Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss

pcAh, Scholastic book fairs. That glorious week in December when parents volunteered in a hastily constructed cardboard bookstore and kids ran wild with their five dollar gift certificates. To me, and countless other Gen-Zers, book fair week was the best week of the school year. There, I discovered my first favorite books: the Rainbow Magic series. Numbering nearly 150 volumes, the series followed besties Rachel and Kirsty as they rescued helpless fairies from evil Jack Frost.

After Rainbow Magic, I dabbled in Bailey School Kids and Magic Tree House before finding home in Cam Jansen mystery novels, which followed Cam, a quirky tween with a photographic memory and a penchant for mystery-solving. But, after Cam came the true mecca of mystery novels: my aunt’s collection of Nancy Drew novels. I was as in love as a seven year old could be (that is, until I discovered Harry Potter and Percy Jackson).

All of my favorite $4.99 paperbacks were riding the wave of immensely popular mega-hits like Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and Goosebumps, which hit peak popularity ten years before I was born. These “Young Adult” novels of the 80’s and 90’s (think: post Judy Blume, pre J. K. Rowling) are the subject of Bustle Features Editor Gabrielle Moss’ newest book, Paperback Crush.

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

wcI was not expecting to read The Water Cure. Long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, it came out in the UK this past May, and is slated for release in the United States in January. I picked it up on a whim while between books and unexpectedly became transfixed.

The Water Cure, Welsh novelist Sophie Mackintosh’s debut, follows three sisters: Oldest Grace, middle Lia, and youngest Sky. The three live on an island with Mother and King. There, they are taught many things, but one above all: men are evil, toxic, deadly.

“If we were to spit at them, they would spit back harder. We expected that – we were prepared for it even. What we didn’t expect was their growing outrage that we even dared to have moisture in our mouths. Then outrage that we had mouths at all.”

Readers are introduced to the sisters right as something goes wrong: King is dead. Soon after, men arrive. The carefully crafted order the family has cultivated is destroyed. As we are drawn further into the story through flashbacks and dream-like prose, a web of manipulation and disturbing rituals is revealed.

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The Fates Divide by Veronica Roth

tfdFor a while, I thought I wasn’t going to finish The Fates Divide. I was wading through pages and pages of exposition so every chapter was a struggle to finish. But, suddenly, in the middle of the novel, a secret was revealed.

From there onwards, The Fates Divide sped forward at a breakneck pace, at least until what was supposed to be the climax. But, instead of an epic battle or moving sacrifice, the climax dull and too-easily resolved, mostly because the stakes didn’t feel high. Coming off the heels of Allegiant, I was expecting an enormous plot twist, a tragic choice, or at least a character death. Instead, everyone happily survived. I turned the last page wondering, is this it? 

I am not a fan of sci-fi, but I still loved Carve the Markthe first in Roth’s duology. Before that, I loved Divergent, liked Insurgent, could barely finish Allegiant. To me, the pattern seems clear. What start off as and ambitious, creative series eventually fizzles into lifeless stories in the second or third novel.

“Suffer the fate, for all else is delusion.”

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

3dcBack in 2016, I read the first chapter of Three Dark Crowns and fell in love. The excerpt promised a story of three sisters, each with a claim to the throne of Fennbirn island. On their sixteenth birthday, the sisters would begin a battle to the death, only ended when one queen, the true queen, remained.

I was expecting action, intrigue, maybe a little romance. I wanted Game of Thrones. What I got was Anna and the French Kiss.

“I want revenge.” She whispers, and her fingers trail bloody streaks down Natalia’s arms. “And then I want my crown.”

Three Dark Crowns is not a prequel. It is the first book in a duology-turned-quartet. But, for eighty percent of the book, the only thing that happened was uninteresting romances and an introductions into the world of Fennbirn. Nowhere in the book do the sisters try to kill each other. In fact, they don’t even meet until the last quarter of the book!

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Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll

ubIn Unclaimed Baggage, Jen Doll’s Young Adult debut, readers discover two different stories. One is narrated by a purple suitcase sent to a store for unclaimed baggage. The other is a harrowing account of childhood sexual assault. Instead of choosing to be a fluffy beach read about a first job or a compelling narration of small town sexual assault, Unclaimed Baggage tries to be both, and in doing that, fails both narratives.

Doll is a fantastic journalist. I admire her book reviews for the New York Times and Slate (among many other publications), so I wanted so badly to love Unclaimed Baggage. But, I just couldn’t.

Unclaimed Baggage oozes potential. Every few chapters, there will be a fantastic sentence or two that renews the reader’s excitement and faith in the story. For a few pages, you’ll want to read on. But, ultimately these sentences were too few and too far apart to save the novel.

The silliness of a purple suitcase narrating part of the story only diminishes the importance of the narrative about sexual assault, but the story of sexual assault feels out of place in a novel where narrators include purple suitcases. Furthermore, the touch of whimsy brought by enigmatic aunts, sentient suitcases, and secret clubhouses seems misplaced and too childish for many Young Adult readers.

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A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir

reaperSabaa Tahir’s lengthy fantasy series has been a favorite ever since I turned the first page of debut An Ember in the Ashes in 2015. Like its predecessors, newest installment, A Reaper at the Gates, is a 450 page novel best read in a day or two.

The story alternates chapters between the perspectives of Helene, Laia, and Elias, each on their own respective journeys. What makes the novel so unputdownable is that each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. You just need to read on and find out what happens next.

Although the novel is told at breakneck speed, A Reaper at the Gates occasionally falls into the dreaded middle book rut. The book feels great on its own, but compared to Ember and A Torch Against the Night, it’s just okay. Perhaps, this is because there was one perspective that felt superfluous and occasionally frustrating. While Elias’s journey was important at the end of the novel, there were a couple chapters towards the beginning that I felt could be edited out.

“There are worse things than death,” I say, “Shall we learn about them together?”

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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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