One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

The cover, in shades of pink and lavender, shows the two main characters looking at each other; Jane is on the subway, dressed in a black jacket, torn jeans, a white t-shirt and orange sneakers; August is walking alongside the subway station, wearing a white t-shirt and black jumper and boots, carrying a cup of takeaway coffee with a purse slung over her shoulder.
Book cover of One Last Stop.

by Ash B.

If you’re at all aware of contemporary LGBTQ romance fiction, then you’ve no doubt heard about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. I’ve honestly yet to read it, but I can confirm there is no sophomore slump for McQuiston with their second novel One Last Stop. 

One Last Stop follows August, a cynical 23-year-old college student, as she adjusts to life in New York – trying out yet another college in another city – complete with quirky roommates, a job at a pancake diner that she may or may not be qualified for, and a subway route that she happens to share with the most attractive girl she’s ever seen. The aforementioned “Subway Girl” goes by the name Jane, she is equal parts kind and fierce, and… well, her existence may defy reality as we know it. 

I leave this intentionally vague for a reason: I likely would have found the book even more enjoyable if I had no idea of the plot before I started reading, given that McQuiston spends quite some time building up the mystery of who – or what – Jane actually is. Therefore, I will refrain from going into detail about the book’s premise. Honestly, if this review piques your interest in the title, then I recommend that you simply dive into the book for yourself without reading the summary! 

However, I will divulge that, in my opinion, One Last Stop is an example of speculative fiction at its most accessible, and I absolutely loved it. In a recent interview, Casey McQuiston explains how they “have always loved that genre that’s sort of one step away from sci-fi, one step away from magic or fantasy. It’s a type of romcom that I think was really popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” referencing films such as 13 Going On 30 and Freaky Friday. These are not stories typically considered sci-fi or fantasy – at least, not in the same way as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – but they absolutely exist within the realm of speculative fiction, incorporating fantastical elements while allowing the author to set the story in an otherwise ‘normal’ contemporary world. The reader can take comfort in the familiarity of the overall setting but can be surprised, or at very least entertained, by the circumstances that arise from the speculative elements employed.  

Whereas these elements are often used for comedic potential in Hollywood movies, McQuiston is able to use them in a way that enriches One Last Stop with queer history and profound examinations about social differences between the past and present. And, of course, the situations created by the speculative elements are also well-suited for romantic tension and drama, which makes for a very engaging story.

I’ve found that a book is a particularly good read for me personally if it reminds me of other books I’ve loved, automatically encouraging my brain to go into “let’s compare these parallels!” mode while simultaneously being an enjoyable narrative on its own. One Last Stop is a perfect example of this! At the beginning, I found myself thinking of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, as both of these novels feature mystery-loving bisexual female protagonists in their early twenties, living in present-day NYC, that end up being caught in the middle of seemingly unreal circumstances. McQuiston’s lovable cast of characters, development of a queer found-family trope, and flirtation with the “star-crossed lovers” trope (but with a happy ending!) reminded me of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. And by the end, as hidden family histories and unexpected connections between characters are revealed, I excitedly reminisced about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Other than being some of my favorite reads in the past few years, I would not think to compare any of those three titles with each other… yet they fit perfectly in comparison to One Last Stop. 

In its best moments, One Last Stop is so tenderly written that it makes me yearn for a life in New York City – and that’s saying something, considering I’m a lifelong suburbanite who’s always been more drawn to the countryside than the city. McQuiston crafts likable characters who speak realistically about life in their city, honoring both the beauty and the struggles of the world which they inhabit. Not only that, but the city itself – and certain destinations within it, such as August’s apartment and the pancake diner where she works – feel like characters too. McQuiston writes them all with such care, I couldn’t help but feel connected to them, want to visit these places, want to be friends with these people and experience life alongside them. This makes for a wonderful book to escape into, and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good read about falling in love, finding one’s community, and growing into the best version of one’s self.

One Last Stop is available to request from HCLS in print as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

JOUST!

This photograph shows the cover of Cosmoknights and has the 3 main characters, Cass, Pan, and Bee in the foreground. Cass and Bee are wearing their jousting armors and carrying their weapons. In the background is presumably the hand of a princess grasping their favor which is an electronic pendant carried by the princesses of each planet and is given to the winner of each joust.

For this ragtag band of space gays, liberation means beating the patriarchy at its own game.

By Peter N.

Did you know that jousting is the state sport of Maryland? Chalk this up as a fact I was surprised to learn as an adult. The sport that involves horses, lances, and two knights? What you see at the Renaissance Festival? Cool! But I digress. Jousting usually is a competition between the aforementioned two knights for the hand of a fair princess or maiden – but this book, this clever and action-packed book, takes it one step further. 

This photograph shows an intergalactic joust in progress with a jouster in the foreground wearing predominantly white armor and sporting several jet boosters and a large lance surrounded by other jousters. The king is shown on screen in the background shouting "JOUST" to begin the games.

 

Cosmoknights was a sleeper hit for me. I’m always beefing up my reader’s advisory arsenal; in the course of my usual day of helping customers find new reads and old favorites, I decided to dive into an article recommending 20 MUST-READ LGBTQ COMICS FOR TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS, where I ran into a recommendation for this.

GAYS IN SPACE

That made me laugh. But it also got me. Hook, line, and sinker. Without giving away too much, we meet Pan, who seems to be your ordinary teenage girl helping her cooped-up friend sneak out for a night of fun. We soon find out that her friend is their planet’s princess, who is to be offered up as a prize to the knight that wins the planet’s joust competition and wants out. She needs to get away but needs help. Pan helps her escape, but at the cost of becoming the planet’s pariah. Flash forward to five years later, when she’s living a mundane life working in her father’s mechanic shop. One night, two tough types show up at their door, and one is in need of medical attention. For what exactly? And why do they seem so familiar to Pan? Pan finds her way off-planet with these two strangers and is sucked into a battle to take down the archaic competition of jousting for the “prize” of the princess. There’s more to these warriors that showed up on her doorstep than she thought!

This photograph shows the characters Bee and Cass on Pan's front porch. Cass is injured and supported heavily by Bee and they are asking for help from Pan.

I positively loved this book. There’s action, drama, mystery, and a slight Star Trek-y/steampunk-y/sci-fi vibe to it. It’s set in the future with space travel and such, but with none of the future utopia. The characters are likable, witty, and unbelievably brave with a little bit of selflessness thrown in. The art flows well and is seamless, easy to follow, and easy on the eyes. As with so many others I’ve read lately, it’s a series that IS STILL GOING – so here comes the waiting game until there are updates or another volume is published. If you’re like me and can’t wait, then the author, Hannah Templer, makes updates Tuesdays and Fridays on their website. But I’d highly recommend checking out Cosmoknights from your local Howard County Library branch and you won’t be disappointed.

Cosmoknights is also available from HCLS as an ebook via Libby/OverDrive.

Peter (he/him/his) is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and needs to read the books he has checked out before grabbing new ones. 

The Unpopular Vote by Jasper Sanchez

The book cover shows a diverse group of teens dressed for school, one with a backpack.  The title is in bright multicolored letters of different fonts, against a pink background, with a blue check mark in the center of the "O" in the word "vote."
Book cover of The (Un)popular Vote.

by Ash B.

School may be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hot new summer book releases that are set in school… 

If you enjoy contemporary YA fiction full of heart, humor, and drama, look no further than The (Un)popular Vote for your next summer read!

Mark Adams has grown up immersed in American politics, being the son of Graham Teagan, a prominent congressman. However, none of his new classmates realize who his father is, nor does the country realize Congressman Teagan has a son. Why? Mark is transgender, and has agreed to start at a new school and keep a low profile – as a cis-passing, straight-passing guy with no relation to Congressman Teagan – in order to maintain his father’s public image.  

However, between homophobic bullying of one of his friends and an upcoming student government election with candidates of dubious intent, Mark is spurred into action in pursuit of justice… by campaigning for student body president. Along the way, he must also navigate a burgeoning romance, unstable friendships, the disapproval of his father, and an investigative school journalist attempting to unravel his past for all the internet to see. 

This debut novel from Jasper Sanchez will appeal to teens and adults alike, especially lovers of The West Wing and The Politician, the latter being an especially fitting comparison given the precocious, serious, determined nature of the high school characters in both The Politician and The (Un)popular Vote.  

Sanchez does not shy away from having his characters show off their AP-level political and philosophical knowledge, and I will admit that many references went over my head. Nonetheless, I think the writing style makes this an accessible and engaging read. I truly struggled to put it down and always looked forward to getting a chance to read more, so I tore through it rather quickly and would happily read it again! 

The romance was even better than I expected, and I felt it was well-balanced along with the development of the student presidential campaign, Mark’s personal growth, and the rising tension between Mark and his father. Mark’s love interest was so sweet – honestly a standout character for me – and the dynamic between him and Mark was immaculate. I am always a sucker for the mutual pining trope, and Sanchez beautifully develops the bond between these two characters as they become closer while each grows as an individual. The (Un)popular Vote is both my favorite queer YA romance and my favorite trans-led novel since Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas! (Side note: our Reads of Acceptance book club will be discussing Cemetery Boys on September 20 and I’d love to see you there!)

Much like Cemetery BoysThe (Un)popular Vote is a refreshing example of a trans protagonist who has already transitioned before the first page of the book. Many mainstream representations of trans experiences, especially portrayals of trans youth, primarily deal with the questioning of one’s gender and the beginning stages of transitioning. Those stories are important, of course, but it is equally important to show trans people already living as their authentic selves.  

From the beginning, Mark is comfortable in his gender identity and is already out to himself, his parents, and his two best friends. Mark wears a packer and a binder daily, being mindful to bind safely, and this type of gender-affirming behavior is casual and normalized. His gender-related arc is not about the typical narrative of figuring himself out, or dealing with internalized transphobia, or even about coming out. Rather, and more interestingly in my opinion, it’s about the promise he made to his dad to remain ‘stealth’ in his transition; in other words, Mark is assumed to be a cisgender male by his classmates, and that’s how the situation should remain according to his father.  

And while Mark is repeatedly referred to by the wrong name and pronouns by his father – who is incredibly dismissive and toxic towards Mark – this book was ultimately a very feel-good experience as a queer, trans reader. There is no forcible outing and no transphobia from anyone within Mark’s circle (besides his dad). Mark’s friend group includes a neat variety of LGBTQ representation that felt organic, not tokenized, and these characters are nothing but supportive of each other’s identities. There are quite a few of them, and while I got a little confused at the beginning as I tried to keep track of names, I soon was able to distinguish each character from one another because they felt like individual people, not just words on a page.  

As for Mark himself, I found him to be a likeable and realistically flawed protagonist. He makes mistakes in his relationships that I found relatable and understandable, creating conflict to advance the plot and character growth without making me too frustrated at Mark. Themes regarding privilege, inequality, politics, and social change are woven throughout in a meaningful way as Mark experiences conflicting feelings regarding his own privilege, his ego, his family history, and his genuine desire to help the student body. Sanchez is also able to briefly yet poignantly integrate messages about toxic masculinity and feminism from a transmasculine perspective in a way I had yet to read in YA literature, and I very much appreciated it! 

Sanchez certainly gives weight to the issues that demand it, including instances of bigotry happening at the school in addition to Mark’s struggles with his dad. Ultimately, though, this novel is an uplifting pleasure to read, infused with plenty of queer joy, chosen family, resilience, and hope. The (Un)popular Vote is exactly the type of book I wish I had when I was in high school and am happy to read as an adult. I’m so grateful that it is available to teens today. Request a print copy today! 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

Read While Isolated

The cover depicts an open pocket watch against a black cloth background with small, glowing astrological symbols.

by Piyali C.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus on books. It seemed like Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven was playing out right in front of me. However, when physical distancing became a part of our daily routine, I took to reading so I could escape to other worlds created by authors. The books below are some of the ones that I truly enjoyed as I read them during isolation, borrowed from Howard County Library System.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): A fascinating story of nurse Julia Powers, who works in the maternity ward of a hospital in war- and flu-ravaged Dublin in 1918. She takes care of expectant mothers fallen ill with the raging Spanish flu. With the help of a rebel woman doctor and a young orphaned woman, Nurse Powers tends to the needs of the quarantined pregnant women in her care to the best of her ability under the circumstances.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook) Told in the alternating voices of Hannie, a recently freed slave in 1875, and Benedetta Silva, a young new teacher in a tiny town in Louisiana in 1987, this story takes us through the Reconstruction era in America with Hannie, as she travels to Texas with two unwilling companions, Miss Lavinia and Juneau June, in the hope of finding her family members who were sold as slaves in different cities and towns. Benny Silva, while trying to engage her unwilling students in their own history, comes across the story of Hannie’s journey in the library of a run-down plantation house. The discovery of this quest brings forth a fascinating story of freed slaves trying desperately to reconnect with family members lost to slavery in 1870’s America.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available in print, eaudiobook): Drawn from the author’s own experiences of growing up in postwar Vietnam and from interviewing countless people who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, Ngyuen Phan Que Mai writes this amazing story of a family torn apart, not only by the war, but also by the subsequent division between north and south Vietnam. While the story talks about the unbelievable horror that wars inflict on human life, it also sings an ode to indomitable human resilience and a desperate mother’s inexplicable courage and determination to keep her children safe.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): Valerie is a 48-year-old Black woman, a single mom to Xavier, and an ecology professor who nurtures a deep love for plants and trees. Brad Whitman is an entrepreneur who has risen up in wealth and power from humble beginnings. Brad builds a gorgeous house next to Valerie’s and moves in with his wife Julia, step daughter Juniper and daughter Lily. As a relationship starts to build between Valerie and Julia, an incident regarding Valerie’s favorite tree causes a rift between the two families, resulting in a law suit. But Xavier, Valerie’s 18-year-old son, and Juniper, Julia’s 17-year-old daughter, are also building a beautiful relationship. How much acceptance will an interracial relationship receive, not only from society but also from Brad Whitman? Told from the perspective of the neighbors of both Valerie and Brad, this story explores complicated race relations between Black and White, loss of innocence, coming of age, struggles of women, and much more. 

What did you read during isolation? Tell us in the comments.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Books for Back to School

by Sarah C.

Ahhhh, back to school, it’s that time of the year, folks – yes, it will be a different kind of school compared to last fall, but we can still read some great books as school starts. I’ve got a selection here of my latest faves for your enjoyment and education:

The cover depicts a young woman dressed for work, in gray pants and shirt and a red headscarf, holding up a fist.

Amazons, Abolitionists and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights by Mikki Kendall                                                    
An excellent and diverse addition to your history section, this nonfiction graphic novel reads like a fast-paced movie. It’s full color and far-reaching, and it will keep readers interested (full disclosure: this is my second time reading it, because it’s just that good!). Teen and adult readers alike are guaranteed to meet many new faces from the past and learn their interesting and important stories.

The cover depicts two boys back-to-back, one wearing a yellow jacket and green hood and one in a red and black plaid shirt.

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes (also available as an ebook)
How does it feel to go to school where you are one of the only Black boys, and you have a light-skinned brother there who, for some reason, doesn’t seem to face the same problems that you do? This novel tackles the hard questions as Donte learns about colorism, privilege, and racism in schools, as well as how to fight for justice, how powerful family support can be, and a new sport he was skeptical of at first and bullied into bypassing, but now loves — fencing!

The Cover depicts a split-screen image of two young women, one in front of a green background and one in front of a building with fire stairs.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (also available in ebook and eaudiobook)
Two sisters, one in the Dominican Republic and one in New York, unknowingly share the same father and live vastly different lives until those lives are shattered by a tragic accident. Now Yahaira and Camino have to untangle their father’s secrets in an achingly raw and emotional novel written in verse that tackles grief, anger, forgiveness, and family.

Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories edited by C. Spike Trotman, Kate Ashwin, and Kel McDonald

Filled with mythology, monsters, and magic, this collection of 21 cautionary tales and fables from various Asian countries entertains and intrigues. Recommended for manga and anime fans as well.

Related, I just handed my teen The Dragon King Chronicles by Ellen Oh, and he devoured them — if anyone is looking for fast-paced and epic fantasy adventures, battles fought for honor, brave warrior outcasts, and a ton of Korean mythology and monsters, look no further! (The first book in the trilogy is called Prophecy and is also available as an ebook).                                                                                                                                            
Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumoto (manga)

A bizarre but fascinating story, this book is written manga style, so read back to front (which I might have forgotten for the first six pages). This hefty novel is full of incredibly detailed and well-developed, yet still mysterious, characters (half of them being magical cat people), and is set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most famous art museums.

Broken Places & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected by Nnedi Okorafor (also available in ebook and eaudiobook)

An inspirational mini-memoir by the author of Akata Witch and Binti (check those out, too) about how she was temporarily paralyzed as a young adult. A botched spinal surgery and subsequent painful journey of recovery and self-discovery led to the birth of her creative writing style and development of her amazing sci-fi/fantasy talent. Also of note: she discusses a handful of great artists and writers through history who also grappled with severe hardships and how it challenged them and brought them to new heights. The slim volume offers solid lessons for turning limitations/struggles into strengths/power.

Eight Will Fall by Sarah Harian

SCARY but I couldn’t put it down, this dystopian quest takes a group of young people with “illegal” powers deep down underground in a desperate bid to find a fabled king banished hundreds of years ago for his dangerous and incredible power. Along the way, they encounter many horrific cave beasts and various violent deaths, but also solve the mystery of why they were selected by the queen to make this doomed journey, and the origins of their powers. Above ground, their world is falling apart; can they survive the deep and deadly mission and rescue it in time?

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

This graphic adaptation blew me away, and if you have not read anything by this author (possibly one of the greatest sci-fi writers EVER) then do so immediately. Her many books usually contain themes of harsh survival in dystopian worlds and feature strong, fierce African-American female main characters. Read the print versions or the graphic novels, either way, just read her work!

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera (also available in ebook and eaudiobook)

A truly adorable “meet-cute” and more, this realistic fiction novel follows Arthur and Ben as they collide in NYC and fall head over heels into love at first sight…but what happens after that magic moment? Opposites might attract at first, but what happens when real life interferes? And how many times will they lose each other and find each other, including awkward repeat date do-overs?  

Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga  (also available as an ebook)

Jude is a seventh-grade Muslim girl who flees Syria with her mother, leaving behind her father and older brother. They move in with an uncle in Cincinnati and try to begin a new life, and Jude navigates new customs, culture, and language while missing her family and friends. She is smart, hopeful, and brave but also sometimes fearful and confused, a very relatable character. The story is well-written and in verse, also age-appropriate (honest but gentle) when it touches on war, stereotypes, and prejudices – with inclusive perspectives and world views.

Disclaimer: As one of your teen librarians, I’m talking to ages 13-18 and their parents with my recommendations, but as always, everyone is free to read whatever they like.

Sarah C. is the teen instructor at HCLS Savage Branch and she always has time to talk and listen: about books, comics, school or whatever you need to talk about.