fiction · YA

Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

A while back, there was an epic Twitter thread on all of (or at least, a LOT of) the books by South Asian authors coming out in 2020, and hoooooooooooooo boy, did a lot of books get added to my TBR that day! One of those books included The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids, 2020). This book has it all: South Asian characters. LGBT rep. Strong sister relationship. Drama with the parents. Set in…Ireland??? NEAT! It’s been a while since I read fiction set there. Anyway, I finally got to it on my TBR and enjoyed the long days of reading it on my backyard swing (while sweating half to death, of course, because it’s super gross out here right now).

Nishat has come out to her parents, with less-than-stellar results. While there’s no screaming, no threatening, no plans to send her away, they’re cool, chilly, unable to understand why she can’t just change everything about who she is. Unexpectedly, Flávia, a friend she hasn’t seen since early grade school, shows back up in her life, and suddenly, Nishat’s in love. Only there’s a slight problem: Flávia turns out to be the cousin of Nishat’s archenemy at school. Ugh. No worries, though. Nishat’s not even sure if Flávia likes her that way, although signs are pointing to yes…

A business class project has the students forming their own businesses and competing over whose is more successful. Nishat decides, as a nod to her culture, to begin doing henna (painting henna designs on hands). She’s horrified to learn that Flávia, who is not Bengali (she’s Brazilian and Irish), has planned to do the same. Holy cultural appropriation, folks! Sabotage. Theft. Underhandedness. Destruction. Things get a little out of control in this competition, and Nishat isn’t always the person she wants to be. Nishat and her classmates have a lot to learn about and from each other, and maybe Mom and Dad will learn a few things as well.

There’s a lot going on in this story- Nishat’s relationship with her sister Priti, the pressure of exams at school, trying to maintain a relationship with a grandparent over Skype, race-based bullying, fighting with a friend group, a strained relationship with parents over cultural issues, cultural appropriation- but somehow, it all works. Nishat is a typical teenager who doesn’t always make the best choices; she’s impulsive under pressure, a little selfish at times, and occasionally leaps to conclusions. But she’s also dedicated and optimistic, and all of this makes her a well-rounded character.

Her relationship with younger sister Priti, who is sometimes the more mature of the two, is the kind that will make you wish you had a younger sister (if you don’t. I do not). Priti stands by her side no matter what, is always there to support her and offer up whatever Nishat needs, and calls her on her selfish behavior when the situation warrants it. Priti is very much the voice of reason here, and I loved her.

The bullying is painful to read. There are obvious content warnings here for racism and homophobia, and one for a forced outing, which can be upsetting (kudos to Ms. Jaigirdar, who has this warning written into the opening pages. I love that these kinds of heads-ups are becoming the norm). When you’re able to handle these topics, this is a kaleidoscope of a novel, with all the issues moving and sliding around each other to become one colorful design that fits together perfectly.

Super fun YA with great multi-dimensional characters in an interesting setting. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms. Jaigirdar.

Visit Adiba Jaigirdar’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

I think Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae (Inclusive Press, 2017) came to my TBR via a suggestion from a reading challenge that I’m no longer participating in, but it looked so sweet that I couldn’t pass it up! Plus I’m always up for a good love story, and in graphic novel form? LOVE IT. My library had a copy on the teen shelves, so I bustled on over and added it to my stack of books during my latest trip (the library is now open for regular browsing, though the number of people allowed in at one time is limited and you can only stay an hour. Not a problem for me, as I always go in with a list and am usually out by the time 30 minutes has passed).

Hazel Johnson’s life changes the day Mari McCray moves to town. Quickly becoming best friends, Hazel soon realizes she feels more than friendship for Mari, but it’s 1963 and these things just aren’t talked about, especially in their Black community. It doesn’t take long after their first shared kisses before their secret is discovered and their families tear them apart. Years later, after both women have spent a lifetime being married and raising families, a chance reunification brings them right back to the love they discovered years ago, forcing them and everyone they know to examine what they believe love really is.

SWEEEEEEEEEET story with an awful, awful lot of heartbreak in it. Bingo Love tells the story of (I believe) the authors’ grandmothers, how they found, lost, then found each other again. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s the kind of story that sticks with you, of love that never forgets, never dies, no matter who tries to snuff it out. It’s the story of the kind of courage it takes to upend your life in order to be true to who you are and to live with conviction and purpose. It’s history, the kind that we’re, hopefully, beginning to move past, with the hope that Hazel and Mari’s pain doesn’t need to be repeated again and again among other couples. What should be repeated, however, is their joy in one another.

Utterly lovely read.

Follow Tee Franklin on Twitter and visit her website here.

Follow Jenn St-Onge on Twitter and visit her website here.

fiction

Mrs. Everything- Jennifer Weiner

There’s been a huge amount of buzz about Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2019), and, having read six of her other books in the past, I knew I’d eventually get to this one! And as luck would have it, it came up as a suggestion for PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge for a book that passes the Bechdel test (wherein two women must have a conversation which is about something other than a man, and which was named after the cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, a fact I didn’t know about until just now!). This book passes that test in spades and is an all-around fabulous read.

Mrs. Everything covers the entire lives of sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman, born in the baby boom of post-WWII America and coming of age in the turbulent 60’s as the world writhed and changed around them. Jo, the elder of the two, is athletic, always at odds with their mother, and understands early on that she’s different from other girls. Bethie, a people pleaser and their mother’s clear favorite, changes trajectory after the terrible aftermath of death of their father and struggles to find herself and her place in the world. The sisters’ relationship ebbs and flows, internal and external pressures playing a large part on how they relate to and support one another. This is an opus, a love letter to all the women out there who do their best and can only try, fail, and try again.

(Content warnings exist for molestation by a family member, rape, abortion, drug use, homophobia, disordered eating, difficult parent/child relationships, cancer, and death.)

There are a lot of themes running throughout this book, and one of them is the changing role of women in society over the years. Jo and Bethie’s mother had almost no choices in life; Jo and Bethie had more, but still nowhere near acceptable; Jo’s daughters have far more, but it’s still not enough, and the novel ends acknowledging that while women have come so far, it’s absolutely not enough, that men are given passes in parenting and the career world that women aren’t even thought of being granted. Jo makes an astute observation that both she and Bethie kind of fell into their lives, rather than making active choices to create the lives they wanted, and I have to wonder how true that statement is for women in general today. It certainly was for me.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as there is in everyone’s life. Jo, whose attraction to women can’t ever really be lived out in the open in her young adulthood, lives what feels like only a half-life, struggling to find a place for herself while taking care of her beloved children and the husband who, as time goes on, feels like less and less of a safe haven. Bethie’s entire self nearly disappears after being molested and raped, and she flits around the world, trying to both lose and discover herself and realizing she can’t run from her pain, nor can she force her sister to live more authentically. It’s all one step forward, two steps back for the Kaufman sisters, a tale as old as time and one that we’re still seeing today.

Despite the sadness, this is a view of two very different lives over a turbulent period of time, a time of growth and a time of difficult realizations. Jennifer Weiner writes with clarity and insight, and even when the subject manner is painful, her tone is light enough that Mrs. Everything is a comfort read, like hearing stories from your own beloved friends and sisters. This was the perfect book to follow up my last read, Dahlia Adler’s His Hideous Heart, an anthology of Poe retellings. I desperately needed something that made me feel hope again, and this fit the bill well.

Have you read this or any of Jennifer Weiner’s other novels? Are you a fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Jennifer Weiner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Red, White & Royal Blue- Casey McQuiston

On occasion, I hit up the library without a list for something to read- anything to read, save me from the dreaded reading slump!- and on really cool occasions, a book that I’ve seen all over the book blogs appears before my eyes on the shelves. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019) is one of those books. It was everywhere on the book blogs this summer and I see Casey McQuiston on Twitter almost every day, even though I hadn’t followed her until now (but y’all do, so well done there!). I hadn’t added this to my TBR, but it was kind of on my mental TBR, like, “I’m not going to specifically request it, but if I run into it, I’ll grab it.”

I ran into it.

I grabbed it.

I LOVED IT.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the politically ambitious, college-age son of the first female American President. He’s driven, mischievous, and a little lonely- and he cannot STAND Henry, the British prince with whom he’s been crossing paths long before his mother took office. Henry is stiff, proper, everything you’d expect a royal to be, and his very presence drives Alex up the wall. After a disastrous moment between the two of them during the royal wedding reception, their respective PR teams force them into a very public faux-friendship in order to mend fences between the countries…and when Alex gets to see the Henry behind the royal façade, the real Henry, Alex discovers he actually likes the guy. Really likes him.

And that’s when, to Alex’s major surprise, their friendship deepens into romance.

Suddenly, Alex finds himself in a cross-country intrigue, pretending his growing love for the handsome young British royal is nothing more than an international bromance, but the two are in deep. If knowledge of this gets out, it could spell disaster for both the royal family and for Alex’s mother’s upcoming re-election. But how can they hide something that feels so perfect?

(This is possibly the worst summary I’ve ever written, so please don’t let that deter you from reading the book. It’s amazing and sweet and fun and adorable and really, one of the most joyful books I’ve read in ages.)

I don’t read a lot of stuff that gets super-hyped, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I dove into this book, but I absolutely wasn’t expecting to find one of the sweetest, most adorable love stories I’ve ever read. I loved every last thing about this- Alex’s status as first son, his surprise love interest being a British prince, Alex’s sister and friend group, the White House staff, his divorced parents’ relationship, the political intrigue, the heartfelt optimism of all of this, it all added up to a deeply enjoyable reading experience.

Alex and Henry together are an entire swoonfest, and Ms. McQuiston has penned an entire masterclass on witty banter between the two of them. They’re sharp, snarky, and clever together, making one of the most perfect, well-matched couples I’ve ever read in my entire reading life. Her dialogue flows so naturally that every conversation in this book felt like I was stashed away in the corner, eagerly listening in on something actually happening in front of me. This is one of those amazing books that absolutely transports the reader, and with its heartfelt optimism, it’s the perfect escapist read when real-life politics and international scandals become too much.

Alex’s sister and friends (and Henry’s friend as well) are fabulously well-written characters, but I have to say, my favorite character here was Zahra Bankston, the President’s deputy chief of staff, who (barely) kept Alex in line and swears like a sailor in the most creative manner. I so appreciated her snark and her barely-contained irritation with Alex. I’d hate to be in her crosshairs, but she’s absolutely someone I’d want on my side.

Goodreads says that Ms. McQuiston is currently working on another rom-com featuring two girls and possible time travel and I’m already dying a thousand deaths; I adored Red, White & Royal Blue so very much and I loved Ms. McQuiston’s style, so I’m ready to fast-forward to the point where this new book is in my hands and I have some quiet time to sit and devour it whole. Three cheers for finding a new author that I absolutely love!

Red, White & Royal Blue has been optioned; whether it’s fully developed and winds up on the big screen remains to be seen. I’d absolutely go see it, but I’m not sure any adaptation could do full justice to the wonderful novel Casey McQuiston has gifted to us all.

Visit Casey McQuiston’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.