Book Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Amanda Hardy is new to Lambertville, Tennessee.  Determined to have a fresh start for her senior year, she wants to make friends and fit in.  But she’s harboring a secret and a past that threaten to disrupt her new life, and she’s determined to keep her secret safe so that she can remain safe.  But she doesn’t bank on meeting Grant Everett, and she doesn’t plan on falling in love with him.  Grant seems different, and the two have an undeniable connection. She wants to share everything with him, but she’s not sure she can share the one thing she wants most to tell him: she used to be Andrew Hardy.

Hailed as one of the best YA books of 2016, Meredith Russo’s debut novel about a trans girl trying to make a new life for herself after a brutal attack has earned its extensive praise. This novel offers trans teens and adults a story that is at once sweetly romantic while also very believable, grounded in enough realism without ever veering into the horrifically tragic. The novel offers enough friction in the plot to offer readers insight into the real dangers that Amanda faces as a girl without ever overwhelming the narrative.  There’s good writing here, although at times the dialogue feels a bit clunky, and the exploration of new friendships helps flesh out the narrative beyond the typical romance.

The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging and interesting, and this is a necessary novel for all readers.  It’s one to stock your shelves with and push into the hands of teens.  There’s lots to discuss here as well, and it’s going to garner those discussions.  Highly recommended.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Flatiron Books: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon Spier is 16 and gay, but he’s not out.  He’s been emailing with another boy who is also not out, and Simon is pretty sure they attend the same school, but since they both use aliases, he can’t be sure who it is.  When one of his emails falls into the wrong hands, Simon finds himself in a fair amount of drama, blackmail, and reluctant matchmaking.  Simon has to find a way to navigate all of this while also juggling his friends, family, and the realization that it’s time to step out of the closet.

Becky Albertalli’s debut is a sweet, smart coming-of-age story that is sure to attract legions of fans.  Early buzz was good, and the novel was longlisted for the National Book Award, which means it attracted even more readers.  On the whole, the novel is smart, self-aware, and authentic.  Readers looking for a sweet LGBTQ romance will be satisfied by this one.

Albertalli succeeds particularly when it comes to her characters.  Everyone, from Simon’s sort-of-wacky family to his group of friends, gets to be fully realized characters.  The dynamics at play within Simon’s family are fascinating, funny, and make up some of the book’s best moments.  Also noteworthy is Albertalli’s ability to reveal her character’s deepest, most intimate thoughts through email correspondence.  As Simon emails with “Blue” throughout the book, both boys reveal the deepest, most secret parts of themselves, and it is done in a way that is naturalistic.

There are moments where the book gets a little too mired down in the high school hierarchy, especially when it comes to Simon’s friends and their drama, but it also feels very true to high school.  It just detracts from the overarching narrative and slows the plot slightly.  These moments are few and far between, and the novel as a whole is still an enjoyable, sweet read.

 

Moving, funny, and definitely one that will resonate with readers.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Balzer + Bray: 2015. Library copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Expected Release Date: October 27, 2015

Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive.

The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won’t understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni’s life. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?

(summary via Goodreads)

I loved Talley’s debut and am excited to see what she can do with this unusual (and super important) topic.  It looks like it’s going to be a complex and complicated look at trans issues and I can’t wait to see how Talley handles it.  Also, upper-YA, which I’m always down for!

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian

Will Caynes has a fairly complicated life.  Thanks to his divorced parents, he spends his time shuffling between the city and the suburbs of Minneapolis.  His father is drinking again while sort of aimlessly renovating his old house, and his mom has a new family in the suburbs and seems to think that buying things is the same thing as parenting.  When Will meets Brandy, a sophomore girl he finds surprisingly easy to talk to, he can’t believe his luck.  The two start to see each other, but there’s a complication: Will and his best friend Angus, who is openly gay, have been hooking up on the sly.  Will is attracted to both of them, and he cares for them both, too.  So what does that make him?

Carrie Mesrobian’s latest offering for teens is a knockout of a novel.  Mesrobian is a master at capturing the authenticity of being a teenager, and in her latest offering, that is on full display.  With Cut Both Ways, Mesrobian offers her teen readers a thoughtful, nuanced look at bisexuality while also delivering a super complex, smart novel about growing up and facing life’s hardest truths. This is a phenomenal book that deserves a place on library shelves all over the country.

The novel is fearless in its exploration of complicated, messy topics.  It approaches the subjects of sex and sexual identity without shame, and is unapologetic in its frankness.  Although Will never actually uses the word “bisexual” to describe himself, it is clear he is struggling with his sexuality and what it means, not only to him but to the people he cares about.  Mesrobian allows for the teens in her novel to have authentic sexual experiences and writes about these interactions in ways that are funny, moving, and sometimes a little awkward.  It is clear that she has enormous respect for both her characters and her teen readers.

Although the novel has several very dramatic moments, Mesrobian keeps such tight control of her narrative that these events never feel overly-sensationalized.  Will’s narration has just the right of emotional distance to help readers understand how worn out he is by playing the middleman in his parents’ divorce, and this same apathy plays out in his relationships with both Brandy and Angus.  This is an intense read, but it’s also intensely satisfying.

Highly, highly recommended.  One of the best books of the year. A must-read for older teens who like their YA realistic and complex.

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian. HarperCollins: 2015. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Far From You by Tess Sharpe

Because of a car accident when she was fourteen, Sophie Winters lives in constant, crippling pain.  Not long after the accident, she got hooked on Oxy, and it’s years before she manages to kick the addiction.  Then her friend Mina is murdered right in front of her, and the killer plants pills on Sophie to make it look like a drug deal gone very wrong.  After a stint in rehab (not her choice, especially because this time she really was clean), she’s home again, struggling to deal with the fact that her best friend–the person she loved more than anyone–is gone.  Determined to solve Mina’s murder and force everyone to confront the truth, Sophie embarks on unraveling the mystery in front of her, while also dealing with the fact that it will force her to reveal Mina’s biggest secret of all.

Tess Sharpe’s debut is a knockout of a novel, and it’s likely to make some best-of lists when the year winds to a close.  Fully realized characters, a compelling plot and narrator, and a strong grip on the prose makes this novel one readers will want to seek out.

Sharpe’s novel features an authentic, deeply flawed protagonist.  Sophie is a complex character, and she’s not overly concerned with whether or not people like her.  She is concerned with the truth, and her abrasiveness often reveals that.  Wracked with grief, regret, and loss, Sophie struggles with Mina’s death not only because she witnessed her best friend murdered in cold blood, but because the two were in love–and this realization has deep ramifications for Sophie’s world.

Also notable is the deft way that Sharpe renders the supporting characters in the story.  There are no simple characters here.  Each person in the story is full of flaws and motivations that make them feel like whole people.  Complex relationships and all-to-human reactions to the events of the book make it that much more compelling.

The book alternates between events past and present, and while this structure works very well here, the mystery often takes a backseat to Sophie’s interpersonal struggles.  This works just fine, but readers looking solely for a hard-boiled mystery won’t find that here.  Even so, the writing is strong enough to hook even the most jaded reader.

Highly recommended.

Far From You by Tess Sharpe. Indigo: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Expected Release Date: May 15, 2014

A love letter to the craft and romance of film and fate in front of—and behind—the camera from the award-winning author of Hold Still.

A wunderkind young set designer, Emi has already started to find her way in the competitive Hollywood film world.

Emi is a film buff and a true romantic, but her real-life relationships are a mess. She has desperately gone back to the same girl too many times to mention. But then a mysterious letter from a silver screen legend leads Emi to Ava. Ava is unlike anyone Emi has ever met. She has a tumultuous, not-so-glamorous past, and lives an unconventional life. She’s enigmatic…. She’s beautiful. And she is about to expand Emi’s understanding of family, acceptance, and true romance.

(Summary via Goodreads)

I didn’t love LaCour’s The Disenchantments, but I definitely understood the appeal and thought that LaCour had that something.  So there was never any doubt that I’d come back to her work at some point.  This offering looks like the perfect place for me to revisit LaCour as an author, because it’s right up my alley: film, Hollywood, coming-of-age.  Sold.  This looks like it has the potential to be a great GLBT novel for the YA world, and will likely have some crossover appeal, too.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Sahar has been in love with her best friend Nasrin since they were small children.  For years, they’ve kept their relationship secret, because it is against the law to be homosexual in Iran–they could be beaten, imprisoned, or even killed for their relationship.  Now Nasrin is to be married to a man, and Sahar is desperate to save their relationship. She finds what she thinks is a loophole: the government will allow a man trapped in a woman’s body to have sexual reassignment surgery.  But this will mean Sahar cannot love the person she wants in the body she wants to be in.

Sara Farizan’s novel about two girls in love in Iran has so much potential but falls short of the mark.  While the novel offers a fresh perspective from an interesting new voice, it doesn’t succeed on any of its fronts, leaving the result feeling very half-baked.  Because of the unique premise of the novel, some readers might be willing to overlook the novel’s failings, but this reader wasn’t.

The main problem is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between what Sahar feels for Nasrin and what the readers see and experience alongside her.  The relationship feels entirely one-sided and unrequited, almost.  Nasrin’s motivations are never clear, and her true feelings for Sahar are even less obvious.  The fact that she’s a selfish, spoiled princess doesn’t help her situation, either.

Because the novel is so slim, very little time is spent building the backstory to the girls’ relationship.  Readers are dropped right into the girls relationship as things begin to unravel, and they have no time to get invested in what is happening.  Combine this with the fact that Sahar’s feelings for Nasrin never completely gel with what the readers are seeing, and the result is an underbaked romance.

Despite this, the novel offers a rare perspective on what it is to be GLBT in Iran, and it’s likely to attract a readership.  A few more revisions of this novel, and it’s likely to have been something really great.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan. Algonquin Young Readers: 2013. Library copy read for the 2013 Cybils.