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Book Review: Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Publisher’s description

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller This Is Where It Ends comes another unforgettable story of loss, hope, betrayal, and the quest for truth

Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated—and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets—chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

before iYour number one thought while reading this book will be WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA? The one word that will crop up most in your thoughts as you read is OMINOUS. Trust me. 

 

The last Corey knew, her best friend Kyra had been receiving treatment for her bipolar disorder through both medication and therapy. There had been talk of her getting further help at a facility in Fairbanks. But now Kyra is dead, and the entire tiny town of Lost Creek, Alaska (a tight-knit community that doesn’t take kindly to outsiders) seems to view her death as an inevitable act that not only was foretold, but was good and necessary. It was her time. Her time! Yep. The girl was mentally ill and now the town is saying that it’s okay she died (she fell through the ice) because she had found her purpose and served it.

Again, may I point you back to WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA?

Corey’s family moved from Lost Creek a while back, so the closed community now considers her an outsider. They are NOT HAPPY that she has returned to town and that she is horrified by what she begins to uncover about the way the town was treating Kyra and the things that led up to her death. Kyra’s mother claims that Kyra was happy near the end, that she’d changed, that she’d found her place (in a town that, last Corey has seen, shunned Kyra because of her bipolar disorder). Her mother tells Corey that Kyra was no longer receiving any treatment, but that love and belonging made her better. Thank goodness Corey knows that’s garbage. She digs around to find the truth of what was going on in Lost Creek and is shocked when she learns just how exactly the town was “embracing” Kyra.

Parts of the story are told through letters and flashbacks. Through these, we learn more about what Kyra was actually going through and feeling as well as more about the history of Kyra and Corey’s friendship (like the fact that pansexual Kyra and asexual Corey shared a kiss that briefly seemed to complicate things).

There is a LOT to discuss here regarding mental health. Lost Creek treats her first as an outcast, then as a prophet—both extremely troubling notions. If we didn’t have Corey in the mix, pointing out how ludicrous all of that is, reminding us that therapy and medication treat mental illness, not some completely messed up idea of “belonging” and “love” (that’s not love, Lost Creek), I probably would’ve literally thrown this book across the room. Kyra’s mental illness is romanticized by the people of Lost Creek, and while Nijkamp (and Corey) take her illness seriously and are concerned, no one else in town does. Kyra is exploited and never properly supported. She is abandoned. It is shocking that anyone, much less a whole town, would treat ANYONE, much less someone with mental illness, this way. They are cruel, ill-informed, and, frankly, awful people. Nearly all of them—nearly all of the town. We never really learn how or why an entire town became so terribly cruel. I hope readers will really pay attention to Corey’s point of view, and understand that what the town did was deeply wrong, yes, but what Kyra’s parents did, the people who should have been advocating for her and TREATING her, was much, much worse. Despite the entire town feeling like Kyra was magical and served some grand purpose (and then died), it’s clear that untreated mental illness is a terrible thing, and that Lost Creek is one messed up place. Hand this to readers who like spooky-feeling stories that will leave them rather enraged at the gross injustice of a life lost. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781492642282
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/02/2018

Book Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

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 February 2017 issue of School Library Journal. I am SO EXCITED to now be able to rave to everyone about this book. 

 

upsideAlbertalli, Becky. THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED

ISBN-13: 9780062348708 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 04/11/2017

★ Gr 9 Up—Growing up can mean growing apart, which is a hard revelation for twins Cassie and Molly Peskin-Suso. When Cassie, who is a lesbian, begins dating Mina, a pansexual Korean American, Molly feels a little cast aside. Molly, who has an anxiety disorder, has silently nursed 26 crushes and is working on finally risking the rejection she fears and starting to date. Cassie wants Molly to hook up with Mina’s best friend, Will, but Molly might be more interested in sweet and endearingly geeky Reid. While the girls are navigating these new worlds of romance, things don’t slow down in other parts of their lives. Cassie and Molly’s moms are finally getting married, so there’s a wedding to plan, much to the delight of Pinterest-savvy Molly; plus there are jobs, friends, and a busy baby brother. Molly, Cassie, and all of the secondary characters are well-developed and distinctive. The outspoken girls have honest, humorous, and sometimes awkward conversations with each other, their friends, and their supportive and loving moms about relationships and growing up. Albertalli’s keen ear for authentic teen voices will instantly make readers feel that they are a part of Cassie and Molly’s world, filled with rich diversity (Cassie and Molly’s family is Jewish and interracial), love, support, and a little heartache. In the satisfying conclusion, Molly and Cassie learn that letting new people into their lives does not have to mean shutting out others. VERDICT: Readers will fall in love with this fresh, honest, inclusive look at dating, families, and friendship. A top purchase for all YA collections.

Book Review: Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Publisher’s description

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

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

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

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

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

 

Amanda’s thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780373211982

Publisher: Harlequin

Publication date: 01/31/2017