Book Review: Slay

slaySlay
by Brittney Morris
Young Adult
321 pages
Published September 2019

So I need to begin this review by saying this book was not meant for me. It was written for black teens. Black gamer teens, specifically, but it is 100% about being black, and all the beautiful variety that entails.

I have never seen so many Black issues combined in a single book, and done so beautifully and cohesively. From being the “Black friend” expected to speak for all black people, to dealing with racial bigotry in video games, to wondering if you’re “Black enough,” to refusing to call the cops on a black man, to misogynoir, to the occasional belief that if black women don’t date black men they hate their own race, to whether AAVE is respectable or not, to simply wanting your own space to be black in without being judged – Morris hits SO MANY POINTS and does it in a natural way.

My ONLY complaint about the book is that Kiera is somehow juggling being an honors student, tutoring friends, having a boyfriend, and somehow also hiding the secret that she’s one of two developers for an online game with hundreds of thousands of users? They’re aren’t enough hours in the day! I feel like the author doesn’t realize how much work goes into coding that kind of environment. So I had to suspend my disbelief when it came to that part of the story. Everything else, though, is just fantastic.

The video game itself is fascinating – it’s a VR-based game, so you slip on a headset, gloves, and socks, and walk around as your character, collecting items and using in-game coins to buy cards to duel with. The cards are inspired by all manner of Black culture, from Fufu, a staple food in many African countries, to “That One Auntie’s Potato Salad” and “Reclaiming My Time” (which makes you go REALLY FAST). Each duelist gets to pull, at random, six cards from their decks to duel with, and they have access to every card they personally have bought. Better cards cost more in-game money, or rarer in-game materials to make. It’s a really, really cool idea for a game, and I kind of want somebody to make it now.

The book does need a few content warnings – there’s emotional abuse and cyber-stalking. It’s pretty impactful when it happens.

I loved the book, but as I said, I am absolutely not its intended audience. For that, read this glowing review over at Black Girl Nerds.

I think the book is a good look at the pressure black people – especially black girls – are under. Because it’s never just one issue, even if books like to concentrate on one or a few. It’s always all of them, every day. We’re not always aware of that, as white people – and we should be.

From the cover of Slay:

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer – not her friends, not her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are a “distraction to keep the Black man from becoming great.”

But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, Kiera faces potentially being sued for “antiwhite discrimination,” and an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to harass all the players and take over.

Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

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Book Review: Ayesha At Last

ayesha at lastAyesha At Last
by Uzma Jalaluddin
Contemporary Fiction / Retelling / Romance
348 pages
Published June 2019

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling – I might need to make a book list of these! Pride and Prejudice through an Asian lens seems to be really popular, between the Pakistani Unmarriageable, the Indian-American Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, and now this Muslim-American version. (The characters here are from a mix of countries.) The Muslim and Asian custom of arranged marriage fits well with the original plot of Pride and Prejudice, so it’s no real surprise.

Ayesha is a really strong character here, as she should be to be the stand in for Elizabeth Bennet. I disliked Hafsa; yes, she’s flighty like Lydia, but Lydia was never intentionally mean, and Hafsa is. There is no elder perfect sister in this version; Hafsa and Ayesha aren’t even sisters, but cousins, and Ayesha’s best friend is already in a long-term relationship. There’s a lot of parts of the original that are shaken up and mashed together in different ways in this retelling, but the core plot of “awkward rich dude keeps younger girl’s reputation intact and gets revenge on the man who would have ruined it while falling in love with the slightly-older spinster” is intact.

A lot of the action in this book takes place in the mosque; the mosque’s daily operations are a fairly big plot point in the book. I enjoyed the peek into the mosque-as-community-center. The other big aspects of this retelling are the family dynamics, from the Aunties brokering marriage offers to the adult children struggling with their elders’ relationships – in some cases, revering them as relationships goals, in some cases being completely in the dark as to what their marriages looked like at all! Ayesha’s grandparents are totally goals, but it takes most of the book to learn the mystery of her parents’ relationship.

This book lacked the lush descriptions of fashion that characterized Unmarriageable, and the mouth-watering descriptions of food that were the specialty of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, but I would still rank it somewhere between those two – above the latter but below Unmarriageable. All three are excellent, though.

So. Another excellent addition to the Pride and Prejudice pantheon, but very similar to both Unmarriageable and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. I do have to say the manner in which our Wickham is taken down is hilarious, and VERY modern. I laughed out loud and read much of the chapter aloud to my spouse to explain why I was so amused.

From the cover of Ayesha At Last:

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid, who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices, and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

When a surprise engagement is announced between Khalid and Hafsa, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

Book Review: I’m Not Dying With You Tonight

i'm not dying with you tonightI’m Not Dying With You Tonight
by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
247 pages
Published August 2019

I read this book with the intention of going to Barnes & Noble’s Young Adult Book Club last Thursday (and taking a break from my in-laws!) but the GOP decided to have their House GOP Retreat in the Hotel directly behind my local Barnes & Noble, and Trump came to town to speak at the dinner the SAME NIGHT AS BOOK CLUB. Between the extra security for that, and the protests surrounding it, I wasn’t setting foot in the area that day. So that was disappointing – but this book was not.

Content Warning: Racism, Anxiety, Violence

I’m Not Dying With You Tonight is told from two very different perspectives.

Campbell is a white girl whose father owns a hardware store downtown. To most people, she looks well off, but she knows the hardware store is only barely staying afloat. Her mother recently moved to South America, leaving her to switch schools and live with the father she barely knows, in a new town. She’s a fish out of water in more ways than one.

Lena, on the other hand, knows the town, and the people. She’s a black girl with a plan to make it big, between her fashion sense and her boyfriend’s musical talent. She’s one of the popular girls at school, and has the kind of easy confidence that can be intimidating.

The two girls are thrown together by chance when a high school football game sparks a riot that soon engulfs the town. Again and again, we see Lena’s knowledge make up for Campbell’s naiveté about the town and its issues, but then over and over we see Lena’s strengths become utterly useless because of her skin color, requiring Campbell to step up for them both. Campbell’s not a damsel in distress, but she is definitely the weaker of the two, and I think the point about all of Lena’s strengths being ignored by racist white people is well made.

I’ve never been in a riot, so I can’t say for sure, but the chaos and non-stop anxiety of Lena and Campbell’s journey through town seems like an accurate description. It’s a quick read partly because the action and danger drives you through the book, looking for safe harbor that isn’t found until the last few pages.

I understand why the book ended where it did, but I’m a little dissatisfied by it. I’d like to know how the experience shapes the two girls (and Lena’s boyfriend) going forward. Do they become friends after this? Does Lena’s boyfriend shape up his act? How does this change the three of them? The answers aren’t necessary for the story, but I’d still like to know!

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It follows my trend of diverse young adult books that teach hard topics. Really the only change I’d like to see was a little more denouement at the end!

From the cover of I’m Not Dying With You Tonight:

LENA AND CAMPBELL AREN’T FRIENDS.

Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she’s going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.

When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.

They aren’t friends. They hardly understand the other’s point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they’re going to survive the night.

Book Review: Well Met

well metWell Met
by Jen DeLuca
Contemporary Romance
319 pages
Publishing September 3, 2019

I received Well Met through Book of the Month, so I was able to read it before the general release date. I actually read it on the second day of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, while my husband was out working at a friend’s booth. That turned out to be a bad idea, as the book perfectly captures the feeling of Fair and made me miss my husband and friends at Fair even more! I’m looking forward to Monday, when we’ll both be working the booth on Labor Day!

BUT THIS BOOK.

Well Met is an adorable, hilarious enemies-to-lovers romance. Emily has dropped her entire life (which wasn’t much, after her boyfriend dumped her and kicked her out of the apartment) to move to Willow Creek and help her sister, who was recently in a severe car accident. When she takes her niece to sign up as a volunteer for the local Ren Faire, she discovers minors can only volunteer if they have an adult volunteering with them. Given that her sister is in no shape to leave the house, let alone be at a Ren Faire, she volunteers so her niece can participate. Which brings us to Simon.

Simon is the head of the Faire. It was started by his brother, but the responsibility has fallen to him, and he takes it…a little too seriously. Through a series of misunderstandings (because that’s always the case in romances!) the two butt heads, argue, and generally think each other unpleasant, but everything changes when the costumes go on and Faire begins.

I adored Emily. I thought Simon was a little obtuse, and both of them a little too stubborn, and everything moved a little too fast, but when everything needs to be crammed into 300 pages, that’s going to happen. The book perfectly captures the spirit of Faire; from the jubilation, fun, and adrenaline at the start of a Faire day to the utter exhaustion at the end of the day and the relief of washing the Faire dirt off.

I was greatly amused to see MY home Fair mentioned, while discussing the size of the Willow Creek Fair:

“It’s a fund-raiser, sure, but it’s grown over the years into a pretty big event. We have talent coming from all over the country to perform. It’s not one of the big Faires by any means – we certainly have nothing on the Maryland Renaissance Festival.”

Aside from the romance feeling a little rushed (which may just be my demisexuality coming through) this book was an absolute delight, from start to finish. If you enjoy Ren Faires and Shakespeare, you should pick this up when it comes out. It’s great. (And if you’re local, come out to the Maryland Renaissance Festival!)

From the cover of Well Met:

A laugh-out-loud romantic comedy debut where a little flirtation between sworn enemies proves that all is faire in love and war.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, to help her sister, but who could have anticipated getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance faire? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The Faire is Simon’s family legacy, and he makes it clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the Faire grounds he  becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only supposed to be a pit stop for Emily, but now she can’t shake the fantasy of calling Willow Creek – and Simon – home.

Book Review: The Way You Make Me Feel

the way you make me feelThe Way You Make Me Feel
by Maurene Goo
Young Adult
323 pages
Published 2018

I liked this book but I wish I hadn’t read it.

Yeah, that’s an odd sentence, isn’t it? The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, well-written book about a teenager’s summer. She struggles with her parents, their long-ago divorce, authority, consequences for her own actions, and starting to take things seriously. It is a great, fluffy little book with fantastic minority representation.

The fact that I wish I hadn’t spent the time to read it is entirely indicative of where MY reading tastes are and has nothing to do with the book. Which makes this a difficult review to write! My tastes generally lie in fantasy, fiction that deals with heavy topics, or nonfiction. I don’t tend to read contemporary fiction that doesn’t have a message. (Unless it’s guilty pleasure romances.) So I feel like my time could have been better spent on another book, I suppose? But this book is important in its own way.

Between the Korean-Brazilian main character, her black nemesis-turned-friend, and her Chinese-American love interest, there’s a lot of minority representation in this book, and they deserve happy, fluffy books. (There’s also a gay side character.) It’s something I’ve seen talked about a lot – minority authors sometimes feel pressured to address issues of discrimination, immigration, and the like in their books – but they also need books where their characters are just average people.

So the book sits in an odd in-between place for me. It is well-written and a fun book to read. I enjoyed the story. But I have so many books on my TBR right now that I wish I’d spent the time on something more substantial or closer to my personal tastes. For actual young adults – especially any of the identities represented by the book – it would be an excellent summer read.

From the cover of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck, the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media-influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Being stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver? Not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. Maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. Maybe Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means that Clara has to leave her old self behind?

With her signature warmth and humor, Maurene Goo delivers a relatable story of falling in love and finding yourself in the places you’d never thought to look.

Book Review: Internment

internmentInternment
by Samira Ahmed
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
384 pages
Published March 2019

This book should be required reading in schools. Especially now. It could be paired with Anne Frank. One history, one a possible future. Probable, even. Depending on how you look at it, an actual present. We DO have concentration camps on the border. (Which makes me shudder to write, what in the absolute FUCK.)

*breathes deeply*

Internment is a gut-punch of a book. I had to set it down two pages in and get control of myself, and again around page eleven. I took breaks throughout reading it to do HOUSEWORK, of all things, because I needed the mental and emotional reprieve. And I’m a white woman. I have the privilege of being pretty sure I will never be the target of these kinds of atrocities. Which means I have the responsibility to work against them. I’m also a physically weak, chronic-illness-having, unemployed white woman, (which does have the benefit of letting me keep on eye on my middle-eastern neighbors’ houses to watch for ICE showing up – I fully intend to go make myself a damned nuisance if they do) so I can’t go storm the camps or march for hours at protests. What I can do is boost books like this.

If you’re white, GO READ THIS BOOK. Suck it up and read it. I don’t have the same recommendation for my friends of color because they already live with this kind of fear and racism. They don’t need it illustrated to them. WE DO.

This book needs content warnings for violence, threats of rape, anxiety-inducing situations, racism, violent death – Samira Ahmed does NOT pull punches. Direct resistance is costly. It takes courage and sacrifice, and she does not shy away from showing that. It would be sugar-coating if she did.

Internment focuses on the idea of America forcing citizens into camps – but we are already forcing non-citizens into camps. The Red Cross visits the camp, not unlike our politicians visiting the immigrant concentration camps on our border now. They have a garden they can work on in the camp – not unlike a pair of photos I saw on Twitter:GardenCampTweet

Internment is stunning, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and if you’re emotionally capable of it, YOU SHOULD READ IT. This is happening, right now, on our southern border. It is infuriating that our politicians have not put a stop to it yet. My own Congressman (I just moved into this area, I haven’t had a chance to vote on him yet) just visited the camps, and his Twitter thread on them is SO CAREFUL to use absolutely neutral language when talking about them, and it pisses me off. This is NOT a neutral subject.

Internment did have a few downsides – the Director never gets a name (though the book is told from Layla’s viewpoint, and it would not surprise me if he never bothered to GIVE his name to the internees) and he’s almost cartoonishly evil. I would have liked to know more about the guard that helped Layla on occasion, but again, told as it was from her viewpoint, it can be excused by saying she simply didn’t know more about him. But this IS a Young Adult novel told from a seventeen-year-old’s viewpoint. We’re only going to get what she knows and feels. So these downsides don’t detract from the book for me.

To sum up – I recommend Internment at the highest level. You absolutely must read this book.

From the cover of Internment:

REBELLIONS ARE BUILT ON HOPE.

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her family on the registry. Five months since the attorney general argued that Korematsu v. United States established precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war. And one month since the president declared that “Muslims are a threat to America.”

And now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of new friends also trapped within the detention center, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, Internment is a heart-racing and emotional novel that challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in our society today.