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.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I’m absolutely trying to be better about reading books from my own shelves, but when I ran across a copy of Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Inc., 2018), it leapt from the library shelf directly into my bag and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, sorry. I read Ms. Nielsen’s A Night Divided in 2018; it’s a novel about life behind the Berlin wall, something I knew very little about, and I was hooked. I was curious to see if her skill from that book transferred to this one (and my goodness, check out this powerful cover!).

Chaya Lindner is Jewish in Poland during the second World War, and she’s on the run, working with the resistance as a courier. She passes easily for Polish and is able to smuggle food, medicine, and papers into the ghettos where her people are struggling to survive and the death counts mount on a daily basis. It’s difficult and dangerous, made more so by the separation from her parents (who seem to have given up on life) and the likely death of her two siblings, but Chaya refuses to give in.

Being teamed up with Esther, an inexperienced courier who doesn’t pass as well as Chaya does and who fumbles often in ways that place their group in danger, doesn’t bode well for Chaya’s hopes of living through the war, but a terrifying new mission is assigned to the two girls: sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto to determine if there’s enough will to launch an uprising there. The risks are massive and their lives are on the line with every breath, but Chaya’s willing to risk it all for her people. Is Esther?

This is pretty close to edge-of-your-seat reading, so if you’re not ready for that right now, hold off. Chaya finds herself in a dicey situation in nearly every chapter; there’s an occasional moment of downtime, but it’s rare and doesn’t allow the reader many breaks, placing you right there beside her, on the run for your life and for the lives of the Jewish people. It’s cold, relentless hunger, murderous Nazis, and indifferent townspeople at every turn. On occasion, Chaya and Esther do run into someone who wants to help, but even that is fraught with fear: are these strangers really helpful, or are they trying to trick the girls into revealing their identities? No one can be trusted outright, and Ms. Nielsen illustrates the exhaustion inherent in living this way on every single page.

Being set where it is, during this time period, and among people fighting with everything they have just to exist, there’s a lot of death in this book: death by starvation, death by disease, murder, and all of it caused by outright cruelty or indifference. Chaya is sixteen but has been forced to abandon every vestige of childhood in her fight to live; I’d put the audience for this book at mature fifth grade on up due to its setting and themes of violence and suffering, but there’s a lot to learn and understand  for all mature readers.

No matter how much I read about this period of time, I don’t ever feel like I understand it, or that I ever will. I understand the townspeople who felt helpless and felt as though there was nothing they could do- I’m sure it’s a similar feeling to how I feel when I read about some of the atrocities our own government commits against both immigrants and citizens alike; I do what I can in terms of contacting legislators and supporting people who can protest (I don’t trust my bad back), but it’s not enough, it’s never enough when human suffering is on the line. I don’t understand not caring, I don’t understand ambivalence, I don’t understand the hatred some people feel for others simply for existing. I don’t know that it’s possible to fully understand something so terrible, but I’m thankful for Ms. Nielsen and other authors who continue to try to understand and who try to help us understand. We’re obviously in dire need of constant reminders these days.

Visit Jennifer A. Nielsen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I’ve had The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) on my TBR list for ages, both because the premise sounded intriguing and also because Hanna Alkaf is wonderful on Twitter (you really should follow her!). It was never in at the library when I checked…and then I finally realized it wasn’t shelved under Alkaf, Hanna, but under Hanna, Alkaf. Whoops. (I’ll ask the library worker about that when I return it, because this needs to be easier to find.) Once I realized the mistake, I located the book and slipped it into my bag.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. You’re probably also familiar with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, and maybe you’ve even learned about the Armenian genocide. But what do you know about what happened in Malaysia on May 13, 1969 and the days that followed? I knew nothing, had never even heard about it (have I ever even read a book set in Malaysia before this? I honestly don’t think so), and that’s one of the reasons I knew I had to read this book.

Melati has OCD in a time where there’s no word or phrase to describe her incessant need to count, usually in groups of threes, in order to protect the people she loves. She pictures the forces compelling her to count as a djinn, cackling at her distress to appease him. It started after her father died; her mother, already stressed over the loss of her husband, doesn’t know how to handle her daughter’s mysterious and shameful problems, and so Melati works hard to hide her compulsions from her.

So life is already tough for Melati, and then the world around her explodes in violence. Separated from her best friend by a group of men wielding knives and wearing sinister smiles, she has no knowledge of where her mother is, no ability to get home, and no idea if she’ll survive the bloodshed. As the bodies pile up in the streets, Melati will need to depend on the kindness of strangers and her own quick wit to not only defeat her own djinn but the evil and hatred that has suddenly pervaded her society.

Ms. Alkaf begins the book with a necessary content warning (told you she’s awesome); this is not an easy book to read for so many reasons, but I think it’s a necessary one if you have the mental space for it. There are a lot of parallels to things going on today, of the way far too many people view those different from them, and the events described in this book are devastating and worrying as a potential conclusion to those levels of hatred. Melati’s OCD is also tough to read, in that it causes her so much distress. I’ve dealt with some OCD tendencies (which were much worse when I was young), so reading her struggles made me want to scoop her up and hug her.

Her growth throughout the novel is admirable and inspiring; it’s hard-fought and incomplete, since OCD is a beast that must be continually tamed, but it’s real. And as in real-life crises, there are no full conclusions, just a sober understanding (as much as that can be possible) of what happened, along with the determination to carry on while never forgetting those who have been lost. It’s heartbreaking and should be eye-opening to any reader, imploring them to examine their biases, delve deeply into their prejudices, and pick apart the reasons why they believe the things they do. Because the outcome of hatred and prejudice is often devastation and death, and at this point in history, with far too many painful examples to illustrate the point for us, we should be better than that. Ms. Alkaf has penned a fictional account of real history that serves as a warning point; don’t let this happen to you, to your country, to anyone.

Excellent book; highly recommended. Just wait until you’re in a good mental space so you can fully process this story, because it’s heavy.

Visit Hanna Alkaf’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

I hesitated for a really long time before putting The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites (Henry Holt, 2017) on my TBR. Books about the Holocaust are increasingly difficult for me to read; reading isn’t exactly easy right now anyway; and reading a difficult subject right now? Oof. But this was on my list, it was in at the library, and I decided to finally take the plunge. This book is historical fiction based on a real-life story, and these stories deserve to be told and read.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is told by multiple narrators, but its main focus is Dita Kraus, a young teenager who survived the ghetto of Theresienstadt, only to be sent to Auschwitz and, later on, Bergen-Belsen. In Auschwitz, she worked to protect and distribute the eight illegal books prisoners had managed to smuggle in, handing them out to teachers in the family camp’s secret school, repairing them when necessary, getting lost in the pages of several of the books as an escape from the brutal conditions around her.

Surviving each day is a miracle in and of itself, and Dita and her fellow prisoners struggle against impossible odds, watching their friends, family, and neighbors disappear in clouds of ash that flutter down upon the survivors like a devastating snow. The books keep the children learning, they give Dita a sense of purpose and a reason to go on, as the world descends further and further into madness. Fear, hunger, and devastation rule, but Dita carries on, her courage and determination a stark reminder of what it takes to retain our humanity even as the forces of evil remain desperate to choke it out of us.

What a devastating, heartbreaking book. There’s triumph as well, but at such terrible cost. It pained me to read this, to read how casually human life was treated, how easily it was thrown away, especially in light of everything going on in the world today. We’re still ready to throw people away, just in different ways (…mostly…). There’s a scene where, after a selection, ash rains down on the survivors, who recognize that their friends and family who were murdered by the Nazi soldiers will remain forever in Auschwitz, and…It’s a hard read. This whole book is a hard read.

But it’s necessary, and this is a book I recommend picking up when you’re able to handle it. We’re losing Holocaust survivors every day, and soon there won’t be any first-generation survivors left to tell their stories. Even fictional stories that recount the manmade horrors and suffering are important.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story of devastation and courage, and it will gut you if you let it- and you should. Only by reading these stories and understanding the devastation of hatred will we be able to recognize its presence in our own times and fight to end it.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

I usually remember where the books on my TBR come from, but as for Pointe by Brandy Colbert (Penguin, 2014), I’m not entirely sure. A fellow blogger? A recommendation on Twitter? A book list? I really don’t know, but that’s okay! I’m glad it ended up on there.

Theo may look like her struggles with anorexia have gotten better, but in this case, looks are definitely deceiving. They were better, and then the news broke: Donovan has been found. Donovan, Theo’s childhood best friend, was abducted four years ago, leaving Theo and everyone in their community traumatized and afraid. What’s worse: when his abductor is identified, Theo realizes she knows him- it’s Chris, the man who was her boyfriend, the one who told her he was 18 to her (at the time) 13, the one who is actually in his 30’s.

No one knew about Theo’s relationship with Chris except for Donovan, and he’s not talking. Theo’s alone with her secret and she’s not sure what to do: continue to keep the secret and maybe her life will remain unchanged and she’ll make that summer ballet intensive with no issues, or tell the truth, change everyone’s idea of who she is, and maybe have to let her dreams of professional dance go? The more she struggles with this dilemma, the more she fights to control her body, the one thing she can control, until Theo’s forced to make a decision, the only one she truly can.

Theo is the kind of character who’s so deeply wounded, yet who tries so hard to hide it, that I just wanted to scoop her up and hug her and cry through the whole book. She’s carrying so much pain, from being victimized by Chris (and she doesn’t yet realize that she’s been victimized), to the guilt she feels over Donovan’s disappearance, to the many secrets she’s kept for so long. Dancing helps dull the pain, but it comes out in the many poor decisions she makes- there’s some drinking and drug use here (not a lot, but enough that it was stressing me out worrying about the effects on her health and her dance career), the choice she makes to begin restricting her food intake again, and the relationship she strikes up with Hosea, the drug-dealing bad boy musician, who has a girlfriend whom he refuses to break up with. Ms. Colbert has created a marvelously complex character in Theo, one who remains sympathetic and deserving of the reader’s care even as she spirals under the weight of her stress.

She’s got a fantastic group of friends- Sarah-Kate and Phil are absolute dreams. Even as they disagree with Theo’s choices, they still support and love her. Ruthie, Theo’s main competition at dance class, pulls out a Hail Mary moment that plants the seed that ends up saving Theo, and she comes close to tying for my favorite character of the whole book. Hosea…ehhhhhh, not so much. He had wayyyyyyyyyyy too many red flags right from the beginning for me, and I was so sad for Theo that she fell so hard for him when he was obviously so undeserving of her.

 There are obvious content warnings here for sexual content including rape, drug and underage alcohol use, and disordered eating. Hold off on this one if reading it right now is too much for you; we’re all doing the best we can, but sometimes certain subjects are just too difficult at that point in time, and that’s okay.

Pointe is a heavy story of pain and loss, but it’s also one of strength, of bending but not breaking. It’s a story that will hit you right in the heart.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.