Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

This is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that ended up missing the mark. Having read and enjoyed Julian Winters’ The Summer of Everything I went into this expecting something cute & wholesome only to be confronted with a generic coming of age ya about characters who are just out of high school and went to spend one more summer together. Miscommunication and the possibility of a love triangle drive the narrative, but these elements lacked oomph, and I found my attention wavering more than once. This kind of novel should make for a breezy read but my reading experience seemed closer to a chore. I debated DNFing this but decided against it hoping to see some character growth or for the story to pick up a bit but those things didn’t really happen. We get a lot of samey scenes that are angsty but in a rather vanilla way. The banter and chemistry between the various characters came across as forced, and sometimes even out of touch (despite its attempts The writing was okay, in a fanfiction-y sort of way but sometimes we get these subpar metaphors or lines of dialogues that really took me out (“I know she’s unaware that her words cut sharper than one of those handcrafted swords forged by Hattori Hanzō in Kill Bill.” / “Imaginary Isaac is a boss. But that’s not who I am.” / “My organs shift, realigning under my skin. ” / “Queer people don’t have to prove anything. We are who we are.” / “Little wrinkles like on the surface of Memorial Park’s lake crease his brow. ” / “We’re quiet for so long. Alix grabs her phone and starts typing. Holy Nightwing ” / “We’re not friends, but maybe we’re not really enemies either.” / “My mouth opens, then closes. I’m confused and sad and oddly relieved. Maybe Diego is my first Crush Syndrome. Maybe he’s my One True Disaster.”).

Right Where I Left You follows Isaac Martin an avid fan of a superhero comic a la young avengers. He ardently ships two characters (in a way that reminded me of the mc from rainbow rowell’s fangirl…which uhm…not my kind of character) and is very much a self-identifying nerd with social anxiety. He happens to have one single friend, Diego. They’ve been bff for the longest time and they spend most of their time together. Although Diego is more outgoing and is really into gaming the two always find stuff to talk about. But their paths will divide once summer is over, with Isaac going to college and Diego taking a gap year. An oversight on Isaac’s part results in them not getting tickets to go to Legends Con. Isaac feels guilty about it and plans to make it up to Diego. Here I thought that the story would follow Isaac finding a way into Legends Con but it doesn’t. We have a few scenes strung together featuring this very generic group of ‘friends’, most of whom are friends of Diego really. While I appreciated how inclusive this group was they ultimately seemed very much the embodiment of that meme (‘every friend group should include…’). They deliver these lines that were pure cringe in that they were trying desperately to make the characters sound cool and unproblematic but just made them sound inauthentic ( (ppl who talk like that exist only on tumblr and possibly certain twitter spaces. it’s not quite live-action-powerpuff-girls levels of bad but…). I can see these characters working for fans of Casey McQuiston, and I just happen to prefer messier young adults, such as the ones by Mary H.K. Choi. It didn’t help that what drove the story was this milquetoast jealousy subplot (as opposed to the legends con plot) where Isaac becomes sort of involved with Davi and Diego, for some ‘bizarre’ reason, starts to avoid him. It annoyed me that Isaac uses more the once the term mansplaining…as if he was ever on the receiving end of that.
There is an attempt at giving Isaac daddy issues because his dad cheated on his mom or something but that whole subplot is handled in such a daytime tv kind of way as to be utterly risible.
The humor and banter were painfully cringey, and Isaac was such an annoying main character. He was very much a clichè, and I become tired of the constant references to comic books…we get it, the boy is a nerd, we don’t need to be reminded every page or so, especially when said reminders come across as contrived. Diego is a boring friend and meh love interest. I couldn’t help but compare their dynamic to the one Felix has with Ezra in Felix Ever After. These two books share quite a few similarities (friends to lovers, summer setting, pride) and Right Where I Left You lacked the character growth and engaging storytelling that made Felix Ever After into such a compelling read. Even Winters’ The Summer of Everything (which is also a coming-of-age/friends to lovers type of affair) is far more enjoyable and nuanced than Right Where I Left You. Here the characters are so one-note as to be wholly uninspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ stars

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Despite its short length (100 pages or so), it took me several attempts to actually finish The Empress of Salt and Fortune. The first time I picked it up I only managed to reach the halfway mark. A few months later I tried again (from the start) but once again found myself growing bored by it. Finally, I gave this a lost shot today and I can’t say that it was worth reading after all. The first few pages are intriguing but this type of novella is clearly more interested in aesthetics and atmosphere than story or characters.

The world-building is vague, we are given more descriptions about objects and accessories than actual people and their environment. The story-within-story structure feels a bit gimmicky, especially with the constant use of ‘do you understand?’. The feminist angle also felt somewhat unsatisfying as I was expecting to feel the ‘anger’ promised by its summary. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting a handmaiden/queen sapphic tale but sadly The Empress of Salt and Fortune is no Fingersmith. The novella seemed more focused on replicating a certain fairy-tale ambience than actually providing dimensional characters and places. Maybe I would have felt differently if I hadn’t recently read The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri…maybe not.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

“He wasn’t sure if parents had limits to their love, but he was worried that one day something would push them too far and he’d find out.”

After a horrible experience at his old high school Spencer Harris is ready to turn a new leaf. He’s Black, fifteen, a bit of a nerd, and good at soccer. His new private school offers him the chance to start over, and, despite his initial desire to ‘lay low’, he finds himself joying the school’s soccer team. No one at Oakley knows he’s trans, and while Spencer is not ashamed of who he is, he doesn’t want to re-experience the bullying and harassment he was subjected to at his old school.
While Spencer becomes friends with the other boys on the team, his budding crush on a fellow team member and the fact that he joined the team after his parents explicitly forbid him to…well, these make his life a bit more complicated.
Things take a downward turn when Spencer is benched due to a discriminatory law.

Isaac Fitzsimons’ prose is the classic YA coming-of-age kind of fare, simple and readable, only occasionally coming across as a wee bit green (some lines of dialogue here and there, maybe a phrase or two: “They lost the game that day, but Spencer gained a lesson he’d never forget”). I appreciated how inclusive this book was. In addition to Spencer being trans, we have queer, gay, autistic, and non-binary characters.
Spencer comes across as a realistic teenager, sometimes prone to angsting over this or that, being a bit self-involved, or giving his parents a hard time,. We can also see how hard it is for him, how anxious he is about people accepting him for who he is. He was a really sweet kid and I really admired that he speaks up about the gender-neutral bathrooms and for being so supportive towards his younger brother.
I also liked how uplifting the story was. It made me smile more than once and I am so happy that Fitzsimons didn’t let his story follow the path of many other lgbtq+ YA book (usually a character is outed) and that he actually made his mc’s parents into more than one-dimensional characters. The authors keeps a good balance between Spencer’s character arc and the romance subplot.

This was a really wholesome book. We have a cute romance, as well as good family and friendship dynamics, and the author includes realistic and current issues in his storyline. There may be the odd cheesy moment but I could have not cared less (if I wanted 100% realistic stories I would not be reading anything ever).
This is clearly a novel with a big heart. The author treats his characters and their struggles with empathy and understanding. If you are a fan of Kacen Callender or Julian Winters you should definitely consider giving The Passing Playbook a chance.

my rating: ★★★½

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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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Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

“A smart Teek survives the storm, but a wise Teek avoids storms altogether.”

It took me awhile to warm up to Black Sun and during its first half I worried that I would find myself once again in the ‘unpopular’ opinion camp. As I’d read and liked Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning I was hoping that I would find Black Sun to be at least an entertaining read…but within the first 40% I found myself tempted to DNF it but I’m glad i persevered. Overall I think this is a really good start to the Between Earth and Sky series. I do have some ‘reservations’, but these are minor criticisms, and on the whole I would definitely recommend it to fans of N.K. Jemisin and Guy Gavriel Kay.

This novel’s biggest strengths is its world-building which is inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. The Meridian is a land that is home to many different clans, all of which have their own distinctive customs. Many resent the Watchers, “whose duty it was to keep the calendar and wrestle order from chaos” and who maintain “the Balance between what is above us and what is below”, which isn’t surprising given when we learn of the Night of Knives. The Watchers, an order composed of priests such as the Sun Priest and the Priest of Succor, reside in the “celestial tower” which is located in Tova. The sprawling action of the novel takes us all over Meridian. From the city of Tova, Meridian’s religious heart (where we learn of the conflict between the Watchers and the cultists as well as the disparities between Sky made clans and Dry Earthers), to the merchant city of Cuecola. We also accompany characters on their voyage across the treacherous Crescent Sea and gain insights into the matriarchal Teek people. Although part of me wishes that the novel had focused on two particular characters, I understand that the multiple perspectives allow us to explore different quarters and cultures of the Meridian. While certain settings could have been described more fully, we always given detailed descriptions of what the characters are wearing (from their clothes and hair styles to their accoutrements), which made them all the more vivid. Also, these descriptions often lead to insights into a particular clan/culture: “She came from a culture that lived on islands and in the water. Clothes were for protection from the elements and occasionally to show status, bug generally, Teek weren’t big on covering up for any supposed moral reasons. Cuecolans and, frankly, all the mainlanders were much too uptight about nudity.”
Although each city/district/clan has its own set of established norms, the Meridian has many LGBTQ+ people (and with the exception of Cuecola seems an accepting place). We have queer main and side characters and a third gender which are referred to as bayeki and use xe/xir pronouns. I loved the casualness of Roanhorse’s representation (casual but never insensitive or superficial).
This world also has some fab lore and magic. There are those who can read the skies, the Teek who can Sing to the water ie calm the seas (they call the water Al-Teek, their mother), and those who can converse and command crows. And we also have gigantic crows that can be ridden. How cool is that?
Unlike many other high fantasy books there is no info-dumping here. If anything Roanhorse keeps her cards close to her chest. We sometimes learn of certain things via conversations, such as when a character from X place has gone to Y place and is questioning a particular aspect of that society/city/culture. These dialogues didn’t feel contrived, and they provided us with a fuller picture of the Meridian.
I can’t wait to explore this world more in the next instalment.

Now…on the things that sort of worked and sort of didn’t (for me of course, these ‘criticisms’ are entirely subjective and I encourage readers to read reviews that express opposing takes/views). We have three main storylines: Xiala, a captain and a Teek who after accepting a job offer from a merchant lord finds herself transporting important cargo to the city of Tova; the cargo happens to be Serapio who was blinded by his own mother as part of a ritual and is now part of an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it prophecy prophesy; Narampa, the Sun Priest, who is a Dry Earther and as such is held in contempt by other Watchers. Although we are given the perspectives of individuals who are on opposing sides, I never felt very sympathetic towards Narampa, so for awhile I found myself rooting for the anti-Watchers…until that ending of course.
While most readers will correctly predict that at one point or another the lives of the paths of these characters will cross, they each of their own storyline. The first half of this novel is very much of slow-burn. While there is plenty of action and drama, I didn’t find the plot all that gripping (the chapters focusing on Serapio’s childhood were strongly reminiscent of Damaya’s chapters in The Fifth Season). Much of Narampa’s storyline irked me as it was kind of predictable (we have the cunning mean girl who tries to sabotage her). It is suggested that Narampa wants to change the ways of the Watchers but this isn’t explored all that well. There is too much time spent on her relationship to Iktan, the Priestof Knives who now protects Narampa. They were former lovers, and Narampa is suddenly interested again merely because she assumes that Iktan is seeing someone else (which is somewhat realistic but their former relationship remains vastly uncharted so that I never could picture them together or even believe that Narampa still had feelings for Iktan). Part of me thinks that we weren’t meant to like Narampa all that much, but I do wish she could have been made more sympathetic. After the 80% I did start to dislike her less so at least her character arc isn’t a flat one. Flashbacks into her childhood would have probably made her seem like a less uptight and supercilious.
Xiala and Serapio at first reminded me a bit too much of the two main characters in Trail of Lightning. Their personalities too seem to revolve around their unique abilities. But once their voyage across the Crescent Sea gets interesting we get to see a more rounded picture of their personalities as well as insights into their pasts, fears, and desires. Dismissing Xiala as a loud-mouth or the typical spitfire heroine would be to ignore her more vulnerable side. Her powers were cool, and I loved learning about the ways of the Teek or their relationship to Al-Teek. Serapio did walk to close to the “monster/villain/antihero” line. Readers seem to love type of character in spite of his actions. Usually his traumatic past gives him a free pass. Thankfully, Roanhorse subverts this trope. Serapio, like Xiala, has many vulnerable moments. Although he does question the path he has taken, we see that there are quite a few people responsible for his having embarked upon it.
While I could get past their instantaneous kinship, given their status as outsiders, I wish that their feelings had remained platonic…or that at least that their romance could have been explored in the next instalment. I wasn’t a big fan of their romance. While I did enjoy their dynamic, their attraction and romantic feelings for each other made their relationship a bit more basic. And, dare I say that my sapphic heart was sad to read another fantasy book with a het central romance? While Xiala is queer and attracted to women, she has never felt anything like what she feels for Serapio (insert eye roll). And I definitely did no enjoy reading this line: “I’ve been on a ship for the past two weeks with a celibate. Offer now, and who knows what happens? I’ve only got so much self-control”. This line would not be okay if uttered by a male character…so why is it okay if Xiala says it? Serapio is younger and inexperienced, so why can Xiala make a ‘I will jump your bones/I can’t help myself’ joke?
Still, I did overall enjoy their bond and scenes together. Hopefully their romance will be more convincing to me in the follow up book.
We also get a fourth character. He is introduced around the 40% mark…and his chapter are unnecessary. We never learn more of what kind of person he is, but rather his chapters are very oriented. He has very few chapters and with the exception of the last one these could be cut out of the novel without any major changes to the overall narrative.

In spite of my initial sentiments towards this novel Roanhorse’s writing is absorbing. There are many discussions, surrounding violence and justice for example (“justice came through the actions of humans holding wrongdoers to account, not through some vague divine retribution and certainly not through violence”), that can be applied to our own world. Xiala, Serapio, and even Narampa face stigma for who they are (“People like us are always hated until they need us—isn’t that always the way?”). Roanhorse gives different perspectives on the same or similar incidents/issues, presenting us with a nuanced view of things. She also wrote some wickedly cool lines and descriptions such as “He screamed, euphoric, and the world trembled at his coming” / “a false god is just as deadly as a true one” / “the world shuddered, as if it recognized him and feared what it saw”.
If you want to read an action-driven epic set in a non-Western inspired world and that is brimming with amazing visuals and concepts look no further. In spite of my criticisms towards the first half of the novel and the romance I did enjoy it and I would actually read it a second time (perhaps when the sequel is about to come out).

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up) out of 5 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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