Monday, 16 April 2018

A Review of American Panda

American Panda is a novel by Gloria Chao. Mei Lu is a seventeen-year-old starting premed at MIT, since skipping forth grade. She's trying to follow her (parents') dream of her being a doctor, contend with her own phobia of germs, and work in her own love of dance. When she starts having feelings for her classmate Darren Takahashi, and get back in touch with her estranged older brother, will she be able to stand up to her family when it matters most?

I loved it! I went through quite a bit of East Asian and immigrant literature when I was younger, and this can hold it's own with the best of them. And, there is good amounts of food. Not only are food descriptions just fun to read, they help draw you deeper into the world of a book and someone else's shoes.

I love that Mei's relationship with her family, while not solved by the end of the book, get better once she and her mother have a real conversation. From the early part of the book, she and her mother seemed to have a good relationship when it wasn't falling into some standard Asian parenting patterns. This style of parenting is discussed, and deconstructed, quite thoroughly within the book.

Also, there's a lot of girls supporting girls in this book! Mei stands up for her mother against her Aunt and Grandmother, gets on well with her roommate in the end, and discusses her family with Ying-na. I would have actually liked to see more of Helen, Mei's friend from school. She's only in briefly, though.

I also liked how Mei, while not feeling suited to being a doctor, also wasn't uninterested in science. Biology bored her, but she did pick up scientific facts over time, and she did like maths.  I also liked the solution to her dream. She was still doing her dancing on the side and wanting to open her own studio, with her MIT degree as a back-up. I think it is important for people to understand that a back-up plan isn't always a bad idea.

During the early part of the books, Mei gets an itch down below. How many times have you seen this issue discussed in books? Not many? I certainly haven't. This is what I needed when it first happened to me. The causes of something like this are hugely varied - Mei's was caused by her jeans. I needed to actually let someone take a look and not buy over-the-counter thrush creams in the hope they would work, because I was too shy to let someone see.

One of the later parts of the book has Mei going to a comedy club. Stand-up comedy, like music, is one of those things that is hard to represent in novels. So much of it relies on the atmosphere, and listening to the person speaking and their tone of voice. But in this case, I could imagine myself sitting in the club, listening to Ying-na. Her jokes are very, very well-written. Some may have gone over my head, but surely that's all the more reason for someone like me to watch her perform, so that I'd learn something.

I would recommend this book to people who like a cute, fluffy read with a little depth to it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

A Review of A Thousand Perfect Notes

A Thousand Perfect Notes is a debut novel by C.G. Drews, who reviews books over on Paper Fury. Beck Keverich is forced to play the piano by his mother for hours a day. It effects his schoolwork and his social life. He's terrified of her, and scared for his little sister, Joey. When he gets partnered with August Frey for a school project, all he wants is for her to leave him alone. Will she manage to break through and get to know the real Beck Keverich?

Received an ARC for Kindle through Netgalley from Hatchette Children's Group. As this is an ARC, I'd like to recommend that the final version contains some sort of warning for child abuse and thoughts of self-harm.

My reading certainly has some odd patterns. This is the third book with a musically inclined teen with strict parents that I've read this year.

Drews has been a book blogger and reviewer for a long time, and I think that shows in her writing. Reviewing encourages you to think critically about the media you consume. However, it is still a debut novel, and I think there are places where she can improve. This isn't a bad thing - if no-one improved, if we all remained at the same level, they would be no motivation to try and get better.

I liked how Beck still enjoyed music and wanted to compose, despite his understandable dislike of the piano. I think he'd have been quite justified in throwing it all to the side. Joey is precious and I want to protect her. I was surprised her pre-school didn't raise concerns of an abusive household. Uninterested parents and unusual violent behaviour are things we look for. It is easy to write August off as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and on the surface, she is. She's the catalyst for Beck to change his life, and does quirky things such as going barefoot. But that discounts August's motivations, wanting to be with Beck because she liked his personality, and needing good grades for her future plans. I also think this discounts Beck's own development. I think he would have stood up to his mother at the end no matter what, as she had begun to turn her anger to Joey.

Books based on music are always tricky for me, since I have basically no ear for it. Also, it is one of those things that's hard to show in books. We can't actually hear someone play, so we have to rely on what we are told about a character's talent. It can hit show-don't-tell for me, because I want to see it.

Abusive parents have been an odd subject to me. Since my mother passed away from stroke, I haven't wanted to seek books out with them as a subject. I've preferred to read books where familial relationships are, if not always sunshine and rainbows, ones that can be solved with a good talk. This is not that book. This is the book where everything is not going to be okay, where leaving is the only option. And Beck's mother had a stroke, in the backstory. Just... I hate everything about stroke, okay?

Spoilers: I did like how Beck managed to get himself and Joey away from his mother. Sometimes, that's the only solution, and I would like to see more YA books normalising this outcome, saying that it is okay to leave abusive family members.

Reading on a Kindle was a new experience for me. Please don't take this as anything against the book, but a personal musing on myself. I'm a very sensory person. I like to be able to feel pages under my fingers and the book physically getting smaller. I like to be able to flick back to a cover and run my fingers over different textures on the front. This helps me keep my attention on the book. I was reading it in short little bursts, too.

I would recommend this book to people who enjoy music, piano or composing.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A Review of The Lucy Variations

The Lucy Variations is a book by Sara Zarr. Lucy Beck-Moreau, a gifted pianist, was a bright young thing in the world of music. However, after being lied to about her Grandmother's illness before a performance, she walks away. Her strict Grandfather lets her know that in his eyes, she has quit for good. When her brother's long time piano teacher dies, a new person, Will, takes her place. Will wants to let Lucy rediscover what she always loved about playing.

I can pretty much divide my thoughts about this book into The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good:
Family relationships that are rocky but still work! I loved Lucy's relationship with her Grandfather and how they eventually talked it through to make it work.

With any skill you do for others, whether that is something professional like piano, amateur baking or even something just for fun like this blog, it's easy to fall into the trap of doing it for someone else. Writing what you know someone else would like, playing someones favourite songs to appeal to them or baking their favourite cake. While this is often a nice thing to do, you have to watch that you don't lose what makes it fun for you in the process.

I also liked the side that was Lucy having been out of school for a while for her piano tours having to adjust to being on a schedule. Like it can be a huge jump for teenagers going from having a lot of freedom to being more restricted. I know when I started back at school after the summer, it was a bit of a shock. And the opposite is also true! School does not do enough to prepare you to work independently in places where you have to manage your time yourself, such as college or university.

The Bad:
Lucy's personality? Like I'm a firm believer that female characters don't need to be perfect, they just need to be people. But she was so self-centred at times that it was hard to take. This may or may not be a bad point, but apart from her music, she really didn't have much of a personality.

A girl fight that was over literally nothing. Lucy asks her best friend to accompany her to a party that she knows she won't enjoy. Lucy's best friend complains because Lucy was ignoring her to flirt with her music teacher, and leaves her without a ride.

The Ugly:
Lucy has a tendency to crush on older men. Especially her teachers. The narrative presents this as a natural extension of Lucy having grown up fast and dealing with adults a lot. And her teachers do nothing to discourage it, especially Will, who's married. I wish it had been presented negatively, or at least Lucy had discussed it with an adult in her life, like her parents.

Oh, and stroke. I hate it.

It's a shame that a book with a lot going for it was dragged down so much by the last point. I really don't like thinking that teenagers may get the idea that this is appropriate behaviour from adults in their life. I might give it a tentative recommendation to people who can see how unacceptable Will's is.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Birthday Book Haul!

So the end of March is another point where I tend to pick up many books at once, with the whole it being my birthday thing and all. I picked up 21 books in all. Here's a list of all the books I've bought, and why I chose them to add them to my shelves*

* shelves: a loosely defined term including: shoved on top of other books on shelves, piles on the floor and in boxes under my bed.


The first four are books I bought with my birthday money.
1. Renegades by Marissa Meyer: I really liked The Lunar Chronicles and also enjoyed Heartless by Meyer, so I thought it would be worth it to give this one a shot.
2. Kingdom of Sleep by E K Johnson: I enjoyed One Thousand Nights by this author, and I love fairy tale retellings.
3. I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson: I've heard lots of good things about this book, and Jandy Nelson in general. This will be my first book by her, so I hope I enjoy it.
4. The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven: I've heard this is a funny book with feminist themes which takes a good look at how women are treated by society.

The next eight are the books I asked for as birthday presents.
5, 6 & 7. Rebel of the Sands, Traitor to the Throne and Hero at the Fall by Alwyn Hamilton: One of the things I like to do if I get the chance to buy many books at once is buy a series. I hate it when I reach the end of one book and have to search in shops for the next one. And is it me or do they never have it when you're looking for it?
8, 9 & 10. Am I Normal Yet, How Hard Can Love Be and What's a Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne: Bourne's books are known for their positive portrayal of feminism, female friendships and dealing with mental illness.
11. Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner: I really enjoyed the first two books in the Starbound trilogy, and it's proved next to impossible to get hold of over here.
12. American Panda by Gloria Chao: I've had my eye on this one for a while. I read quite a lot of East Asian literature in my teens, and the cover has looked so adorable. One of the best things about reading is getting to learn about experiences that aren't our own.

The next three are the ones I bought while in London.
13. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This is my special, collector's edition that is signed by Angie Thomas. I'm planning to reread this book using this edition, but I've got lots on my TBR pile first!
14. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao: This book is an East Asian fantasy, a fairy tale retelling and a villain origin story? Sign me up. I picked this one up as I haven't been able to find it near me.
15. It's Not Like it's a Secret by Misa Sugiura: One of the things I wanted to try this year was reading more book with characters that are LBGT in them. And I'm hopeful that this one may include some Japanese cultural references, too.

These last six are books I bought with a gift card from work.
16. Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey: This is the third book in The Expanse series, a Sci-Fi epic reminiscent of Firefly and Mass Effect. At least one other friend of mine is into this series, too, and we've both really enjoyed it.
17. When We Collided by Emery Lord: I've loved all other Emery Lord books that I've read. It was a pretty natural choice to buy this one.
18. The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: This one was a pure cover buy. But look at it, can you blame me?
19. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume: You may be aware that I've already read and enjoyed this one. But it's such a well-known book that I knew I had to give it a try.
20. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: I tried to read Never Let Me Go in my teens, but I didn't get into it at that age. I wanted to give Ishiguro another try, and this book seems relatively slim, so it felt like a good choice for getting used to the writing style.
21. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black: I've heard a lot of good things about Holly Black lately, and I read a good review of this book specifically back when it first came out. I felt this might be a good one to start with as it's a standalone, before looking into her longer series.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A Review of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is a book by Judy Blume, first published in 1970. Margaret Simon is just about to start sixth grade, and has moved from New York to New Jersey. She quickly fits into a group with Nancy, Janie and Gretchen. Over the book, Margaret deals with some of the ordeals that come with being eleven, and growing up. She also starts to question her religion as she struggles to understand if she fits into one, not being raised as part of any one in particular.

The reason why I felt like a forty-eight-year-old book needed a review is to establish if a forty-eight-year-old book can still be relevant, relatable and worth reading in today's society. TLDR: yes, it can. If teachers are still expecting young people to find Shakespeare interesting, this one definitely should still be in every middle-school library around the world. Also: yes, Shakespeare is interesting, but I think teachers could do a little more to make it enjoyable to study, but that's another post. Anyway, back to my original point - learning about other people's experiences is one of the most important things about reading, so why shouldn't children read about how people dealt with these issues back then? And many, many, many of Margaret's anxieties are those shared almost universally by girls of a certain age. Her struggle with religion is a big one that is possibly more relevant today, and I'd love to know if children from interfaith religions can relate.

(I think my edition may have been edited slightly - when the girls have their periods, the only thing they are mentioned as using with them are pads. I think this is okay, as it really does give the book a timeless feel. The lack of mention and emphasis on technology can feel odd, but it also helps it feel less dated.)

I've been on a mission to find MG and YA books that deal with religion in a positive way. The use of the word God in the title may put some people off. However, I'm atheist and I definitely didn't find it too heavy-handed. Religion actually isn't a big feature in this book. Margaret is part of a mixed-faith Jewish and Christian family, and so they didn't raise her as part of either faith exactly. She uses God to tell her troubles to, rather like an imaginary friend, a diary, or well, praying.

It is very much middle-grade. It deals with problems that people have in that weird just-before-teenage period, and Margaret and her friends are in sixth grade. I'm way, way outside the target audience, and it's one of those books that I think you had to be the right age to read. I have no nostalgia for this particular book, and it didn't give me that funny ha-ha, remember those silly preteen anxieties feeling, either. To be honest, all it reminded me of was how trivial my issues at that age seemed.

There's also an actual girl club/gang which is amazing. Janie and Margaret have a really nice blossoming friendship, Nancy does do some awful things but then again she is twelve, and Gretchen rounds them out nicely. Great for children to see a supportive female friendships discussing their anxieties, especially around periods. If people don't discuss these things, how will they know if their experience is unusual? Margaret and her friends to some realistic preteen things, such as lying to fit in and slut-shaming another girl. However, you should read until the end to find out about that.

Margaret would be almost 60, and possibly a Grandmother herself. In the book, she's eleven. Boys are starting to become an issue, and while I know this is realistic, I just wanted to tell her don't worry about them, just enjoy being eleven! Refreshingly for this age, there's no romance, just crushes. Same with wanting her period, I would much prefer to just not have one. And being desperate for a bra and trying to increase her bust. Why are we always in such a hurry to grow up? Honestly, being an adult can suck at times.

Sometimes, you never understand how much tiny representations can matter until you read them. Margaret is an only child, and she likes it. She's not constantly wanting a sibling or talking about how it might have made her spoilt. It's mentioned once in the entire book! This is really small representation overall, but it made me feel validated.

I recommend this book to preteens who want to find out more about their bodies. Actually, it's more comprehensive than the sex education I received in school!

Sunday, 25 March 2018

London 24/3/18 - Bookish Things - Meeting Angie Thomas and the Charles Dickens Museum

Since my birthday is the 25th March, I decided to treat myself to a day in London on the Saturday before. Angie Thomas, the author of The Hate U Give, was giving a talk and a book signing, so I had to go to that, and I decided to make a bookish themed day of it. So I also popped to the Charles Dickens Museum, and into the huge four floor Foyles on Charing Cross Road. I also found some nice things to eat during the day. What made this day different is that I was entirely on my own!

Under a cut for all the pictures!

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

A Review of Things A Bright Girl Can Do

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a book by Sally Nicholls. Evelyn Collis, May Thornton and Nell Swancott are three very different girls who all get caught up in the women's suffrage movement in some way. However, the Great War looms in the 1910's, and women find themselves working jobs that used to be the sole realm of men. Between working, studying, peace movements and romance, campaigning for the vote falls by the wayside.

The women's suffrage movement didn't take up as much of this book as I thought - more of it deals with the First World War and the effects it had on women's rights and families in Britain. It's still a very good look at the lives of young women in the mid-1910's.

Evelyn is rich and wants to go to university. She's also ignorant of world events, a lot of which comes from her being forbidden from reading papers. Her interest in the women's suffrage movement seems to come more from a place of annoying her parents. However, she ends up the one most involved with the Suffragettes over the course of the story, actually going to jail and through hunger strike. May means well, but she is brash and speaks without thinking. Being raised by her mother in a house of modern ideals and non-violent activism, her views are different from others of her time. This contrasts and makes her clash with Nell, a working class girl, who does what she must to keep her family alive. It's also nice to see positive relationships between men and women in a book about women's suffrage.

This book looks at the intersection between the suffrage movement and class, and points out that at the time women were fighting, not even men's suffrage was universal. It also looks at LBGT issues, but not linked so much into the movement. May and Nell begin a relationship, and Nell could be trans, although they lack the vocabulary to describe it properly. This does lead to what we'd consider misgendering and deadnaming with a minor character.

Historical fiction can sometimes seem slow, by necessity, as it required so many details. However, the chapters here are short, and that helps keep the pacing up. I would have liked to have seen Evelyn interact a little more with May and Nell. I would have also liked to see more on the intersection of race with the women's suffrage movement.

I would recommend this book to people with an interest in the Suffragette movement and those who want to read historical fiction but aren't sure where to start.