Archive

Tag Archives: book review

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.

26244587Title: Dear Amy
Author: Helen Callaghan
Pages: 343
Year: 2016
Publisher: Harper (HarperCollins)
Time taken to read: 7 weeks
Rating: 3/5

Goodreads synopsisMargot Lewis is the agony aunt for The Cambridge Examiner. Her advice column, Dear Amy, gets all kinds of letters – but none like the one she’s just received: ‘Dear Amy, I don’t know where I am. I’ve been kidnapped and am being held prisoner by a strange man. I’m afraid he’ll kill me. Please help me soon, Bethan Avery.’ Bethan Avery has been missing for nearly two decades. This is surely some cruel hoax. But as more letters arrive, they contain information that was never made public. How is this happening? Answering this question will cost Margot everything….

Firstly, Helen Callaghan’s language is absolutely exceptional. She used lovely metaphors, and her word choice is amazing in so many instances, and for that reason alone, I would read anything else she may write in the future (assuming the premise doesn’t sound awful). However, I cannot rate this very highly, and I cannot tell you why without spoiling the ending, so please just move on from this review if you haven’t read this book yet and you still want to.

Now, onto the spoilers.

I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I took psych 101 and my mom has a psych degree. That’s as far as my official knowledge goes. However, I am, like 99.999% sure you CANNOT push memories down so deep that when you hear your own name and go back to your childhood home and see your grandmother and all of these things that you lived with for sixteen or so years, you literally cannot recall any of it. Like, okay, I was glad that the ending wasn’t predictable, at least for me. And if you ignore the fact that this is impossible, it is a very cool twist. But I cannot ignore that fact. After I finished this book and discussed with my boyfriend (who is knowledgable about many topics and agreed with me that this is impossible), I started to think maybe that was the point, and Margot is an unreliable narrator who is still trying so hard to pretend that she’s not Bethan that she’s lying to us too. That I would have been okay with if it had been very clear. If that had been done well, I could see myself giving this a much higher rating. But also, side note, I cannot believe all the people on Goodreads saying the twist was so predictable. I don’t predict impossible things in realistic fiction. But again, if it had been clear from the beginning that Margot was hiding something from us (without making it obvious what it was), it might have been better. Some kind of red herring would have to be involved. Ooh, or maybe Bethan could have sustained intense brain damage from Chris’s violence and that (partially combined with psychological trauma, perhaps) made her forget her life. I’ve changed my mind, that would have been way better than Margot lying to us. And it would have been actually possible (I think, as I’m not a medical doctor either).

The book was also a little slow-going in the beginning, as you can see from the fact that this took me over a month to read. Then again, it’s not my typical genre, so that might be why that happened. Who knows.

25613472Title: A List of Cages
Author: Robin Roe
Pages: 320
Year: 2017
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Time taken to read: 4 days
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsis: When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian—the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years. Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kindhearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives.

I got this as an ARC like a year ago, and, as I always do, I didn’t get around to it until after it was published. But it was published just a few months ago so I will try to make this not so spoiler-y.

This is a dual-perspective book, which I am famous for hating. I both liked it and did not like it in this book. I think it’s important to see both Adam’s and Julian’s worlds. It heightens the suspense when we can see what’s happening to Julian and at the same time see how unaware Adam is. My problem with it is that Adam’s and Julian’s voices sound too similar. I tend to completely ignore headers, so I didn’t realize what had happened the first time the perspective switched, and I was really confused when suddenly Julian was being called “Adam”. I flipped back and figured it out and was majorly annoyed. But I warmed up to it. I mean, they’re similar kids. They both sound a little juvenile, Adam because of his ADHD and Julian because of his abuse. To get them to sound very different was probably a really big challenge for the author, and I appreciate what she was able to do with them. Still, I do have to drop a star for it. Also, I’m annoyed because the author stole one of my character names. Rude. Anyway.

Teensy spoiler here, but I also thought the whole thing with Brett was completely useless. Emerald and Adam getting together was very intense and very brief, and I think it was a bit of a distraction. It would have been more effective if Emerald and Adam had already been together. That would both eliminate that distraction and make it a little more satisfying when their relationship starts to break down, since I feel more sympathy for an old relationship deteriorating than a new one. Additionally, I would have liked to see more of Julian’s mother’s notebook. Especially since that contributed to the title, I wanted to see those lists integrated in more of Julian’s thoughts, and I just wanted to witness more of the content of the notebook to get a better sense of what Julian’s mother was like. Plus, it would have been fun to guess what the lists were alongside Julian.

But overall, I thought the book was great. I love friendship stories, and it’s always interesting to me to read from a boy’s perspective. The language is really unique, and there are a lot of good quotes and clever one-liners. Nothing about this book felt cliché to me, which is very important to me. A List of Cages made me feel scared and sad and angry and happy and reflective and lots of other things, and I highly recommend it.

Also, my friend from my internship just started a book review blog as well! Hers is Alex’s Bookshelf Reads, and she is awesome, so you should read her book reviews too.

4671Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Pages: 180
Year: 1925
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Time taken to read: 5 days
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsis: THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s. The Great Gatsby is one of the great classics of twentieth-century literature.

I remember being assigned this book in high school, reading the first two pages, and thinking, oh, hell no. There was no way I was getting through this one. I don’t think I even bothered to read the Sparknotes. I always planned to read it someday, though as it increased in popularity and eventually reached hipster status, I got a sort of satisfaction out of being able to say I had never read it. Yet, the intern director here at Writers House, who has become familiar with the concept of the book I’m writing (though I have yet to send him the full manuscript) suggested I give it a go, as he thinks my characters and their relationships are rather parallel to those in The Great Gatsby. I think he may be correct. In any case, I did in fact enjoy this.

I don’t much care for history, but I was really intrigued by the way the style of this book made me really think about life in America in the 20s. I think a lot of people have this idea that life in the past was so much simpler than it is today. Living in the Age of Information is overwhelming. Sometimes I want to trade in my iPhone for the flip phone I had back in 7th grade (though I want to make it known that I still have an iPhone 5c so I am kind of on the low end of smartphones). I’m not anti-technology in the least–I love being able to stay constantly connected to the people I love who live far away from me, and I wouldn’t want to be living in any other time period. Yet, the pressures of social media can be exhausting, and sometimes I do feel like I just want it all to go away. And I think novels like The Great Gatsby emphasize the idea that life before smartphones was simpler just because of the style and format. The dialogue and descriptions are straightforward, and the novel itself is very short. Nick tells us what is, and we infer the rest from his tone and from what we know about people without even realizing we’re doing it. So as I read this, I thought about what a simple life the characters had, and it took a while for me to step back and realize that I think I was wrong. Human beings are human beings regardless of the time period, and we are simple and complicated all at the same time, and we face the challenges of our day. Probably. I’ve never lived in another time period, so I suppose I can’t know for sure. Maybe I’ll ask my grandma.

Anyway, I was really captured by the voice of Nick and by his role as an observer. I loved the implications and the theme of the way people act versus the way they really are, and I loved the way the sparseness of this novel made all of that so striking. Though I’d say the best part of this book for me was the commentary on gender and race, and I wonder if Fitzgerald thought those issues would still be so pertinent nearly a hundred years in the future. I suppose I didn’t give it a full five stars because I didn’t totally grasp exactly what happened at the end and had to Google it, as one does in the Age of Information. Beautiful technology.

As I always say, I love a book that makes me think. Perhaps soon I’ll watch the movie version of this. I don’t believe it deserves the hype that hipster nerds give it, but I’m glad I read it. I feel as though it may have initiated a classics kick in me, though I just finished watching the Netflix version of Thirteen Reasons Why, so I am eager to reread that and compare.