Review: When We Collided by Emery Lord

When We Collided book coverWhen We Collided was at the top of my stack of mental health-related books, so I picked it up this week. Fortunately, it isn’t an issue book—it’s a good story with two main characters in very different situations who “collide” and their lives are forever changed, as the title implies.

Vivi is aptly-named—she’s a vivacious and boisterous girl with a fairly unconventional artist mom who allows her a lot of freedom, which she takes full advantage of. The two of them have temporarily moved to a small coastal California town. We know that there’s something going on with Vivi because every day she throws a pill into the ocean rather than take it, and it’s pretty clear that it’s related to her mental health. And as the book moves along, it becomes clearer what her mental illness might be. When the book opens, she is already in love with the town, has a job at a pottery shop, has made friends with some of the older locals, and is ready to meet someone her own age.

Enter Jonah, a seventeen-year-old who’s been forced to become prematurely adult due to the death of his father, the breakdown of his mom, and the existence of three younger siblings (plus two older). He meets Vivi when he takes his youngest sister, Leah, to the pottery shop, and Vivi befriends Leah and basically inserts herself into their lives. Jonah’s father ran an Italian restaurant with another guy, and Jonah has inherited his father’s interest in and talent for cooking. So Vivi’s first visit to their house is an opportunity for him to show off his cooking skills (though he cooks every meal every day, so this isn’t out of the ordinary). He and his older siblings take turns taking care of their family, while Jonah also covers shifts at the restaurant.

Vivi’s and Jonah’s connection is immediate and believable. They each need something from somebody because they’re both sort of falling apart. Vivi’s mental illness is ramping up while Jonah is feeling the weight of taking care of his siblings more and more every day. Both of them are very compelling characters with great character arcs. The book paints a very realistic picture of the experience of bipolar disorder, both from Vivi’s perspective and from Jonah’s, which I thought was valuable.

I recommend this for anyone who likes to see realistic teen characters go through a lot, but come out even stronger.

Review: Geekerella (Once Upon a Con #1) by Ashley Poston

GeekerellaThe idea of this book is really fun, if you’re into any kind of geeky fandom. And it’s all wrapped up as a retelling of Cinderella, which is cool.

Elle, short for Danielle, lives with her stepmom and two stepsisters, all of whom are mean to her, as you’d expect. She works at a vegan food truck called The Magic Pumpkin. And she’s a huge fan of a show called Starfield (something she shared with her dad before he died), which was first filmed some time in the past and is going to be remade now. Elle is very serious about the show and even runs a blog about it. She’s working on going to the next con in Atlanta, the one her father started. She wants to enter the cosplay contest in her dad’s old Carmindor costume. Elle’s horrified when pretty-boy Darien is cast in the reboot’s lead role, Prince Carmindor. No way can he do the role justice, because he can’t possibly know enough about the show. She rants about it—and Darien—on her blog.

Unbeknownst to Elle, Darien is a fan of the show, even though he has to pretend like he isn’t because it doesn’t fit his image. His father—and manager—is constantly breathing down his neck to keep the perfect image.

The two of them start texting, each having no idea who the other is, when Darien finds Elle’s dad’s old number—which Elle picks up because she inherited her dad’s phone—and tries to get out of doing a signing at the con. They find they have a lot in common regarding Starfield, and ultimately get as close as two people can over texts.

These are all good things, and enjoyable enough, but I did have a little trouble with the book. I felt like too many things relied on coincidences, unlikely behavior, or on situations that were easily fixable. Even the black moment, when it looks like their possible relationship is over, comes about because of something kind of unlikely—but more importantly, it was easily fixable with one more text, which for some reason was never sent.

So although I did enjoy reading the book, I didn’t find the story entirely credible. Still, if you are into any sort of fandom, this may well resonate with you, as it has for a lot of people (it has 4 stars on Goodreads with almost 40,000 reviews and 4.5 stars on Amazon with a few hundred reviews).

Review: The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

The Cheerleaders book coverI’ve been reading more suspense and thrillers lately, partially because I’m interested in turning one of my books into a suspense so I need to study up, and partially (of course) because I enjoy reading them. This was my first Kara Thomas book, but she apparently has some others, so I will be checking those out.

The book’s main character is Monica, whose sister was the last of her school’s five cheerleaders to die five years earlier. The first two were killed in a strange car accident that seemed to have no cause. The second two were murdered, with the murderer being killed by police (Monica’s stepfather) the next day. The final one was Monica’s sister, Jen, who killed herself—presumably out of despair over the other deaths.

Early on in the book, Monica stumbles across her sister’s old phone, stashed in the bottom drawer of her stepfather’s desk. There are also yearly anonymous letters saying

Connect the dots. Find the truth.

Monica doesn’t know what to think, but she has the guts to contact the number of the last call on Jen’s phone, which took place the morning she killed herself. And this kicks off Monica’s search for the truth. She figures out who the phone number belongs to and learns some critical information from him. She makes a new friend in the process of investigating and the two of them undertake some risky tasks.

The book also offers Jen’s point of view in some chapters (Monica has many more). This provides the reader with a little extra information, but it isn’t until the very end that we see how it all ties together (or doesn’t).

This is an engaging book with a few twists that surprised me. I won’t say it’s perfect—there were a couple of connections Monica made that I thought were a stretch, but not enough to keep me from wanting to know what happened. So if you enjoy YA thrillers, you should check this one out.

Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish book coverStarfish is the story of Kiko Himura, a 17-year-old Nebraska girl with a Japanese-American father and an obnoxiously white mother (who’s a total narcissist, but the way). Kiko’s mom has belittled her her whole life for not being “beautiful” like she (the mom) is. By beautiful, she means blonde and blue-eyed. Because Kiko takes after her father physically. To white people she’s too Japanese, and to Japanese people she’s too white. It’s not just her mom—the kids at school make sure she thinks this, too.

Unsurprisingly, Kiko’s anxious and lacking in self-confidence because she believes it all. She also thinks she’s responsible for breaking up her parents. When she was young, her uncle did something to her and she told her mom, who didn’t believe her. Still, Kiko thinks her parents were fighting because of this, and then her dad left. She’s got an older brother and a younger brother, but they’re not close. So she feels guilt on behalf of both of them, too. Kiko’s mom really is a piece of work. She’s so horrible that she’s almost unbelievable—but not quite.

Kiko’s a very talented artist and has applied to an elite art school in New York as her escape plan. But when she doesn’t get in, she’s distraught. And she’s hamstrung by her anxiety. But she’s lucky enough to run into her old friend, Jamie, who’d disappeared from her life when she was eleven and sort of broken her heart. Jamie invites her to come to California with him and she decides she’ll look at art schools out there. Jamie helps her ease out into the world. With a long overdue stroke of good luck, she meets a well-known established artist who takes her under his wing. By chance, he is Japanese-American too, and he helps her connect to her Japanese heritage for the first time. She and Jamie get closer, but there’s something that’s keeping them apart, too. She’s staying with him and his parents, and his parents are fighting and Jamie won’t tell her why. Eventually, everything comes to a head in a way I didn’t expect (but absolutely worked) and we see Kiko coming out of her shell.

This is a solid novel that will appeal especially to mixed-race kids, I’m guessing. The references to art throughout will also be particularly to those artistically inclined. But anybody can enjoy it for showing a girl finding her way.

Review: TED Talks

TED Talks book coverThis is going to be an unusual review for this blog. Obviously I usually review YA fiction. But today, since I didn’t finish another book this week, I’m reviewing an adult fiction book that I think might still be of relevance to my readers. A lot of people have to get up on a stage—at work, in school, in church, wherever. This book could make you more comfortable doing so, and help you make a bigger impact.

To make my boss happy (plus for some personal improvement), I joined Toastmasters at work. For those who don’t know, Toastmasters is an organization that is supposed to help you become a better public speaker and leader. You basically choose a pathway and make several assigned speeches on the way to reaching a leadership and speaking improvement goal. I gave my first speech in late February (on becoming a writer 🙂 ) and then before I could give my second speech, COVID-19 happened. So I thought I’d keep up with the learning and picked up the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson (“Head of TED”). If you don’t know about TED, you should: it’s an organization that runs conferences where people of all stripes give short talks. Check out ted.com to see some cool talks on almost everything imaginable.

Anyway, on to the book. Although Anderson frequently refers to TED-specific talks, he tries to generalize to other speaking venues, as well. He talks about the importance of a speech’s content being the best part of your speech, rather than obsessing about speech physical logistics, like where to stand and what to wear. It does address those things, because they do matter, but it has a major theme throughout: be yourself and be as comfortable as you can while up on stage. Much of the book (about 40%) is about making the talk itself solid and spectacular. Content matters. He talks about building ideas up and having a through line, avoiding common traps, connecting to people, narrating, explaining, persuading, and making revelations.

The next 45% talks about logistics, including whether or not to write a script and even possibly memorize it, or to try to wing it (hint: probably you shouldn’t wing it). He also addresses visuals, practicing, thinking about the impression you’re trying to make, mentally preparing, setting up, and having a real presence. The theme of being yourself and being comfortable is important in this section, too. Basically, you shouldn’t try to do something that will make you extra uncomfortable, since you’re (probably) already stretching out of your comfort zone to give a speech in the first place. Finally, he wraps up with some generalized thoughts on talks, and the importance he believes they have to our global, interconnected society.

So, I’d recommend this book over a lot of the other speech books out there because of the balance between content and logistics and the emphasis on comfort (many other books focus on logistics). If you think it might be helpful to get some tips on talking in front of people check this one out.

Review: Burnout by Stacia Leigh

Burnout book coverThis book’s been sitting on my shelf a while (in very good company) and I decided I wanted a quick read that was not for my MFA, so I picked it up. It turned out to be perfect. Even though I’m in a bit of a reading slump, I read it in two days because it’s pretty fast-paced. It’s billed as a contemporary YA romance, but I’d argue it’s romantic suspense, although the suspense doesn’t get started right away.

Will Sullivan, who we met as J.J.’s drunk friend in Dealing with Blue, is having a rough time. His mom was killed by a drunk driver a year earlier and he’s never dealt with it. Instead, he drinks the beer left behind by his dad’s and brother’s biker friends. After wrecking his own bike, drunk, he’s in a world of pain. But he’s part of the Hides of Hell family even though he doesn’t want to join, and when they decide to ride to a rally and at the same time spread his mom’s ashes, he’s got to go with them. But he doesn’t have a bike anymore, so…

Miki Holtz is the daughter of the new president of the club and she’d love to get his attention at least every once in a while. She’s also Will’s ride to the rally. They have some history—they’ve played together since they were little kids, but now Miki likes him more than as friends. But she messed it all up a year earlier, and he’s not forgiven her. So it’s going to be an awkward ride.

This may not sound all that suspenseful, but that comes in once they’ve been on the road a bit. They end up spending the first night in a cheapo motel because Will made the mistake of taking one too many pain pills, and he can barely stay on the bike. The motel clerk acts kind of fishy and seems to recognize Will’s name. The next night, they flee the campsite and backtrack to the motel because they think the motel clerk knows something. That next morning all hell breaks loose.

Will and Miki are both cool characters. Miki a bit more so—she’s quite plucky, while Will’s a bit broody and depressed, but not overly so. He’s still quite interesting and it’s rewarding to see him finally deal with his mom’s death. Miki also has her own things to deal with, mostly her relationship with her dad and how she sees herself.

If you’re looking for a gritty (but not too gritty) romance with a couple you definitely root for, this one is for you.

Review: Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky

Anatomy of a Boyfriend book coverI really enjoyed Anatomy of a Boyfriend, which is a modern day Forever (I say that even though it was written in 2007—it’s aged well, I think). I love the cover, with its cheeky annotations. It’s true that some of the love scenes are a bit clinical, but for what the book is trying to do, it absolutely works.

Over winter break during her senior year, Dom meets Wes, who she is immediately smitten with. They start hanging out and Dom keeps expecting her first kiss from him, but it keeps not coming. She and her friend Amy think maybe he’s not actually interested, despite all the signs that point to a Yes, he is interested. Finally, finally, he admits he’s a little chicken and that starts a relationship that heats up pretty quickly, because they’re both into each other so much. Most of the rest of the book is devoted to their sexual explorations. These are the parts that have been described as clinical by some people. I won’t really disagree—they’re certainly not titillating—but I think one of the points of the book is to show a realistic (older) teenage first relationship develop over several months. We see Dom’s high and lows in all aspects of the relationship—including when it breaks down.

The book is solid, with several well-developed characters and a sense of humor about everything. Dom’s friend Amy is so different from her, but still believable. And Wes is a good character, even if he turns into a total butthead. I love Dom and her healthy libido and curiosity and her affection for everyone around her (parents included)—and her attitude when she gets to college.

Perfect for teens who don’t have a absintence-only-believer breathing down their necks (or maybe especially for them).

Review: Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell

Everything Beautiful book coverRiley Rose is an atheist, a cynic, and quite the rebel. She’s also fat, but she’s determined to make that irrelevant to her life. Her mother died a few years before the book opens and her dad turned all religious and acquired a super-Christian girlfriend. Riley is a bit of a party girl, and when she gets in trouble for breaking into a pool with a bunch of friends, her dad’s solution is to send her to church camp. Obviously.

From the beginning, she plans to be uncooperative and hate all the ridiculous religious people. She says she will “go as a plague” and try to make life miserable for everyone else. She arrives and quickly makes a minor enemy out of her cabin-mate by stealing her bed. Things proceed from there about as you’d expect. Most of the other campers think she’s sinful and therefore a terrible person. But what Riley doesn’t expect is to make friends with a very odd girl (who “performs her ablutions” on the regular), an odd brother and sister pair, or meet a boy she likes even better than her current boy-of-the-month.

When she firsts sees Dylan, he’s wheeled himself onto the stage at the camp and when she throws a sprig of lavender at him, he eats it and she sees a kindred spirit—someone else who’s lost, moody, superior, and charged, as she thinks of herself. It isn’t until she gets in trouble at the same time as Dylan—not with him, just at the same time—that they start getting to know each other. As punishment, they’re tasked with clearing out a house of a recently dead old man’s possessions.

I liked Riley and rooted for her, though I didn’t really identify with her. She isn’t necessarily a very nice person all the time, with all her rebelling. But she’s still interesting to follow. Dylan is also cool to watch—he’s a little enigmatic for a while, but we start to get him more as Riley gets to know him. There aren’t a lot of books with characters in wheelchairs out there, and I learned some stuff from this book (note: do not touch someone’s chair). It’s also entertaining to watch Riley sort of move toward having faith in something—I didn’t take it that she became a Christian, but rather that she started to develop faith in the world, something she’d lost before. The ending is a little vague in that we’re not sure that Riley and Dylan will see each other again, but it’s clear that they’ve each changed as a consequence of meeting.

If you like reading about rebels, you will probably like this one.

Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

My Heart and Other Black Holes book coverThis is a quiet book about depression and how it can seemingly take over a person’s life and entire perspective, and then how to get away from it.

Aysel suffers from depression, which she imagines is embodied as the “black slug” in her stomach. She also worries that the apparent mental problem that caused her father to murder someone might also live inside her. The only solution she sees is to kill herself, so she searches the internet for a suicide partner. Finding one close by in a boy named Roman, the two of them come up with a plan—a date, place, and method. The rest of the novel focuses on their growing relationship and how it changes Aysel.

Aysel’s a different kind of character. She’s still into classical music, like her dad taught her to be, even though she thinks she might hate her dad after what he did. She’s also a bit of a physics nerd. She isn’t close to her family, mostly because she thinks of herself as fundamentally different from them, even though she lives with her mom, stepdad, and half-siblings. She also feel different from everyone around her, partially because she’s Turkish (her parents came over to the US from Turkey), but also because she doesn’t know how to connect with other people. She’s clearly damaged and her depression has taken over. Roman’s also damaged, but his comes from a single act of negligence on his part that resulted in a tragedy. He can’t live with himself even though it wasn’t really his fault.

Warga handles Aysel and her depression without making the book itself to depressing. There are even some light moments. This made me laugh:

I don’t admire many things about Stacy, but I have to admit it takes some ovaries to talk to your physics teacher like he’s a puppy.

In general, Aysel’s voice is very believable. She comes across as a little younger than a lot of sixteen-year-old protagonists out there, but I think it fits because of her social isolation and inexperience with relationships.

My Heart and Other Black Holes provides a good look into the mindset of a suicidal person, so it could easily be used both to be related to and to be a teaching tool.

Review: Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

Two Can Keep a Secret book coverTwo Can Keep a Secret is the followup (not the sequel, that’s a different book) to McManus’s One of Us Is Lying, which I liked and reviewed on this blog. The two books are a little different, as I feel Two Can Keep a Secret is quieter and less complicated than the first. It was still a good suspense that kept me guessing.

The book’s narrated by two characters: Ellery and Malcom. Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are moving in with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, Vermont while their mother is in rehab. Malcolm is the younger brother of the guy everyone thinks murdered a girl five years earlier.

Things go wrong for both of them right from the start. When Ellery and Ezra are getting a ride from the airport, they stumble across a body in the road at the edge of town. At a fundraiser for the murdered girl, Ellery finds Malcolm standing with a can of spray paint next to a message sprayed on a wall:

MURDERLAND

THE SEQUEL

COMING SOON

Murderland was the name of the Halloween park where the girl’s body was found. In its new incarnation, it’s called Fright Farm, and Ellery and Ezra get jobs there like most of the other teenagers in town. Ellery also becomes acquainted with the queen bee of the school, Katrin. When meeting her, she thinks,

We all murmur hellos, and it feels like some sort of uncomfortable audition.

Who can’t relate to that? Soon, Ellery’s been sucked under the threat implied by the graffiti Malcolm might have written. But she doesn’t think so. And it’s not long before she’s hanging out with him as well as her brother and Malcom’s friend Mia.

In addition to being the shoe-in for homecoming queen, Katrin is also Malcolm’s step-sister. Malcolm isn’t overly fond of this situation, but there’s not much he can do about it. Plus, he’s got more to worry about: his infamous brother is back in town, and he doesn’t know why or what he’s doing there. The timing is bad with the graffiti, more of which appears later.

With this set up, there are quite a few suspects as well as a real threat against Ellery. I wasn’t blind-sided by the resolution, but there is a small but significant twist at the end that I didn’t at all expect. Additionally, there are several minor twists and reveals along the way that surprised me.

If you enjoyed One of Us Is Lying, or YA suspense in general, you’d probably like this one, too.

Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie book coverWhen I first heard about this book, I was sort of freaked out because of similarities it has with my own Sadie Speaks (still unpublished). I’m hoping I don’t have to change the name of my character because of it. Still, it sounded like an interesting book, so I bought it.

Sadie makes an interesting format choice. The book alternates chapters between the character Sadie’s narrative and the transcript (basically) of a serialized podcast called The Girls, narrated by West McCray (an adult man). It opens with the show, which gives Summers an easy and legitimate way to provide the setting and backstory. Thirteen-year-old Mattie was murdered and her older sister, Sadie, disappeared soon afterward. The Girls came about because Sadie and Mattie’s unofficial, stand-in grandmother, their neighbor May Beth, contacted West. Thus began his investigation and the show.

We learn a lot about Sadie from May Beth, but we learn even more about how people never really know the people they care about. Obviously we learn the most from Sadie's own narrative. What we know early on is that she’s heartbroken over Mattie, who she basically raised because their mother was an addict who eventually disappeared, and she knows who killed her. And she’s going to kill him. In the first chapter, we see her clumsily buy a car and learn that she has a significant stutter that makes most of her interactions with people difficult, or at least awkward. Thus begins her quest.

The show and Sadie’s narrative are on two different time lines, but they interact seamlessly, where basically something happens in Sadie’s chapter and afterward West will figure out that part of her journey, just in time for Sadie to describe her next steps. It takes a little while for West to “catch up” to Sadie in terms of the book, but it still works very well. What’s interesting about it is that despite the fact that we’re with Sadie for her journey, sometimes we learn more about it—in the wider context—from West.

Sadie’s a very interesting character. Even though she’s on a dark path, you eventually figure out why and sympathize with her. Despite that, I had a little trouble connecting with her, but I had no trouble rooting for her. The characters in the show storyline are pretty well drawn given the format. We can see West is credible, and he learns a little more about the darkness of the world and how it impacts him given that he has a young daughter. May Beth also is very believable and she too learns about the dark side of things. The characters that Sadie interacts with for fleeting moments are less developed as they’re seen entirely through her slightly distorted perspective, but the most important of them get revisited with West, which is interesting.

If you’re in the mood for a different kind of thriller, this might be for you. Like a lot of thrillers, it deals with some of the unpleasant aspects of the world, which makes reading it demanding at times. But it’s engaging and unusual and has an ending that will stay with you.

Review: My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins

My True Love Gave to Me book coverIt’s probably a little odd to be doing a review of a holiday short story collection several weeks after the holidays ended, but since when did I claim to be normal. Besides, I started reading this before Christmas.

This nice collection focused mostly on Christmas experiences, but there were a lot of creative interpretations of that in the twelve stories, many of which came from big names. Rainbow Rowell’s “Midnights” was one I’d read (and loved) before. In it, Mags and Noel meet at a New Years party one year and the story focuses on their friendship over the years by showing us the subsequent New Years parties. It’s a sweet little romance. Next comes Kelly Link’s “The Lady and the Fox.” This was a creative one involving a ghost, but it didn’t really resonate with me (though I know a lot of people who are big fans of Kelly Link, so it’s surely just a matter of personal taste). The next story is “Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Peña. I quite liked this one. It’s about a down-on-his-luck (i.e., completely and utterly broke) college student house/cat-sitting for a friend who meets a college girl from a very different background. It’s really about how they connect.

In “Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han, a human girl is living amongst Santa’s elves at the North Pole. She has to figure out who she is despite being truly one of a kind in her surrounding. How do you figure out who you are when you’re different from everybody else? Stephanie Perkins’ “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” features a video maker and a guy with a great voice. It’s also a sweet little romance—with a bit of angst in it—that I quite liked. In “Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan, a Jewish boy dresses up as Santa to give his boyfriend’s little sister one more year of believing in Santa. It's sweet.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black was kind of strange. Black does that well, though. I suppose it’s about wishing things into being. In the next one, I first have to say, kudos to Gayle Forman for naming her fictional college the University of Bumfuckville, which she does in, “What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” It’s a nice story about finding your place among strangers—and not making stupid assumptions about people. “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire is a funny story about a prankster kid who accidentally burned down a church’s barn, where they stored everything for the annual Christmas pageant, and ends up helping pull said pageant off against all odds—and making a friend in the process.

Kiersten White’s “Welcome to Christmas, CA” wasn’t steeped in Christmas spirit, but it was a nice little story about appreciating and helping the people around you, whether you want to be where you are or not. And also psychic cooking. There’s that too. The next story, “Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter, deals with the unexpected consequences of two girls switching identities. Sometimes home can be found in the most unlikely of places. The final story in the collection is “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor. It’s about believing in yourself to the point that you manifest exactly what you need, with the help of a little magic.

There’s a good variety of stories in here so some should appeal to you. If you’re missing the holidays, pick this up to get back in the spirit.

2019 Books in Review

At the end of the year, I like to look back and identify the books that moved me the most during that year.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen was the first book I reviewed this year, in January. It’s the only historical novel on this list because I don’t read much historical stuff anymore. But that didn’t keep me from really liking the book. It was also kind of funny—this was the first review I tweeted and atted (is that a word?) the author, who actually responded with a gif from Finding Nemo because I’d referred to the middle as being a little squishy.

A book I reviewed in July, Hold Still by Nina LaCour, stuck with me because of its emotional depth. The main character is basically destroyed when her best friend commits suicide. She has to find a way out of the darkness.

On a lighter note, I reread the Chi’s Sweet Home series by Konami Kanata this year, too. I was behind on my Goodreads challenge and needed to catch up—what’s better for that than some graphic novels? 🙂 But I seriously love this series. Anyone who loves cats as much as I do would also like it. Here’s my review from September.

The next book I reviewed, A Heart in a Body in a World by Deb Caletti, takes us right back to the darkness (I gravitate toward these kinds of books…). This one is interesting because of its structure. We know something really bad happened to the main character before the book opened, but we don’t know what. The author reveals the whole story bit by bit, all while focusing on the MC’s inspiring run across the country.

The last book I reviewed this year was Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, which I did just last week, and which was (happily) a bit lighter. It’s a nice feminist read that deals with some important things while managing to mostly stay upbeat. I liked it quite a bit.

That covers my favorite books from 2019. Can’t wait for all the books I’m going to read in 2020.

Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Moxie book coverI wish I could remember how I found out about this book, because I’d like to go back and ask for more recommendations, because this was a great read.

Vivian is sick of how girls are treated at her small-town Texas high school, with good reason. The coarse football players can do no wrong. Make overtly sexist comments, wear sexist t-shirts (like GREAT LEGS—WHEN DO THEY OPEN), touch girls without their consent, be general assholes—it’s all cool because football players are kings in Texas. The girls, on the other hand, can’t do anything right. The school holds regular “dress code checks“ where they decide that what girls are wearing is too risqué and they make them put on a giant football jersey to cover up. After all, they can’t be tempting the saintly boys.

Everyone thinks Vivian is a good girl. Her grandparents even call her “dutiful” after she tells them about an incident at school, which gets her hackles up—and which surprises her. She knows she is dutiful, but isn’t sure she wants to be. Because she’s grown up knowing about her mom’s rebellious past. Her mom was a Riot Grrrl in Portland after leaving Texas. Vivian was born there, but her father died in an accident not long afterward and her mom had to move back to Texas so she could get help from Vivian’s grandparents. But Vivian knows about the rebellious times because of a box labeled MY MISSPENT YOUTH, which contains pictures, zines, and other memorabilia from the Riot Grrrl days.

After an incident at school, Vivian’s had it. She makes her own zine called Moxie and secretly distributes it in the girls’ bathrooms before school starts. It points out the unfairness of the school administration and their misdirected punishments, and calls for girls to decorate their hands with stars and hearts on their hands. This is just the beginning of a difficult journey that the girls at her school will take, and it’s fun to watch. Because of course it’s not as simple as that, and the horrible administration is going to fight back with all the misogyny they’ve got (which is a lot).

And while all this is getting started, Vivian meets a cool boy who seems as appalled by the behavior of the boys at the school and the school administration as many of the girls are. I loved her attitude about him:

I decide that Seth Acosta deciding I’m kick-ass is even better than him thinking I’m pretty. Definitely better.

It’s fun—and inspiring—to watch Vivian grow from the dutiful good girl she is at the beginning to a brave and bold girl by the end. The transformation of her friends and the school is mostly believable (maybe a tiny bit idealized, but only a tiny bit). This is a fantastic book about girls both respecting themselves and demanding respect from everyone around them. More teen girls need this message, especially those lost in small towns where misogyny is still par for the course.

I think everyone should read this one because it has some good lessons without being an issue book. I’m looking forward to reading some more of Mathieu’s books, too.

Review: Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung

A Quiet Girl in a Noisy World book coverI’ve just discovered a new gem in this author/artist. There were moments I was reading this when I thought Tung must have been channeling my thoughts word-for-word. Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story is a memoir chronicling Tung’s life from late grad school at the University of Birmingham in England through her first real job. She reflects some on her childhood and basically shows how she came to realize that being shy and very introverted is okay, not something to be ashamed of. Her art style is subdued in black, white, and gray watercolors and I really liked it.

One of the many areas where I especially felt like she and I were on the same wavelength was with books, which she loves (as do I). She goes nowhere without one, even if she knows she won’t be able to read it, because it gives her a sense of comfort and the feeling of a friend by her side. She says:

When I see a book I’ve read and liked on someone else’s bookshelf…

I secretly know we are going to be good friends.

She talks about how emotionally attached she gets to the characters in the books she reads, and how it feels like a relationship has ended when she finishes them. She watches emotional movies so she can have an excuse to cry without judgment.

I also could really relate to the way she seeks meaning in everything and feels the need to constantly be productive in some way. She says:

I always doubt that I’m living up to my full potential.

I should learn a new language every year. Or a new skill. Maybe I can take some classes.

I feel like I should constantly be doing something to improve myself, learning new things, and growing as a person.

When will I know it’s okay to stop?

Perhaps never…

When she is starting to realize she finds her job meaningless, she asks:

I did everything right at work today.

Why do I still feel so empty?

I also expect to find meaning in the things I do, and when work isn’t fulfilling, it’s so draining.

I loved how she conveyed what it’s like to meet new people.

Meeting new people

I’m so uncomfortable that this is pretty much how it is for me, too. Her general discomfort in social situations causes her a lot of stress until she finally accepts herself. She says:

I’m socially awkward and weird.

I’ve always felt like there is something wrong with me. I’ve been like this my whole life.

Sometimes her description of social interactions are so relatable. Here's the aftermath of one:

Aftermath of an awkward conversation

Some of it is kind of funny:

A conversation with a neighbor

and

Dissertation vs. socializing

Another one that made me laugh was her having to make a phone call for work in front of people:

Using the phone in front of people

I hate calling people I don’t know well, and with people watching... Well. But in all three of these cases, it might make you laugh, but it’s kind of a sad funny.

She doesn’t feel great about herself because of the pressure society puts on introverts to be extraverted. And especially as it relates to shyness—shyness is sort of forgiven in children, but once you’re an adult you’re supposed to have outgrown it and “come out of your shell.” Although she tries to be friendly, how she really feels is:

A mixture of frustration, insanity, and dying on the inside.

She famously overthinks everything, something I can totally relate to. She’s even got a sort of flowchart that shows the thought process she goes through when deciding to go to a social event or not:

Socializing flowchart

I loved how she talks about ”energy level” and how it reflects her ability to deal with social situations and her general emotional state. It’s true for me too that when I’m low on that type of energy, everything is hard to deal with:

Low energy and intensityThe good news is that by the end of the book, she has discovered and accepted her introversion, and no longer beats herself up over it.

Overall, this is an excellent portrayal of the shy introvert’s experience (though not all introverts are shy). It’s very sweet and a little funny at times, but always honest and real to Tung’s experiences. Many people will find this highly relatable, and I think it could even be helpful for some people who can’t relate to it (i.e., extraverts) to learn about the way the other half lives. I’m looking forward to reading her other book, Book Love (how can I not like that, right?).