Merci Suarez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “To think, only yesterday I was in chanletas, sipping lemonade, and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some difficult situations with Merci’s grandfather and some intense moments and older themes. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5), but it would probably be better for the older end of the spectrum.

Merci Suarez likes her life: she lives with her parents and her older brother next door to her aunt and her twin sons on one side and her grandparents on the other. They’re happy as a family, with their traditions and squabbles, and she doesn’t want things to change. But, she’s started 6th grade, with all the pressure that brings, and her brother is a senior in high school and is going to be leaving for college. And, then her beloved grandpa starts forgetting things and acting strangely. And then there’s that girl (THAT girl) at school who Merci thought she was friends with, but turns out to be nothing but a thorn in Merci’s side.

The question is: how is Merci going to deal with everything being different?

This is a perfect little book about friendship and family and figuring out how to manage change. Merci isn’t perfect, which I appreciated, and I enjoyed the fact that the conflict came from something other than bad parents. Merci’s parents are supportive of her, and encourage her in her education. I felt for her at times, especially because she had to make sacrifices with friends and school because of her family. It’s a very realistic portrait, and one I appreciated. I liked how Medina captured the Latinx family experience; it’s a good example why Own Voices is so important. I liked Merci’s story, and felt for her experiences, and I loved how Media wove in culture and heritage as well.

It’s an excellent book.

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Pride

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 18, 2018
Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think a 7th/8th grader who was interested would like it, as well.

I’ll admit this up front: I’m a sucker for Jane Austen retelings. I adore them, especially when they’re well-done. And this one, set in Brooklyn with class tensions (but not race) and feisty girls who speak their mind, this one is extremely well done.

The fun thing about this is that if you know Pride and Prejudice, you smile as Zoboi hits all the notes of the original. A rich family moves into the neighborhood where the Benitez family — of Dominican/Hatian blend — live. The family — the Darcys — are well-off African Americans, and they completely re-do the house all fancy. Because they can. And yeah, they look down their noses at the Benitezes, with their loud, immigrant ways and their spicy immigrant food, and well… everything. Zuri is the second daughter of this crazy family, and is about to start her senior year in high school. She is fiercely proud of her neighborhood and her family, and she doesn’t want a snotty rich brat, no matter how fine he is, stomping on her turf.

And, if you know the original, you know how it turns out. What I loved was that Zoboi paid homage to Austen while making the story thoroughly her own, and thoroughly modern. While I could sense the Austen book in the background, the everything felt organic and natural, and the characters more than just caricatures. Even if you don’t know the original, the plot made sense on its own, and I loved that Zoboi was able to do that. And I thought it was interesting for her to highlight the class differences within the African American community; it gave the book a depth it wouldn’t have if she had gone with a rich white/poor black narrative. And I appreciated that.

It was a delightful dip into a story I love but looking at it in a whole new light.

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.”
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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
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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!)

 

From Twinkle, With Love

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “Hello, namaste, buenos dias, and bonjour, Mira Nair!
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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.”
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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.