ARC Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Title: Dear Martin
Author: Nic Stone
Series: N/A
Pages: 224
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 17th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway which does not influence my review*

      “Justyce McAllister is top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. He is eventually released without charges (or an apology), but the incident has Justyce spooked. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood, he can’t seem to escape the scorn of his former peers or the attitude of his prep school classmates. The only exception: Sarah Jane, Justyce’s gorgeous—and white—debate partner he wishes he didn’t have a thing for.
      Struggling to cope with it all, Justyce starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But do Dr. King’s teachings hold up in the modern world? Justyce isn’t so sure.
      Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up. Way up. Much to the fury of the white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. And Justyce and Manny get caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack. The truth of what happened that night—some would kill to know. Justyce is dying to forget.

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Nic Stone’s Dear Martin is an ardent and poignant story that challenges its readers at every turn. Justyce McAllister has a bright future ahead of him. His life isn’t perfect, but at Braselton Preparatory Academy, it feels like he has the opportunity to become anything he wishes. But to the cop that puts him in handcuffs the night he’s trying to do a good deed, Justyce is just another black kid up to no good. The encounter shakes him to his core.  He begins to reevalutae his own views about the world around him and it becomes nearly impossible for him to ignore the racism he witnesses. Taking pen to paper, Justyce begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to cope with the growing tension inside him.

For such a small novel, Stone’s debut packs quite the punch. Using different styles of writing, Stone catapults readers into Justyce’s world. In his letters, he is both honest and earnest, and his anger and confusion are palpable. Justyce opens up about becoming the person he wants to be in a world that takes one look at him and decides it already knows everything about him. A few chapters are written like scenes out of a play where the dialogue takes center stage. Stone employs this method most notably during scenes from Justyce’s Societal Evolution class in order to replicate the fast-paced discussions between students in this debate-like setting. Most of Justyce’s classmates are a frustrating bunch to listen to. They throw out racist comments casually without batting an eyelash. Their view of racism in America is a familiar one in which racism isn’t something that happens anymore. Any time they are called out on it, they default to the “you’re being too sensitive” excuses.  They are unable to accept that they themselves could possibly be racist despite people pointing out their remarks are offensive. It’s important to note that Stone chooses a cop with a Latinx name as the one who racially profiles Justyce at the beginning of the novel. So many discussions revolve around race relations between black and white people, but racism as an idea in the U.S. permeates every population. Anti-blackness is very much an issue in the Latinx community and should come under scrutiny.

One of the major themes of the novel is who controls the narrative, how these ideas are internalized, and the consequences of bias narratives. Stone explores these ideas and pushes readers to challenge their own views. Justyce’s story eventually leads to an even more traumatic event in which someone close to him loses their life. In the days that follow, Justyce’s name is dragged through the mud. The story becomes about how the victims somehow deserved what they got instead of how the perpetrator let their own racial biases control their judgment. Dear Martin is uncomfortable, but necessary. It’s a thought-provoking and relevant novel that asks tough questions and demands the reader sit up and pay attention.

5/5

★★★★★

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ARC Review: The Hollow Girl by Hillary Monahan

Title: The Hollow Girl
Author: Hillary Monahan
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: October 10th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “Five boys attacked her.
      Now they must repay her with their blood and flesh.

      Bethan is the apprentice to a green healer named Drina in a clan of Welsh Romanies. Her life is happy and ordered and modest, as required by Roma custom, except for one thing: Silas, the son of the chieftain, has been secretly harassing her.
      One night, Silas and his friends brutally assault Bethan and a half-Roma friend, Martyn. As empty and hopeless as she feels from the attack, she asks Drina to bring Martyn back from death’s door. “There is always a price for this kind of magic,” Drina warns. The way to save him is gruesome. Bethan must collect grisly pieces to fuel the spell: an ear, some hair, an eye, a nose, and fingers.
      She gives the boys who assaulted her a chance to come forward and apologize. And when they don’t, she knows exactly where to collect her ingredients to save Martyn.”

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Hillary Monahan’s The Hollow Girl is one of the few books that I would strongly suggest reading the synopsis of before diving in. The storyline involves the rape of the protagonist and how this dramatically changes her, as well as following her quest for retribution. Knowing the inevitable assault was coming did not make the beginning of the story any easier to read. There’s a lot of building tension that is both frustrating and representative of what the character is about to go through. The reader knows what’s coming, but is powerless to stop it. So many times we see the rape of a character used to shock audiences or propel another character’s arc forward. In The Hollow Girl, rape isn’t used for shock value and thus the author is able to approach it with sensitivity to the victim by centering Bethan.

Bethan has been raised as the eventual successor to the drabarni in her Romani clan. As drabarni, “Gran” functions as a healer to her people and is well respected within the community. Bethan has spent a considerable amount of time learning herbcraft, but has always been more interested in Gran’s other magical talents. To outsiders, the most that is shared is a cure for common ailments or a charm for dreams, but Bethan knows that Gran has greater power than this. After Bethan is raped, Gran offers her the opportunity to learn the craft in order to save the life of her new friend Martyn by taking something from the individuals responsible. Bethan learns that this kind of magic is costly. It not only demands sacrifice from these violators, but also demands her to do things she never thought herself capable of.

Bethan’s strongest relationship is with Gran. Though the older woman is harsh at times, she looks out for Bethan in her own way. Gran is a character who I won’t soon forget. She’s fierce, strong, and with a few words can induce fear in others. Bethan slowly begins to understand what it truly means to be drabarni by following Gran’s lead and in so doing gains a more complete understanding of her mentor. Bethan has always believed she will follow in Gran’s footsteps, but the accumulation of her experiences, has her calling this belief into question. I’m a big fan of fictional witches, but am mostly drawn to darker depictions. I loved the details in this one when it came to the witchcraft. It was messy and gruesome, but by making it so the author is able to show that these facts take a toll on the wielder of magic.

The Hollow Girl is not an easy read. It can be an emotionally exhausting experience. It is however an important story about a girl who endures a horrific trauma, but who takes back control of her life.

4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Title: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: October 10th 2017

      “An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.
      Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?
      Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

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Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns delights with its dark imagery and compelling protagonist. Raised under the watchful eye of her stringent aunt, Xifeng has been raised to believe she is destined for more than her humble roots. Fate has foretold that one day she will become the Empress of Feng Lu and Xifeng will do whatever it takes to make this come true. When an opportunity to go to the Imperial City presents itself, Xifeng takes hold of it. But her lofty ambitions may cost her the only bright spot she’s had in her life. Inside the Imperial Palace, Xifeng discovers that she isn’t the only one who seeks to be Empress. She finds herself in the midst of a power struggle and the new target of one who will also do anything to take her place next to the Emperor of Feng Lu.

Xifeng is one of the most complex and interesting protagonists I’ve come across. Her beauty has set her apart since her birth. She’s used to being flattered, being on the receiving end of lingering looks, but also being resented by those who can only dream of being so beautiful. Her aunt Guma has fed into her vanity, teaching her that her beauty can be used as a weapon to get what she wants. Her lessons have taught Xifeng to tie her self-worth to her beauty and throughout the novel, we see the lengths she will go to to keep it. At the beginning of the novel, Xigeng is equally eager yet afraid to embrace her destiny. There is a darkness inside her that she has kept hidden, but with each passing day, the evil inside her grows stronger, calling her to take what rightfully belongs to her.

For years, Xifeng’s only refuge in the world was her childhood sweetheart Wei. She has sought to forget about her aunt’s prediction in his arms, but can’t help but hold herself back from giving him her entire heart. Wei wasn’t a character that I felt particularly strongly about. He often puts Xifeng on a pedestal and she grows frustrated with him for not seeing her for who she really is. Any darkness he sees in her is because of her aunt and not a part of Xifeng herself. I actually found myself leaning toward another love interest for Xifeng. I won’t say who it is for spoiler’s sake. There’s no promise of a happy ending for Xifeng in this series and there very likely won’t be, but I still found this newer romantic relationship to be entirely captivating.

Aside from Xifeng, the women in the Imperial Palace are the most compelling characters. The current Empress was not seen fit to rule with her kind heart, but she has other strengths that those around her underestimate. I really enjoyed Empress Lihua’s relationship with Xifeng, as the former desires a daughter and the latter a mother. Lady Sun is another player in this political world that Xifeng must outwit if she has any hope of becoming Empress, but the concubine is both ruthless and powerful. Her personal war with Xifeng will push the protagonist to her limits, but Lady Sun has no idea the dark power lurking underneath Xifeng.

Though Forest of a Thousand Lanterns starts off a little slow, it isn’t long before I was wholly absorbed into Dao’s world. Xifeng’s descent and transformation into villainess is a strangely satisfying journey that has me desperate for more.

4/5

★★★★

Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

Title: Tash Hearts Tolstoy
Author: Kathryn Ormsbee
Series: N/A
Pages: 367
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: June 6th 2017

      “After a shout-out from one of the Internet’s superstar vloggers, Natasha “Tash” Zelenka finds herself and her obscure, amateur web series, Unhappy Families, thrust into the limelight: She’s gone viral.
      Her show is a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina—written by Tash’s literary love Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy. Tash is a fan of the forty thousand new subscribers, their gushing tweets, and flashy Tumblr GIFs. Not so much the pressure to deliver the best web series ever.
      And when Unhappy Families is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, Tash’s cyber-flirtation with Thom Causer, a fellow award nominee, suddenly has the potential to become something IRL—if she can figure out how to tell said crush that she’s romantic asexual.
      Tash wants to enjoy her newfound fame, but will she lose her friends in her rise to the top? What would Tolstoy do?

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“I wonder if this is how everyone is destined to live: hopping from familiar space to familiar space, until all the familiar spaces turn into one big blurry memory of nothing in particular.”

Kathryn Ormsbee’s Tash Hearts Tolstoy is the kind of book that quietly sneaks up on you and by the time you’ve finished, you realized you’ve fallen irrevocably in love with its characters. The only thing Tash may love more than Leo Tolstoy is filmmaking. Tash and her best friend Jack have been working on a web series adaptation of Anna Karenina and though they only dreamed of it being a success, nothing prepares the girls for what happens when they get a shout out from a popular vlogger. Overnight, they go from a few hundred subscribers to thousands. Handling Unhappy Families suddenly popularity is much harder than Tash ever expected and if she isn’t careful, it may cost her the most important people in her life.

Tash is like a breath of fresh air. Her voice comes across so clear on the page that it isn’t hard to imagine her as a living, breathing person. Ormsbee has created a character whose greatest strengths tend to work against her. Though driven and imaginative, Tash’s focus can sometimes eclipse the opinions of those around her. Her relationship with her sister Klaudie is a great example of this. Tash is used to being second best. She knows she’s not as smart as her sister and tends to use this difference in intelligence as a way to judge Klaudie. Throughout the course of the novel, Tash and Klaudie’s relationship slowly moves past sibling rivalry. Tash begins to see her sister as an individual with pressures and expectations of her own. She’s struggling just as much as Tash to find out who she is when everyone around her is so sure they know better than herself. This is also the first novel I’ve read with a asexual protagonist and Ormsbee addresses so many aspects of this identity. Tash is still working out how to express who she is while also dealing with feelings of inadequacy and isolation, as well as dealing with erasure and aphobia from those who around her.

The minor characters in Tash Hearts Tolstoy are so well-developed, but also leave room for further exploration. Jack is one of the most moody characters I’ve come across. In many way, she’s the opposite of Tash. More introvert than anything else, Jack isn’t one to let other people know how she feels, but she can also be incredibly abrasive and almost too ready to share her opinion. Her personality adds a lot of balance to Tash’s enthusiastic one. Jack’s brother Paul is also a constant in Tash’s life. More gregarious than his sister, Paul is the one that Tash finds it hard not to be honest around. I personally really liked the dynamic between these three characters. They grew up together, but are still figuring out how to relate to one another as each of them grows into adulthood. Aside from Tash’s family, Jack and Paul make up such a huge part of Tash’s world. Her growth as a person hinges on how she relates to these two just as much as how she relates to her sister or parents.

With a charming protagonist and a heavy focus on family and friendship, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a must-read for the contemporary fan and those who love web series adaptations of classic novels.

5/5

★★★★★

ARC Review: The Victoria in My Head by Janelle Milanes

Title: The Victoria in My Head
Author: Janelle Milanes
Series: N/A
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: September 19th 2017
*I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.
      But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.”

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Janelle Milanes’s debut The Victoria in My Head is a feel-good contemporary with an easy-to-relate-to protagonist. Victoria Cruz doesn’t exactly live her life on the edge. As a scholarship student and the daughter of parents with Harvard aspirations, Victoria’s life is pretty much laid out for her. She’s good at going through the motions, of never taking a chance on anything, even if it’s something she really wants. When she gets the opportunity to audition for a rock band, Victoria isn’t sure she can overcome her stage fright in order to do so. Taking those first steps toward embracing her dreams won’t be the hardest decision she’ll have to make. Victoria will discover that finding her place in the world isn’t easy, and despite all the dissenting voices around her, only she can decide her own future.

The Victoria in My Head is an incredibly readable novel. I nearly finished it in one sitting, not because it went by particularly fast, but because I had to find out what happened next for the protagonist. Victoria is a really insecure character. She doesn’t readily share how she feels with other people and is more prone to imagining what her life could be like than actually taking steps to make these things happen. Her parents are Cuban immigrants who have sacrificed a lot in order to open doors for their daughter. They have grand ambitions that are constantly being reinforced by Victoria’s school and best friend. This added pressure is enough to get anyone to crumble, especially for someone who isn’t sure if her dreams are the same as those around her. Despite how it sometimes felt to Victoria, it’s clear that her parents only want what’s best and it’s their earnestness in wanting to be involved in her life that endeared them to me.

I loved the friendships in this novel. Victoria’s best friend Annie is incredibly driven and iat first it does feel like she isn’t quite hearing Victoria when she talks about what she wants in life, but it doesn’t take long to realize that Annie is an incredibly supportive friend. The budding friendship between Victoria and her new bandmates is also one of the highlights of this novel. They build a kind of family that looks out for one another and it was really nice to see the loyalty they show later on in the novel. I was a little iffy about the romance in this novel, but despite my first impression, I ended up really liking the person Victoria ends up with. It’s a relationship that grows overtime and felt earned because of all the hiccups along the way.

The Victoria in My Head is an important in that it’s a book written for teens still trying to find their own voice, who feel insecure in their own skin, or who grappling with the added pressure of parental expectations.

3/5

★★★

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick

Title: My Life Next Door
Author: Huntley Fitzpatrick
Series: N/A
Pages: 394
Publisher: Dial Books For Young Readers
Release Date: June 14th 2012

      “The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, messy, affectionate. And every day from her rooftop perch, Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs up next to her and changes everything.
      As the two fall fiercely for each other, stumbling through the awkwardness and awesomeness of first love, Jase’s family embraces Samantha – even as she keeps him a secret from her own. Then something unthinkable happens, and the bottom drops out of Samantha’s world. She’s suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?

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“One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time.”

It’s almost entirely impossible to truly enjoy a novel where you find the minor characters more interesting than the protagonist. This is unfortunately what I experienced when I picked up Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door. Samantha Reed is not used to stepping out of her comfort zone and much of her safe little world has been defined by her overly critical mother. The Garretts next door have always represented what her own family is not. When Samantha meets Jase Garrett and he introduces her to his unstructured family, Samantha begins to fall in love with all of them. But both her worlds are about to collide in the most heartbreaking way and Samantha comes to realize she may not be able to keep both families.

I really wanted to feel invested in Samantha’s story, but in the end, I felt very little for this protagonist. Compared to the larger ensemble of characters, Samantha was bland in comparison. Samantha’s older sister Tracy makes only a couple of appearances, but her willingness to challenge her mother’s impossible standards made her immediately more interesting than Samantha. As a state senator, Samantha’s mother is constantly busy. Much of her energy is focused on campaigning for her next term. She’s judgmental in a way that is hard not to cringe at and if there was a reward for worst mother in YA fiction, she’d probably win. Both these characters evoked more emotion from me than the protagonist. Samantha’s best friend Nan is a hard pill to swallow even from the beginning. I never bought into Samantha and her relationship and their entire dynamic made me wish Samantha had even one positive female relationship. She did not.

I appreciated that Samantha’s love interest Jase was such an individual with unique interests. His family is his biggest cheerleader and he in turn is incredibly devoted to them. That being said, there were times where I would have liked to see a more flawed version of the character. Characters who are too perfect can also feel really flat. Surprisingly, I felt the most invested in Nan’s brother Tim. His sister is meant to serve as a foil to him. In the beginning, I could not stand his character. He’s a completely disaster, but with the help of certain characters, he finds his footing. In the end, I found myself most invested in the budding friendship between Jase and Tim. I will say that Fitzpatrick does do a good job of defining three different families simultaneously, but it’s unfortunate that the Reeds were the family I was the least interested in knowing more about.

Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door is almost universally a favorite of YA contemporary fans. While Samantha does show some growth in the end, I never felt invested in her as a character. It also didn’t help that all of the characters in this novel who made mistakes never seemed to actually face any consequences. It made me wonder what the point really was when it came to certain storylines.

2/5

★★