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Review: The Ballad of Darcy and Russell by Morgan Matson

The Ballad of Darcy and Russell by Morgan Matson

The Ballad of Darcy and Russell
Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster
Published May 7, 2024

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About The Ballad of Darcy and Russell

Darcy believes in love at first sight. Even though it’s never happened to her, she’s spent her whole life waiting for that magical moment, hoping that when she meets the right guy, everything will fall into place perfectly.

But right now, her life is anything but perfect. Heading home from a music festival, engine trouble means she’s stranded at a Nevada bus station until morning. Even worse, it’s the day before she leaves for college, her phone is dead, and she has no cash. Darcy’s convinced nothing good can come of this night…but then she meets Russell. Cute, nice, funny, and kind, this is the guy—and the moment—she’s been waiting for. As they walk and talk, the two connect, and Darcy is able to put aside all her fears and doubts about the future to focus on this perfect guy.

Over the course of one fateful night, Darcy and Russell discover things they never imagined about each other and themselves. But can you really know someone after only a handful of hours? Is it possible to fall in love in less than day? Before they part, both their lives will be changed, and Darcy and Russell will have to decide if it’s worth saying hello when you know you’re destined for a goodbye.

My Review

Until this book, I’d never read anything by Morgan Matson, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The swoony storytelling reminds me a bit of Kasie West, but with a little bit more physical romance. The Ballad of Darcy and Russell features big, blended families and complicated relationships with parents as Darcy and Russell transition from high school to college.

The only part that really gave me pause in the story is near the beginning, when Darcy and Russell meet and leave the bus station together to look for a phone charger. If Darcy were my friend, I would have encouraged her not to leave the bus station with someone she’d never met, especially if she didn’t have the ability to use her cell phone. At first, I thought they left the bus station at night, but then I think it turned out to be late afternoon.

I wanted to enjoy the romance blossoming between Darcy and Russell, so I put all that aside as the story progressed. Their exchanges over puns and fun facts were cute and highlighted their well-suited relationship. The information reveals happened at great moments, and Darcy’s reaction made a lot of sense. Her response to unexpectedly meeting a large group of people made sense, too.

The descriptions of everyone hanging out together and the ease between them despite the nature of some of their relationships felt genuine. It made me want to hang out with a group like that. Those scenes really captured how inviting that crew was and how much Darcy longed for connections, even if she didn’t recognize it at first.

All in all, this was a fun summer romance. It’s exactly right for a beach or poolside afternoon.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
A few minor characters are BIPOC. Two girls (minor characters) are in a relationship. Lots of sets of twins mentioned or appearing in the book.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
A small number of F-bombs scattered throughout. No other swearing.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. A couple swims in their underwear and kisses. One scene shows a couple tumble into bed and then fades to black after clarifying that each partner checks in with the other and makes sure they’re okay at every phase of the encounter.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
References to a bus station in Vegas at night not being the safest place for a girl traveling alone.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Gender Queer
Maia Kobabe
Lion Forge Comics
Published May 28, 2019

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Gender Queer

In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, GENDER QUEER is here.

Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, GENDER QUEER is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

My Review

I think what’s really cool about this book is that the author takes time to give clear, well-explored explanations of key moments in eir life when eir identity came into focus. Maia Kobabe diligently and openly explains eir relationship with eir body as a child, an adolescent, and later as an adult. Why did female pronouns feel so wrong for em? Why do sexual fantasies feel so much more satisfying to em than experiences do?

Having these conversations plainly and openly offers solidarity to others having similar experiences. It shows people who have similar questions that they’re not alone. They’re not the first ones to feel a disconnect with their bodies. It also provides a roadmap for people who do not identify as genderqueer. Reading a book like this, a story that details someone’s personal experience, allows readers to bring questions to a safe space where there’s no judgment or intrusion. Reading about Maia’s experience allows us to listen and cultivate empathy for others who may have a different life experience than we do.

Banning Gender Queer

One of the reasons I opted to read this book is because I hear it discussed so often in the context of being banned in schools. If you’ve been on my blog awhile, you probably already know that I’m not a fan of book bans, and it’s not a position I came to lightly. The core of the decision really is this: as a parent, my job is to be part of the decision-making about books my child reads. It is not my job to decide which books are okay for someone else’s child to read.

With that said, I think GENDER QUEER brings some important topics to the table for discussion. It does address some mature topics, so I think it would generally be more appropriate to older readers.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 16 up.

Representation
Maia identifies as genderqueer and uses Spivak pronouns (e/em/eir), which are a set of gender-neutral, grammatically singular pronouns. Some other people appearing in the memoir are queer as well.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used very infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
References to gay pornography. References to sex. In one scene, Maia very briefly outlines with a partner the things e would not feel comfortable doing sexually. One line later states that e and eir partner have made out and had sex. In one scene, Maia lists a snippet of a sexually explicit conversation e had with eir partner and the divergence of eir feelings about the fantasy of the experience versus the actual experience.

Maia is also very open about eir personal experience with arousal and masturbation. E explains these feelings as part of a larger explanation of eir asexuality and/or gender dysphoria. It didn’t come across as something meant to be sexy. Instead, it appeared to be a thoughtful examination of how eir body reacts to touch and visual stimulation and how that might differ from others’ experiences.

There are a few panels that show some cartoon nudity. One panel shows two men kissing from their hips upward. One shows two men facing each other, referencing a fantasy Maia had based on Plato’s SYMPOSIUM. A couple show Maia from the side, sitting on a toilet, after e has discovered the start of eir period. One page shows Maia undressing for an examination with a gynecologist. One panel shows em naked from the front.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Maia describes the pain of a gynecological exam as feeling like e has been stabbed through the abdomen. The illustration shows a torso without gender details with a blade stabbed through the abdomen. Another illustration shows a similar image, but from a side view.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog.

Review: Better Must Come by Desmond Hall

Better Must Come
Desmond Hall
Atheneum
Published June 4, 2024

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About Better Must Come

Barely Missing Everything meets American Street in this fiercely evocative, action-packed young adult thriller that looks at the darker side of light-filled Jamaica and how a tragedy and missing drug money helplessly entangle the lives of two teens who want to change their fate.

Deja is a “barrel girl”—one of the Jamaican kids who get barrels full of clothes, food, and treats shipped to them from parents who have moved to the US or Canada to make more money. Gabriel is caught up in a gang and desperate for a way out. When he meets Deja at a party, he starts looking for a way into her life and wonders if they could be a part of each other’s futures.

Then, one day while out fishing, Deja spies a go-fast boat stalled out by some rocks, smeared with blood. Inside, a badly wounded man thrusts a knapsack at her, begging her to deliver it to his original destination, and to not say a word. She binds his wounds, determined to send for help and make good on her promise…not realizing that the bag is stuffed with $500,000 American. Not realizing that the posse Gabriel is in will stop at nothing to get their hands on this bag—or that Gabriel’s and her lives will intersect in ways neither ever imagined, as they both are forced to make split-second choices to keep the ones they love most alive.

My Review

One of the things I love about a good YA thriller is how fast it feels to read them. This one is no exception. The early chapters start out a bit slow, with the real plot taking off a little before the 100-page mark. Once that acceleration happens, though, buckle up. From there on, I felt like I couldn’t look away from the page for a second.

Deja and Gabriel each have chapters from their points of view. Sometimes, several chapters in a row follow one person’s viewpoint before switching back to the other person’s. Though less predictable, the switches happen at critical moments and build a lot of tension.

I think I’ve only read one other book set in Jamaica (a memoir called Funny Gyal by Angeline Jackson and Susan McClelland), and I’ve never visited, so I’m not very familiar with the landscape. I thought the descriptions of the setting did a great job anchoring the story and helping me picture the scenes without slowing down the action.

The relationship between Deja and Gabriel carries its own tension. It doesn’t dominate the story but adds a lot of interest, especially for Gabriel as a character. Ultimately he has to make a choice whether to help Deja or take action to protect himself and his best friend. I liked the way this part of the story resolves. It feels both realistic and satisfying.

All in all, readers looking for books in international settings will find this one a fresh, intense read. It’s also a great choice for readers who enjoy crime thrillers. Definitely a great summer read!

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Deja and Gabriel are Jamaican.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used somewhat infrequently. Several F-bombs and some Jamaican swear words used in intense moments.

Romance/Sexual Content
Some attraction between a boy and girl.

Spiritual Content
Deja and Gabriel both seek spiritual counsel from a local pastor. Deja references praying when she’s scared. She says she wants to believe in God but hasn’t seen a lot of evidence in her life that He’s real.

Violent Content
Gabriel is a member of a posse, or gang and carries a gun. Someone discovers a man gravely injured from a gunshot wound. Someone discovers the bodies of two young men. People, including corrupt police officers, threaten one another at gunpoint. More than one scene describes an intense chase, in which someone flees from others who intend to harm them.

Drug Content
Gabriel finds evidence that his aunt is using heroin. She has a history of drinking too much as well. He asks her to get treatment, but she refuses. Gabriel encounters a man who is high on cocaine. He sets out to find a case of drugs that’s gone missing.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Where Was Goodbye? by Janice Lynn Mather

Where Was Goodbye?
Janice Lynn Mather
Simon & Schuster
Published April 30, 2024

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About Where Was Goodbye

A teen girl searches for closure after her brother dies by suicide in this breathtaking novel from the author of Learning to Breathe and Facing the Sun.

Karmen is about to start her last year of high school, but it’s only been six weeks since her brother, Julian, died by suicide. How is she supposed to focus on school when huge questions Why is Julian gone? How could she have missed seeing his pain? Could she have helped him?

When a blowup at school gets Karmen sent home for a few weeks, life gets more things between her parents are tenser than ever, her best friend’s acting like a stranger, and her search to understand why Julian died keeps coming up empty.

New friend Pru both baffles and comforts Karmen, and there might finally be something happening with her crush, Isaiah, but does she have time for either, or are they just more distractions? Will she ever understand Julian’s struggle and tragedy? If not, can she love—and live—again?

My Review

If you know me, you probably know why this book would be difficult for me to read and review. I also think it’s a really important topic and one I want to see young adult literature cover and cover well, so I wanted to read it anyway.

Karmen’s quiet life at home in the Bahamas turned upside down the night her family learned about her brother’s death by suicide. As Karmen tries to piece together what happened and why, she hunts down people who knew Julian and the places he visited, including the cliffs where he ended his life.

At its core, Where Was Goodbye is a grief journey. It’s Karmen wrestling with unanswered questions. Her anger. Sadness. The emptiness around the dining room table. The growing distance between her parents.

People around Karmen react differently to grief as well. Her parents handle it in different ways, some causing additional harm to other relationships. Karmen’s best friend wants desperately to help, but doesn’t seem to understand what she’s going through. Instead, she reduces it to a clinical process.

I like that the author set the story in the Bahamas. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read off the top of my head that’s been set there. The setting is significant in a couple of places in the story, but many other scenes include quiet cues about Bahamian food and culture.

In the story, Karmen also learns to skateboard. She primarily uses the board for transportation and to connect with others.

Identifying with Karmen’s grief and her questions in the wake of her brother’s death felt easy. Her parents’ grief felt raw and real, as did Karmen’s. I like that the author was careful to avoid language and statements that stigmatize depression and suicide, though the story does include a few people harassing Karmen about her brother’s death.

This is definitely a book to approach with care, but it may be helpful for anyone who knows someone who has thought about suicide or experienced depression.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Karmen’s brother has died by suicide. Karmen and her family are Black.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between a boy and girl.

Spiritual Content
Karmen and her friend attend youth group at their church. Karmen ends up ducking out for the service.

Violent Content
References to her brother’s death and specifically how he died. A boy at school says something cruel to Karmen, referencing her brother’s death. Later, a tabloid reporter tries to pressure Karmen into talking about her family’s loss. One scene includes suicidal ideation and a description of a moment when someone nearly attempts to end their life.

Drug Content
Karmen goes to a bar with friends. She sips a drink they give her and realizes it’s alcoholic. One of her friends gets very drunk. Another person offers to drive the group a short distance. Karmen gets out of the car when it becomes obvious the driver is drunk.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Girl in the Window by Lindsey Hobson

The Girl in the Window
Lindsey Hobson
Publisher
Published

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About The Girl in the Window

When Izzy breaks a window in the creepy house next door, her summer plans suddenly go from playing baseball in the backyard to doing yard work for mysterious Mr. Johnson to pay for the damage. Just when she thinks it can’t get any worse, she encounters a ghost girl with a cryptic HELP ME.

As Izzy begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the girl’s death, she discovers a whole new meaning to being friends… forever.

My Review

Though the book is a little dark and creepy, it does a great job balancing those elements with goofy kid shenanigans like playing baseball and performing chores as penance. I liked that the characters weren’t always what they seemed to be at first. Izzy has to learn more about people and relationships as she tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to the ghost girl who asks for her help.

Izzy has two siblings. Her older sister, Anna, and younger brother, Steven. Their dad has died before the story begins. I kind of wish there had been a little more to the backstory about the loss of their dad because who their dad is intersects with the story in some interesting ways. Izzy briefly flashes back to the car accident when her dad died, but she doesn’t think a whole lot about it other than in that scene and immediately afterward.

The book’s short chapters and low page count (under 200 pages) make it a pretty quick read, too. It’s very easy to just-one-more-chapter your way all the way to the end of the book.

I think readers who enjoy stories with a ghostly presence in them will like this spine-tingling tale.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Major characters are white. One minor character has lost an eye and wears a patch.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
Some discussion about whether a boy has a crush on a girl.

Spiritual Content
One character is a ghost.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Izzy hears rumors that a little girl was poisoned to death. References to someone injuring someone else and causing them to lose their eye. References to the death of a child.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Northranger by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Northranger
Rey Terciero
Illustrated by Bre Indigo
HarperTeen
Published June 6, 2023

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Northranger

In this swoony and spooky teen summer romance graphic novel set on a Texas ranch, sixteen-year-old Cade Muñoz finds himself falling for the ranch owner’s mysterious and handsome son, only to discover that he may be harboring a dangerous secret.

Cade has always loved to escape into the world of a good horror movie. After all, horror movies are scary–but to Cade, a closeted queer Latino teen growing up in rural Texas–real life can be way scarier.

When Cade is sent to spend the summer working as a ranch hand to help earn extra money for his family, he is horrified. Cade hates everything about the ranch, from the early mornings to the mountains of horse poop he has to clean up. The only silver lining is the company of the two teens who live there–in particular, the ruggedly handsome and enigmatic Henry.

But as unexpected sparks begin to fly between Cade and Henry, things get… complicated. Henry is reluctant to share the details of his mother’s death, and Cade begins to wonder what else he might be hiding. Inspired by the gothic romance of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and perfect for fans of Heartstopper and Bloom comes a modern love story so romantic it’s scary.

My Review

I really wanted to read this book when it came out, but my review calendar was out of control, so I bought a copy to add to my TBR stack, and was super excited to get to it finally. NORTHRANGER is inspired by Jane Austen’s classic Northanger Abbey, and like that novel, it features a main character who loves spooky stories. The lines between his favorite movies and real life begin to blur in some interesting ways, giving the story a suspenseful edge without any true horror elements. It’s got more of the fun, ghost stories by the campfire as a kid vibe to it.

I really liked both Cade and Henry as characters. They have really different personalities, and the panels show a lot of facets to them. I also thought the way the story showed the tension between Cade and his family because of his identity and how he internalized pressure and judgment from them was very well done.

It took me a while to finally get to read this one, but I’m so glad I did. Terciero is definitely an author I’ll be following for future books. I can see HEARTSTOPPER readers liking this one, especially the sweet M/M romance elements.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Cade is Latine and his stepdad and younger sister are also Black. Cade and another character are gay.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between two boys.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Cade hears rumors about a possible murder and coverup. Brief racist and homophobic comments appear in the book as well.

Drug Content
One character is an alcoholic and drinks in several scenes.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog.