Welcome to Top Ten Tuesday, started at the Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana, the Artsy Reader Girl! I rarely do these posts anymore simply because I don’t have the time, but topics like these are so close to my heart, I can’t not. (Plus, they don’t require me to write any explanation, because it’s all right there in the title. Whee!) I did, however, tweak the topic from “fewer than 2,000 ratings” to “fewer than 1,000 ratings,” because I had enough that fit the latter that I wanted to get more attention!
The only sort of risk 18-year-old Laila Piedra enjoys is the peril she writes for the characters in her stories: epic sci-fi worlds full of quests, forbidden love, and robots. Her creative writing teacher has always told her she has a special talent. But three months before her graduation, he’s suddenly replaced—by Nadiya Nazarenko, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who is sadistically critical and perpetually unimpressed.
At first, Nazarenko’s eccentric assignments seem absurd. But before long, Laila grows obsessed with gaining the woman’s approval. Soon Laila is pushing herself far from her comfort zone, discovering the psychedelic highs and perilous lows of nightlife, temporary flings, and instability. Dr. Nazarenko has led Laila to believe that she must choose between perfection and sanity—but rejecting her all-powerful mentor may be the only way for Laila to thrive.
My GR review: This was such a highly anticipated book for me because I think Riley Redgate is, content-wise, one of the most interesting YA authors right now, and this did not disappoint. A book about a self-conscious author who loses her biggest fan and ends up with an instructor who effectively makes her feel like crap until she feels forced to bleed on the page to prove her authorial skill and worth? I mean. I can’t speak for all authors, but that sure as hell held some resonance for me.
Laila was an interesting MC in a lot of ways. She’s pansexual, or at least she would be if she wasn’t raised to find sex and attraction shameful and so could bring herself to say the word aloud. (I realize that sounds like me projecting on her, but no, all of that, including the word, is on the page. And not, as we usually see it, mixed with questioning whether she’s bi or pan; pansexual is her only consideration.) She’s plus-size. (At no point does she call herself fat, so I won’t either, but she does refer to wearing plus-size clothing.) She’s biracial (French-Canadian on her mother’s side; Ecuadorian on her father’s side). She has three best friends who are her whole world. (I love adorable group friendship dynamics, especially when they’re not all the same gender.) She’s super into writing and a fandom. Basically there’s a lot about her that I think is gonna be wildly relatable to people who haven’t seen themselves much, which is something I always think is awesome.
Three books into Riley Redgate’s catalog, I’m starting to notice a pattern wherein she discusses some things really, really well, but not seamlessly. Like, you’ll get to the end of a chapter and it’ll just be three pages dissecting something that’s never really gonna show up again, but she talks about it so well that you don’t care. So, I can’t really say that themes of identity exploration are woven neatly throughout, but I can say that when you get those discussions, they’re really welcome and great.
Did this book make me cry? Yes. Did it make me squee? Also yes. Am I going to recommend it annoying amounts? Absolutely.
Tasia Quirk is young, Black, and fabulous. She’s a senior, she’s got great friends, and a supportive and wealthy family. She even plays football as the only girl on her private high school’s team.
But when she catches her mamma trying to stuff a mysterious box in the closet, her identity is suddenly called into question. Now Tasia’s determined to unravel the lies that have overtaken her life. Along the way, she discovers what family and forgiveness really mean, and that her answers don’t come without a fee. An artsy bisexual boy from the Valley could help her find them—but only if she stops fighting who she is, beyond the color of her skin.
I blurbed this one, so instead of a GR review, here’s my official blurb, which I stand by a zillion percent:
“Tasia Quirk is bold, funny, talented, passionate, vulnerable, fierce, and just plain fabulous. Get ready to meet your new favorite YA heroine in Taze, and your new favorite YA voice in Candice Montgomery.”
In Savannah Espinoza’s small New Mexico hometown, kids either flee after graduation or they’re trapped there forever. Vanni never planned to get stuck—but that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, leaving her and her mother to care for him. Now, she doesn’t have much of a plan at all: living at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, distracting herself with one boy after another.
That changes the day she meets Leigh. Disillusioned with small-town life and looking for something greater, Leigh is not a “nice girl.” She is unlike anyone Vanni has met, and a friend when Vanni desperately needs one. Soon enough, Leigh is much more than a friend. But caring about another person stirs up the moat Vanni has carefully constructed around herself, and threatens to bring to the surface the questions she’s held under for so long.
My GR review: Not at all surprised at how much I liked this. So different from Podos’s first book (except that I really, really enjoy how she handles familial dynamics in both, in what a presence the fathers are) but also so good. Also digging this trend of absolutely drama-free “oh, huh, I’m bi” realizations from MCs this year – always nice to see another experience show up in YA.
Mischa Abramavicius is a walking, talking, top-scoring, perfectly well-rounded college application in human form. So when she’s rejected not only by the Ivies, but her loathsome safety school, she is shocked and devastated. All the sacrifices her mother made to send her to prep school, the late nights cramming for tests, the blatantly resume-padding extracurriculars (read: Students for Sober Driving) … all that for nothing.
As Mischa grapples with the prospect of an increasingly uncertain future, she questions how this could have happened in the first place. Is it possible that her transcript was hacked? With the help of her best friend and sometimes crush, Nate, and a group of eccentric techies known as “The Ophelia Syndicate,” Mischa launches an investigation that will shake the quiet community of Blanchard Prep to its stately brick foundations.
My GR review: Oh man I enjoyed that a lot. It was only partly what I expected; I kind of thought the MC would have more of an Enter Title Here vibe. But she didn’t, and I loved her for it. (Not a criticism of ETH – I love that MC – but I feel like it’s the obvious voice for an overachiever and it’s nice to see an alternative.) Also, the secondary characters are fabulous, especially Nate, whom I utterly adored. Woof I shipped them hard.
ETA: I forgot to mention when I first reviewed, but also, I loved the little bits about her family history (especially as someone who has familial roots in the Holocaust), straddling the privilege line, and feeling the pressure to make more of life. Yes, that’s a lot of things that resonated really hard that I initially forgot to mention because I was distracted by my love of the characters and ship. So sue me.
The Pros of Con by Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar, and Michelle Schusterman
Drummer Phoebe Byrd prides herself on being one of the guys, and she’s ready to prove it by kicking all their butts in the snare solo competition at the Indoor Percussion Association Convention.
Writer Vanessa Montoya-O’Callaghan has been looking forward to the WTFcon for months. Not just because of the panels and fanfiction readings but because WTFcon is where she’ll finally meet Soleil, her internet girlfriend, for the first time.
Taxidermy assistant Callie Buchannan might be good at scooping brains out of deer skulls, but that doesn’t mean it’s her passion. Since her parents’ divorce, her taxidermist father only cares about his work, and assisting him at the World Taxidermy and Fish-Carving Championships is the only way Callie knows to connect with him.
When a crazy mix-up in the hotel lobby brings the three girls together, they form an unlikely friendship against a chaotic background of cosplay, competition, and carcasses!
My GR review: This was extremely fun and cute. I don’t know why I love con books so much, but I do, and this one delivered it in spades along with a really enjoyable friendship story, a really cute budding queer romance, and some observations on social media relationships that hit way too close to home.
Daria Esfandyar is Iranian-American and proud of her heritage, unlike some of the “Nose Jobs” in the clique led by her former best friend, Heidi Javadi. Daria and her friends call themselves the Authentics, because they pride themselves on always keeping it real.
But in the course of researching a school project, Daria learns something shocking about her past, which launches her on a journey of self-discovery. It seems everyone is keeping secrets. And it’s getting harder to know who she even is any longer.
With infighting among the Authentics, her mother planning an over-the-top sweet sixteen party, and a romance that should be totally off limits, Daria doesn’t have time for this identity crisis. As everything in her life is spinning out of control—can she figure out how to stay true to herself?
My GR review: Really enjoying the spate of culturally infused coming-of-age novels I’m reading lately, and this was no exception. Interesting to me that the title focused on her friend group when her family and culture are so beyond dominant of the plot and definitely the stars of the show, but definitely not upset about the stuff that actually took center stage, even if it wasn’t necessarily my expectation going in.
Since she was seven years old, Yvonne has had her trusted violin to keep her company, especially in those lonely days after her mother walked out on their family. But with graduation just around the corner, she is forced to face the hard truth that she just might not be good enough to attend a conservatory after high school.
Full of doubt about her future, and increasingly frustrated by her strained relationship with her successful but emotionally closed-off father, Yvonne meets a street musician and fellow violinist who understands her struggle. He’s mysterious, charming, and different from Warren, the familiar and reliable boy who has her heart. But when Yvonne becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she has to make the most difficult decision yet about her future.
My GR review: God, Brandy Colbert is just so good at capturing these seemingly little things that have totally fallen through the cracks in the ways we talk about teens and putting them front and center in can’t-miss books. I only barely read blurbs when the author is already an insta-buy for me, so I thought this was about a violin prodigy whose life gets thrown off kilter when she gets pregnant, but in truth, it’s the spaces in between that – it’s what happens when you aren’t a prodigy and you’ve just lost your love and maybe the future isn’t going to look how you thought, so now what? And it’s finding other ways to use what’s already in your life and build off that, but also maybe learn what else and who else you can be. And that applies to skills, to love, to existing relationships, to questions from the past…it’s all just wrapped up in this Very Real Girl, and all along the while is the question of “How complex would these questions be for me if I weren’t a Black girl?” and all the different ways working twice as hard for half as much presents itself.
So, yeah, I guess you can say I liked it 😉
Also, for anyone who specifically avoids pregnancy storylines, it’s actually a much briefer portion of the book when I was expecting; please don’t skip this one for it.
Debuting on the New York stage, Zara is unprepared—for Eli, the girl who makes the world glow; for Leopold, the director who wants perfection; and for death in the theater.
Zara Evans has come to the Aurelia Theater, home to the visionary director Leopold Henneman, to play her dream role in Echo and Ariston, the Greek tragedy that taught her everything she knows about love. When the director asks Zara to promise that she will have no outside commitments, no distractions, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s hard not to be distracted when there’s a death at the theater—and then another—especially when Zara doesn’t know if they’re accidents, or murder, or a curse that always comes in threes. It’s hard not to be distracted when assistant lighting director Eli Vasquez, a girl made of tattoos and abrupt laughs and every form of light, looks at Zara. It’s hard not to fall in love. In heart-achingly beautiful prose, Amy Rose Capetta has spun a mystery and a love story into an impossible, inevitable whole—and cast lantern light on two girls, finding each other on a stage set for tragedy.
My GR review: Gorgeous, intense, romantic, mysterious, and a really pleasant surprise to me in the Jewish rep, too.
Born in the backseat of a moving car, Carmel Fishkill was unceremoniously pushed into a world that refuses to offer her security, stability, love. At age thirteen, she begins to fight back. Carmel Fishkill becomes Fishkill Carmel, who deflects her tormenters with a strong left hook and conceals her secrets from teachers and social workers. But Fishkill’s fierce defenses falter when she meets eccentric optimist Duck-Duck Farina, and soon they, along with Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, form a tentative family, even as Fishkill struggles to understand her place in it. This fragile new beginning is threatened by the reappearance of Fishkill’s unstable mother — and by unfathomable tragedy. Poet Ruth Lehrer’s young adult debut is a stunning, revelatory look at what defines and sustains “family.” And, just as it does for Fishkill, meeting Duck-Duck Farina and her mother will leave readers forever changed.
My GR review: Well, that went ahead and ripped my heart clean out of my chest. Definitely a recommended read for a book with rural poverty. There are a few things I felt were left a little like open-ended mysteries, but they felt true to what the character would know/be able to access. Really interesting to read a YA that is definitely a YA but with a 12-13yo protag, especially since she’s sort of exploring her sexuality without even really seeming to realize that’s what she’s doing. I would so love to check in with Fishkill a few years down the line if that were possible, and that’s one of my favorite signs that I really enjoyed a book.
There’s a box in the back of Audrey’s closet that she rarely thinks about.
Inside is a letter, seventeen years old, from a mother she’s never met, handed to her by the woman she’s called Mom her whole life. Being adopted, though, is just one piece in the puzzle of Audrey’s life—the picture painstakingly put together by Audrey herself, full of all the people and pursuits that make her who she is.
But when Audrey realizes that she’s pregnant, she feels something—a tightly sealed box in the closet corners of her heart—crack open, spilling her dormant fears and unanswered questions all over the life she loves.
Almost two decades ago, a girl in Audrey’s situation made a choice, one that started Audrey’s entire story. Now Audrey is paralyzed by her own what-ifs and terrified by the distance she feels growing between her and her best friend Rose. Down every possible path is a different unfamiliar version of her life, and as she weighs the options in her mind, she starts to wonder—what does it even mean to be Audrey Spencer?
My GR review: Really, really good. This book just feels so…healthy? Like, YDKMBIKY is to reproductive choice after consensual sex as EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR is to reproductive choice after rape. If you loved the latter, please read this too. I think it’ll go a long way toward helping teens who’ve chosen the same path feel less alone and less judged.