You Bring the Distant Near

by Mitali Perkins
First sentence: “The swimmers have finished their races and are basking in the sun.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This one is a difficult one to describe plot-wise. It’s a slice of life, looking at three generations of women in an Indian family as they move to America and make a life here. It starts with the mother, Ranee, and her two daughters, Sonia and Tara, as they move from London to New York in the early 1970s. Each of the daughters reacts differently to coming to America, each looking for their own way to cope. Ranee isn’t as adaptable: she complains about their apartment in Flushing, she complains about her husband sending money home. Then he passes on, and Ranee is forced to adapt to this country as her daughters grow up and get married, one to an Indian, the other to a black American man.

The book then picks up when Ranee’s granddaughters, Anna and Chantal, are in high school. They are dealing with their own issues: Chantal is bi-racial and is trying to figure out her own identity. And Anna, though American, was raised in Mumbai where her mother is a Bollywood star, but has recently moved back so she could go to high school and college in America.

Perkins handles all this admirably; giving us a taste of Bengali culture, as well as the things immigrants do in order to fit in. One of the more interesting parts of the novel, for me, was set after 9/11, when Ranee goes through her own transformation as a reaction to the terrorist attacks. She figures out what “American” means to her. And that sentence may be what’s at the heart of this delightful novel: what does “American” mean? Perhaps it has become an individual expression for everyone, and there isn’t a “norm” anymore. (That was probably always the way it was, but we pretended otherwise.) Which is, as posited by this book, a very good thing.

An excellent read.

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Pashmina

by Nidhi Chanani
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: The main character is in high school, and there is some references to sex. I’m not 100% sure if it’d put it in Middle Grade Graphic Novels, but it doesn’t feel like it fits in with the Teen Graphic Novels either. Hm.

Priyanka Das has a decent life: she and her mom live in America, and whileshe has unanswered questions about her father, or why her mother left India, she has a pretty good life. That is, until Pri’s curiosity about India gets sparked by a magical pashmina Pri finds in her mother’s suitcase. The pashmina gives Pri a glimpse of India, and she desperately wants to go. And she does, eventually. But when she gets there, it’s nothing like she expected, and yet everything she wanted.

On the one hand, this is written by an Indian, and it very much embraces the “India as amazing homeland” narrative that so often comes up in Bollywood movies. The narrative that one can find oneself in India is not a new one, and yet it still is something that resonates. It works here, primarily because it’s not a white person co-opting that (says the white person), but because Pri’s does actually need to go to India to see what it was her mother left behind. I liked that part of the story. The magical pashmina, though, didn’t do much for me. It does have a good reason to be there — it specifically helps women take charge of their lives — but it felt, well, forced. That, and Pri felt younger than she was in the book, which was a slight disconnect.

Even with those (slight) criticisms, it was a good story about family, and about how learning about your family’s past helps accept and understand your present. It was also nice to “visit” India for a bit.

A good debut novel.

The First Rule of Punk

by Celia C. Pérez
First sentence: “Dad says punk rock only comes in one volume: loud.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some lying (by omission) and some middle school drama. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, though 6th-7th graders might like it too.

Mariá Luisa (call her Malú please) is NOT happy about moving to Chicago. She wants to stay where she is, in her own school, splitting her time between her house and her father’s record store. But, her mom got a job in Chicago teaching Mexican literature, so they’re moving. And so she has to start over. Which is additionally hard because she’s in a school with a large Mexican American population, and Malú is struggling to find her own identity, especially with her mother always harping on Malú’s love of punk music.

But, she slowly finds her crowd in this new school, and maybe even some friends, although she makes some enemies as well (inevitable). Maybe she can find a balance in this new place.

I loved this one! Malú is a seriously great character, and I loved how Pérez wove in Mexican culture and history through the work. I loved the inclusion of punk music (and lifestyle) and actually really liked the conflict between Malú and her mom (it’s SO hard to let kids be themselves and not what we want them to be). I loved the zines in the book, and Malú’s slow acceptance of her new school and neighborhood. It was just an excellent story all around.

Solo

by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There’s some drug use and drinking, mostly by adults. It’s in the Teen Section (grades 9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th/8th grader who is interested.

Blade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, whose career has been in a steady decline for most of Blade’s life. Drugs, alcohol, and Blade’s mom’s death all contributed to the decline, and Blade has lost patience with his father. Especially when he shows up, mostly naked, at Blade’s graduation. It also doesn’t help that his girlfriend’s father has forbidden her to see him. So, when a long-kept family secret comes out and Blade ends up half way across the world, he is given a chance to figure out his own life and maybe figure out his relationship with his family.

On the one hand, this was a super privileged book, with its Hollywood sensibilities with parties and drugs (mostly on the part of Blade’s dad) and Misratis and paparazzi. And when Blade gets to Ghana, there’s a LOT of “things are solved through the simple people” going on, which didn’t really sit that well with me. (Maybe it’s me?)

That said, Alexander and Hess’s poetry is lovely, and I loved how they incorporated music. There’s a line, near the end of the book about how, in spite of everything, music is something that binds us and brings us together, and that resonated so very much with me. Rock-n-roll, R&B, jazz, classical… music is universal and helps heal, and Alexander and Hess captured that perfectly. Which, in spite of the little complaints I had, really made this book, well, sing.

The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some almost sex, and some drinking. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I came to this one in a round-about way. I have a teen review group, and one of them read this (and loved it), and so I didn’t feel a need to read it. Too many other things on the pile. Then, it became a big thing (and rightly so), being talked about all over the internets. and so we picked it to be a part of our summer teen book group. And that is really what pushed me to read it. (If all else fails: pick it for a book group. I’ll read it then!)

As one of my co-workers said, I’m reading this as a privileged white woman, and it makes one VERY aware of that privilege. At first, I thought I was not hip enough for Starr and her world, but after a couple of chapters, I found myself immersed in the world Starr inhabits. Thomas very eloquently shows (not tells!) the reader what it’s like to live in the inner city, the conflict- both with the “system” and with each other – that they face every day.

The basic plot is this: Starr is at a party, when a shooting happens. As everyone is fleeing, she ends up with an old friend, Khalil, and they end up getting pulled over by a white cop. And, because this unfortunately happens too often, the cop shoots Khalil. And from there, the story follows Starr as she deals with the aftermath of that. From dealing with PTSD after the experience (it’s her second friend who has been shot and killed), to dealing with being a witness at the grand jury (and all the implications that brings), to dealing with the balance between her home life and her school life — she goes to a prep school in the suburbs — and her friends there. Thomas treats everything complexly and is incredibly forthright and honest about absolutely everything. It’s an excellent portrait of the life of a black teenager and an important book, especially for a white person to read.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

by Maurene Goo
First sentence: “When I was seven, I thought I moved a pencil with my mind.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s a propensity to use the s-word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8; I debated, but decided that it ultimately wen there) of the bookstore.

Desi does it all: she’s student body president, involved in practically every club, soccer star, valedictorian, and a model daughter for her dad (especially since her mom’s sudden death seven years before). The only thing she doesn’t have (and hasn’t ever had): a boyfriend.  And then Luca shows up at her school: reserved, artistic, with a shady past, and that… something… that makes him completley desirable to Desi. The problem? Desi is absolutely lousy at flirting. (Or as her two best friends, Fiona and Wes, call what she does: flailure.) So, Desi turns to one of her father’s passions to get help, and starts binge-watching K-Dramas. She comes up with a list of 28 tried-and-true (and also a bit cliche) steps to Get the Guy and starts her project.

The best part of this incredibly sweet book is that you don’t have to know K-Dramas (though I suppose it helps) in order to enjoy that this is parodying K-Dramas while also following the formula. (It’s  Jane the Virgin in book form!) Yes, there’s a definite arc to the book, but it feels, well a bit wink-wink-nudge-nudge about it all. It’s very self-aware, and that was something I really enjoyed about it. That, and the father-daughter relationship. Sure, there’s a dead mom, but Desi’s dad is the most well-adjusted adult in a YA novel I’ve read in a while. I liked that he was a mechanic with a passion for funny shows (Desi was named after Desi Arnez) and K-Dramas. I liked his relationship with Desi, and the love that I could sense between the two.

It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s a little silly, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “I’m officially resigning from love.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a bit more, well, mushy than your usual middle grade fare, but it doesn’t smack of YA quite yet. While it’s in that nice spot for 10-12-year-olds, it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. I may change that and put it in the YA. We’ll see.

It’s the summer after 7th grade, and Arturo Zamora is ready to have a good one. He’s working at his family’s restaurant, hanging out with friends in his Miami neighborhood. That all changes, however, when a big developer decides to make a bid for the lot next door to the restaurant, the one which the Zamora’s were hoping to purchase from the city for their expansion, and has plans to put in a fancy new “exclusive” building. All of a sudden Arutro’s summer has turned into fighting this developer, and figuring out his place in the family. Not to mention his burgeoning feelings for his mother’s goddaughter, Carmen. It’s going to be quite the summer.

This was a really fun book. I enjoyed Arturo’s attempts to figure himself out. I loved the Cubano culture that threaded itself through the book. I loved Arturo’s relationship with his grandmother and mother. Even the slight romance wasn’t overdone. I loved that the Spanish was woven seamlessly in the book, often without English translation. It felt more authentic that way. And I also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Zamora’s and cheering the little guy in the fight against Big Man. Definitely one to check out.