Thursday, February 26, 2015

all the bright places

all the bright places
jennifer niven
knopf publishing
published 2015

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself.  But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.  Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister's recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it's unclear who saves whom.  And when they pair up on a project to discover the "natural wonders" of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It's only with Violet that Finch can be himself - a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who's not such a freak after all.  And it's only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them.  But as Violet's world grows, Finch's begins to shrink.

There is not a lot I can say about this YA debut from Jennifer Niven.  It is a depressingly good representation of bipolar disorder and the feelings of being in love with someone who suffers from it.  Grief is a huge player in this book and while there are bright spots the book barrels towards the dark without apology.  I didn't cry, much because mostly I was frozen.  Tense and waiting to see what became of Violet and Finch.

One thing that really stuck with me in is how everyone in Finch's life (besides Violet) dismiss his behavior as 'that's just Finch'.  Part of this is a testament to how the few friends he has are kept at arm's length.  They don't know what's going on in his home life, they're not close with him.  Even as they disparage everyone around them in the end, they are not much different from the herd.  His sisters are both caretakers and dependent on him and it is in her love for her brother that Kate shoulders a lot of the responsibility.  Had she not fielded all the questions from school maybe things would be different?  But then you get to his parents.....his mother who is basically useless.  One of those people who only reacts when they feel like events are happening to them.  And his father, who plainly is just an asshole.

It is truly no wonder that Finch's mental health progresses as it does and it's heartbreaking to watch.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

green angel

green angel
alice hoffman
published 2003

Left on her own when her family dies in a terrible disaster, fifteen-year-old Green is haunted by loss and by the past.  Struggling to survive physically and emotionally in a place where nothing seems to grow and ashes are everywhere, Green retreats into the ruined realm of her garden.  But in destroying her feelings she also begins to destroy herself, erasing the girl she'd once been as she inks darkness into her skin.  It is only through a series of mysterious encounters that Green can relearn the lessons of love and begin to heal enough to tell her story.

I'm curious as to just how many young adults enjoyed this book because I don't think this was a book that would widely appeal to the young adult set.  It is lyrical and magical, but it is painfully slow and very, very thoughtful.  The book is a quick read, but I felt like the pacing was too drawn out.  Nothing happened, and yet everything happened.  There are no details, but it was almost as if this was a novella that takes place between two books in a series.  Like how Veronica Roth wrote short stories focusing on other characters between her Divergent books.  I was a lovely book, albeit sad, but it was a beautiful little story about forgiveness.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


keigo higashino
minotaur books
originally published 1996
translated to english 2014

Acclaimed bestselling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is found brutally murdered in his home on the night before he was to leave Japan and relocate to Vancouver.  His body is found in his office, a locked room, within his locked house, buy his wife and his best friend, both of whom have solid alibis.  Or so it seems.

Malice is told from two different perspectives: Osamu Nonoguchi, the victim's best friend and Kiyochiro Kaga, the detective assigned to the case.  It's an interesting, if somewhat simple whodunit and I think that maybe some of the intricacies were lost in translation.  This one was a super quick read, I finished in a couple of hours and it thoroughly entertained me from start to finish.  If you're looking for a fun, quick read you will find it here.  I'd love to write a bit more about it, but the plot is so twisty I'd hate to give anything away.  What I did find coincidental and kind of funny is that middle school plays a big part in this plot and the last Japanese book I read, Confessions also focused a lot on middle school.  Weird.  Anyway, for a book that I picked up mostly because of the cover it was a good pick!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

gene luen yang

prime baby
first second
published 2010

animal crackers
slg publishing
published 2010

the eternal smile
with derek kirk kim
first second
published 2009


Prime Baby
Thaddeus doesn't his new sister (she's not that smart - and she gets all the attention).  He likes her even less when he discovers that she's an inter-dimensional conduit for peace-loving aliens (who are totally lame - all they want to do is knit socks for the homeless and have sing-a-longs!).  But what's even worse is that no one will believe him about any of this! How is he ever going to manage to grow up to become the President of Earth?

Animal Crackers
Two stories of two very different young people who encounter the extraordinary while living their ordinary lives.  In Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, a not-very-deep-thinking high school student has his life as a bully disrupted when a tiny alien aircraft lodges in his nostril and he must make an ally of his former prime bullying target.  And in Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, a bright, ambitious girl must question her surety in her intellect when a junk-food-fueled dream encounter with a powerful alien being forces her to ask if it's better to be smart than virtuous.

The Eternal Smile
Meet Duncan.  Charming and brave, he's the Princess's favorite - and he's on his way to winning the throne.  But lately, the walls of reality in Duncan's kingdom are wearing a little thin....  Meet Gran'pa Greenbax.  Nothing seems to satisfy this greedy old frog's longing for a pool full of gold - until, one day, a mysterious smile appears in the sky.  Has his chance at happiness come at last?  Meet Janet.  Her nine-to-five life takes a turn for the romantic when she learns in an email from a mysterious Nigerian prince that she has been chosen to liberate his family's vast fortune.  All he needs is her banking information.

If there is anything that all of these stories had in common it's that there is a deeper meaning in most of them that maybe you just don't see coming.  Animal Crackers was a little more meaningful, or serious than I expected.  And Janet's story in Eternal Smile was so sadly poignant.  The artwork though was gorgeous.  The African scenes were my favorite in all three books.  Out of the three, The Eternal Smile was my favorite.  The line between fantasy and reality and what world you must live in were very central here.  All three characters struck a chord in me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

zita the spacegirl & legends of zita the spacegirl

zita the spacegirl
legends of zita the spacegirl
first second
published 2010-2012

Zita's life took a cosmic left turn in the blink of an eye.

When her best friend is abducted by an alien doomsday cult, Zita leaps to the rescue and finds herself a stranger on a strange planet.  Humanoid chickens and neurotic robots are shocking enough as new experiences go, but Zita is even more surprised to find herself taking on the role of intergalactic hero.  Before long, aliens in all shapes and sizes don't even phase her.  Neither do ancient prophecies, doomed planets, or even a friendly con man who takes a mysterious interest in Zita's quest.

This is a cute adventure series that is loads of fun to read, but not much appeal for adult readers except for the just the sheer fun of it.  I love the creatures (Zita's spaceship is probably my favorite) and the expressions Zita makes at times.  This is the perfect series for Emma who loved Cleopatra In Space!


hidden: a child's story of the holocaust
loic dauvillier, marc lizano & greg salsedo
graphic novel/childrens/historical
first second
published 2012

Like every grandmother, Dounia was once a little girl herself.  Tonight, she's finally ready to tell her granddaughter a secret about her childhood - something she never even told her son.  Tonight, Dounia is ready to share her memories of Paris in 1942.  Memories of wearing a Star of David, of living in fear, of the kindness of strangers.  Memories of being hidden.

There are things in the history of our world that are difficult to know.  There are moments in time when the atrocities enacted upon human beings is too much and the knowledge of it is forever seared in your memory despite having never lived it.

For me, that is the Holocaust.  I remember being a teenager in high school and seeing a video in World History of the Holocaust.  I'm sure it's a video every World History class in just about every city across the United States watched at the time.  But what I remember most clearly were the bodies.  The emaciated nude bodies being dumped like garbage into a landfill.  I don't know what horrified me more.  Was it the human beings being treated like trash, the sheer number of murdered people or was it that someone filmed it?  Filmed it as if they'd want to go back and watch it like vacation videos.  It was an image in time that I won't ever forget.  When someone mentions the Holocaust it is what comes to my mind.

After having children I wondered at times, how does one explain these things to one's children?  I have explained the Japanese-American internment camps to Emma because that is a part of her history and I told her about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but not in any detail.

But how do you explain the genocide of eleven million people to a child?

Hidden tries to do that.  Dounia is telling the story to her granddaughter from the perspective of herself as a child.  How it began, how her life changed.  How she was hidden and how people who didn't have to, saved her life.  Written for children and found in the children's section at the library it is an accounting of part of those events that open up a discussion.  Am I ready to have that discussion with Emma?  Probably not quite yet as I couldn't get through it without crying.

Hidden is a powerful piece of literature.  My heart was pounding and my throat was tight with tears throughout the book.  There were panels that took my breath away and my heart ached for Dounia and her family.  And within the pages that contain such sadness there is hope and joy and as much as it is a story of helplessness it is also a story of survival and living.

dancing home

dancing home
alma flor ada & gabriel zubizarreta
young readers/family
published 2011

When Margie's cousin Lupe comes from Mexico to live in California with Margie's family, Lupe must adapt to America, while Margie, who thought it would be fun to have her cousin there, finds that she's embarrassed by her in school and jealous of her at home.

Our library hosts a series of events called Silicon Valley Reads.  Books are chosen and events are planned around them like author visits and peer discussions.  This year's theme is Homeland & Home: The Immigrant Experience.  I picked up a few of the book choices for this year and Dancing Home is my first read so far.

Dancing Home is written for young readers.  The story follows Margie, or Margarita mostly as she comes to terms with what it means for herself having her cousin come to live with them.  We get glimpses now and then into Lupe's mind as well.  Her confusion with her cousin's attitude towards her, her joy at her sense of belonging with her aunt and uncle and her fears of how different everything is in America.

Margie is determined to be as 'American' as she can and when her non-English speaking cousin joins her at school she is mortified to be associated with her.  She's done her best to erase her Mexican heritage from the eyes of her fellow classmates and all Lupe is doing is shining a light on their ethnicity.  And not only is she getting teased at school, but she finds herself being left out at home as well with her parents speaking more Spanish to her cousin than English to her.

Just like American Born Chinese, you have characters who want to strip away their culture to fit in with who they think everyone is.  And just like Jin Wang, Margie discovers that maybe she's missing out by denying her culture.

I loved this book in the way that I checked it out from the library again so Emma could read it.  I want her to read about what it's like to be different so that maybe she can recognize that in others as well as appreciating her ethnicity and what it means to be Mexican or Japanese, or Irish or English or whatever!

boxers & saints

gene luen yang
first second
published 2013

China, 1898.  Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.  Little Bao has had enough.  Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers - commoners trained in kung fu - who fight to free China from "foreign devils".  Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful.  But nothing is simple.  Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost?  So many are dying, including thousands of "secondary devils" - Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity.

China, 1898.  An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn't even given a proper name by her family when she's born.  She finally finds friendship - and a name, Vibiana - in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.  But China is a dangerous place for Christians.  The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing, and bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike.  Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie...and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

I am conflicted by Gene Luen Yang's parallel books.

I grew up Jodo Shinshu Buddhist and do not believe in God.  Christianity never had (and still doesn't make sense to me), but what always bothered me about religious people is their belief that you should believe as they do.  I have little respect for missionaries who make it their life's work to convert what they consider 'heathens'.  To me it's arrogant and insensitive.  It is, in a very true sense, a killer of cultures.

So with Boxers I sympathized with Little Bao and his desire to rid China of these 'foreign devils' who have not only come to China to convert the people, but take over land as if they've a right to it.  I could also see how Little Bao becomes conflicted by all the death surrounding him.

With Saints, I think Yang's choice to write a character who is so completely unlikable was probably not the best way to show a different side to the Boxer Rebellion, but maybe that was his intention.  Four Girl is selfish and mean and following a religion only because she got cookies out of it and wanted to become a devil, not because she wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The writing is great and I was engrossed from beginning to end with both volumes.  I loved the art, it's just that the characters, Four Girl and Little Bao were not the heroes one is looking for.  I would have loved to follow Mei-wen's journey instead as I found her to be much more interesting than both main characters.  But I wonder, in this rebellion were there really heroes?  Another war, senseless killing because of religion.  It's a sad state of affairs that continually repeats itself.

american born chinese

american born chinese
gene luen yang
first second
published 2006

All Jin Wang wants is to fit in.  When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he's the only Chinese American student at his school.  Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends.  Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl...

Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables.  Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth.  But the Monkey King doesn't want to be a monkey.  He wants to be hailed as a god...

Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he's ruining his cousin Danny's life.  Danny's a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame.  This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse...

Gene Luen Yang illustrates well what it means to be different and wanting badly to fit in.  While his Jin Wang's story is about being the lone Chinese-American at his school you could easily insert any sort of difference and any kid could relate.  I remember not wanting to identify with being Japanese at all when I was younger.  Of course, the older I got the more I wanted to connect with my ethnicity, but growing up and being in the minority I wanted to be anything but different.

As with his other work I've read his writing is wonderful and his art is superb.  The story jumps from one character to the next, but in the end everything begins to meld together and form one whole story.  I can't find anything to complain about!


kanae minato
hachette book group
published 2014

After an engagement that ended in tragedy, all Yuko Moriguchi had to live for was her four-year-old child, Manami.  Now, after a heartbreaking accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.

But first, she has one last lecture to deliver.  She tells a story that will upend everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.

Confessions begins with a narrative by middle school teacher Yuko Moriguchi.  You are reading as if you are just listening to her speak, without any descriptions other than what she offers.  It takes a bit of getting used to.  I felt like I was missing a part of the story, I couldn't see what and who she was talking of, but when I got used to it I was intrigued.

At each chapter the reader is inserted into the mind of another character, all part of the story with different perspectives on the events Yuko initially introduces you to, but also with narration of events before and after Yuko's revelations.

The story is not an easy subject matter and the ending left me sort of in disbelief.  Yuko's revenge plot was brilliant, but I wondered if I would have the stomach for a scheme such as this.

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