Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
Published June 1, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

"Don't worry, Anna. I'll tell her, okay? Just let me think about the best way to do it."
"Promise me? Promise you won't say anything?"
"Don't worry." I laughed. "It's our secret, right?"

According to her best friend Frankie, twenty days in Zanzibar Bay is the perfect opportunity to have a summer fling, and if they meet one boy ever day, there's a pretty good chance Anna will find her first summer romance. Anna lightheartedly agrees to the game, but there's something she hasn't told Frankie---she's already had that kind of romance, and it was with Frankie's older brother, Matt, just before his tragic death one year ago.

Beautifully written and emotionally honest, this is a debut novel that explores what it truly means to love someone and what it means to grieve, and ultimately, how to make the most of every single moment this world has to offer.

The title of this novel is unfortunate because when I first saw it on the (electronic) shelves of my library, it seemed to be a light bit of summer fluff. In actuality, this is a beautifully written rumination on death, grief, and love - romantic, friendship, and familial, as well as a coming of age story, and an ode to the ocean and summers spent by them.

Anna, the narrator, had long loved her male best friend, Matt, big brother to her female best friend, Frankie. On her birthday, the summer before the start of tenth grade, Matt kisses her, and thus begins a whirlwind secret relationship. Matt asks her to keep the relationship quiet, until he can figure out a way to tell Frankie/ Ockler captures the wonder and excitement of a new relationship:
"Does he like me, or was he just messing around? Will it happen again? How do we tell Frankie? Why did he say it’s our secret?"
Unfortunately, Matt dies in a car accident before he can tell Frankie. and Anna struggles with grieving his death and her competing commitments to her two best friends. The following summer, Anna joins Frankie and her parents at their annual beach holiday. It's the family's first trip without Matt, and there are poignant observations of how a family adjusts to a new reality. Simultaneously, boy-crazy Frankie thinks the trip is an excellent opportunity for Anna to lose her "albatross," aka virginity, and Anna's thoughts perfectly capture a teen wrestling with whether or not to reach this milestone:
"The whole idea of losing one’s virginity is kind of ridiculous. To lose something implies carelessness. A mistake that you can fix simply by recovering the lost object, like your cell phone or your glasses. Virginity is more like shedding something than losing it."
The writing is excellent, the dialogue snappy, the observations sharp. The heavy topic is lightened with by Anna's delightful voice, with her dry repartee with boy-crazy Frankie:
“Anna, no one will notice us if we’re wandering around in old-lady clothes. They’ll think we’re pregnant or something.”
“Rather than wanting to get us pregnant?”
Additionally, the educator in me appreciates the subtle vocabulary lessons:
“Don’t worry. He already said you can go. You just need to do some — oh, what’s that thing called — envisionation, I think.”
“Envisionation?” I ask.
“You know, where you think about the thing you want and just picture yourself getting it?” “Visualization, Frankie, and it’s not gonna work.”
I really enjoyed this book - this is one where I cried in some moments (and I'm generally not a crier) and laughed out loud in others. Oh and Sam? He makes the perfect summer (book) boyfriend.

Rating: 4 Stars

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: Long Way Home by Katie McGarry

Long Way Home by Katie McGarry
Published January 31, 2017 by Harlequin Teen

Seventeen-year-old Violet has always been expected to sit back and let the boys do all the saving.

It’s the code her father, a member of the Reign of Terror motorcycle club, raised her to live by. Yet when her dad is killed carrying out Terror business, Violet knows it’s up to her to do the saving. To protect herself, and her vulnerable younger brother, she needs to cut all ties with the club—including Chevy, the boy she’s known and loved her whole life.

But when a rival club comes after Violet, exposing old secrets and making new threats, she’s forced to question what she thought she knew about her father, the Reign of Terror, and what she thinks she wants. Which means re-evaluating everything: love, family, friends . . . and forgiveness.

Caught in the crosshairs between loyalty and freedom, Violet must decide whether old friends can be trusted—and if she’s strong enough to be the one person to save them all.

One of the many pleasures of reading is the opportunity to discover new worlds; that certainly is the case with Katie McGarry's books which has introduced me to life set in rural and small-town Kentucky, certainly different from my childhood spent in metropolitan Los Angeles and adulthood spent in urban Boston and Taipei. I've also learned about how it is to be raised in the foster system (Pushing the Limits), growing up with an drug-addicted parent (Dare You To), street racing and drag racing (Crash Into You), homelessness (Take Me On), and life as a drug dealer (Chasing Impossible). In all of her books, McGarry's protagonists struggle against being defined by their circumstances.

Katie McGarry's Thunder Road series centers around a motorcycle club, and Long Way Home is the third and last book of the series. Though each of the books in the series features strong female characters, both primary and secondary, I have struggled with understanding the Reign of Terror motorcycle club's attitude towards women and the role they play within the club. It's a fraternal organization in a patriarchal society, and while the men portrayed certainly love their female partners, women are literally not allowed a seat at decision-making table. In previous installments in the series, female characters worked around this structure to influence situations they weren't happy with.

Violet is perhaps McGarry's strongest female character yet, one is able to most clearly articulate what she believes is wrong about the structure and advocate for agency in her life. The daughter of a member of the club's leadership team, she blames the club for her father's death. As an insider who has now purposefully placed herself on the outside, this unique vantage point gives her a more insightful perspective of the club. Much of the arc of the novel is the conflict between Violet, her love Chevy, and the club's leader Eli as they struggle to balance the desire to protect out of love, with realizing that protection can be disempowering. At one point, Violet reflects, "I hate his way of caring, though. Hate how he controls. But how can you fully hate someone who does all the stupid things because that’s the way he loves?"

At the same time, Violet is not afraid to call out double-standards: "“Is that what I am? A traitor? When you protect your family, it’s called being an upstanding member of the club, but when I do it, I’m a traitor?”

Because Violet's not afraid to speak the truth and push against what she sees as inherent unfairness, Chevy and Eli also come away with a greater understanding of how to love in a empowering and respectful way. For these reasons, this is my favorite book of the series.

Rating: 4 Stars

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Transphobia: Deal with it and be a gender transcender by j wallace skelton

Published January 15, 2017 by Lorimer Publishing

Who do you think you are? Part of identity is how people experience their gender. Transphobia is intolerance of any part of the range of gender identity. This accessible, illustrated book offers information, quizzes, comics and true-to-life scenarios to help kids better understand gender identity and determine what they can do to identify and counter transphobia in their schools, homes and communities. Considered from the viewpoint of gender challengers, gender enforcers and witnesses, transphobic behavior is identified, examined and put into a context that kids can use to understand and accept themselves and others for whatever gender they are—even if that's no gender at all!

This is an excellent introduction to gender identity and expression, aimed at middle school grades and above, with comics, examples, quizzes, and lists of do's and don'ts that challenge readers to question assumptions about gender and sex, stereotypes, and the use of pronouns or chosen names. A short and accessible book, the illustrations take care to show diversity in gender, ethnicity, and abilities and the back of the book has links to further resources, such as helplines, other books, and organizations - though the information is Canadian-oriented, given that the publisher is Canadian. Transphobia: Deal with it is a timely guide that should be in every library, and also makes a great starting point in the classroom for discussions on gender (the publisher has a free teaching guide online).

I was given a electronic ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, thus the formatting of the comics and sidebar information was off, making following along with the accompanying text difficult. At present only a print edition is available for purchase.

Rating: 3 Stars

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

Published May 10, 2011 by Candlewick

Fifteen-year-old Virginia Shreves has a larger-than-average body and a plus-size inferiority complex, especially when she compares herself to her slim, brilliant, picture-perfect family. But that’s before a shocking phone call — and a horrifying allegation — about her rugby-star brother changes everything. With irreverent humor and surprising gravity, Carolyn Mackler creates an endearingly blunt heroine who speaks to every teen who struggles with family expectations, and proves that the most impressive achievement is to be true to yourself.

Young adults may find this book, originally published in 2003 and before the advent of smartphones, technologically quaint (teens write emails and speak to each other over the phone!). However, the voice of Virginia Shreves is still contemporary and spot-on, as she struggles to reconcile her body size, her best friend's move across the country, a potential romantic interest, and the recognition that other people may not be who they appear to be. The book also touches upon issues of eating disorders, self harm, and date rape, some more lightly than others. While the pacing is uneven (in the middle of the book, I wanted to shout, "I get it! Some people around her treat her really poorly!"), ultimately the novel ends on an uplifting note, and teens should find the narrative relatable and realistic.

Rating: 4 Stars

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Published October 28, 2014 by Dey Street Books

Do you want to get to know the woman we first came to love on Comedy Central's Upright Citizens Brigade? Do you want to spend some time with the lady who made you howl with laughter on Saturday Night Live, and in movies like Baby Mama, Blades of Glory, and They Came Together? Do you find yourself daydreaming about hanging out with the actor behind the brilliant Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation? Did you wish you were in the audience at the last two Golden Globes ceremonies, so you could bask in the hilarity of Amy's one-liners?

If your answer to these questions is "Yes Please!" then you are in luck. In her first book, one of our most beloved funny folk delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice. With chapters like "Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend," "Plain Girl Versus the Demon" and "The Robots Will Kill Us All" Yes Please will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, and righteous, Yes Please is full of words to live by.

I like Amy Poehler. I like that she is unapologetic about her ambition and work ethic, and I appreciate that she acknowledges that competition between women can be healthy and push us to achieve more, but she also isn't about pitting women against each other. I appreciate her honesty, her vulnerability, and her willingness to admit mistakes and speak hard truths. There is a lot to like about this book—the highlights in my Kindle ended up filling 9 pages.

Some favorite highlights:
"So here we go, you and me. Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly out of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready."
"It’s called Yes Please because it is the constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please."
"That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me."
"This essay is about apologies, and I have learned an important part of apologizing is not making excuses." 
"Anger and embarrassment are often neighbors. Sometimes we get defensive about what we feel guilty about." 
"Let’s end by pointing out all the positive ways you can scare yourself and feel alive. You can tell someone you love them first. You can try to speak only the truth for a whole week."
"Either way, we both agreed that ambivalence is key to success. I will say it again. Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look."
"Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’m proud that Mike Schur and I rejected the idea that creativity needs to come from chaos. I like how we ran our writers’ room and our set. People had a great time when they came to work on our show and that mattered to us."
"Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being."
"Let me take a minute to say that I love bossy women. Some people hate the word, and I understand how “bossy” can seem like a shitty way to describe a woman with a determined point of view, but for me, a bossy woman is someone to search out and celebrate. A bossy woman is someone who cares and commits and is a natural leader."
Clearly, there are many great observations in this book, and many of her words are especially inspiring at this point in time with current political and social issues. Unfortunately, I found it hard to get engaged in her book. This was a book that I easily read a chapter at a time, instead of devouring like I usually do. Perhaps this is because I've never watched Parks & Recreation, and am unfamiliar with the Upright Citizens Brigade. It's hard to get really engaged when much of the narrative is about media that I'm unfamiliar with. In contrast, I recall Bossypants by Tina Fey to be easier to read, and laugh-out-loud funny, while Yes Please was more of a "yes, that is what the world is like!"

Rating: 3 Stars

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Undeclared by Julianna Keyes

Published February 27, 2017 by Julianna Keyes

Kellan McVey is Burnham College’s most prolific athlete, partier, and ladies’ man—and that’s just how he likes it. Returning to reign for his third year, he wants nothing to change. Then Andrea Walsh shows up. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Andi and Kellan were lifelong friends, mortal enemies, and, for one hot summer, more. Then Kellan left and Andi stayed behind. 

Kellan thought he’d moved past that last summer’s heartbreak, but with Andi sitting next to him in class, befriending his friends, and battling for the same once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity, he’s starting to remember why he hated her…and why he loved her. 

Kellan has a long list of reasons that falling for Andi again is a terrible idea, though every new moment together challenges that theory. But Andi’s all too familiar with Kellan’s love ’em and leave ’em approach—and she’s found someone else to get serious about. 

Burnham’s campus king has never had to fight for a girl, but if he wants Andi to give him another chance, he’ll have to do the one thing he’s never had the nerve to do: admit it. 

Julianna Keyes writes characters who are not always likable, but always complex. In Undecided, one of my favorite books of 2016, we were introduced to the ancillary character Kellan McVey—who, as much as he induced the slapping of palms across foreheads, was also charmingly endearing: at once a big-hearted devoted friend, yet also clueless and self-absorbed. I finished reading Undecided wanting more from the Burnham College universe, and curious how Keyes would tell Kellan's story. What would Kellan's character arc look like, given that he often seemed to have the depth of a espresso cup?

After spending his first two years at Burnham College "living life" until he was diagnosed with an STD and needing the help of a list recorded in a bathroom stall in the student union to identify which of his 63 sexual partners he had contracted the infection from (because in his memory, many of his partners were nameless and even faceless), he decides to become "Kellan 2.0. All the fun, none of the gonorrhea" when he runs into his childhood best friend and rival, Andi, on campus. Undeclared is a second chance romance between these two, but the focus of the novel is on Kellan acknowledging his feelings for Andi as he wrestles with the age-old college quandary of figuring out who he is and who he wants to be in relation to who he thinks he should be, and less on the actual rapport between the couple.

On a side note, the secondary characters are great, particularly the storyline involving Kellan's good friend, Choo. While at first I thought it was a rare miss by Julianna Keyes at naming a character, in the end, her handling of his name and character was spot on—I'm sure her experience living in China informed this hilarious sub-narrative. Keyes is an astute observer of life, which is seen in this introspective yet funny portrayal of college life.

Rating: 4 Stars

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: Unrequited Alice by Sarah Louise Smith

Published March 16, 2017 by Crooked Cat Books

A Bridesmaid really shouldn’t be in the love with the groom…

I stared at my suitcase, contemplating the following three facts:

After months of planning, it was finally time for Hannah’s hen weekend.
In just one more month, she’d be getting married to Ed.
I really had to fall out of love with Ed before the wedding.

A bridesmaid really shouldn’t be in love with the groom… but Alice just can’t help herself. Ed is her perfect man, and she can’t get him out of her head.

Until she meets Toby – who offers to help her move on. But what if he’s just setting her up for an even bigger fall?

In Chinese there is a concept called yuan fen (緣份), defined as "predestined affinity or relationship" - yuan (緣) means "fate" while fen (份) means "a share or a portion." While often used to describe romantic relationships, this concept that "two people can be drawn inexorably together through an innate connection in the universe" applies to any relationship--and the focus is always on the bond which draws two people together, not what they may be fated to accomplish together. There's also the related expression you yuan mei you fen (有緣沒有份), indicating that two people may be fated to have attraction to each other, but not have the destiny for the relationship to continue for the rest of their lives.

All this to say that Unrequited Alice is an exploration of yuan fen -- Alice clearly has yuan with Ed and Toby, but which one does she actually have yuan fen? What I liked about the novel is that Alice is very much aware that she ought to get over her extended crush on Ed, that it's not good for her sense of self or for her relationship with her oldest friend, but the novel also acknowledges the very real emotional and physical response one has to people in our lives. Yet despite sometimes finding herself in sticky situations, Alice always acts with grace and self-awareness. Sometimes there is a connection between people, but one or the other isn't emotionally available at the right time or there are physical obstacles to a relationship; relationships can be complicated!

What didn't work for me was some of the dialogue, which sometimes had a character speak overly long and thus came across as unauthentic. In real life, exchanges between people are often shorter, with pauses of breath and interruptions, and so I found often it jarring, taking me out of the narrative. To be fair, though, this may be a owing to the author and characters being British, whose speaking patterns are different from Americans.

Rating: 3 Stars

I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.