Return to Sender

by Julia Alvarez
First sentence: “Tyler looks out the window of his bedroom and can’t believe what he is seeing.”
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Content: There’s a bully, and some conflict. And it’s a bit on the longer side. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I’m taking a mulitcultural children’s literature class, and this one is on the list. I was a little way in, and I thought it felt familiar, so I looked it up, and yep: I’ve read it before. Except this time, because it’s for a class, I felt a need to finish it.

It’s told in two voices: Tyler, the son of white dairy farmers in Vermont who are going through a rough patch and need to hire people to help out. They go with the cheap option, and hire a family of migrant workers, who are in the U.S. illegally. And Mari, the daughter of the Mexican family.

There are Things Going On: not just the threat of a raid since they hired undocumented workers, but Mari fitting in at school, the fact that Mari’s mom has disappeared (she went home to Mexico for her mother’s funeral and hasn’t come back yet, even though she started), and just general pre-teenage angst in general.

I found it less preachy this time — mostly because I hadn’t remembered that issues of undocumented immigration or the wall was an issue back in 2005-2006. I found that aspect of it interesting. The idea of The Wall isn’t new, it’s just the most recent manifestation of people who want to enter this country and our extreme dislike for letting them in.

But it was’t a great story either. I didn’t like the format; Tyler’s chapters were odd (written in the present tense) and Mari’s chapters were all letters, which I found a bit hard to suspend my disbelief. I don’t usually mind epistolary novels, but this one was just a bit much.

I finished it this time, sure, but it’s not one of my favorites.

Audio book: Disappeared

by Francisco X. Stork
Read by: Roxana Ortega and  Christian Barillas
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Listen to it on Libro.fm
Content: There is talk of selling and doing drugs, of girls being kidnapped and sold into the sex trade and there’s violence.  It’s not explicit, but it is there. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

This one is hard to describe: nominally, it’s the after-effects of what happens to one reporter in Juarez, Mexico, when she won’t stop trying to find her friend who disappeared one night. Sara has spent the last four months trying to honor her friend, mostly through telling the stories of all the girls who have disappeared over the years in Juarez. But, she hits too close to home, and she sets off a chain of events that puts her and her family — her mother and brother — in danger.

But it’s also the story of her brother, Emiliano, who has fallen for a rich girl. The problem: he’s not. Sure, he works hard, has a small folk art business, helps out his family. But he can’t provide for this girl the way her family wants him to. Not without going into “business” in the one trade that makes money in Juarez: drugs.

I’ve not read all of Stork’s writing, but every time I read one of his books I am reminded what a powerful storyteller he is. He weaves together Sara and Emiliano’s stories in a way that they compliment each other, coming to a head at the climax. He had me on the edge of my seat (figuratively, since I was driving much of the time) wondering what was coming next. And while it isn’t a happy ending, it’s an honest and hopeful one.

And the readers were fabulous. Both of them make the story come alive, helped me connect to this tale.

Highly recommended.

Just One Year

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “It’s the dream I always have: I’m on a plane, high above the clouds.”
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Content: There are a half-dozen f-bombs in addition to a handful of other milder swear words. Also there’s off-screen sex and some drug use. For these reasons, the book is in the Teen (ages 14+) section of the bookstore.
Others in the series: Just One Day

The book opens with Willem de Reuter, Dutch actor and playboy, waking from a coma. For those who have read Just One Day, you know exactly what point in the overarching story of Willem and Allyson that this picks up. The question is: where does Willem go from here?

While I’ve known that this book was coming out since reading Just One Day, I have to admit that I’m not sure it needed a companion book, or that Willem’s side of  the story needed to be told. That said, I was curious about Willem as a character, and the path that he took over the year that Allyson was trying to figure herself out. It turns out that while Willem’s path was more adventurous than Allyson’s, it essentially was the same: he needed to figure himself out.

However, it was Willem’s adventurous lifestyle that made the book for me. He couldn’t shake the memory of Allyson — or Lulu as he called her — and the searching for her (and, inadvertently, the healing from the grief of his father’s death three years before) took him to Mexico and India as well as through rural Netherlands and Amsterdam. I’m a sucker for books like these, ones where the main character gets to travel the world, giving himself over to the experience of seeing things.

And even though Willem is uncertain about his direction and, admittedly, a bit angsty (or in a funk a we’d call it around our house), he’s a pretty amiable character to be traveling the world with. I love how he picks up friends as he wanders from place to place. And how he just falls into experiences. It seems so… effortless.

I do understand that in many ways this is a fantasy. Not only the love-at-first-sight thing, but also the Fate/Kismet/Karma thing. No one’s life is that effortless, that charmed, that fate-driven. But, it was a nice fantasy to immerse oneself in for a while to get away from the drugery of “real” life.