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: There’s Something About Sweetie

there's something about sweetieThere’s Something About Sweetie
by Sandhya Menon
Young Adult Romance
378 pages
Published May 2019

There is so much to love about this book. I read When Dimple Met Rishi a while back, and fell in love with Rishi like I VERY rarely do with fictional characters. This book is about Rishi’s brother, Ashish. I don’t care for Ashish as much as I liked Rishi, but Sweetie – oh, girl.

See, Sweetie is fat. But despite how all the traditionalists around her would have her feel, she’s okay with that. She’s still the fastest runner on the track team, an amazing singer, and has a close group of loyal friends.

So when she’s approached by Ashish’s mother to arrange dating him, and it’s turned down flatly by her own mother because she’s “not at his level” – she makes the decision to show her mother she CAN be happy, and have the things her mother wants for her, WHILE BEING FAT. And so is born the “Sassy Sweetie Project,” which is adorable.

I love Sweetie, and being a fat person myself (who also snagged a hottie, not gonna lie) I identify SO MUCH with her struggles here. Snide remarks from family friends, the constant “if you’d just lose weight” from the people close to you, the expectation that you can’t be happy while fat – Sweetie faces all of that, tells it to sod off, and proves you can be fat and healthy and happy.

One thing I really like about the Menon’s arranged relationships – the Patels, at least, treat it as “we’ll arrange this, but it’s up to you to follow through. If you don’t like each other, we won’t force you to go through with this.” Which is a nice thing to see. It’s probably just an American stereotype that says arranged marriages are forced relationships; not knowing the culture first hand, I can’t say which one is closer to the truth. BUT it challenges American assumptions about arranged marriages, and that’s a great thing, and another reason to read diversely. (I’m willing to bet Menon’s version of it is closer to the modern norm for arranged marriages, at least.)

I love that even in a sweet, lighthearted romance such as this one, reading diversely challenges American assumptions about other cultures. I feel like this is especially important in Young Adult lit – presenting other cultures to teens before opinions about them are fully formed. Because I’ll admit, I have a instinctual “ACK!” reaction to the thought of an arranged marriage – in my mind that infringes on all the independence and free will I’ve clawed so hard for – but it’s worthwhile to be reminded that sometimes it looks like this, and not “Hey, my 14-year-old daughter, you’re going to marry a 40-year-old man tomorrow, deal with it” (though that does certainly happen, but it happens in the US, too! Don’t believe me? Read here).

Both of Sandhya Menon’s books that I’ve read present arranged relationships in a much more positive light than typical American media. It’s important representation, and the characters and relationships are a joy to read to boot.

(Tagged LGBT for an adorable gay couple who are friends of Ashish’s and show up throughout the book.)

From the cover of There’s Something About Sweetie:

ASHISH PATEL didn’t know love could be so . . . sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they can find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl – under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

SWEETIE NAIR is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death. 

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

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: New Suns

new sunsNew Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
Edited by Nisi Shawl
Short stories / Sci-Fi / Fantasy
279 pages
Published March 2019

This was quite the collection! I disagree with the cover description’s use of “unexpected brilliance” – I think that’s actually slightly insulting, and possibly racist. (Who wrote that line?!) I fully expected the brilliance I got, and was very pleased with it!

From the forward by Levar Burton, through stories by Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Indigenous authors, all the way to the Afterword from Nisi Shawl, this was an amazing, fascinating, mind-blowing book. Rebecca Roanhorse is probably the most well-known of the authors, thanks to Trail of Lightning, but Indrapramit Das wrote The Devourers, which I’ve heard about and have on my Kindle but have not yet read, and Steven Barnes is married to another author I’ve read, Tananarive Due. Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote the recently released Gods of Jade and Shadow, which I picked up through Book of the Month in July but have again, not yet read. Library books keep taking priority over things I own!

Going through the biographies in the back of the book makes me want to add EVERYTHING to my TBR – with titles like The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, Will Do Magic For Small Change, and The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, how could I not?!

Back to the book itself, though! There are 17 stories in this book, ranging from 5 pages to 20-30 pages. I think my favorite was “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh, about an Asian mermaid, but the one just before it, “Burn the Ships,” about indigenous South Americans fighting back with blood magic against Spaniards, was also amazing. (Written by Alberto Yáñez.) Really all of the stories are spell-binding, though. And the variety is VAST. From a story retelling The Emperor’s New Clothes, in three variations, to Earth becoming a tourist destination for galactics (aliens), to a story imagining what we would be like with computers in our heads to keep us from having destructive emotions, these are wildly imaginative and thought-provoking.

I love reading short story anthologies because they always introduce me to new authors I want to read more of, which this book unequivocally did. I also have more reason to read Gods of Jade and Shadow now!

This should be on the reading list of every spec fic fan. I’m going to leave you with the quote that begins the book and inspired the title, from one of the mothers of modern science fiction, Octavia Butler:

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

From the cover of New Suns:

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange. Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings. These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and cliches, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius.

Unexpected brilliance shines forth from every page.

Book Review: Love from A to Z

love from a to zLove from A to Z
by S. K. Ali
Young Adult / Romance
342 pages
Published April 2019

I read S. K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits, and quite enjoyed it, so I knew I’d be picking this one up eventually. I finally did – and this just solidifies S. K. Ali as a MUST READ author for me. Because this was excellent.

I complained in my last review that while the book was good, it was fluffy contemporary fiction, which is not where my current tastes lie. THIS is a much better book for me. While it’s still contemporary fiction, it has a heavier romance line, and it deals with issues of racism, islamophobia, chronic illness, and casualties of war.

It’s written in journal form, alternating between the journals of Adam and Zayneb. (The A to Z of the title!) Both of them were inspired to keep journals of “Marvels” and “Oddities,” individually, when they ran across The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, an ancient manuscript in an Islamic museum. Adam sees Zayneb’s journal when they’re sitting near each other in an airport, which is what prompts their first meeting.

I really loved this book, and I adore Zayneb. She’s passionate and angry about injustice. Her ongoing feud with an islamophobic teacher drives her and her friends to take action, and I loved how her aunt encouraged her, but also encouraged her to be smart about it.

Zayneb wears a hijab, and the book actually goes into some detail on her feelings about it – who’s allowed to see her without it, what she does to make a makeshift hijab if she needs one unexpectedly, her daydreams about the special man who will get to see her hair. It was pretty special to get an inside look at hijab wearing; it’s such a personal thing.

Adam has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed his mother, so there’s a lot of struggling to come to terms with that and what it means for his long-term health.

Some things, like hijab-wearing, get explained to the reader, but other things, like the three bits of Arabic script, the greetings, and a passage where Zayneb “takes a deep breath and says bismallah” are not. This is where I’m glad my husband was an Arabic linguist in the military, because they taught him a lot of the culture, as well. So now I know the Arabic script, repeated a few times in the book, all basically says “God Willing,” a standard Arabic phrase. I knew the greetings, but it was the bismallah that stumped me, so I asked him about it.

“Saying bismallah” is saying the name of God. It’s used as a beginning for many things, whether those are nice things, or difficult things, so in this case Zayneb was saying it before she started a difficult conversation with her mother. The book doesn’t explain it; it doesn’t need to, to understand the narrative, but I always enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of things like this.

The afterword of the book is worth reading, as well. Ali explains that all of the discriminatory acts in the book were taken from real experiences; even the islamophobic teacher was taken from an incident three years ago in Toronto. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Final verdict – this book is great. It’s going on my Best of 2019 list. It covers all kinds of important topics and holds a wealth of diversity, all wrapped around a sweet romance. I’ll be watching for more books by S. K. Ali, because she is wildly talented.

From the cover of Love from A to Z:

A Marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes – because they make french fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An Oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam has stopped going to classes, intent instead on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. 

Adam is also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. 

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs . . . .

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting. 

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.