Review: North of Happy

Title: North of Happy
Author: Adi Alsaid
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.

When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.

Review: Adi Alsaid excels at building a world. Whether Carlos is exploring his new home with Emma or at a party or in the kitchen at Provecho, it is easy to imagine the world he moves through. The kitchen itself is a highlight, filled with strong personalities and amazing food descriptions. Starting each chapter with an ingredient list for a recipe (for a dish that usually, if not always, showed up in the chapter) was a fun touch and an easy way to remind the reader just how much food and cooking mean to Carlos.

The interactions between Carlos and his hallucinations of Felix were one of the best parts of North of Happy, especially since it gave Carlos the opportunity to question what he actually wanted out of life. Deciding that his father’s plan wasn’t for him was the beginning, but that’s far from deciding on a direction that he actually wanted for his life. The pushes that Felix gave to Carlos were just as important as the times that Carlos pushed back, and it was great to see Carlos deciding for himself what would and wouldn’t make him happy.

There were two main weaknesses in my opinion: the lack of screen time for the relationship between Carlos and his father and the underdevelopment of Emma. I never really got enough of a close look at Carlos’s father to be able to fully understand why he was at such odds with both their sons. This undermined the conclusion of his arc for me since it made the ending feel at least partially unearned. Emma’s character was never allowed to flourish for me; or at least, I craved something deeper from the book on her behalf and didn’t feel like I ever quite got it. She swung very close to the Manic Pixie archetype at times and spent many of her interactions with Carlos as his unwitting therapist. That said, there were several excellent scenes between Carlos and Emma that gave Emma depth, and the culmination of her arc was a (mostly) pleasant surprise for me.

Finally, I do wish there had been some kind of overt mention of Carlos getting help for his mental health at the end. (If it was there, I missed it.) He was hallucinating his dead brother for months, struggling with depression, etc., and while Carlos does admit to not being entirely okay, it would have been nice to see him working toward getting him the assistance he still needs.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you have an interest in the culinary arts. While there are a few missteps in the book, Carlos is an engaging narrator whose story is likely to resonate with a lot of people. If you’re in the mood for a book about grieving and growing up, this will probably hit the spot.

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Review: Radio Silence

Title: Radio Silence
Author: Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Genre:Contemporary, LGBTQIA
Pages: 496
Review copy: Library loan
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl.

I just wanted to say—we don’t.

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying. When she’s not studying, she’s up in her room making fan art for her favorite podcast, Universe City.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As. But no one knows he’s the creator of Universe City, who goes by the name Radio Silence.

When Frances gets a message from Radio Silence asking if she’ll collaborate with him, everything changes. Frances and Aled spend an entire summer working together and becoming best friends. They get each other when no one else does.

But when Aled’s identity as Radio Silence is revealed, Frances fears that the future of Universe City—and their friendship—is at risk. Aled helped her find her voice. Without him, will she have the courage to show the world who she really is? Or will she be met with radio silence?

Review: 
They don’t fall in love. This was one of the things I appreciated about Radio Silence. Aled and Frances share a love for the podcast Universe City. They are both creative and enjoy spending time together, but not in a romantic way. Frances’ mother asks if there is something more happening, but they don’t want or need that type of relationship with each other. The book does include some couples, but romance isn’t the focus for the most part. I loved the time spent getting to know the characters and seeing their friendships develop.

From the U.S. cover, you wouldn’t know it, but Frances is mixed-race with a white mother and an Ethiopian father. Frances doesn’t know much about her Ethiopian culture and wishes that was different. That isn’t something explored very deeply, but it’s part of her story.

Another aspect of the story is the issue of expectations around university attendance. Frances, Aled, and their friend Daniel are all on a trajectory leading directly to university. This is something Frances has been highly focused on for years without questioning the plan. As a teacher, I know we encourage students to think about college even in elementary school. This story challenged that expectation in many ways. It also challenged the assumption that academics trump the arts because one will not get you money in the end.

Finally, Frances and Aled both have mothers who are active in their lives. Frances has a mother who encourages independence and experimentation and Aled has one who is quite the opposite. I’m always looking for adults in young adult books who care for teens and treat them with respect so I was happy to meet one of these moms. She also has a unicorn onesie and I have to say that made me smile.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy books about relationships and finding your path. Also, if you like a bit of quirky in your novels. There’s quite a good helping of quirky.

Extras:
Interview with Alice Oseman on Rich in Color
Trailer

Alice Oseman Reads Radio Silence

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Author Interview: Alice Oseman

Having grown up believing college was an expectation, Radio Silence was quite an interesting story line for me and I enjoyed thinking about the alternative paths one can take. Today we welcome author Alice Oseman as she answers questions about her novel and her writing.

Can you tell our readers a bit about Radio Silence
Radio Silence follows the story of Frances Janvier, a high-achiever who has worked all her life to get to Cambridge University. But she has a secret – when she’s not obsessively studying, she’s a huge fangirl of a YouTube podcast show called Universe City. Frances thinks she knows what she wants out of her life – grades, university, money, happiness – but then she meets the creator of Universe City, and everything changes.
 
What do you love most about Frances and Aled?
My favourite thing about Frances is her childishness – she isn’t afraid to make herself look silly and just have fun. My favourite thing about Aled is his creativity and how much he dedicates himself to his creative projects.
 
Tell us how you really feel about university. Can you share a little about how your opinion was shaped?
I grew up thinking I was destined for Oxbridge, but failed to get in when I applied. I’d been a high-achiever my entire life and was crushingly disappointed. When I went to Durham University instead, a university I chose purely because it was high up on the league tables, I had a terrible time, and only realized then that university study probably wasn’t for me. I felt brainwashed into believing that I was a person who I was not by school and my teachers and the entire system of education.
 
I noticed there were several conversations about strong love between friends and even a little push back against characters who seemed to place more importance on romantic love. How deliberate was this or did the characters simply bring that about?
I, as a writer, am simply tired of romantic love being presented in Young Adult fiction as a priority, or even as something common. The truth is, very few people meet the ‘love of their life’ in their teenage years, but Young Adult fiction as a whole seems to present the idea that everyone meets their soulmate in their teens. I think there are a lot more interesting and realistic things to write about teenagers.
 
Which writers have been inspirational for you?
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without Bret Easton Ellis (despite all his faults), or without J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
 
Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?
It’s very important to me that all young people can see themselves in the books they read. We live in a very diverse society, and that should be reflected accurately in our literature.
 
And just for fun – do you have a Batman, unicorn, or otherwise unique onesie?
I have several – Batman, a teddy bear and a giraffe!

 You may find Alice on Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube, Instagram, Blog, and her Art Blog.
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Review: Queens of Geek

Title:  Queens of Geek
Author: Jen Wilde
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 288
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Availability: Out now!

Summary: When BFFs Charlie, Taylor and Jamie go to SupaCon, they know it’s going to be a blast. What they don’t expect is for it to change their lives forever. Charlie likes to stand out. SupaCon is her chance to show fans she’s over her public breakup with co-star, Reese Ryan. When Alyssa Huntington arrives as a surprise guest, it seems Charlie’s long-time crush on her isn’t as one-sided as she thought.

While Charlie dodges questions about her personal life, Taylor starts asking questions about her own. Taylor likes to blend in. Her brain is wired differently, making her fear change. And there’s one thing in her life she knows will never change: her friendship with Jamie—no matter how much she may secretly want it to. But when she hears about the Queen Firestone SupaFan Contest, she starts to rethink her rules on playing it safe. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I was immediately sold on Queens of Geek, just by the blurb. While I’ve never thrown myself into a fandom, I find discussions of fandom culture – whether in fiction or in meta posts online – fascinating. In that sense, Queens of Geek was right up my alley.

The book follows two best friends, Charlie and Taylor as they attend the convention SupaCon for the very first time, with third BFF Jamie in tow. Vlogging star Charlie Liang is still dealing with the fallout from her celebrity breakup with her indie-movie-turned-sensation co-star Reese — all while falling for fellow superstar Alyssa Huntington. Meanwhile, her best friend Taylor is busy chronicling her SupaCon experiences on Tumblr and coming to terms with her crush on her friend Jamie.

The identities and topics included in Queens of Geek – bisexuality, mental health, body image, sexism, fandom culture, and more – are smoothly incorporated into the book. As I’m not super familiar with fandom culture and other aspects of the book, I’m looking forward to what other, more knowledgeable, readers think of how things are handled in the book.

In general, I had tons of fun reading Queens of Geek, and there were quite a few swoonworthy (yep, sorry, I’m using that word now) moments. If you’re into fandom culture, or just reading about it, then definitely check Queens of Geek out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: Piecing Me Together

Title: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renée Watson
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.

But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.

Friendships, race, privilege, identity—this compelling and thoughtful story explores the issues young women face.

Review: Jade creates stunning collages. She’s an artist turning bits and pieces of color, texture and shapes together. Art has often been one of the ways people explore what they think about the world and sometimes it’s a way to find healing. Jade creates these amazing collages and they are a way she processes what’s going on in her life. It seems like the people who love her make her whole and the world takes her apart. “Sometimes it feels like I leave home a whole person, sent off with kisses from Mom, who is hanging her every hope on my future. By the time I get home I feel like my soul has been shattered into a million pieces.”

This is an introspective book. Jade is a thinker and I loved seeing through her eyes. She puzzles things out and though sometimes she’s hesitant to advocate for herself, Jade has clear ideas about how things should be. She’s also willing to listen to other perspectives. I really appreciated the chapter titled agradecido/thankful. Her friend and uncle have a conversation about a teacher at the local high school who doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Her uncle E.J. explains that they’re celebrating our nation being stolen from indigenous people and how “Columbus didn’t discover nothing.” Jade realizes she’s never given this a thought. She thinks it through and comes to the conclusion, “I think the US has a lot to be thankful for and a lot to apologize for.”

The chapter titles are in Spanish and English. Jade is excited about learning Spanish and tutors some of her fellow classmates because she’s doing well. Jade’s hoping to go on an International trip where she could do some volunteer work. She doesn’t just want to take advantage of opportunities for herself, Jade also wants to be able to contribute to the world. She doesn’t want to always be seen as the at-risk, needy girl. She knows she has things to offer and wants those around her to realize this too.

Aside from the titles, the chapters are also unique because they are sometimes poetic.I found the language to be lyrical and often poetic even when not in poetry form. Some chapters are only a paragraph long and manage to say a lot. Occasionally there are actual poems.

Race is a topic of thought and conversation throughout the book. Jade has several relationships that lead to some intense situations revolving around race. Her mentor, which she has been assigned because she is perceived as needy, is new to the job and sees Jade with a deficit mentality that Jade rebels against. Her new best friend is White and is either deliberately ignoring racist comments and actions or is oblivious. Jade has to decide if these relationships are worth her efforts.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a beautiful book that delves into so many aspects of life and is a fantastic story about finding and using your voice.

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Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Title: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 464
Publisher: Clarion Books
Availability: Out now!

Summary: The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was, I think, the first YA book I’d ever read with a gay protagonist. And I will always believe myself forever lucky to have picked that as my first. So the minute I learned that a new book by the same author was coming out, I pre-ordered it, no questions asked.

I think the synopsis says it all. Salvador, called Sal by some and Sally by his best friend, has an incredible bond with his adoptive gay, Mexican-American father. But when tragedy visits him and his friends, Sal has to confront who he is and who he’s becoming.

As expected, the writing is beautiful – detailed, lyrical, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. There are certainly moments that could be pegged as problematic, but (and this may be me viewing the book through rose-colored lens) I think the storytelling is nuanced enough to provide different interpretations and perspectives from which to view the events of the novel. I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers.

What struck me was how singular the novel was in one particular way – the presence of family and the incredible father-son bond depicted. In a way, the book doesn’t feel like Sal’s story alone, so much as the story of Sal and his father through Sal’s eyes. I stayed up until 3:00 am reading about this pair and the people who fell into their orbit, and I didn’t regret a second of it.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a must-read, especially if you loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s a story about love – family, friends, and everything in between.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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