Tag Archives: contemporary

Bronx Masquerade

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At the end of a month of studying Harlem Renaissance poetry, high school English teacher Mr. Ward assigns an essay to class to break down what they’ve learned. One student, Wesley, hands in poems instead, and Mr. Ward asks him to read aloud one of them. The students’ response to Wesley’s words lead to an open mike poetry reading every week in class, where all students are offered the chance to read their original work. Each student takes advantage of the opportunity to tell the world something personal about themselves and how they see their place in society.

Bronx Masquerade is a novel written in 18 different voices. The story follows a year in the life of a classroom of high school students in the Bronx as they learn to express themselves through poetry and learn to look beyond the facades that their classmates present to the world. Each student has a chapter which ends in their poem, and as the year of poetry progresses the students realize that although on the surface they are all so different – black, white, Latinx, male, female, teen mother, heavy, thin, bold, shy, beautiful, athletic, artistic – they all face similar challenges and experience similar feelings.

The themes of difference and community and future resonate throughout the novel and the poems. Each of these teens experiences individual versions of loneliness and isolation; each has feelings of not fitting in, or of standing out for unwanted reasons (whether it be Janelle’s weight or Devon’s basketball prowess or Judianne’s fashion or Chankara’s black eye or Porscha’s mom dying of an overdose). But as they sit and really listen to each other speak, they all begin to realize that they are part of a community, and have more in common than perhaps they first thought. That said, each poem and poet is unique.

In the beginning, thoughts of the future are hazy for most of the teens. Hope is a foreign concept.  Most have lost friends or family members to gun violence, while some have just left. But as the kids come together and see they are not alone, the future becomes something attainable. Dreams are ok.  Dreams might come true, with hard work and focus.  Hope is ok.

This isn’t a book with a strong plot or story line. With 18 different narrators, it takes a few chapters to get into the flow of the style and keep characters straight, and you aren’t getting a chance to follow one teen through a year of development and change.  What you do see, rather, is snapshots of the students’ lives and how they react to the changes and revelations of others.

Coretta Scott King Award winning author Nikki Grimes has written a novel that sends an important message to teens to not judge each other, to get to know people beyond preconceived ideas, and to always hang on to hope.  I loved this book, but read a lot of reviews from people (generally adults) who did not.  The main criticism seems to be the lack of continuity of a main character. And while I grant that it is a choppy style to read, the book does a fabulous job of showing what lies beneath the surface is not always what the observer expects to find.

Bronx Masquerade was published December 31st, 2001 by Speak.

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Dreamers Often Lie

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If I had to summarize this novel in a couple of words, it would be intensely trippy. Think Shakespeare and brain damage and hallucinations and then throw in the usual teenage angst and drama, and there you have it.

17-year-old Jaye doesn’t know how she ended up in a hospital bed with a blinding headache, but she’s pretty sure that characters from Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be there with her. So probably best not to tell anyone about that little problem. Her one pleasure in life right now is her work in the school play, so as the star of Midsummer Night’s Dream she has to convince her doctors and her family that she is ok to leave the hospital before she loses her prized role.

But she has personal demons to deal with on top of everything else. A broken family and feelings of loss and abandonment fuel her struggles. Her life becomes intertwined with Shakespeare’s plays and she can’t keep the two of them straight. Especially when Romeo walks into class on her first day back to school. Where does reality begin and fantasy end?

Jaye is a totally unreliable narrator, which has possibly become my favourite kind. I love getting into the head of someone who thinks completely differently than I. I even like that I don’t like her. She is extremely self-centred and immature. Where I do have a problem with her is the lack of growths she displays throughout the story.  Yes, she has a severe head injury, but it seems like it knocked all the sense out of her. She does not develop or change, and she doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes, acknowledging them and then going on and repeating the same ones over and over again.

And although I understand why she wants to keep her hallucinations secret, and she is afraid of losing her role in the school play, that motivation loses it’s believability as the story continues. There is a certain point where you have to let it go. Certainly when you can no longer remember what role you are playing and in which play. At some point, healing has to become a priority. There is always another play.

The secondary characters are widely varied, and I found the real ones less believable than the hallucinated ones. Pierce is a bit of a sociopath, and it is never clear whether he is truthful or not. Does he actually like Jaye, or is it an ego thing? Is he telling her the truth about her dad? He is not a likeable character at all.  Jaye’s mother and sister are a bit one-dimensional, and her mother is not believable, letting her severely head-injured daughter call the shots about leaving the hospital and going to school.

But the way the Shakespearean characters randomly pop up throughout the novel is unexpected and creepy and so well done, keeping the line between fiction and reality blurred. Ophelia is awesome. She appears soaking wet and cold and white and her mind is distant and confused, straight out of the play. Hamlet fluctuates from mad to lucid and back with each appearance, talking to the ever-present skull, while the Bard himself personally questioned Jaye’s actual desire to return to full health.

The plot explores conflict of many kinds, including the dysfunction present in even a “perfect” family, Jaye’s troubled relationship with her father, her difficulty in facing that conflict, being torn between what you want and what you can have, and of course, reality versus fantasy.

And the storyline itself reflects Jaye’s state of mind. There are secrets and twists and confusion, building tension and leading to an… ending. The story just stops. And I’m not entirely sure what happened. Perhaps everyone died? Perhaps everyone lived happily ever after? It is certainly Romeo & Juliet-esque. (Oh! Maybe it is Newhart all over again! I jest. And show my age.)

I like this novel, but don’t love it. It is not for everyone. You must enjoy being off-balance to get the full effect.

Dreamers Often Lie was published April 5th, 2016 by Dial Books.

If I Was Your Girl

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18-year-old Amanda Hardy is the new senior at Lambertville High School in Tennessee. She just moved down there to live with her dad, after her time at her previous school ended in a suicide attempt and left her scarred and too terrified to return. High school should not be dangerous, but for Amanda, it is. Because she was born Andrew.

But Lambertville is a new chance, a new opportunity to fit in and make friends and have a life beyond Saturday evening take-out with her mom. As the new girl, she is automatically intriguing to both boys and girls alike. And not only does she make a circle of friends in the close-knit conservative town, she also meets the boy of her dreams. But how close friends can they be, when she can’t be honest with them?

This is the story of a girl who wants to fit in, have a “normal” high school experience, and not have to look over her shoulder. It is the story of family. And it is a fun boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love story. It is the story of a girl who hasn’t received a lot of love and respect in her life, and is now surrounded by friends and family who give it to her. And what is awesome is she realizes she deserves it.

Despite a suicide attempt and some quite graphic violence, the novel isn’t that dark.  It has moments of light and joy and humour, and real-life high-school experiences that took me back to those years, hanging out with friends, shopping for prom dresses with giggling girls, first kisses.

There are tons of characters that surround Amanda in the novel – her mom and dad, the girls who make up her circle, Bee, Grant, Parker, and so many more. The friends run the gamut from religious to fashionista to closeted lesbian to bi. Some are judgey, some accepting. Grant is sweet and protective. Her parents are present throughout, and although her mom struggles at first to understand, in the end just wants her child alive and happy. Dad takes longer to accept her and vacillates between feeling self-righteously unsupportive one moment, and in the next, trying to find a way to accept and protect his child.

The big reveal was well done and not in the way I expected. And as much as I always want closure, the open ending is perfect for this story.

This is a story about a trans girl written by a trans woman, with a cover that features a beautiful trans model. Read the author’s notes at the end. She writes separate messages to both the trans and the non-trans community and explains her motivations for writing the novel the way she did. Incredible.

Is the portrayal of Amanda’s life as a trans woman realistic?  Not totally, according to author Meredith Russo, but life can be difficult enough for trans teens, and perhaps reading something that is not 100% true to most experiences can give hope, and offer the belief that life can get better and there can be acceptance.

If I Was Your Girl was published May 3rd, 2016 by Flatiron Books.

One Half from the East

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Happy 2017, everyone!! Here’s to a great year of reading.

In many places, life is just easier if you are a boy. For you and for your family. Afghanistan is one such place.

10-year-old Obayda lives in Kabul with her mother, father and three older sisters. She loves to go to school and wear dresses and dance and swing her beautiful hair around. Her father is a respected policeman, and the family is content and prosperous. Her future looks bright. But the future cannot always be predicted. 

One day, as she waits outside the pharmacy for her father to pick up a prescription for her illness, a bomb blows up and changes everything. Her father lost a leg and his will to live, and the family had to leave their life in Kabul to move in with his family in a small village.  Life is so different now. Her father refuses to leave his room and barely speaks to the girls.

Obayda’s aunt, the nosy, bossy one, has an idea to change the family’s luck. Obayda is to becomes Obayd, a bacha posh, or girl who dresses and acts and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a boy.  Because a boy in the family brings luck. And maybe, just maybe, Obayd can turn the family’s bad fortune around.

This is a fascinating story, and I wasn’t sure whether it was based in fact, or was just an incredible idea. I had never heard of such a thing. But a quick google search gave me a ton of information. (I do miss the trek to the library to research, I have to admit, although my would-rather-spend-a-snowy-day-inside-in-pyjamas self has no complaints about the internet). Having a bacha posh in the family is not an unusual practice in Afghanistan. Not to say that every family does it, but it is not uncommon.

In Afghanistan, decisions are made by men. Women and girls have comparatively less value, and an Afghan girl is born with little control over her own life. She looks forward to a life of essentially servitude, having her life in the hands of first her father, then her brothers or husband. This would affect a family with no sons. So in some families, mothers dress a daughter as a boy, give her a short haircut and boys’ clothing, and treat her as a son. To the world outside the home, and even within the home, bacha posh are boys.

For the Afghan girl chosen to become a boy, a whole new world is before her. She can now get a job, run around without an escort, play sports, go to school. She gets to live a life unknown to Afghan women.

Obayd is one such bacha posh. She becomes he, not only in the eyes of the village, but in her family’s as well. He is given the first choice of meat at the table at dinner, is not expected to help with chores, but to run off and explore and play. He goes to school with boys, he is a boy. But at first, it is not that easy. Obayd is sure that everyone knows, and, having no brothers and an absentee father, is unsure how to behave. But then he meets Rashim, who knows at a glance what he is, and the two become inseparable. Rashim teaches Obayd how to be a boy, how to embrace the freedom, and Obayd enters a world he never knew existed.

Author Nadia Hashimi got right into the mind of a young girl and her portrayal of the conflicts that Obayd/a faces are honest and poignant. With Obayda’s change of clothes and hairstyle, she also gets a change in perception and potential. She can now do things that before no one thought her capable of trying. Sports, designing and building a crutch for her father, shopping in a store by herself. But with the new advantages also comes a certain loss; she can no longer be one of the sisters, she is now more worthy than they and their former close comradery is ruined. Obayda sees the oppression she lives under with new eyes, as she gets the rare chance to leave it behind and live it from the other side. Her character has the true flaws and childishness that makes her authentic, she has the excitement of trying something otherwise forbidden. The new experience also gives her a new maturity to face her life when she realizes the freedom may end.

The other characters were as well drawn and real as Obayda, and round out her experience beautifully.  Her sisters go from close confidants to remote roommates. Her father takes a new pride in her, her mother sees the problems and the rewards.  Her friends are wonderful; while they may suspect her true nature, they treat her as a boy without question.

Hashimi also transports the reader right into Afghanistan with her impeccable and polished prose. The story is told without ever obviously dumping information, but rather minute details are woven throughout about the culture and traditions and landscape that bring the novel and the people within to life. She draws vivid pictures of the dusty roads and crowded market, the separate buildings for boys and girls to attend school, the religious practices, the mealtimes and division of chores, and the visceral terror the population has of the warlord that reigns over the village.

The pacing of the novel is equal to the characters and setting; it moves quickly through Obayda’s transformation and education as a bacha posh, the freedoms attained as a boy, the realization that it might not last, and the desperation to make the newfound liberty permanent.

The questions this book raises about gender and perception and equality are relevant for any age to consider. While this is a middle-grade novel, it is a fantastic read for everyone. I couldn’t put it down.

One Half from the East was published September 6th, 2016 by HarperCollins.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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This book has been around for about a decade and probably doesn’t need my feeble attempts to review it, but I read it in one sitting and then couldn’t get it out of my mind for days afterwards. Alternating between hilarity and heartbreak, this novel covers every emotion out there. The very things that make you laugh also make you cry.

Junior is 14 years old, part white, mostly Indian, and living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Born with hydrocephalus, he has a large head and weird eyesight and big hands and feet. He has faced mental and physical challenges his whole life, but he knows he is smart and that there is more to his life than the mocking and beatings he takes daily at the reservation school. The other Indians on the rez call him retard and faggot and after he transfers from Wellpinit High to a high school in Reardon, an apple – red on the outside, white on the inside. He’s the only Indian at Reardon, an all-white town school 22 miles from home. Well, the high school mascot is an Indian, and the name of the school sports teams is the Redskins. You can imagine how welcome he feels.

But the one thing that Junior has is hope. He doesn’t want to spend his life in an alcoholic haze, he doesn’t want to attend funerals every other week, he doesn’t want to settle for a life that is laid out bare in front of him. And he manages, through his brains and basketball skills, to make a name for himself at his new school. Which, by the way, is Arnold there.

Through it all, the good and the bad, Junior never loses his sense of humour and irony. The story of this one year in his life is about strength in the face of adversity, resilience when he is emotionally and physically knocked down once again, and finding the joy and laughter in life, even in times of sorrow and tragedy. Junior faces poverty and prejudice and death, and survives with his sense of self intact. He understands that poverty begets poverty, which in turn leads to hopelessness and belief that the life is deserved and can never be challenged or changed. He knows there is no dignity in it; the dignity must come from within the person.

Author Sherman Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and attended Reardon High as the only Native student. This story is based on his life, and is written with a humour and honesty that so beautifully shows Junior’s relationships to his family and friends (both new and old) and the people on his reservation. His love and understanding for his family and his devotion to friends are just facets of the kindness and strength that hold him up. The reservation itself, with the generations that have lived on it and those to come, plays a prominent role in his development and outlook on his life and future.

The illustrations done by Ellen Forney throughout bring the story to life even more so. Junior spends his life drawing to express himself, and I love the various styles – the more realistic portraits of his family, honest depictions of how he views each member, and slightly more cartoonish ones for situations when he wants to express feelings and impressions.

This book is full of mature themes, and may be tough for readers at the younger end of the YA range. But it offers educators and parents the opportunity to open many avenues of discussion. It should be on everyone’s to-read list.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was published September 12th, 2007 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Twenty Questions for Gloria

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15-year-old Gloria Jade Ellis is bored. Bored of school, bored of a family that seems disconnected, bored of friends that do the same thing every day, bored of a predictable future of university, marriage, job, and 2 kids. But what is there to do but drift?

Then one day Uman walks into class. He is different than anyone she has ever known, a breath of fresh air in a life that seems so stifling. And Gloria discovers that are things she can do to change things. She can challenge authority, she can bend the rules, she can rediscover the girl that was a free spirit and did her own thing, once upon a time. But is that a realistic way to live a life? And will it be too late when she decides yes or no?

I sat on this review for quite awhile. It took me some time to form an opinion about this novel, and I’m not sure that I have come to a concrete conclusion yet. It is not quite what it starts out as, but it finds its way regardless.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a story about a spoiled bored teen who isn’t getting what she wants, feels ignored, and selfishly takes off to “find herself,” and escape an unremarkable existence. And there are elements of that in the story. Both Uman and Gloria are self-absorbed and not entirely likeable. But it does go deeper. Gloria is finding her voice, finding a way to be who she is, finding her path to the future.

She is an interesting character. Bored and unable to see beyond a life of predictability, she is also recognizable. Who hasn’t stood at a train station or airport or sat in the driver’s seat of the car and thought about buying an open ticket or randomly picking a flight or not taking the turn-off to home? Who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to leave behind responsibility and start fresh if there were no consequences?

But of course there always are.

The book does not hide anything. Told from Gloria’s point of view through a police interview after she returns from her two-week disappearance, she is first questioned as a victim. But as details are revealed through her answers, it becomes apparent that events are not what they first appeared to be – a theme that runs throughout the story. The questions Gloria must answer reveal not only her motivations for her absence and disenchantment with her life, but also force her family members to confront their own directions and decisions.

The connection between Uman and Gloria is at the heart of the story. Their immediate attraction and growing relationship, the chemistry that is evident in their banter, how they run away together and discovered their own paths while ultimately looking for the same place.

I liked that even though Gloria knew it was right to come home when she did, she still acknowledged, at least to herself, that had Uman waited for her, had woken her and asked her one more time, she quite likely would have gone with him.

I hesitate to label the parts of the story I didn’t connect with as weaknesses. Rather, I think the story was unexpected, although not suspenseful or dramatic. There are no real surprises except maybe that there are no real surprises. It is a story of a girl and a boy each escaping their pasts and discovering their path to maturity.

The ending is perfect for the story. Completely open to interpretation, it is up to the reader to decide what Gloria learned from her adventure, and what she is willing to risk.

This book is appropriate for the entire YA range. It is a compelling read that looks at the time in our lives when we think we are grown-up enough to make all our own decisions, but maybe still too young to recognize the consequences.

Twenty Questions for Gloria was published April 12th, 2016 by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House.

Saving Hamlet

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Something fun to help me recover from a month of reading horror – theatre nerds, Shakespeare, time traveling, a bisexual BFF, and a plethora of cute boys to crush on, gay and straight. What more could a girl ask for?

15-year-old Emma is hoping to forget her freshman year at BHS. She started last year as a soccer star with long red hair and a bright future. But then the Hallowe’en party happened and she quit the soccer team and lost her friends. Life looked pretty bleak. Then Lulu sat at her lunch table one day and asked her to join the drama club, and suddenly life looked up again. She had a new best friend and a purpose.

So sophomore year looks good. Emma has changed her look  and she has changed her life. She has a sleek short haircut and a drama appropriate all-black wardrobe, is the assistant stage manager for the school production of Hamlet, the hottest boy in school is directing the play, what could go wrong? Well, how about a fight with her best friend, a sudden promotion to stage manager (a position she has just begun to learn), bad casting for the play, and a hole in the centre of the stage that she trips over and falls through.

And lands in Hell. Otherwise known as the basement below the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Yes, that one. The one in London, in 1601. And the players are preparing to stage Hamlet for the first time. And Emma is mistaken for a boy (how flattering) and as the assistant to the stage manager Mr. Wick, who is known as the book keeper.

Emma is NOT an actor in a story that is set in the theatre. I like that. She is self-conscious and endearing, funny and conflicted, and seems on the edge of losing control at all times. Thrust into the spotlight when the stage manager quits, she has to juggle fragile egos and a disastrous production in the making. Not to mention her no-longer-best friend’s life is imploding, and there is nothing Emma can do to help.

Emma (known as Master Allen in the Globe) encounters Shakespeare himself in her travels back to his theatre, and soaks up the atmosphere of the original production and studies his methods and motivations. She brings that knowledge and new-found confidence in her ideas back to her present day production, and back to her relationships.

Every kid in the novel is misunderstood and melodramatic and, therefore, a totally authentic teen. Small things become huge, and huge things actually become easier to handle. Who would have thought that traveling back in time 400 years would actually be preferable to working on a high school drama club production? (I may have just answered my own question there.)

Stanley and Lulu, Emma’s two best friends, are gay and bi and possibly two of the best-written characters I have read in ages, if not ever. They are beautifully developed with individual personalities and quirks and jealousies, they are complex and not “token”, which I have found so many of the diverse characters in other novels to be lately. And, to top it all off, they are sarcastic and funny, which pretty much made them my favourites.

But all the present-day characters in the novel are strong. I d0n’t necessarily like each one, but my reasons for not liking them are because of their personalities, not because they are poorly written. They aren’t. They are all so real and familiar to me, I am pretty sure I went to school with at least half of them. (Or, given my age, their parents.) And the characters from Shakespeare’s troupe of players and stagehands are exactly how I would picture each and every one, from Will himself to Burbage and Wick. Their humour and egos are spectacular.

The plot is FABULOUS. Author Molly Booth weaves Shakespearean facts and literature throughout the novel, illustrating all the magic that is present in his writing. This isn’t a novel that is filled with action, but rather with subtext and stories and growing up and learning all of life’s fun and not-so-fun lessons. The drama playing out in Emma’s life is mirrored in the theatre, as is the drama in each of her co-workers’ and friends’ lives. Who can be trusted, who is real, what is their motivation for their actions? It is as hilarious as it is poignant and adventurous.

Booth’s world-building showed meticulous research and thorough understanding of the time. Her attention to detail in both the Globe’s and the present day’s productions is impeccable, making me feel like I was breathing in the sawdust of the old theatre and smelling the rank odors of the costumes and players. 17th century London was full of interesting characters and Em’s adventures in that century had me on the edge of my seat.

This is a great novel for anyone with a yen for adventure and romance. And while knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t a requirement to understand the story, it certainly adds to the enjoyment. LOVE this one.

Saving Hamlet was published November 1st, 2016 by Disney-Hyperion.