Heartstopper

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alice Oseman
Genres: Graphic Novel, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. Date: Feb. 2019 (read Apr. 2022)

Heartstopper has been on my TBR for literally years, so the new TV show was what I needed to finally read it – that and I was able to get all 4 volumes at once from my local library. I read Radio Silence a few years ago and really liked it, so I knew I would like this, especially based on all the hype.

I admit, it did take me a little bit to warm up to the story. I wasn’t immediately sold on the artwork or the characters because I felt like not a lot happened in the first volume, but the story very quickly grew on me in subsequent volumes. I wrote part of this review before watching the show, but decided to hold off on posting it until I’d seen it, and I’m so glad I did, because I am now 100% obsessed and invested in this series!

I like that Oseman addresses issues which a lot of teens struggle with – not just in terms of figuring out your sexuality and coming out to your friends and family, but also in regards to mental health. The first 3 volumes are extremely feel good. It’s what makes the series and the show such a triumph. We know that Charlie had a very hard time coming out and we are repeatedly subjected to homophobic characters, bullies, and micro-aggressions, but at its core, this story is a joyous celebration of queer love.

It’s filled with a diverse cast of characters and for every bully, there are multiple loving and supportive characters. Many people have very difficult experiences with coming out and I feel like there’s already a lot of trauma porn about those experiences, so I appreciated Heartstopper for its lighthearted approach, that coming out is also something to be celebrated and doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Nick still struggles with identity, but I liked that his experience contrasted to Charlie’s and that isn’t it beautiful to have allies and safe spaces in which to open up about who you really are.

For this reason, Nick really wormed his way into my heart, especially thanks to Kit Connor’s portrayal in the TV series, which I thought was phenomenal (all the performances were excellent, but I particularly loved Kit’s). He’s a very soft character, unsure of himself in some ways, and very sure of himself in others. Mostly I just loved his self-awareness, which I think is even more pronounced in the show and I liked the subtlety in how Kit portrayed Nick’s internal conflicts. His fear that he’s treating Charlie the same way as Ben, when in reality he’s just taking the time he needs to figure out his own identity.

Why I think this series and show is getting such universal approval comes down to how centered in reality it is. These kids act like proper teenagers and I appreciate the show so much for deciding to cast actual teens in all their awkwardness. So many depictions of high school settings are so overly dramatized and sexualized, I felt very grounded by this depiction of high school, which is what makes it so relatable to any individual, queer or not. I also have to acknowledge that my initial comment about how not a lot happens in the first volume is actually part of what makes the story so lovable.

We get three whole volumes just about coming out, identity, and self discovery. Coming out is not just a one-time thing, it’s something gay people have to do over and over again. Likewise, identity and self discovery are an ongoing process, and the more I think about it, the more I appreciate that Oseman dedicates the time and space to this exploration. For straight people, learning that someone is gay is a one-time thing, you adjust your perception and try to be supportive (hopefully), but for these queer teens, it is an ongoing and monumental thing to manage. So I appreciate that Oseman gives it the gravitas it deserves and makes her entire narrative a celebration of that process.

I only mention the first 3 volumes because the 4th volume is a bit of a departure from her initial themes. It is darker and explores some of the more challenging struggles that teenagers often face, including depression, eating disorders, and self harm. Like many teenage relationships, in their all-consuming passion, Charlie and Nick begin to develop a bit of co-dependency and their families quite wisely advise them to focus on balance in their lives. Charlie learns that he can’t ignore all of his issues and Nick has to come to terms that he can’t be the one to fix all of Charlie’s issues either. Both characters still need to be able to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for their own struggles. It doesn’t mean they can’t support and be there for one another, but each needs to take ownership over their own mental health as well.

I thought there was only 4 volumes, so I was a bit disappointed when I couldn’t finish the series in one go, but I’m stoked I still get to look forward to spending more time with these characters. I whole heartedly recommend both the graphic novels and the Netflix series to everyone!

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Malinda Lo
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, LGBTQIA+
Pub. Date: Jan. 2021 (read Feb. 2022)

This book has it all! A queer young adult, historical romance featuring an Asian-American teenager! I don’t read much YA anymore, but this is exactly the type of book that keeps me reading the genre. It’s a story that’s just as impactful for adults as it is for teenagers and covers a really interesting part of American history that I didn’t really know very much about. I’ve read a few books on Japanese internment camps and anti-Japanese sentiments during and after WWII, but I haven’t read very much about the red-scare, which was about anti-Chinese sentiments during the rise of communism post WWII.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club isn’t really about the red scare, but it does greatly influence the setting of the story. The book centers around 17 year old Lily Hu, a science and space loving teenager working hard to finish school and get into a good university so that she can continue to study science. At the same time, Lily is questioning her burgeoning sexuality when she meets Kath Miller and they discover a common interest in the Telegraph Club, a bar featuring a male impersonator that is heavily frequented by women. It’s the 1950’s, so there’s never a good time to be gay, and Lily’s worries are further exacerbated by the threat of deportation that hangs over every Chinese family due to the paranoia about communism.

I loved the writing in this book and found Lily to be an extremely relatable character. She just wants to be a “good girl” in the eyes of her parents, teachers, and friends, but their view of what is “good” is so narrow and when her friends start dating boys, she is also understandably curious about Kath and the Telegraph Club. She is very nervous and suffers from so much doubt – I felt like I was right there with her. Whether you’re queer or not, I feel like any teenager can relate to Lily’s insecurity as she explores her sexuality and the world suddenly opens up into this even bigger and scarier place. Add in all of the familial and cultural expectations that she also had to contend with, I really empathized with her.

What I think makes this book so unique is that there was no easy solution for Lily. It’s 1954, it’s not like it’s going to suddenly be okay for her to be gay or that she could expect her sexual orientation to be accepted by either her friends or family. There’s a lot of homophobia in the book, which was accurate to the time period. It was heartbreaking to me that all the lesbians in the book pretty much had to come to terms with separating from their friends and family to be with the person they loved. It was impossible to expect that things would turn out well for Lily given the time period and setting, so I really liked how the author chose to end the book as well. It’s hopeful, yet realistic. Definitely recommend this book to everyone!

A Snake Falls to Earth

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Darcie Little Badger
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Nov. 2021 (read Jan. 2022)

A Snake Falls to Earth was one of my most anticipated books for 2021 – I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy in 2021, so I read it early in 2022 and really enjoyed it! It’s the second book from Darcie Little Badger, whose debut novel was Elatsoe. I really loved Elatsoe, which is why I was so excited for this one.

Overall, I don’t think I liked A Snake Falls to Earth quite as much as Elatsoe, but it’s also hard to compare because they are very different books. A Snake Falls to Earth delves into Lipan Apache history and legend about the joined Era, when spirits and monsters walked the Earth. The spirit world has since become separated from Earth, but our protagonist, Nina, a Lipan Apache girl, believes animal people may still occasionally visit earth. We follow two parallel stories, that of Nina, and of Oli, a cottonmouth from the spirit world. Until one day a snake falls to earth and the two meet. 

Little Badger still captures a lot of the magic of what made Elatsoe so great in this book. I adore her writing style, which I think reads like middle grade rather than young adult, but both her stories are strongly centered around family and place. She writes very thoughtful teenagers – whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of teens, I’m not sure, but it’s very refreshing to read. She also blends Lipan Apache storytelling and cultural elements seamlessly into the narrative. I loved learning all about the joined era and animal people and the interesting quirks and abilities of each of her family members. 

Oli’s story is much more whimsical and I didn’t find it quite as compelling early in the novel. Again, I love the characters (Oli, Reign, Risk, Ari, Brightest, and the bear, and the mockingbird), but I didn’t find myself really engaged in the story until they started their journey to earth and their adventures blended with Nina’s. Plus I found the spirit world to be somewhat lacking in tension. Oli has the run in with the Alligator and the Fish (I’m sorry I can’t remember what specific animal it was), but I’m not sure that it added a lot to the story and felt more like the kind of faux drama you’d find in a children’s book. Whereas Paul and the hurricane were more believable threats. It’s a great feel-good book, but I think it could benefit from just a little bit more conflict and tension.

I loved Grandma! I thought her connection to the land and the fact that she couldn’t leave it was fascinating. Plus I appreciated the inclusion of oral storytelling and respect for elders. I only wished that Nina had more friends. She grows throughout the course of the novel and essentially has no friends throughout. I thought that would likely have a big impact on her character over time and was sad to see that she remains a loner the entire book. I know she eventually befriends the animal people, but given that they can only visit earth occasionally, I don’t think this would really benefit her in the long term. 

Anyways, I still really liked it. The structure is interesting and falls a really different narrative than Elatsoe, but both offer something really special and different from what we see in most literature these days. Just another reason why it’s important to amplify all voices! Will definitely read whatever this author decides to write next!

We Are Okay

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Feb. 2017 (read Nov. 2021)

This is only my second Nina LaCour book, but I think it’s safe to say now that I am a fan! I read Watch Over Me at the tail end of last year and really liked her writing style. She seems to write atmospherically haunting ghost stories that fall right on the cusp between Young Adult and New Adult. I had a book hangover after finishing Once There Were Wolves and thought this one might be the antidote.

We Are Okay focuses on college freshman Marin, who has just moved from California to New York after losing her grandfather. In her grief, she fell out of touch with her best friend, Mabel, and now Mabel is flying to New York to try and rekindle the friendship and convince Marin to come back home. The problem is that Marin is haunted by the ghosts of her past and still too deep in the throes of her grief to return to California.

This is the exact kind of character driven novel that I live for and a great example of why I keep returning to Young Adult, despite feeling I’ve outgrown most of the books in the genre. There are always books in YA and middle grade that have such beautiful writing and universal themes that they are able to rise above the rest of the genre and be appreciated at any age.

It’s a subtle book that explores Marin’s past – her relationship with Mabel, with her grandfather, with her mother, and with herself. The death of her grandfather forces her to face truths she’d rather live buried and her sudden expulsion into adulthood leaves her feeling unmoored. It’s easier to run away than face our ghosts. More than anything, this is a book for those left behind by their loved ones. Grief is a language anyone can understand, at any age. It impacts each of us differently, but it’s a beast we must all face throughout our lives. A beautiful exploration of family, both made and found.

Lovely War

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Julie Berry
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

Lovely War is another book that I found on Booktube. Hailey from Hailey in Bookland recommended it and I was really intrigued after I read the synopsis. I know Greek re-tellings are all the rage right now, but personally they’ve never really been my thing, but the idea of the Greek Gods narrating a human love story set in WW1 is somehow way more compelling to me. I was expecting something similar to the Book Thief, so I was pretty amped.

I did enjoy this book, but I would probably rate it more like 3.5 stars than 4 stars because it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. The premise of the story is that when Hephaestus catches his wife Aphrodite having an affair with Ares, she convinces him to let her explain herself through the telling of a great human love affair (more or less – to be honest I thought the reasoning for her telling the whole story was somewhat weak). So she launches into a story about 2 couples during World War 1.

I think the key reason I wasn’t 100% sold on this book is because, even though I was invested in these 2 loves stories, at the end of the day, they just weren’t quite moving enough for me to be like “yeah, I understand why the God of Love was so moved by them”. I mean what would be epic enough for Aphrodite to take notice? I honestly have no idea, but I’ve definitely felt more moved by other stories.

I do wonder if I might have enjoyed this better as a paperback. I read it as an audiobook and I didn’t think the dialogue quite passed the audio test. I find audiobooks to be particularly good at exposing sub-par writing and dialogue. I didn’t think the writing was sub-par, but I can’t deny the dialogue definitely came across as a bit cheesy, which I think overall took away from the story. It’s hard to think of a couple as having a great love story when you’re rolling your eyes at some of their conversations.

So that was my biggest flaw with the book, but I do want to talk about what I liked, because there was still lots to like in this book! Namely, Aubrey Edwards. Hazel and James, in my opinion, are just another run of the mill love story, I know things go awry for them in the way things always do in war stories, but there was nothing in their relationship that I thought really made them special. Likewise, I did think parts of Aubrey and Collette’s love story were somewhat disappointing as I didn’t really feel their personal chemistry, but I was super enthralled with Aubrey’s story because it is really what sets this book apart from other WW1 books.

Because Aubrey is a Black American from the 15th New York infantry. Maybe I’m not reading the right books, but I can’t think of any popular WW books that focus on Black people. I thought this was such a great addition to the story because BIPOC are so often left out of this era of history. There’s a ton of literature focusing on slavery and the civil rights movement, but we tend to think of the world wars as a part of white history. But in the same way that Black Americans have been present for every part of America’s history (since European contact), they are often left out of the narrative. Did many Black divisions serve in the World Wars? No, but it’s as much a part of Black history as it is the history of white Americans, so I really liked seeing Aubrey’s experience represented. Plus, his experience offered something totally new. Rather than just another war romance, his was a perspective that forced me to consider something new.

Aubrey comes to Europe wanting to fight, the same as any shiny-eyed soldier. But even with the nightmare that trench warfare is, Black soldiers still weren’t considered good enough for it. Let the glory go to the White troops, Black troops were good for manual labour. Building roads and digging the trenches, all the while making sure to keep themselves separate from the White soldiers. The biggest threat Aubrey’s Regiment faces is that they’ll get on the wrong side of a trumped up White soldier who wants to make sure Black Americans remember their place in the world.  The irony being that you could go all the way to France to fight Hitler and be killed by your own compatriot. 

So Aubrey’s story was both eye-opening, but not overly surprising. It’s inspiring the optimism his Regiment carried around with them, that serving in the war would serve to elevate the position of African Americans. I also really liked how music tied in so closely with the theme and that we got exposure to the birth of the jazz age. To be honest I was more interested in the links between war and music, rather than the central theme about war and love. 

In conclusion, it’s hard to rate the book because while I was less enamoured with some parts, there were other parts I loved. Most disappointing was that overall, I just didn’t think that having the Greek Gods narrate the story actually added that much to  it. It makes the framing of your key themes a lot easier, but you could still explore the same themes without the Gods. But it’s by no means a bad book and I still really enjoyed it – I would have just liked to flip the narrative and have Aubrey as the focal character rather than Hazel. Would still recommend!