Sunday, June 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Prince and the Dressmaker" by Jen Wang

"Some days I look at myself in the mirror and think, 'That's me, Prince Sebastian! I wear boy clothes and look like my father.' Other days it doesn't feel right at all. Those days I feel like I'm actually...a princess."

Prince Sebastian is 16 years old, and his parents are pressuring him to find a wife. They keep suggesting all types of young women, princesses and other royalty from other countries. He knows he needs to be strategic to help the kingdom, but his heart isn't in it. It's not that some of these young women aren't nice, that he doesn't enjoy their company, it's just...he has a secret.

While by day, Sebastian fulfills his obligations as prince (sometimes just by the skin of his teeth), by night, Sebastian likes to dress in beautiful, eye-catching gowns, and take Paris society by storm as Lady Crystallia. His best friend, Frances, happens to be the most talented dressmaker and seamstress, and she creates Lady Crystallia's gowns, each one more avant-garde than the next.

It's hard, however, when you're the only one who knows your friend's deepest secret. Obviously, you want to protect your friend, but what if it means having to keep your achievements a secret, too? Everyone knows that Frances is Sebastian's seamstress, but if she started to get acclaim as the dressmaker for Lady Crystallia, it won't take long for people—especially the king and queen—to put two and two together and realize who Lady Crystallia really is. And that would be disastrous for Sebastian.

Jen Wang's The Prince and the Dressmaker is an absolutely wonderful graphic novel with gorgeous illustrations and an amazingly heartfelt story. Not only does it deal with the sacrifices we often make for our friends, and how sometimes we ask our friends for too much in an effort to enable us from avoiding important decisions, its unabashedly positive message that no one really should care what makes people happy if we love them made this book the perfect ending to my month of LGBTQ reads for Pride month.

Some have expressed criticism that Sebastian never declares himself to be gay, trans, or whatever, but all I kept thinking when I read this was the line from "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga: "Don't be a drag, just be a queen." Sebastian clearly expresses his conflict over his identity, and at 16, it's entirely plausible that he's unsure exactly how he wants to live his entire life.

This is the second graphic novel I've read this month and I am loving this genre. This was a super-quick read, but boy, did it warm my heart completely. It's such an amazing tribute to friendship, love, acceptance, and being exactly who you are. How can you quibble with that?

Find this amazing book, take it to your heart, and share it with those you care about.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Book Review: "Something Like Gravity" by Amber Smith

"It's hard to figure out what you're supposed to be when you've never even really known who you were in the first place—that was something I'd realized only recently. Something I didn't think my friends would understand. After all, I looked the same and dressed the same and talked the same as I always had. But I wasn't the same."

Chris and Maia meet for the first time when he almost hits her with his car. Neither one is really paying attention, but both feel some sort of connection. Their next few encounters don't improve much, more because Maia misreads Chris' intentions. Yet life continues to throw their paths together until they simply can't stay away from each other.

Both are nursing some serious wounds. Chris is in North Carolina for the summer, taking a break from his parents and his New York hometown, where he was physically assaulted by several classmates shortly after coming out as transgender. Maia is still reeling from the sudden death of her older sister, and is trying to figure out how to move on, while understanding just what their relationship meant.

"I was starting to understand that there's also a price that comes with being a boy, one that's different from being a girl. Maybe the price is more one of a responsibility—to not only be a decent person, like everyone else, and not only to not turn scary or mean or dangerous, but to never forget."

Little by little they begin to open up to one another (although not fully), and their relationship starts to deepen. However, both are keeping secrets which could topple anything they've built. At the same time, both are dealing with fractured relationships with their parents, too. It's a lot for any teenagers to handle, much less two with so much emotional baggage.

Falling in love often requires taking a leap, a leap of faith and trust. It forces us to be braver than we think we can be, but it also leaves us more vulnerable than we'd ever want to be, yet the payoff can be greater than we'd even hope. In Amber Smith's beautiful new novel Something Like Gravity, two teenagers feel the strong pull of love and attraction yet must battle the opposing forces that threaten to undo them.

I loved this book and thought it was so well-written. Over the last few months I've started reading more books with transgender characters in them and they've really helped me understand how similar and different our experiences are. Smith created characters you root for, even when they annoy you, and I felt that I was viewing the story through a very fragile shell of poignancy and emotion which deepened the beauty of the book.

Sure, some of the plot is predictable, although Smith kept my worries at bay that the plot might veer too far into melodramatic territory a few times. I really enjoyed the parallels between love and gravity, as I never honestly thought about how similar the two can be.

This is the first of Smith's books I've read, but I'm definitely going to read her earlier work. I really was drawn into her storytelling and the love she had for her characters. I always know I enjoyed a book when I want to know what happens after the story ends—perhaps we'll see Maia and Chris again someday.

NetGalley and Margaret K. McElderry Books provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review: "Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl" by Andrea Lawlor

Sometimes I find myself lamenting that there are very few original stories out there anymore, that too many books seem too similar to one another. And then I read a book like Andrea Lawlor's Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, and that lamentation flies out the window.

Holy crap.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is sexy, crazy, confusing, bizarre, funny, and one of the most utterly creative stories I've read in a really long time. I'm not sure if I understand what Lawlor was trying to say but they took me on one hell of a journey with this book.

Paul is a young, handsome gay man living in Iowa City in the mid-1990s. He's smart, well-read, friendly, and has mastered the art of winning the attention of those he's attracted to. Not a day goes by when Paul doesn't have an encounter with someone he meets, someone he knows, or someone he barely acknowledges, beyond the simple act of sex.

"He was glad to be a known homosexual—it allowed him a daring way with girls."

The thing is, Paul isn't just any young man—he's a shapeshifter. He can transform himself physically between male and female based on his whims. All he needs to do is concentrate and his body changes—parts grow and disappear, his hair grows and recedes. (My sister had a Skipper doll that "grew up" when you turned her arm, and I kept thinking about that when I read this.)

With a wardrobe change he can quickly go from preppy college student to butch lesbian or leather boy, and no one ever suspects his authenticity. (He just can't lose focus, or things might slide back to his "normal" male self.)

Only one person knows his secret, his best friend Jane. When the two travel to a womyn's music festival, Jane and Polly (Paul's alter ego) are ready for two weeks of fun and unbridled sex, and he looks forward to embodying this role for an extended period of time. Yet Paul is unprepared to fall in love, and is definitely unprepared for the crazy set of events that occur next.

I knew next to nothing about this book, and I think part of its appeal lies in the element of surprise, that the plot unfolds without the reader having much expectation about what's to come. The plot is essentially divided into thirds, and I found the first and third sections more interesting than the middle. Lawlor is a great storyteller, and they really did a terrific job with place and time, truly evoking the feel of the 1990s.

This book is definitely not for everyone, but if you're willing to give it a shot, you'll probably be charmed by Paul as well. He's completely imperfect, he's mean to those who care most about him, but he keeps you drawn to him like a moth to a flame.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Book Review: "Screen Queens" by Lori Goldstein

So just to clear up any confusion if you're the type of person who occasionally picks up a book without reading what it's about and simply assumes what it will be about based on the title, Lori Goldstein's new novel, Screen Queens, isn't about a bunch of actresses. (Hangs head sheepishly.)

Lucy Katz, Maddie Li, and Delia Meyer are three of only four young women accepted into ValleyStart, one of the most exclusive high school technology incubator competitions in the country. Only two percent of more than three thousand applicants are accepted, and the winning team is guaranteed a dream internship.

Although they share some kick-ass technical and design skills, Lucy, Delia, and Maddie couldn't be more different. Lucy is the daughter of one of the most famous (and few) female leaders in the technology industry, although she'll be the first to say she's nothing like her mother. She's hoping that she'll be able to ride her team's victory into an acceptance at Stanford, and she'll flirt with whomever she needs to in order to make her dreams happen.

Delia is shy and socially awkward, but she can code like nobody's business. Having grown up in a small Midwestern town, she taught herself to code on an out-of-date computer. She doesn't feel like she belongs among the children of privilege at ValleyStart, but she is determined to succeed, if for no other reason than to take the burden of supporting her off her parents.

Maddie arrives from Boston with a chip on her shoulder. She doesn't care much about winning the competition, or making friends. She is only interested in how her participation in ValleyStart might have an impact on the growth of her graphic design business. She also has to deal with her parents' marriage imploding, and its effect on her and her younger brother.

Screen Queens is a fun, heartfelt book about fighting for what you believe in and learning to stand up for yourself when all of the odds are stacked against you. It's the story of recognizing your strengths and your talents and not letting anyone tell you you're not worthy of success because you're a woman or a minority or because you don't come from a wealthy background. It's also a story about how sometimes you have to fight hard to make the truth known, and you can't be cowed into keeping quiet.

While this book is fairly predictable in terms of plot, I really enjoyed reading it. It has a great message and would be a terrific read for young women or those who could use a bit of a confidence boost. It also was a fascinating (although unsurprising) look at the challenges faced by women in the tech world, and a salute to the early female pioneers in that field.

I read the majority of this book on a plane (I seem to be doing that a lot lately) and thought Goldstein told a fun story. Sometimes when you're totally wrong about a book it still pays off in the end!

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Book Review: "Brave Face: A Memoir" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Shaun David Hutchinson is one of my favorite YA authors. His books—particularly We Are the Ants and At the Edge of the Universe—are full of emotion, pain, love, and, ultimately, hope. I've always wondered how a writer can plumb such difficult emotional depths, and after reading Hutchinson's new memoir, Brave Face, I understand that he has traveled those depths, and only now has the perspective to reflect upon them.

The teenage years are difficult for many to navigate emotionally. When Hutchinson realized, after a number of years of dating various female classmates, that he was gay, he didn't know how to handle it. His views, and what he believed were society's views of gay people, were the stereotypically flamboyant and fussy characters he saw in movies and on television, and he worried that if he acknowledged his sexuality, he'd doom himself to a life of tawdry sex and drugs and, ultimately, death from AIDS.

As if this self-loathing wasn't enough, Hutchinson simultaneously wanted to find people like him and wanted nothing to do with other gay people, for fear that he'd open himself up to the threat of violence, or worse, AIDS. But in the midst of this difficult period of depression, he realized that writing was cathartic, although he didn't necessarily think he had any writing talent.

Brave Face is a difficult book to read because of Hutchinson's extreme depression and self-loathing, especially because he didn't understand why he felt the way he did. He used cutting and burning, and sometimes punching a file cabinet, to help alleviate some of the emotional pressure, but he never felt truly better. Even meeting other gay men didn't seem to work, because he didn't believe he was worthy of being loved, so he pushed away those who really cared about him and instead wound up with people who hurt him and his self-worth even more.

As difficult as this book is to read, however, it is an important one. I definitely recognized glimpses of myself at that period of my life while reading this book, and although I didn't experience the lows that Hutchinson did, there definitely were times I felt truly alone and unworthy, and wondered what the point of continuing to live truly was. Luckily, I had a stronger support network of friends who were able to lift me up, but it was still a difficult time.

"I'd begun to realize that my fear of being gay and my depression were two separate issues. I wasn't depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and I was gay. Being gay doesn't make a person depressed any more than being depressed makes a person gay. My self-hate was caused by my complete misunderstanding of myself and what being gay meant. My depression simply used it as a way to beat me down."

One of the messages that many in the LGBTQ community have shared over the last 10 years or so is "It Gets Better." While some have criticized that as an easy cop-out, because it may get harder before it gets better, and sometimes being told it gets better while you're at your lowest actually makes you feel worse. Hutchinson acknowledges that difficulty—sometimes it gets worse and it gets better. But it can get better.

"The problem had never been that I didn't know who I was; it was that I'd assumed who I was wasn't good enough. But he was. I was. And you are too."

I loved this book and hope it finds its way into the hands of those who need it. Even years after those struggles I still need to hear some of the things Hutchinson had to say, and his voice is as powerful in his memoir as it is in his novels. He acknowledges that it was difficult to write this book at times, but I'm so glad he did, because we needed to hear his words, see his experiences and his emotions through the filter of our own lives.

Perhaps this book will help some realize that when they feel most alone, that no one understands them, someone does.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Book Review: "The Butterfly Girl" by Rene Denfeld

Naomi Cottle is a child finder. She's often the investigator desperate parents turn to when they have no other avenue left to try and find their missing children, and Naomi succeeds where others have failed. But this responsibility takes a great emotional toll on her.

Naomi can find missing children because once she, too, was a missing child. But she was lucky and was able to escape from the person who had kept her captive, although she had to flee without her sister. Sadly, she had no memories of that time, and all these years later, she can barely remember anything about her sister except vague memories of a field she ran through as she escaped. She is haunted by the fact that she didn't keep her promise to protect her sister.

A year ago, Naomi decided not to take any new cases until she finds her sister. Her search takes her to Portland, Oregon, where homeless teenagers roam the streets by day and night, doing whatever they can to survive. Someone has been kidnapping young girls off the streets, and many are found dead later, floating in the river. Naomi is troubled by this epidemic of violence, and even though she doesn't want to get involved, she can't turn away, especially as she wonders what parallels these kidnappings and murders might have with her sister's case.

When Naomi meets Celia, a troubled 12-year-old who took to the streets after a horrible family situation took a bad turn, she recognizes some similarities with her own life, and she wants to protect Celia like she was unable to do her own sister. And Celia also has a sister to protect. The only thing helping Celia through her ordeal are the butterflies—the beautiful phantoms she sees on the streets, following her and keeping her company. They remind her of a happier time with her mother and her sister, and she wishes she could just fly away like they do.

As Naomi digs deeper into her sister's whereabouts, and Celia tries to right her situation and protect her own sister, they both find themselves being drawn deeper and deeper into an evil web, a web that has the potential to destroy all they love—as well as themselves.

The Butterfly Girl is a beautifully written book about those who are lost and desperate to be found, as well as those who are seen but still feel lost. It's a story about feeling powerless to change situations around you, no matter how hard you fight, and how easy it is to shut others out as you fight your battles. It's also a troubling story of how so many children on the margins can find themselves at risk, with no one to advocate for or protect them.

Rene Denfeld's first two books, The Enchanted and The Child Finder (in which Naomi's character was introduced) were emotional, gorgeously told stories. While The Butterfly Girl started a bit slowly for me, it picked up steam as the book went along, and there is so much poignancy and vivid imagery in this story.

Even though this features the same character from The Child Finder, you could read this book without reading its predecessor. But I'd definitely recommend that you pick that one up, because once again, Denfeld's talent with prose and imagery is something to behold.

This book definitely made me think, and it made me sad for those who have to fight these battles. It once again proves what an amazing storyteller Denfeld is.

NetGalley and HarperCollins provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published October 1, 2019.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Review: "Bloom" by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau

I don't know exactly what led me to read Bloom, the wonderful new graphic novel by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau, especially considering that I had read exactly one graphic novel before this, and it didn't quite make an impact on me. But something about this story of friendship, love, family, and baking captured my attention, and it has definitely piqued my interest in reading more graphic novels in the future.

Ari's family owns a bakery that has fallen on hard times. They're struggling to make ends meet, hoping they won't have to close. Even though Ari loved baking with his father as a child, the last thing he wants to do now is spend his days slaving over hot ovens. He isn't quite sure what he wants to do now that high school is over, although he and his friends are talking about trying to make it with their band. But his parents need him to help them—for as long as it takes.

In an effort to find a way out of the bakery, Ari places an ad looking for a replacement. He finds Hector, a young man in town recovering after the death of his grandmother, who loves baking more than anything else. As Hector breathes new life into the bakery, he and Ari begin to develop a friendship, the intensity of which surprises both of them. This relationship could be the start of something special—if only Ari's impulsive behavior doesn't ruin everything.

Ganucheau's illustrations are absolutely beautiful, and they are full of emotion and life. At times I found myself re-reading portions of the book so I could spend some time concentrating on the illustrations. This is a simple story, but it had so much heart, and I found myself rooting for Ari and Hector's relationship to flourish, even when Ari screwed things up.

Graphic novels may not be for everyone. Honestly, I might have thought I was one of those people until I read Bloom. It put a smile on my face and charmed me completely. Can you really ask for anything more from a book?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: "A Mark on My Soul" by Jordon Greene

Sometimes when reading a book the plot is so unrealistic that I can't stretch my disbelief as far as I need to in order to appreciate it. Other times, however, the plot of a novel is far too realistic that it makes me sad and/or angry because reality is far too depressing.

Reading Jordon Greene's A Mark on My Soul left me angry and sad, not because I didn't like it or it wasn't well-written, but rather the plot was far too real, far too common, and that's really depressing.

Noah Andrews has just started his senior year of high school in North Carolina. He's thinking about college, particularly how much he'd love to attend the University of Illinois, which has a terrific architecture school. He's thinking about what life will be like if his two best friends wind up at their first-choice schools, which are totally different from his. More than that, however, he's thinking about how to tell his parents, his friends, everybody, his big secret: he's gay.

"Dammit, it should be easy to come out. I mean, Mom and Dad aren't a problem. I'm not worried they'll disown me or tell me some crap like I'm going to hell or take away my stuff. I'm just afraid they'll look at me differently. I don't know, like I'll be their gay son Noah instead of just Noah. I just want to be Noah Andrews, the simple, slightly nerdy, socially awkward guy, minus the big-ass secret."

After many false starts, Noah finds the courage to tell his two best friends, then his parents, and then he feels comfortable enough to share his secret with those who follow him on social media. Sure, he gets some pathetic responses from a few people, but for the most part, people praise his bravery for finally being able to tell the truth about himself.

On the same night he publicly comes out, he receives an email from a classmate who says that he admires him and, more importantly, that he likes him. He even thinks Noah is hot. At first the boy is too afraid to reveal his identity, because he's not ready to come out. But the more they correspond, the closer they get despite the anonymity, so they finally make a plan to meet. And just when Noah feels like he has it all, the prejudice and homophobia of the real world intrude in far too many ways.

Even though you may be able to see where the plot of A Mark on My Soul is going, I decided to be fairly vague so you can let it unfold for you. There are definitely elements of Love, Simon in this story (at one point Noah even quotes Jennifer Garner's pivotal scene from that movie). However, much of the plot is far more troubling, raw, and disturbing than that, and that's because the things that happen actually happen every day in our country.

Greene is a tremendously talented writer and he has created characters that I cared about, characters whose happiness I found myself invested in. There were a number of times where I wanted to shake some of the characters and make them see the truth that was happening right in front of them, but that doesn't happen in real life either.

A Mark on My Soul isn't a feel-good read, but it is a vitally important one. I hope this book makes people realize that the world may be better for LGBT kids than it was 5, 10, 20 years ago, but there is still more homophobia, more hatred, even close to home, than there should be. It needs to stop. Now.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Book Review: "Waiting for Tom Hanks" by Kerry Winfrey

"...I'm starting to think that the movies I've dedicated my life to may have lied to me. Nora Ephron herself may have indirectly lied to me. Tom Hanks, as much as I've trusted him, may have lied to me. Because I have it all: the sympathetic backstory, the montage of humiliations minor and major, unrealized career aspirations, the untamed pre-makeover hair. But still, I wait. Single, lonely, Hanks-less."

Annie Cassidy believes in love. Or more accurately, she believes in the love she has seen in the romantic comedies she grew up watching. She and her mother used to watch all those movies, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s to the holy grail, the movies written by Nora Ephron which starred Tom Hanks—Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.

Annie knows that her parents, who are both deceased, had a storybook romance, and she believes one is waiting out there for her, too. All she needs to do is to find her Tom Hanks, the steadfast, kind, romantic man from the movies, maybe one who even owns a houseboat. She's even ready for their meet-cute.

When Annie gets a job on a movie being filmed in her town, as an aspiring screenwriter of rom-coms, she feels like this may be the break she needs. She meets the film's handsome leading man, Drew Danforth, but isn't impressed by his prankster ways, or that he always seems to be around to witness her most embarrassing moments. She discovers that he's a far more sensitive, complex man than she imagined, but no matter how much she may be attracted to him, he is not her Tom Hanks, especially since he'll be leaving town as soon as filming is complete.

Are Annie's expectations unrealistic, or can she find the man she's been waiting her whole life for? Have the movies she loves so much given her false hope, and caused her to pass over the right person? Annie makes some surprising and painful discoveries, and she wonders whether it's even worth wanting romance, or whether she should just give up waiting for it.

Waiting for Tom Hanks is absolutely adorable and it reads just like a romantic comedy. You can pretty much tell what's going to happen from the very start, but the characters are goofy and charming (including several of the supporting characters) that you may find yourself completely hooked, like I did. Kerry Winfrey knows her rom-coms, and honestly, this book would make the perfect movie.

Sure, the book is a little hokey, but it was such a fun read that I devoured it in the course of a plane ride. I'm definitely looking forward to Winfrey's next book, because I just enjoyed this so much! If you're a rom-com fan, or just a fan of romance, Waiting for Tom Hanks may be for you!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Book Review: "Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens" by Tanya Boteju

Tanya Boteju's debut novel, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is an unabashedly charming book about finding yourself and being true to who you are. It's a book with humor, sensitivity, and so much heart, and it definitely left me with a smile on my face. (It's much less conspicuous to smile on a plane while reading rather than cry your eyes out!)

Nima Kumara-Clark has just finished her junior year of high school, but she doesn't see much excitement on the horizon this summer outside of hanging out with her best friend, Charles. She's longing for something to shake her life up, and given that she's spent a few years nursing an obsessive love for Ginny, her straight best friend, it doesn't appear that love is in the cards for her either.

One night during the local summer festival, she has a chance encounter with Deidre, a drag queen, who takes her to her first drag show. Nima is quickly taken under Deidre's wing, and she feels tremendously comfortable for the first time in her life, which is a change from her usual awkwardness. She is also utterly unprepared for the way the show makes her feel, especially when she sees a performance by Winnow, a sexy drag king.

"With each passing moment, I'd get that feeling you sometimes have the moment you're about to flip the final page of a really good book, when your anticipation for what happens next overwhelms you, but you also know that turning the page means you're closer to an end. This was a story I didn't want to end."

It seems as if Winnow shares the same attraction and feelings for Nima once the two meet. Nima has been disappointed too many times before, and she's not sure if she's ready to fully acknowledge her sexuality or let her guard down again. But she's also unafraid to let another opportunity to find love pass her by.

As Nima's friendship with Deidre deepens, and her interest in Winnow grows (as does the number of awkward encounters between them), she also has to deal with a number of other issues—Charles' jealousy of this new "life" she has found, the confusing behavior and mood swings of a childhood friend-turned-bully, and the re-emergence of her mother, who left Nima and her father more than a year ago with no explanation. It's a lot of emotional pressure for a young woman on the cusp of embracing her true self and taking the first few steps toward self-acceptance.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a fun read, and some of the characters are so tremendously vivid that they capture your heart. There's so much spirit in this book, but there's also a lot of emotion, as the characters have to come to terms with their identity, acknowledge the pain caused by others, and find the courage to step outside their comfort zone.

I enjoyed this book very much, and read it during the course of a plane ride. I did feel there were many issues that were left unresolved, including what was going on with Gordon, and Nima's relationship with her mother. That was a little frustrating. I also wasn't really sure about Deidre—was she a drag queen, a trans woman, or something else? I can only hope that Boteju might have a follow-up book planned to provide some answers.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens will leave you smiling, humming, and, depending on where you are when you're reading this, dancing. This book is full of positivity and hopefully, when it falls into the right hands, may help lots of teenagers and adults begin the journey toward self-acceptance.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Book Review: "The Grace Year" by Kim Liggett

Kim Liggett's upcoming novel The Grace Year feels like a mashup of The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of The Hunger Games mixed in for good measure. Yet at the same time, it's an immensely unique and disturbing story all its own.

"They call us the weaker sex. It's pounded into us every Sunday in church, how everything's Eve's fault for not expelling her magic when she had the chance, but I still can't understand why the girls don't get a say. Sure, there are secret arrangements, whispers in the dark, but why must the boys get to decide everything? As far as I can tell, we all have hearts. We all have brains."

Girls are told that they are dangerous, that they possess the power to lead men into destructive temptation, much as Eve did to Adam. They are led to believe that they have "magic"—that their bodies give off a certain essence when they're on the cusp of their 16th birthday. So all of the 16-year-old girls are sent away for one year, their so-called "grace year," and they're expected to release their magic into the wilderness so they can return purified and ready for marriage if they've been selected, or ready for life as a laborer if not.

Tierney James has always lived her life caring little for convention, not listening to the commands of her mother or the insults of the other women and girls in the community. She's not interested in getting married, in being the property of a man—she looks forward to living a life working in the fields, spending time at one with nature. She's known by many as "Tierney the Terrible" for her wild ways, and no one expects her to be chosen for marriage anyway. But when she is chosen, she is uncertain that she wants that kind of life for herself, although refusing will have grave consequences for her and her family.

The girls are sent into the wilderness and left to fend for themselves. They must deal with the brutal elements, forage for their own food, and avoid the so-called "poachers" that lurk in the woods, who wait for one wrong step so they can kill a girl and sell her essence to the black market. But as the girls begin to form a society of sorts, Tierney realizes it's not the wilderness or the poachers that pose the biggest threat to their survival—it's each other.

"We hurt each other because it's the only way we're permitted to show our anger. When our choices are taken from us, the fire builds within. Sometimes I feel like we might burn down the world to cindery bits, with our love, our rage, and everything in between."

The Grace Year is at turns violent, disturbing, sad, defiant, sexy, romantic, and hopeful. It is a story of young women being made to believe they are dangerous yet deficient, that their only true worth will be recognized if they marry and have children, and that they need to destroy each other in order to secure a happy future for themselves and their families. It is also a story of how much men fear women and seek to control them to overcome those fears.

As outrageous as this story is on many fronts, there are definitely places in which the book is eerily prescient of what is happening in our society today. Liggett did a great job ratcheting up the tension in the book, and creating characters I found myself rooting for, as well as some I was definitely rooting against.

At times, I found the violence in the book to be really disturbing, and after a while, the cruelty of the girls' was very hard to read about. The violence may be a trigger for some, because at times it's fairly graphic. But even when I had difficulty with the book, there was something about the story that I couldn't turn away from.

Reading The Grace Year definitely got me thinking, and I'm certainly thankful that we're not in this kind of situation in our society today. This is one of those books that I won't be able to get out of my mind for a while.

NetGalley and Wednesday Books provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published October 8, 2019.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book Review: "We Are Okay" by Nina LaCour

"I wonder if there's a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn't yours anymore."

Marin (pronounced like the county in California) was once surrounded by people who loved her. She was raised by her grandfather since her mother's death when she was young, and Marin and her best friend, Mabel, were inseparable. She even was close to Mabel's parents, who treated her a bit like she was their own daughter.

But Marin fled her California home in the wake of a discovery and a tragedy, and now she is poised to spend Christmas by herself in her dorm room in chilly New York. Although her roommate has helped Marin navigate the many awkward moments and uncertainties of freshman year in college, she still considers herself to be a loner, unworthy of the attention people are paying her and unsure of how to interact with people.

What Marin is most apprehensive about during the holidays is facing Mabel, who is coming to visit from California for three days. The two haven't spoken since Mabel left for college, just before the tragedy that sent Marin running. Mabel doesn't understand what happened to her friend, and why she hasn't responded to almost all of her texts, calls, and emails. And no one understands why Marin left her old life behind.

Marin isn't sure she's ready to share the truth with anyone, let alone Mabel. If she does, she also will have to confront her feelings, which have mostly remained hidden all this time, and she may have to accept how much things have changed. She's also afraid to let her guard down and leave her heart open, for fear that once again she might be left with nothing.

What happened back in California that made Marin run and not look back? Why is she willing to be alone rather than share her pain, her fears, her grief with those who love her? Why would she rather be alone than try to make friends and move on with her life?

Nina LaCour's We Are Okay is nearly 250 pages long, but it packs a potent, emotional punch. This is a thought-provoking, tremendously poignant book that so deftly explored how grief and betrayal can truly destroy a person, and how when we need rescuing the most we're unwilling to let anyone help. At the same time, the book painted a fascinating picture about friendship, and how it can bring both joy and pain.

I loved the book that LaCour wrote with David Levithan, You Know Me Well, and this book cemented my admiration of the way she writes. I was a little confused by some elements of the plot and it took a while for Marin to reveal—to Mabel and to the reader—the reasons behind her actions. (I'll admit I still was unclear for longer than I should have been!) But those issues notwithstanding, this book left me a teary-eyed mess when I read it in one sitting on a flight.

Books about friendships and how they shape us—for better or worse—always appeal to me, and We Are Okay is an excellent addition to that oeuvre. Pick it up for the emotion; stay for LaCour's sensational storytelling.

Book Review: "We Contain Multitudes" by Sarah Henstra

This book, to borrow a phrase from one of the main characters, utterly undid me. We Contain Multitudes was exactly what I hoped it would be: a gorgeously moving, beautifully told, thought-provoking story of friendship, love, truth, and secrets. I read most of this on a plane ride and it was the first of two books I read that had me in tears, which is always a condition I try to avoid on airplanes!!

Adam "Kurl" Kurlansky is a football player repeating his senior year of high school, a quiet giant with a bit of a penchant for fighting. As part of an assignment for English class, he is paired with Jonathan Hopkirk, a quirky, fiercely intelligent sophomore with a passion for Walt Whitman's poetry, who is bullied nearly every day at school because of his sexuality and his desire to dress as if he were living in Whitman's day.

Kurl and Jonathan are expected to write each other letters once a week. The two couldn't have less in common at the outset—Jonathan knows nothing about football and has formulated lots of assumptions about Kurl based on gossip from his sister and her best friend, while Kurl isn't really interested in answering Jonathan's questions, and he really doesn't understand why Jonathan would be so willing to make himself a target for bullies, why he continues to dress the way he does.

Little by little, the boys' relationship begins to deepen. Both learn that there is so much more to the other than meets the eye, but each realizes that there are secrets they are keeping, secrets that could prove just how vulnerable they are. Each experiences true epiphanies about themselves and each other, but they experience a tremendous amount of pain and anguish in the process.

The entire book is narrated in letters from the two boys, although in some letters they recount events in full. Sarah Henstra does such a great job creating two distinctively different writing styles for the two, and I found myself becoming as eager to read each new letter as they were waiting for the letters to arrive.

We Contain Multitudes is immensely poignant, even tremendously sad at times. Both Jonathan and Kurl have so many issues to confront, some within themselves, some within their families, and some at school. The book does get a little violent at times (although not gratuitously so), so it may be difficult for some to read. But there are so many moments of sheer beauty in this story as well, I couldn't put the book down even as the story became sadder.

Some of the plot may not be surprising, but there definitely were surprises to be had. Henstra is so talented, and she has created two characters that I hope we'll see again, because I want to know where they wind up and how life treated them. We Contain Multitudes is one of those absolutely beautiful books I won't soon forget.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Book Review: "The Unbreakables" by Lisa Barr

"Life is messy, love is messier. But pain is the messiest of all. And yet in brokenness, there is rebuilding, a rising from a fall."

When a book starts getting a lot of hype, I always get a little apprehensive that I may be the outlier. Will I be the person that's disappointed by the book that everyone says is so excellent?

Where Lisa Barr's new novel, The Unbreakables, is concerned, I needn't have worried. This is a smart, sexy, emotional story about a woman losing and then finding herself again, learning just how strong she can be, and recapturing dreams she thought had passed her by. I really loved this book and found it so compelling from start to finish."

It's Sophie's 42nd birthday and she's looking forward to celebrating with her husband, Gabe, her two best friends, and their husbands. It's the way it always is—the six have been practically inseparable since high school and college, and Sophie and her two best friends have helped each other through so many ups and downs.

During dinner, the conversation turns to gossip, namely the recent release of data from a website catering to married people looking for an affair. The group eagerly tears into the list to see who in their area will be deservedly exposed. It's all fun and games, until it takes a personal turn, when Gabe's name appears on the list, as the top cheater in their town, no less.

Sophie is devastated, and she quickly learns that Gabe's infidelity isn't the only betrayal she faces. When her college-age daughter calls from Paris, where she is studying abroad, and is having her own emotional crisis, Sophie decides to leave the chaos of her life behind her and join Ava in Paris.

After helping get Ava back on track, Sophie decides to venture to Provence, and is determined to recapture the life that has passed her. Her time in France reawakens her self-esteem, her sexual desires, and her dreams of being a sculptor, dreams that she had thought were all but gone.

But as Sophie tries to put the pain of Gabe's infidelity and the betrayals she experienced behind her, her "real life" keeps intruding. Can you really stop caring about the people who were part of your life for so long? Do you really want to? If not, how can you regain control so that you're never left so shattered?

An epigraph at the start of one of the sections of The Unbreakables includes a quote from Frida Kahlo which says, "At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can." This is tremendously fitting for this book, because Sophie learns that she is stronger than she imagined, but that sometimes it takes falling apart to become stronger.

There are definitely familiar elements in this book, and there might not be a lot of surprises, but the beauty of this story is in Sophie's journey, and the people that surround her. It's a pretty sexy book as well, as Sophie starts to get her, well, groove back.

I had heard from a number of people that this book is even better if you go into it knowing very little about the plot so the story can unfold around you, as Sophie's life unfolds around her. I've kept the plot description fairly simple because I agree with that advice. Lisa Barr does an excellent job charting Sophie's journey, and she made this story funny, exciting, sensual, thought-provoking, and poignant.

Definitely read this one!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review: "Swipe Right for Murder" by Derek Milman

Swipe Right for Murder is utterly preposterous, possibly more prescient than I'd like to acknowledge, and immensely sensitive. It's an homage to classic films where the mostly innocent man finds himself caught in a web of suspicion and trouble, yet at the same time it reads more like a movie with someone like Shia LaBeouf.

Seventeen-year-old Aidan is a high school senior, desperate to find someone to love. His parents have kept their emotional distance since he came out of the closet, allowing him to go to boarding school. He has good friends, yet he always feels that they treat him like a kid and don't take him seriously.

With a free night at a posh hotel in New York City, Aidan does what any horny teenager might—looks for a hookup on a "dating" app. After a disastrous encounter with a closeted classmate, he finds an older man. And when Aidan wakes up in the man's hotel room in the middle of night, everything has gone awry—the man is dead, Aidan gets a mysterious phone call from a man addressing him as someone else, and he threatens Aidan and his family if he doesn't "give it" to him. But as menacing as the call is, the man also seems to know more about the issues that Aidan struggles with emotionally, and taps into his greatest regrets and fears.

The phone call catapults Aidan into a severe case of mistaken identity, putting him on the run from the authorities (who may or may not be the good guys), his family, and a shadowy terrorist group with an interesting set of priorities. Along the way, he meets a handsome stranger whose loyalties are confusing, he struggles with his own fears and issues, and he has to tap into his inner action hero more than a time or two. Will he help save the day? Does he want to stop the terrorists from their mission—which at its core isn't wrong, even if their methods are?

Swipe Right for Murder is full of twists and turns, double crosses, and lots of jarring action. But at the same time, there is a lot of raw emotion in this book, too, as Aidan is forced to confront some of his greatest anxieties, fears, and regrets. Many of the feelings Aidan has are familiar to those whom have come to terms with their sexuality and/or struggled with self-esteem and the desire to be loved. There are some tremendously powerful scenes interspersed with the craziness.

"I hate this thing inside myself, this need to become attached to people, this brutal loneliness that drives me, drives all my mistakes."

This book really reads like a movie, but it was very uneven for me. At times it was just so utterly ludicrous and complicated that I considered stopping but then there would be a powerfully poignant scene and I just kept on with it. I think if you can completely suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the ride, it may be a fun book for you. There's no disputing Derek Milman's ability to tell a good story; there was just far too much going on for me here.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published August 6, 2019.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Book Review: "Out East: Memoir of a Montauk Summer" by John Glynn

Self-esteem can be a powerful weapon, but a lack of it can cause us more problems than we could ever imagine. At age 27, John Glynn was seriously suffering from a general feeling of unworthiness, a debilitating sense of loneliness that he couldn't explain, nor could he determine its source. He wondered if he would ever find someone to love, someone to be with, and if he did, would they love him back? His parents told him to be patient, but with many of his college friends pairing up, he worried that happiness might be unlikely.

John had always been driven by companionship and camaraderie, even growing up with his cousins. So in 2013, when the opportunity arose to join a few friends in a share house in Montauk, he jumped at it, and little did he know how much it would change his life.

The house, nicknamed the Hive, slept up to 31 people, and was a hub of activity every summer weekend. It didn't take John to feel like he was fitting in on his weekends at the Hive, maneuvering between different groups of friends, helping them with their own relationship-related crises, and spending the majority of the days in a sunburned, drunken haze. But there still was a nagging, almost paralyzing feeling that something—and someone—was missing, and it threatened to derail all of his happiness that summer.

But then he met another new member of the Hive, and things started to come into focus for John for the first time. With this new connection came a feeling of happiness, of possibility, but at the same time, new anxieties cropped up, accompanied by his old friend, unworthiness. John isn't sure what all of this means and he's afraid of the upheaval pursuing this person could cause, but he also can't imagine the possibility of not doing so.

Out East is a moving story about a man's struggle to find himself and his self-worth, and discover that until he believes himself deserving of love he might never find it. At the same time it's a tremendously compelling look at how our relationships with family and friends throughout our childhood influence what we search for in adulthood. I also was struck by the fact that a young man who appeared to have it all from the outside—good looks, a good job, a loving and supportive family, a friendly personality—could struggle so much with believing he was worthy.

While it is a memoir, I found Out East to provide a tremendously entertaining look at the culture of excess that pervades many house shares in areas like the Hamptons. It felt like watching a soap opera or reality program in which these confident, beautiful people who appear to have it all are as much a mess as everyone else (if not more), and their drunken escapades. There are relationship crises galore, hook-ups, and fun memories to observe from the reader's vantage point, all of which made me glad I'm older and perhaps a little sad I didn't experience this lifestyle at least once in my life, even in a minor way.

I really enjoyed this book. Glynn didn't pull any punches in sharing his emotions or how he might have been perceived during that time, and his honesty really shined through. He's a terrific writer because he even made me care about people with whom I had barely anything in common, and I wondered what would come of them in the future.

If you're looking for a terrific memoir that feels like a beach read, pick up Out East. You may feel like you wandered into a frat party, but you'll discover so much more if you stay.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book Review: "Like A Love Story" by Abdi Nazemian

Wow, this book hit very close to home for me.

It's 1989 in New York City. Reza has just moved with his mother to live with his wealthy new stepfather and stepbrother, and attend his final year of high school. He knows he likes boys but all he sees in the media are images of people dying of AIDS, so he knows he has to keep his true self hidden.

Judy has always been her own person, an aspiring fashion designer with a bold sense of style. She spends all of her spare time with her best friend, Art, and her uncle, Stephen, who is dying of AIDS and is a prominent member of ACT UP. The one thing Judy wants to find is love, but she doubts she'll ever find anyone to love her for who she is.

Art is out and proud, a talented photographer who tries to put the constant bullying of his peers and the disdain of his parents behind him. He documents the work of the ACT UP activists through his photographs. Stephen is his role model, and he spends so much time learning from him. Art wants to find someone to love him, but love and sex in the midst of so much uncertainty around AIDS frightens him.

Reza and Judy start dating, and Art feels like a third wheel. But Art and Reza are drawn to each other. Reza tries desperately to fight his attraction to Art, because he doesn't want to disappoint his mother and he worries that acknowledging his sexuality will doom him to a death sentence of AIDS. Art wants Reza, but knows that Judy is happy with him, and he doesn't want to betray his one true friend.

"There may be no harder place to be queer than high school, a place of bullies and slurs, a place steeped in rituals of heterosexuality. Who's dating who? Who kissed who? Who will be homecoming king and queen? Who will be your prom date? And you have to play along, because if you don't, your difference has a spotlight on it."

Abdi Nazemian's incredibly moving, heartfelt Like A Love Story so accurately captures what it was like to come to terms with your sexuality during the early days of the AIDS crisis. You were tremendously fearful of even kissing someone, because you worked out elaborate circumstances in your head by which you could contract the disease. And if you got AIDS, who would love you? Your family would abandon you, the government would gouge you on the price of drugs, and you would be a pariah? So why not hide your true self instead, pretend to be "normal"?

This is a book about friendship, family, fear, acceptance, and finding love. It's a story about finding the courage to be yourself even in a world full of fear, and finding your people, who will love you and accept you no matter what. It's also a beautiful love letter of sorts to those who came before us, who loved fearlessly and joyfully, who finally lived the lives they dreamed of, without worrying what people thought of them, and it's a tribute to all of the people who died of AIDS and lost loved ones and lived in courage rather than fear.

I had been waiting for this book to be released and I jumped on it the day it was published. I loved every single minute of Like A Love Story. It's gorgeous and funny and sad and beautifully written, and all too many times I found myself nodding, recognizing myself in certain situations. Nazemian put every ounce of his heart into this story and it shows, and I'm definitely going to go back and read his earlier books, because I love the way he writes.

I love books that effectively capture a specific time and place, and Like A Love Story did that. It is an important, hopeful book that deserves every accolade it receives.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Book Review: "Montauk" by Nicola Harrison

It's 1938, and a large number of New York City's wealthiest residents descend upon Montauk, Long Island to spend the summer in this new East Coast playground. The wives will spend the entire summer there at the luxurious Montauk Manor, a hotel by the sea, while many of their husbands will return to their business interests in the city and then come to Montauk on weekends.

Beatrice Bordeaux is among those wives who will spend their summer in Montauk, but she is surprised to learn that her husband Harry will be leaving her during the week. One of the main purposes of this trip was that the couple could rekindle their marriage and hopefully become pregnant with the baby that has eluded them for five years. Although Bea would like to relax and read, Harry wants her to socialize with the other society matrons, so that he may find a foothold for his investment interests in Montauk.

While Bea is taken by the beauty of Montauk, she quickly grows bored of the women's talk of frivolous things, even charitable activities that seem more self-serving than generous. She befriends Elizabeth, the Manor's laundress, whose down-to-earth nature reminds Bea more of the life she knew before she met Harry, even though such a friendship would be frowned upon.

Bea is also disillusioned by the state of her marriage. Harry seems less and less interested in being with her, only wanting her to help advance his interests and make appearances at his side. When she discovers that Harry is not the devoted husband she thought he was, she begins to do things that interest her, regardless of whether they're appropriate for a married woman (or a woman at all). She also strikes up a friendship with a handsome, sensitive man who is Harry's complete opposite, a man who has a connection to her life before Harry, a time when everything changed.

As she and Harry drift further apart, and she takes her future in her own hands, she is ready to follow her heart for perhaps the first time in her life. But the course of happiness never runs smoothly, and she has to decide whether to do what she wants or do what might be best for everyone, or the risk might be too great.

Montauk is an interesting, beautifully written look at a time in history where a woman was expected to do what she was told, not to ask questions, and simply be happy being cared for by her husband. "Good wives" simply were willing to sit idly by as their husbands did as they wished, and they should be content with filling their days with superficial and social activities. Nicola Harrison did a great job capturing that time, and her descriptions of Montauk and the grandeur of the Manor created vivid images in my mind.

The story was a bit more predictable than I hoped it would be, and as it sped toward its climax things became really melodramatic, but I still found Montauk an enjoyable read. There are some interesting characters in the book, particularly Bea's friend Dolly, who flouted many of the conventions of her time and was pretty fascinating, and I liked Bea's sass and intelligence.

I was fortunate to be part of the pop-up book tour for Montauk. Thanks to BookSparks and St. Martin's Press for providing an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Review: "Keep This to Yourself" by Tom Ryan

Once there were five friends in the small town of Camera Cove—Mac, Ben, Connor, Doris, and Carrie. They were inseparable, and they thought they'd be friends forever. But as often happens, as you grow up, your interests change and suddenly the friendships you couldn't live without when you were young don't matter as much, if at all.

But Mac and Connor remained friends, even though Connor was the golden boy—popular, artistic, the object of attraction for many of the girls in their high school—and Mac was shy, newly out of the closet, and ready to leave Camera Cove. Then without warning, a brutal serial killer known as the Catalog Killer terrorized the town. Three random people were poisoned to death and the police had no clues.

Connor was the killer's fourth victim, and after that murder, it appeared the killer left town, a drifter, like many had suspected. So many people were devastated by Connor's death, particularly Mac, who even a year later, can't believe his friend is gone. Yet he can't seem to find the strength to move on with his life, even though the town is ready to shake off the fear which has been its burden since the killer first struck.

One night Mac finds a note that Connor wrote him on the night he was killed, asking him to meet him where his body was eventually found. The more that Mac thinks about how that night could have gone so differently, the more he begins to suspect that perhaps Connor actually knew who the killer was, and perhaps it wasn't a stranger. What would Connor have told him that night? Would they both have survived?

No one is interested in reopening the case, not even the police, so Mac takes it upon himself to begin looking into the murders, trying to figure out what four seemingly random people might have had in common that led to their deaths. With the help of a sexy relative of one of the victims, Mac tries to figure out whether Connor had uncovered the truth—and if so, can he solve the same mystery—without the same result?

I really enjoyed Keep This to Yourself. It was a mystery with lots of twists and turns, combined with the all-too-familiar themes of childhood friends growing apart, wanting to fit in and be loved for who you are, and wanting life to return to a simpler, more innocent time. I loved the way Tom Ryan meshed the mystery and YA elements of this book, which made it more appealing to those who don't consider themselves fans of YA.

I tend to be really cynical when I read mysteries because I suspect everyone. I will admit—and perhaps I was just not thinking as sharply as I usually do—that I was surprised at how Ryan wrapped everything up, which is a good feeling to have. I really liked Mac and Quill's characters, and almost wish the book was longer so I could see how things developed afterward.

This was my first LGBTQ read for Pride Month and it was the perfect start. I'm definitely going to be looking to see what Tom Ryan writes next, because it takes a talented storyteller to create a compelling mystery amidst other plotlines.