“On the Come Up” by Angie Thomas – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

Goodreads


This one was on my shelf for a minute, and I’m so glad I finally got to it! Did I happen to finish it the same day the (streaming) movie came out, without even realizing they were making a movie? YES. But I’m not watching the movie version yet, so it won’t influence my review.

Our main character here is Bri, who lives with her mom and brother in a neighborhood called The Garden – the same neighborhood Thomas wrote about in “The Hate U Give.” The characters from these two books don’t directly intersect, but the events of that prior book still weigh on the residents of the neighborhood in this book.

Like all well-written characters, Bri has a lot going on – her home life and family, school stuff, and her hopes for someday being a famous rapper. Her dad was a rapper, too, but Bri gets tired of always being compared to him. She wants to make it on her own merits.

She and a few friends get bused into a different part of the city to go to an arts school. The school needs a certain percentage of minority students to get certain grants, but the school’s security guards (and some teachers) are used to treating black and brown kids with a little more suspicion than white kids. This leaves the BIPOC kids feeling like they are just “numbers” – like the school wants them for the dollars they bring in, but is not worried about them as actual people.

When this all boils over, it prompts Bri to write a song, titled “On the Come Up,” that talks about her being a thug. She’s not – but the point of the song was that people are going to see her that way no matter what she does. The song blows up – but also creates controversy. Some white moms want the song banned, pulled from streaming platforms, etc. because they don’t think it’s appropriate for kids to hear about toting guns. This brings up issues of censorship, of course, but also reiterates the points the kids are mad about at the school – like, which kids are worth protecting? Some parents think their kids shouldn’t even hear about this stuff, but some kids are actually living around it every day.

There are a few things I love about Thomas’ characters here. First, they are teens, and have some teen stuff going on in their lives – who likes who kind of stuff. But it’s not the focal point. It doesn’t even really affect the plot all that much. It’s present, but not the point. (Of course, you could make the argument that some kids have to “grow up” sooner than others, leading them to focus less on usual teen things.)

Also, there are a lot of big political issues here – but they are brought up through the interactions of these kids with their school, online critics, their own parents, or others in their environment. It’s not like Thomas has to go on some lengthy diatribe about censorship – Bri deals with it incrementally as the issue comes up in her life. And other issues of safety, cops in schools, etc. are brought up in similar fashions.

This is the second book by Angie Thomas that I’ve read, but if you’re at all interested in the YA genre, or books about black characters in America, I’d definitely recommend checking out her catalog.


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“Warda” by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set in the rugged shrublands of rural Ethiopia, the contentious neighborhoods of South Africa, and the icy streets of Michigan, Warda is the story of a fierce young woman on a tireless quest to become the first member of her family to go to college.

-Goodreads


This book is so good! It’s not a long read, anyway, but the amazing tales within it makes it go fast.

Near the beginning, before we really get to know the main character, we learn about her family. Warda doesn’t even remember her mother, who died when she was just a baby. Because of financial woes and ethnic prejudices, her father was living away from Warda and her mom. But when baby Warda got sick, her mom was determined to take her back to where she was born to get medical help. While crossing the Red Sea, the boat they were in capsized. Her uncle was also aboard, and found Warda floating on a blanket. He also found her mom, but she was already deceased. Her father didn’t even know they were traveling.

And that’s only the beginning.

Her dad takes Warda to his father’s farm, where she is raised with many aunts, uncles, and cousins of all ages. She thinks of her grandpa as her father, and does not understand that he is not. She faces several dangers – often in the form of wild animals trying to attack their herd of sheep – but gets no formal schooling. When she is ten years old, her dad wants her to move to South Africa so she can start receiving an education. The trip there takes her a little over a year.

Of course, even after arriving there, Warda has a big challenge to her education: she speaks none of the languages that classes are held in in most of the schools around her.

After only a few years, her family has to move again. This time, they’re taking a big leap to come to the United States. When they land in Michigan, there is already snow on the ground – something Warda has zero experience with.

She also has another new language to learn. She wants to learn to drive. She needs to learn to navigate not only her American high school… but college applications, scholarship essays, SAT and ACT prep, and being away from others who share her culture and religion.

Thankfully, Warda is assigned a mentor who helps her immensely. With her mentor’s gift of keeping Warda organized, and her own passion for wanting to get to college, they come up with a plan to get Warda through high school in only a few years. To make up for lost time, she often has to take extra classes online and in the summer. She has to really push hard to get to her dream… which is to ultimately become a doctor.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d pick: triumphant. You’ll be hooked from the early scenes of Warda’s life, and you’ll want to cheer her on through so many more adventures and obstacles.

This book was independently published over a year ago, but the team at Books Forward is promoting it now to coincide with World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day is celebrated on June 20th, and you can learn more about it here.


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“The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School” by Sonora Reyes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Seventeen-year-old Yamilet Flores prefers drawing attention for her killer eyeliner, not for being the new kid at a mostly white, very rich, Catholic school. But at least here no one knows she’s gay, and Yami intends to keep it that way. After being outed by her crush and ex-best friend, she could use the fresh start.

Goodreads


This book has a lot going on, and it starts going in ways I didn’t expect at only about a third of the way into it! Per the author’s own note, though, there are trigger warnings for racism, homophobia, and suicidal ideation.

Our main character is Yamilet, who lives with her mom and her younger brother, Cesar. Her dad, who she was very close to, was deported to Mexico when she was ten years old.

When we meet them, Yami and Cesar are about to start a new school year at a new school. Obviously, this always comes with some nervousness… but moreso for Yami, who is gay but not out. In addition to that, she feels like she is poorer than most kids at the private school, and she’s one of very few non-white kids there. Her initial goal is to just stay out of trouble, but that doesn’t last long.

On her first day, she has a class with Bo, an Asian girl who is out and pretty bold about it. This confuses Yamilet, because on one hand she wants to befriend Bo and learn more about her… but on the other, can she do that without outing herself?

So, this brings up an interesting aspect of the book. In so many ways, it’s easier for people of all ages to be “out” now than in previous decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s equally easy for everyone. Of course, the religious nature of her new school is a deterrent, as is the fact that her mom is religious and makes gay jokes. With their dad already deported, Yami and Cesar also have a healthy fear of police or authorities of an “official” variety. There are a lot of reasons these kids want to protect the various identities that they see as being different from their classmates.

I don’t want to give away too much, but a lot happens during the course of the school year. Yamilet definitely gets closer to Bo, and learns that, even though she is more confident about her sexuality, she has her own struggles with her ethnic heritage. She also, unexpectedly, makes a friend of a popular jock who starts the year with a crush on her. She learns some unexpected things about her brother, clashes with a parent, and of course ends up becoming more confident in who she is.

This was such a good book. While I don’t share all of the heroine’s identities, I did switch from public to Catholic school – and that alone was intimidating! Yami and Cesar have so many other issues on their plates, and I really sympathized with them.

This YA novel comes out today, May 17th, from Harper Collins. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward, and through Netgalley.

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, their site has resources for you. If you are in Nashville, please see the Oasis Center for local support.


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“Beautiful Country: A Memoir” by Qian Julie Wang – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.

Goodreads


This was a good, albeit sometimes heartbreaking, read. Because the main character is only a handful of years younger than I am, I could identify with some of her memories that related to pop culture – the clothes, toys, books, and TV shows of the nineties make many appearances.

Qian tells first of her life in China – or, what little she remembers of it, since she was fairly young. But overall, her life there was pretty good. Like most kids, she didn’t really think about it or worry too much – it just was what it was.

And then, her dad left to come to America. She began to fear that he wouldn’t come back. A year later, she and her mom joined him in New York City.

She had previously only known of America through TV and movies, and she had heard that everyone there was rich. So it boggled her mind that her family had to live the way they did while there.

They often shared one room, in houses where other rooms were rented to other families, and they all shared one bathroom and kitchen. There were sometimes rats. Her parents worked long hours in miserable conditions, in places like sweatshops and fish factories. They garbage-picked their furniture.

Qian herself was first put into special education classes, because she couldn’t speak English. It seemed no one at her school was entirely prepared to help her with that. But, with a library card and a love of reading, she soon taught herself. Kids are both smart and resilient.

Even when she started doing better in school, though, she couldn’t quite shake her “outsider” status. Mostly because her parents couldn’t afford the clothes, shoes, and toys that the other kids thought were cool year after year.

Her parents had both been professors in China. Her dad seemed resigned to his fate – that they’d just have to be poor in America. He was probably depressed. Her mom was not ready to give up so easily. She put herself through some additional schooling, with the hopes of getting better jobs someday. Her mom also got very ill for a while, however. After her recovery, she was determined to get herself and Qian out of their miserable conditions – even if Qian’s dad didn’t want to come along.

If you want to know what happens, pick up a copy – “Beautiful Country” comes out today! I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Doubleday Books.


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“Firekeeper’s Daughter ” by Angeline Boulley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Goodreads


I was interested in this one as soon as I saw the gorgeous cover, but the title and the description also added to my intrigue. My first reaction was, “This book has everything!” It’s YA, and from an own voices/BIPOC perspective. It has romance, sports, crime. There are other very relevant issues at play, as well, so let’s dive in.

Our main character is Daunis Fontaine, who is half Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and half white. She lives in the Upper Peninsula area of Michigan – which is significant, as people in her town cross the Canadian border with ease. A lot of the action actually takes place on Sugar Island, which is in the river that acts as the international border in this area.

There is quite a bit of the usual teen drama here, including hating on exes and contemplating jobs/colleges. But Daunis has some extra weight hanging around such decisions, as her mom is currently taking care of her own mom after the loss of her brother (Daunis’ grandma and uncle, respectively). She has a complicated family history, in which her white side hasn’t always been kind to (or even accepting of) her Ojibwe side. She is close to her half-brother, who is a local hockey star. Daunis herself played, until an injury cut her hockey career short. She is still close to the players, though, both past and present.

She is also close to her father’s sister, who plays a prominent role in the story. Aunt Teddie is one of Daunis’ closest ties to her Indigenous side’s histories and traditions. Her best friend Lily, and Lily’s grandma, are also great windows into this culture.

The action really picks up after Daunis witnesses a murder. She hadn’t realized that the FBI had been running an undercover investigation in her area already, and gets roped into being an informant. The investigation is concerned with drugs being made and distributed in the area. I felt like this was another layer that made this book super relevant, as the opioid epidemic has affected many communities over the past decade or so. The effects that drugs are having on her friends and former teammates is the primary reason Daunis agrees to get involved. She questions her involvement often – especially as it involves not being honest with her family at times – but keeps coming back to the idea of helping her community.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, but there is a lot going on. Some parts are gut-wrenching. Other parts made me cheer. (The elders in the community are kick-ass on several levels.) This book definitely had a huge emotional impact.

There are some hard truths presented at the end that are very frustrating, but realistic. Not every strand in this story gets wrapped up in a positive or convenient fashion. That’s not to say there isn’t sufficient wrap-up here, because I think the author leaves Daunis in a good place, ultimately. But you will be angry at some of the injustices left bare.

I loved this book, even when I wanted to yell at it. There is a whole community of interesting characters, which feels a lot like the reality of growing up in a tight-knit community. The females are mostly fierce, which I’m all for. While the main characters are in their late teens, there are good representations of people of all ages.

This book comes out today, March 16th, through MacMillan. I was able to read an advanced digital copy through Netgalley. Also, it is already slated to be adapted for the screen on Netflix.


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