Maggie reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Content Warnings: Rape, kidnapping, physical violence

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy about Lei, a Paper Caste girl, who is forcefully taken from her family by the imperial guard in order to join the newest class of Paper Girls. Paper Girls are the most beautiful paper caste girls in the kingdom, chosen to serve the king as concubines for one year. Some of the girls are from the few influential paper caste families, offered to curry favor and bind their families closer to the power of the crown. Some of them are chosen from the country at large and either regard serving the king as an honor or believe the material benefits to themselves or their families are worth it. Lei, kept in line only through threats to her remaining family and already resentful of the imperial regime for previously abducting her mother, is caught between the rock of being forced to service the king when her mind and body revolt against the very idea and the hard place of the strict new realities of her life that she cannot escape.

Once in the palace, Lei struggles, not only with her lessons, but also with the company of the other girls. The noble girls not only have a head start on the knowledge and skills expected of a Paper Girl, but they’re not eager to include Lei in their social circles. They’re used to having maids and fancy clothes and performing courtly graces, and every time Lei struggles or makes a mistake, mockery and taunting is sure to follow. Some of the girls are also eager to be there, either from a desire to serve the king or for the status and benefits being Paper Girls will bring them and their families, motivations which Lei has trouble understanding. Lei becomes friendly with one of them, Aoki, but Lei constantly has to watch herself around her because Aoki is truly enamored of the idea of serving the king and won’t hear of Lei’s very real horror of the man. Being set adrift in a hostile environment would be tough enough, but Lei’s mental anguish at being used by the king is chilling. Paper Girls don’t have the ability to refuse to become Paper Girls, or to refuse a summons by the king when they’re in the Palace, so they don’t have the ability to truly consent, and Lei’s horror at her lack of agency causes her to panic and react in unpredictable ways. CONTENT WARNINGS: While this book does not depict the physical act of rape in lurid detail, it does occur and neither does it draw a curtain at the door to the king’s quarters. There’s physical violence, mental and physical intimidation, and general bad times along those lines.

Lei’s lack of agency is emblematic of the Paper Caste as a whole’s lack of agency. Despite the existence of a few high-status families at Court, as evidenced by some of the other Paper girls, most of the Paper caste is oppressed and taken advantage of by the Moon and Steel castes. What I really enjoyed about this novel besides the world-building was that Lei is actually a late addition to the plot to overthrow the King leading such a cruel system and make a better kingdom. They weren’t waiting for a prophecy or a chosen one, Lei’s violent yet inept rejection of her own fate literally bumbles into a well-laid and intricate conspiracy that is already in place and wasn’t looking for any other help. In fact, they would rather she just keep her head down and not mess them up, because she doesn’t have the training for this, which of course, Lei does not do. It’s an interesting change from the common Chosen One formula.

Also interesting is Wren, a fellow Paper Girl. Lei is fascinated by Wren, who is withdrawn but kind, unlike the other wealthy Paper Girls. Wren is a part of the resistance, trained from childhood and planted among the Paper Girls to gain access to the King. Wren also has to let herself be used, and she empathizes with Lei’s reactions. She alone among the resistance thinks that Lei should be included and possibly help them. Along the way, their relationship becomes physical as well as emotional, as they bond over the pressure cooker of their environment.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a great beginning to a series. The world-building is intricate and interesting, and it turns the Chosen One as Rebellion Figurehead trope on its head. Although there is lots of serious content, it handles it well, and the physical relationship between Wren and Lei mirrors the intense emotional pressures they both face. If you like fantasy YA series, you could do worse than look here.

Shannon reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost is the first book in Zoraida Cordova’s captivating young adult series entitled Brooklyn Brujas, and it’s one I didn’t expect to fall head over heals for. In 2019, I picked the book up, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story. I eventually put it down, deciding it just wasn’t the book for me at that particular point in time. I went on and read other things until the fall of 2020, when I decided to give it another chance. The second time really was the charm, because the story grabbed me right from the start, and I ended up flying through the book in a little over twenty-four hours.

Alex can’t think of anything she dislikes as much as she dislikes magic. To her, it’s at the root of all of her family’s problems, and no matter how often her mother and older sister remind her of the honor that goes along with being a bruja, Alex just wants to get rid of her powers and live a normal life.

She thinks her Deathday celebration is the perfect opportunity to decline her magical abilities once and for all. True, most brujas look forward to their Deathdays, reuniting with deceased ancestors and honoring the deities who gifted them their powers, but Alex has a totally different plan. Instead of acknowledging and being grateful for her magical gifts, Alex plans to work a powerful spell to banish magic from her life forever.

As I’m sure you can imagine, things don’t go quite the way Alex anticipated. Suddenly, her family has disappeared seemingly into thin air, leaving Alex alone with Nova, a mysterious Brujo she’s not sure she can trust. He’s been kind to her in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right person to help her reverse the harm she’s done. Still, she’s desperate to rescue her family from what has befallen them, and when Nova tells her he knows how to free them, she reluctantly joins forces with him and embarks on a quest that will change her in ways she never could have imagined.

Alex is a wonderfully complex heroine, with her fair share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. I sometimes found myself annoyed with her tendency for drama, but she does grow and change as the story progresses. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader just enough insight into who Alex is as a person without ruining the story arc. Her complicated relationship with her family feels completely relatable as does the uncertainty she feels about her sexuality.

Alex’s sexuality isn’t the main point of the novel, but it is an important element of her need to be accepted for exactly who she is. She’s known she was bisexual for quite a while, but she’s never been sure how to tell her family how she feels. She’s constantly torn between doing what she thinks is expected of her and being true to herself. You might think this sort of inner conflict would take away from the action and adventure of this fantasy novel, but it doesn’t do so at all. Instead, it adds an element of realism to the story, highlighting Alex’s struggle to fit into multiple worlds.

I didn’t end up loving Nova as a character. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way as soon as he appeared on the page. At first, I wondered if it was just because Alex herself wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as I continued reading, he started to fall the slightest bit flat for me. I wanted a better understanding of his motivations, and although some of my questions about him were eventually answered in the second half of the book, it felt like a case of too little too late. Even so, Labyrinth Lost has much to recommend it, and I definitely plan to continue with the series.

Danika reviews This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

I want to start by being clear that this does not have a sapphic main character, but it does have multiple sapphic side characters and subplots, which is why I’m reviewing it here.

If you still have complicated nostalgic feelings for Harry Potter, but you also want to read a book that says “Fuck TERFs” (literally–that’s a direct quote), This is How You Fly is for you. It follows Ellen, who has just graduated from high school and is trying not to think about what happens next. Her friends are excited about university, but she’s terrified. Not that her life is going that well now: she fights constantly with her stepmother, one of her best friends is pulling away from her, and she just got herself grounded for the rest of the summer.

As I said to start, Ellen is not sapphic. She does have complicated gender feelings–she’s questioning. One of her best friends, Xiumiao, is a lesbian, and she’s been struggling with an unrequited crush on their other best friend, Melissa. Xiumiao decides to distance herself from Melissa to try to get over her, and she is diving into preparing for college. Ellen feels like she’s being left behind, so when Melissa joins a quidditch team and convinces Ellen’s parents to have athletics be an exception to the grounding, Ellen throws herself into it. The team is co-ed, and there are a lot of queer players on the team. I enjoyed seeing Ellen start from scratch at this sport. She’s not athletic, but she’s determined to improve, and she finds joy in this even when she’s having difficulty keeping up.

This is a story that’s a little bit messy, which I loved. It deals with a lot. It’s a very, very loose Cinderella retelling, with quidditch instead of balls. The dynamic between her and her family is complicated and feels realistic. Ellen is also a main character I don’t see very much: she’s a feminist teenager who is passionate about social justice. She is vegan and tries to call out people for casual sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc, even if it’s her friends or family. Usually those characters are dismissed as annoying or a joke, but I (unsurprisingly) felt very sympathetic for Ellen. She doesn’t understand how her parents can dismiss injustice so easily. She’s also mixed race–half Mexican-American and half Irish-American–and constantly feels like she’s an imposter. Her stepmother is from Mexico, but her mother was born in the U.S. and passed away when Ellen was a young child. She doesn’t know how much she can claim as her heritage, and some part of her is envious of her stepmother’s more direct connection to her culture.

This is also a nerdy book, of course. There is a lot of discussion about Harry Potter, including talking about how to address JK Rowling’s transphobia in the fandom. She’s active on Tumblr, saying: “Tumblr is the lawless internet hovel where extreme fan culture meets extreme opinions and extremely pointless junk posts, and I love it to death.” I appreciated this, because I’m still on Tumblr, but I don’t know how realistic it is. Apparently in 2019, less than 1% of American teens use Tumblr. Of course, I’m sure a similar percentage play quidditch, and there’s probably more overlap there.

Although this book doesn’t have a sapphic main character, there are multiple sapphic side characters, including one that is a major subplot. I’m going back and forth on whether naming it is a spoiler, because clearly the book means it to be a surprise, but a) identity is not a spoiler and b) I definitely saw it coming several hundred pages in advance. Suffice to say that there is significant F/F content, though not with the main character. As for Ellen, I appreciated that her romances are also messy and complicated. It shows that you can be attracted to people you don’t necessarily like, and it allows Ellen to explore her feelings and attractions.

I had a great time reading this book. Multiple times, I found myself staying up hours later than I meant to because I couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend this for former or conflicted current Harry Potter fans who denounce JK Rowling’s transphobia or for anyone who is or was a loud-mouthed teenage feminists (I mean that as a sincere compliment).

Meagan Kimberly reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Childhood friends Sahar and Nasreen are desperately in love, but living in Tehran, their love is forbidden. Nasreen wants to lead the life her parents want for her, to marry a good man with a good job who can take care of her, even if it means she has to give up her childhood sweetheart. Sahar can’t lose Nasreen, so she considers transitioning into a man, as that is acceptable in their culture. It’s a novel filled with teen angst, questions of gender and sexuality, coming of age and deciding how to stay true to yourself while holding on to the people you love.

When it comes to the discussions of trans people and transitioning, it’s hard for me to speak clearly to it because that’s not my own experience. But throughout the novel, the discussions explicitly state “transsexual,” which I’m not sure if it’s an outdated term or if it’s specific to Iranian culture on the subject. Because in this culture, trans people are acceptable as it is seen as “fixing” the problem of homosexuality. There’s a lot to unload in that frame of mind altogether because lumping gender and sexual orientation into one doesn’t allow for nuance.

There’s also an interesting division within the LGBTQ+ community. Sahar’s gay cousin, Ali, introduces her to Tehran’s queer community to show her she’s not the only one and there’s nothing wrong with her. But Sahar is resistant to the idea that she is a lesbian. Moreover, there’s another trans character she meets who shows repulsion toward gay people, calling it unnatural.

Farizan creates dynamic, imperfect characters in Sahar and Nasreen. It would be easy to categorize them as overdramatic teen girls and to get easily annoyed with their personalities. At times, Sahar becomes frustrating, even as she acknowledges her flaws and irrationality. But through all that emotion, it’s a delight to see her go through the growing pains and become firm in her identity.

I admit I found Nasreen harder to sympathize with. She’s not a bad person, but she is more selfish and self-centered in comparison to Sahar. However, she’s never condemned for her desire to live comfortably. She’s not the kind of person to fight her role as a woman in her society, and it doesn’t make her weaker or inferior. She simply chooses to survive the best way she knows how.

That doesn’t mean I think she deserves Sahar. Nasreen’s treatment of her best friend is never justified by her desire to survive and live a comfortable life. It’s this complex and messy narrative that makes the novel a compelling read. Nothing’s black and white. Characters aren’t necessarily good or evil. There are no right answers.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Sahar and Nasreen don’t end up together. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Sahar, but it feels like the right choice for the story. However, there’s a spark of hope at the end as the novel wraps up with Sahar meeting a new girl at college.

Mo Springer reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

200 years ago, Cinderella died. Now, all the girls of the kingdom are forced to reenact her fairytale, forced into marrying men who mistreat them and discard of them as they please. But is there any truth in the story the system of cruelty is based on?

Sophia is in love with Erin, who wants to follow the rules to ensure good fortune for her parents and her own future. Sophia is horrified by what she sees at the ball and runs–right into Constance, whose history changes everything Sophia thought she knew. Together the two of them must find a way to end these years of suffering–but will they be able to endure it for their happiness, with each other?

This was a really good book. I love fantasy and this was an interesting world to explore, the author clearly put a lot of thought into the building of it and it shows in the narrative. I liked how this wasn’t too complicated of a system to try and understand; there’s a lot of the world that is similar to our own, which lends itself well to being a story you can relate to you.

The characters felt like they fit this world and were created by its structures and cruelty. Sophia was a great protagonist, leaping off the page from the beginning. As a reader, I was able to engage with her very well, and I was invested in her story. Her romance with Constance was also fun, there was some really good tension there, as well as with Erin. The side characters felt real and helped build the story, especially the villain and their motivations.

The plot was fast paced, and there was never a part I felt bored. I liked how character-driven the story was and the satisfying arcs that followed. The stakes felt real, as the villain was well built and established.

There were some parts that felt a bit too quick, and I would have liked some more build up and complexity to those moments in the story. Sometimes it felt like the author had a lot of scenes in mind and then patched them together after writing them up. That’s not to say those scenes were badly written or took away from the story, but overall, it felt like connection between them could have been stronger.

Having said, this was still a fully enjoyable novel and I recommend it to anyone interested in fairy tales and fantasy.

Casey A reviews The Prom by Saundra Mitchell

The Prom by Saundra Mitchell

In October 2018, The Prom premiered on Broadway. It was a musical inspired by real events with a great deal of glitter thrown on top, and I was one of the people lucky enough to see the original cast on Broadway, because a good friend surprised me with tickets on my trip. The musical was fantastic, but sadly had a much shorter run than deserved, but it’s a book now, and we can all bask in its glory. The book is adapted from stage by Saundra Mitchell. Obviously the stage show has coloured my reading of the book, much like when you watch a film adaptation and you know all the bits they missed out. So I’m going to keep the comparisons vague to avoid spoilers, but I will still reference the show in my reading.

The story is set in Edgewater, Indiana, where our narrator Emma Nolan, informs us that it is a bad idea to be gay. Heads up, homophobia is a very presiding theme in this story, so if you are looking for a cute romance with no obstacles or politics, this may not be your read. Emma’s story preceding the book has been a difficult one, all too familiar to a lot of queer readers, but sadly a story that still must be told. The second narrator is Alyssa Greene, love interest, student body president, and perfect daughter to the overbearing leader of the PTA. The tension in the story all revolves around the fact that out and proud(ish) Emma would dearly like to go to prom with her closeted girlfriend. The PTA gets in the way, Broadway actors find out about the scandal and try to help. All hell breaks loose.

I’m torn over the structure of the book. On the one hand, I really enjoy swapping between Alyssa and Emma’s narratives, and this structure actually gives Alyssa a lot more agency and power than she has in the show. However, there are glimpses of scenes which exist on stage that they had to cut due to a lack of POV character, and are mentioned as asides, which make little sense. It’s a bit like only watching half of a crossover episode and wondering what you missed out on. The Prom is a nice short read, clocking in at just over two-hundred pages, so I think it might have made more sense to either expand to allow more points of view, or simply axe some of those asides altogether and focus on the main plot. The weirdest of these is perhaps that the book opens with reference to a broadway show flopping, and then doesn’t allude to this at all for about fifty pages. It makes a lot more sense by the end, but I personally think that the articles which serve as prologue and epilogue detract a little from the main narrative and are really only there for fans of the show.

The tone of the book is inescapably teenage highschooler. It’s a YA novel adaptation and it knows it. Pop culture references are abound, and if you aren’t up to date on your American High School slang (I am not), you might find yourself rereading a few sentences. But for the most part, I found the pop culture references hilarious and engaging. Emma’s narrative has a sarcastic and witty snap to it which is delightful to read even when things are going wrong. It also spans a decent range from memes, music, and tv, as well as inevitably a large number of broadway shows. This book genuinely made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions, and it’s chock full of genuinely wise quotes about homophobia, acceptance, and life in general.

(This bit is only about differences to the show, so if you aren’t already a fan, be ready for spoilers.) Firstly, there are some great little cast easter eggs in the names of the characters, some very obvious and some quite sneaky. The words of many (if not all) of the musical numbers have also made it into the writing one way or another, with several of them providing a lot of backbone to the plot, and others acting as throwaway lines which maybe don’t quite work. As I’ve already alluded to, the broadway characters don’t get a point of view. Dee Dee and Barry are still in it, but Trent and Angie have been axed entirely (despite the cast of Godspell still being present). Dee Dee really is turned into a caricature of what was already a largely than life character, but Barry somehow manages to retain depth and dignity, despite soaking up most of Trent’s role in the narrative.

Seeing the show and then reading the book definitely changed my reading of the book, and I’m very interested to know what others think who haven’t read it. From an adaptation standpoint, I thought it was a very cute read, with a lot of power, which overall took the narrative from a new angle and made sure we got more of the love interest’s side of the story. I would recommend this book highly to people who have seen or know the show, and and anyone who just wants a nice triumphant story about love against all odds.

Casey A reviews Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

C. B. Lee may have taken the most interesting spin ever on “write what you know” as her protagonist, Jessica Tran, is a first generation Asian American bisexual, just like she is, but the world of her story is certainly not Lee’s lived experience. Jess lives in the North American Collective, a super state formed after WW3, and her Nevada town of Andover is home to two superhero metahumans as well as their dastardly rival villains. Trying to describe this book without it sounding like a mid 1990s cartoon is a little difficult, but that’s because Lee uses comic superhero genre tropes as a backdrop to the narrative’s main concerns. Jess has to deal with several social and societal issues, as well as a little teenage drama thrown into the mix, as she juggles disappointing her parents, figuring out her friends, and a new internship with a mysterious employer.

Lee skirts around the usual race metaphor that people use when dealing with super humans, and instead grabs the subject of race head on, acknowledging the difficulties of the migrant experience. Occasionally Lee pops a word or two of Chinese into the dialogue, which is a welcome reminder that having a non-white character can invite more cultural complexity than simply stating a skin colour. In some ways it was a little disappointing to find that slurs which are currently used were still prevalent in the book’s setting, but I can understand that it is true to the experience that Lee was trying to get across.

Overall this book is great fun. It’s got a whole host of queer characters across the LGBTQ spectrum, and I found it was really good at moving focus between friends, family, and the wider world something which other YA books often struggle with. Despite a couple of heavy handed moments, Lee is great at introducing character’s queerness, including the subtle hints at one of the characters being trans before it’s explicitly mentioned.

When it comes to setting this story in the future, I don’t feel it was totally necessary. In many ways, it feels like Lee chose the future because old superhero comics would often set things in the future, or simply because authors often use time as a distancing tool. It could easily be an alternative version of now, rather than over a century from where we are, and I sometimes felt I was reading two different books, one a future sci fi and another a deeply felt modern high school drama. This feeling did ebb somewhat as the plot came together and certain discordant aspects fell into place. If you’re looking for speculative sci-fi you won’t find it here, but I think Lee does effectively use the setting she has created.

The pacing was good, and even with my misgivings about the setting, I found the plot and characters very engaging. I’m glad it’s part of a series, as a large amount of the narrative was a set up to something much larger, and I would certainly recommend this to readers who want something which isn’t too challenging on its own, but might lead to something more.

Casey is a non-binary bookseller and writer, a sometime poet and an all-the-time queer. Their favourite genre is usually sci-fi / fantasy, but they can be found reading kids books and angsty YA whenever the mood strikes. Most of their reads are for audiobooks because they have ADHD and printed text is not their friend. They recently attempted to start a bookstagram which you can find here @know.thy.shelf

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Shannon reviews I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

If you’re looking for something to make you smile just as much as it makes you think, Lyla Lee’s debut I’ll Be the One is the perfect book for you. It’s categorized as young adult romance, but don’t let that put you off. I’m in my forties and I loved every second I spent with these characters.

Skye Shin has grown up knowing she wants to be a K-Pop star. She’s devoted every spare moment to practicing both her singing and dancing, and even though those around her haven’t always been as supportive of her dreams as she might like, she’s determined not to let this get her down. Sure, she’s a self-professed fat girl whose mother is constantly telling her to lose weight before taking the world by storm, painful to be sure, but if her deep love for K-Pop has taught her anything over the years, it’s that she has to believe in herself one-hundred percent, even if she’s the only one who does.

When You’re My Shining Star, a talent competition focused on K-Pop, holds auditions in her area, Skye knows she has to try out. So, she skips school and shows up for what she hopes will be her chance to totally wow the judges. Unfortunately, while her performance is one of the best she’s ever given, some of the judges aren’t eager to take a chance on Skye. Suddenly, in front of tons of other would-be contestants as well as a camera crew, Skye is forced to defend not only her lifelong dream, but the right for anyone who isn’t extremely thin to create art.

What follows is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a reality TV show, but a deep and often heart-wrenching look into one young woman’s journey toward self-acceptance. Skye is a remarkable heroine, more self-assured than I could have even dreamed of being at her age, smart, resourceful, and unwilling to back down. She knows what she wants, and even when things get rough, she plows ahead, sometimes making mistakes, but always seeking the best, most fulfilling way to be who she’s meant to be, and lest she seem too good to be true, let me assure you that she’s not always sure of her identity. She considers herself bisexual, but because of her contentious relationship with her mother, she’s afraid to come out to anyone but her closest friends, and yet, her unwillingness to come out makes her feel hypocritical at times.

As the competition heats up, Skye throws herself wholeheartedly into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and performances. Plus, she’s still in school and letting her grades fall is not an option. Needless to say, she’s busier than she’s ever been, but things aren’t all work and no play for her and her fellow contestants. Fast friendships are formed, and Skye even gets a shot at first love, even if that love comes from a direction she never anticipated.

If you’re sensitive to fat-phobic commentary, I’ll Be the One might prove difficult for you to read. Skye is bombarded with anti-fat rhetoric from her mother, from the judges, and from several of the other contestants, so proceed with caution if you decide to pick this book up.

Nothing I can say can adequately convey my love for I’ll Be the One. It’s the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teenager struggling to fit into a world that didn’t always feel welcoming. Lee has created the perfect combination of lighthearted fun and introspective wisdom, making this a great book for readers both young and old.

Trigger Warning: Fat-phobia

Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]