Starfish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Starfish by Akemi Dawn BowmanAll of Kiko Himura’s hopes are pinned on getting accepted to Prism–her dream art school. At Prism Kiko knows that it won’t matter that she’s half-Japanese and knows barely anything about her own culture. She won’t need to regret her failed relationships with her brothers. She’ll be able to get away from her mother who is alternately suffocating and neglectful. Best of all, Kiko knows that at Prism she’ll finally be understood the way she always used to be by her childhood best friend, Jamie.

After Prism rejects her, Kiko is forced to consider other options–especially when her abusive uncle moves into the house and makes life even more unbearable. When Kiko and Jamie meet up at a party, Kiko jumps at the improbable chance to tour art schools with him on the west coast. Along the way Kiko will learn how to be brave and and let herself be heard while understand that sometimes second choices can lead to second chances in Starfish (2017) by Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Starfish is Bowman’s debut novel and a finalist for YALSA’s 2018 Morris Award.

This is a quiet and deliberate novel. Kiko knows better than most that words have weight thanks to what happened when she spoke out about her uncle’s abuse and also from the methodical way Kiko’s mother uses them to break her down. Kiko’s visions of vivid sketches and lavish paintings are interspersed throughout Starfish helping Kiko give voice to her emotions when she doesn’t feel strong enough to share them herself.

While Kiko’s strained relationship with her mother and her uncle’s abuse are key factors in Starfish, the main story here is Kiko’s growth and resilience as she begins to realize she has more options than she ever imagined.

Starfish is both heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful as Kiko comes into her own and discovers her own strength. Evocative settings and an obvious love for art are imbued in this story along with a subtle romance. Kiko is an empowering heroine readers will immediately want to cheer on. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany Schmidt, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Hate U Give: A Rapid Fire Review

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

If I had to pick a defining book of 2017 it would be this one. Thomas’ debut novel has received numerous stars (more than I even knew existed). It has also been selected a finalist for both the National Book Award and The William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Thomas’s debut is one of several very timely and much needed books about social justice and specifically shining a light on the Black Lives Matter movement. It will also soon be a movie with Amandla Stenberg heading up a star-studded cast.

The book follows Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old black girl who is navigating life at her prestigious school populated with mostly white, mostly wealthy classmates and life at home in the poor neighborhood where she and her family has always lived. Starr doesn’t feel quite at home anywhere–a feeling that is compounded when Starr is driving home with her childhood friend Khalil when a police officer pulls them over and shoots Khalil without cause.

As the only witness, Starr knows she should testify. But she also knows doing so will put her under intense scrutiny from the media. And it might not even lead to justice for Khalil when so many similar cases have ended in acquittals for the officers. Starr’s choice will have lasting ramifications for herself, her family, and her community as she has to choose where her allegiances lie and speak up for what she believes in.

Thomas’s novel is evocative and gripping. It captures this moment in society perfectly and it highlights all of the things that still need to change with an indictment of the cultural biases and racism that brought us to this point and also with a note of optimism for the future. Narrated by Starr this novel has a great voice and fantastic dialog. Although the plot starts right away the story does have a tendency to meander (I will maintain forever that this book could have been edited down by at least a hundred pages) as the novel explores Starr’s family and home life as well as her life at school where she is constantly reminding herself that she has to put forward a very specific face among her classmates.

Heavy but hopeful and necessary. A must-read.

Saints and Misfits: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusuf’s world is easily divided into three kinds of people.

There are the Saints who are so perfect they seem completely untouchable and intensely annoying. People like Saint Sarah who presides over the mosque with beauty, grace, and a personality so bubbly as to become infuriating. Especially when her brother Muhammad seems to fall for Saint Sarah’s entire act. Because it has to be an act, right?

Then there are the people like Janna, her best friend Tats, and her crush Jeremy. Misfits. That not-quite-fitting-in should be enough to bring Janna and Jeremy together (aside from the alliteration and his lovely forehead). But they still don’t go together. Not when Janna is Muslim and Jeremy is definitely not.

Last there are monsters–people Janna knows all too well from her favorite Flannery O’Connor stories and from her own life. Farooq is arguably the most pious member of their mosque. He’s already memorized the Qur’an and is the shining light of the community.

But he’s also tried to assault Janna when they were alone in his cousin’s basement–something Janna narrowly avoided and is trying to forget now. Everyone else thinks Farooq is a Saint. Who would ever believe Janna–a nobody, a misfit, the daughter of the only divorced woman in their mosque–if she tries tell everyone that their beloved Saint is really a Monster in Saints and Misfits (2017) by S. K. Ali?

Saints and Misfits is Ali’s debut novel. It was selected as a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Janna is a genuine fifteen-year-old. Her first person narration is authentic and thoughtfully handled giving equal weight to Janna’s dealing with the aftermath of her assault as she decides what to do (if anything) and also her complicated crush on her non-Muslim classmate Jeremy.

Janna is comfortable wearing all black and hijab and she wishes other people in her life would respect that instead of trying to changer her. She is also trying to decide if who she is now–a devout Muslim girl–is who she wants to be moving forward. What does it mean that her attacker is more respected in the mosque than she is? What does it mean that her crush on Jeremy seems to be mutual while also being something directly in opposition to her faith?

These are messy questions and Janna doesn’t always have neat answers or closure. What she does have is a supportive family (especially her mother and older brother), resiliency, and the conviction to stick to what she knows is right.

This book is an excellent mirror for Muslim teens who do not seem themselves enough in books and an excellent window for readers who may not know much about what being a modem Muslim teen really looks like. Saints and Misfits is a thoughtful and surprisingly sweet story about a girl finding her voice and her people–both inside her religious community and beyond.

Possible Pairings: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti, That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon, The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The List by Siobhvan Vivian

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter: A Review

Julia’s life is in freefall after her older sister is hit by a truck on her way home from work. Julia always knew her sister, Olga, was the favorite but watching her parents fall apart along with dealing with her own grief is overwhelming. Julia copes by looking into Olga’s life–something she was never very interested in when Olga was alive–but Julia ends up with more questions than answers and soon realizes that knowing the truth doesn’t always lead to closure in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017) by Erika L. Sánchez.

I am happy this book exists but I am 100% not the audience for it which I think influenced my lukewarm feelings about it. Julia is an interesting narrator–it’s still rare to see girls being unapologetic about being unhappy and being themselves, two things that come across immediately in Julia’s story. That Julia is Mexican American adds another dimension to the narrative and makes her voice even more badly needed.

Sánchez’s writing in this novel is authentic and literary without being neat. Sometimes Julia uses course language, sometimes she isn’t polished. But she’s always real and so is the Chicago neighborhood she inhabits–things that I am sure contributed to this book’s nod for the National Book Award long list.

In its review of this book, Kirkus points out that Julia isn’t likable. I don’t think she has to be and I don’t think we’re going to get very far as a society until we stop demanding female characters be likeable at all times. That said, sometimes Julia’s discontent felt a little vague. I wanted to know more about why she feels so unsatisfied and always has been. It’s never quite explained in the text.

There’s a lot going on in this book with side plots; some to good effect, some with unrealized potential. Julia is always striving and learning and while she isn’t always the nicest character, her growth over the course of the novel is all the more satisfying because of it.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about a first generation American trying to do the best she can. Give this to readers looking for a new story of the immigrant experience, readers who need their characters to be real rather than sweet, and above all give this to anyone looking for a character who loves art and words as much as they do.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

Eliza and Her Monsters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

How can I want something so badly but become so paralyzed every time I even think about taking it?

Eliza Mirk is a name that should belong to a comic book character. Not necessarily a cool one but at least a low level villain.

Real life Eliza is neither of those things. She’s quiet and awkward. Her parents relentlessly try to get her into sports even though they are well aware she isn’t athletic like her younger brothers. Sully and Church don’t understand Eliza anymore than she understands them. And, honestly, with Eliza going away to college in a couple of years she doesn’t see the point of trying to connect. Real life feels secondary to the world Eliza has made for herself and her fans online as Lady Constellation, the creator of the enormously popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Between her comic, fans, and her online friends Eliza doesn’t need anyone else.

Eliza’s secret life collides with her real life when Wallace Warland transfers to her school. Online Wallace is Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer. In real life he is the first person who’s managed to not only draw Eliza out of her shell but actually make her want to stay there.

Eliza’s carefully ordered life is turned upside down when her secret is revealed. As she deals with the fallout Eliza will have to decide if letting everyone in her life–online and off–know the real her is worth the risk in Eliza and Her Monsters (2017) by Francesca Zappia.

Eliza’s first person narration is interspersed with excepts from Monstrous Sea fanfiction, message boards, emails, and illustrations of parts of the Monstrous Sea comics done by Zappia. This story is character driven but also fast-paced as Eliza’s world slowly starts to expand with help from Wallace. Eliza struggles with anxiety as she pushes against the limitations of what she feels capable of managing versus what she actually wants.

Eliza and Her Monsters sounds like it will be a story about a comic and a secret identity–maybe with a little romance. Instead it’s really a story about connection within a fandom and finding your thing and your people but losing yourself along the way. It’s also about fixing that–a lesson Eliza learns throughout the course of the novel.

Zappia offers an honest and thoughtful portrayal of a character with anxiety here and some interesting perspective on what it means to create and engage within a fan community. Eliza’s online friends are given as much, if not more, weight than her real life friends in a way that will feel authentic to anyone who’s ever made friends through social media whom they may never meet in person.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

After her secret life as Lady Constellation comes out, Eliza suffers crippling doubt and anxiety as she is faced with drawing more Monstrous Sea installments with everyone knowing her identity. Honestly, I didn’t understand Eliza’s doubts and paralysis in the face of creating after her identity was revealed. It was one of those things that didn’t compute. Then in August I had one of my own tweets go viral on Twitter gaining thousands of RTs/impressions and bringing almost a thousand new followers to my feed. Suddenly, Eliza’s reaction started to make a lot more sense as I struggled myself with how to move forward while knowing so many people were watching me. It’s a hard thing to adjust to and learn to ignore.

Once that started to make sense I was still left with one major issue: I hated the way Eliza’s relationship with Wallace played out. Throughout their friendship, Wallace is working to novelize the Monstrous Sea comic–something that Eliza loves and supports. After she is outed, Wallace reveals that he has a book deal with a publisher for that novelization once it’s completed. He needs Eliza’s permission which she readily gives. But he also needs Eliza to finish the comic so that he can finish the novelization. Something she feels incapable of doing in the face of everyone knowing her name and watching her, ready to pounce.

Wallace doesn’t understand this until Eliza almost considers suicide in the face of all of this pressure and instead of supporting her her only wants what he needs from her. Aside from issues of these publishing logistics (none of it sounded quite right within the text) it felt out of character for Wallace to suddenly negate Eliza’s concerns in the face of his own ambition. Every other aspect of their relationship was sweet, but this thread with the publication of Monstrous Sea was frustrating at best and problematic at worst.

**END SPOILERS**

Eliza and Her Monsters is a perfect book for readers who liked Fangirl (especially if you didn’t skip the fanfic parts) and comics fans looking for something new. Recommended for readers seeking a book that offers sarcasm, pathos, and affirmation in equal measure.

Possible Pairings: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart by Cecil Castellucci, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, In Real Life by Jessica Love, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

The Witch of Blackbird Pond: A (Classic) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados to travel alone across the ocean to colonial Connecticut in 1687. She has no reason to stay in Barbados with her grandfather dead and buried. With nowhere else to go she undertakes the long boat trip on her own assured that she will be welcome with open arms by her aunt’s family.

Her arrival doesn’t go as expected. Kit’s uninhibited childhood in Barbados has left the sixteen-year-old wildly unprepared for life among her Puritan relatives. Her cousins covet her beautiful clothes even while her uncle looks at the bright colors and luxurious fabrics of her dresses with scorn. Kit barely recognizes her aunt, struggling to see any hint of her own mother in her aunt’s weather worn face.

When she discovers a beautiful meadow near a pond, Kit finds some much needed solitude and a break in the monotonous drudgery of life with her relatives. Kit also finds an unexpected friend in Hannah Tupper, an old woman who is shunned reviled by the community for her Quaker beliefs and rumors that claim Hannah is a witch.

As she learns more about Hannah and her life by the pond Kit will have to decide what, if anything, she is willing to give up for a chance to belong in The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare.

Have you ever had a visceral reaction to a book. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is that kind of title for me.

This Newbery award winner came to my attention after my aunt gifted me a copy from her days working at Houghton Mifflin when I was in grade school. Like a lot of books back then I motored through it, eventually donated my copy to my school library, and didn’t think about it again for years. But because I became a librarian and worked briefly at a bookseller, I encountered this classic title again as an adult.

Every time I saw it on a shelf I would feel that jolt of recognition. Yes, this book was one that meant so much to me as a child. It also, if you pay attention to book editions, has had some hideous covers over the years. My most recent rediscovery of The Witch of Blackbird Pond happened when The Book Smugglers featured the book in their Decoding the Newbery series. I enjoyed reading Catherine King’s thoughts (and share many of them) but what really jolted me was the cover. Because finally it was the cover I had first read so many years ago!

Finding and purchasing that edition prompted me to re-read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I discovered a lot of the things I remembered loving when I read the story the first time: Kit’s determination and perseverance not to mention her friendship with Hannah Tupper. I also love the push and pull Kit has both with her cousins and her suitors. This story is more purely historical than I remembered and Speare’s writing is starkly evocative of Puritan New England.

For readers of a certain age, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs no introduction or recommendation. Younger readers will also find a smart, character driven story. Perfect for fans of historical fictions and readers hoping to discover (or rediscover) a charming classic.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Chime by Franny Billingsley, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Conversion by Katherine Howe, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Witch Child by Celia Rees, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

Infinite In Between: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Not necessarily the beginning and not really the end, either. It was the infinite in between, all those minuscule and major moments when they’d dipped in and out of each other’s lives. That had been their journey and somehow, even though they hadn’t realized it, they’d been on it together.”

The five of them meet at high school orientation.

Gregor plays cello and he loves his family. His world feels far too small to be starting high school where older kids like his sister seem so much more together. He is hopelessly in love with Whitney but he has no idea how to tell her especially when his grand gestures manage to go awry. Getting Whitney to notice him is Gregor’s biggest problem  until a sudden tragedy changes everything.

Everyone saw the viral video of Zoe’s actress mother screaming at her in a dressing room. She knows everyone sees her as a spoiled brat who is just like her mom. But that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t even close.

Jake knows he’s gay. He knows it the same we he knows he’s an artist and the same way he knows he can’t play football anymore after what happened on the bus. The harder part is dealing with his crush on his best friend, Ted.

Whitney is pretty and popular. She seems to have it all. Except things at home are starting to unravel and there’s a constant push and pull to balance expectations people have of who Whitney should be like–her white mother or her black father.

Even at orientation, Mia is an outsider. She doesn’t have many friends or much of a family with her parents more interested in work than her. Mia is an observer and an expert at blending in. But before high school ends she’ll have to figure out where she fits and how to speak up before it’s too late.

Five teens. Four years. One journey that changes everything in Infinite in Between (2015) by Carolyn Mackler.

Infinite in Between is written in close third person perspective which shifts between Gregor, Zoe, Jake, Whitney, and Mia. The novel starts with their orientation the day before high school and follows all of them through four years to graduation day.

Despite the broad scope and large cast, Infinite in Between is fast-paced and populated with well-developed characters. While each character has their own journey–often without much overlap–all five of their stories intersect in interesting ways throughout the novel often in ways only apparent to the reader.

Infinite in Between is an inventive novel ideal for readers making their own way through the labyrinthine passages of high school as well as readers who appreciate overlapping narratives and stories reminiscent of Six Degrees of Separation. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, The List by Siobhan Vivian

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2014*