Book Review: My Life as a Rhombus

My mouth dropped open, and suddenly, I knew.  Unfortunately for Sarah, everything now made sense.

I checked out My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson two other times from the library before actually reading it this go around. Third time is the charm? I don’t know why I held off on reading it for so long; it’s about teen pregnancy, one of my favorite topics to read about, second only to female friendship.  Bonus!  This book has both of those things.

What I Liked

– As mentioned, I am supremely interested in portrayals of teen pregnancy and parenthood, and this book delivered by presenting more than one point of view on the subject.

– I love the main character, Rhonda.  I also enjoyed her friendship with Sarah.  It felt very genuine and logical that these two would become friends.

– The tension between Rhonda and her father is also very well-handled.  I could imagine the distance between them. Rhonda’s loneliness at home is portrayed nicely.

– Rhonda’s fear of dating also worked. She closes herself off pretty effectively and chooses to surround herself with people equally closed off (Gail) or awkward (Xavier).

– The characters are all imperfect, which is nice.  Even the love interest, David.  He’s kind of cheesy, but his personality flaws are evident and on the surface.  At first he plays a little too good to be true, but it’s quickly remedied.

– It’s always nice to have a female character who enjoys math.

– The book is super engaging.  I read it in two days because I had to see how everything would shake out.

– This is on the book jacket, but I really do appreciate that the book is not preachy and doesn’t really advocate or condemn teen parenthood.  It’s just a story about some girls who have gotten pregnant and how they feel about/handle it.

What I Didn’t Like

– One of the most important resolutions (between Rhonda and her father) happens offscreen.  I felt completely cheated by this.  Yeah, the romance aspect is nice, but since the biggest issue is really her connection to her father, it would’ve been nice to see that resolved ON THE PAGE, not just hinted at.

– Sarah and David are very affectionate for siblings so close in age.  It didn’t ring true to me.  Of course, I’m an only child so your mileage may very.  Relatedly, Rhonda kisses Sarah on the forehead once, which I have never, ever done with my very best friends that I have known since childhood.  A hug, yes.  An arm around the shoulder, okay.  But a kiss on the forehead to comfort?  Uh, never.  It does tie into Rhonda’s relationship with her father, but…no.

– Oh, the melodrama.  I am a big fan of melodrama!  When I watch One Tree Hill, for example.  And melodrama happens in real life, but all of the melodrama here felt very over the top.  Probably because of…

– A lack of character development.  I know Christopher is Rhonda’s ex, but surely she must have liked SOMETHING about him besides the fact that he paid attention to her.  I mean, yes, that’s reason enough when you’re fifteen (or twenty or thirty or…), but there must have been something else about him besides his hot bod that she liked.  He trusted her enough to talk about his father with her, so there must have been something there.

– Which also leads me to the bad sex portion of the book.  She didn’t like having sex with him AT ALL?  Not once?  REALLY?  Not even making out with him?  Okay.

I do recognize that this may have been a specific narrative choice because Rhonda’s break up experience is so bad that she has rewritten the whole relationship as Not Good, but come on.

– This is probably weird to say about a book on teenage pregnancy, but:  NEEDS MORE SEXY FUN TIMES.  Hot boys and girls populate the book, and there is a serious deficit of making out and sexy fun times!  How did these kids get pregnant?  Hand holding?  I mean, it makes sense for the narrative, but at the end, I was just like, “Man, they could’ve made out A LOT MORE.”

Women Unbound?

This book is chock full of discussions of choice when it comes to pregnancy.

In conclusion:  The theme of the book seems to be:  TUTORING = PREGNANCY.  Which, hey, One Tree Hill taught me the same thing!  So it must be true.

I know it seems like I was hard on the book, but I really did enjoy it.  The girls were great, the conversations about pregnancy were ace, the female friendship was A+, and I was completely into the story.  There were just some sticking points is all.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

POC Challenge:  7/15; YA Reading Challenge:  11/75

Book Review: Backtracked

Freedom, that’s the only thing I asked for.  The freedom to be myself, not the reflection of a memory.

I picked up Backtracked by Pedro de Alcantara because (a) he’s Brazilian and one of my besties is Brazilian, and (b) the jacket flap describes it as the story of a boy who is haunted by his brother’s death on September 11.  Also, the opening line about how Tommy had lived several lives before his birth and didn’t know it intrigued me.

The story is about a boy (Tommy) whose firefighter brother died on September 11, but it’s also a time travel story reminiscent of the movie Brother Future.  Tommy seems destined to stay stuck in time until he can help someone other than himself.  Either that or learn a Very Important Lesson.

What I Liked

– This novel is actually a love letter to the New York Transit system, and I liked some of the descriptions about how the subway has changed over time.

– Since this is largely historical fiction, I liked the moments when Tommy had to orient himself in time.  The descriptions of the other people and their clothing and homes were very interesting.

– It’s an engaging read, mostly because I had to see how Tommy would get back to the future.

What I Didn’t Like

– I didn’t feel one whit engaged with Tommy or his friends or his relationship with his family.

– I thought this book was going to be about Tommy understanding something about himself or his brother, and it wasn’t.

– The ending did not feel earned.

– None of his adventures felt at all connected to the ~*deeper lesson*~.

– Tommy is not Brazilian.  Which, honestly, is fine for the story (Tommy is Italian, which places him in certain situations/places in the past), but I was expecting him to be because of the author.

– The theme seems to be that Tommy has it so much better than he would if he lived in the past so he should be grateful, but, um, that does nothing to address the very real pressure he seems to be feeling because of the loss of his brother and the treatment he gets from his family.

In conclusion:  This book does not live up to the premise.  At all.

POC Challenge:  6/15; YA Reading Challenge:  10/75

Book Review: The Skin I’m In

That’s when I made up my mind.  Enough is enough.  I deserve better than for people to treat me any old way they want.  But saying that is one thing, making it happen is something else.

The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake is about Maleeka who is constantly picked on and is just trying to survive middle school.  Then, a new teacher arrives and shakes things up.

What I Liked

– I am a sucker for stories about The Teacher Who Made a Difference, and I really like that Miss Saunders forces Maleeka to want more for herself through the assignment of a journal.  It really works well because Maleeka is very resistant to Miss Saunders, so it never turns into the kind of inspirational drivel you might expect.

– At first, I was annoyed that Maleeka doesn’t stand up for herself, but, like the quote says, it’s easy to want something to change and hard to make it happen.  Especially when you have aligned yourself with one of the school’s biggest bullies like Maleeka has.  Even though she wants to do and be better, it’s hard for her because she reached out to Charlese and now she’s stuck with her.  And is afraid of her.  And values the times that Charlese does stand up for her.

– I really like the themes Flake explores, and she has the culture of middle school pretty down pat.  I remember being picked on for no discernible reason, and that dread of “what will they find to say about me next?” is pretty accurately captured.  And I especially love how well she keys into Maleeka’s need to make herself invisible so much so that Maleeka downplays her intelligence so she doesn’t call extra attention to herself.  At the same time, though, Maleeka can’t hide how capable and smart she is.

– I love the cover.  It’s so striking.

What I Didn’t Like

– The plotting and characterization are a little shoddy.  Mostly, I don’t understand the motivations of the secondary characters, and they’re a little flatter than I’d like.  For example, Charlese is really nice to Maleeka and really horrible to her.  But I don’t understand Charlese at all.  What makes her tick?  Even if the niceness is conditional on Maleeka doing her homework, would she really be so nice as to give her clothes to wear?  And why?  I just don’t get it.  (I do understand why she’s a bully; I just don’t particularly understand her attitude towards Maleeka.)

The same can be said of Caleb.  He’s introduced relatively late in the novel, but it’s not revealed until much later that he’s some sort of do-gooder.  And, I’ll be honest, he is kind of cheesy.  I found it hard to imagine some of the things he said coming from any of the boys I knew in middle school.  That said, if it had been established earlier that that’s the kind of kid he is, I would’ve bought it more readily.

– I wanted more of Maleeka’s relationship with Sweets.  They’re best friends, but there’s no real sense of that in the story.

– I wish the book were a little clearer that the way Maleeka looks and dresses isn’t really the issue (it’s touched on), but that she’s such an easy target.  It’s obvious she craves her classmates’ acceptance, but if she had just realized that she can’t win for losing with those jokers and been okay with that, they would’ve left her alone.  There was no real moment of realization there, which makes complete and total sense, but I just wish that someone had pointed it out.  Obviously, that’s not the book Flake wrote or the main theme she wanted to explore (it’s more of a “do the right thing/be true to yourself/middle school sucks” deal), but still.  I just wish it had been explicitly stated somewhere.

– Basically, I felt like the book could’ve been about fifty or so pages longer.

In conclusion:  That said, I think this would be awesome for reluctant readers, probably because a lot of them would be able to strongly identify with Maleeka’s position in the school and her sense of alienation.  Maleeka’s need to belong as well as the choices she  makes because of that need make complete sense.  She is completely relatable even as I wanted to shake some sense into her.  I understood her, so in a lot of ways, the inconsistencies in the other characters didn’t really matter that much.

POC Challenge:  5/15; YA Reading Challenge:  9/75

Book Review: The Eternal Smile

In three very different stories, master storytellers Gene Yang and Derek Kirk Kim pit fantasy against reality, for good or for ill.  Subtle, surprising, and entirely entertaining.  The Eternal Smile delves into our dreams, and the unexpected places they lead.

That’s from the inside flap of The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim.  It’s a short story collection in graphic novel format, and, as the description says, all three are about how fantasy affects reality and vice versa.  The three stories are “Duncan’s Kingdom,” “The Eternal Smile,” and “Urgent Request.”

What I Liked

– If I had to pick a favorite story, it would probably be “Urgent Request.”  The artwork is amazing, and the storyline is quietly affecting from beginning to end.  Janet is empowered by her online experience, even though we know from the beginning that she’s responding to a scam (it’s the Nigerian prince dealio).  It just went in an interesting and unexpected direction.

– The twists of all three stories are pretty ace.  That moment when it’s clear what they’re doing and what the message is just really hit it.  All three got me right in the gut, they were so heartbreaking.

– I like that all three have different things to say about how reality and fantasy go together.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not.  But it’s not all good or all bad or any extreme really.

What I Didn’t Like

– The drawings in “Duncan’s Kingdom” and “The Eternal Smile” are kind of garish, but they make sense in the story.  For both, though, it wasn’t until the end that it became clear why they were drawn the way they were.

– I didn’t really connect with the narratives (except for “Urgent Request”).  I appreciate them as art, and I liked the endings, but I was just reading to see what would happen without really caring about the characters.

In conclusion:  It’s a fast read, and the endings pack a wallop, but I’d probably only really call one out of the three stories a good story that I would want other people to read.

POC Challenge:  4/15; YA Reading Challenge 8/75

Book Review: The Complete Persepolis

Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.  As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth.  This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me.  I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.  I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.

That’s from the introduction of The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic novel that chronicles her coming of age as a young woman in Iran, Europe, and Iran again.

– I have to say, the graphic novel format really suits this work.  It’s in black and white, and the graphics are relatively simple (or maybe deceptively simple), which makes the people and their attitudes the real stars of the story.

– I love, love adolescent Marji.  She’s just such a kid, trying to understand the world the best way she knows how.  She wants to be a prophet, she plays martyr and torture, and she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself.  She is just adorable.

– I also love young adult Marji, but in a different way.  She, too, is trying to find her place in the world, but that story is more heartbreaking because she has to leave home to be safe and then she’s a stranger in a strange land once she gets to Austria, and then she’s a stranger in her homeland when she goes back to Iran after being in Austria.

– I also love her parents and her grandma (love her grandma!) and just…all of the characters/people are very fully drawn, and their motivations are clear.  It’s just wonderful characterization all around.

I just really enjoys books like this and Anne Frank because, honestly, it just shows how similar all of our experiences are, even when they’re vastly different.  War torn countries aside, both stories are about girls becoming young women and so much of that experience is universal.

Sometimes it is hard to really like a book because there is nothing to say except “I like it!  It’s awesome!  Read it!”  But, you know, I like it.  It’s awesome.  Read it!

Women Unbound:  4/8; POC Challenge 3/15

Book Review: Dust Tracks on a Road

So you will have to know something about the time and place where I come from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life.

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston is another book I chose specifically for the Women Unbound challenge.  I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in undergrad and some of her literary criticism in my lit theory classes, so I thought it befitting to read about her life in her own words.

This book was a lot of fun to read.  Unlike Angela Davis, Hurston is a novelist as well as a folklorist, so her autobiography is alive with characters and settings.  The first half or so is told chronologically and the second half includes her musings on her friends, religion, race, and reading.  Even though the second half is not story-like in its narration, it’s still an easy and relatively fast read because it’s easy to hear Hurston’s voice and imagine you’re just sitting down for a chat and she’s telling you what she thinks.

The version of the book I read has a foreword by Maya Angelou and an afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In the foreword, Angelou calls the book “puzzling” because, although the book was written 1940-1941, there are no mentions of unpleasant racial incidents and that the nicest people Hurston encountered were whites–one of whom cautioned her not to be a “nigger,” which Hurston notes does not mean race, but a contemptible person of any race.  Angelou wonders who the audience for the book is.  At the end, to sandwich it, Gates says that Hurston gives an account of a “writer’s life, rather than an account, as she says, of ‘the Negro problem'” because so much of the book is focused on her sources of language (294).  I only point it out because I find it fascinating to think about how to read the book, especially since race is certainly not absent in the book.  In fact, there’s a part where the men in Hurston’s town are pretty sure someone’s been lynched, though she doesn’t use that word.  What Hurston does, and pretty masterfully, I think is make this point:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole.  God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them.  I learned that skins were no measure of what was inside people.

and also

I have no race prejudice of any kind.  My kinfolks, and my “skinfolks” are dearly loved.  My own circumference of everyday life is there.  But I see their same virtues and vices everywhere I look.

She shows most of her experiences as a young girl and young woman living in a world where people don’t ignore her race but she is not treated horribly because of it.  It makes sense that she would write the book this way.  Part of what incensed some of her contemporaries about her was her refusal to act differently around whites and her insistence on being fully herself.  No citation for that, but my professor told me so it must be true!  (It’s also mentioned in the afterword.)

In the latter half, she slams local politics, the way people relate to race.  She talks about love.  I found a lot of her conclusions interesting, mostly because she reminds me a lot of the character Temperance Brennan on Bones.  So, to that end, maybe it’s an anthropology thing?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I found her critiques of government and religion fascinating.  Which makes sense since she’s fascinating.  I also think the appendix and the section on race are brilliant satire.  I almost didn’t read the appendix because I thought it was just repeating what was in the text, but the appendix shows different versions of some of the chapters.  So the appendix offers a more complete picture.

There is some (a lot!) of narrative distance here.  The writing is personally impersonal or impersonally personal in a lot of ways.  I do understand Hurston as a writer, but I was disappointed that she skimmed over her time doing research and her experiences when she won the Guggenheim, etc., but it may be because she felt her contemporaries were familiar enough with her work.

What the book did do is make me want to go back and read some of her literary criticism.  While she makes a case for individualism, she obviously supports honest and authentic portrayals of culture as evidenced in her writing, and so I want to go back and read what she says about writing outside of the autobiography.

Women Unbound: 3/8; POC Challenge:  2/15

Book Review: Tangled

Luscious, I thought.  That’s what I’ll be.  Not perfect.  Not flawless.  Luscious.

Tangled by Carolyn Mackler is the story of four teens and what happens after they take a trip to the Paradise resort in the Caribbean.

What I Liked

– The form.  The story takes place over four months, starting in April, and each month is narrated by a different character.  I certainly wasn’t expecting that, and after the first switch in narrator, it was fine.  Because such a huge chunk of the time is devoted to each character, there’s no real adjustment period aside from that first, “Oh, okay, so we’re with Dakota now.  Got it.”  It’s a very interesting choice, and it works so well because even though we leave a character, we still find out what’s going on with the other characters, so it’s not like they’re being left in the dust.  Part of the fun of the novel was seeing how/where/why they would show up again and how we’d get those nuggets of information about them.

– The characters.  They’re not all likable, but Mackler does this thing where they are all understandable!  And then they all transform in really believable and organic ways.  And I love the way she shows that the way they see themselves is not the way that other people see them or that the way other people see them is not the way they see themselves.  But sometimes it is!  For example, there’s this awesome disconnect between how Jena sees herself [chubby, too talkative] and how Skye sees Jena [cute, bubbly, effortlessly friendly].  Just proof that we are our own worst critics.

If I had to pick a favorite, it’d probably be Jena because she says in her narrative, unironically:

I’m obsessed with quotes.  You name the person–Albert Einstein (smart), Toni Morrison (very smart), Nicholas Sparks (pure genius)–and I’ve got one of their sayings.

Nicholas Sparks = pure genius.  Which, if you’re a sixteen-year-old romantic, he would be.  So I thought she rang very true, and I loved her attitude about life.  (She’s the one who has the breakout quote up there about being luscious.)

– The plot.  This is more of a character study, but there is a plot underneath it all.  So if you take the form and the characters together you get this plot about transformation and being true to yourself and being your best self.  It’s pretty subtle, but kind of amazing.

What I Didn’t Like

I didn’t dislike anything!  If anything, I just wish it could’ve been longer and we could’ve spent more time with each character, but I think it does what it needs to do without more than that.  I just enjoyed reading about the characters.

In conclusion:  Immensely readable (I read it in one sitting) and a great character study.  This should have been my light read following the WWII stuff (even though there is some heavy stuff in here) because it was such an easy read.  I really enjoy Mackler because she is rarely, if ever, predictable, and this book is no exception.  I honestly had no idea where the story was going, even with the one thing I did figure out early in the story.

YA Reading Challenge:  7/75