Review: Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

Angel of Greenwood book coverAs soon as I knew this book existed, I bought it. It’s set amidst the Tulsa Race Massacre. I have a special interest in that event because I grew up in Tulsa and knew nothing about it until about five years ago. It blows my mind that this is something that was “forgotten.” It makes me so mad, but it fits right in with all the Republicans who are insisting that the unsavory parts of our history shouldn’t be taught in school because it might make some little white kids feel guilty. A little guilt never hurt anyone, and it would make it easier for them to understand their privilege. I think this is actually quite important. 

The Setup

But anyway, on to the story itself. It’s actually a rather unlikely love story between Angel and Isaiah, the town’s angel and a rough-around-the-edges boy. Isaiah in particular is secretly passionate about poetry, philosophy, and Black rights. He’s a big follower of W.E.B Du Bois and so he hates Du Bois’ nemesis, Booker T. Washington. Their school is named after Washington, and Angel is a fan of his and thinks Du Bois is too much. 

A Bit of Philosophy

So I had of course heard about both of these men, but I knew very little. But when Isaiah and Angel get thrown together for a unusual summer job arranged by their English teacher, they talk about the two philosophies on improving the rights of Black people. From their discussions, it was clear that Du Bois was more aggressive while Washington advocated for quieter change. I sort of imagined it as analogous to the differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But I happened to stumble across an article about Washington in The Atlantic and learned a little more about him—his main belief was that individual industry would bring Black people into the country’s economy, and they’d then become valued by everyone. Basically, hard work was critical, but it wasn’t just working hard—it was also working smart. He founded the Tuskegee Institute and ensured that a lot of Black men were trained in trades that would help them join the economy like he wanted. So I thought it was interesting and a little subtle, even though it’s kind of clear to me that that approach is never going to be enough. 

However, the economy perspective not working reminds me of migrant laborers who make it possible for us to have inexpensive fruit, all because they’re being exploited and working for criminally low pay. Also, there are a lot of other people from Latin America that make up a good portion in the back of the house in restaurants across the country, some legal, some not. Their value in our economy (keeping prices low and keeping restaurants open) does not outweigh the hatred that so many people have for them for not being white. 

The Story

Anyway, back to the book. Angel and Isaiah fall in love while riding around in a three-wheeled bike with a sidecar and a bin to store books so they can share books with people in the Greenwood community. This was all in the days leading up to the attacks, which started a little after midnight June 1st, 1921. Each of them plays an important role in helping their neighbors. Despite the bravery and efforts of real people like Angel and Isaiah, it’s known that a several hundred people were killed that night. 

Although everything in the story obviously leads up to the attacks, that night doesn’t dominate it. It really is a story about young people who are living in a rather idyllic place but who are aware that they are privileged to be there, and also know that nothing in life is guaranteed. 

Summary

The book does what historical fiction does best—it shows that the people who lived through significant events were real people who the reader can empathize with. You will root for both Angel and Isaiah not just to end up together, or even just to survive, but to actually to show the greatness within each of them. And the book delivers on that. 

As a totally not important side note, I also absolutely love the cover. It’s dramatic and somehow captures both the violence of that night but also the peacefulness the character Angel embodies. 

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: Legendborn (The Legendborn Cycle #1) by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn book coverBree Matthews is a girl with a plan that will help her deal with her mother’s recent death. It also is academically sound and will help her in other ways, even though it will also unexpectedly lead to her getting involved in ancient lore she never knew was real. 

Bree and her best friend Alice begin a residential high school for high-achievers at a major university in North Carolina at the very beginning of the book, but things go awry on their first night when they accidentally witness some magic at an outside party they aren’t supposed to be at. By Chapter 3, they’re in a police car and in trouble with their program. Although Alice doesn’t remember it or know what happened, Bree does remember, even though she’s not supposed to, and she also isn’t supposed to know about the existence of a group called Legendborn.

“His mouth spilling words into the night like a cold wind until they swept away my intention to stay and replaced it with his command that I leave.”

Thus begins this urban fantasy full of excellent Arthurian mythology, which made me happy (I’ve always been a big fan of the Arthur legends for some reason and even took an Arthurian literature class in college). Deonn uses a lot of the existing mythology while not being afraid to shake some of it up. For one thing, Bree is Black, so she already doesn’t fit the very white world of the legendary (Celtic) Briton Arthur, who is purported to have lived in the middle of the first millennium and fought the Saxons off. So now, Bree has a lot more going on that trying to do well in her tough classes and deal with the casual racism all around her. She has to learn about the Legendborn and how she’s involved, and also some rather interesting stuff about her mother. Bree also finds out that some pretty bad stuff is going on with the world, and she has a role in fixing it but isn’t entirely sure she wants to.

The mythology in the book is really interesting, complex, and unique, and any fan of Arthurian lore will enjoy it, as will fans of urban fantasy in general.

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: 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: 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: Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with a Fresh Bite edited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

Vampires Never Get Old book coverI’ve read a decent amount of vampire literature in my day, and I enjoy it. So I was looking forward to reading this collection of vampire stories. The editors really made an effort to incite a range of stories, with many diverse experiences represented. Some of the underrepresented characters include a girl who uses a wheelchair, a transgender boy, some gay kids, and several Black people. 

The first story is “Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton. This gritty story features a bisexual artist protagonist who has to make a difficult decision.

The next is “The Boys from Blood River” by Rebecca Roanhorse, a creepy one with vampires that are summoned. 

Julie Murphy’s lighthearted “Senior Year Sucks” stars a chubby cheerleader who’s also a slayer. What happens she meets a local girl vampire who also happens to be very cute?

“The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig is about a transgender grave-robber who rescues an interesting boy who’d been buried alive.

“A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire” by Samira Ahmed is a snarky take on vampires in India, exploring social media and the problems of colonization. 

Kayla Whaley’s “In Kind” asks serious questions about living as a disabled teen. 

“Vampires Never Say Die” by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker is another one that touches on social media, and how anonymous it can be. 

“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is an odd story about a down-on-her-luck zoo worker who can understand animals, set in a slightly dystopian world. 

“Mirrors, Windows, & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro deals with a teen vampire sheltered from the world by his parents. He also uses social media to try to interact with he world, which turns out to be his escape. 

Dhonielle Clayton’s “The House of Black Sapphires” is a rich tale about a family of vampires set in historic New Orleans.

“First Kill” by Victoria “V. E.” Schwab has a vampire slightly obsessed with a slayer.

These stories run the gamut in terms of style, setting, and themes. In some cases, the main characters are vampires, and sometimes not, but the vampires in the story are always complex and interesting. In some cases, the ethics of underage vampires comes up, too, and there are even references to classic vampire literature. 

Overall, this is another enjoyable YA take on the age-old myth of the vampire, a must for fans of the genre. 

Review: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Hearts Broken book coverThis is a rare book, featuring a Native American girl dealing with some interesting problems. The fact that her family is Native is important for a lot of reasons, including the plot and her identity. Lou is Muscogee (Creek), which was kind of cool for me because the Creek Nation extends from the southern edge of Tulsa a ways south, and the one time I went to a casino, it was the Creek Nation one that’s less than two miles from parent’ house. Not that I’m saying that casinos=Indian culture by any means, but I always find it fun to see something that is somewhat familiar to me in books I read, which rarely happens because I don’t generally live in cool places. 

Anyways, Lou. It’s the beginning of the school year and she’s a senior while her brother Hughie is a freshman. Her dad is a dentist and her mom is studying to be a lawyer, so she’s solidly middle class. They recently moved to a suburb of Kansas City (I think, could be a different city) from Texas. The book technically opens late the morning after her junior prom. Soon after she manages to rouse her very hungover boyfriend, Cam, they go to have breakfast with his family, where his mom makes some racist remarks against Cam’s brother’s Native girlfriend and then Cam himself makes some stupid generalizations about Indians, as well. Lou’s pissed and breaks up with him. The reader unquestionably cheers her on for this.  

The actual plot gets going once she starts school in the fall. The theater director casts several students of color, including Hughie, in the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. This triggers the formation of of a group called Parents Against Revisionist Theater, led by the wife of the pastor at the biggest local church. While this gets started, so does Lou’s role as a reporter for the school paper and her friendship with Joey, the other reporter. There’s a little bit of healthy competition, as well as some sparks, between them. Of course, things proceed from there, with a lot of things happening. One of the things I liked about the book was how honest it was about the number and kind of microaggressions Indians have to deal with. People assuming, generalizing, saying overtly racist things (whether they mean them that way or not), etc. Then there were the ones that weren’t exactly “micro,” too. 

My one complaint about the novel is that her relationships with her boyfriends were not developed enough for my taste. I especially didn’t see what she saw in the first, Cam, who didn’t seem to have a single redeeming quality. Joey was more appealing, but we still never learned what she really liked about him. So they both felt like plot devices. Otherwise, I thought the characters were interesting, if a little underdeveloped. Despite these feelings, I overall quite enjoyed the book. The story was good and it brought up some really interesting history I didn’t know about. One example: that the author of The Wizard of Oz passionately advocated for the genocide of all Native Americans. Which, you know, wow. 

So I’d recommend this to anyone interested in a different perspective you don’t get much in YA (or literature in general, really). It’s a satisfying read. 

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Radio Silence book coverThis is a hefty book for a contemporary, coming in at over 420 pages, but I enjoyed every bit of it.

Frances is a superstar student at her school in England. She is head girl, which is apparently a thing. She knows the head boy, Daniel, pretty well, and ultimately that sort of puts her in contact with Aled Last, who she accidentally finds out is the creator of her favorite podcast, a story show called Universe City. By chance, he had asked her—before she knew—to be the official artist of the show after admiring her fan art. Soon they start collaborating and Frances finds herself in heaven—she’s working on her favorite thing and now has the first real friend (someone she can be herself with) she’s ever had. Everything’s great. Living the dream.

But what happens if everybody finds out who the creator of the show is? She’s not telling because he doesn’t want anyone to know, but what’s she supposed to do if someone asks her? She’s a terrible liar.

I don’t want to say too much more because a lot happens in the book and it’s interesting and frequently surprising. But it’s about true friendship, finding yourself as you’re finishing up school, and figuring out what you really want to do with your life, even if you think you already know. It also ranks high on the diversity scale. Frances is mixed race (her father is Ethiopian, but he’s not around, and her mom is white). Daniel is Korean. Aled’s white, but none of them is heterosexual. And it all works. I just really felt like this book paints an accurate portrait of an aspect of British teen culture—specifically the university-bound high-achievers.

Overall, I’d recommend this to fans of contemporary, especially if you like settings outside the US. And if you’re at all into story podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale (apparently this was the inspiration for Universe City), you will eat this up.

Review: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary book coverI don’t often review middle grade here (I don’t often read middle grade, either), but I’m making an exception for this book because it was so good. It also felt more borderline lower-YA to me.

It’s 1947 right before the British were to leave India and Nisha and her twin brother Amil live with their Hindu father and his mother in far northwest India. Their Muslim mother died in childbirth. But when the leaders decide that the best solution is to split the country into two, Pakistan and India, they find themselves in the wrong place for their father’s religion. Their father is a doctor so they live in a nice house, but eventually he decides that it’s more dangerous to stay and they leave on foot, heading toward the border.

For those who don’t know, Indian Partition was a horrible, bloody, and shameful time in South Asian history. In the Punjab regions of both Pakistan and India, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were all killing each other over nothing, really. They killed each other because others had killed their families. Muslims would stop the trains heading south from Pakistan and massacre people, and Hindus would stop the trains heading north into Pakistan and massacre people. People of the “wrong” religion who stayed put in either East or West Punjab were also killed.

Nisha was given a diary and started writing letters every night to her mother about her day in them. So we see her account of everything leading up to their departure, and what they go through trying to make it to new India. She’s a wise and observant girl, shy with strangers and desperate to know more about her mother. It’s impossible not to like her, or her brother, who struggles in school but is a talented artist (as was their mother).

This is a really moving book that teaches about a significant point in history without being preachy. Nisha asks important questions that will make readers think. I highly recommend this for fans of middle grade in general, but I also think it will appeal to those who like historical fiction in general.

Review: Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead book coverThe premise of this novel is amazing. This is the magical kingdom where Cinderella found her Prince Charming, 200 years later—except everything is not all unicorns and rainbows. The current king has maintained the tradition of every sixteen-year-old girl going to the annual ball to get “selected” by the men from the kingdom. If they don’t get picked, they have to go back the next year and then the next, and if they don’t get selected by then, they’re “forfeit.” It isn’t clear to people what that means, exactly, but it’s not good. And the girls are supposed to go all out for the ball—actually, they’re supposed to be visited by the fairy godmother, if they’re "lucky" enough. But in reality, parents spend loads of money they don’t really have on dresses and everything so their daughters can be competitive at the ball. So that’s the basic setup—with a sexist medieval Western European-flavor. But there is a lot more going on than the characters know about.

The ball is coming up soon for sixteen-year-old Sophia, but she not only isn’t interested in being picked by some creepy guy who doesn’t care what she wants, she isn’t even interested in boys at all. Instead, she wants to marry her best friend Erin, something that just isn’t done. When Sophia and Erin do go to the ball, things go haywire and Sophia ends up fleeing, finding herself at Cinderella’s mausoleum, where she meets a new girl named Constance. Constance is descended from one of the “evil” stepsisters—who weren’t evil at all, as it turns out. Things have been twisted in the official, kingdom-sanctioned version of Cinderella’s tale. Sophia and Constance decide to overthrow the king and undertake a journey to find the fairy godmother in the White Wood.

From there, they learn a lot about Cinderella and the real story, suffer some notable betrayals, and find themselves challenged to the max. I’m not going to claim that the book is perfect—there are some questionable plot moments, but overall the story works and was so original that I could forgive small problems. Sophia’s a strong, single-minded-in-a-good-way girl, and Constance turns out to be a great character, too.

A lot of fans of fantasy and fairy tale retellings should enjoy this one. Be prepared to be surprised.

Review: The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus book coverThis time I’m reviewing a nonfiction book, something I don’t do very often. But I devoured this one. It tells the story of an attack on an agender teen by a Black teen on a bus in Oakland, California, and the aftermath. But it delves into the lives of both teens as well as the justice system and provides a really objective view of all the issues surrounding the attack.

The book starts with Sasha, the agender teen (this is the term they use for the majority of the book, rather than nonbinary), talking about their background, friends, school, and so on. Sasha was eighteen and a senior in a progressive private school. I really got a sense for who this person was from the section.

Then the book covers Richard, the Black sixteen-year-old. He’d had a tough time, losing friends to murder and getting robbed at gunpoint by someone he thought was a friend. He’d spent some time in a group home after getting in trouble for fighting (this whole thing seemed pretty sketchy to me—I’m pretty sure a white kid in that situation wouldn’t have ended up in a group home). But he was back at school and apparently trying to do well enough to graduate, something that would have made him stand out a little with his peers.

The next section of the book deals with the attack itself. Sasha was asleep on the bus when Richard started messing with a lighter, flicking it on just under the hem of Sasha’s skirt. He was goofing around, not appreciating what would really happen. He thought it would light and fizzle out, but instead the whole thing caught on fire (as anyone with a fully-developed brain would probably realize, or at least realize as a possibility). A stranger on the bus helped put the fire out but Sasha’s legs had serious burns, including spots that were third-degree (which means it burned all the way through the skin and into the fat, in case you didn’t know what that was). We learn a little about the ordeal Sasha had to go through to recover, but the book doesn’t dwell on it.

The next section covers what happened to Richard, basically. Because originally they charged him as an adult with a hate crime, but many people wanted him charged as a minor—including Sasha and their parents. The book explores the problem of charging kids as adults—because how do you know when a teen has done something stupid that they regret and that will keep them from ever doing something like it again, and when they are fundamentally bad? We know enough about brain science that we know the former is a real possibility.

This is a really interesting book that explores two completely separate issues: gender nonconformity and an imperfect justice system (especially as it relates to race). It’s incredibly well-written, keeping you turning the pages to see what happens next, just like a novel would. I highly recommend it to anyone.

Review: Fake ID by Lamar Giles

Fake ID book coverI don’t remember how I found out about this book, which originally came out in 2014, but I’m glad I did. As I’m starting to explore suspense in YA more, this is a perfect thing for me to read. I saw it compared to a Harlan Coben book, and having just read my first Coben book, I can say the comparison is apt.

Nick Pearson isn’t really Nick Pearson. His real name is Tony Bordeaux, and he’s in the Witness Protection Program with his parents because his father worked as a bookkeeper for a mobster. Nick/Tony’s father is quite the piece of work—he’s gotten them kicked out of previous placements because he keeps dabbling in the criminal world. Now they’ve just moved to Stepton, Virginia.

Nick is befriended by a newspaper nerd named Eli Cruz who gets Nick interested in a conspiracy or something called Whispertown. And then Eli is discovered dead in the journalism room—with slit wrists, an apparent suicide. But his sister Reya doesn’t believe it, and eventually neither does Nick. So they start investigating to try to figure out what is going on, which will hopefully reveal who killed Eli. But what’s actually going on is really complicated, and things get more and more dangerous. It doesn’t help that Reya’s ex-boyfriend is out to get Nick, and not afraid to use violence to get his revenge.

Nick is a complex character who is definitely affected by his time in WitSec, as they call it, and his relationship with his parents is interesting. I also enjoyed his relationship with Reya, which was complicated, as well. The plot is solid and there are some twists I didn’t see coming. The ending is interesting, as well.

This is a fairly gritty book, especially for YA, and I think it would appeal to a lot of readers, particularly boys. But I recommend it to anyone who likes suspense/thrillers, as it will make for a satisfying read.