Bindi Babes by Narinder Dhami (2004)

Everyone loves us. The teachers like us because we work hard, and we’re clever, polite and helpful. The other kids like us because we’re pretty and popular and funny and smart. They even have a name for us. The Bindi Babes. No one’s got more designer labels than we have. We’ve got everything we could ever want. Almost everything.

Remember what I said before? If people envy you, they’re not pitying you. If people envy you, they’re not looking at you and remembering what happened to your mum.

Our mum died.

It happens.

I think this quote sums up the book better than I ever could. The “us” in question are Amber, Jazz, and Geena, three Indian sisters living in England. The girls get everything they want from their dad because their mom has recently passed away, and not only that, but they’ve convinced themselves (as well as everyone around them) that they’re fine, just fine, and nothing at all bothers them. They are loved by all, worshipped by boys, and even have a pesky friend underfoot.

Everything is wonderful! Until their father announces that their Auntie is coming to live with them. They plot mightily to get her to leave and the cracks start to show. The story is funny and sweet while delving into some pretty serious issues: grief, racism, domestic violence. Mostly, though, the book is concerned with happiness and grief and the lies we tell ourselves to pretend to be the former and not deal with the latter.

That makes the book sound dour, and I promise it isn’t. The girls antics are really funny, and Dhami handles everything with a light touch. It’s great as a beach or light weekend read.

Haters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (2006)

Words cannot express how much I loathe this book. I really cannot stand it. What makes it bad is that while I was reading I kept hoping things would get better or go somewhere interesting, and at the end, I just felt empty. What makes it worse is that the more I think about the book, the less I like it. I hate when that happens. When books make me think, I want it to be because they have done something right, not because they have done so much wrong.

The plot is basic Mean Girls fare. Paski moves from New Mexico to California and falls for the hot guy that is, of course, already going out with the school’s queen bee. She has to deal with fitting in blah blah blah basic stuff you already know.

I thought the book was going to be way more interesting than it turned out to be because there are hints of magical realism in the book. Paski’s grandmother is a psychic and Paski herself talks about her connection with nature and has this amulet that gives her vibes about who to trust and who not to trust. Also, Paski is a mountain biker and her dad is a cartoonist, which gives both of them something I haven’t seen much of in lit before.

It’s really too bad the book sucks so much.

Valdes-Rodriguez tries really hard to get at some fundamental truths. For example:

I smile at them, and they turn away. This is the weak spot in mean girls. They don’t know how to deal when you’re actually nice to them.

The problem is that Paski is never actually really nice to the “mean girls.” There’s nothing in the book whatsoever to show that her niceness unsettles Jessica (the queen bee) or her friends. Paski does befriend one of the girls, but as soon as she does, she drops the one true friend she had.

There are a ton of rushed/unexplained storylines in the story. There’s something going on with the neighbors that’s never fully explained. Paski just “knows” that Chris is awesome and that she should/could love him, but there’s no reason for the reader to think that. She also “knows” that the one not-really mean girl is okay, even though all they do is go shopping together, like, once.

Jessica turns out to be a one-dimensional cartoon villain with no real depth, even as Chris says that there’s more to her than it seems. No, really, there isn’t. At the end, she is cutthroat and ruthless with no real reason to be. It’s unrealistic and takes so much away from the story.

Paski is almost too perfect, even though she does have her moments:

How shallow, I know, but inside every deep, psychic girl, I would bet you there’s a shallow moron just waiting to come out.

Which is one of the reasons I kept reading. There are enough of these moments to make it seem like maybe, just maybe, everything is going somewhere.

Unfortunately, Paski is a bit too much of a Mary Sue. She’s pretty but doesn’t know it, but that’s okay because every other character tells us! (She looks like Rachel Bilson, btw.) She does know she’s a good bike rider, but, of course, she immediately catches on to motocross. She wins over Jessica’s friends and boyfriends, her father becomes rich, her neighbors thinks she’s fantastic, etc. Jessica is the only thorn in her side. However, since she’s an unbelievably flat villain, in the end, she poses no real challenge.

Read it to see how ridiculous it is or skip it to avoid being annoyed at how ridiculous it is. I’d choose the latter.

Love Among the Walnuts by Jean Ferris (2001)

This book is kind of absurd. Basically, Sandy and his parents live a fairytale life, shut off from the outside world. Everything they could possibly want, they have. Sandy is of indeterminate age because his parents stop keeping track of time, and since he has never been to school, it’s impossible to know what grade he should/would be in. You can imagine his surprise when something sinister happens to his parents! It’s really quite unpleasant to say the least. Especially since Sandy has no social/real world skills whatsoever.

Just to give an idea of what kind of life Sandy leads, a quote:

Sandy was dismayed at the number of times he had to say “I don’t know” when she asked him what he thought. He was beginning to wonder if, for all his educational advantages, he actually had ever thought.

So, Sandy is smart as a whip–book smart, just not a good critical thinker or real life participant. The book tries to resolve that tension by involving him with a nurse, Sunny, and the patients at an asylum down the road.

I asked my students to pick quotes they felt were most significant to the book, and one chose the following, which summed up most of the classes feelings on the book:

“What a bunch of balderdash.”

It fits. The students who liked it appreciated that it was fantastical and far removed from real life. It provided a real escape. I appreciated what it was trying to do, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone I know–not even a teen reader.