Dear Universe

by Florence Gonsalves
First sentence: “You know that moment when it happens?”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, teen drinking, and talk of teen sex (though none actual). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Chamomile (call her Cham, please) is a senior at the Gill School, a private school she transferred to after she got kicked out of public school in 8th grade for fighting. She has friends, she has a boyfriend — Gene Wolf, track star and super cute — and everything is Perfect.

Except it’s not, because her father is in denial about his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis and doesn’t want anyone to know. So Cham is trying to keep her worlds separate. Of course, that doesn’t work terribly well. Which puts her two worlds on a collision course.

I didn’t dislike this book; I thought Gonsalves balanced the “sick parent” (and “stressed parent” — Cham’s mother is the sole wage earner and is also trying to take care of Cham’s dad mostly alone) with “high school ending” pretty well. I even kind of liked Cham and her attempts to be “normal” by obsessing about sex and prom and spending time with her friends.

But. (And you knew there was a but.) I don’t know. None of the characters had hardly any physical descriptions – Cham had “frizzy” hair, her friend Abigail was a bit overweight and could dance, Brandon had a “man bun” — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone what white. I’m not sure I would have noticed that a few months ago, but I did now. And it bugged me. (I get that authors do this so that people could see themselves, but my default is white, so there you go.) It bugged me that she wouldn’t tell her friends about her dad’s illness. Are they really your friends, then? It was little things like that (like school ended in April for seniors. Really?) that pulled me out of the story.

I guess I just wanted to like it more than I did, and was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as good as I hoped.

Sex and Vanity

by Kevin Kwan
First sentence: “The trail was lit by tall flickering torches, but Charlotte Barclay still felt like she could have fallen a thousand times on the pathway.”
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Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus a tasteful sex scene, a very awkward sex scene, and some talk of oral sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First off, you’re going to want to compare this to Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s not. Sure, it’s crazy rich people and there are the same comparisons of old vs. new money that cropped up in Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the subtle racism that BIPOC — in this case, very wealthy BIPOC — get when running around white circles — in this case, very rich, white circles. But, this is so much more than that.

Kwan has taken E. M. Forester’s book, A Room with a View and thoroughly updated while keeping all the charm from both the book and the Merchant Ivory film, both of which I have loved for ages. (Seriously: he changed details, but the beats of the plot were exactly the same. It felt familiar and new all at the same time.) And he did it so seamlessly. The characters were their own individual characters, and yet I could see the original Charlotte, Lucy, George, and Cecil laid on top of them. I adored the modernization, I adored the homage to Italy and New York. I adored Kwan’s obsession with fashion and food and how new money can be both crass and understandable. It really was the perfect retelling of a classic story, and a perfect book to read on a hot summer day.

Absolutely recommended.

Audio book: You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
Read by Alaska Jackson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some bullying, a race and homophobic-centered hate crime, and one f-bomb. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Liz Lighty has kept her head down through all of high school, avoiding crowds, avoiding any sort of drama. Which isn’t easy in Campbell, Indiana because she is one of only a handful of black kids in the school (and town). But when she doesn’t get a scholarship to the college of her choice, she decides to enter the competition for Prom Queen, since winning that comes with a scholarship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s thrust into the limelight, where she isn’t comfortable.

But there are good things that come out of running for prom queen, too. Like re-kindling her friendship with Jordan, whom she fell out with their freshman year. And the new girl, Mack, who is smart and funny, and whom Liz might just have more than a little crush on.

Oh, this was such a delight to listen to! The narrator is perfect for the book, pulling me in with Liz’s voice and just keeping me there. And Johnson balanced some heavy topics: like a mom who died from sickle cell anemia, as well as the idea of popularity, and overt and covert racism and homophobia. But it’s never an “issue” book. It’s centered in Black joy and excellence, and is just a delight every step of the way. Plus the love story is super super cute. So much cute.

It was exactly the thing I needed and I’m so happy I listened to it.

10 Things I Hate About Pinky

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “The dead body was an especially nice touch.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: July 21, 2020
Content: There’s some kissing and mild swearing. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore.

Pinky Kumar is the different one in her family. With her colored hair, eyebrow ring, impulsive nature, series of not-great boyfriends, and devotion to causes (and creating trouble), her parents — her mother, especially — are at their wits end. So, after being accused (by her mother) of burning a barn down while on summer vacation, Pinky blurts out that she has a boyfriend her parents would approve of. She just needs to find that boyfriend, stat.

Samir Jha has everything planned out: he’s going to DC for the summer to do a high-stakes internship as part of his goal to getting into Harvard. However, when that suddenly falls through, he’s pretty aimless. Then he gets a text from Pinky — who he knows, but not well — out of the blue: come pretend to be her boyfriend for the summer, and she will make sure he gets an internship with her mother, a high profile lawyer. Against his better judgement, Samir accepts. It should be easy, except for one catch: he can’t actually stand Pinky’s impulsiveness. The feeling’s mutual: Pinky thinks Samir is boring. How are they going to survive the summer?

Oh this was cute. Sure, it’s a formulaic rom-com, but that’s kind of what one wants out of a romance story. And it has a couple of additional layers: Pinky’s conflicted relationship with her mom (due to a lack of communication on both sides) and Pinky getting involved in a local dispute with a developer trying to develop a habitat at their summer home. But those just added to the overall cuteness and just happy-making of the book. Menon really does have a gift for making light, fun, sweet romances and I am more than happy to read every one of them.

You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh
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Content: There is some kissing and some bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Jake has always had a dream to study the ocean. Except, he lives in New Mexico with his mom — his dad disappeared when Jake as born — and no way of getting out.

It doesn’t help that he feels different: not just because he’s not sure if he’s gay (spoiler: he is), but because he’s always had these weird “birthmarks” on his body. It doesn’t help that his best friend, Maria, wants to take their relationship to the next level, either.

It’s less a book about superheroes, though it is set in the DC universe, and more about one kid coming to own his own truth. He comes out, he finds out who his dad is and what his marks mean. All of this, while falling into a relationship with Kenny.

It’s nice that the adults are fully formed; you understand Jake’s mom’s paranoia, and Maria’s parents are incredibly supportive. Kenny’s disabled father had the biggest arc: he starts out seeming unacceptng and homophobic but turns out to be supportive of his son.

It’s an incomplete story: I thought Jake would have a chance to face his father or at least move forward, but no: this book is about Jake fully becoming who we was meant to be.

And that’s a good thing.

Beach Read

by Emily Henry
First sentence: “I have a fatal flaw.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There are also two on-screen, but not overly graphic, sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

January Andrews has a problem: she’s a romance (sorry: “women’s fiction”) writer and has hit a roadblock in her writing: she no longer believes in happily-ever-afters. Her dad died and at his funeral, January found out he’d been cheating on her mom. And then her long-time boyfriend broke up with her. In a hot tub. So, she moves back to her dad’s hometown in Michigan (the upper part of the lower peninsula) into the house her dad bought to share with his mistress. Not fun, but also cheap. As it turns out, she moved in next door to her college writing nemesis: Gus Everett. And (of course) they reconnect. This leads to (after a bad evening) a bet: Gus, who writes Literary Fiction, will take on writing a Romance book, and January will write a Novel. In order to help facilitate this, they will take the other one on excursions as “research” (definitely not dates). The catch: Absolutely NO falling in love.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way (it is Women’s Fiction, after all). But it’s incredibly fun getting to the end of this book. Henry’s dealing with more than just falling in love: she’s dealing with grief and loss, grappling with the idea that parents aren’t always who we think they are, and with perceptions (or misperceptions) of other people. In between all this, there is a smart love story, with some fun, sassy moments, and I felt like the development of the relationship between Gus and January wasn’t contrived. It was defiantly a happy-making book. Perfect for a, well, beach read.

A Heart So Fierce and Broken

by Brigid Kemmerer
First sentence: “I miss knowing exactly what time it is.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: A Curse So Dark and Lonely
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some moments of violence and mild swearing It’s in the teen section of the bookstore.

This picks up where the first book in the series left off: Rhen and Harper have put off their enemies to the north in Syhl Shallow, but that seeded unrest in Emberfall. There are rumors that there is another heir, someone more suited to the crown than Rhen, and that his former Commander of the Royal Guard, Grey, knows who it is. But, Grey is refusing to tell. Meanwhile, one of the daughters of the Syhl Shallow queen, Lia Mara, would rather have peace than war, but instead of negotiating, Rhen imprisons her. She and Grey fall in together (after a series of incredibly vicious circumstances) and try to broker peace between the two countries.

It’s been forever since I read the first in this series, and from what I can gather over at Goodreads, that’s a good thing. This book follows Grey and Lia Mara, leaving Rhen and Harper to be background characters. I think if you read these two too close together, you get invested in Rhen and Harper’s story and there’s a bit of backlash with the change in narrators. As for me, I didn’t mind. I liked seeing the growth in Grey and Lia Mara’s quiet strength. I liked following their stories and learning more about characters where were background in the first book. I though it was an interesting development in the story, moving away from the fairy tale retelling and becoming its own thing. It’s probably not perfect, but I found it entertaining and am curious to see where the next book takes these characters.

Audio book: The Worst Best Man

by Mia Sosa
Read by: Rebecca Mozo and Wayne Mitchell
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: This is super sweary including a lot of f-bombs, and there’s on-screen sex several times. It’s in the romance section of the bookstore (yes, we have a romance section now!).

Lina Santos has worked hard to get where she is: the owner of a reputable wedding planning business. Sure, she was left at the altar by her fiance four years ago, but she hasn’t let that get in the way. Now, she’s got a shot at the job of a lifetime: wedding coordinator at a prestigious hotel chain. The catch? She has to work with her ex-fiance’s brother, Max, on the presentation. The double catch? They’re totally attracted to each other.

Oh this was so much stupid fun. It’s that sort of smart and sexy romance with a dash of Brazilian flavor (the author identifies as Brazilian-American) that is just fun to read. And this was definitely enhanced (*cough*) by the narrators. Mazo was delightful to listen to and if it’s possible to have a very sexy and sassy voice, Mitchell definitely has it. I think a good two-thirds of the fun of this one was in the delivery of the book. Not that the book itself wasn’t full of that great push and pull (*ahem*) of a well-written romance (and the sex scenes were definitely steamy!), but the narrators brought it to life and made it pop.

Not for everyone, obviously, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.

Crush

by Svetlana Chmakova
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Others in the series: Awkward, Brave
Content: There’s some bullying and general middle-school romance. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novels section of the bookstore.

Jorge is the Big Kid at Berrybrook Middle School, the one that’s head and shoulders taller than everyone else. He doesn’t mind; he uses people’s assumptions of him (that he’s a Heavy) for good, making sure that bullies don’t pick on other kids. He’s got a group of friends he’s been friends with forever: Liv, the outgoing popular one, and Garrett, who just transferred to Berrybrook and is trying to fit in. Jorge is fine with the way things are.

But then Garrett decides to get in with the starting quarterback James’s group, and Jorge develops a crush on Liv’s friend Jazmine, and Drama breaks out in the middle school halls.

I really enjoyed this one. I think that Chmakova gets middle schoolers, and the everyday ups and downs of friendship, crushes, and belonging. I liked Jorge as a character, how he used his size to help others and how he wasn’t afraid to be an individual rather than going along with the crowd. This one was less about crushes, though, and more just about relationships, and what it takes to have a good one, whether it be friendships or romantic. Jorge wasn’t the character with the growth arc; rather, he was the rock that everything in the book revolved around, which was perfectly fine by me.

Really very, very good.

Operatic

by Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some bullying and a wee bit of romance. It’s in the middle grade graphic novels section of the bookstore.

It’s near the end of middle school and Charlie is trying to figure herself out. Her music teacher, Mr. K, as assigned the class to come up with a presentation on a song that “speaks” to them. As part of that, he’s introducing a lot of new stuff to the class. And when he hits opera — Una voce poco as sung by Maria Callas — Charlie is smitten. She does a lot of research about Maria and decides that maybe being a Diva isn’t a bad thing.

There’s also Emile, a boy Charlie likes; Luka, the super-talented, yet super-awkward guy at school that is bullied; and Charlie’s three friends, Addie, Rachel, and Mayin. It’s a bit of personal drama as they all make their way through the last couple of months before the end of school.

On the one hand, the art in this is gorgeous. It’s all done in sepia tones, except for the bits about Maria Callas which are done in reds and pinks. I loved the use of insect imagery and the use of music (though I wish it had a playlist with artists in the back; I kept trying to look the songs up!).

I had a hard time following the story though. Does Charlie end up ditching some of her friends? I think so? But I’m not entirely sure why. I couldn’t quite follow who was who, and the story just felt like it was lacking something. Maybe I really am getting to old for this.