Monday, August 22, 2016

Hip Hop is for Everyone: A review of Rani Patel In Full Effect

Rani Patel in Full Effect
by Sonia Patel
Cinco Punto Press (October 2016)
ISBN:  978-1941026496

Rani is a teenage Gujarati girl living in Hawaii with her hardworking mother and her hardly working father. When her father leaves the family for a younger woman, Rani shaves her head in defiance and seeks solace in her rhymes. As her life gets more and more complicated, hip hop is always there. Rani Patel In Full Effect is about beats, rhymes and the will to overcome every kind of external threat and the internal ones too.

There are a lot of layers to this book and they are all salty-sweet. There is triumph and sadness and the all-too-lovely "What the hell is she doing?" Set in the early 90's there is terminology that I can't be sure is accurate or not and as someone who was not too young during the time I can't remember if everything feels authentic. Because the subculture and setting is so specific this can read like historical fiction. You have to forget the here and now and allow yourself to be transported. Patel gives us smells and tastes that let you know you're on the island, but also that you're in the home of a Gujarati woman and child.

From the first pages we see Rani in crisis. She's just shaved her head and hair is so integral to female identity that we know that this is nothing light. This is more than acting out and whatever has happened it is catastrophic and it proves to be so. In small glimpses we see that the family unit that Rani is so desperate to protect is gnarled and broken in ways that she has yet to grasp. This toxic thing is something she wants and until it's snatched from her without a hope of returning she can't see it for what it is. We go on this journey of realization with her and we have moments of jubilation, usually punctuated with dope rhymes from Rani herself.

It can't be overstated that hip-hop is a big part of Rani's life and the book itself and the fact that it is such a positive force warms my heart to no end. Often anything loved and manufactured by black boys is vilified, but Rani exalts the art form. It is a salve and a holy healing drink. That's dope!

This book is for:

  • Music fans
  • Anyone who likes a good cry
  • Anyone looking for a beach read with enough meat to put a steakhouse out of business

Discussion Questions:

  1. Rani shaves her head in the first chapter. What do you think she accomplished with this? Was it the same when she cut herself with her nails?
  2. Rani's father held her on a pedestal and kept her friends away. How was this abuse?
  3. Rani says hip hop saved her life. How?
  4. What does Mark see in Rani? What does Rani see in Mark?
  5. How is Rani like her mother, how is she not?
  6. Do you think Rani's mother knew what was going on?
  7. What manifestations of depression did Rani's mother exhibit? How about Rani?
  8. Do you think Rani has any responsibility to tell the other woman about the abuse now that she is pregnant?
  9. Mark gets a beating because of what he did to Rani, but was that enough?

If you like this try:
This book so so singularly unique in that it's about a girl who loves hip hop, an Indian girl rocking the mic, a girl dealing with incest and coming out whole on the other end. There aren't any books I can think of that align with the same themes, but there is a book that left me feeling renewed in the same way you feel after a good cry and that is Gabi: Girl in Pieces. It's Gabi's last year in high school and she's got a lot to deal with, a friend's pregnancy, her Dad's meth addiction and dreams that seem out of reach.
Gabi: Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J

Thursday, August 11, 2016

All American Boys: A Black Lives Matter Review

All American Boys
By: Jason Reynolds and Brenden Kiely
Atheneum, 2015
ISBN: 978-4814-6333-1

All American Boys follows Rashad and Quinn, both boys, one white and one black who attend the same high school in a racially mixed Northeastern City. When Rashad, an average JROTC kid, is severely beaten by a policeman for shoplifting a bag of chips (he did not steal a bag of chips) a video of his wrongful arrest goes viral. Quinn sees it all, the vicious punches, blood and the face of the arresting officer, a guy he could easily count as his brother. Both boys considered themselves pretty normal before all of this began, but neither will be normal again. Questions of race, privilege and complicity all boil to the surface and out into the community.

Written from dual perspectives this book is the perfect story to illustrate the ridiculousness of respectability politics. If you don't know that is the notion that if you're law abiding and polite and dress well and wear your hair a certain way then you'll be safe from the remnants of white supremacy, brutality, discrimination. If you follow a model of perfect assimilation you can save yourself and be successful. It's a nice thought, but it just isn't true. The opening pages illustrate this beautifully in Rashad's beating. A simple misunderstanding ballooned into something that could have been fatal for him at no fault of his own.

If the book had just been from Rashad's perspective it would lose some of its appeal and effectiveness. Racism and privilege aren't one-sided. They include all people, and that includes those who believe themselves to be innocent bystanders like Quinn. It includes the woman who slipped in the store and said nothing as Rashad was being arrested. It includes the store owner who was so upset about being robbed multiple times that he focused his anger and mistrust at the very customers who make his business possible.

Written in clear language, the book is accessible to everyone and I would deem it required reading for at least the next few years. Every middle and high school library should have it on their shelves and it would be even better to start small reading groups. It is that good.

This book is perfect for:

  • Anyone trying to make sense of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men and boys across the country
  • Those who like contemporary stories with realistic themes and characters
  • Everyone else

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was there anything Rashad could have done to prevent his beating?
  2. What effect did the painting of "Rashad is absent again today" have on the school? What do you think was the intended effect?
  3. Rashad's father is very concerned with how he presents himself. Discuss what you think his fears may be.
  4. Quinn is a witness. Should he have come forward?
  5. Is Quinn complicit in the violence inflicted on his behalf?
  6. Discuss the ways in which Quinn is safe from the threats of violence and harassment that Rashad and his friends have to deal with.
  7. Speculate as to what happened after the protest at the police station.

If you like this then read:
This should definitely be read in companion to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his son this long form essay gives insight to what it is to be a black boy in America and grow to be a man.

To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. With beautiful language that is contemporary and very Black (with a capital "B") this album is the perfect foil for this novel. It is dense though, so listen in small bites and digest thoroughly.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Ink and Bone: The Great Library by Rachel Caine (a review)

Ink and Bone: The Great Library (Book 1)
Rachel Caine
NAL (July, 2015)

What if Gutenberg never invented the printing press? Well, now suppose that magician/alchemists had created a way to share knowledge but only the knowledge they deem appropriate. Now also suppose that these alchemists create a worldwide network of libraries that rule over the masses with a steampowered iron fist that can transform itself into a metal beast that could crush your bones and douse your body in Greek fire should you hoard an original book. If you can suppose all that then you're more than half-way there. The Great Library follows Jess, son of a book smuggler who supposes that his bookish son would be better off as an insider in the all-powerful Library than as a street thug in the family business. We follow Jess and his fellow "postulants" as they learn the inner workings of the library and vie for coveted jobs/placements in a grueling training.

I loved this book. It took me a chapter or two to become integrated into the rules of the world, but part of the fun is discovering all of the tiny elements that make a place unique. We're introduced to automatons, which are like animated steel robots programmed to be lethal guard dogs, in the first chapter. They are the muscle of the Great Library and their ruthlessness is what you're supposed to take note of. As a reader we know from jump street that the library is evil, but we get to feel the horror of the reveal through the eyes of the postulants vying for a position in the organization. There is a LOT of action that mostly hinges on the horrors of war itself, and not so much on the mechanical elements of the steampunkish setting, which I like because there is a focus on human relationships and the pain we inflict on each other. If the machines are the focus, or the magic is the focus we might be able to blame those external elements for the suffering we see on the page. Although, I thought some of the love relationships developed a little too quickly, specifically between Jess and Morgan, but we'll see how that turns out in Book 2.

The diversity quotient is pretty good. Our main characters are caucasian, but the supporting characters are all fleshed out well with representatives from all over the world. There are definitely no dusky savages or tokens, which is often a problem with fantasy.

This book is great for:
  • Steampunk newbies
  • Anyone looking for great action and adventure
  • Anyone who needs an escape

Discussion Questions:
1. Brendan is Jess' twin, but they couldn't be more different. How?
2. Jess' Dad is a hard man and he's raised his boys to be tough. Do you think he loves them? Why or why not?
3. Khalila and Dario have a bit of a budding romance going. Do you think it's going to work?
4. The library has been suppressing the idea of a printing press for centuries. What are they afraid of?
5. Compare the idea of blanks to your average ereader. How are they similar? What would happen if all books in our current world were replaced with ereaders?
6. Should Morgan forgive Jess for betraying her? Write an apology from Jess to Morgan and share with the group.
7. It's 2025 in the book, though it feels like the late 19th century by the description of the clothes and the language. Why do you think that is? 
8. Postulate what kinds of advances in human history would have been hindered by the suppression of some texts.
9. What kinds of books do you think the library might suppress?
10. Give evidence in the real world or Jess' world in support of the library's censorship ideals.

If you like this, try:
After you finish the sequel to Ink and Bone you'll be on the lookout for more fantasy bent on toppling evil regimes. You'll find it in The Young Elites by Marie Lu.

Rachel Caine gives you a fantastic soundtrack in the back of the book so check it out while you're reading.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Brooklyn Fever: Labyrinth Lost (a review)

Labyrinth Lost
Zoraida Cordova
Sourcebooks Fire (September, 2016)

Alejandra comes from a long line of Bruja's (Broo-hah) and her Deathday, a celebration where her full witchy powers come in and she receives the blessings of her family- living and dead, is approaching. The only problem is that accepting her powers is the last thing she wants to do, they are too hard to control and power has caused her family nothing but trouble. When she meets a dark stranger who helps her to create a canto (spell) that will remove her power the plan backfires and sends her family to another realm. With his help and the desire to make things right she'll have to go to Hell (or an equivalent) and back.

I was expecting to wander around Brooklyn with Alejandra as she battles monsters in the borough, but I wasn't disappointed when I found that the majority of the book is set in Los Lagos, a purgatory-like middle ground where blind giants, winged women and evil fairies roam. The world-building was beautiful and vivid, but some of the character decisions gave me pause. A few things happened, because they needed to happen to move the story along, but not necessarily because they made sense for the character. The language is beautiful and anyone who loves to get lost will find the trials and tribulations of this quest story a great addition to their bookshelves. However, there was the ubiquitous love triangle at the end that seemed a little disingenuous. (spoilers) Ale feels a tug in her gut when she's around Nova, a tiny twinge of lust that feels like butterflies, but with Rishi there is familiarity and affection. This could be classic triangle dynamics, but I think I'd like to read a lesbian love story with a bit more passion. Am I wrong? Tell me what you think.

This book is perfect for:

  • People who love urban fantasy
  • Anyone into Greek mythology and their variants
  • People who know how to properly roll their "r"'s

Discussion Questions:

  1. Alejandra tries to deny her power. Why is she so afraid of it? If she had embraced her power, would her fate have changed? Was the descent to Los Lagos inevitable?
  2. Rishi jumps in after Alejandra. Is her sacrifice believable, why or why not?
  3. Rate the monsters Ale, Nova and Rishi find by their fierceness.
  4. Nova is scarred because he never got his Deathday blessing, once he leaves Los Lagos, he's still scarred. Is he redeemable?
  5. Rishi and Ale share a deep friendship that becomes something more. How is the set-up of this relationship different from that of Ale and Nova?
  6. How is the theme of family as identity carried throughout the story?

If you liked this try:
Try another Brooklyn fantasy that will have you itching to visit, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older.

Romeo Santos
Volume 2

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Exit, Pursued by A Bear by EK Johnston : Friends and Allies (a mini review)

Exit, Pursued by A Bear
EK Johnston
Dutton Books for Young Readers
(March 2016)
Hermione is cheerleading captain, but when she's drugged and raped at cheerleading camp she becomes infamous for something more than how high she can fly. Exit is a well written foray into the Canadian cheerleading culture and a study in friendship more than anything else. The relationship between Polly and Hermione is heartwarming and has an intimacy that would be hard to match in even some teen romances on the shelves. The book centers around how Hermione copes with what happened to her, but I wouldn't not necessarily recommend this book to survivors. While every assault is different, Hermione has an uncommonly supportive network of family, friends and even schoolmates. The one rumor spread is promptly redacted by the perpetrator and there's almost no public fall-back on her part, which I find to be unrealistic even in this day and age. The nature of the assault also absolves her of ever having to deal with what happened during the rape or even during the rape kit. It seems very antiseptic and safe, but assault isn't like that. I will say that the frank and non-judgemental approach to her abortion was refreshing. This could be helpful to someone, but as an "issue" book I wouldn't say it's terribly effective. If you're looking for that I still contend that Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is the gold standard, but as a serious contemporary I think this is a fine read.

This Book is perfect for:

  • School book clubs, especially the cheerleading squad
  • Contemporary Fiction lovers who have a hopeful side
  • Sports lovers who may not know they are

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sing me a song of wolves and summer sweet: Wink Poppy Midnight (a mini-review)

Wink Poppy Midnight
April Genevieve Tucholke
Dial Books (2016)
There are stories about character, and there are stories about plot and then there are stories where the words are the point altogether. For me, I think, Wink Poppy Midnight is the latter. Steeped in beautiful language, readers will be lulled into a fairy tale-like story with heroes and villains and the gray places in between. It is a contemporary, but only in that there are no paranormal elements. The characters live in a place where people still write letters and children play outside all day without a tether to any technology whatsoever. If the setting is meant to be a real place, I would say that this a dismal failure. The characters aren't necessarily lovable, but that is subjective. We all have different personalities and tastes and there were things the characters did that I found to be completely unbelievable and unlikable, but that is based on my own experiences and you might have feel totally different.

Side note: There is an awesome recipe for pumpkin hot chocolate that I am definitely stealing.

Dive into it and let me know what you think!

This book is perfect for:

  • Lovers of fairy-tales
  • Anyone itching for a prose fix
  • People who like quiet contemporary novels