Tuesday, April 24, 2018

American Panda by Gloria Chao

Rating: ★★★★ | 7 hours 32 mins | Simon & Schuster Audio | Contemporary YA | 02/06/2018

I'll admit I didn’t mean to read this book. I was listening to audiobook samples on Scribd, trying to find something to listen to when I accidentally clicked on American Panda. By the time I started driving I couldn’t change it and before I was home... I was really into it.

At seventeen years old, Mei Lu is starting her first year at MIT. She is just a few steps away from completing her parent's plans for her to become a doctor, marry a  good Taiwanese man and have Taiwanese babies.  But now that she is on her own Mei is starting to feel the tension between the Taiwanese and American cultures she straddles. She starts to question the things she’s always believed and to make things worse she’s falling for a spiky-haired Japanese co-ed named Darrin.

American Panda is a story about family, empathy and discovering who you are; it’s perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen, especially because of how the romance and mother/daughter storyline evolves. Darrin even has a little "manic pixie dream dude" in him. I have always struggled with YA romances but this one was perfectly executed.

This book is #ownvoices (in fact Chao is a dentist who went to MIT), so I was kind of surprised to see Kirkus rag on it so much for being stereotypical. Yes, there are stereotypes but I think Chao was likely speaking from experience and adds nuance. She unpacks a lot of the stereotypes to explain why they exist. Also, she shows a plurality of experience with other Taiwanese American characters who come in and out of the story.

A big part of this book is Mei being a germaphobe and repeatedly discovering she has no business being a doctor and there is a little bit of body humor and a few moments that I thought were kind of gross. So, if you’re squeamish I would skip a few pages whenever she is around doctors.

Emily Woo Zeller is a veteran narrator with over 200 books to her name. She gives Mei a bright and humorous voice. Doing this on audio was especially helpful for me because I don’t know Mandarin and would have had trouble pronouncing some of it out. There is a point where Mei attends a one-woman comedy show and Zeller really throws herself into the performance.

There are quite a few YA books out right now about what it means to be a first-generation immigrant in America and the struggles of straddling two cultures and this is one you shouldn’t sleep on!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Spring Bookish Haul

It took a little while for the East coast to shake off winter, but spring is finally here and in March and April I picked up some new books and bookish items for my shelf.

Novelly Yours CandlesThe Dreamer & The Muse | Two 4oz jars | Strange the Dreamer inspired soy candles
I've seen these Novelly Yours Candles all over Bookstagram and Twitter. It's pretty tricky to buy candles online without smelling them, so I searched for scents and fragrances featured in candles and soaps I already owned. I navigate more towards vetiver, sandalwood, jasmine, and musk; after some searching, the Laini Taylor collection felt like the perfect fit. Taylor is a favorite on the blog and Strange, The Dreamer was an ideal follow up to her debut YA series.

Of the two candles, The Dreamer is my favorite.

*The free sample I received was Cinder

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I remember when I was fourteen I tried to read the Oprah book club pick One Hundred Years of Solitude. At the time it wasn't for me, but I've always wanted to read an Oprah Book Club pick. Tayari Jones was at the Virginia Festival of The Book, so I picked up a copy. 

Any new bookish items on your shelves?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Review : The Wake Up by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Rating: Unrated| 323 pages | Lake Union | Contemporary | 12/5/2017

I don't think I would have stumbled upon The Wake Up if I hadn't been given the chance to review the audio.  It caught my interest because it is published by Lake Union, an Amazon imprint that is marketed as "book club fiction" and because it's one of those books by an author who has written a  bajillion books, yet I've never heard of her.

I'm sure most people will recognize Catherine Ryan Hyde as the author of the book that inspired the movement and movie, Pay It Forward. So every time the person in front of you pays your toll...she's why (unrelated, someone once paid for my lunch at my work cafeteria and I paid for the person behind me and they were totally freaked out, even after I explained it to them...btw cashier's must hate this, right ?)

Set in a small rural town in Northern California, The Wake Up tells the unconventional story of Aiden Delacorte, a mild-mannered middle-aged rancher who wakes up one morning with the ability to feel the emotions of the animals around him, which proves to be a challenge for a man who makes money off the pain of animals.  This hyper-empathy sends his life spiraling in a new direction at the same time he opens his heart and home to his girlfriend, Gwen, and her two children.

The book follows Aiden as he tries to trace the source of his outstanding empathy. It leads him to therapy where he exams his childhood and the stepfather who saved him, Aiden uses these lessons to connect with  Gwen's emotional distance and destructive young son, Milo, who is struggling to overcome the shadow of  abuse

The Wake Up is steeped in family drama, love, redemption but still has a very light touch The great outdoors and the love of animals plays a big part in the healing process for the characters.  To me, this book read like inspiration fiction and except for a bit of language, it's pretty clean I thought it was a great pallet cleanser with characters you could root for and moments that will warm your heart.

Moreover, I like to call this book a cure for toxic masculinity. I mean you have this archetype of a lone rancher and you think when he is plagued with emotions he would try to push it away--but instead, Aiden accepts it. He talks about his feelings and he even goes to therapy to help sort out his emotions. There is a scene where  Milo and Aiden are driving home from a therapy appointment and they talk about what they are going through and I just wouldn't have expected to see that.

The book does try to reason out Aiden's empathy, but I like to think of it as a gentle dose magical realism infused with a contemporary narrative. If you are looking for a positive story about family and starting over The Wake Up won't put you to sleep.

Check out the audiobook review at AudioFile Magazine

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Audiobook Review : Scythe by Neal Schusterman


Rating: ★★★★ | 10 hours 32 mins | Simon & Schuster | Sci-Fi/Dystopian | 11/22/2016

I picked up Scythe when it was a daily deal on AudibleI didn't know too much about it, I didn't even know it was a YA book, I thought it was a middle-grade book or a graphic novel.When I dived in I found another one of  Shusterman's expansive worlds dealing with ethical and moral issues in an unconventional way.

Scythe takes place in a world much like our own...except everyone is immortal. With natural death a thing of the past, death now must be dealt out by the hands of a select few highly-trained individuals known as Scythes.  It's a daunting task because even though death comes in human form, fundamentals of death are still intact. When a Scythe comes for you it is swift, resolute and inescapable.

No one wants to take on the horrific task, but when teenagers Citra and Rowan are chosen to be apprentices they have no choice but to comply. Together they must train and learn to maneuver through the changing politics of Scythehood

Shusterman has a tough hill to climb with this book because you, as a reader, have to buy into an immortal society where it's accepted that Scythes must exist to glean (read: kill people) at their choosing. Even though this is an accepted part of society the fear and sadness is still very present. The death scenes are tragic though most are fade to black. Though they can be shocking I think showing people's fear and emotional pain is necessary. I had a tough time with Shusterman's popular novel Unwind because this element was missing.

This is another engrossing read from Schusterman. The ending felt a little rushed but the story remained imaginative. The ending brings everything full circle, so it can totally be read as a stand-alone, a rarity in these YA days.

I'm on a roll with male narrators and seeing as there is a female protagonist I kind of side-eyed Greg Tremblay as narrator, but he is masterful.  He does a particularly good job with a Scythe named Goddard who is the benevolent possibly sociopathic and slightly flamboyant Scythe, who has begun to take too much pride in his bloody work. Tremblay gives him a voice that is both sweeping and glib.

I'm listening to the Out of Uniform series on the other blog and I'm excited to see he does book as Greg Boudreaux #4.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

Rating: ★★★ | 15 hours 35 mins | Harper Audio | Adult Fiction | 02/06/2018

Spanning the late 70s to early 90s, The House of Impossible Beauties is a fictionalization of the real-life figures at the center of House of Xtravaganza--a Puerto Rican drag queen family.

If you're wondering if this is the documentary Paris is Burning in book form, let me tell you--yes, yes, that is literally what this is. In interviews, the 28-year-old author Joseph Cassara has said he was inspired to write this book after watching the documentary. I really don’t know how to review a book like this, so I’m just going to do a feels dump and start with what I liked.

I came across this book because I was looking for something narrated by  Christian Barillas after Jess gave him a glowing review last year. In this 15 hour behemoth of an audiobook Barillas gives a wonderfully emotional and varied performance. New York City is diverse and he was doing everything from old-school Italian accents to the “Nuyorican” accents to several dead on “white guy” voices. 

Maybe it’s my YA sensibility but my favorite storyline was the relationship between Juanito and Daniel, two runaway gay teens who find a home in the House of Xtravaganzas. I later found out this book started out as a short story about just them and it shows. At times it felt like their story was in an entirely different universe than the others.  But holy moly, this book leans really hard on the "tragic queer" and Bury Your Gays trope.

The majority of this book is told from the POV of Angel and Venus Xtravaganza, two real transwomen who were featured in the documentary. While most things in this book line up with what really happened to them, it’s almost like the book goes out of the way to make them more tragic. In an interview in The Millions, Cassra says he basically wrote this book in the bubble of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and it really shows. I don’t understand how you can write a book like this, using real people’s names and lives and not make an effort to do some first-hand research before querying. I also think this is also one of the reasons we only have one ball scene in the entire book.

Speaking of that The Millions interview, at one point Cassara says his intent with this book was to just shine a lens on how tragic and unfair life was and that he is “not really interested in books that feel didactic” and “didn’t really think about politics at all." And IMO, I think that is part of what makes this novel feel so weak. Everything about the drag scene in the 80s (and heck, even now) is inherently political. There is just so much that could be unpacked, especially since many of the characters are real people and so much of what happened to them has to do with the politics of the time.

But also, the House of Xtravaganza is still very much alive (including a founding member who Cassara kills in the books) and their members have been influencing pop culture for years. I can't imagine how they would feel reading a book like this that ignores their legacy in favor of a tragic story. It feels weird critiquing this book because Cassara is gay and Puerto Rican with New York roots so in some ways it is his story to tell.

I'm being a black sheep though because this book has been getting quite a bit of critical acclaim, even though for me this book about revolutionaries felt unrevolutionary.

Lithub did a really interesting feature on the cover design process for this book. This was my favorite of all the mock covers:


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