YA Review: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

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Title: Rules for 50/50 Chances

Author: Kate McGovern

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Seventeen-year-old Rose Levenson must decide whether to take a test that tells her if she carries the mutation for Huntington’s disease, a terminal condition that her mother genetically inherited. When Rose meets a boy who also comes from a genetically-troubled family, she must learn to live without a clear view of what lies ahead.

What I loved: I loved how real these characters were, especially Rose. Sometimes YA books about tough subjects (especially diseases) paint the protagonist as a martyr who can get through any difficulty with their head held high and neverending patience. Rose, however, is not a saint. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother is dying from a degenerative condition, and sometimes she lashes out at those around her or breaks down when she worries about the future. This makes her, in my opinion, very relatable and easy to empathize with.

The dialogue in this book was also tasteful, and McGovern often used her characters’ speeches to tackle issues relating to race, mental health, and disability. This is done in a very frank but natural way. Every word progresses the narrative and addresses powerful questions without sounding contrived. The dialogue and descriptions are both full of valid, real emotions.

Quote: “If you had a crystal ball, like in a fairy tale – or a magic mirror or one wish or whatever – would you want to know how you were going to die? Would you want to watch it happen, in slow motion, every day?”

Recommended: Recommended particularly for those who have family members with genetic conditions like Rose, as they might find this novel cathartic. But sometimes the most meaningful novels are those that we can empathize with even if we ourselves haven’t experienced it, so recommended for anyone who struggles with uncertainty when it comes to their future.

Next: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

YA Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Laurel’s English teacher assigns her to write a letter to a dead person, Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her recently-deceased sister, Mary, loved him. As Laurel writes letters to famous people who died young (like Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and Janis Joplin), she navigates love and friendships over her freshman year, mourns and comes to terms with Mary’s untimely death, and faces the trauma that Mary didn’t protect her from when she was still around.

What I loved: This book is so moving and a beautiful meditation on grief. Laurel’s character is open, and the emotions she experiences are real. She feels pain deeply, both in her life and in the lives of her loved ones, but she also sees beauty. It’s easy to relate to her as a protagonist because of her vulnerability. Those who love to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s emotions will find it easy to do in this novel. It’s steeped in both joy and sadness without being overdone or gimmicky.

I also loved the book’s format, which is told primarily in the form of letters. Most of the letters Laurel writes are to her sister, whose recent death is a heavy burden for her family to bear. Why Laurel writes to each historical figure when reveals a lot about both her and her relationship with her sister. As the novel progresses and the letters reveal just how complicated Laurel’s relationship with May was, you can’t help but hurt with her. I think that’s the sign of a good book: when you don’t just feel bad for the character but you feel with her. That’s exactly the kind of book Love Letters to the Dead is.

Quote: “I wish you could tell me where you are now. I mean, I know you’re dead, but I think there must be something in a human being that can’t just disappear. It’s dark out. You’re out there. Somewhere, somewhere. I’d like to let you in.”

Recommended: Recommended for anyone who enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Stephen Chbosky mentored Dellaira as a budding writer and helped workshop Love Letters to the Dead. While the book stands well on its own, the influence is there. Perks and Love Letters to the Dead have a similarly honest, emotional feel.

Next: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

YA Review: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

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Title: One Half from the East

Author: Nadia Hashimi

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After Obayda’s father is injured in a car explosion, her mother decides to have Obayda participate in the Afghan bacha posh tradition: she, the youngest of three girls, is dressed as a boy to bring her family luck. This brings Obayda (now Obayd) newfound freedom, but as she befriends an older bacha posh, she slowly realizes this transformation won’t last.

What I loved: Before reading this book, I’d heard about the bacha posh tradition before but knew very little about it. Hashimi’s novel does an excellent job at immersing the reader in the emotional elements of Obayd’s transformation. It became very clear to me while reading that being a bacha posh is not a variation being transgender, which is what I assumed from the description. It is a much more complex view of gender identity, one specific to Afghan and Pakistani culture.

The friendship between Obayd and Rahim (an older bacha posh) is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Rahim is more comfortable being seen as male than they ever were female and fights desperately to remain in this way of life. But this tradition usually only lasts until adolescence, and both know that their time is running out. One Half from the East meditates on courage and identity in an intimate way as it questions why certain gender identities can either limit or set someone free.

Quote: “‘Do you know what’s so special about you two?’ my mother asked softly. ‘You are the best of two worlds: one half from the east and one half from the west.'”

Recommended: Oh, for sure. Generally, I review young adult books but this one could be suited for a younger audience (perhaps even middle grade). The writing is beautiful and emotionally charged, which makes the humorous and emotionally painful moments all the more poignant.

Next: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

YA Review: As I Descended by Robin Talley

Note: After another semi-hiatus while revamping the website, enjoy this review of Robin Talley’s As I Descended, a delightfully dark (and queer) retelling of Macbeth.

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Title: As I Descended

Author: Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Power couple Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten will let nothing stand between them and winning the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley Prize: especially not school sweetheart Delilah Dufrey. When the two tap into paranormal powers to secure the scholarship, darkness threatens to consume their boarding school (and themselves).

What I loved: You know those books that you’re already certain you’ll love before you pick it up? As soon as I heard that As I Descended was a contemporary Macbeth retelling, I was hooked. Openly queer characters only sealed the deal.

This book exceeded expectations for everything I thought it would be, and I had high expectations already. Its tone was delightfully spooky and reminiscent of a Southern Gothic, and the characters mirrored their Shakespearean counterparts while still retaining individuality. Powerful emotions like envy, desire, and unbearable guilt push every character into a morally grey area as they deal with supernatural forces far beyond their understanding.

Quote: “Between the atheism and the lesbian thing, Lily was a terrible Catholic. Even before she’d added murder to her list of sins.”

Recommended: Yes! Especially recommended for those who love Shakespeare retellings or fiction featuring very open and human LGBTQ characters. Or anyone who loves a good ghost story. Between the three categories, I think most people fall into at least one.

Next: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

YA Fiction Review: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Note: Back from the post-finals hiatus with a new review! This is a book I actually read in high school, one of the few LGBTQ books my high school library had. Though this was before I came to terms with much of my own gender identity or sexual orientation, I remember enjoying it a lot and thought it only right to share the beautiful writing of David Levithan.

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Title: Two Boys Kissing

Author: David Levithan

Rating: 4.5/5

Two sentence summary: Two seventeen year-old boys, Harry and Craig, set out to break the record for longest kiss in a 32-hour marathon—the story of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of LGBTQ men lost to AIDS in the former generation. While they tell this story and muse on their own lost lives, they also explore the lives of other teen boys coming out, establishing gender identity, and exploring long-term relationships.

What I loved: If everything was a satisfactory enough answer, I would say everything, but more explanation is probably needed. David Levithan’s writing style in Two Boys Kissing is both beautiful and lingering, perhaps because its voice is so unique. Using “we” as a narrator is difficult to pull off, but nobody could narrate this story quite so well as the chorus of AIDS victims. Their stories of love and devastating loss to illness paint so much history onto the voices of those in the present, both their joys and their own sadness. The experimental style pays off and really characterizes the book’s tone.

Although many characters are introduced within a short time, Levithan gives each of them a unique voice and story in a way that feels like it really grasps the queer community. Among Levithan’s characters are a trans man trying to navigate his sexuality, a teenager losing hope (and himself) on dating apps, and two boys who face both praise and discrimination to beat a Guinness World Record. Stories so different (especially when juxtaposed with such a unique narrator) make for a feeling of connection and that these stories, and the stories of all people, are more alike than different.

Quote: “Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody? And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?”

Recommended: Yes. David Levithan is one of my staple for wonderful YA writers, especially when it comes to LGBTQ fiction. He never fails to disappoint when exploring the diverse relationships, emotions, and lives people lead in the queer community.

This novel is both sweet and sorrowful, and while mourning the past, it also leads to hope for the future. I’d recommend it to anyone from around young teen years and up.

Next week: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, who may have become one of my new queer YA staples as well

YA Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Note: From here until the end of finals week (April 29th), I will only be posting on Tuesdays.

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Title: Openly Straight

Author: Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: When sixteen year old Rafe transfers to a new boarding school, he decides to hide his sexuality to avoid becoming “the gay kid” like at his old school.

What I loved: Coming out stories are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but rarely do you see “coming out again” stories. Konigsberg explores an interesting angle here because Rafe’s reasons for hiding his sexual orientation are unique and, for some LGBTQ people, even relatable. Nobody bullied him at school. He had friends who accepted him for him. His parents supported him so much that his mother ran the local PFLAG branch.

But he was tired of people taking his sexuality and making it his whole story. Ever since he came out, he’d given interviews and spoken at local high schools about LGBTQ acceptance. Everyone at his school knew his sexual orientation, and even though nobody discriminated against him, he felt uncomfortable. Because so many people reduced him to his sexuality, he no longer felt normal.

This feeling is understandable, and it likely is for others who come from accepting backgrounds. Konigsberg, however, doesn’t encourage teens in Rafe’s situation to follow his lead. Hiding who you are, if you replace yourself with a lie, can come with unforeseen consequences.

Rafe struggles to suppress his feelings while weaving stories of nonexistent girlfriends, writes to express emotions he doesn’t fully understand, and gets to know another student, Ben, who also represses his sexuality for harder reasons. Unlike Rafe, he hates his sexual orientation so much more deeply. Rafe wants to tell Ben he doesn’t have to be ashamed, but how can he say that when Rafe himself has gone back into the closet?

What Rafe ultimately comes to terms with is labeling: he eventually understands that he doesn’t have to be the gay kid just because he’s out. What other people see doesn’t matter as much as what he does to help them. Throughout the novel, Rafe struggles to help others in ways only he can without revealing his sexuality, a balance that wobbles so much he can’t help but crash. But when he does, he gets back up and achieves a new balance between an open sexual orientation and a multi-dimensional personality.

Quote: “You can be anything you want, but when you go against who you are inside, it doesn’t feel good.”

Recommended? Yes! This was a lot more lighthearted than some of the LGBTQ YA books I’ve read so far, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to younger teens and up.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

YA Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Another Friday, another YA book review! Now that I have a good rhythm for these reviews, I’m hoping to add more content to this blog: as a tentative schedule, I’m planning on personal posts for every other Sundays and creative writing posts for every other Wednesday. Wednesday will be the first one. Ideally this will help make the content a little more varied and related to my own work as a writer.

Until then, enjoy this review of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven!

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Title: All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of a bell tower and team up on a school project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, saving each other from their inner demons in the process. But some demons are harder to fight than others, and Finch struggles to keep from losing himself (and Violet) to the darkness inside his thoughts.

What I loved: This book is narrated from the perspectives of both Violet and Finch, alternating by chapter. Both characters have distinct voices, and it’s enjoyable to inhabit their perspective (if only for a little while). Though dealing with similar troubles, Violet’s voice is very different from Finch’s (and vice-versa). This can be a little hard to pull off when dealing with multiple POVs in a book without making one more interesting or combining both into an indistinguishable blob.

Many YA books deal with depression from a first-person perspective, but less focus on the effect depression can have on the friends of those dealing with it. Violet and Finch’s relationship is complicated, and although she loves him a lot, ultimately she can’t take what he’s dealing with away through dates or kind words. I think this is a good message to send, even if it’s hard to hear: depression is more than just a feeling. It’s serious, and treatment involves more than holding hands and wishing it away.

What Violet and Finch go through is so hard, and it’s hard as a reader to experience their struggles with them, but it’s real. While some themes in this book may be triggering (mentioned more later on), portraying painful situations in YA can be important because it helps those who experience them feel less alone. The way Niven writes them is respectful and done with a lot of taste. I especially appreciated that she listed resources for readers with the depression at the end of the book, too.

What I didn’t love: Although this book is beautifully-written and handles difficult topics well, I had a few concerns about its portrayal of depression. Sometimes it felt like the characters glorified mental illness as something that made you deep or quirky rather than a serious thing that needs treatment. Adults in the book are largely portrayed as clueless and unable to help, which seems like a bad message to send if a reader is struggling with depression.

Sometimes Finch felt more like a concept than an actual human being. Although his character was intriguing, his actions seemed more like a vehicle to talk about depression than a person with multiple dimensions. If he was a little more relatable, I think it would be easier for readers to understand him and see depression as a real concern rather than a quirk or romanticized illness. I still enjoyed his character but felt like he could have been more believable.

Quote: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

Recommended? Yes, but with some caveats. This book is definitely for older teens. Not only does this book include themes of death and suicide, but the way it handles these topics is a lot more open but also graphic than some YA books. If death and suicide are triggering subjects for you, this book might not be the best choice.

This book especially reminded me of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (which I personally love a lot). Readers who also enjoyed this book might appreciate the similar ideas and feelings in this book, especially since All the Bright Places is strong enough to stand on its own.

Next up:  The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth