Book & Movie Reviews

My Favorite Books of 2020

For all the chaos of 2020, I had an excellent reading year.

I found myself gravitating more toward fantasy novels and doing a lot more rereading than usual as a means of escaping into “alternate realities” or books that were a comfort to me in my childhood.

Each of the featured books below are ones I loved or feel that I would revisit in the future.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

This book was such a joy to read! If you loved reading fairytales as a kid or want to read more fantasy novels, this book is a must read! It’s also a wonderful audiobook.

In a year of chaos and pandemic, Klune’s novel shows the side effects of burnout on people in helping professions. The House in the Cerulean Sea also details how the child welfare system fails children over time. The characters in Klune’s novel are ones that will stay with you long after the book closes.

The Mirror Visitor Quartet by Christelle Dabos

The Mirror Visitor Quartet is such a fun series! If you love audiobooks, I highly recommend this series as a listen as opposed to being physically read! My favorite so far is the second novel in the series, The Missing of Clairdelune.

Initially published in French,  Dabos’ series is full of tomfoolery and shenanigans set around a world built on Classic Western Mythology. The main character of the series, Ophelia, is the odd one out in her family that has the gift of walking through mirrors.

Sent away to the sky palace of Clairdelune to marry Thorn, another outcast from the who has a detailed memory, Ophelia is on her own for the first time to be the person she’s always desired to be. From here, chaos ensues.

Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge

I really enjoyed reading this classic Caribbean novel by Merle Hodge.

Crick Crack, Monkey follows Tee, the main character, as she comes into her identity as a Black Trinidadian girl in a post-colonial nation. The novel was accessible and showed the differences in the class structure in this island nation.

Tee is shuttled between two aunts of varying class and economic levels and made to piece together an identity through her experiences with both. Hodge’s novel was short, but it packed a punch.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of the Oppressed gave me a lot to think about when it comes to education and liberation.

In this text, Freire argues that teachers must open dialogue and facilitate critical thinking around subjects instead of spoonfeeding students lessons to regurgitate. By opening critical discussion around issues, the educator will build stronger learners that can become self-actualized.

Coupled with this, the chapters about how the oppressed seek out liberation blew me away. The idea that everyone can be an oppressor and the oppressed gave me a lot of food for thought. This text is one I hope to revisit in the future.

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

The task of a first or second-generation child of immigrants is to pick up the hopes and dreams of their parents and to carry them over the threshold of success. Often times, it’s not important what that child wants, but more importantly is how they add to the legacy of their family. Thus, these children live within a confined space that is both real and imagined, between cultures that they can never honestly explain until they meet someone else with a similar burden to carry.

Kara’s story in Frying Plantain leads me to wonder, what parts of our cultures do we inherit, and what is learned as people immigrate to new places? Likewise, how does the meaning/practice of culture change as each generation gains new information and comes into contact with new technologies that shift the way that certain traditions are carried out?

The Trouble With Hating You by Sajni Patel

The Trouble  With Hating You is a South Asian take on  The Taming of the Shrew with an “enemies to lovers” storyline.

It starts cliched with the main female lead, Liya, a successful biochemical engineer sneaking out on a dinner they put together with the family of Jay Shah, a potential suitor. Unfortunately, Liya bumps into him on the way out, and of course, the two end up being forced to work together as the novel unfolds.

If you are a reader who enjoys multi-layered characters and non-generic romances, this book is for you! Jay and Liya both have a traumatic past, and Patel has each of them work through their trauma before giving them their happy ending. I appreciate that Patel showed the real aspects of trauma in a person’s life and how they play out in interpersonal relationships and across a community.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

If you are in the market for a book that will make you go through all the emotions & you’re not afraid to confront hard issues, this is the one for you!In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the fourth book of the Logan Family Saga, Mildred D. Taylor takes her characters through the beginning of the Depression Era of the American South (circa 1920s to 1930’s) and the Jim Crow Era where the young Black children see the rise of the Klan, lynchings, and the fight to keep their land.

Throughout this series, Taylor has the Logan children fight for their agency as Black people before they really even know what they’re fighting for.  I’ve read this series countless times over the years, but it always hits differently each time. I highly recommend it!

Have you all read any of these books?

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Book & Movie Reviews, Reviews

A #BookReview of #AUniverseOfWishes, A #WeNeedDiverseBooks Anthology – #BookTour

Thanks to Terminal Tours, I was able to get an advanced readers copy of the fantasy-themed short story anthology, A Universe of Wishes: A We Need Diverse Books Anthology. This anthology was edited by Dhonielle Clayton and included authors like Samira Ahmed, Zoraida Córdova, Kwame Mbalia, Tochi Onyebuchi, and many more authors of colors.

In her editor’s letter, Clayton talks about growing up as a reader of color and not seeing herself in fantasy novels. This was something that I could relate to. While I always had stories, like The Logan Family Saga by Mildred D. Taylor or The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake, to read if I wanted to see real-world images of myself in the 90s if I wanted to read a fantasy novel with African-American characters, my pickings were slim.

With the We Need Diverse campaign inception in 2014, the field of publishing has been opened up to the point where authors of color have been given the space to tell their own stories and even been granted acclaim for their work. Even though there is more work to be done in the industry, based on the annual statistics from the Children’s Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) and Lee & Low.

Reading through A Universe of Wishes, I was pleasantly surprised to read stories, like “Liberia” by Kwame Mbalia, where readers are shown a story of where the love of one’s family takes center stage. Having Mbalia speak to African-Americans’ collectivist nature and centering the magic of this cultural trait warmed my heart.

Likewise, reading “The Takeback Tango” by Rebecca Roanhorse, where a teen thief sets out to reclaim her planet’s artifacts, is reminiscent of my favorite scene from Black Panther with Kilmonger in the British Museum. Having Roanhorse show the power that comes from taking ownership over one’s heritage is what I love to see!

As a lover of Disney’s Tangled, “Longer Than the Threads of Time” by Zoraida Córdova was also a treat. However, like so many stories in this anthology, I wanted the stories to be so much longer. 

A Universe of Wishes holds all the magic a reader could want. Having authors of color flex their muscles and show creativity outside the normal realm of “suffering” that so many BIPOC writers are pigeonholed into to get their break in the publishing industry was refreshing.

If you enjoyed this anthology, I’d highly recommend looking into all the featured writers’ works and read Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton, which was one of my favorite short story collections of African-American folktales and fairy tales as a kid.

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Interview

Interview With An Author – Laura Taylor Namey #ACubanGirlsGuideToTeaAndTomorrow

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow

2020 has been the year of “escapism” for me. Along with science-fiction and fantasy, romance has been the genre I’ve consumed the most of this year. Thanks to Hear Our Voices Tours, I got the chances to read A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey early.

Checkout the novel’s blurb and an interview with the author below!

Book Info:

For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.

Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.

A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.

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Interview with Laura Taylor Namey

II: Congratulations on publishing your second novel! What was the process like writing A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow

LTN: Thank you so much! Writing this book was like entering a time capsule of both my experience as a teen trying to figure out life and love, and my childhood growing up in a large Cuban family. I truly enjoyed the process and there is a part of me who would always like to be the drafter of this book, over and over again.

II: What is the inspiration behind A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow?

LTN: I’m the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and grew up in a huge, wonderful Cuban family. This story is my tribute to all of them, and all of the things I witnessed as a child. I took all of those themes, lessons, and the spirts of those who loved me best, and reimagined them into a modern story about legacy, loss, and love.

II: There is a strong sense of community that Lila constantly references within A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?

LTN: I have always thought of community as a tight physical and metaphorical place of nurturing and belonging that we can call our own, within a much larger environment. It shapes us and our worldview. Community is what Lila is almost obsessively invested in at the start of my book. She feels her place and role as a teen Cuban baker and future owner in the West Dade area of Miami is so rooted and crucial to her success, it grows to inform much of her identity. This is why she is so opposed to going to England for the summer. Orion also has deep roots in his community within Winchester, England. He relies on the steadfast consistency of great friends and his small, tight knit network to help him cope with, and navigate the trauma and uncertainty plaguing his family. 

II: On your website, you have a mood board and write up about the inspiration behind Lila. However, I was wondering about the creation of Orion Maxwell. How did you decide to write about a character who is dealing with an ill parent but who remains resilient?

LTN: There are some special people in my life who have experienced what Orion is going through at home with his cherished mother, and I wanted to honor this as part of my story. The way Orion processes a different, but parallel form of loss stands in contrast to Lila’s response. I enjoyed their interplay as they discuss their losses and situations, and learn from one another. They tug each other’s emotional arcs forward (and maybe a bit sideways!) 

Also, while Lila’s loss is fresh and acute, Orion has had longer to adjust to his “new normal.” Orion has created a distinct method for living through his grief. It allows him to go on, but it also makes him extremely cautious as to where and how he gives his heart. Orion is looking for things that last. Permanence appeals to him––as his mother, and to an extent, a growing teenage sister––are slowly slipping away. Yet, he begins to fall for a certain Cuban baker who is only in England temporarily. She has big plans to return to in Miami. How does this work out or end up? I won’t spoil, but writing the building and changing relationship between Lila and Orion is my favorite thing I have written so far.

II: A major theme in your novel has to do with dealing with loss (e.g., of love, family, and to a degree, self). How do you get into this mindset for building characters that feel so much pain while keeping enough mental clarity as a writer to create such a wonderful story?

LTN: Truthfully, there were moments drafting this book where I became overcome by the emotion and memories I was harnessing to tell the story. While I was writing, two of the family members I heavily reference in the narrative passed away. This was incredibly tough. But I pressed on though the pain and tried to use it to make the storytelling real and raw and viscerally authentic.Lila suffers great loss in this story. And I did too, as its author. That, plus many of the experiences I still remember so clearly from my teenage years that greatly shaped my emotional upbringing came back strong. I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I’d be at some points. Much of this story was penned through streams of tears. But I also found it an incredibly cathartic and healing experience. It was as if I had this ink and paper center with which to reconcile my emotion––past and present. I ended up with a preserved tribute to some amazing people who loved me well. And to a teenage girl used to know––myself.

II: Lila calls Miami her “charm city.” Do you have a city that you feel is your charm city?

It’s a tie between London and Paris. I have left parts of me inside each city and I can’t wait until I can go back and find them again. 

II: In A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Lila’s family runs a panadería, and she makes a lot of delicious pastries as an offering to others and as comfort food for herself. Were any of the pastries she cooked based on your family’s recipes? Also, did you have a favorite recipe that you gave Lila to cook in the book?

LTN: All of the pastries and dishes in this book are foods that my family ate and cooked. My mom and tías are so skilled at adapting Cuban recipes and making them their own. As for a favorite, it’s kind of Cuban-cliche but it’s also real, so the fact that Lila chooses to cook arroz con pollo for a big dinner party for her new British friends has a lot of personal meaning. It’s the first dish that comes to mind from my childhood that makes me think of my mother as a consummate Cuban cook. 
 
II: There’s a constant conversation within the literary community about “own voices” and the way that we as readers engage with the text we are given when we are outside a novel’s targeted demographic. What I love about A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow is that when Lila is speaking Spanish, it does not go the traditional route of italicizing her speech to categorize these lines as “out of the norm,” but instead forces readers who may not speak Spanish to truly immerse themselves into Lila’s world and see the story fully from her point of view. Is there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel? If so, how does having a bilingual character inform the dialogue of your novel?

Thank you! And early on I made the decision with my editor not to italicize, as this is an #ownvoices work and the Spanish language is an important part of both my and Lila’s heritage. This is not something I added to a story, it is a foundational element of the story. I wanted to showcase the way many Florida Cubans in particular use Spanglish and code switching. This is only a peek! Cuban Spanish has a distinct flow and “gate” to it. Cubans drop vowels at the end of words, and often run their speech together like they’re on a word slip-n-slide. I also have a couple of tías who speak at speed level 10,000. You have to really be paying attention to understand! These are all things I grew up listening to and absorbing. I couldn’t convey the whole effect of the speed and sound, but I tried to add a bit of the flavor of what Lila’s family sounds like. 

II: In A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow Lila is forced from her beloved Miami and planted in England, where life is the total opposite. How did you get into the head of this character to write about this type of journey?

In writing Lila’s journey, it was first and foremost important for me to establish a clear sense of place and purpose for her back in Miami. I really spent time fleshing this out, and creating my Lila as a fixture in her community of West Dade. I had to firmly ground her in Florida, and have that be real and pressing and believable before yanking her out of her comfort zone into a new place. Because if her home isn’t calling out to her so deeply, it doesn’t matter as much that she’s being forced to leave to recover and recoup. With that foundation in my head and in my pen, England blossomed with all of these fun and frustrating ways for Lila, and for me in writing her. It was fun to throw experiences at her and watch her adapt and change. It was a joy to surprise her. 

II: Do you have any books or authors that inspire you?

So, so many. But I’ll try to stick to two here. I love the voice and storytelling in Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. And I adore another take on the Cuban-American experience in young adult––Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno.

II: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?

LTN: I say this every time but it never fails: read fifty books in your chosen genre and age level. Read for voice, pacing, narrative tricks, character development, and to get a general sense of the bounds and possibilities within the genre. Also, join the online writing community early on. Get used to sharing your writing as soon as possible and try to align yourself with like-minded peers who can walk with you during your publishing journey. Find your squad––you won’t be sorry!

Author Info:

Laura Taylor Namey is a Cuban-American Californian who can be found haunting her favorite coffee shops, drooling over leather jackets, and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two superstar children.

This former teacher writes young adult novels about quirky teens learning to navigate life and love. Her debut, The Library of Lost Things, published 10/08/19 from Inkyard Press/HarperCollins. Her #ownvoices sophomore project, A CUBAN GIRL’S GUIDE TO TEA AND TOMORROW is coming November 10, 2020 from Atheneum Simon and Schuster, with a third title to follow fall 2021.

Twitter | Instagram | Website | Goodreads

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Book & Movie Reviews, Reviews

What happens to children that are forgotten? – The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune #BookReview

“𝘚𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦𝘴, 𝘣𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘥𝘪𝘧𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭𝘴 𝘢 𝘭𝘰𝘵 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘣𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘦.” – 𝘓𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘴𝘦𝘺 𝘚𝘵𝘪𝘳𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨

W𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙬𝙖𝙨 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙡𝙖𝙨𝙩 𝙗𝙤𝙤𝙠 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙧𝙚𝙖𝙙 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙬𝙖𝙧𝙢𝙚𝙙 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙝𝙚𝙖𝙧𝙩?

In August, I read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune after seeing Mara (@bookslikewhoa) rave about it on her BookTube page. Klune’s novel is one of a kind in its depiction of the child welfare state and how “unwanted” children are often herded from place to place with no real care for their wellbeing. Even though this author has placed the children in his story in an alternate world, it speaks to the plight of children who are either minority or LGBTQ+ or “hard to manage.”

Author, TJ Klune

Klune’s book starts in this “alternate” version of what seems to be London with Linus Baker, a caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who happens to be gay. Linus is a character who the reader will immediately recognize as a person who’s just going through the motions at work. For all those in the helping profession, you’ll recognize him immediately as a person who’s “burned out” and just going through the motions of his job.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

However, this all changes when he’s sent to check up on Arthur Parnassus and his gang of “misfit” children. The children under Arthur’s care can be seen to represent several unwanted groups of children, such as those with behavioral issues (Lucy, the Antichrist), those who are transgendered or non-binary (Talia, a female gnome, & Chauncey, an anthropomorphic blob), mischaracterized BIPOC children (Sal, a Black teenager who has been characterized as “violent” even though he’s just introverted), and the neurodiverse (Phee, a sprite who relates more to nature, & Theodore, a wyvern with limited speech patterns).

While the world and Linus at the beginning of the book view Arthur’s charges as a danger to society, he knows better. Through careful work with each child, he’s able to bring out the best in them. Sadly, this is not the route many people take when dealing with children in each of these populations, causing them more harm than good.

I will admit when I met the kids in Klune’s book, I was a little taken aback by the fact that Sal, who seems to be the only child of color, was depicted as a “were-dog.” Yet, it hit me that this was a stroke of brilliance since Sal’s transformation from being this “scary animal” that society sees him as mirrors the plight of black men everywhere once they go past the toddler stage. Sal is a victim of circumstance who has PTSD from the violence inflicted on him. He’s not only intelligent and poetic, but also the calmest child out the bunch. Likewise, the fact that Klune subtle pokes fun at the irony of dogs being highly protected by society when BIPOC aren’t had me smirking.

This book is a heartwarming tale that everyone needs to read! I gave it 4 ⭐️. It’s a book for the whole family. Checkout some of the character avatars that the publisher, TOR Forge, shared on their site below and on their website!

From top to bottom: The Marsyas Island Orphanage (@rednosestudio), The very dapper Chauncey, looking dashing as always with his bellhop attire (@mavilez_), Lucy, being the very innocent person that he is and in no way ever thinking about murder. Ever. *side eyes* (@mavilez_), & Last but not least, Talia, ready to work on her garden! Do we have any volunteers to help? (@mavilez_)
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Book & Movie Reviews, Reviews

What is the cost of a Black Life? – #BookReview of #PunchingTheAir by #IbiZoboi & #DrYusefSalaam

“𝘈𝘭𝘭 𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘧𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯, 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘳 𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘰𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘲𝘶𝘦. 𝘈𝘭𝘭 𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘴, 𝘪𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘷𝘪𝘷𝘦, 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘤𝘦𝘥, 𝘢𝘵 𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘵, 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺; 𝘵𝘰 𝘷𝘰𝘮𝘪𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘶𝘱.” ― 𝘑𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘉𝘢𝘭𝘥𝘸𝘪𝘯

𝐅𝐞𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰 Readers, 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐦𝐚𝐤𝐞𝐬 𝐚 𝐛𝐨𝐨𝐤 𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐭𝐨 𝐲𝐨𝐮?

Over the last month, I had the chance to read Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam thanks to the kindness of Harper Collins and Karina @AFirePages.  As an avid Ibi Zoboi fan and an admirer of the tenacity of the Exonerated Five, getting an ARC of this book was one of the highlights of my year.

Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam book follows the story of Amal, a sixteen-year-old Black artist, who is convicted of a crime of aggravated assault against a White boy. But, Amal’s real crime stems from being born Black.

According to the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research “the U.S. currently houses the world’s largest prison population,” with Blacks having a conviction rate that’s “five times higher” than their White counterparts. And, thanks to the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker in 2005, which gave judges more discretion over sentencing and imposing harsher or more lenient sentences than the U.S. Sentencing Commissions guidelines called for, judges have now found it easier to punish BIPOC men, like Amal.

Thus, when readers see Amal claiming his innocence in court and being convicted to a harsh sentence at a young age, it hurts. As a minority reader, you will more than likely not only remember Dr. Yusef and the Exonerated Five’s case, but probably can also relate to Amal’s plight because you remember the a loved one or friend who’s also experienced harsh sentencing and lost years behind bars.

What I enjoyed most about this #OwnVoice novel in verse is that it is not only raw and real, but it feels honest. Amal is a character that I saw my brother, cousins, and nephews in. He is a boy who has high hopes, but gets painted as a monster by society instead of embraced for his art and potential.

The White educators and lawyers in his life masquerade as these Anti-racist figures and do-gooders, but when their feet are held to the fire, they act in their own self-interest.

Zoboi and Dr. Salaam’s book is an essential read, and I hope that you also pick it up and read it alongside Just Mercy by Bryan and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. 

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