Waiting on Wednesday: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

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 Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henriquez

Expected Release Date: June 3, 2014

A dazzling, heartbreaking page-turner destined for breakout status: a novel that gives voice to millions of Americans as it tells the story of the love between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl: teenagers living in an apartment block of immigrant families like their own.

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.

(summary via Goodreads)

This one is on my radar for a lot of reasons: it looks great, I love the fact that the description calls it “unsentimental,” it’s by a female author and features characters of color.  There’s been a lot of great discussion lately about diversity (read: reflecting reality) in books lately, and this is the kind of novel that’s a step in the right direction.  So I can’t wait to read this one.

What are you waiting on this week?

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. 

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.

Books that Stick to Your Ribs

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the books that stay with you long after you’ve finished them.  This could be anywhere on the spectrum of Emotional Reactions to Things You Have Read (this isn’t a real thing, yet) : it could be books you hated to your very core, or it could be books you loved so much that you feel actual heartbreak when they’re finished.  For me, the books that stick to my ribs are the ones that I either love so much it hurts, or they’re the ones that challenge me to think differently about the world.  These are not mutually exclusive criteria.  They overlap, sometimes.  Here are a few of the books that come to mind when I think of the books that have stayed with me and even shaped me (as a person and a reader, natch).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I first read this book in high school, and I revisited it in college when I took a (terrible) freshman-level English class that the instructor turned into a dystopian-themed course (because that’s what his dissertation was on, obviously).  I loved the book when I first read it and found the entire thing incredibly haunting.  When I revisited it as a depressed, displaced 20-year-old (I refer to my early college days as my “Dark Days,” and that, my friends, is a story for another time), I found that I still loved it, but that I also identified with it in new ways.

Like Offred, I felt incredibly stifled by my life and longed for the days gone by, when things were easier and freer.  Obviously I wasn’t living in a patriarchal society in which women weren’t allowed to read and the few fertile women were sold to powerful older men to basically be Baby Machines, but there were aspects of the book that stood out to me I had missed the first time through.  I suspect if I were to revisit the book now, nearly 10 years later, I would find other things.

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty: This one is harder to explain, mostly because my relationship to it is more complicated than my relationship to the other books on this list.  I first came across McCafferty’s funny, achingly real Sloppy Firsts when I was 19 or so.  My cousin had recommended it.  Although it can sometimes be found in the adult fiction section, it is definitely YA, and at that point in time, I didn’t read YA, I didn’t understand YA, and we weren’t yet in the publishing boom that is YA today.  So my frame of reference was super warped and limited.

I remember reading this book and staying up all night to finish it, because Jessica Darling and I were, like, totally the same girl.  I mean, not even remotely at all the same girl, because I didn’t run track and I definitely didn’t have anyone as challenging or intriguing as Marcus Flutie interested in me, but apart from that, we were totally the same person.  Before reading Sloppy Firsts, I had no idea that YA fiction could be so great, that YA fiction could be funny and really smart and so real that sometimes it was like holding up a mirror to myself.  Before this, my frame of reference for what YA books looked like was Sweet Valley High novels.  So this revolutionized my view of books and reading.

I credit McCafferty for being my gateway author into the weird, wonderful, rich world of YA.  If you’ve spent a second of time with me in real life, read my Twitter, or taken a look at my blog, you know that YA fiction is where my passion is.  So this book—this entire series, really—has stuck with me and shaped me into the passionate (sometimes crazy) reader that I am today.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver: I like to joke about this one, because it might be the book that took me the longest time to read, like, ever.  By the time I finished Shriver’s smart, thoughtful, Sliding Doors-esque novel about a woman with two different timelines splitting off from one moment in her life, I’d been reading the book for close to a year.  I’d read some, put it down, and come back to it sometime later.  I didn’t start over.  I just kept going.

Shriver’s book really is excellent—and I remember that at the time I couldn’t believe how immersed I’d become in these characters’ lives only to drop them again without really meaning to.  But it would happen, again and again.  And yet, I kept coming back to the novel.  I found myself thinking about the characters during those in-between times, which must mean something.

Here’s the thing: I read The Post-Birthday world years ago, back before I started blogging and reviewing books.  I’ve read literally hundreds of books since then.  But I still think about Irina and Lawrence and Ramsey Acton (you have to say his full name, because reasons).  I still wonder about those richly drawn characters, and I feel this weird pull to revisit them now.  I’m closer in age to them than I was when I read it originally.  Would I root for one of Irina’s timelines more than I did before?  How would my growth as a person impact my reading of it if I were to pick this one back up now?

That’s the thing about books that stick with you: they change as you change.

Sometimes My Book Club Makes Me Feel Like a (Book) Hater

if-i-hate-it-when-i-hate-it-am-i-a-hater

I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always loved writing.  I grew up in a house where both activities were encouraged greatly: my mother is an English professor and instilled in me a love of reading and writing.  Although I’ve kept a journal of some form since I was little, both online and off, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I married two of my favorite activities and starting writing about books.

When I started my (current) blog nearly five years ago, it didn’t really have a focus.  But it didn’t take long for me to start recognizing a pattern in my own posting: I was writing about books, movies, and TV.  Since then, my writing has honed in on the aspects of books, reading, and popular culture that I’m most passionate about.  Like many other book-lovers, I read voraciously.  As a result of reading books, reading about books, and writing about books, my relationship to how I think and talk about books has been altered dramatically.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how true that actually is.  This past year, I joined a book club, something I’ve always wanted to try.  In the interest of full disclosure, it’s a casual book club on its best day: about half the members show up each month, and we mostly drink wine and talk about everything except for the book.  But we do spend at least a portion of the evening (sometimes only 10-15 minutes) talking about the book.  And my responses to the text—no matter what we’ve read that week—are markedly different from the other women’s.

I don’t mean to say that what the other people in the book club have to say about the book isn’t valid or thoughtful or smart—because these are smart, very educated women—but that the way they talk about the books is completely different from how I talk about the books.

Some of them come armed with a couple notes about the text; I’ve been known to show up with the book bursting at the seams with post-its and pages of highlighted hand-written thoughts (the highlights are useful for finding the most important bits after my second glass of wine).  While they talk about how they enjoyed the book or not, I talk about the fact that the writing was weak, that the author continually told the readers instead of showing them things, that the plot was contrived, the dialogue stilted, and that the plot holes were gaping.

“I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this next one,” one of the women said to me a few months ago.  “You always have such a strong reaction to what we read.”

At the time, I sort of laughed it off.  But then what she said started to worry me, ever so slightly.

Is it because she thinks of me as a hater?  I hope not.  I haven’t loved everything that we’ve chosen to read in the club, but isn’t that the point of something like this?  Reading outside of your comfort zone?  Picking titles that you wouldn’t otherwise have even glanced at and getting to hear different perspectives on what worked or didn’t?

Is my intense reaction to what we read because I write about books and because my job (as a librarian) largely revolves around books, reading, and evaluative thought?  Could it be because I’m a reactionary person (I totally am, ask anyone who has had a conversation with me longer than 5 minutes) and feel things intensely?  Or am I really just a hater, determined to find something to criticize, even in books I love?

I’ve struggled with this thought for a while now, even going so far as to write about it my (private, paper) journal.  I don’t have any answers that I find wholly satisfying, but I do know this:

  • Writing about books has made me a stronger reader because it helps me develop the vocabulary and critical thinking skills necessary to really think hard about books.
  • Writing about books has made me a stronger writer because the more you practice something, the better you get at it, duh.  (I’m still waiting for this “practice makes you better” thing to apply to my ability to cross stitch, but I hear patience is a virtue or something.)
  • Writing about books has made me a better, more resilient reader, one who is unafraid to take risks, tackle challenging books, and confront my assumptions about books and reading head-on.

So, there’s that.  Maybe because I write about books and regularly engage with other readers who write about books, I approach reading differently than the women in this book club.  Maybe?

Or maybe I’m just really a hater.  Even when it comes to my favorite material thing in the world: books.

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

I took an unintentional hiatus last week because I took a few days off work (and subsequently from blogging), but I’m back this week with the things I’ve read this week that made me think.

The F Word: Inside Amy Schumer, the Most Sneakily Feminist Show on TV (Slate)

I actually saw Amy Schumer last week when she was in the Twin Cities for her stand-up tour, and she was amazing.  She’s definitely got the gross-out humor thing going for her, but there’s also something really subversive about her comedy.  I loved every second she was on stage (although the gentleman behind us didn’t much care for her abortion jokes, which made me wonder why, exactly, he was at an Amy Schumer show), and I love her show.  I’m so glad that the show was renewed for a second season, which just started.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, I encourage you to do so (the show airs on Comedy Central, you can watch clips on their website or Youtube, and the first season is streaming on Amazon Prime).

This sums up Schumer’s subversion pretty well:

Schumer hides her intellect in artifice and lip gloss—that’s how she performs femininity. By wrapping her ideas in a ditzy, sexy, slutty, self-hating shtick, her message goes down easy—and only then, like the alien, sticks its opinionated teeth in you.

And this stuck out:

The best sketch of the new season has Schumer playing a video game not unlike Call of Duty with a male friend. Schumer picks a female avatar—the friend grimaces at this—who, in the game, is raped by her superior. The guy Schumer is playing with doesn’t believe that it happened. Schumer must have “done something wrong.” Meanwhile, the game starts bullying her—“You were just assaulted by a fellow solider. Do you wish to report?” “Yes.” “Are you sure? Did you know he has a family? Does that change your mind about reporting?”—before sending her to Level 25, which is all paperwork.

You can’t argue that what she’s doing isn’t important or smart, because it is.  I love her, unabashedly so.

A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction (Book Riot)

I’ve actually been sitting on this link for a while, but I had to include it because I think Kelly Jensen writes such smart, interesting stuff about YA and librarianship and gender politics.  Everything in this article is great–S.E. Hinton paving the way for YA literature but doing it with only her initials because she would be dismissed by male critics if they knew she was a woman, the fact that the books most challenged are written by women, etc.–and it’s well worth your time.

Jensen writes:

Call them by any name you want, but these challenges stem from fears about girls’ stories coming to the front and being told. Men have their novels challenged, too, but less frequently and, more likely than not, for reasons similar to why women’s novels are: the fear of something different (anything outside the “mainstream” white, straight male standard). Blume has more titles on the most-challenged list than any other author — even Robert Cormier could only muster three — because being female and writing about issues girls face are challenge- and ban- worthy actions indeed.

She also makes this point, which is something that’s been talked about a lot recently:

Men write universal stories. Women write stories for girls. Men write Literature. Women write chick lit. Even in a world where women do publish in heavier numbers than men do, they are underscored, underseen, and undervalued. Twilight is and will remain a crucial part of YA’s history — YA’s female-driven history — despite or in spite of the fact it doesn’t garner the same praises that those held up as idols within the community do. Men like John Green become symbols of YA’s forward progress and Seriousness as a category, whereas Stephenie Meyer gets to be a punchline.

Anyway, read it.  Be incensed.  Think about the larger issues at play.

5 Biblical Films That Sparked a Religious Backlash (Alternet)  

To be completely honest, I don’t have any interest in the Noah movie.  I’m not a religious person.  I think that biblical epics like this one, featuring a bunch of white people, are totally ridiculous.  The reviews on this one have been pretty mixed (with many critics coming down on the “It’s a trash heap” side of things), and I honestly thought that it was supposed to be a movie pandering to the fundies.  But apparently not? Because they’re actually sort of up in arms about it?  In a hilarious way?

This article talks a little bit about the Noah film, but it also lists a few other films that have been super controversial for the Christian right.  It’s worth a look, I guess.

 

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.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

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:

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Expected Release Date: May 15, 2014

A love letter to the craft and romance of film and fate in front of—and behind—the camera from the award-winning author of Hold Still.

A wunderkind young set designer, Emi has already started to find her way in the competitive Hollywood film world.

Emi is a film buff and a true romantic, but her real-life relationships are a mess. She has desperately gone back to the same girl too many times to mention. But then a mysterious letter from a silver screen legend leads Emi to Ava. Ava is unlike anyone Emi has ever met. She has a tumultuous, not-so-glamorous past, and lives an unconventional life. She’s enigmatic…. She’s beautiful. And she is about to expand Emi’s understanding of family, acceptance, and true romance.

(Summary via Goodreads)

I didn’t love LaCour’s The Disenchantments, but I definitely understood the appeal and thought that LaCour had that something.  So there was never any doubt that I’d come back to her work at some point.  This offering looks like the perfect place for me to revisit LaCour as an author, because it’s right up my alley: film, Hollywood, coming-of-age.  Sold.  This looks like it has the potential to be a great GLBT novel for the YA world, and will likely have some crossover appeal, too.

What are you waiting on this week?