American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: February 14th 2017

      “On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.
      But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.
      Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?”

swirl (2)

“This is the opposite of an earthquake, where things were falling apart and the ground was shifting beneath my small feet. Here, the walls, the air, the buildings, the people all seem to have already fallen. And there is nothing else left to do but to shrink and squeeze until everything has turned to dust and disappeared.

Ibi Zoboi delivers a truly emotional story in her debut novel, American Street. Though born in America, Fabiola Toussaint has only known one home–Haiti. Upon entering the U.S., Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration and Fabiola is sent ahead to her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Desperate to get her mother back and struggling to adjust to this new world, Fabiola learns that America is not everything it’s promised to be. She finds herself in morally ambiguous situations that might cost her the only good things she has found since coming to America. Stuck between two impossible choices, Fabiola must decide how far she is willing to go to be reunited with her mother.

Fabiola spends the first few months in America pulled in different directions. Her cousins all have different ideas on how she can adjust to this new land while Fabiola tries to hold on to both her language and religion, both foreign and strange to outsiders. America demands a lot from those who immigrate to the country. A common theme throughout the novel is how people and America itself talk out of both sides of their mouths. Ideally, American is a melting pot, but in reality assimilation is necessary. The Creole language is part of Fabiola’s cultural identity and like her aunt before her, there is tremendous pressure for her to shed this part of who she is in order to fit in and feel more accepted. This new country comes with new rules for how to maneuver through the world and while there are aspects that Fabiola has encountered before, the line between right and wrong becomes more and more blurred as the story goes on.

Family is the most important aspect of Fabiola’s story. The absence of her mother is a weight she continually carries around. Any happiness she feels getting to know her cousins or falling in love for the first time is counterbalanced with the hole in her heart left behind by her mother. Though it is only briefly touched on, the possibility that Fabiola’s mother knew what would happen after the two of them entered the U.S. is something I continue to wonder about. We are not given a definitive answer, but I believe Fabiola’s mother isn’t a stranger to sacrifice and if she believed telling her daughter they were both meant to start over in America was the only way to get her to leave Haiti, I believe she would have done it. Fabiola’s loyalty to her family is tested throughout the novel. She loves her aunt and cousins, but they don’t always make good decisions. She wants to protect them, but this isn’t always easy when they don’t want her protection or when other people with more power than her can easily throw a wrench in her plans.

I do wish we could have spent more time individually with Fabiola’s cousins Chantel, Primadonna, and Princess, but I still think Zoboi did a good enough job defining who they are individually. A nice touch were the different character-driven sections sprinkled throughout the book that gave readers a little more insight into minor characters’ stories. With an engaging protagonist and an heart-stopping ending, American Street is a debut not to be missed.

4/5

★★★★

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Title: We Are Okay
Author: Nina LaCour
Series: N/A
Pages: 234
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 14th 2017

      “Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

swirl (2)

“I wonder if there’s a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn’t yours anymore.”

Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay explores one girl’s emotional journey as she grapples with loss, grief, and ultimately the first steps toward closure. It’s been months since Marin’s grandfather passed away, since she lost the only family she had left. Months since she walked away from her old life, leaving behind a best friend who had only begun to be something more. Now at school in New York City, Marin has been trying to forget her past, but one visit from her former best friend Mabel will change everything.

There are books you walk your way through and ones you feel your way through. We Are Okay falls into the latter category. LaCour’s novel focuses heavily on internal conflict as readers follow Marin as she copes with seeing Mabel for the first time in months. At first Marin is desperate to hide how she is, but her relationship with Mabel makes it impossible for her to put up a convincing front. Using various flashbacks, LaCour pieces together the protagonist’s past, giving context to not only her relationship with her grandfather but to Mabel. There’s an underlining tension to every interaction between the two old friends. More important than what is said is what isn’t. When Marin skipped town without a word to anyone, she left Mabel hurt and confused. Their romantic relationship was just in its beginning stages, they hadn’t yet defined what they were, but it’s clear they were in love with each other. These past feelings are made even more complicated by Mabel’s new relationship and the fact that Marin herself hasn’t been able to move on.

Marin’s relationship with her grandfather was unconventional at best. Though she remembers his lectures fondly, there was always something missing between the two of them. The only true link she had with her mother, Marin’s grandfather has never been very open about his daughter. Marin lost her mother at a very young age and her memories of her are not concrete. It’s clear that many people loved her, but these are strangers and Marin would rather hear about her mother from someone close. Marin and her grandfather function more like roommates and though their separate lives may seem unusual to everyone else, it’s all Marin has ever known.

Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay is an emotionally gripping novel: quiet in its intensity, but still manages to pack a punch.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Mini Reviews: Heartstone + By Your Side

MiniHave I mentioned how nice it is to write a couple of mini reviews during the month? I love writing reviews (mostly), but sometimes I don’t have the time to write down all my thoughts and sometimes I just can’t seem to find the words. It’s nice having this alternative way of sharing my thoughts on books. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Heartstone
Author: Elle Katharine White
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: January 17th 2017 

      “A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved Pride & Prejudice in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms.
      They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.
      Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.
      Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.
      It’s a war Aliza is ill-prepared to wage, on a battlefield she’s never known before: one spanning kingdoms, class lines, and the curious nature of her own heart.

swirl (2)

“My breath rattled in my ears. I stared at the creature twitching at my feet. Even deep in it death throes, its talons raked the ground, reaching for me to rend, to kill.

If there’s one kind of retelling that I find hard to resist it’s Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Elle Katharine White’s Heartstone reimagines the classic in a world filled with dragons, gryphons, and adorable hobgoblins. Aliza is brave and opinionated, not easily intimidated and I really liked how important her family was to her. Alastair Daired, dragon Rider and far too arrogant for his own good, is standoffish and rigid in his opinions, but still has an unmistakable charm that’s hard not to fall for. It’s hard not to compare White’s characters to their inspirations. There were several characters whose reincarnations I found a lot more enjoyable. Aliza’s sister Leyda still retained the silliness I’m used to seeing in Lydia Bennet, but unlike her counterpart, who’s obsession with marriage is both infuriating and understandable, Leyda’s ambitions lie in her desire to be a Rider. She longs for adventure, to not be the sister everyone overlooks and I really sympathized with her character. Overall, Heartstone was a fast-paced and fun retelling that I’d recommend to those looking for a different take on the classic.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Title: By Your Side
Author: Kasie West
Series: N/A
Pages: 342
Publisher: Harper Teen
Release Date: January 31st 2017

      “When Autumn Collins finds herself accidentally locked in the library for an entire weekend, she doesn’t think things could get any worse. But that’s before she realizes that Dax Miller is locked in with her. Autumn doesn’t know much about Dax except that he’s trouble. Between the rumors about the fight he was in (and that brief stint in juvie that followed it) and his reputation as a loner, he’s not exactly the ideal person to be stuck with. Still, she just keeps reminding herself that it is only a matter of time before Jeff, her almost-boyfriend, realizes he left her in the library and comes to rescue her.
Only he doesn’t come. No one does.
      Instead it becomes clear that Autumn is going to have to spend the next couple of days living off vending-machine food and making conversation with a boy who clearly wants nothing to do with her. Except there is more to Dax than meets the eye. As he and Autumn first grudgingly, and then not so grudgingly, open up to each other, Autumn is struck by their surprising connection. But can their feelings for each other survive once the weekend is over and Autumn’s old life, and old love interest, threaten to pull her from Dax’s side?”

swirl (2)

      “A voice in the back of my head told me to calm down before I made it worse. Everything was fine. So I was stuck alone in a library, but I was safe. I could read and jog the stairs and stay busy. There were plenty of distractions here.
      In my new quiet state, I heard something behind me. Footsteps on wood.”

If there is one contemporary author whose books always seem to lift my spirits, it’s Kasie West. Her stories are entertaining and her characters enjoyable. Her latest novel By Your Side is fun, fast-paced contemporary that had me smiling throughout. Autumn Collins thinks she knows exactly what she wants, but when she ends up trapped in her school library for a weekend with Dax Miller, their connection throws her for a loop. Autumn is a people pleaser, her friends tend to be more outgoing than herself, and she often finds it difficult to say no to them. She also has an anxiety disorder that can sometimes interfere with her social life. In Dax, she finds someone whose personality she finds calming and who she wants more than anything to help. But By Your Side is more than just about Autumn trying to figure out what she wants for herself. She also learns how important self-care is despite outside pressure from her friends. I really liked Dax, despite the parts of his personality that can be called cliché, but once again with West’s love interests, I wish we could have learned more about him and his situation. On my wish list: a Kasie West book with dual perspectives.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Series: N/A
Pages: 464
Publisher: Balzar + Bray
Release Date: February 28th 2017

      “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
      Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
      But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

swirl (2)

“An earsplitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.

Angie Thomas has put together a debut novel that is staggeringly honest and raw in its heartbreak. The Hate U Give is unflinching as it takes on racism, police brutality, and injustice. Starr Carter’s life in Garden Heights isn’t always easy, but it’s home. Since she started attending Williamson Prep, Starr has had to juggle two different lives. One in Garden Heights and another at school. As one of the only black students at Williamson, Starr knows she’s judged differently and more harshly. Her friends and even her boyfriend don’t know everything about her life in Garden Heights. They don’t know that she lost a close friend in a drive-by when she was younger and that she continues to be haunted by Natasha’s death. When Starr’s childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed by a white cop, Starr’s carefully constructed worlds begins to unravel. As the only witness, Starr finds herself the center of an investigation. As protesters take to the streets, Starr must find the courage to speak up for her friend as well as herself.

Starr’s family is one of the most supportive and loving families about whom I’ve read. They argue, challenge one another, and begrudgingly compromise, but at the end of the day, there’s a myriad of people who have Starr’s back. Her parents are protective and always have their children’s best interest at heart. Her Uncle Carlos, despite having issues with Starr’s father and being a detective himself, would do anything for his niece. Starr’s brothers can be a pain, but she’d never trade them for anything. The community of Garden Heights is really well-developed. I felt the connections between characters who may not be related by blood, but still share in the common interest of the whole community.

The Hate U Give explores different forms of racism from microaggressions exhibited by Starr’s classmates to the institutional racism that contributed to the shooting death of an unarmed black teen. Starr’s once-close friend Hailey makes a lot of offhanded, racist comments. Instead of acknowledging her hurtful remarks and apologizing, Hailey is much more concerned about being called racist than being racist. This is the kind of racist behavior that goes largely unchallenged, so I was glad to see Starr and her friend Maya recognize that silence means you’re being complicit. The criminalization of black and brown people in our society, and especially of young black men, is one of the reasons why stories like Khalil’s occur. All too often we see the media reflect these biases by dehumanizing the victim and rationalizing the actions of the perpetrator. When the news of Khalil’s death first hits the airwaves, the coverage is more like a smear campaign. Khalil is portrayed as nothing more than a drug dealer while the media is all too eager to show a more sympathetic side of police officer. His father is interviewed on national television, telling his son’s story and garnering sympathy from the public while the pain of Khalil’s family and community is little more than an afterthought.

I went through a whole range of emotions while reading Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. I felt Starr’s devastation at losing a friend, the community’s anger at seeing another young person’s life ended too soon, the powerlessness of those wanting justice in such an unjust society, and the pain of realizing this probably won’t be the last time something like this happens. The Hate U Give is a call to give heed to the voices of those largely ignored in our society and a reminder of how necessary a movement like Black Lives Matter is. Everything about this book demands more attention than I could possibly give it in a review, but I’m hoping it sparks a lot of discussion that extends far beyond the book blogging community.

5/5

★★★★★

The Education of Margot Sanchez

Title: The Education of Margot Sanchez
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: February 21st 2017

      “After ‘borrowing’ her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts.
      With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…
      Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

swirl (2)

“Everyone in this house hides behind closed doors. We build fortresses to bar people from scaling the walls and getting in. But even with the amount of time we spend sheltering ourselves there’s no way of concealing our problems.”

Lilliam Rivera’s The Education of Margot Sanchez is story about a girl finding her voice even amongst the chaos that surrounds her. Rivera has written a multi-faceted debut that tackles topics like family, gentrification, and identity. Margot knows that a lot has been invested in her in order for her to succeed. She’s spent months trying to fit in at her new school Somerset Prep, but in order to do so, she’s had to reinvent herself. She’s desperate for her new friends Serena and Camille to accept her, so impulsively takes her father’s credit card and runs up a $600 bill. Her plans to spend the summer at the Hamptoms all but fall apart, as she’s forced to work at her family-owned supermarket in the South Bronx. Now she feels out of place again. She doesn’t fit in the other cashieristas, her family is driving her crazy, and she finds herself attracted to a boy she has no business being interested in. Margot is desperate for a way out, but she may discover that the world she’s so desperate to leave behind is the one she belongs in after all.

When the book opens, Margot’s understanding of her situation is very narrow. She doesn’t quite get how her actions have such harsh consequences and blames her parents for her missing out on a great summer. While Somerset does offer her more opportunities, Margot has also lost sight of who she is. Her mind is in constant overdrive: how can she impress her friends, what can she change about herself in order to feel more accepted, how does she spin the fact that she’s being forced to work at Sanchez & Sons in a neighborhood her friends would never be caught dead in. She sees herself through other people’s eyes and finds it easier to blame other people than accept her own culpability. Her friendship with her childhood best friend Elizabeth is a great example of this. They’ve been growing apart ever since Margot started Somerset and Elizabeth, a new art school. Margot resents the fact that her best friend found it really easy to fit in and the more they grow apart, the more Margot begins to realize that Elizabeth has found a way to be happy without her. It takes Margot time to see things from her friend’s perspective, to see that it was Margot who changed and many of the things that defined their friendship got thrown out the window as Margot took on a new persona.

One of the first people to challenge this new Margot is Moises. A community activist working for the South Bronx Family Mission, they meet while he’s collecting signatures to stop the building of a new high-rise which will force residents from a local apartment building out. I fell in love with Moises during their first interaction. He’s both a playful and serious character who helps Margot broaden her perspective, though at the beginning she’d rather stay in her tiny, safe world. We only get small glimpses of Moises’s past and while I’d like to know more, I thought his present actions were more telling than the mistakes of his past. Family plays a huge role in this novel. Part of Margot growing up is seeing her family for who they are and not what they pretend to be. There’s a lot of hurt in the Sanchez household and they all cope differently with their problems. This all comes crumbling down when secrets get out and there’s no easy solution for any of them.

The Education of Margot Sanchez has a very messy ending. Much like life, the storylines in this novel aren’t wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end. There are hard times ahead for several characters, but I still found it to be a hopeful ending for Margot, who is taking the first steps to rectify her wrongdoings and reclaim who she is.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-to-the-universe-by-benjamin-alire-saenzTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, #1
Pages: 359
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 21st 2012
*This review is based on the audio version of this book, narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda*

      “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

swirl (2)

“There were so many ghosts in our house – the ghost of my brother, the ghost of my father’s war, the ghost of my sisters’ voices. And I thought that maybe there were ghosts inside of me that I hadn’t even met yet.”

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is compelling coming-of-age story, infused with both touching and tragic moments in the life of Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. The summer of Ari’s fifteenth year, he meets Dante and while the two could not be any more different, they quickly become friends. Over the course of two summers, both their lives are irrevocably changed by this friendship. This is the very first audio book I’ve listened to and although I was apprehensive about whether or not it would be able to hold my attention, I could not ask for a better narrator than Lin-Manuel Miranda. In fact, I might have been spoiled and need every audiobook I listen to to be narrated by him.

I loved how important family was in this book, not just for Ari but for Dante as well. Much of Ari’s resentment toward his parents comes from how closed off they are around him and this is never more apparent than with regard to his older brother, Bernardo, who is currently incarcerated. Ari wants so badly to know why, to be able to utter his brother’s name, but there’s a lot of hurt and shame that keeps both his parents tight-lipped. Ari’s father is also a veteran who continues to deal with the psychological effects of war. Ari is desperate to know his father, to have a real honest conversation, but this isn’t always possible for his dad. There is so much to love about Dante’s parents and it’s obvious right off the bat that they are meant to be a contrast to Ari’s. Dante’s father shows more affection in one interaction with his son than Ari has ever witnessed from his father. I thought it was still really important that Dante still finds it hard to open up to his parents. When he is contemplating telling them he is gay, he confesses to Ari that he doesn’t want to be a disappointment.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Dante is more sure of himself. He’s curious about the world and himself and isn’t afraid to share his feelings about both. He’s one of those people who lights up a room and his optimism is infectious. Ari’s feelings for Dante are gradual. Unlike Dante, he isn’t so sure of himself. He has a lot of internal dialogue that can be messy, contradictory, and evasive. He hides behind a lot of sardonic comments, but there’s so much happening underneath the surface, you can’t help but feel the weight he carries around. Of course, there were still times when I wanted to slap him upside the head to knock some sense into him. Ari feels more for Dante than he’s willing to admit, but still has to deal with his own internalized homophobia before being able to label what his relationship with Dante really is.

Both Ari and Dante are Mexican American and I found it really interesting and insightful how the characters deal with their ethnic identities. Dante never feels quite “Mexican” enough and is often convinced that other Mexicans don’t like him because of it. Ari makes snide remarks about what it means to be Mexican, even going so far as to say he’s more Mexican than Dante because of his darker skin. When you grow up in a society that stereotypes your culture and places less value on you because of your background, it can really do a number on how you perceive yourself, not just your place in society, but your place within that group. These stereotypes are often perpetuated within the community and I’ve known plenty of Mexican Americans that feel not quite American and not quite Mexican either and it’s a hard line to walk. That being said, I do wish the characters had come to a resolution regarding their identities or at least had a continued discussion about this part of who they are.

Sáenz does a fine job of capturing the pain and uncertainty of growing up when you’re on the brink of adulthood. Ari’s journey of self-discovery is incredibly moving and will have you rooting for him till the end.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★