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Before We Were Yours Review

Before We Were Yours Book Review

If you were to ask me what one of my favorite books was, I would immediately say Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. I read this book about a year ago, and I loved it the moment I read the first page. It is historical fiction at its best; it creates an emotionally gripping story based on an actual historical event. I re-read it (technically I listened to the audiobook) for book club, and I didn’t realize that this was possible, but I loved it even more.

Before We Were Yours has two separate stories that eventually come together. The main story involves a 12-year-old girl named Rill and her four siblings, who live on a shanty boat with their parents in 1939 Memphis. When their parents leave for the hospital one stormy night, the children are taken away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. Having been put in charge that night, Rill fights to keep her siblings together. The other story revolves around Avery Stafford – a federal prosecutor who comes from a privileged family in present day Aiken, South Carolina. As she helps her senator father with his health crisis, an encounter with an elderly woman in a nursing care facility leads her to a journey through her family’s hidden history.

When I said that the best historical fiction creates an emotionally gripping story based on an actual event, I really mean it. The actual event in this case was Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. For over two decades until 1950, Tann and her cohorts kidnapped poor children, and sold them to wealthy families across the country, even to Joan Crawford and June Allyson. It is sadly estimated that some 500 children died due to disease, poor care, and possibly abuse while in the society’s hands. (https://nypost.com/2017/06/17/this-woman-stole-children-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich/). Many of them were molested as well.

I had no idea that this event even occurred, and to think that this happened to children of all ages AND that Tann managed to get away with it frightens me all the more. That fear translated into sympathy for Rill and her siblings in their quest to not only make it out alive, but also to tell their stories while still in the orphanage. Even when she had no choice but to obey, I understood because for Rill, that meant survival. This is why Rill’s story gripped me to the bone more than Avery’s story even though I have nothing against the latter.

It was the audiobook that made my read the second time around all the more enjoyable. Emily Rankin and Catherine Taber put on some great vocal performances. Rankin – a well-known audiobook narrator and creator of the popular web short Jane Austin’s Fight Club – plays Avery, and she voices her in a professional east coast manner with hints of a Southern accent. This is highly appropriate since Avery lives in the east coast, but grew up in South Carolina. I extremely respect this particular detail that Rankin made to Avery’s character. Taber is also a well-known audiobook narrator, and she has appeared in television shows like Jane the Virgin and Star Wars: Clone Wars as well as gaming franchises like Final Fantasy. In my opinion, Taber is the standout.She voices Rill as a southern 12-year-old girl, who is perfectly fine with living by the river, yet it never gets too juvenile, especially when Rill experiences several traumatic episodes at the orphanage. There is also a sense of maturity in Rill that Taber also provides with such honesty. In addition, Taber shines when voicing Georgia Tann, who could be sweet and manipulative to not only the children, but also to the wealthy families. It is through Taber’s vocal performance of Tann that I could imagine an evil smile draping across her face when she said many of her lines.

If you have not read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate yet, do so as soon as possible. The story and the horrific events that it is based on are why many people have praised the novel. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I will continue to enjoy it forevermore.

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A Polar Bear in Love Manga Series Review

As a person who has watched anime in the past, it never occurred to me to read a manga, especially since a lot of those shows are based off of those Japanese graphic novels. Recently, I read my very first manga series, A Polar Bear in Love by Koromo, and it’s a cute story that’s great for beginner readers, but it’s best to take it with a grain of salt.

A Polar Bear in Love manga series is about Seal – a lost baby harp seal – who finds himself in the company of Polar Bear. Instead of eating it (like most polar bears would), the latter falls madly in love with the former. However, the fearful seal constantly misinterprets the polar bear’s romantic advances as a strong desire to eat him. 

This is the main premise and the story for the first volume. The second one deals with them encountering rivals to each other’s affections like another polar bear and an adult female harp seal. The third introduces Kathy the penguin, who counsels Polar Bear and Seal on their relationship, and her “boyfriend” Orca. In the fourth and so far last one, Seal finally learns how to swim, but Polar Bear isn’t ready to say good-bye to him just yet. Orca also tells Polar Bear his own love story.

All of the volumes are a super quick read with super cute visual moments like when Polar Bear encounters Seal for the first time and the latter rapping about his gender (I know that’s weird, but in the world of cartoons, it could be more off-kilter). The black and white designs are very simple, but so expressive like all the times Polar Bear having a blank stare on his face and Seal fearing for his life. The only complaint is that there are times, in which I could not figure out who was talking, because I wasn’t sure where the bubble was pointing at. Nevertheless, the series is a great comforting contrast to something dark like Vita Nostra. 

Another thing that I like about this manga is that the main romance is between two different species of the same gender. At first, Seal is concerned about this, but Polar Bear doesn’t mind because love is love regardless of whom one falls in love with. This is a very positive message, especially for those who are still exploring who they are and who they love.

Apart from the main characters, the supporting ones stand out too. Kathy the penguin, who is actually male, acts as a romance counselor for Polar Bear and Seal. She is head over heels for her “boyfriend” Orca, whom she calls sweetie. I only put boyfriend in quotation marks because he doesn’t feel the same way about her. He’s like Squidward, for he can be grumpy and relatable.

After I read the first volume, I looked at the reviews, and two common themes emerged: how creepy Polar Bear was in trying to get Seal to love him back and how the former didn’t understand how terrified the latter was. The whole series is about a predator falling in love with its prey, so understandably, Seal is terrified.

I’m going to be honest and say that I really didn’t pick up on the problematic elements of the plot when reading the first volume because I was so infatuated with its cuteness. Knowing this now, yes, I can see where people are coming from. During the first volume, Seal struggles to voice his concerns against Polar Bear. Luckily, during the second one, Seal speaks up more, and Polar Bear gets the hints more as they encounter rivals to each other’s affections. In the following volumes, Seal continues to speak up, but it seems like no one’s listening to him. Even in the fourth one, Orca asks Polar Bear if he has ever considered Seal’s feelings. But because the former is depicted as a grouch for a good chunk of it, it seems that readers are supposed to root for the latter.

The best way that I can describe this is like the song Boy in Luv by BTS, which is about a teenage boy falling in love externally (especially in the music video, in which the members show their affections towards a girl in forceful manners). If English readers are able to read Volume 5, I hope that Polar Bear considers Seal’s feelings more, and maybe his love for him would become more internal like how BTS’s Boy With Luv is. In a way, the series wants readers to think that his love is internal, but he fell in love with Seal after he spotted his white baby fur. I hope that Polar Bear will still be able to love Seal when the latter sheds his baby fur. In other words, the title may be A Polar Bear in Love, but the series would be more worth it if it evolved into A Polar Bear With Love.

All in all, A Polar Bear in Love by Koromo is a cute shoujo manga series (ones that aim at young female teens) that explores how love is love is love. The characters are memorable, and the designs are simple and effective while telling the story. It’s best to take the plot with a grain of salt as it’s still a continuing series. I hope the fifth volume comes out soon, but I’m not sure when that will happen. If one feels highly uncomfortable with it, then they have every right not to read it. For those who want to, I recommend it to those who love shoujo mangas and arctic/antarctic animals as well as those looking to get into the genre. It’s great for beginner manga readers.

What Am I Reading – Chapter Fourteen

Hi Everybody!

We’re halfway done with this year! Can you believe it?

I finally finished all four volumes of A Polar Bear in Love recently. I’m also currently reading Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars: Making a Legend by Simon Van Booy and Harvey Briggs. And today, I have two new titles to show you!

One of them is…

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter is about Dewey Readmore Books – the library cat of Spencer, Iowa. At a few weeks old, he was stuffed into a return slot at the Spencer Public Library. He was found the next day by the library director Vicki Myron, who had struggles of her own. Dewey won her and the staff over by nudging each of hem in a gesture of thanks and love. For the next 19 years, he charmed the people of Spencer with his enthusiasm, warmth, humility (for a cat), and his sixth sense about who needed him the most. As his fame grew locally, then statewide, and then internationally, Dewey became a source of pride in the Heartland farming town pulling its way slowly back from the greatest crisis in its long history.

I’ve been needing a cat fix for awhile ever since the one that I knew passed away recently. This is a very good substitute so far. I’m only less than 10 chapters in, and Dewey has already charmed me with his lovability and determination to get attention at almost any cost. I mean, look at that face! Don’t you want to hold him in your arms after looking at him? (Hey, if you’re allergic, I totally get it.)

Of course, Myron makes it clear that it wasn’t all a walk in the park. She hilariously recounts the times where she had give Dewey a bath with mostly disastrous results. He apparently also had a habit of chewing on rubber bands and possessed a sixth sense of where to find them even in closed drawers.

I look forward to reading about Dewey’s rise in fame and his overall impact on the people of Spencer, Iowa.

Now, let’s move onto the second and final book of this latest installment…

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is about a slave named Hiram Walker. When he was a boy, his mother was sold away, and he was robbed of all memory of her. However, he was gifted with a mysterious power. That same power saves his life years later when he almost drowns in a river. This brush with death empowers him to perform a daring scheme: to run away from the only home he’s ever known. Hiram goes on an unexpected journey that takes him far and wide. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

I started this yesterday, and this is very compelling so far. The story immediately begins with the near-drowning episode, and then, it dives into (no pun intended) Hiram’s backstory growing up on a Virginia plantation called Lockless as the black son of the plantation’s owner. Even though I need more time to process my thoughts on it, it’s got me hooked right now.

Part of this is because of the audiobook narration done by Joe Morton. Morton has appeared in movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Speed. He even won an Emmy for his role as Eli Pope – Olivia’s father – on Scandal. He is no stranger to audiobooks as he has recorded over 20 of them, including that of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. His narration on this novel is pretty good so far. He makes clear distinctions among various black and white characters. Also, when he has to sing as Hiram, he gives his all like his life depended on it, and it helps that he has a beautiful singing voice. I’m looking forward to listening to more of this book.

We now have come to the end of the fourteenth chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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Inside the O’Briens Book Review

Anybody who knows the name Lisa Genova will be familiar with the book Still Alice, which deals with a woman experiencing an early onset of Alzheimer’s. The novel was so successful that it was turned into an award-winning movie. Since then, Genova has written other titles in what one reviewer called the “neurotypical fiction” genre. This category involves stories about people dealing with neurotypical ailments. One of these includes our subject for this review Inside the O’Briens, which is very informative about Huntington’s Disease and honest about how people – those inflicted with and not – handle it.

Inside the O’Briens revolves around Joe O’Brien – a 44-year-old police officer, husband, and father of four adult children from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. After experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and involuntary movements, Joe goes to a neurologist and gets diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease (HD). Sadly, the disease has no treatment nor a cure. What’s worse is that each of the children has a 50% chance of inheriting it, and a simple blood test could seal their fate. The youngest – 21-year-old Katie – struggles with whether or not she wants to know. As his symptoms get worse, Joe loses his job and battles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose. In the meantime, Katie and her siblings must find the courage to live their lives “at risk” or take the test and learn their fate.

Before I actually review Inside the O’Briens, I want to be clear that I’ve not read Still Alice. As a result, I refuse to compare it with the former because it isn’t fair for the time being. The reason that I brought up Still Alice was that everytime I see Genova’s name in some book, that title is always mentioned. I have a feeling that Still Alice is going to haunt her for the rest of her life. Someday, I hope to read it and watch the movie. Now on with the review!

I went into Inside the O’Briens knowing very little about HD. The only thing I could recall about it was that Woody Guthie inherited that disorder from his mother, and some of his children got it from him. If one is wondering, Arlo didn’t inherit the HD gene. Luckily, the book helped me to understand more about the disease in more ways than one. For instance, I liked that Rosie – Joe’s wife – noticed his HD symptoms 6-7 years before he did. Once it became obvious that something was wrong with him, Joe tries to give excuses for his more unusual behavior like stress on the job. He even doubts them at the same time, thinking that it could be something worse (a mentality he has undoubtedly developed while working as a police officer). When he gets the official diagnosis, the neurologist explains that it would take about 10-20 years to worsen.

The reason why I was able to understand HD more was that Genova framed the disorder around a family and explored a lot of the questions surrounding it. For example, the subplot of this story involves Katie debating whether or not to take the test. She gets so obsessed with this question and with imagining the future with a positive or negative HD gene that she closes herself off from her family and her boyfriend Felix. In the end, she realizes that whatever happens, she knows that she should enjoy her life and take risks and that she has her family and Felix to turn to no matter what.

I also want to point out that not much happens in the novel. Yet, when events occur, they are immediately put into the HD context. When word gets out that the son Patrick impregnated a girl out of wedlock and doesn’t want to marry her, the family reacts in a way that an Irish Catholic one would, but HD makes it worse. Another event that illustrates this well is that at one point, Joe and Rosie get a divorce not because they don’t love each other, but to give Rosie financial stability. Again, this would alarm a normal Catholic family, yet keeping HD in mind reevaluates the situation. 

Now this may seem like a whole lot of melodrama, but I assure readers that Genova peppers humor in the right places. I giggled everytime the book mentions Joe’s love for the Red Sox, especially the passing mentions of his attempts to convert Felix – a Yankees fan – into one.

If I have to nitpick, it would be Felix’s character. He basically comes off as a manic pixie dream boy (*cough Jesse from Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2). He has very little inner life, and a lot of his dialogue focuses on Katie. However, the more I thought about this, the more I realized that maybe Felix was intentionally written that way for two reasons. One was probably to show that he’s basically perfect for Katie despite him being a Yankees fan, a Baptist, and black in a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner manner. The other reason was likely to display how Katie had been so consumed by her thoughts on taking the test that she doesn’t consider how he and her family have been feeling. 

I listened to the audiobook, and it’s narrated by Skipp Sudduth – an actor best known for his role as Sully in the series Third Watch. He gives a Bostonian vibe to the main character that doesn’t come off as a caricature. This makes sense since he was born in Warham, Massachusetts near Plymouth. In addition, he gives off similar auras to the other characters, even the female ones. Normally, I would nitpick on how he had all of the female characters sound the same. But in this case, I surprisingly didn’t care. Sudduth probably knew he couldn’t pull off female voices, so he gave them their own Bostonian touches. Honestly, if he did, then I would’ve complained.

Overall, Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova is a well-done novel that explores Huntington’s Disease and how a family deals with it in realistic manners. There’s plenty of humor to balance out the melodramatic aspects. I would recommend it to those who want to know more about HD in the non-medical sense and those who like reading books about people battling diseases. If Genova continues to write books in the “neurotypical fiction” genre, I wouldn’t mind at all, for she pens them so well.

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What Am I Reading – Chapter Thirteen

Hi Everybody!

Since the last time I posted what I was reading, I finished Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, and another volume of A Polar Bear in Love by Koromo.

Before I get started with the latest book that I’m reading right now, I want to address something that I came across in the A Polar Bear in Love manga series.

After I read the first volume, I looked at the reviews, and two common themes emerged: how creepy the polar bear was in trying to get the seal to love him back and how the former didn’t understand how terrified the latter was. The whole series is about a polar bear falling in love with a seal – the usual prey for that animal, so understandably, the seal is terrified.

I’m going to be honest and say that I really didn’t pick up on the problematic elements of the plot when reading the first volume because I was so infatuated with its cuteness. Knowing this now, yes, I can see where people are coming from. During the first volume, the seal struggles to voice his concerns against the polar bear. Luckily, during the second one, seal speaks up more, the polar bear gets the hints more as they encounter rivals to each other’s affections. I’m on the third volume now, and there’s one more in the manga, so I’ll have my full thoughts once I finished with the series altogether.

Now, let’s look at a book unrelated to anything else that I’ve read.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison is three stories in one. The titular novella is about three brothers and their lives of passion, madness, exploration and danger at the beginning of the Great War. The other two are Revenge, which shows how love causes a man’s life to be altered in drastic ways, and The Man Who Gave up his Name, which deals with another man who’s unable to give up his obsessions with women, dancing, and food.

I started this “novel” not too long ago, and it’s off to a slow start. Nothing wrong with that now, but I hope it picks up. I’m in the middle of Revenge, and I like reading the part that details what led up to the man being beaten and tossed at the side of the road. We’ll see how I feel about the other novellas.

We now have come to the end of the thirteenth chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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Around the World in 80 Days With Michael Palin Book Review

One of the first things that I’m going to do once this pandemic is over is travel. I’m not talking about going on a day trip, but traveling out of state to somewhere that I’ve never been before. I’ve been fantasizing about this for a while, and I blame this on two things. One is on the honeymoon I’ll take next year. The other is on reading Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin by Sir Michael Palin – a wonderful travelogue written by a member of Monty Python in 1988.

Around the World in Eighty Days with Michael Palin is the book companion to the 1989 BBC series of the same name. In the show, the comedian-turned traveler circumnavigates the globe in the same amount of time as Phileas Fogg – the protagonist of the famous Jules Verne novel of the same name – and using the same modes of transportation that were available in Fogg’s time. Along the way, he describes his joyous and sometimes chaotic experiences.

Pandemic or no pandemic, seeing pictures of places like Venice, Cairo, Shanghai, and Aspen, Colorado make me want to travel even though they were taken over 30 years ago. Palin offers hilarious insights into them. For example, in Venice, a photo depicts an older man face down, and he muses that he was a possible Mafia victim.

I also like how every page indicates which part of the world Palin and his Passepartouts (the film crew) are in. For instance, on one page, it lists Day 5: Corinth Canal in Greece as the author talks about going through it. On the next page, it lists Day 5: Athens as he talks about his experiences in that city. It’s good to know that Palin wants readers to know where he’s at all times (in the book of course). This also makes sense as Phileas Fogg too had to keep track of the amount of days spent traveling to ensure he circumnavigates the globe in precisely 80 days.

Speaking of Fogg, Palin makes a lot of references to the famous Jules Verne novel when prompted. At one point, as he’s crossing the Atlantic Ocean, he talks about how in the book, Fogg and Passepartout burn the wood parts of a boat in order to get to Liverpool on time. This shocked me because I’ve never read the novel even though I’m familiar with the story through the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes adaptations. Another thing that I have to mention is that Palin gets to do the one thing that is commonly associated with, yet never done in the book: traveling via hot air balloon while he’s in Aspen. 

Since he’s also a member of Monty Python, he alludes to the comedy team when appropriate. One of those references (and easily a high point for me) occurs when he encounters a cockatoo in Hong Kong, who ends up doing some damage on his pants (I mean trousers). In the photo caption, he claims that the bird had mistaken him for John Cleese. He also jokes about teaching one of the birds in the Bird Market to say “John Cleese is rubbish” (p. 133-135).

The travelogue makes me want to watch the 7-part BBC series, which is available in its entirety on Amazon Prime. However, I’m aware that the book offers more details of the journey than the show does.

Much as I enjoy reading this travelogue, there are two things that need to be acknowledged. The first is that this book was clearly written by a Westerner with a lot of resources. This is not an insult. It’s something that some reviewers noticed while reading it, and I happen to agree. At one point, he calls someone an Oriental. While I was disappointed with that, I was delighted in reading the sections, in which he mingles with the locals and getting to know them. This is especially true when he bonds with the crew of the dhow that takes him from Madras, India to Singapore. This became something that Palin would do in future travel documentaries and books, so the positives outweigh the negatives. In addition, what would have happened if Palin didn’t have the backing of the BBC? I don’t know if he would’ve traveled the world in 80 days, considering the delays he encountered.

The second thing is that the book is a time capsule for 1988. The clearest examples of these are the talks about how China will regain control of Hong Kong in nine years, glasnost, the press for the film A Fish Called Wanda, and the acknowledgement that George H. W. Bush just won the American presidency.

All in all, Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin by Sir Michael Palin is a great travelogue that marked the beginning of the author’s second career as a travel host. His observations are pretty funny and sincere, and he genuinely wants to get to know the people that he encounters on his travels. Although the book does scream 1988 at some points, it still remains pretty timeless. I would recommend this travelogue to not only Monty Python fans, but also to travelers itching to go on vacation. As for me, I’m going to watch the BBC series to continue fulfilling my travel wishes for the time being. Thank you Sir Michael!

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What Am I Reading – Chapter Twelve

Hi Everybody!!

I hope everyone had a great Mother’s Day! I sure did! When I wasn’t spending time with my mom, I was finishing the following two books in my reading bin: Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova and Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin by Michael Palin. Like before, after I got through both titles, I started two new, but truly polar opposite books/series that I would love to share with all of you.

Let’s get started!

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is about Dr. Jennifer White – a retired orthopedic surgeon struggling with dementia and who’s accused of killing her best friend. When her friend Amanda is found dead with four of her fingers surgically removed, Dr. White is a prime suspect. But she doesn’t know whether she committed the crime. She and Amanda were life-long friends as well as each other’s most formidable adversary. As the investigations progress and White’s relationship with her caretaker and two grown children intensify, a question remains: is her shattered memory preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her to hide it?

I started reading this today, and one of the first things that I noticed was how disoriented the tone is. This is not a bad thing because the protagonist is experiencing dementia. Disorientation is one of the symptoms, and LaPlante captures this beautifully, especially when readers are introduced to Dr. White’s son Mark.

I will also admit that the beginning is a bit slow, but I hope it picks up the pace.

Jean Reed Bahle – an actress and co-founder of the Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids in Grand Rapids, MI – narrates the book. So far, she brings a Glenn Close-like energy as Dr. White. I look forward to hearing more of her narration as I continue to read the book.

And now from something suspenseful and eerie to something cute and adorable!!!

A Polar Bear in Love manga series by Koromo is about a lost seal who finds himself in the company of a polar bear. Instead of eating it (like most polar bears would), the latter falls madly in love with the former. However, the fearful seal constantly misinterprets the polar bear’s romantic advances as a strong desire to eat him.

I kind of cheated with this one since I recently finished the first volume of the series over this past weekend. However, I intend to read the next three parts of the series, so that’s why I mentioned it here.

I’ve known about mangas and watched many animes, which are mostly based off of those Japanese graphic novels. But, this is the first time that I’ve actually read a manga. The first volume was a super quick read with super cute visual moments like when the polar bear encounters the seal for the first time. It’s a great comforting contrast to something like Vita Nostra. I look forward to reading the rest of the series!

We now have come to the end of the twelfth chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World Book Review

Warning: This review will briefly discuss sexual assault.

As a librarian, one of my tasks is to do collection development. What does this mean? It involves adding items to and removing ones from the collections that I’m in charge of as well as keeping them up to date. So, at least once a week, I look through book catalogs and websites to see what kinds of items I think patrons would be interested in. This is how I came across today’s book Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley. After reading the synopsis, I decided to add it to my cart. Months passed, and I discovered an advanced reader copy of the book, so I took the opportunity to read it. Was it worth it? I say yes, but with some reservations. 

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World tells the story of Tsuneno – an unconventional daughter of a Buddhist priest who was alive during the early 19th century. She wanted to live the life that she wanted as opposed to the one her family planned out for her. After three marriages, she ran away to Edo (later Tokyo) and lived there right before Commodore Perry “convinced” Japan to open its doors. 

Through mostly her and her family’s letters and secondary resources, Stanley richly illustrates who Tsuneno is, what her life was like with all its trials and tribulations, and what Edo and Japan as a whole were like at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate (a period between 1600 and 1868, in which the country was under a feudal military government that promoted isolationism). Seriously, the research was so rich that I was almost afraid that I was going to get sucked into it. Luckily, Stanley knows when to shift the focus back onto Tsuneno to explain how what she’s talking about would have affected our female protagonist. For example, in the summer of 1841, the City Magistrates in Edo decided to put out edicts forbidding silk crepe, velvet, gold, silver, “tortoiseshell hair ornaments,” and female singing teachers; requiring smaller and dimmer lanterns for the Sanno Festival, etc (p. 168, 172). More reforms appeared. These became known as the Tenpo Reforms, and they were meant to “bolster their finances[, to allow shoguns to]…shore up their authority with regard to the domain lords,” and to impose a moral agenda onto the people by instilling frugality and diligence (p. 168). And historians called that a period of peace. 

Meanwhile, how did this affect Tsuneno? After an explanation of these reforms that lasts nearly 7 pages, Stanley proclaims that Tsuneno and her fourth husband Hirosuke ran out of money during that time, and she had to pawn personal items in order to obtain some cash. She even had to pawn clothes, which this particular society would have wanted her to have to look respectable, yet no one really knew what styles and fabrics were acceptable (p. 176-177). 

Tsuneno herself is a strong, confident woman that one would normally see portrayed in a mostly positive way in the media today. Back in those days, society wanted women to be docile, gracious, full of chastity, obedient to their families and later husbands and his kin, and have sewing skills (p. 13, 15). While she could sew, she was rather stubborn and wanted more than the safety that her family offered. She left the Echigo Province in north-central Japan – her birthplace – for Edo without telling them. In multiple letters, her older brother Giyu scolded her multiple times for her disobedience and headstrong nature throughout her time in the city, but he gave in when she asked for money and other items until he officially cut her off from the family when she remarried her fourth husband (p. 201, 221). At the same time, without Giyu’s meticulous record keeping, readers like the author herself probably wouldn’t have known about Tsuneno.

The only thing that readers might complain about is that Tsuneno’s life was not all that interesting. I can see where they are coming from. On the back cover, the summary calls her “an extraordinary woman.” The only thing that truly made her that way is how she defied social conventions, and readers can find that kind of story in any form of media within the last ten years. 

However, these kinds of tales are absolutely necessary for three reasons. The first reason is that most cultures wanted women to be docile and passive as well as serve her family and later her husband. Anybody who has studied history will know that not all women were like that, Tsuneno included. 

The second reason is that throughout centuries, histories mainly focused on the winners. These people were usually royalty or people who changed the course of history. Tsuneno was not part of nobility (although she had a little higher standing than an average Japanese person due to being a daughter of a priest), nor did she alter the ways things were run in Japan. In other words, she was an ordinary person. Luckily, histories that have been published within the last 10-20 years have focused more on these kinds of people in order to provide a fuller picture of a certain era like this one does.

The third and final one is that these stories can be universal, in that they are relatable to those who are going through similar circumstances. At one point, while Tsuneno and her companion Chikan – a junior priest from a nearby village – were traveling to Edo, something happened to her that at first she couldn’t quite explain. She felt ashamed for trusting Chikan and reluctant to admit what she thought of as her own mistake. Then one day, she found the words: Chikan had raped her. Stanley believes her despite the initial skepticism that she addressed in this fantastic article about how history deals with sexual assault. Anybody who has gone through sexual assaults will know exactly the psychological state of mind that Tsuneno was in when she went through hers.

Overall, Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley is an extraordinary read about an ordinary woman who just wanted different things than what others expected of her at that time. It contains a vast amount of primary and secondary resources that paint a colorful picture that in more ways than one contradicts the period of peace that the Tokugawa Shogunate is known for. I would mainly recommend it to those who are interested in Japanese history, especially during the shogunate period, and obviously the Japanophiles (shinnichi in Japanese). It might be another story about a woman defying the conventions of her time, but the richness of the sources makes this book stand out, and readers need more stories like hers.

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Hearts Unbroken Book Review

As a librarian, I come across books that have never been checked out all the time. Recently, I decided to check out a YA book called Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith. At that time, it hadn’t been checked out at all, and had been out on the shelves for nearly two years. There is another reason why I chose to read it, but I’ll explain later. Did this book deserve to be read? Despite some minor flaws, it did!

Hearts Unbroken is a realistic and cultural young adult book about Louise Wolfe – a Muscogee (Creek) Native teenager who dumps her jock first boyfriend after he makes a very insensitive remark about her race. She then spends her senior year working on the school newspaper with Joey Kairouz – the ambitious Lebanese American photojournalist – and covering the backlash of the musical director’s color-conscious approach to casting The Wizard of Oz from the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater (PART). This hostility leads to anonymous threats, bullying, and blackmail, which affect teachers; parents; students; and the cast members, including Hughie – Louise’s brother who was cast as the Tin Man. Oh, and she might have feelings for Joey despite trying to date in a mostly white Kansas suburban area.

The main reason why I picked this novel up was because I had felt guilty for not liking Rain is Not My Indian Name (RINMIN) – another book by Smith – as much as I should’ve. While on the Internet, I discovered that both titles take place in the same universe, and that both protagonists are actually cousins. Another plus was that Rain, Fynn, and the rest of the Summer Indian Camp gang (including Queenie) made appearances throughout the book. I assume that Rain and Queenie managed to pack things up between the events of Rain is Not My Indian Name and Hearts Unbroken. Think of the latter as a spinoff of the former

But these aren’t slap dashed cameos. Rain and Fynn help Louise out as much as they can with her issues with school and Joey throughout the novel. The only thing that I have to nitpick about this aspect is that the book wants us to believe that the events of Hearts Unbroken take place 2-3 years after the ones from Rain is Not My Indian Name. However, both novels were published 17 years apart, and it sometimes shows, especially when technology is mentioned. I kind of wished that Rain was in her 30s in Hearts Unbroken, so she could give wisdom to Louise as an older cousin.

Speaking of Rain and Louise, both realize the true meaning of empathy. Both demonstrate that they are capable of relating to others (especially Louise with her journalism class), yet both learn that they need to walk a mile in other people’s shoes. In the older book, Rain realizes that closing herself prevented her from not only sharing her heritage with others, but also understanding their side of the story and realizing that she may have been wrong in her views. With the newer novel, even though Louise dumps Cam – her first boyfriend – via email immediately after he makes an inconsiderate quip about her race, she almost endangers her relationship with Joey when she says some things that he perceives to be insensitive regarding the Middle East. She even recognizes that she was an asshole for dumping Cam via email, thus justifying his post-breakup anger towards her. 

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: its wokeness. The racism in Hearts Unbroken is far more overt than it was in Rain is Not My Indian Name. Along with the comment that Cam makes, the book contains a group of parents who are clearly against the color-conscious casting even if they refuse to admit that. At one point, someone tells Louise’s family to go back to where they came from by spraying that onto the side of their house. 

Normally, readers might think that these actions of racism are too blatant. However, as more people become empowered to express their racist views, many have grown emboldened to combat them to ensure that everyone is treated equally and given the same access to resources, especially within the last four years. It helps that Louise and her family have different reactions to these situations. Her parents want to be resilient and not worry about her, yet Louise wants to write about it since she’s a reporter for the school newspaper. In addition, the novel also tackles reconciling the actions of historical figures. While rehearsing for The Wizard of Oz, Hughie discovers L. Frank Baum’s views of Native Americans, and he has to decide if he’s able to separate the art from the artist.

Another plus to this book is that it actually contains Muscogee words and phrases that the main characters (mainly Louise and Hughie) use throughout as beginning speakers. Smith was kind enough to include a Mvskoke (Muscogee)-English Glossary at the end of the book. These contain sentences like estonko? (how are you?), hesci (hello), and cokvheckv omvlkat enakes (education for all). All I have to say is cokv kerretv heret os or learning is good!

While looking at reviews, I noticed two main complaints from readers: the chapters themselves and too many characters. Most of the chapters were pretty short, which makes it a good book to read before going to bed, but I too noticed that some were longer than others. I can see how readers might perceive this as inconsistent, but I wasn’t bothered by this because some chapters will be longer due to important plot points occurring. Now, for the other criticism of the whole load of characters, I think that one is a little more valid. There were people who showed up for a scene, and then, they were never seen again. For example, Louise visits a student who works as a page for the school library, and she gives her a book when being asked about the musical. Readers never see this character nor the book again. I think Smith could have reduced the character count and still have the same story.

The only thing that I have a slight problem with is how Louise and Joey reconcile. During the climax, a tornado comes around (did I mention the book is set in Kansas?), and what do they do? After Joey forgives Louise, they go into his Jeep, and they start making out. Yep, they do that in a Jeep in a parking lot while an actual tornado is happening. I couldn’t take that seriously! It sounded like it could be in a PG-13 Hallmark movie.

All in all, Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is a YA book that people should read. It tackles the issue of race in necessarily overt, deep, and simple ways. In fact, I actually think that this is better than Rain is Not My Indian Name. Like that title, I would recommend this novel to those who are looking to read stuff with Native American protagonists. When one has the chance, try to check out a book that looks like it needs love. It’s available in print as well as on Hoopla and Libby.

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Rain is Not Indian Name Book Review

When researching for book reviews, I go to sources like Goodreads and see what other readers have said about the book in question. Sometimes, they’ll praise novels that I didn’t find all that interesting. It’s not that it was bad; it’s just that I didn’t really connect with it as much as I would’ve hoped. This sometimes happens because of the book itself, my expectations on it, or both. I’ve been thinking a lot about this ever since I read the reviews for Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith – a book that I liked but didn’t connect with it all that much.

Rain is Not My Indian Name is about Cassidy Rain Berghoff – a mixed race Native American girl, who, on the eve of her 14th birthday, loses her best friend and possible boyfriend Galen. For six months, she shuns herself from the outside world until controversy arises with her Aunt Georgia’s Indian camp in their mostly white community in Kansas. She goes back into the real world by taking photographs of the campers for the town newspaper. Soon after, Rain has to decide how involved she wants to be with the camp. Should she keep a professional distance from the inter tribal community that she belongs to? And how will she connect with the other campers after her great loss?

The reasons that I didn’t really get attached to the novel were because of the multiple subplots and the expectations that I set for it. The book itself is 135 pages, yet there are a lot of minor stories going on in the background. These include the rift between Rain and her second-best friend Queenie – a black girl who dated Galen prior and whose great-grandfather was Seminole – and Rain’s brother becoming a father. Normally, I wouldn’t have an issue with this if the book was longer. For example, The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati is 768 pages, and it too, contains a lot of minor plots. The difference between that and Rain is Not My Indian Name is that the former has the space to develop all the plots while retaining focusing on the main one. With the latter, it felt like the subplots were so crammed into the novel that the major story got lost.

The second reason why I didn’t relate to it as much is on me. After I read the blurb for the first time, I immediately thought that the book was going to be a slightly sanitized version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky since the main characters in their own ways shun themselves from the outside world after the deaths of their friends and loved ones. After reading Rain is Not My Indian Name, I came to the conclusion that it was like that, except the situations were similar to the ones shown on kids’ tv shows like her camera accidentally destroying the noodle bridge that the campers were building. Again, I felt that it could’ve been better with less subplots. It didn’t help that I partly rushed through the book, when in hindsight, I should’ve taken my time with it.

I feel that I would’ve enjoyed the novel more if I didn’t assume what the book was going to be like because there was some really good material in it. Rain is Muscogee Creek-Cherokee and Scots-Irish on her mom’s side, Irish-German-Ojibway on her dad’s. She details subtle experiences of racism and white privilege, while not being perfect herself. When she finds out that the newspaper intern is Jewish, she comes very close to saying that he doesn’t look like one, something that she hears on an almost daily basis regarding her Native American heritage. 

In addition, I liked how there weren’t any neat resolutions. Rain will never know how Galen truly felt about her and what he was thinking when he and Queenie broke up. It also might take a long time before she is able to move on from Galen’s death. Who knows what will happen with her.

Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith is a good story that I couldn’t quite connect to because of the reasons mentioned above. Despite that, it contains realistic Native American characters and situations. I would recommend this novel to those who are looking to read stuff with Native American protagonists. Even though it’s only 135 pages, I would also let them know to take their time with it. There’s a reason why slow and steady ultimately wins the race.

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What Am I Reading – Chapter Eleven

Hi Everybody!

I’ve been going through books like a pack of Oreos! I finished Carry the One by Carol Anshaw and The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp recently. Now, I’ve started two new novels that I would love to share with all of you.

Let’s get started!

Translated from Russian, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is basically a dark version of Harry Potter. While vacationing with her mom, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov. He directs her to perform certain tasks, and she is powerless to refuse. Every time she completes a one, she is rewarded with strange gold coins. As her schooling and summer end, her domineering mentor makes her move to a remote village and use her gold coins to enroll in the Institute of Special Technologies. Even though Sasha doesn’t want to go, she feels that this is the only place she should be. She quickly finds out that the institute’s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered like the books being impossible to read and the lessons being maddening. The institute uses terror and coercion to keep students in line, yet they don’t outright punish them. Instead, their families pay a price. Despite her fear, Sasha goes through changes that defy matter and time as well as experiences which were nothing she ever dreamed of and suddenly all she ever wanted.

As one can see from this summary, it’s a lot. But, it’s truly like Harry Potter. Like Sasha, Harry also goes to a magical school and experiences things that he couldn’t ever dream of while living with the Dursleys. The difference is how more intense Vita Nostra is, especially with how Sasha is forced to go to the school almost against her own will.

It grabbed me from the very first page. I could vividly imagine a lot of the locations like the remote village, especially when Sasha and Kostya – Farit’s son – first encounter it. I want her to be free, but I also want to see how she does in the school. We’ll see how it goes.

Now, let’s move onto the second and final book of this latest installment…

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova revolves around Joe O’Brien – a 44-year-old police officer, husband, and father of four adult children from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. After experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and involuntary movements, Joe goes to a neurologist and gets diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. Sadly, the disease has no treatment nor a cure. What’s worse is that each of the children has a 50% chance of inheriting it, and a simple blood test could seal their fate. The youngest – 21-year-old Katie – struggles with whether or not she wants to know. As his symptoms get worse, Joe loses his job and battles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose. In the meantime, Katie and her siblings must find the courage to live their lives “at risk” or take the test and learn their fate.

Going into this novel, I knew that Genova was a neurologist. This makes sense as her previous and most famous book Still Alice deals with a woman struggling with the early onset of Alzheimer’s. I’ve not read that book, but I refuse to compare it with Inside the O’Briens because it isn’t fair for the time being.

I started reading Inside the O’Briens today, and it’s going good so far. I like how the main character tries to give excuses for his more unusual behavior like stress on the job. He even doubts them at the same time, thinking that it could be something worse (a mentality he has undoubtedly developed while working as a police officer).

I’m listening to the audiobook, and it’s narrated by Skipp Sudduth – an actor best known for his role as Sully in the series Third Watch. He gives a Bostonian vibe to the main character that doesn’t come off as a caricature. I look forward to hearing the rest of Sudduth’s performance as well as reading the rest of the novel.

We now have come to the end of the eleventh chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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