Audiobook Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet, fun young adult romance, focusing on two teens, fresh out of high school, dealing with the expectations of their Indian families while also trying to find their own way in life.

Dimple is passionate about her future as a coder, and despite her mother’s focus on finding a husband for her headstrong daughter, Dimple swears that she’s going to be laser-focused on her education and career. Rishi is devoted to his parents and is determined to make them happy, by becoming an MIT-educated engineer and settling down with a nice Indian wife.

Dimple and Rishi meet at Insomnia-con, a six-week coding competition held on the campus of San Francisco State University. Students work in pairs to develop their own  unique app, and the winning team gets a chance to work with a successful web developer, Jenny Lindt — Dimple’s idol, who is everything she aspires to be.

Things are rocky right from the start for Dimple and Rishi. He greets her as his “future wife”, and Dimple throws her iced coffee on him. Yeesh, not good. It turns out that their parents have conspired to bring them together, and while Rishi is totally on board for this, Dimple isn’t. Not only is she not on board, she’s also completely unaware — her parents didn’t share their plans with her. Dimple is furious, even more so when she learns that Rishi and she have been assigned to be partners, so she’ll be spending oodles of time with him over the next six weeks.

Once past her initial anger, Dimple starts to appreciate Rishi. He’s not a hardcore coder like she is — in fact, he doesn’t care all that much about Insomnia-con, whereas she’s been living for this opportunity. Still, realizing how important it is to Dimple, Rishi throws himself into it as well. As the summer progresses and their tech ideas take wing, a friendship blooms between Dimple and Rishi… and from friendship, attraction and romance start to bloom as well.

The characters are really engaging and likable. Even though they have very different outlooks on life, it’s clear to see that they’re both passionate in their own ways. Rishi, it turns out, is following his parentally approved path to MIT, but in his secret heart of hearts, his true calling is to become a comic book artist. Through Dimple’s eyes, we learn just how talented he is, and it’s hard to understand how he could shut off that piece of himself in order to please his parents.

The two main characters’ Indian heritage adds so much to this story, as we see the weight of family traditions and expectations, but also see the cultural aspects in everyday aspects of their lives such as clothing, food, music, and more. When Rishi and Dimple are required to compete in the Insomnia-con talent show, they choose to perform a Bollywood-inspired dance, from this video:

I felt that the inner struggles both Dimple and Rishi face were portrayed really convincingly. Dimple is completely thrown off guard by her feelings for Rishi, and desperately wants to avoid allowing romance to derail her from her career aspirations into a life more suited to her mother’s preferences. And Rishi is so afraid of letting his parents down that he refuses to even consider taking the opportunities that come his way in the art world.

On the negative side, the pacing is a bit… off. It felt as though the first three weeks of the summer took up most of the story, and then suddenly we jump to the final days of the competition. That means a lot of time is spent on the early days, and then, somewhat bizarrely, on the talent show. I didn’t quite get why a talent show was at all relevant in a coding program, except for the fact that the winners get prize money to put toward their project development. Still, there’s way too much time spent on Dimple and Rishi rehearsing their dance number, and as adorable as they are together, it didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the story.

Some of the emotional crises in the relationship felt rather hollow and immature. They each goad each other and mistrust each other in some pretty petty ways… although to be fair, they’re young, and I suppose the depiction of a turbulent first love is probably pretty realistic.

My other issue with the story is that Dimple is so focused on winning the competition that there’s not much consideration given for any of the other students involved, other than a group of “Aber-zombies” who rely on nepotism rather than talent to get ahead. Granted, Rishi came to Insomnia-con to meet Dimple, but it bugged me that they’re always referring to their project as Dimple’s, and the focus is on whether Dimple wins, not them as a team.

A note on the narration:

The dual narrators, Sneha Mathan and Vikas Adam, take turns narrating sections told from each of the characters’ perspectives. We bounce back and forth between “Rishi” and “Dimple” sections, and the narrators are great at capturing their voices, inner thoughts, and emotions — love, frustration, anger, disappointment, laughter, and more. Plus, they’re able to convey other characters, like their parents or other Insomnia-con participants, in a way that makes the story feel energetic and full of life.

Wrapping it all up:

When Dimple Met Rishi is truly a lot of fun to listen to, although the pacing issues with the story occasionally made the audiobook feel like it was dragging. Overall, though, I really enjoyed it. Dimple and Rishi are great characters with good hearts, and the storyline as a whole is engaging and hopeful, and sends some good messaging about being true to oneself and following your dream. I’ll definitely want to check out more by this author.

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The details:

Title: When Dimple Met Rishi
Author: Sandhya Menon
Narrated by: Sneha Mathan, Vikas Adam
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 30, 2017
Length (print): 380 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

Shelf Control #150: Echo Boy by Matt Haig

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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! For 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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Title: Echo Boy
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 2014
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Audrey’s father taught her that to stay human in the modern world, she had to build a moat around herself; a moat of books and music, philosophy and dreams. A moat that makes Audrey different from the echoes: sophisticated, emotionless machines, built to resemble humans and to work for human masters. Daniel is an echo – but he’s not like the others. He feels a connection with Audrey; a feeling Daniel knows he was never designed to have, and cannot explain. And when Audrey is placed in terrible danger, he’s determined to save her. Echo Boyis a powerful story about love, loss and what makes us truly human.

How and when I got it:

I bought it a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read a few of Matt Haig’s books by now, and just love his writing. This is a YA book, as far as I can tell, and I’ve only read his adult books, but the premise sounds really good, so count me in!

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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…

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Book Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

This remarkable book pulls off the tricky feat of making us care about characters in two separate narratives, with neither one feeling like filler or killing time before returning to the important part of the story.

In Pulp, we follow a contemporary storyline about a high school senior, Abby, who is out and proud and very matter-of-fact about how diverse and free her world is. Most of her friends fall somewhere within the queer rainbow, gay, bi, non-binary, and various permutations of all sorts. And it’s all good. Abby is part of a close-knit group of friends who delight in being politically active, attending rallies, fighting for justice, and making demands for society to be better than it is.

Abby’s life is not perfect, though. She still pines for her ex-girlfriend Linh, she’s stuck on her senior project, and her parents are doing a lousy job of hiding their inability to tolerate one another. She chooses the topic of her senior project at the last possible second, deciding to study lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s and write her own version of these novels, inverting the tropes that were mandatory in the genre.

In the historical timeline, we meet Janet Jones, also a high school senior, whose life is highly regimented by her overly protective and rigid parents and their world of country clubs and social correctness. Janet stumbles across a lesbian pulp paperback, reads it, and realizes that these unnamed feelings of hers are actually shared by other people. She becomes desperate to connect with the author of one of these books, and at the same time, realizes that her feelings toward her best friend Marie are much more than just friendship.

The two narratives intersect in fascinating and unpredictable ways. Janet’s storyline is the more upsetting of the two for much of the book, largely because the world it shows is so hostile and repressive. Pulp does an excellent job of showing the terror of being gay at a time when there were no legal protections or rights for anyone who dared step outside the bounds of “normal”. Set during the Lavender Scare, this novel shows good, decent, hard-working people being hounded out of their families and jobs, spied upon, and having their lives ruined, all because of who they love and how they identify. Being closeted was a necessity, and the danger of discovery drove countless people to deny their own identities out of a desperation for survival.

Through Abby’s eyes, the awfulness of the 1950s for the LGBTQ community is especially vivid, as Abby’s modern perspective is challenged by her research into what others’ lives once were like. Seeing Abby come to realize the importance of the brave people who created new ways to live, form a community, and remain true to the themselves is quite beautiful.

I was less invested in the love story aspects of both Abby and Janet’s arcs, but very much loved getting to know them as people, to appreciate their challenges and strengths, and how each struggled in different ways and at different times to find themselves and to find a way to lead an authentic life.

Pulp is both a great novel and a great lesson on 20th century history. Reading about this chapter in LGBTQ history is moving and upsetting. The world has come so far, and there’s still a long way to go, but I think especially for the target YA audience, Pulp provides a fascinating and important perspective on social action, diversity, and identity.

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The details:

Title: Pulp
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #142: The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick

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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! For 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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Title: The Foreshadowing
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Published: 2005
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It is 1915 and the First World War has only just begun.

17 year old Sasha is a well-to-do, sheltered-English girl. Just as her brother Thomas longs to be a doctor, she wants to nurse, yet girls of her class don’t do that kind of work. But as the war begins and the hospitals fill with young soldiers, she gets a chance to help. But working in the hospital confirms what Sasha has suspected–she can see when someone is going to die. Her premonitions show her the brutal horrors on the battlefields of the Somme, and the faces of the soldiers who will die. And one of them is her brother Thomas.

Pretending to be a real nurse, Sasha goes behind the front lines searching for Thomas, risking her own life as she races to find him, and somehow prevent his death.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book several years ago from an online resale site.

Why I want to read it:

After reading Midwinterblood, I just had to read more by this author. I’ve read a few of his books now, and to be honest, I haven’t loved any nearly as  much as I loved Midwinterblood — but I keep trying! The synopsis of The Foreshadowing definitely caught my attention. World War I books are always harrowing, and I like the sound of the supernatural element combined with the war story.

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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…

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Book Review: Fatal Throne

 

The tragic lives of Henry VIII and his six wives are reimagined by seven acclaimed and bestselling authors in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of Wolf Hall and Netflix’s The Crown

He was King Henry VIII, a charismatic and extravagant ruler obsessed with both his power as king and with siring a male heir.

They were his queens–six ill-fated women, each bound for divorce, or beheading, or death.

Watch spellbound as each of Henry’s wives attempts to survive their unpredictable king and his power-hungry court. See the sword flash as fiery Anne Boleyn is beheaded for adultery. Follow Jane Seymour as she rises from bullied court maiden to beloved queen, only to die after giving birth. Feel Catherine Howard’s terror as old lovers resurface and whisper vicious rumors to Henry’s influential advisors. Experience the heartache of mothers as they lose son after son, heir after heir.

Told in stirring first-person accounts, Fatal Throne is at once provocative and heartbreaking, an epic tale that is also an intimate look at the royalty of the most perilous times in English history.

Who’s Who:

* M. T. Anderson – Henry VIII
* Candace Fleming – Katharine of Aragon
* Stephanie Hemphill – Anne Boleyn
* Lisa Ann Sandell – Jane Seymour
* Jennifer Donnelly – Anna of Cleves
* Linda Sue Park – Catherine Howard
* Deborah Hopkinson – Kateryn Parr

Let’s be clear about something right from the start: This is young adult fiction, written by a collection of YA authors and aimed at a teen reader audience. So, claiming in the blurb that this is a book for fans of Wolf Hall? Not exactly a true statement.

Fatal Throne is broken up into six first-person narratives, one for each queen and written by a different author, interspersed with Henry’s viewpoints on and reactions to each of his queens. The stories are kept brief and dramatic, following the highs and lows of each marriage, each leading inevitably to a disaster of one sort or another.

While each queen is written by a different author, there’s a certain sameness to the tone. Without knowing it ahead of time, I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to tell that there were different writers for each piece of the story.

As for the stories themselves, they’re fast-paced and interesting, but I can’t say that they reveal anything particularly new or different. Here’s where I feel it’s important to again stress the intended audience. For YA readers who are unfamiliar with anything but the basics of these historical figures’ lives, the presentation of the queen’s lives through their own voices could be a very compelling way to get immersed in their stories and learn more about the women behind the throne.

But for anyone who’s already read either non-fiction or historical fiction accounts of Henry VIII and his six wives, Fatal Throne is merely a retread of very familiar events, people, and historical speculation.

Of the six queens, the presentation of Anna of Cleves here is perhaps the most interesting, showcasing her inner strength and her ultimate triumph in regaining control over her own life. The others are, of course, all tragic in their own ways. Catherine Howard is a touch more sympathetic than I’ve seen in other portrayals — here, she’s a silly 16-year-old who simply doesn’t grasp the significance of her own actions or where they could lead. Anne Boleyn, as always, is a fascinating woman, although some of her rough edges are smoothed out just a bit in Fatal Throne.

I did end up enjoying the book for its quick pace and dramatic approach to the storytelling, but in terms of true depth, an examination of the historical records, or new insights, there are plenty of other books I’d sooner recommend. That said, this could be a good entry point for a YA reader without prior familiarity with the subject matter.

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The details:

Title: Fatal Throne
Author: See synopsis for list
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: YA historical fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Surface Tension by Mike Mullin

 

After witnessing an act of domestic terrorism while training on his bike, Jake is found near death, with a serious head injury and unable to remember the plane crash or the aftermath that landed him in the hospital.

A terrorist leader’s teenage daughter, Betsy, is sent to kill Jake and eliminate him as a possible witness. When Jake’s mother blames his head injury for his tales of attempted murder, he has to rely on his girlfriend, Laurissa, to help him escape the killers and the law enforcement agents convinced that Jake himself had a role in the crash.

Mike Mullin, author of the Ashfall series, delivers a gripping story with memorable characters and all-too-real scenarios.

Surface Tension is a high-action suspense thriller about a 17-year-old boy, Jake, who stumbles into a domestic terror attack by accident — but because of a traumatic brain injury and corrupt law officials, isn’t believed when he tells his story. Thanks to his remarkably loyal girlfriend Laurissa, he persists in trying to uncover the truth while staying a few steps ahead of both the terrorists and the FBI agent who want to see him dead.

Meanwhile, the lead terrorist’s daughter Betsy is embroiled in the attack and the follow-up attempts on Jake’s life, but as she learns unpleasant truths about her father, she too realizes that he and his organization must be stopped.

Mike Mullin, who wrote the amazing Ashfall trilogy, excels at quick bursts of action and leaving the reader panting for more at the end of each chapter. This is a hard book to put down once you start. At the same time, I felt that the credibility of the plot got thinner and thinner as the story moved forward, until the climax and resolution seemed basically unbelievable. Add to that a tacked-on final chapter that makes it clear that this story isn’t actually over, and I wound up feeling somehow underwhelmed by the book as a whole.

It’s a fast, entertaining read, but the plot doesn’t really hold together in a way that makes a whole lot of sense. I stayed interested all the way through, but if there is a sequel, I won’t be bothering with it.

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The details:

Title: Surface Tension
Author: Mike Mullin
Publisher: Tanglewood
Publication date: May 8, 2018
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

“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.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

My Thoughts:

What fun! The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is part silly adventure story, part surprisingly moving look into the life of a young man of privilege who suffers the constant abuse and humiliation of a cruel father and who can never fully pursue his true love, who just happens to be his best friend. Most of all, this is a light-hearted romp through Europe as our trio of heroes are pursued by highwaymen, pirates, alchemists, and other assorted bad guys during an accidental misadventure. Along they way, they each learn to share their inner hopes and fears, and dare to start envisioning a life other than the one planned out for them.

The characters are quirky and engaging, the narrative flows nicely, and the plot itself is quite tasty and exciting. And while there are some deeper thoughts on the role of women in that society, the lack of a place for people outside the norm, and the devastating impact of parental disapproval, there’s also bravery and sacrifice and love and romance, and it all makes for a delicious read.

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The details:

Title: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication date: June 27, 2017
Length: 513 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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Shelf Control #82: My Lady Jane

Shelves final

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: My Lady Jane
Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Published: 2016
Length: 491 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The comical, fantastical, romantical, (not) entirely true story of Lady Jane Grey. In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane is about to become the Queen of England.

How I got it:

Downloaded the Kindle version from Amazon.

When I got it:

Last summer.

Why I want to read it:

Well… I was attracted to this book once I heard it was about Lady Jane Grey… although I admit that I’m skeptical about Lady Jane being the subject of anything that could be considered comical. Still, people I know and trust have recommended it, so I’ll attempt to put my doubts aside and give it a fair try.

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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…

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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