Review: Fire Song

Title: Fire Song
Author: Adam Garnet Jones
Publisher: Annick Press
Pages: 232
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA
Availability: Release date is March 13, 2018
Review copy: ARC provided by publisher

Summary: How can Shane reconcile his feelings for David with his desire for a better life?

Shane is still reeling from the suicide of his kid sister, Destiny. How could he have missed the fact that she was so sad? He tries to share his grief with his girlfriend, Tara, but she’s too concerned with her own needs to offer him much comfort. What he really wants is to be able to turn to the one person on the rez whom he loves—his friend, David.

Things go from bad to worse as Shane’s dream of going to university is shattered and his grieving mother withdraws from the world. Worst of all, he and David have to hide their relationship from everyone. Shane feels that his only chance of a better life is moving to Toronto, but David refuses to join him. When yet another tragedy strikes, the two boys have to make difficult choices about their future together.

With deep insight into the life of Indigenous people on the reserve, this book masterfully portrays how a community looks to the past for guidance and comfort while fearing a future of poverty and shame. Shane’s rocky road to finding himself takes many twists and turns, but ultimately ends with him on a path that doesn’t always offer easy answers, but one that leaves the reader optimistic about his fate.

Review: Shane is tired. So many, many things are wearing him down. His sister’s death and the grief he’s feeling is obvious and painful, but there are many other things in his life that are overwhelming. He and his mother don’t have money for a new roof and college, but the roof cannot wait. His mother is debilitated by her grief and is no help in decision making or even with day to day care of herself. He is also agonizing about his relationships. He has a girlfriend with issues of her own, but he is also secretly seeing David. Shane is willing to talk about their relationship publicly, but David wants no part of that. Shane has heard of two-spirited people being welcomed, but even he can’t really picture it. He’s eager to be open in spite of the fears though. With all of this swirling around in his life, Shane is trying to hang on and make a path to get away before he gives up on his dreams.

The format of the book is somewhat unique. There are two perspectives. Shane’s point of view is told in third person and is the bulk of the storytelling, but his girlfriend’s point of view is also shown here and there. Her story is in first person as if in a journal and includes her poetry which is often quite moving. I enjoyed Tara’s portion of the story and actually wished for more from her. She’s trying to write herself into existence and be someone “worth seeing, worth being, worth taking care of.”

Grief and how individuals and the community deal with it is a major part of the story. There is a mix of tradition and individuality in the responses. Shane respects traditions, but is also open to doing things in different and new ways. One thing Shane craves is smudging. He loved seeing the smoke curl up over his mother’s shoulders in the mornings. His mother lit the smudge every morning of his life until his sister’s death. The medicine and ceremony are another loss for him as his mother pulls into herself.

The reserve is a big part of the story. The people and their daily life is important, but Shane’s relationship to the place itself is also significant. He feels his ancestors around him there. He isn’t sure he believes in the spirits and doesn’t always understand the teachings of the elders, but he definitely feels a spiritual connection to this place that is his home. “The elders may not be right about everything, but there is something in this place that can’t be explained with language.”

Shane is grappling with his grief, what he believes about his place in the world, his sexuality, and a variety of other things. This is a coming-of-age book with a young man trying to untangle the knots in his life. The end of the book is a bit rushed with many things happening at once, but it was satisfying overall. Fire Song is not easy to read, especially if you have lost a loved one by suicide, but it’s ultimately a hopeful story.

Recommendation: Fire Song is a look into the lives of teens trying to find themselves in the midst of tragedy and pain. Get it soon if you enjoy realistic fiction. It’s a powerful book.

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Review: Pashmina

Title: Pashmina
Author: Nidhi Chanani
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 176 pages
Publisher: First Second
Availability: Available now!

Summary: Priyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions–the topic of India is permanently closed.

For Pri, her mother’s homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she find a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background? To learn the truth, Pri must travel farther than she’s ever dared and find the family she never knew. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Completely by accident, I seem to be on some kind of roll reading stories that feature fraught mother-daughter relationships front-and-center. First there was Shadow Girl by Liana Liu (which I super recommend), then there was another book that I don’t really recommend, and then there was this  — Pashmina. I’ve been meaning to read it for the last few months, and I’m glad I picked it up.

Pashmina centers on one Priyanka, who struggles with fitting in at school and with the changes coming to her extended family. In her search for answers about her mother’s homeland and her absent father, she discovers a magical pashmina that transports her to India — or a version of it, at least.

Young as she is, it takes a whole journey before Priyanka learns why her mother won’t talk about her father. As expected, the reason is heartbreaking, and helps Priyanka grow to understand her mother better. The whole story is told through varying palettes — some monochrome, others bright and colorful. The color and artistic choices are fascinating, and reading through Pashmina was a delight.

My only wish is that Pashmina were longer — there is so much there already, and I would have loved to live in Priyanka’s head a little longer. I can’t wait to read whatever Nidhi Chanani has brewing next.

Pashmina is a short and sweet read. Be ready for a little bit of heartbreak and quite a bit of wonder at the brilliant colors and storytelling. If you haven’t picked it up, definitely go check it out when you get the chance.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Review: Down and Across

Title: Down and Across
Author: Arvin Ahmadi
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Genre: Contemporary
Availability: On shelves February 6, 2018
Review Copy: ARC via publisher

Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. Writing the Great American Novel? Three chapters. His summer internship? One week. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion.

With college applications looming, Scott’s parents pressure him to get serious and settle on a career path like engineering or medicine. Desperate for help, he sneaks off to Washington, DC, to seek guidance from a famous professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of success.

He never expects an adventure to unfold out of what was supposed to be a one-day visit. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life. Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try—all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and who he wants to be.

Review: Sometimes you just need a bit of humor. Down and Across will definitely take care of that. This book made me laugh so many times. Scott has a great sense of humor which shows even in moments of extreme frustration – and there are plenty of those in the story.

Scott, or Saaket as his parents originally named him, needs every bit of humor he can find as he tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life. His father has been pushing Scott to choose his path, but Scott doesn’t feel ready. He explains how the big bang created a scattered and acceptable universe that was indefinitely incomplete. He wonders though, “Why aren’t I allowed to be indefinitely incomplete too?” He is simply not ready to commit to the career choices his father is suggesting and he is lacking in confidence.

In the midst of his soul-searching, Scott takes off for Washington, DC and meets Fiora. She brings even more humor to the story. She’s unpredictable and loves taking risks or getting someone else to do so while she snickers and watches the fallout. She supports Scott as he is trying to become grittier, but she also encourages him to do things that defy logic. “That’s how humans evolve: setting goals and chasing them, making families and protecting them…But people like us? It’s not our job. Not yet. We’re still figuring things out. So we take smaller steps and enjoy them irrationally.” I think there could be a market for t-shirts saying, “Take small steps & enjoy them irrationally.” In her mind I may be too old for this philosophy, but it sure appeals to me.

Fiora introduces Scott to crossword puzzles, but also pushes him into situations that make him reach beyond what he thinks he can do. This helps him in many ways though it also causes more than a few troublesome and sometimes dangerous situations. When Scott talks to the professor specializing in grit, she tells him he needs to develop a growth mindset. Fiora is helping him with that and may need some help with it herself.

Through one of Fiora’s risky ideas, Scott ends up crossing paths with Trent. They have an interesting exchange when Trent asks about Scott’s background. This is just one instance among many where people are learning about each other and are sometimes bumbling their way through. Identity is a major theme throughout. There are multiple cases of mistaken assumptions about who people really are. This is especially evident with one specific character who readers will likely despise by the end of the book. Seriously.

Recommendation: Get this one as soon as you can – especially if you enjoy contemporary novels with a healthy portion of humor. Down and Across is incredibly relatable and the characters will steal your heart.

Book Review: Meet Cute: Some People are Destined to Meet

Title: Meet Cute: Some People are Destined to Meet
Author: Sona Charaipotra, Dhonielle Clayton, Nicola Yoon, Ibi Zoboi and others
Genres: Short Story Anthology
Pages: 320
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from NetGalley
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Whether or not you believe in fate, or luck, or love at first sight, every romance has to start somewhere. MEET CUTE is an anthology of original short stories featuring tales of “how they first met” from some of today’s most popular YA authors.

Readers will experience Nina LaCour’s beautifully written piece about two Bay Area girls meeting via a cranky customer service Tweet, Sara Shepard’s glossy tale about a magazine intern and a young rock star, Nicola Yoon’s imaginative take on break-ups and make-ups, Katie Cotugno’s story of two teens hiding out from the police at a house party, and Huntley Fitzpatrick’s charming love story that begins over iced teas at a diner. There’s futuristic flirting from Kass Morgan and Katharine McGee, a riveting transgender heroine from Meredith Russo, a subway missed connection moment from Jocelyn Davies, and a girl determined to get out of her small town from Ibi Zoboi. Jennifer Armentrout writes a sweet story about finding love from a missing library book, Emery Lord has a heartwarming and funny tale of two girls stuck in an airport, Dhonielle Clayton takes a thoughtful, speculate approach to pre-destined love, and Julie Murphy dreams up a fun twist on reality dating show contestants.

This incredibly talented group of authors brings us a collection of stories that are at turns romantic and witty, epic and everyday, heartbreaking and real.

Review: I found the premise of this collection of short stories a fun idea as one of the most intriguing aspects of romance is the fun and unique ways couples meet. Folks always ask couples for their “meet cute” story, so to have a entire short story collection of diverse meet cutes makes for some great winter break reading (at least for me). Not all the stories were sugar sweet; some had some deep questions about identity, fate, the notion of friendships, etc. The genres of the stories were diverse too, as not all stories were contemporary; there were some speculative fiction stories, some fantasy (or felt like fantasy), which I greatly enjoyed as the “meet cute” is a trope that is in all genres. There were a few stories that truly stood out to me, making me invested in the characters so much that I was disappointed that all I got was their meet cute story.

Dhonielle Clayton’s “The Way We Love Here” was a sweet story that challenged the notion of destined lovers. The story is set in a world where people are born with markings on their ring finger which fade as they age and come closer to meeting their beloved. Our two main characters aren’t looking for that day but end up learning what they will mean to each other. Both learn that their future will one they could not have expected, but that they will always be in each other’s lives in some way. I love how this story challenges the concept of “happily ever after” and that the future we believe we dream of when we are children become vastly different than what we could ever imagine.

Another favorite of mine featured a kick ass mathematician who decided to use statistics and probability to determine if she would ever meet the cute guy she had a chance meeting with on the subway. Jocelyn Davies’s “The Unlikely Likelihood of Falling in Love” follows the main character as she decides to write a term paper about the chances of meeting someone twice in New York City. We follow her as she develops her hypothesis, runs her tests, and lastly, her conclusion. It is a fun read as she theorizes about the cute guy and the different results of her tests to see if she would see him again. I loved this story because I loved that the main character was a math whiz and looked at the world very analytically. She was also the only girl in her class, but did not receive any negative push back from her classmates. This story was also fun in a “will she succeed or won’t she” way that made me really question if a meet cute was every going to happen.

Meet Cute is an anthology you must read slowly, taking your time to savor all the different stories and how they incorporate deeper themes all within the fun story of “how did this couple meet.”

Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand LanternsTitle: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
Review Copy: Library
Availability: Available now!

Summary: An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: There’s something about retellings of the Evil Queen legend from Snow White that almost always captures the imagination. She’s a fascinating figure — evil, beautiful, and destined to be undone by some sweet girl with a taste for apples. The retelling that haunts me the most is Neil Gaiman’s chilling short story.

I think it’s safe to say that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has usurped that particular throne. This story, influenced by the culture and history of Imperial China, is beautifully written — fitting for a story about a surpassingly beautiful empress-to-be. It tells the dark path Xifeng must take to rise above her humble origins and become queen.

Of course, that path is not easy. Xifeng struggles to free herself of the evil within her, along with the voice of her abusive aunt who all along has pushed her to pursue her powerful destiny and her conflicted feelings for her love, Wei. She’s a sympathetic figure, torn between her loyalty to the flawed people in her life and her unyielding ambition. As you follow along with her struggles, it’s easy to forget the framework of the story and who she’s meant to become – the Evil Queen from Snow White.

And at other times, it’s not so easy to forget. Xifeng’s ambition means that she regards most women as beneath her in one way or another, and she often does or says things that are cruel and vicious. At the same time, the conniving, backstabbing nature of the imperial court means that no one — except for, like, two men early in the story — comes out looking good. And I don’t know how I feel about one key (super spoilerly) reveal and its implications. This is definitely a tale told from the perspective of a rising villain, and no punches are pulled. At least for me, it’s hard to be comfortable with that.

Finally, I have to mention the worldbuilding. The details and imagery is just gorgeous. Every mention of a meal left me hungry (sugar dusted persimmon cakes! want!). This, along with the hint of the future Snow White storyline, is why I’m looking forward to the sequel. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for that. If you love a good fairy tale reimagining, you’ll want to check this book out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Book Review: Disappeared

Title: Disappeared
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 326 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.

Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.

Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.

Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.

In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

Review: Francisco Stork’s newest novel is a timely one that when put in the right hands would help folks understand how immigration, the hows and whys people come to America, is a very complex subject. Told in alternating voice between siblings Sara and Emiliano we learn the reason why the two are forced to leave everything and everyone they love behind to come to the United States. The alternate voice works especially well in telling this story as the events in Sara and Emiliano’s two stories are linked in a way that as a reader you realize is on a collision course. Of course, these normally close siblings are facing tough adult decisions, but as often when one wants to mull things over quietly, the two never share their concerns with the other. It’s a classic trope to create tension, but it worked really well in Disappeared. Each of the reasons the siblings have for not confiding in the other as they usually would, are compelling and realistic. There are consequences for both if they confide in the other and neither wants to pull their sibling into their drama. Unfortunately, both realize how their two situations are related, but at that point in the story both siblings are struggling for their lives. It is this realization, however, that pulls them closer and helps them cross the border.

I loved that the majority of the novel was set in Juarez, giving a reader a glimpse of what life is like in Mexico as a result of the cartels. In the novel, Juarez is recovering, slowly, from the damage the cartels left on the city but the corruption and influence the cartels had is still felt in some way. Sara and Emiliano have carved out a comfortable life in Juarez, but we do see a perspective of life from the poorest inhabitants to the richest. We learn about the many different ways the people of Juarez either fought back against the cartels or managed to live with them. Sara and Emiliano are examples of this complexity and this novel highlights how despite a community’s struggle, it still has home and home has meaning. Learning to love Juarez the way Sara and Emiliano do really hits home and hurts when they are forced to leave. It truly is a heartbreaking moment when they realize that they have to leave everything they hold dear because their lives are in danger. With any book, you want the main character to win, but with Disappeared you know that the happy ending both siblings wanted for their lives is over and now they have to start a new, and they are not really happy about it. This subverts the “happy immigrant” trope and really highlights how coming into the United States, specifically crossing the border, is never an easy decision for a person to make.

My only quibble with this novel is that I feel it ended to soon. I felt like Sara and Emiliano’s story was unfinished. I wanted to know if the decision they made (can’t tell because of spoilers) really paid off. I was left wanting more by that ending, but then again, the writer in me enjoyed that their story was practically unfinished because the story of immigration is not a complete story. It is forever changing and where we are in our country’s politics, at a point where compassion and understand for our fellow human beings must be reinforced. Therefore, Disappeared is not a novel about what happens when immigrants arrive in the US, but their story of how and why they come to the US. More of these stories must be told and for that reason, for the chance to live in Sara and Emiliano’s shoes for a brief moment, made this novel worth it.

Interview with Francisco X. Stork on Latinx in Kids Lit site. There is a hint about what is next for Sara and Emiliano – yes!

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork