Book Review: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Title: Long Way Down
Author: Jason Reynolds
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: May 2, 2019
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds’s electrifying novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?

I picked up Long Way Down knowing next to nothing about it. I’d been searching for examples of realistic urban fiction for teens, at the request of my son, and stumbled across a recommendation for Jason Reynolds’s books in general and Long Way Down in particular.

Fortunately for me, I think, I only read the back of the book before starting it, rather than the detailed synopsis above (which I’ve shortened, because I feel like it gives away way too much).

Long Way Down is not what I expected! For starters, I had no idea that it was written in verse. This isn’t an approach I usually gravitate toward, but once I got past my initial reluctance, it completely sucked me in.

The story is sad and straight-forward. Will’s older brother Shawn has been shot and killed. But Will knows where Shawn kept his gun, and he knows what he has to do — find the person who killed Shawn and get revenge.

As Will gets on the elevator from his apartment down to the ground level, Shawn’s gun in his waistband, he starts encountering different people who all have a connection to Will, to Shawn, and to the never-ending cycle of violence that has taken so many lives.

As each new person gets on the elevator, Will learns a little bit more about events of the past, and has one final minute to consider whether or not to get off the elevator, whether or not to go after Shawn’s killer and become a killer himself.

Jason Reynolds’s words are stark and powerful:

I HAD NEVER HELD A GUN.

Never even
touched one.

Heavier than
I expected,

like holding
a newborn

except I
knew the

cry would
be much

much much
much louder.

I tore through this book in an hour, and really do need to go back through it again more slowly to savor the language and the story development.

Jason Reynolds has just been named the newest National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, which is amazing and awesome. Here’s a clip of an interview with the author:

And here’s a clip of him reading from Long Way Down:

Finally, I love this tweet from a teacher whose students wrote six-word responses to Long Way Down:

I will definitely want to read more books by this talented author. Do you have any recommendations?

Check out Long Way Down, and give a copy to all the teens in your life. It’s an important book, and I’m so glad I gave it a try.

Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!

Book Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club 
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 20, 2017
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

 

When we meet Mary Jekyll, she’s in a sorry state. Her mother has just died after many years of madness, and Mary is left in her family home, already stripped of valuables over the years as she sold whatever she could in order to make ends meet. Now, Mary has no choice but to dismiss the household staff, count her few remaining coins, and try to find a way to eke out a few more. When Mary learns that her mother was sending regular payments to “Hyde”, care of a religious society, she’s both suspicious of blackmail and motivated to find out more.

Seeking the help of the famous Sherlock Holmes, Mary sets out to discover the truth about these payments, and ends up stumbling into the mystery of the Whitechapel murders as well. Could there be a connection? 

As the story progresses, Mary learns that her deceased father was a member of a secret society dedicated to scientific pursuit outside the bounds of the established scientific community. Specifically, these mad scientists seem to be dedicated to transmutation — pursuing a faster path to evolution by creating new forms of life. Mary’s investigations lead her to the daughters/creations of these men. Soon, this group of women are bound together by circumstance as well as affection, as they pursue the truth about their fathers’ Society of Alchemists and end up fighting for their lives.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is utterly charming and engaging. It’s a clever concept, bringing together a group of young women who are at best side notes in the original classic fiction from which they and their fathers originate and placing them at center stage. As the author makes clear, these women cannot and and will not be thought of as scientific oddities; they are unique individuals, new and different and outside the norms of society, yet with rich inner lives and a strong will to set the course of their own lives.

The writing here is smart and quirky. The book is presented as the narrative of the women’s adventure as written by Catherine — but throughout the book, the others interject their comments and critiques, pointing out places where Catherine is being too flowery or dramatic, or where she’s getting the details wrong. Meanwhile, as Mary meets each new character, they get the chance to tell their own stories, and each one is powerful and fascinating. 

There’s plenty of action, and quite a bit of humor. The Victorian setting works perfectly as a backdrop for the adventure. I always love stories of found families, and this one is a terrific example. All these women have been maltreated and discarded, but together, they form a new family in order to face the world together. As with any family, there are squabbles and disagreements and bickering, but at bedrock, there’s also love and support and protection — the whole is definitely greater than its parts.

There are two more books in the series, and I do intend to continue… although I may hold off for a little while, after realizing that book #2, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, is over 700 pages. Still, I definitely want to see what happens next with this eccentric group of daring women! 

Highly recommended! Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn will appreciate the setting, the bantering, and the role of the scientifically adventurous women. It’s all great fun — don’t miss it!

 

Book Review: If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser

“WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST.”

In the Frederick Douglass Project where DeShawn lives, daily life is ruled by drugs and gang violence. Many teenagers drop out of school and join gangs, and every kid knows someone who died. Gunshots ring out on a regular basis.

DeShawn is smart enough to know he should stay in school and keep away from the gangs. But while his friends have drug money to buy fancy sneakers and big-screen TVs, DeShawn’s family can barely afford food for the month. How can he stick to his principles when his family is hungry?

In this gritty novel about growing up in the inner city, award-winning author Todd Strasser opens a window into the life of a teenager struggling with right and wrong under the ever-present shadow of gangs.

A bit of context: My teenaged son is not, and has never been, a recreational reader. He’ll read what’s required for school, and that’s it.

So when he picked up this book without being forced to, then came to me and told me I had to read it… well, clearly I needed to see what it was that had made such an impression on him.

If If Grow Up is a tough, clear-eyed look at inner city life, as seen from the perspective of DeShawn. We meet DeShawn at age 12, still a child but growing up fast. He lives in the projects with his grandmother and older sister, and knows to drop to the floor when there’s the sound of gunshots and to steer clear when the Douglass Disciples are coming through.

Death and violence are everyday facts of life. DeShawn goes to school, but there’s little point when the teachers rotate out as soon as they can get a better assignment and most of the kids are there just to pass the time until they too can join a gang. DeShawn is determined to get an education and stay out of gang life, but with each passing year, his choices narrow further.

This book is devastating in so many ways. The author shows the hopelessness of inner city life, where children grow up without parents, where parents bury children caught in the crossfire, where murderous gang leaders may also be the only supportive adult figure for many of the kids who so desperately need someone to guide them. Through DeShawn, we see year by year as the goal of a better life dwindles away into impossibility, and we also see the inevitability of gang life for a kid who’s forced to think about feeding his hungry family at much too young an age.

While parts of the book, especially the ending, felt kind of preachy, I had to remind myself that If I Grown Up is firmly aimed at teen readers, and that I needed to let go of my adult reader perspective and think about what this book might mean to a teen who hasn’t seen real life reflected on the page in this way before.

I know my son was really affected by the story. I’ve never seen him not be able to put down a book, or find a book so meaningful that he both wants to read it again and wanted me to read it right away so we could talk about it. And that really says a lot.

I’ve never read anything by this author before, but apparently he’s quite a prolific writer of realistic YA fiction, and I plan to check out more of his works. I’m hoping If I Grow Up will be a catalyst for my reluctant reader son to continue reading books that he connects with.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: If I Grow Up
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 24, 2009
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: Winterwood by Shea Earnshaw

“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)

From New York Times bestselling author of The Wicked Deep comes a haunting romance perfect for fans of Practical Magic, where dark fairy tales and enchanted folklore collide after a boy, believed to be missing, emerges from the magical woods—and falls in love with the witch determined to unravel his secrets.

Be careful of the dark, dark wood…

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

For as long as there have been fairy tales, we have been warned to fear what lies within the dark, dark woods and in Winterwood, New York Times bestselling author Shea Ernshaw, shows us why.

My Thoughts:

It’s interesting that the blurb mentions Practical Magic — I definitely got an Alice Hoffman vibe while reading this story. The language is very lyrical and has that tinge of magic that elevates it above ordinary storytelling.

Walkers cannot trust our own hearts — our slippy, sloppy bleeding hearts. They are reckless, stupid things. Muscles that beat too fast, that cave inward when they break. Too fragile to be trusted.

The plot itself has a really unique setting — an isolated lakeside community surrounded by forests that becomes completely cut off from the outside world once the snow starts to fall. Shades of The Shining, perhaps? In this remote location, Nora thrives in her own isolation, while keeping an eye on the camp for troubled boys across the lake. As her path collides with the boys from the camp, she becomes enmeshed in a mysterious event and its violent outcome. The ensuing events threaten everyone around the lake, even the woods themselves.

“Trees have a long memory,” I warn, my voice like gravel. The forest remembers who carved names into their trunks, with little hearts dug into the wood; who dropped a cigarette into a clump of dry leaves and scorched their raw bark. They know who broke a limb and tore off leaves and pine needles by the handful just to start a bonfire.

They remember. And they hold grudges.

I’m being intentionally vague on the plot, because it’s best to just immerse yourself in the writing and let it flow over you, no preconceptions allowed! The romantic elements of the plot didn’t do much for me, but I did appreciate the interweaving of magic and nature, and a pretty cool twist that comes about 3/4 of the way through the story.

End note: Just being a geek here, but I do need to add that I kept having to remind myself that Walker is the main character’s family name. Every time Nora has a thought about “Walkers” (which is pretty often), I’d start picturing zombies… definitely not what this book is about!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Winterwood
Author: Shea Earnshaw
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: YA fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

“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. This week’s “take a peek” book:

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends.

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1.

But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . .

What if their last shift was an adventure?

My Thoughts:

What fun! In this charming YA graphic novel, Deja and Josie both are completely nuts over how much they love working at the pumpkin patch. And really, if my town had a pumpkin patch even half as amazing as theirs, I think I’d be nuts about it too. It’s huge, it’s utterly corny (with super-punny signs), and it’s the place that Deja and Josie feel most at home. But their last night ever working at the patch leaves Deja determined to eke out every last experience, and she drives the reluctant Josie to run from attraction to attraction, food stand (Frito pie!) to food stand (kettle corn!) in search of the elusive girl of his dreams. Josie is a by-the-rules nice guy who believes in fate and just letting things happen, while Deja is a free spirit who believes in grabbing life and experiences and making your own luck.

The story in Pumpkinheads is sweet and endearing, but never cloying. I love the characters, their humor, their connection, and their easy acceptance of differences, as well as their essential good natures. The artwork is tons of fun, with the characters easily exhibiting a wide range of emotions through their faces and body language, and leaving plenty of room for humor via visual delights, rambunctious children, and one super-aggressive runaway goat.

Naturally, coming from the talented minds and pens of Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, Pumpkinheads is enjoyable start to finish. Highly recommended!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Pumpkinheads
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Illustrator: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: First Second
Publication date: August 27, 2019
Length: 209 pages
Genre: Young adult graphic novel
Source: Library

Vacation reading wrap-up (summer 2019)

I haven’t done a vacation wrap-up post in a while… mainly because I haven’t had a real vacation (i.e., travel plans not involving family health visits) in AGES! As vaactions go, this week’s was a mini — just four days, but hey: I found sunshine!

My husband and I drove down the California coast to San Luis Obispo county, where we spent a few days hanging out in beach towns, enjoying balmy weather, good food, and even venturing into ocean water that was just a shade warmer than ice. But seriously, it was a good time, even if a bit too short.

And now I’m back, waiting for my laundry to finish (yes, I lead an exciting life), so I thought I’d share a taste of the reading I did these past few days. Because hanging out in beach towns means lots of time basking in the sun on comfy chairs, beach mats, and towels — book in hand, sunglasses on face, not enough sunscreen on body. (Ouch).

Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read on vacation, with my take on the vacation-worthiness of each book. The number of little beach umbrellas reflects my own personal feelings about whether or not this is a good choice for tucking into your beach-tote!

sun-151763_1280

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev: A modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice (obviously), set in the Bay Area and featuring the unlikely pairing of world-class neurosurgeon Trisha Raje and up-and-coming master chef DJ Caine, whose initial meeting is fraught with haughtiness and false impressions. As it turns out, Trisha is the only doctor offering a cure for DJ’s beloved sister’s brain tumor, so despite their mutual dislike, the two are forced together again and again. I liked that the author didn’t follow the P&P plotline 100% — there are plenty of familiar beats, but the story here stands on its own and isn’t shoehorned into unnatural shapes just to make it fit the pattern. I also like that it’s Trisha who’s in the Darcy role here, hiding behind her snobbiness and self-image and repelling the very person she finally realizes she wants to attract. The story moves quickly, has some key emotional moments, LOTS of mouth-watering descriptions of DJ’s culinary creations, and definitely succeeds as a love story with plenty of modern twists. Quite fun — I’m hoping Sonali Dev writes more in this world!

A five-umbrella vacation read for sure! Between the romance and the food, what more could you want?

Vacation ratingumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrella

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We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. This book (and this author) have been recommended to me repeatedly — so I finally tossed it in my beach bag and gave it a go. What a weird but oddly compelling story! We Are All Completely Fine is about a group therapy session for people who’ve survived encounters with the supernatural, and have the scars to prove it. Each of the group members has their own horrifying story to tell, and all are joined together through their process of sharing and healing, ultimately banding together to fight off a big bad coming after one of their own. It’s a short read, easily digestible in one sitting. I really liked it, and now that I’ve dipped my toe into his work, I’ll definitely be reading more by Daryl Gregory!

Giving this one 4 beach umbrellas — easy to read on the beach, but the subject matter didn’t really meld well with the bright light of day.

Vacation ratingumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrella

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I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin: I went at this story a little bit backwards — this is book #1 of 2, but I read #2 first (reviewed here). Oh well. It still works! In this first book, we meet Ava and Gen, two best friends embarking on their freshman year of college on opposites sides of the country. The story is told through their emails and texts, which really capture their personalities and their quirky friendship. It’s light and sunny, but also contains moments of self-discovery, pain, and challenge, as the two characters discover new aspects of themselves and question whether their friendship still works as they grow into their college selves.

Another 5-umbrella read — once you start, it’s impossible to stop!

Vacation ratingumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrellaumbrella

 

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And that’s it! Not too shabby for a four-day vacation!

Now I need to go plan my next get-away… I’m not ready for a return to reality just yet.

Book Review: Please Send Help by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin

 

In this hilarious follow-up novel to the New York Times bestseller I Hate Everyone But You, long distance best friends Ava and Gen have finally made it to the same time zone (although they’re still over a thousand miles apart).

Through their hilarious, sometimes emotional, but always relatable conversations, Ava and Gen are each other’s support systems through internships, relationship troubles, questionable roommates, undercover reporting, and whether or not it’s a good idea to take in a feral cat. Please Send Help perfectly captures the voice of young adults looking to find their place in the world and how no matter how desperate things seem, you always have your best friend to tell it like it is and pick you back up.

First things first: When I requested this book from NetGalley, I had no idea it was a sequel. Despite my qualms, I decided to read it anyway, and I”m glad I did. While it might have been nice to have read the first book, not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this cute, quirky, quick read. (More on this later…)

Please Send Help is written entirely in texts and emails between two best friends, Ava and Gen. Recent college grads, both are now facing grown-up life as they pursue their career dreams. Ava, in New York, is interning with a comedy show, dying to gain real-life experience as a writer while working her (unpaid) butt off. Gen, in Florida, is trying to break into serious journalism, but the only job she could find is at a small-town newspaper with nothing much at all to cover and no room for advancement at the family-run paper.

Ava and Gen have history together, and their bond is immediately apparent. Ava is coping with anxiety that stops her in her tracks from time to time, and because of Ava’s previous experiences related to mental health, Gen tends to worry about her well-being — especially once Ava gets disastrously involved with her older boss, who’s so clearly a player who preys on young interns. Meanwhile, Gen is bi, out and proud, from a dysfunctional family and with no parental support whatsoever, trying to find connections as well as a juicy story in a backwards, socially conservative town where she has no chance of fitting in.

I loved the humor of the texts. Both Ava and Gen are wickedly, crassly funny, even when freaking out, making absurd decisions, or talking about insane events in their lives.

Tabby finally gave in to her gluttony and came inside. I jumped up and shut the door. She did NOT like that but I have put vodka on all of my scratches so I’m sure I’m fine.

These two are definitely not perfect. But they get one another, and they’re there for one another — and even when they ignore good advice or act out in particularly questionable ways, they still are there to comfort, pick each other up, and kick a little ass if that’s what needed to shake some reality into each other’s minds and hearts.

Genre/library shelf-wise, I’m not quite sure where I’d put this one. NetGalley lists it as teen/YA, but since the characters are 22-ish (I think), I wouldn’t have thought to consider this young adult. (Side note — why are young adult novels mostly about teens and not about actual young adults — which is what Ava and Gen are?) So sure, put it on the YA shelf if you want, but just know that it’s about women in their 20s figuring out life, sex, STDs, and more. Not what I’d typically consider teen fare!

Please Send Help is heaps of fun. I’m glad I wasn’t put off by finding out it’s book #2. Now that I’ve finished it, I think I’ll try to track down the first book (I Hate Everyone But You, set during Ava and Gen’s college years). I’d imagine that the topics of the girls’ families, mental health, sexuality, and more are explored in greater depth in that book, whereas here they’re mostly backstory to the struggle to be independent and start a career and a life in a new city.

BUT, please don’t feel that you can’t read Please Send Help without reading the first book! Please Send Help works perfectly well as a standalone. I’m living proof that you can read this book without any prior knowledge of the characters and their stories. I really did feel like I got to know Ava and Gen through this book, and would love to hear what happens next in their lives! *fingers crossed for a book #3*

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Please Send Help
Author: Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

“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)

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

My Thoughts:

I’m trying to reflect on the reading experience separately from my feelings about the ending, so here goes: Wilder Girls has a terrific, terrifying premise: On an island off the coast of Maine, the student at a girls’ boarding school are starving, fierce, and desperate after eighteen months of isolation and quarantine. They’re all infected by the Tox, experiencing flare-ups in which their bodies are modified and distorted and changed — scales here, spiny growths there, gills, and spikes and other random mutations taking over their bodies. Once it’s bad enough to go to the infirmary, the girls never return.

For most of the book, the plot delivers. Conditions worsen. The girls don’t know if they’re being fed lies. The wild parts of the island seem to be closing in. We also get brief chapters from Byatt’s perspective, as outsiders attempt to treat her, maybe cure her, although her condition becomes more and more extreme, and the treatments seem cruel and painful.

I was wrapped up in the story and really intrigued by the overall plot. So what was my problem with this book? Either the ending is unsatisfyingly incomplete, or this is a set-up for a continuation. I don’t know which, and that’s part of the problem! We’re left hanging at the end, with only the most partial of explanations about what the Tox really is, what caused it, and what it means for the surviving girls. I really needed more from the ending — so while I was caught up in the story and enjoyed the book overall, when I finished reading the final pages, I felt frustrated and annoyed.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts! If you’ve read Wilder Girls, what did you think of the ending?

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The details:

Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon


An aspiring teen filmmaker finds her voice and falls in love in this delightful romantic comedy from the New York Times bestselling author of When Dimple Met Rishi.

Aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell and universes she wants to explore, if only the world would listen. So when fellow film geek Sahil Roy approaches her to direct a movie for the upcoming Summer Festival, Twinkle is all over it. The chance to publicly showcase her voice as a director? Dream come true. The fact that it gets her closer to her longtime crush, Neil Roy-a.k.a. Sahil’s twin brother? Dream come true x 2.

When mystery man N begins emailing her, Twinkle is sure it’s Neil, finally ready to begin their happily-ever-after. The only slightly inconvenient problem is that, in the course of movie-making, she’s fallen madly in love with the irresistibly adorkable Sahil.

Twinkle soon realizes that resistance is futile: The romance she’s got is not the one she’s scripted. But will it be enough?

Told through the letters Twinkle writes to her favorite female filmmakers, From Twinkle, with Love navigates big truths about friendship, family, and the unexpected places love can find you.

From Twinkle, with Love is my third book by Sandhya Menon this year, and while I loved the other two, this one was only okay.

Perhaps the issue for me is the focus on teen drama, rather than exploring the richer cultural aspects portrayed in the other novels. And yes, it’s quite true that I’m not at all a member of the YA demographic, so maybe I should have adjusted my expectations!

In From Twinkle, with Love, we meet Twinkle Mehra, a high school junior who dreams of changing the world through her films — but meanwhile, she’s an outsider who’s lost her best friend to the in-crowd, and who crushes from afar on school hottie Neil. But when Neil’s brother Sahil suggests making a movie together, he and Twinkle find a connection that takes her by surprise, and as the movie-making progresses, Twinkle finds her voice and her passion, as well as discovering a new set of friends and a place to fit in.

All this is sweet and fine, but then the story introduces a secret admirer who — for no reason at all — Twinkle assumes must be Neil. Why? Because his name starts with N, basically. Not that he’s ever paid any attention to her or is even present throughout most of the story. Still, Twinkle thinks there’s maybe a possibility that N is Neil, and that if she starts going out with Neil, she’ll finally move from outsider to insider status — so even though she’s very aware of the sparks and chemistry between her and Sahil, she leaves Sahil hanging so she can give N a chance.

I think I might have strained something through excessive eye-rolling. For a book about a smart girl, the whole N storyline was particularly dumb. The other thing that truly irritated me was the framing device of having Twinkle write in her diary as if she’s writing to various female filmmakers — Sophia Coppola, Ava Duvernay, Jane Campion, etc. This was so artificial and unnecessary, except as a way of saying ‘look how passionate Twinkle is about film!’. Also, her diary entries are written in the car while driving with people, at school, at parties, etc — really? She carries it with her everywhere? And writes obsessively, even when at Sahil’s house while he’s in the next room? It just felt weird and fake. Sorry.

So… as far as the audiobook experience itself, it was fine. The story is mostly told through Twinkle’s voice, but there are occasional blog posts and text messages by Sahil, and these have their own narrator. I’m not sure listening to the audiobook particularly added to the experience for me.

Sandhya Menon is a talented writer with a gift for creating unusual characters, and I love that she writes about teen girls who feel passionately about their talents and their goals. From Twinkle, with Love isn’t a bad read — it just doesn’t have the special something that really elevates her other works.

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The details:

Title: From Twinkle, With Love
Author: Sandhya Menon
Narrated by: Soneela Nankani, Vikas Adam
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 22, 2018
Length (print): 330 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library