Category Archives: fiction

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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SLAY by Brittney Morris
Simon Pulse, 2019.

So I’m a middle-aged white lady librarian but I was really gripped and enlightened by this book about Black videogaming and would thoroughly recommend it to teens interested in a different slant on gaming.

17 year-old Keira Johnson is one of only eight Black students at Jefferson Academy, along with her sister Steph and her boyfriend Malcolm. She is an Honors student and is excitedly awaiting the admissions decision from Spelman so she and Malcolm can be together in Atlanta while he’s at Morehouse.

But, by night, Keira takes on the role of Queen Emerald in SLAY, a virtual reality MMMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), intended only for Black people. But, more than that, she is the developer of this highly successful game along with Cicada, a young biracial woman who lives in Paris. 

However, when a teen is killed over a dispute in SLAY, the game makes headline news and not in a good way. The author cleverly contrasts the security of the game, where the players can recognize themselves and be authentic, with the way the white media misrepresents them as thugs and gangsters. Then a troll enters SLAY, threatening its very existence as a safe haven for black gamers.

Most of the story is told from Keira’s first person point of view but there are some chapters from the perspective of others who are involved or become involved with the game. The author also uses her characters to show different perspectives of Black people from the pragmatism of Steph to the Black (Male) Power ethos of Malcolm. The two main white characters, ostensibly well-meaning siblings Harper and Wyatt, show the micro (and not so micro) aggressions that the Black students at Jefferson are subject to. 

Ms Morris has created a gorgeous immersive vision with SLAY and the nuts and bolts of the game as players duel each other are enthralling and I learned much from her perspective on race and gender in gaming. And while some of the plotting and characterization is a bit wobbly, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book one bit.

Music from Another World by Robin Talley

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Music from Another World by Robin Talley
Inkyard, March 2020

Robin Talley is one of the premier YA authors of LGBTQ+ novels and has made something of a niche for herself by placing these stories in well-researched historical settings. Her latest is set in late 70’s California, mainly San Francisco, and niftily uses the story of two young women to show this pivotal time in queer history from a female perspective. It particularly resonated with me as I was a similar age as the main characters at that time and also found my identity (albeit a different one) through the punk music they both love.

During the summer of 1977 white high schoolers Tammy and Sharon are assigned to become pen pals by their Christian schools. Tammy is a deeply closeted lesbian living in conservative Orange County with her hardcore and homophobic religious family. Sharon lives in a Catholic area of San Francisco with her rather checked out mother and her gay (but known only to her) brother.

The novel opens with the Anita Bryant-led repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida and closes with the massive 1978 defeat in California of the Briggs initiative (seeking to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools). During this year, the coming out (pun intended) of the gay rights movement and the shifting of public attitudes is shown through Tammy and Sharon and those around them. Maybe because it’s mostly set in San Francisco, the novel does take a somewhat rosy-eyed view of what being gay or lesbian in the 1970’s meant.

At first the young women stick to the anodyne questions of their pen-pal program, but later, as they come to feel close, they share more intimate confidences. Sharon starts going to punk concerts and meets cool feminists as well as going to the Castro with her brother to support gay rights. Tammy starts a relationship with another girl at school and inspired by Patti Smith, starts recognizing her anger at the conformity the world imposes.

As well as their letters to each other, both young women write diaries. Tammy writes hers as a letter to Harvey Milk, Sharon’s is a more traditional one. These narrative devices feel a little contrived, particularly when they are writing to each other despite living in the same house, and I didn’t find the voices particularly well-differentiated.

These minor quibbles aside, I found myself thoroughly engrossed by Tammy and Sharon’s different journeys to self-discovery about their identities and their sexuality through music, through their writing, and through their relationship. 

Thanks to Inkyard Press and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

Again Again by E. Lockhart

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Again Again by E. Lockhart
Delacorte, June 2020.

A new book from E Lockhart is always cause for celebration and, while this one didn’t do it for me quite as much as Genuine Fraud or Frankie Landau Banks, it is chock full of great writing and interesting ideas. For me, it had an interesting touch of A. S. King about it, with that mix of poetic reality and juxtaposed fantasy.

This much we know for sure about Adelaide Buchwald. She is in the summer between junior and senior year and is staying at her boarding school, Alabaster, along with her teacher dad for the summer. Her younger brother, Toby, is a recovering opioid addict who has already had one relapse and he is living with their mother in Baltimore as he goes through his recovery program. Just before the end of the school year, Adelaide was dumped by her boyfriend Mikey Lewis Lieu (aka Mikey Double L). She has spent the year failing her classes as Toby’s situation bored into her, but unwilling to show her sadness has developed a bright sparkly persona which seems to fool most people. The only way she can avoid flunking out is to create a model set for Sam Shepherd’s  Fool for Love for her theater design class.

By the end of the summer she will have started coming to terms with all this.

But in the middle, there are many branches of the multiverse in which Adelaide experiences love, loss, grief, and the slow tendrils of recovery. She meets Jack and has a brief fling with him or Mikey Double L comes back or she has a relationship with Oliver. None of these relationships come to fruition because, despite wanting love, she is not ready for it until she can see herself clearly and she needs to repair her relationship with Toby.

Adelaide’s journey from broken to whole encompasses all of these. There is a main thread that runs through to the end and the different possible branches are indicated (at least in the ARC) by different fonts and bolding. Though Adelaide follows four different routes, they all lead to the same ending: A friendship and a restoration.

As an added bonus, there are some fascinating descriptions of art pieces (apparently inspired by real life work) and their inspiration bleeds into Adelaide’s process of designing and creating her model set while reflecting her inner work in progress.

I think E. Lockhart is one of the most interesting authors working in fiction today. Her ambition and experimentation mean her novels really blur the line between YA and adult literary fiction, though their protagonists typically mean they are classified as teen reads. While Again Again was less successful for me than some of her other novels, I think those who loved We Were Liars will particularly enjoy it.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

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The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
Disney-Hyperion, July 2020

Set over the course of Election Day 2020, this delightful two-hander starts when activist Marva and laidback musician Duke, both 18, meet cute at a polling station.

Over the course of the day, as Marva helps Duke get to vote and they look for Marva’s lost cat, social media celebrity Eartha Kitty, the author skillfully builds her characters, often using sidebar “About” chapters to fill in background information about other people important to them.

Though this presents as a smooth and easy romance, it’s something of a Trojan horse (in a good way!) Inside the charming exterior, the author doesn’t let the reader off the hook: the injustices against people of color and women are central to her characters’ passionate belief in the crucial need to vote to get change.

Alternating narration, the two lead characters, controlling Marva and laidback Duke come from ostensibly different backgrounds. Marva come from a comfortable middle class home, is one of only 8 black students at her fancy independent school and dates the charismatic (but ultimately villainous) white Alec. Duke’s family was shattered when his older brother, activist Julian, was killed and Duke has been learning how to deal with that loss ever since. But they are an attractive couple and it’s no surprise that after their initial decision to help Duke vote, their political dedication and commitment leads their relationship to develops quick.

The novel is apolitical in the sense that names and parties are not named, though I’m not sure how you could read this and vote Republican. Will it be enough to get Bernie elected? Likely not, but it might encourage a few readers to get out there and take their place in the democratic process.

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

Admission by Julie Buxbaum

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Admission by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, May 2020

This lightly fictionalized, timely and very enjoyable version of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal takes the point of view of one of the students involved and examines the ideas of privilege and entitlement along with culpability.

So I have skin in this game in several ways. Firstly, I work at a fancy independent high school whose students frequently go to some of the most elite colleges – none were involved with the Varsity Blues scandal though many have the legacy and extremely wealthy cards to play. Also, one of our neighbors was involved and it is to my eternal prurient regret that when I heard a kerfuffle at 6am on March 12, 2019 I didn’t look out the window to see the FBI. And as I write this, my son and I are in Southern California looking at colleges for him. We are a very privileged family and he is a smart kid who goes to a school that gives him lots of advantages though we probably couldn’t donate much more than a picnic table. We even toured USC (which he LOVED of course) and had a bit of a snigger about the water polo trophies.

Anyway back to the book!

Chloe Berringer is the daughter of sitcom star Joy Fields and is thrilled when she gets into prestigious Southern California College against all the odds. But when the FBI arrest her mother for fraud it emerges that Chloe’s acceptance was based on a false claim that she’s a top pole vaulter and an SAT score that she didn’t achieve on her own.

The narrative is split into what happened leading up to the arrest and the aftermath. Chloe is at top notch Woods Valley private school where her grades are not stellar and she feels dumb compared to her best friend Nigerian American Shola (the author really loads Shola up as the face of the victims of the college scam – she is super smart and comes from a low income family who are depending on financial aid for her to get into college and she is waitlisted by SCC) and her crush Levi. It’s not clear to us (or her) if she’s not smart or maybe just doesn’t work that hard, but, either way, getting into SCC feels amazing until it becomes humiliating.

This novel attempts to answer the two questions which were on everyone’s lips at the time. Firstly, why did the parents do it? Though the answer seems to be simply because they can, for Chloe there’s a bit more to it. Did they think she was stupid? Her parents just say that they wanted the best for her but did they really? The idea of prestige is certainly briefly touched on and I’ve got to tell you how much that looms in many parents’ lives despite assurances of “whatever is the best fit”.

The second question we were all asking at the time, is how did the students not know what was going on. Chloe spends a lot of time examining the idea of her culpability – she didn’t know what her parents were doing, but she did have her suspicions and does nothing. She knows she doesn’t have ADHD but allows her new “college counselor” to get this certified to give her extra time on the SAT. And why are her parents making such an enormous charitable donation to this counselor’s pet charity? Chloe concludes in retrospect that she was “aggressively oblivious” as the clues (not to say actual evidence) were there but she chose to willfully ignore them.

There is also some discussion, as there was at the time, of the legal “backdoor” ways that very rich (white) people use their money and privilege to secure college places for their children through large donations, and the unfairness of legacy is also lightly touched on (hey we feel that too! Both my husband and I are British and legacy isn’t a thing there).

There is a lot about Chloe’s privilege using Shola as both a mirror and mouthpiece. Once again Chloe is blithely oblivious of the depths of her privilege and accepts what is handed to her on a plate without much thought. Her microaggressions against Shola are numerous and Shola pushes back more times than you’d hope she’d have to do in real life before realization would set in, though in Chloe’s case, it never really does.

Buxbaum manages to keep Chloe mostly sympathetic and her family is charming but also outrageously privileged. As a contrast to this, offstage, we have Cesar, Chloe’s 1st grade reading buddy whose mother is undocumented. This is something that gives Chloe genuine fulfillment and a place where her parents money has made a difference – it is perhaps a light at the end of a very dark (but comfortably padded) tunnel.

There is of course some delightful and vicarious schadenfreude to be had from this book, but it also gives teen readers some support that if the worst happens, you will survive it and maybe even thrive on your new path. Particularly if your family is well off.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

This Boy by Lauren Myracle

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This Boy by Lauren Myracle
Walker, April 2020

Just before the start of freshman year, Paul and Roby meet up and then become friends once they start school: bonding over a mutual disdain for the girl-hazing bros in their year. Though they fall out over a girl, Latina Natalia, the ties of best friendship hold over the years of high school. Much of the book is a realistic and assured portrait of 21st century high school life for a boy: negotiating friends, girls, hurt feelings, alcohol and drugs, different family structures, different social and economic circumstances, and contemporary gender and sexuality mores. All this is done really well and effortlessly.

But then, because this is a YA book, Something Happens during senior year and the narrative takes a sharp turn from the quotidian to something much higher pitched though well within the bounds of everyday high school life. It is still skillfully written and resolved but I could have done without the extra drama as I was just enjoying living the life.

Paul and Roby are great, well-drawn characters – not in the popular gang but also not in the lower strata. In some ways, they are a step to the side, marching to the beat of their own drums, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. This is a lovely portrait of regular lives which can so easily slip awry, but with heart and support can get back on track.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Smooth by Matt Burns

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Smooth by Matt Burns
Candlewick, June 2020

Intensely self-conscious about his severe acne, 10th grader Kevin is pleased to be prescribed Accutane, despite its many side-effects, and things definitely look up when he connects with Alex, a girl he meets at his regular blood tests for the drug. While he invests this relationship with a weight that it can’t really bear, he retreats from his former best friends and family and his life starts to spiral downwards. He invests his energy in a slew of creative projects, but they are more about impressing other people than expressing himself, and they all fizzle out.

Debut author Burns imbues his first person narrative with the authentic solipsism of a teenager: Kevin observes and judges his friends, family and classmates with little empathy and without really listening to them, particularly Alex. And so much of what Kevin is thinking and feeling about himself, doesn’t get shared outside his own head and his isolation increases. Like many teens he snarkily views other people only through his own lens, claiming he doesn’t care about friendships, though to be fair to him, the other teens (all white from the suburbs) do seem to him (and me) to be remarkably well-adjusted.

The author does a fine job of chronicling Kevin’s descent into a vicious circle of hopelessness, and it is never clear (to the reader or Kevin) if his depression is caused by the Accutane or is genetic or if it’s just what a sensitive 10th grade boy experiences. Ultimately, though the Accutance does help, it is Kevin himself who has a Judy Blume-inspired epiphany (nicely done!) about his own role in his social isolation. For me, this came a bit too abruptly and a bit too late in the novel and felt rather unbalanced against the amount of time Kevin has spent in despair.

Though only a few teens suffer from such serious skin conditions, many will be able to relate to Kevin’s isolation, withdrawal, and desperate thoughts. A good choice for readers who like dark and some light, but not till the end.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.