GL Thomas: The Unforgettables

Back home in Chicago, Paul Hiroshima had it all.

Popularity, charming looks and a talent for the arts that made him admired by his peers. Moving to Portland, Maine the summer before his senior year was going to change all that. With his city life behind him, there was definitely no reason to make the best out of a bad situation—that is, until he meets the amazing Felicia Abelard.

Over a love of comic books and secret identities, Felicia becomes the sidekick to his hero; there’s just one problem: they weren’t supposed to fall in love.

As the season comes to an end, Paul and Felicia face in-depth challenges to preserve their summer formed bond. With the brink of the new school year at hand, this tale of best friends and first loves will make their year unforgettable.

I had really high hopes for this one–the ratings were out of this world and so were the comments. Everyone was talking about how diverse it was, both racially and for LGBTQIA+ representation. The story line sounded fantastic and geeky. A free link was posted one day and I snatched it right up!

I bet you can guess where this is going, right?

I’ll start first by saying that this book is incredibly well intentioned. That’s really the best way to explain it. The diversity here is very well intentioned–and there’s a lot of it, too. Unfortunately, much of it seems a bit drawn out of a hat and then placed on secondary characters who lack development to really shine in the diverse elements that the authors wanted to show.

I do want to make exception to this, though, with the two main characters. Both are people of color and are exceptionally developed, well written people. Lots of thought went into those two characters. Both mothers got quite a bit of attention, as did Paul’s dad and sister. However, outside of that, most of the secondary characters were mere shadows. They would flit in and out of the story–we’d get details here and there but nothing that would really build the person in significance.

That really bothered me in two instances:  Nala and Kevin. Nala is a transgender girl, best friend to Paul’s sister. We see her quite a bit, and we do get more information about her than most other secondary characters, but it still feels like she’s just thrown in there so the book can be more diverse. I would have loved to have more development surrounding her character, rather than have her shyness be the only thing that mattered–and to have Paul yelling at her be the most significant part she played in the story.

Kevin is almost nonexistant in the story, which made me terribly sad, as he is the very first person I made a note about in my journal. He is mentioned right away–he’s very young, but the authors make it seem that he might be starting to identify as nonbinary (they refer to him as “nonconforming” the few times he is mentioned). I’ve read very few contemporary books with nonbinary characters in them, so I was excited to see Kevin…and then he isn’t hardly mentioned.

There’s also a bisexual brother away at college–I couldn’t even tell you his name because he is so out of the way. It very much felt to me like the LGBTQIA+ people in this story were there because they had to be, not because they should be or were necessary to the story–if that makes sense. It felt very forced and uncomfortable. I think the intentions were good, but it just wasn’t done very well.

The story itself was cute–a fairly average YA Contemporary. I liked the superhero theme that was going on, and normally I probably would have rated this a 3 or 4 just for the racial diversity alone–especially for being in a predominantly white region. However, I was so distracted by the lack of LGBTQIA+ secondary character development that it was hard to stay focused on the rest.

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AJ Mendez Brooks: Crazy is My Superpower

Three-time WWE Diva’s Champion A.J. Brooks’ Crazy is My Superpower is a literary memoir chronicling her unlikely rise from 100-pound nerd growing up in extreme poverty and enduring years of abuse to international sex symbol and professional wrestling champion (known as A.J. Lee). A.J. fought against stereotypes, forced the men in her industry to view her with respect, and inspired a huge fan base of over 2 million Twitter followers with her fierce independent streak.

Let me start this review by telling you:  I know ZIP about professional wrestling. I have friends who set up a ring in the backyard and held their own faux championships, but outside of that and Dwayne The Rock Johnson…nope. Nothing. NA to the freaking DA.

What I’m trying to say is…if you’re looking for a review from a well educated wrestling fan, run in the other direction. That is not me.

But there was a nerdy girl in Chucks on the cover of this book talking about mental illness, and I’m all here for that.

Another thing I’m here for? AJ Mendez Brooks is a girl who gives ZERO fucks. And I do mean zero. She has been through hell a million times over and just doesn’t have time for people’s shit. She is going to conquer this world, whatever she puts her mind to–through poverty and a mega dysfunctional family and her own bipolar disorder. She’s just gonna do it. Also, she thinks abandoned dogs are the greatest thing since sliced bread and I am DEFINITELY here for that.

There are two things that gave me pause:

There is a lot of “I’m not like other girls, I’m just one of the guys” going on. I get it, you’re a TomBoy who wrestles on TV, wears sweats, and doesn’t brush your hair all the time…but sometimes it got a little superior in attitude. (Also she kept calling her sweats “asexual sweats,” and that’s just…asexuals can be fashionable too, you know?)

Also, if there is a negative or derogatory term for mental illness, she used it. I did hesitate when requesting this book–not because of my lack of wrestling knowledge, but because of the title. It’s a little off putting to me. However, like I said, she just gives zero fucks. And in the end, she tells us why she uses the word ‘crazy’ so much. For her, the only way to reduce the stigma surrounding the word is to reclaim it.

I think AJ could probably eat me for breakfast and move on. I absolutely admire her strength of character. I don’t agree with everything she said in her memoir, but her quirky writing style had me entertained right up until the end. I loved her diary entries that were interspersed between the chapters, and the drawings (I think by her brother Robbie) were kick ass. If you’re a wrestling fan, comic book fan, or just general all around nerd, I think you’ll like this memoir.

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy of this book for unbiased review.

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Louise Erdich: Shadow Tag

When Irene America discovers that her artist husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and marriage, while turning her Red Diary—hidden where Gil will find it—into a manipulative charade. As Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children, their home becomes a place of increasing violence and secrecy. And Irene drifts into alcoholism, moving ever closer to the ultimate destruction of a relationship filled with shadowy need and strange ironies.

Alternating between Irene’s twin journals and an unflinching third-person narrative, Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag fearlessly explores the complex nature of love, the fluid boundaries of identity, and the anatomy of one family’s struggle for survival and redemption.

Marriage can be a toxic place. We go into it with such intense hopes and dreams, but for so many of us, it doesn’t end up the way we thought it would. Whether it is the expectations we place on ourselves, or the extreme addiction love can be–sometimes you just can’t leave, even when we know we should.

No one but the couple really knows what goes on inside that marriage–and sometimes even the two parties have different interpretations of the situation. Shadow Tag dives deep into one such toxic relationship. If we were to only look at one person’s perspective, we might see it as only physically abusive, or alternatively, emotionally abusive. Erdrich gives us both sides, and so we see the intense tug of war that is being played. Both parties are predator and prey, abuser and victim. There is no saving this marriage, we know that from the beginning, but how will it end?

This struck a nasty chord in me right away and I almost didn’t continue. I still feel a little seasick after finishing this tumultuous novel. It’s powerful, certainly, and Erdrich is a storyteller that grabs your arm and doesn’t let go.

She is also one of our more well-known Native American authors. This book is #OwnVoices, and there are concerns in this book that those of us outside of indigenous culture do not face. It only adds another edge to that toxic weapon of a destructive relationship, at least in this instance.

Erdrich’s story certainly gave me a lot to think about. I didn’t really care much for Round House, which I read a few months ago, but Shadow Tag left a deep impression on my heart. I highly recommend it for fans of adult literary fiction. Make sure to add this #OwnVoices book to your TBR!

DIVERSITYBINGO2017:  Indigenous MC OV

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Becky Albertalli: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

It took me far too long to read this book. What an incredible mush of adorableness. I fell COMPLETELY in love with Simon and Blue.

I don’t even have any notes in my reading journal from this book because I read it straight through without putting it down. Once you’re in it, you’re in it, my friend, so don’t start this at 11’oclock at night or you will not sleep. I want to go back to high school and feel that awkward teen love all over again.

Ok, not really, not at all. But Simon and Blue are THAT adorable, thank you very much.

Enough with the mush–the book DOES have SOME conflict, you know. Martin is a right bastard. Even though I know we were all terrible people back in school, it’s so hard to believe there are kids who are THAT cruel. It makes my heart hurt. And he never receives any consequences at all. Every day Simon has to look at his twisted grin and just…ugh.

Also, can we talk about Leah? This poor girl doesn’t know what end is up, and neither do her friends. Something is going on with her, and I need more information! I really need some more character development on Leah. We only get the bare minimum, and I feel her attitude (for lack of a better word) deserves more than jealousy or distraction.

Mostly though, this book is a YA romance, and Albertalli stays true to that–while fielding the softball sized societal issues that take place in the teen world. (Anyone who says high schoolers do not face real problems are idiots.) She managed to make her story adorable AND painful…and also extremely diverse. You’ll find characters from many walks of life here, not just LGBTQIA+, but also Jewish, black, and biracial.

Obviously this is a must read for me, guys. If you haven’t read this yet, DO IT. She just came out with a new book this week and I am already pining for it!

DIVERSITYBINGO2017:  Practicing Jewish MC

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Laura Silverman: Girl Out of Water

Anise Sawyer plans to spend every minute of summer with her friends: surfing, chowing down on fish tacos drizzled with wasabi balsamic vinegar, and throwing bonfires that blaze until dawn. But when a serious car wreck leaves her aunt, a single mother of three, with two broken legs, it forces Anise to say goodbye for the first time to Santa Cruz, the waves, her friends, and even a kindling romance, and fly with her dad to Nebraska for the entire summer. Living in Nebraska isn’t easy. Anise spends her days caring for her three younger cousins in the childhood home of her runaway mom, a wild figure who’s been flickering in and out of her life since birth, appearing for weeks at a time and then disappearing again for months, or even years, without a word.

Complicating matters is Lincoln, a one-armed, charismatic skater who pushes Anise to trade her surfboard for a skateboard. As Anise draws closer to Lincoln and takes on the full burden and joy of her cousins, she loses touch with her friends back home – leading her to one terrifying question: will she turn out just like her mom and spend her life leaving behind the ones she loves.

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Spring has arrived! The sun has been out in full force, the grass is starting to turn lush and green, the temperature is rising–it’s time to start picking your summer reads, folks!

I know it is that season, too, because I have DNF two heavier novels this week. I’m too restless to try and sit through them. I needed something fun–and Laura Silverman’s Girl Out of Water was just the ticket to save me from my slump.

The blurb is a little cringey at first glance (Lincoln has a disability, he shouldn’t be defined by it). If I didn’t know anything about the context or author, I might turn away from this one. However, I’ve followed Laura Silverman on Twitter for a long time, and there is no way she would treat someone with a disability with anything but the utmost respect. And she absolutely does. Lincoln is one of the most delightful YA boyfriends that I have read in a long time. His relationship with Anise is adorable, but also respectful–no one is pressuring anyone here, there isn’t any unnecessary sexual drama, and I love that.

There’s a lot of swearing, which…if you have followed me for any amount of time, you know that bothers me not at all. Still, it’s surprising for this style of YA novel. I like that Silverman didn’t hold back, since obviously most people don’t in real life–but I could see it being a problem for some.

“Summer reads” are always pretty fast books for me. I read this in only a few hours. Once I started, it was hard to put down–Silverman’s characters are captivating, and they drive the story. It’s a book full of normal, every day people dealing with normal, every day drama…plus a little extra. Totally one you should add to your beach bag this year. Just maybe leave the banh mi SPAM at home.

DIVERSITYBINGO2017:  MC with an UnderRepresented Body

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Angie Thomas: The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

If you haven’t heard of The Hate U Give, you might want to crawl out from under your rock. EVERYONE is talking about this book, and for good reason. A lot of books get hyped up when they first come out but Angie Thomas has written a story that completely surpasses that hype.

This book is going to be one of the most important works of literature in this decade. I guarantee it. There is nothing else in YA even comes close to so perfectly illustrating the racial strife permeating the United States right now.

But not only does Thomas cover such a difficult subject, she does it in such a way that is both engaging and graceful. There is no escaping her message, even as the reader is ripped to pieces by her characters.

And trust me, you will be ripped to pieces–you will cry. I was in tears in the first 40 pages. This is not meant to be a peaceful read. Your heart is going to be pulled and poked and prodded and, especially if you’re white, your moral compass is going to go through the wringer. But this will be the best book you read all year, and it will probably climb up your list of all time favorites.

I’ve had some friends tell me that they were waiting for the hype to wear down before picking this up. And I understand that sentiment, I do that too with popular books. Sometimes too much hype can influence how we feel about them. But this is going to remain on everyone’s lips for a long time to come–and it deserves all the acclaim it is getting. Run, don’t walk to your bookstore or library. Go read this as soon as possible, and then tell everyone about it. The Hate U Give needs to be read by every single person in America.

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Patrick Ness: The Rest of Us Just Live Here

What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions…

So much of YA is the dramatic story about murder and tragedy among the popular kids. Vampires and werewolves and magic trolls in dungeons. This isn’t that story. This is something else, running parallel. This is the story of Emily the Background Slytherin and her friends (OMG KEVIN RUN). Those kids in the background who might actually do the assignments for graduation, whose lives go on no matter what might roam the halls or blow up the school.

But most importantly, this story is about a boy with OCD, a girl with an eating disorder, and  has both racial and LGBTQIA+ representation. Friends of mine who also have similar anxiety to mine insisted that I read this book ASAP because of the discussions that take place and I’m so glad they did. From start to finish, the OCD rep is just so incredible.

Mikey (I sort of cringe at this name because of those old cereal commercials) has severe anxiety/OCD–he gets into obsessive loops where if he doesn’t do a task exactly “right” something horrible will happen. Life becomes catastrophic inside those loops, getting worse and worse, and he becomes stuck.

Even though this is sort of a parody of YA fantasy, Ness does a wonderful job of blending his “Indie Kid” parallel with Mikey’s. The build up to the climax is so subtle that you hardly know it is coming–I sort of skimmed the chapter headings, but I thought they detracted from the actual story line, so I mostly just followed it through the main book.

I loved that Ness gives Mikey such a strong support system–his chosen family–instead of using the “hero comes to save him from his anxiety” trope. There’s a lot of talk about how one of his fears is that he is the least needed person, or no one would miss him if he were gone–I feel that SO HARD. And even though Mikey acknowledges at one point that he KNOWS he is lucky to have so many people who love him, to someone with anxiety, it’s so hard to convince ourselves that this is reality most of the time.

I could go on and on about everything that was amazing about the anxiety/OCD rep in this story. I want to quote the entire psychiatrist appointment to you. But, then you wouldn’t have to read the book, and I really think you probably should go read it. It’s going on my MUST READS list for sure, guys. So, yeah. Do it.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Refugees

With the coruscating gaze that informed The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.

This second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.

You know how I mentioned before that I took five books with me on the cruise? Wouldn’t you know it that I finished Dune at the airport with a 4 hour wait before our flight…and 3 hours left to go…and PACKED THE REST OF MY BOOKS IN MY CHECKED LUGGAGE!

Of course I did. Oops.

This is why airport planner people add bookstores. Because no matter how fancy our cellphones get–we still need books in airports. Luckily for me, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen was 40% off! I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about this gorgeous cerulean new release, so it was no hard decision on what to grab from the shelf.

The Refugees is a collection of short stories, in the style of James Joyce or Colm Toibin–short snippets of life without a lot of context before or after. (Take that Joyce comparison with a grain of salt…I hate Joyce, but loved this. Style comparison, not author comparison.) Nguyen explores refugees of both country and soul. Every story features a Vietnamese character–while some characters have left Vietnam, others are returning–and all are experiencing some major upheaval in their life. It seems as if Nguyen doesn’t just mean “refugee” in the strict traveling sense, but also that the person is literally leaving one life for another.

Because this is a collection of short stories, know that there is no transition or connection between them besides the common refugee theme. They are written in first-person narrative, and to read them all back to back can sometimes be jarring to someone who doesn’t normally read this style. I am used to flowing right through chapters, so I probably should have read one story a day instead of doing this book all at once, to give myself a chance to separate each from the story before. That isn’t so much a flaw with the book, however, as with myself.

Regardless, I am thrilled with The Refugees, and if I could go back and choose a book from MCO, I’d still choose this one.

DiversityBingo2017:  Immigrant or Refugee MC

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Ashley Poston: Geekerella

Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic sci-fi series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball, and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. With savings from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck (and her dad’s old costume), Elle’s determined to win…unless her stepsisters get there first.

Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons—before he was famous. Now they’re nothing but autographs and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise. But when she disappears at midnight, will he ever be able to find her again?

Part romance, part love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom.

Who needs fluffy Doctor Who Cinderella fan fiction?

I NEED FLUFFY DOCTOR WHO CINDERELLA FAN FICTION.

YES I DO YES I DO.

This book is GLORIOUS, people. The story follows a fangirl blogger and the incoming lead on a sci-fi serial in a You’ve Got Mail sort of situational romance. It has all of the traditional Cinderella elements we know, but modernized and nerdified.

HOORAY FOR DIVERSE CHARACTERS! One of the leads is POC, and there’s also LGBTQIA+ people. It is a Cinderella story, so there is emotional abuse, but that is to be expected.

I read Geekerella in a matter of hours. Once you start this, you won’t put it down. It’s just the right amount of fluff and substance. And if you’re part of the world of geekdom, you’ll find this instantly relatable. And who can resist the bright purple cover?

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Michelle Moran: Cleopatra’s Daughter

At the dawn of the Roman Empire, when tyranny ruled, a daughter of Egypt and a son of Rome found each other…

Selene’s legendary parents are gone. Her country taken, she has been brought to the city of Rome in chains, with only her twin brother, Alexander, to remind her of home and all she once had.

Living under the watchful eyes of the ruling family, Selene and her brother must quickly learn how to be Roman – and how to be useful to Caesar. She puts her artistry to work, in the hope of staying alive and being allowed to return to Egypt. Before long, however, she is distracted by the young and handsome heir to the empire…

When the elusive ‘Red Eagle’ starts calling for the end of slavery, Selene and Alexander are in grave danger. Will this mysterious figure bring their liberation, or their demise?

I’ve previously read and enjoyed two of Michelle Moran’s historical fictions, and after the last one I added most of her collection to my Goodreads. Her stories are so rich and detailed that I feel I’ve been transported right into the ancients. Granted, they aren’t perfect–and they are very fictional–but extremely fun to read. And you get a fantastic look at the world from a woman’s view at the famous people we hear about in history, which were typically men.

Cleopatra’s Daughter shows us what Rome looked like during Octavian’s rule from Kleopatra Selene’s perspective. She is terrified when forced to leave Alexandria after her mother and father commit suicide, and her world is thus turned upside down. Through her eyes we see war and gladiator battles and slave riots and court judgment–everything Rome is famous for, but from an outsider looking on horrified.

There are a couple things to look out for. There are a few mentions of rape, especially when it comes to the female slaves. And speaking of slavery, there is a multitude of it. The attitudes are mixed–some are for, some are against. There’s a revolt happening and a rebel is trying to stage an uprising in the Senate to free them–there are some interesting conversations happening, but I’m not sure as much care was spent on those sensitive conversations as could have been. The biggest problem I noticed was that blue eyes/blonde hair was the MOST BEAUTIFUL AND COVETED ALWAYS–even though the Romans had conquered Gaul and taken them as slaves. The Romans still had a preference for those blue eyes and that blonde hair–it was mentioned at least every other chapter.

It isn’t the most problematic book I’ve ever read–just some things to be aware of while you’re reading. Keep your eyes open. Selene is not a woman I could ever say I want to be. But it was certainly fascinating being in her shoes for a few hundred pages.

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