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Book Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Publisher’s description

ra6A gorgeous and emotionally resonant debut novel about a half-Japanese teen who grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school.

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

starfish17-year-old Nebraskan Kiko Himura prefers painting to fitting in (her words). She’s always felt like the odd one out, and her social anxiety hasn’t exactly helped her feel like she can fit in. Her mother is white and her father is Japanese. Her terrible mother is pretty racist nonstop, constantly making Kiko feel awful for everything having to do with being Japanese. She feels like she’ll never be good enough for her mother—her horrible, self-absorbed, hateful, AWFUL, emotionally abusive mother. Kiko also feels completely responsible for her parents’ divorce. Then there’s the fact that she was sexually abused by her uncle (her mother’s brother) and her mother refuses to believe that. Have I mentioned that her mother is unrelentingly TERRIBLE? (In fact, my one real complaint is that Kiko’s mother isn’t given any real depth or exploration, and Kiko just kind of writes her off as crazy, never my favorite excuse for someone’s villainous behavior.) Kiko hopes graduating and moving to New York for art school will give her the escape she wants and a chance to start over, to find out who she really is. When she doesn’t get accepted, she isn’t sure what she’ll do. But a new plan forms after two surprising things happen: One, her uncle, that uncle, moves in with them. And two, Kiko reconnects with Jamie, her childhood best friend, who now lives in California. He invites her to stay with his family while she figures out her future. There, she looks at art schools, gets encouragement from a high profile artist who takes her under his wing, and, of course, realizes she’s totally in love with Jamie. She begins to feel the love and support she never got at home, but it scares it, especially with Jamie. She’s worried she’ll lose him and she doesn’t want to become dependent on him. It’s a summer of big feelings and transformations for Kiko—one that grows infinitely more complicated when some pretty big secrets finally come to light.

 

This beautifully written book is a powerful look at breaking free, finding your voice, and coming to finally understand your own self-worth. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481487726

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 09/26/2017

Book Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

how-to-makeGrace, tough and wise, has nearly given up on wishes, thanks to a childhood spent with her unpredictable, larger-than-life mother. But this summer, Grace meets Eva, a girl who believes in dreams, despite her own difficult circumstances.

 

One fateful evening, Eva climbs through a window in Grace’s room, setting off a chain of stolen nights on the beach. When Eva tells Grace that she likes girls, Grace’s world opens up and she begins to believe in happiness again.

 

How to Make a Wish is an emotionally charged portrait of a mother and daughter’s relationship and a heartfelt story about two girls who find each other at the exact right time.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I read this book in one sitting. I used to do that a lot—read books in one chunk of time—but don’t so much anymore. While I do typically read a book in one to two days, the time is broken up—I need to write something, I need to run errands, I need to parent, I need to do whatever. My busy brain isn’t the biggest fan of letting me settle into any one thing for too long. But with this book, I was hooked from page one and had no interest in moving until I was done reading. I am not a person who says “all the feels.” I do not tend to feel “swoony” over books. As a fairly cynical, scowly person, those kinds of expressions are just not me. BUT. I kept thinking of both expressions as I read. And when I was done, I shut the book and just held onto it, thinking, well, that was a completely satisfying read. And, really, how often do we read books that just feel completely, absolutely, perfectly satisfying?

 

Grace returns to Maine from a two-week piano workshop in Boston to find that her mother, Maggie, has, once again, moved them in with her newest boyfriend, Pete. Never mind that they’ve barely been dating for a minute. Never mind that Pete’s son, Jay, is Grace’s ex (and that he posted all of their sexts after they broke up). Maggie is always doing this—flitting from guy to guy, being impulsive, not thinking of how things might affect Grace, not doing her job as a parent. She’s basically an overgrown kid (with a drinking problem) and Grace is left to do the parenting. But there’s maybe only one more year of this life. At the end of the summer, Grace will be auditioning for the Manhattan School of Music. College will mean a fresh start for Grace—something that she needs—and not in the way her mother is always giving them new starts. But as much as Grace cannot wait to get away from her life, she’s worried about leaving her mother behind. Who will watch over Maggie?

 

Summer on the cape should mean more of the same—hanging with her best friend, Luca, and suffering through her mother’s unpredictable whims—but becomes much more interesting when Eva arrives. Eva is the daughter of one of Luca’s mother’s friends who recently passed away. Emmy, Luca’s mom, is now her guardian. Eva and Grace meet on the beach, where both have gone to process their emotions, and immediately click. Eventually, after Eva tells Grace that she is a lesbian and Grace tells Eva she’s bisexual, their friendship turns into something more. But it quickly becomes complicated by, what else, Grace’s mother. Maggie wants to nurture Eva and becomes buddies with her, something Grace would rather not see happening. Eva doesn’t understand the full story of just how Maggie can be and Maggie doesn’t know that Grace and Eva are dating (oblivious to anything that isn’t her own life, Grace did at one point try to tell Maggie she was bisexual, but Maggie chose to brush that admission off and not understand it). It’s clearly a recipe for disaster. When Maggie eventually makes a(nother) really bad choice—one that affects her, Grace, and Eva—Grace reaches her breaking point and has to decide who she really needs to be taking care of.

 

Blake’s characters are vibrant and multifaceted. Though so much of this book is about pain, loss, and grief, there is also just so much love in this story. Compassion comes from the places we would expect (Emmy, Luca) and from surprising places, too (Jay, Pete). Both Grace and Eva are fragile but resilient. They both find family in new ways—ways neither would have chosen (a dead mom, an irresponsible and alcoholic mom)—and find support and care and love there. And their relationship, though not always easy, is meaningful and achingly lovely. I do not generally want characters who date in YA books to stay together forever (see my earlier remark about being cynical and scowly). But I love Grace and Eva together. This is an easy recommendation for fans of contemporary stories. Again, it’s rare that I find something just completely satisfying, and this book felt perfect in every way. Go read it!

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544815193

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 05/02/2017

Book Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Publisher’s description

dreamlandSome bodies won’t stay buried.
Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past… and the present.

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

That description up there does not at all capture how completely absorbing this book is. Which is good, because it also doesn’t give too much away and you’ll get to discover on your own just how compelling and unpredictable this story is.

 

Narrative duties are split between contemporary teenager Rowan, a biracial girl (her dad is white, her mom is black) in Tulsa and William, a 17-year-old in Tulsa in 1921. William is also biracial–his dad his white and his mother is Osage Indian. The bulk of the story is really William’s, though Rowan and her friend James (who is also biracial–black and Native American–and asexual) do the investigating that starting putting pieces of the mystery together. Rowan has her own story line, too—it’s just not as big as William’s. James calls Rowan out for living in a bubble. James is into social justice and immigration reform and doesn’t let Rowan get away with statements like “things are better now.” He schools her about racism, power, and privilege, leading her to taking a summer job at a clinic in an impoverished area (that’s less dangerous than just forgotten, she notes) when her other internship falls through. Here, she befriends people she otherwise wouldn’t have known. And though they are set nearly 100 years apart, it’s no surprise that the racism that drives William’s story is also a strong force in Rowan’s story. An unexpected incident propels Rowan to action—and, surprisingly, begins to weave her story more tightly with William’s.

 

William, who we follow in 1921, is sort of thoughtlessly racist, as you might expect a young boy in Tulsa, Oklahoma at this time to be. Language of the era permeates his story, with terms like “mongrel,” “half-breed,” “Negro,” and the n-word frequently used. William instigates a scene at a local speakeasy when he sees the white girl he likes hanging around with a black boy. He doesn’t think what consequences his actions may have when he and his friend lie and say he was attacked by the boy. But soon, he does start to think more about racism, and begins to look beyond the expectations of how a white boy in this era should act and think, when he meets siblings Joseph and Ruby Goodhope. William meets them at his father’s Victrola shop, where, despite Jim Crow laws, they sometimes sell to black people on the sly. And while William’s dad agrees to sell Joseph a Victrola, and even allows him to finance it, he won’t write him a receipt—he can’t risk the proof of the sale falling into the wrong hands. It’s through this sale, and the issue of the receipt, that William and the Goodhope siblings begin to interact. Young Ruby, who is irritating in that special way that pesky little sisters can be, starts to grow on William. So when things come to a head in his town and the KKK and other white citizens begin rounding up black people, killing them, and burning their neighborhoods, William’s first concern is making sure Joseph and Ruby are safe. And while we know the skeleton under Rowan’s family’s guest cottage floor belongs to someone from William’s story, we’re not sure who. Nothing is revealed quickly, and just when you think you’re sure you’ve figured it out, Latham reveals unexpected details that make you throw that theory out.

 

Maintaining two timelines with two narrators and keeping both equally interesting is not an easy task. Latham ties the stories together enough that we see parallels without being hit over the head with them. Both narrators are complicated, interesting figures, but seeing William’s emotional and intellectual journey is the far more satisfying story. Equally as satisfying is how Latham brings us to the end of the mystery. The tight pacing and action-packed, unpredictable plot make this book fly by. An author’s note at the end tells more about the race riots in Tulsa in 1921 and examines the controversial term. The note also points out a few resources for further reading. This book—a contemporary story, historical fiction, and a mystery, all at once—will have wide appeal. A gripping look at a shameful time in America’s history and (not that we need it) a reminder of how slow progress really is. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316384933

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 02/21/2017