California Dreamin’ by Penelope Bagieu


After recently becoming completely enamored of Penelope Bagieu‘s Brazen, I was delighted to discover the author had also written this longer form, graphic biography of the indomitable Cass Elliot. Elliot was best known for her role in the Mamas and the Papas, a folk rock band that was famous in the 1960’s. Much has been written about her and the band, especially their dramatic arguments and Cass’s tragic death at age 32. But Bagieu focuses here on the early life of the ground breaking singer, back when she was just Ellen Cohen from Baltimore who was her father’s favorite and loved to sing. With small panels that can barely hold Cass’s big expressive eyes, Bagieu traces her path to fame, from leaving home at nineteen to falling in love with men who didn’t always appreciate her talent, but somehow ended up leading her to new and better singing opportunities. Each chapter is narrated by a person from Cass’s life, from her little sister and her vocal coach, to her father and first (brief) husband. And pretty much everyone in between, including the other members of the Mamas and the Papas. It’s like getting a meet and greet with all the major musicians of that time! While this is some ways a classic music bio, it’s also a terrific story of a woman refusing to squeeze herself into the mold society expected her to fit. Bigger than life and twice as bold, Cass Elliot made her own rules, and this graphic bio will inspire anyone looking for the courage to buck the system and forge their own path.

Home After Dark by David Small


David Small’s graphic memoir, Stitches, absolutely gutted me when it came out in 2009. Now he has published an equally wrenching graphic novel of small-town, 1950’s boyhood that utterly destroys, in the most cinematic and moving way possible, any nostalgic, rose-colored views of that turbulent time. Russell’s mom dumps his dad for another man, so Russell and his uncommunicative, alcoholic father leave Ohio for California, where his father hopes to bunk with his rich sister until he can get back on his feet. But Aunt June isn’t interested in her male relatives invading her clean, quiet mid-century modern home, and sends them packing pretty quick. After finally finding and renting a room from a kind Chinese couple, Russell’s father finds work at the local prison. Russell starts school and falls in with Kurt and Willie, brutal, bullying teens who smoke, drink and ogle waitresses at the town diner. As he slowly becomes accustomed to his new life, Russell finds himself confronted with a wide array of conflicting male role models. Should he be more like his drunk dad and Kurt: loud, rude and arrogant? Or is he more like like Mr. Mah, his gentle landlord who practices tai chi in the backyard or Warren, the quiet neighbor boy who lives with his grandma and loves all animals? Over the course of one long, savage summer, Russell finds himself mentally and physically tested by all these different versions of manhood as he tries to discover which one fits him best. Small’s evocative panels, full of frowning, sneering faces, dead pets and interior shots of dim, empty rooms grimly foreshadow Russell’s long, tragic journey to self acceptance. Deeply sad, but never despairing, Small’s work luminously captures the dark side of adolescence in a way that still manages to be forgiving. Coming to a library or bookstore near you September 2018.

After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay


Ballers Nasir and Bunny have always been tight, as close as brothers. They play basketball together at Whitman High, and even the fact that Bunny is a far better player doesn’t break their bond. But then Bunny (so nicknamed “Because I got hops,”) is recruited by snooty private school St. Sebastian’s, and just like that, their connection is broken. Now on opposing teams, Nasir and Bunny have stopped speaking to each other. Nasir is pissed that Bunny just up and left, abandoning their team and close knit neighborhood, while Bunny is annoyed that Nasir refuses to understand what a huge opportunity it is for him to play for a school with more resources and a better chance at scoring a college scholarship. It also doesn’t help that Keyona, the mutual friend they both had a crush on, picked Bunny over Nasir. Then Nasir’s troubled cousin Wallace steps into the middle of this silent feud and makes it even worse. Turns out Wallace has some serious gambling debts that need to be paid, debts so big he and his grandma are about to get thrown out of their apartment  because he bet away the rent money. So Wallace starts pressuring Nasir to get some dirt on his ex-friend Bunny that Wallace can use to influence his high school basketball bets. Nasir knows it’s wrong, but shouldn’t Bunny pay for leaving him and Whitman behind? Told in alternating chapters between Nasir and Bunny, this timely, tragic tale of love and basketball is chock full of riveting game and relationship drama that perfectly illustrates and underscores the racial, class and community struggles that are playing out across urban high schools all over America. You won’t be able to stop turning pages until the final buzzer sounds!

All Summer Long by Hope Larson


Remember those good old days of summer before you got roped into horrific high school summer projects/jobs/chores? It was just you, your best friend, a couple of bikes and two months of do-nothing stretching out to the horizon.That’s how it always was for Bina. She couldn’t wait until June so she and her best friend Austin could hang at the pool and add points to their Summer Fun Index (scientifically based on number of video games played, movies watched and stray cats petted, of course). But the summer after seventh grade, Austin has traded the Summer Fun Index for soccer camp, and Bina is convinced that her summer is gonna suck–hard. When her parents lock her out of their Netflix account because she’s “watched a summer’s worth of TV in a week,” Bina is forced to hunt down entertainment elsewhere. Oddly enough, without Austin around, Bina discovers that there’s a whole other world out there of cool older girls, indie music and her own untapped inner talents. This utterly endearing, oh-so-true graphic novel about one rising eighth grader’s summer adventures in babysitting, mean-girl-taming and indie-band-watching will make you feel so nostalgic for middle school that I bet you go dig up your Muji Pen Set and find an old notebook to doodle in. A terrifically un-taxing summer read that you’ll finish in an afternoon and think about the rest of the week!

Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All by M.T. Anderson, Jennifer Donnelly, et al.


This luscious collection of short stories that chronicles the dramatic, sometimes abbreviated lives of the famous medieval English king’s doomed brides is a delicious feast of sex, gossip and politics. Authored by some of the most celebrated of YA hist. fic writers, each Queen tells her story in turn (1. Catherine of Aragon=Candace Fleming 2. Anne Boleyn=Stephanie Hemphill 3. Jane Seymour=Lisa Ann Sandell 4. Anna of Cleves=Jennifer Donnelly 5. Catherine Howard=Linda Sue Park 6. Kateryn Parr=Deborah Hopkinson) followed by a short, often arrogant or peevish epitaph penned by Henry himself, as imagined by M.T. Anderson. While the whole royal assemblage is universally strong, the two standouts for me were Donnelly’s smart, blunt Anna of Cleves and Park’s saucy, sexy Catherine Howard. (This probably had as much to do with their exceptional characterizations as it did with the fact that I knew the least about these two cursed queens going in.) Each fascinating story will inform today’s young feminists about medieval Europe’s strict patriarchal society that forced women to scheme, flatter, manipulate and flat-out lie their way into having a say in their own lives.  By turns naughty, bawdy and downright tragic, there’s not a story here that won’t capture the imagination or fire up the blood of any curious reader who turns the pages. And the most satisfying part of all? That despite all his cruel, violent machinations to secure a male heir, Henry’s throne still ends up passing to one of the most successful rulers of all time–his brilliant daughter Elizabeth I.  Because this book is bound to lead you to many more about Henry and his wives, this is a perfect rabbit hole of a novel to throw yourself down this summer!

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl


Near the end of Beatrice’s senior year at posh boarding school Darrow-Harker, her talented, funny boyfriend Jim was found floating facedown in the local reservoir. Ultimately ruled a suicide, the tragic death and devastating aftermath busted up Beatrice and her tribe of besties: cunning Whitley, brainy Martha, cavalier Kipling and master hacker Cannon. Without Jim, they all drifted apart freshman year of college. Now, over a year later, Whitley has called them all back for a birthday bash at her family’s posh mansion. Against her better judgement, Beatrice decides to go, even though she knows it’s bound to stir up old memories and open new wounds. But she can’t help herself. Maybe together they can finally figure out what really happened to Jim that last night. EXCEPT…(and no spoilers here, this all happens in the first 50 pages and is mentioned on the back cover) they drink too much, get in a terrible car accident and die. THE END? Not quite. Turns out they have all landed in a bizarre time loop called the Neverworld Wake, stuck between life and death. Only one of them is allowed back into the land of the breathing, but how can they make that impossible decision? While they argue and flounder, living the same day over and over, Beatrice sees a chance to discover what really happened to Jim once and for all. But she just might have to die in order to finally know the truth. FRIENDS, this wild book is a offbeat, out-of-the-box mind bender that surprised and delighted me at every turn of the twisty plot. It’s both sci-fi and a mystery, a romantic tragedy and a tragic romance. Perhaps that’s to be expected from the author of the peculiar Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I couldn’t finish that book despite my best efforts, while this one=MIND BLOWN. If you are looking for something fresh to shake up your reading routine, YOU’RE WELCOME.  (And if you’re so inclined, please come back and tell me what you thought about it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.)

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

Monday Charles and Claudia Coleman are the best of besties. They dress alike, dance alike, and since their names alphabetically come one right after the other on class lists, even always sit together in classes at their Washington D.C. middle school. Monday helps Claudia conceal her dyslexia, while Claudia’s home is a quiet place for Monday to hang out when her own house full of siblings feels too chaotic. They talk about every thing from boys and sex to Go-Go music and dance moves. So when Monday doesn’t show up to the first day of eighth grade, Claudia knows something’s wrong. Monday never misses school. Claudia calls her phone, but it’s disconnected. She drops by Monday’s house, but Monday’s mom just yells at her and slams the door. She tries reporting Monday’s absence to her parents, police and teachers, all to no avail. The only person who seems to know something is April, Monday’s older sister. But she refuses to admit that anything is wrong, saying only that Monday is visiting their aunt or father. Where is Monday? What has happened to her? Why won’t anyone help Claudia find her? As the days and then months pass and Claudia tries desperately get anyone to care about her best friend, she begins to uncover disturbing clues that Monday may have been hiding secrets darker than Claudia can even imagine.  This harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story was inspired by #missingDCgirls and the media’s apparent lack of concern for black and Latino teenage girls who go missing. Tiffany D. Jackson seamlessly weaves timely themes about the damaging effects of gentrification on traditionally black neighborhoods and the dangers of overlooking the signs of mental illness throughout this ominously enigmatic page turner. Read it, weep, then become inspired to learn more about these critical issues.

I Am Still Alive by Kate Marshall


Oh my gosh, do I love a good survival story! I mean, real life-and-death kind of stakes where scrappy, puny humans fight against a totally uncaring landscape full of sharp, cold, wet or poisonous obstacles that are either passively or actively trying to kill them. But let’s be clear–I have no desire to start a fire with sticks and moss or skin a squirrel myself.  I just want to read about it from the warm coziness of my couch while drinking tea and munching Cheetos. And it’s totally possible I chomped my way through an entire bag of toxic orange goodness while breathlessly turning the pages of Kate Marshall‘s terrifying tale of endurance and retribution.

Sixteen year old Jess Cooper’s single mom is dead–killed in the same car accident that screwed up Jess’s leg and mangled her face. Jess has no choice but to join her absentee dad, a man whose been off the grid for most of his life and all of hers, in the deep Canadian wilderness. She’s determined to take the first plane she can wave down back to civilization. But that’s before the bad men show up looking for their buried loot. And, you know, murder her dad. (No spoilers–this is all revealed relatively quickly in the first few chapters!) Now all Jess had to do is stay alive long enough to plot her revenge when the men return. But it won’t be easy. Her bum leg makes getting around nearly impossible, she knows next to nothing about living wild, and before they left, the bad men burned her dad’s cabin, along with all his food and supplies, to the ground. Armed with just a few tools she rescued from the ashes and her father’s trusty dog Bo, does Jess have any chance of surviving the brutal Canadian winter? Like a bloodier, more emotionally wrenching version of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, I Am Still Alive marries unrelenting suspense with surprisingly compelling tips on ice-fishing and bad-man-trap setting. I was completely hooked, and you will be too when Alive comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you July 2018.

Tradition by Brendan Kiely


Jules, a smart and savvy senior at the exclusive and expensive Fullbrook boarding school, has had it up to here with the rampant sexism that is allowed to flourish on campus. This year, she’s on a mission. She’s going to make “Fullbrook Academy women-first for once,” and forget all about last year. Last year when Ethan Hackett cheated on her.  Bax, a bewildered, Midwestern transfer student who just wants to play hockey, is really disturbed by the macho bro-culture at Fullbrook. But he hopes if he just keeps his head down and his eyes shut, he can make it through the season and forget all about last year. Last year when he ruined someone’s life forever. Jules and Bax both need a friend and ally, and they find one in each other. After a raucous, drunken secret party in the woods near the school where Jules and Bax each separately come face to face with sexual assault, they decide that enough is enough. It’s time to confront and dismiss the traditions that Fullbrook has held dear for far too long. Traditions that hurt. Traditions that scar. Together with Jule’s best friend Javi and Bax’s crush Aileen, they plot a way to send everyone at school a message they can’t ignore. What they didn’t count on was not being believed. Not being heard. Tradition may be strong. But they are stronger…

This searing, imperative tale of speaking truth to power by Brendan Kiely, co-author of All American Boys conscientiously tackles issues of classism, homophobia, racism and sexism in a way that feels immediate, raw and sadly all too true. Tradition will challenge all readers to think more deeply about the circumstances and situations they accept as “normal,” and question the sanctioned status quo. A significant #timesup title for our turbulent age.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu


Do you know who the powerful Chinese empress Wu Zetian was? Have you ever heard of the three rebel Dominican sisters (Las Mariposas) who defied the dictator Trujillo? Or how about super sexy singer/songwriter Betty Davis? Or passionate Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh? ME EITHER, until I read graphic artist Penelope Bagieu‘s candid, colorful, cartoon collection of girl-power-mini-bios. This unputdownable volume of glorious girls and wondrous women, both notable and not-so, is easily one of my favorite books of the year. In just a few short pages, Bagieu chooses the most compelling tids and juiciest bits of each woman’s life and then illustrates them in tiny, perfect panels that completely captures them in all their funny, fierce femininity. Then she closes each story with a stunning full-color, two-page spread that often left me gasping in awe. I loved DISCOVERING volcanologist Katia Kraft, bearded lady Clementine Delait, and Apache warrior Lozen. And I loved learning MORE about astronaut Mae Jemison (did you know she studied medicine before space?) writer Nellie Bly (who basically invented investigative journalism) and collector Peggy Guggenheim (who discovered and financed practically every major twentieth century artist). The historical list of haut and hip goes on and on, and each page is a visual and intellectual delight. Don’t miss amazin’ Brazen!

I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman


Three star-crossed teens find their way back to love, family and acceptance in Gayle Forman‘s fate-full new novel. When troubled rising pop star Freya takes a tumble off a low bridge in Central Park and concusses a good looking stranger, she has no idea that the random accident will change the course of her life. When depressed tourist Nathaniel is nailed from above by a gorgeous half Ethiopian, half Jewish girl, he feels like he’s either falling in love or suffering from a head injury (and it’s probably a little of both). When broken-hearted Harun witnesses the girl crash land on the boy by the bridge, his first response is to run. He already has enough on his plate between losing his boyfriend and trying to come out to his devout Muslim family. He doesn’t need the added drama of playing good Samaritan to two complete strangers. But then he recognizes Freya. His ex-boyfriend’s favorite singer. Could she possibly help him find his way back into James’ good graces? His decision to help aligns their stars and sets each one on the road towards their destiny. On their own, they are lost, but together they will find their voice, their courage and their identities again. This heartfelt tearjerker, perfectly populated with diverse characters suffering from and solving problems both unique and universal, will leave you gasping, crying and eventually, smiling. Nobody does the Feels like Forman. Find it, read it, and then share it with anyone you love who might be feeling lost.

New York Times YA Roundup


Dear Teen peeps,

Some of you may have noticed that I did not post to RR AT ALL the whole month of February. No, it wasn’t because I was hibernating or binging Netflix shows while the snow flew and the temperatures dropped. It was because I was working on this super-sized round up of some of the latest YA books being written by women of color for the New York Times! Atia Abawi, Tomi Adeyemi, Dhonielle Clayton, Mary H.K. Choi and Sara Saedi have penned vibrant, diverse, thought provoking stories with something for every reader. Here you will find fighters, gods, immigrants, lovers, refugees, royalty, survivors and warriors, in settings both fantastical and utterly realistic, from backgrounds both global and right in your backyard. So take a look and then snag these not-to-missed titles from your library or bookstore soon!


The Cruel Prince by Holly Black


Lots of people have had bad childhoods, but Jude’s takes the cake: when she was seven years old, a green skinned stranger with big teeth showed up at her front door, murdered her parents and then kidnapped her, her twin sister Taryn and older sister Vivi. Turns out the stranger was her human mom’s jilted fairy husband Madoc, who came to retrieve his true child, Vivi, and ended up taking all three sisters back to his castle. Now a teen, Jude lives a weird sort of half life as a human in the land of Faerie. She is never fully accepted by the Folk, but far too steeped in the ways of the Fay to ever live happily in the mortal world. She spends her days training to be a knight and trying to escape the unwelcome attentions of Cardan, a spoiled fairy prince who finds Jude’s very existence offensive. But when a massive betrayal goes down in the royal family, Jude is given the impossible choice to either cut and run, or stay and fight for her place in Faerie. Holly Black deftly handles a huge cast of characters, all of whom Jude must carefully evaluate to decide if they are for or against her. Because if she trusts the wrong person, she may end up paying for for it with her life. Full of intrigue, romance, politics, and enchanting descriptions of fairy food, clothes and weapons, this sumptuous tome will delight both fans of fairies and mud bound mortals. The first book in a planned series, The Cruel Prince left me desperately wishing I could conjure up the sequel!

2017 Top 5


Dear Teen Peeps,

Like last year, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, due to number of tedious, adult-ing reasons. So here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2017. I mean, I could have dragged the list out to ten, but that would have taken away from the absolute awesomeness of these five, utterly top-notch books. 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.


American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Berserker by Emmy Laybourne

Be True to Me by Adele Griffin

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

Vincent & Theo by Deborah Heiligman

 

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins



Three generations of Indian and Indian American women laugh, cry, break up and make up in this past-to-present story of mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins. Tara and Sonia Das begin life as dutiful Indian daughters, but soon veer off onto nontraditional paths after arriving in New York with their parents in 1973. Beautiful, insular Tara wants to pursue an acting career, while her younger sister Sonia becomes a feminist firebrand. When a personal tragedy transforms their lives forever, both girls find themselves at odds with their conventional mother, Ranee, who is confused and even offended by some of their life choices. Fast forward to the near present. When Tara’s daughter Anna joins forces with Sonia’s daughter Chantal at their exclusive Manhattan private school to create a safe space for modest girls, their mothers’ and grandmothers’ DNA shines through, proving that one can be a strong Indian woman AND a proud American at the same time. There’s also loads of romance, travel, cultural misunderstandings and identity epiphanies that any reader will be able to relate to. Mitali Perkins‘ emotionally resonant work could not be more relevant as our divided nation argues endlessly about tangled policies that will decide the uncertain future of our innovators, poets and Dreamers. Read it, and feel the distance close.