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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: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Publisher’s description

inexplicableFrom the multi-award-winning author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe comes a gorgeous new story about love, identity, and families lost and found.

Sal used to know his place with his adoptive gay father, their loving Mexican-American family, and his best friend, Samantha. But it’s senior year, and suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and realizing he no longer knows himself. If Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

This humor-infused, warmly humane look at universal questions of belonging is a triumph.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Because I read in order of publication date (the only way I can manage my towering TBR pile), there are certain books that sit on my shelf for MONTHS and kind of taunt me from their spot. This is one such book. Given my absolute adoration of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, my expectations for this book were high. And I was not let down.

 

I am a big fan of quiet books. Give me good dialogue and interesting characters and I’m in. I don’t need a big plot. I don’t need big things to happen. To me, there is nothing more compelling or more of a “big thing” than just teenagers living their teenage lives–figuring out who they are, changing, finding their people, hurting, loving, and growing. That’s plenty. That’s everything. And for 450 pages, I was so wrapped up in the lives of Sal, Sam, Fito, and their families. Sal and Sam have been best friends forever. It’s never been romantic between them; they’ve always been like brother and sister. Sam knows Sal better than anyone. But lately, Sal feels like he’s changing. He’s developed a quick temper that manifests when he’s righteously angry and trying to protect those he loves. For the first time ever, he’s lashing out and getting in fights. He starts to wonder about his biological dad—maybe he was angry and a fighter. Maybe Sal is acting like him. But his wonderful father, Vicente, is calm and loving and open. Sal wonders about nature versus nurture. He wonders who is he really like. He wonders who he really is. His Mima, his father’s mom, is dying. Heartbroken that he’s about to lose someone he loves so dearly, Sal also ruminates on life, death, and everything that comes in between. Sam is a steadying force by his side, but she has her own terrible things going on. The pair take Fito, a gay classmate who’s had to survive on his own for a long time, into their fold, and together the three lean on each other and on Sal’s dad (and eventually on Vicente’s new boyfriend) while they redefine what “family” means.

 

Beautifully written and told, this is an unforgettable look at life, love, loss, grief, friendship, and family. Vicente may win the award for Best Parent in a YA Book 2017. The friendship between Sal, Sam, and Fito is profoundly moving and rich. Fans of Aristotle and Dante who are eagerly awaiting the sequel will be happy to have another wonderful work from Sáenz to tide them over. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544586505

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 03/07/2017

Book Review: At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description

at-the-edgeFrom the author of We Are the Ants and The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes the heartbreaking story of a boy who believes the universe is slowly shrinking as things he remembers are being erased from others’ memories.

Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since the second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.

More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.

Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon he suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.

When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.

But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy—that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as it takes to get his boyfriend back.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s a well-established fact that I love everything Shaun David Hutchinson writes. I make myself read through my TBR pile in order of publication date, or I’d never be able to keep any kind of handle on it, but knowing this book was sitting there for months was taunting me. I burned through this and when I was done, all I could think about was how jealous I was of all the grad students who will enjoy sitting down to write long papers on the common ideas and symbols in Hutchinson’s brilliant books.

 

Ozzie’s boyfriend Tommy disappeared a few months ago. He didn’t run away—he literally disappeared. No one has any memory of him. But Ozzie remembers everything. He’s determined to wait for Tommy to reappear, even if that means giving up his future to stick around in his small hometown. He’d search for him, but most of Ozzie’s theories about where Tommy went involve quantum physics, so it seems dauntingly impossible to even begin to look for him. Then there’s the whole issue of the universe shrinking. Stars, the sun, the moon—they all disappear. The land beyond Florida disappears. Eventually, everything beyond Ozzie’s small town disappears. No one but Ozzie notices. They can’t. They have no memory of there ever being anything different—no memory of stars, or other states, or space exploration. History rewrites itself to adjust for all these changes. It’s terrifying and depressing. Any chance Ozzie had a creating a life beyond his tiny town is disappearing. Imagine being a teenager whose life has shrunk down to just his high school and the people in his town. Terrifying, indeed.

 

Of course, life goes on, despite these outrageous changes. Despite the many changes in the universe, nothing seems to change the fact that Ozzie’s parents are getting divorced. Or that his brother, Warren, is joining the Army. While he tries to figure out what is happening, Ozzie still hangs out with Lua, his genderfluid rock-star-in-the-making best friend (who goes by whatever pronoun best fits how she is dressed for the day). He still has work at the bookstore (where he repeatedly interacts with Tommy’s mother, who of course has no memory of there ever being a Tommy). Ozzie still has school, where he gets paired up for a project with Calvin, a mysterious and depressed classmate who used to be the king of everything at school. As Ozzie gets to know Calvin, he becomes the keeper of Calvin’s dark secrets and grapples with what to do with this information.

 

Once again, Hutchinson has created an incredibly smart, weird, complex, and deeply affecting look at teenage lives. While they might not spend nearly as much time as Ozzie thinking about quantum physics, most teenagers will be able to relate to the fear and uncertainty that comes with facing a changing and unpredictable future, as well as the claustrophobia of feeling like you have no choices. A mind-bendingly fantastic examination of life, loss, risk, and perception.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481449663

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 02/07/2017

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: Draw the Line by Laurent Linn

Publisher’s description

draw the lineAfter a hate crime occurs in his small Texas town, Adrian Piper must discover his own power, decide how to use it, and know where to draw the line in this stunning debut novel exquisitely illustrated by the author.

Adrian Piper is used to blending into the background. He may be a talented artist, a sci-fi geek, and gay, but at his Texas high school those traits would only bring him the worst kind of attention.

In fact, the only place he feels free to express himself is at his drawing table, crafting a secret world through his own Renaissance-art-inspired superhero, Graphite.

But in real life, when a shocking hate crime flips his world upside down, Adrian must decide what kind of person he wants to be. Maybe it’s time to not be so invisible after all—no matter how dangerous the risk.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

About 3/4 of the way through this book, Adrian says, “I’m not going to let people put me in some stupid category anymore, be a blank canvas for them to put on me whatever they think I am or want me to be. I’m going to show them who I really am.” (Am I the only one who immediately thinks of Cameron’s similar speech in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? “I’m not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”) And he does. Adrian spends a lot of the story working himself up to this point where he feels like he has to not only reveal his real self but start standing up for himself and for others.

 

When we first meet Adrian, he’s anonymously publishing an online comic about gay superhero Graphite. He’s gay but not out to anyone but his two best friends, Trent and Audrey. He tries to steer clear of the school bullies, Doug and Buddy, who are constantly spewing homophobic slurs. When he witnesses Doug assault Kobe Saito, the school’s only out gay kid, he’s forced to stop hiding and being anonymous. He isn’t sure what he can possibly do to help, though. Doug’s dad is the sheriff and the cops aren’t interested in what the truth is—clearly Doug was provoked, according to them, and it was self-defense. The administration at school is just as unhelpful. Audrey urges Adrian to speak out about this, make a big deal about what happened, seek out justice. Trent thinks Adrian should just lie low so he doesn’t end up getting beaten unconscious too. Adrian doesn’t know what he can really do—but he’s starting to realize he needs to do something. When he begins dating a classmate (who he never even guessed was gay, much less into him), Adrian starts to feel a little more comfortable in his skin and begins to take his stand. Through his artwork, he sends the message that it’s okay to stand up and speak out. To his surprise, Adrian learns that not everything is as cut and dry as Doug just being a horrible bully. He goes from thinking about revenge to thinking about how villains can turn into heroes, maybe. He continues to use his art to push his message and seek change. Why destroy when you can create?

 

Peppered with pages from Adrian’s comic, this is a powerful story about discovering who you are and standing up for what’s right. The heart of the story centers on a hate crime, but there’s also a lot more going on. There’s a really sweet romance, interesting friendship dynamics, and family issues. Through a local LGBT center and his new boyfriend, Adrian begins to find more of a community and make more friends at school. Well-written and engaging, this is an important addition to all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481452809

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Publication date: 05/17/2016

Book Review: True Letters from a Fictional Life by Kenneth Logan

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 May 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

true lettersGr 9 Up—Seventeen-year-old James reveals his true self only in letters he keeps locked away and never intends to send. As far as everyone knows, popular athlete James is happy with his sort-of girlfriend, Theresa. But James’s letters tell a different story: James is pretty sure he is gay. The only problem is that he is surrounded by people who seem like they might not react well to that news. His friends frequently use homophobic slurs, and his parents say things like they are glad he is “normal,” not like his gay classmate who had his skull cracked recently. James meets Topher, whom he secretly starts dating, and considers coming out to his friends and family. But before he can, someone steals some of his letters and starts the process for him. Logan shines at creating strong, nuanced characters who behave realistically and unpredictably. Despite their tendency to trash-talk and their reliance on horrible slurs, James and his friends have deep, meaningful, complex bonds. The protagonist’s story is about struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. While he knows who he really is, he is uncomfortable with facing this. In a letter to God, James asks him for “a cure for boys who like other boys.” Though readers may be turned off by the near-constant homophobia that permeates the story, Logan’s look at a boy reconciling his private and public selves is well written and affecting. VERDICT: A solid addition to the LGBTQIA+ field.

 

ISBN-13: 9780062380258

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 06/07/2016

Book Review: Jerkbait by Mia Siegert

Publisher’s description

jerkbaitEven though they’re identical, Tristan isn’t close to his twin Robbie at all—until Robbie tries to kill himself. Forced to share a room to prevent Robbie from hurting himself, the brothers begin to feel the weight of each other’s lives on the ice, and off. Tristan starts seeing his twin not as a hockey star whose shadow Tristan can’t escape, but a struggling gay teen terrified about coming out in the professional sports world.

Robbie’s future in the NHL is plagued by anxiety and the mounting pressure from their dad, coach, and scouts, while Tristan desperately fights to create his own future, not as a hockey player but a musical theatre performer. As their season progresses and friends turn out to be enemies, Robbie finds solace in an online stranger known only as “Jimmy2416.” Between keeping Robbie’s secret and saving him from taking his life, Tristan is given the final call: sacrifice his dream for a brother he barely knows, or pursue his own path.

How far is Robbie willing to go—and more importantly, how far is Tristan willing to go to help him?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I overuse the phrase “rage blackout.” I’m sure I’ve claimed that 2/3 of all things in existence have given me a rage blackout. I’m easily annoyed. BUT. BUT. This book gave me a rage blackout. The parents are AWFUL. The way Robbie’s teammates treat him is AWFUL. And did I mention that the parents are AWFUL? Because they are. But we’ll talk about them later.

 

Tristan has always felt like he’s lived in Robbie’s shadow. Though they both play hockey (and their former hockey player father is their manager), Robbie’s the star, the one who will be drafted and go on to a huge career. But not if it gets out that he’s depressed. That he’s tried to kill himself three times. That he’s gay. At least, according to their monster of a father. All of that is bad press for Robbie, so the obvious thing to do is cover it up, not address any of the very serious issues, and focus on that goal: getting drafted. Sure. Great parenting. Your kid will be fine. You’re doing a good job. 

 

(You can come join me in my rage blackout—it’s kind of satisfying to get so mad.)

 

I could yell for paragraphs about their cruddy parenting and extreme denial, but I won’t. You get the idea already, I’m sure, that they suck. They pull him from the hospital early after attempt number one so he doesn’t miss a hockey game. They cover up the truth with lies, don’t do anything to help Robbie, and basically blame Tristan for what’s going on with Robbie AND make him responsible for watching over him to prevent future issues. Tristan, who quits hockey after some epic homophobic bullying, just wants to focus on his burgeoning theater career. He loves theater, has a knack for singing, dancing, and acting, and wants to grab the opportunities in front of him. But that’s hard to do when you’re supposed to be keeping your depressed wreck of a brother from committing suicide. Things become even more complicated and convoluted when Tristan learns Robbie is gay. Robbie is terrified of what coming out will mean for his life and his career—but not so terrified that he doesn’t out himself in an effort to save Tristan from some bullying. His teammates react just as terribly as you can possibly imagine. And when his parents find out? It’s a nightmare.

 

There’s a lot to talk about with this book. Siegert is tackling big topics: teenage sports careers; being not just a closeted gay teen but a closeted gay teen athlete; sibling/twin relationships; depression and suicide attempts; crappy parents; crappy friendships; homophobia; stigma with mental illness, and so much more. Plus, the book takes a big twist near the end when Robbie gets the brilliant idea that the answer to all of their problems is running away to go stay with this older dude he met online. That never turns out well, does it? And in this case, it REALLY, REALLY goes badly. Though it ends on a hopeful note, this is not a light read at all. It’s pretty much the worst case scenario for all things with the exception of the way Robbie and Tristan grow closer and more supportive of each other. It’s a dark, upsetting, frustrating, painful look at the pressure on teen athletes, at what happens when mental illness is ignored and untreated, and at how horribly scary coming out can be, especially for teens whose parents are hateful and unsupportive. Bleak but powerful. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781631630668

Publisher: Jolly Fish Press

Publication date: 05/03/2016