Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

This beautiful blue cover features the portrait of a young woman, done in paper art She has long dark wavy hair, a tiara and is surrounded by flower. The book has a sticker that says "Reese's YA Book Club" and a mentions "The New York Times Bestseller".

by Piyali C.

High schooler Izumi’s life is relatively uneventful with her single mom, her bad tempered terrier mix Tamagotchi, and her Asian Girl Gang (AGG), comprised of three other girls from diverse ethnicity in their primarily white Mount Shasta High School. Sure, it is not always easy being Japanese American in a mostly white Mount Shasta, California but Izumi has made it work so far. She even changed her to name to Izzy from Izumi for a while to make it easy for others until her friend Noora convinced her otherwise. Izumi’s mother, a Harvard educated botanist, has tried her best to raise Izumi alone with love and support and, for the most part, Izumi is content. She would, however, like to know who her father is. Izumi’s mom refuses to divulge any information about her father. All Izumi knows is that her parents met at Harvard when both were students there, and Izumi is the product of their brief liaison. Izumi’s father does not even know she exists.

One day, while snooping around in her mom’s room ransacking her expensive make-up stash, Izumi’s friend Noora comes across a book Rare Orchids of North America. Noora flips open the book to find a poem in ‘slanted handwriting’ dedicated to Izumi’s mom, Hanako, by someone named Mak. A little research by Noora reveals that the aforesaid Mak is none other than Makotonomiya Toshihito, the Crown Prince of Japan and also Izumi’s father. In other words, Izumi is a princess.

Within days, Izumi’s life is turned upside down when a simple email sent by her to her parents’ common friend inquiring about the Crown Prince results in her father finding out that she exists. She travels to Japan at her father’s invitation, a country she always dreamed of visiting, as a princess, complete with Royal Imperial Guard and cavalcade. But being a princess comes at a cost. Izumi has to navigate palace protocols, conniving cousins, royal etiquette, learning a new language, paparazzi, and her own romantic feelings for the head of her Royal Imperial Guard. On top of all this, she has to build a relationship with her father, the Crown Prince. Both the father and daughter grow and evolve in their relationship as they learn to be a parent and child. But life is not a fairy tale even in this modern day fairy tale. A betrayal of trust almost destroys Izumi’s budding relationship with her extended imperial family, her love as well as her newly found father.

While writing a heart warming, happy story of love and discovery, Emiko Jean very effectively interweaves the universal dilemma of Asian Americans (or any minority for that matter) about whether they belong or where they belong. Izumi is never ‘fully’ American in Mount Shasta, California and she is never ‘fully’ Japanese when she travels to Japan. That uncertainty is true in the lives of most immigrants and the author makes a very convincing case in her delightful novel Tokyo Ever After.

Pick up this book when your brain craves some respite from all that it is dealing with. Let this book take you to a world where you know the end will be happy even if the means to the end is full of twists and turns, ups and downs. Let the story convince you of ‘happily ever afters.’

David Yoon, author of Frankly in Love, sums the book up perfectly – “Emiko’s flair for sumptuous detail —- Food! Castles! Swoony confessions! Court Drama! Cherry blossoms by the million! —locked me up helplessly into a world of splendor I never wanted to leave.” This young adult story elicited a satisfied yet wistful sigh from me as I turned the last page and it also ignited a burning desire to visit the city of Kyoto. One day…..

Tokyo Ever After is available in print and eBook format through Overdrive/Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Be Yourself, and Maybe a Little Magical

The picture shows all six book covers discussed in the blog post, against a dark background with the title "Books Are Inherently Magical" above them in gold letters.  Clockwise from upper right:  The first image is of the cover of The Witches of Brooklyn with main character of Effie in the forefront. A cityscape is set behind her.  The second image shows the cover of The Sand Warrior, the first in the 5 Worlds series. Main character Oona is in the middle with her friends An Tzu on the left playing a flute, and Jax Amboy on the right, whose left hand is glowing with energy. Oona is manipulating sand. The bottom of the image shows an alien landscape.  The third image is of the cover of Snapdragon with the main character Snap and her bike and dog who is missing a leg in the basket atop the back of the bike. The background is a forest with a spirit of a buck behind Snap.  The fourth image is the cover of The Witch Boy. Main character Aster reads a spell book over an altar made of liquid in a bowl, candles, and a mortar and pestle.  The fifth image is the cover of Beetle and the Hollowbones. Main character Beetle and best friend Blob Ghost are sitting atop a ledge set in front of a full moon over top of houses and trees.  The sixth image is the cover art for The Okay Witch. Main character Moth is riding atop a broomstick with a black cat behind her and pages flying out of a book in her backpack.

By Peter N.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I haven’t had the desire nor the motivation to read. I know that’s a horrible thing to say as an employee of a library (a 5-Star Library system as a matter of fact), but it took me quite a while to get back into reading novels. So you know what I did? I did what I’ve suggested to many a parent who has come in trying to find something to get their child to like reading; I picked up a graphic novel.

Graphic novels can be about literally hundreds of subjects across any number of genres. Many authors have written wonderful original stories as well as graphic representations of classic novels. When a parent needs a suggestion for a book for their reluctant child or when someone wants something interesting to read, I almost always suggest a graphic novel. Why? Well, as a visual learner, I find myself more engaged with the story and with the characters when I see them visually represented, and it’s easier for my brain to follow along without distraction. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve read graphic novels for adults, teens, tweens, and children. From the many I’ve recently read, here are six picks that teach everyone to be who you are unapologetically, and if you can, be a little magical, too.

This image shows the cover of The Witch Boy. Main character Aster reads a spell book over an altar made of liquid in a bowl, candles, and a mortar and pestle.
The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

What I loved about this book is that it challenges the gender norms in Aster’s family and society. In his family, the girls are raised as witches while the boys are raised as shape-shifters. But that isn’t who Aster is, and he practices in secret since it is forbidden for boys to study magic. He desperately wants to be a witch but is afraid of his family finding out. When trouble brews and his magical skills are what’s needed to help save the day, he has to find the courage within himself to be who he feels in his heart that he is meant to be.

The image shows the cover art for The Okay Witch. Main character Moth is riding atop a broomstick with a black cat behind her and pages flying out of a book in her backpack.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

Many will see the similarity between the events of the Salem witch trials and the events of Founder’s Bluff in this book. Moth has always loved all things witchy and magical, so when her powers emerge, she is immediately thrust into a world where the history of her hometown is intertwined with that of her own family. She discovers that her mother was once a member of a powerful coven of witches who separated from a world that despised them but broke away to live a life free of magic. As she discovers this history, she must come to terms with being a witch (which she finds kind of cool) along with the existence of people in town descended from those who discriminated and hated her family and those like her. What’s a fledgling young witch with a talking cat to do?

This image shows the cover of Beetle and the Hollowbones. Main character Beetle and best friend Blob Ghost are sitting atop a ledge set in front of a full moon over top of houses and trees.
Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle and the Hollowbones is a tale of outgrowing what society expects you to be, standing up for your friends even if it means standing up to them, and embracing and loving who you are. Much like the Witch Boy, Beetle is a goblin and goblins are only supposed to do a specific type of magic and none other. One day she meets Blob Ghost, a, well, ghost blob haunting the local mall that is inexplicably tied to its location. So when the mall is due to be demolished, it is up to Beetle to find out why he’s connected to the mall and rescue him. Along the way she reconnects with an old friend (and love interest) who needs to be reminded about their friendship, who they are, and to stand up to family even if they are family.

This image is of the cover of The Witches of Brooklyn with main character of Effie in the forefront. A cityscape is set behind her.
Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

How would you feel if your life was turned upside down and inside out all of a sudden? That’s what happens to Effie. Having lost her mom and the only home she ever knew, she is suddenly taken to live with two estranged aunts. Once there, Effie learns more about her family than she ever thought possible, including the fact that they can do magic! This newfound knowledge and ability is almost too much for Effie, and it rears its ugly head at the worst of times. She soon starts to accept that this is her life now, that magic is a part of it, and that zany things are going to happen, including helping one of her favorite singers when she comes to Effie’s aunts for help with a nasty curse.

This image is of the cover of Snapdragon with the main character Snap and her bike and dog who is missing a leg in the basket atop the back of the bike. The background is a forest with a spirit of a buck behind Snap.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Snap’s town has a witch. Maybe. Possibly. At least that’s the rumor going around. When Snap needs help from the town “witch”, she learns that there’s more than meets the eye and discovers the power she has within herself. Aside from the super cool supernatural elements, the characters are all a delight to read. And especially the children. They’re the perfect example of prejudice being made, not born, because when given an upbringing that doesn’t include any of that, they can be perfectly accepting of everyone around them without thinking it’s “weird.” They celebrate and encourage uniqueness.

This image shows the cover of The Sand Warrior, the first in the 5 Worlds series. Main character Oona is in the middle with her friends An Tzu on the left playing a flute, and Jax Amboy on the right, whose left hand is glowing with energy. Oona is manipulating sand. The bottom of the image shows an alien landscape.
5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior by Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun

What happens when three friends are brought together by unforeseeable circumstances and their group, particularly young sand dancer Oona Lee, is what stands between saving the five worlds and their destruction? Oona must find the power within herself that she didn’t know she had, as well as the confidence to travel the five worlds, light all the beacons, and fend off attacks from the evil hiding in the shadows. Between all of this, she has to save her friend An Tzu, who also has mysterious origins and a tie to what can save everything, from a mysterious ailment. Beautiful art, rich characters, and full of world-building elements, you’ll love this series!

Disclaimer: There are a number of graphic novels on the same subject but these are only the most recent I’ve read. Please visit any Howard County Library branch to learn more!

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and LOVES graphic novels and dogs. Especially fluffy dogs.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

A dark haired young woman sits in a coral colored party dress. Her skirts fade into the skyline of Havana's seaside.

by Kristen B.

“Next Year in Havana” is apparently a traditional toast for those of Cuban descent living in the US. It’s also the title of a thought-provoking historical novel that takes place in 1959 and the present.

I have to admit … I know almost nothing about Cuban politics and history beyond the obvious. The ongoing, repressive Castro regime brings communism to our back porch, cars are beautifully well-preserved old models, and Miami is home to exiles/immigrants. The revolution happened before I was born, and these are fleeting impressions left from public school and news programs.

Next Year in Havana added some details to that rough sketch. In the first timeline, Elisa Perez is the wealthy, privileged daughter of a sugar “king,” who supports Batista … or at least has every interest in maintaining the status quo. In the present day, her granddaughter Marisol returns to Havana after Elisa’s death to fulfill her final wishes. Beautiful descriptions of the island, the sea-walk, the old city, and the beaches complete this love story Cleeton has written to the country her family left.

As Castro’s forces are lobbing bombs, Elisa sneaks out one night with her older sisters to a party in a working class neighborhood where a friend of a friend of a boyfriend is throwing a get-together. Here she meets Pablo, a university student who is part of the 26th of July movement. Also, Elisa’s brother has been disowned for being part of the rebellion, but he works with a different faction. It all gets complicated, and it all goes wrong.

In the opening scene, the Perez family flees Havana for Coral Gables, Florida, where they rebuild their fortunes. As she and her sisters become the family matriarchs, Elisa essentially raises Marisol. And so we transition to the present, when Marisol makes arrangements to stay with her grandmother’s best friend and old neighbor, Ana, as she returns her grandmother’s ashes to Havana. Ana’s grandson, a professor of history and underground blogger, picks up Marisol from the airport, and their attraction is immediate and electric. Luis becomes her guide to Cuba, both physically and historically. The addition of a Perez scion in his life attracts the wrong sort of attention from the government, for both of them.

Everyone has to make hard choices entangled by expectations, family dynamics, and politics. Money and power have very little grace for young lovers, either 60 years ago or now. While the stories share certain parallels, the women carry these plots each in their own way. The supporting cast of sisters/aunts and extended family makes it all more believable. These characters truly behave like people grounded in their families, cultures, and belief systems.

This book, however, is not really a romance – despite the couples at the heart of both stories. The soft focus packaging is disingenuous marketing and does this excellent historical novel no favors. This book is a sucker punch of how real world choices can have devastating consequences. I enjoyed this book immensely. It may have helped that I read it during a weekend at the beach, with the sounds of the ocean in the background.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton is available in print, as an eBook, and as an eAudiobook through OverDrive and CloudLibrary.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

A woman with long dark hair embraces a man who is looking away amid leafy plants. The colors are all night-time blues and purples. Her face is pensive.

by Ash B.

[Content warning: sexual assault, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, and racism] 

“If I don’t pull apart things I actually did wrong from things that weren’t my fault, I’ll never really be able to really apologize for anything. Deciding everything is your fault is, in the end, as meaningless as deciding nothing is[…] I need to apologize for what is my fault, for what I did wrong, but not for the wrong that was done to me. 

Ciela Cristales just might be my favorite protagonist of 2021. 

The story begins with her dropping off an unconscious boy at the hospital on the night that changed her life – the night that she and this boy, whom she does not know, were both assaulted at the same summer party. She drops the boy off and intends to seal off the memories of the event as if they never happened.  

However, this proves difficult when the trauma she experienced results in the loss of the magical gift she inherited from her grandmother: the ability to sense exactly what type of pastry someone wants before they even know it themselves. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then consider how this ability, “the most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me,” has passed down for generations and is part of the success of her family’s pastelería business. For Ciela, losing this magic is losing a part of herself – but it wasn’t just lost, it was taken through the cruelty of her peers. 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read this one because of the intensity of the storyline’s subject matter. I personally tend not to read heavy books, as they can leave a significantly negative impact on my mental health. However, I knew from reading their social media that McLemore put a lot of care into this story, purposefully including hope and healing along with an emotionally accurate representation of trauma. (McLemore themself is a survivor.) 

This information from the author, combined with my pre-existing love of their writing style, was enough to motivate me to give The Mirror Season a try… so I threw myself into reading it, and wow, did it devastate me in the best type of way. Honestly, few books have ever made me cry as much as this one did, and it provided me with some much-needed catharsis. 

Ciela is gradually forced to confront the extent of her trauma – including specific details of the event that she represses through most of the book – due to the development of her relationship with Lock, the boy who was assaulted at the same time she was. They are able to form a unique friendship due to their shared experiences of sexual violence, connecting to each other in ways that other folks might not understand; for example, making jokes out of their trauma as a coping mechanism. McLemore crafts these characters, and their world, so well and with so much care. They truly felt like living, breathing people with real, raw, messy lives that are worth learning about and empathizing with. 

Stylistically, McLemore combines elements of YA contemporary fiction with what they do best: magical realism written in lush, atmospheric prose. It’s the type of writing where the reader is left with some uncertainty regarding “is this all literally happening, or is this metaphorical?” during certain passages. For much of the book I questioned whether Ciela was perceiving some of these things as an expression of her trauma, or if real objects were legitimately turning to mirrored glass – and I believe that this uncertainty is well-suited for the representation of Ciela’s experience of reality after such a traumatic event. McLemore does not shy away from portraying the difficulties of PTSD, including nightmares and flashbacks, which can cause challenges in discerning between one’s past and present realities. 

I haven’t been through anything anywhere near what these characters have been through, but reading this book honestly helped me process my own feelings of the sexual harassment I have experienced as a queer trans person: the shame, the anger, the visceral disgust when remembering the event, the internalized victim blaming, and the sense that other people are entitled to disrespect the bodies and the personhoods of Othered individuals. In the case of Ciela, her Latina and pansexual identities create intersections in the ways she is objectified and harassed by her white, straight, cisgender peers. 

One aspect of this representation that I appreciate so much is that while this is a story about a queer person experiencing trauma, this is not a Queer Struggle story. Her struggle is not about being queer specifically. The classmates that assaulted her throw the word “lesbian” at her in a derogatory manner, but Ciela is not struggling with coming out or coming to terms with her sexuality. She is open about being pansexual (i.e., attracted to people regardless of gender) and her prior same-gender relationships, and she is accepted for it by herself, by her loved ones, and by Lock. Personally, I felt like the vibrant queer world around Ciela far outweighed the homophobia, so the overall tone of the book is queer pride, resistance, and joy. This, combined with the arc of Ciela of coming to terms with how to cope with her trauma in a healthy way, makes for an ultimately empowering story of growth and courage. I honestly could see this taking the place of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in future high school classrooms. 

So yes, this is a very emotionally challenging book, and no doubt will be highly triggering for some readers, but it is very healing. I really encourage anyone interested in this book – teens and adults alike – to give it a try, while being mindful of what you need to care for yourself. Check in with your current mental health and support system as you find the space and time to process this story in whatever way you need. I truly hope this book reaches as many readers who will benefit from it as possible. Copies of The Mirror Season can be requested through HCLS here.

For resources regarding sexual violence, visit www.rainn.org. For local support, community engagement, and more, check out HopeWorks of Howard County (formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County) by visiting hopeworksofhc.org. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A red cover with a yellow border features an illustration of a Vietnamese man's face. Includes award stickers for the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Literature

by Eric L.

I may have opened another post like this, but if you’ve not read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, do yourself a favor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and awards aside, it’s a great book.  

The Sympathizer is an “epistolary-like” novel, as the entire thing is written as a confession of a spy from the north who has deeply infiltrated the south, and the American support apparatus. He is an aide to a general, and really has a good feel for the elite as well as those of lower social stature. 

Superficially, it is the story of the child of a Vietnamese teenager and a French priest, who does not fit in because of his parentage and is teased and taunted. In turn, this creates a protagonist of conflicted mind and spirit who artfully chronicles his experiences in Vietnam and America. He makes the profound comment that it is really the immigrants who should be the anthropologists of American society, as well as many other insightful observations throughout the book. 

He chronicles the chaotic escape from Vietnam (you’ve probably seen the footage) when the United States withdrew in 1975. When one views this sort of thing, they’re horrified by the carnage and desperation, but I’d not considered the bureaucratic tasks such as making lists of who evacuates and the intermediary steps. Spoiler alert: the Vietnamese don’t just land in their suburban American homes on a direct flight from Saigon. Sadly, these events seem apropos right now irrespective of your feelings about American wars and intervention globally. I could not even imagine trying to escape my country for fear of political reprisal. 

As someone of a certain generation, I grew up watching the fictional films about the Vietnam War and worried about the specter of the reinstatement of the draft. Perhaps, more broadly, the Vietnam War was the degradation of the cultural capital and hubris that the United States, as a country, carried until this loss. I always felt for the boys who were involuntarily ripped from their lives and sent across the world as soldiers in an ideological battle they likely only rudimentarily understood. It’s a logical reaction, since they were the protagonists of these films, if not the heroes at least sympathetic anti-heroes, and they were like me. 

A Vietnamese character comments that this cold war has always felt hot to them. That said, it’s enlightening for me to read a work of art by a Vietnamese expatriate like Nguyen (by the way, it’s set to be an HBO miniseries). The details concerning the quotidian lives that many of his compatriots lead in the US (California to be specific), and how it’s difficult for former men of power to become relatively powerless in their new country, are very well done. One portion of the book even chronicles the protagonist’s experience working as consultant for a movie about Vietnam, loosely based on Apocalypse Now (if you not seen this film, borrow it and watch it).  

The Sympathizer (also available as an eBook) is a page turner, a spy novel, a thriller, and oddly humorous; however, I would not describe it as straight satire. In my opinion, what makes this debut novel great is that it is the work of a free thinker and an excellent writer. It may seem banal to say that there is a lot going on in this novel (it may even be worth a second read), but I’m not sure how else to phrase this. Nguyen’s writing is dense, but not difficult to read, and the story just flows. I intend to read his collection of short stories, The Refugeesand eventually the sequel, The Committed, which was published in 2021. Try them, you may like them. 

Eat Your Veggies! Cookbooks and a Class.

A pile of bell peppers from the Farmers Market, in greens, yellows, and purples.
Produce from weekly farmers market at HCLS Miller Branch.

By Holly L.

Low-Fat. Mediterranean. Atkins. Whole 30. Keto. Paleo. Vegan. Pegan. Pegan? (That’s paleo meets vegan.) While there is little consensus as to which diet is the best, there is near universal agreement that a healthy diet includes abundant produce – fruits and, especially, vegetables. But most of us still aren’t getting enough. According to the USDA’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 90 percent of the US population does not get its daily recommendation of vegetables.

Whether you are already getting your five servings a day, we have a cornucopia of titles in our cookbook collection to help you incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet.

Meera Sodha’s East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing is an inspired collection of vibrant recipes, many originally published in her Guardian food column,”The New Vegan.” In her introduction, Sodha recalls when she first agreed to write the column that not only was she not vegan, she was in the middle of a major life change, having recently given birth to her first child. Excited by the writing challenge when she was seeing the world anew through her daughter’s eyes, she embarked on a journey to discover vegan recipes that would satisfy not just vegans but meat-eaters like herself. With a culinary background (and two prior cookbooks) rooted in her Indian heritage, Sodha broadens her horizons in East, with vegetarian and vegan recipes inspired by her travels in East and South Asia. The book is divided into chapters such as Snacks & Small Things, Curries, Flour and Eggs, Legumes, and Sweets. A few pages of “alternative contents” are also helpful, with categories such as Quick Dinners and From the Pantry, in addition to seasonal categories for those who like to cook by the calendar. This fall, I am tempted by Autumn Pilau with squash, lacinato kale, and smoked garlic, perhaps followed by some Pineapple Love Cake or Salted miso brownies.

The title Mostly Plants echoes a line from author-journalist Michael Pollan’s 2008 book In Defense of Food: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” While recognizing the nutritional and cultural value of meat, he champions a diet of moderation composed mostly of whole foods, with meat being demoted from star to supporting player. In Mostly Plants: 101 Delicious Flexitarian Recipes from the Pollan Family, Michael Pollan’s mother, Corky, and sisters Tracy, Dana, and Lori have created a cookbook full of healthy, flavorful recipes designed to be on the table in 35 minutes or less. Each Pollan has her own dietary preference, some eating meat and others not. Their goal with the book is not to promote one particular diet but rather to shift “the ratio from animals to plants.” Each recipe features easy-to-read icons indicating if it is vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, and/or fast, as well as helpful hints for adaptations (to make a vegetarian recipe vegan, for example). Beautiful photos fill the pages, highlighting such recipes as Mesclun greens with persimmons and Manchego cheese and Udon Noodle Soup with miso-glazed vegetables and chicken. The book finishes with a chapter devoted to sweets, the Apple Galette Rustique with apricot glaze sounding to me like a perfect fall dessert.

Fans of chef-activist Bryant Terry may know him as the author of the celebrated 2014 cookbook Afro-Vegan: Farm-fresh African, Caribbean and Southern Flavors Remixed. In his more recent book Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes, Terry explores the realm of vegetables in all their glorious parts, from seeds to roots. In his introduction, subtitled “Fennel for Zenzi,” Terry credits his two daughters as his inspiration. “I wrote this book to make a diversity of foods from the plant kingdom irresistible to them, to inspire their curiosity.” Even the structure of the book, with recipes sorted into chapters based on which part of the plant is used (flower, bulb, etc.) came from his older daughter Mila’s gardening class assignment. The recipes exhibit a further geographical reach than his previous books, with influences from East and Southeast Asia, reflective of his wife’s heritage. The book offers a feast for the senses, not just for the eyes and the palate, but for the ears, too. Terry includes a song pairing for each recipe. Before I prepare Dirty Cauliflower with tempeh, mushrooms, scallions, and parsley, I will be sure to queue up the suggested track, “Flat of the Blade” by Massive Attack. Terry does not include a chapter on sweets, but I imagine that he would approve of my default easy dessert—a few squares of dark chocolate which is, of course, vegan.

If you are interesting in healthy plant-based cooking, consider joining HCLS Elkridge Branch for Plant-Based Nutrition: Everything You Want to Know and More! on Thursday, October 7 at 6:30 pm. University of Maryland Extension teaches participants about plant-based nutrition, the benefits of a plant-based diet, and how to shop and plan meals using plant-based foods.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

The book cover, in faded pinks and yellows, shows a young Korean woman with hair parted in the middle, sculpted eyebrows, and full makeup and lipstick, wearing a yellow top and looking slightly off to the side. She is surrounded by yellow flowers as if in a garden bower.

By Piyali C.

If I Had Your Face drew me in at the beginning, lost me a little bit in the middle, and captivated me again towards the end. Through the eyes of four narrators, Ara, Kyuri, Miho, and Wonna, Frances Cha brings us not only the personal stories of these women but also the social tapestry of modern South Korea in terms of beauty standards, feminism, women in the work force, a challenging economy, sexuality, matrimony, and societal expectations.

Kyuri works as a room salon girl – an opportunity afforded to only the “prettiest 10 percent.” She accompanies and caters to the sexual needs of rich men, who in turn ply her with designer bags and expensive makeup. Kyuri has surgically altered her entire face to attain the flawless beauty that is vital to her job and, ultimately, her prosperity. (Interestingly, according to businessinsider.com, “with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world and nearly 1 million procedures a year, South Korea is often called the world’s plastic surgery capital.”) Although her life seems enviable, Kyuri is in heavy debt and emotionally wrecked. On top of everything, she makes one bad decision that threatens her entire livelihood.

Ara has lost her voice due to some violence in the past. The author piques our interest, hinting about the violence throughout Ara’s narrative and disclosing the incident towards the end. She is a hair stylist and a huge K-Pop enthusiast. Ara’s K-Pop fantasy is her escape to a dreamworld that is very different from the harsh reality of her life.

Miho is an orphan who won a scholarship to study art in New York City, who obsessively creates art influenced by her friendship with a girl named Ruby. Ruby dazzled Miho with her personality, wealth, influence, and charisma. She also introduced Miho to the upper echelon of South Korean society. Miho, however, can simply look into the lives of the rich from the periphery. She is not allowed in.

Wonna, who lives in the same building as the young women, is trapped in an uninspiring marriage. She is pregnant and terrified of losing her baby. She has to hide her pregnancy for as long as she can so she does not lose her job. Moreover, she does not know how she and her husband will raise the baby in South Korea’s brutal economy with their combined meager salaries.

Then there is Sujin who works at a nail salon and yearns for Kyuri’s surgically altered, perfect jawline because her goal is to emulate Kyuri and become a room salon girl herself. She is willing to go through painful jaw surgery and subsequent complications from it if she can attain the beauty that society dictates women ought to strive for. She is Ara’s roommate, and we know about her mostly from the narratives of her friends, Ara and Kyuri.

All our protagonists come from impoverished backgrounds. They are desperate to leave their past behind and move up in life despite the barriers that society constructs for them. But when their friendship is put to test in their quest for upward mobility, what do they do? Does societal pressure shatter their tentative friendship, or will their friendship ultimately save them?

The book tells the unique story of these women and their relationship with one another. While each individual story is interesting, the picture of South Korean society that emerges from the collective stories and through the perspectives of these unique individuals is what makes If I Had Your Face a captivating read. Frances Cha, a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, writes her vivid and realistic debut novel which Publishers Weekly hails as, “an insightful, powerful story from a promising new voice… Cha navigates the obstacles of her characters’ lives with ease and heartbreaking realism.”

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is available at Howard County Library System both in print and as an eBook via Overdrive/Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

My Teacher Blew Up the Moon: Assassination Classroom by Yusei Matsui

Bright yellow cover has a broad smile and two pinpoint black eyes under the title.

by Khaleel G.

The old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – but what about a title? 

Assassination Classroom is a manga whose title initially repelled me. Even with its bright and simple covers, I looked at a volume, read the back description, and wondered if this was another manga like Death Note. You know, that sort of intensely serious story, full of extended monologues about power and authority, each chapter twisting into the next. Because, after reading Death Note, I was satisfied; I didn’t need another version of that grim-dark comic book. With a title like “Assassination Classroom,” how could this series be anything else?

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Assassination Classroom has an overall story, yes, and it certainly has intrigue: spies and soldiers working in the shadows of government organizations, with alphabet soup names. But mostly, it’s a gag manga. Yes, the manga about a class of teens attempting to kill their omnipotent teacher is, shockingly, mostly about dumb jokes and silly characters learning about themselves. 

One day, the moon suddenly explodes. The culprit makes himself known to the world with a declaration: I will destroy the world in one year’s time, unless I am stopped. He is a monster of superhuman strength and speed, who then demands the world government let him…teach a class of lovable misfits? Did I mention the monster is tentacled, bright yellow, and wears a classical teacher outfit with a robe and square hat? 

In another author’s hands, this premise would be deathly serious in tone. But here, author Yusei Matsui takes all that global turmoil and high stakes and makes it super light-hearted. Koro-sensei (a pun on “to kill” in Japanese) has threatened to destroy the world, yes, but he also wants to actually teach these kids – not only about science, math, and literature, but growing up and being a better person, too. And uh, also firearms, subterfuge, and assassination techniques, as he playfully dodges their barrages of bullets, all while offering praise and critiques.

Over 21 volumes, we meet the students and fellow staff at the school, watching them react to this absurdity. Nagisa, the closest thing to a protagonist we have, was bullied for his small frame, but under Koro-sensei’s tutelage, he learns how to accept himself and be confident. Mr. Karasuma is a military officer charged with overseeing Koro-sensei, but as he teaches both gym and martial arts, he softens into a capable instructor. Even Miss Jelavic, a trained assassin disguised as an English instructor, learns that education is a two-way street – as you teach, you learn more than you’d imagine.

Yes, it is corny! Underneath the global plot to destroy a banana-colored octopus, the story is heartfelt and honest. I was fairly effected by the series’ conclusion, despite the tonal clash throughout. The simple and cartoonish art makes the characters more personable, making both the jokes and earnest conversations more meaningful. No one is some “cool” and impervious hero – they’re students and teachers, goofing off while learning how to be better than they are.

In this way, Assassination Classroom resembles a coming-of-age school story, like Ouran High School Host Club (with guns) or Naruto (but far less serious). Its title hides the lightness of plot, how quickly and jovially it moves from school trip to midterms to holiday breaks. The result is a pleasure to read, for its stream of gags and touching moments, for Koro-sensei’s silly faces and his quips of honest wisdom.

Be aware though – this is a title for older teens and adults. The violence of the series is mostly unserious, but the lives of these students and teachers sometimes share the mature themes of the best of Young Adult literature. Bullies, abuse, and family trauma are the dangers in these characters’ lives, not the moon-destroying creature who can move at Mach-20. Still, this is a comedy series first and foremost, and these more “real” themes come forth only in certain moments, and never in a way that I found triggering.

I really enjoyed my time with Assassination Classroom, and was delighted to see how wrong I was to judge this one by its title.
 
Assassination Classroom is 21 volumes and is available in print from HCLS branches.

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, an

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A colorful cover full of jade green, deep purple, and gold features the profile of a young Mexican woman gazing at the starys. The panels are decorated with Mayan symbols, including a double headed snake, a caiman, and a skull.
Cover image of Gods of Jade and Shadow

by Kristen B.

Casiopeia Tun, the main character in Gods of Jade and Shadow, may be my favorite heroine so far this year! This Mexican young woman is grounded in real life and is as stubborn as the day as long. Casiopeia believes in fairness, mostly because life hasn’t shown much of it to her. She and her mother subsist as the poor relations within her mother’s family, who are the big fish in the small pond of their Yucatan peninsula town. Casiopeia lives at the mercy of her crotchety grandfather and her privileged cousin Martin, who combine to make her life mostly miserable with chores and petty insults. She suffers with no particular grace. I do love a girl who can glare!

When the rest of the family leaves for an afternoon of fun and relaxation, Casiopeia is left behind for perceived dereliction of duties. In a fit of curiosity and rebellion, she opens an old chest that resides at the foot of her grandfather’s bed. And so the adventure begins!

She has inadvertently awakened a Lord of Death, Hun-Kame. He invites her on a mission to recover his lost power and to defeat his twin brother. She accepts with much trepidation, figuring it to be her one chance to escape dusty Uukumil. The two embark on a quest that takes them across the country, from the Yucatan to Baja. The entire story is grounded in Mayan mythology filtered through 1920s Mexico. Grand hotels, Prohibition-fueled tourism, and early automobiles provide a lively backdrop. Casiopeia and Hun-Kame equally cross great personal distances, from lord and servant to friends who share dreams of the future.

Meanwhile, the insufferable Martin has been co-opted by the god’s twin brother, Vucub-Kame, who has long-laid plans to return to the days of worshiping the old gods with blood sacrifices. Martin tries on multiple occasions to lure Casiopeia away from Hun-Kame. I cheered for her and her stubborn sense of justice the entire way. Her interactions with Martin eventually influence how she understands the dynamics between the divine brothers. In the end, she must make a terrible choice … but I don’t want to give too much away.

This is a lovely, lush book. I am not overly familiar with Mayan myth, but the author so perfectly describes the Black Road through Xibalba (land of the dead) that I could picture it. When Casiopeia and Hun-Kame ride the trains, the evocative sense of motion and rhythm is conveyed beautifully. I enjoyed the book as much for its language and imagery as the fast-paced story itself.

Moreno-Garcia is best known, at the moment, for the best-selling Mexican Gothic. She joyfully mines her grandmother’s stories and her native Mexican mythology for her books. Gods of Jade and Shadow is available as a physical book, and as an eBook and an eAudiobook on Overdrive/Libby.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Brat: An ’80s story

Black and white photo of Andrew McCarthy in a tweed jacket, loosening a skinny tie.

by Eric B.

I’d completely agree with the author Jay McInerney’s (Bright Lights, Big City) assessment on the back jacket cover of Brat: An ’80s Story

“My only quibble with this absorbing, thoughtful, and sometimes painfully honest memoir is with the title; McCarthy is anything but a brat. He is certainly an unlikely movie star, and the story of how this diffident and insecure young man found himself at the center of the culture in the 1980s—and then decided to walk away from it all—makes for a fascinating read.”

Perhaps you’ve seen Andrew McCarthy on the talk show circuit, or just remember him from his 80s films. I am a fan of his work in Less than ZeroPretty in Pink, and St Elmo’s Fire. Moreover, and you may scoff, but I do realize the genius that is found in Weekend at Bernie’s. I’m a fan of McCarthy’s acting, and perhaps his general on-screen demeanor in these “period pieces.” He played thoughtful, “emo” characters before it was nearly a trope in myriad indie films (to be sure, I still love the sensitive emo characters). For example, I’d contend that Timothy Chalamet is successful in a way I’m not sure was possible in the recent past with more rigid gender roles.

Several years ago, I read some of McCarthy’s travel writing and liked his style. The piece was about Los Angeles and was personal for him, and he spiced it up with personal anecdotes about his memories. For fans of 80’s films and McCarthy, Brat is like a greatest hits collection.  

The book opens with him abruptly leaving the Pretty in Pink Hollywood premiere to slam drinks at the bar across the street. McCarthy briefly gets into his middle-class upbringing, childhood, his time at NYU studying acting, before landing his first role and dropping out to pursue Hollywood acting full time. The remainder of the book is about the roles and the experience of his meteoric rise in Hollywood during the decade. McCarthy lived in New York for the duration of his Hollywood fame, which I found surprising, but makes sense now. He laments the fact that he didn’t pursue the theater, instead of accepting some of the roles he was offered. 

He includes some interesting stories about his experiences in Hollywood and some of the characters he encountered. I would not describe this as a tell-all book, but rather a memoir of a person experiencing and observing the strange world of American film and celebrity but never really feeling terribly comfortable in it. John Hughes described him as a “wimp,” which seems like a nasty thing to say. His experience at a Paramount anniversary party with Hollywood legends and young up and comers, where he realizes he could not and had no desire to be Tom Cruise, is hilarious because we all know how their respective careers progressed. McCarthy includes many pictures, and this one of the entire group at the Paramount party is telling. 

Artists who have a tough time with the nature of celebrity interest me generally. I appreciate what it’s like to want to be noticed, appreciated, and recognized, but then not wanting all that attention. I’m terrified of someone trying to take my picture as I try to live my daily life. McCarthy has accepted his status as an 80s star and a member of the “brat pack,” even though this was a media term. He’s not seen some of these people since the respective films were completed.  

If you’re a fan of so-called “brat pack” films, or 80s movies, John Hughes films, or just looking for a book not concerning current affairs, it’s a pretty good read. I acknowledge my bias on this subject, but I enjoy McCarthy’s writing style and his reflective and analytical nature. Perhaps this comes through in his acting?  Andrew McCarthy does seem like someone I’d know, or someone I’d like, but perhaps this is how celebrity works. Briefly reflecting on his days at NYU, McCarthy said that after class he’d hang out in the “post-bohemian cross culture” of Washington Square Park, observe all the interesting people, buy two joints off a Rastafarian for a buck apiece, then go home and watch the Rockford Files. This sounds like a nice afternoon to me, or perhaps a celebrity dream date.  

Also available as an eBook and eAudiobook via OverDrive/Libby.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.