American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Using humorous intertwining story lines, Yang presents a mix of realistic fiction and Chinese mythology, each of which illustrate the desire to belong and the painful repercussions of stereotypes. Jin Wang must attempt to outrun his Chinese heritage in American schools, Chin-Kee, who is ruining his American cousin’s life, presents a negative racist caricature, and the Monkey King must prove his worth to the other gods. With bright, engaging images and seamless transitions, Yang makes a powerful point about tolerance and the continual struggle for those with different heritage to be completely accepted in American society.

I LOVED this one! The illustrations are beautiful and often hilarious. The dialogue is believable and funny — all around this is a highly entertaining book. While at first it might seem that the three different stories don’t have much to do with each other, they all come together in an interesting twist at the end. My one criticism was that I thought the ending was too rushed, and part of the “twist” just didn’t make sense to me. However, the book is still really well done (it won the Printz award!), and delivers a powerful message about how damaging stereotypes can be. Even if you’re not a fan of “comic books”, give this one a read — you won’t want to put it down!

*Printz Award Winner

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS), click here.

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First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge take over the government of Cambodia, wishing to turn the country into an self-sufficient, “pure” agrarian society. The result is widespread famine, death, and brutal genocide of the Cambodian people. In her haunting memoir of her childhood during this period, Loung Ung details her transformation from a privileged “city” girl to a starving, homeless orphan who would kill to survive.

If you couldn’t tell from the title, this one is HEAVY. It’s heartbreaking to watch Ung narrate as her life goes from comfortable middle-class to an inch away from starvation or execution, all within a matter of days. What I liked most was that Ung writes from her child-self’s point of view — even though she’s an adult writing the memoir, it’s her five-year-old self telling the story. Her words are therefore simple but powerful, and you won’t soon forget her story. If you get easily grossed out, or if you’re not a big fan of violence, this one may not be for you. However, Ung’s memoir of her time in Cambodia is a testament to just how lucky so many of us are, and how much we should strive to help those around us.

Rating: 4.5/5

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS), click here.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

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Set amid the outbreak of WWI, the first in Westerfeld’s Leviathan series follows characters Alek (the son of assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and Deryn Sharp. Both Alek and Deryn seek adventure – Alek is thrust into his when his parents are murdered and he must go into hiding; Deryn is a girl masquerading as a boy in order to sail on British air beast, Leviathan. However, though their lives are radically different, the two eventually cross paths and must work together in order to survive.

This was the first Steampunk novel I’ve read, and I have to admit I was skeptical. The Steampunk genre just seems a little weird to me, so I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I was wrong! Leviathan is incredible — there’s a ton of action and suspense. If you don’t know much about WWI, don’t worry — you don’t need to be a history nerd to enjoy the novel. Westerfeld provides some background information at the end of the novel, and the characters do a good job of explaining what’s going on. Westerfeld’s imaginative machines and “beasties” are truly amazing — I was completely blown away by the detail he goes into when describing how they work. The illustrations Keith Thompson provides are also exceptional, and really help with understanding exactly how these crazy creatures look and function. All around, this is a great read! The 400+ pages fly by, and the end will leave you reaching for the next two in the series, which are Behemoth and Goliath. I’ll definitely be reading them!

This one has a great book trailer! Click here to watch.

Rating: 4.5/5

Series: Leviathan, Behemoth, Goliath

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS), click here.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Using graphic novel format, Satrapi recalls her time as an Iranian child during the country’s multiple violent regime changes. For Satrapi, life is dangerous, as she embodies everything the hyper-religious new government abhors: independence and free thinking. Though the book is over ten years old, readers will still find it extremely relevant, as it sheds personal light on the conflict in the Middle East, and explores such themes as feminism, religious fanaticism, fear, and, ultimately, sacrifice.

If you’re like me and don’t know a lot about the conflict in the Middle East, Persepolis is a good place to gain some knowledge. As it’s a graphic novel (comic book), it makes for a pretty easy read, and the illustrations help make characters believable and relatable. Additionally, the author does a good job of providing some background information on Iran and how the country got to its current state of violence and religious rule. Through her personal story of living in Iran, Marjane shows readers that Iran is not a country full of extremists — rather, the citizens of Iran find themselves caught under repressive governments, unable to exercise the freedoms that other countries enjoy. The memoir is an eye-opener for sure. A quick, but powerful read that gives insight into an often unfamiliar and stereotyped world.

Rating: 4/5

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS), click here.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Gantos recalls his life as a transient young adult, including his involvement in a drug running scheme that eventually lands him in prison. Using a straightforward, simplistic style, Gantos speaks to the reality of prison life, and details his transformation from a reckless criminal to an adult responsible for his own actions. Readers will connect to Gantos’ wish for adventure, and will hopefully realize, as the author did, that your life depends on the choices you make.

If you’re not usually a fan of nonfiction, this book is a great place to start. The first person narrative will draw you in, and Gantos is an extremely relatable character. His life is boring and pointless, and all he wants is some excitement to shake things up! At some point or other, I think that all of us have felt this way. Gantos, however, takes things to the extreme — he winds up on a “high seas” adventure with a drug runner. You know from the beginning of the book that Gantos does not get away with his crimes, so it’s interesting to watch his downfall from his own hindsight perspective. Sometimes the book does come across as an anti-drug book, or a “scared straight” story, but there’s enough action to keep you interested. Definitely a great pick if you’re looking for (or are assigned to read) an autobiography or memoir.

* Printz Award Honor Book

Rating: 4/5

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

 

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

After her parents’ bitter and publicized divorce, Mclean Sweet lives with her dad as he travels around the country saving failing restaurants. In each new place, Mclean invents a new identity, running from both herself and her family’s past. However, in Lakeview, Mclean meets Dave, the son of overbearing professors, and, with him, finally attempts to just be herself.

I have to be honest — I looked at the cover of this book and really thought it would be just a Nicholas-Sparks-type-fluffy-romance. In some ways it is — it’s a relatively easy read with a kind of predictable plot. However, I thought it was really good! The dialogue is great, and really moves the story along. Mclean is an excellent narrator, and she really highlights what it’s like to be torn between two parents who don’t love each other anymore — heavy stuff! There’s also an interesting sports element, as Mclean is named after her dad’s old college basketball coach, so the game is very big part of the story. However, the story is mostly about friendship, forgiveness, and finding yourself. A little long, but surprisingly good.

Rating: 4/5

*VOYA’s Perfect Tens List, 2011

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Following her parents’ divorce and sister, June’s, suicide, Harper finds herself lost in an emotional storm of anger, betrayal, and confusion. June was the “perfect” daughter and student – no one can understand why she would take her own life, least of all Harper. Accompanied by her best friend, Laney, and mysterious semi-delinquent, Jake, Harper flees her catatonic mother and absent father in a quest to spread June’s ashes in the one place June believed she’d find happiness: California

This one is extremely sad, but deals with many important issues that aren’t always talked about. It’s hard to deal with losing someone close to you, especially to suicide, and this book does a great job of capturing that struggle. The characters are funny and believable, and Harper is an excellent narrator. It thought it was easy to relate to her feelings of not being good enough, and, even after June’s death, she still feels like her parents are comparing them. Harper’s best friend, Laney, is hilarious and the perfect road trip companion, and Jake is equally as entertaining. There’s even a twist at the end — you won’t want to put this one down!

Also, the music mentioned in the book is awesome! The soundtracks are listed at the end, so be sure to check out the songs.

Rating: 4.5/5

*VOYA’s Perfect Tens List, 2011

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS), click here.