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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Review: Outrun the Moon

moonTitle: Outrun the Moon
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Genre: Historical
Review copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: May 24, 2016

Summary: San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, an historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the Army to bring help. Fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, yet Mercy still has the ‘bossy’ cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenaged girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Review: Mercy Wong always has a plan. Once she knows what she wants, she figures out the steps she’ll need to take to get there and she’s off like a shot. Mercy doesn’t seem to know the word impossible. She’s strong willed and has “bossy cheeks” like her mother. Some people say this about her as a put-down, but Mercy takes it as a compliment. Her mother says those bossy cheeks mean Mercy can “…row your own boat, even when there is no wind to help you.”

Mercy has ambitions and the know-how. She has thoroughly studied The Book for Business-Minded Women by a woman named Mrs. Lowry who has achieved hero status in Mercy’s eyes. Mercy’s prepared to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve her goal, but her ambitions are not only for herself. She wants to succeed so her father won’t have to work sixteen hour days and her little brother, who has health issues, won’t have to follow in his father’s difficult footsteps. Her dreams are big, but her family’s comfort and health is what inspires her and keeps her moving forward.

Mercy has a long way to go make her dreams come true though. She realizes that the key to becoming wealthy is opportunity. Having been born into poverty in Chinatown, Mercy has a short supply in the area of opportunities. “And if opportunity didn’t come knocking, then Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.” Mercy sets about building those doors which involves much scheming, plotting and more than a few adventures. I loved the adventures. There are even hot-air balloon rides. Along the way, Mercy makes connections with people from many different backgrounds. I loved meeting the unique characters and didn’t want to say good-bye. I’m hoping there will be a companion novel or even a sequel so we can meet them again.

Another aspect I truly enjoyed about this novel was the sayings. Throughout the book, Mercy quotes Mrs. Lowry, her mother, her father and many other people she respects. She also has some wise statements of her own. It makes the book very quotable. Here are a few sayings I especially appreciated:

“It amazes me that even when the world is going to hell in a handcart, there’s still beauty in the fringes.”

“Our success is determined not by external forces, but how we react to them.”

“As Ma likes to say, you cannot control the wind, but you can control your sails.”

“Your circumstances don’t determine where you can go, only your starting point.”

In addition to the many young women in the story, there is a love interest. Mercy has loved Tom for quite some time, but there are complications and he is moving far away. I appreciated that there’s a romance in the story, but it’s not the main focus of the novel. Mercy has many different things going on in her life and he is important, but is just one of her concerns.

I also found the history interesting. Because I went to school in California, I had a basic understanding that many Chinese people came to California in the 1800s and understood that there was racism, but either didn’t know or didn’t remember the many restrictions placed upon the immigrants and their children even when they were born in the U.S. One of those restrictions was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which severely limited Chinese immigration and made it virtually impossible for men to bring over their wives and children. Mercy experiences racism over and over again. At one point she notes that “people will never stop seeing my color first, before me.”

Recommendation: Get this one as soon as you can especially if historical fiction is your thing. Stacey Lee is a wonderful storyteller. She does a fabulous job bringing the setting to life and she creates memorable characters that are sure to steal hearts. Oh, and you might need a tissue once in a while.

Extra: Pre-order special

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Review: Burn Baby Burn

burnTitle: Burn Baby Burn
Author: Meg Medina
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 320
Genre: Historical, Romance
Review Copy: ARC via publisher
Availability: March 8, 2016

Summary: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.

Review: Meg Medina transports readers to one seriously sweltering, tension-filled summer. She created a satsifying sense of place. While reading Burn Baby Burn, I saw 70s New York and could practically feel the sweat dripping down my back. This was particularly amazing since my first read through happened during subfreezing winter temps here in the mid-west. Medina seamlessly wove in details that brought the summer of 1977 to life.

This was a remarkable summer given the presence of a serial killer in the area. The killings certainly added to the intensity of the novel since that part of the book was based on actual events. The inhumanity was horrifying. It was mirrored on a smaller scale though with Nora’s brother as he becomes colder and increasingly cruel towards his family. Nora and her mother don’t tell people outside the family about his bullying and also avoid talking about it among themselves. The worry about embarrassment or losing respectability keeps them silent even with close friends and relatives. This is a common response in the real world and one that could resonate with many readers.

It’s Nora’s senior year and she’s eager to get out and be on her own. The fears and responsibilities are wearing her down. She has no idea how to solve the many problems her family is facing and she is pinning all her hopes on simply escaping. Fortunately, Nora has many people in her life that nudge her toward possibilities. There are two adults in her school encouraging her to go on to college. She has talent for woodworking and fixing things, but has a hard time seeing herself going on to college. The cost, the likely attitudes and prejudice of male classmates, and other hurdles have her doubting. I loved that there are people in her corner reminding her of her strengths and what her future could be if she steps out and believes in herself.

Stiller is another adult nudging Nora and encouraging her to use her strength. I especially appreciated her. She’s a black woman who lives in their apartment building. According to Nora, “Stiller takes absolutely no shit.” She’s an activist with many causes and she has distinct opinions about the feminist movement. In a discussion about an upcoming women’s conference, Stiller “wants to see the needs of black women included or she won’t go. ‘Being oppressed as a woman is just one way of being held down Mary,’ she said.”

Women’s issues come up many times throughout the novel. Nora contemplates her place in the midst of her woodworking classes, how her mother has completely different standards for her and her brother, how men treat her on the street and more. Mary, the Mother of Nora’s best friend Kathleen, is also very invested in the feminist movement. This results in the girls becoming involved even when they aren’t totally sure how they feel about it all. They’re still figuring out what they believe and what is and isn’t important to them.

As with other books Medina has written, the main character is Cuban American. She doesn’t always claim this heritage and is conflicted about the times when she passes or doesn’t speak up in the face of racist comments in her presence. Racial issues are not the only theme in the book, but they are certainly present throughout.

And then there is the romance. Nora and Pablo have a bit of a rocky road, but it’s a satisfying trip. I really enjoyed the mix in this book. The romance is there, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. There’s an excellent balance here between friendship, family, community, romance, racial issues and inner conflict. I almost forgot to mention the music! Nora and Kathleen share a love for dance and disco music. I found myself humming along and wanting to track down some of the tunes.

Recommendation: Get it as soon as you can! Meg Medina is an excellent storyteller. Burn Baby Burn is intense and suspenseful, but also manages to be hopeful. In spite of the many challenges, or maybe because of them, Nora is able to show her strength. I was cheering her on the whole way.

Extras:
Sample Chapter, Author Notes, Discussion Guide via Publisher
A Playlist for Burn Baby Burn
Book Trailer

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Review: American Ace

American AceTitle: American Ace
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 123
Review copy: Purchased at local bookstore
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This riveting novel in verse, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Toni Morrison, explores American history and race through the eyes of a teenage boy embracing his newfound identity.

Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.

But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.

Review: 
It’s funny to think about identity,
Dad said. Now I wonder how much of us
we inherit, and how much we create.

Connor and his family go through some soul-searching as they find out their heritage is something other than what they had always believed. We see the unfolding story through Connor’s eyes. His family has suffered the loss of his beloved Nonna and Connor is concerned about his father’s grief and possible depression. Otherwise life had been moving along as expected. Connor spends a lot of time with his dad as he practices driving to get his license. Things become complicated quickly though when Connor’s father explains that he has no idea who his father was. The journey to discover their family history leads them to new ways of thinking about themselves and the society they inhabit. After learning about their more complicated heritage, Connor sees his school in a new way.

I walked between classes in slow motion,
seeing the ancient intertribal wars
still being fought, in the smallest gestures.
Little things I hadn’t noticed before:
the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.

The story is delivered in nine parts containing five vignettes each. These are made up of two twelve line stanzas written in iambic pentameter. I often forget that poetry can be incredibly mathematical. Such a structure makes for extremely deliberate choices. This format meant there wasn’t much room for explanation. Nelson kept things tight. I appreciate that and so will readers looking for something quick yet meaningful. I almost always enjoy a novel in verse. I like the way Nelson delivers small packages of information and makes every word count. The titles are even important.

In part seven, the text shifts a bit and becomes a paper for Connor’s Honors History class. This brought in something I really appreciated. Photos of airmen from WWII are included every few pages. These added a lot to the story. With the photos, the pilots became something more than history. They became individuals with lives and stories of their own. In the author’s note, Nelson explains about the information for Connor’s report, “I did not invent any of the facts Connor learns….That part of the story is true. And still amazing.”

One thing did shake me out of the story a bit. The setting appears to be the present day since Connor uses google and his father has rapid DNA testing. With Connor being a teen, it seems a little strange that his grandfather is old enough to have been a pilot in WWII. My grandfather fought in the war and my children are older than Connor. It sort of works because Connor’s father has a child and grandchildren from a previous relationship so he was not young when he had Connor. It made me do some math though because it seemed difficult to believe.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of verse novels or enjoy historical novels and want something quick. Otherwise, borrow it someday. I truly enjoyed the book, but if I were recommending Nelson’s poetry, I would first hand someone A Wreath for Emmett Till and How I Discovered Poetry.

Extra: Warning – the following interview reveals their family heritage. I tried not to do that here since the publisher’s summary didn’t. If you want to know precisely what history this book explores though, please read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with author

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Review: Show and Prove

Show and ProveTitle: Show and Prove
Author: Sofia Quintero
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre: Historical
Pages: 352
Review copy: Purchased by reviewer
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: A poignant coming-of-age story about two boys finding their way in the South Bronx in the mid-1980s.

The summer of 1983 was the summer hip-hop proved its staying power. The South Bronx is steeped in Reaganomics, war in the Middle East, and the twin epidemics of crack and AIDS, but Raymond “Smiles” King and Guillermo “Nike” Vega have more immediate concerns.

Smiles was supposed to be the assistant crew chief at his summer camp, but the director chose Cookie Camacho instead, kicking off a summer-long rivalry. Meanwhile, the aspiring b-boy Nike has set his wandering eye on Sara, the sweet yet sassy new camp counselor, as well as top prize at a breakdancing competition downtown. The two friends have been drifting apart ever since Smiles got a scholarship to a fancy private school, and this summer the air is heavy with postponed decisions that will finally be made.

Raw and poignant, this is a story of music, urban plight, and racial tension that’s as relevant today as it was in 1983. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

My Thoughts: Earlier this year Lyn Miller-Lachmann recommended Show and Prove. She spoke so highly of the book, I knew it was a must read. It did not disappoint.

Show and Prove allows readers to experience a summer in The South Bronx through the eyes of two young men learning about who they are and what matters most to them. The voices and personalities are distinct and Quintero’s characters have depth.

Smiles has that nickname because he is generally upbeat. He’s an idea man. Over the years he’s poured time, effort, and thought into the summer camp. He sees possibilities. That’s why he feels like he’s been kicked in the gut when Cookie is chosen to be the assistant instead of him.

Nike has an eye for the ladies and works on his break dancing moves to relax. Nike works, but mostly to buy the name brand clothing he loves. He feels trapped by his circumstances and doesn’t know what he can do to escape.

The young men have been friends for years, but have hit a rough patch. This summer is a transition for their friendship.

There is romance here for sure. Nike falls hard. I enjoy the words he used to describe the conversations with his love interest. She, “…asks me questions, and I have to think before I answer, not because she’s testing me and I’m trying to be fly, but more like we’re both digging into each other for treasure.” The romance is a major issue for Nike, but I it’s not the only issue. I appreciated that this is a well-rounded story going beyond that one aspect of his summer. Nike’s family life and friendship with Smiles also have weight along with the racial issues that each face.

I was sucked into the daily lives of Smiles and Nike and wanted the story to continue. I would certainly read another book with this crew.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This is a wonderful coming-of-age story with engaging characters and an intriguing storyline.

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Review: Out of Darkness

darknessTitle: Out of Darkness
Author: Ashley Hope Pérez
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 408
Publisher: Carolrhoda LAB
Review Copy: ARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

Review: I knew walking into this story that I was being set up for tragedy and thought I was prepared; I was not. While the New London school explosion kicks off the final act of the book, the meat of Out of Darkness is centered on Naomi and her struggle to survive in her stepfather’s home as more of a maid than a family member. This is a dark, difficult book, and in addition to the racism mentioned in the summary (which escalates to beatings and lynch mobs), it also deals with topics including child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and marital rape. Ashley Hope Pérez does not pull her punches in Out of Darkness, and it makes for a raw, brutally honest (and brutally bleak) look at systems of inequality, entitlement, religious fervor, toxic masculinity, and other above-mentioned “forces that destroy people.”

Naomi is a compelling narrator, and her character arc from an observer who endures what she can to someone who seeks after friendship and love is mostly a satisfying one. Her grief for her mother and her difficulties in trying to preserve something of her mother for herself while simultaneously sharing those memories with Beto and Cari can be heartbreaking. While Pérez also enlists other points of view, such as Wash, Henry (Naomi’s stepfather/the twins’ father), and Beto, some of her most memorable scenes have multiple or first-person-plural points of view (e.g., Naomi and Wash, The Gang). “The Gang” scenes are particularly interesting as we get an outside look at what the other kids at school think of what’s going on with the main characters and provide a feel for the mood of the oil town. Wash’s constant negotiations between how he was expected to act around white people and what he actually wanted to do made for some great (and tense) character moments. I also liked the glimpses we got into Beto’s personality and his struggle with his father’s expectations of what a man ought to be.

I really enjoyed the development of Naomi and Wash’s romance and felt that the transition from strangers to friends to lovers was a comfortable process, despite the many social (and personal) forces arrayed against them. Pérez did not shy away from having Naomi experience sexual desire or giving her a loving, respectful, sexual relationship with Wash, which is something to be appreciated in romantic plotlines.

Despite all of the many things I enjoyed or appreciated about Out of Darkness, I will admit that the ending soured the experience for me. There isn’t much I can discuss that won’t spoil the ending, so I’ll simply say that the hope spot offered between two fraught, potentially tragic moments felt like a cheap setup for shock. I disliked the epilogue immensely, mostly because it struck me as a last-minute patch to lessen the impact of what had happened and thus finished the story angry instead of sad-but-hopeful/moved/etc.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a big fan of dark historical fiction and tragedy, but borrow it someday otherwise. While Pérez offers engaging protagonists, heartwarming romance, interesting prose, and complicated sibling relationships in the midst of an unflinching look at racism and other systems of oppression, the ending of the book felt like it was written primarily for shock value. Undoubtedly, readers’ opinions will vary on this point, as will how it influences their opinion of the book overall.

Extras
NBC interview with Juan Castillo about Out of Darkness

Conversation with Edi Campbell about Out of Darkness and growing up

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