When I Was the Greatest

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “‘Okay, I got one.'”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and talk of teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Allen — call him Ali — lives in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, and while it’s not the best place to grow up, it’s not the worst, either. He has a mom who works hard and cares a lot about Ali and his sister Jaz. And even though his dad is a bit of a loser, he also cares. The next-door neighbor kids — Needles and Noodles; Jazz game them the nicknames — not so much. They’re brothers, and Needles as Tourettes Syndrome, which makes Noodles simultaneously super protective and incredibly dismissive of his brother.

It’s basically a slice of life story; this is Ali and Noodles and Needles and their lives and interactions. The only conflict that happens is when they invite themselves to a party they are not suposed to be at, and then Needles’ has a spasm and inadvertantly starts a fight.

It’s not my favorite of Reynolds’ books, to say the least. I disliked his portaryal of Tourettes, and while i think he was trying to deal with acceptance of disabilites in the Black community, I think he fell short of the mark. It was good enough to finish, but not good enough to really like.

DNF: The Candle and the Flame

by Nafiza Azad
First sentence: “The desert sings of loss, always loss, and if you stand quiet with your eyes closed, it will grieve you too.”
Content: There was some flirting and talk of marriage in the parts that I finished. It’d probably be in the YA (grades 6-8)section of the bookstore if we had it in.

On paper, this should hit all my “really like” buttons: an orphan that survived a massacre and is trying to make ends meet, a city ruled by djinn, magic, fierce girls, sweeping desert vistas, a diverse city on the edge of destruction.

But in actuality? It kind of fell flat. There was WAY too much telling, not nearly enough showing. So much exposition and it was just moving along at a plodding pace (the opener was really good, though). I wanted to like it, but more than 100 pages into it, I realized that I don’t have enough time in my day to spend on a book that I”m not enjoying. Even if it is for a class.

Oh, well. Maybe there’s a djinn book with a fierce girl as the main character out there that is better than this one.

Audiobook: Crying in H Mart

by Michelle Zauner
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There are some swear words, including a few F-bombs It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This is basically Zauner’s homage to her Korean mother, who passed away from cancer in 2014. She goes through her childhood, how her relationship with her mother developed and struggled, and through her mother’s sickness and her death to the year or so afterward. The thing that ties everything together is Korean food. Her mother’s home cooking, the tastes and smells that accompanied Zauner all through her childhood trips to Seoul to see her mother’s family, and through to watching Mangchi on YouTube after her mother’s death, in order to learn the food traditions that she didn’t want to be lost.

It wasn’t a gad book, and Zauner wasn’t a bad narrator. But, I didn’t quite love it either. At times, Zauner felt like a whiny brat, and I just wanted to shake her. I suppose she was just being honest, and so I can admire her for that. The things I liked best were near the end when she starts learning how to cook Korean food. The chapter where she learns to make kimchee was fascinating. And I understood her pain (sort of? I haven’t lost anyone I was incredibly close to, really) or at the least, I understood that this was how she was processing her pain.

I can respect this book, at least, even if I didn’t love it.

When Dimple Met Rishi

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “Dimple couldn’t stop smiling.”
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Content: There is talk of sex, and a tasteful on-screen sex scene. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it should probably be in the Teen section (grades 9+).

Dimple has one goal: go the the Insomnia Con, win, get her app idea out in the world, and go to college and be a successful developer. Her parents (her mother, really) has one goal: to get Dimple married to an Ideal Indian Husband. Rishi has one goal: to be a Good Son, and uphold the traditions of his family and culture. Therefore, he’s asked his parents to arrange a marriage for him (yes, he’s 18). The person they’ve picked? Dimple.

Rishi goes to Insomnia Con with the sole purpose of meeting Dimple and getting their relationship going. The problem? Dimple has no idea that her parents set this up. Needless to say: Dimple and Rishi don’t get started on the best foot. But, then, over the course of the six weeks of the con, they get to know each other, bring out the best in each other, and yes, fall in love.

It’s a silly Bollywood movie as a book: light, refreshing, fun (with musical numbers!), but with a serious underside that makes you think a little. I like how Menon is exploring and subverting Indian-American culture, all the the guise of a romcom. Both Rishi and Dimple are delightful characters, and their descent into love is a quick, but believable one. I’ve enjoyed Menon’s other books, and this one is no exception.

Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai

by Debbi Michiko Florence
First sentence: “Heartbreak is for suckers.”
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Content: There is some talk of first romance and divorce. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. But it’d be good for 6-7th grade as well.

Jenna Sakai has sworn off relationships. First, her parents got a messy diverse and her dad “abandoned” her by moving to Texas from California. Then her boyfriend, Elliot, who she thought she was super compatible with dumped her right before Christmas. After a very lonely winter break at her dad’s house, she’s back in California, at her school, determined to make a fresh start. No more relationships. No more Elliot (except he keeps popping up in places where she thought were Elliot-free). Just focus on the things she’s good at: journalism. Then she discovers a cute diner, and takes to going there as an escape from all the other stress in her life. It’s a great place, until she discovers that Rin Watanabe also uses the diner as a refuge, specifically what she’s come to think about as “her booth”.

Thus begins a tumultuous friendship between Jenna and Rin, as Jenna writes an article digging into a donation his family made to their school. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that gets the gist of things.

I thought it was cute. I was a little “meh” at the beginning — boyfriends/girlfriends in 7th grade kind of turns me off, but Florence kept it pretty age-appropriate with just hand holding. But it was a really good story about a girl learning to trust other people again, after a couple of very big heartbreaks, first with her parents’ divorce, and then with the breakup with someone she thought was super compatible with her. I liked that it showed that middle school romances aren’t always great (thought there was an example of a good, healthy relationship as well). I also think that Florence does a good job capturing the complicated emotions and friendships that middle school has while not making everyone super annoying (which is easy to do). My only complaint is that I didn’t know this was a companion book to another one, and I kind of felt like I didn’t quite have the whole picture sometimes. But that was more my problem than the wriring.

It was a fun book, overall.

The Best We Could Do

by Thi Bui
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Content: There is talk of violence. It’s in the Graphic Novels-Nonfiction section of the bookstore.

I fit this in among my reading for school, partially because we were reading books by Asian authors, and one that Bui illustrated (and won a Caldecott honor for), A Different Pond, was on the list. I figured it was a good opportunity to read her graphic memoir, which I’d been meaning to read for years. (This is a theme with this class: I’m catching up on ones I have meant to read!)

It’s mostly the story of her parents, their lives in Vietnam before and during the war. Bui is exploring their trauma and how it relates to her, especially after she gave birth to her son. Her family fled Vietnam and came to the United States when she was young, and her parents weren’t terribly demonstrative in their affection. Bui, as she got older, wanted to understand their stories, and where they came from, in order to understand them, and by extension, herself.

Her parents’ stories were fascinating, and I learned a lot about Vietnam, a country I sadly know very little about. Her art style was simple – mostly line drawing on a muted color background – but effectively portrayed emotion and the story she was trying to tell.

A very good graphic novel.

The City We Became

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “I sing the city”
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Content: There is violence, including sexual assault, and many f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In this universe, cities are alive, not just in the metaphorical sense but literally. There is a “birth” that results in the city being embodied in a person. Sometimes this doesn’t work — New Orleans was a stillbirth, for example — but mostly it does. Except: in the case of New York City, something has gone awry. It’s not a stillbirth, but it’s not alive, yet.

So the city adapts: five other people wake up, one for each borough. Their purpose is to get together, work together, and wake up New York as a whole. But, they meet unexpected problems in the form of an alien entity that is trying to stop this city from ever becoming alive.

Oh, my word this was so good. I think I liked it better than her Broken Earth trilogy. It’s clever, it’s fun, it’s got a Neil Gaiman feel to it. And I adored the characters as well as the way Jemisin played with race and New York stereotypes in the book. It as a joy to read, one that I plowed through incredibly quickly. And while it stands well on its own, I am fascinated to see where Jemisin takes it with the sequels.

White Smoke

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Ah. There you are.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs and some teenage marijuana usage. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Marigold is looking for a fresh start. Or, at least that’s what she tells herself. She, her brother, her mother, and her stepdad and step-sister are headed away from California, away from Mari’s mistakes and moving to Cedarville for a fresh start. It doesn’t hurt that her mom got a residency there, with free housing. Except: Cedarville isn’t that great of a place. There’s something… off about it. Mari’s hearing sounds in the house. There are smells, and things go missing. Not to mention that every. single. other. house in the neighborhood is boarded up and decrepit looking. It’s all… very, very weird.

I think the mileage on this one depends on how horror-savvy you are. I’m not, so I found it spooky and intimidating and atmospheric. And I had to put it down often just to drop my anxiety levels. But, I suppose if you are the sort of person who likes horror and reads/watches it often, this one might not have the same effect. I did like that Jackson was exploring the idea of gentrification ad the impact it has on the (mostly black and poor) community. I also liked that she talked about unfair incarceration because of drug laws, and how those laws fall differently for black and white people. This horror story has some meat to it.

And then there’s the ending. Without spoilers, I’ll just say it’s kind of abrupt and weird. I wonder if there’s a sequel, because so much is unresolved. Or if Jackson meant it to be that way. At any rate, I found it a fun enough ride.

Undefeated

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “Jim Thorpe looked ridiculous and he knew it – like a scarecrow dressed for football, he’d later say.”
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Content: There are problematic elements regarding Native representation. It’s in the kids biography section of the bookstore.

As part of our Native people unit in this class I am taking, we had to choose a problematic book to read. I was super surprised to see Sheinkin’s work on the list for problematic; I have a hih respect for his work, and assumed that all of his research wa sipeccalbe.

In this instance, he’s looking at the Carlisle Indian School, a residential school — for “civilizing the natives” — run by the government in the late 1800s though the early 1990s. They ended up with a football program, one that went up against the “big” schools of the time — Harvard, Penn, Yale, and Princeton — even though they were a lot smaller and more poorly equipped. It’s also the history of Jim Thorpe, who ended up being the one of Carlisle’s — and possibly the sport’s — greatest athletes. Where Sheinkin ends up being problematic is in the way he talks about the school and about Thorpe’s Native history. As a white person, Sheinkin doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, and doesn’t know what it is how it is that he needs to write about it. It makes sense that the book would end up being problematic. .

Truthfully, the part of the book I found most fascinating was the history of football. Sheinkin is an excellent writer and was able to write about the games in a way that made them leap off the page. It was interesting to learn about what the game was like in the early days. And it was interesting to learn the role that Carlisle Indian School played in developing and changing the game.

So, yeah: problematic. But still interesting.

Black Boy Joy

edited y Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “Homegoing.”
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Content: there is some slight romance. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but my teacher considered it a YA novel, so it’ss good for all ages?.

Here are the things I liked about this book:

It’s super diverse, even though all the authors are black men. There are science fiction stories, poems, art, contemporary stories, and ones based in mythology. They have protagonists that are non-binary, interested in sports, and interested in music and art.

It focuses on joy and celebration, even when it touches on hard things like funerals.

It’s a delight to read.

Not all the stories are equal, but that’s to be expected in a short story collection. And sometimes the joy felt unearned, but that’s because we weren’t given enough time with the characters. (Another fault of short stories.)

Even with the faults, it’s an excellent collection. Highly recommended.