You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh
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Content: There is some kissing and some bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Jake has always had a dream to study the ocean. Except, he lives in New Mexico with his mom — his dad disappeared when Jake as born — and no way of getting out.

It doesn’t help that he feels different: not just because he’s not sure if he’s gay (spoiler: he is), but because he’s always had these weird “birthmarks” on his body. It doesn’t help that his best friend, Maria, wants to take their relationship to the next level, either.

It’s less a book about superheroes, though it is set in the DC universe, and more about one kid coming to own his own truth. He comes out, he finds out who his dad is and what his marks mean. All of this, while falling into a relationship with Kenny.

It’s nice that the adults are fully formed; you understand Jake’s mom’s paranoia, and Maria’s parents are incredibly supportive. Kenny’s disabled father had the biggest arc: he starts out seeming unacceptng and homophobic but turns out to be supportive of his son.

It’s an incomplete story: I thought Jake would have a chance to face his father or at least move forward, but no: this book is about Jake fully becoming who we was meant to be.

And that’s a good thing.

Dragon Hoops

by Gene Luen Yang
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Content: There are swear words, but there are all bleeped out. It’s a bit thick, which might be intimidating for younger readers. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve read a lot of what Yang has written, but even so, I didn’t expect this to be a graphic novelization of his last year teaching at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California, and the year the high school men’s basketball team had.

Yang himself admits it up front: he never thought he’d be writing a graphic novel about basketball. He’s more of a superhero guy. And I get that. But, Yang does a fantastic job of letting his readers into the world of an elite high school basketball team. He introduces us to several of the main players, getting to know them and the dynamics they have with the coaches. As a parallel story, Yang explores the transition from teaching full time and writing part time to writing full time. It was an interesting story, one in which I found myself invested in the outcome: would the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons win the State Championship?

I found myself fascinating by the book. Not only because Yang does a superb job humanizing the people in the game, he does a superb job portraying the games themselves. I think he really does capture the athleticism and the intensity in each basketball game. All of which made this graphic novel very enjoyable.

Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
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Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

by Cho Nam-Ju, translated by Jamie Chang
First sentence: “Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 14, 2020
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is the story of one Korean woman, and how she get to the point, a year after giving birth, where she’s impersonating (but is she really?) other women. Something I didn’t know until the end: it’s told through the eyes of a psychologist/psychiatrist that Jiyoung goes to see, presumably because of her condition. She tells this psychiatrist about her life, from a childhood where she and her older sister were mostly neglected in favor of their younger brother, through school where she was often harassed by boys, to the workplace where she was often treated by men as a servant. She just decided it was her lot, and did the best she could, though there were women — including, eventually, her mother — who were telling her life could be different. Jiyoung gave up working when she had her baby, mostly because it was too hard to juggle daycare and a full-time job and her husband wasn’t terribly supportive.

This was just a portrait of one life, albeit one that had quite a few run-ins with the patriarchal system of Eastern Asia. It was a sad little book — sad that Jiyoung was never really encourage to do much of anything, sad that the lives of women still revolve around the men and boys. It’s odd too, it had footnotes (which makes more sense knowing it’s psychiatrist notes) and an odd cadence. It’s not a story I read to really connect with the characters, though much of that Jiyoung went through was relatable. But, even though we got the facts of her life, I felt like we never really got to know her. Although I appreciated the insight into contemporary Korean culture, I just felt disconnected through the book.

Oh, and the author got epidurals wrong, which is a small thing, but an annoyance all the same.

I do appreciate that this book exists, if only to highlight the sexism and misogyny in countries other than the United States. But, no, I didn’t find it enjoyable.

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.

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
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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!