Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

Title: Ramona Blue

Author: Julie Murphy

Rating: 4 Stars

Ramona Blue has been making internet waves well before its release date. A poorly written summary led readers to believe that Murphy's latest is about a lesbian who is "cured" by a straight male--that she finally meets the one guy who helps her see that she's been heterosexual all along! Well, let me put those worries to rest: Ramona Blue is not about homosexual-shaming in the least. In fact, Murphy's latest is a story of a young girl growing to realize that her sexuality is a lot more fluid than she originally thought it was--and a lot of other things in her life are, too.

Ramona has always known exactly who she is. She's been out of the closet as a lesbian since the 9th grade, she's always been by her older sister Hattie's side, and she's been working multiple jobs alongside high school just to keep afloat. Ever since Hurricane Katrina devastated her small town in Mississippi and her mother moved out--and stayed out--her family of three has been living in a trailer park, struggling to make ends meet. But now, on the cusp of Ramona's senior year about to begin, everything is changing. Her sister is pregnant and the father of the child, Tyler, has moved in to their already too-small trailer. Her summer fling, Grace, is not yet out of the closet and, to make things worse, she's returning home to her boyfriend an hour and a half away. And, Ramona's childhood best friend, Freddie, is moving back to Eulogy, Mississippi.

I loved this book. Ramona's voice is so easy to slip into and her group of friends is impossible not to love. Ramona Blue charts Ramona's entire senior year, from its beginning to its end, and her growth over the course of the novel is remarkable. I love that Ramona feels so comfortable in her skin and in owning exactly who she is. When Freddie moves back, their friendship bounces back after years apart and I loved watching as he integrated himself seamlessly into her life and just fit in. Ramona doesn't lead an easy life--she's constantly working and can't help thinking of what her life could have been like if Hurricane Katrina hadn't wrecked it--but she makes the best of it and has pillars of support that get her through the toughest of times.

I admired Ramona from the beginning, simply for her resilience and hard work, but I soon grew to care for her since she never bothered to care for herself. With her sister pregnant, Ramona is scurrying around to save money for the baby, help her sister get the prenatal care she needs, and is making plans for post-graduation--not to go to college, but rather to be there for her sister. It broke my heart that Ramona didn't see a future for herself past Eulogy, Mississippi and I wanted her so desperately to be selfish, just the once, and put herself ahead of her family. The family and friendship dynamics are all written so realistically, though, and I admire Murphy's sense of characterization--I despised Hattie for being someone Ramona was willing to give up her future for, but I also loved the bond between these two sisters.

Freddie also becomes a huge part of Ramona's life, mainly because his grandmother and him encourage her to begin swimming at the gym and become such huge sources of support for her. But, Freddie is not only a best friend to Ramona--he's something more. And that scares her. She's never had feelings for a guy before, but Ramona knows she likes Freddie--a lot--and her journey to accept that and figure out any new label she might want for herself is written with aplomb. I especially love Freddie. Not only is he a swoon-worthy love interest, but he's such a good friend and I adore that he's a good guy to the core. We need fewer "bad boys" in YA.

Ramona Blue faltered for me towards the end, when Ramona does a lot of quick growing up and makes a bunch of decisions about her future, all in the span of a few pages. I really needed to see Ramona put herself first, after being such a selfless friend and sister, and I didn't feel like I got that time with her to see her accept that it was OK to be selfish and have a future outside of Eulogy. I also really wanted more discussions of race. Freddie is black and he has a brief, but important, conversation with Ramona about how being black in the South is an experience she can never understand, but I totally wanted more of this. Murphy definitely sacrifices a few of these harsher conversations for a lighter novel, and she does do complete justice to Ramona's journey in discovering that she doesn't just like girls, but I do wish we had seen more of an explicit discussion of this, and even of privilege which is mentioned quite a few times but never spoken about by any of the characters. That being said, I was totally immersed in this novel from start to finish and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. I've never picked up anything by Murphy before, but this book just called to me and I'm glad I listened.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

Title: The Names They Gave Us

Author: Emery Lord

Rating: 5 Stars

The Names They Gave Us is tied with The Start of Me and You as my favorite novel by Emery Lord. I enjoyed Open Road Summer but When We Collided made me re-evaluate whether Lord and I had gone our separate ways. We haven't; not yet, at any rate.

Lord's latest follows Lucy, from the night of her junior prom when she finds out that her mother's breast cancer is back after two years, to her boyfriend "pausing" their relationship for the summer, just as Lucy goes off to be a counselor at Camp Daybreak, a far cry from the Camp Holyoke, the Christian camp where she typically spends her summers helping her pastor father. Lucy's voice is so fresh and honest. I couldn't help but be enamored by her from the beginning. Lord always writes characters I'd want to be friends with and Lucy was no exception. Even in the beginning of the novel, when Lucy simply wants to yell at the world--and especially at God--I knew The Names They Gave Us would be a gem.

Lucy's summer isn't easy, but the friendships she makes and the person she grows into are all wonderful. Camp Daybreak is a summer camp for children who have their own griefs to deal with, whether it be parental neglect, a teenage pregnancy, the death of a loved one, or something else entirely and, in that respect, The Names They Gave Us is an emotional novel. It isn't a cancer story, even though Lucy's mother's cancer is such a huge part of the book and especially a large part of Lucy and her mother's evolving relationship, not to mention family dynamic. It also isn't a religious novel, despite the fact that Lucy's father is a pastor.

Lucy has been raised in the Christian faith all her life but now, with the re-emergence of her mother's cancer she begins to doubt everything she knew. And, as someone who didn't grow up in the Christian faith, I can testify that I could still relate with Lucy. Her struggle to reconcile her experiences with her faith is a journey I think a lot of teens can relate to and Lord writes it with aplomb, balancing the religious and self-discovery aspects perfectly. I especially enjoyed that Lucy struggles to fit in because she's the pastor's daughter--people make assumptions about her personality, whether or not she drinks, her sexual limits, etc.--and watching Lucy grow and own who she is is such a rewarding part of this novel.

The Names They Gave Us features a trans best friend, people of color (and a love interest of color, actually!), discussions of privilege and sex, and is just all-round fantastic. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, the friendships in this novel make me wish for the past, and this story made me tear up on more than one occasion. I don't know how Lord manages to write such consistently fantastic YA novels which simply breath life into the genre, but she does. And I sincerely hope she doesn't stop.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

ARC Review: A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Title: A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

Author: Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Release Date: June 27th, 2017

Where do I begin with this lovely, charming novel? I truly believe that Lee has found a hidden niche that we’ve all overlooked—the Victorian England MAN. There are so many incredible historical romances that dissect this time period and give agency to women, but Lee makes us take a closer look at what makes the Victorian England man the person he is—what circumstances and societal expectations he is faced with and, that contrary to popular belief, his life isn’t as charmed as we may think. It’s a fine line, making us care for a wealthy white man with all the privilege in the world, but Lee does it.

Monty, our hero, is a classic rake. About to inherit his father’s estate after being thrown out of Eton, Monty is about to embark on a tour of the Continent, seeing everything from France to Italy before returning to resume his duties as a peer of the realm. So, naturally, for Monty this tour represents his last chance—his last chance to get blackout drunk, to kiss all the girls (and guys) he can get his hands on, and to spend time with his best friend and crush Percy. Monty’s younger sister, Felicity, joins the boys (but only up until Marseille where she’ll begin Finishing School) and the trio anticipates a pleasant journey around Europe. Until, that is, Monty creates a scandal, accidentally steals a valuable item from an important person, and inadvertently causes the three to be on the run… From Marseille to Barcelona to Venice, this is a break-neck journey—but a heart-stopping and emotional one, too.
What I love about this novel is the nuance with which Lee tackles so many wonderful subjects, from homosexuality to race to gender, she talks about it all. Percy, as the biracial best friend of Monty, is subjected to questions and comments that Monty never has to deal with. Felicity, as the younger sister, is constantly overlooked and sent to Finishing School despite her passion for medicine. But Monty, dear boy that he is, is completely unaware of his privilege—and the slow realization that he has so much is a difficult, but necessary, journey. Acknowledging your privilege is never easy, but Lee captures Monty’s turmoil with so much ease and, what’s more, she makes us love him, privilege and all.

Because, as I said before, Monty’s life isn’t as charmed as it’s made out to be. His sexual orientation is constantly a source of discomfort for his family, namely his father, and his confusion about his future—what he really wants to do with it—is so easy to understand, even as he is already bound to a certain future because of his station in life. Monty’s privileges can be just as stifling as Percy or Felicity’s lack of privilege.

I also love that Lee subtly touches upon the intersection of race and social class and gender in her discussion of privilege. Percy, despite being biracial, was brought up in the lap of luxury and given a first-class education, unlike most other people of color during his time. Similarly, Felicity has the advantage of being a white woman, and a wealthy white woman at that, despite the barriers against her. I don’t want to make it seem like this novel preaches about privilege—because it does not—but Lee includes all of these important lessons and ideals so seamlessly throughout these pages and I love that.

The story itself is amusing and Monty’s dialogue is absolutely hilarious. It’s impossible to put this book down or to get these characters out of your mind. Monty’s crush on Percy is a perceptible, butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling, even to the reader, and I loved their romance; the constant push-and-pull of whether Percy was just being friendly or if he wanted more. There are so many beautiful, more serious dialogues interspersed between the highway men and changing continents, but it all flows so well and I full admit to tearing up on more than one occasion. The Gentleman’s Guide… is a vivid and wonderful feat for LGBTQIAP+ YA literature, simply because Lee gets it right. All of it.

If there are any flaws with this novel, they lay in the slight absurdity of some of the plot points…namely the fact that there are weird alchemical elements that join in to make this historical fiction border on fantasy on occasion. In addition, I would have loved to see more women in this novel (but that’s the women’s college student in me speaking). But, Lee’s research is remarkable and her attention to detail is impeccable. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself into this world and the ending, bittersweet but hopeful and ever-so-slightly open, only made me yearn for a sequel—desperately. I love these characters with all my heart and Lee managed to make me completely immerse myself, emotionally, in their well-being. I cannot recommend this book enough—pre-order it, read it, re-read it, gift it. It’s just that good.