Book Review: P.S. I Still Love You

ps i still love youP.S. I Still Love You
by Jenny Han
Young Adult/Romance
339 pages
Published 2015

PS I Still Love You is a continuation of Lara Jean’s story from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. It really is a seamless continuation – it picks up almost immediately where the first ends, in the holidays, with Lara Jean pining over Peter.

I didn’t like this one as much as the first – the sisters are still here, but Lara Jean doesn’t spend as much time worrying over her dynamic with her sisters as she did in the first book. This second book is all about Peter, his ex, and what’s going on at school. That’s fine – obviously the story needs to evolve and move, but the sisters were such a huge part of the charm of the first book that I really miss them in this one.

A second boy is introduced in this book – John – and to be honest, I like him more than Peter. I know Peter and Lara Jean are really set up as THE couple in this series, but – John’s so nice. And Peter’s so oblivious.

There’s one more book – Always and Forever, Lara Jean – and while I’m sure it won’t happen, I’m holding out hope that John will come back in book #3 and win Lara Jean over. I really, really liked him.

From the cover of P.S. I Still Love You:

Lara Jean didn’t expect to really fall for Peter.

They were just pretending. Until they weren’t. And now Lara Jean has to learn what it’s like to be in a real relationship and not just a make-believe one.

But when another boy from her past returns to her life, Lara Jean’s feelings for him suddenly return too.

Can a girl be in love with two boys at once?

In this charming and heartfelt sequel to the New York Times bestseller “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean is about to find out that falling in love is the easy part.

Book Review: Unbroken

unbrokenUnbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens
Edited by Marieke Nijkamp
Young Adult/Short Stories
310 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve read a few different Young Adult anthologies recently, and they’ve all been utterly fantastic. This belongs right up there with A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and Toil & Trouble.

As someone who HAS a chronic illness that affects every aspect of my life, I identified with several of these stories quite a lot. There’s one in particular in which they’re putting on a play, and the narrator mentions how TIRED they are. That their doctor would tell them to back off, and not do so much, but they call that stagnation and they’re not willing to give up the highs that come with accomplishing something that takes so much effort – and I feel that intimately. I’m still coming to terms with my new limits. There are times when I do too much, and I pay for it, in pain and fatigue and days unable to function as a human being – but it’s usually worth it. I just have to plan for the aftermath. To see that in fiction was a really validating thing.

Other stories deal with other sorts of physical disabilities – a wheelchair user, people with canes, or blindness. Some of the characters have more mental disabilities – severe anxiety, depression, schizophrenia. This is a fantastic collection, spanning genres from contemporary fiction to magical realism to sci-fi to fantasy.

I’m going to be keeping an eye out for more Young Adult anthologies, as this is the third one that I’ve read recently and they’re SO. GOOD. I know there’s two more coming out in the near future; one centered on Jewish characters that Katherine Locke has another story in, and one centered on vampires that also has some familiar names in it. (Vampires Never Get Old, which is a super clever title for a Young Adult anthology of vampires!)

I love checking out short story anthologies to keep handy for days I don’t have time to sit down with an entire novel, and man there have been some great ones recently. This is definitely one of them.

From the cover of Unbroken:

WARRIOR. ACTOR. FRIEND. HEROINE. TRAVELER. SISTER. MAGICIAN. LOVER. BIKER.

In this stunning anthology, #1 New York Times-bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp teams up with fellow disabled authors to create a collection of fictional stories that dispense with the tired, broken stereotypes – and reclaim narratives and identities. 

By weaving together tales of interstellar war, an enchanted carnival, or a dating debacle, Unbroken celebrates the varied experiences of disabled teens, including teens of color and of diverse genders and orientations, without obscuring the realities of their disabilities.

At turns hilarious and heart-stopping, these short stories share a common thread – one that has bent over time but will never break.

Book Review: The Spy with the Red Balloon

spy with the red balloonThe Spy with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Historical Fantasy
356 pages
Published October 2018

This is the sequel to The Girl with the Red Balloon – though chronologically, it actually takes place first. Since it mostly deals with different characters in related but different events, though, it doesn’t really read like a prequel. Really the only bad thing I have to say is that it didn’t answer the question of what happened at the end of Girl with the Red Balloon, and to be honest, I don’t actually mind. Spy could be read as a completely standalone book and be just as satisfying. There’s very little overlap between the two books, even though they deal with similar themes, in the same world.

I personally think SPY is better than GIRL, but I find that a lot with second books. I think authors tend to have a little more confidence by the second book; they know a little more about their world. They’ve gotten feedback from readers about what worked and what didn’t in the first book, and can somewhat adjust course based on that if they’re good. And Locke is excellent. I really liked GIRL, don’t get me wrong, but I LOVED SPY. The characters were fantastic, and the way she addressed Wolf’s demisexuality was perfect.

The book is set in a time when being gay was straight-up illegal, and one of Wolf’s fellow spies asks him about it because it was apparently in his file. He tells her there’s no evidence of that because he doesn’t feel that way about ANYONE. (He’s lying, but we’ll get to that.) He can appreciate when people are attractive, but he doesn’t feel desire that way – except for one person. One person, who he’d known for years and been best friends with before those feelings showed themselves. They’d never acted on it, which is why there’s no evidence of it. Demisexual is on the asexual spectrum, and as such it varies wildly in terms of how sexual a person is, but Wolf’s demisexuality is the closest I’ve seen in fiction to my own, so it’s really special to me.

Veering away from representation specific to me, SPY, like GIRL, stars Jewish people at its heart. This time we have a pair of Jewish siblings from America, each fighting in WW II in their own way. Ilse with her brain, helping develop magic for the US, and Wolf more directly, sneaking around Germany and disrupting their forces. GIRL dealt more with the oppressed German Jews, while SPY shows us the other side – the Jews who are fighting back for their kin, even though they could stay in the US and be safe.

Both books are excellent reads. I’ve had the fortune to interact with Katherine Locke on Twitter quite a lot, and at this point I will pretty much read anything she publishes. I love her characters and her plotlines and the obvious care she takes with the representation. Fantastic book.

From the cover of The Spy with the Red Balloon:

In a nuclear arms race, you’d use anything for an edge. Even magic.

Ilse and Wolf Klein bear many secrets. Genius Ilse is unsure if her parents will ever accept her love of physics. Her brother, Wolf, strives for a quiet life, though he worries there’s no place in the world for people like him. But their deepest secret lies within their blood: with it, they can work magic.

Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes  behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the secret letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty – and find a way to help her brother – before their time runs out?

Loyalties and identities will be tested in this sweeping fantasy and fast-paced thriller that bravely explores the tensions at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Book Review: This is Kind of an Epic Love Story

this is kind of an epic love storyThis is Kind of an Epic Love Story
by Kheryn Callender
Young Adult/LGBT/Romance
286 pages
Published October 2018

This incredibly cute queer romance was the YA_Pride Book Club pick this month on Twitter. What I didn’t expect when I picked it up was just HOW GOOD the representation is in this book. First, Ollie, the main love interest, is deaf, and communicates via ASL or written word. This isn’t a huge deal; people just work around it, which is really lovely. There’s a lot of passing phones around with things typed out on them, plus lip-reading and some limited use of signs, many of them described on the page for the reader.

The other amazing representation is how the book treats bisexuality. Both Nate and his best friend Flo are bi; they dated each other before the beginning of the book, but Flo is dating a woman when the book opens, and Nate has a huge crush on Ollie. This is not treated as weird, or even remarkable enough to be noted. They just are interested in more than one gender and it’s completely normal. I love it.

The story itself is really cute; Ollie was a childhood best friend that Nate had a crush on, and he’s come back to town several years later. Turns out Nate’s crush still exists, and the boys start an awkward romance. Nate is the kind of overthinker that constantly sabotages his own happiness, and we see that play out in more than just his relationship with Ollie.

I also really liked that the book didn’t play into the “the first time with the right person is magical and perfect” trope when it comes to sex. No, first times are awkward and sometimes not all that pleasurable, even with the right person. But with the right person, you can get past the awkwardness and try again. It was a much more realistic first sexual experience, I think.

This book was a quick read, with great minority rep, from racial to sexual to disability rep. The story was great. I liked also that the romance wasn’t the only focus of the story; Nate’s relationships with his friends were also important to the plot. Great book.

From the cover of This is Kind of an Epic Love Story:

Nathan Bird doesn’t believe in happy endings.

Although he’s the ultimate film buff and an aspiring screenwriter, Nate’s seen the demise of too many relationships to believe that happy endings exist in real life.

Playing it safe to avoid a broken heart has been his MO ever since his father died and left his mom to unravel – but the strategy is not without fault. His best-friend-turned-girlfriend-turned-best-friend-again, Florence, is set on making sure Nate finds someone else. And in a twist that is rom-com-worthy, someone does come along: Oliver James Hernández, his childhood best friend.

After a painful mix-up when they were little, Nate finally has the chance to tell Ollie the truth about his feelings. But can Nate find the courage to pursue his own happily ever after?

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

darius the great is not okayDarius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram
Young Adult/Contemporary Fiction
314 pages
Published August 2018

This novel got a lot of hype before and after its release – and it deserves it. It has great minority representation, from Persian (and bi-racial!) to Zoroastrian and Baha’i, to clinical depression and male friendship. You could also read gay and/or asexual into it, but that’s not explicitly mentioned. Romantic love is just never addressed; perhaps because the story just doesn’t involve it, but you could definitely read the main character as ace.

Darius is a great main character. He’s funny, self-deprecating, and complex. He has clinical depression, is medicated for it, and can sometimes tell when it’s the depression making him think a certain way, but sometimes he can’t. He’s biracial, visiting Iran and his mother’s Persian family for the first time, and adjusting to Persian social norms and traditions while trying not to lose sight of his American life. His connection with his father is tenuous and fraught with miscommunication, and lot of the book is spent wrestling with that relationship. His new friend, Sohrab, is a great foil to that, as his father is completely absent from his life, having been arrested and thrown in jail prior to the start of the story, largely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being part of a minority religion.

There are so many small things touched on this book – suspicion at customs when flying through, bullying at school for being Persian, not speaking his family’s language because his mother didn’t teach it to him (and feeling cut off because of it) – all little things that a lot of immigrant children deal with.

Aside from the cultural things the book addresses, there’s also the mental health aspect. Both Darius and his father have clinical depression, and there’s stigma attached to having the diagnosis, and to taking pills for it. We see how their mental states affects their relationship with each other and with the rest of their family, and it’s quite powerful. The author talks about having clinical depression in an afterword, and includes some resources that helped him. This is an #ownvoices novel in more ways than one, and it really shows. Excellent book.

From the cover of Darius the Great is Not Okay:

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian – half, his mom’s side – and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.

Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush – the original Farsi version of his name – and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough – then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay. 

Book Review: A River of Stars

river of starsA River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
Contemporary Fiction
292 pages
Published August 2018

I’ve said many times I don’t tend to like contemporary fiction, but for all that, I’ve been reading a decent amount of it. And liking some of it. In trying to read inclusively, I’ve come across books like this one and Number One Chinese Restaurant. Both books were on my summer TBR/beach read list, but having read them, I’m not sure I’d classify them as such. They are both quite good, though!

Scarlett falls in love and gets pregnant by her boss, the owner of the factory she works in, and he sends her to the US to give birth so their son will have citizenship. Which is a little shady, but I can totally believe it’s done among wealthier families. She’s one of only two unwed mothers at the secret maternity home in LA – the rest are wealthy wives there to get the same benefits for their children. When one woman goes into labor unexpectedly, Scarlett turns out to be one of the few people in the home that know how to drive, and is charged with driving the laboring mother to the hospital. After dropping her and the head of the house off, she simply drives away in the van.

Her first stop is McDonald’s, which is quite believable, from what I understand. (I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I’ve seen the cravings of my friends!) On her way back to the van from the restaurant, she finds Daisy, the other unwed mom-to-be, getting out of the van. The two women make peace with each other and wind up heading for San Francisco, where they get an apartment in Chinatown.

In Chinatown, they dodge private investigators, scratch together rent money for the tiny room they share, and take care of each other through delivery and raising their newborns. Daisy was born in the US, but Scarlett lives in fear of being deported.

The book is a fascinating look at the perils immigrants face, and especially immigrant women, who don’t always move of their own free will but then have to make the most of their situations while taking care of children and loved ones.

The ending seemed a little too…neat. I actually liked the way things were going before the last couple of chapters, even if the way it ends is a happier ending for the two women. I still enjoyed it, but I think it would have been more interesting to end the book in a slightly different way. That’s about all I can say without spoiling things!

From the cover of A River of Stars:

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, Boss Yeung is overjoyed because the doctors have confirmed that he will finally have the son he always wanted. To ensure that his child has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van – only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit by an author the San Francisco Chronicle says “has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions.” It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.