Book Review: Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Perfect on Paper
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 9, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper, Leah on the Offbeat meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: a bisexual girl who gives anonymous love advice to her classmates is hired by the hot guy to help him get his ex back

Her advice, spot on. Her love life, way off.

Darcy Phillips:

• Can give you the solution to any of your relationship woes―for a fee.

• Uses her power for good. Most of the time.

• Really cannot stand Alexander Brougham.

• Has maybe not the best judgement when it comes to her best friend, Brooke…who is in love with someone else.

• Does not appreciate being blackmailed.

However, when Brougham catches her in the act of collecting letters from locker 89―out of which she’s been running her questionably legal, anonymous relationship advice service―that’s exactly what happens. In exchange for keeping her secret, Darcy begrudgingly agrees to become his personal dating coach―at a generous hourly rate, at least. The goal? To help him win his ex-girlfriend back.

Darcy has a good reason to keep her identity secret. If word gets out that she’s behind the locker, some things she’s not proud of will come to light, and there’s a good chance Brooke will never speak to her again.

Okay, so all she has to do is help an entitled, bratty, (annoyingly hot) guy win over a girl who’s already fallen for him once? What could go wrong?

Darcy Phillips is seventeen, well-intentioned, and caught in the act.

A high school junior, Darcy has a thriving business going at her school, offering relationship advice — anonymously — via notes left in an abandoned locker that only she has access to. Students drop their notes, along with the $10 fee, in the locker, and Darcy replies via email with well-researched, supportive advice. Results guaranteed! She offers a refund for failed advice, and is proud of only having to give back the fee once (and even then, blames the failure on the letter writer not providing a full picture of the situation).

But one day, Darcy gets caught by a boy she barely knows as she retrieves the day’s stash of letters from locker 89. He offers her a deal — he’ll keep her secret, but she has to act as his personal relationship coach. He wants his ex-girlfriend back, and wants to hire Darcy to show him how to make it happen. Since he’s offering to pay her for her time, and since keeping the secret is vital, Darcy agrees.

Darcy is an out and proud member of the school’s Q&Q (Queer and Questioning) club, identifying as bi. She’s supportive of her friends, a devoted sister, and very proud of the professionalism she applies to her locker/advice business. But Darcy also has a secret — she’s in love with her best friend Brooke, and when Brooke and a girl interested in her each wrote to the locker the previous year asking for advice on how to move the interest forward, Darcy intentionally sabotaged them out of jealousy. She’s not proud of what she did, and she’s deathly afraid that Brooke would never forgive her if she knew the truth. (Fair point — it was a lousy thing to do.)

Meanwhile, Darcy’s coaching of Brougham helps her get to know him, and while she’s supporting him through his relationship woes, she’s startled to realize she may have feelings for him.

There’s so much to like about Perfect on Paper! The characters are all well-drawn individuals, quirky and unpredictable, and feel very much like real people with real feelings. They’re messy and make bad decisions from time to time, but hey, perfection isn’t reality. Brougham’s home life is terrible despite his wealth, and Darcy’s home life, while full of love, is also not providing her with the support and attention she needs. Perfect on Paper shows that to truly understand someone, it’s necessary to dig deeper, go beyond immediate impressions, and have compassion for the things that may not be obvious.

It’s wonderful to see bi representation presented as thoughtfully as it is with Darcy. Darcy comes across as very confident, and she is in many ways, but she also carries a lot of weight with her around being bi — from being asked if she’s “turning straight” when she gets involved with a boy, to fear that her Q&Q friends won’t accept her as one of them depending on who she dates, to the frustration of having to endlessly explain that being bi doesn’t equate to inability to be in a committed, monogamous relationship. The author does a fabulous job of showing Darcy’s depths and insecurities, as well as the importance of a supportive community.

Overall, I really enjoyed Perfect on Paper. There’s a feeling of lightness to it, even when the characters go through darker moments, and a nice balance of fun and seriousness. Darcy is a terrific main character, but the supporting characters are all wonderful too. Definitely recommended!

For more by this author, check out my review of her 2020 book, Only Mostly Devastated!Sav.

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Only Mostly Devastated
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA meets CLUELESS in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease

Summer love…gone so fast.

Ollie and Will were meant to be a summer fling—casual, fun, and done. But when Ollie’s aunt’s health takes a turn for the worse and his family decides to stay in North Carolina to take care of her, Ollie lets himself hope this fling can grow to something more. Dreams that are crushed when he sees Will at a school party and finds that the sweet and affectionate (and comfortably queer) guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High.

Will is more than a little shocked to see Ollie the evening of that first day of school. While his summer was spent being very much himself, back at school he’s simply known as one of the varsity basketball guys. Now Will is faced with the biggest challenge of his life: follow his heart and risk his friendships, or stay firmly in the closet and lose what he loves most.

Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast.

Well, you know how it goes.

Two cute teens meet on their summer vacation, fall head over heels, say sad good-byes… and then end up attending the same high school in the fall.

But in Only Mostly Devastated, we’re not talking good girl Sandy and bad boy Danny. Instead, we have two adorable boys, Ollie and Will, who have a magical summer together. They should be thrilled to end up at the same school unexpectedly, right?

The problem is (and of course, there has to be a problem): Ollie is out; Will is not. And while Ollie came out to supportive parents and a chill circle of friends and school acquaintances back in California, Will grew up in more conservative North Carolina, where homophobic jokes are de rigeur for the cool jock crowd and their hangers-on.

When Ollie and his parents relocate to North Carolina to be near his terminally ill aunt and help with her children, he doesn’t really expect to run into Will without some effort. Not to mention that Will appears to have ghosted him right after their final summer good-bye kiss.

So when Ollie tells the group of girls who befriend him on his first day of school about his summer love — and shows them a picture — complications almost immediately crop up. Because of course, Will goes to the same school, and of course, the girls are thrown for a loop by this news that straight hot basketball star Will is maybe not so straight after all.

Ollie is sweet as can be, and it’s so sad and painful to go through all his emotions alongside him. He’s firmly out and will never accept a situation where’s he’s forced back in the closet — but he has to respect Will’s choice, even if it means accepting that Will has to pretend not to know Ollie, and can’t hang out with him too visibly for fear of being teased about turning gay.

The author does a great job of helping us (and Ollie) understand why Will might fear being outed, showing the social environment at school and the not-so-subtle pressure to conform, as well as the scorn reserved for those who don’t fall nicely into socially acceptable gender and relationship roles.

Meanwhile, Ollie forms close friendships with a trio of girls who seem to adore him and take him under their wings. They’re all interesting and varied, not just a generic crowd of high school girls but real people with distinct personalities and conflicts and challenges.

Ollie’s family life is also portrayed sensitively, and it’s quite sad to see Ollie processing his aunt’s decline while also being there for his two little cousins. As if Ollie wasn’t adorable and sweet enough already, he’s also a terrific babysitter and loves his family unconditionally, and it’s heartbreaking to witness his grief when the inevitable finally happens.

The cast of characters in Only Mostly Devastated is nicely diverse without making a big fuss over it, which I really appreciated. The romance at the heart of the story is so well done, and even though it’s almost too sad at times to see how hurt Ollie is, by the end, it feels like a realistic journey that the boys go through to get to where they end up. (Being vague here, so as not to spoil too much…)

If you enjoy sweet, sensitive young adult romances with well-earned happy endings, definitely check out Only Mostly Devastated!Save

Book Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

A big-hearted romantic comedy in which First Son Alex falls in love with Prince Henry of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends…

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?


Swoony swoon swoon.

For whatever reason, probably based on the cover, I thought this was going to be a sweet, light YA romance. But considering that the main characters are in their 20s, two healthy, lusty, consenting adults, I’m not sure how to categorize this. Is this what’s meant by new adult? Can we just agree that this is fiction featuring young-ish grown-ups, and forget about putting it on the correct shelf?

Red, White & Royal Blue is a delicious mix of sexy romance, hearts-and-flowers-worthy first love, politics, scandals, and plenty of hot and heavy action between two very attractive 20-ish young men. Who are, you know, royalty and the American version thereof.

Alex is the son of the first woman president, now up for reelection. He’s a smart-aleck who acts out plenty, but at heart he’s a policy geek who dreams of a career in politics for himself, following in the footsteps of his mother and his Congressman father. Henry is the second son of the heir to the British throne, the younger brother who’s handsome and pampered and kept very isolated from authentic experiences and relationships. The two have collided repeatedly over the years and are, at best, frenemies (without the friendship part), but after a public spectacle involved smooshed royal wedding cake, Alex and Henry are thrown together in a public relations ploy to defuse the media focus on their supposed fight.

As they start spending time together, Alex and Henry develop a strange connection via late night phone calls and texts, discovering unexpected shared life experiences and connecting through the strange reality of living life in a fishbowl, always under the scrutiny of the press and the public. When their fake friendship develops into true friendship, Alex finally realizes (after a surprise New Year’s kiss) that his friendly feelings for Henry run deeper than expected, and also, he finally understands that he’s bi and just never actually faced it.

Things blossom pretty quickly between Alex and Henry, and their encounters are hot and steamy and full of passion. But there’s also a lot of hiding and creating false narratives to throw their families and the public off their trail, and it’s exhausting. In this day and age, you wouldn’t expect coming out to be such a big deal, but Alex and Henry are not at all people in normal circumstances. The tabloids are already obsessed with their every move. What would happen to US/British relations if the truth was revealed? What would it mean for the President’s chances at reelection? What what it mean for the British monarchy to have an heir to the throne (third in line, in fact) publicly acknowledge that he’s gay?

Red, White & Royal Blue handles the issues with humor, political savvy, and a surprising depth of feeling. It’s hard not to feel sorry for both Alex and Henry. Each faces different sorts of pressure, and while either on their own coming out might be news for a bit, putting the two of them together can only lead to an explosion of scandal. Alex and Henry are adorable together, and their romance is lovely and funny and passionate in all the best ways. At the same time, it’s amusing to see the scurrying of secret service and campaign managers who need to keep the two in line, and how simple things like dating require NDAs and removals of cell phones just to get off the ground.

The politics is really entertaining too. First off, yes, it’s just as awesome as you’d think to have a story about a woman in the White House. I loved the President’s relationship with her kids, how no-nonsense she is, and yet how she comes through when she needs to. Seeing the royal family in action is a whole other set of fun, especially as the younger generation confronts the Queen about what they want out of life and what they’re willing to do to get it.

I was a little doubtful at the beginning, but pretty quickly, I was swept up in the giddy fun and the super-cute romance of the story. There are definitely lots of pretty steamy, detailed sex scenes, so ya know, if you prefer your fictional romances to be more flowery and less sweaty, you might think twice about picking up this book. But otherwise, prepare to swoon! Red, White & Royal Blue is escapist romantic fiction that hits lots of high points, starring very public figures without losing out on the personal, emotional connections that make a good love story.

And a final word — Red, White & Royal Blue would be adorable as a movie! Netflix, are you listening?

The details:

Title: Red, White & Royal Blue
Author: Casey McQuiston
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

This remarkable book pulls off the tricky feat of making us care about characters in two separate narratives, with neither one feeling like filler or killing time before returning to the important part of the story.

In Pulp, we follow a contemporary storyline about a high school senior, Abby, who is out and proud and very matter-of-fact about how diverse and free her world is. Most of her friends fall somewhere within the queer rainbow, gay, bi, non-binary, and various permutations of all sorts. And it’s all good. Abby is part of a close-knit group of friends who delight in being politically active, attending rallies, fighting for justice, and making demands for society to be better than it is.

Abby’s life is not perfect, though. She still pines for her ex-girlfriend Linh, she’s stuck on her senior project, and her parents are doing a lousy job of hiding their inability to tolerate one another. She chooses the topic of her senior project at the last possible second, deciding to study lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s and write her own version of these novels, inverting the tropes that were mandatory in the genre.

In the historical timeline, we meet Janet Jones, also a high school senior, whose life is highly regimented by her overly protective and rigid parents and their world of country clubs and social correctness. Janet stumbles across a lesbian pulp paperback, reads it, and realizes that these unnamed feelings of hers are actually shared by other people. She becomes desperate to connect with the author of one of these books, and at the same time, realizes that her feelings toward her best friend Marie are much more than just friendship.

The two narratives intersect in fascinating and unpredictable ways. Janet’s storyline is the more upsetting of the two for much of the book, largely because the world it shows is so hostile and repressive. Pulp does an excellent job of showing the terror of being gay at a time when there were no legal protections or rights for anyone who dared step outside the bounds of “normal”. Set during the Lavender Scare, this novel shows good, decent, hard-working people being hounded out of their families and jobs, spied upon, and having their lives ruined, all because of who they love and how they identify. Being closeted was a necessity, and the danger of discovery drove countless people to deny their own identities out of a desperation for survival.

Through Abby’s eyes, the awfulness of the 1950s for the LGBTQ community is especially vivid, as Abby’s modern perspective is challenged by her research into what others’ lives once were like. Seeing Abby come to realize the importance of the brave people who created new ways to live, form a community, and remain true to the themselves is quite beautiful.

I was less invested in the love story aspects of both Abby and Janet’s arcs, but very much loved getting to know them as people, to appreciate their challenges and strengths, and how each struggled in different ways and at different times to find themselves and to find a way to lead an authentic life.

Pulp is both a great novel and a great lesson on 20th century history. Reading about this chapter in LGBTQ history is moving and upsetting. The world has come so far, and there’s still a long way to go, but I think especially for the target YA audience, Pulp provides a fascinating and important perspective on social action, diversity, and identity.



The details:

Title: Pulp
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley





Audiobook Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

A word of warning right from the start: There will be some spoiler-ish discussion later on in this review — but I’ll put a big spoiler warning on top when we get there!


Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari’s features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.

But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in their way, and only by believing in each other―and the power of their friendship―can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.

My Thoughts:

I was completely engaged throughout my listening experience, and thought both Ari and Dante were charming as hell. The story is touching and emotional, with lots of humor as well. At the same time, I realized at the end that the story I thought I was listening to was not in fact the story I was getting. I’ll explain — bear with me!

Ari and Dante are both of Mexican descent, living with their parents in El Paso, Texas. The story is set in the late 80s, which is important to keep in mind in terms of situations within Ari’s family as well as societal norms and prejudices of the time. Both boys are only children — Dante in fact, Ari in terms of circumstance, as his siblings are significantly older and he’s the only one living at home. Both sets of parents are loving and supportive, but in Dante’s case, this is tempered by the walls of silence he experiences around the two forbidden subjects in his home: his father’s wartime experiences in Vietnam, and anything and everything to do with his incarcerated older brother.

Ari loves his parents and they love him, but he finds them unknowable, as their secrets create barriers. Ari is an angry young man with no  friends, but something in him connects to Dante from their very first meeting, in the summer when both boys are fifteen. Dante is friendly and outspoken and honest, and he likes to talk about everything. Something about his willingness to accept Ari for who he is forces Ari to see Dante as a friend. They’re soon inseparable, connected and honest and supportive in ways that Ari has never experienced.

Here’s where I’m getting into spoiler territory, so look away if you don’t want to know more!

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Dante’s feelings for Ari go way beyond friendship. As the boys mature over the course of the book, Dante is pretty forthright about where he stands — he’s interested in kissing boys, not girls, and no, it’s not just a phase. Finally, he confesses his feelings to Ari, but Ari isn’t interested in boys — or Dante — in that way.

And that’s where things stand for most of the book, until close to the end, as Ari’s emotions and anger threaten to finally get the best of him. By the end of the book, the walls between Ari and his parents have started to come down, and his parents have started to open up to Ari about their family’s past and all the secrets between them. Finally, his parents confront Ari and tell him that they know that he’s in love with Dante. After tears and a huge emotional release, Ari acknowledges this too.

And I mostly felt… huh? I did not see that coming.

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that I thought I was reading a different book than the book it turned out to be. And here’s what I meant by that: The book is told through Ari’s first-person narration. We get to hear this thoughts on his life and his family, on his frustrations and anger, and on his friendship with Dante. And there’s just nothing that I heard that made me feel that what he felt for Dante went beyond friendship. He talks about Dante’s good looks, but not in a way to make me think there was physical attraction. He talks about the closeness he feels for Dante, but I didn’t have the impression that there was romantic love behind it.

So, I thought I was reading a book about how friendship — real, true, deep, strong friendship — could be possible between a straight boy and a gay boy. And I thought that was really cool. So different, so refreshing. What a great way to break down barriers!

And I have no problem with reading a book about a romance between two teen boys. Coming out stories, first love stories — done well, these can be so sweet and moving, and it’s so important to have these stories available in the YA market. But that’s just not what I thought this book was going to be!

Don’t get me wrong — I loved the book. The writing is marvelous, and I loved the characters. I thought it was so interesting to see how the boys’ Mexican heritage came into play in different ways, and to see how having a loving home isn’t the magical answer to all the problems in a young man’s life. Given the setting in the 80s, it’s also very clearly a different world than the one we live in. Being gay in the time period of the book is something to be hidden, something dangerous, and not an identity to be worn openly and proudly. My heart absolutely broke for Dante when he ended up in the hospital after being on the receiving end of a major beating simply because of being spotted kissing another boy.

End of Spoilers!

Still, I ended the book feeling a little let down. The ending is romantic and hopeful, but it just didn’t match my expectations for where the plot was going. I have to wonder whether part of this is due to listening to the audiobook rather than reading the print book.

The audiobook is amazing, thanks to the insane talents of LIN-MANUEL FREAKIN’ MIRANDA as the narrator. He breathes life into the characters, giving personality to Ari, Dante, and their parents with drama and flair. I did have a hard time in spots keeping track of the dialogue, as there are lengthy exchanges full of quick back-and-forth comments and quips, and despite the different voices given to the characters, I occasionally got lost.

In terms of why I expected the story to go in a different direction (as described in my spoilery section above), I wonder if I’d been reading a printed edition of the book whether I would have absorbed more of the subtext and nuance of the language. The writing is really lovely, and being inside Ari’s head is a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions — but by listening to the audiobook, perhaps I didn’t focus and really spend enough time with the words that build the story. Does that make any sense?

In any case, I really and truly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly… despite feeling both puzzled and a little out of sorts about how it all works out. I’m full of admiration for the author, and will definitely be seeking out more of his books.


The details:

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author:  Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrated by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 1, 2012
Length (print): 359 pages
Length (audio): 7 hours, 29 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Audible download









Book Review: Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.


There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!


The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library









Take A Peek Book Review: You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

You Know Me Well


(via Goodreads)

Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really?

Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed.

That is until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night. Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.

When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other — and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.

Told in alternating points of view by Nina LaCour, the award-winning author of Hold Still and The Disenchantments, and David Levithan, the best-selling author of Every Day and co-author of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (with Rachel Cohn) and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with John Green), You Know Me Well is a deeply honest story about navigating the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.


My Thoughts:

This YA novel about connection and identity has a sincerity to it that is so loud and clear that it threatens to overshadow the story itself. The intentions are great, but I felt as though the plot itself was a bit flimsy.

The characters in You Know Me Well are all searching for their own truths, each on the way to becoming a more authentic version of themselves. The storyline takes place during Pride Week in San Francisco. Mark has been out for years, and is secretly in love with his best friend, while Kate finally has a chance to meet the girl she’s dreamed about from a distance. And after years of going to school together but never actually interacting, Mark and Kate connect and form an instant and deep friendship, finding in each other a kindred spirit, someone with whom they can be honest and reveal their inner worries, fears, hopes, and insecurities.

The action takes place over the course of an eventful week, in which friendships are made and broken and love is both found and lost. The condensed timeline keeps the story moving along, but I had some little doubts in my mind about the suddenness of Kate and Mark’s friendship and the complete trust that they establish in seemingly no time at all.

You Know Me Well is written in alternating chapters, as the authors take turns presenting Kate’s and Mark’s points of view. It’s an effective technique, as we get to know the two characters both as they see themselves and as they see each other. Readers of David Levithan’s earlier works will be familiar with this approach, which he’s used with other co-writers in books such as Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, among others.

David Levithan is an amazing writer, and once again we see his beautiful language at play in conveying the inner landscape of young adults on the verge of becoming who they’re meant to be. There’s a nice little homage to his recent novel Two Boys Kissing (review), which is one of the loveliest young adult books I’ve ever read.

You Know Me Well has a lot going for it, and it’s a quick and touching read, but ultimately I felt as though the messaging about positive identity and acceptance was more overt and heavy-handed than it needed to be. Then again, I’m an adult reading the book, and not truly the target audience. I imagine that reading You Know Me Well could be a profoundly important experience for a teen, gay or straight or anywhere along the rainbow, who’s trying to establish a strong self and figure out their place in the world.


The details:

Title: You Know Me Well
Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 7, 2016
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

SimonI dare anyone to read this book and not fall at least a little bit in love with Simon, the main character of this sweet, funny, touching young adult novel.

Simon is a 17-year-old high school junior, a good student, in the school musical (Oliver!), and with a reliable circle of friends, among them his life-long besties Nick and Leah and his new BFF Abby. What Simon hasn’t shared with anyone is that he’s gay. It’s not that he’s unsure — he’s quite, quite certain about his identity. He’s just not quite ready to stop being private and have to deal with the reactions he’s sure to face.

But life gets complicated. On the Tumblr where students from his school share secrets, he’s found a kindred spirit — a kind, smart boy going by the name of Blue, who is also a junior at the same school. Simon and Blue start an intense email correspondence, each using his “secret” gmail account to maintain anonymity. Over the course of the weeks and then months since they began emailing, they’ve opened up to one another to  a remarkable degree. Simon wants to meet; Blue isn’t sure that it’s a good idea.

And then Simon makes the ultimate online error — he checks his email using the computers in the school library and forgets to log back out. Before long, he’s facing a geeky, awkward student named Martin who lets Simon know that he has screenshots of his emails and will let the entire school know that Simon’s gay unless Simon helps him get Abby to go out with him. It’s blackmail, but carried out with a smile. Martin refuses to see that he’s doing something evil, and apart from this unforgivable act, Martin isn’t a terrible person or a bully, which makes it all the more confusing for Simon.

Simon himself is a sweetheart. He’s funny and smart, tries to do the right thing, and has good intentions, although he still manages to hurt some of his friends along the way. Above all, he’s a boy who’s falling in love with someone from the inside out, learning everything about Blue but still not knowing which of the boys he sees at school everyday is the actual man of his dreams.

Simon’s voice in the novel is engaging and full of humor. Even in his moments of doubt or discouragement, he’s funny as hell.

I take a sip of my beer, and it’s — I mean, it’s just astonishingly disgusting. I don’t think I was expecting it to taste like ice cream, but holy fucking hell. People lie and get fake IDs and sneak into bars, and for this? […] Anyway, it really makes you worry about all the hype surrounding sex.

Simon’s email flirtation with Blue is incredibly adorable:

I’m glad I was cute and grammatical. I think you’re cute and grammatical, too.

The truth eventually comes out, and Simon comes out, and all is finally revealed. I don’t want to say more, because seeing it unfold is a big part of the fun.

Beneath all the humor and cute teen escapades are real feelings, beautifully expressed, about family, identity, safety, trust, and friendship. Simon’s journey in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda involves sharing himself, really and truly, with the people in his life, and pursuing his truth even when it means taking risks.

It’s a lovely and engaging story, full of flirting and happy moments as well as heartache, and I loved every bit of it. Highly recommended — check it out!


The details:

Title: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Author: Becky Albertalli
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Length: 303 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased


Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: The Porcupine of Truth

There’s nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

This week’s pick:

The Porcupine of Truth

The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg
(to be released May 26, 2015)

The author of OPENLY STRAIGHT returns with an epic road trip involving family history, gay history, the girlfriend our hero can’t have, the grandfather he never knew, and the Porcupine of Truth.

Carson Smith is resigned to spending his summer in Billings, Montana, helping his mom take care of his father, a dying alcoholic he doesn’t really know. Then he meets Aisha Stinson, a beautiful girl who has run away from her difficult family, and Pastor John Logan, who’s long held a secret regarding Carson’s grandfather, who disappeared without warning or explanation thirty years before. Together, Carson and Aisha embark on an epic road trip to find the answers that might save Carson’s dad, restore his fragmented family, and discover the “Porcupine of Truth” in all of their lives.

Openly Straight was one of my very favorite books of 2013, and I am so excited that this talented author has a new book coming out in 2015! Sign me up!

PS – If you’re interested, check out my review of Openly Straight, here.

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

Looking for some bookish fun on Thursdays? Come join me for my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. You can find out more here — come play!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

LiesAuthor Robin Talley gives us a stunning look at the school integration wars of the 1950s in her debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Seen through the eyes of two high school girls — one black, one white — caught up in the terror and day-to-day struggles of the early days of a Virginia high school’s forced integration, Lies takes us behind the historical record into the hearts and minds of the young people who had to actually live it all.

We’ve all read about integration in our history books and seen the photos of the Little Rock Nine being escorted into school by police through a jeering crowd. But what must it have been like for the students themselves? What did they feel, and what did they want?

In Lies We Tell Ourselves, we see both sides of the struggle through the two main characters, Sarah and Linda. Sarah is an honors student at the black high school in town; Linda is the white daughter of the town’s virulently anti-integration newspaper editor. When the court ruling comes down which forces the local white school to open its doors to black students, Sarah, her younger sister Ruth, and eight other students become the living symbols of integration. Once the NAACP wins its case, it’s the children who have to walk the path laid out for them by their parents and other adults. Everyone is just looking for an excuse to call integration a failure, so the pro-integration side lays out strict rules for the children: No fighting, no arguing, no answering back, no defending oneself, no extracurricular activities. Go along, get along — just walking the halls is an achievement, so don’t do anything that’ll hand the other side an excuse to say it doesn’t work.

The experiences of Sarah and the others are horrifying. Yelled at, spit upon, assaulted, impeded, harrassed, and threatened, entering the school and walking to their classrooms each day is like walking through a minefield. When someone spits on Sarah or dumps milk over her head, she can’t react, but must simply move on through the day. If she gives any hint that she’s upset, it’ll give the segregationists fuel for their argument that no one is ready for mixing of the races.

I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty. This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse. Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.

From Linda’s perspective, the “agitators” — the black students — are just ruining her senior year. Why couldn’t they stay in their own schools? Why do they need to come and cause such chaos in her own perfect little world? Even worse for Linda is her internal conflict — is it possible that the “Southern values” she’s been raised with are wrong? Is it possible that the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis isn’t about preserving tradition, but is simply ugliness and hatred?

For eighteen years, I’ve believed what other people told me about what was right and what was wrong. From now on, I’m deciding.

The day to day realities of 1959 in Virginia are simply awful to read about through the lens of our 21st century, post-Civil Rights sensibilities. The actions within the school are revolting. The verbal harassment, including the most disgusting racial epithets, are constant. The teachers and administration routinely turn a blind eye. In home ec class, Sarah is given her own sets of pots and pans to use, so that white kids don’t have to handle implements dirtied by black hands. It goes on and on, and reading about it through the words of students living it is incredibly painful.

Complicating matters even further for Sarah and Linda is that they’re thrown together as partners on a project for French class, and as they begin to know one another, each is reluctantly aware of a growing attraction toward the other. The girls spend much of their time together arguing, but beneath the racial divide, there’s a simmering interest that has nothing to do with skin color. As each girl realizes that dating boys and pretending to fit in doesn’t really work for her, entirely different questions about shame, sin, and what’s “natural” and “normal” surface.

I almost felt like telling Sarah and Linda, “don’t you have enough on your plates right now?” Just attempting a friendship is enough to get Linda ostracized and ridiculed and for Sarah to become even more of a target for the thuglike white boys from school. To pursue a same-sex relationship in the South of the 1950s seems foolhardy in the extreme, and while it was moving to see what the girls go through and how caught in a web of hatred they each find themselves, I’m not sure that the story needed one more element to put the characters at risk.

That said, I found Lies We Tell Ourselves to be a moving, important, and brave book. It’s eye-opening to take a well-known chapter of history and revisit it through the perspectives of people who lived through it. I’d thought I could imagine what it must have been like to live through those days, based on reading history books and watching documentaries. But sometimes, it takes fiction to make facts come alive, and that’s what the author achieves here. By giving us a personal point of entry to the experience, we walk the halls of the high school with Sarah and Linda and experience the fear, the hate, the humiliation, and the absolutely insane level of courage it must have required simply to take the few steps from one classroom to another.

Sarah and Linda are remarkable, unforgettable characters, and while the book ends at the conclusion of their high school careers, I can’t help thinking about how much better their lives will be from this point forward. They’ve each changed dramatically, and they’ve stood at the center of social change and survived.

Lies We Tell Ourselves would make a fantastic addition to any US History class curriculum, but more than that, its story of two brave girls trying to find their way and do what’s right should be widely read by teens and adults, in school or out. Robin Talley’s fine writing gives us a front-row seat to a difficult and important chapter of our nation’s recent history — but beyond the social value, she’s also written just a really good novel that conveys true emotion and personal growth.


The details:

Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin Teen via NetGalley