Noteworthy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Noteworthy by Riley RedgateJordan Sun is a scholarship student at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Jordan is a junior now and she has never been cast in a school play. Something her mother is quick to remember whenever she wonders if Jordan would be more valuable to the family closer to home where she can work while going to school.

The problem isn’t Jordan’s skill or talent. The problem is that Jordan’s height and deeper voice don’t fit the narrow mold of most female roles.

Jordan can’t change either of those things. But in a moment of desperation she realizes that she can use them by auditioning for The Sharpshooters–one of the school’s a cappella groups. The only problem is she’ll have to audition as a boy because the Sharpshooters are an all-male group.

Being found out could be devastating leaving Jordan shunned for the rest of her time at Kensington-Blaine and known forever as the girl who infiltrated an a cappella group. Basically the least impressive spy of all time. But the rewards are worth the risk with all of the school’s a cappella groups competing for a chance to accompany Aural Fixation on the European leg of their tour as show openers.

All Jordan wants is to prove to her school and her parents (and maybe herself) that she can thrive in a leading role. She’ll stay with the Sharps long enough to win the competition, nail the tour, and move on. Keeping the guys at arm’s length for that long should be simple. But as her friendships with the Sharps (and competition with a rival group) grow, the lies start to mount and Jordan realizes that sometimes you have to get close to people. Even if it means you might get hurt in Noteworthy (2017) by Riley Redgate.

Jordan is a first generation American and a low income student at her historically white and affluent at Kensington-Blaine. She struggles with the dissonance between her life at boarding school and her family’s struggles to make ends meet through part-time and retail jobs. Adding to that pressure are mounting hospital bills from her father’s recent hospital stay when his pre-existing health issues (he is a paraplegic) make a light cough so much worse. Still stinging from her breakup, Jordan also starts to acknowledge her bisexuality for the first time.

Despite being in a predominantly white school, Jordan’s circle of friends and acquaintances is thoughtfully diverse with characters coming to terms with parental expectations, school pressures, and their sexuality among other things. In the Sharps, Jordan quickly bonds with dry witted Nihal who is Sikh and one of my absolute favorite characters.

I so appreciate the way that Jordan acknowledges both her limitations as a poor scholarship student and also her privilege in being able to cross dress essentially on a lark–a decision she struggles with long before her secret is revealed (because of course it is revealed). While the middle is bogged down in numerous issues of varying important to the story, Noteworthy still ends suddenly and leaves readers wanting to see more of the Sharps (and maybe some payback for their rivals the Minuets).

Noteworthy is a thoughtful commentary on gender, agency, and ambition. By inhabiting the role of Julian, Jordan starts to realize how many limitations have been placed on her life–both through outside expectations from family, friends, and teachers as well as by herself. It’s only by hiding in plain sight as a boy that Jordan really gets the chance to shine and embrace her own dreams. Recommended for readers looking for a light contemporary with some meat on its bones and, of course, a cappella fans everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, All Summer Long by Hope Larson, The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

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Speak: The Graphic Novel: A Chick Lit Wednesday (Graphic Novel) Review

cover art for Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily CarrollMelinda remembers when she looked forward to starting high school. It was a new chapter filled with promise. She’d have the  chance to become anyone she wanted.

That was before the end of summer. Before what happened at the party.

Now Melinda is alone. Her parents are too busy hating each other and their lives to pay any attention to why Melinda stopped speaking let alone anything else. At school everyone knows that Melinda is the one who called 911 and brought the cops to the biggest party of the summer.

Art class is Melinda’s one refuge. She doesn’t have to think about the best friends who abandoned her or the new girl who calls her a friend when it’s convenient. She doesn’t have to worry about trying to talk to David Petrakis. She doesn’t even have to think about what happened at the party. All she has to do is draw trees.

Melinda starts the school year as an observer–an outsider. She isn’t okay. But with her art, a reclaimed supply closet, and some time, Melinda might be able to reclaim her voice in Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018) by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily Carroll.

This book is the graphic novel adaptation of Anderson’s award winning novel of the same name. Although Speak was originally published in 1999 Melinda’s story remains just as timely and immediate in this new version.

In many ways, Speak: The Graphic Novel feels like the form this story should have always had. Anderson’s story is complemented by Carroll’s eerie black and white illustrations. The format allows the story to shift easily between Melinda’s reality and her imaginings. Carefully constructed page designs also help evoke a palpable sense of Melinda’s silence and her introspection for much of the novel.

Speak has been a must-read since its original publication. This graphic novel adaptation underscores the story’s significance and makes it approachable for a whole new segment of readers.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green, I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, Monster: The Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers, Adapted by Guy Sims, Illustrated by David Anyabwile; The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell

Foolish Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Foolish Hearts by Emma MillsThe entire construct of a pink party works on the expectation that the guests wear pink. Iris Huang wearing lavender to Amber Brunati’s pink party suggests exactly what she thinks of Amber and the party. But that’s just the way Iris operates–a surliness that is usually balanced out by her sweeter girlfriend, Paige Bruckner. The two have been together for most of high school and always present a united front. Always.

At least they did before Claudia overhears Paige breaking up with Iris. And gets caught eavesdropping.

Being on Iris’s bad side is punishment enough but it gets worst when Claudia and Iris have to write a paper together. Which they fail. Claudia is certain that working with Iris on the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for extra credit promises even more torture.

But somewhere between bombing her audition and shopping for materials to help with costume production, something funny happens. Suddenly instead of sticking to what she knows and keeping her head down, Claudia’s world is starting to get bigger.

Soon Claudia realizes that appearances can be deceiving as she discovers a boy band obsession, the ineffable Gideon Pruitt, and perhaps most surprisingly of all an unexpected friendship with the last person she expects in Foolish Hearts (2017) by Emma Mills.

In her latest standalone contemporary Mills explores friendship, romance, and fandom. Claudia’s world is pretty small. She has her family and her best friend Zoe, her scholarship to a fancy prep school, and all of the culture shock that implies. Claudia also has Battle Quest the massively multiplayer online role playing game she plays with her older brother and sister, her brother-in-law, and Zoe. Together they explore the game and pursue quests to find and vanquish the elusive Lord of Wizard. Claudia knows it’s not the most interesting of lives, but she’s always liked it.

At the start of senior year everything is changing as Claudia considers a near future where she and Zoe will be separated. That paired with Iris’s threat to ruin Claudia if she blabs about overhearing the breakup is more than enough excitement and uncertainty. Usually it would also force Claudia into a tactical retreat to maintain her low profile. Working on the school play changes that as Claudia is thrust into the world of costume creation and becomes a de facto drama coach helping the cast make sense of their dense dialogue.

I almost never say this but everything about Foolish Hearts makes me so happy. This book is all of the things that I loved in This Adventure Ends (including a male lead every bit as compelling and quirky as Frank Sanger) with none of the frustrating parts. Mills’ cast is thoughtfully and effortlessly inclusive (just like real life) and features a cast of memorable, quirky characters readers will love.

Even months after finishing Foolish Hearts I am still completely overwhelmed by how much I love it and how happy this story and these characters made me. A must read for fans of contemporary (romance) novels and anyone who’s ever fallen headfirst into a fandom without looking back. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

The Nowhere Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Nowhere Girls by Amy ReedGrace, Rosina, and Erin are used to being outsiders—nobodies. But as they get to know each other they realize they aren’t alone.

Grace is the new girl in town. The quiet daughter of a newly-minted radical liberal pastor who is so focused on building up her new church that she doesn’t have much time for Grace.

Rosina is a queer latina punk rocker. But she doesn’t have a band. And she isn’t out. Because most of her time is spent working in her family’s restaurant, taking care of her cousins, and avoiding her conservative Mexican immigrant relatives.

Erin knows everything there is to know about marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both things help her add routine to her life–something Erin needs to cope with her autism. But even routine can’t help Erin forget what happened before or answer the question of whether or not she’s an android.

Grace is outraged by the lack of sympathy and subsequent fallout for Lucy Moynihan–a local girl who accused three popular guys at school of gang rape only to be run out of town. Soon, Grace draws Rosina and Erin into her efforts to get justice for Lucy and for so many other girls.

It starts with just the three of them but soon they are everywhere because they are everygirl. They are The Nowhere Girls (2017) by Amy Reed.

There’s a lot to love in Reed’s latest standalone novel. This ambitious story is a scathing indictment of misogyny and rape culture as well as an empowering introduction to feminism for teen readers. Written in close third person the novel alternates viewpoints between Grace, Rosina, and Erin for most of the novel. The Nowhere Girls also showcases brief chapters (entitled “Us”) following other girls in town as they navigate first-time sex, negotiate physical intimacy with romantic partners, gender identity, and more.

Reed makes a lot of headway toward erasing the separation and exclusion of the primarily white feminism of the 1960s (and 1990s) with these “us” chapters as well as situating Rosina at the center of the start of the Nowhere Girls movement. This step is a really important one, and something I was glad to see. However a coworker pointed out that despite these inroads, a lot of The Nowhere Girls remains focused on white feminism with many of the brown girls in the story only being seen as saying this isn’t feminism meant to include them. That’s a problem and one I wish had more of a conclusion by the end of the novel.

It also points to one of the main problems with The Nowhere Girls which is that there isn’t always a payoff for much of the novel’s potential. The “us” chapters introduce a transgender character who wonders if she would be welcome in the Nowhere Girls with open arms. Unfortunately there is no answer to that in the text anymore than there is for the girls of color besides Rosina. Another girl contends with being labeled a slut by her peers and most of the town but her arc is cut abruptly short and leaves her, sadly and predictably, in mean girl territory instead of reaching for something bigger. I’d like to think these girls all have outcomes where they are able to embrace their own agency and feminism. But because The Nowhere Girls takes on so much there isn’t time to spell everything out on the page.

Then there’s Erin. I’m very happy to see more neuro-atypical characters getting major page time but there are questions as to whether a neurotypical author can (or should) delve into that interiority for a character. I don’t have an answer to that. What I can say is that Erin begins the novel by describing herself as having Asperger’s Syndrome–a term that is no longer used as a standard diagnosis–and generally not accepting her autism in a healthy way. There is growth with this and by the end of the novel Erin is referring to herself as autistic rather than an “Aspy” but it’s not given quite enough time to have a satisfying conclusion.

The Nowhere Girls is an ambitious, gritty novel that pulls no punches as it addresses complicated issues of rape culture and misogyny as well as solidarity and feminism. The Nowhere Girls is a novel full of potential and a powerful conversation starter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Nothing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Nothing ever happens to Charlotte and Frankie. Their lives are never going to be immortalized in the pages of a YA novel because they are way too boring. They don’t have glorious red hair or super hot love interests. Theirs lives aren’t falling apart and they definitely aren’t werewolves. Charlotte and Frankie just live at home with their parents who are pretty normal. They go to high school. That’s about it. Nothing.

Charlotte decides to prove how boring their lives are by writing all about everything that happens to both of them during their sophomore year. But as Charlotte tries to prove that life doesn’t have a plot or character development she starts to realize that real life might have its charms after all in Nothing (2017) by Annie Barrows.

Nothing is Barrows’ YA debut novel. The story was inspired by Barrows’ own children bemoaning their totally mundane and non-book-worthy lives.

The novel is written in alternating first person narration with Charlotte’s writing project and Frankie’s more traditional prose. Despite having distinct personalities and unique arcs, it’s often hard to distinguish between Frankie and Charlotte’s narrations as their voices blend together thanks to similar phrasing and cadence.

Charlotte and Frankie are authentic teens who fall decidedly on the younger end of the YA spectrum. There are no soul mates or life and death situations here but there are crushes, party-induced hangovers, and a couple of big surprises.

A quick, contemporary read ideal for anyone who enjoys realistic fiction with a healthy dose of laughs, strong friendships, and minimal drama or tears.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, Where I Belong by Gwendolyn Heasley, Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales

One of Us is Lying: A Review

Here’s what we know:

Bronwyn always follows the rules. She’s heading to Yale next year and she would never risk that or disappointing her immigrant father.

Cooper is an all-star baseball player. His pitching abilities are sure to lead the Bayview team to victory and pave Cooper’s way to the majors–just like his father wants. But Cooper wants other things that he’s afraid to talk about out loud.

Addy is homecoming princess and not much else. She isn’t ambitious or independent but she isn’t sure why she has to be when she already has the perfect life with her boyfriend.

Nate really belongs in detention. He’s always doing something wrong and has been for years. What do you expect from a guy who’s already on probation for drug dealing.

Simon is the outcast of Bayview but he’s also one of the most powerful students there thanks to the gossip app he created that dishes all of Bayview High’s worst secrets.

All of them were caught using cell phones during school hours. All of them claim they were framed. On Monday afternoon the five of them walk into detention at Bayview High. Only four of them walk out alive. Every one else has a motive for killing Simon. But no one has any proof. Yet. As the investigation heats up Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper all have to decide how far they’ll go to keep their secrets in One of Us is Lying (2017) by Karen M. McManus.

One of Us is Lying is McManus’ debut novel. This standalone thriller was partially inspired by the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club. The novel is written in alternating first person chapters between Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper as they try to make sense of what happened to Simon.

Despite the numerous narrators each character manages to sound distinct and stand out in their own sections. Anyone who is familiar with teen movies or YA novels will recognize some of the plot points (such as staight-laced Bronwyn pursuing a relationship with the resident bad boy) but they manage to feel fresh and interesting within this story. McManus keeps a tight rein on the plot as the story’s twists which are revealed at a satisfying pace throughout the novel. Unlikely friendships, surprising romances, and quite a few surprises make One of Us is Lying a winning mystery for even the most jaded fans of the genre.

While I was a big fan of most of this novel, there are two things I need to talk about. Avert your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers.

——START SPOILERS——

Every character in the book has a big secret. We eventually learn that Cooper’s secret isn’t steroid use as everyone suspects. Instead, Cooper is gay. And he is outed during the course of the investigation. Cooper being outed by reporters during the investigation is rightly treated as egregious behavior but it also felt tiresome and a little sad to still have it be a plot device. Maybe it’s realistic but I wish we were beyond that point already.

Then there’s the big reveal about Simon’s killer. It turns out that Simon was depressed from constantly trying and failing to be one of the popular kids. Refusing to discuss other courses of action Simon kills himself and use his suicide to frame a classmate for his death.

While the suicide-as-murder-frame-up is a familiar trope in mystery novels, it’s a troubling one in a young adult novel. It’s problematic to still have mental illness be treated as a plot device and especially to not have it be addressed in any way beyond being part of Simon’s brilliant plan.f

——END SPOILERS——

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter: A Review

Julia’s life is in freefall after her older sister is hit by a truck on her way home from work. Julia always knew her sister, Olga, was the favorite but watching her parents fall apart along with dealing with her own grief is overwhelming. Julia copes by looking into Olga’s life–something she was never very interested in when Olga was alive–but Julia ends up with more questions than answers and soon realizes that knowing the truth doesn’t always lead to closure in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017) by Erika L. Sánchez.

I am happy this book exists but I am 100% not the audience for it which I think influenced my lukewarm feelings about it. Julia is an interesting narrator–it’s still rare to see girls being unapologetic about being unhappy and being themselves, two things that come across immediately in Julia’s story. That Julia is Mexican American adds another dimension to the narrative and makes her voice even more badly needed.

Sánchez’s writing in this novel is authentic and literary without being neat. Sometimes Julia uses course language, sometimes she isn’t polished. But she’s always real and so is the Chicago neighborhood she inhabits–things that I am sure contributed to this book’s nod for the National Book Award long list.

In its review of this book, Kirkus points out that Julia isn’t likable. I don’t think she has to be and I don’t think we’re going to get very far as a society until we stop demanding female characters be likeable at all times. That said, sometimes Julia’s discontent felt a little vague. I wanted to know more about why she feels so unsatisfied and always has been. It’s never quite explained in the text.

There’s a lot going on in this book with side plots; some to good effect, some with unrealized potential. Julia is always striving and learning and while she isn’t always the nicest character, her growth over the course of the novel is all the more satisfying because of it.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about a first generation American trying to do the best she can. Give this to readers looking for a new story of the immigrant experience, readers who need their characters to be real rather than sweet, and above all give this to anyone looking for a character who loves art and words as much as they do.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr