book review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas
★★★☆☆
HarperCollins, 2017

 

It was fine.

I’ll start with what I liked: this book is as important as everyone says it is. It’s an unflinching look at police brutality, told through the eyes of a teenage girl who witnessed the senseless murder of her friend who was pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. This happens in the second chapter and the majority of the book deals with the aftermath; the guilt Starr feels over surviving the incident and not being there for her friend in the months leading up to it, the tension that exists between her home life (where she lives in a very poor black neighborhood) and her school life (where she attends a private school on a scholarship, which is attended mostly by rich white students). Starr’s narrative voice was wonderfully authentic and this book just provides such a necessary perspective on the racism and violence that run rampant in this country. Having finally read this, I can say I’m genuinely thrilled that this book has become such a cultural phenomenon as well as a commercial success.

But in the interest of giving you the full picture, let’s move onto what I didn’t like. It was overly long and I found the dialogue and the ‘cute’ domestic moments particularly inane. Moments like this caused more than a few eye rolls: “He grins and he feeds her a grape, and I just can’t. The cuteness is too much. Yeah, they’re my parents, but they’re my OTP. Seriously.” I get that when you’re dealing with such a serious topic (especially in YA) you do need moments of levity if you don’t want your book to be a nearly-500-page misery fest, but all of the humor felt shoehorned in. There were so many discussions of Harry Potter and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and meanwhile nothing was actually happening and I didn’t feel bored, necessarily, because YA contemporary reads so quickly, but I did feel a bit cheated whenever the main narrative got derailed for these fan-service moments.

My other main issue was that I would have loved to have seen some more nuance. It’s hard to talk about this in detail without getting into spoilers, but as an example, one of the subplots shows how over the course of the novel Starr comes to realize that one of her best white friends is racist, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for the author to explore the subtle ways that racism can manifest in even well-meaning white allies, but instead the execution was a bit heavy-handed. The kind of racist remarks this girl made toward Starr were… not subtle in ANY way, which made me wonder why she was even friends with her in the first place. And the fact that Starr’s white boyfriend could basically do no wrong added to this kind of weird dichotomy that white people are all either Good or Evil? When in reality the grey area between those two extremes is so much more realistic and would have been a good focal point for this part of the narrative.

But anyway. This is a book for teenagers, first and foremost, and I’m happy that it has been received so well among teenagers, and among adults who read more YA than I do. I hope you don’t take this review and rating as me being dismissive of this book’s themes and its cultural impact; I’m just afraid that it didn’t totally work for me personally. Which is fine, not every book is going to work for every reader. I’m very glad The Hate U Give has found its readers.

book review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

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THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis
★★★★☆
Katherine Tegen Books, 2016

 

Well, The Female of the Species was just as brutal as everyone says it is, so naturally I thought it was great. All I knew about this book going in was that it’s somehow about rape culture, which it certainly is, but it’s not so much a ‘rape book’ a la Asking For ItSpeak, etc., as a teenage vigilante story that could be compared to Hard Candy or Sadie (if I’m allowed to compare it to a book that was published later). So, another successful foray into YA for me this month!

The Female of the Species follows three characters – Alex, the occasionally violent but intelligent loner girl whose sister was murdered, Jack, the popular jock with hidden depths, and Peekay, the preacher’s kid who’s recovering from a bad break-up. Alex is a brilliant character, and she’s ultimately at the center of this novel, tying together these three characters’ disparate plotlines. What I loved about Alex is how her violent streak is neither condemned nor romanticized by the narrative – this is not one of those books that falls victim to very basic ‘murder is wrong!’ moralizing (which, yes, we can all agree that murder is wrong, but reinforcing that point over and over doesn’t make for a terribly interesting story). Instead, McGinnis uses this character to explore a much more intriguing narrative.

To everyone who suggests it’s impossible to discuss rape in media without showing it in graphic detail, I say: read this book. When I mentioned above that this isn’t really a traditional ‘rape book,’ what I meant is that the only rape occurs off-screen before the story begins, and that gets a comparatively small focus in the story. Instead, this deals with those ‘almost’ situations, the grey areas, the insidious ways that rape culture informs teenage social situations in ways we don’t even think about. This is such an astoundingly important book for teenagers to read – like Asking For It, I think it adds a really unique and important slant to this conversation.

But of course, ‘important’ doesn’t really say anything about literary quality – a book can naturally be ‘important’ and terrible – but I thought The Female of the Species was very smart and engaging. This book builds tension brilliantly and culminates in a positively brilliant conclusion. It does take quite a dark turn, but I loved it; I don’t think anything else would have suited the story quite so well.

But I did have problems with this book, and they were essentially: Peekay and Jack. Both of these characters felt more like a construct than an actual human being to me. Jack was the Generic Romantic Hero straight out of any YA novel I’ve ever read, and Peekay’s character just felt so contrived to me. The extent to which being the preacher’s kid (PK = Peekay) informed her entire identity could have been believable to me if we had spent any time examining how that impacted her, or looking at her relationship with religion, but instead it’s reduced to almost a gag – apparently the entire town thinks of her as the preacher’s kid, but we have no concept of what that actually means to her. To this end, occasionally this felt like it fell on the younger end of the YA spectrum than its subject matter would imply; simplicity where there should be nuance. Not every character and theme fell victim to this, of course, but there was no reason for Alex to be so fleshed out at the expense of the other two main characters, and I just would have liked to have seen a bit more depth to each of them.

But for the most part I thought this was very well done and I enjoyed it immensely. Also, aside from the rape and violence that I mentioned, there’s a lot of animal abuse mentioned in this book – this one definitely requires a strong stomach.

book review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

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SADIE by Courtney Summers
★★★★☆
Wednesday Books, September 4, 2018

I had no idea what to expect from Sadie, but I’d heard it described as dark and chilling so I thought it might be worth one of my occasional forays into YA. And I’m so glad I decided to give it a try. Sadie is an absolute tour de force of a thriller, told in alternating perspectives – one in which Sadie tells her own story of the vigilante road trip she goes on to track down her sister Mattie’s killer, and one from the host of a Serial-inspired radio show which is attempting to track down Sadie’s whereabouts.

This book doesn’t have much of a mystery – the whole thing is pretty much spelled out for you early on – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the ride Courtney Summers takes you on. This book is absolutely harrowing. It deals with some dark themes (notably sexual abuse and pedophilia) as well as others which aren’t quite as viscerally painful to read about, but still important (drug addiction, class and poverty, being belittled for speaking with a stutter). It’s all dealt with thoroughly but none of it is preachy – it’s all navigated with a real authenticity and sensitivity.

And Sadie is a phenomenal protagonist. From the very beginning she’s intriguing and vulnerable, and the chapters from her point of view are consistently the highlight. But what was a pleasant surprise for me was just how brilliant all of the other characters ended up being. Summers would lull me into a sense of complacency where I felt like I had the full measure of a character early on, only for them to be so much more multifaceted than I’d anticipated. Probably the most noticeable case of this was with Claire, Sadie’s drug addict mother who abandoned her two daughters and left them to the care of a family friend. When we finally get Claire’s perspective, her actions are never pardoned, but the story is flavored with even more depth than what we began with.

My only critique – and it really is minor compared to how much I loved the rest of this book – is that Sadie occasionally felt too competent and adroit at social situations which didn’t ring true with the kind of isolated upbringing she’d had. It was made very clear that Sadie was forced to grow up to soon and consequently a lot of her resourcefulness did feel realistic, but when it came to navigating tricky social situations and gaining the upper hand with much older adults, it felt a bit like wish fulfillment that Sadie was so skilled (but I also think this is one of those YA commonalities where you just have to suspend your disbelief a bit – admittedly not my strong suit).

But all things considered, I loved this book. It is on the very mature side of YA, so I’d still highly recommend it to those who mostly read adult lit. Solidly 4.5 stars.

Thank you to Netgalley, Wednesday Books, and Courtney Summers for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆
Scholastic, 2011

 

The Scorpio Races is a wonderfully bizarre little book about a horse race on a mythical Irish island… each year capaill uisce (Irish Gaelic for ‘water horses’) come out of the ocean – larger, fiercer, and deadlier than land horses – and a brave few ride them in a race for a significant sum of prize money. Nineteen year old Sean has been riding in the races for years, ever since his father died, and he’s won four times on his stallion Corr. Puck has never ridden a capall uisce in her life, but she enters the races in a desperate attempt to save her family house from repossession. (Incidentally, I used to be a horse girl and my nickname used to be Puck, so all things considered, I immediately had a connection with this book.)

I’d never read any Maggie Stiefvater before, but consider me hooked. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read – with the dreary November setting it almost begs to be read in the fall. Stiefvater’s prose is so immersive I could practically feel the wind whipping across my face when Sean and Puck were riding their horses across the Irish cliffs. One element of this story I loved was the fusion of Irish Catholicism with the fictional island of Thisby’s own mythos – the way the two coexisted in this narrative was fascinating to me.

These characters quickly and easily won me over. Puck instantly became a favorite (maybe it was the name thing at first, but she turned out to be pretty awesome), and her relationship with her two brothers was one of my favorite things about this story. Unfortunately I found Sean rather bland for the most part, but one element that I appreciated was the contrast between Sean and Puck’s relationship with the capaill uisce. Both of them had parents who had been killed by the water horses, but where Puck was repulsed by them as a result, Sean formed a stronger connection with them. While the story is leading toward an inevitable romance between Sean and Puck, I was glad to see that the romance never really took center stage. It’s more a book about belonging, and surviving, themes which are rendered subtly throughout the novel.

This was at a 4.5 star level the whole time I was reading, and whether I rounded up or down in my review was always going to depend on the ending, which unfortunately left me a bit dissatisfied… Too many plot points were rushed and tied up neatly in too few pages, and for me, the emotional climax of the story happened with about 30% of the book left… While on some level I do think the conclusion was tonally appropriate, I guess I had been hoping for a bit more pain to see out the novel. But that probably says more about me than the book. I really enjoyed this, and look forward to reading more from Stiefvater.

[This was a buddy read with Steph @ Lost: Purple Quill – read her excellent review HERE.  And if you aren’t already following her blog what the heck are you doing??]

book review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

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CROOKED KINGDOM by Leigh Bardugo
★★★★★
Henry Holt & Co, 2016
(Six of Crows #2)

I LOVED THIS. Crooked Kingdom is everything that was great about Six of Crows – fast paced action, characters getting out of impossible situations in unexpected ways – but it built something even better upon its already solid foundation, thanks to some truly phenomenal character development. In Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo digs into her characters’ backstories to create even more depth and dimension to this already flawed and fascinating group of individuals, and I came out of it with an even greater appreciation of each of them.

Where the plot in Six of Crows is much more straightforward and I can see where some people may prefer it for that reason, Crooked Kingdom is where Bardugo shows her complete mastery of weaving together intricate plot threads. I was mesmerized by the fact that every time there appeared to be a straightforward outcome to a situation, Bardugo still managed to veer the narrative in an unexpected direction. And it was never a cheap trick or a deus ex machina – just Bardugo cleverly staying one step ahead of the rest of us.

I wasn’t really fond of That One Thing that happens toward the end – I thought it was sort of rushed and thrown in for shock value, and I think Bardugo could have been capable of writing that in a much more satisfying way.

But on the whole, I loved this. I love Kaz. I love Inej. I love Wylan. I love this group of flawed characters looking out for each other and wreaking utter havoc. This duology was such a fun ride, and I’m sad for it to be over.

book review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

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ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS by Francesca Zappia
★★★★★
HarperCollins, 2017

Reading this book was like seeing my own high school experience unfold on the page, which was as cathartic and disconcerting as you can imagine. I mean, there are differences – I wasn’t a talented webcomic artist with millions of followers, I didn’t spend all my time on my smartphone because smartphones weren’t a thing yet, thank god, and I put more effort into my schoolwork than Eliza did – but still. Using the internet as a coping mechanism against crippling social anxiety? Caring more about my fandom and my online life than my real life? All of my closest friends living in different places around the world? Check, check, check.

What I found so remarkable about Eliza and Her Monsters was that it’s at once a celebration of internet culture, and also a cautionary tale against letting your online persona consume you, and I think that’s a very important message for teens. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. But, as with everything, balance is key. That’s where Eliza is such a phenomenal protagonist. She’s someone that so many people can relate to: she’s insecure, she’s anxious, she escapes into her art, she loves her friends; she’s flawed and all the more compelling for that fact. But this isn’t a story about her journey to overcome anxiety and abandon the internet in favor of the ‘real world’; it’s just about Eliza learning how to reconcile these two halves of herself, LadyConstellation, anonymous creator of the webcomic phenomenon Monstrous Sea, and Eliza Mirk, awkward soon to be high school graduate.

The only thing I disliked about this book was Eliza’s love interest, Wallace. Their friendship/relationship rubbed me the wrong way throughout the book, sort of for vague personal reasons, but he really lost me with his behavior at the end. Fortunately, their relationship didn’t take center stage: this book was about Eliza, first and foremost, and that’s why I feel like I can give this 5 stars despite my hatred of one of the two main characters (though I’d give it 4.5 if half stars were a thing on Goodreads). The supporting characters were all fantastic – I especially loved Eliza’s brothers, Sully and Church.

All in all, a really terrific and thoughtful book that I enjoyed immensely.