🥇Q: what superlative would you give your high school self?
I randomly started Rachel Lynn Solomon’s Today Tonight Tomorrow one day last week when I thought I couldn’t get into any books. Then I couldn’t stop.
Rowan Roth & Neil McNair have been battling over high school achievements since freshman year & now that graduation is almost here, the ultimate prize—valedictorian—will be revealed. Rowan doesn’t get it, and when she realizes that she also hasn’t met any of the goals on her Guide to High School Success, she hinges all of her hopes and dreams on winning a Senior scavenger hunt.
Today Tonight Tomorrow has:
⭐️ A prickly heroine (but only with the hero. TBH, there is one occasion when I thought: ooof harsh). Rowan secretly wants to be a romance novelist & has lots of interesting—and relatable—thoughts on why women are shamed for reading and writing them.
⭐️ A highly freckled cinnamon roll hero with lots of secrets.
⭐️ Fantastic Jewish rep. Both leads are Jewish, something they discover in the book.
⭐️ A slow burn and a love letter to Seattle.
Today Tonight Tomorrow is sex-positive and funny, and might have you sagely nodding your head in agreement with its lovable characters’s observations. Highly recommended for fans of Jenn Bennett & Julie Buxbaum, Solomon’s book wooed me ardently and I can’t wait to read more.
Today Tonight Tomorrow is out on 07/28. Thanks to the publisher & Netgalley for the complimentary ARC. All opinions provided are my own.
Marisa Kanter’s contemporary YA What I Like About You is super cute and also hard-hitting, like that one pocket-sized woman on Friends who Joey dates and who fiercely punches him when she laughs.
On her mega popular bookstagram and Twitter accounts she’s Kels, an amazingly inventive YA reader who pairs books with cupcakes and whose best friend is Nash, whom she’s never met in person. IRL she’s Halle, who’s very uncomfortable in some social settings, doesn’t have many (any?) friends except her brother, and stumbles across Nash at a library in a town she’s just moved to. She should just tell him who she really is—his online BFF Kels. But feelings.
As they start spending more time together, things predictably get confusing. Her own budding feelings for Nash are complicated by the fact that Nash actually has a crush on Kels, which he’s never revealed to her, and she actually is Halle & Kels, even if the guy she really likes doesn’t know that.
Yikes. Though the beginning of this conflict feels kinda thin to me—Halle doesn’t really seem to consider the long-term effects of her deception—by the middle and end I was agog, waiting to see how she and Nash would get over the hurdle. I had hope, but Halle really does some questionable things throughout the book that merit quite a bit of forgiveness. And I actually loved that.
But while Kanter really brings our sweet & snarky Halle to a moment of reckoning, she also shows how it’s possible for someone to take solace in social media anonymity, to hide their true opinions behind it, and to step away from their phone when things start feeling too hard. That’s the temptation of online life.
Kanter also gets major points for featuring a diverse cast of characters, engaging with mental and emotional health from panic attacks to grieving, and tackling general conversations surrounding YA books, like matters of audience.
This is a romance but even more than that, it’s a self-mance (this is me running with that word) and I was there for it.
4.25⭐️. What I Like About You is out on April 7, 2020. I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
When I read a Julie Buxbaum YA book the feelings flow, whether the book’s related to losing a parent (the amazing Tell Me Three Things) or the recent college admissions scandal. The latter’s the topic of Admission and Buxbaum makes it hurt, overtly wrestling as the book does with themes like low self-esteem, uncertainty over the future, especially when one can no longer 100% trust one’s parents, and the deleterious nature and effects of white privilege, whether someone’s actively trying to sustain it or trying to ignore its very real existence in their own life—even as they benefit from it.
Chloe Berringer is the daughter of famous actress Joy Fields. It’s time to apply to college and Chloe realizes how difficult it’s going to be to get into the right school with average grades and an average SAT score she hasn’t been able to bring up. Her parents hire Dr. Wilson, a consultant who’s going to help her apply. With his help Chloe gets into her dream school...and then it all comes crashing down.
Admission's told from a Then and Now perspective and comparisons of Chloe and her family across that time-span give the reader a lot to chew on. I’ll be honest: I really like this book but I can see how the moments when Chloe’s painfully “oblivious,” short-sighted, or stubbornly forcing her head to remain in the sand, when she’s so soft and can’t even think of an application essay topic because she isn’t sure what bad life event or circumstance she can draw on—could easily frustrate, alienate, and/or anger a reader. Or the times when Shola, her Nigerian American friend, has to hold Chloe accountable for the things she says and the way she lives her life...like she “deserve[s] everything.” And then there’s the general premise that Chloe and her family are rich and her parents are so not satisfied with their already tremendous advantages that they’re willing to pay a humongous amount—and commit fraud—to orchestrate Chloe’s acceptance to a specific school.
Buxbaum gives us those moments.
She also gives us Chloe’s self-awareness and her general awareness of how her family did wrong. Chloe’s determination to be better and do better. Her secret pain—that she’s not enough—that pops up again and again in harsh ways, even in the book’s final chapters—no matter how much her parents love her. How she wrestles with the fact that she's "betrayed" people, too, even though her parents were the ones actively seeking Dr. Wilson's help.
It’s those aspects of Chloe’s story—coupled with my own past (and to some degree present) as a sheltered, protected, spoiled girl who benefited from white privilege (and still does) and who said (and to a much lesser degree, says) things that reveal my own complicity in white privilege that made me connect to her.
Chloe’s mother Joy seems loosely based on Lori Loughlin and her actions help drive the book. But her daughter Chloe is the focus here, the one arguably most affected. The one whose future is dashed on the rocks, who loses people and things, and who—like her guidance counselor suggests—has the most opportunity to grow. If she takes advantage of it.
I don’t think that this book will be loved by everyone. The topic, the main character, the family, are too polarizing for that. But I love how Buxbaum boldly tackles the topic of white privilege and the admissions scandal, how she shows the unattractive bits of Chloe and her family humanely, without writing them off for good, and how she portrays the consequences of it all. Some of those aren’t pleasant but like Chloe says, the view from the bottom can be pretty good.
I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for my complimentary ARC of this book. All opinions provided are my own.
The Magnolia Sword—a Mulan re-telling written by the inimitable Sherry Thomas—is a kick to the senses. It’s an evocative trip to ancient China told in the voice of a very resourceful, very brave woman, Mulan.
Mulan follows the dictates of her father and lives her public life in the guise of her long-dead twin brother. She’s the person who’ll represent her family in the long-held duel between her family and an enemy family, the Pengs, to determine which family will win a set of coveted blades, and she’s the person from her family who volunteers for the draft when soldiers come calling for men to protect their Empire.
No one can know her secret or she risks bringing dishonor on her family and making them lose the reduced possessions they have left. But it’s hard to keep a secret like this in the army when quarters are tight and conditions are rough, and the princeling who leads her into war might be the same man she’s responsible for dueling at home.
Sometimes hidden identity stories get kind of ridiculous because the author might attempt to maintain a story’s suspense by allowing her/his characters to look naïve/silly/incapable of seeing what’s right in front of them forgodssake. But I love how Thomas does it in The Magnolia Sword: how Mulan is questioning and skeptical regarding the identity of the princeling without being overly paranoid; how some questions are answered fairly soon but others are left in mystery until the end.
The revelations unfold in a way that makes sense for Mulan’s character, just as they make sense in terms of the princeling’s.
And speaking of the princeling, his characterization is divine. I never knew how much we need to read about heroes who are physically strong/willing to take on almost any threat and also freely admit their many fears until the princeling. His sensitivity—and my response to it—was at times surprising and feels refreshing.
Thomas’s powerful depiction of women in the story—chief among them Mulan—is even more nuanced. Some of them can nurse grudges as faithfully as they can nurse children. I love how astutely Thomas chooses when to put Mulan’s specific insecurities/pride/worries regarding her identification as a woman and her set of circumstances at the forefront, and when to put them in the background.
Mulan’s eyes are repeatedly opened throughout The Magnolia Sword and we’re reminded of truths with her. This book tells the story most of us (many of us?) have heard before, about a woman-soldier in disguise who fights for her empire, but it’s also a story about how words have an impact and how language and history matter, whether we’re talking on a personal level or a global.
In the end, The Magnolia Sword has flash and adventure and quite a lot of sweetness, but it also has the gorgeous impact--the whatagreatwriter moments--that I’ve come to associate with reading a Thomas book.
4.25 out of 5 stars.
(A note that felt out of place earlier in my review: I also appreciated how diverse the story is relationship-wise, and how Thomas doesn’t shy away from at least the suggestion of same sex relationships among men and relationships among people of different classes.)
Thanks to Netgalley for my complimentary copy of this book. All opinions provided are my own.
If there’s ever a book to get lost in, it’s Jenn Bennett’s The Lady Rogue.
First of all, that title. Second, nearly every other thing about the book.
I’m not kidding: this cross-Asia-and-Europe adventure of thrilling proportion—set in 1937 and featuring an intrepid heroine and hero on the hunt—is so great. The Lady Rogue seems to have been created with maximum entertainment in mind, from the journal excerpts to the legends to the Big Bad Ring itself, and it succeeds beautifully. It’s sassy, smart, and bold, like the heroine herself.
Theodora (Theo) Fox can’t believe it when her father Richard “Damn” Fox abandons her with a companion so that he can search for a magical ring believed to have belonged to Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula. But her father doesn’t return when he’s supposed to. Instead, Richard sends Huxley Gallagher, or Huck, in his stead, with his mysterious journal and warnings about the danger his search has put them all in.
Theo’s great quest takes off with her looking for her father, who is looking for a ring, while she’s accompanied by the young man, Huck, who broke her heart.
Bennett makes these characters come alive. Their motivations, quirks, and insecurities are blissfully and skillfully made clear, and I felt like I came to know them. Also like I would love to read a book written by nearly any one of them, or perhaps join them for tea on a very long train ride.
And you can see history’s charisma in The Lady Rogue, too: it’s in the description of the hotels and trains, the towns Theo and Huck visit, the caravan they stay in, the stretches of wilderness they pass through, and it feels cinematic in nature. Like one of those gorgeous classic films, when everything was done in a big way.
Zingers fly between Theo and Huck but there's also an underlying camaraderie that can't be ignored, even if they were estranged for over a year before the book opens. The book is pretty chaste, but the passionate feeling between Theo and Huck explodes off the page.
I’ve been a huge fan of Jenn Bennett’s YA contemporaries (if you haven’t read them yet, do that already), and I was so excited to see that she was writing YA historical fantasy and that she was super excited about this book. You can sense that excitement—that joy—from beginning to end. The Lady Rogue is fun, even as Theo and Huck are scared (nearly) witless, even as they try to figure out a way out of the messes they’re in.
And I'd follow them every step of the way, because Bennett makes it impossible to do otherwise.
I never realized how much I was looking for an indomitable heroine until I met the women who populate Sarah J. Maas’s books. And I never understood how much it would mean to me that an indomitable heroine be flawed—that is, like a normal person who makes mistakes and not a perfect person who becomes a perfect sacrifice—until I encountered Aelin in Maas’s Throne of Glass series.
Because it actually means something that the same person who could protect others and make tough decisions, who could make sacrifices for the good of others and save the world, could also be a person whose personality is sometimes abrasive, and who often does cringe-worthy and occasionally awful things, AND does both those good and bad (mostly good) things as a woman.
The truth is that for a long time I admired those perfect heroic characters, and a lot of times in my reading experience, those perfect heroic characters were men. Another truth is that for a long time, I felt uncomfortable reading about flawed women, because I wasn’t always (and to some degree, still am not) entirely comfortable with some of my own flaws. And another truth on top of that one: I’m trying to be aware of my own gender biases, the ones that whisper softly that women should be polite and nurturing and selfless, humble and kind, and that flare up when I see women who don’t seem to be embodying those values.
I am a work in progress.
As much as I love being a mom, treasure it, adore it, there’s also quite a bit of guilt and self-recrimination tossed into the mix. I frequently compare my own actions and thoughts to some idealized notion of mommyhood that I feel I’ve seen exhibited by other moms in my life, or moms in books or movies. I had a rough time with the weight of that guilt for a while, and it was hard, and sometimes still is, to walk away from it. It’s long-lasting, guilt, and once you feel it, it’s difficult to forget about.
That’s not to mention the day-to-day inadequacy I sometimes feel, the kind that’s not really related to being a mom, but maybe to being a woman. Did I really say that? Why don’t I understand that? Why are my ankles so thick? Why am I not more like _____?
But books, and characters like Aelin, help.
Some people like to pretend that books don’t matter, that words are meaningless. But like someone else once noted—books can make us “brave” (I’m so sorry that I can’t remember who said this. I think I saw it on Twitter.) Words have power, and a series of words that are masterfully strung together can make us admire and love and dislike and hate characters; those strung together words can not only intrigue us, they can invest us in characters’s decisions, question them. They can make us wonder what we would do in the respective character’s situation. And if a time comes necessary, as that one unremembered source above suggested, the responses we’ve had to books and characters and specific actions we’ve read about can help us see the right thing, and give us the motivation to do it.
Sarah J. Maas writes beautifully, terrifically. On a basic literary level, you’re missing out on quite a lot if you haven’t read her. But for me, the biggest part of her appeal comes from the fact that she writes flawed women and I am a flawed woman.
I’ve done good things and I’ve done some bad and I can be funny and annoying and smart and not-very-smart and kind and rude and sometimes I can hit a note like Adele(ish) and sometimes I glance around and make sure no one heard me sing, it's so bad, and it’s all okay, because I’m human and I'm trying. It can be tempting to dwell on the areas where we’ve failed or might fail. But I want to believe—I do believe—that mistakes and heroism (on a small or big level) are not incompatible; that identifying as a woman and being a hero are not incompatible. That flawed women are capable of saving the world and doing it with a smirk--or smile, or frown, whatevs, you be you--on their faces.
Last year I finished a remarkable book—Marie Marquardt’s Flight Season—and then read the author’s notes, where she talked about writing a book in which people experience suffering. It’s not fun to think about suffering or talk about it. Sometimes we might shy away from the memories when we have suffered, or maybe even worse, watched someone we love suffer. Sometimes we are aware that relatively speaking, we have suffered very little, and we wonder when our something big will happen, or if it will, and if we’ll be strong enough.
Two amazing books that I’ve read more recently have focused on day-to-day suffering and both have opened my heart and eyes a little more than they were before.
I’ve seen Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away on multiple Best of Lists so I had to read it. Margaret Jacobsen has always been terrified of planes (in particular, plane crashes), so when her serious boyfriend Chip, who is trying to get his pilot’s license, wants to take her on a plane ride, it takes a little while to convince her. But convinced she is, and though she gets engaged on the flight, she’s brought back to Earth when the plane crashes.
She wakes up in the hospital severely injured, and she, like many of the other characters who knew her before, wonder whether the pre-crash Margaret is gone, and who she is now, and what her new life looks like.
I loved this fierce, funny, painful book that tackles not only the physical and emotional aftermath of the crash, but also strained family dynamics and romantic love. Margaret, the narrator of How to Walk Away is conversational and approachable, yet she (and the book itself) possesses a sensitivity and astuteness that left me stunned.
When we’re talking about suffering, there aren’t any easy answers, and we see that in Katja Millay’s YA book, The Sea of Tranquility. This book was so difficult to read at times, so painful, and it’s one that will stay with me.
Nastya Kashnikov starts at a new high school. She dresses very provocatively and does not talk to anyone by choice, including her family. Josh Bennett has a “force field” around him. He’s alone at school and home and that’s how he wants it.
Neither character wants to want someone. But they’re drawn to each other, even as they resist opening themselves up. What events happened in each other’s past, to make them the person they are today? And is the person they are today “okay”? How can they make each other happy if they’re not happy themselves?
The Sea of Tranquility is about people who hurt. The hurts they can’t hide and the ones they do.
I wanted the characters in this book to be “okay.” I wanted them to learn quickly so they could be happy, because they deserved to be happy. But this is another book about suffering, about getting to a place of happiness, and how that can be incredibly difficult and sometimes even something people fight against.
Brilliant, tender, sad, The Sea of Tranquility is a devastating and hopeful portrayal of human hurt.
I’m a sucker for a Pride and Prejudice re-telling and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride is a “remix” unlike any other I’ve read. Set in Bushwick, Brooklyn and featuring the five Haitian-Dominican Benitez sisters, Pride took me on a journey that felt respectful toward Austen's original and yet thrillingly fresh, new, and authentic. You’ll see the skeletons of Austen’s characters in this story, but they’re re-conceptualized and sent out into the world as daring new creations, brimming with verve and vitality, obviously eccentric but treated by the narrator lovingly—and not cruelly—for the things that make them unique.
Zuri “Z” Benitez is Bushwick. She’s proud of where she comes from and who she is.
She's an almost senior who lives in a small apartment where she and her four sisters share a bedroom; she's the daughter of hard-working parents who are highly respected in their neighborhood; she's occasionally embarrassed by her loud mother and three of her sisters, but she loves all of her family members fiercely, passionately.
So she’s not happy when rich people begin gentrifying the place she’s always called home. The new black family across the street, the Darcys, is part of the problem. There’s the dad and a snobby mom and two teenage sons: Ainsley, who takes an immediate fancy to Z’s sister Janae, and Darius, who is insufferably stuffy and arrogant and who doesn’t even try to fit into his new neighborhood.
Do Z and Darius have anything in common? Is there any common ground for them to latch onto (but why would she want to when he treats her and her family so horribly, she wonders)?
In Zoboi’s hands, this re-telling is about the different life circumstances between a young woman and man and how those—and their respective feelings of pride regarding their backgrounds—affect the ways they view the world and the people around them.
But Pride is also about being young and black, and asserting oneself—being oneself—in a world that doesn’t always appreciate that. And how blind pride of all kinds—whether it’s in oneself or one’s family or one’s neighborhood—can lead to misunderstandings, self-rigidity, and stagnation, to a refusal to consider other possibilities.
Z is a charismatic narrator, with a beautiful way of seeing her world and of capturing her impressions in poetry. She’s the force here, even though I appreciated how complicated Darius is, how dynamic, and how warmth—for Zuri—shines underneath his formality.
Most of all, I adored how alive Pride is, and the fierce joy ringing from every page, even through the sadness.
Who was Jack the Ripper?
Spoiler alert: that's the question investigated in Kerri Maniscalco’s YA novel Stalking Jack the Ripper. Part mystery, part horror novel, Maniscalco’s book took me on an adrenaline ride that was somehow horrifying and fun, and perfect for an October day spent tucked into my quiet house and far away from the nineteenth-century London that Jack the Ripper prowled.
Audrey Rose Wadsworth, gentle-born and lovely, loves fashion and conducting autopsies on the bodies sent to her famous scientist uncle’s lab. He’s teaching her the secrets of the dead, and she’s an enthusiastic learner.
When a serial killer begins stalking London’s streets, Audrey Rose is scared, disgusted, and angry, especially when someone in her family is accused of being the killer. So she’s off on the case, without her family’s permission or not, and her investigative partner is Thomas Cresswell, a young man similarly interested in the dead and what they have to say.
Can Audrey Rose and Thomas figure out who the murderer is before he kills again? And could Audrey Rose possibly know the real Jack the Ripper?
Audrey Rose is the intrepid YA heroine we’ve come to know and love, but in a fresh spin, she's attracted to scientific inquiry--specifically in the study of dead bodies--that I don't remember seeing before. She’s supremely competent and observant, and confident enough to pursue what she loves, even if it’s considered unfashionable at the least and immoral at the worst. She’s at her most confident when she’s battling Thomas, a determined, intelligent man who offers deductions about the murders and the world around them a la Sherlock Holmes. The chemistry between them deliciously propels the plot forward, as they race to solve the mystery and get to know each other along the way.
Stalking Jack the Ripper is by no means flippant, particularly in regards to the murders, but other parts of the book are rendered in such graphically visceral ways that they’re almost gleefully dramatic. This book is a sparkling, over-the-top feast of the senses that hooked me in and invited me to speculate on one of the great historical questions of our time, but that doesn’t lose its compassion for the victims of Jack of Ripper in the process.
Join me for another October-themed review next Friday!
All it took was for me to read Amazon’s comparison of Jenn Bennett’s Alex, Approximately to that magnificent piece of cinematic history, You’ve Got Mail, and I was there. (If you know what it means if I were to offer you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils, you are my lifelong BFF. That’s it. That’s the only qualification.)
Alex, Approximately is a delightful and also moving concoction of a book. It’s effervescent but with substance. It’s Lana Turner pin curls and surfing wax and classic films and anonymous internet relationships but also flawed parents and people trying not to drown under other’s expectations and learning that being vulnerable is worth it. God, I’m feeling happy just thinking about it.
Mink and Alex (screen names) communicate across a classic film festival message board. (It’s so obvious that I have no clue exactly how to describe their communication technique because I’m so behind the times and have thus hodge podged something based on my own teenage internet history.) But, anyway…Alex lives in the same town as Mink’s father, who moved to California after he and Mink’s mom got a divorce. Though Alex repeatedly begs Mink to visit their town for the North by Northwest showing at the end of the summer, Mink refuses to commit. She’s worried about taking their relationship from screen to face-to-face so suddenly.
Other things you should know about her: she’s a private person by nature and has trouble sharing her opinions. She writes to Alex, “I blank out and try to read their face to see what they expect me to say, and I just say that.” She’s an “evader,” or, as she specifically calls herself, The Artful Dodger.
So when Mink, real name: Bailey, decides to move to her father’s town, she doesn’t tell Alex, and she determines that she’ll find him on her own using her handy dandy Veronica Speedwell skills (she’s my new female detective crush). Along the way, Bailey’s trying to make friends, handle her new job at a completely charming and also insane museum, and deal with her infuriating coworker, Porter, who immediately earns her ire by making fun of her mismatched shoes and putting her on the spot in front of everyone.
There was so much about this book that I loved. The chemistry between Bailey and Porter, and also Mink and Alex (real identity unknown), is sparkling, and the town they live in, Coronado Cove, feels like it’s right out of Gidget (Sandra Dee film version). Bailey’s close relationship with her dad is refreshing and heartwarming, particularly because they’re trying to navigate a post-divorce world that doesn’t include Bailey’s mom. And maybe most of all, I loved Bailey’s growth from The Artful Dodger to someone who sticks. Those evader tendencies can be particularly strong in young women—and also 33-year-old women who are trying hard but still feel like they have to include emojis to soften messages on the internet and sometimes feel uncertain when they’re asked a preference and actually volunteer an answer.
Alex, Approximately is a love story and coming of age story, and it gave me all the good feelings. I flew through the pages in a deranged fashion and savored Bennett’s skillful, loving rendering of the town and the quirky people who inhabit it.
“Read it! I know you’ll love it.” (That’s a quote from You’ve Got Mail, for the uninitiated. I know, my obsession is a bit much, but please let me have this one thing.)
Give me that HEA, please.