Book Review: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2) by TJ Klune

Title: Flash Fire (The Extraordinaries, #2)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Flash Fire is the explosive sequel to The Extraordinaries by USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Through bravery, charm, and an alarming amount of enthusiasm, Nick landed himself the superhero boyfriend of his dreams. Now instead of just writing stories about him, Nick actually gets to kiss him. On the mouth. A lot. But having a superhero boyfriend isn’t everything Nick thought it would be—he’s still struggling to make peace with his own lack of extraordinary powers.

When new Extraordinaries begin arriving in Nova City—siblings who can manipulate smoke and ice, a mysterious hero who can move objects with their mind, and a drag queen superhero with the best name and the most-sequined costume anyone has ever had—it’s up to Nick and his friends Seth, Gibby, and Jazz to determine who is virtuous and who is villainous.

And new Extraordinaries aren’t the only things coming to light. Long-held secrets and neglected truths are surfacing that challenge everything Nick knows about justice, family, and being extraordinary. Which is a lot to handle when Nick really just wants to finish his self-insert bakery AU fanfic.

Will it all come together in the end or will it all go down in flames?

I’m not sure that I can say anything more positive about this book than the fact that I WANTED TO HUG IT throughout the entire reading experience. Flash Fire is sweet and funny and adorable. It’s also a superhero story! But secret powers and daring escapades — while awesome — are really secondary to me in terms of why I love this book so much.

The heart and soul of Flash Fire (and The Extraordinaries, the first book in the series) is Nicky, the sweet, nerdy fanboy who is madly in love with his best friend Seth… who just happens to secretly be Pyro Storm, the superhero who recently saved the people of Nova City from the villainous Shadow Storm.

Now that Nick knows the truth about Seth and his superhero alter ego, he’s even more head-over-heels in love. Fortunately, Seth is just as crazy about Nicky, and the two of them are are maddeningly sweet and goofy whenever they’re together.

Gah. I can’t seem to write a single paragraph about Flash Fire without using the word sweet. Guess I should just accept it and move on.!

As Flash Fire moves forward, Nicky and Seth are starting to explore more of their physical relationship, but they can’t seem to get very far without Nick’s super embarassing yet incredibly lovable father giving them demonstrations on how to use condoms or make dental dams. It’s SO cringe-y, yet also amazing. Meanwhile, Shadow Star has been caught and imprisoned, but there’s a sense that more danger is on the way.

Nick and Seth are joined by their best friends Gibby and Jazz, and with the backing of their supportive parents, the four are on high alert for any new threats. And new threats do surface, and violence seems to stalk Nick and Seth wherever they go — and they’re also endangered by nosy, unethical reporter Rebecca Firestone, whose mission seems to be to expose Pyro Storm’s secret identity, no matter the cost.

One of my favorite YA tropes is cataclysmic events happening at prom, and Flash Fire does this to the nth degree and then some. Who doesn’t love a streamer-decorated school gym becoming the setting for a superhero showdown? The battle at prom is all sorts of awesome, and I won’t say much more about it, but you’ll love it too. Nicky’s sequined and spangled prom suit is just icing on the cake. Trust me.

This book!! HUGS HUGS HUGS. The dialogue is amazing, the writing overall is lovely and funny, the plot zips along, and there’s so much heart in it all that I can’t stop talking about how fabulous the whole thing is. Basically, rather than writing a review, I’m apparently participating in a one-woman love fest.

I’ll just wrap by sharing some great moments from the book, starting with a snippet that’s comes up a lot in the book, whenever Nicky is about to do something incredibly stupid or brave or both. (Have I mentioned that Nicky is a lot? He’s very extra.)

“Nicky, no,” they all groaned

“Nicky, yes!”

Seth was pretty much the hottest thing in existence when he wore a cravat and spoke forcefully.

“Hello, boyfriend of mine,” Nick said, and because he could, he leaned forward and kissed Seth right on the mouth. He hoped a homophobe had been watching and was now filled with so much heterosexual rage, they were choking on it.

“Yeah, no,” Gibby said. “It’s weird. What are the chances that three people we know personally ended up being Extraordinaries?”

“And they’re all gay,” Jazz said with a frown.

“Seth’s bisexual,” Nick said, because he’d be damned if he’d allow bi erasure, even in the face of all the ridiculousness.

“Quiet,” Jazz hissed at her. “We can’t interfere. We can only observe. We talked about this. You know how queer boys are in the wild. If they know they’re being watched, they get skittish and run for the forest.

He didn’t even realize he was crying until Seth said, “Hey, hey, Nicky, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I know,” he sobbed. “I’m pretty much the best thing ever. You’re so lucky to have me.”

“I really am,” Seth said.

So yeah. Five stars all the way!! I love this SWEET book so much, and just CANNOT WAIT for #3.

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:

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.

Shelf Control #244: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Published: 2012
Length: 485 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules. 

How and when I got it:

I found a copy on the book swap shelf at work.

Why I want to read it:

I remember seeing positive reviews for this book over the years, and I know there was a movie version too. After reading Plain Bad Heroines this fall, I’m really interested in reading more by this author.

I haven’t been reading much YA this year, but this does sounds like a good one!

Have you read this book? Would you want to?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 20, 2020
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

This 600+ page book almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot!

“I wish some one would write a book about a plan bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.” – Mary MacLane

Plain Bad Heroines is a story-within-a-story book, with interlocking characters and motifs that center on the (supposedly) cursed and/or haunted grounds of the Brookhants School for Girls — an early 20th century institution for the education of society girls, located on a wooded estate in upper-crust Rhode Island.

Mary MacLane

In 1902, students Clara and Flo are inspired by the writings of (real-life) Mary MacLane and form a secret society, the Plain Bad Heroines, to celebrate her work and her life. Clara and Flo are in love, but after a disastrous trip home and a ride back to school with her judgmental cousin, Clara storms off into the woods to meet up with Flo, only for both girls to meet a ghastly end by being attacked by swarms of yellow jackets.

In our own timeline, the events from 1902 gain new notoriety after Merritt Emmons publishes The Happenings at Brookhants at the age of sixteen. Now years later, the book is being made into a film by an edgy director, with superstar “celesbian” Harper Harper committed to star as Flo. Merritt is on board as a producer, and she’s not pleased when Audrey Wood, a B-list actor who bombed her audition in a major way, is cast as Clara.

As the production cast and crew settle in to film on location at Brookhants, weird things start to happen, and there’s much more going on than can be easily explained. Is the place truly haunted? Or is this Hollywood manipulation at its most devious?

The plot weaves backward and forward in time, cutting between the modern-day movie storyline and the complicated relationships between Harper, Merritt, and Audrey, and the timeline that includes the aftermath of Clara and Flo’s deaths and the impact on Libbie, the school headmistress, and her lover, Alex (Alexandra).

There’s so much more to both pieces of the story than is readily apparent, and the author carefully layers on more and more hints and explanations, constantly deepening the story and shifting its direction and meaning.

Plain Bad Heroines is proudly, unabashedly queer, and its (plain, bad) heroines make no attempts to follow anyone’s rules but their own. They love as they please, and take inspiration from Mary MacLane’s own bold pronouncements when they need courage. The relationships are intricate and shifting, in both timelines, and the character refuse to be cookie-cutter types — author Emily M. Danforth does an amazing job of managing such a large cast and making sure each individual character has a life and personality of her own.

This book is BIG, and it takes concentration, but I could not stop reading once I started. The writing style is clever and filled with footnotes and commentary that are snarky and funny and informative. There are also dire and tragic happenings — and this IS a horror story too, with plenty of creepy, spine-tingling moments.

Black and white illustrations throughout the book add to the overall mood and make reading this book feel like an experience.

Yellow jackets are scary anyway, but now, having read Plain Bad Heroines, I’m pretty sure I’m terrified of them. Read the book — you’ll see what I mean.

I really only have two complaints about Plain Bad Heroines, and the first is not with the story itself but with the layout. Whoever picked the typeface for this book should have paid more attention to the asterisks that lead to the footnotes — I almost never saw them (they’re tiny), and had to constantly go back and search the page to see where the footnotes connect to.

My second complaint is a larger one, which is that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. It leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, and I’m a little frustrated that certain elements didn’t get more clarity and resolution.

Still, this is overall a marvelous and unique book, and I laughed and shivered my way through it. The final scene takes place at the Cannes Festival premiere of The Happenings at Brookhants, and all I could think was, damn! I wish this was a real movie, because it would be fascinating to see how it all worked out.

Plain Bad Heroines is a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

To learn more about the real Mary MacLane, visit The Mary MacLane Project.

Book Review: The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Marissa Meyer’s Renegades in TJ Klune’s YA debut. 

Based on having read two of his books, I can now pretty confidently state that TJ Klune writes books that makes me want to hug them. I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, which came out earlier this year, and now The Extraordinaries is here, with adorableness galore.

Our hero, Nick Bell, has no superpowers to speak of — unless you count his amazing imagination, his neuro-atypical brain that never slows down, and his ability to screw up no matter his good intentions.

Nick is starting junior year of high school with a promise to his dad to do better. No more getting into trouble. No more disrupting class or showing up late. And he really, really means to live up to that promise, but things have a way of not working out the way he plans.

Nick and his father live in Nova City, where his dad is a hard-working cop on the night shift. They live in the After — the years that have passed since Nick’s mother was killed during a bank robbery. Now it’s just the two of them, and while they love each other very much, it’s just not always easy.

Nova City is also the home of two Extraordinaries — superheroes who swoop in to fight crime and save the day. Shadow Star is the good guy, the masked man whose every move causes people to swoon in awe (and Nick to swoon in lust). Shadow Star’s archnemesis is Pyro Storm, the villain who can create and control fire, blocked from evil deeds by Shadow Star’s ability to manipulate shadows to carry out his will. They engage in epic battles over and around Nova City, but lately, these battles have escalated in their seriousness and the amount of damage left behind. The police chief is determined to put a stop to the havoc caused by these Extraordinaries.

Besides having a huge crush on Shadow Star, Nick writes incredibly popular fanfiction about him, and lives for the idea of meeting him eventually. Meanwhile, he goes to school and spends time with his best friends, who love Nick unconditionally, even when his brain and his tongue get him into trouble again and again. He’s a lot. But he’s theirs, and he’s a good guy (so lovable!), and they have his back no matter what.

Where do I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? It’s delightful and funny, but also surprisingly tender and lovely.

The relationship between Nick and his dad isn’t always smooth, but it is always grounded in love and devotion, and it’s really special to read about. While Aaron, the father, often causes Nick to squirm with his frank talk about sex and other matters, he’s coming from a place of support, and he’s determined to be the parent Nick needs, knowing that the two of them have to stick together through good times and bad.

Nick’s friend group is amazing — each quirky and unique in their own way, and so much fun to read about. Also, all queer and proud, in a no big deal, this is who I am sort of way. Each one of them deserves so many hugs! (Except Gibby might twist your arm if you try to hug her, so watch out. She’s tough.)

The writing is funny and charming, and Nicky especially has great lines. He’s a total smart-ass, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend to be.

The Great Romance of Nick and Owen came to an end as quickly as it started. (“You’re a great guy, Nicky, but I’m a wild animal who can’t be caged.” “Oh my god, you are not!”)

Nick really didn’t understand straight people. They didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.

He wasn’t very adept when it came to comforting people he’d made out with. Or, at least, that appeared to be the case. He’d never made out with anyone else. He wondered if he needed to find someone else to make out with and then have them talk about their damaged relationship with their family to make sure.

Nick wondered if it were possible to disappear into the floor. He tapped his foot against it. Solid as always.

Nick groaned. “This sucks. Not only am I the comedic relief/love interest, I’m also the clueless comedic relief/love interest who is a pawn in a game I didn’t even realize was being played. God, my life is so cliche.

I feel like I could go on and on about how awesome this book is, or spend another 10,000 words or so just picking random paragraphs from the book to prove to you how fantastic and whimsical and hilarious and touching the writing is.

But let’s leave it at this: Nick is a damaged, imperfect guy living in a superhero world, and he’s extraordinary in his own ordinary way. I love him bunches and bunches, and I’m thrilled to know that The Extraordinaries is apparently the first book in a trilogy. I will absolutely read more about these characters and this world, and wish I didn’t have to wait for 2021 for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’m clearly going to need to start working my way through TJ Klune’s backlist, pronto.

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Title: Upright Women Wanted
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 4, 2020
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”

Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

Are you a coward or are you a librarian?

Just from the tag line on the cover, not to mention the awesome cover art, I knew this would be a great read.

In a future society that seems like a totalitarian version of the Old West, Librarians work for the State, riding from outpost to outpost delivering Approved Materials.

Esther stows away in a Librarian’s wagon after watching her best friend hang. Beatriz was more than Esther’s friend, though — the two were lovers, although they recognized that what they were doing was wrong and needed fixing.

Esther comes to the Librarians seeking refuge and a chance to fix her life. She pleads with Bet, the Head Librarian:

“Please,” she whispered one mroe time, fear tart under her tongue because she knew this was it, this was her last worst hope and this woman who could turn her in to the reaper was looking at her with precisely zero mercy. “I know I’m not supposed to be like this. I want to be like you.”

The response is not what she expects:

“Well, Esther,” Bet said, that irrepressible laugh trying hard to shake her voice, her thumb tracing the back of Leda’s. “Well. I’ve got good new for you, and I’ve got bad news.”

The good news is that Esther will be allowed to stay and ride with the Librarians. The bad news is that she’s not going to get the “upright” life she anticipates. The librarians are queer freedom-fighters, using their sanctioned role for decidedly unsanctioned purposes, smuggling unapproved materials and people past sheriffs and posses looking for insurgents, helping rebels get to safety so they can fight back another day.

Upright Women Wanted is a terrific romp through the new Old West, with gun battles and pursuits on horseback and corpses left for the vultures… plus the moving journey of Esther, learning how to be herself and not feel shame for who and what she is.

It’s an exciting story, with memorable characters and entertaining action sequences. My only quibble is that the novella length left me wanting more. How did the world end up this way? How exactly does this State work? How are the librarians organized, and who is their mysterious leader?

I do hope there’s a follow-up, because I definitely want answers! But in all other respects, Upright Women Wanted is a sparkling read that definitely satisfies.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Sarah Gailey, and can’t wait for whatever they write next!

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:
American Hippo
Magic For Liars

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:

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.
..Save

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: The 5th Gender by G. L. Carriger

 

A species that has no word for murder, has a murderer aboard their spaceship. 

ALIEN 

Tristol lives in exile. But he’s built a life for himself aboard a human space station. He’s even begun to understand the complex nuances of human courting rituals.

Detective Hastion is finally flirting back!

MURDER 

Except that Tristol’s beloved space station is unexpectedly contacted by the galoi – a xenophobic species with five genders, purple skin, and serious attitude. They need the help of a human detective because there’s a murderer aboard their spaceship. Murder is so rare, the galoi don’t even have a word for it.

Tristol knows this because he is galoi.

ROMANCE 

Which means that he and Detective Hastion are on the case… together.

Delicate Sensibilities? 

Contains men who love other men in graphic detail, regardless of gender, biology, or skin color… and lots of emotively sexy tentacle hair.

New York Times best selling author Gail Carriger (writing as G.L. Carriger) brings you a light-hearted romantic cozy mystery featuring an adorable lavender alien and his human crush.

Oh my, where to even start with this cute and sexy sci-fi love story?

Well, how about with talking about how adorable Tristol (Tris) is? He’s lavender (not purple, thank you very much), with hair that expresses emotion and is highly sensitive, boundless enthusiasm, and a heart that’s just aching for love. His human crush, Trey Hastion, is large, bearded, and highly attractive, and — as it turns out — has a secret thing for Tris. But just as the two start to connect, Tris is called in to consult on the unheard-of contact by the Galoi, seeking human help in solving a mystery aboard their ship.

Meanwhile, Tris and Trey explore — in explicit detail — just how an alien and a human can enjoy physical intimacy. And trust me, as I learned in The 5th Gender, there are plenty of ways! Ooh boy. As the author so kindly warns at the beginning of the book, if you prefer your romance on the less graphic side, maybe try something else.

As for me, I was utterly charmed. I could kind of take or leave the sex scenes — yes, they’re sexy, but overall, I’m not that huge a fan of erotica, so after a while, I’d had my fill. Still, I enjoyed the book very much. Tris is just such a cutie, not just in appearance but also in his openness to life and his absolute love of people, new experiences, good food, and pleasing color combinations.

I was also pretty fascinated by the Galoi definitions of gender — very confusing at first, but eventually, we get an explanation of the five different Galoi genders, their societal roles, their physical traits, and what can happen to someone who doesn’t want to accept their predefined communal responsibilities. Mixed in with the fun and flirty sci-fi are some compelling (but not preachy) thoughts on identity, freedom of choice, expression, and self-determination.

G. L. (Gail) Carriger has created an unforgettable character in Tris, and I adored his approach to life, the way his language translates to English, and his use of color to give meaning to his surroundings. Trey is pretty terrific too, and while the murder mystery has a rather sad and serious resolution, The 5th Gender as a whole is upbeat and cheerful and a celebration of love in all its many forms and expressions.

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The details:

Title: The 5th Gender
Author: G. L. Carriger
Publisher: Gail Carriger LLC
Publication date: May 18, 2019
Length: 236 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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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?

Swoon.

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?
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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.

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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

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