Thursday, February 14, 2019

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

genre: young adult contemporary fiction

Mara is a girl on the edge.  With a secret buried deep and an ex-girlfriend that she still really loves, the person who really keeps her grounded is her beloved twin brother, Owen.  So when Owen's girlfriend, and Mara's good friend, Hannah accuses Owen of rape, it's enough to push Mara over.  Who does she believe, the boy she's known and loved her whole life, or the girl she trusts would never lie about something like this?  This lyrical novel about figuring out how to stand up for something that terrifies you reaches into the heart of what it is to be a teenage girl in a world that is constantly telling you what exactly you are supposed to be - and what you can and can't say.

This is a painful one, a heart wrenching look at what a rape can do to a community - and, most specifically, to the victim.  The shame.  The isolation.  The fear that just won't go away.  I highlighted so much of the text in this book, so many really important ideas for young women as they process the world around them.  This story also gives voice to those girls whose sexuality is very fluid, respectfully giving them space to figure it out along with people that love them.  Part of me really really loved all the star analogies, some were so beautiful and illustrated an idea so perfectly - sometimes I got a little tired of them.  Being in Mara's head all the time did get a bit exhausting, I don't begrudge her being so confused/frustrating.  But there you go.  Overall, though, I think this book has a super powerful message about the power of words - and the way that both victims and their supporters can use them to move forward - no matter what the world around you says.

Sensitivity warning: hard language, teenage sex, teenage drinking, rape (not graphic), pedophilia, sexual assault

Sadie by Courtney Summers

genre: contemporary young adult mystery

Sadie's gone.

Her rough childhood was defined by the love she had for her younger sister, Mattie.  When Mattie is found dead in an orchard near their trailer park, it's as though everything Sadie was living for disappeared.

So she did too.

Where Sadie went and why is at the heart of this poignant and gritty novel.  The narrative switches between Sadie's own experiences and a Serial-like podcast that delves into Sadie's mystery disappearance and tries to piece together what would've made her leave.

Where is Sadie??

It's compelling and urgent and gray with the hurt that Sadie can't escape from.  She's a tricky character, a girl on the edge and while she's sometimes frightening, she's also so dang vulnerable.  I really, really liked the format that switched between what we know happens with Sadie and what the author of the podcast is piecing together.  It made it hard to put the book down.  I won't give any spoilers about the ending but I didn't finish feeling left adrift, which I appreciated.  Child abuse is a huge theme in this book, but it's clear that's what's happening without being graphic.  Sometimes the geography of this story left me unmoored a tiny bit - a little more fleshing out of the setting would've grounded me more but that's really the only big complaint I can make.  This is a powerful story about a girl who knows she's got power, she just needs to be brave enough to use it.

sensitivity warnings: hard language, child abuse, pedophilia, teenage drinking

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

genre: young adult speculative

When Nova was a little girl, she quickly learned how cruel the world can be.  With the Renegades, a conglomerate of superheros, in charge, you'd think that prodigies with special powers would be safe - but safety isn't a given.  And when Nova grows up, she knows that the only way to make the world a better and safer place is to rid it of the Renegades.  Adrian, on the other hand, IS a Renegade, fighter for truth and justice - except he's got secrets too.  With too many questions and not enough answers, both Adrian and Nova are going to have to be in the spotlight until hiding is no longer an option.

I've never read anything by Marissa Meyer, but from the start, this book got my attention.  Our two anti-heros, both of them with identities secret from everyone, including each other, made for an interesting twist.  I liked the deeper story here, too, about heros and what it takes to be one, what to do with the power we inherently have as well as the kind of power you find by needing it and using it, as afraid as it makes you.  The truth bombed dropped at the end of the book certainly make you want to grab the next book and keep going!  I didn't always love Nova but I appreciate her nuances and while the romantic thread is super thin, I like it and can see it going somewhere interesting.  I'll be reading more for sure.

Monday's Not Coming

genre: contemporary young adult fiction, mystery

On the first day of 8th grade, Claudia waits and waits for her best friend, Monday, to show up at school, and she never does.  Not the next day either.  It doesn't take long before Claudia's gut tells her that something is very wrong but no matter what adult she tries to tell, which person in power she pleads with for help, one more missing girl in DC is just not getting anyone's attention.  But for Claudia, Monday was her world, a friend that felt more like family.  And Claudia will NOT be okay until she knows why her best friend left and if she is ever coming back.

There was so much about this book that I appreciated: Claudia's strong and loving nuclear family, the way our author makes DC a solid and almost living part of the plot, the contrast between the power of a supportive community and the powerlessness of a group of people who are treated like their lives don't seem to be worth the concrete they are living on.  Claudia's voice felt real and her determination, which she sometimes drove me crazy with the running off after people, was also commendable.  She did not let Monday down - and the mystery of Monday, which we figure out in bits and snatches, is an interesting one, if not completely unexpected.  I did have a "hand over my mouth" moment of sadness. However, the timeline of the book really made me have a hard time getting completely sucked it and, in the end, pulled my feet out from under me. Despite that, though, the author did a good job of weaving a lot of different issues into the story: poverty, child abuse, learning disabilities, coming of age - Claudia's life experience during this book definitely could have felt overwhelming but for me, it felt raw and real.  I can't say I completely loved it but I'm also glad I have Monday in my head - it makes me think of every young girl who has gone missing and the world around her just couldn't bother to stop and pay attention to why.

note for sensitive readers: a lot of cursing and some sexually explicit language, adult themes

We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

genre: young adult contemporary

Luke and Toby. That’s how it’s always been. No matter how hard things got, how horrible things were at home, ever since they were boys, Toby and Luke at least had each other. With really only themselves to count on, these two North Carolina teenagers are dead set on getting out of town and on their own as soon as possible. But senior year makes things complicated as Luke works his way to a wrestling scholarship and girls begin to make people that seemed most important suddenly take the backseat. And that’s when this story of two friends begins to turn into something else entirely. And one of them ends up on Death Row.

So many feels about this gritty story. It hurt me, in a powerful way. It made me question and guess and want to lash out and it made me cry. Told in different time periods from the point of view of different characters, it’s a piecing together book, a “how did we get here” book. It delved into complex relationships, both those very broken and those flexible enough to survive. At its heart, though, is the question: can we move forward after we’ve made a grievous choice? Is there space in this world for making things right? Mostly because of the vulnerability and complexity of the characters, I found the book readable and engaging, even with the dark subject matter. And, like I said, it did made me FEEL, but I wanted a bit more from that question about redemption. I could tell that was the point but I didn’t feel quite as much oomph as I was hoping I would, once it was all over. It is a great springboard, though, for discussions on a lot of deep topics for older teens.

Sensitivity warning: there is child abuse, teenage sex and hard language

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Abid Khorram

genre: contemporary young adult

Darius isn't particularly fond of his lot in life.  As a half-Iranian living in Portland, he has never found a way to fit in.  Between his depression, his quirkiness, his not-like-everyone-else looks and resulting desire to just he left alone, high school has been a lonely place.  So when he ends up in Iran for the first time, to visit his ailing grandfather, a new friend comes as a real surprise.  What Darius learns in Iran about friendship, his family and yes, even himself, is at the heart of this funny and poignant coming of age novel.

I loved this book.  I loved Darius and his way of looking at the world through the lenses of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings.  I loved his penchant for tea and his way of  being raw and real about his feelings.  I loved the tenderness here, tenderness for family and culture and even for the places in the world that you barely know but yet somehow are a deeply entrenched part of you.  The Iranian setting really drew me in.  I liked watching a friendship blossom between two boys and while it did sometimes  feel like it wasn’t enough time to become as close as they did, I’ve had friendships like that, where it feels from the start like you were actually meant to be friends.  While there is some talk of genitalia (he is a teenage boy), there is also so dang much heart that even as an adult woman, I felt incredibly invested in Darius and his journey not just to Iran but to a space where he could begin to find the freedom of being Darius Just As He Is.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

genre: contemporary young adult

In a Brooklyn gentrifying before her eyes, Zuri knows her world is changing, and she does not appreciate it.  She loves her hood, the people that surround her, the cultures that make it feel rich and colorful, she even has a soft spot for all the nonsense.  But when those bougie Darcys move into the newly renovated mansion across the street, suddenly she's super defensive of what she's always loved.  With those good-looking new boys, most especially that Darius, looking down their noses at her Brooklyn pride, Zuri knows that no good will come of it.

This retelling of Pride and Prejudice, "remix" is the world used in the blurb, takes the English countryside and swaps it out for modern-day Bushwick, with the five Benitez sisters sharing an apartment with their beloved Afro-Latino parents.  I really appreciated the nuance of the setting, the changing of neighborhoods as they get more wealthy, the way that race plays such a huge part in our comfort and stability when it comes to where we live (not that it's a good thing, just that it most definitely IS).  Everything about the groundwork and framing of this story I liked.  I just never could completely fell in love with Zuri.  Her dialogue, both spoken and inner, was very repetitive.  I never understood WHY she fell for Darius, and although I still had the feelings when things happened as they do in Pride and Prejudice, I was left really wanting more.  And the storyline with Zuri's sister Janae started and then was dropped for nearly all the book until the very end without any of the resolution I felt was necessary based on how Zuri and Darius fought about it.

There were scenes and ideas here that really resonated with me (particularly a college visit, interactions between the sisters) but overall I felt unsatisfied.  Maybe my expectations were too high.

sensitivity warning: strong language, discussions of sex

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Snow Gypsy by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

genre: historical fiction

World War II has ended, but Londoner Rose still has one unanswered question that will not let her be at peace: what happened to her brother that left their English home to fight with the partisans in Spain?  With only two clues to help her find his whereabouts, Rose heads east to find him if she can.   Along the way she makes the acquaintance of Gypsy flamenco dancer Lola, whose own hardships have made leaving the war behind impossible.  Together these unlikely friends will try and find Rose's brother while facing the kind of discrimination that the Gypsy peoples have fought against for years.

I loved the cover of this book, I think that's why I chose it from Kindle First.  Here's what I did like: the flamenco (obviously), who doesn't want some flamenco in their book?  The settings all over Spain are gorgeous and well-detailed.  I liked the peek into Gypsy life and the mystery of "where is the brother" kept me engaged enough to want to keep reading.  However, it was just so emotionally "blah."  Rose is lonely.  Rose makes a bad decision.  Rose feels regret.  Rose feels better again.  It just felt clunky.  Time goes by too quick sometimes and sometimes things happen so fast it's hard for me to believe them.  A big reveal at the end totally threw me and left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the book, honestly.  Too bad, because I love that cover.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (audiobook)

genre: contemporary adult fiction

Beyond her husband and beloved daughter, Bernadette's life in Seattle, Washington, is a solitary one.  Well, as solitary as she can get.  Preferring as little contact with those outside her family as possible, the trip to Antarctica that her daughter is planning has her tied up in knots.  One disaster with a next door neighbor leads to one misunderstanding to another until, at her breaking point, Bernadette checks herself OUT.   Those left behind have to pick up the pieces and put together the puzzle of Bernadette.

Clever, clever book.  It made me laugh out loud. It made me (a tiny bit, there at the end), teary.  It surprised me with the way things tied together.  I loved the epistolary format that would take what I knew of Bernadette and shuffle it around, showing events from different points of view, reminding us that nothing - and no one - is quite what it seems on the surface.  I loved Antarctica as both a setting and a plot device - this wild wilderness that can both terrify you and enchant you.  I loved the Seattle love - and the Seattle commentary :)  Microsoft, Starbucks, it's all splayed out under Bernadette's razor sharp wit and uncompromising expectations, I even really appreciated the depth of her anxiety and mental illness, and how she chose to handle it.  I loved Bernadette's daughter and their relationship.  There was one part of the book that chronologically made no sense to me and it threw me off a bit, but other than that, I found myself absolutely smitten with the delightful and quirky Bernadette.  Loved the ending.  Such a fun listen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (audiobook)

genre: contemporary adult fiction

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who find each other in secondary school and who both leave Nigeria for a time - Ifemelu to America and Obinze to England.  Americanah is their experiences, their relationships, their way of looking at the world.  It is race and class, cultures that clash in the most unlikely of ways, it is friendship and love and the complications of family. 

Obviously, I'm having a hard time articulating the plot of this book.  Despite the seventeen hours it took me to listen to it, I always found myself engaged in Adichie's writing.  Ifemelu is a very nuanced character - I never could truly anticipate how she would handle a situation, people that might have annoyed me, she had compassion for and other times, a situation that seemed like no big deal would drive her crazy for a specific reason that made sense when she articulated it.  I loved how this book handed me a tiny piece of Nigeria - a country about which I have had no previous experience.  I loved the accents of the reader (well, except most of her American ones, but all the others were so good) and I appreciated how we got to look at Nigeria over time, how it morphed and changed along with its people.  The chronology of the story tended to jump around but I never felt lost for more than a minute.

It wasn't always easy to listen to.  There are a few scenes from Ifemelu's life that are so troubling, so harsh for all their raw pain, that it almost made me embarrassed.  This book does not shy away from the reality of being an immigrant, especially a black one.    Observations about American life and racial discrimination are both blunt and thought-provoking.  It made me think more about privilege and, as a white person, some processing was necessary as I really tried to delve into the narrative.

I wish there were more stable relationships here.  I never really felt like I could feel relaxed in the story, if that makes sense.  Always I knew that something would come along (or a choice would be made) to take away whatever good had arrived.    And yet.  YET.  I really enjoyed it, its literary prose and its demanding me to pay attention to my world. 

sensitivity warning: graphic sexual discussions/scenes, language

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