Review: Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

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Review for "Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish" by Pablo Carteya (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ah, I liked this book. It’s a great junior high/middle grades story of family, culture, and dealing with adversity. It’s also a love letter to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, which I had the chance to visit back in 2016 before the hurricane. Because this book conjured up so many great memories for me, naturally I gravitated to this novel.

Marcus Vega is an 8th grader who is 6 feet tall. He uses his size to walk bullied kids to and from school, to impose a littering tax, and keep kids’ cell phones during the day–for profit. He lives with his single mom who works long hours at the local airport, and cares for his younger brother Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. When another student at school makes a comment about his brother, Marcus attacks him and is suspended from school. Marcus’ mom uses the break from school to visit family in Puerto Rico, the place where Marcus was born. Marcus, who came to the mainland as a young child, does not speak Spanish. He also barely remembers any of his family there, particularly his father. He becomes interested in traveling to the island to meet his dad for the first time.

Once the family is in Puerto Rico, Marcus discovers an entire culture, language, and way of seeing his world that he previously knew nothing about. While I won’t reveal the ending of this book, I did feel that the ending was satisfactory, though bittersweet. All in all I loved the scenery of this novel: the colorful streets of Old San Juan, the music, the culture, the chirping of the coqui, the language. Much of the Spanish spoken by the characters isn’t translated, which is ok. This is Puerto Rico’s story.

I highly recommend this book.

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Review: The Wicker King

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Review for "The Wicker King" by K. Ancrum (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honestly, it made a bit of sense. Perception is relative. So is sanity, if you think about it. It’s totally a Minority vs. Majority thing. If you fall on one side of the line, take a ticket and proceed. If you fall on the other, shit gets real. – The Wicker King, p. 99

I finished this book at 4:45 am this morning, and man…I am wrecked.

“The Wicker King” is the story of Jack and August, two teenage boys that have been friends since they were kids. Jack is the rugby player with wealthy parents, August is the kid of a single mom who sells drugs in their high school to keep himself afloat. Early in the novel, Jack begins to see hallucinations, weird visions of a parallel universe with bizarre artifacts, riddles, and strange creatures. In Jack’s world, he is the king that has been called upon to save this fantasy world from destruction. August cannot see Jack’s visions but trusts them, believes in them, and ultimately, risks his very soul to bring it to life.

At the center of this novel is Jack and August’s relationship, which is intense, manipulative, intoxicating, all-consuming, unhealthy, romantic…I could go on and on with the adjectives here. Love sustains both Jack and August as the victims of neglectful parents, attempting to fill the empty places of need inside each other. Although the sexuality of the main characters is never explicitly stated, it’s quite obvious that this is a queer version of wretchedly dark love story. In an echo of the mental state of the characters, the pages of the book get darker and darker as the narrative progresses until they eventually fade to black.

The only thing I didn’t care for here was the heavy romanticization of mental illness, which the author dresses up pretty thick with Jack’s version of a dark fairy tale kingdom. There are plenty of negative consequences for both Jack and definitely August for embracing this, however, and I think that’s made clear in the novel. The message: if you or a loved one is grappling with mental illness, get help.

4.5 stars.

Top Fifteen Tuesday: Reads for 2019

I’m so hyped for some great reads coming down the pipe in 2019 that I couldn’t cull my list down to 10, so here goes:

Nonfiction/Memoir

1. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive – Stephanie Land

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2. Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood – Maureen Stanton

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3. The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation

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Fiction

4. Queenie – Candice Carty Williams

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5. The Other Americans – Laila Lalami

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6. An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma

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YA

7. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali – Sabina Khan

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8. Belly Up – Eva Darrows

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9. A Good Kind of Trouble – Lisa Ramee

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10. With the Fire on High- Elizabeth Acevedo

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11. Watch Us Rise – Renee Watson

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12. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph – Brandy Colbert

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13. Internment – Samira Ahmed

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14. Let Me Hear a Rhyme – Tiffany D. Jackson

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15. On the Come Up – Angie Thomas

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Review: Anatomy of a Girl Gang

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Review for "Anatomy of a Girl Gang" by Ashley Little (2013)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

“Bad bitches don’t die.” p. 108

LOL, I crack myself up sometimes. I also cracked myself up with this book. Anywho, I definitely liked this one.

Stuck in the streets of a gritty neighborhood in Vancouver and fed up with the sexist actions of their all-boy gang, girl gangsters Mac and Mercy decide to start their own crew, which they call The Black Roses. Mac sets strict rules at the outset: there will never be more than 5 girl members, they will never use the drugs that they sell, and they will be their city’s worst nightmare.

Together, Mac and Mercy recruit 3 more girls. Each member is distinct in their personality and serves their own purpose within the gang. Mac is the leader, mastermind, and the O.G. of the gang (that’s ‘original gangster’ for you squares). Mercy, a “Punjabi princess,” is Mac’s right hand with a special aptitude for theft (cars, store merchandise, you name it). Kayos is from a rich family and has a special flair for violence. Sly Girl, who comes from a hard life on a reservation, is a master of the ups and downs of buying, selling, (and later using) drugs. The final recruit, Z, is a young Chinese graffiti artist whose job it is to market The Black Roses’ message of mayhem by tagging their name on street signs and bridges all across the city.

At first, the Black Roses are wildly successful. Although they run into some problems with other gangs, they quickly solve them with violence. They begin to save their money and dream of leaving the streets. There’s even time for a romance to develop between two of the members. All continues to go well until a devastating blow leaves them without hope or the money they’ve saved to plan an escape. Desperate, the girls come up with an ill-advised plan which sets into motion a chain of events that eventually destroys them all.

This book is told in alternating narratives of all five of the characters. Interspersed throughout the story is the voice of Vancouver, an eye in the sky that “sees” all. Honestly, the writing of this book is not all that excellent but the story managed to be quietly devastating enough to keep me turning the pages. The mid-90’s hip hop language, explained to the less-than-wary with the aid of a glossary in the back, is also funny too with definitions for words like “slinging,” “burners,” and “gat.”

This is YA, but I’d recommend for adults too.

Four stars, yo…

Review: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree

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Review for "Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree" by Adaobi Tricia Nwabani and Viviana Mazza (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree” gives voice to one of the hundreds of Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The internet launched a campaign with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag going viral in response to the large-scale kidnapping of girls at a government school in the Borno State of Nigeria in 2014. Although the hashtag brought awareness to the plight of the girls, what many may not know is that the 2014 kidnapping was not the first of its kind by the group, nor has it been the last. Boko Haram continues to terrorize Nigeria and its surrounding countries, and although there have been some girls released by the group, hundreds still remain captive and missing.

The narrator of the novel is an unnamed girl, later given a name that is not hers by her kidnappers. In the beginning of the novel, before the main events take place, we learn that she is passionate about her education, her family, her Christian faith, and pursuing a scholarship to achieve her dreams. This is shattered when her village is attacked by Boko Haram and most of the men are killed. The narrator and dozens of other girls are forced to go with the kidnappers into the forest. Once there, the girls are surrounded by men with guns who force them renounce their beliefs and embrace Islam. She is made to do chores, eat meager food rations, and learn passages from the Qu’ran. Those who refuse to comply with the kidnappers’ demands are severely beaten or killed. The narrator is also forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter who physically and sexually abuses her. Despite the horrors around her, the narrator remains steadfast and refuses to be brainwashed. She continues to dream of her escape and desire for education.

This is tough reading material. The novel is told in short vignettes, which I found to be helpful in allowing the content be digested more thoroughly, especially for a younger audience. We rarely get YA books about the struggles of women in non-Western context, so I definitely loved this one and recommend it to anyone.

Review: Sadie

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Review for "Sadie" by Courtney Summers (2018)

Rating: 4 out 5 stars

This book had a lot of hype surrounding it, so I listened to all of it and read it. Ultimately, I think it’s a good novel but the heaps of glowing praise is a bit premature.

Sadie is a teenager growing up in rural Colorado who has not had an easy life. She raises her younger sister Mattie through a modest job due to her mother being mostly absent and a drug addict. When Mattie turns up dead, Sadie hits the road to bring her sister’s killer to justice. Heartbroken, Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother and neighbor brings the girls’ story to a popular radio personality, West McCray, who creates his own podcast (entitled “The Girls”) to attempt to uncover the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing here is quite nice. I also loved how the story was told through podcasts (I’m a self-confessed podcast junkie) and Sadie’s POV in alternate chapters. But even with this, it took a long time for me to get into this book. When it did get going for me after about the first 150 pages or so, I still couldn’t quite “get” into Sadie’s POV. The podcast sections definitely held more interest for me, but even after a while I found myself fighting sleep. Perhaps it’s because what was just relayed via Sadie’s POV is retold through the podcast chapters, just from a different perspective. And while I liked the idea of this one, I just didn’t love it.

There’s also mad trigger warnings for things like pedophilia, rape, and murder. I wasn’t expecting all of that, but it’s definitely a major theme in this book.

Definitely more than 3 stars, so I’ll go for 4 here. This book was just not my cup of proverbial cup of tea.

Review: Finding Yvonne

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Review for "Finding Yvonne" by Brandy Colbert (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Another YA book I luv’d. Let me count the ways:

“Finding Yvonne” is a complicated, beautiful novel that explores race, the uncertainty of the future, family dynamics, and perceptions of the choices we make. It focuses on Yvonne, a Black 18-year-old Los Angeles teen, raised by a single father. She attends private school and plays violin, yet feels that she has lately lost much of her passion for the instrument. Her father smokes weed regularly and runs a successful restaurant. Yvonne is currently in a relationship with Warren, one of the young men employed as a sous chef at her dad’s restaurant. Despite the fact that Yvonne and Warren have chemistry, they have a very complex romance which leads Yvonne into a messy affair with a street musician. After sexual encounters with both men, Yvonne unexpectedly finds herself pregnant.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story for fear of spoiling it. However, this story is less about the pregnancy of the main character and more about her passions and the day to day struggles of her life, which is brilliantly written about here. Yvonne was always fresh and real to me, and even though she made choices that I disagreed with, I understood her. I never stopped rooting for Yvonne and wanting to see her win. Also refreshing was the sex positivity here, the portrayal of Yvonne as a person capable of making her own decisions about her body and not as a pariah.

Definitely worth the read.