Mini-Review: If You Could Be Mine

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Title: If You Could Be Mine By Author: Sara Farizan
Pages: 256
Genre: contemporary, romance, LGBTQ
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Review Copy: Netgalley
Availability: August 20, 2013

Summary: In this stunning debut, a young Iranian American writer pulls back the curtain on one of the most hidden corners of a much-talked-about culture.

Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love—Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed if their relationship came to light.

So they carry on in secret—until Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage. Nasrin tries to persuade Sahar that they can go on as they have been, only now with new comforts provided by the decent, well-to-do doctor Nasrin will marry. But Sahar dreams of loving Nasrin exclusively—and openly.

Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. As a man, Sahar could be the one to marry Nasrin. Sahar will never be able to love the one she wants, in the body she wants to be loved in, without risking her life. Is saving her love worth sacrificing her true self? — Cover image and summary from Goodreads

My Thoughts: Sahar speaks from the heart and won my own heart in the process. Sahar and Nasrin are in such a difficult position, but Sahar refuses to give up without even trying. She looks for ways to change her situation with courage and hope.

I appreciated reading a book set in Iran. Sadly, I did not know many details about life in Iran. Readers certainly won’t become experts, but will at least have a picture in their head of Iranian people beyond what they may have seen on the news.

If You Could Be Mine presents a complicated romance and the coming of age of two young women.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Take advantage of this chance to meet Sahar and the people she loves.

Extras:
Interview with Sara Farizan

Book Review: Long Division

long divisinoTitle: Long Division
Author: Keise Laymon
Genres: Literature/Contemporary
Pages: 267
Publisher: Bolden
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: On shelves now

 
I’m a Doctor Who fan, but I will admit that the timey-wimey stuff often gets me confused. I loved time-travel stories but I’m usually left scratching my head at the end because I just can’t make it work the linear way my mind wants me to. This feeling, this confusion, is what I had at the end of Keise Laymon’s debut novel. This is not a reflection on him as a writer, but everything on me as the reader.

 
While I was reading the novel, I enjoyed the adventures of the two main characters, both named City Coldson, but divided by 28 years. Long Division is a novel within a novel, and I wondered at the end if 1985 City was real, and not a character in a novel, or if 2013 City was real and not a character in a novel. I really hope that sentence makes sense, but if it doesn’t, that’s the complexity that is Long Division. The ending is a bit vague with the answers, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. I’d like to think both City Coldsons were real, but that would mean…oh my…*scratches head*

 
Moving on, Long Division is a novel about teenagers making sense of the racial inequalities in their world, as well as learning to be responsible for one’s actions, both positive and negative. Because it is a novel with time travel in it, the reader experiences life in 1964, 1985, and 2013. Making each of these time periods distinct, and the characters interactions during each of the time periods, is what Laymon does best. For example, I was a tween in 1985, therefore a number of the references 1985 City makes, how he speaks, is very true to the time period. Conversely, 2013 City reads just like one of my students. Laymon does a good job capturing the myriad of thoughts teenagers will have in a given moment.  This oftentimes led to some hilarious inner monologues and exchanges from both of the young men. Both 1985 City’s and 2013 City’s section are given to the reader in first person, so we are privy to the boys mixture of deep and mundane thoughts. And just like regular teens, these thoughts can go from deep to mundane in the blink of an eye. It was usually at those moments that I laughed the most.

 
The novel takes place over a series of days, but both 1985 City and 2013 City make the transition from boys to men in that short period of time, coming to understand the complexity of the effects of one’s decision and how it can have a lasting impact. I won’t give it away, but there is a moment towards the end where 1985 City has to make a decision that no adult would want, but he handles it with a maturity and grace that is absolutely beautiful.

 
Lastly, Long Division is not a novel where you can sit back and relax. You have to pay attention; notice the social commentary that Laymon drops subtly all throughout the novel. It is a very different type of Young Adult novel, but is one that teens are capable of finding, discussing, and examining the deeper meanings behind the words presented on the page. It is a novel that respects the teenage mind, while challenging them at the same time.

 

Recommendation: Get It Soon

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.

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.

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.

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.