Darius the Great is Not Okay: A Review

cover art for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib KhorramDarius Kellner is more comfortable talking about Star Trek than he is about his status as a Fractional Persian. He doesn’t speak Farsi very well and a lot of Persian Social Cues still mystify him (Persian Casual anyone?).

Not that connecting with his father’s side of the family is any easier. Darius isn’t cut out for their Teutonic stoicism and he is no Übermensch like his father Stephen Kellner. The only things they seem to have in common are a love of Star Trek and clinical depression. Not exactly the makings of strong familial ties.

Darius doesn’t know what to expect on his first trip to Iran with his family. He’s excited to meets his grandparents and the rest of his family in person for the first time ever. But he doesn’t know what they’ll make of his limited Farsi or his medication.

He never expects to make a new friend, let alone a potentially lifelong one like Sohrab. As Darius starts spending more time with Sohrab he learns what it’s like to have a friend and, maybe, what it’s like to be himself and embrace his namesake—Darioush the First aka Darius the Great in Darius the Great is Not Okay (2018) by Adib Khorram.

Darius the Great is Not Okay is Khorram’s marvelous debut. It was a BookExpo 2018 YA Editor’s Buzz Selection and if it doesn’t get a nod from this year’s Morris Award I will be extremely surprised.

Darius’s first person narration immediately draws readers into his world as he explains his passions (tea and Star Trek, in that order) and his frustrations as he struggles to fit in with his own family. Khorram’s writing, especially as Darius begins to discover his family and his heritage in Iran, is vivid and evocative. This book is also filled with delicious descriptions of food, so be sure to read with snacks nearby.

I love the way Khorram uses dialog and voice throughout the book as Darius struggles to connect with relatives who don’t speak English and how to express himself in any language. Darius the Great is Not Okay is a gentle, contemplative read perfect for readers looking to satisfy their wanderlust without leaving home.

Possible Pairings: In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sarah Farizan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonneblick, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Check, Please!: #Hockey: A Graphic Novel Review

Check, Please!: #Hockey by Ngozi UkazuBitty is a former junior figure skating champion, a vlogger, and a master baker. He’s also a freshman at Samwell University where he has a scholarship spot on the hockey team. Bitty is known for his speed on the ice, but he isn’t sure he’s ready for college hockey–especially if it means getting checked!

The Samwell team is . . . different than Bitty expected. There’s a lot of swearing and a lot of nicknames. Shitty (Bitty doesn’t know his real name and isn’t sure if anyone does), and Holster and Ransom are quick to welcome him, but Bitty still doesn’t know what to make of the team captain Jack who is as cute as he is moody.

As Bitty finds his footing in college and on the ice, Bitty starts to think he might just have found his place at Samwell. But only if he can get over his fear of getting checked and find a way to get past Jack’s aloof exterior in Check, Please!: #Hockey (2018) by Ngozi Ukazu.

Check, Please!: #Hockey collects part of Ukazu’s popular Check, Please! webcomic. The story is broken into seasons and this volume collects seasons one and two (Bitty’s freshman and sophomore years at Samwell). A second volume is set to follow which will cover junior and senior year.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Bitty or anyone else on the Samwell team when I started this comic. I never imagined I could actually become invested in a sports comic or laugh out loud learning about hockey butt and flow. But all of those things happened in this magical, hilarious comic.

Bitty is definitely an outlier on the team with his small stature and his penchant for baking. He’s also worried his teammates won’t accept him if they find out he’s gay. But Bitty, and readers, will be pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie and loyalty of the Samwell team. These guys are family and they are a damn delight to read about.

The fate of the Samwell team’s standing on the ice is interspersed with Bitty’s misadventures during hazing, inevitably bizarre course work, and some crazy intense tension with Jack. Is Bitty crazy to think they might become friends? Is it even crazier to hope for more?

Ukazu’s artwork is almost as cozy as Bitty’s kitchen with bright colors and smooth line work. The panels are often larger than you’d expect (especially for a story that’s adapted from a webcomic) and because of that all of the characters have extremely expressive faces too.

Check, Please!: #Hockey is a hilarious introduction to a series that is as entertaining as it is endearing. A must read for all–even the non-hockey fans. Recommended!

Spinning: A Graphic Novel Review

What happens when the thing you’re supposed to love becomes something you hate? What happens when you spend most of your life working toward something only to realize you no longer want it?

For ten years skating was Tillie’s entire world as she spent hours practicing with her synchronized skate team and for her individual figure skating certifications and competitions. Life on the rink was meant to be a break from the real world with bullies, school, and the pressures of her family.

When Tillie’s family moves to Texas all of that starts to change. At her new school Tillie feeds her growing interest in art and starts a fledgling relationship with her first girlfriend. As her world gets bigger Tillie struggles with how to reconcile to herself and her family and friends that it’s time for her to move on in Spinning (2017) by Tillie Walden.

In guise of a book about competitive figure skating, Walden offers a subtle graphic novel memoir about growing up and speaking out. During the sometimes turbulent end to her time as a skater Walden also discovers how to stand up for herself and how to come out to her friends and family. While not everything works out for Tillie and many paths are still uncharted, Spinning is an ultimately hopeful story of new choices and new beginnings.

Walden’s artwork, colored with a purple hue as seen on the cover, is full of motion and pathos as she makes excellent use of the comic panel structure to move the story forward while highlighting smaller moments in the narrative.

Spinning is an excellent graphic novel sure to endear itself to any readers who have ever struggled not just to find their next path but also how to explain that choice to others.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

The Possible: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“What if life was all about letting go?”

Kaylee doesn’t remember much from when she was really young. She knows her biological mother is in jail but the details of her arrest for killing Kaylee’s brother and the trial are memories from another life.

Kaylee is happy now with her adoptive parents and her perfectly normal life. She’s a rising star on the school softball team and she is working on a plan to attract the attentions of her longtime crush. Simple.

Until a woman shows up at Kaylee’s house wanting to interview her for a podcast investigating Crystal.The Possible podcast is going to spend a season looking into the telekinesis claims that made Crystal a media sensation as a teen, her trial after her son’s death, and what she’s like now in prison.

Kaylee is desperate to be special. To be noticed. Being involved in the podcast seems like the perfect chance to see if maybe, just maybe, she might have some of Crystal’s powers. As the podcast starts to air Kaylee gets exactly what she wants. But she does’t count on the bitter taste of notoriety or the secrets that begin to surface when she looks into her own past in The Possible (2017) by Tara Altebrando.

In her latest thriller Altebrando taps into the wide popularity of investigative podcasts as she and her characters ask a simple question: “What if?”

Kaylee is a totally reliable narrator but she’s also eager to be swept away and believe that some of the hype surrounding Crystal, and by extension herself, might be true. Kaylee is athletic, a little self-centered, and striving for that elusive better, more popular, and generally more appealing version of herself. In trying to embrace telekinetic powers and familial connections that may or may not exist Kaylee realizes that she has to let go of what she wants other people to see when they look at her and focus on being herself in whatever form that takes.

The Possible is a tense, fast-paced story focusing squarely on Kaylee and the podcast. Most of the novel is narrated by Kaylee with pieces of the story being told in newspaper articles, podcast excerpts, and interview transcripts. While Kaylee reaches some conclusions for herself by the end of the story, the narrative stops short of actual answers leaving readers to decide the truth for themselves in this gripping story. Perfect for fans of psychological thrillers, true crime, and anyone who’s ever asked themselves “what if . . . ” Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier,  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Be sure to check out my interview with Tara!

Girl Against the Universe: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Girl Against the Universe by Paula StokesMaguire is cursed.

It all started when her brother and father died in a car crash that left Maguire without a scratch. Then there was the time a roller coaster jumped its tracks. And Maguire was fine. Everyone at a sleepover was hit with food poisoning. Except Maguire. Before their latest move, the house next door caught fire. Because Maguire had left a candle burning on her windowsill.

Maguire tries to mitigate her bad luck with dozens of good luck charms and rituals. She also checks her surroundings for accident potential and tries to stay away from other people to limit the damage. She won’t drive anywhere with her stepfather or stepsister because she’s terrified of hurting them. Even driving with her mother is a cause for slight panic.

Talking through her curse in therapy, and hoping to get past her fears so that she can visit family in Ireland, Maguire tries to make some plans to change her luck. Jordy, a lucky (cute) tennis star, is sure that he can help even as Maguire worries that her bad luck will rub off on him.

Maguire is used to keeping to herself and trying to survive alone. But as she gets to know Jordy and makes other friends, Maguire starts to realize that there’s more to life than just surviving in Girl Against the Universe (2016) by Paula Stokes.

Stokes balances Maguire’s genuine grief with bright moments of humor. Although Maguire is understandably frustrated by the limitations on her life because of her bad luck, she is still shown as a capable and strong heroine throughout. She reads a lot. She is well-versed in survival practices (forewarned, is forearmed). She’s athletic with a love of rock climbing and, as she discovers during the novel, has potential as a promising tennis player. Maguire’s own belief in the curse is never ridiculed. Her family and friends all try to convince her that she is suffering from survivor’s guilt (not a curse) but they also respect Maguire’s concerns.

Both Maguire and Jordy see a therapist in Girl Against the Universe and these scenes are informative and thoughtfully portrayed as Maguire works with her doctor to figure out how she might conquer some of her bad-luck-related fears with small, practical steps building toward her dream of flying to Ireland.

Maguire’s growth as a character is highlighted throughout the novel with her therapy, her growing support system as she gets to know Jordy and other new friends, her changing dynamic with her family, and her time playing tennis as part of her school’s team.

Girl Against the Universe is an unexpected and delightful contemporary novel. A funny, heartfelt, and ultimately optimistic read. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Tumbling by Caela Carter, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Summer of Sloane by Erin L. Schneider, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Tumbling: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tumbling by Caela CarterGrace cares more about gymnastics than she cares about anything. She has the “international” look that appeals to judges. But with younger, smaller gymnasts coming along all the time, Grace is desperate to keep her edge–even if it hurts her.

Leigh is Grace’s best friend but it’s hard to balance friendship with their constant competition for first place. Leigh balances a normal life in school with her professional aspirations at the gym but she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere.

Camille was an Olympian four years ago–but only for a day. Now everyone is cheering  for “Comeback Cammie” as she tries to make the team again. Between her mother’s expectations and her boyfriend’s disapproval, she isn’t even sure she wants to be an Olympian anymore.

At nineteen Wilhemina is practically a different generation from the other girls competing when it comes to gym years. She missed her chance four years ago because her birthday was four days too late. This time she isn’t going to let anything stand in her way, especially not petty gymnastics politics.

Monica is far from the top and everyone knows it. She’s a decent gymnast. She’ll definitely qualify for an NCAA scholarship one day. But she knows to keep her expectations low because hoping for more and falling short will hurt too much.

These five girls are gambling everything–every choice they have made for their entire lives–on how well they perform at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials. At the end of the trials some of the girls will be stars, some will have nothing. All of them will be changed forever in Tumbling (2016) by Caela Carter.

Tumbling rotates between five perspectives (all close, third-person) throughout the novel to explore Grace, Leigh, Camille, Wilhemina, and Veronica’s stories. Set over the two days of the meet for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials this story explore their individual stories as well as their (sometimes unexpected) moments of intersection. These girls are also a diverse and inclusive group that reflect the real face of this sport.

Carter takes this ambitious structure and handles it well. Each girl’s personality comes through in her individual sections as well as in the larger plot of the novel. Supplemental material including a roster with all of the characters (and the seven other gymnasts competing at the trials) and a glossary of gymnastics terms will help even the least initiated feel like a gymnastics expert while reading.

Tumbling explore the competitive and grueling nature of gymnastics. All of the girls are struggling with something whether it’s body image and not eating, self-esteem, figuring out if being a lesbian really needs to be a part of a public gymnast persona, or just self-esteem. While this book highlights the thrill of competition (and the drama), it also is an honest portrayal of the work and dedication needed to compete at such a high level. Themes of body positivity and staying healthy while competing are also stressed throughout.

While there is drama, fierce competition, and some intense conflict the overwhelming focus of Tumbling is on positivity and friendship. Yes, these five girls are competing. But it’s not always with each other so much as it is to be the best. While each character is flawed, by the end of the story they are all striving to build each other up and be better versions of themselves both in and out of competition.

Readers will think they know what to expect at the start of Tumbling but Carter artfully includes realistic twists and surprises that leave several characters in surprising circumstances by the end of the novel. Veronica and Wilhemina’s arcs are particularly satisfying and work well to bring the entire novel together. Highly recommended for gymnastics enthusiasts as well as readers looking for an exciting book with a strong cast of female characters.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Rival by Sarah Bennett-Wealer, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, The Flip Side by Shawn Johnson, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Boy Toy: A Review

Boy ToyJosh Mendel has a secret. Except everyone knows what it is.

Everyone seems to know what happened five years ago. Everyone seems to think they understand.

But no one does. Not really.

Years later, Josh is graduating high school soon and still trying to make sense of the pieces left in the aftermath.

But with so many broken parts Josh isn’t sure any of it–not baseball or Rachel or even closure with Eve–will be enough to make him whole again in Boy Toy (2007) by Barry Lyga.

When Josh was 12 his history teacher sexually abused him. Repeatedly. Since then Josh has been haunted by both the abuse itself and the fact that he is certain everyone in his small town knows exactly what happened thanks to Eve’s detailed confession.

Now 18, Josh is still processing what happened and his own part in moments he’d rather forget. His best friend never asks Josh about what happened. And Rachel, a girl he accidentally frightened shortly before the abuse came to light, suddenly wants to be a part of Josh’s life again.

Josh still isn’t sure what he wants. Chapters alternate between Josh’s present and past as he sifts through the beginning of Eve’s interest in him, the actual abuse, straight through to the disastrous day his parents found out what had been happening. The dual stories blend together seamlessly to create one complete picture of a broken young man who is still trying to put himself back together.

Lyga is an excellent writer and brings a nuanced, unexpected edge to this story of abuse and healing. Boy Toy has some troubling, gritty moments but it is an ultimately compelling must-read.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Leverage by Joshua Cohen, Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, Teach Me by R. A. Nelson, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Sprout by Dale Peck, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales