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My Favorite Books That I Have Read in 2014

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Up until now, I have told you my favorite music and movies I’ve encountered this year. Here is my final favorites of 2014 blog post, my favorite books I’ve read in 2014.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell- I loved reading this book because I can totally relate to Cath, the main character. She loves reading and writing fan fiction (albeit slash fan fiction) about a Harry Potter-ish book series called Simon Snow. At the same time, she is a college freshman who has to learn to get out of her comfort zone as a writer and a person.

I loved that the author understood why some people enjoy reading or writing fan fiction and how she captured the glory days of the Harry Potter fandom with a fictional book series. I also loved how she showed that anybody can geek out over something, not just a particular type of person. In addition, Levi was a thoughtful and sweet love interest for Cath and he is my favorite love interest in teen fiction.

Blackanese Boy by Ramon Calhoun- This is the first book I’ve read that was written by a black and Japanese author. It is also the first book I’ve read featuring a black and Japanese protagonist and the first book I’ve read that discusses what it is like to be bi-racial in the 70s and 80s. A remarkable aspect of the book is that the main character Rafael encounters different cultural experiences and is viewed through the eyes of black, Japanese, white, Arabic, and Muslim people.

Despite taking place years before I was born, I could relate to this book because I am black and asian and have experienced events similar to Ramon’s. I loved how honest this book was and how historical events like the atomic bomb scare and the birth of hip-hop were woven into the storyline.

Of Minnie The Moocher and Me by Cab Calloway and Brian Rollins- This autobiography has Cab Calloway telling about his life from his childhood until the early 70’s. It was a great read because you see how he became a bandleader, how he developed certain songs, what it was like touring with his band, and more. It was just as entertaining as any of his music.

I liked how he said that the point of him being a bandleader was that it was his way of saying, “I know it’s rough out there, but let go of your troubles for a little while.” I also liked that he revealed that he was an introvert offstage.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson- I’ve been a fan of Jacqueline Woodson’s teen fiction for a couple of years, but this autobiography has become my favorite book of hers. I loved how she wrote about her childhood in beautiful free verse poems with vivid sensory detail. I also loved that she also wrote haiku poetry in order to tell about the lessons she learned. Finally, I loved how you can see her writing voice developed in certain poems.

Various Black Speculative Fiction Books- I did a separate post on my favorite black speculative fiction books that I read this year. Since people of color rarely get noticed in fantasy fiction, I decided to promote them as much as I can on this blog and the site Black Girl Nerds. Read about my favorite black speculative books on Black Girl Nerds here.

 

Book Review: The Fight (Drama High Book 1) by L. Divine

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Drama High The Fight

Source: Goodreads

Plot Summary (Taken from Amazon)Jayd just wants to start her Junior year of high school drama free. But wanting ain’t getting, especially at a place like Drama High, a predominately white high school in a wealthy part of Los Angeles, where Jayd and 30 other Compton kids get bussed to daily. Saying race relations aren’t what they should be would be putting it mildly, and that’s just the beginning of the drama. Jayd’s first day back to school, KJ’s new girlfriend, Trecee, steps to her wanting to fight. Egged on by Misty, Jayd’s former best friend-turned-nemesis, Trecee wants to make Jayd understand that KJ is off-limits–even if she has to do it with her fists. With the fight set for Friday, and the sistah drama at an all time high, Jayd is about to learn who’s really got her back and more importantly, when she’s got to watch it. But at least she can always count on Mama, and her mystical bag of tricks.

My Review:  One of the best things about this book is its main character, Jayd Jackson. She’s street smart because she lives in Compton and deals with drive by-shootings and people repeatedly breaking into her mom’s car. Yet, she is also book-smart because she is on the AP track at school, knowledgeable about Black history, and is able to debate about past and present issues affecting black people. One of the best chapters of the book is when she engages in discussion with a guy about the connection between sex and material things and how it impacts young girls and guys.

In addition, the author does a good job with weaving together Jayd’s magical life with her grandmother and her life with her mom and friends. It allows the reader to relate to Jayd’s experiences with boys, friends, and clique drama while hinting that they can be more than they realize. The reader may not have special abilities like Jayd, but they can be someone like Jayd by learning from their elders and their past and being themselves.

Besides the main character, some of the supporting characters are memorable. Surrounding Jayd is a good circle of family and friends. Her mother is a independent woman who is raising Jayd with Jayd’s grandmother, who is known as Mama. Mama is a wise, mystical woman who guides Jayd using Jayd’s connection to Yoruba deities and African culture. Jayd’s uncle Bryan is a DJ who has shown Jayd the musical roots of black people while listening to her problems.

When it comes to Jayd’s friends, they are diverse. Jayd belongs to the Drama club clique and has white friends from there, she also has friends in the black clique called South Central and the Hispanic clique called The Barrio.  Although it is the Drama club clique and the South Central clique that is the most prominently featured, the friends that Jayd has from both are loyal and fun.

Another notable aspect of the book is the realistic interactions with Jayd and her classmates. A memorable scene is a flashback to when Jayd was first introduced to South Central and was told “You should sound like us” because they found out she was book smart. Also, the contrast between Jayd and some of her classmates is very striking. While Jayd uses her outspokeness to debate about important issues and stand up for herself, characters like Misty and Trecee use their outspokenness to cause trouble.

The only flaw in the book is Jayd’s magical roots. While it is cool that Jayd has psychic visions with hot flashes and connections to African culture and deities through her grandmother, the author doesn’t explain why. As a result, the reader is forced to go with the flow and make their own assumptions.

Overall, this was a great start to The Drama High series. I recommend it to young black readers looking for something different from the typical inner city teen book. I also recommend it to fans of the television show That’s So Raven. 

 

 

 

 

Written by Serena Zola

September 21, 2014 at 5:00 PM

Book Review: Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

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Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clarke

Source: Goodreads

Plot Summary (Taken from Amazon):  From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong—why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak?

In Freakboy‘s razor-sharp verse, Kristin Clark folds three narratives into one powerful story: Brendan trying to understand his sexual identity, Vanessa fighting to keep her and Brendan’s relationship alive, and Angel struggling to confront her demons.

My Review: One of the best aspects of this book is the characters. Brendan’s struggle to understand his sexual identity is realistic and raw. Also, the fact that he is also a great big brother to his little sister, put down by his wrestling coach, and doesn’t get along with his stepfather makes him even more sympathetic.

Meanwhile, Angel’s character shows what its like for transgender people who love and accept themselves, but still struggle with their past and everyday prejudice.  Like Brendan, her point of view is raw and she has qualities that make her sympathetic. She is caring and motherly to her loved ones.

Finally, Vanessa is a character that urges the reader to discuss gender norms and how they relate to gender identity. Even though she is straight, she is still called a “dyke” because she is the only girl on the wrestling team. Anyone who doesn’t fit the standard for what it means to be male or female can relate to her.

Besides the characters, the author does a great job writing three points-of-view in verse. She uses different poetry styles and creates powerful metaphors in order to convey thoughts and emotions. In addition, the way certain words and poems are structured is very creative.

The only criticism I have of the book is its ending, particularly with Brendan’s point-of-view. The end of Brendan’s story felt too ambiguous. While it is understandable that his story doesn’t have an easy outcome, the author could have shown that it is possible for Brendan to have a good future.

Overall, this book was a poignant glimpse into the lives of gender queer and transgender people and how gender norms affect everyone. I recommend it to everyone who doesn’t fit gender norms. I also recommend it to anyone who works with transgender and gender queer youth and anyone who has enjoyed the work of YA author Ellen Hopkins.

Written by Serena Zola

September 15, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Thoughts On Writing: What I’ve Learned From YA Fiction

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Ten years ago, I re-read The Outsiders for the third or fourth time and decided I wanted to be writer. Since then, I’ve read a lot of YA fiction and done some serious thinking about what kind of books I wanted to write. Now, I’m looking at what I’ve learned so far as an aspiring YA author.

  1. YA fiction is one of the best genres ever. There’s great books from the past and the present, a lot of sub genres, cool writing styles and formats, etc. For more on what I’ve learned about the genre, check out this Buzzfeed post I just posted using my real name: 14 Reasons YA Fiction is One Of The Best Genres Ever.
  2. It taught me that I love characters. Whenever I think about The Outsiders or any other YA book that I like, the characters are the first thing that comes to mind. Reading about memorable characters have helped me learn how to create my own.
  3. I don’t have to write what’s popular in YA fiction. Whenever I look at the best-selling and free Kindle books for teen fiction, they are almost always paranormal novels. I always wonder if these authors are jumping on the bandwagon or writing what they love. As for me, I’m going to stick with contemporary teen fiction because it is the sub-genre most dear to me. If my stuff becomes a best-seller someday, then that’s just a bonus reward.
  4. I don’t have to rush to be a best-selling author. S.E. Hinton got The Outsiders published when she graduated high school. I used to fantasize about doing something similar to her in high school or college, but now I see that just puts too much pressure on myself as a writer. I can’t be S.E. Hinton; I can only write like me.
  5. I don’t have to write a story like a standard story. It took me forever to realize this, but I hate writing stories in standard paragraph form. After I finish this prose story I’ve been putting off and working on forever, I’m going to learn how to write stories in verse. I love writing poetry and have completed a lot more poems than I have stories in prose. Hopefully this will be more exciting than hard!

Written by Serena Zola

January 27, 2014 at 5:46 PM

Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Source: Rainbow Rowell’s website

Plot Summary: Cath Avery is a huge Simon Snow fan. She writes lots of Simon Snow fan-fiction and has the Simon Snow book series and lots of Simon Snow memorabilia. She’s also a twin and a fresh-out-of-the-box college freshman. Suddenly, things are changing.

Cath’s twin sister Wren is also a huge Simon Snow fan, but is pulling away from Cathy and from the Simon Snow fandom. Cathy now has to deal with an irritable roommate with a nice boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who doesn’t understand fan fiction, a  new writing partner, and a mentally vulnerable Dad who’s never been alone.  Cath must learn to come out of her shell and live her life without sacrificing what is important to her.

My Review: One of the best thing about this book are the characters. The main characters and secondary characters each have a personality that brings something different to the story. They also develop by themselves and with each other gradually.

In addition,  the author did a good job of showing how almost anyone can be geeky, not just one type of person. Furthermore, the tougher topics sprinkled in the book (mental illness, learning disabilities, drinking dangers, and divorce) are handled in a realistic and non-preachy manner with the characters they are associated with.

Besides the characters, the author’s writing style is great. Some lines of dialogue are hilarious. A favorite is, “But it’s like John Lennon writing with… Taylor Swift instead of Paul McCartney.” says Nick. “Get over yourself,” Cath said. “You’re not half as pretty as Taylor Swift.”

Other lines are thoughtful and touching. There are several lines about writing fiction that may spark some ideas or thoughts in readers who are also writers. Also, the author has a way of describing Cath’s feelings in a way that makes you feel them on a deeper level. An example of this are the lines, “She just needed to settle her nerves. To take the anxiety she felt like black static behind her eyes and an extra heart in her stomach where it belonged- where she could at least tie it into a nice knot and work around it.”

In addition, the lines that appear when Cath finds the boyfriend she loves are adorkable. Some favorite line are, “In the right light, you are such a nerd.” and “You’re magic.”

Furthermore, the author’s treatment of fan-fiction was respectful and well-rounded. Cath writes slash (gay coupling) fan fiction. Bits of Simon Snow fan fiction that are written by Wren and Cath on a fictional fan fiction site under clever pen names are at the end of each chapter.

Also, the author sums up the meaning of fan fiction with one sentence, “The whole point of fan fiction is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them.” Lastly, she shows what it is like to read fan fiction through more than one character. A favorite is a conversation between Cath and a random Simon Snow fan who is a fan of Cathy’s fan fiction.

The only flaw I had with the book was the pacing. At times, the book could be too slow. Even though this was good for the character development, there were times the author should have cut some months out.

Overall, this book was fantastic (no pun intended). I recommend it to anyone who reads or writes fan fiction, anyone who has a geeky hobby, and anyone looking for an adorkable story.

Post Review Authoress Notes: I am so happy I finally got this book; I’ve been wanting to read it all freaking year! I used to write fan fiction in high school and while I don’t write it anymore, I still read it. I’m also sad that the book is over and find it cool that I finished it on the last day of 2013.

Furthermore, I’m also happy The Outsiders (my favorite teen fiction book ever) was mentioned in the book… although I don’t like the way the author spoiled it a little.

I wish I could tell a certain character from Fangirl that yes, there is Outsiders fan fiction. I personally think the amount of Outsiders fan fiction increases every year. I’m not sure because I don’t read that particular fan fiction anymore, but the fact that it has thousands of fan fics is great because the book is a timeless classic.

Lastly, I loved the way the author parodied the Harry Potter fandom, especially at the very end of the book. It reminded me how I felt when I got the last Harry Potter book and turned the final page.

Written by Serena Zola

December 31, 2013 at 1:42 PM

Book Review: Pushing The Limits by Katie McGarry

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Pushing The Limits, Katie McGarryPlot Summary (Taken from Amazon): No one knows what happened the night Echo Emerson went from popular girl with jock boyfriend to gossiped-about outsider with “freaky” scars on her arms. Even Echo can’t remember the whole truth.

But when Noah Hutchins, the smoking-hot, girl-using loner in the black leather jacket, explodes into her life with his surprising understanding, Echo’s world shifts in ways she could never have imagined. They should have nothing in common.

Yet the crazy attraction between them refuses to go away. And Echo has to ask herself just how far they can PUSH THE LIMITS and what she’ll risk for the one guy who might teach her HOW TO LOVE AGAIN.

My  Review: One of the best things about this book is how the author weaves in many different issues including foster homes, mental illness, repressed memories, abuse, and death. Without these issues, the main characters would have been cardboard cutouts and impossible to care for. In addition, all of these issues were realistically portrayed.

Another thing that was great about the book was its main characters and some of its supporting characters. Echo and Noah seem like clichés but they aren’t. Echo is very damaged emotionally and physically, but she is also talented and funny. Watching her grow into a resilient, assertive, and sympathetic person is poignant. Noah is also very damaged, but also caring and protective. When it came to Echo, he was also respectable.

Meanwhile, the best supporting character was Noah’s guy friend Isaiah. He was an honest and funny guy. The most surprising supporting characters were Echo’s parents, Noah’s family, and some of Echo’s friends. The surprises with these characters were shocking, sad, and touching.

Besides the issues and characters, the romance was very well done. It is very slow and realistic. When it finally does happen, it turns sexy, but also responsible, respectable, and poignant.

The only flaw in this book was the profanity, which was a bit too much at times.

Overall, this book was great. If you like The Sea of Tranquility or edgy contemporary romance, then read this book.

Written by Serena Zola

November 28, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Book Review: Shrapnel by Stephanie Lawton

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Plot Summary (Taken from Goodreads): It’s been six years since Dylanie and her family visited a Civil War site and the place came alive with cannon fire. Problem was, no one could hear it but her.

Now she’s sixteen, her dad’s moved out, her mom’s come out of the closet and Dylan’s got a spot on Paranormal Teen, a reality TV show filming at historic Oakleigh Mansion. She’ll spend a weekend with two other psychic teens—Jake and Ashley—learning how to control her abilities.

None of them realized how much their emotional baggage would put them at the mercy of Oakleigh’s resident spirits, or that they’d find themselves pawns in the 150-year-old battle for the South’s legendary Confederate gold. Each must conquer their personal ghosts to face down Jackson, a seductive spirit who will do anything to protect the gold’s current location and avenge a heinous attack that destroyed his family.

My Review: One of the best things about this book is the characters. Dylanie is a kick-butt and sassy girl with cool powers.  Jake is funny and also has cool powers. Ashley is a diamond in the rough who really comes through during the climax of the book.  Also, the emotional baggage they have made them relatable.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was how the author weaved in difficult issues into the plot, especially in Dylan’s case. There is not a lot of teen fiction with the personal issues Dylan has and the author handled them very realistically.

In addition, the paranormal aspect to the book made it a page-turner. The fact that the author chose different psychic abilities for each character made the book unique. Also, weaving in history to the storyline made it seem almost real.

The only flaw in the book is the character Jackson and his interactions with Dylan.  Given what his character is, his interactions with Dylan didn’t make sense and should have been explained.

Overall, this was a great book. If you want a creative paranormal story with good characters, this is the book for you.

Written by Serena Zola

October 11, 2013 at 10:52 PM

Book Review: Rogue by Lyn Miller- Lachmann

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Rogue by Lyn Milller-LachmannPlot Summary (Taken from Goodreads): Kiara has Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s hard for her to make friends. So whenever her world doesn’t make sense—which is often—she relies on Mr. Internet for answers. But there are some questions he can’t answer, like why she always gets into trouble, and how do kids with Asperger’s syndrome make friends? Kiara has a difficult time with other kids. They taunt her and she fights back. Now she’s been kicked out of school. She wishes she could be like her hero Rogue—a misunderstood X-Men mutant who used to hurt anyone she touched until she learned how to control her special power.

When Chad moves in across the street, Kiara hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. When she learns his secret, she’s so determined to keep Chad as a friend that she agrees not to tell. But being a true friend is more complicated than Mr. Internet could ever explain, and it might be just the thing that leads Kiara to find her own special power.

My Review:

One of the best things about this book are its characters. Kiara is a protagonist worth caring about because she is more than just a person with a disability. Chad, Kiara’s potential friend, is like an onion. You gradually learn to sympathize with him as you learn more about him.  When it comes to the supporting characters, they were well-done because they gave a spark to Kiara’s personality and life. It was creative how the author gave some of the characters traits that were similar to some of the X-Men.

Another thing that was interesting was the treatment of Asperger’s syndrome, broken families, drugs and alcohol, and friendship. The author did a good job of informing outsiders about Asperger’s syndrome. Although the author has it herself, she portrayed it fairly by showing how it affects the person who has it and people around the person who has it.

In addition, Lachmann weaved in other issues into the story well. It realistically shows how complicated life can be for young people. The only downside was that linking a couple of these issues to one of the characters created a too ambiguous ending for that character.

All in all, this was a great book. Anyone who works with young people with disabilities should read this. Due to the drug and alcohol content, I also recommend that only upper-level middle school students and above read this book.

Related Book Review:

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Written by Serena Zola

September 13, 2013 at 11:55 AM

Book Review: I Am J by Cris Beam

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Plot Summary: J had always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was: a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a “real boy” and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible — from his parents, from his friends, from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he’s done hiding — it’s time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.

My Review:  One of the great things about this book is its main character J. He is fleshed-out well enough that he is just a person rather than a transgender person. He is a photographer, a comic book geek, and his ethnicity is Puerto-Rican and Jewish. J’s ethnicity and interest in photography adds depth to J as well as the plot.

In addition to the main character, the supporting characters were fleshed out well too. They are diverse enough that they provide a different view of Jay’s world. A few characters represent the uninformed and narrow-minded view of  transexuality and homosexuality. Contrastly, some represent the tolerant or supportive side. Also, the inclusion of gays and bisexuals is an honest and fair aspect.

Besides the characters, the plot is emotionally charged. J’s journey to become the person he wants to be is internal and external. By following the story from J’s point of view, you can see and feel what it is like to go from hating yourself to embracing yourself. Through the supporting characters, you can see what it is like to feel like misunderstood, excluded, and accepted by others.

Finally, the author’s writing style is amazing. Using photography, he cleverly displayed J’s self-worth. It literally progresses from a shadow of his true self to his true potential being realized. Furthermore, he uses a photography term called “parallax” as a metaphor for how people view each other.

Overall, this was a poignant and authentic read that was well researched. I recommend this to anyone who wants a better understanding of transgender community or any transgender youth.

Written by Serena Zola

June 13, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Book Review: The Sea of Tranquility

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Nastya Kashnikov wants nothing more except to get revenge on the boy who took her former life away. Josh Bennett is so used to being alone that he wants it to stay that way. However, Nastya won’t let that happen, because she is drawn to him. Gradually, the two become friends. Nastya has revealed all but her darkest secret, but Josh thinks he’s got her figured out. When the friendship starts becoming more, Nastya’s past threatens to tear her and Josh apart.

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book were the main and supporting characters. Josh and Nastya, the main characters, were very realistic. Some traits were interesting, like Nastya collecting name meanings as a hobby. Others made Nastya and Josh equal to each other, like Josh being able to cook and Nastya being able to bake. Also, the way the characters’ traits and backstories are gradually revealed adds an element of mystery to the book that is enjoyable.

With the supporting characters, they were a surprise. At first, they seem like cardboard cutouts stuck in so the main characters interact with other people besides each other.  Yet, their true selves are gradually revealed throughout the novel. My personal favorite supporting character was Clay, who was like an artsy and more talkative version of Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Last but not least, the romance. It is so sweet and creative, that even people who dislike romance books (i.e. me) will melt.   It is shown in thoughtful actions and lines like, “We’re like mysteries to one another. Maybe if I can solve and he can solve me, we can explain each other. Maybe that’s what I need. Someone to explain me.” Furthermore, the author shows some spunk by critiquing typical romance  through Nastya with lines like, “I do know that if a guy ever called me baby, I’d probably laugh in his face. Or choke him.”

Overall, this was a raw and amazing book. I recommend this to people who wonder if two people with dark issues can ever be together or anyone who wants a fresh take on romance.

Some  more favorite lines (besides the ones already mentioned):

“I wished my mother was here tonight, which is stupid, because it’s an impossible wish.” He shrugs and turns to me, drowning the smile that cracks me every time.”

“It’s not stupid to want to see her again.”

“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to see her again,” he says, looking at me with the depth of more than seventeen years and his eyes. “I wanted her to see you.”

Written by Serena Zola

April 1, 2013 at 10:53 AM

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