Posted in Book Review

Review: Sparrow by Sarah Moon

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Sparrow by Sarah Moon, Arthur A. Levine Books, 272 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Content Warnings: Depression and suicidal ideation

I love to read books about mental health. When they’re done right, they feel like talking to a friend. They give me hope. They help me process my own experiences. These books build community. So I’m so excited to talk to y’all tonight about one of my favorite, favorite, favorite mental health reads of 2017: Sparrow by Sarah Moon.

When I got this book a few months ago, the first thing I noticed was the cover, which is gorgeous. They say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But I do. I so do. I love the pastel blue and coral color scheme that sets up the mood of the novel. The mix of birds and music notes. The silhouette of the girl. And the Brooklyn apartment cityscape with the MC, a WOC, in the window. I don’t usually spend so much of a review talking about the cover, but this one is so on point that I have to give a shout out to the artist Cannaday Chapman. This is cover art at its BEST.

On to the actual book now. Sparrow was found on the roof of her school and now everyone thinks she was trying to kill herself. She has to see a therapist, Dr. Katz, and starts to fall behind in school. Her mom and her have a strained relationship. She spends all her free time imagining turning into a bird and flying above the chaotic streets of New York City where she lives. However, when Dr. Katz starts to break through to Sparrow with music, she starts to find the strength that might help her soar for real.

I loved Sparrow as a character because I connected with her in so many ways. I connected to her fear of people and inability to really talk to people even when I really wanted to connect to them. I connected to her strength and resilience, her wanting to get better even when it felt like an insurmountable obstacle. Her voice was so strong from the very beginning that I felt like I could hear her in my head. She’s also a WOC, although I won’t comment extensively on that aspect of the rep because it’s not in my lane. It felt well done, though, and reflected the challenges of being black and mentally ill that I’ve heard from my friends’ experiences.

I thought the representation of mental illness was spot on, from the way that her mom reacted to it to her navigating the stigma of it at school to the way that encouragement from a teacher or a therapist could be really beneficial. The writing also really helps with the representation because the style is so honest and raw. The dialogue was crisp and felt real. I flew through this book (pun fully intended) and loved every minute of it.

At the risk of spoilers, I just want to talk vaguely about some things that happen later in the book so please excuse my general-ness. There’s one moment that really makes me cry towards the end of the book when a group of girls come together who are all facing challenges come together to make the day of their friend. It was so pure and so well done and it made me want a whole book just in that setting with those characters. In case you can’t tell I’m squeeing.

So if you want a therapy-positive book about mental illness that leaves you humming a good song by the end because it wasn’t dreary and dark but also doesn’t tie up everything in a neat little bow. If you want a nuanced description of how depression can affect a girl’s life, about the challenge of finding your own voice, read this book. And then come find me so we can squeal about it together.

Sparrow is out October 10. Please buy a copy as soon as it comes out from your local indie or you can preorder it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or whatever other site you use.

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Posted in Book Review

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

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Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, HarperTeen, 496 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Content Warnings: Emotional abuse, child abuse, depression, performance anxiety, death of a dog

If you enjoy books that have queer protagonists, a whole lot of wit, even more heart, media elements and capture the essence of being a nerdy, overachieving teen…well, you’re going to love this book. Alice Oseman’s newest YA novel Radio Silence is the quirky, poignant and unforgettable story of two British teens, Frances Janvier and Alex Last, who make a podcast together. This is one of those books that I’ve read and its characters and messages have stayed with me. There’s mystery. There’s a touch of romance. There’s a lot of anxiety and angst. Overall, this is a book that brims over with hope. Also, it’s a boy-girl friendship book where there’s no romance. Huzzah!

Let’s start off with the representation in this book. There is bisexual and demisexual (on the page!! My only complaint is that it didn’t appear sooner in the story, especially since I picked up on what was going on pretty early in) representation. I really like the way that the characters discuss their sexuality and that they are given the agency to describe how they identify and what that means to them in the story.  Francis is also a WoC. Finally there is representation of depressive symptoms in the book that felt quite strong, especially since they are related to the anxiety and difficulty of transitioning to college, which is a topic I wish was more present in YA.

Central to the plot of Radio Silence is the podcast Universe City, in which an androgynous protagonist is searching for meanping in an unforgiving world. I loved the parts of the book that showed the characters filming the podcast, how they discussed and developed the storyline of the show, the representation of the online fandom of the podcast and discovering what the podcast meant to the character who created it.  I’m being intentionally vague in discussing the details so as to be as spoiler-free as possible. I want y’all to enjoy every twist and turn like I did.

Another aspect of this book that I really liked was the setting. The book is set in a small Wnglish town but the characters travel to numerous larger towns and cities, including London. I really enjoyed getting to read a book set somewhere else in the world.  I was a little confused by how their school system worked because I’m not familiar with the British educational system, but it was easy to catch on.

I also really loved the quirkiness and preoccupation of the two main characters with grades and school work. This was the first time I saw the part of my teenage self that would stress herself out over studying to the point of literal insanity in a book and it was great. Francis and Alex are also super nerdy and I loved the descriptions of how they became friends through their shared neediness. Its part of what made these characters so unforgettable. There’s also a message about how multiple paths can lead to success in this book, which I think is important for teens who live in a world where getting good grades and then going to and succeeding in a specific type of college in a specific type of program is presented as the best possible option and they are somehow lesser than if they don’t achieve that, which is absolute fucking bullshit.

My biggest issue with this book was its length. Its long for a contemporary and I’m a fan of boos that are pretty quickly paced. This book seemed to drag on for me and it felt like it took me forever to finish it, which ultimately took away some of the joy I had from the story. Still, its a solid read and I really enjoyed the fun, twisty, heartbreaking story. It is definitely a book that I am going to be recommending for a while.

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Review: Top Ten by Katie Cotugno

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Top Ten by Katie Cotugno, Balzer & Bray, 320 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Content Warnings: social anxiety, brain injury & trauma, absentee parenting

I love cute and fluffy books with a streak of dark. However, I am also a bit tired of the childhood best friends falling in love trope. This sums up my complicated feelings about Katie Cotugno’s newest novel Top TenI really liked it. It has a bisexual female protagonist with social anxiety that was the first representation of explicit social anxiety I have read in YA. It has a cute, soft jock protagonist as well. The writing was good and the setting was lively. It is told in the format of a top ten lis and in a non-linear format. And yet, for me the spark just wasn’t there. The overarching reason for my review of this book is that I personally did not connect with it, but I feel like I there’s a lot of good in it that I want to gush about.

Top Ten is the story of Ryan and Gabby, who formed an unlikely friendship their freshman year of high school after they accidentally meet at a party. The novel begins with Ryan and Gabby hooking up shortly after their high school graduation and then jumps around to various major moments in their friendship. This is a book full of heart and heartbreak, friendship and romance. It’s cute and it’s fun and it has some serious discussions about issues that I haven’t seen widely represented in YA.

I loved the representation of Gabby’s social anxiety because it felt very similar to my own. I share her fear of social situation and parties. It was reassuring to see a character that was so similar to me on the page. I also loved the representation of Ryan’s struggles with concussions as a hockey player. Student athletics are so underrepresented in YA and I haven’t really seen the health issues associated with student athletics represented in YA, so that was something interesting to see.

Overall, I really liked the writing style of the book. The dialog was well-written. It was descriptive and the scenes flowed well. I just think the non-linear narrative didn’t work for me because it lacked the natural build up of a linear narrative. If you’re looking for a fun contemporary romance with quirky characters and a lot of heart, then I would definitely recommend this book.

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Review: Water in May by Ismée Williams

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Water in May by Ismée Williams, Amulet Books, 320 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Content Warnings: Doctors’ offices, scenes in hospitals and intensive care units, pregnancy & birth, violence, infant death.

Every once in  a while, I read a story that’s truly special because it exposes the best of humanity in the worst and unfairest situations. One such novel is Ismée Williams’ debut Water in May, out today from Amulet. Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols is pregnant with the baby who thinks will save her family and change her future. Then she finds out that the baby has a severe and potentially fatal heart defect. Suddenly, Mari must make tough choices about her baby and her future in this riveting tale of family, friendship, motherhood and resilience.

I first want to acknowledge that I love this is a book written by a former pediatric cardiologist and a WoC that features a Latina protagonist. The book features a list of Dominican slang in the front and the language and culture of Mari’s Dominican family and group of friends shines through the pages of this book. If you are looking to read more diverse books, I highly recommend this beautifully written novel that shows the experiences of a WoC and inner city teen life.

My favorite part of this book was Mari and her voice. The writing was so rich and descriptive. I loved how there was both strength and vulnerability in her voice. Mari is a fighter with a past criminal history and a complicated family history. Her mom is an addict, her dad is in prison and she has a fraught relationship with her abuela. I found myself rooting for Mari from the first page.

I also loved her three friends (Yaz, Teri and Heavenly) and the ways that the four girls loved and supported one another. If you are looking for a book about girl power and strong female relationships, then Water in May is the book for you. I even liked the depiction of Mari’s relationship with her baby’s father, Bertie, and found the way their relationship changed to be one of the most tearjerking parts of this emotional read. The parts that take place in the NICU are also particularly emotional, but William’s description of procedures and nurses and the overall environment is spot-on.

The storytelling and pacing is also spot on. Williams did a great job juggling all of the subplots in this book. The descriptions are great. The dialog is spot-on. There are twists and turns you won’t see coming. I also loved how at the core of this story is a doctor, Dr. Love, who fights for his patient and a mother who fights for her child against all odds. If I am going to read a book that I know will be emotionally taxing, I like it to be full of hope and inner strength. Water in May did not disappoint. It exceeded all my expectations and left me in tears. I hope it’ll leave you teary-eyed as well, with joy and a little bit of sadness. There are more moments I loved in this book that I would love to gush about, but read this book first and then find me and we can gush together. This is the kind of book I don’t want to spoil. I want you all to take this intense and powerful storytelling journey and enjoy it as much as I did.

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Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

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Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Crown Books for Young Readers, 224 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Content Warnings: Police brutality, racism, gun violence, gang violence, grief & loss 

This book joins All-American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and others that deal with the topic of black teens confronting issues of racial inequality and police violence in twenty-first century America. However, these novels don’t feel like “issue” books because of the tremendous grace and empathy with which they were written. Powerfully voiced and emotionally written, Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a force of a novel about Justyce, an intelligent black teen dealing with the loss of his best friend Manny during an altercation with an off-duty police officer.

I read this book in one-sitting and was in tears by the end. This book is powerful and it packs a punch in such a short length of a book. The dialogue was fantastically written and felt like actual teens speaking, which is harder to find in YA than it should be. I loved the brutal honesty of Justyce’s letters to Dr. King.

My only issue with this book was the length. While I enjoyed it being such a short read, it just felt like there should have been more of this book. While a lot of books would benefit from being 100 pages shorter, this one would have benefitted from being 100 pages longer. The major plot point of the book doesn’t take place until halfway through. The first half felt like a lot of context and build-up and the second half felt very very quick. I would have liked the pacing of this book to be a little bit more even.

Overall, I loved this gem of a book. It was packed with so much feeling and was written with such urgency that it was so easy to get lost in it in the opening pages. If you a white book blogger who wants to learn more about racial issues in America and why they are important, I highly recommend reading this book instead of trying to get free education from PoC on Twitter. This book approaches discussions of race with nuance and subtlety that taught me so much, and I am so grateful for this reading experience. I highly recommend this book and also recommend you seek out and boost #ownvoices reviews of this book as well.

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Review: Running Full Tilt by Michael Currinder

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Running Full Tilt by Michael Currinder, Charlesbridge Teen, 336 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

 

Content Warnings: Violence, death, grief & loss

Some books are just okay but also kind of good at the same time. They’re a good story and they have their moments, but they just don’t resonate enough wit
h you, but you still want to let people know about them because it might be the perfect book for someone else. Michael Currinder’s debut novel Running Full Tilt was one of those books for me. I’m still on the fence about how I feel about it, to be completely honest.

I love stories about guys developing a passion for running. I’m not sure why, but I do. That’s what drew me to this story about Leo, a junior in high school, who joins the cross country team at his new school after his family moves to a different neighborhood because their old neighbors complained about his autistic brother Caleb’s behavior. The author has a background in running and has a disabled sibling, and these experiences definitely felt reflected in the stories.

Part of my issue about this book is I wasn’t really sure how to feel about the representation of Caleb’s autism because I am not autistic and I don’t know anyone personally who is autistic at the level Caleb is in the novel. It is mentioned that he has other developmental and mental disabilities. Overall, I think that Currinder did a solid job at describing the different aspects of Caleb’s autism and the effects it had on the family. However, I would be interested in what people with autism or relatives of people with autism think about the representation.

In terms of story, this is definitely a character driven book and most of the plot is centered around Leo’s relationship with running and Leo’s relationship with Caleb, which are interconnected. I found it to drag at parts and move just right at others. Still, it was a quick read and is the kind of book that’s perfect to read on an autumn weekend afternoon.

One of the things I liked best about this book was the representation of high school athletics, which is something that I don’t think is represented as widely in YA as it should be to reflect the variety of athletic experiences that teens today have. I found the running scenes to be a bit boring and info-dumpy as a non-runner, but I could easily imagine those being the favorite scenes of someone who enjoys cross-country running. At the very least, those scenes added tension to the novel and it was clear that Currinder knew what he was talking about writing them.

Overall, Running Full Tilt is the quiet tale of a teen struggling to find patience and compassion for his autistic brother, who is increasingly violent towards him, and finds an outlet in running. It is endearing and poignant. It has some amazing secondary characters (Leo’s cross country teammate Curtis was my favorite) and some amazing teens. For me, it was solid and entertaining, and I think this has the potential to be a powerful story if it’s in the right teen’s hands.

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Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, HarperTeen, 384 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥

Content Warnings: Gun violence, gangs, anxiety, death, grief & loss of family members and suicide

I know a lot of you will probably want to shit on me for writing a less-than-perfect review of this book, but I have existential depression and that’s why I feel a lot of the things I do about it, so hear me out. I really wanted to like Adam Silvera’s new speculative fiction novel They Both Die at the End, which follows the stories of Rufus and Mateo, two boys who meet on a Last Friend app on the day they both will die. I wanted to love this book like my friends did, but it just kind of left me numb. I emotionally disconnected from the narrative early on and by the end, I wasn’t crying or feeling sad. I was just kind of exhausted and numb and angry at the time I’d spent reading it, to be honest.

I don’t want to rob anyone of their enjoyment of the book. If you loved it, that’s valid and I’m happy for you. I wish I was one of those people because I loved More Happy than Not and I think Adam is a wonderful author and person.

My biggest issue with this book was that it felt like there was no point to me reading this story about boys who could have this great “day of self-discovery” and know they’re going to die. I’m sorry. It felt like a waste. A waste of their characters. A waste of a story. A waste of my time. I get that this was supposed to be a book about learning to make the most of your life and live every day to the fullest, but I just wasn’t here for it. It wasn’t just depressing. It was infuriating. I get that kids and teenagers die all the time, that life isn’t fair. I think that books about death (i.e. Marieke Nijkamp’s emotionally harrowing novel This is Where it Endshave value. Still, TBDATE felt empty and hollow to me in the same way you feel cheated when you open up a fortune cookie to discover there’s nothing inside.

I’ve watched my closest family member waste away and die. I’ve passed by accidents on the Garden State Parkway as they’re draping a blanket over someone’s body. One of my earliest memories is 9/11. Death bothers me down to the bone. It is not something I am comfortable discussing or imagining, beyond a few darkly humorous jokes. I reacted to TBDATE in a similar way to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. As soon as I know there’s no hope for the main characters, I check out and I can’t connect to the characters or the story because I have to protect my brain. These books will drag my depressed brain into a deep, dark hole if I don’t keep that wall up.

This book messed with my head a lot. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I have existential depression, which means that I feel struck by hopelessness and worthlessness when I think about my place in the world and how small I am compared to everything. Reading a book about two boys who are told they are going to die and have no opportunity to fight that gutted me, because life became meaningless for them, too. Sure, they tried to have a good day. Sure, they made some amazing memories. But it meant nothing, in the end, not really, and just traumatized all the secondary characters in their lives for no other reason than to be a plot device and provide some conciliatory message about hope. It also really bothered me that Rufus and Mateo were two queer PoC who didn’t even get a shot at a happy ending.

My other issue with this book is that while the Leteo Institute in More Happy Than Not was believable, the entire time line and way this world was set up doesn’t make much sense. There’s no back story for the sudden development of this Death-Cast thing, which is heralded as “progress.” If anything, this is a novel about why “progress” is often bullshit. Anyway. Death-Cast calls you on the day you’ll die. However, this call makes you live your life differently that day and might set you up to make decisions that ultimately lead to your death. This happens to quite a few characters in the book. So, that means that in this world, there is no free will. Because one, you don’t get a chance to challenge this “pre-destined” death and two, if the call leads to you dying, than death is foreseeable and thus the entire space-time continuum is set in stone with no room for change. Many faiths (Christianity included) hinge their beliefs on the notion that we are able to make choices, that we are in charge of our fates, that we have free will and the ability to redeem ourselves. For me, that is what makes religion so empowering. In this world, that can’t possibly exist and even the churches are suspicious of Death-Cast. That’s because you basically have to be 17th-century Puritan believing in predetermination or a Nihilist for this world order to gel with yours. I know I’m reading into it. This is why speculative fiction doesn’t work for me when I can’t completely connect with it.

Overall, the entire cast of characters seemed kind of blah. The fact that Mateo and Rufus didn’t have living, conscious parents seemed kind of cheap. Lidia, Mateo’s best friend, was okay, I guess. I couldn’t tell Rufus’ friends Malcolm and Tagoe apart, to be honest. There were a lot of different view points, which was nice for a while, but became kind of confusing and just added to what felt like the pointlessness of this book. I even stopped caring when characters died. Usually when I’m reading, the world feels real and I like to imagine the characters living on after the end, but TBDATE just felt like ink on paper and I was relieved when I reached the end because it was over and I could say I read it.

I think that covers the main stuff. The actual writing wasn’t bad and kind of good at parts. Me not enjoying this book won’t turn me off from buying and reading Adam’s books in the future or impact my opinion of his other books. It was just a miss for me. Overall, it felt like a cool concept handled too cruelly and a joke gone too far. If you deal with existential depressive thoughts or have difficulty reading about death and loss, I 100% don’t recommend you read this book or if you do, proceed with caution. If you love Adam’s books and don’t think it’ll bother you, go ahead and read. I hope you love it more than I did. And if you like dark humor but also want a story with rib-aching laughs and tender hope, I highly suggest Lance Rubin’s YA novel Denton Little’s Deathdate.