Fiction, March 2020

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha. October 15, 2019. Ecco, 304 p. ISBN: 9780062868855.  Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.

A powerful and taut novel about racial tensions in Los Angeles, following two families–one Korean-American, one African-American–grappling with the effects of a decades-old crime

In the wake of the police shooting of a black teenager, Los Angeles is as tense as it’s been since the unrest of the early 1990s. But Grace Park and Shawn Matthews have their own problems. Grace is sheltered and largely oblivious, living in the Valley with her Korean-immigrant parents, working long hours at the family pharmacy. She’s distraught that her sister hasn’t spoken to their mother in two years, for reasons beyond Grace’s understanding. Shawn has already had enough of politics and protest after an act of violence shattered his family years ago. He just wants to be left alone to enjoy his quiet life in Palmdale.

But when another shocking crime hits LA, both the Park and Matthews families are forced to face down their history while navigating the tumult of a city on the brink of more violence.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Violence; Racial slur

 

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Reviews

Booklist starred (August 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 22))
When Grace Park’s mother, Jung-Ja Han, is targeted in a drive-by shooting, Grace discovers the truth about her family’s pivotal role in the 1992 L.A. riots. Amid growing tension between South Central’s Asian shop owners and their African American customers, Grace’s mother shot and killed Ava Matthews, a teenage girl Grace had accused of shoplifting and assault, despite the later discovery of only two dollars clutched in Ava’s lifeless hand. Jung-Ja’s light sentence and the Rodney King trial ignited rioting. Fleeing backlash, Jung-Ja changed her name to Yvonne Park and hid in the suburbs. Shawn, Ava’s younger brother, has rebuilt his life after emerging from prison and leaving his fellow Crips gang members behind. Shawn’s cousin Ray has finally been released from prison, too, and Shawn is optimistic about Ray’s reunion with his community-activist mother, his wife, and the teenage twins Shawn has helped raise during Ray’s absence. But the past won’t go away, and Shawn and Ray face police scrutiny for Jung-Ja’s shooting. In addition, Ray has been keeping secrets. As Grace and Shawn desperately try to hold their families together, community outrage over another teen’s shooting places them—and Ava’s tragic death—back in the media spotlight. A gripping, thoughtful portrayal of family loyalty, hard-won redemption, and the destructive force of racial injustice. Cha, author of the Juniper Song PI series, offers a strong contender for the summer’s blockbuster read.

Kirkus Reviews starred (August 15, 2019)
A real-life racial incident is transfigured into a riveting thriller about two families’ heartbreaking struggles to confront and transcend rage and loss. It is the late summer of 2019, but no matter how many years have passed, Shawn Matthews, a black ex-convict now working for a Los Angeles moving company, is burdened by memories of the early spring of 1991, when his teenage sister Ava was shot to death by a Korean woman who mistakenly believed she was stealing from her convenience store. The shooting and the resulting trial—in which the woman was convicted and received no jail time, after which she relocated to another part of LA—fed into racial tensions already festering back then from the Rodney King trial. And the city’s reactions to a present-day shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a police officer indicate that those racial animosities remain close to the boiling point. In the midst of the mounting furor, Grace Park, a young Korean woman, is shaken from her placid good nature by the sight of her mother being wounded in a drive-by shooting. “What if she is being punished?” her sister Miriam says, revealing a shocking fact about their mother’s past that Grace hadn’t known. An LAPD detective asks Shawn if he has an alibi for the drive-by (which he does). Nonetheless, the most recent shooting upends his fragile sense of security, and he starts to wonder where his cousin, Ray, himself just released from prison, was when Grace’s mother was shot. Cha, author of the Juniper Song series of detective novels (Dead Soon Enough, 2015, etc.), brings what she knows about crafting noir-ish mysteries into this fictionalized treatment of the 1991 Latasha Harlins murder, blending a shrewd knowledge of cutting-edge media and its disruptive impact with a warm, astute sensitivity toward characters of diverse cultures weighed down by converging traumas. Cha’s storytelling shows how fiction can delicately extract deeper revelations from daily headlines.

About the Author

Steph Cha is the author of Your House Will Pay and the Juniper Song crime trilogy. She’s an editor and critic whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. A native of the San Fernando Valley, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.

Her website is stephcha.com

 

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Fiction, November 2019

Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi

Permanent Record by Mary H.K,. Choi. September 3, 2019. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 432 p. ISBN: 9781534445970.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

On paper, college dropout Pablo Rind doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli in Brooklyn is a struggle. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. Never mind the state of his student loans.

Pop juggernaut Leanna Smart has enough social media followers to populate whole continents. The brand is unstoppable. She graduated from child stardom to become an international icon and her adult life is a queasy blur of private planes, step-and-repeats, aspirational hotel rooms, and strangers screaming for her just to notice them.

When Leanna and Pablo meet at 5:00 a.m. at the bodega in the dead of winter it’s absurd to think they’d be A Thing. But as they discover who they are, who they want to be, and how to defy the deafening expectations of everyone else, Lee and Pab turn to each other. Which, of course, is when things get properly complicated.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Marijuana, Strong language, Strong sexual themes

 

Reviews

Booklist starred (August 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 22))
Grades 9-12. Pablo has dropped out of college, is massively in debt, and feels aimless. One night when he is working the overnight shift at the 24-hour health food bodega, he meets Lee, who breaks him out of his rut. They have witty banter and great chemistry, but at the end of their encounter he figures out that she is Leanna Smart—the pop mega-star whose image is plastered everywhere and whose songs are inescapable on the radio. Navigating these barriers while falling in love pushes them into uncharted territory, and while it’s swoony and dramatic, it’s also messy and fraught. Choi (Emergency Contact) has penned a smart and funny read that is as much about finding your path as it is about falling in love. Pablo is a winning narrator with a natural voice, and readers will root for him in his romance with Lee, as well as on his rocky journey to self-actualization. Choi’s specificity, realistic dialogue, and humor ensure that the personal and romantic journeys feel warm and rewarding but never saccharine. Pablo’s friends and family, a diverse cast with rich inner lives of their own, are loving but firm with him, and readers will relate to the ultimate message of the book, delivered by his father: “Doing nothing is the only stupid.”

Kirkus Reviews (July 1, 2019)
A chance encounter between a college dropout and a pop star in a New York City deli leads to unexpected romance—and expected complications. Korean Pakistani American Pablo Rind, a former NYU student struggling to figure out what he wants to do with his life, is weighed down by a mountain of student loans and credit card debt. Feeling paralyzed by his Korean anesthesiologist mother’s high expectations, he works the graveyard shift at a deli. Into his monotonous existence comes Carolina Suarez, aka mega-star Leanna Smart, who enters the store early one morning on a snack run. Mutual attraction (and a shared love of snacks) leads to a whirlwind, jet-setting romance, but when the disparity between their worlds puts pressure on their relationship, Pablo is given the opportunity to come to some hard realizations about himself and the responsibilities he’s been avoiding for too long. That, along with some prodding from friends and family compels him to finally face what he needs to do in order to change his life, stop taking his loved ones for granted, and pursue his dreams. While the language has a contemporary feel and the range of diverse, appealing characters accurately reflects modern-day New York, the plot frequently drags, and character development is weak. Hip characters and jargon adorn a predictable storyline and unconvincing romance. (Fiction. 14-18)

About the Author

Mary H.K. Choi is a Korean-American author, editor, television and print journalist. She is the author of young adult novel Emergency Contact (2018). She is the culture correspondent on Vice News Tonight on HBO and was previously a columnist at Wired and Allure magazines as well as a freelance writer. She attended a large public high school in a suburb of San Antonio, then college at the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in Textile and Apparel.

Her website is www.choitotheworld.com.

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Fiction, November 2019

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee. August 13, 2019. G.P. Putman’s Sons, 374 p. ISBN: 9781524740955.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender. While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light. With prose that is witty, insightful, and at times heartbreaking, Stacey Lee masterfully crafts an extraordinary social drama set in the New South.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Discrimination, Mild language, Mild sexual themes, Racism, Violence

 

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Video Review

Reviews

Booklist starred (June 1, 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 19))
Grades 9-12. It’s 1890 in Atlanta, and Jo Kuan has a secret: she’s the anonymous author of the popular, yet polarizing, new agony aunt column “Dear Miss Sweetie.” After spending her life living in a secret basement room (a relic of the Underground Railroad) beneath the press offices of The Focus, a newspaper run by the Bell family, she’s picked up a masterful vocabulary to match her sharp wit, and the combination proves intoxicating to Atlanta’s young ladies. But if anyone found out that a Chinese American teenager was behind the column, she’d be run out of town or worse. Lee (Outrun the Moon, 2016) has concocted another thrilling historical novel, blending stellar plotting and a dynamic cast of characters with well-researched details and sharp commentary on America’s history of racism and prejudice. She pulls no punches when it comes to Jo’s experiences of being Chinese in the Reconstruction South: a meeting of Atlanta’s suffragettes proves unwelcoming despite their claim to want votes for all women, and though there’s stirring romance between Jo and the son of the Bell family, Jo acknowledges the difficulties in that path. But best of all is Jo’s first-person narrative, which crackles with as much witty wordplay and keen observations as her column. This spectacular, voice-driven novel raises powerful questions about how we understand the past, as well as the ways our current moment is still shaped by that understanding.

Kirkus Reviews starred (June 1, 2019)
Jo Kuan leads a double life: a public role as a quiet lady’s maid and a secret one as the voice behind the hottest advice column in 1890 Atlanta. Chinese American Jo is mostly invisible except for occasional looks of disdain and derisive comments, and she doesn’t mind: Her priority is making sure she and her adoptive father, Chinese immigrant Old Gin, remain safe in their abandoned abolitionists’ hideaway beneath a print shop. But even if she lives on the margins, Jo has opinions of her own which she shares in her newspaper advice column under the byline “Miss Sweetie.” Suddenly all of Atlanta is talking about her ideas, though they don’t know that the witty advice on relationships, millinery, and horse races comes from a Chinese girl. As curiosity about Miss Sweetie mounts, Jo may not be able to stay hidden much longer. And as she learns more about the blurred lines and the hard truths about race in her city and her own past, maybe she doesn’t want to. In her latest work, Lee (The Secret of a Heart Note, 2016, etc.) continues to demonstrate that Chinese people were present—and had a voice—in American history. She deftly weaves historical details with Jo’s personal story of finding a voice and a place for herself in order to create a single, luminous work. An optimistic, sophisticated portrayal of one facet of Chinese American—and simply American—history. (Historical fiction. 13-18)

About the Author

Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction.

Her website is www.staceyhlee.com/

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