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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Be True to Me by Adele Griffin

It is rare for me to be unable to finish a book. I hate that feeling of guilt over the abandonment, that creeping thought that maybe it gets better, there’s just a slow build up. But, I could not bring myself to finish Be True to Me. I kept waiting for something to happen- some action, or drama, or something, but nothing did. I read until page 148, and all that happened was a never ending saga of rich girls whining and pining after a guy who, in my opinion, was pretty awfully stringing them along.

“Summer romances were made out of ice cream and cotton candy, intensely sweet before they melted into nothing. But I’d never thought of Gil as a summer thing.”

Initially, I was most excited to read Be True to Me because of the setting, Fire Island, NY, in 1976. But, I found the writing inauthentic and clumsy, like someone born in 2010 trying to describe 1990. The only difference between now and Griffin’s ’70s was a few phrases and cultural references. This is probably what disappointed me most about the novel. I am a sucker for a good setting- and lazy, not-entirely lucid days in a wealthy New York vacation spot sounded just perfect. Unfortunately Be True to Me was nothing special- the island too bland to have any summertime mystique.

Putting a book down is always hard for me to do. But when it came to Be True To Me, I just couldn’t keep reading. The characters were annoying and one dimensional, the setting not far enough removed from reality. My search for the perfect beach read is not over yet though- next on my list is Once and For All by Sarah Dessen.

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.

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.