“Turtles All the Way Down” by John Green

“Turtles All the Way Down” (2017) by the acclaimed and very best selling young adult author, John Green, is the brilliant story of Aza Holmes who suffers acute anxiety. The plot is incidental, but compelling.


Sixteen year old Aza is kind of smitten with Miles Pickett, who she’s known since they were little kids. Miles’s super-rich and super-corrupt father has gone missing and there’s a hundred thousand dollar reward to find him. Aza and her best friend Daisy have a lead, but will Aza pursue the mystery and betray Miles and his younger disturbed brother, Noah?


Best friend Daisy is a riot. Aza is her straight man. When Aza tells Daisy she’s the unsung hero in the investigation. Daisy tells her, “You’re sung.” I love Daisy. I want a girlfriend like Daisy who will make me laugh all the time. Daisy works at Chuck E Cheese in Indianapolis where the acclaimed author lives. She says, “I have the soul of a private jet owner, and the life of a public transportation rider. It’s a real tragedy.” Or instead of saying hello she asks Holmesy, “Have you ever gotten a dick pic?” Holmesy says yes. Daisy says, “‘Well, of course you’ve seen one, Holmesy. Christ, I’m not asking if you’re a seventeenth-century nun. I mean have you ever received an unsolicited, no-context dick pic?”


But the real story is Aza’s anxiety. When her mind starts “spiraling” with feelings of fear, Ada’s mother advises her not to think about it. But Aza knows “You can’t choose. That’s the problem.” About taking her medication (which Aza often forgets) she had “some way-down fear that taking a pill to become myself was wrong.” Green, who knows anxiety, delivers lengthy passages describing the circular and tortuous thought paths. Sometimes those passages bored me, and sometimes caused me so much anxiety that I couldn’t continue. If you don’t understand anxiety, read this. If you do understand anxiety, read this.


There are times when the brilliant girl narrator (Aza, aka, Holmesy) sometimes sounds like a brilliant middle age man, such as when she reports that her therapist “had the single greatest resting poker face I’d ever seen.” But the writing is so brilliant it’s forgiven.


And what about the title? A particular unnamed culture believes that the world sits on the back of a turtle. Well what does that turtle stand on? Another turtle. And that turtle? Turtles all the way down—a look at infinity. It turns out it’s a cosmological expression of infinite regress. I didn’t know.


John Green shows us that it’s okay not to be okay. Thanks, John. Good message.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Bull” by David Elliott

I admit that myths don’t generally hold my attention. I skim them and never quite get to the end. But this? Oh, yes.

In verse, David Elliott brilliantly casts the story of Theseus and the Minotaur in “Bull” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017). The bawdy and profane Poseidon, King of the Sea, is the involved narrator. He begins: “Whaddup, bitches?/ Am I right or am I right?/ That bum Minos deserved what he got./ I mean, I may be a god, but I’m not/ Unreasonable, and when I am, so/ What?”

When King Minos of Crete doesn’t fulfill his promise to the gods, Poseidon punishes him by making his wife, Queen Pasiphae of Crete, “have a thing/ For the white bull’s thang.” Yes she does. As a result of Pasiphae’s thing for the bull’s thang, she gives birth to Asterion who has the “head of a bull, body of a man, a.k.a. Ruler of the Stars, a.k.a. the Minotaur.”

We watch Asterion grow up—sweet, kind, smart—and troubled. His mother loves him: “In his eyes/ I see the/ sun I see/ the moon I/ see the stars/ and all the/ tilted/ whirling/ galaxies/ I see the/ undiscovered/ constellations/ I see the/ Earth I see/ nations I/ see soil and/ root and branch/ and leaf I/ see fruit I/ see seeds of . . .” The lines of Pasiphae’s poems become shorter as the story progresses, giving us the author-intended feeling that she’s coming unhinged—“off her nut,” as Poseidon tells us.

Poseidon reports on Asterion: “He’s the oldest of eight. That royal uterus is clearly first rate.” The other children—all wholly human—include daughter Ariadne and the super-athlete, Androgeos—Minos’s favorite. As for all stories that are passed along orally, there are differing versions, but in all, Androgeos dies young. In this version, it’s after competing and winning the shot put and javelin in Athens. Poseidon admits to having a hand in the death.

Now King Minos hates Asterion—the monster, the minotaur—even worse. Minos has Daedalus, the royal engineer, build a dark airless labyrinth, where Asterion, now seventeen, goes mad. But Ariadne plans to save her sweet brother and together they will escape the island of Crete.

See what I mean? It’s all so confusing. And who cares? (Sorry to you classicists).

But in this version I care. The tragedy feels so . . . tragic. And Poseidon keeps us laughing. About King Minos, Poseidon says: “Man!/ that guy’s a dick!/ But also so much fun/ To hate./ Like all dicks, though,/ He’ll soon deflate,/ And there’s no little blue pill,/ No herbal tea/ That will restore his “potency.”/ Well, one man’s dysfunction/ Is a god’s delight.”

Poseidon is not done making mischief, ensuring the tragic ending. If you know your mythology, I’m giving nothing away. If you don’t know your mythology, this is the place to find out. It’s all in the telling.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“Gem & Dixie” by Sara Zarr

“Gem & Dixie” (Balzer & Bray 2017) by Sara Zarr is a story of two sisters who were once close, but now growing apart. Gem, the older sister has always taken care of Dixie, because their mother couldn’t even put food on the table and their father was absent. Now that they’re teens, Dixie is street-smart and popular, Gem is friendless and still trying to care for her family.

Zarr, a National Book Award Finalist, writes nuanced honest descriptions about relationships that are gripping. As Gem, she says, “[Dixie] wanted to pretend like Mom was another one of her friends, another girl with boyfriend drama and body issues and money problems who didn’t need to hear shit from anyone about how she should live her life.” Unfortunately, that’s what Mom think, too.

About Dixie, Gem says, “I stared, she stared back. For her it was a game. She thought I was trying to get her to look away first. But really it was me trying to see who I was through Dixie’s eyes, me wondering if she evaluated me and my face and clothes and body, the ways I made it through the world, like I evaluated hers.”

With so few strokes Zarr brings to life secondary characters such as Gem’s in-school counselor: “Mr. Bergstrom leaned back and put his hands behind his head. I liked that about him, how relaxed he could be like the only thing in the world that he had to do was listen to me.”

It’s rough having an absent father, but it can be worse if he returns. Gem seems to be the only one who views the situation realistically. But the ever-so-errant father leaves something behind that allows the sisters to go on a road trip near their Seattle home. The adventures and people they meet bring Gem to the realization of what she must do. “I couldn’t think who I was without Dixie to take care of, or Dixie to avoid, or Dixie to be mad at. Dixie to feel hurt by, Dixie to feel jealous of.”

When an author speaks this well, I think it’s best to let her do most of the talking—about her book. In spite of having a totally different background, I saw so much of my sister and me in these sisters. If you have a sister, read this. If you want to understand sisters, read this. And read anything else by Sara Zarr, as well. You won’t be disappointed.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“One of Us Is Lying” by Karen M. McManus

High School student, Simon, created an app called “About That,” which outs his classmates of every mistake they commit—big and small. So everyone is afraid of him and, well, he doesn’t have a lot of friends, in Karen M. McManus’s debut novel, “One of Us Is Lying” (Delacorte 2017).

Simon and four of his classmates are held for detention by Mr. Avery, on charges of having their phones on them during school. The phones were planted on them. They’ve been framed.

But detention takes a terrible turn when Mr. Avery is called away and Simon starts choking, unable to breathe, and no one can find his asthma EpiPen. Simon is taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Left behind are two girls and two boys of differing demographics and descriptions.

Bronwyn, the brain, is the child of a wealthy Colombian businessman and caring mother who met at Yale where Bronwyn is set to go.

Cooper is a talented baseball player, part of the popular crowd, boyfriend to the gorgeous Keeley, with an overzealous lower middle-class sports-obsessed father, and caring mother.

Addy, a prom-queen beauty, is the child of a single-mother who has trained her daughters to catch a man. In Addy’s case that’s Jake, who’s pretty controlling. They’re equally attractive.

Nate is the guy with an alcoholic father and vanished mother, who is on probation for dealing drugs.

(I’m looking at this and thinking how the mothers here get a bad rap—or are at least subsidiary. But that’s not the story).

Simon dies in the hospital—so now what we have is a murder mystery, set near San Diego. Simon had the goods on all four of his classmates, and all four have secrets. How far would each of them go to keep his/her secret? And in spite of Simon being dead, social media keeps running a little more dirt on each of the four suspects, via “About That.” But Simon has gotten it wrong for one of the suspects. Information exists that would ruin the individual, so why hasn’t Simon, who seems to be omniscient, not have gotten that one right?

That piece of information can leave the reader/mystery-solver running down the primrose path. Throughout the whole book, you’re thinking, I’ve got it. Then a bit later, No, now I know who did it. But you’re not sure. This is why this is a best seller and being translated into 30 languages and was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

It’s being described as “The Breakfast Club” meets “Pretty Little Liars.” I think it’s better than that. It’s a page-turner supreme—not just for young adults, but for adults, too.



Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“Spinning” by Tillie Walden


“Spinning” (First Second 2017) is Tillie Walden’s graphic novel memoir about living the disciplined life of a competitive skater. The story follows Tillie from a very young age to eighteen years old, and a move from one skating program in New Jersey to a less elite program in Texas, giving the reader a somewhat varied look at this competitive world.

Every morning young Tillie, unsupervised, gets up at 4:00 a.m., and makes her way by bus, in the dark, to takes figure skating lessons. After school there’s synchronized skating and on weekends there are competitions, which she frequently wins or places. At times, Tillie finds a certain ecstasy in skating. Plus it takes her away from being bullied at school and from tensions within her family. Her parents pay her fees, but no family member attends her competitions. There are rink fees that Tillie is unaware of and hasn’t paid and other skaters’ mothers cruelly bring this to her attention. It makes you wonder about this competitive world. Are the mothers more competitive than their children? Does competition promote cruelty?

Which is better? An aloof family or a hovering family?

The illustrations superbly show Tillie growing up over the years, as well as the emotional strain that she feels—without the whiz-bang-pow that is found in so many comics. One feels Tillie’s isolation, her sadness, her awkwardness. The drawings also show the beauty of the body skating, that only a skater/artist could depict so accurately. You feel the chill of the ice rink. You experience the odor of artificial freezing.

Each chapter opens with a specific skating trick and Tillie’s personal connection to it—such as “A camel spin is basically a spinning spiral. It was a dizzying move and always sent my glasses flying off my face.” Or flip jumps. “I loved flips. You would launch yourself in the air by slamming the tip of your blade in the ice.” The pictures show the moves.

You feel Tillie’s strength—both physically and emotionally. She seems to have little or no adult guidance, except from her coaches. Early on, she knows she’s gay. One of her early skating coaches is the object of her affection and perhaps this young woman is why Tillie continues skating. The coach cares about Tillie—really sees her.

Tillie finds her first girlfriend in middle school—which is very sweet—until a parent disrupts the relationship. The honesty of the story, without sensationalism of any sort, gives this book so much integrity. We see Tillie soar and fall, soar and fall.

As an aside, Tillie takes cello lessons, and eventually she’s able to confide in her teacher—another wise woman to whom Tillie gives credit. Along the way, Tillie finds art, which draws more of her passion than skating or music does—and for this, the reader can be grateful.

And all this from an author who is just now twenty-one years old. I feel certain we’ll be seeing more from the talented Tillie Walden.



Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com


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“Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Fifteen year old Will is burning to avenge his brother’s murder, in “Long Way Down” (Simon & Schuster 2017) by Jason Reynolds. Most of the novel-in-searing verse covers about one minute of Will’s life.

Will knows the rules of the hood: “No crying. No snitching./And always get revenge.” And those rules? “They weren’t meant to be broken./ They were meant for the broken/ to follow.”

His brother Shawn was shot on the playground. Of course Will is devastated. “Couldn’t hear nothing./Ears filled up with heartbeats/ like my head was being held/ under water.”

And: “In the bathroom/ in the mirror/ my face sagged,/ like sadness/ was trying to pull/ the skin off.”

So, Will knows who killed Shawn. He’s sure of it. He finds Shawn’s gun in his drawer, tucks it in the back of his jeans: “felt the imprint/ of the piece, like/ another piece/ of me,/ an extra vertebra,/ some more/ backbone.” Will enters the elevator on the seventh floor on his way to get to the basement apartment—to the guy who did it.

On the sixth floor Buck gets on. But Buck is dead. But he’s in the elevator, smoking. It turns out Buck gave Shawn the gun. He tells Will to check to see if it’s loaded. Will discovers one bullet is missing. Shawn must have shot the gun. Will didn’t know Shawn had ever taken a shot.

On the fifth floor a really cute teenage girl gets on. She knows Will. Or knew Will. It turns out she’s the one that got killed by a stray bullet when they were about five years old and together at the playground.

On each floor another person gets on. They’re all dead people. His father, who was killed in the neighborhood, following the rules. But then the next guy was going to follow the rules. And do you always pinpoint the right murderer? The chorus of ghosts consider this.

This moral thriller is a poignant look at teenage gun violence, Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People, and on virtually all the “Best Books of 2017.”

Reynold’s author biography printed in the book is a heartfelt love letter to his readership, letting them know that he cares about them. First and foremost he is a young black author speaking to his young black readership. He addresses reluctant boy readers, saying he doesn’t like “boring” books either. He makes the point: if the books are exciting enough, boys will read them. The verse, besides driving the perfect percussive rhythm for the story, allows plenty of white space on the page and is highly accessible.

The story and the driving verse makes this a universal read.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com


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“I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by Maurene Goo

Desi, a smart nerd and president of her senior class, has never had a boyfriend in “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” (FSG 2017) by Maurene Goo. Desi’s attempts at flirtation are so disastrous, that her two closest friends, Wes and Fiona, call them “flailures”—flirtation and failure? Get it?

Her neurosurgeon mother died when Desi was quite young. Desi lives with her auto mechanic father, Appa. Both parents came to California from Korea before Desi was born. Desi works hard to make Appa happy, but it’s hard for her to understand why he’s smitten with Korean soap operas, called K dramas. Until she realizes that here is the formula for romance. So she analyzes them for the steps to snag a boyfriend.

Goo both honors and deconstructs the romance formula via Desi’s analyzed steps. The first three of twenty-four steps, which also become the chapter titles are: “1. You are the Living Embodiment of All That is Pure and Good. 2. Have a Sad-Sack Family Story. 3. Meet the World’s Most Unattainable Guy.”

Unattainable Luca, transfers to Desi’s California high school. He’s a gorgeous graffiti artist and his social media presence reveals his fame. Desi’s heart starts a-beating. None of this would work if it weren’t so funny:

Desi asks Luca for a ride home from school.

“He cleared his throat. “Uh, well, I don’t know if we live close to each other.”

“What! We both live in Monte Vista, how freaking far could I possibly be from your house.” . . .You’d think I’d asked him to make a colonoscopy appointment.”

Desi is no shrinking violet. She’s flighty, smart, funny—and smitten. The combination makes for a charming character. Her flailures are pretty extreme. She didn’t want to look like she was coming on to him so she wears baggy sweatpants when she joins Art Club, where she figures she’ll see Luca. At the moment she asks him a favor, her sweatpants fall to the floor into a puddle at her ankles. Of course she’s humiliated. And everyone, including the reader, is laughing. Even before she begins her ridiculous pursuit, Luca is charmed by nerdy Desi.

In not too long, Desi and Luca are a couple. Desi accompanies Luca when he illegally “tags” public property. Specifically, he adds to and deepens other taggers’ existing graffiti and the art sounds pretty amazing.

Of course Luca eventually finds Desi’s written list of steps and his high-integrity artist self freaks and drops her. Desi is devastated.

The story plays out exactly along the lines of the analyzed steps/chapter titles, but Desi is oblivious. Still, Desi has a lot of life outside the romance.

Along the way you get a contrast between Korean and American cultures—the meaning of a hug; Desi’s description of Korean class distinctions. One gripe: the gorgeous girl on the book cover is not the girl I read about. Desi has so much more going on than physical beauty.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Far From the Tree” by Robin Benway

“Far From the Tree” (HarperTeen 2017) by Robin Benway is a story of biological teen siblings, living separate lives, who find each other.

The book opens with Grace, 16 years old, who is giving up her own baby for adoption, just as her mother had given her up. Grace has gone through an agency and carefully chosen the family who will give Peach—as she calls the baby—a good life. Still she’s left with a painful, hollow spot in her body and psyche. Her adoptive parents to whom she’s an only child are terrific—warm and smart. Grace steels herself to return to school after the birth and is met by merciless taunts. She decides she will find her siblings, and maybe her mother.

Grace finds Maya who was adopted by parents who, classically, got pregnant once they cared for their adopted infant. So Maya has a sister, Lauren, 13 months younger than she with red hair like both her parents. Maya looks like the odd man out with black hair.

She is gay, which is a badge of honor to her liberal parents, which amazes the other siblings once they discover this. The bad news is, Maya’s parents are splitting up. In her confusion, Maya sabotages her relationship with girlfriend Claire. Maya protects herself with sarcasm, but she is also wise. “Maya had never realized how much power there was in loving someone. At first, she thought it was a source of strength, but she was realizing that, in the wrong hands, on the wrong day, that power was strong enough to destroy the very thing that had built it.”

Joaquin – the oldest at 17 has been in the foster system since his mother gave him up as a toddler. Twice he’d been adopted, but each adoption was short-lived, which of course is devastating.

When Maya reports that her parents put a rainbow sticker on their car, “Joaquin couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to swing with that kind of net waiting to catch you.” One foster mom found out Joaquin’s foster sister was gay and kicked her out. “Bio always trumps foster.” In another home the bio son decided which fosters would stay. Joaquin was out in a month.

Joaquin has good foster parents now, in fact they want to adopt him, but it’s his decision and he’s saying no. “To call Linda and Mark Mom and Dad on purpose would mean that Joaquin’s heart would form into something much more fragile, something impossible to put back together if it broke, and he could not—would not—do that to himself again.”

He breaks up with his girlfriend Birdie. She is confident, has life-plans and expects the world. And he’ll never be able to give it to her. No discussion, he just ends it. She’s furious, hurt, confused. But Joaquin is shamed by a violent act he committed years ago. We wait till the end to find out what he’d done.

This beautiful story of family and love is the National Book Award Winner for Young Readers—a wonderful read for adults as well as young adults.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“What Girls Are Made Of” by Elana K. Arnold

By its name, “What Girls Are Made Of” (Carolrhoda Lab 2017) by Elana K. Arnold might be a women’s health book like “Our Body, Ourselves.” But it’s a novel. However, it could serve as a woman’s health guide. In no-nonsense prose we watch Nina with her first period, first gynecological exam, intercourse, abortion, and heartbreak.

What makes this book important? It’s a story about the erasure of women.

Nina watches her mother endure yearly miscarriages, marking each when her glass of vodka reappears on the dining table. Her mother says there’s no such thing as unconditional love—not even for mother and child. Mother is a beautiful rich iceberg, and a non-working art historian. Her father supplies his family with a luxurious (cold) house and all the trimmings. That’s his role.

Nina, 16 years old, knows that her boyfriend Seth’s love is conditional. Those conditions include: she may not call him (he’s rude) and they must have sex. Nina and her best friend have been in love with Seth since fourth grade, but Nina won him and dropped her friend to be with him.

Seth calls the shots—what they’ll do, where they’ll do it, and the music they’ll listen to. The reader knows that Seth is a jerk and Nina has a self-esteem issue.

Is the issue Nina’s background? Her not being unconditionally loved? But there are plenty of teenaged girls who are unconditionally loved by a parent, and yet their major job is pleasing boys. After all these years, how can this be true?

The very fact that this title has been short-listed for the National Book Award says this is an important work—a necessary read.

Before high school, when her parents attempted to break-up, her mother took Nina to Italy—a trip meant for the parents. Mother and daughter visited endless museums in Rome, Florence, and small villages. They viewed thousands of tortured virgin saints—her mother’s specialty. Nina sees paintings of women on the rack and suffering the pear. (Read the book). Nina sees sculpted virgins in a state of ecstasy visited by Angels.

Her mother says. “When people don’t have words to describe what they’re experiencing, they think it’s magic. Or mystical. Or God.” She explains, in this case, “It’s an orgasm.”

All of the Renaissance and medieval art is executed by men, of course.

It would be difficult for me to like Nina if it weren’t for her wildly imagined—though dark—stories. In one, a bird-girl lived in a nest. She “pulled a feather from her side . . .dipped its quill end in ink, and . . . began to write.” This marks the beginning of Nina’s path to empowerment.

It helps that Nina works in a dog rescue center, doing service that was once penance for a cruel school misdeed that we don’t discover until the end of the story. But that is depressing, too, as it is a high-kill shelter. A lot of realism here.

Give this book to the girl who needs to be empowered. Is that all girls?


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“You Bring the Distant Near” by Mitali Perkins

Starting with the matriarch, Ranee Das in the 1960s, we experience three generations of Bengali women as they assimilate, having moved from India to Ghana to London to New York and beyond, in Mitali Perkins’ “You Bring the Distant Near” (2017). The novel includes fathers and spouses, but the story centers on each of the five complex, flawed, interesting women and her narration. Sister love is a strong component, but there’s also mother/daughter relationships, father/daughter relationships, and romances.

At the outset, we meet Ranee’s teenaged daughters, Tara and Sonia. In 1970s London Tara samples identities, first as the super model Twiggy, but when the family moves to New York she chooses an American persona. Sonia who craves reading and writing, becomes a feminist. It’s beautiful the way the sisters, who are so different from one another, act as a team as they navigate a new world together. We see each grow to womanhood and find a spouse. Their choices are vastly different leading to vastly different lives. Sonia falls in love with African American, Louis—another great character.

Tara’s marriage is a surprise to the reader, but I won’t spoil it here. Tara and Sonia each has a daughter which brings us to the present day. Marriages for the five happen outside and inside their culture, giving special views into Bengali and Bengali/American customs and food.

The situations and personalities feel so authentic you wonder how autobiographical the novel is. It turns out—pretty autobiographical. The author calls it a “memoir on steroids, with freedom to fabricate.” I’m pretty sure she’s Sonia in the novel.

In the story, Sonia has a daughter, Chantal, with Louis. Chantal is smart and athletic. Tara has a daughter, Anna, who is somewhat threatened by her older cousin, but as Anna comes into her own, the cousin relationship becomes a warm supportive sister-like relationship.

Fortunately we readers can refer to the family tree drawn in the opening pages, to ground ourselves as we read about the five “hyphenated” Americans.

Each character struggles with how she fits into the framework of assimilating from one culture to another; or Chantal’s experience of being bi-racial and of mixed cultures. Always the strength of the family serves as solid ground for the individual issues that each woman experiences. There is much more peace and harmony than conflict in this story, yet I was drawn to find out how things unfold, rather than what unfolds.

The character most transformed from beginning to end is the matriarch, Ranee Das. She is one of five great characters, but the secondary characters are also deftly drawn. I’d particularly liked to have known Baba, Sonia and Tara’s father and Ranee’s husband.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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