24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: realistic fiction (page 1 of 2)

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 ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han
Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2015, 352 pages
Young Adult Fiction

The sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, P.S. I Still Love You picks up not long after the ending events of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Now in a relationship with Peter, Lara Jean doesn’t have long to enjoy her new relationship before pictures of her kissing Peter in which she appears nude begin circulating around the school. Things only get more complicated when John, the recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters from the first book, reappears in a letter to Lara Jean and then reappears in person. Meanwhile, boy-next-door/sister’s ex-boyfriend/crush Josh is distant and Peter is spending more time with his ex-girlfriend, Gen, than makes Lara Jean comfortable. And then there’s the matter of her single father.

Han achieves the same endearing level of authenticity in P.S. I Still Love You as she did in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Lara Jean is deeply flawed and complicated, as are all the characters in the novel, lending the otherwise-standard relationship drama a refreshing new sheen. Lara Jean loves her family despite and because of their quirks, leaving readers with a place in their heart for the charming relationship the Song sisters share. Like its predecessor, P.S. I Still Love You has a sweet, pastel atmosphere to it at times, matching the much-Instagrammed cover (seriously, how gorgeous are this series’ covers?). But it’s not all sugar and roses.

When the book opened with the very real issue of the invasion of privacy, I was hopeful that Han would take advantage of her massive audience to make a difference for young women who, in real life, often find intimate pictures of themselves making their way around the young women’s schools and communities. Due to the nature of the picture of Lara Jean and Peter, many students assume the picture is of the pair having sex. In the reality of the story, Lara Jean’s back was exposed, but the two were kissing — not having sex.

This is important to Lara Jean (and I’ll leave the slut shaming rhetoric for another post), and certainly this picture should not have been taken or shared without her consent to begin with (yes, even if it was just a portrait of her smiling, this would be true), but it’s especially discomforting that this picture being shared is understood, in general, to be of Lara Jean and Peter having sex. This means, for all intents and purposes, the photo being shared is essentially child pornography. Despite this really excellent setup to talk about a massively important issue, Han sidesteps the conflict and it disappears after only a few chapters and no real resolution. This narrative conflict is in fact dropped in favor for a much more cliché story of Peter dedicating seemingly too much attention to ex-girlfriend Gen (for, as it turns out, an equally cliché teen-movie reason), and the book is the worse for it.

Then there’s the issue of John. Though Lara Jean’s relationships with both Josh and Peter in the previous novel sparked with chemistry, Lara Jean’s new love-interest-ish lacks a connection that says anything stronger than friend. Lara Jean’s interesting flaws and complexities come out as she essentially uses John to get back at Peter (who, again, is paying too much attention to Gen for Lara Jean’s comfort). But beyond their friendship, Lara Jean and John have no chemistry, making the conflict of will-she-or-won’t-she feel moot. Han leaves readers with a hopeful cliffhanger in regards to Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship, but in Han’s realistic world, nothing is guaranteed.

This sounds like a grim review. However, if you enjoyed To All the Boys I’ve Loved before, P.S. I Love You is a fun read to follow up the original. Besides, you have to be ready for the upcoming Always and Forever, Lara Jean!

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012, 320 pages
Juvenile Fiction

I want to start this review by noting that Wonder by R. J. Palacio is problematic. I acknowledge that and I’ll get into it, but before I do, you need some context. Wonder begins with Auggie, a ten-year-old born with a severe facial deformity. When he agrees to attend school with the encouragement of his family (who had, up until this point, home-schooled him), Auggie encounters the cruelties of the world in the form of bullying (harassment, really) and misunderstanding. The book turns its point of view over to various people in Auggie’s life, giving them each the opportunity not only to talk about themselves but also their relationship to Auggie and the effect Auggie and his deformity have on their lives.

I think, already, you can see some of the issues with this book. Palacio admits in supplemental material in the edition I read that she does not have a facial deformity. In fact, the inspiration for Wonder came from her own humiliation at seeing a child in a park with a deformity and how she responded. You can read about that on her website. The moral of Wonder is kindness. And, obvious spoiler: Auggie overcomes his bullies

through kindness and the like and is essentially given an award for being a decent human being while others were not so decent to him (massive understatement). In many ways, Wonder is inspiration porn (learn more about that here). Like many of the other problematic material I’ve discussed on this blog, I’m not in a position to comment a whole lot here as I am able-bodied. (Additionally, if you are a member of this community and I’ve used outdated or offensive terms or have otherwise not spoken well here, please do let me know so I can fix it!)

What I can comment on is the book as a book and its merits and shortcomings as a piece of literature. So let’s move to that with the previous paragraph in mind (and work toward better representation in all art forms — one more aside, this kind of art is out there. It’s largely a matter of publication companies being willing or unwilling to, y’know, publish it. The way to show them we want this material is to buy it. So do that. Or check it out from your library. That’s important, too.)

Although I’d heard the hype about Wonder prior to reading it, I was not aware that it was told from multiple points of view. In fact, I didn’t know until I turned to the last page of Auggie’s first section in the book to find a new narrator. I admire Palacio’s commitment to creating distinct voices for each of the narrators in the book, but ultimately found there were too many narrators and certainly not enough narrators with sufficient consequence to warrant their appearance as a narrator. Palacio’s use of different narrators does provide a unique and, at some points, powerful move toward demonstrating empathy, but this achievement is overshadowed by the simple overwhelm of points of view.

The multiple-narrator strategy is only one thing that makes this book challenging. Though marketed toward older children (Amazon recommends ages 8 through 12), the book avoids overly simplistic vocabulary and sentence structure. This is where, I think, the book gets a lot of its appeal for adults. Palacio never talks down to her readers, but instead uses dialogue and monologue in such a way that is realistic, which helps to heighten the real-life importance of the overall message of kindness. This realism has the drawback of slowing the book down. Readers must be invested in the characters (perhaps, in part, hence the many narrators) if they want to be at all invested in the book. Indeed, Wonder is much more literary fiction for children than it is your average plot-driven work due to the focus on its characters and their development.

The movie for Wonder is scheduled to come out in 2017. I have my reservations due to what I’ve discussed above (in addition to casting an actor without a facial deformity as Auggie and certainly, I’m sure, other things as we get closer to the release will reveal), but with Daveed Diggs playing English teacher Mr. Browne, I might have to give it a try when it appears on Netflix.

 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Hello, Sunshine by Leila Howland

Hello, Sunshine by Leila Howland
Disney-Hyperion, 2017, 368 pages
Fiction

I received this eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Hello, Sunshine will be available for purchase July 11, 2017.

In Leila Howland’s Hello, Sunshine, Becca Harrington has been rejected from every college she’s applied to. With dreams of becoming a star, she packs her things and makes a cross-country roadtrip from Boston to LA with her boyfriend, Alex, who has plans to attend Stanford. Things come crashing down when Alex breaks up with her at the end of their trip, leaving Becca feeling like an utter failure. Despite plans to live with her cousin, Becca finds an apartment of her own where she meets a new friend, Marisol, and a cute aspiring director, Raj. With a list of goals in hand (including finding an agent and getting paid acting work all while working a bummer job as a waitress), Becca sets out into the shiny world that is Los Angeles while learning to get out of her own way.

As a first-person narrator, Becca is hyper-everything. Much like the overexposed picture that makes up the cover to Hello, Sunshine, the narration style is fast and bright, as if living inside the head of an extravert (which Becca clearly is). While Becca uses a lot of words to tell her story, particularly toward the beginning, she doesn’t say a whole lot. In addition to a selection of sentence structure and vocabulary that makes Becca seem as if she’s talking a million miles a minute, the plot structure, too, moves at a rapid pace. While so many events happen to bring Becca to the end of this chapter in her life, Howland might have done better to focus on fewer things and committed to fewer false starts in Becca’s attempts at an acting career. While this may be an accurate representation of trying to get famous, it doesn’t work well for a narrative.

The choice of present-tense adds tension to the story — will Becca “make it” in Hollywood, or will she not? — but doesn’t leave Becca much time for reflection, which she sorely needs. As a character flaw, this is slightly resolved later on, but not convincingly. Meanwhile, Howland uses f-bombs and other profanity relatively liberally. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but doesn’t suit the reading level, prose style, or the book’s personality (or, frankly, Becca’s personality). Obviously not a piece of literary fiction, Hello, Sunshine’s writing style revolves around immaturity and a lack of sophistication. This does quite a bit to characterize Becca, but doesn’t make her particularly interesting and doesn’t serve to show the author’s skill, nor does it do the book as a whole many favors.

All said, Becca’s narration, though fast (and, wow, the last quarter of the book or so is like whiplash in terms of events), is matter-of-fact and not totally unlike eighteen-year-olds I’ve known.

Howland does bring the book to life with some interesting characters. Though she’s never mentioned, real-life Kesha seems a natural model for Marisol. Marisol’s background is far more interesting than any other character’s, Becca’s included. With an unexpected twist toward the end regarding Marisol which sends Becca running back to her cousin, Marisol’s personal story may be a little trite, but her characterization is the strongest. Meanwhile, the ever-present “juice man” has a predictable role toward the end of the novel. Main players in the book, Becca, Raj, Marisol, and even Becca’s mom and cousin, all are fairly well-developed. Even more-secondary characters, like Reed, are the stars of their own lives. Perhaps the one flaw in Howland’s character description is Becca noting Raj’s “coffee-colored skin,” which is borderline, if not straight-out problematic (I’ll leave that up to PoC to decide).

A fair amount of themes and symbolism seem present in the book, although I approached this as a leisure read and didn’t over-analyze things. One point that did come to my attention was Becca’s near-constant talk about stomach problems early on. It was so frequent it seemed like this would later become a plot point, like some kind of diagnosis that would interfere with her goals. Alas, it never returned and was just a case of some heavy-handed show-don’t-tell as readers learn that Becca is upset with her new single status. Hello, Sunshine is also solidly grounded in the modern world with mentions of Instagram and Ikea floating about. Whether or not this is included to color Becca’s world or provide fodder for symbolism (Ikea comes up multiple times as part of a running bit of wisdom; personally, I find mentions of specific establishments that exist in reality to be distracting and unnecessarily dates the book, but I feel similarly about made-up institutions meant to stand in for something well-known, like an author referring to a fast food restaurant as Burger Prince, but I digress), it makes the novel a touch more relevant for the right here, right now.

I suspect fans of Morgan Matson’s Since You’ve Been Gone will enjoy Hello, Sunshine. Not only is the cover art strikingly similar, but the overall feel of the stories are about the same. Hello, Sunshine isn’t a literary masterpiece, but works as a palate cleanser or a quick weekend read. For two-and-a-half hearts, what you see is what you get.

❤❤💔 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: Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Vintage, 1994, 192 pages
Fiction

Written on the Body came into my life as a recommendation. I typically don’t take recommendations for books because (a) my TBR list is huge, (b) I generally find I have a good grip on the kinds of things I like to read more than other people do, and (c) I have a degree in advising people on what they should read based on their interests*, so I’m perfectly capable of doing it for myself. But sometimes I accept recommendations and even follow up on them because it can be a useful tool to getting to know the person who is doing the recommending and once in a while, it’s good to step outside yourself and, I don’t know, hear other people’s opinions on stuff and things, I guess.

So I picked up Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson after being told that it was the best book ever and totally beautiful and heartbreaking and all the things you want a good book to be.

Uh.

Yeah.

Not so much for me.

A novella, the book tells the story of an unnamed first-person narrator. We don’t know the narrator’s gender. The narrator falls in love with a married woman and waxes poetic about all her best qualities and the lowercase- and capital-R romance of it all. Life is one big beautiful tragedy for our dramatic narrator who deals in metaphor after metaphor. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse. The love interest (who I’ll remind you is married) reveals that she has cancer. With an obsession that leans toward stalking and feelings of being torn between allowing the woman to get the best possible medical treatment and spending as much time with her as possible, the narrator spirals.

I like pretentious literature as much as the next person, but this was overboard for me. Aside from trying to sell a clearly unhealthy relationship as something romantic, Winterson overdoes her prose with a poetic intensity that is exhausting. After the first dozen or so pages, I found myself asking how could she possibly sustain this over-the-top narration style for an entire novella? I still don’t know the answer as to how she managed it, but she certainly did and it was not comfortable nor useful, I think, to any sort of plot or character development aside from maybe suggesting the narrator doesn’t exactly live in reality but prefers to see the world as a stage and capital-A Art house. Or something.

Ultimately, Written on the Body felt like the kind of experimental artsy stuff I read in my college writing classes. It was aimless and inconclusive. It was pretentious and inaccessible. It was so not for me.

I can appreciate the artfulness of it, though. I can see why it might be a valuable piece of literature to read, particularly in an academic setting (and even more so if that was an academic setting of primarily women, but I’m biased). But if you’re looking for a straightforward read for brain candy, you won’t find it here.

*This is a gross simplification of my MLIS.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009, 320 pages
YA Fiction

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler had been on my radar for a while. It was published in 2009 and ever since, it’s floated around the various book blogs as the cover is intriguing and the title compelling. But what’s promised as either a cutesy summer read by the cover and title – and what’s promised as a serious and heartfelt look via the power of literature at the themes of love and loss aren’t fulfilled.

Quick summary – teenage Anna lives next door to her best friend, Frankie. Frankie’s family might as well be Anna’s family, except for Frankie’s brother Matt. At a birthday party for Anna, Anna and Matt come clean with their feelings for each other. Everything is going great, though Matt wants to wait to tell his sister about their relationship – until Matt dies. A year later, Anna and Frankie are still trying to heal and still keeping secrets from each other. The pair go to California in an attempt to renormalize Frankie’s family with their annual vacation with a mission to meet twenty boys in the time they have there.

It’s become the norm for me to read fiction with a feminist lens. It’s kind of impossible not to at this point. This was no different for Twenty Boy Summer which, as it turns out, has a plot that revolves largely around self-worth coming from the attention of boys and slut-shaming. There’s also this weird obsession with the value of virginity and I think it could be argued that the book leans toward old-fashioned and, frankly, oppressive ideas. Given that the primary, if superficial in various senses of the word, plot of the story is Frankie and Anna’s pursuit to have sex with (and then just kiss, and then just meet) twenty boys in a summer, it ends up feeling like the moral of the story is abstinence. Make of that what you will.

Though the story mostly revolves around Anna and her healing, Frankie and her parents make for far more interesting characters. Sadly, they’re underutilized. In brief moments, the parents’ pain over the loss of their son plays out in fascinating ways, flipping between giving Frankie free reign to do as she likes because life is short and holding Frankie to strict rules and conditions of family time because life is dangerous. A few tense passages show conflict between and within the parents, too – I wonder if this might have gone over better as a novel which focused on them. Frankie’s grief, too, plays out in engaging ways, but with Anna as the focal point, it’s impossible to tease out the intricacies and details of her methods of coping. Perhaps it’s the removal from and mystery of her grief that makes it so interesting, though I can’t help but wish it had been a greater piece of Twenty Boy Summer.

In general, setting tends to be a non-issue for me in that I don’t notice it all that much unless it’s specifically relevant to the plot. I did find Ockler’s choice of Northern California to be thought-provoking. While the themes of excess and promiscuity lend themselves better, in my mind, to Southern California (and I doubt many of you disagree), the more family-oriented Bay Area throws up a contrast to Anna and Frankie’s behavior. Perhaps take this with a grain of sea salt – my impressions of California and its culture are limited to a two-week visit a few summers ago and plenty of movies.

Twenty Boy Summer is just okay. It’s what comes to mind when I think of beach reads, though that may be because a good deal of it takes place on a beach. It’s less light-hearted than the cover suggests, less dark than the summary and blurbs suggest. My main concern comes from the “lesson” Ockler inserts, but for readers who can look past that, this might not be the worst way to spend a few hours.

 

❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Simon and Schuster, 2014, 384 pages
YA Realistic Fiction

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han has been getting a lot of attention in the book blog world. (A brief-ish aside here: “Before,” as a preposition in a title, should not be capitalized — however, all of the book sellers are capitalizing it as such and, frankly, it would look weird if it wasn’t capitalized, so this is how it will appear throughout the review. Interestingly, the title on the actual book cover is in all lowercase except the “I” in “I’ve” — I’d be willing to bet it was specifically because of this ambiguity. But, anyway–) To be fair, it does have a gorgeous and incredibly photogenic cover. It’s popped up over and over again on my Tumblr dashboard with comments on the art as well as the contents, so I decided to give it a try.

This young adult novel begins as Lara Jean’s older sister, Margot, prepares to leave for college across the pond in Scotland. Left with her dad and younger sister, Kitty, Lara Jean discovers a hatbox full of letters to boys she has loved over the years has gone missing. It’s not long before she finds out the letters were sent to their addressees, including to the boy next door, Josh, who recently ended his relationship with Margot. Although the letters were intended to be Lara Jean’s way of letting go, she quickly learns she might still have a flickering flame or two still burning as the boys come forward to ask about Lara Jean’s letters.

All right, look, I know this sounds ridiculous and campy and superficial. If you can get past the basic premise, which I realize is asking a lot, it’s so worth it. What I really appreciate about this book is that, in its incredible simplicity (particularly in prose style), it manages to get at incredibly dynamic characters and a heartfelt-yet-poignant story line. It’s very likely, at least in part, the slow start to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is what helps build these unique and realistic characters. As a set of three sisters, the Covey daughters (also known as the Song Girls) seem more like a group of real-life siblings than I’ve ever seen in fiction — the exception being Austen novels.

Though I didn’t notice when reading, it was evident to me, after, how similar this novel is to your average Austen novel. The romance plot gets at much more than romance with subtle societal commentary all while being a realistic portrayal of teenage romance. The complications and conflicts, while not apocalyptic or dire, instill a sense of urgency despite how mundane they are. Like Austen, Han injects her prose with humor and provides her main character with a strong, if a bit immature, voice. The benefit for modern and young readers here is that while Austen’s prose can be dense and long-winded, Han’s prose uses simple (but very effective) sentence structure and a first-person narrator, enabling readers to more easily empathize with Lara Jean.

In my notes for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I’ve written that the book is, “Feel-good without being gross or cliche or too fairy-tale” and that it’s “like Disney but grounded in reality.” Now, I’m not saying I’d totally go to a To-All-the-Boys-I’ve-Loved-Before theme park within the larger Disney theme park, but I would totally go to a To-All-the-Boys-I’ve-Loved-Before theme park within the larger Disney theme park. Photo op with Lara Jean and her sisters? Yes, please! In fact, I’d love to see a live action Disney production of this book — it’s already got the mother out of the picture in true Disney fashion. (Who am I kidding? The book is — almost — always better than the movie.) In all seriousness, it felt like Tinker Bell had sprinkled just the right amount of fairy dust on this book, making it sweet escapist literature while being firmly rooted in this place we call planet earth. I rarely see this done so well — too often, happy stories (though I can’t say this book has a strictly happy ending because reality) float out of the realm of real life and land elsewhere, providing examples that people can’t aspire to. I don’t think we should necessarily model our lives after fiction entirely, but life imitates art — or, at least it tries to. So, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is an important example of this sort of thing done well.

Let me put it another way — if I had a kid who told me they wanted to be just like Bella Swan when they grew up, I’d be a bit concerned (despite my mixed feelings on Twilight — a whole other story for another day). If I had a kid who told me they wanted to be like Lara Jean? High five! Yeah, Lara Jean makes some questionable choices but she’s a teenager whereas Bella is…a robot. Maybe.

The point is, this book isn’t just well-written and fun and enjoyable. It’s got heart and lessons and a unique sensitivity to what life is actually like. The fact that it does all of this without being boring makes it earn a high rating in my book.

❤❤❤❤ 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 ❤❤❤❤❤

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