Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter

Written by: Adeline Yen Mah

First line: As soon as I got home from school, Aunt Baba noticed the silver medal dangling from the left breast pocket of my uniform.

Why you should read this book: Considered unlucky due to the proximity of her mother's death to her own birth, Jun-ling, known to her family is Fifth Daughter, suffers the discrimination of her young, powerful, and probably insane stepmother, under whose influence the entire family follows suit. While her half-siblings receive the best of everything and her older siblings band together, Jun-ling is psychologically tortured throughout her entire childhood; at one point in the story her parents literally take her to a war zone and leave her in a convent school even as the other girls are pulled from the school and taken away to safer places by parents who care whether they live or die. Jun-ling's only shred of hope in life is her academic prowess, which gives her a prayer of a better future as well as a world to escape to in the present.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Wow, this family is seriously messed up.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Written by: Athol Fugard

First line: There had been a silence, as always happened at about the same time, a long silence when none of them moved except maybe to lift a glass and hold it high above their heads for the dregs to drip into their open mouths, or to yawn and stretch and slump back into their chairs, when one of them might scratch himself, another consider the voice of the woman in the backyard, the old woman who was scolding, rattling her words like stones in a tin, and all of them in their own time looking at the street outside, and the shadows, wondering if they were not yet long enough.

Why you should read this book: Set in South Africa during apartheid, this novel details a moment of revelation in the life of Tsotsi (literally"gangster"), a boy without a past or a future, a young man living in the moment of drinking and stealing and killing, feeling no remorse, feeling nothing whatsoever, until the night one of his gang members calls him out for his lack of feeling. Tsotsi beats the accuser into unconsciousness, runs into the night, and ends up in possession of a helpless infant, whose presence helps Tsotsi comprehend empathy, recall the trauma of his past, and begin to care for something beside the next job. In addition to its excellent writing and exquisite description of the human psyche, this novel also provides a detailed understanding of the everyday horrors of apartheid and the casual dehumanization of black people in South Africa in the late seventies and early eighties.

Why you shouldn't read this book: It's not happy. Nothing happy happens. The ending is enlightening, but not uplifting.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Written by: JK Rowling

First line: Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.

Why you should read this book: Terrible things are afoot in Harry Potter's world, as evidenced by the fact that school hasn't even started yet and already he's been chastised by muggles and magicians because a house elf dropped his aunt's pudding, shut out of the passageway to Platform 9 3/4, and been beaten up by a tree while illegally riding in a stolen flying car. But these events are overshadowed by the strange horror lurking the halls of Hogwarts: a monster that petrifies muggle-borns and threatens to bring an end to Albus Dumbledore and the entire school of magic. If he breaks any more rules, Harry risks expulsion from Hogwarts, but if doesn't break the rules, he risks losing magic altogether.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Spiders. Lots of spiders. Really giant spiders.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Falling in Love with Hominids

Written by: Nalo Hopkinson

First line: "The easthound bays at night," Jolly said.

Why you should read this book: This deeply imaginative short story collection covers the range of traditional speculative motifs, including ghosts, fairies, monsters, gods, and stochastic flying elephants, while maintaining a modern, enlightened sensibility that injects a bright freshness into familiar tropes along with the voices of queer folks and people of color. From teenage girls taking on the persona of dragons to fight back against sexual harassment to the sibling rivalry between the spirits from Shakespeare's Tempest, these intelligent  stories feel new and smart and forward-thinking. Enjoyable, fast-paced, clever, and wonderfully written, it's both fun and provocative.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Some nasty bits with city rats.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Among the Dolls

Written by: William Sleator

First line: The poplar trees along the roadside shimmered in a light breeze, and there was hardly a nip in the autumn air.

Why you should read this book: Incensed that her parents bought her a creepy antique dollhouse for her birthday instead of the new ten-speed bike she desires, Vicky begins emotionally abusing the dolls by using them to act out a terrible family life for her own amusement. Vicky's own home life becomes less and less optimal until one day she finds herself magically transported into the world of the dollhouse, whose occupants, well aware that Vicky is the cause of all their misery, intend to take out their revenge on her person. She has very little time to discover the dollhouse's secrets and escape from the terrible world of her own making.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Probably not a good choice for kids who have witnessed domestic violence.

The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories

Written by: Marguerite Dabaie

First line: Being a Palestinian requires so much responsibility.

Why you should read this book: The author packs a lot of ideas into a tiny little volume, painting a pretty detailed picture of growing up as a Palestinian-American girl in black and white strokes. She outlines her understanding of her culture of origin, depicting Arab customs to an audience that may be unfamiliar with the food and culture, while also highlighting her own growing understand of her own place within her family and her desires to move in the larger world. It's introspective, provocative, joyful, and honest.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Your designer kaffiyeh is an important fashion statement.

The Beatrice Letters

Written by: Lemony Snicket

First line: I am sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends.

Why you should read this book: If you can't get enough of a Series of Unfortunate Events, you will enjoy this epistolary supplement, which includes six letters written by Lemony Snicket to his beloved Beatrice Baudelaire prior to the events of the series, and six letters written by Beatrice Snicket to Lemony Snicket a decade or so after the the series. I personally found it more interesting, more readable, more informative, and more intelligible than the Lemony Snicket biography. The book also contains some other images, including a double-sided full-color poster and some perforated letters than can be removed and arranged to form possibly useful anagrams.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You have to really be a fan of the series.

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Desert

Written by: Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

First line: A bit more than three hundred years ago, in an English town called Lyme, a girl and her mother picked wild blackberries.

Why you should read this book: Blackberry fool is a simple, and apparently ancient dessert, and this book uses it as a platform to discuss changes in society and technology along with the constancy of family and sugar. Showing four different parent-child combinations in four different centuries, the book also demonstrates social evolution, depicting black slaves cooking for white plantation owners in the nineteenth century and boys cooking for a diverse group of friends in the twenty-first century. Of course, the book also includes a recipe for making your own blackberry fool, with a grown-up's help.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Some of us are fine spraying Reddi Whip on our fruit.

The Ugly Dumpling

Written by: Stephanie Campisi

First line: Once upon a time, perhaps last week, or even last night, at your local dim sum restaurant...there was an ugly dumpling.

Why you should read this book: The ugly dumpling is sad and lonely and uneaten and unloved, until a helpful and romantic cockroach takes the ugly dumping under its wing, so to speak. Cockroach shows dumpling all the beauty of the world (restaurant) and eventually the ugly dumpling realizes that it's not an dumpling at all; he's a perfectly normal steamed bun. Even the discovery of its cockroach companion and the ensuing disgust cannot dampen the steamed bun's elation or its ardor for the cockroach.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Cockroach.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners

Written by: Therese Oneill

First line: Thank you for coming.

Why you should read this book: Despite the title, only about thirty-five percent of this book discusses sex, marriage, and manners for (wealthy, white) Victorian ladies, with the other sixty-five percent of the text comprising the author's snarky remarks about the quotes, advice, morals, and customs of nineteenth century England. Most of the information here concerning hygiene, gender roles, food, and relationships is presented with various degrees of horror from a twenty-first century perspective. Period photos and illustrations with tongue-in-cheek captions complete this comic romp crashing through the putative romance of another time and place.

Why you should not read this book: Well, I wouldn't accept it as a primacy source in a composition class.