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Book Review: Like Water by Rebecca Podos

Publisher’s description

ra6Like Water is an unforgettable story of two girls navigating the unknowable waters of identity, millennial anxiety, and first love, from the acclaimed author of The Mystery of Hollow Places.

In Savannah Espinoza’s small New Mexico hometown, kids either flee after graduation or they’re trapped there forever. Vanni never planned to get stuck—but that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, leaving her and her mother to care for him. Now she doesn’t have much of a plan at all: living at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, distracting herself with one boy after another.

That changes the day she meets Leigh. Disillusioned with small-town life and looking for something greater, Leigh is not a “nice girl.” She is unlike anyone Vanni has met, and a friend when Vanni desperately needs one. Soon enough, Leigh is much more than a friend. But caring about another person threatens the walls Vanni has carefully constructed to protect herself and brings up the big questions she’s hidden from for so long.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

like waterMaybe it’s just because I’ve been churning out a ton of book reviews these days in an attempt to get ahead before school starts again (today’s date: August 16. Hi, yes, I’m a totally type A human who NEEDS planning and control to not lose her mind. We’ve met, right?), but I feel like it’s another good time to say this: Generally speaking, I only review books I like. I DNF books like a mofo—something a younger version of myself would never think I’d do, but now, I don’t have the time to read things that don’t connect. It’s not worth my time to write a review that is basically a rambling version of the word “meh” or expound upon what I dislike unless I feel like I’m addressing important and damaging things a book may be doing. That’s the long way of saying that I review what I like. So if it feels like nearly all of my reviews are gushingly positive, that’s because they are. I can’t read and write about everything, much as I’d like to, so my energy goes to boosting books that definitely need to be in teenagers’ hands. 

 

Savannah Espinoza, who goes by Vanni, lives in El Trampero, New Mexico, though the locals refer to it as La Trampa, or the trap. No one really leaves their tiny town, but Vanni has high hopes for going to college in California or on the east coast. Or rather, Vanni had high hopes—life changed after her father’s Huntington’s diagnosis. Now, she figures she’ll stay in town, help out at her family’s restaurant, help care for her father, and hopefully save up some money to eventually go to college. It’s a rough time in her life, and not just because of her father’s illness. Vanni’s no longer friends with her two closest friends, she feels completely adrift with what to be doing this summer after graduation, and she can’t stop analyzing every little cramp or twitch her body has, because there’s a 50% chance that she, too, could have Huntington’s. She hooks up with Jake, a waiter at her family’s restaurant, but it’s just as empty and meaningless as all of her previous hookups. When she meets recent Boston transplant Leigh Clemente, everything changes. The two start hanging out and when they eventually, and inevitably, kiss, Vanni tries to tell herself it’s no big deal—she’s kissed tons of people before, so who cares if she just kissed a girl? But, of course, it is a big deal—not that she’s kissing a girl (she doesn’t have any kind of crisis about this), but that she’s legitimately falling for someone in a way she never has before. Though they both have their defenses up and don’t always cope with their feelings in the best ways, their relationship is great, full of passion and laughter and a genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. But it’s hard to make something last when one person is resigned to a future they didn’t choose and the other has one foot out the door already, ready to chase down the life she’d rather have. 

 

It would be easy for this plot to feel overfull with all of the rather large things going on in both Leigh and Vanni’s lives. But Podos pulls them all together neatly, giving her characters room to make mistakes and figure themselves out in ways that feel realistic and hopeful. Vanni and Leigh discuss their identities, with Vanni being easily comfortable in realizing she’s bisexual and Leigh eventually revealing she’s genderqueer. Podos makes it clear, through her characters’ actions and thoughts, that they are more than their bodies, their mistakes, their fears, or their compromises. Beautiful and raw, this story shines thanks to memorable characters, authentic dialogue, and enough humor to keep the story, full of serious subjects, from feeling too sad. This story about futures, identities, and being an active participant in your own life will fly off the shelves. An easy recommendation.

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062373373

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 10/17/2017

Book Review: Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Publisher’s description

ra6Debuting on the New York stage, Zara is unprepared — for Eli, the girl who makes the world glow; for Leopold, the director who wants perfection; or for death in the theater.

Zara Evans has come to the Aurelia Theater, home to the visionary director Leopold Henneman, to play her dream role in Echo and Ariston, the Greek tragedy that taught her everything she knows about love. When the director asks Zara to promise that she will have no outside commitments, no distractions, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s hard not to be distracted when there’s a death at the theater — and then another — especially when Zara doesn’t know if they’re accidents, or murder, or a curse that always comes in threes. It’s hard not to be distracted when assistant lighting director Eli Vasquez, a girl made of tattoos and abrupt laughs and every form of light, looks at Zara. It’s hard not to fall in love. In heart-achingly beautiful prose, Amy Rose Capetta has spun a mystery and a love story into an impossible, inevitable whole — and cast lantern light on two young women, finding each other on a stage set for tragedy.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

echo after echoThere are loads of teens this book will appeal to, like theater fiends, fans of mysteries and thrillers, readers looking for a good romance, and teens in search of good LGBTQIA+ rep (specifically lesbian and bisexual here), or a Jewish main character, or a Latina character. The downsides of this book are that the story drags a bit in places and there is sometimes just too much of the play and its rehearsal and not enough exploration of the characters. But those are minor quibbles. I loved this book because I really had no idea what to think about the mystery part for most of the story.

 

When Zara gets the opportunity to star in Echo and Ariston, a play she has loved since she was 12, she packs up her life, leaves her senior year after only a few weeks, and moves to New York. She’s quickly thrust into the world of the Aurelia Theater, with a creepy genius director (Leopold) who is prone to visions showing him how to direct his plays, and a close-knit group of people who have worked together for years. There relationships are all complicated, full of break-ups, secrets, betrayals, and more. Zara is drawn to Eli, a 19-year-old assistant lighting designer, though it takes the girls a while to be bold enough to show one another how they really feel. Eli is sort of Zara’s saving grace in all of this. The play is demanding, starring with movie star Adrian Ward is complicated (he’s not against playing up their relationship for publicity, but Zara, not yet used to the spotlight, isn’t interested), and Zara increasingly feels like she can’t trust anyone around her. After two deaths occur, Eli and Zara start digging for answers, but it’s hard to know who to believe in this world full of people who play pretend for a living.

 

The mystery of who is behind these deaths, and who might be next, will be enough to propel readers through the slow parts. Zara and Eli’s relationship is intense, drawn-out, and passionate. It’s also threatened by everything going on with the play and the theater’s employees. As detailed above, this novel has a wide appeal, but theater aficionados will relish this deep dive into the intense and complex world of theater. A good choice, too, for readers looking for books on the older end of YA–the main characters are older teens (with Eli being out of high school and Zara not attending) and nearly everyone else is out of their teens. This is a great choice for all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780763691646

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication date: 10/10/2017

Book Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

ra6New York Times bestselling author Adam Silvera reminds us that there’s no life without death and no love without loss in this devastating yet uplifting story about two people whose lives change over the course of one unforgettable day.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.

In the tradition of Before I Fall and If I StayThey Both Die at the End is a tour de force from acclaimed author Adam Silvera, whose debut, More Happy Than Not, the New York Times called “profound.”

 

Amanda’s thoughts

they bothI am an extremely impatient person. I really am. So the fact that I can make myself read in order of publication date, even when a book I am dying to read shows up at my house long before it’s due out, is a miracle. I am super impatient, but I am super duper organized and a fan of systems, which I guess trumps my impatience. Still, the closer I got to September books, the more desperate I grew to read this new book by Adam Silvera. I absolutely loved his previous books, History is All You Left Me and More Happy Than Not. I think I loved this new book even more than the previous two.

 

Imagine a world where everything is exactly the same as it is now, except there’s this company called Death-Cast that calls you up on the day you’re slated to die and alerts you to this fact. Both Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio get this call in the early hours of September 5th. No one has ever avoided their death. The title is They Both Die at the End. There is no doubt where this story is headed. And while the idea of the story is pretty clear—live your life to its fullest on this last day while ruminating on wasted opportunities and lost potential—watching the characters do this was an absolute joy. Their day was not predictable, and even in places where it kind of us, it still was surprising and delightful, in spite of the incredibly dark notion of their impending deaths lurking around at every moment.

 

Puerto Rican Mateo and Cuban-American Rufus meet through the Last Friend app, an app designed to help you meet up with someone to spend your last day with. Their connection is immediate, intense, and one that deserves far longer to play out than the time allotted to them. Rufus, a bisexual foster kid, has really only had fellow foster kids Aimee, Malcolm, and Tagoe to turn to since his parents and sister died not long ago. And he can’t spend his last day with them for complicated reasons involving the police and a nameless gang. Mateo has really only ever had his dad, who is in a coma (his mother died in childbirth), and his best friend Lidia, who he doesn’t want to die in front of. Neither Mateo nor Rufus could have possibly expected to find such a powerful match on their End Day. Together, they struggle with the guilt and pain of both living and dying all while falling in love at the absolute worst time. On their End Day, they laugh, dance, sing, “skydive,” share their stories, say goodbyes, witness others’ End Days, cry, hurt, heal, and live.

 

The chapters alternate between Mateo and Rufus, with many brief chapters about the lives of those that surround them—their friends, people at the Death-Cast call center, the nameless gang, and others—showing how Rufus and Mateo’s lives were linked with their own. Every chapter is bursting with life and plans and regrets, and every chapter brings us one step closer to that inevitable ending. Told with warmth and humor and so much love, Silvera creates a stunningly powerful examination of what it means to really live your life. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Mateo and Rufus, but isn’t that how life always works?

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062457790

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/05/2017

Book Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

how-to-makeGrace, tough and wise, has nearly given up on wishes, thanks to a childhood spent with her unpredictable, larger-than-life mother. But this summer, Grace meets Eva, a girl who believes in dreams, despite her own difficult circumstances.

 

One fateful evening, Eva climbs through a window in Grace’s room, setting off a chain of stolen nights on the beach. When Eva tells Grace that she likes girls, Grace’s world opens up and she begins to believe in happiness again.

 

How to Make a Wish is an emotionally charged portrait of a mother and daughter’s relationship and a heartfelt story about two girls who find each other at the exact right time.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I read this book in one sitting. I used to do that a lot—read books in one chunk of time—but don’t so much anymore. While I do typically read a book in one to two days, the time is broken up—I need to write something, I need to run errands, I need to parent, I need to do whatever. My busy brain isn’t the biggest fan of letting me settle into any one thing for too long. But with this book, I was hooked from page one and had no interest in moving until I was done reading. I am not a person who says “all the feels.” I do not tend to feel “swoony” over books. As a fairly cynical, scowly person, those kinds of expressions are just not me. BUT. I kept thinking of both expressions as I read. And when I was done, I shut the book and just held onto it, thinking, well, that was a completely satisfying read. And, really, how often do we read books that just feel completely, absolutely, perfectly satisfying?

 

Grace returns to Maine from a two-week piano workshop in Boston to find that her mother, Maggie, has, once again, moved them in with her newest boyfriend, Pete. Never mind that they’ve barely been dating for a minute. Never mind that Pete’s son, Jay, is Grace’s ex (and that he posted all of their sexts after they broke up). Maggie is always doing this—flitting from guy to guy, being impulsive, not thinking of how things might affect Grace, not doing her job as a parent. She’s basically an overgrown kid (with a drinking problem) and Grace is left to do the parenting. But there’s maybe only one more year of this life. At the end of the summer, Grace will be auditioning for the Manhattan School of Music. College will mean a fresh start for Grace—something that she needs—and not in the way her mother is always giving them new starts. But as much as Grace cannot wait to get away from her life, she’s worried about leaving her mother behind. Who will watch over Maggie?

 

Summer on the cape should mean more of the same—hanging with her best friend, Luca, and suffering through her mother’s unpredictable whims—but becomes much more interesting when Eva arrives. Eva is the daughter of one of Luca’s mother’s friends who recently passed away. Emmy, Luca’s mom, is now her guardian. Eva and Grace meet on the beach, where both have gone to process their emotions, and immediately click. Eventually, after Eva tells Grace that she is a lesbian and Grace tells Eva she’s bisexual, their friendship turns into something more. But it quickly becomes complicated by, what else, Grace’s mother. Maggie wants to nurture Eva and becomes buddies with her, something Grace would rather not see happening. Eva doesn’t understand the full story of just how Maggie can be and Maggie doesn’t know that Grace and Eva are dating (oblivious to anything that isn’t her own life, Grace did at one point try to tell Maggie she was bisexual, but Maggie chose to brush that admission off and not understand it). It’s clearly a recipe for disaster. When Maggie eventually makes a(nother) really bad choice—one that affects her, Grace, and Eva—Grace reaches her breaking point and has to decide who she really needs to be taking care of.

 

Blake’s characters are vibrant and multifaceted. Though so much of this book is about pain, loss, and grief, there is also just so much love in this story. Compassion comes from the places we would expect (Emmy, Luca) and from surprising places, too (Jay, Pete). Both Grace and Eva are fragile but resilient. They both find family in new ways—ways neither would have chosen (a dead mom, an irresponsible and alcoholic mom)—and find support and care and love there. And their relationship, though not always easy, is meaningful and achingly lovely. I do not generally want characters who date in YA books to stay together forever (see my earlier remark about being cynical and scowly). But I love Grace and Eva together. This is an easy recommendation for fans of contemporary stories. Again, it’s rare that I find something just completely satisfying, and this book felt perfect in every way. Go read it!

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544815193

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 05/02/2017

Book Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Publisher’s description

radioFrom critically acclaimed author Alice Oseman comes a smartly crafted contemporary YA novel, perfect for readers who love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. This is an utterly captivating and authentic new teen novel from the author of Solitaire, which VOYA said “could put her among the great young adult fiction authors.”

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As.

You probably think that they are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and she is a girl.

They don’t. They make a podcast.

In a world determined to shut them up, knock them down, and set them on a cookie cutter life path, Frances and Aled struggle to find their voices over the course of one life-changing year. Will they have the courage to show everyone who they really are? Or will they be met with radio silence?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I’ll be honest: it took me a while to get into this story. I spent a few days picking it up and finding my mind wandering, so putting it down and working on something else instead. BUT, once I got roped in, I got ROPED IN. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a mystery, but it has elements of a mystery, and that’s what propelled me forward.

 

The summary up there doesn’t do the best job of making this sound appealing (although, yes please to more books about main character best friends who seem like they might fall in love but don’t, and yes please to stories about podcasts). It’s not just that Aled and Frances make a podcast together (think Welcome to Night Vale)—it’s that they make a VERY popular podcast, with a large fandom, and, as creators, stay shrouded in mystery for a long time. The premise of their podcast (which Aled starts and Frances joins eventually) is a student is sending out SOS messages from a futuristic university that they’re trapped inside of. The student goes by Radio Silence and is agender. The podcast grows in popularity, but when word gets out who is behind it, things really begin to fall apart quickly. Aled and Frances have an argument and drift apart (or rather, Aled bails on Frances and refuses to answer her calls etc). It becomes clear that something very troublesome is going on with Aled, and while Frances desperately wants to do SOMETHING to help him, she doesn’t know what to do. Until she does.

 

The small ensemble of characters feature a diversity of sexual identities, including gay, bi, lesbian, and demisexual. Frances is white and Ethiopian, Daniel is Korean, and Raine is Indian. There is also a lot of room for choices, or for rethinking choices, regarding what to do after school ends—namely, there are more options than just going to university and more options than just doing the thing you thought you were supposed to work toward. The story is about the podcast, but it’s also not. It’s about people desperately in need of friends. It’s about identities, desires, plans, expectations, and feeling lost. Frances and friends will easily appeal to teen readers who are also grappling with all these same feelings. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062335715

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Publisher’s description

we-are-okayYou go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . . . Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Nina LaCour. When this book showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted. Because here’s the thing: I’m going to guess I haven’t been alone in having a really hard time concentrating on a book lately. I started and abandoned a whole bunch of books in January. I read this until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then the next morning, I read it while waiting for my doctor. For once, I wanted her to be running behind, because I was down to about twenty pages. I finished it later that same day, sobbing over my gummy candy and desperately hoping my kid would stay playing outside for a few more minutes so I could just keep on crying. It was exactly the book I needed to read at that moment in time. It’s a relatively quick read, and since it’s Nina LaCour, you know it’s going to be a deep and beautifully-written story. This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you.

 

And really, that’s all I’m telling you. The small summary up there of the plot gives you just enough of an outline to rope you in, but doesn’t reveal any of the really significant parts of the story. All you need to know is that this book will break your heart. But it won’t do it in a way that will leave you hopeless—I promise. A beautiful story of love, grief, and learning to heal. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525425892

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 02/14/2017

Book Review: Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Publisher’s description

our-ownFifteen-year-old Aki Simon has a theory. And it’s mostly about sex.

No, it isn’t that kind of theory. Aki already knows she’s bisexual—even if, until now, it’s mostly been in the hypothetical sense. Aki has dated only guys so far, and her best friend, Lori, is the only person who knows she likes girls, too.

Actually, Aki’s theory is that she’s got only one shot at living an interesting life—and that means she’s got to stop sitting around and thinking so much. It’s time for her to actually do something. Or at least try.

So when Aki and Lori set off on a church youth-group trip to a small Mexican town for the summer and Aki meets Christa—slightly older, far more experienced—it seems her theory is prime for the testing.

But it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, how exactly do two girls have sex, anyway? And more important, how can you tell if you’re in love? It’s going to be a summer of testing theories—and the result may just be love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Maryland 15-year-olds Aki, who is black, and her white best friend, Lori, are spending a month in a teeny town far outside of Tijuana. They’re there on a mission trip with their church, helping to build a new church, along with groups from two other churches (from Maryland and West Virginia). Aki’s dad, the youth minister, is on the trip, as is Lori’s aunt, as a chaperone. Lori’s excited about the chance to meet some new boys and hopefully have a summer fling. Aki is apprehensively excited to maybe finally start feeling like she’s living her life. She feels like everything is hypothetical, just ideas, and that she never actually lives out anything, instead stuck endlessly debating everything in her head. Last year, Aki told Lori she thinks she might be bisexual—but Aki feels that her identity, like everything else in her life, is only hypothetical. This all changes when she meets cute white, pansexual Christa, who is a year older and seems far bolder and more experienced than Aki. The girls start hooking up, deciding that what they are having is just a summer fling. After all, Christa has a boyfriend back home, though they decided to be on a break for the summer and see other people. Christa has heard that Aki is a talented musician, and Aki, who gave up music a while back for complicated reasons, allows Christa to continue to think she’s still actively playing and composing. It’s just a fling—there’s no harm in some little lies, is there? Before long, the two are sneaking away every chance they get, despite being worried about being found out. Christa has always hidden her sexuality from her very conservative parents and is worried it would somehow get back to them that she’s hooking up with Aki. Aki’s brother, also on the trip, says their parents wouldn’t be okay with Aki being queer. So they keep it a secret. Or try to.

 

Meanwhile, Aki’s relationship with Lori is falling apart, as she’s pretty much completely bailed on her to be with Christa. The two get in a major fight when Lori reveals who she has been secretly hooking up with—someone that is such a bad choice, Aki thinks they should turn to an adult for some guidance. And while Aki is pretty obsessed with Christa, she’s also working on the things they went to Mexico to do—painting, building a fence, working with children—and growing more interested and involved in some of the social justice issues the national convention will be voting on. She and Jake, a bi boy from another church, start some petitions and work on putting together a debate to educate their group about the issues.

 

A big part of Aki’s story is trying to figure out exactly what her identity is and what it means for her. She spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be bisexual. She knows she is “not straight.” She knows she is attracted to girls–or at least to Christa. She has a lot of questions and thoughts about the fluid nature of sexuality, about labels, about identities shifting, about what it means to be bisexual. I think these thoughts and questions make this an especially valuable book for teens. Aki is young, just starting to figure out her identity, and completely open to asking herself questions. She is just starting to meet other queer teenagers (closeted Christa, possibly-soon-to-be-out Jake, and openly queer Madison). She is starting to reveal her identity (whatever it is or may become) to people in her life. She is also learning a lot about sex—not just from first-person experience, but from research. As she and Christa grow closer, Aki spends some time researching safer sex options. She tracks down what she needs while the youth group is at a college for two days for a conference. She’s informed and takes charge.

 

It’s a big month for Aki, one where her life finally starts to feel real and not just hypothetical. The underlying themes of changing people’s minds, truth, honesty, and love are reinforced through multiple storylines with Aki and many secondary characters. This exploration of love, sex, and identity is thoughtfully told. Aki’s interest in and thoughts on both religion and social justice issues help show just how much growing she is doing while taking a more active role in her own life. Talley has a knack for writing really complicated, authentic characters. Readers will appreciate the obvious respect for teenagers as smart, thoughtful, complex, sexual, and politically-aware beings. A great story about first love and a growing awareness of both self and the greater world. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780373211982

Publisher: Harlequin

Publication date: 01/31/2017

Book Review: The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of School Library Journal.

 

Hop on over to the Rafflecopter to enter to win a copy of THE YOU I’VE NEVER KNOW. Contest ends January 27th. 

 

the-youHopkins, Ellen. The You I’ve Never Known

ISBN-13: 9781481442909 Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books Publication date: 01/24/2017

Gr 9 Up—Ariel and her father, an abusive, homophobic alcoholic, never stay in one place very long. Miraculously, though, they have spent Ariel’s entire junior year in Sonora, CA, and she hopes that, for once, they can stick around. Here, she has finally experienced a bit of stability and made friends. She has also begun to explore her sexuality with both new guy Gabe and Monica, her “queer Mexican American” best friend. Ariel keeps her feelings for Monica from her father, who never lets her forget that her mother left them when Ariel was two to “run off with her lesbian lover.” The teen longs to break free from her father’s control and be herself—whoever that is. Seventeen-year-old Maya, a Texan whose cold and abusive mother is increasingly involved in Scientology, seeks escape, too, and she finds it when she meets Jason, 10 years her senior; gets pregnant; and marries. But Jason has an escape plan of his own, one that will bring Ariel’s and Maya’s stories together in a startling way. Themes of identity, family, and truth are interrogated as readers slowly learn more about Ariel and Maya. Writing in verse (Ariel’s tale) and prose (Maya’s), Hopkins uses skillful pacing and carefully chosen words to conceal the most important truth of the novel. The reveal arrives just as readers may be putting the pieces together themselves. VERDICT A sharp, gripping read sure to please Hopkins’s legions of fans.—Amanda MacGregor

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

history-twoFrom the New York Times bestselling author of More Happy Than Not comes an explosive examination of grief, mental illness, and the devastating consequences of refusing to let go of the past.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are not enough positive words in the universe (this one or alternate ones) to convey how I feel about this book. I was torn between burning through it, so I could see what happens, and forcing myself to slow down, so I could be sure to read every single beautiful word. I absolutely loved More Happy Than Not, but I think it’s possible that I love this book more.

 

The novel begins with Griffin gearing up to go to Theo’s funeral. Theo is his ex-boyfriend, one of his best friends, and his first love. In an act of self-sabotage (or self-preservation), Griffin broke up with Theo when he moved to California over a year ago for college, but they’ve remained in each other’s lives. Griffin thinks of Theo as his once and future love. He figures Theo will find his way back to him at some point. That theory is obliterated when Theo drowns. Griffin unravels. Toggling between their history and the present (where Griffin is directly addressing Theo, who he believes is with him even in death and observing him), Griffin fills in every detail of their relationship and everything that happened after they broke up (though it’s a slow reveal).

 

As I read, I kept thinking of that Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” specifically the lines “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I was thinking of it not in the context of what happened to Theo, but what’s happening with Griffin. As we get to learn more of Griffin’s story, both the history and what he’s currently experiencing, we learn that he’s a real mess. He’s keeping a lot back from everyone (including the reader). He’s doing worse than anyone realizes, for so many reasons. Even when it seems like he’s letting people in, coping a little, trying to process and heal, he’s not. And who can blame him?

 

Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.

 

Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.

 

This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616956929

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 01/17/2017

Book Review: Whatever.: Or How Junior Year Became Totally F$@cked by S.J. Goslee

Publisher’s description 

whateverIt’s like the apocalypse came, only instead of nuclear bombs and zombies, Mike gets school participation, gay thoughts, and mother-effin’ cheerleaders.

Junior year is about to start. Here’s what Mike Tate knows:

His friends are awesome and their crappy garage band is a great excuse to drink cheap beer. Rook Wallace is the devil. The Lemonheads rock. And his girlfriend Lisa is the coolest. Then Lisa breaks up with him, which makes Mike only a little sad, because they’ll stay friends and he never knew what to do with her boobs anyway. But when Mike finds out why Lisa dumped him, it blows his mind. And worse—he gets elected to homecoming court.

With a standout voice, a hilariously honest view on sex and sexuality, and enough f-bombs to make your mom blush, this debut YA novel is a fresh, modern take on the coming-out story.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Nothing I write about this book will be as attention-grabbing as that excellent first sentence up there describing Mike’s junior year.

 

I completely loved this book. It took me a little while to warm up to it (I think my problem is that I really wanted this to be written in first person, not third), but when I did, I couldn’t put it down. Many books are billed as being “hilarious” but totally miss the mark. This book is truly hilarious. As a person who enjoys sarcasm, trash-talking, swear words, and 90s music, this book spoke to me. Mike’s whole world gets rocked when Lisa, the girl he thought of as his girlfriend, tells him she wants to see other people. She points out to him that she’s not actually his girlfriend, but just a friend who he sometimes goes out with and makes out with. He’s not really broken up over her announcement. What does shock him, though, is her reasoning why he should be her student council running mate: they can sell him as gay—“it’ll be edgy.” Wait, Mike’s gay? This is news to him. Or is it? Turns out Lisa (and many others) were recently witness to him making out with a dude at a party, a fact that Mike himself doesn’t remember. Lisa tells him not to be so quick to dismiss the idea that he’s bi. Before long, Mike is accepting this (maybe) new truth about himself. He knows there’s nothing wrong with being bi, but he’s not so sure he’s ready for people to know yet when he’s just kind of figuring it all out for himself. It doesn’t talk long, though, for people in his life to start knowing—his mom, his grandma, his close group of friends, and Wallace, his sworn enemy.

 

Before long, Mike is doing all kinds of new things: serving as student council VP, organizing Homecoming, hanging out with cheerleaders, navigating uncomfortable silent periods with his lifelong friends, and making out with a hot (if completely surprisingly into him) guy.

 

Here’s an additional thing to love about this book: yeah, some things are a little bit weird for a while (and for different reasons) with some of his guy friends as he comes out, but for the most part, Mike is surrounded by so much matter-of-fact acceptance, love, and support. There were multiple coming out scenes that I just LOVED. His mom kind of nonchalantly mentions something about him finding a nice boy. His friend Cam barely blinks at his revelation. His grandmother initiates a conversation about his sexuality. Mike’s life is kind of complicated by coming out as bi, but that’s not a bad thing. Mike repeatedly corrects people that he’s bi, not gay. I can’t come up with a particularly long list of YA books with bi boy characters, so this is a nice addition to that list because it’s well-written, funny, sweet, romantic, and just GREAT. Definitely highly recommended. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626723993

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

Publication date: 08/02/2016