The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

The Black Kids” by Christina Hammonds Reed is a very engaging narrative about race, violence, and self-worth. Ashley Bennet lives in Los Angeles in 1992 as an African-American high school senior. When a man named Rodney King is beaten to death, Ashely questions her place in society, as well as the decisions and microaggressions of her white friends that she had previously brushed off. She worries about her sister, who becomes involved in the riots over King’s beating and tries to come to terms with the rumor she spread about another Black classmate.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I thought the characters were very relatable and that the author portrayed a very authentic school experience. The small flashbacks to Ashley’s childhood were a nice touch to the story. I also thought Lucia (Ashley’s nanny) helped me better understand the somewhat rocky relationship Ashley had with her parents.

I would recommend this book to anyone right now, especially non-black teens wishing to educate themselves a little bit on racism. Seeing the Black experience of someone their age may be beneficial, and I found that this book had many parallels to the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement currently.

Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything is a fantastically unique novel. From dealing with intense themes to exploring extraterrestrial life, this book seems to have it all. Not to mention the wonderful smattering of romance. In fact, it’s got so many different facets, I don’t really feel comfortable describing it as just a “sci fi” novel. If anything, it’s more like a coming-of-age-romance-YA-science-fiction story. Of course, the multitudes of concepts are a bit hard to keep up with at times. But overall, it has a very interesting combination of ideas and genres.

The story follows 17-year-old Sia, a Mexican American struggling to overcome the unfairness of her mother’s deportation and subsequent death. But this reality may not be exactly as it seems. When visiting her favorite spot in the desert– the place her family considers the beginning of the world– Sia spots mysterious lights flashing across the starry sky. At first dismissing them as nothing, Sia begins spotting them again and again, until finally she sees it: a triangular UFO, burning through the desert sky. Aliens. This discovery, of course, changes Sia’s entire world as she seeks to find out the truth and what it means for her and her family.

I loved the authenticity of this novel, which, despite it being a science fiction novel, felt more like realistic fiction than anything else (except for the aliens of course). The book is infused with beautiful creation stories, gorgeous imagery, and just a hint of magic. I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking for a heartfelt and unique novel.

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

When I first heard about Wayward Son, I was dubious. After all, the first book (Carry On) was essentially a Harry Potter fanfic from a book about fanfiction, and it seemed as if it had been pretty thoroughly wrapped up. The premise of the second book is a time honored favorite among fanfiction authors as well— a road trip. Hearing this, I naturally assumed that it would be a fluffy, feel-good story about the main characters post-adventure shenanigans. Perfect, I thought, for a quick, cute read as I waited for the final book in my favorite trilogy to be released. I would already know the characters and the world, Rowell is always fun, it will be a fast, fairly easy read. I mean, it’s a road trip fic

    Going in with these expectations I was somewhat surprised when right from the start the book did its best to defy conventions. The initial chapters address the fallout from the events of book one. Simon is suffering from depression as he struggles with a bevy of repressed issues, ranging from the loss of his powers to figuring out that has been in love with Baz this entire time. Stuck between the worlds of Mages and Mundanes by his lost magic and newly gained wings and tail, Simon has been living with Penny and Baz as they all try and figure out their lives after the events of Carry On. As the story progresses, we see development in the characters, but this angst persists in a way that is unusual in books of its kind.

It is here that the series’ quick POV switches and short chapters truly shine, as we alternate between Baz, Simon, Penny and occasionally Agatha away in California. Because of the short chapters and informal format, Rowell is able to switch points of view without disrupting the narrative, a feat few multiperspective books manage to achieve. It is this seamless transition that allows the reader to see different parts of the story, without being taken out of the storytelling. This is incredibly important as a reader, since all of the main charactes are extremely unreliable, and only when we are allowed to compare and contrast their perspectives on a situation does that situation become clear.

Still, the tone doesn’t quite work. It is a subversion of the usual road trip tropes, yes, but the pacing is a little off, and the end result is a book that feels like the author tried to put multiple plots into one novel. It is readable, and it is entertaining, but the plot was weaker than that of the first book. The villains in particular felt like fillers, a big baddie that could be easily defeated in one book and a blaze of glory. Which would have been fine, except that a recurring conflict througout the book was dealing with the four main character’s mental health and their struggle with various traumas. This ended up as a ridiculously underutilized plot point considering that it had so much more potential and was far more interesting to me as a reader than the bad guys ever were. 

So it is that the worldbuilding ends up being the strongest part of the book, which came as a surprise. The first book established a Harry Potter style world, you knew the general rules but that was about it and in the end that was all you really needed to know. But in book two our main characters are in a foreign country (America, which added a running gag of culture shock) and have to learn new rules and come to terms with some of the realities of the magical world. This is aided greatly by the introduction of some new characters of differing backgrounds who pop up in later chapters and give some much needed context. And while a lot of the ideas presented are as yet undeveloped, or at least underdeveloped, I have hope that further exploration will happen in book three. Overall, Wayward Son is a solid YA. You don’t want to think too hard or else it unravels, but it is engaging and fast paced enough to be forgiven.

   

Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud

Truly Madly Royally is a fairly short and sweet contemporary by Debbie Rigaud. Especially for a debut novel, I thought it was well done. However, as there would be with any beginning author, the novel lacked a certain depth and complexity. All this considered, I still found the novel a fun and quick read. It was the idea behind the story that really caught my attention. The main characters Zora and Owen come from such different backgrounds and cultures that it was interesting to read how they made an effort to learn more about each other. Furthermore, the idea of a small town, empowered, American girl catching the eye of her very own Prince Charming creates a very compelling modern day fairy tail. If you are looking for a sweet romantic comedy about an adorable but unlikely pair, I would suggest this read.

Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi is an extremely compelling novel about an alternate history of 1800s Paris. Upon opening the book you are immediately thrown into a world with a type of magical technology and a crew, made up of long time friends with different specialties, who find themselves on a heist. This world is so lush and detailed and complex, but my only criticism is that there were times when I got a bit lost in all of the information while reading it. However, this is made up for with the beautiful and vivid imagery, as well as the misfit gang of enjoyable characters it follows. The book is written in such a way that you can get a glimpse into the minds of each member of the diverse cast, while also getting an understanding of their makeshift family. The story takes you on a ride of twists and turns, constantly leaving you on the edge of your seat. I don’t want to say too much so as not to spoil it, but I would highly recommend this book, and I sincerely look forward to the rest of the series.

A previous review of this book by a different reviewer can be found here.

The Brief Chronicle of Another Stupid Heartbreak by Adi Alsaid

The Brief Chronicle of Another Stupid Heartbreak by Adi Alsaid is your classic high school contemporary. If I am being completely honest, I had a hard time getting into this novel. I didn’t quite have the time or attention to give to reading it, but when I did, I became entranced. Being a man, Mr. Alsaid has a surprisingly accurate insight into the mind of a modern day teenage girl. The main character, Lu Charles, is your average 18 year old American girl who some would consider an expert on love. I mean, she writes a love column for a magazine! However, as a reader you will soon come to realize that she is still figuring it out like the rest of us.

Having recently broken up with her high school boyfriend, Lu finds herself suffering from a horrible case of writer’s block until she becomes entranced by the relationship of two strangers. To me, the most attractive quality of this book was how relatable the main character is because she is dealing with the same issues which you and I deal with. I highly suggest this read to any teen who is looking for a story to represent their struggles, whether it may relate to love or friends or work or whatever it may be, because it is a good reminder that all the hardships you face, no matter how big or small, are valid.

Most Likely by Sarah Watson

Honestly, I think a lot of us are excited for the day that we finally have a woman president. And in the novel “Most Likely”  written by Sarah Watson, we get a glimpse of what that might look like in the future. The plot follows four friends; Cj, Jordan, Martha, and Ava, one of whom will eventually end up holding office. None of the young women know this at the time the book is set, which is the group’s senior year. As the four struggle to find their identities and futures, we as readers are left to speculate who will end up holding office, until the end of the novel. And let’s just say it’s not who I expected!

All four of the main characters are very relatable, especially for young adults like myself. Watson does a fantastic job of showing different perspectives of the same story, while still tying everything together. Because of the switches in perspective, there is never a lull in the storyline, which ended up being one of my favorite things about the novel. And despite that the plot does get a bit hard to follow at times, it always came back together just at the right moments.

They Went Left by Monica Hesse

They Went Left, by Monica Hesse, tells the heartbreaking story of a Jewish girl named Zofia and her experiences after World War II and the Holocaust. After the Allied liberation, she was sent to a hospital to get better. Trauma and damage racked her brain and caused her memory to be fuzzy and spotty.
But there was one thing she always remembered: Abek. She had to find Abek, her younger brother. A to Z, Abek to Zofia. That’s what they had always said. Zofia set off on her spontaneous journey to find her brother. He was all she had left. When Zofia and her family arrived at Birkenau, Abek and her family went right in the separation line. The rest of her family went left. Hesse
combines the story of broken families and forgotten lives into the tale of Zofia and her brother Abek. This story is so raw but so necessary; it explores the true experiences of the Holocaust and the happenings of the surviors afterward– a part of the story that isn’t heard very often. They Went Left gives real heartbreak and hatred, but it also provides the idea of hope in the darkest times. It explores a different kind of family, and the ability to patch open wounds. They Went Left reveals the mystery of Abek and Zofia, and the new worlds built up after the war and the Nazis destroyed the old one.

We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar

We Are Lost and Found, by Helene Dunbar, explores the dangerous world of being gay in the 1980s, in New York City specifically. Michael, a partially-closeted teenager, lives his life with the same routine: go to school, hang out with his friends James and Becky, go to the club on Friday nights, and
hide the fact that he is gay from his parents so he doesn’t get kicked out of the house like his brother did. He is okay with this repetitive, simple life. But once he finds someone at his favorite club, someone worth giving up his routine for, his outlook changes. He wants more than just school and homophobic parents. He wants to be able to live his life freely without having to worry about the rising AIDS crisis that provides a mystery for everyone, and a blame placed on gay people. Michael is faced with the
menacing decision of staying trapped but safe, or being free and risking it all.
Dunbar writes an incredibly touching story that brings awareness to the struggle of gay people and their discrimination and their constant blame by people looking to make a scapegoat out of them. Michael, and all the other fascinating characters, bring the story of growing up and becoming sexually active in a world bombarded with the AIDS crisis, still new enough for everything about its ways to be a secret except its growing death toll. Michael and the other young people of his time were scared of becoming sick from
any lustful touch, especially one of the same gender. We Are Lost and Found is a beautiful,painful journey of a boy finding himself in a world that is doing everything it can to stop him.

A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth

A Treason of Thorns surprised me. I had seen references to it in the past, the premise sounded good, and the cover was pretty— although I am still unsure where the title comes from, but it got my attention, so I suppose it did what it was supposed to. But the point is, it wasn’t high on my TBR. Coming out of a reading slump and bored during quarantine, I picked it up on a whim. I had read the author’s debut novel (The Light Between Worlds), and while I liked it, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to recommend it to book club, per say. But while The Light Between Worlds was a slow, reflective read, A Treason of Thorns picked up the pace quite nicely. It has a simple but compelling plot, interesting characters and an overarching question about the importance of the roles we choose and the ones that are chosen for us.
A Treason of Thorns is set in what seems to be early post Elizabethan era Britain, although to my remembrance, there were no specified dates. However, in this version of the past, there exists a magical phenomenon known as the Great Houses, magical, sentient estates scattered across the world. In Britain, these houses are bound by magic to the Crown, and their power can only be safely channeled by the caretakers, men and women who live in and love the Great Houses. These caretakers use magical keys in order to use their House’s magic to help the surrounding countryside flourish. This is not a wholly unique premise, but it is unusual enough to still be a novelty, which is an unfortunate rarity in YA fantasy.
Our protagonist and narrator, Violet Sterling (Vi for short), grew up in Burly House, one of the six Great Houses of Britain. Her father, George Sterling, is the caretaker, and is grooming Vi to be his successor. Her mother left when Vi was a child, unable and unwilling to be a part of a family in which Burly House came first, above anything and anyone, and unable to take an unwilling Vi with her. So Vi grows up isolated, with her father often away on caretaker’s business, and her mother starting a second family. Left with Burly House and her father’s ward (and Vi’s best friend), Win, Vi roams the grounds with her house and her playmate, dreaming of the day when she will become caretaker.
But when her father is convicted of treason, and sentenced to house arrest (a cruel punishment that eventually forces the House to kill its caretaker), she loses everything. Her father will not be alive the next time she sees him, Burly House is closed to her until he is dead, and for unknown reasons, her father forced Win to stay behind. Now, seven years later, Vi has been living in the Fens with an old couple who used to work as house and groundskeepers. When she gets the news that her father is dead and Burly has once again opened its gates, Violet makes a deal with the king and races home. But what she finds is nothing like what she remembers. Burly is in pain and disrepair, and Win is distant and in as much of a hurry to leave as she is to return.
This was a fun ride. I probably won’t reread it, but it made for excellent escapism. Weymouth isn’t one for a lot of action, but she is excellent at creating meaningful relationships of various sorts between characters and these relationships and how they are used generate much of the drama and intrigue that keeps you turning pages. All in all, I really enjoyed A Treason of Thorns— it was entertaining and engaging and as I said, it made for great escapism.