Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (YA)

Darius the Great is Not Okay

Adib Khorram (Young Adult Fiction)

Darius Kellner has some very big shoes to fill. After all, he was named after Darius the Great, one of the greatest rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty. Darius the Great was strong, smart, and brave, conquered lands and expanded the Persian Empire.  Darius Kellner is none of these things and has never really accomplished anything…although he can brew a mean pot of tea. For one thing, he’s only half Persian or a “Fractional Persian” as he refers to himself.  Also, he never stands up for himself. The school bullies (the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy) keep him in his place, which makes life at Chapel Hill High School (Go Chargers!) a living nightmare. On top of all of that, the medication he takes for his depression causes weight gain, which only makes the target on his back that much easier to spot. But life is about to get a little more complicated as the family boards a plane to Iran to visit his sickly maternal grandfather. How can a shy, non-confrontational Fractional Persian with a penchant for The Hobbit and Star Trek: The Next Generation be able to live up to his namesake in his mother’s homeland? Darius doesn’t need to be great. What Darius needs is a miracle.

Author Adib Khorram, who himself suffers from depression, delivers a warm and realistic take on teenage life and the struggle with balancing family expectations with personal aspirations. What is refreshing about Darius the Great is Not Okay is that Khorram fills his book with characters who are not caricatures. It could have been easy to paint Darius as the hapless victim. The “typical” bullied teenager who is sullen and solitary. Instead, Khorram takes great care to give our main character heart and who experiences deep feelings of jealousy, resentment, humiliation, and gratitude without the need for a fall guy or martyr. When Darius is around his little sister, Laleh (an adorable and precocious second grader), we see his kindness, compassion, and various bits of exasperation peek through. As his friendship with Sohrab begins to evolve, we witness a more confident and joyful Darius emerging. Also, Khorram avoids depicting Darius’s intelligent, and charismatic father, Stephen, as the elitist, cold-hearted, and controlling patriarch. Through various situations, we understand that Stephen’s repeated criticisms of Darius are not cruel, but rather a father’s desire for his child to be accepted, appreciated, and happy. All of Khorram’s characters are perfectly imperfect and are so well developed, that we find ourselves laughing, crying, and cursing right alongside them.

Khorram’s story also gave me the opportunity to learn more about Iran and her people, culture, and history. Iran is truly a separate character in this book and although Khorram was born in Kansas City, Missouri, his father is Iranian and the love he has for his father’s birthplace is evident in every single page. As Darius experiences Iran for the first time, we too get to feel the dust on our skin, smell the savory teas brewing in their pots, taste the confectioners sugar on top of the qottab, and marvel at the magnificence of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence and Persepolis. Darius the Great is Not Okay is not only an expertly told story about family, friendship and acceptance, but it is also a lavish feast for the senses and truly a trip worth taking.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (J Fiction)

The Tiger Rising

Kate DiCamillo (Juvenile Fiction)

He took a breath. He opened his mouth and let the words fall out. “I know where there’s a tiger.” Sistine stood in the drizzly rain and stared at him, her eyes black and fierce. She didn’t say “A real one?” She didn’t say “Are you crazy?” She didn’t say “You’re a big old liar.” She said one word: “Where?” And Rob knew then that he had picked the right person to tell.

Rob Horton was the best no-crier in the world. That was due in large part to his way of not-thinking about things: his mother’s death, the bullies at school, or the continual rash on his legs. He kept those feelings, along with his no-wish things, locked up tight in a suitcase. As his father always reminded him, crying, worrying or wishing won’t change a thing. So Rob really wasn’t sure what to think when he found a caged tiger behind the old Beauchamp gas station building one day. He also wasn’t sure what to think about that new girl, Sistine, who showed up to school one day in her pink lacy dress since nobody wears pink lacy dresses to school. Suddenly Rob found himself trying to not-think about a whole lot of thinkable things and he wasn’t sure just how much more that old suitcase of his could hold.

It’s tricky being an adult reading a book targeted for younger readers. I feel it’s important to view these stories from their perspective and through their unique lens. With that in mind, I still found myself disappointed with this book. Kate DiCamillo is by far one of my favorite authors and a brilliant storyteller so I was surprised with feeling shortchanged with The Tiger Rising. Her characters seem shallow and could have been developed more fully.  Rob’s father, in particular, could have benefited the most from some kind of backstory. Without understanding his past, he came off as a hot-headed, unfeeling, and violent father who garners little to no sympathy from readers. Also, this story felt forced and rushed—as if DiCamillo is hurrying us across a self-imposed finish line rather than allowing us the opportunity to fully experience the thrill or the energy of the race.  The Tiger Rising feels more like a story pitch or outline rather than a fully fleshed out tale of loss and friendship.  Although the lessons of realizing the importance of grieving and the power of forgiveness are important, they get buried under the weight of too many loose ends that are left to simply dangle in the wind.

One of the most interesting and grounded characters in the book is Willie May, the housekeeper of the hotel that both Rob and his father live and work. Sistine refers to her as a “prophetess” as Willie May is always providing little nuggets of truth and wisdom.  When Willie May saw Rob and Sistine together, she said, “Ain’t that just like God throwing the two of you together?” It is a powerful thing when two seemingly opposite or contrary things find their way to one another and connect. I wish I could have connected with this story, but I feel the best parts of it are still locked away somewhere and is just awaiting the right key to set it free.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

Jeannette Walls’s earliest memory was when she was just three years old.  She was living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town with her parents and two siblings.  She was on a chair cooking hot dogs.  She was wearing a pretty pink dress bought for her by her grandmother.  And she was on fire.  She was burned so badly that she spent six weeks in the hospital and endured a series of painful skin grafts.  Yet quite unbelievably, things for Jeannette and her family would only go downhill from there.  Always one step ahead of the FBI, gestapo, or Mafia (cleverly disguised as bill collectors), Jeannette’s father Rex skeddadled his family across the desert from one little mining town to the next.  Dealing with bullying, squalor, hunger, a brilliant alcoholic father, and an apathetic artistic mother, this is Jeannette’s remarkable story, candidly and humorously told without fear or favor.  This is her early life presented as transparently as the glass castle that her father had always promised to build.

The Glass Castle is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you’d scoff at the bizarre storyline and ridiculous lengths the author puts her main characters through.  As I turned page after page, the one sentence I kept repeating to myself was, “How did this woman ever survive childhood?”  Walls was severely burned at three (and ironically developed an unhealthy fascination with fire after that) and by the time she turned four, she not only survived being thrown out of a moving car, but handedly acquired such “basic skills” as firing her father’s pistol, throwing a knife by the blade, and shooting her mother’s bow and arrow. On top of that, she conducted experiments with toxic and hazardous waste found at the dump, nearly drowned during her swimming “lessons” with her father, hunted for perverts in the dead of night with her brother, escaped several sexual deviants (many times due to her father’s lack of good judgement), and climbed under a fence to pet a cheetah at the zoo.  Growing up, Jeannette clearly had more luck than sense, but her ability to see the good in everything and her unfailing faith in her father often led to heartbreak and disappointment, but clearly made her the tough and grounded adult that she is today.

American game designer and sci-fi novelist Aaron Allston once noted that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that “tragedy is something awful happening to somebody else, while comedy is something awful happening to somebody else.” Indeed, there are parts of Jeannette’s story where you momentarily suspend the idea that this ACTUALLY happened and allow yourself to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of this family’s history (while secretly realizing that your own family and life REALLY aren’t so terribly bad). The only thing that will undeniably make you throw this book against the wall (repeatedly) are Jeannette’s insufferable parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls.  These are two people who clearly should not have been responsible for the lives of other human beings.  Although their intentions MAY have been unselfish and well-intended, you just can’t get past their self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-pitying behavior and how their actions caused unnecessary hardship to their situation and to the health and lives of their children.  Kudos to Walls for writing a book that immerses you so totally in her story that you often find yourself yelling at the characters and their misplaced ideologies and lofty platitudes of optimism.  Well done, Ms. Walls…although my wall is still cross.   

In one of Jeannette’s most humiliating moments (and that’s saying something), her mother candidly told her, “Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy. You should learn to enjoy the comedic episodes a little more.” The life of the Walls family indeed had its share of comedy and tragedy.  Theirs was a family torn apart by alcohol and self-indulgence, but also held together by loyalty and love. Novelist Georgette Heyer wrote, “But it is only in epic tragedies that gloom is unrelieved. In real life tragedy and comedy are so intermingled that when one is most wretched ridiculous things happen to make one laugh in spite of oneself.” After finishing this book, I couldn’t imagine how on earth Jeannette Walls not only survived her childhood, but managed to emerge as a successful, happy, and fulfilled adult.  Attribute it to grit, willpower, or sheer obstinance, but I think Jeannette realized that sometimes Mother does know best and that the only way to navigate the broken promises, failed illusions, and mounting disappointments of life is to simply just laugh.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Good Night, Mr. Tom (YA Historical Fiction)

Good Night, Mr. Tom

Michelle Magorian (YA Historical Fiction)

Thomas Oakley was well into his sixties when the Billeting Officer knocked on his front door.  To the people in his village of Little Weirwold, Thomas was an isolated, bad tempered, and frosty man, but to the officer, he was the perfect fit for this particular evacuee.  Eight-year-old William Beech had come with specific instructions from his mother: either place him with a religious person or near a church.  Thomas Oakley fit the bill perfectly.  So Thomas, a man withdrawn by choice and grief, and William, a boy withdrawn by abuse and neglect, found themselves together and slowly healing in each other’s company.  But when Thomas loses touch with William after being summoned back to live with his mother, Thomas embarks on a journey to find the young boy who had become like a son to him.

I always hold out hope that books for young adults that have important themes may somehow find a way into the hands of younger readers.  I thought this might be possible with Good Night, Mr. Tom.  Although it carried warnings of child abuse, war, and death, the first part of the book was rather benign and contained mild implications of these subjects: the blacked-out windows, bruises and sores on William’s body, William’s fear of reprisal and constant nightmares, and reports on the wireless or in newspapers.  However, once William is reunited with his mother, the tone of the book shifts dramatically and it becomes terrifyingly obvious why this book is recommended for more mature readers.  The imagery is horrific and quite contrary to the idyllic life William experienced in Weirwold, which makes it all the more shocking and appalling when William has to relive this horror for a second time.     

Magorian, quite deservedly, received the 1982 IRA Children’s Book Award for Good Night, Mr. Tom.  She fearlessly delves into the psychological trauma that follows prolonged mental and physical abuse, as well as the impact it has not only on the abused themselves, but also on those around them offering support, healing, friendship, and love.  She also explores the emotional toll of the war on a small village as young men are called to service while their loved ones patiently await word of their wellbeing.  Thankfully, Magorian gives her readers sufficient mental breaks by balancing tense, emotionally exhaustive scenes with lighthearted moments shared between friends and family.  It’s this back-and-forth that makes for a fast-paced story that doesn’t pull any punches in delivering an impassioned, tragic, and dramatic story.

Good Night, Mr. Tom immerses readers with a story about bonds and their importance and fragility.  For the first time in his life, William has a best friend, Zach, who values his company, admires his differences, and treasures his friendship.  Also, William finally has a parental figure in whom he can trust and depend.  Magorian’s overall lesson in her compelling and powerful story is the healing power that comes with unconditional love.  William’s mother taught him that love came with strings (“Mum had said that if he made himself invisible, people would like him and he wanted that very much.”), but his friends in Weirwold and Mr. Tom showed him the beauty and power of a love given completely and unselfishly.  The Persian lyric poet Hafiz once wrote, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”  Zach’s kindness and Mr. Tom’s devotion remind us that even in the midst of war and surrounded by the darkest of black shades, love’s light shines bright and can heal even the most damaged and tortured soul.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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Bed & Breakfast by Lois Battle

Bed & Breakfast

Lois Battle

Josie Tatternall, military widow turned Bed & Breakfast proprietor, is about to reunite her thrown grown daughters for the holidays.  Following a sudden medical emergency of one of her closest friends, Josie realizes the fragility and uncertainty of life and decides that there is no time like the present to bring her estranged family together after ten long years apart.  But will her three headstrong daughters agree?  Can the beauty and majesty of Christmas yield hope and forgiveness and unite this broken family?  Josie is about to find out.

I began this book with very high expectations.  After all, the cover is brimming with glowing reviews: “Full of warmth, humor, and characters I completely adore,” touted author Dorothea Benton Frank and “An irreverent holiday treat,” exclaimed the Chicago Tribune.  Author Cassandra King said the characters in Battle’s book were “wonderfully eccentric” and “heartwarming” who have “become her friends”.  But alas, you truly can’t judge a book by its cover and my experience with this story and its characters left me feeling more bah humbug than holly and jolly.  Before delving further, let me explain how I rate books—50% of my review is about the book itself (story, characters, pace, themes, etc.) and the other 50% is how the book left me feeling (enlightened, hopeful, disturbed, retrospective, etc.).  With a rating of 2/5 stars, the latter far outweighed the former as I am still reeling with contempt at such an aggravating cast of characters. Allow me to elaborate without spoiling the story too much…

First, let me go down the list of main characters that ran the gamut of predictable and overused stereotypes: Josie, the dutiful military wife who puts her own wants and needs last; Josie’s domineering and womanizing military husband, Bear; Cam, Josie’s eldest who fled small town South Carolina for the bright lights of New York only to be rudely awakened by the fact that she is a very small fish in a huge pond; Lila, middle child, doting daughter, and perfect Southern wife who seemingly leads an idyllic, charmed life; and Evie, Josie’s youngest who was a one-time runner-up in the Miss South Carolina pageant and who uses her legs and lashes to their full advantage.

Second, it was actually surprising to read a book, written by a woman, with so many unlikeable female characters.  The daughters were all self-centered, selfish, whiny, immature, and just plain insufferable. Josie was a little more tolerable, but it’s one thing to be loyal to a husband who is a known philanderer (at least she respects and honors her vows) and quite another to pledge allegiance to a friend who—more likely than not—had abused her trust and taken advantage of their friendship.  This makes Josie more of a chump than a champion.  Overall, I’ve never met a more contemptible set of women that I disliked a lot, respected less, and fell victim to their own self-destructive behaviors and personalities.  Oddly, it was the men (Josie’s brother-in-law, Cam’s love interest, and Lila’s husband) who came across as decent, sympathetic, reliable, honorable, and morally grounded. 

This was the first book by Lois Battle that I’ve read.  The Florabama Ladies’ Auxiliary & Sewing Circle is still on my bookshelf and, rather than potentially throw the baby out with the bathwater, I will be giving Battle another try to see if her female leads fare any better in this book. 

I’ll end this review by mentioning a sentiment of Josie’s that she recalls several times throughout the book as she looks at the lives of her grown daughters: she did the best she could.  Unfortunately, I believe Battle could have done a little better for all of the women in the Tatternall family.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com