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.

Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt

Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt

Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (9781452172880)

This verse novel takes a heartfelt look at a high school romance between two girls. Beginning with a fire being set, the book then takes readers back to the beginning as Kate and Tam first notice one another. Kate is a cheerleader with a perfect ponytail. She is angling to be squad captain, but when she agrees to fill in as mascot at the first few games, she discovers she loves being in costume and being funny. Her mother though has high expectations for Kate and isn’t amused. Tam is a tall volleyball player who moves through life being exactly who she is, never veering from that. Her mother is supportive and warm, sometimes too much so. When Kate and Tam admit what they feel for one another, it feels easy and simple, but it’s not for everyone else.

Holt’s verse is expertly written. She gives each of the main characters their own unique voice and feel. Their words at times dance and overlap with one another on the page, but the characters are distinct from one another always. Holt also adds in a Greek chorus of sorts, watching along with the reader and commenting on the story in just the right tone and verse. Holt gives the romance time to really grow, not jumping forward quickly to a full relationship, but allowing them time to linger in liking one another first. It’s a tender way to explore a new relationship on the page.

I love any LGBTQIA+ book for teens that allows love to win in the end. This book is full of hope, brimming with acceptance even as it explores having family members who don’t understand. It is not saccharine or sweet, offering clear reality but also managing to surround our protagonists with the support they need.

A book to cheer for! Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.

Review: Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman (9781512440003)

The author of As the Crow Flies returns with a queer western story that tells a different tale from the traditional male-focused guns-blazing westerns. This is the story of Flor, also known as the Ghost Hawk, a Latinx woman who steals from stagecoaches with the help of her trained hawk. On one of her heists, she takes a woman hostage looking for a ransom payout. But it turns out that Grace is not wealthy and many don’t understand that she is transgender. The two of them start talking and realize that Grace may be the key to one of Ghost Hawk’s biggest treasures, stealing some crucial documents from some rich confederates. Grace has a perfect Georgia accent, so all they need are some great dresses and plenty of courage.

I fell so hard for this thin graphic novel. I want to have the second book immediately so that I can continue to explore the West with these two amazing women. Gillman’s story is rich and masterful. She offers such empathy to her queer characters, many who are also secondary characters in the story and also pays homage to people of color in the West too. Her notes at the end of the book offer historical details for what she shows on the page, giving context to her characters.

Quite a ride! Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Frankly in Love by David Yoon

Frankly in Love by David Yoon

Frankly in Love by David Yoon (9781984812209)

Frank Li’s parents expect him to date only Korean-American girls. They make racist comments about all other races, even though Frank’s best friend Q is black. So when Frank breaks the rules and starts dating Brit, a white girl, he has to come up with a cover story. That’s where Joy comes in, she is a fellow Korean-American also caught in her families rules and she is also dating a non-Korean. So the two of them create a system where they pretend to date one another while actually dating other people. It’s the perfect plan until it falls apart as Frank learns what love is. Meanwhile, Frank’s family faces health issues and violence. Frank realizes that while his family may never understand him, he loves and needs them in his life.

Yoon has created one of the hottest YA titles of the fall. To my delight, it’s popular for a reason. Yoon’s frank exploration of racism both societal and within one family is refreshingly honest, not ever ducking away from difficult and deep conversations. The interplay of that and other serious topics with an almost rom com escapade of fake dating makes for an intoxicating mix.

Frank Li (whose name is a delight) is a wonderful protagonist. He is immensely smart and not overly naive. His personal take on his heritage and culture grows and changes throughout the novel in an organic way. There are no easy answers offered here, no final moment of clarity. Instead it is all about growth and the ability to understand one another and find connection, even after it has been damaged or severed.

A great teen novel that is a marvelous mix of romance and depth. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Putnam.

Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (9781250312853)

Deja and Josie are completing their last night working at the Pumpkin Patch before they leave for college. The two have worked at the Succotash Hut together, perfecting the stirring technique. Josie has won most valuable employee every year but one and is definitely in the running again. He’s also had a huge crush on a girl who works at the pie stand, so it’s Deja’s mission on their last night to get him to actually speak to her for the first time. So the two of them leave the Succotash Hut and head out to find his crush. But it won’t be easy to find her and their quest takes them on a full tour of the Pumpkin Patch complete with delicious snacks like Freeto Pie, S’mores and candy apples.

These two very talented teen book creators have designed an amazing graphic novel together. They take the Midwestern pumpkin patch experience of corn mazes, picking pumpkins, and treats and turn it into a quest for love that is charming and enticing. It’s very rare to find a teen book that is this seasonal. When you read this one though, you can almost smell the cinnamon autumnal scents on a breeze.

The two main characters are wonderful. They have a clear chemistry on the page. Deja is bisexual, having dated several of the other workers at the Patch over the years. Josie is marvelously shy except with Deja with whom he really shows his personality. The entire book is a delight of a read thanks to these two characters who are such a joy to spend time with.

A tremendous graphic novel that I dare you not to “fall” for. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.