Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Mini Reviews: The Perishing and Long Division

Lou is a Black teenager who wakes up in a Los Angeles alley, with no idea who she is or how she got there. She is arrested and ultimately placed with a foster family. Years later, she lands a job writing newspaper obituaries for people who are often ignored. She also makes friends with a Chinese-American actress named Esther. The girls spend many of their days at Esther's father's boxing gym and that is where Lou sees a Black fireman named Jefferson Clayton. Lou has never met Jefferson, but she realizes that she has been drawing his face for years. 

We know early on that Lou is not like other people; she is immortal and this life is just one of many she has lived. But Natashia  does such an excellent job of planting us firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s that the more fantastical elements and the flashes of Lou's other lives are jarring. The Perishing takes elements you think you've read before, and uses them to ask if a timeline exists where we finally stop ignoring the pain and trauma of people of color. 

The Perishing
By Natashia Counterpoint LLC November 2021
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

City Coldson is going to stay out of the limelight for a while. After an on-air meltdown at the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence finals, he is sent to stay with his grandmother in the small town of Melahatchie, Mississippi. Before he leaves, he starts reading a book called Long Division, The book has no author listed, and the main character is also named City Coldson. The City in the book lives in 1985 and finds out that he can travel through time. When the character in the book encounters a girl named Baize Shephard and City discovers that a girl of the same name in present-day Melahatchie has gone missing, it's clear that things are about to get strange. 

Long Division is a book where you have to be content with not always understanding what is going on. City (and Kiese Laymon) are not concerned with explaining things to you or making you comfortable; they're just telling you how things are. The characters mirror Laymon's precision with both the construction of story and the words used to tell that story. On one level, this is the story of a teenage boy navigating who he wants to be alongside friends, enemies, and first loves. On a totally different level, City is trying to find out where and when he belongs in a world that is not kind to Black boys--even when he is allowed to compete in the competition, he is seen as a "token minority" and assigned the word niggardly. Long Division is unlike any story you've read before. 

Long Division
By Kiese Laymon
Scribner June 2021
301 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Where There's a Whisk

Peyton Sinclaire can't quite believe that she is a competitor on the TV show Top Teen Chef. The winner will get a full ride to any American Culinary Institute and for Peyton, it would mean the chance to leave her family troubles and small town life behind. The story starts right in the midst of the action, as Peyton walks on set for the first time and the camera crew captures her reaction to the beautiful appliances and fully-stocked pantry. They also record her walking right into the swinging doors that lead to set. 

We all know that reality shows are not all that real. Peyton and her fellow competitors know that too, but they are trying to impress the judges, impress the audience, and maybe even make a friend or two along the way. The show begins with eight competitors and each one has a type--one is a vegan surfer boy, another is an Italian teen from New Jersey, and there is even a girl whose family is cooking royalty. While it might seem a bit obnoxious to have such obvious types, it certainly rings true for a reality show where each contestant would be encouraged to play along with a specific narrative. 

Sarah Schmitt does a great job of writing characters who want to be authentic, but also want to win a competition where perception is at least as important as your plating skills. Their frustration is palpable when they are required to act in ways that aren't natural to them, and Peyton is the most devastated of all when she discovers the show will be portraying her as the "rags to riches" girl whose father is in jail. 

Sometimes you need to read a book that my dad would call "fluffy;" the stakes are relatively low and you know that everyone will learn something and end up with a somewhat happy ending. This story is fun, moves quickly, and the reader truly feels that they are on set alongside the teens, scrambling to finish each challenge on time. If you love binging The Great British Baking Show or trying to perfect your pie recipe on the weekends, Where There's a Whisk is the perfect book for you. 

Where There's a Whisk
By Sarah J. Schmitt
Running Press Kids October 2021
400 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Prayer When You Don't Have The Words: Mini Reviews of To Light Their Way and A Rhythm of Prayer

When Kayla Craig's daughter was three years old, she was hospitalized with a respiratory virus. Sitting by her bedside, Craig discovered that she could not find the words to pray. When a friend sent her a book of prayers, she found comfort in praying words that had already been laid out for her. As she continued to raise her children, she found many moments when she just did not have the words for the joy or sorrow or doubt she was experiencing. So she wrote a collection of prayers for parents, for the ones who are overwhelmed, for those smiling and crying as they send their little love off to kindergarten for the first time, and for the ones who are feeding a baby in those dark early morning hours.

This collection of prayers and liturgies is beautiful and varied. Craig writes in the introduction that these are not prayers that ignore reality; instead, she includes prayers for the one who parents alone, a prayer for receiving a diagnosis, and one for when your child is the bully. Some are meant for a caregiver to pray by themselves, and others are meant to read with your child. There are even simple breath prayers intended to help parents connect with God in the midst of school pickup, getting everyone to practice, and ensuring every child has brushed their teeth. To Light Their Way is a beautiful reminder that it is ok to not always have the words, and it would be a fantastic gift to give to any parent or caregiver. 

To Light Their Way
A Collection of Prayers and Liturgies for Parents 
By Kayla Craig
Tyndale Momentum October 2021
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sarah Bessey had a similar moment of not knowing how to pray. She recalled the prayer circles of her youth, missing both the confidence of knowing that others were praying for her and the many different ways they reached out to God. Bessey asked a group of women who teach and challenge her to contribute prayers to this collection. These prayers are not necessarily meant to be read and repeated verbatim.  Instead, they are intended to inspire you to find your own new ways to pray. 

The prayers in this book are angry cries about injustice or a guided prayer for when you don't know what you want. Some selections are not prayers themselves; they are letters to a future self or musings on the power of a mother or grandmother's prayers. One of the prayers in this book even sparked controversy when the Black author prayed that God would just let her hate white people instead of having her heart broken over and over by people who won't address their racism. It is good for us to be reminded that prayer doesn't have to look just one way and sometimes the anger or grief we feel is uncomfortable to confess. A Rhythm of Prayer is exactly this reminder and a powerful tool for anyone who calls out to God. 

A Rhythm of Prayer
A Collection of Meditations for Renewal
Edited by Sarah Bessey
Convergent Books February 2021
176 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Review: Wicked As You Wish

Tala Warnock is eager to leave her small town in Arizona, and use her ability to negate magic on more than her father's training exercises. She didn't expect the wider world and powerful magic to show up on her doorstep when Alex, a prince in hiding, moves in down the street. No one is supposed to know who he is, but the appearance of the legendary Firebird tells everyone just where they can find the heir to the throne of Avalon. Tala and Alex must team up a group of talented magic-users known as the Order of the Bandersnatch to claim his throne and restore magic to the world. 

Books are often about family dynamics or about a hero or heroine assembling a group of friends to fight alongside. Wicked As You Wish does both, with teens who can transform into animals or wield a magic whip and a family of magic-wielding martial artists. And that's not the only balance Chupeco strikes--she writes about experiences with immigration and genocide while naming her chapters things like In Which Carly Rae Jepsen Songs Make Excellent Training Tools and In Which Someone Gets Slapped Because of Dante's Divine Comedy. 

Rin Chupeco might be one of the most audacious fantasy writers working today. If you have a favorite fairy tale or myth, it probably appears between the covers of this book. There are aspects of Alice in Wonderland, King Arthur, Russian folklore, and Filipino mythology, to name just a few. There is a lot going on here, and readers may just have to hold on and enjoy the ride. It's a lot of fun (and a lot to keep track of), but I hope later books will develop some of the characters further and give us some more insight into the different kinds of magic. 

Wicked As You Wish
(A Hundred Names for Magic #1)
By Rin Chupeco
Sourcebooks October 2021
432 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Mini Reviews of Books in Translation: Where You Come From and The Pastor

A man applies for German citizenship, and one of the requirements is to write a short history detailing where they lived before and why they want to live in Germany. Our narrator writes a few sentences and discovers they are all wrong. What follows is a meandering, imaginative look at how we define ourselves and our histories and how to talk about a home that no longer exists.

Stanišić has written a somewhat autobiographical novel about a man, much like himself, who grapples with his family history in the former country of Yugoslavia. He writes about going back to his family's home and finding that things are very much the same and very different. He realizes that his grandmother's memory is fading, and any chance to learn the stories of his ancestors will be lost along with it. This book jumps from half-formed memories of the past to musings about the present, and even has a choose-your-own-adventure portion towards the end. It is written in a way that may be difficult for Americans to read, but it will be very familiar to people with a father or grandmother who likes to tell stories that start in one place and wander far and wide before concluding. 

Where You Come From
By Saša Stanišić
Translated by Damion Searls
Tin House December 2021
364 pages
Read via Netgalley

Liv is a pastor in a small Norwegian town. Her life is somewhat quotidian--she plans her sermon for the upcoming week, thinks about the impact of words and colonial history, and eats meals with the family that lives downstairs. Liv is desperately trying to help the people in her small town navigate the ups and downs of life, while grieving her own loss. The Pastor is a tale of a woman searching for sure footing in her faith, in her community, and in the endless, freezing landscape that surrounds them all.

This is a story with more feeling and memory than plot. Liv spends a lot of time wondering "what if?" She wonders if she could have saved her friend, she wonders if she will have an impact on these people she is ministering to, and she wonders how she can use words to bring meaning to this life. This quiet novel takes place over just one week, as Liv ponders the injustices of a local indigenous rebellion in the 19th century, working in a male-dominated field, and losing a loved one to suicide. If you are looking for a slow, thoughtful read for dark, cold winter nights, this might be the perfect choice for you. 

The Pastor
By Hanne Ørstavik
Translated by Martin Aitken
Archipelago Books October 2021
280 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Review: When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky

Two Feathers is one of the last horse divers in the United States. World War I has ended and Wild West shows are not as popular as they once were. Two Feathers is thankful to have a regular job leaping into a pool astride her horse Ocher at the Glendale Park Zoo in Nashville, Tennessee. She's also thankful that her fellow employees are starting to feel more like family than colleagues, like Crawford, a black man who carefully tries not to overstep any perceived boundaries; the groundskeeper Clive, who is fighting his own demons from the war; and her boarding house friends Frannie and Marty, sisters who amaze the crowds with their spinning plate routine. 

One day, Two's dive goes terribly wrong. She is injured, and strange things begin happening at the park--animals fall ill, people see ghosts on the grounds, and Two receives letters from a secret admirer who might not have good intentions. 

When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky reminds readers that the boundaries between past and present are not as solid as we imagine them to be. Glendale is built on a Native American burial ground, and Two has a ghost from long ago who watches over her. The characters know that they are fortunate to have jobs and relative safety, but they also understand that the white people who come to the park view them as "exotic" or "dangerous," and it would take very little for their carefully constructed worlds to fall down. 

Verble tries to cover a lot of ground in this book, as she focuses on the challenges faced by Native Americans, people of color, and war veterans within the same book. There are moments of tragic reality, and others when it seems perfectly possible that the dead and the living might occupy the same space. At times, it felt like Verble threw in extra historical references for the sake of it, but she truly evokes a specific time and place in this book. When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky is an engaging read and a story unlike any I've encountered before. 

When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky
By Margaret Verble
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt October 2021
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Mini Reviews: Stranger Care and Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger

Sarah and Eric Sentilles make the decision not to have a biological child. Instead, they go through the long and intense process of becoming foster parents. They are thrilled to finally get a call about fostering a baby girl named Coco. The couple welcomes her into their home and makes her a part of their family. And so begins the painful process of getting to know and love a child who was, as Sarah points out, "never ours, yet we belong to each other." 

Stranger Care is a difficult, but important, read. Sentilles is honest about the roller coaster of emotions that she experienced as she came to love this child while also knowing that Coco would likely be reunified with her family. Is it possible to love a child and prepare to let them go at the same time? Sarah and Eric bond with Coco's mother Evelyn and cheer her on as she tries to overcome a drug addiction and find a steady job. In other moments, they quietly hope that Evelyn will fail so they can keep the little girl who has captured their hearts. Stranger Care is an unflinching look at the complications of our foster care system, the lack of staff and resources to care for these children, and the uneasy compromises that biological and foster parents make as they try to do what is best for a child they love. 

Stranger Care
A Memoir of Loving What Isn't Ours
By Sarah Sentilles 
Random House May 2021
400 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Lisa Donovan went from waiting tables in a small-town Italian restaurant to working as a pastry chef with some of the most influential American chefs. Her journey there was not an easy one--she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, leaves an abusive boyfriend, and works in kitchens that won't pay her fairly and would rather not have women there at all. Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger is the story of Donovan's realization that professional kitchens are often toxic and unsustainable, and her decision to strike out on her own and find a way to be recognized (and make a living) making good food with good people. 

Donovan is a particular kind of narrator--she's angry and belligerent. And she should be; she has faced incredible challenges in her professional and personal life. Perhaps because the experiences were so difficult, Donovan jumps all over the timeline and often spends more time ruminating about her trauma and pulling herself up to the next thing than actually remembering her time baking. This book is a little bit baking memoir, a lot of angry feminist realization, and a whole lot of working hard until you find a place that feels like yours. 

Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger
By Lisa Donovan
Penguin Press August 2020
304 pages
Read via Netgalley