10 Things I Hate About Pinky

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “The dead body was an especially nice touch.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: July 21, 2020
Content: There’s some kissing and mild swearing. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore.

Pinky Kumar is the different one in her family. With her colored hair, eyebrow ring, impulsive nature, series of not-great boyfriends, and devotion to causes (and creating trouble), her parents — her mother, especially — are at their wits end. So, after being accused (by her mother) of burning a barn down while on summer vacation, Pinky blurts out that she has a boyfriend her parents would approve of. She just needs to find that boyfriend, stat.

Samir Jha has everything planned out: he’s going to DC for the summer to do a high-stakes internship as part of his goal to getting into Harvard. However, when that suddenly falls through, he’s pretty aimless. Then he gets a text from Pinky — who he knows, but not well — out of the blue: come pretend to be her boyfriend for the summer, and she will make sure he gets an internship with her mother, a high profile lawyer. Against his better judgement, Samir accepts. It should be easy, except for one catch: he can’t actually stand Pinky’s impulsiveness. The feeling’s mutual: Pinky thinks Samir is boring. How are they going to survive the summer?

Oh this was cute. Sure, it’s a formulaic rom-com, but that’s kind of what one wants out of a romance story. And it has a couple of additional layers: Pinky’s conflicted relationship with her mom (due to a lack of communication on both sides) and Pinky getting involved in a local dispute with a developer trying to develop a habitat at their summer home. But those just added to the overall cuteness and just happy-making of the book. Menon really does have a gift for making light, fun, sweet romances and I am more than happy to read every one of them.

The Fire Next Time

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing and use of the n-word. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

This is two essays — or one essay and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew — on the state of being Black in America. In 1962. Short version: It wasn’t easy. And it’s a sign of my privilege that I am just now realizing two things: 1) that life for a Black person in the early 1960s was not an easy or enjoyable one and 2) that it’s not changed very much for very many people in nearly 60 years. That’s the thing that stood out to me most about this book: it’s still relevant. And it shouldn’t be. This book should never have had to be written. This book shouldn’t have to be still relevant. And yet, it was and is. And it’s a sign that I am a privileged person that I am just NOW realizing this.

I think I enjoyed this more than If Beale Street Could Talk, because I think Baldwin’s style is more suited to essays and rumination than fiction. He has a very thoughtful, lyrical prose style which I thought suited both the impassioned letter to his nephew (which brought to mind Between the World and Me) and his essay about his youth and experiences with the Nation of Islam.

It’s definitely an excellent book.

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.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

Tigers, Not Daughters

by Samantha Mabry
First sentence: “The window to Anna Torres’s second-story bedroom faced Hector’s house, and every night she’d undress with the curtains wide open, in full view of the street.”
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Content: There are a lot of swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There is also a lot of talk about teen sex and some teen drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The four Torres sisters live in an unhappy house. Their mother died when the youngest, Rosa, was born, and their father hasn’t been the same since. But their one attempt at running away was foiled. And a year later, the oldest sister, Ana, was dead.

The three remaining sisters have been grieving in their own way. And a year after Ana’s death they’re at a breaking point. And when Ana’s ghost shows up, it pushes the rest of the girls over the edge.

This is a little bit family drama, a little bit empowerment story, and a little bit ghost story, and Mabry makes it all work together excellently. The narrative switches between the three surviving sisters, as the story of Ana’s death, and their home life, unfolds. It’s a celebration of sisterhood — not just actually having sisters, but the act of women working together and supporting each other. And how we are stronger together than apart. It’s about grief and healing and support and the intersection of those three.

It’s an excellent story. I really ought to read more of Mabry’s book.

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
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Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

When Robin Ha was 14, in 1995, her mother married a Korean man in America and uprooted their life in Seoul, moving them to Alabama. Robin was shocked and upset (partially because her mother told them they were going on vacation, and then sprung it on her when they were already there) because she liked her life in Korea. She had friends, she liked her neighborhood, she liked her school. She fit.

And suddenly, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know much English and the kids in Alabama are cruel to an outsider. In this graphic memoir, Robin tells the story of the year she learned to adapt and learn and try to fit in. It’s an interesting immigrant story, but it’s also the story of how her mother didn’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal Korean society (she was a single mother who had never been married, and that’s looked down upon) and wanted not only a better life for her daughter, but a freer one for herself. Ha reflects on the dual nature of being Korean and living in America, and eventually not quite fitting in either place.

A customer at the bookstore pointed me in the direction of this one. She’s on a bit of a Korea kick, and she said this was one that helped her understand what life is like in Korea. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it did delve into Korean cultural mores, and it really portrayed how Ha often felt like she was in over her head. I liked Ha’s artistic style as well. Everything was written in English, but she color coded the text bubbles: blue for Korean, black for English. She used color and framing to help portray young Robin’s feelings of helplessness and anger, and in sepia-toned flashbacks, gave readers her mother’s story and Robin’s history in Seoul.

It’s an excellent graphic memoir, and definitely one worth reading.

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