Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#BookReview: THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE by Lisa See

Summary: Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

Review: Someone once asked after watching Jeopardy with me why do I know such random things. My answer was that I loved to read. More than that, I love reading and learning new things, so Lisa See's latest was right on time. Coffee is too strong for my palate, but I love good tea. After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, I know that what I'm drinking these days doesn't even begin to compare with what's found in the mountains of China.

I typically appreciate the care See takes with her major and minor characters, their surroundings and their story lines. I loved the way she delved into Li-yan's story from her time in the remote mountains to her adventure to the big city. Her rise and fall are written about in great detail so I found it easy to invest in her character.

On the other side of the coin was Haley, the daughter Li-yan gave up for adoption. I never really got into her story and found it to be a bit of a distraction from what I considered the real story, Li-yan's journey. Perhaps it was her Americanized life, but it never quite clicked for me.

Regardless, there is much to be learned from all of Lisa See's books and The Tea Girl is no exception. It's an engrossing story that had me sucked in from the beginning and stayed with me well after I finished reading it. Fans and newcomers to See's writing will certainly enjoy it.

384 p.
Published: March 2017
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher; opinions are my own.



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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

#BookReview: TADUNO'S SONG by Odafe Atogun

Summary: The day a stained brown envelope is delivered from Taduno’s homeland, he knows that the time has come to return from exile. Arriving full of hope, the musician discovers that his people no longer recognize him, and no one recalls his voice. His girlfriend, Lela, has disappeared, abducted by government agents. Taduno wanders through his house in search of clues, but all traces of his old life have been erased. As he becomes aware that all that is left of himself is an emptiness, Taduno finds new purpose: to unravel the mystery of his lost life and to find his lost love. But soon he must face a difficult decision: to fight the power or save his woman, to sing for love or for his people.

Review: In the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus, son of Apollo, plays the lyre and is an amazing singer. No man nor beast could resist his tunes, even inanimate objects swooned at the sound of his music. Orpheus falls for Eurydice, the Beyonce of their crew, right? And the two are married, but nothing good lasts forever. While trying to run from a man that's pursuing her in the forest one day, Eurydice gets bitten by a snake and dies instantly. Orpheus' happy tunes turned to grief and the world mourned with him until Apollo suggested he go to Hades and visit his beloved. Orpheus played his lyre so well that he even melted Hades' cold heart. In a stunning display of goodwill, Hades tells Orpheus he wsill allow Eurydice to leave Hades with him but under one condition, he must not turn around to look at her until they were back in the light. Orpheus is giddy! He and his beloved Eurydice will be together again soon, but he stumbles in his faith when he doesn't hear Eurydice's footsteps behind him and turns to make sure she's there. And then she's lost to him forever. She returns to Hades and he can't return to visit her because no one can enter Hades twice while alive.

I tell you that story to put you in the right frame of mind for Taduno's Song. It's a beautifully moving story of Taduno, a popular singer in Nigeria, who has been exiled for three months when he receives a letter from his beloved Lela telling him it's time for him to return home. Taduno has been living in exile because the government declared him and his music enemies of the state. Once the most popular singer in the country, he's all but been forgotten in the few short months that he's been gone. When the government destroyed his music, they destroyed citizens' ability to recognize and remember this man they loved so much, but Lela never forgot him.

Taduno finds himself in a strangely dystopic Nigeria where he knows everyone and no one knows him. However, in order to free Lela from the president who is holding her as prisoner, he'll need to remind the people of Nigeria, as well as her captors, of who he is. And like Orpheus, he's put to a test to secure her release and forced to make decisions that he can't and won't take lightly.

I wasn't sure of what to expect when I picked up Taduno's Song but I have to tell you that I loved it. It's a simple, yet powerful story of love. If I were a biblical scholar, I would delve into how Taduno's music reminded me of Jesus and his messages to his followers in his latter days leading up to his crucifixion, but I'm not a scholar and I don't want to make the mistake of thinking I am. Just know that Odafe Atogun packs a lot into this book and it's amazing.

240 p.
Published: March 2017

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

#BookReview: I LEFT MY BACK DOOR OPEN by April Sinclair

Summary: Daphne “Dee Dee” Dupree has arrived at age 41 with a career she loves, but a romantic life she doesn’t. Insecure about her weight and protective of her often-broken heart, Dee Dee is an expert at hiding her inward struggles from the thousands of Chicago residents who hear her on the radio every night. A successful, charismatic DJ for the local blues station, Dee Dee is still looking for the type of love she’s missed since her divorce. After a traumatic event at work, Dee Dee meets Skylar, a union mediator who could be just what she’s looking for—if only there weren’t so many obstacles in their way.

Meanwhile, Dee Dee’s coworker Jade is nearing her own divorce; her best friend, Sharon, has come out of the closet; and Sharon’s teenage daughter is dangerously close to a breakdown. As Dee Dee works to ease the problems of her friends, she finally faces her own troubles—both old and new.

Review: Many of us remember April Sinclair because of her groundbreaking novel, Coffee Will Make You Black, and its sequel, Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, in the mid 90s. While those novels followed Stevie Stevenson, a nerdy teen growing up in the sixties, moving from Chicago to San Francisco at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, discovering her sexuality, free love and all of the "good times" that came with maturing in the seventies, I Left My Back Door Open is a grown woman's story.

Dee Dee Dupree swears she's me! I love a good "smart woman who can't get out of her own way" novel and it's even better when said woman looks like me and is in my age bracket. Dee isn't really looking for love, but she wouldn't be mad if it decided to drop by occasionally. She enjoys good music, good food and the company of friends. See? It me!

April Sinclair is on the top of her game with I Left My Back Door Open. Her characters are smart and funny and diverse. From the black security guard who has renounced his blackness and now claims white people as his own to her best friend who went on sabbatical and came back as a card carrying lesbian; her married best friend with marital problems she willfully ignores; her overly hormonal goddaughter who asks for advice and then does the exact opposite, I Left My Back Door Open is an embarrassment of riches. Dee Dee's romance with Skylar is just the cherry on top.

I only have two regrets: 1) I didn't realize this book existed until last week when I was doing a "where are they now" reflection on authors I loved and 2) there's no sequel. I loved Dee Dee, loved her circle of family and friends and would love to read more of her adventures. It's not likely that Sinclair will pick this character back up anytime soon, but a girl can hope, can't she?

304 p.
Published: April 1999

Friday, March 3, 2017

#BookReview: THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor black neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

Review: Much like Margot, the protagonist in Lilliam Rivera's The Education of Margot Sanchez, Angie Thomas introduces readers to Starr Carter - a teen balancing life in the hood with her private prep school life. And almost coincidentally, Starr's father owns a grocery store, as does Margot's father. And both girls have down to earth and relatable mothers and overbearing, protective brothers. I read THUG first, but knew as soon as I picked up The Education that they would pair well because black and brown girls have similar struggles.

Unlike Margot, Starr is sure of herself at school; she fits into that world. But back home in Garden Heights where everyone knows her as "Big Mav's daughter who works in the store," things are a little more difficult. She's not bougie, she just doesn't quite fit. She has a complicated relationship with Kenya, her brother's sister, but still finds herself at a party with her even though it's not her typical scene. Starr has been sheltered, and the party is a little more hood than she's used to. But running into her childhood friend, Khalil, makes it all worth while.

Khalil and Starr have a bond that goes back to when they were much younger and innocent. At one point, Khalil, Starr and Natasha were like the three musketeers. Now Starr is the remaining musketeer.

There's a lot to unpack as The Hate U Give follows Starr's struggle to comprehend how things went so wrong on the ride home from the party. If she says nothing when she hears her friends and classmates glossing over the latest "thug" to get killed by police, is she doing Khalil a disservice by not speaking up for him? Kenya calls her out for not speaking out on his behalf, but doing so could have repercussions for her family. There's a lot of pressure on Starr and she carries a lot of weight on her shoulders, much more than any child should have to.

Angie Thomas is doing important work with THUG. It's rare that the voices of those that love the deceased are heard. When the Mike Browns, Trayvon Martins and Tamir Rices of the world are killed, the narrative we hear in the media is rarely the complete story and can, at times, be biased toward the killer instead of the victim. So it was refreshing to see Starr step up in a Rachel Jeantel kind of way and tell the world who Khalil was.

In giving THUG to the world, Thomas dares readers to rethink how these victims are portrayed; and not just the victims but their loved ones and people protesting in the streets. I can't express enough how impactful I think this story is. I'd go so far to say that it should be required reading in schools, particularly those that are predominantly white or where the view people of color is through a filtered lens. It's important that people remember that victims of police killings are still human. Someone, somewhere loved them. They are someone's child, someone's sibling, someone's friend.

464 p.
Published: February 2017
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher; opinions are my own.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

#BookReview: THE EDUCATION OF MARGOT SANCHEZ by Lilliam Rivera

Summary: Things/People Margot Hates:
Mami, for destroying her social life
Papi, for allowing Junior to become a Neanderthal
Junior, for becoming a Neanderthal
The supermarket
Everyone else

After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts.

With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…

Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

Review: It's hard to fit in when you're other, and by other I mean, not white in a predominantly white space. Been there, done that all through grade school and high school when I cared about fitting in and being accepted by others. So I empathize with Margot because it's hard to be the odd woman out and it's even more difficult when you want to be in the in crowd. Did I steal my parent's credit card trying to be about that life? Nope, because I'm not crazy, but I totally understand where Margot is coming from.

Margot's day bridge two worlds, private prep school and the Bronx, oh but the nice part of the Bronx (Riverdale), as she keeps telling herself and her classmates. And I get that. Growing up in East St. Louis, I remember telling classmates in the neighboring white town that I lived in Edgemont, which was technically East St. Louis, but the nice part, right? Because admitting that you live in a town others looks down on means they might look down on you and you have to fit in, but God is it exhausting.

While her two besties, Serena and Camille, are the typical mean girls group, they're also the it girls of the school, but they're boring in comparison to what awaits Margot in the Bronx. I enjoyed Margot's family, friends and coworkers at home. Her overbearing father, her overprotective but slightly shady btother, the cashieristas that can't stand "Princesa," her quirky best friend, Elizabeth, her easy going mom and Moises. They're loud and real, something Margot doesn't appreciate, but she's just taking cues from her father who told her to find the important kids at school and fit in with them. In doing so, she's forgotten the world she came from and her experiences over the summer quickly remind her.

There's so much to love about this book. Rivera touches on gentrification and its effects on urban areas, neighborhood gardens, underage drinking, family secrets, new relationships, old relationships, family dynamics, and more. Whew! It's a lot. But Rivera does it well. Margot's story moves at a study pace and at no time was I ever bored by it or the characters. There were a few surprises along the way, but I really felt that Margot was in a much better place than she started by the end of the book. While The Education of Margot Sanchez is considered YA, I had no problems enjoying it as an adult and encourage fellow readers to pick it up and give it a read. Also, I'd definitely read a sequel should Rivera decide to continue Margot's journey, perhaps to college? Just throwing that out there.


304 p.
Published: February 2017