I’ve purposefully not been writing reviews since the beginning of the year and I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, I’m really enjoying reading a lot more, perhaps in part because I feel no pressure to talk about what I’m reading unless I really want to (either because it was a great read or because it wasn’t a great read). But second, I’m reading far less than I have in previous years. At least some of that can be attributed to tackling edits and copyedits for Here We Are and working on a couple of additional side projects, but not all of it. I do think by not writing reviews, I don’t feel the pressure to always be reading something so I have something to write about. It’s sort of liberating, even though it’s also sort of weird to “only” have read about 50 books so far this year. I recognize that most people don’t read 50 books in a year, let along 50 books in five months, but that is still a slow reading year for me.
Since I know a lot of readers still love book reviews, both for their own reading purposes and for talking about books with young readers, I thought I’d offer up a periodic round-up of reads with short reviews covering the salient points of the story and what the verdict of it might be. Book Riot does a weekly series, “Buy, Borrow, Bypass,” which has really made me think about the way I recommend books and I think it’s a worthwhile way to give a quick talk about a book’s merits and whether it’s worth your money, worth your trip to the library, or worth skipping all together.
Here’s a look at some YA reads I’ve picked up recently and have thought about for a while. Most are available now, and if not now, in the very near future.
This is a quiet book about a quiet girl named Frannie whose cousin Tru is sent to live with her family for the summer. Frannie believes his coming has to do with his conservative, Catholic parents being bothered by his being gay. There’s something else at stake, though, which Frannie learns far later in the book, and unfortunately, it’s a bit of a let-down in terms of plot and lead-up what that “big secret” really is.
What works in this book is that it explores racism from the point of view of a privileged white girl realizing these very things. Her parents are going through a hard time financially, so she’s going from a private Catholic school to a public magnet, where she’ll be one of the only white people there. Tru introduces her to some of his friends, many of whom are black, which opens Frannie’s eyes to challenges she’s never seen.
These elements are really solid, but it was impossible not to think about the greater context of the story and setting: this is set in modern-day Baltimore, and not once are racial tensions throughout the city explored. Periodically, one of the black side characters will say something, but it’s not in a bigger capacity. It felt like a really huge missed opportunity in a book about racism and race, and one where the fact that this family is up on the news (that’s a thing mentioned more than once, since the family cut off internet and cable for the summer). The book is good, but it could have been great were those aspects explored further and pushed harder. It was all right there. For a debut though, a pretty good read, and the quiet girl story will likely resonate with “quiet” readers. Borrow this one, unless you’re seeking more books on race and prejudice from a white point of view (that’s in sincerity, not in snideness!) and quiet, literary YA, then go for the buy.
Told through alternating points of view, Reed’s romantic YA novel explores an interracial relationship that’s been made tense because of an accident that occurred while the couple was together. Ellia, a black girl, is struggling with amnesia, following a fall after a run. She doesn’t recognize the boy who has been coming around, who keeps talking with her, who keeps wanting to relate to her.
Liam, a white boy, doesn’t necessarily feel responsible for the accident that turned Ellia’s life, as well as his, completely upside down. In part because it wasn’t his fault — as readers, we know he struggles with guilt, but it’s far less about what happened and far more about losing Ellia’s love and the challenge that exists now that he’s The White Boy who hurt her in the eyes of Ellia’s parents. Likewise, Ellia begins to fall for another boy, one she’s meeting at therapy.
What makes this book really strong, though, is Liam’s dedication to Ellia. The book begins and weaves throughout the story of their romance, as written by him. It’s a way to sort of “relive” that romance for Liam, as well as a way for him to tell her what happened and to help her remember what they’d once had.
This is an easier read, despite the heavy topics of amnesia and interracial romance explored. Reed balances this nicely and all of the characters are wonderfully fleshed: they’re real, they’re flawed, and the romance that you want as a reader is kept just far enough away to make you want to keep reading. The ending of this book is a great one, too. If you like love stories or are seeking books that feature interracial couples, this is a buy.
On a superficial note, that cover is so great. Not only does it feature the interracial couple, but they look like teenagers, and the black girl in the image has wonderfully natural hair. I see black girls picking up this book on that cover alone.
In technicalities, this isn’t a YA book; the story is set post-high school, and it came from a small press that doesn’t publish YA-specific titles. That said, this book has tremendous teen appeal and I think could be easily included in a YA collection. And it should be.
Juliet is an asthmatic Puerto Rican college student from the Bronx who chooses to spend the summer in Portland, Oregon, living with and working as an assistant to her favorite writer, Harlow Brisbane. Juliet came out to her family recently, and she’s decided to leave home for a while, not sure how her family is going to handle the big news.
Brisbane is Juliet’s idol, in part because she’s so open and honest about feminism, the female body, and other things that appeal to Juliet’s budding acknowledgement of her sexuality. But as the story unfolds and Juliet begins learning more about her idol, as well as she begins learning more about her own identities, things aren’t going to be as smooth this summer as Juliet anticipates.
Even though it at times the book becomes a little too on-the-nose with feminism, intersectionality, race and queer theory, these are things so many readers, especially young feminists, are so hungry for. They will love Juliet’s coming to learn things, question things, find herself hurt intentionally and not. That final anthem to herself is the kind of thing you read and want to punch your fist in the air. The writing can be a little stilted when the passages exploring these big topics appear, but it’s okay. This isn’t a textbook and Juliet’s voice and desire to be a sponge, picking these things up, makes these small stumbles in the writing easy enough to overlook.
This isn’t a perfect read alike to Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces but readers who loved that book will absolutely eat this one up. It’s got tremendous appeal in that it’s told through the eyes of a college student, but the eagerness she feels for learning and discovering herself really captures the YA perspective. Juliet Takes a Breath deserves your shelf space, hands down.