Review: Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

★★★☆☆

This was… not at all the book I was expecting it to be. (Hint: It was better.) I figured, when I saw the cover and the blurb, that I was going to be reading a cutesy, easy romance book about two teenagers. And part of it was (sort of) like that, but only the second half.

vaclav and lenaVaclav and Lena is basically split into two halves: the beginning focuses on Vaclav and Lena’s friendship when they’re young (age 10 and 9, respectively), and ultimately what tears them apart. The two are both Russian immigrants living in NYC. Both are outsiders, who find somewhat of a shelter in each other. The first half is super, super cute, because Vaclav is such a sweet little kid and he loves Lena with all his lil heart. The two spend every day after school together, doing homework and practicing magic, because all Vaclav wants is to grow up and be like Harry Houdini, with Lena as his “lovely assistant”.

Where Vaclav’s family is loud and loving, Lena’s life has been spent being passed from household to household, never really being loved or wanted. At the start of the story she is living with her aunt Ekaterina, who works as a stripper and doesn’t provide for Lena and is almost never home. When the popular girls at school accept Lena into their group, she clings to the feeling of belonging and begins distancing herself from Vaclav.

The book takes an omniscient approach to narration, switching back and forth between Vaclav, Lena, and Vaclav’s mother Rasia. Rasia was perhaps my favorite character in the book, because she was just louder the life and so full of personality. She was loyal and loved Vaclav immensely, as well as feeling a motherly protection for Lena. She walks Lena home most nights, tucking her in and telling her stories until she falls asleep in the empty house.

When Lena is sick one day, Rasia goes to check on her—and ends up seeing something that changes all of their lives forever. Lena is taken away, and then the story skips ahead to when Vaclav and Lena are both 17. From there we get to see the two reconnect and the pure love that binds them together.

The first half was sweet and innocent, and the second half felt gritty and real, while still harboring the childlike purity of the beginning. Overall this was an exceptionally written book that dealt with much darker subject matter than I was expecting—a beautiful portrayal of the healing power of unconditional love.

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Review: We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

ARC provided by NetGalley!
★★★☆☆

This was a cute, short read (more of a novella than anything) written in verse, about two outsiders and the bond that forms between them. Jess comes from a violent household and can’t wait to escape, and Nicu recently immigrated from Romania and is having trouble fitting in, and when they both get sent to a youth correctional program on Saturdays, they quickly become friends.

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The book, though short, had a poignancy that some long YA books struggle to achieve, and it managed it in half the words. It’s easily a book you can read in one sitting (I finished it in a few hours). I didn’t realize until I began that it was written in verse; at first I thought my Kindle formatting was messed up. Honestly, I didn’t care for it, but I didn’t actively dislike it either. I don’t think it added anything to the story, but it also didn’t take away from it—overall it was a good thing in that it enabled the story to develop quickly and shed all the excess weight that most YA books have.

Nicu as a character came across as a bit too naive, especially for someone his age—he felt like some kind of innocent baby rather than a teenage boy. I don’t think being a teenager changes much between cultures, so this felt weird, like they were infantilizing him just because he couldn’t speak fluent English. Other than that, he was easily the best character because he was so forgiving and adorable.

Jess on the other hand was hard to care about, because she was such a mean person in some respects. For one, there’s active portrayal of domestic abuse in the book, and Jess continually thinks that her mother is the problem, that she’s not strong enough to leave Jess’ step-father, which is pretty insulting. (Also, I’m not sure I understood the whole obsession her step-father had with Jess filming him while he hit her mother. It was weird and it made me wonder why Jess, who apparently is so talented at stealing, didn’t just take his phone and go to the police with all of that evidence.) In the same vein, she ignores Nicu even when they’re established friends, letting him get bullied in front of her without saying a word. (Later in the book she speaks up, but it still annoyed me that she thought her mother was the weak one when she allowed her friend to be ruthlessly bullied.)

The climax came about pretty quickly, without much explanation, and it all felt a bit rushed, but I think that can be expected from the storytelling method: it was quick and to the point, focusing on feeling rather than details.

In the end it was a nice, quick read, timely in its depiction of racism and a poignant portrayal of love and loss.

Review: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?

★★★★☆

Writing reviews for terrible books is easy, but trying to gather my thoughts about good books is so much more difficult for me. Because I loved this—it was brilliant. It was also boring (not in a bad way, oddly enough). So those two words are what I’m sticking with: Brilliantly boring. Or boringly brilliant? It reminded me a lot of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, though with a definite plot and a lot more intrigue.calvino

It was a book about books, about beginnings, a book in which any reader will doubtlessly see reflections of themselves. (Half of my copy is dog-eared and highlighted.) The story revolves around a main character (“the Reader”) who begins reading If on a winter’s night a traveler only to find that his copy cuts off just as it gets interesting. When he goes on a journey to find the rest of the book, he manages only to find a trail of other story beginnings, each of them just as magnetic as the last, and each cutting off just when the story really starts to suck you in.

I’ve always found myself uneasy about the “beginnings” of stories. I dislike the weightlessness of it, the feeling of being on the edge of a cliff and deciding whether or not to jump. This probably sounds like the antithesis of what a reader should be, but let me explain: I’m one of those readers who likes to be in the thick of things already; it’s one of the reasons I disliked the first ASoIaF book but have loved the rest of them (and would probably love the first, too, if I ever get around to rereading it). I hate not knowing what’s going on, though I do love the slow discovery of it.

But somehow, Calvino transformed this uneasy feeling of the “beginning” into an entire book, making a novel that never fully moves past that act of initial discovery. Every time the Reader and I set out to begin the next story, I found myself embracing the weightless, ungrounded feeling, and every time, just as my environment slipped away and I entered the story fully, it was ripped away. Calvino succeeded in this every time, with every new story, easily making the Reader’s struggle, his irritation at being interrupted right when it was getting good, my own.

Now, I could have probably given this five stars, because it was, as I said before, brilliant. It’s one of those novels where, as I was reading, I was consumed by it, but after I finished I had to admit it wasn’t an all-time favorite.

So in the end, it’s not a book I’ll feel a connection to down the road, although I’m glad I read it and will definitely recommend it to others.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaidstale

★★☆☆☆

I picked this off my shelf after Trump was sworn into office, and told myself I’d read it before it was taken away from me. As much of an exaggeration as this was (for now), I had no idea how closely the actual book would follow my line of thought. I really knew nothing about the book going into it—before seeing the trailer for the new show, I didn’t even know it was a dystopian book.

So at the beginning, I was interested. Horrified, partly. I was actually having *nightmares* when I started reading. But throughout the book my horror turned slowly to apathy, and finally eagerness for it to just be over.

I think my biggest issue here was that this was barely a story. It was an idea—a good idea, sure, but an idea with no way out. It had zero plot. It didn’t actually go anywhere. And perhaps that was the point, but it didn’t make it any more interesting. I kept waiting for something to happen, anything, but the book is a patchwork of nonevents and memories (of “before”). When something did happen it was nearly always pointless, other than to show how bleak Offred’s situation was or portray Gilead as dangerous.

While I understand that the reason for the nonexistent plot is to show Offred (and everyone) as complacent, it honestly just bored me to death. There are a lot of people who feel very passionately about this book, and more power to ’em, but I like my reads to have at least a point in the end. I don’t care how small that point is. One example is Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. The whole book is a series of crazy events, leading up to the big reveal: [[[spoiler]]] it was the narrator all along!!!1! Wat!! [[[spoiler]]] Because without that ending, the rest of the book is just a series of events that ultimately don’t pay off.

I think the absolute worst part of this book was the ending. Horrible. I turned the page expecting another chapter, and I found something even worse: a fake keynote speech by a fake professor (or something, I don’t even care to check) talking about the “artifact” that they found, post-Gilead… also known as the book you just spent hours of your life reading. This ending, I honestly couldn’t help but feel, was the writer patting herself on the back for her cleverness. Ugh. The “professor” talks about how smart the regime was for this and that, he points out symbolism, such as the red habits that the Handmaid’s wear (symbolizing fertility), the meaning behind the names of the Aunts, Marthas, etc., just in case readers got to the last page and hadn’t yet seen how ~~~very very clever~~~ Atwood is. It was probably one of the worst endings to a book I’ve ever read, because it took the burden of coming up with a solid ending off of Atwood and displaced it like a shrug—”I guess we’ll never know!” I found it bullshit-y to the extreme, and it solidified my dislike of the book.

So there’s that. Two stars for the beginning of the book, which legitimately gave me nightmares. The rest was horrid.

Review: Olivia Series 1&2 by Tessa Palmeri

★★★★★

As an editor, I sometimes get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at awesomeness in the making. And that’s exactly what this was! I read Olivia: On the Brink and its sequel, Olivia: Finding Her Way for work in 2015, and I absolutely loved both of them.

Set in the early ’90s, this series (which I believe has a planned five books in total) focuses on the main character, Olivia Miller, as she graduates high school and moves on to college life. Seems like a simple plot, and it is. That’s probably why I loved it so much; because although the plot isn’t convoluted and action-packed, the nature of the story is character-driven, which really lets you get into Olivia’s head and experience everything she’s going through.

Olivia Miller is pretty sure she’d win the high school senior award “Most Likely to Never Figure Out What They Want To Do With Their Life”. Her critical father and neglectful mother have contributed to her anxiety and lack of direction about her future. She’s a model student with a big heart for community service, but her dad has belittled any ambition she ever had in pursuing something she’s interested in. College is a definite, but where should she go, and what should she major in?

But there’s a new guy at school, Cameron McClain, who becomes a fabulous distraction. He is positively swoon-worthy, and not just because he’s a gorgeous romantic who plays the guitar—he’s also thoughtful and respectful. He fits right in with Olivia’s circle of friends: future fashion designer Lyla, photographer Kate, and all-around popular Josh.

As Olivia and Cameron’s relationship deepens, he shows her the acceptance and encouragement she craves which helps her deal with difficult family issues and college decisions. Together, they navigate the exciting, though sometimes confusing, waters of a teen dating relationship that grows into first love.

One of the reason I loved these stories so much is that Olivia honestly reminded me of myself at that time in my life. Graduating high school and watching your friends move away can be seriously stressful, and without the proper support it can be demoralizing. Turning to a boyfriend for all of that emotional support can feel right, but it can also be pretty disastrous. Palmeri pulls off this balancing act with finesse, showing Olivia’s struggle with finding her identity in a family that seems set on pushing her in the wrong direction.

Olivia doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her life. All of her friends seem to have everything figured out — everyone but her. Her father wants nothing but for Olivia to go into the same field as him, and he doesn’t try to conceal his disregard for other job fields that he deems unimportant or a waste of money. Her mother, having dealt with her husband’s emotional abuse for many years, has become despondent, often forgetting to pick her daughters up from school as she watches TV in sweatpants. Olivia has taken up the mantel of responsibility, shielding her little sister, Emma, from the worst of her father’s tantrums, but she fears leaving her at home to fend for herself when she eventually goes away to college.

This is a great story, one that I could easily recommend to my young family members. There isn’t anything explicitly sexual, although there is some kissing and cuddling and thinking of those things, especially in the second book. Furthermore, Olivia and Cameron’s relationship is very healthy, emotionally. And when it gets unhealthy for a second — well, you’ll have to read to find out. Olivia is a fantastic protagonist, one you’ll find yourself rooting for as you watch her strive to improve her life time and time again. There are elements of Christianity and reliance on faith, but as a non-religious person this didn’t feel like it was hitting me over the head or being preachy. It was used very nicely, and showed a girl with a different belief system than me practicing her religion mindfully and intelligently.

I would recommend this series to anyone in their tweens, teens, or early twenties who wants a quick, smart fiction focused on healthy relationships and finding your path in life.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

★★★★★

When I started this book, I wasn’t sure. The prose was so fluffed up that I thought I was getting into something stuffy, something high-brow, something that I wouldn’t connect with.

all the light

Boy, was I wrong.

It took me a few months to get through this (not because of any fault of the book’s, but because I am busy and never take a break), but I devoured the last 1/3 of the book in one sitting, in a crowded, noisy restaurant that seemed to melt away from me as I read.

Apparently it took Doerr more than 10 years to write this. As you begin to read, you may see why; each sentence is refined, every word is carefully chosen and placed like jewels on a string, each chapter is succinct, and filled with a haunting melancholy, a staggering truth that leaves you aching for more.

I don’t really have words. This isn’t a real review, just an advisory: You will be traumatized. The well-crafted prose will leave you breathless. You will fall in love with each and every one of these characters, and emerge from the ruins with shards in your heart where they have walked.

Review: In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack

★★☆☆☆

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The premise of this was pretty interesting: Miles, 25, wakes up one morning to find himself lying next to an unfamiliar woman in an unfamiliar house, when he swears he just fell asleep in his bedroom at his parents’ house, age 16, after kissing his boyfriend Adam goodnight. What he’s experiencing is one of many “episodes”, his wife Ana tells him, where he seems to time travel. Retaining the body of his 25-year-old self, his mind reverts to all of the memories and emotions of another version of him, whether past or present.

Right off the bat, if you can’t stand switches in POV or timeline changes in books, this is definitely not for you. Within just the first 10% of the book, the POV switches at least twice, and the character wakes up, goes to sleep, passes out, etc. probably a dozen times in between his episodes. This got pretty irritating quickly.

The plot centers around Miles’ quest to find out why exactly he time travels. Most don’t believe him, and his psychiatrist says that he might have a form of Dissociative Disorder, but Miles swears that there’s more to the story and sets out to find answers, even if those answers have to come from his high-school ex, Adam.

The story started off interesting enough, although the multiple timelines and dates and “versions” of Miles to keep tabs on were difficult to jump right into. I found Miles a pretty boring, undeveloped character with kind of stereotypical behaviors (for instance, when he reverted to his younger self, he was always chewing his thumb, not making eye-contact, shuffling behind people, etc.). All of the characters suffered from being underdeveloped, although Ana was definitely my least favorite. She was really mean and cursed a lot. Overall, I couldn’t connect with any of them.

The reason I gave it two stars is that you can tell the author spent a lot of time working out these timelines, and time travel is a really difficult idea to pull off. The mystery aspect of it, including the secret time travel society and experimentation aspects, were really cool and I was eager to learn about them, making it a fast read.

Unfortunately, this book just wasn’t for me. It felt flat, other than the time travel aspects, and pretty dull, with most of the big scenes being totally glossed over. For instance, when Miles checks himself into a psychiatric center for continuous care, he meets a young girl who says (SPOILER, kinda?) she can time travel too. The two plan an escape, talking about how difficult it will be and all the planning that will go into it… and then the next chapter, they’re already out. The entire escape scene wasn’t included, even though it could have brought some much-needed excitement and action into the story.

The romance between Adam and Miles felt kind of forced, and Ana and Miles together made zero sense to me. They said they fell in love (despite the original, loveless reason for their marriage), but I never felt that Ana loved him, just that she didn’t want him to be alone. Maybe that’s just me.

So yeah. That was kind of harsh. But majorly cheesy dialogue + forced love-triangle/quadrangle/hexagon/whatever + zero action + not-so-great ending = meh. I honestly wanted to give it one star, but it was a fast read and I wanted to give the author props for putting time into it (no pun intended).

P.S. I think there might be a planned sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it.

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

★☆☆☆☆

To preface: I am not a fan of John Green. I don’t like him or his writing, and I’ve never understood the craze surrounding him. This review might offend some people, but that’s not my goal.

I find Green’s stories hard to swallow, especially the super hot, mysterious, angsty girl falls in love with dorky “nobody” guy trope. I read Looking for Alaska ages ago (in high school) and I don’t think I ever even finished it (due to the trope listed above), and I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson a while before TFiOS and didn’t like that one much, either.

I feel like an enormous outlier here because everyone I know thought The Fault in Our Stars was fantabulous and moving. Welp… I really, really didn’t like it. I don’t often give one star reviews, and in fact my original rating of this was three stars. But as time went on, I got to thinking about how I remembered the story over the years; I wasn’t remembering anything sweet or meaningful or deep about the book — those parts weren’t sticking with me. Instead, I was remembering a lot of the bad. A lot of the parts that made me grimace. To put it plainly, the only parts that were memorable were the aspects that threw off my suspension of disbelief — and there were a lot of them.

And some might call me heartless for that, but it’s true. Just because a book is sad, and just because it makes the reader cry (and I did cry at the end) doesn’t make it a ~good book~. In many of my angry rants to friends and family regarding this book, I’ve mentioned this: John Green books always seem to me like the same basic outline with different names, and a few highly-quotable lines mixed in. For instance:

  • “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”
  • “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
  • “I fell in love the way you fall asleep; slowly, and then all at once.”
  • “That’s the thing about pain: it demands to be felt.”
  • “My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.”
  • “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”
  • “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things.”
  • “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”

What? I’m sorry, but do these sound like the types of things 16- and 17-year-olds say? Even those going through something as devastating as cancer? No.

So, below is my vague reasoning. Remember, this review is a few years late and not very specific. Besides, let’s get real: I’m not going to waste my time rereading a book I hated when there are about ten thousand books I still need to read. Anyway, here’s a bulleted list of reasons I remember:

  • Romanticized illness. Ughhhhhhh.
  • A deplorable main character. Although I have no examples of this because I haven’t read this book for a few years, I remember her as being kind of insufferable (which is understandable since she’s terminally ill). She’s grumpy, mean, and the only thing that makes her happy is Augustus. Even if this could be realistic in some scenarios, it just annoyed me as the angry feminist I am.
    • [She’s kind of like the Bella Swan of YA fiction, meaning she compares every. single. guy to Augustus and finds them all lacking (because they’re not “hot enough”. At one point, she meets her friend’s boyfriend and actually thinks to herself, “He’s cute, but nowhere near Augustus.”]
  • It’s a book about teenagers that doesn’t actually sound like teenagers. It sounds like snobby college students who are studying philosophy because they have too much money and no career path (think Karen from How I Met Your Mother). And to add on to this…
  • The dialogue and thought processes of these characters are terrible. It’s so unrealistic that I just felt like squirming the whole time. [Refer to earlier quotes for the full, cringe-worthy experience.]
  • And perhaps worst, we have the most over-the-top, “deep” love interest in perhaps the world of literature (or at least the world of John Green, which is bad enough) who pretends to smoke cigarettes by putting them in his mouth and leaving them unlit, and then saying pretentious crap like this: “It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
I can understand where the love for this book comes from. Because in my middle school and high school days, a guy saying ~*~deep stuff~*~ like that totally would have tangled my panties, too. But then my brain fully developed.And as touching as the writing may be at times, the forced, unrealistic nature of it, mixed with the romanticized idea of sickness and death (which has been popping up in YA fiction much more often than I’m comfortable with) gives this book a nasty aftertaste for me.


What do you think? Do you agree or feel like I’m totally mangling Green’s message? I’m always up for a discussion. Let me know in the comments below.

Review: City of Thieves by David Benioff

★★★★★

This is one of those books that isn’t going to be a life-long favorite or one I remember forever, but it’s one that easily earns five stars in every other department. Based on a true story of the author’s grandfather’s late teen years, City of Thieves depicts the Siege of Leningrad, and the mission that two young men go on to find the holy grail: one dozen eggs for a wedding cake. It’s this slightly ridiculous plot, set in a starving, war-torn city, that sets the tone for the entire novel. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s moving in such a way that your heart hurts but tears don’t come to your eyes.cityofthieves

The author doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific aspects of the war and its effects on families and individuals—starvation, cannibalism, rape, murder—but quickly bounces back with raw levity. This back and forth doesn’t feel forced or erase or diminish the sadness of the story, but shows the reality of life at this time in history: the people of Leningrad survived, and they survived by making do.

Despite the content, the way it’s written makes it feel jolly, almost like a (very dark) fairy tale or fable. Lev Beniov, the quiet, careful main character, is such a good kid that you can’t help but root for him as he falls in love with every girl he sees (until he lands on “the one”). Kolya, who was my favorite character, supplied the comedic relief, making me laugh out loud more than once with his bawdy pointers for Lev (and his unwarranted gastrointestinal updates: “You know I haven’t had a shit in nine days?”). The slow build of their friendship was heartwarming to watch and provided the book with a consistent undercurrent of love.

This fine balance between humor and war was what made City of Thieves a great book, as Benioff took the horror of war and masterfully flipped it on its head to show the goodness simmering underneath.

Review: After You by Jojo Moyes

★★★☆☆

“I gazed around me, like someone suddenly handed clear glasses, and saw that pretty much everyone bore the brutal imprint of love.”

This was a good book. It wasn’t a great book, and it didn’t hit me the same way as Me Before You, but that’s because it wasn’t Me Before You. Comparing the two will undoubtedly leave you feeling cheated, because After You doesn’t have romance and tension seeping out of its pages like its predecessor. Where Me Before You was about choices and autonomy, After You is about living with the after-effects, and trying to move on.

after-you

So if you read this, try not to compare it to the previous book. The romance isn’t jumping off the page. Where Will and Lou had a burning, poignant chemistry, Lou and Sam have something calmer, quieter, steadier—something that will help the other heal.

I was personally not a fan of the grief process shown in this, either. At least for Lou. Lou has always struck me as somewhat of a mirror of myself; she reminds me of me in so many ways, and that’s one of the reasons I had to read this book. I had to know she was okay. What was disappointing was how she healed. In the end, it wasn’t she who got herself out of the rut of depression after Will’s death—it was everyone else. It was falling in love with Sam. It was taking care of Lily. We saw, again, Lou’s ability to care for everyone but herself. The same thing that Will tried to stamp out of her, to get to her to live life for herself and nobody else, was what she struggled with the most in this book. The worst part is that [SPOILERS] her decision at the end to take the job in New York wasn’t even initiated by her, it was pushed on her by everyone else: Treena constantly telling her she was wasting her opportunities (and Lou’s guilt at knowing that Treena didn’t have the same kind of freedom), Lily moving in with her grandmother and going off to school, and Sam saying she needed to do it.

So once again, Lou played it safe. We saw her doing this throughout the entire previous book, and here she was having her decisions made for her again. I just wish Lou had shown a bit of character growth in this book. She’s taking a risk, sure, but it’s the same risk she took after Will died by traveling by herself through Europe. The worst part is that I think any reader with a grasp on Lou’s character will see the obvious: Lou’s going to get to New York and she may feel like she’s “living” for once, but just like happened after her travels through Europe, the freedom will start feeling more like loneliness and she’ll end up spending most of her time working and sleeping, and then feeling guilty because once again she’s not really utilizing her opportunities.

So unfortunately the “happyish ending” doesn’t feel all that happy. Lou’s going to end up the same as she was in London, depressed and alone and not living, she’s going to miss Sam and miss Will and feel guilty. Overall it’s not really an uplifting book. It felt depressing to me, mostly because I feel like she’s never going to be as in love with Sam as she was with Will. It makes me hate Will a bit.

Also I have to continually remind myself that THESE ARE FICTIONAL CHARACTERS AND I SHOULDN’T CARE THIS MUCH. But every time I think about Will and Lou my stomach gets tied into knots.

So there’s my professional review.