it and research on it. High five to Ms. Rai for throwing the floodlights on a subject that needs as much coverage as possible, especially to an audience that will be majority female and who either have kids now or may have kids in the future who might play contact sports (or be in gym class and wind up with not one, but TWO concussions, one of which he received as a mere SPECTATOR, ask me how I know *stares hard at my son*). We’re the perfect audience for this kind of education, and the stories of Samson’s father and uncle and their struggles with CTE add such depth to the story.

I love a good novel that not only entertains me but educates me as well, and despite the problems I had being able to focus due to my pain, The Right Swipe made for an enjoyable read with a gloriously diverse cast, chock-full of contemporary issues, and a truly adorable love story. Ms. Rai’s next novel in the series is set to come out in April of 2020 and focuses on Katrina, Rhiannon’s anxiety-ridden friend, and you know I’m here for that!

I have to give a shoutout to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast here; this is where I was first introduced to Ms. Rai and thus began following her on Twitter. She’s smart, funny, incredibly charming, and has such a great personality that you’ll be immediately wondering if she’ll be your new BFF upon listening to any episode with her on it (or maybe that’s just me and I desperately need to get out more and develop an actual social life instead of living vicariously through fictional characters), and her Twitter feed is the same way. Even if you’re not into romance in general, she’s such a great person that I highly recommend giving her episodes a listen and her Twitter a follow!

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Opposite of Always- Justin A. Reynolds

Another book that came from the recommendation of a fellow book blogger, and another book down from my TBR! This was checked out from the library ALL. SUMMER. LONG (you go, local kids!!!), but now that they’re back in school, Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019) was back on the shelf and subsequently in my enormous heap of library books.

Jack King is the king of Almost, never quite reaching his goal no matter how hard he tries. Years of longing after his best female friend, who is (conveniently? inconveniently) dating his best male friend, have, however, been entirely wiped out by Jack’s attendance at a party during his college visit. There, he meets Kate, with whom he shares an immediate and nearly tangible connection. Hoping to leave ‘almost’ in the dust, Jack begins a slow, easy relationship with Kate, but of course nothing could be that simple.

It turns out that Kate’s sick- really sick- and suddenly, with a speed that Jack can barely comprehend, she’s dead. It’s almost more than Jack can take- until all at once, he’s thrown back in time to the night that he and Kate met. Can he prevent her death? Is that what he’s supposed to do? Or could his best friends, Franny and Jillian, need a little help too? It’s Groundhog Day for the YA set as Jack battles time, over and over again, to finally ditch that King of Always mantle.

If you enjoy that classic Bill Murray film, or even if you’ve ever wished you could have a do-over, this book is worth looking into. Jack is extremely likable as a character; he never quite measures up to what he truly wants to be, and I think that’s something that so many of us can relate to, no matter what our age. His relationships with his best friends are endearing and supportive- we’re talking serious friend goals here (with the exception, of course, the timeline where Jack makes a few decisions that affect Franny negatively, but to his credit, he learns from this), and his commitment to Kate undeniable. The supporting adult cast is also really amazing. Jack’s parents are older and are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary during the story, and while Jack on occasion gets grossed out by their physical affection, it’s obvious that he appreciates what their long-lasting love has given him. Franny (short for Francisco) lives with his abuela, who is a pillar of support, and even his mostly-deadbeat, fresh-out-of-prison father has an admirable character arc throughout the course of the book. Mr. Reynolds really hit a grand slam here in showing how much change is possible, even for adults who have been hardened by time and circumstance.

I love the concept of short-distance time travel, as well as repeated days and situations. While Bill Murphy kept waking up on the same day at the end of every day, Jack lives out a period of four months, time and time again, in order to get everything right- and there’s even a time when he goes FULL Bill Murray and kind of throws his hands up and does basically everything wrong, which I seriously loved. This is the only sci-fi element of the whole story, and it was so enjoyable to read.

And I can’t finish this review without mentioning how much I enjoyed a book with an entirely non-white main cast. (I’m trying to think of any side characters who were mentioned as being white, and none are coming to mind. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll amend this post!) The skin color or ancestry of the characters isn’t necessarily a focus of the story; it’s just part of who they are, and these are just black characters living their lives (lives steeped in time travel, of course!). The only other book I can think of that I’ve read that can claim an all (or mostly) black cast of characters is The Gift Giver by Joyce Hansen (again, please feel free to correct me in the comments if you’ve read this book and I’m wrong; it’s been a few years since my last reread of this, but from what I recall, the cast was mostly black), which I read repeatedly and loved as a child. Would Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins count here? I can’t remember if there were any named white characters in that story. Reading over my review of that book makes me want to read more from Ms. Bev! I digress… The books differ in that The Gift Giver takes place in the Bronx, amongst families who are struggling financially, whereas in Opposite of Always, these are just middle class black families living their lives. While Franny’s abuela works multiple jobs and is often late to his games because of this, it’s never focused on heavily, and it’s a nice change from so many of the books published when I was young, which strayed heavily into ‘The Dangers of a Single Story‘ territory whenever a non-white character showed up. A book like Opposite of Always is a huge deal just for its cast alone, and it makes my heart sing to know that it’s been so popular.

So, to recap: YA. Time travel with a Groundhog Day-bent. Romance. Saving the girl. Saving friends. Making things right and getting chance after chance to do it. A cast of characters that makes this book stand out. Sharp, snappy writing with a sense of humor and captivating characters. What’s not to love? Don’t let the size fool you; this heavy tome will have you flipping pages like the wind, desperate to know if Jack ever manages to work things out. And if you’re into reading books before the movie comes out, GET ON THIS TRAIN NOW, BECAUSE THEY’RE MAKING A MOVIE OUT OF IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Visit Justin A. Reynolds’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Saints and Misfits- S.K. Ali

Another book from my TBR! (I know, I know I’ll never tackle it completely, but at least I have a GOAL, right???) I managed to grab a copy of this right after my son went back to school- I live in a really amazing area (I know I say this a lot, but I really do love it here), and Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017) was on several school summer reading lists here, so every time I looked for it at the library during the summer, it was checked out. But when the kids went back to school, BAM- there it was on the shelf and I snatched it up like a ravenous seagull who has spotted a French fry in a McDonald’s parking lot.

This isn’t the easiest book for which to write a synopsis, so this will look a little different than my usual reviews. Bear with me here, because this book is SO. WORTH. IT.

Janna, a young hijabi, is struggling. Struggling with her parents’ divorce, struggling with her brother moving back home and taking over her room (forcing her to bunk with Mom), struggling with her brother’s Little Miss Perfect possible-future-wife, struggling with a crush on a non-Muslim boy, struggling to remain true to her convictions even when it’s hard, and most of all, struggling with having been sexually assaulted by a Muslim boy that everyone thinks is the most pious member of her community. To say that her plate is full is the understatement of the century.

The story centers around Janna navigating her school year, attempting to manage all these different parts of her life, with the assault and the young man who committed it looming largest over all the others. Janna’s identity as a Muslim is strong; though she sometimes makes decisions she later regrets in regards to her hijab and her crush on Jeremy, it’s her faith in herself, her confidence that her truth will be listened to and taken seriously by her own community where her crisis lies. When everyone loves the person who harmed you, whom can you tell? I think we’ve all seen in news stories these past few years that far too many people are willing to wave away any evidence, no matter how damning, when a woman comes forward about being sexually assaulted, and Janna’s fears here are both troubling and all too real.

I love-love-LOVED Janna as a character. She’s absolutely not perfect, and I was so able to relate to her- if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most people will be able to. We’ve all made decisions that go against what we believe; sometimes, we later realize we were wrong in those decisions, and other times, we learn that we need to redefine what we believe because it no longer fits who we are, but we’ve all been Janna. What made me want to scoop her up and hug her forever, though, was the paragraph where she stated that she would rather suffer in silence than have people blame her community because of her assault. I can’t speak from personal experience here, but I know it’s not easy being a member of a community that far too many people (people who have zero personal experience with Muslims and who have even less knowledge of Muslims or of Islam itself) mindlessly vilify, and while I understand and applaud Janna’s need to uphold and protect her community in that way, it broke my heart that she understood that pressure well enough to name it, and it furthered my commitment to help make this world more accepting and loving for anyone who has ever found themselves on the outside. A teenager who’s suffering but who understands that her community doesn’t need more bad press- the sheer reality of this is so heavy. We’ve got to do better.

I’ve got to do better.

I loved Ms. Ali’s portrayal of Janna’s Muslim community- the fun, the warmth, the activities, the varying degrees of practice and piety, it all felt so very alive and real. The way Janna’s non-Muslim best friend Tatyana fit right in in mosque activities was so sweet, and I adored Sausun (who works up to wearing niqab, the full face covering) and her brash personality- I learned SO much from her. She’s such an empowered character, and I loved how much she made Janna think. She made me think, too, and those are the kinds of books I LOVE.

This is a seriously important book- because of the Muslim author, because it features a teenage Muslim girl who wears hijab as a main character, because it centers around a Muslim community, because Janna is every teenager who has ever struggled with family, friends, and crushes, because it covers sexual assault (I wish so hard I could introduce Janna to Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; they would understand each other and could help each other heal), because of all these reasons and more. Nothing I say could possibly do this jewel of a book proper justice, because its truths and beauties run so very deep.

If you’ve made it this far, there are obvious content warnings for sexual assault; Janna has flashbacks throughout the story and is most likely suffering from PTSD related to the assault. There are also constant microaggressions (her gym teacher insisting on calling her hijab a hajeeb no matter how many times she was corrected drove me NUTS; it’s so disrespectful and I’m so, so sorry that anyone has to put up with crap like that); if these things are too much for you, wait for a better time to read it and be kind to yourself. If you’re able to handle these subject matters, this is an utterly amazing book that will allow you to see the world maybe a little differently than you’re used to, but so much of it will still look familiar, because we all have so much more in common than we have differences. 🙂

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali is also on my Goodreads TBR, and after reading Saints and Misfits, I’m looking forward to reading that more than Christmas and my birthday and the first warm day of summer combined. I’m so, so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy, and I truly hope Ms. Ali never, ever stops writing. So many people, myself included, need stories just like this one.

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.