Mini-Reviews: YA themed

No Parking at the End TimesNo Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss
Published by Greenwillow Books

Abigail and her brother Aaron have just been moved across the country to San Francisco with their parents and only the possessions that fit into their family’s van. Their parents have decided to follow a religion headed by a man named Brother John, who has dictated that the end times are here, and San Francisco is where the true followers will be saved. But when the date for the end times comes and goes, the family is homeless, with neither of Abigail’s parents able to bring in money to feed and take care of their teenage children. It is up to Abigail, and Aaron if she can convince him, to save their family.

Religious cults fascinate me, so I was interested in this book based on the premise alone. I mostly enjoyed it. Abigail and her brother were believable – acting just like teens in a situation such as this would have – their parents, not so much. I have such a hard time understanding why someone would make their children homeless willingly, and I’m not sure this book did a good enough job convincing me that this particular cult leader was compelling enough to get these parents to make these horrific choices for their family. Other than that, the story was heartwarming and I thought that by the end, Abigail proved herself to be a tough, smart, resourceful character that I really could get behind. Recommended for those who are just as fascinated by cults as I am!

Dumplin'Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Published by Balzer + Bray

Willowdean is a self-proclaimed fat girl who has always been confident in her own skin and proud of who she is. But when she falls for the hot jock Private School Bo, she is shocked to discover that he may be falling for her, too – causing her to have a sudden onset of insecurity she’s never felt before. To improve her confidence, she enrolls in the local beauty pageant – the most horrifying out-of-her-comfort-zone thing possible for her. Along the way, she not only faces her insecurities head-on, but she makes some true friends and shows the small town where she lives what true beauty is all about.

I thought this book was just adorable. I love how it deals with fat-shaming head-on, with fat acceptance, and with the fact that EVERY single person in the world faces insecurity and moments of self-doubt. I loved Willowdean’s group of misfits who became great friends throughout the pageant experience, girls who before the pageant would never have opened up to one another. I didn’t love how it was as soon as a guy started to show interest in Willowdean that she began to doubt herself – almost as though her confidence was based upon what this guy thought of her – but I thought that it was incredibly realistic for her to be this way. That’s how a teenager’s brain works, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all of us care about what others think, all of our confidence levels can be shaken when we start to care about others’ opinions. I just really, truly enjoyed Dumplin’ and I loved everything that Julie Murphy did here.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In (Lock In, #1)Lock In by John Scalzi
Published by Tor Books

From the publisher:

Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.

A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator” – someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.

But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery – and the real crime – is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.

This was my first time reading a book by John Scalzi, and I’m excited to say that I quite enjoyed it! I’ll be looking for more books by him that are equally awesome, so if you can recommend one, please say so in the comments below. Now onto thoughts about Lock In!

The world that Scalzi created here was so intriguing to me. I think these kind of dystopian/futuristic novels are my favorite – ones where it’s entirely conceivable how the world got to where it is, the author gives a background on how and why things are the way they are, and the people in the story have mostly adapted to this new way of life. That’s exactly what we have here – this insane virus changed practically everything about the world these characters inhabit, yet things have basically returned to normal with a few changes. I couldn’t get enough of the details about the Hadens – how they adapted to their new bodies, how the world has changed to make room for them in everyday life, how they have relationships with Hadens and non-Hadens – all of it, I soaked up every single word.

Scalzi does something unique and extremely awesome with gender here. Not once in the entire book is it made clear whether Chris Shane is a man or woman, and the publisher actually put out two different versions of the audiobook – one narrated by a guy (Wil Wheaton) and the other by a girl (Amber Benson). I listened to the Wil Wheaton because I loved him narrating Ready Player One, so to my ears, Chris Shane was male. But I’m assuming if Amber Benson had narrated my book, Chris Shane would have been female to my ears. And I’m super wondering how I would have interpreted it if I’d read the print and made my own assumptions about Chris Shane’s gender. The point? Gender doesn’t matter! And I love this so much, and I want more books that showcase this in a creative way.

The characters in this book are great. Chris Shane is privileged and naive, and learns throughout the course of the book just how privileged and naive, which is a fun journey to watch. Shane’s partner, Vann, is damaged and dark, the kind of person who clearly needs and craves friendship and love but won’t allow herself to deserve it. But she’s also incredibly cunning, clever, and a damn good FBI agent who is a great teacher to Shane. I loved their partnership and their bantering back and forth as they got to know one another.

As far as the mystery itself goes, that was probably the weakest aspect of the book. It wasn’t a huge shocker who committed the murder and why, and I didn’t feel that the lead up to the big reveal was done with a ton of effort on Scalzi’s part. However, I totally didn’t care. I loved this world, the characters, the snappy dialogue, and Wheaton’s narration was the icing on the cake. I would have followed this story anywhere, so the mystery itself was just running alongside everything else that I was really loving about the book. Overall – I loved it!

Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer

Kane and Abel (Kane and Abel, #1)Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer
Published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks

From the publisher:

Born on the same day near the turn of the century on opposite sides of the world, both men are brought together by fate and the quest of a dream. These two men — ambitious, powerful, ruthless — are locked in a relentless struggle to build an empire, fuelled by their all-consuming hatred. Over 60 years and three generations, through war, marriage, fortune, and disaster, Kane and Abel battle for the success and triumph that only one man can have.

I chose to read this novel at the recommendation of one of my coworkers – it is his favorite book of all time, and when I have the opportunity to discuss books with non-online friends, I get excited. So even though Kane & Abel didn’t sound like my thing, I went for it. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I was expecting to. It also provided for a new way for me to chat with this particular coworker – a person I didn’t even know was a reader before he recommended this book to me.

This book is more a case study on these two men and their individual lives and personalities than anything else. The reader is given an intimate look at both of them, from childhood up until both of their deaths. There are so many moments throughout each of their lives where it is clear that small decisions can have huge implications on a person’s future. Each of them had several fork in the road moments – times when had a different choice been made, so much might have turned out differently. It was interesting to me to read this aspect of the novel specifically, and relate it to my own life.

What was surprising to me about this novel is that it’s huge – almost 600 pages – yet it didn’t feel that way to me as I was reading it. There’s so much detail, so many events that happen throughout the book, that it just flows effortlessly and I never felt like I was bored or bogged down with these men and the minutiae of their lives. In fact, because I spent so much time with this novel, I find myself thinking about it often, even though it’s been quite a while since I finished it. For me, it was just one of those books that stick with you. And it made me want to read more chunksters!

While I enjoyed the experience of reading Kane & Abel quite a bit, it is far from a perfect book. Published in the 1970’s, it shows its age with the various stereotypes tossed throughout the book. Additionally, there is not one major female character of any significance. Kane and Abel’s wives would, I suppose, be the most prominent female characters but they serve merely as decoration to the men whose lives they orbit. And Archer does not treat his female characters with much respect as a whole. That was by far my biggest complaint about the book and did make me roll my eyes in disgust more than once. My other complaint is that I’m not sure I ever fully bought the rivalry between the two men – the passionate hatred they had for one another came across clearly, sure, but I’m not sure I buy the reason for it. Could just be me, though.

While there were a few things about it I didn’t love, overall I was sucked into this huge book and really enjoyed the time I spent with it. I’m not sure I’ll read more of Archer’s books, but he’s got a ton, so if you’re familiar with his work – should I read more of him? And if so, where should I go next?

Mini-reviews – August reads

To say I am woefully behind on sharing with you what I’ve been reading is the understatement of the year. Here it is, November, and I haven’t told you anything about the last three books I read in AUGUST. I’m going to work on remedying that in the next few weeks, as I bombard you all with a bunch of mini-reviews. Here’s my thoughts on the final three books I read in August.

The People in the TreesThe People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Published by Doubleday

From the publisher:

In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub “The Dreamers,” who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. That’s all.

Kidding, that’s not all, but really it’s so darn fantastic, I loved it. There are not one, but TWO unreliable narrators, which is something I happen to love. So many awful things happen in this book – kidnapping and exploitation of native peoples, destruction of their homes and land, intense sexism that made me want to throw this sexist asshole (Norton Perina) off a cliff, and the worst thing in here is one I don’t even want to say because I think it’s a spoiler. But this is a book that is saying something, Yanagihara is the kind of writer I just adore, and all the awful things added up to an incredible book that I truly could not put down. It’s been quite some time since I read this one, but I am still thinking about it. LOVED.

He's GoneHe’s Gone by Deb Caletti
Published by Bantam

From the publisher:

The Sunday morning starts like any other, aside from the slight hangover. Dani Keller wakes up on her Seattle houseboat, a headache building behind her eyes from the wine she drank at a party the night before. But on this particular Sunday morning, she’s surprised to see that her husband, Ian, is not home. As the hours pass, Dani fills her day with small things. But still, Ian does not return. Irritation shifts to worry, worry slides almost imperceptibly into panic. And then, like a relentless blackness, the terrible realization hits Dani: He’s gone.

As the police work methodically through all the logical explanations—he’s hurt, he’s run off, he’s been killed—Dani searches frantically for a clue as to whether Ian is in fact dead or alive. And, slowly, she unpacks their relationship, holding each moment up to the light: from its intense, adulterous beginning, to the grandeur of their new love, to the difficulties of forever. She examines all the sins she can—and cannot—remember. As the days pass, Dani will plumb the depths of her conscience, turning over and revealing the darkest of her secrets in order to discover the hard truth—about herself, her husband, and their lives together.

I thought I was going to like this one a lot more than I did. What I enjoyed was the deep, introspective look into the marriage between Dani and Ian. What I didn’t enjoy was pretty much everything else. I found Dani somewhat annoying, I thought the book kind of dragged, and I just couldn’t care quite enough about Ian to hope he was alive. Is that awful? Part of the issue might have been that I listened to the audio, and it took me forever, so I think I just wanted the story to be over. In the end, I finished it so I can’t say it was terrible, but maybe okayish is where I fall on He’s Gone.

Eight Hundred GrapesEight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

There are secrets you share, and secrets you hide…

Growing up on her family’s Sonoma vineyard, Georgia Ford learned some important secrets. The secret number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine: eight hundred. The secret ingredient in her mother’s lasagna: chocolate. The secret behind ending a fight: hold hands.

But just a week before her wedding, thirty-year-old Georgia discovers her beloved fiancé has been keeping a secret so explosive, it will change their lives forever.

Georgia does what she’s always done: she returns to the family vineyard, expecting the comfort of her long-married parents, and her brothers, and everything familiar. But it turns out her fiancé is not the only one who’s been keeping secrets…

I was expecting to love this one because, well, because wine, duh. I did enjoy it but not as much as the first of Laura Dave’s novels I read (The First Husband). I tend to appreciate books about a thirtyish woman dealing with something awful and fleeing home to cope, because I know that if something rocked my world in a bad way, I’d fly to Chicago immediately and seek comfort from my mom. So I am totally buying what Dave is selling here. Generally, I enjoyed the family dynamics at play here and Dave did a nice job keeping the people and relationships complex and staying away from stereotypes. I liked the characters and the story worked good. It was a nice read, not the best ever, but good enough and I definitely enjoyed my time spent with the book.

All the Rage by Courtney Summers

All the RageAll the Rage by Courtney Summers
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin

From the publisher:

The sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner, is not the golden boy everyone thinks he is, and Romy Grey knows that for a fact. Because no one wants to believe a girl from the wrong side of town, the truth about him has cost her everything—friends, family, and her community. Branded a liar and bullied relentlessly by a group of kids she used to hang out with, Romy’s only refuge is the diner where she works outside of town. No one knows her name or her past there; she can finally be anonymous. But when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing after a party, and news of him assaulting another girl in a town close by gets out, Romy must decide whether she wants to fight or carry the burden of knowing more girls could get hurt if she doesn’t speak up. Nobody believed her the first time—and they certainly won’t now — but the cost of her silence might be more than she can bear. 

This is a book about rape. It’s also a book about rape culture, victim-blaming and slut-shaming, because when the golden boy in town rapes the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, whose fault do you think the world says it is? Hint: not the person who actually did the raping. It’s a sad truth, but this is the world that we live in and this is the reality that many women face, which is why this is an important book and one that should be read by teens, parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. Basically everyone.

Romy’s pain is real and raw and not easy to read about. The emotions she’s dealing with, the guilt that she feels, for something that happened TO her, that has been put upon her by society and her school is almost unbearable at times for her – and for the reader. But this is what the world does to girls, to women with bright futures who make the “mistake” of having one too many drinks in the presence of a rapist (in Romy’s case – in other cases, it’s the “mistake” of simply being in the presence of a rapist at all). It’s not an easy read, nor should it be, especially if a person reads this book with the understanding that this is reality for all too many women and girls. But as I said, it’s an important one.

All the Rage packs an emotional punch but it’s worth the roller coaster ride of emotions to get to a more healing place by the end of the novel. I think this is a must-read and I believe Courtney Summers, more than almost any YA author I can think of, truly gets teenagers, especially those in crisis. She understands how bad it can get and writes with painful honesty about all types of issues. Just read it.

Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveWho Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner
Published by Atria Books

From the publisher:

Rachel Blum and Andy Landis are eight years old when they meet late one night in an ER waiting room. Born with a congenital heart defect, Rachel is a veteran of hospitals, and she’s intrigued by the boy who shows up all alone with a broken arm. He tells her his name. She tells him a story. After Andy’s taken back to the emergency room and Rachel’s sent back to her bed, they think they’ll never see each other again.

Rachel, the beloved, popular, and protected daughter of two doting parents, grows up wanting for nothing in a fancy Florida suburb. Andy grows up poor in Philadelphia with a single mom and a rare talent that will let him become one of the best runners of his generation.

Over the course of three decades, through high school and college, marriages and divorces, from the pinnacles of victory and the heartbreak of defeat, Andy and Rachel will find each other again and again, until they are finally given a chance to decide whether love can surmount difference and distance and if they’ve been running toward each other all along.

I mentioned last week that I needed a book to sweep me up, to hold my interest from page one, something to break this streak I’ve been on of not being able to finish a book. Well, Who Do You Love turned out to be that exact book. This novel is not perfect, but it was perfect for what I needed, so I absolutely loved it. LOVED it.

What initially drew me into the story was how I saw myself in Rachel – I, too, was born with a congenital heart defect and spent a lot of time as a kid in the hospital. I have a scar on my chest from my own open-heart surgeries that matches the one Rachel describes in the book (although I’ve never been ashamed of mine or felt the need to cover it up). And once I got to know Andy, I saw myself in him as well – I, too, grew up with not much in the way of money or material possessions, I was the kid with the secondhand clothes, I was the kid who didn’t fit in with my more well-off classmates. I think the fact that I identified so strongly with both of the main characters really connected me to their story.

Besides my personal connections to both Rachel and Andy, I loved the two of them together. I loved their love story, fragmented and spaced out as it was. Theirs is a love that spanned years, and physical distance, and scandals, and all kinds of tension and challenges. Just when you think their story as a couple is over … just wait, because theirs is the kind of love that stands the test of time. Who doesn’t love to read about love like that?

Jennifer Weiner consistently writes relationships so well – between parents and children, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. She also creates these characters that are flawed but essentially good people who you’d want to have as friends in real life. All of her books are this way, and it’s something I’ve come to rely on her to provide when I pick up one of her books. I knew that this novel would be one I’d fly through, but to say that I loved it, especially when it’s been so hard for me to get into a book lately, well that’s an accomplishment. I couldn’t put this novel down and it was exactly what I needed at this exact moment in time. As I said, maybe not a perfect novel in every way, but perfect for me, for right now. So much love for Who Do You Love!

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenBlack Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion

From the publisher:

Emilia and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes-in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.

Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?

Elizabeth Wein has done it again. Like Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, Black Dove, White Raven is an incredible book that mixes history with YA with ALL THE FEELS. There’s so much to love about this novel that I am not even sure where to start.

First, this novel brought to light for me a conflict in history, the war between Italy and Ethiopia, that I had no idea was even a thing that happened. Honestly, I love books that make me feel ignorant about the world – not because I feel bad about myself for not having the knowledge (which does also happen), but that it reminds me that there’s SO much I don’t know, and that I should keep seeking out books and authors that will continue to challenge me and teach me new things. Which this book did, in spades. I learned a lot about this time in Ethiopia’s history, and I’d highly recommend this novel as a good choice for those who want diversity in their reading experiences, combined with amazing characters and relationships.

Speaking of the characters – the characters! Elizabeth Wein just writes friendship so amazingly well, I have to tell you. Emilia and Teo grow up as siblings after Teo’s mother, Delia, dies, but in addition to brother and sister, they are best friends. These two would absolutely do anything for one another, and this pure, loving, uncomplicated friendship is, in my opinion, the heart of this story. There’s also the friendship between their mothers – when Delia dies, Rhoda goes into a deep depression, shutting out everything and everybody, barely taking care of her own children. While this is incredibly heart-breaking, it’s also indicative of the deep and true friendship these two women shared. The things they did together – breaking down sexist and racist stereotypes about what women of color can and should do, embarking on incredibly difficult barnstorming maneuvers, engaging in intensely dangerous situations, raising children together – only served to strengthen their bond. So much so that when Teo’s mom dies, Rhoda knows that the only thing she can do is live out Delia’s dream for her son and bring him back to his father’s homeland, Ethiopia. The goal is to get him out of racist America and give him an opportunity for a life free from oppression.

While at first their life in Ethiopia seems idyllic and, frankly, perfect, it spirals out of control a few years later when the war with Italy starts. When I tell you that I learned so much in this book, I’m not kidding. Did you know that there were slaves in Ethiopia, too? As recently as 1930? I certainly did not. Anyway. The book escalates at a rapid pace in the last 100 pages or so as Teo ends up involved in the war, the three of them get separated, and awful things happen. And in typical Wein fashion, readers’ hearts are broken and tears ensure (at least in my case).

I’m realizing now how much I rambled here and how and messy this “review” was but I don’t even care. Read this book. Black Dove, White Raven is incredible for so many reasons.