Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (9780525555254)

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco isn’t simple for a Chinese-American girl who loves to dream of working on math that will send people into space. Even her best friend isn’t interested in the same things as Lily is. As Lily becomes more aware of her sexuality, she soon realizes that she is queer. She’s particularly intrigued by a male impersonator in San Francisco. As her love of math draws her closer to a white classmate at school, she realizes they may have even more in common. Soon the two teens are heading out to a club together to watch that same male impersonator that Lily was dreaming about. But remember, it is the 1950s and Chinese girls are not allowed to be gay, so Lily is risking a lot. It’s the time of McCarthyism too, so Lily’s family is threatened by the fear of Communism when her father’s papers are taken away. Lily must find a way to navigate the many dangers of being Chinese, queer and young.

Lo’s writing is so incredible. She creates a historical novel that makes the historical elements so crucial to the story that they flow effortlessly along. She avoids long sections of exposition about history by building it into the story in a natural and thoughtful way. That allows readers to feel Lily’s story all the more deeply while realizing the risks the Lily is taking with her family and friends. Lo also beautifully incorporates San Francisco into the book, allowing readers to walk Chinatown and visit other iconic parts and features of the city.

As well as telling Lily’s story, Lo shares the stories of Lily’s aunt and mother. They took different paths to the present time, making critical decisions about their careers and marriages. These experiences while straight and more historical speak to Lily’s own budding romance and finding of people who support her as she discovers who she is. They remove the simple look at who her mother could be been assumed to be and make her a more complex character.

Layered and remarkable, this book speaks to new, queer love and shows that intersectionality has been around forever. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

A Vow So Bold and Deadly by Brigid Kemmerer

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A Vow So Bold and Deadly by Brigid Kemmerer (9781547602582)

The conclusion to the amazing Cursebreakers series, this book could not have higher expectations surrounding it. What at first was a twist on Beauty and the Beast has created its own tremendous fantasy world filled with an evil enchantress, a lost brother, a girl stolen from her world to become a princess in another, a prince who is also beastly, and a new queen who must find the respect of her people. Told in alternating points of view, the novel takes us into each person’s perspective. There is Harper, who can barely look at her once-beloved Rhen but has been learning to use a sword and defend herself. Rhen, who regrets what he was forced to do but remains terrified of the magic that flows in his brother. Grey, who now lives in a nearby monarchy and is steadily learning to use his magic, probably to attack his brother. Lia Mara, the new queen who must find her own way without using the bloodshed that kept her mother in power. As war between the two kingdoms nears, the tension builds as romance and magic mingle to create a great read.

Kemmerer has managed to keep a marvelously tight rein on this series which easily could have spiraled out of control with its many protagonists, complex world building and fantasy elements. She manages to keep it focused on what brought Harper, Rhen and Grey together from the very beginning, making sure that readers remember that, see what has been lost along the way, and then offers a possibility, a hopeful way forward.

The book is in turns heart-breaking, hopeful and horrifying. The swirl of emotions works for each of the characters, each caught in their own situation, dependent upon one another, hoping they can do better than those who came before. The world itself is so strongly built from the enchantress’s curse to the castles themselves to the villages and towns that make up the kingdoms. It all clicks together into a unit that is unusual to see done so solidly in teen fantasy.

If you are a fan of the series, this one will not disappoint. If you haven’t read them yet, what are you waiting for? Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

Love Is a Revolution by Renee Watson

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Love Is a Revolution by Renee Watson (9781547600601)

Nala plans to spend her summer sampling new ice cream flavors and bingeing on Netflix. Since it’s her cousin’s birthday, she agrees to go to an open mic night for Inspire Harlem, a local teen activist group that her cousin is part of. The MC at the event is Tye Brown, who is handsome and funny, just the type of person that Nala wants to have as a boyfriend. Unfortunately, Nala starts off by telling him a few small lies, like that she is an activist too, that she works at a nursing home and that she’s a vegetarian too. As Nala and Tye spend their summer together, growing closer together, Nala’s lies become larger. Tye tries to help Nala with her nonexistent job at the nursing home her grandmother lives in. He also tries to change her even further, giving her gifts to help with her presentation skills and a water bottle so that she can be more green. Can lies turn into love? Can Nala find a way to be herself before she loses everything?

Watson once again writes a book that reads beautifully and easily while grappling with real issues. Here she focuses on what happens when a girl is willing to not be herself for a guy. While Nala’s lies are concrete, young women will also recognize how they may have disguised their true selves for a boy to like them more. The book is about liking yourself enough to stand in your own truth, not hide, and to be that person no matter who you are with. And if it doesn’t start that way, how to get back to that strong center and let it guide you.

Beautifully, Nala is a plus-sized girl who is not ashamed of her size, who likes cheese, meat and ice cream, and who is able to gain the attention of the cutest guy in the group. Time is spent thinking about her makeup and hair, but not her weight. It’s vital for Nala to be a strong person in this book, a girl you would not think would lie to get a boyfriend. She must find her way back to pride in herself, love for who she is, and a sense that she deserves the best.

Big-hearted, this novel tells the deep truth to young Black women through a series of lies. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter (9781250195463)

Join a band of brave heroes who adventure through dungeons and then take on more sinister threats above ground. There is Rose, the pun-flinging pink cat mage. June is the quieter dog healer who keeps the entire group alive. Goro is the big green creature who serves as the muscle. Finally, Jeremy is the frog with a sharp sword and a vendetta against The Baron. After finding a strange plant, our heroes must figure out how it is being used by The Baron to potentially take over the world. As they work through the threats and puzzles, the group steadily reveal themselves to the reader. Goro misses his boyfriend Horse Boy and Jeremy seems to be far more royal than he first appeared. Meanwhile, there is some romantic heat between Rose and June that plays out throughout the book.

Perfect for anyone who has spent time with Dungeons and Dragons or crawled through video game dungeons like World of Warcraft, this book is captivating. There is plenty of action for those who love that aspect of gaming, but really where this book shines is in the character development, just like any great D&D campaign. The inclusion of LGBT elements and full-on romance is marvelous. It’s a book sure to make everyone feel included in gaming, dungeons and even fancy dances.

The art is bright and dashing while the writing adds the joy of puns as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud. The two together make for a book that is a fast read because the action gallops along and readers will want to know what happens to these characters that they love.

Full of action, romance and humor, this is a dungeon worth crawling for. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Brave by James Bird

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The Brave by James Bird (9781250247759)

Collin’s compulsive need to count the letters in everything others say to him and say the number aloud makes it far too easy for bullies to target him at school. It also bothers his father. So when Collin is kicked out of another school, his father decides to send him to live with his mother, who he has never met. She is Ojibwe and lives on a reservation in Minnesota. Collin and his dog head across the county where he finds himself accepted and shown real displays of love for the first time in his life. Collin meets Orenda, the girl next door, who believes that she is transforming into a butterfly and works with Collin to find ways to battle his counting of letters. She lives in her treehouse, a space where Collins spends most of his time as he steadily falls in love with Orenda. But she is not sharing her own difficulties openly with Collin, who must figure out how to support her whether he understands or not.

Bird has drawn on his own Ojibwe heritage to write this debut novel. The book is a deep and rich mix of content that includes finding your real home, falling in love for the first time, and handling grief and loss. It is also about dealing with an OCD-like response, handling bullying, and discovering deeply who you really are inside and what you believe in. All of this is enriched by the Ojibwe culture that Collin experiences for the first time, allowing the reader to do the same by his side.

Bird’s writing is clear and strong. This novel creates a space for the character of Collin to really become himself, while experiencing some of the most important experiences in anyone’s life: love, grief and transformation. Collin himself is a marvelous character who is willing to dive right in and learn, open to new experiences and cultures.

This debut novel is full of courage and honesty. Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

All Together Now by Hope Larson

All Together Now by Hope Larson

All Together Now by Hope Larson (9780374311629)

This sequel to All Summer Long continues the story of Bina and her band. This new graphic novel shows the drama of middle school friendships and how that can be made even worse by adding in band dynamics. At first, Bina loves being in a band with her best friend, Darcy. But when Enzo joins them, she starts to feel like she’s being pushed out of her own band! It gets even worse when Darcy and Enzo become romantically involved. As they try to change Darcy’s music, Darcy decides to leave the band. Meanwhile, she is realizing that her next-door neighbor and friend, Austin, has a crush on her. Bina though doesn’t feel the same way. It’s a lot to navigate as a middle schooler and it leads to one epic punk reaction that results in Bina starting to speak out for herself.

So often sequels are not as good as the first. Here, the story gets even stronger as we get to see Bina grow into her own voice and her own musical stance. The addition of band drama into the huge changes already happening in middle school makes for true drama that is not overplayed here, but creates moments for growth and self-reflection with some rock and roll thrown in.

Larson’s art is as great and approachable as ever. Done in a limited color palette of black, white and a dusky purple. The art invites readers right into Darcy’s private world, her music and the band.

A rocking sequel that will have fans of the first happily dancing along. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

 

 

 

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.