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Book Discussion: Not Otherwise Specified

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz17900792

Summary

Etta is dealing with a mess of things in her life – her best friends have kicked her out of their group for owning her bi identity (instead of sticking strictly to lesbians), she stopped dancing ballet – her one true love, and she has decided to face her anorexia and work for recovery. In the middle of this, she meets Bianca – someone unlike anyone she ever imagined as a friend – and they work together towards recovery, acceptance, and an elite theater and dance school in New York City.

not otherwise specified

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Romance Score: Good Effort

Etta isn’t looking for something serious in Nebraska because her heart is still set on her ex. There is a relationship in the book and they both are aware that it isn’t something serious, which lets them be comfortable and honest with each other. There’s not a lot of actual romance to judge, but I appreciate the sex-positive attitude in the book and that Etta’s family does their best to support all her romantic relationships even if they don’t always get it perfectly right.

RosieFeminist Score: Between Good Effort and A+ Success

Etta is strong and aware. Her experience as a black girl in Nebraska has given her some lessons. Her experience as bisexual in Nebraska has taught her some things – especially after her friends kick her out of their group (known as the “Disco Dykes”) because she wasn’t just into girls. Her experience as a black girl doing ballet taught her even more. The narrative is on point with so many things, it’s impressive (though it shouldn’t be). I especially liked the call out to toxic friendships. This goes back to something we say almost every podcast – when you’re in high school so many of your friendships are determined by who your parents are friends with, where you live, and what activities you do; it’s not necessarily up to actual personality match or liking each other. The other girls in the group are important, but Etta’s friendship and realizations about Rachel are even more important to see.

Through Etta’s experience with anorexia, blackness, bisexuality, and ballet, we get commentary on a long list of things that plague society (and especially girls and women of all varieties) and it’s actually talked about. Etta comes out on the other side with hard earned confidence  and a great perspective on being herself against all odds.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: A+ Success

There are a lot of different kinds of people in this book and it all feels wonderfully natural (as it should). Etta is black, bisexual, a recovering anorexic, and wealthy. Rachel is Japanese, diabetic, and a lesbian. Bianca is white, anorexic, deeply faithful, and poor. James, Bianca’s brother, is white, gay, and poor. Etta’s group of friends are aggressively lesbian – they call hetero girls “breeders” – I’m not trying to push any lesbian stereotypes by calling them aggressive; they really are. It’s high school and they carve out their space in a very particular way and it’s not a very kind way, but they’re fighting the norm in Nebraska, so maybe that’s the only way they feel they can survive.

The characters have some very real conversations about what all these identities mean for them and within their social context. Etta and Mason in particular lay out the difficulties of surviving as “different” from what is understood as the “norm.” They talk about race and being bisexual and being gay, but the comments that stood out the most were the ones about economic privilege. It is rarer than rare to find that in mainstream books and I appreciate that Moskowitz took the time to point out that her main character has a lot of privilege through money even if she lacks it in other areas. That kind of awareness is missing in a lot of YA and it’s frustrating when the solution is “go to another school” or “get a new car” or “go to the fanciest doctors” because that’s not practical or possible for so many readers.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Between Good Effort and A+ Success

Etta’s voice is amazing and I loved the way her character came through in everything. I loved the awareness and social commentary throughout the story. I loved how her relationship with Bianca developed and that the book allowed Etta to interact with a large group of people rather than centering that one new person over all others. I will recommend this book to lots of people and I’m so glad I read it. I couldn’t give it a full A+ because, while I can appreciate the skill and amazing characterization, I didn’t exactly like the conversational style of the writing. I love Etta and her story, but this style isn’t for me.


Favorite Character

Kristina – Etta’s little sister is a bright, loving sister and I loved the way she stood up for and loved her sister completely. I wish we got a little more of her, but she was a bright little star even with her few moments.

Favorite Line

Pause to consider the fact that me dating a fourteen-year-old anorexic is okay but me dating a guy is not.

This book captures some of the absurd hypocrisies of our messed up culture while converting them to Etta’s particular situation.

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes! I really liked getting to know Etta and rooting for her as she works for recovery and figuring out what decisions are hers. There’s a lot packed into this book and it’s wonderful to see 1. characters that actually look like the world 2. a story that can get to some very deep places while still having fun.

Fun Author Fact

Moskowitz sold her first book to a publisher while she was still in high school. WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE? Also, she struggled with her own disordered eating and she identifies as queer, so this book counts as an #ownvoices read in several ways.

Read These Next

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sarah Farizan for more girls attracted to other girls and trying to deal or Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler (review coming soon!) for girls figuring out their identities while being under Hollywood’s eye.

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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Book Discussion: What We Left Behind

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Summary

Toni and Gretchen have the cutest relationship in their high school and 22082075have set the bar for love and all future relationships that their classmates dream of. But what looks perfect on the outside isn’t always so and when they go off to college, the two find their relationship buckling under the pressure of navigating their changing identities. In high school, Toni identified as genderqueer, but once at Harvard begins to explore other terms and feelings that have always been bubbling under the surface. Gretchen is left trying to understand everything from afar.

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heartRomance Score: You’re Trying & Good Effort

Toni and Gretchen are adorable and sparks fly from the moment they first see each other. The sexy times are hot without being explicit and the kissing is on point. And, because we end up watching them navigate very difficult terrain, it feels like a realistic relationship. However, it also feels realistic because Toni treats Gretchen pretty terribly. It becomes all about Toni’s issues and what Toni is going through rather than an equal relationship.

RosieFeminist Score: Good Effort

Firstly, this should probably be changed since the book is not really about feminism. But, both characters are empowered to make choices, own their identities and actions, and to feel free to be themselves – whatever that means. I think the book displays some wonderful examples of what it means to navigate expectations and how difficult it can be to feel like the “lesser” person in a relationship. I admired Gretchen’s struggle with why she chose NYU a lot because it seems to be something lots of people deal with when coupled up. And, Toni’s struggle gives a point by point map for thinking about gender, the binary vs spectrum, and the roles we choose and how we present them – something everyone should consider.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: A+ Success

This book has genderqueer, transgender, lesbian, and straight characters, so it definitely has that category covered. Additionally, there is a Korean character, several black characters, and a decent representation of regional differences (Northern vs Southern US, urban vs rural). It’s a little lacking on the economic lines and there were a few times where I felt the story was aided by the characters’ privilege, but that’s ok. I think this book is important because it’s not a “seriously traumatic QUILTBAG” book – there’s difficult issues and families aren’t always loving, but it’s not about depression, suicide, or violence.

I will note that, by the nature of Toni and Gretchen’s relationship, it’s a little “time for some definitions” in some sections, but it never crosses into “let me give you a lesson” territory. The explanations fit into the story fairly well and aren’t being shoehorned into the conversations. Rather, they flow from the characters’ experiences and emotions instead of from the need to get a point across.

NOTE: After reading a lot of other reviews, I’ve learned that many readers find the use of “genderqueer” and the portrayal of the community very problematic. I think this is one of those times where my personal lack of knowledge/non-identification was clearly a blindspot. I’m not going to change the score, but encourage you to do your own research.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Good Effort

I loved getting to know the characters and seeing them struggle to find the middle ground (or not) for their relationship. I thought Toni and Gretchen were great examples of what going to college feels like – especially how your life can change drastically in just a few days and it’s hard to translate to someone that’s not there with you just how big those changes are when it happens in the simplest details. I’m excited to see more characters on the gender spectrum and a wide spectrum of family reactions as well. I love Robin Talley’s writing style – the two person perspective works especially well here as we see the confusion on both sides of the relationship and the desperation as things begin to change.


Favorite Character

Samantha – We don’t get to know her well until the end, but I loved that she played against stereotype.

Favorite Line

“Nothing good in the history of ever has started with the words We need to talk.

The characters are well developed and I really loved the dialogue and being in their heads (and I’m not a lover of first person).

Fun Author Fact

Talley is writing a lesbian retelling of MacBeth and I am SO EXCITED.

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes. The characters are engaging and their relationship is beautiful. It’s also a great book for being introduced to what genderqueer and transgender mean – for those not identifying as such and, I think, for those struggling to understand where they live on the spectrum. Plus, the writing is awesome!

Read These Next

I’m going to recommend Talley’s other published book, Lies We Tell Ourselves for more teens struggling to fight preconceived notions and Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz about a girl trying to break off the labels and make a space to live in.

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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Book Discussion: Black Beauty

Black Beauty by Constance Burris

Summary

This is a collection of short stories and a novella featuring residents  26011960of a housing complex in Oklahoma. The characters’ stories interweave with each other and we learn a little more about a particular character, “Crazy” Jade, from each. Each of the short stories shows what happens when you will do anything to get what you want – and that there are consequences for using magical shortcuts. The novella introduces us to an alternate world and the difficulties of responsibility and not belonging.

 

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Romance Score: You’re Trying

Since there are multiple storylines, it’s hard to score all of them fairly, but the stronger couple is in the novella. They have to balance different cultural and social expectations and responsibilities with their affection for one another. The other couples don’t have as many feelings to deal with when trying out a relationship.

Rosie

Feminist Score: Good Effort

This score was a pretty difficult decision for me – again because of the multiple stories there are some where I want to say absolutely NO and then others where I was excited to see the women standing up for each other. One story in particular deals with the social pressure to look a certain way and another shows how calling one woman an insult can represent the wider world’s views about women in general. I’m giving a higher score because, even when showing things I wouldn’t want to give points for, those problematic items are called out. Plus, women are the ruling queens in the storyline woven through each piece, so there’s that.

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Diversity Score: Good Effort

The stories take place in an apartment complex with mostly black and Latino/Hispanic residents – in itself is not usually represented in mainstream books. Add on that several of the families are living at or below the poverty line and you get something that is rarely seen. I really liked the world Burris built here; it’s definitely filling a hole that exists in publishing.

However, there are a couple of issues. One is that the woman behind all the lessons is called “Crazy Jade” by almost everyone. This is problematic because “crazy” has a long history of being used against women, especially black women, and people with mental health issues. And, people also keep talking about her “voodoo” but nothing that I read seemed related to the actual religion so it was perpetuating stereotypes about voodoo. I will say that one character does try to call out his friend for calling it voodoo, so there is a suggestion that it’s not ok, but it’s never fully deconstructed. The stories also explore colorism, sexism, body image, and “good” vs “bad” hair in the black community. I can’t really speak to the portrayal of hair or colorism issues except but I know they’re important so I’m glad to see them here. Overall, I think the characters and setting are much needed.

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Awesome Factor: Good Effort

I didn’t connect with some of the characters as much as I would have liked (probably because these are short stories), but I still really liked getting to know the world and the people in it. I was intrigued by the novella and want to know what happens after it. Jade is an engaging character and I would love to know more about her backstory. Overall, the community and stories had just the right amount of “WAIT – what just happened?” to keep me involved while also showing the daily struggles of dealing with life.


Favorite Character

Sean – at first I liked him the most because he seemed the most level-headed, but as more of his story came out, he became an even richer character and I felt for him and his dad.

Favorite Line

Andre’s conversation with his sisters after he visits Jade was on point. You’ll have to read it yourself, though.

Fun Author Fact

Constance Burris is an environmental engineer, which just goes to show that science and art can mix!

Is this worth a book hangover?

The answer is going to totally depend on your reading preferences. This is a collection of paranormal stories with a bit of fantasy added into the novella. If you like that kind of thing and want to meet some great characters, go for it!

Read These Next

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older for another paranormal story in the city featuring underrepresented characters or Lament or Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater for the fae in our world.

Post Author: Jess

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Jess received this book for free through NetGalley, but that didn’t affect her opinions!

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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Book Discussion: The Rearranged Life

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 The Rearranged Life by Annika Sharma

Summary

Nithya is a smart, driven college senior with a plan: She wants to be a doctor. Her family has worked hard to give her all the best of American life – the top tutors, the best education, and even the freedom to live as both an American girl and an Indian immigrant daughter. Her only restriction is that she must marry a boy from her traditional Indian-American community. And Nithya has no problem with this – she’s always loved and respected her parents, and believes that her dreams and their dreams can align. 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.

rearranged life

heartRomance Score: Good Effort 

While I wasn’t super impressed with the way these two initially connected,  I really liked how the romance between Nithya and James built throughout the story. It felt like a true “college romance” for me – with a lot of studying, late night hangouts, and even a reference to Penn State’s “Thon”. I also loved the initial connections between Nithya and James’s family. I would have loved to see the next chapter of this romance, but maybe there will be a part two? Please?

Feminist Score: Between You’re Trying and Good EffortRosie

Nithya knows what she wants, and will do what she can to get it. At the same time, she maintains respect for the traditions of her family and the sacrifices that they’ve made to give her opportunities. My only qualm is that I thought the initial meeting between the two – where Nithya was almost date raped – was a little too “damsel in distress” for me.
diversity people circle icon

Diversity Score: A+ Success

I loved that this story really dug into the challenges that (some) Indian-American girls face when dating boys from outside their communities. The novel really captures the nuances of the struggle. Nithya faces a few challenges here – not only does she not want to disappoint her parents, but she also doesn’t want to take advantage of their kindness. They have let their daughter assimilate with mainstream American culture with only a single restriction- and now she’s broken it. And in breaking that, Nithya faces the challenges of both no longer fitting into the traditional mold for a desi girl, but also trying to how to keep her culture intact in a potential interracial marriage… all at the age of 21.

As an Indian-American girl (who recently married a not very Indian-American, very adorable Caucasian boy), I really loved the perspective of this story. We need more stories talking about the lives of Indian-Americans (and all minorities) with respect and nuance for the traditions of each culture and the challenges them.

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Awesome Factor: Between Good Effort & A+ Success

While my life doesn’t exactly reflect Nithya’s, I loved finding a story about Indian-Americans that reflected the world that my friends and I live in. I have a few small qualms with it (some of the dialogue seems scripted and a few plot points weak), but these are minor issues of a first-time author. I was thoroughly impressed, and can’t wait to read anything else Annika Sharma writes.


Favorite Character

Anisha. First – There is finally a character with my name in a book!!! And second – She is sweet, funny and a good contrast to her serious sister.

Favorite Line

“… I made no apologies for who I am. He says it’s his favorite thing about me and though I won’t admit it, it’s my favorite thing about me, too. And when you find someone who values the same things in yourself that you do , there’s a burst of happiness that’s hard to put out. We shine together and separately.”

 Fun Author Fact

According to her blog, Annika wrote The Rearranged Life in the month before starting graduate school. That is some insane (Nithya-like) productivity.

She also has a crush on Emma Watson and the Duchess of Cambridge, which means she has excellent taste.

Read This Next

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan (our review here).  Leila is the only Iranian-American in her ultra-rich, preppy high school… and she also happens to like girls. What happens when a new beautiful and wild student joins her school?

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 Chat: Summer of Chasing Mermaids

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Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler

Summary

Elyse d’Abreau knew what her life was supposed to look like. She was a talented singer living in Trinidad and Tobago with her tight-knit family. She and her twin, Natalie, were on the brink of stardom. They were only days away from going on a world-wide singing tour. Her dreams were about to come true.

But a tragic accident forces Elyse to reconsider her goals. Elyse can’t sing anymore and needs space from her former life. She moves to Oregon to live with her aunt and cousin, and learns to rebuild her life in a new place. When a cute boy comes for the summer, though, she’s intrigued. Their romance blooms over a love of boats, their families, and an unhealthy competition that threatens to destroy the Oregon home she’s come to love.

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Favorite Character

Elyse. Elyse stands up her herself and her friends, and has a clear morale compass for right and wrong. I also love how she owns her sexuality in so many ways (listen to the podcast for more steamy details!).

Favorite Line

Elyse writes poetry, and there are many incredible lines. One of our favorites is excerpted below:

If everyone followed rules

As they were written, as they were said

You wouldn’t be allowed to vote…

Rules are rules, yet still

trumped always by kindness and human decency.

Let. Him. March.”

The full poem is even more beautiful.

Is this worth a book hangover?

YES. This book is beautifully written romance story with unique, diverse characters. We highly recommend it.

Fun Author Fact

According to her website , Sarah Ockler does tarot readers for her characters and plot. Tarot cards appear a few times in Summer of Chasing Mermaids – now we know why!

Read This Next

For another (slightly sadder) romance, check out My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga. Aysel and Roman are both regulars in online suicide forums, and make a pact to help each other die. But as their romance blooms, Aysel realizes that she’s not sure she’s ready to die. We reviewed this book last April on the blog!

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, Heavy Topics, podcast, Romance

Book Discussion: Conviction

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Summary

Braden believes in God and the promises God makes – especially the one to keep his family together, even though that’s not 18398627what happened. Now, after his father is accused of murder, Braden is questioning everything. And, he needs to get answers fast because he’s the key witness for his father’s trial.

All the while, he has to figure out how to keep up his baseball game to ensure he keeps the scouts interested until his senior year of high school. It shouldn’t be a problem – he’s been playing for years, but the biggest game of the year is also the one where Braden will face Alex Reyes, the nephew of the police officer his father is accused of killing.

Braden will have to make difficult choices, ones that will affect him forever.

heartRomance Factor: You’re Trying

Braden has a couple of cute moments with Maddie, a fellow church youth group attendee, but ultimately, he’s not in a place to be fair to her – as a friend or in a relationship. I thought Maddie was well developed, but I deduct a ton of points for the way Braden’s church and father have taught him to interact with girls. But, bonus points because I appreciate that Braden has understood that he is responsible for his own thoughts and behaviors and never blames any of his “impure thoughts” on Maddie’s behavior .

RosieFeminism Score: Not a Bit

The women in this book are foils for the men in the story. They are either cute, mistreated high school girls, old girlfriends rejected because they are painful reminders, cuckolded wives, or mothers that abandoned their children. There’s not much to say about them.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: Not a Bit

I originally picked this book because I knew it featured a devout, religious boy – a character we don’t often find in mainstream YA. Religious characters are a minority, but the mainstream Christianity that Braden’s father espouses on his radio show and which Braden believes in is not, so I already knew this was a stretch for “diversity.” But, Braden’s father is the (in my opinion) worst kind of Christian, shouting hate against the people in his community that are most vulnerable. Braden has tacitly accepted his father’s opinions for his own, though we get tiny hints of doubt as the book moves – especially related to one character and his identity. Even so, we never hear a clear rejection of the racist, bigoted views and for readers that identify with any of those communities this book is probably a collection of micoaggressions.

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

I really liked Braden. He’s a compelling character, his innocence is sweet, and I really wanted to find out what he finally decided with regards to his father’s trial. I also found the exploration of family, love, and forgiveness well done; Braden’s faith and love serve as a strong contrast to the selfish, demanding behaviors of his father. My issues come from the lack of diversity, the lack of women, and the ending. I was disappointed by Braden’s decision, considering the aspects of his character that were built up throughout the story.


Favorite Character

Trey – he values self-preservation and recognizes the value of his own happiness over the bonds of family, but he still loves his brother enough to return to help him through the trial.

Favorite Line

“I have that feeling I get sometimes around (someone), that there’s a huge gap between how much you matter to a person and how much they matter to you.”

This speaks SO MUCH to me – it’s like that feeling when you want to be friends with someone, but you don’t know how to even introduce yourself to the person.

Fun Author Fact

It is November, so I have to point out that Loy Gilbert is part of the NANOWRIMO Associate Board.

Is this worth a book hangover?

I loved Braden as a character and I am grateful for the new respect for baseball that he gave me. There are some issues with the book, but it is a decent mystery that dissects love, family, and the bonds that connect us.

Read These Next

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham for a more diverse detective story or Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu for an examination of religion, family, and finding one’s self.

Post Author: Jess

1202112022

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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Book Discussion: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

Summary

Minnow’s parents decide to follow the Prophet into the wilderness. As part of the select group lead by his prophecies, they’re17185496 community learns how to live truly and serve the Prophet’s rules. But, Minnow is able to remember life before the Prophet. And when she makes a friend with someone she shouldn’t, the questions that had been slowly growing finally bloom into full doubt. But – that’s not when we meet Minnow. No, we meet her after. After she’s lost her home. Her family. Her community. Her arms. And maybe herself.

heartRomance Score: You’re Trying

Part of Minnow’s relationship with Mr. Woodsman are cute, but ultimately, it’s two damaged teens trying to find solace from situations that are pretty messed up. And, while I’m glad she was able to think through and get over her community’s racism, I still feel like it happened pretty quickly. And, while Mr. Woodsyboy is sweet and there for Minnow when she needs someone, he tries to do the exact same, possessive stuff that she experienced at the community.

RosieFeminism Score: Good Effort

This book is SO MESSED up in several ways – the community’s treatment of women, the perpetuation of rape culture (women are the holders of men’s honor, women need to dress modestly because it’s all their fault), and the ultimate punishment doled out to Minnow – so many wrongs. But, there are a couple of stand outs – Minnow herself doesn’t allow the Prophet to erase her humanity, Minnow’s roommate doing what she can to protect the newbie, and Minnow’s mother finally breaking out of her abuse-induced daze (maybe). I’m going to focus on the positives of Minnow’s resiliency and strength – and willingness to accept her broken spirit to heal – instead of the awful, brainwashed women in the community, especially Minnow’s sister.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: Good Effort

I’m giving this book points for including a minority religious group – although there is something to be said for who gets to decide what is a “legitimate” religion or not. I definitely think the Prophet’s group is an unhealthy, unsafe, cruel place/cult, but I think we should consider not discounting small congregations just because their different from the mainstream. Points also for Minnow arm loss – living without limbs means moving through the world differently, having to adapt everyday tasks, and I think the book did a good job of showing that – especially while Minnow is in detention. I also give points for showing up life in the detention center without making it exotic. The girls in there have done things, but listening to most of their stories we learn – through Minnow – that the world unfairly punishes them for protecting themselves.

wow iconAwesome Factor: Good Effort

All the pieces come together to make an intense read. The community, the escape to a tree house, finding a sweet, innocent love outside the confines of the Prophet’s rules, and Minnow’s desire to keep her own secrets all create a pretty great whole. It was a little too much at times, but I still have recommended it to several people. I think the ultimate lesson that girls need to take their fate into their own is the takeaway.


Favorite Character

Angel – she does what she can to survive, keeping her hard exterior as protection, but she never really totally eliminated her heart.

Favorite Line

“…and I think that’s what love does, makes you strong. Makes you think nothing can bring you down. It’s the only kind of lie that I’d be happy to live with.”

Even in a dark place, Minnow can hope…even if it’s sexy times that gets her there.

Is it worth a book hangover?

Honestly, it’s a disturbing read, but I couldn’t put it down. I really liked Minnow’s voice and the cast of characters that joined her.

Fun Author Fact

Oakes based this off the fairy tale, “The Handless Maiden.”

Read These Next

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu for another girl finding her way through (or out of) a religious community or Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert for a boy lead by faith trying to decide how much he should say during an investigation into his father’s actions.

Post Author: Jess

1202112022

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Contemporary, Heavy Topics, High School

Book Discussion: A Thousand Nights

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

Summary

The king, Lo-Melkhiin, is killing his wives. He was a strong, fair leader and then, after he went out to hunt, he came back cold 21524446and hungry for brides. No one knows exactly why his wives die, but they know they don’t like it. The people of the kingdom enforce a system – one girl from every village before the cycle starts again. So, when it’s time for our main character’s village, she knows her beautiful, stunning, amazing sister will be picked – because everyone loves her more. Since the main character is strong and loyal, she knows she has to do something to gain the king’s attention and take her sister’s place. She successfully does so and then, once she’s in the palace and married, manages to live out the night – and many more. Lo-Melkhiin finds her an intriguing adversary and she uses mysterious powers to keep death at bay.

heartRomance Score: Not a Bit

Lo-Melkhiin is killing his brides. And it’s totally by choice. The main character is fighting for her life in a situation with a huge power imbalance. There’s no cute guy coming to save her and she’s not looking for one. I guess there could be some romance if you consider how her parents respect and honor each other, but…since she gets pulled from her village fairly early on, I don’t count that.

RosieFeminist Score: Good Effort

I give points here because the main character is a strong, clever girl doing what she can to ensure the safety of her family and her people. She maintains a respect for her culture and does her best to subvert the power systems to work for her. In addition, she becomes a symbol of strength and a smallgod (sort of saint or protector) for the women and girls of her kingdom which is pretty badass. Overall, I think she’s a pretty cool character even if she’s a little obedient or submissive in the palace.

What I did not like was the motivation behind sacrificing herself for her sister. Even though it was slightly played as “I’m stronger/made for this,” the narrative about her sister being more beautiful, more beloved, and all around better came through more clearly – and it felt like a kind of “I’m not worthy of living, so I’ll just die for her” sacrifice rather than courage. Now, she still sacrificed herself and found a wellspring of power while doing so, so I’m not docking points (we all find strength through different scenarios), but it was a little disappointing.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: Not a Bit/You’re Trying

This may not feel like a fair score to some readers, but I have reasons. Good things first: the character lives in a desert and is part of an underrepresented culture. She’s a girl that saves the world. Faith is a big part of the story. And yet.

Even though this book takes place in a newly created desert culture, I felt like a lot of the words and details used to give cultural “flavor” were added in after cursory google searches. For example, I found the description and use of veils (face and hair) fairly inconsistent throughout the book. In one scene, it talks about how she wears her hair loose under her scarf; I know this is definitely common practice in some communities, but it didn’t make sense in relation to later scenes. And the use and discussion of henna was seriously confusing. Like, so confusing I wonder if the author has ever used or been around henna. Throughout the book, the main character is given daily henna designs to prepare her for events/seeing her husband. Generally, it seems as though this happens after she is bathed and dressed in her finery, but there is never any discussion (that I remember) of letting the henna dry, sitting still to ensure the designs don’t get marred, or removing the dried henna. This is most obvious in one scene where she is running late and the henna master comes to reapply the designs just before she gets dressed and goes out to see Lo-Melkhiin. This is problematic because 1. her henna would still be wet and 2. if she did have a few minutes to let it dry, little crumbly bits of brown paste would be falling off while they ate or talked and I doubt that is appealing for her husband-king.

Those are small details. Another huge thing is the religious-cultural placement. With a title so explicitly referencing A Thousand Nights/Arabian Tales, the story feels oddly placed – I originally thought this was because it didn’t seem to tie into the usual Arab and/or Muslim context, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s just poor worldbuilding. The addition of magic and the “beings” that roam the world “using” humans also added to the troubling bits. I don’t know if the author removed it from Islamic culture because referencing djinn (a genie -though never named as such) and magic would entail more work and cultural knowledge or if she was trying to pull the story out of that cultural context for some other reason, but it sort of felt like a cop out. I think this book would function better with a different title, too. This one calls back to a well known set of stories and then removes itself almost completely from the traditional tales; not referencing the originals would make it work better as a whole. Overall, the world was underdeveloped – if this was supposed to be a totally new world, the worldbuilding needed to be more complete, if this was referencing an existing culture, the lines needed to be drawn more clearly.

NOTE (3/2016): I’ve heard a lot about the author’s intentions and she definitely tried to make this a polytheist/pagan culture so that it didn’t call back to Arab/Muslim culture. She also was/is an archeologist so I feel a little bad for saying she didn’t seem to do research – I’m sure she did a lot. I think it comes down to the title calling up things that made it unfair to judge.

wow iconAwesome Score: You’re Trying

Overall, I was intrigued by the premise. It seems Scheherazade/One Thousand and One Nights retellings are a coming trend and I’m excited to see how the stories are placed (or replaced) in cultural contexts. I had high hopes for this book and at times throughout the story I was drawn in and intrigued, but overall I took a lot of notes on the random, weird details that pulled me out of the book. Generally for me, lots of notes means a story is lacking depth or pull because I am more focused on small things than on the exciting characters and narrative. I think the world Johnston built could be really engaging and interesting, but it feels like it sits at a 5 when it needs a 10. I also found the power/magic confusing and underdeveloped; maybe that’s a narrative tool since the main character never really understands it, but it just felt poorly written.

Even so, the premise of the story is intriguing and I think that some readers will enjoy the book.


Favorite Character

The Skeptic scholar – I liked his subplot and the main character’s interaction with him

I didn’t mention the Skeptics in my comments above, but this again was such a weird naming choice because it made me think “Are we in Rome? How are we in Rome now?”

Favorite Line

There are some powerful lines in this book, but I was so distracted by the random other things I didn’t write any down. One thing to note – there are very few character names used throughout the book. We never learn the main character’s name and most other characters are referenced by relation (“my sister,” “Lo-Melkhiin’s mother”) which is an interesting choice.

Fun Author Fact

E.K. Johnston is/was an archeologist!

Is this worth a book hangover?

Personally, I would say no. But, different books for different folks (Yes, I know that doesn’t exactly rhyme). The premise is intriguing and the character is strong, it might do it for you. I’ve been holding off because I really don’t want to compare books to one another, but if you are intrigued by a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, I’d rather recommend The Wrath and the Dawn. Its world is more developed and the characters are more compelling, though the focus is different.

Read These Next

As mentioned, The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh or An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir for another world where stakes are high and escape is difficult and family must be saved.

Author Post: Jess

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Note: I received access to an early ebook of A Thousand Nights through NetGalley. My review is (I think, obviously) not affected by that.

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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Book Discussion: A Harvest of Ripe Figs

A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman

Summary

Shulamit is queen and trying to balance her kingdom’s expectations and new motherhood. What starts as a small disagreement between merchants slowly grows into a deeper mystery involving theft, assumed diva-fights, and misused magic. As the Queen tries to solve the crime, we learn more about her partner, Aviva, her bodyguard duo, and a dragon.


heartRomance Score: Good Effort

This is definitely more New than Young Adult – there’s sexy times that don’t fade to black and the relationships are established; there are definitely stomach flutters from the couples, but it’s more the “I’m super into you and know everything about” kind of flutter rather than the “young love super exciting new relationship” flutter.

Rosie

Feminist Score: A+ Success

There’s a queen without a king and she’s open about her motherhood – that’s pretty awesome to begin with. There’s also women merchants, two talented lady musicians, and strong women advising the queen. The one man that tries to diminish women in the story is caught and punished and the women band together to support one another. The wider population wants to believe that the two musicians are divas fighting against each other, but we see them come together to strengthen each other instead.

diversity people circle iconDiversity Score: A+ Success

There’s a lot of diverse stuff going on here: a Jewish culture, a lesbian queen with an active relationship, a disabled bodyguard, diversity in skin tone/race, and a  lady-warrior as well (although the wider population reads her as a gay man and is totally ok with that, too). Additionally, there’s all kinds of body shapes, a magical gender transition, and a chronic illness. There’s a lot going on here, but it feels organic and the people and relationships are just as sweet, kind, and supportive as the ones we get in more main-stream books. Extra nice to see a healthy, happy queer relationship without tragedy involved.

wow iconAwesome Score: Good Effort

This book has a great premise and the characters are interesting. I want to know more about Shulamit’s kingdom and her people, but I felt like some pieces were underdeveloped and a bit shallow in places. Even so, there were a lot of really important things going on in this book: a healthy, lesbian relationship portrayed through the day to day, healthy portrayals of sex from different viewpoints, and support to a child that didn’t receive it from his family. In addition to the “important” things, this is also just a great story with characters you can feel invested in. Overall, I really enjoyed getting into this world and want to know more about the dragon-allied Queen and her next hurdle as a ruler.


Favorite Character

Riv – she’s smart talking, strong, and dedicated to her queen. She’s also pretty bad-ass and her relationship with Isaac is sweet and equality-based.

Favorite Line

Sorry again guys – I was doing so well! 😦

Is this worth a book hangover?

I really want to recommend this because it has so many great themes and characters and is a fun, light read – perfect for when you need a distraction from life. It didn’t catch my attention fully, but I know it will hit the spot for some readers – especially those that don’t often see themselves in books. The world and characters are really interesting – it’s just slightly less developed than the fantasy I’m used to. Even so, I will definitely keep this and Shira Glassman in mind for future recommendations!

Fun Author Fact

Shira Glassman is one of the part-time moderators of Writing With Color, an incredible resource for writers trying to make their worlds more realistic (by incorporating diverse cultures, races, and religions). It’s also a great tool for readers, as it helps you understand what tropes and stereotypes are harmful – especially ones you aren’t aware of.

Read These Next

Goodreads recs The Errant Prince by Sasha L Miller for similar themes in fantasy and I’ve heard lots and lots of good things about Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo.

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 Romance, Science Fiction & Fantasy

Book Discussion: Devoted

Devoted

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Summary

Rachel Walker is devoted to God and her family. She knows that the only way into Heaven is to follow the words of Pastor Garrett at the Calvary Christian Church. She’s a dutiful daughter, taking care of her numerous younger siblings and dressing modestly to help her brothers and father avoid sin. And she knows her life’s path: One day, she will get married (to a man of her father’s choosing) and be a devoted mother and wife.

And yet, Rachel knows there is a world beyond her insulated Texas church community. And when her insatiable curiosity for the outside gets her in trouble with her father, Rachel must decide if she is brave enough to leave the world she’s always known.

Note: The community and culture in Devoted are based on the Quiverfull movement, a Christian patriarchy movement, perhaps made most famous by 19 Kids and Counting on TLC. The show was recently removed from television due to allegations (and eventually, admissions) of hidden sexual abuse.

Devoted

heartRomance Score: Good Effort

This story had a light romance, which was perfect for the context. Rachel comes from a community where she is taught that she is subservient to her father and that it was her job to keep men from lusting after her, so she has a pretty interesting view of men. The gentle romance was sweet background plot and did not distract from Rachel’s growth and self-discovery.

Feminist Score: Between Good Effort and A+ SuccessRosie

This book tactfully discusses the challenges facing women leaving a controlling situation. I liked that while Rachel has her own views, and takes time to figure out how feminism and religion fit into her own life. This could have easily been a story of teen rebellion, but instead is a thought-provoking story about finding yourself.

diversity people circle icon

Diversity Score: You’re Trying

This book tackled many incredible challenges in the modern Quiverfull movement, but I was a little disappointed that all the characters were white and straight. I would have liked to see Rachel meet someone of color (or gay) who challenges the views of the church.

wow icon

Awesome Factor: Good Effort 

Despite my qualms with the lack of diversity, I loved this book. Rachel is a powerful character, and despite her views from her upbringing, you quickly grow to love her. In fact, I wanted to give her a hug every few pages (just like Simon). I’m particularly intrigued by the Quiverful movement, and this provided one narrative for the lives of women born into the Christian patriarchy movement.


Favorite Character

Rachel. Her bravery (and the bravery of real women who have left controlling religions) is incredibly admirable, and I want to know what happens to her after this story ends. Perhaps a sequel?

Favorite Line

“My older brothers and father are seated in their usual spots, but instead of holding his Bible in his hand like he usually does, my dad is holding something else.

My copy of A Wrinkle in Time.

How stupid I’ve been. How careless.

I left it on the counter amid rolls of paper towels and school books and dirty dishes and a dozen other pieces of evidence that I’ve been struggling with my job of running the household as I should.

But the book is the worst piece of evidence. The most damning thing. Because it proves not only that I am not a young woman of God, but that I’ve been distracted by something my father is sure to believe is sinister. And he’s come to believe that my soul is in danger.”

Rachel’s love of knowledge and books is what gets her in trouble in the first place, and I love that A Wrinkle in Time is the book that her father thinks will lead her to sin.

Is this worth a book hangover?

Yes – especially if you are interested in cult-like religions. Devoted pulls you in from the first line and you’ll be left with a new perspective on religion, feminism, and owning your decisions. I highly recommend it.

Fun Author Fact

According to an interview, Jennifer first got interested in writing about the Quiverfull movement after watching 19 Kids and Counting. After reading the perspectives of real women in the Quiverfull movement, she couldn’t quite see the show the same way again. (Note: I have the same love-hate relationship with the Duggars).

Read Listen to This Next

If you like podcasts, check out The Debrief Society This podcast is hosted by four women in the process of leaving the LDS Church. They discuss the painful process of removing yourself from an organization that was your entire life and belief system. While it is important to remember that many people have wonderful experiences in their conservative religions, this podcast is a fascinating look into one perspective on the Mormon Church.

Post Author: Anisha

AnishaAnisha 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 auth

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Filed under Contemporary, Heavy Topics, High School