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My Progress:

10 / 30 books. 33% done!

2024 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama (1)
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- Washington, D.C.*

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My Progress:

18 / 51 states. 35% done!

2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

My Progress:

13 / 50 books. 26% done!

2024 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

20 / 50 books. 40% done!

Booklist Queen's 2024 Reading Challenge

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38 / 50 books. 76% done!

2024 52 Club Reading Challenge

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33 / 52 books. 63% done!

2024 Build Your Library Reading Challenge

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23 / 40 books. 57% done!

2024 Pioneer Book Reading Challenge

13 / 40 books. 33% done!

2024 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

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5 / 25 books. 20% done!

2024 Medical Examiner's Mystery Reading Challenge

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25 / 26.2 miles. 95% done!

Mount TBR Reading Challenge

My Progress

19 / 100 books. 19% done!

2024 Pick Your Poison Reading Challenge

My Progress:

50 / 104 books. 48% done!

Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge

My Progress

39 / 52 books. 75% done!

Disney Animated Movies Reading Challenge

My Progress

45 / 165 books. 27% done!
Monday, December 30, 2019

Psychological Thriller a Surprising, Compulsively Readable Ride

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The Dead Girl in 2A by Carter Wilson is one of those psychological thrillers where the less you know going into it, the better.  So, I'm going to give you the most succinct plot summary I can (which is not my forte as you well know).  Here goes:

A freelance writer, Jake Buchannan is flying to Denver to meet with a mysterious client who wants Jake to pen his memoir.  When a woman settles into the first-class seat next to him, he gets a shock.  He's positive he knows her.  Clara Stowe feels the same way about Jake, but the two can find no obvious connections between the two of them.  As they get to know each other over the course of the flight, Clara finally admits her real purpose in traveling to Colorado—she's planning to kill herself.  Shocked, Jake knows he has to help her.  When Clara disappears upon landing, Jake doesn't know what to do.  He can't let Clara—someone with whom he feels such a close, inexplicable bond—go through with her plans, but how is he going to stop her?  And who is she, really?

Yep, that's all I'm going to give you.  It's better this way, I promise!  All I can say is that this novel went in a direction that was entirely different than what I expected.  In a good way, but it threw me a little.  From that simple, but fascinating premise Wilson creates a wild, intriguing thrill ride that kept me on edge and guessing throughout.  I ended up very much enjoying this compulsively readable psychological thriller.  

(Readalikes:  Hm, I'm not sure what to compare it to—ideas?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Frankly, It's A Lot of Fun

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the child of hardworking Korean immigrants who sacrificed to move to the U.S. in order to give their children a better life, Frank Li is expected to assimilate.  But not too much.  Although he was born in Southern California and not even his parents use his Korean name, Frank is nevertheless expected to marry a Korean girl.  Problem:  Koreans are not exactly plentiful in Playa Mesa.  Also a problem:  Frank has already fallen hard for smart, funny Brit Means, who is white.  Thanks to his older sister's marriage to a Black man and her subsequent disownment from the family, Frank knows exactly how his loving (but totally racist) parents react to mixed-race relationships.  He can't let them know about his.

Enter Joy Song, the daughter of a couple Frank's parents know from Korea.  Joy's got a secret she's keeping from her own racist parents—she's dating a Chinese boy.  In order to keep all the adults in the dark, Frank and Joy decide to fake-date each other, a ruse that delights their parents.  When things go awry and then awry-er, Frank learns some important lessons about friendship, family, first loves, and forging the future for himself that he really wants.  

Frankly in Love by David Yoon is a funny, upbeat story that's more than just a romance.  Although the story spends a lot of pages on Frank's fumbling about on his path to true love, it also hits on issues of identity, racism, parental expectations vs. children forging their own paths, the struggles of those with hyphenated identities, and what love really means.  Frankly in Love has poignant parts along with humorous ones.  Frank's voice is especially engaging.  He's funny, self-deprecating, and thoughtful.  His friends are a likable bunch; even their flawed, sometimes totally clueless family members feel authentic.  The novel gets long, but overall, it's an enjoyable romp that's entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun.  I could have done without the strong language and R-rated bits; otherwise, I liked Frankly in Love a lot.

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, violence, and innuendo/sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

On the Come Up A Powerful Novel About Following Your Dreams and Staying True to Yourself

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I usually write my own plot summaries for the books I review, but sometimes the publisher does such a nice, succinct job of it that there's no point in even trying to reinvent the wheel.  Such is the case with On the Come Up, a sophomore novel by Angie Thomas:

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.
But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral . . . for all the wrong reasons.
Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.
Insightful, unflinching, and full of heart, On the Come Up is an ode to hip hop from one of the most influential literary voices of a generation. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; and about how, especially for young black people, freedom of speech isn’t always free.

As a 40-something-year-old white woman who lives in a gated, upper middle-class neighborhood in the heart of suburbia and listens to nothing more hood than "Ice, Ice Baby" every so often, I'm the first to admit that I am so not the target audience for books like On the Come Up.  Still, I appreciate this novel and others like it for helping to expand the reaches of YA lit to include depictions of teenagers of all races, faiths, ideologies, cultures, etc.  That being said, I personally found On the Come Up a bit difficult to read, particularly because it uses strong language (F-bombs in every other sentence) and lots of rap/hip hop terms and related lingo that I didn't always understand.  Beyond that, though, On the Come Up features a strong, likable heroine who's trying to both accept the hand she's been dealt and rise above it by following her dreams.  Though flawed, her friends and family are likable, authentic characters as well.  Plotwise, the novel is compelling but also wordier than necessary.  Overall, though,
it's an intriguing read that teaches some important lessons about family, friendship, racism, standing up for yourself, and forgiveness.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of SLAY by Brittney Morris)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, violence, blood/gore, mild sexual content, depictions of illegal drug use, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

I'm Not Dying With You Tonight An Exciting Thrill-Ride of a Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When her mother decides to relocate to Venezuela for a job, Campbell Carlson is sent to live with her father in Atlanta.  She's trying to fit in in her new environment, but things aren't going well.  When she reluctantly volunteers to work the concession stand at a high school football game, Campbell never expects that the night will turn into a frantic race through a rioting city with an unlikely ally by her side.  But that's exactly what happens when a fight breaks out at the school and quickly turns into an uncontrollable free-for-all, with fists and racial slurs flying to-and-fro like deadly arrows.

Lena James doesn't know the white girl cowering in the concession stand, but she can tell her pale-faced classmate needs someone with some backbone to help her out of the nightmare happening all around them.  Good thing Lena's got backbone to spare.  Taking Campbell under her wing, she leads her off school property into the dangerous nearby hood, where the two of them race toward what they think is safety—only to find that nowhere is safe, not with riots breaking out all over the city.  Can the two learn to trust each other enough to find their way home?  Or will they become victims of the violence that's raging like wildfire through Atlanta?

I'm Not Dying With You Tonight is a debut novel for both Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones.  The book tells a wild, adrenaline-fueled story that had me burning through pages so fast it's a wonder I didn't sprain my wrist!  The tale is so intense that I actually had nightmares after reading it.  With a white girl in the minority, it offers a unique view of race issues, which is furthered by the dual narrative that shows two different perspectives, highlighting the assumptions and prejudiced thoughts each had about the other.  With minimal personal details about either of the girls, I'm Not Dying With You Tonight is hyper-focused on the action, which brings up issues of racism, unfair police targeting, stereotypes, etc., but still keeps the plot moving at a dizzying pace.  It's an exciting but thought-provoking novel that will appeal to both thriller and action/adventure fans.  Personally, I loved it.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of SLAY by Brittney Morris)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, innuendo, scenes of peril, and depictions of underage drinking and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of I'm Not Dying With You Tonight from the generous folks at Sourcebooks for the purpose of Cybils Award judging.  Thank you!

Thought-Provoking SLAY an Intriguing, But Conflicting Tale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As one of only a few Black students at her Seattle charter school, 17-year-old Kiera Johnson is used to being the "authority" on things like rap music, dreadlocks, gangstas, and slavery—even if she doesn't know a thing about the subject.  Unbeknownst to her classmates, or anyone really, Kiera actually is an expert on a popular Blacks-only virtual reality video game called SLAY.  In fact, she's the one who created it.  Longing for a protected space where she and other people like her could go to "celebrate Black excellence in all its forms," (31) she's spent the last three years designing and moderating the game.  In secret.  Her parents would be outraged that she's a gamer at all, let alone the maker of a controversial game.  And her Black boyfriend?  He'd lose it if he had any idea she used up so many hours on a time-waster like video games.
When a real-life murder occurs between two SLAY players fighting over game currency, Kiera is appalled.  She's even more disturbed when her beloved creation is labeled racist and violence-inducing.  As much as she longs to stand up for her game, Kiera can't risk exposing her identity.  But, when push comes to shove, she's forced to take action.  Will those actions unmask her as the creator of SLAY?  What will happen if it does?  Can Kiera defend and save her game or will her safe haven be shut down forever?

SLAY, a debut novel by Brittney Morris, asks some intriguing questions about online gaming, racism, Blackness, fitting in, and standing out.  As a white woman raising an adopted bi-racial child, I found the book's exploration of Blackness particularly eye-opening and insightful.  I'm not a video game fan, so that part of the novel struck me as as dull and headache-inducing as watching someone play a game.  Not gonna lie, I was tempted to skip all the in-game sections.  I didn't, but those scenes just didn't engage me at all.  Kiera was likable (in spite of her constant self-centeredness) as were her friends (other than racist, manipulative Malcolm).  The plot was compelling enough to keep me turning pages, but it contained a lot of illogical actions and weird dichotomies that drove me crazy.  For instance:  The recurring theme of being one's authentic self is an important one, but I couldn't understand how that works in a video game where everyone is hiding behind a false name, appearance, and a lot of times, personality.  That makes no sense at all.  I was also confused about why Kiera's addiction to gaming had to be a big secret.  My kids brag about being gamers!  I especially didn't get why it had to be kept from Kiera's parents—if they're "cool" with their underage daughter having sex with her (racist, manipulative) underage boyfriend in their house and they're not at all worried that their daughter spends endless hours cooped up in her room, are they really going to care that she's a gamer?  Again, totally illogical.  I could go on, but I won't.  Suffice it to say, I had some big issues with the plausibility of SLAY's whole setup, which took away from my enjoyment of the book.  Overall, I liked it enough to finish, but the novel
irritated me for a lot of reasons.  People's opinions seem to really vary on this one—it would make for a lively book club discussion! 

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  You?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, innuendo, and references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Acevedo Mixes Up Magic With Sophomore Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Home.  I come from a place that's as sweet as the freshest berry, as sour as curdled milk; where we dream of owning mansions and leaving the hood; where we couldn't imagine having been raised anywhere else ... And me?  I'm pure Fairhill, but I also got more than one city, one hood inside me.  And anyone who wants to get to know me has to know how to appreciate multiple skylines" (87).  

With her Afro-Puerto Rican heritage, 17-year-old Emoni Santiago is used to the looks that ask, "What are you, exactly?"  That's a complicated question.  Emoni's many things:  a high school senior, a single mom to 2-year-old Emma, a granddaughter who looks after the abuela who raised her, an employee at the Burger Joint, a hood rat who's tough as nails, and a woman with some serious cooking woo-woo.  Her many roles keep her busy and stressed.  The only place where she feels truly free is in the kitchen, whipping up dishes that wake up not just people's taste buds, but also their memories.

Emoni knows dreams rarely come true, but the one thing she truly wants is to become a professional chef.  That way she can do what she loves while providing for her daughter and her grandmother.  She can't afford to frit away her time or her money (heaven knows, she has little of either), so when a cooking class taught by a renowned chef opens up at her school, Emoni makes herself avoid it.  Her desire and talent can't be denied, however, and soon she's proving her place.  With a thrilling travel opportunity on the horizon as well as the possibility of a new romance, Emoni has to find the courage and determination to make her dreams come true.  Nothing has come easy for her and this won't either.  Along the way she'll have to learn to swallow her pride, make tough decisions, and trust in her natural abilities not just to cook but to work hard and never, ever give up.

There's a lot to love about With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo.  It stars a strong heroine, who's surrounded by other colorful, sympathetic, likable characters.  The plot is engrossing, entertaining, and powerful.  Acevedo's prose is lyrical (not surprising since she's a poet), but approachable.  With themes of family, home, and community, it's a warm, moving novel that made for enjoyable reading.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  You?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives) and I can't remember what else (sorry, I didn't take better notes!)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Stand-Out YA Novel Eye-Opening and Moving

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

High school senior Jay Reguero is floating through his comfortable, complacent American life without really knowing—or caring—what he's going to do next.  When he hears that his cousin, Jun, has been killed in The Philippines as part of President Duterte's aggressive war on drugs, he's outraged.  For the first time, he feels real passion about something and that's clearing his cousin's name.  Jay hasn't seen his cousin in years, but there's no way kind, earnest Jun—the boy who wrote Jay countless thoughtful letters, even when Jay didn't bother to reply—could have gotten himself caught up in anything as dirty as drug dealing.  It just doesn't make sense. 

Full of shame, Jun's immediate family refuses to talk about the incident or hold a proper funeral for him.  Jay wants justice, so he convinces his parents to let him travel to The Philippines, ostensibly to become better acquainted with his homeland and the relatives he hasn't seen for so long.  Once there, he does everything he can to find out what really happened to Jun, risking both his place in his uncle's home and his safety in his search for answers.  As Jay digs into Jun's life as well as that of Jun's domineering police chief father, he comes to a shocking, infuriating conclusion.  Determined to confront his uncle and get justice at any cost, Jay finally gets the real, astonishing truth, which rocks his entire world.

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay is a timely, hard-hitting novel that explores an underrepresented place and an issue that has been underexplored in the media and in fiction.  Ribay's descriptions of The Philippines make it obvious that he's been there—the details brought to mind the sights, smells, and phrases that I remember from the year I lived in the country.  While I think Ribay's depiction skews more toward the negative than the place really deserves, the vivid setting does create an authenticity that makes the story even more poignant.  Patron Saints of Nothing features a cast of complex, sympathetic, flawed characters about whom I came to care very much.  Its plot kept me turning pages wanting to know what was going to happen to them all.  Although the novel is sad, it's also moving and, ultimately, hopeful.  Unique and touching, it's a stand-out book that deserves all the accolades it's gotten.

(Readalikes:  I can't think of anything like Patron Saints of Nothing.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, depictions of illegal drug use, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Raw, Hard-Hitting Drug Addiction YA Novel a Difficult, But Important Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although she's awkward in most aspects of her life, there's one place where Mickey Catalan feels perfectly in control—on the softball field.  There, she's seen as a beast, a gifted athlete with enough talent to not just help win an upcoming high school tournament, but also to get recruited for a college team.  Between Carolina Galarza, the team's equally skilled pitcher and Mickey's best friend, their team can't be beaten. 

Then, the girls are in a car accident that severely injures them both.  Carolina's pitching arm is broken and Mickey, who was driving, has a fractured leg and a screwed-on hip.  If the two don't recover—and fast—their team will be in big trouble.  Despite her determination to rehabilitate her body as quickly as possible, Mickey struggles with guilt, lack of energy, and brutal pain.  The OxyContin she's given to manage the pain masks the hurt while giving her an extra boost that makes her feel loose and confident, so much so that she can't stop taking it, even after her prescription runs out.  Desperate for her next hit, Mickey—who's always been a good girl—is suddenly lying, stealing, and letting down her teammates.  Eventually, her new group of young addict friends turns her on to heroin, an even higher high.  It's only when tragedy occurs that Mickey realizes her drug addiction could cost her everything—and everyone—she cares about.  Can she stop herself before she destroys her whole world?

If you ask people what a junkie looks like, chances are good they're not going to describe the fresh-faced girl next door, the stressed-out housewife who lives down the street, or their boss with his high-end job and fancy car.  The thing with opioid addiction is that it's changing the face of what an addict looks like, a point aptly addressed in Heroine by Mindy McGinnis.  Mickey's softball star status might make her a bit extraordinary, but she's still an average, middle-class Jane whose opioid dependency starts as it does for many people—with a legitimate prescription.  The book traces her downward spiral, a trajectory that's familiar to anyone who's experienced drug addiction or watched someone else go through it.  McGinnis starts the novel with a warning about graphic depictions of drug use and indeed the story has many.  For that and other reasons, it's a difficult read.  A necessary cautionary tale, but not a pleasurable one.  In addition, the characters are not easy to like.  Edith is a particularly slimy one, but Mickey's not the most sympathetic one either.  The ending of the novel is hopeful, but I don't feel that Mickey loses quite enough to really understand the consequences of her actions.  In the end, I can't say I liked Heroine.  For me, it was just too difficult and disturbing, so much so that I had to force myself to keep reading.  I do, however, feel that it's a powerful, timely novel that is well-crafted and tightly-written.  The story offers a real, eye-opening, hard-hitting picture of the effects drug abuse can have on an individual, a family, and a community, without glamorizing any of it.  For these reasons, I feel that it's an important read with the power to keep kids from taking even the first step toward drug addiction.  If it saves just one life, then it's worth the difficult, disturbing read.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of the Crank trilogy (Crank, Glass, and Fallout) by Ellen Hopkins and Invisible as Air by Zoe Fishman)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language, graphic depictions of illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse, innuendo/rude humor, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Heroine from the generous folks at HarperCollins for the purpose of Cybils Award judging.  Thank you!

Intriguing YA Forbidden Romance/Murder Mystery A Liked-It-Didn't-Love-It Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When 19-year-old Jason Covington confessed to killing his best friend, Calvin Gaines, it shocked his small hometown of Telford, Texas.  Jason received a 30-year prison sentence for his crime.  His parents and younger sister became pariahs.  Convinced her brother could not have done something so heinous, 17-year-old Brooke Covington is determined to prove to everyone that her brother's innocent.  Jason warns her to leave it alone, but Brooke hates that she can only talk to him through bars and that their family has become Public Enemy #1.

One day, Brooke spies Heath Gaines, Calvin's younger brother, on the side of the road with car trouble.  Against her better judgment, she offers him a ride.  Heath is angry and bitter, but he obviously needs a friend as much as Brooke does.  Without really meaning to, they begin a secret friendship, which gradually turns into more.  Their parents would be furious if they knew.  The only way to make it right is to prove Jason's innocence.  But the more Brooke learns about what really happened the night Calvin died, the more worried she becomes.  If Jason lied about killing Calvin, he has to be protecting someone.  But whom?  And if she exposes the real murderer, will she be sealing the fate of someone else she loves?

Even If I Fall by Abigail Johnson is yet another two-broken-kids-come-together-and-heal-each-other novel, but the whole forbidden romance aspect gives it a bit of originality.  It's an intriguing premise to be sure.  The idea of an entire town freezing out a respectable family because of the crimes of one member seems a little far-fetched to me, though.  I also had issues with Brooke, who's sympathetic but also whiney and victimy, which gets old.  While the story is undeniably compelling, it's also sad, depressing, heavy, and melodramatic.  The ending did surprise me and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.  Overall, Even If I Fall isn't anything shout-it-from-the-rooftops amazing.  I liked it enough to finish the book, but I didn't love it.   

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Only a Breath Apart by Katie McGarry and other two-broken-kids-come-together-and-heal-each-other stories)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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