A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Find it on Bookshop.

This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Anna K.: A Love Story: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sometimes people can’t help but make poor choices and hurt the ones they love, I guess.”

Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny LeeAnna K. is an It Girl–maybe even the It Girl–in both Manhattan and Greenwich’s upper echelons. She is popular and always in demand despite preferring the company of horses and her show-winning Newfoundland dogs to people. She has impeccable style, effortless beauty, and the perfect boyfriend.

She also can’t stop thinking about Alexia Vronsky–the sexy AF playboy she meets during a chance encounter at Grand Central. Anna and Alexia seem to be proof that opposites attract. But is lust at first sight enough to form a lasting relationship? More importantly, is it enough for Anna to throw away the reputation she’s spent years building? in Anna K.: A Love Story (2020) by Jenny Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Anna K.: A Love Story is a sexy, modern retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The story centers half-Korean-American, half-white Anna and her totally scandalous attraction to Alexia alongside simultaneous plots following Anna’s brother Steven and his longtime girlfriend Lolly as well as Steven’s tutor and childhood friend, Dustin, who is smart, not rich, and hopelessly infatuated with Lolly’s younger sister Kimmie. If that list of characters seems overwhelming, don’t worry. There’s a handy list of characters at the beginning of the book to help you keep track.

Lee infuses her spin on Tolstoy’s classic with obvious affection for the source material as illustrated in her author’s note at the end of the book. Instead of a straight retelling Lee uses the original framework of Anna Karenina to reinterpret a familiar story and add a unique spin especially with the agency Anna has to shape her own path here.

Lolly–a surprisingly self-aware social climber who knows she is “money pretty” and works hard for every scrap of praise she receives–and Kimmie–another effortless beauty like Anna who struggles as she realizes being pretty and rich isn’t always enough to make things easy–provide interesting counterpoints and contrasts to Anna’s story.

This book does a lot of things well–especially with Anna, Lolly, and Kimmie’s characters. But I also want to talk about something that wasn’t handled well: There is some racially insensitive language in the story coming from both characters and the third person narrator without any interrogation (or teachable moment) in the text. These issues appear on page197 in the hardcover where one characters describes herself as a stepsister “which is even lower on the totem pole than a half sibling” and on page 227 where Anna’s friends surround her at a party “like a wagon circle in the early frontier days.” In both instances the book leans into Native American stereotypes and cultural appropriation. I have spoken with the editor about this and can confirm that these issues will be addressed and corrected in future printings of the book.

Anna K.: A Love Story is a splashy, often sensational story that plays out against lavish and luxurious settings in New York City and beyond. The characters, much like the plot itself, are sometimes messy and oddly endearing as they muddle through first love, breakups, and a fair bit of sex and casual drug use.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin; Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi; City Love by Susane Colasanti; Together We Caught Fire by Eva V. Gibson; Picture Us In the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert; The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen; Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegesar

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Daisy Jones & The Six: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“History is what you did, not what you almost did, not what you thought about doing.”

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins ReidDaisy Jones is a lot of things. By now, you’ve probably heard a few.

She’s the daughter of well-known British painter Frank Jones and French model Jeanne LeFevre. She became an It girl without really trying in the 1960s. In the 1980s a colored-contact company even created a shade called Daisy Blue inspired by her eyes. She was known for wearing hoop earrings and bangles up her arm. It was her chest on that album cover.

Yes, she’s inspired a few men along the way. But that’s not the important part. Daisy is never going to be a muse. She’s never going to do what anyone else wants. She’s the somebody. End of story.

And sure, The Six were already on the rise by the time Daisy came on the scene. How could they be anything else with lead man Billy Dunne writing hits and making a mark with his brother Graham and talented band members like Karen Karen?

But can anyone argue that The Six got so much bigger after Daisy joined? Would their sophomore album Aurora have defined rock and roll for a generation if Daisy hadn’t written every song alongside Billy?

Daisy and Billy were always going to be stars. Daisy Jones & The Six was always going to be a sensation. But it was only after the band’s mysterious breakup in 1979 that any of them became legends in Daisy Jones & The Six (2019) by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Find it on Bookshop.

Written as an oral history Daisy Jones & The Six is formatted with transcripts from characters speaking with a largely unidentified interviewer who is trying to understand the band’s meteoric rise and abrupt breakup.

The oral history format is used to excellent effect highlighting distinct character voices while offering surprisingly insightful plot details through artful dialog and anecdotal accounts.

The writing, from a sentence level onward, is masterful with each of the many  characters having a cadence while recounting events leading up to the novel’s dramatic conclusion. In other words: Daisy Jones & The Six is what an ensemble cast in a book should look like.

Through Daisy and Billy readers see what it means to be a creator and to work in collaboration. The ramifications of choice loom large throughout the novel as characters face not just hard decisions but the consequences that come with them. It’s easy to want to be a good person or create good art. It’s much harder, it turns out, to make the decisions required to actually be good.

Daisy Jones & The Six is a phenomenal novel about art, friendship, and the power that comes with choosing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Haters by Jesse Andrews, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon, Exile by Kevin Emerson, How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Sadie by Courtney Summers

The Fashion Committee: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Find something that makes your heart sing and your brain expand, and let it carry you past all the ugliness and low spots.”

“Measuring someone is borderline invasive. You have to touch them and record their physical presence in the world. It’s a pretty specific way to understand someone.”

Charlie Dean lives and breathes fashion and she strives for style in all things. John Thomas-Smith is a metal sculptor and he could not care less about clothes. They have one thing in common: they desperately want the chance to attend the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design on full scholarship.

When Green Pastures announces that this year’s scholarship will be awarded to a fashion design student, Charlie thinks the stars have finally aligned to make her dreams come true. John, meanwhile, is disappointed that the scholarship isn’t for metalwork but he also knows that fashion is a joke. How hard can faking his way into the competition really be?

Charlie and John have nothing in common except for art and ambition. They are both determined to win and they won’t let anything stand in their way. Not a soul-killing job at Salad Stop or an unsympathetic girlfriend. Not a dad’s girlfriend’s drug-addicted ex-boyfriend. And definitely not a very minor case of kidnapping.

Two very different artists. One life changing competition. And only one winner in The Fashion Committee (2017) by Susan Juby.

Find it on Bookshop.

Although set in the same world as The Truth Commission, Juby’s latest novel is a standalone contemporary with an entirely new cast of characters (and illustrations by Soleil Ignacio).

This epistolary novel features alternating chapters from Charlie and John’s fashion journals written over the course of the competition. Charlie’s sections each start with one of her signature bright ideas (“Dress for the life you want!”) while John’s sections finish with quotes from the fashion industry and his own scathing indictments. Although Charlie and John often share physical space, their narratives have little overlap as the plot focuses on their own paths through the competition from developing their concepts and designing their garments to the final fashion show.

Juby introduces two very different characters in The Fashion Committee. Charlie Dean has been curating and shaping her own persona from a very young age. She values fashion above most else and she believes in deliberate sartorial choices to create a facade to present to the world. Charlie uses that facade to offset some of the things she’d prefer to forget like her father’s struggle with drug addiction. John, meanwhile, considers himself a straight shooter with a hard knock upbringing. He is very aware of the privileges of those around him (especially those attending Green Pastures) but turns a blind eye to his own good fortune being raised by two loving and conscientious grandparents. Despite their differing opinions of fashion (and almost everything else), Charlie and John’s journeys mirror each other well with a variety of ups, downs, and even a littler romance for both protagonists.

Charlie and John both have to deal with some stereotypes and preconceptions about themselves and, through meeting the unique group of students competing in the fashion show, they also learn to acknowledge their own biases. Does everything go perfectly in The Fashion Committee? No. Not even with Charlie’s efforts to impose beauty and positivity on the world through sheer force of will or John’s deliberate choice to always expect the worst.

The Fashion Committee is a thoughtful novel about fashion, privilege, and perspective where Charlie and John learn to appreciate what they have and also strive to get what they deserve. A must-read for fashionistas of all levels of expertise and anyone who seeking a book that will leave them laughing. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall by Seph Lawless, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Flannery by Lisa Moore, Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1 by Hope Nicholson (editor), Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, D. V. by Diana Vreeland, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Be sure to check out my interview with Susan about this book too!

Saint Death: A Review

“Each of us dies the death he is looking for.”

“Don’t worry where you’re going, you’ll die where you have to.”

Saint Death by Marcus SedgwickArturo is scraping by living in Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack but America feels distant compared to his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel who have carved Juarez into their own sections of territory.

Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the thousand dollars he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera but as with most card games, things don’t go according to plan.

Looming over Arturo’s story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte–Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. The outcome doesn’t really matter, everyone comes to her in the end in Saint Death (2017) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

To call Saint Death ambitious would be a gross understatement. This slim novel complicates a deceptively simple story about one young man and uses it as a lens to examine the world on a much larger scale.

Arturo’s story, as related by an omniscient third person narrator, alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico and Juarez specifically including The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself.

The formatting and language Saint Death underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish. There are no italics for Spanish words and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish language conventions with double punctuation for question marks and exclamation points (one at either end of the sentence) and no quotation marks for dialogue which is instead indicated with dashes.

Saint Death is simultaneously an absorbing, heart-wrenching read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. Eerily timely and prescient this ambitious story is both a masterful piece of literature and a cautionary tale. Add this to your must-read list now. Highly recommended.

If you want to know more about some of what’s mentioned in the book and a bit about Sedgwick’s writing process, be sure to check out his blog posts about the book as well.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough,The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle,The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Finding Mr. Brightside: A Review

Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay ClarkAbram and Juliette have circled each other for a while the way people do when they go to the same school and live down the street from each other. Their lives only become inextricably linked when Abram’s father and Juliette’s mother die. In a car crash. Together.

In the wake of the crash Abram and Juliette are both left reeling with grief and confusion over their parents’ affair and sudden deaths. With few other coping mechanisms in sight Abram ends up on anti-depressants while Juliette self-medicates with Adderall.

They never should have been friends. Except Abram likes Juliette and decides to say hello to her at CVS. No one is more surprised than Juliette when she agrees to go with Abram to Taco Bell. That’s when what starts as a tenuous friendship might turn into something neither of them saw coming in Finding Mr. Brightside (2015) by Jay Clark.

Finding Mr. Brightside alternates between Abram’s and Juliette’s first person narration.

Because this book is so slim (224 pages, hardcover), much of the plot and character development is pushed off page with very little foundation to support the relationship between the two main characters. The plot also moves very abruptly from their first meeting to going off on a five day vacation together.

Juliette and Abram are both damaged, honest characters. Abram comes off as a likable slacker while Juliette is brittle and high-strung. Unfortunately they are also both thinly drawn beyond those key traits.

Juliette is particularly problematic. While her quirks and fears come from a very authentic place, the portrayal is fundamentally flawed. Every time Juliette contemplates her sexuality, even vaguely, she refers to herself as a whore. Furthermore, in asking Abram if he is attracted to another girl, Juliette repeatedly refers to a girl (a character referred to but never seen) as “that Asian.” With the proper treatment, both behaviors can have their place in fiction. Unfortunately they are presented here without further comment and serve only to leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth.

Finding Mr. Brightside is a fast and sometimes sweet story. It is also not a romance in the truest sense. What this story is–and what it does well, flaws aside–is focus on the recovery process accompanying a tragic loss and the people that can help others move past those dark moments.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Last Night at the Circle Cinema by Emily Franklin, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Rx by Tracy Lynn, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp, How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

*An advance copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher*

Blank Confession: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Blank Confession by Pete HautmanBlank Confession (2010) by Pete Hautman

Shayne Blank doesn’t expect to make friends or even really get to know anyone when he comes to town. Then he walks into the police station to confess to a murder. Shayne’s confession is woven with a narrative from the perspectives of Shayne’s newest (most well-dressed) friend Mikey and the world weary detective interviewing Shayne.

The story here has good writing as well as an intriguing premise. Unfortunately that does not make for a good book in this case. Mikey, who narrates most of the story, is a caricature at best with his pipsqueak persona and suit-wearing style. The phrasing throughout the novel verges on the absurd with motorcycles being referred to as “crotch rockets” at least three times, among other atrocities.

Shayne is an under-developed character. Readers learn more about him in the last chapter than they do in the entire rest of the novel. While the idea is sound, and the story is short making it potentially great for reluctant readers, the characters drag this book down. The premise of a high school bully having the capacity to menace an entire town quickly wears thin as do the stunningly flat female character (because yes, there is only one).

Rx: A review

Rx by Tracy LynnI make no claims that this book shows the “real” life of teens or sensationalizes the less-than-dramatic reality. I simply don’t know. What I can say is that Rx (2005) by Tracy Lynn is very timely. Last December, for example, there were numerous news stories detailing the pressures teens face to be perfect and pretty and fun while making it all look easy. This book offers one explanation of how some teens do that.

Thyme Gilcrest goes to a competitive high school in a rich suburban neighborhood. It’s senior year and she is jockeying for position among the top 20 of her class–a coveted spot that Thyme can barely cling to despite hours of work each night. This all changes when Thyme gets a hold of some Ritalin to treat her self-diagnosed ADHD. Suddenly she can focus and life is good. Then her friends find out about the drug and start asking her to get other “cure alls” for them.

Lynn writes this story in matter-of-fact, concise prose. Narrated by Thyme, the story never offers judgment on the druggies, dealers and misfits that populate its pages. Instead, Lynn is simply setting down the facts as she knows them (read the afterward to see why the story is important to her) to offer up a cautionary tale about the hazards of prescription drug abuse and dealing.

The prose here is arresting. After the first pages I was hooked. Thyme’s commentary is sardonic and caustic–an appealing combination. At the same time, her story is painful to read as Thyme describes her let-downs and her own shortcomings. Despite that, the middle begins to drag as Thyme transitions from user to dealer. However, Lynn will throw in a trick now and then to surprise you.

Stylistically, this novel isn’t overly exceptional. It’s what I would term a “gimmick” novel–trying to cash in on the popularity (for lack of a better word) of the issue of prescription drug abuse in high schools.

The novel also deals with the world of privileged teens: kids whose parents have enough money that they are never home and leave their children with a bit too much free reign in their absence. The term “latch key children” might also come to mind. In a world where family dinners don’t happen as often as they used to, perhaps it’s not surprising to see more and more novels focusing on “latch key teens.”

Part of me wants to do more research on the subject to see if prescription drugs are really that available to random teenagers but, as with most things, I think it depends on the teen and the location. For my part, I had a nagging sense that the novel was overstating the problem or perhaps focusing on a more suburban phenomenon (although Meg Cabot’s new novel Jinx which is set in New York City briefly touches upon this issue as well). Perhaps I’m the only one who didn’t know how to go about getting illegal substances as a teen (and still doesn’t) and had no desire to.

At any rate, Rx is an interesting look at the burdens of overachievers even if the novel might leave you with more of a nagging feeling than a completely satisfied one.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, The New Rules of High School by Blake Nelson, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp