Last year I finished a remarkable book—Marie Marquardt’s Flight Season—and then read the author’s notes, where she talked about writing a book in which people experience suffering. It’s not fun to think about suffering or talk about it. Sometimes we might shy away from the memories when we have suffered, or maybe even worse, watched someone we love suffer. Sometimes we are aware that relatively speaking, we have suffered very little, and we wonder when our something big will happen, or if it will, and if we’ll be strong enough.
Two amazing books that I’ve read more recently have focused on day-to-day suffering and both have opened my heart and eyes a little more than they were before.
I’ve seen Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away on multiple Best of Lists so I had to read it. Margaret Jacobsen has always been terrified of planes (in particular, plane crashes), so when her serious boyfriend Chip, who is trying to get his pilot’s license, wants to take her on a plane ride, it takes a little while to convince her. But convinced she is, and though she gets engaged on the flight, she’s brought back to Earth when the plane crashes.
She wakes up in the hospital severely injured, and she, like many of the other characters who knew her before, wonder whether the pre-crash Margaret is gone, and who she is now, and what her new life looks like.
I loved this fierce, funny, painful book that tackles not only the physical and emotional aftermath of the crash, but also strained family dynamics and romantic love. Margaret, the narrator of How to Walk Away is conversational and approachable, yet she (and the book itself) possesses a sensitivity and astuteness that left me stunned.
When we’re talking about suffering, there aren’t any easy answers, and we see that in Katja Millay’s YA book, The Sea of Tranquility. This book was so difficult to read at times, so painful, and it’s one that will stay with me.
Nastya Kashnikov starts at a new high school. She dresses very provocatively and does not talk to anyone by choice, including her family. Josh Bennett has a “force field” around him. He’s alone at school and home and that’s how he wants it.
Neither character wants to want someone. But they’re drawn to each other, even as they resist opening themselves up. What events happened in each other’s past, to make them the person they are today? And is the person they are today “okay”? How can they make each other happy if they’re not happy themselves?
The Sea of Tranquility is about people who hurt. The hurts they can’t hide and the ones they do.
I wanted the characters in this book to be “okay.” I wanted them to learn quickly so they could be happy, because they deserved to be happy. But this is another book about suffering, about getting to a place of happiness, and how that can be incredibly difficult and sometimes even something people fight against.
Brilliant, tender, sad, The Sea of Tranquility is a devastating and hopeful portrayal of human hurt.
I’m a sucker for a Pride and Prejudice re-telling and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride is a “remix” unlike any other I’ve read. Set in Bushwick, Brooklyn and featuring the five Haitian-Dominican Benitez sisters, Pride took me on a journey that felt respectful toward Austen's original and yet thrillingly fresh, new, and authentic. You’ll see the skeletons of Austen’s characters in this story, but they’re re-conceptualized and sent out into the world as daring new creations, brimming with verve and vitality, obviously eccentric but treated by the narrator lovingly—and not cruelly—for the things that make them unique.
Zuri “Z” Benitez is Bushwick. She’s proud of where she comes from and who she is.
She's an almost senior who lives in a small apartment where she and her four sisters share a bedroom; she's the daughter of hard-working parents who are highly respected in their neighborhood; she's occasionally embarrassed by her loud mother and three of her sisters, but she loves all of her family members fiercely, passionately.
So she’s not happy when rich people begin gentrifying the place she’s always called home. The new black family across the street, the Darcys, is part of the problem. There’s the dad and a snobby mom and two teenage sons: Ainsley, who takes an immediate fancy to Z’s sister Janae, and Darius, who is insufferably stuffy and arrogant and who doesn’t even try to fit into his new neighborhood.
Do Z and Darius have anything in common? Is there any common ground for them to latch onto (but why would she want to when he treats her and her family so horribly, she wonders)?
In Zoboi’s hands, this re-telling is about the different life circumstances between a young woman and man and how those—and their respective feelings of pride regarding their backgrounds—affect the ways they view the world and the people around them.
But Pride is also about being young and black, and asserting oneself—being oneself—in a world that doesn’t always appreciate that. And how blind pride of all kinds—whether it’s in oneself or one’s family or one’s neighborhood—can lead to misunderstandings, self-rigidity, and stagnation, to a refusal to consider other possibilities.
Z is a charismatic narrator, with a beautiful way of seeing her world and of capturing her impressions in poetry. She’s the force here, even though I appreciated how complicated Darius is, how dynamic, and how warmth—for Zuri—shines underneath his formality.
Most of all, I adored how alive Pride is, and the fierce joy ringing from every page, even through the sadness.
Who was Jack the Ripper?
Spoiler alert: that's the question investigated in Kerri Maniscalco’s YA novel Stalking Jack the Ripper. Part mystery, part horror novel, Maniscalco’s book took me on an adrenaline ride that was somehow horrifying and fun, and perfect for an October day spent tucked into my quiet house and far away from the nineteenth-century London that Jack the Ripper prowled.
Audrey Rose Wadsworth, gentle-born and lovely, loves fashion and conducting autopsies on the bodies sent to her famous scientist uncle’s lab. He’s teaching her the secrets of the dead, and she’s an enthusiastic learner.
When a serial killer begins stalking London’s streets, Audrey Rose is scared, disgusted, and angry, especially when someone in her family is accused of being the killer. So she’s off on the case, without her family’s permission or not, and her investigative partner is Thomas Cresswell, a young man similarly interested in the dead and what they have to say.
Can Audrey Rose and Thomas figure out who the murderer is before he kills again? And could Audrey Rose possibly know the real Jack the Ripper?
Audrey Rose is the intrepid YA heroine we’ve come to know and love, but in a fresh spin, she's attracted to scientific inquiry--specifically in the study of dead bodies--that I don't remember seeing before. She’s supremely competent and observant, and confident enough to pursue what she loves, even if it’s considered unfashionable at the least and immoral at the worst. She’s at her most confident when she’s battling Thomas, a determined, intelligent man who offers deductions about the murders and the world around them a la Sherlock Holmes. The chemistry between them deliciously propels the plot forward, as they race to solve the mystery and get to know each other along the way.
Stalking Jack the Ripper is by no means flippant, particularly in regards to the murders, but other parts of the book are rendered in such graphically visceral ways that they’re almost gleefully dramatic. This book is a sparkling, over-the-top feast of the senses that hooked me in and invited me to speculate on one of the great historical questions of our time, but that doesn’t lose its compassion for the victims of Jack of Ripper in the process.
Join me for another October-themed review next Friday!
All it took was for me to read Amazon’s comparison of Jenn Bennett’s Alex, Approximately to that magnificent piece of cinematic history, You’ve Got Mail, and I was there. (If you know what it means if I were to offer you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils, you are my lifelong BFF. That’s it. That’s the only qualification.)
Alex, Approximately is a delightful and also moving concoction of a book. It’s effervescent but with substance. It’s Lana Turner pin curls and surfing wax and classic films and anonymous internet relationships but also flawed parents and people trying not to drown under other’s expectations and learning that being vulnerable is worth it. God, I’m feeling happy just thinking about it.
Mink and Alex (screen names) communicate across a classic film festival message board. (It’s so obvious that I have no clue exactly how to describe their communication technique because I’m so behind the times and have thus hodge podged something based on my own teenage internet history.) But, anyway…Alex lives in the same town as Mink’s father, who moved to California after he and Mink’s mom got a divorce. Though Alex repeatedly begs Mink to visit their town for the North by Northwest showing at the end of the summer, Mink refuses to commit. She’s worried about taking their relationship from screen to face-to-face so suddenly.
Other things you should know about her: she’s a private person by nature and has trouble sharing her opinions. She writes to Alex, “I blank out and try to read their face to see what they expect me to say, and I just say that.” She’s an “evader,” or, as she specifically calls herself, The Artful Dodger.
So when Mink, real name: Bailey, decides to move to her father’s town, she doesn’t tell Alex, and she determines that she’ll find him on her own using her handy dandy Veronica Speedwell skills (she’s my new female detective crush). Along the way, Bailey’s trying to make friends, handle her new job at a completely charming and also insane museum, and deal with her infuriating coworker, Porter, who immediately earns her ire by making fun of her mismatched shoes and putting her on the spot in front of everyone.
There was so much about this book that I loved. The chemistry between Bailey and Porter, and also Mink and Alex (real identity unknown), is sparkling, and the town they live in, Coronado Cove, feels like it’s right out of Gidget (Sandra Dee film version). Bailey’s close relationship with her dad is refreshing and heartwarming, particularly because they’re trying to navigate a post-divorce world that doesn’t include Bailey’s mom. And maybe most of all, I loved Bailey’s growth from The Artful Dodger to someone who sticks. Those evader tendencies can be particularly strong in young women—and also 33-year-old women who are trying hard but still feel like they have to include emojis to soften messages on the internet and sometimes feel uncertain when they’re asked a preference and actually volunteer an answer.
Alex, Approximately is a love story and coming of age story, and it gave me all the good feelings. I flew through the pages in a deranged fashion and savored Bennett’s skillful, loving rendering of the town and the quirky people who inhabit it.
“Read it! I know you’ll love it.” (That’s a quote from You’ve Got Mail, for the uninitiated. I know, my obsession is a bit much, but please let me have this one thing.)
The summer that I was nineteen, my boyfriend and I were doing long distance, I had adopted a strange basset hound and christened him Mr. Jones, and my beloved dad was quickly dying of Acute Myeloid Leukemia. When the doctor told us that it would be soon, I thought that I was convinced. When dad died in our living room, I thought that I was convinced. When we buried him and my friends and boyfriend returned to their homes, I thought that I was convinced. But coming to terms with dad’s death happened more slowly, and it was as much about understanding the physical and emotional loss of him as it was understanding the eviscerated landscape of what used to be our family.
Julie Buxbaum’s YA book Tell Me Three Things gets so much right about teenage grief—specifically losing a cherished parent—and that’s part of what I love about it.
You’ve probably heard about—or experienced—the hole that’s left behind when someone you love dies. It’s a real thing. But what you might not have thought about is how difficult it is to manage that hole, how there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to do so, and how angry you can get at your fellow grievers when they’re not managing it the way you think they should.
You don’t always think about grieving as a family process, and like it or not, part of it is.
You’re supposed to try to fill the hole in some ways—you can’t leave it gaping wide open, for all the world to see—but you’re not supposed to fill it all the way because you lost a person you love very much. [And anyway, how could you?, when they were so amazing and irreplaceable and gone.] You’re supposed to observe a mourning period, but you think that they should probably mourn a certain amount of time and you another, because you were a daughter who thought he hung the moon, and she was a wife. You feel like they’ve betrayed everything if you think they’ve moved on faster than they should have. [Later, you’ll understand why you were so upset but also how different it must be to lose a parent versus losing a spouse and how crippling that particular loneliness might be. How devastating the betrayal of losing your partner too soon might feel.] And when you’re angry, you’ll wonder who lost the most here?—definitely you—so why does everyone assume that someone else’s grief should be deferred to?
No one tells you how utterly devastating it is when you feel like a lost person isn’t being respected, and when their partner moves on and you feel like you lost both parents. Lost everything, and no one cares but you, and people are angry at you for caring so much.
But Julie Buxbaum’s utterly amazing Tell Me Three Things does tell you this, and so much more, and it’s all part of this beautifully devastating story. This book hit me where I live when it comes to my experience of grief: as a person who experienced a beloved parent’s illness at a relatively young age, and who was then faced with the aforementioned family grieving matters. I was several years older than the main character, Jessie, when I dealt with my dad’s illness and death, but I recognized parts of her story like they were mine.
This book is incredible.
A couple of years after her mother dies of cancer, Jessie’s dad suddenly re-marries and moves them from Chicago to California, without asking Jessie how she might feel about that. It’s an entirely different world there, and Jessie finds herself without friends and even bullied. But one day, not that long after starting her new school, she gets an email from Somebody Nobody (SN), and SN volunteers to be her “virtual spirit guide” throughout her new high school experience. It will be an anonymous relationship--she won't know who he is--but SN can answer her questions and tell her everything she needs to know about surviving there.
Jessie finally accepts SN’s offer because it turns out that life at her new school is pretty brutal. Emails turn into texts, and she learns that SN lost someone too, a sister. But his loss and loneliness and isolation have worn away at him too, and he’s nervous about taking their relationship from a screen to real life.
Meanwhile, her real life relationships are even more complicated. Jessie has trouble identifying with her new stepbrother and her best friend back home, she resents her new stepmom and her generically designed room, and she feels like her dad has selfishly abandoned her to the new life she didn’t even want.
Tell Me Three Things deals with the big things, like being a teenager, dealing with grief, and falling in love, and it does so brilliantly. This is a story of light and shadows, of great nuance, and we’re left feeling torn apart and built back up and like we’ve been seen and maybe we can see other people better, too. It’s an empathetic story and made me feel more compassionately toward who I was/am as a griever but how others were/are, too. It reached to the deepest parts of me.
The stars aligned on Saturday and I could have taken a nap—a long, luscious nap, people—and I refused (!) because Cristin Terrill’s All Our Yesterdays had me in its thrall. This YA thriller/time travel adventure/dystopian/romance captivated me--more like held me hostage, to be honest--and this morning, I’m still thinking about it.
This. book. is. so. good. (Someone please read it so that I can discuss it with you and get rid of this excessive feeling.)
I can’t discuss too much of the plot on this one because it’s so finely done that going too far will reveal too much—and you need to discover it as a reader. So this is what I’ll say: Em and Finn are in next door prison cells, where they’ve been for months. The world outside has gone to shit. Em discovers a piece of paper in a drain in her floor which tells her that the only option they have left is to kill the Doctor holding them prisoner. She and Finn use a machine to time travel four years to the past so that they can do just that.
Then the story explodes and you’re left holding on with a white-knuckled grip.
Sound comfortable? It shouldn’t because it’s not. I felt everything--everything—when I read All Our Yesterdays, and the ending is particularly emotional.
Told from the perspective of Em and Marina, her four years younger self, All Our Yesterdays gives us so much to dig into, especially when it comes to viewing our past selves. Do you remember the soul-crushing sadness and beauty of being a teenager? How important some things seemed to you then, how invested you were in certain things, and how much feeling you had, especially when it came to matters of love? The hopefulness; the vulnerability. We see it all in Marina, but the time travel element of Terrell’s fantastic book also gives us the benefit of passing time. There’s a special kind of bewilderment, tenderness, and sometimes humiliation through which we can view our teenage selves, and that’s part of Em’s story.
Characterization matters aside, there’s the fiercely rendered plot, which starts fast and speeds up to Jason Bourne-like levels (minus the shaky cinematography).
Like Chrissy Teigen, All Our Yesterdays has it all. Highly recommended for anyone who likes to read and has a heart.
Sky in the Deep was the book that I didn’t know that I needed: a gripping adventure with language and characters I marveled at and a story that is terrifying and healing and hopeful. It’s really amazing how Adrienne Young does it, actually, considering that there’s a lot of violence—I mean a lot—and it still feels like a book that could stitch people back together.
On a superficial level, you could say that this book is Game of Throne-esque. At least, that’s how it felt to me, as a person who doesn’t read or watch a lot of violent texts. But this book has heart—a big wounded one that insists that there can be common ground, that people can overcome differences and find ways to live and even be happy together.
I don’t know; does that sound like a book that we need today?, she asks innocently.
Eelyn is an Aska, and every five years, the Aska fight the Riki “to defend” their gods’ “honor” and because they are “bound by the blood feud between us.” In the opening battle, Eelyn is shocked to discover that her brother, Iri, who presumably died in the fight five years before, is now a Riki. He saves her life when his fellow Riki, Fiske, tries to kill her, leading Eelyn’s father and other Aska to believe that Iri was a spirit sent by their god to help her during the fight.
But Eelyn suspects that Iri is still alive, and during the next battle, she chases him down. Though her brother again tries to protect her, she becomes a Riki prisoner and is taken back to their village where she’s purchased by Fiske as a dyr, a slave of sorts for his family. Iri says that she’ll stay there until the spring, until they can return her to the Aska.
Though Eelyn assures herself that she’ll return home, being a dyr is the most humiliating fate she believes that she can suffer. She's also faced with Iri's betrayal. Since this world is one that values fighting prowess, community, and above all else, honor, Iri’s decision to become a Riki makes him worse than a traitor. She can’t understand why he would give them his loyalty, and why he would take up arms against his sister and father and the people who raised him and loved him.
But the longer that Eelyn lives in the Riki village, the more she realizes that life is more complicated than that, that it’s not as simple as black and white; that it might make it easier to kill one another if the Aska and Riki believe that they’re fundamentally different people, but that that might not be the right way to think.
This book has a lot of love, but it also has a lot of violence, and the graphic descriptions were sometimes difficult to read. But I do believe that in this case, the violence is working toward a greater end. Young helps us see that this world is a brutal, uncertain one, but one that also accommodates better, bigger things, like peace and understanding. It’s a world where community reigns, but it’s also possible to choose families for oneself.
Peace, understanding, and love are choices here, and that makes every decision to pursue them, rather than violence, harder and even more admirable.
Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a dazzling fantasy romance that will leave you breathless, but at its heart it’s about sisters. What we do for family. What we do to protect those whom we’ve loved and fought with and adored since birth. What that responsibility for another living soul can do to you and for you.
Over the course of our lives together, my sister and I have switched bedrooms more times than I count, planned and participated in numerous talent shows in which we were the only talent (and mine was debatable), called one another names (we both a keen psychological instinct for hitting the weak spots), held and comforted the other, and hit one another with remotes (okay, that was just me. But she must have deserved it and afterwards she called me a “stupid ass” so we’re even).
The point is: sisters are unlike anything on this earth. On one hand, she is a potential threat to your current happiness with her long memory and access to old Glamour Shot photos, but on the other, she is a living record of how you got to now, and your life-long best friend made flesh. Some of your quirks might really annoy the other (hello!, my sister is chronically late and I’m chronically sensitive) but you. don’t. ever. mess. with. my. sister.
Garber captures this sisterly dynamic in Caraval with the Dragna sisters, both of whom are victims of their father’s abuse and long for escape. Scarlett has been attempting to protect her little sister Tella from their abusive father, the Governor of Trisda, since their mother disappeared. She believes that she’s finally found a permanent way to do it by marrying the Count, a man she’s never met before but who writes kind letters. Her sister sees their escape through Caraval, a magical competition orchestrated by a wizard named Legend. This year, the prize of Caraval is a wish.
Scarlett’s always been drawn to the promise of Caraval’s magic but she resists her sister’s pleas to go there, until the matter is taken out of her hands and then Tella is kidnapped. As a result, Scarlett must navigate through the brilliant, dangerously unpredictable world of Caraval, searching for her beloved sister. As Scarlett attempts to solve the clues, this is what she knows to be true: she must rescue her sister Tella from kidnapping, she must leave Caraval in time to marry the Count, and she must resist Julian, her unreliable guide in Caraval, who seems to have some magic of his own. All the while, Scarlett must remember that she must not “let your eyes or feelings trick you,” and that there are consequences to losing and winning.
Caraval is a book to enjoy in the moment, but it’s also a book to chew over. I find myself even now remembering certain parts of the book with the knowledge that I gained at the end, trying to put it all together and see the story from different points of view. And Scarlett is a character to admire: she pursues her sister through the terror and beauty of Caraval with ingenuity and aplomb.
If you’re looking for an inventive tour de force, an explosion of color and sound, look no further. Admit your ticket to Caraval at the door and unlike Scarlett, don’t worry about allowing yourself to be “swept away.”
Psssst! If you like Caraval, try: the sequels to the trilogy, including Legendary, book 2. Also, try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and the movie Sing (hey, the stakes aren’t as big, but we’re still talking about competition here and what people want versus what they think they should do.) Maybe Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus—I read this years ago and think it’s time for a re-read.
The Need To Know: An inventive, captivating tale perfect for all YA and fantasy-lovers.
The Bone Witch is a feast of magic, grotesquerie, and heart.
From the first two sentences: “The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer”—to the last, I was engrossed in the story of the bone witch, Tea. This is a young woman who is intelligent and brave and by turns secretive and cunning, who is not afraid to risk anything—even alienating those she loves—if only she might save their lives.
The novel opens when a Bard approaches Tea, the bone witch, who has been exiled to a beach littered with animal’s skeletons. The Bard asks to hear her story and Tea acquiesces. The rest of the book intersperses the Bard’s observations and conversations with Tea with Tea’s account of the last three-ish years of her life.
Tea’s story begins when she was 14, when she brought her dead brother, Fox, back to life. A bone witch named Mykaela comes to retrieve Tea and tells her that she will be taken away to receive bone witch training. Where Tea is from, bone witches, witches who are capable of bringing beings back from the dead and sending them back, are highly feared. Though she is not eager to leave her family behind, something within Tea luxuriates in the feeling of the magic within her.
Once Tea reaches Ankyo, the seat of her training, she must face enemies within her own community and also those without. And her journey is more complicated than others’ because she is extraordinarily powerful and she senses the injustices of the bone witch’s life more than most.
This novel is action-packed, with Tea and others battling grotesque creatures which rise from the ground, taking combat and dancing lessons, and learning to create runes made of blood. But The Bone Witch doesn’t sacrifice thoughtful characterization for the sake of plot. The characters are nuanced and well-developed, and Chupeco deploys her stellar vocabulary to create a world that is vivid and atmospheric.
This was a fantastic YA fantasy read that kept me riveted to the page, lost in a world that Chupeco created.
The exciting news doesn't end: there will be a sequel!
I received a copy of this book free from Netgalley but all opinions included here are my own.
Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte is an adventurous, suspenseful YA re-telling of Sherlock Holmes that is also frequently insightful and heart-warming.
In this re-telling, the protagonists are two teens who are the descendants of Holmes and Watson. Charlotte Holmes is a well-known detective whose parents send her to a boarding school in the United States as a punishment. She’s also addicted to oxy. Jamie Watson attends the same boarding school for different reasons: presumably a rugby scholarship. He has problems with anger management and romanticizing Holmes and their potential relationship.
These two come together when one and/or both are suspected of murdering their common enemy, an awful student named Lee Dobson. They race to solve the mystery so that their names will be cleared, and so that more students won’t be harmed or killed by the assailant.
The evolution of the relationship between Watson and Holmes is sweet and lovely. As I made clear earlier, both protagonists have issues which threaten the development of their relationship, not to mention the fact that they are teenagers (brilliant teenagers, but still) who are isolated at a boarding school. But I enjoyed reading about how they forged and strengthened their relationship throughout the book; their efforts to trust each other are particularly moving given that at various times they have so few people they can trust.
I didn't grow up as a super-fan of Sherlock Holmes, so perhaps I'm more open to re-tellings than a super-fan would be.
I often think about trying to find more YA fiction, and I just stumbled across this one in my Amazon recommendations. A Study in Charlotte is highly recommended for anyone who wants to read a YA, mystery-thriller, with a will-they-or-won’t-they element. And the Holmes/Watson references are just fun--I would think whether you are a devotee of the original, or not.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.