I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Erika L. Sánchez
Narrated by: Kyla Garcia
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Pub Date: Oct. 2017 (read Mar. 2018 as an Audiobook)

I listened to I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter on audiobook and it is definitely the fastest I’ve ever listened to an audiobook! I LOVED IT!

I’ve written a few times about how I don’t love fiction audiobooks because I think they can be very unforgiving of an author’s writing and for some reason hearing fiction read out loud always seems to make the writing sound cheesy or lame. I think non-fiction translates better to audiobooks overall, but this is hand-downs my favourite fiction audiobook that I’ve listened to and I think the narrator, Kyla Garcia is TOPS!

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was a National Book Award finalist in the young readers category and tells the story of Julia, a teenage daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants. Julia’s older sister Olga has just died tragically in a road accident and her whole family is reeling from the loss. Julia’s mother always viewed Olga as the perfect daughter and Julia’s sharp contrast from Olga creates a lot of tension with her mother, who doesn’t understand why Julia is so difficult.

Julia is 15/16 years old (can’t remember) and she is extremely brash and confrontational. She’s constantly picking fights with those around her, she lies to her parents, she can be vulgar, and she is of course, grieving. In the wake of Olga’s death, Julia starts to discover some of her sister’s secrets and finds that her sister may not have been as perfect as she led everyone to believe. She struggles to justify this new Olga with the sister she knew and in her grief, she acts out against her friends and family.

A lot of the reviews for this book are pretty critical of Julia and I can understand why a lot of readers didn’t like her. She’s not a particularly likable character, but like Scarlett O’Hara, her flaws were what I loved about her, and I definitely loved this character. I have to give some of the credit to the narrator because I thought she captured Julia’s voice and the tone of this novel perfectly. Her Mexican accent was fantastic and she absolutely read this like an angst-y, grief-ridden teenager.

Julia had a lot of spunk and while I couldn’t believe some of the things she was gutsy enough to say to people, I thought she was incredibly relatable as a teenage daughter of immigrants. She’s grown up in completely different circumstances than her parents and they struggle to relate to each other. She’s lived her whole life in the shadow of her perfect older sister and even though Julia is really smart and accomplished herself, she’s always been overshadowed by her sister in her parents eyes. She is critical of Olga’s desk job and can’t imagine settling for a job like that when she wants to be a writer, but her parents are critical of her dreams because they don’t believe a writer is a real job and as people who have done labour their entire lives, they can’t imagine anything better than Olga’s desk job.

Following the death of her sister, her mother suddenly wants to try and give Julia everything she was never able to give Olga. She fears for Julia’s safety and is extremely protective of her, forbidding her to go to parties or spend time with boys. But Julia just wants to live her life and the wedge between her and her mother only grows bigger. Julia becomes depressed and overwhelmed by the constant pressure to be more like Olga and how critical her mother is of everything she does and wants.

While I thought Julia sometimes took things too far, I was incredibly sympathetic for her. She is grieving and her world is crumbling and she has little support to navigate the scary new world around her. I thought this book was so well written and that Sanchez captured what its like to be a teenager so well.

The only reason I rated this 4.5 stars instead of 5 stars is because I didn’t love the last third of the book as much. Julia eventually goes off to Mexico for a period of time and I didn’t think this added a whole lot to the story overall. She does learn more about her family there and starts to better understand her mother, but I felt these epiphanies still could have happened in America and that removing her from America made us have to press pause on the rest of the drama in the story, which made it feel a little bit disjointed. There’s a lot of plot points that surface in the last few chapters of the story and they felt a little out of place because her trip to Mexico disrupted the flow of the story.

But overall, I absolutely loved this and I would highly recommend the audiobook. I’m not convinced I would have liked this quite as much if I’d read it because I thought the narrator did such a good job as Julia!

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American Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Genres: Young Adult, Magical Realism
Read: Jan. 2018

Ibi Zoboi! Way to rip my heart out and stomp on it! What even? I was not expecting this.

This was the last book in my January Challenge to read 3 books about immigration. I read Girl in Translation and Pachinko earlier this month and loved both of them. American Street was a whole different kind of story, quite unlike either of the others. It was probably my least favourite of the 3 books, but still really good.

Fabiola Toussaint was born in America, but raised in Haiti because her mother didn’t have citizenship. Her Aunt Jo and her 3 cousins, Chantal, Pri, and Donna all live in Detroit and regularly send money back to Haiti to help out Fabiola and her mother. When Fab is entering her junior year of high school, they send enough money for her and her mother to finally move to America for good. Fab has American citizenship, but her mother has to get all the necessary visas to “visit” America. Unfortunately, when they enter America, Fab’s mother is detained at the border and she is forced to go on to Detroit without her.

Her aunt and cousins live at the corner of American Street and Joy Road. Fab has been desperate to come to America to live in the land of the free, but she doesn’t feel very free with her mother detained in an immigration prison in New Jersey and navigating her cousins’ world is scary and overwhelming. Her cousins are notorious at school and a little rough around the edges. Fabiola is pulled into their world and discovers the dark underside of what it costs to chase after the american dream.

Like I said, this was really different from any of the other immigration books I’ve read this year. I think Zoboi really captures Fab’s Haitian spirit and what it’s like growing up black in Detroit. She intertwines some cultural elements, like Haitian vodou, which is very much a spiritual thing for Fab, but is usually interpreted more like witchcraft in modern society. She weaves in some magical realism which surprised me and first, but I thought really worked with the story.

Voice was key for me in this novel. I’m a privileged white girl who grew up in a predominantly white town, so I definitely can’t relate to Fabiola or her cousins, yet their voices rang so true. I had no trouble believing in Zoboi’s characters. Fab’s uneasiness when she first arrives at her aunt’s house; Chantal’s desire to chase education but her reluctance to leave her family; Donna’s inability to say ‘enough is enough’; and Pri’s fierce and protective love for her sisters. My only complaint would be that Zoboi didn’t actually go deep enough into each of these characters. She formulated some really excellent characters, I just wanted more of them.

I really wasn’t anticipating where the plot of this story went. I thought it was mostly going to be about Fab trying to re-unite with her mom. While this was definitely an underlying conflict throughout the entire novel, Zoboi tackled a lot of other issues in this story. Although I would have liked to have heard her mother’s story as well and learn about what it’s actually like to be detained. I never really knew where the story was going and felt quite out of my depth with some of the content, much as I imagine Fabiola must have felt arriving in Detroit and trying to fit in with girls attacking each other over boyfriends and drugs passing hands on the sly. But Zoboi was quite unflinching in her delivery. I really did not see the end coming in this book and parts of it and brutal.

So like I said, probably my least favourite of the 3 books that I read, but actually very complimentary because this offered a totally different perspective than the other two. The characters in Girl in Translation and Pachinko are very meek and I loved Fabiola’s strength in this novel. She makes some pretty big mistakes, but she’s not afraid to chase after what she wants and she is very brave and courageous. Her culture shock was quite different and I liked getting another perspective. She could have let herself be pushed around, but she wouldn’t stand for it and decided to make her own place. Family is a central theme to this novel and I enjoyed the messiness that was the Francois sisters and Fabiola’s relationships with them.

Way to go Zoboi, this is a great debut novel!

Pachinko

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Min Jin Lee
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Jan. 2018

It feels like I’ve been working on Pachinko for ages, but I finally finished it. I flew through several books at the beginning of the year, but it was nice to settle down with this one, which is definitely an epic and had a lot of depth.

If you’ve been following along, I decided to read 3 books about immigration for my January Challenge and Pachinko was my second selection. I read Girl in Translation earlier this month and loved it. I picked Pachinko because it’s been getting rave reviews and it’s one of the few books I found about immigration that wasn’t a story about immigrating to America.

Pachinko begins in Korea in 1910 and takes us on a journey with 4 generations of the same family as they are forced to leave their ancestral home and build a life for themselves in Japan. This was a great history lesson and I learned a lot about both Korea and Japan and the touchy relationship between the two. Korea was colonized by Japan between 1910 and 1945 and split into North and South Korea after the second world war.

The story starts with Sunja and her parents, Hoonie and Yangjin, who run a boarding house in the small town of Yeoungdo in southern Korea. Sunja falls for a wealthy Korean visiting from Japan and becomes pregnant. Fortunately, one of their boarders, a young christian minister Isak, feels led to marry Sunja to save her from the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock and so that her child might take his name. Isak had been on his way to Japan for an appointment with a church when he stopped at the boarding house and they marry and Sunja accompanies him to Japan.

Relations between Japanese and Koreans were not good at this time and there is a lot of racism against the Koreans. The Japanese believe themselves to be the ruling class and think of Koreans as dirty and stupid. Sunja faces a lot of challenges living in Japan and the novel takes us though 80 years of history through Sunja’s children and grandchildren.

This is definitely not a fast read, but it is very impressive in it’s scope. I haven’t read a lot of historical epics (Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants trilogy is the only other one that comes to mind) and at times Pachinko felt very slow moving, while at other times I was really into it and wanted to know what would happen next. With 4 generations, we inevitably experience many deaths in this book and some of them were actually quite shocking and emotional!

There are so many great themes in this book. I loved Sunja and Kyunghee’s characters and their experiences as women and with motherhood. Lee continuously explores women’s roles throughout the novel and the expectation that a woman’s lot in life is to suffer. Their husbands and family were everything to Sunja and Kyunghee and it never occurred to them to seek happiness for themselves outside of their family. They both had dreams for their lives, yet they were always secondary to the dreams of the men. With each new generation it was interesting to see how women’s roles would change and I enjoyed when Sunja starts to question what her life might have been or could be now if she had made other choices.

The familial relationships in the story are heartbreaking. There’s so many different relationships presented in this book and they were all very beautifully written (although sometimes tragic). This family is tried again and again. They all suffered an enormous amount as Koreans, but their tenacity was inspiring in what they were able to accomplish. I really liked Kyunghee and Kim and I was really intrigued about what happened to the Koreans who returned to North Korea after the war. Lee leaves us with quite a lot of unanswered questions, but I think this is very much indicative of the relationship between Japan and Korea. North Korea was very much a big black box and you never knew what happened there. Many Koreans had to live their entire lives without ever finding out what had become of their friends and family.

I liked Mozasu’s story with the Pachinko parlours as well and I loved the themes Lee tied in with the parlours. So many Koreans were trapped in a cycle of poverty in Japan. They were 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants who had come to the land of their colonizers in search of prosperity and were then later emancipated from their homeland. It was so hard for Koreans to succeed in Japan and they were always looked down upon, yet there was nothing in Korea for them to go back to.  Pachinko parlours are gambling dens where you can play these pinball-like machines in hopes of winning. Because of the gambling, parlour owners were often mixed up in dark criminal underworld and linked with the Yakuza, the Korean gangsters. I liked that despite being rough around the edges growing up, Mozasu was able to discover who he really was in the Pachinko parlours and become an honest man, despite how easy it would have been to become corrupted.

“Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes – there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game? Etsuko had failed in this important way – she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

As a book about immigration, Pachinko was fantastic. There are so many thoughtful nuggets of information and shared experiences about immigration in this book. I was particularly moved when Mozasu had to take Solomon on his 14th birthday to get his fingerprints taken and get his documentation card so that he could remain in Japan. Even though he and his son had both been born in Japan, they were forced to renew their identity cards every 3 years and could potentially be deported to South Korea – a country neither of them had ever known. This is so relevant to what’s happening all over the world with white people spewing hate at immigrants that have been living and contributing to their countries and economies for years.

I’ll finish with a quote from Solomon towards the end of the novel which I loved for it’s hopefulness despite the decades of discrimination his family had experienced. I appreciated the relationships Lee built between the Koreans and the Japanese, to remind her readers that we are all just people. There are good actions and their are bad actions, but we are each our own and we can each actively make the decision to accept and support each other, rather than hate.

“Kazu was a shit, but so what? He was one bad guy, and he was Japanese… Even if there were a hundred bad Japanese, if there was one good one, he refused to make a blanket statement. Etsuko was like a mother to him; his first love was Hana; and Totoyama was like an uncle, too. They were Japanese, and they were very good.”

Far From the Tree

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Robin Benway
Genres: Young Adult
Read: Oct. 2017

 

I loved this!!

I don’t give very many books 5 stars. I’ve usually read most of the book before I realize it’s one of those really special books that deserves the extra star, but every now and then you find a book that you know you are going to love right off the bat. That’s what Far From the Tree was like for me.

I thought this book had the strongest start. It tells the story of 3 teenagers that had all been put up for adoption by their birth mom. Joaquin, the eldest, actually lived with his mother for a short period of time, but ended up in the foster care system for his entire life. He’s been in and out of over a dozen homes and has a very low self-worth, believing himself undeserving of any good thing.

Grace and Maya were luckier and we’re adopted by loving families at birth. Maya is the youngest and just a few months after she was adopted, her mom became pregnant with a miracle baby, Lauren. Lauren looks just like her parents and Maya struggles to fit in when she looks so different from the rest of her family. Grace is the middle child and is heartbroken after becoming pregnant at 16 and deciding to give her own baby, who she refers to as Peach, up for adoption.

The novel opens with Grace giving birth and then alternates each chapter from the point of view of each of the siblings. In the beginning, none of the siblings know each other. After giving up her baby, Grace is inspired to search for her own birth mother and discovers the existence of her 2 siblings and reaches out to them. Grace’s first chapter was so incredibly well written and heartbreaking that I immediately knew I was going to love this book. Funny enough, I read Robin Benway’s debut novel, Audrey, Wait! when I was actually a teenager and it was one of my favourite books at the time, but I stopped reading Benway after her second novel, which I found very disappointing. So it was a pleasant surprise to see this book nominated for the National Book Award (which it won) and I decided to re-visit her work.

Honestly, 2 of the first 3 chapters could have been standalone short stories and they still would have been fantastic. Grace and Joaquin were the most moving stories, but Maya still had a really interesting story arc as well. The emotions are just so well written in this book. Even though I’ve never been in the foster system or given up a baby at 16, their pain and heartbreak was so tangible and relatable. Benway tackled a lot of issues in this book and I felt every second of the story was important and meaningful.

To conclude, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing in this story and would highly recommend Far From the Tree to anyone and everyone!