Review: Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky

Marcy Dermansky’s 5th novel, HURRICANE GIRL, was on everyone’s perfect summer reads list. But since we are now in hurricane season, it’s really the best time to pick it up if you haven’t already. With twisting storylines and characters, dark humor, and sardonic social commentary, this novel guarantees an entertaining weekend of reading.

Described as gripping and provocative, this novel doesn’t shy away from sex, violence, seeking freedom, finding joy, and more. For those who enjoy books that feel like substantial-not-fluffy guilty pleasures, following the main character Allison through tragedies, and challenges will feel shockingly satisfying. The spare prose manages to be descriptive without feeling overdone, and readers will share Allison’s incredulity at the events as they unfold.

One of the appeals in Dermansky’s novels is the empathetic detachment the main characters seem to perfect as they behave in fantastic ways and respond to incredible events. Hurricane Girl is no exception, and readers will at once root for and recoil from Allison’s choices throughout the novel.

Highly recommended.

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Review: Neruda On The Park by Cleyvis Natera

Cleyvis Natera’s debut novel, NERUDA ON THE PARK, incorporates elements of magical realism, high drama, intense class and identity conflict, and an abiding longing for family love of all kinds. The novel reads like a telenovela with passion and arguments, but its clashes around gentrification and climate actions are found in today’s local newspapers and heard on street corners in most cities and towns. Whether on the train to work or relaxing for the weekend, Neruda on the Park will feel like a guilty pleasure on one page and a social justice lesson on another.

The novel, told with alternating viewpoints, follows Eusebia and Luz, a mother/daughter pair, as they navigate the threats inherent in new development, their own symbiotic relationship, and relatable life changes like retirement for one generation and career changes for another. The neighborhood’s history and the long-term residents of the fictional Nothar Park are brought to life with descriptions of Dominican food, lively salsa music, and the chatter of neighbors exchanging the news of the day. Luz lives in the apartment she grew up in, but she yearns to leave and move to a bougie apartment, like her colleagues in a prestigious law firm.

When a burned out neighborhood building is demolished to make way for a shiny, new apartment building, the neighborhood’s residents are offered buyouts to leave, threatening the cohesiveness that bolstered generations and became a chosen family for so many first generation immigrants. The temptations of and resistance to the changes are what keep the novel’s storyline and characters moving, but the nuanced and layered personalities and unchosen changes are what will ensure readers care about what happens next.

Read my recent interview with Ms. Natera on Baristanet.com: Interview with Cleyvis Natera.

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Review: This Will Pass by J. Donnini

THIS WILL PASS written by J. Donnini and illustrated by Luke Scriven is a reassuring picture book about acknowledging fears and facing them head on. Crue is always up for an adventure, but as much as he looks forward to his next one, he also has worries. Together with his favorite Uncle Ollie, Crue sets off on a Big Journey by boat and it’s all he hoped it would be. When a storm interrupts their fun, Uncle Ollie makes sure Crue has methods to get through it.

What’s lovely about this book is that it doesn’t try to assuage the child’s fears with minimizing the concerns. Uncle Ollie acknowledges the fears, names them, and then gives Crue tools to survive the moment. As the title hints, part of what Uncle Ollie shares with Crue is a mantra: “Be calm, it will pass.” They sing a song about it, and when the next frightening moments occur, they use their mantra and realize that the scary moments, while very real, did pass. Every time. It’s a lesson that Crue can use into the future, even when Uncle Ollie is not there to help him.

The illustrations fantastic; they are simple, colorful, and textured. The colors are warm in good times and take on a darker, harsher tone in the scary times. The storm and pirates and sharks are depicted in age-appropriate scenes, and little Crue is drawn with a wide variety of expressions and moods.

THIS WILL PASS is lovely enough on its own, but it’s also a wonderful reassurance to children who may feel worried or nervous about all that life can throw at them. The end page includes “Tips for Parents” that features a calming breathing exercise and an explanation of how a mantra works. Really great.

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Review: MESSY ROOTS by Laura Gao

MESSY ROOTS: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao manages to braid multiple threads into a wonderfully relatable and entertaining first-hand account of immigration, identity, and being a target of racist pandemic-related attitudes. From its opening scene referencing the earliest days of COVID19 awareness to the author’s connection to a self-identity that suits her, Laura’s honesty and vulnerability brings the reader in and helps us relate to her experiences.

Having spent her early years in Wuhan, China, four-year-old Laura moved to Texas with her family and went about learning a new language, a new culture, and new ways to navigate family life and friendships. Some memories will feel familiar to all readers: a child’s disappointment at finding sewing supplies, not cookies, stored in a cookie tin, collaborating against parents with a sibling, and competition between classmates and teammates. Other experiences add the more specific layers of Chinese school, deciding on religious affiliation, feeling not Chinese enough, or “white-washed,” and navigating coming out to friends and family. Each thread is told with vulnerability and directness.

Gao’s illustrations are expressive and fun, moving and tender, and the heavy use of strong colors works well to emphasize important moments throughout the story. Highlights include the dark red used in moments of restrained anger and frustration, the structured use of black outlines and boxes when technology is used, and the incredible way emotions are emphasized with wild lines and different drawing styles.

Laura Gao’s MESSY ROOTS brings readers into the center of what the pandemic brought up for many immigrants, especially those from China, and even more for those from Wuhan. The pain, confusion, anger, and defiance in the face of racism and fear come through even as the joys of family, friendship, and self-discovery balance it out. This graphic memoir is informative and fun to read.

Highly recommended.

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Review: Troublemaker by John Cho

Aimed at middle grade readers, John Cho’s TROUBLEMAKER takes place on the first day of the protests following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. The main character, Jordan Park, is a first-generation Korean-American. In one of the first scenes in the book, he reminds readers that a Korean store owner had recently shot and killed LaTasha Harlins, a young Black teenaged girl who had been accused of shoplifting. Told through the eyes and voice of 12-year-old Jordan, these two tragic injustices are questioned and held up with the authentic and fresh spotlight of youth. In addition, Jordan’s personal dramas include being suspended for cheating, a fraught relationship with his parents, and feeling disconnected from friends and purpose. Together, the storylines create righteous and relatable tension that elevates the genre in a way that makes sense to readers who weren’t even born when the events occurred.

In typical middle grade story form, Jordan sends himself off on an adult-level adventure and has dangerous, challenging, and rewarding moments along the way. Cho (and co-author Sarah Suk) manage to weave everyday 12-year-old concerns (grades, comparisons to siblings, growing apart from friends) into an evening of potential and very real violence. Jordan’s desire to “be useful” and protect his father push him to make a dangerous decision – to try to transport his father’s firearm to the family store – that influences the rest of the evening.

The supporting characters all have a purpose in TROUBLEMAKER as well. A helpful Latinx gardener, a kind Black neighbor, a “bad influence” friend, and all of Jordan’s family members serve as examples of how stereotypes are broken and how individual kindness and treating kids as kids no matter the circumstances helps lift everyone up. Jordan and his friend Mike are not “innocents” as they roam Los Angeles on the first day of the Rodney King verdict protests, but they are most definitely kids. And what TROUBLEMAKER makes clear is that they and all young people deserve the second chances so many of us received. Jordan’s growth, and the growth of most characters in this novel, shows how those second chances allow for a community feeling that is authentic and lasting.

Highly recommended.

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Review: FELLOWSHIP POINT by Alice Elliott Dark

Just in time to help summer reading feel substantial, Alice Elliott Dark’s FELLOWSHIP POINT arrives on July 5, 2022 with its 600 pages to satisfy your literature cravings. The novel follows two lifelong friends, Agnes and Polly, through heartbreak, love, loss of beloved children, struggles between generations who “know better,” and variations on ambition. The world Dark creates is layered and detailed; the characters and conversations are wholly formed and recognizable. Agnes, a children’s author (and secret novelist) and Polly, a devoted wife, mother, and friend, are committed to their friendship, their values, and to the Maine land of which they are stewards. How each woman responds to challenges is fascinating and, at times, surprising. When a younger companion suddenly appears with a tempting but unwanted opportunity, the juxtaposition of how the women respond deepens and grows our understanding of each character.

The novel has dozens of delicious, small moments nestled in the larger story. These nuggets are at once surprising and character revealing. One of my favorites is a scene between Agnes, an octogenarian, encounters a young woman working the snack bar on a whale watch boat. Sensing a “pushover” with potential, Agnes sternly cajoles the young woman into trading facts about whales for each order at the snack bar. By the end of the scene, we’ve all learned more about whales and we see Agnes as a charming, gruff but caring, social power player who may have steered a new career into this woman’s lap.

Pre-order the novel here: Fellowship Point and get ready for an extended literary vacation.

Check out my more detailed review and interview with Alice Elliott Dark here: Baristanet Interview.

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Review: Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

HUDA F ARE YOU is a graphic memoir (albeit fictionalized) by Huda Fahmy that tackles identity, teen angst, family expectations, and friendship with earnest humor and empathetic introspection. With deeply moving scenes around self-doubt, fitting in, and the love between a mother and child, the book will connect with readers of any age. Fahmy has created a wide cast of characters who are both realistic and sympathetic, cringe-worthy and likable, and most of us will recognize ourselves and our friends and family in the pages.

Huda moves from a town where she is the only girl wearing a hijab to a town where she is just one more hijabi. As she shifts from being “the other” because of her outward appearance, Huda begins to figure out more and more layers of her identity. Not easy! Between trying out clubs, friends, keeping up her grades, and learning how to navigate racist micro-aggressions, Huda is exhausted — but hopeful. The character is so authentic and endearing, that readers are rooting for her at every step forward and at every misstep as well.

A particularly moving scene is when Huda’s mother comes in to school to discuss a teacher who has been discriminating against Huda because she is Muslim and wears a hijab. Afraid of further angering the teacher, Huda denies the accusation when meeting with the principal and her mother; she realizes she has broken her mother’s heart. A few pages later, Huda’s sister explains that their mother is mainly upset because she wants Huda to learn to stand up for herself. Happily, Huda finds a way by the end of the story.

HUDA F ARE YOU? is a fast-paced graphic memoir with laughs, heart tugs, and thought provoking scenes. Highly recommended!

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Review: ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL by Robin Ha

In ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL, writer and illustrator Robin Ha shares a deeply personal journey of moving from Korea to the United States as she grapples with identity, harassment, and her relationship with her mother. The memoir starts off with a school vacation trip to Alabama that turns into permanent residence in the USA. This jarring beginning opens up a dizzying array of experiences that many young teen readers will relate to even if their experiences are not all that similar to Robin’s. This memoir is also a fantastic opportunity for parents and teachers to reconnect with what being a teen who feels “othered” is like. 

Robin loves her friends and life in Seoul, Korea. It’s always been just her and her mom at home, and while life isn’t perfect, delicious snacks, a comfortable routine, and close friends make Robin happy. When she and her mom take a vacation to Alabama, Robin trusts her mom and doesn’t ask many questions — and then her whole life is turned upside down. Her mom’s new husband (!) and his conservative family are just one of the obstacles Robin has a tough time adjusting. 

Between learning the language, being bullied by other kids, and being  ignored by her new step-family, Robin is miserable. While she finds some consolation in her art, it’s the kindness of a teacher, the unconditional love of a dog, letters from her friends in Seoul, it is a connection to art and a budding realization of why her mom left Korea that pull Robin through a dark time. The importance of having opportunities for art and other “electives” is made clear throughout the story. The scenes are expertly developed with layers of personality and complicated social interactions. Everyone will find something with which to connect in this narrative.

Ha’s illustrations detail emotions and events fully as the story develops. From a devastated teen to a silly friend, from cruel bullies to fantasy comic book heroes, the images share Robin’s feelings and thoughts wonderfully. Highlights are the joyful moments when Robin feels pride and excitement, but most affecting are the disappointing and despairing moments of both Robin and her mother. In ALMOST AMERICAN GIRL, Ha does a fantastic job creating a memoir of hopes dashed and the triumph of determination without making either seem insurmountable or easy. This memoir is very much a reflection of real life. 

Highly recommended. 

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Review: WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (2015) is a love letter to all Nina Simone accomplished and all she wanted to be and all she had to leave to the side. It also lifts the veil of idolatry that so many mythic entertainers live under. For viewers who know Nina Simone as the High Priestess of Soul, her lifelong desire to play Bach and be known as a classical pianist will be a surprise. For those who know her as a civil rights activist, her time being abused and being abusive will come as a shock. But what the documentary shares is that Nina Simone — Eunice Waymon — was a deeply talented woman with passions and disappointments and aspirations that she managed to massage into popular culture and activism. What Happened, Miss Simone is a love letter to the whole of Nina Simone, not a romantic vision of her legendary status. 

With archival footage of Simone’s performances and interviews interspersed with interviews from her daughter, husband, bandmates, and friends, the documentary gives a well-rounded view of the legend that includes making her seem at once towering and all too human. Throughout it all, the documentary feels in awe of Nina Simone and sometimes minimizes her faults by wrapping them in explanations of the hardships, both personal and institutional, that Simone endured. Unfortunately, this awe mutes Simone’s struggles with mental health and some of her more violent outbursts, even those that caused injury to others. This disservice to Simone’s full story casts a fuzzy lens over the entire documentary, which is the opposite of how she lived.

Despite this, the visual use of Simone’s journal entries creates an effective contrast to various pieces of the documentary. When Andrew Stroud (Simone’s husband and manager) talks casually about their relationship, lines from Simone’s journal that detail the beatings and her conflicted response to them are displayed on the screen. When Simone’s friends discuss her declining mental health, more journal entries appear showing erratic handwriting and jittery, confused language. Seeing what Simone’s thoughts were helps the audience decide how deeply they want to consider the information shared in the interviews. For example, Stroud’s attitude becomes callous when we realize he doesn’t take ownership of his abuse towards Simone. And what could seem like manipulation for profit when Simone’s healthy declines, seems to be concern borne out of friendship when we see the uneven thoughts straight from her journal. 

The civil rights work Simone took an active part in, and that she left for Europe and Liberia out of frustration, is detailed in photographs as well as through interviews. However, there are also less direct methods used. The closeness of Nina Simone to Lorraine Hansberry, the Shabazz family, and others like Stokely Carmichael is also highlighted. The footage of her performances in honor of Lorraine Hansberry and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after their deaths are especially affecting. The performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is heart wrenching, and Simone’s rendition of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” written and performed just days after the MLK assassination is powerful commentary, especially considering the documentary had shared earlier that Simone didn’t believe non-violence had any place in ensuring civil rights for Black Americans. 

It feels strange to admit to enjoying What Happened, Miss Simone? because of the frustration and deep sadness wrapped up in her genius throughout her life. It’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. However, it is extremely satisfying – and entertaining – to watch Nina Simone perform and share unabashed opinions and to hear those close to her share memories. Lisa, Nina Simone’s daughter with Andrew Stroud, gives at once poignant and vague commentary. Her comments about her mother’s abusive behavior in Liberia contrast with her sadness about both her parents’ penchant for violence. Also, her sometimes seeming detachment from her mother is softened by concern about how the drugs for Simone’s bipolar disease affected her mental and physical acuity. So, it feels somehow wrong and strange to have enjoyed the film, but it’s difficult not to be drawn in to Nina Simone’s passion and verve, despite the complications and pain with which they are paired.

What Happened, Miss Simone? can easily be used in group or education venues whether it’s for Black history, women’s history, music, or mental health. Whether as a whole or in segments, Nina Simone’s life and personality easily lends itself to discussions about all of those topics. For prejudice reduction in particular, Simone’s assertion that she was punished for her controversial song “Mississippi Goddam,” and was blocked from record deals and gigs because of it, sets up discussion of whether tangible racial prejudice or the perception of it is more powerful, more damaging. And if it matters in the end. 

Highly recommended.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is available on Netflix, and for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime and Apple/iTunes.

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Review: WHEN THEY SEE US (2019)

The limited Netflix series about the Central Park Five, WHEN THEY SEE US, is harrowing to watch, and infuriating to contemplate. To be honest, I felt sick to my stomach and had to stop watching several times; I even considered not continuing the series. Truly, it was my guilt as a middle-class white woman that kept me from turning away to suit my own comfort. So, if the filmmaker Ava DuVernay wanted to make sure that this story reached those who should have been paying attention with a more human gaze all those years ago, it was successful at least where I am concerned. Further, as with so many other stories in recent years, seeing WHEN THEY SEE US will hopefully create an expectation of justice over reckless punishment and fairness over aimless revenge. 

Director Ava DuVernay makes sure to keep the sympathetic gaze firmly on the victims even while showing them in contentious situations. When the camera watches the prosecution scheming and scrounging together a case and the police officers intimidating the accused, there is a cold desperation that emanates from the screen. And when one of the defense attorneys asks the Manhattan District Attorney to “Give them a fair fight,” the audience already knows it will be anything but fair. The sad fact is that WHEN THEY SEE US, along with other media treatments of the miscarriage of justice for these five accused, is the only fairness those involved can hope to receive. Justice, yes, but justice delayed and lives destroyed. 

Even so, the director’s bias in favor of the boys is not so deep that it demonizes the District Attorney and detectives wholesale. At one point, the audience is teased when the DA questions the legitimacy of the case against the boys. But then reputations, politics, and the scrambled need to protect a white woman’s virtue by any manufactured means necessary destroys any hope of that.  Just before the DA offers a plea deal, she tells Antwon’s lawyer, “It’s no longer about justice, counselor, it’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing fair about survival.” And that’s the crux of the film. The white power structure will sacrifice those with less power to maintain the appearance of safety and to solidify its own place.

The film isn’t just about the political and societal failings; it drills down to what we can all relate to in our own lives. The family tension entangled with love and fear is what makes this retelling unique. Granted, the dialogue is sometimes imagined, but the emotion behind decisions and the pain of a parent unable to protect their child is palpable. It’s frightening and daunting. DeVernay is able to layer the family tension with the courtroom scheming. One particularly sharp moment is when Korey, the only 16 year old of the younger teens, is pushed by the DA to affirm a statement that he has signed. Korey, agitated and frightened, admits that he cannot read the statement and that he didn’t write it. Again, this scene ought to have put doubt into the jury’s mind, but the DA appeals to the need to convict someone, anyone who is available. The juxtaposition of the counts being read with the boys’ moments of coercion with their responses is devastating. Again, lives destroyed. 

What is different about this story and the way it’s told is that it doesn’t linger on the years in prison (although that is addressed to some extent later), it focuses on the support and love – or lack thereof – of the boys’ families. The issues the CP5 face once they leave prison are another hurdle. “Rapist” becomes a term thrown at them when others are frustrated. They navigate the limited options for jobs and housing. They watch dreams dissolve when they are told felons can’t hold professional licenses. It’s awful — and yet there are moments of finding joy and pleasure interspersed with the frustration and heartache. A girlfriend, reuniting with family and friends, finding comfort in religion.

Korey Wise Innocence Project

The last episode focuses on Korey Wise’s experience. As the oldest of the boys, at 16, he was sent to prison with adults. The fear, the horrific beatings — one within an inch of his life — the isolation, and the deals he has to make to survive are portrayed in stark reality. Korey’s mental health, and the way he uses memories, regret mixed with hope, and his imagination to survive the relative, albeit traumatizing, safety of solitary confinement are highlighted. A caring guard, an apology from another inmate (who turns out to be the perpetrator of the Central Park rape), a refusal to play the “say you’re guilty” game of parole all keep Korey going. As with so many themes in this mini-series, small joys and maintaining hope are a big part of survival when the world is unfair. 

The first episode, which focuses on society’s need to punish as an outlet for rage as opposed to achieve justice, is most pertinent to current events. The casual and overt racism of the officers, detectives, and prosecutors fuels the injustice even as inconsistencies present themselves. Rationalizing away discrepancies becomes a game of cat and mouse, but the “mice” are children with families and the usual teenage hopes and desires. Seeing the dramatic portrayal of the interrogations and the challenges the boys’ families faced helps make this iconic story of injustice relatable. Seeing ourselves and our loved ones in this story is an invaluable tool for reform and empathy.

Highly recommended.

WHEN THEY SEE US (2019) on Netflix.

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