Mini-Reviews: Heartstopper Vol. 1, Super Chill, and Heavy Vinyl

Heartstopper, Vol. 1 by Alice Oseman
Rating: ★★★★★
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 2018
Source: Won in Alyssa’s giveaway!

Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but could there be something more…?

Charlie Spring is in Year 10 at Truham Grammar School for Boys. The past year hasn’t been too great, but at least he’s not being bullied anymore, and he’s sort of got a boyfriend, even if he’s kind of mean and only wants to meet up in secret.

Nick Nelson is in Year 11 and on the school rugby team. He’s heard a little about Charlie – the kid who was outed last year and bullied for a few months – but he’s never had the opportunity to talk to him. That is, until the start of January, in which Nick and Charlie are placed in the same form group and made to sit together.

They quickly become friends, and soon Charlie is falling hard for Nick, even though he doesn’t think he has a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and sometimes good things are waiting just around the corner…

Okay, so I’ve been anticipating Heartstopper since approximately forever, and I finally got the chance to read it when I won Alyssa’s giveaway! I was about 99.9% sure that I would love this book to pieces, and I was correct.

I absolutely loved Charlie and Nick and all of the little interactions that they had. Watching Charlie fall for Nick and Nick fall for Charlie was just… so… cute. This is the most adorable, wholesome friends-to-(not quite yet)-lovers story, and it also does a great job of really subtly addressing a bunch of important topics like consent and how to be a good ally.

I’m so mad that it ended on that cliffhanger because I need to know what happens next.

Super Chill by Adam Ellis
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 3, 2018
Source: Borrowed

From former Buzzfeed illustrator Adam Ellis comes a collection of autobiographical comics that follows a year in the artist’s life.

Adam’s comics deal with weightier topics like seasonal affective disorder and struggles with self-esteem, while also touching on the silly and absurd—like his brief, but intense obsession with crystals. With a bright, positive outlook and a sense of humor, Super Chill tells a story that is both highly relatable and intensely personal. 

I’ve been a fan of Adam’s comics since he worked for Buzzfeed, so I was pretty excited to find his book available on Hoopla. I already knew that I liked his art style and his sense of humor, so there wasn’t much of a surprise there. Like with most comic collections like this, there were some that I really enjoyed and some that I didn’t.

The ones I enjoyed were the ones I related to most, like the comics about Gudetama, Dr. Feelbad, and moms with wrapping paper. Some comics seemed to go on a bit long, though, and others I just didn’t really react to. That’s to be expected, though, and I’d still recommend this one if you’ve previously enjoyed Adam’s work.

Heavy Vinyl, Vol. 1 by Carly Usdin
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: April 10, 2018
Source: Borrowed

When Chris joins the staff at her local record store, she’s surprised to find out that her co-workers share a secret: they’re all members of a secret fight club that take on the patriarchy and fight crime!

Starry-eyed Chris has just started the dream job every outcast kid in town wants: working at Vinyl Mayhem. It’s as rad as she imagined; her boss is BOSS, her co-workers spend their time arguing over music, pushing against the patriarchy, and endlessly trying to form a band. When Rosie Riot, the staff’s favorite singer, mysteriously vanishes the night before her band’s show, Chris discovers her co-workers are doing more than just sorting vinyl . . . Her local indie record store is also a front for a teen girl vigilante fight club! 

Follow writer Carly Usdin (director of Suicide Kale) and artist Nina Vakueva (Lilith’s World) into the Hi-Fi Fight Club, where they deliver a rock and roll tale of intrigue and boundless friendship.

Heavy Vinyl is a super fun story about a group of crime-fighting record store employees in late 1990s New Jersey. It’s a great concept and I loved the setting (never thought I’d see an NJ Transit train in a graphic novel, but I did), the representation, and all of the characters. It also gave me a huge rush of nostalgia for the 90s!

The only reason I didn’t give this five stars was that I felt the resolution of the mystery was a little odd. It didn’t make a ton of sense to me, but I also feel like that wasn’t the point of this graphic novel, so I’ll let it slide. I’m excited to read the next volume and also happy that it coincides almost exactly with me finishing this one.

Have you read any of these books? Have you read any good MG recently?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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ARC Review: Chasing Lucky by Jenn Bennett

Chasing Lucky by Jenn Bennett
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: May 5, 2020
Source: ARC via publisher

In this coming-of-age romance perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen, scandal and romance collide when an ambitious teen returns to her hometown only to have her plans interrupted after falling for the town’s “bad boy”—a.k.a. her childhood best friend.

Sometimes to find the good, you have to embrace the bad.

Budding photographer Josie Saint-Martin has spent half her life with her single mother, moving from city to city. When they return to her historical New England hometown years later to run the family bookstore, Josie knows it’s not forever. Her dreams are on the opposite coast, and she has a plan to get there.

What she doesn’t plan for is a run-in with the town bad boy, Lucky Karras. Outsider, rebel…and her former childhood best friend. Lucky makes it clear he wants nothing to do with the newly returned Josie. But everything changes after a disastrous pool party, and a poorly executed act of revenge lands Josie in some big-time trouble—with Lucky unexpectedly taking the blame.

Determined to understand why Lucky was so quick to cover for her, Josie discovers that both of them have changed, and that the good boy she once knew now has a dark sense of humor and a smile that makes her heart race. And maybe, just maybe, he’s not quite the brooding bad boy everyone thinks he is…

In case you weren’t aware, Jenn Bennett is one of my favorite authors. I absolutely adore her contemporary romances, and Starry Eyes especially is one of my all-time favorite books. (See below, where there’s a drawing of me holding it.) Chasing Lucky was probably my most-anticipated book for 2020, and it definitely did not disappoint.

As always, the characters in this book felt so real. Josie was dealing with so much — an absent father, a flighty single mother, gossip far beyond what an average teenager should have to handle — and yet she stayed so strong and tried so hard to rise above it. Lucky also had his fair share of problems, ranging from childhood trauma to a savior complex to his own (often exaggerated) rumors, and I loved watching Josie try to navigate her way through all of that to find the real Lucky inside.

There’s a lot of commentary in this book on honesty, trust, and communication, and I loved that. That’s not to say that sometimes the characters didn’t make absolutely terrible decisions or jump to entirely ridiculous conclusions, because what teenagers don’t, but I really loved that, even while all of that was happening, Josie questioned what she was doing and why she was doing it.

I really thought that I’d end up rating this one five stars, so now I’m going to talk about why I didn’t. The biggest reason is that some of the plot points, especially the story line with Evie and her ex, just felt too open at the end. There was a lot of time dedicated to that particular part of the story, and then it just kind of disappeared. I also would have liked a little bit more resolution of Josie’s family problems.

But, overall, this book was amazing. I flew through it, reading huge chunks of the book without even realizing that time was passing. At one point, I had to pause and say (out loud, to my cat), “I just love friends-to-lovers.” If you’ve previously enjoyed Jenn Bennett’s books, or if you’re looking for a good contemporary romance, I’d happily recommend this one.

#wian20: a given/first name

Have you read Chasing Lucky? What’s your favorite YA contemporary romance?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen

Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: January 7, 2020
Source: Borrowed

When eighteen-year-old Ever Wong’s parents send her from Ohio to Taiwan to study Mandarin for the summer, she finds herself thrust among the very over-achieving kids her parents have always wanted her to be, including Rick Woo, the Yale-bound prodigy profiled in the Chinese newspapers since they were nine—and her parents’ yardstick for her never-measuring-up life.

Unbeknownst to her parents, however, the program is actually an infamous teen meet-market nicknamed Loveboat, where the kids are more into clubbing than calligraphy and drinking snake-blood sake than touring sacred shrines.

Free for the first time, Ever sets out to break all her parents’ uber-strict rules—but how far can she go before she breaks her own heart? 

When I first read the synopsis for Loveboat, Taipei, I really wanted to love it. I’m all for diverse stories being published, and this one, set at a study abroad program in Taipei, sounded so interesting! Unfortunately, regardless of how much I wanted to love it, I had a number of problems with the story.

The first problem I had was that this book is basically just a racier version of American Panda. Let’s break this down. Both books feature a Chinese main character born to immigrant parents who have sacrificed a lot to get the main character where they are. Both books feature a main character whose parents want her to be a doctor, and both books feature characters that don’t want to be doctors because of a phobia of blood/germs. Both books feature characters who would actually rather pursue a career dancing professionally, but both sets of parents do not support this career choice. Where Loveboat, Taipei deviates from American Panda is in the middle section of the book, in which the author attempts to tackle about 1500 issues, which I’ll address below.

There was far too much going on in this book. The book is 432 pages, which is pretty long for a YA contemporary, and it’s only that long because the author tries to tackle so many different issues. There was no reason for there to be so many dramatic events in this book, especially given that few of the events are ever resolved. You can’t just throw a ton of issues at a book haphazardly and expect everything to work out in the end.

A list of things that happen in this book, many of which could be triggering to some readers:depression, suicidal ideation/threat/attempt, graphic knife injury, abusive parents, abusive relationship (physical & emotional), leaked nude photos, victim blaming, racism, sex (not at all realistically portrayed, in my opinion), cheating, parent injured in car accident, very questionable drag scene that comes out of nowhere

Finally, everything wraps up far too neatly and far too easily at the end. Ever is unrealistically mature about everything, forgiving everyone for things that should definitely not be forgiven and conveniently achieving several goals she’d set for herself with seemingly few roadblocks. All of the problems are just forgotten, probably (hopefully??) to be addressed in the (entirely unnecessary) sequel.

I can see how some readers might enjoy this story, but it wasn’t for me.

Have you read Loveboat, Taipei? Is it on your TBR?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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ARC Review: Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: September 24, 2019
Source: ARC via Netgalley

Trapped in sunny, stifling, small-town suburbia, seventeen-year-old Morgan knows why she’s in therapy. She can’t count the number of times she’s been the only non-white person at the sleepover, been teased for her “weird” outfits, and been told she’s not “really” black. Also, she’s spent most of her summer crying in bed. So there’s that, too.

Lately, it feels like the whole world is listening to the same terrible track on repeat—and it’s telling them how to feel, who to vote for, what to believe. Morgan wonders, when can she turn this song off and begin living for herself?

Life may be a never-ending hamster wheel of agony, but Morgan finds her crew of fellow outcasts, blasts music like there’s no tomorrow, discovers what being black means to her, and finally puts her mental health first. She decides that, no matter what, she will always be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious. After all, darkness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Darkness is just real.

The first book on my “WOW, I REALLY NEED TO CATCH UP ON THESE ARCS” list was Who Put This Song On?, which was published back in September. I was super excited about this one and then life happened and I totally forgot about it until well after it was published.

I have some conflicting thoughts about this book, but overall, I really enjoyed it.

The first thing I want to mention is the nostalgia factor. This book is set in 2008, when emo music was at its height and Barack Obama had just been elected. This was such a throwback for me. I was 18 in 2008, and Morgan is 17. It felt like I was reading a book about my own teenage experiences, because let me tell you… I also can sometimes not make it through a party without crying (or at least getting super anxious) and, back in 2008, I also got joy by locking myself in my bedroom and screaming along with Bright Eyes. (Road to Joy was my go-to.)

Morgan’s struggle with her faith while attending Catholic school was another thing that took me right back to 2008. I attended thirteen years of Catholic school and everything that Morgan talks about is accurate. Going to mass every week with your class because that’s what you’ve always done, listening to teachers awkwardly drone on about resisting temptations, weird religious versions of popular songs, the lack of sex ed (which in this book leads to a pregnancy scare)… all of that was my high school experience.

And the music! I loved how Morgan loved all of the same music that I did back then. (And, okay, I’m still an emo kid even though I’m in my late 20s.) I’m a sucker for music references, and I loved how Morgan and her friends made mixes for each other all the time. I loved making mixes for my friends back then!

I also appreciated the exploration of Morgan’s anxiety and depression. While mental health is a big thing now that people make a point to talk about and prioritize, it definitely was not in 2008. It was something people actively avoided talking about, and if they did talk about it, it was in whispers or just vaguely alluded to. That’s really captured well in this book, and the intersection between Morgan’s depression and her race adds another level to the story.

There were, however, some things I didn’t particularly like.

The pacing was, I think, my biggest issue. The book is only 336 pages, but it definitely drags at times, and especially at the beginning. There were some chapters that didn’t really seem to serve a purpose, which, because this is a semi-autobiographical novel, I feel kind of bad saying.

Another issue I had was the sheer amount of issues this book tries to tackle. I’ve included several of them in my list of content warnings below, and there are definitely more that I’m forgetting. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a heavy book, but it does deal with some very difficult topics. This on its own wasn’t really an issue for me, but the fact that very few of these issues were actually resolved was. A lot of things happen to Morgan, and then the book just kind of ends. I know that this book is based on the author’s life and real life doesn’t always have a neat and tidy ending, but, at least for me, that didn’t translate into a novel very well.

Overall, I think this book is definitely worth a read if you can relate to being an anxious teenager who felt like an outsider and was obsessed with emo music in 2008. That might be a very specific demographic, but it’s one I fit into.

Content warnings:depression (including suicidal thoughts), anxiety (including panic attacks), homophobia, drug and alcohol use, racism, attempted sexual assault

Have you read Who Put This Song On? Is it on your TBR?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Mini-Reviews: The Vanishing Stair, 19 Love Songs, & The Wicked King

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: August 15, 2017
Source: Borrowed

All Stevie Bell wanted was to find the key to the Ellingham mystery, but instead she found her classmate dead. And while she solved that murder, the crimes of the past are still waiting in the dark. Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel of the Truly Devious series, nothing is free, and someone will pay for the truth with their life.

Much like with Truly Devious, I wasn’t really fully convinced by The Vanishing Stair until partway through. I was worried that this was going to be a filler book, one where the characters sort of just wander around looking for clues until we hit the final book in the trilogy, where everything finally happens. That worry ended up being unwarranted, because a ton of stuff happens in this book!

With any mystery, I’m kind of hesitant to get into details because I don’t want to accidentally spoil anything. I just want to say that Maureen Johnson has clearly thought everything through in this series and planned out every detail in depth. I can’t wait to find out what will happen next!

19 Love Songs by David Levithan
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: January 7, 2020
Source: Borrowed

The New York Times bestselling author of Every DaySomeday, and Two Boys Kissing is back with a short story collection about love–perfect for Valentine’s Day or year-round reading!

A resentful member of a high school Quiz Bowl team with an unrequited crush.

A Valentine’s Day in the life of Every Day‘s protagonist “A.”

A return to the characters of Two Boys Kissing.

19 Love Songs, from New York Times bestselling author David Levithan, delivers all of these stories and more. Born from Levithan’s tradition of writing a story for his friends each Valentine’s Day, this collection brings all of them to his readers for the first time. With fiction, nonfiction, and a story in verse, there’s something for every reader here.

Witty, romantic, and honest, teens (and adults) will come to this collection not only on Valentine’s Day, but all year round. 

I’ve been reading David Levithan’s books since I was a teenager myself, so when I saw that he had a new collection of short stories out, I had to read it. Levithan has written some of my all-time favorite books (The Lover’s Dictionary, You Know Me Well) as well as some books that I’ve really disliked (Every Day, the Dash & Lily books). He’s also written a ton of books that I’ve felt indifferent about, and I won’t link all of those reviews here, but they’re all on my “all reviews” page.

The point is, I can go either way on Levithan’s writing, and I went both ways on the stories in this collection. When they were good, they were really good. I loved the story about Taylor Swift fanfiction, the story about being snowed in, the quiz bowl story, and the Santa story. I also loved all of the music references. The stories I didn’t love mostly left me bored. This isn’t really Levithan’s fault, because I’m sure there are plenty of people who connect more with those stories than I did.

Overall, I think this evens out to a three-star read for me. If you’re into Levithan’s writing, a lot characters from his previous books make appearances in these stories, so you might be pleasantly surprised.

The Wicked King by Holly Black
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: January 8, 2019
Source: Borrowed

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.

The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

Well, 89% of people on Goodreads have given this book either 4 or 5 stars, and I am not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this series or anything. I gave the first book four stars, mostly because it really grabbed me toward the end, but I definitely thought it had a rough start.

In The Wicked King, I had many of the same problems as I had in The Cruel Prince. Jude is less annoying than she was in the first book, but she’s equally dumb. Cardan is still mostly mean to Jude (that’s the point, I know) and I didn’t buy their “romance” at all. I found much of the plot boring, and the big plot twist at the end seemed so in-character for everyone that I wasn’t really surprised at all. In 336 pages, very little happens that actually advances the plot.

And yet. For however much I disliked this book, I still want to read The Queen of Nothing to find out how everything ends.

Have you read any of these books? Have you read any good YA recently?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
Source: Borrowed

10:00 p.m.: Lucky is the biggest K-pop star on the scene, and she’s just performed her hit song “Heartbeat” in Hong Kong to thousands of adoring fans. She’s about to debut on The Tonight Show in America, hopefully a breakout performance for her career. But right now? She’s in her fancy hotel, trying to fall asleep but dying for a hamburger.

11:00 p.m.: Jack is sneaking into a fancy hotel, on assignment for his tabloid job that he keeps secret from his parents. On his way out of the hotel, he runs into a girl wearing slippers, a girl who is single-mindedly determined to find a hamburger. She looks kind of familiar. She’s very cute. He’s maybe curious.

12:00 a.m.: Nothing will ever be the same.

Before I start my review, I have to mention that the only reason I really wanted to read this book was that it made me think of the Keane song, which I was obsessed with when I was 14 years old. I just listened to it again and it took me right back!

Now that that’s out of the way, on to the review.

I’d previously read Maurene Goo’s The Way You Make Me Feel in 2018, and felt that the characters were written to sound a lot younger than they actually were. The character I related to most in that book was the father, so yikes. In Somewhere Only We Know, that’s no longer the case. I felt like both Lucky and Jack were much more mature than I’d expect for characters of their age and it continually surprised me when I was reminded that they were supposed to be teenagers.

I think, overall, this book was pretty cute. I liked Lucky a lot, and Goo did a great job of making a celebrity seem relatable. I liked the exploration of mental illness in Korean culture and body image/dieting. I also liked Jack. He seemed to truly care what about what happened to Lucky from the first minute he met her. I’ve also never read a book about the paparazzi before, so that was an interesting wrench to throw in the story. All of the things that Lucky and Jack did on their romantic day out were so cute, too. This book made Hong Kong seem like the most magical place to visit.

With all of that said, there were also things that didn’t sit quite right with me. First of all, this book is heavy on the instalove. It takes place in one day, okay. ONE DAY. I’m a romantic at heart, but it was a little much even for me. The constant lying also bothered me. If you’re going to fall in love in 24 hours, at least be honest with each other! Good relationships are not built on a bed of lies!

Overall, this book kind of reminded me of a better executed Permanent Record. I still didn’t love it, and I’ll probably forget the entire plot by the end of the week, but it was fun while it lasted.

#mm20: winter wonderland

Have you read Somewhere Only We Know? Can you recommend any good celebrity romances?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown [SPOILERS]

Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: August 30, 2016
Source: Borrowed

Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, but when her popular radio evangelist father remarries and decides to move all three of them from Atlanta to the more conservative Rome, Georgia, he asks Jo to do the impossible: to lie low for the rest of her senior year. And Jo reluctantly agrees.

Although it is (mostly) much easier for Jo to fit in as a straight girl, things get complicated when she meets Mary Carlson, the oh-so-tempting sister of her new friend at school. But Jo couldn’t possibly think of breaking her promise to her dad. Even if she’s starting to fall for the girl. Even if there’s a chance Mary Carlson might be interested in her, too. Right?

“She told me forgiveness was a virtue and stubbornness would block the road to happiness.”

Please brace yourself, because I have some thoughts on this one. Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit has been on my TBR for years, but I’ve consistently passed it up in favor of books that sounded more exciting. Well, I finally sat down for a listen, and… I have a lot to say.


I’m going to start out with the positives. There aren’t many, but they’re what kept this book from getting just one star. First, I felt like the actual writing was good. Not the progression of the plot or the characterization, which I’ll talk about a lot later in this review, but the flow of the language and dialogue. And second, more importantly, I feel like the exploration of homosexuality and religion is a topic that’s both important and uncommon in YA fiction. There’s a scene where Joanna goes off on some close-minded people who claim that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin by citing the exact verse they’re referring to and the other things it prohibits, like tattoos and shellfish. On that topic, at least, I feel that Brown did an excellent job.

Now for the negatives. There are a lot.

Joanna Gordon, or maybe Gugliemi, depending on who you ask, is an out and proud lesbian living in Atlanta. Her father is a well-known preacher, which some might see as a source of conflict, but Joanna feels that her father preaches acceptance and love, so it’s a nonissue. Joanna has some wild and crazy friends in Atlanta — Dana, in particular — and she feels like her life is going pretty well. When her father marries Elizabeth, his third wife, things start going downhill. First, Joanna gets the news that they’re moving from the big city of Atlanta to the small town of Rome. Then her dad tells her she’ll need to keep quiet about her sexuality because her new grandma-in-law is super homophobic. (Yes, the main conflict of this book happens in the first few pages.)

So… hold on a second. Joanna’s father, Mr. I Preach Love And Acceptance, decides to force his own daughter back in the closet because his new mother-in-law doesn’t like gay people? After being totally accepting of her for her entire life up until that point? Was he out of character for the first chapter or the rest of the book? I can’t tell.

And Joanna! She’s so sure of herself at the beginning of the book, so secure in her sexuality, and she barely puts up a fight before being like, “Ugh, fine, I’ll pretend to be straight.” I thought that maybe, just maybe, the author would make up for this by having Joanna rebel a little in secret. Maybe tell her new friends that she’s a lesbian and just ask them not to say anything. Maybe outright defy her father. But no. She decides that she has to go so far as getting a pretend boyfriend to follow along with her dad’s plan. All for grandma-in-law, who’s a terrible person.

Mary Carlton is another of the main characters. She’s also Joanna’s love interest. She’s the golden child of Rome, Georgia. She’s popular, parents love her, she’s active in the church, she’s an all-around great girl. She throws Joanna some vibes, which Joanna finds confusing, because for all we know, at the beginning of the book, Mary Carlton is dating a boy. It quickly becomes apparent to Joanna, though, that Mary Carlton is very much not interested in this boy and is very possibly interested in her. Mary Carlton isn’t an all-around bad character, but she does do some pretty problematic things, none of which are really ever called out. First, she treats her brother pretty badly, but more on him later. Second, and more importantly to my rant, she attempts to force Joanna out of the closet on multiple occasions. It doesn’t matter that Joanna was out in Atlanta. In Rome, she’s not. I understand that, after years of hiding, Mary Carlton finally feels ready to come out. I understand her wanting to shout from the rooftops that she’s in love. But that does not give her the right to force someone else to come out.

Mary Carlton’s twin brother, Barnum Bailey (no, seriously), becomes one of Joanna’s best friends in Rome. He and Joanna meet in the office when he’s assigned to show her around the school on her first day. Clearly, if he’s capable of doing that, he’s not the child everyone in this book makes him out to be. By the end of the book, Barnum (or B.T.B., as he’s often called) is unable to have even a single conversation without a reference to elephants (his favorite animal). I get that he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. I get that he has some intellectual disabilities. That doesn’t mean he never matured past kindergarten. He made it to high school and he’s able to function on his own, so maybe act like it.

Finally, Dana. As I mentioned, Dana is Joanna’s best friend from Atlanta. She seems to have both no self-awareness and no regard for others. When confronted about hooking up with a much older woman right out in the open at a wedding, she says something about how she’s not going to force herself back into the closet to make other people comfortable. First of all, can we stop with the teenagers hooking up with much older people? I have seen this so much lately and it really worries me. A normal thirty-year-old is not going to be interested in hooking up with a high school student. Second of all, going back into the closet wasn’t the point, Dana. Respect was the point. If you’re going to hook up with someone, at least have the courtesy to do it in private. Another problematic thing Dana does throughout the course of this book is threaten to “revoke Joanna’s queer card” if she doesn’t “prove how gay she is.” Um, Joanna being gay has absolutely nothing to do with the number of people she hooks up with or what she’s done with them and everything to do with how she feels inside. Third, and perhaps most upsetting, is Dana’s constant manipulation of Joanna. I hate seeing people fall victim to manipulation and I get so frustrated when I can’t stop it, even when it’s a fictional character. It was so obvious that Dana had a crush on Joanna, even if she didn’t want to admit it, and was subtly influencing Joanna’s decisions to get the best possible outcome for herself. This is illustrated during the really uncomfortable scene where Dana ponders (out loud) why she and Joanna have never hooked up and then makes a move on her. It’s just so… icky. Dana was my least favorite character in this book by far.

Okay, so now that I have my character rants out of the way, I’m moving on to a rant on the romance. I’ve seen a ton of reviews calling the romance cute, and I just don’t agree. It was fine, I guess, but it was nothing special. I didn’t have a problem with the romance itself, but we got this big build-up where Joanna wonders whether she’s reading Mary Carlton’s signals correctly, they admit they like each other, and then *boom* they’re on top of each other. I mean, it was obvious that Mary Carlton had feelings for Joanna. We knew from the narration how Joanna felt about Mary Carlton. But it was just kind of like… tension followed by declaration of love followed by clothes falling off. I guess that might happen in adult life sometimes, but does that really happen in high school?

While I’m on the topic of the romance, I really don’t understand why Joanna couldn’t just tell Mary Carlton about the promise she’d made to her dad. It was an unreasonable promise, for sure, but I fully believe that Mary Carlton would have understood and would have been less pushy about Joanna coming out. And this isn’t a case of “oh no, nobody can know my secret,” because literally one of the first things Joanna does after meeting her pretend boyfriend is tell him that she’s gay. Instead, she just tells lie after lie to Mary Carlton, avoiding questions about why they can’t go public with their relationship and saying that she’s not ready to come out yet. And, keep in mind, Joanna tells all of these lies while repeatedly saying that she doesn’t lie, which makes it so much worse.

There’s also a ton of homophobia in this book, and for the most part, Joanna is the only one who calls it out. Except not really, because she’s determined to follow her dad’s rule to stay in the closet, and clearly, if she were to speak out about homophobia, everyone would know she’s gay. That was sarcasm, in case you couldn’t tell. Straight people can (and definitely should) speak out against homophobia. Anyway, I’m a heterosexual adult and it made me uncomfortable. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I were reading this book as an LGBT teenager.

In the end, the moral of the story is to forgive. The quote that I bolded at the top of this review is said by Mary Carlton near the end of the book. She’s found out about Joanna’s lies, she’s been randomly put in this really unhealthy relationship with another girl (which she thankfully extracts herself from), she’s had a good cry, and she comes back to Joanna saying that her mom told her she needs to forgive people. I have shared this PSA before, but you do not need to forgive anyone. By all means, if it’ll make you feel better, if it’ll give you closure, if you feel like it was truly a mistake and you’re ready to try again, forgive someone. But you do not need to forgive people who’ve hurt you in order to be happy. You have every right to be mad. You have every right to be hurt. You have every right to never speak to that person again. Life is too short to keep putting up with people who hurt you.

And that brings me, in sort of a convoluted way, to my final point. All of the conflict in this book began because grandma-in-law was homophobic, and rather than tell her to shut up, all the adults in her life were like, “Yes, let’s make Joanna feel terrible about herself so grandma can continue living in her bubble.” I’m not advocating being rude to grandmas, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like, “You know what, grandma? Joanna likes girls and that’s not going to change. I’m sorry if that makes you feel uncomfortable, but I can’t ask her to change who she is to make you happy.”

Overall, I feel like this was a good concept that just spectacularly failed in execution. This book gets an extra star for the exploration of faith and homosexuality, but that’s all. I definitely do not recommend.

Have you read Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit? Is it on your TBR?
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