Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

38739562With the Fire on High follows Emoni Santiago, an Afro-Puerto Rican teen mother, during her senior year of high school. She has always dreamed of being a chef, and this is the story of her finding out what she wants from her life through her Culinary Arts class. It’s a story about learning to believe in yourself and taking the steps to pursue your dreams even though they feel impossible; about finding a balance between your interests and needs and those of the people around you.
I loved every moment of it.

I loved it for Emoni’s character arc, her growth, for how she learns to believe in herself and make difficult choices about her future. I’m two years older than her, and making this kind of choices is still really anxiety-inducing; I can’t imagine how it would be to have to do that while dealing with the college application process in the US, which sounds like a nightmare.
I loved it for how it talked about the link between food and culture and memory, which is a topic I love to read about, and that matters a lot to me and that I’d love to see more of in books. I had never read of a main character who loved to cook as much as Emoni does, especially not in a book with the smallest maybe-magical twist (Emoni’s food awakens memories in other people and she has a sense for what a dish needs) and it was so refreshing. Also, I loved the inclusion of recipes. Be careful, though – apart from the recipes, the descriptions of food in the story itself are perfect and this is the kind of book that will make you hungry.

Another thing I appreciated was how this book portrayed a romantic relationship in which the love interest had no problem with waiting, with taking things slow, because Emoni needs that after the failure that was her previous relationship. She has responsibilities that the average teenager doesn’t have, as well – babygirl – and that also changes the whole dynamic. While I love reading about messy romances with complicated sides, showing that relationships like this can exist is important.
However, I wish the book had developed Malachi a little more. I did like him, but I never got a sense of who he was as a person apart from being a good boyfriend for Emoni.
Of the side characters, my favorite was Angela – she’s a lesbian and now also in a relationship and I loved her and Emoni’s dynamic, it felt real to me.

Overall, this was a beautifully written and heartwarming read that also encouraged me to learn a little more about my family’s recipes and cooking in general, so I really recommend it.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Acqua and Cooking

For an Italian, I know embarrassingly little about it. Because of past circumstances we’re not going to get into, my cooking skills pretty much stop at “how to hard-boil an egg”, and this book reminded me just how much I’d like that to change. I want to be able to do something more by myself, and I want to learn to cook like my family does. (I’m sure there are many great and easy recipes for beginners on the internet, but this isn’t only about the food.)

When I was eleven, I tried to convince my grandmother to teach me some of her recipes, which I still have written down. I never got around to actually trying them myself, and eight years later (and with help, of course), here we are:

This is called “pesce serra in zuppa“. I’m not sure how to translate that. “Pesce serra” is the Italian common name for Pomatomus saltatrix, known in English as “bluefish”, so this would be “bluefish in soup” if translated literally, but I don’t think this is the kind of thing people think when they hear the word “soup”. Anyway, it was good, so that’s something.

Have you read any of Acevedo’s books?

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Reviews: Two F/F Summer Romances

Today, I’m reviewing two f/f books with the word “summer” in the title. One of them I really liked, the other I liked less, but both delivered cute f/f couples and summer-y atmosphere.

31246717If you like Becky Albertalli’s books, you need to read The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding. It’s the same kind of happy queer book, with a similar sense of humor and characters who are just as charmingly messy and trying to figure things out, but in my opinion it’s even better, as it’s ownvoices and isn’t obsessed with pop culture references.

My pre-review of this book was “help I can’t stop smiling my face is stuck”, and it is true – every time I think of this book, especially of certain scenes, I smile. This is the kind of happy, summer-y f/f romance I would never have thought I could get a few years ago, and I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it because of the mixed reviews. The romance starts out with mutual pining and continues with really cute dates, some misunderstandings, and character growth. I loved Abby and Jordi as a couple so much – to give you an idea, I read it in less than an afternoon.

I’ve already mentioned that this book is f/f – both girls are lesbians – but it’s really diverse in other ways, since the love interest is Mexican-American and Abby is a fat fashion blogger who specifically talks about plus-size clothes. Fashion is a relevant part of this book, as the main characters meet during an internship at a local boutique, and the book makes you feel both Abby’s love for it and Jordi’s love for photography.

One of the things I liked the most about this novel was the message: at its heart, The Summer of Jordi Perez is a story about how you don’t need to be anyone else’s, and not even your, definition of perfect to find happiness, and about how the person you love doesn’t have to be perfect either for you to love them. Despite talking a lot about body positivity and fat acceptance in the fatphobic world of fashion, Abby is insecure about her body, she’s not quite comfortable with it yet – and that’s fine, she’s 17 and the world can truly be awful to fat girls. Even her mother wants her to change. In this story, Abby becomes more comfortable with herself, and learns that mistakes and imperfections – hers, or other people’s – don’t have to be the end of things. This is a really important message.

In this book, the main characters actually feel like teenagers. Which means that they make a big deal out of crushes and dating and not having kissed anyone yet. Immature? I prefer to say realistic. However, some parts of this were kind of alienating to read as an aromantic person (and some parts could be for asexual people, too). I mention this because, while this doesn’t hurt me now, know this would have been the kind of book that would have hurt me at 17, when I was still trying to understand my romantic orientation – reading about characters who thought that not having kissed anyone at 17 is clearly abnormal, that it must mean there’s something wrong with you, made me feel terrible. I felt pressured to date – specifically, I was told that at this age I had to have, or at least want to have, a boyfriend – even though I was not interested in boys and probably also not interested in dating.

What made me give this book a four stars instead of a five, apart from some not always developed side characters and what I mentioned in the earlier paragraphs, were the last fifty pages. Romcoms always have that part in which the main characters split up and get back together again, and in this book, Jordi and Abby get back together only right before the end. I would have liked to see them together again for a little longer.

But let’s get back to the things I liked: this book is set in LA, and it makes you feel the atmosphere, and since food is a relevant part of this book – Abby and her friend Jax (relevant platonic m/f friendship!) are trying to find the best burgers in the city, and there are some wonderful scenes in which Abby is cooking with Jordi’s family – I can also say that the food descriptions were great, and I always love those.
Anyway, I’m glad this book exists and I wish it were more well-known; it may not be flawless but there are never enough atmospheric lesbian romcoms.

My rating: ★★★★

35230420Summer of Salt is a slow-paced, atmospheric contemporary fantasy story with a dash of mystery. It follows Georgina, a Fernweh girl who, unlike the rest of the women in her family, hasn’t developed her powers yet. While I thought it was far from a perfect book, I can say that I liked the half that I read while on the beach immensely more than the other, so I do still kind of see it as a perfect summer book. It’s a quick, nostalgic novel to read while you have salt on your skin and waves in front of you.

What stood out the most to me about this book was the atmosphere. It kind of reminded me of The Price Guide to the Occult – a less creepy, summer-y version of it – and the flowery writing helped with that. Maybe it was a little overwritten at times, going from pretty to awkward really quickly, but for the most part, I liked it. Also, can I say how much I love that I can now easily pick up f/f atmospheric summer romances? And so many other kinds of f/f books that have nothing to do with homophobia? 2016 me would never have thought, but even if Georgina and Prue weren’t the most developed characters ever and even if the romance wasn’t the most well-developed or even the most interesting, their interactions made me so happy.

Which is why it hurt even more when I started realizing that the aromantic representation in this book was pretty terrible. At first, I was liking it, as the side character Vira didn’t just say that she was “asexual and didn’t care about dating”, she specifically said she was aroace. Yes, she wasn’t the most interesting character ever, as she had exactly the same personality as all the aromantic best friends (is this a new trend?) I have seen in YA so far – cold-but-soft-on-the-inside, tries hard to be edgy and dresses unconventionally. That was fine, if boring.
But then, it came up that her hobby was taxidermy. That was when I started worrying, because aroace characters being associated with death is actually a common stereotype in fiction, and not one with positive implications. Summer of Salt didn’t go into that direction, not really; in my opinion, it did worse.
There’s a scene in which Vira shows her new kitten to Georgina and then says, unprompted, that when it will die, she’ll make a lamp out of it.

I don’t know how many people know what the most common aromantic stereotype is, but it’s exactly that we are “sociopaths”. It comes from the ugly idea that romantic love is the only thing that makes humans… well, human, and so aromanticism is inherently evil and creepy. And more people probably know how cruelty against animals/obsession with animal death has been traditionally associated with “sociopathy”.
I like to think that these things aren’t well-known, and that’s why no one thought to mention that in this book the aromantic character collects roadkill and makes flippant remarks about her pet dying and what she will do with its body. The idea that aromantic people don’t feel romantic love and then that must mean that they don’t get attached to anything is more widespread that one would think, and it’s horrible, damaging and false.

And like… Vira isn’t evil. She’s mostly portrayed as a loyal friend, but really, this isn’t the ~quirky hobby~ you should give your aromantic character (by the way: flippant remarks about pet death are generally unwelcome no matter the romantic orientation of the character) and in any case, I shouldn’t have to settle for bad representation just because it doesn’t try to outright tell me that aromantic people are evil, just weird and obsessed with death and corpses.
(To give you some context: she is the only aromantic character I’ve met in a book so far this year, and I almost only read queer books.)

But let’s get back to the book as a whole. Another problem I had with Summer of Salt is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. For the first half, it looks like a summer-y romance, then it becomes a mystery about a missing, magical bird, then in the last third it’s a story about rape, but not from the point of view of the person who is directly affected by it. While having “lighter” stories that deal specifically with that topic but in which the characters are supportive and no one ever victim-blames is important – books that deal with heavy topics but that go out of their way to not be triggering are necessary – I felt like this was completely aimless for at least half the story.

My rating: ★★★¼

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

42202063Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a contemporary story following Nima Kumara-Clark, a biracial Sri Lankan lesbian, as she learns the benefits of going out of her comfort zone through the local drag scene.

I have read a lot of queer books, but none of them prominently featured drag performers. In this novel, the main character, the love interest, and various side characters have been drag performers at some point. With every year we get more YA books about so many different sides of the queer experience, and I’m so glad that’s the case.

This novel has a slice-of-life feel to it. It’s slow-paced, it’s kind of open-ended on some sides, and more than everything, it’s messy. But the messiness is one of its strengths, in a way, and while me and Nima didn’t have a lot in common, I could definitely understand her. She’s awkward, she makes a lot of bad decisions, she is… imperfect in so many ways, and I loved her for that. If you’re the kind of person who needs teen girls to be perfect, I really don’t recommend this, because Nima makes so many mistakes. As teens do.

I especially liked seeing how insecure she was, how she felt what I call “queer imposter syndrome”, because there are moments in which she sees herself as far too bland to even have the right to interact with other queer people. (By the way: answering that your hobby is reading and, when asked for more details, saying that your hobby is reading novels is something I’ve done. It’s what people who have been mocked for their “boring/weird” hobbies or have this specific insecurity would do. Being vague is a shield.)

Maybe I was assuming too much. I could be making up any interest on her part. Why in the world would she be interested in me? She was probably just being friendly. She seemed really friendly.

Nima is such an awkward lesbian icon. I love her, and I loved her narrative voice, for the most part – but if you plan to go into this, keep in mind that it’s often overdramatic. To make a few examples of weird, emphatic figures of speech in her narration:

“I swallowed my heart back into my chest”
“my heart played hopscotch around my chest”
“her teeth took up her entire face”
“I had a whole mob of butterflies flapping around in my stomach”
“made my heartbeat quicken until I thought she might actually be able to see it through my chest”
“I could feel a heart attack coming on”
“I woke up feeling like someone was making scrambled eggs in my stomach”

And more. It got distracting at times, especially since I don’t love this kind of writing, but for Nima’s personality, it made sense. But my personal favorite was this one:

That was pee-your-pants kind of nervous. This—this was shit-your-pants kind of nervous

As you can see, she’s a poet, and has such a way with words. But, surprisingly, all of this ended up feeling endearing more than annoying.

As I said before, I saw this book as slice-of-life. I say this because a few aspects of this could feel lacking in closure, but I don’t necessarily agree. This is Nima’s story, what her mom is doing isn’t relevant to her – realizing that it isn’t relevant to her is one of the plot points. And I liked Gordon’s storyline. He’s a side character who has a lot of internalized queerphobia and is struggling because of toxic masculinity, but who is also dealing with bodily dysphoria – and it’s implied that he might be trans, even though by the end of the book he’s either still figuring himself out or not ready to come out to people. In any case, it wasn’t Nima’s business: what mattered, what gave closure to the storyline to me, is that by the end they were friends again.
In a way, the ending felt more like a hopeful beginning than an ending, and I really liked that about it. It reminded me a bit of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls: the book might have ended here, but Nima and her friends have a whole life ahead of them. Because of this, and because of how messy this book was, everything felt more real to me.

However, while the drag queen Deirdre is unambiguously a black trans woman, I would have loved if this book had used the word trans even just once. For something that is named Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, this book was surprisingly binarist at times, by not acknowledging non-binary trans people explicitly and using some binarist phrasings here and there.

Another thing I didn’t love was the writing, and not for Nima’s awkward metaphors, but because of the complete lack of atmosphere or sense of setting. I know she’s supposed to live in boringland, but I had no idea how anything looked like.
I also had mixed feelings about the romance: the love interest, Winnow (who is biracial Japanese), is one of the less developed characters, and there’s a significant age gap (3-4 years I think) that didn’t make that much sense to me, especially considering that Nima reads even younger than her age at times. But as this book doesn’t really focus on it – the romance is more of a motivation for Nima to get into the drag scene, in a way – it didn’t bother me too much (…maybe because I’ve read a book with a truly uncomfortable and weird age gap a week ago and this is nothing confronted with that? I don’t know.)

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

35053372The Lost Coast is the perfect book for the readers who have been looking for an f/f, not as male-dominated Raven Cycle. It’s an atmospheric story set in a small town surrounded by magical redwoods, following a group of queer witches.
And I loved all of it.

The first thing I thought when I finished this book is that sometimes, stories that acknowledge your pain but aren’t shaped around it are exactly what you need. I’ve read many contemporary books that dealt directly with homophobia and so contained a lot of it, and ones that ignored its existence entirely. But the contemporary-set stories I want are the ones that don’t ignore homophobia exists, and that have little to none of it anyway. Stories that aren’t about the queer experience, but that are relevant to it anyway, not just because of the characters’ identities, but also because of the themes they deal with.

The Lost Coast is a story about how much difference having a community and finding your people can make, even before you have found yourself and your own power. It’s a story that has a sense of recklessness to it, but also reminds you how important it is to have others to ground you. On the other side, it’s a story about how not wanting to find or acknowledge your own power leads you to not notice your ability to do harm, and makes you dangerous.

I won’t lie, I knew I would love this book from the moment the main character first sees the redwoods and is fascinated by them. (You really can’t go wrong with trees.) That mix of awe and longing and a little bit of fear – that’s something I’m familiar with. The atmosphere made me feel as if I were right there, and made the woods feel magical, so that when the book got to that one sex scene in the woods, my only reaction wasn’t “you’re so going to get ticks” (even though I still thought it; but oh well, it’s contemporary fantasy).
The writing is also really good. I think the vague, airy tone that Capetta’s writing has is much better suited to this multi-PoV non-linear contemporary fantasy novel than it was to a mystery like Echo After Echo, in which it didn’t work at all for me.

It’s not easy to develop many characters in a standalone that is shorter than 400 pages, but this book did it. All the Grays (which I kept wanting to call “the Gays”) are well-drawn, and so are their dynamics – they’re all in love with each other and you can feel that.
They are:
🌲 Danny, white, queer. She’s the new girl in town, and she’s looking for something, even though she doesn’t know what that something (someone?) is yet. She tends to wander, and I mean that physically. As I said, her emotions toward trees were very relatable.
🌲 Rush, white, fat, queer. She’s coded as neurodivergent, she has sound-taste synesthesia (I love reading about synesthesia. My brain does similar weird things too), and her magic comes from music. At the beginning of the story, she’s looking for her lost ex-girlfriend.
🌲 Hawthorn, black, bisexual with a preference for men. She’s quiet and bookish, but no one should let that mislead them – she’s the source of Witch Knowledge™ in the group and not to be understated.
🌲 June, “femme as fuck” lesbian, Filipina. Has chronic leg pain. Looks soft but will fight you and win (after all, she is the one with knife magic). She has a big family and it’s said that she was raised Catholic and is questioning her faith. I loved her.
🌲 Lelia, gray-ace, non-binary (she/her). Sharp and sarcastic but secretly soft. She says she doesn’t want to date, so I also read her as aro (but I wish this book had specified if she was or not), and she’s the “resident tree expert”, and isn’t that relatable
🌲 Then there’s Imogen, the mysterious, powerful water witch who was once part of the Grays, and is now missing.

I loved most of this book, but I’m not giving it a full five stars, because there were some things that didn’t work for me. The sex scene had a simile that made me cringe so much that it deserves a mention (please don’t compare body parts to books), and I don’t really know how I feel about the ending. On one hand, I get why the author chose to leave this book open-ended, but… I wanted to know how the characters would deal with some Things that had happened. Especially since the ending hints at f/f/f polyamory.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika Moulite & Maritza Moulite

39072988Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is a contemporary novel following a girl who is the daughter of divorced Haitian immigrants living in the US, and it’s set both in the United States and in Haiti.

I am always looking for novels set outside the US, especially ones written by authors who have lived there or have ties with the country they’re writing about, because American books, despite being read (translated and not) worldwide, always prioritize the white American perspective. Dear Haiti, Love Alaine was exactly what I wanted: it’s a story about a girl who is the daughter of immigrants as she visits Haiti for the first time and meets the rest of her family, learns more about her family history, and also gets to know both Haiti and her mother more. This book shows Haiti as a place that isn’t a stereotype, but a country with its own history, culture, flaws and good aspects.

What stood out to me about this book first was Alaine herself. I loved her narrative voice, the way she uses humor to connect with people and to protect herself at the same time, and I could feel her passion for journalism. And she grows so much during this novel!
I also really liked reading about her relationship with her mother, who has been distant for most of Alaine’s life, and who has now been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The way Alaine tries to deal with that felt very realistic to me, and it was heartbreaking at times.

My feelings on the mixed media format are less positive. On one hand, I loved that this was told through diary entries, parts of school projects, tweets, blog posts and emails. On the other hand, the poor formatting of the eARC meant that at times these were either unreadable or missing.

Another thing that didn’t work for me as much as I hoped was the plot. I would have loved this book more had it focused mostly on Alaine and her mother’s relationship, but it didn’t – there are a lot of side and minor characters (so many that “who is that again” is a reaction I had multiple times during this book) and a lot of side plots, involving embezzlement, a maybe-romance, and a family curse. I also felt that some characters that were relevant in the first half of the novel were barely there in the second, like Alaine’s dad (and I liked reading about him), or Alaine’s friend, who completely disappears.

Overall, I do recommend this, but I think it’s the kind of novel that works better in physical form.

My rating: ★★★¼

contemporary · Discussion · Young adult

Out Of My Comfort Zone #5

My fifth post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

The last post was about middle grade, the next one will likely be about full-length adult contemporary romance.

This post will be about movie adaptations of YA contemporaries.

My History With Movies, and Specifically YA Contemporary Adaptations

I don’t watch them. As a general rule, if it’s on a screen, it’s not for me.

Not because I think movies are bad or that I’m above them or that books are just so much better – it’s that they give me so much anxiety (and often secondhand embarrassment) that watching them isn’t even fun.

Anyway. If we’re talking specifically about YA contemporary adaptations, I think I’ve only seen two, both without really wanting to – one American (The Fault In Our Stars) and one Italian (Bianca il latte, rossa come il sangue). I didn’t like either of them and I watched them just because of friends/classmates, but they basically had the same usual sicklit plot and I never like those.

This time, I’m going to try adaptations of books I liked.

What I Watched

mv5bntmyzddimzutzjcxns00mjc3ltljy2utyji4ymy5nzjlyjc1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymta5otkwntc40._v1_sy1000_cr006771000_al_Love, Simon (2018) an adaptation of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli [book review here]

I mostly like this because I’m glad it exists.

So. It wasn’t bad, but I had already seen so many gifs of this movie that I felt like I was rewatching it, and it still gave me so much secondhand embarrassment. I liked it, mostly, because I like the plot and characters, and I think it’s a pretty faithful adaptation while working perfectly even if you haven’t read/don’t remember the book.

I can say that the biggest thing I didn’t like about the book – the overwhelming pop culture references and complete lack of atmosphere – weren’t a problem here, so I think I would have liked it more than the book… if I ignored my inherent problems with this format. But those inherent problems take away a lot. I wish I could have found it cute and funny, but that’s just not how my brain works.

However, it did make me want to read Leah on the Offbeat, so…

ivb5-ps35vaTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), an adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.

Again, I mostly liked this because it exists and because of the aesthetic. I’m glad this cute romance with an Asian-American main character got adapted, and the settings are beautiful.

However, this was emotionally exhausting. First, the secondhand embarrassment? So much of it. Not because this movie is more cringe-y than the average romcom – it didn’t feel like that to me, I can’t watch most of them and I did finish this, even though I just wanted it to end – but again, my brain just can’t with many things on a screen.

Also, there’s something about straight romances – or, to be specific, the tropes associated with straight romances – that tires me so quickly, and it’s true for many books, but for movies it becomes unbearable. The whole “I take away your hair tie because I prefer your hair down”, the drama with exes, it’s just… hhnng. And I really think it’s a genre thing and not this movie’s problem, so this is a reminder that I shouldn’t get swept up into the hype.

Will I Watch Other YA Contemporary Adaptations?

…maybe? I mean, I can’t say this went well, but it was still an interesting experience. One I don’t want to repeat anytime soon, but I could do it again, eventually. (Because when something gets hyped, I want to know!)

Things I learned from this attempt:

  • I think the reason I never get invested in movies is that the feelings of anxiety and/or secondhand embarrassment are so strong that they overpower everything else I might have felt about the storyline or the characters
  • I can’t imagine people doing things like these to themselves often and for fun but I guess that’s the beauty of human diversity and human brains
  • In both of these cases I preferred the books for the reason above, but I’ve noticed that YA contemporary adaptations tend to be more accurate than the YA SFF ones, or at least it feels like that to me
  • I still liked them more than the old sicklit ones! But it’s mostly because the overall quality of contemporary has improved so much in my opinion
  • not exactly “learned”, but it reminded me of how alien America feels to me. With books, it’s easier to ignore because I make up the setting in my own head, as contemporary books usually don’t bother to describe it.

Anyway! If you want to recommend me or just tell me about your favorite YA adaptations (both contemporary and SFF), I’d really appreciate that, because I’m curious – even thouhg I’m not sure I’ll watch them. Also, while I do know people who have Netflix, I don’t have it myself (it wouldn’t make sense, I watched more things for this post than I did in all of 2018), so I’m usually not in the condition to watch things that are only on it.

Have you watched/liked any of these?

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali

40148146Love From A to Z is the perfect balance of adorable, romantic and real. It’s the kind of contemporary that manages to develop a very sweet romance while also talking about painful and heavy topics, without neglecting any of these aspects.

This is the story of Zayneb, a hijabi girl of Pakistani and Caribbean (West Indian, specifically Guyanese and Trinidadian) descent living in America, and Adam, a biracial Chinese-Canadian boy who converted to Islam, as they meet in an airport during their trip to Doha, in Qatar. They’re both going through a difficult time in their lives, as Zayneb has just been suspended for speaking out against an Islamophobic teacher and Adam is coming to terms with being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
It’s a story about young Muslims living and falling in love, dealing with what it means to be a young Muslim in love in today’s world.

This book starts with a scene in which a teacher is being openly, unashamedly Islamophobic in front of his students. I wish I could say it felt unrealistic, exaggerated – I wish this weren’t the truth of so many people’s lives (and I wish I could say I didn’t have an experience with teachers being openly bigoted in class). This is a book that gets what it means to live when many people are uncomfortable with your simple existence. It gets the weight of everyday microaggressions, and the way they feed into bigger things; it gets what it means to notice that many people believe your life is worth less.

It gets all of these things, and yet it’s a happy book. I don’t mean that just because it’s hilarious at times – the sense of humor and banter in here… wow – but because while living as a marginalized teen means dealing with all of these things, marginalized teenagers experience joy as much as pain, and with its hopeful message, Love From A to Z shows the importance of finding your voice and speaking up against injustice, and also of accepting help while doing that.

I loved Adam and Zayneb, both as individual characters and as a couple. Zayneb is fierce and outspoken while Adam is quiet and kind, and they balance each other so well. While they do encounter obstacles in their relationship, they find a way to communicate and overcome them, and they were always respectful of each other. I felt really strongly about her romance – which is something seeing how overwhelmingly heterosexual this book was (which is probably the only thing I didn’t like about it, because I never like that, but all things considered, it’s minor).
Zayneb’s PoV was my favorite. She’s brave and flawed and just trying her best, and I both understood her and admired her. She feels so much and and is told to bury it, because society tells you you’re not supposed to mind everyday injustice. My favorite part about Adam’s PoV was his relationship with his family, how he cares about them and they care about him, and they’re all trying to help and not hurt each other while going through a difficult situation. They mess up, sometimes, but they’re always there for each other.

Love From A to Z is a love story written by a Muslim author for a Muslim audience, and it shows. It doesn’t feel the need to explain the things the characters do in everyday life, which means that sometimes I had to use google, and I loved that. I love learning new things in books that aren’t written to teach, and I love reading stories set in non-western countries that don’t pander specifically to a white, Christian, American point of view. No matter your situation, I think you can get something out of this, be it an adorable love story you can relate to or seeing things from a point of view that you hadn’t seen before in literature (or both!)
Also, I’m not American, and I really hope this book gets translated in my country. I think it really could be helpful to many people here, in different ways – for its multilayered and positive portrayal of Muslims, for its callout of white feminism and Islamophobic microaggressions, for being a very well-written, healthy romance.

One more thing: if you’ve read Saints and Misfits, this book has a Sausun cameo and… that was the most satisfying cameo I’ve ever seen in a YA book.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Reviews: Two Novels Exploring Feminist Themes

Today, I’m reviewing two books I read at the end of March. Both of them deal with feminist themes:

  • All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle is a feminist exploration of Irish history and folklore through the history of a specific family, and it especially focuses on reproductive justice and the crimes of the Catholic church;
  • The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed is an intersectional look at rape culture and what it means to be a young woman in today’s America.

40545833All the Bad Apples has everything you should expect from a Moïra Fowley-Doyle novel: beautiful atmosphere, blurred lines between the magical and the ordinary, and queer characters. At the same time, it’s so much darker and angrier than usual.

All the Bad Apples felt like the bookish equivalent of a scream.
You might think this is a story about a lesbian who has a very traditional, catholic father and goes to a traditional catholic school as she grapples with her older sister’s suicide and what might be a family curse, discovering her family’s history in the process. It is, and yet it’s not.
All the Bad Apples is a story about the crimes of the catholic church, a story about the women whose truths are still buried and untold, a story about Irish history from the point of view of those who are always erased. It’s a story about how necessary the separation between church and state is, about how we shouldn’t take our victories against bigotry and patriarchal systems for granted.

This book made me realize is that I’m kind of tired of reading about Americans’ problems. I don’t live in Ireland, but for various reasons, what they went through is much more similar to my country’s problems. Reading about European countries from a modern European point of view is so refreshing, and I’m glad this book exists.
This also meant that for me this book was a lot more horrifying to read than usual. And even if you don’t know what it means to deal with catholic fundamentalism, I recommend reading the content warnings at the end of this review.

So, why not a higher rating? Because – and this has happened with the other novel I’ve read by this author too – by the end of the book, I felt like I didn’t know any of the characters.
Deena is a lesbian, her best friend is a bisexual and biracial black boy, she meets a girl who is also queer during this novel, and there’s the beginning of what could be a romance. I always want to get invested in Fowley-Doyle’s mostly-queer found families, but I never manage, and – mostly in the second half – the parts about history took over the book, so that the present storyline started to feel stagnant.
(It still surprised me, though. I would have never seen any of that coming.)

On the historical parts: I loved their message and the point they were making, they just weren’t that interesting to read. The problem with multi-generational stories is that I often struggle to get invested in anything historical and with so many characters, but that’s more on me that on the book.

I would recommend All the Bad Apples to all of those who enjoy Leslye Walton’s novels and liked the inter-generational aspect of The Astonishing Color of After.

My rating: ★★★

Content warnings for the present storyline: homophobia (challenged, and mostly at the beginning, but it’s there right from the first chapter), frequent mentions of what is rumored to be a suicide, controlling parent, bullying
Trigger warnings for the parts about family history: incestuous rape (implied), rape of a minor (implied), institutionalization, physical, emotional and religious abuse (mostly told, not shown), one of the main characters’ ancestors got burned alive for being gay (“a witch”; again, told not shown), and we’re also told about forced pregnancies, abortion, mothers separated from their babies, death of a baby, suicide, a lot of misogyny and bigotry.
[I hope I haven’t missed anything but there was a lot.]

28096541The Nowhere Girls, or Why Good Intentions and a Good Message Don’t Make a Good Book: A Novel

I could start by saying that this is possibly the most heavy-handed thing I’ve ever read. And it’s true. But I feel like I can forgive some of that if I do agree with the message and think it’s really important, especially if the book is aimed to younger readers. Since these two things are true, I won’t hold it against this book. It’s a story about rape culture and women fighting back that at least attempts at being intersectional, and I really appreciated that, and I honestly think books like these can have a positive impact.

However, I also think this book tried to do too many things at the same time, and ended up neglecting some aspects it really shouldn’t have, and I will hold that against it. If you don’t have the space or the ability to give certain topics the page time they deserve, you do not put them in your story for shock value or token points.
Some examples:

→ Casually mentioning that a side character is basically being forced to pray her sexual orientation away will make me completely uninterested in the following romantic development of the main couples.
You could say that this is a novel about young women, and these are things that can and do happen to young women. However, mentioning it casually, like that, and never bringing it up again? I have a problem with that. My opinion about things like these is that you only write them into your story if they add something to it, only if it’s really necessary. You know, the same exact thing we say about rape in fiction.

→ When I started this book, I thought “I found a character who has sensory issues in a book that isn’t a trashfire about it!” and as it turns out, I spoke too soon
Let’s talk about Erin DeLillo, one of the three narrators, who is an autistic girl who has sensory issues and loves marine biology. I have sensory issues and love marine biology, and Erin DeLillo felt like the uncanny valley of representation: so similar, that the parts that aren’t are jarring.
(And I don’t mean that in the way “she’s interested in romance and I’m not” or “she loves organizing and I couldn’t care less”. That doesn’t really matter.)

This book gets a lot of things right. It gets what it means to be “the crazy one”, the one who leaves a crowded room screaming for no apparent reason, who is that sensitive to sounds and smells.
It also gets some major things wrong. Erin is forced by her mother to follow a very specific (vegan, I think?) diet. This would be fine if Erin had chosen it, but she hasn’t, her mother wants her to do that because she thinks it would make Erin less weird. This is never really dealt with. And it’s horrifying. Not only for the “I want to change you” aspect, but also for something that is really glaring to me: you should never encourage a person with sensory issues to restrict their diet (unless, of course, there are allergies involved).
Having sensory issues means that you already can’t eat many foods because their texture is that repulsive on a physical level. Erin never struggles with an even more restrictive diet, and that felt… fake to me. Sensory issues don’t disappear when they’re not convenient for the plot anymore, which seemed to happen multiple times in this book.

(Also, the marine biology infodumps? Disappointing, that’s all stuff you can find out in a matter of seconds with google.)

Another thing: I often didn’t like the way this book talked about romance – as a goal, as something everyone wants, as something that is so essential that not having it is sad.
And the romance storylines themselves? They were so lackluster. Even the f/f one.

Maybe I could have at least enjoyed some aspects of this book more if I had read it in English. Sadly, I haven’t, and if you’re thinking about picking up the Italian edition, don’t.
Things that happen in the Italian edition of this book:

  • → “people of color” becomes “black people”. The person who is talking is a Mexican girl and she’s talking about her family.
  • → “I don’t like my food to touch” (oh, I have that problem too) becomes “I don’t like to touch my food” (that really would be concerning)
  • → there’s the word “gasteropodo” in it. I feel like crying. (For non-Italians: the singular of Gasteropodi is “gasteropode”)
  • → it misgenders a trans character at some point, while the English version doesn’t (at least, not there)
  • the writing is all-around terrible.

So: great message, solid overarching plotline about women supporting each other, and so many details that took me out of the story continuously.

My rating: ★★¼


Book review · contemporary · Short fiction

Review: Color Outside the Lines, edited by Sangu Mandanna

40960763Color Outside the Lines is an anthology about interracial relationships across time and genres. It’s about the ways these relationships are both different and the same as the ones that aren’t interracial; it doesn’t only talk about love, culture, and prejudice, but also about family, friendships, communication, expectations and legacies, from many different points of view.

I thought this was a solid anthology. As usual, I didn’t like every single story, but while the ending was a bit weak, I found some favorites in here.

Turn the Sky To Petals by Anna-Marie McLemore – 5 stars
This might be my favorite McLemore short story? I’ve loved Roja from All Out and Glamour from The Radical Element too, but not as much as this one, and I don’t think this even had magical realism elements – the atmosphere and themes made this perfect and just as magical as her stories that actually had magic in them.
It’s a story about a Romani boy who once played the cimbalom and a Latinx girl who liked to dance, brought together by their experiences with chronic pain. They meet while they’re helping their town to prepare for a rich man’s wedding, and said wedding includes the most beautifully described rain of flowers ever.

TK by Danielle Page – no rating, not in the review copy

What We Love by Lauren Gibaldi – 2.5 stars
This story is about a Jewish girl and an Indian boy, and it talks about what it’s like to not fit in and be othered, and how people who are from different backgrounds can experience this in different yet similar ways. It also talks about familial expectations and about legacies – the focus on what we leave behind was what I appreciated the most about this story (and: if you like Star Wars references, read this). However, I found this story disappointing, because the antagonist is the stereotypical Blonde Mean Girl Who Wears Revealing Dresses (she’s wearing a short, tight dress and grinding on a boy!). It’s not that racist bullies who are also attractive white girls don’t exist, but the problem is that she’s racist and a bully, not her clothes.

Giving Up the Ghost by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas – 2 stars
This is the story that worked for me the least. It’s about a world in which everyone has a ghost who is one of their ancestors, and it follows a South Asian boy (I think?), whose ghost is probably the most successful pirate in history, Ching Shih. I loved the worldbuilding here and how it talked about communication and history, but sadly the fearsome Ching Shih read like a bratty ten-year-old and this ended up not being enjoyable at all.

Your Life Matters by L.L. McKinney – 4 stars
The first f/f story! It’s about a black superheroine, her white girlfriend/sidekick, the Black Lives Matter movement, and people changing for the better. It deals with some heavy themes – like police violence and dating someone from a racist family – and at its heart is an hopeful story, which I really appreciated. It made me want to try McKinney’s novels, even though Alice in Wonderland retellings have never been my kind of thing.

Starlight and Moondust by Lori M. Lee – 5 stars
This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. It follows Hlee Khue, a Hmong girl, and it’s a story about stories (I always love those). It’s not just about Hlee, even though she’s the main character: it also talks about an old woman who is a healer, and a boy with a mysterious past. It talks about the way non-western stories and beliefs are held to different standard from western ones, seen as sillier/more absurd just because they’re not western.
It’s a magical story full of beautiful descriptions (the atmosphere! the food! the dragons!) and now I want to read more from Lori M. Lee, since I never had before.

Five Times Shiva Met Harry by Sangu Mandanna – 4 stars
A not-always-lighthearted but cute story about an Indian girl and a white boy who start dating almost by accident. It’s about how sheltered, privileged people can grow up without ever challenging racist and imperialist assumptions – but they can also change once that’s brought to their attention. I liked how this story casually mentioned that Shiva’s brother is dating a boy who is Zimbabwean-American.

The Agony of a Heart’s Wish by Samira Ahmed – 4 stars
This was heartbreaking. It’s a story about colonialism, following an Indian girl and an Irish boy as they meet on a train in colonial India, and bond over Yeats’ poems. They never meet again, but meeting each other changed their lives.

The Coward’s Guide to Falling in Love by Caroline Tung Richmond – 4.5 stars
Not a Romeo and Juliet retelling!
I loved the setup in this one, the themes, and the main character’s voice. It’s the kind of lighthearted contemporary I love – fun and never lacking in depth. It follows a Chinese-American girl who has a crush on a boy of Montenegrin descent. I remember that I also really liked another short story by this author a few years ago, The Red Raven Ball from A Tyranny of Petticoats, so I can’t wait to read her story in Hungry Hearts too.

Death and the Maiden by Tara Sim – 5 stars
An f/f Hades and Persephone retelling with an Indian main character! This story was beautifully written and it made me want to read more of Tara Sim’s books even though I didn’t love Timekeeper. This had the best aesthetics, atmosphere (the writing reminded me of Strange Grace, which is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read), themes I loved – it’s about life, death, and growth. I want this to become a full-length novel so badly.

Faithfull by Karuna Riazi – 3.5 stars
A story about a girl and her complicated relationships with her self-absorbed mother, who is now marrying a Moroccan man. This is mostly about friendships, food (so many food descriptions!) and what makes a family. I didn’t feel strongly about it but I liked the message.

Gilman Street by Michelle Ruiz Keil – 3.5 stars
This is a story about self-discovery following a biracial, bisexual Mexican girl as she meets a biracial boy who is Filipino, kisses a Mexican girl, and discovers that some people are better left behind. This is historical fiction – set in 1980, I think – and now I want to see what the author will do with her debut novel this year, as I’ve heard it’s historical fiction too.

The Boy Is by Elsie Chapman – 3.5 stars
This is a story about dating as a Chinese-American girl. It talks about the conflicting expectations of family members, yellow fever, and… pros and cons. It was an interesting read, if really short. Elsie Chapman was also a new-to-me author, and I think I like her writing, so maybe I’ll try her novel Caster when it comes out.

Sandwiched in Between by Eric Smith – 3 stars
I don’t think Eric Smith’s writing is for me, and that’s the main reason I’m not rating this story high – I like what this said about family, adoption, communication and “colorblindness”, but I just can’t get into his books.

Yuna and the Wall by Lydia Kang – 3.5 stars
A fantasy story following the daughter of a poisoner and a boy who is hated for his scars. It’s about people finding each other when society doesn’t accept them; I liked its message and what I saw of this world. Like Kang’s Toxic, this story almost read like middle grade, but this time I didn’t have any problems with that because I expected it.

TK by Adam Silvera – no rating, not in this copy

My average rating is 3,80, which is pretty good for an anthology (and I think that if the Adam Silvera story had been there, the rating would have been even higher).

Adult · Book review · contemporary

Review: Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

42128976I know nothing about the trilogy of which Once Ghosted, Twice Shy is a spin-off, I read this novella just because it was a second-chance romance about two black women falling in love – and then falling in love again – in New York, and that premise was enough for me. And now I can say two things:

  1. you do not need to have read A Princess in Theory to understand this or understand the characters;
  2. you might want to read A Princess in Theory first anyway, because after reading this you’ll want to read it for sure, Alyssa Cole’s writing is amazing, and you might as well read things in order!

I loved this book more than I expected to, and with that premise, I had high expectations. The main reason it surprised me? The writing. All the descriptions – the sounds, the food, the clothes – were so vivid that I could picture everything effortlessly. It’s a contemporary romance that is actually atmospheric, and I can’t believe how rare that is. One of my main problems with American contemporaries is the way they never describe the setting, because they assume that you – the reader, who is of course American, because it’s not like books written in the US are read (and translated!) worldwide, no – already know how it looks like. And I don’t! I love when books don’t assume I do.

I also loved the romance, of course. Fabiola and Likotsi had chemistry (these two!! I can’t. They were adorable), the conflict was believable, the pacing was slow but not so slow that it became a problem for me (and this is why I prefer romance novellas to novels).
Once Ghosted, Twice Shy is also a story that talks about some heavy themes – like deportation – without losing the lightheartedness that is typical of the romance genre, and it has, of course, a happy ending.

If you’ve ever wanted to read a story about a Haitian-American bisexual woman who dreams of making and selling jewelry falling in love with an African woman (from the fictional country of Thesolo) who is the assistant of a prince… here it is. It was everything I didn’t know I wanted.

My rating: ★★★★¾