Review: Girl Gone Viral by Arvin Ahmadi

Girl Gone Viral book coverI stumbled across this book at Barnes and Noble and was really excited by the blurb. Supposedly, 17-year-old Opal Hopper is a big coder—she creates virtual reality worlds and so on. I thought this would be really interesting because a) girl coder and b) I wanted to see how the author makes coding interesting.

But this is one of those cases where the blurb doesn’t match the book very well, as she doesn’t really do much coding. Her friend Shane does the majority of it to create their channel on WAVE, the biggest virtual reality platform in this near-future story, while Opal becomes the accidental star of the channel. Opal, Shane, and their friend Moyo have teamed up with Kara, actress and fellow student at their challenging boarding school (PAAST), to compete in a contest by the company that runs WAVE. The prize is (among other things) meeting the company’s founder. Opal is convinced that the founder knows something about her father’s disappearance, and she has been trying to talk to him for 7 years, with no success. So she’s pretty desperate to win the contest, and that takes up the majority of the first part of the book. Kara is normally the face of their show, but when she ends up with food poisoning, Opal takes the stage and rather unintentionally starts something big.

Because Shane hacked some personal WAVE data and gave it to Opal, and she explored the data and discovered that people have empathy for a famous movie star with a reputation for breaking down in public. Now, the data scientist in me is quite skeptical about her managing to do this over a weekend (that’s not how data science works), but okay, I can suspend disbelief enough to go with it. Anyway, with Opal on camera, things explode from there.

While I did like the book, it wasn’t what I expected. It’s set in a technologically advanced America where virtual reality and augmented reality are the norm. But in a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel that different from our world, especially with the politics that seep into the story in surprising ways. But the most unexpected thing was Opal herself. I liked her even though she was nothing like I expected, as she turned out to be pretty self-absorbed and selfish at times and played some unpleasant social games. But she was interesting and I enjoyed seeing her grow and finally understand what happened to her father. The book ends a little abruptly after she finds out and I wondered what was going to happen next. Sequel, maybe?

This is a sci-fi book, but it’s pretty soft sci-fi, as it doesn’t focus on the technology—it explores the social impacts instead. So a lot of readers should enjoy it.

Review: You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring the Distant Near book coverI think this book came to me through a book club I’m in and I’m glad because I loved it. I’m not quite sure why I love books about identity so much, but I do—it’s probably one of the reasons I like YA so much.

You Bring the Distant Near is, as I mentioned, all about identity. That is racial and ethnic identity, but also everything else that makes a girl who she is. It’s really about four girls—sisters and their daughters—but the mom/grandma has a few scenes that add a different perspective to the story.

We start off with Sonia, at eight years old in 1965. She and her sister, Tara, live with their parents in Ghana. In this scene, Sonia’s mother (Ranee) ruins a swimming race she was going to win, which reveals quite a bit about both of them. But then the book jumps forward to the mid-seventies, when the family moves to Queens. Both Sonia and Tara settle in well enough. Tara channels Marcia Brady to fit in as much as possible while Sonia embraces the feminist movement. Then they move to New Jersey, where Tara finally gets her official start in drama. The story jumps ahead two more years, when they are both nearing real adulthood, and continues until we see them married. Then we jump to 1998, where we meet Sonia’s daughter Chantal and Tara’s daughter Anna. Chantal is as American as can be and when Anna comes over from Mumbai to go to high school with her, it’s a real struggle for Anna because she’s used to life in India. By the end of the book, Chantal and Anna are grown but their futures are yet to be decided. Possibilities are everywhere.

Okay, having written all that, the theme of identity may not seem obviously present, but it’s absolutely crucial to everything that happens. Ranee is distrustful of anyone who isn’t Indian (preferably Bengali) or white, which is a challenge for her in Flushing, Queens. Sonia hates her mom’s racism and her restrictions that keep Sonia basically locked up in the apartment. Tara’s always looking for her identity by trying on different personas, Twiggy the British model and Marcia Brady to name a couple. She’s able to manipulate her accent how she wants. Both she and Sonia push against their mother’s idea of who they should be to be good Bengali girls. They fight against what they perceive as outdated traditions at their father’s funeral (I don’t know the right word), shocking all the Bengalis in attendance. When we get to Chantal and Anna, the struggle for identity is even stronger, particularly for Chantal because her father is black. But it’s there for Anna, too, who wants to hold on to her own Indian identity even when in America. The final question of identity comes into play with Ranee herself, an interesting surprise near the end of the story.

Although the story jumps ahead at several points (which I don’t always love), it’s told in chronological order and is easy to follow. And as I’ve implied above, the characters are all complex and interesting. I personally most identified with Sonia, but any reader should be able to find one of the girls to relate to. The character arcs are clear even if there isn’t a strong plot that spans the whole book (I don’t think one is necessary).

I think anyone who enjoys exploring identity will enjoy this book, but it will especially appeal to Indians and other people who have strong ties to countries other than the one they live in. It’s a well-told story.

Review: Dryland by Sara Jaffe

Dryland book coverI read this quiet book in just two days, which says something because my reading pace has slowed to a crawl at this point (I’m still 14 whole books behind on my Goodreads challenge).

It’s 1992 and Julie is a slightly lost fifteen-year-old who doesn’t really like anything. Her best friend, Erika, is far more engaged in more typical teenage pursuits than Julie, like boys. Julie’s older brother was a highly competitive swimmer who almost qualified for the Olympics and disappeared from Julie’s life to move to Germany afterward. It’s not clear that she technically misses him, but it is clear that his leaving has unmoored her. She follows Erika around for lack of anything better to do—hitting the arts and crafts market, watching skater boys, and doing yearbook at school. At yearbook, she meets a couple of other girls, Alexis and Melanie. Alexis seems to take a shine to Julie, offering her snacks and inviting her to join the swim team. Early in the book, she also meets Ben, an old friend of her brother.

Julie does join the swim team and Erika joins with her. But Julie, ever-unmotivated, struggles in practices. She can’t seem to keep going and randomly stops in the middle of her swims. Erika, who’s got a crush on one of the other swimmers, talks her into going to some parties. All Julie wants to do is leave, but then things get surprising and complicated with Alexis. She hangs out some with Ben, who never comes across as a creepy older guy for reasons that become clear later and actually seems to fill a role her brother might have formerly filled.

Throughout the novel, I wondered if she’d ever find out what was up with her brother, if she’d get over whatever was keeping her from trying at swimming, and what would happen with Alexis. Because the possible lesbian overtones are there from the beginning, though it’s clear to the reader that nothing is really clear to Julie.

The book does a few interesting things, craft-wise. For one, there are no chapters. And Jaffe doesn’t present dialogue in the conventional way. It appears without quote marks, often embedded in paragraphs. This gives the entire story a stream-of-consciousness feel (though I’m not saying it goes far enough to actually be stream-of-consciousness). The prose is subtle, lyrical, and full of great imagery. It’s also set in Portland, Oregon, which adds a dreary backdrop to the story (which sets the mood perfectly).

I recommend this to anyone who wants a thoughtful coming-of-age story. It will especially appeal to older readers who remember the early 90s, but younger readers will also appreciate its rawness and honesty.

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter book coverThis is a really interesting and unique book. It’s steeped in Mexican-America culture, but not really in a positive way—the main character, Julia, basically hates every aspect of it. To me this was interesting because one of the reasons she hates it is that she can’t navigate it well—she’s socially awkward, but not in the “standard” way (at least this was my take on it). No, she says and does the wrong thing for her culture, which might be okay in white American culture (though definitely not always).

The book opens just after Julia’s older sister, Olga, was killed when she accidentally walked in front of a moving semi. Julia is of course upset by this even though they weren’t particularly close anymore. But what has a more direct impact on her life is the way her family is handling it—her mother has completely withdrawn and her dad is as silent as he ever was. What’s more, Julia figures out that there was more to her sister than anyone thought, but she can’t figure out what was going on.

As things get back to normal, we can see that Julia’s still not okay, but it becomes clear that it’s not really about her sister. Her mother is incredibly controlling and doesn’t let Julia do much of anything. She’s supposed to want to stay home like any good Mexican daughter should want (and like her sister). But Julia’s “different”—as her mother puts it when she’s being nice about it—and wants other things out of life. First, she wants to be a writer and has befriended her English teacher, who thinks she’s one of his best students ever. She wants to go to college. She wants to go to an occasional party and maybe have some friends, even though she’s as awkward about that as she is with her family. Her mom doesn’t want any of those things for her.

One thing I have to mention is that Julia isn’t necessarily very likable. She’s not nice or very appreciative of the people around her and she generally says what on her mind without thinking much about it first. But as I’ve said here, she’s an interesting character and I did care about what happened to her because in some ways she's making the best of a bad situation (one that's bad for her, not necessarily everyone).

I think this is an important book because it teaches about a culture in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat things. It also addresses depression (which I didn’t expect, honestly—I knew we were skirting the topic but I thought that’s all we’d do). Julia’s a character worth getting to know, even if you’re not going to necessarily want to be her friend.

Review: The Radical Element (A Tyranny of Petticoats, #2) edited by Jessica Spotswood

The Radical Element book coverThis book is a collection of short stories set in various points of US history ranging from 1838 to 1984. The stories are all about girls bucking the system in some way, but those ways vary widely over the book. The stories are all realistic except for a couple that have some magical realism elements. The stories also run the gamut on the diversity spectrum, including girls of several different religions, several protagonists of color (and different ethnicities, too), at least one lesbian, one character in a wheelchair, and another on the autism spectrum.

“Daughter of the Book” by Dahlia Adler is about a Jewish girl stuck in Savannah, Georgia in the mid 19th century, where she’s forbidden to do the one thing she really wants to do—study. She’s restricted by both societal expectations—she should be sewing etc.—and actual religious limitations—women and girls were not allowed to study the Talmud, which is what all the men and boys around her were studying. I could definitely relate to her desire to study and would have felt as stifled as she did if I’d been in her situation, but the devotion to religion is definitely not something I relate to. Still, I enjoyed it.

The second story is “You’re a Stranger Here” by Mackenzi Lee. This one is about the early days of the Mormon community, starting right after Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed when the Mormons were in Nauvoo, Illinois. The main character works as a printer’s apprentice and she has to protect the original Book of Commandments. It’s an interesting story about a Mormon teen not entirely sure about her community and what she does for it, anyway.

“The Magician” by Erin Bowman is about a girl in the wild west of 1958. She’s masquerading as a boy and has become a card shark, getting all the newcomers who came to town. She doesn’t know her history but has an enigmatic note that leads her to believe she might have family in California. The story’s about how she’s going to get there.

The next story is “Lady Firebrand,” written by Megan Shepherd and set during the Civil War.  The main character is in Charleston, South Carolina visiting relatives. Unbeknownst to the confederate family, she’s not just some “pitiful girl” in a wheelchair. No, she has real skills and puts them to use at night disrupt shipments of commodities. She can’t do it without the help of her free black maid, however. This was one of my favorites of the collection.

Next comes “Step Right Up” by Jessica Spotswood. It’s set in Tulsa, Indian Territory (this was pre-statehood for Oklahoma) in 1905. The main character dreams of joining the circus as a high-wire walker and needs to make it happen because of family issues. I liked this one, too, even though the circus is historically sort of evil.

“Glamour” by Anna-Marie McLemore is set in LA of the 1920s. It’s an interesting one that uses a small dose of magic to make a point about the rampant racism of LA then (and hints to now). The main character is desperate to be one of Hollywood’s stars, but she’s Mexican so that would never fly. She uses some family magic to glamour her face so she looks white but has to deal with the consequences.

The following story is “Better for All the World” by Marieke Nijkamp. This one’s set in 1927 in Washington, D.C. It features a girl who’s clearly on the autism spectrum who wants to become a lawyer. It starts with her attending a trial over the forced sterilization of a woman deemed mentally deficient and identifying with the woman because of her own “differentness”. So it’s personal, but she’s also interested in the proceedings. She meets a young man at the court and he challenges her (though she challenges him right back).

“When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough” by Dhonielle Clayton is the other story that uses magical realism. The premise is that the main character and her family have eternal life by consuming moonlight. But she’s not sure that staying under the radar is the right thing to do since it’s the middle of World War II. They are black and her family feels like there’s no reason to get involved in a war when America treats black people so badly. She has to decide what to do.

“The Belle of the Ball” by Sarvenaz Tash is set in Brooklyn in 1952. The main character dreams of becoming a humor writer even though that’s no easy task for a girl of that time (or of any time, really). The story is steeped in I Love Lucy references, which I’m sure some people will love (they went over my head). The main character’s mom is set on her being presented at a debutante ball. So she has to go through all that, but it doesn’t keep her from seizing an opportunity to get noticed as a writer.

The next story is “Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave” by Stacy Lee, which is set in Oakland, California in 1955. This one deals with a girl from Hawaii who is of mixed descent, including Chinese and Japanese. She is going to audition to be the face/mascot of a sugar brand even though she knows what she’s going to face in terms of overt racism.

Fast forward to the early 1970s for “The Birth of Susi Go-Go” by Meg Medina. It’s set in Queens and features another stifled girl with a conservative mom. She’s dreading the upheaval that will happen when her grandparents arrive from Cuba. But she ends up using that moment to redefine herself instead of getting shoved to the side like she feared.

“Take Me With U” by Sara Farizan is about a teen girl from Iran staying with family in Boston during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. She feels so out of place and just hangs out with her six-year-old cousin. She meets a hip girl from an upstairs apartment and gets introduced to all kinds of music and it really opens up her world in ways she’d never have expected. This ended up being one of my favorite in the collection, too.

Overall this was an enjoyable book with a bunch of very different stories. But they all remind us of how much we share in common despite the time period and who we are. If you’re a fan of historical YA or YA short story collections, this one should make you happy—especially if you like to see girls empowering themselves.

Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay book coverDarius the Great Is Not Okay is a unique book. Darius is an American kid whose mother is from Iran and whose father is Teutonic stock, and he is under treatment for depression. You don’t see a lot of YA featuring boys of color with depression, so I was curious to see how this one would play out. Also, most of the book is set in Iran, which is cool—I’ve only personally encountered one other YA book set there (not that I’ve looked extensively, but still).

Darius doesn’t fit in in Portland, Oregon and feels second-rate even in his own home. He does have an eight-year-old sister he adores, but his relationship with his father is rough. It’s clear from the very beginning that that causes him the most grief. Almost as soon as we’re first introduced to his father, Darius refers to him by his first and last name—Stephen Kellner—which is jarring. But he does this repeatedly, making it clear that he feels distant from his father.

In addition to things being difficult with his father, Darius has a bully (who also gets the first/last name treatment). He has one friend at school, a Persian girl. But she’s full-Persian rather than being “Fractional” as he thinks of himself, so he feels less than her. Interestingly, Darius has been on medication for depression since he was twelve, and that doesn’t seem to faze him much. He’s not 100% comfortable with it, but it doesn’t bother him as much as the other things do. His father also has to manage his own depression, so they’re very matter-of-fact about it. (I should mention that the depression representation is very good.)

Darius has a Skype relationship with his family back in Iran. But when it becomes clear that his grandfather’s brain tumor is getting worse, his family decides to visit the country for the first time. This is when the story really gets started—it’s the first time he really feels at home, after meeting his family and becoming friends with a boy named Sohrab from down the street, but he still has a lot to learn about his family, friendship, and himself.

Sohrab is a great friend to Darius and the two of them really bond. Darius spends most of his free time with him. It’s an interesting relationship from an American perspective, because Sohrab is very tactile. That’s realistic for a male relationship in Iran, even though it feels a little like there might hints of a romance between the two for an American reader. There are also hints that Darius’s “difference” might include being gay, but this never goes anywhere substantial, which made this a nice book about genuine friendship and family. Iran turns out to be where Darius finds himself and finally comes to an understanding with his father.

If you want a book about depression, or one about a kid who doesn’t fit in, or one about a half-Iranian kid going to Iran for the first time, etc. try this one out. All in one package. It’s very good.

Review: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Takes a Breath book coverJuliet Takes a  Breath was recommended to me by a friend for being something you see very little of. It is about feminism for queer brown girls, with white feminism and privilege being criticized freely and often. So, as a white person, it can be hard to read. Much of the criticism makes sense; some of the things that the white women in the book do are realistic and I can see how they’re irritating or worse, even when they’re well-intentioned (though not all the instances in the book are). Despite the general sense of uncomfortableness that surrounded me while I read it, I liked it and found it engaging.

Juliet is a short, chubby puertorriqueña from the Bronx. She has just finished her first year of college and now has a white girlfriend she’s in love with. She has decided to come out to her family at the dinner table the evening that she’s leaving to start an internship for a feminist author in Portland, Oregon. She doesn’t know how it’s going to go and she’s distressed when her mom basically hides from her at the revelation. She leaves for her internship and is thrust into the wild world of Harlow Brisbane.

Harlowe’s the author of a famous (fictional) book of New Feminism called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, which has done well in certain circles. Not long after Juliet arrives, Harlowe gives her a seemingly impossible research task. Soon after, Juliet meets a male nudist in Harlowe’s house who makes her feel inferior in her queerness by asking challenging questions. She learns Harlowe’s in a polyamorous relationship with a black woman named Maxine and they all go to a writing event for women of color where white women are allowed to attend but not speak. Juliet doesn’t get why the white women must remain quiet until she overhears a couple of them talking.

From here, Juliet begins her research at the library and gradually gets exposed to more and more challenging and confusing ideas about gender, sexuality, race, love, and more. There is a crisis with Harlowe where she does something that makes Juliet feel objectified and Juliet flees to be with her older and wiser cousin in Florida. The cousin helps her finally start to understand all the confusing ideas she’s been bombarded with in Portland. Juliet comes back armed with knowledge and we see her come into her own with the women around her.

As I mentioned, the book will be challenging for white readers but still very much worth the read. But it’s not written for white people; it's for for young queer people of color and it will ring true, I am sure. It was first published in 2016 in paperback by a small press but it looks like it’s being reissued in hardback in September, probably because it’s done relatively well. Check it out.

Review: Aspergirls by Rudy Simone

I don’t often review nonfiction. But I thought it was worth it for this book, which could be relevant and helpful to a lot of teen girls (and adult women, for that matter) like me. I’ve never been diagnosed with Asperger’s*, but reading this makes it pretty clear that I’d qualify. In the past when I’ve looked at the symptoms lists, it didn’t ring true—but that’s because (like most everything in the medical community) they focus on how the condition presents in boys and men (you know, the default human). 

Simone’s book is comprised primarily of personal anecdotes from her and other girls/women with Asperger’s and her commentary on the significance of those. She also gives out quite a bit of advice. Near the end, the book started feeling a little pseudo-sciency to me, particularly when she gets into some of the stomach issues and how to deal with them, because she doesn’t do a thorough scientific analysis of it. This isn’t really meant as a criticism of the book as a whole; I just found that I didn’t put as much trust in that part (I am just very cynical when it comes to anyone recommending a certain diet). 

Aspergirls book cover

Since this is nonfiction, I’m going to go through the chapters and comment on each a little instead of giving a more general picture. Each chapter contains Simone’s anecdotes and commentary followed by Advice to Aspergirls and then Advice to Parents. For the purposes of clarity, I’ll use AS for Asperger’s syndrome and NT for neuro-typical, as Simone does. 

1. Imagination, Self-Taught Reading and Savant Skills, and Unusual Interests: Simone talks about how people with AS love information probably because it anchors our thoughts. A lot of AS girls teach themselves specific skills, even reading, and may have unusual abilities in certain areas (though this isn’t that common and it isn’t uncommon for AS girls to have learning disabilities, too). One thing that was particularly interesting to me is that autistic kids have been found to have higher fluid intelligence but not necessarily higher crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to see relationships between things that aren’t obviously related. I do this all the time, sometimes confusing people with my connections. Crystallized intelligence is more traditional intelligence—the ability to learn stuff and use it. One really interesting point was that while many AS girls develop obsessive interests just like AS boys do, they tend to be in the domain of more acceptable things (books, art, music, animals, etc.)—all of which are “normal” for many girls. She says we “want to fill our minds with knowledge the way others want to fill their bellies with food” (p. 23). As someone working on her fifth degree with plans for a sixth, I can certainly relate to that. 

2. Why Smart Girls Sometimes Hate School: In a word, bullying. It is true that AS girls don’t have the social skills of NT girls. But even outside of that, most AS girls actually don’t love school despite having a love of knowledge. It’s too structured and doesn’t let us focus on the areas that interest us. Simon says that “Aspergirls do not thrive under scrutiny if it has the slightest bit of hostility in it” (p. 31). I can relate to this very well. I wither when people judge me, which I hate but I’ve never been able to get past this tendency. 

3. Sensory Overload: Simone points out that it’s not really true that AS people feel less, as was previously though, but that instead we feel things much more intensely. This is where sensory overload comes in. As people are often deeply disturbed by things other people don’t even notice. I know that the more people I’m around, the more uncomfortable I get—especially as the noise level increases. I hate sudden loud noises like balloons popping. Though I think I’m lucky because I don’t have too many sensory issues. A lot of AS people can be bothered by many sounds, sights, and even tactile sensations. 

4. Stimming, and What We Do When We’re Happy: I only heard of swimming fairly recently. It’s short for self-stimulatory behavior. This covers things like rocking, clapping, twirling, and hand flapping, all things AS people can do when they’re overwhelmed (and sometimes when they’re happy, too). I’m a chronic pen twirler. Not sure if it’s stimming or if it’s just a thing I do to help me think (I swear I think better with a pen in my hand). 

5. On Blame and Internalizing Guilt: We all know that boys and men rarely question themselves or blame themselves or internalize much of anything (other than “emotions other than anger are bad,” of course). This is one significant way AS girls are different from boys, because we do blame ourselves for our ”weird” behavior that we can’t control and subsequently start feeling guilty about it. But even more importantly, this blame often comes from external sources, when people think AS girls are behaving that way on purpose. 

6. Gender Roles and Identity: This was one of the most interesting chapters to me because Simone says that most AS girls don’t get gender roles and often shirk them. This is partially because we like to wear comfortable clothes (sometimes due to the skin sensitivity some of us have). But this also extends to identity in general, with a lot of AS girls being rather chameleon-like. Some simply don’t have much of a sense of self. I can certainly relate to this as I despise the expectations people have based on gender. It has always driven me crazy that while it’s fine to recognize there are differences between men and women, generalizations don’t apply in every single case.

7. Puberty and Mutism: This chapter touched on puberty, but was mostly about mutism. Mutism is the situation where an AS girl is simply unable to speak and often even think. I’ve been there before. It’s bizarre and frustrating. 

8. Attraction, Dating, Sex, and Relationships: I skimmed this chapter, but one thing I did get out of it was that while a lot of AS girls aren’t remotely interested in romance, others are. Those who are are prone to becoming obsessed with the object of interest and coming across as stalker-y. Another point is that because we don’t experience romance in the same way, many of us marry early or because it’s “time” rather than because there’s a real connection with the partner. Breakups are often worse for AS girls because of the break to a routine. 

9. Friendships and Socializing: It’s true that AS people tend to lack social skills, so common socializing is very difficult. But it also means that it’s hard to maintain friendships in general. 

10. Higher Learning: College is kind of a mixed bag. Some AS women do really well because of the routines, focus required, and opportunities for learning, but most others struggle with sensory overload and managing all the aspects of college life. Simone talks about the importance of trying to get assistance from the school (such as through the Office of Disability Services) if necessary, but also that many of the support services are very lacking and the people are often uninformed. 

11. Employment and Career: Simone says that a lot of AS women struggle in this area because of lack of education or qualifications. Additionally, getting jobs in the first place can be difficult due to the social skills problems. She emphasizes the importance of AS women trying to establish themselves in good jobs, especially since many stay single and can’t rely on someone else to support them.

12. Marriage and Cohabitation: I also skimmed this chapter because it isn’t relevant to me.

13. Having Children: Ditto.

14. Ritual and Routine, Logical and Literal Thinking, Bluntness, Empathy, and Being Misunderstood: Routine and even rituals are a way for AS girls to control the world around them as much as possible. Simone also talks about how literal thinking can sometimes make problems for us. I know for me that when I read, I’m very literal. Symbolism usually goes flying over my head and I cannot enjoy poetry. Bluntness is another area that can be a challenge. Simone points out that AS girls often feel misunderstood because whatever we said bluntly or understood literally was not intended to have the impact it did on the other person. 

15. Diagnosis, Misdiagnosis and Medication: A lot of AS women have never been diagnosed because the medical community is slightly clueless about AS in women, as opposed to men. Many AS women have been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and often prescribed medications based on that, when it completely misses the mark. Many women don’t find out they have it until their child is diagnosed. 

16. Depression Meltdowns, PTSD, and More about Meds: Apparently “meltdowns” are a common occurrence in people with AS. This chapter talks about depression ones. These are extreme depressions that take over an AS person’s life temporarily and can be caused by a variety of things. Simone does address the fact that AS people are prone to depression that can be treated by meds. 

17. Temper Meltdowns: This chapter is basically about the temper tantrums that AS people sometimes have. They can be triggered by almost any sensory overload and can manifest in many different ways. AS women are more prone to crying than men, but the meltdowns can be violent or just excessively phrased or acted out. However they occur, they are usually embarrassing after the fact and women especially are considered crazy, whereas men are more often forgiven. I can relate to this one, too, as (especially when I was younger), I would be triggered by something and be instantaneously overcome with this intense rage. I never was violent toward other people, but I destroyed plenty of my own things and also would say horrible things to people. All very humiliating. 

18. Burning Bridges: When you say horrible things to people, they don’t want to be around you. As mentioned earlier, a lot of AS women have trouble keeping relationships up and this can be extended to not just keeping them up but ruining them. But Simone also talks about how AS women “start over” repeatedly. Cut off all ties with the old life and start afresh. I can also relate to this one—over and over while I was in college I would decide it was time for a change and I would move, change jobs, and either go back to college or drop out of it. 

19. Stomach Issues and Autism: Apparently some people think that autism in general is caused by stomach problems during early formative months. There are also several diets that are supposed to help with autism. I’m a skeptic. 

20. Getting Older on the Spectrum: Simone talks about how most AS women stay single so money can be a challenge. So can loneliness and health problems. But otherwise, most stop caring as much about what people think of their unusual behaviors. But also, in some ways, older women are allowed to be more eccentric. 

21. On Whether Asperger Syndrome is a Disability or a Gift and Advice from Aspergirls to Aspergirls: I didn’t read this one because Simone started off by saying she preferred the term “differently-abled” over “disabled,” which I can’t stand. This seems to me like a term that non-disabled people have come up with to try to make disabled people feel better about themselves. I find this insulting. I mean, you should own it. 

22. Give Your Aspergirl some BALLS: Belief, Acceptance, Love, Like, and Support: I didn’t read this one either. 

23. Thoughts and Advice from Parents of Aspergirls: Or this one. 

There are also a couple of appendices which listed the symptoms of female AS and then the main differences between male and female AS. These are good. 

* Yes, I know it’s not technically a diagnosis anymore, but I think it is a different enough thing from more challenging cases of autism spectrum disorder, so it’s a valuable distinction. And people have a sense for what you’re talking about, even if they don’t get it exactly right. 

Review: Dramarama by E. Lockhart

Dramarama book coverFirst, I have to say that Dramarama plays heavily with stereotypes—namely Gay Best Friend and Theatre Geek. However, it’s not a bad thing at all because Lockhart brings both to life so effectively.

Sarah is a big-time musical theatre fan in a small-time, boring Ohio town. When she meets Demi at an audition, she finds a kindred spirit and the two of them become inseparable. Demi, who is black and (closeted) gay, gives Sarah her stage name—Sadye. They are classic theatre kids—overdramatic, enthusiastic, and physical. When both of them manage to get into a summer program at an elite performing arts school, they’re ecstatic. And off they go.

This is where things get interesting, because they’re separated into different dorms and soon their friendship is going to be tested. Demi fits in immediately. He’s able to be comfortably out of the closet and he just explodes into the talented performer he is. Sadye struggles more. She’s sharing a room with three other girls, two of whom really intimidate her, while the other she views as desperate and uncool.

Sadye’s friendships with her roommates develop and she watches them succeed while she feels like she’s not doing as well as she should. They are all taking classes and preparing for two different shows, one of which is early in the summer and so comes pretty quickly. Sadye enjoys that even if she didn’t get the most important role. But everything starts to get complicated as the summer progresses.

Really, I couldn’t relate to either Sadye or Demi, as I couldn’t be more different, but that didn’t make them uninteresting characters. Sadye is wonderfully flawed. She’s not always likable, as she does some unpleasant things, but we can see where those actions come from and we empathize. She’s a very realistic teenager.

The ending of the novel surprised me a bit. It didn’t happily tie everything up. I mean, it tied everything up like it needed to, just not really happily. There was element to it that I felt was a little out of the blue and maybe not the best possible ending, but it didn’t make me not enjoy the novel. Also, Demi didn’t behave quite like I would have in the ending. Still, much of the book was fun because of the characters and setting rather than the plot itself.

One other little thing that was kind of fun for me is that all the kids admire Kristin Chenoweth. (Sadye is distinctly not Kristin-ish, being rather tall.) Kristin is from Oklahoma and graduated from Oklahoma City University, where I’m doing my MFA (it apparently has a great musical theater program), so that was a little cool.

If you’re a fan of Lockhart, you’ll want to read it, even though it’s different from her others (actually, all her books/series are different from each other). It would also be enjoyable both for kids who grew up a part of the theatre world and those of us who only observed wryly from afar.

Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Girl Mans Up book coverGirl Mans Up is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. This is the first gender nonconforming girl I’ve really seen in a book (I’m sure there are others, but I haven’t encountered them) and I was really excited to read Pen’s story. It reminded me in some ways of what I’m trying to do with my own book Ugly, even though Pen is different in a lot of significant ways from my protagonist.

Penelope—Pen to everyone—Oliveira is one of the guys. Her best friends are Colby and Tristan and they’ve been friends for years. They’re all gamers and Pen’s the best among them. But there are some things that aren’t perfect—another boy named Garrett has been hanging out with them and he loves to push Pen’s buttons (and everyone else’s).

…that one over there who’s sort of a girl, I don’t know, I can’t tell anymore.

Colby and Tristan have always been fine with who Pen is, but Garrett is obsessed with the fact that she’s a girl who prefers the company of guys and doesn’t really look like a girl, except for her very long black hair, which she keeps pulled back in a pony tail all the time.

Pen explains Colby’s loyalty system to us early on. Guys have each other’s backs and all serve a role in a friendship. Pen’s primary role—other than being a gaming companion—is to get hot girls to talk to Colby. This was a little weird to me, because I didn’t see how he didn’t have enough confidence to just go up to them himself. But still, this is how he does it. He’d point to a girl he wanted and tell Pen to go work her magic. Said magic is effectively manipulating the girl into trusting her—and then Colby, so he could get what he wanted. It’s awkward and Pen doesn’t realize what she’s really doing because she has really bought into the whole guy system. Colby’s a real piece of work, although it takes her a while to see it.

Pen’s got a secondary issue to deal with, too. She comes from a very traditional Portuguese family that immigrated to Canada, where she’s grown up. She has a very supportive older brother and the two of them are considered black sheep by their own parents and the rest of the family, all because Pen is not a “good girl” (i.e., a girly girl) and her brother doesn’t want to work in the factory with all the other men—they don’t have the required respeito (respect) for their elders. I love the conflict that Pen’s family provides, especially her mom, who’s pretty horrible but totally believable. Everything Pen does to be herself is interpreted as an intentional insult to her mom and family.

When Colby tries to get Pen to go after a girl who Pen herself is interested in, things go weird and different. Pen’s arc is really to learn to folly of Colby’s guy code and the value of female friendship and it takes most of the book for that to work entirely out. Along the way, she comes to understand herself better and she also learns to stand up for herself in ways she doesn’t at the beginning. At the start of the story, she’s pretty passive, despite the fact that there is a lot for her to fight against (and for).

The book is well-plotted and all the major characters are deeply drawn. It’s told in first person present tense, which makes it feel really immediate and intense throughout. It’s great. There’s lots of very colloquial (but not overly slang-y) teen speak which felt real to me:

“Dude, I’ve known these guys longer than I’ve known you, so you can suck it”

There’s also lots of interesting stuff done with the fact that the older ones among Pen’s family are not native speakers of English. Girard includes “broken” English that feels very real (and I really think not mocking). Her mom says:

“I no yell. Listen. You cut you hair, you get people laugh.”

It works well. There’s also a lot of actual Portuguese in the book, as Pen and her family speak it, even if Pen isn’t as comfortable with it as English. This is handled very effectively to give the book a particular flavor without distracting the reader.

I haven’t given much of the book away because I think you should experience it the way I did, as an unknown entity. But you should go read it—it will open your eyes to an experience that is probably different from your own (and if not, it will be refreshingly familiar and real). It’s really an excellent book. No wonder it won an award and was a finalist for another.

Review: Meet Cute

Meet Cute book coverMeet Cute is a collection of “meet cute” (the first meeting of a couple who will be starring in a romance) stories by some big names in YA contemporary and romance right now. By their very nature, some of these feel a little incomplete—because these are the stories of the meet only, not the rest of the romance. There are fourteen of them and definitely some are better than others, in my view.

The first is “Siege Etiquette” by Katie Cotugno. This one’s told in second person (“you”), which is something that I don’t like. I mean, I don’t hate it, but it just feels forced and manipulative and a little pretentious. The story itself didn’t really speak to me, either. It’s about a girl who ends up in a bathroom with a boy she doesn’t know well at a party when the police are trying to get in and everyone else is hiding in the basement. The main character, Hailey, just isn’t too likable and I didn’t care that much about her. I liked the guy—Wolf—better and wondered why he seemed interested in her.

The second story, “Print Shop” by Nina LaCour, is actually my favorite. It’s about Evie, a girl who takes a job at an old-fashioned print shop because she values the non-digital approach. But then her first assignment is to get the shop an online presence, which I thought was pretty funny. Not that the story is very funny (it’s not), but I felt Evie’s pain, which is what you want. So then there’s a PR fiasco on the Twitter account she creates, all because of a “typo” made on a banner for a high school girl. After searching the girl’s profile, Evie jumps through hoops to help make sure she gets her remade banner in time, and when they finally meet, it is cute.

I enjoyed the third one, “Hourglass” by Ibi Zoboi, reasonably well even if it didn’t move me too much. It’s about Cherish, the only black teenager in her small town. She’s dress shopping with her white friend Stacy, who’s got the perfect body, unlike Cherish (who is giant—6’5” (wow)). And really, Cherish isn’t dress shopping herself—she’s with Stacy because the shop doesn’t have anything that will fit Cherish. For that reason, Cherish isn’t planning to go to the prom. But after she has a falling out with Stacy, she visits a new African tailor in town. That’s where she meets the tailor’s son, who looks like a superhero and is studying at the local community college. He’s nice.

The next story is “Click” by Katharine McGee. This one is about a an online dating date that goes horribly wrong—but in all the right ways. The online dating site is Web-data-driven, in that it scrapes the Web for all bits of info about anyone who signs up and does some clever matching on multiple points. She goes on her first date and manages to leave her phone in the taxi. This isn’t just normal bad because her phone contains a data chip with a very important program on it that she’s been working on. (Okay, let’s not talk about the fact that she wouldn’t have not had a backup somewhere, but okay, for the purposes of the story…) She and her date spend the evening chasing down the phone/chip.

“The Intern” by Sara Shephard is about Clara, an intern at a record company who gets a weird assignment with one of the company’s artists—take him to a psychic. I had a little trouble with this one because some of the events just didn’t feel entirely plausible.

The sixth story is “Somewhere That’s Green” by Meredith Russo. This one is about a trans girl whose community is up in arms since the school started letting her use the girls’ bathroom. I didn’t really love this one, either. The meet cute is between her and one of the spokespeople for the bathroom-use opponents, who despite having really religious parents likes girls. I just didn’t totally buy it all.

The next one is “The Way We Love Here” by Dhonielle Clayton, which features a brown girl and an Asian boy on a fictional island with magical undertones because everyone is born with several red strings around their ring fingers. The strings disappear over time until they’re all gone when you meet your true love. Vio isn’t particularly interested in meeting hers and when she rescues Sebastien from nearly drowning, they begin a time-traveling adventure of sorts. It’s kind of an odd story and I didn’t get really into it, but it wasn’t bad.

The eighth story is “Oomph” by Emery Lord. I liked this one quite a bit, too. It’s about two girls who meet at the airport and is full of clever and cute dialogue. I did feel like it took a little to get going, but once it did I really liked it.

The next story is “The Dictionary of You and Me” by Jennifer L. Armentrout. I’m sort of ambivalent about this one. I definitely liked the premise—a girl working at the library gets to know a boy while chasing down an overdue dictionary. It was just that the dialogue was a tad disappointing—decent though not as funny as it was trying to be. I also felt like the coincidence meter was sounding because of who the boy turns out to be.

“The Unlikely Likelihood of Falling in Love” by Jocelyn Davies is an interesting story. It’s definitely got a cute premise, even one aspect of it did bug me a little. It’s about a girl who’s the only girl in her AP stats class (and plans to win a Nobel Prize in math, as soon as they start offering one). She spots a boy on a train going the opposite direction in NYC and is instantly smitten. Then she proceeds to make calculating the likelihood of seeing him again her end-of-semester project for stats. This is what bugged me a little—I didn’t think that the only girl in a technical class would do such a “girly” topic. But then, maybe she would. We don’t get to know her too well in such a short story. Also, the way it’s written made it sound like the end result—whether or not she meets him again—matters to the class project. It doesn’t. The likelihood of something happening stays the same whether or not it actually comes to pass. But still, it was a pretty fun story.

I didn’t really care for “293 Million Miles” by Kass Morgan because I found it not very plausible, particularly the big reveal at the end. It’s about a guy and a girl trying out for a Mars mission. They end up in an isolated room together, ostensibly being tested for behavior under stress. I thought that her behavior would have totally ruled her out and the way they treated him at the end just didn’t work for me.

I’m not a fan of reality TV, so at first I thought I wouldn’t like “Something Real” by Julie Murphy. It’s set on the set of a reality TV show—one that pits two girls against each other in a competition to get a date with a famous young musician. So at first it’s not clear who the meet cute is between, but once we meet the musician himself, we can guess. It’s cute and there are several funny scenes.

“Say Everything” by Huntley Fitzpatrick is another second person story, which still bugs me, by the way. I didn’t love this one, either. A girl whose family used to be rich is waiting tables for some cash. A boy asks her out and it turns out that he’s not just any boy—he’s related to the reason her family isn’t rich anymore. He does her a weird favor that takes her back to when she was younger and makes her rethink her current situation.

The last story, “The Department of Dead Love” by Nicola Yoon, is really unique and creative. I liked it even if I didn’t love it. Thomas had what he thought was a perfect relationship that ended several months earlier and he’s gone through the various areas of the DoDL before finally landing in Autopsy (i.e. relationship autopsy). If he’s lucky, he’ll qualify for a Do Over. Things go unexpectedly and he doesn’t get what he wants out of his visit there, but ultimately gets something else.

Anyway, this was a long review. If you’re a fan of YA romance you might like this one.

Review: Dread Nation (Dread Nation #1) by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation book coverThis is really a remarkable and very powerful book. First off, it’s a very engaging and exciting story with some action. You’ve got the Civil War setting and you’ve got zombies. I’m pretty sure that Civil War era isn’t a common setting in YA historical fiction, so that’s a nice thing right there. But Ireland has really twisted that setting with her introduction of zombies, or shamblers as they call them in the book (which is, by the way, an awesome term).

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead rose up off the battlefield and that started the epidemic. The Civil War ended because the North and the South basically needed to band together to fight the shamblers. Slavery is illegal, but it’s not exactly a time of respect for black people. And Ireland did something else really interesting—she took the concept of the schools that they used to forcibly send Native American kids to back in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were horrible places where the primary goal was to eradicate Native American culture. Ireland took that concept and created combat schools for Native Americans and black people to learn how to effectively fight the shamblers. Because apparently it’s their duty to do that while the white people get to mostly laze around.

This is all a great and very creative setup, but what really makes the book is the main character. Jane McKeene has everything you could want in a protagonist. She’s smart and has serious moxie—you’d have to be a pretty weird person not to like her. Some of this is her training, but most of it is just who she is. She is a black, which seriously limits the roles she can play in life. But she doesn’t let that stop her. She was born to a white woman in Kentucky who was married to a rich man off in the war. I didn’t expect to get the full story on that but we do near the end, and it surprised me.

Okay, so that’s the basic setup. But there’s more to it because Jane gets herself mixed up into some intrigue. The school she attends—Miss Preston’s School of Combat—is just outside Baltimore, which claims to be shambler-free. But all is not as it seems. After a bold rescue of an entire room of people, Jane ends up getting the attention of the mayor of the city. Soon she is paired up with a boy named Jackson and a girl from her school, Katherine, on an adventure none of them wants. Fortunately, Jane’s there to save the day in her own way.

Let me just say that Jane’s voice is amazing. She’s so distinctive but is absolutely believable as a girl in her circumstances. When asked “Wherever did they find you?” she answers, “At the junction of hard luck and bad times,” because that’s what her momma used to say. She’s pretty unflappable, but even she has moments where the horrors of the attitudes of the times make her a little emotionally vulnerable: when Jane and other black kids are jogging into a new situation, she thinks:

Old Professor Ghering called Negroes livestock the night of the fateful lecture. I can’t help but think of him as we scurry along.

I loved that moment (for a character in a book) because it shows just how awful that racist climate is—even someone who knows better falls prey to shame. It’s insidious. She’s a very complex character.

Some of the other characters are also fairly well-developed. Katherine in particular is interesting because she’s walking a fine line that really challenges her. She’s very different from Jane at the beginning of the book, but less so at the end. Her circumstances make her different partially because she can pass for white. A couple of the other characters that mattered were Jackson and Gideon, and I have to say that they could both have been developed a bit more. I wanted more of both of them.

I should mention that Jane is technically bisexual because this has been another touted feature of the book. I say technically because it wasn’t integral to the story at all—it felt tacked on. Like, ooh, let’s make her bi, too! Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing that, but it’s just not interesting or admirable.

Race, on the other hand, is absolutely intrinsic to the story. No way could this book have been written if race wasn’t addressed head-on. Ireland is unapologetic about it, too. The racism is painful and very real. A preacher in the book says:

“I know that you can deal with the obstinate Negroes as long as you remember that they are, at their heart, children. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ as the Scripture tells us.”

On the risk for black people attempting to pass as white, Jane thinks, “There’s nothing white folks hate more than realizing they accidentally treated a Negro like a person.” The woman who raised Jane (a former slave at her house) once told her about the “bad old days”:

It was bad then, Janie. A different kind of bad, but bad all the same. … So don’t let nobody tell you any different about the old days. Life is hard now, nothing but suffering, but some kinds of suffering is easier to bear than others.

This will be a hard book for some to read, but I still think it’s worth it. It tells us some truths about the times even while doing so through the screen of zombies.

Review: Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone book coverThere’s a lot of hype surrounding this book (for instance, I saw Entertainment Weekly called Adeyemi the next J. K. Rowling). Hype can be both good and bad. It had a lot to live up to, but I was still excited to read it, even though it’s way longer than my normal reads.

If you haven’t already heard about it, Children of Blood and Bone is an epic fantasy with all the elements you’d expect—magic, sword fights, magical artifacts, and an epic journey—but it’s set in a world inspired by Nigeria and West African legends. It’s a story of oppression, unjustified violence, class, and privilege—and it’s cast is entirely black. Eleven years before the book opens, the king of Orïsha killed all the maji (people who could use magic) in the Raid. He also did something that destroyed the ability to do magic, but he let divîners live. Divîners are children who will become maji when they reach the age of thirteen, but now that magic is suppressed, they won’t. Divîners and maji both are marked with white hair so it’s instantly clear who they are. The divîners who survived the Raid are treated very badly (this is a significant understatement) and called “maggots” as the slur of preference.

The book features three teenage characters who all have POV chapters: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie’s the main star, being a divîner and effectively chosen by the gods for the book’s important quest. Amari is the kingdom’s princess and Inan is her older brother. Amari sees her best friend killed by her father for no good reason. She flips out, steals a magic scroll, and flees. Poor Zélie is the one she runs into and who helps her escape. Prince Inan is sent to retrieve Amari, with instructions to bring her back alive—unless people find out what she did. Once Zélie and Amari (plus Zélie’s brother Tzain) reach Zélie’s village, they learn that there is a way to bring magic back to the land. Thus begins the quest. The three of them head out, with Inan on their heels the whole time.

The book’s very well-plotted and pacing is good. In my view, quest books frequently end too rapidly. This one moved quickly at the end, but it didn’t wrap things up prematurely. The ending was very satisfying.

All three main characters are amazing—they’re multi-dimensional and well-developed, with each of them changing dramatically over the course of the book. Their emotional journeys are all interesting and deeply-felt. Zélie’s brother is the fourth major character and while he doesn’t change as much as the others, he’s still important to their character arcs.

Then, the world building is fantastic. The magic system is unusual (at least in my experience) and well-explained. I loved that the language of magic in Orïsha is Yoruba, a real language native to Nigeria. I also appreciated all the slightly gratuitous diacritics on so many of the place names and magic-related words. And they ride giant cats. Cats!

I do have one complaint about the book, but it only detracts from the full reading experience a tiny bit. That is that a lot of the conflicts are resolved to easily and quickly. Some terrible obstacle would be thrown in their path and then some solution would appear. For instance, when they’re needing to charter a boat to an island at one point, they have to convince the captain of a ship to do it for no money. I didn’t 100% buy his fast acquiescence.

Despite that, it’s an excellent book that you should seriously consider reading. YA fantasy lovers should definitely love this one, but I think it’s fresh and engaging enough that even those who don’t read that should enjoy it. I’m definitely watching for the sequel.

Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up the Universe book coverNiven’s other YA book, All the Bright Places, is probably going to remain one of my favorite YA novels of all time. So Holding Up the Universe had a lot to live up to, for me.

The premise is definitely interesting. It’s about two kids with major and out-of-the-ordinary challenges in their lives. Libby Strout is extremely overweight and Jack Masselin has a severe case of face blindness.

Libby is returning to school after being homeschooled for many years—initially because she was housebound due to being so overweight that she couldn’t leave her bedroom, so overweight that they had to break a hole in the wall to get her out of the house. She got fat after her mom died several years earlier and she tried to eat her way through the grief. She’s lost a bunch of weight and is looking forward to returning to school even though she was bullied during her time there as a younger kid. She has great hopes for her return and is shot down pretty quickly. Still, she manages to make a handful of friends and plans to audition for the school’s dance team if a spot opens up. She may be a target, but she’s not a withering flower. Not at all.

Jack’s an interesting case. His face blindness makes all social interactions difficult for him and several times he’s humiliated himself mixing people up. Niven does a fantastic job of keeping us constantly aware of his challenges. Jack recognizes people based on unreliable clues and context. It’s easiest at home, since everyone is a different age or gender, but even there it’s dicey. For instance, he’s in his bedroom one morning before school and thinking about his brother, Marcus. “When a tall boy with shaggy hair comes into my room and starts yelling at me, I figure it’s him.” Then “a woman appears at the door and wants to know what in the Great Fanny Adams is going on.” Jack coughs, “which makes her point to the door and tell the tall/shaggy boy to get the hell downstairs.” Then he looks out the window at everyone leaving, including his little brother, Dusty, and summarizes it like this:

The woman climbs into one car with this little kid, and a man with thick dark hair gets in another car with the tall/shaggy boy.

It’s funny, sure, but it also perfectly conveys how nightmarish everything is.

Libby and Jack first encounter each other when he basically assaults her as part of a cruel prank, stuffing an apologetic note in her backpack at the same time. She retaliates by punching him, so they both have to go to this after-school group counseling session and eventually get to know each other and find out they have more in common with each other than they could have imagined. They get closer and help each other through some rough patches.

If you enjoyed the emotional depth of All the Bright Places—or just like books full of raw and at times intense emotions—you will enjoy Holding Up the Universe. It’s also just interesting to get a flavor of true face blindness.

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give book coverThis is a remarkable book that lives up to the hype surrounding it. Most of you will probably already know of this book, so you’ll know it’s about a black girl whose unarmed, black male friend gets shot by a white cop in front of her. Obviously a topical subject, but the book really delivers a great fiction experience all while introducing readers to a world they probably don’t know at all, as well as an inside perspective on what black people regularly face. I love reading books set in places or cultures I have little to no exposure to, even though it’s uncomfortable at times, and that was all true for this book.

Starr Carter’s a great character, complex and just flawed enough to be deeply interesting. She’s a pretty normal sixteen-year-old girl, except that she attends a private school named Williamson while living in a neighborhood plagued with violence and drugs. Gang life is all around her, except when she’s at school or tucked safely in her home. Her mom is a nurse and her dad runs the local grocery store, making them a little different from many of their neighbors, even though her dad does have a history with the local gang. Not surprisingly, Starr thinks of the school Starr as distinct from the home Starr. Navigating those two identities is complicated. As she says:

Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do.

And when her boyfriend is visiting her family so her worlds are colliding:

I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.”

This is typical of that frustrating pattern where people of a power-compromised group are held to a different standard (and it’s not just minorities—women face that in the corporate world, too).

At school, her best friends are a white girl named Hailey and an (east) Asian girl named Maya. And her boyfriend is white, too. They bond over basketball, which they all play (with skill).

Starr manages her two lives pretty well, even though there are cracks in her relationships already showing at the beginning. Hailey unfollowed her on Instagram, which Starr knows is because of posts she’s put up related to mistreatment of blacks over the decades. And although we don’t know what it is for a little while, something happened with her boyfriend that pissed her off (before the book starts).

Starr’s family is also complicated, but her relationships with both her parents are solid. It’s also a source of some of the humor in the book. An exchange between Starr and her mom:

[Her mom:] “What is Tumblr anyway? Is it like Facebook?”

“No, and you’re forbidden to get one. No parents allowed. You guys already took over Facebook.”

“You haven’t responded to my friend request yet.”

“I know.”

“I need Candy Crush lives.”

“That’s why I’ll never respond.”

It’s not the only funny thing in the book by far.

Hailey is an interesting, if unlikeable, character. Starr’s been friends with her for many years. The two bonded when Starr first started at the private school because they both had just been through the trauma of losing someone (Hailey’s mom had died and Starr had just witnessed one of her good friends murdered in a drive-by shooting while they were playing outside). Still, Hailey’s very much a White Girl. I first heard that as a capital-letter-term in reference to someone I know, and I knew what it meant—she’s very entitled and all her problems are very much first-world problems. Hailey, like so many white kids now, thinks of herself as enlightened and probably post-racial. But the problem is, she is still looking at things through her very privileged eyes. Eventually that causes some big problems with Starr.

As I mentioned, this book will introduce many readers to a setting they probably have little experience with. The neighborhood is very real. And we see it through Starr’s eyes—both through school Starr’s perspective and home Starr’s perspective. School Starr finds it embarrassing, but home Starr gets it. She doesn’t like everything about it, but she understands how it works, how to navigate that world, and how she has to deal with the important players. The dialogue in the book is natural and flowing, as well as very up-to-date and realistic (I’m assuming—there were quite a few slang words whose meaning I didn’t know, and which I would certainly never use even if I “learned” the meaning).

One of my favorite lines in the book, probably because it perfectly sums everything up, comes just after Starr has been through the initial interview with the detectives investigating the shooting she witnessed. It’s clear the detectives have an agenda and it isn’t the right one. She says:

This is gonna be some bullshit.

Anyway, I’m glad they’re making a movie out of it and I look forward to more books from Thomas.