For the Record

21424692Title: For the Record
Author: Charlotte Huang
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 307
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Review copy: Library
Availability: November 10th, 2015

Summary: Chelsea thought she knew what being a rock star was like… until she became one. After losing a TV talent show, she slid back into small-town anonymity. But one phone call changed everything. Now she’s the lead singer of the band Melbourne, performing in sold-out clubs every night and living on a bus with three gorgeous and talented guys. The bummer is that the band barely tolerates her. And when teen heartthrob Lucas Rivers take an interest in her, Chelsea is suddenly famous, bringing Melbourne to the next level—not that they’re happy about that. Her feelings for Beckett, Melbourne’s bassist, are making life even more complicated.
 
Chelsea only has the summer tour to make the band—and their fans—love her. If she doesn’t, she’ll be back in Michigan for senior year, dying a slow death. The paparazzi, the haters, the grueling schedule… Chelsea believed she could handle it. But what if she can’t? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: For the Record chronicles small-town girl Chelsea when she joins a band on tour after losing on a music talent TV show (basically, the fictional equivalent of American Idol). She rocks out, falls in love, and gets famous — definitely a roller coaster of sorts. I read the entire book in one sitting, unable to tear my eyes away.

The events of For the Record are very much told and experienced in the present, in a linear fashion. The bus goes from one stop to the next, and Chelsea grows as a rock star with each show. The tour details and band drama provide an inside look at what goes on during tours (or maybe not? I don’t know, having never been a teen music sensation).

The story is so much in the present, in fact, that references to Chelsea’s backstory — that she was ostracized in high school, starred in an American Idol equivalent, and then signed on to replace the missing lead singer of the band Melbourne — ring almost hollow. It felt like there was an entire prequel missing, and I’d been thrown into the middle of something. Chelsea’s backstory, her history with her best friend Mandy, and her crush on Beckett all felt like facts told to the reader. I hate to trot out the tired old cliche of “show, don’t tell,” but it feels relevant in this case.

This is definitely a read that reels you in, but only if you can manage to suspend your disbelief when it comes to character motivations and the like. The drama and non-stop grind of show after show keeps you reading. Still, when I finished the book, I couldn’t say for certain that I understood any of the heroes of this story.

If you’re into rock-n-roll band stories and the lives of the famous, definitely pick up For the Record to read sometime.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Review: American Ace

American AceTitle: American Ace
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 123
Review copy: Purchased at local bookstore
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This riveting novel in verse, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Toni Morrison, explores American history and race through the eyes of a teenage boy embracing his newfound identity.

Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.

But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.

Review: 
It’s funny to think about identity,
Dad said. Now I wonder how much of us
we inherit, and how much we create.

Connor and his family go through some soul-searching as they find out their heritage is something other than what they had always believed. We see the unfolding story through Connor’s eyes. His family has suffered the loss of his beloved Nonna and Connor is concerned about his father’s grief and possible depression. Otherwise life had been moving along as expected. Connor spends a lot of time with his dad as he practices driving to get his license. Things become complicated quickly though when Connor’s father explains that he has no idea who his father was. The journey to discover their family history leads them to new ways of thinking about themselves and the society they inhabit. After learning about their more complicated heritage, Connor sees his school in a new way.

I walked between classes in slow motion,
seeing the ancient intertribal wars
still being fought, in the smallest gestures.
Little things I hadn’t noticed before:
the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.

The story is delivered in nine parts containing five vignettes each. These are made up of two twelve line stanzas written in iambic pentameter. I often forget that poetry can be incredibly mathematical. Such a structure makes for extremely deliberate choices. This format meant there wasn’t much room for explanation. Nelson kept things tight. I appreciate that and so will readers looking for something quick yet meaningful. I almost always enjoy a novel in verse. I like the way Nelson delivers small packages of information and makes every word count. The titles are even important.

In part seven, the text shifts a bit and becomes a paper for Connor’s Honors History class. This brought in something I really appreciated. Photos of airmen from WWII are included every few pages. These added a lot to the story. With the photos, the pilots became something more than history. They became individuals with lives and stories of their own. In the author’s note, Nelson explains about the information for Connor’s report, “I did not invent any of the facts Connor learns….That part of the story is true. And still amazing.”

One thing did shake me out of the story a bit. The setting appears to be the present day since Connor uses google and his father has rapid DNA testing. With Connor being a teen, it seems a little strange that his grandfather is old enough to have been a pilot in WWII. My grandfather fought in the war and my children are older than Connor. It sort of works because Connor’s father has a child and grandchildren from a previous relationship so he was not young when he had Connor. It made me do some math though because it seemed difficult to believe.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of verse novels or enjoy historical novels and want something quick. Otherwise, borrow it someday. I truly enjoyed the book, but if I were recommending Nelson’s poetry, I would first hand someone A Wreath for Emmett Till and How I Discovered Poetry.

Extra: Warning – the following interview reveals their family heritage. I tried not to do that here since the publisher’s summary didn’t. If you want to know precisely what history this book explores though, please read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with author

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Mini-Review: An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes

Infinite Number BGcvr.inddTitle:  An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes
Author: Randy Ribay
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 244
Publisher: Merit Press
Availability: October 16th, 2015

Summary: As their senior year approaches, four diverse friends joined by their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game struggle to figure out real life. Archie’s trying to cope with the lingering effects of his parents’ divorce, Mari’s considering an opportunity to contact her biological mother, Dante’s working up the courage to come out to his friends, and Sam’s clinging to a failing relationship. The four eventually embark on a cross-country road trip in an attempt to solve–or to avoid–their problems. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review:  An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes focuses on a cast of four friends brought together by their weekly games of Dungeons & Dragons. As they go through different trials, their friendship is tested and grows stronger… culminating in the ever-classic road trip. At times, the story seemed to lack focus and fell into the trap of telling-not-showing. Overall, this is a sweet read with a detailed portrayal of friendship that touches upon various serious issues. Check it out if this sounds like your kind of book!

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Review: Never Always Sometimes

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Title: Never Always Sometimes
Author: Adi Alsaid
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 308
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Purchased by reviewer
Availability: On shelves now

Summary:

Never date your best friend.

Always be original.

Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

Best friends Dave and Julia were determined to never be cliché high school kids—the ones who sit at the same lunch table every day, dissecting the drama from homeroom and plotting their campaigns for prom king and queen. They even wrote their own Never List of everything they vowed they’d never, ever do in high school.

Some of the rules have been easy to follow, like #5, never dye your hair a color of the rainbow, or #7, never hook up with a teacher. But Dave has a secret: he’s broken rule #8, never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school. It’s either that or break rule #10, never date your best friend. Dave has loved Julia for as long as he can remember.

Julia is beautiful, wild and impetuous. So when she suggests they do every Never on the list, Dave is happy to play along. He even dyes his hair an unfortunate shade of green. It starts as a joke, but then a funny thing happens: Dave and Julia discover that by skipping the clichés, they’ve actually been missing out on high school. And maybe even on love.

Review: As I started the book, I figured that I knew where it was going. I did anticipate many things accurately, but Alsaid managed to throw some curves in there. I appreciated that he mixed it up a little. The first part of the story is told from Dave’s perspective. I really enjoyed Dave as a character. He’s a nice guy and the comfortable friendship he has with Julia is appealing. They read each others’ silences, know each others’ quirks and have been best friends for years. They seem the picture of soulmates. The torture of being so close yet unable to profess his love, does have its downside though.

This seemed to be gearing up to be a fairly typical romantic comedy as Dave and Julia lightly hopped through their list of Nevers bantering along the way. Humor can be found in many places. Without giving too much away, I will just say there is even a poem that manages to make math sexy. The scene is more than a little bizarre, but definitely has comedic potential for readers.

The romance did not go the way I expected though. First, a third party became involved. Love triangles are not a favorite for me. Also, as the novel progressed, the story switched to Julia’s perspective. That was where I started to lose a little interest. Julia did not have my sympathy. Yes, Dave was a follower so maybe he should have shared the blame in my mind, but he just wasn’t as conceited as Julia. She started the Never list because she didn’t want to be like all those other high school students who were clichés. She looks down on nearly everyone in the school. As their relationship became increasingly complicated, I enjoyed the book less and less. I can’t go into the details of why without spoiling the book, but the second part of the book was not nearly as entertaining as the first. In addition, the conclusion made sense and felt right, but seemed rushed.

Recommendation:  If you like light romances, this might be something that you will want to get soon. It has humor and a romance with unexpected twists and turns. The twists may put you off though. Otherwise, for most readers, this is one I would recommend you borrow someday when you are looking for a bit of a laugh. It was fun, at least for the first part, and was a quick and easy read, but wasn’t particularly outstanding.

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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.

Extras
NBC interview with Juan Castillo about Out of Darkness

Conversation with Edi Campbell about Out of Darkness and growing up

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Review: Zeroboxer

ZeroboxerTitle: Zeroboxer
Author: Fonda Lee
Genres: Science-fiction, Sports
Pages: 360
Publisher: Flux
Review Copy: eARC from Netgalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: A rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, Carr “the Raptor” Luka dreams of winning the championship title. Recognizing his talent, the Zero Gravity Fighting Association assigns Risha, an ambitious and beautiful Martian colonist, to be his brandhelm––a personal marketing strategist. It isn’t long before she’s made Carr into a popular celebrity and stolen his heart along the way.

As his fame grows, Carr becomes an inspirational hero on Earth, a once-great planet that’s fallen into the shadow of its more prosperous colonies. But when Carr discovers a far-reaching criminal scheme, he becomes the keeper of a devastating secret. Not only will his choices place everything he cares about in jeopardy, but they may also spill the violence from the sports arena into the solar system.

Review: I haven’t been reading much science-fiction lately, but Zeroboxer was a great way to get back into the genre. Fonda Lee has done a great job building a science-fiction world that feels lived in, in both small and large details, from the station Carr lives in to the political tension between Earth and Mars to the regulation of genetic engineering to the fact that Risha is still physically uncomfortable with being on Earth.

Of course, nowhere is this worldbuilding more evident than in the titular sport, zeroboxing. While I am not experienced with boxing or any fighting sport, that did not stop me from getting into the book at all. The fight scenes can occasionally be disorienting, but it is easy to keep track of the ebb and flow of the fight. Here, Lee makes excellent use of some classic sports tropes: the underdog, the rival, bad sportsmanship/cheating, etc. Zeroboxer hits most of the right notes in that regard, with difficult moral quandaries along the way.

The core cast of characters is largely compelling. Carr is a protagonist that is easy to root for, even when he makes choices I (strongly) disagreed with. Risha, his brandhelm and then later girlfriend, is a clever and steady part of the story. She was often busy in the fringes, pulling off little scheduling or sponsorship miracles, and I wish that we had been able to see more of her work up close instead of just being told about it all. The other main characters–Uncle Polly, Bax Gant, Enzo, Sally, Detective Van, Mr. Rhystok–slip into their roles easily, though I do wish that some of them had been able to step further outside their designated boxes. (I felt that Sally, in particular, was neglected and that Detective Van could have been more than he was.)

Perhaps Lee’s greatest strength is in her descriptions; sports stories in books can fall flat if the reader is kept too far from the action. Instead, Lee is able to get the reader as close to Carr as possible, not only in the cage, but also outside of it. I was less enthusiastic about how the non-zeroboxing plots came together on Mars and felt that several of the elements were rushed. The ending especially left me torn about whether or not I felt satisfied about it, and there were some social issues Lee touched upon but did not fully explore. For the most part, this didn’t sour my enjoyment of the book, though I do think a little wistfully about what else this book could have done.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you enjoy the drama and tropes associated with sports stories, but borrow it someday otherwise. The not-so-distant nature of Zeroboxer allows the reader to explore questions of poverty, corruption, marketing, and more. Lee’s experience with martial arts and her fast-paced writing made for a largely engaging read. A few problems with the last third of the book and uneven character depth in the supporting cast means Zeroboxer probably won’t make my reread list any time soon.

Extras: Debut feature interview at Page Turners

Envisioning Zero Gravity Combat at Michael Sci Fan

Interview and book giveaway at Literary Rambles

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