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!)

 

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From Twinkle, With Love

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “Hello, namaste, buenos dias, and bonjour, Mira Nair!
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, and lots of kissing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Twinkle is a budding filmmaker. She loves looking at the world through the eye of her camera lens, and it’s what she wants to do with her life. She has a YouTube channel (though not many subscribers), and a dream. The rest of her life isn’t so hopeful: she’s not really high up on the popularity totem pole at her prep school, her best friend has begun to ditch her for other girls (who are higher up in popularity), and her parents are often gone. Thankfully, she has her grandmother and her crush on the most popular kid in school, Neil.

Then comes the Midsummer Festival. Popular guy’s twin brother, Sahil, talks Twinkle into making a film — they decide a gender-swapped Dracula — and that fact sets a whole lot in motion.

I wanted to like this. It’s got everything that should hit for me in a summer romance: a cute guy, some conflict, a lot of swoony situations… it feels like a Bollywood film with kissing. I should have loved it.

But, I didn’t. I was talking to a co-worker about it, and she said that Twinkle was annoying — and she was, being so obsessed with being popular and getting her friend “back” that she didn’t realize what was right in front of her — and because of that, she couldn’t get into the book. I think that’s a lot of it. Twinkle was very human, and very much a teenage girl, and I appreciated that. I thought the relationships, at least between the girls, were very realistic. Maybe what didn’t sit well with me was the juxtaposition between the friendship arc and the romance arc. The romance was all very “true love”-y; Sahil’s had a thing for Twinkle since they were 11 and he’s finally on it (that’s what came off as unrealistic to me!) and he’s all “you’re my One True Love”, and I think that’s (for a high school book) what didn’t work for me. I understood the friendships, and Twinkle’s desire not to have things change, but when you put that in the same book as a meet-cute, fluffy summer romance that you’r trying to make weightier with declarations of True Love. Maybe that’s also what didn’t quite sit well with me. If Menon had just kept it fluffy, Bollywood-like (with kissing!), then maybe I would have liked it better.

145th Street

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The way I see it, things happen on 145th Street that don’t happen anywhere else in the world.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s violence but the stories are short and to the point. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’ll be honest here. I’m not a fan of short stories, and I had to read one for class, and I’ve never read Walter Dean Myers, so I picked this one. All the stories surround people on this street in New York (in Harlem?), their lives and experiences. But, as I sit back and think about this, what comes to mind are the stories in Bronx Masquerade. Which means this one just kind of went in but slid right out. I’m pretty sure I looked at the words and turned the pages, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I read.

I’m sure that’s not because Myers isn’t a good writer. It’s more I’m not a great reader of short stories.

Bronx Masquerade

by Nikki Grimes
First sentence: “I ain’t particular about doing homework, you understand.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some tough situations, but nothing “objectionable”. The format — short stories with poetry — is great for reluctant readers, as well. It would be in the young adult (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

I read this back during my poetry section of class and was expecting a novel in verse. While I don’t think it’s that, it is a fascinating look into the power of poetry. Set in the Bronx (obviously), the book follows a group of students in an English class as they study the Harlem Renaissance, and then decide they want to try writing poetry themselves. That turns into an Open Mike Friday once a month, which morphs into once a week, as the various students — black, Latnix, and white — learn to express themselves and understand other people throughout the year. Interspersed with commentary from our “narrator” Tyrone, it’s a good look at how poetry not only can help people express ideas and feelings they couldn’t otherwise, it also is a way to understand other people.

I liked how we got a peek into a bunch of different lives, even if that meant we didn’t get to delve deeply into one person. I think the purpose of the novel was to explore connections that poetry makes, not so much to explore one person, and once I realized that, I was able to enjoy the book more. I’ve never read anything by Nikki Grimes before, though I’ve heard a lot about her, and this made me curious. I’ll definitely have to check more of it out.

March (Book Two and Three)

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
First sentence: “Brother John — Good to see you.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (book 2, book 3).
Others in the series: March (Book One)
Content: There is a lot of violence, and use of the n-word. It’s in the non-fiction area of the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This picks up where March (Book One) leaves off. Lewis is part of student non-violent protests in Nashville in the early 1960s, but soon leaves that to join the Freedom Riders: a group of African Americans who, in 1961-1962, put supposed desegregation to the test. They rode Greyhound buses though the south, stopping at cities in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, with — as you would guess — pretty disastrous results. They were yelled at, beaten, arrested, thrown in jail, loaded up in cars and left in Klan territory, and the buses were blown up… let’s just say that, in short, white people in the south were TERRIBLE people.

All through this, Lewis (and others) preached the gospel of non-violence (which just makes white people look like terrorists. Really.): they didn’t fight back, they didn’t talk back, they just exercised their right (!) to do what they feel they had a right to do.

The book also follows Lewis through the March on Washington in 1963. (I didn’t know he was there, or even that he spoke! In fact, there’s a side note by him that out of everyone who spoke, he was the only one still living.) It was fascinating, learning about the politics behind that march, and about Robert Kennedy’s change of heart as well.

It’s a well-done graphic novel, one that is still very timely to read. As a white person, it definitely made me more aware of what people went through in the 1960s to get just basic rights, and I’m more aware now of how those rights aren’t still completely equal

March (Book Three) picks up after the church bombing the beginning of 1964 and goes through the march from Selma to Birmingham. My thoughts are pretty much the same as after reading book two: white people are so entrenched in their “way of life” that they can’t abide by change at all. And the thing I kept coming back to was that, in the intervening 54 years, that white people are still entrenched in their “way of life”, we just call it by different things now. It’s still racism. And it still is wrong. This one was difficult to read, and made me think, over and over, that an eye for an eye just makes everyone blind. I hope I’d have the courage to stand up to those who use their power to make others “less than”, those who call others “animals” or “dirty” or “from s-hole countries”, those who want to abuse their power to keep themselves in power… even if it means sacrificing my life. John Lewis and all those who stood by him are true heroes, and I wish there were more people like them now.

Excellent.

Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amal has a goal: she loves school, and wants to go to college and become a teacher. It seems simple, but for a 12-year-old girl in a Pakistani village, it’s means everything, She sees her future before her, and feels like she can make a difference.

That is, until one day she decides to stand up for herself… with the wrong person. Jawal Sahib is a member of the Khan clan, the people with the most money and influence in the region. And he’s not a person you cross. So, the next thing Amal knows, her father’s debts have been called in (he took out loans to cover his orange groves), and he can’t pay. So Jawal Sahib takes Amal as “payment”. She’s put to work in the household as a personal servant for Jawal Sahib’s mother, Nasreen Baji. It’s not something Amal wants, but she has no choice. And so, she tries to make the best of a (very bad) situation.

There’s more to the story than that; Saeed not only deals with involuntary servitude but also the treatment and education of women, she touches on corruption in politics and commerce in Pakistan; the Khans are so influential because they have bribed so many people. It’s enough that Jawal Sahib feels that he is above the law, and everyone beneath him is resigned: that’s just the way things are.

It’s a very stark picture of what life can be like in Pakistan, and how many people are just scraping by while a few get rich off their backs. But it’s not a depressing one: Amal is an incredible character to spend a book with, one who really does find ways to make life bearable and who tries to make a difference wherever she goes.

And Saeed knows how to tell a story that will keep younger readers engaged as well.

Excellent.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1

by M. T. Anderson
First sentence: “I was raised in a gaunt houses with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s violence and talk of human bodily functions. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore if we had it.

Octavian had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the house with a bunch of rational philosophers (in the Novanglina College of Lucidity) where his every move was studied and cataloged. He was dressed in the finest silks, taught to play the violin and speak Greek and Latin and French. And he had no idea he was black and a slave. That is, until the sponsorship for the society lapsed and they found a new person to sponsor them, someone who felt that Africans were truly less than people. From there, Octavian’s life changes, and not for the better. He escapes, and gets involved in the Revolutionary War.

I heard lots of good things about this one when it first came out, and it won the National Book Award and a Printz honor. I wanted to like it, to understand what all the excitement was about it. But. Times have changed in the past 12 years, and I’ve changed a bit with them, and the one thing I couldn’t get past was that this felt like appropriation. I like Anderson as a writer (for the most part), but to write a slave story just felt… wrong. Yeah, he made some of the white people sufficiently awful (well, one of them anyway), but he also has a literal white savior narrative at the end of the book which really sat poorly with me. And to be honest, I lost interest. I kind of skimmed through the last third of the book, just to see what happened, but I wasn’t engaged.

And I have no interest in reading the second part. I wish I had liked this better.