Review: Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

I read Summers’ book Sadie a while back and loved it, even though the character was a little difficult. I still totally sympathized with her. But that wasn’t the first difficult character Summers has worked with, as Cracked Up to Be features an even more troubled one, who isn’t as easy to like.


Cracked Up to Be book coverWhen the book opens, we meet Parker, who’s not doing well and has to see the guidance counselor, which she is not happy about. (Who ever is happy about seeing a high school guidance counselor, actually?) But Parker’s a mess—she’s at a private school and her uniform as grungy and she’s got the wrong shoes, and she failed to brush her hair. Blah blah.

Parker used to be perfect—she was the cheerleading captain, made perfect grades, and was generally difficult to be around because of her high standards and overachieving nature. But the old Parker would not have a mustard stain on her skirt.

A Thing Happened

We know that Parker has been a mess for a while. She may even be doing better at this point than she was. She seems to not be drunk all the time now, for instance. But she is still on a self-destructive path. She’s rude to everyone, especially the people she was close to Before. Because that’s the thing—something really bad happened, and she knows it’s her fault. Everyone knows that Parker’s friend Jessie went missing after a party, but nobody except Parker knows that it’s her fault, and she’s not telling anyone.

Moving On—Or Not

The book focuses on Parker’s journey—is she going to manage to graduate despite her missing class and homework? Is she going to forgive herself for whatever she did? And will they figure out what really happened to Jessie? The reader obviously wants to know what really happened, how it could be Parker’s fault. Because as an outside observer, you can guess that it probably isn’t really her fault. In the end we do finally learn what she did, and while it’s easy to understand why she thinks it’s her fault, she isn’t the one who caused Jessie to disappear.


The book is a reflection on regret, guilt, and responsibility, with a distinctly feminist bent because it reminds us why girls and women have to look out for each other and how distinctly messed up that is. Parker was perfect but she did one thing that wasn’t perfect, and look what happened. It shouldn’t take constant vigilance for girls to stay safe.

Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

I Wish You All the Best book coverThis is one of the first books about a nonbinary teenager I’ve read. I’m definitely on the lookout for more books like this, too. But this one was good, even though it was heartbreaking to watch the character struggle so much with coming out.


Ben comes out to their parents as nonbinary at the very beginning of the book. They knew their parents were conservative, but they still thought it would be okay. They were wrong. Ben’s dad kicked them out immediately after they told them, and they ended up at a Walgreens in their socks.

A Way Out

Fortunately, they had a single lifeline—the phone number for the older sister who abandoned them. She’d hidden it in the bathroom but Ben found it and stored it for all those years, using it when they finally really needed it.

Ben moves in with their sister, who is supportive and well-intentioned (if not perfect) along with her husband. They get Ben enrolled at a high school in Raleigh.

A Fresh Start

Ben’s not comfortable being openly nonbinary, so they still use he/him pronouns at school. But they manage to befriend a boy and his friends (more accurately, the boy, Nathan, goes out of his way to befriend Ben despite them being kind of a jerk). This friendship develops slowly because Ben has major trust issues and doesn’t open up to Nathan until late in the book.

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed was Ben’s art. They’re always sketching and clearly have a lot of skill, but they’re intimidated by painting. But their new art teacher takes them under her wing and encourages them to try acrylic. Ben takes right to it, producing a lovely painting of Nathan. A school art show provides a focal point for a lot of conflict.

Wrapping Up

I really feel like this book captures the internal struggle people questioning their gender identity go through. It’s not easy and it’s not about other people, like other people often think. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book still ends on a very positive note. It also successfully shows one way that world can be navigated.

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. 


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. 


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: 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: 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: 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: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful book coverAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I enjoy reading about teenagers’ experience with mental illness, and this book definitely fits that bill.

Mel Hannigan has a lot to deal with. She has bipolar disorder. She also had an older brother who she was really close to who died a few years earlier. She has a couple of friends currently, but lost three close friends the previous year because of her illness and a fight with one of them. Nobody outside her family knows about her bipolar disorder. She also works at a nursing home, which is where she feels most comfortable now. This is where she meets David, a boy her age who helps to start breaking down some of the walls she’s constructed around herself. But it’s not an easy or painless process.

The book opens with a memory that leads up to—but doesn’t include—Mel’s brother Nolan’s death (what happened to him is a mystery that isn’t revealed until the end). Then we jump three years ahead to Mel at 16. She is dealing with her bipolar disorder reasonably well, considering how severe it is. She tries to keep it under control with medication and mood charts, and keeps it secret from her friends because she doesn’t think they’d react well.

Her mood tracking is pretty interesting—she thinks of four components of herself (head, heart, health, and “host” (which corresponds with her overall mood plus the combination of others)) and tracks how each one is doing in order to understand her state of mind as well as possible. This is pretty important to her because her bipolar is fairly extreme and she regularly experiences mixed states and even dysphoric mania (which is depression mixed with very high energy, highly dangerous in terms of suicide risk).

Mel starts getting to know David at the nursing home at the same time as her old friend group has a major event that means that she might be able to refriend them. Things are shaky on all fronts, however, and when something devastating happens, Mel’s mental state worsens and everything goes wrong. You wonder how things are going to turn around and it’s both heartbreaking and satisfying to see it happen.

I think this book does an excellent job of conveying one experience of bipolar disorder. It’s not everyone’s experience of it, but seeing one could help a reader understand it better. But it’s also just a good story.

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter book coverThis is a really interesting and unique book. It’s steeped in Mexican-America culture, but not really in a positive way—the main character, Julia, basically hates every aspect of it. To me this was interesting because one of the reasons she hates it is that she can’t navigate it well—she’s socially awkward, but not in the “standard” way (at least this was my take on it). No, she says and does the wrong thing for her culture, which might be okay in white American culture (though definitely not always).

The book opens just after Julia’s older sister, Olga, was killed when she accidentally walked in front of a moving semi. Julia is of course upset by this even though they weren’t particularly close anymore. But what has a more direct impact on her life is the way her family is handling it—her mother has completely withdrawn and her dad is as silent as he ever was. What’s more, Julia figures out that there was more to her sister than anyone thought, but she can’t figure out what was going on.

As things get back to normal, we can see that Julia’s still not okay, but it becomes clear that it’s not really about her sister. Her mother is incredibly controlling and doesn’t let Julia do much of anything. She’s supposed to want to stay home like any good Mexican daughter should want (and like her sister). But Julia’s “different”—as her mother puts it when she’s being nice about it—and wants other things out of life. First, she wants to be a writer and has befriended her English teacher, who thinks she’s one of his best students ever. She wants to go to college. She wants to go to an occasional party and maybe have some friends, even though she’s as awkward about that as she is with her family. Her mom doesn’t want any of those things for her.

One thing I have to mention is that Julia isn’t necessarily very likable. She’s not nice or very appreciative of the people around her and she generally says what on her mind without thinking much about it first. But as I’ve said here, she’s an interesting character and I did care about what happened to her because in some ways she's making the best of a bad situation (one that's bad for her, not necessarily everyone).

I think this is an important book because it teaches about a culture in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat things. It also addresses depression (which I didn’t expect, honestly—I knew we were skirting the topic but I thought that’s all we’d do). Julia’s a character worth getting to know, even if you’re not going to necessarily want to be her friend.

Review: Cut by Patricia McCormick

Cut book coverThis short book first came out eighteen years ago but it’s still relevant today. It’s (fairly obviously) about a girl who cuts herself.

The book starts with Callie in the hospital—a mental ward—sitting with her therapist. Pretty quickly, we learn the circumstances of when she cut herself for the first time. And then we learn that she’s not speaking, at all. She has to go to these group therapy sessions with other girls who are there for different reasons—some have eating issues, some drug issues. So, very early on we’re set up to wonder why she’s cutting herself, if she’s going to talk, and what’s going to happen with her group.

McCormick obviously did her research on cutting and what drives people to it. She portrays Callie sympathetically without romanticizing cutting in any way. And she addresses how cutting can make people feel better at times but shows how that’s a fleeting thing. And it stops working:

The pain is so sharp, so sudden, I catch my breath. There’s no rush, no relief. Just pain, a keen, pulsing pain… It’s never hurt like this before. And it’s never not worked.

Callie is shown to have depth even though we don’t really get to know her reasons for cutting any sooner than the therapist. The other girls are portrayed realistically, too, and there’s an interesting subplot involving one of the anorexic/bulimic girls. And even though we see her brother Sam only once in story time, he is a good character and critical to the story.

Check this one out if you’re up for a short but deep portrait of a troubled teen.

Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay book coverDarius the Great Is Not Okay is a unique book. Darius is an American kid whose mother is from Iran and whose father is Teutonic stock, and he is under treatment for depression. You don’t see a lot of YA featuring boys of color with depression, so I was curious to see how this one would play out. Also, most of the book is set in Iran, which is cool—I’ve only personally encountered one other YA book set there (not that I’ve looked extensively, but still).

Darius doesn’t fit in in Portland, Oregon and feels second-rate even in his own home. He does have an eight-year-old sister he adores, but his relationship with his father is rough. It’s clear from the very beginning that that causes him the most grief. Almost as soon as we’re first introduced to his father, Darius refers to him by his first and last name—Stephen Kellner—which is jarring. But he does this repeatedly, making it clear that he feels distant from his father.

In addition to things being difficult with his father, Darius has a bully (who also gets the first/last name treatment). He has one friend at school, a Persian girl. But she’s full-Persian rather than being “Fractional” as he thinks of himself, so he feels less than her. Interestingly, Darius has been on medication for depression since he was twelve, and that doesn’t seem to faze him much. He’s not 100% comfortable with it, but it doesn’t bother him as much as the other things do. His father also has to manage his own depression, so they’re very matter-of-fact about it. (I should mention that the depression representation is very good.)

Darius has a Skype relationship with his family back in Iran. But when it becomes clear that his grandfather’s brain tumor is getting worse, his family decides to visit the country for the first time. This is when the story really gets started—it’s the first time he really feels at home, after meeting his family and becoming friends with a boy named Sohrab from down the street, but he still has a lot to learn about his family, friendship, and himself.

Sohrab is a great friend to Darius and the two of them really bond. Darius spends most of his free time with him. It’s an interesting relationship from an American perspective, because Sohrab is very tactile. That’s realistic for a male relationship in Iran, even though it feels a little like there might hints of a romance between the two for an American reader. There are also hints that Darius’s “difference” might include being gay, but this never goes anywhere substantial, which made this a nice book about genuine friendship and family. Iran turns out to be where Darius finds himself and finally comes to an understanding with his father.

If you want a book about depression, or one about a kid who doesn’t fit in, or one about a half-Iranian kid going to Iran for the first time, etc. try this one out. All in one package. It’s very good.

Review: Essential Maps for the Lost by Deb Caletti

Essential Maps for the Lost book coverI’ve read a couple other books by Deb Caletti and liked them both. One thing I noticed is that the two I read (Stay and The Nature of Jade) were different from each other. So I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Essential Maps for the Lost. I heard Caletti speak about this book with E. Lockhart last year at a library event so I knew it had something to do with mental illness, like both of the others I read. But the interesting thing is that I found this book very different from the other two. It felt more more literary, for one (not that the other two weren’t but this one seemed more so)—maybe even a little ethereal. I read it for my MFA so I had to study it after my first read through. On my first read, I actually found myself a little confused because there were a lot of characters and we were really deep in both of the main characters’ heads. But as I read through it a second time, everything seemed obvious and clear, so perhaps I just wasn’t paying full attention the first time I read it. Who knows.

The novel is about Mads and Billy. Mads is an eighteen-year-old living with her uncle in Seattle while she completes her realtor course so she can get certified and go into business with her mom back in eastern Washington. One morning she goes for a swim in Lake Union and stumbles across a dead body. The dead woman committed suicide by jumping off the Aurora bridge and it turns out she has a son—Billy. Mads becomes a little obsessed with finding out everything she can about the woman and her family, which ultimately results in Mads semi-stalking Billy (watching his house from the car and so on). The two of them meet in a kind of random way and they would not have talked again except for the fact that Billy dropped a map he carries around and Mads decides to return it so she finds him again. The two of them bond over what that map represents—the classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg—because they both love it. For Billy, it represents a connection with his mom, and for Mads, it represents where her love of reading started.

As I mentioned, the book deals with mental illness. Obviously Billy’s mom’s suicide is part of it, but the more significant part is that Mads is dealing with depression made worse by the stifling future she sees for herself because of her obligation to her mother. There are some deep moments in the book relating to depression. For instance, Billy thinks,

depression can be a monster only felled by the most epic weapons. It’s a bully that winches your arm behind your back when no one is looking, that wears you out, and shouts stuff that sounds romantic but is never, ever romantic

Overall, I liked to book and found the story moving. If you’re in the mood for a more literary book than most YA today, give this one a try.

2018 in Review

One of the nice things about having a bad memory is that when it comes time to write an end-of-the-year post and look back on the year, the stuff that happened at the beginning of the year isn’t really that much more hard to remember than the stuff that just happened. Obviously I’m sort of kidding—it’s annoying even if it’s not unfair to the beginning of the year. 

This year, there were five books that really stood out to me. Three of them I read and studied for the MFA and the other two I’m planning to put on my list for next semester. 

Eleanor & Park has been one of my favorite books since I first read it back in 2013, I think. I reread it a few months ago and enjoyed every second of it again. If I could write like Rainbow Rowell, I’d consider myself There as a writer. I reviewed it in August. 

Louise O’Neill is one of my other favorite writers. This year, in June, I reviewed The Surface Breaks, which is a very feminist retelling of the Little Mermaid story. O’Neill manages to get her message mixed in with a very satisfying and engaging story every time. 

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard is another great one to me. It was such a fresh story about a gender nonconforming girl who learns the value of female friendships over her bro relationships. I reviewed it in October. This is one I’m hoping my faculty mentor lets me put on my reading list for next semester. 

Another book that I adored and studied for the MFA was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This is a fantastic and tragic look at mental illness (undiagnosed bipolar disorder in this case). I really loved this book and happily reread it for the MFA. I reviewed it in January. 

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati is second book on this list that takes a hard look at mental illness. This one doesn’t end sadly, however, but does explore bipolar disorder in depth. I really enjoyed it and reviewed it in April. 

Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Something Like Normal book coverSomething Like Normal is a slim book that explores a few weeks in the life of Travis Stephenson, a 19-year-old Marine home on leave after a tour in Afghanistan. His best friend there was recently killed and Travis is having apparent PTSD symptoms even though it’s undiagnosed because he’s afraid to seek help. He has nightmares and keeps thinking he’s seeing his dead friend. This definitely makes for a good story. And I did enjoy it, even though there were some things that bugged me about it.

Travis’s father is a jerk who has never forgiven Travis for giving up football. Travis’s brother Ryan sort of stole his “girlfriend” (I’ll get to the reason for the quotes), Paige, after Travis left for basic training and co-opted his car as well. His mom turned into a super-supportive military mom and his father didn’t take well to being ignored, so their marriage is struggling. So Travis comes home to a bit of a mess.

He goes to a party with Ryan and ends up at a bar where he encounters Harper Gray, a girl who wronged back in middle school. Somehow a little fib he told took on a life of its own and Harper ended up with a reputation as the town slut.

This is where one of my issues comes in. The good girl/bad girl thing was definitely in this book. Because Harper, despite her reputation, was really a good girl (i.e. a virgin) and Paige was really the one who slept around a lot (that’s why Travis thought of her only loosely as his girlfriend). And there were some other girls who were also considered sluts by the guys in the book in a way that might be realistic but was still frustrating. I wanted to see Travis come to realize his role in the perception of the girls and he never did.

Anyway, Travis runs into Harper at a bar and she goes off on him when he tries to flirt with her and punches him. That seems to be all she needs to do to get her five years of anger and resentment out of her system, which is the other thing that bugged me. Suddenly, she seems interested in him. I didn’t understand why, and I think the story would have been better if Travis had to struggle more to win her over.

Having said that, when I ignored how easy it was to get Harper on his side, I did enjoy the rest of the story. Travis does seem to change a little, and he comes to terms with the impact his friend’s death has had on him. He is a better guy by the end. Harper could definitely have been developed more than she was, but she was still a good character. The other secondary characters were a tiny bit flat. The best was Travis’s mom, who makes a major decision with his support. His friends aren’t bad as characters, though they are a little stereotypical (but to be fair, I imagine groups of Marines probably frequently are like that).

Overall, it was a good book, with those caveats I mentioned above. It’s nice to read a male protagonist. And Doller is a good writer. She gets into Travis’s mind effectively, the dialogue is realistic, and the story is well-plotted.

Review: Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

Still Life with Tornado book coverKing loves to work with weird ideas, and this book is no exception. At the beginning of the book, all we know about Sarah is that something happened at school that has her unwilling to go anymore. She was a talented artist but whatever happened seemed to suck her ability to draw right out of her fingers. She wanders Philadelphia by bus and ponders how literally nothing is original. Nothing she does, nothing anybody else does, nothing. She’s depressed and having an existential crisis.

But the thing is, the book isn’t just about Sarah. She narrates most of it first person, present tense. But there are also sections she narrates in the past tense about a family vacation to Mexico six years earlier, the last time she saw her nine-years-older brother. And then there are short scenes narrated by Sarah’s mom, which give us insight into the problem of Sarah’s family. Because that’s what the book is really about. It actually digs in pretty deep into the subject of physical abuse in a unique way.

But even more, the book’s about being a teenager. Sarah desperately wants to just be a human being, but she has to deal with the labels that society attaches to everyone. We learn a little slowly that her friends—or someone—did something to her. And King sums up what it’s like to be a teen with something to say:

But now it’s been so long that if I bring it up, I’ll look like a girl who can’t let go of things. Teenage girls always have to let go of things. If we bring up anything, people say we’re bitches who can’t just drop it.

That quote is just so perfect.

At this point, you may be wondering what’s so weird about the book. Sarah starts seeing other Sarahs. Actual, physical manifestations of herself at other stages in her life, specifically at ten (just after the Mexico trip), twenty-three, and forty. This isn’t some mental break—other people can see and interact with the extra Sarahs. This drives home the point that everyone is only at a particular point in their lives—they have a past where they were different but still themselves, and they’ll have a future where the same holds true. It’s interesting.

This is a loaded and layered book and you’ll probably see different things than I did. Whatever you might find, it’s worth your time if you enjoy magical realism or have liked King’s other books.

Review: Fat Angie by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie book coverI’ll start off by saying that this is an unusual book. This is mostly because of the point of view, which I’ll go into more below.

The novel is about a girl named Angie who had a very public emotional breakdown after her sister was captured and presumably killed in Iraq. Angie’s convinced she’s still alive, but no one else believes that. Before the book opens, Angie started falling apart—she gained a great deal of weight and tried to kill herself in front of a packed gym.

It’s not clear whether the bullying started before her sister went missing, but as the book opens, it’s vicious. There’s one particularly mean girl, but everyone mocks her for being fat and many people taunt her about her missing sister. Even her own adopted brother makes fun of her. Her mother is impatient with her and thinks she’s doing everything for attention. Her mom even found a therapist for Angie who’s totally unsympathetic.

Then her neighbor, a popular boy named Jake, sort of befriends Angie. And a new girl named KC arrives. KC isn’t impressed by all the popular kids and instead gravitates toward Angie. Soon they become friends and maybe more, but it’s a relationship full of turmoil. Because in their conservative town, being different isn’t very acceptable. Angie’s mom can’t tolerate her being with a girl, which creates the first rift. Things degenerate from there.

During all this, Angie decides to try out for the varsity basketball team because before her sister joined the military, she was a basketball star. She starts training for it with Jake’s help and tries out. The rest of the story follows her basketball pursuit and her relationships with KC, her brother, Jake, and her mom.

I mentioned the point of view above—in most contemporary YA, it’s 1st person, though 3rd person close isn’t unusual. 1st person just means it’s told using “I” and we get deep into the main character’s mind. 3rd person means “he/she” is used for the main character and the “close” just implies we get to nearly the same level of emotional depth as with 1st. This book is 3rd but it doesn’t feel very close at all. Throughout the book, Angie is referred to as “Fat Angie” (by the author, I mean), which I found very distancing. I never did feel like I knew Angie that well. I knew she was fat and had no self-confidence, but that was about it.

There are also phrases that are repeated (such as Angie’s “couldn’t-be-bothered mom”), which also pulled me out of the story a little each time. And KC speaks in very distinct (and unfamiliar to me) slang, which I didn’t find totally credible. I think stylistically, the book is very unique and that could appeal to a lot of people, even though for me it was distracting and kept me from getting as into the story as I wanted. But it still is a lesbian coming-of-age story, something we don’t get a lot of (I think there are a lot more stories about gay boys than girls out there…), so it’s probably worth a peek if you are looking for that.