American Panda by Gloria Chao

Information

Goodreads: American Panda
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

At seventeen, Mei is already a freshman at MIT and planning to study pre-med.  At least, that’s what her parents want.  They have her life all planned out, down to her career and whom she will marry. But, as Mei struggles with her fear of germs and begins to fall in love with an off-limits guy, she starts to wonder if she could have a different life.  If she has the courage to rebel, like the son her parents disowned.

Star Divider

Review

American Panda tells the story of Tawainese-American teenager Mei as she struggles to follow her own path in the face of her family’s disapproval.  Raised from birth to be docile and obedient, Mei understands that her parents expect her to become a doctor and to marry another Tawainese-American doctor.  Her deep-seated fear of germs (which appears to be an unacknowledged mental illness) is no excuse not to be pre-med. And her love for a young Japanese-American?  Well, her mother has plenty to say about the Japanese.  But Mei fears to reveal her passion for dance or her newfound crush because she knows what will happen; she will be disowned like her brother Xing, who had to nerve to fall in love with a girl who might have trouble conceiving. All this gives the readers plenty to think about as Mei navigates young adulthood with her own unique set of difficulties.  And yet, American Panda never really lives up to its promise, due to its uneven pacing and awkwardly inserted characters–characters who appear only to Teach a Lesson or somehow reveal something to or about Mei.

The first half of American Panda is much weaker than the second half, thanks to the presence of characters who do not fit naturally into the story.  There is the roommate who appears solely so she can explain to Mei why, as a result of various historical events, Mei’s family is neither Chinese nor Tawainese.  There is the doctor who just happens to be present at MIT’s health clinic, so Mei can catch a glimpse of her future self: cowed, unhappy, afraid of the patients, and not that great at her job.  There is the girl on the bus who is present so readers can be reassured that Mei, even though raised in a very conservative household, still holds the appropriate progressive political views.  And there is Darren Takahashi, Mei’s instalove hero, present partially so Mei’s mother can explain the historic relationship between the Tawainese and Japanese, and partially to be a supporting presence in Mei’s life; he doesn’t really have a personality and his love for Mei seems unwarranted, but, hey, at least he’s a catalyst for Mei’s future rebellion, right?  None of this storytelling seems natural.  Rather, the characters are shoehorned in to make a point.

The second half of the book is far superior to the first half.  This is the part where Mei finally takes action, experiences the consequences, and has to figure out what she is more willing to sacrifice: her happiness or her relationship with her parents.  There’s plenty of drama and many heartfelt scenes with Mei trying to reconnect with her family and make things right.  She even dares to dream that she could change things for more people than herself.  If the whole book had felt as real and raw, American Panda would be a far more impressive read.

American Panda is notable on the YA market for featuring a Tawainese-American protagonist, and many readers are certainly grateful for its representation.  The construction of the novel is, however, somewhat lacking, with the first half being slower paced with characters inserted, not because they feel like a natural part of the story, but because they help start conversations about history or politics that the author feels are relevant to Mei’s familial background.  The second half of the book does pick up, however, so readers interested in reading American Panda can have some hope that the story will improve if they persevere.

3 Stars

Songs from the Deep by Kelly Powell (ARC Review)

Songs from the Deep

Information

Goodreads: Songs from the Deep
Series: None
Source: BookCon
Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Official Summary

A girl searches for a killer on an island where deadly sirens lurk just beneath the waves in this gripping, atmospheric debut novel.

The sea holds many secrets.

Moira Alexander has always been fascinated by the deadly sirens who lurk along the shores of her island town. Even though their haunting songs can lure anyone to a swift and watery grave, she gets as close to them as she can, playing her violin on the edge of the enchanted sea. When a young boy is found dead on the beach, the islanders assume that he’s one of the sirens’ victims. Moira isn’t so sure.

Certain that someone has framed the boy’s death as a siren attack, Moira convinces her childhood friend, the lighthouse keeper Jude Osric, to help her find the real killer, rekindling their friendship in the process. With townspeople itching to hunt the sirens down, and their own secrets threatening to unravel their fragile new alliance, Moira and Jude must race against time to stop the killer before it’s too late—for humans and sirens alike.

Star Divider

Review

I was tempted to DNF Songs from the Deep for a large portion of the book, and in fact only finished reading it because it was still in my bag at a point in time I needed something to read and had nothing else with me.  The book is, frankly, nothing exemplary, and from the prose to the characters to the general plot sounded exactly like dozens of mid-list YA novels I might have pulled off the shelf in 2012.  In a YA market that is so robust and has recently released incredible books like Six of Crows and Stepsister and Echo NorthSongs from the Deep is surprisingly generic.

The book starts out predictably: a girl whose father has died and who has a distant relationship with her mother rekindles her friendship with the handsome lighthouse keeper, whose parents are, of course, also dead.  The two used to be friends but are no longer (for reasons the protagonist/character refuse to reveal in a poor attempt to maintain some suspense), but they are thrown together by a mysterious death.  The town blames sirens. The protagonist, of course, loves sirens, is the daughter of a local expert on sirens, and sees the beauty in these dangerous creatures when few others do.  She knows the sirens didn’t do it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but so many of the big picture plot pieces and the details are simply not new elements in YA.  The book’s only grip on me was, once I had made it about 50% of the way through the book, I sort of wanted to finish to wrap up the mystery of the murder.  The problem is: I had predicted the murderer from the start, and I ended up being right.  There’s foreshadowing and clues and there’s just…a very obvious mystery.

The book also suffers from lack of logic, one of my biggest pet peeves.  I don’t expect characters to act 100% rationally 100% of the time, but I can’t stand when they do obviously stupid things that I can’t imagine making sense to anyone…and the author/narrative voice gives the sense that it’s normal and they’re not behaving illogically at all.  My biggest example of this would be a spoiler for the book, but overall it’s surprising that the main characters themselves weren’t murdered for the way they handled their amateur investigation.

Sirens are cool.  Stories in small towns by the sea always have a niche audience.  I just didn’t enjoy this one at all.

2 star reviewBriana

A Book That Changed My Life in 2019: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez

Invisible Women Book Cover

I reviewed Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men  by Caroline Criado Perez in May this year, giving it five stars and calling it “equal parts enlightening and infuriating.”  The  book gives a very thorough summary, backed by research and statistics about how nearly everything designed in our world is not designed with women in mind.  Offices are cold because the temperature is set to be comfortable for the average men. Cars are less safe for women because they are not designed for shorter people to sit with the seat moved up to the wheel.  Bathroom lines are longer because designers forget women need more toilets than men.  Military gear doesn’t keep women safe and in fact can injure them because it’s designed to fit men.  Streets are plowed by local governments but sidewalks are left covered in ice and snow because more women walk and more men drive.  Medications have different side effects and may not work correctly on women because they are frequently tested on men, 100% men. The list goes on. And on.  And on.

Before reading Invisible Women, I had certainly noticed a lot of these things, but I begrudgingly accepted them.  I didn’t think, “This is how the world is, and it’s because people forget women exist when they design things.”  I just thought, “This is how my life is.”  I’m always cold in public buildings, and I try to carry a sweater at all times.  I take a smaller dose of medications like Tylenol than recommended because the “correct” dose seems too much for me.  I wait in line after long line every time I want to use a toilet.  I walk in the street in the winter because the sidewalks are covered in snow.  I am disappointed when “one size fits all” things don’t fit, and I shove my seat right up on top of the steering wheel when I drive.  All of these things, are inconveniences in my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that…they can change.

From reading reviews, it seems a lot of women have had this reaction to the book, an “Aha!” moment that they are not alone.  It’s not that things don’t fit “their” bodies; it’s that they don’t fit 50% of the population because they were designed for men.  (And just making things smaller is not the solution, by the way, though it might be better than nothing in some cases.)  And because of this book and Perez’s research–and all the studies that she was able to able to draw on–women are starting to take action.

Perez’s Twitter feed is a good place to start to see how people are reacting.  A lot of the space right now is taken up by something pretty basic–women complaining to train stations, theatres, and other facilities that they are sick of waiting twenty minutes or more to use the restroom while men walk in and out of the toilet without a line.  Women have missed their trains, the performances they have gone to see, etc. because they are waiting in a toilet queue.  And somehow…we have all just accepted this until now.  I accepted it.  And the designers and owners of this building have accepted.  For some reason, it’s simply not considered a problem if women pay hundreds of dollars to see Hamilton and then can’t actually watch it because they’re waiting in a bathroom line.  No more.

Women are speaking up now about a wide number of things, including bad sidewalks in their towns, smart watches that can’t count your steps while you’re pushing a baby stroller, military gear that doesn’t fit, snow gear for researchers that assumes if you need to relieve yourself that you’re a man and don’t need to fully undress to pee, and more.  (And, of course, there are also more serious issues in some places and countries, such as lack of safe bathroom facilities at all for women, lack of menstrual products that keep girls from going to school, houses built as disaster relief that don’t have kitchens, and more).

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the gender data gap ever since I’ve read this book month ago.  I’ve started following Perez on Twitter, I’ve subscribed to her weekly newsletter, and I’ve started writing to express my own concerns about things like the unplowed sidewalks in my town.  (Side now: the city council seems not to care because I’m “just” one person complaining and they apparently don’t walk, but it’s a start.)  This is one of the few nonfiction books I’ve read that I want to reread, and I’m recommending it and sending copies to my friends.  You cannot unread this information once you read.

There are going to a great selection of fiction books on my “favorite books of 2019” list at the end of the year; this will likely be the only nonfiction, but it will certainly have been the most influential book I’ve read, not just this year but in many years.

Briana

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth

Information

Goodreads: Gideon the Ninth
Series: The Locked Tomb #1
Source: ARC from BookCon
Published: September 10, 2019

Official Summary

Gideon the Ninth is the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton.

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Star Divider

Review

Gideon the Ninth is a book I can easily imagine putting off some readers with a single glance at the cover.  Certainly I assumed that a book with a hardcore skeleton-wearing woman (with sunglasses) on the front and some sassy comments about necromancers on the back might not exactly be my type of read.  I don’t always do dark or, well, whatever message the packaging of Gideon the Ninth is conveying.  However, after running across glowing review after glowing review, I decided to pick up my ARC after all, and I am so glad I did.  Imaginative and original with banter to balance all the death and necromancy, Gideon the Ninth is hands-down one of the best fantasies I’ve read.

Admittedly, the book might take some warming up to.  A number of pull quotes describe the work as “irreverent,” and that largely seems to mean that Gideon herself thinks being a jerk and making crude comments makes her “witty” or “tough.”  I was rolling my eyes at her a bit through the first several pages.  Nonetheless, the story still drew me in, and though Gideon never does lose her penchant for making obnoxious comments, she becomes more human and more multi-faceted.  I wanted to see what she would do next.  And, as weird as this may sound, I appreciated that she is never traditionally smart.  Her talents lie in swordsmanship and street smarts.  She often can’t follow what the more educated people around her are talking about and admits she never figured out something they thought “obvious” and assume she knows.  This is refreshing, and it highlights that she, as a sword-wielding cavalier, does need to work with her necromancer to have a strong partnership.  Neither can be truly great on her own.

The world building also takes time to build up.  At first, I wasn’t really sure what was going on with the nine Houses or the structure of the world in general, but this didn’t necessarily matter, and it somewhat mirrors the experience of the protagonist, as Gideon grew up somewhat isolated in the Ninth House.  (Well, the House in general is isolated.)  The characters from the other Houses all know each other and their customs; Gideon does not.  It was also cool to realize that the assumptions I had made about the world building based on the description of the Ninth House were all wrong.

Finally, the plot is gripping. It’s a bit of horror and mystery and competition all in one, and it’s great to watch different characters bring different strengths. I originally assumed necromancy was homogenous, but it’s quickly revealed that each character has a specialization, which make some of them more suited to certain jobs than others.  I was not able to predict key plot points, which is always pleasing to me, and I couldn’t put down the book as I kept turning pages to find out what happened next.

Gideon the Ninth deserves all the hype it has been receiving and more.  I will certainly be adding the sequel to my TBR list.

5 stars Briana

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Best Day Ever

Information

Goodreads: Best Day Ever
Series: None
Source: ARC (not sure; a giveaway?)
Published: September 19, 2017

Official Summary

I glance at my wife as she climbs into the passenger seat, and I am bursting with confidence. Today will be everything I’ve promised her…and more…

Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he’s the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.

But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How much do they trust each other? And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?

Forcing us to ask ourselves just how well we know those who are closest to us, Best Day Ever crackles with dark energy, spinning ever tighter toward its shocking conclusion. In the bestselling, page-turning vein of The Couple Next Door and The Dinner, Kaira Rouda weaves a gripping, tautly suspenseful tale of deception and betrayal dark enough to destroy a marriage…or a life.

Star Divider

Review

I’m not usually a reader of thrillers, but I give them a chance if one happens to come my way, but I have to admit that I have yet to be “thrilled.”  Best Day Ever is no exception; sure, it’s a bit creepy that it’s narrated by an abusive husband, but pretty much all the twists and the ending were predictable to me, which meant the psychology was really the only thing left of interest.

Yet I have reservations about that, too.  The author states in a note that she’s intrigued by unreliable narrators, so she was excited to write from the point of view of a guy who tells readers his story while leaving out pertinent information that might make him look bad.  After all, from his perspective, he’s not a villain; he’s a genius, and everything he does to other people is simply something that they deserve.  However, while I’m sure the author did her research into how the minds of people like her narrator work, a lot of it felt contrived to me.  It felt a bit like a woman’s interpretation of how an abusive man would think, and sometimes the detail was so overwhelming that it felt more like information the author was giving rather than something that a person would actually think to themselves.

The other characters are, of course, a bit bland, since the narrator’s whole perspective is that he’s the smart, charming, worthy one, and other people are just background noise who owe him things and deserve punishment when they don’t capitulate.  They’re not really people in his mind, which makes them not really people in the book.  One can see some sparks of life and cleverness in his wife, which is interesting and adds a bit of spice to the story.

Basically, I was underwhelmed.  Best Day Ever puts readers into the mind of a jerk, but that’s all it did for me.  I didn’t find him compelling, and of course reading about his abuse is not exactly what one would call “enjoyable.”  I wasn’t surprised by any of the turns the plot took, so this book kind of just was for me.  It’s fine, but I won’t be recommending it to others.

3 Stars Briana

City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

Information

Goodreads: City of Ghosts
Series: Cassidy Blake #1
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2018

SummarY

Cassidy Blake’s parents hunt ghosts.  But Cassidy is actually able to see them, ever since the moment she drowned and a ghost named Jacob dragged her back.  Now her parents are off to Edinburgh, Scotland, to film a ghost show.  But an evil spirit haunts the city and she’s determined to steal Cassidy’s life.

Star Divider

Review

City of Ghosts is a pretty standard supernatural middle-grade story.  The characters are not particularly developed and the concept is not particularly original.  Rather, the story seems to rely on the travel aspect, combined with ghosts, to keep readers interested.  Readers new to this type of story will likely enjoy it more than those who have read their fair share of books featuring ghosts as best friends.

The problem with reviewing City of Ghosts is simply that it is not a very memorable story.  The idea of having a protagonist who has a ghostly friend and who fights other, evil ghosts is not exactly novel.  So City of Ghosts  faced the dilemma of making itself stand out from any other number of supernatural books.  However, it largely fails to do this–probably because Cassidy and her friend Jacob are barely fleshed out as characters.  They cannot bring a unique flavor to the tale because they really feel like they could be any character.  Who they are is not important to the story.  What matters seems to be simply that they can go through the motions to make the plot happen.

The plot, however, is really standard.  Cassidy can see ghosts and, while sightseeing, she stumbles upon a particularly nasty one who wants to steal her life force to gain power and do evil ghostly things.   This is the basic premise of a good number of ghost stories.  With no new angles and no interesting characters, it’s really just kind of nice.  A nice way to pass the evening reading.  A nice choice for a spooky fall read.  A nice middle-grade novel.  But it’s not going to end up on many “best of” lists.

If you’re looking for a middle-grade story featuring ghosts, this will suit your needs.  It has the added benefit of not being particularly scary, if that is what you want.  However, it lacks any real “wow” factor, so, if you are choosing between this and another supernatural title, the other title just might be the better bet.

3 Stars

Boy-Crazy Stacey by Ann M. Martin and Gale Galligan

Information

Goodreads: Boy-Crazy Stacey
Series: Babysitters Club Graphic Novels #7
Source: Library
Publication Date: September 2019

SummarY

Stacey and Mary Anne are in Sea City, New Jersey, to babysit the Pike kids for two weeks.  But Stacey meets the cutest lifeguard and now Mary Anne is left to watch the kids all alone.  Can Mary Anne explain to her friend that what she is doing is wrong?  Or will Stacey have her heart broken–and ruin her friendship in the process?

Star Divider

Review

Boy-Crazy Stacey is a fairly unremarkable story about a young teen falling “in love” with an older boy and ignoring her friends in order to pursue him–despite obvious indications that the romance is doomed to failure.  Nothing here will surprise older readers, except perhaps the ending, which feels tacked on just to give a “happy” resolution.  The younger readers for whom the books are meant, however, will likely enjoy the characters and the bright, bold illustrations.  The series is wildly popular and this newest installment and fans of the Babysitters graphic novels will not be disappointed by Boy-Crazy Stacey.

I think part of the appeal of the Babysitters Club is that, even though the main characters are thirteen, they seem very old and mature, giving readers a taste of what it must be like to be a teenager.  So, while adult readers may be amused (or confused) by the concept of thirteen-year-olds having jobs, permission to wander a strange city by themselves, and the opportunities to go out and kiss boys, tween readers are excited by the depictions of independence that they expect to have as they grow up.  To some extent, I’m not sure how much the actual telling of the story matters; the point is that readers get to project themselves onto the characters.

If young readers are mainly excited to see their possible future in the Babysitters Club, Boy-Crazy Stacey will likely thrill.  It shows thirteen-year-old Stacey and her friend Mary Anne as very confident, attractive girls easily able to capture the interest of boys. Nothing is depicted as too serious; the girls know going on dates cannot lead to anything since they do not live in Sea City.  But the sense is still given that they are women of the world, picking up boys having a good time, and going on to a new crush.  Certainly exciting for tweens.

Disappointingly, however, Boy-Crazy Stacey never fully develops the plot line about Stacey’s crush on lifeguard Scott and how it impacts her friendship with Mary Anne.  Mary Anne is shown growing frustrated and telling Stacey so.  However, the cover summary writes that Mary Anne warns Stacey about Scott’s disinterest and suggests that the plot revolves more around the issue than it does.  In reality, Scott seems welcoming of Stacey’s adoration and the only problem shown is that another girl is jealous.  The book does not address the implications of Scott’s willingness to lead Stacey on or his treatment of the other girl, placing the blame for the interaction on the infatuated Stacey (since she is, in fairness, not doing the babysitting job she’s being paid to do). Meanwhile, Mary Anne’s reactions to the situation seem timid and spaced out, making Stacey’s actions seem less of a problem than they are.  And Mary Anne forgives so easily that it seems obvious Stacey must be ready to make the same mistake all over again, as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Boy-Crazy Stacey is not exactly original or riveting.  It does, however, provide a healthy does of romance to please readers who enjoy that sort of thing, and it packages the story in a brightly-colored format that undoubtedly appeals to tween readers of graphic novels.  You don’t really need to like Boy-Crazy Stacey, however, to know that it’s a runaway success with young audiences and thus worth purchasing for schools and libraries, or as a present for a tween reader.

3 Stars