American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American StreetAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi
Published by Balzer + Bray

Fabiola Toissant and her mother move from Haiti to the United States to live with Fabiola’s aunt and three cousins, but something goes wrong at the airport and her mother is detained by customs in New Jersey. Sixteen-year-old Fabiola is left to navigate America, including her American cousins, her new high school, the gritty Detroit neighborhood where her aunt lives, and a possible romance, all by herself. Desperate to secure her mother’s freedom, when an opportunity arises, Fabiola feels she has no choice but to make what is obviously a wrong decision in exchange for the possibility of her mother’s release.

WHY has this novel not received more attention? There are so many aspects of American Street to love. Fabiola as a character, for one, is interesting and complicated, a sweet person who is half innocent and half wiser than anyone else around her, a person who will do absolutely anything for family but isn’t totally clear on what exactly “anything” could possibly entail. She is a person who loves from the deepest, truest part of herself, who sees others for who they really are, but is guarded with her heart and doesn’t necessarily trust people even when she can believe that they are being genuine with her.

The novel itself is partly about the immigrant experience and partly about the culture in a place like Detroit. The immigrant experience, the bad and the good, is stuffed into every corner of Fabiola’s story – her assimilation into American high school, from making friends to understanding how papers are graded to understanding how to navigate the social hierarchies that exist, to learning about buying and selling drugs, and everything in between; her total surprise and lack of understanding at her mother’s detention in New Jersey (even down to thinking they could just drive over to New Jersey and get her until her cousins explained to her how these things work); her belief that just because her mother did nothing wrong means she should automatically get to stay in the US – it’s all there, good, bad, indifferent. The way that Zoboi managed to showcase this immigrant experience, which is I’m sure different for every single person who comes to this country, was really incredible. The culture in Detroit is something I’m not super familiar with but it seemed to me that she painted a very realistic picture of life there. The way that Zoboi showed the desperation that some of the characters felt – like Chantal, a straight A student who was headed for an Ivy League school but stayed home to attend community college to be there for her mother and sisters – did feel authentic to me and true to the culture and life many people likely experience in Detroit.

The ending of this book was not my favorite, but I do think that Zoboi handled it in the most gentle way possible while keeping the story in line with what could most realistically happen to these characters. I am not sure I totally agree with what she chose to do with everyone’s individual stories but I can say that I get where she’s coming from and I certainly believed the ending.

So I really liked this book! Please read it because it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere near the praise or attention it deserves. Highly recommended!

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How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

How It Went DownHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is shot and killed in his neighborhood while leaving a convenience store, in full view of several friends and acquaintances. His shocking death rattles his friends and family, and as his community tries to piece together what happened that day, different people have different opinions and notions about what they think they saw that day, and what kind of person Tariq really was. This novel is told from the perspective of several of his friends, a few acquaintances, his mother, his grandmother, and his sister, and it becomes clear as the book goes on that no one really has the full picture of how it went down that day.

This book is tough, guys. Kids being killed for no apparent reason – hell, anyone getting killed for ANY reason – is a really difficult subject. The subject itself is rough but add to the subject matter what’s going on now with KKK members and Nazis marching in Charlottesville, people being killed for opposing the obvious hatred and bigotry we saw there – it’s just heavy, guys. My heart is just so heavy these days.

But anyway, back to the book. How It Went Down is fantastic although so difficult to read. The way that Magoon is able to show these different perspectives of an incident that took seconds to occur, and how each person who was present saw things differently, people who weren’t there have Very Strong Opinions about what happened to Tariq, it’s just so true to life when these horrific things happen to real people.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but with severe reservations. It’s done extremely well, the characters are vivid and true to life and nuanced and not one character is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. Magoon created such realness within these pages, so much truth and genuine emotions. But it’s tough, because sometimes things like this happen in real life, and there are no answers as to why, and people have to live with the fact that their brother or son or best friend or sister or mother died and there’s no real explanation for it. How It Went Down is wonderfully done but oh so painful to read.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a StarThe Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Published by Delacorte Press

There is so much to love about this book. It is adorably funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking, full of witty dialogue and moments of true connection between the characters. Oh and also the characters – these are two incredibly interesting, complex, compelling teen protagonists who are almost impossible not to fall in love with and root for throughout the entire novel. It’s just such a fantastic read in just about every way.

I’ve seen some criticisms about the book being an instalove situation between the two main characters, Natasha and Daniel, but I truly didn’t see it that way. I saw a bond that developed very quickly but one that looked and felt genuine as I read their story. Pragmatic, intellectual Natasha doesn’t want to believe in the romantic dreamer that she sees in Daniel, but he is just so kind to her, seeing something in her that she can’t see in herself, that she does fall for him super quickly. But it didn’t feel fake to me – it felt like a thing that could (and I’m sure does) actually happen to real people.

This isn’t just a YA romance, there are serious issues at play in the novel. Natasha’s family is going to be deported the same night that the book takes place, as her parents brought them here on legal visas ten years ago from Jamaica and simply never left. So while Natasha is falling in love with Daniel over the course of this one single day, she’s also making her way to several attorneys’ offices and government agencies to attempt to find someone who will take pity on her family’s situation and allow them to stay long enough to become legal residents of the US. For Natasha, everything is at stake, and as Daniel begins to fall for her, he feels her sense of urgency as much as if it were his own family being deported to another country. The fact that Yoon took this very real issue of immigration that so many people in our country face on a regular basis and turned it into a YA romance novel is fantastic and I absolutely loved seeing the issue from this unique perspective.

I’m not going to spoil anything but I will say that the ending was just perfection and I couldn’t have loved it any more. Having loved Everything, Everything and now this novel, I am certain that Nicola Yoon can do no wrong and I will continue to read and love her novels. Highly recommended.

Mini-Reviews: Last Books Read in 2016 Part 1

I think it’s safe to say that 2016 was a crazy year for me in a lot of respects. One thing that happened towards the second half of the year, due to a lot of personal stuff, is that my reading slowed down a LOT. But there are still a few books that I managed to get through these past few months that I haven’t told you guys about. So I thought I’d start 2017 by wrapping up 2016 in the form of mini-reviews of my final six reads of 2016. Here are the first three.

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad, #6)The Trespasser by Tana French
Published by Viking

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year and, as expected, the genius of Tana French did not disappoint. I really loved detective Antoinette Conway – there’s something so incredible about French writing a female character, as she wrote Cassie in The Likeness. Of course, all of her characters are fantastic, but I have been particularly drawn to those two out of the six she’s written so far. In this book, Conway and her partner, detective Stephen Moran, are assigned to a murder case that seems pretty simple at first – a young woman is found dead from a head injury after it appears that she had a dinner date all set up and ready to go – but it becomes clear right from the start that things are not what they seem with the victim and those around her. As only French can do, she pulls together all of the different threads of this story, mixed in with intricate character development and snappy dialogue, and she had me riveted throughout the entire novel. I absolutely loved it and am ready for the next book in the series.

I'm Just a PersonI’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro
Published by Ecco

I’d heard of Tig Notaro before picking up the book from watching the Ellen show and seeing her talk about her HBO special, but I didn’t know too much about her before picking up her memoir. She’s a fascinating woman with an incredible story about going through so much personally with her own health, losing her mother at a relatively young age, dealing with heartbreak and professional setback, and she dealt with all of that by using humor and a positive attitude to mostly make it through unscathed. She’s got a dry, sarcastic kind of humor that I am drawn to and really appreciate, so I really enjoyed her take on her own life story. Also, I listened to the audio, which she narrates, and I thought it was definitely the way to go. I found myself admiring her and I really enjoyed getting to know her through reading this memoir.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, and J.K. Rowling
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

I FINALLY got around to reading this one, months after it was published, and while I liked it enough, I definitely wasn’t wowed by it. I’ll admit that it took me a bit to get into the format of reading a Harry Potter book as a play instead of a novel, but even with that issue aside, I didn’t love this like I had hoped that I would. It was definitely an interesting take on where these characters’ lives went, years after the final book in the series concluded, and I certainly appreciated getting to know the children of the characters I fell so deeply in love with while reading books 1-7, but I felt just meh about where the plot went and the choices that were made about how these characters would have reacted to certain events throughout this experience. I don’t know – on the one hand, I was grateful to get another look into these characters’ lives and to spend “extra” time with them, but on the other hand, I was disappointed with exactly how everything turned out here. Meh.

You Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina LaCour

You Know Me WellYou Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina LaCour
Published by Text Publishing
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

You Know Me Well is a tender and joyful young-adult novel tracing the powerful friendship of two lovesick teenagers—a gay boy, Mark, and a lesbian girl, Katie—over the course of Pride Week in San Francisco. Told in alternating chapters, You Know Me Well explores how Mark and Katie help one another overcome heartbreak, fractured friendships and the dizzying speeds of change.

I’ll start with what I liked least about the book to get it out of the way. Mark and Kate meet at a gay bar, while Kate is hiding from this girl she really likes and Mark is dancing on the bar to impress this guy that he really likes, their eyes lock, they start talking, and instantly they were best friends. That part was not believable to me in the least – maybe it’s because I’m an old lady who needs to get to know a person before becoming BFF with them. But either way, their instafriendship reminded me of the instalove that is so annoying in books.

Other than that, I was really charmed by this adorable story of teenagers dealing with love, heartbreak and growing up. So often books that feature LGBTQ kids or adults are focused on the conflict that being gay causes in the persons’ life, or the internal struggle to come to terms with the characters’ sexuality, or a combination of the two, but this book wasn’t really like that. There is one character who is unwilling or unable to be honest with himself, his peers, and his family about the fact hat he is gay, and while that character is central to the story, for the most part Mark and Kate’s close friends are all gay and all completely happy, comfortable, well-adjusted and supported by their families. This was so refreshing to see and gave the book such a positive, happy vibe that I really enjoyed.

While I liked both Mark and Kate, I think I felt more compassion for and connection to Mark. His struggle of being in love with his best friend and not having that love returned to him was just heartbreaking. In the end, he handled the situation in such a mature and thoughtful way and I finished the book almost feeling proud of him. Yes, you can be proud of a fictional character. It’s a thing. I liked Kate too, but I thought her actions were a bit more selfish and a little flighty, to be honest. Part of that stemmed from her being scared of going after what she really wanted in life, but I wanted her to grow up and figure things out already. In the end, she sort of does, so I was happy with her character development throughout the novel.

Overall I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I think teens in particular would really like getting to know these characters, and gay teens might find a lot to appreciate about the way these authors wrote gay characters who are happy, healthy, and proud to be exactly who they are.

Confess by Colleen Hoover

ConfessConfess by Colleen Hoover
Published by Atria Books

From the publisher:

Auburn Reed has her entire life mapped out. Her goals are in sight and there’s no room for mistakes. But when she walks into a Dallas art studio in search of a job, she doesn’t expect to find a deep attraction to the enigmatic artist who works there, Owen Gentry.

For once, Auburn takes a risk and puts her heart in control, only to discover Owen is keeping major secrets from coming out. The magnitude of his past threatens to destroy everything important to Auburn, and the only way to get her life back on track is to cut Owen out of it.

The last thing Owen wants is to lose Auburn, but he can’t seem to convince her that truth is sometimes as subjective as art. All he would have to do to save their relationship is confess. But in this case, the confession could be much more destructive than the actual sin…

You know what, this was an enjoyable novel that was an extremely quick read. I loved Hoover’s Maybe Someday, so I was anxious to pick up another one of her novels, and Confess did not disappoint. It didn’t quite have the edge that Maybe Someday had, but this was still a fun read.

I liked Auburn and I liked Owen and they were great together, too. I do have to say that the whole “girl gets confidence because a guy tells her to be confident” thing is annoying, and I didn’t love that Auburn only felt that she could stand up for herself once Owen told her she should, but I’m choosing to pretend that is not the central theme of the book (it’s not. Well maybe it kind of is. Whatever. I liked it anyway, okay?!) The relationship with them was a bit of the instalove variety, but they shared so much about themselves in a short period of time that it wasn’t JUST a physical thing, which I appreciated.

I’m not going to pretend that important things in the novel weren’t wrapped up in unrealistic, tidy little bows, because they definitely were, but I liked it anyway. I think that what Hoover chose to do with her characters was slightly out of the norm and I was happy with how everyone’s stories ended up. Yes it was too pretty of an ending, but so what? I had fun reading it.

After just two of Hoover’s novels, I can see that she has a distinct style that I both love and could possibly get annoyed with very quickly. For that reason, I’m going to shy away from her books for a bit so that the annoyed part doesn’t happen. For contemporary YA bordering on new adult, I do really like her and would recommend picking up her books.

I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios

I'll Meet You ThereI’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

From the publisher:

If seventeen-year-old Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby on her hip, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing standing between straightedge Skylar and art school are three minimum-wage months of summer. Skylar can taste the freedom—that is, until her mother loses her job and everything starts coming apart. Torn between her dreams and the people she loves, Skylar realizes everything she’s ever worked for is on the line.

Nineteen-year-old Josh Mitchell had a different ticket out of Creek View: the Marines. But after his leg is blown off in Afghanistan, he returns home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be. What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise—a quirky motel off California’s dusty Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into an unexpected friendship and soon, something deeper.

I would not have heard of this book if it weren’t for the fantastic taste in books – especially YA – of Rhapsody Jill. And I LOVED this book so much. I’ve been feeling blah about YA in general for a while now, and this book reminded me that there is blah YA and then there is great YA, and I’ll Meet You There is GREAT.

There are so many things I loved about this novel. Skylar is intelligent, ambitious, a loyal friend, a loving daughter, an independent thinker, the type of teenager I pray that my nieces will become when they get a little older. She is not perfect, though, in that she is relentlessly judgmental about all the people in her town and fiercely determined not to become like them – something that her best friend, who is a seventeen-year-old mother who plans to raise her children in the very town Skylar despises, actually confronts her about toward the end of the book. That scene really showed that despite what a great person Skylar is, she has plenty of room for growth, and she’s open to becoming an even better person as she continues to grow up and develop herself.

The setting of this book absolutely oozes off the page and I feel like truly, Creek View is a real place and I have been there and stayed at the Paradise motel. This is a little thing but something that I felt Demetrios just did so darn well that I had to mention it.

Another thing Demetrios handled fantastically was the romance between Skylar and Josh and, specifically, the sex scenes. They felt realistic, sexy, but not over the top and not underdone (often an issue in YA for me) either. Teens have sex, and for it to be portrayed realistically in teen fiction is something that doesn’t happen a lot and did happen here.

And oh man, the PTSD stuff. The way that Demetrios portrayed Josh’s PTSD and how it manifested itself in every single one of his relationships, how his mind relentlessly tore at him, his memories driving him crazy with their nagging pain, it was really incredible. I’m not sure that I’ve read anything else, fiction at least, that so accurately portrayed PTSD. It was incredibly good.

I just loved I’ll Meet You There so, so much. I haven’t even looked to see if this author has other novels out but you bet I’ll be getting to them if she does. Highly recommended.