Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

When Dimple Met Rishi When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dimple struggles to get her mother to understand and accept that she wants more out of life than to just find the Ideal Indian Husband, get married, and have babies. When her parents agree to her request to go to a summer program in web design, she thinks they have finally accepted that she is more interested in a career than marriage. But, unbeknownst to Dimple, her parents have already arranged her betrothal to Rishi, the son of another well-respected Indian family they know, and the two families have arranged for Rishi to attend the same summer program. Rishi knows all about the arrangement, while Dimple does not, which leads to a rocky first meeting.

This book is a fairly typical YA romance, and has a number of things going for it. It is well-written, the characters are well-developed and likeable, it features a strong, independent female character going into a male-dominated field, shows healthy relationships, features characters of an under-represented culture, and is written by an author from that culture. While I did enjoy reading it, I felt is was a bit predictable: girl struggles against parents' "old world" values, the requisite "meet-cute" and girl ends up falling for the very guy she did not want to like, and for that I would knock it down to a 3.75 stars.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a lighter, fairly tame, YA romance. While there is one sex scene, it is not described in graphic detail, and there is no drug use and the main characters do not drink, though there is one reference to minor characters being drunk. While the characters are Indian and some references to Indian clothing, foods, and customs are mentioned, this is certainly a book anyone would enjoy if they typcially enjoy romance. If you like this book, and would be interested in something similar, but a little grittier and more serious, keep your eyes out for Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, due out in January.

This appears to be Sandhya Menon's first published book, with a second, From Twinkle, With Love, due out in 2018, and a sequel to this one following Rishi's brother, When Ashish Met Sweetie, due out in 2019. It seems as though the author has a penchant for female characters with overly cutesy names, which is a bit of turn-off to me, and while I enjoyed this book, the similarities in titles makes me wonder if the writing in the next two will be too formulaic and predictable.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: The War I Finally Won

The War I Finally Won The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved the book that preceeded this one, The War That Saved My Life, but I was a little ambivalent about a sequel as they so often fail to live up to expectations. I am happy to report that was not the case this time, and I loved this book every bit as much as the first one.

The story picks up right where the first one left off, with Susan having guardianship of Ada and her younger brother Jaime, saving them from their abusive mother. Ada finally has surgery to correct her clubbed foot, and is now able to walk without crutches, and even run! While in the hospital for surgery, they receive word that Ada and Jaimie's biological mother has been killed in the latest blitzkrieg.

Ada's feelings about her mother's death are very complicated, ranging from numbness and indifference, to relief that her mother can't hurt them anymore, to fear of how that changes their situation. In this story Ada continues her struggle to learn how to love and be loved, and how to stop feeling afraid and trust others. There are many changes as the war progresses, resulting in Susan, Ada, and Jaimie sharing a cottage with Lady Thornton (and at times the rest of the Thorntons), and a young Jewish girl whose family managed to escape from Germany. We see much more of the war in the this story, and the horrible toll it took on the community.

This is a beautiful story about opening up and learning to love and to trust, and of people helping and supporting each other to get through even the most difficult circumstances. While the message is overall uplifting, there are definitely some parts that might cause some tears. I would recommend this obviously to those who read the first book, and I would recommend both books to those who like stories about overcoming difficult challenges, and complex feelings and relationships.

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Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In short, a very powerful, multi-faceted story that I highly recommend for teens and adults.

This is a fictionalized account of real people and events during the Holocaust, primarily set at Auschwitz. While the last names have been changed, the characters are very closely based on real people and the story follows the known facts, with a little fiction to fill in the gaps and make the story more real and personal. While there are a few side-stories, the main story follows Dita, a young teenager in Auschwitz who is recruited by Fredy Hirsch to be the librarian for the illegal school he has started for the children under the guise of simple child care that he has somehow managed to convince the Germans to allow (their alterior motives are revealed much later in the story). Amazingly, the prisoners have managed to smuggle in and keep hidden 8 books, and Dita is placed in charge of maintaining them, supervising and coordinating their use, and keeping them safely hidden from the Germans. This is a job she does with committment and dedication, even though it places her at great personal risk.

This is an amazing story that encompasses several themes. No matter how many stories about the Holocaust I read or hear, I will never stop being shocked at the horror, cruely, and depravity that went on during that period. This book clearly depicts that, yet it also shows some glimpses of "normal" life that went on even amidst the horror, such as the eternal conflict between teenagers who think they are ready to be adults and their parents who want them to stay children just a little bit longer, friendships, gossip, and even love blooming between young couples, daring to dream of a future even while facing almost certain death. But most of all, it shows the determination to maintain dignity and fight to survive, despite the horror, and the risks Dita and others were willing to take to give the children a distraction, some sense of normalcy, and even a little happiness, even if it was for a short time.

There is a quote at the beginning of the book that really resonated with me, and it really sets the tone for the whole story:

"Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, black, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law— have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think."

Even though this is something I already knew, at that moment I found it very moving and profound. I found the idea that Jewish prisoners could have smuggled and hidden not one but several books a romantic notion and thought it was just a device for a good story, not realizing at first this was based on real people and events, and now I find it truly amazing they were able to do what they did, and can't help wondering whatever happened to those books after the camp was dissolved with no opportunity to smuggle them out. It would be amazing if they could be recovered and put in a museum.

As an almost-librarian and former educator I could readily identify with the desire to retain and protect as many books and as much knowledge as possible, even at great personal risk, and I particularly appreciated the descriptions of Dita lovingly caring for and painstakingly repairing the books, and recognizing that there was value in a seemingly silly and frivolous novel. I also found the idea of the "living books" very intriguing. At first, it made me think of a recent library trend of literally checking out real people (though in this instance it is primarily to learn about other cultures and experiences, rather than for storytelling), but then I realized it was really a return to the original oral storytelling tradition the pre-dates the written word and shows how both are important for the longevity and preservation of stories and information.

For those who might be concerned this book may be too depressing or too much of a tear-jerker, I did not find that to be the case. While it does depict horrific and tragic events, the story is told in a more matter-of-fact way and not in an overly emotional way. Yes, it is shocking and horrifying and sad, but it is also defiant and hopeful and inspiring. While I did get a little teary at times, overall I was left with a feeling of admiriation for the strength and determination of the characters and real people that inspired them.

My only criticism of this book is that at times the writing shifts back and forth from a beautiful, almost lyrical style, to a dry, straightforward reciting of events typical of a history book or biography. I realized later this was likely due to the book being based on real people and events, and trying to stick as closely to the known facts as possible and do justice to all of the people the characters are based on by filling in their stories without detracting from Dita's. While there were only a few passages where this transition was a bit jarring, I do wish a little more editing and re-writing had been done to make it flow a little more seamlessly.

This book is a little hard to place definitively into a specific genre because while it is technically ficition, it very closely follows the known facts, and I think was only fictionalized in order to fill in the gaps and make it easier for the reader to relate to the "characters" on a personal, human level and see what some of them were thinking and feeling, rather than viewing them in a detached way as historical figures.

While marketed as a YA book, I really think it will be a YA/Adult crossover with many adults reading it (and I would probably put a copy in the adult fiction section as well). I would recommend this book to fans of The Book Thief as well as dystopian themes related to censorship such as Fahrenheit 451, and anyone who is interested in historical fiction, non-fiction, or biographies related to Auschwitz specifically, or the Holocaust, WWI, or Jewish history in general, or to those who appreciate good stories about the fight for survival or to preserve knowledge and culture.

There are so many different persepectives from which to view this story, it really could appeal to a wide audience, and I predict it will be on many classroom reading lists, and a likely candidate for the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for outstanding youth literature originally published in another country.

[I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Review: Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life

Review of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Tougas Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charlotte and her siblings, twin brother Freddy and younger sister Rose, have lived a rather nomadic life, subject to their mother's next whim or troubles. Charlotte doesn't even bother trying to make friends anymore, knowing that she will soon be uprooted and have to move someplace new; she and Freddy have each other and don't need anyone else, and Rose easily makes friends anywhere she goes. Their mother's latest whim has taken them to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where she believes the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder will inspire her to write a book. But this move turns out differently, as Freddy suddenly makes new friends and Charlotte feels abandoned, betrayed, and angry at everyone, especially Laura Ingalls!

Naturally the title of this book caught my attention, having read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and grown up with Melissa Gilbert's portrayal of Laura on the television series, but I really didn't know what to expect. Despite some of the other lukewarm reviews, I really enjoyed this book, and I think many tweens could relate to some of Charlotte's angst. In my opinion, the story was well-paced and the characters were generally well-developed (if I had one small criticism it would be that Rose's voice often seemed a bit too mature for the age of the character).

I felt a great deal of empathy for Charlotte, having no stability in her life and always being subjected to her mother's whims, or skipping town to avoid debts or difficult situations, and the hopelessness she expressed when explaining how there was no point in making friends or being invested in school because she knew they would soon be on the move again was heartbreaking. Even more so was her unfairly being accused of a crime after she had finely started to open up, make friends, and like living there. This story deals with many facets of tween angst: being the new kid, fitting in, making and maintaining friendships, relationships with siblings, difficult relationships with parents, and having a single parent who, while loving, is often self-centered and selfish.

I found myself frequently angry with Charlotte's mother, at how flaky, irresponsible and selfish she was, refusing to seriously consider how her decisions and lifestyle affected her children, preferring to gloss over everything with pollyannic platitudes. She clearly loved her children, but was too immature and self-centered to see how much she was hurting them. However, I loved the character of Charlotte's teacher, Mrs.. Newman, and how she turned out to be far from the meanie that Charlotte initially judged her to be, and even risked her job to stand up for Charlotte and protect her rights, in addition to nurturing her intellect and helping her to open up.

I found this story to be richer and deeper than many middle-grade books that often feel superficial and simplistic; it has some serious emotional upheaval and drama, but without being too dark. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a little family drama and complex relationships, and those who might also have dealt with moving frequently, being the new kid and having trouble fitting in and making friends, and parents who don't always consider their needs. I think this could be a good book choice for a tween book club as well, and I like how it ties into a classic series that most people know. Some would also be happy to know that it also brings up the mistreatment of Native Americans, and some of the racist comments made by Laura and characters in her books.

Shelley Tougas has written several other middle-grade books, both fiction and non-fiction, including Finders Keepers and Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration.

[I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Review of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia Reyes feels like no one in the world understands her, and is caught between her mother's repressive, traditional Mexican expectations of her to be submissive, spend her time cooking and cleaning, and living with her parents until she marries someone appropriate, and her own desires to be independant and make her own decisions. She dreams of going to college far away and becoming a writer. She will never measure up to the memory of her sister Olga, recently killed in a tragic accident, who in her parents' eyes was the "perfect Mexican daughter". But, as Julia struggles to make her parents understand her need for independence and privacy, she discovers that Olga was not the perfect daughter everyone thought she was.

I've seen this book compared to "Gabi: A Girl In Pieces" and in many ways it is similar. Gabi and Julia are both struggling against their mothers' rigid, traditional gender roles and expecctations, and desire to go away to college and make their own choices in life. They both experience tragic deaths in their families and have friends going through the dramas of teen pregnancy (or the possibility of) and not being accepted by their families because of sexual orientation. Food is also prevalent in both stories, and both express their feelings through their writing.

However, while Gabi seems to be fairly well-adjusted and deals with her issues with humor and confidence, Julia's story is much darker and more melancholy. Julia feels overwhelmed, and trapped in a life she doesn't want, and feels powerless to get out. Her depression and anxiety become more severe after her sister's death, until she can no longer cope. While I would have to say I enjoyed the lighter tone of Gabi's story more, this book is very powerful and could possibly help others who may be dealing with depression and anxiety as well. I think this book does a lot to help de-stigmatize mental illness, and illustrates how a combination of medication and therapy can help. The secondary story of Julia's sister Olga also adds an additional element of mystery to the story.

While the Mexican culture and immigration issues do play a significant part in this story, I think most people can relate to the struggle between others' expecations of them and what they want for themselves to some degree, and many people can relate to the feelings of frustration and despair that Julia has, so it certainly should have appeal to a wide audience.

Recommended for teens and adults.

[I received this as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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