24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: 3 hearts (page 1 of 2)

Abby Reads: The Beast Is an Animal by Peternelle Van Arsdale

The Beast Is an Animal by Peternelle van Arsdale
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2017, 352 pages

With a dark and witchy feel akin to the Salem Witch Trials, The Beast Is an Animal is a debut novel by Peternelle van Arsdale (and what a name — both the title and author!). I first heard of the YA fantasy in an episode of Book Riot’s All the Books with Liberty Hardy and Rebecca Schinsky and it sounded amazing. After two sisters and their mother are banished from a town for suspicion of witchcraft, the town feels the effects. Years later, seven-year-old Alys is found wandering in the fields by a traveler. When he returns her to her home, he finds her parents — along with all townsfolk over the age of fifteen — have perished. Alys and her young townmates are adopted by families in a nearby town, but the suspicion grows over the newcomers and Alys, especially. While Alys resists the pull of the two sisters who have found their way into her life, she must reconcile her murderous feelings with her love for her adoptive family.

The Beast Is an Animal begins with a fascinating and atmospheric concept, but it’s an atmosphere that just can’t be sustained for hundreds of pages — at least, not the way van Arsdale tells it. Alys spends a good portion (nearly half) of the book as a child and, consequently, her thoughts and understanding of the world around her are limited by experience and knowledge. Though there is so much potential to dive into various ideas about human nature and cruelty, van Arsdale can barely scratch the surface with her young character. Even as Alys ages, something about her lack of exposure to the world outside her village seems to limit her ability to consider the deeper implications of her actions and the actions of those around her.

Van Arsdale is, perhaps, just being subtle. There are moments in the novel that reach a deeper understanding and payoffs here and there. These often come in the form of meticulous prose. As a book editor by trade, van Arsdale’s strength is very obviously in the language, which is fairly consistently beautiful, interesting, and haunting. Her prose, however, cannot carry the basic lack of plot alone. Though Alys clearly has a predicament, what she really wants is unclear throughout the novel. A last-minute love interest seems to be a thing of plot convenience and motivation more than something natural, and Alys hardly has enough personality to warrant a realistic relationship.

Alys isn’t alone in having little personality. Few characters in the book do, the primary of which being Pawl, who discovers her as a young girl wandering in the fields. It is later in the novel, especially, that he and his wife feature in an especially poignant way, driven by their taste for alcohol and drunkenness. This particular trait makes Pawl one of the most interesting characters as it is so at odds with his cheery personality. Not many characters qualify as prime players — instead, a blurry mish-mash of villagers make up the antagonistic forces in Alys’s life, along with the sisters and the beast itself, who, while a fascinating idea, is not well developed and instead rather superficial and without much impact.

Ultimately, van Arsdale has something here, both in concept and in ability to write. The Beast Is an Animal falls short with a plot that doesn’t stand strong in its structure nor urges readers forward with momentum, purpose, or stakes. My expectations for The Beast Is an Animal — and I still can’t get over that striking title — were, admittedly, high. This might be better read around Halloween and might even make a fascinating class assignment alongside The Crucible or A Break with Charity. Fans of All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry might find similar elements in The Beast Is an Animal and enjoy it, to an extent, but van Arsdale’s first attempt is not quite a hit.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Free to Make by Dale Dougherty

Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds by Dale Dougherty
North Atlantic Books, 2016, 336 pages

Emphasizing the importance of the maker movement in modern society, Dale Dougherty sets out to meet makers, describe makerspaces around the world, and convince his readers that makerspaces are here to stay. The book’s opening chapters imply Dougherty will also explore what makes a good makerspace and an all-around how-to when it comes to implementing a makerspace or maker program at, say, a public library. This was one of my main motivators in reading the book. As someone in the library science field, I’m naturally interested in emerging trends therein.

Unfortunately, Dougherty doesn’t really deliver in that arena. While some digging in the book might bring out some gems as to what makes a good makerspace and how to go about successfully designing a maker program, there was nothing deliberate in the text that got at this concept. Instead, Dougherty focuses on stories of individuals making things independently — often inspired by, but not necessarily directly involved in, makerspaces and making. He describes the origins of Arduino and as sous-vide machine, for example. And, while these kinds of projects are certainly attainable for many makers, the concepts are simply too advanced for most makers. The individuals in these stories essentially dropped their lives to work on their projects, which isn’t a thing that can happen in reality for most people. Although Dougherty discusses how making is a thing of democracy and equity, I wasn’t convinced. It takes a lot of time and often money to develop these projects, which makes them inherently inaccessible to many.

While readers may draw their own conclusions from that path of thought, Dougherty does little to emphasize the implications of the maker movement beyond the first couple of chapters and his conclusion. Instead, the book reads like a lengthy article profiling a handful of makers who, excuse the pun, made it. And while that’s interesting to some folks on its own, it doesn’t make the work especially useful, particularly in the context of its subtitle, “How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds.” Another point toward the article-esque feeling of the work is the writing style. Dougherty’s background with Make: magazine means this writing style makes sense, but it doesn’t serve the nature of the thing he’s writing. What is perhaps readable and even interesting in small amounts becomes tedious in a book-length piece.

Dougherty’s focus suffers as he notably emphasizes making that revolves around technology and what you traditionally think of when you think tools. There’s a brief moment in which Dougherty nods to crafters (and we can go on about how “making” is masculine and “crafting” is feminine, but that’s for another time), but despite the fact that crafting is making, its sadly absent from the pages of Free to Make. To be sure, it does not fit neatly within the maker movement. Craft fairs, with pre-made and made-to-order items available for sale have been around for years, taking up booths in high school gymnasiums and boasting the skills of their crafters (read: makers). And yet (and, I’ll return briefly to this, because I do think it’s important, if not strictly relevant — I think this may be because crafting is feminine and making is masculine so we as a society, Dougherty included, place more value on making than we do crafting), crafting is not a thing in Dougherty’s maker universe.

All said, if you’re a librarian, teacher, educator, or maker looking for information on how to go about building a makerspace or even making a case for a makerspace, you likely won’t find much of use here. Free to Make is full of fascinating case studies, but it doesn’t deliver what it advertises. Though easy to read and inspiring in many places, the contents are not what I’d lean on for any research on the topic.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #13, “Read a nonfiction book about technology,” and I leave it behind with three hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins

The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins
HarperTeen, 2016, 432 pages
YA Fantasy

When a great beast begins terrorizing the world of Eurona, the king issues a challenge: he that can defeat the animal will win his daughter’s, Princess Aerity, hand in marriage. Resigning herself to do what is best for her kingdom when the king’s resources are limited, Aerity watches at people from her own kingdom and beyond are destroyed by the beast’s terror. During her visits to the fighting men (and few women) who try to defend Eurona, Aerity meets one contender who, while he has no interest in marrying Princess Aerity, feels he must do what he can to protect his homeland and family. Paxton and his brother hunt alongside the others and there’s no doubt they are good — but Paxton is drawn in by Aerity’s self-assuredness, causing an internal conflict over why he is actually fighting. In a tale that recreates the Grimm Brothers’ “The Singing Bone,” The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins is the first in the Eurona duology.

The Great Hunt came into my life because I was asked to review its sequel, The Great Pursuit. In many ways, especially after having read both books, The Great Hunt felt more like a large prologue to The Great Pursuit rather than its own book even as part of a duology. The Great Hunt lays out the foundation for The Great Pursuit but doesn’t have much of a story of its own. In fact, characters in the first novel are severely underdeveloped. This is especially obvious with the book’s main character, Princess Aerity. With little nuance, Aerity’s primary characteristic is the clichéd defiance many-a-fictional princess exhibits. The slight difference with Aerity is her willingness to go along with her father’s decree for the sake of her kingdom; this is not enough, however, to flesh her into a full being. Aerity’s one hobby — something that might help to better form her personality if done well — is merely a plot device which ultimately serves in one small scene to remove characters from trouble. Its presence in her life has no other purpose and feels, therefore, disingenuous. Other flat areas include the villain and the villain’s motivations, which otherwise begin with promise but ultimately fall.

Also troubling is the level of sluts-haming in the novel. Wyneth, who watches her betrothed die, begins to move on with other characters and one hunter in particular. She is not only seemingly punished for daring to kiss her betrothed before he dies, but is on the receiving end of sneers and other mistreatment and judgment as she develops a relationship with the hunter. The importance of monogamy in this fictional society is emphasized to the extent that it makes me wonder if the author was trying to make a point with this. While I’m on the fence as to whether we should portray humans and reality strictly as they are in fiction or condemn actions that are, in our society, generally seen as unacceptable, the fairly frequent talk of monogamy and consequences for stepping outside those boundaries in one way or another (of course more severe for women) was a bit much for me.

Higgins does a decent job with romantic moments despite her characters’ lack of personalities and even pulls off a surprise ending, but the entire premise of the book doesn’t quite add up for me. The king makes excuses for not rewarding land to the winner of the hunt by saying he needs it for his son and his other daughter’s dowry. There’s apparently no money to be had. And so he turns to…selling off his oldest daughter? Surely there were more options and, because Higgins does not explore other potential options (which causes some deficit in the world building area), readers are forced to accept that this is truly the only way.

And while a beast terrorizes the kingdom of Eurona, the stakes never felt quite high enough to warrant the tense action-adventure atmosphere Higgins tries to create. Plenty of moments in the novel are overly drawn out and slow while others are completely unnecessary, adding nothing to the plot or character development. Pursuit was certainly better, giving Hunt more of a payoff than it probably deserved, but I can’t necessarily recommend Hunt beyond that, which is why I leave it with two-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015, 480 pages
YA Fiction

I picked up Morgan Matson’s Since You’ve Been Gone as a little piece of escapism after one of the family cats had to be put to sleep following a stroke. In the young adult novel, Emily’s best friend, Sloane, has disappeared and left nothing for her but a list of things Emily ought to do. Not terribly adventurous, Emily blanches at the list which includes things like going skinny dipping, riding a horse, and sleeping outside. All Emily wants to do is to find Sloane, but Sloane isn’t answering her phone and can’t be found at her house where she and Emily first met. Befriending a Image result for since you've been gone morgan matsonfamiliar face over the love of running, Emily finds support in unexpected places as she tries to finish the list with the hope that Sloane will be waiting for her at the end.

Since You’ve Been Gone is a bit more far-fetched than I find a lot of the fiction in this genre to be. There was something off about the emotional color of the book, and much of the plot felt a bit outlandish. Although Emily is pursuing something like the extraordinary in her tasks, that a teenager would have the resources to do these things felt unrealistic. And certainly Emily has her help throughout the events, but things line up just a tad too neatly for the book to feel entirely natural. (Plus, I’ve done the equivalent of the drive Emily takes toward the end of the book. I suppose it could be done as it’s described, but it would be a stretch and you better be praying to the traffic gods.) The pacing, meanwhile, was realistic to the point of being slow, so the disconnect between the events and this other aspect of hyperrealism left me confused about how realistic the book really was.

Like so many other stories in which young women come into themselves after facing some difficult tasks, Emily was shy, mousy, anxious, and bland. Though she got points from me for at least having the distinctive characteristic of being a dedicated runner (and a good trainer), I never got the sense that Emily was fully formed and she certainly wasn’t fully formed without Sloane. I’m the first to advocate for female friendships that transform, but Emily’s lack of character felt extreme and, by the end, I wasn’t convinced that she could now be her own person without Sloane’s constant presence and pushing.

On the flipside, these stories often feature a Bad Boy™ love interest. Frank is decidedly not such a boy, but instead a student-government-do-gooder who doesn’t do so much good so as to make him totally boring, but does provide a somewhat refreshing subplot that typically features someone of an opposite personality. He’s a bit snobby about his music preferences – but, I ask, who isn’t in high school? – and the resulting playlists sprinkled throughout the book are a bit gimmicky (though not as much so as other books I’ve read).

For all of Emily’s hard work through her summer without Sloane, I found the ending to be lackluster and anticlimactic. This was the hyperrealism I was missing in the other pieces of the story, but it felt misplaced and more like a letdown here. Though the fun and modern cover for the book has provided plenty of bloggers with great material for their bookish photography, the story has a 90s/00s shade to it that makes it feel a bit slow and a bit dated.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015, 320 pages
YA Fiction

With guilt sitting on his shoulders over the circumstances behind his sister’s near-homelessness, James Whitman of Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos copes with his mental illness by hugging trees. As he navigates life with depression and anxiety, James does what he can to mitigate the effects of his condition from talking to the ever-present Dr. Bird, to reciting the poetry of Walt Whitman, to getting a job to help pay for the therapy he goes to without the knowledge of his parents. Handling his own challenges isn’t enough and when he thinks he has an opportunity to bring his sister home, James goes all in. But there’s more to the story than he realizes and it’s going to change everything.

I am all for the psychological explorations of depressed and privileged straight white boys. I am. I even wrote a few blog posts on that very topic and why it’s one of my favorite genres. The Catcher in the RyeThe Secret HistoryPaper Covers Rock. (Any other recommendations? Please, send them my way.) So I felt a bit let down at how Dr. Bird’s didn’t enrapture me the same way as others. He exhibits a regressive speech pattern, which, combined with some actions that are nearly deplorable, makes James a less sympathetic character than some of those in my favorites. Despite acknowledging knowing the things he’s doing are wrong and even articulating why they’re wrong, James willingly mistreats others. I could never get behind James and really care for him.

Roskos tries, I think, to blend character- and plot-driven fiction. In the end, it doesn’t work out so well for him. Though such a balance can be achieved, Roskos does not quite hit the mark here. James’ character development moves along predictably as he goes from the state of a boy to a man and learns to communicate with others, manage his depression, and accept the things he cannot change. Meanwhile, the conflict of his sister’s expulsion serves as a foundation to a plot that feels underdeveloped and, by the end, somewhat abandoned in favor of scenes that better show James’ growth. Adding to the sometimes-sharp realism of the novel is the ending. Though James does not meet a fate the Grimm Brothers might have prescribed him, neither does he have a Disney-perfect end. Many of his troubles are without resolution, only to be solved a few years down the road when he moves out of his parents’ house. There’s hope in Roskos’ ending, sure, especially now that James has more tools and skills to deal with the challenges he faces, but things are otherwise more-or-less the same.

I think that’s a large part of why the plot/character-driven fiction aspect of Dr. Bird’s breaks down. The end is somewhat gimmicky: It was inside you all along, kid.

So, despite the raves this book has been getting thus far, I’m just kind of eh about it. It’s not bad, but I don’t think it really achieves what it wants to achieve, either – and it didn’t particularly strike anything special in me despite that. If you’re a fan of Catcher and similar works, this might be worth the read just for the sake of interest and comparison.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 384 pages

In the extraordinarily patriarchal world of the 1920s, young Henrietta Bingham used her charm and family’s money to influence society both in the United States and abroad. With friends such as those in the Bloomsbury Group, Bingham seduced men and women alike with her charisma but with retrospect drawn from relatives’ memories and Bingham’s own documents (including letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and psychological reports on the subject), a darkness which shadowed Bingham’s life emerges. In Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, Bingham’s grand-niece, Emily, collects the artifacts of her great-aunt’s life in an attempt to gain a better understanding of her family history while bringing to light the great impact Bingham had on her family, friends, acquaintances, and the world beyond.

As a student of history, Emily Bingham’s (I’ll use the author’s first name going forward to avoid confusing her with the subject of the biography) strength is clear. Her historical account of Henrietta and the world around her brings the reader into a detailed sepia world. Deeply disturbed by the loss of her mother before her eyes in a car accident, Henrietta lives a bold and rash life, unafraid to take charge. And while the author often paints this unashamed character as a point of pride, she does not shy away from pointing out the damage Henrietta brought to those around her. Emily’s smart to acknowledge that she is, indeed, related to the subject of the work though she had no memory of contact with Henrietta and the majority of her family viewed her unfavorably up to Henrietta’s death. Emily also notes that the book began as a project for her degree.

Though an interesting character, Henrietta seems to feature less than the title of the biography would suggest. Instead, the effect Henrietta had on the world around her takes the main stage. Relationships with Henrietta, platonic or otherwise, clearly caused the partner and other relevant individuals a good deal of grief. They were so often tied up in themselves and their feelings for Henrietta that they seemed to forget that she, too, was human and not the goddess they made her out to be. Though this is somewhat a reflection on Henrietta herself, the readers are still left with a greater impression of Henrietta’s impact than of Henrietta herself, which serves to perpetuate this vision of Henrietta as greater-than-human.

By the end of this chronicle of Henrietta’s life, I felt somewhat abandoned. Sure, Henrietta’s boom of cultural impact certainly had its ripples beyond her intimate circle, but what of the woman herself? She is left behind in Emily’s narrative, leaving the world with a whimper, so contrary to her life prior. Though certainly Emily could not dictate the events of her great-aunt’s life to provide a more structurally sound narrative that better reflects what we’ve come to expect in fiction and the bioflicks we all seem to love so much, I couldn’t help but feel that, “I read all of this for what, exactly?” Its anticlimactic end is the true show of how this book was more a personal project for Emily which happened to make a decent enough story that it was worth selling, to some publisher, than it was a true work of biography.

But we’re given other bits that perhaps make the time invested worthwhile – the discussion of LGBTQIAA individuals in the early-to-mid twenty-first century gives new insight to the hostile climate to those less familiar with the nuanced challenges of the time. Henrietta’s relationship with her father provides an extraordinarily interesting look into the grief of a widower and his unwillingness to let his daughter into the world. The influence of money alone rears itself as a powerful force in Henrietta’s world. All-in-all, Irrepressible isn’t the most riveting, but to the right reader will have some excellent passages worth the time.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Balzer + Bray, 2016, 352 pages
YA Realistic Fiction

Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human tells the story of Riley, a genderqueer* teen who struggles with their identity especially as they deal with their father’s political campaign, a new school, and all the usual challenges of being an American adolescent. To help deal with some of these challenges, Riley starts an anonymous blog about their life as a genderqueer teen. It’s not long before their identity is discovered by someone at school, though, and Riley has to contend with the harassment and bullying surrounding them.

Jeff Garvin uses masculine pronouns on his website and I saw him speak at the NoVa Teen Book Festival, so based on what I heard there and his site, I believe he is cisgender (which means he was born and assigned male at birth and identifies as a man). There’s quite a bit of contention around the majority writing about the minority. This is especially true when the content of the writing focuses on the specific issues involved with the identity at hand. It’s one thing to write, as a white man, for example, about a black man who is working through the grief of the death of a pet. It’s another thing to write, as a white man, about the specific racial oppression he encounters as a black individual in the throes of job searching. So, right off the bat, Garvin stats off with the deck stacked against him because Symptoms isn’t just about a teen who happens to be genderqueer. It’s about how at teen lives their life as a genderqueer individual.

That said, I don’t want to tear Garvin down for writing about a genderqueer teen when he is not one. He’s brought into the world a representation of someone who is rarely represented. And while we certainly can and should be doing a better job of representing all kinds of people, there’s something to be said for at least making a start of it, even when it might be misguided. Some readers who are genderqueer have weighed in on Garvin’s book, and I highly encourage you to read their thoughts rather than rely on my own above. Like Garvin, I’m cisgender and really don’t have the authority to speak at length on this. I’ll leave it at: this is potentially problematic and Garvin certainly gets some things wrong according to some readers who would know better. I think that’s valuable information to have going into the book, especially if you might find that content triggering.

But I’m never one to slam a whole book based on one aspect (I see that as an attack on intellectual freedom), so moving on from that one admittedly large issue – one of the main concerns Garvin had writing the book was how to make the lack of pronouns feel natural in Riley’s story. Garvin does not ever reveal Riley’s biological sex – nor does he need to. Garvin even avoids letting the perception of characters around Riley interfere with the lack of gender the readers experience with Riley. There are only a handful of lines where the lack of gendered pronoun feels obvious and unnatural from a writing perspective. Garvin avoids using the non-gendered “they,” too, which works well, most of the time.

None of this takes away from the rawness of Riley’s story. In a scene which graphically depicts an assault (warning, for readers who might want to avoid sexual assault content), the immediacy of the moment makes for a powerful passage that demands the reader’s attention and investment. The authenticity with which Garvin describes this scene helps bring it home and achieves an extraordinary amount of empathy in the reader. At the same time, the scenes following this one tend to be toned down in the authenticity and, frankly, basis in reality. The change which takes place in Riley as a growing human seems too stark a change for them (or most humans), and left me a bit disappointed in the conclusion.

One final piece is this: I did not find Riley a very compelling character overall. They lacked a personality I could get my hooks into. I suspect this has something to do with Garvin not wanting to inadvertently favor one set of traditional gender expectations over another and therefore vaguely indicate Riley’s biological sex one way or another. I can see how doing so might hurt the narrative, but with enough balance and editing, I think that could have been avoided. Still, Riley is a person who makes mistakes and, when they do have a personality, isn’t always reasonable or likable. This was a nice twist on the typical YA character who often cannot do wrong.

For an exercise in empathy and an opportunity to read about a group of people who are too-frequently overlooked, Symptoms of Being Human isn’t the worst place to start. I’d still recommend reading accounts from people who aregenderqueer. But sometimes, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. In this case, Garvin’s novel seems to be fairly well-researched and he clearly is dedicated to giving these voices a platform.


*I am using this specific terminology because that is how Riley describes themselves in the book. I recognize this is potentially problematic due to the issues discussed in the second paragraph, but I hope with this note, readers will understand my intent.


❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2015, 320 pages
YA Fiction

In March, I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Virginia Teen Book Festival in Arlington, Virginia. One of the sessions was Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely talking about their book, All American Boys. When I heard a book about police brutality was in the works early last year, I was so excited to get my hands on it. Too many adults are afraid to talk about what they see as adult issues with teens — but the fact of the matter is, police brutality is an issue that is affecting people of all ages. I’d even take a guess that it affects young people more so. Reynolds and Kiely’s talk was honest, open, and blunt, as they spoke to a room of people of all ages.

I found the book to be less direct and far less complex than even the surface conversation Reynolds and Kiely held in the hour-long session. Rashad is minding his own business in a convenience store when a woman trips over him, causing a police officer to believe he’s stealing from the store. The officer takes Rashad outside and begins beating him to the point where Rashad ends up in the hospital for a week. Quinn, a white teen who goes to school with Rashad, witnesses the brutality and has conflicting feelings over the event, especially when he realizes the officer is his friend’s brother and his own father figure of sorts. While Rashad heals in the hospital and handles the media and community fallout, Quinn struggles with his own feelings on racism, police brutality, and justice.

Like Quinn, I have a lot of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, this is absolutely a topic that must be discussed with greater regularity, honesty, and compassion. The book does a great job in starting that conversation. I recognize that this conversation will likely not happen in schools and, if it does as a result of the book, pockets of society will challenge that. On the other hand, as much as I wanted to love this book, I just didn’t.

I’ll continue with the theme of conflict — the language used in the book is adult, no doubt. You’ll see profanity used, realistically, by teenagers and adults alike. But the language is not mature in the sense that it uses the complex language necessary for this topic. As a result, a lot of the nuances of the issue of police brutality are never brought up. Because it’s a book intended for teens, I’d expect some glossing, but the extent of surface material exceeds what I’d expect for this topic and its intended audience. I got the sense that Reynolds and Kiely (and the publisher) were so eager to get this out before it was “irrelevant,” that they rushed through it to hit the very main points without going into details. Ultimately, I think this was a huge loss for the book. I believe Reynolds and Kiely believe their audience is mature and intelligent enough to absorb more complexity, but it simply wasn’t there. And I recognize that these issues ARE complex, making them inherently difficult to write about, especially as the writing is just that — text. But I also want to acknowledge that they chose to approach a difficult topic to begin with.

The language, in another sense, lacked maturity. The reading level for this book, while I haven’t looked it up myself, felt lower than much of the other YA material I’ve read. This might have been intentional so as to make the book more accessible to a larger group of people, but given the subject matter, I felt it didn’t work.

Overall, I found Rashad to be far more interesting a character than Quinn, although he was in many ways more passive (mostly due to him being stuck in a hospital, though his reluctance to make his experience with brutality into a “thing” contributed, too). Wishy-washy, Quinn spends most of the book going back and forth on his feelings about what is happening in his community, the officer, his friendships without making much progress. Everything with Quinn is one step forward, two steps back, up until the very end, which left me with little confidence he’d really changed permanently or even far beyond the last pages of the book.

Speaking of the last pages — the final two pages of All American Boys are kind of what saved the book for me. With an astounding amount of well-done drama and tension, the last two pages pack a punch that I so wish the rest of the book had emulated. The last moments and words of this books are so powerful, and begin to dig into the realities of police brutality. I worry, though, that the impact is fleeting. I hate to give it away, so I’ll just say that there are dangers of using specific current events in books that cause the books to fail to age well. While I loved how these last pages made me feel now, I worry the impact will be severely lessened within just a few years’ time. The conflicting feelings with All American Boys seem endless, and not in a way that serves the book.

Reynolds and Kiely are wonderful, wonderful speakers. Knowing that Reynolds wrote for Rashad while Kiely wrote for Quinn, I can confidently say I strongly prefer Reynolds’ writing over Kiely’s. There was more texture to Reynold’s passages than Kiely’s, more emotional depth, more investment.

Perhaps, as a very early conversation starter, All American Boys does what it sets out to do. But I think the people reaching for this book are people who have already started that conversation and have the basic understanding of modern police brutality. Those who haven’t yet started the conversation probably won’t have the interest in All American Boys, despite the good it could do for them and their communities. I’m disappointed to say I was disappointed, but I do hope this book will open the door for similar works in the near future and have a great deal of respect for both authors and the book itself.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤


Abby Reads: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2016, 448 pages
YA Fantasy

I’ve thought a lot about what I want to say about the final book in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King. I’ve always been a fan of Stiefvater’s ornate-yet-subtle style, and I think that’s something she held to pretty well in The Raven King. I know many readers were holding on to the idea that The Raven King would not only be just as good as the books leading up to it, but perhaps even better. Stiefvater would have to write her way out of the promised death of Gansey and the angst that was sure to come with finding Glendower and obtaining the favor he was meant to grant.13076730_10209461256711348_7517849345745051664_n

Reviewing this book without spoilers is immensely difficult, so I’ll be as vague as possible while still trying to convey the issues here. Both of the events mentioned above were so lackluster compared to the rest of the series. I’ve struggled a lot with this because, just before the book was released, Maggie Stiefvater shared a post on her blog which described how she wanted her readers to feel after finishing the book: “I don’t want them to be able to say what it is they want, though — I want it to be a bigger thing than words. I hope they get to the end and don’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I hope they feel unsettled and needing of something more. I want messages that say, ‘Stiefvater, please, I just want …’ and then silence. They don’t know what they want. They just want.” I opened up The Raven King with this on my mind and, when I finished the book, very much wanting and still feeling champagne-sparkly from the rush of the end of a series, I felt like Stiefvater was a genius — she had succeeded!

And yet. I turned over the events of the book in my head. Yes, I wanted — I wanted more fireworks, more intensity, more answers. I don’t think this was what Stiefvater meant, I realized. Or, if she did, imposing that desire onto her readers before they had a chance to read the books feels wrong. Let’s suppose my initial understanding was incorrect and Stiefvater wanted readers to feel compelled to embody Gansey and his quest for more — to be more, to be part of something bigger than himself, to be, as Henry Cheng and Gansey both say at one point during the series, a prince among men. In brief moments, I did feel that way. I wanted a quest, an adventure, a world that shimmers in a way ours does not. But those moments were short-lived and it was not, ultimately, what I felt as I turned the final page.

Now, let’s suppose Stiefvater wanted readers to want more of the Raven Cycle. She certainly succeeded there, leaving characters without the completed arcs they deserved, ending main plot points with no bang, in short — not delivering what was promised. If this is what Stiefvater meant (and I’m not sure it was, I certainly hope it wasn’t), I think it’s an awfully cruel thing to do to readers. What actually happened here, I’ll leave to you to decide. I’ve turned it over and over for the last week and still can’t figure it out. Either way, I feel a bit jilted.

As I’ve gained distance from the book, I’ve become more critical of it while simultaneously romanticizing it more. Stiefvater has a way of embedding symbolism and meaning that emerges long after the book has ended even without second readings. So perhaps I’m catching on to some of that now, which still leaves me in a place where I’m unable to give The Raven King a solid rating one way or another. One moment, I’m angry at the lack of resolution, the next, I’m marveling at the symbolism within that lack of resolution. I’m probably putting too much stock into Stiefvater’s intentions, but as a writer who is so-very-present on social media and who regularly engages with interpretations of her text, Stiefvater kind of brings that onto herself.

I’d also very much like to address the racism present in the whole series, but especially in The Raven King. With Henry Cheng playing a much bigger role than he previously had, there are multiple instances of blatant anti-Asian sentiments and some of the “subtler” (subtle to white people, mostly) racism such as the perpetuated Asian mob stereotype in Henry’s mother and the whole “dragon lady” trope. I won’t speak at length on it because as a white person, I don’t have the place to. I just want to say I saw it, it was inappropriate, and I hope Stiefvater does better in the future. I welcome those with a more nuanced perspective on the subject than I to comment further and only add that I was severely disappointed to see two characters I so love(d) engaging in racist mocking, regardless of the cultural context of Virginia and teenage boys.

Like a lot of the Raven Cycle, throughout the final novel I felt consistently lost without direction, but felt like that was how I was supposed to feel or that there’s something everyone else is getting about the series and its plot that I’m not and never will. I can never get a good grasp on the Raven Cycle world, despite how incredibly detailed and grounded it seems — there’s always something painfully vague about it. It’s like I missed out on some quintessential childhood experience that would clear it all up. I still don’t imagine the women of 300 Fox Way as everyone else seems to — when I see fan art of young Calla, Persephone, and the whole bunch, I tilt my head to the side in wonder, as they are still stuck as middle-aged and older women in my imagination. It’s been that way since The Raven Boys. I always feel like I’m doing something wrong when I’m reading this series.

And yet for all this criticism, there’s something really special about it all, even the last book. Like everything before it, The Raven King doesn’t confine itself to young adult literature by ignoring adult characters or adult-only scenes. The Gray Man and Maura have moments together. Piper Greenmantle and her father, too. Stiefvater makes the world very real in that way, despite Maura’s throwing-caution-to-the-wind parenting style. I’m still disappointed in it all, but I can’t outright say I disliked *The Raven King*, either. I wanted more for it, to be sure, but it also feels like it’s exactly what it was meant to be. It’s a jumble.

The only thing to do, it seems, is glare in Stiefvater’s general direction with a mix of annoyance and awe.

(With an aside that I’m giving it three hearts; I’d originally given it four on Goodreads, but with more perspective and too much confusion over my real feelings about the book — no doubt influenced by Stiefvater’s outside-the-book comments, the event I attended at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, my general admiration for Stiefvater aside from The Raven King, and the Goodreads reviews I read after finishing the book and still considering my own feelings [check out Alienor’s review for something a bit more coherent, if spoilery] — I think three is the best I can do. Maybe three-and-a-half, depending on the day.)

You can read my review of The Raven Boys here. I never got around to The Dream Thieves or Blue Lilly, Lilly Blue. Oops.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤


Abby Reads: How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015, 368 pages

I heard about How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer when I attended the annual Virginia Library Association conference back in October. Netzer is a funny and engaging speaker, unafraid to crack wise and be, unashamedly, herself. Her prose is much the same – quirky, in a non-mainstream/non-Zooey Deschanel way; digestibly weird; and sparse.

The novel tells the story of George and Irene, whose mothers planned their romantic success before George and Irene were born. George, whimsical and in love with the world and all its wonders, believes in things like fate and destiny, while Irene, serious and easily stressed, isn’t so sure there’s anything more than coincidence in the world. As with any love story, there are obstacles: other romantic partners, illness, forbidding parents. But what’s the difference between fate and coincidence, or Toledo and the night sky, if it’s all the same in the end?

There’s no good way to describe How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, as Netzer warned during her keynote speech. If you imagine the stereotype of women’s fiction in terms of style and add some pseudo-fantasy-mythology and maybe a bit of Jodi Picoult, you’d be on your way to Night Sky. The modge podge of elements in the novel isn’t, necessarily, what makes it feel mediocre. In fact, it’s that combination that makes it so ambitious. But I kept waiting for it to all be tied together into some kind of cohesion – and it never came.

Despite this, there’s some kind of enormous achievement in Night Sky. By using these unlikely scenarios, straight-from-the-movies characters, and supernatural elements, Netzer creates a distinct aura of realism that isn’t often present in even most realistic fiction. She articulates the private, imaginary lives we all lead in our own grand ways, publicizing them for George and Irene even while they, along with everyone else, keep their secrets.

It’s this strange conflict of unbelievable realism and mediocrity that challenges me with this book. I left it feeling like I should have liked it, but something kept me from it. Despite some of the absurd events in the book, perhaps the realism was so intense that it did not feel like anything other than real life (which, as we all know, is boring, right?). I’ve sat on reviewing this for a while, hoping I’d have something more specific to say, but I’m still left with nothing, weeks later.

Netzer tries to be profound in Night Sky. She has the language and the concept for it, but there’s something missing in the execution – at least for me. There is a certain kind of profundity about it. It’s there, floating in a cloud-like manner: I can see it, I can even understand it, but I can’t grasp it. And maybe that’s the weirdness of Night Sky, the weirdness of real life.

The enjoyment of Night Sky comes down to how you approach it. If you’ve read this far, you may have already lost. Night Sky is probably something better read with no context at all, not even a title – because isn’t that what life is? An experience without context?

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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