The Bride Test

Bride Test.jpgTitle: The Bride Test
Author: Helen Hoang
ISBN: 9780451490827
Pages: 300 pages
Publisher/Date: A Jove Book, Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2019.

“She’s staying here with you,” she said.
“What? Why?”” Khai’s entire body stiffened at the idea. It was an invasion, clear and simple.
“Don’t sound so upset,” she said in a cajoling tone. “She’s young and very pretty.”
He looked to Quan. “Why can’t she stay with you? You like women.”
Quan choked in the middle of drinking Coke and pounded his chest with a fist as he coughed.
Their mom aimed her dissatisfied look at Quan before she focused on Khai and straightened to her full height of four feet ten inches. “She can’t stay with Quan because she’s your future wife.”
“What?” He laughed a little. This had to be a joke, but he didn’t understand the humor.
“I choose her for you when I went to Viet Nam. You’ll like her. She’s perfect for you,” she said.
“I don’t–You can’t–I–” He shook his head. “What?” (28)

Khai is less than thrilled when he learns his mother has arranged for a woman to come from Vietnam to be his wife. Expecting “a younger replica of his mom,” he’s very surprised by Esme, whom he thinks is hot, gorgeous, and breathtaking, among other things. Khai though is against romance, having difficulty connecting with people due to autism, and avoids relationships with everyone he can. Esme, a mixed-race woman who is anxious to help her family by marrying an American before her visa expires, is immediately drawn to Khai and has been told by his mother that she’ll need to work at seducing Khai. But how do you seduce someone who is so closed off from the world?

I really enjoyed Helen Hoang’s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient (which I realize now I never blogged, whoops!, must remedy) featuring a woman with Asperger’s. Flipping the script, I thought it veered too much into the romance world that I get frustrated by, which is instant love that is thwarted not by anything specific but by an inability to effectively act on emotions and communicate those feelings to others. Khai and Esme are instantly physically attracted to each other. Khai has boners almost every time he is in Esme’s presence, and Esme’s single-minded pursuit of seducing Khai seems like this will be an easy sell. But Khai, in addition to his autism, sensitivity to touch, and avoidance of people, has a tragedy from his past that has convinced him that he cannot get close to people as a form of protecting everyone from certain heartbreak. While the details of the tragedy aren’t released until we think Khai is a real jerk for continuously pushing Esme away, it’s still heartbreaking that Khai has punished himself for so long for something that wasn’t his fault. Esme too pushes Khai away from getting to know her by lying about her professional and personal past, hiding key details that would definitely change their relationship until the end reveal.

It’s no wonder to me that Khai is frustrated by his family. His brother and mother both take on key roles in trying to get the couple together, and their “we know what’s best for you” philosophy starts grating on my nerves. While his mother’s initial manipulation of a bride could have been passed off as a cultural difference, she herself tells Khai’s brother that “If I followed tradition, I would already have found you a wife the same way, but you don’t need my help. Your brother does.” (29) She also refuses to listen to Khai’s insistence to cancel the wedding, that he isn’t lonely, and that he doesn’t want this. While it might be funny to some, and it (predictably?) works out in the end, I have to empathize with Khai in that his mother shouldn’t have been doing this. I know someone from college who agreed to an arranged marriage, but she agreed to it and had the right to refuse. Khai has no such right here and is at the mercy of his mother and family. While Khai’s brother initially objects to the idea, Quan is no better at the end of the book, attempting his own manipulation of Khai into doing what Quan wants Khai to do. Again, it works out, but I have to wonder how people would have reacted if the genders were flipped and in this era of #MeToo it was a woman being manipulated in this manner. Finally, Khai’s birds and the bees conversation with his brother just strikes me as odd and shoe-horned in for cheap laughs at Khai’s expense. All the cliched characters should have gotten more meat in their development and I’m left feeling sorry for Khai and Esme at the manipulation they face from Khai’s family and from each other.

 

 

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The Book of Boy

34807877Title: The Book of Boy
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Illustrator: Ian Schoenherr
ISBN: 9780062686206
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2018.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2019)

“And now you go on pilgrimage.” I should say something, I felt.
“Ah. Yes. I am on a quest, Boy. A quest for seven objects. Seven relics as precious as anything on this earth. Seven relics that will save me.” He held the book so I could see a page of writing. “Rib tooth thumb shin,” he recited. “Dust skull tomb.”
“Rib tooth thumb shin dust skull home,” I whispered to myself. How grand these words sounded. Like a prayer. […]
“Guard that pack, Boy. Guard it as you would your life. For within that pack rests one of Saint Peter’s ribs.” (23-24)

A hunchbacked orphan called simply Boy is sold into the service of Secundus, a traveler in the guise of a pilgrim. However, Boy and Secundus both learn that each of them are hiding secrets from the other. Secundus is on a quest for seven relics of St. Peter that will save him, but from what the Boy doesn’t realize until it’s too late to turn back home. Boy has a way with animals that even he doesn’t fully understand, but it will come to light that they may be on opposite sides of a divide that has existed for centuries. When Seundus’ actions lead to questionable decision making involving thievery, bribes, and a cursed key, Boy must decide how far he is willing to go to have his own prayers answered.

For families who are looking for overtly Christian themed stories in the vein of Chronicles of Narnia, this one would be an excellent choice. This book reminded me of The Seven Tales of Trinket, from it’s medieval setting and long journey to the seven items that drive the momentum of the story. The reveal of the secrets carried by both Boy and Secundus are unexpected and dramatic, with small foreshadowing hints peppered throughout the story remaining unnoticeable until they coalesce into a way brings new meaning to the journey and the relationship between the two. The inclusion of a hunchback character, which is rarely seen in children’s literature, is inspired, allowing superstitions to be brought into the novel and show Boy’s insecurities both literally and figuratively change as he gains confidence, worldliness, and understanding. While a line in the story “if you slump like a monster, then so you’ll be treated” could be misconstrued and taken literally, it should be seen as encouragement to wear a mantle of confidence because people treat you as you appear.

Tiger vs. Nightmare

37534387Title: Tiger vs. Nightmare
Author/Illustrator: Emily Tetri
ISBN: 9781626725355
Pages: 64 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2018
Awards: Geisel Award Honor (2019)

“I know it was supposed to scare me when I was a baby…
…but Monster said it didn’t seem fair to scar a baby.
Monsters gotta scare something, though.
So it started scaring away my nightmare for me.” (12-13)

Tiger sleeps soundly at night because Monster, an elongated blue creature resembling a fish with arms and legs and tail that reminds me of Pikachu’s tail. Monster does a fine job too, until a black shadow with a skull head appears and Monster gets scared. Tiger knows something is up after a nightmarish night, but Monster doesn’t want to admit defeat. The next night though, the both realize they are in over their head. The atmospheric watercolors are just gorgeous, and stand out from the other Geisel Award Nominees from this year. The evening scenes are blues and grays, and the morning scenes are a contrasting orange and green, with the climatic scene resulting in a burst of light that explodes and overpowers the page and the previous darkness.

This book is probably shelved in graphic novels in most libraries, but serious consideration should be given to placing it in the picture book areas where small children who suffer from nightmares would benefit and find it the best. Please recommend and promote this beautiful book that teaches how to overcome your fears with the help of friends – and maybe a monster. And keep your eye out for more by this author.

How to Walk Away

How to Walk Away.jpgTitle: How to Walk Away
Author: Katherine Center
ISBN: 9781250149060
Pages: 302 pages
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Press, c2018.

I couldn’t tell you how many full rotations we completed as we blew across that runway like somebody’s lost kite, but there’s a reason they call it cartwheeling. The wings were teh spokes of a giant wheel, and we were the axle in the middle on a spinning carnival ride from hell. At a certain point, I lost all sense of spatial orientation, and it stopped feeling like we were spinning–more like rocking back and forth. I remember focusing all my energy on not barfing because there was nothing else to even hope to control. […]
A spray of jet fuel hit the windshield with a clomp sound like we were at a drive-through car wash, and we collapsed at last in a ditch, with my side–the passenger side–wedged down in it, and Chip’s side angled up at the sky.
We stopped.
Everything was still. (19)

Margaret Jacobsen thought her boyfriend was taking her to dinner. Instead, he was taking her on a plane ride with his newly acquired license. Margaret has always been scared of flying, but agrees anyways. Her fears are proven right when a storm blows up and they crash land. Chip is physically fine, but bears the weight of guilt when Margaret doesn’t come away unscathed. Spending the majority of her time in the hospital, Margaret doesn’t have much time to wallow as she must accept and work to improve her new reality. Against Margaret’s wishes, her sister Kit reappears after a three year absence, imposing herself into Margaret’s life and serving as a sprite counterpoint Ian, Margaret’s more stoic Scotsman physical therapist. It’s hard to find her new normal when life keeps throwing curveballs at you.

This is the book equivalent of a Lifetime movie, although not as cliche. The ending as mostly as expected, with a romantic arc that’s alluded to in the description and an 11th hour curve-ball that’s thrown in to complicate the relationship. Actually, more than one relationship has complications that need to be solved and tied up in a bow before the book concludes. Just because it’s dependable chick literature doesn’t make it less engaging, as readers become invested in Margaret’s life and struggles. A bad hand has been dealt, which everyone recognizes, and they are struggling to make sense of it all in their own way.

I enjoyed the author’s portrayal of the reactions of the people involved the most. There are some who are horrified by Margaret’s appearance, there are some who pity her, there are others who feel the obligation of staying with her and checking on her, and there are a few solid and steady people in her life who force her to focus on other things. Margaret’s boyfriend/fiance Chip is trying to do the right thing, but the situation has changed so drastically over the course of just a day that neither him nor Margaret know where they stand, and it’s so nice to see a relationship that is struggling through all the emotions (although readers have a little bit of doubt in it from the beginning considering pilot Chip’s idea of a good birthday present for someone who doesn’t like to fly is an airplane ride proposal). 

Newly-graduated business-woman Margaret’s relationship with her hair-stylist sister Kit is one of the more beneficial to her recovery. While Margaret resents and despises Kit initially, Kit’s sporadic and hyperactive personality and ability to not take no for an answer is just what Margaret needs when the bouts of depression and self-pity overwhelm her. And there is some deep depression, frustration, and emotional outbursts as expected, and I think that’s what is so inspiring as Margaret faces times where she can’t accept her situation, where every little ray of hope is reacted on like it’s a flood of sunlight. Sometimes though, that little ray is just that, and Margaret learns to appreciate it for what it is and how it makes her feel. As Kit so aptly summarizes, from one of the many articles and studies she researches for Margaret’s behalf, is that one year after a huge event, whether it’s an accident or divorce or death or a lottery win, the people impacted are just as happy as they were before the event. And as we see in the final chapters, and even more in the epilogue, while circumstances may change, happiness has not been lost completely. “There are really all kinds of happy endings.” (302)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Tattooist of Auschwitz.jpgTitle: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
ISBN: 9780062870674
Pages: 262 pages (plus 10 pages of supplemental material)
Publisher/Date: Originally published in Australia by Bonnier Publishing Australia and in the UK by Bonnier Zaffre, published in the US by HarperCollins Publishers, c2018.

“My name is Pepan. I am the Tätowierer. What do you think of my handiwork?”
Tätowierer?” asks Lale. “You mean, you did this to me?”
Pepan shrugs, looking Lale directly in the eye. “I wasn’t given a choice.”
Lale shakes his head. “This number wouldn’t have been my first choice of tattoo.”
“What would you have preferred?” asks Pepan.
Lale smiles shyly.
“What’s her name?”
“My sweetheart? I don’t know. We haven’t met yet.” (28)

Little does Lale know at the time that he soon will meet his sweetheart. Having volunteered himself for the labor camps to supposedly save his family, Slovakian Jew Lale doesn’t realize what he’s going to encounter when he arrives at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As a result of his optimism, language skills, luck, and the loyalty of his bunk mates, three months after his arrival Lale finds himself in a privileged role of Tattooist, engraving the numbers on incoming prisoners. This is where he meets 34902, who he later comes to know as Gita, and it’s love at first sight. With hardships and uncertainty around every corner, Lale must use all his ingenuity and connections to help save his fellow prisoners, because his reason for survival is inside that prison with him.

Based on a true story of hope, hardships, heartache, and horrors, fans of the movie Life is Beautiful and Elie Wiesel’s Night are sure to want to read this to the very end. Author Heather Morris met with the real-life Lale several times a week over the course of three years, with him telling “his story piecemeal, sometimes slowly, sometimes at bullet pace and without clear connections between the many, many episodes.” (author’s note, 5) The tone and writing style of the novel echo this format of receipt, with the third person narration relegating readers to observers of the horrors that Lale experience. It’s also a straightforward style of writing, with limited descriptions or flowery adjectives. For instance, in the aftermath of a plane flying over the concentration camp:

On its third pass over Birkenau, the plane gains height and flies off. The prisoners continue to shout. Many drop to their knees, devastated that their cries have been ignored. Lale begins to back up against a nearby building. Just in time. Bullets rain down from the towers in the compound, hitting dozens of people too slow to move to safety.
Faced with the trigger-happy guards, Lale decides against organizing to see Gita. Instead, he goes back to his block, where he is greeted by wailing and crying. The women cradle young boys and girls who have suffered bullet wounds. (181-182)

The writing jumps perspectives in places that warrant it so we can briefly and sporadically see how Gita is reacting to her situation, but the primary focus is Lale, since it is his story and it is he who tells the story to the author in interviews. However, for a book based on so much conversation with the man, readers are privy to the bare minimum of the motivations, emotions, and thoughts of the character. It reads like an embellished interview, with what one Goodreads review describes as a lot of “stage direction” which makes sense as it was originally intended for a screen play.

It doesn’t necessarily detract from the reading, as the horrors of the situation keep you guessing about what’s going to happen next. Lale’s apparent cat-like nine lives are mentioned more than once as he escapes death multiple times, but we don’t get the sense of how Lale feels about those near misses. The ending wrap-up (for lack of a better term) also feels very rushed compared to the actions that both Gita and Lale are forced to take. For instance, Gita’s reunions with first a neighbor and then a family member are each briefly described over only a few paragraphs. We witness a medical atrocity occur to Lale’s friend that I don’t think I’ve ever seen portrayed in a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust, but it has a role in one or two scenes and is never mentioned again, which I find hard to believe that something so shocking would never surface in his thoughts again.

Overall, I liked the story, but I think I liked the story more than I liked the writing. I know I’ve said time and time again on this blog that I’m a sucker for a good “based on a true story” tale, and this is one amazing tale. However, I wish we had seen more of a progression of the events, setting, and feelings that the story only briefly touched upon.

Ironically and appropriately, today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which we witness in the book. Take a quiet moment after reading this review or this book to remember all the people who didn’t survive the prejudices and violent acts of that time.

Children of Blood and Bone

Children of Blood and Bone.jpgTitle: Children of Blood and Bone
Series: Legacy of Orïsha #1
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
ISBN: 9781250295446 (hardcover), 9781427295514 (audiobook)
Pages: 531 pages
Discs/CDs: 14 CDs, 17 hours 44 minutes
Publisher/Date: Macmillan Young Listeners Audiobook from Henry Holt and Company, c2018 by Macmillan Audio

“What did you do?” I ask. “Why were the king’s men chasing you?”
“Don’t tell us.” He shakes his head and jabs his finger toward Lagos. “Go back. Turn yourself in. It’s the only chance we have to–”
She removes her cloak, silencing us both. […]
“Oh my gods,” I breathe.
The princess.
Amari.
I kidnapped Orïsha’s princess. (75)

Zélie and her brother Tzain are hoping for a good day at the market, selling a fish their father caught. That is their one goal, until Zélie is frantically approached by a hooded girl, pleading for help in getting out of the city. As a member of the diviner race, Zélie has no love for the ruling class, or slaughtered her people, specifically her mother, and killed magic forever. Or so she and everyone else thought, until the girl produces a scroll and reveals herself as Amari, the princess and newly created sympathizer of the diviners. The scroll is the first part of a process that could bring magic back, but Amari’s tyrannical father will do anything from preventing that from happening. It’s a race against time and the pursuing army, led by Amari’s brother, to renew magic before the slaughter from a decade ago resumes.

While I cannot speak to the accuracy of her accents, Bahni Turpin is a joy to listen to, as the different languages roll off her tongue and provide a very authentic listening experience. She sobs, she screams, and she gasps in turn to accentuate the expression and emotion of the narration. Capably carrying the conversations between the cast of characters, I look forward to listening to other audiobooks by her.

The story has been raved about. It was chosen by Jimmy Fallon (really by a majority of his fans) as the inaugural selection for his book club. NPR reviewer Caitlyn Paxson exclaimed that “Adeyemi already writes like an author who is ten books deep into her career, so I can only imagine how strong her writing will become.” It was a Kirkus Prize Nominee for Young Readers’ Literature.

However, I can’t wholeheartedly throw my support behind it. I loved the unashamedly African American cast, setting, and story. Pulling from Nigerian deities and mythology/religion, and incorporating vocabulary and languages, cultures, clothing, and food, readers are immersed in the world of Orïsha. Just foreign enough to provide a sense of wonder, but still familiar enough for readers to recognize (lionares, snow leopanaires, and black panthernaires big enough to ride on?), readers are captivated by the details. That same amount of time was regrettably not spent on the overall plot and character development.

Of the four main characters who share narration duties, Amari seems to be most developed. Living a sheltered life until a horror she witnesses in her own home encourages her to flee with a stolen item, she has reasons for first seeking refuge and then rebellion. Zélie, one of two reluctant rebels, is the stereotypical “chosen one,” picked by the gods (or so everyone else says) to lead the pursuit and restore magic to the lands. I’m not picking on the premise, but I am disappointed in the generic but very obvious love story that engulfs her. Tzain, Zélie’s brother, is the other reluctant participant, literally along for the ride to protect his sister and keep her out of trouble as she stumbles through this quest. Both Tzain and Zélie are on guilt trips, as Zélie blames herself for the trouble that has arisen from her new found “savior status” and Tzain vacillates between blaming her for their predicament and feeling guilty that he harbors these feelings. The fourth narrator, Inan, it the most difficult to both relate to and understand. I can’t say too much without giving away the story, but I’m seriously perplexed by how many times he changes his mind on what side he should be on and how he both condones and condemns his actions and the actions of others. In my mind,  he gets what he deserves at the end. I know that’s slightly harsh to say and we’re not quite sure how/if his part in the story ends since the last page is a mighty cliffhanger, left intentionally as a set-up for the second book.

Now, the magic of the magic is that there is no sense to it. The history of the magic, how it’s distributed, the gods involved in each iteration, is all relayed repeatedly throughout the book. Maybe it’s because there is so little screen time for the magical acts, the author was worried that readers would forget it existed. Maybe it’s the convenience that it disappears, reappears, and bends to the whims of the story. Again, I can’t say too much without spoilers, but there are hints that this history is falling apart as first one and then a second character show different colors of their abilities than what everyone expects, and then gives no explanation for why that is the case.

The story succeeds slightly better as a political commentary/satire. While we primarily think of satire as humorous comic strips or sarcastic Onion articles, Children of Blood and Bone is quite obviously a commentary and criticism of racial prejudice and politics in modern society (and intentionally so, as detailed in the ending author’s note). The brutality of the guards and government officials is directed solely against a race of people physically different from themselves. The magic and power that the oppressed have challenges the authority of the ruling class, and those in power are scared because of the tenuous hold they know they have on the suppression of the downtrodden, literally and figuratively. The dissension in families as younger generations begin to question the “way it’s always been” and the reasons behind the upheaval, the accuracy of the historical stories, and the disparity between the citizens. It’s all there, and while I appreciate the symbolism, I recognize I’m coming from a somewhat sheltered viewpoint as a white, working/middle class, native born female. Allusions have successfully been made in other stories, and I think when they are not the primary focus of the book they are able to lead more people to them without fear of being seen as radical in nature. I’m interested to see where the magic, the story, and the characters end up.

All That’s Left of Me

All That's Left of Me.jpgTitle: All That’s Left of Me
Author: Janis Thomas
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Pages: 328 pages
Discs/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours 9 minutes
Publisher/Date: Lake Union Publishing, c2018.
ISBN: 9781503901148 (paperback), 9781543674484 (audiobook)

No. It was a dream.
And the tree? Was that a dream? And the existence of a horrible, sadistic man, was that also a dream?
I take a step back, then another and bump into something soft. I whip around to see the little woman–what was her name?–from the next shop down.
But if yesterday was a dream, then how do I recognize this old woman?  (79)

The life of Emma Davies was not especially a happy one, containing a lackluster marriage, a disabled son, a disconnected daughter, and a disastrous work situation. But then that all changes, starting with a dog. A barking, yappy dog next door that won’t shut up. Emma wishes the neighbors had never gotten that dog. The next morning, they never had. No one except Emma remembers the dog ever existing. With no rhyme, reason, or explanation, Emma has to figure out the rules herself. She wishes away the tree in the front yard, the sadistic boss, her daughter’s boyfriend. It’s a game of subtraction in order to add to her mundane and stressful life. But then Emma’s wishes become less carefully considered and start to manifest in unpredictable ways, ways that lead to more troubles and heartache that Emma’s not sure can ever be undone.

This review will start with the narrator, because that was the easiest thing for me to like. Angela Dawe had good pacing, great emotion, and really committed to getting things right. There were a surprising number of accents, a stutterer, and Josh, Emma’s disabled son to voice, and she does them all extremely well, each person with their own inflection. I thought Josh’s voice was especially well done, at least to my untrained ear. Additionally, when things change for the family, the voices change to match their circumstances and experiences. She’s been narrating for 10 years now, and I highly recommend her for future audiobook enjoyment (she’s originally from my home state, hey!)

This book is not what I expected. I expected a feel good kids movies, only for adults, where absurd situations leave them feeling like they really had it better before the wishes and wish things back to normal. It’s unlikely a spoiler to reveal that things do work themselves out in the end, but not the way you think. Parts of Emma’s life are truly awful, and there is at least one trigger warning scene of sexual assault that comes out of left field and is horrible in its violence and cruelness. It’s like I’m reading the description of a bad porno, a phrase I never thought I’d type in this blog. I wanted to skip over that scene so badly, but listening to the audiobook meant I didn’t. There’s a second scene of sex and a third scene of implied sexual contact with a minor that I’ll simply describe as not as bad as the first one. That first one though is graphic enough to leave you reeling, I should say as it’s intended to do.

The sexual assault and it’s aftermath is certainly what sends Emma’s life in a tailspin. The yapping dog is nothing in comparison, which I think is why it’s so jolting in it’s placement for readers, but it does set up the unsteady footing that Emma must experience perpetually. Emma’s emotions regarding her life are understandable, stressing the ups and downs and conflicted emotions that she has with each of her relationships. We don’t really see the other characters though, as they are stereotypes and caricatures of themselves; the disabled yet highly intelligent and perceptive teenage son, the moody and boy crazy teenage girl, the resentful and unfulfilled husband sparking those same feelings in his wife. The turns in fortune that ultimately result in subsequent wishes are over the top, with cases involving pregnancy, an animal attack and a car accident. While Emma might have thought her original life was devoid of happiness, these new lives repeatedly stress the fact that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

There’s an inconsistency in how the worlds collide that bothered me repeatedly during the reading, but that also keeps Emma second guessing what is happening. Things that Emma bought or received during alternate time lines are sometimes still in her life while other things don’t maintain their presence. I wish there had been more explanation as to why Emma received this “opportunity”, what the rules were, and what the heck was that ending all about. A weird acid trip of a realistic fantasy story, where everything appears horrible, and then it gets much, much worse. As I said, not what I expected, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it.

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