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 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.

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


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?).

Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Pumpkinheads book coverI’m a big Rowell fan because I think she does a fantastic job of capturing the emotional truth of people in her characters. I was new to Hicks, but I quite enjoyed this graphic novel. Hicks’ art was sharp and evocative. It felt like she used an autumn color palette, too, that comes across as seasonal and vivid.

Deja and Josie have worked together every fall at the local but immense and involved pumpkin patch and now it’s their last year there before they go off to college. It has numerous stations, from Pappy’s Apples, the Corn Maize, the S’mores Pit, and the Haunted Hacienda. The two of them have worked at the Succotash Hut every year and they’re very good friends, even if the don’t see each other except in the fall.

Josie is a shy boy who’s harbored a crush on Marcy, a girl who works at the Fudge Shoppe, since he started there. Deja is an outgoing and bold girl who wants to help Josie seize the day and tell Marcy how he feels. They do something that feels wild and crazy to Josie—leave their station and go on a quest to find Marcy, who keeps getting moved from station to station right ahead of them. Along the way they run into many of Deja’s exes—boys and girls—and we learn just how timid Josie really is. He has a lesson to learn about pining for someone from a distance rather than paying attention to what’s in front of his face.

This is a cute fall story, very well-illustrated. Fans of Rowell should like it, and I’d imagine the same can be said of fans of Hicks (I’m planning to check out some of her other stuff).

Review: Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Stay Sweet book coverI heard about this book and put it at the top of my list since it was about a girl working in an ice cream stand, similar to one of my characters. I didn’t quite pick up the authenticity tidbits I’d hoped for (the situations were different), but I got to experience a good story.

Amelia is going to be head girl at the Meade Creamery ice cream stand for its summer season in their vacation town before she heads off to college. The Meade Creamery has always only hired girls, ever since its founder Molly Meade opened it after World War II. Amelia and her best friend, Cate, have put their time in, starting as freshman and working there through their senior year. But just before the stand is scheduled to open, Amelia makes a shocking discovery that results in a boy—Grady Meade—taking over the stand. Molly’s hands-off management style no longer applies.

Amelia takes her head girl duties seriously which eventually causes friction with the more free-spirited Cate. But even more significant is the fact that Amelia has to work with Grady to learn to make the four ice cream flavors the stand offers. In the process, she discovers Molly’s diary, which she reads as the summer progresses. Consequently, we get two different storylines—Amelia’s and Molly’s. Molly’s comes with a surprise at the end, and Amelia’s friendship with Cate is tested as her relationship with Grady develops unexpectedly.

I’ll be honest—this is a fairly quiet story, but it surprises you at the end with a feminist twist. And the ice cream theme is fun and gives it a summer feel. I liked the story and the quest for the recipe that Amelia and Grady go on. Grady is a good character even though I found him kind of off-putting at times, but he grows and you learn more about why he’s the way he is. Cate is also a well-developed character. And of course Amelia is complex and interesting.

Pick this up for next summer, or for a reminder in the middle of winter. You will want to go get ice cream, though.

Review: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

The Great American Whatever book coverI had heard of Federle because of his Better Nate Than Never middle grade series, but I’ve never read them. So The Great American Whatever was my introduction to him. It’s about a movie- and screenwriting-obsessed sixteen-year-old boy named Quinn. About five months before the book opens, Quinn’s sister Annabeth was killed in a car wreck, which has him devastated and not particularly functional. She was his filmmaking partner—they had a production company called Q&A Productions and Quinn envisioned them going to Hollywood together some day.

Now, he hasn’t been to school since the accident, which happened the day before Christmas break, and summer’s already started with its incessant heat (he’s in Pittsburgh). In the beginning of the book, Quinn’s long-time friend Geoff shows up to force him out of the house. This sets off a series of events that finally brings Quinn out of his shell (and out of the closet, even though everybody already “knew”). Geoff takes Quinn to a college party, where he meets love interest Amir, and things take off from there.

I feel like there isn’t a strong plot in the book, but Quinn does have a clear coming-of-age character arc. He learns better to look at things from other people’s perspectives and matures quite a bit in other ways. He’s a good character in that he’s very flawed and still relatable. He’s rather self-absorbed and a bit on the arrogant side, at least in his two known subjects (i.e. movies and screenwriting), but he's vulnerable and cares about his family and friends. His friend Geoff is a generally good guy who turns out to have a secret that blows Quinn away and drives them temporarily apart. Amir is fine as a love interest, though he was kind of bland. Quinn’s sister features a lot in the book through flashbacks, and she is very interesting and more complex than you realize at first. Still, Quinn’s voice and attitude make the book what it is—funny and full of movie references any film buff will love.

So if you like coming-of-age stories, especially those with coming out storylines, you will probably like this.

Review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

The FEmale of the Species book coverThe first thing I have to say is that this is an unusual book. It’s about violence and rape culture, which means it’s wasn’t easy to read. But it felt worth reading.

We know from the beginning that Alex Craft has killed someone in the past. Over time we learn that the way she did it was pretty brutal. But we also understand why she did it—the guy got away with raping and murdering her older sister, Anna. And this has us pondering violence in general. This is good since Alex’s brain is slightly fixated on her own penchant for violence, which she worries could emerge again at any time. In the meantime, she’s just trying to just make it through the day-to-day of school and a life in a dark home. This is difficult, as she’s not like other kids and she knows it.

Rape comes up more explicitly at a strange assembly at school early in the book, where a cop comes in and starts listing off stats about rape, even pointing out specific girls to exemplify the numbers. This scene definitely sets the expectation that rape culture will be an important theme, even though there’s no real way to know which girls will be impacted.

Besides Alex, the book features two other protagonists: Peekay (P.K., the preacher’s kid) and Jack (the local popular over-achiever). Both Peekay and Jack know who Alex is, but they don’t know her at all. No one does. Peekay and Alex meet when they both start volunteering at the local animal shelter as part of their senior year experience, and Jack and Alex meet when they’re called into the office to discuss the valedictorian status that they’re competing for, even though Alex doesn’t care about it since she has no plans for college. Both Peekay and and Jack are good characters who are as different from each other as they are from Alex.

With this setup, I wondered where the story would go. Alex gets to know both Peekay and Jack, getting pulled into the ”normal” teenage social world of parties etc. She and Peekay become friends and even though Peekay’s good friend is really leery of Alex, Peekay’s convinced she’s a good person—because she’s got a clear soft spot for animals. Alex and Jack eventually get together. Jack’s historically gotten around quite a bit and has an on and off thing with the town’s unofficial beauty queen, Branley. But he fixates on Alex in a way that surprises him, but not as much as Alex’s feelings for him surprise her.

An event at a party brings both rape culture and Alex’s violence to the forefront and we wonder what is going to come after. Peekay and Jack get to know Alex better, but not as well as they think. And when Jack finally learns a dark secret about Alex, he doesn’t know what to do and ends up looking like the bad guy. The eventual climax of the story surprised me. Again, both rape and violence feature significantly, but the events themselves do not go as I would have expected. The resolution was satisfying enough, the character’s lives being changed in important ways, but still left me feeling a little unsure.

Speaking of characters, this is an area where the book definitely excels. Alex is probably the most unique character I’ve encountered. She’s complicated and not necessarily morally admirable. She made me really uncomfortable at times, which was sort of awesome. Peekay is also great. She was my favorite, actually. She too doesn’t always behave the way she feels like she should, though she doesn’t really feel bad about it. And she brings Alex out of her shell, something that seems impossible at the beginning. Jack is also a good character (even though I never really liked him too much) because he’s complex and just so human, flaws and all. He’s pretty self-aware, too, which made him interesting. The secondary characters are also compelling—specifically Branley and Peekay’s friend Sarah.

This book definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you like to see rape culture challenged and violence pondered in a feminist way, check it out.

Review: A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti

A Heart in a Body in the World book coverI admit I’m a fan of Caletti, even though I haven’t yet read all of her books yet (I’m at about half). I love how she writes about mental health issues without making the stories issue books. So I was predisposed to like this one. Which was fine, because I did. I should mention that I listened to the audio book rather than read the paper book.

The book takes an interesting approach to revealing a major incident that took place before it starts. We know something happened and that it had a huge impact on Annabelle, a teen at the beginning of her senior year. But Caletti holds back, only delivering tiny bits of info at a time, waiting until very close to the end to really reveal the full event. I feel like it might annoy impatient people because so much isn’t known (and because of that it feels slow in the beginning), but I liked it because it kept my curiosity up. And as much as I guessed about the event itself, I was still a surprised by the details.

The basic story is that Annabelle spontaneously begins a run across the country, from Seattle to Washington, DC. At first, she is woefully unprepared, but soon her grandfather appears in his RV to provide support and a place to stay each night. Her younger brother Malcolm and two of her friends back home form a publicity team, setting up a fundraising page to help pay for expenses. She becomes a bit of an activist, against her wishes, because of what her journey represents to other people.

And this is an arduous journey for Annabelle for a variety of reasons. There’s the obvious physical challenge. Even though she’s already a skilled runner, the distance starts to take a toll on her body, with horrible blisters, sore knees, and painful chafing (and more). But it also means that Annabelle is totally stuck in her head with nothing but her thoughts. And those thoughts are themselves painful, because she thinks what happened was her fault. Since we don’t know what happened (we only know early on that her best friend Kat is “gone,” presumably dead). The one who committed the evil is a boy at her school she calls The Taker.

Structurally, the book is mostly told in flashbacks because the running basically provides a frame for her to relay her memories of The Taker and her friends to us. But I think it works well because what else would you do while running other than dwell on the things that stress you out? I mean, that’s not the healthiest thing to do, but it’s pretty human.

This book touches on some really important issues. I won’t name them all, but I love how Caletti is quietly feminist in this book. Annabelle consistently thinks about how wrong the treatment of girls and women is in our society without getting in your face about it (not that in-your-face feminism is a bad thing, but it’s definitely not for everyone). And it looks at guilt, PTSD,  violence, and self-punishment (that’s what her running really is). It also explores the idea that maybe if you’d made different decisions in the past, things might have turned out differently—but that doesn’t make you responsible for the actions of other people.

Overall, I think this is an important and deep book that a lot of people will appreciate. It is quiet, as I’ve implied, rather than being full of action so you might want to make sure you’re in the mood for that kind of book before picking it up. But I think it will be worth it.

Review: If There’s No Tomorrow by Jennifer L. Armentrout

If There's No Tomorrow book coverI’ve read and enjoyed another Armentrout book (I even used it for a comparison title for Finding Frances). So I was curious about this one. The back cover description didn’t excite me a great deal, but I found it on audio at the library and decided I needed to listen to it.

The beginning of the book is focused on Lena, who seems to run with the popular crowd despite being a total book nerd and having a quiet personality. This is probably because of her friendship with Sebastian, her next-door neighbor and forever crush. Sebastian is a football star and recently broke up with his long-time girlfriend, but Lena knows he isn’t available since he doesn’t like her that way. On top of the Sebastian problem, she’s plays volleyball with her friend Megan, who’s way more talented than Lena is. Despite that, their coach has told Lena he thinks she has a shot at a scholarship if she steps things up and plays well this season. It’s the end of summer before senior year and things are looking good.

Everything changes the weekend before school starts, when Lena and four of her friends make a very bad choice that ends in tragedy. The rest of the book is Lena dealing with survivor’s guilt as well the more palpable guilt of someone who feels genuinely responsible for the incident. She initially is unable to deal with it at all and shuts her friends out, which creates a lot of tension. One of her friends returns the sentiment and Lena has no idea how to fix it. Sebastian challenges her the most and she risks damaging their friendship because she refuses to talk to him. She’s basically frozen in place.

The meat of the book is her struggle to start living life again, and it’s a slog for her. But she does come out of it and it is rewarding to see it happen.

I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan of all the characters. High school football players and their friends are not my favorite type of people, if I’m going to generalize (which apparently I am). Sebastian kind of annoyed me because I didn’t really believe he was as good as we were supposed to accept. But I know a lot of people will have no problem buying into him. And there is a full cast of characters, all a little different from each other while still being believable high school students.

Good for fans of Armentrout and pretty much any teen who could use a little reminder of her lack of invincibility.