Shelf Control #260: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

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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.

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Title: All American Boys
Author: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Published: 2015
Length: 316 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Rashad is absent again today.

That’s the sidewalk graffiti that started it all…

Well, no, actually, a lady tripping over Rashad at the store, making him drop a bag of chips, was what started it all. Because it didn’t matter what Rashad said next—that it was an accident, that he wasn’t stealing—the cop just kept pounding him. Over and over, pummeling him into the pavement. So then Rashad, an ROTC kid with mad art skills, was absent again…and again…stuck in a hospital room. Why? Because it looked like he was stealing. And he was a black kid in baggy clothes. So he must have been stealing.

And that’s how it started.

And that’s what Quinn, a white kid, saw. He saw his best friend’s older brother beating the daylights out of a classmate. At first Quinn doesn’t tell a soul…He’s not even sure he understands it. And does it matter? The whole thing was caught on camera, anyway. But when the school—and nation—start to divide on what happens, blame spreads like wildfire fed by ugly words like “racism” and “police brutality.” Quinn realizes he’s got to understand it, because, bystander or not, he’s a part of history. He just has to figure out what side of history that will be.

Rashad and Quinn—one black, one white, both American—face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn’t die after the civil rights movement. There’s a future at stake, a future where no one else will have to be absent because of police brutality. They just have to risk everything to change the world.

Cuz that’s how it can end. 

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy for my son about two years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I read Jason Reynolds’ excellent, powerful book Long Way Down last year, and have been wanting to read more of his work ever since, especially since he was named the 2020–2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His impact is profound, and I’ve been so impressed with every article and interview I’ve seen about him so far.

As far as the story itself, All American Boys sounds relevant and disturbing, and like an important read both for its intended YA audience and for adults.

What do you think? Would you read this book? Do you have recommendations for other books by Jason Reynolds?

Please share your thoughts!



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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.

Book Review: Game Changer by Neal Shusterman

Title: Game Changer
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Publication date: February 9, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

Ash Bowman is a straight, white, 17-year-old male, a lineman on the high school football team, son of working class parents, a good student, and a good friend. He considers himself pretty woke, not particularly a social activist, but sensitive and caring, and certainly not making the world any worse.

As the book starts, in the middle of a high school football game during a particular hard tackle, Ash has a weird sensation, but it’s over in a moment. Probably just the impact from the tackle, nothing to worry about. It’s not until Ash is driving home and nearly gets hit by a truck in an intersection that he realizes something is wrong. The friend in the passenger seat points out that Ash blew through a stop sign. Impossible, Ash thinks, until he gets to the next intersection and sees the familiar shape of a stop sign — but it’s blue. And to everyone but Ash, that’s completely normal. Stop signs have always been blue.

Ash knows something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint what. But at the next football game, during his next hard tackle, there’s another strange moment, and this time, there’s an even bigger shift in reality. When he heads to the parking lot, instead of his beat-up old car, Ash realizes that he drives a BMW. Rather than living in a poorer part of town, his family now lives in a gated community. Rather than leaving behind his football dreams in high school Ash’s dad is a retired NFL star who now owns a successful business chain, and the family lives in luxury. And once again, Ash is the only person who remembers that the world was once different, although those closest to him seem to have some almost-memories that they can’t quite explain.

With each impact at each game, Ash’s world shifts further and further from his own. He finds changes within himself, as well as in the world around him. Ash suddenly finds himself needing to confront racism, homophobia, and sexism in ways that were never quite as immediate in his original life. And as he learns to control the shifts, he faces a dilemma — does he continue to aim for a better world, or to go back to his own flawed world and try to be a voice for change?

The hows and whys of Game Changer have to do with some sci-fi mumbo jumbo that’s fun but not all that important. It’s not meant to be real quantum physics or anything, just a bit of hand-waving to set up the story and what happens. And that’s okay. The mechanics behind Ash’s world-shifting aren’t what matter here — the heart of the story is about Ash standing in different versions of his life and finally understanding other perspectives from the inside.

Some of these realizations are a little simplistic, as he lives out the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes. Still, it’s interesting to see this character, who’s always considered himself one of the good guys, come to grips with what it’s like to be someone else, what it’s like to lose privilege, and finally get what a friend has been telling him over the years — you can’t explain someone else’s experiences to them if you’re not them.

In some ways, Game Changer reminded me of David Levithan’s Every Day, in which the main character wakes up in a different person’s body each day and has to adapt to living as them, whatever their gender, orientation, race, economic status, or body type. In Game Changer, Ash is always Ash, but with the shifts in worlds, he becomes different versions of himself, and must learn to inhabit that self in the world he finds himself in.

Game Changer is a quick, intriguing read, and I think the target YA demographic will really find it though-provoking and a great jumping-off point for some intense discussions. Definitely worth checking out.

Book Review: Ironside (Modern Faerie Tales, #3) by Holly Black

Title: Ironside
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2007
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the realm of Faerie, the time has come for Roiben’s coronation. Uneasy in the midst of the malevolent Unseelie Court, pixie Kaye is sure of only one thing — her love for Roiben. But when Kaye, drunk on faerie wine, declares herself to Roiben, he sends her on a seemingly impossible quest. Now Kaye can’t see or speak to Roiben unless she can find the one thing she knows doesn’t exist: a faerie who can tell a lie.

Miserable and convinced she belongs nowhere, Kaye decides to tell her mother the truth — that she is a changeling left in place of the human daughter stolen long ago. Her mother’s shock and horror sends Kaye back to the world of Faerie to find her human counterpart and return her to Ironside. But once back in the faerie courts, Kaye finds herself a pawn in the games of Silarial, queen of the Seelie Court. Silarial wants Roiben’s throne, and she will use Kaye, and any means necessary, to get it. In this game of wits and weapons, can a pixie outplay a queen?

Holly Black spins a seductive tale at once achingly real and chillingly enchanted, set in a dangerous world where pleasure mingles with pain and nothing is exactly as it appears. 

I’m going to keep this post short, because I just don’t find myself having all that much to say about Ironside. But hey, I posted reviews for the first two books in the trilogy (Tithe and Valiant), so I might as well be complete about it!

In Ironside, we go back to the main character from Tithe — Kaye, the pixie raised as a human, who has fallen in love with Lord Roiben, the ruler of the Unseelie Court. He sets her on what seems to be an impossible quest, and meanwhile, is on the brink of war with the Seelie court, which his outnumbered people seem destined to lose.

Alongside her best friend, the mortal Corny, and their new friend Luis (who was introduced in Valiant), Kaye has to try to solve the riddle of her quest and find a way to prevent the war that’s likely to end with Roiben’s death, while also keeping Corny from the endless disasters that seem to pop up wherever he goes.

As in the other books in the trilogy, Ironside is set in New York, where faeries need magical powders of protection to live amidst all the poisonous iron of the human world. This book is not as bleak and grim as the 2nd book. There’s still danger, but the focus is mostly on events involving the faerie courts, and it doesn’t have quite the same sense of urban grittiness.

I’m not mad that I finished the trilogy, but I didn’t love the overarching story as a whole. Some characters are endearing, but the plot didn’t grab me, and key moments felt kind of brief and lacking in substance.

My edition of the trilogy (a three-in-one volume) includes The Lament of Lutie-Loo, a short story (written in 2019) about Kaye’s sprite companion and the visit she makes to Elfhame. I liked this a lot — it’s light and fun, and I think I particularly liked it for the glimpses of beloved characters from the Folk of the Air trilogy.

I’d been curious about these books, and they were on my list of series I wanted to read this year, so I’m glad to have accomplished what I set out to do. This trilogy as a whole didn’t thrill me, but I do love Holly Black’s writing and imagination, and look forward to reading a few more of her books.

Book Review: Valiant (Modern Faerie Tales, #2) by Holly Black

Title: Valiant
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Return to New York Times bestselling author Holly Black’s enthralling realm of faerie in the second Modern Faerie Tales novel, where danger and magic come hand-in-hand in the dark underground of New York City.

When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York, she’s trying to escape a life that has utterly betrayed her. Sporting a new identity, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city’s labyrinthine subway system. But there’s something eerily beguiling about Val’s new friends that sets her on edge.

When Val is talked into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature, she must strike a bargain to make it out with her life intact. Now drawn into a world she never knew existed, Val finds herself torn between her affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her new friends are becoming.

While Valiant is the 2nd book in Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy, don’t pick it up expecting to continue where Tithe left off. In Valiant, we meet a completely new cast of characters in a mostly new setting, and it’s only toward the end that there’s some cross-over with the previous book’s characters.

Val is 17 years old when she discovers a major betrayal by the people she trusted the most. Distraught, she takes a train into Manhattan to get away for a few hours — but then can’t bring herself to go back home. She shaves her head and takes to the street, fortunately meeting up with a few other teen runaways who welcome her into their circle. She soon finds herself squatting with them at an abandoned subway platform, where they can be relatively safe, keep warm, and have a regular place to sleep.

Val’s new friends — Lolli, Dave, Luis — have secrets. It turns out that they do odd jobs for the faerie underground in the city, making deliveries of a special potion that helps the Fae stay healthy in a world full of poisonous iron. What Val’s friends have discovered is that when a human uses this potion, especially by injecting it, it gives them all sorts of delicious borrowed power. It’s also highly addictive, and none of them seem able to resist it for long.

Meanwhile, someone is murdering solitary fae, and suspicion falls on Ravus, the bridge toll who creates and distributes the magical potion. Val has grown closer to Ravus, but being in his circle becomes more and more dangerous. There’s adventure and chaos, friendship and betrayal, growing up and going home. There’s a LOT going on this book.

Val & Ravus fan art via https://hollyblack.tumblr.com/

In some ways, Valiant could be seen as a metaphor for the dangers of being a runaway. Remember how people used to talk a lot about how Buffy is really a metaphor for the teen years (high school is hell!)? You could look at Valiant in a similar fashion. There’s a point to be made here: The experiences of Val and her friends are dark and grim and in no way glamorous or magical. The book shows their daily struggle to get enough to eat, find a bathroom to clean up in, sleep where they won’t be robbed or assaulted, and figure out who to trust. Several characters fall quickly into addiction, and the fact that it’s a magical drug doesn’t change the fact that it’s destroying them more and more each day. Through the constant threats and uncertainties, this book makes clear that running away shouldn’t be seen as the answer. Home may be hard, but being on the streets isn’t the “magical” solution either.

At the same time, this is a faerie tale, although a very dark one. It’s bleak and hard, the fae the characters meet are mostly cruel, and the stakes are high — if they survive their lives on the streets, they can still be killed by creatures that want to hurt them just for fun.

This isn’t a pleasant read, but it did keep me interested. I liked Val and Ravus as characters, and I’m interested in seeing how the 3rd book, Ironside, wraps up the plots of Tithe and Valiant. As I mentioned in my review of Tithe, I don’t feel these books are anywhere near the greatness of the Folk of the Air trilogy — but considering that the Modern Faerie Tales books were written about 20 years earlier, it’s nice to be able to compare and see the author’s development of her craft and the worlds she creates.

Onward to #3!

Book Review: Tithe (Modern Faerie Tales, #1) by Holly Black

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: McElderry Books
Publication date: 2002
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Welcome to the realm of very scary faeries!

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death. 

I have been wanting to read the Modern Faerie Tale trilogy ever since reading the author’s more recent Folk of the Air series, which I love to pieces. Tithe, the first book in the trilogy, was first published in 2002, and is Holly Black’s first novel.

Kaye is a 16-year-old girl who lives wherever her mother happens to land, raising herself while her mother focuses on her band. She stopped going to school a couple of years earlier, rather than continuing to go through the process of starting over every time they pick up move somewhere new for the sake of a new gig.

When they need a sudden escape from a dangerous situation, they move back to Kaye’s hometown in New Jersey to live in her grandmother’s house. Kaye is happy to reconnect with her elementary school bestie, Janet, and also hopes to see her imaginary friends again. But are they really imaginary? In her early years, Kaye would tell anyone who would listen about her magical fairy friends, which no one ever believed, earning herself the reputation of being a weird kid.

Some strange things start to recur, and after a bad night out, Kaye runs into a beautiful, otherworldly man in the forest who’s been injured. As she tries to help him, a bond is forged, and she starts to learn more about her own true nature. It turns out that Kaye is a pixie changeling, placed under heavy glamours to appear human and exchanged for the real baby Kaye, who’s been raised in Faerie in Kaye’s place.

Things escalate quickly, and Kaye finds herself pulled into a power struggle between the different Fae courts. She’d like to trust Roiben, but he’s clearly dangerous as well, and Kaye is still learning about her own magic and abilities, as well as worrying about her mortal friends who have inadvertently gotten mixed up with the world of Faerie.

Kaye is a great character, a little jaded and world-weary, but also in awe of the new world that opens before her. She hates the power games and brutality shown by some of the Fae, but she sees beauty in this world as well. The dynamic between Kaye and Roiben is quite fun. (Side note: Kaye and Roiben make brief appearances in the Folk of the Air trilogy, and once I realized that they were the main characters in Tithe, I knew I needed to read it.)

There are some tragic turns and dramatic encounters, and the pacing of the story is quick and engaging. That said, this book was written almost 20 years ago and is a first novel, and both of those elements show. I can’t fault a book for depicting the time in which it was written, but it’s still jarring, here in 2021, to have teens not glued to their cell phones, see them using pay phones, or mention the noise their modem makes while connecting to the internet.

In terms of this being a first novel, it’s well-written and engaging, but having read the Folk of the Air trilogy, Tithe suffers by comparison. Which may just be a round-about way of saying how amazing the Folk of the Air books are — sophisticated plotting and world-building, powerfully depicted characters, intricate relationships… I could go on and on. Reading Tithe after those books, it’s clear that Tithe is much simpler writing, and at the same time, doesn’t do as good a job of explaining the various power dynamics of the Fae courts (which we basically get to know about via one massive information dump).

Holly Black is an incredibly gifted writer, and it’s interesting to see where she started. The world of Tithe is related to the world of the Folk of the Air, and reading Tithe is a great chance to experience Faerie as the author first depicted it.

I will definitely read the other two books in the series (Valiant and Ironside), and then have an unrelated trilogy (Curse Workers) and an unrelated novel (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) by Holly Black on my TBR shelf.

I do recommend Tithe, especially for fans of the author’s later books.

For more of my reviews of Holly Black books:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Good Neighbors (graphic novel trilogy)
The Cruel Prince
The Wicked King/The Queen of Nothing
How the King of Elfhame Learned To Hate Stories

Book Review: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey

Title: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow
Author: Laura Taylor Namey
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Love & Gelato meets Don’t Date Rosa Santos in this charming, heartfelt story following a Miami girl who unexpectedly finds love—and herself—in a small English town.

For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.

Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.

A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow was one of Reese Witherspoon’s YA book club picks, and I can see a lot of what makes it appealing — romance, family, grief and recovery, friendship, and cultural diversity and celebration.

The girl of the title is Lila Reyes, a 17-year-old with a broken heart who has suffered too many losses in too short a period of time. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, her best friends makes plans to work in Ghana after graduation without telling Lila, and most devastating of all, Lila’s beloved abuela dies unexpectedly.

Her abuela was the heart and soul of the family, and she taught Lila everything she knew about food and baking. Lila’s plans were set in stone already — after graduation, she and her older sister Pilar would take over the management of the family bakery. But when Lila’s grief leads her down a self-destructive path, her worried family sends her to a small town in England to spend the summer with a cousin at her family’s inn.

Lila is mad and resentful at first, and so stubborn that she refuses to alter her Miami dress code of tank tops and strappy sandals, even when confronted with chilly English weather. Slowly, though, Lila finds the beginnings of a routine for herself, baking her special Cuban pastries and treats in the inn’s kitchen, becoming friends with a local musician and her group, and getting to know Orion Maxwell, a lovely local who is determined to show Lila all the best sites and tastes of Winchester.

The story is sweet and occasionally moving, as Lila, Orion, and others deal with sorrows and challenges, and learn the various ways true friends can hold each other up when they need it most. And oh, the food! Each chapter is filled to the brim with Lila’s nonstop cooking and baking, and it all sounds amazing! Take me to her bakery now, please, so I can fill my stomach with absolutely everything!

So why only 3 stars? (And, I’ll be honest, I wavered between 2.5 and 3 for quite a while.) It’s simple — I just couldn’t get into the author’s writing style.

You know how in some books, the sentence structure or use of words is so unique or special that it makes you stop and admire it while you’re reading? This isn’t that. Instead, I was constantly pausing because I was befuddled by the odd syntax and use of language, and had to try to puzzle out what certain descriptions and phrases actually meant:

Blond hair — a dark variety his creator dyed in a murky rain puddle — curls slightly on top of a cropped cut.

Before my mouth even closes, my words strike faces.

Gray, dim, shade — those are the colors on his face before he thumbs his chin and half-smiles for me.

My culture also has too much wanting to die out in the new.

Miami. The third heart on this pavement, trying to love me harder.

The story is nice and moves pretty quickly, but I just didn’t love it enough to want to rave about it, and the writing issue definitely affected my overall enjoyment.

Recommended for the amazing food and the tribute to Cuban Miami culture, but not a must-read.

Mini-reviews: Starting 2021 with two YA novels

Okay, 2021. Let’s do this!

I started two different YA novels right at the end of December, and finished both by January 3rd. I haven’t read a whole lot of YA lately, and I’m definitely not in the target demographic, so take my reviews with lots of grains of salt, please.

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Title: You Have a Match
Author: Emma Lord
Upcoming release: January 12, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the beloved author of Tweet Cute comes Emma Lord’s You Have a Match, a YA novel of family, friendship, romance and sisterhood…

When Abby signs up for a DNA service, it’s mainly to give her friend and secret love interest, Leo, a nudge. After all, she knows who she is already: Avid photographer. Injury-prone tree climber. Best friend to Leo and Connie…although ever since the B.E.I. (Big Embarrassing Incident) with Leo, things have been awkward on that front.

But she didn’t know she’s a younger sister.

When the DNA service reveals Abby has a secret sister, shimmery-haired Instagram star Savannah Tully, it’s hard to believe they’re from the same planet, never mind the same parents—especially considering Savannah, queen of green smoothies, is only a year and a half older than Abby herself.

The logical course of action? Meet up at summer camp (obviously) and figure out why Abby’s parents gave Savvy up for adoption. But there are complications: Savvy is a rigid rule-follower and total narc. Leo is the camp’s co-chef, putting Abby’s growing feelings for him on blast. And her parents have a secret that threatens to unravel everything.

But part of life is showing up, leaning in, and learning to fit all your awkward pieces together. Because sometimes, the hardest things can also be the best ones.

I’m fascinated by real-life stories of people discovering hidden family connections through DNA testing companies like 23andme. (My test results were not particularly dramatic — no secret siblings or deep-dark family secrets!)

In You Have a Match, 16-year-old Abby discovers through DNA testing that she has a full sister that she never knew about. Determined to understand how this is possible, Abby and Savvy connect, and decide to attend summer camp together as a way to piece together the puzzle of their pasts… without telling their parents about their big discovery.

Family secrets come to light, tears are shed, and Abby learns a lot about herself, her parents, and the secret history she shares with Savvy. Plus, there’s friend and boyfriend drama, plus social media, worries about the future, and a best friend/boyfriend to sort out too.

I really liked the camp setting (memories…), and thought the main concept was really inventive. The secrets behind Abby and Savvy’s shared past are surprising and moving, although I’m not sure I buy some of the events as they’re described. I loved that the girls were able to get past their surface differences and come together as sisters, filling roles in each others’ lives that they never knew they needed.

I was less into the emphasis on Instagram followers and fame, but I suppose that’s a generational thing. The romance aspects also didn’t really speak to me, but again — not an actual young adult here!

I didn’t really know what to expect from You Have a Match, and I was pleasantly surprised! This is a fast, easy-to-get-lost-in read. Lots of fun, and also hits the emotions.

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Title: You Should See Me in a Crown
Author: Leah Johnson
Published: 2020
Length: 336 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?

This book came to my attention when Reese Witherspoon picked it as her book club’s first YA book. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!

In You Should See Me In a Crown, Liz is an outsider when it comes to her wealthy community’s obsession with prom. Really, she’s never really thought about it in relation to herself, until forced to take desperate measures when her hoped-for scholarship falls through. And nothing could be more desperate than Liz Lighty running for prom queen.

With the support of her best friends, Liz determines to step outside her comfort zone and do what it takes to pursue her dream. Battling cliquey mean girls and the school’s slant toward the straight, white, popular crowd, Liz has to balance being true to herself with doing what it takes to earn the votes needed to become queen.

The book showcases friendship and honesty, falling in love and deciding whether to be out, family support and keeping secrets, wealthy inequality, and so much more. While the race for prom queen is the overarching plotline, You Should See Me in a Crown is an excellent portrait of a young woman in an unexpected situation, figuring out how to achieve her goals without losing herself in the process.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Alaska Jackson, and it was light, fun, and sweet. I really enjoyed the story, and think it would make an awesome Netflix movie!

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There you have it — two contemporary YA books that gave me a cheerful start to my 2021 reading!

Book Review: Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Title: Watch Over Me
Author: Nina LaCour
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nina LaCour delivers another emotional knockout with Watch Over Me, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the Printz Award-winning We Are Okay.

Mila is used to being alone. Maybe that’s why she said yes to the opportunity: living in this remote place, among the flowers and the fog and the crash of waves far below.

But she hadn’t known about the ghosts.

Newly graduated from high school, Mila has aged out of the foster care system. So when she’s offered a job and a place to stay at a farm on an isolated part of the Northern California Coast, she immediately accepts. Maybe she will finally find a new home, a real home. The farm is a refuge, but also haunted by the past traumas its young residents have come to escape. And Mila’s own terrible memories are starting to rise to the surface.

Watch Over Me is another stunner from Printz Award-Winning author Nina LaCour, whose empathetic, lyrical prose is at the heart of this modern ghost story of resilience and rebirth. 

This book was not what I was expecting. It’s so much more.

Watch Over Me is a gorgeously written story of survival, found families, and coming to peace with one’s past. It’s a story of suffering and recovery, of facing one’s fears and choosing a way forward.

Mila, at age eighteen, has finished high school, and after living with kind foster parents who are eager to start over with a new baby to care for, she needs a place to put down roots at the start of her life as a young adult. She’s thrilled to be offered a place at The Farm, a refuge run by a warm couple named Terry and Julia, who take in abandoned and hopeless children and give them a safe place to grow.

Mila will be one of three interns, young adults who teach school for the younger children and who work as part of the farm’s collective, cooking, cleaning, and taking the farm’s flowers and produce to the weekly farmers market. Meanwhile, she’ll be living in a small no-frills cabin heated by a wood-burning stove, sharing meals with the family in the big house, and participating in the simple, isolated life that the group enjoys, far from the nearest town.

Though she tries to fit in, Mila is constantly worried about her place. She has secrets from her past, and while she tries to reassure herself that she is good, she’s fearful that the family will turn her away if they know the truth about what she’s done. Still, she bonds quickly with Lee, the 9-year-old boy who she’ll be teaching. She recognizes that he’s been hurt in his past, and by sharing some of her own pain, she hopes to help him open up and start to be less afraid.

And one more thing: There are ghosts. Each night, shimmering ghostly children play on the fields of the farm, visible to all the farm’s residents. No one seems particularly freaked out by them — they’re just part of what makes the place unique.

As Mila settles in, memories of her past creep back in, slowly at first, then threatening to overwhelm her. The story of what she’s been through is horrible, and it quickly becomes clear that this is a girl who no one protected, and who was endangered by the person who should have put Mila’s safety first.

I won’t explain how the ghosts fit into the story, but the more I read, the more captivated I was by the farm, its people, and how Mila’s past comes to haunt her present. I loved the characters and the relationships, but most of all loved Mila, with her doubts and uncertainties and fears — but also because of her big heart and capacity for love, and how badly she needs a place to belong.

Watch Over Me is unsettling and beautiful, and I’m pretty sure I’ll want to go back to it and read it all over again, just to let it all sink in. Highly recommended.

The beautiful inside front page

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!


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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!