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There’s Something About Insta-Love, a guest post by Phil Stamper

Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was obsessed with rom coms. My mom and I had a habit of playing the same few VHS tapes on repeat for months at a time: While You Were Sleeping, Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail—I couldn’t get enough. So, a couple decades later, it’s probably no surprise that my own brand of storytelling would rely heavily on the rom com format: memorable meet-cutes, fast-paced romance, a set of obstacles along the way.

But as an author of queer YA, I get to take it one step further. I can break the trope apart and put it back together the way I want—celebrating the similarities and differences of queer love in all its forms.

In The Gravity of Us, Cal’s entire life is uprooted when he’s thrown into the drama of the world’s first human mission to Mars. Meanwhile, cute-boy-next-door Leon struggles to live in the shadows of his astronaut mother’s greatness. When they find each other, sparks fly. This is partially because Leon’s bold sister assumes the role of instigator and matchmaker from day one, but it’s also because neither character struggles with their identity on the page.

As an avid reader of queer books for teens, I find that in a lot of queer romance stories, characters spend most of the page time coming to terms with their identity. Of course, this makes a lot of sense—YA books are coming of age stories, and for queer people, coming out and coming of age often go hand in hand. But while I love those stories, I kept hearing about queer teens who were confidently out, who’d been fully supported by their family and their community since they were kids.

When I wrote The Gravity of Us, I wanted to show what a queer teen relationship could look like between two boys who neither struggled with their identities nor experienced any homophobia on the page. It’s aspirational, sure, but that’s the point of a rom-com. I wrote this book during the 2016 election, which made this story feel even more radical and important. In this way, I got to lean into the idea of insta-love (or more accurately, insta-attraction plus a whirlwind romance) and give teens a queer love story they could fall for instantly.

Speaking of insta-love, this is probably a good time to note that as a teen, I fell for just about every boy I met in roughly thirty seconds. Sure, rom coms trained me to expect love to simply fall into my lap in incredible circumstances, but it wasn’t until I started writing As Far As You’ll Take Me—which, unlike Gravity, is a story steeped in identity—that I understood why I was so quick to fall.

I first realized I was gay when I was in first grade, which is… early. By the time I came out at age eighteen, I’d spent twelve years—two thirds of my life—trapped in the closet. At this time, there weren’t a ton of movies, books, or TV shows with queer characters, and the ones that did always ended in death or tragedy. (Thanks, Brokeback Mountain!) Like Marty, my rural farm town wasn’t exactly the most accepting place. Like Marty, I grappled with religion and family and self-hate and anxiety. And like Marty, once I started to move beyond my repressed past, I took risks, I made mistakes, and…I fell for the first guy who gave me a scrap of attention.

I couldn’t really parse my emotions then, but looking back, it makes so much sense. I had spent twelve years drowning in denial and fear, convinced I would never find love, but when I got to college, I met other queer people and found allies for the first time ever. Sure, movies had told me that gay people only experienced a tragic ending… but here I was, a functioning gay human having my own meet-cutes and rom-com moments. I started to feel hope for the very first time—and I was going to do anything to hold onto it.

This, too, is represented in As Far As You’ll Take Me, when Marty quickly falls for health-conscious Pierce and gets his first taste of love. As Pierce starts to pull away, Marty believes changing himself is the only way to hold onto his new boyfriend, and he experiences disordered eating as a result. This was something I had firsthand experience with too, so, I guess you could say Marty and I both had an insta-love problem.

Between both of my books, you’ll find themes of love at first sight, or insta-love, whatever you’d like to call it. That trope is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but in both stories, I got the opportunity to pay homage to classic 90s love stories, break the trope apart, and share two distinct, but honest, experiences.

More than anything, I hope that honesty comes through on the page and speaks to every teen who falls in love too fast—or wishes they could.

Meet the author

Phil Stamper is the author of The Gravity of Us. He grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. Visit him online at www.philstamper.com or @stampepk.

About As Far As You’ll Take Me

The author of The Gravity of Us crafts another heartfelt coming-of-age story about finding the people who become your home—perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli.

Marty arrives in London with nothing but his oboe and some savings from his summer job, but he’s excited to start his new life—where he’s no longer the closeted, shy kid who slips under the radar and is free to explore his sexuality without his parents’ disapproval. 

From the outside, Marty’s life looks like a perfect fantasy: in the span of a few weeks, he’s made new friends, he’s getting closer with his first ever boyfriend, and he’s even traveling around Europe. But Marty knows he can’t keep up the facade. He hasn’t spoken to his parents since he arrived, he’s tearing through his meager savings, his homesickness and anxiety are getting worse and worse, and he hasn’t even come close to landing the job of his dreams. Will Marty be able to find a place that feels like home?

ISBN-13: 9781547600175
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: As Far As You’ll Take Me by Phil Stamper

Publisher’s description

The author of The Gravity of Us crafts another heartfelt coming-of-age story about finding the people who become your home—perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli.

Marty arrives in London with nothing but his oboe and some savings from his summer job, but he’s excited to start his new life—where he’s no longer the closeted, shy kid who slips under the radar and is free to explore his sexuality without his parents’ disapproval. 

From the outside, Marty’s life looks like a perfect fantasy: in the span of a few weeks, he’s made new friends, he’s getting closer with his first ever boyfriend, and he’s even traveling around Europe. But Marty knows he can’t keep up the facade. He hasn’t spoken to his parents since he arrived, he’s tearing through his meager savings, his homesickness and anxiety are getting worse and worse, and he hasn’t even come close to landing the job of his dreams. Will Marty be able to find a place that feels like home?

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, Marty. This kid is a mess. Right now I’m imagining the book that would come after this one, where Marty is getting the help he needs and starting to figure out how real friendships work etc. That’s not to say I didn’t like this book—I did. But Marty is having a ROUGH time and as a reader (particularly as an adult reader and as a mother) I just wanted to help him realize faster that he needs help and to really find better people to surround himself with. He’s doing that, in this story, but it’s a mess. So if you love mess, this book is for you.

Marty has lots of issues with anxiety, including panic attacks, but appears to be undiagnosed and untreated. I hope he can fix that. His relationship with his parents is mostly based on lies at this point. Guess what? I hope they can fix that (“they” being his parents, because I think it’s on them to repair that relationship and learn to love the son they have, not the one they may want). His best friend at home in Kentucky is one of the meanest and least supportive “friends” I’ve encountered in YA in a long time. She repeatedly outs him and just really sucks as a person. She’s awful, which Marty is finally beginning to see, and he IS fixing the friendship situations in his life. And when he starts dating Pierce, Marty also develops issues with food and weight (reader, beware, if that’s triggering for you), eventually going so long without food that he faints. He’s super self-conscious of his body, how Pierce views his body, and talks a lot about BMI and weight loss and food restriction (and thankfully there are characters who try to help him, point out the flaws in his thinking, and even Marty himself acknowledges BMI is garbage—but that doesn’t stop him from fixating on it or from talking about “normal” weight and using a slur for fatness).

Instead of focusing on developing some music contacts and his career while in England, he focuses on relationships with all these new people. He is SO painfully 17, floundering, and trying SO hard. He says that his new life, new friends, and potential new boyfriend make it all feel like he’s finally home and fits in, but it’s pretty clear that that’s not really true yet. He’s always felt out of place, but this new place is still new and can’t really be a home to him while he’s still dealing with so much STUFF. He’s so grateful to finally feel like he fits in that he’s overlooking a LOT of things right now, including one very huge thing with someone he’s newly close to.

Character-driven readers will enjoy this book about one teen’s journey toward self and independence. And while Marty certainly feels like he’s on the way to all kinds of healing and hope by the end of the book, getting to that point involves a lot of drama and pain. There is nothing better than finding your people and being yourself. Marty shows how hard both of those things can be but offers hope that, even with a bunch of disappointments, it’s possible. Realistically messy and heavier than I anticipated.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547600175
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Be Dazzled by Ryan La Sala

Publisher’s description

Project Runway goes to Comic Con in an epic queer love story about creativity, passion, and finding the courage to be your most authentic self.

Raffy has a passion for bedazzling. Not just bedazzling, but sewing, stitching, draping, pattern making—for creation. He’s always chosen his art over everything—and everyone—else and is determined to make his mark at this year’s biggest cosplay competition. If he can wow there, it could lead to sponsorship, then art school, and finally earning real respect for his work. There’s only one small problem… Raffy’s ex-boyfriend, Luca, is his main competition.

Raffy tried to make it work with Luca. They almost made the perfect team last year after serendipitously meeting in the rhinestone aisle at the local craft store—or at least Raffy thought they did. But Luca’s insecurities and Raffy’s insistence on crafting perfection caused their relationship to crash and burn. Now, Raffy is after the perfect comeback, one that Luca can’t ruin.

But when Raffy is forced to partner with Luca on his most ambitious build yet, he’ll have to juggle unresolved feelings for the boy who broke his heart, and his own intense self-doubt, to get everything he’s ever wanted: choosing his art, his way.

Amanda’s thoughts

This book was a lot of fun. Yes, there was depth and drama and romance, but ultimately, it was the good fun that won me over. I was able to totally get wrapped up in Raffy’s world of crafting and cosplay and feel like I was right there at the con, witnessing everything unfold. What more can you ask for than for a book to take you away from reality and show you a different time and place?

There’s a lot going on in this story. Raffy’s super snobby artist/gallery director mom is horrible for most of the story. Never mind that he seems to mostly be raising and caring for himself while she disappears repeatedly to go do Important Things; she’s really awful because she actively does not support his interests and belittles his talent and ambitions. But Raffy doesn’t let her awfulness deter him—he continues to work in secret on all his builds and his social media. He’s hoping to get a sponsorship deal at some point to help pay for art school. His mother, of course, doesn’t think people should go to school at all, much less ART school—her being a snob extends to her looking down on formal arts education. Sure.

The now/then format of the story shows us how he got together with Luca, a bisexual soccer bro who’s a secret nerd, and how it all dramatically fell apart. In the “now” time, we’re at the con with them, watching them compete against each other until—TWIST!—they team up to work together.

They’re an easy couple to root for. Raffy’s total Type A personality and obsession with working on his crafting gets in the way of having a really good relationship. Luca has to keep lots of things about his time with Raffy secret, mainly from his family. But they really are into each other and are so cute together. And once they end up working together at the con, it’s easy to see how they will be able to overcome their past problems.

Full of messages about hiding yourself, authenticity, identity, being in costume to really be seen, trust, creation, and accomplishment, this fun read has wide appeal. Make sure the cosplay fans in your life get their hands on this!

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781492682691
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/05/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Book Review: Where We Go From Here by Lucas Rocha

Publisher’s description

An absorbing debut novel about three gay friends in Brazil whose lives become intertwined in the face of HIV, perfect for fans of Adam Silvera and Bill Konigsberg.

Ian has just been diagnosed with HIV.

Victor, to his great relief, has tested negative.

Henrique has been living with HIV for the past three years.

When Victor finds himself getting tested for HIV for the first time, he can’t help but question his entire relationship with Henrique, the guy he has — had — been dating. See, Henrique didn’t disclose his positive HIV status to Victor until after they had sex, and even though Henrique insisted on using every possible precaution, Victor is livid.

That’s when Victor meets Ian, a guy who’s also getting tested for HIV. But Ian’s test comes back positive, and his world is about to change forever. Though Victor is loath to think about Henrique, he offers to put the two of them in touch, hoping that perhaps Henrique can help Ian navigate his new life. In the process, the lives of Ian, Victor, and Henrique will become intertwined in a story of friendship, love, and self-acceptance.

Set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this utterly engrossing debut by Brazilian author Lucas Rocha calls back to Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys series, bringing attention to how far we’ve come with HIV, while shining a harsh light on just how far we have yet to go.

Amanda’s thoughts

TL; DR: GET THIS BOOK ON YOUR ORDERS AND TBR LISTS.

Originally published in 2018 in Brazilian Portuguese, this powerful look at three young men and the different stages they are at in dealing with and accepting their own HIV statuses and those of people they love stands out because of the complicated feelings of its main characters.

Those feelings easily transfer to the reader. When Henrique and Victor get involved, Henrique doesn’t disclose his HIV positive status to Victor, even when they sleep together. Henrique justifies this choice because they have protected sex and because his viral load is undetectable at this point, meaning he can’t transmit the virus. Unsurprisingly, Victor is upset at this revelation, and still goes to get tested, to be on the safe side. It’s there at the clinic he meets Ian, who just found out he is HIV positive. He connects Ian with Henrique, knowing that even though he’s currently upset with Henrique, he will be a good shoulder to lean on as Ian grapples with his new status.

It’s reductive to say that this novel is just about processing feelings regarding HIV, but in this very character-driven story, it really is about learning, understanding, working through, sharing, and accepting these feelings. Ian feels guilty and stupid and scared. Henrique is still reeling from a horrible betrayal from a former boyfriend. Victor feels betrayed by Henrique and at one point has a melt down, telling Henrique that his HIV status is his fault, that it’s a consequence for his choices, for not being “careful.” Friends in the boys’ atmosphere are supportive, loving, reassuring, and accepting. Throughout the story, Ian and others are reminded that HIV is no longer necessarily a death sentence. Readers learn about the virus, with lots of talk about treatments (now generally much simpler than in the past), side effects, self-care, futures, and precautions. Though initially Ian encounters a medical practitioner who doesn’t exactly make him feel reassured about any of this, for the most part, doctors and therapists are great, providing information and hope. Even a very ugly incident regarding someone exposing one of the characters’ HIV status is handled in a way that emphasizes the love, support, and acceptance these characters are fortunate to have (despite not necessarily seeing that love from their families of origin or even sharing their status with them).

This emotional read shows that already complicated relationships can become more complicated when HIV is involved, but that that diagnosis doesn’t spell doom and gloom for the characters. Rocha lets his characters make mistakes, learn, fight, grow, change, accept, hurt, heal, and love. An educational, affirming story full of hope and love.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338556247
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/02/2020
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: Brave Face: A Memoir by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description

Critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants—described as having “hints of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (School Library Journal)—opens up about what led to an attempted suicide in his teens, and his path back from the experience.

“I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.”

Shaun David Hutchinson was nineteen. Confused. Struggling to find the vocabulary to understand and accept who he was and how he fit into a community in which he couldn’t see himself. The voice of depression told him that he would never be loved or wanted, while powerful and hurtful messages from society told him that being gay meant love and happiness weren’t for him.

A million moments large and small over the years all came together to convince Shaun that he couldn’t keep going, that he had no future. And so he followed through on trying to make that a reality.

Thankfully Shaun survived, and over time, came to embrace how grateful he is and how to find self-acceptance. In this courageous and deeply honest memoir, Shaun takes readers through the journey of what brought him to the edge, and what has helped him truly believe that it does get better.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m a big fan of memoirs. While most of my reading is of children’s and YA books, when I do grab an adult book from the library, it is frequently a memoir. I like the deep dive into someone’s life. I like seeing them raw and unpacking their challenges and successes. So when a memoir comes out by one of my favorite YA authors, you can bet I will devour it.

For me, this had an added element of interest. I’m the same age as Hutchinson—we both graduated high school in 1996. We were both depressed and anxious teens, kept journals (and hung onto them all this time—I have a whole bin of my journals from elementary school through college), listened to a lot of the same music, wrote for the school paper, and so on. For me, as an adult reader, I really felt myself right there with Hutchinson because I really *saw* him. I would’ve been friends with him. My computer-programming, D&D-playing, fantasy-novel-reading husband would’ve been friends with him.

I spent the whole memoir really wanted two things for Hutchinson: for him to find his people and for him to get the mental health help he needed. And that’s really want this whole memoir is about. We follow Hutchinson through high school and a few years of college. We watch him go from an excited ninth grader positive about his future to a severely depressed and self-loathing older teen who can’t see anything good in his present or his future, feels like a failure, and grows increasingly reckless. We watch him participate in drama and debate, work various jobs, hang out with his close girl friend, play D&D, and half-heartedly date and make out with some girls. Meanwhile he’s feeling increasingly irritated, having meltdowns, lashing out while alone, and writing in his journal about his misery and his suicidal ideation.

We also see Hutchinson really struggle with being gay. He writes a lot about how his negative and limited idea of what it would mean to be gay came from the culture and stories around him at this time in the 90s. He wasn’t able to see beyond horrible stereotypes and miserable endings. He simply didn’t have any other examples. And he certainly didn’t have any kind of community to help him work through these thoughts. Even as he came to understand that he was gay, he still lacked examples of love or romance or happiness. His view of his life, already complicated by his untreated depression, grew darker.

Eventually, Hutchinson attempts suicide and ends up in a psychiatric treatment facility. There is a content warning for this part of the book to allow readers to skip over the details included here. He then summarizes life after this time—the ups and downs of both relationships and various treatments. He leaves readers with the important message that it can indeed get better, though it can take a while to get there. And, most importantly, it’s okay to ask for help—that struggling alone and putting on a brave face isn’t required.

This is a powerful and painfully honest look at surviving while finding your place, your people, and self-acceptance.

Review copy (e-ARC) courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534431515
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 05/21/2019

Book Review: Love and Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford

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 an issue of School Library Journal

love and otherLove & Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford (ISBN-13: 9780062791207 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 04/09/2019)

Gr 9 Up—Sam Weyward, a gay teen in rural New York, knows that if he falls in love before his fast-approaching 17th birthday, the generations-long family curse will kill his love interest. Living with his magic-practicing grandma, great-grandma, and great-great-grandma (the Grands) and his 1980s metal–loving father, he can never forget about the curse. But he finds distraction with drag queens at the gay bar Shangri-La, the family ice cream stand, mysterious phone calls, and Tom Swift, a trans boy staying at the lake this summer. As his friendship with Tom, who is straight, grows more complicated, Sam wonders if the curse can be broken. While there is a lot to enjoy about this book, like the vivid setting and appealing premise, the unhealthy relationship between Sam and Tom, and the often-unchecked transphobia make this a troubling, offensive, and potentially harmful story. Tom is repeatedly deadnamed, misgendered, and outed (with Sam, among others, committing these offenses). The fixation on Tom’s body and transition feel voyeuristic and turn him into a one-dimensional character just used for Sam’s own development. Sam and the rest of the cast get to be vibrant and complex, with Sam supported and loved both by his biological family and his chosen family of drag queens who are helping him find his drag identity. Tom is miserable, angry, rejected, lacking support, and ultimately forced to present as female—a painful trajectory without much hope. VERDICT Though this novel is funny and highly readable, the tragic trans narrative makes it one to skip.

Book Review: The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description

past and otherSix Feet Under meets Pushing Daisies in this quirky, heartfelt story about two teens who are granted extra time to resolve what was left unfinished after one of them suddenly dies. 

A good friend will bury your body, a best friend will dig you back up.

Dino doesn’t mind spending time with the dead. His parents own a funeral home, and death is literally the family business. He’s just not used to them talking back. Until Dino’s ex-best friend July dies suddenly—and then comes back to life. Except not exactly. Somehow July is not quite alive, and not quite dead.

As Dino and July attempt to figure out what’s happening, they must also confront why and how their friendship ended so badly, and what they have left to understand about themselves, each other, and all those grand mysteries of life.

Critically acclaimed author Shaun Hutchinson delivers another wholly unique novel blending the real and surreal while reminding all of us what it is to love someone through and around our faults.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s been well established on here that I am a superfan of Hutchinson. I absolutely love his approach to telling a story and his always weird and thought-provoking mix of realism and science fiction. I read in order of publication date—it’s the only chance I stand of keeping my TBR piles and blogging ideas in check—but I always want to jump ahead and read his books the second I get them. If you’ve somehow missed out on reading him, get cracking. You won’t be disappointed.

 

This line up there in the description—A good friend will bury your body, a best friend will dig you back up—should rope you in. We’ve seen plenty of books of grief, but what happens if the person you are grieving (or not really grieving because things went so awry in your relationship) came back to life? Or not-life. While Dino is helping prepare his former best friend, July, for her funeral (his family members are morticians and 17-year-old Dino is skilled at doing makeup on the dead), she suddenly sits up, alive. Or, more accurately, not-dead. July isn’t really ready to accept that she’s not living, and Dino is mystified how on earth she’s not-dead, but sort of just rolls with what is happening. Together, they spend the evening going around town, trying to keep July hidden from everyone (as it might be just a little unsettling for someone to see a girl who has been dead for a week, as one of their classmates discovers) while they attempt to figure out what’s happening, how to make July be dead-dead in time for her funeral tomorrow, and what exactly went on with their friendship. They talk a lot and do some really regular things—wander Walmart, hit up the gas station for Slurpees, go to a party—only July is not-alive, her skin is starting to fall off, and she smells terrible, like she’s decomposing, which she is. Meanwhile, in the wider world, people are not dying when they should be. The hospital is full of people who are not-dead as are places all around the world. Dino knows there has to be some answer here with July, whether rational or divine, and figures she is somehow tied into what is happening with death everywhere. And just when they think they’ve got it figured out, maybe, and July is ready for her funeral, she sends Dino a selfie from inside her buried coffin, and their plot is back up and running again. Will finding ways to wrap up unresolved issues in their relationship finally make July stay dead? Or is Dino doomed to hide his not-alive former best friend forever? 

 

I just loved this story. Dino’s mortician parents are great (Hutchinson describes his mother as a “Goth Peter Pan,” which I adore), their family profession is obviously unique and full of potential entertainment, and his soon-to-be-married sister is also a fun character. Dino’s boyfriend, Rafi, who is trans, and the other new friends he made after he had a falling out with July are lovely, diverse, and interesting. I wish we had seen more of them, especially Rafi, who patiently tries to work through their relationship with Dino, who is kind of freaking out about it while trying to unpack his other most significant relationship. I really love books that are weird (a word I only ever use as a compliment) and show me a story from a previously untold viewpoint. This book will give you a new outlook on the phrase “best friends forever.” A really readable, engaging, strange, poignant, and funny journey through a relationship autopsy. Highly recommended. 

 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481498579
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 02/19/2019

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: 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