Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.

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Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: May 7, 2019
Content: There is implications of sex (but none actual), some teen drinking, and a few instances of f-bombs plus other language. It will be in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Freddy has a problem: her girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her. It’s more complicated than that: Laura will be super cute and lovey and want Freddy to do all sorts of things with her and Freddy will feel wonderful, and then Laura Dean will take off, or Freddy will find her kissing another girl, or she’ll just disappear and leave Freddy hanging.

This roller coaster ride of a relationship is taking its toll on Freddy, too: she’s become a crappy friend to her actual friends, whom she stands up often because of Laura Dean. And she’s questioning whether or not it’s her fault that Laura Dean keeps taking off.

I loved this. Seriously. I loved that it was a lesbian love story, that everyone was so accepting, but that Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell used this to talk about abusive relationships. Because, as the reader probably figures out before Freddy: Laura Dean’s super abusive. In fact, that’s the whole arc of the story: helping Freddy figure out that even though Laura Dean is popular, and even though she might enjoy the time she spends with Laura Dean, that doesn’t mean they have a healthy relationships. But they also tackle other issues: one of Freddy’s friends is in the closet to his family, and his boyfriend is upset he can’t go to a family party, and Freddy loses the connection with her best friend, right at the time when she needs Freddy the most.

This book is messy and complicated, but it’s also glorious and compelling. And I hope people read it because it’s fantastic.

The November Girl

by Lydia Kang
First sentence: “There’s a foolproof method to running away.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Every November on Lake Superior, the weather is unpredictable and ships go down. It’s been that way forever. They call it the November witch. And little do they know that they’re right: her name is Anda, and she’s the half-mortal, half-nature witch who feeds on death and destruction, living with her father on Isle Royale most of the year, and feeding on shipwrecks in November to satiate her appetite.

Hector is a half-Korean, half-Black kid who’s on the run from his abusive uncle. His plan: hide out on Isle Royale until he turns 18 in May, and can be a legal adult, and get out the grips of his uncle. Except, things don’t quite go according to plan. First reason? He can see Anda (no one else can). And second reason? They get involved.

I feel like, as a Michigander, I should have liked this one more. It was super atmospheric, and Kang’s love for the Lake (though not the one I’m most familiar with; I know Erie better) shines through. But, honestly? I just found I couldn’t care for the characters. I didn’t buy Hector and Anda’s romance (and I got tired of it, especially since she played the manic pixie dream girl role to Hector’s cutter outsider persona) and I thought the ending was a bit on the tidy side.

Maybe it’s just a wrong person, wrong time, wrong book problem.

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang
First sentence: “My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:¬† There are some uncomfortable and intense moments, but nothing too graphic. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Mia Tang and her parents are immigrants from China. Which means, even though her parents are highly educated, they’re scrambling for jobs.So, when one comes up managing a hotel — for $5 a room per night, not counting the first week, but they can live there for free — they jump at the chance. Except it’s not as easy as all that. It’s a lot of work for two people (no cleaning staff!) to handle, so Mia takes to running the front desk. Even though she’s only 10. And even though she learns to love the hotel and the weeklies — the people who pay by the week, not by the night — she can’t talk about what her parents do or where she lives at school. Because she’s not like the other kids.

There is a small plot to this one: Mia’s parents take in Chinese immigrants who have fallen on hard times, usually for only one or two nights, and hide them from the owner. Mia wants to be a writer, except her mother doesn’t think she can because English isn’t her first language. and she enters a contest to run a hotel in Vermont. She makes friends and makes choices and learns the power of the written word. There’s not much going on plot-wise, but the characters are compelling, and it’s an excellent look into the things immigrants do (and white/rich people do to them!) in order to make it work here in America. It was definitely enlightening.

So, while there’s not much to talk about, it’s an important — and excellent — book.

Audio book: Crazy Rich Asians

by Kevin Kwan
Read by Lynn Chen
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus some illusions to sex and a couple of pretty crass characters. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This is a trip and a half! Seriously. The basic plot is that Rachel Chu has gone to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, to attend the wedding of his best friend. What she thinks Nicholas is: a history professor who was educated at Oxford. What Nick really is: the grandson of one the richest people in Singapore, with a huge and wildly rich and snobbish family. Rachel — who grew up the daughter of a single immigrant mother in the US — has absolutely no idea how to fathom the wealth or handle the snubs of Nick’s family and friends.

What this book really was: a huge soap opera featuring incredibly wealthy Asians, both old money and new. The book was full of name-dropping and place dropping and everything dropping, but yet, I couldn’t stop listening. Partially it was because Chen is a fantastic narrator, handling all the accents, from old-world Chinese accented English, to both posh and Aussie English to a flat American accent. It was delightful listening to her nail every character and every voice. And, I have to admit, I love the soap-y aspect of it all. What wild and crazy and absurd and outrageous things are these people going to do?

It also serves as a reminder that a good percentage of the world’s money is not, actually, in the US. That there are some really really really rich Asians out there, and that they spend their money. A lot of money.

Was it a good book? Maybe not. But it sure was fun! (Am I going to read the sequels? Maybe…. Will I see the movie? Heck yeah!)

 

That Time I Loved You

by Carrianne Leung
First sentence: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some sex (on-screen but not graphic) and swearing, including a few f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Set in a suburb of Toronto, specifically on one street in a particular neighborhood, this collection of connected short stories¬† follows the inner workings of a dozen people of all ages.¬† The characters are mostly women, except for one black teenage boy, and many of them are immigrants. Leung explores immigrant expectations and prejudices toward them. She explores female dynamics both with other females and with males. She touches on sexual assault and racism and emotional abuse. It’s a lot. And yet, it works.

I usually have problems with short stories, but I think because these are connected — the characters in the stories appear in their own as well as in the background of other stories — it felt more like a novel. We got to know the characters, we get to know the neighborhood, and because each story focuses on a different person, we get to know them intimately and it means more when they show up in a different story.

I really enjoyed this one!

 

Spirit Hunters

by Ellen Oh
First sentence: “‘Harper! Come quick!'”
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Content: There’s an abusive relationship, and it’s quite scary in parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t give it to the faint of heart.

Harper and her family have recently moved from New York City into a Washington, D. C. house. It’s nominally for her parents’ jobs, but it’s also because Harper had a couple of incidents — at school and at the mental health hospital — that were kind of sketchy. However, she can’t remember anything about the fire at school that landed her in the hospital. And now, her younger brother is acting unlike himself, and no one can quite figure out why.

(Though you can probably guess from the title!)

This was SO good! I loved the characters, even the clueless/controlling/close-minded parents, and I loved that the main character not only figured out the problem, but also solved it, with the help from her friend and her estranged grandmother. I liked the historical detail that Oh wove into the book, and I loved the suspense that she built throughout the book. An excellent ghost story.