The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (9781368053297)

Marva gets how important voting is and how voting has been impacted by racism for decades, so she is up early to make sure she votes before school starts. Duke is up early too, keeping focused on his band’s first paying gig that night and getting his voting done too. But when Duke gets to his polling place, he can’t vote since he isn’t registered there. Marva sees this happen and the two of them go to the voting precinct that Duke should be registered at. But nothing is simple in voting or dating as their lives collide with Marva angry at her white boyfriend for deciding not to vote in the election, Marva’s celebrity cat going missing, and Duke coping with the memories of his dead brother that being with Marva brings up. Still, the two of them are a great team, traveling the city, discovering voter suppression firsthand, and still managing a touch of romance along the way.

Colbert has written a marvelous romantic political novel here. She demonstrates clearly for teen readers that voter suppression in the black community is still active and can impact them as voters at any time. From long lines to closed polls to running out of ballots, each incident underlines how civil rights are being infringed. Wisely Colbert allows that to be significant in the story line but also fills in with an engaging new romance between two people who may approach politics differently but deeply believe in the same things.

The two main characters are completely delightful. Marva is driven and full of passion for fighting back, voting and activism. Duke has lost a brother to gun violence, a brother who was a community activist. Wonderfully, Duke is not dismissive of Marva’s passion, instead he marvels at it, showing his own dedication to voting and also to his music as the day continues. The pair together are magic with their snappy conversation, teasing and humor.

Political and romantic, this book is also a clarion call to vote and get involved. Appropriate for ages 15-19.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Disney-Hyperion.

Again Again by E. Lockhart

Again Again by E. Lockhart

Again Again by E. Lockhart (9780385744799)

This inventive book from the author of We Were Liars offers readers a way to look at the world as more than a single continuum but instead a landscape of possibilities. Adelaide is spending the summer on the empty campus of the private school that she attends and where her father teaches. The plan had been to spend the summer with her boyfriend, but just as summer was about to start, he abruptly broke up with her and headed off to an international study program. Now Adelaide spends her time walking dogs that she doesn’t own and avoiding dealing with her failing grade in a set design course. Then she meets a boy at the dog park and all sorts of options appear to fill her summer with new love, friendship, dogs, accidents, and art.

Lockhart is a constantly creative author who manages to continue to surprise and delight with her novels. Here she explores an entire world of parallel universes driven by small choices in daily lives. It’s a way without being preachy to show us all that we do not have one chosen monogamous relationship that is our destiny, but rather many options, parallel and fascinating, endlessly spiraling out from one another.

I particularly loved the characters that Lockhart creates here. They are maddening at times but also glorious individuals who are creative and interesting. Adelaide in particular is exceptionally drawn, particularly given the parallel choices she could make. This lets us explore her character more deeply, seeing the various options and the life she could have chosen.

A great read that will get you philosophically thinking of your own parallel universes. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Press. 

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.