Meet Fea!

New Book Release

I’ve just released another book this past Wednesday: Fea, the Spanish translation of Ugly. Here’s the cover:

Fea book cover

Obviously it’s just the Ugly cover with the carving swapped out and the tagline at the bottom translated (and way longer than the English version). 

The book is available pretty much everywhere, like my others (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Play, and Kobo, and you can order it at your local indie shop). See my landing page for links to all the places you can buy it and the book page here for more details.

Translation Experiment

This translation thing is kind of an experiment. Several writers I know do get translations of their books and they actually seem reasonably well with no marketing. (Nobody knows how to market in a foreign language they don’t speak.) One writer said people just find them. I think this makes sense because the problem of discoverability that I’ve been dealing with is partially a result of the explosion in self-publishing—which while not exclusively in English books, is predominantly English work. Other languages aren’t overloaded with so many books to choose from.

So the chance of coming up in a search that someone is making on Amazon or wherever is simply much higher. I decided to start with Ugly because of the timeliness of the subject matter. Although it’s probably much more of a current event in the U.S., I am sure that some of the other progressive places in Latin America (plus Spain) have people questioning their gender identities and exploring those ideas. I suspect there aren’t very many such books out there, so I’m curious to see what happens. 

Finding a Spanish Translator

Finding a translator was interesting. First, I needed a literary translator, not someone used to doing marketing copy. When I started searching for translators, most do business work and the first literary ones were so expensive—like in the range of $7000 for my 90,000 word (about 400 page) book. I could not justify that kind of expense. After some more searching, I decided to try Upwork. I put together a project and a max budget and got a lot of bids right at my max budget, naturally. But then I got one from a translator living in Bolivia that was hugely lower than my max.

Too Good to Be True

At first I thought a couple things: this was probably too good to be true, and if it is legit it might not even be ethical. I thought about the ethical aspect and decided that because cost of living is much lower in Bolivia, it makes sense that she doesn’t need as much money to make the project worth her time, which is obviously different for people living in the U.S. or other expensive countries. She set her rate. So I think it’s okay. 

Too Good to Be True?

But I still wondered if it was too good to be true. So I asked her to translate the first few chapters, slightly less than 10% of the book, and I’d pay her 10% of the fee and then have a couple people look at it to make sure it’s a good translation of the book in terms of accuracy and tone. My friend Gwen was willing to read it. And in a stroke of luck for me, my house cleaner had once seen some of my books lying around and asked if I was a writer. It turns out that her son is a writer too, and by chance he also is transgender, which made my book an even better fit. She asked him if he’d be willing to read the sample, and he agreed. So that was great. 

It's All Good

Both of them said it was a good translation. They noted that it was a little more formal in Spanish, but that that was probably just the nature of the language, which makes sense to me. Like there’s a point where someone calls Nic a “lesbo” and that was simply translated as “lesbiana,” which is the same as “lesbian” would be translated. This formality is also a result of the fact that she translated into what is called Neutral Latin American Spanish, so we avoided country-specific words (which of course also means there’s less slang, because so much of slang is country-specific, in any language). But anyway, she ended up doing the whole book and now it’s out in the world. 

What About Italian?

Another possibility is Italian. Supposedly that market is desperate for more books. I have a good Italian friend from my grad school days who works as an English to Italian translator, so I asked her if she’d be interested in translating my book. She doesn’t do literary translation, but has a friend who does. So we’re going back and forth about that. Her rate is much higher (it’s actually in line with what my original budget was for the Upwork project), but this is obviously to be expected because Italy’s much more expensive than Bolivia. But it’s still a decent rate that is be worth trying. I’ve told her I can’t do it now but if she’s still willing to do it in January, I’d be able to do it then. This isn’t finalized, but I’m guessing it will go ahead, so I’m really curious to see how this goes. 

Uglier

And during all of this, I’m working on the sequel to Ugly, which is tentatively called Uglier. If the translations do well, I’ll need to get Uglier done, as well. So I’m really curious how all this is going to go. 

Review: Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Girl, Unframed book coverI’m a big fan of Deb Caletti and have reviewed some of her books here (One Great Lie, A Heart in a Body in the World, Essential Maps for the Lost, The Nature of Jade, and Stay). But I’m going to openly admit that I didn’t love Girl, Unframed as much as the others. This is probably because it places celebrity front and center, and I’m pretty much not remotely interested in celebrity. But the book still drew me in because of a particular device Caletti used, which I’ll talk about below. I’ve been in a major reading slump and still had no trouble getting through this one, so I think it would resonate more with people who do find celebrity interesting. 

Sydney, the fifteen-year-old main character, is not herself a celebrity, or even particularly enamored of it. But her mom’s a very famous movie star who’s sort of moving out of her prime at this point. Sydney attends a boarding school in Seattle during the school year and I think spends most holidays with her grandma (I think also in Seattle). But summers are for bonding time with her mom in San Francisco.

Leading up to the summer where she’ll turn sixteen, Sydney’s got a bad feeling about the visit. She can’t shake it, and it stays with her even after she gets there and meets her mom’s new boyfriend. Her mom is typically aloof and not super-interested in Sydney as a person. She’s definitely a narcissist. And the boyfriend is someone Sydney never quite trusts or likes, even though on the surface he seems fine. But there is something going on, because the house is being watched and there’s some tightly wrapped up art in one of the empty rooms. 

It’s not just Sydney’s misgivings that clues the reader in. Caletti puts a little text at the top of each chapter that lists evidence in a criminal investigation. It’s never enough to say what actually happens, but there’s no doubt that Sydney is right and something really bad is going to come to pass. This keeps the reader engaged because you’re looking for clues to try to guess what it could be and who will be the presumed victim. 

Sydney’s relationship with her mom isn’t great, which is down to her mom’s selfishness, really. But even more importantly, she’s not in as strong a position as she used to be. Sydney’s seeing evidence of some financial trouble, and her mom's relationship with the boyfriend doesn’t seem great. But she’s still famous and going out into the world with her is an experience. 

I’m going to admit that the bad thing that eventually happens actually did surprise me. One of the things that I actually questioned throughout the book was Sydney’s almost age-inappropriate wisdom and insight into the injustice in how women are positioned in society. But the ending actually made this make more sense to me. 

In the end, I enjoyed the book even though it’s not my favorite, so if you’re a Caletti fan, check it out (especially if you enjoy reading about celebrity). 

Review: The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park

The Perfect Escape book cover

Suzanne spoke at a meeting of one of my writing groups a few months ago, and she was really entertaining but also had some good info for writers. So I decided to check out her work, and I started with her debut YA, The Perfect Escape. 

This is a romance featuring Kate, a white girl who loves theater but has an unsupportive father, and Nate, a Korean-American academic overachiever. They meet at a zombie-themed escape room in Seattle, where they both work, and they become friends after he gives her a ride home and accidentally leaves her wig in his car.  

Setup

Kate’s father runs a cutting-edge robotics and home automation company that is constantly pushing out products prematurely. Their pilot and current products are all over Kate’s house, much to her chagrin. These various devices monitor her while her fathers travels, and malfunction all the time. Her father is unwilling to support her in theater pursuits, instead trying to force her in “practical” directions. She knows the only way to escape his plans for her is to do things herself, because she’s more or less a prisoner in her own home. So she gets the job at the escape room as a starting point and plans to move to New York on her own.

Nate is a scholarship kid a fancy and expensive boarding school full of super-entitled jerks, including one who thinks he can pressure Nate into helping some of them get better GPAs through fraudulent means. Nate doesn’t want to do it, but he is considering it because his family really needs the money because his dad’s just lost his job and his mom makes very little money.

A New Option

But then something new comes up with Kate: a zombie-themed survivalist competition with a big monetary prize. This is Kate’s main escape plan, but she needs a partner, so Nate it is. This is a much better plan for Nate than helping out the entitled rich white boys. As Kate and Nate get to know each other better, they find they like each other more than either expected. They really gel. Nate’s long-term crush throws a wrench in the works, but Kate and Nate still decide to join in the competition. 

Once they start the competition, they discover it’s serious business, not all sunshine and roses. There are robot zombies moving around trying to “get” all the participants. It’s a lot of fun seeing Nate and Kate work together and figure out how to deal when things go completely haywire. Because things do go completely haywire, and it ends not at all to plan. You kind of wonder how they could possibly work things out, so seeing it happen is very satisfying. 

Review: Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth

Not My Problem book cover

Not My Problem is another book that broke through my horrible reading slump. This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I managed to do it in just over a week (fast for me right now). It’s incredibly funny but still has enough teen angst to make me happy (I do love to watch characters suffer).

Aideen is the star of this YA contemporary novel set in Ireland. Aideen is dealing with a pretty difficult home life in the best ways that she can, just trying to hold it all together. She doesn’t really let people in, not even her one real friend. So when Meabh, a girl she’s thought of as a sworn enemy for years, convinces her to “help” her by pushing her down the stairs, Aideen surprises herself by doing it—for the right reasons, not secret revenge. Now Meabh and Aideen are going to be weirdly tied together. The act also basically conjures another friend, a boy named Kavi who is a sufferer of verbal diarrhea. 

This one act triggers a whole series of other incidents that turns Aideen into the unofficial school fixer. Not everything goes exactly to plan, but that makes it all the more interesting. And in the process of fixing other people’s problems, she makes new friends, all while her one long-term friendship is falling apart. Her mom is cracking up a bit, too, and Aideen’s pretty stressed out by that. But she feels like she has a handle on everything. It’ll be fine. 

One of the things I liked about the book is that the problems the kid have are perfect—they show the range of things teens deal with, from overly strict parents to an accidentally submitted assignment full of profanity. Some are relatively trivial, while others are a little more consequential. But they all feel big to the characters in the story. Another cool thing is that the language the kids use has the flavor of Irish dialect, so it’s extra interesting. A final great thing about the book is the relationship Aideen and Meabh form—it’s a mundane but sweet lesbian relationship, not one rife with trouble and issues. 

This one’s definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of contemporary YA. 

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Review: Breathless by Jennifer Niven

Breathless book coverI am a big fan of Niven’s first book (All the Bright Places—it’s one of my favorite books) so I’ve read both her others, including Breathless. One thing that I like about her books overall is that they’re all different. Her first two feature dual perspective, on the girl’s and one the boy’s, but in this one, she sticks with the single protagonist, a girl named Claude who’s just about to graduate high school when the book opens.

At first, everything’s just fine—everything’s cool with her parents, her best friend and other friends are all great, and she has a boyfriend she likes well enough. Her boyfriend is of course desperate to have sex, and she’s been putting it off. It’s not a moral dilemma for her; instead, she just isn’t sure if this is the guy she wants to first have sex with. Which she firmly believes is not “losing” anything, thank you very much. When an opportunity presents itself and she very clearly choses not to sleep with him, it’s pretty clear to both of them that this is her final decision. So that’s over, but she’s unfazed and re-fixates on a long-time crush. 

But this isn’t the only fissure in her otherwise just-fine life. Her dad shocks her—or takes the floor out from under her—by telling her he’s leaving. She is torn up about this, and her parents have insisted she not tell anyone, even her best friend (Saz), which is torture for her. And then, Saz has a new girlfriend she’s really into, and Claude feels a little left behind. Not to mention the fact that she and Saz are planning to go to different colleges several states apart, anyway. 

To make things worse, her mom has decided the two of them are going to go away to a tiny island on the coast of Georgia, where neither her crush nor Saz will be. And then when she gets there, it turns out that there is no cell service except in the general store that is open at the whim of the store owner. How’s she supposed to stay in touch with everyone?

But that’s all just setup. Really, this is a book about first love when it happens at that weird quasi-adult time of your life. Because soon after Claude meets a down-to-earth guy named Jeremiah who works summers on the island (I mean, seriously—the dude wears no shoes), her world starts to shift. But Claude is pissed off about being away from everything she cares about, so it’s not all sunshine and roses with them at first. But soon they start to bond, and promise each other they won’t fall in love. This time she feels differently about sex and her new boyfriend in general. They don’t necessarily follow all their own rules, either. 

It’s enjoyable to see Claude grow as her experiences expand beyond the smallish Ohio town she grew up in. She wasn’t exactly naive in the first place, but it’s one thing to be aware of differences and another to experience them. She and Saz have some work to do, and she’s also got to figure out how to feel about her dad, because the split is all about him. By the end, Claude has figured out things well enough to move forward with the next stage of her life. The book features a rather open ending, which often I don’t like, but I did here. It feels more authentic this way 

Review: The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller

The Summer I Became a Nerd book coverMaddie has several things she’s passionate about, but none of them are the things she’s “supposed” to care about. She’s a cheerleader dating one of the school’s finest catches—the quarterback—and everyone has forgotten a disastrous incident in junior high, where she outed herself as a nerdy and very enthusiastic comic book fan and was laughed off the costume contest stage. The only thing she could think to do was pretend it never happened, and never, ever mention comics in front of anybody ever again.

This is fine except for the fact that she still loves comics, especially one she’s been following for years. After her safe, at-home acquisition of the final issue of her favorite one falls through, she’s desperate enough to head out to the local comic shop—in disguise, of course. But even this doesn’t work, as the shop is sold out of the last issue. Somehow she talks the high school kid—Logan—working the register to loan her his copy of it. She’s hoping he doesn’t recognize her. 

Turns out, Logan knew exactly who she was. And much to Maddie’s surprise, the two become friends, bonding over comics, and she feels the pull of the life—and the pop culture—that she genuinely loves. It distracts her from the friends and pop star she’s supposed to love. She doesn’t really know how to handle it all, afraid her world will come crashing down if she’s not careful. But treating your new friend like a dirty secret doesn’t go well, so she’s got some thinking to do. 

The book celebrates nerd culture and while the resolution didn’t read entirely believable to me (I’m just not convinced cheerleaders and LARPers can actually mix), it was still an entertaining light romance.

Review: Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

Enter Title Here book coverRahul Kanakia’s pathologically competitive and high-achieving teenager Reshma Kapoor may cause less bloodshed than a favorite literary psyche authors love to explore—the serial killer—but she’s a fresher voice and even more deliciously warped. Early on, Reshma ponders her social life, concluding that “Alexandra is probably the closest thing I have to a friend. Which isn’t that close, because she’s not actually my friend at all: she just sells me Adderall sometimes.” This is exactly who Reshma is. She’s laser-focused on maintaining a perfect GPA in order to be valedictorian so she can get into Stanford. She will stop at nothing to make that happen, and if drugs give her the edge she needs, so be it. It is a joy to watch her, waiting for the train wreck. 

On the opening page, we see an email to Reshma from a literary agent impressed with Reshma’s “brassy and articulate” voice in an article she wrote for The Huffington Post. The agent offers to read a novel if Reshma happens to have one. Reshma has never given fiction the time of day, but she seizes this opportunity to stand out from other Stanford applicants and claims she has a nearly-complete novel in progress. This is a tiny little fib, but she thinks two months is plenty of time to write one. Reshma’s literary pursuits don’t change her valedictorian goal, so we are still taken through the world of high school high achievers, which is complex and rife with emotional turmoil and questionable ethics. Although Reshma isn’t the exact stereotype of such a student, she is an extreme that anyone who’s been part of that world can believe. Kanakia makes her shenanigans fun to watch. 

You don’t have to like Reshma or people like her to enjoy this book. In fact, you may find yourself rooting against her, which I feel is fine. It’s still worth picking up. 

Review: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Elatsoe book coverI lucked into finding this book to fulfill the “genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author” category for the Read Harder challenge (which I am so not going to finish—my reading has slowed so much this year). It definitely fits that bill, as an urban fantasy grounded in Apache and other native cultures. The characters exist in an unusual world where certain aspects of the supernatural are recognized and handled in different ways, but otherwise it is just like modern America, microaggressions and all. 

The somewhat light supernatural element is established early on, as the story opens with a plastic skull with googly eyes in the eye sockets, which scares the crap out of Ellie’s ghost dog, Kirby. We learn pretty quick that she’s the one who raised him from the dead, because she can do that. At the end of the first chapter, we learn that Ellie’s favorite cousin has been in a serious accident and probably won’t survive, and her mom forbids her from raising him if he does die. 

That night, Trevor comes to Ellie in a dream and begs her to avenge his murder, even though everyone will think it was an accident. Soon afterward, Ellie and her dad follow her mom to Texas, where they are helping Trevor’s family. Ellie begins trying to figure out what happened to Trevor and how he could have been murdered. In the process, she uncovers the centuries-old secret of the town of Willowbee and its rather “special” inhabitants. She enlists the assistance of an old friend of hers, Jay, who helps from afar and then in person, and also brings along several other useful people (including a vampire). 

I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that the world-building is great, as it gives you just enough info to know what’s going on without overwhelming you with details. And Ellie’s raise-the-dead gift isn’t as simple as you might think, leading to several interesting situations. The native aspects of the tale are woven in tightly and couldn’t be removed without totally changing the story. There is some mythology (I guess that’s what you call it) and old family lore (Ellie feels a big connection to her quietly heroic sixth great grandmother, whose name she bears), but there’s also some of the day-to-day crap that indigenous and other people of color have to deal with from a lot of white people, who are still the majority of the cast in this book. There’s enough of this last stuff to make it realistic, but not so much that it distracts from the fact that this is a book meant to entertain. So I’d highly recommend this if you’re looking for an urban fantasy that’s fresh and interesting. 

Review: Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object book coverThis is my third McCoy book, and one thing I think is cool is that they’ve all been fairly different from each other. Though this one and I, Claudia do share some similarities, in that both protagonists are recording their experiences (I, Claudia in an epistolary fashion, and Indestructible Object as within-the-story podcasts). 

This book opens with Lee and her boyfriend, Vincent, breaking up on the last episode of their own podcast (“Artists in Love”) not long after graduating high school. The conversation in the podcast is interspersed with Lee’s narration and reflection. They live in Memphis and Vincent is moving to Washington D.C. for an internship and then to start college at Howard, and Lee isn’t going with him. It’s a bit of a system shock to Lee, who’d been thinking things were going to continue as they had been for two years, only to discover that everything is changing. 

She tries to carry on with other aspects of her life, especially her job as a sound technician for music and poetry readings at a coffee shop, until that falls apart, as well. And all the while she is also watching her parents’ marriage dissolve. Her parents have an eclectic set of friends dating back to their college days, and two of them and their sort-of-adopted son, Max, who Lee has grown up with, come for a visit. 

Lee explores her own love life while ostensibly hoping to get back together with Vincent and soon she, Max, and a new friend embark on a project: a podcast again exploring love but focusing on her parents’ relationship this time. Because Lee has stumbled across a few things that have shaken her understanding of her parents and their history. 

Lee is a great but quite flawed character. She doesn’t know what she wants and is having trouble identifying that, though not for lack of trying. But it turns out that investigating other people’s relationships is not a bad way to shed light on your own—and your feelings about love. The book takes Lee on a satisfying journey of understanding what exactly she wants and why that matters. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like this book.

Review: Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins

I enjoyed one of Perkins’ earlier books, which I reviewed here. Forward Me Back to You is another winner. 

The book is about “Robin,” a teen boy born in India and raised—and renamed—by basically decent but clueless white parents. The parents have a lot of money and Robin is set to inherit it, but he’s not very interested in that. He’s also very Christian and involved in a weekly youth group whose members he’s close to. But Robin really doesn’t know who he is. And he doesn’t really know that he doesn’t know. He’s very meek and lets other people define him and make decisions for him. It bothers him, but he doesn’t know how to do anything about. 

Kat is a teen girl with a black father who’s been raised by her white mother. She’s also a very accomplished martial artist. But after an assault at school, she’s plagued by nightmares, self-doubt, and the fact that of course the piece of shit got away with it. Her mother decides to send her across the country to a close family friend’s friend, who she ends up calling Grandma Vee. Grandma Vee sends Kat to the youth group because she thinks Robin and Kat have a lot in common.

The initial meeting doesn’t go great, as Kat is prickly. But eventually Kat, Robin, and another member of the youth group, Gracie, decide to go with the youth pastor on a service trip to Kolkata, India, which happens to be where Robin was born before being abandoned at a hotel and landing in an orphanage. They will be helping with an organization that rescues trafficked girls. The trip is eye-opening for everyone, even though we only get Robin’s and Kat’s perspectives. But before they even leave, Robin reclaims his true name—Ravi—before going and abandons a long-time “friend” who constantly belittled him. So we can see Ravi begin to change even before they get to Kolkata. He spends some of his time trying to learn about his past and the results aren’t what he hoped for, and his friends have to help with the fallout. Kat went to Kolkata with a mission to empower the girls she was going to be helping, and her own efforts don’t go as planned, either. Gracie helps her deal with the consequences, and Kat eventually comes to understand things on a deeper level than she ever would have expected. 

There is a lot going on in the novel, and it’s longer than most contemporaries, coming in at around 400 pages. But the story warrants the length, and it’s wonderful to see these characters come to terms with the harsh world and learn to deal with it in healthy ways. I really enjoyed this book, especially with its diverse cast of kids (Gracie is Mexican-American, as well) dealing with so many complicated things. Highly recommended for fans of Perkins and readers of contemporary in general. 

Review: One Great Lie by Deb Caletti

One Great Lie book coverI’ve been in the worst reading slump lately. From early March until a couple weeks ago, I read only one novel, and it was really hard to get through (not the novel’s fault—it was all me). But I’ve been wanting to break out, so I picked up Caletti’s newest. I started it on Friday and was so sucked in that I finished it the next day. It may have broken the slump (I’m hoping), as I’ve read another book since then, too.

So what made One Great Lie a reading-slump-breaker? Well, obviously it was good, which isn’t surprising given Caletti’s strong track record. This one starts in Seattle, too, with a girl, Charlotte, who has ancestral ties to a Renaissance poet named Isabella di Angelo. Her family had held on to a published book by the poet for centuries. Charlotte herself is a passionate writer and is a little fixated on understanding Isabella, whose association with a much more famous male poet overshadowed her own work. Charlotte’s trying to write a paper about Isabella for a class, but can’t find any information about her. 

This quest is important, but the story really gets started when Charlotte somewhat impulsively applies for a summer multi-week writing workshop in Venice with a very well-known author everyone, including Charlotte, admires. To her shock, she gets in and even earns a scholarship, the only way she could go. 

But things do not go quite as she expected. As one of the youngest there, she still befriends several of the other participants and they all learn that the author is … let’s say he’s complicated and very flawed. But she has an equally important other task while she’s in Venice: she is set on finding out more about Isabella, who was from the city. As the story unfolds, there’s a clear parallel between the horrible historical treatment of women and the gender-based challenges that Charlotte and other girls and women face nowadays. 

Caletti tackles another feminist issue in this book without sacrificing story in any way. I loved watching the tale of Isabella unfolding, and Charlotte’s friendships with local Dante and the other workshop participants are great to see. She had no idea she’d have to step up and do something really difficult and face unfair consequences, but she rises to the challenge and I enjoyed seeing how that happened. 

I loved this book, as I’ve implied, and highly recommend it if you like quality contemporary YA that addresses social issues. 

Review: The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum

The Weight of Stars book coverThe premise of this quiet book is really interesting. A couple of decades earlier, a private space company send a bunch of young women on a one-way trip out of the solar system. While I do not in any way see the appeal of this, it is an interesting concept and I’m sure there are people who would sign up.

Alexandria, the daughter of one of them—born right before they left and given to her surprised father—appears at Ryann’s school one day. Ryann is sort of a tough girl, and sort of a peacemaker. Early on, she’s tasked with befriending Alexandria. She doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot, but after Alexandria gets injured in an accident sort of indirectly caused by Ryann and her friends, Ryann figures out a way to make it up to her, and they eventually work out their differences. Their friendship develops in some complex ways.

There are some really interesting diverse representations in the book: lesbians, Black and Sikh characters, and polyamorous parents. And Ryann’s younger brother has a son. So there’s a good range of characters in here, as everyone in Ryann’s friend group is different from each other. The only thing I should mention is that I did have trouble with some of the characterization. There were several times in the books where the characters would do things that I didn’t expect and that didn’t quite seem to make sense, based on what I knew of them. So there were decisions made that seemed jarring to me. 

However, a lot of people really love this book, so I think the characterization must not have bumped for everyone. So if you’re looking for a quiet book with a variety of different characters and a unique space theme, check this one out.  

Review: Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

Dear Rachel Maddow book coverThis is a book I picked up for one of my reading challenges, but I was looking forward to it even though I’m not a huge fan of epistolary novels. But I like Rachel Maddow and she always reminds me of an old friend, so I figured it would be a good read. 

Brynn has become an under-achieving student since her older brother died and left her alone with her weak-willed mother and horrible stepfather. On top of that, she was dumped by her girlfriend over the summer. She’s in remedial classes despite being smart and eloquent because she can’t muster the will to do anything better. The one thing she loved was being on the school paper, but she was kicked off when her GPA slipped too low. She wants back on the paper, but not quite enough to do anything about it. When something happens at school that finally gets her riled up enough to do something, she surprises everyone—but she surprises herself the most. 

There are a lot of great characters in the book, some good, some bad. Brynn’s ex-girlfriend Sarah is stuck-up, her tutor Lacey is a great friend (and in a wheelchair), Justin from the paper wants her to figure out how to come back, Michaela the hot new girl has a secret past, and Adam is the school’s resident nasty and entitled future politician. Her mom and stepfather are easy to dislike and her new older friends are easy to like, even if they don’t feature in the story too much. 

You might wonder where Rachel Maddow fits in. Brynn watches the show every night since getting started with Sarah, and she admires Rachel. Brynn writes to Rachel for an English assignment and when she gets a response, her teacher encourages her to write back. Instead she starts writing Rachel long emails, saving them all in her drafts folder rather than sending them. Some of them also get turned in as assignments, and her teacher’s comments are hilarious. The book is entirely told through Brynn’s emails, with a few emails from other people thrown in to liven up the mix. 

I mentioned that I don’t generally love epistolary novels, but I feel like this one worked. It was basically just a first person novel with a slight frame around it. Brynn’s emails are clear and full of details that tell the real story from her perspective. And although I was never super-into student government (too cynical), it’s interesting to see Brynn navigate that world. Brynn’s voice is great—funny and snarky, but not too much. 

Overall, I think a lot of people will like this one. It’s got a heroine that seems to be stuck getting herself unstuck, and a sweet romance. 

Review: Hanging Around for You by Stacia Leigh

Hanging Around for You book coverHanging Around for You is a YA romance set in Leigh’s biker world in the mountains of (I think) Oregon. The first two books were clearly tied together, but this third one’s connection is much looser, though it’s there. Pinecone, the heroine, made an appearance in Leigh’s second book (Burnout, previously reviewed here). 

Fifteen-year-old Pinecone has a terrible, narcissistic mom named Twyla who abandons her in the first chapter, leaving Pinecone with Twyla’s biker boyfriend, Ham. Both of them are upset by the abandonment, but what’s worse is what Twyla does after stealing Ham’s truck, which brings the police sniffing around, making both of them very nervous. Still, they make do, with Pinecone going to school while working at the Powerhouse Inn, which Ham owns, and avoiding her best friend, Dawn, because of the awkward situation of her missing, criminal mom. One day, Smiley walks into the inn’s lobby, and Pinecone is struck by his looks, but very much turned off by his interest in joining Ham’s biker club, the Pulver Skulls. 

But Smiley’s on a mission. He’s not just a hang around; he’s looking for info. But it’s important that no one figures that out. Still, he thinks Pinecone might be a way into some crucial intel. Soon, he finds that he genuinely likes her, despite the fact that Ham doesn’t want him around.

At a pivotal Halloween party, Dawn finds out that Pinecone lied about where her mom was and she and Smiley make out. The fallout is dramatic: Dawn pulls completely away from her and Smiley friend-zones her at school soon after. It takes a while for those things to turn around, but fortunately they do. Just in time for quite the confrontation in Ham’s basement. 

This romance may deal with the biker world, but it’s not gritty like you might expect, even though Smiley is really dealing in danger. Pinecone and Smiley make a great couple you’re rooting for, even though Smiley’s shady dealings are a little problematic. I suspect we’ll need a sequel to find out where things really truly land. But this book still makes for a nice story that fans of light YA romance will enjoy. 

Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Words in Deep Blue book coverThis moving book by Australian author Cath Crowley is really something. It explores grief and love in a deep way, bordering on philosophical but without straying from the novel that it is. 

Rachel had a huge crush on Henry in Year 9 and she bared her soul the night before she moved away, only to get crickets in return. She was humiliated and never really forgave him for choosing Amy over her, despite their long best-friendship. Now she’s back in town after failing Year 12 after her brother drowned. She doesn’t care about Henry anymore. She’s still numb. 

Henry has been hung up on Amy forever and doesn’t see how she strings him along and uses him. She breaks up with him early on in the book and the only thing he wants is to have her back. 

Rachel’s aunt arranges for her to work in Henry’s family’s bookstore, which she’s unhappy about, and she takes it out on Henry by being quite the grump. He finally calls her out on it and begins to break down her defenses just a little bit. 

Any reader will love the setting of the bookstore, which features heavily in the plot. Henry’s divorced parents are arguing over what to do about the shop, which would pull in a lot of money if they sell. Much of the novel’s ideas are expressed through discussions and character thoughts on books, some obscure, some not so obscure. The bookshop also has an unusual section called the Letter Library, where people are allowed to write in the books and encouraged to leave letters between the pages for others to find. Rachel’s job is actually to catalog that part of the shop. 

Rachel and Henry are both wonderful, fully-developed characters. The secondary characters are great, as well. I loved George, Henry’s sister. And George’s love interest is really nice yet still believable. Even Henry’s parents and Rachel’s aunt and mom are complex despite not really being super important to the story. Where things wind up at the end isn’t really a shock, but you’re never quite sure how it’s going to go. 

This book is definitely worth checking out, especially if you love the meta experience of reading about books, or just want a good emotional journey.