Girl Mans Up

by M-E Girard
First sentence: “There are four of us dudes sitting here right now.”
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Content: There’s smoking and drinking, a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs) and talk of sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’m going to say this up front: I’m glad this book exists. I’m glad that this book is out there for the people it represents, and for people to understand those who are different. I understand the value of this book, even if I didn’t finish it.

Pen Oliveria just wants to be herself. She likes playing video games, and she likes dressing in jeans and tshirts and hanging out with guys. She’s attracted to girls, but she doesn’t want to be your stereotypical “feminine” girl. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold up with her old-world, traditional Portuguese parents, and no one at school — even her friends — seem to get this.

I bailed mostly because I wanted to punch Pen’s best friend, Colby. He’s the definition of toxic masculinity, picking up girls to hook up with them and dump them, judging them solely on their looks. He claims that loyalty is the most important thing, but he is constantly making fun of his friends and leaving them high and dry.  He tolerates Pen because she reels the girls in for Colby to bag and bang, but when she decides to be done with that — after Colby gets a girl pregnant and says it’s not his problem — he’s done with her. I literally wanted to punch him every time he opened his mouth. And Pen’s parents were no better. They are constantly upset at Pen’s older brother, Johnny, for not having a “real” job — Johnny owns his own landscaping business that is slowly gaining a good reputation — because he doesn’t want to work at the factory where their father works. And they’re constantly railing on Pen for not being feminine enough. It’s awful and toxic and a good way to ruin a relationship with your children.

Between the two of those things, I just couldn’t finish. Call it wrong time for me and the book.

 

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The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik

by David Arnold
First sentence: “I’ll hold my breath and tell you what I mean: I first discovered the Fading Girl two months and two days ago, soon after summer began dripping its smugly sunny smile all over the place.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some teenage drinking, and lots of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is going to sound weird. And, to be fair, it’s not really the point of the book,  I think.

Noah Oakman is feeling a bit at sea heading into his senior year. He’s a great swimmer, but he doesn’t love it, and so he fakes a back injury to get out of spending his life in the pool. He’s thinking about college, sort of. Mostly he just wants to Think. And then, at a party he didn’t want to go to, he meets this kid Circuit, and heads to his house. It seems uneventful, but after that, everything’s slid sideways just a little bit. His best friend, Alan, used to be a huge DC fan, and now he’s a huge Marvel fan. His mother has a scar. Nothing life-shattering, but enough to throw Noah off. The only things that haven’t changed are his “strange fascinations” — little things, like the Fading Girl of the opening sentence, that have captured Noah’s interest. And perhaps by pursuing those and trying to make sense of them, he can make sense of his life.

I’m not going to give you much more than that, mostly because it’s the journey in this one that makes it such a good book. It’s populated with people that are fascinating and interesting and quirky and fun, and Noah’s journey is a strange and weird and wonderful one. I even thought that the ending explanation made sense, and made the book that much better.

I’ve liked Arnold’s books in the past, but I honestly think this is his best one so far.

My Hero Academia

by Kohei Horikoshi
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Content: There’s some violence. And it’s a manga, so you have to read it backwards which might be a bit of a challenge (it was for me). It would be in the manga part of the graphic novel section of the bookstore, if we carried it.

K has been obsessed with My Hero Academia (though she watches the anime version and reads them online) for a while now, and when I had a chance to read graphic novels for my class, she talked me into reading this.

It’s basically an alternative Japan where everyone has “quirks” (think X-men mutant-type quirks; in fact one of the reviews I read criticized this for being an X-men knock off, which I can see). Everyone, that is, except Izuku, a 15-year-old quirkless kid… who wants to be a hero. He wants to get into the top school — U. A. High School for heroes — he wants to have a quirk. He wants to be like his personal hero, All Might. Except he can’t without a quirk. Things change for him, though, when he does a selfless act, and All Might — who in real life is completely wasted away — gives Izuku his powers. Which means two things: Izuku gets in to U. A…. but he doesn’t quite know how to control his powers. Yet.

This was so much fun! (Once I got the hang of reading a manga. K had to explain it to me.) Seriously. I loved Izuku and some of the other kids he met at U. A.  Horikoshi has created some fun characters, and I’m curious to see what they will be doing next, since volume 1 was just Izuku (called Deku by his friends) getting his powers and getting into school. The whole series was a bit cheeze-tastic, which I don’t mind at all. In fact, I found it charming.

And I think I might pick up the next one. (K’s urging me to do it!)

Moxie

by Jennifer Matthieu
First sentence: “My English teacher Mr. Davies rubs a hand over his military buzz cut.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are several f-bombs as well as other mild swearing. There’s a description of an assault, plus some definitely crude t-shirts worn by guys. There is also teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid who is interested.

I picked this up on a whim, partially because I met Jennifer Matthieu last fall and she was delightful, but also partially because it looked, well, cool. (Which I am not.) I didn’t realize I was in for a complex and interesting feminist anthem.

Viv is a junior at East Rockport High, where football is king and the boys, literally, get away with anything. Demeaning girls in class. Doing a “March Madness” ranking of them. Play a “game” of “bump-n-grab” (yes, it is exactly like it sounds). The girls complain, but the administration turns a deaf ear. In fact, one could even say they’re part of the problem: doing random dress code checks in which they publicly shame girls for “breaking” the code. Viv has spent her whole life flying under the radar, but after discovering some of her mother’s old Riot Grrrl zines, she decides to take a stand. She starts Moxie, an anonymous zine that she distributes in the bathroom. Initially, she doesn’t know how it will be received, but over the months, the zine takes a life of its own, and helps push back against the culture of the high school.

I loved this one! I loved it for Viv, and her slow awakening — her realizing that there was something she can do to help (maybe) make a difference. I loved it for the ways in which she made a difference, for the realization that feminism is an embracing not a dividing. I loved the slight love story. I loved that Matthieu gave us a diverse high school — we interacted with Latina girls, black girls, gay girls, straight girls… all sorts of girls. I really loved the zines, and the fierceness that is inherent in them: a Moxie girl doesn’t take any crap. Which is really what I loved about this: Viv and her friends learned how to stand up for themselves, demand respect from those around them (especially men!), and enjoy each other.

Give this one to any teenage girl, if only so they know they’re not alone.

Life from Scratch

by Sasha Martin
First sentence: “This is not the book I meant to write.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up from the Random House rep.
Content: She didn’t have an easy upbringing and she doesn’t hold back on that. But, other than that, it’s suitable for anyone who’s interested in a culinary memoir. It’s in the biography section (for lack of a better place; it also fits in our creative non-fiction, which is kind of a catch-all) of the bookstore.

I know I’ve told y’all how much I love foody books How much they feed my soul, and how, when they’re wonderful, they just make me happy. Last time our Random House rep came to the store, he held this one out and said it’s a food memoir, I snatched it. I took too long getting to it, though: it wasn’t until it actually came in (the actual cover is so much more appealing than the ARC cover, trust me) and I actually read the first sentence, that I knew I would love this book.

Sasha had a hard life. Seriously. The daughter of a single mom struggling to get by in Boston, she and her older brother, Michael, didn’t know how hard their life was. They had Mom, they had each other and as far as they were concerned, things were good. Then the state decided that what they had wasn’t enough, and sent them into the foster system. Which, in the late-80s, was a terrible place to be. Sasha’s mom, however, was — is — an incredibly concerned and passionate person, and she fought to get them back. However, the state (I can see people’s objections to the state here) deemed their mother unfit, and decided that the kids needed to be raised elsewhere. Sasha recounts her mom sending out tons of letters, looking for a home for her children. And it was an old friend and her husband who took on the burden of raising the children.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with food? Well, the one thing that kept Sasha going throughout her life was a love of food and cooking. Her mother is Italian and Hungarian and she believed in the power of community coming together to eat, so very early on, Sasha helped out in the kitchen.

Her years with the friends weren’t happy. She missed her mother. Her brother committed suicide. Which propelled Sasha into a life of drinking and drugs and avoidance. The upside was that the family moved to Europe, so Sasha was exposed to culture there. So, when she finally landed on her feet, after years, in Oklahoma (I’m condensing here; there’s a lot going on), she decides that what she needs to do is cook her way around the world.

Sasha’s a compelling writer, telling her story with love and understanding, when no one would have faulted her for being bitter. She was angry at her mother for years, but somehow forged a new relationship with her. And I loved how this city girl found solace in a smaller community, finding the interesting and unique things about Tulsa. (She actually made Tulsa sound like a pretty cool place.) But the best thing, hands down, about this was the food. Sasha has a way of making the food leap off the page, of capturing not only the flavor of every day dishes, but also of the exotic ones she made from around the world.

It’s a delightful book, one that I’m sure will stay with me for a long, long time.

Gabi a Girl in Pieces

by Isabel Quintero
First sentence: “My mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who — coincidentally — did not want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin.”
Support your local library: buy it there!
Content: There’s a lot here: talk of drug use, sex (off screen, not graphic), and swearing (including multiple f-bombs). It’d be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up. I’d heard good things about it, and it won the Morris Award this year. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions I’d feel while reading it.

It’s Gabi Hernandez’s senior year, and life has gotten more complicated than usual. One of her best friends is pregnant; the other just came out, and has been kicked out of his parents’ house. She’s still struggling with math in school, but she has hopes that she can get into college, the first in her family, since her parents immigrated from Mexico. She wants a boyfriend, but is afraid since she’s a self-proclaimed “fat girl” that she’ll never find love. Then there’s her meth-addicted father, and her punk younger brother. Not to mention a mom who is constantly placing pressure on her to be a “good” girl.

Writing all that down, it both sounds like a lot and not quite enough to hold a book together. One of the things that makes this book shine is the voice. Told in diary form, we get Gabi’s innermost thoughts, her insecurities and feelings, her poems and heartfelt letters to her father (which she never sends). Even though her life is complicated and hard, you can’t help but connect with Gabi on the most elemental level: she’s just a girl trying to live the best she can.

But, it’s also a feminist book, showing us the double standard we have for girls and boys. Which leads me to: oh my gosh, her mom. I wanted to smack her. She was SO hard on Gabi, from nagging her constantly about her weight to lectures about sex (while she tells Gabi’s brother “be sure to use a condom”). I know she was trying and doing the best she could under the circumstances, but I wanted to shake her. Call this another one of those reverse-parenting books, but there is no way I want to have the sort of relationship with my daughter that Gabi had with her mom.

It was Gabi’s awakening to the double standard, and her actively trying to do something about it — which came near the end of the book –which endeared me to the book. There was so much crap going on (if there’s an issue out there that deals with teenagers, it was in the book) going on in Gabi’s life that I found it difficult, initially, to relate. But by the end, I was cheering for Gabi, for her attitude toward her life, and for Quintero’s unflinching portrayal of her.

All the Bright Places

by Jennifer Niven
First sentence: “Is today a good day to die?”
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Content: There’s teenage smoking and drinking and some off-screen sex. Not to mention the several f-bombs, and the weighty subject matter. All this puts it squarely in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Finch is just coming out of a two month’s “sleep”, as he calls it. Violet is dealing with survivor’s remorse, being the only survivor in a car accident that killed her sister. Both find themselves at the top of the school’s bell tower one wintery day, contemplating the idea of jumping off, ending it all.

It’s a weird way to start a relationship, saving each other from suicide, but Finch can’t get Violet off his mind. And slowly, through a class project and sheer determination, he wins her over.

There’s really not much else to the plot. I’m sure this one will get huge comparisons to Fault in Our Stars (teens fall in love in spite of Obstacles) or Eleanor & Park (teens fall in love in spite of Differences in background and in spite of Bad Circumstances), but I didn’t feel like it was as good as either of those.  I wanted to like Finch and Violet, but didn’t connect with either one. I felt like Niven was throwing WAY too much at me: suicidal thoughts, car accident deaths, neglectful parenting, abuse, depression, bi-polar, actual suicide, and bullying, with a smattering of eating disorders in there as well. It’s like all the crappy things that could happen to anyone in life were happening to Finch and Violet. And that was just too. too. much.

What I did like, however, were Finch and Violet’s trips exploring the state of Indiana. I enjoyed seeing the state through their eyes, exploring the nooks and crannies and off-beat places that people don’t usually go.

But that wasn’t enough for me to truly enjoy this book.