How Maya Got Fierce by Sona Charaipotra

Seventeen year old Maya Gera has a love/hate relationship…with garlic. On the one hand, she’s the heir apparent to her Punjabi family’s California garlic farm, a role she’s been groomed for all her life that will guarantee her family’s future legacy and success. On the other hand, garlic, or rather, an agricultural summer course at Rutgers is what’s standing in the way of her realizing her secret dream: an internship at Fierce magazine, “…my bible, my roadmap, my lifelong guidebook” since she was ten. So what does Maya do? Simple! Ditch ”cow camp,” take the internship, and become the journalist she was always meant to be! But Maya discovers it’s not that easy to follow her dreams when it involves lying to friends and family and juggling the hearts of two very different boys who are utterly resolved to win her love and affection. To make matters even more complicated, Maya accidentally-on-purpose is hired on as an assistant editor, NOT an intern because her mentor mistakenly took her for a twenty-something! Whoa. With new obstacles popping up everyday, including a racist boss and a team of mean girls back on the farm who are determined to take her out, Maya has her hands full. Can she pull off the cover story of year while still maintaining the fiction that she has it all under control? Maya may be at her breaking point, but whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and Maya is determined to make her voice, and the voices of all the brown girls she knows and loves, recognized and heard.

This delightful rom-com delves deep into two fascinating worlds that I didn’t know much about: the “Desi farmer” culture in California: ”…dozens of agricultural empires run by old-school Punjabi families, each with it’s own legacy and legend,” and New York City’s cutthroat world of magazine production. As an Indian-American entertainment writer who worked for People and Teen People magazine, Sona Charaipotra (who, full-disclosure, I took a fantastic writing workshop from) knows these cultures inside and out, and layers this tricky love triangle with loads of sensory detail from both settings, until readers can smell the manure and cardamom pods, and feel the adrenaline-fueled tension of the Fierce conference rooms. I loved every late-night-in-the-city-delicious-Indian-food-description minute of it! Get this beach-bag requisite title ASAP from your local library or bookstore.

Slingshot by Mercedes Helnwein

Grace Welles doesn’t see the point of making friends. It’s easier to cultivate jerks. “When people were trying to be nice, there was everything to lose; when they were already assholes to begin with, there was nothing you could say to ruin it. Less pressure. Far more freedom.” She’s not a girl’s girl or a guy’s girl, she’s only out for herself and she likes it that way. Until she meets Wade. She had no idea when she launched a rock at a bully who was about to kick Wade’s butt with her trusty slingshot that she had just saved the love of her life. Wade’s soft where she’s hard, matches her insult for insult and thinks she’s smart. And pretty. Grace is undone. Her whole philosophy of love and how it turns people into idiots has been literally shot down–with her own weapon. “…ever since I’d known him, Wade had been this beautiful and I haven’t even noticed. And now that I did notice it, everything in my body began to hurt all at once. Full blast, like a fire alarm.” Now she’s the idiot. And she likes it. But Grace being Grace has to ruin things. And she does, spectacularly. But how can she move on after being irrevocably changed? Grace is different person, and she’s not sure who that person is, or if she likes her. But hey, there’s no time like the present to find out.

This delightfully aggressive anti-romance-romance is a bold pirate ship in a sea of silly, sappy love stories. Grace is an angry, awesome, wholly unlikeable potty mouth that I instantly adored because she swears like a sailor and never plays it safe, often to her own detriment. Man, I love a train wreck who makes good! Nothing much happens in this novel plot-wise except Grace’s tremendous character growth from a baby brat into a semi-functional teenager, and yet I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I finished this novel during a sick day home in bed where I paired it with a re-watch of Ghost World and the combo was *chef’s kiss.* Do yourself a favor: ignore the terrible cover and check out amazeballs artist Mercedes Helnwein‘s blisteringly funny and tragic American debut from your local library or indie bookstore.

Private Label by Kelly Yang

Serene Li is super frustrated. She loves being an intern at her mom’s self-named fashion label, LILLY LEE, and can’t wait to start designing clothes of her own. But her mom’s investors insist on watering down Lilly’s designs, calling them “too ethnic” and urging Lilly to sell to a bigger label so they can reap big profits. All Serene wants is for her mom to stand up to the investors so that she can finally be the international sensation Serene knows she is! But then Lily is diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly Serene isn’t just fighting for her mom’s vision, she’s fighting for her life.

Lian Chen is super frustrated. Ever since his family moved to California from Beijing, his mom won’t get off his back about becoming an engineer. She lectures and texts him day and night about his grades, and wants him to take an early admission test to get into MIT while he’s still in high school. Which would be fine–except Lian could care less about engineering. His true love is stand-up comedy, and he’s determined to make his onstage dreams a reality. But he’s terrified to tell his parents the truth, especially since he knows the reason his mom is so hard on him is because she lost her own florist business in China, and will do anything to assure Lian’s success in the United States.

When Serene and Lian meet cute in an after school Chinese club, sparks don’t exactly fly–at first. But as the two begin to share their secret hopes with each other, they become each other’s lifelines, and then, something even more. But Serene’s mom is still dying, and Lian’s mom is still a tyrant. Can true love help Serene and Lian overcome their family obstacles and set them on the path to making their dreams come true? Fans of Project Runway, Next in Fashion or Standing Up will adore this sweetly sad/funny romance full of good vibes and flirty banter that is destined to be THE YA book of the summer! Out this month, be sure to snag a copy for your beach bag from your local library or bookstore.

Family of Liars by E. Lockhart

In 2014, this book by criminally awesome mastermind E. Lockhart came out and I was blown away and unable to reveal a single thing, because to say anything was to spoil everything. Now the prequel to this book has come out (or will come out May 2022) and I am AGAIN blown away and AGAIN, can say very little because this deliciously nasty little package is just one big SPOILER. What I can say is that if you loved Liars, you will love this. What I can say is that this prequel delves into the teenage pasts of Cady’s mom (Penny) and her two sisters (Carrie and Bess) and that this story is eldest sister Carrie’s. What I can say is that Sinclair family’s curse didn’t start with Cady and likely doesn’t end with her either. Here in Carrie’s story of where it all began to go so wrong there is love, madness, corruption, addiction, loyalty, fear and doubt. So much doubt. Carrie will tell you “On the outside, I am gray-eyed and butter blonde…I have the confident walk and good shoulders of an excellent softball player…I fix my sister’s problems. Those are the qualities anyone can see.”

“But my insides are made of seawater, warped wood and rusty nails.”

Now an adult, Carrie is tormented by what happened the summer she was seventeen, when she met a gorgeous, careless boy while still in mourning for the person she loved best. Her entire life has been colored by the secrets created and the betrayal committed that summer, secrets that can never be told and betrayals that can never be forgiven. Once you see the tragic connections that tie Cady and Carrie’s stories together, you can never unsee them. These are lies that bind.

Run, don’t walk to pre-order this monstrous gem that’s coming your way 5/3/22.

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

Noor and Salahudin are two Pakistani teenagers who live in Juniper, California, a small military town on the edge of the Mojave desert. Noor is a straight A student who works part time in her uncle’s liquor store and has dreams of becoming a doctor. Sal helps his parents run a small motel and fills his journal with stories and poems. Pulled together by their small immigrant and Muslim community, they were best friends–until Noor admitted to Sal six months ago that she was falling in love with him. Sal, worried that Noor’s feelings would ruin their lifelong friendship, pulled back and the two have barely spoken since. But they need each now other more than ever. Noor’s mean, petty uncle is doing everything he can to block her escape to college and keep her working in the liquor store, while Sal’s mother is succumbing to untreated kidney disease as his father drinks to escape. The bills are piling up and Sal doesn’t know what to do. When he is offered an illegal way to get out from under his family’s crushing debt, Sal takes it, even though it means lying to Noor and undermining their fragile new relationship. Every choice Noor and Sal are presented with seems to result in a dead end. As Noor says to Sal, “…it feels like too much. I think about the shit we’ve read in school. Those books all about one problem. A kid who’s bullied. A kid who’s beaten. A kid who’s poor. And I think of us and how we’ve won the shit-luck lottery. We have all the problems.” Can Noor and Sal survive in a world where the odds are stacked against them? Maybe–if they can learn to truly trust each other and their faith.

Sabaa Tahir’s searing, gritty novel poignantly highlights the injustice of racism and poverty while celebrating the strength and resilience of youth, family and faith. It’s also a breathtaking love story. Noor and Salahudin, who take turns telling their devastating version of the American Dream in alternating chapters, are unforgettable characters who are as instantly iconic as Ponyboy and Cherry, Eleanor and Park, Hazel and Gus or Maddy and Olly. While the main characters’ titular rage is palpable and their circumstances dire, there is a nugget of hope in the form of Sal’s mother Misbah, who’s loving, lyrical voice glows in short vignettes. And Noor’s running playlists of alternative songs and bands will be deeply appreciated by lovers of grunge and rap alike. Destined to be one of the biggest YA novels of the year, you will want to use all your power to nab a copy of All My Rage, coming to a e-reader, bookstore or library near you March 2022.

2021 Top Five

Like in 2020, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, so here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2021. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy new year! May 2022 be Y/OUR year!

The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson

A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody

New Year, Same old Reading Rants

Hi friends,

As you may have noticed, there hasn’t been all that much activity on this blog since my burst of energy last October. And that’s because I had many life changes that upended, well everything! My husband and I moved, I started a new job as a high school librarian (long time readers will know I was a middle school librarian for most of my career) and there have also been some medical issues in my family. Plus, you know, COVID! So my beloved blog fell down on my list of priorities, and while I read just as many books as ever, I didn’t always find the time to write about them all. I will go ahead and post my top five titles for 2021, but they may not have appeared on this page, or they may have been reviewed elsewhere. I appreciate the patience of everyone who still reads and enjoys Reading Rants, and I hope to be more productive for you in 2022! Peace and love to all as we head into this hopeful new year.

Peaceful Cliparts #205492

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl

As a proud GenX librarian, I had no choice but to crowd surf head-on into former Nirvana and current Foo Fighters band member Dave Grohl’s big-hearted and name-dropping memoir. Starting with his accident-prone childhood (“We always joked that the doctors at Fairfax County Public Hospital (in Virginia) were on a first name basis with me”) and first crush (“Sandi…Ice-blue eyes, feathered blonde hair, and a smile so blinding it could have charged every Tesla from Brentwood to Beijing, had Teslas existed in 1982,”) Grohl takes us through his young adulthood as the drummer for the touring punk band Scream, to his big break being asked to join Nirvana, and into his slow but steady climb to rock star royalty as the lead singer and founder of the Foo Fighters. Though I enjoyed reading the numerous celebrity connections Grohl made on his way to the top, (Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, Joan Jett and Barak Obama are just a few) the best part of the book by far are Grohl’s rambling reminiscences of his time touring with Scream. Just seventeen years old, Grohl dropped out of school with his mom’s blessing and started touring across the United States, Canada and Europe on a shoestring (and sometimes starvation) budget in a beat up van with his equally talented and broke bandmates. Playing the famed CBGB‘s one night when he wasn’t even legally old enough to enter, and crashing on a friend’s cousin’s living room floor after a raucous post-show party the next, Grohl spins an intoxicating On the Road -esque musician’s odyssey that feels like it could have only happened in the pre-Internet late 80’s. The text is peppered with photos of Grohl’s quirky and fun postcards to his mom, which also make his story seem sweetly quaint as texts and emails have replaced letters and postcards. This is totally one to read with your parents, as long as you don’t mind them pulling up Nirvana Unplugged and getting all nostalgic on you.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Ray Carney is a small-time furniture salesman just trying to get by, who is constantly tempted by the easy payday of the criminal life in this fascinating historical fiction by Colson Whitehead. Ray knows that if he wants to keep his little family safe and prosperous in 1960’s era Harlem, he needs to focus on his day job–owning and running a respectable furniture store that caters to middle class Black families. But he keeps being pulled into his after-midnight job–fencing stolen goods that his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddy occasionally drops in his lap. Despite Ray’s guilt about sliding into the hood lifestyle that characterized his shifty father’s life, this situation works just fine, until Freddie’s smart mouth pulls them into a questionable job that could not only expose Ray’s criminal side to the world, but could have fatal consequences for them both. Full of crackling period dialogue and unexpectedly interesting fun facts about (wait for it) couch fabric and furniture advertising, this story of crime, family and revenge is lots lighter than Whitehead’s last two novels and darkly funny. Harlem Shuffle blends a top notch plot with a richly atmospheric stetting that ensures you’ll not only be highly entertained, you’ll also learn something.

This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry

Sometimes seventeen year old Izzy feels like her life is one big bad joke. Her power parents are too busy to spend time with her. Her older sibs treat her like an afterthought, if they notice her at all. Her boyfriend Alex pays almost too much attention to her, constantly texting and asking where she is and what she’s doing. Izzy can’t decide if his attention is flattering or claustrophobic. And she has no one to talk to about any of this since her best friend Naomi dropped her after she started dating Alex. It’s almost enough to make a girl…become a stand up comedian? Unassuming Izzy is the least likely person to step into the spotlight. But when she accidentally stumbles into a Chicago comedy club while dodging her stalker boyfriend, she discovers that all the secret thoughts she has, but never gives voice to, are actually funny when blurted into a microphone. She even picks up a new crew of older friends, who think she’s in college (and she doesn’t bother to correct them.) Suddenly Izzy has a gratifying new way to express all the emotions she’s stuffed down for so long, and it feels AMAZING! But how long can she maintain the web of lies she’s been telling to Alex, her family and new friends in order to feed her stand-up habit? It’s not long before her two worlds collide, and Izzy is forced to step out from behind her stage persona and admit the hard truth about who she really is. If you enjoyed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Crashing, then you will race through Izzy’s side-splitting story faster than you could re-binge either of those shows! Hilarious and refreshingly honest, This Will Be Funny Someday is about learning how to stand up for yourself in life, love and comedy, no matter who is heckling you from the back row.

Incredible Doom, vol. 1 by Matthew Bogart & Jesse Holden

It’s 1991, and Allison is desperate to escape her domineering dad, a mean, petty mid-level magician who forces her to act as his show assistant long after she has outgrown the role. She finds some relief when she discovers how to post to the local BBS (bulletin board system) by using the landline to dial in through her dad’s computer. There she meets sweet Sam, and they hatch a plan to get her out her house and away from her dad’s rages. Meanwhile, across town, Richard is the new kid in school. He used to have a tight crew back home but here, he can’t seem to catch a break. He’s become the target of a nasty local bully who’s escalated his attacks to the point of spraying Richard’s house with a BB gun in the middle of the night. Just when he thinks he’s reached his breaking point, Richard receives a mysterious note in his locker with directions on how to access a BBS called EVOL. He dials in and is introduced to Evol House, a community of outsider teens living on their own and led by tough, fearless Tina, who confronts the bully and teaches Richard “how to stay sane in this town…You listen to music. You come to Evol House. And you make shit.” How these four teens end up coming together is the satisfying conclusion of volume 1 of this affecting, minimalist graphic novel about the early days of the Internet. For those of us old enough to remember (I was a high school senior 1991) the Internet was initially a welcoming space where you could find like minded people and form community. While that still happens, as writer and critic Roxane Gay recently pointed out, much of the community spaces of Internet have been crowded out by cancel culture. Despite it’s somewhat dark title and sharp, angular art, Incredible Doom is an ultimately hopeful reminder of what the Internet was to kids and teens looking for connection, and what it could still be for those willing to wade through the cancelling, consumerism and contradiction to find the community waiting on the other side. I’m looking forward to Volume 2, and can’t wait to see what Matthew Bogart and Jesse Holden do next!  

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee

Valora Luck has always been a risk taker. She and her twin brother Jamie were trained as acrobats by their enterprising Chinese Ba, so she has no fear of heights and relishes the attention of a big crowd. Valora and Jaime were separated after the death of her British Mum and Chinese Ba–he went off to see the world as a coal shoveler on ocean liners, while she stayed back in London to be a ladies maid for the crabby old Mrs. Sloan. But when Mrs. Sloan dies unexpectedly, Valora decides to take her biggest risk yet: pose as Mrs. Sloan and use her pre-purchased tickets to board the Titanic, where she hopes to convince her brother, part of a team of Chinese men working in the ship’s boiler rooms, to ditch his job and come with her to America. Once on board, she plans to pitch her Chinese twin acrobatic act to Mr. Albert Ankeny Stewart, part owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Surely he has the power and influence to get her and Jamie into the US, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act? Valora knows that that her plan is full of holes and at any point, could go terribly wrong. But she’s willing to take that gamble since the potential payoff is so high. There’s just one factor she could never have considered: a hidden iceberg with the Titanic’s name on it. And suddenly all her big dreams come down to one thing–basic survival.

There have been many books written about the Titanic, but Stacey Lee’s inspired combination of Chinese culture, circus lore and performance, race and class issues, sibling politics and high fashion is nothing short of brilliant. Valora’s lyrical first person narration is captivating and contrary, full of daring dreams and understandable self doubt. This story starts with a bold move and ends, as you might expect, with a heroic act of bravery and love. If you’re in the mood for an adventurous summertime read, set sail with Luck of the Titanic!

A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

In 1860 Louisiana, the plantation-owning Guilbert family has fallen on hard times, at least according to eldest son and heir Lucien. Though they still maintain their palatial home, land and slaves, Lucian’s business failures and growing debt have put the property at risk. Lucien is now dependent on Byron, his son, to make a good match and marry the respectable Eugenie Duhon, who’s hand comes with a sizable dowry. Lucien’s mother, Madame Sylvie, the aged matriarch of the ironically named Le Petit Cottage plantation, is not so worried. Years ago she buried her dead husband’s gold in a secret location in the cane fields and when the time is right, she will tell Lucien where to dig. Until then, she is more concerned with her legacy. Madame Sylvie has hired a French painter to come to Le Petit Cottage in St. James parish and paint her portrait, so that future generations of Guilberts will see her noble likeness and appreciate the many sacrifices she has made to maintain the Guilbert family reputation.

Like many people of their time, the Guilberts believe that everything they have was earned by themselves, when in reality, it is made possible by the enslaved people that are born, work and die on their plantation. They do not recognize the humanity of enslaved people, nor would it ever occur to them to do so. People like Marie and Louise, twin sisters who serve as housemaids and are the product their mother being raped by one of Lucien’s French business associates. Like Lily, the cook who rarely speaks, and never about her beloved son Jesse who Lucien callously murdered when he believed Jesse and Byron to be too close as children. Like Thisbe, who was taken from her family in the fields when she was only six years old, given the name of Marie Antoinette’s dog and made to be Madame Sylvie’s hands and feet. She is never to speak or have a thought of her own, though the one thing Madame can’t control is her quick mind. But a reckoning is coming, in the form of a party to celebrate Madame’s finished portrait, where all will be revealed, including the location of the hidden gold and the true Guilbert family legacy that Madame Sylvie has tried desperately to ignore, despite the fact that the violent, shameful evidence of it is all around her.

Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia has penned a mesmerizing and meticulously researched anti-Gone with the Wind that never looks away from the unvarnished reality of the institution of slavery in the United States. In her illuminating author’s note, RWG explains that her story focuses on the white plantation owners rather than the enslaved people who worked their land because the fact is that racism is a white problem, not a Black one: “Take the free and enslaved Black people out of it. While they would be present in the story, I wouldn’t task them…to prove themselves extraordinary or human. Instead I would look at a family whose livelihood insisted on slavery, and the enduring legacy of racism handed down to their heirs, regardless of their connection to an Antebellum past.” Unlike anything RWG has written before (and trust me, I’ve read every one) this extraordinary historical fiction will give you a true understanding of America’s slave-holding past and how it ties into our racially divided nation today, while also being an utterly compelling and thrillingly dramatic epic that showcases the contradictory, stubborn and ultimately hopeful nature of our flawed human condition. DO NOT MISS IT!

Lucy Clark Will Not Apologize by Margo Rabb

Sixteen year old Lucy Clark feels like she is always apologizing for something–for taking up space, for not being able to get over her grandmother’s death, but mostly for resenting her parents, who have created a self-help empire with no room for their own daughter. Lucy had always lived with her Nana while her parents toured to promote their business. Now that Nana has died, Lucy is forced to attend a second rate Texas boarding school, where she is tortured by mean girls until she finally pushes back–a little too hard. Before she knows it, Lucy is suspended and sent to live in New York City to live with her largely absent cousin and set up with a part-time job caring for a “mentally impaired” elderly woman. But instead of being frail and confused, Edith Fox is smart, stylish and a whiz when it comes to all things plants and gardens. She just has one problem: someone is trying to murder her and she needs Lucy to help her discover who it is. As Lucy starts to investigate, she becomes convinced that if she can get to the bottom of Edith’s wild assertions, “It would prove I wasn’t bad. I could be trusted. I could find out the truth about myself. About who I really was.” Maybe by solving Edith’s mystery, Lucy will also solve the mystery of how she has ended up so far away from the person she wants to be. This cozy, quirky puzzler of a novel, set in a soft-focus fairy tale Manhattan and full of fascinating flower lore, is the perfect summer read for anyone wondering how they fit in: with their friend group, their family or a post-pandemic world that is suddenly wide open and full of possibilities.

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

High school senior Evie Thomas was a compulsive romance reader and true love aficionado–until her dad cheated on her mom and they got a divorce. Now Evie wishes “I could go back to being the girl who thought her parents, especially her dad, could do not wrong…I used to believe in happily-ever-afters because they had one.” Grieving the end of her parents’ marriage, Evie declares war on love, and decides once and for all to get rid of her beloved romance novel collection. But a funny thing happens when she drops off her books at the little free library near her L.A. neighborhood. Evie meets an odd old woman who insists she take a used book from the library called Instructions for Dancing. Then shortly after she returns home, she begins seeing visions of the end of strangers’ love affairs. All she has to do is catch a random couple kissing, and suddenly she sees their whole relationship unfold in her head until it ends–badly. Hoping to stop the visions, she decides to follow the book’s directions and take dance lessons from the studio listed in the back. And that is where she meets tall, dark and handsome X, who threatens to sweep her off her feet with his witty banter and dashing good looks. But Evie flatly refuses to fall for his many charms. Hasn’t she seen for herself that love never works out, even when it seems like a sure thing? They are signed up for a dance contest by their instructor, and suddenly Evie finds herself spending way too much time with X’s gorgeous self. She will not fall in love! She will not! But the universe and the little free library lady have something else in mind for Evie, and if she’s not careful, she’ll find her cynical heart cracked wide open. Queen of Swoon Nicola Yoon’s effervescent third novel about love, loss, friendship and family, will leave your toes tapping and your heart yearning. I sobbed like a baby when I turned the last page, and you will too when it comes to a library, bookseller or e-reader near you June 2021.