Waiting on Wednesday: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Expected Release Date: May 27, 2014

We understand stuff. We just learn it slow. And most of what we understand is that people what ain’t Speddies think we too stupid to get out our own way. And that makes me mad.

Quincy and Biddy are both graduates of their high school’s special ed program, but they couldn’t be more different: suspicious Quincy faces the world with her fists up, while gentle Biddy is frightened to step outside her front door. When they’re thrown together as roommates in their first “real world” apartment, it initially seems to be an uneasy fit. But as Biddy’s past resurfaces and Quincy faces a harrowing experience that no one should have to go through alone, the two of them realize that they might have more in common than they thought — and more important, that they might be able to help each other move forward.

Hard-hitting and compassionate, Girls Like Us is a story about growing up in a world that can be cruel, and finding the strength — and the support — to carry on.

(summary via Goodreads)

Being put out by Candlewick this May, Gail Giles’s novel is about a couple of teens in special education.  There are a lot of things that I love about this novel already: it’s literature of inclusion featuring characters that are virtually invisible in most YA lit these days; it takes place at the older end of the YA spectrum (my favorite range), and it’s being published by one of the companies that I think is taking some of the greatest risks with YA.

I can’t wait to read this one.  Can’t wait.

What are you waiting on this week?

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: 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.


Waiting on Wednesday: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Expected Release Date: April 10, 2014

Theo is better now.

She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.

(summary via Goodreads)

There’s a lot to unpack here, despite the very short summary.  I like that this novel’s summary doesn’t give away the plot, because lately, I feel like I can tell what the entire book will be based on its description.  But this one seems to be pretty layered, and I’m hoping that it’s as nuanced as it hints at being.  It’s definitely going to be a dark one, that’s for sure.

I love that it’s about ballet, at least partially, and I’m looking forward to figuring out how that gets worked into the other parts of the plot.  Or if it does at all.

What are you waiting on this week?

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

I’ve got some heavy stuff for you this week.  Without further ado, these are the things I’ve been reading and thinking about this week.

‘I Don’t Want My Children to Go to College’ (The Atlantic)

So, okay.  So.  Back in 2013, during a public conversation between Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg, the topic of the flaws in the traditional college model came up.  Steinberg, in a moment of sheer unadultarated genius (one I’m sure he’ll never regret at all ever), said that he doesn’t even want his kids to go to college.  Wait. It gets better:

Said Schmidt: “The purpose of college… has a lot to do with, not learning about education but learning how to live on your own and so forth…. The core question is what to do with 18-year-olds and the best thing to do is to put them in college until they’re 22. We’ve [got] sort of a warehousing problem.” …Slaughter mentioned that her son, a junior in high school, is mulling college but has also “learned more from the [free educational site] Khan Academy, in many ways, than he has in class.”  She adds it’s becoming more common for students to take time off before attending college. “These kids are sort of thinking, ‘But I can learn what I need to learn online.’ … That sense that, ‘If I don’t go to college between 18 and 22, I won’t make it,’ is really changing.”

Is this a conversation about privilege, or is this REALLY a conversation about privilege?  The dilemma (if you can even call it that) for the children of THESE INCREDIBLY WEALTHY, PRIVILEGED, AND IVY-EDUCATED PEOPLE is whether or not they should go to college at all.  The idea that this “mulling” process is the norm for 99% of America (and the world) is so utterly ridiculous that it makes me physically angry.

Luckily, Stacia L. Brown (yes, the same woman whose blog I linked to above), seems to understand where I’m coming from:

In the larger country in which we live, however, first-generation college students still make up about 30 percent of freshman classes each year. First-gen college students find it difficult to adjust to most post-secondary learning without dedicated mentorship. Low-income first gens are four times more likely to leave college after the first year than their multi-generation peers…Students like mine could not be tossed into the deep end of MOOC without having first spent whole semesters sitting at shared desks, raising their hands, and exchanging their writing among teachers, tutors, and peers.

Imagine how it must feel for them, hearing that this pinnacle toward which their families have urgently and hopefully pushed them is now considered all but obsolete by the titans of industry they believe are stakeholders in their future.

That last part is what made me actually tear up in frustration.  Because those are the student populations I have been working with my entire professional career, first as a high school teacher and now as an academic librarian.  Because this idea that a person can learn everything they need to know online is so privileged and ignorant that it makes me CRAZY.  Because learning online means that students lose out on so many other important things that come with the traditional college model.

What is Rape Culture? (Buzzfeed)

I have definite BuzzFeed fatigue, but this compilation about what rape culture is is too good to pass up.  I’m not going to stop talking about rape culture until we don’t live in one, guys, so you might as well get used to it.  If you only ever read one piece about what rape culture is, this is it.  It’s accessible, it’s short, and it’s on point.  It’s also really, really important for us to keep talking about this and what it means.

Yes, this list of what rape culture is includes “gray rape,” victim blaming, slut shaming, anti-rape wear, and street harassment.  No, I’m not going to argue with you that some of these things aren’t part of rape culture, because they are.  Read the article.

The Rapist Next Door (CNN)

This is really interesting long-form journalism from CNN about the prevalence of rape in Alaska, and why its numbers are so much higher than other parts of the country.  It tackles the case of one rapist, an indigenous man who is undergoing a great deal of cognitive behavioral therapy as well as continuing to live in his community. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking and well worth your time.  Here’s a snippet:

There was a time when politicians in Alaska argued rape survivors were simply reporting rape more often in this state than elsewhere. Those arguments, however, have been largely abandoned as the scope of the violence has become clearer. If anything, the taboos surrounding rape here would suggest that the crime is underreported in Alaska, relative to other states.

There’s so much at play here: economics, social class, race, imperialism, alcoholism, systemic abuse.

We Have Known Boys But None Have Been Bullet-Proof (Stacia L. Brown)

I’ve been following the news coverage of the murder of Jordan Brown pretty obsessively this week, and this is the most beautiful, haunting piece about racialized violence in America that I’ve seen in a long time.

If you don’t know who Jordan Brown was or what happened to him, I encourage you to do some reading about it.  Get angry.  Get angry about the fact that it happened two years ago and is only really seeing news coverage now.  Get angry about the fact that Florida’s fucked-up, COMPLETELY AND UNAPOLOGETICALLY RACIST “stand your ground” law is KILLING PEOPLE.  YOUNG PEOPLE. TEENAGERS.

In Praise of Disregard (NYT)

One of the friends with whom I regularly dissect articles on the internet sent me this one in response to some other stuff I sent her this week, and I’m trying to adopt it as my new philosophy.  The premise is simple:

In the past, it was easier to avoid what you didn’t need to hear. Today, it requires a concerted effort to do so, and it still isn’t possible to sidestep troubling views altogether. In addition, most public speech can now be commented on, and often is, thanks to the web. Recent years have confirmed that when things can be commented on, especially anonymously, people often become the worst versions of themselves. The opinions of others washing over us is the inescapable state of things today.

But it is possible to subdue those ideas that do violence to us. Ideas are given credence only when they are entertained. By disregardingthem, we can erode much of their influence.

As I was reading it, I started to worry a little bit.  “What about the things that actually matter?  Do I ignore those, too, even if people are being totally bigoted ignoramuses?”  But, no.  That’s not the point.  The point is to tune out the garbage so you can care about the stuff that matters to you.  And that is something I can get behind:

It is important to be sure that the ideas you want to eliminate from existence aren’t those that would have spurred you to action in your actual life. For example, if getting angry about the retrogression of women’s rights or about the increasing margin between rich and poor could impel you to get involved in your community to change these things, then, by all means, let the negative feelings fuel you. But many of the ideas we encounter, especially when rehashed in ever more amplified ways, serve only to distract us from the real issues. In a gesture of good faith and honesty with yourself, identify what you know you will never actually do anything about and eliminate it from your field of thought.

So, I’m working on it.  That stupid BuzzFeed video about being ladylike that irritated me this morning on Facebook? Letting it go.  A couple of people on Facebook who literally post every article whose headline they have read but CLEARLY DID NOT READ THE ACTUAL CONTENT who make me RAGEY? Letting it go, because they are dumb, insignificant, and possibly functionally illiterate, given their regular status updates.  I’m going to try to let things go, because damn do I have a lot of feelings about a lot of things.

What articles got you thinking this week?

Book Review: When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

Danny’s mom died after a years-long battle with cancer right before he graduated from high school.  It was the event that she was hanging on to see.  Now he’s left alone, in a big house with his faithful dog and memories of the way his family used to be.  He’s unsure what to do with the estate his mom has left, and then he gets a letter from the property manager in Tokyo, and Danny is stunned by the letter’s revelations about how happy his mother was in her final days while in Tokyo.  Danny decides to go to Tokyo and try to find peace in his mother’s death, as well as answer the lingering questions he has about how she lived her life.

Daisy Whitney’s moving, authentic novel about the loss of a parent is a standout of a novel.  Contemplative, and often quite quiet, the novel tackles all sorts of issues, including death, loss, grief, transracial adoption, drug abuse, and growing up.  If this sounds like too much, rest assured that it’s handled gracefully, and the issues never overwhelm the narrative, which stays strongly focused on Danny’s attempts to heal.  There’s some expert balance here, and it pays off.

It helps that Danny’s voice is achingly authentic.  Whitney nails the male voice here, and Danny’s emptiness at the beginning of the novel is absolutely palpable. He’s angry but also feels nearly nothing, and Whitney doesn’t shy away from that.  She allows Danny to feel what he does, and she doesn’t cast judgment on him as he self-medicates with pain killers.  His slow evolution to healing is masterfully done.

The overarching theme of this novel is love, and readers get it in spades from Danny when he thinks about his mom.  Readers also get it from the supporting characters when they talk about Danny’s mom with him.  This was a woman who loved her children fiercely, and that love is clearly on display throughout the book, despite her absence from the pages.  Whitney takes real care with her characters, and it shows.

It helps that Kana’s spunk balances out Danny’s morose outlook.  Once he hooks up with the plucky teen in Tokyo, the story really takes off, allowing the reader access to a very foreign culture.  Their dynamic is great, and Kana is a well-rounded secondary character it’s impossible not to love.  The characters are ultimately what drive this story, and they drive it well.

A refreshing look at a boy’s love for his mother, this one is not to be missed.

When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney. Little, Brown: 2013.

Waiting on Wednesday: The End Or Something Like That by Ann Dee Ellis

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

The End or Something Like That by Ann Dee Ellis

Expected Release Date: May 1, 2014

Emmy’s best friend Kim had promised to visit from the afterlife after she died. But so far Kim hasn’t shown up even once. Emmy blames herself for not believing hard enough. Finally, as the one-year anniversary of Kim’s death approaches, Emmy is visited by a ghost—but it’s not Kim. It’s Emmy’s awful dead science teacher.

Emmy can’t help but think that she’s failed at being a true friend. But as more ghosts appear, she starts to realize that she’s not alone in her pain. Kim would have wanted her to move forward—and to do that, Emmy needs to start letting go.

(summary via Goodreads)

There are certainly no shortage of books with characters who see dead people, but this one looks like it’s going to be pretty sweet.  I’m all about  a well-executed novel about moving on from loss and dealing with grief, and if the magical realism is done well, I’ll be a happy camper.

What are you waiting on this week?

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

These are the articles I’ve been reading and thinking about this week.  Let’s get to it.

The Gaslight District: The Dangerous Precedents Being Set By the Woody Allen Molestation Case (Pajiba)

Honestly, guys, I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing about it, because like this article states, you should be sick over this issue.  You should, because it’s disgusting what’s happening.  We need to be talking about this, because when we don’t talk about these things, we set the precedents talked about in this article, and we reinforce everything that we allow in a rape culture.

There’s a lot at play here, and there’s a lot to unpack.  Biological vs. adoptive parents, victim blaming, the concept of a vindictive mother, etc.  All of these things are worth talking about, but by wanting to quickly move on, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and the victims of sexual abuse.  This is an accessible article and it tackles all of those things.  Read it.

#SochiProblems is More of an Embarrassment for America Than For Russia (PolicyMic)

I’m not watching the Olympics because I literally don’t care and also because I don’t think we should be in Russia.  But my best friend sent me a link to a compilation of the best hashtags about the problems in Sochi, and my immediate response was, “This is fascinating because cultural privilege.”  And this article, whether you agree with it or not, is worth taking a look at.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone created a novelty Twitter account called @SochiProblems to document all the perceived mishaps that are happening in the city during the Olympics, but it is worth it to take a minute and think about the larger implications of that.  It’s malicious glee, and while I’m certainly guilty of feeling that way about certain pop culture events, it’s important to reflect on what that says about me (and the culture at large):

As faves and retweets on @SochiProblems explode, it’s clear that the meme is based on cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance: The posts reflect actual issues that directly impact the quality of life of Russia’s 143 million people…Most Russians don’t drink water from the sink due to fear of illness, and the ones who can’t afford bottled water just boil it and hope they don’t get sick. Only around half of Russians had access to drinking water that met reasonable health standards in 2002, according to Jean Lemierre, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. And the situation is still so bad that Putin himself admittedlast May that even he has dirty water running from his sink.

This article is definitely on the earnest side, but hopefully it also makes people stop and think for a second.  The #SochiProblems trend makes me super uncomfortable, and this helps me pinpoint why that is.

J.K. Rowling Did Make a Mistake, But it Wasn’t the Ron-Hermione Pairing (Book Riot)

Apart from sort of wishing that Rowling would stop talking about things that should have happened in her books that are already published in a series that is (probably) complete, I’ve stayed pretty far out of the latest reveal that Rowling thinks Harry and Hermione should have ended up together.  Mostly because I DO NOT CARE.  But this article is interesting, because it doesn’t really care about that, either.  Instead, it tackles one of the biggest issues that even hardcore fans have with Rowling’s books: that epilogue:

I still remember when I turned that final page and saw for the first time that Rowling had added an epilogue to Harry’s last book. It didn’t take more than few sentences for me to develop a sinking feeling in my stomach. What?, I thought, 7 books of plot twists and suddenly everyone marries their high school boyfriend and has adorable moppets who become friends with their high school friends’ similarly aged moppets!??! Even Draco Malfoy is there?

There’s also this:

It also feels like cheating. If you want to decide what happens to your characters, Rowling, you have to actually write it. It’s no fair summarizing all that time in the middle. You have to make it happen.

Whatever, this piece isn’t going to change the world or anything, but she definitely has a point.  It’s a fun diversion.

The 15 Most Hated Bands of the Last 30 Years (Salon)

I’m really good at hating things, so there’s no doubt that I’d love a list like this.  It’s totally silly and fun, but there’s also a kernel of truth to it.  Some highlights:

Nickelback, Creed (aka “Nickelback before there was Nickelback”), Lana Del Rey, etc. etc.

However, not including U2, my MOST HATED BAND PROBABLY EVER, feels like a great oversight.  You best believe they’re mentioned in the comments (and not by me, because they ARE THE WORST).

Does Length Matter? (Dear Author)

I include this not only because it’s a thoughtful, well-written piece, but because I think about this all the time.  One of J.s jokes about me is that my biggest and most frequent complaint about nearly every movie we watch together is that it’s “too long.” And in my defense, this is mostly true: movies are more bloated than ever before, and there are stats to back it up (you can Google this.  I’m too lazy).  I’m a firm believer in taking the amount of time you need to tell the story, but I often feel like movies, books, and even TV shows could be tighter in how they do this.  So yeah, I believe length matters.  Which is why this piece struck a chord with me.

Obviously, this is different for every reader, but there are some good reasons put forth here, and it’s worth a read if you like to read–no matter what the length of the book.

What did you read this week that got you thinking?