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Read + Review: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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After humiliating herself and nearly ruining her odds at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the last thing Khayyam Maquet wants to do is relax in France during her summer vacation. The annual family holiday in Paris is something that Khayyam should look forward to, but after being burned by a judge for her scholarship essay, all Khayyam can think about is how to rewrite her submission. Add Khayyam’s so-called boyfriend Zaid, who suddenly stopped communicating with her, and it almost seems impossible for Khayyam to enjoy herself. A chance encounter changes everything when she meets Alexandre Dumas, the descendant of the famous writer with the same name. Khayyam, an aspiring art historian, is thrilled, considering how the original Dumas was a topic in her failed essay. When they discover a connection between Dumas, Delacroix (a renowned painter), Lord Byron (a famed poet), and a Muslim woman named Leila forgotten to history, Khayyam is determined to solve the mystery of the woman’s story. Together with Alexandre, Khayyam searches throughout Paris for clues and embarks on a journey of revelation while exploring her identity. Switching back and forth between Khayyam in present day and the enigmatic Leila of the nineteenth century, this story takes a look at the struggles of two young women making their mark on history.

I like how Khayyam was French, Muslim, Indian, and American, and how her complex identity makes up who she was. Her feelings of not being able to completely fit into any of those groups is relatable. I like how witty and clever Khayyam was, and Khayyam’s dialogue with other characters was usually amusing to read. Khayyam’s disdain of colonialism and orientalism is also something I appreciate. The author’s detailed writing style made it easier to envision the story happening, and doesn’t take away from the moment. This is where things start going a bit downhill for me. Much of the plot can only be described as unbelievable. There are numerous instances that require suspension of disbelief, especially regarding the historical hunt where everything feels straightforward and convenient. History is a field of study that requires great research and substantial evidence to transform ideas into facts; both of these elements in this book are a bit weak, which is why I can’t accept this book’s attempt at creating a realistic discovery of the forgotten past. Despite the characters being intriguing, I didn’t really connect with them. Zaid has few character traits besides being sketchy and while Alexandre is mildly likeable, in the end he falls a little flat. Khayyam’s parents are generally happy and perfect at saying the right things to Khayyam. However, they aren’t in the story enough for me to get attached and thus they lack some depth. They also seem a little too relaxed, letting their seventeen-year-old daughter roam around Paris alone or with a friend she just made that summer. Although I previously stated that I liked some things about Khayyam, there were other things that bothered me too much to fully enjoy her character. First, her constant feminist comments started to annoy me. Of course, feminism itself isn’t bad and I know it is one of this book’s themes, but when it’s forced into the majority of the conversations Khayyam has, it gets redundant. I even sometimes felt this way about some of Khayyam’s remarks on colonialism and orientalism, despite liking the general attitude. I wish the author made her point in a way that didn’t feel overdone. Second, Khayyam is extremely trusting, to the point where she seems too naive. In the past, she hadn’t seen through Zaid despite his shady behavior. In the present, she randomly comes across this stranger who happens to be related to Dumas and almost right after, they exchange phone numbers. I can’t think of any good reason for why she wasn’t more cautious around Alexandre. These thoughts, juxtaposed with Khayyam’s almost immediate attraction to him, make it jarring to read and puzzling to understand. Third, Khayyam’s behavior is questionable. She is upset with how unclear her relationship with Zaid is, but instead of being direct with him, Khayyam instead moves onto Alexandre and even uses him to make Zaid jealous. Despite not liking how Zaid plays mind games, Khayyam does the same. Moving onto Leila, my main complaint is that her story was short. When I first read the original synopsis, I expected that I would be reading a novel split between the two heroines’ perspective. In reality, there are only a few pages at the most whenever the book shifts to Leila’s narrative while Khayyam usually has full chapters. The brevity made Leila’s story seem less important than Khayyam’s, and the briefness also made Leila’s character too distant for me to care about her. What’s even more baffling is how concerned Khayyam is with Leila and her story. Maybe that’s just how Khayyam is, but if the author had given the reader an opportunity to actually connect with Leila, I feel that I wouldn’t have been as uninterested with Leila’s story and I would’ve understood Khayyam’s passion for learning about this unknown woman. The story’s shortness, plus its formal writing style, makes Leila’s side of things overall a bit dull. As for the rest of the historical content (regarding Dumas, Delacroix, and Lord Byron), I only had a vague idea of their significance. Only those who were familiar with at least one of the men could somewhat follow. Being a person who hadn’t really known any of them, it was all hard to keep track of. I especially got lost in the areas of the story where the historical content is rather dense. This was another part of the story that wasn’t as interesting, and it made me care less about the historical mystery. I wish the author exposed the reader to those famous men in an intriguing way so that I could understand the great enthusiasm Khayyam had for this part of the past. All things considered, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know isn’t awful, but it definitely has flaws that lower its quality. I would probably give it a few decimal points above three stars, but I wasn’t feeling generous to round up to four stars. Frankly, it already feels a little generous putting it at three stars.

One memorable thing about this book is the themes. If the author’s goal was to leave the reader remembering her thoughts on sexism, colonialism, and orientalism, she definitely succeeded. I have difficulty recalling much of the historical aspects and how the information Khayyam and Alexandre found was significant in their journey, but I don’t think I’ll be forgetting her points anytime soon. While it was irritating how the execution was handled, these themes are still important and worth reflecting over.

Reviewed by Christine, Twin Hickory Library

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Read + Review: Flowers in the Gutter by K.R. Gaddy

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Flowers in the Gutter tells the true stories of three German youths named Fritz, Gertrude, and Jean who come of age during World War II. Disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi regime, they join groups called “The Edelweiss Pirates.” Edelweiss is a flower that grows in the Alps, and the Pirates saw it as a symbol of freedom. They defy the oppressive German government and come into conflict with the Gestapo, SS, and Hitler Youth. They endure great trials and tribulations, but their spirit is never broken.

The book is quite interesting. The topic is quite timely and hopefully will inspire readers to stand up for what they believe in. At first, I thought it would be written in a narrative style, like a fiction book. However, it wasn’t exactly like that; “semi-narrative” might be a more suitable adjective. I was glad of this, because it was clear that the author was not taking artistic license while still being engaging and readable. While I had no major issue with the book, I did feel that there were slight undertones of criticism toward traditionalism and conservatism, while glossing over issues with Communism. That said, this was not particularly important in the context of the book: youth standing up to Nazism. Also, there was some use of strong language – appropriate situationally, but I felt I should warn of it.

I think the most memorable aspect of the book was the beginning section. The depiction of Germany’s descent into a Fascist nightmare was visceral; I could almost feel the tension and disorder in the air, and I felt very bad for the protagonists, who at this juncture were only children with no real idea of what was going on.

Reviewed by Asher, Libbie Mill Library

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Read + Review: Jane Anonymous by Laurie Faria Stolartz

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Jane Anonymous is a seventeen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and held captive for seven months before she escaped, leaving another victim behind. Now, she has to reacclimate to everyday life as she grapples with her trauma and guilt while dealing with the changes in herself, her family, and her friends. She’s not who she was before she went missing, and she’s not who the people in her life want her to be, but she knows she has to heal and accept what happened to her, even as she and her family make mistakes on what’s best for her. As she comes to terms with the horrific events she experiences by writing them down and reliving those memories, it becomes clear that not everything was what it seemed, and the truth behind her kidnapping is uncovered. The story is told in two alternating timelines, one being during her time in captivity when she is locked in a room and provided with basic necessities as she comes up with an escape plan along with another kidnapped teen, and the other being after she returns home and has to deal with her trauma for the sake of a normal life. Overall, Jane Anonymous is a riveting and emotional tale full of mystery and heart, making for a mild but striking psychological thriller.

This book was compelling and thought-provoking, and it was told through a unique voice whose trauma is explored and laced within the tone of how she relays her horrific experiences. Jane, the main character and narrator, feels like a real person with real emotions. Her thoughts and experiences are raw and genuine, and Jane’s voice complements the gripping and emotional story. One aspect that I found a bit strange though was the structural format of the novel as it alternated from “Then” and “Now” point-of-views to retell Jane’s life during and after her kidnapping. While it was a good stylistic choice for the purposes of storytelling, to show contrasts and build suspense, this fits the motives of the author and not of the narrator of the book, as it is explained that Jane is writing down her story for therapeutic purposes, so the switch between timelines makes it feel less authentic. However, it was overall still a very well-written and engaging story, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and uncovering the secrets of the narrative.

The most memorable part of this novel is the exploration of Jane’s mental state during and after her kidnapping. Though I felt it could have elaborated even further on the implications of Jane’s experiences on her mental health, the effects on her behavior, thoughts, and narration are crafted skillfully, legitimizing rather than glorifying the impact of traumatic events. Both timelines show her coping mechanisms and social interactions and how they develop in response to the trauma she is facing/had faced. The handling of mental health, though at times not perfect, was most memorable because it was realistic and showed the good and the bad, with dynamic and complex characters who struggle with the loss of family and friends.

Reviewed by Ananya, Twin Hickory Library

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Read + Review: The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson

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May McGintee is considered to be one of the lucky ones. She survived a school shooting at her high school by hiding in a closet. Unfortunately, her twin brother Jordan, her favorite teacher, and several other classmates were not as lucky. They were all killed in the shooting. Because of the shooting, May and her classmates are relocated to another high school. At her new school, May meets Zach Teller. When Zach and May meet, they immediately form a connection and become friends. That is, until May finds out Zach’s mother is the lawyer who is defending the school shooter.

I thought this was an emotional and powerful book. This book is mostly about May trying to deal with her grief and guilt while trying to find a way to heal emotionally. I especially liked that this book was told from both Zach and May’s points of view in alternating chapters. I thought this really helped you get to know the characters. Even though this is a fiction book, it felt very realistic.

The most memorable part of this book was when the survivors of the shooting came together for a memorial for their lost friends. Although the memorial was sad, I thought it was a nice way for the survivors to mourn together and remember their fallen classmates.

Reviewed by James, Twin Hickory Library

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Read + Review: Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli

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Former childhood best friends Jamie Goldberg and Maya Rehman reunite as high school seniors when their mothers decide that political canvassing would be a beneficial activity for them both to participate in during the summer. For Jamie, this gives him the opportunity to practice his public speaking skills before giving a toast at his sister’s bat mitzvah. For Maya, canvassing provides her with the perfect diversion from considering her parents’ separation during Ramadan. As they greet likely voters and advocate for Jordan Rossum to become their state senate candidate in Georgia, they both become very close and have to consider the ramifications of love intersecting with their different faiths.

I thought the book was really good, but slow during the first 1/4 when Maya and Jamie didn’t really interact. When they did meet up though, it was great to see how passionate they were about making a difference in their communities. It was especially interesting to see how Jamie’s Jewish faith guided how he reacted with the Fifi the poodle memes since anti-Semitism isn’t too commonly discussed in the media. Ultimately, while all of the characters were charming, Jamie’s grandmother (Instagramm) was my favorite; I loved how she was the social media queen for the Rossum campaign and how tech-saavy she was.

Maya’s reflection about her friendship with Sara and how it was a beautiful gift, even if it was evolving, was so realistic. It was a reminder that growing up can lead to change in the most unexpected ways.

Reviewed by Manasa, Twin Hickory Library