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 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 of Caraval

Okay, time for some honest talk. I have been reading some heavier books lately, and I just needed a YA fantasy book to cleanse my palate and gear me up for more heavy reading I have coming up in the near future. YA fantasy books are my absolute favorite for a good reading “palate cleanse.”

Caraval by Stephanie Garber did not disappoint. It was exactly the read I was looking for to whisk me a away to somewhere fantastical, whimsical, and intriguing. It hit all the right notes for me.

The story is centered around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella (Tella) who live with their controlling, horrible, abusive father, the governor of the fictional, Conquered Isle of Trisda. Caraval is five night magical, mysterious, and adventurous game hosted by the elusive Legend.  Scarlett writes to Legend for many years asking for tickets for herself and Tella in hopes of attending and participating in this mysterious game. Days before Scarlett is scheduled to be married to a man her father has promised her to, she receives a letter from Legend granting her request with three tickets for entry into Caraval, one for her sister, one for her, and one for her fiance, who she has never met and whose name she does not know.

Scarlett is the main protagonist throughout the course of the novel, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It becomes clear that Caraval is a place where reality blends with magic, and it is difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the game.

There is love (what is a YA fantasy without some angst and love?), there is suspense, there is a magical darkness that felt unique to me compared with other fantasy I have read. I hesitate to say more about this book, because spoilers would be the worst for this story, and it is difficult to say more without spoilers.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you enjoy YA fantasy, it is an interesting story with a dark element that I didn’t anticipate, but enjoyed. The writing is solid, and at times, the descriptions of the world of Caraval are stellar. I like the way the author plays with the time period in this book. Since time is described in ways such as “Year 55, Elantine Dynasty,” the time period is unknown. It feels like the past to me, because of the way the clothing is described and Scarlett’s mannerisms. But that is the beauty of fantasy–time period does not have to be defined. I also really love the way the love between the two sisters is established and developed within the story.

If I could change one thing about the book it is that the characters felt flat and it would have been nice to know a little bit more about some of the major characters to better understand their motivations (again, I don’t want to name character names because EEK! spoilers), but overall Caraval is an engaging read that I would recommend to other fantasy enthusiasts. It is propelled more by its intriguing plot than by its characters, but that is okay with me for this type of story. If I still had my own classroom, I would snap this up in a second, because this is a book that teenage fantasy fans will love (think fans of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Sarah J. Maas’s series). And there are characters that teens will love and root for.

Bottom Line: I give it a solid 4/5 (mostly for the unique (to me) storyline). For middle grades, be aware that while there is no cursing and no sexually explicit scenes, there are a few scenes with sexual overtones, but nothing too racy. There are also a couple of scenes that contain violence which may be disturbing for younger readers.

 

Review of How To Disappear

How To Disappear is a YA novel that focuses on social anxiety in a world where social media and popularity are king. Bravo to Sharon Huss Roat for tackling this tough and multi-faceted issue. I haven’t read a book that addresses this particular issue in this way. While Roat could have easily made this an “issues” book, she instead creates a relatable character and a setting that is familiar to most teenagers.

Vicky Decker is a high school student who suffers from severe social anxiety, which is amplified after her lifelong best friend, Jenna, moves away. She is incredibly self-aware; however, she is unable to control the panic she feels in social situations. Enter Vicurious, an Instagram persona that Vicky creates to connect with other people online to avoid connecting in real life. As Vicurious’s fan following grows,Vicky is faced with living in two worlds–her actual life in high school, and the one that is playing out on Instagram.

What I loved about this book is the acknowledgement that social anxiety is a real and debilitating aspect of life for some teens. I also appreciated the social media tie-in, because fan following and ‘likes’ have become such an integral part of daily life for kids (and let’s be honest, sometimes adults). The characters are relatable and believable, and as I read, I didn’t feel like I was reading an “issues” book, or being preached at about the dangers of social media or the perils of social anxiety. The narrative felt authentic which I appreciated.

As the book neared its conclusion, I did feel like Vicky’s social anxiety issues seemed to clear up quickly and that her saving grace was the attention of a love interest, Lipton Gregory. Lipton’s character is likable and quirky, but his relationship with Vicky seemed to help her social anxiety issues a little too quickly which seemed implausible to me. The last third of the book had some inconsistencies that bothered me, one being the storyline between Vicky and her best friend, Jenna (the one that moved away at the beginning of the story.) Without giving spoilers, I would just say that the first two-thirds of the book were excellent; whereas, the last one-third left me scratching my head a bit. The ending seemed rushed and unrealistic to the rest of the story.

Still, I appreciate that there are authors who are willing to tackle this complex issue. Our kids are subjected to similar social situations in real life and on social media and it is important to be aware of this. Readers of YA will like How To Disappear for its fast-paced story and its look into the overlooked issue of social anxiety. Parents will like it for a glimpse into the world their kids are likely a part of in their everyday lives.

Bottom Line: How To Disappear is worth a read by YA enthusiasts and by parents. In general it gives an interesting perspective on social anxiety and the lives of our kids on social media. This book is appropriate for high school AND middle school students. My rating is a 4/5.