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National Book Award/Finalist

Book Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Author: 
Sanchez, Erika L.
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Julia was happy that her older sister Olga fulfilled the role of "perfect Mexican daughter." Prim and proper, Olga always did what she was told and followed the rules. During Julia's junior year in high school, Olga was run over by a semi-truck and killed. After Olga's death, Julia is surprised when she finds some scandalous items in Olga's off-limits room. As Julia tries to learn more about her dead sister, she finds herself learning more about her family, friends, and ultimately, herself.

YA contemporary fiction is not really my thing - I went on a reading spree of this genre recently as I was reviewing my Goodreads "read" list from 2018 and realized that I have read zero books in this genre. Because I need to read it for work, I decided to go with award winning books and/or authors from a different background than myself. This book, a National Book Award finalist about the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in the US, met that metric and appealed to me on the diversity front. I gave it a go, and was quite pleasantly surprised.

Julia is an extremely sympathetic character, and not just because she does fairly well in the face of a lot of adversity. Her voice is at times raw and honest and at other times snarky and hilarious, which really worked for me. Even though we don't have a lot in common, I was able to connect with Julia and I really cared about her and her story.

There's a lot of character development as Julia slowly learns more about her family members and their pasts, and there's just enough intrigue to keep the pages turning.

In addition to being a good coming of age story, this book covers some really important topics. Obviously, there's a lot about grief and how we grieve differently. Julia is suffering from depression, and the book is not shy about discussing her mental illness. The end of the book is followed by a section entitled "Mental Health Resources." Moreover, I learned a bit about some aspects of Mexican culture, and I got to take a peak into the lives of folks who had recently immigrated into the US from Mexico.

Considering this wasn't really my thing in the first place, I quite enjoyed it! Readers of contemporary YA will like this one - its got a touch of romance, a likable protagonist, and loads of substance. 3.5 stars.

Reviewer's Name: 
Britt

Book Review: The Underground Railroad

Book Review: The Underground Railroad
Author: 
Whitehead, Colson
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

I listened to this book on audio, so I'm sure I missed bits and pieces. Cora's life as a slave in Georgia and through her journey on the underground railroad was fascinating. The depiction of the underground railroad as actually being an underground railroad was odd to me, but I'm sure there's some symbolism or other literary device that escapes me. Probably the most interesting part of this book was the section that took place in North Carolina. It was so indicative of the Third Reich that it was chilling. I found the ending to be abrupt, but still overall an interesting read.

Reviewer's Name: 
vfranklyn

Book Review: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs.The Homo Sapiens Agenda
Author: 
Albertalli, Becky
Rating: 
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review: 

Due to the fact that the new movie, "Love Simon", came out recently, I thought it'd be fitting to review the book it's based on! Simon is a mildly popular theatre kid who loves music - and is gay. One day he sees an anonymous message from another boy just like him on his school's Tumblr. His name is Blue, and over a series of emails, they form a kinship as they get to know each other better - without ever revealing their true identities. At the same time, a boy named Martin finds out about Simon and Blue's relationship and threatens to out Simon if he doesn't help Martin get to his crush, Abby. As the months pass, Simon realizes he's fallen in love with Blue and is determined to find out who he really is. The author drops clues throughout the whole novel as to who Blue might be, each one pointing to a different suspect. As each possible candidate was introduced, I felt everything from joy to confusion to dread. All in all, Albertalli creates an engaging and believable narrative of the experience of a gay teen I would recommend everyone to read.

Reviewer's Name: 
Mckenna R.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: 
Doerr, Anthony
Rating: 
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review: 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is the story of two teenagers living during World War Two. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is blind, and lives with her father in France. Werner Pfennig lives in a coal mining town in Germany. As war draws near, Marie-Laure and her father move to the French coast to try to avoid the war while Werner is pressed into service in the German army. Both of the main characters learn to accept and cope with war in their own unique ways. They come of age through the war, and learn to navigate their war-torn world. This novel was recommended to me by my grandmother. I took her recommendation eagerly, as I love studying history. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the author used different points of view to show many sides of one story. Each of the characters must learn to interpret their own experience whether that is Marie-Laure memorizing her way around her city or Werner in his military service. I found both of the main characters very relate-able, despite their story taking place decades ago. Marie-Laure has a never-ending curiosity and Werner is constantly questioning the morals he is presented by his society. These characteristics are things that I think many teenagers, of any era, can relate to. This has been one of my favorite reads this year, and I would highly recommend reading this novel.

Reviewer's Name: 
Hannah H.

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing
Author: 
Ward, Jesmyn
Rating: 
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review: 

Jo Jo and his mother Leonie have been living on a farm in rural Missisippi for their entire lives. Jo Jo's father, Michael, has been in jail for drug related crimes, and thus most of Jo Jo and his sister Kayla's upbringing has been done by their grandparents: the gruff but ultimately loving Pop and the cancer-ridden matriarch, Mam. Everyone's world is about to be upended, though, as time grows near for Michael to get out of prison.

Writing any sort of synopsis for this book was particularly challenging, as there's not much in the way of plot. I don't mean that in a bad way. I sometimes love books that focus solely character development, and that is absolutely what this is. The writing is insanely gorgeous and it's obvious from the gruesome beginning scene as to why this won the National Book Award.

Ward manages to make almost all of the characters relatable or lovable even as they do and say and think terrible things. She absolutely captures some of the wonderfully horrible aspects of the human condition, and here is a lot to love in this book.

That being said, I did not much care for certain aspects of the audiobook. First, by the time I got the book, I had forgotten what it was actually about. I did not remember that ghosts were a part of the story and was really confused for the first part of the book (are these flashbacks? how is that character here? I thought he was dead?), but I eventually figured it out. For me, the ghosts detracted from the story and I could have done without that element, even though magical realism is often my jam. The biggest problem for me, however, was Rutina Wesley's performance (which, hilariously enough, is why I went for this in audiobook format - I liked her in the few seasons I watched of True Blood). It was over enunciated especially given that Leonie is from Mississippi, and I found her parts to be melodramatic as there were a lot of weird pauses and words said breathlessly. It just didn't work for me, and I wanted to skip all of Leonie's parts.

If you would like to read a gorgeously written character study/family drama with a compelling setting, then this is a great bet. Just read it, don't listen to it. 3 stars.

Reviewer's Name: 
Britt

Book Review: The Pox Party

The Pox Party
Author: 
Anderson, M.T.
Rating: 
1 star = Yuck!
Review: 

I didn’t enjoy this book at all. It is not a classic but it is written like one. It is historical fiction and there is some pretty disgusting parts in this book. Warning: do not read before eating. However, do not let my opinion discourage you. You may love this book and you may not. I, on the other hand won’t read this book again.

Reviewer grade: 8th

Reviewer's Name: 
Elizabeth C.

Book Review: Pachinko

Pachinko
Author: 
Lee, Min Jin
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

Read a story of family, loyalty, racial prejudice and the meaning of difference. Enjoy the individual triumphs and failures of several generations of one family and changes they experience as they live and learn. Find out about the old time gambling sport, pachinko and its effects on an extraordinary family. This is the kind of book that makes you miss your "friends" when you finish it.

Reviewer's Name: 
Parris

Book Review: Ghost

Ghost
Author: 
Reynolds, Jason
Rating: 
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review: 

Jason Reynolds (author) + Guy Lockhard* (narrator) = Magic

Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost, has been running from things his whole life: his violent father, the consequences of altercations at school with a bully, and most of all, the anger that's been building up inside him. So Ghost has a ton of natural talent, which he puts to use when he inadvertently impresses the coach of a local track team. After the coach begs him to join, and Ghost reluctantly agrees, he begins to see that he might be happier if he runs towards something instead of away from everything.

I listened to this audiobook, and it was excellent. I really struggle with middle grade fiction, as I oftentimes have trouble identifying with the characters (I mean, middle school was a loooooooong time ago), but Reynolds took me right back to the thick of it. In a good way. The day-making/ruining things your classmates would say, interactions with adults in positions of authority, and not really being sure about who you are and what you want in life - Reynolds nails it all. Moreover, Ghost is just a straight up likable character, even as he makes poor decision after poor decision. We really get to see him grow over the course of the novel, and even as he does the wrong thing, his heart is usually in the right place. I loved his relationship with his mother, and later, with Coach. There aren't always positive adult relationships in fiction for young people, and so it was nice that Ghost had so many adults that he could turn to. The secondary characters were just as dynamic, and also had very serious problems of their own to deal with. I'd read a book about any of them. Shoot, I wanted to adopt most of them. As a runner myself (although I'm not competitive and do longer distances), I really liked that the book was about track as it's not a sport we read or hear a lot about. There's a bit about fartleks that was pretty hilarious, and I think runners (Land Sharks, anyone?) will find a lot to love here.

If you are looking for a book to listen to or read with your kids, this is a great one. There are loads of teachable moments, and it is ultimately a heartwarming tale of self-discovery. I couldn't get enough of it - 5 stars.

*Shout out to Guy Lockhard - he narrated the other Jason Reynolds book that I've listened to (All American Boys), and he is a fantastic narrator. It seems like Reynolds thinks so as well, because it looks like Lockhard will be narrating Reynolds' recently released book about Spiderman Miles Morales. I may have just put that on hold...

Reviewer's Name: 
Britt

Book Review:To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: 
Lee, Harper
Rating: 
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review: 

Although it was a little hard for me to get into this book, once I did I was hooked. This book is about Scout, a 7 year old girl who is dealing with the hardship of her father having to defend a black man of rape in the 1940's. Along the way, Scout and her brother Jem meet Dill and they spend their summers together. Dill wants to get Boo Radley to come out of his house, and in the end, he does. With this book is the message to put yourself into others shoes to see how they feel. A classic book, great for anyone.

Reviewer's Name: 
Alex

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