Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are Okay book coverThis is another very quiet book from LaCour that punches you right in the heart, much like Hold Still. I’ve read some of her other books and enjoyed them (I’ve given each of them 5 stars on Goodreads, which I rarely do), so I expected to like this one. I did— it got another 5-star rating.

We Are Okay is about Marin, who has just finished her first semester of college in New York. She’s from California and her best friend, Mabel, is coming to visit her. This best friendship has been deeply complicated by the fact that Marin has been completely ignoring all Mabel’s texts since right before her school started. This is a dual timeline story, being told in the present (December) and in the timeline starting in the previous May, so the past unfolds slowly. We know pretty early the basics of what happened: Marin’s guardian and only family, Gramps, died in August and she immediately left California. But it turns out to be more complicated than that.

Mabel is pissed at Marin, but she also understands that Marin went through something really traumatic. The majority of the book’s present timeline is Marin trying to come out of her shell and really reach out to Mabel, but it’s not easy. The past timeline tells the story of their romance and how much Mabel means to Marin, as well as Marin’s life with Gramps. It wasn’t a joyful life, as he never seemed to get over the accidental death of Marin’s mom (when she was three), or his own wife’s death. But life with Mabel was joyful, which is why it hurt her so much when Marin completely pulled away. Now, Mabel wants Marin to go back to California with her. Marin has no family left—and no place to stay—and Mabel’s parents want to fill that void. Yet Marin can’t imagine going.

As I mentioned above, this is a quiet book. It’s not heavy on plot—there are no car chases, for sure—but the character development is amazing. Both Marin and Mabel get uncovered a little bit at a time and so artfully, just enough at the right moments. The emotion of the book is delicately handled and you really feel Marin’s pain and sense of being lost. The other characters in the book are also very well-drawn—Gramps, Mabel’s parents. Even the groundskeeper, taxi driver, waitress, and pottery store owner seem to really come alive on the few pages they occupy.

Quiet doesn’t mean slow, but it does mean that it might take a little to really suck you in. I started reading it last weekend and it took me several days to get about 1/3 into the book, but then last night I started reading and didn’t finish until I’d hit the last page. If you liked Hold Still, you will definitely like this one. And if you haven’t read that but enjoy seeing overpowering and disorienting grief overcome, you will also like this one.

Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass book coverThe title of this book pretty much tells you what it’s about: bullying. But it’s about more than that, too, and it didn’t feel like an issue book to me.

Tenth grader Piddy (short for Piedad) Sanchez keeps a low-profile wherever she is. She’s just started out at a new high school in Queens, having moved with her mom from their old apartment in another part of the same borough. She’s befriended (sort of but not really) by an irritating girl named Darlene, who tells her that Yaqui is after her. Piddy doesn’t know why, but she eventually figures out it’s because Yaqui’s boyfriend leered and catcalled Piddy. Somehow this is her fault (…) and she deserves to be beaten up, according to Yaqui and her gang.

Piddy really just wants to be left alone to do well enough in her classes, work her Saturday job at the hair salon where her mom’s best friend, Lila, works, and occasionally visit her best friend, Mitzi, who has moved out of Queens. She also wants to learn about her absentee father and has an odd friendship with one of the boys from her old building. But things with Mitzi get awkward as Mitzi has made new friends at her new school and Piddy feels left behind. She also learns some things about her father that complicate her relationship with her mom. Then, Yaqui won’t let this thing go, and it haunts Piddy. All of this makes her start acting out a little, against everyone, including her mom and her friends. When Yaqui’s threat finally comes to a head, Piddy reacts understandably, basically going off track because she feels like she has no allies. She struggles with figuring out who she is as a result of this—does she want to try to be tough to fight back, or just be herself—whoever that is, exactly?

In the end, the school finds out about the bullying and they come to a very realistic solution that isn’t really fair to Piddy, but works. She also sorts things out with Mitzi and the subplot with Joey also resolves realistically.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is a sympathetic portrait of a girl with a fairly complicated life. She successfully navigates this rough chapter of her life and the book has a very positive ending.

Review: SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson

SHOUT book coverIf you know anything about this book, you know it’s important. Anderson has already written one important novel about sexual assault—Speak—but this is her far more personal memoir, written both to explain how she came to write Speak and simply tell her story. In SHOUT, she writes in verse, which made me wonder how I could possibly read it. Although I know this is weird, any time I see poetry, I get all anxious and can’t pay any attention to what I’m reading. So I had concerns. But then I found out there was an audiobook version—read by Anderson herself—so I checked that out and started listening. It didn’t sound like poetry; instead, it sounded just like someone telling a story, which made it completely accessible to me.

The first part of the book is really about her growing up. She didn’t have an easy childhood, but it wasn’t all about the rape she experienced just before starting ninth grade. She also had struggles with her parents, who had struggles themselves. She spent her senior year on an exchange program in Denmark, so much of the section is about that. She finishes off with her years just after finishing college. The second part is where the story really comes alive. Here, Anderson talks more about misogyny and sexual assault and the impact they have on everyone. She also addresses ideas for what we can do about it. She talks about the many speeches she’s given at schools around the country and how she isn’t always received with appreciation by faculty and administrators. Because, after all, “those of kinds of things don’t happen here.” Nevermind that “here” is by definition part of everywhere, which is exactly where it happens.

I highly recommend this book for everyone. It could be life-changing.

Review: The Hanging Girl by Eileen Cook

The Hanging Girl book coverI’ve been reading a lot more YA suspense lately, partially because there’s more of it coming out, and partially because I’m interested in trying my hand at it at some point.

Eighteen-year-old Skye Thorn is a fake psychic, something we learn immediately. She is good at reading people, which helps her pull off the trick. She does tarot readings for a little extra cash, even though what she really needs is some Serious Cash. So she gets involved in a kidnapping plot to get some of the money she desperately needs. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go exactly to plan and leave Skye a nervous wreck and having to improvise a bit. Although the main twist is a little predictable, how it came to be is not (at least, I didn’t think so).

Skye a slightly unreliable narrator. I mean, we know she lies and she isn’t totally open with readers in the beginning. This makes it an interesting book where the suspense keeps on going. There are several twists in the story, one relatively close to the beginning and a couple near the end. But what really makes it work is the characters. Skye is engaging and pretty unusual for a YA main character, I think. Her best friend, Drew, is very sympathetic and supporting, though she’s a little oblivious about what Skye’s life is like. The other major secondary character I’m not going to name because it would give too much away, but the character is also complex and intriguing. We get a few chapters from this character’s point of view, as well, which adds to the story. There are several other good characters that are very real. Her mom in particular is interesting, and also a source of embarrassment for Skye. And the tarot and psychic aspects of the book are fun even if you don’t buy into it at all.

If you’re looking for a YA thriller with an unusual and unreliable narrator, give this one a try. Note that the paperback version has a different title: One Lie Too Many. (I think this might be a British version, though this is what comes up in the Amazon search.)

Reading Challenges (2020)

Pride book coverNormally I’d post something about my writing, but there isn’t much to report so I thought I’d announce to the world my commitment to a couple of additional reading challenges for 2020 (I always do the Goodreads one—last year and this I committed to 110). One I started a while back (King County Library System’s 10 to Try), but the other (Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge) I just started.

For the 10 to Try, here are the categories and the books I’ve either already read or plan to read for it:

  1. Retelling of a fairytale or myth - Geekerella by Ashley Poston
  2. Teaches you a new skill - TED Talks by Chris Anderson
  3. About a journey - The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
  4. With a friend - not sure yet
  5. About a person you’d like to meet - Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton (I’m aware she’s dead)
  6. About nature - Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
  7. About music or a musician - Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star by Tracy Thorn
  8. About current events - The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark
  9. Recommended by KCLS staff - On Writing by Stephen King
  10. By an author whose gender is different from yours - Fables: The Dark Ages (Vol. 12) by Bill Willingham

SHOUT book coverFor the Read Harder Challenge (which is, in fact, much harder), here are my planned (and one already read) books:

  1. A YA nonfiction book - The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
  2. A retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color - Pride by Ibi Zoboi
  3. A mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman - Fake ID by Lamar Giles
  4. A graphic memoir - Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
  5. A book about a natural disaster - Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
  6. A play by an author of color and/or queer author - How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
  7. A historical fiction novel not set in WWII - The Horse Goddess by Morgan Llywelyn
  8. An audiobook of poetry - SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson
  9. The LAST book in a series - The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
  10. A book that takes place in a rural setting - Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen
  11. A debut novel by a queer author - Texts from Jane Eyre by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
  12. A memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own - Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
  13. A food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before - Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward LeeThe 57 Bus book cover
  14. A romance starring a single parent - Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai
  15. A book about climate change - Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
  16. A doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  17. A sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages) - “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
  18. A picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community - The Big Bed by Bunmi Laditan and Tom Knight
  19. A book by or about a refugee - How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana and Abigail Pesta
  20. A middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK - The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
  21. A book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non) - Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
  22. A horror book published by an indie press - We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
  23. An edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical) - not sure yet (I have several to choose from)
  24. A book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author - #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

Whew. I’ll let you know at the end of the year how I do.

Review: When We Collided by Emery Lord

When We Collided book coverWhen We Collided was at the top of my stack of mental health-related books, so I picked it up this week. Fortunately, it isn’t an issue book—it’s a good story with two main characters in very different situations who “collide” and their lives are forever changed, as the title implies.

Vivi is aptly-named—she’s a vivacious and boisterous girl with a fairly unconventional artist mom who allows her a lot of freedom, which she takes full advantage of. The two of them have temporarily moved to a small coastal California town. We know that there’s something going on with Vivi because every day she throws a pill into the ocean rather than take it, and it’s pretty clear that it’s related to her mental health. And as the book moves along, it becomes clearer what her mental illness might be. When the book opens, she is already in love with the town, has a job at a pottery shop, has made friends with some of the older locals, and is ready to meet someone her own age.

Enter Jonah, a seventeen-year-old who’s been forced to become prematurely adult due to the death of his father, the breakdown of his mom, and the existence of three younger siblings (plus two older). He meets Vivi when he takes his youngest sister, Leah, to the pottery shop, and Vivi befriends Leah and basically inserts herself into their lives. Jonah’s father ran an Italian restaurant with another guy, and Jonah has inherited his father’s interest in and talent for cooking. So Vivi’s first visit to their house is an opportunity for him to show off his cooking skills (though he cooks every meal every day, so this isn’t out of the ordinary). He and his older siblings take turns taking care of their family, while Jonah also covers shifts at the restaurant.

Vivi’s and Jonah’s connection is immediate and believable. They each need something from somebody because they’re both sort of falling apart. Vivi’s mental illness is ramping up while Jonah is feeling the weight of taking care of his siblings more and more every day. Both of them are very compelling characters with great character arcs. The book paints a very realistic picture of the experience of bipolar disorder, both from Vivi’s perspective and from Jonah’s, which I thought was valuable.

I recommend this for anyone who likes to see realistic teen characters go through a lot, but come out even stronger.

Review: Geekerella (Once Upon a Con #1) by Ashley Poston

GeekerellaThe idea of this book is really fun, if you’re into any kind of geeky fandom. And it’s all wrapped up as a retelling of Cinderella, which is cool.

Elle, short for Danielle, lives with her stepmom and two stepsisters, all of whom are mean to her, as you’d expect. She works at a vegan food truck called The Magic Pumpkin. And she’s a huge fan of a show called Starfield (something she shared with her dad before he died), which was first filmed some time in the past and is going to be remade now. Elle is very serious about the show and even runs a blog about it. She’s working on going to the next con in Atlanta, the one her father started. She wants to enter the cosplay contest in her dad’s old Carmindor costume. Elle’s horrified when pretty-boy Darien is cast in the reboot’s lead role, Prince Carmindor. No way can he do the role justice, because he can’t possibly know enough about the show. She rants about it—and Darien—on her blog.

Unbeknownst to Elle, Darien is a fan of the show, even though he has to pretend like he isn’t because it doesn’t fit his image. His father—and manager—is constantly breathing down his neck to keep the perfect image.

The two of them start texting, each having no idea who the other is, when Darien finds Elle’s dad’s old number—which Elle picks up because she inherited her dad’s phone—and tries to get out of doing a signing at the con. They find they have a lot in common regarding Starfield, and ultimately get as close as two people can over texts.

These are all good things, and enjoyable enough, but I did have a little trouble with the book. I felt like too many things relied on coincidences, unlikely behavior, or on situations that were easily fixable. Even the black moment, when it looks like their possible relationship is over, comes about because of something kind of unlikely—but more importantly, it was easily fixable with one more text, which for some reason was never sent.

So although I did enjoy reading the book, I didn’t find the story entirely credible. Still, if you are into any sort of fandom, this may well resonate with you, as it has for a lot of people (it has 4 stars on Goodreads with almost 40,000 reviews and 4.5 stars on Amazon with a few hundred reviews).

Review: The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

The Cheerleaders book coverI’ve been reading more suspense and thrillers lately, partially because I’m interested in turning one of my books into a suspense so I need to study up, and partially (of course) because I enjoy reading them. This was my first Kara Thomas book, but she apparently has some others, so I will be checking those out.

The book’s main character is Monica, whose sister was the last of her school’s five cheerleaders to die five years earlier. The first two were killed in a strange car accident that seemed to have no cause. The second two were murdered, with the murderer being killed by police (Monica’s stepfather) the next day. The final one was Monica’s sister, Jen, who killed herself—presumably out of despair over the other deaths.

Early on in the book, Monica stumbles across her sister’s old phone, stashed in the bottom drawer of her stepfather’s desk. There are also yearly anonymous letters saying

Connect the dots. Find the truth.

Monica doesn’t know what to think, but she has the guts to contact the number of the last call on Jen’s phone, which took place the morning she killed herself. And this kicks off Monica’s search for the truth. She figures out who the phone number belongs to and learns some critical information from him. She makes a new friend in the process of investigating and the two of them undertake some risky tasks.

The book also offers Jen’s point of view in some chapters (Monica has many more). This provides the reader with a little extra information, but it isn’t until the very end that we see how it all ties together (or doesn’t).

This is an engaging book with a few twists that surprised me. I won’t say it’s perfect—there were a couple of connections Monica made that I thought were a stretch, but not enough to keep me from wanting to know what happened. So if you enjoy YA thrillers, you should check this one out.

Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish book coverStarfish is the story of Kiko Himura, a 17-year-old Nebraska girl with a Japanese-American father and an obnoxiously white mother (who’s a total narcissist, but the way). Kiko’s mom has belittled her her whole life for not being “beautiful” like she (the mom) is. By beautiful, she means blonde and blue-eyed. Because Kiko takes after her father physically. To white people she’s too Japanese, and to Japanese people she’s too white. It’s not just her mom—the kids at school make sure she thinks this, too.

Unsurprisingly, Kiko’s anxious and lacking in self-confidence because she believes it all. She also thinks she’s responsible for breaking up her parents. When she was young, her uncle did something to her and she told her mom, who didn’t believe her. Still, Kiko thinks her parents were fighting because of this, and then her dad left. She’s got an older brother and a younger brother, but they’re not close. So she feels guilt on behalf of both of them, too. Kiko’s mom really is a piece of work. She’s so horrible that she’s almost unbelievable—but not quite.

Kiko’s a very talented artist and has applied to an elite art school in New York as her escape plan. But when she doesn’t get in, she’s distraught. And she’s hamstrung by her anxiety. But she’s lucky enough to run into her old friend, Jamie, who’d disappeared from her life when she was eleven and sort of broken her heart. Jamie invites her to come to California with him and she decides she’ll look at art schools out there. Jamie helps her ease out into the world. With a long overdue stroke of good luck, she meets a well-known established artist who takes her under his wing. By chance, he is Japanese-American too, and he helps her connect to her Japanese heritage for the first time. She and Jamie get closer, but there’s something that’s keeping them apart, too. She’s staying with him and his parents, and his parents are fighting and Jamie won’t tell her why. Eventually, everything comes to a head in a way I didn’t expect (but absolutely worked) and we see Kiko coming out of her shell.

This is a solid novel that will appeal especially to mixed-race kids, I’m guessing. The references to art throughout will also be particularly to those artistically inclined. But anybody can enjoy it for showing a girl finding her way.

Review: TED Talks

TED Talks book coverThis is going to be an unusual review for this blog. Obviously I usually review YA fiction. But today, since I didn’t finish another book this week, I’m reviewing an adult fiction book that I think might still be of relevance to my readers. A lot of people have to get up on a stage—at work, in school, in church, wherever. This book could make you more comfortable doing so, and help you make a bigger impact.

To make my boss happy (plus for some personal improvement), I joined Toastmasters at work. For those who don’t know, Toastmasters is an organization that is supposed to help you become a better public speaker and leader. You basically choose a pathway and make several assigned speeches on the way to reaching a leadership and speaking improvement goal. I gave my first speech in late February (on becoming a writer 🙂 ) and then before I could give my second speech, COVID-19 happened. So I thought I’d keep up with the learning and picked up the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson (“Head of TED”). If you don’t know about TED, you should: it’s an organization that runs conferences where people of all stripes give short talks. Check out ted.com to see some cool talks on almost everything imaginable.

Anyway, on to the book. Although Anderson frequently refers to TED-specific talks, he tries to generalize to other speaking venues, as well. He talks about the importance of a speech’s content being the best part of your speech, rather than obsessing about speech physical logistics, like where to stand and what to wear. It does address those things, because they do matter, but it has a major theme throughout: be yourself and be as comfortable as you can while up on stage. Much of the book (about 40%) is about making the talk itself solid and spectacular. Content matters. He talks about building ideas up and having a through line, avoiding common traps, connecting to people, narrating, explaining, persuading, and making revelations.

The next 45% talks about logistics, including whether or not to write a script and even possibly memorize it, or to try to wing it (hint: probably you shouldn’t wing it). He also addresses visuals, practicing, thinking about the impression you’re trying to make, mentally preparing, setting up, and having a real presence. The theme of being yourself and being comfortable is important in this section, too. Basically, you shouldn’t try to do something that will make you extra uncomfortable, since you’re (probably) already stretching out of your comfort zone to give a speech in the first place. Finally, he wraps up with some generalized thoughts on talks, and the importance he believes they have to our global, interconnected society.

So, I’d recommend this book over a lot of the other speech books out there because of the balance between content and logistics and the emphasis on comfort (many other books focus on logistics). If you think it might be helpful to get some tips on talking in front of people check this one out.

Review: Burnout by Stacia Leigh

Burnout book coverThis book’s been sitting on my shelf a while (in very good company) and I decided I wanted a quick read that was not for my MFA, so I picked it up. It turned out to be perfect. Even though I’m in a bit of a reading slump, I read it in two days because it’s pretty fast-paced. It’s billed as a contemporary YA romance, but I’d argue it’s romantic suspense, although the suspense doesn’t get started right away.

Will Sullivan, who we met as J.J.’s drunk friend in Dealing with Blue, is having a rough time. His mom was killed by a drunk driver a year earlier and he’s never dealt with it. Instead, he drinks the beer left behind by his dad’s and brother’s biker friends. After wrecking his own bike, drunk, he’s in a world of pain. But he’s part of the Hides of Hell family even though he doesn’t want to join, and when they decide to ride to a rally and at the same time spread his mom’s ashes, he’s got to go with them. But he doesn’t have a bike anymore, so…

Miki Holtz is the daughter of the new president of the club and she’d love to get his attention at least every once in a while. She’s also Will’s ride to the rally. They have some history—they’ve played together since they were little kids, but now Miki likes him more than as friends. But she messed it all up a year earlier, and he’s not forgiven her. So it’s going to be an awkward ride.

This may not sound all that suspenseful, but that comes in once they’ve been on the road a bit. They end up spending the first night in a cheapo motel because Will made the mistake of taking one too many pain pills, and he can barely stay on the bike. The motel clerk acts kind of fishy and seems to recognize Will’s name. The next night, they flee the campsite and backtrack to the motel because they think the motel clerk knows something. That next morning all hell breaks loose.

Will and Miki are both cool characters. Miki a bit more so—she’s quite plucky, while Will’s a bit broody and depressed, but not overly so. He’s still quite interesting and it’s rewarding to see him finally deal with his mom’s death. Miki also has her own things to deal with, mostly her relationship with her dad and how she sees herself.

If you’re looking for a gritty (but not too gritty) romance with a couple you definitely root for, this one is for you.

Review: Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky

Anatomy of a Boyfriend book coverI really enjoyed Anatomy of a Boyfriend, which is a modern day Forever (I say that even though it was written in 2007—it’s aged well, I think). I love the cover, with its cheeky annotations. It’s true that some of the love scenes are a bit clinical, but for what the book is trying to do, it absolutely works.

Over winter break during her senior year, Dom meets Wes, who she is immediately smitten with. They start hanging out and Dom keeps expecting her first kiss from him, but it keeps not coming. She and her friend Amy think maybe he’s not actually interested, despite all the signs that point to a Yes, he is interested. Finally, finally, he admits he’s a little chicken and that starts a relationship that heats up pretty quickly, because they’re both into each other so much. Most of the rest of the book is devoted to their sexual explorations. These are the parts that have been described as clinical by some people. I won’t really disagree—they’re certainly not titillating—but I think one of the points of the book is to show a realistic (older) teenage first relationship develop over several months. We see Dom’s high and lows in all aspects of the relationship—including when it breaks down.

The book is solid, with several well-developed characters and a sense of humor about everything. Dom’s friend Amy is so different from her, but still believable. And Wes is a good character, even if he turns into a total butthead. I love Dom and her healthy libido and curiosity and her affection for everyone around her (parents included)—and her attitude when she gets to college.

Perfect for teens who don’t have a absintence-only-believer breathing down their necks (or maybe especially for them).

Review: Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell

Everything Beautiful book coverRiley Rose is an atheist, a cynic, and quite the rebel. She’s also fat, but she’s determined to make that irrelevant to her life. Her mother died a few years before the book opens and her dad turned all religious and acquired a super-Christian girlfriend. Riley is a bit of a party girl, and when she gets in trouble for breaking into a pool with a bunch of friends, her dad’s solution is to send her to church camp. Obviously.

From the beginning, she plans to be uncooperative and hate all the ridiculous religious people. She says she will “go as a plague” and try to make life miserable for everyone else. She arrives and quickly makes a minor enemy out of her cabin-mate by stealing her bed. Things proceed from there about as you’d expect. Most of the other campers think she’s sinful and therefore a terrible person. But what Riley doesn’t expect is to make friends with a very odd girl (who “performs her ablutions” on the regular), an odd brother and sister pair, or meet a boy she likes even better than her current boy-of-the-month.

When she firsts sees Dylan, he’s wheeled himself onto the stage at the camp and when she throws a sprig of lavender at him, he eats it and she sees a kindred spirit—someone else who’s lost, moody, superior, and charged, as she thinks of herself. It isn’t until she gets in trouble at the same time as Dylan—not with him, just at the same time—that they start getting to know each other. As punishment, they’re tasked with clearing out a house of a recently dead old man’s possessions.

I liked Riley and rooted for her, though I didn’t really identify with her. She isn’t necessarily a very nice person all the time, with all her rebelling. But she’s still interesting to follow. Dylan is also cool to watch—he’s a little enigmatic for a while, but we start to get him more as Riley gets to know him. There aren’t a lot of books with characters in wheelchairs out there, and I learned some stuff from this book (note: do not touch someone’s chair). It’s also entertaining to watch Riley sort of move toward having faith in something—I didn’t take it that she became a Christian, but rather that she started to develop faith in the world, something she’d lost before. The ending is a little vague in that we’re not sure that Riley and Dylan will see each other again, but it’s clear that they’ve each changed as a consequence of meeting.

If you like reading about rebels, you will probably like this one.

Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

My Heart and Other Black Holes book coverThis is a quiet book about depression and how it can seemingly take over a person’s life and entire perspective, and then how to get away from it.

Aysel suffers from depression, which she imagines is embodied as the “black slug” in her stomach. She also worries that the apparent mental problem that caused her father to murder someone might also live inside her. The only solution she sees is to kill herself, so she searches the internet for a suicide partner. Finding one close by in a boy named Roman, the two of them come up with a plan—a date, place, and method. The rest of the novel focuses on their growing relationship and how it changes Aysel.

Aysel’s a different kind of character. She’s still into classical music, like her dad taught her to be, even though she thinks she might hate her dad after what he did. She’s also a bit of a physics nerd. She isn’t close to her family, mostly because she thinks of herself as fundamentally different from them, even though she lives with her mom, stepdad, and half-siblings. She also feel different from everyone around her, partially because she’s Turkish (her parents came over to the US from Turkey), but also because she doesn’t know how to connect with other people. She’s clearly damaged and her depression has taken over. Roman’s also damaged, but his comes from a single act of negligence on his part that resulted in a tragedy. He can’t live with himself even though it wasn’t really his fault.

Warga handles Aysel and her depression without making the book itself to depressing. There are even some light moments. This made me laugh:

I don’t admire many things about Stacy, but I have to admit it takes some ovaries to talk to your physics teacher like he’s a puppy.

In general, Aysel’s voice is very believable. She comes across as a little younger than a lot of sixteen-year-old protagonists out there, but I think it fits because of her social isolation and inexperience with relationships.

My Heart and Other Black Holes provides a good look into the mindset of a suicidal person, so it could easily be used both to be related to and to be a teaching tool.

Review: Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

Two Can Keep a Secret book coverTwo Can Keep a Secret is the followup (not the sequel, that’s a different book) to McManus’s One of Us Is Lying, which I liked and reviewed on this blog. The two books are a little different, as I feel Two Can Keep a Secret is quieter and less complicated than the first. It was still a good suspense that kept me guessing.

The book’s narrated by two characters: Ellery and Malcom. Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are moving in with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, Vermont while their mother is in rehab. Malcolm is the younger brother of the guy everyone thinks murdered a girl five years earlier.

Things go wrong for both of them right from the start. When Ellery and Ezra are getting a ride from the airport, they stumble across a body in the road at the edge of town. At a fundraiser for the murdered girl, Ellery finds Malcolm standing with a can of spray paint next to a message sprayed on a wall:

MURDERLAND

THE SEQUEL

COMING SOON

Murderland was the name of the Halloween park where the girl’s body was found. In its new incarnation, it’s called Fright Farm, and Ellery and Ezra get jobs there like most of the other teenagers in town. Ellery also becomes acquainted with the queen bee of the school, Katrin. When meeting her, she thinks,

We all murmur hellos, and it feels like some sort of uncomfortable audition.

Who can’t relate to that? Soon, Ellery’s been sucked under the threat implied by the graffiti Malcolm might have written. But she doesn’t think so. And it’s not long before she’s hanging out with him as well as her brother and Malcom’s friend Mia.

In addition to being the shoe-in for homecoming queen, Katrin is also Malcolm’s step-sister. Malcolm isn’t overly fond of this situation, but there’s not much he can do about it. Plus, he’s got more to worry about: his infamous brother is back in town, and he doesn’t know why or what he’s doing there. The timing is bad with the graffiti, more of which appears later.

With this set up, there are quite a few suspects as well as a real threat against Ellery. I wasn’t blind-sided by the resolution, but there is a small but significant twist at the end that I didn’t at all expect. Additionally, there are several minor twists and reveals along the way that surprised me.

If you enjoyed One of Us Is Lying, or YA suspense in general, you’d probably like this one, too.