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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Book Review: Ghosts

ghostsTitle: Ghosts
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Genres:  Graphic Novel/Magical Realism
Pages: 240
Publisher: Graphix
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister’s sake — and her own.

Review: With Hispanic Heritage month just finishing and Dia De Los Muertos coming in a little over a week, I thought Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic novel would be a good fit for this week’s review. I’ve never reading anything by Telgemeier before, nor have I reviewed a graphic novel either, so I went into this book without any preconceived notions. I saw that the characters were Mexican and thought – cool! I saw the inclusion of Dia de los Muertos and got excited about an author who incorporated a culturally significant holiday. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay that way.

At it’s heart, Ghosts is a story about family, specifically sisters. At the beginning of the story there is a bit of tension between the sister, specifically on Cat’s behalf as Maya seems none the wiser, because they are moving to a small town in Northern California due to Maya’s cystic fibrosis. We also learn that the two shared friends which gives us insight into how much Maya depends on Cat, and how often Cat is responsible for her sister. While there is love between the two, and they are close, Cat does yearn to establish herself apart from her sister. Initially this makes Cat seem like a bit of a brat, but to me, she was written as the typical teenager who is trying to adjust to life just when peer relationships are becoming important. I was actually endeared to Cat because of it as I could totally understand where she was coming from. It also made her growth more believable. Through meeting friends and Maya’s illness taking a turn for the worse, Cat is able to come to a place of acceptance and be open to her new life in Bahia de la Luna.

I love magical realism and Ghosts is swimming with it because, well it is essentially a ghost story. Cat is really afraid of ghosts as they make her think about death, especially in terms of Maya’s illness, so much of Cat’s growth comes with accepting that she lives in a town that is filled with harmless ghosts. At the beginning Cat runs away from the ghosts because she believes they harmed Maya, while Maya just wants to get to know the ghosts. Eventually, in a lovely heart to heart, Cat decides to go to the midnight Dia de los Metros party the town has for the ghosts on behalf of Maya. This is also where the book falters. In incorporating Dia de los Muertos at this point of the story, Telgemeier changes the meaning of the holiday to fit the narrative. The celebration of Dia de los Muertos doesn’t come out of no where as Telgemeier does a good job of explaining the ofrendas, and having the girls make an alter for their grandmother, but the main crux of the holiday for Telgemeier is the big party at the end. Though, I will say this reminded me of the ending of The Book of Life (if I’m remembering it correctly) so I am a bit conflicted with Telgemeier’s use of a festival like atmosphere to the day instead of the close family atmosphere. I do know that Dia de los Muertos festivals are growing as more and more people come to celebrate the holiday, for example, my school incorporates Dia de los Muertos into our Halloween activities as we create a communal alter to celebrate deceased family members, so while her use of the holiday in such a manner is troublesome, it does reflect how the holiday is currently changing.

What I did love, besides the story of sisterly love, is how diverse this novel is. Bahia de la Luna is a small town but actually reflects the population of California as I know it. The friends that Cat meets are of all different backgrounds and in crowd scenes, the variety of the human palette is reflected. Telgemeier also has a character state that the ghosts prefer to speak in Spanish because many of the ghost there are from Mexico (which CA originally was) and she doesn’t translate the Spanish. All the interactions with the ghosts are in Spanish therefore the reader must figure out what the ghosts are saying if they don’t understand Spanish. To me, this inclusion is important because I feel like when Spanish, or any language really, is translated on the page, it’s made for the comfort of the reader and may not actually fit the story. The fact that her publishers allowed her to not translate the story made me respect them so much, and added to my enjoyment.

Recommendation: Overall, I enjoyed the book for it’s sweet story despite it’s troublesome elements. I think before this is shared with kids, an adult reads it for themselves and makes their own decision. Or even, read it with a group of students and use it as a learning tool for Dia de los Muertos.

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Book Review: The Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2)

bladeTitle: The Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 468
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Amazon comes through
Availability: Available now

Summary: In this thrilling sequel to World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s captivating young adult debut, a girl immersed in high-stakes competition holds the fate of a kingdom in her hands.

Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.

Review: Just like Court of Fives, The Poisoned Blade throws you right into the action and doesn’t let up until the end, sort of…it ends with another cliffhanger. Elliott’s sequel begins a few hours after Jessamy’s victory on the Fives court where she became a Challenger, but the victory was tainted because it came at the cost of someone else, someone Jessamy was close to.  The novel opens with her attempting to not burn that bridge and ends up right in the middle of Garon Palace where she decides to use her father’s lessons to her advantage. Jessamy’s sole focus throughout the novel is to find a way to reunite her family and get them to safety. She meets Ro-emnu again, as the last time she saw him he had left her and her family alone under the tombs. Knowing she needs help she decides to trust him again, begrudgingly, but through him she is exposed to a larger underground network of Efeans who are are quietly planning revolution. In fact, they aren’t the only ones, which I cannot reveal due to spoilers, but it is a plot twist that no one can see coming. In fact, it takes their entire society by surprise and Jessamy ends up in a alliance with the very last person she thought she would be in an alliance with. Then, boom, cliffhanger!

Poisoned Blade is not full of non-stop action as Elliott does take time to give us those meaningful character moments that are the heart of any good novel. Some of my favorite moments were the stolen moments between Jessamy and her sister Amaya. Both are in precarious positions within the Garan household and if anyone were to find out they were sisters, trouble would find them, however, many of their moments are filled with sisterly-love and sisterly-bickering. The relationship of the two sisters is fleshed out more and we get a glimpse of what life was like before the girl’s world was up-ended. Elliott also spends more time developing the relationships between Jessamy and the other adversaries in Garon Palace. I really liked this change of pace for the novel as it allowed Jessamy to rely on her own strength, her own fortitude to protect her family.

Through Jessamy’s travels we are able to see the larger world that Elliott creates. Jessamy travels to Lord Garon’s country estates, and in turn, ends up visiting Efean villages for the first time. She connects with her Efean roots and we learn more about the culture that was denied to her.  She meets more Efeans and learns how they cope with the racism they experience, which in turn gives Jessamy more strength to deal with her plans to best Lord Garon.

While I loved the plot’s twist and turns, the expansion of the world and learning more about Efean culture, but what I loved the most was learning more about the relationship between Jessamy and her father. In Court of Fives, Jessamy’s anger and sense of betrayal towards her father was so negative that he was almost a villain. In Poisoned Blade, Jessamy has more interaction with her father and we finally get a sense of what their relationship was like. The two, who really are very similar in personality, start taking the steps back to healing their relationship and also begin to work as a team. For me, this portrayal of a parent/child relationship in a YA novel, specifically where parents are often off-screen in novels, is what made Elliott’s novel for me. I can’t wait for the next book.

Recommendation: If you loved Court of Fives, then you need you get on this sequel!

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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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Book Review: Running Away to Home

rath-coverTitle: Running Away to Home
Author: Lita Hooper
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 145
Publisher: Brave Books/Aquarius Press
Review Copy: ARC
Availability: Available Aug. 30

Summary:  How do you find your way home when your home no longer exists? For 17-year old twin sisters Sammie and Ronnie and their father, Willis, the answer to that question becomes a life raft when they are displaced after Hurricane Katrina.
Identity….Fear….Family
Running Away to Home, a YA verse novel, tells the story of two brave sisters, a repentant father, and the amazing triumphant spirit of familial love.
Loss.…Memory….Family
After leaving New Orleans for Atlanta, Ronnie and Sammie are separated and find themselves living in different parts of the city. Each sister is lured by false promises of love and security as they initially believe the people they encounter.
Love….Change….Family
As a YA verse novel, this story relies on poetry to express the intimacy of sisterhood and the triumphant spirit of its characters. Older YA readers will be moved by this family’s journey in the wake of one of the most memorable historical events our nation has experienced.
Spirit….Strength….Family

Review: With the 11 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up and Louisiana under water again, Lita Hooper’s novel is especially timely. The story of Sammie & Ronnie is a very real one as families were separated as they fled New Orleans and were sent to different cities close by. Many of the stories I heard from Katrina were truly heart-breaking, so I applaud Ms. Hooper for tackling such a painful subject matter.

While Sammie and Ronnie are the main protagonists, Hooper also includes the voices of their father, and the people who “help” both of the girls when they separate. I put “help” in quotations because the people who decide to take in both Sammie and Ronnie only do so to serve their own interests. They lie to both of the girls about FEMA and their families, hence keeping both girls right where they want them. While neither girl is physically hurt, the emotional damage done to both hurt my heart.

While I felt for the girls, I didn’t care as much as I could have because I couldn’t really connect with either characters. Both Ronnie and Sammie felt very two dimensional and I didn’t get a feel of what made both girls who they are. They felt more like composite characters, there just to propel the action of the story, rather than be the heart of the story. It was stated that Ronnie was an studious honor student, and I get that in times of distress people don’t make rational decisions, but easy acceptance of her “savior’s” lies just struck me as odd. Additionally, Sammie was supposed to be the naive sister, however she came across as child-like instead of just a careless teenager. The writing for both characters was so simplistic that I didn’t get a grasp of Ronnie’s and Sammie’s feelings, how they truly felt about being separated from their twin. I feel like Hooper had a chance to go deeper, and for whatever reason, didn’t.

I understand that novels written in verse are tricky things, but I’ve read some verse novels that just floored me. I feel like Hooper could have slowed down some of the events in the novel, such as when the girls get separated, and explore the girls’ emotional response to their situation. This novel was very plot driven, which can be good, when it doesn’t come at the expense of characterization. Ultimately, that is what made the novel feel flat for me.

Recommendation: I was excited about this book based on the premise, but was disappointed in the execution.

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Book Review: The Smaller Evil

evilTitle: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 256
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Stephanie herself. Thank You!
Availability: Available Aug. 2nd

Summary: Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.

17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: One of the reasons I love Stephanie Keuhn’s books is because they not only are they thrilling mysteries, but they also explore the very mystery of how our mind works in all it’s complicated beauty. The characters in her books are all struggling with living with mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, in their daily lives and struggling with all the usual angst that being a teenager brings. And, in Keuhn’s books, things are always never what they seem. And in her 4th novel, the reader is taken on an journey that has them just as confused as the main character Arman, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means the mystery was so well plotted that there is no way the reader can figure it out until the reveal. And I love that in a book.

As I mentioned, all of the protagonists in Keuhn’s books struggle with mental illness, Arman is her most touching yet. Arman suffers from severe anxiety, almost crippling at times, and feels that the Evolve retreat is what will heal him. He is on medication to help him with his anxiety, but it doesn’t really help him at all. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the depression that he feels is so strong that he truly believes he does not have any worth to society, and this completely broke my heart for him. Having the novel be so close inside Arman’s head truly give a glimpse of what someone with severe anxiety and depression goes through, how their own thoughts hamper them from truly functioning sometimes. Arman would often try to pump himself up, but then his self-doubt, which was much stronger than his self-love, would take over and he would not trust any progress he made while at the retreat center. Compounding his low self-worth is that when Beau disappears, no one initially believes him which doesn’t help Arman’s state of mind in the slightest. However, this is also where Arman shows great strength and grows as a character. It is for his admiration of Beau that Arman doesn’t allow himself to let his self-doubt and anxiety take control. Arman knows, desires, to figure out what happened to Beau so he constantly fights with his own brain, his low self-esteem, and really fights to have his voice heard. His purpose drives him, and while it cannot cure him from his mental illness, it does allow to find a way to work with his illness.

As for the mystery surrounding Beau’s disappearance, as well as what is exactly going on at the retreat center, I can’t exactly say without giving spoilers, but I can say that at no point did I even come close to figuring it out. There were moments where I felt Arman’s frustration with being so left in the dark without any clues as to what was really going on in the story. Well, I take that back. There was tension between Beau and other leaders of the retreat center and I saw what that place was in danger of becoming, which added an extra level of concern for Arman because his spirit is in such a vulnerable position, that certain member of the retreat center could exploit if they wanted. Luckily, Beau and Arman’s mutual appreciation of each other was well known, so Arman was never in real danger.

Overall, I’m kind of in the middle with my thoughts on “The Smaller Evil”. It is a slow paced, quiet book that feels different from Keuhn’s previous books that had a lot of movement to it. This novel takes place primarily at the retreat center, and Keuhn does a great job of giving the reader a sense of place with her descriptions, but I feel that because the setting is in one place, the story just moves a bit too slowly. Also, my heart totally broke for Arman so I struggled with reading because I just wanted Arman to get the true help he needed and the retreat center was so not the place. It changes him, as all experiences do, but I wonder how much damage it did as well. This novel grabs your heart for Arman and doesn’t let go. It is a hard read at times because Keuhn does a great job with Arman’s neurosis and you truly, truly feel his pain. Because after all, that is what Keuhn excels at.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

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