Saturday, August 8, 2020

#IMWAYR (8/10/2020): Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Before we get started, I want to mention that Completely Full Bookshelf is now 4 years old! I've had such a wonderful time reviewing books for so long. Thank you to MMGM for being a wonderful community where I was able to start my blog and improve my reviewing skills, and thank you to #IMWAYR for being such a welcoming group and allowing me to broaden my blog to YA reviews as well. And of course, I have to thank all of the amazing authors whose books have brought me so much joy!

Now, for #IMWAYR, I am recommending the graphic novel Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley.

A word of caution to any young readers: although this book doesn't fit precisely into the YA genre, it is not an MG (middle grade) novel and contains some mature content.

          I decided to read this graphic novel after seeing Jana Eschner recommend it on her blog, Jana the Teacher, and I'm so glad I did! Relish is a graphic memoir about a subject I think we can all get behind: food! Being the child of a chef and a foodie made author Lucy Knisley a huge fan of food and of cooking. Food permeates all of Knisley's memories, from helping her mother with catering jobs as a child to working as a cheesemonger later in life. In Relish, Knisley chronicles her life from childhood to present day and illustrates (literally) the ways in which food has influenced it; plus, she includes a recipe at the end of most chapters, with the steps illustrated in fun comic form!

          The funny thing about Relish is that I don't have a ton to say about it, but it is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read! First of all, Knisley has collected an absolutely wonderful selection of anecdotes about herself, family, and friends. Relish shows some of the ways in which food acted as a formative experience for Knisley, it contemplates the cultural value of food and people's differing palates, and it also sneaks in some coming-of-age experiences and a look at Knisley, her parents, and other characters as they age and grow. Although a couple chapters are a bit too similar, most chapters are varied, with their own interesting aspects ranging from travel and art school to cravings and junk food. (I'd tell you more, but I'd rather you read the book and experience each story for yourself.) Knisley is an excellent storyteller with a fascinating life, and she is incredibly skilled at pulling you into each chapter and making you feel like you are living Knisley's life! Relish doesn't have much conflict in its story, but instead of becoming dull as a result, it just becomes an incredibly pleasant and soothing read!

          Relish also deserves acclaim for its illustrations. Despite the strangely dull cover, the pages of Relish are rife with vivid colors, expressive facial expressions, and drawing after drawing after drawing of delicious food! (It helps that Knisley's prose is unusually descriptive for a graphic novel.) Knisley puts her illustrative talents to work in the recipe at the end of almost every chapter, whether she uses them to draw out the steps so that they are more clear (as with a recipe for sushi following a chapter set in Japan) or just to include fun visual gags (as with some butterflies flying around a butterflied leg of lamb in the second recipe). Knisley supplements her illustrations with numerous little captions pointing to aspects of almost every panel, which help to add an enormous amount of detail: in one panel detailing stores in Rhinebeck, New York (Knisley's hometown), there is a mention of Oblong Books, a real bookstore that I just ordered a signed book from a couple of months ago! This book is bursting with thoughts and details across every square inch, which ensures that, despite its short length (167 pages), it is still a wonderful reading experience!

          When the coronavirus pandemic ends and people can go on vacations again without endangering their lives, Relish would be a perfect book to read! It is a sweet, serene sanctuary that makes you feel as if you are sitting with a loved relative, listening to them tell stories of a bygone time. You might not want to wait and save this book for a vacation, in which case read it now, as it's a perfect book to read in this time of stress and tension. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Relish is that, although I hadn't previously heard of Knisley, I'll definitely be reading more of her books in the future! I absolutely recommend this book!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (8/3/2020): Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd

For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am reviewing Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd.

          Over the Moon is Lloyd's third MG novel, following A Snicker of Magic and The Key to Extraordinary. Those two novels have a wonderful and unique formula, which combines a strong yet caring protagonist, a small, close-knit town, and plenty of magic. Over the Moon has all of those things, but it puts a new spin on them that makes for a very different novel.

          Over the Moon follows twelve-year-old Mallie Ramble, who lives in the mountaintop village of Coal Top. In Coal Top, boys and men (no matter how young) spend their lives digging in the mines, and girls and women (including Mallie) work as servants in the nearby valley. The mountains and valleys are filled with Dust (with a capital D), which covers up the sky and stars, fills the air, and has the ability to bring dread and fear to anyone who inhales or touches it. It's a stark contrast to how the region was years earlier, when people pulled starlight out of the sky and wove it into clothes, blankets, and other objects that brought joy and peace to those who held or wore them. Mallie's job as servant to the Tumbrel family provides barely enough money to keep her family afloat, so she jumps at the chance to earn money from one of the town's Guardians, Mortimer Good, by riding atop flying horses to collect gold powder from the mountain range. But Mallie soon discovers an ominous secret about Coal Top that forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.

          What makes Over the Moon different from Lloyd's two previous MG novels is that, where those two novels had a joyous premise with some challenges mixed in, Over the Moon is built on a sorrowful, almost-dystopian foundation that I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, Lloyd has always had a knack for setting up a detailed world in her books, and she brings that talent to Over the Moon as well. Child labor, servitude, and literally-poisonous work underground all bring to mind a not-so-distant past in the real world, but the addition of the Dust acts both as an interesting metaphor for people's loss of hope and as an intriguing challenge to be overcome. On the other hand, I loved Lloyd's first two books precisely because they had such an infectious joy that ran through every word, every sentence, and every page. There are some happy parts in Over the Moon, such as Mallie riding her flying horse, Leo, through the sky, or Mallie's caring best friend Adam, but I found almost all of the good parts of this story to be lacking the extreme attention to detail that is present in Lloyd's other books. Characters like Adam, Granny Mab, and Ms. Marcia didn't get the character development that side characters in previous books got. (One particularly bothersome thing was that Adam and Mallie had drifted apart for some reason before the events of the book, but after their friendship was rekindled, it was never explained why they had drifted apart in the first place.) Sometimes, I think that the best books are the books that cram a ton of wonderful little details into a small space, and Over the Moon simply doesn't cram enough in.

          There are a number of things that I did like about this book. Mallie is an incredibly brave and mature character. In order to protect her beloved younger brother Denver from a life in the mines, Mallie pushes herself to work harder and harder to earn a living, even daring to ride atop a flying horse through clouds of Dust and terrifying weather. Mallie reminds me of a parent, doing as much as possible to keep the people she loves safe. Also, Lloyd has always depicted physically different characters in her novels (possibly inspired by Lloyd using a wheelchair and walker as a child, as is mentioned on her website), and she continues that trend in Over the Moon. Mallie has only one hand, a detail that strikes the right balance between influencing Mallie's life and fading into the background behind her other traits. In addition, Mallie's father is blind and mute, and another character in the story, Iggy, is quite short. I appreciate all of this representation in the story! I also liked the general importance of animals to the story; Mallie has a strong connection to her horse, Leo, as does Iggy, the aforementioned side character who serves as the horses' caretaker. Mallie's family also has a wonderful yellow bird named Honeysuckle, one of many Dustflights who essentially act as magical and literal canaries in the coal mine for the miners (although, instead of dying from danger, they can simply sense danger and alert their owners). One other random tidbit: my hardcover copy of this book has an excellent book design, with inspirational words printed on the endsheets and lovely pages to introduce each chapter, not to mention that each chapter has a title so you can actually find the parts of the book you loved once you finished the book! (Seriously, why doesn't every book have chapter titles?)

          This is normally the part of the review where I summarize how I feel about the book, but I honestly don't know how I feel about Over the Moon. I don't think Over the Moon is a bad book, but it doesn't live up to my expectations of a Natalie Lloyd novel either. You have to understand, just from her first two books, Lloyd is probably one of my top-five favorite MG authors (in fact, I will be re-reading and re-reviewing her book The Key to Extraordinary in two weeks, since my last review of it so utterly didn't do it any justice whatsoever). I love Lloyd's books so, so much, and I really wanted to love Over the Moon as well. However, there are so many excellent books in the world that I just can't tell you to spend time on Over the Moon unless you really want to; you'd be much better off reading The Key to Extraordinary or A Snicker of Magic instead!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

#IMWAYR (7/27/2020): Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

Before we get started, I wanted to mention that I put together a post showcasing several virtual and free panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2020 featuring authors such as Shannon Messenger and Raina Telgemeier! Many of them have already happened, but you can watch many of them after-the-fact by going to my post and clicking the "watch it here" link.

For #IMWAYR, I am reviewing Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee. This review is more of a "rantview," so be warned!

A word of caution to any young readers: this book is a YA (young adult) novel, not an MG (middle grade) novel and contains some mature content.

          Tash Hearts Tolstoy tells the story of high school junior Natasha "Tash" (pronounced tawsh) Zelenka. Tash has two loves: film and Leo Tolstoy's books, and she decides to combine the two by working with her best friend Jacklyn "Jack" Harlow on a YouTube web series based on Anna Karenina, which they call Unhappy Families. The web series has a small but devoted fandom, but when a popular YouTuber mentions it on her own channel, Unhappy Families suddenly blows up in popularity. Besides having to wrangle a finicky cast, Tash (and to a lesser extent, Jack) now has to deal with the highs (Tumblr GIFs, hashtags, and the nomination for a Golden Tuba Award) and lows (bitter, critical reviews online) of online popularity. In the midst of all this, Tash is also dealing with some family problems as her older sister Klaudie gets ready to go off to college, and Tash is also involved in a bit of a love triangle* between fellow YouTuber Thom Causer and Jack's older brother, Paul (further complicated by the fact that Tash identifies as romantic asexual). [* Footnote: When I say "love triangle" in any of my reviews, I mean a situation where one character cannot decide which of two others he is/she is/they are romantically interested in. The phrase may have other meanings, but that's the one I'm using.]

          Tash Hearts Tolstoy has an interesting premise, but unfortunately, it is clumsily executed in more than a few ways. First of all, you've probably heard the writing advice "show, don't tell" at some point—I'm not even a writer, and I've heard it many times! This book shows exactly what goes wrong when you ignore said advice. There's a number of interesting ideas in this novel, but almost every single idea is condensed into a paragraph or several in the first-person narration. Instead of seeing the challenges of making a web series based on a classic novel, Tash tells us the challenges. Instead of seeing Tash's unique family problems, Tash tells us about the multiple religions in her home and about how her mother misses her parents. There are a few issues that result from this kind of storytelling. First, all of the tension and interest is sucked out of these otherwise-interesting ideas. Second, pulling away from the interesting scenes in the book to spend a page or two explaining the backstory for what has happened disrupts the flow of the novel and makes the scenes less interesting. Third, having Tash explain so much to the reader makes her seem too observant and contemplative to be an actual teenager; if Tash's problems were shown and not told, it wouldn't seem like the author was trying to speak through Tash's mouth as much.

          That brings me to the second problem of this book: characterization. Tash could be a totally interesting character. She loves classic novels and puts her all into a project that has required her to learn camera work, managerial skills, publicity, and more. However, Tash Hearts Tolstoy doesn't focus enough on these aspects of Tash, and what we do see of her is wasted on her explaining various plot points (see above) or just blithering and being a typical teenager. We see too much of what makes Tash similar to other kids and not enough of what makes her different. I also have to mention something random: Tash's friend Jack is an absolutely hysterical character. She is strangely dark and grim at times, but she also cares about people deep down inside. So why isn't she the main character? Sometimes I feel like authors think of a neat character, but then they worry that the character won't appeal to every reader, so they make some bland protagonist and push the interesting character off to the side. I'd much rather read a book with a unique protagonist that I don't necessarily relate to than a book with a bland protagonist that I do relate to.

          And then we have the love triangle. Does it even count as a love triangle if it is so, so, sooooooo predictable that there is zero question how it will end? I can't stand love triangles, but even I wished the end was a little less obvious. The problem is, one of the two characters (I won't say who) has so little personality that it is truly amazing. Calling him a caricature would be too generous, because he doesn't even have some one-faceted personality or interest; he is literally a stick figure of a character, with his most distinctive attributes being the fact that he has a head, arms, and legs. Every time there was some attempt at tension injected into the plot, I always felt like it was just a delay of the inevitable. I did appreciate the representation of someone who is romantic asexual; it was interesting to see the challenges of romantically loving someone but not having sexual feelings toward them, even if they do toward you. I would have appreciated a slightly clearer explanation of Tash's feelings earlier in the book; there is a clearer one toward the end, but things stayed somewhat murky for quite a while. Also, I must say that I don't know enough about romantic asexuality to know if the way it is depicted in this book is truly, 100% realistic. As far as I could tell, the author herself is not asexual, and I have to wonder how thoroughly researched these ideas are: are they based on personal experience, the experience of a sibling or relative, thorough research, or just hearsay? Also, there is one point when Tash does something so mean and cruel and ridiculous and pointless to one of the two love interests that it was just insane. I suppose it was one way to add tension to the plot, but seriously? (I'm not going to spoil what it was, but you'll know when you get to it, trust me.)

          Two last criticisms before I get to anything good: Tash's grandparents died in a car crash, so you'd think she would be smart enough not to put her car in park in an intersection at night to talk to her sister because "no one else was on the road," but you'd be wrong. PSA: Do not put your car in park in the middle of an intersection when the few people who are out don't think anyone else is out either. Common sense, people, come on. Also, this book doesn't tie in too much to Anna Karenina (a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective), except when it spoils the book's ending! I don't suspect any of you have urgent plans to read Anna Karenina, but if you do, maybe hold off on reading this book.

          Despite what it may seem, there are some good parts to this book. As I mentioned before, Jack is a compelling character, and Tash's relationship with Jack and Paul in general adds a nice element of lightheartedness and comfort to the story (and unlike many other good elements in the book, this one actually gets enough "screen time," so to speak). The author of this book does have a skill at describing things and setting the scene, which allows readers to visualize many of the events of this book. The end of the book has Tash making a trip by herself to the Golden Tuba Awards, and it's totally fun to see Tash on her own, staying in a hotel by herself and going to an award ceremony to see if the project she put so much heart and soul into gets the recognition it deserves. (And I also appreciated that this is one of the rare book endings where, after a conflict with friends occurs, the person who did wrong actually makes concrete changes to their behavior in order to earn their friends back!) Finally, the book is quite funny at times; as an example, there are a number of entertaining moments where Tash "talks" to the poster of Leo Tolstoy (or "my man Leo," as she sometimes calls him) that hangs on her wall.

          Overall, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a bit (well, more than a bit) of a mess, but the funny thing is that I actually had fun reading this book. I enjoyed getting to dissect the problems in the novel (see the ranting above) and took pleasure in the occasional good moments. This book is not what I'd call a good book, but you might just have a fun time reading it!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book-related panels at Comic-Con @ Home 2020!

For those of us with an incurable thirst for all the details about every book ever, I wanted to let you all know that the San Diego Comic-Con 2020, which has gone completely virtual (and free!), has a few authors and publishers you might recognize holding virtual panels. It's worth noting that some of these panels seem to be pre-recorded, and some (though not all) will be available for viewing after-the-fact. Here are some of the ones worth noting:
  • Several notable graphic novelists, including Jerry Craft and Faith Erin Hicks, previously discussed new kids' graphic novels! This panel has already happened, but it is available for viewing after-the-fact. Learn about it here, or watch it here.
  • The former benevolent overlord of MMGM, Shannon Messenger, had a panel dedicated entirely to her Keeper of the Lost Cities series in which she talked with author J.C. Cervantes. This panel has already happened, but it is also available for viewing after-the-fact. Learn about it here, or watch it here.
  • Graphic novelists Raina Telgemeier (!!!) and Robin Ha have a panel on Friday from 11am to noon, Pacific time, in which they will be talking, drawing, and answering fan questions (so you might want to watch live). There's even a promo to get a bookplate signed by Telgemeier! Learn about the panel here, or watch it here.
  • A vaguely described panel in which "Personal, political, fictional, and factual creators tackle important topics that affect everybody" will include, besides several others who are not children' writers, Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, authors of the wonderful When Stars Are Scattered. This panel is on Saturday from noon to 1pm, Pacific time. Learn about it here, or watch it here.
  • Finally, representatives from Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing will be giving a sneak peek at the company's upcoming books during a panel on Saturday from 2pm to 3pm, Pacific time. There is also a giveaway of several ARCs! Learn about the panel here, or watch it here.
  • I might have missed some panels, so if you want to search the Comic-Con schedule for more stuff, click here.
I hope some of these panels look appealing to you! I know that I always seem to stumble upon interesting events like these the day before they are happening, so I wanted to give you all at least a little bit of warning if you happen to be interested. If you end up "going" to the panels, have fun!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (7/20/2020): Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (plus giveaway winner!)

Before we get started, I want to mention that the winner of my giveaway of Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy is...


Congratulations! Thanks to everyone who entered! Now, for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker.

          WOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Oh, sorry, I couldn't contain my enthusiasm for this book. Several years ago, MMGM showrunner Greg Pattridge recommended Lisa Bunker's debut novel, Felix Yz, and I must thank him for that recommendation, because I read and loved that book! (His review is here, and my review is here.) I bought a copy of Bunker's second book, Zenobia July, a while back, but I forgot to read it until now, and it is so good!!!

          Zenobia July's life has just changed dramatically at the beginning of this book. Zenobia (or Zen for short) has moved across the U.S. to live with her married aunts instead of her father. A transgender girl, Zen uses this move and the resulting start at a new school as an opportunity to live as a girl for the first time. But being transgender isn't easy, and it's not like making friends and dealing with bullies is a piece of cake anyway (nor is living with people who have never raised kids, for that matter). But as Zen meets fascinating kids, becomes more comfortable with who she is, and uses her skills at coding and hacking to help the school find the hate-spreading vandal of the school website, she starts to realize that her new life might actually be pretty great.

          There is so much nuance and joy and delight packed into this book that I truly could just go on and on and on, but I'll try to contain myself. First of all, the part of the description above that probably stood out to you most is that Zen is transgender, and, indeed, that is a very important aspect of this book. Zenobia July is an #ownvoices story, as Bunker herself is transgender, and I was really impressed with how Zen's experience of being transgender is depicted. Her dealings with body dysmorphia, misgendering, buying clothes, and being closeted are shown tenderly and skillfully—I definitely learned a lot. Also, like in Felix Yz, Bunker is basically determined to make up for the lack of LGBTQIA+ characters in literature by including as many as humanly possible in this book: there's Zen, her married Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil (just FYI, Aunt Phil does not seem to be trans—her name is just short for Philomena), her genderqueer friend named Arli, another transgender student at her school, and her aunts' friend, a drag queen who she calls Uncle Sprink. With all of the hate (specifically toward transgender people) being spread in the world of books by J.K. Trolling (pun intended), it's great to see a book doing everything it can to counteract bias toward LGBTQIA+ people, especially transgender people.

           One particular topic in this book that I felt warranted its own paragraph is Zen's experience dealing with prejudice from the family she has left behind, from other people, and even from herself. Zen's father (who she no longer lives with in the book) was not remotely accepting of her being trans, and she struggles in the story to reconcile her good memories of her father with his harmful beliefs and abusive behavior toward Zen. Zen meets a girl at her new school named Melissa whose family is not accepting of transgender people either (although remember, she is not out at her school, even though she presents as a girl), and she has to think about if Melissa's beliefs (largely originating from her family) make her a bad person or just misguided. Finally, Zen herself learned many beliefs from her original family, and her realization that she is trans does not automatically negate the other prejudices she has learned; there are minor moments in the story where words Zen's father might have used to describe the people she is around jump back into her mind and make her feel prejudiced. All of these depictions are incredibly impressive; they both prevent this book from being one-sided and make it useful for kids in real life who can't just erase prejudice out of the world. (A series of recurring chapters where characters discuss in first person [not the third person used in the main chapters] how they perceive Zen further ensures that the story pays attention to (though does not validate) other viewpoints.)

          There are a number of other things I love about Zenobia July. First of all, the characters in this book are fabulous! Zen isn't just a compelling protagonist, she is a protagonist who you would think of as just an awesome person in real life (which is surprisingly rare in books)! The side characters are excellent as well: I particularly loved Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil, who, despite being almost-polar opposites (one is a stiff professor, and the other is an optimistic almost-hippie), love each other and navigate the murky waters of raising a child quite well! (I would honestly read a spin-off book just about Aunt Lucy and Aunt Phil.) The characters in this book all have their own interests (or "geekeries," as Bunker calls them), such as Zen's friend Arli's interest in words, or Zen's interest in coding and hacking (which is super-interesting to watch, even though it seems somewhat unrealistic at times—you hacked into your school's student information system, presumably made by a major manufacturer, and stole data out of it without getting caught???) In many ways, though, this book is a love letter to people's unique interests, and pretty much anyone who feels like they have weird hobbies or interests will feel at home in this book. Finally, Bunker's writing style is just fantastic; she has this incredible ability to be a touch snarky but also sincere at the same time, which makes this book incredibly fun to read!

          Read this book!!! It's so rare that you find a book that tackles important topics delicately and sensitively but is also total fun to read, and I was so happy to find out that Zenobia July is one of those books! Perhaps the best praise I can give this book is that my sibling read it as well, and basically every day, I've been going over to them and exclaiming, "This book is so good!" (which has been driving them somewhat crazy)! I wholeheartedly recommend Zenobia July!

(Random P.S. I feel like it deserves mention that Bunker, besides being a fabulous MG author, is also a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives! How can she possibly do all of that at the same time?!)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

#IMWAYR (7/13/2020): Parachutes by Kelly Yang (plus a giveaway of Julie Murphy's new book!)

For #IMWAYR, I am recommending Parachutes by Kelly Yang—and I'm also giving away a copy of Julie Murphy's new book, Faith: Taking Flight!

Review of Parachutes:

A word of caution to any young readers: Parachutes is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains mature content.

          I was intrigued by this book for quite a while, but I finally decided to read it after seeing it praised by Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, and I'm so glad I did! Parachutes is told in chapters that alternate between the points of view of Claire Wang and Dani De La Cruz. Claire lives in Shanghai, China, and, although her wealthy parents don't seem to be able to love her except by spending money, she is relatively happy with her life, having friends and a boyfriend—which is why it feels like her life is falling apart when her parents decide to send her to live with a host family she doesn't know and attend an American private school called American Prep (a practice that is more common than you think—such students [who are usually from China] are nicknamed "parachutes"). Claire ends up living in the spare bedroom of Mrs. De La Cruz and her daughter, Dani, who is the debate-team star at American Prep and the favorite of her coach, Mr. Connelly. Dani hopes that doing well enough in debate will lead her to a scholarship to Yale so that she can help her mother escape the cycle of poverty, which has led both Dani and her mother to work as maids in order to get by. Throughout the story, Claire deals with navigating a foreign nation and putting her social life back together from scratch, including dating a parachute named Jay that practically everyone has a crush on, and Dani deals with crushes of her own and deciding how much pain she is willing to put up with in order to succeed.

          This book is astoundingly good! I want to start off by mentioning that to many of you, the idea of students coming from China to the United States to live with families they don't know and attend schools with completely different cultures (and, quite frankly, abundant racism) may sound too insane to be real—but, indeed, it is very real. The main reason I was intrigued to read this book is that I actually attended a private high school where this practice was commonplace, but I am ashamed to say that I paid such students little attention while I was there and was pretty much clueless about how widespread of a practice this was. In Parachutes, Claire has to deal with living with a family she doesn't even know, being without her parents, having extreme freedom, being put in classes she is too smart for (she is lucky to be already fluent in English—many students at the school I attended were not fluent at all), and dealing with plenty of racism as well. I also appreciate that Claire is not the only student from China who gets attention in the story—in Dani's chapters, we hear from Dani's best friend, Ming, who, unlike Claire, has a terrible host family and does not have the wealth to automatically become the queen bee of the parachutes (like Claire does early in the story). I am glad that Parachutes is finally calling attention to the sometimes-nightmarish struggles that students from China have to deal with at American private schools.

          This book also deals with sexual harassment and rape. You might have just read that sentence and thought, "Oh, I'm closing this review right now," but hear me out. This book, at least for many readers, is revelatory when it comes to its depiction of these issues. Yang herself had to deal with sexual assault while she was in law school (which she writes about in the book's author's note), which means two things. One: she has things to say about these issues. Two: this book is an even more astounding accomplishment when you consider how it ties in to Yang's own experiences. Parachutes shows how sexual harassment and rape can be committed by people who the victims trust most, and it shows both the awful pain and shame that results from the crimes and the ridiculous expectations of victims in our criminal justice system. Here's an example: we expect victims of rape to go to the police immediately, to tear open their already-raw wound as they relive their trauma with police officers who aren't exactly trained in sympathy, instead of expecting them to spend some time going to therapy, or hiding at home, or doing something that is even remotely reasonable considering the circumstances. Parachutes doesn't torture readers with the most unpleasant details, but it nevertheless gets the pain across. Even so, there is still an element of hope to the story that makes reading about these issues not as unpleasant as you might expect.

          And now, the lightning round of other things I liked about this book. I haven't talked much about Dani yet, but she is a fabulous character: her drive to succeed in spite of all of the obstacles in her way is inspiring. Dani's devotion to debate is just one of many instances in this book of academics coming to the forefront, instead of being unrealistically pushed to the background like in many YA books. Except for one character readers are supposed to like named Zach (who I disliked quite a bit for some reason), the characters in this book are all fantastic; Claire and Dani are amazingly realistic protagonists (with a realistic relationship as well), and many side characters also get attention, bringing up issues such as being gay or being the child of unmarried parents that don't fit in the main plot line. The juxtaposition of the culture of China that Claire is used to (where pretty much anything reflects on one's family as a whole) with the American culture that she has to learn is incredibly well-developed (particularly because Claire's parents and their problems and advice factor heavily into the story). The juxtaposition between extreme wealth and poverty is also well-developed (the boundary between these factors is one that the characters learn to overcome over time). This book is long, but so much happens that you practically have to peel your eyes of off the pages in order to stop reading (I basically read the last third of the book in one day). Yang does an almost-superhuman job of bringing the many, many disparate elements of this book together into a whole that is not just cohesive, but requires each element in order to be understood.

          Parachutes doesn't just realistically depict the experience of students from China attending school in the U.S., and it doesn't just teach its readers an immense amount about the experience of those who suffer sexual harassment and rape. This book also manages to showcase the relationships between parents and kids, the experiences related to being rich or poor, and the experiences related to being non-white in the U.S. Parachutes is truly an amazing achievement, and I am unable to express to you all how much I wholeheartedly recommend this book!

Giveaway of Faith: Taking Flight:

On an unrelated note, I accidentally ordered two copies of Julie Murphy's new book, Faith: Taking Flight, so I figured I would give one of them away on this blog! Faith: Taking Flight is a prose YA novel that is based on a series of comics about a superhero named Faith. Julie Murphy had nothing to do with that series, but they brought her in to write at least two novels based on the comics. Since I am a huge fan of Julie Murphy (her YA book Ramona Blue was the first YA book I ever reviewed!), I am hugely excited to read this book! The publisher's description is as follows:


From Julie Murphy, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin', comes the first in a two-book origin story of Faith, a groundbreaking, plus-sized superhero from the Valiant Entertainment comics.

Faith Herbert is a pretty regular teen. When she's not hanging out with her two best friends, Matt and Ches, she's volunteering at the local animal shelter or obsessing over the long-running teen drama The Grove.

So far, her senior year has been spent trying to sort out her feelings for her maybe-crush Johnny and making plans to stay close to Grandma Lou after graduation. Of course, there's also that small matter of recently discovering she can fly….

When the fictional world of The Grove crashes into Faith's reality as the show relocates to her town, she can't believe it when TV heroine Dakota Ash takes a romantic interest in her.

But her fandom-fueled daydreams aren't enough to distract Faith from the fact that first animals, then people, have begun to vanish from the town. Only Faith seems able to connect the dots to a new designer drug infiltrating her high school.

But when her investigation puts the people she loves in danger, she will have to confront her hidden past and use her newfound gifts—risking everything to save her friends and beloved town. 


Sounds awesome, right?! I'm giving away an unsigned copy of this book—here are the rules:

  • FYI, I am shipping this book myself; it is NOT coming from a bookseller.
  • Entrants must have mailing addresses in the United States or Canada.
  • Enter using the Google Form below, NOT the comments.
  • Winners will be selected randomly.
  • You must enter an email address so that I can contact you via email for a mailing address if you win. I will not keep or share your email address.
    • Please, please, PLEASE give me an email address that you check regularly (including spam/junk), as I will choose a new winner if you do not respond to my initial email within 48 hours.
  • You must also enter a nickname for me to post on my blog if you win; it does not need to be your real name (although it can be if you want).
  • The last full day to enter this giveaway is Wednesday, July 15, 2020, as I will close the form the morning of Thursday, July 16, 2020.
  • If you are reading this post in your email, click on the post title to open it in your browser and view the entry form below.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

MMGM and #IMWAYR (7/6/2020): When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending the graphic memoir When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed.

          I honestly don't know if this review will be of much use, considering almost every blogger I know has already read and reviewed this book, but I'm still going to review it as well. When Stars Are Scattered is a memoir (except for some slight fictionalization) of the years Omar Mohamed spent as a child in Dadaab, a UN refugee camp in Kenya. As young children, Omar and his younger brother, Hassan (who can only speak one word and suffers from seizures) fled the civil war in Somalia and ended up in Dadaab with no other family. Dadaab is mostly a miserable place, where Omar and thousands of other refugees live in poverty and starvation, although he and Hassan are fortunate enough to have a kind fellow refugee named Fatuma step in to take care of them. When Stars Are Scattered captures Omar's struggles in attending school while looking after his brother, as well as the constant struggle to maintain hope for a better life in the future after years and years spent waiting. Omar (who now runs the organization Refugee Strong) worked with Newbery-Honor-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson to create this unique and stunning graphic memoir.

          When Stars Are Scattered is so absolutely amazing in so many ways that it is completely impossible for me to do this book justice in a review, but I'm going to try! First of all, it is impressive that this book, which so deeply pierces your heart and soul, never made me too sad to keep turning the pages. Part of the reason why is that both Omar and the other characters in the story have had to learn to make the best of the horrific lot in life they have been given in order to keep going, and that spirit of hope in the worst of circumstances permeates this entire novel. Omar and Hassan have an incredible bond in the story that helps them keep going; it's one of the best sibling relationships you'll find in any book, as they truly care for and love each other. Omar also finds joy in his friends (Jeri, Nimo, and Maryam, who, like Omar and Hassan, are kind and lovable characters) and in the occasional good things that finally come his way (which I don't want to spoil). This book is hardly a joyous book, but it is definitely a hopeful book, and that was enough for me!

          When Stars Are Scattered definitely opened my eyes to the struggle of refugees. It's easy to think that, if refugees can get into a refugee camp, they'll be fine, but this book makes it clear that, while refugee camps are a good thing, they are also quite miserable. Here's an analogy I think we'll all understand: you know how you've been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the coronavirus to end so you can go back to living your normal, happy life? Well, refugees in these camps have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to live their lives as well, only they're waiting with not enough food, no money, nothing more than tents over their heads, minimal education, bad medical care, and no parents (at least for Omar and Hassan), and they're waiting years and years and years!!! (I am not in any way arguing that the refugee experience is similar to the experience of privileged people right now; I just felt that the analogy made the idea easier to understand.) The only chance at a better life most of the refugees in Dadaab have is to wait for the UN bureaucracy (which moves as quickly as a snail stuck in molasses) to choose them for resettlement (which I assume the UN pays for, since most refugees are dirt-poor, and trust me, you don't even know what dirt-poor means until you've read this book).

          It is excellent that this book is a graphic novel, because, as with another graphic novel I reviewed recently called White Bird, seeing the struggle of Omar and the other characters adds a layer of emotional depth that you would not get in a prose novel. Victoria Jamieson is just the right person for the job; although I haven't historically been a huge fan of her work (in hindsight, her book Roller Girl was a weirdly depressing read—I would argue far more depressing than this book!), she has an incredible talent that really comes through both for expressing vivid emotions and for showcasing numerous details in her drawings. There's so much detail in every drawing that it feels like you're living the story, and you can tell exactly how each character is feeling at any given moment—plus, unlike a few graphic novels I've read, Jamieson's style isn't disconcerting at all; it's cartoonish enough not to look uncanny or strange, even as it conveys an immense amount of reality.

          Some other thoughts: The plot of this book is hard to explain, but it doesn't move slowly; I read this book in just a few hours, and there were no slow parts at all. I was also impressed by how Hassan's inability to express himself verbally never defines him or prevents readers from seeing his character. I somehow got this far and managed to ignore one of the most major points in the book, which is the value of education; seeing how Omar and other kids in Dadaab struggle to stay in school will definitely make at least some readers more grateful that they have the privilege of staying in school through high school. The book also makes sure to show how girls in Dadaab struggle even more to stay in school due to several factors, such as arranged marriages at young ages; I don't think I've ever been more horrified, ever, by any moment in any book, than when I saw one middle-school-age girl who had to leave school pregnant with a child.

          It's amazing how I've written so many words and so utterly failed to capture the beauty and importance of this book. When Stars Are Scattered is one of those rare books that every single person on this earth (of any age) needs to read in order to understand the world around them. You can't call yourself an educated person if you know nothing about the 71 million refugees on this earth, and I am glad to have finally read this book and learned more about their plight. When Stars Are Scattered is an incredible reminder both of the horrible things that happen in this world and of the incredible ability of the human spirit to withstand them, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that you make sure to read this book!