Picture Us in the Light: A Review

“I don’t believe you can put anything meaningful into the world without having a kind of innate generosity, something to give of yourself.”

Danny Cheng feels stuck. He’s got an eye toward college next year with an acceptance to RISD with a full ride and, rarer still in Cupertino, complete support from his immigrant parents.

But Danny is still haunted by the loss of a friend who committed suicide last year and every time he tries to imagine next year without his best friend Harry Wong he finds himself spiraling into a panic. Not to mention wondering if Harry really is as in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan, as he claims.

When Danny finds a box of old news clippings and letters in his father’s closet he starts to realize that there might be a reason his parents never talk about their past–a reason that Danny never would have imagined.

As Danny hurtles toward the end of his senior year and delves deeper into his family’s past he will have to confront uncomfortable truths about his parents and acknowledge his own dreams and wants if he ever wants to move forward in Picture Us In the Light (2018) by Kelly Loy Gilbert.

Picture Us In the Light is Loy Gilbert’s sophomore novel.

Danny is the core of the story as he tries to imagine a future without Harry and away from everything he knows in California. His existential dread at both prospects is palpable in Danny’s first person narration and makes for a tense read. Loy Gilbert’s prose shines while focusing on Danny and his friends but an overly packed plot detracts from what should have been a character driven novel.

With so many things happening to Danny it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the final act of the novel feels rushed after a slow build up with layers of suspense padded with a lack of communication between characters–especially between Danny and Harry as Danny struggles with how (or if) to tell Harry that he is in love with him and has been for years.

Picture Us In the Light is a complex story about connection, privilege, and hope. Readers able to overlook a sensationalist plot will appreciate Danny’s relatable narration, clever dialog, and authentic characters.

Possible Pairings: Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, American Panda by Gloria Chao, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest and Kali Ciesemier, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk, Frankly in Love by David Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Butterfly Yellow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

After six years and two months of careful preparation and unspeakable hardships, Hằng finally arrives in Texas in the summer of 1981.

Hằng knows that her baby brother Linh is waiting for her at 405 Mesquite Street in Amarillo, Texas. She knows that once she finds him she can stop planning, stop preparing. Except when Hằng does find 405 Mesquite Street, Linh isn’t the little boy and adoring brother she lost all those years ago. Worse, he may not be the one who needs to be saved anymore.

LeeRoy has one plan for the summer after he graduates high school: he is going to reinvent himself as a cowboy. More importantly, he is going to become a rodeo star. His university professor parents are less than thrilled but they don’t understand that LeeRoy has it all figured out. The first, most vital step is meeting Glenn Ford. Once they get to know each other LeeRoy is sure Ford will be only too eager to share tips with his newest protege.

There’s only one problem. Actually, if he’s being honest, there are a few since LeeRoy doesn’t know much about being a cowboy at all. But he can learn all that. The biggest problem is that he’s just too darned nice. That’s the only explanation for how he gets roped into driving a surly Vietnamese girl all the way to Amarillo to find her brother. LeeRoy tries to argue. After all, he’s a man with things to do. But any argument gets shot down as soon as it hits the air.

Hằng and LeeRoy start as strangers. By the end of the summer these most unlikely friends will both realize that there’s more to life than plans, than goals. And that sometimes the things–the people–you would never imagine can suddenly become as necessary as breathing in Butterfly Yellow (2019) by Thanhha Lai.

Butterfly Yellow is Lai’s debut YA novel. You may already be familiar with her award winning middle grade novels Inside Out & Back Again and Listen, Slowly. The novel alternates between chapters written in close third person following Hằng and LeeRoy’s perspectives.

Although they couldn’t be more different, Hằng and LeeRoy’s stories offer a certain symmetry in Butterfly Yellow. While Hằng has spent six years working towards a reunion with her brother and clings to the past at the cost of all other plans or dreams, LeeRoy imagines a new future where he can become someone else.

Lai uses language–both English and Vietnamese–to great effect throughout the novel creating an utterly unique reading experience complete with sentence trees. While Hằng can understand English when spoken slowly, she quickly realizes she still needs a Vietnamese lens to reframe her new surroundings and begins using phonetic Vietnamese sounds to form her English phrases–words LeeRoy is quick to follow thanks to his ear for language.

LeeRoy, meanwhile, has spent years immersing himself in Texas slang so that even before he could try to walk the walk of a real cowboy he was able to talk to the talk. Although LeeRoy’s meandering speech is filled with colloquialisms Hằng can’t decipher, the sheer volume of words allows her to understand him when other English speakers prove incomprehensible.

The push and pull between Hằng and LeeRoy drives the story as Hằng tries to get closer to her brother and works toward confronting the traumas she’s tried to forget from her journey from Vietnam to Texas and LeeRoy is forced to admit he may not be cowboy material after all.

Both characters struggle with what comes next when they realize that the targets they have been chasing–the benchmarks that would signify success–have changed or may no longer exist at all. Hằng and LeeRoy become unlikely supports for each other as they confront these changes and trade as many moments of comfort as they do barbs in their prickly relationship.

Butterfly Yellow is a gorgeous, evocative story about the people you hold onto at all costs, the choices you make to be your best self even when you aren’t sure who that is, and the resilience you need to build a life when it feels so much easier to choose bitterness or failure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, A Step From Heaven by An Na, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Holes by Louis Sachar, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Frankly in Love: A Review

Frank is a second generation Korean American. He is a senior in high school and what he call a Limbo. Like the other Korean American kids in his community, Frank finds himself caught between his parents’ expectations and his own wants as an American teen in Southern California.

Frank is all too aware of what his parents want him to do–especially when it comes to dating (spoiler: any girl he brings home had better be Korean). The only problem is that expectations are the last thing on Frank’s mind when he falls for Brit Means who is beautiful, popular, and white.

When Frank realizes his fellow Limbo, Joy Song, is facing the same problem it seems like they have found an obvious solution: pretend to date each other. Fake dating gives Frank and Joy freedom to do what they want without disappointing their parents. But as their fake relationship brings them closer together, Frank wonders if he’s ever understood love at all in Frankly in Love (2019) by David Yoon.

Frankly in Love is Yoon’s debut novel. (Yes, before you ask, he and Nicola Yoon are married!)

Frank’s first person narration toes the line between humor and sardonic wit as he shares insights into the push and pull between his life at home with his Korean immigrant parents and his identity outside of their home and community.

While the fake relationship and related chaos add a lot of levity to this story, Frank’s journey throughout the novel is heavier as he tries to figure out who he wants to be (not to mention who he wants to be with) and struggles with how best to interrogate his parents’ racism and prejudices.

Frankly in Love is a contemporary romance with zero toxic masculinity and a charcter asking hard questions about choosing your path and who you love while choosing your battles. Recommended for readers looking for a romance with humor that still skews toward literary.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

The Divided Earth: A Graphic Novel Review

*The Divided Earth is the final book in Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy which begins with The Nameless City and continues in The Stone Heart. This review contains spoilers for book one.*

cover art for The Divided Earth by Faith Erin HicksThe Nameless City is once again at the center of a conflict. Erzi, now General of All Blades, holds the city even as forces forces from his own ranks try to rally the Yisun to unite and overthrow him. The city’s residents, the “Named,” remain are caught in the middle.

What the invading forces don’t know is that Erzi is determined to hold the city at any cost–even if it means destroying it. Desperate to prevent further bloodshed, Rat and Kaidu must join forces again to try and steal back the formula for deadly napatha before Erzi can use it to destroy everything they’ve come to love within the city walls in The Divided Earth (2018) by Faith Erin Hicks.

The Divided Earth is the final book in Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy which begins with The Nameless City and continues in The Stone Heart.

After learning the city inside out and coming to love it as his own, Kaidu has to risk everything to help Rat save it. As forces approach the city Hicks expands the world of this series introducing new characters and further situating the Nameless City in a larger world.

While some of the character motivations remain thin, particularly in the case of the villains, this series is still utterly entertaining. Hicks’ full-color artwork is used to especially good effect in this installment that is filled with high speed chases and fight sequences. The Divided Earth is a satisfying conclusion to a gripping, action-filled series. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The City of Brass* by S. A. Chakraborty, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff; Truthwitch by Susan Dennard; Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke; Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi; Last Descendants by Matthew J. Kirby; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson; Compass South by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock; Bone by Jeff Smith; The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

*Bear in mind that The Nameless City is a middle grade graphic novel while The City of Brass is adult fantasy so while both books explore similar themes the intended audiences are vastly different.

Noteworthy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Noteworthy by Riley RedgateJordan Sun is a scholarship student at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Jordan is a junior now and she has never been cast in a school play. Something her mother is quick to remember whenever she wonders if Jordan would be more valuable to the family closer to home where she can work while going to school.

The problem isn’t Jordan’s skill or talent. The problem is that Jordan’s height and deeper voice don’t fit the narrow mold of most female roles.

Jordan can’t change either of those things. But in a moment of desperation she realizes that she can use them by auditioning for The Sharpshooters–one of the school’s a cappella groups. The only problem is she’ll have to audition as a boy because the Sharpshooters are an all-male group.

Being found out could be devastating leaving Jordan shunned for the rest of her time at Kensington-Blaine and known forever as the girl who infiltrated an a cappella group. Basically the least impressive spy of all time. But the rewards are worth the risk with all of the school’s a cappella groups competing for a chance to accompany Aural Fixation on the European leg of their tour as show openers.

All Jordan wants is to prove to her school and her parents (and maybe herself) that she can thrive in a leading role. She’ll stay with the Sharps long enough to win the competition, nail the tour, and move on. Keeping the guys at arm’s length for that long should be simple. But as her friendships with the Sharps (and competition with a rival group) grow, the lies start to mount and Jordan realizes that sometimes you have to get close to people. Even if it means you might get hurt in Noteworthy (2017) by Riley Redgate.

Jordan is a first generation American and a low income student at her historically white and affluent at Kensington-Blaine. She struggles with the dissonance between her life at boarding school and her family’s struggles to make ends meet through part-time and retail jobs. Adding to that pressure are mounting hospital bills from her father’s recent hospital stay when his pre-existing health issues (he is a paraplegic) make a light cough so much worse. Still stinging from her breakup, Jordan also starts to acknowledge her bisexuality for the first time.

Despite being in a predominantly white school, Jordan’s circle of friends and acquaintances is thoughtfully diverse with characters coming to terms with parental expectations, school pressures, and their sexuality among other things. In the Sharps, Jordan quickly bonds with dry witted Nihal who is Sikh and one of my absolute favorite characters.

I so appreciate the way that Jordan acknowledges both her limitations as a poor scholarship student and also her privilege in being able to cross dress essentially on a lark–a decision she struggles with long before her secret is revealed (because of course it is revealed). While the middle is bogged down in numerous issues of varying important to the story, Noteworthy still ends suddenly and leaves readers wanting to see more of the Sharps (and maybe some payback for their rivals the Minuets).

Noteworthy is a thoughtful commentary on gender, agency, and ambition. By inhabiting the role of Julian, Jordan starts to realize how many limitations have been placed on her life–both through outside expectations from family, friends, and teachers as well as by herself. It’s only by hiding in plain sight as a boy that Jordan really gets the chance to shine and embrace her own dreams. Recommended for readers looking for a light contemporary with some meat on its bones and, of course, a cappella fans everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

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, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

When Dimple Met Rishi: A Review

cover art for When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya MenonWhat happens if you meet the exact right person for you at the exactly wrong time?

Dimple Shah wants to go to Stanford, focus on coding, and start her career. She would like to go to Insomnia Con this summer before she starts college to participate in the coding competition and possibly meet her idol Jenny Lindt.

Dimple isn’t interested in clothes, contacts, or makeup. She definitely doesn’t want a relationship or an “Ideal Indian Husband”–not right now and possibly not ever. When her parents agree to pay for Dimple to attend Insomnia Con, it feels like maybe they’re both finally understanding who Dimple is and embracing her dreams and ambitions.

Then again, maybe not.

Rishi Patel knows that it’s up to him to follow tradition and respect his parents’ wishes. It’s possible that Rishi isn’t passionate about engineering or MIT but he knows he should stick to the responsible and safe choice.

Rishi is a romantic but he also wants a solid partnership in the future. He trusts his parents when they try to set up an arranged marriage with the daughter of family friends. It should be simple. Rishi can even meet her at Insomnia Con and woo her. It will be perfect.

Or will it?

Dimple and Rishi figure each other out pretty quickly. They have nothing in common. They want different things. But they also make each other laugh and might be able to help each other be their best selves–if they can just give each other a chance–in When Dimple Met Rishi (2017) by Sandhya Menon.

When Dimple Met Rishi is Menon’s debut novel.

Menon’s writing is filled with evocative descriptions of San Francisco over the course of the three weeks Dimple and Rishi spend there for Insomnia Con. Dimple and Rishi’s relationship plays out against this backdrop of coding and competition along with a few side plots involving Dimple’s roommate Cecelia and Rishi’s younger brother Ashish.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet romantic comedy with a lighthearted premise but it doesn’t stop there. Dimple and Rishi are both first generation Indian-Americans (their parents immigrated from India) and they are dealing with it in different ways. Dimple rails against traditions and values that seem determined to relegate women to successful marriages and not much else; she wants to make her own way in the world and she isn’t sure it matters if that goes against her parents’ expectations. Rishi revels in being part of such an old and amazing culture; he places so much value on traditions that he’s willing to sacrifice his own dreams because of them.

Although Dimple and Rishi are both eighteen they read young and feel like authentic teens facing big changes as summer ends and college approaches. Slow pacing toward the middle and some contrivances near the end of the book do little to diminish this enjoyable story. When Dimple Met Rishi is a thoughtful, clever read. A satisfying story about two teens who manage to find a lot to appreciate (including themselves) once they find each other. Highly recommended and guaranteed to leave readers smiling.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira; Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett; Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum; Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll; In a Perfect World by Trish Doller; I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han; Say You’ll Remember Me by Katie McGarry; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith; Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes; Lucky in Love by Kasie West; Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood; Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff