The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: Contemporary YA

Kudos to Angie Thomas for writing a debut novel that is so profound and powerful. How to describe The Hate U Give – or THUG, an author-coined acronym for her book? Let’s start with this:

THUG LIFE – “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone”. ~Tupac

The title of the novel is taken from Tupac Shakur, and his meaning underlying those words. That what society tells our youth has a way of coming back and affecting all of us. We see that in the protests, and riots against police brutality and police killings of unarmed black men. We see that in the anger and frustration that so many feel.

THUG revolves around Starr Carter, a teen that moves between two worlds: the impoverished neighborhood where she grew up, and the expensive suburban private school that she attends:

I get out of the car. For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang–if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it–even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood”. Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl”. Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

When Starr is the only witness to the shooting of her childhood best friend, at the hands of a police officer during a traffic stop even though he was doing nothing wrong, she is forced to confront the dichotomy between her two personas.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

THUG is an unapologetic – and rightfully so – evocative look into a subject that needs to be torn wide open across the country: the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers. The school to prison pipeline in poor, urban communities. The New Jim Crow era of mass incarceration, the biases institutionalized within the criminal justice system and the policies that control said system. The story is emotionally charged, important, and really, REALLY good.

Putting the important political message aside for a moment, Angie Thomas is a brilliant writer. THUG is incredibly well-written, and the storytelling is so incredibly powerful, not only due to the message, but the sheer intelligence and creative ability of the author. It is very rare that I gush over contemporary YA novels, but here I am! Gushing. In a debut novel, no less!

To go along with the fantastic storytelling is all the wonderful characters that truly made the story shine. Starr is…well, Starr is someone you root for from the very beginning. And her family!! I love when a contemporary YA novel includes a well-flushed out family and Starr’s is one of the best. I love all of the relationships in this book, whether it is between Starr and her parents, or her brother Seven, or her friends. All of the relationships were well-developed and I love how a few of the minor characters really experienced their own growth throughout the story, it is very much an ensemble cast, and they all shine.

Take this conversation between Starr and her Dad:

“Now, think ’bout this,” he says. “How did the drugs even get in our neighborhood? This is a multibillion dollar industry we talking ’bout, baby. That shit is flown into our communities, but I don’t know anybody with a private jet. Do you?

“No.”

“Exactly. Drugs come from somewhere, and they’re destroying our community,” he says. “You got folks like Brenda, who think they need them to survive, and then you got the Khalils, who think they need to sell them to survive. The Brendas can’t get jobs unless they’re clean, and they can’t pay for rehab unless they got jobs. When the Khalils get arrested for selling drugs, they either spend most of their life in prison, another billion-dollar industry, or they have a hard time getting a real job and probably start selling drugs again. That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.”

Daddy Carter gave me all the feels in this book. And that is what The Hate U Give does: it breaks your heart, and gives you the warm fuzzies – all in the span of a few pages.

Read this book. No matter where you live – read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin


Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Author: Grace Lin
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a rarity in the American children’s fantasy genre: an adventure story set in China. Inspired by various Chinese folktales, this is a story of a young girl named Minli who lives in a poor village at the base of a desolate mountain. In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, the villagers work tirelessly just to put enough food on the table. Minli’s parents work from sunrise to sunset in the rice fields, but her father always makes time for a story or two in the evening, despite Ma’s grumbling.

One day, believing her father’s stories of an Old Man of the Moon and a jade dragon, Minli sets off an extraordinary adventure to travel to Never-Ending Mountain to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family’s fortune can be improved.

One of the things that I loved most about this book was how the folktales seamlessly scattered throughout the text really came to life during the course of Minli’s journey. The stories each connect one to the other as the book progresses, and then further tie in to what Minli experiences. I loved this approach! The accompanying illustrations were absolutely gorgeous. The story as a whole made me want to learn more about Chinese folktales and legends.

It is rare in children’s literature to find both parents alive and well. Kid lit is filled with absent parents and orphan children (Harry Potter, Boxcar Children, James and the Giant Peach, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc) or children who have lost one parent, either through death or divorce. When a parent is present, they are often clueless or mean. It was refreshing to see some fleshed out parents in this one, and the importance placed on family and the community. In fact, family is one of the major themes of the story. This is not just a story of a young girl finding her place in the world, but it features her mother’s transformation as well. In the beginning, Minli’s mother is discontent with her lot and life, wishing for more food, a more comfortable place to live,  nicer things. During Minli’s absence, her mother’s perspective on life changes completely. As a parent reading it, it makes one think about the impact my unconscious actions – or moods – have on my daughter.

The character’s are all unique and delightful. Her dragon friend is a kind-hearted soul who has a question of his own, why can’t he fly? There is a benevolent king who offers Minli the most sumptuous meal she has ever eaten, and a fierce Green Tiger that is a malevolent force pulled straight out of the folktales. Minli herself has a generous spirit with a healthy dose of independence, and an unshakeable belief in the power of stories.

For those who, like me, want to learn more about folktales from China, here are a few resources shared in the back of the book:

Tales from China (Oxford Myths and Legends) by Cyril Birch.

The Ch’i-lin Purse: A Collection of Ancient Chinese Stories by Linda Fang.

Folk Tales of the West Lake by Various.

Auntie Tigress and Other Favorite Chinese Folk Tales by Gia-Zhen Wang.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

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Title: A Conjuring of Light
Author: V.E. Schwab
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: YA Fantasy

What an amazing end to the this trilogy!! I finished A Conjuring of Light a few days ago and I have been gushing ever since. How to review the final book in a series that has become one of my favorite fantasy series?

A Conjuring of Light picks up right at the end of A Gathering of Shadows. Unlike the previous two books, ACOL includes a lot of back story on Holland, via flashbacks scattered throughout the story. Looking back at the first two books, my only criticisms were that a few of the characters were not fully flushed out: Rhy, Holland, the king and queen of Red London. I spoke too soon, and all of those complaints have disappeared upon finishing the trilogy!

One of the great things about the Darker Shades of Magic trilogy is the humor in the midst of chaos:

“You drugged her?”

“It was Tieren’s order,” said Hastra, chastised. “He said she was mad and stubborn and no use to us dead.” Hastra lowered his voice when he said this, mimicking Tieren’s tone with startling accuracy.

“And what do you plan to do when she wakes back up?”

Hastra shrank back. “Apologize?”

Kell made an exasperated sound as Lila nuzzled– actually nuzzled– his shoulder.

“I suggest,” he snapped at the young man, “you think of something better. Like an escape route.”

“I told you to keep him safe, not cuddle.”

Alucard spread his hands behind him on the sheets. “I’m more than capable of multitasking.”

“What are we drinking to?”

“The living,” said Rhy.

“The dead,” said Alucard and Lila at the same time.

“We’re being thorough,” added Rhy.”

There are many things that have drawn me into this trilogy: the writing, the world-building, but most especially, the characters. And there are many moments in ACOL that gives me all the feels:

  • The brotherly love between Kell and Rhy. They will do anything for each other.
  • Rhy’s character growth. This was one of the small complaints I had in the first book, and I swallow my words. More than any of the other characters, this trilogy is truly his “coming of age” story.
  • A greater depth to many of the supporting characters, including Queen Emira, King Maxim, and Holland. While I am still left with a few unanswered questions about the king and the queen, their roles as mother and father really shined at the end.
  • Holland. Do I dare say I feel sympathy for Holland. Yes, yes I do. In fact, I want to give him a big hug and tuck him into bed with a nice cup of tea.
  • The Antari’s together. I can’t say anything more without giving away some spoilers, but WOW!!!

The next quote is partially a BIG FAT SPOILER for the earlier books, so don’t continue reading if you don’t want to be spoiled. It is my favorite moment in the entire trilogy.

LAST WARNING: Spoiler ahead, if you have not read the first two books in the series!

Three silver rings caught the dying light–Lila’s and Kell’s the narrower echoes of Holland’s band–all of them singing with shared power as the door swung open, and the three Antari stepped through into the dark.

I get the shivers every time I read that paragraph, don’t you?

Warning: Comments section may also contain spoilers.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

If you have read ACOL, how did you feel after finishing it? Do you think it was a satisfactory end to the trilogy?

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

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Title: The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent A Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.
Author: Gretchen Rubin
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Nonfiction, self-help

I seem to have a special weakness for the “stunt genre” style of memoir: where an author spends a year doing something extreme, and then writes about it. Books like Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, A Year of No Sugar, and now The Happiness Project have all graced my bookshelves. They are usually fun reads, written in an entertaining and engaging style.

The Happiness Project is definitely one of the better ones I have read from this genre! The book follows author Gretchen Rubin as she dedicates an entire year to improving her personal happiness. Each month is focused on a different theme: vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, and attitude. She sets up a personal resolutions chart, adding to it as each month passes.

Coming off ofjust reading  A Year of No Sugar, which I did not like, and browsing the plethora of 1 star reviews on Goodreads for The Happiness Project, I was prepared to hate this book. Rubin leads a thoroughly privileged life…I was skeptical as to how she would pull this off.

You can tell straight away that she has done a tremendous amount of research. She references philosophers, happiness researchers, psychologists, theologians and great spiritual masters. Each monthly experiment is backed up by detailed research. I loved that! Too many non-fiction authors that are targeting a mainstream audience fail to add in resource lists, and footnotes; Rubin did not fall into that trap.

Some of my key takeaways from The Happiness Project:

“Be Gretchen”. Throughout the book she is continually reminded to be herself. It is the first of her twelve personal commandments (another great idea). I, too, need this mantra, to “Be Alisia”. To let go of all the things I am not and enjoy and embrace the things I am. For example, I am not a crafty person at all. I am not very good at it, and more importantly, I don’t enjoy it. So, a few years ago, I let it go. No more did I struggle with ridiculously complicated childhood craft projects for M. You will never see me volunteer to make the decorations for the school book fair, or change out the themed bulletin boards. It was one of the best things I ever did!

THINK. Think before speaking, and listen before you talk.

T – is it True?
H – is it helpful?
I – is it inspiring?
N – is it necessary?
K – is it kind?

Nagging Tasks. She has a small piece of advice in the January chapter that has turned out to be tremendously helpful – to schedule one hour every week on your calendar to tackle nagging tasks, those annoying household chores that have no real deadline. I immediately tried this out, adding a weekly “Power Hour” to iCal, and in only two hours across two weeks, I have successfully: replaced a broken light switch plate, renewed M’s passport, sorted and purged all of our old reusable water bottles and food storage containers, took a stack of clothing donations to a local nonprofit, bought new cutting boards, cleaned out my Inbox, and made progress on my huge stack of papers that need to be scanned and filed digitally. This small piece of advice has definitely been a mood booster!

Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Overcome the need for people to applaud the nice things you do, that are in actuality just a regular part of life. Start telling yourself, “I’m doing this for myself. Because I want to.”

Spend out. Use the nice stationary instead of hoarding it. Buy new toothbrushes regularly. It’s amazing how much that actually hit home! We are quite good at using items until they fall apart. In many ways, that is a good thing, in some ways it is not. Toothbrushes should definitely be replaced before they look…well, like you used it to clean the shower grout. Razors should be thrown out before they get rusty, not one month after the first rust spot appears. Etc.

Forget about results. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Give positive reviews. Enthusiasm may seem easier than criticism, but in fact it is harder to embrace something than to disdain it. Stop making unnecessarily negative statements: “The food was too rich” or “There’s nothing worth reading in the paper.” Instead, look for ways to be sincerely enthusiastic.

The Happiness Project has been out for a few years now. Have you read it before? Did it make any lasting impact on your life?

Book Review – Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

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Title: A Year of No Sugar: A Memoir

Author: Eve O. Schaub

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Genre: Non-fiction memoir, Food

It’s Dinnertime. Do You Know Where Your Sugar is Coming From?

Most likely everywhere. Sure, it’s in ice cream and cookies, but what scared Eve O. Schaub was the secret world of sugar–hidden in bacon, crackers, salad dressing, pasta sauce, chicken broth, and baby food.

With her eyes open by the work of obesity expert Dr. Robert Lustig and others, Eve challenged her husband and two school-age daughters to join her on a quest to eat no added sugar for an entire year.

Along the way, Eve uncovered the real costs of our sugar-heavy American diet–including diabetes, obesity, and increased incidences of health problems such as heart disease and cancer. The stories, tips, and recipes she shares throw fresh light on questionable nutritional advice we’ve been following for years and show that it is possible to eat at restaurants and go grocery shopping–with less and even no added sugar.

Year of No Sugar is what the conversation about “kicking the sugar addiction” looks like for a real American family–a roller coaster of unexpected discoveries and challenges.

My opinion about the Year of No Sugar fluctuated wildly while I was reading it, from hating it tremendously, to thinking it was mildly okay towards the end.

The basic premise of Schaub’s memoir is a sound one…sugar IS everywhere. I just came off of a month of following the Whole 30 plan, used by many, including myself, as a dietery reset to get back on track towards eating a whole foods, healthy diet. During the Whole 30 you cut out many things: grains, dairy, alcohol, corn, soy, legumes, and sugar. While I modified slighlty – I kept in brown rice and quinoa – the hardest aspect of Whole 30? Cutting sugar.

Because.It.Is.Everywhere. Practically every condiment contains sugar: pickles, ketchup, mayo, relish, etc. It’s in salad dressings, chicken and beef stock, sauces, deli meat, breads, bacon, sausages, pasta sauce, prepared soups, sushi, smoothies…it is literally everywhere.

After Schaub discovered this after watching a Youtube video by Dr. Robert Lustig, she decided to set off on living a year without sugar, including her whole family in the experiment. Now this is where I started to have major problems with the misleading title and concept of her book.

Because they didn’t live a Year of No Sugar. Hell, with all of the exceptions, I’m not even sure they lived a week with no sugar. Eve makes a distinction between fructose and dextrose. She cut out fructose, including fruit juice (preferring to eat fruit in its natural form). But, from the way her memoir is written, it sounded like most nights of the week, she still made a dessert. Her exceptions included:

  • The family had one dessert per month that contained sugar
  • Each family member could pick one exception per person, a sugary food that didn’t count and which they could have at any time throughout the year. Eve chose wine, her husband Diet Dr. Pepper, and her two girls jam.
  • The kids had a third exception: they had autonomy outside the home, when their parents were not present (i.e. birthday parties, school, etc), to make their own decision on whether or not to eat any sugary treats offered.

Having just come off of the Whole 30, the very best thing that I did to help cut sugar cravings was to follow the guideline of not allowing any substitutions that resembled dessert. No gluten-free angel food cake made with coconut “sugar” and almond flour. No banana “ice cream” or avocado chocolate pudding or raw brownie bites. The idea behind the Whole 30 reasoning is that indulging in sweets – even with no sugar added – is reinforcing the behaviors that you are trying to change. I was skeptical, but at the end of 30 days I can see with absolute certainty that my taste buds have completely changed as far as sugar is concerned.

Later in her memoir, Eve started baking with dextrose. All told, from the way the book read, it seemed like they ate more desserts during their Year of No Sugar than our family did before embarking on the Whole 30. She spends most of her time in her memoir describing the various ways she tried to sweeten her foods without breaking her resolution. Ultimately, the whole book feels wildly arbitrary and hyper-controlling all at the same time.

She also puts forward a dangerous idea: that cutting out sugar may be the magic cure-all for all of Western societies ailments. Life is not that simple. Meanwhile, the family had no problems indulging in other unhealthy foods during the Year of No Sugar.

The writing style is engaging in fun, but I can’t support the majority of the content. And when you get to the end, there is a lovely recipe section, but what recipes does she include? Desserts. Not only her “unsweetened” desserts (made with dextrose), but the recipes for her once-a-month sugar treats. I found it all highly ironic.

I successfully cut out all sugar for more than a month, and since that month ended, I have only had a sugary treat once: dark chocolate with almonds. It fundamentally changed the way my body tastes sweets, and I plan on continuing long-term with a drastically lower amount of added sugar in my diet. I will keep using the packaged foods I found that do not contain added sugar as a replacement for like items that do contain sugar, and save the sugar intake for a true, high-quality treat every once in a while.

For those looking to cut back on sugar in packaged products,  I recommend the following items:

  • Salad dressing,  Cindy’s Kitchen Barcelona Vinaigrette is a great pre-made option.
  • Trader Joe’s Kettle Cooked Chicken Soup for a gluten-free, sugar free prepared soup
  • Chicken stock: Imagine Organic Free-Range chicken stock
  • Trader Joe’s Chile Lime Chicken Burgers (these are particularly good in a lettuce bun with guacamole)
  • Rao’s Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce

I picked up Year of No Sugar purposely after finishing the Whole 30 to help me stay motivated to keep sugar out long-term. What I found was that this book didn’t help that goal in any way, but I did discover that I alreadym have the motivation I need to keep on this path. Yay for self-empowerment!

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical fiction, Alternate history, #OwnVoices

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is, I dare to say it, a masterpiece. Despite the detached tone that turns off a few readers, the author gets to the heart of the horrible truths surrounding American chattel slavery in a way that most historical works have not. In addition to Alex Haley’s Roots, which comes with its fair share of controversy, Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful novels about slavery that I have ever read.

In Underground Railroad, we begin with a fairly straightforward story on a slave plantation. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia; she is also a stray and outcast amongst her fellow people. When Caesar, a slave relatively new to the Randall plantation, convinces her to run with him, she eventually agrees, and they both make their escape.

It is here, on page 66, that the story takes a turn into the realm of alternative history. For the Underground Railroad is not the version we find in our history books, but a real train line, built by slaves, buried deep underground.

The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Throughout the novel, Colson borrows from history to reveal the true heart of darkness: slavery and the ongoing systemic racism in America. As Cora moves through each state: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colson begins to tell a broader story. South Carolina is completely reinvented – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers – but it is definitely jarring, and brings together the pseudosciences of eugenics, forced sterilization, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. All is not as it appears, and what looks shiny and promising on the outside often hides a darker, menacing aspect within.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I definitely see why this novel won the National Book Award. Colson Whitehead not only shows the struggles African-Americans have experienced during chattel slavery and beyond; he also touches on the way that white folks, and not just antebellum Southerners, justified their mistaken belief in racial superiority.

Interspersed throughout the story are chapters featuring a few of the minor characters: Caesar, Ridgeway, Dr. Stevens, Ethel. Some peopel take issue with these chapters as unnecessary, but I really appreciated them, particularly the chapters about Ridgeway and Caesar.

Whitehead writes in a detached way, and I know that is a turn-off for some people. I really enjoyed his writing style, and definitely recommend you give it a chance! In my opinon, it deserves all the accolades it has received.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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Title: Of Fire and Stars
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: YA Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance

I have been procrastinating on writing this review, because I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. Sadly, I was not a fan of this book. I desperately wanted to be, but it all felt like a bucket of lost potential.

In Of Fire and Stars,  Princess Denna of Havemont has been betrothed to marry the Prince of Mynaria, Thandi, since she was a young child. Her marriage will seal an alliance between the two kingdoms, but she is harboring a secret – she possesses a Fire Affinity – a dangerous gift in the land of Mynaria, where magic is forbidden. Along the way, she meet’s the Prince’s sister, Mare, and they decide to join forces to search for the culprit of a mysterious assassination.

I was incredibly excited when the LGBTQIA+ novel, Of Fire and Stars, showed up in my OwlCrate box in December. There are so few f/f fantasy novels out there, and this one definitely has an interesting premise. An arranged marriage, with Denna falling for her betrothed sister instead? My curiosity was piqued.

And then, everything fell flat. And by flat, I mean FLAT. The world-building, the character development, even the dialogue, was all….meh. There was also way too much dialogue and pages dedicated to horses…and I love horses! By the end of the book, I was groaning and skimming every time another section came up focused on horses.

Where, oh where, art thou character development?

All of the main characters were incredibly one-dimensional. Mare, Prince Thandi’s sister, (yes, the character who has loved horses her whole life is seriously nicknamed Mare) is the token “bad girl”, complete with temper tantrums and extreme sulking. Denna, newly arrived in the land, is the “good one”, apparently full of sugar and spice and everything nice. Mare is rebellious and Denna is good. Denna breaks her mold towards the end, but even there it just fell flat. Don’t get me started on her magic and the stars falling scene – one of the most awkward things I have ever read. It made no sense the way it was written.

As for the rest of the cast, wow, I know nothing. Seriously, nothing. Poor Prince Thandi, with no personality, felt like a shell. The Directorate – the people who make the policy decisions in Mynaria – are clueless and incompetent. I mean, truly and incredibly dense.

Can someone explain the Northern Kingdoms?

Despite finishing the novel, I still don’t understand what this world is about. Why did Mynaria hate magic so much? A legitimate reason was never given for this intense hatred of magic users. Nor was there much of an explanation for the sudden existence of the Recusants vs the fundamentalists. Who were the fundamentalists, even? This lack of depth was incredibly frustrating for me. We’re plunged into a world with four kingdoms that together seem to make up the “Northern Kingdoms”, but we find out nothing about the history or political situations underlying these lands. Such as, why has Prince Thandi never left the castle’s home in Lyrra? Why can’t he explore his own lands?

The idea of having an Affinity (Magic) connected to one of the six gods was intriguing and new, if it would have been further developed. Yet once again, the reader is left with no real understanding of the magic and religion of these lands.

Refreshingly, heterosexuality is not assumed as the default sexual orientation – but then why on earth was there so much sexism in the novel? From the time Denna arrived in Mynaria, she is held back by what appears to be strict gender roles; as future queen, she is expected to be the castle’s numero uno party planner and tour guide. One of the only conversations that Denna has with the king is this:

“No need to be too formal among family,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll be relying on you to keep this son of mine in line. It has been too long since we’ve had a woman’s touch about the place.”

I can list at least ten ways in which this exchange makes absolutely no sense. But you get the idea. A few of the people on the Directorate are women, but they barely have a voice. That may be due more to poor character development, but it is still frustratingly annoying.

I was really excited about reading this novel, but ultimately, it was a tremendous let down.

This now makes two books in a row that I have rated two stars, something that does not happen very often. Thankfully, I’m now reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which is FANTASTIC. So, hopefully, this 2-star streak ends here.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Hillbilly Elegy has certainly been making the rounds lately, with J.D. Vance appearing on numerous talk shows. His book has been marketed out the wazoo as something all liberal-minded individuals should read to provide insight into the mysterious “Trump voter”. This memoir has been talked up as one of the most informative books published in 2016 on the plight of working-class whites.

In reality, Hillbilly Elegy is just a memoir, and to be honest, not an incredibly remarkable one at that. And, in my case, one of those instances where a book definitely did not live up to the hype.

I will fully admit, about 1/3 of the way into the book, I started to realize I had completely misplaced expectations as to what I was reading. I was expecting something that was half memoir, and half social commentary and analysis. Hillbilly Elegy is not that. What it is, in my opinion, is 90% memoir, and 10% minor social commentary, that sometimes contradicts itself.

This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

J.D. Vance was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town not too far removed from the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Vance’s family spent summers visiting the rural Appalachian community in Kentucky where his grandparents were born and raised.

The subtitle claims that this is an elegy, and a memoir, for the Appalachian culture of his grandparents. Writing a family memoir is one thing, writing the “memoir” for an entire culture, based purely on your own experiences, I find highly presumptuous. J.D. Vance is doing a great disservice to the very people he is trying to help. His story is one of upward mobility, and to that end, it is a very enlightening read. But it is not an adequate “memoir” of an entire culture.

J.D. Vance escaped the life he was raised in, despite his addicted mother, a revolving door of fathers, and a community that was struggling with many of the same problems. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is a strong sense of ‘bootstrappery’ about his beliefs – pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps. That it is up to yourself, not the government, to make your life better.

While J.D. Vance may be making some mass generalizations (that seem to play to both the liberal and conservatives stereotypes of Appalachia), there is no denying that there is some truth to what he says. He brings up some interesting points, but I find that he is too quick to blame the poor for their own misfortunes.

Take this excerpt:

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.

In the next paragraph he does mention one barrier to full-time employment: the fact that in many areas, the only jobs available are part-time. But then he leaves that idea in the dust, and doesn’t come back to it again. He spends very little time on the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, and what it truly means to be isolated from the educated, American “mainstream”.

If Hillbilly Elegy was solely a story about upward mobility, a conversation about what it is like to be stuck in a community that can not seem to keep up with the present, this would have been a good book. When he starts to ruminate about poverty in all of Appalachia, and simplify it to a message that is predominantly – “do better, work harder” he lost me as a fan. He is definitely not mean-spirited, possibly more of the “tough love” approach (which may explain Amy Chua’s endorsement on the back of the cover, author of  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!). Ultimately, I felt that he was pigeon-holing an entire community into categories of dysfunction and laziness. Something that should sound awfully familiar to African-Americans, who have been subjected to many of the same stereotypes.

Which brings me to one final point about something missing from this book. Vance seems to be writing for Appalachia as a whole, but at no time does he ever bring up the issue of race. Appalachia is often painted as poor, rural, and white. Once again, the Appalachian’s who are PoC are erased from existence. The fact is, Appalachia does not have one story, one voice, and it does a disservice to the region every time that it is painted in such a way.

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I added White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg to my TBR list. I hope it will provide more of the in-depth analysis that I am looking for right now.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.

Book Review – George by Alex Gino

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Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Own Voices, LGBTQIA+

Whew. Everything seems to be a tear-jerker to me right now. President Obama’s farewell address. Joe Biden being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time” from Hamilton, at the White House.

This is Us. To be honest, every episode of This is Us makes me sweat water out of my eyes.

And George.

This sweet, beautiful, heartwarming story about a transgender girl’s struggle to come out to her family and friends. It strikes the perfect tone for a middle-grade story tackling a serious subject. Many transgender kids know who they are years in advance of puberty and adolescence, which is one of the many reasons why this is so important to have as a middle-grade book.

George is a delightful character, who exudes a quiet strength. From the start of the story, we see George thinking of herself through the use of feminine pronouns, which frankly, if it wasn’t done that way, would have been disappointing. She has always been sure of her identity, but lacked the self-confidence to be her true self in front of others.

Yes, this is a middle-grade novel, but I definitely think it has appeal to everyone, no matter your age. And the first time that we see George genuinely smile – unforced – it is a beautiful thing. I found Kelly to also be a delightful character. A true friend, who supports and accepts George as she is…the two have a very sweet friendship that shines throughout the story.

My daughter is currently a 3rd grader, and it was very interesting to compare how many things were gendered in George’s school compared to my daughter’s school. There are no restrictions at M’s school when kids try out for parts in a play or musical, unlike George’s experience with Charlotte’s Web. Last summer, our large school district passed a policy that will go a long way towards phasing out gender-based activities that “have no educational purpose”, such as having a girls’ and boys’ line to go to recess, a situation that George was confronted with every day. While M’s school does not use gender-based lining up, other schools in the district still did. Our school board has also asked teachers to stop using gender pronouns, to replace “boys” and “girls” with “scholars” or “students”. This last action was HUGE, and sadly, provoked a huge outcry from the religious right in our community. I am grateful that we live in a school district that is taking progressive steps towards supporting transgender students, and making the school environment a safe space for everyone.

However, there is still progress to be made at M’s school. For example, in her PE class yesterday, the class was divided by gender to play a game. George really helped M and I start to think about all of the situations in which gender distinctions arise, and how the majority of them can very easily be done in a gender-neutral way.

Living in North Carolina, our state has gotten its fair share of negative attention, deservedly, over the past year for the state legislature’s horrendous actions with passing HB2 (coined by the media as “the bathroom bill”), a topic I won’t go into too much detail here, but was a direct attack against the LGBT community, and most especially transgender individuals. When that legislation was first passed, I sent each of my legislature’s that voted for HB2 (and in one case, co-sponsored it), a copy of George.

I hope they read it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review – Dawn by Elie Wiesel

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Book: Dawn
Author: Elie Wiesel
Genre: Historical fiction, Nobel Prize Winner

I hate to give this novella anything but a five-star rating. Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, is an amazing read; he is an incredible person. I admire him tremendously for having the courage to write a raw account of his experiences during the Holocaust; for spearheading the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and for his advocacy in speaking out against intolerance, racism, and hatred. His writing has become a voice for the millions who have been silenced, and those who are still suffering.

I have long admired Elie Wiesel for reaching out beyond his religious and cultural community to work towards equality for all. No, he is not without some controversy: I don’t agree with his admiration and support for Netanyahu, and some of his remarks in regards to Palestinians are definitely questionable. He’s not perfect. No one is (nope, not even President Obama). But I wholeheartedly admire the man and what he has accomplished as a whole.

I did not, however, love Dawn. Dawn is the fictional story of a young Holocaust survivor, Elisha, who is recruited by the Movement – what I believe to be based upon the real-life Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization that operated between 1931 and 1948 – to become a freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine. The entire novella takes place over the span of one night. Elisha is tasked with assassinating a British officer who has been kidnapped, as retribution for the capture and hanging of a fellow freedom fighter. Over the course of the night, Elisha wrestles with his conscience, God, and the ghosts of his family, over what he is tasked to do.

“You are the sum total of all that we have been,” said the youngster who looked like my former self. “In a way we are the ones to execute John Dawson. Because you can’t do it without us. Now, do you see?”

I was beginning to understand. An act so absolute as that of killing involves not only the killer, but, as well, those who have formed him. In murdering a man I was making them murderers.

The writing in Dawn is just as beautiful as in Night. And the story brings up some important ethical and philosophical questions that Wiesel brings up in the preface: “How are we ever to disarm evil and abolish death as a means to an end? How are we ever to break the cycle of violence and rage? Can terror coexist with justice? Does murder call for murder, despair for revenge? Can hate engender anything but hate?”

My problem is that these questions are not appropriately addressed in such a small book. What is left is the feeling of justifying a person’s acts of terror by blaming the enemy. An idea in which I vehemently disagree. Wiesel may very well be making this very point in this novel: that treating an innocent person (John Dawson) the same way you (Elisha) were treated when you were powerless, is just as hideous an act as the acts of terror committed against you. But the impression the story gives leans towards the opposite.

“On the day when the English understand that their occupation will cost them blood they won’t want to stay,” Gad told us. It’s cruel – inhuman if you like. But we have no other choice. For generations we’ve wanted to be better, more pure in heart than those who persecuted us. You’ve all seen the result: Hitler and the extermination camps in Germany. We’ve had enough of trying to be more just than those who claim to speak in the name of justice. When the Nazis killed a third of our people just men found nothing to say. If ever it’s a question of killing off Jews, everyone is silent; there are twenty centuries of history to prove it. We can rely only on ourselves. If we must become more unjust and inhuman than those who have been unjust and inhuman to us, then we shall do so. We don’t like to be bearers of death; heretofore we’ve chosen to be victims rather than executioners. The commandment Thou shalt not kill was given from the summit of one of the mountains here in Palestine, and we were the only ones to obey it. But that’s all over; we must be like everybody else. Murder will not be our profession but our duty. In the days and weeks and months to come you will have only one purpose; to kill those who have made us killers. We shall kill in order that once more we may be men…”

The philosophical underpinnings of Dawn deserve a longer book, but somehow, plotwise, Dawn has too much padding. Yes, I know that sounds like I am completely contradicting myself! I feel that this is a small little book that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and is one of the weaker works out of all that Elie Wiesel has written.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars