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Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

Publisher’s description

Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.

As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.

Amanda’s thoughts

(The content warning from the book, FYI: The Henna Wars contains instances of racism, homophobia, bullying, and a character being outed. All of these are challenged and dealt with on the page.)

Bangladeshi Irish Nishat, 16, has decided to come out to her parents. After all, they have a “love marriage” (versus an arranged marriage), so maybe they can accept this other form of love. Her parents acknowledge her telling them she’s a lesbian, then dismiss her. She later overhears them saying she’s confused, she will work it out, she will change her mind. Their intent is to carry on as though nothing is different.

But for Nishat, everything is different. She doesn’t want to be closeted anymore, or be anyone other than who she is. And her crush on her new classmate Flávia, who is Brazilian and white Irish, makes it even harder for her to ignore or dismiss who she is and how she feels. But that crush quickly grows more complicated when both Nishat and Flávia decide to create henna businesses for a class project. Nishat is outraged that Flávia thinks it’s okay to do henna; doesn’t she understand that’s cultural appropriation? Flávia says it’s just art, and no one can make boundaries about art. It doesn’t help that Flávia’s cousin in Chyna, the nastiest girl in their class, who is racist and started rumors about Nishat’s family years ago.

This story is equal parts about having a crush on someone who should probably be your enemy and coming out/being outed. The only people Nishat tells are in her family. Her younger sister has known for a while and is totally loving and supportive. Her parents tell a family friend and have her try to reason with Nishat—she’s young, she’s confused, she has a problem, “Muslims aren’t gay” (pg 123), she has a “sickness.” Meanwhile, her parents continue to act as though she never told them anything and this whole “problem” will just eventually resolve itself. After all, according to her parents’ logic, can’t she understand that she’s making a “choice” that is bringing shame to the family? This coming from parents who have made it clear to her that she can be anything she wants… except herself, apparently.

Both pieces of the story, the henna competition and the crush, have many believable and dramatic ups and downs. There are lots of conversations about racism, bullying, homophobia, cultural issues and appropriations, family, and more. The most challenging aspect of the book may be the part about Nishat being outed, which is traumatic and, of course, unacceptable. I do want to say that this has a happy ending, that characters in her life do learn and grow and ultimately support her and show love. The relationship between Nishat and her sister, Priti, is one of the shining points of the book. They are absolutely best friends and the support Priti provides Nishat while so many others turn their back on her is priceless. Though at times painful to read, this is exploration of identity, family, and self is well-written, honest, and, ultimately, empowering.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781624149689
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Publisher’s description

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets Clueless in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease.

Will Tavares is the dream summer fling—he’s fun, affectionate, kind—but just when Ollie thinks he’s found his Happily Ever After, summer vacation ends and Will stops texting Ollie back. Now Ollie is one prince short of his fairytale ending, and to complicate the fairytale further, a family emergency sees Ollie uprooted and enrolled at a new school across the country. Which he minds a little less when he realizes it’s the same school Will goes to…except Ollie finds that the sweet, comfortably queer guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High. This Will is a class clown, closeted—and, to be honest, a bit of a jerk.

Ollie has no intention of pining after a guy who clearly isn’t ready for a relationship, especially since this new, bro-y jock version of Will seems to go from hot to cold every other week. But then Will starts “coincidentally” popping up in every area of Ollie’s life, from music class to the lunch table, and Ollie finds his resolve weakening.

The last time he gave Will his heart, Will handed it back to him trampled and battered. Ollie would have to be an idiot to trust him with it again.

Right? Right.

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just start with this: Ollie deserves way better than Will. Sure, Will’s life is complicated because his summer fling with Ollie wasn’t meant to ever affect his “real life” at home once summer is over. He’s not out to anyone, so when Ollie shows up at his school as a new student, panic ensues. But Ollie spends the whole book pining for someone who so often treats him terribly. I don’t think literature should be handbooks for how to behave full of nothing but “good” choices and positive outcomes. Life is messy. Stories get to be full of messy people, too. But oooh did I want to holler at Ollie to move on with his life!

Ollie is immediately befriend by three girls at his new school, all of whom are interesting and complicated. He’s juggling trying to figure out what is going on with Will with finding his footing in this new school all while sometimes taking care of his aunt’s kids and dealing with the fact that she’s dying from cancer. Ollie’s cool and weird new girl friends inexplicably hang out with Will’s crew of basketball guys (inexplicably because, well, I’ve been in high school, and they hardly seem like a natural or even particularly friendly friend group). Summer Will was sweet and thoughtful. School Will is insufferable and smug. I guess those facts, combined with the whole summer fling who shows up at school aspect, are what make this story like Grease. If no one had planted this thought in mind, I never would seen it.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as Will is a jerk to Ollie and that’s that. If it were, not only would there be no story—whatever story would be left would be boring. Again, life is messy, so while it’s sometimes infuriating to watch characters behave in really frustrating ways, they get to be inconsistent and complicated just we real humans are. Will still likes Ollie. Ollie still likes Will, despite the many crappy ways Will behaves toward him. Will starts be nicer to him, then freaks out, then is nicer, then freaks out, etc. until they finally (it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal this) figure out that they want to be together more than anything else.

Coming out often isn’t easy. It feels very real that Will would panic and behave differently toward Ollie in the setting of his school versus when it was just the two of them over the summer. Though Will is so often hurtful toward Ollie, I hope readers will remember that we need to see the whole spectrum of stories and experiences and representations. Confusion is okay. Being mildly terrible to people because of your own fears and insecurities is okay only in the sense that it’s very, very real. And while Will isn’t perfect, he’s VERY real. It was a real nice surprise to see everyone in Will’s life be supportive and loving when he does finally come out as bi.

In the end, sweet with a HEA, but the path there is rough and at times painful. Those who want swoon-worthy perfection in their relationships will be disappointed, but those who are deep in their own messy lives will totally get where both Will and Ollie are coming from.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250315892
Publisher: St. Martin”s Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/03/2020

Book Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Publisher’s description

It’s just three words: I am nonbinary. But that’s all it takes to change everything.

When Ben De Backer comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, whom Ben has never even met. Struggling with an anxiety disorder compounded by their parents’ rejection, they come out only to Hannah, Thomas, and their therapist and try to keep a low profile in a new school.

But Ben’s attempts to survive the last half of senior year unnoticed are thwarted when Nathan Allan, a funny and charismatic student, decides to take Ben under his wing. As Ben and Nathan’s friendship grows, their feelings for each other begin to change, and what started as a disastrous turn of events looks like it might just be a chance to start a happier new life.

At turns heartbreaking and joyous, I Wish You All the Best is both a celebration of life, friendship, and love, and a shining example of hope in the face of adversity.

Amanda’s thoughts

Go order this book now. Request it from your library, buy it from your local bookstore, order it FOR your library, email your media specialist to make sure they know about it, just go. I’ll wait.

Did you do it? I really hope you did, because this is an Important Book. There are not a ton of nonbinary teens yet in YA books. This fact alone makes this book noteworthy. But it’s the fact that Ben’s story is so complex and emotional and that the writing is SO GOOD that really makes this book one that you need.

This is not always an easy book to read, but just know that it gets easier and has a happy ending. And that’s not a spoiler—I think it’s important to know that this book about a nonbinary teen kicked out of their home isn’t a story just full of misery and betrayal. That’s certainly part of the story, and not an unimportant part, but Ben’s story is so much deeper than that. And, thankfully, it’s so much more joy-filled than just that.

Ben’s parents kick them out when they come out as nonbinary. Ben (they/them) feels like they are living a lie and that their parents don’t actually know them. Their parents’ reaction is, obviously, not positive. Ben’s mother says this isn’t what God wants and Ben’s father is totally unwilling to even entertain this as an idea that exists. Thankfully, Ben’s sister, Hannah, takes them in, but it’s been a decade since Ben saw her and, while so grateful to her and her husband, Thomas, Ben still has complicated feelings about how she left the family. Hannah and Thomas are great. They get Ben set up with school, new clothes, a supportive and affirming home, and do their best to use the right pronouns. They are learning, but they are working hard to do so. Hannah also gets Ben set up with a therapist, so they can talk about what went on at home. It is during these sessions that Ben also is able to address and start to understand their depression and anxiety with panic attacks. This system of support that is being built around Ben is SO important.

Ben also finds unexpected support through new friends at school, including Nathan. Ben isn’t out as nonbinary at school and is worried what Nathan may think, especially as they grow closer. (Readers probably won’t worry what Nathan will think—he’s such a wonderful, sweet, charming character and it was nice to not feel like this is just someone else who will judge or hurt Ben.) Ben begins to thrive in their new life, painting, slowly making friends, feeling safer, and starting to think about the future. Used to being a loner and seen as “that weird kid,” Ben still has trouble trusting people and feeling secure, but they are surrounded by people who show them that this is okay.

Another wonderful source of support for Ben is Miriam, who is nonbinary and has a popular YouTube channel. From Bahrain, Miriam is Shi’a Muslim and immigrated to the US. Now in California (Ben is in North Carolina), the two connected online and have a strong bond. Miriam says they are Ben’s “enby mama” and helps to guide Ben through this time in their life. Miriam’s role as a mentor, friend, confidant, and example of a nonbinary person happy and successful is so important for Ben.

Could I use the word “important” more in this review? I’ll try.

The not easy to read parts include Ben constantly being misgendered. Remember, they are not out to anyone beyond their family, Miriam, and their therapist. An unknowing Nathan refers to Ben as he/him, boy, Mr, prince, and dude. These all hurt Ben, but they are not yet ready to come out. Ben’s parents are really just so awful, even when they allegedly try to make some amends. As a parent of an almost-teen myself, they are what most infuriated me and ate away at me while I read. I cannot imagine not accepting anything to do with my child’s identity. Of course, I know plenty of young people who have been exactly where Ben is—they come out and are kicked out. Thank goodness for Hannah and Thomas. Thank goodness for all the love, support, and kindness that surrounds Ben. This is such a shining example of the family that can form around you and hold you up when the people who SHOULD always be there for you refuse to. Shall I tell you that it’s an IMPORTANT message? Because it is.

This heartfelt story will empower readers. Ben’s journey is not always easy, but it is full of love, affirmation, and eventual happiness. And have I mentioned that all of this is so important? I can’t say that word enough (though you may argue otherwise at this point). This story, this representation, this example is so needed. Get this on your shelves and into readers’ hands.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338306125
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 05/14/2019

Book Review: Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan

Publisher’s description

hot dog girlA fresh and funny contemporary YA rom-com about teens working as costumed characters in a local amusement part.

Elouise (Lou) Parker is determined to have the absolute best, most impossibly epic summer of her life. There are just a few things standing in her way:

* She’s landed a job at Magic Castle Playland . . . as a giant dancing hot dog.
* Her crush, the dreamy Diving Pirate Nick, already has a girlfriend, who is literally the Princess of the park. But Lou’s never liked anyone, guy or otherwise, this much before, and now she wants a chance at her own happily ever after.
* Her best friend, Seeley, the carousel operator, who’s always been up for anything, suddenly isn’t when it comes to Lou’s quest to set her up with the perfect girl or Lou’s scheme to get close to Nick.
* And it turns out that this will be their last summer at Magic Castle Playland—ever—unless she can find a way to stop it from closing.

Jennifer Dugan’s sparkling debut coming-of-age queer romance stars a princess, a pirate, a hot dog, and a carousel operator who find love—and themselves—in unexpected people and unforgettable places.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I read for and write posts many, many weeks before they publish. I’m a Type A human who is always expecting catastrophes (thanks, anxiety!), so getting things done as early as possible is my method of operation. Right now it’s early March. I’ve had a sinus infection for three months, we’re getting yet another foot of snow here in Minnesota, and I am so cranky and sunlight-deprived that almost nothing seems fun. But you know what was fun? Reading this book in one day. So fun. This book is cute and fun and set in SUMMER, a time I seem to vaguely remember and hold out a small bit of hope that it will ever appear again in Minnesota.

 

Like romances? Like queer romances? Like books set in a workplace? Like frustrating characters who sometimes make cruddy choices? This book’s for you!

 

Elouise (Elle to some, Lou to others) is always scheming. She’s pretty sure that people are wrong—the summer after senior year isn’t the one that’s supposed to be the most epic ever (there’s too much stress that comes with the transition time). It’s the summer BEFORE senior year that should rule. As such, she is determined that this summer will be amazing. Even if she is once again employed as a giant hot dog at her beloved theme park. Even if she has to watch Nick, her crush, with his girlfriend every day. Even if her beloved theme park is going to close after this summer. Even if she ropes her best friend, Seeley, into a ridiculous scheme that could maybe ruin everything. Yep. Most epic summer ever!

 

Or maybe it could have been, if Lou could just live her life without constantly coming up with schemes. Her worst one, currently? Pretend that she and Seeley are dating (Lou is bisexual and Seeley is a lesbian). In Lou’s mind, this will let her somehow get closer to Nick, her crush. How? Well, they could all go on double dates! And Nick seems a little jealous, or something, when he misinterprets something he overhears and thinks Lou and Seeley are dating. So, sure, solid plan (she typed sarcastically): pretend to date someone else and your crush will fall for you and you’ll end up together!

 

It’s not a great plan. It’s not even a good one. In fact, it’s pretty terrible. It’s made worse by the fact that poor Seeley is kind of forced into this farce and it’s clear she hates it. It’s clear to the reader that Lou is being oblivious and self-centered when she makes this plan. Their fake relationship gets in the way of their real one, with the scheme making everything confusing and complicated, as well as revealing some truths. The publisher’s summary bills this as a queer romance, so you can probably guess what the complication is and where the story goes. But even if it’s obvious where the plot is going, it’s still great fun (if somewhat frustrating at times) watching it all unfold. The unique setting, workplace drama, and changing relationships all make for a cute story that will be the perfect summer read. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525516255
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/30/2019

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: The Resolutions by Mia Garcia

Publisher’s description

resolutionsA heart-expanding novel about four Latinx teens who make New Year’s resolutions for one another—and the whirlwind of a year that follows. Fans of Erika L. Sánchez and Emery Lord will fall for this story of friendship, identity, and the struggle of finding yourself when all you want is to start over.

From hiking trips to four-person birthday parties to never-ending group texts, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora have always been inseparable. But now with senior year on the horizon, they’ve been growing apart. And so, as always, Jess makes a plan.

Reinstating their usual tradition of making resolutions together on New Year’s Eve, Jess adds a new twist: instead of making their own resolutions, the four friends assign them to one another—dares like kiss someone you know is wrong for you, find your calling outside your mom’s Puerto Rican restaurant, finally learn Spanish, and say yes to everything.

But as the year unfolds, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora each test the bonds that hold them together. And amid first loves, heartbreaks, and life-changing decisions, beginning again is never as simple as it seems.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I shouldn’t, but of course I judge a book by its cover. It’s what stops me when I’m scrolling through online catalogs or pulling books off the shelf in a library or bookstore. Sometimes I’m wrong about a book—cover looks great and totally like something I’d love but book is meh—but sometimes the book is just as fun and cute and unique as its cover. Thankfully, that was the case for The Resolutions. I read it in one sitting.

 

Denver Latinx teens Jess, Lee, Nora, and Ryan are best friends. While still incredibly tight, it’s the middle of junior year and a they all have a lot going on in their lives. Ryan is still reeling from his breakup with Jason, Lee is struggling with whether or not to get tested for Huntington’s Disease (the disease that killed her mother), Nora is wondering if she can really handle a future that just holds going to a local college and continuing to work at her family’s restaurant, and Jess is busy, as always, taking on too many responsibilities. On New Year’s Eve, they assign each other resolutions, hoping to push each other out of their comfort zones (in a good way), encouraging each other to do the things they always talk about but never do. It’s been increasingly hard to coordinate time to all be together, and Jess hopes a project like this will help keep their bond strong. But, as you might expect, pursuing these resolutions is hardly uncomplicated, though the gentle pushes from their friends do help them discover parts of themselves they otherwise may have taken longer to know. 

 

There is so much to like about this book. Garcia’s keen ear for realistic dialogue really makes for effortless reading—it’s easy to cruise through lots of pages really feeling like you’re listening to friends talking. Including some of their text messages to each other also lends itself to that feeling. Though many of the friends are involved in romantic relationships—Ryan is recovering from his boyfriend breaking up with him, Lee is suddenly seeing someone old with new eyes, and bisexual Nora is happily dating the same girl she’s been with for a while—this is solidly a friendship story. The love and support and encouragement they offer each other is so great to see. Garcia manages to write about serious subjects, like Lee’s worries about Huntington’s Disease or Nora’s perceived lack of control over her future or Jess’s increasing and frightening panic attacks, with a light touch. These issues (and more) feel weighty and important, but maybe because of the support in their lives they also feel like things that can be conquered or achieved. As the story follows them through part of junior year and part of senior year (from one New Year’s Eve to another), we see them struggle, change, grow, and succeed in ways that feel very honest, real, and inspiring. Through it all, the bond of their friendship helps them grow up and grow together. I suspect teen readers will devour this totally satisfying look at identity, obstacles, and friendship. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062656827
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/13/2018

Book Review: Home and Away by Candice Montgomery

Publisher’s description

home and awayTasia Quirk is young, Black, and fabulous. She’s a senior, she’s got great friends, and a supportive and wealthy family. She even plays football as the only girl on her private high school’s team.

But when she catches her mamma trying to stuff a mysterious box in the closet, her identity is suddenly called into question. Now Tasia’s determined to unravel the lies that have overtaken her life. Along the way, she discovers what family and forgiveness really mean, and that her answers don’t come without a fee. An artsy bisexual boy from the Valley could help her find them—but only if she stops fighting who she is, beyond the color of her skin.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

What a great exploration of heartache, home, second chances, grace, forgiveness, family, race, and identity. This was the first book I’ve read from both this author and this publisher (Page Street Publishing) and I look forward to more from both.

 

Tasia’s life seems pretty great. The summary up there tells you all about it. But everything is thrown into chaos when she discovers her mother hiding a box of newspaper clippings and more from Tasia’s life. In that box is a picture of her Black mother with a white man—a man who turns out to be Tasia’s biological father. At 18, Tasia cannot believe she’s been lied to this long. Not only is the only father she’s ever known not her biological father, but she’s biracial. There are certainly all kinds of different and totally okay ways to react to both pieces of news. For Tasia, she decides to track down Merrick, her biological dad, and then move in with him for a while. She can’t get past her parents’ betrayal. She moves from her McMansion (her words) in her affluent neighborhood to Merrick’s small apartment, transferring to a public high school as well. Here she makes new friends, including bisexual Kai El Khoury, who was adopted by Merrick’s parents. It’s hard for Tasia to talk to her old friends about any of this, so she kind of withdraws from everyone, throwing herself into her new life. Her new life comes with a lot of introspection and suspicion. Who sent that box to her? Why did her mother never tell Merrick or Tasia the truth? Will she ever be able to forgive her parents? Through it all, she begins to understand just how many different sides people have, and that they don’t show all their sides to everyone.

 

I enjoyed this book for many reasons. Tasia is a football-player, which is hardly a big deal at all except for her new coach, who initially is a total jerk to her. She has all kinds of interesting friends, both old and new, with diverse identities, and makes many missteps with them, learning along the way how to be a better friend, how to trust more, and how to forgive and move on. Though initially I thought maybe the book was a bit too long to sustain the story, once it really got underway, there is so much going on, and so much that Tasia has to process, that I ended up wanting even more toward the end. Her explorations of the many tensions in her life and her many identities is compelling and honest. It was a joy to watch her find so many new truths on her path to healing and learn to reconcile the different pieces of her life. I hope this great book finds a large audience, because Tasia’s story is an important one. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781624145957
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 10/16/2018

Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

girl made ofFor readers of Girl in Pieces and The Way I Used to Be comes an emotionally gripping story about facing hard truths in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Mara and Owen are as close as twins can get, so when Mara’s friend Hannah accuses Owen of rape, Mara doesn’t know what to think. Can her brother really be guilty of such a violent act? Torn between her family and her sense of right and wrong, Mara feels lost, and it doesn’t help that things are strained with her ex-girlfriend, Charlie. As Mara, Hannah, and Charlie come together in the aftermath of this terrible crime, Mara must face a trauma from her own past and decide where Charlie fits into her future. With sensitivity and openness, this timely novel confronts the difficult questions surrounding consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

BILLY STARS

There’s what I tweeted after I finished this book. What a powerful and memorable read. I read a LOT of books. Often, as the weeks and months pass, the details get lost to me. I’ll remember I liked something, but not necessarily all of the reasons why. Or I’ll forget characters’ names or how the book made me feel. But this book? This book will stay with me. All of it.

 

Relationships in twins Mara and Owen’s world are closely-knit. They attend an arts magnet program with all the most important people in their lives. Hannah, Owen’s girlfriend, is one of Mara’s best friends. Charlie, Mara’s very best friend, is also her ex-girlfriend (Mara is bisexual; Charlie is nonbinary). And Owen’s best friend, Alex, has always been there, but Mara finds herself turning to him more and in new, unexpected ways. When Hannah says that Owen raped her at a party they all were at, Mara is devastated. She knows her brother would never do that. But she also knows Hannah would never lie about that. She turns to their small group of friends, including both Hannah and Owen, as she tries to process what happened. Mara has her own reasons for fiercely thinking that “believe girls and women” is a good policy (beyond it just being a good policy). She’s held on to a secret for years, a secret that ruined her relationship with Charlie. Mara and Owen’s parents believe Owen when he says he didn’t rape Hannah. They urge Mara to understand the need to be united on this, to not talk to anyone about it, to make sure they all have the story straight. But Mara is sick of not talking about things. She stands by Hannah, especially when Hannah comes back to school and is repeatedly greeted with, “Hey, slut, welcome back.” Mara, Charlie, and Hannah all have truths to tell. They rely on each other, and the support of girls (particularly in their feminist group at school, Empower) to find the strength to not be silenced. 

 

This masterpiece is gutting. It’s not just the characters, the dialogue, and the writing are all wonderful—they are—but that the story is so real. So true. So common. Maybe not the specifics, but the general story. This is in incredibly important read about the aftermath of a sexual assault, about consent, rape culture, family, friendship, and feminism. A powerful, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328778239
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/2018

 

 

Book Review: The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description

From the critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants and At the Edge of the Universe comes a mind-bending, riveting novel about a teen who was born to a virgin mother and realizes she has the power to heal—but that power comes at a huge cost.

Sixteen-year-old Elena Mendoza is the product of a virgin birth.

This can be scientifically explained (it’s called parthenogenesis), but what can’t be explained is how Elena is able to heal Freddie, the girl she’s had a crush on for years, from a gunshot wound in a Starbucks parking lot. Or why the boy who shot Freddie, David Combs, disappeared from the same parking lot minutes later after getting sucked up into the clouds. What also can’t be explained are the talking girl on the front of a tampon box, or the reasons that David Combs shot Freddie in the first place.

As more unbelievable things occur, and Elena continues to perform miracles, the only remaining explanation is the least logical of all—that the world is actually coming to an end, and Elena is possibly the only one who can do something about it.

Amanda’s thoughts

elenaFact: I really enjoy Hutchinson’s books. You can read my reviews of At the Edge of the Universe, We Are the Ants, Violent EndsThe Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, and Feral Youth to see why. I love his books because they so often deal with mental health and loss and large, weird science fiction ideas about worlds ending.

Florida teenager Elena Mendoza has always been unique. She’s the first and only documented case resulting from human parthenogenesis. Being virgin-born has always made her stand out, but that’s nothing compared to the attention she receives when it turns out she can perform healing miracles. When she witnesses Freddie, the girl she has a crush on get shot, the mermaid from the Starbucks logo tells Elena to heal Freddie. Healing Freddie also appears to rapture the shooter, who disappears in a beam of light. It’s all rather shocking and confusing to Elena, who has always heard voices from inanimate objects, but never knew she could do things like heal others. Her mother suggests she keep her down after this, act like doesn’t know what happened and that she can’t perform miracles. But how do you just forget what you were able to do and move on?

After Elena confirms she really can heal people (unsurprisingly, it’s a little hard for her to just accept what happened), things grow far more complicated than she could have anticipated. The voices (coming from such places as a girl on a tampon box, a My Little Pony, a skeleton, and more) tell her she needs to heal as many people as possible. And on the surface, that seems like a good idea. But for every healing she does, people are raptured—and not just in some 1:1 ration; literally hundreds of people could go missing for each healing. Suddenly, Elena has BIG questions to grapple with. Can she help someone right in front of her knowing others will disappear to an unknown place? Is she being used? Do things happen for a reason or do they just happen? Does nothing matter? Does anything matter? Does EVERYTHING matter? How are things connected? Are people even worth saving (that question will sound familiar to fans of Hutchinson)? Does healing people fundamentally change them? Why should you decide who or what matters? It’s heavy philosophical stuff, which readers of Hutchinson will have come to expect.

As always, Hutchinson populates his story with a diverse group of characters. Elena is Cuban American and bisexual. Her best friend, Fadil, is Mulim and possibly aromatic and/or asexual (he’s still figuring it out). The big picture themes include mental health/suicidal ideation (and actual suicide), bullying, identity, supportive relationships, and how your choices change you and the world around you. Hutchinson superfans will be thrilled to see cameos of characters from his previous books. This look at making impossible choices and handling moral conflict is already one of my favorites for 2018 (and, as of writing this, I’m still back here in 2017). Riveting, thoughtful, weird, brilliant, provocative, and heavy—just what I have come to expect from Hutchinson. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481498548
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 02/06/2018

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