Review: The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum

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

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

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

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

Review: Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: 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.

Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Pumpkinheads book coverI’m a big Rowell fan because I think she does a fantastic job of capturing the emotional truth of people in her characters. I was new to Hicks, but I quite enjoyed this graphic novel. Hicks’ art was sharp and evocative. It felt like she used an autumn color palette, too, that comes across as seasonal and vivid.

Deja and Josie have worked together every fall at the local but immense and involved pumpkin patch and now it’s their last year there before they go off to college. It has numerous stations, from Pappy’s Apples, the Corn Maize, the S’mores Pit, and the Haunted Hacienda. The two of them have worked at the Succotash Hut every year and they’re very good friends, even if the don’t see each other except in the fall.

Josie is a shy boy who’s harbored a crush on Marcy, a girl who works at the Fudge Shoppe, since he started there. Deja is an outgoing and bold girl who wants to help Josie seize the day and tell Marcy how he feels. They do something that feels wild and crazy to Josie—leave their station and go on a quest to find Marcy, who keeps getting moved from station to station right ahead of them. Along the way they run into many of Deja’s exes—boys and girls—and we learn just how timid Josie really is. He has a lesson to learn about pining for someone from a distance rather than paying attention to what’s in front of his face.

This is a cute fall story, very well-illustrated. Fans of Rowell should like it, and I’d imagine the same can be said of fans of Hicks (I’m planning to check out some of her other stuff).

Review: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

The Great American Whatever book coverI had heard of Federle because of his Better Nate Than Never middle grade series, but I’ve never read them. So The Great American Whatever was my introduction to him. It’s about a movie- and screenwriting-obsessed sixteen-year-old boy named Quinn. About five months before the book opens, Quinn’s sister Annabeth was killed in a car wreck, which has him devastated and not particularly functional. She was his filmmaking partner—they had a production company called Q&A Productions and Quinn envisioned them going to Hollywood together some day.

Now, he hasn’t been to school since the accident, which happened the day before Christmas break, and summer’s already started with its incessant heat (he’s in Pittsburgh). In the beginning of the book, Quinn’s long-time friend Geoff shows up to force him out of the house. This sets off a series of events that finally brings Quinn out of his shell (and out of the closet, even though everybody already “knew”). Geoff takes Quinn to a college party, where he meets love interest Amir, and things take off from there.

I feel like there isn’t a strong plot in the book, but Quinn does have a clear coming-of-age character arc. He learns better to look at things from other people’s perspectives and matures quite a bit in other ways. He’s a good character in that he’s very flawed and still relatable. He’s rather self-absorbed and a bit on the arrogant side, at least in his two known subjects (i.e. movies and screenwriting), but he's vulnerable and cares about his family and friends. His friend Geoff is a generally good guy who turns out to have a secret that blows Quinn away and drives them temporarily apart. Amir is fine as a love interest, though he was kind of bland. Quinn’s sister features a lot in the book through flashbacks, and she is very interesting and more complex than you realize at first. Still, Quinn’s voice and attitude make the book what it is—funny and full of movie references any film buff will love.

So if you like coming-of-age stories, especially those with coming out storylines, you will probably like this.

Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine book coverIf You Could Be Mine is set in modern-day Iran, which is definitely a setting I’m not very familiar with, so I was excited to read it. It’s narrated by Sahar, a seventeen-year-old lesbian, which is not okay in Iran. In fact, it’s illegal and the penalty can be as dramatic as death. The immediate problem for Sahar is that she has been in love with her friend Nasrin for as long as she can remember, and Nasrin loves her back. Of course, they spend a lot of time alone and this allows them to make out uninterrupted, so everything is fine.

Sahar’s mother is dead and her father is detached, so he has no idea. Nasrin’s parents, her mother in particular, are a little more observant. Consequently, they come up with a dramatic solution to save Nasrin from herself and the dire consequences if the girls are caught—they accept the proposal of a man who confesses love for Nasrin.

Sahar doesn’t take to this kindly, of course. She hates him, despite the fact that he’s a successful doctor and seemingly kind and even conventionally handsome. She’s desperate to stop the wedding even though Nasrin herself seems a little resigned. She seems to think they can continue in secret even after she’s married. Sahar doesn’t think that, and she instead comes up with her own dramatic solution. Because while homosexuality is illegal, transsexuality is not and the government will even pay for sex reassignment surgery. It seems perfect—she’ll become a man and she and Nasrin can simply get married.

But of course it’s not that easy. Sahar learns more about the surgery itself and thinks more about the consequences. Does she really want to be a man? What would things really be like if she and Nasrin married as man and woman? Also, is Nasrin truly worth that?

Sahar is a great character, increasingly self-aware as the book develops. She’s a little funny, too. For me, Nasrin didn’t come off so well. She was very believable, but a little selfish and silly for my taste. But there’s more going on in the book than the relationship between Sahar and Nasrin—Sahar’s father has some growing to do, himself. We also see Sahar risking her entire future with her fixation on the sex change, so we’re not sure how things are going to turn out. The book itself is a quick read, and I’d recommend it to anyone vaguely curious about homosexuality in Iran.