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.

Review: Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Pride book coverI read this sharp Pride and Prejudice remix quickly because it really sucked me in.

Zuri lives with her parents and her four sisters in their Bushwick (Brooklyn) apartment. The girls have to share one bedroom but Zuri is proud of her Haitian-Dominican family and her entire hood, as she calls it. When a very rich black family (the Darcys) moves into the renovated mansion across the street from her building, the whole neighborhood watches with fascination, especially when they spot the two teen boys, who are both rather fine. Every girl on the block is suddenly very interested in getting to know them. Everyone except Zuri, that is, because she resents the changes their coming represents. Her older sister Janae takes up with the older boy, Ainsley, while Zuri festers with dislike for the younger one, Darius. Darius doesn’t seem to like her much, either, and they clash a lot. After Darius tells Ainsley something at a party, Ainsley suddenly drops Janae, which makes Zuri hate them both even more. Zuri starts hanging out with a guy from her hood named Warren, thinking he’s the real deal next to phony Darius. But Darius has some info on Warren that Zuri needs to hear, even if it takes some time for her to get the news.

As with any remix, it’s fun to spot the plot points and compare them to the original. But Zuri herself is such a strong character that this book doesn’t need a classic to prop it up—it definitely stands on its own as a story. Zuri’s got a great voice, authentic (I’m assuming) and intelligent. She’s a strong personality and even though there were many times I thought she was being a bit harsh and judgmental herself, it totally fit her character. And Darius is a good variation on Darcy, being rather complex and imperfect.

Overall, this is a great book I highly recommend, whether you are an Austen fan or not.

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line book coverI rarely review books here that aren’t YA, but I enjoyed this one and think some of you might, as well. This is a rare suspense novel set in India (at least it’s rare to me—when I think of suspense, it’s almost always with white characters).

Jai is a nine-year-old Hindu boy in what I think is a slum in a fictional Indian city. He has two good friends, Pari, who’s a girl and smarter than him (though he’d be loathe to admit it), and Faiz, a Muslim boy. Jai is a little obsessed with crime shows and thinks he’d make a great detective. So when a classmate of his goes missing, he takes it upon himself to find out what happened, enlisting Pari and Faiz as his assistants. He feels this is necessary, since the police came, bribed the missing boy’s mom for her one valuable item, a gold chain given to her by her employer, and left promising to do exactly nothing. Bringing the police in is a source of tension for the entire slum, because they are always threatening to raze it, which would obviously make a huge number of people homeless. The three kids start investigating, but before they make much progress, another boy goes missing. Then a girl. As things escalate, so does their investigation, at least until it seems positively impossible.

One of the things I loved the most about the book was the authentic feel of a culture far removed from my every day life. Anappara has lots of details about living in the slum, because it’s all told through the perspective of someone who knows nothing but that (even if he thinks otherwise). There’s even a glossary in the back for all the Indian terms used for things like foods and slang, even though you can generally tell from the context what things are (I mean, not necessarily exactly, but you get the gist). But this really added to the flavor of the book. In general, Jai's voice is very colloquial, with statements like, “I like headstands a lot more than the huff-puff exercises…” so it makes complete sense that he’d be throwing in Indian terms.

Jai is a very annoying little brother to his twelve-year-old sister, even though he thinks she’s the annoying one. It’s interesting to see his perspective in this and everything else, because the reader can see clearly how wrong he is about things, which is often funny. For example, he’s trying to be the boss of his friends, and be the official detective:

“How come you get to be the detective?” Pari asks.

“That’s very true,” Faiz says. “Why can’t you be my assistant?”

“Arrey, what do you know about being a detective? You don’t even watch Police Patrol.”

“I know about Sherlock and Watson,” Pari says. “You two haven’t even heard of them.”

“What-son?” Faiz asks. “Is that also a Bengali name?”

I really enjoyed this book and recommend it for anyone looking for a different kind of suspense novel that also touches on social issues in India.

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met Rishi book coverThis is a light romance with two second-generation Indian-Americans dealing with being part of two cultures.

Dimple Shah considers herself a feminist and basically hates everything girly. This is a problem because her mom wants her be girly, so they’re often at odds. Dimple hates all the stupid rules that society (both American and Indian societies, really) expects women to follow. She’s a little judgmental about other people who do follow the rules. She convinces her parents to let her attend Insomnia Con, a six-week program where recent high school graduates (I think) develop an app and compete for money and the chance to get it supported by a well-known female tech giant who Dimple idolizes. What Dimple doesn’t know is that her mom has an ulterior motive in letting her go.

Rishi Patel is really kind of a dork. Maybe a romantic would be a nicer word, but I think dork fits. In the beginning, he completely buys into his parents wishes for and expectations of him, going along with everything—and with enthusiasm. He loves the idea of getting to meet Dimple at Insomnia Con and believes they are probably soul mates since their parents set them up. Of course, he also thinks that she knows the score, too, which she does not.

The first time Rishi sees Dimple, he makes a joke about her being his future wife. She has no idea who he is and throws her iced coffee in his face. Given the situation, it was a tiny overreaction, but not over-the-top. Then it turns out they’re going to be partners for the entire six weeks, so they’re going to have to get used to each other. While they do that, they get to know each other and become friends. Dimple learns that even though Rishi is on his way to MIT in the fall to study computer science, his real passion (and talent) is comics. Rishi has to work on convincing her that just because their parents set them up doesn’t mean they shouldn’t date. They don’t have to get married right away, after all.

There are admittedly some things about the book that are unrealistic and which kind of bugged me. One is that programs like Insomnia Con would fill up right after opening for enrollment, and there’s no way Dimple and Rishi would get in so late. And the thing is called Insomnia Con for a reason—because people have to spend all their time—including that which they should be spending sleeping—in order to be competitive. Dimple would know this and would not spend so much time lallygagging around and socializing. I know this wouldn’t be interesting to readers (well, maybe to me), but I wanted to at least hear about the sixteen+ hours she was putting into it every day.

But technicalities aside, this is a cute story that a lot of people should appreciate. It’s an easy read—chapters and scenes are very short and switch back and forth between Dimple’s and Rishi’s points of view. It paints a realistic picture of second-generation Indian-American teenagers and how they have to deal with living in multiple worlds, which I always find interesting to read about, and many others should, too.

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: 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: 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: My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins

My True Love Gave to Me book coverIt’s probably a little odd to be doing a review of a holiday short story collection several weeks after the holidays ended, but since when did I claim to be normal. Besides, I started reading this before Christmas.

This nice collection focused mostly on Christmas experiences, but there were a lot of creative interpretations of that in the twelve stories, many of which came from big names. Rainbow Rowell’s “Midnights” was one I’d read (and loved) before. In it, Mags and Noel meet at a New Years party one year and the story focuses on their friendship over the years by showing us the subsequent New Years parties. It’s a sweet little romance. Next comes Kelly Link’s “The Lady and the Fox.” This was a creative one involving a ghost, but it didn’t really resonate with me (though I know a lot of people who are big fans of Kelly Link, so it’s surely just a matter of personal taste). The next story is “Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Peña. I quite liked this one. It’s about a down-on-his-luck (i.e., completely and utterly broke) college student house/cat-sitting for a friend who meets a college girl from a very different background. It’s really about how they connect.

In “Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han, a human girl is living amongst Santa’s elves at the North Pole. She has to figure out who she is despite being truly one of a kind in her surrounding. How do you figure out who you are when you’re different from everybody else? Stephanie Perkins’ “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” features a video maker and a guy with a great voice. It’s also a sweet little romance—with a bit of angst in it—that I quite liked. In “Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan, a Jewish boy dresses up as Santa to give his boyfriend’s little sister one more year of believing in Santa. It's sweet.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black was kind of strange. Black does that well, though. I suppose it’s about wishing things into being. In the next one, I first have to say, kudos to Gayle Forman for naming her fictional college the University of Bumfuckville, which she does in, “What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” It’s a nice story about finding your place among strangers—and not making stupid assumptions about people. “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire is a funny story about a prankster kid who accidentally burned down a church’s barn, where they stored everything for the annual Christmas pageant, and ends up helping pull said pageant off against all odds—and making a friend in the process.

Kiersten White’s “Welcome to Christmas, CA” wasn’t steeped in Christmas spirit, but it was a nice little story about appreciating and helping the people around you, whether you want to be where you are or not. And also psychic cooking. There’s that too. The next story, “Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter, deals with the unexpected consequences of two girls switching identities. Sometimes home can be found in the most unlikely of places. The final story in the collection is “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor. It’s about believing in yourself to the point that you manifest exactly what you need, with the help of a little magic.

There’s a good variety of stories in here so some should appeal to you. If you’re missing the holidays, pick this up to get back in the spirit.