Reviews of the Week with Phuc Tran, Rebecca Stead, and More!

Every weekday, we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

A misfit memoir; a popular thriller, narrated in Spanish; The Cat Man of Aleppo!; a complex international drama; and an emotional coming-of-age novel are all featured in this week’s #ReviewsOfTheWeek.

Monday, February 10

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, by Phuc Tran

“I was a Vietnamese,” Tran writes in this affecting, deeply felt memoir of his growing-up years in “very white” Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “I was an American,” he continues. “I was an artist. I was a reader.” A study in contrasts, he was also a punk rocker and skater who was the best student in his English class. He writes movingly about his struggle for acceptance and his two-pronged attack to achieve assimilation: first, an attempt at academic excellence (he ranked fourteenth in his class of 333) and, second, what he calls “Operation Look Punk,” explaining that one way to fit in is by not fitting in. Whether he fit in with his own family is problematic.


Tuesday, February 11

Bajo cero (Cold Storage), by David Koepp, read by Bern Hoffman

Written by well-known director and American screenwriter, David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man), Bajo Cero (Cold Storage) delivers. In this suspenseful thriller, a Pentagon operative by the name of Roberto Diaz must find a way to save the world from a mutating creature bent on destroying it. With the help of two security guards, he races against the clock to prevent total extinction of life as we know it. Although this is a nail-biting thriller, humor is seamlessly interwoven throughout the story. Hoffman does an outstanding job in enhancing Koepp’s thrilling storyline. He effectively portrays the individual characters and their nuances with varying tones and pitch. This is an excellent Spanish translation.

Wednesday, February 12

The Cat Man of Aleppo, by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

The ongoing civil war in Syria has brought devastation for almost a decade now, and this picture-book collaboration relates that tragedy through the hopeful and incredible true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel. When the war came to Aleppo, many people fled and were forced to leave behind their animals. Alaa, an ambulance driver, began feeding the stranded cats of his abandoned neighborhood, and their numbers quickly multiplied. One social media movement later, he was able to build an animal sanctuary, as well as offer other services for local human survivors. The story of the Cat Man of Aleppo is remarkable in its own right, but it also serves as a bridge between the harsh reality in Syria and young American students, with the cats serving as a more approachable—and relatable—proxy for the people suffering in the background. Shimizu’s lifelike illustrations capture the joy and beauty prior to the war, juxtaposing it with the horror and grief that followed.

Thursday, February 13

The Gringa, by Andrew Altschul

Based on the life of Lori Berenson, an American sentenced to 20 years in prison for terrorist activities in Peru in the 1990s, Altschul’s (Deus Ex Machina, 2011) latest novel challenges the boundaries between activism and insurrection, fiction and reality. Leonora Gelb leaves Stanford, dreams of law school, and perplexed parents behind to work in an ESL program in Lima, Peru. Soon Leo, as the locals call her, is living and working among the poor and disenchanted in a village where she intends to make a difference. Even when her adopted community is attacked and a close friend disappears, she denies that the revolutionaries she’s taken up with are terrorists. As Leo fights for relevance in an increasingly hostile political landscape in which “philosophers” punish the wealthy and rescue the disadvantaged, she finds herself at the fore of a movement and eventually on trial.

Friday, February 14

The List of Things That Will Not Change, by Rebecca Stead

When Bea’s father decides to get married for the second time, this time to another man, she is overjoyed, not only because she loves Jesse, her father’s partner, but also because he has a daughter her age, and the thing Bea wants most in the world is a sister. This tale of 10-year-old Bea is narrated by her 12-year-old self, who often flashes back to earlier episodes of her life, brilliantly depicting the nonlinear storytelling mechanics of a tween mind. Indeed, Stead’s greatest strength may be her understanding of the middle-grade psyche. Her work shows great respect for the complexity of children’s feelings, and this remarkable book is, more than anything, about feelings.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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