Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Review: Slay by Brittney Morris

Title: Slay
Author: Brittney Morris
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BYR
Release date: September 24th 2019
Pages: 323
Genre: Young Adult contemporary/sci-fi(?)
Source: Purchased audiobook through Audible
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By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the "downfall of the Black man." But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for "anti-white discrimination." Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?



I LOVED listening to Slay; it's a super fun and unique story with a strong voice and fantastic characters that tackles difficult conversations within an entertaining story!

The characters are what make this novel so great. I loved Kiera; she has a strong voice and a unique but relatable personality. I loved reading about her dynamics with her friends at her predominantly-white school who put her in uncomfortable situations with their ignorance and problematic questions, with her parents, whose respectability politics have kept Kiera from confiding in them about Slay, with her moderator Cicada who later opens up and becomes her friend, her sister Steph, who was probably my favorite character, and her boyfriend Malcolm, whose storyline was very different than I'd expected, in a good way. 

Slay does a fantastic job of addressing social issues and systemic racism without being an "issue book." The racism Kiera has experienced in other video games and the backlash Slay receives are integral to the story, and anti-racist politics are at the heart of the novel, without Slay becoming a book "about" racism. The conversations differences between all of the Black characters demonstrate the complexities of anti-racist politics in a very accessible way.  I also loved the discussion of intersections of anti-racist and feminist politics, especially through the conflicts between Steph and Malcolm. More so than being about racism and anti-Blackness, this novel is grounded in Black culture and celebrates Blackness. This novel would be great to recommend to anyone who might be interested in learning about these issues but doesn't want to read an "issue" book, or even anyone who is simply interested in the video game element and general story but who will also learn something along the way, or of course anyone who is interested in video games, etc. and doesn't fit into the white male geek demographic.

Even though I personally am not a video game person, I loved reading about Slay. I honestly don't know how realistic the game is--I don't know much about game developing, and it seems like the author does, so maybe I am just ignorant of this, but I was under the impression that developing an online game with hundreds of thousands of players would require time and money that a high school student wouldn't have. I've seen others categorize this novel as sci-fi (and some of the technology does seem a little futuristic), so maybe if you read this novel as taking place in the future, that wouldn't be the case anymore, but I just assumed it was a contemporary while reading. Regardless of the logistics, however, reading about Kiera and other characters playing this game was super fun, and especially seeing the different cards that are all grounded in Black culture and celebrating Blackness is so important.

Asides from the creation of this video game, though, there were a few more elements that I just didn't find realistic or had some questions on and that needed more explanation. It felt a bit too convenient that, despite this game being played by Black people all over the world, the important players end up being people important in Kiera's life. Additionally, I was surprised that, when the media discusses whether Slay is "racist" for creating a space exclusively for Black people and excluding non-Black players, a professor of African American Studies agreed that excluding white players is "racist against white people." Maybe I am just biased towards Ethnic Studies scholars, but I can't imagine any African American Studies professor agreeing that racism against white people exists rather than explaining that racism is systemic and that reverse racism does not exist. Of course, we didn't get to know this character very well, so maybe he had a reason not to speak up in this way, but these are just a few points that made me pause and that didn't seem entirely realistic or fully explained.

I loved listening to Slay as an audiobook. I am not an audiobook person, but I've recently given audiobooks another try in order to have something to listen to while going on walks during quarantine; Slay is actually the first audiobook that I've listened to from start to finish since going on road trips with my parents as a child... I loved the narrator who read Kiera's chapters, and the format of having short interspersed chapters about other characters, read by different narrators, worked really well in the audiobook format. This book convinced me to give audiobooks another shot!

I highly recommend Slay to anyone looking for a unique, fun story that celebrates Blackness and addresses a number of important issues! I'm excited to read Brittney Morris's second novel, The Cost of Knowing, which, since I was so late to this party, already comes out next month!

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Review: The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

Title: The Sound of Stars
Author: Alechia Dow
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Release date: February 25th 2020
Pages: 432
Genre: Young Adult sci-fi
Source: Purchased
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Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population. Today, seventeen-year-old Ellie Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. With humans deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, emotional expression can be grounds for execution. Music, art and books are illegal, but Ellie still keeps a secret library. When young Ilori commander M0Rr1S finds Ellie’s library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. Humanity’s fate rests in the hands of an alien Ellie should fear, but M0Rr1S has a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous journey with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while creating a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.

I was super excited about this book both because I love Alechia Dow on Twitter and because the human-alien love story sounded super cool. Not only did this book meet my high expectations and tell a great story; every single detail about it is adorable and the book made me smile throughout. 

The best thing about this book are the characters. I absolutely loved both Ellie and M0Rr1s. Ellie is a fantastic character through which to explore the alien invasion; I love how well the novel blends her experience during this alien invasion with her awareness that for her, as a queer Black woman who suffers from anxiety, the world was never really safe to begin with. Her dedication to saving humanity from this alien invasion, and her simultaneous skepticism of humanity being worth saving, make for a really interesting backdrop to this species survival story. M0Rris is a little harder to connect with than Ellie since he's, ya know, an alien, but I still really loved him. The parallels between Ellie's experiences as a Black woman and M0Rris's experiences as a labmade Ilori (a second-class citizen on his home planet) are really well done, especially in conjunction with both of their relationships to their own sexuality. Their romance is adorable, and I loved them together; I do think that it moved a little fast so that part of their connection was difficult to grasp, but I also think that makes sense under the circumstances.

I also absolutely loved Dow's writing style. Dow somehow managed to make this book feel very informal or conversational, in the sense that the first-person narration seems realistic and fun, while simultaneously dropping some gorgeous one-liners on you that will make you stop and marvel. 

This book makes tons of references to books and music, and a lot of those books are YA, which made me so happy. The whole love story starts with M0Rr1S reading Ellie's copy of The Hate U Give, and I don't know what could be better than a love story grounded in love for The Hate U Give. Ellie makes references to characters from lesser-known YA novels, too, which made me so happy to see. Asides from all of these references just being super fun, they felt very affirming both in the sense of establishing YA as "real" literature (whatever that means) and of creating a connection between Ellie and the reader, so every single one of them made me super happy (except for the Harry Potter references which, ya know, didn't age well--but since Dow wrote this novel before She Who Shall Not Be Named ruined our childhoods, I can't really fault her for that). These references made The Sound of Stars read like the most ~YA~ YA novel ever, which I loved.

My only issue with the novel was the pacing. I felt like some parts in the beginning and middle were a little slow, while the ending happened REALLY fast, to the point where I felt a little lost. I'm not sure how to feel about the ending; I loved all the plot twists and how everything came together, but I still have so many questions! I feel like we need a sequel to this novel, but from what I understand, this is going to be a stand-alone...?

I highly recommend The Sound of Stars if you're looking for a sci-fi book that simultaneously explores a number of important issues and will make you smile the entire time you're reading it. Everything about this novel felt very unapologetically YA, so even the things I've critiqued (the pacing of the plot and how quickly Ellie and M0Rr1S fall in love) kind of works and just made me love it even more. I'll definitely be reading whatever Alechia Dow publishes next!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Review: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer


Title: Midnight Sun
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Publisher: Little, Brown BYR
Release date: August 4th 2020
Pages: 662
Genre: Young Adult paranormal romance
Source: Purchased
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When Edward Cullen and Bella Swan met in Twilight, an iconic love story was born. But until now, fans have heard only Bella's side of the story. At last, readers can experience Edward's version in the long-awaited companion novel, Midnight Sun. This unforgettable tale as told through Edward's eyes takes on a new and decidedly dark twist. Meeting Bella is both the most unnerving and intriguing event he has experienced in all his years as a vampire. As we learn more fascinating details about Edward's past and the complexity of his inner thoughts, we understand why this is the defining struggle of his life. How can he justify following his heart if it means leading Bella into danger?

This book feels like it should be in a category of its own; any rating would be justified because I absolutely loved and despised this book at the same time. For nostalgia and making my inner 12-year-old happy, this book gets 5 stars; for everything else, probably more like 2 stars. I pretty much hated every second of this book, but hating it made me so happy, and I wouldn't have wanted this book to be any other way.

Being in Edward's head is, in a word, terrible. He is one of the most annoying characters I've ever met. If you thought that Bella's falling in love with a boy she barely knew was bad, she actually seems much more reasonable after reading Midnight Sun because Edward is so much worse. His obsession with Bella is a lot to handle, even though I do think the book does a good job of explaining how the allure of her scent and his inability to read her thoughts create this mysterious appeal. His constant whining and self-hatred are simultaneously annoying and reasonable, since he, ya know, is a monster. Edward appears entirely incompetent and as if he would be completely useless if he wasn't able to read other people's thoughts, and especially watching him learn to understand physical attraction as a confusing and new sensation despite being 104 years old is simultaneously the most annoying and funniest thing about this book. This book did not make me like him whatsoever, but it was extremely fun to despise him while reading.

The ending of this book was so terrible to read from his perspective. It's not surprising, since we know what happens in New Moon, but it was so sad to read the ending of the first book that was so happy in the original but knowing that Edward is planning on leaving. Before reading this book, I was hoping Stephenie Meyer would rewrite the whole series from his perspective, but after reading that ending, I fully understand why she doesn't want to write New Moon from Edward's perspective, and I honestly don't know if I could handle reading it. If you're going to read this book, prepare to be emotionally gutted by the ending.

My favorite thing about this book was finding out more about the vampire world and the things Bella didn't get to see. The more detailed explanation of Alice's vision and Jasper's skills, specifically, were super cool. I loved seeing how the whole family interacted with each other, and how they have thought-conversations with Edward. Everything between the baseball scene and the terrible ending was super fun to read, and I was on the edge of my seat with suspense despite obviously knowing the outcome. Seeing what the Cullens' attempts to protect Bella looked like that we didn't get to see, since Bella wasn't with Edward for most of that, was super cool, and I especially loved seeing the way they worked together and used their individual abilities to make that happen. I wish we had gotten even more insights into the vampire world and their family dynamics!

I was expecting Stephenie Meyer to maybe have updated some elements of the story after all the critiques she's gotten, but... Midnight Sun is just as problematic as Twilight. The appropriation of Indigenous culture is just as bad in this version, and Edward's stalker-like and controlling behavior, his denigration of teenage girls other than Bella, and the generally outdated ideas of gender roles and relationships are even worse than they were in Twilight. In a way, that was frustrating to read again, but, in hindsight, anything else wouldn't have felt authentic, and since the target audience for this book is presumably older (since I'm assuming it consists mainly of those of us who loved Twilight as tweens and teens), I'm hoping this at least leads to some reflection and allows us to think about how and why we idealized these books when we were younger.

This book was terrible for all the same reasons Twilight is bad, and those are the same reasons that I wholeheartedly love this franchise. I think this book is required reading for anyone who loved the series when they were younger; the nostalgia alone makes it worth it, and even the parts I hated I loved to hate.

Whether you love or hate or love-hate Twilight, lease consider donating to the Quileute Tribe whose culture Stephenie Meyer appropriated! They have not received any compensation for this widely successful franchise that was built on their culture and legends. Their land is at sea level and some of the tribe's homes have been destroyed by flooding, as well as being located in a tsunami zone, so they are collecting donations in order to move to higher ground. I donated the same amount of money that I spent on this book to somehow compensate for participating in the appropriation of their culture, and I would encourage you to do the same! You can find out more and donate at https://mthg.org.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Review: This Is My America by Kim Johnson

Title: This Is My America
Author: Kim Johnson
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Release date: July 28th 2020
Pages: 416
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Purchased
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Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time--her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy's older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a "thug" on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town's racist history that still haunt the present?


A day after finishing this novel, I am still in awe, and struggling to express how important and how well-done This Is My America is. Part mystery novel, part exploration of the criminal (in)justice system, incarceration, and institutionalized racism, gripping and beautifully written, I can't recommend this book enough.

I am so glad to see a book that explores policing and incarceration in relationship to racism, rather than just police brutality. While of course discussions of police brutality and the state-sanctioned murder of Black people are incredibly important, these murders are just the tip of the iceberg of the broader system of policing and incarceration that are deeply tied to institutional racism. Kim Johnson does a fantastic job of illustrating how these systems affect Black families and allowing young readers to understand the history of racism in the criminal (in)justice system. It is heartbreaking to see what these systems have done not only to incarcerated people, but also to the families they leave behind, like Tracy and her family, who, regardless of the outcome of this story, will never be able to get back those 7 years that her father spent behind bars for a crime he didn't commit--and to the other families around Tracy's who will never get justice. This is such an important story for teens (and adults!) to read about.

This book does a fantastic job exploring a number of issues related to the criminal (in)justice system and racism in nuanced ways. The discussion of the idea of "good" or "not racist" white people is especially well done in relationship to Dean, Tracy's white best friend, and his family (who employ Tracy's mom). Especially the scene where Dean admits his own biases is really well-done. The novel clearly demonstrates how "good" white people abet racism and how racism is passed down in white families, encouraging important conversations about what it really means to be actively anti-racist.

Additionally, Beverly is a fascinating character who encourages important conversations. A Black woman whose dad was killed and whose brother was injured by the police, Beverly became a police officer in order to try to change the culture of policing from the inside. Other characters (especially Jamal) criticize this choice, encouraging important conversations about the possibility of police reform and how to enact change. I was a little disappointed by how neatly this conflict is wrapped up in the end, and especially since this book came out at a time when ideas about abolishing or defunding the police have become more mainstream, I could see how some people might critique that this take isn't radical enough or perpetuates the idea that there are some good cops and some bad cops, rather than critiquing the whole structure of policing. However, I think it opens up the opportunity to have really important conversations about different approaches to enacting change, especially since the whole premise of the novel illustrates the deep ties between the police and white supremacy, pushing back against the "bad apples" narrative that some discussions of police brutality rely on.

While this book is most explicitly about incarceration and criminal (in)justice, it's also a fantastic mystery novel. In order to clear both her dad's and her brother's name, Tracy launches her own investigation into the two murders. The mystery had some great twists and turns, and is a big part of what made this novel such a page-turner; especially in the second half of the book, once Tracy has revealed some secrets and found some other suspects, is super intense, and I couldn't put the book down. I especially loved how seamlessly the unveiling of the town's racist history and present is tied to this mystery element. Part of me even wishes that this book was more explicitly marketed as a mystery to attract mystery readers who might not otherwise be as willing to pick up a book marketed as a racial justice book--but regardless, if you're a fan of YA mysteries, you definitely need to pick this one up!

This Is My America is a fantastic read. With nuanced and complex characters, powerful writing, a gripping mystery, this novel makes accessible conversations around a range of topics relating to policing, incarceration, racism in the criminal (in)justice system, and white supremacy. Highly recommend!

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Review: Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

Title: Four Days of You and Me

Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release date: May 5th 2020
Pages: 352
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Purchased
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Every May 7, the students at Coffee County High School take a class trip. And every year, Lulu’s relationship with Alex Rouvelis gets a little more complicated. Freshman year, they went from sworn enemies to more than friends after a close encounter in an escape room. It’s been hard for Lulu to quit Alex ever since. Through breakups, make ups, and dating other people, each year’s class trip brings the pair back together and forces them to confront their undeniable connection. From the science museum to an amusement park, from New York City to London, Lulu learns one thing is for sure: love is the biggest trip of all.

I absolutely love Miranda Kenneally's Hundred Oaks novels; every single book in that companion series is fantastic, and I've gotten used to knowing exactly what to expect when opening a Kenneally novel. So I was excited to see what she would write next, but also a little apprehensive about how this novel wouldn't have some of the elements I've grown to love of the Hundred Oaks novels, like the setting, the sports, and the cameos of previous novels' characters. I'm not sure if it was just because my expectations were so high because of my love for this previous series, but unfortunately I did not enjoy this one as much as the Hundred Oaks series.

I liked the sound of the format of this novel in theory, but I didn't end up being the biggest fan of the execution. In theory, it sounds super cute to follow a couple on just four individual days over four years and to see them grow and change over those years. But the novel actually intersperses the chapters on those four days with chapters about the previous year, so we actually get to read about highlights from the couple's life throughout the whole four years, just with the main emphasis being on their school trips. This isn't necessarily an issue for the story, but it felt a little strange when this book is explicitly presented to just be about four days--I think I would have preferred if the previous year's events had just been included in flashbacks and things like that rather than getting their own chapters and quite this much attention, because it took away from the originality of just narrating these four days. Additionally, this is super nitpicky, but two of the school trips last more than one day, so even just the chapters about the school trips weren't only about four days. And also, more fundamentally, do any high schools really have their students go to both New York City and London for their school trips!?? 

The characters in this novel are alright. They are decent characters, but I didn't love them as much as I loved the Hundred Oaks couples. One of my favorite things about the Hundred Oaks series is reading about each main character's passion for their respective sport and learning so much about their sport and the life of someone who dedicates their childhood to something like that. Lulu is definitely also passionate--she is a very driven graphic novel writer, and she is a vegan who advocates for animal rights--but for some reason I didn't feel her passion as much as I did the Hundred Oaks characters'. Maybe this is just because I always loved learning so much about their respective sports that I usually knew nothing about, while Lulu's passions are ones I am already much more familiar with? But for some reason, I just felt like Lulu wasn't as fleshed-out and didn't have as much personality as Kenneally's previous characters. I did, however, really like the secondary characters, and it was great to see how Lulu's friendships and relationships shifted and solidified over the four years. 

Miranda Kenneally knows how to write some great romance, and the chemistry between her characters was always one of the best things about her Hundred Oaks books. But the chemistry in this one fell flat for me. Other characters in the novel make comments about how it is clear that Lulu and Alex are destined to be together, but I just couldn't see anything like that. I actually feel like we didn't get to know Alex well enough as his own person, and that we didn't get to see enough banter or flirting between Lulu and Alex to really feel their chemistry. Maybe this is just because of the format and because the novel spanned such a long time period (by YA standards) that there wasn't enough space for these every day-types of interactions, but I just felt like something was missing. Lulu and Alex were cute together, sure, but this novel didn't have me as emotionally invested in the protagonists' relationship and rooting for them to be together as much as the Hundred Oaks novels did.

I feel bad for how negative my review sounds since I love this author, and maybe I'm not being fair by comparing this book to the Hundred Oaks novels so much. If I hadn't come in with such high expectations and the hope that this would be similar to the Hundred Oaks novels, I think I would have enjoyed it more; this novel is definitely still a cute romance with a unique format. But because of my love for Kenneally's previous books, this one just wasn't up to par. But of course I'll still read whatever Kenneally writes next, and am hoping I'll connect more with her next book again.


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