YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – We Unleash the Merciless Storm

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. We Unleash the Merciless Storm. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-69134-7. $17.99. 388 p. Grades 9 and up.

This sequel to last year’s We Set the Dark on Fire switches gears from Daniela’s point of view and instead follows Carmen as she returns to La Voz’s rebel base outside of Medio’s walls and has to re-establish her loyalty to the found family she has been removed from since being placed in the Medio School for Girls as a spy years ago. Her fellow La Voz members question her loyalty because Daniela, Mateo’s other wife and Carmen’s true love, still lives with him in the capital, and though Dani also pledged allegiance to La Voz’s rebellion, the other members aren’t as convinced of her loyalty as Carmen, especially Ari, a new La Voz member who rose to the ranks quickly while Carmen was on her mission outside the rebellion. Carmen wants to extract Dani; Ari and La Voz’s leader, El Buitre, worry her feelings are getting in the way and see Dani as a liability that should be eliminated. As Mateo prepares to take over the presidency – and squash La Voz’s rebellion once and for all – Carmen must decide whether to trust her fellow rebels, the only family she’s ever known, or follow her heart and save the woman she loves… all while trying to keep the rebellion alive and not let tyrannical Mateo win.

THOUGHTS: We Set the Dark on Fire was my personal favorite read of 2019, but this sequel starts out a little slow, which may just be due to an adjustment to the change in point of view and setting. However, once Carmen makes a certain critical decision, the book becomes unputdownable. The latter two-thirds are fast-paced, action-packed, full of unexpected twists and turns, and satisfying for fans of these characters. Mejia has crafted a refreshing and timely fantasy duology full of strong female characters. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

Fantasy          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD