Review: Let’s Talk About Love

Title: Let’s Talk About Love
Author: Claire Kann
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, LGBTQIA
Pages: 281
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Alice had her whole summer planned. Non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets while marathoning her favorite TV shows (best friends totally included) with the smallest dash of adulting–working at the library to pay her share of the rent. The only thing missing from her perfect plan? Her girlfriend (who ended things when Alice confessed she’s asexual). Alice is done with dating–no thank you, do not pass go, stick a fork in her, done.

But then Alice meets Takumi and she can’t stop thinking about him or the rom com-grade romance feels she did not ask for (uncertainty, butterflies, and swoons, oh my!).

When her blissful summer takes an unexpected turn, and Takumi becomes her knight with a shiny library employee badge (close enough), Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood.

Review: Note: The first chapter of LTAL is the breakup mentioned in the summary, and it includes aphobic and racist comments by the ex-girlfriend. In addition to these, LTAL also includes a brief sexual harassment scene.

The first time I saw the cover and read the summary of Claire Kann’s debut, LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE, I knew I had to get my hands on it. A black, biromantic, asexual teenager in college? Yes please! Within the first couple of chapters, I knew I was going to enjoy going on this adventure with Alice. Alice has a distinctive voice filled with quirky commentary and parenthetical asides, which I generally enjoyed (though at points the pop culture references got a bit tiresome). Her narration was compelling and gave me a good idea of how she viewed the world and herself, especially in this tumultuous period in her life.

One of the things I really appreciated about LTAL is that Alice is explicitly biromatic and asexual, and Alice spends a lot of time thinking about and (sometimes) talking about her asexuality. (There’s even some discussion of asexuality as a spectrum.) Alice is out to just a handful of people, and after the disastrous end of her previous relationship, she’s reluctant to start a romantic relationship with Takumi even though she falls for him hard. Throughout the book, Alice pushes back against aphobic rhetoric that says her love isn’t “good enough” compared to someone who wants a sexual relationship with their partner.

As a young black woman, Alice also deals with a number of racial microaggressions on the page, from “you’re [x] for a black girl” to people asking questions about her hair. Her racial identity is just as important in this book as her asexuality, and it is a key factor in her conflict over college and career plans with her parents, as mentioned by her father:

“Black people have to be perfect, inhumanely good at everything, and even then we can fail, because that’s the way the system is set up. It is rigged against us. The environment, the opportunities we created gave you a leg up so you wouldn’t have to fight as hard.”

Alice’s relationship with Takumi was pretty cute. I had some specific-to-my-taste complaints, but overall, I enjoyed the long buildup of their friendship and watching the two of them become closer. (I do wish we’d seen more of their adventures together, though. There were some things I wanted to see play out on the page instead of being told about them later.) I’m rather fond of do-I-confess-and-risk-our-friendship romances, and the stakes felt even higher with Alice so recently burned by her ex-girlfriend’s reaction to Alice’s asexuality. Alice and Takumi’s relationship was filled with ups and downs, hurt feelings and happy times, but the ultimate resolution was satisfying.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you’re a fan of contemporary romance. Alice is an entertaining narrator with a strong voice, and you’ll quickly become invested in her getting a happily-ever-after. LTAL doesn’t shy away from addressing anti-black and aphobic microagressions, and it also tackles conflicts between parental expectations and children’s happiness. If you’re looking for a cute, sweet romance with some staying power, you should read Claire Kann’s debut.

Extras

Interview with Claire Kann

Let’s Talk About the LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE Cover

Book Review: Meet Cute: Some People are Destined to Meet

Title: Meet Cute: Some People are Destined to Meet
Author: Sona Charaipotra, Dhonielle Clayton, Nicola Yoon, Ibi Zoboi and others
Genres: Short Story Anthology
Pages: 320
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from NetGalley
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Whether or not you believe in fate, or luck, or love at first sight, every romance has to start somewhere. MEET CUTE is an anthology of original short stories featuring tales of “how they first met” from some of today’s most popular YA authors.

Readers will experience Nina LaCour’s beautifully written piece about two Bay Area girls meeting via a cranky customer service Tweet, Sara Shepard’s glossy tale about a magazine intern and a young rock star, Nicola Yoon’s imaginative take on break-ups and make-ups, Katie Cotugno’s story of two teens hiding out from the police at a house party, and Huntley Fitzpatrick’s charming love story that begins over iced teas at a diner. There’s futuristic flirting from Kass Morgan and Katharine McGee, a riveting transgender heroine from Meredith Russo, a subway missed connection moment from Jocelyn Davies, and a girl determined to get out of her small town from Ibi Zoboi. Jennifer Armentrout writes a sweet story about finding love from a missing library book, Emery Lord has a heartwarming and funny tale of two girls stuck in an airport, Dhonielle Clayton takes a thoughtful, speculate approach to pre-destined love, and Julie Murphy dreams up a fun twist on reality dating show contestants.

This incredibly talented group of authors brings us a collection of stories that are at turns romantic and witty, epic and everyday, heartbreaking and real.

Review: I found the premise of this collection of short stories a fun idea as one of the most intriguing aspects of romance is the fun and unique ways couples meet. Folks always ask couples for their “meet cute” story, so to have a entire short story collection of diverse meet cutes makes for some great winter break reading (at least for me). Not all the stories were sugar sweet; some had some deep questions about identity, fate, the notion of friendships, etc. The genres of the stories were diverse too, as not all stories were contemporary; there were some speculative fiction stories, some fantasy (or felt like fantasy), which I greatly enjoyed as the “meet cute” is a trope that is in all genres. There were a few stories that truly stood out to me, making me invested in the characters so much that I was disappointed that all I got was their meet cute story.

Dhonielle Clayton’s “The Way We Love Here” was a sweet story that challenged the notion of destined lovers. The story is set in a world where people are born with markings on their ring finger which fade as they age and come closer to meeting their beloved. Our two main characters aren’t looking for that day but end up learning what they will mean to each other. Both learn that their future will one they could not have expected, but that they will always be in each other’s lives in some way. I love how this story challenges the concept of “happily ever after” and that the future we believe we dream of when we are children become vastly different than what we could ever imagine.

Another favorite of mine featured a kick ass mathematician who decided to use statistics and probability to determine if she would ever meet the cute guy she had a chance meeting with on the subway. Jocelyn Davies’s “The Unlikely Likelihood of Falling in Love” follows the main character as she decides to write a term paper about the chances of meeting someone twice in New York City. We follow her as she develops her hypothesis, runs her tests, and lastly, her conclusion. It is a fun read as she theorizes about the cute guy and the different results of her tests to see if she would see him again. I loved this story because I loved that the main character was a math whiz and looked at the world very analytically. She was also the only girl in her class, but did not receive any negative push back from her classmates. This story was also fun in a “will she succeed or won’t she” way that made me really question if a meet cute was every going to happen.

Meet Cute is an anthology you must read slowly, taking your time to savor all the different stories and how they incorporate deeper themes all within the fun story of “how did this couple meet.”

Review: Wild Beauty

Wild BeautyTitle: Wild Beauty
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, LGBTQIA
Pages: 320
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Love grows such strange things.

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

Review: So, it’s been a while since I ugly sobbed my way through the climax and resolution of a book, but here I am, wanting you to have the exact same experience. In a book where love can—and often does—bring tragedy, it goes without saying that there would be a lot of heartache in store. There’s bucketfuls of it, passed on from generation to generation, of lovers vanished or sent away before the Nomeolvides curse can take hold of them.

Wild Beauty starts off with a bang, when Estrella and her four cousins discover that they have all fallen (a little) in love with Bay Briar, a queer non-binary girl whose extended family owns the land they live on, La Pradera. The girls’ rush to sacrifice their precious things to La Pradera in an attempt to keep Bay from vanishing is what causes a boy called Fel, who has no memory of who he is or where he came from, to appear in their enchanted garden. And while Fel tries to figure out who he is, the girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers all have to wrestle with what Fel means as the only person to have ever been given back by La Pradera.

Anna-Marie McLemore tackles love in its many forms, and there is an abundance of queer characters, young and old. The tragedy of the Nomeolvides family isn’t in who they love—it’s in the curse that steals anyone and everyone from them without warning. There is a wide range of love in this book, and some of my favorite moments were when love and caring and gratitude were given physical form through the cooking and sharing of food. Another major theme in the book is how privilege and the lack of it both radically shape opportunities and lives. Reid’s character in particular is a close-up examination and condemnation of powerful men who believe they are above others, and the heroes’ confrontations with and strategies to manage him were all too real.

Continuing the pattern established by McLemore’s previous books, Wild Beauty has duel protagonists who alternate chapters. Estrella and Fel were excellent narrators, and the richness of their inner lives is a great fit for the lush prose. I really enjoyed the way the two of them connected and grew together.

While there were occasional moments where I felt the story got bogged down by description, the meandering pace and lingering on the details generally enhanced the story and was a good reminder that the setting—La Pradera—is just as important as any of the people. This world is a fantastical one, with curses and women who grow flowers with their hands, and it is also a familiar one, where injustice and blood leave lasting scars that shape future generations.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you want a big dose of queer characters and magical realism. McLemore’s newest offering is another great addition to any home or school library. Fans of McLemore’s previous work will find more of what they loved before in Wild Beauty, and the book will be just as welcoming to new readers. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

Extras

Better Know an Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Anna-Marie McLemore’s ‘Wild Beauty’ Is A Magical Story Of Love, Loss, And Family Curses

Interview with Anna-Marie McLemore, author of “When the Moon Was Ours” and “Wild Beauty”

Review: You Bring the Distant Near

Title: You Bring the Distant Near
Author: Mitali Perkins
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Genres: Romance, Contemporary & Historical
Pages: 303
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley & personally purchased final copy
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Five girls. Three generations. One great American love story. You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture–for better or worse. Ranee, worried that her children are losing their Indian culture; Sonia, wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair; Tara, seeking the limelight to hide her true self; Shanti, desperately trying to make peace in the family; Anna, fighting to preserve Bengal tigers and her Bengali identity–award-winning author Mitali Perkins weaves together a sweeping story of five women at once intimately relatable and yet entirely new.

Review: In You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins created a beautiful story of family, love and identity. Sonia, a writer and reader, mentions Little Women on more than one occasion. I can’t help but make comparisons. These women have so much love for each other and they show that as they work through their individual challenges.

The relationships of Sonia, Tara and their mother Ranee are the primary focus of more than half of the book. These young women and their mother share many things like genes, culture, and having adapted to multiple countries over time. This is the magic of families. We often share so much, but our personalities and individual experiences shape us and our identities become distinct from each other. As the young women are trying to live their dreams, they are also separating from their mother and the past she clings to. By offering this story from so many perspectives, readers are able to see the diversity present within one extended family. Ranee has an obvious bias toward the Black people in their neighborhood yet she rebels against some of the confining requirements from her own culture. She pushes her husband and provides for her family. Sonia uses her voice and pen to fight for women’s rights and Tara focuses on being a star and keeping peace between her sister and mother. All hold onto and honor aspects of their culture that match their own beliefs. They are at work blending the many parts of themselves on a palette and making their unique mark on the world.

Every part of this book made me want to crawl into the story with this family. Even when certain characters weren’t speaking to each other, I could still see the love there and the belief in one another. The original group of women set the stage and then we get to see the children. The cousins add another layer to the story. I loved seeing how tightly each young woman clung to what and who they valued. These are teens who have doubts and fears, but move forward through them. Like with Little Women, I think readers will likely see bits and pieces of themselves within these characters and will want to cheer them on every step of the way. It sounds seriously sappy, but this book made my heart happy.

Recommendation: Get it now especially if you enjoy realistic fiction involving families. I did not want this book to end.

Extras: Our Interview with Mitali Perkins

 

Review: The Victoria in My Head

Title: The Victoria in My Head
Author: Janelle Milanes
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.

But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.

From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.

Review: It’s very easy to relate to the heroine of Janelle Milanes’s debut novel. Victoria has always lived her life according to her parents’ expectations, and she is at the point where her parents’ ideas of what should bring her happiness are clashing with what she actually wants from life. (Not that she’s always right about what would make her happy, but she knows the status quo is definitely not it.) The repetition of her life is wearing her down, and she constantly makes decisions in reference to what would make her parents happy. That’s an inevitable recipe for rebellion in YA, and after some hesitation (overcome with the help of Victoria’s BFF, Annie), Victoria dives right in to quitting school sports and secretly joining a rock band despite her stage fright.

The members of the band are all distinct, interesting characters, and I appreciate that they didn’t supplant Annie in Victoria’s life. Levi, the perfectionist bass player, whose head is filled with plans and goals and too many details; Krina, the punk drummer, who has fierce opinions and an empathetic heart; and Strand, the hot guitarist, whose laidback attitude challenges a lot of Victoria’s worldview. The ups and downs of their relationships with each other made for an engaging group of characters. Victoria’s family members were also strong presences, and it was easy to see that her parents loved her and wanted what was best for her—the problem being that they and Victoria disagreed on where she could find happiness.

One of the things that I think Milanes excelled at was creating a relationship that should have been great on paper and then slowly proved just how wrong the two people were for each other. Personality clashes, differing priorities, confusion about needs and wants—all of those culminated into an increasingly awkward relationship disaster that fueled Victoria’s personal growth. It was a great contrast to the second romance in the book, which had been built up slowly and blossomed out of both attraction and friendship.

There are some missteps in the novel. There were a couple of scenes with ableist language, and I was a little sad that a lot of Victoria’s negative thoughts about her body never seemed to be strongly challenged. I wish that the reveal of a secondary romantic couple had been independent from Victoria’s own romantic plotline, especially since Victoria’s cluelessness about Krina’s romantic orientation had already been blatantly pointed out in text.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While there are a few blemishes, THE VICTORIA IN MY HEAD stars a relatable heroine and has a comfortably predictable romance. Music lovers, dreamers, second-generation immigrants, and anyone who has settled for something safe instead of taking risks for their heart’s desire will find something to relate to in Janelle Milanes’s debut novel.

Extras

Interview with Janelle Milanes + Giveaway

Review: Rebel Seoul

Title: Rebel Seoul
Author: Axie Oh
Genres: Science fiction, romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher
Availability: September 15, 2017

Summary: After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.

Review: I knew I needed Rebel Seoul in my life the moment I heard it compared to mix of Pacific Rim and Korean dramas, and I was not disappointed. There were giant robots, fight scenes, complicated (and angsty) family relationships and (ex-)friendships, questionable loyalties, rebellions, and a lovely romance—basically, author Axie Oh delivered everything I had hoped for.

Jaewon was an excellent narrator whose position in life gave him a unique look at his far-future society. His priorities (getting a decent military placement, using it to leverage himself out of the Old Seoul slums, and just plain surviving) gradually started to shift as he learned more about the Amaterasu Project. It isn’t that he lost his innocence so much as he began to understand that there was a broader world out there with people who were more complex than he originally thought. There were some wonderful moments throughout the book where Jaewon considered someone else’s point-of-view, which radically changed how he saw them.

The world of Rebel Seoul is fascinating. It’s not so far into the future as to be unrecognizable, and the classic divide between the haves and have-nots that’s common in dystopian-ish worlds was there. But one of the things that Oh did well was that this brutal government is frequently just as awful to its elites as to its poor, and being rich or from an important family isn’t as good a shield as its frequently portrayed to be. (Hello, first test! And mandatory military service for everyone, though privilege and excellent scores could get you less dangerous positions.) We got just enough detail to have an idea of how this militaristic superstate formed, and I liked how much it felt like this was a society that had been at war for decades. That kind of society made a good contrast for drama among more intimate relationships, like classmates, friends, neighbors, and romantic partners.

I have a weakness for “forbidden” romance, so Jaewon and Tera’s budding relationship was a delight. My favorite parts about it where how it developed out of time spent together and Jaewon’s empathy. He could have kept his distance—should have kept his distance from a girl raised and experimented on to become a weapon—but his empathy made him view her as a person first, not a tool for the exclusive use of his government. These two have become one of my favorite battle couples in YA.

There were a few plot twists that I felt were too easily predicted and a few characters I wish had been fleshed out, but overall Rebel Seoul was one of my favorite reads this year. It is a book set in a messy, complicated world without easy answers or neat resolutions, and I loved it.

Recommendation: Buy (pre-order!) it now. Axie Oh’s debut novel is a phenomenal mix of science fiction and romance set against a militaristic dystopian society. Rebel Seoul’s compelling characters and fast-paced plot means that this will almost definitely be on my year-end best-of list.