Layoverland by Gabby Noone

Layoverland by Gabby Noone

Layoverland by Gabby Noone (9781984836120)

Anyone who has ever taken an airplane can completely get behind purgatory being an airport. Still, it is surprising when Bea finds herself first in a car crash and then waking up in an airplane. When Bea discovers she is in purgatory, she wonders why she hasn’t gone straight to hell after the way she treated her sister just before Bea died. Unfortunately, Bea has been selected for a special program where she is removed from the lottery of names to make their way to Heaven and must help 5000 people find their way to Heaven before she can leave the airport. She gets to wear a hideous orange outfit and then is assigned to help the boy who killed her through to Heaven. Now she has to decide whether to help him or keep him in purgatory with her. The choice gets a lot more difficult when she finds out how much fun it is to kiss him and that she just might be falling for him. This may be Hell after all.

Noone’s writing is deft and exactly on the mark, making this novel’s tone just right. The entire purgatory experience is marvelous with showers that don’t have hot water, food encased in jello, and no Internet or real TV. Throw in a girl who can’t wash the mascara drips from her face or wash her dirty hair, and you have a great recipe for a book. When Caleb enters the novel, readers will respond like Bea, not sure whether to detest him or adore him. Their banter is right on, with Bea often offering her own large opinions on things like mansplaining and high school. 

With a concept and writing this good, it is great to have characters this well drawn too. Bea is angry in a way that will speak to all teenage girls. She cares deeply, yet also doesn’t give a crap a lot of the time too. She is manipulative, something which comes in handy with convincing people to open up to her so they can move on to Heaven. The added pressure of the 5,000 lives she must help is twisted and bizarre, giving her just enough room to both care and not care at the same time. 

Hilarious, romantic and never dull, this novel is heavenly. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer (9781681195117)

This second book in the Cursebreakers series follows A Curse So Dark and Lonely. With the curse broken and Lilith killed, everything is still difficult in Emberfall. Now there are rumors of the legitimate heir, one who should replace Prince Rhen as monarch. Harper is still at Rhen’s side, but Grey has disappeared. Grey is working as a stablehand in a far-off town, trying to keep from being noticed. By the time he is discovered, he has made two life-long friends, one who is captured with him. When Grey refuses to speak the name of the heir, Rhen has him and his friend flogged, which brings Grey’s latent magic bursting forth. On the run for his life, he is joined by Lia Mara, the daughter of the queen of a neighboring land which promises him shelter if he will stand against Rhen. 

I am ever so delighted that this book features Grey prominently rather than Rhen. Even better, Lia Mara is a complex and dark heroine to put at Grey’s side, a woman who has physical strength, moral fortitude, and her own skills at weapons. She is more than a match for him. The characters are deep and interesting, including the secondary characters who will surprise readers by being far more than they may seem. 

This novel moves away from the first’s ties to Beauty and the Beast, making Emberfall and its neighboring lands into a rich tapestry for the fantasy novel. While some contact is made with Harper’s modern world, the vast majority of the book stays in Emberfell and Syhl Shallow, hinting at an even larger world to explore as well. 

Vibrant, rich and marvelously romantic with a slow burn, this novel is a grand sequel to the first. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (9780062463357)

When Jamie sees David in the hospital where she volunteers, she is surprised. She knows he won’t have a clue who she is, as she has become almost invisible at school. In a moment where David is curled up in pain, Jamie instinctively reaches out to him. The two of them begin to talk together, sharing texts, emails and IMs as David remains in the hospital. Jamie works out what is wrong with him based on his symptoms and learns that his cystic fibrosis will shorten his life. She shares her own knowledge of hospitals with him, but doesn’t explain her depression following her father’s death. The two of them become friends and soon David is asking Jamie to sneak him out of the hospital so that he can breathe fresh air. As their friendship becomes more intense, David asks her to befriend his sister too and help her find a new path away from destruction. But it may just be Jamie and David who are on the way to destroying their new relationship.

McGovern has written a book about mental health and physical health that doesn’t flinch from discussion suicide openly and also shows the harrowing aspects of having an intensifying physical illness. While their medical diagnoses serve as an important foundation in the novel, it is the interplay between the two main characters that makes this such a compelling read. The two of them are clever, funny and willing to debate their differences with humor and respect.

Readers will come to truly enjoy these two characters, who both struggle with friendship outside of the hospital. Their friendship becomes something precious to them both, building naturally to a romantic level. But it is complicated by health, girlfriends and much more. As the novel builds to its climax, readers will cringe at the inevitable choices that both characters make and wonder if they will ever recover from them.

A surprising and deep novel about health, friendship and breaking the rules. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.

Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz (9781640637320)

Isabel loves to ask everyone else their opinions. In fact, it’s what she does for her high school paper column. It helps her make sense of a world where her mother just walked out of their family a few months earlier, leaving Isabel with her father who works most of the time as a hospital administrator. Isabel also spends a lot of time at the hospital, both because it’s where she gets to see her father most, but also because it’s where she gets her treatments for her rheumatoid arthritis. While at the hospital one day, she meets Sasha, a boy who also has his own non-fatal illness. The two hit it off, not dating though because Isabel has rules about dating. Soon Sasha and Isabel are spending a lot of time together. They adventure in New York City but also take lots of naps, don’t walk too far in the cold, and handle a lot of nosebleeds. Now Isabel must figure out if she’s going to start dating for the first time, or stick to the rule.

I have to mention that I worried I was in for a tear-jerker of a book and that it would be a lot like John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. Those fears went away as I realized that Moskowitz was tackling invisible illnesses, the ones that people have but that don’t threaten their lives, just impact them in a variety of ways. This novel is so lovely, filled with first love, the pressures of whether to change for the other person, and the gorgeous connection that can happen again and again with another person. It’s a novel that balances beautifully the impact of being sick with the delight of being alive. 

Isabel and Sasha are both great protagonists. Isabel is wonderfully prickly and sarcastic, unwilling to change for a boy but also worried about the sort of person she is inside. Sasha too is sarcastic but very different from Isabel. Their two families are different too, Isabel left behind by her mother to live mostly alone and Sasha surrounded by a loving family who boisterously support him and what he needs. Yet the two of them make sense, clicking in a way that only the best romantic couples in books do.

A great romance that grapples with illness alongside love. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Entangled. 

Review: Mooncakes by Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker (9781549303043)

Nova lives with her grandmothers and helps out in their magical bookshop where they serve witches in the community with potion ingredients as well as spell books. One night, she discovers someone from her childhood in the woods, a werewolf named Tam. Tam has been battling a horse demon in the woods. Nova’s grandmothers head into the woods to capture the demon and discover something with far more power than they expected. Something is out to get Tam and merge werewolf magic with the demon. As Nova and Tam try to figure out the key to accessing Tam’s werewolf powers, they steadily fall for one another too. When the villain targeting Tam is revealed it will take everything they have to defeat them.

This graphic novel is an intoxicating mix of fantasy and romance with strong LGBTQ elements. The characters are layered and complex, something that is more difficult to achieve in a graphic novel format. The childhood connection between Tam and Nova gives them a place to build from in their relationship. The romance is lovely and sweet, progressing naturally as the two become closer. Family elements are also vital to the story from the grandmothers to ghost parents who also have opinions about how Nova is being raised.

Tam uses the pronouns they/them/theirs which is great to see in a graphic novel for teens. The grandmothers are a lesbian couple as well. These elements offered in a matter-of-fact way create a harmonious world full of queer love. The book offers this in a way that makes it simply part of the fabric of life, which is very refreshing.

A fantasy romance graphic novel worth falling for. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (9780374309527)

Allie has grown up with Islamophobia aimed at her father because of the way he looks. She’s learned how to use her own lighter skin and red hair to intervene. She has lived all over the United States due to her father’s job as a professor, so she’s also learned how to quickly fit in with her peers too. As Allie starts to date Wells, a boy in her new school, she is also getting more interested in learning about being a Muslim. Allie’s father isn’t a practicing Muslim and has strong feelings about Allie starting to pray and learning Arabic. When Allie discovers that Wells’ father is one of the biggest TV bigots, particularly about Muslims, she must start to make choices about whether to speak out or continue to blend in.

Courtney’s writing is fresh and blunt. She takes on racism directly from the very first scene in the book and then uses that as a way to start a dialogue inside her book about how best to address overt and casual racism that one encounters throughout their life. Allie learning about her religion allows readers to learn alongside her. The study group discussions she participates in also show the wide ranging views of Muslims, both liberal and more conservative.

The exploration of one’s response to hate speech and bumbling attempts at support is explored through Allie. Allie’s character is learning about herself, both through her religion and outside of it. She’s figuring out her own boundaries, rather than those of her religion or her family. It’s a true coming-of-age tale, readers watch Allie develop in a way that makes leaps at times, but is always organic and honest.

Filled with opportunities to learn, this novel takes on racism. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (9781368048088)

Lyric, Maine was the ancestral home of Violet’s family, established by her great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck. Now Violet has been sent there after a wreck of her own, created when she partied too much and almost lost her brother Sam to suicide. Stuck in the small town, she finds a volunteer job at the local aquarium. That’s where she meets Orion, a gorgeous boy her age who knows all about marine life and how to run the cash register, skills that Vi can only dream of having. Orion’s best friend is Liv, who happens to be obsessed with the Lyric shipwreck and can’t wait to meet Violet, a direct descendant. Things get more complicated as Violet tries to help Liv and Orion move forward in a romantic way, Violet tries to avoid romance herself and along the way makes the best friends of her life.

I must admit this was one of the hardest books to summarize. There is so much here that all fits so beautifully into the novel but can’t be easily explained. There is the power of music, the impact of nature, the importance of dreams, the vitality of connection to one another, and the continued reverberation of loss and grief. All of that is here in these pages, written so beautifully that it aches. There are some cliches like Violet shaving her head, but those disappear into the richness of the book, becoming references and anchors to other stories rather than taking up too much space here.

The writing is exquisite, the emotions on the page are allowed to be raw but also often are hidden from view behind banter or fights about other things. Violet’s bisexuality is shown organically and openly, something that is simply there and innately understood by the reader. Mental illness is treated much the same way with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety all included in the story, important to the plot, but never gawked at.

Beautiful, powerful and full of feeling, this book is amazing. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys (9780399160318)

Daniel and his parents travel to Madrid for his father to complete an oil deal with the dictator, Franco. Daniel’s mother is from Spain and he speaks fluent Spanish. A budding photojournalist, Daniel is competing for a prestigious photography award, one that will allow him to go to journalism school even if his father won’t pay for it. But Spain is not the country he expected to find, particularly when he starts to photograph it. A single photo of a nun with a dead baby gets the attention of Franco’s police as well as of the man who is developing Daniel’s film. As Daniel looks more closely at the real story of Spain under Franco, he discovers a deep connection with Ana, the maid assigned to his family’s rooms. He meets Ana’s brother, who is helping his friend become a matador, something usually not done by those living in poverty. Ana’s entire family is working to keep a roof over their heads and dream of eventually moving out of the slums of Madrid. All is complicated by politics, violence, threats and power, where survival may be all they can hope for.

A simply amazing book that will take readers deep into Madrid in the 1950’s and 1960’s where Franco’s dictatorship makes rules for everyone to live under, suppressing ideas and freedoms. Madrid herself plays a large role in the story, captivating even with such a smothering society. Pleasures are found, such as photographs, candies and dinners out but they are hauntingly contrasted with the poverty in Spain. Ana and Daniel’s existences are vastly different with the American simply expecting things that are only available to the wealthiest in Madrid.

The romance between Ana and David is pure bliss. Naturally building and hemmed in by the strict societal rules, it has the deliciousness of a Victorian romance. The two characters are different in so many ways, and yet also have a strong ethical code, a willingness to stand up for others, and an ability to sacrifice themselves that pulls them together along with their physical attraction for one another.

Skillful and haunting, this look at Spain’s history is vivid and unflinching. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Philomel.

Review: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (9780062878021)

Lou lives in the city as a thief, stealing what she needs to survive, feasting when possible on sweets, and dressing herself in costumes from the theater attic where she lives. Because her life depends on it, she tries to never use her witch magic, lest her mother discover where she is. Reid is a witchhunter, raised from an orphaned baby into one of the leaders of the Church Chasseurs. He not only hunts witches but kills them, usually ultimately burning them at the stake if they live that long. When Lou tries to escape Reid by publicly shaming him, they end up being forced to marry one another. As the war between the witches and the church escalates, Reid and Lou find themselves at the center of it just as they discover their increasing feelings for one another.

If you are looking for one amazing teen fantasy novel, you have found it here. Mahurin builds a great world for her characters, one with extensive history that impacts the action in the novel in an understandable and fascinating way. As more of the details of the history are revealed, the cunning nature of the witches’ plans become more clears as well as the motivations of the church. It’s a book that untangles itself in front of the reader and yet leaves plenty of questions to be answered in a future volume.

The book mixes romance and fantasy. It has one of the hottest sex scenes I have read in a teen novel too where details are not skimped on and the woman takes the lead. As with that scene, Lou is not ever one to shrink away from saying what she thinks and needs. She is prickly and jaded, falling for Reid despite all of the guards she has in place. Reid could have simply been the bemused soldier in all of this, but Mahurin has made him Lou’s equal in the book, so that readers understand the damage done by both the witches and the church to society and individuals.

An amazing and gripping fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from library copy.