YA Review: How It All Blew Up

Title: How It All Blew Up
Author: Arvin Ahmadi 
Edition: Kindle (ARC)
Rating: 4/5

A clever take on a coming-out story, How It All Blew Up follows eighteen-year-old Amir as he comes to terms with his sexuality, and wonders how to tell his Iranian-American Muslim family that he’s gay. He’s very careful to hide his high-school hook ups with his maybe-boyfriend, but when another student threatens to tell his parents, Amir feels defeated by the blackmail and bullying. Running away to Rome feels like the perfect escape. He’s sure his family will reject him when they discover his secret, and in Rome he’s free to explore his identity without threats and judgement.

The clever twist is the setting for the story. Amir is explaining himself to an immigration official, following an argument with his family on their flight back to the US. His family is also being questioned in neighbouring interrogation rooms, and the events leading up to their detention are narrated by Amir, his parents, and his sister.

Amir is a sympathetic and relatable character. His fears about his family are based on comments they have made, and Amir’s decision not to tell them about his sexuality feels entirely justified. His experiences in Rome are life-affirming and beautifully described, with a cast of characters who take Amir into their social circle and teach him about life, love, and relationships. Rome becomes a character in the book, with descriptions of beautiful buildings, riverside cafes, rooftop parties, and a memorable visit to the Sistine Chapel. His new friends are older and more experienced, but with very different approaches to life and love. There are heartbreaking moments and heartwarming conversations, and in spite of the interrogation-room setting this is a feel-good book.

The story poses questions about family, tolerance, and identity without offering easy answers. Amir’s experiences in Rome give him confidence, but after the final page he still has to negotiate his life at home. There are no magic solutions and no sudden changes of heart, so the story feels real and messy – but hopeful.

This is a gripping, interesting book with a cast of wonderful characters, an engaging story, and some utterly fabulous parties.

How It All Blew Up will be published on September 22nd, is available now for pre-order. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read How It All Blew Up? What did you think of the story? Who was your favourite character? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Everless

Title: Everless
Author: Sara Holland
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

Cover of Everless by Sara Holland.

In Sempera, time is magically bound to the blood of every person, and payment is made in the form of blood iron – days, hours, and years. The rich amass centuries of life while the poor struggle to survive, bleeding themselves to pay for rent and food. Jules and her father used to live at Everless, the grand home of one of the richest families in Sempera. Her father was the blacksmith, and she grew up playing with the sons of the Gerling family. A childhood accident led to the expulsion of the blacksmith and his daughter, and now Jules is worried that her father is bleeding himself to death to pay their debts.

When Jules disobeys her father and takes a servant job at Everless, she attempts to keep her presence a secret. But waiting on the boys she used to play with, and on the nobles who surround their family, she discovers secrets about her past that threaten her safety – and the safety of everyone she cares about.

Everless is an engaging story with a unique and gripping premise. The magical binding of time to blood forces the poor to risk running out of time with every debt they pay, while the rich can drink the time paid to them, and take risks with their lives knowing they have centuries left. Jules is an interesting character – practical, curious, and determined to find out what happened at Everless before she was forced to leave. Her relationships with her father, her childhood friends, and the other servants at Everless are sympathetic and warm. Jules cares about the people around her, and about protecting her family. She doesn’t give up, even when the secrets threaten to unravel the life she has built. She’s headstrong, too – I found myself shouting at the page when she made dangerous choices – but everything she does is rooted in her determination to discover the truth, and protect the people she cares about.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, but the sequel is waiting on my shelf.

Have you read Everless? What did you think of the story? Did you like the setting? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Full disclosure: I did not enjoy Evermore, the second and concluding book in the series, so I will not be reviewing it here.

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Camp

Title: Camp
Author: L. C. Rosen
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

The second YA novel from the author of Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) is another sex-positive story of LBGTQ+ teens as they negotiate life, love, and sex for the first time. Randy has been attending Camp Outland every summer for years. It’s the only place where he can be entirely himself alongside his best friends, and he loves performing in each year’s musical production.

But Randy has a problem. He’s fallen for the gorgeous Hudson, but Hudson only has eyes for straight-acting boys. Randy reinvents himself as Del, choses the sports option instead of musical theatre, and sets out to make Hudson fall for him. It’s a daring plan, and Randy’s friends are worried when they see him pretending to be someone he’s not.

In spite of all Randy’s efforts, secrets, and heartbreak, this is a feel-good novel. His relationship with his friends is just as important as his relationship with Hudson, and they are a supportive and inclusive group. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary, and asexual teens work alongside each other to create theatrical productions, sporting events, and memories. They look out for each other, and look after each other, no matter who they are and how they present themselves to the world. Randy is a sympathetic protagonist, and the supporting characters are well drawn, believable, and distinctive.

The book tackles issues of identity, authenticity, and self-discovery in unexpected ways. It champions self-expression and finding out who you are, while sounding a note of caution about looking after yourself in the real world. Not everyone has a supportive family away from Camp Outland, and not everything that happens at camp can happen safely at home. Like Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), this is an inspiring story with an important message about tolerance and expression – for LBGTQ+ teens, and for everyone else.

Have you read Camp? What did you think of the story? Did Randy/Del do the right thing? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Vicious Rumer

Title: Vicious Rumer
Author: Joshua Winning
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

This book should probably come with a violence warning – it begins with a torture scene, narrated by the person doing the torturing, and it’s an amazing setup for an uncompromising story and a fascinating character. I was hooked from the first line.

Rumer grew up in a series of foster homes, haunted by stories of her dead mother. She never found a place where she felt at home, and trouble seemed to follow her and everyone she cared about. When she finds herself abducted by a violent crime lord who thinks she has something of his, her instinct is to run, and ask an old friend for help. But trouble is on its way, and Rumer is about to find out a whole lot more about her mother, the crime lord, and the mysterious object that connects the three of them.

This is a tense, exciting story with real violence and real peril for the characters. There’s a hint of the supernatural, and a healthy dose of mystery surrounding Rumer’s family, and her mother’s connections to the criminal underworld. She’s an unconventional protagonist – independent, ruthless, and determined to survive, whatever and whoever comes after her. The first-person present-tense narration ensures that the reader identifies with Rumer. Even when she’s doing horrific things, we know why she’s doing them, and what has driven her to violence and desperation. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but by the author succeeds by creating a believable, intelligent, three-dimensional protagonist and making sure our sympathies are firmly with her, wherever she finds herself.

‘You’ve never met anyone like Rumer Cross’ says the blurb on the front cover – and it’s right. Essential reading.

Have you read Vicious Rumer? What did you think of the story? What did you think of Rumer? Did you think she was a sympathetic character, or do you think she went too far? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: The Black Flamingo

Title: The Black Flamingo
Author: Dean Atta
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 5/5

This is a beautiful book. Yes, it has a gorgeous cover and lovely illustrations – but the beauty is in the language, the characters, and the story.

When I picked it up I didn’t realise it was written in verse, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The main character’s voice drew me in from the start, and the use of verse and stand-alone poems provided a powerful short cut into his emotional experiences. The descriptions, the storytelling, and the supporting characters are all handled with an extremely light touch, but the words are carefully chosen and the images and experiences are vivid and clear.

This is a book about identity – discovering and claiming the right to express who you are, while navigating the complex demands of family, friends, and the colour of your skin. With a Greek mother and a Jamaican father, Michael struggles to find his place in a world that finds him too black, not black enough, or not Greek enough. His disappointment when his mother refuses to buy him the Barbie he so desperately wants for his sixth birthday sets the scene for the story, and begins his journey of self-discovery.

It’s a quick read, but it follows Michael through school and on to university, spotlighting important events to tell his story. His experiences as a gay, mixed-race teenager are sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes heartwarming, but all of them contribute to his need to find and define himself. When he joins the Drag Society at university, he finally has the chance to bring all his experiences and influences together, and the freedom to be fully himself.

When Michael takes to the stage as the Black Flamingo, his costume, poetry, and interaction with the audience bring together everything he has experienced, and everything he has learned. After a lifetime of finding himself defined by other people, the freedom – and the permission – to present himself in his own way feels absolutely inspiring.

The Epilogue, a poem called ‘How to Come Out as Gay’, repackages the message of the book in a few lines, reinforcing the idea that there is no right way to be yourself, and that only you can figure out who you are, and what you want to show to the world. It’s an empowering, emotional end to an empowering and emotional book. Highly recommended.

Have you read The Black Flamingo? What did you think of the story? What did you think about Michael’s journey, and the poem at the end? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Shatter Me Novellas

Title: Unite Me / Find Me
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 3/5 / 4/5

Unite Me (3/5)
This is an tiny, expensive paperback featuring two short stories that link to the first three books of the Shatter Me series, along with the contents of Juliette’s journal. While it was interesting to read sections of the story with Warner and Adam as narrators, I didn’t think the book contributed much to the series. Juliette’s journal was interesting, but we’ve read some of it before, and most (if not all) of it features in the fourth novel in the series.

I’m glad I read the short stories (Destroy Me and Fracture Me), but I was disappointed that there were no dramatic revelations from these two important characters. Juliette’s journal provided a deeper insight into her state of mind at the start of the series, but again there were no new elements for the reader. An expensive book for collectors looking to line their bookshelves with the complete series.

Find Me (4/5)
Another tiny, expensive paperback with two short stories linked to the Shatter Me series – this time from Kenji’s point of view. Shadow Me gives Kenji’s view of the lead-up to the dramatic events at the end of Restore Me, and unlike the previous tie-in stories, it adds depth to the series. There is character development for the narrator, and an exploration of his relationships with other characters – Castle and Warner in particular. Reveal Me is an exciting, fast-paced piece that picks up from the final scene of Defy Me, leading into the events of the final book in the series and adding another viewpoint to the main narrative.

Kenji is an important character in the Shatter Me series, but he isn’t given a narrative voice until Defy Me. These stories provide an insight into his thoughts and feelings, and provide an external view of Juliette, Warner, and their relationship. This is a much better tie-in than Unite Me, and I enjoyed learning about the setting and the events of the series through Kenji’s eyes.

Have you read the Shatter Me Series novellas? What did you think of the stories? What do you think of Kenji as a narrator? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Imagine Me

Title: Imagine Me
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 3/5

Cover of Imagine Me by Tahereh Mafi

The final book in the Shatter Me series is fast paced and action packed, as expected. The narration is split between Juliette and Kenji, which allows different characters to follow different paths through the story, and again gives the reader an outsider’s view of Juliette and Warner.

It’s a longer book, and an exciting story. Things do not go well for the central characters as they fight against the Supreme Commanders and their weapons. There are defeats and losses, bargains with the enemy, and plans that fall apart with disastrous consequences. Juliette and Warner face a serious challenge to their relationship, and Juliette’s first-person narration makes the events even more heartbreaking for the reader.

In spite of its length, there are sections of the story that move too fast, and important events that feel glossed over. I would have liked to see more detail in the plot – possibly split into two books – and more narrative viewpoints to highlight the effects of the difficult events on all the characters involved.

I really enjoyed the chapters narrated by Kenji. It was interesting to see Juliette, Warner, and Castle through the eyes of their friend, and experiencing Kenji’s thoughts and feelings first hand gave a much deeper insight into an important and likeable character. His impressions of Warner provided a powerful insight into Warner’s state of mind without needing to see inside his head.

I did have issues with the climax of the plot. There was some highly dubious consent at a critical moment, explained by the plot but uncomfortable to read. The denouement relied too heavily on physical connection instead of emotion, and I felt that a central character was stripped of agency and the ability to make their own decisions too many times in the story. The epilogue opened up as many questions as it answered, and I’m hoping we’ll see another novella filling in Kenji’s side of the final scenes.

I’m uncomfortable with giving this book four stars. It should have been two books, with more detail and more emotion for the central characters, and the resolution of the story needed more heart. I didn’t hate it, but I wanted more, especially from Juliette and Warner. I’ll give it a good three stars instead, and think about how much I like Kenji as a narrator.

Have you read Imagine Me? What did you think of the story? What did you think of the ending? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Defy Me

Title: Defy Me
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

I was pleased to discover that the sequel to ‘Restore Me’ picks up the story from the final scene of the previous book, and introduces Juliette’s best friend Kenji as a third narrator. The three viewpoints allow the complexities of the plot to be explored while the characters are in different locations, piecing together different parts of a conspiracy that threatens to tear Juliette and Warner apart.

There are revelations and discoveries about the Reesablishment, about the other Supreme Commanders, and about Juliette and her family. Both Juliette and Warner must face the truth about themselves, and about the events of the past, while fighting against the manipulations of the Reestablishment that could destroy them in the present.

The author uses her contrasting narrators to continue her story of endurance, friendship, and bravery, while constantly challenging them to trust each other, even when their allegiances are not clear. No character has an easy ride in this book – they experience torture, betrayal, and cruelty at the hands of people who should be their allies – and each narrator must make their own decisions about who to work with, and who to fight.

I’m still addicted, and I can’t wait to start the final book in the series!

Have you read Defy Me? What did you think of the story? What do you think about Kenji as a narrator? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Restore Me

Title: Restore Me
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

The first book of the second trilogy in the Shatter Me Series only covers a few days of action, but – wow – it’s an intense few days! Juliette is the new ruler of The Reestablishment, and she’s learning how hard it is to be a leader. Her friends have overestimated her ability to carry out diplomatic meetings with the leaders of other sectors and regions, and they are running out of time to prepare. They’ve called an international conference for all the Supreme Commanders, and the Commanders have responded by sending their children to meet Juliette before the conference begins. When secrets about Juliette, Warner, and her supporters are revealed, she finds herself fighting for her identity, her history, and her freedom – and risks losing everything she’s worked for.

This is another gripping instalment in the addictive Shatter Me Series. After following Juliette’s hard-fought battles in the first three books, it is harrowing to see her progress undermined by the people around her. The other commanders and their children bring secrets and revelations that threaten to destroy everything she has achieved, and the people around her fail to give her the support she needs. The cliffhanger ending is extreme, and I’m glad I have the next book waiting on the shelf!

Juliette continues to be a fascinating protagonist, but the first-person narration is now split between Juliette and Warner. Warner’s chapters provide an interesting glimpse inside the head of another major character, but they also allow the story to divide. Juliette and Warner do not have the same information, knowledge, and experience of the other commanders, and Warner’s point of view allows the reader to understand the complex relationships that Juliette is attempting to navigate.

The Shatter Me Series is an addictive literary drug, and this book doesn’t disappoint.

Have you read Restore Me? What did you think of the story? What do you think about Warner, now that we have sections of the story from his point of view? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: We Are Not Yet Equal

Title: We Are Not Yet Equal
Author: Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 5/5

For our first non-fiction book-club read, we chose the YA adaptation of White Rage by Carol Anderson. We Are Not Yet Equal takes Anderson’s interpretation of the causes of systemic racism in the USA and makes it accessible to a teenage audience – and to anyone who has not taken an American high-school history class. Historical events are described in the context of racial inequalities, illuminating her theory that racism is the result of white rage at black progress in the US.

It’s a heartbreaking book. Resistance to the end of slavery in 1865, particularly in the southern states, led to a backlash against black communities that continues in various forms today. Some of the examples of systemic racism are focused on the former confederate states, but many take place at a national level. The authors describe an embarrassing number of opportunitites for equality that were wasted by the federal government as it tried to rebuild the union after the civil war. Throughout the twentieth century opportunities to counteract the legacy of slavery were missed, and Anderson and Bolden share a shocking number of examples of the rolling back of hard-won rights and support.

When a population is used to privilege, equality will feel like oppression. Any move towards equality will feel like an attack to the privileged class. With wealth, power, and opportunity staked in favour of white americans, moves towards equality have been successfully blocked for more than 150 years. The resulting anger and unrest in black communities has been framed as ‘black rage’, but this book demonstrates that the problem of racism is perpetuated by ‘white rage’ – anger at any progress towards equality.

It’s a difficult subject to write about, but in We Are Not Yet Equal the authors have created a clear, age-appropriate record of the fight for equality, and the complex history of racism in the USA. They don’t shy away from documenting horrific events, but everything is explained in the context of privilege, white rage, and the effects on American society of a deep resistance to change. If you’re looking for a primer on the background to Black Lives Matter movement, this is a good place to start.

Have you read We Are Not Yet Equal? What did you think of the idea of white rage? Did anything in the book surprise you? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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