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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When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Recently, I attended an author event where the author (I’m pretty sure it was Victoria Schwab, but don’t quote me), described that the part of a novel that mattered most was not the first line, or the first chapter, but the very end. She used the analogy of a dinner. If you have an amazing meal, but a lackluster final course, you won’t remember the dinner as amazing. You’ll remember that so-so final taste in your mouth. Her sentiment articulates how I feel about Sandhya Menon’s debut, When Dimple Met Rishi.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetIn my July Wrap Up, I described When Dimple Met Rishi as the perfect summer read, and, for the most part, it is. At least until the last twenty pages.  Suddenly, the novel changes from a funny account of an arranged marriage, into a story idealized to the point of disbelief. Parents are suddenly accepting, characters realize their mistakes, colleges mysteriously loosen their admission requirements, and all is well in the world. Especially after what had been such a lovely debut, I was disappointed.

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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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July Wrap Up

What Happened This Month

I cannot believe it’s August already! July seems to have flown by. Many books I’m excited about came out this month, such as Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana. Also, at the bookstore I worked at, I worked an event with Joyce Carol Oates, which was incredible.

40B239F2-556B-4B10-96B9-99D9C85906A4.jpgWhat I’m Reading Right Now

I’m reading When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. I’ve been searching for the perfect summer read and I think I’ve just about found it. Unexpectedly funny and heartfelt, Menon’s debut is perfect for a beach day. Although I’m not done with When Dimple Met Rishi, I have high hopes. Stay tuned!

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A Million Junes by Emily Henry

A Million Junes was the last book I read in Morocco for a couple reasons. The first: I didn’t really want to read it. I didn’t love Henry’s debut, so I thought A Million Junes might be similar. Second: A Million Junes is pitched as a romance novel, which is not exactly the genre I gravitate towards. Third: This reason’s a little silly, but it’s true. All of the other books I brought were paperbacks, and I didn’t want to lug around a heavy hardback book in my bag. But, eventually, with no other options left, I became deprived of words on the page, and picked up A Million Junes.

While A Million Junes is technically a romance novel, the heart of the story is about a struggle all teenagers go through- growing up and reconciling their parents’ views with their own. June, the protagonist, falls in love with a boy from a family her late father believes is evil. June cannot fit this description with her boyfriend, Sal, who she feels is one of the only people making an effort to understand her. At the end of the day though, her father is dead. He can’t stop her.

“Grief is an unfillable hole in your body. It should be weightless, but it’s heavy. Should be cold, but it burns. Should, over time, close up, but instead it deepens.”

Simultaneously, June is entering senior year in high school. While her friends are all planning out college, careers, and beyond, she is content staying at home. She feels the need to be a homebody, a traditional, scrappy, farmer’s daughter. This is everything Sal and his family are not- which is what seems to fuel the divide. June is forced to reconsider her whole life when she meets- not a boy, don’t worry- her creative writing teacher. Suddenly, she has an outlet and a way to explore her world. Maybe leaving the farm her family has owned for generations wouldn’t be too bad after all.

A Million Junes is the story of a girl caught between two worlds- where she is and where she might want to go. While there are whimsical elements to the story (a pink ghost, dandelion fluff that lets you jump into memories), I found the most touching moments were grounded in realism. Henry’s second novel felt real in a way her first did not- it is clear to me she has grown enormously as a writer.

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.

This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab

Books like This Savage Song are like candy to me. Easy to read, fast paced, and a little predictable, I enjoy reading these novels as a break from denser novels with more complex themes. Books like This Savage Song are often labelled as bad, but I believe a book doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece with layers of meaning to unfold for it to be an engaging read. A good book should be defined as something you enjoy, and that was exactly the case for me in This Savage Song.

Victoria, “V. E” Schwab’s debut for young adults follows two teens, Kate Harker and August Flynn. Kate is a stereotypical Young Adult heroine: rich, white, rebellious, and somehow, despite her upscale grooming, a fantastic fighter. August is not so stereotypical. In fact, he’s not even human. He is a Sunai- a being borne of a tremendous tragedy (in his case a school shooting) who looks human but feeds on the souls of “sinners” (defining who that means is a main topic in this novel). The two live on opposite sides of a city and meet at an affluent prep school. But, little does Kate know, August is spying on her for his family which is on the brink of war with her family. Their parents are not exactly mob bosses, but pretty close to it. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Romeo and Juliet? Not quite. August and Kate are never romantically involved, instead working as friends to stop a looming uprising of beings similar to August- Malchais, who are borne from the violent death of a human.

“It was a cruel trick of the universe, thought August, that he only felt human after doing something monstrous.”

This Savage Song is not completely original, but that is kind of nice. I like the comfort of knowing what’s going to happen and the certainty of an ending with a bow wrapped around it. Still, This Savage Song surprised me in some places. Occasionally the script veered off a typical YA dystopian novel, but overall, it remained on brand. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad. I’m going to read the next in this duology, Our Dark Duet, and I encourage you too as well. It can be nice to escape your world sometimes.

The Best Books to Bring on a Long Flight

Recently, I flew nine hours from JFK airport in New York all the way to RBA in Rabat, Morocco. The trip was long, but made much nicer by all the books I brought along to read. If you have a lengthy flight coming up and are stressing over what to read: relax! Hopefully, these recommendations will give you an idea.

The Novel You’ve Been Wanting to Read Forever

A long flight is the perfect time to crack open a novel you’ve been wanting to read but are perhaps intimidated by (whether that be because of length, language, themes, etc). For me, this book was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This read was probably my favorite out of the five and I cannot recommend it enough!

The Page Turner (Preferably Fantasy or Adventure)

This novel is for when you just want to lose yourself. Best for quickly passing time, I would recommend This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab. I recently saw her at an event and was immediately fascinated by her easily phrased yet thoughtful writing. Another great read is Strange the Dreamer or Daughter of Smoke and Bone both by Laini Taylor.

The Guidebook

A friend gave me Insight Guide to Morocco, but I would also recommend any guide by Lonely Planet. My advice is to use these guides to get a general sense of your destination, but to not make exact plans from them. Sometimes, it can be more rewarding to just wander.

The “Research” Novel

Under the guise of research, find an interesting book by a native author or book set in your destination. I checked out The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah.

An Old Favorite

Sometimes, when venturing so far from home, you may begin to feel homesick. I associate certain novels with times or places in my life, so I will usually bring an old favorite that reminds me of home. Besides quelling homesickness, this book will allow you to rediscover why you love to read. I brought To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.