Don’t Judge Me

Finished Don’t Judge Me by Lisa Schroeder.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Inspired by a true story of girl empowerment, acclaimed author Lisa Schroeder’s new novel explores trust, self-worth, and speaking up — especially when you’re told to keep quiet.

Hazel doesn’t like to make waves. Middle school is hard enough without causing more trouble, right? She’s happy just eating lunch in the library with her BFF, writing secret haikus, and taking care of an adorable rescue tortoise.

But then Hazel discovers a list that rates the girls at her middle school based on their looks — started by her best friend’s older brother. She knows she has to do something, and she can’t do it alone. The wave she’ll be making might turn into a tsunami, but if Hazel can find the courage to speak up, she might just change everything.”

I was so excited to get to read this early, because Lisa Schroeder is one of my absolute most favorite authors. She deals with heavy topics but she does it with sensitivity and while treating her characters and the kids who will be reading her books with the utmost respect.

Hazel is in the middle of a situation that she doesn’t know how to handle. She’s found a notebook that rates the girls at her school (including Hazel herself) and all she knows for sure is that she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to adults about it. She thinks her parents will either go straight to the principal or confront the boy whose notebook she stole (her best friend’s older brother) and she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she doesn’t want to get other people in trouble, either. She just wants this behavior to stop.

I essentially was Hazel in middle school, so I had so much empathy for her. And when she realizes that she is braver and more capable than she thought, I felt like her mom. I was so happy and so proud.

Lisa Schroeder’s books (and Lisa herself) are just pure magic. They always make me happy, even as they remind me that there’s a lot of good in the world. (Yes, there are also awful people. But there are more good people than bad, especially when the good ones speak up.)

Highly recommended.

On a Good Horse

Finished On a Good Horse by Darby Karchut. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“‘Easier to carry the bad when you’re mounted on a good horse.’

Alex Nash dreams of being a soccer star. Or a graphic artist. Maybe both. But being a cowboy? Nope and no way. Not if it means being anything like his seldom seen father.

Then, out of nowhere, tragedy shatters Alex’s world, and when he thinks life couldn’t sucker-punch him again, it does. He’s forced to live with Roberto Nash, a man he barely knows. Or wants to know.

Until Alex finds out his dad has bought him a peace offering of a sort, one with a red coat, lightning speed, and a fighting spirit. A spitfire of a horse that just might heal Alex’s heart and reunite father and son.”

There aren’t any words for how much I enjoyed this book. It’s really funny, which is good because it also deals with a boy who’s lost his mom and who is basically building a relationship with his dad from scratch. It’s not like they’d never met, but the divorce was acrimonious and they didn’t see each other very often.

This is Darby’s contemporary middlegrade debut, and it’s amazing. As anyone who reads her books can attest, one of her very real strengths is writing great father-son relationships, but this one is on a whole other level. Alex and his dad (Rob) have no foundation at all (seriously, Rob is the parent who sees his kid maybe once a year and shows up with a picture book for a seven year old. And it’s not entirely his fault–again, VERY acrimonious divorce and he lives far away) so seeing the two of them learn to connect is absolutely beyond touching. It doesn’t hurt that Rob, bless his heart, is not above bribery (he buys Alex a horse).

Also, a few chapters are from the horse’s perspective. This is a dangerous choice, because it could become sappy or weird or break the book’s pacing. It’s actually fantastic though; Rio is a total smartass and his chapters are wonderful and I laughed through all of them. (He’s also a bit of a marshmallow but don’t repeat that; he would bite me for it.)

I absolutely adore this book. Highly recommended.

Concrete Rose

Finished Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas. This is a prequel to The Hate U Give and will be released on January 12; I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control.

Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.”

So like pretty much every single actively literate person I know, I loved Angie Thomas’s first two books (The Hate U Give and On the Come Up) and when I learned that we were getting a prequel to The Hate U Give, I was pretty sure I couldn’t possibly be any more excited…until I learned it was going to be about her dad, Maverick.

I didn’t even know.

This is her best book yet, by a lot. And that’s a bold statement because her other books are beyond amazing. But this is just the best book I’ve read in ages. To put this in perspective, I read it in under 24 hours, and I couldn’t even tell you the last time that happened. Pre-COVID, for sure.

I was completely drawn into the story immediately and getting to see Mav and Lisa and Mav’s mom and Seven…it just felt like such an amazing gift.

This is going to be one of the best books of 2021 and I’m so grateful I got to read it early.

Highly recommended.

The Bookweaver’s Daughter

The Bookweaver’s Daughter by Malavika Kannan (debut YA author)

In the ancient Indian kingdom of Kasmira, stories don’t begin with “once upon a time.”

Instead, Kasmiris start a woman’s story with those who came before her: her parents, grandparents, ancestors. For fourteen-year-old Reya Kandhari, her story always starts the same: with the fabled line of Bookweavers, tracing centuries back to the lost Yogis—the mythical guardians of Kasmiri culture who created the world itself. As a result, Reya’s entire life has been shaped by words. Words of mystique and mythology. Words of magic that allow her father, the Bookweaver, to bring his stories to life. Words of power that make him the target of tyrants who will stop at nothing to destroy magic in Kasmira.

Living in disguise as a peasant in the fields, Reya’s sole focus is protecting the Bookweaver’s secret. But when her father is taken, Reya must flee deep into the jungle, alone with her best friend Nina and one ancient book. Grappling with Reya’s newfound magic, the two girls find themselves in the center of a war of liberation where magic reigns unchecked, and destiny takes a dark turn. As the stakes get higher, Reya realizes that her father’s legacy contains more power than she ever imagined. For Reya Kandhari is more than just a fugitive—she is a symbol of revolution. And that makes her a threat.

In a tale of magic, Indian lore, and radical female friendship, Reya must pass the final test: the Bookweaver’s daughter must weave her own destiny. The fate of Kasmira depends on it.

What are prominent authors and critics saying…

Kirkus Reviews : “In this captivating debut, the author deftly creates a fantasy world with poetic precision. The story is fast paced, and the character development is quite robust for both primary and secondary characters. Reya has a strong character arc that will leave readers rooting for her and her best friend. The fantasy world combines various Indian cultural elements such as food and the grandeur of royalty with magic-weaving. Enchanting.”

Roshani Chokshi, NYT bestselling author of The Gilded Wolves : “A celebration of storytelling by a sparkling new voice who is bound to be a star.”

Amanda Gorman, Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the United States: “Kannan’s language is as magical as the story she weaves. This book, with its vibrant world and infectious heroine, is sure to enchant its readers.”

Joan Morgan, Author of She Begat This: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks it Down : “The Bookweaver’s Daughter is a captivating, page-turner of a debut with an endearing crew of female characters that embody the eternal magic and sheer badassery of #girlsquads, past and present.”

School Library Journal : “With the descriptive style of Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard and dialogue reminiscent of M.K. England’s Spellhacker , this novel throws readers immediately into a fantasy world where an evil king reigns and there is only one hope for the land: the magic of the Bookweaver. VERDICT: Fans of medieval fantasy, action/adventure novels, and books with strong heroines will love this novel. Recommended for teen libraries.”

The Bookweaver’s Daughter by Malavika Kannan – click to visit author’s website
Tanglewood Publishing – click on link to find out more and order copies

Available Now | Ages 12+

$17.99/Hardcover: 978-1-939100-41-2 | 250 pages

Distributed by Simon & Schuster Distribution

One Way or Another

Finished One Way or Another by Kara McDowell. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The average person makes 35,000 decisions every single day. That’s about 34,999 too many for Paige Collins, who lives in debilitating fear of making the wrong choice. The simple act of picking an art elective is enough to send her into a spiral of what-ifs. What if she’s destined to be a famous ceramicist but wastes her talent in drama club? What if there’s a carbon monoxide leak in the ceramics studio and everyone drops dead? (Grim, but possible!)

That’s why when Paige is presented with two last-minute options for Christmas vacation, she’s paralyzed by indecision. Should she go with her best friend (and longtime crush) Fitz to his family’s romantic mountain cabin? Or should she accompany her mom to New York, a city Paige has spent her whole life dreaming about?

Just when it seems like Paige will crack from the pressure of choosing, fate steps in — in the form of a slippery grocery store floor — and Paige’s life splits into two very different parallel paths. One path leads to New York where Paige falls for the city . . . and the charms of her unexpected tour guide. The other leads to the mountains where Paige might finally get her chance with Fitz . . . until her anxiety threatens to ruin everything.

However, before Paige gets her happy ending in either destiny, she’ll have to face the truth about her struggle with anxiety — and learn that you don’t have to be “perfect” to deserve true love.”

This story was so fun! But it’s also so sweet and so clever and surprisingly heavy in parts.

On the surface, it’s a Sliding Doors-ish tale set over Christmas. I feel like this ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of people I know. (I am very fond of Sliding Doors-type scenarios.) It’s also got a huge crush and a whole lot of rom-com references.

I’m someone who is indecisive so I very much overidentified with Paige. At the same time, though, she is clearly suffering from anxiety. I think that was my favorite part of the book. Paige has panic attacks and also has these techniques to calm herself down. I love that her mental health is a huge part of this story, but at the same time, she has other things, too. She’s not just “Paige who needs an app to make decisions and can’t breathe sometimes.”

I haven’t been reading like myself since we all started staying home all the time, so I think the highest praise I can give this novel is the fact that I read it in about 24 hours. And when I say that, that includes sleeping, book club and a birthday party over Zoom. I couldn’t put it down and I was very invested in the story.

I absolutely adore this book and I need to read her debut soon.

Dear Justyce

Finished Dear Justyce by Nic Stone. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

In the stunning and hard-hitting sequel to the New York Times bestseller Dear Martin, incarcerated teen Quan writes letters to Justyce about his experiences in the American prison system.

Shortly after teenager Quan enters a not guilty plea for the shooting death of a police officer, he is placed in a holding cell to await trial. Through a series of flashbacks and letters to Justyce, the protagonist of Dear Martin, Quan’s story unravels.

From a troubled childhood and bad timing to a coerced confession and prejudiced police work, Nic Stone’s newest novel takes an unflinching look at the flawed practices and ideologies that discriminate against African American boys and minorities in the American justice system.

I finished Dear Martin last night and I was so happy to be able to start Dear Justyce right after. I tore through this sequel and I ended up loving it even more than Dear Martin.

In Dear Martin, we didn’t really get a good sense of who Quan was, only what he did. We knew that he shot and killed a police officer and that he was in a gang, Getting to know him was a really valuable thing for me. We see him as a kid and we see just how much he wants to take care of his younger siblings and how desperate he is for family. (His dad is in prison, his mom is pretty much checked out and her new boyfriend is awful.)

Quan is almost the anti-Justyce. Both teens are incredibly smart, but Justyce has a good support system and that’s something Quan didn’t have. Between the lack of concerned adults in his life and his longing for family, it’s understandable how events unfolded as they did. We also see the effects of racism on him (he got a 98 on a math test and his substitute insisted that he must have cheated; no one believed that he just studied hard).

When I finished Dear Martin and realized the sequel centered around Quan, I was a little disappointed. I was so, so wrong.

I definitely need to read everything that Nic Stone has ever written. Her books are incredible.

Highly recommended.

Now That I’ve Found You

Finished Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Now That I’ve Found You is a YA novel about searching for answers, love, and your eccentric grandma in all the wrong places.

Following in the footsteps of her überfamous grandma, eighteen-year-old Evie Jones is poised to be Hollywood’s next big star. That is until a close friend’s betrayal leads to her being blacklisted . . .

Fortunately, Evie knows just the thing to save her floundering career: a public appearance with America’s most beloved actress—her grandma Gigi, aka the Evelyn Conaway. The only problem? Gigi is a recluse who’s been out of the limelight for almost twenty years. Days before Evie plans to present her grandma with an honorary award in front of Hollywood’s elite, Gigi does the unthinkable: she disappears.

With time running out and her comeback on the line, Evie reluctantly enlists the help of the last person to see Gigi before she vanished: Milo Williams, a cute musician Evie isn’t sure she can trust. As Evie and Milo conduct a wild manhunt across New York City, romance and adventure abound while Evie makes some surprising discoveries about her grandma—and herself.”

This book is exactly what I needed. It’s a super fun love story wrapped up in a story about Hollywood (current and classic). (You should know, though, that the movie star parts are definitely a subplot.)

I was sucked into the story well before the first sentence. The cover and the synopsis and everything about it made me know that I would love it, and I was not wrong.

And I LOVE Evie so much. She’s driven and smart and I love both of those characteristics in people. Yes, she made a silly mistake, but I also feel like the fallout was completely ridiculous. She was joking about her director (who has a British accent) but she didn’t use any slurs and she didn’t say anything negative about his personality. (I guess super rich people don’t have anything approaching a sense of humor?) So the aspect of this that shows how best to overcome those mistakes is actually my favorite part of the story.

My second favorite part? Literally everything else.

Highly recommended.

When No One is Watching

Finished When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Rear Window meets Get Out in this gripping thriller from a critically acclaimed and New York Times Notable author, in which the gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…

Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.

But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.

When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?”

I knew that I wanted to read this when it was billed as Get Out meets Rear Window. (Those are two amazing movies, and this seemed like it was actually perfect for me.)

It may not be what most people would consider traditional horror, but it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read, because it’s all very plausible. (Alyssa Cole has a list of further reading to do if you don’t find this book realistic.)

This is very timely but I feel like it would be just as timely in any era of this country’s history. I felt actual dread as I was reading this, and for most of it, everything happening was very insidious. There were so many parts where I was like, “Wait. Did I just read that?” (I did. I always DID just read that.)

We can always find the capital r Racists, the people who are in the Klan and who drop racial slurs and are very obviously about it. This is about the regular people who are just as awful but who hide it really well. And the things they’re planning are awful.

This is an intense book and, while I know that this isn’t what Alyssa Cole usually writes, I’m definitely planning to read more of her books because this one is flat out amazing. Highly recommended.

Just Us

Finished Just Us by Claudia Rankine.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen changed the conversation–Just Us urges all of us into it

As everyday white supremacy becomes increasingly vocalized with no clear answers at hand, how best might we approach one another? Claudia Rankine, without telling us what to do, urges us to begin the discussions that might open pathways through this divisive and stuck moment in American history.

Just Us is an invitation to discover what it takes to stay in the room together, even and especially in breaching the silence, guilt, and violence that follow direct addresses of whiteness. Rankine’s questions disrupt the false comfort of our culture’s liminal and private spaces–the airport, the theater, the dinner party, the voting booth–where neutrality and politeness live on the surface of differing commitments, beliefs, and prejudices as our public and private lives intersect.

This brilliant arrangement of essays, poems, and images includes the voices and rebuttals of others: white men in first class responding to, and with, their white male privilege; a friend’s explanation of her infuriating behavior at a play; and women confronting the political currency of dying their hair blond, all running alongside fact-checked notes and commentary that complements Rankine’s own text, complicating notions of authority and who gets the last word.

Sometimes wry, often vulnerable, and always prescient, Just Us is Rankine’s most intimate work, less interested in being right than in being true, being together.”

I was a huge fan of her poetry collection Citizen, and so I was really excited to see this in time to preorder. It’s got some poetry but it’s more of an essay collection.

It’s incredibly thought-provoking but there also isn’t a solution. For example, there’s a chapter on Black women dying their hair blonde. There are some thoughts on why this may happen (conforming to a white standard of beauty? Maybe they just like it? It makes women look younger?) but no actual answer. Probably because chances are that many of them do it for multiple reasons and why one woman may do it could have no bearing on why another chose to.

I also liked the discussion of white male privilege, which led to a sidebar discussion of why white people seem to become incredibly angry when they’re called “white.” (I don’t have a problem with it; I’m white. And I’m okay with that being specified because it shouldn’t be the default color for “person.”)

I’m going to be thinking about this for a while and I already am planning to re-read it. Highly recommended.