Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

I’ve been reading more adult novels lately, but while I was out walking, I listened to a YA book by one of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen. This was Saint Anything.

Setup

Saint Anything book coverThe premise of Saint Anything is that Sydney, a well-behaved teenager who lives in the shadow of her gregarious brother with his oversized personality, has her life upended when that very brother gets himself thrown into prison. Her parents, especially her mom, fixate on supporting the brother and making his prison stay as cushy as possible. But Sydney is torn up by the event that landed her brother in jail—a teen boy riding home on his bike late one night getting hit by Sydney’s drunk-driving brother. The teen survives, but he’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Sydney’s mom doesn’t seem to care at all about the kid, even going so far as to blame him for being out so late at his age.

A Fresh Start

At the beginning of the book, Sydney has transferred from the private school she and her brother have always gone to to the public high school, so she can have a fresh start where people don’t know everything about her. She’s pretty shy, so she’s lucky when she stumbles into a friendship with a girl—and then her family—at a pizza shop. This friendship is eye-opening for Sydney because Layla, Layla’s brother Mac, and the rest of their family are very open, in direct contrast to Sydney’s own buttoned-up family. Layla and Mac also come with some other friends. Soon Layla in particular is helping Sydney deal with her stress over her brother, and she’s getting closer to Mac.

Being Seen

Sydney is increasingly frustrated with her mom, who is so focused on her brother that she seems to forget Sydney is alive. There’s also a total creep who was her brother’s best friend and is beloved by their parents, especially her mom, so he’s constantly around. He’s gross and Sydney knows it but nobody else is paying attention to her.

Eventually, Sydney’s mom notices Sydney, at the worst possible moment, and her entire life is thrown into upheaval. Her parents blame Layla and co for being bad influences, and Sydney has to figure out how to fight for herself, friendship, and love.

I pretty much like everything Dessen writes, and this one was no different. Check it out.

Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A Very Large Expanse of Sea book coverSo I’m going to say up front that I loved this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect—I’d seen the Mafi’s dystopian Shatter Me series, but never read it since I mostly read contemporary. But I picked this book out because the setting right after 9/11 with a Muslim main character seemed interesting and I wanted to learn more about the actual experience of Muslim kids at that time, especially anyone wearing such an obvious outward marker as the hijab she wears. I obviously knew things would be bad for her, but I wasn’t sure how bad, or how that would turn into a novel plot.

A Big Start

So the book grabbed me right away with an explosive interaction Shirin has with her new AP English teacher on the first day of school. The instructor looks at her and basically tells her she must be in the wrong class, and when she shows him her schedule, he still assumes she shouldn’t be in there and acts all condescendingly sympathetic with his, “ah, this happens sometimes” crap, still assuming it’s a scheduling error.

At first I found it a little hard to believe he could be this much of an idiot—she’s already spoken to him during this exchange without a “foreign” accent because she’s a native speaker of English—and he just won’t let it go, but then I remembered that just because I am not generally around people who actually think the color of your skin and the presence of a headscarf have any relation to your ability to speak your freaking native language, I don’t actually know other people’s experiences, so yeah. I’m going to trust the author on this. And by the time Shirin loses it with him, I was right there with her and so glad she cusses at him. He absolutely deserved it and I loved her for calling him out so emphatically.

Anger

This anger she has, this impatience for idiotic, judgmental people making assumptions about her, actually drew me in in a really personal way. It will probably seem weird to people, but I actually related to Shirin more than I have to any YA character I’ve read in a while. It was all about the rage. She pretty much hates everybody because she knows they’re all judging, making assumptions about what she’s like and what her life and family are like.

I felt exactly the same in high school. People looked at me and the way I presented myself and disapproved of the way I "performed" my gender (spoiler: I didn’t), and they just wouldn’t let it go. There were constant barbs and I never knew where it would come from, or when. For me, it depressed me but mostly I was angry, and I hated people because they all sucked. If you’ve read my book Ugly, you’ll have seen this in Nic because it’s a semi-autobiographical book, but I actually toned the rage down in that book. Real me was angrier.

So I completely related to the way Shirin basically just tried to ignore people, and assumed there was no value in meeting new people or interacting with anyone around her. When a boy asks some ignorant questions, she assumes he’s being a jerk and only realizes over time that he really is just trying to understand and isn’t judging her, but he doesn’t know how to talk about things.

A Friendship

Anyway, more on the story. The boy in question is her biology lab partner, a white kid named Ocean. He offends her early on, but he perseveres in getting her to work together on their lab work and they even start chatting on AIM at night. A real friendship starts to emerge. This is very confusing to Shirin because Ocean’s just not like the other people she’s dealt with. In the meantime, she joins a school  breakdancing club that her brother starts along with some of his friends, and she starts developing her moves. I know virtually nothing about breakdancing, but the stuff they were doing sounded really physically demanding, and it was cool to see her grow in her skills over an extended period of time (the way that stuff works).

More than Friendship

Shirin and Ocean soon find themselves in an actual relationship, and naturally some of the assholes at the school flip out because Ocean’s this big basketball star so he’s known and considered important, blah blah. After a shitty incident involving Shirin’s face and a thrown cinnamon roll, she takes off her headscarf in the bathroom so she can clean her face, and a girl comes in and takes a picture of her without the scarf—it’s such a horrible violation and really stressed me out for her. She and Ocean deal with more stuff and things come to a head when someone convinces Shirin that it’s in Ocean’s best interest to end things.

Moving On

But there’s obviously more to Shirin’s life than Ocean, and the breakdancing performance the and her group do in the school’s talent show has a surprising effect on her life. Still, everything with Ocean feels unresolved, and it’s great to see how they manage to work through things even as the adults around them make their lives so difficult.

It’s also worth mentioning that Shirin is able to lessen her general anger (being angry all the time does not feel good, so this is a good thing) as she comes to see that not all people are the same.

This is totally unrelated to anything else, but I loved that she hides her headphones under her headscarf and listens to music all day. This is awesome.

Last Thoughts

Anyway, I loved this book and am not surprised at all that it was longlisted for the National Book Award. A lot of people will relate to it, but I think a lot of other people may be able to better understand how constant micro aggressions—not to mention physical violence and other full-on racism—can really wear a person down.

An In-Person Event: Shoreline Holiday Market

Last weekend I attended my first book event as part of the Author Event Network, the Shoreline Holiday Market held on the ground floor of the Shoreline City Hall parking garage. The most notable thing was how cold it was basically outside without even the sun to warm us up. It reached the low forties by noon, but didn’t go much higher. I got there about 9 and didn’t leave until after 5, so I appreciated the decent coat I have and the portable propane heater I bought the day before. I actually didn’t appreciate the heater until the propane canister ran out, and then I realized it actually had been helping quite a bit, as it got noticeably colder.

Table Setup

There were six of us there, selling different kinds of books. We each had about 3 feet of table space, and I tried to make the most of it. I feel like my display was pretty good, honestly. Here’s what it looked like:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 table display

I’ve definitely got the blues and greens going on, with a splash of purple. Assuming I get the rights back on Finding Frances I’ll have to do a cover with those colors, too.

Before the Storm

I took a couple shots of the full event setup a little before it started, so you can see the scale:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022

Nobody’s there yet—the quiet before the storm. The event was actually pretty well-attended and our table for a lot of traffic. Here’s my view from my chair:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 table back

Selling and Lessons

In the above picture, you can see a sample of the crowd. A lot of the authors did really well, selling upwards of 20 books. I did not do so well, but I learned a lot while I was there. One thing is I’m going to have to come up with better hooks for all of my book descriptions. It’s true that I am able to talk about my books more coherently than I could at the beginning of my author journey. I don’t ramble about plot details or anything, but there’s not much of a hard hook to it. So I’m going to work on that before going to additional events.

I also learned that you don’t want the end spot if you can help it. I saw many people stroll past my table only to stop at the next one when they finally noticed books (and not backtracking to mine). Only a few people took candy without looking at my stuff, but I learned that Starburst are not the best candy to bring when it’s freezing—they were hard as rocks.

Future Thoughts

It looks like none of the 2023 events are until summer, so the Starburst won’t be a problem and I’ve got time prepare some hookier pitches. I was originally hoping to have Uglier out by next summer, but I don’t think that is going to happen because I’ve reprioritized my nonfiction project at least until I can get the proposal done. But who knows; I might get a burst of productivity.

Thank You, Mr. Heater Friend

You were appreciated.

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 heater

Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea book coverSetup

I’ve been on a bit of a historical kick in my YA. This one has been on my shelf a while so I picked it up because I loved Out of the Easy by the same author.

This book is set during World War II in East Prussia, a little pocket area between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea. It’s got four viewpoint characters, all young people—teenagers or maybe a couple in their very early 20’s. There are some other characters in the book who are older, but it doesn’t detract from the sense that this is a story about young people. 

The premise is that there is a group of people walking to a port city to try to board a ship and get out of East Prussia, which is being torn apart by the war, pinched between the Russians and the Germans. It’s definitely a ragtag group, but from a story perspective, it’s a great mix of characters.  

Point of View Characters

Joana is a young, trained nurse; Emilia is a deeply traumatized fifteen-year-old; Florian is on a somewhat noble journey to try to make up for some Nazi evil he inadvertently aided; and Alfred is spineless German soldier with a personality disorder.

The book cycles rapidly through the different characters with very short chapters, usually not more than 2-4 pages. I actually had a little bit of trouble getting into it because I don’t usually read multiple-viewpoint novels, and I found the switching jarring. But I got used to it because I really liked three of the viewpoint characters and I wanted to learn more about them. The fourth viewpoint character is supposed to be despicable, and he absolutely was. However, once I’d gotten used to it, the multiple POVs was cool because you got to see how the characters viewed each other versus what was really going through the others’ heads. 

Inevitable Tragedy

So I think anybody reading this story is probably going to guess the basic outcome. I didn’t recognize the name of the ship they were trying to get to, and after reading the author’s note, I wonder how the name isn’t more known, given the almost incomprehensible scale of the tragedy. 

Conclusion

This is a truly sad story, as any war story must be, but it does such an incredible job capturing what war is like for regular people. You can’t read this and not appreciate how much general suffering there is during war when it’s your homeland that is occupied or serving as the battlefield. Sepetys is a master of the historical novel in my view, based only on the two I’ve read. She skillfully conveys the harsh historical realities her characters are facing and still finds ways to show bravery and the power of the human spirit. I can’t wait to read her others. 

 

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Review: The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

The Paper Girl of Paris book coverI haven’t been a big reader of historical fiction, even though when I do read it, I usually enjoy it. But I recently read another one I really liked, so I picked up a couple when I went to Barnes and Noble recently. 

One was The Paper Girl of Paris, which I devoured in only two days, which is unheard of for me in the last year and a half. My reading slump has had me taking two plus weeks to finish a book for a long time. Not only did I finish this book in two days, but it never even made it upstairs to my bed, where I do most of my reading. Instead, I read it between doing other things at my desk in front of my computers. 

The Setup

So you can infer that I loved it. It’s actually a dual timeline story, where we switch back and forth between modern-day Paris with Alice and WW II-era Paris with Adalyn, Alice’s great aunt she never knew existed. The setup is pretty simple: Alice’s beloved grandmother has died and left her family’s Paris apartment to her. Alice’s mom, whose mom is the grandma in question, suffers from depression and has been distraught since her mom died and she found out about the apartment, which she had no idea existed. 

The Apartment and the Discovery

Alice goes with her parents to check out the apartment. They are all confused about everything, but Alice is more curious and discovers a diary belonging to Adalyn, who she learns was her grandma’s sister. It’s of course strange that the grandma never told anyone about her family, but it’s also clear nobody really thought about it before. 

Alice takes the diary and starts reading it, loving the information about her grandma that Adalyn shares, because it’s clear they were really close and loved each other. Which makes it even stranger that Alice’s grandma never mentioned her. But she gets a clue on going back to the apartment, when she finds a picture of Adalyn cavorting with Germans during the occupation, so she’s horrified, because from the diary, it sounds like both she and Chloe were passionately opposed to the Germans and their many atrocities. So Alice doesn’t understand how she could change her mind. 

Exploration

So we see Alice starting to explore the diary, which she has to painstakingly type into Google Translate. In the process of spending time away from her parents, she befriends a local boy named Paul who helps her research things. Interspersed with these chapters are full chapters from Adalyn’s point of view. This is the part of the book I loved. 

I’m going to admit that as soon as Alice found the photo of Adalyn with Nazis, I knew what it actually meant, even though it takes Alice a good part of the book to figure it out (the advantage of having more life experience). But Adalyn is one of the people I love reading about—the people who actually did the right thing during the war. 

So even though I knew that little twist (I think most readers would figure it out pretty early, but I’m not entirely sure), there were still some surprises that I enjoyed. One has to do with a museum where Alice ends up being able to give some clarity on a photo the museum had but knew very little about. 

Summary

Obviously I totally recommend this book. If you aren’t a big historical fiction reader, this one might be more palatable since half of it takes place today. But Adalyn’s story is what made the book for me, even though I liked Alice and her story just fine. 

 

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Review: Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

Angel of Greenwood book coverAs soon as I knew this book existed, I bought it. It’s set amidst the Tulsa Race Massacre. I have a special interest in that event because I grew up in Tulsa and knew nothing about it until about five years ago. It blows my mind that this is something that was “forgotten.” It makes me so mad, but it fits right in with all the Republicans who are insisting that the unsavory parts of our history shouldn’t be taught in school because it might make some little white kids feel guilty. A little guilt never hurt anyone, and it would make it easier for them to understand their privilege. I think this is actually quite important. 

The Setup

But anyway, on to the story itself. It’s actually a rather unlikely love story between Angel and Isaiah, the town’s angel and a rough-around-the-edges boy. Isaiah in particular is secretly passionate about poetry, philosophy, and Black rights. He’s a big follower of W.E.B Du Bois and so he hates Du Bois’ nemesis, Booker T. Washington. Their school is named after Washington, and Angel is a fan of his and thinks Du Bois is too much. 

A Bit of Philosophy

So I had of course heard about both of these men, but I knew very little. But when Isaiah and Angel get thrown together for a unusual summer job arranged by their English teacher, they talk about the two philosophies on improving the rights of Black people. From their discussions, it was clear that Du Bois was more aggressive while Washington advocated for quieter change. I sort of imagined it as analogous to the differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But I happened to stumble across an article about Washington in The Atlantic and learned a little more about him—his main belief was that individual industry would bring Black people into the country’s economy, and they’d then become valued by everyone. Basically, hard work was critical, but it wasn’t just working hard—it was also working smart. He founded the Tuskegee Institute and ensured that a lot of Black men were trained in trades that would help them join the economy like he wanted. So I thought it was interesting and a little subtle, even though it’s kind of clear to me that that approach is never going to be enough. 

However, the economy perspective not working reminds me of migrant laborers who make it possible for us to have inexpensive fruit, all because they’re being exploited and working for criminally low pay. Also, there are a lot of other people from Latin America that make up a good portion in the back of the house in restaurants across the country, some legal, some not. Their value in our economy (keeping prices low and keeping restaurants open) does not outweigh the hatred that so many people have for them for not being white. 

The Story

Anyway, back to the book. Angel and Isaiah fall in love while riding around in a three-wheeled bike with a sidecar and a bin to store books so they can share books with people in the Greenwood community. This was all in the days leading up to the attacks, which started a little after midnight June 1st, 1921. Each of them plays an important role in helping their neighbors. Despite the bravery and efforts of real people like Angel and Isaiah, it’s known that a several hundred people were killed that night. 

Although everything in the story obviously leads up to the attacks, that night doesn’t dominate it. It really is a story about young people who are living in a rather idyllic place but who are aware that they are privileged to be there, and also know that nothing in life is guaranteed. 

Summary

The book does what historical fiction does best—it shows that the people who lived through significant events were real people who the reader can empathize with. You will root for both Angel and Isaiah not just to end up together, or even just to survive, but to actually to show the greatness within each of them. And the book delivers on that. 

As a totally not important side note, I also absolutely love the cover. It’s dramatic and somehow captures both the violence of that night but also the peacefulness the character Angel embodies. 

 

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Review: Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Girl, Unframed book coverI’m a big fan of Deb Caletti and have reviewed some of her books here (One Great Lie, A Heart in a Body in the World, Essential Maps for the Lost, The Nature of Jade, and Stay). But I’m going to openly admit that I didn’t love Girl, Unframed as much as the others. This is probably because it places celebrity front and center, and I’m pretty much not remotely interested in celebrity. But the book still drew me in because of a particular device Caletti used, which I’ll talk about below. I’ve been in a major reading slump and still had no trouble getting through this one, so I think it would resonate more with people who do find celebrity interesting. 

Sydney, the fifteen-year-old main character, is not herself a celebrity, or even particularly enamored of it. But her mom’s a very famous movie star who’s sort of moving out of her prime at this point. Sydney attends a boarding school in Seattle during the school year and I think spends most holidays with her grandma (I think also in Seattle). But summers are for bonding time with her mom in San Francisco.

Leading up to the summer where she’ll turn sixteen, Sydney’s got a bad feeling about the visit. She can’t shake it, and it stays with her even after she gets there and meets her mom’s new boyfriend. Her mom is typically aloof and not super-interested in Sydney as a person. She’s definitely a narcissist. And the boyfriend is someone Sydney never quite trusts or likes, even though on the surface he seems fine. But there is something going on, because the house is being watched and there’s some tightly wrapped up art in one of the empty rooms. 

It’s not just Sydney’s misgivings that clues the reader in. Caletti puts a little text at the top of each chapter that lists evidence in a criminal investigation. It’s never enough to say what actually happens, but there’s no doubt that Sydney is right and something really bad is going to come to pass. This keeps the reader engaged because you’re looking for clues to try to guess what it could be and who will be the presumed victim. 

Sydney’s relationship with her mom isn’t great, which is down to her mom’s selfishness, really. But even more importantly, she’s not in as strong a position as she used to be. Sydney’s seeing evidence of some financial trouble, and her mom's relationship with the boyfriend doesn’t seem great. But she’s still famous and going out into the world with her is an experience. 

I’m going to admit that the bad thing that eventually happens actually did surprise me. One of the things that I actually questioned throughout the book was Sydney’s almost age-inappropriate wisdom and insight into the injustice in how women are positioned in society. But the ending actually made this make more sense to me. 

In the end, I enjoyed the book even though it’s not my favorite, so if you’re a Caletti fan, check it out (especially if you enjoy reading about celebrity). 

 

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Review: Deathless Divide (Dread Nation #2) by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide book coverContext

This is really quite the book. I read and enjoyed the first book, Dread Nation, a bit ago and I admit I didn’t remember all the details. And I remember overall liking it and being impressed by it, but I also saw some flaws that I found a little distracting. Deathless Divide completely upped the ante. Even though I didn’t find it perfect, I still gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because it’s such an ambitious book that takes a long, hard (and subversive) look at US history and comes to some conclusions that are hard to swallow, all while spinning a great, entertaining yarn.

Setup

The worldbuilding here is amazing—alternative history is such an interesting thing on its own, where what really happened has to be balanced with the fictional changes to still feel feasible, but when you add on a fantasy element, that makes everything even more complicated. And where I think this book shines is its rich authenticity and harsh realism. If zombies really had risen on the Gettysburg battlefield, the story Ireland tells here is 100% believable. 

The Story

As an alternative history novel set in the time of the US Civil War, this book obviously deals with race and the harsh truths of the abuses people of color have borne over the centuries. It excels in showing us two different individual perspectives we first encountered in the first book: Katherine, the uptight rule-follower, and Jane, the irreverent free-spirit. Both are older Black teens (I think they’re still that young) who have trained as zombie killers (dispatchers? destroyers?). As the book opens, they are on a journey with some other people, trying to find a safe place to exist. There are unsurprisingly some problems, with all the zombie hordes lumbering around.

Changeup

After all the problems come to a head and Jane and Katherine get separated, the book gets a lot darker when we rejoin Jane. The time we spend with her is uncomfortable, and I wondered how things were going to turn out. Some things seemed unresolvable. Katherine’s journey isn’t as dark, but it still reflects the harsh reality of her world—and her ability to manage everything while making sure things go as planned. I still found the ending of the book satisfying, even if everything didn’t get wrapped up in a perfect, pink bow. 

Shhh

Don’t tell the history-denying book-banners about this book, because they wouldn’t like it. Sometimes fiction can tell the biggest truths.

 

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Review: The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park

The Perfect Escape book cover

Suzanne spoke at a meeting of one of my writing groups a few months ago, and she was really entertaining but also had some good info for writers. So I decided to check out her work, and I started with her debut YA, The Perfect Escape. 

This is a romance featuring Kate, a white girl who loves theater but has an unsupportive father, and Nate, a Korean-American academic overachiever. They meet at a zombie-themed escape room in Seattle, where they both work, and they become friends after he gives her a ride home and accidentally leaves her wig in his car.  

Setup

Kate’s father runs a cutting-edge robotics and home automation company that is constantly pushing out products prematurely. Their pilot and current products are all over Kate’s house, much to her chagrin. These various devices monitor her while her fathers travels, and malfunction all the time. Her father is unwilling to support her in theater pursuits, instead trying to force her in “practical” directions. She knows the only way to escape his plans for her is to do things herself, because she’s more or less a prisoner in her own home. So she gets the job at the escape room as a starting point and plans to move to New York on her own.

Nate is a scholarship kid a fancy and expensive boarding school full of super-entitled jerks, including one who thinks he can pressure Nate into helping some of them get better GPAs through fraudulent means. Nate doesn’t want to do it, but he is considering it because his family really needs the money because his dad’s just lost his job and his mom makes very little money.

A New Option

But then something new comes up with Kate: a zombie-themed survivalist competition with a big monetary prize. This is Kate’s main escape plan, but she needs a partner, so Nate it is. This is a much better plan for Nate than helping out the entitled rich white boys. As Kate and Nate get to know each other better, they find they like each other more than either expected. They really gel. Nate’s long-term crush throws a wrench in the works, but Kate and Nate still decide to join in the competition. 

Once they start the competition, they discover it’s serious business, not all sunshine and roses. There are robot zombies moving around trying to “get” all the participants. It’s a lot of fun seeing Nate and Kate work together and figure out how to deal when things go completely haywire. Because things do go completely haywire, and it ends not at all to plan. You kind of wonder how they could possibly work things out, so seeing it happen is very satisfying. 

Review: Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth

Not My Problem book cover

Not My Problem is another book that broke through my horrible reading slump. This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I managed to do it in just over a week (fast for me right now). It’s incredibly funny but still has enough teen angst to make me happy (I do love to watch characters suffer).

Aideen is the star of this YA contemporary novel set in Ireland. Aideen is dealing with a pretty difficult home life in the best ways that she can, just trying to hold it all together. She doesn’t really let people in, not even her one real friend. So when Meabh, a girl she’s thought of as a sworn enemy for years, convinces her to “help” her by pushing her down the stairs, Aideen surprises herself by doing it—for the right reasons, not secret revenge. Now Meabh and Aideen are going to be weirdly tied together. The act also basically conjures another friend, a boy named Kavi who is a sufferer of verbal diarrhea. 

This one act triggers a whole series of other incidents that turns Aideen into the unofficial school fixer. Not everything goes exactly to plan, but that makes it all the more interesting. And in the process of fixing other people’s problems, she makes new friends, all while her one long-term friendship is falling apart. Her mom is cracking up a bit, too, and Aideen’s pretty stressed out by that. But she feels like she has a handle on everything. It’ll be fine. 

One of the things I liked about the book is that the problems the kid have are perfect—they show the range of things teens deal with, from overly strict parents to an accidentally submitted assignment full of profanity. Some are relatively trivial, while others are a little more consequential. But they all feel big to the characters in the story. Another cool thing is that the language the kids use has the flavor of Irish dialect, so it’s extra interesting. A final great thing about the book is the relationship Aideen and Meabh form—it’s a mundane but sweet lesbian relationship, not one rife with trouble and issues. 

This one’s definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of contemporary YA. 

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Review: Breathless by Jennifer Niven

Breathless book coverI am a big fan of Niven’s first book (All the Bright Places—it’s one of my favorite books) so I’ve read both her others, including Breathless. One thing that I like about her books overall is that they’re all different. Her first two feature dual perspective, on the girl’s and one the boy’s, but in this one, she sticks with the single protagonist, a girl named Claude who’s just about to graduate high school when the book opens.

At first, everything’s just fine—everything’s cool with her parents, her best friend and other friends are all great, and she has a boyfriend she likes well enough. Her boyfriend is of course desperate to have sex, and she’s been putting it off. It’s not a moral dilemma for her; instead, she just isn’t sure if this is the guy she wants to first have sex with. Which she firmly believes is not “losing” anything, thank you very much. When an opportunity presents itself and she very clearly choses not to sleep with him, it’s pretty clear to both of them that this is her final decision. So that’s over, but she’s unfazed and re-fixates on a long-time crush. 

But this isn’t the only fissure in her otherwise just-fine life. Her dad shocks her—or takes the floor out from under her—by telling her he’s leaving. She is torn up about this, and her parents have insisted she not tell anyone, even her best friend (Saz), which is torture for her. And then, Saz has a new girlfriend she’s really into, and Claude feels a little left behind. Not to mention the fact that she and Saz are planning to go to different colleges several states apart, anyway. 

To make things worse, her mom has decided the two of them are going to go away to a tiny island on the coast of Georgia, where neither her crush nor Saz will be. And then when she gets there, it turns out that there is no cell service except in the general store that is open at the whim of the store owner. How’s she supposed to stay in touch with everyone?

But that’s all just setup. Really, this is a book about first love when it happens at that weird quasi-adult time of your life. Because soon after Claude meets a down-to-earth guy named Jeremiah who works summers on the island (I mean, seriously—the dude wears no shoes), her world starts to shift. But Claude is pissed off about being away from everything she cares about, so it’s not all sunshine and roses with them at first. But soon they start to bond, and promise each other they won’t fall in love. This time she feels differently about sex and her new boyfriend in general. They don’t necessarily follow all their own rules, either. 

It’s enjoyable to see Claude grow as her experiences expand beyond the smallish Ohio town she grew up in. She wasn’t exactly naive in the first place, but it’s one thing to be aware of differences and another to experience them. She and Saz have some work to do, and she’s also got to figure out how to feel about her dad, because the split is all about him. By the end, Claude has figured out things well enough to move forward with the next stage of her life. The book features a rather open ending, which often I don’t like, but I did here. It feels more authentic this way 

Review: Google It: A History of Google by Anna Crowley Redding

I’ve previously mentioned that I’ve been struggling to get myself to read for months. It’s a strange thing, given how much I’ve loved reading all my life. I recently did manage to finish another YA nonfiction book, which was really engaging and it’s only the reading weirdness I’ve got going that made me take so long to finish it. 

This well-researched book but Crowley Redding covers the entire history of Google, from the early relationship of its founders through about 2017 (the book was published in 2018). So it is definitely already a little out of date, but it’s a thorough examination up to that point. 

Crowley Redding covers several main stages of the company’s existence in three parts: Frenemies + Homework + Lego = Google?, Google It!, and Impossible Goal + Attempt (+/- Success) = Moonshot. Because this is a YA book, the first thing the author sets up is the foundational idea that Google was new—that there was a world in which there was no quick way to easily found out answers to questions, obscure or not (my mom told me this hilarious story about a time she and her friends were drunk one night and debating some fact, and one of her friends called a library in Hawaii because they were still open, and got his answer). She covers the earliest days, with the cute little story about Sergey and Larry really disliking each other on first meeting at Stanford, but eventually working together on a grad school class project that became Google. She covers the basic idea behind Google—that a web page’s value is defined more in terms of how many pages link to it, which eventually led to the famous algorithm called PageRank that allowed them to score individual web pages. They originally called their project BackRub, which is obviously a terrible name. They liked the idea of the word googol but weren’t particularly good spellers, so we now have Google. Soon, they had their first investment check and actually turned it into a business, at first operating out of a friend’s garage before finally getting more money and moving into an actual office building in the late 1990’s. I had to laugh when the author mentioned Y2K—it was such a big deal, and I had an internship in the summer of 1998 that asked me to write a Y2K countdown clock for their internal website, which I did in Java. It must have run on their site for the next year and a half. Anyway, everyone knows that Google started as a search engine, but the first time it branched out from basic search was inspired by the 9/11 attacks, when people were searching for information, but Google wasn’t designed for up-to-the-minute news. Google News was soon born. Then came advertising on the search page and Google Shopping. And soon afterward, they brought in an actual CEO. 

The second part of the book is more about Google as a company in the modern era, after it had a huge headquarters and tens of thousands of employees. Google Books came to be, and then Gmail. Then they went public. Soon there was Google Earth and Maps. And YouTube. Then Niantic emerged (I had no idea they were behind Pokemon GO!, but they were). Crowley Redding addresses the formation of their now-parent company, Alphabet. And somewhere in all this, she has a short discussion of the China thing. To me, this is a clear sign that Google isn’t as innocent as they claim to be, but perhaps that’s just me. 

The last part of the book really tries to look forward, focusing the various “moonshot” ventures Google (or Alphabet) is trying. These are basically the really extreme ideas of things that are probably hard to do, and are likely to lead to failure, but seem worth trying, anyway. They are getting into AI and other research for a variety of projects, including self-driving cars, machine translation, drones, wearable tech, Google Home, rural Internet service via balloons, space travel, and slowing aging. 

So the book covers a lot of ground, even if the last four years or so aren’t addressed. I’m sure there are more academic explorations out there, but this would be a good place for anyone to start learning about Google’s history. Crowley Redding does a pretty good job of not being too admiring, and presenting different sides (at least to the point of knowing it exists if you want to find out more). 

Review: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

Vincent and Theo book coverI’ve recently become aware that there is actually a decent amount of YA nonfiction out there, as I’m working on one myself, although mine is more technical than narrative. One of the authors I found is Deborah Heiligman, who wrote Charles and Emma about Charles Darwin and his wife, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. I bought that book, but the first one I decided to read was her one about Vincent van Gogh. 

Vincent and Theo is a great exploration of Vincent’s rise as an artist, and all his stumbling along the way, as well his relationship with his steadfast brother Theo, who literally and figuratively supported Vincent pretty much all his adult life. This is basically a birth-death portrait of both of them, and it starts off describing their rather commonplace, middle-class childhood in The Netherlands. Their father was a pastor and they had several sisters and everything seemed pretty normal and positive in those days. Vincent and Theo were close despite a four-year age gap, even pledging to always be there for each other in their late teens. Their uncle worked in the art industry as an art dealer, and it was expected that both Vincent and Theo would go into that field. Vincent had no intentions of becoming an artist in the early days. 

So Vincent did come of age and start working as an art dealer. But it didn’t take long before some of his more difficult personality traits emerged and although they tried moving him to London, it really didn’t work out. This period was really the point at which his mental health challenges started to emerge. Vincent floundered around for a while and became intensely religious for a period of time, trying to make a career out of evangelism. But this ultimately didn’t work out, either, and he floundered some more before finally deciding to become a draftsman. He threw himself into this with unrivaled intensity, drawing and painting in watercolor (which he actually still called drawing) to train himself to render things accurately. Eventually he started working in oils, and became a full-fledged painter. Theo literally supported him through all of this, sending him money for rent, food, and art supplies, sometimes sending paint directly. 

Although he had no responsibilities except to his own development as an artist, Vincent didn’t do that well. He tended to not eat or generally take very good care of himself, something he did his entire adulthood. He got romantically involved with a prostitute who had first one child and then another (not Vincent’s) and they moved in with Vincent. Poor Theo was then responsible for two adults and two children, and the woman’s mother was somehow involved in all of this. It just sounded messy to me. During all this, Theo is encouraging Vincent but still saying he’s not skilled enough, so he’s developing, developing, developing. Eventually Vincent and the woman split up, Vincent moved around a bit, and then he finally started having the beginnings of success. He became part of the European art scene after Theo managed to sell some of his pieces. From this point on, Vincent was a real artist, but he also truly struggled with his mental health and he still wasn't pulling in much actual money. He and the artist Gaugin lived together and encouraged and challenged each other, drinking together a lot, as well. 

Although the author never says it, it sounds to me like he had classic bipolar disorder, the variant with full psychosis (bipolar I). And his habits of not eating and not taking care of himself—and also drinking excessively—are some of the worst possible things bipolar sufferers can do. I’m not sure why, but the drinking in particular makes it immensely harder to regulate feelings, which is the downfall of a sufferer. Things can spiral up or down, neither of which is a good thing. And of course this one in the days before Lithium. Untreated bipolar disorder is a nightmare. 

Everyone knows of the incident with Vincent cutting off his own ear. We sometimes trivialize that—it even seems kind of funny. Heiligman doesn’t go into detail about it, either, but think about it—he took a razor and cut through the skin and then all that cartilage. And anyone who’s ever cut their ear accidentally knows how painful just some dinky little cut is. This would have taken Vincent real time. It just makes me ill thinking about it. He also delivered the ear to a prostitute at one of the brothels he frequented, something he later felt really guilty about. He did eventually recover from this incident, but after trying to keep painting and having some more ups and downs, his struggles continued and eventually he shot himself somewhere in his torso from what I gather. He survived initially but was still mortally wounded, but it allowed Theo to reach him and spend time with him before he died. 

I’ve talked mostly about Vincent here, because although the book itself spends as much time on Theo and his own tribulations (he didn’t have an easy time of things, either, although he doesn’t seem to have had any significant mental health challenges), the whole reason for the book is because of how important Vincent became in the art world. And that never would have come to be without Theo’s support. Interestingly, their mother had some of Vincent’s paintings but didn’t keep them safe, and they didn’t survive. Nobody in his family saw his successes except Theo, forever viewing him in terms of his earlier failures. Theo, on the other hand, was 100% committed to sharing Vincent’s work with the world. Sadly, he barely outlived Vincent. Both Vincent and Theo contracted STIs from all their cavorting at the local brothels. Theo’s syphilis killed him, cruelly sending him into madness beforehand. But his wife, Jo, took over being Vincent’s advocate, and it is because of her dedication—a direct result of Theo’s dedication—that so much of Vincent’s work has survived. Theo and Jo’s son, who they named Vincent and who was still a baby when his uncle and father died, didn’t go into art, but he did help found the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

Normally I don’t talk as much about an entire book when I review it, but I just found this story fascinating and full of things I didn’t know. But one of the things that makes the book stand out is how personal it feels. Obviously Heiligman doesn’t know with certainty how each of the brothers truly felt, but they sent heartfelt letters back and forth sometimes almost daily, and she worked off of those. Some purists may prefer to just read the translated letters directly, but I liked (and trusted) Heiligman’s interpretation. If you are wanting to understand more about who Vincent and the most important person in his life really were, and what they were like, this is a great book for that. It may technically be YA, but it will appeal to anyone interested in the brothers’ story. 

Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy book coverJosie is one of those amazing characters who, like a handful of incredible people I’ve known in real life, wants more out of her life than what she’s been dealt as the daughter of a brothel narcissistic prostitute—and she’s willing to work for it. It’s the 1950s in New Orleans and life is hard for a lot of people. But Josie’s observant and smart (both academically and street-smart), and she has a great deal of self-respect. It’s virtually impossible not to like her and root for her. 

Josie’s mother couldn’t care any less about her, but fortunately there are some people around her who do care about her in their own ways. The woman who runs the brothel knows she’s smart and frequently helps her, and some of the other prostitutes appreciate her and treat her well. But the people that treat her best are Charlie, an older bookshop owner, and Charlie’s son Patrick, who’s only a little older than Josie. She sometimes spend the night in the loft of the shop to be somewhere other than the brothel. 

But Josie’s got a million things going against her. It doesn’t matter to most people who she really is, but only where she comes from. When she and Patrick manage to befriend a rich college girl who doesn’t know Josie’s past, Josie starts dreaming of going to Smith College. But her regular, everyday life is throwing obstacles up right and left, with things falling apart. But Josie is unflinching and resourceful, and although you have no idea how she could possibly make this all work, you have no doubt she’ll figure out a way. 

I read this book in the middle of my 2021 reading slump and still devoured it in three days—even though I’m not a big historical fiction reader. I loved this book, and really, despite the fact that Josie (fictionally) lived seventy years ago, she’s as strong a female character as in any modern YA story. 

Review: Legendborn (The Legendborn Cycle #1) by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn book coverBree Matthews is a girl with a plan that will help her deal with her mother’s recent death. It also is academically sound and will help her in other ways, even though it will also unexpectedly lead to her getting involved in ancient lore she never knew was real. 

Bree and her best friend Alice begin a residential high school for high-achievers at a major university in North Carolina at the very beginning of the book, but things go awry on their first night when they accidentally witness some magic at an outside party they aren’t supposed to be at. By Chapter 3, they’re in a police car and in trouble with their program. Although Alice doesn’t remember it or know what happened, Bree does remember, even though she’s not supposed to, and she also isn’t supposed to know about the existence of a group called Legendborn.

“His mouth spilling words into the night like a cold wind until they swept away my intention to stay and replaced it with his command that I leave.”

Thus begins this urban fantasy full of excellent Arthurian mythology, which made me happy (I’ve always been a big fan of the Arthur legends for some reason and even took an Arthurian literature class in college). Deonn uses a lot of the existing mythology while not being afraid to shake some of it up. For one thing, Bree is Black, so she already doesn’t fit the very white world of the legendary (Celtic) Briton Arthur, who is purported to have lived in the middle of the first millennium and fought the Saxons off. So now, Bree has a lot more going on that trying to do well in her tough classes and deal with the casual racism all around her. She has to learn about the Legendborn and how she’s involved, and also some rather interesting stuff about her mother. Bree also finds out that some pretty bad stuff is going on with the world, and she has a role in fixing it but isn’t entirely sure she wants to.

The mythology in the book is really interesting, complex, and unique, and any fan of Arthurian lore will enjoy it, as will fans of urban fantasy in general.