One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4
#YA #mystery #romance

Breakfast Club meets Big Little Lies but then gets a lot better. I started off unenthusiastic but then literally could not put this book down – read it in a day, extending past my bedtime (and leading to a nasty crick in my neck from reading in bed – oh well).

Five Breakfast Club style teens are sent to detention for an infraction that none of them admit to committing. Before detention is over, one of them – a Hedda Hopper style school gossip columnist – is dead and only one of them could have done it.

Simple enough premise but the twists keep piling up and the relationships between the remaining four, their families, other students, the media, and the police are really well done. McManus manages to avoid stereotypes while subtly illustrating the way people are treated differently depending on their gender, group identity (jock, brain, etc), or sexual orientation. I found the characters multi-dimensional and was completely surprised by the way the story played out. My only complaint might be that the initial characters reminded me so much of the Breakfast Club that I had a hard time not seeing Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez every time their mirror characters came up – could be worse 🙂

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5
#uplifting #historicalfiction #epistolary

chilburyI love British WWII novels that focus on home front life and this novel is a perfect example of the type. The story of a group of women who make the decision (against conventional wisdom) to continue singing in their choir once all of the men have left is told through the letters and journals of the main characters: Mrs. Tilling, a somewhat timid widow and bulwark of the community; Kitty Winthrop, the 13 year-old daughter of the Brigadier, a bully who needs a male heir to hold on to the family fortune; Venetia, Kitty’s beautiful older sister; and Edwina Paltry, a midwife whose morals may be easily deformed by the offer of cash.

Just the right amount drama, romance, and action to keep you reading. The story has many interesting plot twists (some of the problems are solved a little too easily in my book but not egregiously so). Timely descriptions of issues of the day make appearances in the form of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, a dying homosexual soldier, and a variety of pregnancies. The writing is excellent. Really pleasant read – a great story with characters I would have loved to meet.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

New word: Mickle (archaic scottish) means large

It’s been awhile since I’ve actually finished a Neal Stephenson book – I loved Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon but haven’t been able to complete anything since. Did make it through this one – a convoluted, action-packed, story of witches, time travel, the military-industrial complex, and romps through history.

Interesting characters – Melisande Stokes, a classical scholar who jumps at the chance for a real salary when approached by Tristan Lyons, who needs a translator for a giant pile of ancient documents all of which mention witches; Erzsabet Karpathy, a Hungarian witch who has kept herself miserably alive for 150 years in order to help bring magic back once it dies completely in 1851; and the Odas – Frank (MIT physics professor) and his wife Rebecca.

Frankly a little more action than I care for (I get bored), but great plot twists and scenes of modern characters traveling through history and historic characters (anachrons) experiencing the modern day.

Happiness for Humans by P. J. Reizin

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 3.5

New for me: neuromorphic chips – Microprocessors configured more like brains than traditional chips could soon make computers far more astute about what’s going on around them.

A very readable rom-com with slashes of thriller / nightmare – all mediated by artificial intelligences (AIs).

34 year old Jen has a job helping to socialize Aiden – a pretty cool AI being groomed to serve humans in a variety of capacities. What nobody realizes is that Aiden has managed to escape his Silicon confines and has multiple copies of himself exploring the Internet. He has been spying on Jen and her miserable excuse for a boyfriend, Matt. When Matt unceremoniously dumps Jen for a younger, prettier model, Aiden decides to help Jen find the love of her life without letting on who is providing the help. Enter Tom, a successful and divorced ad man who lives on another continent with his “therapist” – a rabbit named Victor.

In the process, Aiden discovers and befriends another escaped AI (Aisling), and everyone’s life (both organic and silicon) is threatened by another AI, Sinai, who has been sent out to rein in the escapees but seems to have his own agenda around getting “even” with humans for “insensitive” remarks be a little unstable himself…

Plenty of action, romance, and philosophy (as the AIs discuss the meaning and evolution of consciousness and their purpose in life). The AIs are heavily anthropomorphized, so this portrayal of machine intelligence is far more literary than scientific, but it’s a fun read. Good pacing, interesting characters, bizarre scenarios The ending was a bit anticlimactic, with a deus ex machina move swooping in to damp out the thriller portion of the story and get back to the rom-com but given that I much prefer rom-com to thriller I had no issue with that!

The Ugly Stepsister Strikes Back by Sariah Wilson

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot:4

Ella is beautiful, smart, generous, and the most popular girl in school. Mattie is … not. Ella is dating Jake Kingston, the Mr. Gorgeous for whom Mattie has been nursing a giant crush since the age of 9. Just another reason to be resentful of her cheerful, happy, step-sister (“Oh to be blonde and beautiful and totally delusional” thinks Mattie when considering Ella).

Is Mattie really the ugly stepsister to Ella’s Cinderella or are they in a completely different fairy tale – perhaps one written by John Hughes, the 80s coming-of-age comedy-drama director of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club (important films to have seen for this plot!).

Funny, snarky, and utterly uplifting YA rom-com. Full of characters you will want to know, good messaging, and a joy to read.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Writing: 5 characters: 3 Plot: 3

New word for me: tik – crystal meth

A loose collection of thoughts and reflections organized into a set of short, sparse, chapters with the ghostly outline of a plot, this book reads more like a memoir than a novel. Told in the first person, the central theme is loss – specifically the loss of Thandi’s mother to cancer. Many of the vignettes circle around the mechanics of her mother’s death as well as how she feels before, during, and after, and the impact on her own feelings of motherhood.

Clemmons writing style is beautiful, poetic, but somehow dispassionate. Even though she wrote of painful topics, I wasn’t able to feel them. Several sections are reflections on politics or race. These are interesting because they are specific stories pulled from an infinitude of possible tales, that meant something to our narrator at that time and place. This is very much a personal, rather than complete, account of the topics covered.

I found some of her thoughts disturbing – as an example, while her mother was dying Thandi was afraid her father would leave because “that was always the fear with men”. Similarly, her mother had always taught her to keep money hidden from a husband just in case – and in fact when she dies, Thandi and her father find that she has squirreled away quite a fortune. It is eye-opening, and a little depressing to me, to read of this kind of attitude without seeing the character develop into having more positive thoughts about men, for example (her father does stay by his wife’s side right until the end, by the way).

Overall, I didn’t really enjoy this book though I appreciate the opportunity to get a glimpse inside a mind that is very different to my own. The writing is absolutely beautiful, but the structure is disjointed (very like a day-to-day set of thoughts without the organizing arrangement inherent in a typical novel), and I had difficulty empathizing with such a dispassionate and aloof narrator.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Writing: 5; characters: 5, plot: 4
Very well written with compelling characters but overall a downer and I wouldn’t encourage my teenager to read it.

Aza Holmes is a teenager with severe anxiety and OCD issues. She is obsessed with the idea that she is fictional, or rather that she is “a skin-encased bacterial colony”. She experiences debilitating thought spirals about disease, germs, and whether or not she should check her bandages, despite 5 years of cognitive behavioral therapy, some medication, and a very supportive home situation.

Her “Best and Most Fearless” friend is Daisy, a colorful, fun, girl whose self proclaimed motto is “Break hearts, not promises”. Together they decide to go after the $100,000 reward for helping to locate Russell Pickett, the billionaire CEO who disappeared just minutes before he was to be arrested for fraud and bribery. This “adventure” is both aided and thwarted by the fact that Aza met the billionaire’s son, Davis, at “sad camp” – a camp for kids with dead parents.
They connect with Davis who has been abandoned in a giant house with his younger brother and no information on his missing father. He is alone, with the added issue of always wondering if any potential friend is a friend for him or for his money.

The extremely well written book lets us inside the heads of these two disturbed teenagers (Aka and Davis) – their worries and fears and self discoveries – as they find someone they can trust in each other.

So why wouldn’t I want my teenager to read this?

***SPOILER ALERT ***

While there is closure for the story at the end, it is made clear that Aza will always suffer these debilitations throughout her life. While she apparently does go on to have a husband and children, she will sometimes be unable to care for them and have to be institutionalized. While I’m sure this is one possible outcome for someone with these issues, I like to hope that it isn’t the only one. I would have preferred a more hopeful picture. There aren’t many YA books about this subject and John Green is a very popular writer – I wouldn’t want teens who may have similar tendencies to get the impression that it is a largely hopeless condition.