Category: Contemporary

I’ll Be the One

by Lyla Lee

ISBN 9780062936929

“Only eight years ago, people only knew about Psy and the memeable moments in “Gagnam Style.” Now BTS is everywhere, and people from all sorts of different backgrounds are lined up to audition.”

As a fat girl, Skye Shin is constantly hearing about all the things she shouldn’t do. Don’t dance. Don’t wear bright colours. Don’t eat too much, especially not in public. Even her own mother is so embarrassed about her weight that they haven’t been back to Korea to visit their extended family for years. But Skye isn’t about to let any of that stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a K-pop star, and she knows she has both the voice and the dance skills to do it. With a permission slip signed by her father, Skye auditions for My Shining Star, the first K-pop reality TV competition to take place entirely in America. But in order to win, she’ll not only have to prove her skills to the judges and audience, but also overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions of an industry whose beauty standards don’t leave any room for girls like her.  

Skye is a confident protagonist is who secure in her appearance but we get hints that this has not always been the case. We learn that in the past her mother put her on a series of restrictive diets, and there is a passing mention of a school counselor who may have been instrumental in helping her throw off that attitude and live her life without constantly thinking about her weight. However, I’ll Be the One isn’t the story of her coming to accept herself, but rather what she does with confidence once she has grounded herself in it. There is one brief moment in the story, after a judge has been particularly nasty to her, that Skye considers resubmitting to a dietary regime, but in general she holds fast to her principles and doesn’t let people’s comments get to her. She literally wears rose-tinted sunglasses to her audition, and this is generally representative of her character and approach to the world.

Skye meets a cute girl in line for her audition, but when Lana turns out to have a girlfriend, Skye pivots just as quickly to being excited about meeting other queer Asian young women. The plot of I’ll Be the One does not focus significantly on Skye’s rivals. Rather, the main villain of the book is Bora, one of the judges of the show. She also happens to be the only woman on the judge’s panel, adding insult to injury. Bora repeatedly calls out Skye’s weight and appearance as being an impediment to her having a real career in the industry, but doesn’t seem to be able to see that this says more about the industry than about Skye or the market itself. With a sole vote, she cannot eliminate Skye single-handedly, but this brings the added pressure of knowing that in each stage of the competition, Skye must win the votes of both other judges every time in order to advance.

Because of the American setting, forbidden romance doesn’t play into I’ll Be the One in quite the same way that it featured in K-Pop Confidential or Shine. However, Skye does have a love interest in the form of Henry Cho, who also tries out for the show. Henry is a social media influencer who is the son of two people who are famous in the Korean entertainment industry, but who does not have a career there himself. However, my favourite part about their relationship is something that doesn’t come up until later in the book once they’ve gotten to know one another fairly well, which is that Henry is also bisexual, a nice bit of double representation. Henry is also the character who provides the window into the potential downsides of fame, and forces Skye into reckoning with the differences between a person’s public persona and their private self.

I’ll Be the One was the third K-pop YA novel I read recently, but I think it had a slightly different vibe while dealing with many of the same issues. Much of this is due to the fact that Skye is living at home and only periodically travelling to Los Angeles to take part in the show. It creates much less of an intense environment than stories in which the protagonist is enrolled in a full-time idol training program and mostly separated from their family. With the added aspect of the representation in this book, I think it might be my favourite of the three. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I initially started explore this genre looking for an analogue to the intense competition and drama provided by dance school books, but this lighter take really hit the spot.

K-Pop Confidential

Cover image for K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Leeby Stephan Lee

ISBN 9781338639988

“I’m starting to feel as if life inside S.A.Y. is the only real life—everything’s so intense and new and dangerous and exciting in there—and everything outside it, this vast, bustling country where my mom and grandfather are, where my ancestors are from, is just a distraction.”

Candace Park loves to sing, but for most of her life she’s been wasting her talent learning the viola to please her parents and help round out her college applications. Secretly she is a big K-Pop fan, an enthusiasm she shares with her best friends, Ethan and Imani. When Imani learns about an open call for talent from S.A.Y. Entertainment, Korea’s biggest K-Pop label, her friends encourage Candace to try out. To her surprise, she is offered a spot in Seoul, and a chance to compete for one of five slots in the girl group S.A.Y. plans to launch at the end of the summer. All she has to do is convince her parents that diving into their homeland’s most cut-throat industry is an opportunity too good to pass up.

The world Stephan Lee has crafted in K-Pop Confidential represents a strange mixture of truth and fiction. Lee invents S.A.Y. Entertainment for the site of his story, replacing one of the largest real companies in the industry with this fictional analogue. However, other bands mentioned in the book are real, and you could craft a fairly substantial playlist of K-pop girl bands just from the songs mentioned in the course of the book. For example, Lee mentions Girls Generation, the band that Jessica Jung—author of Shine—was a member of. In Seoul, Candace is surrounded by young women who have given up large chunks of their childhood for a chance to debut. One her group mates, Binna, has been training for a decade. If you’ve enjoyed books set in other competitive, high pressure environments like ballet school, or the film industry, idol training makes for an analogous setting.

We get a little bit of development of Candance’s relationship with her grandfather, since she is able to see him in person on her days off, but her family is largely out of the picture when she is ensconced at S.A.Y. Her relationships are focused around those she makes with the other girls in her training group, and her feelings for two boys, one of whom is already an idol in the company’s biggest boy band, and the other who is a fellow Korean-American trainee. Neither of the boys are particularly well-developed characters, and Candace’s relationships with her fellow female trainees are significantly more interesting. However, because romantic scandals and gender disparity play such a key part in the downfall of many female idols, the boys remain an important part of the story.

It’s a difficult line for Lee to balance making Candace resistant to the norms inside the idol school, while also having it seem at all realistic that her rebellion would not get her kicked out of the program. The manager who plucked her from the audition in New Jersey is invested in showing the company she made the right choice, which provides a little bit of cover to her behaviour. However, she also simply accepts the grueling hours and restrictive diet, hiding these facts from her mother when she is allowed to visit on weekends, so that she won’t be pulled out of training. Candace develops close friendships with some of her fellow trainees, but her interactions with even the people she likes can be fraught by the competition. Particularly interesting is her antagonism with Helena Cho, a fellow Korean American who believes the company will not select more than one American to be part of the girl group. Interestingly, it is Helena’s fate that ultimately shapes Candace’s biggest choices about her future.

The book reads well as a stand-alone, but according to the author, a second volume tentatively titled K-Pop Revolution will follow the girl group formed in K-Pop Confidential, due out in 2022.

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Wasted Words

Cover image for Wasted Words by Staci Hartby Staci Hart

“The rules you made? The shelves people belong on? You’ve created them yourself. You’ve built your own prison out of something imaginary, and you ended up hurt anyway.”   

Since moving from Iowa to New York City, Cam has had a series of nerdy jobs from comic book retailer to her current gig as the co-manager of Wasted Words, a bar meets book store where she hosts singles nights in addition to selling books and comics. She’s also had a series of roommates, the most recent of whom is Tyler, sent by her last roommate to take her place when she moved out. Recently dumped, Tyler had nowhere else to go, but in the year they’ve lived together Tyler and Cam have become fast friends. Cam is a book nerd while Tyler is a former football player turned sports agent, so it seems like they should have nothing in common. Cam is firm believer in sorting like with like, but Tyler will force her to challenge her assumptions about what makes a good match.

Wasted Words is fairly loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma. Cam fancies herself a matchmaker, although she’s a bit better at it than Emma ever was. However, much like the original, she lets herself get carried away by her imagination, sometimes causing her friends to get hurt in the process. However, it misses out on some of my other favourite aspects of Austen’s original, particularly Emma’s relationship with her father. Cam’s family doesn’t feature at all in the story. The matchmaking aspect of Emma works well in a modern setting, but the familial dynamics and social relationships can be harder to translate.

One thing that surprised me about the book is that it wasn’t a slow burn towards getting together at the end, like you might expect if it was closely following Emma. Rather, Cam and Tyler realize their feelings for one another less than halfway through, and the second part of the book is more about reconciling their differences and facing up to their past traumas in order to be able to move forward. Tyler was dumped by his girlfriend after the injury that ended his football career, and Cam is hiding an old hurt that dates back to high school that she refuses to talk about, much less process.

Cam’s anxiety isn’t immediately evident before she and Tyler get together, though we have a few hints about a traumatizing incident from her past. So it’s a bit jarring when Cam, who seems mostly level-headed if occasionally a bit controlling, starts to spin out in the second half. Her anxiety ramps up, and before she knows it she is jinxing the best thing that has ever happened to her, all because she has certain ideas about herself and what she does or doesn’t deserve in a relationship.

In terms of romance tropes, Wasted Words solidly hits mutual pining, roommates, and friends to lovers. Throw in the Austen connection, and there is a lot to love here. The ending was a bit over the top for my tastes, but fans of the romantic comedy grand gesture will probably find it satisfying.

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An Unnecessary Woman

Cover image for An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine by Rabih Alameddine

ISBN 978-0-8021-294-0

“There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment. Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear as and concise as your stories.”

Seventy-two year old Aaliya has lived a retired life in Beirut ever since her husband left her after only four years of marriage, when she was just twenty years old. Laying claim to the marital home, a small apartment in a four storey building, Aaliya builds a quiet life for herself, working in a bookshop by day, and translating twentieth century literature into Arabic by night. Each year she chooses a new project, using an English and a French translation of her title of choice as the source material for her own translations. Even the civil war and subsequent unrest that shakes Beirut cannot disturb her routine overmuch. Aaliya has held on to her home and her independence for more than five decades, despite repeated efforts by her family to claim the apartment from her, until her eldest half-brother’s latest attempt to foist responsibility for their extremely elderly mother onto Aaliya’s shoulders finally shakes her routine irrevocably.

Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel follows the first person narrative of a woman at once brave and fragile, and interrogates the difference between loneliness and solitude. At first glance, Aaliya’s routine seems solitary but purposeful. She enjoyed a long career as a bookseller until the shop closed four years ago and she retired. In her spare time, she has translated thirty-seven works of world literature into Arabic, including such massive titles as Anna Karenina and The Book of Disquiet.  But as we follow Aaliya’s train of thought over the course of a few days surrounding her brother’s unwelcome visit, the cracks in her façade become clear.

After her divorce, there are only two significant figures in Aaliya’s life, her shop assistant, Ahmad, and her friend, Hannah. However, it becomes apparent that the decades-past end of these two relationships have left scars that prevent her from forming new bonds. Even though she has lived in the same building for five decades, where her original landlord’s daughter is now the landlady, she is not close to her neighbours. The other women in her building meet every morning for coffee on the stoop above hers, but while Aaliya often listens at the window to their conversations, sharing their joys and sorrows, she never joins them, preferring to occupy herself with her translations. And although Aaliya is certainly an experienced translator, no one has ever seen her work. Furthermore, she is convinced no one would ever want to see it, since her works are translations of translations, because she has forbidden herself to translate any work originally published in English or French, the two languages besides Arabic that she speaks.

An Unnecessary Woman chronicles Aaliya’s increasingly disquieted ruminations, during a period when her usual routines can bring her no comfort. She is particularly disturbed by her inability to settle on a book to translate as the New Year approaches, threatening the very system she has built her life around. Though the action is sparse, Alameddine’s striking way with words, particularly playing with similar sounding words, gives Aaliya a strong voice. Of her early marriage, she says that she was “gifted to the first unsuitable suitor to appear at our door.” Of her mother’s inability to understand the failure of Aaliya’s marriage, she remarks “in her world, husbands were omnipotent, not impotent.” Alameddine’s metaphors are also noteworthy. “When I think of him, my memory’s eyes have cataracts,” says Aaliya of her inability to recall what her stepfather looked like. “I am my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage,” she says of her early home life. Alameddine’s carefully crafted prose and command of world literature turn this quiet work into a force to be reckoned with.

The Book of Unknown Americans

Cover image for The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquezby Cristina Henríquez

ISBN 978-0-385-35085-3

“I just stood there, staring at the flat cast-iron pan, feeling homesickness charge at me like a roaring wave, filling my nostrils and my ears, threatening to knock me down.”

The Rivera family has a happy life in Mexico, until a terrible accident sends them north to Delaware, where they hope to enroll their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel in a special needs school that will help her recover from the trauma. With barely a word of English between them, Alma and Arturo Rivera leave behind their comfortable home in Pátzcuaro in order to give their daughter her best chance at a normal life. The somewhat rundown apartment complex they move into in Delaware is inhabited by a motley crew of Hispanic immigrants from all over South America, each of whom has also had to start over from nothing in a new country. Their neighbours include the Toro family from Panama, and when Major Toro meets Maribel, he soon becomes taken with her, striking up a friendship that will quickly become central to both their lives. The two families become fast friends, but the Riveras’ desire to protect their daughter soon complicates Major’s relationship with Maribel.

The central plot of The Book of Unknown Americans is carried by Mayor, and Maribel’s mother, Alma. Though many voices speak, the narrative is passed back to them again and again. Shy, and unpopular, Mayor is struggling to live up to the legacy of his older brother Enrique, who was a popular soccer player at their high school before he left for college. Once Major sees past Maribel’s differences, their relationship quickly becomes the most significant one in his life. For Maribel, Major is the only person who treats her like she is more than her disability, and doesn’t underestimate her. Meanwhile, Alma is mainly concerned with protecting her daughter, and figuring out how to navigate their new life in America. Alma is carrying a heavy burden of guilt surrounding the accident in which Maribel sustained her injury, and tends to overcompensate as a result. While Arturo is working grueling ten hour days in the dark at a mushroom farm, she tries to protect him from her worries and concerns, and facing these challenges alone. Unfortunately, the thread of the story never passes to Maribel, who doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself.

Interspersed with Mayor and Alma’s narrations are the stories of the other immigrants who populate the apartment complex where they live. From Nicaragua to Puerto Rico to Guatemala to Paraguay to Venezuela, these neighbours have come from all over Latin America, and now relate what brought them to the United States. They tell their stories in short chapters that are little slices of life, glimpses of other situations and possibilities. Nelia Zafón came from Puerto Rico chasing the dream of being a dancer and actress. Adolfo Angelino left Mexico in hopes of training as a boxer with a famous coach. The Toro family fled the chaos and poverty that attended the fall of Manuel Noriega in Panama. These accounts often have little bearing on the central narrative, and sometimes even distract from it, but they serve to emphasize the variety of immigrant experience, and the many different roads that eventually led them to Delaware, where they form a supportive community for other newcomers.

Although simply told, Henríquez’s narrative is suffused with the sympathy and detail that is missing from much of the public discourse about immigration in America. While some of the characters are illegal immigrants, most are not, and the Toro family members are all American citizens. Major can barely even remember Panama, and struggles with the fact that he feels more American than Panamanian, but is constantly subjected to racial slurs at school. One and all, Henríquez’s characters come in search of a better life, if not for themselves, then hopefully for their children. Their voices are hopeful and seek out moments of happiness and success, even as they highlight the struggle to be accepted into American society, where they are “the ones that no one even wants to know, because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”

Words and Their Meanings

Cover image for Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassettby Kate Bassett

ISBN 978-0-7387-4029-4

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“The shrinks all want to talk about coffin yoga. They can’t fathom the way some people have no rhyme or reason to their mourning. How maybe there are more ways to grieve than the stupid fives steps outlined in their colorful pamphlets.”

Anna, once an aspiring writer, lost her words the day her uncle died. It’s been one year since Joe’s death, and everyone, from her therapist, to her parents, thinks she should be getting over it by now. But Anna hasn’t told anyone about how Joe’s death is really her fault, so she has to go on coping as best she knows how; by emulating 70s punk rocker Patti Smith, and doing nineteen minutes of “coffin yoga” every morning, one minute for every year of Joe’s life. Anna promised her parents that the “deadaversary” would be a turning point, but only because they have threatened to send her to a summer camp for troubled teens if she doesn’t start trying to act more normal. But two events really do turn out to be catalysts for change. First, she meets Mateo at her new job and strikes up a relationship. She also discovers a terrible secret Joe was keeping which forces her to question how well she knew him, even as she sets out to try to solve the mystery of his betrayal.

Words and Their Meanings is a first-person narrative that takes the reader deep into the unprocessed grief of an unhappy teenager carrying a heavy burden of guilt. Being inside Anna’s head is chaotic and angsty, in a way that is both exhausting and terribly real. If there is any drawback to the novel, it is that it is difficult to be with Anna on this emotional rollercoaster. Her grief is raw, vivid, and genuine, and beautifully counterpointed by her intense new feelings for Mateo. Anna falls for Mateo fast and hard, but can’t help feeling guilty about embarking on a romance when Joe is dead, a circumstance for which she blames herself. Her parents have also divorced in the aftermath, as her father engages in his own inappropriate expressions of grief. Her younger sister Bea copes by hiding in unexpected and dangerous places, while her mother simply tries to hold it all together.

Words and Their Meanings also comes with strong cast of secondary characters. Although he is primarily the love interest, in some ways Mateo is also a reflection of Anna as she could have been if Joe hadn’t died. He is a talented chef, on his way to a top culinary program, and a successful career, but struggling under the pressure of that future. Anna has lost or given up her words, relinquishing the pressure that went with her talent in favour of expressing herself through Patti Smith’s lyrics. But perhaps the most intriguing character is Gramps, who is the only member of the family who doesn’t seem to have been unhinged by Joe’s death. He is a rock, and a source of wisdom, but Anna isn’t really ready to hear most of what he has to say.

In addition to the strong characters, there is also a lot of beautiful writing in Words and Their Meanings. Kate Bassett hands Anna snippets of glittering prose, which managed to make me believe the extent of Anna’s potential as a writer without her ever having to write anything during the story. She lets Patti Smith speak for her instead, with daily verses inscribed in marker on her arms, and the selections are stunningly apt reflections of Anna’s struggle. The verses fade away as Anna forgets to engage in her rituals of grief, and I found myself missing them, even though I knew the story didn’t need them anymore. It left me intensely curious about the life and work of Patti Smith, a strange role model for a modern teenager if there ever was one.

Words and Their Meanings is a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. The highs are high, and the lows are low, making this an intensely emotional read from start to finish.

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Tease

Cover image for Tease by Amanda Maciel by Amanda Maciel

ISBN 9780062305305

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book through ARCycling. Thanks to Emma at Awkwordly Emma for passing along her copy.

“I never really understood irony when Mrs. Thale tried to teach us about it in English, but I sure get it now. Now that I get bullied for being a bully.”

Emma Putnam killed herself, and it’s all Sara Wharton’s fault, or at least that’s what everyone except Sara seems to believe. Emma was never popular at school (except with the boys), but when she tried to steal Sara’s boyfriend, Sara and her best friend Brielle hatched a plan to ensure that Emma would transfer to a new school. Unfortunately, the bullying pushed Emma over the edge, and now Sara and Brielle are going to be put on trial for stalking and criminal harassment. Her lawyers think she should make a deal, but Sara doesn’t believe she did anything wrong, and refuses to settle. As the trial date creeps closer, Sara is forced to reflect on what happened, and find a way to live with the consequences of her actions.

Tease begins in July, a couple months after Emma’s suicide. Sara is essentially under house arrest, except for attending therapy, summer school, and appointments with her lawyers. There are no legal restrictions on her, but her infamy follows her everywhere she goes in their small town. Brielle’s wealthy family is shielding her from facing the wrath of her peers and her community, leaving Sara to bear much of the scrutiny alone. The narrative moves forward from this point, but also flashes back to the school year, revealing more and more of Sara and Brielle’s vicious tactics, as they spur one another to ever more brutal pranks. This style is very effective, although it necessarily leaves Emma and her parents somewhat underdeveloped, since we only see them through Sara’s eyes.

Tease was, at times, a gut wrenchingly difficult read. Sara and Brielle were relentless bullies, slut-shaming and intimidating Emma both at school and online. For most of the novel, Sara struggles to feel any kind of remorse for her actions, seeing only how Emma’s suicide has ruined her own life. It was hard and sometimes even physically sickening to be in her head while she tried to justify her actions. If you dislike unsympathetic protagonists, this is not the book for you. But I think this book is important, because it portrays the bully as a person, rather than a one-dimensional villain. Sara doesn’t bully because she is evil; she has human motivations and weaknesses, from too much adult responsibility in her family, to a toxic relationship with Brielle. None of these factors excuse her behaviour but they are the difference between the caricature of a bully and a developed character.

Even as Sara takes some steps in the right direction towards the end of the novel, we are faced with the profound unfairness of the situation; Sara has to find a way to go on with her life, but at least she has a life to go on with. Dealing with rape, slut-shaming, cyber-bullying, and teen sex, and centering on the bully rather than the victim, Tease is inevitably going to be a controversial novel. It is ripe for discussion on a number of timely topics, and Maciel’s refusal to condemn or take sides will force readers to think deeply.

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A Guide for the Perplexed

Cover image for A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Hornby Dara Horn

ISBN 978-0-393-06489-6

“She watched as Itamar winced again at Josie’s name. There was something pleasant about his flinching, Judith noticed, a warmth in seeing him crumple. It flowed through her like a wave of hot water in a bath.”

Josie Ashkenazi is the creator of a revolutionary software program, called Genizah, which records the daily activities of its users, creating a self-sorting digital memory bank. The Genizah software is named after the Cairo Genizah, a repository of Jewish documents discovered in an Egyptian synagogue in the late 1800s which included writing by Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam, author of A Guide for the Perplexed, from which this novel takes its name. When Josie is offered a consulting gig at the new Library of Alexandria, her jealous older sister Judith persuades her to take the opportunity, despite the civil unrest plaguing Egypt. Judith dreams of three weeks out from under the shadow of her younger sister, who she works for, but when Josie is kidnapped and held for ransom, Judith slips into her life, trying to claim Josie’s husband and daughter for her own. Josie and Judith’s story of sibling rivalry runs parallel to the story of Solomon Schechter, who was one of the early scholars who studied the contents of the Cairo Genizah. Estranged from his own twin brother, his study of the Genizah papers brings him into contact with twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who are so close they have never lived apart. Earlier still, Mosheh is serving as a doctor to the royal court of Egypt, and sends his own brother, David, on a dangerous trip to Asia in search of an herb that may be able to cure his patient’s asthma. All these stories of sibling rivalry revolve around the biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers.

Dara Horn’s ambitious family drama is introspective and philosophical, delving deeply into philosophy and theology as it unpacks sibling relationships, and questions the nature of memory, particularly examining the differences between the biological and the digital. The things people choose to remember and forget are telling, and the memories held in a digital Genizah sometimes differ sharply from the way people choose to remember an event. Horn’s beautiful prose and surreal dream sequences are counterpointed but the brutality and urgency of Josie’s captivity, and interspersed with dense theological passages from the writing of Maimonides. The imagery is clever and detailed, though all of these factors taken together make for some extremely slow pacing. The multiple narratives slowly build on one another, layer upon layer. Ultimately, though the kidnapping triggers the events of the story set in the present day, this is a book more for those looking for introspection and philosophy than a mystery or thriller. The plot is secondary to the characters, and to Horn’s inquiry into the nature of the human mind.