Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

33830437It is clear National Book Award winner Robin Benway enjoys writing about families. I was first introduced to Benway through Emmy and Oliver, her fifth book. The story begins with Oliver, who returns to his hometown after being kidnapped by his father. Far from the Tree, Benway’s sixth book, follows three siblings who discover each other after being put up for adoption and through the foster care system at birth. Although Benway’s writing occasionally feels contrived or superfluous, the message of Far From the Tree is short and sweet: family, although complicated, is essential.

The first character we are introduced to in Far from the Tree is pregnant Grace. We meet Grace as she is giving her baby up for adoption, just as her mother gave her up sixteen years ago. As Grace settles into postpartum depression, the root of her depression is slowly uncovered: she wants to find her birth mother. Grace obsessively worries if her daughter will turn out okay, so she hopes she can reassure her birth mother that she turned fine. I found Grace’s story the most powerful because it has the most circularity. Grace goes through the same struggle her mother did, which makes it all the more resonant.

The second character we meet is the fiery youngest child, Maya. Maya is loud without speaking (although she speaks more than enough) and is constantly immature, similar at times to my younger sister. Maya has family troubles, including an adoptive sister jealous of Maya’s newfound biological family, a semi-absent dad, and an alcoholic mom. However, her story often felt secondary to her siblings’. Perhaps this could have been remedied if Maya’s relationship with her adoptive sister was touched on more.

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

dhramebwsaaxmu6I remember when The Fault in Our Stars first got big, and I desperately wanted to read it. I was a Young Adult book reviewer, there was no reason I shouldn’t. But, I had a big obstacle. My mom. She made a point to read everything I read, and I didn’t want her knowing I was reading a romance novel. Because of this, I went through extraordinary lengths to get my hands on that book. I couldn’t buy it from my local bookstore, check it out from the library, or even borrow it from a friend (they would tell their parents, who would inevitably tell my mom). Eventually, I found it at a used book sale and hid in it my room, where I would literally read under the covers with a flashlight. Anyways, here I am, four years later, and able to say that I actually bought a John Green book and read it in public. Luckily, my mom will never know.

The first thing you must know before reading (it’s John freaking Green, of course you’ll read it), is that it will be painful. Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager who struggles tremendously with OCD. Her story is so visceral perhaps because of Green’s experiences as someone who suffers with OCD. Green writes from inside Aza’s head- which means every thought she thinks, we, too, think. Her obsession is with the bacteria in her body and in others’ bodies, so she drains and reopens a wound on her hand constantly. Aza describes her thoughts as spirals, “the thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.” This analogy is true for the reader as well. I often found it difficult to follow Aza’s thoughts, and longed to be able to pull her out of the “spirals” she begged to be released from.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

693208Okay, so, full disclosure: I’m cheating a little with this review. This isn’t my first time reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, but the last time I read it was around fifth grade. Going into rereading, I didn’t remember much, except the fact that Alexie uses the word “faggot,” a lot (he doesn’t really, I think it just stood out because I was still shocked whenever I heard someone curse). As a 10 year old, I don’t think I really picked up on all of the themes and nuances of Alexie’s National Book Award winning novel, so I was excited to dive back into it.

“It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”

One of the biggest differences in reading I had this time around was the fact that Junior, the main character, is my age now. It is such a weird feeling, going back to old favorites and being the same age as the protagonist. Even weirder is flipping past the copyright page ( it’s the one across from the title page) and seeing the 14+ age marker. I remember being 10, looking at that and feeling so proud for reading something that was marketed towards older kids. Now, I’m the older kid! So, in a way, I was nostalgic for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian before it even started.

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Warcross by Marie Lu

I absolutely love Marie Lu, but her Young Elites trilogy was not my favorite. They felt boring and a little contrived, which was why I was so worried when I began to read Warcross. Additionally, Warcross centers around video games, a topic I am completely uneducated in. But, her Legend trilogy has remained a constant favorite of mine, so I picked Warcross up.

Initially, all my worst fears were confirmed. Warcross begins with bounty hunter Emika Chen flying around Times Square, following people who have amassed steep debts gambling on the popular video game warcross. From the moment Emika began describing the beauty of Times Square, it was clear Lu lives in Los Angeles.

“Everyone- everyone– played Warcross. Some played it intensely, forming teams and battling for hours. Others played by… lounging on a virtual beach… Still others played by wearing their glasses while walking … showing off their virtual pet tigers…. However people played, it became a way of life.”

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The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

“I just don’t like how she feels the need to describe every chair in the room when writing,” a friend told me when describing Harvard professor and Guggenheim fellow Claire Messud’s latest. With this review in mind, I went into The Burning Girls was doubt on my mind. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised. It may just be a difference in preference, but I really enjoyed the detail Messud wrote in- I feel it added layers and dimension to the suburban Massachusetts town she was describing.

The Burning Girls is the story of a crumbling friendship as told by teenage Julia, who feels left behind by her childhood best friend Cassie. The two meet as toddlers and the story follows them through tenth grade as their dynamic shifts and they grow into their adult selves. Julia lives a predictable life- the middle class daughter of a dentist, she is comfortable but always reaching for something more. It seems she is drawn to Cassie because of the unpredictability she adds to Julia’s life. Cassie has a tumultuous home life and a lack of foresight- when her hand is mauled by a dog in the beginning of the novel the circumstances make it no surprise to the reader. The two grow apart in high school. Cassie falls into a party-girl persona and obsession with someone she will never have. Julia follows the path lined up for her- success on the school’s speech team, nice boyfriend, new friends with similar interests and aspirations.

“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel.”

 

It is nice to see a realistic depiction of growing into yourself as a teenager written by an adult, but something just felt off in the novel. I found the observations about growing up as a girl relatable and introspective, but the sometimes the depictions of teenagers felt outdated. Cassie and Julia talked almost like modern teenagers, but not quite. They almost acted in the same way as modern teens, but not quite. The liked the same things as modern teens, but not quite. At times, The Burning Girls felt like a novel written about teenagers by an adult.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

I remember first reading To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han in seventh grade and immediately finding a connection with the protagonist, Lara Jean. My mom had just died and I was searching for someone not to tell me it was going to be okay or that they were so sorry, but someone to show me they can be successful and flourishing without a mother by their side. Lara Jean was exactly that. Her mom had died when she was nine (she was sixteen at the beginning of the novel) and Lara Jean was still thriving.

“I have a feeling that when I’m Stormy’s age, these everyday moments will be what I remember: Peter’s head bent, biting into a chocolate chip cookie; the sun coming through the cafeteria window, bouncing off his brown hair; him looking at me.”

Two books and a few years later, I am still finding solace and relatability in Lara Jean. She is now eighteen and about to go off to college. The center of her story has shifted to her relationship with her boyfriend and her changing family dynamic (her father is getting married). I loved the way Han portrayed Lara’s feelings about her step-mother-to-be. After my mom died, I moved in with my dad and his girlfriend, similar to how Lara Jean’s dad’s fiance moves in with her family. The relationship between Lara Jean and her father’s girlfriend is at some times complicated, but always realistic. Even still, the best relationship was between Lara Jean and her mother. Lara Jean struggles with advice her mother gave her, “never go to college with a boyfriend.” This advice, which goes against what Lara would like to do, leads to a struggle between honoring a beloved mother’s memory and moving on successfully. This is something I struggle with, too. How Han manages to capture exactly what I felt during this challenge, I am unsure. Whatever she does, it is truly moving.

And I haven’t even talked about the relationship between Lara Jean and her boyfriend, Peter. He is not just a plot device used to further character development, but a three dimensional person who is not restricted to what would be most convenient to write about. Throughout the novel, it felt like Lara Jean was an older sister or cousin, laughing and telling you about her many successes and failures.

Novels like Han’s remind me about why I love Young Adult. Sure, there are great novels about girls defying the system or liberating their authoritarian societies- but there are also stories like Lara Jean’s. These stories reach out to girls who may be struggling and give them a genuine perspective they can connect to and learn from. Lara Jean’s last chapter closes with everything it began with- the awkwardly sincere and perpetually hopeful writing of a teenager girl trying to figure her future out. I can’t wait to share her story with my little sister when she gets older.

PS: Check out my review of the second novel in Lara Jean’s story, PS I Still Love You.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Remember 2012, when books like Divergent and The Hunger Games were popular? Dystopian novels had a moment, then faded into contemporary hits like The Fault in Our Stars. Until a recent resurgence in the popularity of dystopian classics, I hadn’t really thought of dystopians that much. Race, religion, space colonization, pollution, classism, nuclear weaponry, disease, shrinking privacy and growing surveillance- every issue under the sun seemed to already have a book written about it. Yet still, National Book Award winner Neal Shusterman, has written a dystopian truly unlike any other.

In the not so distant future, humankind has reached the apex of technological improvement and created the Thunderhead (meant to be like iCloud), the most powerful super computer in existence. It had eradicated disease, hunger, pollution, any true sense of class- but most importantly the Thunderhead has found a way to end mortality. No one can die naturally (and if they do decide to hurl themselves off a building for instance, they can be “revived”). This has turned  humanity into, as one character remarks, archaic cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. However, due to population growth, some humans must be “gleaned.” This is the job of scythes, of which the two protagonists are training to become.

“The greatest achievement of the human race was not conquering death. It was ending government.”

What is so remarkable about Scythe is that there is truly no problems with the society. The government is not corrupt because there is no government, crime rates are microscopic because there is no motivator if everyone is equal, and the Thunderhead is not some robo terrorist that is hell bent on destroying all life. While some find this lack of visceral conflict boring, I enjoyed this aspect of Scythe. Instead of fighting for a “better” society, the characters spend the majority of their time pondering the ethics of killing- not whether it should be done, but how exactly it is done most humanely and if it is truly killing if the “victim” is willing to die. Of course, there is some conflict- but not the bloody, violent kind that dystopian novels tend to favor.

“Innocence is doomed to die a senseless death at our own hands, a casualty of the mistakes we can never undo. So we lay to rest the wide-eyed wonder we once thrived upon, replacing it with the scars of which we never speak, too knotted for any amount of technology to repair.”

I love books that force me to consider my own ideals, which is why Scythe is now one of my favorites. Seasoned author Neal Shusterman does not disappoint, so I urge you to head to your favorite indie bookstore today and pick up a copy of his latest.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

I absolutely adore Nina LaCour. She writes candidly about relationships- friendships, romance, family, in a way few other authors do. Through a mixture of inside jokes, intelligent observations, and awkwardly realistic interactions, LaCour builds characters so real they practically step off the page.

We Are Okay follows grief stricken Marin staying at her virtually empty college over winter break. Before her matriculation that fall, Marin’s grandfather (and only living relative) killed himself, causing her to flee her hometown of San Francisco for freezing New York. As all the best authors do, LaCour draws on her own experiences- in her acknowledgments, she remembers her own recently deceased grandfather. Over Marin’s winter break, she begins to untangle the relationships she left behind in San Francisco and why exactly her beloved grandfather’s death was so painful.

“She leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.”

While I loved the themes of We Are Okay, I felt the writing was sometimes clunky or clichéd. I have noticed an uptick of more metaphorical writing in Young Adult and I am not a fan. This may be more of a personal preference, but I believe it is more admirable to be concise yet detailed- not meandering and flowery.

We Are Okay tackles isolation- which is, in Marin’s case, both literally and figuratively. LaCour also writes about honesty and what is left unsaid in relationships and how these omissions may shape false perceptions. LaCour continues to stun while writing about seemingly normal lives. I look forward to her next book.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was pretty reluctant to read The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas’s debut (named after Tupac’s Thug Life tattoo) has gained a lot of press for being a novel about police brutality towards African American teens. But the special part about The Hate U Give isn’t the premise- it’s that it was written for teens. Yet, I was not drawn towards this novel. To me, it seemed like Thomas didn’t know how to connect with a teen audience when talking about systemic racism, so she turned what should have been a collection of essays into a novel. But, after some pushing from friends, I put my assumptions aside and picked up The Hate U Give. I couldn’t be happier I did.

While The Hate U Give does have a few rough, lecture-y moments, overall Thomas’ novel is a compelling, well written, and a well needed political commentary. I laughed out loud, cried, and bit my lip with the protagonist, Starr, while she was dealing with issues from the changing dynamic between her and her (white) boyfriend to the aftermath of her unarmed friend, Khalil, being shot by a cop. While educating me, The Hate U Give simultaneously forced me to confront my own privilege and acknowledge how situations Starr was put in would would go differently for me solely because of my lighter skin tone. Whatever the situation, Starr dishes out realness while she struggles with problems that are ordinary and extraordinary.

“Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black”

The Hate U Give should be required reading in every high school. Many classics like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have recently sprung to the front of reading lists. The Hate U Give deserves to be among them. While Thomas’s novel is not about dystopic, totalitarian societies, it is still an impressive new piece of political commentary. The Hate U Give teaches teens about the racism many of their peers face, while also urging them to confront their own privilege. Right now, we must to listen to stories like Starr and Khalil’s.

My Favorite Female Characters

Happy International Women’s Day! Today, we are celebrating extraordinary women, so I figured we should talk about some extraordinary female characters as well. While every female character may be unique and special, a couple stand out in the crowd. Here are my favorite female characters in Young Adult literature.

1. Parker Grant- Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

Throughout Not If I See You First, Parker handles her blindness with cutting humor and grace. While she may struggle internally, she always presents a strong front. This is damaging to her at some times, but her confidence and courage never wanes. It is also worth noting that Parker Grant is the only character on this list written by a male author.

2. Lina Vilkas- Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Lina’s story takes place in Siberia, where she and her family are trapped in a concentration camp in WWII. In one day, she goes from promising art student to prisoner. Her resilience and unflinching hope in the face of unbelievable tragedy is truly inspiring. Bonus: Lina’s cousin Joana is a wonderful and equally inspiring protagonist in Sepetys’s third novel, Salt to the Sea.

3. Violet Markey- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

After the death of her sister Eleanor, Violet’s world is turned upside down. At the beginning of All the Bright Places, Violet’s coping methods are non existent. However, as the story progresses, so does her character development. In the novel, Violet creates an online magazine, Germ, which author Jennifer Niven decided to create in real life. Check it out here.

4. Kristin Lattimer- None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio

Kristin is best described as the poster All-American girl. This all changes on homecoming night, when she tries to have sex with her boyfriend and subsequently discovers she is intersex. This means that while she has the outward appearance of a girl, she has male chromosomes. Kristin’s story challenges what it means to be female and made waves in term of intersex visibility when it was released.

5. Kate Thompson- Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Kate embodies strength in its most literal meaning. After her father is murdered, Kate disguises herself as a boy and takes to the gritty plains of the American Southwest. Kate’s endurance and focus, both mental and physical is powerful to read, making her a no brainer to end this list.