Book Review: The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

This is the second novel by Cynthia Kadohata that I’ve read, and I definitely like her style.  She’s got an intense way of getting into the head of teenaged and pre-teen characters that really shows the world in a believable way.  The Thing About Luck focuses on the year of bad luck that Summer, a first generation Japanese American girl, and her family face.  It shows her journey into understanding herself and her family’s situation better, and it fits a grander theme of coming of age narratives.

All through the novel, Summer is faced with various ethical dilemmas and her various cultural and personal influences thoughts and pushes on how to deal with them.  She clearly grows and matures while still having a very self consistent voice that is very appealing.  Even when the reader can tell she’s about to do something that isn’t a very good idea, they can also see why she’s doing it.  One of the things that I loved about some of these themes throughout the novel is that there often wasn’t a best choice.  However, the reader can see her making better and better choices (for the most part) as the novel progresses.

One of the other things that I love about the novel is that it has a very open, caring view on a family that clearly has some neurodivergence.  In the end, Summer and Jaz (her younger brother, whose is shown as being somehow neurodivergent) are a pair of siblings who are clearly close and go to each other with important things, even if they have their differences like most siblings.  The conflict in the novel that deals with this has more to do with people outside the family not being fair to him, but it does seem to be getting better.

Overall, I would recommend this book for late elementary school through middle school readers, and I would pair it with other coming of age narratives.  There’s definitely some interesting things about farming/rural settings that could be used as a theme for what to put this with as well.

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Book Review: Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

I picked up Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata from the library on a whim when I saw that part of the book was set in Kazakhstan.  A quick glance told me that it would fit this project, but I didn’t take all that much time to mull over whether it would be a good fit.  (I’m a small part Kazakh, and it’s a part of my heritage and history that I want to know more about than I do.)  The book turned out to be interesting to me in all sorts of ways beyond just that.

Kadohata tackles adoption from foreign countries in all the hard ways in this novel.  She presents characters with flaws, major ones, that are still sympathetic and have the reader wanting everything to turn out alright for them.  Almost ever single character in the book is likable in some way, and I really appreciated that she managed to make some of the characters be at odds to each other and still likable.

I also loved that the novel had strong positive representations of mental health care (not as infallible but as useful), adoption (which I already mentioned, but it bears repeating), and unconventional families.  I need to see more of all of these in literature.

On top of being a good look into a hard topic, Half a World Away is beautifully written with real sounding dialogue and interesting descriptions of the world.  It’s a book that I definitely think will merit several re-reads to catch details that I missed before.  The emotional arcs of the characters were fascinating, and there was a lot going on in a small amount of space.

Reading Level:  late-elementary through middle school, could definitely be brought back in higher levels, but high schoolers might not engage with it well because the protagonist is “too young”
Pair With:  narratives about immigration and adoption

Book Review: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park is an excellent piece of historical fiction aimed at a middle grade to young adult reading level.  It has fascinating, complex characters, and is very informative about the setting (12th Century Korea) and what it might have been like from the perspective of an everyday person.  I love these sorts of looks at culture and historical context.

There are many beautiful messages scattered through this book about the importance of art and found family and perseverance and taking risks for your dreams (even when they seem daunting).

I love the use of folklore motifs throughout the novel, and I love the way that it looks through a historical and cultural window into a different time.  This would be an excellent complement in the classroom to the more common European geared look at historical fiction, and I could easily see putting it next to the young adult historical fiction novels of E. L. Konisburg or other similar writers.

Reading Level:  mid-elementary through middle, could also be examined in college in the context of historical lit perspectives
Pair With: E. L. Konisburg, young adult historical fiction from around the world

Book Review: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros is a collection of short stories.  Ranging in length from vignettes to novellas, they all focus on characters studies and the relationships between people.  The collection of short stories is divided into three sections.  Each section has a different theme, but put together they try to model many different elements of life.

I.  “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn”

The first section of the collection is about childhood.  The short stories, all vignettes, in this section are written from the voice of a child.  In the first story, she is very young, and she gets older as the stories progress.  These stories are all tinged with nostalgia and memory of early childhood perceptions of things.  Two of the stories in particular caught my attention:  “Eleven” and “Salvador Late or Early.”

“Eleven” is about the concept of growing up and what that means.  The skillful crafting of the language is very much something that brings me back to Cisneros’s writing, and the opening of this short story is one of my favorite pieces of writing by her.

“What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.  And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t.  You open your eyes and everything’s just the same, only it’s today.  And you don’t feel eleven at all.  You feel like you’re still ten.  And you are–underneath the year that makes you eleven.” — Sandra Cisneros (“Eleven”, Woman Hollering Creek)

“Salvador Late or Early” is a very brief character sketch, but it paints a very vivid image of the life of a character in only a few pages.

II.  “One Holy Night”

This section focuses on teenagers and the cusp of life between childhood and adulthood.  There are only two stories in this section:  “One Holy Night” and “My Tocaya.”  Neither of these stories struck me nearly as strongly as the stories in the childhood section.  They are interesting though and add to the collection as a whole.

III.  “There Was A Man, There Was A Woman”

The third and final section, also by far the longest, focuses on adulthood and relationships.  Many of the stories are vignettes, conversations, or just brief snapshots of life.  Some of them are beautiful or heart wrenching.  All of them manage to capture a moment in vibrant detail.  A few of these stories managed to catch my attention far more strongly than the others though.

“Woman Hollering Creek,” the titular story of the collection, is the first story in this section.  It focuses on a woman from Mexico who was married very young to a Mexican man living in Texas.  It is a story of feelings of helplessness, domestic abuse, and the escape from that and reclaiming of the self.  It is a powerful story with powerful imagery, and it opens well into the rest of the section.

“Eyes of Zapata” was one of my favorite stories in the entire collection.  Imbued with a heavy dose of magical realism, the narrative focuses on memories and is told non-linearly to create a narrative of a country torn by revolution and political upheaval through the eyes of a “witch” about her relationship and her children.  The imagery throughout this story is incredible, and if I had to pick just one story from the collection, this would probably be it.

“Little Miracles, Kept Promises” is written as a series of letters to saints, expressing wishes or thanking the saint for a wish fulfilled.  The final letter of the string of letters is far and away the most powerful.  It deals with a woman facing her heritage and how she comes to terms with it while also claiming herself as her own person with her own needs and desires.  The writing is evocative, and her letter reminds me of so many of the other stories throughout the collection.

The last two stories in the collection are tied to each other.  “Tin Tan Tan” is a short acrostic prose poem to a woman named Lupita by her former lover.  It is full of vulnerability and seems very genuine, but it is able to be seen in a much more satirical light when viewed through the lens of the story that follows it.  “Bien Pretty” is the story of the relationship and how it ended through the eyes of Lupe, the woman that the poem is about.  It focuses on her personal journey and growth and how she comes out of it with a new appreciation and connection to herself.  Love in this story, like in many of the stories in the collection, is not a kind experience, but it does help Lupe grow and change.  These two stories together could make for an interesting discussion of unreliable narrators.

Reading Level:  Ranges from late elementary up for some stories, to late high school up for others.

Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Earlier this year, I read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok and absolutely adored it.  It has so far been one of my favorite books that I have read for this project, so when I saw that Jean Kwok was releasing a new novel, I was excited to get the chance to read it.  It took a while for the book to make its way to me through the library hold process, but Mambo in Chinatown was well worth the wait!

Mambo in Chinatown is a slightly more mature novel than Girl in Translation was in that it follows the worries and life of an adult narrator, but the skill with which Kwok captured the voice of the central character is beautifully similar.  Through the narrative voice of Charlie Wong, the reader is able to get a true glimpse inside the life of the child of immigrants coming to terms with herself in a difficult transition period in her life.

The balance that is most fascinating throughout the novel is represented through the difference between Charlie inside and outside Chinatown.  Her ability to separate and compartmentalize parts of herself is something that I think many readers would recognize, and the reasons behind it shed a lot of light into the experiences of a person or character in her position.

The novel is full of compelling, complex characters, and I very much enjoyed reading it.  I will avidly watch for new books from Jean Kwok in the future.  Both of her novels so far have impressed me a huge amount, and I cannot wait to see what she will come out with next.

Reading Level:  high school and up

Book Review: Bone by Fae Myenne Ng

It took me a few tries to get properly started on Bone by Fae Myenne Ng, partially because I have been busy with work, and partially because some of the descriptions of San Francisco were almost jarringly familiar.  This was actually one of my favorite elements of the novel once I got over the strangeness of being thrown back into a city I haven’t been in in years.  Ng captures San Francisco brilliantly, and as I read the novel I was in my mind walking and busing along the streets and routes that she tells about.  I don’t know if it would be as striking an experience for someone who isn’t extremely familiar with SF, but I was impressed with the way that she captured the city.

Bone doesn’t follow a chronological path, but it captures a fascinating look into the emotional process of grief and coming to terms with death.  The novel also shows an intense insider’s perspective of San Francisco’s Chinatown and life there during the protagonist’s childhood and early adulthood.

Ng’s characters are compelling and understandable, and I found myself drawn into the emotions and conflicts surrounding their family bonds.  Through those conflicts, bit by bit, the story of their world was shown.  While the novel is about a very personal set of conflicts, the very circumstances of those personal conflicts brings to light a lot of the generational tensions present in SF’s Chinatown and many other places.

There were elements of this novel that really reminded me of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.  Both novels follow a similar cultural narrative about how the children of immigrant families adapt and change to fit into their new country.  I think that the two novels would make a fascinating comparison, and I really liked both of them.

Reading Level:  High School and up

Pair With:  Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents 

Book Review: Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India follows the political upheaval of the Indian independence movement and the division of India and Pakistan through the eyes of a child in Lahore, one of the contested regions.  The early life of the central character is a fascinatingly jumbled portrait of diversity and community that ignores boundaries potentially created by religion.  As she grows up, and the country becomes far more divided, her awareness mirrors the divisions and breaking of the country.

 

This is a fascinating piece of political fiction and personal fiction.  All the characters seemed intensely real, as though they were people remembered instead of invented, and the confusion over the divisions of countries and former friends and neighbors felt all the more real while reading because of it.

 

Most of the literature about this period that I have read in the past has been focused on adults and people who were higher in the political order.  This novel shows the perspectives of normal people, present in the moment of collapse and facing the consequences of political decisions that they had no sway over.  Overall, I would highly recommend Cracking India as part of a curriculum focused on the voices of the people during political turmoil.

 

Reading Level:  High school and up

Pair With:  Narratives of revolution and political upheaval from the voices of the people