Review of This Is How It Always Is

This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is a pick for my work book club. I had a lot of expectations going into this one, because I had heard so many good things about it. And…it delivered. Mostly.

Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams, a husband and wife, and their five sons–Roo (Roosevelt), Ben, Rigel, Orion, and Claude are a family of seven living in a large farmhouse in Wisconsin. Rosie is an ER doctor who works the night shift so she can help with family duties during the day. Penn is a work-at-home father who is a writer. The book centers around Claude, the youngest of the family who, by age 5, is struggling with gender identity, requesting to wear dresses and barrettes to school, and saying he wants to be a girl. This Is How It Always Is follows the members of the family as they navigate Claude’s revelation and what it means to be a family.

This quickly could have become an “issues book” with a clear agenda. Which is not a bad thing, but could easily turn off some readers. But This Is How It Always Is isn’t a book with an agenda. This book is an exploration about how Claude’s journey impacts the family and how each member is affected by decisions that are made. This is also the story of a marriage and how sometimes, in life, couples have to accept and traverse difficult situations that do not have clear answers. I love the dynamic between Rosie and Penn. They both want what is best for their family, but have different ideas about what exactly that is. It was interesting to see how their differing approaches played out as the story progressed.

My favorite quote in the book really stuck with me, and is a testament to Frankel’s excellent and at times, poignant writing . As a parent, this quote hit me in the heart (and the gut). It comes from Penn, when he and Rosie are discussing Claude:

“You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there is no alternative.”

Oh my goodness, friends, doesn’t this just sum up parenthood? This is what I love about this novel. It doesn’t matter what your political and/or religious affiliation is on the issue of gender identity. You can read this book and see the hope, the struggles, the heartache, and the love that it takes to be a member of any family and to be in a marriage. Because as a member of a family, there are always decisions that have to be made that impact the lives of everyone involved.

For the most part, I really enjoyed the first three fourths of the novel. The last fourth of the novel felt contrived and unrealistic to me. I will not say specifically why, because, you know, spoilers, but I will say that as a mother, I cannot fathom Rosie’s knee-jerk choice toward the end of the novel. Also, for readers who love a page turner, this book is not that. This Is How It Always Is is not a plot-driven novel, but more of a character study. I did not find myself scrambling to read it, but I am glad I finished it.

Bottom Line: I give this a 4/5 for the superb writing style, and the deep dive into what it means to be a family.

 

Review of Devils & Thieves

Thanks to Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Devils & Thieves. All opinions are my own.

Devils & Thieves is a YA fantasy about kindleds, people who have magical abilities, who are also in motorcycle gangs. Sort of like the older version of the Harry Potter kids with magic but without the wands joins Sons of Anarchy-lite. Sort of. I know this sounds strange. (It felt a little gimmicky and arbitrary to me.)

Here’s the premise. Jemmie Carmichael is the eighteen-year-old protagonist of this novel. She is a kindled who does not know how to use her magic to its full potential. She is best friends with Alex, whose brother Crowe is the leader of the Black Devils the motorcycle gang that Jemmie’s family has been associated with in the past. In addition, Jemmie has a spotty past with Crowe which causes her significant angst. As the novel progresses, the Black Devils get ready for a festival where rival gangs roll into town and conflict ensues.

This book is standard fare for soapy YA novels with magical beings. (Disclaimer: I love soapy YA novels with an element of magic. Yes, please!) Honestly, in the opening chapters I was ready to put the book down. These chapters were ineffective and disjointed in explaining this unknown world. When I read fantasy like this, I like the setting and the main aspects of the magical world to be clearly explained at the beginning so I can construct the world in my mind. These beginning chapters did not do this–the magical world felt muddled and confusing. I almost abandoned the book altogether.

Devils & Thieves does get more interesting in later chapters. I enjoyed the overarching story, although there is nothing new or inventive in the narrative as it unfolds. It feels pretty formulaic and surface. The characters have little depth, even though it feels like the author is attempting to give them depth with common plot points such as avenging a loved one’s death and battling personal demons. None of these attempts land particularly well, and thus I felt disconnected from the characters.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, this book isn’t bad. I did find myself wanting to keep reading. I also enjoyed the way the magical element is presented in the story. The magic is divided into different classifications with kindleds only being able to naturally perform a particular type of magic. However, they can create ‘cuts’ they can share and/or sell that will allow another kindled to perform bits of magic that is not his or her own. The most complicated element of this book is the magic, because of all the different types with unfamiliar names. I found myself having to look back in the book to reread to remind myself which magical name went which classification.

This is not a ground-breaking YA book, but it is okay. The audience it is intended for will likely eat it up. Crowe, Jemmie’s male counterpart, is mysterious, sexy, and damaged, which creates all kinds of angst that will delight the audience for this book.

One more note about Devils & Thieves: It has a lot of profanity and underaged drinking in it. At times, both feel gratuitous and excessive. So, if you are a teacher or a parent be aware of this. The book is fine for high school, but it would be a complete judgement call for middle school.

Bottom line: For me as a grown-up, I give it a 2/5. Looking through the lens of the YA crowd, I would bump my rating to 2.5/5. There is better YA out there, but I think there is an audience for this book, especially those who enjoyed books like Twilight and the read alikes it inspired.

Review of Girls Made of Snow and Glass

This book was highly anticipated by yours truly. I saw it on Bookstagram (that is Instagram for bookish types), and I could not wait to get my hands on it. In fact, I pre-ordered it, so it showed up on my doorstep the day it was released. I also set up a buddy read with one of my Bookstagram pals.(She is one of the two Priscilla’s at the @2.ps.in.a.bookstagram handle on Instagram.) If you haven’t done a buddy read, I highly recommend it. So much fun!

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. It is touted as a feminist retelling, but I am confused on that point. (More on that later.)

The story is centered around Lynet, the Snow White character, and Mina, the stepmother. The chapters in the book alternate between Lynet and Mina’s perspectives and also alternate between present and past. Lynet and her family hail from the North, a land covered in ice and snow. Whereas, Mina is from the South, a place known for its mild weather and warmth.

Lynet is a precocious, but sheltered youngster, whose father, King Nicholas, will do anything to keep out of harm’s way. Lynet rebels against these constraints, as evidenced in the first few scenes of the book when she is scaling a castle wall to spy on a newcomer to the castle, Nadia, the royal surgeon.  Mina is a southerner, who is hungry for power, and eager to break ties with her cruel magician father.

As the story progresses, both of these women fight to become what they think they ought to be, to find their true selves and finally, to define what their relationship means. The story follows Lynet as she discovers life outside the castle walls and searches for answers about her beginnings. On the other hand, Mina fights to win the love of an unreachable man and maintain control of a kingdom that is not hers.

I have so many thoughts about this book. Some of the bloggers that I respect most have loved this book. And, while I didn’t hate it, I also didn’t love it. Here’s why. First, the characters felt one dimensional. I didn’t feel moved by Mina and Lynet’s relationship for most of the book. At times, I would even describe myself as bored. Second, there is a “relationship” between Lynet and Nadia which seems forced and also one dimensional. The relationship is not developed over the course of the novel, and by the end, it seems odd as to how close the two have become.

The biggest issue for me in this book, is the depth of characters. Even though this is a retelling of a fairy tale, I was hoping for more depth in the characters and the story. There is so much untapped potential in both the characters and the story that it left me feeling unfulfilled as a reader.

That being said, I did not hate this book, and I was invested in the story, and curious to see how it played out. I don’t feel like it was particularly “feminist.” Nor do I think just because there is mention of a relationship between Lynet and Nadia that it is particularly progressive. A lot of the story revolves around the relationships of Lynet and Mina with the men in their lives (King Nicholas and Felix). The story didn’t feel as new and as feminist as I wanted it to, if that makes sense. The last one-fourth of the story was my favorite part, and the section where I felt most invested in the characters and the outcome of the story.

Bottom Line: For me, this was an average book with above average potential. I think fans of this genre will eat it up, and for the young adult audience it is intended for, it will be well received. This is another book that even though I would rate it as average, I would not hesitate to put in my classroom library. My rating is 3/5.

 

Review for The Losers Club

Thanks to Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of The Losers Club. All opinions are my own.

The Losers Club is Andrew Clements latest book targeted at upper elementary readers. Clements is known for his large body work for this age group with books such as Frindle and No Talking. (And so many more.) Clements’s fans will not be disappointed with this newest addition to his collection.

Alec is a lover of all things books and reading. In fact, his love of reading gets him in hot water with his principal, because he is constantly reading instead of paying attention in class. To make matters worse, his parents have new jobs, which means Alec and his younger brother Luke have to go to an after school program where Alec has to choose between unappealing options to occupy his time. Enter his idea of The Losers Club, a club devoted to sitting and reading. Along the way, Alec has to deal with a bully who used to be a friend, his new feelings for Nina, a girl in his club, and the fact that the club is required to make a presentation in front of other students and parents.

The story is simple and fun, which is appropriate for its intended audience. I enjoyed Alec’s character and his development over the duration of the novel. One ingenious aspect of this story is that Clements intertwines book recommendations throughout the story. Because Alec is such a voracious reader, Clements is able to mention countless books appropriate for this age group. Among the books mentioned in the novel are Holes by Louis Sachar, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, and many, many more. At the end of the novel, Clements includes The Losers Club Checklist, a list of all the books mentioned in the novel. Love that!

Bottom Line: This book is definitely for upper elementary because of its simplistic, straightforward storyline. I really like it for this age group and would not hesitate to recommend it to my son, who is 9. I think the upper elementary crowd will love it! My rating is 5/5 for upper elementary.

 

Review of The Underground Railroad

I just finished Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Before I give my review, I would like to take a moment to speak to the fact that this book won The National Book Award. That is no small feat. Coleson Whitehead is a gifted writer and he crafts what he says deliberately and does not waste words. And, while his writing, for lack of a better term, is beautiful it is not excessive and self-indulgent.

So…a brief synopsis…

Cora, a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, is a head-strong and capable young woman who endures countless atrocities at the hands of her owner and her fellow slaves. Cora and her quest to be free is the focal point of the novel. When Cora meets Caesar a new arrival to the Randall plantation, and he asks her to join him on an escape attempt, she agrees. The rest of the narrative follows her state by state quest for freedom.  In order to move from state to state, Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad which Whitehead reimagines as an actual system of conductors, railcars and stops that transports slaves from one destination to another. Along the way she encounters and is both helped, hindered, and abused by different characters. Whitehead is thorough in fleshing out the backstories of many of these characters. One such character is Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher who prides himself on hunting down runaways and returning them to their owners. He is in pursuit of Cora for a majority of the novel.

I found this novel heartbreaking at points, and Whitehead’s descriptions of slave life and the treatment of the black population are harrowing and inexcusable. However, throughout the novel there are perspective shifts and time jumps that made it hard for me to stay invested in the heart of the story. The component of magical realism (the underground railroad being an actual train with no history or background to explain it) present in the novel will appeal to the taste of some readers, but it did not to mine. For me, I wish the focus would have remained on Cora and her journey. While reading, I was incredibly impacted by individual scenes, but not the over-arching story, which can be attributed (for me) to the time/perspective shifts throughout the narrative. I would never discourage a reader from this ambitious novel, because it is eye-opening and unique. However, there were a few narrative choices that I could just not get past which tarnished my reading experience.

That being said, I did love Cora and all she represented, and I rooted for her throughout the duration of the novel.

Bottom Line: This novel is an important look at slave life and is worth the investment in time it takes to read it, if only for Whitehead’s spectacular command of the written word. For me, there were issues in several of the narrative choices which affected my overall enjoyment and rating of the novel. My rating is a 3.5/5.