Title: Birth of a Nation
Author: Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker
Number of Pages: 137 pages
Book Number/Goal: 37/75 for 2009
My Rating: 4/5

When the mostly-black residents of East St. Louis are prevented from voting due to a "glitch" that lists them all as felons, they demand a recount. When all they get is an apology, they do the unthinkable: secede from the United States.

This was recommended to me when I posted about Truth: Red, White & Black, also illustrated by Kyle Baker. To be honest, the summary didn't grab me all that much, but I figured what the hell, why not? and put it on my wishlist. Not like graphic novels take long to read anyway.

I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I anticipated. The writing's great and I was laughing at something on practically every page. And Baker's art works a lot better here than it did in Truth, where his cartoony artwork felt a little out of place.

One thing I didn't really like was the format. It's not a comic book, or even a series of comic strips. Neither is it a text story with illustrations. It's kind of a weird hybrid, with panels laid out like a comic, but with the narration and dialogue (mostly dialogue) underneath each panel, and I found it kind of hard to follow sometimes.

Mooch on BookMooch.
Title: Skim
Author/Illustrator: Mariko Tamaki (author), Jillian Tamaki (illustrator)
Number of Pages: 144 pages
Book Number/Goal: 31/75 for 2009
My Rating: 5/5

It's 1993 and Kimberly Keiko Cameron, aka Skim, is in grade 10 at a Catholic girls' school. She is: Wiccan, biracial (Japanese-Canadian/white), sort of an outcast, overweight, falling in love with her English teacher, Ms. Archer.

I really loved this. It's so...ordinary. It's not a message book, even though there are lots of things (being Asian, homophobia, being queer, bullying, teen suicide, rumors, divorce, being overweight) that could be turned into big Issues to Teach a Lesson, but they're not. They're just part of what happens. That's part of what makes this feel like a story about teens rather than a story particularly for teens (though it's not inappropriate for teens by any means).

I really love the art, too. The style is obviously Japanese-influenced...but not manga-influenced. Instead, it immediately calls to mind traditional Japanese paintings (check out the cover here), which makes for a rather unique comic style and one I really enjoyed.
Title: Londonstani
Author: Gautam Malkani
Number of Pages: 343 pages
Book Number/Goal: 28/75 for 2009
My Rating: 4/5

Jas used to be a geek, but now he has new friends and he's desperate to fit in, rejecting mainstream white British culture in favor of all things Indian and gangsta-rap-related.

Reading this reminded me a lot of reading Trainspotting, not just because they're both written entirely in slang and dialect, though that was the first thing that pinged me as similar. Renton's decision not to "choose life" is very similar to Jas and co's attitude. They've all failed their A levels and would rather get rich stealing phones and spend the money on fancy clothes and stuff than be "productive members of society".

I enjoyed this a lot, though I was unfortuntely spoiled for the ending due to the fact that at one point when I flipped to the back to see how many pages there were, I accidentally saw a very spoilery bit.

It's hard to talk about the book without talking about the spoiler, so I'll just say it's really enjoyable and I liked it a lot. And as for spoilery stuff (highlight to read), I thought it was great, but at the same time I feel like it was trying a little too hard. There are some bits I find it pretty unbelievable that no one would say "dude, you're white" or at least look at him funny. Overall Jas just seems to be lying by omission and never mentioning to the reader that he's white, so I don't think I'm supposed to think he lied about people's reactions or how conversations went, idk.

The author has some Q&A stuff on his website where talks about the spoiler as well as his reasons for some other stuff, and one of the things he says is (highlight to read) that he wanted to write a book for people who don't normally read, which is why Sanjay was such an over-the-top villain. The Sanjay plotline was probably the main thing that kept me from giving it a five, especially his long "I'm am the villain, here let me stand here for five minutes and give you a monologue on my evil plans" speech and the fact that the whole thing with him and Jas's dad's shop just felt really contrived. So I'm not sure how I feel about people writing books for people who don't normally read, since chances are people who do read a lot are actually going to be the ones reading.

Mooch from BookMooch
Title: If You Come Softly
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Number of Pages: 181 pages
Book Number/Goal: 27/75 for 2009
My Rating: 2.5/5

Ellie and Jeremiah fall in love at first sight. The fact that he's black and she's white doesn't matter to them, but it's all everyone else can see.

This had some good stuff going on. I particularly liked the chapters in Jeremiah's POV and his observations about the world...that's pretty much all that saved it from being a run-of-the-mill teen issue book. As it is, it didn't save it enough for me.

There's a lot of stuff labelled YA that I read and wonder why it was labelled that, because it doesn't seem any different from adult fiction other than the age of the protagonists. This definitely felt like something aimed at teens. It also feels kind of dated. I see it was written in 1998 and it feels more like the kind of YA I remember from when I was in jr high and high school than more recent stuff I've written. Or maybe I've just avoided reading the more hit-you-over-the-head unsubtle stuff.

Also, I guess the ending was supposed to be ~tragic~ but I just laughed when Jeremiah got stabbed, because it so reminded me of all those teen books from when I was growing up, where everyone died of leukemia or something. It didn't seem profound, just cliched. Also here it felt like a cop-out. I would have rather seen a story where they had a happy ending and made their relationship work, or else they didn't and the interracial thing was too much and they broke up, not he died before she'd even introduced him to her parents.

Anyway...those who are more fans of YA than me might like this more. And while I found a lot of it cliched and blah, the interracial relationship was handled a lot better than I can imagine it being handled by a white author, so it's maybe worth reading just for that (it's a short read). Like, I'm not sure if as a teen I ever read a book where the ~issue~ was an interracial relationship (as opposed to dying of leukemia), but I can picture very clearly how it would be written and this has much less of the hand-wringing and back-patting.

Oh, also I was really put off by the fact that it's about rich kids at prep school, but once I started reading, it wasn't really an issue. (And I did like that it highlighted that racism is universal. In my imaginary interracial teen romance by a white author, I'm sure the boy would have been from the wrong side of the tracks or whatever.)

Also, also, anyone wanting a story with a Jewish protagonist that's not about the Holocaust should check this out. Ellie being Jewish isn't a plot point, it's just there.

Mooch from BookMooch
Title: Marcelo in the Real World

Author: Francisco X. Stork

Number of Pages: 307

Genre: Young Adult

Book Number/ Goal: 2/40

My Rating: 4.5/5

Though Marcelo is smart and high-functioning, he is somewhere on the Autistic spectrum. He has spent his school years at Paterson, a private school for students with physical and mental disabilities, and he's looking forward to his senior year, when he will start training a pony at Paterson for hippotherapy. Then, at the beginning of summer, Marcelo's lawyer father hits him with a challenge: he wants Marcelo to be able to function in the "real world." He wants him to leave Paterson and go to public school next year. But Marcelo has one other chance to prove himself: if he can spend the summer working in his father's law office, and demonstrate his ability to function in the real world that way, he can go to Paterson next year.

Marcelo struggles to get along with Jasmine, the mail room clerk, and Wendell, his father's law partner's son. He struggles with human interactions, hidden motives, the anger and pressures of a law office. Then he finds a picture -- a picture of a girl disfigured by a windshield made by the company his father is defending. The scope of the book suddenly explodes; what starts as a portrait of Marcelo's struggles to live in the real world, given his cognitive differences, turns into a heartbreaking questioning of how any of us can live in the real world, given its suffering, its dilemmas, its questions that have no answers.

It can be hard to resist turning non-neurotypical characters into ethereal saints, and Stork treads a fine line; Marcelo is deeply interested in religion. In fact, this is one of those Young Adult novels that walks boldly right into didactic territory, spending more time on philosophical questions than on what plot there is. And yet Stork makes it work. Marcelo is a believable, sympathetic, and rarely too-good-to-be-true character, and his quest to do the right thing is compelling.

Title: Rain Is Not My Indian Name
Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith
Number of Pages: 135 pages
Book Number/Goal: 25/75 for 2009
My Rating: 5/5

After Rain's best friend Galen dies, she shuts herself off from the world for six months, until she unwillingly gets involved in the Indian Camp her aunt's running that summer. For such a short book (it's not even 150 pages long) this is about a whole lot of things, though probably the two main themes are small town life and what it means to be Indian.

I picked this up pretty much based on the title alone, which just sounded really awesome. As I started reading, my first thought was oh, this is too teenagery for me, but I quickly changed my mind. It's definitely a young adult book, but I really enjoyed it a lot.

One thing I particularly liked, which was just a little characterisation detail, not any part of the plot itself, was that she's a fan and reads fanfic. I think this is the first book I've ever read with a protagonist who reads fic! And it's obvious the author knows what she's talking about, too.
Title: Dragon's Gate
Author: Laurence Yep
Number of Pages: 272 pages
Book Number/Goal: 24/75 for 2009
My Rating: 3.5/5

This is the story of Otter, a Chinese boy who joins his father and uncle in America to work on the railroad. It's part of the Golden Mountain Chronicles. The books stand alone, though, or at least this one does. I just picked out a couple from the series that sounded the most interesting (this one and one about the 1903 SF earthquake) to try it. The writing's pretty good, though, so I may eventually try to get the rest.

Sadly, I didn't actually know much about this particular bit of history. I knew that Chinese laborers worked on the railroads and was under no illusions about what the conditions must have been like, but I didn't actually know any of the details. So it's an interesting read for that alone, but the story itself is pretty good, too.

I am not a fan of translating names, but in this case since it's nicknames I'm willing to give the author a little slack.
Title: Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties
Author: Mike Marqusee
Number of Pages: 310
Genre: non-fiction, social history, biography
Book Number/Goal: #10 out of the 18 I've read so far
My rating: 4/5

Review: This is not a biography in the traditional sense, but rather an exploration of those past and contemporary events that shaped Ali and how he in turned influenced the events of his culture. I was surprised by his attitude toward the civil rights movement and moved by how he changed and grew through the years.

I was very interested by the connections the author made between Ali and the rise of Black Power out of the civil rights movement, by Ali's influence on American/African/International culture, and by Ali's relationship with his religion and his sport. A thread that runs through the book is Ali's opposition to being drafted and the stand he took on that. His words speak most clearly about who he was: "I know where I am going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."

This is a passionate, loving and open look at Ali and the sixties, at what influenced him and the influence he had on both America and the world. A quick entertaining read, I enjoyed reading this very much. The only weakness with the book was the lack of footnotes. Notes on Sources at the end of the book does not make up for a complete lack in citing original sources.
Title: Evening Is the Whole Day
Author: Preeta Samarasan
Number of Pages: 340 pages
Book Number/Goal: 23/75 for 2009
My Rating: 3/5

This is the story of the Rajasekharans, an Indian family in Malaysia. It jumps around through time through three generations, though the main focus is on the "present" of the story (set in 1980) and several events that happen all around the same time.

I'm really not sure how much I liked it or not, so I gave it three stars, because that's in the middle, and there were things I liked and things I didn't, and nothing really swayed me to the love or hate side. But I did enjoy it over all, so three stars.

My biggest problem with it was that it was slow. It's only 340 pages, but it felt like it took forever to read, and I always had to force myself to pick it up again. This finally changed about two-thirds of the way through, and I found myself eager to read the last few chapters. But I didn't really enjoy the slog to get there, even while I can see why she included everything that she did up to that point.

I loved the language, though. The rhythms of Malaysian English come through so perfectly I can hear it all in my head. And I liked the story, even liked the way it was told, all the revelations, peeling layers back like an onion. Though I thought some of the reveals were pretty obvious. Like Chellam being innocent and Uncle Ballroom being the better of the two brothers and the guy arrested for murder being framed. I was surprised about Appa's second family, though (though I suppose I should have seen the foreshadowing with Kooky Rooky). I also wished there had been a bit more about Uma. We barely get her POV at all, and she's just this perfect girl who is perfectly perfect at everything from birth and has no personality.

If you need your books to be happy, though, this is not the book for you. Nothing happy happens to anyone ever here.
Title: Flygirl
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Book number/goal: 6/10

Review: Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a African-American woman whose father taught her how to fly. When the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program starts during World War II, Ida Mae is determined to join -- even though it means passing for white.

This book is excellent; grounded in the realities of the time, full of well-researched (but not dry or over-described) historical details, well-told and well-plotted, and it digs deep into the emotional complexities of passing, as well as the difficulties of being a woman in a highly sexist time and place.

Highly recommended, and I'd definitely look up more books by this author! (The author's blurb says she started writing Flygirl as her master's thesis project after hearing about the WASP program on public radio.)
Title: Beacon Hill Boys
Author: Ken Mochizuki
Number of Pages: 208 pages
Book Number/Goal: 22/75 for 2009
My Rating: 2/5

Review: It's 1972 and Dan Inagaki is a pretty average kid, decent grades, but a bit of a slacker. Compared to his older brother, Brad, though, who's perfect at everything, Dan is a total loser, especially in the eyes of his family. They also don't like the way he stands up for himself and for Asian Americans in general, demanding Asian American history be taught in school and books about Asian Americans be added to the library. Better to keep your head down and avoid pissing people off.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Most books about Japanese Americans are about WWII and/or the aftermath of the camps, so it's nice to have a book that's about something else. However, the writing is just not very good. It's not horrible, but just bad in that solidly mediocre way. The dialogue is the worst, not natural at all. I gather the author mostly writes picture books, and I think he should probably stick to that.

The story itself was decent enough, though, and kept my interest pretty well (the book is short and doesn't have a lot of text per page, so I zoomed through it). I'm definitely glad it exists to provide some variety in terms of Japanese-American lit, but I just really wish it were better written.

I especially liked this section, where Dan asks his history teacher if they can learn about the internment camps (which his own parents refuse to tell him about):

He peered at me over the tops of his bifocals and grunted, "I don't care about any Japanese history. We only teach American history around here."

But these camps happened in the US. And people in the camps were American citizens. Didn't that make it American history?

"Look, son, I have a few months to cover over two hundred years. I only cover what's important."

Ouch. The worst thing is knowing that while things have changed some, many people still do think like that. "Why should there be black history month?" ("Where is white history month!?") "Studying Native Americans/black Americans/Asian Americans/Mexican Americans/anyone other than whites is just political correctness gone wild!" There are still many people who think that if it didn't happen to white people (if it was something white people did to people of color), it's not important.
Title: The Story of a Marriage
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Number of Pages: 208 pages
Book Number/Goal: 20/75 for 2009
My Rating: 5/5

Review: It's the early '50s and Pearlie Cook is a young housewife and mother, married to her childhood sweetheart, but her illusion of happiness is shattered when a man claiming to be an old friend of her husband's shows up on her doorstep one day.

I loved this book SO MUCH. I don't even know what to say about it. All I can do is flail happily. Like The Taqwacores, this is a story about people of color (apparently some people thought this was a "twist" in the story, but idk, there are plenty of hints before he comes right out and says it) written by a white guy, and I think he did a good job. He also did an amazing job portraying the delicate relationships between Pearlie and Holland and Buzz. I love Pearlie and Buzz's sort-of friendship, and how Holland is a mystery to both of them. Everything felt completely believable to me. I saw a lot of "why the hell did Pearlie do what she did?" type reviews on Amazon, but I thought it was perfectly obvious and made sense. She didn't do it for the money. She did it because she loved Holland and thought that was the only way for him to be happy (and because she didn't feel she could cross a rich white man). I loved the way the secrets came out, so many layers in such a short book.

I already have another book of his on my shelf to read, and I'd really like to get my hands on his short stories, too. Definitely a new favorite author.
Title: The Taqwacores
Author: Michael Muhammad Knight
Number of Pages: 256 pages
Book Number/Goal: 19/75 for 2009
My Rating: 5/5

Review: Yusef's parents didn't want him living in the dorms, so he rooms in a house with a bunch of other Muslims. But what his parents don't know is that these Muslims include a burqa-wearing feminist, a drunk, and a pothead, and even the most "traditional" member of the group is a punk kid covered in tattoos.

This is basically the story of how Yusef's faith changes over the course of his time living there, and despite the fact that it's specifically about a Muslim guy, the story resonated with me coming from a Christian background as well.

The book assumes an audience of Muslims, so there are a lot of Arabic terms thrown around with no explanation, but I found it easy enough to follow despite that. (And I liked that you're just thrown into that and everything isn't explained.)

Although the author is white (he converted to Islam as a teenager), the characters are almost all people of color (there's one minor character who's white), mostly East and Southeast Asians. I really loved the characters, especially Rabeya and Jehangir.

It's also being made into a movie, which I'm really excited about.


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