Review: Since You Asked

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Title: Since You Asked
Author: Maurene Goo
Genres: Contemporary, Comedy
Pages: 262
Publisher: Scholastic
Review Copy: Netgalley ARC
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: No, no one asked, but Holly Kim will tell you what she thinks anyway.

Fifteen-year-old Holly Kim is the copyeditor for her high school’s newspaper. When she accidentally submits an article that rips everyone to shreds, she gets her own column and rants her way through the school year. Can she survive homecoming, mean-girl cliques, jocks, secret admirers, Valentine’s Day, and other high school embarrassments, all while struggling to balance her family’s traditional Korean values?

In this hilarious debut, Maurene Goo takes a fresh look at trying to fit in without conforming to what’s considered “normal” in high school and how to manage parental expectations without losing one’s individuality…or being driven insane.

Review: Holly Kim makes me smile. She has a voice and she uses it — especially with her new column in the newspaper. She and her group of friends ooze sarcasm, with no apologies, to great comedic effect. Aside from snarky Holly, there is laid-back, artistic David (Chinese American), intelligent, sophisticated Liz (Persian American), and sweet, energetic Carrie (of hippie decent). The whole group excels at witty banter and also enjoys complaining, but almost more for the sake of fussing than true hatred. This may be seen especially with the interactions between Holly and her “very Korean” mother.

Holly’s relationship with her mother got my attention. Holly describes her as the “pushy dictator” and earns the “Korean Mom Death Stare” several times. Her relationship with her father is much more relaxed, but way less interesting. The tug of war between Holly and her mother felt very real and it intrigued me. It was a picture of a teenage girl stretching her wings, but it also highlighted the distinctions there may be when you have a Korean mother.

The format of the book is narrative chapters with letters to the editor and Holly’s newspaper columns sandwiched in between. Hearing other voices in brief snatches was a nice way to break up the chapters a bit. The columns were a clever way to reveal a lot about Holly. While she was writing to entertain, she was also getting to express her thoughts and opinion. The teacher in charge of the school newspaper gave her permission to shake things up and she goes after that goal with gusto.

Holly gets herself into all kinds of difficult situations throughout the school year usually as a direct result of being outspoken. That’s what is so endearing about her. When I reached the end of the book, I felt like I was beginning to know Holly and I wanted to see where she would go next. There is certainly an opportunity for a sequel. I wouldn’t be opposed.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you love funny contemporary novels.

Creating Diverse Worlds

This post is for all you writers out there wondering how to create diversity in your novel. Creating diversity is not just the act of developing a character of color, it is also creating a diverse world. Think about the world that you live in. Who do you interact with everyday? I’ll use myself as an example.

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Mural expressing the diversity of my city. From virtualtourist.com

I live in Long Beach, CA, one of the most diverse cities in America. My student population is 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African-American, but the teaching staff is much more diverse with a good mix of different nationalities. I live in a large condo complex and there is every race and age living in the building. Yesterday as I walked out, I was behind an elderly Japanese couple and there is a mixed race family with two girls that I have seen grow into beautiful young ladies. Our neighbors across the courtyard are Samoan. This is just my complex. My best friend from high school is Puerto Rican and my husband’s best friend is a mix of Mexican and Navajo. Another high school friend, who is Caucasian, married a man who is a mix of Mexican and Japanese. Their daughter is a lovely blend of everything that makes up her parents. Another friend’s fiancée is Filipino, and she herself is a mix of Persian and Jewish. I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this and the ethnic makeup of everyone in here is a mix of all the colors of the world.

Obviously, I encounter diversity in every aspect of my life, except for in novels. Why is this? I know writers do not write in a vacuum and have lives outside of the computer. Why not have the world you create from the pen, reflect the world the you live in? If you are unsure of how to do that, just spend some time sitting in a restaurant, coffee shop, mall, wherever people gather and watch them. Imagine their lives. What are they doing? Where are they going? What are the relationships with the people they’re with? You don’t have to create full character histories for them, but do remember them when creating the world your characters lives in. Just having a main character of color is not enough; the people the character interacts with should be diverse as well.

Don’t just focus on their ethnicity as well. People of color are more than just their skin. We are as unique and varied with our own special interests (I’m a Trekkie) and when creating diverse characters make sure you are creating a real person, not just a stock stereotype. Even if your main character interacts with a person for just one scene, create a small character profile in your head and then use that as a basis for how you write him/her in that once scene. Or, use the personality of someone you know and think about how he/she would react in the same situation. Think outside of the box and strive to make your world reflect the world you live in.

Now, unless your world is set in a place that is not diverse, say the novel “Spirits Chosen” which was set in a mythical Japan, then obviously your characters will not reflect the diverse world you live in. However, if you are interested in writing fantasy, why stick to the European version of elves and such? Why not look into the ancient history or folklore tales of other cultures? There is such a wide variety of stories from distant places that are just waiting to be told.

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Image via Goodreads.com

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Chaos” is a novel that creates a diverse world the right way. In fact, it felt as if she were hitting us over the head with diversity, but that is because it is so rare in fiction to find a novel that accurately reflects the culture we live in. The novel is set in modern day Toronto when an odd supernatural event happens, dubbed The Chaos for that is exactly what it is, and the story deals with one characters attempts to survive the event. The novel does have an aspect of fantasy pulling from Caribbean, Asian and European folklore traditions. I recommend that every writer interested in creating a diverse world, read Hopkinson’s book for inspiration.

Go forth and create diverse worlds!

Interview with Justina Chen

Welcome Justina Chen, author of some of my favorite books growing up! She took the time to answer a few questions for us on her books.

nothingWhere did Patty Ho come from? How much has your own life influenced your writing of Nothing but the Truth? Imagine being surrounded by teens who are mocking you in pseudo-Chinese. That’s exactly what happened to me and my kids one day. The next morning, Patty introduced herself to me while I was running the morning. To be perfectly accurate, she started dumping on me three miles into my run. She ranted about not being able to get a date, ironic since her last name is Ho. Then she told me about being half-Asian, half-white, and all-American. I couldn’t resist writing her story.

As an Asian American, how much of your cultural heritage do you try to reflect in your writing? I drew on my cultural heritage to write my first three novels–North of Beautiful, Girl Overboard, and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

Why do you write YA lit? I have always loved YA! Let’s just say that I wrote my first YA novella when I was about ten. Teen years are exhilarating and bewildering and tumultuous and wonderful–and I adore exploring that important time in our lives.

What are you working on now? Talk about drawing from my past! If you can believe it, I went to 13 proms when I was in high school. And I drew hard on that experience to write my forthcoming novel, A BLIND SPOT FOR BOYS (August, 2014).

(And an obligatory silly question.) What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you? How about a different obligatory silly question. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? When I was Peru, guinea pig was on the menu. Couldn’t do it. That said, I must say alligator tastes a lot like chicken.

Justina Chen TreeJustina Chen is an award-winning novelist for young adults whose most recent book, Return to Me, was called an “uplifting story” by Publishers Weekly. North of Beautiful was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and Barnes & Noble. Her other novels include Girl Overboard (a Junior Library Guild premiere selections) and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), which won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Additionally, she co-founded readergirlz, a cutting-edge literacy and social media project for teens, which won the National Book Foundation’s Prize for Innovations in Reading.

When she isn’t writing for teens, Justina is a communications strategist for executives and was the speechwriter and executive communications manager for a president of Microsoft. She conducts popular corporate storytelling workshops and has presented at prestigious organizations ranging from the Mayo Clinic to NASDAQ and AT+T to SAS.

New Releases

Rather, happy belated book birthday to two new-ish books released on June 25th!

the lost sunThe Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton
Random House Books for Young Reader

Seventeen-year-old Soren Bearskin is trying to escape the past. His father, a famed warrior, lost himself to the battle-frenzy and killed thirteen innocent people. Soren cannot deny that berserking is in his blood–the fevers, insomnia, and occasional feelings of uncontrollable rage haunt him. So he tries to remain calm and detached from everyone at Sanctus Sigurd’s Academy. But that’s hard to do when a popular, beautiful girl like Astrid Glyn tells Soren she dreams of him. That’s not all Astrid dreams of–the daughter of a renowned prophetess, Astrid is coming into her own inherited abilities.

When Baldur, son of Odin and one of the most popular gods in the country, goes missing, Astrid sees where he is and convinces Soren to join her on a road trip that will take them to find not only a lost god, but also who they are beyond the legacy of their parents and everything they’ve been told they have to be. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

paradoxParadox by A.J. Paquette
Random House Books for Young Readers

Ana only knows her name because of the tag she finds pinned to her jumpsuit. Waking in the featureless compartment of a rocket ship, she opens the hatch to discover that she has landed on a barren alien world. Instructions in her pocket tell her to observe and to survive, no doubt with help from the wicked-looking knives she carries on her belt. But to what purpose?

Meeting up with three other teens–one boy seems strangely familiar–Ana treks across the inhospitable landscape, occasionally encountering odd twists of light that carry glimpses of people back on Earth. They’re working on some sort of problem, and the situation is critical. What is the connection between Ana’s mission on this planet and the crisis back on Earth, and how is she supposed to figure out the answer when she can’t remember anything? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Charm & Strange

charm and strangeTitle: Charm & Strange
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 216
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Charm & Strange is a difficult, disturbing read. I can’t say much about it without spoiling the story, but I’ll do my best.

The bio on the dust jacket says that the author is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology, and it’s clear that Kuehn has used her education to her advantage in this book. Charm & Strange combines two narratives in alternating chapters: Drew’s traumatic childhood and Win’s reluctant party attendance, which eventually turns into a mental health crisis. Both narratives leave you with a mounting sense of dread the closer you get to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Drew/Win. There are enough clues that a discerning reader can figure out the key points of the trauma before the official reveal, but that won’t lessen the emotional impact of the events. I spent the time before the reveal desperately hoping that I was wrong and the time afterwards being extremely upset that I was right.

While the book remains tightly focused on Drew/Win, Lex (a former roommate) and Jordan (the new girl) are scene-stealers at school. The failure of Win and Lex’s pseudo friendship is a painful but necessary way of highlighting just how messed up Win is. Jordan’s attempts to befriend Win are equally hard to read, especially since I wanted Win to reach out to someone for help. Lex and Jordan are two decent people caught up in the life of a very broken person, and I admire them for how they deal with Win. They also keep the present narrative from being completely soul-crushing.

Unfortunately, the past narrative is completely soul-crushing. It’s clear from the start that some pretty terrible things had to have happened to Drew in order for him to grow up to be Win, and I had to mentally prep myself for every new chapter. These chapters are the most powerful, especially when the reader starts picking up clues about what is going on with Drew and his family. His brother, Keith, features prominently in this part of the story. The relationship between Keith and Drew (and to a lesser extent, their younger sister, Siobhan) is a heartbreaking one. Keith often acts as a parent for Drew, despite only being a few years older, and watching him struggle to be an adult when he shouldn’t have to be is emotionally draining.

Recommendation: Get it soon, but only if you think you can handle disturbing subject matter. Kuehn wrote an excellent book, but I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to reread it. The book is short and powerful, and it leaves you reeling.

Mini-Reviews: A Really Awesome Mess and The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong

This month there are several contemporary novels coming to the shelves. Here are two you might want to grab. Both are available for pre-order or you can look for them on July 23rd.

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Title: A Really Awesome Mess
Authors: Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin
Pages: 288
Genre: contemporary, issue
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Review Copy: NetGalley digital ARC
Availability: July 23, 2013

Summary: Two teenagers. Two very bumpy roads taken that lead to Heartland Academy.

Justin was just having fun, but when his dad walked in on him with a girl in a very compromising position, Justin’s summer took a quick turn for the worse. His parents’ divorce put Justin on rocky mental ground, and after a handful of Tylenol lands him in the hospital, he has really hit rock bottom.

Emmy never felt like part of her family. She was adopted from China. Her parents and sister tower over her and look like they came out of a Ralph Lauren catalog– and Emmy definitely doesn’t. After a scandalous photo of Emmy leads to vicious rumors around school, she threatens the boy who started it all on Facebook.

Justin and Emmy arrive at Heartland Academy, a reform school that will force them to deal with their issues, damaged souls with little patience for authority. But along the way they will find a ragtag group of teens who are just as broken, stubborn, and full of sarcasm as themselves. In the end, they might even call each other friends.

A funny, sad, and remarkable story, A Really Awesome Mess is a journey of friendship and self-discovery that teen readers will surely sign up for. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

My Thoughts: Lately there have been more and more co-authored books appearing on the young adult scene. It’s a trend that I appreciate. In A Really Awesome Mess, Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin have worked together to bring us two distinct and intriguing voices. The chapters alternate between an angry Emmy and the roller coaster ride that is Justin. There are some pretty intense issues that the characters are dealing with, but the authors have light hands. They also keep a lot hidden in the beginning so things snuck up on me to be honest. Little by little, I discovered what difficult issues Justin and Emma are working through. But just when I thought things were grim and overwhelming — pigs entered the picture. Seriously. A Really Awesome Mess is like that. Seemingly random bizarreness. That’s what made me smile. Also, the friends Emmy and Justin gather have unique personalities that help the story sparkle. While not everything is plausible, Cook and Halpin manage to provide many laughs in spite of the tough subject matter.

If you like issue books with a large dose of humor, you will want to get this one soon.

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Title: The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong
Author: L. Tam Holland
Pages: 368
Genre: contemporary
Publisher: Simon & Shuster
Review Copy: Edelweiss digital ARC
Availability: July 23, 2013

Summary: A hysterically funny debut novel about discovering where you come from—even if you have to lie to get there.

When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart.

After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

My thoughts: There was plenty to laugh at here. Vee gets himself into complicated and humorous situations over and over again. He makes choices that are cringe-worthy throughout the book. This, of course, is part of the charm. The reader is compelled to find out if Vee is truly going to go through with his next idea. Then, there is the wait for the train wreck that is sure to happen. The book is fairly lighthearted and entertaining most of the time. Vee is trying to figure out who he is and what he wants for himself so it isn’t only about the laughs.

I was uncomfortable with some of the terms that Vee used like retarded and lesbos, but these are certainly words that are tossed about in high schools and they fit the context. They were just a little jarring for me. I also found the speech patterns for Vee’s father a little stilted. He often sounds formal and maybe the purpose was to show that English wasn’t his first language or to emphasize how closed off he is to Vee, but it seemed awkward to me.

You will find humor, a bit of romance around the edges, basketball action, and plenty of high school and family drama in The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong. If humorous contemporary books are your thing, get it soon.

L. Tam Holland did a reading of her book last week if you want a sneak peek.