Must-Reads of 2019 So Far…

I’ve never recapped my personal best-of reading list so early in the year before, but 2019 is already off to such a great start I’m making an exception. The biggest silver lining of February’s snow show was getting more time to read. Here are just a few of my faves so far, in no particular order because these books are amazing and I refuse to rank my favorite children books.

Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan
Recommended for fans of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu.

I’m convinced I will always 100% love everything Renée Watson writes. This book hit so many high notes and addressed so many topics important to me that I really just want to read it again.

Best friends Jasmine and Chelsea are fed up with the way female students are treated at their supposedly progressive high school, so they start a Women’s Rights Club. Poems, essays, and videos go into their club’s online blog, Write Like a Girl. The blog goes viral, but online trolls escalate tensions in real life and the blog gets shut down by a condescending school administration. Jasmine and Chelsea aren’t ready to go quietly into the night–not when they know they are reaching other students who are facing the same misogynist treatment. How will they balance their need to help and be creative while not further angering their school’s administration?

The way that feminism, racism, body shaming, and everything else is addressed was just 10/10 perfect. The essays, poems, and playlists that the characters create for the Write Like a Girl blog were my absolute favorite part. It was like getting a very rad nonfiction bonus in my fiction book.

I fought for them. I cried for them. I cheered them on and didn’t want their story to end. These are multidimensional characters written authentically and I’m so here for it.

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren Recommended for fans of The Cutting Edge and The Everett Silvertips.

This book is for anyone like me who was completely obsessed with the film The Cutting Edge–where a hockey player and a figure skater are paired up for the Olympics–who also wanted a sequel to be about hockey.

Holland is the only girl on her high school’s hockey team and she’s used to holding her own skating with the guys–even though it means dealing with the misogynist insults from the small hockey town’s good ole’ boys. But when she’s selected to represent her team on national television to help sway the public to vote for a major hockey tournament to be held in her hometown, Holland will have to confront her own self-doubts and fears that she might not be good enough to be on the boys’ team.

Oh, and she’ll also have to deal with her changing feelings towards her bossy team captain who she’s starting to realize might not be her frenemy after all. Maybe, just maybe, her frustrations stem from strong romantic feelings for him that she’s ignored for too long.

Cold Day in the Sun is full of feminism, the Midwest, small-town life, and a romance that will hook you and not let you go.

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
Recommended for fans of historical fiction with a sharp social justice edge.

As soon as I finished this smashing book I immediately missed the residents of The Paragon Hotel. Especially Blossom. And Max. And Nobody. And okay, everyone. It’s literally everyone.

I spent several days utterly invested in this story of a white woman who goes by the name Nobody. She flees the Mob in 1921 after having to fake her death. Rescued by a concerned train porter, she is allowed to stay in an all-African American hotel in Portland. The Paragon Hotel’s residents are reluctant to welcome her, as having a white woman in their rooms will only draw negative attention from the bigoted community. Soon these fears become reality. Nobody and the hotel’s staff and residents are thrust under the KKK’s magnifying glass as they all search for a missing 6 year old foundling they’ve all been collectively raising from infanthood.

The pacing is great, dipping back into Nobody’s past when relevant, and showing how she learned to survive. The author turns phrases like pancakes and if I were highlighting all the clever passages the pages in my copy would be nearly solid yellow.

This book destroyed me in a good way.

Even though this is fiction, I learned a lot of disturbing things about the KKK’s nonfictional influence in Oregon. I’m likely to start digging into the Northwest Room for more information about this time period in Oregon’s past.

Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehrig
Recommended for fans of Leverage, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and heist novels.

I was immediately hooked at the premise of a heist novel starring teenage drag queens, and it only went up from there.

Margo isn’t your typical teen. By day she’s a socialite the paparazzi can’t get enough of. By night she’s a highly successful cat burglar. She and her four best friends, all of whom are teenage drag queens, each have their own reasons for doing what they do. The one thing they have in common? They’re damn good at stealing. But when a routine job goes wrong, they’ll need all their skills, training, and friendship to not only survive but to stop the mastermind who is determined to out them all.

There’s love, sex, violence, friendship, redemption, and huge helpings of both snark and bonding. If you’re looking for a fast-paced wild ride of a novel–look no further.

So let’s hear it. Which books have hit the tippity top of your favorites so far this year? Leave your recommendations in the comments. Who knows? Maybe one of your favorites will hit my next best-of list. Which judging by the way this year is shaping up might be sooner than we both expect.

Hey! You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

Whenever I hear the Beatles song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” I think of the loneliest 3 A.M. soul huddled in bed scribbling in a notebook about how much in love they are but they can’t tell anyone and it’s eating them alive. Or maybe that’s just me. Last week.

We live in an age when we can declare our feelings from the rooftops, hire a sky writer, and hire a four man mariachi band to follow our love interest around (for some reason all of my ideas would probably land me in jail or with a glovebox full of restraining orders.) We don’t have to hide our love. Unless that love is for your sister’s husband. But that’s a story for another day.

In John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Cyril Avery is born in Ireland at the end of WWII. His mother, a 16-year-old unwed mother, is chased out of town by the parish priest. She travels a few hours away and has her child. She gives him up for adoption. Cyril is adopted by two people who should have never been parents. They aren’t cruel to him, but they aren’t very loving and always remind him he’s not a ‘real Avery.’

When Cyril is 8 he meets Julián Woodbede, a boy who is everything Cyril is not: beautiful, bubbly, and beloved by almost everyone. When Cyril reaches his teens he realizes he’s in love with Julián. But this is 1950s Ireland where God’s hand is in everything and being gay is illegal. Cyril never confesses his love to Julián, although that love is the only thing he holds onto as he grows up.

Sex is never a loving event but furtive and quick, something done in the shadows or bathrooms. The threat of police raids hangs over every encounter. Cyril makes a life changing decision that sets him on a path he never expected, throwing his life into chaos. Will Cyril become loved and be able to love in return or will he spend the rest of his life sitting on his bed and scribbling about love in a notebook? Will he return to a changed Ireland where loving a man is considered a heavier sin than birth control?

The Heart’s Invisible Furies left me in tears. And I don’t cry uncontrollably. Unless I’m watching Dumbo. God, cue the water works on that one. But this book still has me wondering how Cyril’s doing and if he ever truly found the love he needed. I wonder if any of us find the love we’ve always needed.

On the Come Up

Is it possible to wait months for a book’s release, get an advance copy, geek out about getting an advance copy, forget about said advanced copy, get bogged down in work projects, read some less-fulfilling books, wait on the hold list for the now newly-released book, finally get your turn with the book, then remember the advance copy buried on your desk? Yes, it would appear that this is possible and I can prove it. That’s why I am only now gushing over Angie Thomas’s (relatively) new novel On the Come Up.

On the Come Up is set in Garden Heights, the same neighborhood as Thomas’s incredible debut novel, The Hate U Give, and follows a teenaged aspiring rapper named Bri Jackson. Bri’s childhood has been informed by several traumatic events. As a young girl Bri lost her father, a rapper on the cusp of stardom, when he was murdered in front of her house. This terrible event devastated Bri’s mother who subsequently suffered from a years-long battle with substance abuse and addiction. As a result, Bri and her older brother spent a significant portion of their childhood living with their strict, god-fearing grandparents before their mother was able to regain her sobriety and reunite with her children.

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At age 16 Bri is an incredibly precocious rapper and somewhat ambivalent student with a quick-fire temper and a burning desire to make it big and earn the money to help her family. When a video of her battle rapping goes viral, Bri realizes that her dreams of hip-hop stardom could become reality. But the closer Bri gets to realizing her goal, the more slippery it becomes. A racially charged incident with school security leaves Bri suspended, then some of her angrier lyrics lead to misinterpretation, overwrought outrage, and media hysteria. Bri must also decide who to trust with her career – her devoted aunt with a penchant for neighborhood trouble or her father’s slick talking former manager.

At the same time that Bri is trying to jumpstart her career, she is also dealing with plenty of personal issues. From family conflict, to the stresses of poverty, to discrimination and bigotry at school, the challenges of everyday life are fraying Bri’s nerves. And then there are the boys! There’s Bri’s best friend who she has long had feeling for. But he just started dating someone else. And Curtis the wise cracking jerk who nobody takes seriously until Bri notices that he is hiding depth behind his jackass facade. As Bri’s personal life, family history, and rap god aspirations begin to collide she must contend with not only neighborhood beefs and career goals, but figuring out how to stay true to herself in a world determined to tear her down.

Angie Thomas is an incredibly skilled writer able to deftly balance the gross injustices of structural inequality, the unrelenting traumas of being a black woman in America, and the less weighty but still-urgent drama of teenage life. All of her characters are both relatable and realistic, and she has mastered the critical skill of capturing the voices of young people in a way that never feels contrived. Thomas was an aspiring teenaged rapper herself and Bri’s raps are as impressive as Thomas’s prose. In fact, I’d recommend listening to Thomas deliver some of these lyrics, as you can in this video, to get a better sense of the skill that Thomas possesses as an MC and writer. My favorite part is the dexterity of her flow when she rhymes coroner with corner. And if you’re looking for a soundtrack while you read, we have CDs by many of the artists Bri mentions in the book, including J. Cole, Rapsody, Kendrick, and Eric B. & Rakim, and you can stream or download a ton more for free with Hoopla!  

Succulent and Sultry

If Christine Mangan’s debut novel Tangerine was not on your radar when it released a year ago, you may want to check it out now. Mangan draws on her rich memories of Tangier with a seductive style and a mystery that cannot be ignored.

Starting with the prologue, hints of madness give the reader a subtle sliver of what lies ahead. The narrative alternates between Alice, a young woman living on a monthly allowance from a trust, and Lucy who grew up living in an apartment over the garage where her father worked.

Lucy’s scholarship affords her an opportunity to attend Bennington Women’s College, only a few miles from the small town in Vermont where she grew up. Such a fate grants her access to a life she’s only heard of. Is it by chance or is it random that Lucy and Alice become roommates?

Alice is in the charge of her doting aunt who’s become like a parent after the death of Alice’s own parents. Their deaths were an accident for which Alice believes herself to be at fault. This fact has left her withdrawn and bereft.

They say opposites attract: Alice is shy and quiet, Lucy confident and bold. The two form a friendship that grows over the course of time. They make plans to travel after graduation, with Alice generously offering to pay Lucy’s way to Paris.

Lucy draws Alice out of her grieving and Alice is delighted to have a friend and confident in Lucy. She shares her deepest secret about the tragic loss of her parents. Lucy lets out bits and pieces of her past keeping elements of her life secret, but she revels in the closeness and camaraderie she shares with Alice.

A well-developed plot unravels beginning in Tangier, 1956. Alice is living in a small sultry apartment married for convenience to John, who unlike Alice is swept up in the exotic allure of the place and its people. Alice is stuck: gone is the light-hearted care free young college woman who’d blossomed in the years spent with Lucy.

And then one day out of the blue Lucy shows up in Tangier at Alice’s door— unexpected and uninvited.

This is where the mystery and intrigue begins. Who is telling the truth? Why is Alice not excited to see her old college roommate? How did Lucy discover where Alice is living?

Mangan masterfully gives shape and presence to her characters while skillfully building the readers understanding through the fluctuation of narration. As revelations grow, so to does the suspense. We learn the shocking reason why Alice did not stay in contact with Lucy. And we find that Lucy is cunning and clever and much, much more.

Though I’m bursting to say more I dare not!

Fame Adjacent

Something weird happened to me when I was a kid. I was on a TV show, and afterward, everyone on it became famous except for me.

This is how Fame Adjacent by Sarah Skilton begins. What appears to be a monologue in front of a live studio audience slowly reveals itself to actually be Holly Danner’s introduction in group therapy. Like many former child actors, as an adult Holly has found herself in rehab. She’s an addict, but it’s not what you think. Holly isn’t addicted to painkillers, alcohol, or gambling.

Holly is an internet addict.

That’s right. Internet addiction is an acknowledged and treatable problem in this book. Patients’ phones, tablets, laptops, and smart watches are locked up upon arrival. There’s no television, because television is likely to remind patients what they’re missing during their internet withdrawal. Patients are encouraged to participate in group therapy, play board games, and generally relearn how to unplug, connect with other people, and most of all get a good night’s sleep. There are no devices, and no online connections.

Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to conquer. There’s the paranoia that the whole world is going ahead without your knowledge or permission. Swiping on unswipable things, like the view out a window, are common causes of crying breakdowns. Restless hands don’t know what to do with themselves, so talismans like stones are offered as a way to keep busy hands occupied.

And patients’ focused addictions are varied. One patient is addicted to popping videos–that would be YouTube videos of pimples being popped, cysts being lanced, etc. Another patient is obsessed with comparing her life to other moms’ seemingly perfect lives on Instagram, to the point of extreme depression and withdrawing from her real-life family. These addictions all got so huge they ruined the patients’ lives and make them take refuge in rehab.

Holly isn’t just addicted to surfing the internet, or using a specific app. She has recently become obsessed with her former castmates’ lives and telling the world that she was a part of their success, even if no one has ever heard of her. Best known for her role in the early 90s kids’ show Diego and the Lion’s Den, Holly was never able to replicate that success. She eventually faded into insignificance while everyone else went on to be super-huge mega stars.

What sent her into this tailspin was the announcement of a 25th anniversary reunion show with the entire cast. Everyone, that is, except for Holly. You see, Holly wasn’t invited–and something inside of her snapped. No one ever uses the phrase “psychotic break” but I read between the lines. After she lost her job, Holly’s family staged an intervention, which is what gave her the wake-up call she needed to seek professional help. But the timing is perfect. She figures she can go to rehab for the recommended six weeks, “get cured,” and still make it back to San Diego in time to crash the reunion show to set the record straight and give her former best friends a very large piece of her mind. On national television. Why not?

Then she starts making a connection with a fellow patient, Thom. He’s the whole reason she staged her introduction as a nightclub act. He tells every new patient in group therapy, “Pretend it’s your nightclub act,” but she’s the first person who actually took him up on it. He won’t tell Holly what his specific internet addiction is, but she realizes it truly won’t make her think less of him if she finds out what it is. That’s because she’s starting to realize she cares about him as more than just a fellow patient.

Thom completes his rehab and is released at the same time Holly discovers that the date for the reunion show got changed. Now she’s got less than three days to get from Ohio to NYC with no car, no credit cards, and no prospects. Except for Thom, who refuses to take her–or does he?

What starts out as a fascinating look into the world of internet addiction, mega-celebrity, and friendships gone wrong takes a drive into romance and that great American favorite–road fiction! Yes readers, we have ourselves a book that’s one part rehab, one part road trip, and 100% hilarious, heartwarming, and introspective.

Choices will be made. Hearts will be broken. But one thing is uncertain: will Holly get to the show on time? And if she does, what is she actually going to tell her former BFFs and the millions of people watching live at home?

I sadly identified with Holly a bit. Like Holly, I went through a period after high school where I broke it off with some friends who I felt only used my friendship when it was convenient for them. Holly and I are also the exact same age, so all of her cultural touchstones really hit home with me. And then there’s her voice. The snarky comedian who tends to put others before her. Sound familiar? I became emotionally invested in seeing Holly through to the very last page.

If you want to find out how Holly handles being on the sidelines of stardom, you’ll want to place a hold now so you can read Fame Adjacent when it comes out on April 9th.

Until then, I’m going to try to cut back on my internet time and increase my face-to-face time with the people I love. After all, no amount of Reddit AMAs or YouTube videos can ever come close to in-person conversation and making memories.

Anxiety, Hell’s Angels and Haiku

It’s all there in Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law by Robert Siegel.

What’s the key thing writers need the most? Raw material of course. Author Robert Anthony Siegel has a goldmine of raw material living in a New York City duplex with his parents, Stanley and Frances, and trying to make sense of his childhood.

Dad is a charismatic criminal defense attorney, bringing all kinds of questionable characters home. Young Robert accompanies his dad to Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse parties and dines with drug dealers and possible murderers.

Mom takes Robert to MoMA and the Whitney to show him paintings by Motherwell and Rothko, to counterbalance Dad’s lowbrow Brooklyn background and make sure there is art and culture in his life.

Complex doesn’t begin to describe Dad. The reason his clients love him is that he is an old-school lawyer, with a gift for story telling in front of the jury and throwing in Shakespeare quotes to boot. He rescues his clients time and time again. Dad’s depression is eased by lots of antidepressants, consuming huge quantities of food and spending money as fast as he gets it – even a duffel bag full of cash (a gift from a grateful client). His depression is especially intense after the DEA bring charges against him and he goes away to prison for a year.

Told in a personal essay style, this memoir is one you can’t put down. At first you feel like you’re careening around roads on the edge of a cliff, but the author’s skillful writing keeps you grounded, entertained and delighted right up to the book’s end. This is a reading experience like no other.

And where does the Haiku come in? Toward the end of the book Robert, who has spent years learning to speak Japanese and to learn about Japanese culture as a way of coping with his life, explains it best in the very touching chapter “Haiku For My Father.” As his father stumbles toward the end of his life, Siegel is reminded of the last haiku of Basho Matsuo, helping him make sense of not only his father’s life, but his own as well. Maybe it even explains the reader’s life also.

A Book Where Another Teenager Dies

I have no problem staying five feet away from the man I love, mainly because he doesn’t exist. The problem is getting one to scale my fortress of acerbic and self-deprecating sarcasm. Picture it: me in another 40 years, dead in my kitchen with my 22 cats eating my face.

That escalated quickly.

In Rachael Lippincott’s Five Feet Apart, 17-year-old Stella has spent her life in and out of the hospital with cystic fibrosis. She finds herself in the hospital for a month’s stay as she builds up her lung capacity and is dosed with antibiotics. She’s climbed the lung transplant list and now all she has to do is stay healthy enough to get that lung. Stella is in control of her illness and is getting healthy and nothing is going to stop her.

Famous last words.

Will also has cystic fibrosis. The rule with CFers is they have to remain 6 feet apart from one another at all times to keep from infecting one another’s fragile lungs. Will’s CF comes at a higher risk: he has B. cepacia, an antibiotic resistant infection. People with B. cepacia aren’t eligible for a lung transplant because the thought is if they get a lung transplant it’s a waste of a good organ.

Will’s been all around the world but not as a tourist. He’s been in hospitals trying drug trial after drug trial to treat his B.cepacia and nothing has worked. This time he’s in the hospital for a new clinical drug trial. His lung capacity is supremely low and he has no faith the new drug will work. But Will has a plan. In two weeks he’ll turn 18 and be able to make his own decisions. He’ll unplug himself from all the machines, leave the hospital, and go see the world he’s only seen from hospital windows.

As you have probably guessed, Will and Stella fall in love but they can never touch. The rule is they have to stay six feet apart. Stella decides to make her own choice, and take back a bit of her life. She changes the six feet rule to five feet. It might not seem like much, but it makes Stella feel like she’s not being controlled by her sickness.

Told from alternating perspectives, Five Feet Apart is not only about falling in love. It’s also about deciding on a future when it seems like there isn’t one. The world could probably learn a thing or two from Stella and Will about surviving and keeping the fire of hope alive.

And don’t worry. They don’t die. I wouldn’t dangle this book in front of you if another teenager died. Then again, my narration can’t always be trusted. I mean, my face is going to be eaten by a large amount of cats 40 years from now. Can you trust a book review from someone like that?

Just read the book. It’s worth it.