[Tyler Johnson Was Here] Jay Coles

Tyler Johnson Was Here is the second book I’ve read this year that throws light on the experiences of members of the black community in the United States. It focuses on twins Marvin and Tyler Johnson, who are slowly drifting apart as they prepare for college. Marvin wants to be close to his brother again, but there are some things that Tyler isn’t telling him. In an attempt to keep an eye on his brother, he follows him to a party where there’s a shooting. When Tyler doesn’t come home, it’s up to Marvin to cover for his brother. As the hours pile up, Marvin finally reveals the thing that scares him the most: he doesn’t know where Tyler is. When his brother is found dead and a video showing his death surfaces, Tyler is suddenly a hashtag trending on the internet. In his search for justice, Marvin wants to show the world that Tyler was so much more.

This is another hard book to review. I think that the book was successful in telling a story that shows what it means to be black in the United States (and elsewhere in the world, but this is specifically set in the U.S.) and how Marvin Johnson’s whole life––his whole survival––is based around the idea that he has to act a certain way in order to not be killed. This is something that I’ve never had to experience. I have a lot of privilege that allows me to move through life without thinking about daily survival. While I had other lessons on “how to behave,” I didn’t have the lessons that Marvin and Tyler were taught. Books like Tyler Johnson Was Here are part of my lesson in learning how my life is drastically different than others around me. Like The Hate U Give and Long Way DownTyler Johnson Was Here struck me in the heart and made me incredibly angry about the systemic racism that has permeated all aspects of the society of the United States.

It’s impossible to read this book without feeling emotional, and I went through a lot of anger and sadness as I read the story. While this is a fictional story, Coles did a good job of weaving fiction with reality. That’s what makes books like Tyler Johnson Was Here difficult to read.  You can’t just read it as a work of fiction. It can’t be thought of as only a work of fiction when the book illustrates the reality of black men and women being harmed and killed by the police. There’s a reality that is unavoidable when you read books like this, and I don’t recommend that you try avoiding it. It’s something that needs to be read. It’s something that needs to be understood by those who have never had to experience it. It’s so important, and I’m so glad that books like this are being talked about.

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[Lose Me.] M.C. Frank

When a book starts with Today is not the day I die, you know you’re in for a roller coaster of emotions. Lose Me. is a lovingly written story about the complications life throws at you, first loves, and moving forward with your dreams. Ari is a stuntwoman with her first job coming up: a movie loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She’ll be doing most of the stunts for the female lead, a prospect she’s equally nervous and excited about. She knows that she’ll be able to do her job, despite a problem she recently discovered; a problem she keeps pushing to the back of her mind.Frank quickly sets the tone of the novel, with tight and twisting streets and clear blue waters. Both the setting and the characters are richly described, making it difficult for the reader to not enjoy the book.  Ari is spunky and takes no slack from anyone, particularly Wes, the rude lead that believes he’s better than most everything on her island. I loved that her job was performing stunts. I’ve never read a character with a job quite like hers. These two characters are the primary focus of Lose Me., though there’s plenty of secondary characters that are just as vivid. I loved all of the characters in this novel. The characters that Frank created are very real. I had a clear picture of their personalities and desires, even their fears. I loved following their story.

The romance in this story closely mirrored the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. There were moments of beauty and moments of misunderstanding. I really enjoyed that they were filming a Pride and Prejudice movie and that their romance always paralleled it. I love when books are homages to other books that I enjoy, and Austen is an author that I love seeing referenced. I think that Frank did a wonderful job of connecting both modern day and classical novel.  Continue reading

[Sky in the Deep] Adrienne Young

It was what we’d been taught our entire lives––vegr yfir fjor––honor above life. 

Sky in the Deep is a Viking inspired story with battles, betrayal, and the realization that your enemy isn’t as different from you as you thought. I really loved this one! I read it in the bulk of one day and then immediately wished I hadn’t because it was over.

Sky in the Deep takes starting in the action very literally. We find ourselves in the middle of a battle with Eelyn and her fighting partner, Mýra, readying themselves to charge at members of the Riki clan. They’re members of the Aska clan, and once every five years, they meet on the battlefield to avenge those of their tribe who fell in the years before. For Eelyn, this is her brother. She fights to avenge his death five years before, pushing down her own guilt about being unable to give him proper rites after the battle. When she meets him on the battlefield and he saves her life, people think that she’s been touched by Sigr, their God. Eelyn isn’t so sure. When she discovers that it wasn’t a spirit sent by her God, Eelyn is thrust into the world of her enemy.

I thought that the beginning of the story was strong because it was right in the action, but it also meant that I felt a little blindsided as a reader. I didn’t know much about the world, just that they were fighting. Initially it did put me off a bit because of how frantic it felt. Young dials it back by having Eelyn captured, which helped immensely. There’s still the feeling of being in the action, but it’s bubbling underneath the surface instead of being right there. I loved that. Young used this time to show the different cultures that are in the book, and I was able to get a clearer picture of the world. I love world building, and this novel was full of everything I like seeing when authors build new worlds: different cultures and ways of life; different religions and celebrations; lush settings. It was great!

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[Starstruck] S.E. Anderson

Starstruck is the first book that I received through The Book Robin Hoods, a group of authors and reviewers started by M.C. Frank. More information on my own involvement may be found here and here.

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Sally’s life is not going according to plans. A college dropout, she’s barely able to hold down a steady job and keep a roommate to help pay the rent. When Sally loses her job, it seems like everything is going from bad to worse––culminating in her hitting someone with her car. But it’s not just any someone. He happens to be an alien. She beyond relieved when there seems to be no lasting damage, and she thinks this weird encounter is the last of it. But when he calls her to bail her out of jail, she realizes that hitting him with her car was only the beginning. Starstruck is a fun and fast-paced read that keeps the reader engaged in the story as Sally tries to figure out where she fits into this larger universe that’s suddenly open to her.

Zander is the other main character in Starstruck, and the main cause of Sally’s woes. Although Zander looks human, he still has a lot to learn about being human. I really enjoyed the chaos that he caused in Sally’s life because of that; I loved reading how she had to teach him how to wear clothes properly and the socially accepted way of bathing. It was entertaining to read. I liked that he didn’t instinctively know what to do.

Was there a handbook that could tell me what to do next? There were thousands of books that taught parenting; I was pretty sure there wasn’t a self-help book about alien roommates. If there was, it was probably about abductees, not subletters.

S.E. Anderson’s writing was great. I felt like the humor was genuine and I enjoyed the mixups that sometimes occurred between Sally and Zander. The words and the story flowed together nicely, giving the reader a fully coherent story that had me curious about the larger world contained but not explained. It looks like the next books in the series will be about this world that S.E. Anderson created. I was glad that the book was focused like this. It made the book more detailed because it focused on one place instead of focusing on it all at once.

I thought that S.E. Anderson created a really good protagonist in Sally. She had a great voice and personality that I enjoyed following. The way that the story was told was also slightly different than what I’m used to; it was a combination of Sally looking back on her past, asides to the reader, and current events in the novel. Sally’s earnestness made the story really enjoyable. She was very grounded in her reality even when the world was becoming more complicated.

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[Shadowsong] S. Jae-Jones

What are monsters but mortals corrupted?*

Strange and queer, the lot of them. Elf-touched, they were called in the old days…The mad, the fearful, the faithful. Those who dwell with one foot in the Underground and another in the world above.*

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We were grotesques in the world above, too different, too odd, too talented, too much. 

S. Jae-Jones is a brilliant writer.

I will admit that I didn’t love the entirety of Wintersong––I loved the first half but thought the second was a little slow––but I always thought that S.Jae-Jones’ writing was beautiful and spectacular. Her writing shone in Shadowsong. The images she creates with her words are utterly beautiful, forming Liesl’s world for the reader in a very poetic way. It’s perfect for the setting of fairy-tales and goblins and music. S.Jae-Jones is someone who can create a world with her words that I just want to immerse myself in. Couple that with the fact that Shadowsong is a fantasy novel with a historical setting and I’m hooked.

Although Shadowsong is fiction, S. Jae-Jones gives her readers an author’s note at the beginning warning that not everything inside of this novel is so easily read as a fiction. Shadowsong deals with the very real subjects of self-harm, addiction, reckless behaviors, and thoughts of suicide. The author is open with her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder and how she gave it to Liesl. There were moments that were difficult to read because of how Liesl was struggling. I could relate to certain thoughts she had regarding creation of art and fear of failure and doubt. I thought it was wonderful that S. Jae-Jones was completely open about this at the beginning of her novel.

I waited for some mood or inspiration to strike me, for the desire to play to overtake me, but there was nothing. Solitude around me and silence within me. I had not dreamed once since we came to the city. The voice inside me––my voice––was gone. No ideas. No drive. No passion. My nights were quiet. Blank. The dullness was seeping into my days.*

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[The Hate U Give] Angie Thomas

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

So many good things have been said about The Hate U Give that I don’t think I can add much more to it. I also am still processing my emotions regarding this book. It definitely–for me at least–requires a second read. I do think that if you didn’t get to this book in 2017, it should definitely be on your list for 2018.

Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug.

The Hate U Give has characters that are fictional, but I couldn’t help feeling the very real elements of it. Starr is a sixteen year old girl who sees the fatal shooting of her childhood friend. As the days pass, the media begins to portray Khalil as a thug, a gangbanger, a drug dealer, merely because he was black. As his death becomes a headline, Starr has to figure out where she stands in it. As the only witness, she wrestles with what she should–or shouldn’t–say. Her struggle as she tries to decide what is best for herself, her family, and for Khalil is wonderfully done. Starr’s voice was both strong and fragile as she began to tell her story of what happened that night.

Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr. It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.

This is an important book to read when we live in a world where unarmed men and women are shot merely for the color of their skin. Where police brutality and officers involved in shootings are not prosecuted. Where people have to protest for the right to live a life free of fear. The Hate U Give draws on these events and the Black Lives Matter movement. This novel could easily be a non-fiction piece. I think that’s what makes it such an intense read. Because as much as there’s moments of humor in it, Starr’s story and Khalil’s death are all two real.

The Hate U Give was a fast read. I thought that Thomas did a good job of blending reality with fiction. Of taking a situation that exists in the real world and injecting it with humor. A tragedy does not mean that you stop living. You keep living in spite of it.

I will definitely keep Angie Thomas on my authors to watch list. I recommend The Hate U Give for everyone, regardless of what you normally read. Pick it up here!

5 stars.

The Hate U Give was published in February 2017.

[Long Way Down] Jason Reynolds

No crying. No snitching. Revenge.

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Another thing about the rules:

They weren’t meant to be broken
They were meant for the broken

to follow. 

These are the rules at the core of Long Way Down, a story about a boy looking to avenge the death of his brother. Written in prose, we follow Will as he takes the elevator down to the lobby the day after his brother was killed. With his mother’s sobs filling his ears, he sees no other alternative than to kill the person who killed Shawn. Or, at least, the person he thinks killed Shawn. He’s certain that he knows the guy. What follows is an exploration of a life and how the people around you shape how you live yours.

When I first started Long Way Down I wasn’t sure if I’d like the prose. Prose has an ability to really speak to you as a reader, but it also has the potential of simplifying a situation. That was not the case with this novel. I thought that Reynolds did a superb job of using the form to introduce the traged(ies) and the characters and their mindsets. I don’t think I could have been given a clearer picture. The words were so full of emotion–not only for this fictional situation, but for the very really lives that live in a world like this. I found myself equally looking forward to how the next visitor in the elevator fit in and dreading the new facet to the tragedy.

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