Our Violent Ends

The year is 1927. The chaos of the previous year has done nothing to quell the blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, and the streets of Shanghai are still rife with death and violence. But this is not only the work of the blood feud—foreign powers have increasingly become intertwined with the rival gangs, leading to talk of a brewing civil war. The possibility of peace feels further away than ever.  

The madness no longer sweeps through the streets like a contagion, infecting everyone it comes across, but that does not mean the madness has left the city for good. Monsters disguised as ordinary people still prowl through the streets, launching targeted attacks in crowded areas that cause everyone in the vicinity to rip their own throats out. It may no longer spread, but it is no less deadly.  

Betrayal, heartbreak, and death make all hope of reconciliation between Roma and Juliette seem impossibly far away. They miss each other terribly, but at the same time cannot forgive each other’s terrible actions. But when their fathers, in a rare show of cooperation between the Scarlets and the White Flowers, order Roma and Juliette to work together to find a cure for the new madness, they are once again thrown together and forced to cooperate. Their reconciliation is a relief to both of them as they realize how powerful they are together. But are they enough to save their city? The universe is never kind to star-crossed lovers, and they may just have to choose between saving Shanghai or themselves. 

Our Violent Ends is a dazzling conclusion to Roma and Juliette’s story. The prose is vivid, rich, and imaginative, and it fully immerses readers in Roma and Juliette’s world. While Our Violent Ends is on the longer side, there is never a dull moment – scenes packed with action transition smoothly into heartfelt confessions that will leave readers on the edge of their seats. Several subplots create many moving parts that all work together to culminate in a grand finale.  

The rich cast of characters is another factor that makes this novel a thrilling read. The narration switches between many points of view, allowing readers to inhabit many of the characters’ heads and get to know them and their motivations. The relationship between Roma and Juliette is an extremely complicated one, and these nuances are fully explored; neither character is perfect, and their circumstances often force them to hurt each other, but they ultimately work through their flaws to find a middle ground. 

Our Violent Ends is a great modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. Like the play, this novel emphasizes the immense harm that hatred causes and reminds readers that unfounded hate leads to dreadful violence. Teens who enjoy intricate plots and cutthroat characters will love this book and think about Roma and Juliette’s story long after they close the final page. It is a satisfying conclusion to the duology begun by These Violent Delights. Fans of Romeo and Juliet may also want to read Crossing the Line by Simone Elkeles and Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine. 

Sexual Content 

  • Roma and Juliette kiss in a safe house. “Roma pressed his lips to hers with such ferocity that Juliette gasped, the sound immediately muffled when she pushed herself up and drew closer. Despite his burning energy, Juliette felt Roma’s mouth move with sincerity, felt his adoration while he trailed kisses all down her neck. ‘Juliette,’ he whispered. Both of their coats came off. Roma had the zip of her dress pulled in seconds too, and Juliette lifted her arms to accommodate. ‘My darling, darling Juliette.’ The dress fell to the floor. With some disbelief, Roma suddenly blinked, his eyes clearing for the briefest moment while she worked at his shirt buttons.” It is implied that they have sex, but not explicitly. 

Violence 

  • Juliette shoots a White Flower, wounding but not killing him. “Her pistol kicked. Juliette pressed back into her seat, her jaw hard as the man below dropped his weapon, his shoulder wounded.” 
  • During an altercation between the Scarlets and the White Flowers, Roma shoots, aiming for Juliette. “Roma reached into his jacket pocket and drew his gun, and Juliette had no choice but to jolt herself out of her daze. Instead of combating the would-be assassin, he had decided to shoot at her. Three bullets whizzed by her ear. Gasping, Juliette struck the floor, her knees grazing the carpet hard as she threw herself down.” The shot misses Juliette.  
  • Roma attacks Juliette. “He slammed her into the pipes. The effort was so forceful that Juliette tasted blood inside her lip, sliced by her own sharp teeth. She stifled a gasp and then another when Roma’s hand tightened around her throat, his eyes murderous.” Juliette defends herself: “Just as Roma shifted forward, perhaps intent on his kill, her hand closed around the sheath beneath her dress and pulled her blade free, slicing down on whatever she came in contact with first. Roma hissed, releasing his hold. It was only a surface cut, but he cradled his arm to his chest, and Juliette followed close, leveling the blade to his throat.” The fight stops when they call a truce and agree to talk. 
  • A monster attacks unnamed patrons at a bar. “The cabaret becomes enswathed in black, an ever-moving blanket of infection, and in seconds, the first succumbs, hands flying to throats and clutching, clutching, clutching, trying to squeeze the insects out. Nails break into skin, skin splits for muscle, muscle parts for bone. As soon as blood spurts from one victim, inner flesh exposed and veins pumping red, the next is already tearing before they have a moment to feel the visceral disgust that comes with being soaked in hot, sticky gore.” All of the patrons die. 
  • Benedikt, Roma’s cousin, is attacked by Scarlets. “He didn’t even have the chance to pull a weapon. A blow came to the side of his face out of nowhere, then Benedikt was reeling, crushed to the ground amid shouting and cursing and someone calling for the death of his whole family. His arms were bent back and his head was pushed hard into the cement, before something ice cold, something that felt like the butt of a gun, jammed up against his temple.” He escapes uninjured when the Scarlets are all shot by a third-party sniper. 
  • Tyler, Juliette’s cousin, shoots and kills two White Flowers. “Tyler pulled the trigger twice in rapid succession, two White Flower heads cracking with an explosion of red, crashing to the ground. Chenghuangmiao [the market] erupted with a wave of screaming, but most shoppers reacted quickly and hurried out of the way, in no mood to be caught in a gangster dispute. They didn’t have to worry. This was no dispute; there were no other White Flowers nearby to retaliate.” 
  • Marshall, Roma’s best friend, kills a Scarlet who recognizes him. “The bullet landed true. With a harsh clatter, the Scarlet’s weapon fell to the floor. It might have been a gun. It might have been a dagger. It might have even been a throwing star, for all the consequence it held. But in the hazy dark, all Marshall cared about was it being out of reach, and then the Scarlet collapsed too, a hand clasped over the hole studded into his breastbone.” 
  • Tyler sets fire to a building full of White Flowers as a targeted attack because of the blood feud. “Juliette could see him, holding a plank of wood swirling with flames. Behind him, the building’s roaring inferno drowned out the screams, drowned out the whole occupancy burning to death. Juliette heard nothing save that they were pleading–women in nightgowns and elderly banging on the closed windows, muffled Russian crying to stop! Please stop! 
  • Juliette kills a White Flower who is attacking Tyler. “Without slowing her run, Juliette jumped over the threshold of the temple entrance and pulled the knife sheathed at her thigh. When she threw, the blade pierced into the White Flower’s neck smoothly, striking its target with nary a sound before the White Flower pitched sideways and fell.” 
  • During a fight, Roma throws a knife at Juliette, wounding her shoulder. “The pain did not come at first. It never did: a blade entering always felt cold and then foreign. Only seconds later, as if her nerve endings had finally registered what happened, did intense, sharp agony reverberate outward from the wound. . . Juliette managed, turning to look at the blade half-embedded in her shoulder, then at Roma. His jaw was slack, face drained of color. The wound, meanwhile, immediately started to bleed, a steady stream of red running its way down her dress.” Roma and his younger sister, Alisa, help stop the bleeding. Juliette is left with a scar. 
  • An unnamed foreman in a factory is killed by revolutionaries. “One slash, that’s all it takes. A knife over [the foreman’s] throat and he’s twitching on the floor, hands clasped around the wound in a futile attempt at holding the blood in. The red seeps regardless. It does not stop until he is naught but a body lying in a scarlet pool. It soaks the shoes of his workers, his killers. It is carried from street to street, the faintest red print pressed upon crumbling pavement and into the roads of the Concessions, marring stains upon the clean white sidewalks. This is what revolution is, after all. The trailing of blood from door to door, loud and violent until the rich cannot look away.” 
  • Lord Cai has Rosalind, Juliette’s cousin, whipped after finding out that she was spying for the White Flowers. “The lash came down again on her back, and Rosalind cried out, her whole body shuddering. They didn’t allow her to crumple to the floor: there were four Scarlets around her, two to hold her upright, one with the whip, and one standing just to the side.” Juliette defends her by “striking her fist across the guard’s face.” 
  • In a duel between Roma and Tyler, Juliette shoots Tyler, killing him. “Both her hands came around her smoking pistol. There was no room for regret now. She had done it. She had done it, and she could not stop there. She turned, and with a sob choked on her tongue, she shot each and every one of Tyler’s men before they had even comprehended what was happening, bullets studding their temples, their necks, their chests.” 
  • A Scarlet shoots a man named Da Nao because he is helping Roma and Juliette escape the city. “The Scarlet fired, and Da Nao fell with a spray of red, the bullet in his head killing him instantly.” 
  • Dimitri, a White Flower, shoots a group of Scarlets who are holding Roma hostage. “The Scarlets didn’t have a chance to fight back. Some managed to retrieve weapons, some managed one shot. But the workers had them surrounded, rifles already aimed, and with a pop-pop-pop! reverberating along the whole street, the Scarlets all dropped, eyes blank and glazed, fleshy wounds studded into their chests. The blood splashed generously.” 
  • The madness infects a crowd of people. “Destruction tore through the scene: a bloodbath, infecting those who hadn’t run fast enough. Juliette’s eyes swiveled to the side. A woman: dropping to her knees, fingers sinking into her neck and pulling without any hesitation. A scream–a figure, running to her. Her husband: cradled over her corpse and keening a loud, desolate noise. then he too gouged at his own throat and fell to the ground.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • “Shit” is used a few times as an exclamation. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Always Isn’t Forever

J.C. Cervantes’ novel follows Ruby and her long-time boyfriend, Hart. When Hart suddenly passes away in a drowning accident, Ruby struggles to figure out her new plans for the future—a future without the love of her life. Unbeknownst to his friends and family, Hart experiences a miracle, as his soul comes back to life in the body of someone else. Unfortunately for Hart, his new body is that of Jameson Romanelli, a football player at his school that Ruby describes as “arrogant, selfish, [and] obnoxious.” Because Jameson is in a coma after a car crash, an angel named Lourdes is able to put Hart’s soul into Jameson’s body. Lourdes explains to Hart that Jameson’s soul is about to pass on, and this is what allows her to put Hart’s soul into his body.  

Hart must try to reckon with his new body and he can’t tell anyone who he really is. This allows him to grow and experience new things. For instance, Ruby describes Hart as a bit of a “worrywart. . . when we were kids, he wouldn’t climb the monkey bars or anything more than four feet off the ground, he started a petition for seat belts on the school bus.” In addition, Hart is “a stickler for the rules.” But that changes when Hart has to learn to convincingly do things that Jameson would normally do, in order to not clue anyone in about his divine intervention. For instance, Hart needs to learn a lot about football, as Jameson is a top athlete at their school and he is under a great deal of pressure from his father. Being in Jameson’s body allows Hart to understand that people face pressures we have no way of knowing about from surface-level encounters. Hart explains, “I’ve only lived in Jameson’s body a day and I already feel like shit. Imagine how bad he felt living his whole life under this kind of pressure.” 

Because Hart (referred to as Hart/Jameson later in the book), now in Jameson’s body, is not able to tell Ruby what happened, Ruby feels completely confused as to why Jameson is suddenly reaching out to her and being nice. Eventually, as Ruby spends more time with this “new” Jameson, she starts to feel that “I couldn’t stand [Jameson] and then he woke up from a coma and I felt this weird connection and then I hung out with [Jameson] and to be honest he wasn’t that bad; he was nice.” Ruby feels conflicted about enjoying her time with Jameson, but says, “I felt like . . . like we’re connected by something bigger.”  

Always Isn’t Forever switches points of view at the start of each chapter, which will help readers relate to each of the characters individually. Though Hart initially judges Jameson, Hart grows as a character because he can feel Jameson’s emotions. For example, Hart discovers that Jameson had a serious girlfriend who “had a rock-climbing accident and died.” Hart is able to feel Jameson’s grief: “I feel an ache deep between my ribs that shoots into my heart.” Hart recognizes that this grief is what drove Jameson to alcohol. Hart learns about how the pain of grief can affect people who may seem hardened on the outside, like Jameson.  

Even though the book’s characters are extremely empathetic, the situation regarding what happens to Jameson’s soul when Hart’s soul is put into his body is not explained in detail. This causes confusion especially because Jameson’s memories begin taking over Hart. For instance, Hart lost some of his memories. He explains, “I have no idea how to sail this boat that evidently, I bought and fixed up and don’t remember a damn thing about.” However, Hart regains all his memories at the end, and though this leaves a happy ending for Ruby and Hart, the reader might be confused as to why the angel did not just give Hart all of his memories to begin with.  

Overall, the theme of processing grief is extremely pertinent in Always Isn’t Forever. Readers will empathize greatly with Ruby as she explains how she feels after Hart’s death: “At first, I let [grief] have at me. I knew the grief was eventually going to swallow me up. And I wanted it to.” Later in the novel, Ruby recognizes that her grief has caused her to give up things she used to enjoy. She reflects that she’s “given up what I love: the water, my dreams to travel—even myself. I guess a part of me is terrified that if I let myself want again, it’ll just be one more thing ripped away. But how is a life without desire worth living?” Eventually, Ruby is able to open up to Jameson and share her feelings, which allows her to refocus on her dreams of travel and college that she had put aside in the depths of her grief.  

Sexual Content 

  • Hart and Ruby share a quick romantic moment. Hart says, “[Ruby] gives me a kiss, meant to be a peck, but I’m greedy, and in a nanosecond the kiss is deeper, our bodies pressed so close I think we could melt into this mattress.” But the kiss ends abruptly, with Hart saying, “Sometimes I wish we had never agreed to wait to have sex until college.”  
  • To test her theory that “a part of Hart is inside Jameson,” Ruby approaches Jameson and kisses him. Hart/Jameson describes, “[Ruby] pulls me closer, opens my mouth with her own. Every nerve in my body is on fire. I let go. I deepen the kiss, feel its heat, its desire, and all the questions it’s asking . . . our erratic breathing matches the rhythm of the kiss now, frantic, out of control. As if this is the last kiss we’ll ever have. I want more of [Ruby]. All of her.” 
  • Ruby and Hart/Jameson spend a romantic evening together. Ruby says, “Each kiss more urgent than the second before, the longing growing, growing, growing.” 
  • Ruby asks Hart/Jameson if he wants to be intimate with her. Ruby explains, “We’d sworn we’d wait until college. But now. . . if this is my only chance. It was always going to be Hart. It was, is, and forever will be—Hart.” But they stop before they go any further than kissing because Hart/Jameson says, “No, not like this.” 

Violence 

  • When a little boy accidentally falls overboard during a storm, Hart goes out into the dangerous waters to rescue him. Even though the boy is saved, as Hart attempts to get to the boat’s ladder, “My fingers trace its edges just as a colossal swell sucks me under. The waters are dark . . . violent. I fight my way to the top, but it’s not there. I have no idea which way is up.”  
  • Hart’s drowning is described over a page, including Hart’s feelings about dying: “They say our life passes before our eyes right before we die, but it isn’t true. I think two things in that moment: I should have spent that extra minute with my dad. I should have chosen to spend tonight with Ruby. The water closes in . . . Water rushes into my nose and mouth, floods my lungs.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • It is briefly mentioned that Jameson’s car accident was caused because he was driving under the influence. Later, Hart explains that Jameson’s long-time girlfriend passed away. “That’s why [Jameson] started drinking.” 

Language 

  • Ruby refers to Jameson as a “two-faced son of a bitch”  because he cheated off her schoolwork and toilet-papered her house.
  • Occasionally, characters use words like asshole, shit, and damn.  
  • Rarely, characters use the word fuck.  
  • When frustrated, Ruby exclaims, “I swear on the baby Jesus that I am not a violent person.”  
  • Gabi, Ruby’s sister, exclaims, “Holy Santos,” when she discovers “a part of Hart is somehow inside of Jameson.” 

Supernatural 

  • Lourdes, an angel, explains to Hart that he “can go back to a human life; you can live out your days until your actual scheduled time to die . . . All we have to do is find a body that is on the verge of death.” 
  • As Hart’s soul enters Jameson’s body, Hart explains, “I stare out of Jameson’s eyes. The world looks different . . . I thought [Jameson] might tell me to get the hell out of his body. But no. You want to know what he said? What his last words were before he checked out for good? ‘Don’t waste it, man.’” 
  • Gabi, Ruby’s sister, tells Ruby that she has a theory about Jameson. Gabi says, “What if . . . [Jameson] has a message from the other side, from Hart . . . because he was so close to death?” 
  • Initially, when Lourdes uses her angel powers to put Hart’s soul into Jameson’s body, she explains that Hart will not be able to tell anyone exactly what happened to his soul. Lourdes explains that in order for Hart to be able to explain the truth of what happened to his soul to Ruby, Lourdes will “use the only power I have that is great enough . . . I will give up a single wing.” Lourdes’ sacrifice allows Hart to be able to explain what happened to his soul, so that Ruby can understand what happened to his soul after he drowned.  
  • Lourdes tells Hart, “When the death angel came for me . . . I asked to use my last wing to give you back your memories.”

Spiritual Content 

  • Lourdes tells Hart that she used her abilities as an angel on him. “You’re not in heaven, and you’re not exactly dead . . . I saw you struggling and I knew [drowning] was going to be painful, so I pulled your soul out early to save you from all of that.”  
  • Ruby’s sister, Gabi, does a card reading for Ruby. The cards that have been passed down through generations in their family. Gabi says the cards are “a special gift from the ancestors.” Gabi “takes the World card in her hands, closes her eyes, and meditates for as long as necessary until she gets that ‘message’ from our ancestors.” Gabi explains that she “heard a single whisper; it said, ‘message?’” 

The Enchanted Hacienda

Harlow Estrada is an editor who has recently been through a breakup and lost her dream job, as she struggles to decide what her next path in life should be. Harlow’s mother invites her to come to the family farm, referred to as the Estrada Hacienda, and spend time reconnecting with her family and their land.  

Harlow feels out of place, even among her family, as she is the only female member of her family without magical abilities. She explains, “the magic happened to skip me entirely. Unlike my two sisters and pair of primas [cousins] and every other ancestress before me.” Harlow’s mother and aunt decide to leave on a sudden vacation. They leave Harlow to take care of the family’s land, as well as their magical plants. Harlow is determined to use this time to learn more about her family’s legacy and about how she fits into it.  

Harlow is an empathetic character that many readers will be able to relate to, as she struggles to figure out her place in the world, as well as within her family. Harlow emphasizes, “I mean, if I can’t have the Estrada family magic, I still want to feel like there’s significance to my work, my life . . . And now I’m worried I am and always will be unremarkable.” During her return to her family’s farm, Harlow realizes that it is a great opportunity to write something of her own, and she feels deep down that she should write “something magical.” She begins working on a novel inspired by the magic she experiences upon her return to her family’s land. 

Though she’s just experienced a terrible breakup, Harlow happens to run into a mysterious man named Ben, who she later learns is the grandson of Beverly—her late grandmother’s best friend. Tied together by their families and the magic of Harlow’s family farm, Harlow and Ben’s initial spark only grows stronger as they pursue a relationship together. However, their feelings for one another become complicated by Harlow’s important self-discovery, as she realizes she does in fact have magical abilities like the rest of her family. Harlow notices a glimmer in Ben’s eyes when they are kissing and realizes, “Ben Brandt has been magically bonded to me.” 

Desperate to understand how Ben was bonded to her, Harlow returns home to ask her mother for help. Harlow is shocked when her mother tells her, “[Your aunt] and I believe that you are an enchantress,” as Harlow has “lived [her] life believing [she has] no magic.” This exciting revelation leaves Harlow with a difficult decision to make, as she realizes, “I have to break the bond,” and risk magically destroying all of the feelings she and Ben have for one another in the process. Readers will be on the edge of their seats as they wonder what will happen between Harlow and Ben.  

The Enchanted Hacienda is written for adults, many teens will be drawn to it since J.C. Cervantes has written so many young adult novels. Readers who enjoy fantasy, magic, and an immersive setting will love this book, as it heavily focuses on the power of nature and the beauty of Mexico.  

Harlow’s growth throughout the novel provides a reassuring message that everyone has something that makes them special. Through writing her novel, Harlow realizes that her main character is reflective of her own desire to “find her way, to learn to speak the language of the blooms, to unearth the family secret.” Harlow’s writing mirrors her own journey of learning more about herself and her family. Harlow’s completion of her novel and the support of her family emphasizes a major theme in the novel: the strength in family. Harlow summarizes the theme of family when she calls this love, “The kind of love that believes in you, challenges you, walks through fire for you, makes a home for you—the kind of love that transforms you.” 

Sexual Content 

  • When Harlow visits his family’s home in Quebec, Harlow and Ben kiss for the first time. Harlow says, “Drowning in his touch, I drink him in while he kisses me hungrily, urgently like he might never kiss me again.” This passionate kissing scene lasts for about a page.  
  • While waiting out a rainstorm inside an old barn, Ben and Harlow kiss passionately, and it begins to go further. Harlow says, “And then I feel that tug again. Powerful. Alluring. A kinetic spark that ignites every cell in my body . . . Ben’s fingers trace my bare stomach. They hover near my bra, then slip the seam.” Before they go any further, they are interrupted when Ben gets a distressing phone call. 
  • Harlow and Ben spend an intimate afternoon together beside the river.  “I’m [Harlow] still sinking when my hand unhooks the front clasp of my bra. I want to feel his heat against my bare skin.” This scene lasts about two pages, but just before they go further Harlow stops Ben, noticing a magical, “uncommon spark of light” that unnerves her.  
  • Harlow and Ben begin to passionately kiss. Harlow says, “My body is on auto-drive, operating on sheer emotion when I tilt my head back and kiss him. An urgent fiery kiss that is all-consuming.” This scene continues for three pages before Harlow stops Ben, feeling guilty about the bonding magic.  
  • Harlow and Ben are intimate. “We finally break apart near the table, and then [Ben’s] reaching behind me and untying my apron, never taking his gaze from mine as it falls to the floor. I stand perfectly still, savoring the pleasure of his touch.” This scene lasts four pages.  

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Harlow explains that her ex-boyfriend, Chad, is excellent at telling when there is a problem. Harlow explains, “He smells problems like a police dog sniffs out cocaine.” 
  • Harlow is about to attend a party to support Chad, even though she’s just been unexpectedly fired from her dream job. Harlow thinks, “You’re going to pull your shit together . . . pour a glass of merlot, put on a dress, and have the time of your goddamn life.” 
  • After Harlow’s break up, her friend “pulls bottles from her oversize bag and begins to mix a concoction of gin, sugar, champagne, and some red syrupy stuff.” 
  • Harlow enjoys the solitude of the empty hacienda, explaining, “I make a margarita with that aged añejo tequila my mom saves for special occasions before I find a good book in the study.” 
  • While attending a vow renewal of family friends, Harlow sees Ben who “is holding out a champagne flute to me.” 
  • Before Harlow attempts to remove the bonding magic between her and Ben, she takes “a shot of añejo” with her aunt. Harlow says, “’To courage,” and then she “tip[s] the amber liquid back.” 

Language 

  • Harlow and her friend, Laini, often use profanity such as shit, ass, and damn.  
  • Occasionally, Harlow and other main characters use “fuck.” For example, When Chad tells Harlow to wear something “appropriate.” Harlow’s friend says, “I’ll let you go. But only in a dress that screams, ‘Fuck the patriarchy.’” 

Supernatural 

  • Harlow describes her family’s land and how they create magic via plants. “The real family power, though, is in how they combine blooms, or concoct elixirs, using petals, leaves, and stems to create prosperity, love, health, hope, protection, or even to cause separation, doubt, fear, and misery. It’s all so complicated and beautiful and alchemical.” 
  • To help Harlow sleep, her mother uses “dream magic.” Harlow explains, “Then, as I fall back on my pillow and close my weary eyes, I remember that my mother sometimes uses holly for the power of dream magic.” 
  • Harlow discusses how her family is able to use their magic discreetly, explaining, “To the general passerby, it looks like a lovely vintage florist. But to the locals and a select few, this is the spot where you place and pick up your order of magic. After you sign the non-disclosure agreement—that is a modern addition. We operate using a whisper network, whispers carried on the wind of our town, El Viento, named for the goddess who is responsible for its creation.” 
  • To choose which Estrada family member will watch the farm and take care of the magical gardens while Harlow’s mom and aunt are out of the country, Harlow’s mother uses a “white iris petal, known for its faith and virtue.” Harlow’s mom explains, “You will each sleep with this under your pillow tonight. Whoever’s petal turns blue will act as the guardian.” Harlow’s petal turns blue. 
  • Harlow delivers a magical bouquet filled with memory magic that will allow her late grandmother’s friend, Beverly, to magically bond with her husband, William. Harlow explains that the bouquet is infused with memory magic, to help William recapture his memories of his life with Beverly, as he struggles with dementia. Harlow says, “Beverly and William Brandt were bonded at precisely 7:58 p.m. The moon was high, their hands connected, each breathing in the fragrance of the magic as he accepted the bouquet—just as instructed. I knew the moment it happened. [William’s] eyes sparked with flickers of gold, a sure sign that the bonding was complete.” 
  • The bonding bouquet that Harlow delivers to Beverly and William begins to work. Harlow explains, “[William’s] arms around [Beverly] with a familiarity that made me soar with joy and relief and even wonder,” showing that the memory magic has worked.  
  • When Harlow’s mom tells Harlow that she does have magic, Harlow tries magically bringing a flower back to life.  Harlow does “as [mom] says, and in a few seconds, I feel the vibration of life in the hydrangea; slowly I connect a thread of magic to it. The flower pulses as I open my eyes and watch it unfold into a healthy bloom.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Harlow explains the story of how their family gained magical abilities. “The Aztec goddess Mayahuel whispered the given names of each child in the family,” and this instilled their family with power that passed down through the generations.  
  • Harlow says, “A lot of kids learn fairy tales, or stories from the Bible, but in my family? The very first tale you learn and commit to heart is the tale of a young and very beautiful goddess named Mayahuel whose jealous grandmother hid her in the farthest corner of the universe . . . wanting to conceal the goddess’s beauty and power.” 
  • Harlow’s family’s magic began with her great-great-grandmother; “Legend has it that the soil called to my great-great-grandmother when she came through this land on her way to somewhere else. . . the Aztec goddess of agave, Mayahuel, appeared to her and told her that if my great-great-grandmother used the land according to her instructions, the goddess would grant our family’s female descendants an unimaginable magic.” 
  • Harlow reflects on her childhood imagination about her family’s gardens. “I used to imagine the most fantastical night creatures swooping in to pollinate the flowers, to offer their gifts of magic to Mayahuel.” 

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You

Trixie and Ben have been sworn enemies since elementary school when Ben “accidentally” pushed Trixie off the monkey bars. Now in their senior year at Messina Academy for the Gifted, their mutual dislike of each other is still strong, to the dismay of all their friends. Harper and Cornell, Trixie and Ben’s best friends are especially affected by this — they have liked each other since their freshman year but have both been too scared to make the first move, and Harper is convinced that Trixie and Ben’s war is one of the main factors keeping them apart. 

When Harper and Cornell finally confess their feelings, Trixie and Ben try to reach an uneasy truce, but old habits die hard. During their school’s annual harvest festival, a costume party, Trixie badly insults Ben to his face without realizing it’s him under the costume. It seems that their friend groups will never find peace, until Trixie overhears Harper and her other best friend, Meg, talking about how Ben is hopelessly in love with her! Trixie immediately regrets every insult she ever threw at him, and vows to make amends. Ben, in turn, also begins to act surprisingly civil (and almost flirty), and Trixie wonders how she ever could have hated him. 

However, nothing at Messina Academy — the Mess — is ever simple. Being a school for the gifted, academic pressure is high and plagiarism is not uncommon. But when four students are put on probation for academic dishonesty, everyone agrees that this is abnormal, even for the Mess. And when the sweet, timid, and exceptionally smart Harper is expelled for supposedly altering grades, Trixie is furious. Everyone begins taking sides, tearing the large friend group apart. Trixie begs Ben to help her get to the bottom of this, and he agrees. But will they be able to uncover this mystery? And if they do, will their new relationship be able to handle what they find? 

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a brilliant modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. While Shakespeare fans will enjoy finding parallels between the original play and this book, knowledge of the play is by no means a prerequisite for loving this book — the play’s witty banter and central themes of love, deceit, and confusion transpose themselves remarkably well onto the landscape of a modern high school. And while this book retains the central integrity of its source material, nothing about it seems dusty or antiquated — it brings in pop culture references and newer issues that affect teens today (such as academic pressure). These modern references blend well with Much Ado About Nothing’s timeless core. 

Trixie is a smart, engaging, and witty narrator that readers will fall in love with from the start. While some of her actions and decisions are impulsive and she does not always follow the best course of action, each mistake she makes is a learning opportunity that she takes full advantage of. Her character development is clear throughout the story, and she is a great example of how although nobody is perfect, character growth and positive change are always possible. The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a compulsively readable adventure from start to finish, with multiple subplots and a loveable cast of characters. This engaging story is one that readers will want to return to in the future. 

Sexual Content 

  • Trixie and Ben kiss for the first time in a public park. “He lowered his mouth to mine, catching more of my bottom lip than the top. His nose brushed mine, a hinting nudge. My mouth opened to mirror his. There was a pattern to kissing. It was a chain of individual kisses of varying sizes strung together to make the verb. I’d never considered that before. But, for once, my body knew something that my brain didn’t.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Today Tonight Tomorrow

Rowan Roth and Neil McNair have been rivals since their freshman year of high school when Neil (very narrowly!) beat Rowan in their school’s essay contest. Rowan, an overachiever all her life, simply cannot let this slide. Now in their senior year, Rowan and Neil have earned a reputation as ruthless opponents– every grade, project, standardized test score, and even pull-up contest in gym class is compared and argued over. As soon as she realizes that Neil will not back down, Rowan has one goal for high school: to take him down. 

However, at the end of their senior year, Neil is named valedictorian. Rowan is salutatorian, still way ahead of the rest of her grade, but it’s not enough. She is devastated until she realizes that she has one last chance to come out on top: there is still Howl, a scavenger hunt that takes graduating seniors hunting for clues all over Seattle. This is a Westfield High tradition that Rowan has been looking forward to since her freshman year, but now she knows she absolutely has to win.  

After she learns that a group of seniors is teaming up to take them down, Rowan ends up forming an alliance with Neil – having someone else beat him will bring her no satisfaction. But the more time they spend together and the more they learn about each other, Rowan begins to find Neil isn’t as annoying as she thought. In fact, as much as she hates to admit it, Rowan realizes she might actually have feelings for him. And is it possible that Neil feels the same way about her, despite their brutal rivalry? 

Part romcom, part thriller, Today Tonight Tomorrow is a YA lover’s dream. The scavenger hunt subplot makes the story relatively fast-paced, with plenty of friendly (and not-so-friendly) banter woven in to balance out the action. The romance subplot is equally well done. Rowan is an engaging narrator, and readers will enjoy going on her journey of self-discovery with her. Her character is easy to relate to because of how realistic her arc is; throughout this story, Rowan realizes that real life is nothing like the novels she holds dear, but that isn’t necessarily wrong or disappointing. Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable. 

Today Tonight Tomorrow also beautifully handles difficult topics. For example, Rowan is Jewish; the subtle yet impactful antisemitism she experiences and the way she reacts to it is a strikingly accurate depiction of what many Jewish teenagers experience in high school. Another major issue woven throughout the story is the downsides of intense academic pressure. Rowan regrets putting all of her time into academics because it meant she didn’t truly experience the social aspect of high school, which is also important. For readers in early high school, this can serve as a wake-up call to carve out time for friendships and other relationships; for readers who have the same regrets as Rowan, it is comforting to know that they are not alone in feeling this way. 

Overall, Today Tonight Tomorrow is an absolute delight. It is a love letter to adolescence and high school. Although this book can be enjoyed by everyone, it is especially perfect for graduating seniors who are nervous about leaving everything they know behind when they leave for college. Fall in love with more romance novels such as A Pho Love Story by Loan Le and American Royals by Katharine McGee. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Rowan reminisces about her ex-boyfriend, Spencer, she mentions they had sex. “The first time we had sex, he held me for so long afterward, convinced me I was a precious, special thing.” 
  • Rowan and Neil bicker in front of a wall of plaques recognizing past valedictorians, and Rowan makes a sexual joke to annoy him. “‘If you’re trying to impress me with your knowledge of past valedictorians, it’s working.’ I step closer to him, batting my eyelashes. ‘I am so turned on right now.’” 
  • Rowan finds a high school bucket list she created at the very beginning of her freshman year. One of the entries details prom night: “The night will culminate in a hotel room, where you and Perfect High School Boyfriend will declare your love for each other and lose your virginities in a tender, romantic way that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” 
  • Rowan tells the reader about her love for romance novels, and she brings up how they informed her idea of sex. “Especially as I got older, my heart would race during the sex scenes, most of which I read in bed with my door locked, after I’d said good night to my parents and was sure I wouldn’t be interrupted. They were thrilling and educational, if occasionally unrealistic. (Can a guy really have five orgasms in a single night? I’m still not sure.) Not all romance novels had sex scenes, but they made me comfortable talking about sex and consent and birth control with my parents and with my friends…Most movies and shows I watched with my friends showed me that women were sex objects, accessories, plot points. The books I read proved they were wrong.” 
  • Rowan points out a spot where she hooked up with one of her ex-boyfriends for the first time. Neil mock-gasps and says, “Rowan Roth, I thought you were a good girl.” Rowan gets annoyed at Neil for assuming that girls who get straight As are automatically virgins. Rowan says, “You realize how wrong and outdated that is, right? Good girls aren’t supposed to have sex, but if they don’t, they’re prudes, and if they do, they’re sluts.” They have a conversation about double standards for men and women when it comes to sex. 
  • Rowan and Neil kiss in an empty room in a museum. “This has to be the earth-shattering feeling he was talking about. This: his hands sliding down the sides of my body. This: his teeth grazing my clavicle. And this: the way, when he moves back to my lips, he kisses like I’m alternately something he can’t get enough of and something he wants to savor. Fast, then slow, I love it all. Since we’re the same height, our bodies line up perfectly, and–oh. The proof of how much he’s enjoying this makes me feverish. I rock my hips against his because the pressure feels amazing, and the way he groans when I do this sounds amazing too.” 
  • Rowan and Neil make out in Rowan’s room. “I leave invisible handprints all over his chest, learning exactly where he’s ticklish. He skims his hands up to my knees, my hips, beneath the dress that has suddenly become a straightjacket. I twist on his lap, trying to reach the zipper. He has to help me with it, and together we tug it off . . . Losing my dress makes me miss him with even more urgency.  I run my hand over the front of his jeans, and he sucks in a breath through his teeth. It’s maybe the best sound I’ve ever heard, at least until I unzip and unbuckle and cast his jeans aside completely, pressing him deeper into the bed, and he releases another breathy groan again.” 
  • Shortly after, Rowan and Neil have sex. “It doesn’t last extremely long, because we’re tired or because it’s his first time or some combination of both. Every so often, he checks in with me, asking if it’s still good, if I’m still good. And yes. Yes. We try our best to be quiet, but we can’t stop whispering to each other. He finishes first, and then his fingers drift down between us and he gets me there for the second time tonight. Then we’re quiet, quieter than my sleeping, darkened house. I burrow close to him, resting my cheek against his heartbeat while he plays with my hair.” 

Violence 

  • Neil confesses that his father is in prison for nearly killing someone who was stealing from his store. Neil’s father “was so furious . . . he beat one of them unconscious. The kid–he was in a coma for a month.” 
  • Rowan and Neil are both Jewish. When sharing antisemitic microaggressions they’ve experienced, Rowan brings up that people usually make comments like that because they think it’s harmless, but then “there are security threats at your synagogue because someone called in a bomb threat. It’s harmless, and you’re terrified to get out of bed Saturday morning and go to services.” This happened right before her bat mitzvah. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Rowan invites Neil over for Shabbat dinner. One Shabbat ritual is kiddush, a blessing over wine. Rowan describes, “We pass around the kiddush cup that belonged to my dad’s grandparents, silver and ornately designed. Neil takes a small sip, then hands it to me. My sip is tiny too.”  
  • Neil suggests getting high, and Rowan is not opposed. They both take edibles with the lowest possible dosage of THC. “‘Do you feel anything yet?’ ‘Not really,’ I say, but even as the words leave my mouth, I’m aware something has changed. A laugh bubbles out of me, though nothing’s funny. ‘I– wait. I might be feeling something.’ My annoyance with him seems to float away.” 

Language 

  • “Fuck” is occasionally used as an exclamation or intensifier. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Rowan and Neil are both Jewish. Rowan invites Neil over to her house for Shabbat dinner, and the book vaguely describes the Shabbat rituals. For example, Rowan’s mother “lights the candles with a hand over her eyes,” and they all “recite the blessing over the challah.” 

Truly, Madly, Royally

Zora Emerson’s summer plans are simple: to attend the pre-university program at Halstead U and continue her community work in her hometown of Appleton. Zora is Black and from a modest background, which doesn’t fit the typical picture of students at Halsted U nor the royal family of Landerel – a small country in Europe. Dodging reporters, dating a prince, and attending a royal wedding were not part of the plan.  

After meeting a mystery boy in the library, Zora falls for his charm, only to discover that she’s fallen for Owen Whittelsey, the son of the Queen of Landerel. Soon, Zora’s studies and volunteering is split between dates with Owen. However great Zora’s dates with her Prince Charming are in private, the royal life is not as glamorous as it seems. Owen is constantly monitored by his security team, and the budding relationship between Zora and Owen is investigated by the press. When Zora wins a grant to bolster her after-school program, the award is taken away when outsiders hint that her connections to the royal family give her an unfair advantage.  

Despite the setbacks and scrutiny, Zora persists in growing her after-school program through different means while managing her relationship with Owen. Eventually, he invites Zora to attend the wedding of his brother as a guest of honor. During the trip of a lifetime, Zora learns how to be confident in herself and embrace her heritage.  

Truly, Madly, Royally is a romance story mixed with a unique narrator whose heart lies with helping her community. Despite the majority of students at Halstead being from rich, white families, Zora is determined to embrace her African heritage and prove that she has a place among them by excelling in the classroom and her community work. Zora’s confidence is admirable even as she’s faced with large setbacks, such as grant money for her community work being taken away. Instead of giving up, Zora runs her own fundraiser, earning the money on her own. At the end of the story, African culture is highlighted as the royal wedding is between Owen’s brother and a Black woman named Sadie. However, the romance plot takes center stage, so the book doesn’t teach much about African culture beyond these basic issues. 

Truly, Madly, Royally is an easy, quick read. However, there’s not much to learn or gain from this story due to its simplistic and predictable plot. Readers who typically enjoy the romance genre will be disappointed by the development of Zora and Owen. While the romance is underwhelming, the story of Zora’s relationship she has with kids from her after-school program is heartwarming. Beyond that, however, the story highlights the importance of community. Zora truly wants to make a difference in her community and works hard to achieve her goals. Zora’s caring nature, confidence, and African heritage bring a unique element to this common romance trope.  

Sexual Content 

  • Skye, Zora’s friend, admits that she and Zora’s brother Zach kissed. 
  • Owen invites Zora to the royal ball. Then, “Owen bows his head and kisses my hand.” Afterwards, he asks, “Am I welcome to kiss you?” Zora says yes, and Owen kisses Zora for the first time. Zora describes, “Owen closes the distance between us and bows his head closer. It’s a kiss that starts with one soft, sweet peck, quickly followed by another. We look at each other and smile before taking a deeper dive with a tender kiss that lingers. We stay holding hands the whole time. A few seconds later, we pull back slowly.” 
  • Owen kisses Zora in a lecture hall at Halstead. “He pulls me in closer for a quick, wonderful kiss.”  
  • Owen hugs and kisses Zora while dancing in a friend’s dorm. “[Owen] lifts me off the floor. He lowers my feet with a quick kiss.”  
  • When Zora shows up at a wedding, Owen greets her. “[Owen] wraps his arms around me and kisses my forehead.”  

Violence 

  • Owen’s sister, Emily, committed suicide, which Zora learns from an article that provides the details of her death. “Apparently, when [Emily] was younger, a royal biographer dubbed her the ‘redheaded stepchild.’ Sadly, the unfortunate moniker stuck. . . [Emily] was considered chubby. The body shaming, the merciless trolling, the unflattering memes everywhere all threw her down a self-destructive path that ultimately led to her tragic death. Her body was found off a cliff in a mountain range along the southern coast of Landerel.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When Owen’s sister died, there was “a high level of alcohol in her system.” 

Language 

  • Zora’s mother claims that her ex-husband, Zora’s dad, is always “showing his ass.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Zora’s mother is religious and occasionally mentions God and praying. She says, “I’m gonna pray you find a friend there you can relate to. You know God always listens to a mother’s prayer.”  
  • Zora’s father says “the only person ruling this house is Jesus.” 
  • Zora is at a community event where she feels like she has to keep standing up to greet people. “I stand up, sit down, and then stand up and sit down again. You would think I am at a Catholic church service.” 
  • The royal wedding is held in a chapel in Landerel. 

Jackpot

Meet Rico: high school senior and afternoon-shift cashier at the Gas ‘n’ Go who also takes care of her younger brother. Every. Single. Day. When Rico sells a jackpot-winning lotto ticket, she thinks maybe her luck will finally change, but only if she—with some assistance from her popular and wildly rich classmate Zan—can find the ticket holder, who still hasn’t claimed their prize. But what happens when have and have-nots collide? Will this investigative duo unite. . . or divide? 

Told from Rico’s point of view, Jackpot highlights the difficulties of living in poverty. Many readers will sympathize with Rico’s struggles and relate to her insecurities. Rico is an interesting, well-developed character who believes poverty has stolen all her opportunities. In contrast, Zan has never had to worry about money. Despite this, Zan feels his only option is to work for his family’s company.  

In the end, both characters realize, “Everyone has choices. Are some of them hard? Yes. But if you want something bad enough. . .” Rico and Zan’s relationship gives both of them a new perspective and the bravery to take control of their lives.  

Even though Rico and Zan are completely opposite from each other, they each have universal teen conflicts that readers will connect with. Neither character allows others to see their true selves. Zan has closed himself off because he is afraid others will take advantage of him due to his family’s wealth. On the other hand, Rico’s life has been so consumed with work — schoolwork, her job, and caring for her brother — that she has no friends. In addition, Rico feels inferior to her wealthy classmates. Being friends with Zan teaches Rico that not having money doesn’t mean you’re not as worthy as those who do. 

Many teen readers will connect with Jackpot because of the interesting characters and universal themes. While readers will sympathize with Rico’s situation, Zan is the real star because his quirky behavior is humorous and endearing. Even though Rico and Zan are realistic characters, the conclusion is not quite believable. Despite this, Jackpot’s focus on class will leave readers thinking about how one’s class affects every aspect of life. In the author’s note, Stone explains that Jackpot reinforces the idea that “there’s a whole lot more to people than how much — or how little — is in their bank account.” Readers who want another book that explores classism should check out I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal and Class Act by Jerry Craft.  

Sexual Content 

  • Zan goes to see Rico at work. As he’s leaving, he “yanks” her forward. Rico collides “with his chest—then he’s wrapping his arms around my waist and lifting me off my feet. . .” Afterwards, she is “legitimately hot all over.”  
  • Rico’s grandfather was “a white guy. . . he had a one-night stand with an . . . escort he’s pretty sure was black, then ten months later, my mom was left on his doorstep.”  
  • Rico’s mom got pregnant when she was in college. “She spent a month in Spain and came back pregnant. . . she didn’t know about his wife and kids. . .” 
  • Rico’s friend Jessica says, “Timberlake’s old news, but I’d totally have his babies if I weren’t so bent on having Ness’s [her boyfriend].” Later, it is revealed that Jessica and Ness are sexually active. 
  • Rico goes to a friend’s house where she’s surprised to see Zan. When Zan sees her, she describes how “he rushes over and scoops me up in what I can only describe as THE HUG. . . he holds me by the shoulders and basically eats every inch of my body.” 
  • After getting drunk, Rico wakes up next to Zan. Even though they are both fully dressed, Rico thinks that they hooked up and she just can’t remember it. An older woman tells Ric
  • o that after her first marriage broke up, she met Lionel. “Lionel really knew his way around a lady, if you catch my drift.” 
  • While Rico is working, an adult buys a Playboy magazine from the convenience store. 
  • Rico’s brother asks if she’s had a wet dream. He explains what he means. “They’re dreams where you’re doing it with somebody, duh. Mason’s big brother has them all the time and he pees out sticky stuff in the bed, so that’s why they’re called wet.” 
  • Jessica and her boyfriend are kissing when someone tells them to “get a room.” 
  • Rico and Zan pose as a couple in order to look at houses for rent. As part of the ruse, Zan tells the real estate agent that they “’had a little too much fun after winter homecoming, if you catch my drift.” Zan winks and pats Rico’s belly. 
  • Rico has an emotional moment and begins to cry. To comfort her, Zane “draws me in to him. The more I cry, the closer we get until I’m curled in his khaki’s lap like a toddler, sobbing into the neck of his perfectly pressed polo shirt.” After snuggling for a few minutes, Zane says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you should probably get off my lap now.”  

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zan thinks Rico is acting “high strung.” He tells her, “We need to get you some good weed or something.” 
  • Jessica’s mother “drinks away most of her paycheck.” 
  • Rico goes to a friend’s house. The teens there drink alcohol and get “a bit tipsy.” 
  • Jessica wonders which one of the cheerleaders is in “therapy and on anti-anxiety meds.”  
  • When Rico’s brother has a fever, she gives him ibuprofen. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes variations of ass, asshole, bitch, crap, dumbass, damn, hell, pissed, shit and motherfu–.  
  • Lord, God, Jesus, and other religious names are used as explanations often.  
  • When Rico wakes up next to Zan, she thinks, “Might as well have a red letter T for tramp tattooed on my cheek.” 
  • Rico thinks someone is a douche-jackass and a son-of-a-bitch. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Zan is Catholic and goes to mass “when [his] grandma makes [him].” 
  • Rico thinks about God. “The whole God thing has always been a little suspect to me.” Rico’s mom would listen to the “sermon station” but this just made Rico question God’s goodness. “But for as long as I can remember, Mama has prayed without ceasing, and . . . well, I find it tough to believe this God character is so great when we continue to barely scrape by despite how hard Mama works and prays.” 
  • At one point, Rico thinks that God will “smite us [her and Zan] for all these lies we’re telling.” 
  • While at a wedding, Rico looks at Zan and thanks “whatever God is worshipped in this church for the fact that I’m already sitting. 
  • Rico’s boss has heavy security on his computer. Rico explains, “He got new software just after the store was broken into and trashed by anti-Muslim douchefaces last August.”  
  • Rico goes to Zan’s house to eat dinner with his family. Zan’s father prays, thanking God for the food and his successful business. Then he says, “Lord, we thank you for our young Alejandro [Zan], and for the light that has recently graced his life, pulling him out of darkness—” Zan’s father was talking about Rico. 
  • Zan’s grandmother invites Rico to mass and then asks if Rico is a believer. The conversation gets interrupted before Rico can answer. 

I Kissed Shara Wheeler

Chloe Green wants nothing more than the title of valedictorian, and she’s almost got it in the bag. There’s just one little problem and her name is Shara Wheeler, who happens to be Chloe’s greatest competition and school sweetheart. Chloe and Shara have been competing forces since Chloe arrived at Willowgrove Christian Academy during her freshman year of high school. They have a completely normal academic rivalry, until Shara corners Chloe and kisses her, leaving Chloe angry and bewildered. 

Then, Shara goes missing after prom night and the whole school is enraptured by the perfect Christian girl’s disappearance. Chloe is unfazed, however; she knows there’s more to Shara than meets the eye. Chloe discovers that she isn’t the only person Shara kissed before magically disappearing. Right before disappearing, Shara also kissed Rory, Shara’s next-door neighbor, and Smith, Shara’s boyfriend. Thrown into an unlikely alliance, chasing a ghost through parties, break-ins, puzzles, and secrets revealed on monogrammed stationery, Chloe starts to suspect there might be more to this small town than she thought. And maybe—probably not, but maybe—more to Shara, too. 

I Kissed Shara Wheeler takes the reader on a journey through the rigid conservative Christian values of False Beach, Alabama. Readers will get an in-depth look through the eyes of the residents who have a myriad of complicated feelings about their town and the places they occupy within it. The book is narrated by Chloe, whose perspective is strongly influenced by her liberal, southern California roots, but most of the other characters don’t know life outside of False Beach and their staunchly religious private school. As much as Chloe’s strong-willed opinions drive change, the other characters teach her about the complicated love they have for their home, even when it strives to suppress various aspects of their identities. 

Much of the book’s content discusses sexuality as the characters grow and learn to accept themselves for who they are. The story opens with Shara kissing Chloe, though at this point Shara has never appeared as more than just a conservative Christian girl. In contrast, Chloe is openly bisexual and anti-religious, but it takes both girls most of the book to realize that they have genuine feelings and attraction for each other. Many of the other characters also go through their own reckonings in the book, including Smith and Rory, who discover that their feelings for each other are more than just that of childhood best friends.  

Fans of Casey McQuiston’s other books Red, White, and Royal Blue and One Last Stop will likely enjoy the fun energy in I Kissed Shara Wheeler. McQuiston balances the serious moments with the characters’ sense of humor. Some readers may find Chloe to be a bit single-minded in her quest to triumph over Shara, but this doesn’t draw away from the story. Ultimately, readers will be able to take away that there is always more than meets the eye, and there is always room to change and grow into the person you want to be. Readers who enjoy I Kissed Shara Wheeler can find more romance by reading Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon or The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith.

Sexual Content  

  • Chloe explains why she’s looking for Shara Wheeler. Chloe says, “Because two days ago, Shara found her alone in the B Building elevator before fifth hour, pulled her in by the elbow, and kissed her until she forgot an entire semester of French.” It then comes to light that Shara has kissed Smith (her boyfriend) and Rory (her neighbor) as well. 
  • No one knows where Shara is, and Chloe comes up with unlikely theories – one being that Shara has “some sugar daddy she’s holed up with or something.” 
  • Chloe writes a letter to her friend about being kissed by Shara. Chloe starts by telling her not to react while reading the letter because “if Madame Clark picks this one up and reads it out loud like she did with Tanner’s ranking of girls’ butt’s I will literally kill you.” 
  • Chloe notes that when she first moved to False Beach, Alabama, she was in freshman bio and noted that “the chapter on sexual reproduction was taped shut.” 
  • Chloe, Rory, and Smith go into Rory’s room to use his computer. Chloe “counts at least three different hand-drawn penises” on Rory’s bedroom wall. 
  • There is a joke school code of conduct that is presumably written by Chloe. Among other details, it includes, “No student may smoke, drink, dance, or have sex, which means half the students are smoking, drinking, dancing, having sex, and lying about it. Pills are fine. If you’re on the football team, just ask Emma Grace’s dad to write you a prescription.” This list lasts for a page. 
  • Chloe notes that once at a party, she “almost got French-kissed by Tucker Price from the Quiz Bowl team in his parents’ saltwater jacuzzi.” 
  • After a trip, Chloe’s two moms kiss. Chloe jokes that they kiss “like they’re on the bow of the freaking Titanic.” 
  • Chloe briefly mentions a situation where “a sophomore sent her boyfriend nudes and he forwarded them to all his friends.” This comes up on chapel day at school and the administration then gave “a very shame-y talk on modesty.” 
  • Chloe’s friend tells Chloe that he’s “a make-out hobbyist . . . I’ve kissed like, all my homies.” He doesn’t go into details. 
  • Shara’s neighbor, Rory, expresses his repressed feelings for Smith to Chloe. He says, “maybe I talked myself into [Shara], because when I looked at her and Smith together, I was so jealous, and she seemed like the right place to put it.” Chloe validates his feelings, telling him, “It would be okay. If you didn’t like Shara. If you didn’t like girls at all.” It is revealed later that Smith has similar feelings for Rory as well. 
  • Chloe finds Shara and Shara kisses Chloe. Chloe thinks that Shara “knows exactly what she’s doing when [Chloe] twists her fingers into the loose wisps of hair at the nape of Shara’s neck and kisses her back, hard. Her other hand grips the tulle where it fans out from Shara’s waist and holds Shara’s body up against hers like see, we’re a match, and it works — Shara sighs and lets go of the rail to slide her palm over Chloe’s cheek.” The description lasts for half a page. 
  • Chloe’s classmate Georgia gets caught “making out in the B Building bathroom” with their other classmate, Summer, and Georgia gets reported to the principal’s office. No other description is given for that kiss. It’s only said that Georgia has been dating Summer and Summer has “known she was bi since last year.” 
  • Smith and Rory kiss and Chloe walks in on their moment. She’s hiding and she describes only what she can hear, saying, “Then, after a few seconds, just long enough for a nervous first kiss, Smith laughs.” 
  • Two of Chloe’s classmates are arguing, and one tells the other that “if she wanted people to believe things she says, she shouldn’t have lied about giving her best friend’s crush a handjob at her birthday party.” 
  • Chloe and Shara kiss in Shara’s bedroom. Chloe describes, “She tips her head forward, and Shara kisses her. Chloe puts her arms around Shara’s neck and kisses her back.” The description lasts for a page. 
  • Chloe and Shara make out. “Chloe doesn’t know how long. It felt like a long time.” The page before, they have a conversation on how they both want to take it slow. Chloe says, “Shara’s hand drops from Chloe’s neck to her shoulder, and then she’s pushing Chloe down on the bed and kissing her, one hand pinning her to the mattress and the other on her waist.” 
  • Chloe fights against the school administration’s policies. For instance, she says, “Freshman year, she adjusted to Willowgrove by making problems on purpose, but nobody showed up to her GSA meeting, and she got suspended for bringing free condoms to school in protest of the abstinence-only sex ed policy.” 
  • Chloe’s classmate Dixon makes a rude sexual comment towards Chloe at the party, citing something he calls the Rachel Rule. He says, “‘It’s a rule the seniors made last year for Rachel Kennedy, who was a huge bitch but still got to come to parties because she had huge boobs.’ He’s looking down now. At her chest, and her wet shirt. He hands clench into firsts at her sides — ever since she sprouted D-cups in tenth grade, a guy staring at her chest has never ended well. ‘So, as long as you keep wearing that, the Rachel Rule says you can stay.’” Chloe does not like this, and she expresses her discontent by telling him that he peaked in high school and, even now, she “still wouldn’t sleep with him.” 

Violence  

  • Chloe finally finds Shara, and Chloe is furious. In her anger, she shoves Shara into a lake. Chloe describes, “with one solid shove, she pushes Shara — prom dress and all — over the railing and into Lake Martin.” 
  • Chloe “punched a mall Santa when [she] was five.”  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Chloe refers to her classmate, Jake Stone, as “Stone the Stoner.”  
  • Jake Stone was suspended once because he “was caught vaping” in the school bathroom. 
  • Every teacher at Willowgrove has to “sign a morality clause saying they won’t drink, express political opinions or be gay.” 
  • Chloe says that False Beach, Alabama has “the aura of a Mountain Dew bottle filled with dip spit.” 
  • Chloe goes to a high school party and is annoyed that she has to watch a classmate “slobber all over a beer bong.” There is plenty of drinking at this party, including something referred to as an “upside down margarita,” which is a drinking game. The party’s descriptions last for a couple of chapters. 
  • The Willowgrove school district hired a cop to scare the students about drugs, but instead, Chloe notes that the cop “ended up telling us exactly how many ounces of weed you can carry without getting arrested.” 
  • Chloe stays up too late thinking about Shara and has a massive headache the next day. She says, “This must be what a hangover feels like.” 

Language  

  • Chloe notes that Shara’s disappearance is odd. Chloe thinks to herself, “That’s the thing about popular kids: They don’t have the type of bond forged in the fire of being weird and queer in small-to-medium-town Alabama. If Chloe tried to ghost like this, there’d be a militia of Shakespeare gays kicking down every door in False Beach.” 
  • Strong language is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, fuck, idiot, d-bags, shit, megabitch, crap, dick, hell, and douchebag. 
  • Chloe says “Shara Wheeler is the most tragic heterosexual to ever cram herself into a Brandy Melville crop top.” 
  • Chloe describes her classmate’s understanding of her as “the weird queer girl from LA with two lesbian moms.” 
  • Chloe’s friend Georgia has a collection of books at her parents’ bookstore just for Chloe, and she “affectionately calls it Chloe’s Monster Fucker Collection” due to the fact that Chloe likes stories where the headstrong main female protagonist falls in love with the villain, which sometimes happens to be a literal nonhuman entity. 
  • Chloe and her friends identify as LGTBQ+, and they reference their sexualities somewhat often in-text. For instance, Chloe’s friend Benjy is worried about his future college roommate. He says, “My new fear is that he’ll be a hot straight guy. I cannot spend my first year away from home with an unrequited crush on a guy who wears neckties to football games…I don’t have high hopes for the gays of Tuscaloosa.”  
  • Chloe’s classmate is an unpleasant person by all counts. She details why, saying he’s “the type who insists it’s okay for him to make offensive jokes because he’s not actually racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/whatever so he doesn’t actually mean them, but aren’t the jokes so funny.” 
  • Smith asks Ash, a nonbinary student, to “explain the whole nonbinary thing” to him. Ash explains to Smith it’s, “Like if someone yelled your first name [William] at you. You might answer to it, but it wouldn’t feel right, because that’s not you.” Ash and Smith have this conversation for several pages. 
  • Chloe doesn’t want another student named Drew Taylor to be her salutatorian because “he has a YouTube channel about why girls at Willowgrove are sluts for taking birth control pills.” 
  • Chloe’s mom exclaims “Jesus Christ” when she finds out that Chloe has Shara’s expensive crucifix necklace. 

Supernatural 

  • Chloe sometimes wishes she lived in another place and time. An example of this is that she wishes she “were a vampire hunter in Edwardian England.” 

Spiritual Content  

  • The book opens with a service at the Willowgrove Christian Church, “where the Wheelers are spending their morning pretending to be nice, normal folks whose nice, normal daughter didn’t stage a disappearing act at prom twelve hours ago.” 
  • Chloe finds the spare key to the Wheeler’s house under a rock with “Joshua 24:15 engraved on it. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Bible quotes are scattered throughout the book. 
  • The students in this book attend “Willowgrove Christian Academy.” Chloe describes a billboard for the academy reading, “Jesus Loves Geometry! A Christ-Centered Education At Willowgrove Christian Academy!” The school also has “chapel days” where the students are required to attend service. 
  • Chloe greatly dislikes her religious school, but she attends the school because of its academics and theater program. She says, “If this was her only option, she could put up with the Jesus stuff.” 
  • Shara wore a somewhat revealing dress at homecoming. Chloe describes, “It was only a blue silk slip with a modest neckline, but it stuck to her like water, and she wasn’t wearing a bra . . . God’s favorite daughter shows one hint of nip.” 
  • Chloe half-jokes that Shara Wheeler’s family “has more money than God.” 
  • Mr. Wheeler is the principal at Willowgrove, and he has a reputation for “telling teenagers they’re going to hell.” He says many religious things to the students, including telling Chloe that “gossip is against God’s will.” This is how many teachers and much of the curriculum work at this school. 
  • Shara expresses in her journal entry that “the loudest Christians I’ve ever met were the worst ones.” 
  • Shara and Chloe go through their notes for their AP European History exam, which involves a lot of religious history. For instance, they reference the “Defenestration of Prague” where “Protestants threw a bunch of Catholic officials out of a castle window in Bohemia. Started the Thirty Years War.” There is a series of notes like this for a couple of pages. 
  • Georgia explains to Chloe that Summer’s church “is more into Jesus the brown socialist than the whole eternal damnation thing.” 
  • Chloe explains that her understanding of Christianity is based on Willowgrove’s variety – “judgmental, sanctimonious hypocrites hiding hate behind Bible verses, twenty-four-karat crucifix necklaces, and charismatic white pastors with all the horrible secrets that money can protect.” 
  • The school finds out that there’s been an admissions scam at Willowgrove, and Benjy sees all the fliers with the information and exclaims, “Jesus wept.” 

Before Takeoff

This is an evening like any other in the Atlanta airport. Sixteen-year-old James and eighteen-year-old Michelle are both on a layover when their paths cross. They are drawn to something nobody else seems to notice: “a blinking green light that will soon cause all hell to break loose.” While James is hesitant to do anything, an impulsive Michelle reaches her hand toward it. When she realizes that “it’s not just a light, but a button,” she presses down.  

Impossible events begin almost immediately. One end of the airport jumps to ninety degrees while snow falls at the other. Explosions, tornados, and rushing rivers spring out of nowhere. To make matters worse, nobody can locate an exit, glass windows refuse to break, cell phone calls aren’t going through, and anytime someone tries to text “something about the events at the airport, [their] words turn into a string of emojis” that are indecipherable.  

As James and Michelle search for their families inside the airport, the mayhem keeps getting worse, and people are quick to form groups and turn on one another. Michelle realizes that she caused this—that the green button must be responsible for this madness—and that she needs to destroy it before it’s too late. 

Before Takeoff is told in omniscient third person, taking the reader inside the minds of James, Michelle, and countless people throughout the airport. Occasionally, the story will make references to things that will happen after the narrative is over. These tactics allow for a better understanding of the grand scope of this situation, as readers are privy to knowledge and events that the main characters are not. The narrative occasionally makes remarks that are informal and playful, at one point describing a series of fights that break out as a “Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco.” This is a way of demonstrating an awareness of the absurdity of the plot and inviting the reader to just go along with it.  

Unfortunately, Before Takeoff ‘s perspective makes it difficult for the reader to get an intimate understanding of James and Michelle. There are so many glimpses into the heads of so many people that it becomes easy to feel detached from the two main characters. Readers may find it difficult to care about them. In addition, as their ordeal stretches on, the plot drags because readers are not given much incentive to be invested in the characters or the outcome. 

From the start, readers know that James and Michelle will reunite with their families and successfully put an end to what is going on. Their romantic connection is also predictable. The narrative tries to make a point about human nature. Particularly, it focuses on how quick people are to grow hostile towards each other in chaotic situations, how they “succumb to their biases . . . blame the people they know the least about.” However, it fails to set itself apart in any way from countless other stories that have made comments about the same phenomena. Unfortunately, Before Takeoff’s enticing premise falls flat. Since the characters are hard to care for and the storyline is so predictable, the book is not worth reading unless the reader is an avid fan of fantastical survival stories. While the writing is often witty, getting through the whole story ultimately feels like a chore.  

Sexual Content 

  • Michelle remembers an old boyfriend and how they snuck around “finding places to make out, finding new places to press their bodies together.” 
  • During a conversation with James about love, Michelle muses, “‘I’d be content with something simpler than love… A perfect sexual relationship, sure.’” 
  • James has not cried in a long time, but  “he came close a few times during those weeks when [a classmate] refused to talk to him after they’d hooked up.” Later, the book implies that they did not have sex, as James lists it as something he would like to do before he dies. 
  • Michelle and James enter an airport shop to get dry clothes to change into. Michelle tells James not to look, and “reaches back to unclip her bra right as James forces himself to stare at a wall.” 
  • Michelle tells James,‘“the boy’s I’ve been with . . . forget gradients of sexuality; we’re talking intimacy here, lie-in-the-dark-and-talk-about-deep-shit intimacy—they’ve all asked some sort of question related to numbers. . . How many other times did you do this.” James reiterates that “sex or making out or whatever” shouldn’t be quantified by how many people you’ve done those things with. 
  • James and Michelle kiss passionately in a closet. There is a skip in time and the two are described as still being in the closet and “still clothed and mostly chaste . . . closely attuned to the joys of the physical.” 
  • An airline employee named Rosa remembers going to a frat party where guys were “walking around shirtless, thinking that the display alone would get them laid.” 
  • James and Michelle dance at one point, and “it doesn’t take long for sex to enter [their] minds.” Their bodies are pressed together and James wonders if Michelle “can feel him start to harden.” 
  • While dancing, Michelle “can feel [James’] erection any time their hips meet. Her hand dips below the waistband of his jeans.” A new commotion interrupts them before they can go further. 
  • A woman reminisces over a lost love, and how “every now and then, during, sex, she’ll still picture [his] face instead of her husband’s.”  

Violence 

  • Two men have a confrontation, and a man named Taha attempts to diffuse the situation. When one man attempts to hit the other, Taha instead “catches the blow directly on the nose, and that sound carries towards James, as does the sound of the back of Taha’s head when it lands against the floor. . . There’s a splatter of blood on the tile.” This leaves Taha unconscious. This whole altercation takes place over two pages. 
  • There are two explosions of ambiguous cause. The first one “ripples the air and shakes the walls, sending several people to the ground.” The second is described as “knocking a few more things to the ground, handing out another dozen concussions or so.” 
  • James and his family lived in Humboldt Park “when the shootings were bad.”  
  • The narrative states that in Concourse A, “A Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco has broken out, and since we have weak constitutions . . . we shall pass over the events that take place there for the remainder of this narration.” 
  • A man named Joseph accuses Taha of knowing something about what’s going on at the airport. Joseph intimidates him and jabs a finger at his chest. Before it makes contact, “Taha has grabbed it with one hand and Joseph’s wrist with his other hand, then twisted so that Joseph’s arm is behind his back and his finger is some slight pressure away from breaking.” Taha lets Joseph go after insisting he has no right to accuse him of anything. 
  • An airline employee unsuccessfully attempts to break through a window to escape, swinging a chair at it and punching it in frustration. The narrative notes a stream of blood leaking “from between his clenched knuckles, his skin cracked from the efforts to break free.” 
  • A vaguely described curse passes through the airport causing many people to “merely stop breathing, quietly passing from this life without a bang or a whimper.” 
  • During a commotion, “fistfights [start] to merge, an almost cartoon-like cloud of punches and kicks and curses.” 
  • It is stated at one point that “a handful of other people die in the unspoken battles of the A gates” due to the violence that has broken out there. 
  • People are trampled in stampedes. At one point, people who are unable to get out of the way are “[bracing] themselves for uncaring boots. They curl up in balls and protect their heads.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • James recalls that he often gets stuck looking at mirrors “in the midst of anxiety-ridden afternoons and drug-addled nights.” 
  • “Two white twentysomethings named Brad and Chad, buzzing off their earlier choice to pair shots of Jameson with twenty ounce beers” run around the airport during the chaos. 
  • “The smell of filth and alcohol” is described as coming from stranded passengers. 
  • At one point, a couple of people are noted to be smoking cigars. 
  • James and Michelle get drunk on unspecified alcoholic beverages during a salsa party that breaks out. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used rather frequently, both in the narration and dialogue.  Profanity includes ass, asshole, fuck, shit, bullshit, damn, and goddamn.  
  • Michelle often uses the French swear word “putain,” which translates to whore, bitch, and slut. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual 

  • James recalls being pulled over for not using a blinker and how the cop made him and his friend get out of the car and “only because he found nothing else, and they deferred to him like he was God, did they get back in.” 
  • A woman was “begging the God she stopped believing in when she was fourteen that she’ll see her kids again.” 
  • James thinks about God and going to church with his friend Marcus. James at one point “believed in God even though he never saw evidence of Him, other than what the preacher at church would say.”  
  • A congregation of people gather on their knees, “whispering their prayers in a dozen languages.” 

The Words We Keep

It’s been three months since Lily found her older sister, Alice, bleeding from her wrists on the bathroom floor. Now, with her father having drained his bank account for Alice’s mental treatment program, Lily knows she is not allowed to be a burden to her family. She’s told no one about her panic attacks, or how she impulsively picks the skin on her stomach until it bleeds, sometimes even in her sleep. She constantly wonders to herself, “What if you’re going crazy? Just like [Alice]. What if . . .you’re already gone?” Still, Lily knows she cannot let any of this out. She needs to keep her eyes on the prize – that being a full track scholarship to Berkeley. 

Her sister’s return home from Fairview is coupled with a boy named Micah transferring to Lily’s high school. As it turns out, Micah was in treatment with Alice, and he’s also Lily’s new partner for a school art project. The two embark on a project that involves leaving poetry in unexpected places throughout the school. The two maintain their anonymity, gaining the title “the guerilla poets of Ridgeline High.” Lily knows Micah can assist her in finding a way to help her sister. However, Lily also finds that she needs Micah to help her, because the words she’s kept inside for too long are beginning to break through. 

Told from Lily’s perspective The Words We Keep is a vivid and gripping story about the effect depression and anxiety can have. The reader feels the push and pull of Lily knowing she needs help but wanting to be strong for her family. The poetry she writes communicates this struggle very well. The highlight on mental illness and self-harm is unflinching, and while at times difficult to read, the narrative handles the difficult subject matter beautifully. Occasionally the chapters end by showing the reader Lily’s Google searches and her word-a-day calendar entries, which allow for deeper glimpses into her psyche. Other chapters end with comments on the high school’s student message board, offering insights into how other students perceive Lily and Micah’s poetry project.  

Lily and Micah’s tentative bond and eventual romance is developed well. Micah’s mysterious nature and affinity for the characters of Winnie the Pooh intrigue Lily, and she muses that he might be able “to understand [her struggles]. Maybe he’s the only one who could.” The strained relationship between Lily and Alice is also very important to the narrative. The sisters are both suffering, but unable to console each other because they are holding their struggles back for the sake of the other. Through their relationship, the importance of openness with those close to us during trying times is emphasized. 

The major characters in The Words We Keep are largely well-developed and likable, but those outside of the main cast are too numerous and one-dimensional. For example, a bully named Damon is at points unrealistically cruel to Micah. Damon goes as far as giving Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note suggesting that he kill himself, which Micah just shrugs off. Other characters, like Lily’s best friend and her stepmother, provide little substance to the narrative and seem to leave and reenter the story at random periods with little impact, leaving the reader to wonder why they were included at all. 

The flaws of The Words We Keep ultimately do little to detract from the impact of the story. Readers will be able to connect with Lily and will want to see her story to its finish. While not for the faint of heart, this is an important novel that explores the pain of suffering in silence, and how to overcome the fear of letting it out and asking for help. Readers will learn that many people around them may be fighting inner demons, and that compassion and openness about one’s own struggles is imperative. Readers who want to explore mental health through fiction should add Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson and Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Lily texts Micah saying that a talk with her sister went over “like a fart in an elevator.” Afterward, Micah jokingly texts Lily that she needs to “work on [her] sexting skills.” 
  • When students begin leaving poems throughout the school, Lily notes “the occasional blow me” written along with them. 
  • Lily says that her father and stepmother are newlyweds, “which means sex. And lots of it.” 
  • Lily and Micah almost kiss in a janitor’s closet and rumors spread. One student speculates on the student message boards that Micah was “banging [Lily] in the janitor’s closet.” 
  • When Lily and Micah kiss for the first time, Lily describes, “his lips [moving] slowly, as gentle as a breeze, but the taste of him makes my whole body hum . . .our bodies, our lips, melt farther into each other.”  
  • Lily and Micah go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lily says, “I taste the ocean on his skin as I press my mouth to his shoulder, his neck, his jaw. He groans, low and guttural, when his lips find mine.” 
  • Lily sees her sister going skinny dipping with a guy at a beach party. He later says that the two of them were “messing around.” 
  • Micah was with Lily and her family at the hospital after Lily attempts suicide. He later confesses, “‘I have to tell you something . . . they put you in a hospital gown and I totally saw your butt.” She jokingly asks if it was “good for [him],” to which he responds it was. 

Violence 

  • As a child, Lily nearly drowned while swimming in the ocean. Her sister guided her back to shore. Lily remembers, “salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything . . . and then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.” 
  • Lily discovers Alice on the bathroom floor, “blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile . . . Dad scoops her up, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairytale crumb down the stairs.” Alice is taken to the hospital and then to a mental facility. Lily recalls finding her in the bathroom several times throughout the book. 
  • Kids at school discuss rumors surrounding Micah. One boy says, “‘I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know. . . ’ [he] makes a throat slitting motion with his thumb.” 
  • One student says they heard that Micah “went full psycho on a kid at his last school. Like stomping him to the ground.” 
  • On a message board for students at Lily’s high school, someone suggests they make bets on “how long until [Micah] offs himself.” 
  • Lily self-harms. The earliest incident the reader is privy to is when she vigorously plucks hairs around her eyebrows, “[digging] the tweezers in until blood beads on my skin. But I keep going . . . got it . . . I wipe the pinpoints of blood from my eyelids.” 
  • When Lily was seven, a man, who is later revealed to be Micah’s father, leapt from Deadman’s Cliff. She remembers “watching the body covered in a white sheet like a bloated whale on the sand” on the news. 
  • Lily picks at the skin on her stomach, constantly picking off scabs and opening new wounds. She says, “it helps calm me, keeps me from having a full on meltdown . . . before long, blood coats my fingertips.” This process is described vividly throughout the book. 
  • Lily picks at her wounds in her sleep as well, waking up to find “bright red, angry splotches where I’ve ripped open my skin.” 
  • Micah lashes out at one of his bullies. In a fit of rage, Micah pushes him “up against a locker, and he’s hitting him, hitting him, hitting him.” A school security guard apprehends Micah and he is suspended from school and sentenced to do community service work. 
  • Alice has a breakdown at a beach party and tries to jump from Deadman’s Cliff, apparently convinced that she might fly. Lily tries to climb up to convince her to get down. She reaches for Alice’s ankle and “as she yanks her leg away, her other foot slips . . . and she’s falling. And screaming . . . and there’s blood in her hair. So much blood.” Alice survives the incident, ending up with a concussion. 
  • After her sister’s fall. Lily picks the skin on the entirety of her body in the bath, saying, “I continue even though the pain fills me. Because the pain fills me . . . I scrape myself away.” This happens over three pages. 
  • Lily has a nightmare about finding her sister in bed with “a waterfall of blood [pouring from her covers]. Soaking her nightgown. Splattering onto the carpet.” 
  • While in her room, Lily opens a box of razors and runs her finger “across all the razors and pencil sharpeners and scissors . . . If pain is all we’re going to feel anyway, why not bring it on?” She snaps herself out of it before she can act on the urge. 
  • Lily runs away from home in the middle of the night and attempts suicide by jumping off of Deadman’s Cliff. She thinks, “I just want it to stop. All of it—the monsters, the guilt, the never enough. It’s the only way.” Alice, Micah, and her father arrive and stop her. This scene lasts six pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Lily finds her father cleaning out a medicine cabinet in preparation for Alice’s homecoming. She suspects this is so he can “make sure Alice doesn’t down a fistful of Aspirin when she gets home.” 
  • Lily’s father takes sleeping pills. 
  • Lily begins secretly taking her father’s sleeping pills to combat her intrusive thoughts. 
  • A bully leaves Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note reading, “Do us all a favor.” 
  • After picking at her entire body, Lily takes one of her father’s sleeping pills and one of Alice’s prescribed pills. She sleeps for days while her father and stepmother are constantly with Alice at the hospital. When she awakes, she takes a double dose of sleeping pills and several of Alice’s before returning to sleep.

Language 

  • After Alice falls from the cliff, a student on the message board says that she and Lily are “total attention whores. The world would be better without them.” 
  • Shit, bitch, and damn are said on a few occasions. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lily says that she and her family talk with her therapist while holding each other’s hands “like we’re saying a prayer. And maybe we are, supplicating a higher power to help us.” 

The Queen Will Betray You

In the second installment of The Kingdoms of Sand & Sky series, Princess Amarande deals with the aftermath of her fateful wedding. Having killed Prince Renard of Pyrenee, Amarande brought war to the Kingdom of Ardenia. She must return to her home to restore order while her true love, Luca, will return to the Torrent to reclaim his title of Otsakumea, the rightful leader of the Otxazulo, the fallen kingdom that was taken over by the Warlord.

Returning to Ardenia, Amarande is shocked to find her mother, Geneva, also known as the Runaway Queen and Warlord of the Torrent, has returned to Ardenia with Ferdinand, the son of the late King Sendoa. Despite having raised him on her own, Ferdinand is not Geneva’s son, but the son of General Koldo, making him Amarande’s half-brother. Far from a cordial family reunion, Amarande is imprisoned by her mother and declared dead. With Amarande’s absence, Ferdinand takes over as King. To make matters worse, Queen Inés of Pyrenee has vowed to marry King Domingu of Myrcell to fortify their kingdoms and attack Ardenia.

Imprisoned and betrayed by her family with her true love, Luca, miles away, Amarande finds help from an unlikely ally, Prince Taillefer of Pyrenee. The same Prince who tortured Luca to near death in the first novel. Knowing this is her only option for escape, Amarande accepts his help and the two of them escape to the Torrent to be reunited with Luca.

Meanwhile, in the Torrent, Luca finds the Otxazulo resistance and convinces them he is the lost leader of the fallen kingdom. The proof rests in the black wolf tattoo upon his skin. While Luca leads the resistance, Amarande and Taillefer are captured by the regent Warlord, who was appointed by Geneva. Now, Luca must save Amarande and prove, once again, that their love will survive any conflict.

At the brink of war, Luca leads the Otxazulo resistance to Amarande where she is rescued, and the regent Warlord is killed. Taillefer also escapes to kill his mother and reclaim Pyrenee as his own. Only Geneva is left for Amarande to defeat. However, facing her mother in an intense duel, Amarande is wounded and Geneva flees, leaving Amarande and Luca with a broken kingdom they must rebuild in the next chapter of their story.

The second book in this series has another fast-paced, action-packed plot, making it very engaging and easy to read. There is, however, a significant amount of graphic violence making it more suitable for older readers. Like the first book, the novel deals with the themes of true love, but there is also an emphasis on the importance of loyalty and trust as Amarande must decide who to put her trust in and who is worthy of forgiveness.

Amarande and Luca are kind, dedicated, and inspiring protagonists, but their characters are still undeveloped. Their love story is clear but lacks depth. This is addressed when Taillefer asks Amarande, “is Luca really your true love or just all you’ve known?” While it is unclear why Amarande and Luca are together, the uncomplicated history of their relationship makes for a sweet and pure romance. Overall, this is a fitting read for fans of The Princess Bride who enjoy wholesome romance with lots of action and adventure.

Sexual Content

  • Safe and far away from Pyrenee, Amarande kisses Luca “softly, mindful of his wounds. But her love was stronger than he seemed and put gentle fingers in her auburn hair, pulling her closer, deeper.” Soon, Amarande pulls away. After discussing their next adventure, Amarande “dropped another kiss on his lips, then up the line of his jaw.”
  • Before saying goodbye, “Amarande kissed Luca one last time—hard. As hard as she wished she had before he was kidnapped. As hard as she did when it was clear they’d escaped Pyrenee alive. As hard as she could—this kiss would have to hold her for days, if not weeks, or months.”
  • Queen Geneva refers to General Koldo as a “whore general.”
  • Amarande recalls the time on the pirate ship “she’d slept next to the bed in the captain’s quarters, holding [Luca’s] hand from her spot on the floorboards. He would’ve lain there, too, if the pain weren’t so great. Her stubbornness won out yet again.”
  • Happy to be reunited with Luca, “Amarande kissed him then. Eyes closed, mouth hungry, her whole mess of a body folded into Luca’s warmth. His arms tightened around her, a hand snaking through her hair and to her neck.”
  • Before returning to the fight, “Luca pressed another fevered kiss to Amarande’s lips, the princess shutting her eyes and drinking it in until, with one last gentle sweep of a thumb against her cheek, he drew away.”
  • Before facing her evil mother, Amarande showers Luca with kisses “to his spine. His shoulder blade—one, and then the other. Up his neck. Again, behind the ear—one, two. She settled the curve of her throat over his shoulder, her chin coming to rest on his collarbone, parched lips at his ear.”
  • After the battle with Geneva, Luca visits Amarande who is recovering in bed. He kisses Amarande and when she decides she is “strong enough to kiss him back, she did so, moving her hands to his hair, keeping Luca where she wanted him until she realized they weren’t alone.”

Violence

  • When Queen Geneva reveals her plans to imprison her daughter, Amarande draws her sword to attack but is thwarted by a hand clenching her neck, “squeezing precisely on the artery that supplies oxygen to the brain. An arm gripped around her middle—an arm clad in garnet-and-gold regalia.” Amarande faints and is brought to her cell.
  • Ula offers to clean Luca’s torture wounds. Luca confesses, “the sting of the process was one of a thousand bees under the skin, but the pain was minor in comparison with what he’d felt in the past week. And the wound looked only a little better, the skin bruised and raw with inflammation that ran down the whole hand-length gash in the middle of his chest, just beside his wolf tattoo. The flat black sutures were tight, straining to keep the swollen edges of flesh together.” His wounds are slowly healing.
  • Trying to look out the window of her prison, Amarande hoists herself up the wall using a bit of cloth. However, the “cloth tore and before she could lunge for another grip or pull her feet from the wall, Amarande fell with a resounding thud, the back of her head bashing into the stone floor.” Amarande feels a bit disoriented from the fall, but she is more frustrated than hurt.
  • Amarande’s brother, Ferdinand visits her in her prison cell to make peace, but Amarande refuses his offer; “the moment he was in range Amarande’s boot struck out and made jarring contact with his kneecap.” Amarande tries to attack again but, “Ferdinand was ready, grabbing her boot and yanking at it, trying to wrest it off with both hands. She pulled back, but he held fast, even managing to keep the dagger in his grip. Amarande’s other foot shot out and clocked his left hand. His grip faltered, he dropped his dagger, and she drove her heel hard into his knee yet again.” Soon, Ferdinand gains the upper hand. As Amarande hesitates, he removes a dagger from his boot, throwing it through the air. “The knife pinning her right between the tendons that sewed her knuckles in place. Impaled, Amarande’s hand flew open, dropping the dagger.” Ferdinand then removes the blade from her hand. “He braced her wrist against the wall with the other hand and, in one smooth motion, removed the blade,” but, “Amarande didn’t cry out, even as stars swirled in her vision and blood began to pour from her hand.”
  • While traveling through the Torrent, some of the Warlord’s men try to capture Luca by attacking his crew with fire. Ula, however, wouldn’t let them and “a fist-sized fireball shot over Luca’s shoulder, plowing straight into the leader’s gut.” The man “fell back, tunic and skin suddenly aflame. His bandana slid down as he hit the dry ground behind him, his face distorted with panic as he screamed horrifically.”
  • Before the other servants of the Warlord could retaliate, Ula’s “blade cut the stout one down with a blow to his wide upper back, and his grip upon Luca immediately died as he fell away.” Urtzi and Osana, friends of Luca’s, come to the rescue as Urtzi hits the other two men “with his own bucket and the glass jug. The instant the caustic antiseptic made contact, the torches shuddered and exploded,” and “all three men suddenly were ablaze.” The Warlord’s men are burnt to death, but Luca and his friends escape.
  • Luca and his group come across the dead body of their friend, Erfu. Urtzi examines the body and describes a “dart in his neck and an assassin’s smile. Slowed him down and then sliced him open. His tunic is torn, too—they checked his tattoo. Carved an X through it.”
  • Escaping from her prison cell, Amarande takes out her guard who “only seemed to register Amarande in the split second before the hilt of her sword crashed down upon the guardswoman’s temple.”
  • While fleeing Ardenia with Amarande, Taillefer kills a guard. “In the twitch of a moment, Taillefer’s free hand seized the guard’s dagger from the sheath at his belt, and sank it into the soft meat of the boy’s side.”
  • Amarande and Taillefer come across several dead bodies that “lined the creek bank—two, three . . . no, five—and two more floated in the shallow waters. No blood stained their sun-bleached clothes, no stab wounds obvious, no wounds at all.” Amarande discovers the water had been poisoned.
  • In the Torrent, Amarande and Taillefer encounter members of the resistance. Not trusting Amarande, “a knife shot out of the man’s hand, and the princess dove to the side. She rolled to her feet, dagger out and ready. His companion immediately rushed at her, sword tip aimed straight at Amarande’s belly. The princess pivoted and flattened, and the woman crashed forward under the weight of her driving weapon. As she fell to the dirt, Amarande immediately smashed the blunt hilt of her dagger down upon the back of her skull, rendering her unconscious.”
  • While Amarande fought with the resistance group, Taillefer battles a wild wolf. The wolf’s “paws connected with Taillefer’s chest and shoved him to the ground. He struggled to push away the animal’s jaws as the whole of the wolf’s weight was on him now, the snarling beast holding all the leverage.”
  • Taillefer and Amarande escape their battle only when the man pushes Amarande into a sand hole. The man’s “boot connected with her twisting back. The blow knocked the princess off-balance and she stumbled forward, her exhausted body lunging for solid ground. Where there wasn’t any.” Amarande tumbles into a hidden cave and Taillefer follows. They are bruised and sore, but alive.
  • After poisoning King Domingu, Queen Inés “did not release Domingu’s chin as he thrashed, words burbling up through the white foam on his lips.” He dies moments later.
  • At one of the Warlord’s camps, Taillefer was lifted into the air by a giant man. Amarande tries to save him, “but the movement she’d anticipated didn’t come—the prince’s body was tossed vertically, not horizontally. And, as he plummeted back toward the cracked earth, the man’s leg shot out and his boot connected with Taillefer’s gut. The crunch of a shattered rib reverberated in the air, a cry escaping into the new dawn with it. Taillefer landed in a heap, blood rolling out of his mouth.” Taillefer’s ribs are broken.
  • Amarande and Taillefer fight with followers of the Warlord until “something thunked hard against Amarande’s temple, tossing her off-balance. Her opponent used that split second to roll onto the princess, driving Amarande’s face into the sandy earth as she sat atop the princess’s back, pinning her in a way that left all of Amarande’s fight useless.” Amarande and Taillefer are captured to be brought to the Warlord.
  • To prove her ruthlessness, the Regent Warlord orders those who do not comply with her to be burned in a fire pit. She will spare only one of them if they “fight to the death—disfigurement, loss of consciousness, and general injury do not count. You have to be the last living, breathing person standing.” From her confinement, Amarande watched the “human kindling. Hopes and dreams consumed nightly, reduced to flesh, fat, skin, and sinew, until there was nothing left to burn.” Then, she heard “the unmistakable sigh of a blade carving the breath from a man’s throat. One. Two. Two bodies draped gently on the ground. One. Two.”
  • When Luca reveals himself to the Warlord, more chaos erupts. There is “blood spray, bodies tumbling into the pit, the fire roaring and coughing smoke with each addition. Daggers and swords met in violent, reverberating clangs. Boots crunched bones, and live bodies, shrieking to the stars.” In the chaos, the Warlord “was sent headfirst into her own flames.” She is burnt to death.
  • Taillefer is fighting for his life against the Warlord’s men with his “hands in a fury, going for all the soft spots on the soldier’s face—ears, eyes, lips. The prince’s forearm caught the boy’s windpipe, and his head flew back with a crack, sucking cry escaping from his lips.” He escapes.
  • While escaping her prison cart, Amarande notices “her arm was bleeding from her shoulder through the length of her forearm, the wood of the fractured cart taking a sliding bite on the way down.” Ula stitches up Amarande’s wounds later.
  • To defeat his mother, Queen Inés, Taillefer stabs her guard and “twisted and removed a dagger from where it had been lodged in the soldier’s liver for hours on end.” The soldier bleeds out and dies. Taillefer then throws poison on his mother, burning her skin and killing her. “The tincture had dissolved the skin at her throat, the meat of her exposed, veins and capillaries burned back like parchment blackening and curling in flame before vanishing altogether.”
  • While Amarande converses with the Royal Council members, Geneva violently enters the room and “one guard and then another fell to the floor, assassin’s smiles carved across their throats, blood gushing onto the collars of their regal Ardenian uniforms.”
  • While fighting, Geneva thrust her blade “straight for the vulnerable flesh of Luca’s unprotected torso.” Luca is wounded but not killed. Next, Geneva turns to fight Amarande. “Geneva smashed her body backward, driving Amarande even harder against the wall, so hard that her skull thudded off the unforgiving stone with a terrific crack.” General Koldo attempts to save Amarande by attacking Geneva from behind, but she is thwarted when Geneva thrusts her into a table. “[Koldo] was bleeding from the head, a huge gash over her eye from where she’d made contact with the massive piece of scrolled furniture.”
  • When the action subsides, Luca notices he had accidently struck Taillefer in the neck with his dagger. Luca watches as “blood framed each of his teeth in stark red, as if he’d sunk them into a still-beating heart.” Luca then saw the “weak slice to the jugular.” Taillefer slowly dies from the loss of blood.
  • Amarande is stabbed in the leg by her mother. She tries to overpower Geneva with her good leg, but Geneva “thrust a thumb straight into Amarande’s leg wound, and the princess’s body seized as she cried out, vision fading to white. Her mother shoved Amarande and her blade aside, and scrambled free.” Amarande begins to lose consciousness with “all her adrenaline tapped, blood pooling under her body from her leg, arm, somewhere else.” Amarande survives, but her mother escapes.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Hell is used once. When Amarande is brought to the Warlord, she curses by saying “stars and hell.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Elena Brown

Disney Frozen Polar Nights: Cast Into Darkness

Two months after the events of Frozen 2, the Arendelle sisters are still adjusting to their new roles. Elsa rules over the Enchanted Forest but admits, “even now that I’ve taken my place among the spirits, magic isn’t always easy.”  Meanwhile, Anna is newly engaged and new queen of Arendelle. While in the midst of planning for the annual Polar Night’s Festival, Anna takes a break to visit her sister alongside Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven. Around a campfire, Kristoff recalls the legend of a different pair of royal sisters, how one drowned the other in a jealous rage. The murdered sister arose as a zombified creature—a draugr—a “‘soulless monster ready to seek revenge against those who did it wrong.’”

After Kristoff finishes the story, a mysterious storm blows in, and when he and Anna return to Arendelle the next day, something is amiss. Storms keep coming, the sky grows darker and darker, and everyone seems to be losing their memories. It seems the draugr from the story is real and after them. Anna and Elsa must embark on a quest to figure out how to stop the creature before it’s too late.

Disney Frozen Polar Nights is told from the alternating third-person perspectives of Elsa (written by Mancusi) and Anna (written by Calonita). The two authors seamlessly blend the chapters and the story flows well. The reader gets a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of both sisters and is able to have a better understanding of their relationship with each other as a result. Through the characters’ actions, the franchise’s theme of sisterhood and the importance of family are brightly showcased.

Anna, Elsa, and the other characters stay true to how they were portrayed in the films. The bond between the sisters is well illustrated, and their dynamic is charming, with Anna being more impulsive and Elsa being more grounded. Because of their differences, they balance each other out and bring out the best in each other. Anna’s romance with Kristoff is also very sweet, and it’s charming to watch them interact because they show how much they care about each other.

The plot revolves around Anna and Elsa figuring out the truth of what happened between the sisters from Kristoff’s story. It is a bit predictable that the circumstances around the death of the younger sister differ dramatically from the story that spread, and that this misinformation is the primary cause of the spiritual unrest. However, the journey is still enjoyable and is certain to captivate the target demographic.

Fans of Frozen will be swept up in this story that so vividly captures the Frozen world and characters. Disney Frozen Polar Night is a dramatic tale, but characters like Olaf provide some humor along the way to balance things out. The spooky story contains some imagery and tense moments that might be scary for certain readers. However, readers who appreciate monsters and mystery will enjoy the familiar characters and simple plot. Readers who are looking for kid-friendly ghost stories should add The Trail of the Ghost Bunny by Linda Joy Singleton to their reading list. Readers who love fairytale-inspired stories can jump into other fairytales by reading the Whatever After Series by Sarah Mlynowski.

Sexual Content

  • Anna and Kristoff kiss multiple times. The kisses are not described in detail. For example, the most detailed description depicts Kristoff “kissing her deeply” during an emotional reunion between the two at the end.

 Violence

  • Kristoff tells a legend of sisters Inger and Sissel. In a jealous rage, Inger “snuck behind [Sissel] and shoved her in [a river].” Inger watches as Sissel went over a waterfall and drowned.
  • While running from the draugr, Anna hits her head on a rock and injures her ankle. Elsa notes the “blood crusting in her sister’s hair.”
  • Elsa nearly drowns after falling into a river. As the current drags Elsa, she was “gulping river water too fast, choking and sputtering as she [tries] to find the river’s bottom . . . her feet only [kick] uselessly.” Anna saves her.
  • Elsa and Anna witness a vision of Sissel’s drowning. The vision reveals that the drowning was in fact accidental. Sissel tried to hold onto a branch by the riverbank for support but “the branch broke free. Sissel’s body was tossed like a rag doll over the [waterfall]. Inger screamed in agony, collapsing to the ground.”
  • A pirate ship shoots cannonballs at a ship that Anna and Elsa are on. Elsa needs to get to the ship to deliver a message. She rides there on the Nokk (a horse-shaped water spirit) while fighting the onslaught with her ice powers. “The cannonballs hit the ice in front of them . . . shattering [them] into a thousand pieces.” Elsa manages to get to the ship unscathed and stop the attack. The attack is described over four pages.
  • Plagued by memory loss, an Arendellian general named Mattias draws his sword and attempts to attack Sissel (still in the form of a draugr). He says, “I will slash you down where you stand.” As he charges Sissel, Elsa shoots an ice wall in front of him. He bounces “off the ice, falling backward and landing hard on the ground,” stopping from harming Sissel. He is not seriously injured.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • Elsa lives in the Enchanted Forest, home to the wind, fire, water, and air spirits who appear at certain points throughout the story. The fire spirit Bruni, for example, takes the form of a salamander that can catch fire at will.
  • The plot revolves around Sissel’s spirit coming back as a vengeful creature known as a draugr. Draugrs are “creatures of old folklore, and they supposedly cause terrible storms when they show up.” The draugr “haunts Arendelle and [steals] memories to try and make people stop thinking [her sister] murdered her.”
  • The group hears mysterious moaning in the night and when they go to investigate, their tent is knocked down by an apparent supernatural force.
  • The draugr appears to Anna and Elsa. It is described as “clearly human shaped . . . [with] blackened skin, misshapen bones . . . and green slime oozing from its pores.” The creature calls for its sister, and Anna and Elsa attempt to fight it off before running. It eventually vanishes but appears to the sisters a couple more times. It never harms them.
  • Eventually, Anna learns that the draugr isn’t really a ghost, but rather a “reanimated, decayed corpse… [that] didn’t receive a proper burial.”

Spiritual

  • None

Every Reason We Shouldn’t

Sixteen-year-old figure skater Olivia Kennedy’s competitive dreams have ended. She’s bitter but enjoying life as a regular teenager instead of trying to live up to the expectations of having Olympians Midori Nakashima and Michael Kennedy as parents. . .until Jonah Choi starts training at her family’s struggling rink.

Jonah’s driven, talented, going for the Olympics in speed skating, completely annoying. . . and totally gorgeous.

Amid teasing Jonah, helping her best friend try out for roller derby, figuring out life as a normal teen, and keeping the family business running, Olivia’s got her hands full. But will rivalry bring her closer to Jonah, or drive them apart?

Olivia’s life is a mess. Her father is on the road working, her mother is so doped up on pain pills that she’s mostly absent from Olivia’s life, and Olivia’s best friend is dealing with her own set of troubles, including raising her daughter. Then, Jonah enters the picture. The “Ice Prince” may set Olivia on fire, but his cocky attitude puts a damper on the romance. Instead of being a sweet and sexy love interest, Olivia and Jonah sneak into storage rooms, behind counters, and even behind a dumpster to make out. The abundance of kissing makes their romance seem shallow and cheap. Instead of rooting for the two teens, readers will have a hard time believing the two are really in love.

Olivia’s parents are another negative aspect of the story. Olivia has no parental support. While Olivia’s mother’s excuse is her constant pain, her injury is never explained, which leaves the reader wondering if the pain meds are necessary or just a way for her mother to escape. To make matters worse, the book’s conclusion is unrealistic because it portrays Olivia and her parents as a cohesive group that supports each other when there is absolutely no evidence that supports this.

Unfortunately, Every Reason We Shouldn’t isn’t a fun, flirty romance that readers will enjoy. Instead, it’s full of forgettable characters that are hard to relate to. While both Jonah and Olivia hope to go to the Olympics, they spend more time kissing than they do on the ice. The story combines skating with romance and parental pressures; however, the book’s flaws will quickly damper reader’s interest. Instead of reading Every Reason We Shouldn’t, readers looking for an entertaining story that mixes sports and romance should check out the Hundred Oaks Series by Miranda Kenneally.

Sexual Content

  • The father of Mack’s baby asks her if she wants to go to his house. He says, “Derek will get us a six-pack or two. We’ll hang and stuff . . . My mom doesn’t’ care if you sleep over. Long as we’re quiet.”
  • Olivia watches Jonah skate. “Every time he stops, Jonah looks over at me and smiles. I’m melting. I fantasize about stepping up onto his bladed feet, wrapping my arms around his neck, and kissing him until we’re standing in a puddle of water in the middle of the rink.”
  • When Olivia asks a friend for boy advice, the friend texts, “and use protection. . . And he better not be sending you pictures of his junk.”
  • Olivia and Jonah lay on a couch. Olivia brings “my other hand up underneath his T-shirt until my palm rests over his heart. . . Jonah pushes me gently down on the couch until his whole body presses into mine. . . When Jonah’s lips find mine, the blanket becomes completely unnecessary.”
  • Olivia and Jonah go into a supply closet at the skating rink. “As soon as the door is closed, I launch myself at him, our lips connecting like I’ve wanted them to do all morning. . . Cold fingertips glide underneath the back of my T-shirt and up my spine. . . I pull the zipper of Jonah’s skinsuit down to mid-chest. . . Jonah’s breath hitches when I slide my cold hand underneath the fabric.” They part when Jonah’s father calls him.
  • At the skate rink, Olivia and Jonah kiss. Jonah makes a “trail of kisses from my ear to my throat.” Then Olivia pulls “Jonah down until we are both kneeling on the well-worn carpet behind the skate counter. . .” They are interrupted by Jonah’s father.
  • After being apart for several days, Jonah goes to the ice rink. Olivia goes to take out the trash and, “As soon as I walk out the front door, Jonah grabs the trash with one hand and my hand with the other and pulls me behind the building to the dumpster. His lips meet mine before the bag of trash even hits the bottom of the dumpster.”
  • Olivia and Egg (her old skate partner) go to Los Angeles for a skate audition. While driving, Egg says, “Do you know what this looks like? Human trafficking.”

Violence

  • Olivia’s school has a lock down because of an angry parent’s “disorderly conduct” and a “confrontation” with the school’s security officer.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Olivia’s mom has an injury so she takes muscle relaxants and pain medication. Olivia says the medication makes her mom “spaced out.”
  • Olivia thinks that some of the high achieving kids at her school “snuck into their parents’ medicine cabinet to take a Xanax or two because their anxiety was way off the charts.”
  • Olivia’s classmate has a panic attack. She says, “The new medication helps. I still spent the rest of the day in bed surrounded by all my dogs and watching sea otter videos though.”

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, freaking, hell and pissed.
  • OMG, God, and Lord are used as exclamations occasionally.
  • Mack calls two boys “boneheads.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Love & Gelato

Lina Emerson already knows she faced the most challenging moment of her life when her mother suddenly passes from pancreatic cancer. But moving into an Italian WWII cemetery with a stranger claiming to be her father is not exactly going to be a walk in the park either. While navigating her own grief, Lina moves to Florence, Italy to meet Howard Mercer, a man at the center of her mother’s dying wishes.

Lina promises her mother that she will stay in Italy for the summer and the following school year. Lina realizes that Howard is more amicable and fatherly than she initially assumed. This then leads her to two very pressing questions: Why did she not know anything about Howard until now? And, if he is the father he claims to be, is she ready to be his daughter?

Seeking desperately to solve the mysteries in her mother’s past, Lina turns to a journal—the journal her mother filled during her own time in Italy. Following her mother’s puzzling narrative, Lina reads about the events leading up to her mother’s decision to leave Italy and now finds herself in a similar position. While Lina finds love, friendship, and beauty in Italy, just like her mother, she must similarly ask herself— is it best to leave Italy or to stay?

Love & Gelato is a narrative filled with decadent and delicate descriptions of early love, recognized grief, and Italian landscapes filled with the warmth of food and art. Welch so easily captures the tourist avenues through Florence, Italy, while also leading the reader through locations that a first trip to Italy may overlook. Throughout these descriptions, Lina’s bubbly voice and personality shines strong and easily intertwines with her mother’s own backstory. Entries from Lina’s mother’s journal are set intricately alongside Lina’s current adventure in Italy, resulting in a satisfying and touching plotline that transparently demonstrates the way our loved ones walk alongside us even in their deaths. Readers are able to follow the true spectrum of Lina’s grief as it transitions from an insurmountable weight to a memory she finds herself able to carry.

The portions of Love & Gelato that focus on young romance sometimes feel like they conclude too simply and resolve Lina’s challenges with grief too quickly. However, it is because of its lighthearted narrative that Love & Gelato is perfect for someone looking for a sweet and warm story of friendship and newfound adventure.

In building her relationship with Howard and romance with Ren, Lina ultimately shows that family bonds can be forged with anyone, at any time, so long as both people choose to love each other. Though troubling decisions permeate throughout the entirety of Love & Gelato, Lina’s story shows that the decisions we make in our life are always ours to own, and ours to change. Readers looking for more engaging romance stories may enjoy reading Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson and A Pho Love Story by Loan Le.

Sexual Content

  • Lina goes to a club called Space, where she describes how people “were really dancing. Like having-sex-on-the-dance-floor dancing.”
  • While at Space with her friends, Lina describes being harassed by an older man. After seeing her, the man follows Lina and grabs her butt. As she tries to get away, the man pulls her close until her “pelvis was smashed up against his.” One of Lina’s friends, Mimi, sees the interaction and yells at the man until he leaves.
  • Lina’s mother’s journal describes a statue in Palazzo Vecchio called The Rape of the Sabine Women. Though a mistranslation, wherein the true title of the piece should be The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women, Lina’s mom still describes a grotesque backstory in which Roman men kidnapped Sabine women and forced them into marriage.  In describing this confusing history, Lina’s mother says, “When Rome was first settled, the men realized their civilization was missing one very important ingredient: women. But where to find them? The only women within striking distance belonged to a neighboring tribe called the Sabines, and when the Romans went to ask for permission to marry some of their daughters, all they got was a big fat no. So in a particularly Roman move, they invited Sabines to a party, then, partway through the night, overpowered the men and dragged all the women kicking and screaming back to their city. Eventually, the Sabines managed to break into Rome, but by that time they were too late. The women didn’t want to be rescued. They’d fallen for their captures and it turned out life in Rome was actually pretty great. The reason I was confused by the statue’s title is that it is mistranslated in English. The Latin word “raptio” sounds like “rape” but actually means “kidnapping.” So really the sculpture should be called The Kidnapping of the Sabine Women.” This is the extent of the description behind this sculpture.
  • When Carolina meets her real father for the first time, Matteo Rossi, he accuses her mother of lying about their relationship and says, “Later I heard she began sleeping with any man who looked her way. I’m guessing you’re a product of that.”
  • When Lina and her friends attend an eighteenth birthday party, there is a description of the birthday girl’s mother. The mother “was wearing a tiara and a hot-pink minidress that was about ten seconds from giving up on keeping her boobs covered.” Elena tells Lina that the mother “displays sexy pictures of herself around the house.” Thomas then comments that Elena’s mom has “bionic cleavage.”

Violence

  • The prologue mentions Lina’s mother suffering from an incurable and inoperable form of cancer. This illness is alluded to, so most details are left for the reader to assume, but the decline of Lina’s mother may not be suitable for all readers.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ren takes Lina to a party, and the students drink intermittently throughout the scene.
  • One of Lina’s friends, a teenager named Thomas, drinks heavily at an eighteenth birthday party Lina attends with him.

Language

  • At Elena’s party, a student named Marco tells Lina the beer someone brought is disgusting, and then continues with, “I’d offer you a drink, but I just told you it tastes like piss.”
  • At Elena’s party, Lina mishears someone and thinks, “Crap. Did they ask me something?
  • After hearing what Matteo Risso said to Lina about her mother, Ren calls him, “Che bastardo.

Supernatural

  • Elena’s house is a historical mansion, so there is some talk of ghosts when Lina first visits the house. For instance, Ren tells Lina that Elena “passes the ghost of her great-great-grandmother Alessandra on the stairwell every night.” Elena’s sister, Manuela, refuses to live at the residence because “ever since she was little she’s had this ancestor appear to her. The spooky part is that whenever the ghost appears she’s the same age as Manuela.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Hannah Olsson

Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Volume 1

When Bella’s mother gets remarried, Bella leaves her home in sunny Phoenix and goes to live with her father in the perpetually rainy town of Forks, Washington. Forks is a tiny, gloomy town and Bella is fully prepared to be miserable for her final two years of high school. She doesn’t expect anything interesting to happen in Forks. That is, of course, until she meets Edward Cullen.

Something is different about Edward. Breathtakingly beautiful and from a wealthy family, he baffles Bella with wild mood swings. When they first meet, he instantly despises her to the point of frightening her. Then—after disappearing for a week—he appears perfectly cordial. But it’s not until Edward saves her life in a feat of superhuman strength that Bella realizes the Cullen family is guarding a dangerous secret.

It would be smarter to walk away. Edward is unsure if he will be able to resist his thirst for Bella’s blood. But by the time she realizes the danger she is in, it’s too late. Live or die, Bella has fallen in love with Edward. She can’t walk away, even if her relationship with Edward costs her entire life.

Twilight is an epic story of love overcoming all challenges. In this graphic novel, Kim does a wonderful job bringing the characters and the storyline to life. By breaking the first book into segments, Kim ensures none of the essential story points are missing. For those who have not read Twilight and for avid fans alike, this graphic novel is an enjoyable escape into the Twilight universe.

Twilight, The Graphic Novel, Volume I uses soft shades of grey to bring its beautiful illustrations to life. The characters are all drawn to be beautiful, which is aesthetically pleasing if not the most accurate. Occasional splashes of color emphasize important moments and the characters’ expressions are easy to understand, which adds depth to the story. The graphic novel format manages to capture the essence of the original Twilight book without losing any of the essential aspects of the original story, an impressive feat that makes this a wonderful choice for reluctant readers.

Bella is not an overpowering heroine; she is quiet and clumsy to a fault, but she is fiercely loyal and brave. Bella risks everything for love, a choice that not all adults will agree with, but that most readers will understand as they follow Bella’s journey. Twilight is a wonderful story that swept through a generation of young readers like wildfire. Now in graphic novel form, it will continue to be picked up by even the most reluctant readers in years to come.

Sexual Content

  • When Bella and Edward kiss for the first time, Bella describes, “Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips.”

Violence

  • A van skids on ice in a parking lot and almost hits Bella. Edward pulls her out of the way. She is not injured, though the driver of the van is later shown in the hospital with bandages on his head.
  • Bella researches vampire legends online, including the Slovakian Nelapsi, “a creature so strong and fast it could massacre an entire village in the single hour after midnight.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • A legend of the indigenous Quileute people, “claims that [they] descended from wolves – and that the wolves are our brothers still.”
  • Edward and his family are vampires. They have super speed, strength, eyesight, etc. Unlike most vampires, Edward and his family survive off the blood of animals, so they do not have to murder people.
  • Some vampires have special abilities. Edward can read minds.

Spiritual Content

  • At first, Edward tries to stay away from Bella because he thinks it would be safer for her. Then he decides “as long as I was going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.”

by Morgan Lynn

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

Frosted Kisses

Former Manhattan girl, Penny, has quickly discovered that life in a small town is never dull. Not when there’s a festival for every occasion, a Queen Bee to deal with, an animal shelter to save, and a cute boy to crush on.

But Hog’s Hallow just got another new girl: Esmeralda. She’s beautiful, French, and just happens to be Charity’s (the Queen Bee’s) best friend. Penny figures with the arrival of Esmeralda, the Queen Bee might be too busy to keep making her life miserable. Penny couldn’t be more wrong.

But Penny doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about Charity. Her best friend, Tally, has recruited her to help save the local animal shelter, which is in danger of closing unless they can raise some desperately needed funds.

Then there’s Marcus, the adorable and mysterious boy that Penny thinks might likes her as much as she likes him. But while things with Marcus are wonderful and fluttery, they are also confusing at the same time. Can Penny and her friends save the animal shelter, navigate her new family dynamics, and get the boy—or will Charity and Esmeralda find a way to ruin everything?

While The Cupcake Queen was a cute romance that would appeal to middle school readers, the second book Frosted Kisses falls flat. Much of the story follows the exact same format as the first book and none of the characters are given any more depth. In addition, there are too many topics—divorce, jealousy, bullying, and parental problems. None of these topics are fully explored. Instead, the story jumps from topic to topic and leaves the reader with too many questions.

In The Cupcake Queen, Penny’s insecurity was understandable because she had just moved to a new town and her parents had recently separated. However, in the second installment of the story, she is still insecure, this time focusing her insecurities on Marcus. Penny’s jealousy and inability to talk to Marcus are frustrating. In addition, the fact that Marcus and Penny do not talk or spend any time together at school is unrealistic.

Frosted Kisses is a holiday-themed romance that doesn’t add any sparkle to the season. Instead, Hepler writes a stagnant story that relies on a typical mean-girl, love-triangle format. There is nothing exciting or wonderful to keep the story interesting. While readers will enjoy the first installment in the series, Frosted Kisses will leave readers disappointed. If you’re looking for a holiday-themed story to read while snuggling up by the fire, the Celebrate the Season Series would make an excellent choice.

Sexual Content

  • Penny wonders if Marcus is going to kiss her, but they are interrupted before anything happens. Penny thinks, “As much as I think I would want Marcus to kiss me, part of me isn’t sure I’m ready. Because there’s this tiny part of me that likes looking forward to it.”
  • Someone tells Penny that Marcus and Charity kissed “a few times last summer.” Penny gets upset and all she “can think of is him kissing her. And I know it was before I knew him and it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.”
  • Penny’s grandmother tells her a story about Dutch, who she dated in the past. When the two rekindle their romance, Penny’s grandmother kisses him several times.
  • At a festival, Marcus “bends and brushes his lips against mine [Penny’s]. And everything falls away.”
  • After Marcus walks Penny home, she kisses him. “I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach. It’s fast and I might have actually missed his mouth a tiny bit, but it was a kiss.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Several times a mean girl calls Penny, “Penny Lame.” The same girl also refers to Penny as a loser.
  • At one point Penny says, “I’m an idiot.”
  • “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Marcus tells Penny he is going to be tutored, she prays, “Please not Charity. Please not Charity.”

The Sun is Also a Star

Natasha Kingsley, a lover of science, believes in facts and evidence. According to Natasha, nothing lasts forever. There is no “meant to be,” and there is no such thing as love.

Daniel Jae Ho Bae, a poet, believes in love and destiny. He trusts that the specific amount of circumstances required to bring two strangers together has meaning, even if it can’t be scientifically explained. On his way to a Yale interview, Daniel sees a beautiful girl with large pink headphones walk into a record store. Obeying what he believes are signs from the Universe, Daniel follows her and finds his world colliding with Natasha’s.

Compelled by the inexplicable feeling that they are meant to be, Daniel postpones his interview in order to prove that love is real by making Natasha fall in love with him in one day. Natasha reluctantly agrees to this plan. However, Natasha is almost certain they are not meant to be a couple because it is likely her last day in America. Natasha and her family, who are Jamaican immigrants, have been asked to leave the country and return to Jamaica following her father’s DUI.

Despite the impending threat to her life in America and her aversion to love, Natasha finds herself falling for Daniel. Eventually, the secret of Natasha’s deportation is revealed and the two vow to make the most of their time together by condensing a whole relationship into one day. Despite their respective responsibilities for the day, they always find their way back to one another, proving their destiny is to be in each other’s lives.

However, in the end, Natasha cannot change her fate and must return to Jamaica with her family, while Daniel remains in America to pursue his dreams of becoming a poet. Due to the distance, Natasha and Daniel grow apart. But chance brings them together years later, making the readers wonder if they are meant to be after all.

The novel mainly switches between Daniel and Natasha’s perspectives, with brief interruptions to feature the perspective of supporting characters or to explain scientific concepts relevant to the story. Other chapters also provide historical context for relationships between racial groups in America. For example, the historical connection between Korean immigrants and the black-hair care industry.

The novel also depicts the experiences of young first and second-generation immigrants. Although Daniel was born in America, his parents view American culture as a threat to their Korean values. On the other hand, Natasha was not born in the United States but still views America as her home. Despite the history of racial tension between their cultures, Daniel and Natasha bond over their shared identity as Americans.

Overall, The Sun is Also a Star is an irresistible love story that explores the connection between art and science. Through beautiful metaphors and complex characters, Nicola Yoon exposes the poetic nature of science, which ultimately brings people together.

 Sexual Content

  • Natasha finds herself attracted to Daniel and assumes his “sexy ponytail may be addling my [Natasha’s] brain.”
  • The science behind love and attraction is explained. “Oxytocin is released during orgasm and makes you feel closer to the person you’ve had sex with.”
  • When Natasha says, “I like it big” in reference to her hair, Daniel’s brother makes a crude joke that she “better get a different boyfriend.”
  • Daniel gets a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs when her dress shifts. “They have little crease marks from the couch. I want to wrap my hand around them and smooth the marks with my thumb.”
  • Daniel and Natasha start kissing in the norebang, a Korean karaoke place. “We start out chaste, just lips touching, tasting, but soon we can’t get enough…She’s making little moaning sounds that make me want to kiss her even more.” Daniel and Natasha move to the couch and continue to kiss passionately. Eventually, they stop; there is no sex or nudity.
  • Daniel stares at Natasha “because I’m picturing her in a candy striper outfit and then picturing her out of it.”

Violence

  • Daniel and his brother, Charlie, get into a fight over Charlie’s racist and sexist comments regarding Natasha. Daniel’s “fist catches him [Charlie] around the eye socket area, so my knuckles hit mostly bone.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Natasha’s father gets a DUI.

Language

  • Ass/asshole is used numerous times by Daniel. For example, Daniel calls his brother an “overachieving asshole.”
  • Pissed is used three times. For example, Daniel states his brother “was so pissed that his voice cracked a little.”
  • Shit is used repeatedly.
  • Daniel explains his brother’s anger after his mother’s disapproval of him. Daniel’s mom “could’ve called him an epic douche bag, an animatronic dick complete with ball sac, and it would’ve been better than telling me not to be like him.”
  • Goddamn is used five times. For example, Daniel’s parents believe America has made him soft and Daniel thinks, “If I had a brain cell for every time I heard this, I’d be a goddamn genius.”
  • Profanity is used in the extreme. Profanity includes fuck, dick, shit, ass, pissed, damn, bastard, and douche-bag. For example, a passenger on Daniel’s train tells the conductor to “shut the fuck up and drive the train.” Also, after a fight, Daniel explains his lip “split open on the outside because the bastard [Charlie] hit me while wearing some giant-ass secret society ring.”

 Supernatural

  • None

 Spiritual Content

  • Charlie hears a hurtful comment from his mother “because of God or Fate or Sheer Rotten Luck.”
  • Natasha’s father believes their deportation is part of God’s plan, but Natasha thinks “he shouldn’t leave everything up to God.”
  • On the train, Daniel hears the conductor give his testimony. “God HIMself came down from HEAven and he saved me.”
  • Daniel believes when people are born, “they (God or little aliens or whoever) should send you into the world with a bunch of free passes.”
  • Natasha’s father is sure “God wouldn’t have gifted him with all this talent with no place to display it.”
  • While entering the subway, Daniel decides to “say a prayer to the subway gods (yes, multiple gods).”
  • Daniel explains if he could invite anyone for dinner, it would be God.

by Elena Brown

Breaking Dawn

In Part One of Breaking Dawn, Bella thinks she has her happily-ever-after when she and Edward are married. But halfway through their honeymoon, Bella realizes she is pregnant. A child between a human and a vampire is supposed to be impossible, yet Bella’s pregnancy progresses at an abnormal rate. As the creature inside her threatens her life, Edward is prepared to get it out of her at all costs. But to Bella, this isn’t a monster growing inside her, but a beautiful child. With Rosalie on her side, Bella is determined to have her baby at any cost. Even if that cost is her life.

 Part Two is told from Jacob’s perspective. Jacob never expected to see Bella again—not while she was human. When she returns from her honeymoon with a story about catching a rare disease, Jacob assumes she has become a vampire. Looking for a fight, he goes to the Cullen’s house, only to realize the reality is more horrible than he could ever imagine. Suddenly he finds himself protecting Bella—and the Cullens—against his own pack. But even if Bella and her child survive the pregnancy, this hybrid child may be the only excuse the Volturi need to come and destroy the Cullens. Told again from Bella’s point of view, Part Three ends this exciting quartet.

 Breaking Dawn is a satisfying ending to the Twilight series. Readers will swoon over Bella and Edward’s wedding, and ache for the difficulties that follow. As Jacob fights to protect Bella, he will break the hearts of readers on Team Jacob and threaten to steal the hearts of those on Team Edward. And as the Volturi draw nearer, an entire host of new vampires are introduced in a delightful way.

Breaking Dawn has a lighter tone than the previous books, as Bella thinks she’s finally getting her happily-ever-after. However, danger isn’t done with her yet. While the suspense is lighter in this installment, there are plenty of interesting developments to keep readers engaged. An increase in sexual content and a graphic C-section may unsettle younger readers, but Breaking Dawn ends a whirlwind quartet with several satisfying twists and unexpected turns.

Sexual Content

  • Bella wants to sleep with Edward before she turns into a vampire, because she is worried she will not want Edward in the same way afterward, and she doesn’t want to lose that human experience. “I wanted the complete experience before I traded in my warm, breakable, pheromone-riddled body for something beautiful, strong . . . and unknown. I wanted a real honeymoon with Edward. And, despite the danger he feared this would put me in, he’d agreed to try.”
  • Bella and Edward make out often. On one occasion, Bella “ran [her] hand down his stone chest now, tracing across the flat planes of his stomach, just marveling. A light shudder rippled through him, and his mouth found mine again. Carefully, I let the tip of my tongue press against his glass-smooth lip, and he sighed. His sweet breath washed—cold and delicious—over my face.”
  • Another time, Bella “clutched [her] arms around his neck again and locked [her] mouth with his feverishly. It wasn’t desire at all—it was need, acute to the point of pain.”
  • Bella and Edward have sex multiple times on their honeymoon, but the sex is not described.
  • Edward asked his father what it was like to have sex as a vampire. “Carlisle told me it was a very powerful thing, like nothing else. He told me physical love was something I should not treat lightly. . . I spoke to my brothers, too. They told me it was a very great pleasure. Second only to drinking human blood.”
  • Edward accidentally bruises Bella all over her body the first time they have sex. Afterwards, he says, “I will not make love with you until you’ve been changed. I will never hurt you again.” After that, he keeps Bella, “busy, distracted, so that [Bella] wouldn’t continue badgering him about the sex thing.
  • Bella is willing to stay human longer because she doesn’t want to give up her physical relationship with Edward. Edward says, “Sex was the key all along? Why didn’t I think of that? I could have saved myself a lot of arguments. . . You are so human.”
  • Bella’s period is late. “There was no way I could be pregnant. The only person I’d ever had sex with was a vampire, for crying out loud.” Then she remembers old vampire legends. “They mostly seemed like excuses dreamed up to explain things like infant mortality rates—and infidelity. No honey, I’m not having an affair! That sexy woman you saw sneaking out of the house was an evil succubus. I’m lucky I escaped with my life! . . . There had been one for the ladies, too. How can you accuse me of cheating on you—just because you’ve come home from a two-year sea voyage and I’m pregnant? It was the incubus.
  • When thinking about Bella and Edward’s honeymoon, Jacob thinks “maybe [Edward]’d smashed her like a bag of chips in his drive to get some.”
  • The Cullens had no idea a male vampire could get a human woman pregnant. Edward says, “They’re out there, the sadistic ones, the incubus, the succubus. They exist. But the seduction is merely a prelude to the feast. No one survives.”
  • Edward is worried that carrying his child will kill Bella. He is willing to let her have a child by Jacob if she wants a baby so badly. When Edward asks Jacob, Jacob says, “How? By offering my stud services?” Jacob thinks, “Wrong. Sick. Borrowing Bella for the weekends and then returning her Monday morning like a rental movie? So messed up. So tempting.”
  • Wolves’ clothes do not morph with them. “Nudity was an inconvenient but unavoidable part of pack life. We’d all thought nothing of it before Leah came along. Then it got awkward. Leah had average control when it came to her temper—it took her the usual length of time to stop exploding out of her clothes every time she got pissed. We’d all caught a glimpse. And it wasn’t like she wasn’t worth looking at; it was just that it was so not worth it when she caught you thinking about it later.”
  • During her emergency C-section, “Bella was on a table . . . skin ghostly in the spotlight.” Jacob thinks, “How many times had I imagined her naked? Now I couldn’t look. I was afraid to have these memories in my head.”
  • After Bella becomes a vampire, she and Edward kiss several times. “It was like he’d never kissed me—like this was our very first kiss . . . my breathing sped, raced as fast as it had when I was burning. This was a different kind of fire.”
  • After she turns into a vampire, Bella and Edward make love several times. “My skin was so sensitive under his hands, too. He was all new, a different person as our bodies tangled gracefully into one on the sand-pale floor. No caution, no restraint . . . We laugh together, and the motion of our laughter did interesting things to the way our bodies were connected, effectively ending that conversation.”

Violence

  • Bella has a nightmare where she sees a child in danger. “I sprinted toward the boy. Only to stagger to a halt as I got a clear view of the hillock that he sat upon. It was not earth and rock, but a pile of human bodies, drained and lifeless . . . and directly beneath the adorable boy were the bodies of my father and my mother.”
  • Jacob fights with his packmates a lot, all of whom heal extremely quickly since they are werewolves. In one fight Jacob “lunged. His nose made a very satisfying crunching sound of its own when my fist connected.”
  • When Jacob is depressed, he wonders, “Would a bullet through my temple actually kill me or just leave a really big mess for me to clean up?”
  • When something goes wrong with the pregnancy, “Bella screamed. It was not just a scream, it was a blood-curdling shriek of agony. The horrifying sound cut off with a gurgle, and her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body twitched, arched in Rosalie’s arms, and then Bella vomited a fountain of blood.”
  • Bella has a graphic C-section, during which Edward cuts the baby out with his teeth. Rosalie’s “hand came down on Bella’s stomach, and vivid red spouted out from where she pierced the skin . . . another shattering crack inside [Bella’s] body . . . her legs, which had been curled up in agony, now went limp . . . I glanced over to see Edward’s face pressed against the bulge. Vampire teeth—a surefire way to cut through vampire skin.”
  • Transforming into a vampire is extremely painful. Bella is given morphine, which paralyzes her but does nothing to ease the pain. She thinks, “If I couldn’t scream, how could I tell them to kill me? All I wanted was to die. To never have been born. The whole of my existence did not outweigh this pain. Wasn’t worth living through it for one more heartbeat. Let me die, let me die, let me die.”
  • Caius, one of the Volturi, slaps a vampire named Irina. “Caius closed the distance between them and slapped her across the face. It couldn’t have hurt, but there was something terribly degrading about the action.”
  • Bella hunts and kills several deer and a mountain lion. “My teeth unerringly sought his throat, and his instinctive resistance was pitifully feeble against my strength . . . my teeth were steel razors; they cut through the fur and fat and sinews like they weren’t there.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Bella is given morphine when she transforms into a vampire. It is supposed to numb the pain, but it fails.

Language

  • Pissed is used several times. For example, Bella says, “I’m sort of pissed, actually.”
  • Damn and dammit are used often. For example, when Bella thinks she has food poisoning, she says, “Damn rancid chicken.”
  • Leah and Bella both call Jacob a moron.
  • Hell is used often. When Edward says Jacob has to do something, Jacob says, “The hell I do.” Another time, Jacob tells a packmate “Oh yes you are the hell going to stand behind Sam!”
  • Crap is used often. Once, Jacob asks Edward, “Where is this psycho crap coming from?”
  • Jacob calls vampires parasites and blood suckers.
  • Shut up is used often.
  • Jacob calls someone an idiot.

Supernatural

  • A legend of the indigenous Quileute people “claims that [they] descended from wolves – and that the wolves are our brothers still.” Some members of the tribe are able to transform into wolves.
  • Edward and his family are vampires. Unlike most vampires, Edward and his family survive off the blood of animals, so they do not have to murder people.
  • Some vampires have special abilities. Edward can read minds; his brother Jasper can control the emotions of those around him; his sister Alice can see bits and pieces of the future.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Morgan Lynn

 

Lovely War

In a hotel room in Manhattan in the midst of World War II, the Greek gods Aphrodite and Ares are caught in an affair by Aphrodite’s husband, Hephaestus. Hoping to understand Love’s attraction to War, Hephaestus puts Aphrodite on trial. Her defense is to tell the tale of one of her greatest successes, the intersecting love stories of Hazel Windicott and James Alderidge, and of Aubrey Edwards and Colette Fournier. Aphrodite’s witnesses are Ares (god of war), Apollo (god of music), and Hades (god of death). Each contributes their own different, but overlapping, perspectives to the proceedings.

The story begins as piano player Hazel and soldier James meet at a parish dance and fall into instant, dizzying love, only to be separated three days later when James is sent to the front. Desperate to distract herself from anxiety about her soldier’s well-being, Hazel joins the YMCA where she meets Colette, a singer who lost her whole family in an attack on her home in Belgium. There, they happen upon ragtime musician Aubrey, a Black soldier who desires to make a name for himself on stage and on the battlefield. Aubrey and Colette bond over their music and realize their affections go beyond an appreciation for each other’s talents.

While the story addresses dark and violent subject matter due to its historical period, the frame narrative allows for light moments as well. The banter among the gods, and their respective belief that their part of the story is the most memorable, allows the mood to lift as needed. The darker moments hold meaning within the larger narrative and the smallest joys are heralded as gifts from the gods.

The human characters hold their own amongst their immortal narrators. Each character is likable and humorous in his/her own way. Over the course of the war, Hazel emerges from her meek demeanor, learning to stand for what she sees is right, while not losing her innocence and goodness of heart. James is goofy and sincere, making his experience in combat all the more tragic, as he must reconcile that what he does on the battlefield does not have to mean a loss of himself. Colette is strong-willed and a fierce defender of her friends, though internally she fears that anyone she loves is destined to die. She opens up, however, to the charming dreamer Aubrey. Aubrey’s experiences with racial violence show that the enemy to their happiness is not only the German soldiers they encounter on the battlefield but also those who perpetrate violence and discrimination against black Americans within their own neighborhoods and war camps.

Teenage readers who enjoy romance, Greek mythology, and historical fiction may enjoy this book. It is recommended that readers proceed carefully, as the book does address racism and racial violence as well as the terrors and destruction of war. Despite the hate and violence which surround them, the couples find their way back to love amidst it all. Their fragility as mortals in wartime allows for precious love to shine, as even the impermeable gods come to admire. After Aphrodite reminds Hephaestus that the mortals die, he responds, “They do. But the lucky ones live first. . . The luckiest ones spend time with you.”

Sexual Content

  • Two characters are briefly described as having an affair. “In an instant they are in each other’s arms. Shoes are kicked off, hats tossed aside. Jacket buttons are shown no mercy.” Their kisses are “like a clash of battle and a delicious melding of flesh, rolled together and set on fire.”
  • Athena and Artemis are called, “Those prissy little virgins.”
  • Some of the gods make brief jokes about paying attention to women’s bodies.
  • Hazel’s attraction to James sparks “a series of little explosions” which “began firing throughout her brain and spread quickly elsewhere.”
  • Stéphane admires Colette’s spine and thinks that “he could run his fingers along her back.” He does not act on his thought.
  • Colette is attracted to Aubrey’s musical talent, saying, “It was sexy. And so was its athletic high priest at the piano bench.”
  • During an attack on Aubrey, a racist soldier implies that Aubrey is after white women. Aubrey retorts asking if the man has “ever been with a black girl.” When the soldier laughs, Aubrey “had no illusions about her being a willing participant.”
  • Joey assumes an encounter between Aubrey and Colette was sexual in nature. He asks Aubrey, “Did you . . .?” Aubrey informs him, “It’s not like that,” and then scolds him for presuming that Colette is a “hooker.”
  • Aubrey hides so as not to be seen by a supervisor and realizes “he was free to ogle Colette from the shoulders down just at that moment, and he took advantage of it.”
  • Colette tries to understand Hazel’s fear about meeting up with James. Colette assumes that Hazel’s fear might be due to the possibility of one of them “taking advantage” of the other. Hazel admits that “if anyone found out, there’d be such a scandal.” She explains, “When I’m around James, I do the most outrageous things.”
  • Colette recognizes that being “alone in the dark” could lead to “dozens of ways a young man could try to take advantage of this situation,” although nothing comes of it.
  • A couple says goodbye, and “the brief kiss she gave him at the door was filled with neither passion nor desire, but sweetness, affection, gratitude.”
  • Hazel removes her stockings at the beach, and it is said, “The sight of her bare feet was just about enough to give poor James a stroke there on the spot.”
  • Hazel is pushed into James’ arms and, “The feel of her body pressed against his went through him like an electric shock.” They hold each other for a moment, spinning in circles.

Violence

  • There are multiple instances of racial violence perpetrated against Aubrey and his bandmates. There are also third-party historical sources referenced. Words such as “darkie,” “coon,” “negroes,” and “colored” are frequently used by other characters to address these men. At one point a southern soldier states, “An ape’s an ape.” Other racist comments permeate the experience of the black soldiers at home and abroad.
  • The black soldiers face fears of waking to a “lynch mob.”
  • The narrator describes an instance of police brutality. “A white police officer had entered a black woman’s home without a warrant, searching for a suspect. When she protested, he beat and arrested her, dragging her from her home though she wasn’t fully dressed. When a black soldier saw this and tried to intervene to defend the woman, the white policeman pistol-whipped the black soldier, seriously injuring him.” She then briefly mentions the “shooting that followed” which killed many people.
  • When addressing the possibility of looking at white women, Aubrey states, “No pretty face is worth swinging from a tree.”
  • The “Rape of Belgium” is described in detail over five pages. The narrator notes that German soldiers “pulled men from workplaces and homes and hiding places and executed them in the streets. Women, children, and babies were executed too. As old as eighty-eight. As young as three weeks.” Later, Aphrodite goes on to reference “the stories of women raped, children crucified, nailed to doors, of old men executed. . .”
  • The story frequently finds itself in the midst of trench combat. There are descriptions of the training process, of learning how to kill another man with minimal remorse, and of soldiers often encountering death and the bodies of those lost in battle. The men learn about the effects of gas attacks and how “those poor buggers in the first gas attacks drowned in their own blood.” At one point the trenches are described as “slick with blood.”
  • James imagines his own brother ending up the way his fellow soldiers have. “He saw Bobby’s burnt and blood-soaked body lying in the mud at the bottom of a trench.”
  • The soldiers travel “past live horses and dead horses and trucks and motorcycles.”
  • Multiple racially motivated murders take place in the camps. Two men are “strangled” and the discovery of one body is described over 6 pages. Aubrey and Lieutenant Europe come to the realization that “that was blood on the snow. His head. His face. His bloated, blackened face.” They assume the killers “beat his face in with their rifles.” They note, “You almost wouldn’t know it’s him” and they “gently [close] his gaping lower lip to hide the horribly broken jaw.”
  • Aubrey is held at gunpoint by a racist soldier who says, “We ain’t gonna let you Negroes get a taste for white women.” Aubrey took the man’s gun and “pressed the cold muzzle of the revolver against his victim’s temple.” Then, Aubrey warns his attacker not to mess with the Black soldiers again.
  • The narrator cynically describes how little detail is provided in the notifications of soldiers’ deaths, explaining, “They never said, ‘hung for hours on a barbed wire fence with his bowels hanging out, pleading for rescue, but nobody dared go for fear of hostile fire.’”
  • James partakes in trench warfare. He is a sniper and frequently must shoot German soldiers. After he shoots a man, “a red throat pours blood down a gray uniform.” James actively tries to not think about what he is doing in order to protect his friends.
  • A flamethrower is used in combat. The soldiers try to distinguish the fire, and the narrator notes that “the smell of flesh on fire reminds James of food, of cooking meat.” Ares goes on to narrate that “Chad Browning has stopped his screaming. His clothing is half melted away, half fused to his skin.”
  • Hazel is sexually assaulted by a prisoner of war. The attack is thwarted quickly but not before, “He licked her lips and teeth with his foul tongue, then forced it inside her mouth.”
  • Multiple explosions occur throughout the text. For example, after one explosion “the smoke lifted, and James scrubbed the grit from his eyes, Frank Mason wasn’t there anymore. Just a fire, a helmet, a torn pair of boots, and a little charred prayer book.” It is later implied that there would not be a body to bury.
  • Later, another explosion occurs. “The engine and the first two cars were annihilated. The cars beyond buckled and crashed into one another. Soldiers and war workers were thrown all about the cars. Shards of glass from shattered windows flew like shrapnel. Colette emerged unscathed, for Hazel had thrown her body over her friend’s.” James must treat Hazel’s injuries. Hades goes through the necessary course of action to “apply pressure to the bleeding and summon a medic. Clear airflow, release tight clothing.”
  • Hazel receives a blood transfusion. She notes the “tubes of red blood dangled from jars mounted to a metal frame and ran, Hazel realized, into a needle injected into her arm.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • A character jokes about how the soldiers of the 369th “were knocked on their backs by the routine daily allotment of wine for French soldiers.”
  • While under treatment for shell shock, James is given sedatives.

Language

  • The narrator quotes real news articles about the 369th infantry; these include racist comments and one censored use of the n-word.
  • Offensive terms for opposing soldiers are often used. These include “Jerry,” “Russkies,” “Fritz,” and “Boche.” They refer at one point to Kaiser Wilhelm as “Wee Willie Winkie.”
  • Audrey calls the racist behavior of another soldier “shit” twice.
  • A trainer tells soldiers that in the event of a gas attack, “‘If you’ve lost your mask, you still stay calm. If all else fails, piss on a hankie and breathe through that.’” He warns that they will “break out in damnable sores everywhere” and that they “hurt like hell.”
  • Joey calls Aubrey a “jackass.”
  • Men are called “bastards” twice.
  • Aubrey calls his own behavior “damnably stupid.”
  • There is one use of the oath “Chrisssake.”
  • Emile regrets not being injured sooner, saying, “But non, you stayed away, leaving me healthy and sound, so the Germans could piss on me with their shells and bullets year after year…”
  • Aphrodite calls her husband a “blooming ass.”

Supernatural

  • Spirits occasionally observe their loved ones from the afterlife. At one point, James feels Frank’s presence and begins speaking to him. James wonders if he is going mad.

Spiritual Content

  • The story is told from the rotating perspectives of four Greek gods. Their influence and powers are often employed as catalysts for plot developments.
  • Hades comes dressed as a Catholic priest, as that is how he presents himself to humans.
  • Many of the human characters are Christian and are described praying, visiting churches, and lighting votive candles. They also reference Christian stories and practices.
  • After losing everyone she loves to the war, Colette struggles with her faith. She believes herself to be a “plaything to a vindictive god.” She calls god “it” and explains that “a loving god would never allow this. And if there was no god at all, surely chance would occasionally favor me, non?”
  • After standing up to an authority figure, the narrator says that Hazel “wasn’t a Catholic, but at the rate she was going, she probably needed a priest to take her confession. Before she was struck by lightning and cast down to hell.”

by Jennaly Nolan

 

14+    480   4.7   4 worms   AR   hs  (World War I)

Diverse Characters, Strong Female Character

 

 

 

 

 

She’s The Worst

Sisters Jenn and April used to be close, but lately they’ve been drifting apart. Thanks to school, sports, and the looming threat of college, the two don’t spend much time together. Plus, their emotionally immature, always-bickering parents have made their home an unpleasant place. But as Jenn prepares to start college, April remembers a pact she made with Jenn at the beginning of high school: before Jenn leaves town, they’ll spend the whole day together, revisiting places in Los Angeles that hold special memories for them.

Despite boyfriend troubles, needy parents, and secrets keeping them apart, the girls manage to make time to embark on their journey. Through the course of the day, secrets are revealed, arguments break out, and tensions rise. High-achieving Jenn plans to leave for Stanford soon, but she hasn’t told her parents, who think that she is staying in LA to work at the family antique store. Messy, sporty April thinks she can get a soccer scholarship, but doesn’t know how to get her family to take her hobby seriously.

While the girls work through their issues with themselves, their parents, and their respective love interests, they discover that they haven’t been communicating nearly enough. By respecting each other’s differences and talking things through, they’re able to address conflicts that have been bothering their family for years—and become closer as sisters. Through the course of a single day, their lives and relationships change dramatically.

She’s the Worst is a light read that moves quickly through its time frame of a single day. Its fast pacing sometimes comes at the expense of emotional impact or effective description. Readers still may find themselves connecting emotionally to Jenn and April’s struggles, especially when the story addresses their parents’ relationship.

The family antique store has caused a rift in April and Jenn’s parents’ marriage, and the sisters have both coped in different ways—Jenn mediates her parents’ arguments, while April spends as little time around them as possible. Readers who are familiar with such family dynamics will enjoy seeing them faithfully played out on the page. After seeing how desperately Jenn wants to get away from her parents, but how deeply they rely on her to keep the family business functioning, readers will surely root for her in her quest to leave her hometown.

She’s the Worst promises a story of sisterhood, and while it delivers that story, it also delivers a story of dysfunctional families, emotionally immature parents, and the complicated relationships people have with their hometowns.

Sexual Content

  • April is “sleeping with” Eric, a boy from school. Eric has “snuck in [her] bedroom window a few times already,” as April knows her parents would not approve.
  • April remembers “the way Eric kissed me last night, the way his body felt next to mine as we fell back asleep.”
  • April says that even though she’s not dating Eric, “that doesn’t mean we can’t hook up.” When Jenn expresses concern that Eric is toying with her feelings, April says, “What are you, a nun?” Jenn says, “Does he really like you? Or does he just like having sex with you?”
  • Eric kisses April. April says, “It’s fast but deep, like he wants to have as much of me as he can while he can, and I shiver despite the sun on my back.”
  • April admits her feelings for her friend Nate, and they kiss. April says, “I . . . press my lips to his. He freezes for a second, as surprised as I am by what I just did. Then his lips part and he pulls me closer. The kiss deepens as his hands start to creep down my back.” They are in public and don’t go any further.
  • Later April and Nate share an intimate moment in April’s bedroom. “Then he lifts me up and carries me to the bed, and it’s still me and Nate, but not like always—it’s totally new, and totally hot. I wrap my legs around him as the kiss deepens and intensifies, and soon I’m not thinking about anything at all. When he eventually pulls back, I feel drunk with happiness.”

Violence

  • April jokes that if someone went to the UK and called soccer “soccer” instead of “football,” they would “get jumped by a hooligan.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Jenn says, “Remember when we brought up sparkling cider and pretended it was champagne?” April says, “We could probably get our hands on some real champagne. Or at least some cheap beer.”
  • April’s friend Nate brings the sisters some red wine he stole from his house.

Language

  • Profanity is used somewhat frequently. Profanity includes crap, ass, piss, hell, and damn.
  • “Fuck” is used very infrequently.
  • April says, “Mother. Fucker.” once.
  • April uses the expression, “Speak of the devil.”

Supernatural

  • April remembers using an Ouija board with Jenn once, but goes into no further detail.

Spiritual Content

  • April recalls wearing a new dress for a relative’s neighbor’s bat mitzvah.

by Caroline Galdi

 

Beneath the Citadel

Prophecies have ruled the city of Eldra for centuries. With each new prophecy, the ruling high council tightens their control on the city, crushing any who would rebel against them. For Cassa Valera, the council and their leader, the chancellor, are her number one targets for revenge. After her parents led a rebellion and were killed, Cassa has been looking for a chance to free the city from the council’s clutches. Along with her friends Evander, Alys, Newt, and Vesper, she hatches a plan to infiltrate the mighty citadel where the council resides.

But even if Cassa and her friends are brave enough to fight against the citadel, their plans won’t go smoothly. The council will hound their every step, as they use their diviners to foresee the future. Old friends will betray them. Their loved ones will be in danger. And most of all, their relationships will be strained.

The fight against the council will be a hard one. Yet, with the unexpected help of a stranger, they may just be able to pull it off. That stranger, however, may turn out to be more monstrous than the council. Will Cassa and her friends be able to save the city they love?

Beneath the Citadel is a fun read that follows the main characters Cassa, Evander, Alys, Newt, and Vesper. The story jumps from each character’s point of view. Each character is unique, with their own realistic troubles and fears. For instance, Alys deals with anxiety that affects her everyday life.  Alys’ younger brother, Evander, is afraid he won’t be able to protect his family. Newt was abused by his father, and worries he doesn’t matter to anyone. And Cassa is always afraid that nothing she does will ever matter. But while these characters have flaws and fears, they work to overcome them, making them likable. Readers will root for them to triumph in the end.

While the characters will pull readers in, the plot is strong as well. The plot is simple to understand, but complex enough to make readers think about each character’s actions and decisions. At the start, the group’s goal is simply to take down the citadel, but by the end, each member is fighting against a monster more destructive than the council: a man named Solan. Solan is the main villain who has numerous powers including being able to see the future and steal people’s memories. Readers will enjoy the thrill of watching the four young heroes fight to stop Solan in his tracks before he destroys Eldra.

Overall, Beneath the Citadel has a nice pacing and is a fun read from start to finish. It focuses on the theme of teens dealing with the mistakes of their parents and predecessors, as well as the smaller themes of handling anxiety and discovering a new love. As a standalone novel, everything is neatly wrapped up by the end of the story. Destiny Soria’s novel is a great choice for any reader of YA fantasy fiction.

Sexual Content

  • Before the start of the story, Evander and Cassa were romantically involved. “They had broken off their romance six months ago. It had been a mutual decision and very amicable, but you don’t just forget almost a year of your life being so closely intertwined with another person’”
  • Newt recalls when he first met Evander and Cassa. They were still an item and Newt watched as Cassa turned to Evander and “leaned down and kissed him.”
  • Evander is bisexual and falls head over heels for Newt. “Evander had figured out he was bisexual around the same time he’d figured out what sex was. But Newt held a strange fascination for him, ever since their first chance meeting years ago.”
  • Newt realizes he has feelings for Evander too. “There was a thrill of new energy inside him, a tingling in his fingertips, and the dawning certainty that one day he was going to fall in love with Evander Sera.” When they’re outside of the city walls, Newt and Evander kiss each other. “It wasn’t Newt’s first kiss, but it was the first one that mattered. His thoughts were deliciously hazy. He was kissing Evander Sera. Evander Sera was kissing him.”

Violence

  • Evander recalls being beaten during an interrogation. “He’d already earned a few bruises during the interrogation. It wasn’t supposed to be a painful process, but the sentient who was reading his memories hadn’t appreciated his sense of humor and had called in a burly guard to impart the wisdom of keeping his mouth shut.”
  • Newt can contort his body in order to get in and out of bad situations. “Newt breathed in deeply through his mouth and, with a wince, popped his left thumb out of its socket. It didn’t hurt, but he’d never grown used to the uncanny sensation.” That contortion takes a toll on his body. “He’d never told them about the alarming frequency of sprains when he didn’t use the braces, that while he could bend his body in fantastic fashion, it came at a price.”
  • Alys watches Newt knock out a guard. “She didn’t see Newt until he was only a few feet away from the guard and was swinging something—a lantern—in a high arc toward the back of the man’s head. There was a terrific thump, followed by another thump as the man fell to the floor, his gun clattering beside him.”
  • Alys often thinks she’s dead weight. At one point she thinks, “Maybe it would be better if she just died before they caught up. Maybe it would be better if she died now. Maybe it would be better. Maybe it would.”
  • When Mira, the Blacksmith’s daughter, performs the blood-bonding ritual on Solan, she has to cut open his arm. “Mira leaned in beside Cassa and slit a long, deep line into the inside of Solan’s left arm, a mirror to Evander’s own scar.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • The group originally sneaks into the citadel in barrels. “The kitchen workers had unknowingly smuggled all four of them into the basement storerooms in barrels of beer that were only half full.”
  • Cassa talks to Alys about possibly becoming a legend in the streets of Eldra. Cassa then tells Alys, “We’ll get a whole tavern drunk one night and spread the rumor.”

Language

  • Damn, ass and shit are used frequently. For example, when her friends break her out of a prison cell, Cassa says, “Just open the damn door.” Another time, Evander talks to Cassa about her terrible escape plan. “I doubt your half-assed escape plan would work a second time.”
  • Bitch and bastard are both used a few times. For example, the Dream Merchant, a man who buys and sells dreams, tells off Cassa. “This is none of your business, you little bitch.”
  • The Dream Merchant calls Cassa’s parents, “scum parents.”

Supernatural

  • Eldra, and the country it’s a part of, Teruvia, are ruled by ancient prophecies. These prophecies dictate life for the vast majority of people in the city of Eldra. Pretty much everything in Eldra revolves around prophecies, and many characters use these powers to see the future. The Chancellor says, “The teachings laid down by Teruvia’s forefathers tell us that the elder seers saw every thread of the tapestry that is our present and future.”
  • There are official gatherings in Eldra to talk about prophecies. For example, “Most of the citadel’s inhabitants would be at the monthly council session, where any new prophecies were discussed and the fulfillment of old prophecies was speculated on.”
  • Solan uses runes to foresee Cassa and her friends stumbling across him in the dungeons beneath the citadel. Solan has “known for a while that you [Cassa] would be coming. I saw it in the runes.”
  • Bloodbonding is a process by which an individual is magically connected to some metal or other substance. The Chancellor thinks about bloodbonding after meeting with Evander. “With a bloodbond’s complete control over a particular metal, any number of everyday items could become weapons.”
  • Evander is bloodbonded to silver. “He could feel the silver like an extension of himself, moving farther and farther away, the connection weakening more and more.”
  • People who can manipulate other’s memories, or take them, are called Rooks. Vesper is a rook. She thinks about how “Rooks had to be patient and gentle, so very gentle. Memories were fragile. They could be torn or teased out too thin.”
  • When Cassa visits the Dream Merchant, a man who barters in dreams, she’s afraid he’ll take too many of her memories. “She had no doubt that Gaz would try to take far more than the memories she’d offered. And she didn’t know if she’d be able to stop him—or pull away once he’d started.”
  • Those that can magically read a person’s immediate past in their face are called sentients. Newt thinks, “He’d heard that skilled sentients could read so quickly and thoroughly that they might as well be reading someone’s mind instead of just their past.”

Spiritual Content

  • In Eldra, people worship the Slain God. Vesper, in a church, listened as, “The choir began to sing a gentle, haunting requiem in Teruvia’s dead language. The tale of the god who had once cradled Teruvia, protecting it from those who, in envy and greed, would do her harm.” Soon after the choir sings, “The tale of their dying god, who used the last of his strength to scatter his omniscience across Teruvia, a gift for the chosen devout few.”
  • It is believed the Slain God gave a few people his power, allowing them to foresee the future.
  • Before people pass on, they are typically given death rites. Death rites often involve taking one’s memories. Cassa thinks about the practice. “She did know that the devouring of memories was meant to be a cleansing of sorts, a final penitence in honor of the Slain God.”
  • Alys thinks about the typical rituals. “Normally, even if someone died without death rites, a priest would be on hand to talk about how every person’s greatest honor is to join the Slain God in blissful oblivion. Candles would be lit and doused at intervals. Sometimes someone would sing a verse from the Slain God’s requiem.”
  • Solan very much hates the religion of the Slain God. He tells off the chancellor, saying, “What a strange way of describing the duty that your pathetic religion demands of me.”

by Jonathan Planman

Deathcaster

In the Fells, the war with Arden couldn’t get any worse. The Queen is sick and out of the picture. The young Ardenine King, Jarat, is marching his army to the capital of Fells. And the heir to the gray wolf throne, Alyssa ana’Raisa, has been captured by the ruthless Empress Celestine.

For Ash, prince of the Fells, the only way forward is to rescue his sister, Lyss, from the Empress. But now that Celestine is on the war path, her armies ravaging the coast, that isn’t going to be an easy task. To cross the ocean and take on Celestine’s bloodsworn army, he’ll need help from unlikely allies and former enemies.

The rebel Ardenine general Hal wants nothing more than to see Lyss safe and in his arms. Yet to do that, he has to find a way to crush Celestine’s invading army. Between the arrogant King Jarat and his stubborn father, fielding an army to help the Fells drive off Celestine won’t be a walk in the park. Will Hal succeed in freeing Arden and the Fells from Jarat and Celestine’s grasp? Will Ash succeed in bringing his sister home to take her rightful place on the throne? Only time will tell.

Chima’s final entry in the Shattered Realms series is a wonderful conclusion to the saga. Focusing on the epic battles between the three nations and royal families, Deathcaster doesn’t disappoint in its suspense and action. Since this is the final book, the main theme of war is much more prevalent as multiple armies battle each other. These battles are each unique and well thought out, creating exciting and heart-pounding scenes.

The book splits its chapters into many points of view, including all of the main characters such as Ash, Lila, Jenna, Lyss, Hal, Destin, and Evan. While the sheer amount of main characters might appear to be overwhelming, the ease with which each chapter transitions to different points of view will pull readers in and never make them feel overwhelmed. Plus, each character is unique and interesting, with their own problems and personality that will hook readers.

The events of the story are believable, from the civil war in Arden to Ash’s journey across the ocean to save his sister. The ending feels a bit rushed, while some parts of the novel drag on, but overall the story is very well paced. The writing is easy to read and flows well, with each character getting a distinct voice. Overall, Deathcaster is a satisfying final entry to Chima’s Shattered Realms series.

Sexual Content

  • After a year apart, Ash meets Jenna. “There were many kisses but few words. His questions drew brief, vague answers, punctuated with the vivid images she delivered through touch.” Ash and Jenna have sex. “Making love with Jenna Bandelow was a twining of minds as well as bodies, a mingling of imagery and sensation so complete that sometimes it was hard to tell who owned what—who was giving, who receiving.”
  • Jenna tells Ash about dragon mating, “Dragons often mate in flight, so they twine their tails in order to, you know, maintain their—.”
  • Empress Celestine believes Lyss and Breon are lovers, and often tries to break them up. During dinner, Lyss thinks, “Celestine often included some handsome young men for Lyss, and a lovely young woman for Breon, or vice versa. She seemed determined to distract the erstwhile lovers with new options.” Later on, Lyss nearly shouts, “If I go to bed with someone, I want it to mean something.”
  • Samara, Celestine’s attendant, says, “I find that a bout between the sheets stirs my blood and prepares me to shed the blood of others.”
  • Ash gives Evan a massage to help ease the pain in Evan’s body after a fight. Evan then teases Ash, saying, “According to customs here in the drylands we are married now, and you are bound to perform this service every day.”
  • A soldier tells Hal, “There’s a rumor going around that you died at Delphi but the witch queen brought you back to life because she fell in love with your dead body.”

Violence

  • Lyss thinks about the fighting tournaments Celestine holds. “Sometimes the empress would choose two women to fight, or a mixed pair, or three against three. In one case, she blinded two soldiers, and then set them against each other.”
  • Evan and his subordinates are ambushed in his home. “Blood spattered Evan’s face and the floor around him. He lay on his back, helpless, though fully conscious, while the fighting went on around him. He was stepped on at least once.”
  • Hal is told that, “Karn’s disgraced, dead, and hanging from the city walls.”
  • Jenna’s dragon, Cas, attacks a member of the empress’ army. “He struck the bloodsworn, hard, just as he took his shot. The shot went wild and the soldier ended up pinned to the ground, screaming, bleeding from a dozen wounds.”
  • A group of dragons attacks the empress’ fortress city, “They burned everything that was burnable, from the quays to the houses that were tucked into the terraces on the hillside, to the small fishing boats that were all that remained in the harbor.”
  • Lila discovers a dead body in the woods. “It was what was left of one of the Darian Brothers, blood spattered all around. A knife lay in the mud nearby. He looked like he’d been torn apart by wolves.”
  • A servant is killed during a coup. “Before he could get there, the maiden lay dead in a pool of blood, run through by one of the blackbirds.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hal’s younger brother says, “This drunk stumbled up to me, and I thought she was going to ask me for money or something.”
  • Ash and Sasha get drunk on a beach after being stranded at sea. Evan, the only one sober, “got the impression that they’d been at the cider for a while.”

Language

  • Bastard is used several times. A soldier tells Hal about a general’s death. “The scum-sucking bastard’s dead, thank the Maker.”
  • Ass is used frequently. When King Jarat orders Destin to lead a company of mages, Destin thinks, “And I will pull mages out of my ass.”

Supernatural

  • Jenna can see images of a person’s true self. “When Jenna gripped the Commander’s hands, images slid through her mind—a much younger Adam and Alyssa, dressed in elaborately stitched clothing, holding hands, watching a funeral procession, both weeping.”
  • Evan binds his followers to him with a blood ritual. “One dose was enough to bind a person; after that, they had an unquenchable thirst for more.”
  • Ash travels to the dream world, Aediion. “He was swept into a swirling black vortex. Gradually, he rebuilt the scene at Drovers’ Inn from memory.” In Aediion, spirits can meet with the living. Ash meets his father there, and his deceased father says, “Thank the Maker. I was close to giving up.” In Aediion, Ash also meets a demon. “It resembled a demon’s face—thin-lipped, hollow-cheeked in a cowl and prelate’s robes.”
  • When Ash enters Aediion, a demon attacks him with shadows. “It took everything Ash had to stand fast with shades flying into his face, swiping around his body, sliding under his clothes.”
  • Hadley DeVilliers uses her magic to sound proof a room, “Back at Kendall House, Shadow pulled glasses down from the shelf while DeVilliers circled the room, her hand on her amulet, putting up barriers to eavesdroppers.”
  • In Arden, mages are collared to keep them in check. Hal tells a mage about a key that can unlock every collar. “One key opens all of the collars. One key controls all of the collars. Nearly all the mages fighting for the Ardenine king are wearing them now.”

Spiritual Content

  • Magic is viewed as a heresy in Arden. Father Fosnaught condemns a group of mages. “You will burn for this, I promise you. We will wipe the scourge of magic from every corner of the Seven Realms.”
  • The Church of Malthus is the primary religion in Arden. Destin Karn, a spymaster, thinks about a saint, “There was plenty of information about Saint Darian, one of the patriarchs of the Church of Malthus a thousand years ago, and his followers, known as Darian Brothers, who were bent on eliminating the gifted from the Realms.”

by Jonathan Planman

The Girl with the Broken Heart

For the past few months, family has meant nothing but heartache for Kenzie Caine. When her second year at college comes to a close, the last thing she wants to do is return home. Luckily, she’s just landed her dream summer job working at the well-known Bellmeade horse farm in the nearby town of Windemere. Rehabilitating abused horses is hard work, but it’s the perfect distraction from her mother’s deep depression and her turbulent relationship with her father. With the beautiful horses, Kenzie is in her element.

Still, she has her own health limitations—a weakened heart. Her employers, the affable Jon and Ciana Mercer, are well aware of her condition and have tasked the charming stable hand, Austin Boyd, with helping Kenzie with some of the heavy lifting. But Austin has his own secrets. As Kenzie and Austin become closer, those secrets lead to shocking revelations that test the walls Kenzie has built around her heart.

The Girl with the Broken Heart follows a familiar romance format and holds few surprises. Kenzie is an admirable character who doesn’t allow her heart condition to get in the way of her dreams. However, the complicated backstory, which lacks development, makes it difficult to connect with Kenzie. Much of her conflict is internal and revolves around her family life, but the reason for her conflict lacks detail, which causes confusion.

Even though The Girl with the Broken Heart is a clean romance appropriate for younger readers, the age of the character may make it difficult for readers to connect with her. Kenzie is in college, but her love interest’s age is unclear, though he has been working as a police officer for many years. The story hits on the topic of sexting, internet bullying, and suicide. However, these topics are also underdeveloped and unfortunately don’t evoke an emotional reaction.

Kenzie’s summer job is rehabilitating abused horses and the story explains the dangers of the painful method of soring Tennessee Walking Horses. While the abuse may resonate with those familiar with horse competitions, others may be confused because soring isn’t described until later in the book. In addition, the story focuses more on Kenzie’s relationship with Austin instead of her interaction with the horses.

The Girl with the Broken Heart is a sweet romance, but the older characters and lack of plot development make the book more appropriate for older readers. While Kenzie’s heart condition adds interest to the story, in the end, her character will quickly be forgotten. Teens looking for romance with a unique plot should try I Believe in A Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo.

Sexual Content

  • Dawson and his fiancée kiss several times. For example, “Dawson bent down and kissed Lani on the mouth.”
  • After Kenzie acts frosty towards Austin, he says, “Why, I could have sworn yesterday when we held hands that you liked having me close to you. So much so that if I’d walked you to your door last night like I wanted, I might have gotten a kiss.” Kenzie denies her attraction towards Austin.
  • Austin tells Kenzie about his first kiss. “We kissed once just to try it out and broke out laughing. No chemistry. No magic.”
  • Kenzie doesn’t know how to feel about Austin. “When he’d leaned over her, listening to her every word and looking into her eyes, she’d felt a fluttering sensation in her heart. . . desire.” She thinks Austin is going to kiss her and is disappointed when he doesn’t.
  • Austin doesn’t like it when a coworker “let his gaze roam over Kenzie’s body.”
  • Kenzie falls asleep while caring for a sick horse. When Austin sees her, he “wanted to touch her, smooth her hair . . . He wanted to bend down and kiss her awake.”
  • Kenzie recalls when she was thirteen and one of the ranch hands cornered her in the stable. The man “came up behind me, started rubbing my shoulders, telling me he thought I was pretty. I froze. He said other stuff, too, sexy things I didn’t understand at the time. . . Then he turned me around and planted a big wet sloppy kiss on my mouth.”
  • After walking Kenzie home, Austin “longed to take her in his arms, hungered for the feel of her warm mouth on his.” He forces himself to leave.
  • After an outing with Austin, Kenzie “placed both hands against his chest, rose up on her toes, and brushed her lips over his. Pulling away with a saucy smile, she whispered ‘Tag, you’re it,’ and ran back to the house.”

Violence

  • An upperclassman convinced Kenzie’s sister to “send pictures of her naked body to him, she did . . . because he said he loved her.” The boy then sent the pictures to others, who “shamed her! Made f-fun of her.” Afterward, Kenzie’s sister hangs herself on Valentine’s Day.
  • Someone vandalizes Kenzie’s car. “Both seats had been slashed with long vicious wounds that left the innards oozing out of the pale creamy leather like pieces of roadkill.”
  • When Austin is in the barn alone, a masked man stabs him with a knife. “Austin, gagged, heard a whoosh—his lung blown, deflating. He staggered, twisted away from the stall, fell backwards, his head slamming against the hard floor. . . searing, burning pain.” The farm dog attacks the man. “The assailant was hurled to one side, then hauled backwards amid growls and snarls. The man screamed. Human bone crunched.” Both men end up in the hospital.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Kenzie goes to a party where people “gathered around patio tables, drinking sodas and beer.”
  • Kenzie’s mom takes pills for depression.
  • While at a Fourth of July party Austin is “nursing a beer.”
  • While in the hospital Austin is given a “morphine infusion pump.”
  • Austin tells Kenzie about a case he was working on. “Kids were dying. Opioids. Five area high schools had lost seven teens in four months.”
  • After taking drugs, a teen tells Austin, “The first time I used, I felt like I’d been kissed by an angel. Every time after, I was chasing that feeling. Never got it again.”

Language

  • Kenzie calls Austin a conceited jerk. Later, Austin tells Kenzie that someone is “pretty much a jerk.”
  • Crappy is used twice. Once Kenzie says, “Having a crappy heart condition wasn’t going to slow me down. So far, it hasn’t.”
  • At a horse competition, a man sees Kenzie looking at a horse. The man says, “If it isn’t the bitch who helped destroy my grandfather.” After the altercation, Austin asked, “And what should I have done? Beat the crap out of him?”
  • Damn is used once. Hell is used twice.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

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