fiction · science fiction · YA

Book Review: Chaos on CatNet (CatNet #2) by Naomi Kritzer

Imagine a world that seems pretty normal. It’s mostly like ours, with smart phones and computers and people enjoying coffee in cutesy little cafes…and then a drone whizzes by. And after that, a robot dog trots past you, careful to avoid the driverless taxi as it crosses the street. That robot dog is still new enough to the tech scene that a few people turn to stare. That’s the world Naomi Kritzer has created in her CatNet series and in which we find ourselves again in her second and latest book featuring Steph and friends, Chaos on CatNet (Tor Teen, 2021). I’ve gushed in the past about Naomi’s Catfishing on CatNet and Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories (which I read before I started blogging, but seriously, if you read *one* book I recommend, this is it, and I don’t even normally like short stories!), but man, she just keeps getting better and better.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Naomi since around 2002. We’ve been part of the same small online parenting group since then, but my reviews are entirely independent of that. I enjoyed but didn’t love her Fires of the Faithful, which was a little outside of my normal reading wheelhouse at the time- it’s well-written, but fantasy isn’t usually my thing. I’m telling you this so that you’re confident that my review is impartial enough to be trusted. These CatNet books are amazing.

Steph is back, finally settled down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with her mother, after a life on the run from her father. Her father is in prison, awaiting trial; things are going well, albeit long-distance, with her girlfriend Rachel; her friends from the CatNet Clowder, including sentient AI CheshireCat, are still supportive; and she’s starting a new school. There’s another new girl there as well. Nell has just left (somewhat unwillingly) the Christian cult she lived in with her mother, who has disappeared. She now lives with her father and his polyamorous wife and girlfriends- it’s a complicated situation, but Steph and Nell find a lot to bond over with their shared unconventional backgrounds.

Not all is well, though. The social media networks Steph and Nell are using are sending bizarre messages, asking them to complete strange tasks that increasingly cause Steph to suspect that these networks are being run by the other sentient AI out there- the one who isn’t her cat picture-loving friend, CheshireCat. CheshireCat shares her fears, and it’s starting to look like Nell’s former cult group (along with Nell’s mother) and Steph’s mother’s dangerous former business partner Rajiv may be involved as well. When the sentient AI-controlled networks begin causing riots and explosions in Minneapolist-St. Paul, will Steph, CheshireCat, and friends be able to intervene in time to stop the chaos from spreading across the country?

My synopsis doesn’t do this near-future YA thriller-with-excellent-queer-rep justice. This is serious edge-of-your-seat reading, one that I didn’t find stressful like I do most thrillers, just deeply intriguing. I blew through this book in less than twenty-four hours, and given my lack of reading time these days, you *know* that means it’s incredible. Steph is mature for her age- who wouldn’t be, after the life she’s led with her mother?- but she’s still subject to the longings of a teenager’s first experience with love. Nell shares in her awkwardness of having been raised in a deeply unconventional way, but hers is more acute, and she’s more wary than Steph. I really enjoyed watching the dynamics of their new friendship play out.

The Minneapolis-St.Paul area, or at least its weather, is as much of a character here as any human or sentient AI, as it features heavily during many of the book’s scenes. Steph and Nell are often out in brutally cold temperatures and this becomes a factor in a lot of their decisions. Nell’s former cult is also another huge part of the book that you know pulled me right in. I may have gasped when I got to that part (Naomi has a degree in religion, so various forms of this often appear in her stories. I love that I know this).

The sci-fi aspects of this aren’t over-the-top; I’m not a sci-fi person, but this was just straight-up interesting. It’s set in the near-future, where technology is just a little more advanced than what we have right now, and all that plays into the plot. It’s not so tech-y that I (who isn’t the most tech-y person out there) was confused, but the story was based in a reality that even I could imagine as stemming from the technology we have now. I never really saw myself as someone who would enjoy- actually LOVE- a series of books where a sentient AI is a main character, but CheshireCat is an utter delight, as is this book, and its companion.

You don’t need to have read Catfishing on CatNet to enjoy Chaos, but both books are so much fun and so enjoyable, why wouldn’t you? I highly recommend this whole series; you won’t regret it.

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

“Read a book from a genre you never read,” ordered the reading challenge from my parenting group, and my heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to reading outside my norms, but usually, if I don’t read something there’s a good reason for it. I don’t read the space opera-type sci fi because space freaks me out, as do aliens and other creepy space creatures like that (exception: I do enjoy Star Wars movies…). I don’t like westerns because…westerns. I don’t like short stories because of the 327847329473892 year-long unit we did on short stories in seventh grade, where I learned that short stories are depressing and formless and just kind of end mid-story with no conclusion (Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is the perpetual exception to this. One of the best books I’ve read and every story was enjoyable. READ THIS BOOK). Without going in and wandering the library shelves, this was a tough category for me to fill in my challenge…and then I remembered a collection of short stories on my TBR, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019). Something I actually wanted to read AND it fit the bill for the challenge? Sign me up! Thanks, interlibrary loan!

This is a book of YA short stories by a variety of different authors well-known in the YA world- Rachel Lynn Solomon, David Levithan, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, and more. Each story focuses on some aspect of Jewish identity a teenager is facing or struggling with, and the teens range from ‘I’m Modern Orthodox and literally everyone I know is Jewish’ to ‘Couldn’t properly recount the story of Hanukkah to save my life.’ There are kids who are serious about observance, kids who don’t find it especially important, and kids who are trying to decide what it all means to them (basically, they’re like every other group of teens out there who are trying on different cultural and religious identities for size). There are kids who are nervously venturing into the world of dating for the first time, and kids who are traveling the world alone. Each story is different, but each is perfectly crafted.

Hannah Moskowitz’s story is stunning and perfect and an absolute gut punch and worth picking the book up for all by itself. There are stories that are funny and that contain those absolutely mortifying moments of adolescence where you pray a sinkhole opens up under your feet and swallows you whole (I seriously do not miss being a teenager, like, at ALL), and there are stories that ask hard questions about what kind of person the main character wants to be. This book is basically everything good about the best YA writing, condensed into twelve short stories, and crammed into one amazing book. (Also? Excellent queer rep in this book. Fabulous.)

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these stories. Occasionally some background knowledge is helpful, but it’s not necessary. You only need to be a fan of YA, the search for identity, and great writing. I really enjoyed everything about this.

Visit Katherine Locke’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Time for something lighter! I was scrolling through Twitter the other day when I came across Jennifer Mathieu retweeting the trailer for a new Netflix movie out next month, Moxie, based on her book by the same name (and directed by and starring Amy Poehler!). My jaw dropped. The movie looked awesome- and there was a book??? I skedaddled off to the library website and immediately requested their copy of Moxie (Roaring Brook Press, 2017). I had to wait a few days to begin it- first, because I was finishing up The Lost, and then because I was plagued by an awful, hideous migraine, the kind that blurs your vision and makes you entirely sure your head is going to explode in a gelatinous shower of goo and various bodily fluids all over the living room wall. Yeah. It wasn’t great. But Moxie? Moxie is fantastic!!!!!!

Vivian Carter lives in one of those small Texas towns where football is king, the girls’ soccer team is still wearing uniforms from the 1990s, guys can get away with whatever gross behavior they want, and girls are routinely inspected by male staff in front of the entire class in order to ensure their clothing meets some nebulous, never-really-stated standard. Viv is over it, but what can she do? Two more years and she’s out of there. But going through her mother’s shoebox full of Riot Grrl stuff from when she was a teenager lights a fire under her. Maybe things don’t have to be this way. Maybe she can help change things.

Her 90s style zine, Moxie, distributed in the girls’ bathrooms before class, slowly begins to awaken the girls to the fact that things aren’t fair at their high school, to give them confidence to speak out and stand up for themselves. Before long, Moxie is something that’s even bigger than Viv- it’s everyone at the school who’s sick and tired of of the girls being treated as lesser than the football players, and being treated as less than human. But when people Viv care about start getting in trouble for things they didn’t do…that’s when the true power of Moxie shines.

This is an amazing book. Viv transforms from a rule-follower, a quiet mouse who wouldn’t dream of rocking the boat, to someone who’s not afraid to put on her big girl shoes and stomp around. The girls around her grow as well, and they learn that, despite what the boys and their school have been telling them, they don’t have to compete with each other for resources and attention. They can work together to demand the things they need, deserve, and are owed. The messages in this book- girls’ bodies are not there for decoration and they’re not to be policed, boys are responsible for their own behavior, equality is the goal and feminism is still deeply necessary- are woven in throughout an entertaining story, one that far too many teenage girls will recognize as having taken place in their own high schools’ halls.

There’s a romance in here- Viv’s newfound relationship with Seth, the new boy, is sweet and adorable and full of all the thrills of first-time love, but what’s amazing is that Viv never lets Seth off the hook for some of his less-informed comments. Seth is one of the good guys, but everyone has some blind spots, and he’s not immune to ‘not all guys’ing her. Viv takes him to task and doesn’t back down from insisting he can do better. Despite her starting off as a bit of a goody two-shoes who isn’t interested in making waves, she becomes the kind of person who stands up for what she knows is right, and she’s a character that would have given me confidence to read about as a teenager (and God knows I could have used some extra confidence…or any confidence).

What a fun, empowering story of young women working together to create a better, more productive environment. I truly hope the movie does this book justice, because Moxie is one of the best contemporary YAs I’ve read in a long time.

Visit Jennifer Mathieu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · YA

TheWriteReads OnTour Presents Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney, Ultimate Blog Tour!!!

Back today with another amazing Ultimate Blog Tour from TheWriteReads OnTour! This time in association with Penguin Random House (many thanks to them!). I’m pretty picky about my books, but as you all know, there are certain subjects that I absolutely leap at the chance to read, and as soon as I read the blurb for Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney (Penguin, 2021), I signed up. Religion in a YA? Check. Feminism? Check. SET IN A BOARDING SCHOOL? Oh yes. Hit me, Flynn Meaney! Pour that book directly into my brain, Penguin!

And the choice to be part of this tour was an excellent one, because I was laughing out loud within about three pages. Seriously. This book is hilarious! (If you’re sensitive to language, Bad Habits has quite a colorful vocabulary! But to be fair, I heard worse in the passing periods of my public high school hallway, and I learned to swear like a sailor while in Catholic grade school, so this was a bit like reliving my childhood.)

Alex doesn’t exactly fit in at St. Mary’s Catholic Boarding School, where she was sent after her parents divorced. She’s not exactly the prim and proper, plaid-wearing Catholic girl of their dreams; her purple faux-hawk, motorcycle boots, clove cigarettes, and ability to pick out even the slightest whiff of misogyny anywhere she goes (and it’s woven in deeply at St. Mary’s) have her constantly warming seats in the office, and this time, she’s close to the end. Deciding to finish things off once and for all, Alex decides to pull something St. Mary’s won’t be able to forgive her for: staging a school production of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues.

Easier said than done. The school isn’t exactly bending over backwards to help her make this happen. Her roommate, buttoned-to-the-neck-yet-boy-obsessed Mary Kate, is mortified to even whisper the word ‘vagina.’ Her fellow students’ more conservative manners don’t make them terribly receptive to Alex’s headstrong messages. But Alex has a lot to learn beyond how to make a proper scene…

Guys, I spent SO much of this book laughing. Alex is a LOT- she’s brash, crass, irritable, stubborn, and incredibly forward. She’s no-holds-barred, which frequently gets her in trouble- not that that worries her. But beyond being foul-mouthed and ill-tempered (quite often with good reason!), Alex is smart and quick on her feet. She’s the sharp, quick-witted YA character we all wished we could be, with cultural and literary references at the ready for every retort. I’m going to age myself here, but she would have fit in well on Dawson’s Creek. While at times she was a bit much, overall, I enjoyed her edge and her ability to eventually take a hard look at herself and grow where she needed to.

Her roommate Mary Kate is fun- boy-crazy in a sweet way, but there’s more than meets the eye there, as there is to every other character, something that Alex struggles to see in her dismissive efforts to caricaturize her classmates and school staff. Major props to Alex’s goody-goody classmate for making a killer Biblical argument at the end. Seriously, watch for this, it’s brilliant. The messages here- look deeper, understand where other people are coming from, notice what you have in common before you notice what divides you- aren’t heavy-handed, but woven into the narrative in a way that makes this book full of life lessons just a fun, funny, entertaining read. I laughed out loud so frequently while reading this that my husband was wondering what on earth I was doing upstairs.

I would’ve picked this up on my own if I hadn’t been part of the TheWriteReads Ultimate Blog Tour, but I’m glad I was so I can sing its praises early! Flynn Meaney has penned a sharp, thoughtful novel bursting with life and liveliness, and one that deserves its place on today’s YA shelves.

Huge thanks to Dave from TheWriteReads and the folks at Penguin Random House for including me in this blog tour!

Visit Flynn Meaney’s website here.

Follow Dave @ TheWriteReads on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads OnTour here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

As soon as I read the Goodreads blurb for Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) this past summer, I. Was. In. I smashed the want-to-read button so fast, I nearly slammed a hole in my computer. The storyline, that cover…it all called to me. I knew it would be a tough read, emotionally speaking, and it was. The content warning right at the beginning- sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction- lets you know that. But what a masterpiece and a multifaceted social commentary Ms. Jackson has written.

Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, struggling to find her place in the world as one of the few non-white students at her private school in the suburbs. Her family’s financial situation has been tight ever since they moved from the city and she’s needed at home when she’s not busting her butt at school, making waves in the pool for swim team, or struggling to fit in with the other upper-class Black kids in Will and Willow, the social group her parents made her and her younger sister join.  When she gets the chance to audition for a singing competition, Enchanted jumps at it, even if it means fibbing a little to her mother, and she catches the eye of Korey Fields, world-famous singer, who immediately takes her under his wing and promises to make her famous.

What he promises and what he delivers are two very, very different things. Before long, Enchanted’s starry-eyed devotion has turned to fear, and she’s increasingly more desperate to navigate Korey’s moods and fists. She’s trapped, addicted, and being used, and unsure of how to escape when Korey’s entire world is built to ensure that he gets what he wants, whenever he wants, in order to continue making powerful people a whole lot of money. And it only gets darker from there…

While there are parallels with R. Kelly’s story, Ms. Jackson is clear to state that this isn’t about him. This is about a society we’ve created that disbelieves women, and in particular, Black women, whenever they use their voice to speak of how they’ve been harmed. This is a story about how multiple industries will turn a blind eye to abuse, pain, and crime in order to ensure that their bank accounts continue to fill. It’s a scathing story and one that I hope is read and discussed widely. Things need to change, and talking about it, shouting about it the way this book does, is how it starts.

Ms. Jackson portrays Enchanted as someone whose home life is good but who feels just enough of a squeeze to be looking for outside validation, and that provides a perfect entrance for Korey, an R. Kelly-like character who is well aware of what to look for when it comes to his latest victim. Enchanted is a hard worker and just enough of a people-pleaser to prove to be fertile ground for exploitation. Hers is so much of a story of wrong place, wrong time; it’s hard to imagine things not going the way they did, because Korey preyed on her so expertly. I’m obviously not the target audience, but reading this as an adult was just heartbreaking and devastating. Enchanted’s raw emotions are out there on every page- adoration, adulation, confusion, pain…fear. Guilt. Terror. It’s all here, presented in a way that the reader can’t and shouldn’t look away. Ms. Jackson’s writing style is just this side of sparse, no flourishes or excessive description (perfect for me!), which provides an even sharper edge to this story. I tore through this book in less than a day and I might’ve bitten anyone who tried to take it from me. It’s that compelling.

The difference between books about child trafficking and exploitation from when I was a teenager to now are remarkable. While there are, of course, people trying to pin Enchanted’s exploitation on her, instead of the grown man who exploited her (because what’s new), the message here is that she’s the victim in this, that this is something that was done to her by someone who knew better but chose to harm her anyway, and this is such a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the books I grew up with. I’m remembering very distinctly a book called Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play by Fran Arrick, which I read when I was a young teenager and which details the story of a fourteen year-old who runs away from home and is immediately picked up by a pimp and turned out on the streets a few days later. Instead of showing Steffie as a victim, she’s portrayed more as someone who makes a single terrible decision and so of course bad things happen to her. “Don’t run away from home, kids, or you’ll be turning tricks out on the street within days!” seemed to be the takeaway message, but Grown and its contradictory title (or is it?) shows just how easy it is, even for girls from regular families, to get pulled into situations by master manipulators.

Such a heart wrenching, devastating novel that I hope spreads awareness, both of the issue of child and teen exploitation, and of Tiffany D. Jackson’s massive, massive writing talent. Read this, and for God’s sake, listen to and believe Black women.

Visit Tiffany D. Jackson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

I don’t quite remember how Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (Quill Tree Books, 2020) came to be on my reading list (or at least where I found it), but I know WHY, because it ticks so many of my boxes:  

*YA

*diverse book

*characters grappling with religious and social issues

*contemporary as heck

*amazing voice

In fact, Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and serves on the Honorary Advisory Board! How cool is that?!?!? (Thank you to the founders and members for this group, for the work you do to keep our shelves stocked with books that represent everyone! It never ceases to amaze me how much better YA now is than when I was young.). By whatever means I discovered this book, I’m glad I did; this is some fabulous YA.

Del’s been in love with Kiera since their kindergarten production of The Wizard of Oz, but she’s always been attached to someone else. Now that she’s finally single, Del’s ready to swoop in and make his move, but he never expected to follow her into his church’s program for pledging purity. *record scratch* Kiera’s not thrilled with Del or his reputation (which he hasn’t exactly earned), but he’s determined to game the system with the help of Jameer, another student in the program with whom Del has made a bargain: he’ll get Jameer answers to his sex questions from the Healthy Living class at school that Jameer isn’t allowed to take, and Jameer will aid Del in his quest to finally get together with Kiera.

But things are always a little more complicated than they may seem. Del’s town has had a rash of teen pregnancies and the community is still reeling from that. His college-age sister has some mysterious new gig. His job stinks. But the friend’s he’s making at the Purity group are turning out to be solid. Del has a lot to learn: about life, about purity and sexual expectations, about what it means to be a good man and how to treat women. The Purity Pledge may not be what he expected, but getting involved leads to everything he needs to move forward in life.

Whew, this is a great book. It’s my first Lamar Giles novel, but already I can tell he’s a master of voice. Not one time during the reading of this book did I go, “Wow, this is absolutely an adult writing for teens;” Mr. Giles is right up there with Angie Thomas, nailing the voice of a Black teenager searching for answers, identity, and his place in the world. Del is a flawed but solid character, and his growth throughout the novel is admirable. He sometimes needs to be shoved there a little, but he readily absorbs the lessons he’s taught by the people who surround him, and he’s not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and to rewrite his life goals when he needs to.

The supporting characters are fabulous; they’re all distinct characters with distinct personalities and goals and character arcs (have you ever read a book where the other characters are kind of interchangeable? Absolutely none of this going on here!). There’s religious and social commentary here, stated in a way that makes sense to teenagers (who will absolutely call you on your crap if it doesn’t add up, something that Mr. Giles seems to understand well!), but never, ever in a preachy way. This isn’t a faith-based novel whatsoever, but it’s a story set in a family whose members are searching for various things, and those things are occasionally conflicting, which adds extremely readable drama.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Lamar Giles, because this was just a super solid, thought-provoking, entertaining YA that deserves to be read far and wide.

Visit Lamar Giles’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · romance · YA

Book Review: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

I’m a sucker for royal romances. For someone who has zero interest in real-life royalty or royal families, there’s something deeply charming to me about a prince falling for a commoner (it’s probably related to my adoration of stories where a celebrity falls for a regular person- and again, I have almost no interest in actual celebrities, so…). It’s how The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright (Merit Press, 2016) made it onto my list, and I grabbed it in a last-minute dash to the library before they went back to curbside pickup only, because our Covid case numbers are so high. It’s a bummer, I’ll miss my quick dashes in to grab my items, but at least curbside pickup is still available!

Evie, a 19 year-old American college student, is off to Oxford, the alma mater of both her parents. Her English mother died when Evie was just six, leaving behind a stack of letters, one for Evie to open on each birthday, and now a series of letters which send Evie on a quest around England to discover her family’s past and her mother’s secret. Complicating things is the fact that the cute boy Evie began falling for her first week at Oxford turns out to be none other than Prince Edmund, second in line for the crown. His parents have ideas about whom he should marry, and that doesn’t necessarily include a common. It may, however, include Jax, aka Lady Jacqueline, who loves nothing more than to set Evie’s teeth on edge by draping herself all over Edmund like ill-hung wallpaper.

As Evie falls harder and harder for Edmund, the truth about her mother’s true identity comes out, and Evie is shocked to learn she must prepare herself to inherit a title, an estate, and a way of life she never expected. She’ll have to figure out who and what she wants to be, and how to maintain any kind of relationship- friendship? more?- with the prince she’s not sure can ever fully commit to her.

So.

This is an adorable story. Evie is the Heir in the title, with Edmund being the Spare; I thought that was a clever switcharound. Edmund is charming as possible, and Evie’s mother’s letters are sweet and wistful.

The problem is that the writing is barely strong enough to carry the story. There’s so much telling and very little showing, and this began to irritate me early on. Had I not enjoyed the storyline so much, I likely would have DNF’d due to this.

Evie as a character is this side of Mary Sue. She’s super gorgeous and every eligible guy in the book is of course in love with her, including Edmund’s best friend (and of course Edmund is jealous) and Theron, a character that exists solely to evoke Edmund’s jealousy, rage, and protective streak when he assaults Evie on their sole date (the incident and Theron are never mentioned again outside of that chapter). She’s brash and free with middle school-level retorts and insults (which, of course, massively impress all her Oxford friends), which made me cringe quite a bit, especially in the beginning where she goes off on a few characters who are, admittedly, being quite rude. I’m not advocating for tolerating rudeness, but I feel as though one might take a bit more caution in acting crassly during their first days in a country where one is a guest and has been heretofore unfamiliar. Evie acted almost immediately like a stereotypical American, and that irked me.

So many of the characters in this book are flat and unnuanced. Jax and her crew are Mean Girls with no redeeming qualities and no other character traits. Evie is Mary Sue-ish; she’s gorgeous and smart without ever  needing to demonstrate her intelligence; people just remark on how intelligent she is (I wondered multiple times exactly why Oxford admitted her other than as a legacy. This seems to be an issue in a lot of books set at places like Oxford, Harvard, etc; the characters’ display of intellect or, more accurately, lack thereof doesn’t exactly merit their place at a top university, and I find that irritating. Don’t just tell me how smart they are; show what makes them smart. Have them reminisce about their discovery of something interesting during a high school research internship. Let a friend or professor stumble upon their publication of a literary criticism paper from a summer program. SOMETHING other than having characters go, “You’re so smart!” or discussing how swamped with schoolwork they are). Her Oxford friends are almost interchangeable in terms of personality, and every phone call she has with her supposed best friend from back home is entirely about Evie, nothing ever about Abby.  This would have been so much more enjoyable if all the characters had been better developed.

I didn’t hate this, but I didn’t love it, either. It had a lot of potential but fell short of the mark for me.

Visit Emily Albright’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.