Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

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I was ready to give Allegedly five stars. It’s a gut-wrenching thriller that hammers with pinpoint precision at the status quo and the intersection of the criminal justice system, bodily autonomy, racism, mental illness, and child abuse, as well as the struggles and roadblocks that prevent the most vulnerable and in need of help from ever getting any. The writing is tight. The plot is gripping. All of the characters have depth beyond their first impression. Also it turned my emotions into a bloody mess.

And then the last five pages happened. And I want to unpack my response.

(This will be a SPOILERY review).

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Review: Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

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Maggie was the glamorous, larger-than-life, shining star all her friends revolved around. Maggie was Jude’s best friend, the only one she told her secrets.

Now Maggie’s dead. Her body was found floating face-down in her family’s pool. Drowning? Overdose? Suicide? No one knows.

No one except for Jude. Jude knows it was murder. And as she investigates Maggie’s friends and family, the facade Jude had built around Maggie while she was alive starts to crack open. And, unwillingly so, does Jude’s armor as she comes head-to-head with her past.

Pasadena is a noir YA novel clocking in at a breezy 228 pages. I’d read Sherri L. Smith’s apocalyptic/dystopia novel Orleans and was a huge fan, but hadn’t read anything of hers since, and so I was curious to see what kind of noir story she would write.

228 pages and a week and a half later, I have little to say about it. It’s engaging overall, and the writing style and atmosphere is suitably noir-y. The scorching-hot, tinder-pile of a city that is Pasadena and the outskirts of L.A. is evocatively rendered, and the over-bright sunniness of the setting is effectively utilized in direct opposition of the hidden, shadowy secrets scattered throughout the book.

I really liked the portrayal of Jude and Maggie’s friendship through Veronica Mars-esque flashbacks. (And if you like Veronica Mars, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Pasadena). I especially liked the mystery that was Maggie Kim, a rich, confident, melodramatic glamorous girl, the glue that kept her friends together, the balm that soothed and assured them they mattered and their troubles had answers.

The dealbreaker is the climax—it negates the entire purpose of the story being a noir. (Highlight for spoilers.) Dead people don’t commit suicide in noir—other people kill them. Even though Maggie’s death was aided and abetted by an outside figure, it’s still suicide. All this tension had been built up about what kind of person Maggie was, what secrets of her own she was hiding, the closer Jude gets to solving the mystery of Maggie’s death, and what ended up being the big reveal deflated that tension, big-time. The more I think about it, the more frustrated I am.

My disappointment with the ending has colored my overall feelings towards Pasadena. Other readers may appreciate the book as a contemporary YA exploring friendship, loss, and sexual assault with zero gloss. I picked up Pasadena for the promise of a noir story, and IMO it did not live up to its advertising.

Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

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I am Pen and Pen is me.

We’re not identical. Yet this is the first time I have read a book with a character whose relationship with their gender and their body  felt relatable for the reason of  OMG I HAVE HAD THOSE SAME EXPERIENCES. Not all of them, but many. The details are different, the essence is the same.

Pen Oleivera is a masculine, butch teenage girl who for all her life has been getting shit from her parents and her peers for being the “wrong” kind of girl, the kind who wears men’s clothes, hangs out with dudes, loves FPS video games, and is an overall un-feminine person. Pen’s never had a problem with herself, with being female, or being into other girls. What Pen does have a problem with are people’s expectations and assumptions. Her traditional, Portuguese-immigrant parents expect respeito from her in the form of acting like an appropriately feminine daughter. Her douchebag-of-a-best friend Colby expects loyalty for his “bros before hos” mentality in return for treating Pen as “just another guy.” All three of them accuse her of trying to be something she’s not, trying to be a man, because why else would she look and act the way she does?

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Review: Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Hegleson

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Two girls.

Two social media accounts.

One shared, passionate love of a Supernatural-esque TV show.

One happy, scary, confusing, confounding, life-changing relationship.

Gina/Finn is an epistolary novel in the vein of the AIM-based narratives of Lauren Myracle’s ttfn, ttyl, and l8r g8r, about the power of fandom and fandom-love a la Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. Gena (_EvinIf) is an East Coast, college-bound fic writer. Finn (finnblueline) is a broke college grad who just moved out to the West Coast with her boyfriend and an on-off fan artist. The two of them run into each other online and bond over their shared love of the TV show Up Below and favorite character Jake and his FULL-OF-FEELINGS relationship with Tyler. What starts out as a friendship based in shared fandom love develops into a whirlwind, terrifying, and meaningful connection neither of them could ever could have predicted and gets put to the test by a life-changing tragedy.

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Review: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

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For those who may not have been paying attention to YA trends of late, thrillers are currently the genre du jour. Not my thing personally, but I’m intrigued by the shift away from speculative genres of urban fantasy/paranormal romance and dystopia to a no-less-genre genre but still markedly contemporary kind of story. Charm & Strange, which was published in 2013, is more of an emotional thriller than an action thriller, but heart-pounding, emotions-running-high thriller it is. The best part (for me) is that it does invoke an obviously speculative trope without being kitschy, cutesy, or pandering. It uses fantastical devices the way they’ve been frequently used throughout history—to explain and make sense of the impossible and to provide comfort in the face of horror.

Drew Winters is an angry, whiny, and sickly boy, the middle child of a rich Virginian family. Surrounded by uncaring, inconsiderate, and/or abusive family members, his sole ally his earnestly protective yet fallible older brother Keith, a summer vacation with his extended family becomes the catalyst for a family tragedy, and an obscene consequence of his family’s secrets.

Win Winters is a loner teenage boy at a preppy boarding school in Vermont that he’s attended since age twelve. He has almost no friends, and that’s how he likes it. He’ll do whatever is necessary to push people away so they can stay out of his nexus of tragedy, pain, and violence.

Charm & Strange tells in alternate chapters the stories of Drew and Win, the past and present, and the battle to emerge on the other side as whole … whatever shape that may take.

This will be a SPOILERY review.

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Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

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I’m going to begin this review by talking about an entirely different story first.

A couple days before reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I read a short story titled “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” by Kelly Robson. It’s a good story and well-written, and violent—at its core is the physical, mental, and cultural violence surrounding sexual assault.

Browsing the author’s blog, I came across a post in which she was responding to another author’s sentiment that the story wasn’t worth reading because of the gruesome sexual assault. Robson wrote that she believed it important and necessary to depict a violent and upsetting reality (without being gratuitous) because otherwise she would be contributing to the erasure of a reality that currently exists and most people ignore (specifically the preying on Native American women.)

I then read a different blogpost the second author had written a few years ago, which in the comments she advocates for more stories being written with realities where people simply don’t rape other people, as a way of showing readers what that kind of reality can look like.

The reason I bring up this particular short story and the conversation that occurred regarding if, how, and why rape should or shouldn’t be portrayed in the first place in fiction is because I found myself asking questions about Exit, Pursued By a Bear while reading it that paralleled the situation I just described. Not about the portrayal of rape, however, but its aftermath.

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Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

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Piddy Sanchez’ perfectly normal morning gets interrupted by some girl informing her that Yaqui Delgado wants to kick her ass. Piddy’s not sure why—she doesn’t even know who Yaqui is or why Yaqui has it out for her. Maybe it’s that she has whiter skin than the other Latina girls at school. Or could it have something to do with the fact that her ass now seems to have a mind of its own when Piddy walks?

Regardless, Yaqui means business, and she makes sure Piddy knows it. Piddy tries to find ways to deflect the harassment and get Yaqui off her back, but the bullying continues to get worse, extending outside of school into her home life and weekend job at the neighborhood salon. How can Piddy survive when every action she takes is guaranteed to cause even worse backlash from Yaqui and her friends?

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Review: This Side of Home by Renée Watson

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As a current Portland resident, This Side of Home is an especially relevant book for me to have read. The block I live on is currently undergoing gentrification, the main difference being that my neighborhood isn’t a historically black neighborhood and (as far as I’m aware), most of the residents are white. As of now, historically black neighborhoods in Northeast and North Portland are almost entirely filled with white residents and white-owned businesses, and many of those neighborhood’s former residents have been forced by escalating property values and raised rents to move to East Portland, and further and further away from the city proper.

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Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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One of my favorite narrative conceits is stories within stories. I love books that wrestle with the idea that the story I’m reading is a story, and that it’s subject to change depending on who tells it and how. Even better, I love it when the characters themselves confront those same ideas, because what are we if not the protagonists of our own story? Don’t we all attempt to reconceptualize our own lives so that they make slightly more narrative sense than the tangled mess that is reality?

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