ARC Review: The Backstagers and the Ghost Light by Andy Mientus

Genre: Middle grade fantasy

Publisher: Abrams

Release Date: September 25, 2018

Synopsis:

backstagers coverThe stage crew at St. Genesius Prep—or Backstagers, as they like to call themselves—are ready for whatever the theater world can throw their way: the madness of tech week, inevitable prop malfunctions, and all the paranormal activity that goes on behind the scenes. Luckily Jory, Hunter, Sasha, Beckett, and Aziz are up for the job!

But lately, someone—or something—seems set on ruining their production of Phantasm. It all started when an actor brought a Spirit Board to the cast party, and the ghost light blew out. Every good theater kid knows that a ghost light must be left on to keep ghosts from moving in the shadows of an empty theater. To figure out what’s haunting the theater and save the show, the Backstagers will have to use their smarts, bravery, and a little bit of magic!

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

The Backstagers and the Ghost Light is the first in a middle grade series based on The Backstagers comics. I haven’t read the comics, although I can assure you I absolutely want to now! (The illustrations are from the same illustrator as the comics, Ryan Sygh, and they’re delightful.) This book became known to me because the author is Andy Mientus, a musical theater actor I’m a fan of (he was in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, among other things) both for his talent and his openness and advocacy about bisexuality. Needless to say, this theater nerd (and backstager; I do props!) was very excited to get an ARC of this, read it in just a day over the summer, and now that it’s out in the world I can talk about it!

As someone who had not read the comics, I could tell this book is a sequel to them. (The ending of this book also makes it clear there will be a series.) There is an explanation of a recent event that must have been from the comics, and I think it’s explained fairly well. What I didn’t know going into this and you definitely should is that the world of the series is not just quirky, but full-out fantasy. Those marvelous descriptions of the backstage isn’t just figurative language–the backstage actually connects to every other backstage, which is really cool! Plus, as the title indicates, this is blended with theater lore that adds another level to it, and there’s a new character in the form of a teen witch.

The characters are all endearing (and the illustrations help) with their own quirks, skills, and desires, and they’re all good friends. Two of the boys are in a happy relationship and deal with a lot of important and realistic feelings about responsibility and adjusting–one of them, Jory, has recently moved and I really related to his description of visiting his hometown again. Also, one of the boys is subtly indicated to be trans and at least one other is a person of color.

It is a little strange for a middle grade (prose) book to focus on high schoolers which wouldn’t seem as strange in comic form, but the illustrations and the alternate universe the book takes place lends it a playful feel that works. I say “alternate universe” because there are many musical theater references throughout this book, but they are all slightly altered in a humorous way to make any theater kid laugh. Lease? Les Terribles? Amazing.

This is a book for every theater kid that takes great joy with theater mythos, fantasy, and the friendships backstagers form when working on a show. I look forward to reading the rest of the series as it comes out!

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ARC Review: Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Genre: YA contemporary

Release Date: September 11, 2018

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Summary:

summer bird blueA mixed race teen struggles to find her way back to her love of music in the wake of her sister’s tragic death in this incisive, lyrical novel that’s perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jennifer Niven, by the author of William C. Morris Award finalist Starfish.

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

Aching, powerful, and unflinchingly honest, Summer Bird Blue explores big truths about insurmountable grief, unconditional love, and how to forgive even when it feels impossible.

Disclaimer: I was provided with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley. I also apologize for this being late…school started. I read it in time though!

Summer Bird Blue is a summer book, as the title suggests, but it’s not at all fluffy. Instead, it’s a meditative story about grief, loss, family, healing, and identity. And definite trigger warnings for those first two, because at the very beginning of the book, Rumi’s younger sister dies in a car accident. What follows are raw sadness and emotions captured well in Bowman’s writing as Rumi is sent off to Hawaii to live with her aunt for the summer.

I enjoyed the flashbacks and insight into her life with Lea, especially as it changed as the book went on because her psychological state and processing of the event changed. The flashbacks allowed Lea and their relationship to feel real, preventing her from being too much of a plot point. I admit I was confused about their mother for a bit…there seemed to be contradictory information and I never quite got enough information to fully understand why Rumi felt the way she did about her. Thankfully, that also ended up coming to a satisfying conclusion. That said, I felt the novel as a whole (just under 400 pages) was a bit too long for what it covered?

Music is a huge part of Rumi’s life. She and Lea planned to start a band together and the two wrote songs together–their last idea was “Summer Bird Blue”–but since Lea’s death, Rumi struggles to get into it. I’m really into music myself, and I loved the descriptions of it and Rumi’s creativity. I also really enjoyed her interactions with the old man Mr. Watanabe, as they strike up an unusual but important friendship over grief, healing, and music. Also, there’s a dog!

I was really glad this took place in Hawaii and included the culture and mixed population there (several of the characters have Japanese ancestry). There are unfortunately not many novels set in Hawaii, even though a lot of publishing is US-based and it is a part of the US. As a nerd, I loved that the pidgin language was including, as I remember reading about that aspect of Hawaii in a linguistics class, although I can’t speak to its accuracy.

Lastly, one of the defining aspects of Summer Bird Blue is sexuality. Rumi thinks she’s asexual and aromantic, but she feels a lot of pressure to know for certain, especially since mortality is so clear to her. This definitely resonates with a lot of LGBTQIAP+ folks, including myself. The novel explores a possible relationship but ultimately it’s a story about friendship, which we just don’t see enough in YA. I also really appreciated how Rumi frequently calls out heteronormativity, too, which was great.

Summer Bird Blue is a raw and painfully sad book, but one that ultimately is about healing and figuring yourself out, and it’s a worthwhile addition to the YA marketplace.

Review/Discussion: My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Genre: Middle grade historical fiction

Publisher: Candlewick

Publication Date: July 10, 2018

Synopsis:

my year in the middleIn a racially polarized classroom in 1970 Alabama, Lu’s talent for running track makes her a new best friend — and tests her mettle as she navigates the school’s social cliques.

Miss Garrett’s classroom is like every other at our school. White kids sit on one side and black kids on the other. I’m one of the few middle-rowers who split the difference.

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera just wants to keep her head down and get along with everyone in her class. Trouble is, Lu’s old friends have been changing lately — acting boy crazy and making snide remarks about Lu’s newfound talent for running track. Lu’s secret hope for a new friend is fellow runner Belinda Gresham, but in 1970 Red Grove, Alabama, blacks and whites don’t mix. As segregationist ex-governor George Wallace ramps up his campaign against the current governor, Albert Brewer, growing tensions in the state — and in the classroom — mean that Lu can’t stay neutral about the racial divide at school. Will she find the gumption to stand up for what’s right and to choose friends who do the same?

Disclaimer: I was provided an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

My Year in the Middle is a new middle grade novel set in a fictional Alabama town during the 1970s governor primary race featuring known racist and segregationist George Wallace. Lu’s family immigrated to the area from Argentina when she was young, like the author herself. Her school is now integrated, but in every class the white kids sit to one side, the black kids sit on the other, and Lu and other students–including the cute son of an anti-racist pastor, Sam–sit in the middle to show their solidarity. In this tension-filled environment where many of her former white friends are drifting away, planning to go to an all-white private school, Lu trains to win a race on field-day and her running buddy and new friend is a black girl.

Weaver illustrates the time period well, from music and fashion, to Lu’s vibrant voice filled with the cliches of the time, to microaggressions and more blatantly stated racist and sexist attitudes by adults and even fellow students. And yet, the comparison to attitudes of today are not far. Students today are most likely to socialize with those of their own race, and private schools and other options create the “white flight” we see in this novel. At one point, Lu attends a Wallace rally because she was promised a cakewalk and is horrified at the candidate’s speech where he calls his opponent by an offensive nickname and talks an awful lot about, well, making Alabama great again.

I found it interesting how Lu classifies herself as white, although a “foreigner,” because today the United States has very different attitudes toward Latinx people, many of which are sadly not positive. Lu does face some of this, but it’s also demonstrated that many don’t see her ethnicity and read her as white–her gym teacher is surprised to discover she speaks Spanish, and she knows adults seeing her talking with a black boy will think she is threatened. Mostly, her conflict about speaking up comes in part from her mother’s warning that people don’t like when foreigners get involved. Still, the concept of “the middle” applies to her own identity, and this was such a unique perspective to read from.

And yet, as a pivotal moment late in the novel demonstrates, being in the middle isn’t enough. Lu discovers she has to stand up and speak out for what’s right or justice won’t happen. She could avoid humiliation and unpopularity if she aligns herself with the privilege of the white students (something marginalized ethnicities have done in the history of America), but she doesn’t, despite how difficult speaking up can be. There is a LOT to think about here, and I kept reflecting on how this would be a fantastic book to teach with all the real-world connections.

The politics in this book come organically and very much through the eyes of a sixth-grader who is also occupied with school, friends, a crush, and sports. Interactions with her peers–especially with black students she connects with over common interests in running and music–are political and stir up tension just by existing. Her older sister is an intern for the candidate running against Wallace, she has to pay attention to the race for her social studies class, and the parents around her talk about it. Her scope of the election relates to how the it can impact her sixth-grade world…that a lot of white people really don’t want her black friends to go to school with her.

AND there is another major plot thread throughout the book that I loved! Lu, inspired by Olympic Gold Medalist Madeline Manning, desperately wants to win a long-distance race on field day and convince her parents to allow her to run on a track team being formed for the high school, even though their cultural values have led them to believe she should focus only on school and that it isn’t proper for girls to play sports. Plus, the older bully on the bus keeps talking about how his cousin is third in the state and will beat her. Lu pursues this goal with encouragement from her gym teacher and lengthy training sessions, first with her new friend, Belinda, whom she bonded with over their love for running in gym class, and later with her father’s and sister’s help. I loved that this emphasized all the hard work and small steps that go into accomplishing a larger goal, and the climactic race is worth it.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles with this book, however. An essay, a poem, and a song play major roles, and I would have loved to see these actually included in the text to give more insight into the characters. For instance, I wasn’t entirely sure what angle Lu took on her report on the Wallace rally and I’m still not sure, especially since essays today–even at the sixth-grade level–are much more than a recounting of events that I suspect was popular back in the 1970s. I also was a little conflicted of the treatment of Lu’s friend Abigail in the story…there’s an acknowledgement of the (white) privileges of fashion/glamor, and her tale is certainly one of conformity that sadly includes racism, but I wasn’t sure how to untangle these observations in a way that didn’t look down on her interest in boys and fashion. Perhaps because Lu also has a big crush? I think she just came across as a character without much depth and that certainly relates to her path to conformity, but it’s all tangled up in a “silly” crush and so on. Lu is wise enough to see that Abigail likes him more than he likes her, and I don’t blame her for being upset, but it veered pretty close to some anti-teen-girl tropes. Perhaps something else to talk about with readers. The knowledge and worldliness Lu has in comparison is definitely because of her different experience with racism and inability to fully benefit from white privilege, while Abigail can cast that aside and come away from the Wallace rally only caring about the cakewalk experience. Yeah, the more I think about this, the more her character development and lack of shades makes sense, and boys and fashion should be interpreted as an extension of that, rather than evidence for it.

My Year in the Middle is a book that I think all upper elementary/middle (and beyond!) students and teachers should read for its important messages, historical account, and wonderful protagonist!

ARC Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

Genre: YA contemporary mystery/thriller

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Publication date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis:

Sadie coverA gripping novel about the depth of a sister’s love; poised to be the next book you won’t be able to stop talking about.

A missing girl on a journey of revenge and a Serial-like podcast following the clues she’s left behind.

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Courtney Summers has written the breakout book of her career. Sadie is propulsive and harrowing and will keep you riveted until the last page.

Disclaimer: I was provided with an eARC from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

Sadie comes out in September and there’s already quite a bit of hype around it…and I’m just going to add to it, turns out. I have no regrets.

Sadie is split into two formats to tell its narrative: a investigative reporting podcast called The Girls in which West McCray–over a year after the incident–attempts to solve the murder of Mattie and the appearance of her older sister Sadie, and Sadie’s own first-person, present-tense narrative account. What’s great about this is you not only see how people were affected by the events, but it’s also constructed in a way that makes you feel like the reporters are just one step behind figuring out what happened to Sadie.

I think it’s best to go into this with knowing as little as possible about the plot, and that certainly worked for me, but I will say: major trigger warnings for child molestation, child pornography, and child neglect. I don’t think descriptions of such incidents are graphic, but Sadie does have flashbacks and the undertones are always there. Your mileage may vary.

It was kind of a slow-burn at first, but then I found I just needed to know. I absolutely tore through about the last two-thirds or half of the book. The great thing is the podcast chapters weren’t just recaps or the aftermath of what Sadie’s chapters told us…they uncovered things she wouldn’t tell because she was so upset and traumatized. No space was wasted. Even the podcast host got some character development! Plus, the writing was descriptive and atmospheric.

I really want to highlight some aspects of Sadie I found unique and important. There are plenty of books I haven’t read yet, but I do believe I’ve never seen abject poverty like this represented in YA. Sadie and her sister grew up in a trailer in a small Colorado town. Their mother is young, a heroin addict, and alcoholic, and they are often undernourished. Sadie “grew up” at a young age, taking on mothering responsibilities over her sister and dropping out of high school to work. All of this is dealt with from many perspectives thanks to the podcast. I also really liked Sadie’s description of her sexuality (a label isn’t mentioned, but it’s close to pansexuality, or another fluid/multiple-attraction identity) and appreciated that was included.

Speaking of the podcast–I admit I haven’t listened to Serial, the hit podcast The Girls seems to be based on, but I listen to a lot and it’s great to see this medium entering YA. Even more exciting: apparently, The Girls is being adapted to an actual podcast by the publisher! Despite the podcast’s title, there’s a lot of commentary in it about missing and dead girls in thrillers–a topic we’ve been discussing recently with hit titles like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, et al–and it explores Sadie with the nuance she needs. I’m not much of a thriller or mystery reader in part because of these plots, so if you have that trepidation like I do, I recommend checking out Sadie!

 

ARC Review: Fresh Ink (anthology)

Genre: YA contemporary/science-fiction/fantasy/graphic novel/historical fiction

Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Synopsis:

fresh ink.jpgIn partnership with We Need Diverse Books, thirteen of the most recognizable, diverse authors come together in this remarkable YA anthology featuring ten short stories, a graphic short story, and a one-act play from Walter Dean Myers never before in-print.

Careful–you are holding fresh ink. And not hot-off-the-press, still-drying-in-your-hands ink. Instead, you are holding twelve stories with endings that are still being written–whose next chapters are up to you.

Because these stories are meant to be read. And shared.

Thirteen of the most accomplished YA authors deliver a label-defying anthology that includes ten short stories, a graphic novel, and a one-act play. This collection will inspire you to break conventions, bend the rules, and color outside the lines. All you need is fresh ink.

Disclaimer: I was provided an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Books.

I think this is the first YA short story anthology I’ve read and I really enjoyed it! Like all collections, what’s inside varies and different stories will appeal to different readers. I appreciated this one included a play and a graphic/comics story. I sort of wish it was longer, but I think its size also contributes to its feeling of immediacy, and the short stories might appeal to struggling or less avid readers. This would be especially great for new YA readers because they can be exposed to many authors and then check out their other works. It’s also great for teens looking to see themselves in literature–I believe all are #ownvoices for people of color, and many are LGBTQ as well. Ultimately, I think this anthology might help students interested in writing their own stories and introduce them to new authors to read.

Now, to talk about each story…

“Eraser Tattoo” by Jason Reynolds: This is a cute story about a teen couple in Brooklyn saying goodbye before one of them moves away. It weaves in the backstory of their friendship and romantic relationship, and I loved how I felt I was also sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn while reading it (helps I’ve been there). Unfortunately, there are still occurrences of everyday white privilege that rears its head.

“Meet Cute” by Malinda Lo: This is about a black Dana Scully cosplayer and a female Sulu (from Star Trek) cosplayer who meet at a con and the power goes out. And they’re cute and slowly discover they’re both queer and by the end you’re rooting for them to trade numbers. I loved this because I’m a huge X-Files and Star Trek fan and the commentary was great and hilarious, even if some comments about Star Trek have already become outdated due to the new series Discovery.

“Don’t Pass Me By” by Eric Gansworth: This story about a Native American boy going to a public school outside of the Reservation has lots of great commentary on how the school system treats Indigenous people and the concept of a “normal” skin color being white. It’s unfortunately a viewpoint we don’t see enough in YA or fiction in general. I also appreciated that this wasn’t a romance like so many of the others are.

“Be Cool for Once” by Aminah Mae Safi: This is a really cute story about a Muslim girl attending a rock concert with her friend and her crush shows up. He can’t really be there for her, can he? I loved how fleshed-out the characters were and how Shirin grew.

“Tags” by Walter Dean Myers: This short play was apparently written by Myers before he died. It takes place on a street the young male characters are trying to “tag,” each telling about how they died. The format definitely sets it up for the fantastical premise. Unfortunately, and especially since it’s short, it can be easy to mix up who is who while reading which is a problem I still have with plays and I’ve been reading them for a while. That said, I think it still has the potential to be powerful with young readers and I’m glad this different format was included in the collection.

“Why I Learned to Cook” by Sara Farizan: This was a really sweet story about an Iranian-American bi girl learning to cook Persian food with her grandmother for her girlfriend, though she isn’t out yet to her grandmother. I liked the overall themes, though I found the writing style rather bland.

“A Stranger at the Bochinche” by Daniel José Older: This was definitely unlike any of the others…a fantasy set in something like 1800s Brooklyn with a monster. The writing is very atmospheric and I admit I had trouble following it at the beginning, but by the end I was along for the ride.

“A Boy’s Duty” by Sharon G. Flake: This was a historical fiction story about a black boy during the World War II. I honestly had trouble following it and I don’t think much happened, but I appreciated the atmosphere the writing generated.

“One Voice: A Something in Between Story” by Melissa de la Cruz: This timely story follows the effect two hate speech graffiti incidents at Stanford has on an undocumented Filipina student. I loved that it was told in sections and the messages and discussions were definitely on-point.

“Paladin/Samurai” by Gene Luen Yang, Thien Pham (illustrations): This was maybe the shortest of the bunch, but the little narrative trick it pulled was cute and enjoyable. It’s about a group of kids playing a Dungeons and Dragons-like game, the girl some of them like, and their identities.

“Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar: This story is about a trans boy swimmer who has just come out to the whole world and the team and is navigating his first practice back. Some other boys are welcoming, some are not (tw for slurs), but he prevails. This is a good example of showing what might happen after coming out, as so many stories only cover understanding one’s identity and coming out.

“Super Human” by Nicola Yoon: Maybe this is because I read this last, but I think this is my favorite, and I think it succeeds on a great concept and execution that’s perfect for the short story format. It’s about X, the world’s one and only superhero who has vowed to destroy the world, and the one girl who has been chosen to stop him (because shew as the first he saved). The catch: the superhero is a black teen. There’s some great satire to how the world reacted to this that echoes events like Obama becoming president, but of course, there’s much deeper and heartfelt commentary to be had about the way society treats black teens and their double identities (code-switching). The girl (Syrita) is black too, but from an upper-class background with different experiences. The ending is perfect, too.

Catch-Up Reviews: Turtles All the Way Down, Wild Beauty, Exit Pursued by a Bear

This has been a long time coming. Here are some mini-reviews and thoughts about books I wasn’t quite able to cover on this blog because of school. Turtles All the Way Down I read in December, Wild Beauty in January, and Exit, Pursued by a Bear in April/May.

A small update: I’m thinking of doing monthly wrap-up reviews this summer because I’m trying to focus less time on blogging, discuss books rather than review them (focusing on my position as an author and teacher), and spend more time writing. We’ll see how this goes. In the fall when I’m back at school, I plan to finally start a YouTube channel about books and teaching and writing. We’ll see!!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

turtles all the way downI read most of John Green’s books several years ago. I still enjoy his YouTube stuff with his brother Hank–especially when they’re providing educational materials like Crash Course–but I figured I wouldn’t pick up the book he came out with next. And then it was announced last summer, and it featured a girl with OCD, and since I’d seen John Green’s videos talking about his OCD, I knew I had to read it. There aren’t that many #ownvoices depictions in YA, and I’ve enjoyed what I have read (Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here and Adam Silvera’s History is All You Left Me).

So, mental health is complicated, but as far as I know right now, according to professionals, I’m on the OCD or OCPD (the personality disorder) spectrum. Even though mine doesn’t manifest in the same way Aza’s does, but I definitely found similarities in the “thought spirals” and her obsession with a cut on her finger. I think a lot of depictions of OCD tend to focus on the actions and leave out the thoughts, which are such a key component. Green depicts these by manipulating language/sentence/paragraph structure, which works well.

I really appreciated the specific setting and references to it (Indianapolis). The story addresses issues of money, including how it relates to college, which I really appreciated because it really is on the mind of high school students. At first I found some of the characterization flimsy and there was some unhealthiness in the romance and friendship the story focuses on, but that ended up being addressed. (Unfortunately I read this a while ago and my notes aren’t too clear about it, but I remember being pleased at the directions it took, and also it would probably be a spoiler anyway.) Overall, definitely my favorite John Green book another great addition to the #ownvoices YA books on OCD, because everyone’s experiences are different!

Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

wild beautyThis book is as gorgeous inside as it is on the outside. It’s a magical realism story about a Latina family, the Nomeolvides, where the men disappear and the women all can grow flowers. Their land, La Predera, keeps them isolated from the community that is afraid of them and their powers. Then a boy shows up, speaking no English without memories of where he came from, and the Nomeolvides women wonder if it’s one of their male lovers from the past.

The writing is certainly beautiful, but the story also deals with themes of colonialism, immigration, privilege, sexuality, and family. At the beginning, the five girls of the youngest generation all have a crush on their neighbor, a girl (who dresses more masculinely), and this is just accepted–even though the girls know their mothers and grandmothers are not accustomed to this. The main character, Estrella, develops feelings for the mysterious boy named Fel, and it’s great to see a queer girl in a f/m relationship because I feel like that is underrepresented often in stories. And the discoveries and plot twists? Amazing.

There are definitely others better qualified than me to talk about where this book and the rest of McLemore’s novels (which I’m excited to read soon!) lie within the canon of magical realism, but based on my limited knowledge I can see how the story and themes of colonialism and family fit into that Latin American tradition, with the addition of sexuality representation. I can’t wait to read more of her books!

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

exit pursued by a bear.jpgI picked this up because I was studying Winter’s Tale and adaptations in my Shakespeare class, so I was curious about how that frankly bizarre story was interpreted through a contemporary YA lens. It’s a rather loose adaptation and focuses on the Hermione character (also named Hermione), who while at a cheer camp her final year of high school is drugged and raped, found unconscious in a lake. She doesn’t have memories of the incident

I know some people feel that this book works out very conveniently; Hermione is not met with negativity from investigators (and the main police officer assigned to her is female). Her choice what to do when she discovers she is pregnant is explored and fully supported (although it is Canada which does have different laws concerning health care, etc). Indeed, that means it often lacks tension throughout, but I also think that’s important because there is this gentle healing tone throughout the book, and lose ends are tied up. (That said, I thought there could have been more atmosphere and work on the secondary characters.) Plus, Hermione struggles with this calmness herself, as she lacks memories of the incident. While it was sensitive and didn’t “shy away” from things (I’m putting quotes because I don’t like how that phrase is used to justify some things…looking at you, 13 Reasons Why), Exit, Pursued by a Bear definitely is important for showing that not all stories about rape have to be brutal, dark, and sad.


That’s it for now! What are you reading? I’m hoping to post my June Wrap-Up soon!

Review: Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Balzer & Bray

Publication date: April 24, 2018

Synopsis:

leahLeah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

About a year ago, I read Becky Albertalli’s first two books: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and The Upside of Unrequited, and I really enjoyed them–especially Simon, because his anxieties over coming out were very relatable to me personally. Sadly, my plans to see Love, Simon with friends this spring fell through (darn schoolwork!), but I’m sure I’ll see it soon. So as school wound down this year, it seemed only fitting to read her new release, Leah on the Offbeat. (And somehow no one had checked it out from my library’s Libby yet!)

Leah is a sequel of Simon of sorts, taking place during their next and final year of high school. It’s from Simon’s friend Leah’s perspective, and she’s bi but hasn’t come out to any of her friends yet, even though she’s known since she was eleven. She’s also still a drummer in her band, outspoken, and body-positive. All of this is great. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed.

First of all: this was difficult for me to read personally. This isn’t a criticism of the writing itself…in fact, it might be a compliment. The senior year of high school feelings of high school were very on-point, but it reminded me of my own intense feelings from that time, especially when the story dealt with break-ups, college anxieties, and prom. (Ugh, prom. But if Leah taught me anything, it’s that promposals maybe are okay if they’re  not as overwhelmingly heteronormative as the rest of prom is?) Leah’s own anxiety was absolutely on point, and I related to that; it was just difficult to read. I really loved her commentary on how expensive college visits/applications/etc were and how she felt left out because she was going to a state school, and how she didn’t want a public promposal because of her anxiety. And that prom scene with the realization that it’s all going to be over soon? Yup. Real.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Simon, so I don’t think I can comment too much on the continuity of the characters between that and this, but I do have some thoughts. Simon and Bram were adorable and had relatable anxieties and were probably my favorite part. Morgan and Anna had a tough and important storyline to play with Leah (“what if your best friends since middle school are not the people you still want to hang out with because they have a tendency to be racist/forgive racist comments easily?”), but I barely remembered them from the first book and felt like I was missing something. I really wish the band had gotten more time, and that was what I thought from the title, and mostly I wish Taylor had been more fleshed out. Nick seems to be who many are disappointed about, but my main concern with him is how he was a loose end kind of tossed away at the end. Seriously, is he okay?? He seems to be heading into self-destructive behavior and alcohol usage and I’m just really worried as someone who went through a big break-up around that time, too. I understand not everything is tied up by the end of high school, but Leah’s “three months later” email to Simon didn’t seem to indicate they were taking the issue seriously as his friends.

Some parts definitely felt like fanfiction, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s nice commentary to see two female characters from the original fall for each other like many had hoped, as there had been hints in Simon. I was more ambivalent about it because I think I just have a limit for shipping and romcom tropes, personally. But…how this was approached was frustrating to me at the least.

THIS IS WHERE WE HEAD INTO SPOILER TERRITORY. HEADS UP.

So…all the Leah/Abby interactions were definitely cute and swoony, and while they only just begin their relationship at the end, I just felt like there was something missing there…mostly, more of an emotional connection. There were opportunities for it, but Leah kept avoiding it in a very frustrating and almost hurtful way.

Abby tries to express the fact that she has wanted to kiss her for a year and a half and is questioning her sexuality, but Leah shuts down and isn’t supportive of this. This makes sense initially, as she’s hurt because her first kiss has possibly been “stolen” by a straight girl, and it’s all consistent with Leah’s brash personality. THEN Abby comes out to her as “lowkey bi” after discussing this with her cousins (from Upside!) and Leah shuts her down, insisting this isn’t a real thing. Which is false, because it’s a spectrum…surely Leah is on Tumblr enough to know about the Kinsey scale and such. And while painful to read, this scene is still consistent with Leah’s character and ratchets up the tension.

But…this never gets addressed. At the end Leah just accepts that their feelings are mutual, and Abby never explicitly comes out and they never have an opportunity to discuss their sexuality, which would have been interesting and honestly a discussion that should be had after Leah’s previous behavior. Because Leah just never apologizes!! That’s just it!! And as a result, their conflict just doesn’t feel resolved but rather brushed aside, kind of allowing Leah’s behavior.

END OF SPOILERY SECTION

Ultimately, while Leah on the Offbeat was as enjoyable to read as any Albertalli book and depicted emotions well, the central love story left many loose ends and issues not addressed, leaving the conflict feeling unresolved in a troublesome way to me.

PSA: THERE IS A PREVIEW OF WHAT IF IT’S US IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. IT IS ADORABLE.

Review: The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Delacourte

Release Date: March 6, 2018

Synopsis:

the beauty that remainsMusic brought Autumn, Shay, and Logan together. Death wants to tear them apart.

Autumn always knew exactly who she was—a talented artist and a loyal friend. Shay was defined by two things: her bond with her twin sister, Sasha, and her love of music. And Logan always turned to writing love songs when his love life was a little less than perfect.

But when tragedy strikes each of them, somehow music is no longer enough. Now Logan can’t stop watching vlogs of his dead ex-boyfriend. Shay is a music blogger struggling to keep it together. And Autumn sends messages that she knows can never be answered.

Despite the odds, one band’s music will reunite them and prove that after grief, beauty thrives in the people left behind.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Beauty That Remains is–as you might guess from the title–is a rather beautiful book. It follows three distinct POVs: Autumn, whose best friend died in a car accident; Logan, whose ex-boyfriend died by suicide; and Shay, whose twin sister died after a battle with cancer. These are all different and distinct perspectives; Autumn is quiet and wracked with guilt; Logan is angry and turning to alcohol; and Shay is dealing with increasing anxiety.

And, of course, the stories begin to intertwine in a satisfying way, surrounding an important, now-defunct band of the local music scene. I loved how music influenced all of the characters, whether it was listening, viewing, managing, singing, creating, reviewing…it’s very much the world I’m in right now and so I loved the atmosphere Woodfolk created.

I really liked the inclusion of the social media of the dead characters at the beginning of each chapter. As someone who has experienced how social media has reacted to the deaths of friends and family, it really resonated, as did the various other inclusions of social media. These kids are YouTubers, bloggers…that’s the world we live in.

Shay was maybe my favorite character; her anxiety was so relatable, and I loved how her friends stepped up to help her out. Logan worried me at first he was so troubled and had some really negative perspectives, but everything ended up being addressed in this therapy and along his journey. Autumn I didn’t grow as attached to, probably because she was more internal. That said, the various relationships–family, friends, and romantic–and how those changed over the course of the story was really well done.

This is a quieter, very character-driven book, but I found it very compelling as the characters grow and the threads come together. By the end, it appropriately felt like a healing process.

Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Genre: YA fantasy/fairy-tale

Publisher: Flatiron

Publication Date: January 30, 2018

Synopsis:

hazel woodSeventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

Well, I’m back. I had a LOT of reading to do for school and also have been sick, so I wasn’t able to read much else. Now it’s spring break, and I finally finished my first ARC of 2018, so here we go! Disclaimer: I received an eARC for Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I think The Hazel Wood is a book that works for me in pieces, but not as a whole. There are about three parts to this novel. The first, which I found quite gripping, was a combination of Alice’s backstory with her mysterious fairy-tale bestseller grandma and mysterious happenings to her, culminating in the disappearance of her mother to the “Hinterland,” the place from the fairy tales. Then she goes to Ellery Finch, a rich boy from her school who knows about her grandmother and even managed to read a copy of the book once, and they try to track down the Hinterland while avoiding supernatural forces stopping them. This section dragged more for me. And finally, as you might expect, they reach this fantasy world.

I won’t spoil, but something did happen in between the second and third sections described above that made me lose investment in the story because it came across as negating a lot of what the novel had put time and effort into, making a good chunk of the book inessential for a cheap plot twist. Of course, it’s not all as it seems, but I’m not sure I found the conclusion is all that satisfying, either.

Otherwise, the fairy-tale world section was enchanting, disturbing, and definitely the most interesting, and even though it seems to come in at a bizarre place in the novel, it’s definitely the resolution. Of course, that means there’s a lot of exposition to swallow. That said, there were some good twists, great descriptions, and really interesting metafictional aspects that made me like the concept (the mysterious book of fairy-tales) even more than I did at the beginning.

Albert’s overall writing style was great: there were plenty of great turns-of-phrases, figurative language, creepy sequences, and pop-culture references. Like others, I found Alice frustrating, but the plot ended up explaining some of this so I can’t really complain, I suppose, though I really wish I got to see her develop more relationships. I rather liked the ending…I understand there is going to be a sequel now (perhaps a trilogy?), but it’s written as a stand-alone and I think it can be read that way because it wraps up neatly. I frankly don’t think this is a series I’m interested in reading more of (which is no surprise if you know my lack of interest in series).

Review: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Publication date: January 2, 2018

Genre: YA contemporary

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Summary:

you'll miss me when I'm goneEighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.

But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.

When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.

These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?

From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is a complex contemporary novel that’s gripping and very human. Told in dual perspective, Adina and Tovah both have distinct passions, voices, and characteristics, and you really get to know them and their family before the test results so you feel the impact of it. The alternating perspective really does allow for an understanding of the complex reasoning behind the decisions and emotions each twin has, as flawed as it might be, though often that’s because of information they aren’t privy to. But that wasn’t in a frustrating lack of communication way; it all made sense because of their characters and situations. This made it incredibly realistic, especially as it grappled with intense topics. (TW for self-harm and suicide ideation.) The thought-provoking topics of genetic testing, assisted suicide, religion, family, and relationships are handled very well and will make you think about where the story might go.

For a YA book, college admissions is a major focus, and frankly I very much needed this book when I was a senior. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I found that Tovah’s eventual peace at not having her life completely planned out as she had originally hoped–including with her relationship–was so important and something I REALLY needed at that time in my life. Meanwhile, it was refreshing to hear about a teen pursuing classical music, as you don’t see that too much in media (meanwhile, Tovah’s love for more modern music also adds to the music love which I appreciate). Each twin’s romantic relationship was also well-explored as they navigated the differences between lust and love from different perspectives. Toxic situations are called out, and there are many sex-positive discussions about relationships, desire, and contraceptives.

I also appreciated the many details of Judiasm in this book. Adina and Tovah’s mother is Israeli, and they speak Hebrew with her and to each other at times and are raised as Conservative Jewish. The distinction between this and other forms of Judiasm are explored, as is how American society tends to ignore it. Adina, Tovah, and their parents all have different relationships to their religion and culture, especially influenced by their mother’s declining health due to the genetic disease of Huntington’s. I learned a lot and found this complexity not just interesting, but realistic.

Ultimately, this was such a good read that was not afraid to push its characters to act logically and emotionally when confronting big topics, while still managing to wrangle the messiness into a satisfying ending.