Review of Young Jane Young

And here we have another book club pick. Just so you know I am actively involved in two in real life book clubs and one online book club. Yowza! That keeps me super busy with reading. And, I LOVE it. There is nothing I enjoy more than discussing all the bookish things with people who also love books. It is my absolute favorite. Some further information in case you are interested–one of my in real life book clubs is a work one. We meet after work once a month for happy hour at a local restaurant and discuss the book. The other book club I moderate and participate in is at a lovely winery in my area. Honestly, if you can meet at a winery–DO IT. You will not regret it. Wine + Books = Magic. (That should be on a shirt, don’t ya think?)

Anyhoo, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin is a book I read for my work book club. Before I get to the ins and outs of the book, I have to say that this book really did foster some great discussion. The book’s main conflict calls to mind all of the news stories involving men in power and the treatment of women who work with them. It is especially reminiscent of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that occurred during the mid nineties.

The book begins with Rachel Grossman, a divorcée, whose daughter Aviva has begun an illicit affair with a congressman, she works for. The book follows, in alternating perspectives, the timeline before, during, and after the affair. We hear from the women, in their own voice, whose lives are affected by the affair, including Aviva, Rachel, Aviva’s daughter Ruby, and the congressman’s wife, Embeth. This is the novel’s strongest point. Hearing from each of these women is illuminating, and being able to “hear” each perspective allows you an opportunity to empathize with all of them.

I liked this novel. The pace is spot on. It reads quickly and it is funny at times and poignant at others. I particularly enjoyed the epistolary portion of the novel written between Ruby and her Indonesian pen pal. The theme of this novel felt particularly timely in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movement involving the sexual harassment/assault of women in the TV and film industry and beyond. In addition, it brings to mind a host of (recent) historical scandals such as the previously mentioned Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Chandra Levy and the scandal surrounding her affair with Gary Condit and her suspicious death, and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal of the early nineties. As a woman reading this book about women in the present social climate, I felt incredibly moved by Aviva’s story and the fallout surrounding it.

The book does a stellar job at giving the perspectives of ALL the women involved, including my personal favorite, Embeth, the wife of the congressman. I enjoyed getting to see her perspective and her struggles in being the wife of a congressman. Zevin does a great job of relaying the sacrifices Embeth makes throughout her life in order to support her ambitious husband, including stifling her own ambitions.

Now for the bad news. (Well, it is not so bad, but, you know, the things I didn’t like so much.) There were parts of the book that were head scratchers for me. For example, the part that involves a parrot named El Meté. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but you will understand when you read this part of the book. While I understand the bird’s contribution to moving the narrative forward, I am befuddled as to why this particular choice was made.

In addition, I would have liked the story to have been a little more fleshed out by the end. I wanted to know more about these women and their lives not informed by the scandal.

Lastly, the author took a risk with last fifth of the book. It is creative and effective, yet also, somehow, frustrating. It left me wanting more. However, I loved the format of the ending (I am not going to give away anything!) I will say that after I finished the book, I kept wavering on what my rating would be. Young Jane Young kept me thinking about the past and the present and the question, How far have we really come?

Bottom Line: I give this book a 4/5. It is timely, enjoyable, and will keep you thinking.

Review of Turtles All the Way Down

Friends, first of all, I must say, I love John Green. I love some of his books more than others, but what I like about his writing is that he doesn’t rush his characters. He develops them and the story follows. Often his books aren’t super plot driven, but a study of how characters, many with quirks and oddities, relate to people, themselves, and their environment.

Green’s most well-known work is probably The Fault In Our Stars, which is a good book. This is the book that sparked the ill teenager love story phenomena. (Although, Nicholas Sparks did it way back when…who remembers A Walk to Remember?) However, my favorites of his books are the ones that focus on the nuances of character that many of us have, but aren’t explored as deeply (especially in the Young Adult arena) as Green does in his work. Examples of these include An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska. I will say that I had heard some buzz online that this was targeted more for an adult audience than a young adult audience, and I did not get that at all. This seemed right in Green’s lane for a young adult book.

Turtles All the Way Down centers on a 16 year-old-girl named Aza who struggles with extreme anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. The book is somewhat touted as a mystery, and there is a mystery, but it played a distant second fiddle to Aza’s struggle to deal with her own thoughts and participate “normally” in interactions with her friends and in social situations. When I think of this book, I almost forget there was even a mystery at all. What sticks with me, and what I continue to think about is the apt way that Green handles Aza’s crippling anxiety and the care he takes in describing her spiraling thoughts.

Daisy, Aza’s best friend, and Davis, Aza’s love interest, are both strong secondary characters that complement Aza’s journey throughout the narrative.

The mystery in the book centers around Davis’s missing billionaire father, Russell, who has disappeared on the heels of a scandal within his multi-billion dollar company. When a $100,000 reward is offered for information leading to Russell’s whereabouts, Daisy and Aza decide they will try to find him to collect the reward. I waited to mention this here, because to me, this is the least interesting part of this story.

What I appreciate so, so much is the time that John Green takes to develop his characters. Aza is one of my favorite characters I have ever encountered. She has had a traumatic experience in her life that contributes to the manifestation of her anxiety. The deft handling of the events in the story, and just the way that Aza tries to fight something that the people in her life don’t understand, equals a character that I cannot forget.

What John Green brings to light in the pages of this book is that often, anxiety, depression, and mental illness as a whole are hard for people who are not experiencing these things to understand. However, it is very real to the person who is experiencing it. This is what Turtles All the Way Down relays so well. Aza provides a lense through which the reader can experience what it is like to be in this mental space. It is why I continue to think about Aza long after finishing the book.

If you can’t tell, I really loved this book. Green’s work isn’t for everyone. If you are a reader who loves a nice neat ending, Turtles All the Way Down probably won’t be a satisfying read for you. This aspect is what I love about John Green, but I know not everyone likes endings like these.

Bottom Line: For me, this is a 5/5. There is some language (Daisy has a potty-mouth.) and some alluding to sex, so I would be careful putting it in the lower middle grades. I think this would be a great read for high school students.

Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Thank you to Flatiron Books for my free copy of Mr. Dickens and His Carol in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Samantha Silva’s Mr. Dicken’s and His Carol is a delightful imagining of how Charles Dicken’s  iconic Christmas classic came to be. The story follows Dickens in the weeks before Christmas as he struggles to write a Christmas themed story to satisfy his publishers who are dismayed at the dwindling sales of his latest book. As the pressure mounts to meet the Christmas deadline, a cast of recognizable, yet not quite totally familiar characters provide inspiration and at times trepidation for Dickens.

I thoroughly enjoyed this charming novel. A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite fictional Christmas stories. (The Gift of the Magi is my other one!) Samantha Silva’s portrayal of the Christmastime streets of London during 1800s is magical. She writes, “The air smelled like it had hailed nutmeg and snowed cinnamon.” Be still my heart. Her skill in transporting me from December 2017 in the rural U.S. to the London streets of Dickens’s time is considerable. The smells, the sights–all of the sensory details assist in creating this lovely setting.

While the well-crafted setting is my favorite part of the novel, I also loved Silva’s Dickens. Presented as a lovable, but flawed family man somewhat jaded by success and struggling to accept his floundering popularity, Dickens is at times endearing, and at times completely and utterly frustrating. This character choice provides for compelling interactions with supporting characters in the novel.

The plot is interesting and familiar, yet not (You will understand this if you read the book.); however, the strength of the book lies in the author’s ability to capture a time period and pay tribute to one of the most popular Christmas stories ever written. I so love all the wink, wink, nudge, nudge moments to A Christmas Carol that transpire as the novel progresses.

Another passage from the book that I would be remiss not to mention is as follows:

“The distance between him (Dickens) and Catherine (Dicken’s wife), as in all marriages, was sometimes an inch, but other times the great expanse between hill and valley, ocean and desert. It was Dante’s dark forest, shrouded in shadow, the right path so often obscured. It was being together but feeling alone.”

Silva is so adept with creating a moment that although the setting is in a time much earlier, the words and feelings are timeless. And this is why I enjoyed this novel.

Bottom Line: 4/5 This is a lovely period piece set at my favorite time of the year. What is not to love? However, a reader who must have a fast-paced plot to enjoy a book will probably want to skip this one.

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.