The Upside of Falling by Alex Light

If you want a light and fluffy, easy-to-read, and honestly rather simplistic YA romance, this is definitely an option. If, however, you want more realistic and organic character development, with protagonists who aren’t overidealized, shallow, underdeveloped, or cliche-feeling, then you might be a bit frustrated with The Upside of Falling. It isn’t a terrible book but the writing lacks nuance, skews very young, and you will never believe these could actually be real-life people.


Story: Becca Hart’s parents’ divorce was hard on her – her father just left and never contacted them again. Her mother lost herself in a baking and opened a store. Becca, meanwhile, loses herself in romance books while not believing there can actually be true love in the world. When her former best friend (who dumped her when that friend became a popular cheerleader) says some mean things about Becca never having been in love and not knowing what it means, Becca spontaneously lies and says she has a boyfriend. In comes the most popular guy in the school, Brett Wells, who holds up Becca’s lie mysteriously by claiming to be her ‘hidden’ boyfriend. Can these two make a fake romance work?

Right off the bad, I was thrown off by the premise. Becca lies to a classmate about having a boyfriend and suddenly popular football hunk steps in, puts his arm around her, and claims to be her boyfriend to help her out. How would he even know she was lying, they had never talked before (it’d be rather embarrassing if he was caught out if Becca actually did have one)? And his motivation for doing so doesn’t feel very realistic either – he wants to get his parents off his back about dating. Because honestly, he might as well gone for the cheerleader girl, dated her casually, and made his ambitious parents even happier. There was zero reason established why he would be interested in Becca.

As well, the whole scenario of Becca being turned off of real love but being obsessed with ‘fake’ love in romance novels didn’t really feel realistic either. Her father leaving them and starting a new life with a new woman seems almost a good thing (her mother finds a career out of it) and it set the scene for the obsession with romance novels that got Becca Brett. So we have the supposed ‘damaged’ loner, dumped by her good friend and father, and reading romance books alone at school. All this felt a lot more told than shown.

I also found I didn’t like Becca or Brett. Brett was a caricature of a person – never feeling real or having any of the usual teen boy nuances. Becca, meanwhile, is given a chance to date a great guy and spends most of the time either being rude about it (avoiding him, not showing up to his practice, having to be forced to go to his games), not being thankful for the favor Brett did or musing endlessly on what it means to have a fake boyfriend. The whole first part of the book where we get to know Becca is a) she says a petty lie, b) she gets randomly helped out of the situation she got herself in by Brett and doesn’t even bother being thankful, c) spends the first chapters freaking out about it and not trying to help out Brett at all, d) stalking her father and seeing his new girlfriend (just so we feel sorry for her, I guess?). So why are we supposed to like her? What does Brett see in her? Feels very Mary Sue.

I did give up about half way through. The writing felt very amateurish and lacking sophistication in storytelling, character building/development, and plotting. I think if I was 12 or 13 years old, I’d really like the book. But I’ve read enough books now that the ‘wattpad’ nature of this story really shows glaringly. It’s a Twinkie – sweet but not very fulfilling. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Light Years by R.W.W. Greene

In many ways, this feels very much like a throwback to 1970s sci fi – complete with all the ‘hippie’ ideals where you get to stick it to ‘the man’ (greedy corporate types), save the poor, strive for peace, be liberal and relaxed, live communally, experience many sexual partners of both genders, get wasted frequently, and play some music at the same time. But that is tempered with the 2019 themes of inclusiveness, refugee crises, gender equality, etc. As such, it feels very manufactured and with an agenda so strong as to make this a social piece rather than an exciting sci fi adventure. The first half of the book is as listless as the main characters and then we finally get action near the end that is too abrupt to be organic.


Story: In an era of relativity travel, the Hajj (a family owned trader ship) will spend a year traveling while 24+ years will pass on the planets they visit each time. It means that staying on the ship is the only way to grow up with your family; if anyone leaves, they will be elderly or already dead by the time you get back to them. When the current captain of the Hajj makes a contract with a young poor couple to wed their children (one unborn daughter and the captain’s son), a year will pass for Adem Sadiq but 24 for Hisako before they actually meet. A smart captain is always planning for the future and her actions in the present will bear fruit in surprising ways in the future as we follow Adem and Hisako life until the event happens.

The world building here is your typical “people fled Earth and established colonies based around their cultures.” Of course, in this book, the Americans and the Middle Easterns got into a war and blew each other up, leaving a lot of refugees. The refugee ‘problem’ is becoming an issue and the author suggests that governments are sending out squads pretending to be refugee terrorists in order to blow up or kill off refugee camps blamelessly. At the same time, people want to get their hands on the technology that the Americans had – planet killers and light speed travel that for some reason, was completely destroyed in the 2-day war that saw both sides eliminated and never found again. If the Hajj had lightspeed travel, they could become very profitable instead of always running on the margins (since they refuse high profit runs such as slaver ships and instead do low profit runs helping refugees, natch).

Into this world, we follow alternating POVs of Hisako and Adem – the betrothed. Adem is a carefree guy who is the son of the captain/matriarch, a musician whose videos go out on the web, and who is a jack-of-all-trades keeping the ship running. He spends most of the book ruminating on his approaching nuptials (he is to be married only a year after the contract is made, and to a woman that wasn’t even born yet). He is dealing with an uncle who wants to eject the family’s liberal views, run high profit missions, and take over the ship from the captain, Adem’s mother.

Hisako, meanwhile, has her story told through short snippets of her life, starting from her early years and going through her life until 24, when she is to be married. She resents the situation and refuses to accept that a) she’d be an ‘illicite’ and have to live on the streets otherwise; b) it meant she had her high education paid for and would have a future; c) she only had to stay married to Adem for 2 years to fulfill the contract; and d) her parents would have continued to live in abject poverty without it. Because of the above, it’s hard to appreciate her rebelliousness and churlishness toward the situation. We learn of her parents’ tribulations, her father’s drinking and getting involved with the wrong people, and her mother having to suffer through it all.

Both of Aden’s and Hisako’s lives are pretty mundane: playing music, enjoying various partners, dealing with home life and situations. It doesn’t really make for much sci fi, the premise of which comes in at the last 20% or so. As well, because we are beaten over the head with the ‘live and let live’ themes, save the people, etc., it felt more like a manifesto wrapped in sci fi trappings. Adem was bland and unremarkable for a lead character and Hisako spends most of the time rebelling or wasting time. It was hard to see them as “the guy who knows the ship so well, he can fix anything” or the girl who was “gene spliced to be a near genius and can play 8 instruments.” Instead, it was “I got screwed over because 2 years of my future were contracted” and “I probably should stop having sexual partners because I’m guilty about my upcoming marriage.” Meanwhile, both spend most of the book playing instruments or talking about their life in a band or putting music vids up on the web. Not very sci fi.

The book is not poorly written but yes, the agenda is so thick as to make this feel either like a statement piece or a Marty Stu. Wikipedia says that the hippie movement was about ” harmony with nature, communal living, artistic experimentation particularly in music, and the widespread use of recreational drugs” and this pretty much sums of the book (just exchange drugs for alcohol here). As such, the book can feel very inert and very one-dimensional. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Don’t Call Me Dirty by Gorou Kanbe

This is a stand alone story told in several chapters about life in a small town in Japan. The story focuses on boyish adult Shoji mostly but also brings in a host of small town characters. The plot is about what you would expect, though perhaps not with a focus on finding a hot guy in a homeless man so much as village life and getting over prejudices. The title refers both to homeless young man “Hama” as well as gay young adult Shoji – both of whom were called ‘dirty’ for different reasons.


Story: After graduating school, Shoji opted to work in his father’s liquor store. But most of his time is spent helping an elderly man (who naps most of the day on the job) with his old fashioned snack kiosk next door. As Shoji’s relationship with a hetero man who was ‘exploring’ begins to unravel, Shoji is heartbroken. At the same time, he began to help a dirty and smelly homeless man who showed up now and then to purchase a snack at the shop. Shoji sees a quiet goodness in the homeless man and begins to fall for him, surprising everyone. But is he just rebounding? Or compounding his poor discretion in men?

Our homeless man, Hama, plays a fairly small part though he is seen in quite a few pages. He represents pathos and his quiet stoicism is a counterbalance to Shoji’s energy and lack of ambition. Hama doesn’t go through a character arc – he remains the ‘smelly and dirty’ homeless man (those attributes are over emphasized throughout) until near the end. Instead, the story is really about Hama, about changing attitudes toward small towns and sensibilities, and about how redemption comes in unusual forms.

The cover makes Shoji look a bit manipulative but really he is portrayed throughout the book as a pushover and nice guy. There are lovely scenes of him interacting with the local village kids, with his internet-obsessed but pragmatic father, with a rude teen who comes by the shop randomly to be a jerk, and the father of the elderly shop owner. Each is quite quirky and interacts in different ways with both Shoji and with Hama. It is a very gentle story.

This is more of a slice-of-life story than a dramatic one. It’s about Shoji recognizing that his ‘boyfriend’ was just experimenting and not serious (and a jerk) and also about Hama coming to accept the help of others. It’s about small town life and the disappearing small snack stores as well as modern parenting in small towns. So there is a bit of nostalgia, especially for Japanese, and a sweet ‘homey’ feel for those who did not grow up in Japan. At the same time, not much happens, the story moves at a glacial pace, and Shoji is the boring typical uke – almost childlike, genki, over emotional, and very cliche. His immediate attachment to Hama (despite the dirt and smell) did not feel realistic at all.

So although the plot moves slowly, not much happens, and the characters felt far too over-idealized, it is a quick and pleasant read. The artwork is fine and the characters easy to identify. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Every Other Weekend by Abigail Johnson

It would be hard to rate this as anything other than a 5 star since the writing is so good, the characters nuanced, and the plot highly grounded. More so than most YA books out there, this eschews platitudes in favor of flawed but realistic protagonists who frustrate and inspire you at the same time. It’s not an easy read with both characters having to deal with very realistic and very unfortunate circumstances that could crush any adult, not two mention two teens. But through all the darkness there is a light at the end of the tunnel that keeps this from devolving into a maudlin tear-fest.


Story: In one run down apartment building, two 15 year olds meet through adjacent balconies. Jolene has lived there awhile, a product of her parents divorcing and her wealthy father hiding his assets to keep them away from his wife for alimony. He’s never around and she spends every other weekend there, a requirement of the lawyers as the parents use her to hurt the other. Adam arrives at the apartment in anger and despair. His older brother died a year ago and his parents were unable to deal with the grief and letting go. His father provides handyman services to fix the apartment building and Adam is angry at his father for leaving their mother to grieve. Both Jolene and Adam have very different situations but at the heart is that each needs to find their own place in a messed up world.

With Jolene’s situation, we have very callous and petty parents, neither of whom provide any parental support or love. With Adam’s situation, we have parents who feel everything overmuch – so much that it is drowning them. So the meeting point between both worlds is that one is starved for love and one is drowning in it. Together, they provide the structure to help each find their own strengths while creating needed stability.

At 500 pages, it would seem like a long book but it really isn’t. The pace is brisk and takes place over several months as their relationship develops slowly and organically. Where Adam knows immediately that he has found what he needs, Jolene will shy from close affection with barbed humor and plenty of walls; all she knows of intimacy is that it brings pain. In lesser hands, their story could have been trite and unbelievable – angst just to create drama. But Abigail Johnson has created a story that develops slowly, realistically, and with a great deal of pathos. Even scenes with a sexual predator grooming his next victim were written so that we actually understood why a victim doesn’t realize the situation they are in until often too late.

In all, this has all the ‘feelz’ that make a good YA book so moving. You won’t find cutesey couples and every single person in the book is so flawed and in such a bad situation that you really have to fear for the author’s world view. But at the same time, you’ll probably appreciate your own situation much better. After all, you could have one more like one of the main or side characters in this book. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Mall by Megan McCafferty

From the beginning dedication of “To all Riot Grrrls, past present and future” you’ll get an instant idea of what to expect from The Mall. There are a lot feminist ideas here, perhaps the author looking back at the time (1991) through a revisionist lens to see the beginnings of the grrrl movement. Social issues affecting women/girls at the time are addressed obliquely so as to not become an agenda piece and the focus does stay on the relationship aspects of our main character. Nor is this a light Summer romance; the Mall is about friendships, finding oneself, and learning to discover your own own strengths and weaknesses. The characters are very flawed and not overidealized – you won’t fall in love with any of them but you can definitely respect that they feel more interesting because of the weaknesses and self discovery journey they take.


Story: Cassie has graduated high school and is now facing the Summer lull before attending her University in Fall. Smart and focused, she and her boyfriend Troy have planned out their entire future and how they will make it successful. Until a bout of very serious mono puts her in a hospital for several weeks to “keep her internals from exploding.” When she is out of the hospital, everything changes – she loses her boyfriend, her job, and then her homelife starts falling apart. But amidst the destruction, she reunites with a lost friend, meets a new great guy, and begins to learn that being the best person she can be is more than a platitude – and extremely difficult not only to define but also to achieve.

While there are great 1980s/1990s references, they won’t derail the book. Younger readers can view it as a historical and biography of Gen Xers (NOT Baby Boomers!) and appreciate it for the period it is set. Those who lived the era will enjoy the many references – from “crunchy Aqua Net hair” to Yardley’s of London Lavender scented products. Before video games made the home actually fun to be in, that era was all about the mall.

Character-wise, Cassie can be very difficult to respect/like. She’s selfish,much shallower than the shallow creatures she derides, and doesn’t respect or appreciate all that is being done for her. Of course, it was the Reagan “Me generation” so that isn’t all that surprising. But I had a hard time liking or appreciating her. I grew up in that era and she was just as pretentious to me as the cheerleader or jock she looks down on. Cassie’s ex is a stand-in for Family’s Ties tv series lead Alex (Michael J Fox) and a lot of the book is Cassie recognizing that the conservative Reagan Era values he placed on her were stifling.

I did like that the author did not overidealize best friend Drea. She wasn’t the sweet friend left behind when the girls entered high school. Rather, Cassie was the one left behind when her friend learned how to really showcase herself and use her mother’s skill with fashion to best advantage. Now with the girls reuniting, Drea remained the same appearance-oriented character but using those skills to best advantage now that she was an adult.

I did have a few quibbles. The ‘treasure hunt’ mcguffin was silly and really hurt the sincerity of the story since it was so unrealistic and illogical. I really disliked that aspect of the book since it destroyed credibility so effectively. As well, a lot of The Mall is extremely overwritten in order to up the humor. I didn’t believe for a minute that a teen spontaneously had the quips that Cassie did; so although they were amusing, the beginning was a tedious slog through unbelievable dialogue and cultural references. Both eased by the middle of the book, fortunately. And the biggest nitpick is that Drea and her mother are of Italian heritage – but Andrea (Drea) is a male name in Italian (female in Germany, France, etc.) so Giavanna Bellarossa would never have named her daughter Andrea.

I think those expecting a light and fluffy romance won’t find it here. This is a coming of age story of a very flawed character with a strong ‘grrrrrls are doing it for themselves’ message throughout. Interestingly enough, I could very much picture this as a movie from the 1980s teen era, a companion to The Breakfast Club or Some Kind of Wonderful. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Jujutsu Kaisen 2 by Gege Akutami

This still has me curious enough to keep reading and see where this will go. It feels very much like Bleach and certainly the worldbuilding as established hints at some interesting storylines yet to come. For now, we bear with our newbie Jujutsu sorcerer Itadori as he tries o figure out the whole cursed thing while also learning to develop and explore his own unique abilities.


Story: Itadori has been forced to let his Curse Sekuna take over – and seems unable to take control back as the battle continues. Fushigoro has to come to assist and to kill Itadori if Sekuna fully and permanently takes over. But Sekuna has other ideas – and is willing to kill the body (and both himself and Itadori) if Itadori doesn’t prove worthy. Meanwhile, Curses are banding together and want to take over the human world. They have a plan: turn Sekuna to their side and seal away Gojo and keep him out of the fight. Neither of which is going to be easy for the Curses.

The book is setting up two arcs in the future: the main one of the Curses now banding together to defeat the Jujutsu sorcerers and also a smaller upcoming arc of different Jujutsu schools conducting deadly battle competitions. We were introduced to several fellow students as well as two rivals from the Kyoto school. There is a lot of trash talking already and let the games begin!

In all, this still has a very strong Bleach feel, with the Curses replacing Hollows and Itadori very much an Ichigo. Instead of a Soul Society, we have schools of Jujutsu sorcery and certainly Fushigori seems a lot like Rukia. Where Bleach was a bit more adventure oriented, Jujutsu is starting out to be a bit more horror oriented. But both have similar DNA and I can see room for an ever-expanding range of characters, as we saw in Bleach. I just hope we get more character development in Itadori since he lacks the pathos of Ichigo Kurosaki.

In all, the artwork is easy to follow and suits the action well. There’s nothing spectacular here but it is more than good enough to keep one invested in the story. I’ll be curious to see where this goes in volume 3. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Given, Vol. 1 by Natsuki Kizu

I was really on the fence about whether to rate this 3 or 4 stars. On the one hand, this firmly hits too many of the BL cliches and on the other hand it does have an interesting idea to mix older and younger characters in the same band. I think in the end, it felt far too unrealistic, even for a slice-of-life BL title. It is so hard to tell from a first volume whether a series will pick up steam or not and there wasn’t a lot here, to be honest.


Story: Uenoyama is coasting through high school: nothing really excites him any more, even his beloved guitar doesn’t entrance him as it did in the past. When he goes to take a nap one day in his secret spot on the stairs, he finds a schoolmate cradling a guitar and seemingly napping. When Uenoyama helps the boy fix the guitar, the boy, Sato, begs him to teach him guitar. Therein begins their relationship.

The book has four principle characters who form a band. Two college students (a brash drummer and an introspective bassist) and the two main characters in high school (guitarist Uenoyama and Sato, who will be a guitarist and singer). Most of the drama will come from Sato having a tragic relationship in the past and the bassist’s unrequited love for the playboy drummer.

The cliches of romance and BL are there: the random meeting on the stairwell (how many manga have we seen that in now??), one being gruff and headstrong while the other being a naif, all naivete and girlish soft spokenness, the usual “am I gay??”, the bitchy female characters who ruin people and are terrible people, and the almost-girlish prettiness of the two outwardly gay characters in the book.

But beside the cliches, I had a really hard time with the believability here. The main character Sato is so stupid as to be unrealistic – does anyone in high school in a city in Japan not know what a band is? Not know that you can change strings on a guitar? And just be pretty much clueless about everything? He felt more like a cardboard caricature than a character. Uenoyama also felt similarly constructed – more of an idea than a person. Their more mature bandmates also looked/acted like Bl caricatures rather than real people. Even the whole music aspect felt tacked on and like the author was trying to be serious about it but lacked the knowledge.

The art is solid and after a peek at a trailer of the anime, I can say infinitely superior to the anime (which distills the designs into almost 2D stereotypes). It can be hard at times to follow the story or know what is going on; that’s pretty usual in first volumes though.

Perhaps because I didn’t really like or believe any of the characters (who all seemed to lack a grounded and nuanced personality), I likely won’t be following this series. But I do feel this will appeal to certain audiences there only for the BL romance. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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