What I’ve Been Reading | January 2020 Bullet Reviews

Hello out there and welcome back to my hodgepodge blog!

Since I decided to start blogging again, I brainstormed some things I’d like to share with you guys. As a sort-of book blogger, the first thing that came to mind: reviews.

I think I speak for a lot of bloggers when I say that writing book reviews is the bane of our existence. I really admire those dedicated bloggers who write these long, beautiful reviews of every book they read…but that just ain’t me, babe.

Instead, I’ve decided to stick to bullet reviews (for which I’m indebted to the amazing Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books for the idea). Instead of trying to write whole paragraphs or even whole sentences, I’m going to break down the biggest takeaways from each book I read in 2020–including the ones I’ve read prior to this posting. Hopefully this way I can share some of my bookish thoughts without being overwhelmed by reviewing everything in full.

So, without further ado, here are the books I read in January 2020!

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Orange Is the New Black but without the comic relief
  • reveals how America’s prison system wastes lives for seemingly no reason
  • uncomfortably depressing to read, but an important story nonetheless
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • enemies-to-lovers m/m romance feat. the fictional First Son & British prince
  • definitely lives up to the hype!!
  • will (at least temporarily) heal your soul from the horrors of living in Trump’s America
Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • amazing Dominican immigration rep set in the 1960s
  • harsh examination of the American Dream & the toll it takes
  • sparse writing style wasn’t really my absolute favorite
  • recommended for anyone interested in exploring immigrant experiences through stories
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • YA fantasy with a cast of complex characters who become a family
  • I don’t know why I waited so long to read this
  • not my typical read, but I got sucked into wanting to know more about the world & the characters

Have you read any of these books? What’s your favorite book you’ve read that’s outside your typical genre? Let me know in the comments!

Until next time,

Backlist Review || Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog. To see more of my reading life, add me on Goodreads!

Genre: YA Contemporary
Diverse Rep: Chinese-American + bisexual
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Noteworthy through NetGalley in exchange for a review. This did not in any way affect my joy in reading this book.

Jordan Sun is a junior on scholarship at the prestigious Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts. She’s just been locked out of a role in the school musical for the third year running. Why? Because she’s an Alto 2, while most parts require a higher Soprano range. What’s a girl to do? Cross-dress and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, obviously! (And nail it.) Now, she’s living a double life, pretending to be a boy while watching her girl self fade into the background. But how long can she keep it up? You’ll have to read to find out.

It’s going to be really hard for me to write a review of Noteworthy that isn’t completely gushing because I absolutely loved this book. Jordan’s slightly sarcastic, highly observant, constantly questioning voice sucked me in from the very first chapter. Her internal monologue sounds exactly the way I felt as a teenager. I was really intrigued by the idea of a modernized cross-dressing plot that addresses gender as a social construct.

As she tries on a masculine identity, though, Jordan struggles with feelings of guilt: she wonders if she’s being disrespectful toward the trans community by using their advice to put on what’s essentially a costume for her.* Riley Redgate doesn’t shy away from these conversations, but shows how Jordan’s desperate transformation isn’t that far off from what any of us would do to get what we want. Isn’t high school all about trying on different identities and personalities, performing the part you think will help you fit in?

It’s made even more interesting by the detailed way Redgate constructs the Kensington-Blaine boarding school environment. Jordan is surrounded by rich kids constantly so she finds it hard to relate to them. She hasn’t made a lot of friends, since she spent the last two years isolated in her relationship with her ex—even more reason that she longs to belong with the guys in the Sharpshooters.

Part of why this book is so amazing to me is the grace with which Redgate tells a story that’s all about (say it with me!) intersectionality. Jordan is Chinese-American and from a working-class family; her dad is a paraplegic who recently got totally screwed by the health care and disability benefits system. She’s also figuring out her sexuality: she thinks she’s bisexual, but she’s never had the opportunity to figure it out, as she was involved in a long-term heterosexual relationship through the end of the last school year. Even the side characters are diverse, from her childhood friend Jenna to her new friend Nihal.

There’s a lot going on with this book, but Redgate manages to make all the pieces fit together and feel natural. The various side characters are fleshed-out with their own personalities and quirks. Even Jordan is surprised at how complex each of the Sharpshooters are in real life, and she realizes just how quick she is to judge rich kids by their clothes and status objects rather than who they are inside. This isn’t a political book, though, but a reflection of the complex diversity of humanity—it’s beautiful.

*For a more in-depth discussion of the cross-dressing conversations in this book, I highly recommend you check out Shenwei’s review.

I don’t have anything negative to say about Noteworthy, but I do have a few caveats for any potential readers:

This is not a bisexual “coming out” story. While Jordan does identify as bisexual, this is not the crux of her story. As someone who discovered my own bisexuality at the ripe old age of 22, I really appreciated the nuanced way Redgate handled this. So many stories with bisexual protagonists fall into the trap of “proving it.” As a girl who’s only ever had heterosexual relationships, it’s easy for people to say “well how can you really know if you’ve never been with a girl?” and while Redgate addresses this, she doesn’t spend half the book making a big deal out of Jordan needing to have a relationship with a girl to “prove” her bisexuality. It’s how Jordan identifies, and that’s enough. Even better? None of the other characters make Jordan feel bad about this. This is like some sort of bi paradise, let me tell you.

This is not a really romance-heavy story either. Jordan is dealing with a lot of stuff—namely, pretending to be a dude—so she’s not really wandering around having feelings all over the place. When she does have feelings, she works really hard to push those down. A lot of the early backstory deals with her ex-boyfriend, Michael, and the other romance takes a while to build.

The plot is music-heavy. As a former music nerd (and long-time fan of Glee—there, I said it), Noteworthy really struck a chord with me (teehee). The musical camaraderie is real and tangible and heartwarming, but if that’s not your thing, this might not be the book for you.

Ultimately, Noteworthy is about the age-old quest to find where you belong. Sometimes that place does fit into neat categories of boy-girl or gay-straight. Sometimes in order to find where you belong, you have to take big risks and let yourself transform. In the end, for Jordan, it’s worth it—and so is reading her story.

find this book
Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository

Have you read Noteworthy? Do you have a favorite book set at a boarding school? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,

Review | Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Genre: Poetry/Memoir | Diversity: #OwnVoices sexual assault survivor

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

40519254“Shame turned inside out is rage.”

Shout is one of those books that touches someplace deep inside and makes it nearly impossible to write a coherent review of any sort. Still, I’m going to try.

In this memoir in verse, Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the revolutionary 1999 Young Adult novel, Speak, tells her true story for the first time. Through haunting, poignant poems, Anderson details her childhood, from her mother’s silence to her father’s PTSD. When she was thirteen, Anderson was raped by an older boy she considered a friend, and she spent her high school years dealing with the aftermath in some pretty unhealthy ways.

Although it’s slow-moving to start, I loved the opportunity to learn more about an author I admire.

Through this book, I discovered the ways that Speak came from Anderson’s true experience. She struggled to deal with the aftermath of her rape because she had no examples of positive coping skills. She talks about how her father drank to forget his war trauma, and her mother had no voice whatsoever. Thus, 14-year-old Anderson turned to drinking and smoking pot to dull the pain of being raped. She had no positive influences in her life to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, that she hadn’t been asking for it, that she was more than this one act of violence.

I also really connected with the brief passages about her journey as a writer. A lot of young writers have this perception that great writers are just born that way, that they sit down to write their first book and gold falls out onto the page. Anderson writes about her struggle to find her voice as a writer, from attempting to write picture books for her children, to writing novels and other works that were rejected over and over again. It was so comforting to me to learn that I’m not the only one who’s struggled to find my way as a writer. Anderson never expected Speak to even be published, much less to win awards and make her a household name (at least within kid lit/YA circles).

This isn’t a plot-driven memoir whatsoever. Nor is it fully a memoir.

The second half of the book follows Anderson as she writes and publishes Speak, a story about a 14-year-old high school freshman who’s struggling to survive her own rape. In the second half of the book, Anderson writes about her unexpected fame and the censorship that follows writing openly about sexual assault. This part of the book forms a poignant call-to-action. She writes about how many kids she’s spoken to in the years following Speak’s fame, but also how many times she’s been told to censor herself, how many school libraries have banned her book. She calls attention to these instances to point out how “censorship is the child of fear/the father of ignorance” — not talking about rape doesn’t prevent it from happening.

Anderson also does a beautiful job of connecting her story to that of other sexual assault survivors across the world. She shares a few of their stories, from a man who confessed “I am Melinda” to the young woman whose education was ruined when her rapists were allowed to continue in theirs. These poems go a long way in showing the prevalence of sexual assault and how our culture creates a space for it. She writes that we as a society have a duty to educate our men better than we are currently. She also shows the different types of sexual assault, from the young people who were assaulted but not “technically” raped, to the young men who are molested by priests. I really appreciated how she incorporated men’s stories as well.

While this book was incredibly difficult to read, emotionally, I can only imagine how powerful this book will be.

So many young people desperately need to know that it wasn’t their fault, that they’re not alone, that they can shout their truth to the world. This is the kind of book with the power to change lives for the better, and I’m grateful for the chance to read it.

-Find this book-
Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

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Have you read Shout or Speak? What are some books you’ve appreciated that discuss sexual assault? Do survivors have an obligation to speak up about their experiences? Let me know what you think!

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Review | The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember

Genre: YA Fantasy | Diversity: bi rep | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“I was through living a life driven by others.”

34181737The Seafarer’s Kiss follows 19-year-old Ersel, a blue-haired mermaid who wants more for her life than society’s prescribed role of baring children. She risks everything to rescue and aid Ragna, a human woman who’s survived the destruction of her village. Ersel must decide what she’s willing to give up in order to gain the freedom she desires.

This f/f Little Mermaid retelling has been on my TBR for ages, which is why I picked it for the first selection of the Gay Book Club I’m starting with two of my coworkers. I was pleasantly surprised that this reads more like Ursula’s story than Ariel’s, but I’m not mad about it. It’s clear that Julia Ember did her research when it comes to the mythology behind her story; reading this inspired me to look into this more.

Ersel’s voice is incredibly believable as a young rebellious mermaid. For anyone who’s ever disagreed with authority, her feelings are incredibly relatable. In the beginning, Ersel wants nothing more than to escape her home and explore the world—which is pretty much exactly how I felt at 19.

This is mostly a story about Ersel’s personal growth, from a selfish young person who will sacrifice anything to get what she wants, to someone who fights for her community and the people she cares about. In the beginning, when she first meets Ragna, Ersel really admires the human girl who’s fought her way through everything just to survive. While she dreams of escaping, Ersel doesn’t really have any experiences aside from exploring ruined human ships with her best friend Havamal. As the story progresses, though, Ersel has to step it up and take responsibility for her actions—even when it means admitting that she’s seriously screwed up. For that reason alone, I really appreciated this story.

However, I wasn’t as sold on the romance aspect of the story. I picked up this book for the f/f romance, but I wasn’t really convinced by Ersel and Ragna’s romance. They spend very little time really getting to know each other, and then they’re separated for a good portion of the book. When they’re reunited, it’s as if no time has passed. I really wanted to read more of Ersel’s feelings, what drew her to Ragna and what made her believe in their love. As it stands, it all happened really quickly and I don’t feel like I got to know Ragna all that well.

The characters are portrayed as being complex people who make mistakes and then learn from them. Although Ersel resents Havamal at the beginning of the story, and he makes a huge mistake that costs Ersel her place in her community, he eventually comes to see the error of his ways. Similarly, Ersel hated the “mean girl” character, only to discover that she, too, has a complexity of emotions and desires. With the possible exception of the king, the true villain of the story, everyone is blurring lines in one way or another.

Another great thing about this book is the normalization of bisexuality among mermaids. In fact, the king encourages mermaids to make love to each other in order to make them more receptive to touch and therefore (hopefully) more fertile. It’s more of a big deal that Ersel’s with a human than that she’s with a girl. On top of that, Ersel talks about being fat in a way that comes across as completely natural and beautiful, which is really nice to see in a book for teens.

When it comes to Loki, the god of lies, my impression is more complicated. Loki uses they/them pronouns, which was really refreshing to see. Again, this is viewed as just the way it is, rather than an abnormality. I found Loki’s character really interesting, too. Despite the fact that they compel Ersel to do questionable things to get what she wants, I don’t really buy that Loki is the villain of the story. Depending on how you read Loki, though, it’s problematic that the genderfluid character comes across as villainous with questionable morals. Since I’m cisgender, though, I defer to other reviewers on this subject, and would urge caution for non-binary readers.

Overall, do I recommend?

This was such a fun book to read that really kept me guessing. I appreciated the complexity of the characters and the way everyone in this story seems to blur the lines in one way or another, from Ersel’s bisexuality to Loki’s mischief that ultimately helps Ersel grow as a person. I’d definitely recommend this to someone who wants a book with queer characters where their gender/sexuality doesn’t define them and is taken for granted.

find this book

Goodreads | B&N | Book Depository


Have you read this book or its sequel? What did you think? What are your favorite retellings of fairytales or mythology? Let me know in the comments!

#MentalHealthMonday | Childhood Mental Health Issues, Then & Now

#Mental Health Monday is a (sometimes) weekly discussion series I discovered through Wendy @ what the log had to say. To see more of my posts on this topic, check here.

The topic of childhood mental health crosses my mind quite a lot. Up until pretty recently, I’d never considered myself a depressed kid. Yet, in considering my childhood as an adult, there were definitely signs that, at the time, neither myself nor my family really recognized.

I grew up in the 1990s, before mental health awareness was much of a thing.

By the time I reached fifth grade, I really struggled to bond with peers. I felt constantly excluded in tiny ways that couldn’t really be pin-pointed. I dreaded going to school so much that I vividly remember breaking down in tears one morning, much to my mother’s confusion.

I got special permission to go see the elementary school counselor once a week, but I don’t really remember us talking much about my issues. At no point was I told, “hey, you’re depressed, and that’s okay, it just means that sometimes you take things a little harder than other kids.”

Because I didn’t have a firm self-concept at that age, I became obsessed with making other kids like me in middle school. Then, in high school, I became really bitter about the fact that other kids didn’t understand or appreciate who I was. I felt invisible, which just contributed to my depression further. It was in high school that I finally got a label for my problem: depression.

How have things changed for kids and mental health?

While I don’t have children, I do have an eight-year-old niece, E. Because E’s parents divorced when she was five and she now splits her time between Mom’s and Dad’s, she understandably has some emotional stuff to work through that she probably can’t even fully process right now.

I recently found out, however, that E has been seeing the school counselor and that her mom has been informed that E has anxiety. I’m reasonably sure that E does exhibit some anxiety symptoms; I’m also reasonably sure that this counselor probably hasn’t done an official diagnosis. E is eight years old and has gone through some things that would surely qualify as trauma. I also know that depression and anxiety run in E’s family—because both my brother and myself have struggled with depression pretty much our whole lives.

What concerns me, when it comes to my niece, but more broadly with kids across America, is that we’re becoming a little too quick to diagnose young mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The major benefit of a diagnosis is that a doctor can prescribe medications—the same drugs that aren’t usually prescribed to people under 18. My question is: what’s the point of labeling children who haven’t even hit puberty yet? Why subject my bright, creative niece to a stigma that doesn’t help her deal with her problems?

Labels aren’t the answer, but more can be done to help kids with potential mental health issues.

After all, I survived adolescent depression, but not every kid does. 13 Reasons Why might be controversial for many reasons, but the one thing it did is remind the public that teen angst can mask mental health struggles. Instead of writing off these kids as angsty, or labeling them with an illness or even just “Trouble,” what if adults took it upon themselves to give kids better tools to manage the stress of being an adolescent? What if—hang with me now—adults actually took kids and teenagers and their problems seriously in a way that prioritizes actually helping them manage better?

What I’m getting at is this: YA and Middle Grade books have a responsibility to their readers. These books have a duty to reflect real experiences, whether it’s just the struggle of being socially awkward and not fitting in with classmates, or to deal with minor or major trauma that growing up can cause. Beyond that, though, these books have a responsibility to show kids how to manage these issues.

Writers, myself included, have a responsibility to our readers. Teachers, my future self included, have an opportunity to provide more than just a curriculum, but actual tools for life.

If we don’t take childhood mental health seriously while prioritizing helping kids succeed, who will?


I realize this has been a long and rambling post that probably could’ve been more than one post, but I’d love to know your thoughts.

If you struggle with your mental health, how do you feel about diagnosis? If you were diagnosed, how old were you? Did you struggle with similar issues growing up? How do you feel about labeling kids early vs. late?

What are your favorite YA or MG books that talk about mental health?

I’d love for you to join the conversation, and if you think mental health is important, please share this post. As always, thanks for reading!

Review | Little & Lion

Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: Black Jewish bisexual MC | My Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

25062038When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself—or worse.

Little & Lion is probably one of my favorite 2017 releases for this reason: It tells a complex story about intersecting identities, discovering sexuality, mental health, and family, and it doesn’t sell any of these elements short.

The story follows Suzette as she returns to her home in L.A. after a year at boarding school on the east coast. While she was away, she fell in love with a girl for the first time and worried about her brother, Lionel, who was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When she and Lionel fall for the same girl, Suzette has to sort out her feelings and decide whether she’ll remain loyal to what her brother wants, or do what needs to be done for his health.

This book has some of the best natural diversity I’ve read.

Suzette is black, Jewish, and queer, and she talks openly about these intersections. At her boarding school, she’s kept her religion hidden, as her mostly white classmates can’t understand how someone can be both Black and Jewish. Most of the side characters are queer, including Suzette’s best friend DeeDee who’s a lesbian. Suzette’s close friend and love interest, Emil, is Black and Korean as well. And, of course, there’s Lionel, Suzette’s brother who’s dealing with bipolar disorder.

The diversity isn’t just there for show, either. Each of these intersections is explored in some way and really gives life to the identities represented. I was really impressed with how Brandy Colbert showed microaggressions, from the way people label Lion as “crazy” and unstable, to the mutual friend who makes a racist comment. Even a non-marginalized reader can see how these actions affect the characters: Lion avoids his former group of friends, while Suzette and Emil have to stick up for themselves and call out their subtly racist peers.

Even Suzette’s family is diverse, in a sense: her mom never technically married her stepdad, but they’ve had joint families for over a decade. I really enjoyed this unique touch and the way the novel explores how family bonds go so much deeper than blood alone.

One of the best things about Little & Lion, for me, was the nuanced discussion of bisexuality.

I’ll be the first to admit how fortunate we are, as readers, to have so many representations of bisexuality today. And yet, this is one of the few books I’ve read where the main character is actively exploring her own sexuality and isn’t completely set on a label at the beginning of the story.

As much as it’s empowering to read bisexual characters who are confident in their identity, 17-year-old me would’ve killed to read this book where Suzette struggles with what her feelings for different genders really mean. She questions if her attraction to girls was actually just limited to the one girl from her boarding school, or if her attraction to Emil is as real as she thinks it is. This is not only realistic, but it shows the very real effects of living in a monosexist society that encourages us, as bisexuals, to “just choose one or the other.” To be quite honest, I still question my own sexuality, and I’m 10 years older than Suzette.

For the most part, other people are supportive of Suzette’s exploration and biphobia is kept to a minimum. Again, as with the race rep, I appreciate the subtleties—for instance, the moment when a friend implies that being bi is about switching back and forth when you get bored of one gender or another. Again, the comment is challenged in the text, but it’s a realistic situation in my experience.

On the surface, this is a book about dealing with a family member’s mental illness, and about falling in love in different ways—but it’s so much more than that.

While I can’t personally speak for the mental health rep (my experiences with depression are only vaguely similar), I enjoyed Suzette’s perspective on Lionel’s bipolar disorder. She wants to do right by him but she also doesn’t want to break his trust or push him away. At the same time, she’s just a kid: she’s struggling with conflicting attractions to two different people while she’s trying to sort out feelings about her ex.

To be honest, my only conflict with this book was the romance itself. I enjoyed the friends-to-lovers situation with Emil, but I felt that Rafaela was too easily labeled as Trouble, both for Suzette and for Lionel. I’m mostly not a fan of love triangles in general, although fortunately this one didn’t dissolve into cheating. Ultimately, I appreciated that the story leaves things relatively open, with just enough closure, but showing how each of the characters has a lot to work on.

overall: highly recommend this favorite of 2017

Little & Lion sucked me in right from the beginning and I never questioned whether Brandy Colbert knew where she was taking the story. For a book that includes so many elements, from family to romance, from race to religion to sexuality to mental health, I loved every minute of this one. Despite its inclusion of a love triangle, I loved watching Suzette figure some things out and I was sad to reach the last page. I hope everyone will give this book the chance it deserves.

—find this book—

Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound


Have you read Little & Lion or other books by Brandy Colbert? What did you think? Do you have a favorite book that tackles intersectionality? Let me know in the comments!