Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

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

American Street: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fabiola Toussaint and her mother arrive in the United States eager to join Fabiola’s aunt and cousins and begin their own version of the American dream. Instead her mother is detained by ICE at a New Jersey facility where she faces deportation back to Haiti. Fabiola, born in the United States, has to fly to Detroit on her own.

In Detroit Fabiola finds new friends and first love, but she also learns that nothing in America is what she imagined back home in Haiti–not even her new home with her relatives at the corner of American Street and Joy Road.

Fabiola clings to her faith and her Vodou iwas for guidance but she isn’t sure that Papa Legba’s riddles or help from other iwas like beautiful Ezili will be enough to protect her family and bring her mother to her. How much will Fabiola have to sacrifice to help her mother and herself grab their own small piece of American joy? How far would you go for the same thing? in American Street (2017) by Ibi Zoboi.

Find it on Bookshop.

American Street is Zoboi’s debut novel.

This novel is the story of one girl’s efforts to grab onto the American dream for herself and her mother, it’s the story of a family and the secrets they keep to survive, it’s a story about the immigrant experience, it’s a story of first love. All of these stories play out against the larger story of the house at the corner of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit.

Fabiola thinks transitioning to life in the US will be easy. She already speaks English and she attended an American school in Haiti. None of that prepares her for the meanness she finds on some of Detroit’s streets not to mention the slang and fast-paced language. She expects her American relatives will follow Haitian traditions but is surprised to find her aunt barely leaves her bedroom. Fabiola’s cousins are equally mystifying. Chantal studies hard and is working her way through community college. But what about her mysterious phone calls? Princess only answers to Pri and dresses like a boy. Then there’s beautiful Primadonna “Donna” who wears her beauty like armor and fools no one as she tries to hide the extent of her turbulent (and violent) relationship with her boyfriend.

This story is also imbued with an element of magic realism. Fabiola is a faithful and devout practioner of Vodou. She and her mother have spent years praying for their relatives to be well in the US. When she arrives in Detroit, one of the first things Fabiola does is assemble her altar and pray for her reunion with her mother. Throughout American Street Fabiola uses her familiarity with Vodou and her iwas–spirit guides–to make sense of her new life in America. Fabiola’s choice to interpret her strange new world in this way takes on a weightier meaning when she begins to see her iwas in the real life figures around her.

Zoboi demonstrates a considerable ear for voice with dialog as well as short segments between chapters in which various characters relate the stories that brought them to this point. Fabiola’s first person narration in the rest of the novel is beautiful with a measured cadence and a unique perspective that comes from spending her formative years in Haiti.

American Street is a timely and thoughtfully written novel. Fabiola’s introduction to America is authentic and filled with moments of beauty as she also finds new friends and falls in love for the first time. The happenings on the corner of American Street and Joy Road add a mystery to this rich plot and help the story unfold to a heartening but bittersweet conclusion. A must read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Dream Things True: A Review

Dream Things True by Marie MarquardtAlma is less than happy to be leaving her academically challenging high school in Atlanta to return to the small town of Gilbertson to help take care of her cousins. She always thought Atlanta was her ticket to something better. Now, Alma isn’t sure how she’ll get out of Gilbertson and away from her overbearing father. She just knows she has to try. Alma’s brother let his status as an undocumented Mexican immigrant keep him away from his dreams. Alma refuses to make the same mistake.

Evan has never had to think much about immigration. He’s never had to think about a lot thanks to his family’s wealth and privilege. Like Alma, Evan’s family wants to keep him close but Evan knows college is his chance to get away before he settles for the life his distant father has planned.

When Alma and Evan meet, their attraction is immediate and undeniable. Despite their different lives and other obstacles, the unlikely couple falls in love. But with family pulling them in different directions and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids threatening Alma and her friends and family, Evan and Alma will have to work harder than ever to be together in Dream Things True (2015) by Marie Marquardt.

Dream Things True is Marquardt’s first novel. Marquardt has done extensive work with an advocating for Mexican immigrants as outlined in her author bio. The story is written in a close third person point of view that alternates between Evan and Alma’s focus.

Dream Things True does some things very well. It is an important and timely novel about immigration. It is a diverse title, of course. And, despite the numerous challenges they have to deal with, this book also has a really healthy and positive relationship as Evan and Alma get to know each other and try to help each other.

There is a lot of good stuff here and Dream Things True is undoubtedly a valuable novel. However it’s also worth noting that it often felt like the portrayals of non-white characters could have been handled better. Evan compares Alma’s skintone to coffee with cream in it. An African-American character is described as being lighter skinned. Evan’s descriptions of Alma often seemed to portray her as more other and exotic perhaps in a misguided attempt on Marquardt’s part to create an authentic male protagonist, perhaps for other reasons. Regardless of intent, it’s the one aspect of this novel that repeatedly grated.

In order to keep the focus of the novel on immigration issues, several plot points in Dream Things True feel contrived in order to move the plot along. While Alma’s father is convincingly problematic, even his logic for why Alma has to return to Gilberston from Atlanta is murky at best. While this focus makes sense, it often made the characters and settings feel one-dimensional by comparison.

An ideal choice for readers looking for a light romance that still has some depth, Dream Things True is a thoughtful novel that proves Marquardt is an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, A Step From Heaven by An Na, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

* A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Secret Side of Empty: A Review

The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. AndreuM. T. should be living a fairy tale story of a life. To everyone else it probably seems like she is with her good grades that can make her Valedictorian, the trip she is organizing for the National Honor Society, and her picture perfect best friend with her good looks and fancy house.

M. T. even looks the part with her blonde hair and light complexion.

The only problem is that the story is a lie.

M. T. is an undocumented immigrant–the same as her mother and father. It was easy to blend in before. But now the future is uncertain. M. T. isn’t sure what happens next except that it probably won’t include college or anything resembling a happy family.

With everything starting to unravel M. T. is lost and unsure how to find her way back in The Secret Side of Empty (2014) by Maria E. Andreu.

The Secret Side of Empty is Andreu’s first novel. It draws on her own experiences growing up as an undocumented immigrant in America.

This debut is an important novel that shines a light on an aspect of American life that few people rarely see. M. T. is in a desperate position caught between the country where she legally belongs and the country that has been home for most of her life.

Andreu expertly captures the push and pull M. T. feels between thinking of herself as an American and the underlying reason she knows she is nothing like her American friends. This already multi-layered story is further complicated with M. T.’s troubled home life and her own drastic plan for coping.

The Secret Side of Empty is a compelling and timely read as well as a much needed addition to the larger conversation about the immigrant experience.

Possible Pairings: Drown by Junot Diaz, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, Dream Things True by Marie Marquardt, A Step From Heaven by An Na, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher*