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25904473Title: So Sad Today
Author: Melissa Broder
Pages: 203
Year: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
Time taken to read: 3 days
Rating: 2/5

Goodreads synopsis: Melissa Broder always struggled with anxiety. In the fall of 2012, she went through a harrowing cycle of panic attacks and dread that wouldn’t abate for months. So she began @sosadtoday, an anonymous Twitter feed that allowed her to express her darkest feelings, and which quickly gained a dedicated following. In So Sad Today, Broder delves deeper into the existential themes she explores on Twitter, grappling with sex, death, love low self-esteem, addiction, and the drama of waiting for the universe to text you back. With insights as sharp as her humor, Broder explores–in prose that is both ballsy and beautiful, aggressively colloquial and achingly poetic–questions most of us are afraid to even acknowledge, let alone answer, in order to discover what it really means to be a person in this modern world.

This is a book that I was supposed to love. Personal essays about experiences with mental illness with a touch of humor or arguably too many touches is like 100% my thing. Even my book reviews have that style half the time. And yet, I very much did not like So Sad Today. I feel bad about disliking this book so much because it’s a real person’s deepest secrets and most intimate feelings. I can appreciate what she did. The things she shared are intense, and I related to her feelings of depersonalization and derealization that I have been scared to share with other people, so I applaud her for sharing them. But the rest of it…. Well, I consider myself to be pretty weird, but as I read this, I started to feel very, very normal.

The hyper-sexuality of So Sad Today is what really turned me off to it (ironically?). Gosh, at least eighty percent of it is about sex, and I was uncomfortable to say the least while reading, for instance, the chapter that is mostly made up of very graphic sexts. Call me prudish (or perhaps semi-asexual) if you like, but I have no interest in that sort of thing, so I started to think maybe this book just isn’t for me.

Argh. I’m struggling with this, you guys. I want to say that objectively, definitively, there’s too much sex in this book. Yet, there’s nothing about literature that’s objective. This is when I start to think about what a book review’s purpose really is, and what anyone’s opinion on a book really means. This is Broder’s life story, and she can tell it however she likes. I can’t suggest that she write a different story because then it would not be true. All I can say is that I did not enjoy reading her story. In addition to my discomfort, I felt her writing was repetitive. There is a chapter that solely consists of single lines followed by “: a love story,” which is supposed to indicate that each line is the title of a love story. After several of those lines, I was incredibly bored. I was like, okay, I get the point. And her writing wasn’t particularly vivid, despite its detailed grotesqueness. I couldn’t see what she saw. (Though often, I really didn’t want to.)

What I wanted to hear more about was her struggles with addiction. I’ve dealt with many of the same issues as the author, but I’ve never experienced an alcohol/drug addiction, so I was really curious to know more about what that was like for her. Yet, I felt she didn’t go into it very deeply, and I think the book would be a lot stronger if she had included some more discussion on that topic instead of so many sexts.

Okay, so I wrote all of that about a week ago, and I felt like I was going in circles and I needed to take a step back from it. And coming back to it, I have more definitive things to say about it. It was brave of the author to share all the things that she did, and I hope it was cathartic and freeing for her. However, from a literary standpoint, she failed to tell her story in a way that was vivid and interesting, and her writing is repetitive and chaotic. Therefore, I did not enjoy reading this, and my rating is rather low. This review is rather chaotic itself, so thanks for bearing with me! This was a hard one. Happy reading, my friends.

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25987144Title: The Last Good Girl
Author: Allison Leotta
Pages: 292
Year: 2016
Publisher: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster)
Time taken to read: 2 weeks
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsisEmily, a freshman at a Michigan university, has gone missing. She was last seen leaving a bar near Sigma Pi, the prestigious and secretive fraternity known on campus as “the rape factory.” The main suspect is Dylan Highsmith, the son of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. But so far the only clues are pieced-together surveillance footage of Emily leaving the bar that night…and Dylan running down the street after her. Anna Curtis is on the case when she discovers the video diary Emily kept over her first few months at college, exposing the history she had with Dylan—and accusing him of rape before she disappeared. Emily’s disappearance gets media attention and support from Title IX activists across the country, but Anna’s investigation hits a wall. Now Anna is looking for something, anything she can use to find Emily alive. But without a body or any physical evidence, she’s under threat from people who tell her to think hard before she ruins the name of an “innocent young man.” Inspired by real-life stories, The Last Good Girl shines a light on campus rape and the powerful emotional dynamics that affect the families of the men and women on both sides.

This is not my typical genre, but I got the book from Writers House when I was working there and I needed something to take to the beach last week so I went for it and I am definitely glad that I did. This book tackles an issue that is really important. Statistics on sexual assault on college campuses–and everywhere else, for that matter–are terrifying, and I’d say most colleges don’t handle it well, as we see in The Last Good Girl when the president of Tower University continuously chooses his school’s reputation and funds over the safety and well-being of his own daughter. His daughter’s rapist comes from a wealthy family that is one of the school’s top donors, and I think that makes for an incredible conflict and a plot that really made my stomach flip. I loved how purely hateable the villains in this book are. Many of Dylan’s scenes were so horrific, and Leotta did a great job painting terrifying and disturbing pictures so vivid that I felt like I was there. Which, I’m glad I wasn’t, but it’s still always satisfying to feel like you’re part of a book. On the other side, I could wholeheartedly root for Anna, her team, and all of Dylan’s victims. I think the way that Leotta showcased all the different ways that girls handle sexual assault is really important. There is no typical way to react to something like that. I know girls who have experienced sexual assault and had it ruin their lives, and I know girls who have shown no signs of PTSD afterwards and have been able to bounce back easily, and it has nothing to do with the severity of the crime. It really depends on the individual. I also really liked the varying styles of the book–we get a typical narrative interlaced with transcripts of video diaries that Emily made and various legal documents and emails pertaining to the case. It was a fun way to follow the story and learn new information.

I want to make sure I give a shoutout to Wyatt, who is one of the best characters in this book and has the most significant character arc. He learns the most throughout the story, and it is my hope that readers who aren’t knowledgable on the subject of sexual assault are able to learn alongside him. It was really uplifting to watch his empathy grow and his values change as he witnesses deeply disturbing crimes. Good job, Wyatt, and thank you for setting a good example for young men.

As much as I ultimately loved the premise and thought the characters were very well executed, I did have a few problems with the book. It took me a while to read because it didn’t really start to pick up until a little bit past the middle. I often find myself struggling to get through the first half of a book and racing through the second, so Leotta is not alone in this particular fault. However, I wouldn’t knock off a star just for that. I also felt that the dialogue in the book is rather stiff. Most of the regular dialogue is actually fine, but the language in Emily’s video diaries sounds nothing like real speech–especially speech that a teenage girl would say out loud to herself on camera. In one of the early videos, she describes her therapist as a “pretty psychologist with brown hair and a warm smile.” That would be a nice description, but who would ever say that out loud? It certainly didn’t feel right to me. That’s really what made me drop this book to four stars. Additionally, I feel a little iffy on the subplots with Anna’s various relationships. I definitely wanted to see more between her and her sister Jody. We get little hints that Jody was once arrested, but what exactly happened there was never revealed, which was a bit disappointing.

I was very nervous that the ending was going to let me down, but I felt very satisfied with the big reveal and how the whole case played out. I hadn’t realized this until I looked up the book on Goodreads today, but The Last Good Girl is actually number five in Leotta’s Anna Curtis series. This book can definitely be read as a stand alone novel, but I will be going to the library to look for more Anna Curtis adventures. Anna is a great feminist character, and I’m excited to see her serve some more justice to the world. I really recommend this book to anyone, because I guarantee you know someone who has experienced sexual assault, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, and it’s really important that we as a society learn about it and understand how and why it happens, how to prevent it (e.g., teaching boys to respect women), and how to heal from it and help others heal as well.

24266809Title: An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes
Author: Randy Ribay
Pages: 240
Year: 2015
Publisher: Merit Press (F&W)
Time taken to read: 1 week, 4 days
Rating: 2/5

Goodreads synopsisAs their senior year approaches, four diverse friends joined by their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game struggle to figure out real life. Archie’s trying to cope with the lingering effects of his parents’ divorce, Mari’s considering an opportunity to contact her biological mother, Dante’s working up the courage to come out to his friends, and Sam’s clinging to a failing relationship. The four eventually embark on a cross-country road trip in an attempt to solve–or to avoid–their problems. Told in the narrative style of Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMAN, AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES is at turns geeky, funny, and lyrical as it tells a story about that time in life when friends need each other to become more than just people that hang out.

It seems that most reviewers can agree on one thing about this book: it has a great amount of diversity in multiple ways. For me, that’s about the only strength of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes. Somehow this book is both cliche and too out there all at the same time. The characters are two-dimensional, stereotypical geeks, each one with their designated quirk, and they go on a road trip (and none of their parents call the police…?) where a bunch of really ridiculous things happen, perhaps in an attempt to counteract all the cliches. The kids go through a random yet thematically predictable series of events that does result in character development, but I think the author started them off far too problematic. Each one of them says something pretty offensive at some point, and though they all end up learning and apologizing, the development is rushed, and the things that some of them say are dreadful enough that I couldn’t feel certain while reading the book that the author actually did mean for this to be a critique of those ideas.

Additionally, I never felt connected to the characters–not as a group nor individually. Since we go through the perspectives of each of the four main characters and the book is rather short, we don’t get to spend very much time with any of them. Plus, they all make a point of the fact that though they play a game together regularly, they don’t actually know each other very well at all, so I think it’s a little farfetched that they all agree to go on this road trip from New Jersey to Seattle to help Sam and Sarah–not to mention the fact that earlier in the book they even say that they don’t actually like Sam and Sarah together. I felt very disconnected from both the plot and the characters because of this, and I ended up skimming the last third or so of the book because there was nothing to make me care. The only storyline I was moderately interested in was Mari’s reconnection with her birth mother and the progression of her adoptive mother’s cancer, and that really never went anywhere. Ultimately, this one fell very flat for me, but I hope that there are kids out there who benefited from the diversity of this book at least.

Side note: I know I haven’t posted many reviews lately–I recently moved and have been dealing with transferring my job and, well, the rest of my life, but I am getting settled and will hopefully be reviewing more now! Thanks for staying with me, readers.

25528801Title: Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Author: E. K. Johnston
Pages: 248
Year: 2016
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers (Penguin)
Time taken to read: 5 days
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsisHermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don’t cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team’s summer training camp is Hermione’s last and marks the beginning of the end of…she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black. In every class, there’s a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They’re never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she’s always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn’t the beginning of Hermione Winters’s story and she’s not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.

One day I will have read all the contemporary YA books on sexual assault that exist. I am still working up towards that day, and this was another step on my journey.

I feel a little torn about this one, especially concerning Hermione’s friendship with Polly. Hermione is a very strong girl. She goes through a terribly traumatic experience, and she holds her chin up and fights for herself every single day afterwards, and I love that. I think she’s a great role model for young girls who have gone through similar things. On the other hand, there are things about her life that make it easier for her to be strong than it is for other girls. She has Polly, a best friend who loves her unconditionally and is there for her every step of the way, even when her ex-boyfriend Leo is like the worst. But it doesn’t even matter that Leo is the worst because Hermione never really liked him all that much anyway. And she has cheerleading, something she loves, something that makes her feel powerful and in control in a very healthy way, and her coach is incredibly supportive. She has a number of cushions to fall back on when things get really hard, and that’s awesome, but not everybody has that. I can see young girls reading this and thinking, “Sure, I’d love to be like Hermione, but she has help and I don’t, so I can’t be like her.” However, remember how I mentioned I’m still working on reading every YA about sexual assault out there? That’s because a lot of people care about this issue, and a lot of writers want to tell their versions. Hermione Winters has a lot of support. Melinda Sordino has less. So, this is my message to any girl who reads this and feels like she’s still alone: try another book. And if you still can’t see yourself in the pages, write your own.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is not perfect, but I liked it. I was rooting for Hermione, and I thought that though there were a lot of things that went almost too well, it balanced out with the horror of the situation and simply made for a less broody book than others that deal with the same topic. I think if there were a scale of majorly depressing to uplifting books about sexual assault, The Way I Used to Be would be on the far left, and Exit, Pursued by a Bear would be the far right, and some people don’t need the books on the right, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. Essentially, this book did the thing it was supposed to do, which was tell this story.

31247023Title: Lucky Broken Girl
Author: Ruth Behar
Pages: 256
Year: 2017
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen (Penguin)
Time taken to read: 3 days
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsisBased on the author’s childhood in the 1960s, a young Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl is adjusting to her new life in New York City when her American dream is suddenly derailed. Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen, a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger. She comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.

I think it’s so neat that this is a sort of fictionalization of the author’s own experience. In my time interning at literary agencies, I have read a lot of proposals for memoirs that people have written or planned to write that I think would work so much better as fiction, and this is a great example of that. It struck me how engaged I felt in the story where the main character could not leave her bed. And I really felt all the things that she felt. I was inspired by Chicho who shows her how to paint and teaches her about Frida Kahlo, and I was kind of annoyed by that snooty little Belgian girl that I knew was not being snooty on purpose, but sheesh, did she really need to wave her perfection in our faces? (Yes, I do get intimidated by ten-year-olds, okay?) I learned a lot about a lot of different cultures from this book, which is a great thing especially in a middle grade book. I only took my rating down to four stars because there was this little background issue where Ruthie’s mother was clearly being at least mildly psychologically abused by Ruthie’s father, but the author didn’t go anywhere with that. And maybe it never escalated to much in their real life, but I wanted some kind of progression. Ruthie’s mother didn’t necessarily have to leave him, but I at least wanted her to start to be able to acknowledge what was happening. But overall, I think this is a great book to give to any middle-school-aged people you know, as well as a good one to read yourself.

Speaking of interning, today is my last day at Writers House! I didn’t think I would feel so sad, but I do, and I will miss this place a lot. But I will always be reading and reviewing books, even if it’s just actual published books for a while. Who knows what I’ll be doing next! Happy reading, friends.

26118005Title: My Best Friend’s Exorcism
Author: Grady Hendrix
Pages: 336
Year: 2016
Publisher: Quirk Books
Time taken to read: 1 week
Rating: 5/5

Goodreads synopsis: Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade, when they bonded over a shared love of E.T., roller-skating parties, and scratch-and-sniff stickers. But when they arrive at high school, things change. Gretchen begins to act…different. And as the strange coincidences and bizarre behavior start to pile up, Abby realizes there’s only one possible explanation: Gretchen, her favorite person in the world, has a demon living inside her. And Abby is not about to let anyone or anything come between her and her best friend. With help from some unlikely allies, Abby embarks on a quest to save Gretchen. But is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?

I’m not even sure where to start with this one. This book thrilled me. The day I finished it, I was reading it on the subway holding my breath, so desperate to get to the end and find out if everyone was going to be okay or not. I didn’t realize how literal the title of this book is, and let me tell you, her best friend’s exorcism is intense. The whole book is intense. There were a few moments more towards the end that really shocked me, and I have to talk about it a little bit, so please skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read this book and don’t want any spoilers…. Okay, the best part in my opinion is when Gretchen kills her dog. Like, all the pieces of what she’s doing to her friends are slowly coming together, and by this point you realize she’s become totally evil, but like, you really don’t know until she kills her freaking dog. Like even when you realize she’s setting things up to kill her dog, you don’t believe she’s really gonna do it, and I don’t even like dogs that much (SORRY) but I was really hoping she wasn’t gonna do it, but then she DID and I was like, holy moly. So then when the exorcism was happening I was FREAKING out because I was like, oh my god, what if she’s not possessed, what if she’s just evil, because the exorcist can’t get it out, and my stomach was in knots as I was tearing through the pages like OH MY GOD WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN and then it happened and then I could breathe again, and it was wild.

Anyway, I was particularly struck by how well the main characters are developed. There are four best friends around which this story is centered, and they are all very unique characters with distinct voices. And their distinct voices felt so real. Everything about their dialogue and Abby’s inner monologue sounded so authentic, so much that I was really shocked when I realized this was written by a man, and I wonder how he learned to write teenage girls so well. So I will have to read his other book, I think, and see if that one is just as good.

The only thing I didn’t like was the epilogue that shows, like, the entire rest of their lives. I totally did not need that. I didn’t really want to think of these kids as adults. I just wanted to see this moment in their lives. But overall it was fantastic, and I am definitely adding it to my list of favorites. And I will be recommending it to everyone who starts a conversation with me for, like, the next month. Also, bonus points for a dope cover. Anyway, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is horrifyingly wonderful, so please read it and then come back and tell me that you also loved it.

25785649-1Title: The Way I Used to Be
Author: Amber Smith
Pages: 367
Year: 2016
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster)
Time taken to read: 30 hours
Rating: 3/5

Goodreads synopsisIn the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault. Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes. What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be. Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.

I saw The Way I Used to Be on the shelf at B&N this past Sunday, and, drawn in by the cover, I read the synopsis. I really like Speak, and I was intrigued by the comparison. So, I got it from the library first thing the next day.

I struggled to rate this book. I originally gave it four stars because I think it could accomplish what I’m assuming it means to accomplish, which is helping victims of sexual assault gather the courage to speak up. And for that reason, sure, I’m glad it exists. I also liked that it takes place over four years, because I don’t think people realize how much these events affect people years and years after they happen. At the end of Eden’s senior year, this thing still controls her life, and that is the reality of it for a lot of people. I also think the way she turns to frivolous and even potentially dangerous sex is interesting. Everyone deals with PTSD differently. Everyone finds a different coping mechanism. And Eden’s is very active and vivid, which I think works well in novel.

Yet, I felt the relationships weren’t earned. I don’t understand why Josh ever liked Eden, for example. She was never nice to him. It bothered me so much every time she flipped out on him in a way that seemed totally random to him, and sure, she doesn’t want to tell him the truth, but she doesn’t even try to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault. And I get that all of it is hard for her. I really do. But Josh was a good guy, and if Eden had questioned that goodness, if she had doubted him and even feared him, I would have understood why she treated him so poorly. But she never really did question whether or not he was genuine. She’s using him and she knows it, and while I have sympathy for her, it still isn’t right to treat someone the way she does. But even besides whether or not I agree with her actions, I had trouble believing that Josh would put up with it for so long. He was the king of the school or whatever. I’m assuming he could date nearly any girl he wanted. Why Eden? He never says why he’s so drawn to her, just that he is, and I didn’t buy it.

But again, honestly, as much as I have sympathy for her, I was absolutely exhausted by the way she treated Josh and Steve and everyone else around her. And I could see glimpses of evidence that she’s exhausting herself too, throughout the book, and those moments were great. I wanted a lot more of that. I wanted a stronger sense of her being out of control and knowing she’s out of control but not being able to rein it in no matter how much she tries and how much she knows these people don’t deserve it. But that’s not her attitude. It really bothered me how she talks about her parents. They lash out at her because she lashes out at them first in a way that’s incredibly immature and unacceptable to me no matter what you’ve been through. Her mom shouldn’t ever have slapped her, obviously, but Eden treated them like crap long before that happened. And even if Eden recognized her actions for what they were more often, the way she lashes out at good people on every page got so repetitive. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I was relieved by it, and it saved me from giving the book an even lower rating.

I saw a lot of reviews on Goodreads similar to mine where readers wanted to criticize Eden but felt guilty about it because of her PTSD. I think it’s important to note for me and for all of those reviewers that none of us is saying we don’t sympathize with Eden and understand that no one deals with sexual assault perfectly. I think when we talk about what Eden does that we didn’t like, we’re talking about her as a character, and I think her actions as a character start to overshadow the message the book is trying to send. If Eden was a more likable character, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about how she’s unlikable–instead I would be talking about how much this book and others like it have the potential to change lives. But I’m not talking about that, nor are other reviewers, because this is in the way, and that’s why, while it’s really important to me to read about flawed characters, there has to be a balance, especially in instances like this.