From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

Information

Goodreads: From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?

A crime he says he never committed.

Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.

But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.

Review

Initially, I admit that I was unsure I would like From the Desk of Zoe Washington, despite all the critical acclaim. Zoe came across as whiny and immature, and it was difficult for me to cheer her on as she lied to her parents and ignored her best friend. This was compounded by the fact that I was listening to the audiobook, and the narrator seemed to be pitching her voice a little younger than I think someone Zoe’s age would sound. However, as the story progressed, I found myself interested in Zoe’s quest to uncover the truth around her father, and deeply invested in her last-minute attempt to evade her parents and interview a potential alibi witness. The book may not start strong, but it certainly ends in a powerful way.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is one of those books with an important theme that it can feel awkward to critique. That is, because the book deals with the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, and because it deals with the potential for the judicial system to sentence innocent people to prison, suggesting the desire for things like a more even plotline or stronger characterization may seem, to some, beside the point. Nevertheless, even books that address serious issues should tell an effective story, or they may lose their readers. From the Desk of Zoe Washington almost lost me due to its annoying protagonist.

While I acknowledge that children in books will, of course, come across as young and immature at times because they are children, something about Zoe really grated on me. The book starts with her keeping secrets from her parents; refusing to talk to her best friend for an unspecified reason that she will not reveal to said friend, never mind the readers; and complaining that the professionals at the bakery where she has an “internship” will not let her do their jobs because, even though she’s a child, she’s most definitely just as good as they are. Each of these aspects bothered me for different reasons–Zoe’s constant lies with the aid of her grandmother required a bit of suspension of disbelief, I really hate books where suspense is created by artificially withholding important information from the reader, and I just did not sympathize with a twelve-year-old moping about because her internship does not include her baking complicated cupcakes on her first day. (Also, are twelve-year-olds even legally allowed to hold internships?) Cumulatively, all of these aspects had me considering DNFing the book.

Once the book reaches the midpoint, however, things pick up. Zoe forgives her best friend just in time for him to agree to go on a secret trip to interview an alibi witness that her father’s lawyer ignored during the trial. This subplot, while not really a good idea, adds drama to the story, and managed to keep my interest more than Zoe’s desire to be on a kids’ baking show. Her budding relationship with her biological father also strengthens the story. Zoe goes from distrusting him to wanting to believe in his innocence. Seeing the two reconnect nearly brought me to tears.

While From the Desk of Zoe Washington had a rough start (for me, at least), I was ultimately glad that I stuck it out and finished the book. The story ended up being a heartwarming tale of one girl reconnecting with the father she never knew, and teaching the adults around her to give him a second chance. Recommended for fans of middle-grade contemporaries.

3 Stars

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Information

Goodreads: Parachutes
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Speak enters the world of Gossip Girl in this modern immigrant story from New York Times bestselling author Kelly Yang about two girls navigating wealth, power, friendship, and trauma.

They’re called parachutes: teenagers dropped off to live in private homes and study in the US while their wealthy parents remain in Asia. Claire Wang never thought she’d be one of them, until her parents pluck her from her privileged life in Shanghai and enroll her at a high school in California. Suddenly she finds herself living in a stranger’s house, with no one to tell her what to do for the first time in her life. She soon embraces her newfound freedom, especially when the hottest and most eligible parachute, Jay, asks her out.

Dani De La Cruz, Claire’s new host sister, couldn’t be less thrilled that her mom rented out a room to Claire. An academic and debate-team star, Dani is determined to earn her way into Yale, even if it means competing with privileged kids who are buying their way to the top. When her debate coach starts working with her privately, Dani’s game plan veers unexpectedly off course.

Desperately trying to avoid each other under the same roof, Dani and Claire find themselves on a collision course, intertwining in deeper and more complicated ways, as they grapple with life-altering experiences. Award-winning author Kelly Yang weaves together an unforgettable modern immigrant story about love, trauma, family, corruption, and the power of speaking out.

Star Divider

Review

Parachutes is one of those books that you know will break your heart even before you read it. Following two different girls–Dani De La Cruz, star debater, and her new host student Claire Wang, shipped off to the U.S. against her wishes by her wealthy parents–the book explores the effects of sexual assault and harassment, and how wealth and prestige can be leveraged to silence the victims. Reading how two girls experience the shame of being abandoned and disbelieved when they need support the most is difficult, to say the least. But their story still needs to be told, and Kelly Yang does so with sensitivity and insight, once more gifting readers a book that encourages them to do more and be better.

Reviewing such a book can be challenging because the message of the book can overpower everything else happening. However, it is worth noting that Kelly Yang is a talented writer, and that shows through in every aspect of the story. The characters are brilliantly drawn, in ways that make them sympathetic and relatable, even when they make mistakes. And the narrative is tightly woven in a way that builds up drama and suspense. Parachutes is not only a book with an important message; it is a good story, as well.

My main critique with the story is actually one that I have quite frequently: even though the characters take turns telling their stories, their voices are not distinct. If I have to double-check whose chapter I am reading because both characters have the exact same narrative voice, I know that the author has not fully differentiated between the two. In this case, I often only knew who was speaking because of which of their friends they were referring to. It seems unlikely to me that Claire and Dani would both tell their stories in the same way, with the same voice, so I think this aspect could have been improved.

On the whole, however, Parachutes is a wonderfully-told story with a timely message about the need to take sexual assault seriously and to listen to the the stories of the survivors. This book is so painful in part because it reads as so true–organizations and privileged individuals and families do very often leverage their wealth and reputations to silence the people that they have harmed. Too often, protecting someone or something that is deemed more “important” takes precedence over protecting people and getting them justice. Seeing that happen to Dani and Claire is heartbreaking, but it is that emotional reaction from readers that I think Yang is hoping to use to inspire her readers to action.

4 stars

Love and Olives by Jenna Evans Welch

Love and Olives

Information

Goodreads: Love and Olives
Series: Love and Gelato #3
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Olive’s father left when she was eight–left to chase the lost city of Atlantis. Now, after years of no contact, he wants her to visit him on the Greek island of Santorini. Olive has zero interest in reconnecting with the man who let her down, but her mother wants her to do. Now, Olive has to decide if her relationship with her dad is worth saving.

Star Divider

Review

Love and Olives by Jenna Evans Welch brings the island of Santorini alive as the protagonist, Olive, attempts to reconnect with the father who left her as a child. Like the previous installments, this one focuses more on familial love than on romantic love, though Olive does meet a handsome boy named Theo, who might be everything her current boyfriend is not. Fans of the previous books will no doubt enjoy this one, as well, though, at 500 pages, it is unusually long for a contemporary romance, and can sometimes feel repetitive.

The highlight of this series for me has always been the travel aspect and Love and Olives does not disappoint. Olive explores Santorini and the nearby islands extensively as she helps her father film a documentary about searching for Atlantis. Plenty of information about the lost city is provided, and it is interesting, but I have to admit that I preferred exploring the known, visible islands more than I cared about theories as to why Santorini might be the location of Atlantis. Olive gets to stay in a magical bookstore with a hidden bunk, visit several beaches, go on a sunset cruise, and, of course, experience the local cuisine. I felt like I got to go on a mini vacation with Olive!

Olive as a character regrettably borders on the annoying. She is drawn with sensitivity and depth, shown to be still processing the fact that her father left her and her mother when she was eight–and she has only heard from him recently, when he wants her to do something for him. However, the passages where Olive feels sad for herself and wants to push everyone away come a bit too frequently–I do not know that she needs to think about her sad past every five pages, just so we understand that she is scarred. Also, she has a weird obsession with making sure no one knows her dad is an Atlantis hunter because it is too “weird” and “embarrassing.” This does not really make sense in a world where mainstream media regularly highlights mysteries such as Bigfoot, ghosts, and aliens. A historian interested in uncovering the location of Atlantis is not as bizarre as Olive thinks, and I really had no patience with all the lies she told to try to cover it up.

Aside from Olive’s constant need to feel sorry for herself, however, the book is pleasant. It feels like a love letter to Santorini, with the author wanting readers to understand all its beauty and wonder. I had fun exploring with Olive, and I hope that one day we can have more travel stories from Jenna Evans Welch.

3 Stars

Take Me Home Tonight by Morgan Matson

Take Me Home Tonight

Information

Goodreads: Take Me Home Tonight
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: May 4, 2021

Official Summary

Two girls. One night. Zero phones.

Kat and Stevie—best friends, theater kids, polar opposites—have snuck away from the suburbs to spend a night in New York City. They have it all planned out. They’ll see a play, eat at the city’s hottest restaurant, and have the best. Night. Ever. What could go wrong?

Well. Kind of a lot?

They’re barely off the train before they’re dealing with destroyed phones, family drama, and unexpected Pomeranians. Over the next few hours, they’ll have to grapple with old flames, terrible theater, and unhelpful cab drivers. But there are also cute boys to kiss, parties to crash, dry cleaning to deliver (don’t ask), and the world’s best museum to explore.

Over the course of a wild night in the city that never sleeps, both Kat and Stevie will get a wake-up call about their friendship, their choices…and finally discover what they really want for their future.

That is, assuming they can make it to Grand Central before the clock strikes midnight.

Review

I’ve loved all of Morgan Matson’s novels since I read Save the Date and then went on to read most of her backlist, so of course I was thrilled to see she released a new book this year: this one set mostly in NYC, though the characters are still from Matson’s fictional town of Stanwich, CT. I was pleased to find another quick and fun read that features sharply drawn characters with both good features and flaws who need to navigate their relationships with each other and with themselves while, incidentally, having the time of their lives.

While most of Matson’s work blends realism with a bit of fantasy/daydream, in the sense that her characters tend to be privileged rich kids who have wild things happen to them that would be unlikely in real life, Take Me Home Tonight leans into that fantasy a bit more than her past books. The fact that the entire story takes place in only one night and there are three characters who have unexpected adventures means that A LOT happens, and of course most of it is quite absurd, ranging from runaway dogs to invitations to glamorous parties. Personally, I prefer Matson’s stories that are a bit more grounded, but going all in on the crazy adventures and ridiculous happenstances for just one novel was pretty fun. The characters certainly seem to accomplish more in one night in NYC than I ever have in one day!

Behind the adventures, there’s the framework that Kat and Stevie are best friends, and they are both in the Stanwich High theatre program, which apparently is incredibly intense and requires that you spend every day at practice and audition to be involved with every show; if you don’t, you’re cut. So the story delves into both characters’ relationship with acting and the intensive of the program, as well as into their friendship with each other and their relationships with their families. So even while the plot is going wild and bizarre thing after thing is happening to them, readers get to know Kat and Stevie, what their hopes and dreams are, what makes them tick, what makes them friends, what makes them annoyed with each other even though they are friends. And, of course, in many ways these are the truly magical parts of the book.

There’s also a completely separate narrative about what happens to their other friend Teri, who is back in CT. (Which explains the inside of the book jacket for the hardcover, which is basically designed like the jacket for a completely different novel and was very confusing to me before I figured out there was a narrative about Teri.) I have to admit I think this one jumps off the deep end a bit, though. It was entertaining, and while of course everything in the book is over-the-top this is just . . . more so. I don’t hate it, but I think the novel could have done without it.

In general, however, this is a great book. If you like Matson’s books, it’s a no brainer to pick this one up, as well. If you haven’t read any of her books yet but like contemporary novels with fast-paced plots, complex characters, great girl friendships, and family relationships, check this out.

Briana
4 stars

Recommended for You by Laura Silverman

Recommended for You

Information

Goodreads: Recommended for You
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2020

Official Summary

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets You’ve Got Mail in this charming and hilarious rom-com following two teen booksellers whose rivalry is taken to the next level as they compete for the top bookseller bonus.

Shoshanna Greenberg loves working at Once Upon, her favorite local bookstore. And with her moms fighting at home and her beloved car teetering on the brink of death, the store has become a welcome escape.

When her boss announces a holiday bonus to the person who sells the most books, Shoshanna sees an opportunity to at least fix her car, if none of her other problems. The only person standing in her way? New hire Jake Kaplan.

Jake is an affront to everything Shoshanna stands for. He doesn’t even read! But somehow his sales start to rival hers. Jake may be cute (really cute), and he may be an eligible Jewish single (hard to find south of Atlanta), but he’s also the enemy, and Shoshanna is ready to take him down.

But as the competition intensifies, Jake and Shoshanna grow closer and realize they might be more on the same page than either expects…

Star Divider

Review

Recommended for You is a cute rom-com perfectly calculated to appeal to book lovers. While the standard rom-com plotline can often feel stale–girl meets boy, does not like boy, then discovers boy is not as bad as she thought–it seems clear that this book is trying to freshen things up by dropping as many bookish allusions as possible. Readers presumably are going to pick up the book because they like books about books. This strategy works somewhat. Ultimately, however, Recommended for You really does feel like just another rom-com, with no real reason for readers to choose it over another similar title.

Many readers, unsurprisingly, do enjoy reading books about books or, in this case, books about bookstores. Recommended for You takes that knowledge and does its darnedest to keep such readers happy. References to popular YA titles such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are made. Jokes about customers who browse indie bookstores only to buy the book off Amazon–while still in the store–are made. References to the nightmare that is working in customer service are made. In other words, the book checks off all the boxes to make book lovers and bookstore workers think, “So relatable!” None of it feels very organic, but people who get the joke might not mind.

Aside from the bookish allusions, the main thing that really stands out this book is Shoshanna’s character. She is, quite frankly, the type of protagonist many readers might not like, not because she is immature or rude or unthinking (all of which are true), but because she can be actively mean. She is the type of person who uses the bookstore intercom to shame a person for not reading. And who makes snide comments about her coworkers’ attire, then gets upset why they do not get the “joke.” There are things about Shoshanna that I can overlook because she is a teen, and, yes, teens do silly and rude things without thinking. But mocking people on the intercom is not something the average person does without realizing how awful that is.

The fact that Shoshanna and Jake are both really nasty, however, makes it difficult to buy into their romance. Shoshanna eventually learns to stop meddling in other people’s business and trying to “fix” their lives, but that is a separate lesson from her mean attitude, which the book never addresses. Jake, meanwhile, apologizes for being completely nasty to Shoshanna when they first met, but just glosses over it by implying he really needs the money and he just could not be expected to be polite to his new coworkers as a result. At some point, they fall in love despite their attitudes, but the book does not clearly indicate how or why this happens. The book is a rom-com, so why not, I guess.

On the whole, Recommended for You is a pretty forgettable read. It hits all the normal notes for a rom-com, but relies too heavily on the premise of being set in a bookstore to try to distinguish itself meaningfully in other ways. I finished the book because it is short, but I never felt invested in it.

3 Stars

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd, Michelle Mee Nutter (Illustrations)

Allergic

Information

Goodreads: Allergic
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 2021

Official Summary

A coming-of-age middle-grade graphic novel featuring a girl with severe allergies who just wants to find the perfect pet!

At home, Maggie is the odd one out. Her parents are preoccupied with getting ready for a new baby, and her younger brothers are twins and always in their own world. Maggie loves animals and thinks a new puppy to call her own is the answer, but when she goes to select one on her birthday, she breaks out in hives and rashes. She’s severely allergic to anything with fur!

Can Maggie outsmart her allergies and find the perfect pet? With illustrations by Michelle Mee Nutter, Megan Wagner Lloyd uses inspiration from her own experiences with allergies to tell a heartfelt story of family, friendship, and finding a place to belong.

Star Divider

Review

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd is a fairly standard coming-of-age story with a small twist: when protagonist Maggie seeks to find comfort and understanding in a new pet, she finds instead that she is allergic to anything with fur or feathers! Readers of middle-grade graphic novels will recognize the basic plot structure and the themes of finding one’s place in one’s family, but they will likely appreciate the humor and the cuteness nonetheless. Allergic may not be a standout book, but it will appeal to the crowd who loves books such as Smile, the Babysitters Club, and Roller Girl.

Writing a review for a book that is generally good but also unremarkable always proves difficult. Allergic possesses all the elements that should please readers of this type of story: a winning and sympathetic lead, a dash of humor, some friendship drama to liven things up, and some cute animals to melt some hearts. Even so, the book does not really distinguish itself from the many similar offerings on the market. I think the target audience will enjoy it for what it is, but rave reviews from adults or awards being bestowed seems more unlikely.

The art style, too, is appealing, but unremarkable. It feels appropriate for the tone of the story, it has that cartoony vibe that will please fans of Raina Telegemeier, and it gets the job done. Perhaps individuals who know more about art could comment more but, as a general reader, I mainly found I did not notice the illustrations at all, either in a good way or a bad way.

Allergic is the type of book likely to be enjoyed by tween readers who enjoy similar fare or who are willing to pick up just about anything, as a long as it is a comic. Adult readers who are more familiar with all the similar books on the market may be harder to impress, though they will likely find it pleasant, as well. In the end, Allergic does not stand out from its competitors, but it is a nice enough way to spend a few hours.

3 Stars

Speak for Yourself by Lana Wood Johnson (ARC Review)

Speak for Yourself book cover

Information

Goodreads: Speak for Yourself
Series: None
Source: Giveaway
Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Official Summary

Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy.
Girl gets friend to help win boy.
Friend ends up with crush on boy…

Skylar’s got ambitious #goals. And if she wants them to come true, she has to get to work now. (At least she thinks so…) Step one in her epic plan is showing everyone that her latest app is brilliant. To do that, she’s going to use it win State at the Scholastic Exposition, the nerdiest academic competition around.

First, she’ll need a team, and Skylar’s not always so good with people. But she’ll do whatever it takes to put one together … even if it means playing Cupid for her teammates Joey and Zane, at Joey’s request. When things get off to an awkward start for them, Skylar finds herself stepping in to help Joey. Anything to keep her on the team. Only, Skylar seems to be making everything more complicated. Especially when she realizes she might be falling for Zane, which was not a #goal. Can Skylar figure out her feelings, prove her app’s potential to the world, and win State without losing her friends–or is her path to greatness over before it begins?

Star Divider

Review

Speak for Yourself is a gripping novel that combines academic competition, app creation, and a hint of romance to create a story that will have readers cheering on Skylar page after page.

I found the opening of the book slightly confusing, as I didn’t understand the Scholastic Exposition Skylar wants to compete in (and, honestly, still don’t understand the point of a quiz part that relies solely on participants memorizing information given to them by the competition organizers), and I wasn’t sure what Skylar was talking about in reference to her app development all the time. Additionally, there wasn’t a lot of exposition about some of the characters; I felt thrown into the narrative rather than as if the author were introducing people to me so I could understand them and their relation to Skylar. After these initial hiccups, however, the story takes off, and everything comes into place, and I couldn’t put the book down– no mean feat, as I don’t often find contemporary novels to be page turners.

Skylar is such a well-rounded protagonist that I felt as if I could know her, or someone like her, even as she accomplishes things in the book that certainly no one at my high school ever did. She has big dreams about going to Stanford, starting her own company, becoming rich young, etc., and it seems likely she’ll be able to do it with her coding expertise (and well-to-do parents), but she’s not perfect. She’s not even academically perfect, as readers get to see from her Scholastic Exposition performance.

And the celebration of different strengths is another lovely part of this book. The Scholastic Exposition requires teams to have members with a GPA above a certain level and members with a lower GPA, and when another character questions this, Skylar spouts a talking point line about smart people not all being academic achievers. And it sounds cheesy and a bit like a throwaway line, except the book shows this is true over and over again. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, whether it’s art, literature, math, public speaking, etc. Really, considering ScholEx is an academic competition, it’s almost surprising there’s no one on the team who seems like the typical well-rounded academic individual who would sign up for that type of extracurricular (for example, someone in line to be valedictorian of the class). It’s really a nice, subtle representation of the fact you don’t need to be good at everything to succeed in life.

I also like the romance aspect of the book. And while I have to say I was personally wary of another book about a romance-related app after reading the mess that was The Boyfriend App, Johnson handles the app and questions of romance vs. creepiness thoughtfully and ultimately writes romances I was really invested in. While the app and Skylar’s goals do seem like the “main” point of the book, perhaps not least because she herself considers them to be the most important things, the romance really shines through, and it made me smile.

Speak for Yourself is such a fun and thoughtful book that I can’t help but look forward to seeing what Johnson will write next.

Briana
5 stars

Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe

Charming as a Verb

Information

Goodreads: Charming as a Verb
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.

There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.

Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .

This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.

Star Divider

Review

Charming as a Verb has been on my radar for awhile and I had high hopes. A rom com where the romance begins with one party being blackmailed by the other? Intriguing. Unfortunately, however, the characterization of the protagonist, Henri Haltiwanger, felt incomplete and even a little confusing. This was enough to make the book only a so-so read. Something that’s okay, but generally unremarkable.

The main issue with Henri is that, according to the title, he is supposed to charming. I, in turn, assumed this meant I would be rooting for him. Henri’s introduction, however, establishes him as a liar, one who actually went through the trouble of creating an entire fake business, with its own fake website, email, and T-shirts, in order to con people in NYC to pay him for walking their dogs. The book presents this as kind of cute, just something he had to do in order to earn some cash, because he attends a fancy prep school with rich kids and he needs money, too, right? But, realistically, this deceit is pretty big and possibly even criminal. It does not immediately establish Henri as likable.

As the story progresses, readers learn that Henri is flaky about his commitments, unclear about his intentions with women, and willing to lie in general in order to get what he wants because he figures the system is rigged against him and it’s only fair. He regularly fails to show up to his debate team practices, even though they are relying on him. He has an undefined relationship with a girl who clearly is into him, but whom he is happy to use as a one-night stand. He complains all the time about how hard it is for him to get into Columbia University, even though he goes to a prestigious prep school with a counselor who has inside contacts and pulls strings for him to get a personal interview with a Columbia graduate. In short, Henri is not at all charming. He’s selfish and self-absorbed, and quite unsympathetic when he complains about Columbia, as if he has no idea that the majority of high school students in the U.S. have a zero chance of getting into an Ivy League school, because they don’t attend a high school with a recognizable name and don’t have connections to the people who influence admissions.

This might all be fine, if one considered that Henri is just supposed to be a morally grey character who makes mistakes and maybe just is a really bad friend and boyfriend. But the book repeatedly assures readers that Henri is, yes, charming. That readers should care about him. That they should root for him. But…why? There are a few vague mentions about his love of fashion and sneakers, and his desire to design them. But the sneaker references appear only sporadically, and it’s actually difficult to remember that they are supposed to be Henri’s passion. So the whole “follow your dream” subplot falls flat and fails to make Henri any more likable.

In the end, when Henri makes another huge mistake (read: another criminal lie), he gets off pretty easy and still manages to have his dreams (because this is YA, after all). And this actually feels like a problem. Normally, I would want the character to have a second chance, but the characterization here has not convinced me that Henri truly has a heart of gold and this was just one lapse of judgment. His entire characterization has shown Henri to be dishonest and unreliable, in pursuit only of what will benefit him. It is difficult to know what to think of a book that tells readers the main character is likable and good-hearted, but shows them that he is not.

There’s also a pretty lackluster romance in the book, which the summary might have readers believing is a main point. However, the characters become a couple pretty quickly, with few of the rom com hijinks one might have expected from a sort of enemies-to-lovers romance. Their chemistry is largely absent, with the book simply telling readers about how in love they are, but never convincingly demonstrating that the two are compatible. The romance eventually becomes sidelined, with Henri mainly concerned about getting into Columbia.

The college application process is one aspect of the book I did enjoy, however. It captures the anxiety around applying for colleges, trying to figure out the right things to say at the interview, wondering when the acceptance or rejection notice will come. It’s maybe not as relatable that almost everyone in the book seems to be aiming for (and getting accepted) at Ivy League schools, but they do attend a fancy prep school so I guess it makes sense.

Would I recommend Charming as a Verb? Probably not. But I would be willing to try some of Philippe’s other books.

3 Stars

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman

Game Changer

Information

Goodreads: Game Changer
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: February 2021

Official Summary

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…

Star Divider

Review

Neal Shusterman’s Game Changer will likely be a divisive book. Shusterman considered some of the challenges facing society, including poverty, racism, sexism, and homophoabia, and wrote a book about how to learn to recognize prejudice and, hopefully, confront it. However, the choice to make the protagonist a privileged white male who literally has to experience the bodies and lives of others (by being transported into a different universe several times over) in order to more fully understand them will undoubtedly annoy and concern some readers. Others will appreciate that Shusterman attempted to tackle important issues and teach teens the importance of empathy and solidarity. For my own part, I believe that the book has good intentions behind it, but fails to feel really meaningful to someone who has experienced some of the prejudice the book depicts.

There are some readers who believe that no book should focus on a protagonist who has to learn to look beyond their initial prejudices, because they should already know better. However, I think Shusterman is trying to do something a little different than the standard plot line depicting a character realizing that prejudice exists or is wrong. Rather, Shusterman is depicting and speaking to a very specific type of person: the kind of person who is already generally aware of prejudice and against it, but who still may have hidden biases or blind spots they do not yet recognize. Ash is not a complete bigot, nor is he unaware that prejudice exists. However, he has hitherto been able to feel comfortable and pretty good about himself just because he is aware of prejudice and is personally against it. This book is about him realizing exactly how it can manifest over and over again on a daily basis, in the little things as well as the big things, and about the toll it can take on a person experiencing it.

Ash’s depiction thus feels a bit more relevant, since the type of reader likely to pick up a book with a clear and obvious message against prejudice likely already feels pretty good about themselves–after all, they are reading a book that is anti-prejudice. Good for them! The book challenges them to go beyond that feeling and to be more conscious about what is happening in the world and their role in either being complicit (even unintentionally) or in fighting back. Shusterman makes a powerful effort here to ask everyone to think more deeply and to be more intentional.

However, the way the book goes about its anti-prejudice message does feel both a bit weird and very heavy-handed. Maybe Ash’s character and experiences will speak more meaningfully to readers more like Ash. However, as a woman reading about Ash, I did find it almost laughable that Ash would spend a few days as a girl and then presume to tell me, a woman, all about sexism. All I could think was, “Yeah, Ash. I know. I’ve been living it my whole life, not two days.” I think Shusterman and Ash both mean well, but it does seem like the book is maybe targeting a very specific readership.

The weird way Shusterman tries to get his message across is only worsened by the authorial decision to have Ash make several long speeches about prejudice, what it is, and why it is wrong. I recognize that adult readers of YA often clamor for writers to make these kinds of points explicit, lest the youth not realize that sexism, racism, and homophobia are wrong and hurtful without someone making a speech about it. But, the thing is, a bunch of lectures from Ash about why prejudice is wrong and what he has learned, like he is writing some some of school essay, do not make a great story. This is the type of thing I can see educators swooning over, but I do wonder if teen readers will appreciate what feels like being talked down to at times.

Game Changer is certainly a book trying to speak to its political moment. As a result, I imagine it will be a bit controversial. However, if a few readers come away with the eyes opened a bit more or with a commitment to fighting prejudice in their own lives and communities, I think the effort on Shusterman’s part will have been worth it.

3 Stars

Across the Pond by Joy McCullough

Across the Pond

Information

Goodreads: Across the Pond
Series: None
Source: ARC received from publisher
Published: March 16, 2020

Official Summary

From the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost comes a heartwarming story about new beginnings, burgeoning friendships, and finding your flock.

Callie can’t wait for her new life to start. After a major friendship breakup in San Diego, moving overseas to Scotland gives her the perfect chance to reinvent herself. On top of that, she’s going to live in a real-life castle!

But as romantic as life in a castle sounds, the reality is a little less comfortable: it’s run-down, freezing, and crawling with critters. Plus, starting off on the wrong foot with the gardener’s granddaughter doesn’t help her nerves about making new friends. So she comes up with the perfect solution: she’ll be homeschooled. Her parents agree, on one condition: she has to participate in a social activity.

Inspired by a journal that she finds hidden in her bedroom, Callie decides to join a birding club. Sure, it sounds unusual, but at least it’s not sports or performing. But when she clashes with the club leader, she risks losing a set of friends all over again. Will she ever be able to find her flock and make this strange new place feel like home?

Star Divider

Review

Across the Pond is a delightful travel novel sure to please readers who enjoy vicariously exploring other countries. Callie and her family move to Scotland when her parents decide to renovate an old castle left to them by a deceased friend. Callie is initially excited to be leaving her old life behind–her friends were mean and she now has some anxiety about attending school and fitting in. But Scotland does not turn out to be quite the new start Callie hoped, and she soon realizes that she will have new problems to confront. Across the Pond is a fairly conventional middle-grade novel about growing up, making friends, and finding one’s place in the community. But the Scottish setting and Callie’s somewhat unusual new hobby–birding–will initially hook readers and then keep them engaged.

The setting will likely be one of the first things to attract readers to Across the Pond, and Joy McCullough makes sure to give Scotland a starring role. Callie wonderfully gets to live in a castle, complete with locked trunks to spark the imagination and old diaries to give her (and readers) a glimpse of growing up in the 1940s. McCullough also spends time describing the small town life (slowing giving way to modernity as the family-owned stores of the past go out of business and chain stores move in) and playing up the comedic differences between American English and the words Callie learns from her new friends. All this gives readers a sense of being able to explore a new place and a new culture with Callie.

Also notable is Callie’s new hobby, twitching (or birding, as most readers would probably call it). The book goes to great lengths to connect birding to Callie’s difficulties with making friends, but, ultimately, comparing people to specific types of birds does not add much to the story. More relevant is that birding gives the homeschooled Callie (homeschooled because she’s afraid to meet the kids at the local school) an opportunity to connect with her peers while learning a new skill she really enjoys. Sexism in birding also receives a lot of attention, with Callie having to deal with a prejudiced birding leader–something she does in part by learning more about the activity and the women and girls who have worked hard to make it more welcoming and equitable. Readers will enjoy getting to learn more about birding, and may even be inspired to try it out for themselves.

Across the Pond is not exactly a standout novel, but it is a solid book, one that will appeal to readers who enjoy books set in different countries or books about unusual hobbies. The sympathetic characters also add a certain charm to the story. Joy McCullough is definitely an author I want to read more of.

3 Stars