Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley | Goodreads

Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release: January 31, 2017
Source: Review copy from publisher
Fifteen-year-old Aki Hunter knows she’s bisexual, but up until now she's only dated guys—and her best friend, Lori, is the only person she’s out to. When she and Lori set off on a youth-group mission trip in a small Mexican town, it never crosses Aki's mind that there might be anyone in the group she’d be interested in dating. But that all goes out the window when Aki meets Christa.
I've been hooked on Robin Talley's writing ever since I read an ARC of her debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, three years ago. So when a copy of her most recent release showed up in my mailbox, I jumped at the chance to read and review it. And while I didn't end up loving Our Own Private Universe quite as much as the author's previous works, I found it to be enjoyable, cute, and educational, making it a solid addition to Talley's lineup of books about sexuality, gender, and self-discovery.

What truly makes Our Own Private Universe stand out is its honesty. The characters aren't perfect, and they aren't polished; they're real-life teenagers looking for a memorable summer and hitting some roadblocks all the way. Aki's point of view contains plenty of cliché, typical-teen lines ("my dad is so embarrassing" shows up more than once), and her story certainly doesn't lack a healthy dose of high school drama—although never to the point of gratuity. I've seen some reviews criticizing these aspects of Our Own Private Universe (and understandably so—some readers may end up occasionally annoyed by the younger-teen narration). But it's also important to remember that plenty of real teens speak and behave like Aki. There's nothing wrong with that, and they deserve stories as do cosmopolitan protagonists with poetry on the tip of their tongues.

Plus, just like teenagers in real life, the characters in this book consist of more than summer-romance lust and superficial arguments; they also talk about their religion and mission-trip volunteer work, debate public health and other issues, and more. Aki and her friends contain multitudes, and they're great reminders not to write off 15-year-olds just because they complain about their parents being a bit overbearing.

Best of all, the characters have real, lifelike, messy conversations about sexuality and identity, learning about both themselves and each other. Characters talk about the difference between being bi and pan and the difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. They discuss the fact that bisexual people can prefer one gender over others, hypothesize about how to label themselves, and learn about how to practice safe sex.

Along the way, of course, they make mistakes and express ideas that aren't always completely true, but always in the sake of learning. I don't identify as bi, so I can't specifically speak to the accuracy of any bisexuality representation, but to me, Aki's process of questioning her sexuality felt raw and relatable. Sometimes it seems as if Our Own Private Universe is trying a bit too hard to educate rather than simply tell a realistic story, but overall I deeply appreciated the message that it's perfectly okay to question your sexuality and explore different labels—no matter how old you are. Aki's story has the power to reassure readers, encourage them to further research different terms, or even provide them with a label that fits their feelings—and what could be more powerful than that?

Additionally, I appreciated the role religion plays in the characters' self-discovery and coming-out narratives. Since the story takes place on a youth group mission trip, every character comes from a Christian background, which impacts their openness (or lack thereof) about their identities. The characters' story arcs aren't completely cheerful and blissful (some church members are entirely accepting while others simply aren't), but the overall feeling is one of progress and hope. Our Own Private Universe features a fantastic cast of characters who largely use Christianity as a reason for inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and it strikes a dynamic balance between the progress that's been made in religious communities and the work that's yet to be done.

All in all, Our Own Private Universe charmed me with its summer romance, had me invested in its character development and ever-building interpersonal drama, and left me thankful for its representation of the sometimes-confusing process of questioning your sexuality. This story may not be for everyone, but I can envision it helping out some teenage readers—and at the very least, it features a cute and emotional f/f relationship. Aki and her friends make great additions to Talley's repertoire of characters who learn and grown throughout their stories, and I hope their tale finds its way into the hands of any teen who may benefit from it.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Three Reasons to Read Tiny Pretty Things

I adore books about performing arts. From Brandy Colbert's Pointe to Elizabeth Eulberg's Take a Bow, I can never turn away from a story set on stage. I added Tiny Pretty Things to my TBR as soon as I heard about it, and I was not disappointed; it features some of my favorite elements of the performing arts novel as well as stunning writing. Here are just three of the reasons any arts aficionado should give Tiny Pretty Things a shot.

the book

Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton | Goodreads

Publisher: HarperTeen
Release: May 26, 2015
Source: Library
Series: Tiny Pretty Things, #1
Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.

Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette's desire to escape the shadow of her ballet-star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever.

When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

three reasons to read it

Tiny Pretty Things features plenty of plotting, conniving, harassing, and backstabbing as hyper-competitive ballerinas try to take their competition out of commission. With attacks that range from average bullying to near-deadly threats, students at the academy must constantly watch their backs, and readers are forced to do the same. As the new girl who has found quick success, Gigi gets the worst of the tormenting, and while the authors reveal the culprit behind a few cruel acts directed toward her, many more are left blameless. As a result, the story becomes a thrilling mystery, keeping readers desperate for the next chapter—and, ultimately, the sequel.

And although this bullying and sabotage is unprofessional, it never feels trivial or petty; instead, it is enacted out of a deep psychological need to be on top, to earn the leading role, to be noticed by the professionals. While this truth does not excuse the characters' behavior, it compels the readers to take the plot seriously and gives the story an incisive, dangerous tone.

Bette is white, June is half Korean, and Gigi is black, and their respective races play a role in their character development without overpowering the plot. Bette's music-box image—pale skin and light blonde hair—perfectly matches the appearance of the ideal Russian ballerina, contributing to her belief that she was born to be a dancer and fueling her determination to be the best. June's inability to fit in with either the school's Korean clique or the other students makes her a perpetual understudy whose roles lack chemistry with her fellow performers. And Gigi's status as one of only two black ballerinas at the conservatory draws ultimate attention to her rise to the top.

Tiny Pretty Things is not necessarily a novel about race—I'd first call it a book about ballet, competition, and sabotage—but its diverse set of main characters provides a dimension for character development, offers opportunities for discussions about race, and realistically reflects the changing face of the ballet world.

The writing style in Tiny Pretty Things is subtly stunning, smooth and lyrical without being so ornate as to detract attention from the plot. Vivid and eloquent, it courses with the emotions of the story—passion, betrayal, ambition, exhilaration—making readers relate to every nuanced feeling of the characters. Complete with recurring images of broken glass—glass broken out of anger, glass broken out of spite, and more—to match the cover, Sona Charaipotra's and Dhonielle Clayton's combined style left me reveling in its resplendence.

Have you read Tiny Pretty Things? Were you as addicted and entranced as I was? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, January 16, 2017

New Year, New Me // Goals and Resolutions for 2017

Happy New Year! I know it’s already sixteen days into 2017 (time flies when you’re busy spending time with family on vacation, flying back home to Indianapolis, and tackling the start of a new semester), but I’m still very much in the New Year’s spirit. So with that, today I’m here to (a bit belatedly, but still excitedly) share my top twelve goals for this calendar year!

call my representatives regularly

I’ve been trying to get better at this anxiety-inducing-but-necessary task ever since November 8, but I’m going to try even harder in 2017.

I don’t believe in the sentence “I don’t have time.” If something’s important, you make the time to get it done. So instead, I use the sentence “It’s not a priority.” And that means, if I don’t call my representatives, I’m telling myself and the world “It’s not a priority to fight for democracy, freedom of expression, the well-being of the planet, the human rights of people my country’s soon-to-be administration wants to oppress, and so many other values that are in danger of being destroyed.”

Which is harder: accepting that statement, or making a phone call? For me, the answer’s easy.

(If you’re a U.S. reader and would like to join me in standing up for our rights and democracy, you can find the contact information for your representative and your senators here and here, respectively. You can also sign up for Flippable and/or Daily Action, which send you regular action items to complete, making civic engagement easier. Finally, there are several articles out there explaining what to expect when you call your rep. Here’s one; it’s best to be mentally prepared when making the call.)

stop saying “I’m sorry” when I mean “thank you”

Instead of “sorry for bothering you,” try “thanks for your help.” Instead of “sorry for unloading my problems,” try “thank you for listening.” It feels better to say, and it feels better to hear. Let’s make 2017 the year of “thank you.”

floss my teeth every night

This is not hard. In fact, it’s really, really easy. Having someone to hold you accountable (shoutout to my roommates!) helps with laziness, too.

meet (or exceed) my Goodreads challenge goal of reading 50 books

This may not seem like much to all of you super-readers out there, but I think 50 is a number I’ll be able to realistically read and enjoy.

read every night before bed (unless I’m out being social)

I have a bad habit of staring at my computer or phone before going to sleep at night, and I’d love to replace that with a chapter or two of my current read. I’d sleep better and get more reading done. (Note: this goal doesn’t go into effect until I finish binge-watching Orange is the New Black.)

read more diversely

There are so many amazing-sounding books by marginalized authors and/or about marginalized characters coming out this year (Ava of Bookishness and Tea put together a fantastic list), and I’m beyond ready to pick some of them up.

I also want to diversify my genre choices a bit—and by this, I mean I want to give a few fantasy books a shot. (I might as well add this resolution to my list because I’m pretty sure Aneeqah’s going to force me to read more fantasy either way.)

encourage my creativity

In 2017, I want to start being more creative with my online content rather than defaulting to reviews and Top Ten Tuesdays. I plan to schedule time dedicated to brainstorming and to be better about writing down any ideas that come to me. (P.S.—send me ideas for discussion posts you’d like to see me cover.)

work on projects apart from Forever Literary

I’m looking forward to growing the audience of my podcast, A Novel Chat, and I’ve applied to join an epic-sounding YA lit e-magazine Hazel from Stay Bookish is starting.

engage more on social media

All too often, I find myself mindlessly scrolling through Twitter when I need to fill a few minutes of downtime. This isn’t productive at all. In 2017, I’m going to make a conscious effort to open up Twitter with the intent of engaging with authors and fellow bloggers and keeping up with news, not with the intent of killing time.

secure an internship for the summer of 2017

This one may be a long shot, especially since I’m a freshman, but I figure I might as well try! I’m planning to apply for publishing industry internships, both in Indiana and on the East Coast, both academic and trade. Fingers crossed something works out!

(possibly) attend a book convention

Despite all the controversy surrounding Book Expo, there’s still a part of me that would really like to go. If not, ALA 2017 in Chicago is on the table. This goal may not happen either, but I’m absolutely going to try!

give myself more flexibility with my grades

If you know me, you know that grades are one of my top priorities in life. But this year (and throughout the rest of my college career), I want to give myself the freedom to choose cool opportunities—like attending a professional development event or creating something on the internet—over cramming in that last study session for an exam. Even though I need to study hard to keep my scholarship, in the end, it will be unique experiences (not those extra two points on a test from sophomore year) that make me a better person and employee.

What are your goals for 2017? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments below.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Top Ten of 2016

Despite only reading 55 books this year (I blame my transition to college and the overall stress and sadness that characterized 2016 news), I had the privilege of enjoying several superb stories. Here are my top ten favorites (AKA the top 18% of my reading list), in order of the date that I read them.
1. Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
This book features an alternate historical landscape in which the Axis Powers won WWII and a shape-shifting character on an epic, cross-continent bike race to kill Hitler. And yes, it’s just as excellent as it sounds.

2. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
A complex murder mystery, a beautifully-built Gilded Age setting, and multifaceted characters combine to make this novel an enthralling read.

3. Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
Set in a hyper-competitive New York dance academy, this book includes dark, electric drama that had me absolutely addicted. The gorgeous and suspenseful writing style complements the plot perfectly.

4. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
I love a historical novel that teaches me about a lesser-known event or time period, and that’s exactly what Salt to the Sea did. While reading this book, I learned about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff for the first time, and I got to know four complex characters with magnificently interconnected stories.

5. The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
This book broke me. It’s set during the Inquisition and features vivid imagery of the violence of the time. The characters will make you fall in love with them, and the immersing storytelling style will leave you certain you just read a completely true story.
6. The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen by Katherine Howe
This part-contemporary, part-historical, part-ghost story is eerie, suspenseful, magical, and unique. I loved it almost as much as the author’s YA debut, Conversion, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something literary and unusual.

7. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
I’m pretty sure I’m the last person in the YA world to read this book, but if you’re somehow more behind than I am, please make 2017 the year you remedy that issue. Take if from someone who isn’t a huge fantasy reader: even if the genre isn’t your #1 favorite, you’ll love Six of Crows.

8. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, and J.K. Rowling
I debated whether I should include this title for a few reasons: I had a handful of problems with it (most of which are reflected here), and it’s technically a play rather than a novel. But at the end of the day, it’s new Harry Potter content, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to love it. I adored the new characters, I was addicted to the plot, and I was so happy to return to one of my favorite fantasy worlds. Not listing this book as a favorite would have been dishonest.

9. The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Mysterious Benedict Society is one of my favorite middle grade books of all time, and the author’s 2016 release lived up to my astronomically high expectations. The Secret Keepers showcases endearingly clever characters, a sinister villain, a suspenseful mystery, and dangerously high stakes—elements that create my favorite kind of MG novel.

10. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
In case you missed the memo, Carry On is essentially Harry Potter (if Draco and Harry were roommates!). It’s based on the fanfiction Cath writes in Fangirl, and it’s excellent. The world building stands on its own, but it bears enough similarities to Hogwarts to be amusing—and the romance is painfully slow-burn and obsessively shippable. As I’ve said before, as far as I’m concerned, Carry On is canon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is fanfiction.

Have you read any of my 2016 favorites? And what were your top books of the year? 

Friday, December 23, 2016

On Blogging and Relevancy

Good morning everyone, and happy almost-Christmas! I hope my fellow students are enjoying a relaxing winter break.

Now, after that cheery introduction, I want to change the tone of this post and talk about something that’s been on my mind lately: is book blogging still relevant in the YA community?

There’s no clear, all-or-nothing answer to this question. Of course bloggers are important. I know from personal experience that they can deeply inform book-reading and book-buying choices—both for individual readers and for heavy hitters like librarians.

Lately, however, I’ve been feeling less fulfilled with blogging. And not only that; blog posts, particularly full-length reviews, seem to be slipping in terms of popularity and importance.

For me, part of the problem stems from changes in my own life. I started college in August, and ever since, I’ve felt disconnected from the world of book blogging. While I’ve mostly managed to keep my own content consistent, I’ve barely been reading and commenting on other bloggers’ posts, which leaves me feeling less fulfilled.

Stacked on top of personal busyness is the constant stream of horrifying, heartbreaking news that bombards us daily. I know the world’s lack of empathy isn’t a reason to stop producing or promoting art—in fact, it’s a reminder of why we so desperately need to do both. And I know it’s now more important than ever to use my platform to promote diverse and inclusive books. But I can’t shake the feeling that every post I write, every tweet I compose is meaningless and irrelevant in the face of the literal fascism and genocide happening in my country and around the globe.

The YA books I love so much taught me that when your world is in peril, you fight. You overthrow your dystopian government alongside the love of your life. You leave school and put your future on hold to hunt down horcruxes. I know real-life fighting isn’t as glory-filled or climactic—it’s protesting, it’s calling your representatives, it’s donating your time and money, it’s listening and sharing stories. And I know that writing is political and art is a form of resistance. But no matter what I do and what kind of content I create, it doesn’t feel like enough.

The biggest issues facing blogging, though, seem to be structural changes within the YA community and the publishing industry at large. Lately, I’ve felt less of an emphasis on blog posts and more of an emphasis on other mediums of communication: Twitter threads and popular Bookstagram accounts or BookTubers. Maybe it’s just my own college-induced lack of time and mental energy, but these days, I’m more likely to read and share a series of tweets than I am to share a blog post. I’m more likely to take a recommendation made on Twitter or Instagram than I am to read a full-length review.

And Book Expo’s recent decision to increase entry fees and ramp up the screening process for bloggers seems to solidify the message that bloggers aren’t as relevant and influential as I once hoped. It feels like the industry views our contributions as less important in terms of measurable economic return than the contributions of other book community members. That makes sense, and it’s probably true.

But that doesn’t mean bloggers aren’t important; like I said before, bloggers are a vital part of the publishing ecosystem. So here’s my hypothesis: maybe the relevancy of blogging isn’t changing. Maybe it’s just that the nature of what we do and what we’re expected to do is changing.

The emphasis is switching more toward microblogging, which is quicker to digest and better suited for conversation. And as Book Expo’s recent decisions show, we aren’t expected to produce direct sales on a large-scale level in the way booksellers and librarians do. (Despite being disappointed by Book Expo’s new regulations as I discussed in this Twitter thread, I completely understand their desire to shift the focus of the convention toward those who generate high-volume sales.)

So perhaps we need to reframe how we view our roles as bloggers. As an independent book reviewer, I’m probably not going to directly convince as many people to buy a book as I would if I were a bookseller. That’s the case for most bloggers aside from the massively popular ones. Instead, our role is publicity.

We spread the word about new books, and we have the power to revive interest in backlist titles. We get people excited about reading in general. And we do it all on our own time, for free. These roles may be hard to translate into precise sales numbers, they may make our presence at industry conventions less vital, and they may be difficult to perform in times of personal stress and worldwide disaster. But that doesn’t make them any less important. And if the best way to spread the love for literature is switching to new mediums, I’m going to embrace that change wholeheartedly.

So what am I going to do with these thoughts? To be honest, I’m not completely sure. I’m not going to stop blogging. But in 2017, I don’t think I’ll hold myself to the same strict at-least-once-per-week posting schedule I’ve tried to maintain in the past. I’ll give myself more flexibility to try new things and capitalize on new trends.

I want to revive and revamp my podcast, which went on hiatus due to college starting for me and my co-hosts. (Aneeqah, Willa, and I are currently talking about our plans for the project.) I want to write more helpful and entertaining lists and discussion posts rather than defaulting to reviews. I want to experiment with new mediums of communication and support blogger conventions that could very well become popular alternatives to Book Expo. I’m also thinking about trying to publish my work on platforms other than Forever Literary, so stay tuned!

I know I want to keep promoting books, creating online content I’m proud of, using my voice to encourage change, and interacting with members of the YA community. 

I’m not yet sure how best to go about it, but I’m working on it. YA is innovative. The YA community is innovative. And in 2017, I’m going to be more innovative too.

What do you think – does blogging feel less relevant to you these days? Or is it just our role that’s being re-evaluated? I don’t have any data on this subject (this post is simply anecdotal), so I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories!