24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: realistic fiction (page 1 of 3)

Abby Reads: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Everything Leads to Your by Nina LaCour
Speak, 2014, 336 pages
Fiction

A set designer for movies, Emi lives in Los Angeles in Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You. With her brother out of the country, she and her best friend move into his empty apartment. Though regular interactions with her ex-girlfriend (and her ex-girlfriend’s current partner) make her uncomfortable, EmiImage result for everything leads to you is determined to make the most of this opportunity and make a break into the behind the scenes of Hollywood. When she discovers a note from a famous actor in an estate sale, Emi is driven to a new mission: find the woman referenced in the note and join the woman with her inheritance. But things are never as they seem in the movies and only sometimes as they seem in real life.

LaCour pieces together a beautiful coming-of-age in Everything Leads to You. Unlike so many other LGBTQIAA+ novels, Everything Leads to You features a young lesbian woman but the story does not revolve around her coming out or around her sexuality at all. While her relationships play a large role in the plot and her sexuality is by no means glossed over, it is not the novel. Coming out novels are, of course, important — but so are celebrations of homosexuality as the everyday. LaCour’s depiction of Emi and her relationships emphasizes the normalcy of it all, which is something sorely missing in most LGBTQIAA+ fiction I’ve encountered.

What’s more, the novel has a totally unique setup, particularly for a young adult cast. Just out of high school, Emi has a job that is unlikely for most people her age, but reasonably realistic all the same. The Los Angeles backdrop makes for an environment that feels new. LaCour’s commitment to the unique location helps to create an atmosphere that is rich and and full of the sort of wonder and style that is only inherent to Hollywood — or, at least, how many of us imagine the area.

LaCour does fall short in prose. While adequate, the sentence structure and vocabulary doesn’t do anything to add to the emotion of the book. It simply tells the story, leaving much of the ambiance up to setting and character actions. Further, Everything Leads to You might be categorized as a sort of light example of literary fiction wherein the focus is on character development over plot, but it remains that the primary conflict simply did not drive the book forward enough. Without a higher level of definition and development, the plot seems more offhand than suits the rest of the novel. This is again emphasized with the lack of chemistry between Emi and the primary love interest.

Everything Leads to You is an important addition to the LGBTQIAA+ fictional catalog, but it has its faults. Like a book in watercolor, it’s a lovely reflection of even the slightly grittier sides of movie making and a tribute to films themselves. A few more rounds of edits might have bumped this one up several notches, but I ultimately finished the novel feeling interested in LaCour’s other works.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #15, “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts. 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter by J. C. Carleson
Ember, 2015, 304 pages
YA Fiction

After the death of her politician father in an unnamed Middle East country, Laila, her mother, and her little brother — the heir to her father’s seat — move to the outskirts of Washington, D. C. for protection. As Laila adjusts to her new American life, she discovers her mother is perhaps not as innocent as sheThe Tyrant's Daughter originally believed and there is more to the American government’s intent than she’s told. J. C. Carleson tells Laila’s story in The Tyrant’s Daughter.

With Carleson boasting her background in international affairs (specifically, “as an officer in the CIA’s clandestine service”), readers might expect her to bring knowledge, expertise, and detail to destigmatize the Middle East, refugees, Muslims, and people of color. Despite her personal experiences, Carleson seems only to perpetuate stereotypes and the fear many Americans express around these groups. While Carleson, in the notes of the book, points out she does not name a country for Laila’s origins for a variety of reasons, she fails to acknowledge that, in not naming a country (or, alternatively, making one up), she allows readers to assume all Middle Eastern countries are suffering under the rule of a nefarious dictator who, among other things, oppresses women in the name of Islam. This problematic approach only serves to other those from the Middle East, those who are Muslim, those who are refugees, and, to some extent (though less so, in this context), those who are of color.

This is further underlined when Carleson, or Laila, as the narrator, describes a moment in which she thinks of her female classmates as “whores” because of the typical American clothing they wear. While this might serve to illustrate Laila’s upbringing, it also once again stigmatizes Muslims and the Middle East in a way that is unnecessary. As a whole, Laila is neither a likable nor interesting character. Manipulative and selfish, she has few inherent traits that are about her. Anything that makes her interesting comes from external forces — her status as a de facto princess, for example. Laila consistently rejects everything around her and understandably so, having been plucked from her home and dropped in a foreign world in which the inhabitants believe the worst of her father. But as her defining character trait, this makes Laila difficult to cheer for or care about. What matters most, perhaps, is that Carleson hasn’t motivated Laila to any kind of concrete character development by the end. Instead, Laila remains as she has throughout the novel, her story only improved by circumstances.

Plot-wise, The Tyrant’s Daughter moves slowly and is enveloped in politics that influence Laila’s circumstances at a level well above her. She is unable to do much or be of significant agency, aside from a relationship that may or may not have romantic leanings with a young man who has come from her home country and may have a stake in the rebellion which killed her father. But Laila and her family are not, it would seem, in any kind of witness protection program despite the dangers their identities pose. As a former CIA officer, Carleson should know here, so she’s owed the benefit of the doubt, but it’s strange to not acknowledge the option, especially when it’s so prevalent in similar fictional stories.

One other small thing — the narrative is told primarily in the present tense aside from a few flashbacks. While this does help to differentiate between the flashbacks and the main events, the present tense is more distracting than anything and this differentiation might be better marked with another font style or a simple scene header describing the date or even simply before. In fiction, present tense often is useful when keeping readers in suspense as to whether the narrator will survive the story or when trying to obscure other potential events, but here, the present tense seems to be strictly a stylistic choice that has no real purpose.

A final aside — Carleson’s representation of librarians struck me as disappointing. After inquiring about information regarding her father, Laila is “assisted” by a librarian. In this instance, “assistance” means recalling an article about him in a magazine the librarian happened to have on her desk and handing the magazine to Laila with little other help. The librarian does not conduct any sort of reference interview (to ask questions such as is Laila, who the librarian doesn’t know is related to the man, interested in his personal life? political life? qualifications? downfall?) nor does she offer more substantial or official materials. I’m not convinced this woman went to library school.

 

 

The Tyrant’s Daughter isn’t what it could be. It’s misleading in its portrayal of Muslims and Middle Eastern refugees which may be forgivable to the extent that fiction is interesting because it’s about interesting people — the outliers — but it ultimately does damage to people who have and continue to suffer from a lack of education in those who are outside their groups. Carleson’s narrative structure and writing style are, simply, mediocre and it’s difficult to side with Laila or even find her interesting when the bulk of what does make her interesting has nothing to do with her character or personality. This is one novel that is perhaps best left to itself.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #10, “Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location,” and I leave it behind with one-and-a-half hearts.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby

Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016, 304 pages
Realistic Fiction

In Some of the Parts, younger sister Tallie has only just begun grieving the death of her older brother. Wracked with guilt from being the driver of the car in which he was in at the time of his death, Tallie has not only lost her brother, but lost her parents to their own grief and her good friend who had just started a relationship with her brother at the time of his death. As she gets to know the new boy in school, Chase, Tallie must confront her own grief and begin to function again or she risks losing more. But it’s harder to let go when she discovers her brother might not be as gone as she thought. Hannah Barnaby paints a painfully realistic picture of a girl who has lost her brother at an age that is too young to experience such pain, but too old to not understand it.

I sought out Hannah Barnaby at an event in Arlington in September 2016, just a few weeks after my own brother died in a car crash. After the talk she gave with another author, I rushed up to her and told her my own story and that I had written a similar story in college, never knowing what was in my future. Barnaby graciously signed the copy I bought from her and later got in touch with me on Twitter to check in with me. I wasn’t able to actually read the book for another seven months, but when I did, I was amazed.

Barnaby so acutely describes what has been my experience around grief and sibling loss. Although my brother was not an organ donor and I did not cause his death, Tallie and I have much else in common in how we handle or don’t handle our grief. The accuracy Barnaby pins the story with can be painful in spots, particularly for those who have been there, but is a rare and excellent thing to encounter, especially for those who are trying to understand and empathize with a character or individual who has had such an experience.

Beyond the specific concept of sibling grief, Barnaby handles the other aspects of the lives of her characters with striking realism. This helps ground the overall plot from being pure emotion and chaos, but can sometimes make following relationships a challenge. Tallie, of course, has school friends and acquaintances, all of which are affected by her grief and potentially their own grief over the loss of their friend. Because it’s unclear how big a part any one character will play at any given time (something that also increases the realism), it’s hard to tell which characters deserve the most attention. A naturally flowing timeline adds to the realism, as does  a commitment to providing an ending that is not overly kitschy or predictable.

As a character and narrator, Tallie leans toward the mature with an adult lilt and a willingness to use SAT words in the everyday situation. She’s observant and often self-aware, though not always in the ways she needs to be. Tallie was a person before this event which tore apart her life, and glimpses of that person make her a fascinating character who is affected by her grief but who is not, necessarily, her grief itself. On the flip side, Barnaby shows grief acting in different ways with different people. Not one of the affected characters respond in the same way, and even when they do, it is often for different reasons. Barnaby has a great grasp on each of her characters, making Some of the Parts all the more enjoyable and important.

The story is somewhat too neat by the end, with a suggestion that now that Tallie has gotten over the hump of her grief, she will return to a normal and happy life. The reality is, Tallie will likely return to her grief which will appear in different shapes throughout her life. While that might be too realistic and too grim, I was disappointed to see it left out (at least from my perspective).

Ultimately, I’m so grateful for Some of the Parts. It articulated much of my early months of grief in a way that I could not at the time and can’t now, because the form of my own grief has changed so much. This could not have been an easy book to write and despite this, Barnaby did not make sacrifices in quality just to tell an important story. It’s well-rounded in nearly every way and a great story for those who have not lost a sibling as much as it is for those who have.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

All the Rage by Courtney Summers
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016, 336 pages
Young Adult Fiction

With many, many brave young women coming forward to share their stories of sexual assault, Courtney Summers’ All the Rage certainly finds extreme All the Rage by Courtney Summersrelevance in the lives of young adult readers. Romy, living in a small town where the wealthy get away with what they will and she struggles to get by after her trauma, is one such girl. But after bringing her story to people in authority, the town turns on her. Left with remnants of relationships and the gentle heart of a boy at work, Romy is shocked when an old friend goes missing. Already condemned for coming forward, Romy prepares to once again confront the actions of her assaulter with the hope of preventing more sexual violence.

Summers craftily moves Romy about in a timeline, back and forth with sleight of prose to place the reader in a confused and unsteady mindset. With flashbacks that may or may not be flashbacks and history repeating itself, the story does not always move in a linear fashion, but rather keeps the reader grasping for one anchor or another to determine the order of events. As frustrating as this is — especially if you’re reading this over a long period of time or reading other books concurrently — it has a significant hand in setting the tone and mood for the book, which might not otherwise pack quite the punch that it does. Readers are with Romy, not just in her story, but in her emotional journey from chaotic traumatization to control.

While the book does have a little bit of a thriller angle to it, the treatment of sexual assault is overall sensitive, if gritty. Fairly graphic depictions may deter some readers, but the novel remains an important work for those of us wondering what we can do to better support survivors of sexual assault. Summers creates a rich and realistic world as she handles layers of intersection in the lives of Romy and those who know her. Poverty is clearly an issue in her hometown, as is racism, which we see with Romy’s black sort-of-boyfriend (and his awesome dentist sister, who is miles away from any stereotypes I could think of — yay!). The book deals with privilege from so many different angles, but it never feels bogged down with it. This can be a great opportunity to start conversations for readers who might not know where to start on such topics.

Characters are breathed into fully with symbolic quirks that pull them from the page and onto the couch next to you. Romy’s continuing theme of nail polish as a sort of armor helps outline her character in a way that, while perhaps a bit overdone, is absolutely clear. The same is true for her mother’s boyfriend and all other characters throughout the novel.

All the Rage isn’t perfect. Its excessively unclear at times and can be a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism, but as a piece on a topic that is difficult to discuss and even more difficult to experience, Summers’ novel doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of humans. Summers successfully makes the topic real for those who haven’t experienced it and spurs them to action while providing a tale of strength in the face of vulnerability and pain for those who have.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Signs Point to Yes by Sandy Hall

Signs Point to Yes by Sandy Hall
Swoon Reads, 2015, 288 pages
Young Adult Fiction

The cover of Signs Point to Yes is fit for a queen of bookstagram. With a gorgeous pastel design (and a beautiful matching look for Hall’s other young adult romance, A Little Something Different), of course I had to pick this one up. While the cover art may be a dream, Hall’s novel doesn’t quite meet the standard set by the Easter egg-esque binding.

For Jane, life in general is pressure. Pressure to pick and get into a college, pressure to make money, pressure to come out of the shadow cast by her older sister, pressure to be more. After much nagging from her mother, Jane takes on a nannying job, caring for three young girls who happen to be old friend, Teo’s sisters. As the trope goes, Jane develops feelings for Teo as they interact throughout the summer and Teo finds a confidante in Jane with his best friend, Ravi, out of the country for a while. When Jane discovers Teo is seeking his biological father, she decides to put her strong Internet research skills (thanks, fanfiction) to the test. Teo, meanwhile, has no idea what’s coming.

Signs Point to Yes comes down to a case of seemingly-rushed editing. While the concept is solid, interesting, realistic, and relevant to many modern young readers, the prose simply doesn’t meet the challenge. Hall writes with a simplistic and unpolished style, which, while making a leisurely read, can also make the story boring at times. The simplicity of the prose and the overall plot suggests a novel that might be better suited as a movie. With scenes taking place during sunny summer days at the pool and cool summer nights atop rooftops, the book is certainly picturesque enough to warrant a film version.

Though the parameters of time for the book — summer — are clear, the pacing overall is stilted. Too many words are spent on some unimportant chunk of time and too few on the more significant moments. Despite Teo’s despair at his friend being away for the majority of summer, Ravi appears (or is otherwise indicated to be present in the characters’ lives) more than he is not, making Teo’s complaints seem unfounded. Fourth of July seems to take place farther in the summer than it actually does and the narrative passes onto uncomfortably unexpected plot points that might’ve flown better had the timeline moved at a more natural pace. At the same time, Teo, especially, reacts unreasonably in many situations without any clear logic. Though emotions certainly are not logical by nature, his outbursts do not suit the character that is otherwise drawn for the reader.

But perhaps one of the most irritating things — especially considering its actual impact on the overall book is minimum — is Jane’s obsession with fandom and fanfiction. The obsession itself is not problematic, but rather how this interest is presented in such a way that excludes readers who are unfamiliar with fandom and fandom culture. Hall references fairly common pairings or ships (romantic combinations between fictional characters often expanded upon with fan art or fanfiction, either canon or otherwise), but uses fandom vocabulary and concepts without explaining them. Perhaps readers in fandom will enjoy this inside joke of sorts, but as someone who spent a lot of time in fandom, I found the exclusion to be, well, exclusive. There’s a condescension taking place without being blatant about it, and, though I don’t suppose Hall intended it, it’s another thing that a few more rounds of editing ought to have caught.

Signs Point to Yes is a few hairs below mediocre. It’s not awful and may be worth grabbing at a used bookstore if you’re looking for something quick and maybe a bit bland (palate cleansers are important in reading, too!), but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this one.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Hit by Lorie Ann Grover

Hit by Lorie Ann Grover
Blink, 2014, 213 pages
Young Adult Fiction

When high school senior Sarah falls for her poetry teacher (a college student fulfilling a teaching requirement for his program), things get a little cloudy. While Mr. Haddings thinks he’s made it clear that there is no chance of a romantic relationship, Sarah isn’t so sure of his intentions. Dealing with the shift of control of her life from her mother to herself and trying to make a decision about college, Sarah has plenty to worry about before Mr. Haddings mistakenly hits her with his car during a rainstorm on her way to school. In alternating perspectives, Sarah and Mr. Haddings ruminate on their relationship, her recovery, and the future.

Grover’s idea of a student pining for a teacher is nothing new, but the market is there (and I’m part of it), so Hit starts off with an intriguing premise made all the more interesting by the layered conflict. Not only does Sarah have a thing for Mr. Haddings, but now Mr. Haddings has hit Sarah with his car and, medically, it doesn’t look great for Sarah. But that’s about the extent of the merits of Hit: the premise. Unfortunately, Grover’s actual execution of the concept is flawed.

The most evident issue in Hit is its writing style. The sentence structure in the novel is painfully simplistic, leaving the reader with an unrealistic and borderline offensive demonstration of teen communication. This is compounded by the topics, metaphors, and vocabulary Grover uses in the first-person narrative and dialog. Grover fixates on stereotypical teenage concerns when it comes to Sarah — her appearance, boys (excessively, I think, and well beyond the plot of student-pining-for-teacher and emphasized by her unwillingness to attend a women’s college), and her relationship with her mother. These stereotypes seem extra repetitive when combined with language that varies little. Despite Sarah’s poetic aspirations, her ability to use unique and descriptive language falls significantly short.

Hit alternates between Sarah’s and Mr. Hadden’s points of view. With Sarah in-and-out of consciousness, it’s perhaps the only way to tell the story with a regular pace, but this style choice’s utility ends there. Anything gleaned from the inner thoughts of the two main characters could have just as easily been conveyed through third-person narration. The differences between Sarah’s and Mr. Hadden’s narration styles are minute, if at all existent, and therefore do not contribute to their character or character development.

Grover brings her novel to the end with a moralistic outlook, but it doesn’t quite feel deserved. None of her characters are easy to sympathize with and the story, which covers only a few days, has an uncomfortable flow to it that can’t be attributed to the inappropriate relationship brewing between Sarah and Mr. Haddings. If you’re looking for a well-done scandalous student-teacher relationship in fiction, this isn’t quite it.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl

The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl
Chronicle Books, 2015, 272 pages
Young Adult Historical Fiction

In The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela McColl, readers are brought to 19th Century Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott is surrounded by strong women in the form of her mother and sisters and philosophy from the mouths of her father and his friends, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As a part of the Underground Railroad, Louisa and her family sometimes house former slaves on the run. When Louisa’s mother travels to New Hampshire in search of work to support the family for the summer, George, one such slave in search of refuge, needs shelter while he waits for his family to join him in the North before continuing on his journey. Louisa takes on the responsibility of keeping him hidden and communicating with another piece of the railroad network. Things aren’t so easy as a slave catcher in search of a monetary reward shows up and threatens Louisa and her family. To make matters worse, an old friend, Fred, has returned and brought with him new affections for Louisa, who just wants to focus on her writing and becoming an adult.

The Revelation of Louisa May is an entirely charming novel with a similar tone and style to Alcott’s most famous work, Little Women. The prose is both homey and beautiful, as if light dances through it on a pretty spring day. Despite some of the more difficult themes in the book such as slavery, poverty, and murder, McColl describes Alcott’s world with inviting and warm language while bringing to life an engaging plot with fascinating characters.

While many of the characters have somewhat two-dimensional personalities, their motivations are always crystal clear and unwavering in their strength, which serves to heighten conflicts. This is especially the case when fundamental motivations of characters are at odds. Louisa May’s characterization is true to what history has suggested (which I particularly enjoyed as someone who visited the Alcott home in Concord) and readers will be none too surprised to see many parallels between the fictionalized Louisa May and her real-life fictional counterpart, Jo March. In one tense moment toward the end of the novel, it appears that Louisa may abandon the characterization built up to that point as she ignores a rather anti-feminist sentiment which Fred expresses (as an aside, please stop telling women to “calm down.”). Louisa ultimately responds as readers and those who are familiar with the real Alcott would expect, an excellent example of McColl’s grasp and knowledge of Louisa and her life.

As Louisa runs about the town, Concord is as lively as the title character. With plenty of descriptions and atmospheric language, McColl draws readers into the world of 19th Century Concord with grace and ease. McColl’s background in history pays off with her attention to detail and excellent use of dialog to help set the historic scene.

The plot of The Revelation of Louisa May is, perhaps, a bit far-fetched, especially given that Louisa is all of fifteen during the events of the novel. However, the narrative provides a fun mystery along with comfortable-yet-elegant prose and well-researched characters and scenes while introducing some of the more upsetting topics of Louisa’s life and the world around her to her young fangs in a delicate manner. This absorbing and charismatic little book is a great companion to Alcott’s own work or, if you can swing it, a visit to her home in modern Concord. If you’re looking for a pleasant spring or summer read, this is it.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: By Your Side by Kasie West

By Your Side by Kasie West
HarperTeen, 2017, 352 pages
Young Adult Fiction/Romance

In Kasie West’s By Your Side, Autumn has plans to head out to a cabin with her friends for the weekend and is about to hop in her crush’s car when she realizes she has to use the restroom. She runs back into the library — only to be locked inside. And what’s worse, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, so she’ll be in there until Tuesday morning. It’s bad enough to be trapped in a library, but things take another dive when Autumn discovers she’s not alone. Dax, the local troubled kid, is there, too. With three days stuck together, Autumn and Dax have plenty to learn about each other and plenty more to sort through once they’re free.

Look, I’m a librarian. Books about books and/or libraries is for me what catnip is to my cat. (Probably one of my favorite episodes of Arthur is “Locked in the Library!”) So when I saw my local library had a copy of this book on order, I immediately placed a hold on it and waited with anticipatory glee until it arrived, was processed, and placed neatly on the holdshelf for yours, truly. I have some disappointing news for my fellow books-about-books lovers: By Your Side is not a book about books or even a book, really, about being trapped in a library. While a good deal of the plot takes place in the public library, most of it does not — and the parts of it that do are pretty devoid of all things libraries.

I could forgive that. We all know (at least those of us in public libraries know) that getting teens into the library and, y’know, reading, is hard. So it’s not totally unreasonable that fictional teenagers trapped in a library for a three-day weekend might be more concerned with food and warmth than they are with books. I guess. (I kid.) But the primary issue I had with the plot was that it was totally implausible. West runs her two teens through a whole series of attempts to escape — they consider pulling the fire alarm to get fire trucks, and therefore adults, at the scene; they pull at the bells in a tower to alert nearby individuals that there are people inside; they yearn for their cell phones, which are conveniently unavailable or out of minutes; they look for a panic button under the circulation desk. But it never occurs to them to either put a sign in the window or use a landline. I realize landlines are a bit archaic (again, I kid), but if Autumn went behind the circulation desk to look for a panic button, I’m just not willing to believe she didn’t see a phone. Yeah, okay, maybe she would have had to dial the 9 to make an outgoing call (though she might’ve just called 911 and the whole thing would have been wrapped up), but there’s really no way around this. I try to suspend my disbelief for fiction, I really do — but this was just too absurd to me.

But moving on. Autumn and Dax, despite having three full days to get to know each other and expose their personalities, are kind of flat and boring individuals. Autumn’s defining feature is her apparently-clinical anxiety and Dax’s, his troubled-and-mysterious past. And, really, that’s about it. Autumn does not seem to have any significant interest in anything beyond her relationship with her crush, Jeff, and Dax’s interest extends only to escaping his foster home when he turns eighteen. Either of these might be interesting in depth, but the superficiality with which West explores these characteristics leaves Autumn and Dax two-dimensional and any potential chemistry between them is all the more diminished for it. (I also have to note that West apparently named Autumn after one of her daughters, which I just couldn’t get out of my head as I read, thanks to the dedication of the book. So uncomfortable.) The simplicity of the characters ultimately made for some pretty predictable content, too.

West’s prose in By Your Side is basic and unremarkable. Though easy to read and straightforward (perhaps an option for reluctant readers who seek something that is really very basic), for the bookworms this novel might pretend to appeal to in its marketing, the writing disappoints. There are no significant faux pas in the style, it’s just bland and uninspiring.

West has several other YA romances (you’ll notice the covers are all variations of the same image) and, while I haven’t read them, I get the sense from By Your Side that they’re probably pretty generic and formulaic. It’s hard to do that kind of thing well, but West’s work here really suffered. Though a few moments (particularly a late scene with Jeff) stood out as well-done, By Your Side is overall not as pretty inside as its cover. This one gets one-and-a-half hearts.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Flatiron Books, 2017, 368 pages
Literary Fiction

I received this eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. If We Were Villains will be available for purchase April 11, 2017.

Beginning in 2007, Oliver Marks is greeted on his last days of imprisonment by the detective who put him there in M. L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains. Soaked in Shakespeare, Villains tells two stories: Oliver’s release from prison and his following conversation with Detective Colborne and the conversation itself: a retelling of what, exactly, happened at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in 1997. One of seven remaining fourth-years at the elite school in the theatre department, Oliver is, compared to his six friends, decidedly ordinary. There’s Richard, who can nearly be described as a high school jock stereotype (though, not, as he is somewhat more complex and is a twenty-two-year-old theatre student), always cast as some king or equivalent; Meredith, his on-and-off girlfriend who is consistently cast as the temptress; Alexander, the moody and intense — too intense for his own self as he self-medicates with various substances — naturally and often cast as a villain; Filippa, nearly as much a bystander as Oliver, somewhat androgynous and cast just the same; James, a source of comfort for Oliver who is regularly cast as some hero or other; and Oliver himself, James’s sidekick both on- and off-stage. With a group so tightly wound around each other to the point of near-exclusion of other students and a natural inclination toward drama and theatrics, it’s no surprise that their lives implode when one of the students dies, or is killed, or has an accident, or who-knows-what and there’s the question of whether it’s better to know or to not know.

Having followed Rio as DukeofBookingham on Tumblr for a few years, I know a little bit about how this story came to be and the author’s work on it. It’s been a strange experience, coming into this piece of literature that I feel relatively intimately connected to, compared to any other book I’ve ever read. It made me look at the book differently and, I think, more critically. Rio regularly provides writing advice to her followers, so I went in expecting the best and, really, (probably unfairly) specifically looked for flaws. There weren’t many.

Rio, a big fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, incorporated much of one of her favorite novels into Villains: the setting, the tormented students, the relationships that spur on problems, death, an obsession with a scholarly pursuit. What I preferred in Villains over History, however, was that the novel’s narrator wasn’t quite so periphery as in History. I love periphery narrators (perhaps one of the biggest reasons I really enjoy The Great Gatsby — while Nick is present in the lives of the people he speaks of, he doesn’t act a whole lot. In fact, his inaction probably leads to a good amount of the tragedy that occurs — but I digress). Rio, however, made an excellent choice in giving Oliver more agency as a character in this instance. She very well could have made him a simple bystander, but Oliver’s guilt in all of this is far more interesting for his action, both direct and indirect.

Oliver as a narrator is observant and detailed. Readers learn about the specific architectural history of Dellecher (which I felt at points was overkill, but did do some work to build the scene). As the seven students live in what is known as the Tower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Gryffindor dormitories of Harry Potter fame. I don’t believe this was intentional, but it did cast a sort of magical shimmer on the events of the novel without any other sort of magical realism going on, beyond, perhaps, some delusions. But back to Oliver’s narration and Rio’s skill with description: rarely, if ever, did the language become cliché. With Shakespearean quotes strewn about the text (again, perhaps too much, though it certainly served to demonstrate the characters’ immersion), anything said outside of that context was fresh. The description of the dead character’s body, in particular, was so striking I skipped lines and came back, skipped lines, came back — unusual, for me.

Also a bit overwhelming was the sheer number of primary characters. One of the female characters (I won’t say who so as to avoid leading you to figuring out which student dies) I could have done without as her involvement throughout the novel seems relatively minimal. Despite this, nearly everyone was well-developed and their individual relationships with each other similarly so, which was especially impressive given how many there were. Colborne, as a character, leaned toward a detective stereotype, though as his role as character in the novel was small, I ignored him, mostly. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s presence felt lacking. Although his words can be found on nearly every other page, there was something missing in his influence on the students, particularly as Oliver blames Shakespeare for “all of it.”

Rio incorporates a fair amount of twists toward the end. While each one was at least a little surprising, the overwhelm of them felt somewhat gimmicky and insincere. This, too, was how I felt about a major decision made around the death of the one character, which featured a thought process I just couldn’t buy into. The character was awful, to be sure, but that awful? I wasn’t convinced. Additionally, the remaining character’s decision seemed moot: the time it would have required to act was not equal to the time in which things wrapped up (and, apologies for the vagueness here, but I don’t want to spoil it!). It’s a grand idea, just perhaps not executed well and, certainly, not easy to execute.

Rio’s first novel is clearly well-plotted, well-constructed, and well-written, if a little insincere at parts. I always felt a bit aware that I was reading fiction, as if Rio held back somewhat — perhaps due to her background in theatre in some way or other, but I won’t speculate too much on why, because I don’t know that it matters. Villains is a good next-pick for fans of The Secret History or Paper Covers Rock. Ultimately, I hard a hard time putting it down. With great attention to detail, Rio has a good amount of success with Villains and I’m looking forward to whatever comes from her next.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #2, “Read a debut novel,” and I leave it behind with four-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

All the Rage by Courtney Summers
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016, 336 pages
Young Adult Fiction

With many, many brave young women coming forward to share their stories of sexual assault, Courtney Summers’ All the Rage certainly finds extreme relevance in the lives of young adult readers. Romy, living in a small town where the wealthy get away with what they will and she struggles to get by after her trauma, is one such girl. But after bringing her story to people in authority, the town turns on her. Left with remnants of relationships and the gentle heart of a boy at work, Romy is shocked when an old friend goes missing. Already condemned for coming forward, Romy prepares to once again confront the actions of her assaulter with the hope of preventing more sexual violence.

Summers craftily moves Romy about in a timeline, back and forth with sleight of prose to place the reader in a confused and unsteady mindset. With flashbacks that may or may not be flashbacks and history repeating itself, the story does not always move in a linear fashion, but rather
keeps the reader grasping for one anchor or another to determine the order of events. As frustrating as this is — especially if you’re reading this over a long period of time or reading other books concurrently — it has a significant hand in setting the tone and mood for the book, which might
not otherwise pack quite the punch that it does. Readers are with Romy, not just in her story, but in her emotional journey from chaotic trauma to control.

While the book does have a little bit of a thriller angle to it, the treatment of sexual assault is overall sensitive, if gritty. Fairly graphic depictions may deter some readers, but the novel remains an important work for those of us wondering what we can do to better support survivors of sexual assault. Summers creates a rich and realistic world as she handles layers of intersection in the lives of Romy and those who know her. Poverty is clearly an issue in her hometown, as is racism, which we see with Romy’s black sort-of-boyfriend (and his awesome dentist sister, who is miles away from any stereotypes I could think of — yay!). The book deals with privilege from so many different angles, but it never feels bogged down with it. This can be a great opportunity to start conversations for readers who might not know where to start on such topics.

Characters are breathed into fully with symbolic quirks that pull them from the page and onto the couch next to you. Romy’s continuing theme of nail polish as a sort of armor helps outline her character in a way that, while perhaps a bit overdone, is absolutely clear. The same is true for her mother’s boyfriend and all other characters throughout the novel.

All the Rage isn’t perfect. Its excessively unclear at times and can be a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism, but as a piece on a topic that is difficult to discuss and even more difficult to experience, Summers’ novel doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of humans. Summers successfully makes the topic real for those who haven’t experienced it and spurs them to action while providing a tale of strength in the face of vulnerability and pain for those who have.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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