Some Non-Fiction Titles I’ve Been Reading

I mostly stick to fiction on the blog, and lately it’s been mostly YA fiction at that, but I wanted to highlight some of the non-fiction titles I’ve been reading this year.  Every once in a while, I go through a phase where I read some non-fiction, and right now, that’s the case.  Here are a couple titles that I thought were pretty outstanding.

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

I’ve been a Sylvia Plath fan since my misanthropic teenage days, and this micro-biography (is that a thing?) is so accessible and so fascinating I had a hard time putting it down.  Winder chooses to focus on the summer Plath spent in New York as an intern for Mademoiselle, interweaving first-hand accounts from the other women who interned with her with historical details about the time period, as well as excerpts of Plath’s work and snippets of her journal entries.  The result is incredibly successful: the fashion, the glamour, and the things we’ll never know about Sylvia’s inner-thoughts make this a standout non-fiction title.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kokler

Probably one of my favorite reads of the year, Kokler’s impeccably written and obsessively researched look at the disappearances and murders of a slew of women working as escorts through Craigslist on the East Coast a few years ago is haunting, riveting, and something that I still cannot get out of my mind.  Kokler digs into the lives of the women who disappeared and humanizes them in a way that a lesser writer would not have been able to do.  It’s accessible, well-written, and completely worthy of your time.  I loved it, inasmuch as you can love something that’s about a horrible thing that’s happened.

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

In the interest of full disclosure, I picked this one up with the intent to just read the parts where Chevy Chase comes off as a complete sociopathic asshole (read: every single time he opens his mouth), because I pretty much think Chase is the worst, and after hearing the book mentioned on one of my favorite podcasts, I knew I had to check it out.  But I ended up reading the entire thing, because it totally hooked me.  I’m not a huge SNL fan in general–I can appreciate the significance of the show’s presence in the pop culture cannon, and I’ll watch an episode if I really like the host, but I haven’t considered it must-watch TV in years.  But this was a surprisingly great read.

God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin

Initially, I wanted to read this one because I have a love-hate thing going on with Rosin as a journalist in general.  I listen to the DoubleX podcast and am always rankled by how clueless, pompous, and generally nutso Rosin can be (not to mention her proclivity to cut people off when they are talking), but there’s no denying that she’s an intelligent person (and she would be the first to tell you so).  I knew about her book The End of Men, but I didn’t realize that she’d written this one until it was mentioned on the podcast when they were discussing sexual assault on Christian college campuses.  So I decided to check it out.

The result surprised me.  I really enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure how much of that was Rosin (at least a little bit was, because her ability to balance snark and respectful reporting was quite good here) and how much was my complete horror that people like this exist in the world.  At any rate, I devoured this one.  And am still terrified of the fundamentalist Christian right.  Of all fundamentalists, actually.

Book Review: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith

Lucy and Owen live in the same apartment building in the heart of New York City, but don’t meet until their elevator loses power in a city-wide blackout in the midst of a blisteringly hot summer.  After their rescue, they spend one perfect night together, sharing secrets and falling in love.  Reality sets in before long, and the two are separated.  After that, they mostly communicate through postcards and  a few emails until they finally have a chance to meet up in person again.  Will they be able to rediscover the magic of their first meeting?

In terms of the “meet-cute” trope, this book has it down pat.  Lucy and Owen are fated to meet because of the elevator, and the result of that is a magic, kismet evening in which they discover a mutual attraction for one another.  Readers looking for plausibility should look elsewhere, because Smith’s latest offering has much of what her previous books have: romance, angst, and the most unlikely of situations.  The problem is, that what felt incredibly fresh in her first, excellent The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is starting to feel more than a little stale in this one, her third offering in as many years.

An inability to connect to either character, both of whom take turns narrating this tale, makes this a bit of slog to get through.  Lucy’s incredibly wealthy and privileged, living in a swank apartment and spending the majority of her time unsupervised, as her parents are always out of the country.  Implausible but not out of the realm of probability, this still feels more like a plot point than an actual feature of Lucy’s character and situation.  Owen’s mother is dead and he grapples with an emotionally absent grieving father, but again, this feels like a plot point rather than a whole character.

Too often, it feels as though Smith is moving the pieces around on the page to keep her characters longing for each other in a way that never fully makes sense.  It would take an extraordinary love–one which this reader did not see on the page–to make these two characters work so hard to stay in touch after they move away from each other.  The base of that relationship is never established, making this feel like a flimsy premise at best.

That’s not to say that readers won’t like this one.  There’s plenty here for readers who like their YA romance chaste and full of longing.  Armchair travelers won’t get a ton out of this one, but there are enough geographical locations mentioned to at least pique the interest of some.  Still, this is one that never fully connects with the reader and fades fast from the memory as soon as it’s done.  Disappointing all around.

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy: 2014. 

Book Review: The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder

Hannah and Zoe are the best of friends, and completely inseparable.  They’ve always been there for one another, so when Zoe tells Hannah that it’s time to leave their po-dunk New Jersey town and see the world, the two embark on a crazy road trip adventure.  Along the way, Zoe tries to teach Hannah about the intangible things in life: like insouciance, audacity, and happiness.

Wendy Wunder’s sophomore novel has high aims and delivers on many of them.  This novel has much of what many readers of contemporary YA look for in their books: romance, independence, self-discovery, and a great deal of wit.  The result is a mixed bag, and while it will work for many readers, it didn’t completely gel for this one.

Because Zoe’s bi-polar disorder plays such a prominent role in the novel, it’s impossible to discuss the novel’s limitations without also touching on that.  Zoe has relied on Hannah to help her down from her episodes, and while it has worked in the past, the two girls find that it is harder and harder to self-medicate when it comes to Zoe’s increasing mania.  Therein lies the biggest issue for this reader when it comes to this book.

Without disputing the fact that bi-polar disorder is a very real thing that some teens face, there was something about the portrayal in this novel that didn’t sit right with this reader.  Too often, Zoe felt like a manic pixie dream girl, and while Wunder did try to showcase the other side of that coin, it felt oddly hollow.  Hannah shoulders a great deal of her best friend’s burden, but something about the story didn’t feel authentic.  Zoe has a support system in place at home, so it seemed odd that that support system would just allow the two girls to go off gallivanting.

So much time and energy is spent on describing Zoe’s zaniness and illness that it feels as though Hannah gets the short shrift often.  Unfortunately, this reader never connected to either character, making this harder to get through.  Lacking that connection to these girls made the stakes feel very low, even though that was clearly not Wunder’s intent.

That being said, the novel is–like her previous work–incredibly well-written.  There are some real gems of insight here, and there is a certain segment of the reading population that will love this one.  Wit and a certain rawness are present throughout the novel.  It just wasn’t enough to sustain the novel to its inevitable (and predictable) conclusion.

Also, the sudden veering into magical realism near the end felt like a way to add some safety netting to the conclusion, which harmed the emotional impact.  Not all readers will feel that way, though.

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder. Razorbill: 2014. 

Book Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Alice is diagnosed with leukemia and finally accepts the fact that she’s not going to live a long life.  She convinces her best friend Harvey, who has been in love with her forever, to help her fulfill a bunch of her bucket-list items.  These include things such as revenge on an ex-boyfriend, random acts of kindness, and a bunch of other important life stuff.  But just when she feels like she’s ready to peace out, she gets startling news: she’s in remission.  Her parents are thrilled; Harvey is overjoyed and cautiously hopeful that they can finally be together.  But Alice is at a loss at how to start living like she isn’t dying.  Can she repair the damage she’s done to those around her, and can she even allow herself to be the kind of vulnerable she’ll need to be in order to be with Harvey?

Julie Murphy’s just the latest author to offer readers a book about a teen with cancer, but she takes that trope and turns it on its ear.  Instead of having Alice lament the fact that she’s dying, Murphy jumps forward, for the most part, to where Alice has accepted it and is making peace with her time that’s left.  The result is a prickly, acerbic heroine who isn’t always the most likable of protagonists.  But it works, because Murphy is firmly in control of her characters and the narrative.

The book alternates between narration from Alice and her best friend Harvey.  Both voices work and are distinct enough that readers shouldn’t confuse the two.  However, the narrative demands extra attention because the two of them switch back and forth between the “then” and the “now” of the story, forcing readers to keep two different timelines in their heads.  Because Murphy is a strong enough reader, this largely works.  The fact that the characters are very real and authentic versions of themselves helps further this device.

Alice is a complex character, which is why she works on the page.  If Alice were only a revenge-seeking superbrat, readers would grow tired of her antics very quickly.  She’s not the nicest person, and she recognizes it fully. Her ability to be completely honest with herself elevates her characterization.  She’s kind of the worst, and she knows it–but she’s also dealing with the very real, very looming threat of the cancer coming back at any moment.  This makes everything about her situation all the more raw, moving, and honest.

This one is a stand-out in the cancer book genre (is that a thing?).  Murphy is a talented writer who has crafted very real teens with a narrative worth telling.  Readers will be glued to the book’s hopeful end, wondering what will come next for these incredibly well-rendered characters.  Recommended.

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy. Harper Collins/Balzer + Bray: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

What begins as an assignment for English class spirals into something much more for Laurel.  She was supposed to write a letter to a dad person, and she ends up writing a ton of letters to a bunch of dead people.  She starts with Kurt Cobain, because her sister May loved him so much.  And they both died young, so it felt symmetrical.  But then Laurel starts writing to other people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger.  As she writes these letters, she spills her secrets, long kept to herself, about what happened the night May died.

An eye-catching cover, intriguing title, and interesting premise can’t save this book from its overwritten, uneven execution.  Epistolary novels are always difficult because they’re inherently one-sided.  An epistolary novel where the letter recipients can’t even write back because they are dead is decidedly even more one-sided.  While there is some good here: Laurel is an introspective girl who makes for a mostly-authentic narrator, the book gets bogged down in its own telling, making for a slog of a read.

The result is kind of boring, as much as it pains me to say it.  There’s something gimmicky about the execution of the book, too, although it’s hard to place what it is, exactly, that makes it feel this way.  Perhaps its the feeling of nostalgia that winds its way through the narrative?  It feels disingenuous?  Not all readers will pick up on this, but more will find themselves frustrated by how slowly Laurel reveals herself.

That is a large part of the book’s problem, too: Laurel is so slow to give readers a glimpse into her tragic past that by the time she arrives at the night May died, the ending of the book feels rushed.  It makes for a jarring end to a novel that is otherwise incredibly slow and deliberate.  Tighter editing would have helped with this; the book feels overly long at just over 300 pages.

Perhaps the most distracting aspect of this novel is how similar in tone and execution it is to Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This is compounded by the fact that Chbosky blurbed this one.  It might find some readers who don’t mind the slow-as-molasses pace, but this is definitely not a stand-out.

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

Book Review: And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

Emily Beam’s high school boyfriend shot himself in front of her in their high school library.  Reeling in the aftermath, Emily’s parents ship her off to boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts.  There, she starts to rebuild her life through reading and writing poetry like her idol, Emily Dickinson.  Over the course of the next few months, Emily lets herself heal with the help of the ghost of Dickinson, as well as some very real friends.

Darker in tone and much more contemplative than it first appears, Jenny Hubbard’s thoughtful, memorable book weaves together Emily’s past and present worlds as she seeks answers and peace from the traumatic events that haunt her.  Lyrical, moving, and full of lush poetry, this is a case where the poems in the book add strength to the narrative and its characters as opposed to taking away from those elements.

Hubbard chooses to alternate between Emily’s present at the boarding school and her past with her boyfriend, Paul.  The flashbacks to the past help add dimension to Emily’s current state, and her poetry, written in the present environment, add meaning as she finds new perspective on her life.  This is a layered story, and the texture is complex.  This is going to work better for sophisticated readers than it is for reluctant or struggling ones.

One minor nitpick: Hubbard chooses to set her story in 1995, which wouldn’t be an issue at all if the reader wasn’t constantly confronted with the date.  While it seems as though Hubbard picked this date because it’s close enough to present day to relate to most teens but far back enough to not deal with cell phones and the internet, something about it stuck in my craw.  I kept finding myself distracted by the chosen date, which takes away from how absolutely beautiful the novel is.

Although it will have limited appeal, it should still find an audience.  This is smart, thoughtful, YA, and it doesn’t offer its readers any easy outs.  Recommended.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard. Delacorte Press: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Seven stories, spanning years, intersect in this novel.  All seven stories–featuring all sorts of different characters, including a pilot, a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a king–take place on a remote Scandinavian island called Blessed where there’s a mysterious plant resembling a dragon.  What do all these stories have in common?

Midwinterblood has received a great deal of press in the last year, and rightfully so.  It’s an ambitious novel, and it’s memorable, without a doubt.  Just trying to summarize the plot above was no easy feat.  Heaped with critical praise, this is going to be one that divides readers: they’re either going to “get” it, or they aren’t.

I fall into the latter category.  Try as I might, I never fully connected with this one.  It could be that the hype machine got to me and I was never going to love it as much as I felt like I should, or it could be that it simply didn’t work for me.  What I do know is this: the writing is impeccable, the characters are fascinating, and the premise itself is compelling.  But it never came together for me.

While the characters are definitely fascinating, the reader never spends enough time with any of them to fully grasp what is happening or what their motivations are.  There’s this creeping feeling throughout the novel, and while that in itself should keep the pages turning for most readers, there wasn’t enough substance here for me to walk away feeling sated.

That being said, the writing is excellent.  Sedgwick writes each section of the story with an intriguing, haunting prose that hooks the reader.  The creeping feeling of dread that permeates the pages is due in large part to his talent, and even the most skeptical reader will have a hard time overlooking that.

It might be that this is a novel that demands a second or third read-through, but for the time being, I’m left wondering, “Yeah, and?”

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press: 2013. Library copy.

Book Review: Goodbye, Rebel Blue by Shelley Coriell

Rebecca “Rebel” Blue is an artsy girl with an attitude on the day she has an interaction with Kennedy Green, a soon-to-be-dead girl.  Rebel decides to complete Kennedy’s bucket list to prove something to herself, but it isn’t long before she starts to realize that the person being fulfilled by these activities is herself.  She opens up slowly to the people around her and to life’s funny coincidences.

Memorable characters help elevate Coriell’s sophomore effort from other novels with the same types of tropes.  Although the novel doesn’t exactly break new ground when it comes to plot, the vivid characters and Rebel’s authentic voice should hook readers.  A fairly tame love interest and even tamer language make this a safe bet for teens of all ages.

Rebel’s voice is authentic, and her pain and disillusionment with the world feel real.  She’s snarky and smart but not living up to her potential, and Coriell plays with that in a realistic way.  The fact that Rebel visibly grows throughout the course of the novel will resonate with readers.  It’s hard not to root for her as she completes items on Kennedy’s list.

Secondary characters help flesh out the story.  Rebel finds herself attracted to a do-gooder named Nate, and their blossoming relationship is predictable but satisfying.  Her growing relationship with her family is well done, as well.

There’s not a lot of new ground here, and I’m not sure that this book has a lot of staying power in reader’s minds, but it’s inspiring enough and well written enough to be recommended to fans of contemporary YA who like their heroines prickly and their journeys bittersweet.

Goodbye, Rebel Blue by Shelley Coriell. Harry N. Abrams: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

 

Book Review: No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale

Friendship, Wisconsin is your average small town.  Everyone knows everyone, and people are generally friendly.  It’s a safe place until high schooler Ruth Fried is found murdered in a gruesome way in the middle of a cornfield.  What was once a peaceful place is rocked to its core in the aftermath of the murder.  Especially in the case of Kippy Bushman, who was Ruth’s best friend. So imagine her horror when the local police seem content with the first suspect that comes along, despite evidence–including Ruth’s salacious diary–to the contrary.  So it’s up to her to solve her friend’s murder and avenge her death.

Kathleen Hale’s ambitious debut YA novel doesn’t quite reach its goals, but it’s not for lack of trying.  Combining elements of suspense, mystery, and satire, this novel’s aims are high, but it stumbles more often than it soars, to borrow a terribly trite phrase.  Although there’s some genuinely good stuff here–Kippy is a memorable character in all her awkwardness, and some of the secondary characters are diverting–it isn’t enough to keep this novel from getting bogged down in its own plot.

That is, perhaps, the novel’s greatest problem.  The pacing is off throughout this twisty mystery because there’s too much plot thrown in.  An abundance of red herrings can certainly keep readers guessing, but when the plot goes down one dead-ends and side-stories, the result is a slow mess.  In fact, Kippy’s venture into an institution threatens to derail the entire story.  Where was the editor on this?

A skewering of mid-west culture is at times spot on (potluck, bratwurst, etc) and at other times woefully overdone (this reader could have done with far less of the “don’tcha knows”).  Is this Fargo or is this a novel for teens?  At any rate, some readers won’t be tripped up by the stalling plot, but others will just want Kippy to get on with it already.

Disappointing, but it’s clear that the DNA of the story had serious promise.  Hale will be an author to watch.

No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale.  HarperTeen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Macallan and Levi have been friends for practically forever.  Even though everyone claims that a guy and a girl can’t be just friends, these two are out to prove them wrong.  They are just friends, and they share practically everything.  But their close friendship means that they keep tripping the other one up when it comes to matters of the heart.  So are they better of as friends, or are they destined to be together?

Hailed as an homage to the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally, everything about this gimmicky, treacly-sweet novel doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Although there’s plenty of squeaky-clean romance to be found here (parents who want their teens reading the most filtered, scrubbed-sterile fiction will find a friend in this book) that might appeal to younger readers looking for a bubbly, predictable romance, there are better offerings out there.  This one disappoints at every turn, starting with its tenuous-at-best connection to the smart, funny movie it takes its premise from.

Although it isn’t spelled out from the start, it’s clear early on that Macallan and Levi, who narrate the story in alternating chapters from both present and past, are going to end up together.  So, spoiler alert: they aren’t better off friends.  Because it’s so clear, so early on, that these two are going to eventually hook up, there’s no dramatic tension whatsoever to keep the story engaging.  Unfortunately there isn’t any levity to any other parts of the novel to keep it fresh.  Although a couple of more serious issues are touched on, they aren’t given any depth and therefore aren’t impactful.

The book’s issues are myriad, but one that rankled this reviewer was how clean the teens were when it came to pretty much everything, but especially language.  There’s not any swearing in this one, making it helicopter-parent friendly but not very realistic.  At one point, a teen says something about their “rear,” and it’s jarring.  Not all readers will be bothered by this, and in fact some might find comfort in how gentle it is, but it doesn’t make for very resonant reading.

Disappointing, but sure to find an audience somewhere.  Recommend this one to fans of Susane Colasanti and the like.

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg. Scholastic/Point: 2014. Library copy.