Book Review: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Book: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Published May 2018 by Nancy Paulsen Books|240 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when—as the eldest daughter—she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens—after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt. 

Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal—especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.

Here is another really great middle grade contemporary!  I really enjoyed this one, and I actually felt really sad for Amal.  I can’t imagine a world where you have to work as a servant to pay off debt and because you said the wrong thing to the wrong person…especially at the age of 12.

Initially, I assumed that this book was historical fiction, and then I was horrified and sad when I realized it was more contemporary.  I feel terrible that I had assumed indentured servants were a thing of the past, but that the Khan family used children as servants made me feel sick to my stomach.

I loved Amal, and all she wanted was to go to school.  Things changed, and not surprisingly, things worked out for her in the end.  This book showed how important it is to speak out against injustice, and that everyone deserves an education.  I’m lucky that I have had chances that Amal didn’t have, and while I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, the part of me that wants to learn more wishes there were a list of books for further reading.  Maybe that’s just me though.

It was a little bit darker than what I would expect for middle grade, but it’s not too dark for younger readers.  I was dropped into Amal’s world, and she is a character that I enjoyed seeing.  I loved her relationship with her family and friends, and how she found new friends at the Khan estate.  Saeed did such a great job at showing Amal’s village and you really felt Amal’s need to get back to her family.

4 stars.  I would recommend Amal Unbound to everyone.  I loved Amal’s determination to do what was right, and her story is one everyone needs to read.

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Book Review: Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge

Book: Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge

Published August 2017 by Simon Schuster Books For Young Readers|272 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Debut author Kristi Wientge tackles the uncomfortable—but all too relatable—subject of female body hair and self-esteem with this sweet and charming novel in the tradition of Judy Blume.

Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip.

With everyone around her focused on other things, Karma is left to figure out what to make of her terrifyingly hairy surprise all on her own.

I think I’ve been in a middle grade contemporary mood lately because this is one of a few I’ve read recently.  I mostly read YA (and only rarely read middle grade), but this one jumped out at me because it tackles body hair.  I’ve read a lot of books in the 7.5 years I’ve been reviewing books and while I can’t always remember what I read a week or two ago, much less years ago, I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve read a book about a character dealing with body hair.

It does have a Judy Blume feel to it (for some reason, I’m specifically reminded of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret), and I think Judy Blume fans will enjoy this one.  Regardless of whether you’ve read Judy Blume or not, this is a book I’m glad I picked up.

There is a lot that comes up in this book- food and identity, bullying, friendship, and much more.  It’s not long, and it’s middle grade, so it doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but I still thought that you get a really good sense of what Karma is dealing with.  I liked seeing her realize that both she and her best friend need other friends as well.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the new girl in town, who becomes friends with Karma’s best friend.  Even though I can understand why she acted the way she did, I still wasn’t a fan.  Hopefully, she’ll change and realize that she wasn’t always nice, and that how she treated Karma wasn’t cool.

Karma’s middle school experience was pretty relatable and I wish it had been around when I was around 11 or 12.  Not necessarily the friendship drama part, but the feeling insecure about how I looked part.  I’m glad that this book is on the shelves now, though, because I feel like it has an audience.

4 stars.  I didn’t love it, and I’m not quite sure why, but I still really liked it, and would recommend it to everyone.

Book Review: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Book: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Published March 2017 by Salaam Reads/Simon Schuster Books For Young Readers

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

I really liked this one!  It’s a cute middle grade contemporary, and I don’t read a lot of middle grade (or children’s books) but I think this is a good one to read.

I really liked Amina, and how she had a fear of performing in public.  It was really easy to relate to, and I am not a fan of public speaking, so I liked that Amina overcame it.  I also liked her friendship with Soojin, and how Amina starts questioning if she needs to change because Soojin starts talking about changing her name to something more American.

Amina is such a great character, and I dare you to not like her, because she’s thoughtful and caring.  She has a great friend in Soojin, and Khan captures what it’s like to be 12, when you’re unsure of who you are and where things stand.  You really see how things change between Amina and Soojin, but I really liked their friendship.  I feel like I’m a broken record on that one, but it’s true.

I also liked Amina’s relationship with her family, and I just liked seeing them together.  I really liked the family dynamic and that we see slightly differing opinions on things within one family (particularly in regards to music).

One thing I didn’t like was when a particular plot point was introduced.  We don’t see the local mosque being vandalized until the end of the book, and for some reason, I thought it would have been introduced a lot earlier.  I wish it had, because I really liked how the whole community came together after it happened.  I know it’s middle grade, so it’s not going to be very long (or very in-depth) but it would have been nice to have it be more of a focal point.

It didn’t stop me from really liking it.  I think it’s perfect for everyone- whether you read middle grade or not, this book did a great job at showing how we deal with faith and culture.  It’s also great for the intended age group, but regardless of how old you are, it’s one to read.

4 stars.  I really liked Amina’s Voice, and while I wish the vandalization of Amina’s mosque hadn’t been introduced so late in the book, I still really enjoyed Amina’s story.

Book Review: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Book: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Published November 2016 by Disney-Hyperion|240 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: MG Contemporary

Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention center after his mother and sister fled the violence of a distant homeland, Subhi has only ever known life behind the fences. But his world is far bigger than that—every night, the magical Night Sea from his mother’s stories brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories. And as he grows, his imagination threatens to burst beyond the limits of his containment.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie—a scruffy, impatient girl who appears on the other side of the wire fence and brings with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it herself, she relies on Subhi to unravel her family’s love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find comfort—and maybe even freedom—as their tales unfold. But not until each has been braver than ever before.

I honestly don’t know what I think about this book!  I thought some things were confusing and strange but other things I really liked and thought were important to read about.

Let’s start with what I liked.  I liked the look at a detention center for refugees.  The conditions were horrible, and it makes me sad to think that anyone seeking asylum and fleeing their country may end up in similar conditions.  It’s horrible that they’re known by number, and not by name.  It’s sad and horrible the way they are treated, and all they want is a better life.  But they are treated horribly, all because of where they’re from or what they believe in.  People like Subhi and his family deserve so much better than that.

I felt for Subhi, but there were things that took me out of the book.  The Night Sea didn’t make sense to me, and Subhi’s talking duck didn’t make sense to me either.  It seemed like they were Subhi’s way of dealing with what was going on, and I get that, since the detention center was a horrible place.  But it took me out of what was going on, and was really distracting.  It was imaginative, but it did not work for me at all.

We really should question why they’re treated like criminals, and why they’re in detention centers for so long.  I’m not sure how old Subhi is, but it seemed like he was born in the detention center.  I’d say he’s around 10 or so, since this is a middle grade book, and I find insane and ridiculous that he’s been living there for so long.  The system is broken if refugees/those seeking asylum are living in detention centers for that long.  There has to be a better way to handle it.

I didn’t really care for Jimmie’s story.  It’s odd to me that she couldn’t read, and I found myself skimming over her mother’s book when she and Subhi would read it together.  Also, how on earth were they able to meet?  It seemed odd that she’d be able to walk up to the fence.  She sort of faded in the background (at least for me) but they did seem to have some sort of bond.  We see how she learns how horrible things are for Subhi, and all of those in the detention center, and for Subhi, he gets a connection to the outside world, and a way for people to see the horrible conditions he, and others like him, have to live in.

It was a hard book for me to get into, and it started off really slow.  It felt like things continued to move slowly, and while I knew it wasn’t going to be action-packed, I still wanted something to really capture my attention.  But nothing really did.

Still, I think it’s a book that EVERYONE should read.  It’s an important book, and the world does need more books like this one.

3 stars.  I liked it, but there were some things that took away from what Subhi experienced in the detention center.

Book Review: Braced by Alyson Gerber

Book: Braced by Alyson Gerber

Published March 2017 by Arthur A Levine Books|309 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the e-book from the library

Series: None

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Rachel Brooks is excited for the new school year. She’s finally earned a place as a forward on her soccer team. Her best friends make everything fun. And she really likes Tate, and she’s pretty sure he likes her back. After one last appointment with her scoliosis doctor, this will be her best year yet.

Then the doctor delivers some terrible news: The sideways curve in Rachel’s spine has gotten worse, and she needs to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day. The brace wraps her in hard plastic from shoulder blades to hips. It changes how her clothes fit, how she kicks a ball, and how everyone sees her–even her friends and Tate. But as Rachel confronts all the challenges the brace presents, the biggest change of all may lie in how she sees herself. 

Written by a debut author who wore a brace of her own, Braced is the inspiring, heartfelt story of a girl learning to manage the many curves life throws her way.

I have mixed feelings about this book!  This is a book about a girl with scoliosis, and it’s not something that comes up a lot in books.

I did like that we see how much it changed her life, and how she had to adjust to pretty much everything because she wore a brace.  The author herself wore a brace for scoliosis, and that really came through when you’re reading it, because there was something very real about Rachel’s experience.  I could picture everything so clearly, particularly her resistance to wearing the brace but also her acceptance of it.  She learned to stand up for herself, and to tell her parents- especially her mother- how she felt.

I certainly don’t blame Rachel for not wanting to wear the brace at first, but she does realize how important it is over time.  One of her friends really didn’t get why she had to wear it, and I wasn’t a big fan of that particular friend.  She seemed to drop both Rachel and their other friend once they all went to middle school, but at least that other friend was really supportive and understanding.  And it was great that the one friend would help her practice soccer.  Rachel was so determined to make it work, and I loved her dedication to soccer.

As much as I loved seeing how Rachel dealt with her scoliosis, there were a few things I didn’t like.  Her mom was one of them.  I know Rachel’s mom had scoliosis as well, and it seemed like her mom’s scoliosis was a lot more severe than Rachel’s was.  But I got really irritated with all of the stuff about how lucky Rachel is that all she has to do is wear a brace, and how much easier Rachel has it because she doesn’t need surgery.  But it didn’t seem to help Rachel, and it really seemed like her mom’s behavior made Rachel want to do the complete opposite.  I’m glad Rachel talked to her mom, and that they worked things out, but seeing her mom constantly talk about how lucky Rachel was did get frustrating.

I’m glad the book was very much about Rachel in middle school, and that scoliosis was a big part of her life (but not her whole life), I still wanted more about her scoliosis.  It seemed like a pretty short amount of time to have to wear a back brace, and for some reason, I had pictured her treatment as being longer.

I was surprised by some of the romantic relationships in the book- I would get having a crush, but it seems like dating was somewhat common.  I certainly wasn’t thinking about dating anyone in middle school (or high school), but is that a thing now?  I honestly have no idea, but it did surprise me, and there are a couple of things that come up that really should push this book into YA, and not middle grade.  But overall, it’s more middle grade than YA.

2 stars.  Braced was an okay read.  I wanted more with her scoliosis, but at the same time, I’m glad that it’s only a part of her life, and not her entire life.

What I’ve Been Reading: Part One!

I’m back…sort of!  I know it’s been a while since I’ve done a blog post, and I’m trying to get back into reviewing and blogging again.  I’ve been reading, but not up to reviewing.  But I still wanted to talk about the books I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about the books I haven’t talked about yet.  I’m a bit fuzzy on some of them, since it’s been a while…but that’s not going to stop me from talking about them!

Book #1: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

I borrowed the hardcover from the library.

Here’s what I thought:

  • It’s a middle grade contemporary about a kid who runs track, which I thought was cool.  I feel like track doesn’t come up a lot, as far as sports novels go.  Cross country, yes.  Track, not so much.
  • I don’t know that I remember enough to say anything else, but I remember thinking it was okay.  Then again, All-American Boys was such a great book that I had really high expectations.
  • I did like the parallels between running and what was going on in his life.  Especially with how running turned out to be a really good thing for him.
  • I don’t know that I’d read the rest of the books in the series- it looks like this is the first one of…I’m not sure how many.
  • It’s definitely a must read if you like stories about sports.  And also how to move on and deal with your past.
  • I think my rating would be 2 stars.  It’s okay, and not a lot stuck with me.

Book #2: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

I borrowed the hardcover from the library.

My thoughts:

  • I really liked this book!  It’s a YA contemporary about Amanda, who transferred schools.  I felt for Amanda, who tried so hard to fit in, and who had to deal with a lot- bullying and transphobia are the first things that come to mind.
  • I really like that it’s not a coming out story- both are important, but I really liked seeing Amanda move to a new town and transition to a new phase in her life.
  • I liked the friendships she had too- people can be horrible, but I’m glad Amanda found some amazing people.
  • I can’t remember anything about the romance, other than I liked it…but that’s about it!
  • I loved the author’s note at the end of the book.  Don’t skip over it, because it really does add to an already awesome book.
  • I feel like I’m not doing this book any justice.  At all.  Mostly because it’s been a while since I’ve read it, and I remember next to nothing.  But it’s such a great book and really important and I doubt I’d do it much justice regardless.  But waiting months to do some sort of half-hearted attempt isn’t helping.
  • Part of why it’s important is because of what the book is about, but it is worth mentioning that the author is also trans.
  • And I’m not sure if it’s true, but the cover model is trans as well.  For some reason, that feels really important as well.
  • I know I got really emotional and starting crying at one point.
  • My Rating: 4 stars.  Had I reviewed it right after finishing it, my rating probably would have been 5 stars.
    • But I may re-read it at some point so I can properly talk about it.
    • I still really liked it though.

Book #3: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

This is another hardcover from the library.

What I Thought:

  • I liked seeing how much Strayed changed during the hike.
  • She did seem ill-prepared for the hike, and I can see why some reviewers think she’s whiny and self-absorbed
    • and also why some people thought she made poor life decisions
    • There’s no judgement from me, though, because she did have a lot of things she had to work through, especially with the death of her mother
  • Hiking- especially since she was by herself for most of the hike- seemed to help her
    • there was a lot of opportunity for her to reflect on her life
    • she did randomly meet up with other people along the way, though
  • I think my favorite part was seeing her not give up, even when it would have been easy for her to do so
  • I can’t imagine doing such a big hike, especially with no hiking/backpacking experience whatsoever
  • It really felt like I was hiking with her, and it never felt boring or repetitive
    • I can’t imagine being alone with my thoughts for that long, but props to her for sticking with it
  • It’s a memoir of her experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, so if you’re looking for more information or history about the trail itself, this is not the book for you
  • I’ve heard of it before- because it was adapted into a movie, but I mostly picked it up because it was mentioned in one of the Gilmore Girls revival episodes
    • I’m glad I picked it up, though, because I really liked it
  • I think my rating would be 4 stars.  I didn’t love it, but it was an easy read, and there is something about the way she writes

Book #4: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is a hardcover from the library.

And now, my thoughts:

  • This book deserves a lot more attention.  I feel like it didn’t get a lot of attention, despite the fact that it was an Oprah book club pick.  The publication date also got moved up because of it.  And I know it was recommended by Obama, so I had really high expectations.
    • It lived up to all of the hype…at least the hype that I heard.
    • It’s totally worth reading
  • I admit that I didn’t like it at first, and it took me a while to get into it.
    • I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because I really liked it
  • It is a hard read, because you see what it might have been like for slaves on the Underground Railroad
    • I’m not sure what to call them, but there are ads and wanted posters for runaway slaves, which really added to the journey Cora takes
  • The Underground Railroad is quite literal in this book but it was terrifying to see what it was like during that time period
    • so many people risked everything to be a part of it- whether they were a stop along the way, or the one trying to escape slavery
    • I know I said it already, but it really highlighted what it might have been like
  • It really is mind-blowing that people were willing to take a chance to have freedom than spend one more second as a slave
  • My rating: 4 stars.  It was hard to get into at first, but worth reading.

Book Review: George by Alex Gino

George CoverBook: George by Alex Gino

Published August 2015 by Scholastic Press|195 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Blog Graphic-What It's About

BE WHO YOU ARE.

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part…because she’s a boy.  

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Blog Graphic- What I Thought

I’ve heard really good things about George, and I randomly picked it up from the library one day, figuring it was time to see what everyone was talking about.  If you haven’t read George yet, it’s definitely worth checking out!

What I liked most is that George is that it introduces transgender as an identity in a middle grade book- I don’t know of any other middle grade books, and I feel like we see transgender characters in YA, but not middle grade.

I found myself getting really angry at Melissa’s teacher (by the way, Melissa is the name George wants to go by, so I’ll be calling her Melissa), for not giving the role to Melissa, even though she auditioned for it, and she really wanted it. Her reasoning was that there were too many girls who wanted the part, and that’s why it couldn’t go to Melissa, but part of me thinks that part of why she didn’t want to give it to Melissa is because Melissa is a girl, even though the world sees her as a boy.  Maybe the teacher worried about what others would think, but it seemed like Melissa was the perfect person to play Charlotte.  When Melissa’s best friend let Melissa play Charlotte, everyone thought she was great in the role, and no one seemed to have a problem with it except for the teacher.  It made me sad to see that and yet, it wasn’t surprising.

I really felt for Melissa, who struggled to come out to both her mother and her best friend Kelly.  I loved Kelly, who was really accepting when Melissa came out to Kelly.  And even though Melissa’s mom had a different reaction (she seemed to think Melissa was gay, and not a transgender girl at first, before Melissa told her), she does seem to love Melissa a lot, even if she doesn’t seem to understand that Melissa is a girl.  I also felt for her because of the bullying that she has to deal with.  I can’t imagine dealing with everything that Melissa has to deal with.

I really liked how Melissa’s story is told- it’s simple, and right from the start, Melissa is a girl in a world who sees her as a boy.  She is not stuck in the wrong body, and she is not a boy wanting to be a girl.  She’s a girl in a world that does not see her a girl, which I think is an important distinction to make, because we see that Melissa is a girl right from the start, and that Melissa has known for a long time who she is.

George is one of those books everyone should read, no matter who they are.  It’s a book about accepting who you are, and it’s hopeful and heartwarming and lets the other Melissa’s in the world that they are not alone and that they have options.

Blog Graphic- My Rating

4 stars.  I really liked George, and it’s a book everyone should read.

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder CoverBook: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Published February 2012 by Knopf|320 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: Wonder #1

Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Blog Graphic-What It's About

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

Blog Graphic- What I Thought

Wonder is one of those books I’ve heard a lot about, and knew that people really loved, but never got around to reading until now.  I liked Wonder, but not as much as I thought I would.

I really liked the family dynamic, and I really felt for his sister Via.  We don’t get a lot of her, but we see how the attention Auggie gets affects her, and I really liked seeing that.  I’m not sure if I could have handled an entire book from her perspective, but I did like the small bit that we do get in the book.

I also liked how real the characters felt.  How they acted- what with The Plague thing, and the stares and stuff, I can see that happening in real life.  How one of the moms acted was horrible- she photoshopped Auggie out of the class photo, and acted like he didn’t belong in school, just because of how he looks.  And it was really hard to read, because, theoretically, she should know better.  But clearly not, and it makes me wonder if her son acted the way he did because he learned it from her.  In the end, the other kids ended up being pretty okay, except for the one.

There is something I have mixed feelings about, though, and that’s Auggie himself.  I liked that he sees himself as a normal kid, and that he’s not special or extraordinary, just because of how he looks, even though people around him probably think he’s special because of how much he accomplished, and all of the surgeries he’s had to endure.  On the one hand, I liked that the book mentioned the fact that he was born with a cleft palate, which led to a lot of other health issues for Auggie, but didn’t focus too much on it.  But at the same time, I wanted a little more about it, because the book hardly goes into it.

Another issue I had was the fact that the characters seemed a lot older than 10.  The way they talked and acted…it didn’t mesh well with the fact that it’s middle grade.  It was really disorienting, and if 10 year-olds are, in real life, dating the way some of them seem to be dating in this book, I’m a little worried.

The book was also super-positive, which I get, considering the target audience, but it made the book feel too perfect, like nothing gets to Auggie (even though it must), and that everything will work out just fine, no matter what.  It felt too simple, for something that could have had even a little more complexity to it.  It’s not for me to say that Auggie is too well-adjusted, because I’ve never experienced what Auggie has, and I have no idea what it’s like to be in his position.  But it was also something that was a little off-putting, just because I wanted something that seemed a little more realistic.

Blog Graphic- My Rating

3 stars.  I get why people loved this book so much, and I do like the message of not judging people because of how they look, and that you should be kind to people.  But it was too simple, and too perfect, and I wanted something a little more complex and something that was a little less perfect.