Book Discussion: The Serpent King

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner 22752127

Summary

Dill has had a rough life. He’s the son of a Pentecostal, snake-handling preacher and now the target for the bullies at school that hate him for his father’s faith and crimes.

But, his friendships with Travis, a boy obsessed with an epic book series and its world, and Lydia, a fashion blogger using her internet fame to get out of their Tennessee town, are what keep him grounded…at least until high school is over and Lydia leaves and Dill has no other choice but to accept the family legacy.

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heartRomance Score: Good Effort

The relationship that develops is sweet and natural. And, in a way, it felt like the relationship was not just between the girl and the boy, but also the boy finding a safe, loving home in her family. But, this is an end of high school book, so it’s also a little bittersweet – no one is ever sure what will happen once graduation comes and the final pre-college summer is over.

RosieFeminist Score: A+ Success

The main reason I’m giving this a good score, even though the mothers in this book suffer greatly due to their marriages and community expectations about staying with your spouse, is because Lydia is a mouthy, badass, self-confident example of girls that love something and won’t make excuses for it. Plus, her explanations of the hunt for clothes at shops, her interactions with her internet followers, and her joy in finding the perfect outfit were a great example of how girls don’t have to make apologies for loving something and that the things that are coded feminine are just as difficult and worthwhile as masculine activities. Plus, I loved that her feminist proclamations are coming from a girl in Tennessee – whose parents are also from Tennessee – so it shows that feminism is for everyone.

BUT, I will flag that if she were anything less than she is, the score would go down a grade because of the domestic abuse and women that make very difficult choices.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: Good Effort

This book is important because it shows things that aren’t always common in YA: poverty, religious community, and the South. I really appreciated the perspective in this book because it’s rare to read a YA book where college isn’t an assumed next step for the characters. Dill and Travis both plan to finish high school, start working, and stay in their hometown. In fact, they don’t really have much of a plan at all, more like they’ll just keep doing what they already do because they’re not sure there’s much else anyway. Even though Lydia pushes them (from a position of privilege) to aim for something different/higher, it’s still their main consideration.

This is not common!

Plus, Dill talks about his activities in the worship band and about going to church and how the folks that left the community had to find a new, similar church and what that means for their Sunday plans. I appreciated that The Serpent King incorporated the day-to-day of living faith into the story – even if it is not necessarily a positive faith.

Additionally, Dill suffers from depression and has a “family curse” that he’s fighting to stay on top of. Plus, Travis has to deal with a dad that’s alcoholic and abusive and probably also depressed because Travis’s older brother died fighting in the Middle East.

There is a lot of heavy stuff in this book and I ended up crying a TON, but it was so, so good.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Between Good Effort and A+ Success

This book, guys, this book is a heart squeezer. If you don’t cry at least once while you’re reading it, I’m not sure you’re human. Because Dill and Lydia and Travis…they are the trio of friends you wish you had in high school because of their loyalty and love for each other.

The writing is amazing, you can feel Tennessee around them, and the hopelessness of Travis and Dill weighs on you. When Travis gets his birthday present, my little booknerd heart bawled because it is just the.best.ever. And then…and then Travis goes home and then something else happens and I was crying again – very different tears.

Be prepared, there’s a lot packed in here.


Favorite Character

Travis – Because he loves books, lives in his fantasy world, and is doing the best he can to be happy and kind in a world that hasn’t given much to work with.

Favorite Line

Nothing makes you feel more naked than someone identifying a desire you never knew you possessed.

Fun Author Fact

Zentner was a musician first who decided he wanted to give writing a book a try. WHAT a book.

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes. Absolutely. It’s beautiful. It’s sad. It’s full of hope. It’s also very, very heavy, so be prepared for some sadness and shock. I don’t want to spoil it, but there was one thing that happened and I wasn’t ready at all and…this book will hit you like a ton of bricks, but then you’ll want to make everyone else read it too!

Read These Next

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez for a book that will also tear your heart to pieces and then give you the shreds of hope you need to move on or When We Collided for another story of two people meeting and coming together just when they need it most.

Post Author: Jess

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Book Discussion: The Smell of Other People’s Houses

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock19370304

Summary

It’s 1970 and Alaska is changing and so are the lives of everyone that lives there. It’s not an easy life, and secrets make it even harder. Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank are teenagers, but they much make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives now…and those decisions will change everything.

smell of houses

heartRomance Score: Good Effort

There are two romances: one shows how privilege protects boys/men from the consequences of their choices and the other is a sweet, sort-of-love-at-first-sight-but-not-really story. That they both happen to Ruth makes the second all that sweeter. Usually I think the insta-love is a little silly, but in this case the serendipity and the vulnerable place where each person is at the moment they meet made it seem reasonable to me (plus, my romantic side wants to believe!).

Rosie Feminist Score: Good Effort

Parts of this book are hard. There’s partner abuse, child abuse, a grandmother that thinks she knows best, religious morality restricting choices, and boys that do whatever they want and receive no punishment. But, there’s also women that are respected, women that protect each other, women that work together to benefit the community, a grandmother that acknowledges her mistakes, and several teenagers that make empowering choices.

I feel like this is our most inconsistent category because in other books I would take points off for violence against women. But, it truly depends on the story and how it’s dealt with. Domestic violence/violence against women and, especially, violence against Native women is a fact and Alaska does have higher rates of this, so to ignore it would be a lie. I feel that the community involvement and the character development with this story line make it a strength, not a weakness of the story.

And, most important for me, the women and girls (generally) stand up for, protect, and encourage each other. And, even if they don’t do so at the beginning, they find a place of respect and love by the end.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: A+ Success

This is Alaska in the ’70s, it had only been a state for 11 years and things were still settling down. Through the characters, we see how both Native and colonist/settler communities hoped and worked for a statehood that would benefit, not restrict them.

Through the girls, we see what life looks like for some Alaskan Natives – moved off their land, ridiculed, struggling with few resources, but also maintaining traditions through summer camps and sharing winter stores as a community. One of the comments that most struck me, though, was when the girls mentioned that teachers couldn’t even get their affiliations right – that there are many tribes and groups in the area and that one does not equal the other. There was a sense throughout the book of the tensions between the two communities (Native and settler) and I appreciated that it didn’t shy away from that.

I also liked that this book featured characters living in difficult economic situations. So often YA features (upper) middle class (white) characters and life looks very different for someone that worries about where their next meal will come from than about which shoes they’ll buy for the dance. I am not saying the wealthy don’t deserve stories, they have important things to say too, I’m just saying that we also need stories of people without wealth.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Between Good Effort and A+ Success

I really enjoyed this book. Almost to A+ Success levels.

I loved the setting and that we see a full picture of the community. I liked the characters and the variety of stories we got from them. I loved how the stories interwove with each other. I think this is an important, lovely book and I will recommend it. I think it touched on a lot of interesting and important topics that, although it took place in 1970, are still relevant today.

I think I’m held back because everything at the end wrapped up very nicely into a little bow and it just felt a little too perfect.


Favorite Character

I think I liked Alyce most. She had big dreams and she loves ballet, but she also guts fish and loves her family.

Favorite Line

….this whole book is beautiful. I loved the writing.

Fun Author Fact

Hitchcock worked in commercial fishing and radio before her book was published.

Is this worth a book hangover?

Absolutely. I really loved the characters, the story, and how much place plays a role in the narrative. I definitely recommend this!

Read These Next

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina for a contemporary, place-based story focused on family or Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo for an ensemble cast set in a fantasy land.

Post Author: Jess

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Book Discussion: The Art of Being Normal

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The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

Summary

David has always been on the outside of his school’s social hierarchy, but he’s always had his two best friends. And they know his deepest secret.

Leo is starting over at a new school hoping to use the opportunity to get away and find a better life. He wants to stay invisible through senior year so he can work toward that goal.

When Leo stands up for David in a fight, everything changes and leads to secrets revealed and friendships born and tested.

art of being normal

heartRomance Score: Good Effort

I liked Leo’s relationship with Alicia. I thought it evolved naturally and the reasons they fell for each other felt right. I think that Alicia’s reaction to learning more about Leo was also pretty realistic for the situation, though I don’t think it is an easy or fair reaction. I appreciated that they were both given a second chance and that each was willing to accept that second chance.

David is younger and less mature and that shows in his  longing for the high school hottie, but that also seemed fitting. (Edit: I use “David” here because that is where the character is when the crush is first revealed, but it would be more appropriate to use she/her throughout this review.)

RosieFeminist Score: Between You’re Trying and Good Effort

I liked some things from the story: the characters being true to themselves and finding the friends that care enough about them to let that truth live, the parents that are doing their best to love their kids as well as they can, and the courage to stand up for themselves. But, I felt like some of the stuff was stereotypical and didn’t really expand on much besides what is kind of expected.

diversity people circle icon Diversity Score: Between You’re Trying and Good Effort

This book is about transgender characters and characters of color and poverty and privilege and it hits some “right” notes. But, it also felt a little too quaint and like “here’s the story all wrapped up, with drama and closure.” I’m not exactly sure how to explain why things didn’t sit with me, but they didn’t. I think reading reviews from transgender characters may help tease this out, many of them said this is a book about them and not for them.

I did like that we saw how characters from poverty had to deal with something really difficult, though, because access to wealth can make a huge difference in how parts of this story may play out. It is also important that this takes place in England and not in the US, since health care access is very different in the US and access is much more separated.

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Awesome Factor: Between You’re Trying and Good Effort

I wanted to know more about the characters and I was interested in their stories, but I felt like they were shallow and we didn’t actually get much in this book.

I really wanted to like it and I appreciate that this book shows that there are layers and layers of difficulty to everyone’s lives. But…it was lacking something.


Favorite Character

Felix and Essie, who really feel like one character full of life and lots of loyalty.

Favorite Line

I’m not sure anything really stood out for me.

Fun Author Fact

Lisa Williamson is also an actor.

Is this worth a book hangover?

I’m not sure. If you are looking to learn more about transgender people and their stories, there are some great books coming out written by and about transgender people that may hit the notes a little better.

Read These Next

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo for a story falling in love while keeping a secret (this one is #ownvoices and we’ll be reviewing later this summer).

Post Author: Jess

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Note: I received my copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Book Chat: When We Collided

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B1btH5LeZjzid3NHNGJmdFYxSDg

When We Collided by Emery Lord
When We Collided

Summary

Jonah is grieving the loss of his father, a larger-than-life presence and breadwinner in his large, close-knit family. His mother stays in her bedroom all the time, and Jonah feels the weight of his family’s security on his shoulders.

Then he meets Vivi – a light, fun, spunky girl who draws him out. Vivi immediately becomes part of Jonah’s family, and she and Jonah fall deeply in love. But Vivi has secrets and scars of her own. Will their love be able to face the seriousness of the situations they both find themselves in?
Jonah


Favorite Character

Jonah – His dedication to his family is incredible. He cares about his siblings and mother deeply, and is trying to hold everything together (even when he’s in way over his head). His sense of duty and responsibility to his family is admirable, even if it makes it harder for him to ask for help.

Favorite Line 

As we discuss in the podcast, one of our favorite parts of this book is the exploration of issues not often talked about (especially around depression and bipolar disorder). Here’s one of my favorite lines that speaks to that

“Why? Because you once told me you aren’t afraid of the dark places. I’m not, either, Vivi. You know that.” 

Fun Author Fact

I’m interested in Emery’s views on feminism and how they’ve evolved over time. In a 2014 interview on HelloGiggles, Emery Lord discussed her views on feminism in teen novels.

“My main goal is to write fully-formed, flawed girls. It’s hard for me to watch female characters who are struggling criticized as “whiny” or those who cry as “dramatic.” C’mon! They’re human. And in YA, they’re teens! So, I’m going to try to keep writing complicated girls as a means toward what I think is the most important thing: empathy.”

I think Vivi definitely lives up to this – while she’s definitely flawed, is very clear why she has the challenges that she does, and you really empathize with both her and Jonah throughout the book.

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes! This book a “fun summer romance” with deeper meaning. We both really enjoyed this book and recommend it! 

Read These Next

For another story about teen romance with deeper meaning, check out My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga (our book chat here).  Aysel is certain about one thing: she is ready to die. She just needs to decide how. While looking through online forums, she finds FrozenRobot, another teen looking for a suicide partner. FrozenRobot is perfect – he’s local, her age, and ready to kill himself. But as Aysel and FrozenRobot start to spend time together, she starts to see another side of him. Suddenly, she’s not sure she’s making the right decision.

Post Author: Anisha

Anisha

Anisha loves books, Gilmore Girls, and her Kuerig. She’s been reading mainstream YA since she was actually a young adult, and Jess is helping her expand her horizons with more diverse, interesting books from newer authors.

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Book Discussion: Panic

Panic

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Summary

No one knows who invented Panic. But every summer in Carp, New York, Panic is played. The rules are simple: Graduating seniors (and only seniors) can participate in Panic. The games end at the end of the summer, and the winner takes all.

Dodge plans to play and win Panic. He’s seeking revenge, and he knows exactly how he will get it. But what happens when he forms bonds with some of the other competitors?

Hannah did not plan on playing for the pot. Even though she desperately needs the money (and the opportunity to get out of her small town), she has seen Panic maim and kill too many people. She’s not that stupid… until she is.

Panic follows the teenage competitors of a dangerous, stupid, and life-changing game as they see if they have what it takes to beat their own panic.

 

 

 

Panic

heartRomance Score: You’re Trying  

Panic involves romances between several competitors and spectators in an ultra-dangerous sport. As you can imagine, mind games and manipulation are a major part of winning these games. It’s hard to get behind romances built and sustained on lies. Even when the characters showed their reasons for their choices, there wasn’t enough build up to really get behind the romances. I found myself disliking all the characters, and therefore not really able to get behind any of the romances.

Feminist Score:  Between  You’re Trying and Good EffortRosie

I hate the reason that Hannah started playing the games (why do so many plot points start with impressing a boy?), but started to like her throughout the competition. Hannah is a strong character – brave, loyal, and willing to do anything to protect her little sister.  Her loyalty to her friends is admirable, even when they don’t deserve it. And I like how she has the mental presence and physical power to compete with the male competitors in Panic.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score:  Good Effort 

This book doesn’t dive deeply into the cultural experiences of any characters (they’re too busy playing stupid, deadly games), but I was surprised and impressed by the diverse cast. Main characters Natalie and Dodge (seem) to be non-white, and other minor characters have non-white sounding names. More importantly, I appreciated the setting of the story. Unlike many YA books, set in wealthy suburbs or big cities, Panic is set in a small, poor, decaying town in rural New York. Teenagers have few opportunities, and the money offered winning Panic is enough to give them a chance at life outside Carp. I appreciated a story in a non-wealthy setting.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Between You’re Trying and Good Effort  

I wanted to like this book, but it just fell short. First, it was hard for me to get behind the idea of such a deadly and dangerous competition. Most of the competitors were unlikable from the beginning, and this just seemed like such a stupid, teenager-y thing to do. And because I never connected with the characters, it was hard for me to root for anyone throughout the competition. It was as if Katniss was unlikeable from the beginning of Hunger Games… who would you root for then?

While the premise of Panic was interesting enough, I just couldn’t get behind the stupidity of the games. And the ending didn’t give me any indication that the stupidity had been solved (or at least, realized by the characters), so I was left unsatisfied.

Favorite Character

Honestly, I couldn’t stand most of the characters. Hannah’s little sister, Lily, is the closest thing that could come to a favorite character, but only because she was sweet and helpless.

 

Is this worth a book hangover?

Not quite. While I enjoyed Lauren Oliver’s Delirium series, I don’t think Panic is hangover-worthy. 

 Fun Author(s) Fact 

Lauren Oliver is a co-founder of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. According to their website’s aptly named “WTF” section,

“[PPL] comes up with story ideas, we plot them using our knowledge and experience with narrative structure, and we coach authors through the writing process. Like architects, we envision, design and layout all the basics of a book, but it’s our writers who inhabit them and bring them to life. When a project is ready, we sell it to one of the publishing giants.”

 

Read This Next

If you’re looking for well-written, diverse dystopian future books, check out Love is The Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (our review here). A deadly flu hits the United States, shutting down the elite prep school world that Bird inhabits. But what if the flu is not what everyone thinks it is?

Post Author: Anisha

Anisha

Anisha loves books, Gilmore Girls, and her Kuerig. She’s been reading mainstream YA since she was actually a young adult, and Jess is helping her expand her horizons with more diverse, interesting books from newer authors.

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Book Discussion: Gena/Finn

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Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson

Summary

Gena and Finn meet on the internet while bonding over their shared fandom – the Up Below show. They write fanfic and share theories about where the show is going. Slowly, their relationship turns into more than just discussions about the show and into full fledged friendship…or even more. As things progress, Finn’s boyfriend grows concerned with their close relationship. Gena’s transition to college does not go as well as hoped and a visit to a fan convention triggers some big life decisions…leading to an accident and Gena’s mental health taking a turn for the worse.

gena-finn

heartRomantic Score: Between You’re Trying and Good Effort

The romance was interesting, but unclear if it was in fact a romance or a very intense friendship. The characters don’t make the “is this or isn’t it” clear from their interactions with each other, but more from conversations with other characters. So, it was a little like we got a sense of how intense the feelings were from others’ reactions (ie. Charlie) rather than from anything actually done within Gena and Finn’s relationship. This is both a blessing and a curse – I believe this story is supposed to represent chracters on the quiltbag spectrum, but it skirts the line of actually showing it which means people can easily deny it if they want to. I’ve seen some reviews complaining about where Finn ends up, but I think that part feels natural considering where she started. Where Gena ends is a little less satisfactory.

However, if we were evaluating the romance of Charlie and Finn? Charlie might (eventually) be the most mature, understanding boyfriend ever.

RosieFeminist Score: Good Effort

So, if you read this as intense lady friendship, this is awesome because we get two supportive, amazing girls giving strength to each other. If you read this as non-platonic lady relationship, then this is also pretty cool because that’s something you don’t often see, but not awesome because it’s just on the edge of unclear.

Gena has a relationship with a male classmate in the beginning and it often involves sex and there’s no judgment about that. Finn struggles with the possibility of marriage and is able to articulate why and talk through it and there’s no judgment about marrying or not marrying (when it pertains to the actual marriage, related to relationships with other people, there’s judgment).

This is feminist in its everyday-ness and in the celebration and appreciation of fandom. This allows girls and young women to love something and celebrate it and immerse themselves in it and fandom is given validity and power. That is rare.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: Good Effort

There’s a lot here and a lot of it is #ownvoices, which makes it extra exciting.

Gena is clearly stated to be Jewish, but there’s no physical description of the characters (that I remember) – the advantage of online friendships. I appreciated that it was left open, though that does mean the default reader will think “white.”

A huge part of this story is connected to mental health/illness. I don’t have much experience with this , so I’m not sure if it’s well done. I am 70% sure some aspects of this are also #ownvoices but I do NOT want to say that for sure. I think the openness and Gena’s discussion about – “it’s ok to say I see a doctor, but not ok to talk about why I see the doctor or how I feel day to day” was really important. If we don’t create the open space for conversations about mental health/illness as a WHOLE, we’ll never get rid of the stigma.

The beginning and end of the story feel a bit like two different narratives, demarcated by Gena’s medication abruptly stopping. I’m not sure how to talk about my reaction to the second half – coupled with the doctor’s opinion that a lower dosage of drugs would be ok and Gena’s resistance to this, I can’t tell if it’s trying to show that ableism includes thinking drugs are a crutch and that medical professionals should listen to the people with the illness or something else that I can’t put my finger on. Finn (and Charlie)’s behavior and support, though, are a great example of someone trying to be there, but not knowing exactly how to do so.

Also, I am a little worried that the thing from her childhood and then the thing that happened may lean a little on the “crazy” people are magical trope.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Good Effort

I generally don’t like books that are new/mixed media and stray from prose, but in this book I saw how it added to the story as a whole. I loved recognizing the pieces of a particular fandom that got pulled in and that fandom in general is given respect, too.

I found both Gena and Finn intriguing characters and I liked seeing their relationship grow. Gena’s parents are awful all around, but her aunt and uncle seem to be peripheral adults that actually have an understanding about what is happening. I wish that Finn was more willing to ask for help, or at least an explanation, from them. I was a little confused why she felt she had to do everything alone. One big hole: she is trying to understand how to pay bills but never considers the fact that Gena’s school was paid for somehow?

Overall, I wanted to know more about the girls and learn how things ended. I was a little surprised by how quickly things unraveled, but loved the exploration of the bond between them.


Favorite Character

Charlie – He shows great understanding for Finn as a college graduate confused about where her life should go, tries to learn about the things she is passionate about, and finds a way to love and respect her while also helping out someone despite the fact that he’s not entirely comfortable with where that friendship lies on the intimacy spectrum.

Favorite Line

I’m going back to my personal failure at collecting lines…

Fun Author Fact

I really suggest following Moskowitz on Twitter (@HannahMosk); she shares a lot of insightful stuff about diversity and her careful efforts to write all of her characters with research, love, and the care they deserve.

Is this worth a book hangover?

This is an intense read – the relationship builds and then the story takes a turn toward something very different from the beginning. I think this is a great story about fandom, friendship – and possibly more than friendship, and mental illness. Some readers will love this and others will probably feel it is not their cup of tea.

Read These Next

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz for very clear bisexual representation with an exploration of eating disorder recovery and intense friendships or As I Descended (out in September) by Robin Talley for a Macbeth retelling that also features a girl-girl relationship.

Post Author: Jess

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Jess loves SFF – old and new school –  and is learning to appreciate the more lovey-dovey YA under the careful tutelage of Anisha’s recommendations.

She received her copy of Gena/Finn for free through NetGalley, in return she provided this honest review.

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Book Chat: The Girl From Everywhere

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The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

Summary

Nix travels on her father’s ship as he Navigates across time searching for a way to return to his beloved dead wife, Nix’s mother. Nix isn’t sure what will happen if he succeeds, but he’s the only family she has, so she does what she can to track down the next piece in the puzzle of their journey. Their adventures have taken them to mystic Persia, ancient China, and more, but now they’ve become entangled in political intrigues in 19th century Hawaii and everything may unravel.

Nix may find the answers she’s looking for, the family she’s always wanted, or…she could find the end to everything.

WARNING: Our podcast has SERIOUS SPOILERS and you don’t want to mess up your first read of this book – STOP LISTENING and GO GET THIS BOOK if you haven’t read it yet.

girl from everywhere

Favorite Character

Nix! – She is smart, resourceful, passionate, caring, and committed to making the best life choices she can. What a great character for readers to have!

Favorite Line

And once everyone agrees something is one way, all the other ways it could have been disappear.

I love the idea of unending possibilities and that dreams can create worlds if we believe in them.

Fun Author Fact

  1. Heilig has an MFA in Muscial Theater Writing which is very cool and she has posted some songs on her blog.
  2. She is open about her mental health struggles on twitter and is helping to break stigmas and start conversations about lots of important topics!

Is this worth a book hangover?

ABSOLUTELY! Nix is amazing and her story is exciting. Time travel is one of those things that can turn non-SFF lovers away, but here the people and intrigue are so good, you just want to keep turning the pages!

Read These Next

The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie for more sailing adventures with intense lady characters and interesting beasts or Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis for a story that is driven by characters living in different worlds.

Post Author: Jess

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Filed under Adventure, Heavy Topics, Historical, podcast, Science Fiction & Fantasy

Book Discussion: Love is the Drug

Love

Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Summary

Bird’s on the path to the life her mother’s always dreamed for her. She’s got perfect grades, the perfect boyfriend, and perfect friends. She’s a member of the young Washington elite, attending the prestigious Devenshire school with the vice president’s daughter and other children of privilege. She’s everything her parents wanted her to be.

But one night at a party, her boyfriend hands her a drink, and that’s the last thing she remembers. When she wakes up a few days later, she knows something happened, but can’t remember what. And in the meantime, the world is falling apart. A deadly flu virus is devastating the United States, and only her elite standing has kept her safe this far. With a strange man making odd, vaguely threatening comments to her, Bird doesn’t know who to trust. The only person she can turn to is Coffee, an outcast in their prep school … and her drug dealer. But Bird can’t shake the feeling that Coffee is the only person who understands her, and the only person willing to help her find out the truth about that night.

 

 

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heartRomance Score: Between Good Effort and A+ Success 

I rarely love YA romance, but this story was an exception. The romance between Bird and Coffee is so emotional and so intense that I could practically feel the tension just reading the pages. I love how Coffee sees Bird for herself – not who everyone else wants her to be. And I love that they repeatedly save one another.

 

Feminist Score:  Good Effort   Rosie

I love Bird’s transformation throughout the story – and how she really finds herself apart from her school status, parents, and all of the expectations. I was slightly disappointed that the spark for the change came (in part) from a comment by Coffee – but I also realize that’s just one of many factors. But by the end of the book, Bird is exactly the kind of woman that feminists can get behind.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: A+ Success 

This books delves into the complexities of race and privilege in Washington D.C. in so many ways  – especially through Bird’s complicated relationship with her mother Carol. Bird’s grown up with everything – but she’s still one of a handful of black students at her school. Her mother fought hard to get her where she is, and refuses to let her slip in any way. According to Carol, anything less than Ivy League shows a lack of ambition, and her daughter is “Harvard, not Howard” material.

Throughout Love is the Drug, Johnson dives into complex issues of the racial politics of the drug war, elitism and race, and finding yourself within your culture.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Between Good Effort and A+ Success 

I was so impressed by Love is the Drug. Not only was the plot super interesting, but it was beautifully written. The opening and closing of nearly every chapter was written like poetry, and the romance was heightened through it. Johnson’s descriptions of Washington D.C. brought me back to my favorite (and least favorite) parts of the city, and it was absolutely beautiful. I’m so glad I read this book.

Favorite Character

Coffee – His loyalty to Bird is incredible, and who can’t adore a guy who loves chemistry? I dig nerds, and (apparently) even the drug dealer kind.

Favorite Line

There were so many beautiful lines throughout this book. Here’s one of my favorite from the beginning:

“You are Bird, the skylight tells her. Emily fears the world. Bird can solve it. Bird will find her memories and break up with Paul and buy that store she’s always secretly dreamed of, and damn what her mother thinks of goals as humble and unambitious as shopkeeping” 

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a little wary of end-of-the-world books, but this one is so beautiful. Don’t skip it . 

 Fun Author(s) Fact 

There is not too much information available about Alaya Dawn Johnson’s personal life (which, of course, is a totally valid choice!), but I was blown away by her interview with GayYA on her intentions while writing her first book, The Summer Prince :

Right now there’s a ton of science fiction being published, but so much of it was so white, so much of it so straight.  So I kind of got this notion that I could write a science fiction novel that actually took notice of the rest of the world, put black people and the African diaspora front and center, actually open sexually–like, kinda use the power I had to create a whole new world and a whole new future for…a complicated good, I mean, obviously the world in The Summer Prince is not 100 percent wonderful, it’s not a utopia.  I mean…In my own thinking of it, it’s a complicated utopia, but anyway.

Much of this still applies to Love is the Drug, and I’m SO impressed by an author that executes so well on these intentions.

Read This Next

This is officially my go-to dystopian book for you now! But if you want to read another impressive black protagonist facing racial challenges, check out This Side of Home by Renee Watson (our review here).

Post Author: Anisha

Anisha

Anisha loves books, Gilmore Girls, and her Kuerig. She’s been reading mainstream YA since she was actually a young adult, and Jess is helping her expand her horizons with more diverse, interesting books from newer authors.

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Filed under Adventure, High School, Romance

Book Discussion: Symptoms of Being Human

22692740Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Summary

Riley is struggling to adjust to a new school. Riley left the old school because some of the students decided assault in the locker room was a good idea. Riley is trying not to make waves, but it’s really, really hard when walking down the hallway gathers everyone’s attention and terrible words are spit at you halfway to class. But, once Riley stops putting up walls and lets some people in things change. Bec and Solo are the friends we all wish we had when life gets even rougher.

Trigger warning: assault/violence to a quiltbag character

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heartRomance Score: Good Effort

Bec and Riley have a possible flirtation going on from the beginning. I liked Bec’s ambiguity – it felt like she wasn’t sure if Riley was interested, wasn’t sure if she herself was ready, and as though she was interested but getting in her own way. Riley’s confused and unpracticed concern about how to flirt was also adorable – something every reader can relate to when faced with someone we might actually like. I thought the build up was strong and the end made sense in the context of the rest of the story.

Rosie

Feminist Gender Score: A+ Success

I renamed this category for this book because, given the plot and characters, using a gendered term didn’t feel right (and, yes, I know that anyone can be a feminist, but that’s not what I’m going for here). Riley’s story does a great job highlighting a lot of things: the pressure to conform to gender expectations, the difficult boundaries that the gender binary places on everyone, the way that not fitting into gendered expectations leaves a wake of troubles, and the fact that gender expectations and the dire pressure to conform inspires violence much too often. I think the story does a great job of talking about all of these things through Riley’s voice – it never feels like we’re getting a lesson or that Riley is reciting a definition (even when a definition does come up, it’s done within context so well that it doesn’t feel awkward). There are, of course, things that happen in this book for which I’ve deducted points in other reviews (example: gendered violence), but here it fits into the whole for a purpose. However, it would be nice to see a story with characters like this without the violence.

diversity people circle icon

Diversity Score: Between Good Effort and A+ Success

This book covers a wide range of characters from the full spectrum of life. There are quiltbag characters, characters on both ends of the economic spectrum, at least one character struggling with mental health issues, and one clearly defined character of color. Obviously, as the focus on the book, the quiltbag characters are the most clearly written. I think this is an important book for anyone to read, but a genderfluid character is critical for readers looking for themselves in stories.

Edit: One thing that has been pointed out by others is that Riley automatically assigns a gender to Bec even though Riley is fighting against that very same expectation from everyone else. Fighting the gender binary is difficult, so I’m not really surprised by this, but I am surprised that Riley never addresses this bias in their own thinking.

I also fully appreciate that Riley was seeing someone for mental health help – the more this is shown, the less stigmatized getting help will be and I’m all for that.

I couldn’t give a full score because I was a little thrown by the lack even a hint of Hispanic/Latino culture in the community. Won’t you find some infusion of this in every part of California? (Or am I stereotyping California right now?)

wow iconAwesome Factor: A+ Success

I really, really enjoyed Riley’s story. I hadn’t planned to pick up the book the night that I did, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I cried several times – in the beginning because I was happy to see Riley finding a community and then, once the horrible thing was done, because I felt so much sympathy and love for the character. I thought the story did a fantastic job of bringing in all the elements of good YA – high school angst, high school cliques, friendship, a blossoming romance, anxiety about finding out who you are, and social media – while adding elements essential to this story – explanations, explorations, and violence. I will also just add that, while I have written somewhat stilted words to avoid pronouns for Riley, Garvin does an amazing job. Having just read What We Left Behind, I think this book does an even better job of maneuvering around (not)gendering the main character.


Favorite Character

Solo – He managed to get his nicknamed changed – in high school! – and was kind enough to offer up his beloved Chewie backpack…how can you not love him?

Favorite Line

All of Riley’s blog posts – I’m not in the YA/high school population anymore and I’m inspired all the time by the brains, kindness, and empathy being displayed by those that are. (Yes, I know Riley’s blogs are written by Garvin, but I know actual teens that are just as skilled with words.)

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes, but be ready for tears. This ends on a high note, but getting there is a tough journey. But, Riley, Bec, and Solo – and Riley’s parents – make it worth it.

Fun Author Fact

Garvin has had several different “lives” – as an actor, a band frontman, and now an author.

Read These Next

I haven’t read any of these, but they’re all on my list for exploring what gender means and how we work to understand our own identities: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (#ownvoices), Every Day by David Levithan, and Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz.

Post Author: Jess

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Jess loves SFF – old and new school –  and is learning to appreciate the more lovey-dovey YA under the careful tutelage of Anisha’s recommendations.

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Filed under Contemporary, Heavy Topics, High School

Book Chat: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J Freedman
My Bat.jpg

Summary

Tara, an Indian-American Jewish girl growing up in New York, is facing a very important event in her religious life: her bat mitzvah. Tara loves both her Indian and Jewish culture, and wants to find a way to integrate both in her special celebration. But it turns out to be more complex than she originally thinks. Tara’s mom thinks her bat mitzvah should be all Jewish, and she should save her Indian side for other times. Her friends question if she’s “Jewish enough” to have a bat mitzvah, and Tara isn’t sure what she should do. Can she trust her gut and include both her Indian and Jewish side in her celebration?
Basmati


Favorite Character

Tara – I love how much she embraces her Indian and Jewish culture, and thinks hard about how to bring both of them into her bat mitzvah. She’s also an amazing friend – even to the girls at her school who are not nice to her.

Favorite Line 

 

Paula J Freedman often uses Tara’s lines to educate the audience to think critically about comments they may hear from their classmates. I particularly love this line,

“Gran once taught me a handy trick that I use all the time. She said to take any remark you suspect might be racist and substitute the word Jew. If you’re insulted by it, it’s probably racist. I wouldn’t stand for anyone saying all Jews were terrorists, or all Indians for that matter, so I stood up and let Ryan Berger have it, accidentally-on-purpose knocking the tray back into his stupid face” 

Fun Author Fact

Just as Tara’s family creates Jewish meals with Indian flavors, Paula Freedman creates Indian-Jewish recipes. On her website, she has a recipe for “Not Your Mother’s Matzoh Ball Soup” – which in Indian sambhar with matzoh balls! She also includes Tara’s favorite snack – popcorn with masala 🙂

Is this worth a book hangover?

I loved this book as a middle-grade read, and would love to share it with any middle schoolers in my life. While it’s not a book I’ll go back to regularly, I’m SO GLAD a book about a bi-racial girl celebrating her two identities together exists. 

Read These Next

For another book about a girl grappling with her identity, check out The Rearranged Life by Annika Sharma. Nithya’s life is set – she plans to be a doctor and make her Indian-American immigrant family proud.  Until she meets James, the sweet handsome kid in her chemistry class. As Nithya and James fall in love, Nithya must face (for the first time) the fact that her desires could destroy everything her parents have worked for. Check out our review here.

Post Author: Anisha

Anisha

Anisha loves books, Gilmore Girls, and her Kuerig. She’s been reading mainstream YA since she was actually a young adult, and Jess is helping her expand her horizons with more diverse, interesting books from newer authors.

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Filed under Contemporary, podcast