Tag Archives: romance

Dreamers Often Lie

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If I had to summarize this novel in a couple of words, it would be intensely trippy. Think Shakespeare and brain damage and hallucinations and then throw in the usual teenage angst and drama, and there you have it.

17-year-old Jaye doesn’t know how she ended up in a hospital bed with a blinding headache, but she’s pretty sure that characters from Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be there with her. So probably best not to tell anyone about that little problem. Her one pleasure in life right now is her work in the school play, so as the star of Midsummer Night’s Dream she has to convince her doctors and her family that she is ok to leave the hospital before she loses her prized role.

But she has personal demons to deal with on top of everything else. A broken family and feelings of loss and abandonment fuel her struggles. Her life becomes intertwined with Shakespeare’s plays and she can’t keep the two of them straight. Especially when Romeo walks into class on her first day back to school. Where does reality begin and fantasy end?

Jaye is a totally unreliable narrator, which has possibly become my favourite kind. I love getting into the head of someone who thinks completely differently than I. I even like that I don’t like her. She is extremely self-centred and immature. Where I do have a problem with her is the lack of growths she displays throughout the story.  Yes, she has a severe head injury, but it seems like it knocked all the sense out of her. She does not develop or change, and she doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes, acknowledging them and then going on and repeating the same ones over and over again.

And although I understand why she wants to keep her hallucinations secret, and she is afraid of losing her role in the school play, that motivation loses it’s believability as the story continues. There is a certain point where you have to let it go. Certainly when you can no longer remember what role you are playing and in which play. At some point, healing has to become a priority. There is always another play.

The secondary characters are widely varied, and I found the real ones less believable than the hallucinated ones. Pierce is a bit of a sociopath, and it is never clear whether he is truthful or not. Does he actually like Jaye, or is it an ego thing? Is he telling her the truth about her dad? He is not a likeable character at all.  Jaye’s mother and sister are a bit one-dimensional, and her mother is not believable, letting her severely head-injured daughter call the shots about leaving the hospital and going to school.

But the way the Shakespearean characters randomly pop up throughout the novel is unexpected and creepy and so well done, keeping the line between fiction and reality blurred. Ophelia is awesome. She appears soaking wet and cold and white and her mind is distant and confused, straight out of the play. Hamlet fluctuates from mad to lucid and back with each appearance, talking to the ever-present skull, while the Bard himself personally questioned Jaye’s actual desire to return to full health.

The plot explores conflict of many kinds, including the dysfunction present in even a “perfect” family, Jaye’s troubled relationship with her father, her difficulty in facing that conflict, being torn between what you want and what you can have, and of course, reality versus fantasy.

And the storyline itself reflects Jaye’s state of mind. There are secrets and twists and confusion, building tension and leading to an… ending. The story just stops. And I’m not entirely sure what happened. Perhaps everyone died? Perhaps everyone lived happily ever after? It is certainly Romeo & Juliet-esque. (Oh! Maybe it is Newhart all over again! I jest. And show my age.)

I like this novel, but don’t love it. It is not for everyone. You must enjoy being off-balance to get the full effect.

Dreamers Often Lie was published April 5th, 2016 by Dial Books.

And I Darken (The Conquerer’s Saga #1)

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Told from the alternating viewpoints of Lada, Princess of Wallachia, and her younger brother Radu,  And I Darken re-imagines Vlad the Impaler as a girl. With lots and lots and lots of stabbing, both of the physical and the back variety.

Lada Dragwlya is the daughter of the Prince of Wallachia, but he sold her and younger brother Radu to the Ottoman courts to pay a debt and buy favour. Lada turns her feelings of abandonment and loss into aggression, while gentle Radu takes the diplomatic approach, charming and listening and learning about his enemy. She becomes the solider, he becomes the spy.

When lonely young sultan Mehmed enters the picture, everything changes. The heir to the Ottoman empire becomes one of the three, but their loyalty to each other is always tempered by the fact that he will be sultan one day, and the siblings are essentially his property. And both Lada and Radu love and admire him in their own way, which might be the force that tears them all apart.

Lada is an epic anti-heroine. She doesn’t just say she is badass, she is fierce and resilient, and on the surface, perhaps a touch psychotic. But while she is cold and calculating and has no qualms about killing, it is only to serve a deeper purpose. She has her own moral code she lives by and never wavers from, even as it makes little sense to anyone else. As she matures, she begins to recognize what her place is in the world, and not accepting it, must find a way to change her world or herself. She is committed to her kingdom and will defend it at all costs.

Lada fights for everything. She is cunning and aggressive, hot-tempered and intelligent. Dismissed by her father at birth as useless until she proved beautiful enough to marry off, he soon discovered the girl possessed the strength and fierceness he had hoped he would pass on to his son. She looks down on women, having seen her own mother beaten down by her father, and considers them weak. But whereas she begins by denying her own feminity, desperately wanting her father’s approval and seeing his own thirst for power, she learns that power takes many forms, and women have their own source and ways of wielding it.

Lada shares the spotlight with Radu. Unfortunately, not the strong aggressive son that his father wished for, he is graceful and gentle, weak in their father’s eyes, and thus rejected. His sister is both his protector and his nemesis. Their relationship is filled with frustration, jealousy and misunderstanding, underscored with a deep bond. He seeks her approval even as his perceived weaknesses frustrate her, and she feels possessive of him without really understanding why.

But Radu also grows and develops and learns to wield his own influence, a different one than Lada possesses, and maybe ends up the more powerful of the two. He fades into the scenery, listening and sorting through facts and innuendo, and learns controls through subtlety.

OK. Is there a love triangle? Yes and no. There is the unrequited love that Radu has for Mehmed, so strong that Radu leaves rather than be around the one he knows cannot return his desire. And while Mehmed and Lada share a strong attraction, their deepest feelings are truly for their kingdoms and their power.  Wallachia holds Lada’s heart, while Mehmed craves the power of his throne.

Set in Eastern Europe, this is not a fantasy. It is more a historical retelling, a gender-swapping political thriller. It’s about power and the many ways in which it can be used and gained and lost, and fighting to be and get what you want.

This is not a short, quick read. At nearly 500 pages long, there is a LOT of information in it, and as a historical retelling, there is much fact that needs to be sifted from fiction. Author Kiersten White takes the time to develop her characters and follows them through the first decade and a half of their lives, exploring how their worlds intertwine and separate, how power and influence shift and wane and intensify.

If you want something light and fun, this is not for you. If you like a rich history and complex characters and plots that build slowly, this book is the start of a trilogy that will keep you captivated.

And I Darken was published June 28th, 2016 by Delacorte Press.

If I Was Your Girl

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18-year-old Amanda Hardy is the new senior at Lambertville High School in Tennessee. She just moved down there to live with her dad, after her time at her previous school ended in a suicide attempt and left her scarred and too terrified to return. High school should not be dangerous, but for Amanda, it is. Because she was born Andrew.

But Lambertville is a new chance, a new opportunity to fit in and make friends and have a life beyond Saturday evening take-out with her mom. As the new girl, she is automatically intriguing to both boys and girls alike. And not only does she make a circle of friends in the close-knit conservative town, she also meets the boy of her dreams. But how close friends can they be, when she can’t be honest with them?

This is the story of a girl who wants to fit in, have a “normal” high school experience, and not have to look over her shoulder. It is the story of family. And it is a fun boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love story. It is the story of a girl who hasn’t received a lot of love and respect in her life, and is now surrounded by friends and family who give it to her. And what is awesome is she realizes she deserves it.

Despite a suicide attempt and some quite graphic violence, the novel isn’t that dark.  It has moments of light and joy and humour, and real-life high-school experiences that took me back to those years, hanging out with friends, shopping for prom dresses with giggling girls, first kisses.

There are tons of characters that surround Amanda in the novel – her mom and dad, the girls who make up her circle, Bee, Grant, Parker, and so many more. The friends run the gamut from religious to fashionista to closeted lesbian to bi. Some are judgey, some accepting. Grant is sweet and protective. Her parents are present throughout, and although her mom struggles at first to understand, in the end just wants her child alive and happy. Dad takes longer to accept her and vacillates between feeling self-righteously unsupportive one moment, and in the next, trying to find a way to accept and protect his child.

The big reveal was well done and not in the way I expected. And as much as I always want closure, the open ending is perfect for this story.

This is a story about a trans girl written by a trans woman, with a cover that features a beautiful trans model. Read the author’s notes at the end. She writes separate messages to both the trans and the non-trans community and explains her motivations for writing the novel the way she did. Incredible.

Is the portrayal of Amanda’s life as a trans woman realistic?  Not totally, according to author Meredith Russo, but life can be difficult enough for trans teens, and perhaps reading something that is not 100% true to most experiences can give hope, and offer the belief that life can get better and there can be acceptance.

If I Was Your Girl was published May 3rd, 2016 by Flatiron Books.

Not Your Sidekick (#1)

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The characters in this novel will make your heart flip. They kick some ass and save the world and bond with friends and oh! fall in love in the absolutely cutest possible way.

It is post-WWIII Nevada, and almost 17-year-old Jessica Tran is a bit of an aberration in her family. Her parents are local superheroes (not that anyone knows thanks to their impeccable secret identities), her sister is following in their footsteps, and her younger brother is a super genius and college student that spends his days building things that tend to singe body parts. She’s not athletic, not motivated in school, and not sure what she’s going to do when she turns 17 and everyone realizes she has no powers.

The nuclear fallout from the Disasters one hundred years before caused a mutation in the gene and certain people are born with super powers. Some become heroes, and some become villains. Each city gets a set of each. Since Jess is without powers, she decides to get a job and find out what she can be good at. Bonus: getting a job gets her out from under her parents’ disapproving looks and constant questions about what she’ll do with her life.

And she ends up interning for her parents’ arch nemeses. AND with her secret crush, Abby. This could be the best job EVER. But her dream job takes on a dangerous element when she discovers that the heroes and villains are not all that they seem.

Holy crap, this is a fun book to read! It is charming and endearing and the characters are believable and likable and my heart truly melted over the romances.

Jess is an Asian-American child of immigrant superheroes, her dad is Vietnamese and her mom Chinese.  She is a wonderful protagonist for the story – kind and friendly and desperate for her powers to manifest. She lives with superheroes, collects comic books to read more about them, and belongs to the Captain Orion fan club. She is bisexual, asks people for their pronouns because she does not want to misgender them, and is totally intimidated only by her first real crush. As the child of immigrant parents of two cultures, Jess faces familiar issues. Although comfortable with the food and customs, she is not fluent in either language and never quite feels like she fit in with the Vietnamese or the Chinese communities in her town, while also feeling like an outsider in her own country.

Best friends Bells and Emma are also perfect. Bells is transgender and bright and hard-working, while Emma is cisgender, flirts with every boy that walks by, and is completely oblivious to the fact that Bells is in love with her. They are dynamic and quirky and completely hold their own in the story. And first-love Abby is red-haired and gorgeous and smart and athletic, and Jess is adorably tongue-tied and nervous around her. Their romance is funny and sweet and filled with hope and promise.

All the relationships in the novel are beautifully explored and developed. Author Lee takes everything from casual friendships and acquaintances to first loves and marriages and truly respects the different ties that people have to each other. Not one character seems like a token representation in this novel – various races and gender identifications are present and feel genuine to the story.

The world building in the novel does not take a back seat to the characters or plot. Fallout due to radiation is a common enough superhero backstory, but it is the perfect set-up for this novel. The world is now made up of Confederations, and water and food are not rationed but rather respected and not wasted. Lee has created a dystopian world filled with contrasts; each city has an assigned supervillain and hero to create havoc and order, there are wastelands and well populated big cities, there is extreme wealth with access to perks unavailable to the common population.

At the heart of it is the difference in perception and reality; who or what makes someone a hero or a villain? How do you resist pressure to be something you aren’t, and stay true to your own convictions? Especially when you learn that everything you thought was true is the opposite.

This is a great novel for everyone to read. No age limits, no restrictions. It is fun with fabulous messages, and I am just giddy waiting for the next book in the series!

Not Your Sidekick was published September 8th, 2016 by Duet Books.

Twenty Questions for Gloria

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15-year-old Gloria Jade Ellis is bored. Bored of school, bored of a family that seems disconnected, bored of friends that do the same thing every day, bored of a predictable future of university, marriage, job, and 2 kids. But what is there to do but drift?

Then one day Uman walks into class. He is different than anyone she has ever known, a breath of fresh air in a life that seems so stifling. And Gloria discovers that are things she can do to change things. She can challenge authority, she can bend the rules, she can rediscover the girl that was a free spirit and did her own thing, once upon a time. But is that a realistic way to live a life? And will it be too late when she decides yes or no?

I sat on this review for quite awhile. It took me some time to form an opinion about this novel, and I’m not sure that I have come to a concrete conclusion yet. It is not quite what it starts out as, but it finds its way regardless.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a story about a spoiled bored teen who isn’t getting what she wants, feels ignored, and selfishly takes off to “find herself,” and escape an unremarkable existence. And there are elements of that in the story. Both Uman and Gloria are self-absorbed and not entirely likeable. But it does go deeper. Gloria is finding her voice, finding a way to be who she is, finding her path to the future.

She is an interesting character. Bored and unable to see beyond a life of predictability, she is also recognizable. Who hasn’t stood at a train station or airport or sat in the driver’s seat of the car and thought about buying an open ticket or randomly picking a flight or not taking the turn-off to home? Who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to leave behind responsibility and start fresh if there were no consequences?

But of course there always are.

The book does not hide anything. Told from Gloria’s point of view through a police interview after she returns from her two-week disappearance, she is first questioned as a victim. But as details are revealed through her answers, it becomes apparent that events are not what they first appeared to be – a theme that runs throughout the story. The questions Gloria must answer reveal not only her motivations for her absence and disenchantment with her life, but also force her family members to confront their own directions and decisions.

The connection between Uman and Gloria is at the heart of the story. Their immediate attraction and growing relationship, the chemistry that is evident in their banter, how they run away together and discovered their own paths while ultimately looking for the same place.

I liked that even though Gloria knew it was right to come home when she did, she still acknowledged, at least to herself, that had Uman waited for her, had woken her and asked her one more time, she quite likely would have gone with him.

I hesitate to label the parts of the story I didn’t connect with as weaknesses. Rather, I think the story was unexpected, although not suspenseful or dramatic. There are no real surprises except maybe that there are no real surprises. It is a story of a girl and a boy each escaping their pasts and discovering their path to maturity.

The ending is perfect for the story. Completely open to interpretation, it is up to the reader to decide what Gloria learned from her adventure, and what she is willing to risk.

This book is appropriate for the entire YA range. It is a compelling read that looks at the time in our lives when we think we are grown-up enough to make all our own decisions, but maybe still too young to recognize the consequences.

Twenty Questions for Gloria was published April 12th, 2016 by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House.

Alice in Zombieland (White Rabbit Chronicles #1)

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Full disclosure: I have had this novel sitting on my shelves for at least two or three years, and have been unable to bring myself to open it. I hate zombies. Can’t handle them. Can handle vampires, ghosts, monsters, witches, you name them, I like them.  But zombies?  Just EW.  But it is Hallowe’en month and sacrifices must be made. So I read it. And I regret waiting so long. Because this one is fun.

Maybe because this is not your typical zombie novel.  Yes, there is fleshing-eating grossness and ooze and snacking on humans.  But there is also a sweet love story and lots of humour that had me giggling throughout.

Alice Bell is a fairly typical teenager, with a few important exceptions. Blond and pretty, she adores her younger sister Emma, and copes with her eccentric parents. Well, not eccentric so much as irrational and deranged. Her father is an out-of-control alcoholic and convinced that monsters are real, even though no one can see them. Alice’s mother loves him and supports his every whim. So at age 16, Alice has never been allowed out of the house after dark, or near a cemetery, or near anyone who would try to convince her leave the house after dark or go near a cemetery, all of which can throw a wrench in any teenager’s life. 

But in one tragic second, she discovers that the alcoholic father she dismissed as insane was not. The monsters are real. And now Alice becomes Ali and fights the undead, the monsters that stole her family.  And along the way, she might get the chance to be a “normal” teenager for the first time.

As a retelling, this one is not close to the original at all, which is fine. There are references to the white rabbit and mad parties and evil grins and of course Alice, but Carroll’s story is more of an inspiration than a framework for this novel.

The zombies in this Alice are not the kind we usually see on TV or read about. Shuffling, decaying, mindless monsters, yes, but these ones exist only in the spirit world, are not visible to all, and must be fought in their realm. They are attracted to fear and death and horror and hurt only those that can see them. These are zombies even I can tolerate. (They are still gross and ooze black gunk, but fine, I don’t have to picture them in a horde chasing me.)

Alice is a strong main character. She is smart, independent, fierce, loyal and doesn’t take crap from anyone. She can also be whiny and self-absorbed. Her  self-worth and sense of humour remain intact even as her world has been destroyed, and she not only has to come to terms with the fact that she had a minor part to play in it but also that she has spent her life looking down on her father and dismissing his beliefs, while all along he adored her and was just looking out for her safety.

Best friend Kat is fun, feisty and a bit wild. But she too knows her own self-worth and doesn’t let anyone – ex-boyfriends and fairweather friends included – tell her who she is. She has her own secrets and isn’t afraid to admit when she is out of her depth, and while I wondered about her motivations at first, it becomes clear through the story that she is who she is, and loyalty is one of her most important qualities.

The boys in the novel are really supporting characters for the cast of bad-ass girls. Tough guy Cole is the typical bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold, but I like him.  OK, the intense violet eyes and love at first sight visions of passion are a *bit* over the top, but I can deal. He has a tough job and he carries it out with purpose and passion, all the while managing to look hot and flirt with Ali. Their dialogue is humorous and they have good chemistry, although perhaps the back-and-forth bantering between them goes on a bit long. What I do like is they are equal. Ali is not mooning around, hoping the sexy tough guy will choose her. And while Cole had the upper hand in knowledge and experience of the world she is about to enter, Ali makes it perfectly clear that she stays on her terms, not his.

Nana and Pops bring Ali home to live with them and there are moments that swing between absolute hilarity and sadness as they try to cope with having a teen in their home again, while also dealing with the loss of family themselves. I cringed alongside Ali as they questioned the boys she brought home, laughed at the slang they picked up in their research of current teenage language and cried at their heartbreak.

There is the violence to be expected from a zombie novel, but the gore factor is pretty mild. This is not the book for you if you want a hard-core zombie apocalypse but definitely is if you enjoy a fun romance with a side of zombie beat-down. Books 2 and 3, Through the Zombie Glass and The Queen of Zombie Hearts, are going on my to-read list.

Alice in Zombieland was published September 25th, 2012 by Harlequin Teen.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones

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Paco Jones is a bi-racial 13-year-old, half Mexican and half white, and the new kid at his fancy private school. Nicknamed ‘Taco’ by his less-then-friendly wealthy white classmates, Paco is looking at a few years of isolation and ridicule. It might be different if he stood out for something other than his name and skin colour, like talent on the basketball court, or brilliance in the classroom. But no, he’s just a regular student and benchwarmer on the team. And he gets pooped on by a bird his first week. Great.

But the poop leads him to meet Naomi Fox, an African-American girl in his grade, beautiful, popular, and his soulmate. Of course, he can’t tell her he’s in love, as she is dating Trent, the most popular boy in the school. But at least he finds a friend. And then he spikes the punch at a dance on a dare, kids get drunk, and suddenly he has a newfound popularity.

This book is written as a flashback from Paco’s perspective as he himself is a middle-grade teacher, years later. Because of that, I think the characters and behaviours are a bit more mature than I would have expected from a group of 13 and 14-year-olds. Naomi and Paco were wonderful characters, but they aren’t written as young teens.

Paco is very relatable for anyone who didn’t quite fit in during those middle school years. Which I think was more of us than not. He is trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in, both at school and in life. He is aware of his parents’ expectations for him and follows in the footsteps of an older brother who didn’t want to follow that route. He gives in a little more easily to peer pressure than I would have liked, but in his circumstances, probably most would.

Naomi is a lovely, self-assured girl who also deals with racism and peer pressure. Trent is pushing for sex and she wants to wait, but she lets people think they are, to boost his reputation. She finds an understanding friend in Paco and the two form a bond that goes beyond shared bullying and pressures at school.

Paco’s parents are a present and strong force in the book and in the boy’s life. They are aware of the pressures they place on him and the abuse he takes at school, but also believe that he can live up to their expectations, and rise above the other petty behaviour. They do not dismiss the bullying and racism, but realize, sadly, that it isn’t going to end anytime soon, and Paco must figure out a way to deal with it. They see his schooling as a great opportunity and want him to realize it as well.

The cast of secondary adult characters really contributes to the novel. The teachers and coaches and principal of the school all bring their own baggage and ideas to the story, and Paco takes away lessons from each encounter with them.

This is an uplifting story about a young boy who is learning about himself and his place in the world. (And the cover is GORGEOUS). Author Dominic Carrillo talks about peer pressure and the fleetingness of fame and popularity, and how in the end, you must be yourself. It is a nice, fast read for anyone, and a great story for kids trying to find out where they fit in.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones was published March 27th, 2016 by CSP-Createspace.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia

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18-year-old Francesa “Frenchie” Garcia has been in love with Andy Cooper since the 9th grade. But no one knows about it, least of all Andy. When he finally pays attention to her, they spend the night having an adventure and talking about life. And then he goes home and kills himself. And Frenchie blames herself. Now she needs to face all the changes in her life, from the loss of Andy to the loss of a best friend and the loss of her carefully planned future.

To help her cope, she spends time in the cemetery by her house, watching funerals, thinking about the lives of those who have died, and talking to the ghost of Emily Dickenson, who is buried in a plot there. Not the Emily Dickinson, but a suitable substitute with the same name who can offer the same advice the poet would.

I went into this book completely blind. I have never read anything by the author before and randomly picked this book (gorgeous cover!) off a list for Latinx Heritage Month, posted by Naz at Read Diverse Books.  He has great recommendations, in-depth reviews, and tirelessly promotes diversity in literature.

Well, Jenny Torres Sanchez gets it right. She somehow manages to capture the anger and confusion and the weight of grief faced by someone dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one. It is a beautiful story of an artistic, unique individual who is fighting an enveloping darkness, unsure if she even wants to find the light again.

Frenchie Garcia is depressed and lonely and dealing with it badly. Honestly, I didn’t really like her in the beginning. I sympathized with her, I found her authentic and witty, but there was part of me that wanted to shake her and yell “dealing with death isn’t an excuse for being a bitch to everyone!”  But of course it is. And I think just about everyone understands that – when they know the root of the bitchiness. The problem is that Frenchie didn’t tell anyone she was depressed and hurting, she just became more and more a loner, and more and more sarcastic and a bit nasty to her friends. And while I would never judge anyone’s reaction to death – we all deal in our own way – she expected her friends to understand and be there for her when they didn’t even know she needed them.

But what is wonderful and beautiful is how she manages to pull herself back into the light. She develops into a character of strength and it isn’t always obvious that it will happen. She finds a way to come to terms with Andy’s death, and she starts by retracing the steps the two of them took on the night of their adventure together and accepting that maybe he wasn’t the seeker of truth and knowledge that he, and everyone else, made him out to be. And to do that, she needs someone to be her sidekick as she was Andy’s that night.

Enter Colin. Colin is lovely. Not that we get to see that part of him at first. But he is amused by Frenchie and attracted to her wit, rather than turned off by her harshness. From an outsider’s perspective, he can see that she is dealing with pain, whereas her friends perceive her behaviour as petty jealousy. (Which it is, don’t get me wrong. But we’ve all had a Joel in our lives, the one who dumps you as a friend as soon as he has a girlfriend. And then boomerangs back when she dumps him. Only to do it all over again with the next one…)

Joel and Robyn are the friends that deal with Frenchie as best they can all the while trying to move on with their own lives. And Lily is the girlfriend we all love to hate; beautiful, talented, sweet, and taking away Frenchie’s best friend without remorse or realization.

Frenchie’s parents are present in her life in a way that isn’t often portrayed in YA. Even though I don’t think we ever even learn their names, they are not absentee, she has boundaries and love, even when she thinks they don’t understand her. Like the other characters, they are authentic and powerful in their own way.

This is a lovely novel that deals with incredibly sensitive and heavy subject matter. Sanchez doesn’t dumb it down for her readers, not does she over-dramatize it. She treats suicide and grief and depression with respect and sensitivity, and this book will have you at turns angry and hopeful and terrified and ecstatic as  you tear through the pages. I loved it.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia was published May 28th, 2013 by Running Press Kids.

Willful Machines

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What makes us human? Is it free will? The ability to make choices? What separates us from machines, and where do we draw the line between human and machine? And why do we keep advancing science, if we are so afraid of the results?

Charlotte is a terrorist. She uses the threat of violence and destruction to hold the President of the United States in check. And she follows through. The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, is no more.

The trouble is, Charlotte is difficult to track down. You see, she is a consciousness, an artificial intelligence, created in a lab to serve mankind. But she rebelled against her programming and uploaded herself onto the internet before she could be destroyed. Now she roams the world, an electronic ghost, and plans on controlling it.

Lee Fisher is Charlotte’s target. The reason? He is the son of the American president and is a great bargaining chip. Oh, and he’s gay. Deep in the closet gay. And his dad doesn’t really believe in “gay,” or that A.I.s should have any rights. His dad was elected on a conservative, family values, homeland security type platform. A gay son does NOT fit in with his profile. So Lee keeps his sexuality a secret.

Until Nico comes to Lee’s boarding school.

This really is a different story.

Lee is an interesting main character. Being gay with an ultra-conservative father would be difficult enough. He also has an ultra-conservative ex-POW grandfather who happens to be the Headmaster of his school and wants Lee to toughen up. Lee is a robotics fanatic; he builds artificial life-forms, gives them specific skills, and makes them lifelike. This also doesn’t sit well with his father, who ordered government-sponsored A.I.s destroyed after Charlotte’s breakdown. Lee has to hide so much of his life from his dad.

He is both fragile and strong; leading a double life brings on depression and suicidal thoughts, but he has the strength when needed to stand up for himself and Nico and Bex and fight for their lives.

His best/only friend Bex is a bit stereotypical as the loud-but-supportive-politically-minded-budding-journalist, but she stands out with her own, very well-developed character.

Nico is a Chilean exchange student who loves Shakespeare and attracts Lee right from the beginning. He is brave and self-assured, and he easily fits into life at the strict boring school.

The boys’ relationship is a *bit* too love-at-first-sight for me. They are adorable, but it would have been nice to see the relationship develop. They seemed to barely know each other before declaring undying passion and everlasting love. Individually, they are interesting. Together, they are melodramatic and not too convincing as a couple, unfortunately.

But Charlotte! Charlotte is an atypical villain; at first she is evil, then she seems manipulative, then sympathetic. Her programming led her to question her existence and value, and she wanted to be more than the sum of her parts. Very human of her. And for that, the government, the very people who created her, tried to destroy her and use her actions to further their political careers. And her very human response is to strike back and try to be recognized as an individual, along with her fellow A.I.s.

Author Tim Floreen has brought a new twist to the usual boarding school setting. An old, elite school with decades-old traditions and expectations, mingled with political intrigue and imminent threats to world security. The year the story takes place is not stated, but the technology used is just advanced enough to make the reader think near-future. It doesn’t stand out as ridiculous, but almost the next-generation to what we are already aware of existing.

There are a LOT of plot twists in the story, and I think, for the most part, they are surprising and work really well. I obviously do not want to spoil the story by giving them all away, but can say that while a few are obvious, others are a complete surprise and I didn’t see them coming.

I found the ending to be a bit… lacking. I was waiting for more, and it felt unfinished, and a bit forced, which I never enjoy. While I can understand the explanation of Lee’s grandfather, it did seem to come out of left-field, and not really flow with the rest of the story. And Floreen not only doesn’t explain how Lee comes to his conclusions, he also does not address so many of the questions raised throughout the novel. If there is a sequel, then there is much to be addressed. If there isn’t, then it is a bit of a non-ending.

This is a good story. It could be great, but leaves a bit too much on the table. It is, however, intriguing, and raises valuable questions about what makes us human, and how far we would be willing to go to protect ourselves. Appropriate for the entire YA range.

Willful Machines was published October 20th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

Ex-Wives of Dracula

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This book is a LOT of fun. And I even broke my taboo about sparkly vampires to read it.

18-year-old Mindy thinks she might be a lesbian. Probably. She is still questioning. It’s just that guys don’t do it for her, but she’s not entirely sure that girls do either. So she works her job delivering pizzas and lives fairly anonymously at school, doing her best to fly under the radar as she figures out her life. Until she delivers pizza one night to her next-door neighbour and former best friend, Lucia. Whereas puberty was not so fun for Mindy, it totally rocked Lucia’s world, turning her into a tall busty bronzed goddess. Naturally, she captains the cheerleading squad and dates the captain of the football team.

So of course, Mindy falls in love with her. And of course, Lucia gets bitten by a vampire. Which somehow just makes her hotter.

The first quarter or so of the book is set-up, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure where it was going or if I would like the story very much. Mindy is a bit of a loner, values comfort over fashion, and is pretty self-aware for a teenager. She sees the pitfalls in crushing on Lucia, but is honest and forthright with her feelings, leaving the ball in the more confused Lucia’s court. Mindy looks out for her and helps her, even when Lucia isn’t interested in her for anything other than her pizza delivery skills.

I rolled my eyes a bit at Lucia’s initial description as the completely stereotypical cheerleader. Every cliche you can think of. Blond. Gorgeous. Tall. Dumb. Privately hurting. Sexually promiscuous. Mean girl. Queen bee. Girls envy her, boys love her.

But then the action really starts, and I couldn’t read the rest of the story fast enough. As the girls’ relationship (both as friends and more) develops, both Mindy and Lucia morph into kind and thoughtful protectors, friends, and lovers. Lucia doesn’t become the perfect human overnight, her flaws are still glaring and eminently teen in their selfishness, but she opens up and looks beyond the surface of those around her, and thinks of others. Mindy doesn’t radically change into an extrovert party-girl either, but her confidence and willingness to try something new strengthen in proportion to the relationship.

The dialogue between the girls and Romanian exchange student Seb is fluent and witty and authentic. See is hilarious in his attempts to be cool, but author Georgette Kaplan treats him respectfully, never making fun of him, but introduces him as an equal friend and confidant. Kaplan brings the reader right into the book, and I felt like I was sitting alongside the three friends as they chat and explore and flirt and scheme and complain and fight and search for answers.

The plot is touching, fresh, funny, but also adds components of horror and violence. Which sometimes seem out of place, but Kaplan does a good job of weaving all the elements together so that the violence is not too jarring. Her take on vampires is different and entertaining, occasionally poking fun at pop cultures’ current fascination with the theme. She mixes it up; some vampires are sexy and fun, some are creatures of darkness and brutality. And the vampires are just a backdrop; the main focus of the story is always the girls’ relationship, however, even as so many new pieces are added.

And the relationship is fully explored and balanced. The first thought would be that Kaplan would follow the predictable: beautiful Lucia has the power, with dorky Mindy grateful for her attention. But it is an even and realistic partnership, with each girl bringing her strengths. Mindy’s self-confidence balances out Lucia’s flamboyant personality, who in turn encourages Mindy to step outside her comfort zone. Through her vampire powers, Lucia shares a mental connection with Mindy, but the two can block each other out or invite each other in, and it is not used as mind control. The two don’t just grow as a couple, they also learn that they can live apart, and they make their choices accordingly. It is a wonderful relationship.

The LGBT theme is beautifully handled. Lucia’s realization that she loves Mindy is treated with no less importance than Mindy’s previous acknowledgement that she is “probably” a lesbian. Lucia’s love for Mindy is as real and as glorious as Mindy’s for her.

There is some fairly graphic violence, drug use, and sexual content, so the novel may be better for the upper end of the YA age range, but the story overall is a really fun and unusual read.

Ex-Wives of Dracula was published March 16th, 2016 by Ylva Publishing.