Book review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

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Margot was thrilled when her parents enrolled her in Somerset Prep, an elite upper-class high school.  All she wanted was to fall in with the right crowd, and after changing nearly everything about herself, she befriended the popular and wealthy Serena and Camille.  But keeping up with Serena and Camille proved difficult, and Margot resorted to stealing her father’s credit card so that she could continue to look the part.

This was supposed to be Margot’s summer.  She’d planned to spend it in the Hamptons with her new friends, chatting up cute guys and working on her tan.  But when her father finds out about the credit card, he sentences her to a summer of free labor in his supermarket, where Margot meets a cute community activist with a troubled past.  Moises wouldn’t fit in with the image Margot has so carefully cultivated at Somerset, but she feels a true connection with him.  Can she reconcile the two halves of her life?

I read this book solely for my 2017 Debut Author Challenge.  I’d fallen pretty far behind in my goal of 12 debuts this year, so I went through Overdrive and checked every currently available debut I could find.  This is my favorite of the bunch so far.

I was immediately struck by how unlikable Margot is.  She is the very definition of an unsympathetic heroine, and Rivera does an amazing job of making her feel real.  Margot is infuriating.  She’s shallow and spoiled and petty.  She thinks that she deserves the world simply by virtue of existing.  Her nickname is “Princesa,” for goodness’ sake!  But despite all of this, I did not hate her.  She felt like a real teenage girl.  This is how you do an unsympathetic heroine right.

I really liked how Margot grew as a person, both as a result of her interactions with Moises and just as a natural part of getting older.  I could feel her frustration with keeping up her different personas and was rooting for her to just be herself.  I could’ve done with a bit more of it, but let’s be honest.  This girl is still in high school.  The growth she went through over the course of the ten weeks of this book is pretty great.

The issues that Lilliam Rivera deals with in this book are also pretty heavy for YA.  She doesn’t shy away from conversations about race, drug use, gentrification, classism, sexism, or extramarital affairs.  These all feel like natural pieces of the plot and are never preachy or out of place.  Kudos to Rivera for weaving all of these themes together pretty seamlessly.

As for negatives, there are two main conflicts in this book.  The first is that someone is stealing from the family’s supermarket.  The second is some drama with one of the cashiers and a mystery man.  I had quickly figured out the identity of both the thief and the mystery man, so the dramatic reveals seemed a little anticlimactic to me.

I would have also liked a chapter or two of Margot back at Somerset to get a sense of whether what she learned over the summer stuck with her.  Was she able to stand up to Serena and Camille?  What ever happened with her and Nick after that night on the beach?  Did she ever get to join the fashion club like she so wanted to do?  The ending with Margot and Moises was fairly open-ended, and I was fine with that, but I would have liked just a bit more resolution of some of the other plot threads.

Overall, this was a strong debut, and I have no doubt that Rivera is going places.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Book review: You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

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When someone writes a cruel insult about Julia’s best friend on the wall of the Kingston School for the Deaf, Julia retaliates by covering it with some beautiful graffiti.  She never expected Jordyn to snitch, but she did, and Julia finds herself expelled and forced into a mainstream school.  As the new girl, with an interpreter, no less, Julia struggles to fit in.  Her only enjoyment is her art, and she becomes bolder and bolder as she tags the city after dark.  Her artwork gets her noticed by her fellow artists, and it’s not long before she finds herself in a turf war.

I’m going to try to start with some positives in this review. One thing that I’ve noticed recently is the diversity in YA lit.  This is the second book I’ve read this week featuring a character with two moms, and I think that’s great.  In addition to being Deaf and having two moms, Julia is a person of color.  This is such a far cry from the YA of my childhood and I love it.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that I loved about this book.

Julia is the worst.  I don’t need my YA heroines to be little angels, but it certainly helps when they have at least some redeeming qualities.  I hated Julia with a such a fiery, burning passion that I had to talk myself out of DNFing on multiple occasions!

Julia is selfish.  She’s bratty.  She is angry at everyone and everything and there’s really no reason for it because she literally brings everything on herself.  She’s disrespectful to her moms, she’s disrespectful to her teachers, she’s disrespectful to her interpreter, and she’s disrespectful to her friends.  She justifies her behavior by saying that she’s been burned in the past.  I might be in my late 20′s, but I remember being a teenager.  I remember the dramatics and the heavy sighs when things went even a little wrong.  I remember being a bit bratty sometimes.  But this?  This is so over-the-top that I could not take Julia seriously.  She was a child.

I get that the author was in a bit of a tough place here.  With a character like Julia, someone who’s Deaf and Indian with two moms, she was in definite danger of making her into a symbol of some kind.  And Julia didn’t have to be perfect.  She didn’t have to be a role model or a saint.  But Julia couldn’t comprehend why her moms didn’t want her going out at night and breaking the law.  Like maybe they were just mad that she likes art.  I couldn’t connect with Julia at all, because she was, as I said, the actual worst.

And so judgmental.  Julia was always judging people.  Donovan couldn’t be an artist because he’s cute and cute people can’t be smart.  YP couldn’t be an artist because she’s blond and bubbly.   At one point, she actually says that Jordyn liked her because she didn’t judge, but at the time she’s saying that, she is literally judging Jordyn for how many boys she’s dated. I mean, I couldn’t make this up. Jordyn might be a villain in this story, but there’s no reason to slut-shame her because of it.

Throughout the book, all I could think was that Julia needed some serious help.  She goes around basically trying to ruin her life by burning bridges, skipping class, lying to her parents, and alienating her interpreter.  I’m not denying that Julia had some unfortunate things happen to her.  And sure, she’s definitely right to cut off contact with Jordyn. But she was so over-the-top dramatic about YP, and the scene with her and Donovan in the car made me so uncomfortable.  This is not the way anybody should be acting.

I’m surprised not to see anything about The Banksy Ordeal™ in reviews.  I wrote this huge rant about it in my Kindle notes, but I don’t want to subject you those ramblings, so let me summarize. Am I seriously supposed to believe that this actually happened?  Was Julia perhaps dreaming, or maybe high on spray paint fumes?  I mean, what the heck.  What kind of plot point is that?

Most of what I felt while reading this book was anger.  I appreciate what Gardner was aiming for, but this book was just not for me.

Final rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Book review: Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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In Queens of Geek, three high school seniors from Australia jet off to America for SupaCon.  Charlie is a YouTuber who got her big break in a popular indie film and has been invited to SupaCon for publicity.  She’s accompanied by her two best friends, Taylor and Jamie. Over the course of the con, the three of them find love and learn some important life lessons.

Okay, so here’s the thing. I was super excited about this book ever since I first saw that hair. (Honestly, I wish I had the confidence to pull off hair like that.) I was browsing upcoming 2017 releases on Edelweiss and I just had to have this book. I didn’t get an ARC, but I did convince my library to buy it, which I’d call a win.

Did this book live up to my expectations? Unfortunately, not really.  And I feel like a jerk for thinking it, but this book was really mediocre.

It’s important, that’s for sure. There’s a heavy focus on representation, which is awesome. Charlie is Chinese-Australian and Jamie is Latino. Charlie’s love interest is a black woman, and she’s an out and proud bisexual who is actually shown to have dated both genders. Taylor is overweight, autistic, and suffers from some serious anxiety. There are side characters of various nationalities that all have their own problems to overcome. I don’t think it’s even possible to have a more diverse book than this.

And in addition to the representation, the characters tackle some big issues. Taylor has to deal with body-shaming when she signs up for a costume contest:

“To the girl who hid in the shadows and tried to body-shame me, I’m sorry you thought that was a good use of your time and energy. I hope you find happiness within yourself. You deserve that. We all do.”

She also tackles her anxiety head-on.

My bottom lip starts to quiver, but I keep going. “I fight every day, and too many times it’s just not enough and the fear wins. I’m so fucking weak and everything is so fucking intense and sometimes I really hate it.” I gasp, covering my mouth with my hands as the tears pour out of me. I didn’t mean to say all that.

Charlie and Taylor both deal with sexism, Charlie in the way that she’s presented in the media and Taylor in dealing with society’s expectations for how a girl “should” act:

Besides, there’s no one way to be a girl, Tay. You don’t need to fit yourself into what society tells us a girl should be. Girls can be whoever they want. Whether that’s an ass-kicking, sarcastic, crime-solving FBI Agent or a funny, gorgeous, witty beauty queen–or both at the same time.“ She swings an arm around me and pulls me in.

“Are you happy the way you are? Are you comfortable? Do you feel like yourself?”

Charlie even has to defend her sexuality to her ex-boyfriend, who “doesn’t believe” in bisexuality. This guy – who happen to be her costar – doesn’t understand how she could possibly be attracted to women if she dated him. The studio pushes them to start dating again (the fans loved that their on-screen love turned into an off-screen relationship) and neither Reese or the studio want to take no for an answer. Charlie is consistently pushed to do events with Reese that cross the line of normal publicity, and when she expresses her displeasure, she’s brushed off.  Add to this the fact that Reese is asked reasonable questions about his acting and Charlie is only ever asked about her diet and exercise, and Hollywood’s double standards become very clear.

So, yes, there are a lot of issues tackled, and the representation is great, but aside from that, there isn’t really much plot. I mean, what actually happens over the course of these ~300 pages? A costume contest? A trivia session? Some fluffy romance?  I mean, not a lot.

You might have noticed a distinct lack of mention of Jamie above. He was a great character, but he existed solely as a love interest.  He never does anything for himself. Charlie and Taylor both grow as people, but Jamie’s just sort of quietly there in the background, being perfect and saying the exact right thing at the exact right time. It’s so disappointing.

Also disappointing, and this is probably just me as an adult talking here, is that we have two supposedly lasting relationships develop over the course of about three days. It’s easy to get swept away by somebody you’ve just met. Believe me, I’ve been there. When the mood is just right and you have similar interests and you think that person is just so cool, but then when you meet up with them a few weeks later, you wonder what the heck you were thinking.

I also want to mention the one thing that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief of – the fact that these teenagers are flying across the world to hang out unsupervised at a convention. Who paid for this? Charlie’s studio? How did she convince them to foot the bill for her two best friends? Or are their parents just all very rich? And speaking of the parents, they really allowed these kids to all stay in a hotel room together? I mean, my mom was pretty cool when I was growing up. My male friends could sleep over. She didn’t have any problems with me going out of town with a guy for the day. But I highly doubt that she would have let me fly to another country, unsupervised, and sleep in a hotel room with one of my male friends. Maybe parents in Australia are more relaxed about that sort of thing?

Like I said, I really do appreciate what Wilde was trying to do here, and I feel like a jerk for not loving this book. But I just didn’t. Although it’s not nearly as heavy on the representation, a book about friends at a con that I absolutely loved was Danica Stone’s All the Feels.  If Queens of Geek wasn’t your favorite but you’re into fandom culture, maybe give that one a shot.  On the other hand, you, like hundreds of others, might really love this book!

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

ARC review: Seven Days of You by Cecilia Vinesse

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Sophia has seven days left in Tokyo before she moves back to New Jersey.  Seven days to say goodbye to her friends.  Seven days to say goodbye to her life.  Seven days before everything changes. She’s all set to have the time of her life before heading back to the States, but then Jamie comes back and ruins everything.

Jamie and Sophia used to be friends.  Back in the day, they were kind of inseparable.  Then something awful happened, Jamie went off to boarding school in the States, and Sophia tried her best to forget him. Now he’s back, and he’s the last person she wants to see. But what happens when Sophia’s best friendships start falling apart, and Jamie is surprisingly there for her when nobody else is?

I was really looking forward to this book. If you check back on my anticipated 2017 releases, I am pretty sure this one shows up multiple times. I was shocked when I got an email from Netgalley offering it as a Read Now since this was being hyped up quite a bit on Goodreads and many book blogs. I started reading it right away and was quickly drawn into the colorful, fast-paced atmosphere of Sophia’s Tokyo.

I could easily give this book five stars for the first half. You would never know that this is a debut – Cecilia Vinesse writes beautifully and creates such an atmosphere that you’d think she’s been at it for years.  Sophia and her friends all had such distinct and varied personalities that they could be real people. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but I felt like I was right there with them while reading about their adventures at karaoke, or the train station, or running around the city.  This book has a definite vibe, and I was really impressed.

The thing that made me change my rating was the ending. I don’t want to get into spoilers in this review, especially since this was an ARC, but I thought Sophia’s behavior toward Jamie and her other friend David was really uncalled for.  I understood why she did it, but that didn’t make it okay.  There was also no real discussion of what had happened.  It was just kind of brushed off and then everything was fine again.  (I guess?  I actually don’t know, since the book has no real ending, which also made me mad.)

Again, I don’t want to get into spoilers (and you’re probably mad at me for being so vague, just message me if the suspense is killing you), but what happened toward the end of Seven Days of You is very similar to what happened at the end of You Don’t Know My Name, another YA debut I recently read.  I’m not sure if this is a trend in young adult novels now (I really hope not), but it is kind of baffling.

I also didn’t really like the fight Sophia had with her friend Mika.  I know it set up Sophia’s whole reunion with Jamie, but I thought the whole girl-on-girl drama over a boy was kind of unnecessary and it played into overdone stereotypes about the kinds of things that females fight about.  I mean, I guess this kind of thing probably happens sometimes in female friendships (though it’s never happened in any of mine), but any reasonable friend would never do what Mika did. Ever.

So, some definite positives and definite negatives with this one.  Despite the problems I had, I still enjoyed reading it and would love to see what Cecilia Vinesse comes up with next.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for the ARC!

#mmdreading: a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit

ARC review: You Don’t Know My Name by Kristen Orlando

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Seventeen-year-old Reagan is your typical teenage girl. She’s in high school, trying to decide where to go to college. She goes to parties and gossips with her friends. She’s got a crush on the boy next door. Oh yeah, and she’s also a highly skilled Black Angel operative-in-training. While most teenagers head home from school and watch tv, hang out with their friends, or do their homework, Reagan heads to intensive training sessions. She practices Krav Maga, runs several miles, and has target practice on a shooting range. Then she can go back to her normal life.

This has been Reagan’s life for as long as she can remember. Both of her parents are Black Angels, and they go where the danger takes them. One day they can be happily living in New York, and the next thing Reagan knows, they’ll be packing up to move to Ohio. But Reagan’s getting to a point where she no longer wants to put up with this constant inconsistency. She wants to live somewhere permanently. She wants to have long-term friendships. She doesn’t necessarily want to follow in her parents’ footsteps, but it’s not so much of a choice as an assumption that she’ll do just that.

I’ve read a few of these “secret teenage spy” books, and I think that You Don’t Know My Name is one of the better ones. It’s not perfect, for sure (see my three-star rating), but Reagan came across as believable and her actions, though annoying at times, seemed realistic for a teenage girl. As I would expect in a YA story of this nature, there isn’t a lot backing up the action. The reasons for certain tactical decisions aren’t really thought out, and it’s often up to Savior Reagan to rescue the pitiful adults from their incompetence. (I thought they were internationally-renowned secret agents!) I can’t really hold this against the book too much, though, because like I said, this is a 320-page YA spy thriller and not one of those massive 1000-page thrillers that patients are always leaving in my waiting room.

The story is generally pretty fast-paced, making it a fairly quick read. There are sections that fumble a bit in the middle, but overall, I had more desire to find out what happened next than I did to put it down. Kristen Orlando certainly didn’t dial down the drama and violence for the YA audience, with some pretty shocking scenes toward the end. Keep that in mind if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.

I don’t know that I’ll read the next book in this series, but You Don’t Know My Name was a worthwhile use of my time.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

Thanks to Netgalley and Swoon Reads for the ARC.