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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: That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston

Publisher’s description

ra6Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendent of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history. The imperial tradition of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage. But before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer of freedom and privacy in a far corner of empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved not by the cost of blood and theft but by the effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

that inevitableEvery so often a book will come along that I read and want to review to help promote it, but all I really want to say is “SO GOOD. GO READ IT.” Usually that’s because there is so much that happens in the plot and so many revelations and I don’t want to spoil anything—I just want to direct people to the book so we can freak out together.

THAT INEVITABLE VICTORIAN THING IS SO GOOD. GO READ IT.

Okay. I’ll attempt to do better than that.

Like history? Like alternative histories? Set in the near future? That feature multiethnic and LGBTQIA+ characters? Then this book is for you. I will admit that it took me a good 50 pages to really get into the story. The slow start was, for me, mostly just figuring out and remembering who the characters were, what their relationships were to each other, and what this new version of the world looked like. The story really picks up as it goes on, and about 1/3 of the way through, a detail is revealed that makes every relationship in the story all the more interesting.

If you’ve ever read any of other Johnston’s other books, you know she excels at world-building and at crafting dynamic characters, and this book is no exception to that. Margaret, Helena, and August are complicated people trying to figure out their path forward while realizing they all need to reevaluate their futures as events of this monumental summer unfold. And while the interplay and movement of various relationships satisfy, it is the relationship between Margaret and Helena that truly shines.

If you don’t want to know anything more about this book because you plan to read it, this is a good time to stop reading this review, particularly if don’t want to know more about the main relationships in the book.

 

Still here? Hi.

 

When Helena logs in to the Computer to find out more about her genetics and her matches, she sees a detail, previously unknown to her, that stops her in her tracks: Helena has XY chromosomes. She’s not immediately sure exactly what this means, but she does think that perhaps this may change things with August, who she has always planned to marry, knowing he wants a big family. Then there’s the fact that she’s chatting on the -gnet with someone—Helena has logged on as a boy (because of the XY thing; it is only later that she comes to know the term “intersex” and begins to understand herself better), calling herself Henry. The person she is chatting with, her genetic match, is also using an alias. She’s actually using multiple aliases.

Just when it seems like things could not get more convoluted, everything starts to fall into place. The characters begin to see the possibilities of their new paths, including a plan that may give all three main characters what they want in life.

 

This clever, smart, and romantic story is a fantastic exploration of identities, futures, and obligations. Readers who push through the somewhat slow start to the story will be swept up in this interesting near-future world and likely surprised by the resolution the three young adults settle on. Richly imagined and completely compelling. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

 

ISBN-13: 9781101994979
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 10/03/2017

What’s New in LGBTQIA+ YA September 2017

tltbutton7It’s time for another roundup for new and forthcoming YA (and sometimes not YA) books featuring LGBTQIA+ characters.  The titles I include in these roundups have LGBTQIA+ main characters as well as secondary characters (in some cases parents), as well as anthologies that include LGBTQIA+ stories. Know of a title I missed in this list? Or know of a forthcoming title that should be on my radar for an upcoming list? Leave a comment or tweet me @CiteSomething. This list covers September 2017 titles. Head over to this link for the previous post (August 2017 titles) in this series. All annotations here are via the publishers/Goodreads. I also have a 2017 master list that I’m always working on. I’m happy to send you the list if you’re interested. Tweet at me or email me to request the list. I’m amanda DOT macgregor AT gmail DOT com.

 

Looking for more information on LGBTQIA+ books or resources? Check out the hashtag here on TLT and go visit Gay YA and LGBTQ Reads, two phenomenal resources. 

 

September 2017

they bothThey Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (ISBN-13: 9780062457790 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/05/2017)

New 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 Timescalled “profound.”

 

 

hoofprintsNew Hoofprints in the Snow by A.M. Burns, K.T. Spence (ISBN-13: 9781635337082 Publisher: Dreamspinner Press Publication date: 09/05/2017)

Can giving up one friend lead to the discovery of an even deeper bond?

Maia’s horse, Selena, is her best friend. Unfortunately, when Maia’s brother suffers a serious accident, an already strained financial situation reaches the breaking point, and the family simply can’t care for Selena. The horse will have to go to a rescue center. It’s there that Maia meets Emma, whose mother owns the center. Emma understands Maia’s attachment to Selena, and the two girls spend time together caring for the animals on the ranch and riding. Emma even thinks she knows a way to help Maia’s brother deal with his handicap. They become fast friends—but when Emma confesses that she would like to be more, Maia isn’t sure she can fly in the face of family expectations. Even if she’s attracted to Emma, she’s been raised with marriage and children in mind. And since Emma isn’t the only one interested in Maia, Maia has a difficult decision to make. Who does she want to ride off into the sunset with?

 

 

girls made ofGirls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust (ISBN-13: 9781250077738 Publisher: Flatiron Books Publication date: 09/05/2017)

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything—unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

 

 

feralFeral Youth by Shaun David Hutchinson, Suzanne Young, Marieke Nijkamp, Robin Talley, Stephanie Kuehn, E. C. Myers, Tim Floreen, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Justina Ireland, Brandy Colbert (ISBN-13: 9781481491112 Publisher: Simon Pulse Publication date: 09/05/2017)

Ten teens are left alone in the wilderness during a three-day survival test in this multi-authored novel edited by award-winning author Shaun David Hutchinson.

At Zeppelin Bend, an outdoor-education program designed to teach troubled youth the value of hard work, cooperation, and compassion, ten teens are left alone in the wild. The teens are a diverse group who come all walks of life, and were all sent to Zeppelin Bend as a last chance to get them to turn their lives around. They’ve just spent nearly two weeks hiking, working, learning to survive in the wilderness, and now their instructors have dropped them off eighteen miles from camp with no food, no water, and only their packs, and they’ll have to struggle to overcome their vast differences if they hope to survive.

Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, the characters in Feral Youth, each complex and damaged in their own ways, are enticed to tell a story (or two) with the promise of a cash prize. The stories range from noir-inspired revenge tales to mythological stories of fierce heroines and angry gods. And while few of the stories are claimed to be based in truth, they ultimately reveal more about the teller than the truth ever could.

 

 

alan coleAlan Cole Is Not a Coward by Eric Bell (ISBN-13: 9780062567024 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/05/2017)

Perfect for fans of Tim Federle and Gary Schmidt, this is a hilarious and poignant tale about the trials of middle school when you’re coming of age—and coming out.

Alan Cole can’t stand up to his cruel brother, Nathan. He can’t escape the wrath of his demanding father, who thinks he’s about as exceptional as a goldfish. And—scariest of all—he can’t let the cute boy across the cafeteria know he has a crush on him.

But when Nathan discovers Alan’s secret, his older brother announces a high-stakes round of Cole vs. Cole. Each brother must complete seven nearly impossible tasks; whoever finishes the most wins the game. If Alan doesn’t want to be outed to all of Evergreen Middle School, he’s got to become the most well-known kid in school, get his first kiss, and stand up to Dad. Alan’s determined to prove—to Nathan, to the world, to himself—that this goldfish can learn to swim.

May the best Cole win.

 

 

spinningSpinning by Tillie Walden (ISBN-13: 9781626729407 Publisher: First Second Publication date: 09/12/2017)

Ignatz Award winner Tillie Walden’s powerful graphic memoir captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.

It was the same every morning. Wake up, grab the ice skates, and head to the rink while the world was still dark.

Weekends were spent in glitter and tights at competitions. Perform. Smile. And do it again.

She was good. She won. And she hated it.

For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden’s life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. Skating was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she’d outgrown her passion—and she finally needed to find her own voice.

 

 

releaseRelease by Patrick Ness (ISBN-13: 9780062403193 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/19/2017)

Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this novel that Andrew Smith calls “beautiful, enchanting, [and] exquisitely written” is a new classic about teenage relationships, self-acceptance—and what happens when the walls we build start coming down.

Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.  At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

From the New York Times bestselling author of A Monster Calls comes a raw, darkly funny, and deeply affecting story about the courage it takes to live your truth.

 

 

beyond the talesBehind the Tales by Aurora Peppermint (ISBN-13: 978-1-63533-710-5 Publisher: Harmony Ink Publication date: 09/19/2017)

When a family consists of a mostly reformed thief, a dragon struggling to control his transformations and destructive impulses, and a little girl so magickally skilled it’s literally scary, juggling personal problems with making a living is a constant struggle. Martus wants his boyfriend, Hal, and his sister, Elsaben, to be safe and happy, but providing for them is harder now that he’s trying to live honestly—and that means taking jobs where he finds them, even if the details don’t exactly add up.

Martus’s rich benefactor fears for her son, the celebrated adventurer Fitzy. He’s missing and possibly in danger—or he’s tired of living up to expectations and has snuck off to crawl into a bottle. Either way, Martus and Hal are being well paid to bring him back. Fitzy’s estranged sister, Mel, insists on coming along, and Martus understands wanting to protect a loved one. But is that the only reason Mel joins the quest?

As they track the missing hero, someone is tracking them. They must reach Fitzy first, and the terrible powers Elsaben and Hal hold back by fraying threads aren’t the only dangers closing in.

 

 

foxKaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell (ISBN-13: 9781481477673 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers Publication date: 09/19/2017)

Fox Benwell delivers a harrowing and beautifully written novel that explores the relationship between two girls obsessed with music, the practice of corrective rape, and the risks and power of using your voice.

Neo loves music, and all she ever wanted was a life sharing this passion, on the radio. When she meets Tale, the lead singer in a local South African band, their shared love of music grows. So does their love for each other. But not everyone approves. Then Neo lands her dream job of working at a popular radio station, and she discovers that using your voice is sometimes harder than expected, and there are always consequences.

Book Review: Release by Patrick Ness

Publisher’s description

ra6Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this novel that Andrew Smith calls “beautiful, enchanting, [and] exquisitely written” is a new classic about teenage relationships, self-acceptance—and what happens when the walls we build start coming down.

Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.  At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

From the New York Times bestselling author of A Monster Calls comes a raw, darkly funny, and deeply affecting story about the courage it takes to live your truth.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

releaseYou know one of my very favorite books of all time is The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, right? I loved the really strange setup of that book, and when I saw that this book does something similar(ish), I was psyched. Admittedly, this setup of two narratives that seemingly have very little to do with one another will not appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect that people who are only in it for the realistic main story will potentially skip over the shorter chapters that delve into the supernatural—though they would be remiss in making this choice.

In a dear reader letter at the beginning of this galley, Ness writes, “How do we ever, ever survive our teenage years? Every young person you meet is a walking, talking miracle.” I could not like this more. I agree with him SO HARD and think that the fact that he so obviously truly believes this sentiment is part of what makes him such a profoundly great writer. He understands those teenage years and isn’t afraid to show them in all their glory and horror. He doesn’t shy away from anything—not in any previous books, and certainly not in this new one.

The story here takes place in one day—one monumental, wonderful, awful day full of surprises both good and bad. Adam, nearly 18, lives in Frome, Washington. His dad is a minister and Adam considers himself completely under his dad’s Yoke while he still lives at home. Having homophobic, conservative parents means that Adam hides most of his true self from them. He’s gay and feels about one second away from them sending him to a conversion camp at any given point in time. But he has Angela, his very best friend, and Linus, his boyfriend whom he is trying really, really hard to give himself fully to (if only he could get over his lingering love for Enzo, his crappy ex-boyfriend). He also has a boss who sexually harasses him, a seemingly perfect older brother who is about to drop a shocking revelation on the family, and doesn’t know today is also the day he learns a secret from Angela that will throw him for a loop.

All of this is happening while the ghost of a local girl recently murdered by her meth-addicted boyfriend is carrying out her own part of the story, one that involves a giant fawn, visits to familiar places, confrontations, and an unexpected path to release. In anyone else’s hands, I would probably be left thinking, Um, okay, what is this doing here? But it’s Ness. He’s brilliant. He makes these dual but mostly unrelated narratives both work exceptionally well.

In my notes for this book, I noted a lot of passages and just wrote “YES!” or “I’m cheering!” or “OMG, I love Adam.” He is loved and supported (by his friends). He is vulnerable and feels undeserving of love. He is hurting but working through it. He is scared and confrontational. He contains multitudes. His relationship with Linus, sweet, patient, lovely Linus, is a thing of beauty. There is a lot of on the page sex and intimacy, which especially goes to prove the real difference between Linus and Enzo. There are wonderfully frank discussions of sex and sexuality between Adam and Angela, including a fantastic exchange about labels, fluidity, and the liberation that the right label can bring.

I read this book in one sitting. I didn’t want it to be over. It’s heartbreaking, beautiful, funny, odd, smart, and just truly stunning. This is easily one of my favorite reads so far in 2017. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062403193

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/19/2017

Book Review: A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

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 October 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

line in theA Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (ISBN-13: 9780735227422 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 10/17/2017)

Gr 9 Up—Friendship, romance, obsession, and crime all get tangled up in this complicated mystery about love and lies. Angie Redmond and Jess Wong are best friends, though Jess harbors a desperate and rather obvious crush on Angie. Their relationship becomes complicated when Angie begins to date Margot, a wealthy student at a nearby boarding school. Jess, a talented artist who creates a dark, supernatural comic about a love triangle, has her doubts about Margot, who seems cruel and controlling. Margot drives a wedge between Angie and Jess, but eventually, a murder brings them back together. As the police interview all three girls, the details of the night a student is killed highlight the tension among Angie, Jess, and Margot, but do not clearly point to who may have committed the crime. Just when it seems like the truth is coming to light, the story takes another turn, forcing readers to reassess everything they think they understand. Dark, twisty, and unsettling, this book almost begs to be read in one sitting, and then instantly reread. The pace picks up in the second part, with higher tension and uncertainty propelling the story forward quickly, encouraging teens to race to the whodunit conclusion. Though the final few chapters feel rushed, they provide a satisfying—and shocking—finale to this scandalous examination of jealousy, secrets, and untrustworthy characters. VERDICT A high-interest thriller with wide appeal recommended for all collections.

Book Review: Kaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell

Publisher’s description

ra6Fox Benwell delivers a harrowing and beautifully written novel that explores the relationship between two girls obsessed with music, the practice of corrective rape, and the risks and power of using your voice.

Neo loves music, and all she ever wanted was a life sharing this passion, on the radio. When she meets Tale, the lead singer in a local South African band, their shared love of music grows. So does their love for each other. But not everyone approves. Then Neo lands her dream job of working at a popular radio station, and she discovers that using your voice is sometimes harder than expected, and there are always consequences.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

foxHere is all I knew about this book going in: I like Fox. I like this cover. I know this book, at some point, deals with corrective rape. 

Neo lives in Khayelitsha, South Africa. She’s best friends with Janet, absolutely bonkers in love with music, and dreams of hosting her own radio program. When she goes to see Umzi Radio live at a local bar, she develops an enormous crush on Tale, the singer of one of the bands that night. She knows being in love with another girl is not something her family (or friends or community) will accept, but that doesn’t stop Neo and Tale from embarking on a lovely, passionate, and semi-secret relationship. Tale’s bandmates instantly become Neo’s friends, too, and for the first time in her life, Neo feels a real sense of acceptance and community. She starts to see a bigger world than she knew was possible for her. At one point she thinks, “There is so much more to life than school and work and dirty laundry. And I want it all.” She begins sneaking out to meet up with Tale. Her mother eventually installs a padlock on the door to try to stop her from going out (and working under the assumption that she is going out to hear music and meet up with a boy). As far as her parents are concerned, Neo’s life should be about school, grades, and good behavior. Loving music and dreaming of a life in radio is a waste of time. Her father works at the security desk  at the radio station and takes Neo along to try to prove some kind of point about the reality of working there. It backfires when Mr. Sid, the station owner, lets Neo have an unpaid internship there that eventually involves her having her own show. Though she’s had a falling out with Janet and her grades are rather terrible, everything else seems to be looking up for Neo. She’s blissfully happy with Tale, even if they can only hook up in the shadows and must hide their love. She’s terrified of being found out, but when she learns about Pride, she desperately wants to take part in the protest and celebration of the event. But her increasing boldness and determination to live her life in the open, and her message on the radio about being proud to sing your own song and loving who you love, land her in more trouble than she could have imagined. What follows is devastating, brutal, and heartbreaking.

This is a powerful, harrowing look at the desire to live an authentic life and the many ways taking that risk may be judged and punished. I am always banging on about wanting new stories, and I think this is the first YA story I’ve read that deals with corrective rape… and, I think, also the first YA book I’ve read set in South Africa (I feel like that can’t possibly be true, but I’m coming up with nothing). I felt like I was holding my breath this entire book. Benwell includes an author’s note addressing his privilege as a white Brit—how some elements of the story overlap with things from his own life and from the lives of those around him, but this is not his story. LGBTQIA+ resources are appended, too. Well-written and deeply affecting. Give this to readers who will be able to look past the bleakness and brutality to see the love and joy at the heart of the story. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481477673

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

Publication date: 09/19/2017

 

Book Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden

Publisher’s description

ra6Ignatz Award winner Tillie Walden’s powerful graphic memoir captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.

It was the same every morning. Wake up, grab the ice skates, and head to the rink while the world was still dark.

Weekends were spent in glitter and tights at competitions. Perform. Smile. And do it again.

She was good. She won. And she hated it.

For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden’s life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. Skating was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she’d outgrown her passion—and she finally needed to find her own voice.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

spinningThere are never enough stories about girls in sports, are there? Also, I don’t know that I’ve read any story where competitive ice skating is not just part of the story but almost all of the story. There are plenty of teens who are involved in very intense, competitive, high level sports, so this book is a nice addition to YA because it represents a life many teens lead (not necessarily ice skating, of course) but we don’t often see much of.

 

This graphic memoir follows Tillie from New Jersey to Texas, where she moves after fifth grade. She hopes to be able to escape the bullying and bad grades that plagued her in New Jersey, but Texas just provides more of the same. She feels like an outsider at the skating rink, too. She doesn’t bond with the other girls and she stands out because her parents never come to any of the competitions. Tillie is driven and wants to be the best, but she also doesn’t seem to actually really enjoy skating and mostly does it because it’s routine. She gets her first girlfriend, which briefly makes her feel like at least something in her life is satisfying, but that doesn’t last, and coming out to some of the people around her doesn’t go well, either. She looks to her coaches and teachers for the affection and attention she isn’t receiving, but eventually realizes that even that is not worth sticking with skating, and she quits the summer before her senior year in high school.

 

While the subject matter is appealing and unique and the illustrations really capture Tillie’s feelings, especially her loneliness and exhaustion, the overlong story suffers from uneven pacing. Some things that could use more exploring are just sort of skipped over, missing a real opportunity for adding depth to the story. This quiet look at the pressures of competitive sports and at feeling like an outsider will appeal to teens who connect with either of those storylines. The graphic format will catch the attention of readers who may not otherwise gravitate toward this story. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626729407

Publisher: First Second

Publication date: 09/12/2017

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

#FSYALit: From Rejection to Reconciliation: Changing Notions of Faith and Spirituality in LGBTQ YA, a guest post by Rob Bittner

faith and Spirituality“What I would love to see more of in Queer YA with Christian sub-plots is the ability of characters to reimagine their spirituality—their faith—in ways which incorporate gender and sexual identities, instead of feeling the need to abandon all religious and spiritual components of their identities.” –Rob Bittner

 

Back in 2015 (was that really two years ago already?) I wrote a piece for TLT exploring the role of religion and religious communities on the lives of queer teens in YA literature. In these last two years (though more like the last two months) I’ve been coming across a significant number of the texts that I had been hoping for in my last post. I wanted nuance, and I’m starting to see it. I wanted complexity, and it’s happening. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me! But first, let me go back and bit and plot how I got here and why I think this progress is so important.

 

I have been keeping an eye on books featuring queer characters in religious contexts for the last decade. When I was in my undergrad, I started on a directed study on books with LGBTQ content. My supervisor asked me about the direction in which I was hoping to go, and at the time I wasn’t entirely sure. Looking back at my own past and my history as a gay man within the Christian church, I wondered how, if at all, such experiences were being discussed in books for young readers. Keep in mind that only ten years ago, it was still difficult to find much in the way of LGBTQ literature for YA audiences, so trying to find religious representation within that limited subgenre felt at first like an impossible task. It certainly took a lot of effort to find materials, but I came across a few examples, and some from larger publishers, too. I discussed a number of these in more detail in my previous post. Here are some main points to refresh your memory:

 

  • Early LGBTQ YA tends to frame Christianity (or any major religion really) as the enemy, often in the form of a religious leader preaching fire and brimstone for any and all non-normative genders and sexualities (Nothing Pink, Desire Lines);
  • Queer teens often sent away to camps for degayification (Caught in the Crossfire, Thinking Straight, The Miseducation of Cameron Post);
  • Earlier narratives often include long and didactic passages with characters debating scripture in an effort to show which side is right (Nothing Pink, The God Box, Gravity);
  • The novels were basically able to be split into two categories: novels of reconciliation (characters are able to reconcile queerness and spirituality, though not very often), and novels of abandonment (characters have to abandon either their faith or their sexuality in order to survive, and this is the more common trope.)

 

After reading so many of these books, I started to feel as though I was just reading the same narrative multiple times with different characters at the center. It became quite frustrating. In a way, I started to avoid books with religious content if I knew about it beforehand. Recently, however, I started reviewing for a mainstream review journal, and they started to send me books with LGBTQ characters in religious contexts. I almost rolled my eyes, but I’m glad I didn’t. After reading the first book, Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens, I realized that the narrative wasn’t following my assumptions; the story was actively working against the tropes I noted above! In the last two years I’ve read a number of novels that I’d like to briefly talk about in terms of the ways that they reject stereotypes and normative tropes for the complexity and nuance I have been advocating for.

 

autoAutoboyography by Christina Lauren (due out in September 2017)—the combined pen name of authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings—follows once-openly bisexual Tanner Scott as he moves with his family from California to Utah, where he is asked by his parents to go back into the closet for a bit to avoid causing trouble. Tanner’s mother is an ex-Mormon and she is concerned about how Tanner being bisexual will affect his standing within the conservative community. Tanner himself is ready to coast through his senior year so he can leave for college and be himself once again. His plans, though, get interrupted when, in a writing seminar, he finds himself distracted by the seriously hot Sebastian. In the wake of this sudden infatuation, Tanner and Sebastian develop a relationship and are both placed in a precarious situation because Sebastian’s family is very much Mormon and very much opposed to non-normative sexuality. Though some of the descriptions of Sebastian’s family could be considered overly biased, I feel that the conversations around religion and sexuality between the main characters is ultimately hopeful. And the narrative also avoids use of scriptural debates, anti-gay preaching from the pulpit, and the use of a gay conversion camp within the overarching plot. I think it’s ultimately a novel that will provide food for thought for those who want something along the lines of Latter Days but without the stilted characters and the choppy plot.

 

georgiaAnother novel that uses the back-in-the-closet story, is Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown. In this novel, Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, until her father, a radio televangelist, moves her family from Atlanta to Rome, Georgia. Similar to Autoboyography, the new, more conservative setting leads Joanna’s father to ask her if she might be willing to go back in the closet, at least until his ministry has had a chance to grow and find a following; he doesn’t want her to rock the boat. As always happens, Jo meets a new girl at school and falls for her. She begins to wonder if she will be able to keep her promise to her father, or if the request itself was just plain wrong in the first place. The role of the televangelist father could have led to fire and brimstone preaching, but the narrative is refreshingly devoid of such a problematic trope. The novel is actually a lot more nuanced than the plot might initially suggest, and religion and sexuality are allowed to coexist without either being demonized or made out to be wrong. Along with this, Brown puts queer sex on the page, and she isn’t afraid to discuss sex and religion within a larger spiritual context, something which is entirely missing from so many books that contain both non-normative sexualities and faith and spirituality. Quite a refreshing read!

 

dress-codesPerhaps my favorite, though, is the aforementioned Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. Stevens herself was previously a pastor, and therefore has an insider knowledge that I think really helps to elevate her narrative. When reviewing the novel for Booklist back in July, I gave it a starred review because I felt that it was an exemplary text in what was previously a very small and problematic body of work on gender/sexual difference in YA with components of faith and spirituality. In Dress Codes, Billie McCaffrey—an artist, troublemaker, and the daughter of a preacher—finds herself at the center of a rather difficult situation after she and her friends accidentally burn down a section of their church. To make things worse, the Harvest Festival is coming up and one of the main supporters has just passed away, leaving the Festival in jeopardy. Billie has to find a way to keep her friends out of trouble while also performing community service, trying to save the Harvest Festival, and trying to explore her own gender and sexuality. Stevens builds characters with incredible depth and confronts expectations and assumptions of gender and sexuality head-on, but with delicacy and nuance. The representation of religion is one of compassion and a desire to build bridges rather than walls, giving teen readers the impression that reconciliation between religion and gender/sexual difference is indeed possible.

 

This brief glimpse at changes since my first post on the subject is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of all of the books released since 2015 that match the criteria, but rather to give a sample of the literature available and to show how representations have changed to be more inclusive, less didactic, more compassionate, and less polarizing. Other books such as Jeffrey Self’s A Very, Very Bad Thing (out in October) is a really interesting novel, but the obvious bias against evangelical Christianity is evident in the depiction of a number of characters and makes it easier for readers to demonize Christianity within the context of the novel. There is always room to grow and improve, but the last two years have shown me that sometimes change can happen more quickly than we sometimes think in children’s and YA publishing. I would love to hear of other examples that people have come across and recommendations from those who are also interested in this topic.

 

Meet Rob Bittner

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

 

Rob Bittner is an instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. He studies long-term trends in representation in YA fiction with LGBTQ content. You can find him on Twitter (@r_bittner) or his review blog, Sense and Sensibility and Stories (unquestionably-palatable.blogspot.com).