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Book Review: Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Publisher’s description

From the author of Hot Dog Girl comes a fresh and funny queer YA contemporary novel about two teens who fall in love in an indie comic book shop.

Jubilee has it all together. She’s an elite cellist, and when she’s not working in her stepmom’s indie comic shop, she’s prepping for the biggest audition of her life.

Ridley is barely holding it together. His parents own the biggest comic-store chain in the country, and Ridley can’t stop disappointing them—that is, when they’re even paying attention.

They meet one fateful night at a comic convention prom, and the two can’t help falling for each other. Too bad their parents are at each other’s throats every chance they get, making a relationship between them nearly impossible . . . unless they manage to keep it a secret.

Then again, the feud between their families may be the least of their problems. As Ridley’s anxiety spirals, Jubilee tries to help but finds her focus torn between her fast-approaching audition and their intensifying relationship. What if love can’t conquer all? What if each of them needs more than the other can give?

Amanda’s thoughts

When I’m writing this review it’s March 20, 2020 and I’ve just been diagnosed as “COVID-19 concern,” which I guess is what they diagnose those of us who are sick with all the symptoms in this world of no available tests. I’m really into feeling sorry for myself today. But you know what helped? This book. I read it all today. And loved it. And thank goodness I’ve stumbled into a pile of books keeping my attention because wow have I been in a reading slump lately.

This book is my favorite kind of book: small plot, lots of talking. It also has delightfully convoluted communication mainly due to the fact that we first see our characters meet at a con and know each other as Peak and Bats. Peak (Jubilee) assumes Bats (Ridley) goes back home to Seattle, but really, he stays in Connecticut to live with his terrible father. Also, while they initially know nothing about one another, Ridley figures out who Peak is (Jubilee, daughter of a famous indie comic artist and his father’s main rival) while she knows nothing about him. Even for many, many chapters while they are hanging out in IRL. And Riley may be spying on her family’s store to get intel to help his dad (who, did I mention? is terrible). And when the reveal comes that not only is Ridley Jubilee’s con-crush Bats but is the son of her mom’s rival, things grow even MORE complicated, because how can Jubilee possibly still like him? But she does.

Whew. Get all that? You will when you read it.

There’s also a lot going on here regarding both mental health and sexuality. Ridley is bi. Jubilee calls herself “flexible” and isn’t comfortable with any one label yet, but knows she’s into certain people regardless of their gender. Ridley worries what Jubilee will think about him being bi, and Jubilee worries that repeatedly liking boys somehow makes her less queer. Then there’s Ridley’s mental health. At one point he tells Jubilee that he doesn’t have a diagnosis—he has a laundry list. His main issue is anxiety with panic attacks. Given the amount of lies and secrets he juggles for much of the book, it’s no surprise that his anxiety is always in high gear. Things start to become dangerous when he begins to feel like he’d just like to get lost in Jubilee and forget everything else. A common statement at our house is that people don’t fix people. So wanting to get lost in his girlfriend isn’t exactly a doctor-approved way to treat his worsening anxiety. Some bad choices and instability lead to everything coming to a head.

While this is certainly a romance, it’s also so much more. It really asks the question of how do you survive the dark times and doesn’t offer any easy answers. It’s also a great look at two people getting maybe too wrapped up in each other and not helping them be their best selves (does that sound like a mom lecture? I may or may not have given it recently). This is much heavier than it may appear based on the cover and the summary. That said, those looking for a contemporary that successfully mixes romance with some rather serious issues (and some concerning choices regarding lies, truth, and mental health) will enjoy this. A character-driven book with wide appeal.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525516286
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian

Publisher’s Description:

cut both waysFrom William C. Morris YA Debut Award nominee Carrie Mesrobian, Cut Both Ways is an unflinching look at a high school senior who must come to terms with his attraction to both his girlfriend and his male best friend.

It took Will Caynes seventeen years to have his first kiss. He should be ecstatic…except that it was shared with his best friend, Angus, while they were both drunk and stoned. Will’s not gay, but he did sort of enjoy whatever it was he felt with Angus. Unsettled by his growing interest in Angus, Will avoids his friend, and even starts dating a sophomore, Brandy. When he’s hooking up with her, he’s totally into it, so he must be straight, right? Then why does he secretly keep going back to Angus?

Confusing as Will’s feelings are, they’re a welcome distraction from his complicated home life. His father has started drinking earlier each day when he should be working on what seem like never-ending house renovations. And his mom—living in a McMansion with her new husband—isn’t much help, just buying Will a bunch of stuff he doesn’t need. Neither feels like much of a parent—which leaves Will on his own in figuring things out with his girlfriend and best friend. He loves them both, but deciding who to be with will ultimately hurt someone. Himself probably the most.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

Here’s the thing: Carrie Mesrobian writes in a way that completely meshes with what I, as a reader, want. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t mind what others may perceive as a small plot (more on that later). I like characters who talk a lot and/or spend a lot of time in their own heads mulling stuff over. I’d be perfectly content to read an entire book of just conversations or endless intropection and not much more. I also love a book that leaves a story with a somewhat open ending–or even a totally unresolved ending. Life doesn’t have tidy endings. Things rarely get wrapped up neatly or at all. I love a book that says, hey, a character is having some realizations or working toward some kind of resolution, but they are not there yet. It’s honest and brave and, in my opinion, happens far too infrequently.

 

The last notes I took as I read this were, “So good. So Carrie.” If four words could be a full review, those would be the four words. As she did in her previous two books, Mesrobian excels in creating not just characters in general, but teen boy characters. She nails the tone, language, and narrative voice. Will is crass, sex-obsessed, thoughtful, and uncertain. He’s honest, but a liar. He’s a city kid who lives in his dad’s nearly uninhabitable under-renovation house, but also lives part-time in his mom’s perfect and generic sprawling suburban home. He’s an only child at his dad’s house, but a big brother at his mom’s. He seems, for the most part, equally attracted to Angus and to Brandy. And that part of the storyline alone would be enough fodder for a novel—figuring out your sexuality and then deciding if and how to come out and how to navigate your relationships. But Will has to deal with his dad’s alcoholism, the disaster of his dad’s house, his new job, and the constant shuffling of his living situation.

 

This is where I want to point out that all of this is Plenty of Plot. These are not small things. They are also not Too Many Things going on. The plot reads like a very realistic look at the life of any teenager—many small daily dramas and an overall sense of feeling equal parts lost and excited. The plot is basically A Teenager Lives the Life of a Teenager. Anyone who has read Mesrobian’s previous books also knows that she writes truthfully and graphically about sex. (I hate that easily shocked pearl-clutching censors have stolen the word “graphic” as a descriptor and given it a negative connotation. I just mean “graphic” as in a clear and realistic picture.) Given that pretty much the basis of the entire novel is Will’s newly awakened sexuality, and the fact that he has two partners he’s sexually involved with, there are plenty of descriptive sex scenes here. The characters stay out all night, swear, lie, drink, smoke pot, and do all of the other stuff that happens in real teens’ lives.

 

Mesrobian understands how teens think, talk, and act and never sugarcoats plot points or shies away from an unvarnished look at her characters’ lives. Fans of her first two books, Sex & Violence and Perfectly Good White Boy, will walk into this one knowing exactly what to expect (meaning it’s predictable in all the best ways). This intense and raw read will appeal widely to fans of contemporary YA, but especially to those looking for LGBTQIA+ stories or those who feel a little uncertain about where home is, who they are, or how to make big decisions. So, you know, everyone. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062349880

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/01/2015

In the most recent issue of SLJ

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 December 2014 issue of School Library Journal(So technically this isn’t in the most recent issue, as the new one just came out, but I wanted to make sure this great book gets highlighted!)

 

Gr 9 Up—High school junior Etta juggles many identities, none of which seem to fit quite right. She’s bisexual, but shunned by her group of friends, the self-named Disco Dykes, who can’t forgive her for dating a boy. She has an eating disorder, but never weighs little enough to qualify as officially anorexic. She’s a dancer, but just tap these days, not ballet, because as a short, curvy, African American teen, she doesn’t seem to have the right look for ballet. She feels like she’s never enough—not gay enough, straight enough, sick enough, or healthy enough. More than anything, she just wants to get out of Nebraska and hopes auditioning for the prestigious Brentwood arts high school will be her ticket to New York. A rehearsal group introduces her to Bianca, a quiet (and extremely sick) 14 year old from her eating disorder support group. Together, they prepare for the auditions and form a surprising friendship, one that embraces flaws, transcends identities, and is rooted in genuine caring. Moskowitz masterfully negotiates all of the issues, never letting them overwhelm the story, and shows the intersectionality of the many aspects of Etta’s identity. The characters here are imperfect and complicated, but ultimately hopeful. Moskowitz addresses issues like biphobia, race, class, privilege, friendship, and bullying in ways that feel organic to the story. Etta’s candid and vulnerable narrative voice will immediately draw in readers, making them root for her as she strives to embrace her identity free from labels and expectations.