the only black girls in town // review

Title: The Only Black Girls in Town
Author: Brandy Colbert
Pages: 368
Date published: March 2020

Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems.

Wow, I really liked this book!! I went into it with very open expectations because I hadn’t read a book by Brandy Colbert yet, and also because I knew nothing about it when I started reading since I primarily picked it off my library’s new shelf because it was pretty and had a cool cover. Let me tell you, I ended up being blown away and becoming very interested in Brandy Colbert’s other books, so let’s get into why I loved this book so much.

The first thing that really sang to me in this book was the beach setting. Alberta, our main character, lives in a seaside town in California that has small town vibes. The first thing we get to learn about our lovely Alberta is that she loves to surf. I really enjoyed all the scenes throughout the book about her surf camp and her teacher, who was really supportive, and her friend Oliver, who also hated the mean girl on the team who says racist things to Alberta.

Now, I can’t comment on the rep fully because this is not an ownvoices review, but I can say this book dealt with racism in a much more nuanced way even than some YA books I’ve read. I liked how Brandy Colbert described how the comments her white peers made made Alberta feel, even with her friend Laramie, who still sometimes said stuff that made Alberta uncomfortable. It was interesting to have those comments and compare them to some of the seemingly more overt stuff that her mean neighbor, Nicolette, says.

I also thought the discussion on “skinfolk vs kinfolk” was interesting. When Alberta’s new neighbor, Edie, moves into the old B&B, one of her fathers says that just because a person is “skinfolk” (meaning they’re both Black) doesn’t mean they’re “kinfolk” (meaning they’ll actually like each other and get along). I’m not going to comment much more on that because I can’t tell you what that would mean for an ownvoices reader.

I also LOVED the mystery element. I was absolutely not expecting that part of the book when I went into it, and was surprised when Edie discovered the journals in her house. However, I was immediately hooked by the story being told in the journals, and how the girls immediately knew the writer was Black, even if they took some time to find out what the whole story was. The journals added so much to the story and were a really creative way to talk about important parts of Black history, which I won’t go into too much because I don’t want to spoil what they discover.

The friendships in the book were also wonderful to read about, as they often are in MG novels. I loved watching Alberta get to know Edie, who is very different from her. I found Edie so charming and funny and unique, and appreciated how Brandy Colbert really took a lot of care with Edie’s character to make her a multidimensional character with her own goals, thoughts, and feelings too. It was also interesting to see the interactions between Edie, Laramie (Alberta’s first best friend who she’s known most of her life), and Alberta and see how that affected her friendship with Laramie as well. I think the themes dealt with in each friendship are things lots of middle grade readers could relate to, and they were all handled so sensitively.

This book ended up completely surprising me, and I’m so glad that I picked it up on a whim. I am definitely going to be reading Brandy Colbert’s latest YA book, THE VOTING BOOTH, which has been on my TBR for quite a while. I also fully intend to read any future MG books she writes if this type of writing and story is what we have to look forward to!

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one to skip // one to watch review

Title: One to Watch
Author: Kate Stayman-London
Date Published: July 7, 2020
Pages: 432
CW: fat shaming (some challenged), cheating

Bea Schumacher is a devastatingly stylish plus-size fashion blogger who has amazing friends, a devoted family, legions of Insta followers–and a massively broken heart. Like the rest of America, Bea indulges in her weekly obsession: the hit reality show Main Squeeze. The fantasy dates! The kiss-off rejections! The surprising amount of guys named Chad! But Bea is sick and tired of the lack of body diversity on the show. Since when is being a size zero a prerequisite for getting engaged on television?

Just when Bea has sworn off dating altogether, she gets an intriguing call: Main Squeeze wants her to be its next star, surrounded by men vying for her affections. Bea agrees, on one condition–under no circumstances will she actually fall in love. She’s in this to supercharge her career, subvert harmful anti-fat beauty standards, inspire women across America, and get a free hot air balloon ride. That’s it.

But when the cameras start rolling, Bea realizes things are more complicated than she anticipated. She’s in a whirlwind of sumptuous couture, Internet culture wars, sexy suitors, and an opportunity (or two, or five) to find messy, real-life love in the midst of a made-for-TV fairy tale. In this joyful, razor-sharp debut, Bea has to decide whether it might just be worth trusting these men–and herself–for a chance to live happily ever after. 

I really wanted to like this book. It had all the makings of a Mel book, complete with body positivity and reality tv, which I am definitely a sucker for no matter how I try to watch other types of shows, and I was honestly really interested to see how this story played out.

I feel weird about rating this book because while it held my interest and I was entertained while reading, I also had MANY issues with it and it is objectively not a good book for a lot of reasons. I think my problems with this book stem from two issues, the formatting and the fact that it was almost TOO realistic.

I read this book expecting a fantasy. I thought the point of the book was to give a fat protagonist the fantasy romance that eludes fat people in real life reality shows and show a fat person being ridiculously happy and in love. Unfortunately, what I got was…not that. This book was too realistic to the point where everything was predictable because everything happened in the book the way it would in real life. This included extreme amounts of fatphobia, both in the scenes with Bea on the show and in the articles and online comments shown in the “between” sections. I was of course expecting some amounts of this, but there was so much that it was almost triggering for me and took away from what I think the story could have been.

I also grew annoyed with Bea’s responses to the fatphobia. She always had the “right” response and was able to deliver it despite probably being very upset by it, but it made her seem like a wall and not a real character. Her whole character was based around her supposed confidence, but outside of her confidence, I found her to be a relatively cold character. Her confident responses to people demeaning and belittling her on a show that was supposed to center around her happiness seemed manufactured and there just to prove a point to the reader.

I was also not a fan of the “romance” between Bea and Ray that kind of sets off her whole romantic journey. First of all, he’s engaged to be married, but has a relationship with her anyway, and at the time, Bea seems to see no problem with this because she thinks they’re meant to be together, which made me not like her that much at first. Pining after an engaged man and doing things she shouldn’t with an engaged man did not seem like a particularly attractive quality that should’ve been the first time we see her in a romantic relationship. The whole thing made me really uncomfortable and I feel like there weren’t consequences for Ray’s behavior.

Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much actual “romance” in the book at all. Bea even goes into the show agreeing to it only if she can break up with the “winner” a few weeks after the show. I went into this book expecting romance, but Bea is so cold to the guys on the show for most of the book that it’s hard to root for her or for any of the romances in particular. I think the formatting of the book also made the romances suffer, because we saw the romances happen through the eyes of the viewer of the show she was on, so we didn’t get to hear a lot of her inner thoughts about the guys or feel much chemistry. Really, I didn’t feel she had chemistry with any of the men, and I wish she had gone into the show wanting romance instead of trying to kill it at every turn, because it made for a boring book with low stakes.

Obviously, I knew going into the book that it was centered around a reality show, but the way the book was written was too much like reading a script or long episode guide rather than a book. I kind of wonder if the author went into writing this book expecting it to be made into a show, because it had much more of a cinematic feel than literary feel. Writing the book this way made it harder to get to know the characters and made it almost exclusively plot driven. I also really didn’t need all the articles and online chatter about the show between episodes, because all of those things were written exactly how they would be in real life, which took away what I thought would be the fantasy element of the book and didn’t add to the story in any way.

To be honest, I simply did not need a whole book to prove that fat people deserve love too at the end of the day, which seemed to be the message of this book even though it didn’t even quite deliver on that. This book seemed to be written for skinny people who needed to have that proved to them in a realistic way (hence all the fat shaming and online vitriol), instead of a truly body positive, fantasy romance that I was expecting and hoping for as a fat reader. The fact that this was the message of the book did not sit right with me, because it didn’t feel to me that fat people were the audience for this book despite it being written by a fat person and featuring a fat character. I did not need this book to prove to me that I am human and deserving of love, and that made it a frustrating reading experience as well.

Basically, this book failed to deliver on characterization, romance, and its message. I would definitely warn fellow fat readers away from this book as the fat shaming is truly hard to read at times, and suffering through the author trying to prove that we’re worthy of love was challenging as well. I had high hopes for this book as a lover of reality tv, but unfortunately, this book just did not impress.

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5 reasons to read Charming as a Verb

Title: Charming as a Verb
Author: Ben Philippe
Pages: 336
Date published: October 13, 2020

Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.

There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.

Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .

I want to start out by saying that I absolutely and completely unexpectedly loved this book. It was not super high on my TBR list for most of the year, but something about it eventually really intrigued me and pushed me to read it and I’m so thrilled I did because it’s definitely one of my favorites for the year. Today, I want to gush about it and tell you 5 reasons you should pick it up:

  1. Henri’s voice. I love a good “voicey” novel and this for sure qualifies. Ben Philippe’s writing from Henri’s perspective is absolutely killer, full of wit, honesty, and of course, plenty of charm. Henri is such a unique character and I loved learning about him throughout the book, especially the discussion of what he calls the “Haltiwanger Hunger” that drives his every decision and where his need to be charming comes from. There are so many layers to this ultimately very soft boi and I loved reading from his perspective.
  2. The dogs. Okay, so maybe this shouldn’t be a full reason, but honestly, even the dogs in this book had so much personality. As far as mild scams go, walking dogs is a pretty cute one, and reading about how Henri interacts with and loves all his dog clients is adorable. Ben Philippe honestly could not have picked a cuter hustle for Henri.
  3. The family relationships. Family is a huge part of this book. Henri’s dad is the primary reason he has the goal of getting into Columbia in the first place. I also adored reading about his mom, who is super proud of herself because she recently quit her old job to be a firefighter. They are all so hardworking and reading about their relationships with Henri and with each other made his character so much bigger. I was also fascinated by the discussion of diaspora that came up in regards to Henri’s family, who are from Haiti, and how he related to that term and the way his family represented it. I also loved all of their relationships with Lionel, Henri’s uncle/cousin, who his father kicked out because he didn’t want him to negatively influence Henri, but who they all go to for advice anyway.
  4. CORINNE. I absolutely LOVED Corinne, the love interest. She reminded me so much of myself in high school because she is so blunt and outspoken and doesn’t know how to get along with her peers at the beginning. I loved watching her come out of her shell and to see how turned on Henri was by her strong personality. He’s often baffled by her, but in a really good way, and I loved seeing him start to notice her and wonder how he hadn’t before.
  5. The New York setting. There are plenty of books set in NYC, but this one made me realize that a lot of them show the more touristy version of NYC. This book read as such an authentic representation of NYC, and it was clear to me that the author had spent time there. This wasn’t a watered down or sensationalized version of NYC like it is often portrayed. It does show the high life of NYC because Henri goes to a fancy private school, but it doesn’t over glamorize or romanticize it. Everything about the setting was extremely detailed and made me see a different side of the city than I usually get in YA.

These reasons are only the tip of the iceberg in telling you why I adored this book so much. Again, I am really happy I gave this book a chance because it brought me so much joy while reading and was really unique. This is the first book I’ve read by Ben Philippe, but I’m definitely interested in going back and reading his first book now because I can’t wait to get more of his writing. Thanks for reading, and I truly hope I’ve convinced you to give this amazing, fun, unique book a try!

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who i was with her review // sad sapphics

Title: Who I Was With Her
Author: Nita Tyndall
Pages: 352
Date published: September 15, 2020

There are two things that Corinne Parker knows to be true: that she is in love with Maggie Bailey, the captain of the rival high school’s cross-country team and her secret girlfriend of a year, and that she isn’t ready for anyone to know she’s bisexual.

But then Maggie dies, and Corinne quickly learns that the only thing worse than losing Maggie is being left heartbroken over a relationship no one knows existed. And to make things even more complicated, the only person she can turn to is Elissa — Maggie’s ex and the single person who understands how Corinne is feeling.

As Corinne struggles to make sense of her grief and what she truly wants out of life, she begins to have feelings for the last person she should fall for. But to move forward after losing Maggie, Corinne will have to learn to be honest with the people in her life…starting with herself.

I ended up rating this book 3 stars on GR immediately after reading, but the more I think about this book, the more annoyed I get about it, so that rating may change. I didn’t know much about this book going into it so I didn’t really have any expectations about what story to expect, but it still felt like a huge letdown because the book introduced so many complex issues but never managed to flesh any of them out fully. This book deals with a lot, including a first time sapphic relationship, coming out, alcoholism, grief, college, strained family relationships, and more, but none of these reached their full potential for me.

Let’s start with the coming out issue, because that’s the biggest problem I had with this story. Maggie is Corrine’s first girlfriend, and throughout the book she struggles to come to terms with her bisexuality first within herself and then continues to be terrified to come out because of what people will think of her. The book continually mentions Corrine’s terror at the thought of people finding out about her and Maggie, but never really delves into why she was so scared. Whenever pressed by other characters, she simply says “I don’t know” or trails off or changes the subject. We are told that the community she lives in is small and Southern, but personally I didn’t get a real sense of terror that wasn’t just manufactured for the sake of this plotline.

I was also really annoyed by the storyline that emerged about Maggie having pressured Corrine to come out. This made no sense to me because Maggie didn’t seem to be out to many people either, including her parents, so I was confused as to why she was pressuring Corrine to do something she knew she wasn’t ready for when she hadn’t even told everyone in her life. The timeline also made it feel off, because Corrine takes a while to realize she’s bisexual, and it felt weirdly paced to have Maggie start pressuring her to come out to everyone right after. I know the author is queer so I feel really bad saying this, but this felt unnatural to the story and I think it would’ve made more sense for Maggie to be supportive, especially because this part isn’t revealed until about 50% of the way through. That part of the plot felt like something a straight editor wanted put in to make it more understandable to straight people about why Corrine wasn’t out. Not every queer story needs to be about coming out, especially when it’s coming from pressure from other people.

I honestly did not really see the chemistry between Maggie and Corrine either. They’re both runners, but Corrine makes it clear all along that she’s not nearly as passionate about running as Maggie and is basically continuing to reassure her father and keep Maggie’s memory alive. The title of the book may be called WHO I WAS WITH HER, but I’m not really sure who Corrine was with Maggie that was so different from her before or after, because she continued pursuing something she had no passion for or interest in. She was still unsure of herself and very scared of other people’s opinions and unsure of what she wanted to do.

That uncertainty was also the only memorable or notable thing about Maggie’s personality or character, in my opinion. The whole book talks about how she doesn’t know if she wants to run in college, she doesn’t know what she wants to do other than possibly chemistry or science, which is not explored or show, she doesn’t know, doesn’t know, doesn’t know. I get that the message of the book is that it’s okay not to plan your whole life out and figure out what you want to do, but no other options other than going to college or staying are explored, and we don’t know Corrine outside of running, which she doesn’t even like. Corrine’s doubts and uncertainty might be realistic, but it was not interesting to read about and took away a lot of passion that the book had the potential for.

The family relationships were another thing I wanted more resolution and information on that were not truly resolved. Corrine’s mom is an alcoholic, which is delved into a little bit, but when the book ends, Corrine still feels that she needs to take care of her mother and be around for her and the conversation with her father about her mom’s alcoholism is very short and glossed over. Corrine’s relationship with both parents is strained throughout the whole story, and it ended up feeling like a loose end by the time the book ended. The whole ending felt very abrupt because there was not a lot of interaction shown with the characters to make it feel like each issue was resolved, and everything seemed to happen too quickly and neatly.

I do think this book was a very accurate, honest portrayal of grief. Corrine is complex in how she feels and deals with her grief, much more than other parts of her character. Having gone through grief over the death of a friend, I could really relate to some of the messier parts of Corrine’s grieving process, and liked how the author portrayed her struggle of centering her own grief over other people’s and how other people perceived her more selfish ways of dealing with her grief. The way the book was written also captured Corrine’s grief well, as it was perfectly melancholy with hints of lyricism and poeticness that worked well to express Corrine’s emotions.

All this said, I will admit I managed to read this book in a short night and morning. I did like that it had very short chapters, which made a story about such big issues and heavy emotions more manageable. I kept reading because there were a lot of aspects of Corrine’s experience with grief that I related to, and readers who have lost someone will likely feel similarly. It’s also good for anyone looking for affirming bi rep, despite the issues I had with the coming out storyline. This is one I would recommend to fans of Jandy Nelson and Nina LaCour for the writing style and subject matter.

Though I did not love this book, I do hope it finds its way into the hands of bi and sapphic readers who need it.

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now that i’ve found you: review

Title: Now That I’ve Found You
Author: Kristina Forest
Pages: 336
Date published: August 25, 2020

A YA novel about searching for answers, love, and your eccentric grandma in all the wrong places.

Following in the footsteps of her überfamous grandma, eighteen-year-old Evie Jones is poised to be Hollywood’s next big star. That is until a close friend’s betrayal leads to her being blacklisted . . .

Fortunately, Evie knows just the thing to save her floundering career: a public appearance with America’s most beloved actress—her grandma Gigi, aka the Evelyn Conaway. The only problem? Gigi is a recluse who’s been out of the limelight for almost twenty years. Days before Evie plans to present her grandma with an honorary award in front of Hollywood’s elite, Gigi does the unthinkable: she disappears.

With time running out and her comeback on the line, Evie reluctantly enlists the help of the last person to see Gigi before she vanished: Milo Williams, a cute musician Evie isn’t sure she can trust. As Evie and Milo conduct a wild manhunt across New York City, romance and adventure abound while Evie makes some surprising discoveries about her grandma—and herself. 

I was really excited when this book was announced because of how much I adored Kristina Forest’s debut, I WANNA BE WHERE YOU ARE. This book had a lot of elements I liked, and also featured a brief cameo of Chloe and Eli, the stars of the romance in IWBWYA.

What I liked most about this book was how nuanced Evie’s character was. While I loved Chloe in Forest’s debut, I felt like she was a more cut and dry character who was easy to understand and to love, she was not as interesting to me as Evie. Evie definitely falls under the category of “unlikeable” characters, who I always end up liking because they feel more realistic to me as a reader. Evie comes across as kind of selfish and self-centered for most of the book, but underneath it, there’s the constant feeling she has of wanting people’s approval, insecurity, and feeling abandoned by the people she loves. Kristina Forest gives the reader a lot to unpack when it comes to Evie’s character, and that made her more interesting to read about and even root for her at times despite some of her self-centeredness.

Though at times Evie’s character got on my nerves, I still rooted for her and looked forward to the major emotional glow up I figured was coming for her character arc. Unfortunately, that aspect of the story fell a bit flat for me because it came at almost the very end of the story and was rushed through. Evie definitely learns a lot as a person and begins to recognize her own flaws, but the development of that part of the story was not as strong as I wanted it to be and there could have been a few more pages devoted to that.

In general, I really felt that the story could have been 20-50 pages longer to round it out and provide a meaningful ending. The twist in Milo and Evie’s romance felt rushed through, and they make up within the last few pages of the book without much build up between the last time they see each other and the resolution to their relationship. It felt like pages were missing between those two events and the jump that happened between them was a bit jarring.

I also did not find the romance between Milo and Evie as swoonworthy and ship-able as Chloe and Eli. I didn’t feel the chemistry between them as much throughout the story, because Evie is suspicious of Milo’s motivations with her grandmother the majority of the time, so the romance ended up seeming somewhat forced. I liked Milo as a character and wanted to know more about him during the story, but the relationship with Evie felt manufactured and planned versus natural and real. I do love to see a romance between two artists, but this one unfortunately did not do it for me.

The focus of the story seemed to be more about Evie’s relationship with her grandmother, which also made the romance feel sort of unnecessary. I think there would still have been a lot to like about this story without the addition of the romance. I also think because Evie’s relationship with her grandmother was explored so deeply and her grandmother’s life was delved into much more, that made Evie and Milo’s relationship seem flatter and not as interesting. I definitely would’ve loved the mystery to take hold of the story completely and for friendship and family to be front and center as themes.

Before this review becomes a full fledged essay, I’ll conclude by saying it did not meet my expectations and overall it fell flat for me. It’s certainly not a bad book by any means, but compared to the author’s first book it simply wasn’t as good. However, this is definitely one I’ll be recommending to teens at the library because there are still many fun elements to it that I think a variety of readers would enjoy. There is a little something for everyone in this book, from mystery to romance to interesting characters. While it was not as good as I hoped, I’d still consider this one three stars and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to readers who want something a little different in their contemporary picks.

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