GL Thomas: The Unforgettables

Back home in Chicago, Paul Hiroshima had it all.

Popularity, charming looks and a talent for the arts that made him admired by his peers. Moving to Portland, Maine the summer before his senior year was going to change all that. With his city life behind him, there was definitely no reason to make the best out of a bad situation—that is, until he meets the amazing Felicia Abelard.

Over a love of comic books and secret identities, Felicia becomes the sidekick to his hero; there’s just one problem: they weren’t supposed to fall in love.

As the season comes to an end, Paul and Felicia face in-depth challenges to preserve their summer formed bond. With the brink of the new school year at hand, this tale of best friends and first loves will make their year unforgettable.

I had really high hopes for this one–the ratings were out of this world and so were the comments. Everyone was talking about how diverse it was, both racially and for LGBTQIA+ representation. The story line sounded fantastic and geeky. A free link was posted one day and I snatched it right up!

I bet you can guess where this is going, right?

I’ll start first by saying that this book is incredibly well intentioned. That’s really the best way to explain it. The diversity here is very well intentioned–and there’s a lot of it, too. Unfortunately, much of it seems a bit drawn out of a hat and then placed on secondary characters who lack development to really shine in the diverse elements that the authors wanted to show.

I do want to make exception to this, though, with the two main characters. Both are people of color and are exceptionally developed, well written people. Lots of thought went into those two characters. Both mothers got quite a bit of attention, as did Paul’s dad and sister. However, outside of that, most of the secondary characters were mere shadows. They would flit in and out of the story–we’d get details here and there but nothing that would really build the person in significance.

That really bothered me in two instances:  Nala and Kevin. Nala is a transgender girl, best friend to Paul’s sister. We see her quite a bit, and we do get more information about her than most other secondary characters, but it still feels like she’s just thrown in there so the book can be more diverse. I would have loved to have more development surrounding her character, rather than have her shyness be the only thing that mattered–and to have Paul yelling at her be the most significant part she played in the story.

Kevin is almost nonexistant in the story, which made me terribly sad, as he is the very first person I made a note about in my journal. He is mentioned right away–he’s very young, but the authors make it seem that he might be starting to identify as nonbinary (they refer to him as “nonconforming” the few times he is mentioned). I’ve read very few contemporary books with nonbinary characters in them, so I was excited to see Kevin…and then he isn’t hardly mentioned.

There’s also a bisexual brother away at college–I couldn’t even tell you his name because he is so out of the way. It very much felt to me like the LGBTQIA+ people in this story were there because they had to be, not because they should be or were necessary to the story–if that makes sense. It felt very forced and uncomfortable. I think the intentions were good, but it just wasn’t done very well.

The story itself was cute–a fairly average YA Contemporary. I liked the superhero theme that was going on, and normally I probably would have rated this a 3 or 4 just for the racial diversity alone–especially for being in a predominantly white region. However, I was so distracted by the lack of LGBTQIA+ secondary character development that it was hard to stay focused on the rest.

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Laurie Halse Anderson: The Impossible Knife of Memory

For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

I want to title this review:  The Impossible Mediocrity of Mental Illness YA. For as complex and nuanced as mental illness is–you’d think that we would get more than just textbook representation in our stories. Unfortunately, time and time again, it’s all I see. So rarely do I find a novel about mental illness that truly shows what it is like to be in the thick of it–instead the depiction is flat and gray.

PTSD is such an important subject, and finding good help for our soldiers is a crucial, difficult task. That is one thing about this book that I did agree with:  how Halse Anderson wrote Andy’s character refusing help or medication. His characterization wasn’t incorrect, I think I just had a hard time with Hayley’s narration of it.

Something else stuck out to me–Finn and Hayley were going through such a similar situation:  they both had family members who were addicts. But instead of talking about it or having that bring them closer together, all they did was fight and scream at each other. Their whole relationship was a weird dynamic, but that really seemed off kilter. Also, it wasn’t lost on me that Gracie continuously suspected Topher for cheating on her as a projection from her dad…though I think everyone else in the story missed that detail. Those sort of plot holes bug me.

But mostly, it’s Hayley that bothers me. Her attitude is horrible, and she’s an unreliable narrator of the worst kind. And maybe that’s the problem. I don’t mind unreliable narrators if there are ways to fill in the holes, but I felt like that knife just cut through the plot until I had an impossible amount of memory to fill.

Trigger warning:  PTSD, Panic Attacks, Knives, Blood, Suicide Ideation/Thoughts/Planning, Drowning, drugs, alcoholism

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William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s harrowing account of the Bundren family’s odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Told in turns by each of the family members—including Addie herself—the novel ranges in mood from dark comedy to the deepest pathos.

Can you believe that when I named my blog, I had actually never read Faulkner? I’ve since cut the “As” but really I just thought it was a clever play on words. I wonder what ILR would be called if I HAD read Faulkner first because it definitely would not be the same.

I looked up some Goodreads reviews to help me with this because holy cow I don’t even know how to explain this to you. Someone named Ademption explains it best. “THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HICKS THEY GO TO TOWN.” Thank you Ademption, that really about covers it.

Also, there is a fish.

Mostly, the first half of the book is every person saying “This woman is dying.” “Have you heard she’s dying?” “Do you think Addie might die?”

The second half, yup, you guessed it, Addie died. They trek through mud to get her to her hometown for burial.

GUYS WHY IS THIS BOOK FAMOUS?

The underlying theme, at least from what I can discern is how emotionally abusive their father is. He’s a complete jackass, a cheap bastard, and absolutely hates and ignores the needs of his children.

Annnnd that about covers it. Worst review ever? Maybe. Can we never talk about where I got my blog name again? Faaaaaaaaantastic.

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Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

So usually when I tell you that a book made me cry, I don’t mean real tears. I get choked up or super emotional–I feel all the crying feels–but very rarely does a book ACTUALLY make me cry.

But I was having a seriously hard time holding it together when The Hubs and I were sitting by the bonfire and I was reading A Monster Calls. I’m not even talking “Oh it’s just the campfire smoke” kind of tears. No, this was full on sobbing kind of emotion.

I think it’s because we all know a family like this, right? A child who has to watch his parent slowly disintegrate before their eyes–everyone knows what is coming, but how do you explain it to that child?

Patrick Ness shows us so beautifully (and painfully) how much that child really does grasp–but without help, the grief twists those emotions into some terrible fears.

A Monster Calls is such a powerful and important book for both kids and their parents–not only for those families who are going through such a terrible tragedy–but every family. As I said before, we all know friends, neighbors, schoolmates who have or are going through this. I think (in my non-parent opinion, so take it or leave it) that this would be a good book to read together as a family, or at least talk about as you go through it. At least in my version, there were really great discussion questions in the back.

I’m super interested to see how closely the movie follows the book. I hope they stay true to the underlying message, and that it doesn’t get lost in Hollywood’s need for drama. I didn’t realize it was out already, guess I need to go watch it!

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Louise Erdich: Shadow Tag

When Irene America discovers that her artist husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and marriage, while turning her Red Diary—hidden where Gil will find it—into a manipulative charade. As Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children, their home becomes a place of increasing violence and secrecy. And Irene drifts into alcoholism, moving ever closer to the ultimate destruction of a relationship filled with shadowy need and strange ironies.

Alternating between Irene’s twin journals and an unflinching third-person narrative, Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag fearlessly explores the complex nature of love, the fluid boundaries of identity, and the anatomy of one family’s struggle for survival and redemption.

Marriage can be a toxic place. We go into it with such intense hopes and dreams, but for so many of us, it doesn’t end up the way we thought it would. Whether it is the expectations we place on ourselves, or the extreme addiction love can be–sometimes you just can’t leave, even when we know we should.

No one but the couple really knows what goes on inside that marriage–and sometimes even the two parties have different interpretations of the situation. Shadow Tag dives deep into one such toxic relationship. If we were to only look at one person’s perspective, we might see it as only physically abusive, or alternatively, emotionally abusive. Erdrich gives us both sides, and so we see the intense tug of war that is being played. Both parties are predator and prey, abuser and victim. There is no saving this marriage, we know that from the beginning, but how will it end?

This struck a nasty chord in me right away and I almost didn’t continue. I still feel a little seasick after finishing this tumultuous novel. It’s powerful, certainly, and Erdrich is a storyteller that grabs your arm and doesn’t let go.

She is also one of our more well-known Native American authors. This book is #OwnVoices, and there are concerns in this book that those of us outside of indigenous culture do not face. It only adds another edge to that toxic weapon of a destructive relationship, at least in this instance.

Erdrich’s story certainly gave me a lot to think about. I didn’t really care much for Round House, which I read a few months ago, but Shadow Tag left a deep impression on my heart. I highly recommend it for fans of adult literary fiction. Make sure to add this #OwnVoices book to your TBR!

DIVERSITYBINGO2017:  Indigenous MC OV

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Becky Albertalli: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

It took me far too long to read this book. What an incredible mush of adorableness. I fell COMPLETELY in love with Simon and Blue.

I don’t even have any notes in my reading journal from this book because I read it straight through without putting it down. Once you’re in it, you’re in it, my friend, so don’t start this at 11’oclock at night or you will not sleep. I want to go back to high school and feel that awkward teen love all over again.

Ok, not really, not at all. But Simon and Blue are THAT adorable, thank you very much.

Enough with the mush–the book DOES have SOME conflict, you know. Martin is a right bastard. Even though I know we were all terrible people back in school, it’s so hard to believe there are kids who are THAT cruel. It makes my heart hurt. And he never receives any consequences at all. Every day Simon has to look at his twisted grin and just…ugh.

Also, can we talk about Leah? This poor girl doesn’t know what end is up, and neither do her friends. Something is going on with her, and I need more information! I really need some more character development on Leah. We only get the bare minimum, and I feel her attitude (for lack of a better word) deserves more than jealousy or distraction.

Mostly though, this book is a YA romance, and Albertalli stays true to that–while fielding the softball sized societal issues that take place in the teen world. (Anyone who says high schoolers do not face real problems are idiots.) She managed to make her story adorable AND painful…and also extremely diverse. You’ll find characters from many walks of life here, not just LGBTQIA+, but also Jewish, black, and biracial.

Obviously this is a must read for me, guys. If you haven’t read this yet, DO IT. She just came out with a new book this week and I am already pining for it!

DIVERSITYBINGO2017:  Practicing Jewish MC

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Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields

A richly textured coming-of-age story about fathers and sons, home and family, recalling classics by Thomas Wolfe and William Styron, by a powerful new voice in fiction

Just before Henry Aster’s birth, his father—outsized literary ambition and pregnant wife in tow—reluctantly returns to the small Appalachian town in which he was raised and installs his young family in an immense house of iron and glass perched high on the side of a mountain. There, Henry grows up under the writing desk of this fiercely brilliant man. But when tragedy tips his father toward a fearsome unraveling, what was once a young son’s reverence is poisoned and Henry flees, not to return until years later when he, too, must go home again.

Mythic in its sweep and mesmeric in its prose, The Barrowfields is a breathtaking debut about the darker side of devotion, the limits of forgiveness, and the reparative power of shared pasts.

I am fairly certain that to qualify for the genre “literary fiction” there is only one requirement:  that your book must be as morose as possible. Look up Literary Fiction in the thesaurus and you will find the words Depressing, Melancholy, Miserable, Sulky, and Sullen. I cannot name a single book from the genre that does not fit this description. Maybe I’m wrong. But all the examples I can think of are just this.

The Barrowfields is all of these. It starts out interestingly enough–almost reminiscent of Cold Mountain in its descriptions of Appalachia. You can hear the mountain twang in the narrator’s voice as he speaks about his father’s family history. Only later do you realize you’re no longer in the 1800s, but in modern times.

That shift really confused me–as did the change in the narrator’s voice. At some point, he loses that twang and gains a snobby upper class air. To be fair, his father raises him in literature, but the vocabulary used is a bit obnoxious. Words like excrescence, deliquesce, and indomitable are commonplace in his story.

We lose characters a lot in this book too. People just drop off for no discernable reason–his mother, his school friends. People come into his life and then he moves on without them. Time passes, and he isn’t interested in waiting on it.

I feel very  melancholy about The Barrowfields. I didn’t dislike it, nor did I particularly like it. It’s literary fiction, so I suppose I am meant to feel SOMETHING…and I do. I’m just not entirely sure what that SOMETHING is.

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Angie Thomas: The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

If you haven’t heard of The Hate U Give, you might want to crawl out from under your rock. EVERYONE is talking about this book, and for good reason. A lot of books get hyped up when they first come out but Angie Thomas has written a story that completely surpasses that hype.

This book is going to be one of the most important works of literature in this decade. I guarantee it. There is nothing else in YA even comes close to so perfectly illustrating the racial strife permeating the United States right now.

But not only does Thomas cover such a difficult subject, she does it in such a way that is both engaging and graceful. There is no escaping her message, even as the reader is ripped to pieces by her characters.

And trust me, you will be ripped to pieces–you will cry. I was in tears in the first 40 pages. This is not meant to be a peaceful read. Your heart is going to be pulled and poked and prodded and, especially if you’re white, your moral compass is going to go through the wringer. But this will be the best book you read all year, and it will probably climb up your list of all time favorites.

I’ve had some friends tell me that they were waiting for the hype to wear down before picking this up. And I understand that sentiment, I do that too with popular books. Sometimes too much hype can influence how we feel about them. But this is going to remain on everyone’s lips for a long time to come–and it deserves all the acclaim it is getting. Run, don’t walk to your bookstore or library. Go read this as soon as possible, and then tell everyone about it. The Hate U Give needs to be read by every single person in America.

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Patrick Ness: The Rest of Us Just Live Here

What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions…

So much of YA is the dramatic story about murder and tragedy among the popular kids. Vampires and werewolves and magic trolls in dungeons. This isn’t that story. This is something else, running parallel. This is the story of Emily the Background Slytherin and her friends (OMG KEVIN RUN). Those kids in the background who might actually do the assignments for graduation, whose lives go on no matter what might roam the halls or blow up the school.

But most importantly, this story is about a boy with OCD, a girl with an eating disorder, and  has both racial and LGBTQIA+ representation. Friends of mine who also have similar anxiety to mine insisted that I read this book ASAP because of the discussions that take place and I’m so glad they did. From start to finish, the OCD rep is just so incredible.

Mikey (I sort of cringe at this name because of those old cereal commercials) has severe anxiety/OCD–he gets into obsessive loops where if he doesn’t do a task exactly “right” something horrible will happen. Life becomes catastrophic inside those loops, getting worse and worse, and he becomes stuck.

Even though this is sort of a parody of YA fantasy, Ness does a wonderful job of blending his “Indie Kid” parallel with Mikey’s. The build up to the climax is so subtle that you hardly know it is coming–I sort of skimmed the chapter headings, but I thought they detracted from the actual story line, so I mostly just followed it through the main book.

I loved that Ness gives Mikey such a strong support system–his chosen family–instead of using the “hero comes to save him from his anxiety” trope. There’s a lot of talk about how one of his fears is that he is the least needed person, or no one would miss him if he were gone–I feel that SO HARD. And even though Mikey acknowledges at one point that he KNOWS he is lucky to have so many people who love him, to someone with anxiety, it’s so hard to convince ourselves that this is reality most of the time.

I could go on and on about everything that was amazing about the anxiety/OCD rep in this story. I want to quote the entire psychiatrist appointment to you. But, then you wouldn’t have to read the book, and I really think you probably should go read it. It’s going on my MUST READS list for sure, guys. So, yeah. Do it.

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Frank Herbert: Dune

Here is the novel that will be forever considered a triumph of the imagination. Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Maud’dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family;and would bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.

I thought I would read so many books on the cruise–I took five! Unfortunately, I started with Dune, and got stuck on it for the entirety of the trip. We voted this into April’s AdultBooklr readathon unanimously–but I’m terribly disappointed.

I was immediately struck by how terrible the writing is. It’s such a famous book–I was expecting something spectacular. Instead, the writing is lazy in the basics with way over complicated structure. And I bet Frank Herbert’s Thesaurus is well-thumbed. There’s nothing wrong with using unique or creative vocabulary–but he was reaching all over the place.

It’s obvious that Herbert drew inspiration from many sources all over the world for his characters and settings. If done properly, that could have been really cool. Instead, it was just a mess of cultural appropriation and awful tropes. And I do mean MESS–I don’t even know where to start with explaining them because everything was so entwined and the plot so complicated. (This was absolutely the wrong book to read when I couldn’t take detailed notes.)

I finished because of the readathon, but it was hard to keep my attention on Dune. I had intended to spend much more time reading on the ship, but never wanted to pick up in this tattered brown catastrophe.

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