Shelf Control #78: The Lucy Variations

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: The Lucy Variations
Author: Sara Zarr
Published: 2013
Length: 309 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain.

That was all before she turned fourteen.

Now, at sixteen, it’s over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano — on her own terms. But when you’re used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?

The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl’s struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It’s about finding joy again, even when things don’t go according to plan. Because life isn’t a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.

How I got it:

I picked up a used copy online.

When I got it:

After reading Roomies, which made me want to read more by Sara Zarr.

Why I want to read it:

Having a pianist at the center of a YA novel reminds me a little of The Sea of Tranquility (review), which was such a powerful read — plus, having read two Sara Zarr books by now, I have a lot of confidence in her ability to tell a story that feels real and puts unusual young women in the spotlight.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Smell of Other People’s Houses

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Alaska: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.

This is a beautiful piece of writing, showcasing the lives of a handful of young people as they navigate their way through their triumphs and sorrows in 1970s Alaska. The novel is told through interlocking stories, giving us windows into the various characters’ lives, while offering constantly shifting perspectives on other characters as we see how they see one another. Some of the characters are best friends; others just know each other in a friend-of-a-friend or even more remote sort of way.

Along the way, they deal with missing or abusive parents, misunderstandings, birth families and found families, and the quiet support that can come from the most unexpected of sources.

The backdrop of life in Alaska lends the stories a unique flavor. What’s most important is the human relationships, but the scenes of life in a poor neighborhood in Fairbanks or on a fishing boat or along a remote highway give the plot developments a grounding in real life that’s gritty and evocative.

The language in this book is really lovely, and I thought the way the characters’ stories weave together was remarkably well done, with many surprises along the way.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses is a relatively thin book, but it’s got plenty to enjoy and savor. If you enjoy great, emotionally powerful writing, check it out. I believe this book has been marketed as young adult, but there’s no reason that adult readers wouldn’t love it.

Reading tip: I made the mistake of reading this book during a very busy, hectic week, so I was only able to read it in bits and pieces, and I think I lost a bit of the flow along the way. If you can, I’d suggest setting aside a cozy couple of hours and reading this one straight through.

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The details:

Title: The Smell of Other People’s Houses
Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication date: February 23, 2016
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Thursday Quotables: The Smell of Other People’s Houses

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!
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The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
(published 2016)

This lovely novel, consisting of interlocking stories, follows several young people in Alaska whose lives intersect in all sorts of intricate ways. I’m about halfway through, and can’t wait to share my thoughts when I’m done. Here’s one example of the lovely, unusual writing in this book:

It’s too hard trying to keep track of brothers who are full of their own ideas. They’re like helium balloons. At some point you just have to let go of the string and say, “Go on, then — good-bye, safe travels,” which has got to be easier than wondering whether you’re going to hold on too tight and pop the damn thing.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Thursday Quotables: The Sun Is Also A Star

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

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The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
(published 2016)

There was so much lovely writing in this new YA novel. Here’s a little snippet:

“You can’t really be falling for me,” she says, quieter now. Her voice is somewhere between distress and disbelief.

Again I don’t have anything to say. Even I’m surprised by how much I’ve been feeling for her all day. The thing about falling is you don’t have any control on your way down.

Check out my review of this new release!

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: The Sun Is Also A Star

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Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

This second novel by the author of Everything, Everything (review) lives up to expectations for great, engaging writing and unconventional teen characters. The Sun Is Also A Star is a “one special day” kind of novel — you know the type I mean: The two main characters are thrown together unexpectedly, and the entire storyline shows the trajectory of these two strangers becoming much, much more over the course of one unforgettable day.

The twist here is that the day should have been a totally crappy one for both characters. Natasha is making a last-ditch effort to keep from being deported back to her native Jamaica, after living in New York since the age of eight. Daniel is heading off to a college admission interview, following his parents’ carefully laid-out plans for him to attend Yale and become a doctor, despite the fact that his real passion is for poetry. When Natasha and Daniel meet, there’s instant chemisty, and the two bond and connect in all sorts of earth-shattering ways, even though the clock is ticking and there’s almost no chance that they’ll have more than just this one day.

I liked the story very much, although I found the little side stories (the lawyer having an affair with the paralegal, the security guard on the verge of suicide, and more) to be distracting, rather than enhancing the story. On top of that, the entire premise requires a big leap of faith, particularly if we’re to believe that Natasha would have the emotional bandwidth to even consider getting to know Daniel on what’s likely her last day in the country. Still, I suppose the point is to show the unintended consequences of all the chance occurrences that occur each day — is it random, or is it fate? Natasha is scientific, and Daniel is romantic, but by the end of the day, they do find common ground and understanding.

Bonus points to the author for the diversity of her cast of characters and the diversity of the neighborhoods and economic statuses shown throughout the story. It’s refreshing to read a love story where the main characters don’t fit easily into typical cookie cutter profiles.

The Sun Is Also A Star is an emotionally rich story, and if  you can buy into the idea of a girl who’s about to be deported also having time to ride the subway all over Manhattan and beyond with the cute boy who just stumbled into her life… well, then you’ll certainly enjoy this book.

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The details:

Title: The Sun Is Also A Star
Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: November 1, 2016
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Defending Taylor

defending taylorMiranda Kenneally’s newest book set in Tennessee (part of her Hundred Oaks series) is, as expected, an unusually fine example of thoughtful and smart young adult writing.

In Defending Taylor, Taylor Lukens is the hard-working, hard-playing daughter of a US Senator, on her way to Yale if she can just get that early admission essay done — when her life falls apart. After attending an upscale, exclusive boarding school for years, where she maintains a 4.2 GPA while starring on the soccer team, Taylor is suddenly expelled and forced to live at home with her parents again while finishing out senior year at Hundred Oaks, the local public school.

What went wrong? Taylor’s boyfriend Ben is from a poor family and attended St. Andrews on scholarship. When Taylor is found by the dorm monitors with a backpack containing pills and weed, she claims it’s hers, figuring that her dad’s clout will get her out of trouble. Wrong. Taylor’s dad won’t lift a finger to save her from the consequences of her supposed drug dealing, other than to have her attend public school with mandatory counseling rather than face any legal action. What no one knows is that the backpack was actually Ben’s, and Taylor covered for him to keep him from getting kicked out. Her heart is broken and she feels utterly betrayed when he doesn’t step forward once the consequences become clear… so not only is Taylor forced to attend an inferior school with an inferior soccer team, but her relationship is over as well.

Fitting in at a new school is hard at first, but Taylor is 100% focused on the future she’s been groomed for all her life. Highest grades, top-notch soccer career, impressive extracurriculars, then onward to Yale and a place in the family’s investment firm. Is this what she really wants? It doesn’t matter — it’s what’s expected.

Defending Taylor gives us an inside look at what happens when someone’s ambitions and someone’s heart lie in two different directions. Taylor’s parents are completely focused on politics and her father’s reeelection campaign, and there’s little time or patience for a daughter who suddenly veers off the path of high achievement and respectability. Taylor faces a senior year with no friends and the daily frustration of a poorly organized soccer team where the domineering captain resents her. Fortunately for Taylor, she does have one ally — her older brother’s best friend Ezra, inexplicably back home rather than away at Cornell where he’s supposed to be. Taylor and Ezra have always had chemistry, and when they start spending time together again, sparks fly.

I always enjoy Miranda Kenneally’s depictions of teen love. She doesn’t shy away from complicated emotions, and while the sex is a touch more explicit than in other contemporary YA novels I’ve read, it feels realistic and empowered (and safe — the characters always stop for a condom). Family dynamics are complicated as well. Being rich doesn’t necessarily mean happy, and the town and the school present a cross-section of different economic statuses.

The message in Defending Taylor has a lot to do with honesty — being honest with oneself, and being honest with the people who love you. Taylor hides the truth for so long from her family, afraid to be a snitch but at the same time suffering terribly from the ruined reputation she endures once word gets out about her supposed drug use. Meanwhile, she’s also never admitted to her parents, or even to herself, that Yale and investment banking might be the family tradition, but might not be her own true path. On top of the honesty theme, there’s also an ongoing message about stress, pressure, and having fun. Taylor’s guidance counselor asks Taylor what she does for fun, and she’s pretty stumped. Fun? School, soccer, studying all night — Taylor’s life is non-stop pressure, from herself as well as from her family, and she doesn’t even realize how unhealthy it is until she’s forced to take a hard look at her life, once it becomes clear that her hard work still might not be enough to overcome scandal and disgrace.

Probably the only bit of this otherwise terrific story that seemed a little off to me had to do with her father’s campaign. When someone leaks the news about Taylor’s expulsion from boarding school for having prescription drugs in her possession that weren’t prescribed for her, it creates a scandal that ultimately costs her father the election. And I couldn’t help but feel… really?? The man has been a Senator for years, has been a successful politician for years more, has a family that’s always been upstanding and has two older kids who have exemplary behavior… and he loses an election because his 17-year-old had a lapse of judgement? Seems like a very lame reason for someone who was supposed to win easily to suddenly lose an election. But what do I know? This is Tennessee, and the politics trend toward conservative, so maybe that could be enough to sink the career of an anti-drug legislator… but it felt unlikely to me.

Other than that, I truly enjoyed Defending Taylor. I liked Taylor’s backbone and self-sufficiency, her dedication to her own success, and her underlying belief in treating others with decency. She’s clearly a very good friend, and becomes a unifying force on her soccer team once she earns the other girls’ trust with her positive energy. Taylor’s relationship with Ezra is hot and steamy, but founded on mutual friendship and liking, not just hormones.

It’s not necessary to have read the other Hundred Oaks books to enjoy Defending Taylor, but for those who have, you’ll enjoy the little glimpses of characters from previous books. You can really start with any of the books in the series — and if you like one, give a few others a try. All feature strong, athletic girls who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves, even while dealing with family complications of all shapes and sizes.

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The details:

Title: Defending Taylor
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: July 5, 2016
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Carry On

Carry OnIf you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s absolutely adorable novel Fangirl (review), you’ll be familiar with the name Simon Snow. As in, the hero of the (fictional) bestselling series about a boy wizard who learns at age 11 that he’s the Chosen One, and embarks on a new life at a (fictional) school of magic. In Fangirl, the main character writes wildly popular Simon Snow fan fiction, entitled Carry On, Simon.

In Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel, Carry On, we have the continuation of Simon’s story — but not the canon version, from the (fictional) official series author, but the fanfic story, picking up where Cath’s tale leaves off in Fangirl.

Confused yet?

Carry On is set completely within the magical fantasy world of the Simon Snow series. Simon is the main character, and alternates narration with his best friend Penelope, girlfriend Agatha, roommate and archnemesis Baz, and a handful of others as well, including the Mage, the all-powerful but highly controversial headmaster of the Watford School of Magicks.

It’s the eighth and final year of their magical education, and Simon return to Watford determined to confront Baz and figure out how to defeat the Humdrum, the big evil who’s menacing the entire world of magic. But Baz doesn’t show up as expected, and Simon becomes consumed by the idea of tracking down Baz, searching the school and the Catacombs for him night after night.

Finally, when Baz shows up, Simon is forced to share with him a secret — that Baz’s mother’s ghost visited, and wants Baz to learn the truth about her death. Reluctantly, the two boys declare a truce, and set out to solve the mystery, along the way poking at the edges of the myths and prophecies of the magical community, defying the prejudices of the old families, and trying to figure out just why they’re so obsessed with each other.

As in the fanfic we read in Fangirl, the heart of Carry On is the relationship between Simon and Baz. Underneath the enmity that simmered between them for all the years they were forced to be roommates is a strong and steady and mutual attraction, which the boys finally acknowledge and explore in Carry On. It’s sweet and funny and tender, and well, complicated too. Baz hides the secret that he’s a vampire, which isn’t as much of a problem for Simon as he would have expected. Their differences are acknowledged, and they’re just so friggin’ cute together that we know they’ll figure it all out in the end.

The magical mysteries — where did Simon come from? what’s up with the prophecy? what or who is the Humdrum? — all get resolved by the end, although I’m not sure that every answer is 100% satisfying. I mean, the bit with the Humdrum and how he’s finally stopped didn’t totally work for me, and I wanted Simon to get more of an answer about his parents. As far as I could tell, even though we readers find out the truth, Simon doesn’t, and that doesn’t seem fair.

Overall, I loved this book. It’s just so gosh-darned cute! The spells that they cast aren’t faux-Latin as in a certain series that we all know and love — in the world of Simon Snow, words have power, and the more certain words are used, the more power they have. So, the spells are all cliches, from “up, up, and away” to “stay cool” to “suck it up”, and it never stops being funny to see how they work.

Carry On is great fun for anyone who’s read and enjoyed certain children’s fantasy series — especially Harry Potter, of course. There are all sorts of winking references to the world and lore of Harry Potter, and it’s done with such an air of excitement and amusement that it feels like an homage, not a parody. Having read Fangirl, I’m not really in a position to judge whether Carry On works as a stand-alone… although if I had to guess, I’d say it would still be enjoyable on its own. Still, if you’re going to read Carry On, I’d strongly suggest starting with Fangirl to get the background and flavor of the Simon Snow phenomenon.

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The details:

Title: Carry On
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: October 6, 2015
Length: 522 pages
Genre: Young adult/fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: You Know Me Well

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

You Know Me Well

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really?

Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed.

That is until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night. Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.

When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other — and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.

Told in alternating points of view by Nina LaCour, the award-winning author of Hold Still and The Disenchantments, and David Levithan, the best-selling author of Every Day and co-author of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (with Rachel Cohn) and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with John Green), You Know Me Well is a deeply honest story about navigating the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.

 

My Thoughts:

This YA novel about connection and identity has a sincerity to it that is so loud and clear that it threatens to overshadow the story itself. The intentions are great, but I felt as though the plot itself was a bit flimsy.

The characters in You Know Me Well are all searching for their own truths, each on the way to becoming a more authentic version of themselves. The storyline takes place during Pride Week in San Francisco. Mark has been out for years, and is secretly in love with his best friend, while Kate finally has a chance to meet the girl she’s dreamed about from a distance. And after years of going to school together but never actually interacting, Mark and Kate connect and form an instant and deep friendship, finding in each other a kindred spirit, someone with whom they can be honest and reveal their inner worries, fears, hopes, and insecurities.

The action takes place over the course of an eventful week, in which friendships are made and broken and love is both found and lost. The condensed timeline keeps the story moving along, but I had some little doubts in my mind about the suddenness of Kate and Mark’s friendship and the complete trust that they establish in seemingly no time at all.

You Know Me Well is written in alternating chapters, as the authors take turns presenting Kate’s and Mark’s points of view. It’s an effective technique, as we get to know the two characters both as they see themselves and as they see each other. Readers of David Levithan’s earlier works will be familiar with this approach, which he’s used with other co-writers in books such as Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, among others.

David Levithan is an amazing writer, and once again we see his beautiful language at play in conveying the inner landscape of young adults on the verge of becoming who they’re meant to be. There’s a nice little homage to his recent novel Two Boys Kissing (review), which is one of the loveliest young adult books I’ve ever read.

You Know Me Well has a lot going for it, and it’s a quick and touching read, but ultimately I felt as though the messaging about positive identity and acceptance was more overt and heavy-handed than it needed to be. Then again, I’m an adult reading the book, and not truly the target audience. I imagine that reading You Know Me Well could be a profoundly important experience for a teen, gay or straight or anywhere along the rainbow, who’s trying to establish a strong self and figure out their place in the world.

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The details:

Title: You Know Me Well
Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 7, 2016
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Wink Poppy Midnight

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Wink

Synopsis:

(via NetGalley)

Every story needs a hero.
Every story needs a villain.
Every story needs a secret.

Wink is the odd, mysterious neighbor girl, wild red hair and freckles. Poppy is the blond bully and the beautiful, manipulative high school queen bee. Midnight is the sweet, uncertain boy caught between them. Wink. Poppy. Midnight. Two girls. One boy. Three voices that burst onto the page in short, sharp, bewitching chapters, and spiral swiftly and inexorably toward something terrible or tricky or tremendous.

What really happened?
Someone knows.
Someone is lying.

My Thoughts:

I have no idea what to make of this dizzying book. Wink, Poppy, and Midnight take turns telling their versions of what happen in this mind-bendy tale. There are hints of fairy tales and ghost stories, as the three characters offer their views of themselves and each other, but only ever tell part of the story.

Mystical elements abound, from tarot readings and hauntings to certain evocative tastes and smells. The names in the story are odd and whimsical — not just the three main characters, but their various friends and family members, including Leaf, Buttercup, Alabama, and Peach. What seems a straightforward story of an ultra-mean mean girl, the people under her thumb, and the wild girl who offers a different path… isn’t. Wink, Poppy, and Midnight interact and become parts of each other’s stories. Midnight is our most relatable point of view in the story, the sweet and honest boy next door, but his perspective isn’t as reliable as he’d like to think, and he doesn’t really see beyond what’s in front of him.

It’s hard to describe this book without giving too much away. It’s frustrating that the book has been so built-up as a twisty, turny, surprising shocker. Even the cover blurb (“A hero. A villain. A liar. Who’s who?”) puts us on alert that we can’t believe what we’re told or take the characters at their word. I wish we didn’t have this heads-up. It would be much more powerful and shocking if we weren’t told ahead of time not to trust what we see.

I read Wink Poppy Midnight in a single day. It’s a book that just begs to be gulped up. I’m not sure that I’ve fully figured out why certain things happened as they did or what the motivation was — and I don’t know if that’s because I haven’t gotten there yet in my processing of the story, or if the resolution just wasn’t as clearly explained as it should have been. In any case, it was a fun, trippy, absorbing read that sucked me in completely and didn’t let me go until I got to the last page… even if I’m not convinced that it makes the slightest bit of sense.

But, hey, that’s one hell of a great cover!

If anyone else has read Wink Poppy Midnight, I’d love to hear what you thought.

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The details:

Title: Wink Poppy Midnight
Author: April Genevieve Tucholke
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication date: March 22, 2016
Length: 247 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: The Steep & Thorny Way

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Steep & Thorny Way

 

Synopsis:

(via NetGalley)

A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

My Thoughts:

Does the idea of retelling the story of Hamlet, setting it in rural Oregon in 1923, sounds crazy to you? It would be understandable to assume that the plot and the setting are a total mismatch. How can a Shakespearean masterpiece possibly be squeezed into that world?

I’m happy to say that it works amazingly well. As crazy as it might sound, The Steep & Thorny Way is a total winner.

Hanalee Denney is the mixed race daughter of a white woman and a black man, at a time and in a place where mixing of the races was not only frowned upon, but actually illegal, at least as far as marriage was concerned. Hanalee, at age 18, lives with her mother and her new stepfather, the town doctor, and grieves for her beloved father, who died after being hit by a car a year and a half earlier.

When the driver of the car is released from prison and is rumored to be hiding out back in Elston, the rumor mill — and the town’s intolerance — boil to the surface. Joe, convicted of murder and subjected to a horrifying prison stint, pleads with Hanalee to hear him out. He did hit her father with his car; that much is true. But Joe saw Hank alive before the doctor entered the room to care for him… and was dead by the time the doctor came out. Meanwhile, Hank’s ghost has been seen about town, trying to get a message to Hanalee.

Can she really believe that Joe isn’t a murderer, but a fall guy? Can she honestly view her stepfather as a killer?

There’s much more to the story than meets the eye. The town is rife with KKK plotting. A racist undercurrent permeates every town gathering. Non-whites are not welcome in the town’s main restaurant. And Joe has a secret that puts his own life in great danger, with no one except Hanalee at all willing to help or save him.

Cat Winters is an amazing writer, and this era is her specialty. She fits her characters’ actions and words into the Shakespearean framework without ever letting it seem forced. The story flows from one revelation to the other, and Hanalee is anything but a stock figure.

I learned a lot about life in Oregon in the 1920s, the power of the Klan, and the shocking truth about the legal institutions that attempted to enforce racial exclusion, separatism, and even eugenics. While The Steep & Thorny Way is a work of fiction, the politics and intolerance that it portrays are, sadly, historical fact.

I have now read three YA novels and one adult novel by Cat Winters, and I look forward to reading, well, basically everything she ever writes from now on. Don’t miss out on this powerful, dramatic, face-paced book.

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of her other works:
In The Shadow of Blackbirds
The Cure For Dreaming
The Uninvited

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The details:

Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: March 8, 2016
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction
Source: Purchased