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Coming of Age and the Reality of Others, a guest post by Sara Zarr

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”

Iris Murdoch wrote those lines in her 1959 Chicago Review essay, “The Sublime and the Good.” Wherever I first encountered them, they immediately struck me as deeply insightful and true, and connected at the very root to the coming of age story in adolescent fiction. What better describes the process of growing up than “the discovery of reality”? And what is more challenging as we grow up and learn to really love others than accepting that their lives are as real for them as ours are for us? The quote retroactively strikes me as the thesis statement of all my novels, as the families at the center of my stories try and fail to love one another and themselves in the face of difficult truths.

In writing Goodbye from Nowhere–with the Murdoch quote in my pocket (and on an index card near my computer)–I approached this idea with more direct intention. The difficult truth for seventeen-year-old Kyle Baker is that his mother is having an affair, and his father knows, and both of them seem incapable of following a course of action that makes sense to Kyle or brings the family close to either a reconciliation or a breakup.

Kyle’s view of and love for his mother, in particular, are profoundly challenged by the choices she’s making in a reality that does not seem to accommodate him. He vacillates between experiencing her as the same caring mother he’s always had, and seeing her as the source of everything that is currently going wrong in his life.

Naturally, when we’re children, our parents or caretakers are at least part a projection of our needs. Whether we have great parents or acutely flawed ones, giving and receiving love to and from them is necessary for our actual and emotional survival. As we move through adolescence, we start to see our parents or caretakers as who they actually are–the good and the bad, whether they disappoint or come through, their foibles and fears. Even the recognition that they exist in their own lives when we’re not watching can be disorienting. Wow, my parents mysteriously go off to work or to the store or to friend’s houses and are actually the stars of their own lives just as I’m the star of mine?

When Kyle’s mother’s reality is no longer compatible with what Kyle wants from her, the effects spill over into his relationship with his girlfriend. Who, as it turns out, is also a real person with her own life and needs. When he botches that, he settles his projections onto Emily, his closest cousin. And guess what? Emily doesn’t exist only to be there for Kyle’s emotional support, either. Meanwhile, his grandparents have their own plans and dreams that may mean having to say goodbye to the beloved family farm.

One night in the old bunkhouse at Nowhere Farm, Emily tries to invite Kyle into a bigger reality and impress upon him that love is not about people acting and reacting in ways that are comfortable and predictable. “Let go,” she tells him of his wishes and hopes for his family. “Let go of what you thought it should be. And see what it is.”

This is no easy task, of course. Not for a seventeen year old and not for a twenty-five year old and not for a forty-nine year old. It never really stops–the work of letting go of our projections about who people are or who we think they should be, and instead loving the reality of them. Adolescence is where this work begins in earnest, and is at the very heart of what it means to come of age.

The work goes both ways, and in some coming of age stories it’s the parents or caretakers who are working on accept the reality of their teens and learning to love who their kids really are and not a parents’ dream of who they will be.

Is what we call “love” the experience of people being who we need them to be, and meeting our needs and expectations? Or is it accepting those closest to us in spite of their limitations and mistakes? Does the latter type of love have its limits and, if so, where are those limits? These aren’t questions that most adults I know have resolved, but we start becoming aware of them in our adolescent transition from childhood towards adulthood.

The context of Murdoch’s quote is an essay attempting to answer the question, “What is art?” She’s joining Tolstoy, Kant, and others in an ongoing conversation around this question, and for her, love and art and morality are all bound together in this issue of reality in a broader sense.

Personally, my allegiance in writing has always been to reality–which I don’t mean in a genre sense, as fantastical stories can have an allegiance to truth and realism can be false. What I mean is that I try to see things as they are and write about them from that clarity of vision. Murdoch writes, “We may fail to see the individual because we are completely enclosed in a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own. … Love [is] an exercise of the imagination.”

I want to use my imagination to get outside my own wishes and projections and not bend others (real people or my characters) to the will of my comfort, anxiety, or childish fantasies. Like Kyle in Goodbye from Nowhere, like everyone who wants to grow up, I have to press against the ways I wish people (and life, and stories) would just be who and what we want them to be instead of who and what they are.

It’s all rich fodder for stories and for discussions about stories, and a theme I find myself returning to again and again in my work and in my self.

Meet Sara Zarr

Photo credit: Cat Palmer

Sara Zarr is the author of seven acclaimed novels for young adults, most recently Goodbye from Nowhere (April 2020). She has been a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner and is on faculty for the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Sara lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and online at sarazarr.com.

Sara’s local indie bookstore is The King’s English in Salt Lake City, UT.

Social links:

– twitter.com/sarazarrbooks

– instagram.com/sarazarrbooks

– facebook.com/sarazarrbooks

About Goodbye From Nowhere by Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr, author of the National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl, returns with an intimate, exquisitely crafted novel of the courage it takes to see those we love for who they are.

Kyle Baker thought his family was happy. Happy enough, anyway. That’s why, when Kyle learns that his mother has been having an affair and his father has been living with the secret, his reality is altered.

He quits baseball, ghosts his girlfriend, and generally checks out of life as he’s known it. With his older sisters out of the house and friends who don’t get it, the only person he can talk to is his cousin Emily—who is always there on the other end of his texts but still has her own life, hours away.

Kyle’s parents want him to keep the secret of his mother’s affair from the rest of the family until after what might be their last big summer reunion. As Kyle watches the effects of his parents’ choices ripple out over friends, family, and strangers, and he feels the walls of his relationships closing in, he has to decide what his obligations are to everyone he cares for—including himself.

ISBN-13: 9780062434685
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Frankly in Love by David Yoon

Publisher’s description

Two friends. One fake dating scheme. What could possibly go wrong?

Frank Li has two names. There’s Frank Li, his American name. Then there’s Sung-Min Li, his Korean name. No one uses his Korean name, not even his parents. Frank barely speaks any Korean. He was born and raised in Southern California.

Even so, his parents still expect him to end up with a nice Korean girl—which is a problem, since Frank is finally dating the girl of his dreams: Brit Means. Brit, who is funny and nerdy just like him. Brit, who makes him laugh like no one else. Brit . . . who is white.

As Frank falls in love for the very first time, he’s forced to confront the fact that while his parents sacrificed everything to raise him in the land of opportunity, their traditional expectations don’t leave a lot of room for him to be a regular American teen. Desperate to be with Brit without his parents finding out, Frank turns to family friend Joy Song, who is in a similar bind. Together, they come up with a plan to help each other and keep their parents off their backs. Frank thinks he’s found the solution to all his problems, but when life throws him a curveball, he’s left wondering whether he ever really knew anything about love—or himself—at all.

In this moving debut novel—featuring striking blue stained edges and beautiful original endpaper art by the author—David Yoon takes on the question of who am I? with a result that is humorous, heartfelt, and ultimately unforgettable.

Amanda’s thoughts

Easily one of my top ten reads this year. EASILY. You know how many books I read a year? A few hundred. Eventually, many of them blur into fuzziness—I can’t remember plots or characters or (gulp) sometimes even that I read them at all. A long time ago, working at The Children’s Book Shop while I was in graduate school, my boss scolded me. “Don’t bolt your food!” she told me, watching me devour book after book. I can’t help it—I hardly stop to actually enjoy the writing, so desperate to consume the story. I usually hardly take a breath in between finishing one book and starting the next. But with this book? I read slowly. I let myself NOT read anything the rest of the day after I finished it. And I definitely will not be forgetting plot details or characters. This book is GOOD.

Korean-American Frank isn’t sure where he’s supposed to fit in. The child of immigrants, he always feels like he’s not Korean enough, but he’s not fully American. He loves his parents, who are complicated people. He fully admits they’re racist (and have essentially let their daughter, whose husband is black, walk out of their lives because of this). His best friend, Q, is black, and while he feels totally at home at Q’s house, he rarely has him over. He knows when he eventually finds a girlfriend, she should probably be Korean-American, just to make everything easier. Falling for white Brit means lots of deception. When he begins fake dating his Korean-American friend Joy, as a cover, we can see what may happen, but we can’t predict all of the twists and turns that will come with both his real relationship and his fake one.

While this is a love story, it’s also about so much more. Frank spends an awful lot of time thinking about race and where he fits. He talks with his friends about this. He travels in various circles—the AP kids (the Apeys), the Gathering kids—and fits everywhere and nowhere. He is always learning, rethinking, growing. At one point he thinks, “People who let themselves learn new things are the best kind of people.” Mine, too, Frank. When he starts to date Brit, he eventually realizes that he will always be holding her at a distance because he isn’t being his real self with her (whoever his real self is). But dating Joy turns out to be just as complicated when he begins to see all the gaps in life–gaps in time, in generations, in class, in upbringing, in experience. He’s trying to figure out what labels are for him, or if labels are even helpful, which is not an easy task.

I absolutely loved this book. It’s smart, funny, sweet, sad, cute, and thoughtful in all the best ways. I totally admit that if I start a book that’s more than 250 pages or so, I think, ugh—I bet it won’t need to be so long, mostly just because I want to race through it and onto the next book on my list. At 432 pages, I was wary. But you know what? Every single page needs to exist. I wanted more. The ending is perfect and satisfying, but I wanted more. One last thing: I am an easy crier. I cry at books all the time. If we could play back a reel of my life so far, we could clip together like an entire hour of my son just looking at me in exasperation, saying, “Oh my god—are you crying? Are you crying again? Are you still crying? WHY ARE YOU CRYING SO MUCH?” I am not, however, an easy laugh. It’s the rare book that makes me literally laugh out loud or smile into its pages. This book managed that trick many times. I love how Frank and his friends talk, how they relate, how they support each other. I just love them. I hope you’ll go grab this book and love them too. An utter delight.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781984812209
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/10/2019

Book Review: Love from A to Z by S. K. Ali

Publisher’s description

love fromFrom William C. Morris Award Finalist S.K. Ali comes an unforgettable romance that is part The Sun Is Also a Star mixed with Anna and the French Kiss, following two Muslim teens who meet during a spring break trip.

A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break.

Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister.

Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

First thing first: this is easily in my top five for books I’ve read so far in 2019. EASILY.

 

Second thing, well, second: I am in the very fortunate position to receive a ton of books to consider for review. And while I am so grateful to get them, look through them, tweet about them, include them in posts for collection development, and read them, there is just no way I can actually read most of them for review here unless I quit my job to be a stay-at-home dog mom and then do nothing but read (hmm…). So I sort through options and almost always choose something that I already assume I will like (because of the content or the author’s previous work or the genre or a particular issue). I don’t “have” to review anything and certainly don’t want to waste my time reviewing something that isn’t good or doesn’t hold my attention—unless I find it so problematic or concerning that I want to review it to warn people away from bad rep etc. Alllll of that is to say I went in assuming I would like this book and it totally blew my expectations out of the water. And what a joy when you think you’ll love something and get to find out that you LOVE it.

 

Am I just going to gush at you for multiple paragraphs? Maybe. I save my academic review writing for SLJ. Here at TLT, I get to be conversational and less professional and GUSH. So yeah, my notes include things like “I’M IN” and “I am so here for this!” and hearts and exclamation points.

 

The summary up there is really thorough. It captures the plot points really well, but does nothing to capture the real spirit of the story or the characters. All it took was the first few pages, meeting both Adam Chen and Zayneb Malik and seeing their marvels and oddities journals, and I was swept up into the story. I scratched the rest of my to-do list for the day and just read this book straight through. There is so much heart to this book, whether with family or friends or support or passions or convictions. It is full of strong feelings, of passionate convictions, and of complicated characters who don’t always do or say the right thing, but make choices for logical and important reasons. This book is about love, family, and the changes and challenges life throws at us. It’s also about Islamophobia, justice, peace, activism, social justice, civilian casualties of war, righteous anger, and being Muslim. It is SO MUCH about being Muslim. Zayneb was raised Muslim from the start and Adam converted, along with his father, a handful of years ago. Zayneb’s father is from Pakistan and her mother (who also converted) is Guyanese and Trinidadian. Adam is Canadian by way of China and Finland.

 

There was so much in this book that either I was cheering for (Zayneb repeatedly calling people out for their racism, Islamophobia, white feminism, and cultural appropriation) or marveling (sorry) over (have I read a book set in Qatar before? Have I read a book where there are characters who converted to Islam before?). Despite their bumps along the road, it’s so clear to the reader that Adam and Zayneb were meant to meet and be in each other’s lives. For very different reasons, they both feel so alone, but find more connections than just each other. This is a beautiful, complex, and important book. I hope that all libraries will get this on their shelves and on display. A wonderful story that centers the Muslim experience and shows the power of anger, peace, and connection. 

 

 

Review copy (e-ARC) courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534442726
Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 04/30/2019

Book Review: Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne

Publisher’s description

night music2Music has always been Ruby’s first love. But has it ever loved her back?
Slip behind the scenes of the classical music world one hot, anything-can-happen, New York City summer.

Ruby has always been Ruby Chertok: future classical pianist and daughter of renowned composer Martin Chertok. But after her horrendous audition for the prestigious music school where her father is on faculty, it’s clear that music has publicly dumped her. Now Ruby is suddenly just . . . Ruby. And who is that again? All she knows is that she wants away from the world of classical music for good.

Oscar is a wunderkind, a musical genius. Just ask any of the 1.8 million people who’ve watched him conduct on YouTube—or hey, just ask Oscar. But while he might be the type who’d name himself when asked about his favorite composer and somehow make you love him more for it, Oscar is not the type to jeopardize his chance to study under the great Martin Chertok—not for a crush. He’s all too aware of how the ultra-privileged world of classical music might interpret a black guy like him falling for his benefactor’s white daughter.

But as the New York City summer heats up, so does the spark between Ruby and Oscar. Soon their connection crackles with the same alive, uncontainable energy as the city itself. Can two people still figuring themselves out figure out how to be together? Or will the world make the choice for them?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

My first note for this book was “Ack! This book is SO LOVELY immediately.” That’s pretty much how I felt throughout the read. Later I wrote, “Their banter! I love them!” I’m old. My reading tastes haven’t really ever changed and probably won’t ever. I like realistic stories with strong characters, good banter, and lots of emotions. This book hits all three.

 

Oscar has all the reasons in the world right now to be egotistical and insufferable. He’s a composer and conductor whose YouTube video went super viral. The music world is treating him like a genius superstar. He’s spending his summer training with one of the greatest living composers, Martin Chertok.

 

Ruby Chertok comes from a family of talented, famous classical musicians. Until recently, she thought this was her path too, until a less than stellar audition at her father’s school makes her break up with music. She needs to distance herself from that world, from her famous last name.

 

So when Ruby and Oscar meet, neither of them are looking for a relationship. Oscar is supposed to be completely focused on composing and the last person Ruby needs to get involved with is a musical protege studying under her father. But, of course, life makes its own course. With their attraction rather immediate, we know they will get together before too long, but both have so much else going on that they need to deal with. First love is great, but it’s hard to juggle that enormous thing with Oscar’s sudden fame/career and Ruby’s complete fixation on what on earth she will do with her life if not be a classical musician. She hopes to spend the summer figuring out her life (an ambitious summer project when you’re 17). Does she even have the option to travel her own path? Her whole life has been music. Now, without her, she needs to find other ways to fill her days—she takes up running, reconnects with an old friend, hangs out like a regular teenager, and, of course, falls for Oscar. Their relationship is beautiful and intense and profound, but it’s not without its issues. Both could come off looking like opportunists here. And dating Oscar certainly ropes Ruby further into the world of classical music, not exactly giving her the distance she expected this summer. And if she’s Oscar’s muse and his girlfriend, will this get in the way of forming her own new identity? 

 

There’s a lot more going on, too, that starts to come to light as the story unfolds, including financial questions about the music school and a push for the school to sell its “diversity” with Oscar as the face of that. But how genuine is their commitment to diversity? And why are their rewriting Oscar as some poor kid from the rough streets of DC instead of who he really is—an affluent kid from the suburbs?

 

This look at pressures, identity, first love, and the desire to be seen is heartfelt and moving. This great romance with a lot of depth is an easy one to recommend widely to fans of contemporary YA. 

 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735228771
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/19/2019

Book Review: Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Publisher’s description

our yearFrom the author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone comes a stunning contemporary novel that examines the complicated aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends.

Aspiring choreographer Sophie Orenstein would do anything for Peter Rosenthal-Porter, who’s been on the kidney transplant list as long as she’s known him. Peter, a gifted pianist, is everything to Sophie: best friend, musical collaborator, secret crush. When she learns she’s a match, donating a kidney is an easy, obvious choice. She can’t help wondering if after the transplant, he’ll love her back the way she’s always wanted.

But Peter’s life post-transplant isn’t what either of them expected. Though he once had feelings for Sophie, too, he’s now drawn to Chase, the guitarist in a band that happens to be looking for a keyboardist. And while neglected parts of Sophie’s world are calling to her—dance opportunities, new friends, a sister and niece she barely knows—she longs for a now-distant Peter more than ever, growing increasingly bitter he doesn’t seem to feel the same connection.

Peter fears he’ll forever be indebted to her. Sophie isn’t sure who she is without him. Then one heartbreaking night twists their relationship into something neither of them recognizes, leading them to question their past, their future, and whether their friendship is even worth fighting for.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I am a character-driven reader who honestly doesn’t care if there’s much plot beyond watching characters live out their daily lives and all of the complexities that come with that. Because that’s PLENTY of plot. Hinge the story on one thing, let them talk and feel and grow a lot, and I’m good. Much like with Solomon’s first book, I absolutely loved this book. Do yourself a favor and go read You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone if you haven’t already. Really great.

 

The summary up there does an adequate job of hitting all the major parts of the story, but does nothing to convey how deeply complicated Peter and Sophie’s relationship is. That’s what this story is about—a lifelong friendship, love (in its many forms), growth, pain, joy, and possibilities. Sophie has spent most of her life ignoring all other social interaction in favor of always being with Peter, her homeschooled neighbor with kidney disease. Now 18, she’s able to donate a kidney to Peter, which she of course does. He’s her best friend, she’s in love with him (a fact he doesn’t know), and she thinks that this will make them closer than ever. But, of course, life rarely goes as we wish it to. After the transplant and recovery time, Peter is able to go back to attending public school, where he has new experiences and meets new people, including intriguing musician Chase, who invites Peter to join his band. There’s a spark there between them; Peter is bisexual and out to his parents but no one else (including Sophie). Peter knows he really loves Sophie, but maybe not in that way. So much of his hesitation and thoughts revolve around wondering how their friendship would survive if they dated and then split up. Sophie confesses how she feels and suggests they just give it a try, but Peter can’t do that.

 

So maybe that’s it. They just stay friends, Peter starts to date Chase, that’s the journey. But it’s not that simple. Peter’s life becomes complicated by beginning to think about exploring religion, by his newfound freedom, and by his new friendships and having a boyfriend. Sophie makes friends with some of the girls on the dance team and begins to start to consider a life not entirely based around Peter and his plans. She grows closer with her younger sister, who lives at home with her toddler, and watches her parents reconnect with Peter’s parents after years of distance. And then, when Chase tells Peter he has got to figure out all his stuff with Sophie, things collapse after something that seems like it might finally solidify them as a couple helps drive them apart and make feelings clear.

 

Readers who like really complex relationships and lots of wonderful, well-developed secondary characters (and warm, supportive, interesting families) will love this book. It’s emotional and complicated and thoughtful. The characters grow and change in ways that are both realistic and unexpected. Great writing, unique characters, and a vivid Seattle setting all make this book one not to miss. With wide appeal, this is an easy one to recommend to teens who love realistic fiction. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481497763
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 01/15/2019

Book Review: I Love This Part by Tillie Walden

Publisher’s description

Two girls in a small town in the USA kill time together as they try to get through their days at school.

They watch videos, share earbuds as they play each other songs and exchange their stories. In the process they form a deep connection and an unexpected relationship begins to develop.

In her follow up to the critically acclaimed The End of Summer, Tillie Walden tells the story of a small love that can make you feel like the biggest thing around, and how it’s possible to find another person who understands you when you thought no one could.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

love this partI was sent this by Avery Hill Publishing, in the UK. This is a hardcover rerelease of Walden’s 2015 book. It’s still available in the US in paperback and comes out in March in hardcover.

This book will take you all of five minutes to read, but the art is lovely and the brief story is heartbreaking. The little summary up there tells you all there is to know about the sparse story. While the narrative is spare, the expansive art, full of cities and outdoor landscapes and open spaces, contributes so much to the tone and feel of this short look at love and heartbreak. This is the kind of book that, for older readers, will make you think of breathtaking and devastating first love—how it encompassed everything, how every connection felt so significant, and how it could hurt like nothing you could imagine. Younger readers experiencing their first crush or heartbreak will see themselves reflected in this brief, beautiful look at love. Emotionally resonant despite its brevity. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781910395325
Publisher: Avery Hill Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2018

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: That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim

Publisher’s description

that-funny-thingThis young adult novel by Sheba Karim, author of Skunk Girl, is a funny and affecting coming-of-age story for fans of Jenny Han, Megan McCafferty, and Sara Farizan.

Shabnam Qureshi is facing a summer of loneliness and boredom until she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. Shabnam quickly finds herself in love, while her former best friend, Farah, who Shabnam has begun to reconnect with, finds Jamie worrying.

In her quest to figure out who she really is and what she really wants, Shabnam looks for help in an unexpected place—her family, and her father’s beloved Urdu poetry.

That Thing We Call a Heart is a funny and fresh story about the importance of love—in all its forms.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I really liked 2/3 of this book. The first 1/3 was rough for me. It’s slow to really get to the heart of the story, the love interest is (at first) insufferably perfect and manic pixie dream boyish, there were completely unnecessary scenes (the party at the start), and Shabnam, the main character, kept referring to Farah and their falling out but didn’t delve into it more for a long time. BUT. But. Once Jamie (the love interest) gained some nuance, and Farah appeared, and Shabnam started to think harder about her relationships, I was in.

 

Shabnam, whose family is Pakistani-American, just wants to get through the summer and get to U Penn, where she can reinvent herself. At first, we don’t know much about her. We know she’s had a falling out with Farah, whoever that is. She makes out with Ryan, the “hottest boy in school,” who is a total tool and says super cool things like, “What are you?” to Shabnam. We know she is capable of spinning up a really elaborate and horrible lie about her family’s history with Partition. We also know she has complicated feelings about her own background. Her mother is Muslim, her dad is… well, he’s an extremely practical mathematician who believes in numbers and Urdu poetry and maybe not much else. And Shabnam? She says she’s “nothing.” She’s embarrassed by her great-uncle, who’s visiting from Pakistan. She makes several remarks, about him and about Islam/Muslims that are surprising (things like that her uncle looked almost like a member of the Taliban). She meets Jamie, a cute boy whose aunt runs a pie shop, and falls hard for him. Jamie gets Shabnam a job at the pie shop for the month it’s open. They’re in New Jersey and he goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s only there for the month, but in that time, Shabnam falls in love with him (even though there are plenty of things about him that are really, really annoying and off-putting. But we’ve all been there, right? You like someone so much that you can’t see their flaws… or really understand how one-sided that like may be).

 

For me, the story became much more interesting when Shabnam reconnected with Farah, who was her best friend until Farah decided she wanted to wear a hijab. That drove a wedge between them. Farah is awesome. She’s an outspoken feminist punk girl who sees herself as a “Muslim misfit.” She goes back to hanging out with Shabnam even though Shabnam was and is a pretty crappy friend. She’s dubious about the whole Jamie thing, but Shabnam isn’t going to hear any of that. During the latter part of this story, Shabnam thinks harder about her other relationships, particularly with her parents, and her feelings about what went on with Farah and their drifting apart. She begins to think more about family, history, poetry, and religion. She finally begins to see beyond herself and starts having more open discussions about everything. 

 

My advice: if you feel, like I did, that this book is slow to really take off, stick with it. It’s a good look at the complexity of friendships, love, and family and shows that Muslims and Pakistani-American girls are (of course) not a monolith. Now I’d like a whole book just about Farah, please. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062445704

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 05/09/2017

Book Review: What Girls Are Made Of by Elana Arnold

Publisher’s description

what-girls-are-madeThis is not a story of sugar and spice and everything nice.

When Nina Faye was fourteen, her mother told her there was no such thing as unconditional love. Nina believed her. Now Nina is sixteen. And she’ll do anything for the boy she loves, just to prove she’s worthy of him. But when he breaks up with her, Nina is lost. What is she if not a girlfriend? What is she made of?

Broken-hearted, Nina tries to figure out what the conditions of love are. She’s been volunteering at a high-kill animal shelter where she realizes that for dogs waiting to be adopted, love comes only to those with youth, symmetry, and quietness. She also ruminates on the strange, dark time her mother took her to Italy to see statues of saints who endured unspeakable torture because of their unquestioning devotion to the divine. Is this what love is?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are people who are going to read this book and judge Nina harshly. Here is who I suspect those people will be: people who are not teenage girls; people who have never been teenage girls; people who completely forgot what it’s like to be a teenage girl; people who literally cannot imagine being a teenage girl; and people who don’t understand the realities of teenage girls. Reading this book requires being aware of the fact that being a teenage girl means processing, internalizing, and subverting a lifetime of your gender being socially constructed. It means bending and breaking under the weight of expectation. It means digging deep to find your worth when you’re surrounded by an entire world that tries to define it for you. It means being fed conflicting and dangerous messages, then being left to untangle them, alone, and find out the truth for yourself. Being a teenage girl is not easy; Elana Arnold shows us exactly why in this stunning and thoughtful book.

 

Nina is told by her mother, at age 14, that love is always conditional—that there is no such thing as unconditional love. She’s not just talking about romantic love; her mother tells her that she could stop loving her at any time for any number of reasons. Nina spends the next few years grappling with this statement. For her, in her relationship with Seth, love is very conditional and involves games. Or, I should say, it’s conditional from Seth’s perspective. As far as Nina is concerned, her love is unconditional. Her love of Seth is worshipful. She admits that all of the decisions she makes are based on Seth, and she knows “it isn’t okay to care this much about a boy. I know it’s not feminist, or whatever….” But knowing something and applying that knowledge are two different things. They have been dating for three months and Nina has made him her whole world. It is uncomfortable to see her so absorbed in this not particularly satisfying relationship—not because I feel she is being foolish, but because I recognize my teenage self in her choices and feelings. Maybe that’s the best summary of being a teenage girl: it is uncomfortable.

 

Nina volunteers at a high-kill dog shelter (I fully admit I had to skim the parts that talked about surrendering, harming, and killing dogs). She mentions a few times that she was ordered to volunteer as part of an incident from last year—an incident that we don’t learn the truth of until quite late in the book. There is a lot to be said about Nina and working at the shelter, about how, much like the attention-deprived dogs, she just wants someone to love her, to choose her. There are also entire papers just begging to be written about women’s bodies, what fills them and empties from them, and metaphors dealing with her large but often empty home, her mother’s miscarriages, and Nina’s own abortion.

 

Between the main narrative of Nina’s story are short pieces mainly about virgins, martyrs, and saints. These are stories Nina’s mother told her and are stories of sacrifice, unconditional love, and the happily ever after that comes from dying for what you are devoted to. Nina is writing these, along with other short pieces, for an English assignment, only she doesn’t think she can bear to share them with her teacher. I suppose some readers may be inclined to skim them, not seeing them as integral to the main story, but skipping them would be a mistake. These stories, which have left such impressions on Nina, are powerful, important, and revealing. As Nina’s mother says at one point, “As long as there have been women, there have been ways to punish them for being women.”

 

This meditation on the idea of unconditional love—whether it is, indeed, unconditional, whether this idea is dangerous or appealing (or both), and determining who sets conditions and why—is devastating, smart, complex, and utterly real. Nina is aching, learning, screwing up, holding on too long, letting go, bending, breaking, and recreating. Arnold shows us that none of that is simple. It’s not easy, in any way, but she is doing it all, largely alone. She is hurting and growing and being. She is becoming. Her story is so painfully familiar and common and will surely resonate with readers. A powerful and unforgettable look at the things that define teenage girls.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781512410242

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 04/01/2017

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