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.

When Dimple met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Writing:4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4 – Overall rating 2

Teen romance, Bollywood style. This is a fun, well-written, cute book. Dimple is a fully Americanized Indian girl slated to start at Stanford in the Fall. Her parents are far more interested in Stanford as a vehicle for finding an IIH – Ideal Indian Husband. When they agree to let her go to the six week “Insomnia Con” summer program focused on web development – her passion – she is surprised. Until she arrives and finds Rishi – the boy her parents have decided she will marry – attending as well. The story of them falling in love against her will is a nicely executed teen romance.

BUT – and big SPOILER ALERT because I am so irritated by the plot that I have to explain it all – the story of their experience at “Insomnia Con” is ridiculous. Dimple is supposed to be a strong female character – with real ambitions and a passion for technology. This is great because I love reading books promoting women in STEM fields! However this author knows absolutely zip about the tech field and didn’t bother to do any research. There is hardly a thing about the Insomnia Con program that made any sense.

Dimple declares her passion for web technology often. She wants to develop an app that turns diabetes management into a game in order to help people like her father who have trouble with the administration. She is desperate to win the Insomnia Con prize for best app – the attention and marketing support of Jenny Lindt, her tech hero. That is the extent of the discussion of her great passion. She and Rishi spend a full week of this brief 6 week program working on a Bollywood dance routine to win a talent show that will earn them money to somehow mysteriously enable their app to be better in time to win the prize (and Rishi has tons of money anyway so really there was no need!).

Then another team wins for an obviously stupid idea (Drunk Zombies – a drinking game) because the father of one of them bought a new wing for the University. Jenny Lindt, who in the end likes Dimple’s idea and agrees to help her, gives a little lecture about diversity – about how people get ahead unfairly because they are white or male or straight or rich and how we need more people with different points of view to get the field to move ahead blah blah blah. While diversity is a great message, the set up was offensively inaccurate and paints a very unfair picture of the very industry she claims to be promoting. As a (white, female, straight, reasonably well off but not rich) member of that industry I take real exception to her portrayal.

Rant off!

A Taxonomy of Love by Rachael Allen

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

When 14 year old Spencer Barton meets Hope Birdsong for the first time, he knows something significant has  happened. They never run out of things to talk about – from her planning adventures all over the world to his encyclopedic (and occasionally disgusting) knowledge of weird bugs and their behavior (he has a tarantula named Lord Voldemort!). They explore the boundaries between being friends, not friends, best friends, and more than friends as they simultaneously grapple with both typical and atypical middle / high school issues: Spencer has Tourette’s which garners him more than his share of nastiness and Hope experiences a traumatic death which seems to knock the very breath from her life.

The story is told in first person from Spencer’s perspective. His humorous and yet deeply reflective voice is easy and fun to read. He likes taxonomies which help him make sense of the world and they offer a kind of orthogonal view of the story. Diversity is fully embraced in the recitation with some consideration of what it means to be “other”  both embodied in the narrative and discussed directly at times. As an aside, some really good descriptions of what it is like to have Tourette’s, what kind of coping mechanisms can be used, and what kind of positive brain side effects might come of having it.

There are some issues with pacing – indeterminate amounts of time seem to have elapsed between chapters and although it’s not that difficult to figure out, it is a little jarring.

Good for fans of “What to Say Next” and “Words in Deep Blue”

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

New word: Hiraeth – Welsh for homesicknesses for a home you can’t return to or never was.

An ode to the home made family, an homage to Age, and a paen to kindness. Honest, funny, and so moving tears will never be too far from your eyes.

82 year-old Arthur Moses lives with his cat Gordon and lunches in the cemetery with his dead wife  every day.  Lucille is the nosy neighbor who may (in her 80s) finally have a chance at love when her high school beau shows up out of the blue. High school senior Maddy Harris (nicknamed “Saddy”) often hides from school in the cemetery. She has no friends, no mother, and a father who detached when her mother died two weeks after Maddie’s birth. When something happens that causes her to leave home, it is Arthur to whom she turns, and Lucille who pushes her way into the mix.

Beautiful writing and impressive descriptions of the wisdom that one accrues with time, the values that live at one’s core, and the powerful bonds that result when people bring courtesy, understanding, and gentleness to their interactions with others. It’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with Arthur (and why wouldn’t you want to?) and to wish you could spend a little time in Mason, Missouri with the rest of them. One of the warmest and most uplifting books I’ve read all year.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

I loved every single thing about this insightful, beautifully told story about a 16 year old still counting the days since her mother died (747).  A few months before the story starts, her father moves her from her home in Chicago to a swanky area of Los Angeles to live with the “step-monster” (actually a very nice, recently widowed woman named Rachel) and her son Theo, who misses his father as much as Jessie misses her mother. Jessie is enrolled in a private school for wealthy kids and finds it very difficult to start a new life when she is still completely broken by the old.  Enter the mysterious “SN” (for Somebody-Nobody) who has anonymously contacted her via email and offers to help her navigate the difficulties of Wood Valley high school.

Friendship, bullying, sex, self-discovery – all topics deftly considered and discussed by a set of colorful and believable characters: Scarlett, the half Korean, half Jewish best friend from Chicago; Theo, the flamboyantly gay step-brother; Ethan, handsome, broken, poetry nerd who wears his batman shirt every day; Liam, lead vocalist for the band Oville and son of the bookstore owner who gives Jessie a job; and of course, “SN” who quickly becomes the person Jessie texts constantly. The plot is interesting and full of surprising, yet plausible events, but the real attraction of this novel is the excellent writing.  Page after page of insightful thoughts, conversations, and descriptions.  These characters are so real that your heart soars and breaks along with them. I’m always looking for authors who can distill and explain the essence of a character’s experience and Julie Buxbaum does this incredibly well.

Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins

Frankly I’m embarrassed to admit that I read anything from Harlequin. I’m more of a Nowthatyoumentionitliterary fiction reader and I find most romance novels just stupid (sorry but that’s how I feel!). However, I make a complete exception for Kristan Higgins. Her novels are hysterically funny and well written. Yes, they definitely fit the romance genre, but the women featured are all women I would love to get to know (and to join my book club!).

Anyway, this new one is a good one. Tiny Scupper Island off the coast of Maine serves as the beautiful locale for a story with all of the traditional Higgins humor, emotions, and complex relationships. I fell in love with most of the characters – Nora, the “good” daughter, who won the town’s all expenses paid scholarship to Tufts; her sister Lily, beautiful and doomed, and Lily’s daughter Poe, tattooed, angry, living with the grandmother (a character with a real kick herself) on Scupper Island while her mother is in jail. Plus, of course, the men! A whole array of attractive, but sometimes flawed men, for our array of women to choose from! As a side note, I was very impressed with the diversity of Higgins’ characters in this book – without her focussing on the diversity as the main purpose of the novel. Everyone was treated as simply another person with individual characteristics some of which mapped to identified categories of diversity. I’d like to see more novels take this approach.

Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren

Writing: 4; Characters: 4; Plot: 4

I love YA books and this one was a lot of fun.  Best for the 12 – 14 year old crowd.

WeaveCircleRound14 year old Freddie knows she is “doomed to be sensitive forever”. She lives with her younger sister Mel and her step-brother Roland, a tall, hulking, deaf teenager who seems to bring both order and chaos to everything he touches. Freddie works hard to stay as invisible as possible. Enter the weird new neighbors who take the lonely house on Grosvenor Street. Cuerva LaChance is a Mrs. Whatsit like creature who is almost always cheerful and has a capital case of super ADD; Josiah is a humorless, bored 14 year old who  picks fights by simply existing. Freddie is horrified to find him in most of her classes.

The book starts slowly, appearing to be a typical coming-of-age story, but around 30% of the way in it takes off stratospherically, or rather time-ospherically, as time travel suddenly reaches in and literally yanks Freddie and Josiah off on a pinball machine like journey covering 9th century Sweden, prehistoric China,  17th century France, and 92nd century (yes, 92nd!) England.  Characters from  Norse, Polynesian, and Chinese mythology are woven in and as a bonus, we learn the identity of the “person from Porlock” – historically blamed for interrupting Coleridge as he scribbled the poem Kubla Khan.  While Josiah is blasé about the adventure, having literally lived though it before, Freddie is given every possibility to learn and grow up and help unravel a world altering mystery facing them in the current time.  What or Who exactly is Three?  And why is their “Choice” so important?

FYI, as a veteran SF reader, I was impressed with her handling of the time travel – both philosophically and mechanically.  I was also very impressed with the literary and mythological references. It’s not often you find a book that can move through such different areas so smoothly.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

manhattanbeachWriting: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4

New word for me: apotropaic (supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.)

A cross between A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and an action oriented WWII novel.

I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It’s unusual in that it is both character and detailed action driven, by which I mean that equal emphasis was placed on the characters and their environments. The story takes place in New York City during WWII.  It revolves around three interconnected characters, each with their own narrative arc:  Anna is a quick witted and focussed young girl growing up in Brooklyn who likes accompanying her father on his “bag drops”; Dexter Styles, a polite gangster married into an upper crust family who seems to have more depth and sense of morality than many in his position; and Eddie, Anna’s father, who mysteriously disappears one day after several years working for Dexter Styles.

The settings have been given equal, if not greater, time and focus in the story.  Anna takes a job in the Navy Yard during WWII and gets a strong urge to become a diver after glimpsing a dive on her way home.  We are treated to in depth descriptions of her war work, diving equipment of the time, dive protocols and processes, and the ease with which a woman could get into that line of work (hint: no ease at all!). In another narrative stream we learn about life as a merchant marine during the war, including a detailed shipwreck survivor scenario. Lastly, details about the world of upper class banking and gangsterhood (hint: one is legal but that is about all that separates them!) abound.  For me, some of the technical descriptions went on a bit longer than I found necessary but I am good at adjusting reading speed to match my interest in the section so this was not a problem. I know others will find these action scenes / technical details more exciting than I did.

While the story revolves around the three primary characters above, there are many additional, well drawn supporting characters. Each was representative of a certain “type” in the era, but also a clear individual with their own personality, quirks, and goals. Lydia, Anna’s sister, born with an undefined wasting disease (sounded like cerebral palsy to me); her mother Agnes, the beautiful follies star who gave up working to love and care for Lydia; the Berringer family, a wealthy Episcopalian family into which Styles marries; Marle, the only negro in the dive class; Paul who thought diving might help him get into the navy and others.

Good writing, interesting characters, complex plot – a good combination of action oriented and character driven – rare in novels.  A little long winded for me in parts, though I’m guessing others would pick the opposite parts to shorten.  Definitely worth reading.