Book Reviews

Clap When You Land: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth AcevedoCan you be from a place you have never been? Can you claim a home that does not know you, much less claim you as its own? Camino Rios wonders what home really means, what family really means at the end of every summer when her father’s visit to the Dominican Republic ends and he goes back to New York City. Camino wants nothing more than to live with her father and put her apprenticeship to her curandera aunt to good use at Columbia as a pre-med student.

But no matter how many times she asks, Camino is still in the same home she’s always been. It’s not a bad home. They can clean up the mud after a flood, they have a generator when the power goes out, they can pay for Camino’s private school, and Camino’s father keeps her safe even if he can’t be there. But Camino knows none of that is enough to make her dreams a reality.

Can you be from a place you have never been? Can you claim a home that does not know you, much less claim you as its own? Yahaira Rios wonders that every time her mother talks about how happy she is to have emigrated from the Dominican Republic. She wonders more every summer when her father leaves them to visit the DR.

But Yahaira can’t ask either of them. That doesn’t mean that Yahaira doesn’t have a bad life. Her girlfriend lives next door. She’s a sensational chess player. Her mother supports her and her father is there most of the time. Just not every summer. But Yahaira soon realizes all of that isn’t enough to always keep her safe.

When Yano Rios’ place crashes on the way to the Dominican Republic both Camino and Yahaira’s worlds are shaken. Camino has to confront the reality of a world without her father’s influence to protect her, without his money to pay her school tuition. Yahaira is forced to unearth all of the secrets her father kept and what they have meant for her own life.

Can you know a sister you have never met? Can you claim a family that doesn’t know you? As Camino and Yahaira come to terms with their father’s lies and transgressions both girls will have to grieve everything they have lost while they try to understand what they have to gain in Clap When You Land (2020) by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Find it on Bookshop.

Acevedo’s latest novel is written in verse alternating between Camino and Yahaira’s narrations as both girls learn about their father’s crash, begin to grieve, and try to come together. Acevedo cleverly uses different stanza structures to offer some distinction between the two narrations and to powerfully highlight moments of solidarity between the two sisters.

Evocative settings and visceral emotions immediately draw readers into this story of loss and forgiveness. Both girls have benefited, in different ways, from having Yano Rios as a father. And both girls face difference consequences in the aftermath of his death. In the Dominican Republic Camino faces the possibility of having to stop school and dangerous threats from a local pimp her father previously kept at bay. Meanwhile, in New York City, Yahaira is finally confronting her father’s secrets–a burden she has carried for months after finding his second marriage license while searching for a way to reach him in the Dominican Republic after she is sexually assaulted on a crowded subway car.

Clap When You Land pulls no punches as it tells the story of a complicated family with immediacy and care. Hopeful, surprising, thoughtful and highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, Untwine by Edwidge Danticat, Turtle Under Ice by Juleah Del Rosario, Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

Book Reviews

With the Fire on High: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

cover art for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth AcevedoEmoni Santiago knows that when people see her name, they get an idea of the person they’re going to meet — the same way people thought they knew the kind of girl she was when she got pregnant her freshman year at Schomburg Charter High School.

She didn’t want to give away information like that for her daughter. Instead, she explains:

“I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting.”

But even if people who see her as a teen mother think they know her, Emoni knows they don’t see the full picture. They don’t understand that her top priority since Babygirl was born is to be a good mother.

Even with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.

When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.

“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”

Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.

Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart in With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevdo.

Find it on Bookshop.

Author Elizabeth Acevedo’s follow-up to her blockbuster verse-novel debut, The Poet X, is another sensational contemporary story. Broken into three parts, With the Fire on High follows the sour, savory, and bittersweet moments as Emoni moves toward graduation and tries to figure out what’s next both for herself and her family.

Emoni’s first-person narration is frank and introspective. She is confident and secure in who she is and the choices she has made, but she also knows that people may have misconceptions about her as a result — something that the novel explores especially well through Emoni’s rivalry and eventual cautious friendship with her classmate “Pretty Leslie Peterson,” about whom Emoni has her own preconceived notions.

Quick, evocative descriptions bring Emoni’s Philadelphia to life as she moves through her neighborhood, where “the sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet [her]: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows” and beyond to other parts of the city.

While a romance as sweet as any of her desserts unfolds between Emoni and a new student, the core of this story is the found family and support system that Emoni creates for herself and Babygirl — a family that gets even bigger once she is willing to ask for help when she needs it, because, “like Chef Ayden always says, sometimes you need a team to help you.”

With the Fire on High is a delectable confection filled with optimism, humor, and an obvious affection for each and every character — especially Emoni, a heroine readers will not soon forget.

Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Book Reviews

The Poet X: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Poet X by Elizabeth AcevedoXiomara Batista may not know exactly who she is, but she knows who she isn’t. She isn’t the devout, proper girl her traditional Dominican mother expects her to be. She isn’t the genius like her twin brother. She isn’t the quiet girl that her teachers would probably before. And she definitely isn’t whatever it is that the boys and men who catcall her expect either.

Xiomara is tough. She is a fighter. She is unapologetic. She may not believe in god–or at least not enough to complete her communion classes the way her mother wants. She might be falling for a boy for the first time. And, after discovering slam poetry in her English class, she is starting to realize that she is a poet in The Poet X (2018) by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Poet X is Acevedo’s powerful debut (verse) novel. It is also a National Book Award and Printz award winner.

Individual poems come together to tell Xiomara’s story as she journals her way through a tumultuous year in high school as she tries to reconcile expectations placed upon her with the person she wants to become.

Familial conflict is tempered with a sweet romance and Xiomara’s journey from quiet observer to a poet ready to take center stage. Questions of faith and what it means to be devout are also constantly on Xiomara’s mind as she tries (and fails) to be the kind of Catholic girl her mother expects.

The Poet X is a fierce, engaging, feminist story that explores what it means to create and live on your own terms. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, Pride by Ibi Zoboi