Spotlight: In the Role of Brie Hutchens… by Nicole Melleby

I was fortunate enough to read this amazing new middle grade before publication a few months ago, back when it was slated to publish in April. Due to the pandemic, the release date was pushed back to June 30th, and I was invited to be on the blog tour–which I jumped. Here is the synopsis followed by my review (which, oops, was also on the last post on this blog…but I have been working on other things, and more importantly, reading and listening and sharing resources from Black antiracist educators as I prepare to enter the teaching profession. I encourage you to do the same.)

Introducing Brie Hutchens: soap opera super fan, aspiring actor, and so-so student at her small Catholic school. Brie has big plans for eighth grade. She’s going to be the star of the school play and convince her parents to let her go to the performing arts high school. But when Brie’s mom walks in on her accidentally looking at some possibly inappropriate photos of her favorite actress, Brie panics and blurts out that she’s been chosen to crown the Mary statue during her school’s May Crowning ceremony. Brie’s mom is distracted with pride—but Brie’s in big trouble: she has not been chosen. No one has. Worse, Brie has almost no chance to get the job, which always goes to a top student.

Desperate to make her lie become truth, Brie turns to Kennedy, the girl everyone expects to crown Mary. But sometimes just looking at Kennedy gives Brie butterflies. Juggling her confusing feelings with the rapidly approaching May Crowning, not to mention her hilarious non-star turn in the school play, Brie navigates truth and lies, expectations and identity, and how to—finally—make her mother really see her as she is.

In the Role of Brie Hutchens is another true middle school read, with eighth grader Brie lying to her mother to prevent her from seeing her laptop’s screen where she has Googled her favorite soap actress and found some NSFW pictures that she can’t stop looking at. Then the lies continue to to spiral as she tries to make what she told her mom a reality: crowning Mary at an important 8th grade ceremony at the end of the year, which leads her to seek help from her English teacher and the top student, a cute girl named Kennedy. But she can’t stop keeping THE secret of why she was looking at the pictures from her mom. Meanwhile, she wants to audition for a drama school, but her parents are strapped for cash since her dad was laid off, and the school play auditions don’t exactly go to plan.

This book stands out as one of the few I’ve seen to tackle religion not just in its trappings (Catholic school), but in its characters’ discussions of faith as well. Brie isn’t very attached, but she sees how important faith is to her mother, and has a great conversation about it with Kennedy. I also loved the integration of technology and how it helped Brie with her identity, a very realistic element for teens. In trying to find an audition monologue, she finds herself down a YouTube rabbit hole of soap opera coming-out scenes and compulsively makes a list. Brie also makes a great case for how she isn’t “too young to know” her sexuality, and how coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal, but something she’s going to have to do again and again throughout her life.

There are dramatic plot points–but more realistic and grounded than the soaps Brie loves–and during the last half I was compelled to keep reading to find out what would happen. Brie isn’t always the most likable person, but that makes her realistic. The ending is satisfying and sweet. I can’t wait to recommend this book to middle schoolers!

Amazing New Queer Middle Grade Reads

Quarantine hasn’t really be that great for my reading, honestly. But early in it, when I was more motivated, I read these fantastic, recent queer middle grade releases that warmed my heart. I’m so excited to share these with my middle school students when I start teaching next year!

As far as I can tell, this is the first #ownvoices book with a gay boy of color lead in middle grade…AND it takes place in Indiana! Plus, the story is well-paced and engaging, with the overall plot tracking Rahul trying to impress his family (particularly his grandfather, based on a story told about his grandmother) by finding something he can be the absolute best at. Cue shenanigans involving trying out for the football team and going on an audition for a local commercial. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with the pressure of his aunts and uncles joking about him and his best friend, Chelsea, getting married, a bully who seems to have caught onto something about himself he isn’t quite ready to say, and a cute boy he wants to be…or maybe be with. Despite some intense drama and plot points, Rahul eventually comes to a better understanding about who he is and what he can do, and that’s something middle schoolers can relate to and learn from.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

I’ve been a fan of Rebecca Stead since I myself was in middle school and became obsessed with the expertly-crafted, Newbery-winning When You Reach Me. This book is a little younger than that one and Goodbye Stranger, following ten-year-old Bea who tells us the story of her fifth grade year (and some of her third grade year, because it’s important to her current situation as it was when her parents divorced), the year her dad is getting married to his boyfriend, who also has a daughter exactly her age, and she’s ALWAYS wanted a sister!

I love the way Stead crafts her stories. The chapters are short and immerse you in Bea’s mind, as it is truly her telling you the story. She has so much love and heart for her family, but she worries a lot and is holding inside a secret that’s causing her so much guilt. I loved Bea and her big heart, her family, and her Star Trek: The Next Generation watches with her soon-to-be aunt, and I think readers of all ages will fall in love with her, too.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

Unfortunately, this book was pushed from an April release to June, but it’s definitely worth the wait. In the Role of Brie Hutchens is another true middle school read, with eighth grader Brie lying to her mother to prevent her from seeing her laptop’s screen where she has Googled her favorite soap actress and found some NSFW pictures that she can’t stop looking at. Then the lies continue to to spiral as she tries to make what she told her mom a reality–crowning Mary at an important 8th grade ceremony at the end of the year, which leads her to seek help from her English teacher and the top student, a cute girl named Kennedy. But she can’t stop keeping THE secret of why she was looking at the pictures from her mom. Meanwhile, she wants to audition for a drama school, but her parents are strapped for cash since her dad was laid off, and the school play auditions don’t exactly go to plan.

This book stands out as one of the few I’ve seen to tackle religion not just in its trappings (Catholic school), but in its characters’ discussions of faith as well. Brie isn’t very attached, but she sees how important faith is to her mother, and has a great conversation about it with Kennedy. I also loved the integration of technology and how it helped Brie with her identity, a very realistic element for teens. In trying to find an audition monologue, she finds herself down a YouTube rabbit hole of soap opera coming-out scenes and compulsively makes a list. Brie also makes a great case for how she isn’t “too young to know” her sexuality, and how coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal, but something she’s going to have to do again and again throughout her life.

There are dramatic plot points–but more realistic and grounded than the soaps Brie loves–and during the last half I was compelled to keep reading to find out what would happen. Brie isn’t always the most likable person, but that makes her realistic. The ending is satisfying and sweet. I can’t wait to recommend this book to middle schoolers!

Review: Chirp by Kate Messner

  • Genre: middle grade contemporary
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s
  • Publication date: February 4, 2020

From acclaimed author Kate Messner comes the powerful story of a young girl with the courage to make her voice heard, set against the backdrop of a summertime mystery.

When Mia moves to Vermont the summer after seventh grade, she’s recovering from the broken arm she got falling off a balance beam. And packed away in the moving boxes under her clothes and gymnastics trophies is a secret she’d rather forget.

Mia’s change in scenery brings day camp, new friends, and time with her beloved grandmother. But Gram is convinced someone is trying to destroy her cricket farm. Is it sabotage or is Gram’s thinking impaired from the stroke she suffered months ago? Mia and her friends set out to investigate, but can they uncover the truth in time to save Gram’s farm? And will that discovery empower Mia to confront the secret she’s been hiding–and find the courage she never knew she had?

In a compelling story rich with friendship, science, and summer fun, a girl finds her voice while navigating the joys and challenges of growing up.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

Chirp is one of several middle grade books published recently adding to the national conversation on sexual assault and harrassment (usually called something related to “#MeToo,” even though talking about this is nothing new–it’s just louder with several high-profile milestones). Mia is noticing a lot of differences between how men and women are treated, and this brings up an experience she had herself and gives her the courage to speak up about it–even if it wasn’t the worse thing that could have happened. I found this commentary a little overly simplified and clear (and binary), but that seemed suited to the voice and psychology of the age. I loved that Mia’s experience was validated by others in her life, although I questioned why the narrative was interrupted to detail what happened to her in one long infodump chapter. Her trauma elsewhere is pretty evident, so it isn’t inconsistent.

Meanwhile, Mia is living with her grandmother who has just started a cricket farm, but the new business seems to have been sabotaged, and she and her new friend work to figure it out. She attends two different and very cool camps: a junior business creation, where she finds ways to promote her grandma’s business, and “Warrior Camp” where she builds up strength from her shoulder injury from gymnastics, a sport she has left for not only that reasons. I loved the atmosphere of the camps and how Mia met new friends and gained more confidence in new abilities.

The mystery I was the least interested in–I tend to not gravitate toward that sort of plot external to the characters like younger readers–so I ended up surprised at how well it worked out and the big reveal.

I’d classify Chirp for the younger middle grade crowd (maybe 8-11) because I think tweens can process a bit more complexity. I found Mia’s voice fantastic (even in the third person) and appreciated so many elements of the story. I know I need to read more Kate Messner!

Review: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin (Blog Tour)

Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair is a bloody, thrilling revenge fantasy for the girls who have had enough. Golden boys beware: something wicked this way comes.

Jade and her friends Jenny, Mads, and Summer rule their glittering LA circle. Untouchable, they have the kind of power other girls only dream of. Every party is theirs and the world is at their feet. Until the night of Jade’s sweet sixteen, when they crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party. The night the golden boys choose Jade as their next target.

They picked the wrong girl.

Sworn to vengeance, Jade transfers to St. Andrew’s Prep. She plots to destroy each boy, one by one. She’ll take their power, their lives, and their control of the prep school’s hierarchy. And she and her coven have the perfect way in: a boy named Mack, whose ambition could turn deadly.

Disclaimer: As a part of this blog tour, I received an eARC in exchange for posting my review on this tour. All opinions are my own, however.

Content warning for Foul is Fair: rape, murder, suicide attempt, sexism

Foul is Fair is a Macbeth retelling (but from the POV of Lady Macbeth) that I can only describe as “hyperreal.” I’ve seen some Quintin Tarantino comparisons, which seems very accurate based on the third of Pulp Fiction I’ve seen. The writing with its various euphemisms (like wings, claws, and fangs for body parts), the “coven” of girls who aren’t actually magical (but clearly the Witches from the source materials), and the intense violence create this unreal sheen on top of it all. The writing itself does so much to craft the tone and the world. This also makes it a pretty fast read. Just like Macbeth, I wouldn’t call this book realistic, and that’s intentional. (This might also mean it isn’t for you–I don’t think it was for me for that reason.)

“Revenge fantasy,” as the blurb says, is entirely accurate. Jade plots out revenge against the gang of boys who rape her which all works out almost entirely well. I think it’s definitely valid that those who are assaulted/raped experience a need to redefine themselves, rage, and are distanced from their emotions and reality–and as the story goes on, her PTSD creeps through. But if you want a realistic story about trauma and the aftermath of sexual assault, this isn’t it. And so, I think there can be various responses to this. Some might find it an empowering fantasy. But for me, revenge isn’t justice. It’s kind of a superficial, and unfortunately, rape revenge storylines are a trope that feels falsely empowering to me. The way Jade talks about how they “picked the wrong girl” also gave off this “not like other girls” vibes, like she was the strong one to put an end to it. At the same time, I can see it being like one of those fun, over-the-top social commentary movies (preferably not directly by Tarantino).

Sometimes it could feel like it was going through the motions of a Macbeth retelling, but I appreciated the twists near the end. I also had a good laugh how the boy guarding the door was “Porter.” I also appreciated how one of Jade’s friends in her “coven” is a trans girl, although I wish more time was spent with her support systems of her family and her friends than at St. Andrew’s. I was hoping it would cut just a little deeper (no pun intended!) into the humanity of it all and be a little more grounded in reality.

Foul is Fair is for you if you like violent thrillers with social commentary, Macbeth, and the satisfaction of a revenge fantasy toppling privileged rapists. But if you want something a little more grounded in reality, this might not be the book for you.

Review: The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

  • Genre: YA contemporary/alternate universe
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Publication date: February 4, 2020

As a successful social media journalist with half a million followers, seventeen-year-old Cal is used to sharing his life online. But when his pilot father is selected for a highly publicized NASA mission to Mars, Cal and his family relocate from Brooklyn to Houston and are thrust into a media circus.

Amidst the chaos, Cal meets sensitive and mysterious Leon, another “Astrokid,” and finds himself falling head over heels—fast. As the frenzy around the mission grows, so does their connection. But when secrets about the program are uncovered, Cal must find a way to reveal the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.

Expertly capturing the thrill of first love and the self-doubt all teens feel, debut author Phil Stamper is a new talent to watch.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

I generally enjoy alternate universe stories, and I found The Gravity of Us‘s world compelling–where there’s a renowned interested in space exploration and NASA, but it comes with reality TV of the astronauts and their families and a false sense of nostalgia in the 60s. Cal, the main character, is popular on an Instagram-like streaming app and fashions himself as a truth-telling journalist, so an obvious conflict of interest arises when his dad becomes the newest astronaut. This commentary, and a savvy social media journalist teen, engaged and grounded me as a reader.

The biggest strength of this book for me–and this comes with quite a bit of personal bias–is the development of the relationship between Cal and Leon. Cal has anxiety, and Leon has depression. To prevent their relationship from getting toxic, they have important conversations that was great to see modeled in YA (as someone who needed that when I was that age), like how Cal shouldn’t kiss Leon just to make him feel better. Cal’s overall mentality of needing to fix and plan everything is something presented as understandable but that he needs to work on. Cal’s mom is also anxious and recovering from grief, and she’s a lovely character.

I did find the pacing a bit odd. The book isn’t that long, and the eventual turns of the plot felt like they happened abruptly, as well as some aspects of the relationship, despite efforts to acknowledge that. As a result, the stakes didn’t feel quite as high as they needed to be for maximum impact.

I also feel compelled to comment that Leon is apparently from Indiana, from “the suburbs”…of Indianapolis? It doesn’t specify. He talked about corn, which is accurate, but anyone can do that. I learned a lot about Leon’s inner life with his depression and his unsureness about pursuing gymnastics, but his background was hazy. And this is mainly questionable because it’s also mentioned he has “dark brown” skin, but no evidence of any cultural history or perspective–especially as a queer kid–is in the text. I’m not really the best to criticize this, but it reminded me of this article, so I thought I would bring it up here. At the very least, I can tell you that Leon has a very different history growing up as probably one of the few kids of color in a suburb in Indiana AND as a queer kid in Indiana, compared to Cal in Brooklyn. It feels little frustrating when we know so much about Cal’s past.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Culture Popped Open: Episode 6: 2019 Favorites

We released another episode! And we think we’ve settled on a date to release them: Wednesday. Not necessarily every Wednesday (although you’ll definitely get something on Patreon), but twice a month.

This one’s all about our favorite TV, movies, books, musicals, comedy, and other things we discovered in 2019. Most of them were released in 2019, too! It’s a good companion to my Best of 2019 post.

Review: We Used to Be Friends by Amy Spalding

  • Genre: YA contemporary
  • Publisher: Amulet
  • Publication date: January 7, 2020

Two best friends grow up—and grow apart—in this innovative contemporary YA novel

Told in dual timelines—half of the chapters moving forward in time and half moving backward—We Used to Be Friends explores the most traumatic breakup of all: that of childhood besties. At the start of their senior year in high school, James (a girl with a boy’s name) and Kat are inseparable, but by graduation, they’re no longer friends. James prepares to head off to college as she reflects on the dissolution of her friendship with Kat while, in alternating chapters, Kat thinks about being newly in love with her first girlfriend and having a future that feels wide open. Over the course of senior year, Kat wants nothing more than James to continue to be her steady rock, as James worries that everything she believes about love and her future is a lie when her high-school sweetheart parents announce they’re getting a divorce. Funny, honest, and full of heart, We Used to Be Friends tells of the pains of growing up and growing apart.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

Friend break-ups are an unfortunate and painful reality we don’t talk about nearly enough in society, so I was glad to see a YA book address this! And oof, a lot of this ended up hitting closer to home than I expected–with the best friend drifting apart, yes, but also discussions about college, class differences, romantic relationships, and bisexuality. And I originally felt a little disconnected from the book because I didn’t go to a public high school!

This book has a very specific structure, where James’ story starts at the end (the summer after senior year) and goes backward through time to the beginning, and Kat’s goes in the opposite direction. They mostly alternate months, so you don’t see the exact same scenes over again, and you get to see the pieces connect (although I wished I had a physical copy so I could flip back and forth to double-check months) and experience them together and apart. I found the beginning to feel exposition-heavy and a bit neat with the writing–the dialogue is definitely a bit cutesy if witty–but I felt less that way going on, and the situations are anything but neat. While Kat and James definitely had different personalities, outlooks, and voices…I’m not sure that always carried into the actual prose.

Because the story takes place over a year, each character really just narrates every other month, and and there isn’t quite a beginning, there were times where I felt like I was missing pieces of character relationships. But ultimately, it’s all the little things that pull these characters apart. There are a few big confrontations, yes, but both characters have so much going on in their lives from their parents (Kat’s widower dad is dating again; James’ parents’ perfect high school sweatheart marriage breaks up), to relationships (Kat’s boyfriend cheats on her and they breakup, then she falls in love with a girl; James re-evaluates her committed relationship to her now-college boyfriend after her parents split), to major college decisions, to parties. New people get in the way, new developments fail to be reported between them, all creating an atmosphere for distrust and drifting apart. And maybe, their personalities and paths just aren’t as compatible anymore. I really appreciated that both characters were not always likable, and neither was necessarily 100% right about her view of the other.

As I mentioned earlier, Kat and James have a distinct way of speaking and thinking, and that extends to the numerous text conversations (or lack of texting) throughout. Now, the Kindle version of the ARC was not great for formatting this, but I believe there are actually emojis in the text, which is great and I’ve been wondering if publishing and YA specifically has started to include this. (I’m such a nerd when it comes to digital linguistics.)

A couple of other quick things I liked: how grounded the LA setting was, as well as the school social structures, and how Kat’s girlfriend Quinn was so insistent about being seen as a person and not as something perfect.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2019 Reading Wrap-Up and 2020 goals! (With charts!)

Welcome to 2020! That means it’s time for my annual reading wrap-up and goals post. (I read through December 31st. What’s with all the best of the year stuff coming out at the beginning of December?) I refuse to participate in Best-Of-The Decade

This year was…long. Some of these books I look at and think, was that really this year? I finished up essentially all of my college classes–I just have student teaching left–and both semesters were…something. They weren’t bad! It was just a lot of work, and I had a rather irregular class schedule I didn’t like. It’s hard to believe some of my best friends now I only met properly in January!

This year I also started a podcast with one of my best friends, Tay, where we talk about all kinds of pop culture. The genesis for that was actually when we both read Dig. by A.S. King this year (probably my favorite book of 2019) and couldn’t stop texting each other about it. We did an End-of-The-Year podcast there where I talk about a bunch of books I loved (although I may have missed one or two) this year, which is currently on our Patreon and will be released to everyone this Wednesday. We love this little project A LOT.

Like last year, I used the Book Riot spreadsheet chart (here’s their 2020 one!). This year it came with charts that I loved so much, I created them for my wrap-up last year.

Note: I won’t be talking about every individual book, so here’s my Goodreads Year in Review which has them all.

Big-Picture Info

  • Books Read: …80, sort of. This gets complicated.
    • I mark textbooks or collections where I’ve read most of the text, since I read plenty of other stuff that doesn’t get counted.
    • On Goodreads it’s 81 because I did mark a textbook that I read less of, but I had some comments I wanted to make about it.
    • I did not finish (DNF) two books…one was an ARC of Brief History of Another Stupid Heartbreak, which I genuinely wanted to read but it just needed something shorter at the time, and the other was the audiobook of Hold Still by Nina LaCour, where I really liked the writing but it was too emotionally heavy for me to listen to at the time.
    • I also read one unpublished manuscript!
  • Pages read: 18,070
  • Audiobook time: 3 days, 8hrs, 26 mins (hours
  • Average Days Per Book: 14 (definitely reading more than once at a time)
  • Average Pages Per Day: 49.37
  • Average Books Per Month: 6.67

Last year I read 74 books and 15, 258 pages. My average days per book was lower (12), but I read slightly fewer pages per day (42). I did not make a “books read for school,” but I counted, and it’s 15 books mostly in their entirety (not including the textbook I marked on Goodreads that I read considerably less of), and then I read 1 book for the #ClearTheAir professional development book club, 2 that the students were reading in an English class I had field experience in, 1 picture book read aloud to me in a class, and I re-read Hamlet because I was assistant dramaturg for the university’s production. So that is 20 books I did not completely choose to read myself, which is 25%, compared to 29% last year. It probably helped the only literature class I took spring semester was a poetry survey!

This is quite different from last year! It’s definitely skewed by picture books (March), graphic novels (May), and reading a lot for school.
I like short books.

First of all, the “purchased” section includes all the texts I read for class. The “borrowed” books were the four picture books we had for students to pick up at an event I was involved with, and when it got slow, we read. The “other” is the picture book one of my instructors read to a literacy education class I was in. Otherwise…I’m happy with the ratio, but I do want to read more backlist books I own.

I’m pretty pleased with this on paper, but I think if you took out the books I had to read for class, it would be a bit more even. And I didn’t even get to a lot of new releases I’m excited about! Next year, though, I want to focus more on backlist.

Genres and Forms

This is like a full 10% more nonfiction than last year, yay!

This is hard to compare to last year because last year didn’t have any “nonfiction prose” or “novella” categories. Last year I read more plays, though (mostly because of my Shakespeare class).

I like this ratio, but I also wish I read more middle grade…I didn’t read any until the summer, I think!

First, let me explain the “magical realism” section, whose full title (cut off here) is “Magical Realism/Fabulism/Surrealism,” which are related but not quite the same, and some of these are contemporary books where the reality is altered because of the main character’s mental state (The Whispers, Jesus’ Son, How It Feels to Float). Okay, so anyway…I like that this is quite diverse. Most of the sci-fi and fantasy book were either Discworld books (satire) or comics, though, so I didn’t read many traditional novels in that genre. Contemporary continues to be my focus, though. The “current affairs” includes politics and social science, and that was where I put a lot of the Baldwin and White Rage. I created the education category because it just fits what I was reading for school and for my own professional development the best. The one classic was revisiting Hamlet because I was working on a production of it.

Reading Demographics & Diversity

First of all, I read 0 books in translation this year. I didn’t save the graph because it’s just a circle. Welp.

The “multiple genders” section refers to books with more than one author where those authors did not all share the same gender, like anthologies. I’m glad to have a growing nonbinary section made up of multiple authors, which was only one author last year.

I really want this to be more 50/50. Last year I actually read 39% by authors of color, although that was helped by my Modern Japanese Literature class. So this is an L for me.

This gets complicated in nonfiction…I marked White Rage as main character because it’s ultimately about African-American history in America, but I marked Being the Change as only the author because even though she talks about herself, it’s a teaching strategies book, so there isn’t really a character? But, yeah, I tend to look for #ownvoices books but some books

This is always a big ? because it is not always easy to find how authors identify. Also, this is really the number of books with queer authors, not the authors total–several of them are James Baldwin, and there’s two Shaun David Hutchinsons and two Ashley Herring Blakes in there.

Again, I almost always look for #ownvocies books, but I’m not always sure.

Favorite Reads?

I read a LOT of books I recommend this year, but these are the ones that absolutely stand out because of their content, reading experience, and my own personal reaction and relation to the text. These are also in the order I read them because I refuse to rank. Links are to reviews where possible.

Did I meet my goals from last year?

Here are the goals I made last year that I basically forgot I made…

  • Read 100 books (I think I can??)
    • I actually was “on track” by the end of the summer but then…spring semester hit.
  • Read more nonfiction, especially non-memoir
    • This was accomplished, if only because of my James Baldwin class and my education reading. I also read more nonfiction overall.
  • Read at least 50% books by/about POC
    • I genuinely forgot about this and was not thinking about it consciously this year so it needs a do-over. My ARC reading was skewed pretty white, since I don’t quite feel like I should be the one reviewing books about (at least) characters of color.
  • Read even more queer books!
    • I definitely increased this from 20% queer authors to 34.5% this year, and from 28.4% queer main characters to 38.8% this year (of course this is sort of just based on what I know about the
  • Read more sci-fi/fantasy novels
    • I did read four Discworld books this year! Which is like a fantasy satire pastiche and probably not what I meant, but…hey.
  • Read more books by/about Asian-Americans
    • Yeah, compared to last year when I had my Modern Japanese Literature class, I feel like I failed, but I think I read more books in this category on my own this year? #Ownvoices books I did read were Darius the Great is Not Okay, Like a Love Story, Tell Me How You Really Feel, The Leavers, and more of the Ms. Marvel comics. The Sun Is Also a Star features a Korean-American main character perhaps based on the author’s huband. In nonfiction I read Being the Change and Naturally Tan.
  • Read more books I already own from my Kindle
    • I read The Sun Is Also a Star and Another Country (although that one was for class)! I also bought and read Red, White & Royal Blue, which doesn’t quite count, and Jesus’ Son, but that one was for class and just on a Kindle sale. Everything else was either an ARC or a library loan, oops.
  • Read more contemporary literary fiction
    • Ummm aside from class reading, I read The Leavers and Less.

2020 Reading Goals

  • Read more middle grade!
  • Read more from my Kindle library (shouldn’t be too hard as I’m going to be traveling)
  • Read more science fiction
  • Read more adult literary fiction
  • Read fewer 2020 releases: there are several I’m really excited about, but I’m still catching up on 2019 releases–not to mention all the years before that! I want to scale back my Netgalley use and focus.
  • Since I’m not stuck with a lot of predetermined reading for class, I want to read 50% or more by authors of color.
  • More audiobooks–I have a commute so that should be easier.
  • More rereads? Perhaps on audio?
  • READ MORE PLAYS
  • Read more books set around the world…not necessarily translated, but there are some great adult and middle grade novels I have or am interested in set in other countries (historical or the present).

Culture Popped Open Episodes 4 and 5: Fleabag, Noelle, and Christmas Movie Favorites (Now on Spotify!)

We have been so busy over at our podcast that I forgot to update in a blog post! We’ve recently released two more episodes, one discussing Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit show Fleabag, and another on the Disney+ Christmas movie Noelle and our other favorite Christmas movies.

In other exciting news, we are now on Spotify so feel free to listen to us there!! Meanwhile, we’ve been putting more content (memes, opinions, livetweets, favorites lists) on our Twitter and Instagram.

Here are our other links to listen and support us:

Review: Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

  • Genre: YA contemporary
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Publication date: October 29, 2019

In a community that isn’t always understanding, an HIV-positive teen must navigate fear, disclosure, and radical self-acceptance when she falls in love–and lust–for the first time. Powerful and uplifting, Full Disclosure will speak to fans of Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon.

Simone Garcia-Hampton is starting over at a new school, and this time things will be different. She’s making real friends, making a name for herself as student director of Rent, and making a play for Miles, the guy who makes her melt every time he walks into a room. The last thing she wants is for word to get out that she’s HIV-positive, because last time . . . well, last time things got ugly.

Keeping her viral load under control is easy, but keeping her diagnosis under wraps is not so simple. As Simone and Miles start going out for real–shy kisses escalating into much more–she feels an uneasiness that goes beyond butterflies. She knows she has to tell him that she’s positive, especially if sex is a possibility, but she’s terrified of how he’ll react! And then she finds an anonymous note in her locker: I know you have HIV. You have until Thanksgiving to stop hanging out with Miles. Or everyone else will know too.

Simone’s first instinct is to protect her secret at all costs, but as she gains a deeper understanding of the prejudice and fear in her community, she begins to wonder if the only way to rise above is to face the haters head-on…

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

First of all, I want to issue a little disclaimer that I’m a huge admirer of Cam, the author. I’ve followed her on Twitter for years and while she’s a bit younger than me, I’ve looked up to her thoughtful writing about pop culture, and she was really the first person to show me that teens (like me at the time, like the students I will teach) can have a writing career and presence online, instead of just awkwardly waiting to turn 18 and graduate or something like I did. (I mean, I tried, but it was rather anonymous and I didn’t talk about it to people in my life). Anyway, enough gushing. When she sold a YA book, I was super happy and knew I would read it when it came out, and then I got the ARC for it so here we are.

I think Full Disclosure can be labelled as an “issue” book, which is disingenuous for two reasons: 1) there are very very few (if any) books out (not just YA) about people living with HIV in the modern day with our modern medical knowledge/abilities, and 2) I think that label has the connotation of a very serious, sad book without other dimensions outside the issue. Yes, this book is very informative about the reality of being HIV+ today. But it’s also got a super cute romance, joyful moments of just being a teenager (especially the very last scene), and lots of musical references. This is definitely a theatre kid book–Simone is the new student director of RENT (the most appropriate musical in this case), and not all the actors like her feedback.

I appreciated that while there is a romance, Simone’s world still heavily involves her two best friends and her two fathers, because those aspects of your life don’t and shouldn’t change when you enter a new relationship. Sure, there are rocky moments along the way, especially with her friends. I also loved that Simone is questioning her sexuality but because of media and her friends (who are bisexual and an ace lesbian, I believe) who run the school’s GSA, she isn’t sure if she “counts” because she’s really only liked on girl. It was very realistic and something I don’t often see, and it resolved well.

I have to admit, I was invested in Simone’s relationship with Miles and her friends and how her HIV status affected those interactions and her emotions that I didn’t find the overall “plot” of this book–that someone is threatening to expose her status by leaving notes in her locker–very necessary. Mysterious notes is also a plot I’ve seen before–and don’t get me wrong, those are some of my favorite books–but it didn’t seem necessary here. BUT. The payoff knocked my socks off. The note-writer has such human and complex motivations, and Simone’s emotional journey made the book so much more powerful.

Bonus: Apparently in this book’s universe, there is no Cats movie. Bless.