Review: Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

open micTitle:  Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices
Editor: Mitali Perkins
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 127
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: ARC
Availability: September 10, 2013

 

 

 

Summary: Listen in as ten YA authors — some familiar, some new — use their own brand of humor to share their stories about growing up between cultures. Henry Choi Lee discovers that pretending to be a tai chi master or a sought-after wiz at math wins him friends for a while — until it comically backfires. A biracial girl is amused when her dad clears seats for his family on a crowded subway in under a minute flat, simply by sitting quietly in between two uptight white women. Edited by acclaimed author and speaker Mitali Perkins, this collection of fiction and nonfiction uses a mix of styles as diverse as their authors, from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, ironic, or poingnant, in prose, poetry, and comic form. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Take a moment to admire the cover. Go on. Cute, isn’t it?

Open Mic is an anthology with a colorful mix of stories in different mediums. Gene Luen Yang discusses the problematic casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender movie using comics to tell his story. G. Neri lays out a cultural map of Berlin using a blend of humor and free verse poetry to describe a multi-cultural family in a place not quite ready for diversity. Debbie Rigaud creates a snapshot of the relationship between Simone and her great-aunt Ma Tante.

One story in particular stood out to me: Mitali Perkins’ story gave me a glimpse of her teenage life. The story centers around Mitali and her two sisters playing the Game of Guys and being perfectly comfortable with who they were. Recognizing Mitali in her own story, I realized how personal each of the stories in Open Mic were. The autobiographical thread running through the short stories and poems is a story in itself. The story told is, like the title says, a story of life between cultures.

My main complaint is that of length. Only ten stories? The last work, Naomi Shihab Nye’s gorgeous poem “Lexicon,” left me wishing Open Mic would continue on. The value in this sort of anthology is that it’s so rare — an anthology written about and by people who have actually experienced life between cultures. These are voices that need to be heard. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ten voices, there were hundreds? Thousands? Here’s hoping many more such anthologies will follow.

Recommendation: Get it soon or borrow it from the library when it comes out.

Share

Review: When You Where Here

hereTitle: When You Were Here
Author: Daisy Whitney
Genres: Contemporary, Literature
Pages: 257
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Won from C.J. Omololu’s Book Giveaway
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Danny’s mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.

Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn’t know how to figure out what to do with her estate, what to say for his Valedictorian speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore.

When he gets a letter from his mom’s property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother’s memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died. (from Amazon)

Review: In a literary landscape where fantasy and dystopian novels are best sellers, it is nice to have a quiet novel. A novel that explores the human condition in a beautiful, yet understated way. A novel that allows the reader to connect with a character as he or she grows and comes to understand meaning in the small things in life. “When You Were Here” is such a novel that examines life after a loved one succombs to cancer. It’s a beautiful story that explores grief and then finding acceptance after death.

What I really liked about this novel is the fact that this touching story is told from a male’s perspective. Having a male narrator/main character in YA literature is somewhat of a rarity and I enjoyed reading Danny’s discovery of the last few months of his mother’s life, especially her time in Japan. Danny is unflinchingly honest about his feelings – his anger that his mother wasn’t able to see him graduate from high school, his love for his ex-girlfriend Holland –  as he works through the stages of grief and in the end discovers himself. By learning to be honest with himself, he learns how to ask the questions he needs from the people who knew his mother and to be honest with Holland. I loved the fact that the character’s spoke to each other instead of a book filled with misunderstandings. It was clear that Danny had a healthy relationship with his mother, told through touching flashbacks, that helped him become the young man who is able to handle becoming an orphan at the age of 18. His maturity doesn’t seem forced, in that children with ill parents are often much more mature than their counterparts. It is because of this attention to character detail that makes Danny feel very real and relatable.

Last week I wrote about creating diverse worlds, even when having main characters who are Caucasian, as “When You Were Here” does. I wasn’t even thinking about this novel when I wrote the article, but the world Danny lives in is a perfect example of a diverse world. The novel begins in Los Angeles and Whitney makes sure to make Danny’s world a reflection of the multicultural city that is Los Angeles. I was definitely able to relate to the city presented in this novel because it is the world I live in. When the novel moves to Tokyo, Whitney doesn’t treat the city as a novelty, but as a real place where people live and work. In fact, Danny loves Tokyo and that love is clearly presented. Danny doesn’t view Tokyo with a tourist’s wonder, but as a citizen of the city and in the end, he calls it home. I do not know whether Whitney actually visited Japan, but she definitely completed thorough research into local customs, beliefs, language as well as most likely asked the right questions about Japanese culture. Her careful attention shows the respect it takes when writing another culture when one is the other and I commend her for it.

While I didn’t read this by the beach, “When You Were Here” is beach reading material and the perfect companion for summer.

Share

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.

Share

Review: Prophecy

prophecyTitle: Prophecy
Author: Ellen Oh
Pages: 312
Genre: fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: library
Availability: January 2, 2013

Summary: Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope… Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king. [Summary and image via Goodreads]

Review: When I read the little blurb on the cover (“One girl will save us all.”), I couldn’t help hearing Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender’s voiceover. Prophecy, like Avatar, is pretty epic. And like Avatar, world-building is definitely one of its strengths.

The fantasy setting of Prophecy is a refreshing change from the usual dime-a-dozen medieval European setting. Prophecy is set in Hansong, which is inspired by ancient Korea. Hansong, as one of seven kingdoms, is drawn into conflict with other nations such as Yamato when the demons begin to invade. With the heroine Kira as cousin to the prince of Hansong, you get to see the royal court at work. The only issue I had was with the politics, which was a little overwhelming at first, but once I got into the story, I figured it out.  From the setting to the tone, Prophecy has a rock solid setting for Kira’s journey.

Kira herself is fantastic. It’s always great to see a heroine at the center of an epic fantasy. The plot — fulfill the prophecy! find magical treasures! — is nothing new, but Kira brings it to life with her spirit and determination as she fights to protect the prince and the kingdom. And I love the addition of the trusty dog Jindo. Every quest needs an adorable (and surprisingly clever) dog along for the ride.

With its tightly written fantasy setting and fierce heroine, Prophecy is a great addition to the fantasy genre. I look forward to reading the sequel next year.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you love fantasy.

Share

Review: The Eternity Cure

eternityBefore I get to the nuts and bolts of my review, I must give a loud Thank You to Julie Kagawa. Thank You Julie for making vampires scary again. Your vampires are ruthless and deadly and snarky and a reminder of why vampires have always been popular. Also, Thank You for having a female Asian character in Allison who completely kicks butt. And lastly, Thank You for making her the vampire, hereby ending the “vampire guy/human girl love story” trope.

Obviously, based on my praise for Julie’s vampires, specifically Allison, I loved The Eternity Cure. I ended up reading the first book of the series in order to understand Kagawa’s world, and really loved “The Immortal Rules”, hence my expectations for “Eternity Cure” were very high. Kagawa didn’t disappoint in this sequel of what I believe will be either an amazing trilogy or an intense series. In fact, I hope it’s a trilogy because I don’t know if my heart can take another punch like it did at the end of Eternity Cure…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What makes Eternity Cure such a fantastic read is primarily the work Kagawa puts in creating her characters. Allison Sekemoto is a tough, Katana wielding heroine who has learned to fight for survival. In this second book, the readers continue with Allison as she learns how to balance being a vampire yet still hold on to her humanity. Kagawa’s world is very dark, very self-serving, yet Allison manages to be a bright spot, showing compassion towards both humans and vampires. She is easy to relate to as she makes some hard decisions and struggles with her loyalty to her sire, Kanin, and her desire for Zeke. Speaking of Zeke, the romance between him and Allison does not overpower the main storyline, but is understated, given weight at appropriate moments, specifically when they are not fighting for their lives. Another plus I have to give Kagawa in writing the romance between Allison and Zeke is the fact that Allison is not a passive participant in the relationship – at all. She doesn’t always wait for Zeke to make the first move, many times initiating affection. I found the portrayal of their relationship realistic instead of the passive girl/aggressive boy trope that pervades some many novels. More YA novels need to have this healthy view of relationships and I’m thankful that Kagawa was able to weave such a portrayal in an otherwise dark story.

If you haven’t read either “The Immortal Rules” or “The Eternity Cure”, stop what you are doing (after leaving a comment below first) and run to your nearest bookstore (support your local bookstore) and buy these books! I promise, you will not be disappointed.

Share

Mini-review: What’s Left of Me

what's left of meTitle: What’s Left of Me
Author: Kat Zhang
Pages: 343
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Publisher: Harper
Review Copy: library (that beautiful place)
Availability: September 18, 2012

(image from Goodreads)

Instead of a book summary, have a book trailer!

Review: Though science-fiction/dystopian isn’t really my cup of tea, I’ve been trying to read more of it lately — and enjoying it. What’s Left of Me is a fast-paced story with a sort of Golden Compass feel to it, what with the double souls and the dark hospital experiments. The world-building in the book is tight and fascinating. The book’s treatment of foreigners in the non-hybrid Americas was interesting, and reminded me of the controversy around immigration reform that’s happening today. It’s easy to fall into the world of Addie and Eva, though I wish some more of the national history had been elaborated on. I got the feeling that the history that was hinted on in the book was only the tip of the iceberg. Overall, it was an entertaining read and definitely worth the time.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re a big fan of The Golden Compass.

Annnd here’s a video of the author (!!) Kat Zhang reading from her book:

 

Share