Review: Out of Darkness

darknessTitle: Out of Darkness
Author: Ashley Hope Pérez
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 408
Publisher: Carolrhoda LAB
Review Copy: ARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

Review: I knew walking into this story that I was being set up for tragedy and thought I was prepared; I was not. While the New London school explosion kicks off the final act of the book, the meat of Out of Darkness is centered on Naomi and her struggle to survive in her stepfather’s home as more of a maid than a family member. This is a dark, difficult book, and in addition to the racism mentioned in the summary (which escalates to beatings and lynch mobs), it also deals with topics including child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and marital rape. Ashley Hope Pérez does not pull her punches in Out of Darkness, and it makes for a raw, brutally honest (and brutally bleak) look at systems of inequality, entitlement, religious fervor, toxic masculinity, and other above-mentioned “forces that destroy people.”

Naomi is a compelling narrator, and her character arc from an observer who endures what she can to someone who seeks after friendship and love is mostly a satisfying one. Her grief for her mother and her difficulties in trying to preserve something of her mother for herself while simultaneously sharing those memories with Beto and Cari can be heartbreaking. While Pérez also enlists other points of view, such as Wash, Henry (Naomi’s stepfather/the twins’ father), and Beto, some of her most memorable scenes have multiple or first-person-plural points of view (e.g., Naomi and Wash, The Gang). “The Gang” scenes are particularly interesting as we get an outside look at what the other kids at school think of what’s going on with the main characters and provide a feel for the mood of the oil town. Wash’s constant negotiations between how he was expected to act around white people and what he actually wanted to do made for some great (and tense) character moments. I also liked the glimpses we got into Beto’s personality and his struggle with his father’s expectations of what a man ought to be.

I really enjoyed the development of Naomi and Wash’s romance and felt that the transition from strangers to friends to lovers was a comfortable process, despite the many social (and personal) forces arrayed against them. Pérez did not shy away from having Naomi experience sexual desire or giving her a loving, respectful, sexual relationship with Wash, which is something to be appreciated in romantic plotlines.

Despite all of the many things I enjoyed or appreciated about Out of Darkness, I will admit that the ending soured the experience for me. There isn’t much I can discuss that won’t spoil the ending, so I’ll simply say that the hope spot offered between two fraught, potentially tragic moments felt like a cheap setup for shock. I disliked the epilogue immensely, mostly because it struck me as a last-minute patch to lessen the impact of what had happened and thus finished the story angry instead of sad-but-hopeful/moved/etc.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a big fan of dark historical fiction and tragedy, but borrow it someday otherwise. While Pérez offers engaging protagonists, heartwarming romance, interesting prose, and complicated sibling relationships in the midst of an unflinching look at racism and other systems of oppression, the ending of the book felt like it was written primarily for shock value. Undoubtedly, readers’ opinions will vary on this point, as will how it influences their opinion of the book overall.

NBC interview with Juan Castillo about Out of Darkness

Conversation with Edi Campbell about Out of Darkness and growing up


Review: Everything, Everything

EverythingTitle: Everything, Everything
Author: Nicola Yoon
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 320
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available September 1, 2015

Summary: This innovative, heartfelt debut novel tells the story of a girl who’s literally allergic to the outside world. When a new family moves in next door, she begins a complicated romance that challenges everything she’s ever known. The narrative unfolds via vignettes, diary entries, texts, charts, lists, illustrations, and more.

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

Review: I was surprised by how quickly I was charmed by Madeline Whittier (AKA Maddie), the biracial heroine of Everything, Everything. The first person point-of-view, which was threaded through with wit, loneliness, and later a fierce longing for the outside world—and Olly—combined with the sometimes cute, sometimes painful, but often hilarious illustrations/book reviews/etc. made for a heroine with a compelling personality and unique voice. Due to Maddie’s Severe Combined Immunodeficiency diagnosis, the bulk of the book’s action took place within her childhood home, online, or via the view from the windows, which furthered the intimacy of Maddie and her story. I looked forward to every commute so I could read more, which is definitely a win in my book.

Carla and Olly were the two other standout characters in this book, though I was particularly fond of Carla. Her mixture of roles as nurse and companion provided Maddie with face-to-face friendship, a sounding board, and a co-conspirator. I loved the affection Maddie and Carla had for one another, especially when Carla repeatedly proved she wanted Maddie to be happy. As for Olly, once I got over how quickly he and Maddie fell for each other, I grew to like him a great deal. He isn’t as interesting as Maddie, troubled family situation notwithstanding, but he fulfilled his role in the story and had several wonderful moments—both friendship-wise and romantic—with our heroine.

However, I do have one major concern with the story, which is practically impossible to discuss without ruining the book. (I did a brief search for other reviews, and the event in question appears as divisive as I anticipated it would be.) Suffice it to say, I came down slightly more on the side of thinking this event was a “cheat” as opposed to a paradigm shift that I enjoyed. It left a somewhat bitter aftertaste, but many other people seemed to love it, so your mileage will vary. I would love to see a contributor at Disability in Kidlit tackle this book, actually, for a more informed opinion. Edit: Here is Disability in Kidlit’s review of the book, which I suggest you read.

Recommendation: Get it soon if quick, sweet romances are your thing. Nicola Yoon’s prose and David Yoon’s illustrations have created a lovely portrait of a young woman who deals with both isolation and love so deep it can be painful. Maddie is a wonderful character, and her involvement with Olly hits many of the best romance notes. Unfortunately, the ending of this book kept me from completely loving the story, but I am still looking forward to Yoon’s next book.

“YA author Nicola Yoon on diversity and her new novel, Everything, Everything by MJ Franklin

“Ask the Author: Nicola Yoon” by Alice Reeds


Review: Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars
Title: Written in the Stars
Author: Aisha Saeed
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Pages: 284
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.

Review: The story opens with Naila and her friends talking about dating, soccer games and prom. Things seem light-hearted even though readers know Naila’s parents don’t allow her to date. Then Naila’s parents find out about her secret boyfriend. From that moment on, this story is intense. There are a few times when Naila relaxes a little, but for the most part, she is trying to figure out how to get her life back under control.

In Naila, Aisha Saeed has created a character who loves her family and wants to please them, but is trying to balance that with what she knows about herself and what she believes will make her happy. She truly tries to be a dutiful daughter. She studies hard, she does many things that they ask, but she fell for a boy at school. This leads to a star-crossed lover situation. It also damages the relationship with her parents. By going on the trip to Pakistan, Naila hopes to regain their trust.

I appreciated that Naila makes the best of her situation. She has hope and decides to take this time in Pakistan as a gift. She enjoys getting to know her extended family and begins to understand some of the reasons why her parents love their home country. This was part of the book that I really welcomed. There are very few times that I hear about or see Pakistan in the media as anything other than a dangerous place surrounded by war. To see the everyday life of a family can help readers remember that there is more to Pakistan than what we see in the news. The sugarcane stalks and orange groves along with laughter of family members gathered together show Pakistan as a place in the world where people are living and loving.

The story doesn’t end with the family reunion though. Naila’s parents have a plan and now it is they who break her trust. They’ve arranged a marriage without her input or consent. Naila’s trials have only just begun. What follows is a dangerous and frightening time for her. When I read in the summary, “Her only hope of escape is Saif,” I was worried that this would be a classic damsel-in-distress situation. I wondered if she even would try to help herself. This is part of the struggle though. She does want to please her parents, but she does not just give up and wait for rescue. She also makes an attempt to change her circumstances.

I applaud Aisha Saeed for writing a beautiful book that also shines a light on the issue of forced marriages. As Saeed explains in the Author’s Note, she is Pakistani American and had a semi-arranged marriage. That meant her parents arranged it, but she and her husband-to-be did have some say in it. She made it clear that an arranged marriage and a forced marriage are two very different things. A forced marriage happens when one or more of the participants has little or no choice due to “coercion, pressure, threats, and sometimes, outright violence.” She also makes the point that forced marriages are not limited to any one race or religion, but happen all around the world. She wrote this story to give girls like Naila a voice.

Saeed shares this story in a way that helps readers see how and why characters are making certain choices. The characters have some depth and aren’t all simply the good guys and the bad guys. It would have been easy for Saeed to paint the man Naila’s parent chose as an ogre and an awful person. He’s not perfect by a long shot, but he isn’t the embodiment of evil either. Life is complicated and messy because people are too.

Recommendation: Get it soon – especially if you enjoy contemporary novels. This is a strong debut and I look forward to reading more from Aisha Saeed.


Review: The Wrath and the Dawn

wrathTitle: The Wrath and The Dawn
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 388
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.

She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.

Review: When I was in junior high, I read a (sanitized) abridgment of One Thousand and One Nights, and I loved Scheherazade. I admired her bravery and cleverness in using her sister and her stories to buy herself one day after another, thereby putting a stop to the horrific marriage-then-execution merry-go-round. So when I found out that The Wrath and the Dawn was going to take Scheherazade’s frame story and run with it, I was thrilled.

Shahrzad is a compelling heroine, and I loved the mixture of bravery and vengeance that fueled her for the beginning portions of the book. Her mission to exact revenge on the man who murdered her friend and many other girls drove all of the characters forward, from her father, Jahandar, to her boyfriend, Tariq. In addition to Tariq, I was particularly fond of Shahrzad’s handmaid, Despina, and Khalid’s cousin, Jalal. However, many of the other side characters introduced fairly early on in the narrative, like Omar and Reza, were essentially put into holding patterns for future books instead of taking a more active role in this book. I thought that the rebellion plot would have gotten a lot further along than it did for how early it was introduced.

While Shahrzad is the main point of view, we do get occasional glimpses into other characters, including Khalid. Khalid was an interesting character, but I wasn’t willing to give him nearly as much as empathy as I think I was supposed to. I can’t go into depth as to why Khalid killed dozens of girls (there are many book-ruining spoilers there), but at the end of the day, I’m not particularly inclined to forgive him. Luckily, Renée Ahdieh doesn’t let him off the hook easily and has both him and Shahrzad point out his own hypocrisy. Still, part of me wishes that Shahrzad had taken a lot longer to fall in love with him than she did.

The world Renée Ahdieh built is infused with (mostly) behind-the-scenes magic. It quietly simmers for most of the book, showing in smaller ways, with occasional glimpses into just how dangerous, far-reaching, and catastrophic it can be. The finale is an exercise in destruction and is one of my favorite descriptive sequences in a book filled with many memorable passages. I’m looking forward to seeing how the role of magic will expand in future books—I hope it will. Khorasan is a well-developed world, from strife with its neighboring country to the intricacies of palace life to smaller things like the descriptions of clothing and weapons and food.

Recommendation: Get it soon, if you’re a fan of revenge-turned-to-romance stories or One Thousand and One Nights. If you’re uncertain about a romance where the heroine falls in love with her best friend’s murderer, I would suggest you borrow the book from a friend or the library. While The Wrath and the Dawn suffers from the fact that it leaves several beginning plot points unresolved so they can be dealt with in later books, it is a mostly satisfying story with a fascinating world, a brave heroine, and the promise of a broader story in the future.


Review: Most Likely to Succeed

16140843Title:  Most Likely to Succeed (Superlatives #3)
Author: Jennifer Echols
Genres: contemporary, romance
Pages: 352
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Availability: August 4th, 2015

Summary: As vice president of Student Council, Kaye knows the importance of keeping order. Not only in school, but in her personal life. Which is why she and her boyfriend, Aidan, already have their lives mapped out: attend Columbia University together, pursue banking careers, and eventually get married. Everything Kaye has accomplished in high school—student government, cheerleading, stellar grades—has been in preparation for that future.

To his entire class, Sawyer is an irreverent bad boy. His antics on the field as school mascot and his love of partying have earned him total slacker status. But while he and Kaye appear to be opposites on every level, fate—and their friends—keep conspiring to throw them together. Perhaps the seniors see the simmering attraction Kaye and Sawyer are unwilling to acknowledge to themselves…

As the year unfolds, Kaye begins to realize her ideal life is not what she thought. And Sawyer decides it’s finally time to let down the facade and show everyone who he really is. Is a relationship between them most likely to succeed—or will it be their favorite mistake? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I read the first book of the Superlatives series, Biggest Flirts, half a year ago and I loved it. So of course, I was really looking forward to the final book in the series Most Likely to Succeed. This is book is so much more rewarding if you’ve read the first two books in the series, but it does work as a stand-alone book… but why would you deprive yourself of the first book? Silliness.

The Superlatives series centers on three friends who win certain titles in the yearbook superlatives (specifically, “biggest flirts”, “perfect couple”, and “most likely to succeed”) — and, basically, the romance that ensues. Most Likely to Succeed is definitely a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

Most Likely to Succeed centers on Kaye, the student council vice president, who gets voted “most likely to succeed” with her boyfriend, the student council president. She and her boyfriend are the perfect power couple, with an ivy league future planned out and everything. But their relationship is showing cracks, and Kaye finds herself drawn to her high school’s charismatic slacker.

Good girl falls for bad boy sounds like the same old formula, but Most Likely to Succeed is anything but that. The fun narration of Kaye and the relationships portrayed in the book work to make the story come alive. From friendships to family relationships, Kaye’s story doesn’t feel simply reduced to the central romance.

Kaye’s identity as African American does show through in little details about her ambitions, her family, and how other people treat her. I love how this was portrayed, though I did raise my eyebrows a bit when a character insisted that someone else insulting Kaye’s hair wasn’t racist (maybe not intentionally, but in the larger context of society, it totally was! oh well). But in general, I felt that Kaye’s character was incredibly well-written in this respect.

But seriously. Read the first two books — or, at least, the first book Biggest Flirts — before you read this one. It will make Most Likely to Succeed so much more awesome. The Superlatives series is a series to check out! Each of the books is a fun, lighthearted read. This is going on my “To Reread a Million Times” list.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Further reading: Review of Biggest Flirts


Review: P.S. I Still Love You

20698530Title:  P.S. I Still Love You (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #2)
Author: Jenny Han
Genres: contemporary, romance
Pages: 337
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Availability: May 26th, 2015

Summary: Lara Jean didn’t expect to really fall for Peter. She and Peter were just pretending. Except suddenly they weren’t. Now Lara Jean is more confused than ever. When another boy from her past returns to her life, Lara Jean’s feelings for him 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, we see first love through the eyes of the unforgettable Lara Jean. Love is never easy, but maybe that’s part of what makes it so amazing. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Fair warning, P.S. I Still Love You is the sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. If you haven’t read the first book, you definitely want to. I mean, how else are you going to enjoy all the feels from P.S. I Still Love You? (Did I just use ‘feels’ unironically? Yes, don’t judge.)

P.S. I Still Love You starts out with Lara Jean visiting her extended family — specifically, her Korean side. The little details and all-too-real family dynamics made me love the book from the very beginning. I would totally read an entire book strictly about Lara Jean and her sisters. But, that’s not the main focus of P.S. I Still Love You.

As is expected, the main focus is Lara Jean’s blossoming romance with Peter Kavinsky. Their love hits a few bumps in the road — specifically, Lara Jean and Peter’s different expectations for a relationship, and a bout of cyberbullying. Through this plot twist, issues of sexism and sexuality are explored. Lara Jean’s own maturation can be seen throughout the novel. For the most part, these issues are handled well, though I wish there could have been a little less of the girl-vs-girl / mean girls aspect of the novel.

What made me truly fall in love with this book wasn’t the romance, but the language, the little asides that made the story come to life — like when Lara Jean’s sister “hot-potatoes the phone” to Lara Jean, or when Lara Jean tries to telepathically tell everyone that she and her boyfriend’s relationship is slowly simmering, that “WE ARE BRISKET.” These sentences were everything.

Also, the cover — it’s gorgeous! I could look at it forever. If you want a cute, heartwarming romance, check out P.S. I Still Love You!

Recommendation: Get it soon! This is an adorable sequel to To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.