Remarkably Ruby by Terri Libenson

Information

GoodreadsRemarkably Ruby
Series: Emmie & Friends #6
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Ruby and Mia used to be best friends, but now Mia seems to find Ruby embarrassing. While Mia is sort of popular and running for student president, Ruby prefers to fade into the background. She’s even hesitant to join poetry club–even though she loves poetry. In this sixth installment of the Emmie & Friends series, the background character known as Baked Bean Girl finally gets to tell her own story.

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Review

I associate Terri Libenson’s Emmie & Friends series with empathetic looks at the middle school experience. The books (each one can be read as a standalone) generally focus on concerns like outgrowing friends and making new ones, finding one’s identity, and navigating one’s place in school and at home. So I was incredibly excited when I learned that the background character formerly known as Baked Bean Girl (because she was always running to the bathroom after having a fiber-filled snack) was finally getting her own book and her own story. I was not disappointed. Remarkably Ruby is a heartfelt story about repairing friendships and finding one’s voice.

As with most of the other books, Remarkably Ruby follows two perspectives. Ruby tells her side of the story–feeling lost now that her best friend Mia refuses to talk to her anymore. And Mia explains how, from her perspective, Ruby is just too embarrassing to have around, especially now that Mia is running for student president. Ruby wants things to go back to the way they were, while Mia just wishes Ruby would leave her alone. The dual narrative allows readers to see how Mia thinks she is right and reasonable, even though her actions clearly hurt Ruby.

Ruby, however, has a lot of growth of her own, making the leap to join the newly formed poetry club, and even volunteering to read some of her work aloud at the talent show. Ruby will feel relatable to many readers as she struggles to feel comfortable at school, especially since she towers over many of her peers and feels a bit awkward in her body. She just wants to find a place where she feels she belongs, and the empowering part of her story is that she does start to take steps to find that place. Ruby’s courage is inspirational, and thinking about it admittedly makes me feel a bit teary-eyed.

As with the other books, Remarkably Ruby ends with a twist that gives new meaning to the stories the readers just read. This one truly shocked me! So even readers who are accustomed to Libenson’s narratives may find this one a welcome surprise.

Remarkably Ruby is another engaging installment in the Emmie & Friends series. As always, I appreciated Libenson’s commitment to depicting all of her characters sympathetically, allowing readers to enter in their experiences and try to understand what they are going through. Middle school is not easy. But Libeson’s books invite readers to understand that everyone has their own unique story, and their own struggles. The books remind readers to be kind, and to not make assumptions about what other people are experiencing. I love that the series is ongoing, as the message to reach out and to choose empathy never grows old.

5 stars

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

Information

GoodreadsSwim Team
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Bree cannot wait to start at her new school, Enith Brigitha, and join the Math Club. But then she learns that the only elective still open is Swimming 101–and Bree can’t swim. With the help of her elderly neighbor Etta, however, Bree takes the plunge and even joins the school swim team. The Mighty Manatees are counting on her and her teammates to bring home the State Championship, and save the pool from being sold for a smoothie shop. But the team is having growing pains, and if they cannot work together outside the pool, they may not be able to work together in the pool.

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Review

Swim Team is the perfect middle grade graphic novel! With an endearing protagonist, relatable middle school experiences, and fun look at the trials and triumphs of competing on the school swim team, this book takes the classic tale of friendship growing pains and makes it feel fresh. I adored meeting Bree and all her friends, and especially loved the relationships both between Bree and her father, and between Bree and her elderly neighbor Etta. This is a story about community and courage–and I definitely want more!

Swim Team hooked me from the start when it opened with Bree and her father moving to a new home in Florida–and showed Bree excited for her first day of school instead of dreading it. Her upbeat, can-do attitude, even with a bit of first day jitters, intrigued me, showing that Johnnie Christmas might be doing something a bit different here. Bree’s winning personality really grounds the story, as readers get to see her struggling with relatable scenarios like the fear of embarrassing herself in front of her classmates, or disappointment when her dad has to work all the time and barely gets to spend time with her anymore. Bree’s story shows that everyone experiences difficulty and disappointment, but, with the help of her friends, her community, and her courage, she can make it through.

So this is a feel-good story from the start, but all the characters just make it better and better. The book shows Bree’s friendship drama with the girls on the swim team–an aspect of most contemporary books set in middle school–but I truly adored Bree’s relationship with her elderly neighbor Etta. Intergenerational friendships are not often shown in books, and it was truly moving to watch Etta agree to mentor and train Bree, so that Bree could have opportunities she was denied. Etta is shown as a full person, with her own interests, friendships struggles, and memories. She’s not just some stereotypical old person that happens to live in Bree’s building, nor is she a convenient plot device to get Bree on the swim team. I love Etta. Maybe Etta should get her own book. Just a thought.

I highly recommend Swim Team! It’s a heartwarming story with a winning protagonist and a relatable storyline. It is sure to charm readers of all ages!

5 stars

A Perfect Mistake by Melanie Conklin (ARC Review)

A Perfect Mistake book cover

Information

Goodreads: A Perfect Mistake
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Publisher for review
Publication Date: July 12, 2022

Official Summary

Max wishes he could go back in time to before he was diagnosed with ADHD, before he grew to be the tallest kid in his class, and before he and his best friends went into the woods in the middle of the night. Max doesn’t remember what happened after he left his friends Will and Joey and the older kids who took them there. He’s not sure if he wants to remember. Knowing isn’t going to make Joey talk to him again, or bring Will out of his coma.
 
When the local authorities run out of leads, Max realizes that without his help, they may never know what really happened to Will. Charged by the idea that he may be the key to uncovering the truth, Max pairs up with classmate and aspiring journalist Sam to investigate what really happened that night. But not everyone in the community wants that night to be remembered.

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Review

A Perfect Mistake is a moving and evocative middle grade mystery about a boy who cannot remember what happened the night he and his friends went to the abandoned roundhouse in the woods — and one of them ended up in the hospital in a coma. Readers will be glued to their seats, both because they want to find out what really happened and because Max is an engaging protagonist it’s hard not to root for.

Max and his family are the stars of the book, and I love that he has two parents active in his life AND an uncle who has come to visit for a while to help while Max adjusts to his new reality of having one best friend in the hospital and the other one apparently avoiding him. Max has enough freedom in the book to explore and sleuth, get in a bit of trouble, and try to figure things out, but he also has a wonderful support network — and he gets to learn that they’re not always perfect either.

Sam, as Max’s new friend, is a bit of miss for me. I like the idea of her; she’s confident, organized, and ambitious. She has strong morals and tries to do what’s right when the consequences of that seem unpleasant. However, she still felt under-developed to me and seemed to function mainly as a catalyst to get Max to look into what happened the night of Will’s accident.

There are also a few places in the book where, as an adult, I would say it seems the adult characters have failed to notice some obvious clues (i.e. they probably should have solved the mystery of what happened to Will a while before the children in the book did), but this is unlikely to occur to or bother the target audience. I also appreciate that this mystery is, in many ways, genuinely mysterious to the reader who will have to keep finding clues with Max and Sam to get a good idea of what is going on, and that it’s ultimately not too dark. Things go wrong, and characters make some callous choices, but it’s nothing too horrific.

Nonetheless, the book feels unique and is highly compelling. I think young readers will connect with it a lot, and I can’t wait to follow more of Conklin’s writing career from here.

Briana
4 stars

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

Information

Goodreads: Queen of the Tiles
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Najwa Bakri left the competitive Scrabble tournament scene one year ago, when her best friend Tina Low died at the Scrabble table. Now, she’s back, attempting work through her grief and her panic attacks at the same venue where Trina died. But then Trina’s Instagram account starts posting again. Could it be that Trina’s death was actually murder?

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Review

Queen of the Tiles lured me in–as I have no doubt it will many a word lover–with the intriguing premise of a mystery set in the world of competitive Scrabble. However, while I enjoyed learning more about Scrabble tournaments, and the people who compete in them, I admit to finding the mystery itself lackluster. The plot is slow to start, the sleuthing sort of haphazard, and the drama almost nonexistent. I never really felt that Najwa or her friends were in danger–there was simply no suspense. Read Queen of the Tiles if you really love Scrabble, but maybe pass if you have high standards for thrillers.

Queen of the Tiles is probably more accurately described as a novel about grief, and not really a thriller. The mystery surrounding Trina Low, previous reigning champion of the Scrabble tournament scene, is more or less a set up for the main character, Najwa, to explore her feelings about a friendship where she constantly took backseat to Trina’s wants and desires. The book is Najwa’s journey to accepting what everyone else already seems to know–Trina was not a nice person. As such, it is admittedly difficult to really care about the mystery, since no one (aside from Najwa) really seems to mourn Trina’s loss (shocking and horrible as that may be). Also, the mystery is simply not that mysterious.

No one really finds Trina’s death suspicious until when, one year later, at the same Scrabble tournament venue where she died, Trina’s Instagram starts posting again. The posts are all scrambled letters, clues to decipher. Only Najwa and Trina’s former boyfriend Mark seem to care about the clues, though. Everyone else is content to feel a bit of unease or brush it off as a really bad prank. Because of this, there is no ambience of mystery, no feeling of suspense that bad things could happen. The plot just slowly meanders on to its, frankly, anticlimactic finale.

Queen of the Tiles has an intriguing premise, but fails to deliver. While I was drawn in by the promise of a high-stakes Scrabble tournament and a thrilling mystery, the drama is fairly low-key. Read this only if you really love Scrabble.

3 Stars

Anne of West Philly by Ivy Noelle Weir, Illustrated by Myisha Haynes

Anne of West Philly

Information

GoodreadsAnne of West Philly
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Siblings Matthew and Marilla decide to foster a teenage girl for the first time–and upbeat Anne Shirley immediately makes a place for herself in their West Philadelphia home. She makes friends with Diana, joins the robotics club, and soon is enrolled in STEM competition with her rival Gilbert. But can West Philly be Anne’s home forever?

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Review

Anne of West Philly reimagines L. M. Montgomery’s beloved children’s book for a contemporary audience.  Set in the present day, the book follows teenage orphan Anne as siblings Marilla and Matthew decide to foster her in their West Philadelphia home.  Anne falls in love with her new life at once, finding beauty all around her, and quickly making friends with Diana and the members of the school’s robotics club.  However, while it is interesting to see what changes were considered necessary for a modern adaptation, Anne of West Philly falls just a little bit flat.  It feels, indeed, like an experiment in adaptation and not quite like a fully fleshed-out story of its own.

Most of the book’s fun admittedly comes from seeing how the authors decided to update the tale for the children of today.  To make Anne relatable, the creators transplant Anne into an American setting where she engages in trendy STEAM activities like building robot obstacle courses and coding wearable technology.  Diana is also now Anne’s crush, for all the readers who have longed for the two to be more than just best friends.  (Sorry, Gilbert.)  Other aspects of the book are softened, so readers never have to feel suspense or worry.  Marilla, for instance, is nervous about fostering a teen, but kindhearted and not overly strict.  Matthew has health problems, but is obviously going to be okay.  Even Rachel Lynde’s claws are covered.  All this seems to be on trend for modern children’s adaptations, where the authors seem hesitant to lean into the darker elements of the original source material.

All of this is interesting, but the book does not exactly possess that special something that has made Anne of Green Gables a beloved book, handed down from mothers to daughters through the generations.  No doubt some of this stems from the book’s reluctance to acknowledge the original’s darker side; it is  harder for a story to have an emotional impact when everyone is kind or just misunderstood, and nothing truly bad ever happens to anyone for long.  But, also, Anne of West Philly does not have that love of place that Anne of Green Gables does.  One never feels that Anne is a part of her home, and that it is a part of her.  Honestly, the book could have been set in just about any city in America–there is not anything that feels uniquely like Philadelphia in this story, nor is there much indication that Anne loves Philadelphia more than anywhere else in the world.

Adapting classics for contemporary audiences is always a fun endeavor.  Often, such adaptations reveal a lot about a certain time period’s concerns, their priorities, and their viewpoints on what is “good” for children to consume.  Anne of West Philly certainly feels like a product of its time, with lessons on kindness, inclusion, and the importance of women in STEM.  This is interesting, but it was not enough for me to fall in love with the characters, the setting, or the story.

3 Stars

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Tokyo Ever After

Information

Goodreads: Tokyo Ever After
Series: Tokyo Ever After #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Izumi Tanaka has never quite fit in her mostly white California town. Then she learns that the father she has never met is actually the Crown Prince of Japan! Excited to discover a part of herself she has never known, Izumi flies off for a few weeks in a country where she hopes she belongs. But, though she never seems to be “American enough” in the U.S., Izumi soon finds that many in Japan do not think she is “Japanese enough.” Navigating two worlds is difficult enough without being in the spotlight as a royal princess! Will Izumi find a place where she belongs? Or will her fairy tale dream come crashing down?

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Review

Tokyo Ever After is a fresh spin on the “girl learns she is a princess” storyline, with Japanese-American teenager Izumi Tanaka discovering that her father is actually the Crown Prince of Japan. Plenty of humor follows as Izumi’s more informal behavior clashes with the expectations of Japan’s royal household. But the story also possesses plenty of depth, as it explores Izumi’s feelings about feeling divided between worlds–seen as not “American enough” in the U.S. but not “Japanese” enough while in Japan. A touch of romance rounds out this moving story about finding one’s identity.

Izumi’s character will quickly win over readers, who may find a bit of themselves not only because she stands in as the most relatable character, thrown into a household of royals, but also because she wants so desperately to find a place where she belongs. Though the story at first plays up Izumi’s faux pas, trying to bring out the humor when an average American is suddenly expected to play the role of an unimpeachable royal–without much, if any training–Izumi soon reveals her depths. She is not the superficial teen who is only mediocre at grades and mostly invested in eating desserts and watching TV that she sometimes seems to want people to believe she is. Izumi has a soul of poetry that comes out in unexpected flashes, as well as a dedication to feminism and social justice. Izumi is smart and fierce and protective–and, as one character says, she leads with her heart. All this makes it even more sad that Izumi seems to feel that no one really accepts her as she is.

The story, of course, is not bleak, however. It is part romance and part self-discovery. Readers will swoon and sigh over the love interest, who always seems to know exactly what to say, and who can give poetic compliments at a moment’s notice. But the real love story is between Izumi and her family, as she meets the cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents she never knew, and as she tries to navigate her relationship with her father. The strength of the relationships she builds will ultimately be what helps her to accept herself and to stand strong in a life where the press seems ever eager to pounce.

Readers looking for a charming contemporary romance with a fairy tale feel will adore Tokyo Ever After. It combines a sweet, forbidden romance along with keen commentary on navigating different cultures and finding one’s place in the world.

4 stars

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Information

GoodreadsInstructions for Dancing
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

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Review

Contemporary romance has never been my genre, and, so, I typically struggle to review it. Light, feel-good entertainment has its place, but the stories that touch me the most are the ones that make me think, that challenge me, that entice me into a reread (or several). Contemporary romance is more like a dessert: good in the moment, but not something that I usually find life changing or memorable. And, so, while I recognize that Instructions for Dancing is a solid book–one that its target audience (romantics) will no doubt enjoy–I personally struggled to power through.

Instructions for Dancing admittedly does try very hard to be deep, and to make readers think. The premise is that eighteen-year-old Evie Thomas no longer believes in love, not after she found out that her dad was cheating on her mom, and now the two are divorced. She gains the power to see couples’ love stories when she sees them kiss. But, instead of celebrating the power of love and focusing on the joy it can bring, Evie can only focus on the heartbreak. All her visions teach Evie simply that love never lasts. Distance, or time, or cheating, or death will end it all. So she gets rid of all her romance novels and tries to resist her attraction to X, a boy she meets at a dance studio where the two enter a ballroom dance competition together. The whole book is trying to get readers to ask themselves if they think love is worth it.

The thing is, though… I did not find this conversation really deep. Love is one of those things that people either “get” or don’t. Having characters spout platitudes about, “It’s not the end; it’s the journey,” or, “The joy makes it worth the heartbreak,” or whatever, really only works if a person already has that mindset. For someone like Evie, who is grieving over the loss of the idea of her father, platitudes do not work. They just feel empty. Evie has to make her own inner journey to find a place where these sorts of platitudes are going to resonate and suddenly seem meaningful.

The story tries to take readers along on this journey, too, but, honestly, in the end I felt a little disgusted by how hard it does try. The book suggests that Evie’s father cheating on his wife was okay because he really loves the new woman and she loves him. And all I could think was, “Yeah, well, look how fast he dropped his old ‘one true love.'” I am not convinced that I should be happy for his new flame–how long until a cheater starts cheating again? I really just felt bad for the woman, and sorry that the story wants me to “live in the moment” and believe that their new romance is worth celebrating. Maybe Evie can start thinking that, but I can’t! (And, honestly, why is this woman’s family celebrating her new man and how perfect he is? I could only assume that she never told her mom that she’d been having an affair with a married man.)

Aside from the book’s musings on love, I found that I did not particularly enjoy the way it is written. First, the book feels a little too meta, with Evie periodically interrupting her narrative to define romance genre terms and tropes, and then apply them to her own story. Secondly, the characterization is a bit sparse; readers only know general identifying traits for each character (like how Evie’s sister dresses, or how her friend Martin is a “nerd,” and her other friend is rich). Finally–the instalove. Though the premise of the book would suggest that there be a lot of focusing on developing the romance and even just some chemistry between Evie and X, there is not. There is just the two not in love and then, suddenly, they are in love! Conveniently!

Last of all, this not really a deal breaker, but the characters did read “old” to me. I think this book would be fine classifed as “New Adult” because of how the characters are written. Evie and her friends like to drink wine on the beach together and drunkenly philosophize. X has dropped out of high school and moved across the country to try to get his band started. Evie is barely depicted in school, so it’s easy to forget she is supposed to be a high school senior–but she does do stuff like go to play pool at…a bar? I think? And Evie apparently only reads adult romance novels (or erotica?), which, while possibly something a teen would do, also seems unusual for a YA book. Generally, these eighteen-year-olds could have been written in their 20s and not much about the story would have changed, if anything.

Instructions for Dancing will likely appeal to readers who generally enjoy contemporary romance. For me, someone who usually does not, however, the read was pretty lackluster. As a result, I found most of my attention drawn to how much I did not agree with the moral of the story, which could possibly be interpreted as, “Love is love and thus to be celebrated! Even when it’s an affair with a married man.” Books glorifying adultery are usually not books I connect with, and it was hard for me to get past that.

3 Stars

Stuntboy, In the Meantime by Jason Reynolds & Raúl the Third (Illustrations)

Stuntboy in the Meantime Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Stuntboy, in the Meantime
Series: Stuntboy #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Portico Reeves has a secret identity. He’s…Stuntboy! He uses his powers to protect the people around him. His best friend Zola from the class bully. His parents from themselves. But Portico is having difficulty processing the fact that his parents are divorcing, and his anxiety is getting worse. Can Stuntboy still save the day when he does not feel his best?

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Review

I am a huge fan of Jason Reynolds, so it hurts a little to say that I do not think Stuntboy, In the Meantime is his best work. The protagonist Portico Reeves comes across as a little too young to be relatable to what seems to be the intended audience. And I am not really sure what the benefit is of having Portico not understand familiar concepts and words. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it just so the narrator can take time out to teach readers the correct pronunciation of words like “anxiety” and define things like “meditation?” Whatever the reason, I found the narration to be grating, though I appreciate the concept of the book and the author’s commitment to writing about real things that affect young readers, from divorce to mental health.

Stuntboy, In the Meantime is apparently marketed towards readers 7-12 (according to the book cover), which is a fairly large range. I think the younger readers might actually appreciate it more. Gen Z and mental health have received a lot of press, and many schools are now trying to teach things like mindfulness and social-emotional learning. So I’m not really sure older readers would be as patient sitting through chapters on how to breathe and meditate, if they’re already getting a lot of that information from other sources. I also think they might be less inclined to find Portico cute when he does things like call his anxiety “the frets” or thinks about his physical responses by referring to his kidneys as “beaner cleaners.” But Portico does not seem to be assigned any particular age, grade, or even school (elementary or middle?) so I suppose readers of varying ages are meant to be able to relate.

Aside from Portico’s strange misunderstandings of basic concepts (like thinking the superintendent of his apartment is a superhero, and apparently maybe actually believing his apartment building is a castle??), the book does have classic Reynolds’ strengths. The characters are vividly drawn, the situations the characters experience are difficult ones readers may also face, and the language flows with a vibrant read-aloud quality. Oh, and this book also is heavily illustrated (though I wouldn’t call it a graphic novel, as I have seen it described), which will be a bonus for readers who like journal-type books like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series.

Stuntboy, In the Meantime is not my favorite Jason Reynolds book and it is not a book I can see myself reading again. I do appreciate the effort that went into it, though, and the concern that the author clearly has for readers who struggle with anxiety and who might need some strategies to help process their emotions.

3 Stars

So, This Is Christmas by Tracy Andreen

So, This Is Christmas Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: So, This Is Christmas
Series: So, This Is #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When Finley Brown secretly updated her hometown’s official website to make the town look more impressive to the students at her fancy new prep school, she never imagined that anyone would book a stay there. But her classmate Arthur does–and he is expecting the perfect Christmas experience from Christmas, Oklahoma. Too bad the parade with the dancing goats and the opportunities to feed reindeer were made up! Now Finley has to provide Arthur and his aunt with the holiday of their dreams, or risk Arthur revealing the deception to their classmates.

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Review

So, This Is Christmas reads pretty much like a Hallmark Christmas film, so I was not surprised to learn at the end that Tracy Andreen actually writes screenplays for Hallmark. From the enemies to lovers trope to the small-town Christmas experience, the elements of a familiar, feelgood story, are all here. Andreen does try to modernize the formula a bit by focusing on the pressures of growing up in a town where everybody knows everybody, as well as by introducing a lesbian romance. But, rest assured. There are very few surprises here. Just cheesy Christmas comfort.

Reviewing So, This Is Christmas actually feels a bit difficult because, really, what you see is what you get. If you like watching Hallmark Christmas movies, you are getting that–just in book form. Yes, the main protagonists are teens instead of adults and, instead of seeing a big city woman learn about the charms of a small town, we see instead someone who grew up in a small town come to appreciate it. But it’s the same. Finley and her crush go on a reindeer sleigh ride, make cookies, attend the holiday parade, and do all the other elements probably on your Hallmark Christmas movie Bingo card–all before breaking up over a misunderstanding, only to reunite once more in time for the annual Christmas party.

What I liked about this book is that readers actually get to see a few romantic relationships in various forms, across generations. So while teenage Finley and her crush Arthur are the main couple undergoing the standard holiday romance, there is also the evolving relationship of Finley’s parents–people in their 30s who might be considering a divorce. And there’s the romance of a lesbian couple, with one partner out to everyone and the other hesitant to make the relationship public. Romance does not happen only one way, despite what the movies say. Romances grow, change, die, and reignite once more. The path to true love never did run smooth.

So, final verdict? If you love a comforting romance where everything is predictable and everyone is happy in the end, this book is for you! It provides the right amount of holiday cheer and romantic hope to keep one’s heart light. It’s the kind of comfort read we all probably need now and then. No thrills. No suspense. Just a bit of Christmas magic.

4 stars

Roxy by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Roxy
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Giveaway – Goodreads
Publication Date: November 9, 2021

Official Summary

The freeway is coming.

It will cut the neighborhood in two. Construction has already started, pushing toward this corridor of condemned houses and cracked concrete with the momentum of the inevitable. Yet there you are, in the fifth house on the left, fighting for your life.

Ramey, I.

The victim of the bet between two manufactured gods: the seductive and lethal Roxy (Oxycontin), who is at the top of her game, and the smart, high-achieving Addison (Adderall), who is tired of being the helpful one, and longs for a more dangerous, less wholesome image. The wager—a contest to see who can bring their mark to “the Party” first—is a race to the bottom of a rave that has raged since the beginning of time. And you are only human, dazzled by the lights and music. Drawn by what the drugs offer—tempted to take that step past helpful to harmful…and the troubled places that lie beyond.

But there are two I. Rameys—Isaac, a soccer player thrown into Roxy’s orbit by a bad fall and a bad doctor and Ivy, his older sister, whose increasing frustration with her untreated ADHD leads her to renew her acquaintance with Addy.

Which one are you?

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Review

Roxy, being an exploration of the opioid crisis, is one of those books where the reviews are going to be dominated by discussion of the message of the book, rather than discussion of the story. Already on Goodreads, before the book’s release, one can see reviews ranging from “It’s against drug abuse, so 5 stars!” to “It doesn’t mirror my experience with drugs, so 1 star!” I thought long and hard about whether the book even is trying to tell a story, or just send teen readers a message, and I ultimately I had to conclude that the story just isn’t quite there. The book is interesting and experimental in some ways, but the plot and characters are completely secondary to the commentary on drugs, which is disappointing.

The choice to personify drugs is interesting. There are the main ones, Roxy and Addison, but Shusterman and Shusterman add references to nearly every drug you can think of and even gives some of them their own “interludes” in the book so you can see them as “people.” On one hand, this is extremely allegorical. And allegory is something today’s readers often make fun of, like, “Ha ha, look as those ridiculous medieval writers personifying Fortitude and Charity.” But maybe it’s cool to readers when the allegorical is about drugs.

Personifying them, however, means the drugs aren’t necessarily represented as all bad because they’re “people” with strengths, weaknesses, flaws, hopes, dreams, doubts. I’m sure that makes sense in terms of representing why people do drugs (they seem appealing for whatever reasons), but I imagine readers wanting a very, very strong “these drugs are bad and you certainly should not do them and become addicted” message might think it’s undermined by making the drugs seem occasionally like kind of nice people who make good points about things.

Now, ostensibly, the main characters of the book aren’t just the drugs; there’s also siblings Isaac and Ivy. Isaac is a smart, well-behaved kid who gets his hands on Roxy after busting his ankle, while Ivy is a party girl with a drug dealing boyfriend who can only get back on track once she starts hanging with Addison again. Part of the “hook” of the story is supposed to be having the readers guess which of the two becomes a complete victim of their drug of choice, but there was never any mystery for me, and I felt no suspense in the book. I also just wasn’t too invested in either of their lives, since it all just seemed like a vehicle to pontificate on drugs.

Some of the most interesting commentary in the book, simply because it’s subtle and not spelled out like everything else, is what on earth’s going on with Isaac and Ivy’s parents, letting both their kids get addicted to drugs. The parents are in a weird space where they’re sort of present in their kids’ lives but seem bad at actually . . . parenting. Like they yell at Ivy for sneaking out and having a terrible sketchy boyfriend, but their “parenting” is just arguing with her and not actually solving anything. There’s possibly some cautionary tale for parents in here.

So, Roxy has an interesting premise. I’m not sure it does what readers will want it to do which is BOTH tell a good story and suggest to teens that while drugs might seem alluring and it’s possible for anyone, not just “bad” kids, to become addicted, they should really avoid drugs. However, the story itself is just really buried under the message, and the fact that the personified drugs don’t really seem that bad means any anti-drug message is not necessarily as strong as it could be.

Briana
3 Stars