Latest review: American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar

March 10, 2021

Genre: YA romance

Release date: March 9, 2021

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

When a teen falls hard for the bad boy in school, she begins to lie to her parents to stay in the relationship. As she gets closer to him, she finds herself juggling her identity, her culture, and the thrill of first love. Author Anuradha D. Rajurkar showcases the struggle for first-generation Indian American children in a realistic way with a delightful slow burn in her debut novel American Betiya.

Single child Rani Kelkar has her life plan in place: go to college as pre-med and become a pediatrician. She’s following in the footsteps of her aunt in India who would take Rani on hospital rounds during summer vacations to the city of Pune. Of course, that doesn’t mean Rani’s sole focus is her career. Her second love is photography, even if her parents don’t understand it. They see it as a hobby along with everyone else in the Indian-American community that dominates her parents’ social lives.

During a gallery showing where some of her pictures are on display, Rani meets Oliver Jensen. The tattoos, multiple piercings, and intensity of his gaze don’t scare her off, although she’s skeptical of him at first. His own passion for art and interest in hers, though, eases the tension between them. They strike up a friendship, and before Rani knows it she’s starting to like Oliver.

The feelings are definitely mutual. “Like” soon blossoms into “love,” and Rani’s heart and mind are with Oliver all day. Her best friend, Kate, encourages the relationship but cautions Rani not to fall too hard. Kate’s own love life has taught her to hold back, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell Rani to do the same. But Rani can’t get enough of Oliver and finds ways to sneak out of the house to be with him.

The sneaking part is the challenge. Despite the fact that Rani is 18 and by American standards an adult, by Indian standards—her parents’ standards—she’s not supposed to have any romantic attachments at all. Especially not with boys from outside their culture. Add “troubled home life” to the list, which Oliver has in spades, and Rani is managing to break almost all of her parents’ rules at the same time.

Yet the closer they get, the more Rani starts to feel like things are spinning out of control. Oliver’s mother is an alcoholic, and his sister is having trouble maintaining secure relationships of her own. Oliver turns to Rani more and more for emotional support, but what he demands from her becomes harder for her to handle and give. Soon it becomes clear that Rani will have to make a choice: Oliver or herself.

Author Anuradha D. Rajurkar captures the intensity of teenage relationships with perfection. Rani’s struggle to balance everything in her life, including her photography, with the need to be with Oliver rings true. So, too, does Rani’s willingness to compromise on her own values and morals. In the heat of the moment, she makes choices that favor Oliver but bother her the next day. The heedlessness with which teenagers go full throttle in anything is on perfect display here.

At times it may be hard for readers to buy into Oliver’s cluelessness about Rani’s cultural heritage. They both attend the same large high school known, as Rani points out several times, for its diversity and promotion of various backgrounds. Yet at times, it seems as if Oliver is discovering everything about the Indian culture afresh. In today’s world of social media and globalism, his all-encompassing naivete is hard to believe.

Rani, too, comes across as naïve in some moments. A brief encounter meant to show the existence of racism and Rani’s reaction both seem contrived, a narrative device to remind readers and characters alike that prejudices still exist in our current times. As sure as Rani is that breaking her parents’ rules is the right decision, in some scenes she comes off a little too doe-eyed to be believable.

The internal struggle she faces regarding those rules is all too real, however, and first-generation South Asian readers will completely relate. While a conversation at the end of the book with Kate comes off as a touch preachy, overall readers will enjoy this book. I rate American Betiya as Bordering on Bookmarking it.

Brand new review: Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher

By Ekta R. Garg

March 3, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: February 16, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A high schooler mourns the loss of her best friend after a terrible accident. When she receives an unexpected gift, she traces it to its origin and discovers a secret. Debut author Ashley Schumacher uses innovative prose to explore the depth of grief and the healing power of love in her novel Amelia Unabridged.

High school senior Amelia Griffin knows two things: she’s the biggest fan in the entire world of the Orman Chronicles by author N.E. Endsley, and Jenna Williams is her best friend. In fact, the Chronicles are the reason the girls became friends in the first place. Now they’re inseparable.

Ultra-planner Jenna has it all mapped out: they’ll leave hot, sticky Dallas and go to college at the University of Montana, have practical careers, and always be by one another’s side. Amelia is beyond grateful for Jenna’s friendship. After her father left in freshman year, her mother has spent all of her time either at a part-time job or in front of the TV. Amelia craves family, and Jenna and her parents give it to her.

In the summer before college starts, the girls travel to California to meet the N.E. Endsley. Famously reclusive, the young author has agreed to an appearance at a book festival. The publication date for the third book in the Orman Chronicles has been pushed out, but no one knows when the book will drop. Amelia and Jenna, like hundreds of other fans, have come to the festival hoping for answers.

An hour before the event, though, Endsley cancels, and in the Uber ride to the airport back to Texas Jenna reveals she’s partly responsible. The girls fight, and Amelia struggles to forgive Jenna. Less than two weeks later, during a study abroad program in Ireland, Jenna dies in a car accident.

Amelia doesn’t want to accept this new reality. How is she supposed to go to college without Jenna? How is she supposed to read books without Jenna?

Days after the funeral, Amelia receives a gift: a limited edition copy of the first book in the Orman Chronicles. When she calls the Michigan bookstore on the return label, though, they claim to have no knowledge of where the book came from. According to them, they never processed the order. Amelia and Jenna aren’t even in their computer system. Something about the bookstore employee’s explanation doesn’t ring true to Amelia. She decides to go to Michigan to find answers. If Jenna ordered the book for her, she wants to know the story behind it.

Her trip brings her to a little town in Michigan straight out of a fairy tale. Not only does Amelia find the bookstore that shipped her the gift, but also she meets N.E. Endsley himself. As Amelia works through her shock and her grief at the same time, she rediscovers the power of stories to transform anything and the healing factor of love.

Author Ashley Schumacher shines in her debut novel. Although the events in the opening pages move at a brisk pace, Schumacher doesn’t compromise on Amelia’s depth of gratitude for Jenna’s friendship nor the grief from losing Jenna. The emotions feel so real that the events following Jenna’s death make complete sense in the story world Schumacher has constructed.

Schumacher sets for herself a huge challenge. Creating a fictional novel that readers in the story world love and adore and making it just as appealing to real-life readers is not for the faint of heart. Yet she meets the challenge and endears Amelia to readers all in the process. The Orman Chronicles come across as an old-fashioned fairy tale, exactly the kind an older sibling might invent to keep their younger siblings entertained. Given Amelia’s challenges, it’s obvious why this type of story would appeal to her and reiterates the power of a good book in all the best ways.

Like many YA novels, the adult characters are somewhat underdeveloped or absent altogether. Making them more three-dimensional would have enriched Amelia and Jenna’s story even more. It’s a testament to the novel that the lack of that character development doesn’t hurt the plot. It would have been a rich addition but doesn’t take away from the lovely writing already in place.

Readers who love a good story about good books and good friends should definitely pick this one up. I recommend readers Bookmark Amelia Unabridged.

Newest review: You Have a Match by Emma Lord

By Ekta R. Garg

January 13, 2021

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: January 12, 2021

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A teen makes a startling discovery after signing up to get her DNA sequenced. As she grapples with the results, a number of other secrets come to light. Through it all, the teen will need to decide what family and friendship really mean to her. Author Emma Lord brings to life her complicated characters with minor hiccups in the endearing novel You Have a Match.

In the little Seattle suburb of Shoreline, Abby Day is trying to deal with reality. Before her junior year of high school started, her grandfather, Poppy, died, causing Abby’s grades to slide. Her parents are freaking out and have scheduled Abby for every tutoring and prep session available.

Abby feels like she doesn’t have time to breathe. She also doesn’t have time for her photography anymore, a passion she shared with Poppy. Abby wishes she could explain to her mom and dad that if she could just take pictures, she’d actually do better in school. She can’t tell them that, though; they’ve rearranged their busy legal careers so someone is always at home with her and her brothers. Poppy used to take care of them. Now her parents are around all the time, and it’s driving Abby insane.

Her best friends, Leo and Connie, make life a little more bearable. Of course, things have been awkward with Leo after the BEI, otherwise known as the Big Embarrassing Incident, where Abby misread some signals. Now she can’t be her normal, goofy skateboarding self around Leo.

When a class at school sparks a conversation about family trees, then, it seems like the good old days when Abby and Connie practically dare Leo to take a DNA sequencing test. Because he and his sister were adopted, he’s always been curious about his heritage. In a bid of solidarity, all three friends spit into vials from their kits and mail them off.

Leo doesn’t get the answers he was looking for, but Abby gets some she didn’t even know existed. Apparently, she has a sister—a full-blooded sister—who lives in the area and is only a year-and-a-half older than her. Worse, when Abby looks up her new sister, Savannah “Savvy” Tully, online, she discovers that her new sibling is an Instagram influencer for the personal health industry. She’s put-together, well-heeled, and has a mad number of followers. She’s the exact opposite of Abby.

The girls meet, wary of one another and full of questions. Why would Abby’s parents give Savvy up? How do their parents know one another? Why didn’t they tell the girls about Savvy’s adoption?

The only way to get any answers, they decide, is to execute a plan that involves summer camp and hacking into parental email accounts. As Abby begins to spend more time with Savvy, she learns that the “what ifs” life throws at a person can sometimes become the “what nows.” Neither of those, she discovers, are bad things.

Author Emma Lord builds characters who are real and refreshing. Abby shares her uncertainty about Leo after the BEI proving how teens, just like adults, care so deeply about their friendships that they’re not willing to risk them for something else, even if that results in a broken heart. Lord does a great job, too, juxtaposing Abby’s lack of confidence with Savvy’s cool and collected manner. Even when the girls get into scrapes together, Savvy manages to pull herself together within moments.

If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in leaving the secondary characters less developed. Abby talks often about her three brothers, but readers don’t really spend any time with them. It’s a testament to Lord’s careful crafting that readers will still care about Abby’s brothers, even when they’re almost always off the page. A love interest for Savvy surprises her at camp, but, again, what’s known about the relationship is what Savvy shares. The full impact of the unfolding events doesn’t land nearly as much as they might have if readers had more information. Even the other best friend, Connie, gets relegated to the background once Abby arrives at camp.

Despite all this, the book is warm, funny, and offers a slow romantic burn that will make readers’ toes curl with delight. Those who like books about young love and finding one’s identity all in the same summer will enjoy this one. I recommend readers Bookmark You Have a Match.