To be quite honest, though, I did feel like chucking it all after I made my post about my planned reads. I mean, do I really want to spend my winter break doing a bunch of required reading? Especially when there are other books I want to read but probably don’t meet the challenge? But then I had to remind myself that none of this is actually required, and I am doing this for fun (and also because I am committed to winning–even if it’s just at this one thing with no actual prize except the thrill of victory). Plus, some of these books I actually want to read. So on I go.
I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been on my radar since it first came out–not only because it has won so many awards and is lauded by many, but also because my summer book club picked it a few years ago. I didn’t read it then because I had required reading fatigue (it’s a thing I tend to get every summer), but I knew I would get back to it eventually. Well, eventually came this year once I found out Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) did the narration for the audiobook.
The plot of the book is pretty straight-forward: Aristotle (who goes by Ari) is a lonely 15-year-old who befriends Dante one day at the swimming pool. Then, you know, life and stuff happens. Big life and big stuff. I am avoiding spoilers here, obviously.
What I Liked
– First and foremost, this is a friendship novel. I LOVE FRIENDSHIP STORIES. They make me happy. Friendships can be easy and challenging and hard and beautiful, and that’s exactly what happens here.
– Dante is pretty fantastic. He’s such a great character: open, honest, frustrating, angry, challenging. He’s just so earnest! Ah, it’s adorable.
– Ari is pretty great, too. He’s the narrator, so the reader is more privy to his thoughts, and he is struggling to find his place in the world. I liked that he is pretty much just doing what comes next like a checklist for life, even if he isn’t sure what he wants yet. I think that’s pretty accurate for how many teens do things.
– This is a kissing book. Lots of talk of kissing here. Lots of kissing happening, too. I approve.
– THE PARENTS. Both boys’ parents are excellent. They are supremely flawed human beings who are doing the best they can, which means they screw up sometimes but that they love their kids so, so much–and the narrative acknowledges it. Also, Dante’s father is an English professor, so that automatically raises his level of awesome for me.
– Gina Navarro and Sophie (I can’t remember her last name). These are girls Ari grew up with who drive him insane but also love him a super lot and force him to participate in life stuff. At first, I was jarred by their presence, but I really like how they challenged him and how he came to see their place in his life.
– So basically all of the characters were great is what I’m saying.
– THE ENDING. I 100% love the ending to this book, and that’s what took me from liking it to really liking it. And when I say the ending, I don’t mean the last chapter. I mean pretty much the whole last act, starting from the moment Ari’s parents sit him down for a heart-to-heart until the very, very end. It was pretty much perfection.
– The dialogue is super realistic and I loved, loved, loved any time the characters were talking to and interacting with each other. I could pretty much see every single one of those scenes playing out in front of me. They were so great.
– One of the running threads through the book is this idea of being a “real” Mexican. I loved that exploration of the boys’ identities and how the idea is tied into not only cultural expectations but also outside stereotypes. It’s really well handled and Saenz is subtle in how he completely and most emphatically states that the only thing that makes someone a real Mexican is being Mexican. Love.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda is A+ as a narrator. I would listen to another book he reads. Also, he can definitely roll his r’s. I tried over and over to say Bernardo the way he does, and it just wasn’t happening. I also don’t speak Spanish, so you know.
What I Didn’t Like
– I thought this was a summer book. It’s not. When Ari went back to school, I was so confused and a little upset. This is all about my expectations as a reader, but it is what it is.
– I am pretty sure Ari is depressed throughout most of the novel (thought it’s never explicitly stated), and that’s fine. He’s also a pretty interior character, which is also fine. However, what that meant for huge chunks of the novel is that Ari is completely in his head and most of what he thinks is expressed in negatives. There is a lot of “I don’t know why I did this” and “I don’t know why this” and “I didn’t say anything, but” or “I didn’t ask him this.” Those moments (and there are A LOT of them) made the narration and the story drag.
Also, one thing I was taught when I studied creative writing was not to describe what a character doesn’t do and so I am hyper aware of when an author does it.
Those moments may have played out better in the text than in the audio, but just imagine listening to someone tell you for five minutes straight all the things they didn’t do in a given situation. It would get real old real fast.
On the plus side, it did make the moments of dialogue and character interaction that much more enjoyable, so.
In conclusion: A really powerful look at friendship, family, and love with great characters and an excellent ending.
Here’s the thing. I liked a lot about Something Real by Heather Demetrios. The book follows a girl–Chloe Baker, now seventeen–who grew up on a reality TV show. Think Jon & Kate Plus 8. Yes, exactly. Only her family is Baker’s Dozen. So, her family is off TV, and she’s trying to lead a normal life. The fallout from growing up on reality TV and the impact it has on the family relationships are all well-handled and interesting.
The boy stuff.
Oh my god, the boy stuff.
My two big issues with the boy are:
- She sacrifices the best friends at the altar of the boyfriend.
- The character and the boyfriend fall in instalove.
The boyfriend is also perfect in every way, which compounds issues one and two.
I think my biggest issue here is that the narrative didn’t support either of the decisions the author made.
What follows contains mild spoilers for the book, but, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t give away any major plot points.
Let’s start with the best friend stuff, shall we?
In the story, Chloe has been at her current school for a year and a half. In that time, she has made two best friends. She doesn’t want them to know about her past life, so she never invites them over and when she’s stressed out, says she has “family stuff” going on. She talks to them every day and hangs out with them most weekends.
She has a crush on this boy Patrick who sits behind her in government class (“gov” in the book), and they engage in some heavy flirting.
So, of course, when Chloe’s secret comes out, Tessa and Meredith (her best friends for the past year and a half) avoid her because they are angry and betrayed. Patrick, the boy she went on one date with, totally doesn’t care and just wants to be with her because he really, really likes her and none of that fame stuff matters. And he goes out of his way to see her privately just to tell her how little it matters and how much he likes her.
Best friends = year and a half.
Boy = one date.
Both best friends are mad, btw. Both of them avoid her. Neither of them reaches out to her or makes an effort to pull her aside to find out why she felt she couldn’t trust them or to reassure her that it’s weird, but they’ll, you know, figure it out. One of them gives her a “WTF?” in the hallway and then fades into the background.
Instead we get an entire chapter of new boy saying how okay this all is and, like, a one or two paragraph make up session with her friends.
And so it continues throughout the book. It isn’t long before Patrick and Chloe are declaring their love for each other. The tabloids come around and he’s totally fine with all of that. Because he loves her. All of their fights are about how she doesn’t trust him, and he just wants to be with her and he doesn’t care about the fame stuff! He really doesn’t! Why can’t she believe that?
Somewhere in the narrative, Demetrios points out that Chloe has been burned before by people only wanting to be close to her because of the show.
And I found myself thinking that the novel would have been much more believable if Patrick had ALREADY BEEN her longtime boyfriend. Like, why did it have to be new boy who she just met? Then, at least, his annoyance at her lack of trust would make sense. Then, at least, his frustration at her constantly pushing him away with this big news would make sense. But don’t sell me this remarkable love story about this girl who just started dating this dude, and now they’re in love and he’s totally fine risking his privacy for a girl he just started dating.
If they had been dating when the story started and it was established that they had been in this relationship, and then he found out she was the girl from the TV show, and he was willing to stand by her, I would have found that a much more compelling and believable love story. Since the structure of the novel (and the cover) are prizing this as a love story, I think that’s more emotionally honest than having the boy the main character is crushing on be this amazing and unflappable boy even though they barely know each other.
It also would have been much more respectful of the teen audience.
And it would have been much more respectful of Chloe’s relationship with her best friends.
It’s also especially annoying because everything else about the book was so good. Sigh.
I haven’t written a proper review since October?! That’s just not on. Especially considering I have read a ton of books since then. Me and this blog have a lot to hash out in the next few days/weeks. In the meantime, here are some mini reviews.
1. Saints by Gene Luen Yang – This is half of a two-part series about the Boxer Rebellion in China. I thought the two books would come in together, but I guess whoever had the first book wasn’t done with it. I was planning to read them as a set, though.
What I liked about this book is how small in scale it is, even though it deals with a huge conflict. Saints follows Four-Girl as she discovers Christianity and leaves her family’s home. I really liked that she is not really directly engaged with the rebellion and is instead just trying to figure out her place in the world. The rebellion does directly touch her life, but the focus of the novel is on her day-to-day struggle to fit in with her family and community. So often stories about war are, you know, about war, so that was a pleasant surprise. Another unexpected and interesting approach Yang takes is with regards to Four-Girl’s conversion to Christianity. It’s less about spirituality and more about protection and rebellion. As far as the art goes, the graphics are delightful as usual. I love Yang’s artistic style.
2. Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet (illustrated by Clément Oubrerie) – It took me a little while to get into this slice of life graphic novel set in the Ivory Coast during the late 1970s–mostly because the artwork inside the novel isn’t quite as detailed as the cover, so that was disappointing. The novel also doesn’t really have a clear plot right away; it mostly establishes the setting and relationships in the beginning. Once the relationships and setting are established, the drama starts to pick up, and I became much more interested. The main takeaway of course is that people are the same everywhere. Some of the cultural mores are different, yes, but, in general, Aya and her friends/family deal with family, work, and societal drama. There’s a “who’s the daddy?” plot, a plot about a boy who disappoints his father, several plots about infidelity, etc. I mean, you know, the usual. By the end I was engaged, but I’m not necessarily interested in picking up the next part of the collection.
3. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan – I continue to be delighted by this series and by Rick Riordan. The best part of this book is that all of the demigods get a chance to narrate so the story feels more balanced, and a lot of character development happens. I have to give Riordan props for anticipating my needs/wants as a reader as well. At one point, I found myself thinking, “Man, I really miss [specific character]” and then that character showed up within a couple of chapters. I also started getting annoyed with how heteronormative all of the characters/relationships are, and then he introduced a gay character. So I have much respect for Riordan as an author based on those two instances alone. Also: plot, characters, etc. I’m also starting to warm up a lot more to the characters I didn’t feel a proclivity towards, so that’s nice as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything shakes out.
I did read more books than the three featured here, but I’m trying to figure out the best way to discuss them. Mostly, with them, I’m concerned with certain patterns or trends I noticed, so they aren’t really fit for typical reviews, I think. We shall see.
There was the version of me I created to show the world, and the version of me that felt like me…and I can’t tell where they overlap.
All young adult literature is concerned with identity. If you ever study young adult literature, that’s one of the first things you learn. One of the things I loved about Jennifer Castle‘s You Look Different in Real Life is that it’s explicitly concerned with constructing identity as a teen–with the added twist of knowing (and not just thinking) everyone is actually watching you. (The characters are part of a documentary film series that started when they were six and checks in with them every five years.)
Castle handles each teen’s persona deftly while also showing that none of them are exactly as they appear. Except, perhaps, for Rory who is exactly who she says she is. (I also like that Rory–who knows exactly who she is–has found a niche and friends.) I also really like the focus on the performance aspect–that the teens have an agenda and reasons for wanting to be seen a specific way. Whether it’s because they want to use the documentary as a springboard for a career or just to show that they have adjusted just fine thankyouverymuch, they have something to prove.
One of my favorite moments happens during one of Justine’s interviews. She tries to stay audience aware all the time, but this one time something genuine slips in and she gets SO ANNOYED. Because, of course, you don’t want to give the audience/producers/people anything real that they may be able to use against you.
Perhaps the best thing about the book’s premise is that the kids are locked into finishing out an agreement their parents made for them. In the beginning, there’s lots of talk about how they should finish what they started. The reality is, though, that their parents started it. Their parents agreed to the documentary. However, when they’re sixteen, suddenly it’s the teens’ responsibility to see the project through when it isn’t even their project to begin with. I thought that was an excellent nod to the pressure teenagers face to carry out their parents’ vision for who they should be and what’s acceptable for their lives.
So the book has lots of great moments like that as well as lots of great character work. The plot is not predictable at all, which I liked.
What didn’t I like? Well, the most dynamic character (Keira) with the most dynamic relationship (a significant part of the book concerns Keira’s relationship with her mother) is secondary. I wanted more with them, which I couldn’t get with the way the book was structured. Also, I just didn’t think Keira was in the story enough.
My final complaint is that while I liked all of the characters just fine, I didn’t love any of them. I wouldn’t let that be a deterrent, though. Each character is certainly worthy of love from someone.
In conclusion: Great premise and well-developed characters make this a worthy read.
As usually happens when The Disenchantments start a show for strangers instead of just kids at our school, the crowd stares at them in a stunned silence.
One of my favorite things about The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour is that The Disenchantments are a terrible band. In that way, the story reverses expectations, so that the reader knows this isn’t the typical rise and fall of a band narrative.
What it is instead is the story of a boy and his best friend (and two of their friends) and how that best friend also reverses expectations and does something unexpected and heartbreaking. See, Cody and Bev had always planned to travel after high school, but Bev changes her mind and doesn’t tell Cody until they’re on their last hurrah–taking their band on tour up the West Coast to drop their friend Meg off at college.
While I read The Disenchantments in one afternoon, the book ultimately fell flat for me. It has a lot of elements I like (friendship issues, road trip, seriously contemplating The Future), but Meg and Alexis (the other members of the band) never felt like fully realized characters. I mean, sure Meg gets a badass tattoo and Alexis keeps a book of jobs, but other than that, I could barely tell them apart. Also, Bev is a heartbreaker and beautiful and silent and moody and…that’s about it. Not to mention, Cody isn’t that interesting either. He draws! He loves Bev! That’s about all I got from him.
So, I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters nor did I particularly care about what happened to them. (Aside from Jasper. LOVE Jasper.) In fact, I just felt like a spectator during most of the story, so could never fully escape into the world.
Also, I am kind of annoyed that that the book cover isn’t Cody’s band poster art.
To end this on a more up note, I really appreciated LaCour’s treatment of Bev’s bisexuality. Bev kisses boys and she kisses girls. The end. No need to discuss that she’s bisexual and what it means and blah blah blah. It’s a matter-of-fact part of Bev’s character that doesn’t even need to be named. Very well-handled.
In conclusion: The book is well-written and has some interesting elements; I just couldn’t really connect with it.
I am so, so, so far behind on reviews. Trying something new to get caught up.
Also Known As by Robin Benway: This book was fun to read, but I honestly cannot even remember how it ends.
Ash by Malinda Lo: Who knew a lesbian retelling of Cinderella with so many fascinating elements could be so boring?
Period 8 by Chris Crutcher: Chris Crutcher writes a mystery and still manages to incorporate every single one of his tropes into the story.
Burn for Burn by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian: Three girls—who clearly need lessons from Emily Thorne—try to get revenge on their classmates, which leads to the stupidest cliffhanger ever.
Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah: If the author had spent half as much time developing the characters as she did describing their decade-appropriate fashion, I probably would have liked this book a lot more.
The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga: An author embeds a meta-narrative on how to avoid writing predictable female lead characters in his novel and then proceeds to write a completely predictable female lead character.
The Friendship Matchmaker by Randa Abdel-Fattah: In a cute retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma (according to the Goodreads summary) (oh, and !!!!), a girl writes and lives the middle school version of How to Win Friends and Influence People to an entirely predictable end.
Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande Velde: I don’t remember much about this book except cheaters suck and sooner or later they have to face the consequences for their actions.
Source: I got all of these books from the library.
“Well, it’s just that it’s impossible to be a broken or whole person. You can only be a person. You can only exist, you can only belong to yourself, and you can only be responsible for your own happiness or belonging or whatever. That broken-part-piece-whole thing is just a trick of the mortal mind.”
As You Wish by Jackson Pearce is a cute, fun romance about a girl, her gay ex-boyfriend/best friend, and a genie. Since Viola is trying desperately to get over the heartbreak of losing Lawrence as a boyfriend, she inadvertently summons Jinn, who has to grant her three wishes.
Like I said, the story is cute and fun. It’s not entirely predictable–I mean, sure, Jinn was obviously going to fall in love with Viola and vice versa. But what keeps the story from being predictable and rote are the three main characters: Viola, Jinn, and Lawrence.
What I like the most about Viola is that she’s smart and thoughtful. She’s very careful with her wishes, not wanting to wish for something she knows she needs to change within herself nor does she want to wish for anything that could hurt someone else. That carefulness creates excellent conflict for her relationship with Jinn who wants to do nothing more than grant her three wishes quickly so he can get home. He doesn’t understand her thoughtfulness because he’s used to dealing with shallow people. More importantly, he doesn’t understand what it means to be human. Where he comes from conflict has mostly been removed, days blur into each other, and time mostly stands still. There is no heartache, no love, no deep longing for anyone or anything. Everything just is.
And then there’s Lawrence. Lawrence who regrets hurting Viola and wants nothing more than for her to be happy again. He has new found popularity now that he’s out and thoroughly himself, but that also means Viola is mostly excluded from his world. She isolates herself and is unhappy, and Lawrence feels responsible for her happiness in a way that’s not entirely fair for him but makes them very believable friends.
So, yeah, I liked the characters. In fact, the characters are what will stick with me about this book. That, and it’s like a fun take on Aladdin. You know how Aladdin’s all, “What would you wish for?” and Genie’s all, “To be free.” Well, Jinn is like, “For you to hurry up so I can go home and stop getting old.” Hahahaha.
I don’t know. It amuses me.
“That explains the budget weave,” Miss Ohio said.
I could have posted the more thoughtful and poetic quote from Libba Bray‘s Beauty Queens, but I decided to go with the one that made me laugh. Mostly because I was more intrigued by the absurdity of the novel than, well, anything else about it.
Basic premise/plot: A plane full of teen beauty queens headed for the Miss Teen Dream finals crashes on a deserted island. Wacky hijinks ensue as the girls learn to survive.
What I Liked
– I love that cover. Love. LOVE. It’s so badass plus hot, and I think it really gets at the tension of the book and something that actually plays out in the plot. You know, the way you have to look twice to see that’s actually lipstick in that bullet holder thing–just like the girls aren’t just pretty faces/hot bods.
– The back cover is also ace because it shows the crashed plane and immediately puts me in the mindset of Lost.
– I love when the girls construct their camp.
– I thought the different relationships between the main girls were built up and portrayed really nicely. Of course, they would pair or trio up and develop best friends or love interests, etc.
– So much diversity! I’m not just talking racially; I’m also impressed with the inclusion of the LGBTQ characters (yes, more than one!) and the character with a disability.
I also like that the diversity is actually commented on by the characters in a way that felt realistic.
– I am pretty sure I am in love with Miss Texas. Not literary girlfriend in love, but I really dig and appreciate her as a character.
– In fact, I liked a whole lot of the character stuff here. Especially that the three characters only known by their states really have the same name and would be indistinguishable if not for a few characteristics.
– Miss New Mexico aka Trayhead. Fantastic.
What I Didn’t Like
– Okay, I didn’t dislike the pirates. I’m just more on the fence with them. On the one hand: pirates! On the other hand: I’m not really sure how I’m supposed to feel about them.
– This book is almost doing too much: parody tv shows, parody commercials, voiceovers, pageant applications, a gabillion characters, an evil genius, etc. It’s just a lot.
In conclusion: I had a lot of fun reading this book. It’s like Lost meets Miss Congeniality meets Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness meets reality TV plus, of course, beauty pageants.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth is the story of a girl who lives in a small town in Montana during the 1990s. She’s being raised by her aunt and grandmother after the death of her parents. Oh, and she’s gay.
What I Liked
– The setting. I’ve never read a book set in Montana before, and I got a clear sense of not only Cameron’s town but the state as well.
– Cameron’s grandmother is such a great character. I also love, love their relationship. I’m probably more upset at Aunt Ruth coming and disrupting that than anything else.
– Jamie! I love Cameron and Jamie’s relationship. They’re best friends, and they get each other. I love their competitiveness and how possessive they are of each other. But more than that, they’re honest with one another (as much as they can be, really) and understand each other so well. Not only that, but Jamie’s just so great on his own, and I love him.
– Danforth’s portrayal of how a lot of teens relate to church and their youth group. Cameron is not particularly religious, but Aunt Ruth is, so when Ruth joins the church she brings Cameron along. While Cameron may not necessarily connect to the church as a whole, she does enjoy the youth group because, of course, all of her friends (including Jamie) are there. Of course, she and Jamie love to drink and get high together, but that’s beside the point. The point is that she does find a sense of belonging with the group, even if she’s not embracing religion (particularly Christianity) as fervently as Aunt Ruth wants.
– Once Cameron gets shipped off to Promise (a gay deprogramming camp/school), she meets some fascinating characters. Just…amazing. She befriends Jane and Adam—two characters fascinating in their own right—but encounters quite a few other characters who I wanted to know so much more about: Erin, Dane, and Mark.
– I believed all of the relationships Danforth set up. So many of them are complicated and messy, and I enjoyed seeing how they all played out and where they all led.
What I Didn’t Like
– This book is like two books in one. Part one is Cameron dealing with the death of her parents and her feelings for Irene and then Coley. Part two is Cameron’s experience at Promise. I feel the book would have been better served if it had been split into two separate books so each could be its own complete experience.
– Remember I said that there were a lot of really interesting characters at Promise? I think the second book (or part two of the first book) would have been waaaay better if it had been presented as a collection of short stories from the different characters’ points of view. I really wanted to see Promise through their eyes.
Part of that comes from the fact that Cameron is just a little too cynical/detached as a narrator for me to get a clear sense of the other students’ experiences. Plus, let’s be real, Cameron is kind of boring and they’re kind of not.
The other part comes from the fact that Promise is a terrible place. But you have the kids fully committed to the program (like Erin) and then the kids who Promise is doing something really, really good for (like Dane who is a recovering drug addict) and then the kids who are there by force (most of the rest of them). Promise means different things to these different people.
So what I’m saying is, I thought Promise deserved its own book.
– However, since Promise is not its own book, and this book is all of one, it needed to be a lot shorter. It’s just soooo long, and it meanders along, and I got so frustrated waiting for something, anything to happen. I was waiting for Cameron to get caught, I was waiting for her to get to Promise, I was waiting for her to leave Promise, but nothing happened fast enough. Soooo slow.
– Honestly, if I weren’t reading this for my book group, I would’ve stopped about a quarter or halfway through because of the dragging and the lack of things happening.
– I didn’t really care for the ending. Bah. I mean, elements of it were fine; I just didn’t completely buy it.
In conclusion: I wanted to like this way more than I did. I have so many mixed feelings about this book. The stuff it did well was done really well. The things I didn’t like, I really didn’t like. So, you know. Mixed feelings.