Review: Freefall Summer by Tracy Barrett

Freefall SummerFREEFALL SUMMER by Tracy Barrett is a coming-of-age novel that addresses an overprotective father and boyfriend (dare we use patriarchal?) who seem to have “good reasons,” but their behavior has the same effects as any other confining actions, no matter the motivation. Clancy Edwards seems to have it all. She is 16-years-old with a doting father, a handsome boyfriend, and a best friend who always has her back. Her father owns a skydiving business, and Clancy works there, earning money packing parachutes and spending time with the family-like employees at the Drop Zone every weekend. From the novel’s start, we have hints that Clancy is uncomfortable with the suffocating attention from the men in her life, but we also find out why they may feel like they need to protect her: Clancy’s mother died in a skydiving accident when Clancy was just six-years-old.

Clancy comes across as a typical 16-year-old who wants to test out her independence on her own terms. Her relationship with her father is loving and comfortable, but it’s also awkward and frustrating. Clancy’s boyfriend, Theo, is a gentleman and seemingly perfect, but he’s just as protective as her father — and soon cracks begin to show. So, when Denny, an 18-year-old 1st time skydiver assumes Clancy is in college and doesn’t treat her like she’ll break without protection, shows up, it’s an opportunity to try out autonomy and feeling “grown up.”

Overall, the growth Clancy shows leads smoothly to the climax of the novel. Her alternating appreciation of and exasperation with her father’s and boyfriend’s attention is a natural extension of learning to claim autonomy. And Clancy’s growing attempts to stretch her independence feel very true to teenage behavior and emotions. I also appreciated an intimate scene in which Clancy asserted her desires over her boyfriend’s. Kids (and adults!) need all the examples they can get! The novel also highlights truth-telling and the unintended effects of keeping secrets, both in large ways and small.

Highly appreciated was the knowledgable way in which skydiving culture was discussed and described. And no wonder! Author Tracy Barrett is an avid skydiver and even met her husband at a Drop Zone. Learn more about her here.

Freefall Summer is recommended for teens 13+ and anyone who appreciates young adult stories.

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Review: If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann

If it makes you happy claire kannI learned a lot from Claire Kann’s new novel IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY. The protagonist, Winnie, is an 18-year-old living “her best fat-girl life” during the summer before college. In addition to being body positive, Winnie is in a longterm platonic dating relationship with Kara, her ungirlfriend. However, she’s also attracted to Dallas, the popular and handsome boy who seems perfect in all ways. Add all that to drama with her grandmother, balancing attention for her brother and her cousin, and trying to figure out what SHE really wants — and you’ve got a great summer read appropriate for teens (minor cursing and kissing) of all ages. It’s also a great book for parents who are struggling to support their own children’s assertions about their love lives in all their many shades.

Winnie is an irresistibly likable protagonist, and her patient and thoughtful approach to the summer’s events is impressive. She says out loud most of what she’s thinking, even when it promises an uncomfortable outcome. And she comes across as confident, kind, and open-minded even as she admits she is unsure, confused, and feeling grumpy. Her kindness tempers situations in which the truth hurts, and her confidence belies her fear of public speaking and her rocky relationship with her grandmother. When Winnie is suddenly chosen to be Summer Queen for the area, her plans of working and hanging out change dramatically.

The supporting characters are a wonderful array of personalities. Winnie’s brother, Winston, is a loyal and supportive delight, and Sam, their cousin, is a ray of sunshine…when she isn’t being annoyingly perfect. Kara, Winnie’s longtime ungirlfriend is loyal, caring, and fearfully jealous. And Dallas, Winnie’s Summer King comes across as a little too dreamy in both looks and deeds, as summer crushes often seem to teenagers. All the characters circle around Winnie like planets orbiting the sun, and her magnetism remains consistent and strong throughout the novel.

IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY is a body positive, matter-of-fact novel that centers issues of race and queer culture even as it weaves a tale of typical summertime teenage drama and family conflicts. Despite the main character being 18, the story is appropriate for younger teens. Strongly recommended.


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Review: This Was Our Pact

this was our pactTHIS WAS OUR PACT by Ryan Andrews is a fanciful graphic novel that starts out as a standard coming-of-age story of boys on bikes in the wilderness. It then suddenly veers into magical realism that is at once bizarre and familiar as well as touching and haunting. An odd story, with some deeply strange characters, This Was Our Pact will challenge readers. Some may end up putting the book down only to feel a siren call to return to the story. In the end, the book is a wonderful illustration of overcoming obstacles, perseverance, and discovering what loyalty and friendship truly are.

The story opens with a group of boys setting out on the bikes for an adventure that seems simple enough: to follow the path of lanterns as they float down a river. However, the farther they go, the fewer boys continue — despite their pact that no one turns for home and no one looks back. Ben, one of two main characters, and Nathaniel, a nerdy outcast who brings great snacks, end up as the only two boys who don’t break the pact. Their travels quickly become magical when they meet a talking bear and visit strange and fantastical people and places all while staying on the path to their original goal. The relationship between the boys is strained and uncomfortable at times, but it will also feel familiar all readers. In the end, they learn from each other and discover more about themselves.

The blue, black and grey tones reflect the eerie mood and goings-on throughout the graphic novel. Emotions like the uninhibited joy of the fisherbear and Nathaniel as they ride bicycles and travel in rowboats are drawn with clarity. And the odd events are made understandable via the clever, albeit simple, illustrations. Both I and my children flipped back and forth several times as we read to compare illustrations at different points in the graphic novel. There were so many details to discover!

This Was Our Pact isn’t for everyone. Readers who want a straightforward and realistic story may be frustrated by scenes that don’t make sense in our everyday and mundane reality. However, children and adults who are willing to suspend disbelief and go with the flow will be rewarded with a wonderful tale that realizes childlike wonder made tangible.

Recommended for ages 10-14, but appropriate for slightly younger and older.

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Glad I Saw It: Chalk on Pine Street

IMG_2475There was a time when I would have been mortified to have my gleaming white legs and unkempt hair captured in a photograph. Over the years, I’ve become adept at slinking off to the side of the frame or staying behind the camera or using other people and props to interrupt my outline in pictures. But with a half century of camouflage experience behind me, I’ve had to face how exhausting and futile and quite silly it is to expend so much energy on trying to bend reality to hide the Me I am right now.

So, thank you to Armando Diaz, aka OUTthere, for this photo from the Pine Street Art Festival. I’m glad you took it, and I’m glad I saw it.


The Big Girl in the Room

Coney Island Bikinis

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Review: VERY NICE by Marcy Dermansky

very nice marcy dermanskyMarcy Dermansky’s forthcoming novel, VERY NICE, is a tangled web of longing, lazing, and attempted adulting. With five narrators, none of which fits the traditional mold of likeable or hero, the plot moves forward with passionate detail and disparate loyalties. The novel is marketed as a “beach read,” but its complex themes and deeply developed characters demand a wider definition and year-round attention. VERY NICE’s satirical take on tony suburbs and trudging academia is at once harsh and appreciative, and readers will find some empathy for even the most difficult characters.

Each of the main characters is connected, although most don’t realize how closely. As they orbit one another, slowly spiraling to a sudden, inevitable climax, the reader learns to forgive characters’ first impressions and their various uncomfortably relatable faults. What Dermansky manages to do throughout the novel is present choices for her characters and allow them to choose poorly while avoiding caricature and farce.

Rachel, who opens and closes the novel, is a college student who has sex with her college professor, Zahid, and then takes his dog home to her mother in a seaside Connecticut suburb. Her mother, Becca, needs companionship because her own dog has died and her husband has left her for another woman. It seems that the dog’s death has had more of an impact on Becca’s emotional well-being. Jonathan, the husband, is living what he thinks is his best life in Manhattan, but trying to reconnect with his daughter is awkward. And Khloe, one of Jonathan’s employees and the twin sister of Zahid’s best friend ties all the threads together with a bemused appreciation for the drama. Beach read? Sure. And an everywhere else read, too.

The push and pull of affection, the lure of easy living, the fear of failure, and the complicated relationships we develop create an irresistible and dramatic storyline for Dermansky’s main characters. The more readers get to know each character, the more vulnerabilities appear, and the more readers will recognize themselves and those around them. Also woven into the emotional drama are details that touch on politics, coming-of-age, race, gender, and sexual identity, and more that help the novel feel at once timely and relatable.

VERY NICE comes out July 2nd, and it will do very nicely as a beach companion. However, many readers will want to give it a second read wherever they happen to be.

Highly recommended.





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Review: Like Vanessa by Tami Charles

Like Vanessa Tami CharlesTami Charles’ LIKE VANESSA is a true gem for the 10-14 year old set. In fact, I enjoyed the book tremendously as well, and I’d highly recommend it as a “let’s read this together” book for caregivers and children. The novel, set in Newark, NJ during the fall of 1983, deals with typical middle school challenges like identity, changing friendships, leaving comfort zones, and balancing family difficulties with school and friends. However, what envelops each of the “typical” challenges is racism and colorism, body image, homophobia, varied examples of absent parents, and gang culture. With a structure built on introducing each chapter with poetry and journaling, readers will find themselves deeply engrossed by the main character’s courage, as well as her successes and let-downs.

Vanessa celebrates the Miss America win of Vanessa Williams both for its pageantry and for its historical significance as voting in the first Black Miss America — and the first Black runner-up! As a shy 8th grader who tries to blend in, the idea of entering a middle school beauty pageant seems impossible, but with encouragement from a new teacher and her best friend, she enters and makes the cut to participate.

Although Vanessa seems to have lots of support from her grandfather, her cousin, her music teacher, and even though she builds her own confidence as time goes by, the stress her new pursuit puts on her closest friendship and the underlying worry of keeping the pageant a secret from her father wear on her. In addition, Vanessa’s mom isn’t around to help with questions about make-up, walking in heels, and getting her first period. The events come together on Vanessa’s birthday, a day stuffed with emotional adventure and frightening events.

The novel’s pace is comfortable and relaxed throughout most of the novel, and it changes dramatically as the pageant nears. While that makes sense — adrenalin and nervous excitement do make time fly — it felt a bit too rushed for the final two days of the novel’s events. Even so, by this time the reader is full-on rooting for Vanessa to achieve her dreams, and the frantic pace probably feels much more realistic to a tween in the throes of middle school drama.

LIKE VANESSA is highly recommended for 10-14 and beyond. With mild language, including some homophobic language in Spanish, and one scene of a street fight that doesn’t get gory in detail, most readers will find the novel realistic and relatable. As a bonus, readers of a certain age will appreciate the 1980’s references.

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Review: Cannabis – The Illegalization of Weed in America

51MgQg9fz0L._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, Box Brown’s impassioned history lesson about Cannabis and its journey towards illegalization, takes readers from ancient religious traditions in India (see an excerpt here) to Mexico to opaque motivations and actions on the part of the US government to modern day efforts to re-legalize the plant and its use. In what comes across very much as a labor of love, Box Brown doesn’t hide his positive bias for Cannabis, nor does he subdue his frustration and anger at how the plant has been misrepresented for both racist control of populations and cynical motivation for power. No matter where your views regarding legalization of Cannabis land, this graphic history is filled with interesting, shocking, and thought-provoking details and events.

Brown’s unblinking, critical eye confronts the racist and sexist control of Cannabis around the world, the junk science and false narratives that widened a predatory practice of arresting Black and brown people for marijuana under the guise of saving white youth and women, as well as the Nixon White House and its “Marihuana Report.” In clear and organized detail, the graphic panels question motives and point out inconsistencies throughout the historical efforts to control and eradicate the use of Cannabis.


Ancient religious traditions in India included Bhang, a Cannabis product.

Box Brown reserves a special and methodical ire for Harry J. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, appointed in 1930. Despite Anslinger starting out with a focus on heroin, and considering marijuana a minor distraction, the end of prohibition threatened his job. He soon made sure to center Cannabis products complete with “Gore Files” that detailed how smoking marijuana drove people into homicidal rages. Contradictions abounded with examples of marijuana use causing violent episodes AND causing users to laze about. Anslinger also blamed Marijuana for both impotence AND sexual stimulation. Despite these discordant tales, fear was fueled and monetary opportunities were recognized, resulting in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Brown also highlights skeptics of Reefer Mania, like New York Mayor Fiorello, who commissioned his own study of to observe the effects of Cannabis on individuals. In contrast to earlier narratives from Anslinger and the Federal Government, the New York study showed no effect on the morality of subjects, even as the newspapers and Anslinger’s testimony continued to claim the opposite. However, this study had no effect on legislation, and Anslinger soon introduced his “Stepping Stone Theory” to heighten fear. (Now referred to as the Gateway Drug Theory.)

Brown makes sure to spotlight the racial disparities in arrests and harshness of punishment. In CANNABIS, Brown details how Jazz musicians were a favorite Anslinger target, including Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Brown points out that Holiday was harassed for years and arrested for narcotics possession even as she was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Testimony from addiction experts that disputed the “stepping stone theory” and the violent tendencies tied to Cannabis was cast aside, and by 1952 Cannabis was put in the same category as heroin. The same Federal act dictated mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

via Box Brown's FB

Photo of NYT’s preview via Box Brown’s Facebook page

A particularly salient section of the novel centers on the Nixon White House. In 1970, Nixon commissioned his own Cannabis report to bolster the Controlled Substances Act, but his own commission came back with a report that disputed the Gateway Theory as well as the addictive quality of Cannabis. It even recommended that marijuana be descheduled and declassified. Nixon trashed the report and ordered easier-to-manipulate hearings instead.

Because the graphic novel is about the ILLEGALIZATION of weed in America, the end of the book feels like a quick and abrupt close. Mentions of Nancy Reagan and “Just Say No” and details about medical marijuana seem sparse after the in-depth pages that precede them. One highlight is a brief but inspiring mention of Dennis Peron, a Cannabis activist inspired after being arrested for possession of marijuana used for his lover’s AIDS symptoms.

CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America reads like an enthusiastic user’s testimony in passionate defense of a dear friend. However, the in-depth research, clear examples and text, and varied narratives give leeway when warranted. They also reveal a deep understanding of the social justice, historical, and recreational values entangled in the relationship the USA has with marijuana and all Cannabis products.

Those who read the graphic novel, whether they come with painful baggage that feeds opinions against Cannabis or a carefree “Legalize It” attitude towards weed, will definitely learn a lot and perhaps adjust the context wrapped around the history of the herb.

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America by Box Brown is available April 2, 2019 from First Second Books.

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Review: Catwad

CatwadHonestly, I flipped through CATWAD: It’s Me when it was first sent to me and almost tossed it directly into the donation pile. Luckily, before my rush to judgment could cause a CATastrophe, my kids saw it, grabbed it, and devoured the book over and over again. They loved the goofy, sometimes gross, sometimes adorable, and surprisingly tender mini-tales of Catwad, the grumpy cat and his effusively joyful companion Blurmp.

So I read it. And I loved it.

It’s pure optimism tethered to ultra-refined irritability. And it’s a perfect partner to a bad day or a grouchy mood. The bright color palette suits the absolute silliness of Blurmp’s point-of-view. And kids will love the sometimes grotesque illustrations that include expired food, bodily functions, and various insects.

CATWAD will remind people my age of Garfield, except without the sweetness. Haha. Seriously, your kids will love this book. And I believe it’s going to be a series, so hooray for never-ending Catwad and Blurmp adventures from Jim Benton!

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Review: The Girl He Used to Know

GirlHeUsedtoKnowThe_BookshotNew York Times Bestselling Author Tracey Garvis Graves has a new book coming out on April 2nd, and THE GIRL HE USED TO KNOW is going to be a fantastic springtime read. I’m not usually a reader of books in the “Romance” genre, and I’d never read TGG’s work before, so I went in to this book devoid of expectations. I was pleasantly surprised and I became invested in the characters’ lives and coping mechanisms.

From the publisher:

Annika (rhymes with Monica) Rose is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people’s behavior confusing, she’d rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.

Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game—and his heart—to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.

Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She’s living the life she wanted as a librarian. He’s a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.

I found the main characters wonderfully developed, and the dialogue was both natural and helped move the plot along and deepen the characters’ personalities. The novel has perspectives from the two main characters, Annika and Jonathan, although Annika gets much more of a spotlight. The story also uses flashbacks to give detail and explanation for the roadblocks the two face in reconnecting.

read the girl

There are some really vulnerable moments that illuminate the characters and the relationship they share.

I liked that Garvis Graves handled the reveal of a couple of details deftly. I won’t give away what initiated Jonathan and Annika’s break-up back in college, but as I read I wondered…and finding out the reason came at the perfect time and revealed so much about Annika’s character. In addition, most readers will figure out pretty quickly, based on Annika’s actions and words, that she is on the autism spectrum. However, it’s not something that is ever mentioned until well towards the end of the novel. And in one uncomfortable but realistic scene, Jonathan finally tells Annika, “Did you really think I didn’t know?” Small spoiler: Annika really thought Jonathan didn’t know. It was a touching and realistic scene between the two.

The 2001 timeline feels rushed for the Annika/Jonathan reunion, but as the 1991 events unfurl, the whirlwind of getting reconnected begins to become more and more believable. And getting to know Annika and Jonathan’s relationship, as well as meeting peripheral characters (who are essential but sidelined!) like Janice and Annika’s parents and Annika’s therapist Tina, is worth the compressed emotional events.

I appreciated the emphasis on loving and appreciating people for who they are, and Annika’s methods of coping and growing are treated with sensitivity and a matter-of-fact realism. Overall, I really enjoyed reading the novel and getting to know the characters, but I had a personal reaction to one aspect of the novel. See below if you don’t mind partial spoilers!

THE GIRL HE USED TO KNOW by Tracey Garvis Graves comes out April 2nd!

Continue reading

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Glad I Saw It: One Drop Mural


I was driving up this street, stopped in a line of cars waiting for the red light to change, when I first noticed this mural that I must have driven by at least a few times before. It literally made me take a moment to stop and smile.

Which part do you like best? I like the leaf pattern at the lower right, but I also like the overall chunkiness of the mural’s design. It’s by a custom sign and billboard outfit called One Drop Sign Shop.

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