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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Barbara Dee: Star-Crossed

Mattie is chosen to play Romeo opposite her crush in the eighth grade production of Shakespeare’s most beloved play in this Romeo and Juliet inspired novel from the author of Truth or Dare.

Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.

As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Back in March, I read a post from Barbara Dee that broke my heart. Dee had been asked to give an author presentation at a school. However, right before she was to speak, she was pulled aside and told that while the school was thrilled to have her speak on inclusivity…could she please keep it more general and NOT TALK ABOUT HER OWN BOOK?

Excuse me?

Of course I put Star-Crossed on my TBR immediately. Because obviously if a school is censoring the author…it’s probably something I want to read.

And it absolutely freaking is. Star-Crossed might be the best middle-grade fiction I have ever read…maybe the best Shakespeare retelling too! It follows Mattie, an eighth grade bookworm as she traverses the awkwardness of school play rehearsals–Romeo and Juliet, of course. Throughout the book, she slowly comes to realize she has a crush on fair Juliet.

Besides the cute story itself, there are two key factors that made me love this book. First, Mattie starts off with a crush on a boy, and then slowly falls into crush with Gemma. Later, her friend asks her if she might ever like boys again and she tells her it’s possible. Bisexual representation in a Middle Grade story! Yes! And Dee allows her MC to explore her feelings about it…which leads us to point #2.

Coming out is a process, and one that is mostly supported. We don’t see her come out to everyone–the story ends before that happens. But one friend helps her begin to come to terms with what is going on, and another person also helps her talk through it. Neither pressure her or ridicule her…it’s all very loving. I think this is something that is important to show in MG especially, so that kids can know that it doesn’t always have to be hard. It will be, sometimes, but there are supportive people out there.

I just loved this. I hope that not all schools are as closed minded as the one that shut Barbara Dee down, and that they put this book on their shelves. My library in Peoria had the book, and I’m so glad that they did. Books like this one should be available to kids who need to find themselves in the pages.

Retelling w/ MC LGBTQIA+

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Laurie Halse Anderson: The Impossible Knife of Memory

For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

I want to title this review:  The Impossible Mediocrity of Mental Illness YA. For as complex and nuanced as mental illness is–you’d think that we would get more than just textbook representation in our stories. Unfortunately, time and time again, it’s all I see. So rarely do I find a novel about mental illness that truly shows what it is like to be in the thick of it–instead the depiction is flat and gray.

PTSD is such an important subject, and finding good help for our soldiers is a crucial, difficult task. That is one thing about this book that I did agree with:  how Halse Anderson wrote Andy’s character refusing help or medication. His characterization wasn’t incorrect, I think I just had a hard time with Hayley’s narration of it.

Something else stuck out to me–Finn and Hayley were going through such a similar situation:  they both had family members who were addicts. But instead of talking about it or having that bring them closer together, all they did was fight and scream at each other. Their whole relationship was a weird dynamic, but that really seemed off kilter. Also, it wasn’t lost on me that Gracie continuously suspected Topher for cheating on her as a projection from her dad…though I think everyone else in the story missed that detail. Those sort of plot holes bug me.

But mostly, it’s Hayley that bothers me. Her attitude is horrible, and she’s an unreliable narrator of the worst kind. And maybe that’s the problem. I don’t mind unreliable narrators if there are ways to fill in the holes, but I felt like that knife just cut through the plot until I had an impossible amount of memory to fill.

Trigger warning:  PTSD, Panic Attacks, Knives, Blood, Suicide Ideation/Thoughts/Planning, Drowning, drugs, alcoholism

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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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Carrie Mac: 10 Things I Can See From Here

Perfect for fans of Finding Audrey and Everything, Everything, this is the poignant and uplifting story of Maeve, who is dealing with anxiety while falling in love with a girl who is not afraid of anything.

Think positive.
Don’t worry; be happy.
Keep calm and carry on.

Maeve has heard it all before. She’s been struggling with severe anxiety for a long time, and as much as she wishes it was something she could just talk herself out of, it’s not. She constantly imagines the worst, composes obituaries in her head, and is always ready for things to fall apart. To add to her troubles, her mom—the only one who really gets what Maeve goes through—is leaving for six months, so Maeve will be sent to live with her dad in Vancouver.

Vancouver brings a slew of new worries, but Maeve finds brief moments of calm (as well as even more worries) with Salix, a local girl who doesn’t seem to worry about anything. Between her dad’s wavering sobriety, her very pregnant stepmom insisting on a home birth, and her bumbling courtship with Salix, this summer brings more catastrophes than even Maeve could have foreseen. Will she be able to navigate through all the chaos to be there for the people she loves?

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Anxiety is really starting to make the rounds in Contemporary YA. I really want that to be a good thing. I like that mental illness is getting more representation–and I have a hard time passing up books that serve that purpose. I’d heard mixed reviews about Carrie Mac’s hot pink f/f romance, but when I saw Blogging for Books was carrying it alongside their adult literary fiction I snatched it up the second it hit the request page.

If you have anxiety, you definitely need to be careful reading this novel. Mac uses stream of consciousness to narrate Maeve’s anxiety and it follows her constantly. I had a hard time with it during some points of the book because her way of catastrophizing every moment is very similar to mine.

There is a little bit of the “new relationship heals the disorder” trope in this book, but not to the extent that it was cringey or it made me hate the story. Salix does try and take the time to learn and understand Maeve’s anxiety. It’s a bit of an ebb and flow, one day she’ll get it, the next she’ll struggle a bit to understand–and that’s how a real relationship with someone like Maeve is. People who don’t have an anxiety disorder don’t get it all at once. So that felt really realistic to me. Also, there was one moment in the book where I wanted to kiss Salix my own damn self because she was just a freaking hero. But, spoilers.

Most of the book, though, really revolves around Maeve’s father and his addiction to drugs and alcohol. 10 Things is a good book about anxiety, sure, but it’s also a great book about what it’s like to be the child of an addict. She takes care of SO MANY PEOPLE in this book, all while thinking she is a horribly weak person because of her mental illness.

There’s a whole lot to unpack here, and I could spend SO much time going through every page. But…it’s late. And spoilers. Guess you’ll just have to go read the book.

Blogging for Books and Alfred A Knopf provided a copy of this book for unbiased review.

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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

NetGalley and SourceBooks Fire provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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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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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?

NetGalley and Quirk Books provided this ARC for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me

In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the “Atlantic” writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people–a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. A timely work, this title will resonate with all teens–those who have experienced racism as well as those who have followed the recent news coverage on violence against people of color.

I’m so glad I read Malcolm X before getting to this, but also that I read them so close together. I’m not sure I would have understood Between the World and Me as well without Malcolm, but Coates also added much needed polish to Malcolm’s rough and angry manifesto. This is the kind of book that makes me want to bury myself in a great old library with piles of books and not come out again for days. There is just so much I do not know or understand, and the more I read on this topic, the less I feel prepared to work on it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prose is more like poetry. He repeats the same phrases over and over in his work, and they really begin to resonate.

hisbodyhisbodyhisbodyhisbody
mybodymybodymybodymybody
yourbodyyourbodyyourbodyyourbody

Like a poem that none of us have a right to read.

He also rarely, if ever, calls us white people–instead using the term “the people who must believe they are white.” That is such an important distinction. Race is a social construct, birthed by this idea that some people are less than other people.

His mission in this book is to help explain to his son why black people are being killed–after they watch Michael Brown’s killer go free in Ferguson. He discusses many other similar violences, but mostly is trying to teach his son how to protect himself. This is a letter from a concerned parent to a scared boy in a world that does not care about him.

Toni Morrison states so clearly on the cover that “This is required reading.” She is absolutely right. This was written for a 15 year old boy, so it could technically be considered young adult, though I don’t think it is. It should be taught in every high school across America, though I’m sure it isn’t. It’s absolutely going on my MUST READS list, no doubt about it.

Beat the Backlist Challenge #64

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