Review: The Secret of a Heart Note

secretTitle: The Secret of a Heart Note
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Pages: 384
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Digital ARC via Edelweiss
Availability: December 27, 2016

Summary: “Love chose me, and I tried, but I couldn’t stop the arrow in its flight.”

As one of only two aromateurs left on the planet, fifteen-year-old Mimosa knows what her future holds: a lifetime of using her extraordinary sense of smell to mix elixirs that help others fall in love.

All while remaining incurably alone.

For Mim, the rules are clear—falling in love would render her nose useless, taking away her one great talent. Still, Mimosa dreams of ditching the hermetic life of an aromateur in favor of high school, free time, and a boy to kiss.

When she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong woman and has to rely on the school soccer star to help fix the situation, she quickly begins to realize that falling in love isn’t always a choice. It’s a calling.

At once, hopeful, funny, and romantic, Stacey Lee’s Secret of a Heart Note is a richly evocative coming-of-age story that speaks to all of the senses.

Review: “Most people don’t know that heartache smells like blueberries.” I can’t argue with the opening line of Stacey Lee’s newest novel. Blueberries and heartache were quite unrelated in my mind prior to reading this quirky and rather lovely romance. The fragrances of many items from nature are highlighted and brought to memory many of my favorite scents such as jasmine, cinnamon, and vanilla. It isn’t often that the sense of smell is such a pervasive topic in a novel. I appreciated this deep dive into aromas and I imagine many people who enjoy aromatherapy, essential oils or flowers will find this to be an interesting framework for a story.

Beyond the aromateur aspect of the book though, the characters and their interactions are engaging too. Mim is pushing gently against the requirements and responsibilities imposed by her mother while still showing respect and love. Their relationship is going through growing pains as Mim tries to balance her unusual lifestyle with typical teen activities and relationships. She attends high school even though her mother couldn’t care less about her studies and believes it’s a waste of time. Mim wanted to learn things in school, but she also wants to be out there interacting with her peers.

No matter what she’s doing, Mim gives her best effort even if she manages to totally mess things up in cringe-worthy style on numerous occasions. There were multiple times when I could see how badly things were going to go, but Mim isn’t one to give up or give in easily. At first it seemed a bit contrived, but before long I was won over by her determination and spirit.

The story is a romantic comedy with a touch of magic. The romance was more believable than I expected. Though there was instant attraction, the relationship started as a nice slow simmer and built from there.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This is a perfect book to snuggle up with this winter. It will bring smiles and the images of blooming flowers while the pages turn.

Extra:
There is a Goodreads Giveaway going on through Dec. 7.

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Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star

Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.inddTitle: The Sun is Also a Star
Author: Nicola Yoon
Genres:  Realistic/Romance
Pages: 384
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

Review: I didn’t know I needed a fun quirky romance story to get my mind of current events until I read Nicola Yoon’s sophomore novel, “The Sun is Also a Star.” I enjoyed her first novel, “Everything Everything” and was looking forward to this second one. I’d heard a lot of reviews say it was “lovely” and “charming” and “heartwarming”, and the cynic in me was skeptical, but it really was all that and more. The novel is also very deep in that it drops a lot of truths, is a wonderful commentary on the complexities of immigrants in the US, addresses racial tension, destiny and fate, all within the span of a day in the lives of Natasha and Daniel.

The novel is told in alternating POV chapters between Natasha and Daniel, which I loved, but also interspersed are little vignettes that give background insight into side characters that have either direct impact on Natasha & Daniel’s lives, or have a small impact on their day. There are also small vignettes that drop knowledge about history, as told in the context of how the topic relates to the characters, for example, there is a whole section about Black women’s hair. At first, when I learned about the vignettes, I was afraid they would take away from the story, but I ended up loving all of them and felt like they were placed perfectly, as if they were a very long footnote. Take in the case of the vignette about Black women’s hair; the section gives the reader background information on the complex relationship Black women have had with their hair since our ancestors were stolen from their land and brought to the Americas. The tone used is not as a boring “The More You Know” type of vignette, but more as a glimpse into Natasha’s thought process of deciding to wear her hair in an Afro and the tension it brings between her and her mother. Yoon also does the same for Daniel and his parents, giving backgrounds into why his father pushes him so, which creates a complex character instead of an “evil archetype”.  The vignettes really connect with the theme that everything we do, every person we interact with has meaning in some small way, and for me, it enriched Natasha’s and Daniel’s world.

I obviously cannot write a review about a romance book without mentioning the love story. Many people critique the concept of “instalove” in YA, but for this novel, it really works. Well, it’s not that Natasha and Daniel have “instalove”, as they definitely have to work on it, but their love story is sweet in the way as you watch two people who meet randomly fall for each other. The love story is also steamy as Yoon definitely did not hold back in the way the two characters expressed their attraction to each other. And for that alone is another reason why I loved the novel. Natasha and Daniel are 17 year-olds on the brink of adulthood, with real adult feelings, and I like that Yoon didn’t try to sugarcoat it. Both where honest about their physical attraction towards the other, therefore the chemistry between Natasha and Daniel felt very real.

Lastly, “The Sun is Also a Star” is beautifully written. I enjoyed Yoon’s prose with her first novel, but it feels like she just went to a whole other level with this second one. There are so many wonderful gems that I ended up highlighting my Kindle, which is something that I never do.  For example, take this line when Daniel is explaining his belief in God. He says, “God is the connection of the very best parts of us.” I just…love the philosophy that Daniel is saying here and the meaning of these words are so profound. I have to admit that I think one of the reasons why I feel in love with both Natasha and Daniel is because of Yoon’s beautiful prose. I feel in love with her words, the way she played with language, the way she dropped knowledge, and the way she made Natasha and Daniel’s love real.

Recommendation: Go buy it in Hardcover so you can add it to your “Books I loved” shelf.

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Review: Lucy and Linh

linhTitle: Lucy and Linh
Author: Alice Pung
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 340
Genre: Contemporary
Review copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Lucy is a bit of a pushover, but she’s ambitious and smart, and she has just received the opportunity of a lifetime: a scholarship to a prestigious school, and a ticket out of her broken-down suburb. Though she’s worried she will stick out like badly cut bangs among the razor-straight students, she is soon welcomed into the Cabinet, the supremely popular trio who wield influence over classmates and teachers alike.

Linh is blunt, strong-willed, and fearless—everything Lucy once loved about herself. She is also Lucy’s last solid link to her life before private school, but she is growing tired of being eclipsed by the glamour of the Cabinet.

As Lucy floats further away from the world she once knew, her connection to Linh—and to her old life—threatens to snap. Sharp and honest, Alice Pung’s novel examines what it means to grow into the person you want to be without leaving yourself behind.

Review: Power is fascinating. Who has power? Who lacks it? Does power actually corrupt? These are certainly some questions to ponder when reading Lucy and Linh. Lucy’s been dropped into a society with all kinds of stated and unstated rules around power and she has difficulty trying to adjust without losing herself.

At this new school, popularity and power is determined by more than beauty, talent and economic status. Perception is everything and Lucy worries so much about making a misstep, that she’s unwilling to reveal her true self. She observes those around her and tries, at least initially, to meet student and staff expectations. As the scholarship student, she is meant to be appropriately appreciative of the honor and is supposed to help make the school look good. Trying to fit into the mold created for her is a challenge though. “It was exhausting to be the sort of person they expected me to be.”

Somehow I was expecting a humorous look at a young girl trying to face down the mean girls at her private school. That’s not precisely what is going on here though. Yes, there are some corrupt girls controlling things at the school and they are operating at a seriously high level of meanness. There are also humorous moments, but overall, this is a fairly intense coming-of-age story that gives time and attention to race and class issues along the way.

Lucy’s grandparents had migrated from China to Vietnam. Her parents then migrated to Australia. This, along with being the scholarship student, earns her special attention. There are some people who only seem to spend time with Lucy because they perceive her as exotic and unusual. By simply talking to Lucy or any other person of color, students also appear to think they’ve proven that they aren’t racist. No matter that they are saying racist things and overlook the many ways teens are alike in their rush to see differences.

Lucy explains this journey in letters to her friend Linh as a way to process what has been happening over the year. The relationship between Lucy and Linh is an interesting one that I won’t go into in detail, but it’s an important one. Another important set of relationships is between Lucy and her family. I appreciated the opportunity to see how they interacted with each other. Lucy values her family and is especially proud of her mother. As she begins to see her family through the lenses her fellow students use, she begins to feel unsettled and uncomfortable in her own home. Things that never bothered her before, like eating on the floor using newspapers for a table, start to seem somehow less than. Lucy starts to feel like she doesn’t fit in either space and she doesn’t like this new way of seeing. Through their conversations and actions though, readers get to see the strengths of Lucy’s family and not just the deficits that her peers are imagining.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Lucy is a character everyone should get to know. She’s working her way through a challenging year showing us all how to hold onto what’s important and reminding us to stay true to ourselves.

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New Releases

We found one new release this week.

cloudCloudwish by Fiona Wood
Poppy

For Vân Uoc, fantasies fall into two categories: nourishing or pointless. Daydreaming about attending her own art opening? Nourishing. Daydreaming about Billy Gardiner, star of the rowing team who doesn’t even know she’s alive? Pointless.

So Vân Uoc tries to stick to her reality–keeping a low profile as a scholarship student at her prestigious Melbourne private school, managing her mother’s PTSD from a traumatic emigration from Vietnam, and admiring Billy from afar. Until she makes a wish that inexplicably–possibly magically–comes true. Billy actually notices her. In fact, he seems to genuinely like her. But as they try to fit each other into their very different lives, Vân Uoc can’t help but wonder why Billy has suddenly fallen for her. Is it the magic of first love, or is it magic from a well-timed wish that will eventually, inevitably, come to an end? — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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Mini-Review: Blacktop #1 – Justin

Justin BlacktopTitle: Justin (Blacktop #1)
Author: L.J. Alonge
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 145
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Review Copy: ARC
Availability: Available now

Summary: Justin has a list of goals stashed under his mattress. Number 1 is “figure out life plans.” Number 5 is “earn Zen Master rating in WoW.” Nowhere on that list is “play the crew from Ghosttown,” but that’s the type of trouble that always seems to finds him.

The debut title from LJ Alonge’s new basketball series pulses with action on and off the court. With wit, humor, and honesty, Justin unfolds over one hot summer in Oakland, California.

Review: L.J. Alonge’s debut novel is a short and fun read following Justin and his friend Frank as they try to build a basketball team to play against one of the best teams in the neighborhood when neither young men has any real skill. Justin sees the task of playing the dominating team as a consequence of a dare gone completely wrong and is complacent in the face of imminent failure. Along the way, however, he learns about the power to friendship and teamwork, skills his estranged father had been teaching him during their one-on-one pick up games.

I had read this novel was great for middle school students and low level readers and I have to agree with this assessment. Blacktop #1 is an enjoyable read that I know would catch many of my reluctant readers, whom are usually boys, with the sports angle and get them interested in reading.

The strength of Alonge’s debut lies in the voice of Justin who is that adolescent on the brink of adulthood, with a young man’s body (he’s 6’4” after a growth spurt), but has a kid’s playful mind and sense of humor. In addition, Justin is not just an aspiring basketball player, he is also a bookish nerd who loves comic books and science fiction/fantasy novels. He is a good student, top of his class in fact, and is proud of his smarts. He doesn’t try to hide them, but wishes that because of his height, he could be the basketball star as well. I love that Alonge chose to create a character who has other thoughts than basketball and is actually a bit nerdy. Black nerds, specifically boys, are not portrayed very often in literature and if they are they are always an Erkel stereotype. Justin is a real kid, in fact he reminds me of many of my students who were tall gangly goofy kids who would get in arguments about who was better, Superman or Batman.

It is because of Justin that I think, no believe, that Alonge’s novel could turn a young kid who struggles with reading into a person finds pleasure in the written word.

Recommendation: If you know a geeky sport loving kid, get them this book!

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Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect

raniTitle: Rani Patel in Full Effect
Author: Sonia Patel
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Genre: Historical
Pages: 313
Availability: October 1, 2016
Review copy:
ARC via publisher

Summary: When Rani’s father leaves her mother for another woman, Rani shaves her head in mourning. The visibility of her act of rebellion propels her onto the stage as a hip-hop performer and into a romantic relationship with a man who is much older. The whirlwind romance, coming on the heels of her father’s abandonment, make her begin to understand how her father’s sexual abuse wounded her in deeper ways than she, or her mother, have ever been able to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, she seeks solace in making lyrics and performing as well as in her boyfriend’s arms. Rani’s friends warn her about him but she fails to listen, feeling as though she finally has something and somebody that makes her feel good about herself—not recognizing that her own talent in hip-hop makes her feel secure, smart, and confident in ways her boyfriend does not. Indeed, as the relationship continues, Rani discovers her boyfriend’s drug use and falls victim to his abuse. Losing herself just as she finds herself, Rani discovers her need to speak out against those who would silence her—no matter the personal danger it leads her into.

Review: Rani is a Gujarati teen living in Hawaii and she’s struggling. She’s an outsider at school for the most part, but home is even worse. She feels abandoned by her father and shut out by her mother. One way Rani deals with the pain is through writing raps. When she’s rapping as MC Sutra, she has confidence and even though she’s pretending, Rani convinces herself along with everyone else. She explains it this way:

It’s the me
I want to be
the large and in charge person
I want the world to see
So I MC, and throw down
my self-confidence decree
and strive to be
my own queen bee

In her day-to-day life, Rani cannot see her own value. She’s unable to understand her worth without her father’s attention. For years she had measured her self-worth by his actions and words. When he not only leaves, but lavishes his attention on someone else, Rani is devastated. This is not a book filled with sweetness and light. Rani is violated, thrown aside and left wounded. There are some very raw scenes to get through, but readers also get to see Rani step out in powerful ways as she learns about herself and her strengths.

Her emotional journey is compelling. Rani survived abuse at the hands of her father and is working to change her patterns of behavior. She doesn’t want to seek his approval anymore. With him in another relationship, that becomes easier to a certain degree, but she falls into the same habits with her new, much older boyfriend.

During this trying time, Rani is not only moving away from her father, she’s attempting to close the gap with her mother. She wants love, comfort and support from her mother, but these things aren’t often given. The years of isolation have put a wedge between the two and change is slow to come. Rani has complex emotions. She feels a sense of guilt because of her relationship with her father and feels sorry for her mother. She also can’t help but be angry that her mother didn’t keep her safe over the years whether that was through ignorance, fear, or something more deliberate. I found their changing relationship intriguing. I was a little surprised at how quickly some things resolved, but thought things developed in a logical way.

Rani has very few friends, but the ones she has are extremely supportive. They’re close, but they are hiding several things from her. She has a much older boyfriend, but one of her friends is also someone she fantasizes about so those relationships get complicated.

Aside from the abusive relationship, mother/daughter issues, friends, boyfriends, and hip hop music there was another added layer – activism. This is extremely timely with the issues surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline. Rani, her father and many other people are working to protect the water supply on their island home which involves a fight against a proposed pipeline. Native Hawaiian sovereignty is also part of the discussion. I appreciated the inclusion of the activism because it added depth to the characters and the story line. This may be one layer too many for some readers, but I’m glad it’s part of the story.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy references to 90s hip hop. I think I missed the effect of some of those references, but Rani Patel’s story still spoke to me with power and intensity. I felt Rani’s pain, but also her energy, determination and her hope for healing.

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