Posted in Book Review

Review: Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

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Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman, Sky Pony Press, 288 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥

In order to fully discuss this book, I had to include some spoilers. You’ve been warned! Also please note that I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 🙂

When I look for the perfect “summer” book, I try and find books with a few recurring motifs on the covers: sunny skies, ocean waves, seashells, footprints in the sand and girls in bathing suits. Lisa Freeman’s latest novel Riptide Summer, the sequel to Honey Girl, fits the bill. I read this sunny story about surfing, friendship and heartbreak and paving your own way on the beach and enjoyed its historical setting, Hawaiian MC and raw setting. I loved Freeman’s first novel, but had some issues with the sequel that I will discuss below.

In Riptide Summer, Nani has become an official member of the Sisters of Sand, a clique of girls who own the State Beach scene in sunny Southern California. However, after Nani’s illicit relationship with fellow Sister of Sand Rox implodes in the wake of a shocking secret, Jean’s alcoholism spirals and

One of the most effective parts of this book was its setting in the 1970s. There aren’t many historical fiction stories in YA that also read like a fresh and relevant summer contemporary novel. I loved Freeman’s descriptions of the clothes that Nani would wear and the general cultural attitudes of the time like women’s liberation. In fact, I wish that Freeman had brought this rich culture more to the forefront of the novel.

I also loved the book’s characters. Riptide Summer features a diverse set of girls with different attitudes and experiences. I liked Nani’s journey through her confusion and insecurities towards taking a step to becoming the girl she was meant to be. Rox wasn’t my favorite character, but she felt real, like girls I’ve known and had falling outs with. I loved Ellie (aka Ms. ERA) and her sassy feminism, and I hope I’m not wrong in her name being a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt. I loved Windy/Wendy and the way she connects to Nani through queer female writing. There were cute book boys too, but they all seemed like caricatures at times. The girls stole the show in this one.

There were parts of the plot that worked for me and part that didn’t. I definitely wish that Nani surfing had been a more major part of the book. I felt like some of the scenes with the girls on the beach were a little repetitive. I would have liked to see Nani’s relationship with Jean fleshed out more and more scenes with her and Windy during the end of the book. Overall, it was a summer book. It was a quick, breezy, drama-packed novel.

My biggest issue with this book is that it didn’t feel at times like it treated serious issues with the gravity and significance that they deserved, particularly domestic violence, abortion and sex. I wish that Freeman had taken a few more paragraphs or sentences to outline what is okay in these situations and what is not. That extra clarity would have been appropriate in a book targeted to young readers, and girls in particular.

I was also really disheartened when, at the end of the novel, it takes Nani losing her virginity to Jerry in order to fully realize that she likes girls. I feel that this scene, while only two pages, presents a dangerous idea that a girl has to have sex with a guy, a major, major emotional event, in order to confirm her sexuality for herself. Girls reading this review. Please know that you NEVER have to do that. What you label yourself as is valid. Your confusion is valid. But you never need to have sex with a guy to “confirm” your sexuality. While I recognize that the novel takes place in the 1970s, the idea that this scene gives young queer girls reading this book for its representation is potentially dangerous.

The scene also omits any mention of protection (again, this book takes place after women’s liberation so I find it unlikely the idea of birth control wouldn’t have at least passed Nani’s mind at some point, especially after her friend gets pregnant). The scene also rests on a very shaky, murky notion of consent. Nani even refers to sex with a guy as being like a riptide, a comparison I found, as someone who has been sexually assaulted in the past, as problematic and potentially harmful for young readers who aren’t getting the significance of this moment from this scene. Young adult authors have a certain level of responsibility when writing about certain issues for their readers, sex being one of them.  

Overall, this novel felt like a transitional one in both content and style for this series. The writing style was choppy at points and beautiful in others. While the ending felt a little rushed and a bit too neatly tied up, I am anxiously waiting to hear if Freeman will be continuing Nani’s story. I would definitely love to where she takes her and the other Sisters of Sand after the end of this book.

Posted in Book Review

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

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Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 400 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

There are some tropes I will never get tired of in YA. One of them is the trope of secret communication bringing unlike-minded people together. It’s even better when they exchange handwritten notes or letters. The use of that trope as the keystone in Brigid Kemmerer’s new novel Letters to the Lost made me super excited to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Kemmerer’s novel is about Juliet, a teen girl grieving the loss of her famous warzone photographer mother, and Declan, a boy assigned to community service after one tragic night that spiraled out of his broken past. At its heart, the novel is a beautiful, complex, funny and sad story about loss, grief, redemption and love. I also want to note that, in service of not spoiling anything because this is a book that truly reveals itself over time, my review might come off as a little bit vague.

I loved these characters. Juliet wasn’t the most “likeable” character but as someone who has lost a very close relative and spends a great deal of time with their gravestone I was really able to connect to her emotion and pain. I was also able to connect to Declan’s regret and pain over his past. I really loved how Kemmerer showed that the reckless actions and irresponsibility of adults have heartbreaking consequences on their children, which I think she captures with great complexity, depth and skill in his narrative.

I was also really able to connect to Juliet’s realization that the adults we look up to in our families aren’t always what they seem. This turned out to be a theme in the novel that connected Juliet and Declan’s story. I thought that was a great lesson to be inserted into a YA book and one that I wish more books would tackle.

Interestingly, one of the best parts of this book for me was the relationship that Juliet and Declan had with the adults around them. I was rooting for Juliet to sort out her emotions with not only her dead mother, but also her father who she’d been having difficulty communicating with since her mother passed away. Seeing their relationship unfold was one of my favorite parts of this book. I also loved seeing the friendship between Rowan and Juliet, and would have liked to see that developed a little more.

In Declan’s narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how intricate and not-surface level his relationship was with his mother and stepfather. Kemmerer really pushes Declan beyond the trope of the “secretly sensitive bad boy.” His emotions towards his family and his best friend, Rev, came off the page. In short, Declan is one of the most complex male characters in YA that I’ve read in a while.

I also really, really loved how Kemmerer developed Declan and Juliet’s relationships with the teachers who helped them. I still remember the teachers who I felt saw and understood me in high school, the ones who helped redirect my path as a somewhat troubled teen into the success I’ve had today. It was a joy to see that unfold on the pages of this novel. I found myself hoping that teachers will pick up this book and understand how important it is to have empathy and understanding for students, especially the ones with a “reputation.”

Of course, Letters to the Lost was not without its faults. The writing style was a little clunky throughout, which occasionally took me out of the story. I also really wish that Kemmerer had been more specific and paid more attention to Juliet’s panic attacks and the specific symptoms of her complicated grief, as I felt that would have added more dimension and emotion to the novel. Honestly, this is the type of book where I keep realizing new things that I love about it.

However, these minor issues were largely easy to look past and admire all the beauty and strength that this story contains. Fans of Kasie West’s novel P.S. I Like You, who also enjoy the darker side of YA, will love this book that explores romance, friendship, family, grief and more. I could go on and on about it more, but I think it would be better if you read it or picked it up right now. You won’t regret it.

Have you read Letters to the Lost? Do you also like stories where the main characters get to know each other through secret messages? Let me know below!

Posted in Book Review

Review: You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

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You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner, Knopf, 304 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

We should all know by now that diversity and accurate representation are super important in YA. However, diversity in books also makes for kickass storytelling and is a way to start learning about and understanding various types of people. Also, intersectionality is key, meaning showing layered diverse experiences. If you’re looking for a place to start, I can’t recommend Whitney Gardner’s diverse debut You’re Welcome, Universe enough.

Julia, the main character, is a Deaf Indian girl with two moms. Oh, and she’s a kickass graffiti artist. After tagging her school to defend her best friend Jordyn’s honor, Julia is expelled and sent to public school in  where she struggles to make friends and relies upon Casey, an interpreter, to communicate with those around her. Her only outlet is graffiti, which she must keep a secret, and even that seems like it may be taken away from her by a rival.

One of the parts I loved best about this book is its representation of Deaf culture. I can’t speak to its accuracy because I’m a hearie and thus not Deaf, but I felt like I learned a lot about the experience of being Deaf, signing and some of the struggles of living without hearing through reading this book.

Building off of that, I loved Julia’s voice. She’s a teenage girl who doesn’t take any shit, but she’s also vulnerable and still coming into her own. I loved her descriptions of working with her art and her sarcasm. Her personality jumped off the page and I liked feeling like I was going on this journey with her, as she learned what it meant to be both a friend and an artist, no matter the cost.

If you’re looking for a contemporary read where romance isn’t the central plot line or even a sub plot line and isn’t totally sad, this is the book for you. It has so much heart and at its core is a tale of friendship and reaching one’s potential, whatever that might mean.

The other characters were all depicted in a way that was nuanced and intriguing. YP was one of my favorite characters. I found Jordyn and Donovan to be super annoying, but I can relate to having a fallout with a friend who you felt closer to than they did to you. I also loved Mr. Katz, as I found that my art teachers were always some of the most supportive when I was in high school. Mee and Ma, Julia’s moms, were also highlights.

Gardner spun a tale that was pieces funny and sad, but always honest and unflinchingly real. I loved the little details that exposed some of the character’s struggles in a way that was impactful even if they were only a sentence or two. From the discrimination Mee and Ma face to comments Julia must endure at her job at McDonald’s,

The design of this book was also phenomenally done. The girl on the cover actually matches the description of Julia in the book, down to her signature yellow Docs. I also liked that the cover uses Julia’s tag in the book and shows that she’s a WOC. The chapter headings were adorable emoticon faces, which Julia uses throughout the book as well. Finally, the illustrations are gorgeous. I just wish there were more.

This isn’t to say the book was without its flaws. A little bit more background on graffiti culture was needed, as Julia’s concerns didn’t always seem to line up with the situation. Additionally, there were some parts of the book that fell flat for me. Julia should’ve just ditched on Jordyn right away and the drama between Kyle and Julia didn’t come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. The bad guy who turns out to be kind of a good guy trope is getting old. Parts like this felt a little forced, but they didn’t overpower what was otherwise a very strong book.

This book is super worth the read. It’s quick, it’s fairly light and it’s super good. You’re not going to want to miss out on this gorgeous contemporary. Plus, the last scene is super, super cute, but you have to read it yourself to find out why. 😉

Posted in Book Review

Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

 

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Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Flatiron Books, 416 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

 

As a self-professed lover of all books contemporary, I need to stop opening up every fantasy review I write with: “I don’t often read fantasy but when I do…” However, it works here so…I don’t often read fantasy, but when I do, the books I pick usually blow me away with dazzling world-building, high stakes, swoony romance and nail-bitingly juicy adventures. I got all of these things from Stephanie Garber’s debut YA high fantasy Caravalthe first book in a new duology that will capture adventurous readers from the first page.

Caraval is a scintillating tale of sisterhood, devotion, determination and mind-bending games. Scarlett and Donatella are sisters in near captivity under the gaze of their abusive father. Scarlett thinks the only escape for her and her sister is an arranged marriage until they get the opportunity to travel to a magnificent performance and game called Caraval. Scarlett has been yearning to go to see the spectacle since she was a child. But when the sisters take a leap of faith to see the show, things quickly go terribly wrong, turning their story into a race against time, odds and madness. A beautifully written performance in and of itself, Caraval is a gorgeous display of verbal splendor and nail-biting narrative.

However, please note that I’m keeping this review intentionally on the vague side. I went into this book with little background and I was amazed at how good it was. I heard the hype, but didn’t know details, and I want my review to keep that experience in tact for other readers.

If you like strong, multi-faceted female protagonists, then Caraval is the book for you. I was struck by dutiful but fierce Scarlett and bubbly, mischievous Tella from the beginning.  Their personalities jumped off the page and I quickly became invested in their story. Scarlett and Tella surprised me again and again and again with their strength and wit as well as their vulnerabilities. Their closeness was also endearing and the relationship between them made the book feel a little bit like Phantom of the Opera meets Frozen.  

The love interest (name redacted to make this review as spoiler free as possible), whose role in the story was predictable, but enjoyable. He was actually one of my favorite characters-brooding, snarky and surprising. Fans of slow burn romance or romance that is there but doesn’t take over the entire narrative arc will want in on this book as well. I’ll leave it at that. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know more. *wink*

In terms of premise, this book rocks it. In terms of world-building, this book hits it out of the park. Think Cirque du Soleil, but better and with magic. Garber is a master at describing colors and visual detail. You will feel like you are there in the story. Every detail was nuanced and careful. This book is just damn good storytelling and description. Garber is a talent and I can’t wait to read what else she writes in the future.

I did have a few qualms about the book. The very end gets very explain-y. I read some parts three times and I’m still not sure exactly what happened and who I can and can’t trust going into the second book. My other complaint is the fact that there’s a second book. I started this book thinking it was a standalone and was a bit mad when I found out I now have to wait for a sequel. But that’s a matter of personal preference.

Overall, this book was dazzling, a rare new gem in my library. The cover is amazing, the page design is beautiful, but it’s the story contained within the pretty package that’s the best part. Enjoy! And remember, it’s only a game. Or is it?

 

 

Posted in Book Review

Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, Katherine Tegen Books, 400 pp.

Please note that I was given an advance copy of the book from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Full disclosure: Everyone in my family, myself included, is a huge fan of crime dramas and those twisty crime “documentaries” that run on late night cable networks like 48 Hours. We love to try and guess the turns in the cases and guessing who did whatever crime is being discussed. I’ve never really seen those kinds of stories represented in YA, so I was thrilled to discover Tiffany D. Jackson’s gripping debut Allegedly.

Jackson’s novel tells the story of Mary, a sixteen-year-old black girl who was accused and prosecuted for killing a three-month-old white baby when she was nine-years-old. Living in an abusive group home for troubled teen girls and having recently discovered she is pregnant, she decides to take a stand and try to reopen her case for a second chance.

The best part about this book is the crucial diversity of narrative it brings to contemporary YA fiction. There are not enough YA books that include both representation of urban slang and complex, richly written WOC protagonists who jump off the page. This is one of them. Whether you like or hate Mary as a character, it’s almost impossible to deny that this book and its characters are excellently written. Mary is simultaneously the bright girl she was as a child and the resourceful prisoner she has learned to be. She doubts herself after years of adults calling her a monster, but still tries to find a way to take the SATs so she can go to college. Her narration was tender, perseverant and vulnerable.

The book also takes the reader to communities of black women and the importance of family and friendship, from churches to group homes. The relationship between Mary and her Momma was one of the most twisted relationships I have ever seen in YA. This book is a manifesto for the desperate acts that mothers will do for their children and vice versa. For the sake of not spoiling anything, you’re going to have to read this book to find out more for yourself.

The characters in this book are all nuanced and complex, from the girls in Mary’s group home to her attorney Ms. Cora to her child’s father Ted. This book doesn’t promise likeability, but it delivers on high emotions and high stakes dialog and relationships. It’s a book that will keep you on your toes from start to finish. I pride myself in picking out twists and even I didn’t see some of the biggest twists in this book coming.

My only problems with this book were pacing and its untied ending. The beginning of this book dragged for me and there were a few points where I really had to push myself through the static plot. However, the last bit of the novel started to move a little too quickly and by the end, I wasn’t satisfied that the whole story had been told. I wanted more and felt like Mary’s arc hadn’t been completely finished. It felt like a chapter or two was left off the end, or at the very least an epilogue showing a glimpse of the future.

Besides these snags, Allegedly is a worthwhile read if you are looking for dark, gritty, diverse contemporary YA fiction. It’s a book you won’t want to miss, because it’s one I’m sure people are going to be talking about for a while. And I can’t wait to see what Jackson, who has already shown herself to be a tactile writer and thorough researcher, has to offer in her next novel and the one after that and the one after that.

 

Posted in Book Review

Review: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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A List of Cages by Robin Roe, Disney-Hyperion, 320 pp. Source

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

 
True brothers aren’t always blood related. Sometimes it’s the people we are fated to be around that become our true family and the people who affect us the most. This is certainly true in Robin Roe’s touching new novel A List of Cages.

Adam Blake is a popular guy who’s close to his social worker mom. Julian was a foster child in his home for months before being taken in by a distant uncle, who cut off all contact with the Blake family. When Julian and Adam are reunited, partially due to an assignment to Adam from the school psychologist who he works as an aid for, a series of events is set off that will bring the boys together, but also threaten to separate them for good.

I love books about sibling relationships and unconventional families. In that vein, this book did not disappoint. Despite not being genetically related, in every other way Adam and Julian felt like brothers. The way that Adam so tirelessly included Julian in his life was such a pure demonstration of brotherly love, and one of the things that I love about this book most.

On a craft level, this book is well written. It checks off all the boxes on the qualities of a dark contemporary without feeling too much like an issue book. It has flashbacks. It has some suspense. It has some scenes that will make you flinch. Trigger warning for physical and emotional abuse and violence, with strong implications of sexual abuse. The overall tone is dark and intense, but there are lighter moments and an overarching theme of hope and love.

Bridging a discussion of craft and character, Adam and Julian were my favorite characters by far. The novel is told from the two boys’ perspectives and each voice was richly developed. Adam’s energy and good intentions shined in his narration while Julian’s quiet resilience and hesitation shined in his. I was happy to see on the page representation of ADHD in Adam and dyslexia in Julian as well, both of which are needed in books for teens and adolescents.

The depiction of Adam’s mom, his friends Charlie, Matt, Emerald and co. and Julian’s uncle Russell were also well developed. If anything I would have liked to see more of Adam’s mom and it took me a while to get Adam’s friends straight. There is also a romance between Adam and a girl (I’ll keep it spoiler free) that was cute but seemed unnecessary and didn’t add much to the plot.

All of the adults in this book are super incompetent so if you’re a fan of the musical Spring Awakening, you might like this book too. Between the teacher’s cruel attitudes towards Julian, his lack of disability accommodations from the school and the school’s psychologist’s obliviousness, I was getting seriously frustrated with the lack of good judgement from any of them. Still, it seemed believable enough in the context of the book and didn’t bother me too much while I was reading it.

Overall, this is a powerful and heartbreaking story of love, trauma, loss and family. I finished it in a day and couldn’t put it down. These two boys will pull you into their world, and you won’t be able to help but wonder what happens next. Hope this emotional read is in the stars soon for you!

Posted in Book Review

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions & Heretics by Jason Porath

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Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

We all grew up with those princesses. The ones locked in towers waiting for men to save them. The women who were cursed and needed the prince to kiss them so they could awaken. Princesses who were prim, proper and above all, quiet. Perhaps that’s why Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions & Heretics by Jason Porath, born out of his popular web series, was such a refreshing read. It was nice to see page after page of badass women, even if all of them didn’t get their storybook happily ever after ending.

The book presents a hundred stories of women (real, maybe real and mythical) across space and time, across cultures and continents that broke the mold of expectations and did something great, even if it didn’t end well. From Mongolian wrestling great Khutulan to ant-lynching journalism rockstar to Baroque painter extraordinaire Artemisia Gentileschi, this book is chock full of women to look up to and enjoy learning about (Most of the time. Some of them made really crappy decisions, but hey, they were human). These are the stories of women you don’t learn about in school or anywhere else. Their stories are messy sometimes, but always glorious.

My favorite stories included Te Puea Herangi, Pope Joan, Josephine Baker, Jezebel, Joan of Arc, Ada Lovelace, Ida B. Wells and Artemisia Gentileschi. I loved the wide variety of women represented and knowing that this is a book that I can read again and again and still learn new things about each of the women. It feels like a fairy tale book for adults, for who I am and what I need today as a twenty-one-year-old woman about to go out into the world.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the art. A former animator for DreamWorks Animation, the style of the princesses’s portraits is fun, vibrant, bold and energetic. While I wish more body shapes and sizes were represented in the images and some of the changes in favor of aesthetics over historical accuracy were mildly irksome, I loved looking at the pictures and reading the art notes scattered throughout the stories that explained why Porath depicted the women the way that he did. It was nice to see his intention behind each image and the images made the book feel even more like a storybook.

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I also loved the trigger warning system Porath used in the book. Clear, non-invasive and color-coded, both the maturity rating from 1 to 5 and the content warnings for different issues were useful in navigating stories that might be more difficult to read. Appearing on the top left of the first page of each story, they were easy to read and navigate. Porath got trigger warnings right and seamlessly brought them into his gorgeously designed storybook. I also loved that the stories were organized in order of maturity instead of alphabetically, as it made the book feel less like a roster and more like a collection.

The takeaway is that I highly recommend this book. Read it if you’re a girl. Read it if you’re a guy. Read it if you’re 20 or 80 or anywhere in between. This book will teach you about the forgotten women in history and maybe even a little bit about yourself. And if you want more, don’t forget to check out rejectedprincesses.com.

Note: I received an advance copy of Rejected Princesses from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.