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.
Title: Love From A to Z
Author: S.K. Ali
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Release Date: April 30th 2019
**Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review.**
“A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.
An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how ‘bad’ Muslims are.
But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.
When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break.
Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, ‘nicer’ version of herself in a place where no one knows her.
Then her path crosses with Adam’s.
Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister.
Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.
Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.
Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…
Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.”
- Zayneb – I feel a strong kinship to Zayneb and this has largely to do with how angry she is. Often times anger is depicted as a negative characteristic, but I loved that Zayneb’s anger isn’t where she begins and ends. Her anger is often justified and says more about her incredible capacity for empathy. That being said, Zayneb also begins to realize that she is only one person and she has to find that right balance between caring and self-care.
- Adam – I’ll always have a soft spot for soft boys. Adam is such a kind character and I loved his relationship with his little sister Hanna. One of his goals is to make sure she has as many memories of their mother as possible, who passed when her MS took a fatal turn. Adam struggles with his own diagnosis and the lingering fear that his fate might be the same as his mother’s.
- Centering two Muslim characters – I loved that our two leads had very different experiences being Muslim. For Zayneb, her hijab is an immediate indicator of her religion and makes her a target more than Adam. For Adam, he hasn’t experienced this kind of prejudice, but learns to open his eyes to the things that he might not have first-hand knowledge of.
- The way the characters balance each other out – Although I’d argue that Zayneb is empathetic, she does have her blindspots and I think Adam helps her recognize these. For Adam, Zayneb pushes him out of his often complacent safe zones.
- Confronting prejudice head-on – Not only do characters challenge Islamophobia in the story, the narrative challenges readers to confront both the direct and indirect ways this kind of prejudice has all over the world.
- Idealism vs reality – If the novel had ended its story in the middle of the novel, it would have been an incredibly beautiful love story, but Ali leads her characters and story in a different direction, challenging them to see how they both have been viewing each other through idealistic lenses.
- More conflict – I kind of wish the conflict between the two leads would have happened sooner and that it lasted longer. They learn so much about themselves and each other because they are at odds and I wouldn’t have minded exploring this more.
S.K. Ali’s Love From A to Z is an uplifting, thought-provoking, and incredibly satisfying contemporary. If you haven’t had the pleasure of picking up Ali’s novels yet, I highly recommend you do so.
Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: September 26th 2017
TW: emotional and sexual abuse, ableist language, and a suicide attempt.
“Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.
“It feels like two comets have just collided headfirst into each other, and the aftershock of two hundred earthquakes rolls through my chest.”
- Biracial Identity – Starfish focuses on Kiki, a biracial teen with a Japanese father and white mother. The novel touches on how Kiki feels caught between two worlds, but not wholly a part of either. It also addresses how different she feels and how racism has affected the way she sees herself.
- Social anxiety rep – Kiki deals with social anxiety which includes panic attacks. This affects many of her relationships.
- The MC saves herself – There were a few times when I thought the author was going to take the story in a certain direction, but was pleasantly surprised that Bowman emphasized how important it was for Kiki to save herself instead of letting someone else care for her.
- Balance between romance and personal arcs – While I did enjoy the romance storyline in this one (it was very sweet seeing Kiki reconnect with her childhood crush), I loved that both characters felt like they struggled with their own things. While Kiki is dealing with trying to find a way out of her mother’s house, Jamie is dealing with the collapse of his parents’ marriage.
- Kiki’s relationship with a mentor – Kiki has not had the best relationship with the adults in her life. Her mother is emotionally abusive and her father is absent. It was so nice to read a YA book where the most important relationship in a character’s life becomes her connection with an adult character. Kiki ends up being mentored by a local artist and I love how supportive he and his whole family becomes.
- Equating abuse with mental illness – While I do think it’s important to show teen characters who grow up with abusive parents and showing these teens learning how to break away from that, I wish the book could have separated this from the mother’s mental health issues. Her treatment of her daughter is consistently blamed on her not seeing a therapist for mental health reasons.
- Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Starfish is one of the most emotional books I’ve ever read and this is due to how well Kiki is written. She’s a fully fleshed-out MC that you can’t help but sympathize with. Starfish is a powerful read that will not be easily forgotten by this reader.
Title: The Girl in the Tower
Author: Katherine Arden
Series: Winternight Trilogy, #2
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: December 5th 2017
“The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.
Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.”
“Morozko stilled beneath her glance. This was not the frost-demon, this was his other, older self, black-cloaked, pale, long-fingered. He was here for the dead. Suddenly the sunlight seemed muted. She felt his presence in the blood on the earth, in the touch of the cold air on his face, old and still and strong.”
- Vasya – Vasya continues to be a character who I admire. She is brave in a world that isn’t kind to young women who want the freedom to determine their own fate.
- The writing – Katherine Arden once again dazzles with her writing. I’m continually impressed with her ability to weave several smaller tales while also telling a much bigger story.
- Sibling relationships – As Vasya is reunited with both her older brother Sasha and older sister Olga, we see how their relationships have shifted. Though they may have tolerated her high-spirited behavior when she was a child, they see a real danger in the wild woman she has grown up to be.
- Magical elements – Vasya has been labeled a witch by many because of her ability to see these creatures from old. I loved this part of the world-building in this series so much and though the novel is rooted in the “real world”, it is these glimpses that has always captivated me.
- Pacing – There were times where the story felt like it dragged a little. I know I should have expected it because much like the first novel, Arden slowly unravel her story. Her set-up is very deliberate, but can make me as a reader feel impatient.
- More Morozko – I wish we had more scenes with the frost-demon, though I understand why Arden wrote him in such an enigmatic way.
- Fans of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale will continue to be impressed with The Girl in the Tower. If you enjoy novels that combine historical fiction and fantasy, this is a series that should be high on your TBR.