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Book Review: You Know I’m No Good by Jessie Ann Foley

You Know I'm No Good

Publisher’s description

This razor-sharp novel from Printz Honor winner and Morris Award finalist Jessie Ann Foley will appeal to fans of Rory Power and Mindy McGinnis.

Mia is officially a Troubled Teen™— she gets bad grades, drinks too much, and has probably gone too far with too many guys.

But she doesn’t realize how out of control she seems until she is taken from her home in the middle of the night and sent away to Red Oak Academy, a therapeutic girls’ boarding school in the middle of nowhere.

While there, Mia is forced to confront her painful past at the same time she questions why she’s at Red Oak. If she were a boy, would her behavior be considered wild enough to get sent away? But what happens when circumstances outside of her control compel Mia to make herself vulnerable enough to be truly seen?

Challenging and thought-provoking, this stunning contemporary YA novel examines the ways society is stacked against teen girls and what one young woman will do to even the odds.

Amanda’s thoughts

The thing about 2020 is that it’s hard to find joy in anything or to be able to concentrate on anything. One afternoon, I picked up this book, read two pages, and put it down. It was immediately clear to me that this book was not for this day. I needed something lighter. Something different. So I set this book aside for a week, then came back to it. I knew I would. I’ve loved Foley’s other books and think this one may be her best yet.

Mia, who’s “gifted” and really smart, likes writing “almost as much as [she] likes cutting class to smoke weed in the parking lot behind the bankrupt Sears at Six Corners” (pg 4). She calms down her overactive brain with books, drugs, and boys. Books rarely do harm, unless you throw them hard enough, but drugs and boys prove to be toxic choices. Mia’s big thing is acting like she doesn’t care. Hardly a revolutionary attitude to cop as a teenager, but while it may be derivative, it gets her through. Mia’s run out of second chances, and her dad and stepmom ship her off to the wilds of Minnesota to get some help. It’s a traumatic departure—she’s essentially kidnapped—and suddenly all of her vices are gone and she’s left with just her own self and a bunch of other “troubled” girls.

It’s here that Mia beings to really think about herself, her choices, what’s happened to her, and what she wants out of life. Many of these ruminations are spawned from therapy sessions, but Mia has long been in therapy. It’s only here, now, that she seems able to actually hear what she’s being told and truly understand her life. She grapples with wondering if she’s “bad” or just “not good.” How does her mother’s murder, when Mia was only 3, fit into her life, really? Is suffering and trauma hereditary? How should we deal with difficult women?

At home, Mia didn’t have real friends, just people who could hook her up with stuff or get into trouble with her. But at Red Oak, she actually connects with some of the other girls, sharing their pain and secrets. Mia beings to see how she’s been used by boys and hurt by girls and women. Finally facing some painful realities (including the understanding that her first sexual encounter was rape), Mia starts to see that she deserves better, that she needs to fight, to stand up for herself. And, most importantly, she needs to be the one who defines who she is, not rumors or bad choices or the names she gets called. She is more than just what has been done to her, or what’s been said about her, or what she’s done. Unfortunately, healing is rarely linear, and Mia takes a big swerve off her path of progress when she and another girl run away from the facility and have to figure out what they truly want in life.

This is one of those great books that manages to be both devastatingly sad and hopeful. Mia is a fierce character who works hard to keep her walls built up around her, but experiences real, believable growth over the course of the story. She is flawed, vulnerable, and resilient. A really moving look at trauma, choices, recovery, and healing.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of

ISBN-13: 9780062957085
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

How to Write Books that Aren’t Exciting, a guest post by Bryan Bliss

When I first came up with the idea for Thoughts & Prayers, I paused. Coming off the heels of my previous novel—We’ll Fly Away, which dealt with the death penalty—I was reminded of a writing mentor’s response when one of his eager MFA students really went for it.


“A bit much.”

A school shooting book? Really? While I have made a career writing about current topics, I’ve always been hesitant to go too “ripped from the headlines” for fear of trading on pain and trauma in the name of publishing a relevant novel. Plus, if I’m honest, the voices of my two teenagers were in my head, reminding me I write books that—and I quote—aren’t very exciting.

Teens, right?

But…fair enough.

I’ve always been interested in the subtle moments of adolescence. The rages and the furies, yes. But in smaller quantities—only used to offset the quieter moments when kids are alone with one another, when they feel vulnerable and connected in a way that is so intimate, so real, I often believe adults spend the rest of their lives seeking that same connection. That same sense of truly being accepted. Having somebody you can count on, no matter what.

This urgency is well known to anyone who writes or reads young adult literature. But too often, it can become a hyper-reality, especially in so-called issue novels. I don’t fault any writer who wants to tell a story in the moment. In fact, I often wonder if I would do the same if I could only pull it off with any skill. But if we begin thinking teenagers are only searching for that sort of rush—an adrenaline shot in 300 pages—we miss out on the need, the desire, to develop and investigate interior lives. To encounter big traumas on the page and relate them to the different-sized traumas we all face.

I am not trying to be an apologist for my novels or suggest that there aren’t many other authors working in these same, subtle places. Writers I respect, like Nina LaCour, Sara Zarr, Francisco X. Stork, and Lamar Giles (to name a few) are masters at presenting stories that are simultaneously beautiful, complicated, and joyful. These authors give teenagers an opportunity to see a familiar, often challenging world—the world as it could be—in the pages of books that honor the struggles and wonders of real life.

Again, grain of salt coming from the guy who wrote a book about a teenager on death row and followed it up with a story about three teenagers dealing with the after-effects of a school shooting.

A bit much, indeed.


But We’ll Fly Away was a death penalty book only in shorthand. And Thoughts & Prayers is less about a school shooting and more about how teenagers are so damn strong, so damn resilient—so damn brave. Both books may have been conceived by focusing on a Big Issue, but my stories never stay on such high a shelf for very long. Instead, they always find their centers, their true weight, in the moments when one teenager looks at another teenager and says, “Don’t worry. I’m here for you. I’ve got you.”


As you can imagine, my children are not impressed with this argument—especially as they are both voracious readers who finish books in single sittings, gripped by stories that I admittedly will never be able to write for them. In fact, when I told my son about this blog, he grimaced and said, “All I want is one book with a happy ending!”

This is a criticism I won’t take as quickly. Yes, my books rarely resolve with two teenagers holding hands under an arcing rainbow, a neat bow. But ambiguity and messiness do not indicate a lack of hope or happiness. There is always a path through the muck and the darkness in my books—even if it doubles back on itself time and time again.


All we need is a sliver. All we need is a spark, a chance. The smallest hint of light. Anything to draw us forward, even a single step. Because the more we see it—in novels or real life—the more we believe it exists.

What’s more exciting than that?

Meet Bryan Bliss

Bryan Bliss is the author of four novels, including Thoughts & Prayers, which released today, and We’ll Fly Away, a 2018 National Book Award longlist selection. He teaches in the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University and lives in St. Paul, MN with his family.

Check out Amanda’s review of Thoughts & Prayers here.

About Thoughts & Prayers

Thoughts & Prayers: A Novel in Three Parts

Fight. Flight. Freeze. What do you do when you can’t move on, even though the rest of the world seems to have? 

For readers of Jason Reynolds, Marieke Nijkamp, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Powerful and tense, Thoughts & Prayers is an extraordinary novel that explores what it means to heal and to feel safe in a world that constantly chooses violence.

Claire, Eleanor, and Brezzen have little in common. Claire fled to Minnesota with her older brother, Eleanor is the face of a social movement, and Brezzen retreated into the fantasy world of Wizards & Warriors.

But a year ago, they were linked. They all hid under the same staircase and heard the shots that took the lives of some of their classmates and a teacher. Now, each one copes with the trauma as best as they can, even as the world around them keeps moving.

Told in three loosely connected but inextricably intertwined stories, National Book Award–longlisted author Bryan Bliss’s Thoughts & Prayers follows three high school students in the aftermath of a school shooting. Thoughts & Prayers is a story about gun violence, but more importantly it is the story of what happens after the reporters leave and the news cycle moves on to the next tragedy. It is the story of three unforgettable teens who feel forgotten.

ISBN-13: 9780062962249
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/29/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Writing with a Trigger Warning, a guest post by Victoria Lee

“Write what you know.” We get that advice a lot, as authors. Writing from experience builds deeper, more authentic stories. Sometimes it’s as easy as writing a known setting—for example, my debut novel, The Fever King, is set in a speculative version of my own hometown. Who is gonna know how to write Durham better than me?

 

But other times, writing what you know means writing narratives that are important…but really personal and really, really difficult. In some ways, we want the people who have lived these experiences to write them. On the other hand, writing about trauma and discrimination and mental illness can be incredibly triggering for the author themselves.

The author as a teen.

The author as a teen.

In my books—both The Fever King and in books I’m writing now, or have written in the past—I’ve wrestled with the push and pull of wanting to tell the hard story and wanting simultaneously to hide from it. It’s a very personal choice, deciding whether or not you’re ready to tell certain stories. Not just because they’ll be hard to write, but because if they ever get published, you’ll be asked to explain how those experiences relate to your own (c.f. the ever-present interview question: What inspired you to write this book?).

 

I survived sexual abuse as a child, and subsequent to that I dealt with a lot of mental health and substance use issues. It’s not uncommon among survivors—you want to splint the parts of you that feel broken with whatever materials you can reach. I wrote about both of these issues in my most recent books, and while in a lot of ways writing so frankly about these experiences was cathartic, other times it got difficult. I found myself having to take breaks after certain scenes. Oddly enough, it was never the scenes themselves that triggered me—it was the little details: describing a certain expression on an abuser’s face, or the way it feels to tell someone the truth and wonder if they see you differently now.

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But I keep writing these stories. I feel like I have to—like I’m contributing one particular facet of this experience to the conversation about mental health and survivorship, and in a lot of ways, the story I’m telling is the story I wish I’d had when I was a teen.

 

A critique partner once asked me if I ever planned to write about characters who weren’t survivors of some kind of trauma. I told her no. I’m not done telling survivors’ stories. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ll ever be done. Because if just one reader tells me my books made them feel seen, it’ll all have been worth it.

Meet Victoria Lee

Victoria Lee author photo (no credit)Victoria Lee is the author of The Fever King, which Skyscape will publish on March 1, 2019. She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering that spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whiskey. Lee writes early in the morning and then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work. She currently lives in PA with her partner. www.victorialeewrites.com

 

Follow her on Twitter: @sosaidvictoria, Instagram: @sosaidvictoria, and Facebook: @victorialeewrites

 

About THE FEVER KING

 

fever kingIn the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good.

ISBN-13: 9781542040402
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2019
Series: Feverwake Series #1

Book Review: The Whispers by Greg Howard

Publisher’s description

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

11-year-old Riley’s mother always told him a story about wish-granting Whispers that live in the woods behind their South Carolina home. Just leave them a tribute, tell them your heart’s desire, and the Whispers, who know all the secrets in the universe, will take care of you. When Riley’s mother disappears, he desperately hopes this story isn’t just fiction.

 

Riley’s mom has been missing for four months when we meet Riley. He’s repeatedly interrogated by a detective but can’t come up with any other details to help them find her—Riley was at home playing, his mother was napping, there was a mysterious car nearby, then she was gone. They keep going over the details, and Riley has no hope that the detective, who he thinks is incompetent, will ever find his mom. It’s up to him. It’s up to the Whispers in the woods behind his house. They must know where his mom is.

 

Riley, a self-professed mama’s boy, has been miserable since she disappeared. He’s started wetting the bed (which he refers to as “my condition”), his father hardly acknowledges him, and the bullying and teasing he’s always faced at school has gotten worse. He has one good friend, biracial Gary, and a protector in an older neighbor, Dylan, but beyond that, is alone. He’s carrying the heavy weight of guilt, worried that he somehow drove his mother away with his “other condition,” which is how he refers to the fact that he likes boys. He thinks that he’s being punished for this.

 

Deciding to take things into his own hands, Riley heads into the woods with Gary and Gary’s younger brother to camp, hoping to maybe hear more from the Whispers, who have been speaking to him lately. They tell him that “she’s here.” Believing them, believing that she’s in those woods, Riley heads deeper into the forest. He offers the ultimate tribute to the Whispers, but will it be enough for them to reveal where she is?

 

Readers will tear through this story, with many questions along the way. Is Riley hiding something from the detective? Or from the reader? What’s really going on with his neighbor, Dylan? Who is Kenny from Kentucky? What happened in the shed? Does the unlikely helper he encounters in the woods know something about his mother? Everything is eventually revealed and answered, and what readers learn will likely send them scrambling back to reread the story through new eyes. A moving, thoughtful examination of trauma, grief, and the power of imagination. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525517498
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 01/15/2019