Dominicana

by Angie Cruz
First sentence: “The first time Juan Ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat-chested.”
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Content: There is swearing, domestic violence and rape. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Ana Canción is a 15-year-old girl living in the Domincan Republic. It’s 1965, and all her family wants is for her to marry well, particularly a Dominican who has immigrated to America. So when 32 year old Juan Ruiz proposes (seriously: he’s 32! She’s 15!) her parents basically sell her to him (well, they give Juan a piece of their land in order to get him to take her) and she’s off to New York.

Where life is hard. Juan has a lover, Caridad, and is always going to see her. And he’s abusive — both physically and controlling her life and who she sees and talks to — on top of that. So, when he’s called back to the Dominican Republic to hold onto some land during the revolution, Ana takes the opportunity to enjoy life: take some English classes, start a small business, fall in love with Juan’s brother Ceasar.

And because it’s an adult book, that doesn’t mean there’s a happily ever after.

I liked that it was an immigrant story. I liked hearing Ana’s perspective about America, and how hard these characters worked to make ends meet. They hustled and worked and saved and tried their hardest. And though Cruz didn’t directly touch on racism and discrimination, it was an undercurrent. I appreciated that she even brought up the Ruiz brother’s attitudes towards Jewish or black people; racism comes in many shapes and forms. I appreciated how hard it was for Ana to make friends (though much of that was Juan’s abuse) and how hard it was for her to find a place.

But I had a hard time stomaching the abuse. A really hard time. It was abuse and rape, and a 17 year age difference (!) and while I finished the book, I couldn’t, in the end, get past those parts of the story.

I know that this book was being raved about, and I do agree that immigrant stories need to be told. I just wish this one was easier (for me) to take.

Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some arguing, but mostly it’s pretty good for the age group — 8-12 — that it’s aimed for. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amara wants one thing for her 12th birthday: to go see her father’s home and family in New York City. She’d love to go by herself, but she’ll take going with her father on a business trip. The problem? Her father hasn’t spoken to her grandfather in 12 years, since Amara was born and her grandmother passed away.

It takes a while (probably a bit longer than it should for the pacing in the book, but that’s being nitpick-y), but Amara is on her way to Harlem to see her grandfather, aunt, and cousins (whom she has only spoken to). It’s awkward, especially since her cousins are 14 and 16 and don’t really want to hang out with her. Amara has a few adventures (and mis-adventures) and learns about her own personal history as well as African American history in Harlem.

I enjoyed the book, mostly for the history as well as the class tensions between Amara — who is decidedly upper middle class — and her cousins — who are not. I liked Amara as a character, and I think Watson got the middle grade voice right, even if the pacing was slightly off.

In the end, it was a sweet story about learning the importance of where you (or your people) came from.

Audiobook: Save Me the Plums

by Ruth Reichl
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I adore Ruth Reichl and have since I read Tender at the Bone a very long time ago. (While I was listening to this, I was wondering if I knew who she was before she became the editor in chief of Gourmet, or after. I’m still not quite sure.) She has a way with telling a story (granted: I have not read her work of fiction) and with writing about food. And this book — the memoir of her time as Gourmet editor in chief from 1999-2009, when the magazine folded — is no exception.

Reichl weaves the story of how she became the editor in chief and her experiences with Condé Nast with memories of growing up and her family, both her parents and her husband and son. She tells stories of how stories came to be, of working with editors and art directors and photographers and chefs. As someone who once studied journalism and who has an affection for the profession, I adored this. I loved seeing the inner workings of a magazine (and was wistful: in another universe, I am a food and travel writer, I think) and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she talks about food.

I know some of my co-workers haven’t enjoyed this as much as they liked her other books, but I disagree: this is quintessential Ruth Reichl, talking about what she knows best: food and community.

I especially loved it on audio: she is a fantastic narrator, and knows how to make you feel like you’re sitting with her as she spins these tales. I absolutely loved it and am very sad that it’s done.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

by Karina Yan Glaser
First sentence: “In the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street, inside a brownstone made of deep red shale, the Vanderbeeker family gathered in the living room for a family meeting.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a wee bit of “romance” (one of the siblings “likes” a boy and ends up going to the 8th grade dance). The chapters are short, and there’s a lot of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

The Vanderbeeker family — mom, dad, and five children (four girls and a boy) — are perfectly happy in their brownstone apartment (one of three) in Harlem. They know the neighborhood, and even though they’re a bit squished, they love their home. That is, until their landlord, Mr. Beiderman, tells them a few days before Christmas, that he’s not renewing their lease for the next year and that they have until December 31st to get out. The Vanderbeeker parents are upset and resigned. The kids? Upset, but they’re going to do something about it! They being Operation Beiderman, They set about doing nice things for their grump of a landlord, in hopes that he will realize what a wonderful family they are and not kick them out.

You can probably already guess how this will end, but the plot really isn’t the point of the book. It reminded me of All of a Kind Family or The Penderwicks, where the actual point of the book was this charming, boisterous, delightful family that I loved getting to know. It was sweet and delightful and I loved the family dynamics between all the characters. This one is perfect for those who want a classic feel to their books. And I’m sure this would make a fabulous read-aloud to younger kids.

Definitely recommended.

What If It’s Us

whatifitsusby Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
First sentence: “I am not a New Yorker, and I want to go home.”
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Content: Loads and loads of f-bombs, some mild drinking, as well as some off-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s the summer before senior year, and Arthur Seuss is in New York City from Atlanta with is parents for the summer. His mom is a lawyer working on a big case, and he’s got an internship. But mostly, he’s there to see the city and hopefully a few Broadway shows. Love is definitely NOT on the radar.

And then he bumps into an attractive boy at the post office and he’s smitten. The problem? He didn’t get the boy’s name.

Ben is trying to just make it through the summer. He’s come off a bad breakup with his boyfriend, Hudson, and he’s stuck in summer school because he failed chemistry. He just wants to pass the class. Love is definitely NOT on the radar.

That is, until Arthur (and the universe) conspires to get them together.

So this is very rom-com-y: a meet-cute, they have to work to get together, ups and downs in a relationship… it hits all the tropes. But, it was still a lot of fun. Especially if you (like me) really like romcoms. I adored Arthur and his extra-ness, and Ben and his great Puerto Rican family. I loved the side characters (especially Dylan; he was so great) and it’s nice to have a couple sets of decent parents in a YA book.

So, while it’s not really breaking any new ground (maybe in that it’s a gay romcom?) it’s still an incredibly fun read.

A Room Away From the Wolves

roomawayfromthewolvesby  Nova Ren Suma
First sentence: “When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and abuse that could be triggering. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is going to be tough one for me to sum up, because I am not sure what, exactly, happened. The words were very pretty and I read the whole thing, but I, for the life of me, do NOT understand what happened.

There’s a girl — Bina — whose mother remarried when she was nine to a man with two daughters who were quite abusive to Bina. And so, the summer before Bina turns 18, her mother suggests she leaves. Bina goes to a place in New York City her mother had stayed when she was young, before Bina, the Catherine House. There are 14 girls in the house, where weird things happen, and they try to bring the ghost of Catherine back, and Bina’s super confused, and… I just lost the thread of what was going on.

I suppose this was meant to be a grand metaphor for something, and I’m sure there are people out there who like this atmospheric type of book with a hugely unreliable narrator, and I did finish it, to it’s not terrible.

It’s just that I need someone to explain it to me.

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.