Just Roll With It

As long as Maggie rolls the right number, nothing can go wrong…right?

Maggie just wants to get through her first year of middle school. But between finding the best after-school clubs, trying to make friends, and avoiding the rumored monster on school grounds, she’s having a tough time . . . so she might need a little help from her twenty-sided dice. But what happens if Maggie rolls the wrong number?

Maggie struggles with OCD and feels compelled to roll a dice before she makes any decisions. Soon, Maggie is rolling dice to decide if she should have lunch with a friend, if she should let a friend borrow a book, and other everyday decisions. Maggie’s OCD begins to interfere with her daily life. At the beginning of the story, the reader sees Maggie rolling the dice, but a lack of explanation makes the dice rolling confusing. However, later in the book, OCD is explained in kid-friendly terms that are relatable.

In English class, the students are reading The Crucible, which ties into Maggie’s life. For example, Maggie’s friend, Clara, says, “I think it must be really hard for Sara. She knows she’s not a witch, but when everyone is saying that kind of stuff to you, sometimes it’s hard to remember they are wrong.” Likewise, Maggie wonders if others think she is crazy, because of her OCD.

Maggie’s story unfolds with quick looks at different aspects of her life. While this allows Maggie to be well-developed, the constant change of scene may be confusing for some readers. In addition, part of Maggie’s emotions are shown when she talks to an imaginary dragon. The dragon doesn’t hesitate in making Maggie question her abilities. At one point the dragon tells her, “Every time you forget your homework, or are afraid to ask a question, and even when you’re not sure if you want seconds at dinner? That’s me, reminding you that you’re weak. You’re shy. You’re nothing.”

Just Roll With It has several positive aspects, including Maggie’s relationship with her family and her friend, Clara. Maggie’s sister encourages Maggie that “fear and pain can’t be avoided, no matter how much we try. Coming out to mom and dad was really scary for me. But I’m glad I did it. A lot of the worries I made up in my head ended up not coming true. So I put myself through a lot of heartache for nothing.” With her family’s reassurance, Maggie agrees to see a therapist in order to deal with anxiety. Middle grade readers will relate to Maggie who worries about what other people say about her, forgets to do her homework, and struggles with figuring out what clubs she wants to join.

Maggie’s story comes to life in brightly colored panels. When Maggie is feeling stressed, the pictures use a darker hue to illustrate her anxiety. The illustrations mostly focus on Maggie, her friends, and her family. When Maggie is at school, the students are a diverse group including a girl in a wheelchair and a Muslim. The story also includes Clara’s two moms and Maggie’s sister’s girlfriend. Reluctant readers will enjoy Just Roll With It because it uses easy vocabulary and has a fast pace. Each page has one to seven simple sentences, which make Just Roll With a quick book to read. Readers interested in exploring the theme of anxiety should also read the graphic novel, Guts by Raina Telgemeie.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A boy shoves Maggie’s friend Clara twice, knocking her to the ground.
  • When a boy goes to hit Clara, Maggie steps in and hits him across the face with a fat book.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Heck, darn, and OMG are used several times.
  • Crap is used once.
  • There is some name-calling including jerk, snake bait, and babies.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

I am Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King, the world champion tennis player, fought successfully for women’s rights. From a young age, Billie Jean King loved sports—especially tennis! But as she got older, she realized that plenty of people, even respected male athletes, didn’t take female athletes seriously. She set out to prove them wrong and show girls everywhere that sports are for everyone, regardless of gender.

Billie Jean’s story shows the inequity in tennis, which at the time was played mostly by rich, white males. The story focuses on how women were discriminated against. For example, women were paid significantly less. Even though Billy Jean and her partner, Karen Wantze, were the youngest team to ever win Wimbledon, they could not afford to attend the Wimbledon celebration ball.

Right from the start, Bill Jean King’s story begins explaining what “fair play” means. Billie Jean defines fair play, saying, “In sports and in life, it means you respect the rules and treat everyone equally.” Most of Billie Jean’s story focuses on equity in sports, but it leaves out what exactly Billie Jean did to help solve the problem. However, the book’s message is positive: “All of us are powerful in our own ways. So how do you get to be your best self? By practicing, sweating, and giving everything you’ve got. And when you have nothing left, give more.” Later in her life, President Obama awarded Billie Jean the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being “one of the first openly lesbian sports figures, and for using sports to create social change.”

Colorful, full-page illustrations show important aspects of Billie Jean’s life beginning when she was a little girl. The book’s text includes speech bubbles as well as short paragraphs. Throughout the book, Sonia and some of the other characters are cartoonish. The cartoonish figure of Billie Jean does not change throughout the book; when she is an adult, she is pictured with other players who look like adults, yet Billie Jean still looks like a child which is a little disconcerting. When groups of people appear, the people are diverse and include both male and female. The end of the book has a timeline of Billie Jean’s life and six pictures of her. In the last line, Billie Jean says, “Be bold. If you’re going to make an error, make a doozy, and don’t be afraid to hit the ball.”

Younger readers will enjoy I am Billie Jean King’s fun format, conversational text, and positive message. However, the heavy focus on equity may be difficult for younger readers to understand. For these readers, parents may wish to read the book with their child and discuss some of the important achievements Billie Jean made for women. To explore equal rights further, read A Girl Named Rosa: The True Story of Rosa Parks by Denise Lewis Patrick, which is another inspirational book about fighting for equal rights.

Sexual Content

  • Billie Jean realizes that she is gay. “Being gay means that if you’re a girl, you love and have romantic feelings for other girls—and if you’re a boy, you love and have romantic feelings for other boys.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Blackout

The sun beats down on the city of New York where there are places to go and people to see. As a heatwave takes over New York City, electricity goes out. This creates the infamous blackouts causing the lights to go off and the trains to stop running. No electricity also means no air conditioners, and that everyone outside is sweating through their clothes from the summer heat and humidity. Amid the blackout, six couples spark a different kind of electricity in the City that Never Sleeps as old loves, and new ones, meet and head to a massive block party in Brooklyn.

Blackout features six short stories following six couples. “The Long Walk” follows two exes named Tammi and Kareem. Kareem needs to get to a block party and Tammi needs to go back home to Brooklyn – coincidentally where the block party is being held. Together, Tammi and Kareem begin a long walk to Brooklyn during the heatwave. “The Long Walk” is also split into 6 parts and scattered throughout the novel instead of being compacted like the rest of the short stories.

“Mask Off” is a queer, MLM (Man Loving Man) love story that follows Tremaine and basketball star JJ. The two of them are riding on the subway before it is shut down by the blackout. “Made to Fit” is another queer, WLW (Woman Loving Woman) love story that follows Nella and Joss at a senior living facility. Nella’s grandfather accidentally loses a picture of his wife, Nella’s grandmother, and Joss offers to help Nella look for it in the dark.

“All the Great Love Stories…and Dust” features two characters named Lana and Tristan, who are trapped in the New York Public Library during the blackout and play a game to see who can find the best book. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” follows a love triangle on a double decker bus between Kayla, Micah, and Kayla’s boyfriend Tre’Shawn. The final story, “Seymour and Grace,” is a first meeting between Grace and her Ryde driver Seymour. Grace needs to get to the block party in Brooklyn, but the trip gets interrupted by Seymour’s car running out of gas.

All six short stories follow a prose narrative style in the first-person perspective of their respective narrators. Each writer has a different writing style and format. For example, “All the Great Love Stories…and Dust” features footnotes at the bottom of the page to convey Lana’s truth and demonstrate her character. “The truth: I [Lana] just wanted us to have our adventures together away from anyone we might run into. The people we are in Brooklyn aren’t the same people we are in Manhattan or the Bronx or Queens. Do you think you can be a totally different person in a different place? Your insides and outsides transforming into another you?”

There is a sense of consistency between all six authors, allowing the reader to easily grasp the flow of the stories and connect them to the other five. The stories feature romance, and the novel is meant to celebrate young black love. All the characters are teenagers, and most of them are in their late teens. This makes them relatable to a young adult audience as the characters deal with friendships, their identity, and college. For black young adult readers, Blackout provides them the representation they need, and the novel perfectly portrays each character in their own, individual light with their own individual stories and identity.

Blackout is a beautiful novel written by six black authors who bring to life the idea of young love. Each story celebrates young black love and the diversity that occurs in the black community. Queer black teenagers get their own love stories separate from their straight counterparts. Each story provides a small twist on the romance genre due to the authors’ distinct writing style and the story’s format. This book is for readers who are a fan of romance and for Blackout’s targeted audience of black readers. The book is extremely entertaining and will have fans wanting more.

Sexual Content

  • JJ brings up rumors about Tremaine, saying, “there are rumors he “deflowered” both the starting quarterback and his girl.”
  • JJ recounts a sexual encounter he had with a girl on his eighteenth birthday. She “danced me into a corner and started kissing my neck. And I did kiss her back—she was a great kisser, objectively speaking—and when she pushed things a bit further, I rolled with it.”
  • At the queer party, JJ kisses Tremaine without Tremaine knowing it was JJ. “When he turned back to me, I lifted the bottom of my mask, closed the space between us . . . and I kissed him right on the mouth.”
  • Nella was in love with her ex-best friend Bree, who Nella “used to dream about kissing.”
  • In a brief flashback scene, Nella relives the experience of Bree telling Nella that she only kisses other girls when she’s drunk. Nella says, “Twig saw you kissing girls at all those house parties?”
  • Joss puts on some purple lipstick and Nella thinks, “. . . her mouth is suddenly very, very distracting.”
  • In the laundry room, Nella and Joss kiss three times. The scene lasts for two pages. “When we kiss, it’s slow and warm. It’s thickly sweet, like the butterscotch candy we took from Queenie’s bedside table, but there’s something underneath the syrupy flavor that I know must be essentially Joss too.”
  • After Lana confesses her love to Tristan, the two of them make out. “Before I [Lana] could finish, his hands are on my back and his bottom lip brushes against my neck, my ear, then my cheek, before he kisses me.”
  • Tre’Shawn tries to kiss Kayla, but Kayla doesn’t let him. This happens twice.
  • Tre’Shawn tries to kiss Kayla a third time and this time Kayla lets him. “I let him kiss me this time. It’s comforting and familiar.”
  • After having a panic attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, Tammi brings Kareem close to her and kisses him. Tammi grabs “his shirt, pull[s] him close, and kiss[es] him. I kiss my messy, forgetful, silly-ass ex-boyfriend. And as we hover over the water, I forget the world as he kisses me back.”

Violence

  • While at the masquerade party for queer men, JJ gets hit on by an older man against his consent. The man says, “Oh, don’t play coy, now,” as he breathes down JJ’s ear and grabs his arm.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • The words “shit” and “ass” are used a variety of times and in a variety of ways. For example, when Tristan is talking to Lana about them going to separate colleges, he says, “I’m supposed to help you and your dads move you into your fancy-ass Columbia dorms before I bounce to Binghamton.”
  • When talking about her ex, Taylor, Joss says, “That bitch missed out too.”
  • During an argument with Kareem over Tammi not trusting him, he says “Fuck it.”
  • Tammi reminisces over a middle school memory where Kareem was bullied. She calls those bullies “assholes.”
  • Kareem says that Tammi called him “a fucking liar” because Tammi thought he lied and cheated on her.
  • Kayla confides in her best friend, Jazmyn, about her issues with her relationship with Tre’Shawn. Jazmyn says, “Is he on some fuck boy shit?”
  • Kayla calls her classmate Micah a “jackass” lightheartedly.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

All the Invisible Things

Helvetica and Peregrine were destined to be friends. Bonding over their strange names, Vetty and Pez became close the moment they met at ten years old. They are used to sharing secrets, supporting one another, and racing their bikes all around London together. However, after Vetty’s mother passed away, her father decided to move the family away from London forcing Vetty to leave Pez to grieve without his support. While Pez made an effort to stay close, the two slowly fell out of touch.

Three years later, Vetty’s father decides it’s time for the family to leave his sister’s home and move back to London. Back in her old home, Vetty encounters a much different Pez. The new Pez is moodier and keeps secrets, and Vetty is unsure where their friendship stands now that they have gotten older. To make the situation worse, Pez has a glamorous new girlfriend, March, who ignites suppressed feelings inside Vetty. As Vetty grows closer to March, she discovers things about herself and her identity that may further complicate her relationship with Pez. To save their friendship, Vetty and Pez must learn to be honest with themselves and each other and live their own truth.

All the Invisible Things is told through Vetty’s perspective as she comes to terms with her identity and the realization that she is bisexual. Pez also opens up about his own experiences with sex, his struggle with a porn addiction, as well as his desire to change. The book’s main theme is honesty and learning how to live a truthful life, even if the truth is difficult to share. Through Vetty and Pez’s friendship, readers will learn how honesty is often met with love and support. The book also gives a voice to teens curious about their own identity and lets them know they are not alone in the potentially scary and confusing emotions that accompany growing up.

While there are some important themes, there are also problems with the writing of the novel. In the novel, Vetty struggles to find resources to help her figure out her sexuality and none of the characters seem aware of the term bisexual despite the novel being set in 2018. This made Vetty’s journey seem a bit inauthentic and forced at times. All the Invisible Things is also very clichéd in its writing. At one point, Pez tells Vetty she is “not like other girls” which confuses Vetty. At times, the novel seems a bit too sexually explicit, which distracts from the more sensitive moments in the book.

Because of the sexually explicit scenes, All the Invisible Things is best suited for older teens. Despite the book’s flaws, the novel will resonate with the LGBTQ+ community because of its representation of bisexual and lesbian characters. The way the story focuses on LGBTQ+ characters as the center of the story truly demonstrates the importance of their identities.

Sexual Content

  • There are frequent conversations about sex, porn, and masturbation throughout the novel.
  • Vetty and her friends are discussing their teacher’s inadequate sex ed program. As Liv recalls, the teacher, “got through our entire sex ed without even uttering the word ‘vagina.’ Not once… she was way more comfortable with the word ‘penis.’”
  • Liv asks Vetty who she thinks about while masturbating. Liv says, “Say you’re at home, alone in your room, and, like . . . testing your batteries or whatever, just say . . . who do you fantasize about?”
  • When Vetty and Pez were twelve, they kissed. Vetty “made him pretend he was George, our new tennis teacher who was twenty-two and from Greece . . . George was a girl, but this didn’t bother either of us much.”
  • Kyle, one of Pez’s friends, makes a comment that implies he wants to sleep with Pez’s mom. Kyle says, “Real talk though, Pez. Your mum—I mean, I would. We all would.”
  • Vetty finds pornographic images on Pez’s computer. The screen is “filled with small squares and inside these squares bodies pump and thrust and flail about; naked bodies, boobs, and bare bums everywhere!”
  • March opens up to Vetty about her abusive ex-boyfriend. March says, “soon as I slept with him, he lost interest.”
  • Vetty searches porn on her laptop and begins masturbating. “I watch one video play out, unsure I like what I’m watching—it’s pretty fake—but I’m inching my hand below the waistband of my pajama bottoms anyway.” Vetty is soon interrupted by her dad knocking on the door.
  • At a party, Vetty and Rob begin to kiss. She describes how “his lips move to my [Vetty’s] cheek and words fly out of my head and I start to imagine where he’ll kiss me next but then his lips are on my lips again . . .” A noise at the party breaks them apart.
  • Pez comes clean to Vetty about his porn addiction and confesses, “I haven’t wanked without it since I was thirteen.”
  • While acting as extras in a film, March kisses Vetty: “I open my mouth and her tongue lightly scoops the space inside.”
  • While thinking about the kiss with March, Vetty tries masturbating again. “I pull my underwear down and tip onto my knees, moving my fingers in small circles until I’m only my body, allowing my mind into places I’ve never really let it linger in before.”
  • Pez and Vetty share a kiss. Vetty describes her “mouth feels small on his and I keep it closed. His lips are fixed and I leave them there and it’s a few seconds before I kiss him back.”

Violence

  • While riding his bike, Pez is hit by a car. Vetty describes “half of him lies hidden under the car and the other half looks up at the night. One eye’s closed, an eyebrow arched in surprise, but his throat is loose and relaxed, peaceful almost, as a tiny trail of blood trickles from the side of his mouth.” Pez is taken to the hospital and survives.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • While with a group of friends, Pez offers Vetty a beer. She thinks, “Normally, I don’t drink beer, but I take a slow sip, hoping it might soothe the hard edges beneath me.”
  • At another gathering, Pez “takes out a cold bottle of Corona and hands it to Lucas, who slickly pops the top without an opener.”
  • Kyle comes to Pez’s party “smoking a large spliff.” Spliff is British slang for cannabis.
  • Amira, March’s friend, pulls “a bottle of Smirnoff out of her bag” and passes it around.

Language

  • Shit is used numerous times. For example, Pez states, “I don’t give a shit,” when asked about his dad’s behavior.
  • Hell is used four times. For example, Vetty says the “motorway was hell” on her way to Camden.
  • The word dick is used five times. After telling the paramedics that Pez has a famous mom, Vetty explains she felt “like a dick for pointing that out, like Luna’s fame is remotely relevant now.”
  • Ass is used a few times. Vetty thinks she’s “being a total ass” for asking Pez’s guy friends to rate her appearance.
  • Fuck is used five times. After an argument, March locks herself in Pez’s room and he demands that she “just fucking open it.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Elena Brown

Chain of Gold

Shadowhunters are angelic humans who are responsible for keeping mundanes (humans) safe from demons and other supernatural threats. For many years, London has had a quiet period, where demons have been rare. However, this changes when a new demon, a Manticore, begins killing shadowhunters. James and his sister Lucie, along with his friends, Cordelia, Matthew, Thomas, and Christopher, hatch a plan to stop the murders of their friends and families. They enlist the help of many others, not just shadowhunters, but also warlocks and ghosts, to heal those who have been injured by the Manticore. The group is determined to defeat the Manticore once and for all.

James is the son of Tessa (a warlock), and Will (a great shadowhunter). Due to the presence of demonic blood in his lineage, James often finds himself jumping between the “shadow world,” and the mortal realm. Lucie, his sister, has an unusual ability to speak to ghosts, as well as to command the dead. Cordelia is a strong, independent woman. Matthew provides comic relief. Thomas and Christopher are wholesome, kind men. Together, this band of self-named “Merry Thieves” provides an interesting cast of characters you can’t help but love.

James has been in love with Grace Blackthorn for years, seeing her every summer when on vacation, and keeping up a relationship in secret. However, when Cordelia moves to London, he finds himself drawn to her in ways that he wasn’t expecting, and is torn between the two women. When Grace breaks it off with James, he and Cordelia begin a relationship; however, it is cut short by Grace reentering James’s life using a bracelet that breeds affection. With James hopelessly in love with Grace once more, Cordelia is in an awkward situation.

In order to finally defeat the Manticore, James must journey to Hell to meet his grandfather, a demon. He and Cordelia enter the realm and kill the Manticore, while those still in the mortal realm find a cure for those who have been injured. Although it seems that the Manticore has been defeated, Belial, a Prince of Hell and James’s grandfather, has not been incapacitated to the same effect. The reader is left with a sort of cliffhanger, knowing that there is more trouble to follow.

The book is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, allowing the reader to get inside the heads of the characters, and better understand their actions and motivations. Clare creates a captivating story that’s impossible to put down, with characters who feel real enough to jump off the page. The novel emphasizes the importance of friendship and relying on those around you for help. Family is also an important theme in the novel, especially recognizing those in your family as people, rather than idols of perfection.

The cast is full of characters who are outsiders in a way, be it through sexuality, race, or gender, and the story showcases the importance of being yourself. Altogether, the novel has a fast-paced plot, characters full of depth, and important messages. All of these aspects come together to create a story that is not only entertaining but meaningful as well.

Sexual Content

  • James kisses Grace at her request, and he feels “the cool, soft press of her lips against his.”
  • Cordelia catches her brother, Alastair, kissing Charles. “It was Alastair’s turn to bury his hands in Charles’s hair, to press against Charles’s body and fumble with his waistcoat. Charles’s hands were flat against Alastair’s chest, and he was kissing Alastair hungrily, over and over—”
  • Grace coerces Matthew into kissing her. Matthew “pressed his hungry mouth against her lips and kissed her, and kissed her. She tasted of sweet tea and oblivion. He felt nothing, no desire, no yearning, only an empty desperate compulsion.”
  • In order to keep from getting recognized at a party, James kisses Cordelia. “She knew he was making it look as if they were Downworlders having an assignation in the Whispering Room—but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered except the way he was kissing her, gloriously kissing her.”

Violence

  • James kills a demon, and “let both of his knives fly. One plunged into the demon’s throat, the other into its forehead.”
  • There is a four-page scene in which the Shadowhunters fight a large demon. Particularly violent parts are when “the demon clawed at [someone’s] throat,” and Cordelia brought “Cortana down in a great curving arc, severing [the demon’s] head.”
  • James saves Cordelia from a demon. “The demon screeched, a high and horrible noise, as the knives plunged into its torso. The creature spasmed—it seemed almost to be crumbling, its leathery seedpods pattering to the ground like rain. It gave a last choking hiss and vanished.”
  • Cordelia describes the fight against the Manticore. Cordelia “whipped Cortana [her sword] forward with a slashing motion, shredding the demon in front of her.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • James and Matthew fight a Khora demon, and James throws knives at it. “The knives sank to their hilts in the demon’s skull. It blew apart; one of the other demons screamed.” Then Christopher gets hurt. “The demon’s great clawed hand raked across Christopher’s chest.”
  • James fights the Manticore in the Hell realm, and the Manticore attacks with his claws, “One raked James’s arm; he spun sideways, blade whipping overhead, slashing across the demon’s torso.” The scene is described over 3 pages.
  • Grace says, “I was eight when [my parents] were killed by demons.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Matthew is often portrayed as either drunk or drinking, with eyes that are “suspiciously bright.” He is often holding a flask or alcohol of some kind. Lucie confronts him, saying, “You’re drunk now . . . Matthew, you’re drunk most of the time.”
  • When James is sick with a scalding fever, he is forced to drink a “loathsome potion” to heal.
  • After Grace breaks up with James, he gets drunk. “James unbuttoned the inside pocket and drew out [Matthew’s] silver flask.”
  • Alastair reveals to Cordelia that their father is an alcoholic. Alastair says, “he’s always bloody drunk, Cordelia. The only one of us who didn’t know that is you.”

Language

  • Profanity is rarely used. Profanity includes bloody and hell.

Supernatural

  • When Lucie is exploring the forest outside of her house, she talks about the moss, and how “her father told her it was a pillow for faeries at night, and that the white stars of the flowers that grew only in the hidden country of Idris made bracelets and rings for their delicate hands.”
  • While in the forest, Lucie falls into a pit. Jesse saves her and then says, “This is one of [the faerie’s] pit traps. They usually use them to catch animals, but they’d be very pleased to find a little girl instead.”
  • Jesse tells Lucie that if the faeries catch her, she “could find [her]self serving faerie gentry in the Land Under the Hill for the rest of [her] life.”
  • When James is fighting a demon, “he was suddenly pulled into Hell,” which is often referred to as the “shadow realm,” a dimension James is often taken to without warning.
  • Most of the characters are Shadowhunters/Nephilim, who are “a special race of warriors, descended from an angel, gifted with powers that allowed them to wield weapons of shining adamas and to bear the black Marks of holy runes on their bodies—runes that made them stronger, faster, more deadly than any mundane human; runes that made them burn brightly in the dark.”
  • James fights a demon that is described as having “a ribbed gray body, a curving, sharp beak lined with hooked teeth, and splayed paw-like feet from which ragged claws protruded.”
  • While fighting a demon, James notes something like recognition in its eyes, but goes on to say that “demons, at least the lesser kind, didn’t recognize people. They were vicious animals driven by pure greed and hatred.”
  • Shadowhunters rely on Seraph blades, swords “infused with the energy of angels.”
  • Shadowhunters have runes that allow them to do various things, such as “glamour runes [that] made them invisible to all eyes not gifted with the Sight.”
  • As James and his friends walk through London, “James caught a glimpse of the pale skin and glittering eyes of a vampire.”
  • There are a variety of supernatural beings, referred to as “Downworlders.” One of these groups are warlocks. “Warlocks were the offspring of humans and demons: capable of using magic but not of bearing runes or using adamas, the clear crystalline metal from which steles and seraph blades were carved. They were one of the four branches of Downworlders, along with vampires, werewolves, and the fey.”
  • Both James and Lucie can see ghosts, a trait they note as “not uncommon in the Herondale family.”
  • James describes the shadow realm as having, “charred earth. A similarly scorched sky arced above him. Twisted trees emerged from the ground, ragged claws grasping at the air.”
  • When James is hurt, Matthew draws an “iratze, a healing rune,” on James.
  • Tessa, James’s mother, recalls “attending a vampire frolic once. And some sort of party at Benedict Lightwood’s house, before he got demon pox and turned into a worm, of course—”
  • Cordelia talks about the reason for her father’s arrest, noting that “a nest of Kravyād demons had been discovered just outside the border of Idris,” the home country of Shadowhunters. She notes that her father had been called in to help, but “the Kravyād demons had gone—and the Nephilim had trespassed onto land that a vampire clan believed was theirs.”
  • Matthew talks about a warlock he once knew, “who had three arms. He could duel with one hand, shuffle a deck of cards with the next, and untie a lady’s corset with the third, all at the same time. Now there was a chap to emulate.”
  • Shadowhunters have a light source that they call “witchlight,” which requires no electricity.
  • Jessamine and Jesse, two characters in the book, are ghosts.
  • Cordelia has a sword, Cortana, which her father used when he “slew the great demon Yanluo…They say the blade of Cortana can cut through anything.”
  • While all the young Shadowhunters are at a picnic, “a demon broke the surface” of the lake.
  • A pack of demons are described: “The demons raced like hellhounds across the grass, leaping and surging, utterly silent. Their skin was rough and corrugated, the color of onyx; their eyes flaming black.”
  • Silent Brothers are the healers of the Shadowhunter world, and speak in silent voices, “an echo in [the] head.” They are described in, “Ivory robes marked in red, skin drained of color, scarred with red runes. Most were without hair and worse, had their eyes sewn shut, their sockets sunken and hollow.”
  • Before sneaking into Grace’s house, Lucie and Cordelia “marked themselves carefully with various runes—Strength, Stealth, Night Vision.”
  • Cordelia encounters a demon in the Blackthorn’s greenhouse. “It was a demon, but not like any she had seen before. From a distance it almost seemed a butterfly or moth, pinned to the wall, wings outspread. A second, closer look revealed that its wings were membranous extensions, shot through with pulsing red veins. Where the wings joined together, they rose into a sort of central stalk, crowned by three heads. Each head was like a wolf’s, but with black, insectile eyes.”
  • When the group meets a warlock, Malcolm Fade, Cordelia notes that, “Most warlocks had a mark that set them apart, a physical sign of their demon blood: blue skin, horns, claws made of stone. Malcolm’s eyes were certainly an unearthly shade, like amethysts.”
  • At the Hell Ruelle, a sort of party, Cordelia talks about the guests in attendance: “Vampires stalked by proudly, their faces gleaming in the electric light; werewolves prowled the shadows in elegant evening dress. There was music coming from a string quartet standing on a raised cherrywood stage in the center of the room. Cordelia glimpsed a handsome violin player with the gold-green eyes of a werewolf, and a clarinetist with auburn curls, his calves ending in the hard hooves of a goat.”
  • At a party, Cordelia meets Hypatia Vex, whose pupils “were the shape of stars: her warlock mark.”
  • After Cordelia realizes that someone had tried to poison two warlocks, one of the warlocks confirms this using magic. “Malcolm Fade waved a hand over his own cup. Purple sparks woke and danced in his glass. The red wine stain on the carpet unfurled like a flower and turned to purple smoke.”
  • Ragnor Fell, a warlock, is described as having “an extra joint on each finger,” and Gast, another warlock, has “multiple rows of teeth, like a shark.”
  • At a warlock’s house, a “clearly enchanted fire burned in the grate, the flames silver and blue. The smoke that rose from the fire traced delicate patterns on the air in the shape of acanthus leaves. Its smoke smelled sweet, like attar [a fragrant essential oil] of roses.”
  • The group acquires a Pyxis, used for catching demons, and describes how it works. “When you wish to trap a demon, you first wound or weaken it. Then you place the Pyxis on the ground nearby and speak the words ‘Thaam Tholach Thechembaor,’ and the demon will be sucked into the box.”
  • Cordelia describes the Manticore demon as having “the body of a mangy lion with elongated legs, each one ending in a massive, taloned paw. Its head was snakelike and scaled, with glittering red eyes and a triple row of serrated jaws.”
  • Lucie is revealed to have the power to call the dead, something that Jesse explains to her, saying, “You called the dead, and the dead came. I heard you, across the whole city, calling for someone to help you.”
  • James opens a portal to Hell, which Cordelia describes as “a large archway. It seemed to be made of dark light; it curved with Gothic flourishes, as though it were part of the cemetery, but Cordelia knew it was not. Through it, she could glimpse a swirl of dark chaos, as if she were looking through a Portal into the vastness of black space itself.”
  • Grace is attacked by a demon described as “half-reptilian and half-human, with leathery bat’s wings and a sharply pointed chin like the tip of a knife.”
  • James meets his grandfather, Belial, a Prince of Hell, and he is described as “a Prince of Hell showing himself in his most human form. He looked like a statue carved by a divine hand: his features were ageless, handsome, everything in balance. It was possible to see in his face the terrible beauty of the fallen.”
  • Grace reveals that her “mother invoked black magic to try to bring [her] brother back [from the dead].”
  • Lucie saves James by giving him Jesse Blackthorn’s “last breath,” which had been contained in a locket before he died.

Spiritual Content

  • To enter the Silent City where the Silent Brother’s live, James must answer a riddle. “’Quis ut Deus?’ he said. ‘Who is like God?’ the Angel asks. The answer is ‘No one. No one is like God.’”

by Sara Mansfield

 

Super Fake Love Song

Sunny Dae is a third generation Korean-American and a 17-year-old high school student in Ruby Rancho, one of the richest areas in Southern California—a town that in which a majority of people are white. He calls himself a “super-huge mega-nerd” and a loser. His friends are Milo, a Guatemalan-American boy, and Jamal, a Jamaican-American boy. Together, they form the group DIY Fantasy FX where they create cheap, safe, and cool practical gadgets for all the LARPing (Live Action Roleplay) nerds out there.

Sunny, Milo, and Jamal love D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and, for the most part, they spend their time making props. Sunny’s room is filled with boxes of props he’s made for DIY Fantasy FX while his brother Gray’s room is filled with guitars, amps, chords, and clothes that are opposite of Sunny’s. Gray hasn’t been home in years since he went off to Hollywood to in hopes of being a rock musician.

A new family in Ruby Rancho arrives and as fate would have it, the parents of said family are friends with Sunny’s parents. Through this connection with family friends, Sunny meets Cirrus Soh. When they first meet, Cirrus mistakes Gray’s room for Sunny’s and assumes that Sunny is a musician. Sunny, who finds Cirrus very pretty and develops a crush on her quickly, decides to play the role of a rock musician to impress Cirrus. He eventually ropes Jamal and Milo into joining him with the ruse, pretending they are a band known as The Immortals. To truly convince Cirrus they are a band, they sign up for the school’s annual talent show to perform one of Gray’s songs. Sunny’s new persona is getting him places with Cirrus, but then Gray comes home and shakes the balance Sunny had created. As Sunny attempts to navigate his relationships, he also struggles to truly understand who he is and wonders if he can ever truly be himself around Cirrus.

Super Fake Love Song is a high school romance told from the perspective of Sunny Dae, who is unapologetically a nerd. The story follows Sunny’s emotions, allowing the readers to feel his sense of division with his identity as he tries to understand himself. The complex relationships Sunny has with his friends, and especially his brother Gray, shape the entire story. Sunny is only able to pretend he is in a band because of Milo and Jamal. He does so convincingly because Gray takes Sunny under his wing. Oftentimes, Sunny reminisces about the better days with him and Gray, such as when they were younger and went on dungeon adventures or stole the spoons from the country club they visited. Then, Sunny returns to the bleak reality that he and Gray are just no longer close. These memories allow the readers to feel just how far apart Sunny and Gray have drifted while also showcasing a natural sibling relationship that’s both turbulent and loving.

Sunny is a nerd who tends to talk about events as though they were a D&D campaign. For readers who are just being introduced to D&D, the specific references to the game may be confusing. Sunny is unique in that he understands things in D&D terms, which is his way of figuring out problems and how he accomplishes building his rock star persona. For example, Sunny understands that performing on stage is just like LARPing which helps him bridge the gap between Rock Star Sunny and Nerdy Sunny. He attributes different kinds of musical performers to the different classes of characters in D&D. To research being cool, Sunny decides to watch videos of rock stars. “As I watched, I became convinced of my hypothesis that music performance was a form of LARPing in itself. Rock performers, after all, hoisted their guitars like heavy axes; their screamsong was a kind of battle cry. Rappers swayed their arms and cast elaborate spells with cryptic finger gestures and fast rhymes. Pop stars danced love dramas, superstar DJs commanded their hordes via mass hypnosis, country crooners sold a pastiche of folklore simplicity long vanished.”

Super Fake Love Song is reaching out to a certain audience: teenagers that play and understand D&D. D&D references are sprinkled throughout the book and show that anyone can participate in D&D. In addition, teens will relate to Sunny’s struggle to understand himself.  The story subverts a traditional romance novel, ending with its own nerdy twist. However, some plot points are wrapped up too quickly and need to be fleshed out. Super Fake Love Song is a book for readers who want a love story and who also love D&D or want to be introduced to it without needing to campaign.

Sexual Content

  • Sunny and Cirrus kiss several times throughout the novel.
  • Cirrus tells Sunny that one of the hottest things a girl can imagine is a guy singing rock and roll to them.
  • At Cirrus’s housewarming party, Sunny takes Cirrus upstairs to her bedroom where they make out. The scene lasts for two pages.
  • Cirrus invites Sunny to a panopticon live. In the virtual world, he and Cirrus become sylphs and kiss using their avatars. “We kiss in that awkward way avatars do: the polygons of our faces glancing off each other, never really touching.”
  • Sunny goes over to Cirrus’s condo where “Cirrus kissed me at her front door.”
  • Cirrus and Sunny have a picnic where they cuddle with each other and kiss.
  • On the way back home, Cirrus and Sunny kiss again. This time, they also confess to each other that they love each other. The kiss is not described.
  • At Fantastic Faire, Sunny and Cirrus reunite after months of missing each other. They “kissed, and the beautiful nerds around us laughed and cheered.”

 Violence

  • Gunner bullies Sunny and his friends. “Gunner would invade my table at lunch to steal chips to feed his illiterate golem of a sidekick and tip our drink bottles and so on, like he had routinely done since the middle school era.”
  • Sunny imagines testing a prop he made on Gunner. “The wires streaked across the stone chamber in a brilliant flash and wrapped Gunner’s steel helm before he could even begin a backswing of his bastard sword. The rest of my party cowered in awe as a nest of lightning enveloped Gunner’s armed torso, turning him into a marionette gone made with jittering death spasms, with absolutely no hope for a saving throw against this: a +9 magical bonus attack.”
  • Gray catches Sunny sitting in his old room with his guitars and friends and doesn’t fall for the ruse of them being a band. Sunny is very frustrated with his brother’s snide behavior. He imagines himself using an FX prop he made against Gray. “I wished I could stun him with Raiden’s Spark for real from one hand, and then cast Esmeralda’s Veil with the other so that I could abscond with the iPod while he choked on clouds of sulfur―no constitution-saving throw, automatic lose-a-turn.”
  • Gunner has bullied Sunny ever since Sunny moved in middle school. Gunner apologizes for being a bully and Sunny thinks about how he “had always fantasized about propelling Gunner with a seventeenth-level Push spell into a fathomless crevice full of lava.”
  • Sunny is practicing how to shred on a guitar and he compares the experience to a D&D campaign experience. “And when I was done, I flung the neck aside like I had just sliced open a charging orc.”
  • Sunny’s anger boils over when his brother hijacks his performance. Sunny pushes Gray into oncoming traffic. “When I shoved him this time, Gray was unprepared. Gray tripped over a pipe jutting from the concrete; He hit the ground backward. . . He found his feet, looked right, and held up a polite hand as tires shrieked. Then he was taken down.” Gray ends up being injured and taken to the hospital. He doesn’t die.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When imagining himself as a rock star performing for the first time, Sunny describes the air as “stinking of smoke and sour spilled beer of the ages.”
  • While hosting a housewarming party, Cirrus says that there’s a variety of alcohol to drink such as “chevre, manchego, membrillo for said manchego, mild ojingeo, spicy ojingeo, stuff from my parents’ liquor stash like Aperol and Richard and makgeolli and like six bottles of clara in the fridge if you’re not into makgeolli, which I get, makgeolli’s definitely an acquired taste, ha!”
  • At the talent show, Sunny sees Gray “standing in the underlit glow of the stage wings, he held onto a truss and raised his beer in a swaying toast at me.” Because he is drunk, Gray ends up hijacking Jamal’s mic and ruining Sunny’s performance.

 Language

  • Both Sunny and his friend Milo call Gunner, “Asswipe.”
  • Jamal says that Gray is “kind of a dick.”
  • After learning someone keyed his car, Sunny’s dad goes into a cursing fit. He yells, “What kind of GD MF-ing A-hole SOB would pull this kind of BS on me?”
  • In a text message thread, Jamal says, “So Gray’s gone from garden variety dick to full on douchetube.”
  • Gray has been treating Sunny very poorly which frustrates Sunny. He says, “Why did Gray have to be what he was―the lord of all douchetubes?”
  • Gray mentors his brother and his friends on how to be a band. He describes a certain face to make saying, “Just grit your teeth like this and mouth a bunch of angry stuff like, You ugly guitar with your dumbass frets and your dumbass strings.”
  • Gray confesses to his family that when they moved to Ruby Rancho, someone asked him “if he ate dog.” Sunny also says that happened to him. Asking an Asian person, especially an East or Southeast Asian person, if they eat dogs is a racial microaggression.

 Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

Instructions for Dancing

High school senior Yvette “Evie” Thomas used to believe in contemporary romance and the power of love; however, this belief has begun to fade. Her parents got divorced when her father cheated; Evie carries the burden of knowing why her parents divorced. Evie has given up on romance altogether, donating her shelves of contemporary romance novels. Then a chance encounter suddenly leaves Evie with the power to see a couple’s past, present, and future romance when she sees them kiss! However, she can only see a couple’s romantic history if they are in love and she only sees it once (it is also possible for Evie to see her own if she keeps her eyes open when she kisses someone).

Then a mysterious woman and a book on how to dance suddenly lead her on a path that she desperately wishes to stray from. Evie finds La Brea Dance Studio, where she learns dance with Xavier Woods, better known as X. He’s exactly like the guys in her romance books: handsome, tall, and a rock musician, the kind of guy Evie needs to stay away from. But X doesn’t hesitate to enter a ballroom dance competition with Evie, even though they just met.

Instructions for Dancing is told from the perspective of Evie and includes the usual narrative style as well as text messages, lists, and small excerpts of dance instructions. In addition, Evie’s visions are separate chapters that use a unique font to indicate that Evie is looking into a couple’s romantic history. The different narrative styles add interest to the story, putting us in the head of Evie. It is realistic to how a teenage girl would think and remember things, such as putting things into lists or remembering funny text messages with her friends. However, the formatting can be a bit jarring for some people and can ruin the pacing of the story.

Evie’s visions have taught her one thing and one thing only: love ends in heartbreak. She believes that love always ends with heartbreak and that all romance novels have lied about their happily ever afters. “What I’ve learned over the last three weeks is that all my old romance novels ended too quickly. Chapters were missing from the end. If they told the real story―the entire story―each couple would’ve eventually broken up, due to neglect or boredom or betrayal or distance or death. Given enough time, all love stories turn into heartbreak stories. Heartbreak = love + time.”

Therefore she approaches love with caution and hesitance, but as she takes ballroom dance lessons and gets to learn more about X, she begins to navigate the world of love around her. Evie learns about love beyond the surface level. Not all love is what it seems on the surface. No one comes out of love unscathed, but Evie learns that it’s not the ending that matters and that love, while hurtful, is worth holding onto.

Instructions for Dancing serves as peak escapism for high school girls who dream of romance. X and Evie are well-developed characters with unique personalities of their own. The novel is filled with sweet moments of romance, friendship, and familial love. Instructions for Dancing is a typical romance that emphasizes the importance of platonic and familial love and shows how it is entwined with romantic love. Regardless, Instructions for Dancing is a must-read, especially for readers who enjoy romance and wish for a fantasy filled with dancing and a diverse cast of characters.

Sexual Content

  • There are times where sex is suggested with vague language such as a portion of Evie’s vision with her and X. “There’s only one bed. He kisses me and my hand slips under his shirt. His lips are on my neck. . . Then we are nothing but hands and lips and wanting and having.”
  • When describing one of her former favorite romance novels, Cupcakes and Kisses, Evie says the best scene is where the leads are covered in flour and icing. “There’s kissing and a lot of dessert related wordplay: sugars lips, sweet buns, sticky situations.”
  • Evie’s mother wears an apron that says, “Kiss the Cook.”
  • There are many moments in the book where kissing is the main gesture of affection between two people in love. It is also the catalyst for Evie having her visions.
  • Evie catches her father “kissing a woman who wasn’t Mom” in his office.
  • Evie and other characters describe X as being hot and/or sexy.
  • When Cassidy tells her friends that she’s thinking of getting breasts implants, the group starts joking about breasts (specifically of Martin, one of Evie’s friends, having never touched a pair).
  • When Fifi says X is good-looking, Maggie asks her “not to undress my grandchild with her eyes.” Fifi retorts, “You prefer I should use my hands?”
  • Many times, groupies are mentioned, particularly in the context that they are fans who have sex with rock musicians. For example, when Evie sees X and his band perform for the first time, she thinks, “I get why groupies are a thing. Because up there onstage with his guitar, X’s sexy is undeniable.”
  • Over a text, X asks, “What are gorgeous mounds of flesh?” Since he’s reading Cupcakes and Kisses, this mostly refers to breasts.
  • When at the Danceball competition, Evie sees X and thinks about undressing him. “But it’s the top two buttons that snag my attention. They’re unbuttoned, and for a second I see my fingers unbuttoning a third and a fourth, until―”
  • Someone compares an opponent’s tango dance to “good sex.”
  • In the final chapter, Evie says, “We’ll have made love.”

 Violence

  • In Evie’s list of (former) favorite romance genres, she lists enemies to lovers as one of her favorites, where she says, “Asking the perennial question will they kill each other or will they kiss each other?”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • During a bonfire, Evie and her friends drink white wine that was swiped from a parent.
  • When Cassidy says Sophie is so pretty, Sophie asks, “How drunk are you?”
  • At a pool party, Sophie asks, “God, Cassidy, how much did you drink?”
  • After apologizing to Cassidy and Sophie for her sudden outburst, “Cassidy pours herself another glass of wine.”
  • At another bonfire, the group drinks more and they begin to attempt to dance following Evie and X’s instruction.

Language

  • Once when a mysterious woman appears and surprises her, Evie says “Holy fuckballs.” The woman responds, “Though one wonders what a fuckball might be.”
  • Shit is used multiple times.
  • When talking about the death of his friend and bandmate Clay, X says “it was a fucking adult” who killed Clay in a hit and run because the adult was texting and driving.
  • X compliments Evie but is cut off because of his language. “Jesus God, Evie, you look fucking―”
  • When applying Evie’s makeup for the competition, her sister Danica says, “Oh my God, don’t mess up your face!”

 Supernatural

  • Evie has a list of her (former) favorite romance genres. Paranormal romance has its own small list and includes vampires, angels, and shapeshifters.
  • A whole chapter is dedicated to Evie thinking she was a witch and wishing her visions were just “witchy powers.”
  • Evie’s friend Martin explains the general plot of the Tom Hanks movie Big which involves a young boy magically wishing he was big to the fortune teller Zoltar. He does this for Evie to understand what she must do if she wants the visions to end.

Spiritual

  • When talking to her father about her parents’ divorce, Evie exclaims, “You believe in God. Tell me why He would make the world like this. Tell me why He’s so cruel.”

by Emma Hua

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto

George Johnson grew up as a queer Black man. In his memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue, Johnson reflects on the ways that the intersection of these two identities influenced his childhood, adolescence, and college experiences. Johnson discusses being jumped as a small child, ridiculed at school for being too feminine, being sexually assaulted, and finally accepting his intersecting identities. He also describes the support his family provided for him through these difficult times. Johnson does not brush over any details in this raw memoir.

All Boys Aren’t Blue is presented as a series of essays about various experiences Johnson faced throughout his life. In the first section of the book, Johnson considers his childhood and how being different made growing up difficult. Johnson writes, “When you are a child that is different, there always seems to be ‘something.’ You can’t switch, you can’t say that, you can’t act this way, there is always something that must be erased – and with it, a piece of you. The fear of being that vulnerable again outweighs the happiness that comes with being who you are, and so you agree to erase that something.”

Next, Johnson describes the important familial relationships that helped him grow into himself. He emphasizes his relationship with his grandmother, who made sure he felt safe being fully himself. Johnson’s collection of essays on his teenage years are painful because he is assaulted. Finally, Johnson concludes with his time in college. Even as he begins to fully embrace his identity as a gay black man, he still faced challenges, such as a friend’s suicide.

Johnson wrote his story as a memoir for young adults because he hoped his story would help others. Johnson stated, “This meant going to places and discussing some subjects that are often kept away from teens for fear of them being ‘too heavy.’ But the truth of the matter is, these things happened to me when I was a child, teenager, and young adult. So, as heavy as these subjects may be, it is necessary that they are not only told but also read by teens who may have to navigate many of these same experiences in their own lives.”

This memoir is powerful and heartbreaking. Johnson not only tells painful stories but also reflects on how the experiences still affect him. This book encourages young readers who face similar situations and lets them know they are not alone. All Boys Aren’t Blue is a must-read for any young adult who has gone through painful experiences. Johnson discusses sexual assault, queerness, existing as a black man, and losing his virginity as a gay man. He shares his coming-out story and the support his family provided. While All Boys Aren’t Blue is difficult to read because of the heavy topics, the book gives a voice to anyone who has been victimized by others and stigmatized by society.

Sexual Content

  • Johnson started talking to guys his age in middle school, saying, “It was interesting to finally feel like I was one of the boys. Hearing the conversations they had about girls, the cursing, the tough-guy act. They talked about sex, although none had actually had it.”
  • Johnson describes his family’s fears about his transgender cousin, Hope, going out to the bars. Johnson says, “I remember my mom used to worry because some of the stories covered a little bit of sex and some of the issues you ran into with men. There was always some story about how men wanted to mess with y’all, but only in secret.”
  • When he was a child, Johnson’s older cousin sexually assaulted him. Johnson describes, “You were fully erect at this point . . . You stood fully erect in front of me and said, ‘Taste it’ . . . and You ejaculated in the toilet in front of me.” The scene is described over several pages.
  • Johnson details when he was sexually assaulted in the school bathroom. While he was using the urinal, “I felt someone come up behind me. At first, I froze because I didn’t know what was happening. He put both his hands around me and moved down to touch my genitals.” To end the assault, Johnson proceeded to shove the person.
  • Johnson said now that he is older, he can empathize with his cousin. Johnson said he wishes he could ask him, “Did anyone ever hurt you? Did anyone explore things with you sexually before you were ready? Who taught you about sex in a way that you weren’t ready to understand – in a way that made you think I needed to get it firsthand from you, so I would know who not to trust?”
  • Johnson spends a chapter of the novel discussing losing his virginity “twice.” He discusses in detail his first time penetrating another male. Johnson “eased in, slowly, until I heard him moan.” He also discusses his first time being penetrated by a male saying, “He got on top and slowly inserted himself into me. It was the worst pain I think I have ever felt in my life.”

Violence

  • When he was five years old, Johnson was jumped. He describes the scene: “The third kid swung his leg and kicked me in the face. Then he pulled his leg back again and kicked even harder. My teeth shattered like glass hitting the concrete.”
  • Johnson discusses understanding the world he lives in as a black man. He states, “It wasn’t lost on me how racist the Rodney King beating was.”
  • Johnson discusses the violence of hazing for a few pages. He says, “A person trying to join Alpha Phi Alpha (the same frat I was interested in) was killed in a hazing incident gone wrong.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Johnson describes his Aunt Cynthia and his uncle arguing over drugs. He says, “Aunt Cynthia and ‘Uncle’ got into an argument over laundry that I learned much later was really over drugs.”
  • When his extended family came to town, Johnson said, “The Jersey City Crew arrived later that afternoon like they usually did: with a case of beer, money to play cards, and a readiness to shit-talk.”
  • Johnson’s cousins often caused trouble. “We would sneak and drink liquor from the liquor cart and refill the bottles with water.”
  • In college, Johnson frequently drank liquor. For example, when Johnson goes to college, he describes his friends. “They became my crew. We would all get together every night and eat, drink, and do homework. I had a car, so I became the ride for all of us when we needed to get groceries, cigarettes, soda, or something for the munchies.”
  • In college, Johnson relied on smoking weed. He states, “I was smoking up to three blunts a day, working, partying, drinking, and not going to class.”

Language

  • Johnson is very intentional with his choice of language. He uses the term “nigga” as he grew up “with it used as a term of endearment in his household.” However, he makes a point to state, “never with the ‘-er’ at the end.” Whenever he encounters someone who uses the “-er” he types it as “n*****.”
  • Later, Johnson does use the term “nigger.” For example, “I was never called a nigger, but I did deal with weird, racially charged questions.”
  • The word “shit” is used occasionally. For example, Johnson discusses healing from trauma. “It’s necessary that we do the work to unpack our shit.”
  • The word “ass” is occasionally used. Johnson described the look his grandmother gave his cousin in one scene as, “I’m gonna beat your ass when everyone goes home.”
  • “Damn” is used often. Whenever the phone would ring, his grandmother would yell to Johnson and his cousins, “Get the damn phone.”
  • The word fuck is never spelled out in the book, rather it is typed as “f***”. For example, when Johnson was called George in his roll call in high school, he said the students all said, “Who the f**** is George?”
  • Johnson uses the word “faggot” and “fag” often. He said, “A sissy is what the kids used to call me back then, but before they got older and escalated to the word faggot.”

Supernatural

  • Johnson discusses ghosts being in his grandmother’s house. He says, “The house had ghosts, and Grandma liked to bring it up from time to time that she could see them.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Paige Smith

Submerge

Lia and Clay’s love has broken the Little Mermaid’s curse, but their ever after may not be as happy as they planned. Lia is adamant about staying on land with Clay for her senior year despite her family’s opportunity to move to the new, sparkling capital city below the waves. But before any decision about the future can be made, her family must endure Melusine and her father’s trial, where new revelations will have far-reaching consequences that threaten what Lia holds most dear.

The verdict will shake Lia’s world, calling into question her future with Clay, her feelings for Caspian, and the fate of all Merkind. As she wonders who to trust, Lia sets out on a treacherous path that will lead her away from her sheltered Malibu home to a remote and mysterious school for Mermaids—Mermaids who may hold the secret to an ancient magic Lia can use to get back all she’s lost.

As a “princess,” Lia must learn about Mer politics. However, much of Lia’s teaching is dry and boring. In class, Lia learns about “magic having unintended political consequences.” Even though the story introduces the Mer world, Lia explores very little of it. Instead, her only focus is on restoring Clay’s memory so they can be together. Lia is so focused on herself that she never notices anyone else’s needs. Unfortunately, Lia’s single-minded focus on Clay becomes tedious.

The first part of Submerge is a retelling of the events from the first book in the series. The repetition is long-winded and readers will quickly lose interest in the court proceedings. In addition, a Mer teacher, Ondine, is introduced. Instead of adding interest to the story, Lia’s trust in Ondine is unbelievable, and Ondine’s betrayal, predictable. To make matters worse, Caspian is suddenly in love with Lia, which adds another unbelievable element to the story. The conclusion doesn’t wrap up any of the story’s threads and reinforces the idea that Lia cannot think past her own wants. Readers who love Disney’s Little Mermaid will want to throw the Mer Chronicles into the ocean and watch it sink to a watery grave.

Sexual Content

  • Mers get their legs during puberty because they need legs “for mating.”
  • Lia and her boyfriend kiss. Lia describes the kiss. “I let my eyes flutter shut. Let myself taste Clay’s lips against mine. Get lost in the richness of every touch, every press of his tongue and graze of his cheek.”
  • When Lia shows Clay her tail, he kisses her. “Slow and sweet and swirling to different depths. I forget everything else.” The kiss is interrupted when Clay’s mother walks in on them.
  • Clay and Lia kiss often. For example, while swimming in the ocean, “strong arms grab me and pull me against him, my wet body pressing against his. . . Droplets of water from his face collide with mine as he takes my mouth in a kiss as sweeping as the sea breeze itself.”
  • Clay and Lia discuss the trial. Then they kiss. “Now he does pull me in, pressing my body flush against his and seizes my mouth violently with his. There’s a wildness, a fervor, in his kiss I’ve never felt before. . . So I push back with equal ferocity.”
  • Clay is preparing to take a potion that will take away some of his memories when Lia and Clay decide to have sex for the first time. “Clay’s eyes close as he bites the bottom of my lip. When he opens them again, desire darkens the hazel. I’ve never seen such naked hunger.” Clay stops kissing her so they can go somewhere private.
  • Before Clay takes the potion, Lea wants to give Clay a memory that he will not forget so they have sex for the first time. Clay’s “palms skim up and down my arms, leaving streaks of exhilarating tingles in their wake from shoulder to wrist. My fingers twine into his hair as our mouths latch together, more lasting and leading than ever before. . . He grabs what he needs from the nightstand (and there’s something that seems both so comforting and so momentous about that small, foil packet), and then he moves toward me. . .Time surges and crests, and we move with it, holding each other close. . .”
  • After Clay loses his memory, Lia’s sister tells her, “A rebound hookup can be totally hot.”
  • In the middle of the night, Lia and Clay show up at Clay’s father’s house, which is on a military base. His father gets upset and says, “I got you security clearance so you could feel at home here, not so you could . . . score with girls.”
  • After Lia fights against ancient magic and wins, Lia and Clay kiss. “Clay’s lips are on mine the instant the door clicks shut. Hands run up my bare arms and tangle in my hair as biceps cloaked in thin cotton press against my eager palms. His tongue welcomes me, drawing me in until I’m utterly lost in his kisses, drowning in the sensations of soft lips and rough stubble. . . ”

Violence

  • A Mermaid describes her mother’s death. When her mom went shopping, raiders “cut her throat. Left her to die.”
  • Someone tells Lia a story about a siren who wanted revenge “so she used the siren bond she shared with him to sense when he was alone and to call him to her so she could murder him in cold blood after making him—”
  • In order to manipulate Lia, Ondine binds Caspian. “The ropes tighten more and more until Caspian, so strong and stoic, can’t help but scream.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Lia’s sisters are looking forward to college keg parties.
  • A mermaid, who was a siren, is given a potion that will not allow her to speak in the human world.
  • The Mer Tribunal gives Clay a potion that takes away all of his memories of Lia. “The potion works by constructing extremely powerful wands that completely block Clay’s mind from accessing certain memories.”
  • Clay is given antidepressants because of his depression; however, he doesn’t know if he should take them.

Language

  • Several different forms of damn are used occasionally.
  • During a trial, Lia watches the defendant and wonders, “What the hell does he have to smile about?”
  • When the Mermaid that tried to kill Clay and Lia testifies, Lia thinks, “That bitch starts talking. I don’t trust myself not to snap.”
  • God is used as an exclamation twice.
  • Pissed is used twice. For example, Lia thinks, “The last thing I want to do is piss off the psycho with raging powers . . .”
  • Clay says “eff that” and later he says, “I was so goddamn helpless and you needed me!”

Supernatural

  • Most Mer do not use ancient magic, but they do utilize potions. Much of the story revolves around Lia learning how to use magic.
  • At the trial, Caspian explains how the defendant used runes. The runes, “mapped out coordinates. It was part of a spell—marking Clay’s bedroom with the place under the sea where he would sleep forever.”
  • Because Lia “sirened” Clay, they have a special bond and can feel each other. Lia “can trace him, feel him, no matter how far away he is.” Lia can also use this bond to tell what Clay is thinking and feeling.
  • In order to perform ancient magic, Lia’s palm is cut and she shares her blood with other Mermaids. “Only through blood magic can we forge new links to fully access new power.” The Mermaids then use their combined power to restore Clay’s memories.
  • Ondine forces Lia to take a potion so she can siren humans.
  • Lia uses magic to break Ondine’s hold on her. “The rope of magic grows impossibly brighter. Blinding! I can feel it sizzle and it scares me. It scares me more than anything that has ever scared me. I grab on to it—and scream. . . Even as her power sears through me, scalding me from the inside, I pull hard.” Lia’s magic is able to overcome Ondine, and Ondine disappears. The scene is described over two pages.
  • Lia releases Ondine’s power into the sea. Lia’s “body tingles with burning ice as the magic picks up speed, cycloning through my chest, down my arms, and out my palms. I crash to my knees as all flows out of me and disappears beneath the waves.”

Spiritual Content

  • Ondine takes Lia to “a sacred space. . . a place where magic itself is worshiped.”

Emerge

Lia Nautilus may be a Mermaid but she’s never lived in the ocean. War has ravaged the seven seas ever since the infamous Little Mermaid unleashed a curse that stripped the Mer of their immortality. Lia has grown up in a secret community of land-dwelling Mer hidden among Malibu’s seaside mansions. Her biggest problems are surviving P.E. and keeping her feelings for Clay Ericson in check. Sure, he’s gorgeous in that cocky leather jacket sort of way and he makes her feel like there’s a school of fish swimming in her stomach, but getting involved with a human could put Lia’s entire community at risk.

So it’s for the best that he’s dating that new girl, right? That is until Lia finds out she isn’t the only one at school keeping a potentially deadly secret. And this new girl? Her eyes are dead set on Clay, who doesn’t realize the danger he’s in. If Lia hopes to save him, she’ll have to get closer to Clay. Lia’s parents would totally flip if they found out she was falling for a human boy, but the more time she spends with him, the harder it is to deny her feelings. After making a horrible mistake, Lia decides to risk everything to stop Clay from falling in love with the wrong girl.

Lia and her family are descendants of the Little Mermaid, which gives the story an interesting connection to the fairy tale. In addition, one of the Mermaids is a siren and her ability to manipulate will leave readers on edge. Much of the dramatic tension in this story is saved for the multi-chapter conclusion that quickly builds suspense and ends with a surprising twist.

The Mers living on land rarely return to the ocean, which keeps the story one-dimensional. While Lia’s desire to do what is right is admirable, her inner struggle is predictable and tedious. Lia fantasizes about kissing Clay but knows it is forbidden for a Mer to love a human. While the story doesn’t describe anyone having sex, there is abundant talk about sex. The Mer world is accepting of promiscuous behavior both in and out of marriage as well as having sexual partners of both sexes.

Emerge starts out strong with many cute sayings from the Mer world. Unfortunately, Emerge uses teenage angst, a love triangle, and ancient potions to create a typical teen romance. The narrator, Lia, is the only well-developed character, but her inner dialogue is tedious. Readers who are looking for an interesting Mermaid story will find Emerge lacking in originality and over-focused on sexual desire. Readers looking for a unique, memorable story may want to leave Emerge on the shelf.

Sexual Content

  • Lia is upset when Clay and Mel, another Mermaid, begin dating. While shopping, “Mel gives me [Lia] a curious look before wrapping her arms around Clay’s neck and kissing him right there in the middle of the store, her hands tangling in his hair.”
  • Because Mermaids used to be immortal, “fidelity was never a requirement” and Mermaids would “roam periodically” and then return to their mate.
  • Lia’s twin sisters have “both had human hookups at parties.”
  • Lia often thinks about kissing Clay. At one point, Lia wonders if she should have dated Clay. “I could have gotten in a few glorious weeks of kissing Clay. What would it be like to be able to hold onto those strong arms . . . kiss that full smirky mouth?”
  • Mermaids need to learn how to make their tails turn into and stay legs. Originally, merfolk only needed legs when they had sex. When a young girl first gets her legs, someone says, “What you need to do is embrace your natural impulses: You don’t need to act on those urges—thinking about them will be enough.” Someone else says, “So, all you have to do is think slutty thoughts, and your legs will stay firmly in place.” The conversation goes on for three pages.
  • After talking to Clay, Lia says her sisters, “hook up with new guys at practically every party, and I’ve never had a real kiss.” As they continue to talk about relationships, Clay says, “When I’m kissing Mel, all I can think about is kissing her more.”
  • Clay’s girlfriend sirens him. Then, she “leans up to kiss him. Hunger gleams in his eyes. . . whatever he’s feeling right now, she’s forcing it on him.”
  • Lia walks Clay home. She “wants to run [her] fingers over the skin, explore his rich mahogany hairline. . . I wanted to know what it would be like to feel him, to taste him.” The scene is described over two pages.
  • While shopping for a bra, two girls talk about what type of bras and underwear their boyfriends like them to wear.
  • Lia’s twin sisters tell her that she can have sex with an underclassman because, “we haven’t tapped anyone younger than us, so the junior class is all yours.”
  • Lia goes to Clay’s house to work on a school project. “A slow kiss covers my shoulder, his lips firm and cool against my heated skin. . . He plants a trail of kisses across my shoulder, toward my throat. As soon as his lips make contact with my neck, a shudder runs through me and I want to grab him to me and hold him there forever.”
  • Lia’s cousin is conflicted because she is attracted to other girls. Lia thinks, “Before the curse, homosexuality. . . was accepted in Mer culture. Most Mermaids mated with Mermen, but Mermaids mating with Mermaids wasn’t uncommon, and neither was Mermen with Mermen.”
  • Lia is preparing to walk away from Clay and never see him again. Her “eyes meet his open, questioning ones, and I stop thinking. Grabbing two fistfuls of his shirt, I yank him up close to me. . . crash my lips against his. . . Then his lips part and I’m tasting him. . . My world becomes a whirlwind of supple lips and exploring tongue, of light stubble and sweet, gasping breath.” The scene is described over a page.

Violence

  • Lia’s family are descendants of the Little Mermaid, so the fairytale is retold. However, in this version, the Mermaids were cursed because of the Little Mermaid’s actions. “Merkind blamed her father the king for her mistake and executed him, throwing our entire society into a state of anarchy and war that’s lasted ever since.”
  • In the past, when a Mermaid “sirened” a man, which put him under a spell, the man was executed because “they couldn’t risk him telling other humans what had happened to him.”
  • Lia researches the history of sirens. One siren “ordered a man under her spell to gouge out his own eyes while she watched in amusement. . . a Mermaid who heard a bard singing on a ship off the coast of Tudor England and used his own song to siren him. . . she commanded him to sing and dance for her until he died of exhaustion.”
  • Before sirening was made illegal in the Mer World, sailors attacked a Mermaid, “in her anger, she screamed for their deaths, and each one of them jumped off the island’s cliff to a watery grave.”
  • A Merman commits suicide because “he couldn’t take the constant reminder that he was aging. That he wasn’t immortal.”
  • In a violent and deadly multi-chapter conclusion, Clay is kidnapped and Lia goes in search of him. Lia goes under the ocean and into Mer territory where she sees dead Mermen. “Permanent agony contorts each lifeless face. . . Bodies battered and bloody, limbs twisted at odd angles, fins hacked off.”
  • When Lia is looking for Clay, “someone grabs me from behind. . . I’m breathing in whatever noxious potion is on the kelp, and I’m growing dizzier by the second.” When Lia awakens, she sees Clay “bound and bloody.”
  • Lia’s captor “drags the tip of the dagger down [her] cheek and neck with just enough pressure that it must leave a line of raised, red skin in its wake.”
  • Lia and her captors fight. “With his other hand, he grabs the top of my fin and folds my tail back up into that painful bent position. I lash out with my arms, twist my torso around so I can hit him with my fists, and try to free my tail, but he stands firm against my attack.”
  • One of Clay’s captors stabs him in the stomach with a knife. Lia’s “eyes fly open in time to see Melusine twist the dagger deeper into Clay’s stomach. . . And now he’s screaming. Covering the wound with his hands.”
  • Lia’s captor tries to kill her. “His cold hands tighten around my throat, pressing both my windpipe and my gills shut. I can’t breathe.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Mermaids started living on land, there were “a few bar fights” because the Mer “weren’t used to the effects of liquor.”
  • Clay’s ex-girlfriend slips something into his drink. Lia finds Clay. “He convulses, his limbs smacking against the unforgiving pavement. Sweat pours down his face.” Later, Lia discovers Clay was given a love potion. “It would have performed its office successfully if the boy weren’t already under another form of Mer magic.”

Language

  • Damn is used three times. For example, when Lia’s cousin gets her legs, her cousin says, “Those are some damn sexy legs you got there, Aims.”
  • OMG and God are both used as an exclamation once.
  • Bitch is used 4 times. For example, a Mermaid asks, “Father, will it disrupt the ritual if I kill this meddling bitch before I take care of the human?”
  • Clay loses his balance and falls on “his grabbable ass.”
  • Someone tells Lia she will kiss Clay. Lia says, “Like hell I will!”
  • Pissed is used once.

Supernatural

  • Clay’s girlfriend is a siren. She uses her song to control him. When she sings, Clay’s “eyes are glazed over, like he’s lost in some dream world. The spark of intelligence, of awareness, is gone.”
  • Clay is kidnapped. Lia finds “ritualistic symbols line the walls in a translucent, sickly blue ink.” Later, she finds out that the symbols were part of a spell.
  • In order to save Clay’s life, a Merman gives him a potion. “All the blood smeared on Clay’s body slides across his skin and back into the wound! Even the red staining his boxers seeps upward along the fabric, back onto his torso, and into his body.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Breaking the Ice

Sophie Fournier’s first love is hockey. When she’s the first woman drafted into the North American Hockey League (NAHL), she finally gets her chance to play hockey for a living. But being the first woman in the NAHL means she has to be perfect on and off the ice in order to prove that women should have a shot at being drafted. Not meeting that perfection means no playing—not just for her—but for every woman wishing to play.

Breaking the Ice is a hockey-heavy book. Sophie’s love for the sport comes up often because it’s her career, and there are many scenes depicting games and practices. The story starts with Sophie being drafted and ends with the next year’s draft, leading the reader through her first season with the Concord Condors as she battles with opponents and some teammates. Although this story and Sophie are fictitious, most of the scenes are very realistic.

Sophie is a strong protagonist. She’s extremely intelligent and understands how the press and her teammates perceive her is very important to her survival as the first and only woman in the NAHL. Because Sophie is so well-controlled in her behavior, she does occasionally come off as aloof and uptight. As the story progresses, she begins to befriend her teammates and some of her icy exterior thaws. As she allows herself to open up, she becomes friends with some of the other characters, like her opponent Dmitri and teammate Merlin.

Sophie does have issues with a couple of teammates, opponents, and the press because she is a woman and many feel that she doesn’t have a place in the NAHL. Sophie takes these confrontations with as much grace as possible, and she pushes herself to be absolutely perfect on and off the ice. As this is the first book in the series, Sophie’s need for perfection as well as her character growth will most likely continue in the next books as her team vies for the Maple Cup. Sophie wants it all, like any serious athlete, and she’s working hard while knowing that her mark can help or hinder the next woman who wishes to be drafted and taken seriously.

Breaking the Ice has a steady pace throughout as it details Sophie’s first season with the Condors. As a result, those looking for a book with a very exciting ending probably will not find it here, though there is much excitement throughout. Sophie’s story is enlightening for hockey players as well as those who don’t know anything about the sport, and her dedication is admirable. Sophie has a lot of obstacles to overcome in Breaking the Ice, but readers will see she is more than up for the challenge.

Sexual Content

  • Sophie has played on men’s hockey teams for a long time. Sophie mentions that “she’s had teammates hit on her before, a waste of everyone’s time, but that was in high school.”
  • None of Sophie’s teammates are allowed to be alone with her, even if it’s just driving to and from practice, according to the team’s PR person. Sophie says “they don’t want to give any ammunition to the inevitable rumors that she’s sleeping with one, or more, or her teammates.”
  • One of Sophie’s teammates offers Sophie some advice. He says, “If a boy tells you he’s too big for a condom, punch him and run.”
  • Sophie expresses no interest in dating men. Her reason is that “after years of guys slamming her into the boards and trying to break her wrists and listening to what they’d do to her if the officials weren’t there to stop them, she has no desire to get closer.”
  • Sophie has lunch with her former teammate Travis, and Travis’s current teammate. Sophie tells Travis’s teammate not to leave because she’s not allowed to be alone with anyone because of rumors that might be spread, though Sophie and Travis make it clear that they would never try anything like that. Sophie then turns to Travis’s teammate and says, “Of course, maybe Forbes likes to watch.” She says this in jest.
  • Sophie and her teammate Merlin joke about Sophie’s admiration for another player’s hockey abilities. Sophie makes a point to show she can like a player for hockey and not romantically. She says, “You can like someone’s hockey without wanting to see them naked.”
  • A fellow hockey player tells Dimitri that he only scores the pretty goals and needs to score “some dirty ones too.” Dimitri responds by saying, “I score dirty.”  The other hockey player responds with, “Keep it in your pants.”

Violence

  • Dimitri and Sophie are sharing a piece of cake. Jokingly, Sophie “kicks his shins then steals the best bite of cake.”
  • There are a lot of playful slaps and hits between the hockey players on the same team. For instance, one player “slaps Matty’s [another player’s] ass on the way by then laughs all the way down the tunnel.”
  • Sophie has a rival teammate named Hayes with whom she fights for the same position on the ice. They also fight over who gets number 93 on their jersey, then Sophie gets the first pick. Hayes is mad, and “she’s almost to the door when Hayes catches up to her. She looks over her shoulder in time for him to shove her up against the wall . . . She knocks his hands away and shoves him back.”
  • Hockey is a high-contact sport where fighting and checking into the boards are commonplace. Sophie, being the only woman in the league, often gets the brunt of the hits. For instance, “[An opponent] slams her into the glass a second later. He snarls at her, and the fans pound the glass, hoping for a fight.”
  • One of the other incoming players physically threatens Sophie after a game one night. Sophie narrates, “He grabs her by the lapels of her suit jacket and slams her back against her car.” Soon after, he leaves.
  • At a hockey event, Sophie sees someone holding up a “well-drawn, and graphic, image of Sophie on the ground, her limbs bent at awkward angles as a condor picks at her intestines.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • At the hockey team’s Canadian Thanksgiving party, one of the younger players drinks a beer “even though [he’s] still a few years too young.”
  • At a backyard party, one of Sophie’s teammates says, “Alcohol and painkillers don’t mix.” Another player responds, “I learned that one the hard way.” They don’t explain this story further.
  • Some of the fans show up to games already drunk. Sophie describes how at one game, “Fans, already drunk, pound the glass and shout at her when she skates her two easy laps.”

Language

  • Profanity is included often throughout. Profanity includes: stupid, shit, ass, bullshit, fuck, dick, bitch, and slut.
  • One of Sophie’s opponents makes a nasty comment towards one of her teammates that seems to be racially charged. Sophie notes, “Walker sneers something, all Sophie hears is, ‘The Rez.’ [One of Sophie’s teammates] freezes, shock and disgust on his face.”

Supernatural

  • None.

 

Spiritual Content

  • Sophie celebrates Christmas with the General Manager of her NAHL team, but there are no references to church.

 

by Alli Kestler

 

More Happy Than Not

Aaron struggles with his father’s seemingly meaningless suicide and his own attempted suicide. Through the process of coming to terms with his losses, Aaron leans on the support of his mother, brother, girlfriend, and friends. He has been with his girlfriend, Genevieve, since before his father’s suicide and she supported him after his own suicide attempt, solidifying her role as a central part of Aaron’s support system. Then, Aaron meets a boy from a nearby neighborhood, Thomas, who changes his entire life as he begins to fall in love with him.

Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

More Happy Than Not follows Aaron’s journey of meeting a boy who changes his life in a way he has never experienced before. The story is told from Aaron’s perspective which allows the reader to understand Aaron’s internal struggles as he grapples with his sexuality. The reader follows Aaron’s feelings for his perfect girlfriend, which become complicated with his potential feelings for a new boy, Thomas. Aaron struggles with this internal battle of sexuality, his love and care for others, and internalized homophobia.

Following his regained memories, Aaron is upset that the Leteo procedure did not “fix” his sexuality. He confides in Genevieve, who reveals she was aware of his previous relationship a boy, and had helped him through the Leteo procedure in the hopes that it would help him love her the way she loved him. With the return of painful memories and a rejection by Thomas, the novel ends with Aaron considering whether or not he should undergo an additional Leteo procedure to take the pain away.

This raw novel highlights struggles of sexual identity, mental illness, suicide, grief, homophobia, and hate crimes. Aaron is a likable character with challenges that may be relatable to LGBTQ+ readers. More Happy Than Not is an engaging, suspenseful story that is difficult to put down. Yet Aaron’s experiences may be painful for some readers, especially those who have not yet come out. However, it is important that this story be told for LGBTQ+ youth who have faced discrimination as Aaron’s experiences explore how to move forward after painful experiences.

This sensitive and gruesomely realistic novel takes the reader on a journey of understanding Aaron’s inner conflicts. In the end, Aaron learns an important lesson and he decides, “I will do my best to always find the sun in the darkness because my life isn’t one sad ending – it’s a series of endless happy beginnings.”

Sexual Content

  • Aaron’s girlfriend, Genevieve, insinuates she wants to have sex with Aaron, to which he thinks, “A sexy lightbulb flashes on. . . I remember something very crucial: Fuck, I have no idea how to have sex.”
  • When preparing to have sex with Genevieve, Aaron thinks, “I am so screwed later on. Okay, poor choice of words . . . I was hoping I could watch an unhealthy amount of porn to memorize techniques. . . I’ve considered maybe watching porn in the morning while he’s [his older brother] knocked out, but even naked bodies can’t wake me up.”
  • When preparing to have sex, Aaron consults his friends. A friend states, “Fuck all that. I boned a bunch of girls just so I could get off and get better.”
  • When Aaron has sex with Genevieve, in-depth details aren’t given, but kissing and undressing are discussed. Aaron broke “free from her not-so-tight grip, slide up on her, and kiss her lips and neck…She pulls my shirt off and it sails over my shoulder. . . I take off her shirt and leave her in a bra. She unzips my jeans and I kick them off with much awkward difficulty.”
  • Aaron discusses having sex with Genevieve. “Skinny-Dave wanted to know how many times we did it (twice!) and how long I lasted (not long but I lied).”
  • Aaron thinks back to when his best friend said, “Yo! I just got my first blow job!”
  • In his recovered memories, Aaron recalls a previous romance with his classmate, Collin. As they grew closer Aaron wanted to move forward in their relationship physically. “Collin has already lost both of his virginities. He got it on with this girl Suria when he was fourteen, after she gave him a hand job under the bleachers in the gym. Then he let this guy plow him last year when he was vacationing in the Poconos. I still have both of my virginities to lose. . . I want to take it to the next level with Collin.”
  • Once Aaron recovers his memories, he remembers he had sex with Collin multiple times. Aaron thinks back to when he tackled Collin “against the wall, unbuttoning his shirt, and it’s all condoms and awkward first memories from there.”

Violence

  • The book opens with Aaron thinking of his father’s suicide and his own suicide attempt. “I trace the smiling scar, left to right and right to left, happy to have a reminder to not be such a dumbass again.”
  • Aaron shares a long hug with Thomas. When Aaron’s friends see him, they jump him. During the fight, Aaron thought, “I don’t know where we’re going until we crash through the glass door of my building and I am sprawled across the lobby floor. There’s an explosion in the back of my head, a delayed reaction. Blood fills my mouth. This is what death feels like, I think. I scream like someone is turning a hundred knives inside of me, spitting up blood as I do.”
  • When Aaron recovers his memories, he angrily remembers how his friend’s brother died. “Kenneth was fucking gunned down yesterday and it’s all Kyle’s fucking fault. Kyle couldn’t fucking help himself and just had to fucking fuck Jordan’s fucking sister, even though we all fucking knew Jordan is the kind of fucking guy who would fucking kill someone if you fucking crossed him. Those bullets were fucking meant for fucking Kyle but no, they fucking found their way into fucking Kenneth when he was fucking innocently coming home from his fucking clarinet lessons at school.”
  • When Aaron remembers coming out to his father, he recalls his father’s violence. Aaron’s father said, “ ‘I’ll fucking throw him out myself.’ My mom guards me. Dad wraps his big hands around her throat, shaking her. . . I run over, grab his TV remote, and hit him so hard in the back of his head with it that the batteries pop out. . . My dad – the man who fucking played catch with me – punches me in the back of my head. . .”
  • Aaron was sitting close to Collin in a park and two guys yell, “Yo. You two homos faggots?” Then the two guys jump Aaron and Collin. “One slams my head into the railing, and the other hammers Collin with punches. I try punching the first guy in his nose. . . I have no idea how many times he punches me or at what point I end up on the sticky floor with Collin trying to shield me before he’s kicked to the side. . . His kind brown eyes roll back when he’s kicked in the head.”
  • When Aaron gets home after being jumped, he enters his bathroom to find his dead father. “When I see who’s sitting in the bathtub, I drop the shirt and blood just spills down my face and chest. Holy shit. Dad. His eyes are open but he’s not looking at me. He didn’t take his clothes off before getting into the tub. The water is a deep red, stained by the blood spilling from his slit wrists. He came home to kill himself. He came home to kill himself before I could bring a boy here. He came home to kill himself because of me. All this blood. All this red makes me black out.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Aaron and his friends frequently drink together. For example, Aaron and his friends are in high school and sneak onto the roof top of Thomas’s apartment complex to drink and party together. During one of these parties, Genevieve goes to find Thomas and Aaron, who are talking in Thomas’s room, and she shouts, “Is party central happening down here now? Let’s go up and drink! Wooooo!”
  • In addition, Aaron and his friends drink in excess. However, when they drink in excess they make a point to not drive. Aaron noticed Genevieve had been drinking heavily and says, “Genevieve is pretty damn drunk and needs to get home.” Then Aaron calls a taxi to drive her home.

Language

  • Dumbass is used frequently by Aaron and his friends. For example, Aaron uses the word “dumbass” to refer to himself after attempting suicide.
  • When jokingly trying to get his girlfriend to break up with him, Aaron calls her a “bitch.”
  • Profanity is used excessively. Profanity includes ass, fuck, dick, holy shit, and shit. For example, when asking his friends how to properly have sex with his girlfriend, he responds to their remarks by saying, “Thanks, asshole. Help me not fuck this up.”
  • Aaron says, “It feels like a dick move to take a girl’s virginity without some kind of present.”
  • The term “faggot” is routinely used in a derogatory manner. For example, Aaron’s friends call him a “faggot” and Aaron’s dad yells, “I’ll be damned if I’m alive the day you bring a boy home you fucking faggot.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Paige Smith

Komi Can’t Communicate Volume 2

Socially anxious high school student Shoko Komi’s greatest dream is to make some friends, but everyone at school mistakes her crippling social anxiety for cool reserve. Luckily, she meets Tadano, a timid wallflower who decides to step out of his comfort zone in order to help her achieve her goal of making 100 friends.

It’s time for the national health exam at Itan High, and the excitement of eye exams and height measurements has fanned the flames of competition in the heart of Makeru Yadano. She’s determined to beat the class idol, Komi, in the health test. Komi’s total obliviousness to their impassioned duel just feeds Makeru’s determination. As the epic battle heats up, how will Komi handle her first rival when she’s barely made her first friends?

Much of the time Komi seems to be in her own world and doesn’t notice those around her. For example, at the beginning of the story, one classmate wants to compete with Komi on the physical fitness test. However, Komi doesn’t even realize the classmate is trying to beat her during the races and other activities. Even though Komi has social anxieties and doesn’t talk to anyone, many of Komi’s classmates idolize her and consider her a “goddess.”

Several of the characters are odd. For example, one classmate, Agari, acts as if she is Komi’s dog. Another classmate, Yamai, desperately wants to meet Komi, so she threatens Komi’s friend, Osana. After Osana agrees to introduce Komi to Yamai, the situation becomes even stranger. Yamai kidnaps Tadano, binds him to a chair, and puts tape over his mouth. Later that day, Osana and Komi go to Yamai’s house where they discover Tadano trapped in a closet. Despite this, Komi still wants to be friends with Yamai.

Komi Can’t Communicate Volume 2 shows Komi’s growth from a girl with no friends, to one who is beginning to communicate and has two friends. Even though Komi communicates by writing on a piece of paper, she does stand up for Tadano. Tadano is a bright spot in the story because he truly wants Komi to form friendships, and he pushes her to try new things. However, one drawback of Komi’s friends is that they all focus on her beauty.

The black and white illustrations are adorable and portray the socially awkward girl and her interactions with others with humor. Each page has 1 to 11 simple sentences which appear in quote boxes. Square boxes are also used to show characters and general information. The illustrations help show Komi’s nervousness by showing her tremble.

Even though Komi Can’t Communicate Volume 2 has some strange events, the story will resonate with high school students who are insecure. As Komi begins to communicate, she also begins to act like a normal teenager by going to the mall and eating at a restaurant with her friends. Komi Can’t Communicate Volume 2 will entertain readers, even though it lacks the depth of Volume One. Readers will be curious to find out what happens with Komi’s new friend Yamai in Volume Three.

 Sexual Content

  • Yamai has a crush on Komi and is obsessed with Komi’s smell.

Violence

  • Yamai kidnaps Tadano, threatens him with a knife, and binds him to a chair. Yamai thinks, “It’s utterly bizarre for a loser like him to hang around a divinity like you, Komi.” Yamai justifies her actions by saying Komi is “glorious, so it’s psycho for a bottle-feeder like Tadano to hang around you!”
  • Komi doesn’t talk to Yamai, so Yamai threatens to kill herself with a knife. She says, “I have no reason to keep living!”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • One of the students says, “F*** you!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Gravity of Us

Cal has his life figured out. He loves living in Brooklyn, where he has friends and a plan. He’s gaining views for his live reporting on the social media app FlashFame, and his journalism career is about to take off with a major internship. But all of this turns upside down when his father—Cal Senior—receives word that his application to NASA has been accepted. Cal’s father is slated to be on the upcoming Mars mission, and their family must relocate to an idyllic small town in Texas where all the astronaut families live.

While he’s upset to lose his internship, Cal soon realizes that he still has the chance to hone his journalism skills. A reality TV network called StarWatch has exclusive control over the narrative around the space program—and therefore the related public interest and government funding. Instead of focusing on the fascinating science of the upcoming Mars mission, StarWatch documents the lives of the astronaut families solely for manufactured drama. When Cal decides to keep live-streaming his own experiences, he becomes an opponent of StarWatch, who are obsessive about their tight control over the astronauts’ public images. Soon, Cal finds himself caught up in the world of high-stakes publicity. He tries to portray his family and the rest of the astronaut families truthfully and honestly, while multiple media forces vie for public interest.

Romance happens when Cal meets and immediately is enamored with another astronaut’s son, Leon. Leon, an ex-star gymnast, suffers from depression and is reluctant to enter into a relationship with someone who thinks he can “fix him.” Cal and Leon immediately have chemistry, but before they finally instigate a real relationship, they try to understand each other and respect each other’s needs.

The Gravity of Us promises a space-centered story but delivers a story that’s more focused on PR and social media journalism than a future Mars mission. While Cal is determined to make the public care about NASA for the science, readers may find that they still don’t get to see as much science as they want. Readers looking for an ultra-realistic view of NASA’s operations, like in The Martian, will be disappointed. Many fascinating logistical aspects of space missions—such as astronauts’ rigorous psychological testing and training—are swept aside or ignored.

The romance is cute but hollow. Cal and Leon have no barriers separating them except for Leon’s depression, which is never really given the attention it needs to be a fully effective aspect of the plot. The main conflict between them is that Cal is concerned that Leon doesn’t know what to do after he graduates from high school. In the end, Leon tells Cal that he’s figured out what he wants to do. It’s anti-climactic and may disappoint readers who want reassurance that they don’t have to have their lives figured out at eighteen.

Overall, The Gravity of Us has little of the gravitational pull promised. While it draws on the images of outer space in its title and cover, the book uses a vague portrayal of NASA to show an ordinary teen romance.

Sexual Content

  • Cal recalls interviewing a Republican Senate candidate and grilling him about “charges of sexual harassment.”
  • Cal says his mom is cautious when entering his room because “she’s always afraid she’ll catch me doing ‘something,’ and we all know what that ‘something’ is, but I’m also not an idiot and can figure out how to do ‘something’ twice a day having never been caught thank you very much.”
  • Cal recalls an old romantic fling with a boy named Jeremy, where he “sunk into his lips, the taste of Coors Light on our tongues.” Jeremy “was new and exciting, and he was there as I took a self-guided tour of my own queerness—something I may never fully find the right label for.”
  • When Cal is with Leon, “I get the urge to kiss him . . . nowhere in my perverse mind do I think he needs this kiss to fix him. I want him, and I want to do it for me. And humanity, even. I want the world to be that much better because of our lips touching and his hand in my hair and…”
  • Cal and Leon kiss. Leon’s “lips are soft and perfect and tug at mine like he’s been waiting for this moment forever. Like he’s been waiting for more than just a week to be with me like this. In seconds, our mouths are on each other and his hand is behind my neck. And my heart’s about to beat out of my chest. It’s too fast and not nearly enough.”
  • Cal and Leon kiss again. “This one isn’t as passionate, it isn’t as hungry, but it makes my insides jump the same way. There’s a caring force in the tug of his lips, and in his bite, I lose control of my body and feel light-headed.”
  • During a makeout session between Cal and Leon, “We’re pressed into each other, and there’s nothing on my mind but his taste. His tongue slips into my mouth, and I press mine against his. I moan softly because it feels so right. So perfect . . . just keep kissing him. We keep celebrating our closeness in muffled moans and gasped breathing.”
  • When Cal and Leon are alone in a hotel room, “We pull off our shirts, and I press his body into mine. His breath hits my neck as our legs hook around each other. We’re a mash of tongue and teeth and warmth.” They stay the night together, but the book doesn’t go into detail about what else they do.
  • Cal brings Leon over to his house because it’s “definitely empty,” with the implication that this is an opportunity for sex. “His face is pressed to mine as I get my key out and unlock the back door . . . and we push through the dark house.” The scene ends soon afterward without revealing any more detail.

Violence

  • When Cal sees how upset his mom is, “I scan her for bruises, for covered arms, for anything—though I know Dad would never hurt her like that.” His suspicions are unfounded—although Cal’s parents argue often, they never get violent with each other.
  • Cal says that the sound of his friend’s parents fighting in a neighboring apartment scares him. “The echoed sound of a fist breaking through a particleboard door settles in my head.”
  • A man looks like “his whole body might be made of stone.” Cal says, “I have a feeling that if I were to punch him in the gut, I’d be the one hurting.”
  • The characters wait anxiously for news about a jet, which was carrying NASA astronauts, that wrecked. One astronaut is killed and several are injured, but the crash isn’t described in detail.
  • An unmanned NASA launch “explodes in the sky.” Cal describes being “barely knocked back by the blast, like a strong but very warm gust of wind.” Then the spacecraft “becomes nothing but some smoking ash.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When he gets into the astronaut program, Cal’s father pours champagne for the whole family—“Even for you, Cal. It’s a special occasion.”
  • Cal’s friend says that she likes “watching astronauts get drunk off champagne before falling face-first into a bush.”
  • At an astronaut party, Cal sees “bottles of champagne sitting in a copper tub full of ice.” He notes that “no one would notice a bottle—or ten—missing from this supply.”
  • Cal and Leon steal a champagne bottle from the party and go out back to drink it. Cal drinks the champagne. “The tart, fizzy liquid burns my throat as I swallow it down. The taste isn’t great, but I could get used to it.”
  • Someone gives Cal gum “to cover that champagne breath.”
  • Cal’s mother manages her chronic anxiety “with her therapy appointments and an assortment of low-dosage medication.”
  • Cal steals some champagne from his parents and pops the bottle when he’s alone with Leon. They drink from it together. “I pull the bottle to my mouth and take a sip of the bitter foam.”
  • Cal says, “I start to understand why people celebrate with champagne. It lifts me up, it celebrates my own energy.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: damn, hell, shit, and fuck.
  • “Oh my God” and “Jesus” are frequently used as exclamations.
  • Cal refers to Clear Lake, Texas as “literal hell” because of its hot weather.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The Mars mission is named Orpheus, after the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. A character explains how “Eurydice dies; Orpheus takes his magical lyre and travels to Hades to save her. He plays his lyre for Hades, who promises to return Eurydice under one condition: she would follow, but if he turned to look at her, she’d be gone forever.”

by Caroline Galdi

King’s Cage

After completing her mission to secure an army of newbloods, Mare Barrow finds herself once again trapped in the royal palace of Norta. She’s become King Maven’s pet, forced to play a dangerous role at his side. Her forced words carry weight with the Reds, and create schisms in the Scarlet Guard and Norta as a whole.

Without Mare, the Guard has trouble accepting both the newbloods and Silvers into their ranks. Cameron Cole, a newblood herself, knows exactly what it’s like to be ostracized for her ability. After seeing Mare struggle to control her ability, Cameron fears becoming like her; yet, she’s not alone in the struggle. Farley, a new commander of the Scarlet Guard, continues to fight after losing her lover, Shade. Kilorn, Mare’s best friend, must decide whether to continue fighting or focus on protecting Mare’s family. Cal must figure out what side he will choose. Will he be able to continue to kill his Silver comrades, or will he betray the Scarlet Guard?

But just as loyalties are tested in the Scarlet Guard, so are they in Maven’s court. Evangeline Samos, now betrothed to Maven as the future queen of Norta, wants nothing more than to rule. When noble houses begin to betray Maven left and right, navigating the palace becomes more complicated. Will Evangeline get to rule Norta? Will Cameron and the Scarlet Guard prove too much for the Silvers to handle? Will Mare be able to change Maven for the better and abolish the monarchy?

As the third installment of the Red Queen Series, King’s Cage is an excellent continuation of the story because Mare is back in the thick of political intrigue. She’s right there to see the complicated and unique relationships between the Silvers, allowing the reader to see both sides of the power struggle.

The plot is a roller-coaster of twists and suspense, leading Mare, Cameron, and Evangeline through many life-changing and life-threatening moments. The three main heroines are fascinating to follow because each one is constantly on the edge of danger. For instance, Mare has gotten over her selfish and arrogant nature, but now struggles to stay at Maven’s side. Mare is forced to pretend that she betrayed the Scarlet Guard, yet she manages to stay sane enough to secretly gather intel. Cameron struggles with the fear of turning into a monster. And Evangeline must find a way to rule over Norta without becoming Maven’s bride.

The theme of betrayal is once again central to the plot, as characters and noble houses backstab each other left and right. The action scenes are the best yet with each heroine battling individually at first, but then all coming together in a big battle at the end. The buildup and suspense work well as Mare’s, Cameron’s, and Evangeline’s stories intertwine. Overall, King’s Cage is a great follow-up to a lackluster sequel. The story will conclude in the final book, War Storm, where readers will find out whether Mare will triumph over King Maven.

Sexual Content

  • During an argument, Maven kisses Mare. Mare thinks, “His kiss burns worse than his brand.”
  • Maven pledges his hand to the Lakeland princess, “From this day until my last day, I pledge myself to you, Iris of House Cygnet, princess of the Lakelands.”
  • One morning, Evangeline wakes up to her lover’s kisses. Elane “laughs against my neck, her touch a brush of lips and cold steel.”
  • Mare is torn up about her love for Maven. “There are still pieces of me, small pieces, still in love with a fiction. A ghost inside a living boy I cannot fathom.”
  • Mare is humiliated by her guards. “Kitten forces me into the scarlet gown, making me strip in front of them all.”

Violence

  • Mare’s former tutor says, “I watched babies die without seeing the sun.”
  • When visiting wounded Silver soldiers, Mare thinks, “Their kind aren’t meant to bleed. Not like this.” The soldiers fought in a battle against the Scarlet Guard.
  • In a military transport, Mare attacks Maven. Mare “jumps forward, lunging, hands stretched out to grab him by the collar. Without thinking, I shove, pushing, smashing him back into his seat.” Later, Mare thinks, “I fantasize about cutting his throat and staining Maven’s freshly painted walls with Silver blood.”
  • Mare is forced to attend a feast put on by Maven. It ends in an assassination attempt, which kills Maven’s foreign guest, Prince Alexandret. Mare sees, “Prince Alexandret, slumped dead in his seat of honor with a bullet hole between his eyes.” At the same time, Mare sees Maven wounded, “Silver blood bubbles from his neck, gushing through the fingers of the nearest Sentinel, who is trying to keep pressure on a bullet wound.”
  • During an attack on the capital, Cal kills Samson. “Fire races down Samson’s throat, charring his insides. His vocal cords shred. The only screaming I hear now is in my head.”
  • During a sparring match between Mare and Cal, Cal overwhelms her. Mare gets hit with Cal’s fire, and her “flesh ripples with fresh blisters, and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. Cal would stop the fight if he knew how much this hurt.”
  • In a final battle between Maven’s army and the Scarlet Guard, the first casualty is a Red soldier. Mare sees the soldier fall, and then “shouts as he goes over the edge, plunging thirty feet—before sailing skyward, born of a graviton’s concentration. He lands hard on the wall, colliding with a sickening crack.” In the thick of the fight, Farley, a Scarlet Guard commander, kills some Silvers. “Farley peppers them with gunfire, dropping a few Silvers where they stand. Their bodies slide off into darkness.” The battle is described over 20 pages.
  • A newblood committed suicide after being outed as a spy. Mare thinks, “I’ve seen suicide pills before. Even though I shut my eyes, I know what happens next.”
  • Three of the noble houses of Norta attack Maven. Mare watches as “Laris wind weavers toss Iral silks from one side of the room to the other with sharp gusts, wielding them like living arrows while the Irals fire pistols and throw knives with deadly precision.” A few of Maven’s guards are hurt in the fight.
  • When Cameron infiltrated a prison, she used her ability to kill Silvers. Her ability is to snuff out other abilities, as well as other lives. Cameron thinks, “The memory still makes me sick. I felt their hearts stop. I felt their deaths like they were happening to me.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Maven explains that his mother controlled his father. Maven says, “He was a drunk, a heartbroken imbecile, blind to so much, content to keep things as they were. Easy to control, easy to use.”
  • While at a party, Mare notices, “Music dances on the air, undercut with the sweet and sickening bite of alcohol as it permeates every inch of the magnificent throne room.”

Language

  • During a televised speech, Mare is forced to say the former King and Queen “rightfully knew that a Red with an ability would be considered a freak at best, an abomination at worst, and they hid my identity to keep me safe from prejudices of both Red and Silver.”
  • Bastard is used several times. For example, Cameron calls Cal a “Silver Bastard.”
  • When thinking of her twin brother, Cameron wonders, “Send him home? To another hellhole?”
  • Cameron thinks Mare is a “condescending twit.”
  • Ass is used several times. For example, Cameron calls Cal a “veritable pain in the ass.”
  • Someone calls Evangeline’s lover a “whore.”

Supernatural

  • Samson Merandus, one of Maven’s allies, describes his ability. “As a whisper, my ability allows me to bypass the usual lies and twists of speech that most prisoners rely on.”
  • During an infiltration mission into a Silver compound, Cameron takes the newblood, Harrick, along. She sees a pair of guards as Harrick uses his ability to make their “figures ripple slightly, like the surface of disturbed water.” Harrick can create illusions to manipulate people’s senses.
  • Cameron’s ability allows her to stop other’s abilities. When Cal confronts her, she notices his flames still “waver before my ability, fighting to breathe, fighting to burn. I could snuff them out if I wanted to.”
  • When he gets angry, Cal will let loose his fire. “The gleaming bracelet at Cal’s wrist flickers, birthing sparks that travel along his arm in a quick burst of red flame.”
  • Evangeline can manipulate metal. When Mare is about to be shot, Evangeline catches the bullet mid-air. “Her fist clenches and the bullet rockets backward to where it came from, chased on by splinters of cold steel as they explode from her dress.”
  • The leader of Montfort, a country far from Norta, can create blue walls out of thin air. He stops Cal and Mare’s sparring match with “another blue wall of something divides the spectators from our spar. With a wave of Davidson’s hand, it blinks out of existence.”
  • During the final battle, nymphs on Maven’s side flood a city. Mare watches as “the rain shimmers, dancing on the air, joining together into larger and larger droplets. And the puddles, the inches of water in the streets and alleys—they become rivers.” No one is injured.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Jonathan Planman

All of Us with Wings

After running away to San Francisco, 17-year-old Xochi stumbles into a new job working for an eclectic group of people that live in Eris Gardens. Eris Gardens is a mansion inhabited by the rock band Lady Frieda and their various friends and lovers. The band members live like a big family. They operate under a creed of free love and polyamory while trying to keep their party lives under control enough to protect twelve-year-old Pallas. Xochi befriends Pallas and moves into Eris Gardens to become her governess.

The story is told mostly through Xochi’s third-person perspective, but many chapters are told through the perspectives of other characters. Some chapters show the perspectives of the precocious Pallas, other eccentric characters in Eris Gardens, figures from Xochi’s past, and even the intelligent neighborhood cat, Peasblossom. The rotating perspectives help round out the story and supply viewpoints that Xochi’s perspective alone couldn’t provide. However, readers may be confused, as the narrative gives little warning before introducing the viewpoints of brand-new characters.

Xochi and Pallas make a pretend potion in the bathtub, which has unintended magical consequences. Two small supernatural beings—dubbed “Waterbabies”—appear.  The mystical “Waterbabies” begin to meddle in Xochi’s life, attacking those who wish her harm and seeking revenge on those who have harmed her in the past. In order to stop them from going out of control, Xochi must face her past and make peace with the life and trauma she left behind.  Meanwhile, she begins a perilous and forbidden romance with Pallas’ 28-year-old father Leviticus. Through its rotating perspectives, All of Us with Wings tells the story of the difficult transition to adulthood for young people who have been abused and forced to grow up too quickly.

Like many seventeen-year-olds, Xochi is not quite sure what she wants, and spends much of the book aimlessly stumbling across San Francisco as she tries to grope with her past. Readers will enjoy the story’s unique magical realism. Characters receive prophetic visions and dreams, read tarot cards, and talk about their inner eyes and auras. In this book, San Francisco oozes magic from every alley, mysterious bookshop, public mural, and street corner.  The book portrays the excitement and mystique of San Francisco’s nightlife and counter-culture, but it also delves into the city’s dark side. Some scenes take place in bars, burlesque clubs, and even a heroin den.

Xochi’s difficult past centers around her mother, Gina, who abandoned her, and her mother’s boyfriend, Evan, who sexually abused her. The Waterbabies exact their revenge on these people psychologically—by replaying the memories of the harm they have done—and physically. Despite the fact that the Waterbabies have taken Xochi’s past into their own hands, it’s still up to her to come to terms with all that has happened to her.

One of the most puzzling pieces of this book is Xochi’s relationship with Leviticus, her 28-year-old employer. Both she and Leviticus know that their relationship is taboo. Leviticus has “a strict policy” about young women, “because the older person has more experience and more power.” Older men have taken advantage of Xochi in the past, and characters frequently make reference to her age, calling her “jailbait” even though they all seem to agree that she is “mature for her age.” However, the book ends with Leviticus and Xochi on amicable terms, and open to future romance, while skirting around the questions that readers may have about whether or not the relationship is appropriate.

All of Us with Wings is for mature readers. It includes a lot of graphic content and situations that are difficult to talk about. Readers will appreciate the portrayal of a young person growing up and entering the world, but the ending may leave them confused.

Sexual Content

  • Pallas spies on her mother, Io, and sees that “embedded in the small of Io’s back was a set of small silver hooks, much like the fasteners on Pallas’s own Victorian boots. A black ribbon crisscrossed her mother’s bird-boned spine, connecting the hooks like laces on an invisible corset.” She realizes that the piercings must be sexual and remembers seeing “a book of photographs of outlandish piercings and tattoos she wasn’t supposed to look at. Io’s disturbing new hooks and ribbons weren’t attached to some unimaginably painful private place, but like the piercings in the book, they were definitely sexual—frightening, powerful and secret.” Seeing this leaves Pallas shaken and upset.
  • Later at a party, Xochi sees “a man, naked and heavily tattooed, hung above a platform by thick metal hooks threaded through the skin of his chest. She expected to see blood dripping from the wounds in the skin above his pierced nipples, but there was nothing. This was less a crucifixion than a display of an unusual piercing done some other strange night and long since healed.”
  • Leviticus says he has a personal rule that he won’t have sex with “anyone who’s too high to operate heavy machinery.”
  • While kissing a strange man, Xochi “felt herself respond to his hands on her hips, the hardness under his jeans, unwanted but also hot.” After Xochi’s encounter with this man, a band member tells her that the man is “a good kisser, and his dick is huge. You must have noticed—he’s like zero to boner in three seconds.”
  • Xochi wonders if she has “some sort of fetish for older men.”
  • Xochi kisses Bubbles, a 24-year-old woman. “It was a long kiss, a little world. Bubbles’ tongue produced a ticklish little sting. In accord, they stopped and laughed.”
  • Pallas’ mother, Io, explains polyamory to Pallas. “Some people want to be part of a pair. They feel best when they give their love to one other person, like a husband or wife. Some people want to be singular, but love many people in lots of different ways. Some people don’t want a lover at all and like being alone. There’s no one right way to do love.”
  • The Waterbabies replay the memory of Evan’s abuse of Xochi until Evan realizes that she never consented to sex. Evan had “pulled her up. Brushed leaves from her hair. Held her, tried to comfort her. Then he kissed her. Her eyes flew open, all pupil. She was out of her mind, but her body knew what to do. When she kissed him back, she was all fire. His hands were in her hair, under her skirt, she was pulling him into her, nails digging through his T-shirt, her leg wrapped around his hip. It was fast and fierce. At the time, he thought she came. But now, watching, he wasn’t so sure . . . Afterward, alone in his bed, he’d told himself it was mutual. A freak moment born of grief. But the truth was, he’d been after this for a year, at least. After her. There’d been an opening, and he’d taken it . . . And she hadn’t wanted it. He could see that, too. After that, he only came to her when he was wasted, but he found a way to do it sober soon enough, never thinking of it when she wasn’t there, never planning in advance, living in the moments of sweet relief and forgetting them when they were done. Now he could see his mistake, taking silence for acceptance, despair for consent.”
  • In another supernaturally-induced flashback, Evan remembers a scene with Xochi’s mother, Gina. “Gina herself was on the floor. He stood over her, a monster. He was twice her size, but she met his eyes, defiant, blood smeared on her thighs because he’d been too rough. Too rough after her female troubles, too rough too many times. There were bruises on her arms, a black handprint spanning her bicep.”
  • Xochi remembers a summer when she “touched herself at night in bed, in the morning in the shower, in the deepest part of the swimming hole with the sun on her back and her face in the water, the pleasure proof she was perfect, needed no one.”
  • In a chapter narrated by Leviticus, he looks at Xochi and notices, “her legs were long, her movements coltish—just the sort of innocent-sexy detail that made him feel like a pervert straight out of ” (Lolita is a famous book about a man who abuses a young girl.)
  • Evan remembers how Xochi’s mother, Gina, had an IUD that she kept secret until it got infected. “If it hadn’t been for the trouble with Gina’s IUD, the awful infection, he would have always believed he was damaged goods when she never got pregnant.”
  • Leviticus thinks, “You could tell everything about a woman from kissing her – how she’d have sex, how she’d love. How it would end. Men weren’t like this. All you could tell from kissing a guy was how he gave head.”
  • Peasblossom, the cat, recalls living with a gay couple. One of them say that he thinks the cat “likes it when we fuck.”
  • Xochi walks through a neighborhood where, “Neon signs advertised Big Al’s Playboy Club, The Garden of Eden, and The Lusty Lady, where a topless cartoon redhead danced, the words ‘Live Nude Girls’ blinking on and off below her high heeled shoes.”
  • Xochi stops outside a strip club and talks to a dancer who works there. The dancer says, “They’ll hire you. You’re gonna rake it in.” Xochi clarifies that she’s not looking for a job, but the redhead continues to talk strategy, saying, “Focus on the old guys, play the nice girl and you’ll hardly have to do a thing.”
  • Xochi goes into the strip club, and watches dancers on the stage. By the end of a song, a dancer is “naked except for her thigh-high boots.” Xochi also sees lap dances happening all around her. She wonders, “What happened if the men ejaculated?” She also wonders if the dancers have to perform lap dances for creepy customers. “She felt—what? Scared, maybe. Definitely embarrassed. It was just so weird seeing this private thing done in public. So weird it was actually someone’s job. But the dancers were gorgeous. Watching them was like an endless Christmas morning, unwrapping gift after shiny gift.”
  • Xochi makes out with Leviticus. “They kissed and kissed, her lips raw from the stubble on his face, her hands tracing the shape of his arms, his back, his chest, pulling his shirt over his head. Her body was alive with purpose. His hands were on her back, her breasts.”
  • Xochi remembers her grandmother saying that a good rule for sex was, “If you can’t talk about it, don’t do it.” She thinks, “Maybe it was a good rule for drugs, too.”
  • Xochi is alone with an exotic dancer named Justine who takes her dress off to show Xochi a full-body tattoo of a tree. “Xochi leaned closer, her mouth an inch above Justine’s pale shoulder. Her lips rested there, and then her tongue took up the tracing, her piercing sparking along the tattooed branches. When she reached the apple, she didn’t think; her teeth just sank into the bright-red center of the forbidden fruit.” The next thing the reader sees is that “Xochi and Justine returned to the party, lips swollen, makeup smudged, hands entwined.”
  • When asked how far she went with Justine, Xochi says, “We fooled around. . . I don’t know what it’s called. When you do it to a guy, it’s a hand job.”
  • While Xochi is strung out on heroin with two near-strangers, Justine and Duncan, they “made a game of it. Justine undid a button on Xochi’s jacket. Duncan unbuttoned Xochi’s shorts. Justine undid another button. Duncan fumbled with her bra.” They are interrupted before they can go any further.
  • In a dream, Gina sees “an entire classroom of kindergarten Ginas, one girl for every day that year’s foster father drove her to school the long way.” The insinuation is that her foster father abused her.
  • A character recalls school bullies telling her, “Eww, gross, your dad is gay—he’s going to give you AIDS in your Cheerios.”
  • A character jokes that Peasblossom, the cat, “may be fixed, but he still tomcats around.”
  • At the climax of the story, Xochi says the word “rape” out loud, allowing herself to acknowledge what happened to her.

Violence

  • While walking alone at night, a strange man follows Xochi. The man says, “Bitch, I’m talking to you. Don’t make me chase you.” Xochi escapes without the incident escalating further, but it leaves her shaken.
  • When Evan is accosted by the Waterbabies, they drag him into a lake. “Something was touching his feet, pulling him down. He clutched at his ankles and found two pairs of miniature hands. He clawed and thrashed his limbs, but every movement seemed to add weight to his body, quickening his descent to the bottom of the impossible lake.” Once he reaches the bottom, he finds himself supernaturally able to breathe as the Waterbabies confront him and replay his memories for him. Later, Xochi hears that he was found dead in the lake.
  • The residents of Eris Gardens teach Pallas aikido for self-defense. Pallas says it’s “because I’m turning thirteen soon and becoming a woman.
  • During self-defense training, Xochi goes into a trance while she spars with an Eris Gardens resident. When she awakes, the resident “was on his knees at her feet, doubled over in pain.” He says, “Just a flesh wound. Where’d you learn to fight like that?” Xochi is never told exactly what she did, but is confused at why she lost control. “She’d never hit anyone in her life . . . not when a girl pushed her down in middle school, or when a gang of boys chased her with a Screw magazine and forced her to look at the centerfold.”
  • The Waterbabies and Leviticus break into a drug den to rescue Xochi. The Waterbabies blow up the fish tanks, which explode. The shrapnel hits one man who “swore, clutching his crotch. His hands turned red. He ran to the bathroom, blood spilling down the front of his designer jeans.” The Waterbabies then attack Leviticus, thinking he means harm. One “decked and straddled Leviticus, hands wrapped around his pretty neck.” Leviticus is uninjured.
  • In a dream, the Waterbabies visit Gina, but another figure in the dream points a gun at them and says, “Get out or I’ll blow your heads off.”
  • Gina recalls how she “fought with most of her boyfriends. Sometimes the conflicts got physical, but they seemed more like battles than abuse.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Drugs and alcohol feature heavily in the plot. Xochi drinks and smokes cigarettes frequently, both out of pressure from the people around her and out of her own volition.
  • The residents of Eris Gardens “had a rule about never smoking in front of” Pallas, “but most of them smoked marijuana or cigarettes behind her back.” This quote is from a chapter narrated by Pallas, implying that the adults’ habits aren’t as well-hidden as they think.
  • Xochi spent much of her childhood on a pot farm and “had inhaled enough secondhand marijuana to last a lifetime. The few times she’d consciously imbibed, the plant had not been her friend.”
  • At a party, Xochi smokes a hookah with “hash and a little tobacco.” Someone shows her how to inhale the smoke without coughing. “She was halfway through her inhale when the smoke changed direction, exploding out of Xochi’s lungs in a fit of rasping coughs.” She describes the buzz she gets as “different from weed, but related. With the familiar dissolving of limbs came an added electricity, a psychedelic edge. The first wave of high hit gently enough, but it kept on coming.” Later, the hash makes her anxious, and she goes on a walk to calm down.
  • Pallas’ parents host parties at the house where Pallas wanders around unsupervised. Pallas sees someone with “a silver vial and a tiny spoon. She’d be kicked out if anyone from the house saw. Hard drugs weren’t allowed, but people did them anyway.”
  • When Pallas is upset, Xochi finds her with a lit clove cigarette, “barely smoked.” Pallas later says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t enjoy it.”
  • A character takes painkillers for a “monster hangover.” The type of painkillers aren’t specified.
  • Leviticus takes Xochi to a bar where the bartender gives Xochi a whiskey “compliments of the house.” Leviticus tells Xochi, “You don’t have to drink it. The bartender says you look like a whiskey girl. He thought about carding you, but he changed his mind. Pretty girls are good for business.” Xochi drinks the whiskey.
  • Leviticus tells Xochi, “I see you’re no stranger to the bottle.” She tells him, “I grew up with a bunch of guys. I learned to keep up.”
  • Xochi sees a band member “leaning over a mirror, chopping up some white powder with a razor blade. He snorted it and stood up.” He offers her a line, but she doesn’t accept. After the band member leaves, Xochi approaches the mirror and sees that the band member was snorting “white powder, speed or cocaine.” She “aimed the straw and sniffed, gagging at the chemical reek. The effect was instant, a bitter blast of awareness. Xochi’s sinuses burned and her eyes felt huge in her head.” She isn’t shown doing cocaine again.
  • Xochi remembers her mother doing cocaine with an old friend. “They’d lock themselves in the bathroom and come out pin eyed and sniffing.”
  • A character wakes up and does “two bong hits—breakfast of champions.” He eats no actual food for breakfast.
  • Evan describes his supernatural experience with the Waterbabies as being akin to an “acid-trip.”
  • Xochi goes to a party where “a keg was the only option for something to drink.” She drinks beer the whole night.
  • Later, when she is very drunk, she goes to a back room with Justine and Duncan, two people she barely knows. “Justine’s arm was clamped above the elbow by a rubber tube. She gave Xochi a long look and pierced the tender crease of her arm with the needle.” Later Xochi reflects on the experience and remembers that, “Justine hadn’t called it by name. Xochi hadn’t asked. She’d known, of course, but it was easier to pretend she didn’t.”
  • In the heroin den, a few young girls are strung out on drugs, half-conscious on the bed. They are “not much older than Pallas.” They exist in the background, and nobody describes them in detail.
  • Gina remembers that when she gave birth to Xochi, she was “hazy from the drugs Gina told them she didn’t want.”
  • A character remembers “the way heroin tasted, coming up from the blood instead of in from the tongue. The tracks on his arm whispered the things they remembered about rest and quiet and peace. That was the real siren song, his own blood’s memory.” It’s implied that he’s craving heroin, but he resists relapse.
  • In a memory, a character dying of AIDS is on morphine. He says he never did morphine “back in the day. I just like speed. It kept me skinny.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: fuck, shit, bitch, hell, ass, and damn.
  • A man on the street calls Xochi a “psych ward cunt.”
  • A clerk calls Xochi an “underage hoe.”
  • Gina remembers how everyone in her hometown thought she was a “trailer-trash whore.”
  • Leviticus mentally calls himself, “Faggot. Fuckup. Junkie. Whore. Failure. Pussy. Sellout. Fraud.”

Supernatural

  • The “Waterbabies” appear both in real life and in people’s dreams. According to an expert on the supernatural, they are “fey as fuck, but corporeal. Not a dream.”
  • A band called “Dead Girls” is known for singing “in a made-up language,” and they “never eat. They want people to think they’re, like, vampires or Parisian or something.”
  • When Pallas is upset, Xochi cheers her up by making a pretend potion, “with flower petals and crushed-up leaves and perfume and stuff.” She says, “Your family thinks they’re witches, right? But it’s us. We’re the witches.” Xochi puts aloe into the potion and calls it “Goblin blood.” Pallas puts in candies and calls them “Teeth of murdered toddler.” They think it’s just for fun, but they end up summoning real supernatural beings into the world.
  • At the end of their play-ritual, Xochi chants, “Fates! Fates and Furies! Open, open, open up the door!” The narration tells how, “Their feet pounded in a primal rhythm. They were spirit girls, priestesses, fiends.”
  • Occasionally, the book references tarot cards. In one scene, Xochi bumps into a stack of tarot cards and scatters them. They all fall face down except for a few. A resident of Eris Gardens tells Xochi that she’ll “know soon enough” what they mean.
  • A character says the Waterbabies are similar to “Tlaloques,” or “Chaneques,” which are names of Aztec and Mexican gods.
  • One of the band members, Kylen, has psychic abilities which are never fully explained. In a chapter from his perspective, Kylen looks into Xochi’s mind. He “focused his inner eye and focused himself to relax. It was always like this, a psychedelic trip down some stranger’s yellow brick road. There was usually light and color, and sometimes a scent.”
  • Kylen recalls how when Pallas started to venture out on her own, he drew a boundary line on a map of the neighborhood. He “traced the line slowly with a finger, charging the boundary with protection. On the dark moon, he walked the boundary at midnight, spitting on every street corner and dropping a few crumbs of snake root and angelica.”
  • Someone throws I Ching coins and tells Peasblossom’s fortune from “her dog-eared Book of Changes.” Peasblossom notes that the fortune was “remarkably apt.” (I Ching is the name of a popular divination text used by occultists.)
  • Someone tells Leviticus that recent events in his life were caused by “your Saturn return, right on schedule. Unfinished business coming back to haunt you.”
  • When Pallas gets her period, her mother asks, “You wouldn’t want . . . a moon ritual, would you? Some girls do them.” Pallas declines and says, “I’ve never been a very good witch.” Nobody ever revisits the idea of a “moon ritual,” or explains what it is.
  • A character recalls how she always laughs at “that part in The Exorcist when the priests did their ‘power of Christ compels you’ routine.”
  • Someone who can see auras watches Xochi and sees that “the light shooting from her left hand flickered, glowing pomegranate red.”

Spiritual Content

  • At a party, Xochi imagines that, “Whatever heaven” a dead family member was in, “it must be a lot like the swaying chaos in the ballroom below.”
  • Xochi gets her tongue pierced at a shop called “Pagan Piercing.”
  • The owner of “Pagan Piercing” tells Xochi about the process of trepanation, where ancient people drilled holes in their skulls. He says, “If you’re a shaman, it’s your job to communicate with the divine. Why not open the door and invite her in?”
  • Xochi says, “My grandma used to tell me that a lot of cultures see the salmon as sacred. When you eat them, you’re absorbing parts of the collective soul.” She also says that owls are “known to carry the souls of the dead.”
  • A character says, “One time, we found my mom down in the laundry room chanting ‘God hates me’ while she sorted a massive pile of tube socks.”
  • A musician says, “When I drum, I need my chakras connected to the earth, not the freaking ether.”
  • A restaurant has paintings of the Virgin Mary on the walls.
  • Leviticus says, “They say the veil thins on Solstice and Equinox,” referring to the veil between the living and the dead.
  • Xochi reads a book of poetry and notices the lines, “Everything was soulful/and all souls were one.”
  • In conversation with Leviticus, Xochi says, “I’ve been curious about paganism, for one thing. I was surprised to find out most of you are atheists. Io said something about your beliefs not being literal, like you don’t believe in actual gods and goddesses. That it’s more about celebrating cycles in nature, something like that. So maybe ‘atheist’ isn’t the right word?” Leviticus replies, “I think of myself as more agnostic. Like, there could be some sort of deity, but probably not. Like, the goddess is in everything. Everything is inherently divine.”
  • Xochi asks Leviticus about a tattoo on his arm that says “24:20.” He tells her it’s a Bible verse from the book of Leviticus.
  • Someone tells Xochi that, “In the Bible, snakes are about temptation and evil. But way before the Bible, they were symbols of wisdom and healing.”

by Caroline Galdi

Symptoms of a Heartbreak

At age 16, Saira Seghal is the youngest doctor in America. After graduating from prestigious pre-med and medical schools, she has accepted an internship at Princeton Presbyterian, the hospital where her mother works. In addition to being the basis of her mother’s pediatrics practice, Princeton Presbyterian is also where Saira used to accompany her childhood best friend, Harper, to cancer treatments, until Harper’s eventual death from leukemia.

Despite still hurting from her friend’s death eight years ago, Saira is determined to help more people like Harper and has returned to the pediatric oncology department to try to save lives. She is smart and determined, but the internship proves to have unexpected challenges. She gets off to a rocky start with her fellow doctors and has trouble winning the trust of patients’ families, who don’t trust a teenager to treat their sick children.

Things only get more complicated when Saira meets a boy her age in the oncology ward and immediately falls in love. Link Rad—short for Lincoln Radcliffe—is an aspiring musician whose career has been put on hold because of his leukemia remission. When Saira is assigned to his case, her emotions get in the way, and things get awkward. The book follows Saira as she tries to get Link a bone marrow match, prove her competence and maturity to the other doctors, and grapple with the fact that as a doctor, she won’t ever be able to be a normal teenager.

Despite being a prodigy, Saira is a relatable character—sometimes, she’s a little too relatable. Readers might find themselves cringing with second-hand embarrassment when she arrives late to the first day of her internship, breaks hospital rules, and talks back to doctors twice her age. Saira’s family plays a big role in the story; they are both supportive and embarrassing. Readers may enjoy the honest and heartfelt portrayal of a big Indian family and the detailed descriptions of traditional Indian food.

At the heart of the story is Saira’s relationship with Link. They start out awkwardly. Link feels betrayed when he finds out that Saira is a doctor and not a fellow cancer patient. The fact that Saira and Link’s relationship is a forbidden romance makes the relationship awkward instead of heightening the chemistry. However, Link’s character is endearing and charming.

This story is sweet and often sad, but some of the points at the emotional center—Saira’s unusual coming of age, and her grief over her dead childhood friend—aren’t given the space they need to be really effective.  The narrative moves quickly and is jam-packed with subplots, including Saira’s tense relationship with her school friends, four patients’ battles with cancer, and her cousin’s brain tumor. With all this going on in such a short book, it often feels like the story doesn’t leave the reader time to settle into the setting and watch Saira do her everyday work in the hospital. Despite this, fans of hospital dramas may still enjoy this book for its familiar elements and relatable main character. However, if you’re looking for an excellent romance, leave Symptoms of a Heartbreak on the shelf and instead grab I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo or Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno.

Sexual Content

  • Saira’s family believes she is dating Vish. In reality, Vish is gay, and the two are close friends. However, Vish’s family is religious and homophobic, so they keep up the appearance of a relationship. Their families both believe they’re “totally PG,” and while the ‘couple’ “kissed a few times” when they were younger, they never went any further.
  • When Saira and Link kiss, “his mouth is salty and sweet, a grapefruit sprinkled with sugar. His arms curl around me, his embrace stronger than I expected. My arms wrap around his neck, and I lean back into the couch, taking him with me.” The scene ends there and skips to later, but Saira’s narration informs the reader that she spent more time “making out” with Link.
  • When Saira and Link have an intimate moment in a car, Saira describes “his mouth smashing mine, teeth clashing, tongue pushing into my mouth… Our kisses skip tentative altogether this time, instead lingering long and slow but somehow super urgent, mouths soft and open, tongues salty and slippery, his hands wandering up my shirt and over my breasts and roaming the waist of my jeans, a question.” Saira is hesitant to have sex because of Link’s fragile condition, but Link tells her that “sexual activity can be beneficial to patients undergoing chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.” They end up not having sex for other reasons. The scene lasts for approximately five pages.
  • Saira’s sister offers her relationship advice for her “relationship” with Vish. Her sister says, “At some point, you know, things might get a little more intense. And if you need to talk about birth control…” Saira declines her offer and says that she and Vish “are not having sex any time soon.”
  • Saira’s mother “reads everything, from medical journals to pulp novels in Hindi to bodice rippers.”
  • In the communal staff bathroom, Saira catches two of her adult coworkers together in a shower when she hears “a decidedly male groan” from behind the curtain. She doesn’t see or hear anything more explicit than this. Her coworkers are embarrassed and apologize.
  • Saira’s sister tells her she’s going to be in a production of the musical Hair, “where they’re all naked onstage.” She says, “it’s about art and expression.”
  • Vish told Saira about discovering he was gay. Saira remembers him telling her about “Luke, this boy he met at lacrosse camp. They kept it a secret the whole time there – hard to do when you’re stealing kisses in the boathouse.”  

Violence

  • Saira gets into a playful fight with Vish. “Fake punching him… and he ducks and kicks back, nearly catching me on the shin for real. Then he headlocks me from the back, wrapping one arm around my neck and the other around my waist.” The playfight is resolved peacefully.
  • While it isn’t violent in nature, readers may find the following content upsetting. Saira’s young cousin has a seizure, and “vomit spills from her little lips, and they’re turning from pale pink to blue. Her eyes roll back in her head… her body flops and goes stiff, then starts flopping again… Fluid spills out of her mouth and onto the floor.” The cousin receives medical attention and ends up okay. No descriptions of medical procedures/events in the book come anywhere close to this one in detail.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Saira’s family brings alcohol to a family dinner. Saira’s father spikes a soda “with some vodka from his water bottle, pretending no one notices, even though the waiters know exactly what’s up.”
  • A friend calls Saira from a party and says, “Vish’s wasted. Like, trashed. For real… And, okay, I’m trashed, too.” The friend asks Saira to come pick them up.
  • Saira goes to the party and discovers everyone has been drinking sangria because the host’s parents “don’t consider it to be real alcohol.”
  • Saira drinks “one cup, maybe two” of sangria. “It goes down okay.” She feels hungry later, and wonders if she has “the munchies? Or wait, is that pot? Yes. But I’m still snacky.”
  • Saira and her two friends take a car service home. Vish passes out; Saira takes him back to her house, where she hides him in the basement. She doesn’t want to risk him getting in trouble with his strict parents.
  • The next morning, Saira wakes up with a hangover. “I put my hand to my throbbing head. Two cups of sangria? That’s all? Never. Again.” Vish tells her, “That sangria was spiked with tequila and rum.”
  • At a later get-together with friends, Saira is offered a drink from “a little cart that’s piled down with vodka and all the fixings – I know because I recognize them from my dad’s bar. A variety of juices, some wine coolers, cherries and stuff.” She declines to drink even though her “dad will sometimes offer me a glass of champagne or whatever when we’re celebrating.”
  • At this get-together, Saira’s friends pressure her to drink. One of her friends says, “It’s sweet, Saira. You’ll like it.” The friend becomes agitated when she won’t drink.
  • When his cancer treatments are causing him pain, Link asks one of his doctors, “Can I get another dose of morphine? I need it.”

Language

  • Profanity is used infrequently. Profanity includes: Shit, damn, crap, ass, and piss.
  • Saira occasionally uses “Gods” or “oh my god” as an exclamation.
  • “Fuck” is used three times, but never in a sexual context. Also, a character says “AF” once, which is an abbreviation for “as fuck.” For example, jealous AF translates to jealous as fuck.

Supernatural

  • Saira’s friend reads tarot, and her sister likes astrology. Saira dismisses these as “delusions. Pseudoscience.” Neither tarot nor astrology are mentioned later in the story.
  • A young patient tells Saira he’s watching “this anime about this kid, Nate, who can see these troublesome spirits that are up to no good.”

Spiritual Content

  • Saira’s father “thinks Vish’s parents are too religious.” Saira notes that this is because her own family is “hardly religious at all. Too many doctors in the family.”
  • A doctor talking about treating cancer says, “We’re playing God here.”
  • A patient’s family member says that she “spent a lot of time praying” about the patient’s cancer.
  • When she’s exhausted, Saira describes wanting “to slip out of this body entirely, the way Dadi always says old souls can.”
  • Link has “a small brown mole sitting right below his left ear,” which reminds Saira of “a kala tilak to ward off the evil eye.”
  • Someone says a deceased patient “is in a better place now.” Saira says, “We don’t know that.”

by Caroline Galdi

Pumpkin Heads

Every autumn all through high school, Josiah and Deja have worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say goodbye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September first.

But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years…

What if their last shift was an adventure?

For three years, Josiah has had a crush on Marcy, a girl he only sees when they work at the pumpkin patch. On the last night of work, Deja talks Josiah into skipping their shift so Josiah can find Marcy and finally talk to her. Reluctantly, Josiah goes along with Deja’s plan. Readers will fall in love with the two characters as they explore the pumpkin patch looking for Marcy. Josiah is shy, sweet, and afraid of rejection, while Deja is confident, outgoing, and completely determined to have Josiah meet the girl of his dreams.

Pumpkin Heads brings all the joys of fall to life—the food, the corn maze, the pumpkins, and the friends. Throughout it all, Deja and Josiah discuss the idea of fate versus free will. The two friends reminisce about their years working at the pumpkin patch and worry about what the future will bring. As the two race against time trying to find Marcy, the story includes some wonderful patches of humor. For example, when Josiah worries about leaving the succotash booth, Deja says, “For God’s sake, Josie—true love trumps lima beans!”

Pumpkin Heads will encourage readers to be bold and live without regrets. Although the plot is a bit predictable, the main characters are truly unique. In the end, Josiah realizes that people cannot be judged by their looks. The only way to truly know someone is to talk to them. The graphic novel is illustrated in the orange and brown hues of fall, and each page has 1-8 sentences of text. The story is a quick read that will leave readers with a smile.

 Sexual Content

  • Deja runs into an ex-girlfriend and an ex-boyfriend.
  • Deja and Josiah see a couple kissing in the corn maze.
  • Deja asks Josiah, “Are you about to kiss me?” Josiah freaks out. After a short conversation, they kiss.

Violence

  • A goat runs around smashing pumpkins and trying to ram people.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • “Oh God” is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Josiah and Deja show up at the succotash booth, a worker says, “Thank the Lord!”
  • Deja sees a girl crying, so she gives the girl a snack. Deja asks, “Why doesn’t God want me to have snacks?”

We Set the Dark on Fire

We Set the Dark on Fire takes place on the fictional island of Medio, where a wall separates the poverty-stricken coast and the wealthy inland. Medio has rich mythology about a complicated love triangle between the Sun God, the Moon Goddess, and a human woman. The myth ends with the three entities marrying each other in a holy trifecta. Because of this myth, wealthy inland families customarily marry their sons off to two wives: a “Primera” and a “Segunda.” The Primera functions as a “political” wife who manages her husband’s social appearances and accompanies him at public functions. The Segunda is the mistress who is responsible for bearing and raising the husband’s children.

The story centers around Dani, a seventeen-year-old girl who is graduating from finishing school and is about to start her life as a wife. Despite graduating at the top of her class, Dani is worried about taking her place in the household. Political riots have made the police paranoid, and she is worried that the increased security will reveal that her identification papers are forged. Her parents are from the coast and have risked everything to put her in finishing school.

Dani is soon married off to a powerful political figure in one of the richest families in the Capital. She is the Primera and her school rival, Carmen, is the Segunda. She has little time to settle into household life before being approached by a rebel spy group, La Voz. The spies give her fresh papers so that she can pass a checkpoint, but in return, Dani is dragged into a world of political tensions and intrigue. Soon, she finds herself steeped too deep in her husband’s family’s corruption and is forced to confront ugly truths about the family she has married into. While dealing with espionage and lies, Dani must use all her wits to conceal her own secrets, which include her forged identity, her alliance with La Voz, and a budding romance with Carmen.

We Set the Dark on Fire is an original, well-written story. Mejia navigates a complicated political plot deftly. The story’s twists and turns may become confusing at times, but the narration avoids losing its thread. The prose is poetic and brings Dani’s character to life. The reader will soon be invested in the world of Medio’s aristocratic gender politics where Primeras are expected to show no emotion. Dani, who has been training for years to assume the role of Primera, is well-accustomed to showing no emotion. The layers of composure beneath that she hides add texture and detail to the narrative. She is excellently characterized.

The emotional core of the novel is formed from two main elements. The first is Dani’s relationship—and eventual romance—with Carmen. The tension and forbidden love between the two wives is excellently written, and readers will root for the couple as the stakes get higher and the lies get thicker. The second element is Dani’s love for her hometown. Although she was sent away to school at age twelve and never returned, Dani has a strong love for Polvo, the simple town where she spent her childhood. Upon entering the aristocracy, Dani discovers that she is disgusted by the excess and wealth that her new family can afford. Although she looks back fondly on her time in Polvo and wishes she could live there, she knows that Polvo is racked with poverty and that the police terrorize its citizens.

American readers may notice that the world of Medio draws certain parallels to events on the news. The island is divided by a wall meant to keep certain people out; the police are brutal towards the poor; the culture features Spanish words and foods. The narrative never makes the allegory overly obvious, but the book is deeply political. In one scene, Dani feels regret that she can have fun at all when so many people are suffering. Her guilt and class consciousness will strike a chord with many readers. While the book puts strong moral themes into conflict, the reader likely will not feel patronized or preached to; rather, they will simply want to know what happens next.

Sexual Content

  • Dani and Carmen’s new husband frequently looks at Carmen in suggestive ways, “raking his eyes over her body in a greedy way.”
  • Carmen wears revealing clothing. “Carmen was never underdressed—unless you counted too much bare skin. Today’s dress was plunging.”
  • A seamstress measures Dani and Carmen for new clothes, and Dani is nervous about undressing in front of another person. There are moments of uncomfortable sexual tension. “Carmen in clothes was ridiculous, but in nothing but her underwear she was, objectively, a work of art. She was all circles and curves, all dark amber and soft edges.”
  • In a lie to cover up her communication with La Voz, Dani tells Carmen that she fired a gardener. Dani says, “I heard him talking about you. About your figure in your dress and how he’d like to . . .  well, you get the point . . . I let him go for saying inappropriate things.”
  • In the shower, Dani fantasizes about Carmen. “There was a heat building deep within her. Deeper than her muscles or her bones or her pounding pulse. It was a primal, secret ache that she’d never allowed herself to feel before this moment. Her fingers knew where to find the source of that feeling, and when they went wandering, Dani didn’t stop them. . . In only a few moments, she was lost to the sensations.”
  • After being attracted to each other for a long time, Dani and Carmen finally kiss. “Their lips met like swords sometimes do, clashing and impatient and bent on destruction, and Dani thought her heart might burst if she didn’t stop, but it would surely burst if she did.”
  • Dani and Carmen’s husband are accused by his parents of having an affair. “If you’re going to have an affair, at least be discreet, for Sun’s sake. The years between marriage and moving your Segunda into your room are long, but . . .”
  • Dani and Carmen’s husband kisses Carmen “longer than he should have been allowed, especially when they weren’t alone.” Dani imagines “the places a kiss like this could lead. The places they would necessarily lead, if Dani was still here when it was time for them to produce a child. But would Mateo really wait that long?”
  • Dani and Carmen spend an intimate night together, and Dani is nervous about what Carmen expects. “She was a Segunda, of course; maybe kissing wasn’t enough. Dani tried not to balk at the thought of clothing coming off, of touching someone else the way she’d barely touched herself . . . she wasn’t ready. Not yet.” Carmen reassures her that she doesn’t expect anything sexual. “Don’t worry about that, okay? If we want to . . . when we’re ready . . . we’ll talk about it. But for now, I just want to do this until I get dizzy.” The narration skips over the rest of the night but implies that they continue making out until morning.
  • After their night together, Dani observes herself in the mirror. “She didn’t look like a Primera anymore. She looked like a girl who knew the taste of lips and tongues. A girl who had wondered what was next.”
  • Dani spies on two minor characters, José and Mama Garcia. “Whatever José had been about to say, it was swallowed by Mama Garcia as she claimed his mouth in a passionate kiss. One that clearly wasn’t a first between the two.”

Violence

  • The police use firearms and deadly force. During one chapter, Dani and Carmen have to navigate through a market where a confrontation is taking place between the police and La Voz. The police fire several times and create havoc, but the “long, shallow scratches on her neck were the least of Dani’s worries. There had been blood on the pavement as they’d left the marketplace…” Later, she learns that her main contact within La Voz was shot. “‘Just a scratch,’ he said, but a complicated web of bandages spread across his chest and down his left arm, telling a more sinister story.”
  • Members of La Voz gather in the market with torches to burn it down. Dani barely escapes in time and suffers severe burns. “The figure watched, mask expressionless, as she rolled on the stone stage, trying desperately to put out the fire that had taken over her every thought and feeling. When the flames finally died, the fabric of her expensive dress had become one with her skin, and when she tugged at it her vision went black in spots, coming back slowly to reveal an inferno where she had just been standing.”
  • A member of La Voz holds a knife to Dani’s throat and threatens her life. “The knife pressed harder against her throat, kissing her skin until it broke.”
  • Dani is pulled away from a car that explodes with people inside of it. “Carmen slammed into her from behind, knocking the wind out of her. She didn’t say a word as she scooped Dani up into her arms and flat-out ran back to the car. The whining was deafening now. Above them, the air seemed to grow thinner, the stars too bright. Carmen threw her painfully to the ground behind the hired car, barely covering Dani’s ears with her hands before the darkness exploded all around them.”
  • A member of La Voz holds a gun to Dani’s head, but then empties her clip into a burning car instead of shooting her.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Playing cards only come out “when the men at a party got too deep in their expensive liquor and one of them had something to prove.”
  • Dani recalls her school roommate “dizzy with drink from the Segundas’ legendary last-night party. She’d been loose and smiling, drunk on her own triumph as much as the rose wine.”
  • The women of the aristocracy frequently drink sangria together, though never to the point of impropriety.
  • When Dani’s husband catches her in his private study, he has her sit down and drink “a clear liquid that smelled like an open flame.” He is already drunk and slurring his words. Dani gets a “pleasant buzz” and stumbles a little while leaving.

Language

  • Occasionally, characters will swear on the Sun and Moon gods and say, “For Sun’s Sake.”

Supernatural

  • Dani recalls her mother’s proficiency in telling fortunes with a deck of cards. “Her mama told the women of the town of small illnesses that were coming: a jealous eye on a child; a husband growing too fond of the fermented pineapple rind most families brewed in the dirt patches beside their houses.”

Spiritual Content

  • Dani views the world through her own religion, which differs from the religion of the inner island. While the inner island focuses on “large gods,” such as the Sun God and Moon Goddess, Dani sees small gods everywhere.
  • For example, during a tense moment, “Dani closed her eyes and muttered a half-forgotten prayer to the god in the air, to the goddess in the flames. Keep calm, she beseeched them. No one around her would understand. Her parents’ gods weren’t in fashion—only the bearded visage of the Sun God, who ruled masculine ambitions and financial prosperity.”
  • These invocations of small, unnamed gods appear throughout the narration and often serve to illustrate what Dani is thinking or feeling.

by Caroline Galdi

 

 

With the Fire on High

Emoni, a Philadelphia teenager, has aspirations of being a chef. Through her cooking, she is able to explore her identity as an African-American, as well as her Puerto Rican ancestry. Emoni’s family also forms a central role in her life. Her dad is a Puerto Rican activist and community organizer, but he is often absent. Emoni lives with her Puerto Rican abuela and her two-year-old daughter, who she conceived during her first year of high school. Now a senior, Emoni is learning to juggle her family, her academics, her personal life, her job, and her love of cooking.

At the beginning of the school year, Emoni learns that her school is introducing a culinary arts class. She is unsure if she will be able to balance it with her other commitments, and has a hard time warming up to the chef who teaches the class. Though they get off to a rough start, the chef soon becomes an important mentor for Emoni. She learns the importance of following directions in the kitchen, which is a place where she is used to doing whatever she wants.

Meanwhile, Emoni meets Malachi, a new student. She is hesitant to become friends, but they soon become close. Malachi becomes Emoni’s romantic interest. He is a sensitive boy who respects and cares for Emoni. Their relationship develops slowly through the course of the book. Malachi courts Emoni by showing that he is willing to accommodate her family situation: he is respectful towards her abuela and daughter.

With the Fire on High is heartfelt and expertly written. Readers will relate to Emoni’s struggle to decide whether she will go to college, and what shape her future will take. Readers will quickly find themselves rooting for Emoni and her family. They will cheer at her victories and feel distressed at her losses. The first-person narration paints a vivid picture of Emoni’s culture, her family, her personality, and how food plays an emotional role in her life.

With the Fire on High has mature themes and sexual content, but it is handled maturely. Sex is not glorified or demonized. When Emoni and Malachi become intimate, they do so because both of them feel emotionally ready. Emoni also struggles with the decision to date because of her many responsibilities. Emoni only brings Malachi around her child when she is certain that he’ll be a good influence.

With the Fire on High uses a unique character voice and vivid descriptions of food to draw the readers into the setting. The description of every character is strong, but especially Emoni’s. Her stubborn personality, her love for her daughter, and her unique narration all help her to come alive on the page. Readers will be able to relate to some piece of Emoni, but she is, by and large, her own distinct personality. The lessons she learns throughout the story will resonate with any reader. This is a coming-of-age story, and Emoni’s maturity is marked by her ability to make choices that will let her support her family while still caring for herself.

Sexual Content

  • The main character, Emoni, is a teen mother. She describes her first sexual experience—with her child’s father—as something “a lot more technical” than she expected and indicates that the experience was disappointing and confusing because she wasn’t ready. “When he finally shoved into me, it stung. For a second, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to push him away or pull him closer, and then he was panting and sweating on my chest and apologizing. . . I cleaned my own self up, put on my pants, and left. He didn’t even say goodbye.”
  • The chef encourages the cooking class to “come eat Emoni’s chocolate pudding.” Many of the boys take this as an innuendo and tease Emoni about it, but the double entendre is never explained.
  • When Emoni and Malachi kiss for the first time, “His hand moves down to my butt and curves around it.”
  • Emoni and Malachi make out on a couch and make the decision to be intimate. Emoni’s “legs straddling his lap, arms wound around his back. Kissing him back. . . I never saw what the big deal was about it, outside of how nice it was to be touched. But this is different. . . He keeps kissing my neck. And then my hands are everywhere. I need to touch his skin, his shoulders, his back. I kiss his ear and he moans into my neck. ‘This feels too good.’ And this was new, too. This power of making a boy jump or moan.” The scene continues for about three pages, and while it’s implied that they become sexually intimate, the narration does not describe the rest of their encounter.
  • Emoni’s best friend Angelica, a lesbian, has an anniversary dinner with her girlfriend and is nervous about having sex for the first time. She has had sex with guys before, but “this is less about exploring, and more about expressing.” Emoni tells her, “You don’t have to do anything you aren’t comfortable doing.”

Violence

  • Malachi tells Emoni that his brother “was killed last February. Some beef in the neighborhood back home and he was shot. It’s unclear if it was a stray bullet or meant for him.”
  • In Spain, when a child steals Emoni’s purse, Malachi runs after the child and grabs him “by the back of his coat.” Emoni is concerned that Malachi will hurt the child, but he lets him go.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • During their trip to Spain, Emoni chooses to abstain, but some of her classmates get drunk. This ends in her classmate getting so drunk that she throws up. The next day, the student can’t remember what happened.
  • Emoni makes herself a meal and pours herself a glass of wine. She thinks, “I know [my grandmother will] raise an eyebrow when she sees I had some, but she won’t reprimand me; growing up, she was allowed to drink from the time she was fourteen and she finds the alcohol rules on the mainland excessive.”
  • Malachi jokingly asks a flight attendant for a glass of wine.
  • Emoni cooks with beer; the book includes a recipe for beer bread.

Language

  • Throughout the book, Emoni and her friend Angelica try to curb their language so they won’t be a bad influence on Emoni’s daughter. Slips like “shit—I mean, shoot” and “damn—I mean, darn” are frequent.
  • Emoni’s first-person narration has similar slips: “Tyrone is still being a dick—an ass—a prick. Who uses the word prick?” She later notes about him: “Damn, he smells good as fu—hell… heck.”
  • Damn, hell, and shit are used frequently.
  • Characters occasionally say “Jesus” and “oh my God.”
  • “Ass” is often used as a suffix in phrases such as “grown-ass woman” and “greasy-ass job.”
  • Angelica describes Malachi’s smile “as if you’re choosing to give a sunlit middle finger to this fucked-up world.”
  • Emoni’s classmate gets vulgar when she’s drunk and says “fuck” multiple times, including when she accuses Emoni of “fucking Malachi.”
  • Angelica says that she’s “nervous as fuck.”
  • Leslie’s classmate says the chef she’s working with “sounds like a crackhead.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Emoni’s grandmother is “a soft Catholic. She believes in the teachings of God, but she doesn’t push her religion on people. I went to church with her on Sundays, but she didn’t force me to do communion or confirmation. And she didn’t force me to keep the baby. She just held my hand and told me to think about what it would mean.”
  • Emoni’s grandmother goes to church several times in the book and has a circle of church friends.
  • While dealing with her dishonest boss, Emoni says, “You’re a nice man, Steve. . . I’m going to tell my grandmother to pray for you.” She then thinks, “I hope he can see in my face that I just sprinkled the juju of a spiteful Puerto Rican grandmother all over his life.”
  • Emoni jokingly describes water ice (a frozen treat) as “a direct gift from the gods.”
  • Emoni’s father says that Puerto Rico is “where I’ll die, whenever God decides that should be.”
  • Malachi jokes that “My cuts of jamón ibérico would make you believe in God.”

by Caroline Galdi

Drama

When Callie’s middle school decides to produce Moon over Mississippi, Callie doesn’t want to be on stage. She loves theater, and as part of the stage crew, she wants to create a set worthy of Broadway. But bringing her big ideas to life won’t be easy with a middle school budget and her lack of carpentry knowledge.

Once the actors are chosen, Callie finds herself in the middle of drama onstage and offstage. The actors don’t all get along, and Callie has a confusing crush on an eighth-grader. When two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier.

Drama focuses mostly on the stage crew, which gives the readers a unique look at the hard work that takes place behind the scenes. Told from Callie’s point of view, many fans will be able to relate to Callie as she deals with the confusing world of middle school. Callie is naive, cheerful, and obsessed with having a boyfriend. Callie seems to fall in love with any boy that is nice to her, which causes her heartache. However, Callie does seem to finally realize that having a boyfriend isn’t necessary.

The drawings are colorful and do an excellent job of showing the character’s emotions through their facial expressions. Reluctant readers will appreciate that many of the pages do not have words, but instead tell the story through drawings. Readers will love the manga-infused art, which shows the jealousies and misunderstandings of the cast members.

Although Drama does revolve around the students’ production of Moon Over Mississippi, a majority of the story focuses on the characters trying to discover themselves and their sexual orientation. Like a soap opera, the characters in the book are very interested in who likes who, and who broke up with who. When Callie’s friend tells her that he is gay, Callie easily accepts it and promises to keep the information secret. Drama highlights the importance of being accepting and open-minded, and not judging those who are exploring their sexuality—whether they are straight, gay, or bisexual. Although many readers will enjoy the graphic novel Drama, Callie and the plot are not unique or memorable. There is too much romantic angst and not enough action focusing on the production of the play.

Sexual Content

  • Callie has a crush on Greg. When Greg tells her that he broke up with his girlfriend, she kisses him on the cheek. Greg asks, “What was that for?” Callie tells him, “Oh, I don’t know. Just something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.” They have a short conversation, and then Greg kisses her on the lips. The next day at school, Greg ignores her.
  • In order to make Greg jealous, Callie walks by the baseball field with two of her guy friends.
  • One of Callie’s guy friends tells her that he’s gay. Later, when they discuss the eighth grade dance, the boy says he won’t ask another guy because “my dad would probably flip out, and I’m not sure if he’s ready for that. I’m not sure if I’m ready.” The boy says his parents suspect he’s gay, but “we don’t discuss it.”
  • Callie and a group of theatre kids go into the school’s basement to look at the costumes. They find a girl and a boy hiding behind a rack of clothes, kissing.
  • During the school production, a boy breaks up with the lead girl right before the play is about to begin. The girl melts down and refuses to continue acting in the play. In an act of desperation, one of the boys dresses in an evening gown and steps in for the missing girl. During the kissing scene, two boys kiss. There is an illustration of the shocked expressions of the audience.
  • A boy likes another boy, but he’s unsure if they will become a couple because “West still doesn’t know if he’s really gay. Or, I dunno, Bi, or whatever.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Callie calls her brother a “fuzzbrain.”
  • Callie’s friend calls Greg a “dork.”
  • A boy calls his brother a “jerk-face.”
  • “Heck” is used twice. “Darn” is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Spotlight on Coding Club!

Erin loves being on stage. When the school announces an upcoming talent show, Erin knows she can come up with a winning performance. Erin also agrees to help the coding club with developing an app to help score the contestants. Erin knows she’s taking on a lot, but she’s determined to distract herself. Erin doesn’t want to think about her father’s deployment and staying busy is her solution.

With operation distraction in full force, Erin’s anxiety gets the best of her. She wants to pretend that everything is okay, but her stress levels keep increasing. Her friends from the coding club have always been there for her, but Erin doesn’t want to tell them what’s really going on in her life. Will Erin be able to handle the pressure? If she tells her friends the truth, will they still like her?

The fourth installment of the Girls Who Code series has the same lovable characters but is told from Erin’s point of view, which allows the story to focus on a new conflict. Readers will get a look at Erin’s thought process as she tries to use humor to diffuse stressful situations. Erin tries to hide her true feelings from her friends. Readers will relate to Erin’s struggle with anxiety and her fear of telling others. The story makes it clear that having anxiety should not be viewed as an embarrassment. Erin is told, “I think it’s really cool that you talked to a therapist about this. Getting professional help was definitely the mature way to handle it.”

Spotlight on Coding Club uses texting bubbles, emojis, and simple vocabulary, which makes the story easy to read and assessable to younger readers. The fourth book in the series focuses less on the girls’ friendship and more on Erin’s personal struggle. Although Erin’s struggle is real, the story contains less action than previous books. Along with Erin’s personal struggle, Maya struggles with asking a girl on a date. Although dating is a topic many preteens are interested in, Maya’s romantic interests seemed forced and added little to the plot. In the end, Spotlight on Coding Club teaches a valuable lesson about friendship and anxiety but lacks action and suspense.

Sexual Content

  • There is a short conversation about Maya asking another girl out on a date. Later in the story, Maya asks the girl to the movies and it is “definitely a date.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • “Oh my god” is used as an exclamation three times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Chemistry Lesson

Maya has her summer all planned. She has an internship at MIT and the perfect boyfriend, but before the summer fun can start, Maya’s boyfriend breaks up with her. Maya, who is still grieving her mother’s death, has one thing on her mind—getting Whit back.

When Maya finds her mother’s old notebooks, she thinks she’s discovered the perfect way to get her boyfriend back. With the help of her mother’s lab intern, Ann, Maya makes a love serum. But before Maya can use it on Whit, she needs to test out the serum on two test subjects. Maya embarks on an adventure that leads her to discover the unpredictability of love.

The best part of Chemistry Lesson is the relationship Maya has with her best friend, Brian. Realistic, funny, and kind, Brian shows what true friendship should look like. Another positive relationship in the story is between Maya and her father. Both are trying to deal with the loss of Maya’s mother and struggle with the grieving process.

Although the storyline has an interesting premise, Maya’s willingness to ignore moral codes to get Whit back seems farfetched. Whit’s early disappearance from the story leaves the reader wondering why Whit is worth all of the effort to create a love potion. For a person who is so smart when it comes to science, Maya is completely clueless when it comes to guys. By completing the experiment, Maya does learn about herself and others, but her naivety when it comes to boy-girl relationships comes off as false.

Chemistry Lesson is a quick, easy read that has a diverse cast of characters. Even though the story focuses on a love potion, the love scenes won’t stir up much emotion. For those looking for a fun, unique love story, Chemistry Lesson will hit the mark.

Sexual Content

  • Brian is gay, but the only reference to his sexuality is when Maya asked, “Were you ever this upset about Matt?”
  • Maya’s aunt has a female partner “of more than 20 years.” Pam tells Maya that when she “had crushes on women and men while I was with Pam,” but because she was older, she was “able to ignore the crushes.”
  • Maya’s friend Yael told Maya “how a woman she’d met in undergrad pursued her for months only to dump her for a guy on the rugby team.”
  • Maya and her boyfriend, Whit, decided “we’d have sex in four weeks—once Whit moved into off-campus housing, where he’d have his own room.” Maya was “unable to stop myself from imagining what was going to happen in less than a month.”
  • When Maya’s boyfriend breaks up with her, her friend tells her, “This whole ‘losing my virginity thing is a heteronormative concept anyway.”
  • Maya makes out with Kyle. The scene is described over three pages. As they kiss, “He tipped me back so that my head rested against a couch pillow, and then he was half on top of me, one leg on the couch, one on the floor. . . He shifted so that his knee fell in between my legs.” Maya stops Kyle. Then he said, “This kind of thing happens all the time in college.”
  • Maya thinks back to visiting Whit at college where, “I’d seen students bring strangers back to their rooms and then say goodbye forever the next morning.”
  • One of Maya’s friends “hooked up with one of the techs from next door.”
  • Maya makes out with a boy at a party. “He pulled me close and hugged me, and I reciprocated with my arms around him. Then I felt a tickling wetness on my neck. . . He put one hand on my butt like it was no big deal . . . I couldn’t do much besides keep my mouth open as his tongue began wagging from side to side inside it.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • Someone tells Maya, “sometimes the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”
  • When Maya is in Whit’s room, she teases him for having Bananagrams in his nightstand. She says, “You’re supposed to have condoms and drugs in there.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • For an experiment, Maya takes drops. When her friend catches her taking the drops, she tells him, “I’m ingesting a pheromones-masking formula to get Whit back.”
  • Maya thinks back to “the wine that Whit once stole from his parent’s liquor cabinet so we could share it on one of our first real dates.”
  • After dinner, Maya’s aunt poured her a “full glass of sweet wine.”
  • Maya goes to several parties where there was alcohol. At one, “Most of the kids were drinking beer procured by someone’s older brother.”
  • When trying to explain an experiment, one of the characters mentions Viagra.
  • Maya, her father, and her friend go to an outdoor play. Her father brought “water bottles filled with his special juice drink.” Maya’s father said, “I’m teaching her that alcohol isn’t something you consume in excess for the purposes of getting drunk.”
  • Maya goes to a party where teens are drinking and she “could see a pack of adults smoking something in a circle.”
  • When Maya hurts herself, she takes Percocet for the pain.

Language

  • When someone makes fun of Kyle’s singing, he “lifted his middle finger in our direction.”
  • When Maya visits her aunt, her aunt uses profanity including “goddamned.” The aunt’s accent is so thick that the curse words sounded like “fahckin’ or ‘gawhddamned.’”
  • “Oh my god” is used as an exclamation.
  • Profanity is used infrequently but includes bullshit, dammit, hell, and shit.
  • After Maya sings karaoke, her friend says, “you sounded like a fucking robot.”
  • “Jesus” is used once as an exclamation.
  • When Maya falls down, a guy says, “Holy shit, she’s down.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Stealing Parker

Parker loves her family, her church, and her life. But all that changes when her mother divorces her father and leaves with her new lover—a woman. When Parker’s church and best friend turn their back on her, Parker sets out to prove that she likes boys. But when the boys’ assistant coach catches her eye, Parker’s life spirals out of control.

As Parker struggles with how to deal with her secret relationship, she is besieged with more problems. Parker’s father is in denial. Her brother is always high. And her best friend, Drew, is hiding the fact that he is gay.

Parker works through her insecurities and frustration through a prayer journal, which gives the reader insight into Parker’s emotional state. The reader will be able to understand Parker’s desire to be loved and how that leads her to kiss so many boys, although the illegal relationship between Parker and the boys’ baseball coach leads to frequent and steamy sex scenes and ends with an investigation.

 Finding Parker hits on difficult topics relevant in today’s world. Parker explores her faith in God and how that faith impacts those who are gay. The story also tackles the difficulties of high school friendships; most of Parker’s friends abandoned her after her mother came out, classmates that don’t even know her talk trash her, and even her best friend stops talking to her. Finding Parker brings realistic problems to light and shows the dangers of being promiscuous. In the end, Parker learns to love herself and accept her mother’s new lifestyle.

Although Parker is a well-developed and relatable character, her sexual relationship with the adult coach contains graphic sexual details. The story contains mature content, which some readers may want to avoid.

 Sexual Content

  • Parker’s mom “announced she’s a lesbian and ran off with her friend who was more than a friend.”
  • Parker has kissed many boys, trying to prove that she isn’t a lesbian like her mother. She lost weight so she wouldn’t look “butch.” “All the guys know I look good. They know I want them and I love kissing and sometimes rounding a couple of bases (I never go further than second).”
  • Parker thinks about when, after church she, “let him kiss me beside the turtle sandbox thing, so people will know I like boys.”
  • When Parker decides to manage the boy’s baseball team, the coach tells her not to date or “mess around” with team members. The coach said, “the girl who managed the team last year, uh, well, we had some incidents on the bus and in the locker room.”
  • Parker and her friend talk about her “one-night thing” with Matt Higgins. She thinks, “I didn’t enjoy kissing Matt Higgins very much. He kept trying to go up my shirt.”
  • A boy said, “Everyone knows she (Parker) puts out.” Parker gets upset and thinks, “I’m still a virgin.” She then thinks about how she can’t insert a tampon.
  • At last year’s prom, Parker’s date “kept trying to feel me up in the middle of the gym.”
  • Parker has a few minutes, “before we need to leave for church, so I unzip my dress. . . lie down on my bed, and slip my fingers under the elastic of my underwear, wondering what it would feel like if a guy touched me there.”
  • Parker thinks that Seth likes a girl but “he’s too embarrassed to get involved with her, considering the whole scandal with her dad, the district attorney, screwing his secretary and all.”
  • Parker has a crush on the baseball assistant coach. During class Parker lets out a moan when she, “picture(s) myself tangled up in his crumpled sheets, our legs knotted. The idea scares me a little because I’ve never gotten naked with anybody.”
  • While at practice, someone yells, “Corndog’s got a hard-on for Coach!”
  • When a group of boys try to get Corndog to tell them how far he’s gone with his girlfriend, Corndog said, “Hell, no. I can’t tell you. She’d rip my balls off.”
  • A boy tells a story about, “how he saw a hot pink dildo laying on the concrete behind the cafeteria . . . ”
  • Parker and Corndog write notes back and forth discussing someone’s penis size.
  • At a party, a girl “French kisses” a boy she doesn’t know.
  • Parker has a sexual relationship with the assistant coach, who is an adult. The first time they kiss, “He digs fingers into my hip. . . My mouth found his, and I wrap my arms around his neck. . . I deepen the kiss. His tongue explores the inside of my mouth. My knees go wobbly.”
  • Parker and the assistant coach begin making out in the parking lot of the laundromat, behind the dumpsters. The first time they meet there, they make out. “He tastes like mint toothpaste. My hands are on his neck and his are in my hair, and I can tell he’s experienced. . . He pushes me backward and climbs on top, his weight heavy, yet comforting.”
  • Parker gets a hall pass and goes to the assistant coach’s office. “Then his lips were on mine and he lifted me onto his desk. He pulled my hips to his and kissed me until I was so dizzy I could barely breathe. Brian began to grind against me and I was so drunk on him, I couldn’t think at all.” They stop because someone knocks on the door. Parker then thinks about a couple nights before when, Brian went up my shirt again and unsnapped my bra, and ran his hands over my bare breast. Him running his calloused fingers over my skin . . . I couldn’t stop trembling. . . His teeth sank into my shoulder.”
  • One night when Parker and Brain were making out, “he kissed my breast and felt me through my jeans. I wasn’t comfortable enough to touch him yet. But he took my fingers and put my hand there anyway.” They stopped when a “cop knocked on the truck window and told us to move along.”
  • Brian asks Parker to give him a blow job, but she doesn’t. Instead, he “pushes my panties aside, making me moan softly as he works a finger inside of me. . . Later I straddle him and he wraps his hands around my waist and we kiss and kiss. . .”
  • Brian and Parker park behind the dumpsters and, Parker “felt him too. He shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat while my fingers moved up and down. I could tell by the noises he made that he liked how I made him feel, but it was almost as if I could be anybody. It didn’t matter who I was, it was only that somebody was giving him pleasure.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • At a party, a boy gets drunk and falls in a ditch. “. . . He was so drunk he started screaming about how he’d broken his leg. And Marie Baird had to convince him that his leg was already broken.”
  • The assistance baseball coach takes Parker out to eat and orders a beer.
  • Parker’s brother, Ryan, has a drug problem. She makes him eggs to “hopefully clean out whatever he drank/ate/snorted/shot-up last night.”
  • Parker goes to a party where teens are drinking beer. Some play beer pong and someone “takes a shot directly out of a Smirnoff bottle and wipes his mouth, then does another shot.”
  • Parker finds her brother passed out with “an empty bottle of Robitussin in his fist.” Parker and her friend take him to the hospital.
  • Parker’s mom tells her she needs to get on birth control.
  • Parker’s best friend is gay but hasn’t told anyone. Parker attempts to get him and another guy together. Later, Parker finds out that her best friend likes the same boy she does.

Language

  • Profanity is used often and includes ass, bitch, dick, fucking, hell, pissed, and shit.
  • When Parker and her friend look at a book of Kama Sutra, the friend said, “Jesus Christ, is that move physically possible?”
  • God is used as an exclamation often.
  • Someone lectures Parker on “how I screw over his friends.”
  • After being mean to Parker, Corndog apologizes, “Last night I heard my mom crying, and I got upset. That’s why I was a dick today. I’m sorry.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The story contains entries from Parker’s prayer journal beginning when she was little. In the first entry, she writes, “as I prayed, I didn’t ask you for anything. I only thanked you for giving me Mom.”
  • Parker blames God for ruining her family. She often asks, “Why did God let this happen to my family?”
  • When Parker’s mother came out as a lesbian, members of the church began ignoring the family. However, Parker’s dad makes her attend church. They have a conversation about if the Bible says, “thou shalt not become a lesbian?” Her father replies “no.”
  • When the pastor’s daughter spreads rumors that Parker is “a butch softball player who probably likes girls,” Parker wonders where God went.
  • Parker makes a list of “Reasons Why I’m the Worst Christian of All Time.” Her list includes, “I don’t see how a loving God would split a family up like he did mine.”
  • When Parker was little, the pastor accuses her of lying and, “gave me a lecture on how lying is a straight path to Hell.”
  • When Parker flirts with the assistant coach, she thinks, “When God created the Earth, he had such a sick wicked sense of humor. He made everything that’s wrong feel really, really good.”
  • Parker’s dad breaks up with his girlfriend because his church friends tell him to. Parker prays, “Please help my family. Hasn’t our church taken enough from us?”
  • Parker and her mom have a conversation about God and church. Parker’s mom said, “God still loves me and he loves you too . . . All that matters is your personal relationship with God.”  Parker’s mom tells her that she doesn’t need to go to church because “I can talk to God while I’m walking the dog or running in the woods just the same as if I’m at church.”

 

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