Book Review: With The Fire On High

with the fire on highWith The Fire On High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
388 pages
Published May 2019

With this book, Elizabeth Acevedo has solidified her position as one of my must-read authors. The Poet X was EXCELLENT, and this one is every bit as good, which is awesome, considering the wildly different formats of the two books. The Poet X was a novel in poem form, being the collected poems of a teenage girl. This book is a more traditional novel, written in prose. It loses none of the lyrical, enchanting quality of Acevedo’s writing, however.

With The Fire On High centers on Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother struggling to graduate from high school on time. When a culinary arts elective is offered during her senior year of school, she takes it despite feeling like she should be spending her energy on her daughter’s future instead of realizing her own dreams. The elective opens up an entire world for her, however, taking her from whipping up magic alone in her own kitchen to being recognized by talented chefs as having something special. The added hours spent on cooking begin to affect her other responsibilities, however, and Emoni struggles to balance everything in her life, a fight that is very nearly upended by the new, very cute boy who just transferred to her school.

Emoni deals admirably with the vast responsibilities of being a parent, the complications of her own somewhat unusual home life (she’s been raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death and her father’s absence), and the pressures of high school. Especially a school where she spent freshman year pregnant. Rather luckily, her daughter’s father goes to a different school, so at least she doesn’t have to deal with him every day.

Similar to The Poet X, the book deals with the intersection of black American culture and Puerto Rican culture, a combination I’ve been seeing more and more in Young Adult. (Well, The Poet X was Dominican, but they have very similar worries, mostly revolving around feeling “not black enough.”)

I loved Emoni, I loved Malachi (the cute transfer student), I loved Abuela and Baby Girl/Emma. I even didn’t mind Tyrone too much. For being a player, he was trying to do right by his daughter. Acevedo has such a talent for characters. Angelica (Emoni’s best friend) and her girlfriend were a delight, too.

If you see a book by Elizabeth Acevedo, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. I can’t wait to pick up her next book, which appears to be another novel in verse called Clap When You Land, due out next year!

From the cover of With The Fire On High:

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life – and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by – once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

From the author of National Book Award winner The Poet X comes a dazzling story of a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to create that keeps her fire burning bright.

Book Review: Juliet Takes a Breath

juliet takes a breathJuliet Takes a Breath
by Gabby Rivera
Young Adult / LGBT / Contemporary Fiction / Feminist
264 pages
Published 2016

Ohhhhhh my. This is a short book, and a quick read, but MAN is it great. It tackles racism, microaggressions, white feminism, coming out, “it’s just a phase!”, polyamory, breaking up, trans-exclusive language…and so much more.

The plot revolves around Juliet’s summer internship with an author in Portland, Harlowe Brisbane. Many of the chapters begin with an excerpt from Brisbane’s fictional treatise on feminism, Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. One of these excerpts in particular took my breath away:

Read everything you can push into your skull. Read your mother’s diary. Read Assata. Read everything Gloria Steinem and bell hooks write. Read all of the poems your friends leave in your locker. Read books about your body written by people who have bodies like yours. Read everything that supports your growth as a vibrant, rebel girl human. Read because you’re tired of secrets.

Juliet reminds me a lot of me when I was detaching myself from Christianity and the conservatism I grew up with. Devouring books, learning about historical figures that I should have known about and was stunned that I’d never heard of. So I totally understand her wonder and shock at an entirely new world opening up before her.

Through Harlowe and her primary partner, Maxine, Juliet learns about polyamory. It’s a remarkably good example; even though Harlowe and Maxine have their issues, their arguments are reasonably healthy, and despite disagreeing on some topics, they still love each other and say as much.

In Harlowe, we have an example of a white feminist who tries to be intersectional, at least a little, but can still be blind to a lot of her own microaggressions. Maxine, her partner, is a woman of color, as are most of the other characters in the book, so Juliet has lots of opportunities to see how white feminism can be ignorant of issues and blind to its own faults.

As a white feminist myself, I took this portrayal for the warning it really is. I do my best to lift up voices of color by reviewing books by and about minorities on this blog as often as I can. I try to be as intersectional as possible, but I know I will make missteps, and I can always be better. But this book, though it’s meant for the other side of the equation, is a reminder to feminists like me to keep trying to be better, and the costs to other people when we screw up.

From the cover of Juliet Takes a Breath:

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. 

Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.

Book Review: Ship It

ship itShip It
by Britta Lundin
Young Adult
375 pages
Published 2018

Claire’s an obsessed jerk. Let me just get that out ahead of everything else. Claire is one of two viewpoints in this book, and I won’t even call her a protagonist, because Forest, the male viewpoint character, is FAR more sympathetic. Yeah, he’s a touch homophobic at the beginning of the book, but he learns. Claire, on the other hand, has one goal that she’s obsessed with and Will. Not. Let. It. Go. Single-minded determination can be a great thing, but Claire doesn’t see or understand the harm she’s doing in pursuing her goal. The few times she does see, she doesn’t seem to care. Sure, she’s sixteen, but holy crap, girl. Maybe, when people tell you a thing can’t happen, you should stop and ask them why instead of stubbornly insisting it CAN happen if only they’ll let it.

Let me back up slightly. Claire is a superfan of a show called Demon Heart. In the show, a demon hunter and a demon-with-a-heart play off each other in what the fans see as a romantic manner. This comes as a huge surprise to at least one of the stars of the show, Forest Reed, who plays the demon hunter. Forest has a rather disastrous interaction with Claire at a Q&A (he’s an asshole about her question, which is about the two characters being gay) and the show decides, in order to salvage things, to have Claire travel with them to the next few public appearances, since she’s a big name in the fandom. Forest sees this as a job he has to put up with for a paycheck. Claire sees this as a chance to make her ship real, and goes to – well – ridiculous lengths to convince the showrunners and stars.

Ultimately, Claire is right that representation is incredibly important. And she’s probably even right that showrunners and stars should take risks with their careers to bring that representation to screen. But she’s such an asshole about it that I can’t even cheer her on. She’s even kind of a jerk to Tess, the cute fanartist she meets at the first convention (and keeps running into at the ensuing cons).

Claire aside, I actually enjoyed the book. There were a couple of twists at the end that I very much enjoyed.

One bit I did NOT enjoy was Tess identifying as pan “because bi means two.” That definition of bisexual – that it’s binary, only attracted to men and women – is biphobic and has NEVER been true. Bisexual means attracted to your own gender and others. That first definition tries to make bisexuals seem transphobic, and I’m frustrated that it persists. So it’s disappointing to see the statement made in the book go unchallenged.

There’s also an anxiety-inducing scene late in the book that I can’t say much about because it’s a major plot twist, but if you have issues with intimidating men, maayyyybe skip this one.

There is quite a bit of representation in the book, between Tess, the pansexual black girl, Claire, a questioning/queer white girl, and Forest, who is definitely questioning his sexuality, and learning about gender and sexuality representation issues from Claire. Oh, also Caty, a studio assistant, who is bisexual. (But who clarifies, unnecessarily, that she’s attracted to boys and girls.)

So I’m quite torn on this book. I liked it, but it has issues.

From the cover of Ship It:

Claire is a sixteen-year-old fangirl obsessed with the show Demon Heart. Forest is an actor on Demon Heart who dreams of bigger roles. When the two meet at a local Comic-Con panel, it’s a dream come true for Claire. Until the Q&A, that is, when Forest laughs off Claire’s assertion that his character is gay. Claire is devastated. After all, every last word of her super-popular fanfic revolves around the romance between Forest’s character and his male co-lead. She can’t believe her hero turned out to be a closed-minded jerk. Forest is mostly confused that anyone would think his character is gay. Because he’s not. Definitely not.

Unfortunately for Demon Heart, when the video of the disastrous Q&A goes viral, the producers have a PR nightmare on their hands. In order to help bolster their image within the LGBTQ+ community – as well as with their fans – they hire Claire to join the cast for the rest of the publicity tour. What ensues is a series of colorful Comic-Con clashes between the fans and the show that lead Forest to question his assumptions about sexuality and help Claire come out of her shell. But how far will Claire go to make her ship canon? To what lengths will Forest go to stop her and protect his career? And will Claire ever get the guts to make a move on Tess, the very cute, extremely cool fanartist she keeps running into? Ship It is a funny, tender, and honest look at all the feels that come with being a fan. 

Book Review: It’s Not Like It’s A Secret

its not like its a secretIt’s Not Like It’s A Secret
by Misa Sugiura
Young Adult/Romance/LGBT
394 pages
Published 2017

Before I dive in I want to explain that I’ve tagged this with polyamory not for the main characters, but for a few side characters. If you’re looking for a poly romance, this is absolutely not it. This is a teenage lesbian romance, with a side of racial issues.

Sana is a California transplant from Wisconsin; both her parents are immigrants from Japan, so despite feeling like she’s a midwesterner, none of her friends think of her as one. There’s a cringe-y scene early in the book where she cheers with her friends about being “midwestern farmer’s daughters” and they tell her she’s cute for thinking that, but she’s Japanese, obv. I felt really bad for her. When her family moves to California, suddenly she’s not the only Asian girl in a sea of whiteness. It’s an interesting mix of having a place with your own people but also fighting the stereotypes of sticking with your own ethnicity. It’s assumed she’ll be friends with the other Asian kids, which annoys her, but she also finds to be true; having not had the opportunity to have friends like her before, she finds she really likes it. (See my Friday 56 quote about it.) But she also tries to break that mold and be friends with people she’s not assumed to like – like Jamie Ramirez and her Hispanic friends, and Caleb and his white goth friends.

The book also explores the way racism hits races differently; the Hispanic kids get hassled by cops while the Asian kids don’t – though they also have things expected of them that the Hispanic kids don’t. The book gets into cultural expectations as well – PDAs are not really a thing in Sana’s world, so she’s reluctant to be public about her affections at school, which drives misunderstandings.

It’s only in the last few chapters that all the secrets come out, and Sana struggles to put things right.

One thing I really liked about the book is the narrative structure. At the beginning of the school year, Sana’s English teacher gives them a project, which is to keep a journal to transcribe poems into and talk about what they mean to you. Chapters from Sana’s poetry journal are interspersed with chapters of the narrative, and give some nice insight to how she’s feeling. Her love interest, Jamie, also loves poetry, and it plays a large part in their relationship.

I quite enjoyed this book.

From the cover of It’s Not Like It’s A Secret:

Sixteen-year-old Sana Kiyohara has too many secrets. Some are small, like how it bothers her when her friends don’t invite her to parties. Some are big, like the fact that she’s pretty sure her father’s having an affair. And then there is the one that she barely even admits to herself, the one about how she might have a crush on her best friend.

When Sana and her family move to California, she begins to wonder if it’s finally time for her to be honest with her friends and family, especially after she meets Jamie Ramirez. Jamie is beautiful and smart and unlike anyone Sana’s ever known before. The only problems are: Sana is pretty sure Jamie’s friends hate her, Jamie’s ex isn’t totally out of the picture, Sana’s new friend Caleb has more-than-friendly feelings for her, and things with her dad feel like they’re coming to a head. She always figured that the hardest thing would be to tell people that she wanted to date a girl, but as Sana quickly learns, telling the truth is easy . . . what comes after it, though, is a whole lot more complicated. 

Book Review: The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love

3P JKT Geeks_Guide.inddThe Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love
by Sarvenaz Tash
Young Adult
249 pages
Published 2016

The title of this book had me wary from the start, but I’d heard good things about it, and the author is a woman, so I hoped it wouldn’t be what it sounded like. Because seriously. We don’t need more books about angsty white guys complaining about the girl they love not liking them back.

Unfortunately that’s exactly what I got in this book.

First, the good points. The author has a very immersive writing style, and she captured the feeling of a Comic Con VERY impressively. I haven’t been to NYCC, but I’ve been to other nerdy cons, and the hectic pace of panels, and getting tickets, and standing in lines, but nerding out over ALL THE GEEKY STUFF – yeah, that was perfectly written. I really enjoyed that. The other characters – Casey and Felicia, specifically, and Samira, and the rest of Roxy and Graham’s families – those were also well done. The brief scene with Roxy’s Iranian family was especially nice, which is to be expected from an Iranian-American author!

But Graham irritated me. Roxy wasn’t well explored because we only saw things from Graham’s point of view, and her love interest Devin’s appeal wasn’t shown very well at ALL.

I spent most of the book wanting to yell at Graham to just TALK TO HER ALREADY. He’s all miffed that his plans aren’t going right and the obnoxious Brit is stealing his girl but he won’t. Just. TALK. To her.

I think the only reason I actually finished the book was because it was short. And for the description of Comic Con, that was actually really good. But the main character was just frustrating. I should have spent this time on another book.

From the cover of The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love:

Graham met his best friend, Roxy, when he moved into her neighborhood eight years ago and she asked him which Hogwarts house he’d be sorted into. Graham has been in love with her ever since. 

But now they’re sixteen, still neighbors, still best friends. And Graham and Roxy share more than ever – moving on from their Harry Potter obsession to a serious love of comic books.

When Graham learns that the creator of their favorite comic, The Chronicles of Althena, is making a rare appearance at this year’s New York Comic Con, he knows he must score tickets. And the event inspires Graham to come up with the perfect plan to tell Roxy how he really feels about her. He’s got three days to woo his best friend at the coolest, kookiest con full of superheroes and supervillains. But no one at a comic book convention is who they appear to be . . . even Roxy. And Graham is starting to realize his fictional love stories are way less complicated than real life ones. 

Book Review: Pride

by Ibi Zoboi
Young Adult/Retelling/Romance
289 pages
Published September 2018

I have very mixed feelings about this one. I’ve read several retellings of Pride & Prejudice, but I think this is the first one that aged the characters down to teenagers. And I don’t think it works as well. In both The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Unmarriageable, the main character and her older sister were in their twenties. They were still living at home, but they were graduating college, starting careers – a completely different stage of their lives from the characters in Pride. In Pride, Zuri is a senior in high school and Janae, her older sister, is home after her first year of college. Which makes their younger sister, Layla, thirteen. And if you know the plot of Pride & Prejudice, you know why that squicks me a little bit. (Zoboi did change that plot point slightly so it’s not quite as bad as it could be, but still. Ew.) This is a good example of what should be a New Adult story feeling forced into a Young Adult mold.

Age issues aside, I really liked the other changes made in this retelling; class differences are alive and well in the modern day, and I especially liked how it addressed neighborhood gentrification. Because yes, improving neighborhoods is a worthy goal; but when it raises rent without raising the income of the people living there, it forces people out who have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. Gentrification is classist and, because our class system is racist, racist.

I enjoyed the Afro-Latino racial change; just like Unmarriageable‘s Pakistani setting, it brings a new cultural wrapping to the plot, and adds racial tension to the lessons on class that the story usually tells.

The book skims over a lot of the normal Pride & Prejudice plot, which I rather expected for a Young Adult book. Unmarriageable was much better in that regard, but Pride is still very enjoyable. It’s definitely a worthy addition to the Pride & Prejudice….pantheon? Shelf? Canon? I do think it would have been much better as a New Adult story, though. I’m still stuck on that.

From the cover of Pride:

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable. 

When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding. 

But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon – Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape or lose it all. 

In this timely update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, critically acclaimed author Ibi Zoboi skillfully balances cultural identity, class, and gentrification against the heady magic of first love in her vibrant reimagining of this beloved classic.