Title: With the Fire High
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Release Date: May 7th 2019
“From the New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award longlist title The Poet X comes a dazzling novel in prose about a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to feed the soul that keeps her fire burning bright.
Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions—doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness.
Even though she dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she thinks she has to play by, once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.”
“And something special does happen when I’m cooking. It’s like I can imagine a dish in my head and I just know that if I tweak this or mess with that, if I give it my own special brand of sazón, I’ll have made a dish that never existed before.”
- The writing – It’s no secret that I loved The Poet X. It reintroduced me to poetry and created a thirst for more. Acevedo’s sophomore novel is told in prose and it’s no surprise that her writing is just as poetic. There were times while reading where I had to pause just to appreciate her imagery.
- Emoni – I really enjoyed Emoni as a character. She has so much love for her daughter and her grandmother. All throughout the story, you can feel her hesitation when it comes to pursuing her dreams. She has responsibilities that have kept her from doing so, but learns that it is herself that has been holding her back for so long. I loved reading about her passion for cooking. It’s an outlet for her emotions and her creativity. Something she is a natural at, but a skill where she still has a lot to learn.
- Afro-Latinidad – The exploration of what it means to be Afro-Latinx is at the center of who Emoni is. I loved that the MC was so adamant about her identity. Being black and Latinx aren’t mutually exclusive; being black does not subtract from her Latinidad and being Latinx does not subtract from her being black.
- Teen parenthood – Most books I see about teens with children have to do with teen pregnancy, so it was refreshing to read a book about a teen mother with a toddler.
- Emphasis on family and friends – Emoni might not have much, but she has an incredible support system, from her best friend Angelica to her abuela. As strong as these relationships are, Emoni doesn’t have the best relationship with her father and feels distant from her mother’s side of the family, but I loved that these relationships end of shifting for the better.
- Magical realism – Although this one might strictly be called contemporary, Acevedo weaves in elements of magical realism. Emoni’s cooking is said to elicit emotional responses from those who taste it. It’s presented very subtly, but I think that’s one of the reasons I loved it so much.
- Elizabeth Acevedo creates another wonderful and very relatable MC in With the Fire on High. Emoni is a character who is both vulnerable and strong and whose successes at the end of the novel feel like your own.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Title: My So-Called Bollywood Life
Author: Nisha Sharma
Publisher: Crown BFYR
Release Date: May 15th 2018
“Winnie Mehta was never really convinced that Raj was her soulmate, but their love was written in the stars. Literally, a pandit predicted Winnie would find the love of her life before her 18th birthday, and Raj meets all of the qualifications. Which is why Winnie is shocked to return from her summer at film camp to find her boyfriend of three years hooking up with Jenny Dickens. Worse, Raj is crowned chair of the student film festival, a spot Winnie was counting on for her film school applications. As a self-proclaimed Bollywood expert, Winnie knows this is not how her perfect ending is scripted.
Then there’s Dev, a fellow film geek, and one of the few people Winnie can count on to help her reclaim control of her story. Dev is smart, charming, and challenges Winnie to look beyond her horoscope to find someone she’d pick for herself. But does falling for Dev mean giving up on her prophecy, and her chance to live happily ever after? To get her Bollywood-like life on track, Winnie will need a little bit of help from fate, family, and of course, a Bollywood movie star.”
“As much as I love Bollywood damsels in distress, I don’t need saving. I’m my own hero.”
- Winnie – It was hard not to admire Winnie’s passion for film and in particular her love for Bollywood films. She’s ambitious and driven. I love reading about characters who know who they are, even when their interests aren’t always mainstream.
- Bollywood – I’m not all that familiar with Bollywood films, but this book has spark my curiosity. Sharma infuses just enough drama into this novel to make this one fun and I loved that she wasn’t afraid to make Winnie a bit of a drama queen. Also appreciated the pithy Bollywood reviews before each chapter from Winnie’s film blog.
- Dev – Winnie’s love interest is passionate about film making. Though he isn’t into Bollywood films like Winnie, he sees the importance of them to her. He and Winnie have enough in common that their interactions feel so natural, but are different enough to make things interesting. I loved that Dev was willing to go outside his comfort zone in order to make Winnie smile.
- Family – I always appreciate contemporaries that keep family involved in the protagonist’s life. Winnie’s family was always there for her and although she often wished they didn’t take such a keen interest in her love life, I found it incredibly sweet and moving.
- No big complaints for me.
- If you’re looking for a fun and diverse contemporary, look no further than Nisha Sharma’s My So-Called Bollywood Life which charms with just the right degree of teenage drama.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Truly Madly Royally
Author: Debbie Rigaud
Release Date: July 30th 2019
“Fiercely independent and smart, Zora Emerson wants to change the world. She’s excited to be attending a prestigious summer program, even if she feels out of place among her privileged, mostly white classmates. So she’s definitely not expecting to feel a connection to Owen, who’s an actual prince of an island off the coast of England. But Owen is funny, charming…and undeniably cute. Zora can’t ignore the chemistry between them. When Owen invites Zora to be his date at his big brother’s big royal wedding, Zora is suddenly thrust into the spotlight, along with her family and friends. Everyone is talking about her, in real life and online, and while Owen is used to the scrutiny, Zora’s not sure it’s something she can live with. Can she maintain her sense of self while moving between two very different worlds? And can her feelings for Owen survive and thrive in the midst of the crazy? Find out in this charming romantic comedy that’s like The Princess Diaries for a new generation. “
“I could not be more shocked if I stuck a wet finger in a janky outlet. The guy hanging out in the library, making anonymous wisecracks through bookshelves? My realest human connection at this school was with someone who. . . is a rightful heir to some throne?”
- Zora – Zora was such an enjoyable lead character. She’s driven, has the biggest heart, and isn’t afraid of a challenge. I loved how loyal she was and despite the fact that she didn’t always feel accepted at Halstead University during the summer program, she never tried to make herself smaller to accommodate others. Whether she’s dealing with classism or racism, she never tried to be anyone but herself.
- Black girl at center of a lighthearted novel – This book reminded me that we really need to see more lighthearted contemporaries with Black girl leads because what kind of message is publishing sending when they put so much pressure on Black creatives to produce issues books as though the only stories worth telling are ones where Black characters suffer for the sake of readers learning a “lesson”?
- Owen – Although Owen is a prince, he wasn’t haughty or above reproach. There is no point where his ego needs to be taken down a few notches because he is always ready to learn and knows that not everyone lives like he does.
- The romance – I loved the romance in Truly Madly Royally so much. There were the early swoony scenes, including an incredibly adorable meet-cute; but I loved how the relationship between Zora and Owen progresses. Zora immediately challenges him and Owen works to earn her favor. Every scene between the two had loads of chemistry and I could see myself revisiting this one soon just to relive them.
- Family – I appreciated how much this book focused on Zora’s family. I feel like we got to know her more because of how much time we spent with her and her family.
- Community – Zora started a program for kids in her community who didn’t have anyone to walk them home. She’s incredibly invested in the program and is always looking to improve life for those in her neighborhood. What’s not to love about this girl?
- Owen – I kind of wanted more of Owen. There was so much about him that made a reader swoon, but I wanted to see his flaws too.
- Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud is a swoon-worthy contemporary with a lovable protagonist and features a healthy romantic relationship built on communication and mutual respect.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: American Panda
Author: Gloria Chao
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: February 6th 2018
“At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?.”
“But with each burst of energy, I didn’t feel release. Something was different. My feet slipped on the tile that should have caressed my toes and allowed me to turn endlessly. My limbs didn’t feel like extensions of my body—they were burdens, weighing me down and dragging me around. The wind through my hair wasn’t refreshing—it made my head pound with bursts of pain.”
- Mei – I really enjoyed Mei’s voice, found her to be very relatable, and her overall journey to be a really rewarding story to read.
- Growing up and apart from your parents – I really liked that this one not only focused on growing up, but how this sometimes means growing apart from your parents. I think letting teens know that you might not agree with your parents’ values as you grow older isn’t a bad thing.
- Parental expectations vs individual dreams – Mei’s parents want her to become a doctor, but because of her germaphobia, she fears she will never be able to make it through med school. She also has a passion for dance, one that was only supported by her parents when they believed it could help her get into college.
- Sibling relationship – My favorite relationship in this one was Mei’s with her older brother Xing. He’s been estranged from his family and when the two reconnect with one another, it made me unexpectedly emotional. I loved that despite their different relationship with their parents, they find a way to support one another.
- Adult characters also get a chance to learn about themselves – Mei’s character arc is really important, but I loved that she isn’t the only one who learns things about themselves. Several adult characters are pushed out of their comfort zone and while most of them don’t change, it made me incredibly happy to see those who did grow.
- Stereotypes – I mention this only because I’ve seen many reviews complain of the unflattering stereotypes in this novel that involve Mei’s parents and other relatives. They come across as very rigid, unreasonable, and overbearing. I personally believe #OwnVoices books should have the freedom to explore stereotypical characters, but this might be a turn off for some readers.
- Gloria Chao’s American Panda focuses on a Taiwanese-American teen straddling the fence between two cultures and is ultimately a cathartic story about finding out who you are despite all the external voices telling you who you should be.