Review of Parachutes, by Kelly Yang

Parachutes

by Kelly Yang

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2020. 476 pages.
Review written November 23, 2020, from a library book

Parachutes is a story about a Chinese teen who’s been dropped by her wealthy parents into America to get an American education. Parachutes is the term used to describe these kids, many of whom end up on their own without any supervision, which comes with its own problems.

This book focuses on Claire, a junior in high school who’s sent to America from Shanghai, and Dani, also a junior in high school, whose single mother decided to get some much-needed cash by renting a room to a Chinese student, Claire. They both attend the same private school, but the parachutes are given separate classes from the American kids. Dani’s been working hard on the debate team, and with extra encouragement from her coach, she’s hoping to get to go to an elite debate competition and win a scholarship to Yale. Her after-school job is cleaning houses, where she gets a window into the lives of the rich, including some fellow students.

Meanwhile, Claire spends time with her fellow parachutes, who prioritize shopping and parties. She catches the interest of a boy whose father owns one of the largest corporations in China. Claire’s and Dani’s lives intertwine in unexpected ways.

There’s a content warning at the front of the book: “This book contains scenes depicting sexual harassment and rape.” So it’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that’s in there. My main reservations about the book have to do with how the book ended, so I’m not going to go into detail. This was colored by my recently having read Know My Name, by Chanel Miller, who was the victim in the famous Stanford rape case, and having read that book made me less enthusiastic about how this one ended than I would have been otherwise. (How’s that for vague?)

And I hate that it’s realistic that American teens – and international teens in America – have to deal with these things. The parachutes portrayed were at even more risk, being far from parental supervision and facing peer pressure to spend extravagantly and take advantage of their independence.

The story here was well-crafted, alternating between the two girls’ perspectives, so the reader was more aware than they were about how their lives were intertwining. The book kept me up late reading, and you will be rooting for both girls.

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Review of Grown, by Tiffany D. Jackson

Grown

by Tiffany D. Jackson

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2020. 371 pages.
Review written October 3, 2020, from a library book

There’s a Content Warning at the front of this book for “mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.” The book begins with the main character, Chanty (short for “Enchanted”) waking up covered with blood and surrounded by blood. I expected a gritty novel about living on the streets.

But then chapter two flashes back and shows us a seventeen-year-old girl attending private school and on the swim team, who’s got a clearly loving and involved family. She’s got a wonderful singing voice, and as the book opens, she goes to an audition for BET’s version of American Idol. She doesn’t win the audition, but she gets the attention of Korey Fields, a 28-year-old rock star. He gives Chanty and her family VIP tickets to his upcoming show.

At the show, Korey gets her phone number, but asks her not to tell anyone. They begin a secret texting exchange.

At this point, I was happy that the book started with blood. That was a distinct signal that this relationship isn’t a good thing, and it’s not going to end well. And it doesn’t. In the name of boosting Chanty’s singing career, Korey convinces her parents to let him give her private lessons and even go on the road with him. To Enchanted, he’s getting her more and more involved in a relationship with him. A relationship that’s more and more controlling.

Since the story is told from Chanty’s perspective as it happens, we see easily how she’s sucked in. How flattered she was to get attention from a big star. How she tells herself he’s not all that much older and it’s meant to be. By the time things start going wrong, she’s already hooked and only wants to please him.

So you know it’s going to end poorly, but the effect is desperately wanting to warn her as Chanty gets more and more sucked in. And then there’s the blood – we don’t end up knowing who is actually responsible for that.

There’s a list of Resources in the Author’s Note at the end. We end up with a thriller that is based on actual cases and may open eyes to what domestic abuse can look like.

And, oh yeah, it’s also a really gripping story.

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Review of The Girls I’ve Been, by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I’ve Been

by Tess Sharpe
read by the author

Listening Library, 2021. 9 hours, 48 minutes.
Review written August 12, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow! This thriller for teens doesn’t let up the tension for a second.

The book begins as Norah goes into a bank with her girlfriend and her best friend, Wes. We learn that Norah’s worried about Wes, who’s mad because he hadn’t known Norah and Iris were a couple and this is one more time Norah has lied to him.

Then the guy in the line behind them pulls out a gun.

The bank robbery clearly doesn’t go according to plan – the bank manager is not in his office – so the two would-be robbers take hostages. They have no idea who they’re dealing with in Norah. They’re going to be sorry they thought they could use her to their own advantage.

The story is told beautifully, with little bits of Norah’s background slipping out as the tense situation in the bank keeps developing. We learn she’s escaped her mother, who is a con-artist. Her mother used to find a mark and play a con – and then get out, completely changing their identities. So Norah has been many different girls.

But can she use what she learned from those other girls to get herself and her friends out of the hostage situation alive? It’s for sure not going to be easy.

I wish I could say more – but it’s all revealed in perfectly small, tantalizing doses, and I don’t want to detract from that. Let me simply say that this is one of the best suspense novels I’ve ever read.

And it’s a big mistake for bad men to mess with Norah!

Besides the gratifying triumphs and clever, surprising escapes (I’m talking about the past, not necessarily the bank, because I don’t want to give that away), this book also shows the beautiful friendships Norah has during the present time of the story, after escaping the abusive childhood with her mother. So this book also gives the hope that people can recover and heal. They may still have scars, but they can rise above.

The author reads the audiobook, and it’s just as well I listened to it, because this is a book I don’t think I could have stopped reading if I didn’t have to turn off the sound.

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Review of A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, by Vesper Stamper

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 307 pages.
Review written October 12, 2020, from a library book

Vesper Stamper’s illustrated young adult novels are amazingly evocative. Let me say that again: They’re illustrated young adult novels. The illustrations add a dreamlike quality to the book, as they did in What the Night Sings.

This one was set in medieval England about an orphaned girl who recently lost everything and was sent to a priory – just in time for the plague.

This book had lots of death and dying, so despite the dreamlike quality, it wasn’t exactly pleasant reading. I also have a prejudice against fanatically evil religious characters, and this book had a couple of those. So by the end, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I thought I would at the beginning. I didn’t quite follow all the plot choices either.

But as a book talking about how a large group of women lived together in the middle ages, with information about illuminating manuscripts, the book was lovely. Especially before they started dying.

Our orphaned main character was a synesthete who saw colors when she heard sounds. That sort of thing was thought to be demonic visions at the time, so she’d learned to keep silent about it. But it also gave her extra love for art and illuminated manuscripts.

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Review of We Are Not Free, by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free

by Traci Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 384 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 National Book Award Finalist

We Are Not Free is a novel about Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II. An interesting and effective choice made for this novel is to present the story from multiple perspectives. Every chapter has a different perspective.

We start with a 14-year-old kid in a community of Japanese Americans living in “Japantown” in San Francisco. We hear about the older teens he looks up to who will end up being viewpoint characters as the book goes on.

The book starts three months after Pearl Harbor when people of Japanese descent are getting targeted by racists. It continues as they have to sell off their possessions, because they’re only allowed a little bit of luggage in the slightly-refurbished racetrack where they’re taken next. It goes on through the war as the people in the camps have to decide if they will declare their loyalty to a government that removed their rights and volunteer to fight in the war.

By using so many perspectives, we get a broad view of what happened to different groups of people, including those who went on to fight in the war and those who refused. We learn about various levels of inhumane treatment, from the horrific conditions for those who were deemed a threat to the smaller indignities such as happened to those set loose with $25 and having to find a new place to live.

The teens have widely different attitudes. Many are angry. Some just want to make the best of things and move on with their lives. All of them encounter grave injustices, and seeing the situation from so many different eyes helps the reader understand the whole thing better.

And, yes, there are a lot of painful things that happen. This isn’t a feel-good book, but it is a book that shows you many sides of a terrible historical injustice perpetrated by our own government. I wish this book weren’t as timely as it is.

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Review of A Heart So Fierce and Broken, by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken

by Brigid Kemmerer

Bloomsbury, 2020. 445 pages.
Review written October 31, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Heart So Fierce and Broken is the second book in the series begun with A Curse So Dark and Lonely. And no, the series is not finished yet. The first book finished with a dramatic breaking of expectations with big implications for what would happen next – and so does this book. Both books seem to resolve most conflict brought up in the book – and then our tidy sense of completion is totally disrupted.

The first book is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Harper is brought from DC in an attempt to break the curse. Meanwhile, the kingdom isn’t getting much governing, but she helps the prince get through that crisis and an attack from a neighboring kingdom. At the end of the book, though, without giving details, we learn there’s a secret older brother who should be the rightful heir to the throne. And he is the child of a magesmith and has magic in his blood.

This book is about that heir, who doesn’t want to claim the throne but also doesn’t want to be killed. We also follow the fate of a princess of the neighboring kingdom who was not chosen to be her kingdom’s heir but wants to see if she can bring peace.

I like the way the author puts realistic political problems (needing a harbor for trade) into the fantasy kingdom. There’s some horrific cruelty in both books which I didn’t like, though it does make the people working for peace shine more brightly.

I enjoyed this second volume greatly. It now doesn’t have much to do with the “Beauty and the Beast” story, but is an excellent tale of a group of travelers trying to navigate dangers on every side and figure out what course of action is best.

Yes, I’m going to want to read the next book. Amazon says it’s called A Vow So Bold and Deadly and will come out on January 26, 2021. And yes, Amazon says it’s the conclusion to the series. It’s been set up well.

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Review of Jane Anonymous, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Jane Anonymous

by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Wednesday Books (St. Martins), 2019. 306 pages.
Review written December 21, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Jane Anonymous is a thriller for teens about a girl who was taken captive for seven months.

The story flashes between “Now” as she’s trying to recover and “Then” when the kidnapping unfolded. The book would be too intense done any other way, because it would be unbearable to think she never escaped. As it is, you can’t stop reading to find out what happened to mess with her head so badly and how she did get out of it.

Here’s how the book begins, in a Prologue with the heading “Now.”

Dear Reader(s),

Before ten months ago, I didn’t know that the coil spring from a mattress could be used as a makeshift weapon, or that the rod inside a toilet tank worked just as well as the claw of a hammer.

Before ten months ago, I never imagined that the sense of smell could be so keen – that the scent of my breath, like rotten fruit, could wake me out of a sound sleep, or that cooked rice carries a distinct aroma, like popcorn kernels heating.

Before.

Ten months.

Ago.

I’d never considered the power of light – that when one is deprived of it, illogical thoughts can gnaw like rats at the brain, keeping one up, driving one mad.

Nor had I any reason to predict how intimately I’d come to know myself: the oily stench of my own hair, the salty taste of my own blood, and the touch of my unbathed body (the scaly layer of scabbing that would form all over my skin, and the fire-ant sensation that would crawl up and down my limbs.)

By telling the reader what’s going to happen, the author grabs our attention right away. By weaving together the two timelines, we come to understand that a trauma like that doesn’t get all better simply by escaping the situation.

This powerfully written thriller will have you on the edge of your seat.

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Review of The Kingdom of Back, by Marie Lu

The Kingdom of Back

by Marie Lu

Putnam, 2020. 313 pages.
Review written December 26, 2020, from a library book

The Kingdom of Back is a story of Nannerl Mozart, the big sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, based on things we know about her life.

We know that she was a child prodigy before her little brother came along, and she performed with him before the royalty of Europe. We also know that she composed music – but we don’t know about any of that music existing. We don’t know if some of her music got published in the name of her brother.

We’re also told that she and her brother invented a country, the Kingdom of Back, and had their family’s servant draw a map for them of this country. In this novel, it’s an actual magical kingdom they got to visit, and it’s tied to young Nannerl getting her heart’s desire – to be remembered in her own right.

Nannerl meets a princeling of the magical kingdom who tells her he can grant her desire, but first she needs to complete three tasks for him. Those tasks get more and more sinister, and Nannerl isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing. But she loves her music and wants to be able to compose.

Here’s a magical look at the young Mozarts that will leave you thinking about what it was like to be a creative young woman in a time when making art was the province of men. This isn’t a typical fantasy novel, but it is a beautifully woven tale.

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Review of Winterkeep, by Kristin Cashore

Winterkeep

by Kristin Cashore

Dial Books, 2021. 518 pages.
Review written May 11, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Winterkeep is a fourth book in the series that began with Graceling. Like the rest, it deals with enough new characters and situations that you could enjoy it perfectly well without having read the earlier books. Though I always have to add that you should read them, they’re wonderful! In fact, I checked my reviews, and it’s been nine years since I read Bitterblue, so I’m thinking it’s time to reread them all, and no wonder the details were vague as I read this book. The author caught me up with anything I needed to know.

Bitterblue has now been queen of Monsea for five years, but they have recently learned about Winterkeep, a country across the sea. Bitterblue’s emissaries who last visited Winterkeep never returned, and she’s afraid they’re dead and wants to find out what happened to them. She has also learned that several merchants were cheating her by buying cheap zilfium from her mines – it turns out to be a valuable source of fuel in that other country.

Bitterblue wants to find out more, so she plans a voyage to Winterkeep, along with Giddon, her friend and a member of the council, and Hava, her half-sister, who is graced with the ability to make people see her how she wants them to see her. But the voyage does not go as planned.

I wondered that we had characters who are adult in a young adult novel, but then the reader learns about Lovisa Cavenda, a student in Winterkeep. Her parents are powerful in Winterkeep politics, even though they are part of opposing parties. They plan to host the visiting delegation, but it begins to become clear to Lovisa that they are up to something.

Winterkeep doesn’t have gracelings or monsters like the lands we’ve heard about before, but it does have telepathic foxes, who bond to one human – or so people think. There are also silbercows – seal-like creatures living out in the sea that communicate with selected humans with mental images. And the silbercows know about a giant creature with tentacles – they call her the Keeper – who lives in the depths of the sea.

There are plenty of mysteries and plots winding you through this intriguing and magical world. We learn about nefarious things happening, but not until the end do we find out why. And then our characters must work to thwart those responsible.

Something I love about Kristen Cashore’s books is that she does put her characters through trauma – but she’s realistic about what that costs them and about their struggles to heal from trauma. Even defeating a villain can be costly to a person’s mental health, especially if the villain is your own father, and her books show this more than once.

All of her books pull me in and absorb me and make me want to stay immersed in them until I finish – which is a big problem since they are so long. Be forewarned! This is a magical world that will feel real and will make you care about the fate of its characters.

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Review of Dear Justyce, by Nic Stone

Dear Justyce

by Nic Stone

Crown, 2020. 266 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a powerful novel about an ordinary black teen caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. This is billed as a “companion novel” to the author’s earlier award-winning book Dear Martin. I haven’t read the first book (though I’m planning to fix that), and I quickly got completely absorbed in this one, so I think they’re correct in not calling it a “sequel.”

The book is told from the perspective of a boy named Quan who’s in prison waiting for a trial date. We don’t find out why he’s locked up until about halfway through the book. He’s writing letters to a friend named Justyce. Justyce is the one who wrote the letters in the earlier book, Dear Martin.

In between the letters, we get the story of Quan’s life and how it almost felt inevitable that he ended up getting locked up. We learn about his difficult family situation but how he found family with a gang.

I’ll tell you right up front that this book ends with a hopeful outcome. It would be heart crushing if it didn’t. The really awful part is that almost feels unrealistic. The author herself confronts this in a note at the back:

It is also unlikely (unfortunately) that Quan would have such a solid team of people – friend, caseworker, therapist, teacher, and attorney – rallying around him.

Which was the hardest thing of all about telling this story: knowing the most fictional part is the support Quan receives.

But I think we can change that, dear reader. No matter how young or old you are, we all have the power to positively impact the people around us before they get to the point Quan did. Sometimes all it takes to bring about a shift in direction is knowing there’s someone out there who believes you’re valuable. That you have something positive to offer the world.

It was poignant for me reading this book on Election Day 2020 and writing this review before the results have been determined. But this book itself is a small way to make progress in treating more young people like valuable human beings, no matter the color of their skin. I want to encourage everyone to read this book. Oh, and did I mention? It’s a great story, too.

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