Review: Burn Baby Burn

burnTitle: Burn Baby Burn
Author: Meg Medina
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 320
Genre: Historical, Romance
Review Copy: ARC via publisher
Availability: March 8, 2016

Summary: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.

Review: Meg Medina transports readers to one seriously sweltering, tension-filled summer. She created a satsifying sense of place. While reading Burn Baby Burn, I saw 70s New York and could practically feel the sweat dripping down my back. This was particularly amazing since my first read through happened during subfreezing winter temps here in the mid-west. Medina seamlessly wove in details that brought the summer of 1977 to life.

This was a remarkable summer given the presence of a serial killer in the area. The killings certainly added to the intensity of the novel since that part of the book was based on actual events. The inhumanity was horrifying. It was mirrored on a smaller scale though with Nora’s brother as he becomes colder and increasingly cruel towards his family. Nora and her mother don’t tell people outside the family about his bullying and also avoid talking about it among themselves. The worry about embarrassment or losing respectability keeps them silent even with close friends and relatives. This is a common response in the real world and one that could resonate with many readers.

It’s Nora’s senior year and she’s eager to get out and be on her own. The fears and responsibilities are wearing her down. She has no idea how to solve the many problems her family is facing and she is pinning all her hopes on simply escaping. Fortunately, Nora has many people in her life that nudge her toward possibilities. There are two adults in her school encouraging her to go on to college. She has talent for woodworking and fixing things, but has a hard time seeing herself going on to college. The cost, the likely attitudes and prejudice of male classmates, and other hurdles have her doubting. I loved that there are people in her corner reminding her of her strengths and what her future could be if she steps out and believes in herself.

Stiller is another adult nudging Nora and encouraging her to use her strength. I especially appreciated her. She’s a black woman who lives in their apartment building. According to Nora, “Stiller takes absolutely no shit.” She’s an activist with many causes and she has distinct opinions about the feminist movement. In a discussion about an upcoming women’s conference, Stiller “wants to see the needs of black women included or she won’t go. ‘Being oppressed as a woman is just one way of being held down Mary,’ she said.”

Women’s issues come up many times throughout the novel. Nora contemplates her place in the midst of her woodworking classes, how her mother has completely different standards for her and her brother, how men treat her on the street and more. Mary, the Mother of Nora’s best friend Kathleen, is also very invested in the feminist movement. This results in the girls becoming involved even when they aren’t totally sure how they feel about it all. They’re still figuring out what they believe and what is and isn’t important to them.

As with other books Medina has written, the main character is Cuban American. She doesn’t always claim this heritage and is conflicted about the times when she passes or doesn’t speak up in the face of racist comments in her presence. Racial issues are not the only theme in the book, but they are certainly present throughout.

And then there is the romance. Nora and Pablo have a bit of a rocky road, but it’s a satisfying trip. I really enjoyed the mix in this book. The romance is there, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. There’s an excellent balance here between friendship, family, community, romance, racial issues and inner conflict. I almost forgot to mention the music! Nora and Kathleen share a love for dance and disco music. I found myself humming along and wanting to track down some of the tunes.

Recommendation: Get it as soon as you can! Meg Medina is an excellent storyteller. Burn Baby Burn is intense and suspenseful, but also manages to be hopeful. In spite of the many challenges, or maybe because of them, Nora is able to show her strength. I was cheering her on the whole way.

Extras:
Sample Chapter, Author Notes, Discussion Guide via Publisher
A Playlist for Burn Baby Burn
Book Trailer

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Book Review: The Love that Split the World

The Love that Split the WorldTitle: The Love that Split the World
Author: Emily Henry
Genres:  Magical Realism
Pages: 390
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: I should start owning stock in Barnes & Noble
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Natalie Cleary must risk her future and leap blindly into a vast unknown for the chance to build a new world with the boy she loves.

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start… until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

Review: Emily Henry’s debut novel is being marketed as a mix between Friday Night Lights and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and while I haven’t read Friday Night Lights, I did fall in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife so I figured I would most likely enjoy this novel. And I was right. I greatly enjoyed Henry’s novel and found myself lost in the story, trying to discover the mystery of who was Grandmother.

While this novel is being marketed as a romance, I feel like it was more a novel of discovering the self. The story opens with Natalie graduating high school and preparing to leave for Brown University in the fall. She is preparing for her goodbyes from family and friends, yet is also looking forward to beginning a new life. This time of change, for many who decide to go away for school, is a time where you reflect on your life, specifically your high school years, and try to anticipate what your college life will be like. Natalie is going through these emotions, but with an added pressure by her “Grandmother” to save him. Natalie doesn’t know who “he” is, but also learns that “Grandmother” the supernatural being who has been with her, sharing beautiful parables with her throughout her life will also be leaving her. And with that knowledge, Natalie sets out to discover who “Grandmother” really is and what role the old lady plays in her life. Natalie has to look inward, at her past, her childhood, and even look at her heritage, in order to find her answers. To me, this search for self was much more powerful and interesting than the romance. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the romance, but Natalie’s search for understanding herself, understanding her own mind and beginning to take ownership of her ability to manipulate time really connected with me.

Natalie was already on a path of claiming herself and her heritage, she is American Indian and adopted by a White couple, by deciding to forge her own path. Henry did an excellent job portraying the personal tensions that come from when a child is a different heritage from their parents, and she even mentions the complexities of American Indian adoption. I loved that Henry did not pretend that Natalie’s heritage didn’t effect her outlook on life, but that it colored how she viewed her world.  About a year prior to the start of the novel, Natalie has experienced an identity shift where she decides to be true to herself and to stop trying to fit in to a concept of who she should be. She has quit dance and has become more outspoken about many social issues. I think by having Natalie already think about her role in the world and already be on the journey of discovering the self, what she experiences, the growth she undergoes through the novel, helps the reader understand the choice she makes at the end.

One part about this novel I do want to mention is the parables that Grandmother shares with Natalie. Henry did a great job of presenting different types of parables from different American Indian nations and even includes a Biblical parable. Like any elder, the stories Grandmother shares with Natalie not only teach her about different cultures, but also provide lessons and insights into Natalie’s situation, helping her solve the mystery of who Grandmother is and how Natalie needs to save him. Well, not all the parables add to the mystery, sometimes a story is just a story that elders tell to their children, and that is what really endeared me to many of the tories. In her acknowledgements, Henry gave credit to the nation’s stories that she used and it was clear she did proper research.

Recommendation: Overall, I found Henry’s debut very enjoyable and got lost in the story. If you are a fan of time bending romance, this is the book for you.

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Review: A Memory of Light

lightTitle: The Memory of Light
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 325
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But for once, a mistake works out well for her, as she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide, Vicky must try to find the strength to carry on. She may not have it. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

Review: The Memory of Light is compassionate look at Latina teenager Vicky Cruz in the aftermath of her suicide attempt, and it is also a hopeful look at a young woman’s attempt to recover from it. One of the many things I liked about this book was the diversity of its cast—racially and/or ethnically, neurologically, and economically—and how those things inform the world and its characters.

There is no traumatic tipping point for Vicky’s depression, no horrific event she must overcome. And while those stories are important to tell, it is equally important to tell stories where depression seeps into being, where there is no pivotal moment to kickstart a depressive episode, where the protagonist realizes that somewhere along the way her brain has changed the way it works. Some of the most memorable scenes in Memory are Vicky finally being able to describe what her thoughts and feelings are like. Vicky’s slow-building insights into herself, her family, and her school life are equally complicated and honest. Her conversations with her sister and her father are difficult, as is her return to her home and school. Recovery isn’t linear for Vicky, and Memory doesn’t shy away from depicting how taxing it can be to do something as simple as going to class.

The friendships Vicky and the other teens at Lakeview form help all of them share and forge tools to manage their illnesses. Mona, E.M., and Gabriel are all distinct characters with different motivations, family circumstances, and mental health. (I would very much value other reviewers’ opinions on how those mental illnesses were handled as I am less familiar with them and their associated tropes.) While I rather liked Dr. Desai’s character, her professional ethics made me raise an eyebrow several times, particularly since the majority of the breaches were obviously made so Vicky could get the information she needed and move the plot forward.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the climax of the book—much of it seemed rushed and dependent on external peril, in contrast to the quieter, internal focus of the rest of the novel. Several of the characters that I thought could have been important to Vicky’s journey weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, particularly Juanita and Barbara.

Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t wrap everything up with tidy bows; by the end of Memory, all of the Lakeview quartet are in different places, but not all of those places are objectively better. Vicky’s own recovery is a possible, but not certain, thing, though I would term the ending a hopeful one. Stork ensured that Vicky acquired the tools and the start of a support network she needed to be able to continue living.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While The Memory of Light has a few blemishes, it is still a solid effort to depict the aftermath of a suicide attempt and figuring out how to live even when it seems like the effort isn’t worth the cost.

Extras
What I Learned About Depression by Francisco X. Stork

Ten Observations on Depression by Francisco X. Stork

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Review: American Ace

American AceTitle: American Ace
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 123
Review copy: Purchased at local bookstore
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This riveting novel in verse, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Toni Morrison, explores American history and race through the eyes of a teenage boy embracing his newfound identity.

Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.

But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.

Review: 
It’s funny to think about identity,
Dad said. Now I wonder how much of us
we inherit, and how much we create.

Connor and his family go through some soul-searching as they find out their heritage is something other than what they had always believed. We see the unfolding story through Connor’s eyes. His family has suffered the loss of his beloved Nonna and Connor is concerned about his father’s grief and possible depression. Otherwise life had been moving along as expected. Connor spends a lot of time with his dad as he practices driving to get his license. Things become complicated quickly though when Connor’s father explains that he has no idea who his father was. The journey to discover their family history leads them to new ways of thinking about themselves and the society they inhabit. After learning about their more complicated heritage, Connor sees his school in a new way.

I walked between classes in slow motion,
seeing the ancient intertribal wars
still being fought, in the smallest gestures.
Little things I hadn’t noticed before:
the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.

The story is delivered in nine parts containing five vignettes each. These are made up of two twelve line stanzas written in iambic pentameter. I often forget that poetry can be incredibly mathematical. Such a structure makes for extremely deliberate choices. This format meant there wasn’t much room for explanation. Nelson kept things tight. I appreciate that and so will readers looking for something quick yet meaningful. I almost always enjoy a novel in verse. I like the way Nelson delivers small packages of information and makes every word count. The titles are even important.

In part seven, the text shifts a bit and becomes a paper for Connor’s Honors History class. This brought in something I really appreciated. Photos of airmen from WWII are included every few pages. These added a lot to the story. With the photos, the pilots became something more than history. They became individuals with lives and stories of their own. In the author’s note, Nelson explains about the information for Connor’s report, “I did not invent any of the facts Connor learns….That part of the story is true. And still amazing.”

One thing did shake me out of the story a bit. The setting appears to be the present day since Connor uses google and his father has rapid DNA testing. With Connor being a teen, it seems a little strange that his grandfather is old enough to have been a pilot in WWII. My grandfather fought in the war and my children are older than Connor. It sort of works because Connor’s father has a child and grandchildren from a previous relationship so he was not young when he had Connor. It made me do some math though because it seemed difficult to believe.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of verse novels or enjoy historical novels and want something quick. Otherwise, borrow it someday. I truly enjoyed the book, but if I were recommending Nelson’s poetry, I would first hand someone A Wreath for Emmett Till and How I Discovered Poetry.

Extra: Warning – the following interview reveals their family heritage. I tried not to do that here since the publisher’s summary didn’t. If you want to know precisely what history this book explores though, please read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with author

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Book Review: Untwine

untwineTitle: Untwine
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 320
Publisher: Scholastic
Review Copy: Support your local library!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Giselle Boyer and her identical twin, Isabelle, are as close as sisters can be. They are each other’s strongest source of support even as their family life seems to be unraveling and their parents are considering divorce. Then the Boyers have a tragic encounter that will shatter everyone’s world forever.

Giselle wakes up in a hospital room, injured and unable to speak or move. She doesn’t know what’s happened to her sister, to her family, to herself. Trapped in the prison of her own body, Giselle must revisit her past in order to understand how the people closest to her—her friends, her parents, and above all, Isabelle—have shaped and defined her. Will she allow her love for her family and friends to buoy her and lead her on the path to recovery? Or will she remain lost in a painful spiral of longing and regret?

Review: Much talk has been made, erroneously, that YA literature  is not literary enough and for all those folks, I’d suggest they pick up Untwine as Danticat’s novel is the epitome of a moving literary character study novel. It is the story of sisterhood, tragedy, family and ultimately healing. The writing is very chewy, like enjoying a gourmet meal.

While I ultimately enjoyed the novel and was moved by the story, the pacing was a little slow and the beginning, due to the structure of the novel, took a bit to get to. The novel begins with the accident that lends Giselle in the hospital and her time in the hospital. However, because Giselle is in a coma like state, the first quarter of the novel is spent in her mind, which creates a sort of stream of consciousness feel to the novel. That is also when we experience Giselle and Isabelle’s relationship as Giselle spends much of her coma reflecting on the past. She is able to see and hear her doctor and her family members, but she can’t interact with them. And because of that, it seems for the first part of the novel, there is very little movement within the plot and I can understand how some readers would be thrown off by that. Since I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness stories, I will admit that I struggled a bit and was concerned that the novel would be entirely in this style. It isn’t and the plot begins to move forward when Giselle finally wakes up.

It is at that point that the novel focuses on dealing with loss and the eventual steps towards healing. It is also when I fully began to connect with Giselle. I will fully admit that I cried during Isabelle’s funeral as Danticat fully tapped into the pain and sense of loss that Giselle’s entire family was feeling, but more so with Giselle who feels like she has lost a part of herself, a part of her identity. Giselle also struggles with survivors guilt as she also has to come to terms with a life without her sister. She even questions her existence because if her twin is dead, is she still a twin? This existential question that Giselle faces (and the title of the book alludes to) is what makes this novel such an interesting literary character study. And ultimately, what makes this a good read.

Even though I struggled to get into the story, I was deeply moved by the end and even shed a few tears. To me, if a novel brings actual tears to my eyes, then the author has done an excellent job of connecting me to the characters, making me think, but most importantly making me feel. It is the ability to make my heart wrench of her characters is why I love Danticat’s writing and was so excited for this novel. And I was definitely satisfied.

Lastly, on a completely shallow note, I absolutely adore the cover. It is just absolutely beautiful.

Recommendation: If you are a fan of literary character study novels, this is the book for you.

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Review: Juniors

JuniorsTitle:  Juniors
Author: Kaui Hart Hemmings
Genres: contemporary, romance
Pages: 320
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Availability: September 22nd, 2015

Summary: Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. Part Hawaiian, part Mainlander. Perpetual new girl at school. Hanging in the shadow of her actress mother’s spotlight. And now: new resident of the prominent West family’s guest cottage.

Bracing herself for the embarrassment of being her classmates’ latest charity case, Lea is surprised when she starts becoming friends with Will and Whitney West instead—or in the case of gorgeous, unattainable Will, possibly even more than friends. And despite their differences, Whitney and Lea have a lot in common: both are navigating a tangled web of relationships, past disappointments and future hopes. As things heat up with Will, and her friendship with Whitney deepens, Lea has to decide how much she’s willing to change in order to fit into their world. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Juniors is pretty much the perfect spring fling type of book. It’s the kind of book I’d expect to read when the weather’s warm, the sun’s out, and I’m chilling outside.It’s a book filled with luxury, surfing, romance, and, well, more surfing.

The heroine of Juniors, Lea Lane, moves to Hawaii for the last half of her junior year of high school with her actress-on-the-rise single mother. At the start, Lea’s having a hard time adjusting to her new school, setting down roots and making friends. When her mother gets invited by her rich friends to move into their cottage, Lea strikes up a friendship with the friend’s daughter Whitney and starts crushing on Whitney’s brother Will.

Throughout the book, you get a combination of Lea’s life in Hawaii — local culture, beach houses, trekking to the ocean — and her inner struggles. Like any teenager, she’s struggling to figure out who she is, how she fits in, and who her friends are. Her awkwardness, snarky remarks, and her hot-and-cold relationship with her mother were vividly depicted. Lea’s voice is strong throughout the book.

At times, her voice felt a little too real. Lea is certainly not perfect. She has insecurities a-plenty, including ones where she cringes at being thought of less than her rich friends, or viewed as like a maid or a foster child (hello, classism). She regards places that are frequented by locals as kind of sketch, and, like her peers, makes offensive jokes. It was hard to tell whether this was meant to show Lea as a realistic and flawed teen, or meant to be read surface-level (yikes).

Once you move past that — which can be kind of tough — it’s an enjoyable journey with Lea. The book left me wanting to head out to the beach, enjoy the sunset, and live life. The strength of Juniors mostly centers on Lea and her mother, which is one of the best mother-daughter relationships I’ve read in a while.

Ultimately, Juniors was a fun read. Check it out if you want a mostly-light read to pass the time!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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