Saturday, January 13, 2018

That Thing We Call a Heart, by Sheba Karim

It's her last summer before college and Shabnam doesn't know how she'll spend it.  Her best friend Farah has gone off the deep end and started wear hajib (even though she wears it with hairstyles calculated to drive her mother nuts).  Shabnam doesn't know what to make of her usually rebellious friend.  But when she meets Jamie, none of it matters.  Jamie is inquisitive and charming and Shabnam falls head of heels for him.  But more than a story of summer romance, the novel is about how the love for family and friends matters most in the end.

In other words, there are plenty of good ingredients in this book, but it all comes at you at once. Now, one could argue that life is like this: that a story only about wearing hajib or a summer romance (or Urdu poetry or the Partition that created modern India and Pakistan or a mother grieving the loss of her unborn babies or an absent-minded father) is not enough to carry a 270 page novel. But it is also safe to say that it is a bit too much to throw all of that into the mix and expect it to stand.

The writing is good, but the characters felt largely interchangeable, with voices that were not distinct. Even the father, who has the most interesting mannerisms largely sounds like every other person in the story.  Shabnam herself starts off as grating, giving her plenty of room for growth during the story -- and Karim's depiction of that growth provides sufficient payoff for the reader.

Friday, January 12, 2018

You Bring the Distant Near, by Mitali Perkins

A story of three generations of the Das family, Bengalis who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s.  Covering over forty years of family history, it centers on the Das women:  Ranee the matriarch, her daughters (academically gifted Sonia and her thespian sister Tara) and their daughters Anna and Chantal.  A mixed-race family, each woman struggles with their sense of identity and what it means for them to be Bengali and American.

While the story occasionally drags, the novel is full of vivid characters that make this a delightful read.  The expansive timeline of the story allows us to see everyone grow up and develop.  And despite its race through the decades, it's surprisingly fluid, avoiding any great problem with its temporal jumps.  A great deal of tear-jerking is milked from death and perhaps a bit too much drama from surprise out-of-character changes, but this is a warm story that celebrates humanity and diversity in a non-preachy way.

The Library of Fates, by Aditi Khorana

In an attempt to buy peace and forestall Emperor Sikander’s ambition to conquer Princess Amrita’s kingdom, her father has promised her to the Emperor.  The thought horrifies her but is ultimately moot as the Emperor launches a surprise siege.  Her family and friends slain or imprisoned, Amrita flees for her life with the companionship of an oracle, a young woman named Thala.

Together, they seek the fabled Library of Fates, where every human has a book that tells their story.  If they can find the Library and convince the gatekeeper to admit them, they plan to rewrite their stories and undo this tragedy.  However, along the way they discover that the situation is much more complex and Princess Amrita is forced to make a huge sacrifice.

While ostensibly a pretty routine fantasy novel, two things stood out that are worthy of mention.  First of all is the wonderful South Asian flavor of the story.  So many fantasy novels are bound on an implicitly Western European motif.  But here, the clothes, foods, titles, and even the mannerisms are Indian.  The bad guys are even called “Macedonians.”

Which brings me to my second point.  While the novel is almost as bloody as any other sword and sorcery fare, Amrita’s actions are notably not.  She never actually kills anyone (or anything) although she considers it on several occasions.  Instead, she uses reason to work through her conflicts and chooses to employ non-violent alternatives.  The story rewards her each time by showing how a non-violent solution actually solved more problems in the end (while the bad guys suffer in the long run for resorting to the sword).  As Khorana puts it in a blistering condemnation of the current US president in her introduction, “[W]hen we act with only our selfish interests in mind, disregarding the rights and experiences of others, everyone loses.” Wisdom for our times.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Amina's Voice, by Hena Khan

Amina is terrified of public speaking, so when her Dad announces that he's signed her and her older brother Mustafa up for a Quranic recitation contest at their community's Islamic Center, she's terrified.

But she has other issues as well:  her best friend Soojin has started being friendly with another girl and Amina wonders if she's losing her friend.  Worse, Soojin wants to change her name to something more Western-sounding (much to Amina's horror).  Amina's uncle is visiting them from Pakistan and his presence disrupts her family as her parents attempt to impress him and as his conservative views conflict with Amina's own beliefs.  But it is when their mosque is damaged by vandals that Amina learns to put all of these things in perspective and to find her voice.

Given the subject matter, this is a surprisingly gentle middle reader.  Placed in a Pakistani community outside of Milwaukee, it mixes everyday tween concerns about friendship and family, with observations about ethnic identity,  xenophobia, and faith.  The ending is a bit too rosy for my tastes and issues are resolved a bit too easily, but Amina is so appealing and the story so unique, that it is worthy of note.

My Future Ex-Girlfriend, by Jake Gerhardt

Eighth grade, with all of its glories and anxieties, is full of plenty of drama.  Tracing the arc of three relationships, Gerhardt plumbs the terrain of middle school romance, when simply being able to claim a boy/girlfriend was the whole point.  There’s plenty of humor here (mostly provided by the incredibly stuffy Duke), but much of it is bittersweet, as we get treated to the fantastic (and realistic) ways that boys and girls miss each other’s social cues at this age (the contrasting accounts of their dates are particularly striking).

This isn’t a terribly complicated book, but I appreciated its honesty and respect for its subjects.  And, in my continuous search for books that treat both girls and boys with respect, I felt Gerhardt nailed it – avoiding a lot of the stereotypes, but not shying away from what is going on in adolescent minds.  These kids are intelligent and articulate but also achingly young and immature, with plenty of room to grow, but off to a good start.  And reading this story really brought back plenty of memories (admittedly not ones that were easy to revisit!).

Words in Deep Blue, by Cath Crowley

At the bookshop Howling Books (owned by Henry’s parents), there’s a “Letter Library” where people write comments in books and leave notes.  On the night before she moved away, Rachel left a note for her friend Henry where she knew he’d find it.  In it, she had decided to risk everything and confess her love for him.  For days and weeks she waited for his response, but it never came. He kept in touch for a time, acting as if he had never even read the note. Stung and humiliated by his refusal to acknowledge her confession, she eventually cut off all communication with him.

After several years Rachel has moved back to town.  The hurt of the rejection lingers, but she is now grieving over the accidental death of her brother.  Henry meanwhile is facing his own tragedy: his Mom is leaving his Dad and the bookshop is being sold.  But the Letter Library lives on and the stories it tells about its readers becomes a story in itself that traces not only reconciliation between Henry and Rachel, but numerous other relationships.

An odd and quirky novel with a lot of complexity.  I really liked the premise, but the story itself is very hard to follow with a large cast of characters who don’t particularly stand out.  There’s also a lot of off-stage action and the story jumps around.  A patient re-reading (or two) would have brought out more, but I don’t have the patience for that.  What I got from this reading simply wasn’t enough.  Great concept, but poor assembly.