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National Book Award/Finalist

Book Review: Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree
Author: 
Benway, Robin
Rating: 
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review: 

Putting up her baby for adoption after getting pregnant at 16 left Grace sad and something missing in her life, something that her adoptive parents could never fill. Grace's longing to find her own birth mother increased, but she was unreachable, and Grace was heartbroken, bullied, and alone. Then, Grace discovered she had siblings. Maya, a 15 year old spunky and bold brown haired daughter in a family of redheads, was adopted by rich parents who only months later had their biological daughter, Lauren. Joaquin, a 17 year old bounced around in the foster care system for all his life, with many failed foster parents and one failed adoption. When his current foster parents express their interest in adopting him, Joaquin is scared of having a rebound of his younger days. With a longing for someone else to call family, Grace reaches out to her biological siblings. They bond quickly, sharing interests in odd food combinations and growing closer due to their shared genes. However, each sibling still keeps their own secrets among the laughter the share. Maya hides from telling about her mother's alcohol addiction, Joaquin won't tell his siblings about his previous failed adoption, and Grace is scared about telling her siblings about her pregnancy and baby.
Grace expresses her interest in finding their birth mother to secretly attempt to fill the hole her baby made in her heart, but neither Maya or Joaquin want to participate after the betrayal they experienced. Meanwhile, Lauren, Maya's sister, is scared about Maya not wanting to be with her anymore when Maya gets closer to her "real" siblings. In this heartbreaking, bittersweet, and empowering book, Robin Benway perfectly captures what is really means to be family.

Reviewer's Name: 
Anna C.

Book Review: Home

Home
Author: 
Robinson, Marilynne
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

This book is not some trite, feel-good, cliche-gushing, sappy-ending kind of book. I'd say rather, Robinson portrays a little love for Flannery O'Connor in her writing. But a reader must remember that an author writes this way, not always to be dark for darkness sake (like Poe), but to sketch the world as she believes it really is. Home portrays the world as a messy place, with the messiest of all places on earth being the human heart.

Jack Boughton has wandered the world for 20 years as the wayward son of a faithful pastor but returns back home, just before his father passes away.
Jack relives much of his childhood as he returns to this home he has been gone from his whole adult life. Here he must face the remembrance of not belonging to something lovely, something he was and still is cut off from. He sees how a darkness in his heart has kept him from the light, the warmth, the fondness of family love. He has been a heartache to his parents and this he hates. But hating oneself is not the same thing as redemption; neither is regret; neither is simply making a physical trip to one’s childhood home, nor caring for your father for the last few weeks of his life. Reminiscing with your little sister and visiting all your old haunts, no, none of these things alone makes for redemption. It is much more complicated than all of that, and can only happen in the heart. Like many good books, the reader is not given a pat, 5-step plan. The path is left ambiguous. But we are only given hints. Jack whispers one of the deepest longings of every human heart, when he says to his father under his breath, “Bless me, even me also, O my father.” (From Genesis 27:34)

There is no tidy reconciliation scene between father and son, although Jack at one point tries to fake a change in his beliefs to ease his father's last days, but his father sees right through it. However, before the book ends, Jack receives a blessing from his namesake, his father’s best friend, and this is where the unexpected power to both forgive and to claim a promise, pierces through the binding darkness that Jack on his own could never have escaped.

A father who loves unconditionally a wayward son, and a life-long family friend who intercedes between a father and a son who love each other but can't understand each other, these two things are among the strongest forces on earth.

Reviewer's Name: 
Leslie Taylor

Book Review: Housekeeping

Housekeeping
Author: 
Robinson, Marilynne
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

How can the deepest loss be quantified? What happens in the heart of a little girl when her mother drives off a cliff after leaving her and her sister alone at Grandma’s? How does such a girl become a woman? Who does she grow to be?

In the achingly beautiful prose that only Robinson can craft, the reader comes to taste a small portion of the fear, the ache, the loneliness that is the human heart. All these emotions find their representation in the haunting landscape that surrounds the forsaken town of Fingerbone. The defining feature of this town, next to its remoteness, is a great, icy lake. A train full of many passengers, including the young girls’ grandfather, once plunged off the bridge into that lake. Her mother also drove her car into it.
By staring into it, Ruthie sees everything lovely swallowed up. As she grows older, she finds herself bound to the same hopelessness that drove her mother into there. She begins to feel the pull.

Ruthie’s aunt Sylvie, now her guardian, represents the living dead.
Although she has never tried to drown herself in the lake, Ruthie begins to realize more and more that the cold lake is where Sylvie’s heart lies. She begins to see Sylvie as a representation of what her mother would be like if she had never driven off, but wished everyday that she could. What Ruthie needs as she comes of age is someone to bring her into the light. She needs someone to be the mother she never had: to delight in her and think that everything she does is adorable. But true to real life, the longing that Ruthie has is never realized and she resorts more and more to the cover of darkness.
This is a book that stares loss in the face for what it truly is. When one gives one’s life over to darkness, the ripple effects are so devastating, so tragic, so destructive, that a little girl can be forever derailed. And what can be more heart-rending than that?

Reviewer's Name: 
Leslie Taylor
Genres: 

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

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

If All the Light We Cannot See were a movie, I would consider it “Oscar bait.” Set during the most romantic of World Wars: check. Main character with disability: check. Drama, tragedy, and suspense: check, check, and check. It’s then no wonder that All the Light We Cannot See ended up winning a Pulitzer. Sure, it’s filled with plenty of the “award” tropes that we tend to see repeated over and over again—but it works. What helps this book stand out from the rest of the books and movies that try too hard to earn awards is twofold: its characters and its plot.

Before I get too far into my praise for this book, I have to mention that the narrator for the audiobook version seemed to mispronounce a few words early on, which threw me for a loop and made me wonder if I’ve been mispronouncing them myself. Similarly, it was a little challenging to track the timeframes for some of the subplots, but the impact of the book was still the same. The author was able to paint a vivid set of lives set on opposite sides of a global conflict. From the blind French girl forced to survive on her own to the prodigious German boy with a penchant for radios and STEM, their internal and external conflicts were prime examples of gripping and engaging storytelling.

While there didn’t seem to be one primary driving plot in this book, the addition of the handful of subplots worked in concert to create a gem of a story (har har). These subplots were natural to the characters that embodied them, which helped to produce an amount of realism that held everything together. Everything just made sense, and even the semi-tragic ending was a satisfying end that left no subplot or loose end untied.

A beautiful piece of prose worthy of its Pulitzer, I give All the Light We Cannot See 5.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: 
Benjamin

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.

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