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.

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.