Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

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Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT+
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: May 24th 2011

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Because ‘You’re perfect just the way you are,’ is what your guidance counsellor says. And she’s an alcoholic.”

A plane full of beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a deserted island. The girls must find a way to survive while keeping up their pageant training for when they are rescued. After all, there can only be one Miss Teen Dream!

The beginning of this novel is a fascinating satire, full of misogynistic tropes, fake brands, fake ads, and fun fact sheets about the girls. The Corporation informs the reader about the world the novel is set in, about what a good girl is like and what products they have to use to stay desirable. It’s a set-up for a very interesting story that parodies our world – but it loses itself along the way.

There was a cheesy action movie subplot that was more than the book needed. At some point, the book stops being about girls finding themselves, humour and feminism and turns into a very bad action movie. The book becomes TOO ridiculous in its attempts to be silly satire it just becomes over-the-top and more boring because of it. Evil lairs, ridiculous dictators and a ship full of hot boys all clash together in a huge mess.

The ending is a huge mess of an action scene, several convenient coincidences and just unsatisfying. The book tells the girl’s futures…which don’t seem much changed after a harrowing experience for the most part and bam happy ending even though the world isn’t changed for the better.

That’s not to say I disliked the book entirely. The premise is strong, and it does feature some good representation.Bray did make her main cast a little too large for her to handle, and the main ones were a fairly stereotypical (gun-loving Texan, dumb blondes etc.) but the thought was there. The fault is that this book just has no idea what it is or where it was going. It has elements of several potentially successful stories and tries to shove them all down the reader’s throat at once.

The highlights of this book are the “commercial breaks” and footnotes that build the world these girls live in. Period Pets, Lady Stache Off and other fun brands pepper the pages with good humour and great satire. I only wish these elements had been better explored instead devolving into a cheesy spy novel.

For Fans Of: Only Ever Yours

Rebel Bully Geek Pariah by Erin Jade Lange

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Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: February 16th 2016

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“All of us, or none of us.”

There is no reason these four teens should ever be together. Andi, York, Boston and Sam belong together like dogs and vacuum cleaners – but when an accidental crime forces to band together they become closer than any friends they had before. They have to sort this whole mess out, and while they do they discover that none of them are exactly what they seem.

Rebel Bully Geek Pariah is a fast-paced thrill ride from start to finish. The opening barely stalls a second before leaping into the exciting action-packed plotline. This is a book that is incredibly easy to tear through in one sitting. The timeline is a little less than twenty-four hours so all the events happen incredibly fast and nothing ever feels dragged out.

Despite the short timeline the characters get some fairly decent fleshing out with the exception of Boston. York, Andi and Sam all get complex backstories with at least one terrible tragedy each (which is a little ridiculous but makes for riveting reading). As the plot twists and turns, and as circumstances change we still manage to learn about and connect with this ragtag group of teens.

Sam’s relationship with her four-years-sober druggie mother is an interesting touch. The exploration of their relationship through Sam’s memories and the flash-forewards of Sam telling her the story are fascinating. The sort of love-hate relationship is what drives the heart of Sam’s character and her willingness to do almost anything for a certain fiddle.

Unfortunately, the ending was a bit of a disappointment. It feels rushed, and it lacks the weight that the rest of the novel had and seemed to be building up to. It feels like a story suddenly cut off when there could have been more. The character arcs in the last few pages are messy and don’t make a lot of sense.

The book is a little over-dramatic, and the smidgeon of romance included was VERY unnecessary but this book is above all thrilling. There’s not a single slow moment. If it’s not a car chase then it’s diving into a character’s painful past.The characters make incredibly questionable decisions but the book never stops being fun.

For Fans Of: This is Where it Ends

Secrets of a Reluctant Princess by Caset Griffin

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance
Publisher: Entangled: Teen
Publication Date: March 7th 2017

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Adrianna Bottom was always the butt of everyone’s jokes in Seattle. With her geeky personality and a dad who runs a bathroom business she never stood a chance. L.A. is a chance to reinvent herself, as well as star in a reality TV show. As Adrianna focuses on being popular she realizes she might be losing her only chance at a boy she actually likes. Worse, she might be losing herself.

Live action role-playing is an interesting twist in the young adult romance category. Books involving this hobby are pretty rare – and so it’s interesting to see it represented. However, Secrets of a Reluctant Princess isn’t breaking any other new ground. The romance at first interaction is dull. The trail of stupid misunderstandings is tired. There’s nothing worse than watching characters whine about something that could be solved with a simple conversation. Worst of all, the popular kids vs. “geeks” is outdated.

The idea that people who like geeky things are outcasts is tired. Hollywood is sustained by superheroes now, no one will tease you because you like Wonder Woman. Being a “geek” is not longer taboo. Jocks and prissy popular girls are hilarious stereotypes that rarely exist. Four-fifths of the popular crowd have no personality other than dumb or mean and even the main girl is just “friendly”. Popular kids have interests too.

There was also perhaps too much time spent defining the LARPing sessions rather than focusing on the relationship between Adrianna, her friends, her parents and her crush. The reality show was a good plot on its own. LARPing was a good plot on its own. Together they feel like too much, like the book didn’t know what it wanted to be.

The ending is also particularly unsatisfying. Sexual harassment is excused as a “mistake” (a repeated aggressively) mistake by a dumb teen. Parents using their child for fame and exposure who get upset when their child poorly affects their business were “well-meaning”. A shady reality show producer (who shows a seventeen-year old’s underwear on television) is mildly punished and let go.

For all it’s faults, it’s still a fun read if you don’t take it too seriously. There are several major occurrences of second-hand embarrassment, and you’ll be frustrated by dozens of misunderstandings but it’s cute. The main guy is handsome and kind, maybe a little too perfect but lovable. Adrianna isn’t the brightest bulb but she’s sort of relatable.

If you like mildly geeky things and romance this book will definitely satisfy, if not impress you.

For Fans Of: The Only Thing Worse than Me is You

 

If I Stay by Gayle Foreman

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Genres: Young Adults, Contemporary, Romance
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 6th 2010

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard.”

Mia is a cellist from a family of rock and roll lovers. Even her boyfriend is in a rock band, but despite their difference in musical preference Mia couldn’t love the people around her more. When she experiences a fatal car crash that robs her of her immediate family Mia has to make a choice. She has to decide if she wants to stay after so much has been lost.

The opening scene is one of the best-written accidents I have every read and while it was graphic it was also profoundly tragic despite the reader not having gotten to know the characters yet.

The contrast of present day while Mia decides to live or not and flashbacks of her life is interesting. It allows the reader to get to know the characters throughout the book while also immediately dealing with the tragedy. This lets the book stay fast paced with a sense of urgency while still developing Mia’s relationship with her family and her boyfriend.

I did feel the romance aspect was a little weak. Mia and Adam don’t really feel terribly in love to me and I hate that after about a year of dating he’s more moving to her than her family or her best friend. The story would have been much more powerful if she’d been moved by a family member or one of her mother’s friends who helped raise her. Romantic love is important but it shouldn’t be the defining thing in your life when it’s only been around for such a short time. There was some effort to make Mia seem like she considered everything but the ending could have been done a lot better.

The characters were also all a little too perfect. I can’t think of a single flaw any of them had. The thing about If I Stay is that it’s short. It ends before you can get tired of the perfect characters who feel a little less than real. It ends before the romance gets too ridiculous. It focuses on less than twenty-four hours of time and the memories Mia has of her life and then it ends.

It didn’t make me cry, but books rarely do. If I Stay knew what it was and didn’t overstay its welcome. It ended right where it should have and told a story with an interesting concept in between.

For Fans Of: Before I Fall

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Publication Date: January 12th 2017

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Steffi has selective mutism, but this will be the year she proves herself. Determined to speak in school helped along by her new medication. When she meets Rhys, a new deaf student, she discovers an opportunity to use a different language. As Steffi’s new romance grows she has to deal with a family who is a little too protective and a best friend who’s romance is not going quite as planned.

As far as representation goes, I think that A Quiet Kind of Thunder is a beautiful picture of both a socially anxious and deaf character. This is not a book that ends in a magical cure, and in fact in the deaf character’s case erases the want for a cure at all. It does explore the difference between the hearing world and the deaf world and the communities that come with them and how deafness or mutism can become part of who you are. Barnard has clearly researched well and presents the characters as realistically as possible.

The actual romance aspect is gaggingly sweet. It’s important to note that romance is not written as a cure for Steffi’s condition, although Rhys does support her. This is an issue in many books dealing with mental illness. That said, the relationship is well written and adorable. The sex is VERY real but a little male focused, young adult novels tend to see female orgasms as a nice bonus and not something that should happen in any good sexual encounter.

All in all Barnard has produced a beautiful second novel that is relatable and an absolute joy to read. Her writing style keeps readers interested and her portrayal of BSL (British Sign Language) is enchanting. Barnard writes teens who are silly, lovable and realistic. She includes families and friends giving both of them large parts to play instead of shrinking the world down to the two lovebirds.

Of course, the relationship has issues. Both Steffi and Rhys have boundaries they have to deal with, family and friend issues, but even at the worst moments the book keeps a light and fun tone. This is a pure joy romance and certainly not a tear-jerker. Everyone needs an upbeat book now and again.

A little over the top and cheesy, but full marks for representation and feel good romance.

For Fans Of: Lola and the Boy Next Door

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary, LGBT+
Publisher: MIRA Ink
Publication Date: October 22nd 2015

2 OUT OF 5 STARS

“You can only actually help someone who wants to be helped.”

Toni and Gretchen have always been perfect for each other, at least until they ended up going to university in different cities. Gretchen begins to try to find herself outside of the relationship while Toni struggles with gender identity whilst being part of a group of queer friends. They’re both turning out so different, will their love be able to last?

While there we several things that bugged me about this book, I can remember a few very clearly. First of all, genderqueer is represented in this book as a state between deciding what you are. Toni knows they don’t fit in any box but it’s largely suggested that they’re just preparing to transition.That genderqueer was just the in-between phase. Toni also uses only gender-neutral pronouns for a large part of the book – for everyone. Even after people tell Toni their gender, Toni refuses to respect it. They only start uses he/she because it’s easier and not because people deserve to be called he/she is that’s what they want to be called.

Anyone traditionally feminine is presented as a non-feminist because they like nice clothes and make-up. “Neither of them has the right to talk about feminism until they stop posting pictures of themselves in bikinis.” Feminists and/or gay people are never well-dressed or care about their appearance. Lesbians do not participate in girly fashion things.

Tying into that last bit – none of the characters are really believable. They are, at best, a stereotypical representation of whatever trope the author wants to fill. Toni is perhaps the least likeable of all, and while it is addressed that they put people in boxes to make hating them easier, they never really stops. Gretchen lets Toni push her around and hurt her but still waits for her to come back like a lovesick puppy. Everyone is either a jerk or a sweet airhead.

There’s just not much that this book had going for it. It didn’t need Gretchen’s point-of-view taking away from the interesting plotline. There were far too many scenes just meant to info dump queer terminology that Talley should have integrated naturally into the story. Gretchen does have some character growth but Toni barely changes. This book is four-hundred pages of angst. There are some exciting scenes – but it’s not good representation or a strong read.

The representation should have been the focus of this book, but genderqueer is represented so poorly that it’s all downhill from there.

For Fans Of: When Everything Feels Like The Movies

 

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Coming of Age
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: January 5th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?”

Rachel has always known what God’s plan for her future was. Soon she would be getting married, having children and raising them to honour the Lord. She spends most of her days practising domestic life and being a good helpmeet. When Lauren, a girl who abandoned Rachel’s church, comes back from the city Rachel is curious. Despite being warned she begins to communicate with Lauren and she realizes that maybe she could have her own future.

Devoted is an excellent read about a girl finding herself after leaving a negative situation. Rachel’s life is never made dramatically terrible. There is no obvious abuse within her family, just a quiet tradition of oppression that everyone has grown to accept. The lack of tragedy in Rachel’s past makes the book more powerful because while abuse is very real more often than not these sorts of churches just foster a lifestyle where women are oppressed without realizing it.

Matthieu examines the lifestyle Rachel leads critically, but never dismisses Christianity as a whole. Devoted shows some of the uglier (though not ugliest) sides of almost cult-like Christianity – but it also offers up other interpretations of the religion. Interpretations that allow freedom, love and inclusion while still keeping your beliefs. It carefully balances good people who believe and who don’t as well as bad people who believe and who don’t. Matthieu has written such a respectful and honest representation of religion when it would have been easy to sensationalise and exaggerate and that takes a lot of integrity.

There are hints of flirtation but there is no real romance plot that would threaten to burden or overshadow the focus on Rachel finding herself.Instead, much of the book focuses on platonic love between family and friends. Rachel loves her family despite being unhappy with life at home, she makes friends who she grows to love and shares her true self with.

Devoted is a powerful portrayal of a girl questioning her beliefs and ultimately finding her own way to believe. It is a refreshing young adult read and doesn’t fall into any obvious tropes or clichés. A fantastic feminist read that will leave readers thinking. Perfect for anyone fascinated by the Duggar family or the Quiverfull movement in general.

For Fans Of: Only Ever Yours

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schroder

Genres: Children’s, Contemporary
Publisher: Capstone Young Readers
Publication Date: September 1st 2016

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through the author in exchange for an honest review.

When Wren’s father dies her world ends. Suddenly her mom, who is always mad, is dragging her from city to city. Wren desperately wants to discuss her pain with her mother and more than anything she wants to stop moving every time her mother breaks up with a new man. As Wren struggles to come to terms with the loss she overcomes several other difficult issues and discovers who she is.

Be Light Like a Bird covers very serious subject matter, but Schroder has written it in a way that is appropriate and useful for younger readers. Wren’s journey dealing with loss, lies and fitting in is an excellent story for young readers. It will particularly resonate with younger readers who have also recently experienced a death and are struggling to deal with it.

Wren is relatable, likeable and just a little quirky. It’s easy to cheer for her as well as sympathize with her pain. Wren’s mother, unlike many adults in children’s fiction, is a complex character. She is not supportive of Wren, she makes mistakes but she is not a bad person. She is clearly dealing with the loss in her own negative way and it would have been easy for Schroder to cast her as a monster instead of a real, believable person. I am pleased that she chose the latter. Too often adults in children’s and YA novels are either all good or all bad and robbed of being actual people.

I did find that the book felt a little dated. In a way it felt sort of nostalgic but it was noticeably not present day. It might be more difficult for a child in the present to empathize with Wren when her world seems so far off from the one we live in now. There is a definite lack or present pop culture or technology – which can be seen positively as well because it makes the book timeless. However, I’ve always felt contemporary is better when it’s firmly rooted in a certain decade. As well, the secondary characters felt a little flat and stereotypical.

The weaving of Wren’s sorrow and the plot about saving her favourite nature spot was masterful. The way the nature plot was tied up actually surprised me with a clever twist. I thought Wren’s grief was tied up a bit neatly but because it’s a children’s novel a neat ending was probably the way to go.

I did find the excitement in the plot a little lacking, it was a very subdued story. There could have been more focus on Wren and her mother and less on the popular girls at school but overall I think this is a charming read for young readers.

A beautiful book about grief, forgiveness and letting go.

For Fans Of: Louder Than Words

What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Mystery
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication Date: September 22nd 2015

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Given enough time, everything changes.”

Kate Weston isn’t the most popular girl in school, but her life is still pretty great. A spot on the soccer team, close friends and a certain childhood friend she’s falling for. Everything changes when the picture of Stacey turns up online. Seeing her former friend passed out and slung over a guys shoulder make Kate uncomfortable but when rape accusations start surfaces her whole world starts to shift.

What We Saw tells an all too familiar story. A book that calls to mind Steubenville and the numerous other high school athletes involved in sexual abuse stories. It’s a particularly poignant read when it seems like a new case is appearing in the papers every week.

The choices to tell the story from a classmates perspective, instead of the victim’s is a powerful one. Kate isn’t directly involved, but she knows the people who are. Her whole town is up in arms about the case because of how it affects their pride and joy – the basketball team. I wish that I could say the story was told over-dramatically or that this would never really happen but it’s painfully real. Everything described could happen and often it already has.

The thing I particularly love about this book is that while it does not excuse the perpetrators, it does examine the culture that led them to decide to commit their crime. Various objectifying song lyrics are quoted, the victim is shamed for what she wore, boys will be boys, and even negative connotations in certain films and musicals are brought up. These are all dealt with. Most strikingly is the way it showcases all the boys as beloved athletes and because they’re talented and good for the town the girl must be lying.

Putting the brilliant message aside all the characters are well-rounded and believable. They all have several interests and different beliefs. The romance is organic and feels exactly as a high-school love story should. There is a particularly well-written sex scene that is absolutely honest and doesn’t use any of the usual romance novel cliches.

I did find the start a little slow, and Hartzer’s writing style wasn’t quite my cup of tea. There were times when Kate’s long monologues had me zoning out but I believe that this book is important. The message and story in this book are powerful because it lets you see this story on the inside. A story that happens again and again in the media. Yes, there are bits that are cheesy or ridiculously preachy – but this is a story that people need to read.

What We Saw is a haunting portrayal of how a rape rocks a small town and how quickly people can turn on a victim when justice might inconvenience them.

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For Fans Of: The Truth About Alice

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary, LGBT
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: September 16th 2014

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.”

Nothing could ever split apart Noah and Jude – until something does. Together since before birth a tragedy and several unfortunate events rip them apart. A complicated web of lies and half-truths pushes them further and further from the other. If only they could find their way back to each other they’d learn that the world isn’t quite what they’ve made it out to be.

This book is a beautiful slow build. It has love, mystery, pain and some humour. Nelson has a unique, but polarizing writing style. Fantastical elements fuse into her contemporary setting and her descriptions are a little over the top. It’s definitely a love it or hate it sort of style.

The book is told in alternating POVs between Noah and Jude. The downside is that instead of being divided into bite-sized chapters the book is separated into eight undigestible chunks. In a story where the POVs are meant to intertwine and reveal things to you, the chapters should have been shorter and switched more often. It’s difficult to remember how what happened to Noah eight pages ago relates to a tiny event in Jude’s life now. The size of the chapters also makes the beginning of the book drag on perhaps a little too long. In fact the entire book feels longer than it needed to be.

Noah is definitely the more likable twin, but even then both stories seemed steeped in slightly unnecessary drama. There were plotlines in both that could have absolutely been dropped, or at least dealt with better. The romances were, like the writing, a little imaginative.I didn’t really feel like either of the main couples were well developed outside of lust, although the books portrayal of sex and sexuality is actually a point towards it.

There is a lot that unfortunately kept me from loving this book. I’ll Give You The Sun is a book that is obese with metaphors. I love poetic writing styles but there were times when some of the metaphors disappointed me. They felt extremely hyperbolic and slightly ridiculous.

The “twists” are really predictable, and the plot doesn’t quite go anywhere. Noah and Jude are pretty terrible, neither of their parents are great, in fact, other that Garcia it’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters for me. The worst part was the forced happy ending through MASSIVE coincidences. I’ll Give You The Sun doesn’t feel like it should have a happy ending but somehow it does even though it takes several miracles to produce.

The way this book deals with loss, sexuality, and relationships is, however, brilliant. For readers who love Nelson’s writing style it’s a book that will stay with them forever – but for those who find the excessive use of metaphors a little jarring there are other books that follow similar plots just as well.

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For Fans Of: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda