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.

fiction · YA

Catfishing on CatNet- Naomi Kritzer

The first read (that I’m blogging about; I finished reading The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis out loud to my daughter, but I usually don’t blog about those reads) of the new year, and one of the promts of the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge that I would be the most difficult to fulfill: a book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character. I’m not the world’s biggest sci-fi fan, and I wasn’t quite sure what I would read for this…and then I remembered Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen, 2019), which I’d already requested that my library buy, both thanks to this article on NPR, and other reasons I’ll get to in a bit. It fits this prompt perfectly and kept me on the edge of my seat (and laughing!) until the very last page.

Steph has spent her whole life moving from town to town; she and her mother have been on the run from Steph’s arsonist father for as long as she can remember. Steph knows the rules: don’t get too close to anyone, don’t give out any important information, and never share your picture online. All of these rules have made making friends impossible, but Steph has found solace on CatNet, a social network where cat pictures are currency and where the people in her group (known appropriately as a ‘clowder,’ the term for a group of cats) totally get her, and she gets them. It’s the one place Steph feels like she belongs.

This new school, despite its lack of rigorous academics and its lame sex ed-teaching robot, shows signs of promise. Rachel, an artist, seems like someone Steph could be friends with. But Steph’s past- along with a few mysterious truths- comes calling, and after a member of her clowder steps in to help, she learns this friend isn’t the human being she’d been picturing, but a sentient AI (who goes by the screen name CheshireCat). With Rachel, CheshireCat, and the other members of her clowder, Steph goes on a cross-country dash in order to save herself and her friends, but there’s so much more at stake than just that.

Again: I’m not really a fan of sci-fi, most thrillers that involve people being on the run, robots and AI, etc, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Catfishing on CatNet has been on my list since before its release. I read Naomi’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories in 2017 and absolutely loved every single story- a rarity for me, as I usually don’t care for short stories (thanks for ruining those for me, seventh grade English teacher…). Cat Pictures Please is one of those books I recommend to everyone; my friend Sharon describes it as “great science fiction short stories that (usually ) start out as normal domestic scenes and then get turned a little sideways,” and this description is spot-on. They’re a little like Stephen King’s less creepy and more fantastical short stories, which I always loved. The other reason Catfishing and Cat Pictures Please ended up on my TBR lists…

I’ve known Naomi since 2002, when we were both part of the same small-ish online parenting group. She’s always been one of my favorite posters and I’ve been delighted to watch her success as a writer grow. (And another huge delight is being able to hear Naomi’s voice in her writing. Sometimes- and it was way more obvious in Cat Pictures Please, though she came through loud and clear in Catfishing– a line or a paragraph would pop up that sounded so much like her that I would actually laugh out loud to be able to ‘hear’ my friend’s voice in such a format.) If Catfishing weren’t up to snuff, I’d have no problems saying so; our parenting site taught us well to take seriously harsh criticism (it was that kind of site, the gloves came off at the door!), but Naomi being a friend is just incidental to this (and I wanted that out there as full disclosure). Catfishing is fabulous (and I’ve been joking in our private groups that Naomi totally named her main character after me).

CheshireCat, the sentient AI, is a joy to read. While they’re able to parse information at lightning-fast speeds, they’re still figuring out emotions and how to interact with humans, and they don’t always get it right, leading to scenes that had me laughing out loud multiple times in public. During one scene, Steph and crew conspire to get ChesireCat to take over her sex ed class’s robot (which only provides information on abstinence; all other questions receive a curt, “You’ll have to ask your parents about that”) in order to teach them actual, factual information. No spoilers, but the results are amazing.

Steph is sympathetic, a friendless teenager who’s been on the run her entire life, desperate for a place to fit in and to call home. Her clowder fills in the gaps for her lack of social life (total #goals, by the way; they’re placed together by CatNet, which- no spoilers!- has done a fabulous job of grouping together kids who need and understand each other, and I loved this so much), but real-life Rachel, and to a lesser extent Bryony, are the real-life connection Steph has been dreaming of.

This ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a sequel. I’ll be pestering my library to purchase that one as well, because frankly, I want more of Steph, her ‘meatspace’ friends, her clowder, and definitely more of CheshireCat. Catfishing on CatNet really made me want to live in a world where AIs can become sentient (at least, in a benevolent CheshireCat-like manner), because I could really use someone like CheshireCat in my life, someone to have my back and save the day by zipping through the internet at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t we all use that?

So, to sum it up, if you like fast-paced YA, or you’re looking for something to fill the robot/cyborg/AI prompt in this year’s PopSugar challenge, Catfishing on CatNet is one you won’t want to miss! (And do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, because it’s AMAZING.)

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

All-American Muslim Girl- Nadine Jolie Courtney

I usually remember the process by which a book ends up on my TBR. I may not remember which friend recommended a book to me, but I’ll remember it was recommended by a friend. I may not remember which blog I saw that book on, but I know a fellow book blogger raved about it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first learned about All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), only that it went immediately onto my TBR. And that was absolutely the right action to take, because this book was ah-maaaaaaaaaa-zing.

Allie Abraham is Muslim, nominally. Her family- Dad was born Muslim, Mom converted- doesn’t pray, doesn’t attend mosque, doesn’t fast for Ramadan. Dad, a native speaker, never taught Allie Arabic or the Circassian language, and has always tried to downplay his religion and heritage. Allie’s pale skin and lighter hair don’t necessarily clue people in to her heritage either, and thus, not only does she feel out of place amongst her more devout extended family, she’s also the dumping ground for anti-Muslim bigotry that non-Muslims dump on her when they think they’re in good company. As a result, Allie has spent her life hiding who she really is, never truly comfortable with her background, becoming a different person each time her family moves for her father’s work.

This new town in Georgia, however, feels different. It’s meant to be permanent, and Allie almost immediately catches the eye of Wells, a supercute guy in her grade. Their attraction is mutual, but there’s one major catch: Wells’s father, a majorly conservative TV host who spreads Islamophobia, amongst other horrors, on his TV show. Allie could go on hiding who she is, just as she’s always done, but she’s increasingly drawn to Islam, its practice and its meaning, in a way she’s never been before. Via study and her new involvement with her school’s Muslim Student Association, Allie’s discovering things that speak to her soul and help her define who she truly is…but how will her father, who has always subtly encouraged her to pass as non-Muslim, react?

Ohhhhhh, how I loved this book. In Allie, Ms. Courtney has given us an Every Girl, a teenager used to changing her image to fit in like so many teenagers do, unsure of who she really is and who she wants to be. YA novels with strong teen characters who know exactly who they are are so necessary (and there are so many great examples of those out there!), but characters who are searching for identity and a sense of self reflect the experience of the majority of adolescents, and Allie’s character arc throughout the novel is a beautiful one of growth, in tentative baby steps, trying out what works for her and working up the courage to present that part of herself to the world (a world that isn’t always friendly and is often downright hostile to those parts). While her religious journey may not be something every reader can identify with, her search for identity is, and Ms. Courtney has created a sympathetic and sharply intelligent character who will have readers cheering through her bravery and triumphs, and rooting for her in her pursuit of identity.

A very basic understanding of Islam would be helpful in reading this book, but as Allie is learning as she goes (even buying and hiding a Qu’ran from her parents! The irony of a teenager sneaking religion, of all things, along with Arabic language lessons, was…I don’t want to say humorous, but given all the things she could have been hiding in her bedside table, well…), the reader should be able to learn right along with her. Allie’s entire extended family is warm, inviting, and deeply supportive, and should have any reader wistful for such a welcoming group. I also enjoyed the trajectory of her friendship with the girls from her Qu’ran study group. While they often disagree with each other on different issues (dating and relationships, how to best practice Islam, etc), there’s room for disagreement within their friendships while still remaining close and having each others’ backs.

Allie’s relationship with Wells is very sweet and mature without seeming forced. Wells is nothing like his father, and their relationship seems strained at best, as does his parents’ marriage. He’s an easy character to feel sympathy for, even when his and Allie’s relationship isn’t quite going the way they had hoped (that’s not a spoiler; teenage relationships have their ups and downs, as we all know!). He’s kind and supportive and a great match for Allie.

Content warnings exist for Islamophobia and religious bigotry and hatred, microaggressions, on-page panic attacks, on-page death of a family member, and strained parent-child relationships. Nothing is graphic.

There’s so much good in this novel. I’d never heard of the Circassian people before and Ms. Courtney has helped to begin filling in that gap in my knowledge. Her voice is so natural and so readable, even during the more tense scenes (such as between Allie and Wells’s father, or Allie and her own father during their confrontations over religion), that her novel of growth and identity is an absolute page turner. If you’re looking for a lovely novel on the intersection of family, faith, and identity, All-American Muslim Girl needs a place on your TBR list.

Visit Nadine Jolie Courtney’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Gated- Amy Christine Parker

Yikes, I’ve been hitting the cult books kind of hard lately, haven’t I??? I’ve got another one coming up as well. I mean, I guess it’s a great time of year to read creepy things, but yeesh, maybe I should throw a ghost or a demon in there along with all the manipulative cult leaders, eh? Gated by Amy Christine Parker (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2013) ended up on my TBR after I read another book blogger’s review; I was lucky that my library had an ebook copy, and so onto my Kindle it went!

Lyla’s family has been hurting badly ever since the disappearance of her older sister when Lyla was young. One moment the girls were playing together happily; the next moment, Lyla’s sister was gone forever, and just a few days later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the story of the missing girl out of the news. Enter Pioneer, a charismatic young man who convinces the family to leave everything behind and follow him to live in a community where everything will be safe and there will be no more worries.

But the visions Pioneer sees, visions that Lyla’s parents and other adults who make up the community entirely buy into, grow dark, and the community ramps up their preparations for the end of the world, where their community will hunker down in their specially constructed underground bunker. Their reclusive community hasn’t escaped the attention of the local law enforcement community, however, and after a visit from the chief of police and his son, Cody, Lyla, who is promised to her childhood best friend Will, finds herself with a major crush. It’s Cody who prompts Lyla to begin questioning everything she’s ever believed to be true, and after a near-deadly accident, her eyes are fully opened to the reality of Pioneer and the place she lives. But can she convince everyone else before it’s too late?

Gated is a really great example of how easily it is for even fully grown adults to be manipulated. Pioneer is obviously a smooth talker with enough charisma to convince an entire community of families to sell their homes, turn the money over to him, and spend their lives secluded from the rest of the world. He found Lyla’s family via the news about the disappearance of their older daughter, and he absolutely preyed on them during the worst time of their lives. (What is never covered and is something that I wondered throughout the entirety of the book, is if he was responsible for the older daughter’s disappearance. I would have liked to have seen this questioned, because it was entirely in the realm of possibility for his uber-creepiness.)

There’s some insta-love going on between Lyla and Cody, and I found the whole process of Pioneer matching the teenagers up so early on in order to marry them off when they’re adults to be super creepy, along with the parents’ easy acceptance of this! Ms. Parker has really set up a creepy mini-society where the parents have blindly accepted a stranger’s proclamations of what the future will hold and on which they’re willing to bet their children’s entire lives. There’s a good sense of balance, though; she’s also taken great pains to show the best parts of living the way Lyla and her family do: fresh food grown straight from their own gardens, being able to take care of their own needs with building and repairing, a close sense of family and community. There’s a not-too-graphic scene that depicts, off-camera, the death of animals, and while the reader isn’t witness to it (Lyla understands what’s going on when she wakes up in the middle of the night and runs to the commotion at the barns), there’s some description that might be hard to read for younger or more sensitive readers.

There is a sequel and it sounds like something I’d be interested in, but given the reviews, I’m thinking it’ll be better to just leave this series where it is and not continue on. If you’ve read the second book and want to change my mind, i’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

Visit Amy Christine Parker’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Just Visiting- Dahlia Adler

Making my way through my TBR!

Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler (Spencer Hill Contemporary, 2015) is the second book I’ve read this year by Ms. Adler, the first being Behind the Scenes (whose sequel I will get to! I haven’t forgotten it!). I enjoyed Ms. Adler’s interview on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast so much that I put two of her books on my TBR, and Just Visiting is the second. It’s been rare for me in the past to read the same author multiple times in a year- I’m more the kind of gal who likes to shake things up and make sure I read a wide variety of writers, but I enjoyed her style so much that I was thrilled to jump back in to another one of her worlds.

As best friends, Reagan and Victoria couldn’t be more different. Victoria, who is Mexican-American, lives a fairly comfortable middle-class life with her clearly-in-love college professor parents. Reagan lives in a trashy trailer park and works a full-time job to help her ne’er-do-well parents pay the bills (and even when she hands over money, it’s never certain the lights will actually stay on). Both girls have big dreams to leave their small Kansas hometown behind, but for very different reasons.

A weekend college visit gives Victoria a taste of the sorority life she’s been craving, and Reagan meets a boy who opens her eyes to the possibility of love after having her heart shredded by her controlling jerk of an ex. But choosing a college isn’t easy, especially when you’re still figuring out who you are and who you want to become. Reagan and Victoria will learn some hard lessons about being true to who they are, even if it means letting go a little.

Just Visiting is another winner from Dahlia Adler. I’m not quite as deep into the YA scene as I once was, but she’s absolutely got her fingers on the pulse of teenagers today, especially in terms of dialogue and emotions. Seventeen is a rough age, the pressures heaped on kids today are unreal, and Ms. Adler nails all of it in Victoria’s struggle to define herself and decide her future, and in Reagan’s world-weary sense of responsibility and desperation to begin living life solely on her terms.

Reagan as a character is deep, raw, and painful to read. Nearly every adult around her has failed her badly, in pretty much every way (and I’m not counting poverty; poverty isn’t necessarily a failing, just a circumstance. There are, unfortunately, far too many people who work full-time and still can’t make ends meet), leaving her drained and mature beyond her years. Her determination to better her life and leave her desolate hometown and irresponsible parents behind is admirable, but it’s her broken heart, along with her pain of being tormented by her classmates, that I think is most relatable. Though he never makes an actual appearance, her ex-boyfriend (along with his family, and Reagan’s parents) is a huge piece of crap (and there’s mention of birth control sabotage on his part here, so beware if that’s a subject that’s upsetting to you), and Reagan is so deeply wounded in so many ways that her distress is nearly tangible. Ms. Adler really does an amazing job of showing teen determination in the face of serious adversity.

Victoria is the breather we need after Reagan’s pain. Though she comes with an uncomfortable backstory of her own, her supportive family and friendship with Reagan have negated the majority of ill affects and she dreams of a future filled with parties and sororities where she’ll finally fit in with the crowd like she’s always wanted. Her entire family is serious #goals, especially her Deaf mother (with whom Victoria communicates in ASL, which I LOVE! I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with just a random Deaf character who isn’t there to show us How Deaf People Live, or How To Overcome Disability- can you tell I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, where books with characters who had a disability were Very Special Lessons? Ugh. Victoria’s mom is just a regular college professor who just happens to be Deaf, along with being super-loving and supportive. HIGH FIVE, MS. ADLER!!!), her long-distance abuela, who I don’t think ever actually shows up in person, but who Victoria references so much that I feel like I know her now too, and her brother Javi, who, though he’s off with the Peace Corps, still manages to stay involved in his little sister’s life. Victoria struggles with knowing what she wants to do and also with wanting to make everyone else happy, something that I think almost everyone can relate to. She’s all of us, with maybe better fashion sense- or maybe that last part is just me. 😉

This is a book about deep, serious friendship, about making decisions that speak to who we truly are as a person, about setting goals and working for them no matter what it takes, about what we shouldn’t have to do but sometimes still do anyway, about the power of friendship and about learning- who we are, what we need, what’s best for each of us. It’s sweet, it’s heartbreaking, and at times, if you’re a decent person and a good human being, you’ll want to kick a few of the terrible small-town side characters somewhere where it’ll count, deeply. (And far from straying towards caricature, Ms. Adler really hits the nail on the head with how awful they are. I’ve known people like that, and…yeah.)

Just Visiting is just a great example of the YA genre. I’m still riding the Dahlia Adler Fan Train after finishing it. 🙂

Visit Dahlia Adler’s website here.

Follow her 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.

YA

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali- Sabina Khan

I’m not sure the route by which this ended up on my TBR. Was it from a Book Riot article on Muslim authors? Due to a fellow book blogger’s review? Could go either way on this, but I knew that I wanted to read The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press, 2019) almost immediately; the premise of the story ticked so many of my ‘THIS IS FASCINATING; MUST READ’ boxes.

I love when that happens. What didn’t happen was this being at the library the first two or three times I looked for it, which is both frustrating (for me!) and wonderful, because it means other people are reading it. Hurray for you, other local people! You have awesome taste in books.

Rukhsana Ali is seventeen, Muslim, Bengali-American…and a lesbian. Having a secret girlfriend isn’t something she can share with her uber-conservative parents, so she sneaks around, sneaks out, hides who she really is, nods and smiles and grits her teeth when her mother talks about Rukhsana getting married (seriously, Mom! College first, especially now that Rukhsana has a full ride to Cal Tech!). Her stress levels aren’t helped by her friends, who don’t get how uptight her parents are and how difficult it is to hide such a huge part of herself. Even Ariana, her girlfriend, doesn’t quite get it.

But all good schemes must come to an end, and when Rukhsana’s parents learn of Ariana, they hustle her off to Bangladesh (no matter that it’s near the end of senior year. Exams, what???), supposedly to visit her ailing grandmother, but the longer they’re there, Rukhsana begins to suspect their motives weren’t quite honest. And when arranged marriage becomes very real and very immediate, Rukhsana will have to dig deep, find all the strength she’s gathered from reading her grandmother’s diary, and fight for who she loves and who she truly is.

Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the dude thrusts his fist into another man’s chest and rips out his beating heart? Reading this will make you feel like the second guy, your heart torn from your chest and paraded around by the author for everyone to see. At times, Rukhsana’s options are so limited and her parents, especially her mother, so dictatorial and insensitive, I felt claustrophic about her situation and her future. Her friends are both wonderful and frustrating, in that they don’t fully listen to her concerns and don’t try to understand the difficulties her cultural ties present in coming out; her relationship with Ariana is a typical teenage romance, in that they’re obviously in love but still learning how to communicate and navigate more mature emotional territory. Sweet, but also occasionally frustrating for both Rukhsana and the reader.

But Rukhsana’s parents. Hooooooo boy. Her father doesn’t get as much air time as her mother; Mom is…an uncomfortable-to-read character for the majority of the book. She’s the main source of homophobia and bigotry, and some of the things she says to her daughter and the ways she tries to remedy Rukhsana’s homosexuality are horrifying. Her grandmother, however, is an absolute gem; everyone should have a grandmother who loves them so unconditionally.

Content warnings: there’s a lot of homophobia and anti-gay slurs in the book; a character is murdered because he’s gay; there’s a diary entry that details marital rape and spousal abuse, and a later one that, quite chillingly and almost unexpectedly, includes child molestation (if not child rape; it’s not specified). Ms. Khan’s style is light, which helps the book stay away from Dementor-style darkness, but it’s still not a fun or safe-feeling read.

There’s a massive turnaround that I don’t want to spoil; some readers have complained that it felt a bit whiplashy and unrealistic. I totally understand that, and I also get how said turnaround could have happened, when the characters who experienced it were confronted with the consequences of the exact same attitudes that they had. It’s understandable, and personally, while I wouldn’t have been quite as forgiving as Rukhsana was, at least not so quickly, it did make for a pleasant ending.

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a gut-punch of a YA novel, and was definitely worth the wait. I hope the other library patrons who checked it out before me enjoyed it as much as I did.

Visit Sabina Khan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

The Drowning of Stephan Jones- Bette Greene

Another book that’s been on my TBR for years. Always good to clear out some of that backlog, right? We’re talking YEARS, like probably since around 2005. You may be more familiar with the author’s more well-known work, Summer of My German Soldier; that one tends to make a lot of high school reading lists, but I didn’t read it until my early 20’s. I learned of The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene (Laurel Leaf, 1991) from a friend, and her review had me rushing to put it on my list. Now, all these years later, it’s a dated but unfortunately still relevant and poignant read.

Content warnings abound. This book is about hatred and homophobia that runs deep enough to kill, and the pages are filled with an enormous amount of slurs and prejudice, much of it coming from people purporting to be Christian, including a pastor, including during sermons (it does happen; my husband witnessed it while attending a church in Louisiana in 2005. He didn’t return). There are multiple instances of violence, including a murder by- as the title suggests- drowning, and the book ends as so many of these cases do, without a clear sense of justice. Consider what you’re ready to handle at the time before selecting this book; it’s a painful read.

Carla Wayland is suuuuuuuuuper in love with Andy Harris. He’s gorgeous and popular, he’s smart, he works in his dad’s hardware store… It seems almost impossible that he could be into her, too, but there he is, asking her out. There’s just one little problem: an incident Carla witnessed at the hardware store, involving the way Mr. Harris, Andy’s father, treated two gay men. At first, Carla’s sure that Andy is on her side; those two men weren’t hurting anyone, but Andy’s firmly in his father’s camp, repeating all the Bible verses about homosexuality (and conveniently ignoring the entire rest of the book, of course). Irritated by her librarian mother’s politcal and social activism, Carla’s willing to giggle and overlook Andy’s virulent homophobia, wishing she could just fit in for once, even if that nagging feeling of doubt that Andy’s not right keeps squirming away in her conscience.

When Prom night arrives, what Carla expects to be the most magical night of her life turns into the stuff of nightmares when Andy’s torment of Stephan Jones and his partner Frank Montgomery goes too far. There’s no happy ending for anyone in this book, but neither is there true justice, and in that aspect, The Drowning of Stephan Jones mirrors real life a little too well.

First off, this was first published in 1991, so it’s more than a little dated by YA standards. I remember reading a lot of books written in this style when I was growing up, and honestly, I’m impressed that this book even made it to print in ’91. I was 11 then, and when LGBT issues were brought up in any kind of media, it was either about AIDS (the movie of And the Band Played On wouldn’t be made for another two years, but Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive that year) or was more for laughs- remember all the laughs Friends went for when Ross’s wife Carol left him for another woman? When Ellen came out of the closet by accidentally announcing that she was gay over an airport loudspeaker? So kudos to Ms. Greene and other authors who were out there pushing these boundaries and opening the doors and the minds of YA readers at the time; I’m grateful that this book and others like it (I did read Annie On My Mind in high school!) existed. Just know that if you read it now, the dialogue, in particular, shows the book’s age.

The story is told not just from Carla’s perspective, but from Frank’s, and Stephen’s, and even Carla’s mother gets in on the action. All these viewpoints help round out the story; Carla’s librarian mother, who, because of her past, has learned to use her voice and stand up for what she believes in, is a particularly likable character. Carla, however, is maybe a bit on the immature side and frustrating to read- while this could be because I identified better with her mother than with her due to my age, I felt it was more due to Carla’s constant need to fit in, to the detriment of her integrity (needing to fit in was never something I was concerned about when I was younger. I didn’t fit in with the popular crowd, and I didn’t care, because a lot of them were terrible, mean people). She does learn, but it’s at a high cost to many people, and while this story goes beyond being a simple cautionary tale, it doesn’t make Carla’s eye-rolling rejection of her mother’s humanitarian ideals any less irksome.

What bothered me about this book was the ending. Obviously, there are no spoilers when I say that in The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Stephan Jones drowns, and if you’ve read what I’ve already written, you realize his drowning is no accident. There’s a scene at the end where I feared Frank, Stephan’s partner, was about to enact terrible, bloody revenge, but the revenge he does enact is of a different sort, one that plays upon and ultimately serves to further the town’s overwhelming homophobia. It’s not a scene that I think would clear an editor’s desk these days simply for that reason, and while it may have seemed fitting retribution back when this was first published, it left a sour taste in my mouth as I read it twenty-eight years later. If only books were more fluid and more easily updated…

The Drowning of Stephan Jones is an all-too-real novel of what happens when people listen without questioning what they’re ‘carefully taught,’ as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song goes. It’s a story of what happens when we go along with the crowd without raising our voices for the sake of popularity, for the sake of safety. And it’s the disappointing story of justice unserved, of the culmination of people who have been carefully taught being placed in positions with the power to decide who deserves justice and who doesn’t. Not an easy read, to be sure, but still as applicable today as when it was written…which is bitterly disappointing, to say the very least.

Do you often read backlist like this? I find it especially interesting to examine how styles have changed and social attitudes differ. Most of the time, there’s notable differences, and while the LGBT community has made incredible strides since The Drowning of Stephan Jones was first published, there are far too many people who have yet to catch up. The work continues…

Visit Bette Greene’s website here.

fiction · YA

Eyes On Me- Rachel Harris

A YA romance that includes ballroom dancing? YES PLEASE.

While I’ve never participated in it, I have a special place in my heart for ballroom dancing, as it shows up in a pivotal scene in my current WIP (thank you to all the people who have filmed performances and instruction and uploaded these videos to YouTube!), so learning about Eyes On Me by Rachel Harris (Entangled Teen, 2019), a YA romance with ballroom dancing, had me rushing to add it to my TBR.

Lily Bailey is a lot of things- high school senior, serious student, klutzy nerd, secret tutor to jocks, a daughter grieving the death of her mother- but ‘person interested in ballroom dancing’ doesn’t make that list. After her dedication to her studies sends her stress levels high enough to hospitalize her, her father, from whom she’s been feeling alienated ever since her mother’s death, demands that she take up some sort of stress-relieving hobby and suggests her mother’s favorite, ballroom dancing. Lily, who can barely walk down a flight of stairs without ending up in a heap at the bottom, isn’t so sure about this, but reluctantly agrees, while making plans to wriggle out of it as soon as possible.

Enter Stone Torres, super hot quarterback and dancing son of the studio’s owner. When Lily’s dad offers Stone a ton of money in order to become Lily’s permanent dance partner, Stone can’t say no: the studio, his mother’s dream, is in serious trouble, and he’ll do what he has to in order to help out, even if it feels wrong. But Lily turns into more than just a responsibility to Stone; there’s something about her that tugs at his heart and sets it on fire. A showcase at the dance studio might be the key to drumming up new business and saving Stone’s mother’s dream, but how will he ever come clean to Lily about how their relationship began?

What a sweet, fun book! There wasn’t quite as much ballroom dancing as I would have liked, but Ms. Harris writes some incredible female friendships. At the start, Lily really only has her best friend Sydney, but Stone’s twin sister Angela quickly joins the group, and her health issues add emotion and depth. There’s some Mean Girl-esque action stemming from Stone’s ex-girlfriend (whom I could never totally buy into being a contender for valedictorian; with as hard as Lily worked to maintain her GPA and class ranking, I never got the same impression with the ex, whose name I can’t remember- Cameron, maybe???), but the Lily/Sydney/Angela friend group really helps keep the Nasty Perfect Ex trope from overpowering the rest of the story.

Lots of emotion going on in this book. Lily is still grieving the death of her mother. Her father, who obviously cares for her, has had a hard time being open about his grief, and the two haven’t been able to forge a connection since. Lily buries her grief by working so hard that she makes herself physically ill and suffers from panic attacks; Angela is a childhood cancer survivor; Stone struggles with reconciling his image as SuperCool Popular Football Player, which is what his football-obsessed town wants him to be, with his ability to dance and who he really wants to be; Stone’s close friend and teammate is ashamed he needs Lily to tutor him and enlists Lily to hide this secret; Stone’s parents are deeply worried about the future of the studio. There’s a lot going on here, but Ms. Harris pulls it all together seamlessly and turns it all into a charming story of two people falling in love and healing themselves while doing the Salsa.

(Shorter review than normal, but would you believe- you guessed it- I’M SICK AGAIN. My son felt crummy two days on vacation, and as we were driving home, my daughter developed the equivalent of the whitewater rapids of snotty noses. She was up all last night coughing, and she’s coughed so hard she threw up twice. I’ve got a sore throat, a cough, and a runny nose. We can’t catch a break around here. I feel like I’m playing Where’s Waldo? with our immune systems…)

What are your feelings on ballroom dancing? Have you ever participated, or do you have two left feet and run screaming at the very idea? Do you watch Dancing with the Stars? Do you dream of being able to cha-cha and samba while wearing ankle-breaking heels? I’ve never done any ballroom dancing, but I have to admit, I wish I could!

Visit Rachel Harris’s website here. (As I’m writing this post, the website isn’t coming up for me; hopefully it will in the future!)

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade · YA

Summer of the Mariposas- Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Another task on Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge is to read an #ownvoices novel set in Mexico or Central America. I always read through the suggestions, make note of what looks interesting, and then check to see what’s available at my libraries. Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall looked like an interesting choice, and it was available at the library in the next town over, so onto the list it went.

Odilia and her four sisters (Juanita, twins Velia and Delia, and Pita, the youngest) are out swimming at their forbidden swimming hole when they discover a dead man floating in the water. They don’t want to call the authorities, because that would mean constant surveillance of their beloved swimming hole; telling their exhausted, overworked, newly single mother would only get them in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to be swimming in the first place. Instead, the girls decide to load up their father’s car (he left a year ago, he’s not using it anyway) with the body and drive it to the dead man’s home address in Mexico, which they discover on the ID stuffed into a pocket, along with a stack of cash.

But it won’t be a simple trip. A ghostly weeping woman known as La Llorona informs Odilia that this is going to be a journey that will transform all of them. She gives Odilia a magical ear pendant to help her along the way, and the girls set off towards adventure. When dropping off the body doesn’t exactly herald the reception they thought it would, they continue on to their abuelita’s house, meeting a witch, a fortune-telling blind woman, a warlock disguised as a donkey, a seriously creepy pack of owls, and a chupacabras. La Llorona appears on and off throughout the story to guide them, and the Aztec queen Tonantzin offers magical assistance through the gifted ear pendant, but what they really find throughout their journey is the strength of their bond and the deep love that exists between them and their mother.

Phew. There’s a LOT going on in this book. The inside flap of this book pitches this as ‘a Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey,’ and I think a big part of the reason I failed to connect to this book is that it’s been…somewhere around twenty-four years since I had anything to do with that particular piece. I really wish I’d been able to draw the parallels between the stories, but it’s been far too long. I also lack any kind of background in any Mexican or Aztec folklore, so that definitely didn’t help. Had I been more fully versed in these things, I think reading this book would have been a different experience and I would’ve felt more connected and more deeply invested.

It’s a lovely, well-written book, although I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in the beginning to accept that the sisters would all just pick up and leave with what seemed like no concern for how their mother would react to them having left without even a note. And that’s not even considering the fact that the girls were seemingly okay with riding in a stuffy car in the summer heat with a waterlogged dead body. Talking owls and donkeys, sure, I’ll buy that; teenage girls chill with sitting next to a dead body for a lengthy car ride? Mmmm, no. The relationship between the girls and their grandmother is lovely, however, and their reunion with their mother and eventual showdown with their father are both handled extremely well. And I absolutely adored the bits of Spanish sprinkled throughout the story (there’s a glossary in back), and the chance to see Mexico through the sisters’ eyes.

So this wasn’t quite the book for me, but if you enjoy retellings, stories of bonding between sisters, and stories with magical and fantastical elements, it may be the book for you!

Visit Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.