Don’t Hate The Player

dont hate the playerDon’t Hate the Player is a fantastic read that explores the challenges a young woman of color faces when she enters the world of competitive videogaming while trying to keep the rest of her life on track.

Emilia Romero has her post-high school future planned with laser precision. She earns top grades, plays the right sports and participates in the right extracurriculars. She even dates the right boy, just to make the package complete. But all this serves as cover for her real passion – Emilia is an elite videogamer who plays for a championship e-sports team. In her game, Guardians League Online, she serves as the team’s DPS, responsible for damaging and killing the enemy. Going against the stereotype that female players should be healers, Emilia takes pride in being the destroyer. She has to keep this hidden; her family would see it as a distraction from her college goals and her friends would never understand. Things get dicey when Jake Hooper transfers to her high school. Emilia and Jake met as 4th graders at a videogame arcade at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They’d meet up at other parties over the years and game together but they never stayed in contact. Jake is the only person who knows both sides of Emilia’s life but he swears to keep her secret. That becomes tricky when Emilia’s team earns a space in a public, high stakes e-sports championship competition. Jake is now both her confidant and competitor, making things even more complicated.

This book is so much fun to read.

Emilia’s struggle to keep the demands of both parts of her life afloat is intriguing. Her relationship with Jake evolves into romance slowly and realistically. All of the teen characters are interesting and do more than just prop up Jake and Emilia’s storyline. Emilia and Jake’s parents are well fleshed out and bring more depth to the story. Overall, it’s a compelling (and funny!) exploration of relationships between friends, complicated romance, and complex family dynamics.

Jake is white, Emilia is Puerto Rican, and their teammates and friends are a mix of BIPOC, queer and trans folks. I appreciated the narrative’s direct confrontation of the harassment players with the latter identities face in the real world of online gaming. They are often the target of sexual and racial harassment, rape threats, and other forms of abuse. The abuse sometimes even comes from their own teammates. Sadly Emilia finds this situation similar to what she experiences at her elite private school, where she has to be “unassailably great” just to be in the same room with mediocre males.

The videogame sequences are fun and exciting. The outstanding descriptions of the in-game action are detailed, cinematic and engaging; they’re enjoyable regardless of your own level of involvement with videogames. Don’t be surprised if you become inspired to pick up a game controller yourself!

Find Don’t Hate the Player at your local independent bookstore.

 

This Poison Heart

poison heartBriseis and her adoptive mothers run a flower shop in Brooklyn where she demonstrates a special a gift with plants. When in her presence, drooping plants perk up, dying plants get healthy again and, when she focuses, Briseis is able to grow an entire plant from just a leaf or seed. Neither she nor her moms understand this ability, but they accept it.

Briseis’s birth mother Selene, who died when Briseis was very young, had a sister, Circe, who no one knew about. The family gets the unexpected news that Circe just died and passed on 40 acres of land in Rhinebeck, upstate NY to Briseis. Briseis and her moms take the plunge and move there.

It seems everyone in town knew Briseis’s late mother and aunt. Briseis discovers that her gifts with plants is a family trait. Selene and Circe ran an apothecary, sourcing plants from their expansive gardens and greenhouses to provide locals with natural medicines. Now the locals expect Briseis to follow in Selene and Circe’s footsteps. As Briseis unravels the mysteries surrounding her new home and her abilities, she learns there is far more to her heritage than she ever imagined. 

Briseis finds messages from her aunt that lead her to a hidden section of the garden, filled with powerful, deadly plants. Though Briseis is immune to them, she is not immune to the danger she faces from people who would stop at nothing to get to them.

This story is inventive and clever, weaving Greek mythology and deadly botany into a tale about family secrets, deceit and power. BIPOC and queer representation is centered in the story. The emerging romance between Briseis and  Marie, a local who seems to know more about Briseis’s family than anyone, enhances rather than distracts from the plot. The narrative twists and turns add even more drama and suspense. The author, Kaylynn Bayron, (who also wrote the extraordinary “Cinderella is Dead”) has created another fascinating world and a moving story that does not disappoint.

Find This Poison Heart at your local bookstore.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Lily is a queer Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s. Although she has friends in her close knit community, her dreams take her elsewhere. Lily is one of only two girls in her high school’s advanced math class; she wants to go to college and become a “computer” at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA like her Aunt Judy.

The other girl in the math class, Kathleen Miller, wants to be a pilot. Lily connects with Kathleen and slowly discovers they are both interested in math, science – and each other. She and Kathleen cautiously move toward facing, examining and understanding the feelings they have. Lily is curious about The Telegraph Club, where male impersonator Tommy Andrews performs. Kathleen takes her there; for the first time Lily connects with women who aren’t afraid to express themselves and their queerness. Lily decides that, although it will be hard, she will fight to live her truth.

The narrative is well plotted and does not gloss over the racism, homophobia and sexism rampant at that time. Lily’s friends, family and the women she meets at the club all have depth, representing a variety of life experiences and points of view. The backstory of some of Lily’s older relatives provides a historical look at the many legalized forms of anti-Asian discrimination her community faced. Several incidents at The Telegraph Club show the harm done by homophobia, particularly as practiced by the media and legal system.

In the Author’s Note, Malinda Lo shares the extensive (and fascinating!) research she did into life in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s, and into life for queer women of color at that time. I appreciated her choice to use language –  Orientals, Negroes, etc.- to solidify the setting, even though those words are awkward now. Chinese dialog written with traditional characters brings us further into Lily’s world. Lo bases some characters on real people in an effort to highlight queer Chinese American women whose stories have been erased. A list of visual and print resources provides information for those who would like to learn more.

It’s interesting to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t since Lily’s time. It’s a good reminder that just because we make some progress, it doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Find Last Night at the Telegraph Club at your local bookstore.

BONUS: If you really want to sink into the story, find the Spotify playlist Malinda Lo created, which contains music found in the book and inspired by the story. Listen while you read!

Blackout

BlackoutThis collection of stories celebrating Black romance comes from an all-star squad of young adult authors. Editor Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), is joined in this delightful anthology by: Tiffany D. Jackson (Allegedly), Nic Stone (Dear Martin), Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give), Ashley Woodfolk (The Beauty That Remains) and Nicola Yoon (The Sun Is Also a Star).

In six stories, we meet thirteen young people in various locations throughout Manhattan. They’re all in the midst of dealing with different romantic quandaries – confessing attraction, revealing secrets, healing from a breakup, or daring to be vulnerable. Then, a blackout hits. This disruption dramatically complicates their various situations. Whether they are stranded on a stalled subway train, struggling with only their cell phone for light, awkwardly connecting with new people, or finding themselves stuck with an old flame, the teens can’t escape their romantic dilemmas.

Each story is unique, but they are all tied together; most of the teens know each other and they’re all trying to get to the same block party in Brooklyn. One of the stories is set in a senior living facility. A brief look at the residents’ various love stories and relationships adds warmth without overshadowing the teens’ experiences. The characters are all honest in voice and action. The inclusive representation across gender and sexuality means many teens will find romantic stories that will resonate with them – or allow  them to dream. The laser focus on the teens’ love lives — with no reference to whatever chaos may be going on around them — makes the blackout feel like a cozy blanket instead of a disaster. These funny, heartwarming, sweet and complex stories focusing on Black love, not trauma, come just when we need them.

I usually wait until a book has been published to review it, but I was so excited about this one I couldn’t hold off. Pre-order Blackout now or find it in June at your local independent bookstore.

2020 Cybils Awards

The Cybils Awards are given by book bloggers to children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose work has both literary merit and popular appeal.  I was honored to be a finalist judge for the 2020 Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Speculative Fiction. Big thanks to fellow finalist judges Helen Murdoch, Wendy Gassaway, Rachel Patton and Dana Foley for the enjoyable collaboration!

Here are our winners:

Young Adult Fiction

Furia    

Furia
by Yamile Saied Méndez
Algonquin Young Readers
Purchase through IndieBound

Quiet, 17-year-old Argentinian Camila Hassan, lives at home in the shadow of her brother’s soccer career always watching her step so as not to set off her father’s volatile temper. Once she is free of the traditional expectations, she is the star of her futbal team transforming into ‘Furia’ and pushing the boundaries on the field with the end goal to be an American professional futbolera. With her perfect English, killer kick, and a showcasing championship in her sights, what could stop her?

Author Yamile Saied Méndez has created a beautifully complex book. She skillfully wraps issues of sexism, colorism, and violence against women in a story of athletic aspiration, capped off with a touch of romance. Méndez’s own background as a futbolera shines through in her exciting depiction of soccer matches. The compelling narrative is brought to life with strong characters and inclusion of Spanish dialog, which makes the story richer and helps cement the Argentinian setting. Just like the Cybils judges, readers will find themselves rooting wholeheartedly for Furia.

 

Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Cemetery Boys    

Cemetery Boys
by Aiden Thomas
Swoon Reads
Purchase through IndieBound

Deeply steeped in Latinx culture and folklore, Cemetery Boys weaves magic, identity, and family birthright into a compelling coming of age story. Yadriel is gay, transgender, and struggling to be accepted as a brujo by his tight-knit family. Yadriel’s community is diverse and vibrant, peppered with loud and lovable characters like his cousin Maritza. His family is loving, supportive, and complicated. This #ownvoices novel is a tender romance, a ray of hope, and a testament to the power of all kinds of love. Aiden Thomas has written a timely story that readers, both queer and straight, can relate to and see themselves in. The judges strongly felt that readers will enjoy the masterful balance of humor, suspense, and magic achieved in Cemetery Boys.

 

The Cybils honors books for early readers through young adult, picture books and graphic novels, fiction and non-fiction. To see the entire list of 2020 winners,  visit the Cybils blog. Happy reading!

Happy Holidays!

The holidays are upon us and and along with them, colder weather and for many, new shelter in place orders. Now more than ever books make good gifts. They have the ability to carry us away and help us cope with today’s realities. It’s also a good time to support independent bookstores. You can find your local bookstore here, or comic book shop here. Most stores can fulfill online orders, so don’t let not having a shop in your neighborhood stand in the way!

Here are a few suggestions. Click on the titles to find out more about the books and where to find them. In case you need a reminder, there’s nothing wrong with shopping for yourself!

PS Sign up to follow my blog and get more in depth reviews of great books and graphic novels!

For SciFi/Fantasy Fans

Suncatcher, by Jose Pimienta: Beatriz discovers the secret to her grandfather’s musical talent and realizes she must fulfill an unpaid debt. This graphic novel is a “devil at the crossroads” story with a Mexicali punk twist.

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance and Hope, Patrice Caldwell, Editor – Sixteen top YA authors contribute to this anthology of thrilling scifi, fantasy and magical stories.

Seven Deadly Shadows, by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani – Kira Fujikawa, keeper of her family shrine, must call upon ruthless shinigami (death gods), to save it from an attack by yokai demons.

Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn – Bree, trying to uncover the truth behind her mother’s death, finds a connection to a college secret society rooted in the centuries old legends of King Arthur. She soon realizes she’ll need to call on her own heritage of magic to find answers.

 

Looking For Romance?

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, by Kheryn (Kacen) Callender – Nate doesn’t believe in happy endings, especially after his best friend turned girlfriend breaks his heart. Things change when Nate’s childhood best friend Oliver moves back to town and – maybe – he can tell Oliver his true feelings towards him.

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds – When Jack goes on a  college tour, he falls for his tour guide Kate. He learns she has a serious medical condition and tries to save her life. Somehow he finds himself reliving the moment they met and the subsequent weeks over and over. The circumstances are different every time as he tries again and again to save her.

This Is My Brain In Love, by I.W. Gregorio: Jocelyn Wu and Will Domenici are working together to save Jos’s family’s struggling restaurant. Will and Jos are attracted to each other but realize they have to manage their mental health issues before they can have a relationship. Both are children of immigrants; stigmas around dealing with mental health issues in communities  of color make it more complicated.

Bloom, by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau – In this sweet graphic novel, it’s summer, and Ari is stuck in the city working in his family’s bakery. He’s tired of it and wishes he could get away. Hector, who loves baking, comes to town and takes a job at the bake shop. Ari begins to see things differently as he and Hector grow closer.

 

Revisiting The Past

Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai – Hang is separated from her little brother as they try to escape Vietnam during the last days of the war. When she makes it to Texas 6 years later, she finds him but struggles to reconnect when she realizes he doesn’t remember her.

Outrun The Moon, by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to be admitted to a private school that usually accepts only wealthy white girls. She manages to get in only to have everything upended when the 1906 earthquake wrecks the town. Now on her own, she must find a way forward for herself and other survivors.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley – Set in 1959, Sarah Dunbar faces serious harassment as one of 10 Black students integrating an all-white high school. When she and white classmate Linda Hairston are forced to work together on a project they try to understand their attraction to each other when there are so many reasons they shouldn’t be together.

 

Realistic, Current Day Stories

Not So Pure and Simple, by Lamar Giles: Del finally gets close to his crush Kiera – by accidentally joining a church group pledging to stay pure until marriage. Barred from getting proper sex education, the teens grapple with conflicting messages about relationships and sexuality while recognizing the toxic behaviors even “good guys” are guilty of.

This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura – CJ Katsuyama loves working in her family’s flower shop. A developer swindled her grandparents out of the business when they were sent to the camps during World War Two. After years of work, the shop is back in the Katsuyama’s hands.The business is struggling but CJ is determined to fight back when the same developer’s family tries to buy the building out from under them.

The Perfect Escape, by Suzanne Park – Scholarship student Nate Kim meets wealthy Kate Anderson when they both work at the Zombie Laboratory escape room. Nate’s family struggles financially and although Kate’s does not, her father uses money to keep Kate on a leash. Kate asks Nate to be her partner in the Zombiegeddon weekend-long survival challenge; the big cash prize could change both their lives. 

Turning Point, by Paula Chase – Best friends Rashida and Monique are both straining under imposed structures – Monique in a predominantly white, traditional classical ballet program, Rashida in her very rigid, conservative church. Both girls must figure out how to fit into the world around them without being completely stifled by the constraints.

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

Cinderella Is Dead

cinderellaForget everything you think you know about Cinderella and prepare to learn the truth. Cinderella is Dead takes place generations after Cinderella’s “happily ever after” with Prince Charming.  Now the monarchy rules the kingdom based on their approved version of the Cinderella story.    The kingdom’s rules require that girls attend a ball when they turn 16 so wealthy men of the kingdom can choose mates.  The young women essentially become their property. All the girls in the kingdom are forced to comply, many unwillingly. If they refuse, they and their families will be punished, so they see no other way. Sophia resists at first, because she wants to spend her life with her girlfriend Erin.

Sophia ultimately attends the ball to protect her family.  She witnesses the leering men and the open abuse of a friend and decides to escape. She finds herself at Cinderella’s tomb, where she meets Constance, a descendant of one of  Cinderella’s stepsisters. Sophia learns how the royal patriarchy falsified the original Cinderella story to enable the oppression of women and queer erasure. Sophia and Constance plot to expose the truth and smash the patriarchy.

This re-imagined fairy tale centers queer Black women. Rather than remixing a few elements, author Kalynn Bayron dismantles the entire legend and creates a completely new story. She skillfully describes how different people throughout the society respond to the rules and regimentation. The characters are well crafted and have clear motivation. The plot moves at a good pace and serves up a few twists. The story is both political and magical, effectively showing how oppression of women negatively affects all people.

Find Cinderella Is Dead at your local bookstore.

This Is My Brain In Love

45170387Jocelyn “Jos” Wu is a child of Chinese immigrants. Her family’s restaurant, which is located in a central New York strip mall, is struggling. Jocelyn talks her father into giving her one chance to help the business before he decides to close it and move back to New York City. Jocelyn’s ad for a management intern is answered by Will Domenici, who hopes to draw on his experience as a business manager for his school newspaper.  He and Jos hit it off and begin to see success with their marketing plans. Despite that, Jos can only focus on things that didn’t go right. Will has been struggling with anxiety since he was in middle school. Years of therapy have helped him manage it, but there are still challenges. Will recognizes signs of depression in Jos. He wants to help, but understands the limits, including those growing from his own anxiety. Will and Jos have much in common, including having immigrant parents (Will’s mother is Nigerian), and there’s a spark.  They grow to care about each other, but have to keep their brains from standing in the way.

Jocelyn, Will and the other teen characters are realistic and complex. There are no easy answers or heroic rescues. Jos and Will’s parents are allowed complexity too; each brings a perspective to the question of overcoming the shame associated with recognizing, accepting and managing mental health issues. For example Jos’s father believes these conditions don’t affect Chinese people and were created by pharmaceutical companies. Will’s mother, despite being a doctor, felt addressing Will’s anxiety would just be pathologizing issues that could be resolved with guidance. We learn Jos’s mother and Will’s father see things differently.

The writer, an Asian American doctor also raised by immigrants, includes a powerful author’s note. She is very straightforward in describing her struggles in coming to terms with her own depression.  She also addresses the stigma that exists in the medical community as well as in immigrant communities and communities of color. Managing mental health is important for all of us. We may see more people needing help given the current state of the world. I hope this book will help people overcome shame not only to take care of themselves, but to avoid being an obstacle to others who need care.

Right now, going to a bookstore is not an option but many are still filling online orders. I’d like to recommend Books Inc., an independent bookstore that will ship This Is My Brain In Love (and any other books you order), free of charge.

 

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali

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17-year-old Rukhsana Ali is a queer Muslim girl of Bengali descent living in Seattle. She’s out to her friends, deeply closeted to her parents. Her conservative parents are strict followers of Bengali social traditions. They expect Rukhsana to spend more time honing her housekeeping skills (in preparation for marriage), than on her education. Rukhsana wants to study physics and astronomy; she secretly applied and was accepted to Caltech. At first her parents were upset, but they eventually decided this would make Rukhsana more attractive in the matchmaking market. When her parents discover Rukhsana with her girlfriend Ariana, they cannot and will not accept it. They take Rukhsana to Bangladesh, explaining that her beloved grandmother is very sick. Actually, they plan to keep Rukhsana there until they can marry her off to a good Bengali boy. Devastated and angry, Rukhsana plots her escape.

The beauty of this book is its refusal to be a simple good vs. bad story. It shows love for Bengali culture without excusing how it literally endangers some of its people’s lives.  The narrative is exceptionally well crafted, illustrating the conflict Rukhsana feels.  The heritage Rukhsana loves and embraces makes no room for her as a queer woman. Her parents are written with dimension; rather than simply making them villains, there is context for their sometimes cruel decisions. The story is made richer by the other people in Rukhsana’s life. Her relatives, her white girlfriend and other young Bengalis in Rukhsana’s same situation all bring different perspectives, making the story even more complex. Move this heartbreaking, hopeful book to the top of your To Be Read pile.

Find The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali at your  local independent bookstore.

Three Friends, Shifting Feelings…

…and a lot of questions.

39848512Teenagers Courtney Cooper, Rae Chin, and Jupiter Charity-Sanchez form a relationship triangle complicated by questions of sexuality, loyalty and shared trauma. Jupiter and Coop have been best friends since elementary school. African American Coop is straight and Afro-Latinx  Jupe is queer; no one questioned their childhood sleepovers continuing once they  became teens. They have loving, emotionally intimate relationship. Whenever Coop breaks up with a girlfriend Jupe is there to play Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” for their traditional break up dance party. Chinese-Irish Rae Chin moves to town with her doctor father who works at the same hospital as Coop’s mother. Rae connects with Jupe because they’re both biracial and into community service; they become close. Rae grows close to Coop when she learns they had a shared interest as children which is connected for both of them to the traumatic loss of one of their parents. Coop and Jupe feel confident of their sexuality, but Rae is questioning. She finds herself attracted to both of them, and while her feelings are sincere it takes her time to sort them out. A declaration on Rae’s part leads Jupe to make a difficult and selfish decision, resulting in hurt, anger and for her, confusion.

This is the best book dealing with young people’s sexuality that I’ve ever read. The narrative gives a realistic view of how changing circumstances can lead to confusion even when the answers seem certain. It resists labels, pigeonholing and punishment, and shows even people who care deeply about each other can make hurtful mistakes. The honest and engaging characters avoid stereotypes. The structure of the book, 3 sections told from each teen’s perspective and in their own style, adds depth. The teens’ household configurations – Coop and Rae with single parents, Jupe with her two dads – and their connections with their wider friend groups make the story even richer. Despite the serious elements, this book is fun, and will resonate with many readers.

Odd One Out, Nic Stone, Crown Books

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Find Odd One Out at your your local independent bookstore!