Featured

Hi there! You’ve reached the book review blog of Niranjana (Nina) Iyer, a writer and writing consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Please scroll down for blog book reviews.

Writing: I write book reviews and other bookish-themed pieces, as well as essays and opinion pieces. My work has appeared in literary magazines such as The Rumpus, The Millions, and The Missouri Review, as well as in mainstream magazines and journals such as The Smithsonian Magazine and Hello Giggles.  I am a regular contributor to Book Riot, the largest independent editorial book site in North America.

Writing consultancy:  I focus on two types of writing in my consulting work. First, I help students craft memorable, authentic essays for their college applications. My students have been accepted to the Ivies, the University of California, other public universities (including College of William and Mary, Purdue, UIUC, UNC Chapel Hill and more), and other private institutions such as Amherst College, Babson College, Georgetown, Mount Holyoke, Northeastern, Pomona, Rice, RPI, Scripps, USC, Vassar, Washington U. in St. Louis, and many others. 

Second, I work as a writing coach and manuscript editor with new writers who seek to understand the process and requirements for creating powerful stories, for both fiction and non-fiction.

If you are interested either in working with me on your college admissions essays or in having your work edited, please head over to my writing services website The Compelling Story, at thecompellingstory.com

Please click on About Brown Paper for more about this site and my book review policy.  Thanks for visiting!

Recent Publications

The ads on this site have been placed by WordPress, and I do not endorse or gain financially from any of the products displayed here.

Middle Grade Reading Challenge

It’s been a busy winter, but now I have time to blog about books again! I’ve joined MG Book Village’s middle grade book celebration this month. Every day in March, I’m going to post here and on twitter about a MG book that fits the day’s category. Please join in the fun!

ImageHere are my picks so far. As always, I’ll be focusing on books with a diversity angle.

Day 1 (March 1) Books that feature travel or a journey: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, featuring a young refugee girl’s journey from Pakistan to India in 1947.

2. Deals with mental illness: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf. Set in Malaysia, featuring a teen protagonist  with OCD.

3. Want to read but still haven’t: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. What can I say?

4. Audiobook people should read: So…I’ve never ever heard an audiobook. But the obvious answer is a graphic novel, I’d think?

5. New release you are anticipating: Since I didn’t answer yesterday’s question, I’ll over-compensate now. I can’t wait for Three Keys, Kelly Yang’s sequel to the wonderful Front Desk. I’m also keen to read Quintessence by Jess Redman. And I’m totally waiting for Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi. 

6. Book that had an unexpected twist: The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. Everything about this book gave me the feels, but the twist at the end was simply outstanding.

7. LGBTQIAP representation: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Such a clear-eyed, unflinching look at racism and homophobia and systemic inequality. TPI is about family, adventure, courage, and the hopefulness of being young. It’s also a great page-turner!

8. Non-fiction Book: The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. Lovely story of a boy from Malawi who hacks a windmill to provide electricity to his village.

9. Shout out to your library: I love California’s public library system. My county lets us request books from all over the Bay Area, for free!

10. New Author for you: I discovered Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor last year, and have re-read it twice already. It’s become one of my go-to comfort reads.

11. Current Shelfie: It’s all ebooks right now. No library visits with our lockdown!

12. Book you wish existed: This one has me stumped. We live in a rich MGlit world right now!

13. Book that needs more love: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. An Indian American girl from Maryland moves to small-town India, where she meets her favorite Bollywood star. Such a gentle, funny, wise book!

14. Your most reread/loved book: An impossible challenge, to pick just one! But…I’m going with Calvin and Hobbes. Endless joy with every reread.

15. Satisfying series ending book: I love The Other Wind, the last book of The Earthsea series by the incomparable Ursula Le Guin.

16. Shoutout to your indie store: I love Pegasus Books and Moe’s Books, both in Berkeley.

17. Book published in your country: A very ambiguous tag for those of us who have multiple country affiliations. I’ll go with the place I grew up, and pick Malgudi Days by R.K.Narayan.

18. Book out of your comfort zone: I’m picking a novel that’s a prose poem: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Splendid, triumphant, edgy story of a young Vietnamese refugee girls’s struggle to adapt to Alabama.

***

I’ll add to this post daily.  Please participate if you are on Twitter and help readers discover great new MG books! Don’t forget to post your recommendations with the tag ##MGBookMarch

More to the Story by Hena Khan

If, as a young bookish girl, you loved Little Women and totally identified with Jo–have I got the perfect read for you. More to the Story is a reworking of Alcott’s classic tale, set in contemporary  Georgia and featuring a Pakistani American Muslim family. 6th-grader Jameela is an avid aspiring journalist, working away at her school newspaper. When a boy from England moves in next door, the sisters perk up–Ali is young and cute and has a British accent to boot. But events take a grim turn when Jameela’s father leaves the family to take a job overseas. And then her younger sister Bisma falls sick, with cancer….

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, text

 

I loved the way Khan has taken on a classic and shaped it to reflect our multicultural world–her respect and affection for the original tale shine through on every page. Like Little Women, this story is narrated by Jameela, whose efforts to make her dad proud don’t always work out as intended. Winning characters, a plot clued-in to the modern-day concerns of middle-graders, and nuanced portrayals of Pakistani American and Muslim culture all make this book a must-read. And hey, it’d make a great movie too!

Note: this book’s release date is September 3. I received an advance copy from NetGalley for this review.

I reviewed this book for Multicultural Kid Blogs Read Around the World Summer Series! Check out their Fb page and their other book recs at https://www.facebook.com/MulticulturalKidBlogs/

#‎ReadtheWorldMKB‬ ‪#‎WeNeedDiverseBooks‬ ‪#‎ReadYourWorld‬

 

The Great Indian Curry Hack

I have a new piece up at Tenderly, a gorgeous new vegan/vegetarian magazine from Medium. The Great Indian Curry Hack is my story of being a grad student in the US long long ago and figuring out a way to cook Indian food using ingredients available in my small New England town. This piece also carries my first ever published recipe—and my first ever attempt at food photography! Here’s an excerpt.

The Great Indian Curry Hack

You can read the rest of the piece here. It’s behind a paywall, but you can access it here for this month: https://tenderly.medium.com/the-great-indian-curry-hack-8ff87031fc1c And if you’re a Medium member, do leave a comment/clap over there!

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

Long long ago, on a splendid blog far far away, I promised I’d join Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder challenge. Read Harder aims to get us out of our reading bubble and boldly explore strange new worlds; for me, that might be a novel about war, or prescriptive non-fiction on becoming rich, or a book about religion…I’ve discovered that the trick is to use what you like as a springboard for the new stuff. I will never, never, never warm to chick lit or pop philosophy or macho heroes, but I’d certainly look for an #ownvoices book set in Oceania, and I might just give a book of manga a shot.

I began with the first challenge in #ReadHarder, to read an epistolary novel or collection of letters. This was possibly the easiest challenge ever, for it gives me the chance to tell you about a book I LOVED.  Padma Venkatraman’s middle-grade novel The Bridge Home is one of those books on behalf which I’d evangelize tirelessly. It’s beautiful and moving and deals with tough topics with exceptional finesse, and if you’re not profoundly stirred at the end of your read, well, I suggest therapy.

TBH is set in the city of Chennai, in southern India, and details the experiences of eleven-year-old Viji, who, along with her developmentally disabled sister Rukku, runs away from her abusive alcoholic father. Viji must find a home safe from predatory men, and figure out how the sisters can earn a living. The girls meet two other homeless children Muthu and Arul, who teach them to scavenge for sellable scraps in the city’s enormous garbage dump. The four children become fast friends and make a home together on an abandoned bridge, but it’s a precarious existence—a single piece of bad luck might upend everything.

Meticulously detailed settings, believable and likable characters, unsentimental portrayals of poverty and deprivation, and a healthy dose of humor all come together to make an eye-wateringly good read. And I loved that it’s set in (one of) my hometowns–Chennai!

And yes, TBH is an epistolary novel–it’s written in the form of letters  from Viji to Rukku. This book was published in Feb. 2019, and I’ll bet one of my kidneys it’ll pick up a bunch of awards, for diversity and for overall excellence, and hence I’m covered for task #22–to read a children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009.

I loved this book so much that I interviewed the author for The Rumpus, and she had a lot of interesting things to say about poverty, India, and the intersection of stories and science. Here’s an excerpt:

The Rumpus: You lived in India when you were the same age as the characters in the novel. Did you know children like them? If you did, I think this sort of social interaction between classes/castes in India would have been quite unusual, especially back in the 1980s?

Padma Venkatraman: It was unusual. I was born into a wealthy Brahmin family, but my parents separated (which was highly unusual). After that, unlike any other South Asian American author I’ve met, I experienced economic hardship firsthand. But it was nothing like the dire poverty I saw around me.

Despite our fraught monetary situation, my mother volunteered to help at schools for children who had much less than we did. At one such school, I quickly became good friends with a boy called Nagabushan. I had a sort of childish crush on him—I really admired how deftly he could throw clay and shape a vase on his father’s wheel. Years later, I realized that he came from the Dalit community and would have been considered “untouchable.” Viji’s character is inspired by a friend who is Roma, who once sheltered in a graveyard and scrounged through trash, and asked if I’d write her story.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

 

Mystery of the Min Min Lights by Janelle Diller: A Pack-n-Go Girls Adventure

If you follow this blog, you know my middle name is diversity, and so, I joined this year’s Multicultural Children’s Book Day, wherein I was assigned The Mystery of the Min Min Lights by Janelle Diller. It’s the Australian installment of the Pack-n-go Girls Adventure series, which has a lovely mission –“to inspire girls to discover the world. To be curious. To be independent. To value what unites us. And to celebrate the differences that make us unique.” What’s not to like?

33285919

Nine-year-old Lee Wen Chi, who goes by Wendy Lee, has just landed in Australia. Her mom is working on six-month-long software project here, and Wendy decided to accompany her rather than stay back in San Francisco with her grandparents. Wendy’s a bit worried about how different it all is, but then it turns out her neighbor’s a fun nine-year-old girl, yay! Chloe Taylor invites Wendy to stay for the weekend on their sheep station. Something weird is going on at the station–strange blinking (Min Min) lights come on, and then sheep go missing. Could, um, a UFO be stealing sheep?

Interestingly, the min min light is a real-life light phenomenon that’s been reported in Australia. According to Wikipedia, Australian folklore says “the lights sometimes follow or approach people and disappear when fired upon, sometimes very rapidly, only to reappear later on, and anyone who chases the lights and catches them will never return to tell the tale.

File:Min-min-light-sign-boulia-outback-queensland-australia.jpg

What a charming book! The characters–Chloe and her little brother Jack, and Wendy–are endearing, believable children. The mystery is fun (Min Min lights! UFOs vacuuming up sheep!) and creatively imagined. There’s a lovely sense of adventure surrounding the entire tale–the parents are supportive and in the tradition of the Famous Five et al., mostly hang out in the background and let the kids deal with the issues at hand.

I did feel that the book was a bit heavy-handed at times while explaining Australian slang, but the target audience (6-9 years) probably won’t find it so. Overall, the author does a great job of showing the contrast between Chinese American Wendy’s SF upbringing and the heat and dust of a sheep station. The book also has a handy index at the back for young armchair travelers, with facts about Australia, travel tips, food and yes, slang.

After I was assigned this book, the author asked if I’d review the forthcoming sequel.  As I was glad to get more Wendy, I also read Mystery of the Rusty Key. There’s much less overt explanation of Australia in this installment, which I devoured in one happy gulp. Wendy accompanies her friends Chloe and Jack and their mom to visit Chloe’s great aunt in Sydney, Australia. Aunty Pauline warns them about a curse on the family, and gives them an old letter and an equally old rusty key. The letter, written by Chloe’s great-great-great-grandfather on his deathbed, tells his descendant to safeguard the key, which unlocks a box which contains instructions to end the curse… But where’s the box now?

Since this story is set in Sydney, we get a mention of the Sydney Opera House, and Diller also works in several facts about Australia’s settler history, And I love that the kids solve this mystery by showing courage, ingenuity, persistence–and by doing some solid research in the local library.

I asked my eleven-year-old to read both books and he much preferred the second installment, as the mystery was more intricate, and the story more fast-paced. I think younger readers might have the opposite reaction. As for the very old reader–hey, I have no  preferences, and found both books hugely enjoyable. The author does a great job of teaching kids about Australia, and an equally awesome job of showing strong young girls doing their thing. Recommended!

***

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2019 (1/25/19) is in its 6th year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom.  Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.

MCBD 2019 is honored to have the following Medallion Sponsors on board!

*View our 2019 Medallion Sponsors here: https://wp.me/P5tVud-
*View our 2019 MCBD Author Sponsors here: https://wp.me/P5tVud-2eN

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

TWITTER PARTY Sponsored by Make A Way Media: MCBD’s super-popular (and crazy-fun) annual @McChildsBookDay Twitter Party will be held 1/25/19 at 9:00pm.E.S.T. TONS of prizes and book bundles will be given away during the party ( a prize every 5 minutes!). GO HERE for more details.

FREE RESOURCES From MCBD

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta

Free Empathy Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teacher-classroom-empathy-kit/

Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use our official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

 

 

Rebel Voices by Louise Kay Stewart

Vote. Vote. Vote.

Rebel Voices: The Global Fight for Women’s Equality and the Right to Vote is a slim picture book that depicts the story of women’s voting rights. It’s a narrative that will inspire and madden you by turns.  The author presents the history of suffrage movements in various countries in the chronological order that their women gained the vote. Yay, New Zealand–the first country to give women the right to vote, in 1893; Saudi Arabia joined the club in, um, 2015. And some surprises too–Switzerland gave women the vote in 1971!  And it’s sad (but perhaps not surprising) that many former colonies who’d gone through long painful struggles to cast off their oppressors didn’t give their women the vote after gaining freedom. Like Nigeria, which rid itself of British rule in 1960–and denied women their voting rights till 1976. Boo.

The book is for the 11-14 crowd, and is filled with tales of strength and (not-too-graphic) suffering, of women protesting in the cold and rain, losing their employment, being imprisoned, beaten, and force-fed with tubes shoved down their throats.  We learn about the cruelty of the men who were firmly convinced that law, logic, and the good lord were on their side, and that often, they cast their opposition as respect and care. One said that women’s hands were “not for holding ballot boxes, but for kisses.” I can hear a room of 12-yr-olds going YUCK.

Despite the protests by women (and the men who supported them), those in power were often obdurate; in several cases, it was large-scale societal changes caused by WWI or II that made it possible for women to get the vote.  I’m reminded of the Assata Shakur quote–“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Furthermore,  the book omits to mention that plenty of women too opposed universal suffrage, believing that the women voters would be violating gender norms and god’s will, and  worked sincerely to support the patriarchy and deny themselves voting rights.

Rebel Voices presents a solid case for moving to New Zealand–there’s the LOTR landscapes, a cool prime minister, and a political system that granted equal voting rights to Maori women and white settler women right from the start. WOW. In most other countries, white women suffragists eagerly threw their sisters of color under the bus. Of course South Africa gave white women the vote in 1930 and black men and women the vote in 1994, but consider the US, where white women gained the right to vote in 1920 while black women in some states had to wait till 1965. Australia: 1902 and 1962 for white and Aboriginal women respectively. As for Canada, white women received the vote in 1918, but “Asian women and men were left out and were not included until after the Second World War. Indigenous women and men living on reserves — and most everywhere else as well — were viewed as wards of the Crown under the Indian Act, and were excluded from the vote across Canada, except in rare cases, until 1960.”  Rebel Voices doesn’t mention this facet of Canadian suffrage. Hmmm.

Despite its omissions, Rebel Voices would make a good gift if you are looking to nudge a  pre-teen towards political awareness–it’s short, fun, and features lovely illustrations to accompany preach-free text. And being cognizant of the history of suffrage has seldom felt more important. I was born in the 1970s, and the struggles for voting rights for women often seemed like ancient history. But over the past decades, I’ve grown to realize that the school of thought which manifested as opposition to women’s suffrage never went away; many who oppose(d) women’s rights are currently flourishing in positions of power.

Vote. And if you’re in America: vote today!

***

Rebel Voices was published in November 2018 by Crocodile Books. Thanks to the publishers for the review copy!

Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi

Books about inclusion and valuing difference have never been more important, but how do you get kids to absorb the good stuff when they’re unwilling to be overtly educated?(Okay, maybe it’s only my kid. Anyway.) Fortunately, many kidlit authors know how to inform and persuade without permitting a hint of didacticism to creep into their storytelling. Saadia Faruqi is an author, speaker, and interfaith activist based in Houston, and her book Meet Yasmin (Picture Window Books, August 2018) features an adorable Pakistani American second grader who makes the case for inclusion over the course of four stories, all presented as a slice of her life.

While each story tackles a problem, the conflicts don’t arise from Yasmin’s cultural identity–the plots are universally relatable. Yasmin faces challenges that every kid has gone through, such as getting momentarily lost in a crowded venue, worried that her entry in an art competition isn’t good enough, feeling bored and so on. And while Yasmin draws a map or builds with K’nex, we learn about her family and her background through narrative detail.

There’s some very clever writing going here, where the cultural information is prominent but never obtrusive, and Faruqi never resorts to platitudes or heavy-handed lessons. For instance, when Yasmin is heading to the Farmer’s Market with her mom, she can “hardly wait as Mama got her hijab and her purse.” Faruqi thus demystifies and contextualizes cultural markers without ever resorting to overt explanations. And kids unfamiliar with a hijab have a handy illustration to look at too!

Yasmin is a young seven–she holds her mom’s hand as she walks to the Farmer’s Market, and puts on a fashion show with her grandma. Each story is brimming with heart and charm. The illustrations by Hatem Aly nobly hold up their end — Yasmin’s large, twinkly eyes, and her tulip nose are the very definition of winsome.

And finally: Meet Yasmin is populated by the most diverse cast ever. Yasmin’s grandpa is disabled, her teacher is white, the famous television artist Yasmin looks at for inspiration is black, her friend Emma builds a church, Principal Nguyen judges the art contest, and so on. No overt references are made to identity — it’s all winningly presented as a part of the fabric of the world Yasmin inhabits.

 

In sum, Meet Yasmin, with its charming plot, subtle message of inclusion and diversity, and flat-out adorable protagonist would be a wonderful addition to any 5-8-year-old’s reading. May this book find a home in every second-grade classroom library in America!