Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

While Ophelia After All wasn’t quite the cute & wholesome read I wanted it to be it still made for a better than okay read. The in-group drama, avoidable miscommunication, and one too many love triangles detracted from an otherwise compelling coming-of-age. If you are reading this expecting it to be a HEA romance, I recommend you adjust your expectations as Ophelia After All was more focused on Ophelia’s character arc and her coming to terms with her sexuality.

Ophelia Rojas is a Cuban-American teen who is known as the girl with the green thumb and a propensity for crushing on cute boys. The novel follows her during her last year of high school as she has to reckon with ongoing and new drama changing the dynamics of her friendship group and the possibility that she is not solely attracted to cute boys. Cute and shy Talia, the best friend of one of her friends, has caught her eye. Ophelia tries to fight her feelings, fearing the ‘ramifications’ of what this means. How will her friends and parents react if she ceases to be the ‘boy crazy’ girl they know and love? Initially, this line of thinking seems a bit questionable but as the story progresses her anxiety becomes better articulated. People have an idea of who she is, and Ophelia fears the possibility of not being the person they think she is. It was a bit odd that she would truly believe that her friends and parents (whom she is very close to) would see her just in terms of her crushes on guys but I could relate to her apprehension about ‘coming out’ and how that would lead her to make certain assumptions about the people around her.
There are a few ‘key’ events that change the dynamics between the characters. Ophelia and her mother are for a long part of the book at odds with each other after the former does something very uncharacteristic and refuses to tell her mother why (but tells her dad). The guy who causes this was a throwaway one-dimensional bigot who…I mean, he was a bit on the nose (not that people like that do not exist but that he was in a very short scene and managed to tick all of these unsavoury boxes…given that he was a college student it seemed weird that he would be so public about his trash opinions especially since he surrounded by faculty and adults). Ophelia was 100% valid in what she did (the whole being ‘the bigger person’ is overrated if you ask me) but I found her treatment of her mother frustrating. Ragazza mia, just talk to your mum!
In addition to the story’s focus on Ophelia struggling to reconcile herself with her attraction and feelings for Talia the story is also sadly very much about the drama going on in her friendship group. Her neighbour and best friend are in love with another friend. Talia’s best friend, who also happens to be a friend of Ophelia, is in love with that same girl. That girl is portrayed as kind of a bitch but she happens to have a best friend who isn’t (i can’t remember her name but if you’ve read this you know, she’s the most sensible and decent character in this whole book…i wish that she’d been given more page time). Anyhow, things are obviously awkward and tense. I found the miscommunication within their group stupid and not always believable. It also annoyed me that Ophelia called her bf and that girl he is in love with ‘promiscuous’ and implied that this made them less nice than that other guy who is also in love with her.
Still, I loved that we get so many lgbtq+ characters, even if the ‘reveals’ at the end were cheesy (but i am all for it at the same time so there ya go). Some of the discussions around being queer and or part of the lgbtq+ community did feel a bit…patronising? They were vaguely… at one point I felt like I was watching an instructional 101 lgbtq+ video. There was this scene with Ophelia asking this other character why people used ‘queer’ when she heard it was a controversial term and something about it felt very studied. At one point a character starts rattling off different labels and identities and I felt that I was scrolling on the lgbtq+ wiki. The narrative in these sections seemed more intent on being informative and unproblematic than ‘real’.
Some of the characters struck me as one-dimensional, especially the ‘unlikeable’ ones such as Talia’s relatives, Ophelia’s ex and her mother’s dick of a student. I did not find the love polygon interesting and in fact, it was tiring, especially since much of it hinged on a character that is for most of the narrative portrayed as having exclusively bad traits.
Still, I liked that the author didn’t make Ophelia immediately accept her queerness and that her self-denial leads her to make quite a few bad choices. Her treatment of Talia was kind of horrible if you think about it but she owns up to it (which doesn’t cancel out what she did but it results in some solid character growth on her part). I also liked that her mother isn’t depicted as being horrible, which I feared she would be for a good portion of the book. Her talk with Ophelia towards the end was very touching.
I just wish the story had focused less on the drama and fights between Ophelia’s ‘friends’. Her best friend in particular is done a bit of a disservice as his character seems reduced to him taunting his love rival. But I did appreciate how inclusive this group was. I would have liked for them to have more distinctive personalities (rather than a few chosen traits) but it isn’t that kind of novel so it worked all the same.
There were some compelling discussions on Ophelia’s dual heritage and her struggle for self-knowledge in a society that is very either/or in its view of identity and sexuality. I also appreciated that Ophelia dismisses the idea of a monolithic Latin American culture, however, later mentions of her heritage do at times risk doing exactly that.
While some of the discussions did feel a tad too American for my liking in that they simplified certain issues (i can’t explain but if you know you know), I did enjoy Ophelia reflections of Lacan and the nature of desire.
Anyway, although I didn’t quite love Ophelia as a character and I didn’t particularly care for her in-group melodrama, Ophelia After All makes for a refreshing YA in that it prioritizes Ophelia’s coming of age over any potential romance she may or may not have along the way (more of this please and less of the ‘i met my OTL in high school’). This story managed to subvert romance conventions which were unexpected in the best way possible. Still, other aspects were more predictable. Similarly to other contemporary YA novels Ophelia After All tries to be more self-aware of the cliches of the ‘teen coming of age’ genre but then they end up incorporating those tropes anyways.

Despite my mixed feelings, I liked Ophelia After All more than not. It has its flaws sure and the tone was a bit juvenile and moralistic at times but I could tell that the author had good intentions and the story she tells does have heart.
I would definitely recommend this to younger audiences and or YA devotees.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

This basically was The Breakfast Club but with aliens.

Die-hard fans of the Wayfarers series will probably appreciate The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. While I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet I was not as taken by its sequel nor by this rather anticlimactic conclusion. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows a somewhat basic premise: a bunch of strangers from vastly differentiating backgrounds are forced into close quarters due to circumstances out of their control. Over the course of a few days, they bond and discover that they are not so different and they learn to push aside their prejudices and preconceived notions of ‘Others’. The fact that they belong to different species does give this scenario a fresh new angle but ultimately Chambers incorporated the same kind of simplified discussions about social & cultural differences. Chambers often dumbs down potentially interesting arguments so that many of the discussions arising around relevant social issues lack nuance.
The story follows Pei, an Aeluon, Speaker, an Akarak, and Roveg, a Quelin. They all end up grounded at the Five-Hop One-Stop which is run by Ouloo, a Laru. They have all lead distinctive lives and they also necessitate differentiating things given that they belong to a different species. Oxygen, for example, would be lethal to Speaker. At first, they view the others as mere aliens but the more time they spend together—picnics and get-togethers—the more they begin to see the others as individuals in their own right. There is some conflict due to Akarak not being considered a sapient species and therefore they are not part of the GC. They were colonized by another species and are now regarded with distrust. Pei is fighting for the Aeluons against the Rosk (whom, if I record correctly, they had previously colonized).

While Chambers can be creative when it comes to language (they all happen to mention untranslatable words that are emblematic of their species’ culture) the gender angle is a bit more tired. In fact, it does not hold a candle to some species from our animal kingdom. It was a bit weird that so many alien species had a gender and I found myself wishing for some genderless aliens. Ouloo’s child uses xyr/xe pronouns but after puberty, xe will be either female or male….which, why not have a species that is exclusively not gendered (as opposed to having species where you can be female, male, and or agender)?
Similarly, it seemed weird to me that all of the characters’ thoughts and felt in similar way (even if Aeluons express themselves through the colors in their cheeks). Why do they all feel the same type of emotions? That they all spoke as if they were therapists made them blur together in spite of their alleged differences.

Most of the scenes included in the narrative seemed to try hard to be cute or sweet or heartwarming but I found them unbearably cheesy. And on the topic of cheese, that whole discussion about how weird cheese is was so necessary, the same goes for that discussion on shoes (they are like clothes for feet, ahah, so funny). Given that they have all interacted with or have knowledge of other species it seemed weird that they would go on about cheese and shoes as if these are flabbergasting concepts.
Although I appreciated Chambers inclusion of diverse languages it would have been interesting to learn whether contact between so many different species and the predominance of Klip as a spoken language, had resulted in language death for certain species. At one point the narrative seems to imply that Laru is spoken no longer but later on (if I remember correctly) this information is contradicted.

The story is slow and consists of these characters bonding and widening their mindsets. Explorations of serious and potentially topical issues, such as reproductive rights, are approached with simplicity (“Because I didn’t want to. And when it comes to a person’s body, that is all the reason there ever needs to be,”). Similarly, the whole Pei/Speaker confrontation results in both making ‘valid’ points.
The most interesting thing about this novel is the fact that it concerns non-humans but, to be honest, their experiences, desires, fears, and arcs felt a bit too ‘human’.
I’m sure that Chamers aficionados will be able to love this in a way that I wasn’t but if I had to be completely honest with myself, reading it felt like a waste of my time.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

“Secretly, he wants to be the hero. He wants to be the difference-maker. All his life, he’s wanted to be the person rescuing someone or something. But who rescues the rescuer?”

The Summer of Everything tells a very wholesome story, part coming of age, part romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Our protagonist, Wesley Hudson, has just graduated from high school and is eager to make the most of his summer. While his parents are abroad, he has plenty of freedom and time to figure out what he wants to major in at UCLA. Wes hopes that during the summer he will just enjoy his time working able at Once Upon a Page, an indie bookstore that means the world to him, and maybe finally confessing his feelings to his best-friend, Nico.
When he discovers that a coffeeshop franchise is intent on buying out Once Upon a Page, Wes is crushed. When his attempts to come clean to Nico also don’t go as hoped and his older and ‘golden’ brother begins checking up on him, Wes feels understandably stressed.
Alongside the other Once Upon a Page employees Wes hatches a plan to save the store, and the experience brings all of them closer together. When the end of summer approaches however Wes feels the threat of ‘adulthood’ all the more strongly.
This book is a truly enjoyable read. Wes’ geekiness make him into a likeable protagonists, while his insecurities about his future make him all the more relatable. The mega-crush he harbours towards Nico will have him pining, a lot. Thankfully he has plenty of friends to keep his mind occupied, and while romance doesn’t play a part in his story, character growth and platonic relationship are at the fore of his narrative. Wes contends with family pressure, wanting to succeed or to choose the ‘right’ path, as well as with his misgivings towards his older brother, whom he sees as an impeccable adult.
The friends in this novel are wonderful. Their banter is entertaining, especially when they are working together and talking about music, and their conversations are guaranteed to make you smile.They are also incredibly supportive of one another. While Wes is the focus of the novel, his friends are also given their own storylines, which made them all the more dimensional.
I loved the self-awareness of this novel, the way Wes would often compare his life to a Netflix movie (usually in a ‘I wish’ sort of way), and while the structure of his story is very reminiscent of those movies, the narrative didn’t feel clichéd (perhaps because it was so meta). I also really appreciated the comic book references (I was a former comic aficionado) and to YA books & authors (even Holly Black gets a mention!). Winters treats his characters anxieties and fears without condescension and without minimising their feelings. And this book is so wonderfully diverse: we have a gay mc, bisexual, lesbian, ace, and non-binary side characters. Winters also has scenes in which Wes discusses race and privilege with his colleague, Zay (Wes is biracial and ‘passes’).
I wish we’d gotten more scenes between Wes & Nico and Wes & his brother but that is a very minor ‘criticism’. What I could have done without was the quasi-love-triangle, but hey, it didn’t really interfere with my overall reading experience (which was very positive).
Overall, this one was a sweet read. The romance was cute and so were the friendships, there is humor, there is some drama, and an overaching theme of self-acceptance and self-discovery.
If you are a fan of Kacen Callender, Lev A.C. Rosen, or YA books like You Should See Me in a Crown, you should definitely consider picking this one up.

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars

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Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen — book review

52880287._SX0_SY0_.jpgBecause last year I read, and really enjoyed, Lev A.C. Rosen’s Jack of Hearts, I decided to give Camp a go, even if I was worried that the whole premise of ‘pretending to be different to make someone fall in love with you’ would be cring-y. Within a few pages however I was rooting for Randy Kapplehoff’s and his rather theatrical ‘plan’.
First off: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with some many queer character. Gay, non-binary, ace, transgender, demisexual…this is a wonderfully inclusive novel. Hurray!
While Camp follows a somewhat clichéd plot—not-so-popular-theatre kid has a glow-up and tries to make the hot guy fall for him—the setting (summer camp), characters, and the humour make this novel worth a read. While I definitely felt the chemistry between Randy (Del) and Hudson (their flirting was on point), I simply adored Randy’s friendships. George and Ashleigh makes such an impact on Randy’s story. And although they are there to help him, advise him, and occasionally make fun of him, they are also given their own arcs.
While there are quite a few silly moments here and there, for the most part I found Camp to be hilarious. Rosen portrays the highs and lows of being a teenager. He really allows his characters to act like teens: they make mistakes, they are awkward, they are unsure of who they and who they want to be. Rosen also manages to include thought-provoking discussions about toxic masculinity and gender conformities.
Rosen also manages to make minor characters, such as Mark, stand out. They all have distinctive personalities and different ways of expressing their identity. Rosen’s depiction of sex is so refreshingly frank (it would be nice if YA books stopped treating sex as taboo).
The only thing I didn’t particularly like were the stars/galaxy metaphors (Randy feels ‘filled with stars’ one too many times).
Camp is a funny read perfect for the summer. Randy’s absorbing narration made me all the more invested in his story.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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Jack of Hearts by Lev A.C. Rosen — book review

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Jack of Hearts was an entertaining read that manages to depict teenage sexuality in a frank and amusing way.
The narrative is from Jack’s perspective which makes it easy for us to identify and or sympathise with him and his misadventures. Although the story focuses on a group on ‘privileged’ kids — as most of them attend a private school — the issues and pressures they face affect many teenagers regardless of their education or background.
The simple and straightforward narration is easy to read and the various events which happen to Jack and or the ones around him make for a fast paced read.
Jack’s sexual life is a huge part of the story but in a way that doesn’t glamorise his sex life, or his sexuality for the matter. It was refreshing to see that so many different views of sex (from Jack, who views it as a fun activity, to Ben, who is waiting for ‘Mr. Right). There is plenty of awkwardness and humour in Jack’s sex advice column but it was nice to see that the book stresses the importance of protected sex and that sex is not for everyone.
It was great to see that the story tackles and critiques the fetishisation of gay men but, most of all, I appreciated that the plot revolved around Jack’s friendships and that there wasn’t a silly ‘Prince Charming’ type of storyline.
In spite of the distress caused by Jack’s stalker, and by the way his sexual life is treated by some as belonging to the ‘public’, there are plenty of amusing and affecting scenes.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

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