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Reviewed: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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the serpent king by jeff zentner

I received Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King way back in March in my first OwlCrate, and it piqued my interest not only because it was a contemporary YA, which I’m a big fan of, but because it didn’t sound like a book I would have picked up of my own accord. That’s a great thing about book subscription boxes: You get surprised with something new to read that you might not have had the chance to enjoy otherwise, and I can honestly say that I did enjoy this book, even if there was a point when I had to stop reading and just sob for a while.

From the description, I thought the book was going to focus almost solely on Dill Early, the son of a pastor who was already getting a lot of side eye from many people in town for his, shall we say, enthusiastic inclusion of snakes in spreading God’s word and has now fallen from grace. But in fact we get such a great distribution of story between Dill and his best friends, Travis and Lydia. I felt like I got to know each character well enough to form an opinion of each and get a good idea of who they were, what they were going through, and how they relied on one another to get through it all. Each character is so different from the other, yet they connect with each other through being outcasts and Zentner does a great job of making them diverse but still believable in their friendship, flaws and all.

My personal favorite was Travis, who has an amazing fondness for high fantasy novels and no shame about it. Each character is relatively likable, though, which I enjoyed because sometimes it can be emotionally draining to read a novel about a character you don’t even like but are still kind of supposed to root for. In general, I rooted for all of them, even if they did things that would piss me off–much like a real person.

I do wish Lydia had been forced to deal with more aside from the most devastating part of the book, because while Travis and Dill had their own personal troubles at home, Lydia seemed to coast through life without too many bumps in her road. Which is not to say that she has it easy, but she has a much easier time of life than the boys, and it was almost tiresome reading about how well everything was going for her.

Overall, though, I liked all of these characters. All I wanted was for all of them to be happy and to stay friends forever, despite their looming graduation date. While Dill and Travis plan to stay in town, Lydia looks forward to life in New York with her fashionable, wealthy roommates. Of course, things don’t go as planned, but I can tell you that it truly was a shocking twist that threw a wrench in the plans. I did not see it coming until maybe a page before, and, well, I don’t want to say too much but I cried. #noshame

To be honest, it can feel a little standard for YA–there’s some romance, some teen angst, plus it’s a contemporary–but I still loved it (but I’m particularly fond of contemporary YA, so I may be biased). However, I don’t think that makes it bad, and it does have its standout points: alternating POV narration, which I don’t think we see often in YA and “hard-hitting” topics, which can sometimes be overlooked for the more common romance arc.

I’m so glad I got this in my first OwlCrate; it gives me so much faith in the next time I decide to order one.

Are you interested in The Serpent King at all? Have you already read it? Tell me your thoughts!

July 11, 2016
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Reviewed: Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King

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glory o'brien's history of the future by a.s. king
I bought this, I think, two months ago now, and as I was struggling through my reading slump the last few weeks, I picked it off my shelf on a whim, much like how I bought it in the first place. I had no idea if it could help get me out, and maybe it didn’t pull as strongly as my On Writing reread has, at least not at first, but the striking cover was enough to get me try when I was beginning to feel desperate.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (oh my gosh, that title alone) is the story of recently-graduated Glory O’Brien and the arrival of her psychic powers. What she sees for the future is both confusing and terrifying, and oftentimes the question arises of whether or not they are even real.

This book turned out to be so much more than I anticipated. I was expecting a rather straightforward novel about a teenage girl who’s clairvoyant and the adventures and struggles that ensue, but the novel is a sad and scary, sweet and beautiful work that maintains its YA entertainment value while also touching on a literary tone with the perfect level of abstract mixed in. I was slow diving into it, though I consider that more a result of the slump than the actual novel, because once I managed to sit and read it, I didn’t want to stop, which I think we can all agree is a good sign. I was even reading it in the car, disappointed when I had to digest my food after breakfast out this morning before continuing on with the book because I knew I’d get carsick if I tried.

And here I am, writing a review of it at most an hour after finishing because I had to share. I just had to share.

A.S. King’s story of Glory and her struggle to understand the mother she no longer has, the best friend she’s not sure she wants, and the dad who’s not quite  the same anymore is an impressive story of a single week that feels like so much more. We learn about who Glory is and becomes, and we see her starting to discover her own potential through her visions. She’s not a weak character, per se, when the novel starts, but her personality isn’t one I would call strong, either; she keeps to herself and, for the most part, that’s how she likes it. However, as she goes on through the week, we see her emotions grow and she becomes more sure of them, following the repeated mantra of the novel: Free yourself. Have the courage. She starts asking questions and taking action, and I could not be more happy for her.

Given Glory’s visions and the horrifying future she sees, you would think the novel might struggle to end on a positive note, but I had hope that one was there as I finished. So much changes for Glory and her dad by the end of the book, and I can’t help but see at least some brightness to their future, whatever it may hold.

July 2, 2016
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Reviewed: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

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how to build a girl by caitlin moran
Firstly, I’d just like to share that I picked up this book for about four dollars from bookoutlet.com, and after a few orders, I cannot recommend the site highly enough. If you’re looking for a fix on some new books, I suggest checking them out first. (And I am totally not getting paid to say that; I genuinely spent about $80 there in one month because they have such good deals.)

All right, onward to the review.

Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is about Johanna Morrigan, big-time nerd in a small-time English town. After reaching new heights of embarassment on local television, Johanna decides to reinvent herself into Lady Sex Adventurer/music writer Dolly Wilde. (Side note: Love the name.) I guess that probably could have clued me into just how much of a focus there was going to be on Johanna’s sexuality within the novel, but I guess I was just naive going into it.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and its depiction of Johanna trying to achieve a certain level of cool,” much like I’ve been attempting for the past twelve or so years. It was captivating to see how she developed, how she interacted with those around her, but how she also still maintained her innate self, whether she meant to or not. To be quite honest, the only parts I found boring were the repeated discussions of her masturbating, not because I think it’s wrong or anything, but because they were so frequent and didn’t feel as though they added much to the story most of the time, especially when that’s the opening scene. Even as I started reading, I had to wonder if that was meant more for shock value than substance, and I still haven’t settled one way or the other on it, so maybe it’s a bit of both, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem is if it is for shock, it goes away quickly with so many mentions.

Nonetheless, Johanna’s Adventures, both in and out of bed, make for a wonderful story. At times she can be slow on the uptake in situations, allowing herself to be manipulated or belittled by those (often men) around her. In the end, however, she shows so much development that I kind of ended up liking her. Compared to Eilis, in my previous review of Brooklyn, Johanna is a vastly more interesting and well-developed protagonist to follow. It felt like things were actually happening, and not just to her but at times because of her. She took action. Sometimes it was the wrong action, but sometimes not.

I’d give a big ol’ recommendation to this one if you like weird girls and music and coming of age stories. (I, for one, love all of these things, so maybe I’m a bit of a sucker.) Just make sure you’re not afraid of a little lot of sex talk.

May 30, 2016
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Reviewed: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
My interest was piqued as soon as I saw the trailer for this on TV weeks ago: Saoirse Ronan? Yes. Ireland (sort of)? Double yes. 1950s setting? Take my money. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to see the movie yet, but I did get a copy from my library after a few weeks on hold, so I dove right in.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who lives with her mother and sister in Enniscorthy. With the influence of her sister and Father Flood, a Catholic priest visiting from Brooklyn, she eventually moves across the sea to the East Coast American city. Hijinks ensue! (Okay, not so much.) As you would expect, especially in a time without the internet or even easy access to long-distance phone calls, Eilis grows homesick, but she soon finds a place for herself in the city, getting a job, going to school, and finding a boyfriend.

It’s funny because it all sounds really promising, and as a piece of writing, I did enjoy it. However, it often felt like not much was actually happening, and when anything did come up, my biggest gripe with the book would make itself obvious: Eilis. I just could not get behind Eilis. If she were a real person, I would find her kind of pathetic. She starts out the novel letting herself do what people expect of her, and she doesn’t end the book much better. My favorite moments were when she would say something sharp to the other women she was living with, but unfortunately those were too few for me to be rooting for her. I just don’t think I would want to be friends with her in real life, and if I was, I’d constantly be telling her to stand up for herself and tell people how she feels. She kept so much of her thoughts inside that it was hard to feel sympathetic when she was unhappy. She’s the kind of character I just want to give a good hard shake.

But enough of my ranting about her, because the book did have a redeeming quality in its prose. The story itself is beautifully written–“In the morning, she was not sure that she had slept as much as lived a set of vivid dreams, letting them linger so that she would not have to open her eyes and see the room.”–even if, as I said, it often felt like nothing was really happening throughout much of the story. It felt as if we are simply given a period of years in Eilis’ life to examine and time moves forward. There’s very little conflict, and when there is something that might prove to bring some excitement to the story, little comes of it. Eilis makes the easier, more comfortable choice (sometimes I agreed with it; sometimes I didn’t), and life goes on for her. See, my beef with her is so big I couldn’t stay away for long.

I’m certainly not going to say don’t read this book. I have a hard time suggesting others not even give an attempt at a novel because people have such different tastes; just because it was such a mixed bag for me doesn’t mean that you won’t love it. But I am saying that this book didn’t do much for me, and I’m glad I got it from the library rather than buying myself a copy.

May 2, 2016
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Reviewed: Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

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Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

When I read Mindy Kaling’s first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), I devoured it in one day while in the car on the way to watch a roller derby bout. It was a library copy, and I was sorely regretting not buying it for myself because I knew it was one I would read again. As it turns out, I don’t always learn from my mistakes.

I put a hold on Mindy’s second book, Why Not Me?, back in January and was both ecstatic and a bit stressed to see that it was finally available last week when I was still in the middle of the last book of The Mortal Instruments series. I was already dying to finish that so I could see how it ended, but now I had even more motivation (as if the rest of my TBR pile wasn’t already motivation enough). And since I can’t help myself, I actually started Why Not Me? before I had finished, but I just couldn’t wait.

This book read very similarly to Mindy’s first: Humor and heartfelt advice doled out among personal stories. She even referenced pieces of her first book, which was nice, but probably made most enjoyable by the fact that I’d recently reread it before putting this one on hold. It’s not necessary to read one before the other, but I do think it helps. And while I enjoyed the humorous pieces, laughing out loud at some stories and enjoying the peek into her personal life as the amazing, creative woman that she is, my favorite aspects of the book were closer to the end.

After a bundle of laughs, Mindy takes a soft turn into a discussion body image, hard work, and confidence, and these were the pieces that resonated the most with me. Mindy is one of few women on screen who even resemble my size, so when I see her (or any of them), my heart swells a little bit, and I enjoyed her chapter on everyone’s reaction to her looks. She discusses the many reactions to how she looks and carries herself–from, how do you, as someone with a nontraditional level of attractiveness, think you deserve to have such confidence? to, I wish I was as confident as you!–and how she struggles just as much as any other woman at times, but also believes that she does deserve to be as confident as she portrays herself. She even describes the diets and cleanses she’s tried and her total lack of self control. I kind of felt like I was reading my own diary for a little while there, and I loved it. It was just another experience with her that made me feel a little better about myself.

She goes on to argue that confidence and entitlement are things that should be earned through hard work, and in fact the only page I really bookmarked as I was reading this was the very last, for the line, “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled. Listen to no one except the two smartest and kindest adults you know, and that doesn’t always mean your parents. If you do that, you will be fine.” Those words felt like something that should be highlighted and remembered for the days when you or I might not be feeling as confident as we could be. It’s a solid reminder that hard work is at the root of everything you try to do; everything else comes as a result.

The book isn’t a masterpiece, and that’s okay. I wasn’t reading it for that. It was a solid few hundred pages of pure entertainment with some memorable opinions and advice included. Much like her first book, I hope to add this to my own bookshelves in the future, and I could easily recommend this to someone looking for a good bit of entertainment to brighten their day. With summer coming up, maybe consider this for your next beach read.

4/5.

Have you read this book or Mindy Kaling’s first? What were your thoughts?

March 28, 2016
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Reviewed: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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03.02.2016 / go set a watchman by harper lee
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in eleventh grade; it was one of the few books I did read for class that year, to be honest, and it’s one of the few school books I’ve read repeatedly since then. I fell in love with the characters–children and adults alike–and the story of a childhood I could relate to, if only vaguely. So you can imagine the excitement mingled with skepticism and fear that washed over me when I first began to hear that a sequel was being released.

I had to wonder, Will it be any good? Why is it being published now? What are the motives? How will this change things? If the reviews were to be believed, it would change things a lot, but I don’t think my reaction was as strong as a lot of the reviewers’ I read beforehand. In fact, I straight up enjoyed the hell out of this book.

A summary, in case you don’t already know the premise: Go Set a Watchman follows Jean Louise (Scout) Finch about twenty years after the events of TKAM. She’s returned to Maycomb for her yearly two week visit with her family, and while she’s there this time around, the changes start becoming more pronounced, and she starts to feel like her world as she knew it all those years before is crashing down around her.

From here on out, there might be spoilers, so proceed with caution if that’s not your kind of thing.

The biggest beef the reviews I read had with the book were the way the Atticus Finch we all know and adore is racist. And he is. But he’s no different from the Atticus we knew and loved before; it’s only that now we know him even more thoroughly. He was not as fully rounded a character as we have now with both novels. He is still just as staunchly committed to justice and fairness as the law sees it, but now we learn that that’s just it. His justice is squarely within the law as it is. He does believe that African-Americans surrounding him in the south are infantile and unprepared to live the lifestyle of the white Americans. It’s heartbreaking, but I also found it fascinating.

It was striking how, despite having been written first, this novel felt like a response to TKAM and the adoration that was heaped upon Atticus. It felt very much like Harper Lee trying to show people that Atticus, while a great man, was still not a perfect man. And I think when Jean Louise’s world finally explodes, when she finally learns this secret about Atticus and confronts him, it greatly encapsulates the reactions that so many readers would have upon this same realization.

Part of me almost (almost) hates to say it, but I really did like this book. Do I love it as much as To Kill a Mockingbird? No, because I do still want to cling to that perfect image of Atticus. But do I appreciate this more nuanced look to his character and being able to experience it through (with) Jean Louise? Yes. So much. And I am so glad that I took the step to read it, despite my misgivings.

Have you read GSAW? Are you avoiding it?
Share your thoughts either way, please!

March 2, 2016
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Reviewed: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

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06.07.15 / we all looked up by tommy wallach
I picked up We All Looked Up the same day I got All the Rage and, boy, was that a successful Barnes & Noble trip if there ever was one.

Tommy Wallach’s We All Looked Up is a countdown to the end of the world. An asteroid is making its way towards Earth with only two months to go, and what better way to examine this situation than through the eyes of a group of barely connected teenagers finding themselves as part of the same karass.

This book surprised me in a number of ways, some good, some bad-good (i.e., absolutely heart shattering): the way it managed depth within in so many characters in only so many pages, the way it made me cry, the way it made me scared of things other than the asteroid hurtling towards my own home planet. While at times it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be cool or relevant–references to Pitch Perfect and Radiohead–those moments were few and far between among the depth of this novel.

I think what I really liked about this novel was that it was pre-apocalyptic, as opposed to the post-apocalyptic dystopian trend that’s been so popular as of late (not that I dislike it; I enjoy a good dystopian as much as the next person). It was great to get a look at not only the before but a before that we as readers will know. I may not be a teenager anymore, but I have an understanding of the world that Andy, Anita, Eliza, and Peter are living through, and I couldn’t help being awed and inspired by the way they chose to spend their last two months on this floating rock. When the whole system is crumbling around them, they find ways to both go on and help others, help each other, and help themselves.

Lastly, while the book wasn’t as down and depressing as you might expect given the topic, it was still serious, with just the right balance of tension and comedy, both in the characters and the plot. Nothing about this book felt one dimensional or shallow to me, and I appreciate the effort Wallach put into this novel to make it as enjoyable and effective as it turned out to be.

 

June 10, 2015
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Reviewed: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

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06.02.15 / all the rage by courtney summers
Every once in a while there comes a book that I start reading…and I don’t stop reading until it’s finished. All the Rage by Courtney Summers is one of those books.

I don’t remember how I heard about this book (maybe a BUST review, maybe somewhere else; it is forever a mystery), but I know it’s been on my Amazon wishlist since before it was released, so when I was in Barnes & Noble last week, searching for books to buy with the two coupons in my wallet and coming up with nothing, it was a blessing to find this on one of the shelves, peeking out at just the right angle. I hurried over and snatched it up, declaring, “This one. I’m getting this one.” (Shortly after I found another I’d read a Huffington Post review for months ago and decided on that as well.)

I had a few library books to finish up before I could start All the Rage, which was an emotional struggle because I really wanted to get to this book. Finally, Saturday night, I cracked it open for the first time. (Not literally. The spine did not crack when I opened it, which was a sad surprise.)

All the Rage is the story of Romy Grey, a “wrong side of the tracks” kind of girl who’s rather recently been ostracized by her high school and is left to survive. It’s the story of people’s refusal to believe the truth because it would destroy the reputation of the most beloved high school residents. It’s not a particularly new story–I found myself thinking at one point that it’s the kind of thing I could watch on Lifetime–but it’s the way Summers write and portrays what Romy is dealing with that really makes this book worth binge reading.

Summers has such a way of capturing Romy’s thoughts through a bit of first person narration that borders on stream of consciousness at times. Readers are inside Romy’s head, feeling what she feels and knowing what she knows (or doesn’t) in each moment. More than once this made me furious to the point of tears because the people around her were so stubborn, dismissive, and flat-out cruel. At other times, I would simply get angry with Romy for not being honest at least with her mother, but I can’t blame her–how many teenage girls really sit and talk to their parents about exactly what’s going on with them?

It’s books like this, books that make me feel so deeply and so intensely, that I love the most, and when the writing is as clever and beautiful as in this one, even given the subject, well, that’s kind of like a gift from the writing gods.

June 3, 2015
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From the Bookshelves of April 2015

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05.04.15 / cinder by marissa meyer

I only read three books in April, and to be honest, I squeezed two of them in within the very last week. It was a bit pathetic for me, but I’m already getting back on the reading horse, so I expect May, with its long sunny days and perfect porch reading weather, will bring plenty of books to add to the list at the end of the month. But anyway, a look at what I read through April:

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell / In no surprising fashion, I finished this in a day. I almost always finish Rainbow Rowell’s books within a day. Though this was her first novel, this was the last one I’ve managed to read by her, but it was on par with the rest of her collection thus far: witty, heartfelt, and engaging, I just could not put the damn book down. It’s a miracle I ate at all that day, engrossed as I was in the emails between Beth and Jennifer and Lincoln’s sinking deeper into them. While I love Rowell’s YA novels, I think this is an instance when I enjoy the adult ones better, as this and Landline are both absolute gems. (Also, I’m so sad I didn’t wait a month longer to read this so I could join the NovelTea Book Club since its the selection for May!)

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson / I literally came back into this series more than two years after reading the first novel, but Maureen Johnson did a fabulous job keeping the story going well enough that I had no trouble jumping in. Details came back to me in a fair amount of time, with enough prodding from Johnson without a full recap at the beginning of the novel, and I got into The Madness Underneath just as much as I did The Name of the Star. Like the first book, the end of this one left me dying to read the next; it stopped at the perfect cliffhanger that effectively broke my heart (*gasp-sob*), and I cannot wait to search the library for The Shadow Cabinet because my life will not be complete if I don’t consume the whole series.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer / This one was a bit of a challenge to get into for some reason (maybe I just wasn’t into the idea of a retelling at the moment), but I’m glad I stuck it out. The last few chapters especially were action-filled enough (plus–plot twist!) to have me committed to the rest of the series. It turned out to be a fascinating new look at Cinderella, and I liked that Meyer wasn’t sentimental about any of the characters, as tempting as that can be when you’re writing. (I know I tend to get attached to characters and I kind of cry when bad things happen to them don’t judge me okay.) I’m interested to see how the other books in the series manage to retell other fairy tales while also connecting them with this first book, so I’ll probably look for Scarlet when I go to pick up The Shadow Cabinet.

What did you read this month?

May 4, 2015
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From the Bookshelves of March 2015

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04.02.15 / march books
Okay, based on my own personal record, I’m going to say March was a total bust for books: I only read three. Three! What have I been doing with myself all month? (Nothing good, I can tell you that much. Except watching Buffy and The X-Files and The Dick van Dyke Show… Wait. Maybe that’s where all my reading time went.)

Still, I had some good reads for the month, even if two of them were rereads.

Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger / I stopped by the library on my way home from work and spotted this in the “NEW” section, so I made sure to snap it right up. It was just as fun as the rest of the series has been, although I’m not above admitting that the end made me tear up a little bit. I’m jumping out of my clothes waiting for the next book to come out so I can see what happens with all the fabulous characters. I’ve grown to love them so much over these first three books, and I’m actually looking to read more of Carriger’s novels now, too, so a big thanks to the NovelTea Book Club for picking out Etiquette & Espionage all those months ago!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky / This was the first reread for me after I watched the movie twice in one night. (No, really. I watched it, then when the movie was over I restarted the DVD and watched it again. This was not the first time.) This is probably one of my favorite book/movie combinations; I’m not sure what it is to be honest, but there’s something about the story that just destroys me emotionally and I love it every time. I’m actually working on a piece about it for my next zine, so maybe I’ll share a little bit of that here when I get it more put together.

Ragdoll House by Maranda Elizabeth / The second reread, this was my birthday treat to myself because sometimes I feel guilty for reading books more than once (or twice or more) instead of delving into something new, so for my birthday I gave myself permission not to feel bad about it. Like Perks, this is another one of my favorites, and I frequently recommend it when I get the chance. I have a whole Recommended Reading post on this book, so if you’re interested in it, be sure to give that a look.

Did you read any books worth mentioning in March?

April 3, 2015
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