Category Archives: Young Adult Fiction

Review of Anna and the French Kiss

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In 2010, the YA community was buzzing about Stephanie Perkins’ debut novel Anna and the French Kiss. It was raved about by so many people that I knew I had to read it, but only now have I gotten around to it.

In the book, the title character is sent to spend her senior year of high school at the School of America in Paris. Anna doesn’t speak a word of French and is furious with her Nicolas Sparks- esque author father for being so obsessed with appearances that he would deprive her of spending her final year of high school away from her best friend, Bridgette, and her little brother, Seany. She realizes that she’s being forced to do something most eighteen year-olds would die for, but she’s still pissed.
But things are looking up not long after Anna arrives. Her hallmate Meredith becomes a fast friend, and through her, Anna is introduced to some great people. One of these people is Etienne St. Clair, an American who was born in Paris and raised in London. His English accent only adds to his attractiveness and Anna develops an instant crush. But St. Clair (as everyone calls him) has a girlfriend of a year, and Anna tries to squelch her feelings, especially since Meredith is obviously in love with him, too. But of course, she can’t, and the usual teenage mishaps happen- awkward encounters, drunken confessions, and misunderstandings that threaten to tear the entire friend group apart.

Anna wasn’t my favorite YA book I’ve ever read. Perkins’ style is very enjoyable to read, but the plot of the book is underdeveloped in some places and forced in others. For the most part, Anna is a likeable character, but for some reason, Perkins sometimes downgraded her usually-witty character to an airhead: upon finding out that the motto attached to her family crest is French, she comments, “How was I supposed to know a Scottish motto would be in French? […] I always assumed it was in Latin or some other dead language.” For a girl who is obsessed with all films, including foreign ones, these sorts of moments made no sense.

Anna and St. Clair’s friendship is pretty cute and fun throughout the book, and Perkins does a great job of describing the awkward tension between two people that are attracted to one another but can’t do anything about it. One of my favorite scenes was after St. Clair’s domineering father forces St. Clair to stay in Paris over Thanksgiving instead of spending it with his sick mother in California. He’s so upset that, after venting about it to Anna in her room, he asks if he can stay there overnight. The awkward sexual tension is well-done: they both stay fully dressed, but there’s not enough room in Anna’s bed to avoid their legs or arms touching and they both try their hardest to act like they’re totally fine with the arrangement. But then, several chapters later, when St. Clair hears their friends having sex, Anna freaks out mentally, thinking how humiliating this moment is because the fact that she’s a virgin has always been this “wall” between her and St. Clair… but it hadn’t been before, and after that moment, continued not to be.

Similar incongruities spring up elsewhere in the book. St. Clair mentions how controlling and emotionally abusive his father is several times throughout the book, but when Anna sees St. Clair and his father interacting on the street, she thinks “Whoa, this is why St. Clair never talks about his dad- he’s controlling and emotionally abusive.” If Perkins had meant for the street interaction to be jarring and sad, she failed to create the proper build-up.

There were things I enjoyed about the book, though. Anna’s voice and Perkins’ style in general reminded me of Maureen Johnson’s, whom I love, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they have the same agent (as it happens, a flaw of the practically-perfect Johnson’s is her knack for creating romantic relationships that fall short in some infinitesimal but important way.) The book is a fun read with good characters, but Anna doesn’t have enough weight for me to return to it anytime soon.

Review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I’ve been hearing about Stephen Chbosky’s book The Perks of Being a Wallflower for years. It was always on my to-read list, but I never got to it. When the recent movie adaptation was released, I couldn’t see it until I followed my rule of reading the book first, and then Stuart got me Perks for Christmas.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is told from the perspective of fifteen year-old high school freshman Charlie. In a series of letters to an unknown person, Charlie describes his first year of high school as it goes on: losing a close friend, struggling with school, being taken under a teacher’s wing, making new friends, and exposure to the party scene of those new friends. He also describes his family- his parents and two older siblings- with whom he is very close, and how watching his siblings grow up influences the way he himself grows. Watching is what Charlie does best, and his letters reveal an astonishing level of personal and social analysis that is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The book surprised me right away. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t for the book to be in letter form and for it to open with the main character, Charlie, grieving his friend’s suicide. Chbosky isn’t afraid to shove reality in your face, and I respect his not shying away from it from the beginning. He also doesn’t understate Charlie’s naivete. Both Charlie’s reactions and his written voice reveal it almost uncomfortably and we’re able to watch Charlie grow in both areas as the book goes on.

Cbosky doesn’t stops shocking with those elements, though. Throughout the book, we are left clues about Charlie’s past stay in a hospital when he was very young. It could have been a stay for pneumonia, for all we know in the beginning, but as the letters keep coming, it’s revealed that Charlie’s doctor at the hospital was a psychiatrist, who he started seeing after his beloved Aunt Helen dies tragically. His struggles were bad enough that he missed almost a year of school, and throughout the book, Charlie constantly references his fond memories of when Helen would babysit him and his siblings on Saturdays when his parents went out and how Helen was the one who made him feel most loved in the world. But as Charlie falls in love with his friend Sam and explores his sexuality with both her and his gay friend Patrick, it’s obvious that something is amiss. Chbosky saves the bomb until almost the end of the book, when Charlie is again under a psychiatrist’s watch, and it’s one of those reveals that makes you take a literal step away from the book.

You’ve probably already Perks. Read it again. Charlie’s story merits another look.

Choice Quotes:

I think about it sometimes. I wonder went on in Michael’s house around dinner and TV shows.Michael never left a note or at least his parents didn’t anyone see it. Maybe it was “problems at home.” I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly.

I would really like to ask Sam on a date someday. I really would. She is so nice […] It would be very nice to have a friend again. I would like that even more than a date.

I didn’t know that other people thought things about me. I didn’t know they looked.

I always wanted to be on a sports team like that. I’m not exactly sure why, but I always thought it would be fun to have “glory days.” Then I would have stories to tell my children and my golf buddies. I guess I could tell people about Punk Rocky and walking home from school and things like that. Maybe these are my glory days, and I’m not even realizing it because they don’t involve a ball.

And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t.

I just wish God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what’s wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense […] I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.

Review of The Bell Jar

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When I picked up The Bell Jar at the library, I wasn’t sure if I should be reading it. I wasn’t really in a good place, mentally, and I knew that the book had some dark themes. I also thought it was a book of poetry, and I’m not much of a poetry person. But I knew it was a book I should read at some point in my life, and I chose then. I’m very grateful I did.

Sylvia Plath’s novel is about nineteen year-old Esther Greenwood, who, at the start of the book, is in the middle of a magazine internship in New York City. She’s one of twelve female writers who were invited to not only work on an NYC magazine, but also to be lavished with attention and gifts. It should be a dream come true for a well brought-up aspiring writer like Esther, but something’s wrong. She feels constantly outside of what she’s doing and the people around her, and she can’t seem to get excited about anything like all the other girls. “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” she says early in the book. But life has no regard for her- besides having trouble mentally, she gets rejected by boys she wants to date and schools she wants to get into. She gets assaulted at a party and has to keep it to herself. Her mother has little regard for her and her father has been out of the picture for a long time. When Esther returns home the summer after her internship, a summer she had planned to spend in a prestigious writing program (from which she was rejected), her symptoms worsen. Eventually, she takes herself to get electroshock treatments, and it’s a terrible experience. Her world just gets darker, until finally she is admitted into  psych ward. Then, the only question is, will the ward make her better, or will she  be stuck there forever?

As previously mentioned, I knew well the themes in The Bell Jar and people’s reactions to them: that the book was incredibly dark and if you weren’t already depressed, this book would make it happen. I also went into the reading with my personal expectations- that it would be written in an older voice, about an older, married woman and that I probably wouldn’t be able to relate at all. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is classified as young adult, written in a young voice and extremely relatable. Perhaps because I am going through my own depression, I didn’t find Esther’s story to be gloomy, but refreshing. At last, someone who was writing accurately about what I’m going through. There were certainly parts that were disturbing or sad, but I didn’t feel myself pulled down by the story.

Perhaps because The Bell Jar is a thinly veiled tale of Plath’s own life, the reactions of Esther’s mother were heartbreaking, but quiet accurate to how many people reaction to all mental illnesses. After her first needlessly painful round of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy), Esther sits in the back of her mother’s car and says that she’s done with the treatments. Her mother smiles. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that,” she says. Esther is surprised. “Like what?” she asks. Her mother explains, “Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at the hospital. I knew you’d be all right again.” Even after Esther nearly succeeds in killing herself, during her recovery her mother tells her, “We’ll act as if this were all a bad dream,” as though Esther could simply forget the reasons why she wanted to kill herself and enter a new, happy life.
But not everyone in Esther’s life treat her depression with scorn. An old flame of hers, Buddy, who later dated an acquaintance of Esther’s who also ends up, suicidal, in the psych ward, asks Esther if it could possibly have been him who drove the girls insane. He worries that something he did during their respective courtships somehow pushed the girls over the edge.

One thing that jumped out at me about Plath’s writing style besides, of course, how good it is, is that she LOVES similes. Especially in the beginning of the novel, there’s a least one per page, sometimes more.  She describes what she wears as “expensive clothes hanging limp as fish,” and later on writes, “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”

If anything, I find The Bell Jar a good source about mental illness. For people suffering from similar maladies, the book tells them that they’re not alone. For those who aren’t afflicted, it gives them insight into the condition and how involuntary it is. The Bell Jar is a fantastic novel. Read it.

Choice Quotes:

It didn’t seem to be summer anymore. I could feel the winter shaking my bones and banging my teeth together.

A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.
My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.

The only trouble was, church, even the Catholic Church, didn’t take up the whole of your life. No matter how much you knelt and prayed, you still had to eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.

Sunday- the doctor’s paradise! Doctors at country clubs, doctors at the seaside, doctors with mistresses, doctors with wives, doctors in church, doctors in yachts, doctors everywhere resolutely being people instead of doctors.

A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.
“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if this were all a bad dream.”
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as  a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.

There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice- patched, retreaded and approved for the road.

 

 

Review of Eleanor & Park

In the beginning of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, Eleanor mocks Romeo and Juliet: “[They’re] just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other […] It was ‘Oh, my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight.” Eleanor is skeptical of teenage romance. Not that she’s ever experienced romance, or love, but considering the way her stepdad treats her mother, Eleanor’s not sure that either of those exist. Park isn’t looking for romance, either; he’s got his friends, his comic books, and his music, and he doesn’t need anything else. He especially doesn’t need the weird new girl Eleanor sitting next to him on the bus day after day. She dresses strangely, her hair is messy and orange, and the fact that she’s a target makes him a target. But despite their misgivings of each other, Eleanor and Park start to become friends, connecting over music and comic books and similar senses of humor. Things aren’t easy; Eleanor’s life isn’t great and she can’t believe that anyone could like her- let alone love her. Park is inexperienced in life and love and enjoys being a loner; is he really willing to give up the ease of that life for some weird chick?

Rowell’s book is exquisite. It’s a love story, but it’s a friendship story first, and it’s never cloying. Eleanor and Park are experiencing these feelings for the first time, and they’re wary of them. Eleanor, especially, can’t let herself believe it. Her life is tough and could easily become overdramatic, but Rowell avoids making it so. Instead, we feel how trapped Eleanor’s mom is by a bad marriage and how much of a danger the stepfather is  to Eleanor and her siblings. Eleanor isn’t used to be cared for, even by herself, and to allow Park to do it is terrifying, especially because she’s not conventionally beautiful.

That was another wonderful thing. In pretty much any teen novel, when the overweight girl is loved by someone, she works behind the scenes to lose weight for her significant other (even if the S.O. didn’t request it.) Though the authors want this to symbolize that the girl is feeling better about herself and has something to look forward to, it just sends the message that any girl over a size eight can’t be loved long-term. Eleanor is a busty, curvy redhead at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, and Park’s feelings never waver for her, not even when her self-loathing comes out as anger toward him.

But even though he loves to love Eleanor, Park has his own problems. Next to his tall, muscle-y younger brother (whom the Korean half of the genes skipped somehow), Park feels like the girly Asian kid in his almost-all-white neighborhood. His father broadcasts to him that Park’s interests are not what he’d like from his son, and Park just feels out of place. Maybe that’s why he likes being with Eleanor- she’s out of place, too, and that common ground is enough to make them both feel safe.

The only issue I took with the story is that Rowell set the novel in the 80s… for seemingly no reason. While it’s certainly not a crime for a book to be set in the more recent past, they’re generally set there for a reason. Rowell’s chosen decade didn’t really affect the story. Sure, the main characters really liked 80s bands, whom they listened to on Walkmans, and the ridiculous hairstyles of the time are mentioned once, but there were no elements of the time period that made the story more interesting.

Despite the pointless time period choice, Rowell’s novel is excellent. As I reached the end of the book, I started to panic because there weren’t enough pages for all the THINGS that needed to happen. Rowell’s novel is about the scariness of a first love, feeling comfortable with yourself, and making the right decision, even if it’s a painful one.

Choice quotes:

Even in a million pieces, Eleanor could still feel Park holding her hand. Could still feel his thumb exploring her palm. She sat completely still because she didn’t have any other option. She tried to remember what kind of animals paralyzed their prey before they ate them…
Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her.
That would be awesome.

“Don’t be mad at me,” he said, sighing. “It makes me crazy.”
“I’m never mad at you,” she said.
“Right.”
“I’m not.”
“You must just be mad near me a lot.”

He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute.
It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.

Eleanor made him feel like something was happening. Even when they were just sitting on the couch.

Review of Between Shades of Gray

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Unfortunately for author Ruta Sepetys, her YA novel Between Shades of Gray debuted around the same time as the decidedly not YA book Fifty Shades of Gray also hit bookstores. However, though I haven’t read the latter, I’ll venture a guess that Sepetys’ book is better.

Between Shades of Gray begins in Lithuania in 1941. World War 2 is becoming more threatening by the day, and Stalin is determined to clear out all those who threaten his reign- namely professors, artists, and intellectuals. Lina’s father, a professor at a Lithuanian university, is on his list, and Lina, along with her mother and brother, find themselves herded onto a traincar in the middle of the night, headed for an unknown destination. Lina’s father is not with them, having been sent to a Siberian prison and sentenced to death. A budding artist, Lina documents her experiences through drawings, even though, if the pictures were found, she too might find herself on the wrong end of a gun. After weeks on a train, during which Lina and her fellow passengers band together, the entire car is dumped on a beet farm and forced to work in unimaginable conditions. As her fellow prisoners die steadily, Lina, her brother Jonas, her mother, and her new friend Andrius try to keep up their morale and hope to make it out of the imprisonment alive.

Many World War II books take place in England, Germany, or another location that was affected by Hitler and the Holocaust. While no doubt a story that deserves to be told, I couldn’t believe that I had never really heard about the evacuations of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The stories are similar in that a power-hungry ruler bent on “purifying” Europe deported (and ultimately killed) millions of people, imprisoning them inhumanely and convincing their fellow countrymen of the victims’ “criminal record.” Neither can be called crueler than the other; in both cases, innocent human beings were punished and killed. I found Lina’s story, which is fictional but takes threads from many true stories, infuriating and saddening.

These stories are often told from a teen’s point of view because teens feel emotions more deeply, observe happenings more closely, and  are still learning who they are. To have the latter process interrupted by constant tragedy is what makes these stories so fitting for a teen voice. Lina is a great character, because she is caring and intelligent, as well as being impulsive, a little bratty, and thrust into a world she could have never imagined. Especially because she is an artist, Lina sees the world differently from a lot of those she’s imprisoned with, and risks her life to record what happens to her.

It is obvious when handsome Andrius is introduced in the beginning of the book that he is intended to be Lina’s love interest, but I was relieved to find that the romance, while present, was very secondary to the rest of the story. Though Lina certainly likes Andrius, she has bigger things to worry about than what Andrius thinks of her. I think that makes the brief moments they spend together on the page even sweeter- they’re rare happy moments in Lina’s life, the kind she should have had more of at her age.

Sepetys doesn’t shy away from the disgusting way the prisoners, but especially the women, are treated by the officers and guards. For the first few weeks at the camp, many of the prisoners shun Andrius’ mother, sure she must have agreed to spy for Stalin’s officers because she is kept warm and clean. They ostracize her further when they learn that she is sleeping with the officers. Only discovering the truth- that the men threatened to kill Andrius if his mother didn’t sleep with them- makes them retract their harsh judgments. At one point, when Lina’s mother starts to receive extra rations, Lina wonders (and Jonas wonder aloud) if her mother isn’t doing the same. Her mother is shocked and hurt by this accusation from her own children.

While it is certainly not a statistic that all YA books (or all books in general) end with a happy or even hopeful ending, I must admit that I was shocked by the bleak ending of Between Shades of Gray. But it’s only appropriate; Lena’s story may be fictional, but it was a very real truth for those imprisoned that serving 15 years in these camps was not an empty threat to keep them obedient. The citizens actually did serve that many years, or more. Those who went in as children emerged as adults. Worst, their time in the camps was, and still is, denied by many in their respective countries. Unlike the Holocaust, the camp imprisonment of the Lithuanian, Estonian, and Finnish people is never spoken of, and even today, the few that are left are still begging for the recognition of Stalin’s crimes. This book, while a fictional testament written by a young girl, is more than that. It’s also a way to get the message out to a different audience, one that might listen.

Review of Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List

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“I lie all the time,” reports Naomi in the first line of Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. From  the authors of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist comes a new collab book. Though I didn’t read Nick and Norah, I’ve read a few of David Levithan’s books and heard Rachel Cohn speak, and they seemed like the sort of writers who could effectively write an enjoyable book together.

Naomi and Ely tells the story of, well, Naomi and Ely, two NYU freshman who have lived across the apartment-building hall from each other since they were small kids. But a few months ago, something big happened: one of Ely’s moms cheated on his other mom with Naomi’s dad. Though Naomi tells Ely it’s okay, that things are fine now, she’s still working through the sadness over her dad leaving and supporting her mom through her deep, clinical-depression sadness that causes her to stay in bed every minute that she’s not at work. But Naomi is determined not to let this disaster affect her relationship with Ely, because they’re best friends, and what’s more, they’re soul mates. They’re so much soul mates that even though Ely is very clearly gay, Naomi is still in love with him and is determined that he’s going to be her first. As she says, “I can wait.” So when Ely kisses Naomi’s boyfriend, it’s doubly hurtful- not only because her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend, but because Ely making out with a boy means that Ely is really, truly gay.

I really liked this book, which was a nice surprise; for some reason, I expected not to. But despite its absolutely-teen-bookish cover, and its seemingly shallow main characters, Naomi and Ely is an excellent book about deep friendships, and the ins and outs of relationships in general. The novel is partly narrated by each of the title characters, and because we get to hear both their sides, the story is twice as affecting. The kiss- or rather, the admission of the kiss- happens in the first chapter, and from then on, Naomi and Ely are trying to figure out how the kiss affects the relationship between the two of them. At first, Naomi acts like she doesn’t care. After all, her boyfriend wasn’t on the No Kiss List (the list of kissable people that, should they be kissed by one of the pair, would surely tear apart the friendship.) Plus, she’s the kind of beautiful that turns heads. She can get a new guy in a second. But she doesn’t want a new guy. She wants her boyfriend. Well, actually… she wants Ely. Badly. When trying to talk Ely out of liking her boyfriend Bruce the Second, Naomi elects for the freeze out, which causes both title characters extreme pain. They’re mad at each other, but they miss their childhood best friend terribly. Levithan and Cohn make us feel their pain acutely.

The novel is narrated by a large number of people, each getting a chapter here and there to voice their part of the ongoing story: Naomi, of the title, her best friend Ely, Robin (a girl, and a friend of Naomi’s), Robin (a boy, and a friend of Robin Girl’s), Bruce the First (past boyfriend of Naomi), Bruce the Second (present boyfriend of Naomi), Gabriel (doorman in Naomi, Ely, and Bruce the Firsts’ building), and Kelly, Bruce the First’s twin sister. While I do enjoy books written from various point of views, and while I think most of the characters’ voices were helpful to the storytelling, some of them, like Kelly (who has one chapter) and Robin Boy (who also has one chapter), didn’t make much of a contribution.  It was, however, nice to get several different viewpoints on the same story.

One thing I absolutely hated about the book is Naomi’s use of symbols in her chapters. For some reason, the authors chose to have Naomi communicate using symbols instead of certain words- for example, a picture of an eye for “I,” or a raincloud for “rain,” a yin-yang symbol for “equilibrium.” Not only were these symbols annoying to come across because they made the reading clunky, but the authors lost their dedication to them as the book went on. Where Naomi’s first chapter is littered with pictures, some chapters only have one or two. Plus, sometimes I had no idea what they symbols were supposed to be standing in for. At one point, Naomi’s rant is interrupted by a string of pictures of ears, gradually getting bigger. I am staring at the pictures as I type this. I still have no idea what they’re supposed to mean.

But despite the annoying symbols that crop up, I loved this book because of what it said about relationships. “It is not easy,” Ely says toward the end. “Things that matter are not easy. Feelings of happiness are easy. Happiness is not. Flirting is easy. Love is not. Saying you’re friends is easy. Being friends is not. ” Nothing worth having or feeling is easy, but always, always worth it. I wish more YA books covered this message. This one’s a good start.

Choice quotes:

Ely extracts his one hand from mine, gives his hot chocolate over to me to hold with his other hand, and then places both his hands together at his mouth, to warm them. I want to do the breathing for him.

It strikes me for the gazillionth time that [Naomi] is completely fucking beautiful. And I love it, because my love for her has absolutely nothing to do with that. I love her because she’ll hold the elevator for me even if heading downstairs without me would make more of a point […] I love her because when I feel like putting my head in an over, she’ll gently take it out and bake me cookies instead […] I love her because even though she doesn’t always tell the truth, she always feels like she should. I love her because I don’t need to love her all the time.

I’m so tired of being uncool. You can dress me up, give me  a cool boyfriend, even laugh at one of my jokes every now and then- but then anxiety always gives it away.

I notice her. I notice something’s happened. I notice she’s as beautiful as ever, but that she hasn’t put any thought into it. I notice she needs sleep and a conversation and a kiss from someone who isn’t me. I notice she’s still angry at me but that there are other emotions there as well. I notice her the way you notice the differences in someone that’s been gone a long time. And it hasn’t been a long time. It’s only been long for us.

I find Naomi sleeping in my bed- sleeping off all the sleeplessness of the past months, sleeping past all the tiredness. Seeing her like that, the sheets scrunched up in her hands (she’s always been a total sheet-snatcher) and her one foot dangling over the side (she always likes it to be free), I feel like I know her. Really know her. And part of really knowing her is also knowing that I don’t necessarily know her as well as I think I do. Which is okay. We should each have our own damn souls.

Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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When Stuart and I were in sixth grade, this new advanced English class was created. We both took the admission test that year to be accepted for the next school year. He got in. I did not, and so was forced to endure boring, slow-moving on-level seventh grade English. Because I was quite obviously bored, my lovely teacher decided to give me something different to read, and that something different was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I remember loving the book as a twelve year-old, but save for one line about blackened pennies, I didn’t remember anything else. I wanted to read it again, but assumed it would be a slog like Jane Eyre (which I read over the summer and have yet to write a review for because I hated it so much.) To my pleasant surprise, I LOVED my second reading of the book.

The book follows Francie, who ages from eleven to sixteen as the story goes on, with lots of flashbacks to her earlier childhood. Francie lives in a small Brooklyn slum apartment with her parents and her little brother Neeley in the early twentieth century. Her parents are the children of immigrants, and Katie and Johnny are determined to give their children good lives… but they don’t really know how. Johnny is a constantly-drunk, usually out-of-work singing waiter, leaving Katie to support her family as a janitress. The book follows the struggles of the Nolan family, and Francie in particular, as they try to realize dreams, make life better, and keep up with the quickly-changing world.

I adore Francie as a character. She’s smart, tough, and imaginative. I love how determined she is to make something out of herself. From a young age, she decides she wants to be a writer and works toward that constantly, save for the time she’s torn down by a teacher for writing “disgusting” fiction that are actually essays based on Francie’s own life. I also loved reading about her non-writing adventures: trading bits of cloth for money, getting attacked by a murderer (who would have kidnapped and killed her if Katie didn’t shoot him), pledging her undying love to a soldier she knows for one day, and her musings on life in general.

Her family, too, is complex and layered. Smith allows us a peek at the family history on both sides and it only adds to an already rich storyline. My favorite part about knowing the backstory of the family is how much it helps develop Katie’s relationship with her children. As soon as Neeley is born, barely a year after Francie, Katie knows immediately that she will love him more than her daughter. The feeling only grows stronger as Francie gets older, mostly because the two are so alike. As she grows up, Francie realizes this, and toward the end of the book, she says after they fight, “Don’t be mad at me, Mama, because I fought you. You, yourself, taught me to fight for what I thought was right.” “You’re like me that way,” Katie answers. Francie thinks, “And that’s where the trouble is.  We’re too much alike to understand each other because we don’t even understand our own selves […] Mama understands Neeley because he’s different from her. I wish I was different in the way Neeley is.”

I know a few people who read this book once a year, and I kind of wish I did that growing up too, simply because the differences between how I read it at twelve and how I read it at twenty-two were so incredible. At twelve, I think I focused more on the beginning of the story, where Francie was closer to my then-age; I couldn’t really relate to the chapters where Francie got a job and experienced romance and, in general, grew up. This time, though, I read about sixteen year-old Francie and felt like Smith had read my diary from her grave. In this way, I believe that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not only great for kids and young adults, but adults as well. I love when books written so long ago (in this case, the 1940s) are still relevant to readers today.

Of course, not all of the book is necessarily for kids. Not that there’s anything terribly graphic, but Smith doesn’t gloss over Johnny’s long-developing fatal illness, the dangers of childbirth, the desperation of life in the slums, the intents of the murder that corners Francie, and sex. There’s a lot of sex talk in this book, something I didn’t pick up on as a pre-teen. But rather than being inappropriate, it’s just accurate of the learnings and yearnings of growing up, and especially for a writer in the 1940s, I respect the inclusion.

Read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Just read it. It’s amazing, and you’ll probably want to read it over and over and over.

Choice quotes:

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to the early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the one who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home.

He wants to keep on living even though he’s so old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.

Poor people have a great passion for huge quantities of things.

Things were changing so fast for Francie now, that she got mixed up. Neeley who was a year younger than she, grew suddenly and got to be a head taller. Maudie Donovan moved away. When she returned on a visit three months later, Francie found her different. Maudie had developed in a womanly way during those three months. Francie, who knew mama was always right, found out that she was wrong once in awhile.

“Carney did not pinch my cheek today. He pinched something else. I guess I’m getting too big to sell junk.”

“Haven’t you any girl friends to talk to, Francie?”
“No. I hate women.”
“That’s not natural. It would do you good to  talk things over with girls your own age.”
“Have you any women friends, Mama?”
“No, I hate women,” said Katie.
“See? You’re just like me.”
“But I had a girl friend once and I got your father through her. So you see, a girl friend comes in handy sometimes.”

When Francie came in off the cold street she thought that the warmth was like a lover’s arms around her drawing her into the room. She wondered, incidentally, exactly what a lover’s arms felt like.

“I need someone,” thought Francie desperately. “I need someone. I need to hold somebody close. And I need more than this holding. I need someone to understand how I feel at a time like now. And the understanding must be part of the holding […] I need someone to love in a different way from the way I love [my family.] If I talked to mama about it, she’d say, ‘Yes? Well, when you get that feeling don’t linger in dark hallways with the boys.’ She’d worry, too, thinking I was going to be the way Sissy used to be. But it isn’t an Aunt Sissy thing because there’s this understanding that I want almost more than I want the holding.”

She liked Ben. She liked him an awful lot. She wished that she could love him. If only he wasn’t so sure of himself all the timeIf only he’d stumble- just once. If only he needed her. Ah, well.

Review of Stolen

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I took issue with the premise of Stolen at first. In the novel by Lucy Christopher, a sixteen year-old English girl named Gemma is annoyed at her social climber parents and slips away from them at the Bangkok airport to buy coffee. At the cafe, she meets a handsome, oddly familiar stranger who drugs her drink and kidnaps her. When she finally wakes up in Australia, her captor makes it quite clear that he plans to make her fall in love with him… and then she kind of does.
As a feminist, I’ve got a little bit of a problem with the idea of the younger, weaker girl falling in love with the big strong man just because he wants her to. But I decided to give the book a chance because of the Printz Award seal on the cover; as far as I know, they don’t give out those awards lightly.

I ended up loving the book. While yes, I didn’t like the idea of Gemma falling for Ty simply because he was the only guy around and it was a teen novel, Stockholm Syndrome exists and is common in situations like Gemma’s: you’re sequestered with one person who might possibly kill you. Besides trying to humanize yourself to them so they won’t murder you, they might convince you that they, too, have a soul (and worst of all, they might actually have one.)

Christopher’s novel is very well-paced and emotionally (and sometimes physically) action-filled. Gemma is fantastically resilient throughout most of the book, making sure that Ty doesn’t touch her in any way and trying to escape every chance she gets. Unfortunately, because they’re in the middle of the Australian outback, escape is pretty much impossible. Even after a month, when Gemma starts to adapt to life there, she tries her hardest to let Ty know that she’s just as desperate to leave. The emotion in the novel in general is great; I really felt Gemma’s intense hopelessness when she firsts realizes where she is and that she might very well be killed. Her fear is palpable in the words Christopher uses, and she never overdoes it.

Possibly the best part about Christopher’s book are the scenes you don’t expect. It would be easy enough to have Ty keep Gemma in a house that he’s stocked with food and water, but Christopher makes Ty a bit of an adventurer. At one point, he takes Gemma along to help him catch a camel, a scene that I hope Christopher didn’t have to experience to write (it’s very dangerous and potentially fatal if something goes wrong.) I was also happy that the forced (or worse, consensual) sex scene, or even a kiss, did not make an appearance in the novel. I also loved that Ty did have a soul. Though I was less convinced of his goodness than other reviewers of the novel, his backstory is very complex and interesting. It makes the reader and Gemma both question which life was worse for her: the one with her fake, forceful parents whose love is questionable (even at the end of the novel) or the one with her truthful, forceful captor who has loved her for years.

Suffice it to say that, despite my initial reservations, I loved Stolen. Trust the Printz Award seal- it hasn’t steered me wrong yet!

Choice quotes:

I’d never imagined that you’d have a story, too. Until that moment, you were just the kidnapper. You didn’t have reasons for anything. You were stupid and evil and mentally ill. That was all.

Mum’s face went pale as she studied me, her lips pinched and tight. “What did he do to you?” she asked. “What did he do to you to make you think like this?”

Review of The Last Little Blue Envelope

Maureen Johnson is at it again! In this sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone, a few months older and more sophisticated, is preparing to apply to colleges. Her essay asks her to describe a defining experience in her life, and all she can think of is when her deceased aunt sent her on a journey through Europe, guided by the letters in thirteen little blue envelopes. But the problem is the ending to that story- the last envelope, the one with the final answer, was stolen. What kind of a conclusion is that to a college essay? But it seems that her journey is not quite over. Ginny receives an e-mail from a stranger, a boy named Oliver who bought her stolen bag while backpacking and discovered the letters inside. He wants to meet with her.

And so Ginny finds herself back in London, staying with her uncle and elated for another chance to see her “definitely something” possibly-boyfriend, the actor-playwright Keith. But things are not as they seem. Keith hasn’t waited around for Ginny- he has a beautiful new girlfriend- and Oliver doesn’t just want to return the letters, he wants half of the valuable art deal that the letter leads to. Within three days, Ginny, Oliver, Keith, and Keith’s girlfriend Ellis are squeezed into Keith’s car, heading for France and another adventure- or several.

Johnson, being a well-traveled person herself (she lives in England for about half the year), is the perfect person to write a European travel novel. She’s able to capture the wide-eyed tourist as well as cover ground that the more culturally well-rounded characters bring with them. As it happens, every major character is both of these at one time or another in the story, creating an interesting switch in dynamic as the group travels from France to Belgium back to London to Dublin. Johnson is also able to make her characters dynamic enough that, though many of the scenes take place inside a tiny car, said scenes are never boring.

As usual, this author uses her skills of comedy mixed with drama to take the reader on an emotional journey. Keith may be taken now, but Ginny still has strong feelings for him, and the reader wants him to kiss her as much as she does. Even without the romantic tension, the two of them have a great comedic dynamic. And then there’s the scene where Ginny takes the final letter to her aunt’s final resting place, does a rubbing of a gravestone (not her aunt’s), and calls her uncle while still atop the hill. It’s not overly sentimental, just sentimental enough to make you see that while Ginny loves her aunt, she’s still hurt that she didn’t know about her aunt’s illness until after it had taken her aunt’s life.

Possibly my favorite part of the novel are Ginny’s musings about the definition of the word “home.” ‘Home,’ she thinks while on her final tube ride in London. ‘It was a nice thought. She had missed her parents, her friends… but the word didn’t have quite the same meaning anymore. England was home, too. So much of her was here.’ And as her train nears the station: ‘[Ginny] wasn’t going to tell them the truth, that she wanted someone to block her path. SHe wanted this train to break down, for her flight to be cancelled, for immigration to tell her that she wasn’t allowed to go. She wanted London itself to rise up and refuse to let her pass out of its boundaries.’ I read this book when I myself was nearing my own lengthy stay in London, and I wept when I read that passage. Johnson’s passion for her adopted country comes through in Ginny’s voice, and it’s a beautiful thing.

My one problem with the novel is the chemistry between Ginny and Oliver in that there… wasn’t any. Actually, I take that back. There was chemistry, but not the romantic hate-into-love chemistry Johnson seemed to be aiming for and that everyone but me seemed to see. While other fans of the book swoon over the pairing, I only knew that Ginny liked Oliver because she willingly made out with him twice and claimed to feel passion. And while Johnson is a great writer of many things, including heart-fluttering kisses, every other Ginny-Oliver moment contained maybe-friendship, but never romantic feelings, at least from my point of view. Because I didn’t feel that they had romantic chemistry, the kisses felt out of place. In fact, in this second reading, I was actually looking for the reasons why Ginny was kissing Oliver. The first time: okay, she’d had a little too much champagne, and it was New Year’s Eve and they were both single and surrounded by couples sucking on each other’s faces,  including the boy she loves and his beautiful, too-friendly-to-hate girlfriend. I, too, might feel the pressure to grab the only other single guy and join in the party. But the second time, when they’re both completely sober and Oliver continues to be stand-offish (and not in a cute oh-he’s-so-shy way) and they have yet another chemistry-less conversation… I was a little confused as to what encouraged Ginny to passionately kiss him in the middle of a train station. Oliver just doesn’t seem to like her very much, nor she him, and that made those otherwise well-written kisses a little unexciting.

This book is one I would recommend to anyone, but particularly anyone who loves to travel, who enjoys having their emotions toyed with a little bit, and of course, anyone who’s already a fan of MJ (and seriously, if you read this blog and you’re not yet, what is wrong with you?!)

Choice quotes:

Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! […] She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.

“Those are the giant snowmen of Carnaby Street,” her uncle Richard explained. “Festive and disturbing, just the way we like it here. Don’t look them in the eye.”

Keith looked up partway, avoiding her face, instead tracing the outline of her new haircut. “Your hair. You changed it. You look like a news presenter.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Clearly, you don’t know about my childhood obsession with the women who did the weather. My heart still flutters when I hear the word ‘precipitation.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without braids. I thought your hair just grew that way.”

“I know [Romeo & Juliet] is one of your favorites,” she said.
“Well, who doesn’t like a romantic suicide pact?”
“Only bad people.”

Poor Richard. He didn’t deserve this. Every time Ginny walked in his door she was on her way somewhere else. Then again, he had let Aunt Peg live in his house and married her, so he clearly had a thing for flaky American types who liked to sneak off in the dead of night.

She didn’t want [Oliver] to have good qualities. Horrible people should be horrible all the time. That should be the law.

“Cheer up,” [Keith] said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “It’s me you’re with. Would I ever lead you to do something stupid? Best not to answer that. Just follow me down this dark path over here.”

“See those people?” Keith said, leaning into Ginny and pointing at the girl in the gold tights and her friends. “They know where to go. We will follow them, and all will be well. Look how shiny they are.”

“I have a plan,” Ellis said, as [Keith] half-carried her out. “We’ll get on the train, and I’ll ride in the toilet.”
“It’s like dating royalty,” Keith said.

She watched [Oliver] from the window as he left. He never turned back, just made his way down the street, tossing his lighter in his palm. Like nothing had happened at all. She felt a strangely familiar pang in her heart, but she couldn’t quite place it and didn’t feel like trying.

 

F*ck I’m in My Twenties

No, this isn’t your traditional book, but it does have two covers with words in between them, and it contains some incredible truths about being a twenty-something, so to me, Emma Koenig’s book is no less engaging than any of the others reviewed on this blog.

Starting out as some jotted notes in a notebook, then transitioning to tumblr where the drawings and notes were reblogged thousands of times (maybe more; I don’t know the numbers), before being picked up by Chronicle Books. Koenig is a New York-based actor/singer/writer, who begins her book with a witty forward, which includes such gems as

“I could have sworn that during freshman orientation the dean had said that as soon as we got our diplomas, a genie would appear and grant infinite wishes. Although now I think of it, I may has misheard her because I was texting.

“I hated that almost every conversation I had was either a defensive explanation of my life or a bland packaged script; both were devices to prove to whomever I was addressing that I had everything under control. Which I most definitely did not. I also couldn’t tell if I was overreacting. Was everyone else pleased as punch with their twenties? Was I insane for experiencing it this way? Did my mother obsessively read THe Bell Jar when I was in utero? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME?”

“[I went] to drama school, where it’s a prerequisite to have taken Overanalyzing 101 and to carry a Moleskin notebook everywhere.”

“This isn’t a ‘how-to’ book or a ‘how-not-to’ book, it’s more of a ‘how do I deal with my life without wanting to stab myself in the eyes with icicles?’ book.”

“Perhaps you’re one of those people who is (or was) perfectly content in your twenties. If so, FUCK YOU! I mean, um, CONGRATS.”

“I haven’t gotten very far at all imagining what my thirties will like, except for owning a really nice desk lamp.”

That’s just the introduction; most of the book is comprised of entries and pictures written and drawn by Koenig’s own hand. 50% of the book is what appeared on tumblr, while 50% of the content is new. In order to (try to) avoid copyright infringement, I’ll share a few that have appeared on tumblr, since they’re already been circulated on the internet. To see the others, buy this book! It’s available at Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters (in the latter store, it’s probably the only thing marked below $10, and therefore, the only thing I could afford, which only makes me like it more.)