The Upside of Unrequited: A Review

cover art for The Upside of Unrequited by Becky AlbertalliMolly has had a lot of crushes—twenty-six in fact—but they’ve never led anywhere. She’s never gone on a date or been kissed. Molly doesn’t necessarily mind that. But sometimes it’s hard to feel so awkward and chubby while her twin sister Cassie never has trouble connecting with the girls she likes.

This summer all of that might change when Molly connects with a cute boy named Will on the train. But it turns out turning a crush into something more isn’t easy. It’s even harder with helping to plan her moms’ wedding and her summer job. Then there’s Reid, Molly’s cute but nerdy coworker who is making her question all of the things she thought she knew about the type of guy she’d fall for in The Upside of Unrequited (2017) by Becky Albertalli.

The Upside of Unrequited is a cute standalone contemporary romance that puts a fat girl center stage while also offering a story that is about a lot more than Molly’s weight. Molly is a sweet and relatable main character. While her crushes can lead to flights of fancy she also stays grounded while focusing on planning her moms’ wedding now that they can finally get married. Molly and Cassie’s changing relationship as Cassie falls in love for the first time adds another dimension to the story.

Unfortunately, this one fell totally flat for me. I disliked Molly’s narrative voice a lot. She was a bit too twee for my tastes. I also knew I was going to have a hard time with this story when it opened in a public bathroom. It all just felt like Molly and the story were trying a bit too hard to be appealing.

The Upside of Unrequited is an obvious choice for fans of Albertalli’s other novels. A likely winner for readers looking for a more inclusive contemporary romance as long as they can buy into the voice.

Possible Pairings: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Once and For All by Sarah Dessen, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones

The Opposite of Here: A Review

“There’s always somewhere else I want to go, but when I get there I always want to leave.”

cover art for The Opposite of Here by Tara AltebrandoThe last thing Natalie wants to do for her seventeenth birthday is go on a “sail-a-bration” cruise with her parents and best friends. Even nine months after her boyfriend died in a car accident it still feels too soon.

But once the plan is in motion, Natalie realizes there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best friends Lexi, Nora, and Charlotte are excited so Natalie tries to be too. Lexi is ready for all the fun the cruise has to offer–especially if her boyfriend Jason never has to hear about it. Nora has been down for a while and Natalie hopes that maybe the cruise will do her some good. Maybe she’ll even find a new guy to like, it’s been a while. Charlotte is used to keeping a low profile at school and following the rules. On the cruise no one cares if she’s black enough or white enough–she can just be herself.

Natalie’s low expectations for the cruise rise when she unexpectedly meets a cute guy. He’s funny and exciting and Natalie’s attraction is immediate. But she doesn’t see him after their moonlit conversation and he blows off their plans to meet later.

At first the rejection stings and Natalie is prepared to move on. But then she starts to wonder if there might be more to it than that. How can a guy disappear on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean? Is it crazy to think he might have jumped?

Natalie isn’t sure where to start when she doesn’t even know his name. But she knows she has too look. The only problem is that the harder Natalie looks for answers, the more questions she seems to uncover in The Opposite of Here (2018) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a perfect balance of suspense and intrigue as Natalie begins to investigate the bizarre disappearance of the guy she meets on the first night of her cruise.

Instead of chapters the novel is broken into days with the cruise itinerary marking the start of each new section. Assigned by her film studies teacher to shoot a two line film during the cruise, Natalie also imagines various scenarios in short screenplay snippets.

While not quite unreliable, Natalie is a restrained narrator holding back information from readers, and maybe even form herself, as she tries to move past the worst events of the last year. She is sardonic, capable, and singular in her search for the (possibly) missing boy.

Because of its short length and close focus on Natalie the rest of the characters in The Opposite of Here can feel less dimensional by comparison although they do each have their own arcs–something Natalie and readers realize together as Natalie comes to understand that she wasn’t the only one affected by her boyfriend’s death or the events of the cruise.

Taut pacing and menace imbue the pages as the narrative toes the line between reality and the power of suggestion in this story that asks readers to separate fact from fiction. The Opposite of Here is a tense thriller sure to keep readers guessing right until the last page. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roerhig, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street: A Review

The Vanderbeekers have a problem. The family have lived in their Harlem brownstone for six years–so long that the younger Vanderbeekers don’t remember any other home. When their reclusive landlord, Mr. Biederman, announces that he won’t be renewing the family’s lease none of the Vanderbeekers are sure what to think. Even Mama and Papa are at their wit’s end trying to prepare the five Vanderbeeker children and themselves for the move with only eleven days before their lease expires.

Determined to stay in the home they know and love, the Vanderbeeker children take matters into their own hands to try and convince Mr. Biederman to let them stay. But despite the careful planning and heartfelt efforts, it seems like every attempt manages to go horribly wrong. As the days on their lease tick by, the kids begin to wonder if wanting something to happen can be enough to make it so in The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (2017) by Karina Yan Glaser.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is Glaser’s first novel and the start of a series following the Vanderbeekers and their adventures in Harlem. This story follows the entire Vanderbeeker family with a third person perspective that shifts between the five Vanderbeeker children: studious and scientific-minded Jessie (12), violin playing Isa (12 and Jessie’s twin), avid reader Oliver (9), crafty Hyacinth (6), and the youngest Laney (4 and three quarters). While that is a lot of characters to juggle, Glaser gives each kid their due with a distinct personality and a satisfying story arc.

The story never mentions anyone’s race explicitly but it’s worth noting that the Vanderbeeker family is biracial with Mama having dark eyes and straight hair while Papa has big, curly hair and light eyes. Glaser does a good job of painting a fairly inclusive neighborhood but I wish some of the ethnic identities were a little more overt on the page.

As a New Yorker myself my biggest outcry with this book was the concept of anyone having their lease revoked with only eleven days to move. I suppose it’s possible and it certainly lends urgency to the plot, but it also felt wildly improbable. The denouement of the novel also felt a bit too neat without adequate explanations for Mr. Biederman’s behavior (or his sudden change of heart) but both qualms are forgiveable in their efforts to move along a charming story.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is a funny slice-of-life story with a lot of heart. Readers will feel like part of the Vanderbeeker family as they get to know the kids, their building, and their neighborhood. The delightful start to what will hopefully become a long running series.

Possible Pairings: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue, Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker and Marla Frazee, Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Compass South: A Graphic Novel Review

Compass South by Hope Larson, illustrated by Rebecca MockNew York City, 1860: When Alexander and Cleopatra’s father disappears, the twins are soon forced into service for the Black Hook Gang to try and survive. Facing jail time after a heist goes awry, Alex and Cleo inform on the gang in exchange for tickets out of the city.

The twins hatch a plan to head to San Francisco impersonating the long-lost sons of a millionaire. But like most cons, nothing goes quite right.

When they meet Silas and Edwin, another set of twins with the same con in mind, tempers flare and trouble forms leaving Alex and Edwin shanghaied on a ship heading to San Francisco.

While Alex and Edwin try to find their way on the ship, Cleo and Silas reluctantly join forces to reunite with their brothers in Compass South (2016) by Hope Larson, illustrated by Rebecca Mock.

Compass South is the start of a projected graphic novel series.

Cleo and Alex are orphans being raised by their uncle (known to them as their father) with only two mysterious treasures–a watch and a knife–as their family legacy. The larger mystery of the knife and the watch begins to unfold as Alex and Cleo’s madcap trip to San Francisco begins.

Silas and Edwin serve as a nice contrast to Alex and Cleo with different priorities and outlooks during the course of their journeys. Larson’s nappy dialogue (in easy to read speech bubbles) works well with Mock’s carefully detailed full-color illustrations.

This story, filled with a variety of moving parts, subplots, and characters, comes together nicely in a fun introduction to the indomitable Alex and Cleo. As might be expected in a story with two different sets of twins, sometimes it’s difficult to gauge who is being shown in frame however visual clues and dialogue help to quickly clear up any confusion.

Compass South is a fast-paced graphic novel filled with action and adventure. Sure to appeal to readers of all ages looking for an exciting piece of historical fiction, and of course to comics fans. Readers will be clamoring to see what comes next for all of the characters and eager for future installments.

Blood Red Road: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Lugh got born first. On Midwinter Day when the sun hangs low in the sky. Then me. Two hours later.

“That pretty much says it all.

“Lugh goes first, always first, an I follow on behind.

“An that’s fine.

“That’s right.

“That’s how it’s meant to be.”

Blood Red Road by Moira YoungAll Saba ever needs is to know that her twin brother Lugh is by her side. With him near, Saba can handle the annoyances of her younger sister Emmi; the loss of her mother, who died birthing Emmi; and even the madness that is slowing pulling their father under.

When Lugh is abducted by four horsemen, he tells Saba to keep Emmi safe. But they both know she won’t. Not when Saba promises to follow him–to find him–no matter what.

She’ll follow Lugh into the lawless, wild world beyond her family homestead. In hunting for Lugh she will begin to understand some hard  truths about herself and her sister. She’ll find a gang of warriors and a daredevil who makes her heart flutter. In searching for her twin brother, Saba might even find a way to change her world forever in Blood Red Road (2011) by Moira Young.

Blood Red Road is Young’s debut novel and the start of her Dust Lands trilogy which continues with Rebel Heart and Raging Star.

Blood Red Road is an interesting novel set at the end of the world. Saba’s first person narration clearly brings her stark world to life with hints like ruined skyscrapers and useless books that suggest the world that might have come before.

Books are obsolete in this novel and, perhaps as a direct result, the spoken word and Saba’s narration have a very distinct cadence to them. The entire novel is written in Saba’s dialect as if she were telling the story directly to the reader. Words often have phonetic spelling and Saba’s speech sounds like nothing so much as a character in a twang-filled western. The prose is sparse and often reads like a verse novel with dialogue interspersed throughout without quotation marks or other punctuation to pull them out of the text. While this formatting is jarring at first, it eventually becomes a seamless part of the story and makes Blood Red Road a very fast read.

Saba is an interesting heroine in that she is resilient and inspiring while also being ruthless and often deeply flawed. For a lot of the novel, Saba wants nothing to do with her sister Emmi (to the point of putting the younger girl in very real danger) as she keeps a singular focus on her efforts to rescue Lugh. Young handles Saba’s growth as she learns more about the world (and herself, and her family) throughout the novel expertly to create a character transformation that is authentic and inspiring.

While some aspects of the world building remain murky–particularly in relation to the overarching villain that Saba will be dealing with for the rest of the novel–Blood Red Road is a solid dystopian and a very unique addition to the genre. Recommended for readers who enjoy post-apocalyptic tales with a survivalist slant.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy, Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

I’ll Give You the Sun: A Review

i'llgiveyouthesunAt thirteen, twins Noah and Jude are close. Their family is whole. Everything seems perfect. From a distance. Close up it’s easy to see that Jude is making bad choices that are pushing her toward a serious fall while Noah is struggling just to keep himself together under the pressure of fitting in with the painfully normal world. Art has always been enough to get Noah through. When he falls hard for the beautiful boy next door, he isn’t sure anything–not even painting–will be enough to make things right again.

At sixteen the twins are barely speaking and nothing is perfect anymore. Noah hides his hurt behind a facade of normalcy that seems to fool everyone but Jude. Jude, meanwhile, is not-so-quietly falling apart trapped on a path she never expected and is not sure she wants.

Both Noah and Jude are haunted by old ghosts and past mistakes. With the help of a curmudgeonly artist and a spectacularly messed-up boy, Jude thinks she can put the pieces of her family back together. Except she only has half of the pieces. It will take both Jude and Noah, together, to make things right in I’ll Give You the Sun (2014) by Jandy Nelson.

I’ll Give You the Sun is Nelson’s second novel. It is the winner of the 2015 Printz Award and the 2015 Stonewall Award.

Nelson delivers one hell of a story in her sophomore novel. I’ll Give You the Sun presents two stories simultaneously in alternating sections (no chapter breaks). Noah begins the novel with his story “The Invisible Museum” when the twins are 13 and on the cusp of some major changes for themselves and their family. Jude handles the latter of of the novel’s plot in “The History of Luck” when the twins are 16 and deeply troubled.

I’ll Give You the Sun has mystery, romance and elements of magic realism. The prose is imbued with an ode to the power of art and creation as well as some deeply powerful ideas about feminism.

The novel moves along with clever intersections between Jude and Noah’s stories. Both Noah and Jude have voices that are breezy and approachable in a way that draws readers immediately into their stories and their lives. Although the two characters often sound very similar in their narrations, there is a fair argument that the similarities are intentional since they are twins. It’s more difficult to explain Noah’s often literary and lyrical voice when he is only thirteen for much of the narrative–something that is balanced out with behavior (from both twins at that age) that is often painfully thoughtless or selfish.

This book isn’t always easy to read. The end of Noah’s story leaves both twins damaged and reeling from a variety of catastrophes. In Jude’s section, they are both hurting and struggling to survive without much hope for anything more until Jude decides to take a chance. I’ll Give You the Sun is at its strongest when these two characters realize they have to take action if they want to thrive.

Nelson’s writing is spectacular making I’ll Give You the Sun a vibrant story about family, recovery, art and love. Not to be missed.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb, Damaged by Amy Reed, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2014*

The Secrets We Keep: A Review

“But no matter what I did or how far I went for her, she’d keep me on the outside, five safe steps away from her and her inner circle.”

The Secrets We Keep by Trisha LeaverIdentical twins Ella and Maddy used to be inseparable until Maddy started to care more about field hockey and the popular crowd than she did about her quiet, artsy sister.

Ella still always come when Maddy calls. Even if it means sneaking out of her room and away from her art school portfolio in the middle of the night to pick Maddy up.

Instead of a quick drive and a painless trip with both of them home in half an hour, Ella’s car goes off the road in the midst of a bitter argument.

After, Ella is in the hospital, battered and with little memory of the accident. Maddy is dead.

Surrounded by friends and family who believe she is Maddy–convinced Maddy will be missed more than she ever will and filled with guilt over the accident–Ella makes a choice. She will become Maddy. She’ll live the life Maddy deserved. She’ll make things right.

Ella soon realizes that her sister’s  life is filled with secrets which Ella will have to understand while she tries to keep them. As Ella tries to make sense of the sister she barely knew she will also have to decide if she can continue living a lie or finally step out of her sister’s shadow in The Secrets We Keep (2015) by Trisha Leaver.

The Secrets We Keep is a story about family and grieving but also a mystery as Ella tries to understand what Maddy had done that left her crying and desperate for Ella to pick her up on the night of the accident.

Leaver begins the story with a prologue telling readers exactly what Ella has done and why she feels so strongly that she has to pretend to be Maddy (along with numerous circumstances stacking up to lead to Ella’s initial mis-identification as Maddy). The book then backs up to the night of the accident as readers learn more about the sisters’ estrangement and currently strained relationship.

There is no way to get around the fact that Maddy is a stereotypically mean popular girl before her death. An identifier which she never gets to transcend because she dies and instead it is Ella left picking up the pieces.

Unfortunately shifting the start of the novel to before the accident (and before Ella truly makes her choice as she is swept up in the post-accident confusion at the hospital) neutralizes a lot of the initial urgency. For the first seventy-five pages of the novel, readers know know exactly what happens after the accident which means that readers also know more than Ella herself.

Within The Secrets We Keep, Ella’s decision to become her sister makes perfect sense as the motivations stem from a deep sense of guilt combined with grief. But the premise begins to wear thin as the plot progresses and Ella’s secret begins to unravel.

Elements of romance and mystery move the story forward but never integrate perfectly with the main plot of Ella making peace with her sister’s death. The addition of an awkward love triangle between Ella, her best friend Josh and Josh’s two-years-younger girlfriend (who Ella strongly dislikes–and maybe feels threatened by–while refusing to acknowledge possibly having romantic feelings for Josh herself) further dilutes the core elements of the story which had so much promise.

Despite having all of the right pieces, including a great heroine and strong premise, The Secrets We Keep fails to meet its potential and instead becomes very familiar as the plot moves in directions previously handled more notably by Zevin and Oliver among others.

The Secrets We Keep blends several genres to deliver elements of romance and suspense within a story about loss and grieving that will appeal to readers looking for more of the same.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

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