Book Review: Stella by Starlight

stellaTitle: Stella by Starlight
Author: Sharon Draper
Genres: Historical
Pages: 320
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.

Stella lives in the segregated South; in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community – her world – is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end. (Image & summary via Goodreads)

Review: As a huge fan of Sharon Draper’s young adult novels, I was excited to read her newest Stella by Starlight. I didn’t realize at the time it was a middle grade novel, until I started reading it, but because the story draws you in and Stella is such a wonderful character, I enjoyed the novel immensely. In fact, my 12 year old self emerged and was giddy at a book that spoke to her – especially a story about a young girl finding her voice through writing.

The novel takes place in the South in 1932, so you know it’s not going to be an easy read. Stella is a 12 year old girl who is loved by both of her parents, has a good relationship with her little brother, wonderful friends, and lives in a tight knit African American community. What could go wrong? Well, the Klan shows up one night and sets the entire community on edge. The issue is that there is a presidential election coming and, of course, the Klan does not want the African American members of their community to vote, so they use the usual scare tactics, which thankfully, do not work. I loved the way Draper showed how small African-American communities came together during crisis, helping each other out when they often didn’t have very much to give. She also balanced this out by showing that not all of the members of the White community agreed with the Klan’s tactics, and were willing to make a stand. While the heart of the novel is very much on Stella and her perspective on life, the scenes that focused on social justice, way back in 1932, clearly showing the seeds for the Civil Rights movement and our current #Black Lives Matter movement, were moving.

Stella is the star of the novel and her voice is truly one of a young girl on the edge of womanhood who is actively thinking about the world around here. One aspect of Stella’s character that I really related to was her emerging status as a writer. At the beginning of the book, she struggled with writing (even though she liked to) because she often couldn’t find the words to say. She would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and write underneath the stars. I so related to her as I would write underneath the covers with a flashlight. Her writing eventually becomes stronger as she practices and then when she receives a typewriter as a gift, she starts her own newspaper, readership of one (that was also me at age 10!). The little girl K. Imani instantly fell in love with Stella as I remembered some of the struggles I had finding my voice, but with the encouragement of teachers, like Stella, I grew into the writer I am today. I also appreciated that Draper doesn’t make Stella a super duper writer right away and actually has her experience rejection in the form of not being picked for a writing contest. The disappointment Stella felt allowed for a true growth moment where she recognized her writing was not as strong as it could be and that the only way for her to get better was to practice. A message writers of all ages need to be reminded of.

One of my favorite childhood books of all time is Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and I feel that Draper’s novel is written in the spirit of that novel. All these years later I still love that novel, and Stella by Starlight brought those same emotions forth. Stella’s story is a fitting compliment to Taylor’s classic novel, but yet is perfect for our current children who need to understand how the Americans fought for equality in the past, just as they fight for it now.

Recommendation: Get It Now!

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Mini Review: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas

PoliTitle: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas
Author: Jay Neugeboren
Genres:  Historical
Pages: 123
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In 1839, José Policarpo Rodriguez came north with his father from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas. Poli was ten years old when he arrived in Texas, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas. He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—he struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days. . .and is still rare today.

Review: In celebration of it’s 25 anniversary, Texas Tech University Press has decided to re-release Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, and I happen to agree that this was a good move for the publisher. This historical novel is a quick and entertaining read that touches on a brief period of history that shows the tensions between the Comanche Nation, Mexicans, and the early Texans. The story follows young Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, and is based on the real Poli’s memoirs. The novel begins when Poli is 10 years old and just arriving in Texas from Zaragosa. Poli and his father have left Mexico for a better life after the death of his mother and other family members. Poli’s father then sends him to spend a week with the Comanche nation and there Poli forms a friendship with the Chief’s son, Eagle Blood. It is through his relationship with Eagle Blood that Poli is able to see and understand all three sides of the land use issue that is the cause of the tension between the Native Americans, Mexicans, and the Texans. Because of his relationship, Poli is also able to work as a surveyor and as a translator during negotiations that ultimately fail. The fact that Poli is so trusted by adults shows how during this period of time, adolescents were treated as adults and give adult responsibilities. Poli had to mature fast because of the harshness of life on the plain.

Not knowing much about Texas history, except what is briefly given in school textbooks, I found the focus on the lives of those effected in San Antonio fascinating as it took a larger conflict and allowed the reader to see how it effect the daily lives of the people who lived during that time period. I found it very easy to relate to Poli as through his travels he missed his father, and his friendship with Eagle Blood felt true and real. I feel that Neugeboren did his research in getting the historical details correct, especially when sharing the lifestyles and beliefs of the Comanche people. Neugeboren was able to handle the tension between the Comanche, the Mexicans, and the Texans in such a manner that the reader fully understood and empathized with the different factions (okay, maybe not so much with the early Texans as a whole, but the individuals whose lives were thrown in to chaos because of the fighting, yes).  While the novel is written for middle grade, Neugeboren writes in such a way that Poli would be enjoyable for readers of all ages. I feel this would be an excellent supplemental novel in a social studies class, as well as a good read of the youngster who enjoys historical fiction.

Recommendation: Get It Soon

To celebrate the release of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, we have two copies to give away! Raffle ends March 17th. Enter Now!

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Book Review: My Heart & Other Black Holes

22328549Title: My Heart & Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 302
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution–Roman, a teenage boy who’s haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner. Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: It is interesting that two of last week’s new releases dealt with the subject of suicide, as it is a subject that is sensitive to many and one that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, which is a shame because many folks experience depression and/or have thoughts of suicide. Teens especially need to be able to have someone to reach out for help, and sometimes, handing a young adult book that speaks to the heart of what they are going through can save a life. I honestly feel that My Heart & Other Black Holes could be a potential life saver for many young adults.

While Aysel’s depression is triggered over her father’s crime, Warga makes note to show how Aysel showed signs when she was growing up, so the novel doesn’t feel like one of those, “she’s depressed over something and now she’s all better, happy every after” novels. No, when we meet Aysel she is in the thick of her depression, has made the decision to commit suicide and is actively seeking help by having a suicide partner. And this is where I think Warga’s novel really shines. Reading the thought process of someone committed to taking their own life is very tough, but it is a thought process that is very real, hence making Aysel a fully-fleshed out character. It makes the reader empathize with Aysel, as we understand that when someone is at the point Aysel is, when they are in their darkest moments, it can be extremely hard to change their thinking. A person who is depressed to the point of committing suicide will not “just get over it”.  Aysel is actively looking forward to her death. As a teacher of teenagers, this was hard to read because I kept thinking about a student who came close to this point a few years ago, but reached out and got the help she needed. As the novel is told in first person, Aysel, unfortunately does not believe that she can find help or even capable of help. It was also those moments that the heart of Warga’s story really impacted me.

It was also Aysel’s thoughts, her self-awareness about her depression that really made her a character to root for. She even personifies her depression, calling it a black slug, and it became a “villain” in a way. She has to actively fight against the black slug and sometimes she wins, sometimes she looses. I feel that having Aysel name her depression was a stroke of genius by Warga. It turned an illness that can be very abstract into something concrete. It allowed for readers who might not fully grasp how depression works into seeing the disease as a real obstacle in a person’s path. If people get anything out of this book, it will be that depression it is not just an imaginary illness in a person’s head, but a real tangible presence that they fight daily against.

And, I think, that is the beauty of Warga’s novel. The reader really connects with Aysel, with her wry humor, her love for her little brother, and how much she struggles with the slug that she fights daily. The reader knows that Aysel is a beautiful soul and really wants her to recognize her worth so she won’t continue to think about suicide, but is still willing to go on the journey that Warga lays out as Aysel begins to question her decision with Roman. The novel takes place over a span of 26 days, with each chapter counting down, and we are not privy to Aysel’s decision to live or die until almost the very end. And when she does, well…you just have to read the novel to find out.

Jasmine Warga’s debut novel is a beautiful and touching story about depression, family, friendship and love. It’s about answering the tough questions we have about ourselves, our place in our family and our world, but mostly it is about discovering and owning our own self worth. The messages and themes that My Heart & Other Black Holes explores is one that people of all ages can learn from and relate to.

Recommendation: If you are in the mood for a story with heart, run to the store and buy My Heart & Other Black Holes now!

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Book Review: The Boy in the Black Suit

suitTitle: The Boy in the Black Suit
Author: Jason Reynolds
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 255
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more—and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down—in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.

Review: Ever love a book so much that you are momentarily struck dumb and all you can do is squee? Well, that’s how I feel about Jason Reynold’s “The Boy in the Black Suit”.  I have been trying to write this review for days but I couldn’t get much farther than, “I love this book so much and you should read it!” Obviously, I have to find the words to describe why I liked Reynold’s novel, but what my review will most likely come down to is, “I loved this book so much and you should read it!”

First off, Matt Miller’s voice. I absolutely loved it! Matt is a character whom everyone can relate to because he is a thoughtful young man dealing with a life changing experience and is trying to make sense of his world. The novel begins just weeks after his mother’s death and he is still reeling from the grief, as any son who has had a close relationship with his mother would. He finds high school to be trivial, which makes sense because he’s lost his mother and his father is not handling his own grief in a productive way. In fact, his dad is loosing himself in alcohol and eventually winds up in the hospital leaving Matt on his own.  Matt takes it upon himself to find a job and through a twist of fate, ends up working for Mr. Ray, the neighborhood mortician. And through this relationship the beauty of the novel comes through. Having survived cancer twice, Mr. Ray befriends Matt and basically becomes the father that Matt needs. Their relationship is touching and one of the strongest parts of the novel. The two are able to joke around with each other, but also share the secrets of their hearts. Matt is able to talk to Mr. Ray in a way that he doesn’t with his best friend or even his father. It’s clear that Matt respects Mr. Ray immensely and looks to him for advice and guidance. Their Thanksgiving, where they’re just watching football and talking about Matt’s date, is one of the best scenes in the novel.

Being that Matt works in a mortuary, one of the main themes in this novel is death and grief. In the hands of a lesser author, “Boy in the Black Suit” could have failed miserably, but Reynold’s novel is a touching, quiet story that handles the concept grief with deftness that pulls the reader into Matt’s story and his journey through the grieving process. To understand his grief, and make sense of his mother’s death, Matt tends to watch the funerals, watching the family members, finding solace in the grief that they share. Again, in the hands of a lesser author, the modes of Matt’s grieving process could come across as odd, but instead, the reader feels for Matt, even empathizes with him. It was in those moments, when Matt was looking for answers to his grief in the tears of the other mourners that I really felt/connected with him. At no point, however, did I ever feel sorry for Matt and that is what makes “Boy in the Black Suit” such a powerful novel.

Lastly, I enjoyed Reynold’s first novel, “When I was the Greatest”, but I loved this novel even more. The writing is much stronger and much more touching. It is a quiet novel with moments that pull at your heart strings and moments that make you laugh out loud. Matt’s story is one that is universal as we’ve all lost someone close to us and we must make sense of our grief and the loss of a loved one. It’s a novel of learning how to move forward after that person is gone and learning how to find one’s place in a family again.

Recommendation: Get it now!

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Book Review: Love is the Drug

Love Is the DrugTitle: Love is the Drug
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Genres:  Speculative Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 335
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Bought from my local Barnes & Noble
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

Review: Having loved Johnson’s “The Summer Prince”, I was really looking forward to “Love is the Drug.” I can’t say that I didn’t like it because it was a compelling read, moved at a fast pace, and I enjoyed Johnson’s lush writing. I think what makes me pause, and this is strictly a personal thing, is that I figured out the twist way before (like early in the book), so I was constantly waiting for the reveal and for Bird to discover the truth. The fact that she doesn’t learn it until practically the very end bothered me. I wanted to spend more time with her after she learned the truth and how it effected her relationships with the important people in her life. Instead, we’re given a solution to one of the conflicts, which I will commend Johnson here for not making it an easy solution, and then the novel is over. There is a part of me that longs for a sequel to the book, though I’m pretty sure the story is finished.

One of Johnson’s greatest strengths is to create compelling characters that we all can relate to, and Emily Bird is no exception. Bird, as she comes to call herself, through her experience with a fateful night grows from a scared young girl under her mother’s thumb into a smart, vibrant, young woman holding her own. The novel is told in third person, but slips into first person occasionally, which I believe is to show how the woman within Bird emerges. I will admit, some of those parts threw me out of the story, but aside from those sparse moments, Bird’s voice is strong and she learns to stand up for herself, even fight for herself. She comes to an awareness of how empty and shallow her life was turning out to be, and realizes that she is much happier following her heart. A moment in particular that stands out to me is when Bird decides to cut off her hair, reveling in the afro she now has. She knows she’s going to receive criticism from her mother, lose her social status as school because of it, but she doesn’t care. She owns herself in that moment and stands up for her rights to anyone who tries to tell her otherwise. That wisdom that she has, many women are still searching for, and I commended her for it. It didn’t seem out of character or unrealistic at all for a teenager to feel that way because I know a number of African American young girls who have decided to own their beauty and wear their hair natural. Bird also doesn’t hold back on her comments regarding privilege and race, which I found refreshing in a Young Adult novel. Often times the concept of privilege and race, specifically from African Americans with money, is glossed over (or not even written about!), that I loved how Johnson, through Bird, hit the topics head on. Bird is a type of young girl I would like to know and is one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel.

Lastly, while “The Summer Prince” was otherworldly and fantastical, the tone of “Love is the Drug” is vastly different. While a time period is not explicitly stated, it feels like it could be our current day as the world wide tensions focus on Venezuela and Iran, two countries of concern to our government right now. The novel could take place in our very near future, and the aspect of such an event intrigued me. Like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, Johnson takes our current society and asks, what if this happened as a result of our actions? Asking these type of questions, looking into a potential future is was speculative fiction is all about and Johnson hits all the right notes in this novel.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

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Book Review: The Walled City

the walled cityTitle: The Walled City
Author: Ryan Graudin
Genres:  Realistic, Thriller
Pages: 432
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Copy from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: There are three rules in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife. Right now, my life depends completely on the first. Run, run, run.
Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there run drugs or work in brothels—or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: In her author notes, Ryan Graudin states that when she learned about the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, she was reminded of the settings of many dystopian novels. I agree with her because while dystopian novels are very popular, there are parts of the world where many teenagers already live in a dystopian world. Graudin continues to write that  her imagination ran wild with stories ideas upon learning about the various types of people who lived in a .010 square mile of space, and we are all the better for it. The Walled City is a intense thriller, that is full of action, yet has many quiet moments between characters that allow us to really connect and empathize with them.

It was clear that Ryan Graudin did her homework before starting to write this lovely novel. She writes the setting to clearly, so well, that I can picture the twisting alleys and stacks of apartments that practically blocks out all sunlight perfectly. In fact, the Walled City, Hak Nam, almost feels like a character itself, so rich were Graudin’s descriptions. Little details, such as places were Jin and Dai purchase food, to the grander details such as Dai’s thinking place, really gave a sense of this dense city that is filled a large number of people in a small amount of space.

While Graudin’s setting definitely set the tone of the novel, the three main characters, Jin, Dai and Mei Yee,  had the most impact on me. All three were written with depth and care that made them seem like real teenagers living/surviving horrible circumstances. The fact that Jin disguises herself as a boy doesn’t seem like a gimmick but a real reason that makes the reader understand what is really at stake. The opening scene with Jin running from some teenage thugs and then coming across an escaped victim of human trafficking, reinforces this fact. When one contrasts Jin’s life with her sister Mei Yee, we really understand her decisions. Dai is the definition of the reluctant, flawed hero who has a dark past but is working hard to redeem himself. He is burdened from the results of a costly mistake, but he’s not the type of character whose walling becomes annoying. We understand why he is driven to change his life, and why it is so important to him that he achieves his goals in 18 days. Lastly, I was surprised at how Mei Yee’s situation was handled in the novel. She is a victim of human trafficking, and I wondered how Graudin would express this fact, and I’m glad that she is very truthful with the ugliness of this deplorable practice. Mei Yee was not the often portrayed “spunky girl trying to fight her way out”, but as a real victim, one who is forced in this situation, makes the best of it, while longing for freedom. Not once, however, did I feel like Mei Yee was helpless. In fact, when she does decide to fight back, you worry for her because the reader clearly understands how deadly her captives are and what could potentially happen to her if she should fail. The connection these three characters have really brought me into the story and I was rooting for them to succeed, even when it didn’t seem like it.

I’d heard a lot of buzz about The Walled City and I have to say that this novel definitely lived up to the hype. Ryan Graudin wrote a touching, yet intense novel that tackles the lives of a group of people in a unique situation with care that did not fetishize Chinese culture, nor sensationalize life among a criminal sect. I really came to care for Jin, Dai, and Mei Yee and enjoyed the time I spent with them. Those three have stayed with me in the days since. That is the mark of a great book.

Recommendation: Buy It Now!

The real Walled City. Kowloon, Hong Kong

The real Walled City. Kowloon, Hong Kong

Aerial view of the city.

Aerial view of the city.

In case you’re interested, here is a CNN article on Kowloon Walled City.
Life inside the Densest Place on Earth: Remembering the Kowloon Walled City

 

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